An old birch tree stands outside the door, neglected, shedding its papery, wrinkled skin in the cold, its bare, dry bones like outstretched fingers, welcoming visitors into the drowsy restaurant. A birdcage hangs amongst its spindly branches. Adrien and the little bird watch each other with fascination for a while, but they both grow bored. Across the street sits an elderly man singing and strumming his guitar; his gruff voice croons to the lacy figures, half human and half evening air, hovering around him. His song blends with the faint humming of the flytrap on the wall inside the restaurant, a piece of buzzing electric blue dotted with burnt, black corpses of flies. Next to it, a random assortment of paintings occupy the space. Long shadows, those shapes of night flung out from passing crowds and cars that crawl like strange insects outside, fly across the brown walls. Adrien peers out from behind the cash register. He is the keeper of this drab cave for the night. Besides him, only the cook is present, and he is probably taking a nap somewhere back in the kitchen. So far, only a lifeless-looking middle-aged couple has dined here since his aunt left him in charge at 3:00 PM. They had dined quietly and laboriously, without sparing a glance at each other, and midway through somehow erupted into an argument. They managed to fade back into silence and mumbled hoarse thank you’s while shuffling past him and back into the chilly evening, leaving him with a faint loneliness.

Adrien finds himself zoning out every now and then, before being woken by the dull thuds of moths slamming into the dirty window beside him. There is a scent of jasmine in the air. He turns to see someone float in, swept up off the street by a gust of wind. The door slams shut behind the visitor, who is cloaked in a bulky coat that hides his or her face. The coat of grime that clings to the tables and can never seem to be removed no matter how hard he scrubs, gleams eerily under the dim ceiling lights. The figure seems to drift. “Table for a party of one,” the voice of a child sings out. He can almost recognize it. Had they met before?

Adrien recalls the smell of grass, soaked with summer rain, under muddy bare feet. He notices that the stranger is wearing sandals, caked with dirt and stray bits of grass. Adrien blinks, astonished, realizing that endless cappuccino seeps from the floor and walls, submerging the tables and chairs, a comforting yet invigorating sea of brown that swallows the room. A discarded memory surfaces and tugs at the back of his mind, like a breeze passing through a wind chime.

A glimpse of his childhood bubbles somewhere in his consciousness, lost with time. He was burying someone in the snow, or was it cold beach sand? Like he was hiding something precious. A squirrel tucking away nuts for the winter.  He realizes that there is now a bowl of sugar on every table in the restaurant, instead of the vinegar and chili oil, which were placed there before. Would people’s words taste sweeter? He imagines hushed whispers echoing off the walls conveying tender thoughts, warmly and languidly settling onto pleased ears. He remembers sharing a secret once, long ago, and it tasted like candy on his tongue. He looks around the room, but the stranger is gone. There is only a blue rose left on the table, and an uncomfortable feeling growing inside him like he has lost the memory of someone who was once dear to him. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, just barely detectable, a thought passes; he wonders if the outgrowing of the shell of the child he once was could be felt in the soul.

Adelia Du’s story, “The Evening Memory” won first prize in the Eighth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Adelia, who hails from Virginia, is a sophomore Illustration major at SVA. 

Judges Simon Van-Booy and Merlin Ural Rivera had this to say about Adelia’s prize-winning story: “‘The Evening Memory’ was an excellent piece. Although the story was interesting, what really impressed us was the way the writer created a feeling, an atmosphere that the reader can actually feel (and which lingers) beyond the physical scaffolding that is the language. Word choice and syntax were also superb, and seemed natural, even though it’s very hard to achieve this sense of flow in sophisticated pieces of fiction.”