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The Apartment Above the Cafe

"She ruled the roost for the first time in her entire life."

Published onMay 15, 2024
The Apartment Above the Cafe

Photo by Lisa Fotios:

Omaha, Nebraska

May 7, 1962

Margaret Meyer noticed the sign Monday morning as she approached the entrance of Cafe Sásta. It was printed neatly in black marker on a sheet of typing paper, taped to the plate glass window. UPSTAIRS APARTMENT FOR RENT. INQUIRE INSIDE.

Over the last year, she’d visited the cafe several mornings a week and had seen a variety of signs posted about food drives or lost pets, but never had there been mention of an apartment upstairs. As a housewife and mother for the last two decades, she’d lived a sheltered life. Discovering a person could live above the charming cafe was akin to discovering a secret passage behind a bookcase. The idea intrigued her to no end.

Imagine being the future tenant, waking each morning to the aromas of freshly baked cinnamon rolls, syrup, and bacon. Wouldn’t that be a delightful start to the day? Her stomach growled just thinking about it.

A string of bells tinkled as she opened the cafe door and stepped inside. She chose the table by the window like she always did, not so much out of habit as infatuation with the sign. Midmorning sun poured through the glass, illuminating the opaque white paper like a spotlight.

Margaret read and reread the message, the letters of which were transposed from this angle. Curiosity about the apartment consumed her. What did it look like? What was the layout? How much was the rent?

“Morning.” A friendly feminine voice pulled Margaret from her thoughts. She found Ruby, the waitress who served her nearly every time she came here, standing by the table. “That’s a pretty dress. You look good in yellow.”

“Oh, thanks. It’s been so warm, I finally pulled out my summer wardrobe.” Margaret leaned forward. “Can I ask you something?” She pointed at the sign. “Since when is there a room for rent upstairs?”

“Since Mr. Sullivan bought the cafe way back when,” Ruby said. “A war buddy of his has been renting it for darn near a decade, but the poor man’s health is failing him, so he’s gone to live with his daughter.” Ruby flipped to a fresh page in her notepad and pulled a pencil from its resting place behind her ear. “So, what can I getcha? The usual?”

Margaret almost nodded, but a quiet voice inside her cried out for something more satisfying than lightly buttered toast and black coffee.

“I’ll be adventurous today. I’ll have an omelet. Ham and cheese.”

“You want toast or hash browns with that?”

Margaret mulled it over. As a rule, she stayed away from fried potatoes. Her husband, Milt, said they would make her fat. But maybe today was a day for new things.

“Hash browns, please.”

“You still want coffee?”

“No. Do you have Earl Grey Tea?”


“I’ll try that. Thank you.”

After Ruby rushed off, Margaret glanced around the small dining area, her mind drifting back to the apartment. Cafe Sásta wasn’t a big place, accommodating only a dozen or so two-seater tables. If the apartment for rent had the same relative dimensions as the cafe, it would only be big enough for one person.

Ruby returned to the table, carrying a tray loaded with a pink porcelain pitcher, matching creamer, and a white teacup resting on a white saucer. “Here you are.” She set everything in front of Margaret, then plucked a few pouches of tea from her apron pocket. “And here’s the Earl Grey.”

“Thanks.” Margaret unwrapped one of the tea bags and set it in her cup. “Do you know if that apartment is furnished?”

“I believe so. Would you like to talk to Mr. Sullivan? He’d be happy to show it to you.”

Margaret poured hot water into her cup, purposefully pausing before she spoke. Her heart thrummed wildly in her chest. It wasn’t like she was actually interested in the apartment. She merely wanted to relieve her curiosity about it. A little tour wouldn’t hurt anything, would it?

“Sure,” she said finally. “Send him to see me when I’ve finished eating, please.”

“You got it. Be back in a minute with your omelet.”

Margaret sampled the Earl Grey, not sure what to expect. She’d never had hot tea before. An exotic mix of flavors—citrus, vanilla, and a hint of licorice—exploded on her tongue. Now this was how caffeine should taste.

For over twenty years, she’d been drinking coffee every morning. Not because she particularly enjoyed it, but because it was less work to share the pot she made for Milt than to make something else for herself.

During the years she’d reared their two boys, she’d been so tired it didn’t matter what her doses of caffeine tasted like, so long as she drank enough to jolt her drooping body back to life and trudge through the daily routine of cooking, caring for the children, and laundering Milt’s precious wardrobe.

The sacrifices she’d made felt honorable when her sons were little, but now that they were both away at college, Margaret longed for fulfillment, something she didn’t get from completing her list of domestic duties each day.

That was why she’d looked for work last year. She was still a good typist and bookkeeper, though it had been two decades since she’d been employed. Lucky for her, a real estate agent a few blocks from the cafe needed an assistant and was kind enough to give her a chance. She would be forever grateful to him.

With her part-time job, she now had an excuse to get out of the house, make some money of her own, and go out for breakfast. Yes, the job had improved her life, but the sense of peace and contentment she longed for still eluded her.

At last, Margaret’s breakfast arrived. She smothered the crispy hash browns in ketchup. The first bite of buttery, salty, shredded potatoes combined with the tangy zing of ketchup made her moan with pleasure. Within minutes, she had most of them devoured. At one point, she looked up from her meal to discover a young couple, who were holding hands over the top of a nearby table, staring at her.

“Love is grand,” Margaret said with uncharacteristic frankness, “but this is better.”

Later, Ruby returned to collect the dirty dishes with a man about Margaret’s age in tow.

“I’m Cal Sullivan, the owner.” He extended his meaty paw.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Margaret.” Since she had no intention of signing a lease, she didn’t bother giving her last name.

“Ruby tells me you’d like a tour of the place upstairs.”

“I would.” Margaret grabbed her handbag and took out enough cash for the bill and the tip and placed it on the table. “Is now a good time?”

“Certainly. Follow me.”


Margaret followed Mr. Sullivan out the back door, which had EMPLOYEES ONLY painted on it in bold red letters. Outside was a small gravel lot, occupied by just four vehicles.

“This is where you’d park,” he said before leading her to the bottom of an iron staircase, attached to the brick facade.

As they ascended to the second floor, Margaret peered over the railing at the employees’ cars below. Whoever rented the place would have to cut through the alley to get here, and their car would not be visible from the street. It wasn’t her concern, but knowing only the staff and Mr. Sullivan would be privy to the tenant’s comings and goings put her mind at ease.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Mr. Sullivan unlocked a door and gestured for her to enter. “Have a look.”

It was a studio apartment, so she could see almost the entire space from the doorway. Because the previous tenant had been a man, she anticipated the place would be drab and dull, but the walls were butternut squash gold, the carpet was champagne beige, and the sofa—a decade old but in mint condition—was upholstered with crimson velvet.

Beyond the sitting area, against the farthest wall, was an intricately carved mahogany bed frame, upon which rested a white mattress wrapped in plastic. To her left, a small dining area transitioned into a kitchenette, which was half hidden behind a partial wall.

“It’s lovely.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Sullivan said. “It’s been well kept. The last tenant, a pal of mine, had a cleaning woman visit twice a week.”

“It’s immaculate.” She ventured toward the dining area and ran her fingers along the smooth Formica breakfast table. Two chrome chairs were tucked under it, which was more than plenty.

Not that she was imagining living here. No. She was just poking around. Being nosy.

The adjacent kitchenette was narrow, galley style, but adorable. Everything was miniature: the sink, the stove, the refrigerator. Even the window above the sink was smaller than usual. Daylight poured in through the petite pane of glass, making every surface sparkle.

“There’s also a powder room,” Mr. Sullivan called, still standing near the door. “I had it remodeled last year. Traded out the tub for a shower. It’s tiny, but I think you’d fit alright.”

A shower? How modern. In her forty-two years, she’d only used a tub for bathing. Eager to see the shower, she strode out of the small kitchen, her heels clicking on the linoleum until they fell silent on the plush carpet of the living area.

“It’s in that back corner.” Mr. Sullivan pointed to a door on the opposite side of the room, near the foot of the bed.

The powder room was about as big as her walk-in closet at home. The toilet, pedestal sink, and narrow shower stall were all pristine. She imagined stepping into the shower spray. It would be like standing naked in the rain. A little shiver rippled through her, and she shoved the errant thought away.

When she exited the powder room, she was face to face with the antique bed with the plastic-wrapped mattress. Had the previous tenant suffered from incontinence?

“That mattress is brand new,” he said, as if reading the concern on her face. “My friend took his with him.”

“Oh.” She let out a relieved breath. “Wonderful.”

Turning in a slow circle, she pictured herself here. The sofa would be a comfortable place to read a book. The breakfast table would be perfect for putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But the best feature of the place was the quiet. In this sacred space, there would be no chiding, no muttering, no complaining, no commanding. There would only be silent bliss.

“How much is the rent?” Her voice sounded distant, as if another woman had asked the question.

“A hundred a month or thirty per week.”

“One week should do it.”

Yes, it was a little impulsive, but Milt would never know.

“Great.” Mr. Sullivan gestured toward the entrance. “We can take care of the paperwork downstairs in my office.”

Margaret glided toward him, her spirits so high she didn’t register the contact between her heels and the floor. When she reached the threshold, she glanced over her shoulder for one last look at the apartment.

Her apartment.


She left work at three-thirty as she always did and drove to Freddy’s Market, a mom-and-pop grocery, a few blocks from her new retreat. She bought purple grapes and saltine crackers, then hit the five-and-dime store next door and bought a jigsaw puzzle and a paperback love story, two indulgences Milt never afforded her.

Armed with food and entertainment, she drove to her new place, parked in the small lot behind the cafe, and climbed the weatherworn iron staircase. She’d been looking forward to these precious hours of relaxation all day.

Of course, being here would cut into the time she usually ran the vacuum over the house and started dinner for Milt, but she had that covered. She would make a quick stop on the way home to Milt’s favorite deli and buy takeout for his dinner. She’d say she had to work late, and that’s why she didn’t tidy up or cook.

Inside the apartment, she kicked off her heals, then searched the kitchen for dishes she could use. In the cupboard by the sink, she found a short stack of avocado Melmac plates. She loaded one with grapes and crackers, carried it to the table, and sat on one of the chrome chairs.

When she popped that first grape into her mouth, she was rewarded with a sweet burst of juice. Everything she ate today tasted better. After another grape, she opened her book and lost herself within a handful of pages.

The heroine of the love story lived on a farm, and the young woman’s father had recently hired a man to help with the chores. It didn’t take a science degree to know the heroine was going to fall in love with the hired hand, but Margaret was enraptured anyway.

By the time she looked up from the novel, the light coming through the kitchen window had turned pink.

“Oh, no.” She glanced at her wristwatch. It was quarter to eight.

Milt would be furious.

She shoved the receipt from the dime store into her book to hold her place, then thrust to her feet, causing her chair to scrape noisily on the floor. She found her purse, slipped her shoes on, then rushed to the doorway.

As she reached for the light switch, she felt like the heroine in her book. When the farmer’s daughter had fallen asleep in the hayloft with the hired hand, the lovebirds had woken with a start and made a hasty exit from the barn before they could be discovered. They’d parted with a quick kiss and a whispered promise—

“Until tomorrow,” Margaret murmured and closed the door.


Milt met her in the foyer when she came home, still in his charcoal suit. His loosened black tie hung well below his unbuttoned white collar.

“Where have you been?” A vein bulged in his temple, pointing like a crooked arrow toward his nearly bald crown. “I’ve called everywhere. No one knew where you were. It was so embarrassing.”

Margaret calmly set her purse on the end table near the door, praying the anxiety churning in her stomach wasn’t outwardly apparent. “I had a flat tire,” she said, delivering the line the way she’d rehearsed on the drive home.

“Doesn’t matter.” He heaved an exasperated breath. “The damage is done. Now everyone thinks I can’t keep track of my own wife.”

“I’m sorry. It took a while to flag down some help.”

He strode into the living room, stopped at the wet bar, and made himself a whiskey with ice.

Margaret followed him. “Please, forgive me.”

After a long swig, he stared her down. “You’re in luck. I will forgive you because I’ve been waiting to tell you my good news.”

“How fortunate for me,” Margaret muttered.

Milt carried on as if she hadn’t spoken. “I was promoted today. I made partner.”

“Congratulations, counselor.” She arranged her features into a convincing smile. “I’m happy for you.”

“With my raise, I’ll be able to buy that Thunderbird convertible I’ve had my eye on.”

“Won’t that be nice?”

She imagined Milt driving his dream car with the rag top down, the wind lifting the ten long hairs he combed over his bald head, fanning them out like a plume of peacock feathers.

The urge to laugh almost overpowered her, but she faked a yawn to hide the smirk invading her lips. “I’m beat,” she said. “I’d better get ready for bed.”

Milt waved a dismissive hand at her. “Sure, sure. I’ll be up later.” He freshened his drink. “I’m going to celebrate with a little more whiskey.”

“Of course you are,” she said, though not loud enough for him to hear. “Good night.”

Margaret climbed the stairs that led to the three bedrooms on the second floor. As she crossed the threshold of the master bedroom, she pretended she was entering her apartment.

She slipped into her nightgown, then went into the adjoining bathroom to brush her teeth, imagining she was inside the tiny powder room of her secret place. When she turned off the light and climbed into bed, she envisioned the new mattress on the antique bed frame.

Lying in the dark, picturing herself in the apartment above the cafe, she quickly drifted off faster than she had in years.


After work the next day, Margaret raced to the apartment. She fixed herself a plate of fruit and crackers before scattering the pieces of her jigsaw puzzle over the top of the Formica table. She kept the box lid nearby for reference, displaying the image of the completed puzzle—a small cottage in the countryside, surrounded by lush meadows, with a cloud-dotted sky overhead.

Margaret loved jigsaw puzzles, had loved them since she was a girl, but ever since marrying Milt, she hadn’t been able to return to them. Even after their sons left home and Margaret could spare an hour here and there for her beloved hobby, Milt refused to give her a space for it.

“I don’t want that mess on my table,” Milt had complained when she brought it up. “Why don’t you do like other wives? Take up needlepoint or knitting, something that won’t get in my way.”

“What if I bought a table at a yard sale and put it in the guest room?” she’d asked once.

“And what will our guests think of having a table in their room?” Milt countered.

They never had guests. Not overnight ones, anyway.

“Who would come to stay?” she asked, in a rare show of boldness.

“My mother might.”

Margaret’s mother-in-law hadn’t visited in over ten years, but when Milt had his dander up, there was no point in arguing further. So she’d conceded, and the idea of a place for her puzzles went down the drain, joining a host of other abandoned desires.

But now, she not only had a table of her own, but an entire apartment. And it was all hers, to do with what she liked. No one could boss her. No one could criticize her. No one could interrupt her to demand she make dinner. She ruled the roost for the first time in her entire life. The thrill of that freedom was the closest she’d come to flying.

After she put together about a fourth of the puzzle (most of the pale blue sky), she checked her watch and found she still had another hour and a half before Milt would be home.

She stood, stretched, then glanced over at the sumptuous burgundy sofa. Lying down to read her book sounded heavenly, but it occurred to her that the formfitting sheath dress she wore wouldn’t be very comfortable for lounging. She undid the upper half of the column of buttons running down the length of her dress, wriggled out of it, and draped it over one of the chrome chairs.

Stripped down to her white bra and slip, she grabbed her book and lay down on the sofa. The lush velvet upholstery brushed her exposed skin, making her entire body hum with eager anticipation. She opened the book and fell through the pages. Chapter after chapter, she experienced each touch, each kiss as if it were her own.

Near the end, the hired hand got on one knee and delivered a heartfelt speech to the farmer’s daughter, reciting all the things he loved about her. Tears pooled in Margaret’s eyes. Not even during their courtship had Milt told her why he admired her.

Being with Milt had been a pragmatic decision, not one based on emotion. He had a high paying job and looked respectable in a suit. When he took an interest in her many moons ago, it never really mattered how she felt about him. Her parents were all too happy to marry her off to a lawyer.

Reading romantic stories was the closest she’d gotten to experiencing a tender kiss or being cherished or hearing words of love. Maybe that was why Milt didn’t like her reading books like these. They inspired too high of expectations.

After the book was finished (and the farmer’s daughter said “I do” to the hired hand), Margaret checked her watch and let out a squawk of surprise. It was already seven-thirty. Milt would be stewing in his own juices. Not only had she not served dinner, but she was late two nights in a row. She dressed as quickly as she could, cursing herself for choosing a dress with so many buttons, then scurried out the door.


When she arrived home, she found Milt seated on the couch in their living room, holding a glass of ice that had been recently drained of whiskey.

“Nice of you to wander home,” he said. “Where the hell have you been?”

“The library,” she said, delivering the line the way she’d rehearsed. “I was looking for books on interior decorating. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a good selection.”

He scanned the length of her, from hair to heel. “I don’t believe you.”

“Well, it’s true,” she said with as much vibrato as she could muster.

“Stop, would ya?” He set aside his glass, shot to his feet, then strode ahead until his face was mere inches from hers. “You think I’m stupid?” His breath made her eyes water, a rancid combination of coffee, onions, and whiskey. “Next time you have an affair, take the time to do your buttons properly.” He pointed at her bosom.

Looking down, Margaret saw her error. She’d skipped a button and gotten the whole line up off kilter. “Oh, no.”

“Who is he?” Milt’s voice remained quiet but menacing.

“It’s not what you think.”

“What a cliché.” Milt grabbed her by the upper arms. “I want a name.”

“I swear. There’s no one—”

“Then why do you look like you got dressed in the dark?”

Her heart thumped against her ribs. Cold sweat beaded at the base of her neck. “I . . . I rented an apartment—”

“Apartment?” He grew louder. “How long have you been shacking up with him?”

“Stop.” She closed her eyes, feeling faint. “There is no him. I only signed the lease a few days ago. I wanted a place—”

“To rendezvous in secret?” Milt tightened his grip, digging his fingers into the bare flesh below her capped sleeves. “I want to know who he is.”

Tears filled her eyes. “I go there alone. To read or do puzzles. I go there to enjoy myself. By myself.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“It’s the truth.”

After several seconds, he finally released her. “I wanna see this place.”

Margaret swiped her damp cheeks with the back of her hand. “Fine.”

Like a doomed soul heading toward the gallows, Margaret followed Milt to his car, and after they climbed in, directed him to the apartment above the cafe.


“Not much of a place,” Milt said as he stepped into Margaret’s haven.

Margaret lingered near the door, wringing her hands. “See? There’s my puzzle. And there’s my book on the coffee table.”

Milt didn’t pay attention because he was striding toward the bed. He stared at the plastic-covered mattress for a long time. “Did you soil the sheets? Is that it?”

“It’s brand new. Never been used.” Her voice cracked with frustration. “I don’t even have a set of linens here.”

Milt inspected the bathroom next. When he came out, he said, “I didn’t see a razor. I take it he doesn’t shave here?”

“I told you. There’s no one else. Don’t you understand?” Margaret’s pitch turned shrill with fury. “I’m not having an affair!”

“If that’s true, if you actually come here to eat bonbons and do whatever you feel like, that’s even worse.” He crossed the living room and met her near the door. “How could you be so selfish, Margaret? How could you shirk your responsibilities at home? Am I supposed to do the dishes, the laundry, and iron my own shirts while you sit here on your duff being lazy?”

A pressure built in Margaret’s chest as if twenty years of unexpressed heartache might burst from her at once. “I’m not being lazy,” she said with new authority. “I’m living a life I enjoy.”

“You enjoy being in this shoebox?” He blew out a snide little snort. “Alone?”

“Yes. It’s perfect.”

“How can you mean that? Look at this place.”

She twisted the knob of the front door and yanked it open. “It’s perfect because you don’t live here. It’s perfect because I make the rules.” She gestured toward the threshold. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”

“You’re choosing this hole over me?” His jaw jutted indignantly.

“Yes. I’ll come get my things in the morning.”

He threw up both hands in exasperation. “Have it your way. But just so we’re clear, you won’t get a penny from me.”

“I don’t want your money.” She kept her voice low, demure. “I’ll be self-reliant, don’t worry.”

He stepped forward and looked her in the eye. “There was really no one else?”

“That’s right.”

His brow furrowed incredulously. “And you’d prefer to live in poverty than with me?”

“I’m frugal. I’ll be fine.”

He lifted his chin. “Ah. Who needs you?” He made a shooing motion and stomped past her.

Margaret closed the door and locked the deadbolt. When she turned around, she drank in the quiet of the little apartment. From now on, she wouldn’t need to sneak around or fantasize about sleeping here.

She wrapped her arms around herself. “Alone. At last.”

Carla Ward is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has been published by The Saturday Evening Post (online), Night Picnic Journal, Oakwood Magazine, and Avalon Literary Review to name a few. She was also a semifinalist in ScreenCraft's Cinematic Short Story Competition 2024.

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