I recently came across a conversation similar to a puzzle with a few missing pieces. OK, maybe more than a few.

I generally don’t sit near the front of a coffee shop. The seat is convenient, but also comes with the sound of loud machines, a distracting cash register and a breeze every time the entrance door opens.

That is, unless it’s the only open seat in the place.

As I passed by a table of four before sitting down two feet away, something caught  my eye. The folks sitting next to me – two men, two women – were each holding colored notecards. Odd, but not too weird, I thought.

I went on about my business until I noticed two large school photos spread out in the middle of their table. One girl, one boy; both middle school age, flashing fake smiles in front of a dull blue background. What could they be doing? Playing a game with notecards. Yep, that’s it. 

That’s when I saw the writing on each of the notecards. “Food” on one. “Transportation” scribbled on another.

The four middle-aged adults were silent, holding and shuffling cards in their hands as if trying to decide on the next big move. It seems they are “ranking” the cards, placing them in piles based on importance.

“Pets are not a luxury,” one of the men said firmly. “I know it’s not OK, but it’s a reality.”

“They should have to pay something,” one of the women said in response. “Gas, electric, insurance.”


At this point, I’m moving further away from the notion this conversation is a game and closer to thinking the decisions being made at the table next to me would make an important impact on the lives of two middle school students. Maybe these individuals are giving away a scholarship, I thought.  

I kept listening.

“Where are we going to place travel soccer?” the second man at the table asked.  “And, what about braces?”

“We need to get her into a three  bedroom, 30-day apartment,” another added.

The conversation quickly turned from monthly expenses to a discussion about societal norms and their relation to the children’s situation — one I didn’t know anything about…. yet.

One of the men locked his shoe around the foot of his chair, sliding it closer to the table.

“It seems mothers have a hard time leaving their children, even if only for a few hours and fathers seem ok with it,” he said. “So, I understand you all have your own stress, but we need to think about the kids.”


Just as it seems they are close to wrapping up the conversation and postponing the rest for a later date, they continue chatting, with one women becoming noticeably frustrated and beginning to dominate the conversation.

“He says all the right things,” she said, pointing to the picture of the young boy. “It’s all the stuff he knows you want to hear. I think it’s really a test.”

My “game” theory was gone. Scholarships had clearly been omitted from the realm of possibilities, too. So, what could they be gathering at this coffee shop to discuss?

The frustrated woman continued, sipping coffee between each statement.

“I feel stable in life if I can bring something to the party,” she said. “If he can’t bring something to the party he’s probably feeling used.”

The conversation continued, but  I could not hear the details over the loud coffee grinder. And then, the grinder stopped and the man, still loud as if trying to speak over the machine, said something to make me throw all of previous theories out the window.

“I’m assuming they are sleeping together,” he said.

Who is sleeping together? How does this even remotely relate to any of the details in the conversation previous to the coffee grinder?

I gathered more “pieces” to the puzzle, but they were more ad hoc details than added information to the story:

  • The boy’s father frequently tells him he needs to be more responsible;
  • One of the men at the table recently received a call at 11 p.m. on a Friday and he was concerned about the situation;
  • “She” – whoever that is – is the monkey in the middle; and
  • The boy’s father seems to think it’s OK not to have a relationship with his children as long as they turn out to be good people.

The four adults stood up and exchanged hugs before saying, “Let’s all get together again soon. We need to figure this out and make it happen.”

In my family, it’s an unsaid rule when putting together a puzzle that someone will hide a piece or two in their pocket until the very end. And, I’m beginning to feel that’s what has happened here, too.

Do you have a missing piece?