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Chapter One

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November 19, 2006 by Dan

It was a tough night. I’d spilled ground espresso beans down the front of my pants and Jenny had seen me do it; we ran out of milk once and I had to bribe one of the regulars to go get some more from Vijay’s Super Mart down the street, and our Weird Customer of the Night boring as hell. Jenny had thought up the idea of the Weird Customer of the Night, declaring a winner and recording the specifics in her journal during every shift that we worked together.

This one munched on the left side of his lower lip as he contemplated our menu. He was a young guy, maybe two or three years older than I, dressed in jeans and a collared shirt so well-pressed it must have come just out of the box. He was wearing a baseball hat that said US Navy followed by a bunch of random digits. He seemed to be having some trouble with our menu. There wasn’t anybody waiting behind him, but I’d seen this before, or so I thought. There are a few people left in this country who don’t know what espresso is, or have a bit of trouble understanding that when something is labeled “French Roast,” it doesn’t mean beef.

“Can I help you decide on something, sailor?” I asked.
He flipped his eyes over to me; they were barely visible behind his tinted glasses. “No,” he said. “Wait…I’m not sure. Do you have any French Roast?”

Great. Ever since Starbucks started advertising that all of their coffee was Dark Roasted, every two-bit wannabe café connoisseur has been asking for the dark stuff, under the misguided impression that it either tastes better or contains more caffeine. It doesn’t. It just tastes burned.

“No, we don’t,” I said. “But our Sumatran blend is pretty strong, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Hm,” he said. “No thanks.”

He walked away from the counter, not straight back towards the back door, but to the side, walking slowly, running his finger along the counter like a West Point cadet doing a dust inspection. He maneuvered easily through our maze of tables and couches, stepping easily around two black-haired philosophy students, a guy reading Steinbeck, and three multi-pierced punks in a fierce argument about some band or other. Finally, after a minute or two, he reached the door, took a long look around, and left. I looked over, and Jenny was scribbling in her journal, stray strands of hair brushing the pages as she wrote.

“Him?” I said.

She shrugged. “I don’t think we’re going to get anything better than that tonight,” she said. She got back to writing; the bracelets on her right arm rattled against each other as she moved her pen.

“That was a good one, Jerry!” shouted Jack Ramsey from his usual table.

“My name’s not Jerry!” I yelled. Ramsey called me Jerry on my first day on the job, and had held to that name since. He’s been playing bridge at Jon’s every day for four years, and he calls all of the other workers by their real names. I’ve never known why he singles me out; I’ve corrected him on any number of occasions, and he never changes. He’s all there, though; much more so than some of the guys I have to throw out who will come in chasing their Budweiser with Listerine.

My shift that night was closing. Closing means midnight for the customers, one or two for us. When Jenny and I were together, it sometimes meant three or four, depending upon how randy we felt. Tonight, it was all business. We flipped a coin and I lost.

“Equipment!” shouted Jenny. The gold bracelet she always wore rattled softly against her watch as she pulled the espresso wands out of the machine and threw them into the sink behind her. She’d taken her hair out from under her hat after the last customer had left, and the little bit of brown neck visible between her hair and t-shirt collar fascinated me. It peeked in and out of sight as her head moved to the music piping from the speakers in the rafters.

“Thanks for the karma,” I snapped as I walked over to the mop bucket.

“I don’t need good karma,” she said. “My life rocks.”

She’d been saying stuff like that ever since she dumped me four days before.

I stopped talking and mopped like a maniac. I don’t like mopping because the water turns a gray-brown after two squeeze-outs, and it smells like that stuff that you scrape off the bottom of your shoes after going to the movies.

We closed in forty-five minutes that night, an all-time record. She finished counting the money before I was done stacking the chairs and de-scumming the dirty dish container. She waited for me, sitting on the counter to stay out of the way of my mop, rubbing the ring on her right big toe against the lanyard around her left ankle.

She walked with me the couple of blocks over to Inman Street. We used to walk there after work and as we hit the intersection I would say “Yours or mine?” and she would always say “mine,” and sometimes I’d pout until she’d agree to come over to my place.

I tensed up as the intersection got closer. I didn’t know what to say. We’d talked a little bit that night, and one time she had definitely brushed my right hand with her left as I was making drinks and she passed me an order sheet. She could have just slid it over, but she had definitely touched me, skin to skin.

She was walking close to me, and her hand whispered against mine, for the second time that night. I almost grabbed it, almost locked my fingers in hers. I tried to sort-of-accidentally keep the back of my hand touching hers, as if my armswing was matching hers, but she’s too short, and I couldn’t duplicate her turnover rate, and she didn’t grab my hand, and she had broken up with me, so it was her move.

Inman Street. She turned to face me.

“Well, uh…”

“Uh…” I interrupted.

“Yeah, I’ll see you.”

“I’m working tomorrow.”

“Killer! I’m coming in a little bit early for Adrian, but we can still have afternoon lunch, right?”

“Uh…”

“I don’t want you to run away or anything.” With that, she turned and walked away, whistling. Her hair bounced as she walked, now. That only happened when her step was light, when she was stoked about something. The last time I’d seen that walk was when I’d scored free tickets to an improv comedy show three weeks before.

My walk home takes about fifteen minutes, give or take a few depending on traffic. At one-thirty in the morning on a Wednesday night, the city is about as dead as it ever gets. I played my usual game of count-the-winos, and hit a disappointing four.

I walked in the door and every light in my apartment was on. Barry was in his room, rocking in his BackSavEr chair as he stared at his computer. He was fat and didn’t work at anything approaching a regular job. His hair was as greasy and messy as the carpet in his room. He was a great roommate. Barry and I had found each other through an online roommate matching service. He said he’d do his dishes, I said I’d keep my mess in his room, and we decided to find a place together.

“Hey, Barry.”

“’Sup, Pete. You’ll never believe what I just did.”

I really didn’t care what crazy stunt Barry had just pulled off in the online world that passed for his life. I like Barry, though, and he gets offended when people don’t care about his day.

“What’d you do, man?”

“Sandyslam was fully poised to throw down a full-on revolution on my ass, had allies and everything. Dude, I had a spy in his little cabal. The guy was willing to turn them all in for a ten percent reduction in taxes and the use of some land outside the city. Bang! I went in there with three magic weapons and backup, and they caved no problem. I’m trying to decide what form of torture to use that’ll knock ‘em down the most levels and sound the coolest.”

I didn’t really know what any of that meant. I do know that Barry pays the rent by auctioning off character attributes from this particular game to other wireheads, and this may have been his way of telling me that he was going to make November with money to spare.

“Cool beans. Look, I’m beat. Do you mind if I turn off some lights?”

“Go ahead. I had some subjects over earlier to play, and one of the guys didn’t have a decent screen, so we had to turn everything on. Hey, how come Jenny isn’t with you tonight?”
I didn’t answer his question; instead I walked into my room and tossed my bag onto the pile of cushions in the far corner between my Ikea bookshelf and unfinished dresser. I keep meaning to stain the latter, mainly because I’m sick of getting splinters in my boxer shorts.

It’s tough to sleep after a full day of work and closing. I’m usually pretty keyed up, and Barry’s occasional battle cries don’t help much. I put some trance in the stereo—some recording of an old Full Moon Rave that I’d downloaded and burned using Barry’s computer–kicked off my boots, and slopped onto the bed fully clothed. I could have taken off my clothes, but, well, no. I keep a poster of Johnny Cash hanging on my ceiling above the bed. He’s perfect for nights just like these. It’s that poster where it’s just Johnny in a field, wearing a trench coat, staring out, his face as weathered as the land. I stared at the Man in Black, and he stared back until I closed my eyes.

John’s Place is a coffeehouse. We make coffee and coffee-containing drinks, and we sell various baked goods that we think will be complementary to your coffee. At lunchtime we’ll put out a few premade sandwiches and some cold quiche (we’ll nuke that for you if you ask), but we won’t care if you bring in some falafel from down the street and eat it at our tables, as long as you order some coffee from us, as well. We don’t have a blender for frosted this-and-thats, and you’ll get a hard look for ordering a smoothie. You come here for caffeine and conversation. It says so on the awning.

I’m a coffee snob. It comes with the territory. Everyone who comes in fits in somewhere on my Order Hierarchy, which I keep meaning to write down and post near the register. Never have gotten around to it, though. It goes like this:

1. Coffee, black. Actually, those who order their coffee with a shot of espresso inside are cooler, but anyone with that kind of tolerance can be considered a danger to himself and others, so I’ll stay away from that for now.

2) Espresso, straight up. A definite taste for the hard stuff, but vulnerable to trendiness; sometimes orders will just spike and you know that some celebrity showed up on Leno the night before with a small cup and a wired attitude.

3) Cappuccino. Still a strong drink, but way trendy. Drop the customer two places if he adds sugar, because it messes up the artistry of the foam.

4) Caffe Latte. Lots of milk in this sucker to kill the espresso flavor. Verging on yuppie territory here.
5) Any of the above with a flavor shot.

6) Anything with skim milk specified. The drink you’re having is likely a substitute for dessert. Live a little. Skim milk doesn’t foam up as well as whole milk does, ruining the aforementioned artistry.

7) Decaf.

8) Any non-cappuccino drink that ends in “cino.” You can’t get these at Jon’s Place, but people still come in and order frappucino, mochacino, slopacino, words that Starbucks made up that somehow entered the popular lexicon. Give me a break.

My shift the next morning was opening; one of our kids had gone AWOL and I was filling the Thursday morning shift until we could find someone else to take it. My alarm went off at six. I pried my eyelids open with my fingers, stumbled to the shower and stood in the hot water for the six minutes it took to turn lukewarm.

I was opening with Adrian, the most popular gay man in the world. Ade is one of those gay guys who really pisses you off because women absolutely love him. I’m not into guys, but I will say that Adrian has a definite Superman II-era Christopher Reeve thing going on that could be attractive, if you were into guys, which I’m not. He’s full of life, six feet of pure intelligence and hormones mixed together in a package of old t-shirts and sideburns. He beat me in that morning. As I walked in the door, he was shining the milk pitchers and singing along to Erasure: “Ooh l’amour, broke my heart and now I’m burning for you…” He sang several octaves above his range, hitting every other note perfectly.

“Christ’s sake, Ade, the sun’s not up yet. Can we please listen to something depressing?”

“No way, poopy pants,” said Adrian, and he pinched my cheek. I mixed myself up something nuclear: sixteen ounces coffee, two shots of espresso, a ton of cream, five sugars, vanilla.

“Please tell me you’re not going to hit on straight women again today,” I said. “I was here three and a half hours ago.”

Adrian stopped shining his pitchers and leaned forward, resting his hands on the counter. “Hells, yeah, I am. I’m going to hit on everything that moves today. I had a crappy night out last night.”

“Hm?” My mouth was full of chocolate chip scone.

“Some guy started grinding with me from behind. I turned around after a while to see if there was any potential and he freaked. He had been my PE teacher in junior high. It really bugged me out. I need distraction from an unhappy memory.”
I laughed.

Forty-five minutes after opening, his first victim walked through the door. She was around thirty-five, thin, dressed entirely in Italian names, and kept her sunglasses on inside.

“Cappuccino, please,” she said to me. I wrote “SmCap” on the order sheet.

“Oh, with skim milk?” I added a “k.” Adrian looked at the order, filled a pitcher, and started steaming skim milk. Foaming skim is harder than foaming whole; you really have to work to get the thick frothy mountains that make a real cappuccino stand apart from the sludge you can get from one of those automatic machines. Adrian was a master. One minute and forty seconds later, the drink was ready.

“Cappuccino, skim milk!” bellowed Adrian.

The fashionable lady came up to the right side of the counter to pick up the drink. Adrian handed it to her, lightly grasping her fingers as he handed her the cup. She paused for a second, and took a sip.

“I hope you enjoy it,” said Adrian, keeping his eyes locked on the sunglasses. “Let me know if the foam’s not right, or if you like it hotter”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” she said, voice husky. She then walked back to my side of the counter, where I was busying myself with a crossword puzzle, biting my lip very hard. She dipped into her purse, picked out a pearl money clip, extracted a bill, placed it in our tip jar. She glanced at Adrian and meandered to one of the couches in the corner, where she sat on one side, in case anyone decided to take a break and have some morning conversation.

She had left us a ten. I pointed this out to Adrian, and he laughed.

“Quiet down, she’s watching us,” I snarled. “Have I ever told you that you’re wasted on you? You could have made your own personal adult flick with that woman in the back, and I’m willing to bet you’ll waste your time drooling over the next short guy who walks in here.”

“So? I’m not into her.”

“You could at least, you know, help me out. Feed ‘em a line: ‘Hey, I’m into guys, but my co-worker here likes your kind, and he’s just as cool as me.'”

“Why would I need to help you out? You’ve got Jenny.”

“Did.”

Adrian whirled and looked at me, but I was saved by the pre-nine o’clock rush. Versace-suited businessmen twitched in line next to the multi-hued dreadlocks of bike messengers and guys who had to drink their coffee through a straw to avoid spilling through the stretched holes in their lower lips. They were all the same to us; nervous addicts desperate for their morning fix. Adrian and I are the best at moving a line–we pulled, poured, toasted, spread, served, made change, talked, spilled, cleaned, and made a morning that much better for quite a few denizens of the urban jungle.

“What happened, Pete?” asked Adrian over the din at one point. I used a decaf espresso order to ignore his question. It’s not a bad dodge; we keep the decaf beans far from the espresso machine. I snuck a peek: expensive-pursed yuppie scum, barking a shopping list into a shiny silver cell phone. I made hers with half of the real stuff.

“Double espresso, decaf! Here you go, ma’am.”

“Thanks! This is decaf, right?”

“Sure.”

“Pete, what happened?” asked Adrian.

“What always happens?” I said. “We broke up. End of story.”

“Okay,” he said, tossing two slices of bagel into the toaster. He used the steamer to moisten a rag, and started to wipe down the counter.

“ You know,” I said. “Jenny never once wanted to rent anything starring Julia Roberts. She spent her time haunting video stores and flea markets, sometimes she came up with a real winner. One snowy night last year she came by with The Battleship Potemkin, subtitled in German.

‘Eisenstein was such the man,’ she said. ‘We won’t need to understand it…the images will tell all.’

I still don’t know what that movie was about, but we talked about what the subject might have been for three hours that night over green tea and some wasabi peas I had lying around.”

Three chattering high school girls made it to the front of the line, stuttering over orders for triple mochas. Adrian gave the clan leader a wink and a smile, and she dissolved into red-faced jelly, chattering at her friends and trying to hide her sideways glances at Adrian while he rang them up.

“She used to hang around my place all the time. Barry was always locked in his room, only coming out to hang with us after some weird triumph. Jenny had barely ever seen a computer in her life, didn’t do email or Web or any of the other things that people do when they’re trying to look productive but just screwing around. She just wasn’t interested in that stuff, but she was interested in what Barry was doing.

‘It’s fascinating,’ she said once when I asked her about the two hour conversation she’d just had with my roommate, which was longer than I’d ever spoken with him at one stretch. ‘His life is just so interesting.’”

“Interesting? He never leaves the room,” said Adrian.

“That’s pretty much what I said. She answered ‘Yeah, but he knows more people than anyone I’ve ever met.’

‘He’s never met them.’

‘Yeah, but he knows them really well.’

I lost that argument, like I lost most arguments I had with her, but I didn’t mind.

“That time, we were sitting in a corner table at Jon’s, and when I conceded she reached across the table and took my hands in hers.

‘You’re much cooler than he is, babe…’ she said, and then a smile played with the corners of her mouth. ‘For now.’

I acted shocked and offended, and she was aloof, and we went home together, and I woke up the next morning, and she had gotten up early and made me a three-pepper omelet, which I ate in bed. I offered her some, but she declined.
She said it was for me.

‘What did I do to deserve this?’ I said.

‘You were there when I woke up,’ she said, and kissed me on the end of my nose. Her hair brushed my mouth when she did that, and I could smell the last remnants of my shampoo, which she had used the morning before.”

I finished talking, staring down at a distorted reflection of my face in the espresso wand, chin resting on my hand. Adrian had stopped serving customers to listen to me.

“Wow,” he said.

“And that was it,” I said. “After that, she said she didn’t want to see me any more.”

“Chicks,” snorted an Asian raver kid from the other side of the counter. “Can I get my latte with whipped cream?”

Next Chapter


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