November 19, 2006 by Dan
Jenny took Adrian’s place at noon. He had a hot lunch date, and was out the door before she stashed her yarn backpack in the employee closet.. I was fried from the carnage of the morning, and really wasn’t in the mood to deal with her inevitable good cheer.
She wasn’t wearing her earring this morning. Jenny always wore one ring in her left ear; not a standard lobe-ring, but a multihued steel circle punctured by a small ball, worn in the cartilage about twenty degrees from the top of her ear. I could tell it was gone because her hair was pulled back with an old bandana, exposing the raised hole where the ring used to be.
She told me once that she wouldn’t have paid any attention to me if it hadn’t been for that hoop. Upon meeting a girl, most guys will move their eyes to the following places in order: Face, chest, then snap up to face again as quickly as possible, hoping not to get busted. When I met Jenny, it was face, ears, chest, quick to face. My visual progression had made her curious.
“Where’s your earring?”
“The ball popped out, so I took the whole thing out. How’s the morning?”
Several dozen questions ran through my mind. What the hell was she doing that caused the ball to pop out? Is she seeing someone? Are they having wild gymnastic times in bed, crazy enough to pop out the ball on an earring that never came out in the four months we were together?
“Morning was the usual.” I found a brown spot on the counter, flooded it with all-purpose cleaner, and started scrubbing away.
“I’m psyched to be working with you, today. I feel like I haven’t really, you know, seen you in a while.”
“Yeah, it does feel that way. Weird.” It’s not weird. She had broken up with me, and hasn’t seen me because the closing shift last night was the first time we’d been in the same room in a week, and it was crowded and busy and we didn’t talk about anything.
“So…what’s been going on?”
Well, I lie in my bed at night, listening to my roommate type obscure commands to mythical beasts that only exist as columns of ones and zeroes on a metal plate somewhere else in the world. When I finally get to sleep, it’s with the stereo on, and for the last five nights I’ve forgotten to take it off repeat, so the same CD is playing when I wake up after serenading me all night. Two days ago I ate three meals consisting of nothing but donuts.
“Not much. Been doing some reading.”
“Cool. It’s good to have free time, isn’t it?”
“I guess, yeah. What’s up with you?”
“Been hanging with Adam.
“Oh really?” Adam was some wanker she’d met in an acting class. I’d met him once—he was one of those guys who was so dedicated to his art that he couldn’t be bothered to wear things that made any sense. I mean, he wore collared shirts with zippers instead of buttons.
“Yeah, he’s a neat guy.”
A fire engine went by on the street outside, sending spots of red light dancing crazily on the walls of Jon’s Place.
“He kissed me the other day,” she said.
“Oh?” I swallowed a two-inch chunk of scone without chewing, and the pain made my eyes water.
“Yeah, it was kinda strange. I wasn’t going to kiss him back, but I did anyway. It was weird…I’ll see what happens.”
When she broke up with me, she had made a big point of honesty. She was being honest with herself, she didn’t know if the relationship was what she wanted, she felt like she had to be open with me, she wanted to take some time. She didn’t mention Adam or kissing or seeing what happens afterwards, or why it had been so weird when we had walked home the night before.
“Let me know how it goes,” I mumbled to her faking a smile that didn’t make the journey from my mouth to my eyes, looking around for a way out. A suit guy was waiting at the counter.
“Can I help you?”
“Do you have blueberry scones?”
“What does it say on the blackboard?”
“Uh…today’s scones, chocolate chip and raspberry.”
“We probably don’t have blueberry, then, do we?”
He looked at me, then looked away. “I guess not,” he said. “Just so you know, I’m never coming back in here again.” He left.
“Fine,” I said. I handed over a large coffee to the man behind him, a guy who looked a little out of place. After he got his coffee he took the long way out the door, checking out all of the nonsensical art on the walls, looking at the customers, tapping his fingers on the tables while appearing to be listening. He made me nervous.
My shift ended at five. Jenny talked at me and I responded with one syllable words until she stopped talking altogether. Three people filled out job applications and tried to make ingratiating small talk while doing so. I left Jon’s without saying goodbye; Jenny was working for an hour longer, it was really busy, whatever.
I took a long cut home via Central Square. I bypassed the Starbucks, the Gap, and the construction site where they’re putting in a Barnes and Noble and (probably) an Engulf and Devour, and walked through an old-school barred-window door into Central liquor, where I bought a twenty-two ounce can of Schlitz Ice and a liter of rye whiskey. The sullen nu-metal burnout behind the counter didn’t even look up when I asked for a brown paper bag and a straw for the walk home. He had them under the counter; I guess there are enough alcoholics left in Central Square to make my request still a common one.
The front door to my apartment was wide open, spilling light over the front porch. I walked in. The floor of the living room was covered with papers, pizza boxes, emasculated action figures, and a bunch of other crap that used to cover the floor in Barry’s room. His door was open.
He didn’t answer. He was sitting in his chair, some funereal dirge emanating at low volume from his computer speakers. For once, he wasn’t staring at the screen. He was looking out his door, eyes unfocused, a bit of wetness on his left cheek.
“You okay, man?”
“It sucked, man. Some little punk invaded my castle and pulled off a surprise assassination. I wasn’t expecting it, and he had a backup re-animate spell. He stabbed me in the back after I ripped his head off.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“I dunno, man.” Barry’s not inconsiderable belly rippled with his hitching sobs. “His level was so low. There’s no way he could have had a reanimate unless he’d spent everything on it, and nobody would do that because he’d have been so weak getting to me…he must have had help.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Maybe I’ll get a job or something.”
“Have you ever had a job?”
He pushed his bangs out of his eyes and shook his head. “I stuffed envelopes for a game company one summer when I was seventeen. It sucked. Are all jobs like that?”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I drank the remaining Schlitz out through the straw, dumped the can on Barry’s floor with the other crap, and handed him the rye.
“Barry, we should probably finish this. Then we should probably get some more. Then we should probably start drinking.”
I’d never really seen Barry drink before. He went ahead and drained half the bottle right there in one go, belching as he passed it back to me. That’s about the last thing I remember, although I do have a vague recollection of ordering pizza and arguing the dispatcher into adding a fifth of bourbon and some limes to our large pepperoni and two-liter of Coke. The driver was sixteen if he was a day; I tipped him twenty bucks that I couldn’t afford to spend.
The next morning dawned brighter than a halogen lamp, piercing through my eyelids and lancing into the rest of my head. My brain pulsated against the inside of my skull, where a whole bunch of nerve endings seemed to have come into existence where none had been before. I reached for the glass of water that I usually put on my nightstand before passing out and managed to knock it over onto my bed, wetting down my pillow and leaving absolutely no doubt that the day was going to supremely bite.
Sitting up triggered off a chain reaction of aches and shudders. The clock read 10:35; I was late for work. I stumbled into the bathroom, nearly tripping over Barry, who had fallen asleep between the toilet in the wall, his left arm curled over the seat. He didn’t smell very good, but he was definitely breathing. Ordinarily, I’m not big on showering with other penis-possessing people in the bathroom, but Barry deserved an exception that morning. He mumbled something about “a slaughter to make the streets run red with their blood” as I dried myself off. I hoped he wasn’t talking about real people.
Jon’s place looked the same as always. An older couple sat at our one sidewalk table, reading books in the warmth of the early-autumn sun. As I shuffled closer, the man’s hand snuck under the table and gave his wife a tickle on the knee. She twitched and gave him a naughty-boy look from behind her paperback. When I passed them and walked through the door, she was still smiling.
“Jerry, you’re late!” bellowed Jack Ramsey.
“Jack, my name’s not Jerry,” I muttered. “It’s Peter. Peter! You got that? Why the hell are you always calling me Jerry?” I was speaking loudly while holding my head and all twelve people in the shop were staring.
Jack didn’t answer. He looked down and continued his bridge game, calmly dealing out the four hands, and turning his little board around to play each side’s hand in turn.
“Jesus, Pete. You all right?” Adrian had come out from behind the counter.
“Not really. I’m hung-over as hell, Jenny dumped me six days ago, probably for this asshole drama guy, my roommate lost his livelihood. I feel like I should be on Queen for a Day.”
I shouldered past Adrian as I said this, and mixed myself up a double latte with caramel and vanilla shots. There were people waiting, and I didn’t care.
“You cool to make drinks?” asked Adrian.
“Sure, but they’re probably going to suck.” I said. I was in no mood to deal with people this morning. If someone had tried to order a skim mochaccino from me I would have ripped his head off.
“Petey, you’ve never made a sucky drink in your life,” said Ade. “It’s just not possible. You’ve got too much pride.”
“Ade, I don’t think you quite get it,” My voice was rising again. “My drinks are going to suck because I suck. I’m the reverse of a black hole of suck. Instead of sucking everything into me and turning it to suck, I radiate suck outward. Soon, you’re going to suck, and this coffee shop’s going to suck, and everyone in here is going to suck! I’m one giant suck bomb.”
“Hey, do you guys have a second?”
The speaker was a man in late middle age, dressed in a collared shirt, jeans and a wool blazer. He was taller than me by a good four inches, and he was smiling, showing large teeth. I recognized him; he had come in a few times before, gotten coffee to go, and left via the long way, apparently scoping the joint. His casualness came off forced; the only guys I’d ever see successfully pull off the open-collared shirt/blazer combination were Californian tech-guru CEOs. This guy looked like he really missed his tie. My head hurt. He was probably going to order a frappucino. I hated his guts. My mouth tried to smile and say words, but my stomach heaved when I started to breath the air out, so I tensed all of my muscles, trying to keep what remained of last night’s pizza where it belonged.
“We have many seconds,” said Adrian. “It could, in fact, be argued that we’ve got entire minutes at the moment, since you’re the only person in our line. What’s can we do for you?”
“My name is Quentin Donnelly,” said the man. “You are?”
“Pete,” I mumbled with a dying gasp.
“Nice to meet you guys. I’m looking for the person who is responsible for this operation.”
“We’re managers,” said Adrian.
“You report to who?”
“Whom,” I said.
“Excuse me?” said Quentin Donnelly.
“Whom,” I said. “To whom is the accusative case. To who is grammatically incorrect.” My voice had improved from a dying gasp to a raspy grunt. I really hated this guy. Why couldn’t he just order coffee and leave me alone to my dreams of a bed and a bucket?
“True,” said Adrian. “But I think I was able to decipher your question nonetheless. We take our marching orders from Jon. This is his place.”
“Is there a good way to get in touch with Jon?” said Donnelly.
“Not really,” said Adrian. “You can leave a message with us. He comes in sometimes and will get it eventually.”
“He doesn’t have a phone number?”
“Oh, he does,” said Ade. “He just asked us not to give it out unless it’s an emergency. Is this an emergency?”
“No,” said Donnelly. “It’s an opportunity for him to really cash in on what this place is worth. I represent…well, let’s say I represent an entity that is interested in a business proposition for …what’s Jon’s last name?”
“He just goes by Jon,” I said. I raised my head again and took a look at Donnelly. He looked predatory.
“Well, have him give me a call. I represent a world famous brand, and I’ve been observing the operation you guys have here for a while. We think that the operation and the team here would be a perfect addition to our brand, and allow us to increase our reach in this part of Cambridge. We’d love to have all of you as part of our family. In addition, if Jon goes for a deal with the entity that I represent, it would be a great windfall for him.”
Donnelly reached into his blazer pocket and brought out a stack of small cards held together by a rubber band. “My card,” he said, putting it down on the table. “If Jon doesn’t call me in a few days, I’ll come on by,” he said.
The card read
Associate, Business Development
The card had no logo. Donnelly stuck out a hand for us to shake; neither of us took it. His Teflon grin vanished.
“Tell your boss,” he said. “Really, eventually he’s going to have no choice.”
He walked out straight, without any of the ambling that he’d done before.
“Wow,” said Adrian. He picked up the card and put it in the garbage. “Someone’s been reading too many fantasy novels.”
“You think we should let Jon know about that guy?” I said.
Adrian shook his head. “First of all, he wouldn’t care. Second of all, I have no idea how to get in touch with him. Thirdly, even if I did, what would he do? He’d do what I just did. So who cares?”
“Not me,” I said.
Adrian shook his head, reached under the counter, took out a teabag, and dunked it in a cup of hot water.
“Here,” he said. “Green tea, no caffeine. It’ll help.”
“Thanks,” I said. My stomach turned over again, some customers came in, and I concentrated on the work at hand and the suck of the day.
The order was like any other: 2Capcar. That means “double cappuccino, shot of caramel.” About a 3.5, maybe a 3 because the extra espresso knocks the sweetness of the caramel down a bit. I filled the shooter, pressed the grains with the little thing we use to do that, wiped off the excess, and jammed the shooter into the machine. I filled a metal pitcher with whole milk and inserted the foaming wand. When the thermometer in the milk hit ninety degrees, I brought the pitcher down to the point where the milk met the air and let the wand do its magic, turning the top half into a mountain of foam, the lifeblood of a good cappuccino. I turned off the wand when the temperature hit one-fifty. At that point, I hit the button on the espresso machine. Good foam needs about thirty seconds to settle, and the brown stuff shoots in the same amount of time.
Espresso first in the cup, a bit of the milk, caramel flavor, and three inches of foam.
“Double cappuccino, caramel!” I yelled. Jon’s was busy with a lunchtime rush, and the ambient noise had increased a bit. A slim, ringless hand took the drink from me, and I went on to the next one, a decaf skim latte with almond flavoring and no foam. Ugh.
“Excuse me.” The voice was soft and female. I looked up at her. Her brown hair was held back by a scrunchee, except for one long strand which trailed just over her left eye, which was the same color. She was holding up the double cappuccino I’d just made.
“Sorry,” I said, “Did I put enough flavor in, or forget the foam, or does it just suck?”
“No,” she said. “Nothing like that. I just wanted to tell you that this is the best cappuccino I’ve ever had.”
I stopped steaming the skim milk, a bit stunned. Nobody had ever said that to me before. She was cute.
“Um… uh… thanks.”
“Yeah, it was really good. I just wanted to tell you that.” Her face came down a bit, as if she’d expected me to say more.
“Wait!” I blurted as she turned around. She wore three rings in her left ear, all in the lower lobe.
“Hm?” She took another drink of her cappuccino as my mind ran through eight thousand cool and suave things to say, and I realized that I really wanted to talk to her.
“I’m working tomorrow, same time. Come back and I’ll make you one of my favorites.”
Brilliant. That line sounded like it was written for exactly this situation by a porno movie writer. Way to go, Pete. Screw up your relationship with Jenny, nearly kill your roommate with South Carolina hooch, and sound like a jerk to the first person to compliment you in days. Why don’t you just tell her you’d like to rip off her ribbed brown sweater (which flattered her, by the way) and go get busy in the back closet with the extra coffee and cans of chocolate…
“Cool! I’ll be here. Seeya tomorrow,” she said. She walked out the door past Jack Ramsey, who leered at me.
That was the only non-suck incident of the entire day. After she left the shop, The Harlem Globetrotters were still dribbling on my head, Adrian cheered up, and I was inflicted with three skim mochas in a row. Even the potential of seeing Caramel Cappuccino Girl again couldn’t rescue the blitzkrieg awfulness of that November day. I mean, it was so bad I even ran into Adam.
I was hanging out after work in Halberd Books down in Central Square, the kind of place that doesn’t seem to care whether or not they actually sell anything; it’s full of old Naugahyde couches and checkered easy chairs. The coffee is free and tastes like it. I used to go there by myself before I met Jenny—I’d sit and read and hope that some beautiful literature-crazed woman would pick me up because of my superior taste in reading material. That particular scheme never worked, although I did get into an interesting conversation once with a guy who was trying to use me to get closer to Adrian.
This time I was browsing the humor section, and I noticed a particularly vile stench that I’d smelled before on some women at Jon’s Place: CK One. Adam noticed me looking at him, and his eyes brightened with recognition. A bazooka shell would have bounced off all of the crap in his hair.
“Hey, Peter,” he said. “It’s Peter, right? How’s it going.” His hand snaked out from under his coat.
I took the hand. He shook with the slightest of grips. If I hadn’t supplied some up-and-down movement, it would have been one of those handshakes that doesn’t actually result in any physical shaking. As it was, I moved his limp hand up and down a couple of times.
“Not bad,” I said. “What are you up to?” Besides bonking my girlfriend, that is.
“Oh, you know, doing drama stuff, mostly.” Drama women. Bastard.
“Cool, you think you’re going to get somewhere with it someday?” Besides inside Jenny, that is.
He frowned, pressed his lips together.
“Well,” he said, “I’m working in this avant-garde production from a Native American perspective, directed by Guy Richaux. You heard of him?”
“He was mentioned in the Village Voice a couple of months ago in their ‘Up and Coming Nontraditional Artists’ issue. September 15, I think. You should check it out.”
“Hm.” I don’t read the Voice. It comes out in New York, and I live in Boston and could care less about the hyperbolic egos of the wannabe set who read the Voice online so they know what’s going on in New York and can talk about it. If you like New York enough, move there so I don’t have to look at you.
“He’s such a genius. You should come to the premier next week. Jenny’s got a big part.”
“Really? I didn’t know she was really doing much with that these days.”
“She wasn’t until last week. I got her a closed-door meeting with Guy, and he loved her! She’s amazing, really.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said. “She is.” I faked a sneeze, wiped my eyes with my hand.
Adam peered at me from his six-four perch. “Hey, you have allergies?”
“Not to anything in the air,” I said. “You wearing cologne?”
“Yeah, CK One. Why?”
“I am allergic to that stuff. You mind taking off for a second while I find this Carlin book I’m looking for?”
“Sure, no problem.” Adam offered his hand, I ignored it, faking another sneeze. “Right,” he said” “Don’t want to get any more of Calvin on your hand, eh? Seeya.”
I grunted. He walked away, swinging a small bag over his left shoulder. Jenny’s purse.
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