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Jon’s Place – Chapter 1

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?”

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.

“Hey Barry.”

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?”

“I died.”

“Huh?”

“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?”

“Adrian.”

“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
Quentin Donnelly
Associate, Business Development
Starbucks, inc.

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?”

“No.”

“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.

I walked out and headed home, although it was only four in the afternoon, and I could have spent the time browsing in a record store or having a cup of coffee with my journal or one of the other myriad ways to waste time in the neighborhood in the waning October light. But I didn’t do that. I walked home, purposely ignoring the way that the sun slashed on the cross-streets between buildings, stretching my shadows all the way across Massachusetts Avenue so that the people on the other side were stepping on my head. I didn’t notice one of the desperate bums holding his right hand out for change in a Dunkin’ Donuts cup as he fed his three kittens with his left. His “help me feed ‘em, mister” went right by me. I walked the seven blocks blindly, shouldering past an old lady with her grocery bags in one of those aluminum wicker-baskets on wheels, forcing her to go up on one tire and nearly upend. I didn’t care; she was carrying a Starbucks cup, probably from the branch that had opened up right on the main intersection of the Square last year.

The door to my apartment was wide open. Great. Barry had probably lurched out some time during the day, no longer caring about all his real-world possessions now that his other-world ones were gone. Someone had probably come in and torn down my posters, de-alphabetized my CD collection, eaten my Pez….

Except that the strange person sitting at my kitchen table, sipping from a steaming cup of something was Caramel Cappuccino Girl, and she was laughing. With Barry, who was also sipping from a steaming cup and had cleaned himself up to the point where he was wearing a clean black/navy flannel shirt, tucked in. I dropped my shoulder bag on the floor, not making the resounding thud I wanted because in the haze of the morning I’d forgotten to put any books in there. Instead, it made a noise like an empty bag hitting a carpeted floor. Barry and CCG didn’t notice, and kept chuckling.

“Hey,” I said to the ground as I picked up my bag.

“Oh, Peter,” said Barry. “Say hi to Gina. Gina, Peter.”

“I think we’ve already met,” said Gina. “It’s good to know the name of the best barista in town.”

“Thanks,” I said, forcing a smile. “Not to pry, but how on earth did you end up in my apartment?”

“Oh, Gina was one of the people who overthrew me last night,” said Barry.

“Yeah, I felt kinda bad, so I figured out where his address was from the tithes I’d sent to him before, and I thought I’d come over and make him some cocoa. I figured he’d be pretty down, but he’s doing well—a ton better than I would be after a disaster like that.”

Sometimes life throws a fastball that you can hit right out of the park. Sometimes it’s a sharp-breaking curve, the kind you know you can hit for a single if you follow the rotation well. Sometimes it’s a split-fingered fastball that you swing wildly at and look like an idiot doing it. I’d seen all those in my life, dealt with them well, poorly, however. This was the first time that I’d seen a knuckler. I didn’t know whether to swing or to take. So I did the next best thing. I sat down at the table wit h the two of them.

“Cocoa?” asked Gina.

Hot cocoa is so far off the bottom of my Customer Hierarchy as to be in a different taxonomy altogether: the Chart of Total Wimpitude. I may be a hypocrite when it comes to coffee—I really enjoy a caffe latte knocked up with a half-shot each of vanilla and caramel—but there are some depths to which I will not sink. No way.

“Sure,” I said. Gina got up, taking the scrunchee out of her hair as she stood. Her hair cascaded down to her shoulder blades, waving softly against her brown sweater as she walked over to our kitchen nook and poured water from a teakettle into a cheap mug I had won from the MIT college radio station, adding cocoa mix before handing it to me. Her eyes locked in mine for a brief moment as she handed the mug to me.

It was as bad as I had feared. Gina was funny, keeping Barry and I on our toes for the next two hours with a vicious repertoire of puns and gently digging insults. She liked bands that I had never heard of, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of late ‘70s-era Mad Magazine.

“It was Sergio Aragones’s absolute high point with Spy vs. Spy, and Don Martin was tons funnier when he could draw girls in mega-short shorts,” she said. I nodded, Barry nodded (although I doubted he knew what Mad magazine was), and I served everyone Cocoa Round Four.

So I was sitting there talking to the two of them, having as good a conversation as you can hope to have with someone who you’ve just met and the other person, who’s more used to having conversations with his fingers than by using his vocal chords, and I felt okay. Some people would think hey, great, he’s feeling okay, that’s not a big deal, I feel okay most of the time. What was cool about it, what was awesome, transcendent, beautiful and great was that I didn’t think about Adam or Jenny or worry about the Starbucks down the street taking away our customers. I wasn’t turning cartwheels or anything, but at least I was on an even keel. After a while, Gina noted that it was late and she had a film shoot to go to for a local film and video foundation where she volunteered, and she got up and left in a swirl of patched wool coat and old Cons.

She left and Barry and I looked at each other for a little while without actually looking at each other. I pretended to go through my mail, sorting through the various CD club offers, credit card applications, exhortations for donations and other stuff which validates your existence. If you want to create a new identity these days, forego the criminal track—just join Columbia House and donate to the Sierra Club under a fake name and you’ll soon have enough junk mail to start all over. Barry shuffled off to his room and pretended to clean up some of the mess that had been on his floor so long it was likely petrified. He was looking at me, though, in that way that people do when they don’t want to keep their eyes on the person they’re looking at, as if the other person was Medusa the Gorgon and meeting her gaze would turn a guy to stone. I do it with pretty girls on the bus all the time.

After a half an hour, I couldn’t take the suspense.

“Barry, how the hell did that happen?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I met her this afternoon. Well, I didn’t meet her, exactly. I made her a caramel cappuccino, and I thought she was pretty hot, and she was going to come back tomorrow and I was going to wow her… and then she’s in our kitchen?”

“Yeah, it was kind of weird. I woke up this morning hugging the toilet. Do you always do that after what happened last night?”

“Not every time, but if you try really hard…wait, you never had a hangover before?”

Barry shook his head.

“Well, now you know why people can’t drink every night. So what happened?”

“Oh. So I woke up with my arms around the bowl, and the sun was really bright. I mean, I’m not much for the sun normally—I’d rather spend my time inside and get my light from something that’s not going to cause me skin cancer because I’d like to die sometime after I’m seventy instead of from some malignant wasting disease before I even reach the prime of my intellectual life and…”

I cleared my throat. “Story, Barry.”

“Oh yeah. So I woke up and I couldn’t move, and I heard the door open and I figured it was you. I mean, who else comes in here? Except for Jenny, that is, but oh…yeah. Anyway, I hear this girl saying ‘Hello? Barry? You here?’ and it’s nobody I’ve ever heard before. Didn’t recognize the voice, didn’t have a clue. Actually, I got a little scared. I mean, when you’ve done what I’ve done there are people who are crazy enough to want to really do bad things to you if you’re not careful. That’s why I always have my checks and tribute and stuff sent to a post office box, you know.”

“So how did she find us?”

“Flirted with the guy at Mailboxes. So she says ‘Barry, it’s Gina. You know, Zerlina. And of course I knew exactly who she was? I mean, I know her really well.”

“Okay.”

“And I was kinda freaking out, because I really wasn’t doing so well, and I was a little scared because I’d never really seen her, and I usually want to make a good first impression. But she came in and said ‘rough night?’ I said ‘yeah,’ and she told me to shower and when I got out and dressed, she’d cleaned up and made cocoa. Isn’t she awesome?”

“Yeah, she seemed cool. You gonna try to take it somewhere?” In eight months of living together, I’d never seen Barry show much of an interest in an actual social life, and if he decided to try to make something happy…well, I’d be happy for him. I’d try my hardest to get Gina in my camp up until the moment something happened between her and Barry, but before that happened…

“You mean date? No way, man.”

“You can’t go out with her?”

“No, man, I just can’t do it.” Barry’s eyes were huge. There was a slight movement just above his eyelashes, a little towards the corner. It distracted me for a second until I realized that he was close to tears.

“Why not?”

“Too much history, man. Way too much history.”

I sat down on the couch with a huff, sinking six inches into the Kermit-green thrift-store refugee. “Didn’t you guys just meet, like, today?”

“Physically, yeah. But she was my slave for two years, man. I made her do things that you just can’t talk about. I can’t have that hanging over our relationship. It would just be too complicated.”

I shook my head and went to bed. I had a chance.

How I was going to take advantage of that chance was, of course, the problem. I didn’t see Gina all week. I got up six times, each time in the morning sometime after the sun rose, got my bagel from the deli two blocks away, and ate it on the way to work while listening to old R.E.M compilation tapes that I had made when I was in fifth grade, but my mind was still in bed. It was easier that way. Each day at work I worked with Adrian and talked with him about his life, and worked with Jenny and listened to her talk, and every day I went home after working with Jenny by myself, sat in my room listening to the kind of music written by lonely guys for lonely guys, read, and slept. Gina didn’t come in at all.

The kicker came on the seventh day. God didn’t rest, He sent Adam in to pick up Jenny an hour before it was time for me to leave so they could go to a gallery opening together, and they left through the front door, his arm slipping into hers as they took a right turn and paraded in front of the plate glass window at the front of Jon’s Place. And I didn’t freak out or swear or cry. I turned back to the guy in the cardigan sweater who had just ordered a hot chocolate.

“Whipped cream?”

The guy nodded, and I whirled a big mound of the white stuff on the top of his mug.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Welcome,” I said, watching the empty space on the other side of the window where Jenny and Adam had walked by arm in arm.

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