Jon’s Place is a coffee shop near Central Square in Cambridge, the kind of place where graduate students come with their laptops and pretend to work on their theses while jonesing for cigarettes, which they can’t smoke at Jon’s because the city has banned smoking in restaurants. I guess we’re a restaurant; we sell baked goods and a few sandwiches that come ensconced in plastic wrap from Sartini’s down the street. We have a good group of steady customers, the kind of people who like their coffee a certain way and know that we know the way they like it, and appreciate that. James the stockbroker likes half cream and half two percent milk, the closest thing we can do to true whole milk. Miles is a retired professor who tutors high school kids; he’s in every day, and he always treats his charges at the end of the semester to a hot chocolate with whipped cream. Ordinarily I wouldn’t approve of that , but kids are exempt from my Hierarchy.
Jon’s Place is, in fact, owned by Jon. He’s an older hippie who puts his iron-grey hair in a ponytail and usually doesn’t shave. Nobody’s ever too clear on what Jon actually does for a living; the Place really can’t make much money. Rumor has it that he inherited a ton and owns the coffee place because he’s some kind of anticorporate activist who is throwing money down the drain in order to keep Central Square from becoming Starbucked. If that’s his motivation, I’m cool with it—I’d never go to Starbucks regardless, and Jon pays me fifteen bucks an hour, which is more than any other coffee joint in the city. Jon isn’t around much these days; he spends most of his time traveling in obscure parts of the world, trusting Adrian, Jason and I to keep things shipshape. That September I hadn’t seen Jon in several months; Adrian had talked to him on the phone a few times.
The staff at Jon’s Place was the usual mess of art students, part-time students, junior-college dropouts, occasional hippie-artist trust-fund survivors plus me, Adrian and Jason. The three of us manage the shop for Jon, handling the daily orders napkins and flavor syrup as well as serving as the People of Last Resort if one of the hourly workers calls in sick or overdosed or gave birth or just plain didn’t show up.
We’re in an insular world of nineteen-to-twenty-three year olds; I’ve worked there for two and a half years, have hit the midpoint of my twenties and was the oldest person there by sixteen days, unless you count Basie, the ex-Deadhead who held a patent on a liquid nitrogen container that all the biotech firms in town used; he was set for life and kept his name on the sub list so he could work every other week or so. He claimed that the atmosphere at Jon’s livened him up. I think it was a necessary escape from his lonesome stoner fortysomething bachelordom. Basie would always end with him holding court to a crowd of soymilk-latte vegans and other granola types, regaling them with tales of parking lot names, drum circles and converted high school busses stacked to the brim with giant nitrous oxide tanks.
The people who’ve worked there in my time: Dave the movie fiend, Hilary who went from dreadlocked hippie to spike-haired pseudo butch dyke and back again in one year (she had the dreads artificially done at a salon down in Allston), Ole who wore too-small t-shirts and was violently into indie rock, to the point of lecturing you if you weren’t at the Middle East to see so-and-so the night before, because the next time you saw them their flame would be dead. I like most of them because it’s an always-available social life; when I started there was a never-ending circus of house parties, nights out, evenings in small apartments in the Fenway with a five liter box of wine, bags of weed, all the trappings of our peculiar breed of semi-poor urbanite. I don’t go to the parties much anymore; when I started dating Jenny we made an effort to get away from the scene.
I like to work at Jon’s Place because every now and then there’s a day like the eighth day. Thirty-five degrees, rainy. Not a hard rain, but the soft drizzle that never really gets going; it seeps in over the tops of your shoes and under your pants, soaking your socks until every step is not a plop but a squoosh. Nobody carries an umbrella on days like that, because the water suffuses the air–it doesn’t just fall but goes sideways and upwards as well, and what good is an umbrella against that? On days like that, Jon’s is an oasis.
I came in at six in the morning and started up the fire. The fireplace on the wall at Jon’s is connected to a chimney that snakes up right through the living room of the apartment above us. Christian, the guy who lives above the shop loves it because it cuts down his heating bill. We collect the firewood on trash day. The garbage men bring by any old chairs they’ve collected, and we give them free coffee. I don’t know who got that deal started, but it’s been going on since I started working, nearly two years now. We break the wood down to a fireplace-friendly size with the shovel that we use to clear the front sidewalk when it snows. Sometimes our regulars bring in wood, as well. The fireplace is set up for maximum coziness; three couches are arranged around it in a rectangle, and there’s a small table in the middle for everyone to share. On snowy days the fireplace seats fill up by seven-thirty in the morning and stay full until closing time.
I started up the fire, and several people who had been waiting in line outside when I got in staked out seats as I got everything turned on and ready to go: start the coffee machines to heat up the water, grind the first beans of the day, warm up the espresso maker, fill a filter of regular and a filter of decaf, run the machines, take the mugs out of the washer and the take-out lids from the cupboard in the back, and I was ready to go. The whole process takes about ten minutes, and our morning regulars know the procedure as well as I do. They don’t mind waiting for me to start; most places would make them wait outside in the cold and the rain. At Jon’s they can come in and warm up by the fire while the smell of the brewing coffee makes everything perfect for a few minutes.
Miles was there. He works a couple of blocks away at the Latin High School. Every day he sits in a small room with two desks, teaching math to kids who hate math and English to teenagers who were never taught to read by their parents. He drinks straight coffee with two sugars, no cream. Behind him stood Terry The Businessman. Even the law offices downtown have adopted business casual on Fridays, and Terry’s office got rid of mandatory ties several years ago, but Terry had built up a wardrobe of tweed and wool over the years, and sees no reason to spend the money on new clothing when he has twelve perfectly comfortable suits to wear. So he wears them still. Sometimes he stops by for a cappuccino on Saturday on the way to the dry cleaners, five garment bags slung over his shoulder, the morning paper cradled under his right arm. On weekdays he drinks a double espresso with a shot of hazelnut flavoring. Jack Ramsey was there, too. He sat down and broke out his chess board and cards.
There are others, of course. Coffee people are different than bar people—a bar will have regulars who show up on Friday for a pint at five p.m. with their friends after work. After a while the guy behind the bar will have a pretty good idea as to what they’ll drink; and if the bartender is good he’ll have drinks ready half a minute before his regulars make their way through the door. But, you can’t go to the bar every day–show up at the Basement or the Cotton Gin every day for three years and you’ll probably be committed, because, for better or for worse, we’ve become a nation that frowns on an after-work nip.
But coffee regulars can come to Jon’s place every morning for their fix for years at a time, and nobody frowns on them, nobody judges. I like my regulars, I really do. I like knowing what they drink to get going in the morning, I like getting to know their lives in thirty-second snatches, morning after morning. After a couple of weeks I tend to know what a new regular drinks and I always get a kick out of the little smile I get to see when I can say for the first time “Medium coffee, to go, no room for cream, three sugars, right?” or something to that effect. Music is important, too. I like to start the day with something mellow—the Beatles, maybe a Matthew Sweet album. In December nothing makes people happier than hearing Guaraldi’s themes from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Put that on and people drum on their legs while waiting for coffee at quarter to eight in the morning. It’s something to see—happy Bostonians in the winter.
The early morning ends at eight o’clock, when the rush begins. I touched on it before; the manic business guys, bike messengers, lawyers, graphic designers, and all the other people who make a city hum and go. They all came in, I served them quickly, they got out. I worked the register, Ade made drinks. Things happened, coffee got spilled, it became eleven, then twelve, and the lunch time crowd, in to suck down our pre-made quiche, vegan salads and spinach wraps, all with coffee or a soy milk latte (kinda tastes like Corn Flakes, but even vegans need their caffeine, I guess) or iced tea, the real kind. We’re the only place in the north that serves real sweet tea, or so people tell me.
It was looking to be a good end-of shift. I was going to be out at around three, when Susan was due to show up, the weather was ridiculously good for a New England fall, and even Jenny had moved from the frontal lobes to the back of my brain, and it was fine until the homeless guy showed up. He was one of those shellshocked guys who sit on the street and can’t even get their mouths around the “spare some change, sir?” sentence. Long grey-white hair, some of it matted into dreads under a black Carolina Racing baseball cap, torn Levis, mismatched Converse low-tops, one missing a toe. He had shaved recently. I had a fleeting mental picture of a homeless guy shaving in a puddle, using the water both as a mirror and to clean out his straight-edged razor.
“Wfhgehiugoiurdfio!!!!” he said.
Everyone in the place looked at me. I can hire and fire people (although I prefer to just hint around until bad workers quit), but that doesn’t mean I’m capable of dealing with something like this. It’s not like there’s a class where they teach you how to deal with insane homeless people.
“Sir, I said, heart pounding, “Is there something you want?
He grabbed an empty coffee mug from the ledge on the window and dashed it to the ground shattering it. Things got quiet really fast. It was like a movie—all noise in Jon’s Place stopped.
“BRRRG!” he said.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I said, and reached toward him.
He went nuts. One of his arms whacked me upside the head, hard enough to knock me backwards a little bit, and he rampaged through the tables, kicking chairs, grabbing at mugs, throwing newspapers. Customers cleared out of his way, and I ran after him. I’m not brave, really. All I could think about was the cleanup job that this maniac was causing me, and how it was going to make me miss out on a trip to replace some of the fading posters in my apartment. I grabbed him from behind, and he spun around to stare at me and I realized that this guy had absolutely no idea what was going on, or where he was, or anything. His eyes were off somewhere, and he was just gone.
We stood there for about five seconds, until the two cop cars showed up with their lights and their sirens and their noise. The two cops had mustaches and guns, and the crazy guy didn’t make any noise or resist or anything when they threw him to the ground and slapped handcuffs on him. He looked around once more as they led him away, and I was pretty sure he really had no clue what had happened.
Susan tapped me on the shoulder. “What happened?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” I said, rubbing my eye where the guy had hit me. “How did the cops get here?”
Terry The Businessman came out from under a table with his hand held up. “Cell phone,” he said. “911.”
“Free coffee,” I said.
I went home and made dinner. For most people, that’s not much of a burden, and that’s one of those things that you don’t really think about when your girlfriend dumps you. It’s incredibly easy to cook for two people—most recipes are based on a couple’s eating habits. It seems like every possible ingredient is too big to go into a one-person meal, so you end up with nasty fungus all over the half green pepper that’s been in the crisper for five days. I’d order out, but it’s expensive. So I cook the staples: Fried rice, beans and rice, homemade quesadillas with chicken, and, of course, spaghetti.
Every single guy in the world loves to cook spaghetti. And it’s not just spaghetti that we love to cook; it’s cappelini, rotini, linguine, ziti, macaroni…anything that you just boil for a few minutes is great No mixing, no measuring, no combining, no draining, no browning, no sautéing, no braising, basting, or even stirring. Throw the dried stuff into boiling water, dump some jarred sauce into a bowl and nuke it five minutes later you have a meal fit for a king. Sometimes it even tastes good.
So I made spaghetti my usual way. I tend to make angel hair, sometimes tubes. That night I mixed ‘em, sometimes a tough process because the cooking times on pasta packages are never quite right. Ziti is eight minutes, cappelini three, and even if you set the timer for eight and let it tick off five minutes, the angel hair is never quite done. But, if you dump half a bottle of decent organic pasta sauce on the whole mess, it doesn’t really matter.
Jenny used to sauté’ garlic before dumping the sauce in, but I just warmed up the sauce in a bowl in the microwave, covered in shrink wrap so it wouldn’t bubble and burst all over the place. And then I couldn’t find the strainer. Some people call it a colander, but I call it a strainer; it’s a white plastic bowl with a handle and holes in the bottom, and it was usually in the cabinet below the sink on the left hand side. Not tonight.
“Barry!” I yelled. “Where’s the strainer?” Sometimes he made spaghetti and ate it directly from the colander while fooling around in his virtual world. Barry didn’t answer. I went over to his door, knocked, went in. The light was off, the computer insensate. No Barry. He’d been out more in the past week than in all the two years we’d lived together; it was jarring to not have him around, to not have the Sisters of Mercy a constant backbeat as I read in the living room or puttered in the kitchen. His room was relatively clean, although one of his posters had fallen off the wall and was now draped over an open dresser drawer. No strainer. The timer in the kitchen beep-beeped, signaling that my angel hair was ready to eat.
I turned off the stove, calming the boiling water. The muscles in my shoulders began to tense up as I opened cabinets, drawers, banged pots and pans around, maybe the strainer was hidden inside the wok…no dice. I swore under my breath as I checked the refrigerator and the oven, opened the microwave door for the third time with a muted “goddammit.” Then louder: “GODDAMMIT!” Two minutes had passed with my angel hair slowly cooking in the still-hot water, and I had to get it out of there, so I just poured the water out, holding the cookpot lid on top to keep the pasta in while pouring the water out. That only works so well, and when I put the angel hair on a plate, there was a small puddle in the bottom, which thinned out my chunky marinara.
So I sat there in my kitchen with my bowl of slightly overdone wet angel hair and I ate it with a fork by myself. We were out of parmesan cheese, so I used some shredded Mexican cheeses that were nearly past their time. As I was finishing, the phone rang.
“Hello,” I said. Some people try to be cool when they answer the phone, say something funny like “Bob’s Towing,” or “Gino’s Assassinations—you Hate ‘Em We Hit ‘Em.” I used to do stuff like that, even affecting a bit of multicultural urban cool by simply saying “Whassuuuuup.” Now I just say “Hello.”
“Hey Pete, it’s Jenny.”
“Listen, I was supposed to close tonight.” I knew that. “But Guy needs someone to serve hors d’ oeuvres at this function he’s giving for the acting department, and I told him that I’d been working at a coffee shop, and he asked me if I would!”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s that got to do with me?”
“Well, the thing is tonight and it starts in an hour, which was when I’m supposed to be at Jon’s Place. Can you fill in for me?”
I suppose I could have gone off on her for being presumptuous. I mean, it was Friday Night, and how did she know that I wasn’t planning on heading out for a night of wild bacchanalia, complete with fig leaves and midgets? I might have had plans, a movie to see, a band to catch. I might just have something better to do than hang out at Jon’s Place with the Friday night crowd.
Of course, I didn’t, and so I told her I would sub for her.
“Thanks Peter! You’re awesome, y’know? I’ll make it up to you; I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said, meaning it, in a not-meaning-it kind of way.
The Friday night crowd at Jon’s Place is a different beast; there’s no such thing as a Friday night coffee-shop regular. Regulars are people who know they can come in and sit quietly, they know when the music they like will be on, they know they’ll be able to get a seat, they have a routine. Friday nights bring in people from everywhere: jazz-club people in leather jackets who like to have coffee between dinner and a night of smoking to new-era be-bop, suburban high school kids who come into the city because there’s nowhere to go outside of the city except to parties in empty houses, nervous couples on blind dates where the guy has been here before and thinks that by showing her the low-pressure funkiness of Jon’s Place he’ll score a few points in the great game of Will She Invite Me Back To Her Place?
During the day, if you want a board game, you just grab it. After seven on Friday, we lock the cabinet and you have to leave a driver’s license as collateral. During the day the music is background; you can talk in a low voice to your friend on the fireplace couch across from you and still be heard. Fridays and Saturdays you have to speak up over the hyped-up crowds and the music, which we pipe a little louder to hear over the people.
Adrian was behind the counter when I got there, along with Jason, a B-boy wannabe and senior employee. LL Cool J was pumping over the stereo, telling me that in no way should I ever even think about calling it a comeback. Jon’s doesn’t have managers like most places, but seniors are pretty much the same thing—we close out the cash drawers, meet together to set up the schedule, order supplies, and do all the other little things that make a place run. The three of us run the place, and Jon lets us pretty much do what we want. Hell, we can even date other workers which was fine with me until Jenny dropped me out on my ass like a sad sack of used drywall. Thinking about that almost made me miss desk jobs and their draconian regulations.
Jason gave me a nod, “Word up, P.”
“Jason, you’re white.”
“So are you, but I’ve soul.”
“Where’s Jenny?” asked Adrian.
“I’m subbing. She had some acting thing to do.”
“Oh,” Ade scratched his head, the action pushing the ultra-short sleeve of his t-shirt up his arm to the shoulder. “I was kinda looking forward to working with her tonight.”
“So I could hit on her, doofus. What do you think? Jenny’s fun, is all.”
“So I’m not fun?”
“Not lately.” Adrian said.
“Guys, I gotta bail,” interrupted Jason. “You ready to go, Pete?”
“Sure,” I said.
Jason swaggered out in that weird B-Boy walk that always seems to say “I’m really pissed about something, and because I’ve got this beat in my head I have to walk in time, so I end up looking like a guy who just had a stroke.”
“He’s really weird,” I said. “I never know quite how to deal with him.”
“It’s easy,” said Adrian, laughing. “I just sit there and stare at him, and everything else just kinda drops away.
I shook my head. “You think he’s cute.”
“Ade, have I ever told you your taste in men is as bad as any woman I know? Worse, even.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jason’s crazy, his idea of good TV is an A-Team rerun, and he’s never listened to music played by a live instrument in his life. The guy has absolutely no taste in anything! Well, except for some of that trance stuff… I bet this is his music, isn’t it?” I walked over to the CD player and ejected the album inside:
“You’re absolutely right. But have you seen his ass?” Adrian winked at me.
“Not in the flesh, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Oh really?” Adrian had his hands on his hips, one clutching a long stirring spoon. He was wearing an apron, and somehow managed to look like a butch June Cleaver about to get medieval on the Beav. “Jenny liked to listen to the Dead, didn’t she?”
“And you hate the Dead, don’t you?”
“Sure.” I am the proud owner of a bumper sticker that reads Jerry’s Dead, Phish sucks, get a job. That I own no car is beside the point, and I think that fact shows my dedication to the cause. I’d like nothing better than to destroy every jam-band bootleg on the face of the Earth, and I make no bones about it.
“So how do you justify hanging out with her, much less sleeping with her?”
“It’s different, it’s…”
“What? Different because she’s a girl?”
“There you go—the sex made up for the Dead. At least I’m honest with myself, Pete.”
I won’t say I was dumbstruck, because that’s the kind of thing that they put down in Harlequin romance novels when the hero realizes for the first time how pretty the scullery maid is when she’s out of uniform. No, I wasn’t dumbstruck. I was just—shocked. Ade had maneuvered me into an intellectual corner and there was no way out. The Dead did suck, and quite a lot. But, Jenny had listened to them all the time, sometimes putting on California bootleg show tapes while mixing spaghetti sauce. I was over Jenny, no question, so I was able to turn this contradiction over and over in my mind to look at it from all angles, trying to find out if I had become a hypocrite or if there was a way out. There was.
“Aha!” I yelled. Adrian looked up, as did a quarter of the caffeine-heads out in the shop.
“We made a compromise on it. She could listen to the Dead at my place if I could bring Hank Williams Sr. over to hers (she still has my Forty Greatest Hits compilation, by the way). I figured if she listened to one of the Dead’s influences who wasn’t awful, she’d realize what they’d done to the music and ditch them and their illegitimate Phish-children.”
“Did it work?” asked Adrian.
“So it was all kind of pointless, then, wasn’t it?”
“Pete, when was the last time you just let someone be?”
“Why are you answering a question with a question?
“Who started it?”
Exasperated, I threw my wiping rag at Adrian, who stifled a laugh. “Dick.”
“Oh, you have some extra to go around?” He let the laugh out. It was loud enough to qualify as “belly.” I started to wipe down the counter. And then Barry walked in the door, causing me to nearly drop my rag into the bagels; a big Sanitation Code no-no (we got an A last time the guy came around, which I was pretty proud of). I nearly dropped the rag because I’d never seen Barry anywhere but the house, except for when we left and went somewhere together, which we’d done about six times. He had to turn around sideways to get past a few of the tables, and his belly, not huge but definitely there, brushed against the tabletops as he edged by.
“Hey Peter,” he said, pulling on his right thumb with his left hand.
“Hey Barry,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Can I have some coffee?” he said.
“Uh….sure.” Barry didn’t drink coffee, preferring to wire himself up on Coke. He bought it by the case, one every three or four days, always buying a new one when the household supply dipped below five. “What kind?” I said. I was being mean. I couldn’t help it.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, our standard roast is from Colombia; it’s a pretty basic roast. We’ve got a dark roast from Java, a darker Sumatran blend, and a lighter one from Ecuador.”
“What do lighter and darker mean?”
“Darker is stronger.”
“What does stronger mean?”
“More caffeine, bitter.”
“Give me the light one, then.”
“OK.” I poured Barry a mug. I assumed he was drinking at Jon’s—if you’re taking it to go you get a paper cup with a plastic top to keep the heat in and prevent spillage. Barry took his mug and sipped a tiny bit. His face screwed up and the tendons on his neck popped out as he suppressed what I assume was a gag reflex.
“You probably want to add some cream and sugar to that,” I said, motioning to the sidebar where we stock milk, cream and sugar. “Use a lot of both,” I added.
“Oh, thanks,” said Barry.
I followed him to the side of the counter closest to the sidebar. “Barry,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh,” he said. “Uh…I’m meeting Gina for coffee in a while, and I thought I’d come here and try some to make sure I got the whole coffee thing right before she showed up. I didn’t want to be embarrassed.”
“I thought you weren’t going to date her or anything.” I was sort-of-planning to rummage through Barry’s computer contact list and see if her number was there for the calling, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
“This isn’t a date,” he said. “It’s a planning session. I’m trying to work my way back up to the top from where I am at the very bottom. I’m a slave now, and I’m trying to instigate a rebellion for greater rights and sexual privileges. We’re going to chip away at the foundation of the guys who brought me down. It’ll be like Spartacus, but better. I’ve got two months to do it.”
“What happens in two months?”
“I’m broke and on the street.”
Barry had seen Spartacus? As far as I knew, his taste in movies centered mostly around sword d and sorcery flicks (I had once come home to him captivated by Willow ), seventies gross-out films like Toxic Avenger and Bloodsucking Freaks. Live and learn, I guess.
“Hey, who was that?” whispered Ade into my ear as Barry made his way to the green couch on the opposite corner of the room from the fireplace.
“You know my mysterious roommate Barry that nobody thinks exists because he never leaves my apartment and his door is usually closed so you can’t see him?”
“There he is.”
“Wow, he’s cute.”
Adrian’s taste in men makes about as much sense as a David Lynch film. Gay dudes who are really put together come into Jon’s Place every now and then. You know the type—tight black T-shirt, hair plastered back with old-school pomade, an upper body right out of Pumping Iron; Adrian doesn’t give them a second look. But, bring in a pudgy guy under 5’4” with spotty facial hair and his tongue starts hanging out. I don’t get it.
“I don’t get you,” I said.
“You’ll never have me, either,” he shot back.
I hate walking into things like that.
“You okay to handle it here?” I asked him. “I want to see what he’s up to.”
“Sure. I’ll holler if it gets too busy.”
I walked over to Barry, who was sitting in the corner opposite the fireplace, in my favorite seat in Jon’s Place. I like it because it’s next to a window facing towards the west and on some winter afternoons the sun shines through there right onto the table; the best natural reading lamp in the city. Barry was nestled in the corner with his cup of coffee, as out of place as a pig in an aquarium.
“Peter,” he said. “Thank God you came over. Am I doing this right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at everyone here,” he said, gesturing with his right hand. I gave Jon’s a quick scope: a couple of high school kids were sitting by the fireplace playing Scrabble, an indie-rock horn-rimmed glasses/Chuck Taylors/rolled jeans/ratty buttoned shirt with no cuffs guy trying to convince Adrian to play his demo CD, two mixed-sex hippie couples playing euchre, assorted intellectuals reading, a homeless guy savoring a bagel, the guy who had looked out of place before, taking the long way around towards the exit, assorted grad-studenty people reading, writing, playing Solitaire on their laptops. Two or three people having a cup and doing nothing.
“See?” said Barry.
“Uh, Barry, I don’t get you.”
“Everyone here is doing it right. They look like they hang out in coffee places and think big intellectual thoughts on their way back from PhD team practice. I look different—the Geek Who Got Out, or something like that.”
“Barry, you’re okay. It’d be better if you had a book, though.”
I sat down, sinking into the creaky leather chair across from my roommate. “Coffee places are weird like that. You can come here to drink coffee and enjoy it, but you have to have something else to do while you’re here: read a book, talk to a friend, play cards, knit. Something.”
“I’m waiting for Gina, doesn’t that count?”
“Nope, because while you’re waiting, you’re doing nothing, and that’s weird. You don’t want to be that guy.”
“That guy who comes in and does nothing. At the very least, you have to have a book, any book will do. But it really helps to have it be something nobody’s ever heard of.”
“Because then there’s always the chance that some girl will come up to you and say ‘Hey, I’ve read that book,’ and you’ll get into a deep conversation about the book and then go off and have a wonderful life together.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, it’s always been a fantasy of mine, which is why I try to read something obscure while I’m hanging out or working. Look around—I’d be willing to bet you that all the solo guys you see in here are secretly scoping the chicks and thinking ‘Man, I hope she majored in English Lit and sees that I’m reading a Keats compilation.’”
“So does it work?”
“Not yet, but it will someday. Tell you what, I’ll lend you my book until Gina gets here so you don’t feel too uncomfortable, okay?”
“Thanks, Pete!” The relief on Barry’s face was beyond palpable and all the way into the realm of comical, and he smoothed down his T-shirt.
“My book’s not that cool, though. Just warning you.”
“What is it?”
“Something by Steven King.”
I ran back to the counter and got out my copy of The Dead Zone, a paperback that I keep around for those times when I forget a book and want to stick around after a shift and have a cup of coffee or a bagel. Steve’s not the guy you want to have on you to impress the coffeehouse crowd; most of the literature bastards who hang out at Jon’s will give me a second look when I’m reading his stuff, the better-than-you look, the “I’m reading something that makes me better” look. Screw ‘em.
“Knock ‘em dead.” I said as I handed it over. Barry smiled.
I kind of lost track of Barry after that. A high school dance over at the Sheraton Commander started to empty out at ten o’clock; the coffee line was full of nervous kids in tuxedos and bright formalwear, some confident, others not sure where exactly to put their hands. They tend to drink lattes with a ton of flavor; the girls never ask for skim milk, perhaps because they haven’t had the fat-free conditioning that the college environment provides these days. One skinny kid with a few pimples ordered a double vanilla and reached into his pocket to pay. His hand came up empty.
“Oh shit,” he said, “I think I left my wallet in the bathroom at the Sheraton.” I could practically see the thoughts going through his head: No money—can’t borrow from date—really lame—oh shit.
“Hey,” I said. He looked up at me. “Tell you what—these two are on me. Come back later and pay for ‘em.”
“Really?” he said.
“Yeah. Have a happy post-prom. Wear a condom, okay?”
The kid mumbled thanks and took his drinks out to the group limousine idling outside.
“The world has changed,” I said to Adrian. “When I was in high school, we rented out the floor of an old hotel and got blitzed after prom. Now, they go out for coffee.”
“Way of the world, Pete,” he said. “Hey, where’d your roommate go?”
Barry’s corner was now occupied by an intensely thin couple in black leather, probably on their way to Manray for a night of Gothing.
“No idea,” I said. “I guess he left.”