Below is an excerpt of a story I am working on for my upcoming short story collection. Is this one you’d like to continue reading? comment below what you like (or don’t) about the story. Thanks:
I remember the fresh coffee smell that turned the corner and came to meet me as I made my way onto Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 112thstreet. The familiar aroma greeted my nasal cavity like an old friend. Or a mortal enemy. Neither one stayed away.
I remember the high pitch of Anne’s voice when she bounded in two minutes after I did, as if she stayed in the burger shack across the street and watched me come in so she could trail me into the cafe. Hey, Jo!
That day, I remember lifting the black apron off the hook in the staff cupboard and tying it around my waist like always, smoothing the puckered spot with a dried-stiff coffee stain that I guess no one could see over the counter since I’d spilled a serving pot of dark brew on myself my first day behind the counter. That was two years ago. There was a computer printout taped to the cupboard door:
WASH YOUR APRON AND HAT
after 5 wears
at the end of every week
I saw the sign every day but I had never obeyed. I don’t know who did. After two years at Java Joe, the stain was still in mine.
I remember the fat girl with ragged hems on her jeans who sat at the same corner table everyday and ordered a small cup of coffee with refills every two hours on the hour. She gave a different name every day. I had taken to writing the day of the week when I labeled her cup.
I remember it was Wednesday because I had started misspelling the days now. Too-s-day. When-s-day. The first time I wrote Turds-day, I realized it might not go over well and I had flipped the cup in the garbage can and wrote Thirst-day instead. I remember that I wrote Whens-day with the Magic Marker and looked to see if she was smiling. She looked away but not fast enough for me to notice one of her front teeth was missing. Strange, I hadn’t noticed that before.
We are creatures of habit – even the habits that we rue at having formed and those we rail against, over time, we do them repeatedly, even if every time, we complain. That too, becomes a habit so that if you do something and swear the whole way through performing the act, next time, you’re likely to swear again. I’ve never understood how to break the habits though.
That first day, that first coffee shift, I didn’t want to be there. Working in a coffee shop wasn’t what I had in mind when I started school and it certainly wasn’t going to pay enough for me to get out of college tuition debt. But the more urgent concern was food. And rent. In that order. If it came down to it, Jeff would let me stay in his bed, provided I bring my own food. I cursed inwardly when the shift manager, Salem, pronounced Salaam (then why not spell it phonetically on your name tag then, I asked myself) told me how to hold coffee like I was a idiot instead of an Ivy League graduate. I was still giving back talk to him in my head when he handed me the tray, the uncovered cup of dark brew in the middle, but sliding around the metal plate as he passed it over.
Curl your finger under here so it stays in place.
Got it,I said, pulling the metal disc a little more forcefully than I needed to. He didn’t let it go.
No, like this.He lifted the tray so I could see his finger resting on the bottom of the tray, curled into obeisance as it was. I wasn’t doing that.
I mimicked the motion in the air, satisfactorily, I suppose.
Serve from the left,Salem said, relinquishing the tray. I uncurled my finger immediately after he looked away. On the brown couch that had been arranged to imitate the Friends’ Central Perk set, sat a brown skinned girl with striking features and long hair that she tossed out of her face every time she laughed, which happened at a frequency that made me think her friend was a comedian. I scanned the woman’s angled Afro hairstyle and her mannish face to see if it was recognizable. It wasn’t although she certainly had the makings of one. Anyone who could survive her looks was someone who had learned to laugh at herself.
And another thing, Salem said,turning his attention back to me.
I am not very interested in the middle of things. I like tracing footprints back to the very beginning, like why Salem decided that I wasn’t qualified to serve coffee, why he thought his way of holding the tray was surely superior to my, untested, one. The end result is equally as telling because you can see how things turn out but given a choice, I want to know how things came to be. This interest in post mortem had led me to journalistic studies, which is why I served coffee during the day and wrote blog posts at night while I waited, along with every restaurant server in Manhattan, hoping to be discovered. I wanted to know where Salem came from, whether he was part of that Hindu caste of servants who thought their history of brewing and serving tea made them experts, their techniques superior. Curling my finger and coddling the tray like he demanded, that was a middle detail, like I wanted to give him the corresponding finger.
Yes,I said, and held the tray stiff against my chest so he couldn’t see my fingers splayed on the underside.
That is not how I show you.
I took in the curl of his lips into a sneer. His face was unattractive, the curl on the underside of his long beard, so it looked like he was continuing the form there too.
How do you know,I sighed deeply. This wasn’t the only coffee shop within walking distance. It would be better to quit now before the habit to be in this vicinity became ingrained. Before I started having a regular route.
Hold it like I said and no spill.
It’s not going to spil… I didn’t finish. Piping hot coffee was running down the side of the full and uncovered tilted pot. I was so afraid that it would burn my sensitive areas that I tilted the tray further, spilling even more. The scalding liquid reached my wrist and I dropped the tray. The hard metal, Japanese coffee pot clattered on the ground in front of me, splashing whatever liquid remained inside.
Behind us, the women on the couch laughed, their voices thick with amusement, not impatience. Good.
That will come out of your first paycheck,Salem said. He picked up another tray from behind him and turned his hand around so I could see, again, how he held it.
I couldn’t leave now. If I did, I would owe Java Joe money. Not that they would come after me. But I had so many debts everywhere, I didn’t want to rack up even one more. Better to stay and work it off.
I curled my finger and practiced on every tray so that after a while, it was automatic. I had built a habit – both for holding the tray and for disliking Salem.
Two years passed and then one morning, when it was my regular route to come into the coffee shop and serve Anne as my first customer, when I had been smelling coffee so long, I no longer rued the fact that I was serving it instead of sipping it at my still-not-yet materialized desk at the New York Times, one of those mornings, I wandered into the coffee shop at my usual time which is to say late. That too was a habit. I yanked my apron down and tied the strings behind me and noticed the stiff stain in the middle of the smock had disappeared. I looked down. Upside down, I read the nametag pinned to my left breast. SALEM. Strange,I thought and looked around to see how the mix up had happened.
I walked to the register anyway. I didn’t have time to investigate.
Five minutes later, I was drizzling caramel syrup atop a diabetes-in-a-cup Frappuccino for a cute blonde girl who didn’t look old enough to drink coffee, but she had dropped a Five-dollar bill in the tip jar so I didn’t care. Then it hit me. She wasn’t Anne.
Few professionals are more notorious coffee drinkers than writers and cops. I was a failed example of the former. The middle aged spiky-gray haired man across me at the table was probably a failed example of the latter. I don’t know how well he did his job but everything else about him seemed to be a failure. He even had a coffee stain on the middle of his dinghy, formerly-white shirt. It looked like he had tried to blot it, probably dunking a donut. Sometimes, I cracked myself up. I really needed to start getting paid to write, soon.
When can I leave?
He leaned back and glanced toward the window. I had watched enough of those shows to know someone was on the other side. You could leave now but you’ll just have to come back so why don’t you just tell me what you remember.
He lifted the notepad and turned it around.
Or you can write it down if you like,he offered.
I wanted to write for an audience. But not like this. So I folded my arms, concentrating on remembering the feel of the black apron on my chest, the unfamiliar smell that rose up to fill my nostrils when the coffee rush died down and I had enough time to really notice my surroundings.
I remember that I didn’t smell the coffee that morning. I usually smell it once I turn the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 112thstreet, I say.
I close my eyes, remembering what else was missing, tracing the footprints back to the beginning, not the middle that the cop seems interested in.
The smell of coffee greets you like an old friend. Or an enemy.
Was he your friend or enemy?
I am deep into my next memory when it hits me.
What happened to Salem?I ask.
You tell me.
Me? I don’t know what this is about.
The cop exhales loudly and crosses the table where he left his coffee cup on the ledge just inside the door.
Tell me about Anne then.
I remember the high pitch of Anne’s voice. She follows me into the shop every morning.
Did you see her today?
No,I say. What happened?
He doesn’t answer and twirls the pen in his hand instead and writes her name on the notepad, except he spells its without the e. ANN. Interesting.
I remember that my apron was gone.
Yes.He pushes down the lid and more coffee spurts onto his shirt. He dabs at it but is looking at me.
Tell me about the apron.
I don’t know what happened to my apron,I say, but I am nervous now.
If he’s asking me about memories, there is one more that I haven’t shared yet. One more habit that wasn’t checked off this morning. The girl who sits in the corner everyday and orders a small cup of coffee with refills every two hours on the hour. She was there when I arrived. I remember seeing her in her spot by the window. But when I came back wearing Salem’s apron, she was gone.
When a habit forms, a person performs actions automatically without forming any memory of having done them. A person who has performed a repeated action could pass a lie detector test if asked if they have done the act in question.
The cop doesn’t believe me.
I don’t know if I am to be believed.
I remember the habits.
But I don’t remember breaking them.
What do I remember?
Copyright (C) 2018 by Karen Wright
The above is an excerpt from an ongoing creative writing project which will probably be heavily edited in the future. Please do not copy or otherwise share this content.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Thanks Mom for fueling this latest story. If you’d like to buy me a drink to sip while I write the rest of this story, click here:
Or send me a message with your Venmo payment… so many options. Thanks for the support.