by Linda McCullough Moore
I am sitting in a coffee shop, attempting to outwit my life. It’s gotten out of hand—hard as that that may be to reckon, given the fuzzy silhouette it casts on even brightly-lighted days. My life, a tiny, cramped and cosseted production that fills up only the odd corners of the house I bought to live it in. Today I think it would so easily fit into a tiny, one-room flat, between the hot plate and the daybed. I take it out for solitary walks around the block; it suffers no sea change. It will not vary from itself in one iota, no matter that I use a cattle prod electrified by the same power company that fuels my antique television for seven hours at a stretch.
Hence: the coffee shop.
Hence: the intention to trade my life in on a saner model.
My cell phone rings. A scruffy man’s voice tells me he is God. (Not a first in my experience.) He says there’s going to be a shooting in the coffee shop today, and He hangs up. No small talk, no “Sorry, I’m in a rush.” No, “Here’s how I got your number.” But, as far as I can tell God’s had my number for a long, long time.
Actually, I don’t have a cell phone. But, if I did, that is, I am dead certain, the kind of call I would get.
I come here every morning. To write. My pen makes me invisible—it’s not much of a stretch. Is this why I might be chosen to spot shooters, foil plans, bring the bad guys down? But, if I have the story right, nobody’s ever chosen by the Lord Almighty for his suitability.
No one but God knows I am here. Certainly not the woman in the green plaid jacket giving terse advice the U.S. government has hired her to dispense to willing workers who, since they cannot find a job, imagine they will start a company. Small business, they call it. “Think big,” the counselor says, “start small.” And she sips tap water from a glass. Neither she, nor any of her plump and eager-to-please business founders, soon to founder/flounder, buys a coffee or a muffin: the admission fee, the cover charge, the cost of sitting for an hour in the air-conditioned, floor-swabbed, table-spritzed, electric-lighted space, as anyone in any kind of business could tell you, even if the U.S. government flat-out refused to pay for the disseminating of the information.
An old man wanders in and asks for a sweet roll, and I want to get up and take his hand and lead him back to 1957, to the General Pershing Hotel coffee shop—my grandmother the manager in charge. Towering lemon meringue, banana cream pies, and cinnamon rolls six inches high, six inches wide, so light, so soft spun white in circle layers of brown, buttered sugar. I would walk all the way from now to then to pull one cinnamoned strip from the sweet round and taste the time we never knew would cease to be.
A woman at the next table tells her hapless companion that he can get Comcast TV, phone, and cable for $37 a month, total. It takes every ounce of fortitude I’ve got not to interrupt and up her $37 to $114, and tell him that even then, it is only for the first three months and limited to new subscribers. I wonder if there are people on the planet who do not suffer staying silent in the face of people whom they might set straight. Me, it kills.
The window washer ambles in, with squeegee and a bucket. I share with him a brassy orange-hued hair. We dye our locks ourselves. No one would dare inflict the metal copper color on another human being: mean orange that fades to pink, inspiring children to inquire if we are fairies. We are our own worst enemies—a thing we have in common with the human race—we would never be as cruel to other people as we are to us. This window washer once reached out to shake my hand and—as is my custom—I demurred. “Obsessive compulsive disease?” he said. I nodded, happy for a name for what I am. We should diagnose each other more. People used to. He’s nuts. She’s a monster. He’s a jerk. People were routinely out to lunch, a piece of work.
“Where does the lesbian get her shoes repaired in this town?” A straight-looking woman at the counter asks the young Italian who is only here to fill up coffee cups and all the vacant spaces in a day. She only smiles in answer, a response that serves her well.
A woman with several hundred sheets of paper sits at a corner table with an aging man who’s paid her $375 to find him a girlfriend. Talk is not cheap. The questions she will ask him cost $2.87 each. I only know she runs a dating service because she leaves her business card in the middle of the table every time she leaves, which means by now I have a stack of them, though I will never call her. Love, a thing I can’t afford. So many people can’t, including the one man who would love me if he could. If he ever met me. If he wore a nametag and sauntered into my life. If he had a sign, a sandwich board, that said he might take me on.
The man who sits now at the $375 table is not he. I’m not sure who the matchmaker will hook him up with. Someone desperate, I think would be good. Someone who turns down disappointment every time it’s offered. Someone who likes to scrapbook. Someone who thinks scrapbook is a verb.
“What are your five worst qualities?” The matchmaker asks him, though she begins to write while the man is still pausing to consider. You can tell he wants to do a good job on this.
“Do you feel comfortable with your ideas?” The U.S. Small Business consultant beside my table asks the hopeful young Persian now sitting across from her. This severely-American advisor mentions Iranian business practices in every second sentence. Myself, I would say Persian. Persian rug. Persian lamb. Persian spread sheets.
“You can change your attitude,” this woman says. “No matter what country you are from.” I lean closer, but she refuses to elaborate. Now that my gray locks confuse all browning agents and my neck’s gone crêpy, I’m deciding attitude is about the only thing I get a shot at changing, Attitude, not disposition. That’s a done deal, I am certain.
Getting on towards noon, things get a little beyond us. It’s hard to keep track of the players.
I see the silent man who never speaks though he comes here every day. I guess he comes here to not be with other people. It occurs to me he got up this morning, shaved, and combed his hair and then on purpose put on those fuzzy, apple-green socks he wears today with his gray clothes, but I suspect if I so much as muttered walking by his tiny one legged table, Nice socks, he would never wear green socks again. In fact, he might not come tomorrow or any day for ever after this to sit and sip the coffee, read his hardcover library book.
A mother and a son come in. He is forty-seven I will say. His mother—do the math—is eighty-four, though she looks older, frailer, more prepared to die than live for this whole day. He would seem only ordinary in his posture and appearance, were not his movements sloth-like in tempo and intention. These two pay one another such attention. She shows a passive willingness to fall in with his every notion: coffee, cannoli, tea, éclairs, ginger ale, For here, or take away. He’s wearing white Converse high-top sneakers that force a person to consider at this speed he moves how long must it have taken to lace them the whole way and tie the laces, right, then left. These are shoes that seem to hint at a secret life—one lived perhaps only on self-named holidays or certain nights just after midnight—a secret life that sees him run and leap, run faster, jump higher. But if he does nobody knows, not me certainly, not his mother, who sits now relishing the éclair she holds onto like it might be the only handle on a rocky ride. Her son—so slowly—double-dunks his éclair in his coffee, then holds it for a long time, studying it with some confused attention. Then he eats it in three bites, his cheeks puffed out, his eyes held open wide. He chews for a long time. His mother sits awash in patience, without occupation now. She’s bent a bit, her back to me, but still I see her smile at him.
This is Brattleboro, Vermont—not to be confused with Boston, not to be confused with Paris or New York—where every single person in my town dresses exactly the same and does approximately one of three things with their hair. The uniform follows one simple mandate: just wear something, anything, that a person who just spent the day with you could not remember if you committed murder on the way home and the police asked you to fill in the blank for: last seen wearing. And the hairdo matches. People pay unconscionable amounts of money for haircuts that look like you did the job yourself, with nail scissors, while you were stopped at a traffic light.
I just heard the girl at the counter say the slight, blond worker left because she’s ill and won’t be coming back. She was always so eager and so smiling, so always wanting to be part of whatever slim and sorry thing was going on, and I always ignored her, made her feel she wasn’t there. I had planned one day to make her feel a part of things. And now she’s never coming back.
Every person that you meet is someone else to get it wrong with.
Over in the farthest corner sits a young man, eating finger pastry with a plastic knife and fork. He does not make it look easy. The fork seems to bend, the knife to bow, with every cut. His clear glass teapot sits without so much as a tea bag that might tint the water. His miniature computer screen is covered in bold print, large black letters on a plain, white screen. An intricately-patterned tattoo decorates his plain white skin. It looks like it was meant for someone else’s arm.
The woman at the next table says, “At 90, Maggie walked out on her husband. She said, ‘I just finally had enough.’” The new waitress speaks above the din. “They had a lot of Christianity in the wedding, but it didn’t spoil it. It was still nice.” The matchmaker advises her prey, “If you have a first date and the woman absolutely and completely repels you, don’t go out with her again.” A married couple face off across a wobbly little table, they eye their pastries territorially, they sigh like they just got the news their marriage is slated to continue.
Romance at every turn.
Two men in matching white socks sit at a spindle table—one with shorts and sneakers, one with leather shoes and a black suit. Life is just a matter of what goes with what. They wear the same socks. They both dunk their cookies in their coffee. But one guy gets the girl.
A young woman orders a small coffee but then learns the minimum charge is $10 for a credit card. She says she didn’t know, she’s very sorry, and leaves quickly, which means, I will imagine, that as she rounds the corner she’ll run into a man she hasn’t seen for several years. If she’d had three dollar bills for coffee she would’ve missed him. Truth is he hasn’t thought of her in ages, but she looks good—coffee has not aged this skin. He asks if by any chance she has time for coffee, It won’t be till three kids later she will stop one morning folding laundry to wonder what if the charge minimum had been three dollars. But everything that happens in the life is made possible because another person, usually someone you don’t know, believes himself entitled to behave a certain way for no better reason than because he wants to.
It’s sort of like having a latte in a war zone today. They are replacing the sidewalk out front and jackhammering to China. It took me so long to notice, and now I can’t seem to focus on anything else.
Two Mafia types come in and buy cannoli and espresso and sit down in the corner. I catch only snatches of their conversation. “I miss my father. That’s why this tattoo.” More tattoos. Another mark I’m missing on my aging frame? “My father died at three o’clock, my brother died at ten after three, just ten minutes apart, ten minutes and thirty-seven years. I felt responsible for my brother’s death.” A mob slaying? A choking accident? “I felt I let my mother down.”
“What should I buy?” A youngish man with a shaved head asks the barista.
“What flavors do you like?” she says.
But he’s not biting. He’s here today to abdicate, to give up on deciding, force someone else to assume responsibility for this one shot at getting something right. The only thing he might be willing to pick himself is a fight. The young woman wearies finally of his refusal to take any advice he demands she give, and puts a pastry on a plate he carries to a table by the window where he spends the next five minutes taking pictures of the treat.
“This is the first gelato of her life,” an old parent, or a young grandparent, with a little girl is saying, to no one in particular. And just so, they no doubt herald this child’s first pancake, her first fish stick, and she will through all her life imagine each of her experiences to be of interest to the world.
We do not happen, we are made.
Tonight she will have her first green bean, and they will call to tell the aunts and uncles.
The customer who gushes over the child’s gelato leaves, and a woman saunters over to the case, “Oh, you have ice cream?”
Life is what you call it.
”I don’t want to be famous,” the window washer says as the barista makes him his third free cup of coffee.
Just as well.
A tall, blond, tanned, beautifully-dressed man walks in and buys two oversized boxes worth of pastries, then sits down at a table in the middle where he is shortly joined by a young, smiling, pale-faced couple, she with shining eyes and a sweet willingness to listen to his catalog of wedding stories which he begins as if on cue. At first I think he’s here to help them pick a cake and favors, but he’s asking them what kind of words they would like to use for their wedding vows. I’m hoping he will spell out the options, I thought we were all limited to the one basic standard-issue litany. He just starts suggesting things he might like the ceremony to include, both the nature of relationships and the predictable decline they suffer in year five and then fairly regularly after that. He says perhaps he might mention some options when it comes to divorce, how this might be done with greatest ease. The bride-to-be keeps smiling. She barely even registers he’s there. It is the common state in which we all must marry. Now he mentions “a bunch of stuff.” I close my ears.
A woman in a wheelchair with a seeing-eye dog comes in to replace the Persian entrepreneur who walks out with a stately grace, giving zero indication of how the whole American thing might strike her. I thought she was given some pretty shabby treatment, but her successor gets far worse in loud, precise, and simple words, spoken in a more than creepy condescension.
Turns out there is to be a shooting in the coffee shop today. The door opens with a puff of wind, though on the far side of the floor-to-ceiling windows no trees rustle, no breeze blows. Five young women walk in. Their hair—if it is still called that—is a Raggedy Ann doll red. They carry cameras with fat, phallic lenses and tripods that look like new age cannons. They swagger, power is the way they walk.
Even before they start moving between the tables snapping shots, we tighten up our shoulders, bristle, hunch. Some primp. They are not boisterous, they’ve come to capture us with tiny clicks. That’s all that it will take.
A hundred years from now the photographs will show that we were here. They’ll tell our stories. Cast in a certain light, it will seem the day had been a clear one, the company a mix of so many different kinds of people, only stopping for a cup of coffee one autumn morning in the middle of their lives.
Linda McCullough Moore, her work acclaimed by Alice Munro, is the author of four books and more than 350 shorter published works. She has won numerous national short fiction awards including the Pushcart XXXV. She writes and mentors writers in Northampton, MA.