So there I was, like five or six in the morning, watching the early trucks delivering their steaming goodies, streetlamps snuffed out one by one by the yawning sun, a faint breeze to stir the dust and plastic shards scattered with the dried food along the walk. I approached the cafe nestled in the street corner, a disgruntled, squat little shop with grubby windows that peered grumpily down the street towards me. There was a stray dog guarding the door, growling and snapping at me as I got near. I edged around him nervously. Stupid dog. Someone should’ve called animal control, but I was busy that morning.
I pushed open the door, realizing the faces staring at me. So many. What had I done to deserve this? Wanting to appease them, I slunk to the table where I usually sat, plunking down an empty coffee cup – my favorite, it had the word INSPIRATION written on it – and a disheveled folder of paperwork, only then to realize the young woman in the knit sweater. Its light brown color fairly complemented her eyes, but they were slitted and staring off into the middle distance, and I presumed she was in some sort of trance. I leaned closer, but not too close, for I was a man and daren’t make it appear I was interested in her, especially with that entrance – Lord knows – but I still wasn’t certain what all those stares were about. She was murmuring a song at the wood paneling across the room, something about not being lost and interjected with prepositions at fairly odd intervals: “Down… Before… Around… During… Under…” and so on. A pleasant noise, she began to creep me out, so I left her to her words and connected my ears to my phone.
Now I was in my own world, and the dancing colors of my imagination distilled the pure vibrancy out of the dreary gray papers I perused as I sipped at my coffee cup. What? Empty already? Ah yes, I had forgotten. There needed first to be coffee in the mug before it could be drained. I was momentarily disconnected from my phone – all those cords could be a hassle, you know – and shoved off for the counter. The squat woman behind it eyed me suspiciously. What had I done? Nevermind. I handed her the mug.
“The usual, please.”
“Which is?” She replied, still squinting at my general person.
“Ah, um, black coffee, one cream, no sugar, and a plate with a plain white bagel… Please.” She kept staring. I wasn’t sure if my words had actually been spoken, or if they were still rattling around inside my hyperactive imagination. Then she pointed at the card reader.
“Payment before pleasure, hon.” I took my card and inserted it.
Only a little shocked, I took my cheap plastic back and handed her the only three dollars I had to my name. She snatched it, sniffing the green, then stuffed it in her coffee-stained apron.
“Wait over there.” She waved at me in no particular direction. I spun around. Then she was gone.
I returned to my seat to find my papers strewn across the floor. It looked less the outcome of malice and more that of carelessness. The mildly attractive woman had moved and was swaying to herself in the corner. A large mountain of man sat across from me on that tiny table.
“Hey there.” He said to me.
“Hey.” Said I to the mountain. He leered over me, almost smiling, though blast me if I knew why. His breath smelled like salt, and his eyes were like lightning.
“How would you like a chance to get out?”
“Out?” I questioned. “Out of where?”
He waved his arm in no particular direction.
“Get out of anywhere?”
“No, no, no…” He shook his head and settled down. I was by now incapable of being more confused. You see, after a certain point I simply assumed it would make sense, or it wouldn’t.
“You want to get out, don’t you?”
Not really, I thought. I liked my table, though people kept sitting at it, and he was sitting on my papers right now, which was bothering me. After all, I had come here early enough to have it my way, hadn’t I?
“Sure, I’d love to get out.” I decided to say. After all, when a mountain is about to tell you something, why not give it a go?
“Really? Then here’s what you do. First, give me all your papers.”
“Uh, hmm, let’s see here… Those are important papers. In fact, they’re very important. As in, very. I’m just not sure I could give them away.”
The man looked at me with the lightning flashing so honestly in his eyes.
“I promise you won’t regret it.”
“HEY MISTER MAN! I SAID WAIT OVER THERE!”
“That must be my coffee. Take my papers, do what you want with them, as long as it’s finish them for me. I’ll be right back.”
I got up and ran straight into an old man. Who was this guy? A toothy grin distracted me from the hand of smell just long enough for it to grab my nose. I reeled backward, though not so dramatically as to make it appear he did it, for I was polite like that, but I looked for any excuse to run the other way. His teeth opened, and for a moment I caught a splotchy tongue as he coughed a smoker’s retch into his hand. Then that gnarled hand – the one not holding a grimy plastic bag – shook as it opened, palm up and towards my chest. His green eyes stared into my soul.
“Help for an old man?”
I froze. How did I get around him without causing offense or making a scene? This place already had my number. They were all looking at me again, a long-haired musician in the corner tuning his guitar while eyeing me indifferently, a stern painter scanning my figure primly, a poet shaking his head while regarding me wistfully, a blogger giving me thoughts as only a dabbling cognoscente can. I smiled my best fake and sidestepped the hand. His green eyes stared into my soul.
“Help for an old man?”
“Ah, not today, I don’t have anything.” I inched around him, stumbling over a wastebin filled to the brim with papers, and appeared at the counter. The squat lady was waiting for me.
“Hmph.” I reached out for my coffee, but she withheld it.
“I said wait over here,” she waved indistinctly.
“Sorry, ma’am. Thanks for the coffee.”
“Hmph.” She handed it to me, and I sipped it: three packets of sugar, no cream. My eyes bulged at the sweetness. She plopped the bagel on a napkin and shoved it across the counter, returning to an impatient customer without a word. I picked it up. It had Jalapeno’s on it.
Returning to my seat via a circuitous route around the old man – though indiscreetly bringing me within earshot of that young lady from before, who was falling asleep and had fallen silent from her pretty birdsong – I landed my pitiful catch on the empty table. Empty. Wait.
“Where are my papers?”
“For a man who wants out, where would important papers be?” It being only five or six in the morning, and my stomach full only of that shot of sugared coffee, I sat on it until my eyes wandered to the wastebin. Papers were scattered, more from carelessness than from malice, all across the floor.
“Wha-… Did you throw them out?” The man nodded. I waited, then more insistently, sort of realizing I had given him authority over them, I asked, “Why-did-you-throw-them-out?” With each word he needed to understand the significance of what he had just done.
“Because you let me.” He replied. I could feel my mouth beginning to loosen, but before my jaw could drop entirely, I got up again to rectify his mistake. Then that squat little woman from behind the counter gathered up the papers, stuffed them in the bin, and tossed half a cup of coffee in with them. They were ruined.
I sat back down, my hands in my head. The burden of all that work fell off my shoulders like hot slag, and I felt I was melting. At least I had my phone to comfort me. Ignoring his flashing gaze, I reconnected to my own little world. Silence. Furrowing my brow in frustration, I jerked my phone in front of my nose. It had that terrible sickly look of death lingering about it I had seen reflected in the eyes of countless other consumers. I watched as it died in my hands, and I wept at its passing.
“Now,” he said, that mountain of man looming over me, “Give me your coffee.”
I looked up wearily. Why, why, why? Was it this guy’s fault nothing was working out? Maybe he was in some criminal syndicate where they selected a random citizen from a big lottery to punish each day. Hooray, I’d won.
Hoping that by appeasing this agent of wrath and the criminal overlords that sent him, I heard myself agreeing once again. He took the INSPIRATION mug away, all three shots of sugar, and carried it to the corner of the shop where the girl in the knit sweater was asleep. He woke her up gently, handing it to her, and she drank. Immediately she sat up, started to hum again, and the long-haired guitarist in the corner got up and began to play. The two of them came together and sat near each other, picking up the chords of a song about wanderlust. Then the eyes of the poet lit up, suddenly struck with the next great bestselling novel, and began to write until his notebook burned with the speed of his scribbling. Then the painter relaxed and stared into the lines of her white canvas, and her brush brought vague contours together to take the shape of real things.
“Now,” he said again. “Give me your bagel.” Wordlessly, I gave it to him. He broke it in half and gave part of it to the old man with the rasping cough. He took it excitedly and bit into it, the fiery peppers no doubt giving him taste again where nicotine had taken it away. The other half he gave to the growling dog outside, which sat down and began wagging his tail. The old man shuffled out and the dog, smelling Jalapeno on him, must have thought he was the source of the treat, and the growling dog and the old man walked away down the street happy in each other’s company.
“Now,” he said, returning to my tiny little table and dead phone and cheap piece of plastic. “Leave that behind and follow me.”
I got up and followed him.