This post is a response to January 2018’s mid-month short story challenge. Click on the link in the previous sentence to read the prompt, share your story, and read those written by others.
I miss it, you know? The calm, faint jazz music in the air. The antiquated computer systems set up on the far wall providing forever unused free internet. The clamor of touque-clad locals thinking it’s cold outside even when frost can’t form. It was a surreal place to be.
“Darren!” shouted the girl with deep red hair from behind counter. “Ice caramel latte with sweet cream for Darren.”
I watched as gray-haired man in a tan suit strode up to the counter and took the drink from the girl. She gave him a wide smile, though his face was angled away from me, preventing me from seeing if he’d reciprocated. Most people didn’t. I doubt he did.
Fall is a fickle time in the upper Midwest. You never know from one day to the next if you’re going to wake up to late-summer heat, bone-chilling Arctic plunges, rain that soaks through ever article of clothing, or unpredictable winds that blow umbrellas away from unsuspecting tourists. Today was one of the few lucky days before the birds flew south for the winter that nearly everyone seemed happy about the weather.
The variety of clothing in line at the register amused me greatly. At the end of the line, a short, bulky man in his later years wore khaki pants and a white button up shirt. He carried a book and a newspaper under his left arm, clearly set on using the coffee shop as a place to read. Why even bother dressing up? Behind him, a woman and her daughter wore matching outfits — a t-shirt about a 5k run that had taken place earlier in the day and a pair of black sweatpants with white lines running vertically up the side. Next in line, a woman with impatient eyes pulled a lint roller out of her purse, carefully removing every stray pet hair from dark blue top. She scoffed every time she rolled over a hair, only to have to go back to the same spot and try again. Finally, a young man in a dirty sweatshirt and stained blue jeans nervously fumbled with his hard hat, trying to find a way to balance it in his right hand while playing a game on his cell phone with his left.
I love visiting coffee shops. Aside from fulfilling me primal desire for caffeine, they allow me to watch as little moments within the stories of so many lives that take place independently of one another become ever so briefly intertwined.
“Arnold!” the girl with the deep red hair yelled out. “Black coffee with room for Arnold.”
The elderly man in dress clothes moved slowly toward the counter, grabbing his coffee once he arrived. The girl behind the counter gave that same wide smile I’d watched her give so many times before. The elderly man thanked her and made his way back to his paper and novel.
I missed that coffee shop in Arizona with the jazz, the computers, and the people who didn’t understand the cold. The drinks weren’t markedly better than they were here. Sure, I liked the weather here than there, but I could get authentic baklava with my iced coffee there. There’s nothing quite like eating a Greek pastry with Colombian coffee while sitting on the patio and listening to American jazz music as the smells of the Mexican restaurant next door waft past your nostrils.
There was a sense of community there, even if it was largely an unspoken one. On more than one occasion, I left my computer alone at my table while I ran off to the restroom. I knew no one would touch it while I was gone. That type of action wouldn’t have fit into the coffee shop’s community.
“I’ve got a french vanilla cappuccino for Karen and a strawberry Italian soda for Kat,” said the deep red-haired girl from behind the counter. She didn’t have to shout this time, as the mother and her daughter were waiting there for the drinks to finish. The child in particular was excitedly impatient for them to get done. The girl behind the counter added a friendly wave to the little girl to her smile, causing the child to chuckle.
The deep red haired girl behind the counter was particularly fascinating to me, as she was the lone like — aside from coffee, that is — that tied the two places together. The name on her name tag was Izzie, at least it is here. That said, when I first met her ten years ago in that coffee shop in Arizona, she introduced herself to me as Becky.
Izzie, or Becky as she was then, got in line behind me as I was waiting to order my coffee. Our meet cute, as Izzie insisted on calling it, involved Izzie not watching where she was going as I turned around from the counter. She ran into me hard, knocking the lid off of my coffee and spilling it down the front of her mint green and white polkadot dress. I apologized profusely for my own inability to keep the coffee in the cup, but she was too busy laughing at my failure to get a reasonable amount of napkins out of the holder to give to her to notice.
“Chai tea latte with skim milk and a shot of hazelnut for Miriel!” Izzie shouted to the woman still struggling with her lint roller. The woman tossed her lint roller into the trash, grabbed her coffee and stormed out the door.
I offered to take Izzie out to dinner to apologize for ruining her dress. She accepted, only to wear the exact same dress to dinner, just to prove it wasn’t ruined. She surprised me midway through dinner by kissing me on the cheek as she came back from the restroom, then surprised me further by taking me back to her immaculately cleaned apartment later that night. That kind of flattery got her everywhere. For as well as our first few dates went, the magic fizzled out quickly. Izzie and I broke up less than three months later.
Shortly after we split, I got a promotion at my job that relocated me to Fargo, North Dakota. I jumped on the offer and moved away, ultimately kickstarting my career. I only have to go into the office one day a week, meaning every other day, I can work from home — or as I prefer to do, work from the coffee shop. The last ten years have treated me quite well.
I wish I would say the same for Izzie. I ran into her in Fargo for the first time just over six years ago, with her behind the counter of a local coffee shop in Fargo, just as she is today. We recognized each other immediately, though she didn’t speak to me. As I was waiting for my order, Izzie told me to meet her outside as soon as I got my drink.
I got into her small sedan with pitch black tinted windows and listened to how Izzie’s life had gone south over the past three years. A later boyfriend of hers was a major drug dealer in the area, not to mention he had a nasty habit of killing anyone who crossed him. When Izzie agreed to flip on him in court in exchange for going into a witness protection program, she jumped at the chance. It meant not being Becky anymore — not going to a college where she had great friends and good grades, not living minutes from her family, not being who she once was, not dying her hair away from the deep red natural color she hated. But it meant she got to feel safe.
Every day during the week except Tuesdays, I sit in the coffee shop and do my work. I watch the people coming in and out. I’ve begun to recognize their faces, their habits, and their drink orders. I’ve learned to watch for that wide smile of Izzie’s to know everything was okay with the person she was helping. If something did go awry, I’d be there to help her.
“Decaf cafe latte for Aurelius!” Izzie shouted.
She handed the coffee to the man with the hard hat. He held his phone in his lips, placed his hard hat back on his head, then grabbed his phone and coffee and left. With no one in line, she shouted over to me.
“You need any more coffee?”
“No thanks,” I yelled back. “You guys going to start carrying baklava?”
Izzie laughed as she wiped off the counter with a wet rag.
“I’ll have to ask the manager.”