Note: The following short story is actually the combination of a pair of ideas I’ve had floating around in my head for a while now. At the recommendation of a few writer friends, I thought I’d pilot the idea as a short story and see what people thought.
“Hot chocolate with two shots for Tyler!” the coffee shop employee shouted from behind the counter.
“It’s Kyler,” I muttered to myself. Not that it mattered. They always got it wrong.
Drink in hand, I started my search for the man I was to meet up with for my project. ENG 3030 had a reputation for being one of the toughest courses creative writing majors would take on campus, being the first major workshop course and all. I’d nearly sunk myself on the first project of the class before it’d even begun.
On day one of class, our professor, Dr. Eugenio Torrence, laid out the basic structure of the class, including all of the projects. Our first project was a long-form essay – 20,000 to 25,000 words — wherein we had to adapt the life story of an actual person into a work of creative writing. This would be one of the two major projects we’d have in the semester, but it was the only one that students knew about before they came in. The pool of individuals that students could choose from was composed of a motley crew of Dr. Torrence’s friends, colleagues, and various other long-time participants in this project.
Part of what made the project so difficult was the lack of parameters around the project other than the word count.
“I don’t care how you go about composing this piece,” said Dr. Torrence, “so long as you turn it in on time, it meets the word count guidelines, and I can see the person you interviewed in your story. Take all the creative liberties you want beyond that.”
I, being the person I am, overslept on day two of class. Naturally, this was the day where we got to pick our research subjects. Since I arrived to class last, it meant I got to pick my person last, leaving me stuck with the last person left on the list: Charlie Madagan.
The bio card I’d received from Dr. Torrence read like something out of one of those rich people financial magazines you read in the dentist office waiting room when you’ve finished Sports Illustrated. Charlie Madagan was an ex-Wall Street broker, an inventor, and a hedge fund manager. He was, apparently, one of the 100 richest people in the state and gave a lot of money to the college, as it was his alma mater. That said, he was also eccentric and prone to days or weeks at a time where no one would be able to hear from him.
Great. Just what I needed.
I looked around the coffee shop, trying to find Charlie from the description he’d given me in his email. The problem was that when someone promises to wear a black hoodie and blue jeans in a college town, they’re not exactly going to stick out. There was an old guy in the corner wearing a winter coat in the middle of September. That seemed weird enough to be Charlie. Maybe the hoodie was underneath?
No sooner was it that I had taken this line of thought than I felt a hand touch my shoulder.
“You’re late,” said a timid male voice behind me.
I turned around to see a middle-aged man wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans, his salt-and-pepper hair sticking out from underneath a Wellesley College baseball hat.
“Charlie?” my voice meekly squeaked out.
“You’ll never get a good interview with anyone like that,” he said softly. “Come on now. Stand up straight.”
I did my best to straighten my posture, concerned that I hadn’t realized I was slouching.
“Now, try again,” he said.
“Charlie Madagan?” I asked, my voice a bit louder this time.
He let out a deep sigh.
“You’re going to be more work than Eugie said,” he replied. “Come on. Bring your coffee and let’s grab a table and get this started.”
“It’s hot chocolate,” I corrected him.
“Fucking millennials,” he mumbled to himself.
Charlie pointed at a table in the far corner of the room.
“See that empty three seater round table in the back?”
“Go sit there,” he continued. “Leave me the seat by the coat rack and take whichever other one you want. I will be right there.”
I followed his instructions, seating myself to the right of his desired seat. For a moment, I considered pulling out my computer and readying myself to take notes. But then I remembered his snide comment about my age and decided pen and paper was the right choice — at least in his eyes. The project overview sheet gave us a list of questions as recommendations to begin our interview with, though something told me Charlie Madagan wasn’t going to let me use too many of them.
“Here,” he said, nudging me with a cup and saucer.
I thanked him and carefully placed the drink down in front of me. The coffee cup was half the size of a regular cup. Even then, it seemed underfilled to me, especially after seeing the massive amounts of caffeine both of my parents regularly ingested.
“Hot cocoa is for Christmas and cuddling,” continued Charlie. “The former is three months away and I have no intention of partaking in the latter with you. Espresso is a much better choice for an interview.”
He sipped at his own cup, barely making a dent in the level of the liquid. I stared at his hat again, knowing the name sounded familiar, but couldn’t place why.
“Where’s Wellesley?” I asked, fully expecting a condescending response based off of how our time together had gone so far.
“Massachusetts,” he replied. “One of the most prestigious women’s colleges in the world.”
“Does your daughter go there?”
“No, no. I’m afraid she didn’t have the grades to get in there — though I do appreciate your educated guess that I had a daughter.”
“Well, it made sense.”
“Because I’m old?” he asked.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” I said, backpedaling.
“How old do you think I am?”
Charlie leaned forward slightly in his seat, like a cat getting ready to pounce on an injured bird.
“Forty-five?” I said, my statement turning into a question as I spoke.
He let out a hearty laugh, one with a much fuller sound than his speaking voice led me to believe he was capable of.
“You flatter me,” he said. “Maybe there’s some hope for you after all. No, I’m fifty-two. And my wife is actually the Wellesley alumna.”
Charlie Madagan pulled a folded slip of paper out of the pocket of his hoodie, sliding it across the table to me. I stared at it, confused as to what exactly was going on.
“Go on,” he said. “It’s better than whatever you’ve come up with.”
“What?” I replied.
“Have you even prepared questions to ask me?”
“Mine are better. I promise.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
I wasn’t sure why, but he was quickly getting on my nerves. Nevertheless, Charlie Madagan took another sip of his espresso, patiently considering my question.
“I’ve known Eugenio Torrence for twenty-nine years,” he began. “For the past thirteen years, I’ve been helping him out as a subject in his creative writing courses. I am always the person he gives to the slackers, the stoners, the eventual dropouts, or the kids who are perpetually late to class.”
“I was late one day!” I shouted back.
“What’s your GPA?” Charlie asked, his voice still calm and annoyingly melodic.
“What does that matter?”
“What’s your GPA, Kyler?”
“And how often do you miss class?”
“It…it depends on when in the day it is.”
“Kyler. Just look at the list.”
I pulled the sheet of paper towards me, slowly sliding it across the table, taking care to avoid the small pool of condensation from whoever had this table before us. I took my time unfolding it, trying to sneak a glance at the expression on his face. It was unflinching and stoic, almost as if he was trying to convey to me that he knew how I was going to react before I did.
The list was a mess of handwritten bullet points. Charlie’s penmanship would be best described as third grader trying to create calligraphy in a bumper car, but it was clear that his pen strokes were meticulous and careful, even if the end result was not particularly beautiful. The list read as such:
- What are the advantages and disadvantages to libertinism? What could society learn from this philosophy?
- Why is the feeling of falling in love so addictive?
- Why agree to helping the youth of America when not all of them are capable of becoming the future leaders of tomorrow?
- Is there a difference between philanthropy and marketing?
- Are humans really the heroes of their own stories?
I looked up from the list and stared at Charlie. Clearly something about my expression was off to him.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Not what you were expecting?”
“None of these questions are about you,” I replied. “They’re just essay topics for a philosophy class.”
“I can assure you they’re not. Trust me. I’ve pitched the topics to a number of members of the philosophy department. None of them take my suggestions seriously.”
“I think I’ll stick to my list,” I said as I opened my steno pad to find my questions.
“Just ask one,” said Charlie. “I’ll even let you pick. Take any question from the list and let me respond. I promise that every question that you could have possibly come up with to learn about me will be answered by those five questions. I’ll only need to answer one for you to know I’m right.”
I looked the list over again. The questions really did look absurd to me. While I’m sure I could tangently get a good bit of information about Charlie Madagan from whatever answers he gave, my goal was to pass this class. And since ENG 3030 was at eight in the morning, my hope was to do so while getting as much sleep as possible. Still, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to make any progress with my list of questions without at least humoring him.
Two of the questions jumped out to me as a place to start. The second question focused on love, which would hopefully give me an in to learn about his family and the story there. I already knew he had a wife who went to Wellesley and a daughter who existed, but beyond that, I still had nothing. Still, most people don’t have an interesting family. You’re much more likely to come across someone whose family is a trainwreck than anything of actual interest.
The final question on the list definitely had the most potential for an interesting story. In one of my English classes in high school, I remember hearing some modern author talk about how everyone, even villains, always see themselves as their hero of their own story. So it’s clearly a question with potential. But then I looked at Charlie. While he was clearly extremely successful and likely was at least of above average attractiveness in his youth, it was clear his prime years were ending, if not already gone. Maybe there was something dark in there — something juicy like white collar crime or drunken parties on a yacht off the coast of Colombia. More than likely though, it’d just be some story about how he hazed some clown freshman in his college days. If I wanted to hear that kind of a story, I could go back to campus.
“I pick the second one,” I said, pointing at the question and turning the paper back to him.
“An interesting choice, if not a predictable one,” Charlie said as he took a longer sip from his cup. In my time focusing on the list of questions, I had missed him drinking nearly the entire glass.
“Everyone wants to hear a good love story. That’s what falling in love is about.”
He took another drink of the espresso, this time finishing what was left.
“Still,” he continued, “you’ve also picked the longest question to answer. I’m afraid we don’t have time to answer it today.”
“That’s fine,” I replied. “We could always continue through email o — ”
“No,” Charlie interrupted. “I mean this is an explanation longer than the time you told me you had in your schedule, as well as a question that must be answered in one sitting.”
Was this guy serious? Was his story really that important that it necessitated I clear my schedule just for him?
“What’s your Friday look like?” asked Charlie as he picked up his phone and scrolled through what I could only presume was his calendar.
“Class 9:05 until 9:55, one from 10:35 to 11:25, and one from 1:30 to 2:20.”
“Any plans after?”
I didn’t have any plans. My best friend, Malik, was out of town for the weekend. But what college kid doesn’t have plans on a Friday night?
“I’ve got a party I’m going to at night,” I said, lying through my teeth.
“That’s fine,” said Charlie. “Meet me here at 3pm. This place closes at 8pm, so you’ll be home in plenty of time to pregame — or whatever it’s being called these days.”
“It’s still pregaming.”
Charlie got out of his chair, grabbing his cup and saucer to take back to the counter.
“And Kyler,” he said.
“Bring a laptop next time. No one takes notes on paper anymore.”