by Joe Prever
James woke up gradually, feeling the world come slowly into focus; which it did, except for the orange blur sitting in the window at the foot of his bed. He lifted his head and looked at it. Orange blur—blink—orange cat.
It sat in the flowerbox with placid disregard for his petunias (like some savage Titan flattening trees with its ponderous bulk, oblivious) and stared him in the face with a green intensity. James sat up and scratched his head. The long empty feeling of a Saturday morning began to wash over him and suck at his stomach. Traffic sounds drifted in the window.
He had no classes to teach today, which meant that he had nowhere to go; the day was blank as a desert horizon. Having brushed his teeth (top, front, back) and dressed in a yellow buttondown shirt and grey pants, he backed carefully out of his parking spot and began to drive to the coffee shop.
Red light. A flood of people streamed in front of the car, crossing. So many. James thought that they were like islands, or towers: each one tall, proud, unapproachable, untouched by the waves that lapped around their feet. Mostly the people stared straight ahead, but sometimes those on the edge of the stream looked in his direction. When their eyes swept across him he experienced an almost physical sensation like a cutting wind. A stocky black man carrying a potted daisy stared him in the face, dark and vatic. A youth, dreadlocked, with metal studs glinting from various locations in his face, shuffled by, pants flapping like sails, giving James a sidelong glance; James thought he heard him growl, and fancied dark forms swooping around his head. He shivered. A young woman dressed like a gypsy fluttered and glinted by, a smile on her sandy freckled face; James thought she winked. He felt a warm skittering in his head and adjusted his collar.
He pulled into his customary parking space behind the coffee shop and got out. The sidewalk between him and the door was nearly empty. That’s lucky. He concentrated: left, right, left on this square; right, left, right on the next. Sometimes he timed it wrong and had to shorten the third step. Once he nearly ran into a middleaged businesswoman: she stopped short, drew herself up haughtily, raised her eyebrows; James, startled out of concentration, felt scrambled and said “Oh,” and looked back down at the sidewalk, intent once again.
He reached the door and pulled it open; the bells jingled. He ordered his coffee: café-latte-grande-please. The counterboy looked up, snide and sardonic, then glided away to fill the order, haystack hair sticking out in all directions.
James avoided the counterboy’s glare (he was a dark and sultry island, James thought; with piles of compost, and barbed wire) and paid with exact change, for which he had picked through his change cup that morning in preparation, to avoid unnecessary complication. Having acquired his coffee he sat blankly at one of the sleek tables, hand curled around the Styrofoam cup with a slight unconscious tension. His loose gaze hovered somewhere in front of the picture window. His thoughts were occupied with an accustomed set of worries, but today there was something else taking shape behind their swarming: something pointed and waxy and orange.
He glanced nervously around the shop, thinking momentarily of the staring cat—had it followed him?—but there was nothing in particular to be seen. The shop was cool and dark: sleek, granitecolored countertop and tables; chrome pipes glinting from behind the counter. The only other person was the counterboy, who bobbed and glided back and forth in the trendy black uniform to which he managed to impart his personal grunginess.
James saw that there was no cause for alarm; his gaze became blank once more, his head pointed once again in the direction of the window. He became aware of the tightness of his grip, and relaxed it a bit. There. He settled back into his reverie.
“Hey,” said a voice. A wave of acid washed through his veins. It could be nobody but the counterboy. Me? He turned his head slowly, hoping that by his slowness he could somehow retard the sudden electric quickening in the atmosphere; but without even waiting for him to turn completely around, the counterboy said, “I’m goin’ in back to take a leak. Anyone comes in, you can tell ‘em that.”
No. Waitstop. The coffee, turning into acid, sloshed around in his stomach. James felt as if he were watching a gruesome horror movie for the second time, powerless to change anything. The boy had already disappeared, leaving James with nothing to do but stare at the softly swinging door through which he had gone. But I can’t be expected. Any one of those islandtowers.
Scenarios began to swirl and congeal in his head. A man would enter the coffee shop and stand at the counter; he pictured the black man with the daisy. He would grow more and more impatient but James would say nothing. Finally he would ask James where the boy was. James would tell him…the man would be angry, insane: You dare to tell me that this boy has gone? And to take a leak, forsooth? He would begin to throttle him…
No. Ridiculous. A woman would enter; a young woman. Yes; the gypsy girl. James would stand with confidence and declare where the boy had gone, no, he would wittily imply where the boy had gone, so as to spare this young woman’s gentle ears. An expression of awe at his imposing presence would enter her eyes; she was no island tower but a glittering sandcastle, and he a wave, feared but welcomed (And in a wink dissolve her castled pride); they would leave arm in arm…
Good lord. James gave his head a small shake and took a gulp of his coffee, which was getting cold. He began to gather himself up to go, but was startled by the jingle of the bell over the door. Two pretty young women walked in, tall, summery, vacuous, chattering gaily. Unapproachable islands; ivory towers. The odds were against him. He had already half gotten up; there was therefore no question of sitting down, for this would only attract their attention. Could he simply leave? No indeed. He came here often, and did not want to risk the wrath of the coffee boy; and besides, the women were standing in the doorway still. He would have had to make his way past them. Not fair.
He got up, somewhat unsteadily, and went towards the women without any clear plan in mind. He approached slowly, to give them time to see him and perhaps make way for him of their own will. No such luck. They stayed where they were until he was only a couple of feet away. He stopped, took a breath, and said (What the hell, he thought), “He’s gone to the, uh. In the back. He’ll be back.”
Would they shriek? Laugh? Slap him across the face? None of the above. They turned around; their expressions suggested that he was an infant who had just belched endearingly. “What?” “What did you say?” they said, voices lilting upwards in giggling disbelief.
Disaster. “Nothing,” he said. “Please.” The world was crumbling. Shit. He lurched forward, inbetween the two girls, out of the shop’s door. Without looking back he heard the counterboy return and say, “Ladies.” The girls giggled.
James sat, shaking, in his car. Shouldn’t have said anything at all anything. Should have left already. Ridiculous that sonofabitch coffee bastard. Ladies. Calm down I don’t want to calm down. He thought again, unexpectedly, of the cat’s stare, and in his memory the stare took on an accusatory and mocking tinge. The desertlike Saturday stretched out before him once again, with a bleak howling emptiness. How long will I sit here. How long anything. Rest of my life. NO.
James became suddenly calm. His hands, which had been gripping the steering wheel spasmodically, relaxed and no longer shook. An idea struck him. He opened the car door: a breeze blew coolly in his face. He started back for the coffee shop.
While approaching the door he looked inside and saw the two young ladies sitting at a booth; he saw the abominable coffeeboy leaning on the counter, ogling them narroweyed, discreet; he saw, too, a couple of middleaged yuppies at another table. They were not privy to the situation, and thus could present a problem. But no matter. No stopping now.
James flung the door open. The bells jangled, and it seemed to him that they called the place to attention: every eye was on him. He was Hamlet—To be or not to be. No, better, Hamlet was dead; he was Horatio. Goodnight sweet prince. The air was still.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I have come to explain.” What the hell am I doing. “You, illmannered dirtbag,” he addressed the coffeeboy, “left your post to take a leak in the back, as you so crudely put it; enlisting me, against my will, in your service.” The boy fully opened his usually halfshut eyes and his jaw sagged a bit. James gained confidence. “You, O most insufferable bimbos,” he addressed the young ladies (who squeaked in rage, thereby greatly pleasing him), “were the instruments of my humiliation, with your monkeying patronization.” This made no literal sense and he knew it, but the words were flowing and he could no longer stop them. “And you,” he addressed the yuppies, “were not there. But I assure you” (he felt the sweat burst out on his brow) “it was a disaster. Most unjust and catastrophic! A disaster.”
He faltered, having nothing more to say, and cast a cold eye over his stunned audience. Suddenly he crowed with laughter—Victory!—and skipped, exultant, through the door and into the cool breeze outside.