Editorial note: I was meeting with a young friend earlier this week and we were talking about the importance of character development in a story. The exercise I recommended was one I had mentally performed just minutes earlier while waiting at the coffee shop. Look around the room at the different pairings of people, some in conversation, others staring at laptops, and one person dozing off and on peacefully from the sofa. For each person, create a backstory that ultimately leads to why they are at this coffee shop at this exact moment.
As a writing mechanism, this can be a fun one because one doesn’t have to be in a place long, eavesdrop on private conversations (though it’s fun when one can), or have anything more than visual clues as to who a person might be or what they might do. Many books have started from this very same exercise and developed into full-fledged novels as the cast ultimately confronts some manner of shared conflict.
Since I’ve already done the work and nothing else is really inspiring me at the moment, I thought I would take a leave from the normally serious tone we take and share the results of my exercise with you. Please remember, everything you are about to read is fiction. I asked no one their name and engaged in conversation with none of the people you are about to meet. Therefore, any parallels between the following story and any actual event are a coincidence—disturbingly creepy, but still coincidence.
Finding A Place To Be
A dream ended, another one of those subconscious adventures that were lost as soon as Adam’s eyes eased open, the same way the did every morning. He no longer bothered setting an alarm clock. He had been waking up at the same time, 6:15 AM, since 1973. Starting his job at the GM stamping facility had been the anchor element of his life right up until they closed the plant 30 years later. The company bought out the remainder of his contract and he took early retirement. Seventeen years later, he still kept the same schedule: Bed at 9:45, up at 6:15. Both were ingrained to the point Adam couldn’t have changed had he wanted, but then, he had never wanted. He never even thought about it.
Sitting up slightly in bed, he looked at the gray clouds outside his bedroom window, the one facing the West. When Adam had first bought the house in 1975 he could have made either of the upstairs rooms the “master” bedroom—they were both the same size, after all, but he had insisted they take the one with the West-facing window, a decision with which his wife, Angela, had disagreed.
“I would much rather wake up each morning and see the sunrise out the window,” Angela told him. “It will get the day off to such a good start.”
Adam, however, was persistent and stubborn. “When I look out the window in the morning,” he said with no small amount of gruffness in his voice, “I don’t need to see the weather that has already passed us, I need to see what’s coming. Seeing sunshine in the East does us no good if there’s a storm brewing in the West.”
Angela thought Adam was being stubborn and belligerent and perhaps a bit petty. Adam thought Angela was frivolous and light headed. When they moved the furniture into the house, though, Adam put their bed in the room with the West-facing window and that had been the end of that discussion.
This morning, however, there were clouds no matter from which window one gazed. Spring was proving to be wetter than normal and Adam wondered to himself if he’d worn his rubber galoshes more in the past month than he had the entire year previous. He didn’t really like the galoshes. They were too big for his feet and there was a small hole in the left one so he inevitably ended up with one soggy foot encased in one soggy sock, both of which smelled like a high school gymnasium by the time he arrived at wherever he was going.
Adam’s solution was to keep an extra clean sock tucked away in the lining pocket of his jacket. At the first opportunity, he would slip into a men’s room and dry out the inside of the boot with paper towels before changing into the clean sock. The wet sock was placed in a plastic bag that took its place in the lining pocket until Adam returned home later in the day. At that point, he typically had two wet socks he would wash out and leave hanging to dry.
Angela had often asked him why he didn’t just get new galoshes. Adam’s response was that new galoshes were too expensive a solution for such an inconsequential problem.
Adam shifted in bed again, leaning slightly onto his right elbow. Murphturd, an overweight gray tabby, jumped onto the bed from his nightly perch on the nearby dresser, reminding Adam that no one had eaten yet that morning and the cat, for one, would appreciate that problem being rectified immediately. Adam stroked Murphturd gently and told him, “I’m afraid there’s no birding for you again today, Murph. It’s still raining. There’s probably some damn religious freak building a boat somewhere.”
Murphturd merped back and leaned into the man’s hands, his fingers smooth like worn leather. Adam allowed the cat a few more rubs before picking up the plump feline and swinging his feet over the side of the bed and into the waiting slippers. Every once in a while Adam missed the days where his slippers never stayed where he put them, but this was not one of those mornings. He pulled on his robe, carefully switching the cat from one arm to the other as he did so, and shuffled to the bathroom before heading downstairs to make coffee and toast.
Coffee and toast. Myriad memories swirled around those two simple elements that had been a part of Adam’s life since he was a little boy. He could still remember the smell of coffee that greeted him each morning as his mother hurried busily around the kitchen. The Army had managed to burn both without fail but the college cafeteria let him have as much of both as he wanted and that made up for the military’s culinary failings. Most mornings, Angela had them waiting for him by the time he made his way downstairs, dressed for work. After he retired, she wasn’t always quite as prompt but he never complained. For 42 years she had prepared them perfectly every morning. When he finally had to start making his own he realized he could never do it as well as she had.
Adam poured water into the drip coffee maker, the kind with the reusable filter, and turned it on before taking a scoop of food from the bag and putting it in Murphturd’s bowl. Murphturd rubbed against Adam’s leg as a way of saying, “took you long enough.” Adam then turned on the radio to a local country music station. He didn’t like country music all that much but even the “classic” rock station was playing music he couldn’t understand and all the news/talk stations made his blood pressure soar. At least the country station occasionally played something he recognized or thought he recognized. The only thing that had remained the same over the years was the old vacuum tube radio he had bought when he was first released from the Army. Back in 1968, WNAP had played his favorite music. There had been so many changes to the station, though, both in terms of call letters and music formats, Adam hadn’t set the dial to 93.1 FM in over 20 years. Country music would have to do.
Similarly, the rest of his morning was largely routine. He would shower, dress in an old pair of dungarees and a t-shirt, then layer additional clothes based on the weather. Adam was not a small man, standing about 6’ 2” when he bothered to stand upright, weigh around 350 pounds, something his doctor didn’t especially like. Adam didn’t really care. He added a second t-shirt this morning to accommodate the cooler temperature then grabbed a grey and blue-checked jacket. A few steps out the door, though, he realized the air was cooler than he anticipated, and rain felt imminent. He went back inside and took his heavy coat off its peg, tucking it under his arm, just in case.
Adam’s first stop every morning was Griddleiscious, a small breakfast-oriented restaurant owned by a family of Mexican immigrants who had moved to the city over 30 years ago. Adam had only started making the cafe part of his morning routine eight years ago but it had long been a favorite because of its close proximity to his house. Any time Angela had not felt like cooking, Griddleiscious is where they went. Now, it was breakfast. Every morning.
“Hola, Adam,” Tinera said as he pushed his way through the door. Tinera was the third generation of the Gonzalez family to work in the cafe and could have spoken English as well as anyone, but it was part of the expectation of being Latina. Guests expected her to speak Spanish, so she did.
“Mornin’ Tinera,” Adam said as he took a seat at his usual stool in front of the counter.
Tinera set a cup of coffee in a white porcelain mug on the counter. “Your eggs and bacon will be up in just a minute,” she said, smiling. She knew Adam’s order never changed. Even back when he would pretend to look at a menu, it was two eggs over easy with bacon and toast every morning. Most mornings, she would have it ready for him within seconds of his arrival. He was that predictable and that reliable.
Adam never said much, never tried to converse with any of the other customers, though he knew most of them. He’d say hi, maybe comment about the weather, then went back to his food. When he was done, he’d leave a $10 bill by his plate to cover the food and the tip. He didn’t know that the cost of the food had risen so that the tip was now less than a dollar, but Tinera wouldn’t say anything.
Finishing breakfast, Adam would walk through the neighborhood, watch the schoolchildren getting off the buses, glance at the windows of stores he would never enter though he thought one day he might, and smile and nod at the same faces he met in the same places on his walk every morning.
This was his life now. No one needed him at work. No one needed him at home. No one needed him. Adam tried hard to be okay with that. He didn’t want to feel angry about being left alone as he grew older. He didn’t want to feel depressed, either. So, he followed his routine. He made sure he had a different place to be every hour of the day, something to do, a place to go.
By ten he had walked through the area and around to Burns Coffee Shop. Adam liked the coffee shop because it felt comfortable. This wasn’t one of those new places that had popped up in response to one of the national chains. Burns had been here before coffee shops were popular. The proof was in the honor jar that still sat on the counter. Adam put three one dollar bills in the jar, put a protective cardboard sleeve on the cup, and filled it with a free-trade coffee from Guatemala. He waved at the owner who was busy with another customer. She waved back. He took his normal seat on the couch toward the front of the shop, set his cup on the table in front of him, then leaned back and closed his eyes.
Always Another Deadline
“Yes, I need to know the specific source of that quote, including day, time, and place if possible,” Natalie said into the phone as she tried balancing the device between her shoulder and cheek. She had seen her mother perform this trick with a landline phone when she was small but it didn’t work as well with the super-thin cell phone she carried. “No, ballpark isn’t good enough. I need precision or I can’t use it. Try to have something back to me by ten this morning, okay?”
She pressed the button to end the phone call and proceeded to fold the stack of laundry in front of her. “Darrell, have you seen my new pair of black leggings? They don’t seem to be in the laundry,” she called in the general direction of the bedroom.
“Which pair of black leggings?” a male voice responded. “You only have a thousand.”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Men,” she thought. “Why can’t they ever have a clue?” Then she called back, “The new ones with the rubber studs on the sides!”
“Haven’t seen them!” Darrell answered. “Did you look in the laundry?”
“Fucking asshole,” Natalie said in a half whisper she half-wished Darrel had heard. “Never mind, I’ll find them later.” She folded another t-shirt and then pulled a different set of black leggings from another stack on the table. She shimmied into them then tossed the nearest sweater over her head. One of the nice things about her work is that she could wear whatever she wanted on writing days. Interview days were all business, of course, but writing days were hers. She could sit at home bare ass naked if she wanted. That was a thought, but if Darrell was going to hang around all day being naked would present a distraction.
“Are you home all day,” Natalie called to the still unseen Darrell.
There was a shuffling and stumbling from the bedroom before he answered. “Yeah, for the most part. I may have lunch with a couple of the guys, but then I’ll be back home. I need to finish like 1200 lines of code at some point today.” Darrell finally emerged from the bedroom, dressed only in an old, well-wrinkled t-shirt, plaid boxer shorts, and white crew socks whose elastic had decided to not stick around. He shuffled into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee left over from the previous night.
“Damn,” she thought. She’d have to go out if she was going to get any work done. Across the room, Natalie slipped her laptop into a Mother Earth canvas tote bag along with three well-worn notebooks and her wallet. “I’m heading to Burns to work on this article,” she said. “I’ll be back sometime around noon.”
Darrell sipped from his coffee. “Okay, sounds good,” and shuffled back toward the bedroom.
Natalie rolled her eyes again before grabbing her tote bag and walking out the door. “Yeah, this relationship is going places,” she thought as she grabbed her keys.
Natalie Kirshner and Darrell Lingenfelter had moved into the new apartment together just days after the new building had opened. They had only known each other a few months but during that time had become almost inseparable. Moving in together had seemed like a logical choice. Now, she wasn’t so sure. They had become too comfortable too quickly, reminding her of her parent’s emotionless relationship. They existed within the same space, but there was little emotional interaction between them. Ever. Physical interaction, yes, but it was all physical, nothing deeper.
Still, it was nice having an extra person around the apartment. If nothing else, he was an impressively large presence on those nights when the words, “I have a boyfriend” came out of her mouth more times than she liked. At 6’3” Darrell was also a good snuggle on those nights Natalie was feeling insecure and those nights had been coming more frequently of late. The relationship might not be going anywhere, and would almost certainly be ending within the next few months, but she wasn’t in any hurry to push Darrell out of her life. Not right now.
Grabbing her keys and the tote bag, Natalie looked out the kitchen window. Rain seemed eminent so she grabbed a bright yellow poncho from the peg near the door and shoved it into the tote, just in case. The rain didn’t really bother her all the much. She almost liked walking in it, except for that part where being wet results in being cold. Cold wasn’t fun.
Natalie’s thin 5’ 8” frame was a familiar figure along the neighborhood sidewalks. She liked being out, talking with people, being a part of what was going on. Her outgoing personality made it easy to make new friends and most people found it quite easy to talk to her, something that came in handy given her profession as a journalist. More than a few times, she had walked up on a crime scene and had witnesses inadvertently give her more information than they had given the police. Natalie always shared the information, of course, but it was her likable nature that allowed her to get the stories other people missed.
Being reasonably attractive didn’t hurt, either. While she never considered herself beauty pageant material and bristled at the idea of women being objectified in those programs, having an attractive look and a quick smile made people more willing to engage with her. Women would see her as a potential friend. Men would see her as a potentially good time. She didn’t care for that last part be Natalie had learned how to manipulate that dense base desire to get the information she needed.
The challenge was staying employed. As newspaper circulation had declined Natalie had found herself without a permanent employer but still managed to stay reasonably busy by contracting with different online media outlets. The inevitable challenge was she was constantly trying to juggle different deadlines. Each outlet had a different editorial style, different sets of rules for sources and different sets of expectations for accuracy. Keeping everything straight strained her organizational abilities and were her most common source of stress.
Walking to the coffee shop could have been a moment of respite if only her cell phone would stop ringing. There was always someone wanting her attention, some piece of minutia that needed to be addressed immediately. Today was no different. Three steps out the door and her phone was ringing—another editor.
“Hey, what’s up,” Natalie said as she answered the phone.
“Hey, do you think you can add like 300 words to that piece on chemical runoff by noon?”
“By noon? Today?” Natale asked, feeling her face flush with anger. Every editor knew she had other assignments but they inevitably treated her as though she only worked for them.
“Yeah, the EPA is announcing an investigation into the company at 1 and I want to put this at the top of the page but it’s a tad short.”
Natalie gulped hard. She had talked to the EPA and they assured her they had no plans to move on the problem. “I’ll see what I can do. Who at the EPA called the press conference?”
There was a momentary pause on the other end of the call, then the response, “Regina Bagley? That’s the contact name on the alert at least. Need her number?”
“No, I’ve got it. 300 words by noon. I’ll get it to you ASAP.”
“Thanks, Nat. You’re a lifesaver.”
Natalie ended the call without replying. She hated being called Nat. To her, it was the same as calling her a gnat, that small, insignificant but annoying little bug that ruins outdoor activities. She walked into the coffee shop and was pleased that there was no one at the counter. “A large soy mocha latte, please,” she said. When the drink was ready, she took it to a nearby overstuffed chair, sat down, pulled out her laptop and checked her email. There was a new message from her doctor’s office. She clicked to open it.
“Dear Natalie, we regret to inform you that your insurance company has denied coverage for your full oncology treatment plan. Please call our office at your earliest convenience.”
A lump formed in her throat. Her eyes blurred as she fought back tears. She was in public. She had just sat down. She couldn’t cry.
“Click. Open the next email,” she commanded herself. “I’ve got 300 words to write. There’s no time for this.”
“Dear Ms. Kirshner: Your application for internship has been denied …”
“Dear Natalie Kirshner: Your student loan is now past due. Your current payment is …”
“Hey Nat, I’m going to have to cancel that contract we sent last week. The steam under that story has faded …”
Natalie sat back in the chair and took a sip of her latte. She had a deadline. 300 words. They were going to be epic.
Suffering Under the Weight
Barry Willard looked at the clock on his desk. 7:30 AM. He had done it again, stayed up all night working on this pet project that stood a good chance of never getting off the ground. He mentally kicked himself for not getting any sleep. This morning’s meeting was too important to walk in looking like death.
He picked up his coffee mug and realized it was empty. But hadn’t he just made a fresh pot? No, that had happened a little after 2:00. He had drunk the whole thing. And consumed a bag of chips. And two sandwiches. Barry looked at the graveyard of snack remnants littering his workspace. This broke a basic rule of working with computers. Drinks could spill. Crumbs were death to keyboards. He picked up the trash, dumped the plates in the sink, and started more coffee.
What time was that meeting? Oh yeah, 10:00. He couldn’t be late. The contract he was proposing wasn’t all that big, only $2,000, but he needed the money. If he could build the app he was proposing, and he knew he could, then he would have something he could sell to others as well. $2,000 could turn into $2 million. At least, that’s how it worked in his dreams. Others had done that, why couldn’t Barry Willard?
As the coffee dripped into the carafe, Barry turned and opened the refrigerator door. He didn’t really need anything. He wasn’t remotely hungry. The refrigerator was his go-to space when he wasn’t sure what to do next. He made himself close the door.
Shower. That was what he needed. He sniffed his underarm to confirm. Yes, he definitely needed a shower. When was the last time he had actually been outside his apartment, three days ago? Practically all of Barry’s communication happened online. He rarely needed to go out. Food could be delivered. Payments were transferred electronically. He had never had much interest in sports, never cared that much for beer, and all his friends were just as socially awkward. The idea of meeting up and hanging out in person gave all of them panic attacks.
Shower. Barry had to tell himself to actually go take one rather than standing there thinking about it. More than once he had done that very thing, letting his mind take him from one topic to another until he had completely forgotten what it was he needed to do in the first place.
He walked toward the bathroom, pausing on the way to get a clean towel. He opened the closet door. No clean towels. When was the last time he had done laundry? Monday? Two weeks ago? Barry padded barefoot back to the laundry room just off the kitchen. Dirty clothes were stacked next to the washing machine. Clean clothes were stacked on top of the drier. He shuffled through the stack of clean items and eventually unearthed one towel, and then a second. He put them over his arm and walked back toward the bathroom.
Two towels. They didn’t make towels big enough for him to only use one. Sure, in theory, he could buy nothing but beach towels and use those, but beach towels tended to be cheap and thin, lacking the absorbance of a bath towel. “Bath sheets” was the term stores used for their larger bath towels. They were big enough to wrap around the average body a couple of times. For Barry, though, they didn’t make it halfway. Two towels had been necessary since he was a teenager, something his mom had used to shame him along with the XXXL clothing he had to wear.
Turning on the shower, Barry began the process of undressing. He wondered if “normal” people had as much difficulty getting a t-shirt over their head. He struggled. This was never easy, which was one of the reasons he only showered on days he was actually going outside. He couldn’t smell himself anyway, so why did it matter?
Immediately, he remembered the words of his doctor, “Barry, you have to be careful with your personal hygiene. What may not seem like a big deal to others is for you. Moisture gets trapped in the folds of your skin and that invites bacteria to form. Bad things, really, really bad things can happen if you don’t keep yourself clean.”
He was 46, though, and nothing bad had happened yet. Nothing especially good had happened, either, but as long as the really, really bad things were staying away, Barry felt he had no reason to worry.
Barry pushed back the sliding glass door and carefully maneuvered his way into the shower. Showers and bathtubs were not made for people Barry’s size. He barely fit within the tightly enclosed space at all. There was little room to move. Washing required working in sections, a quarter of his body at a time. He would wash the part nearest the shower head, what was actually getting wet, then have to shift and move to get to the next part and repeat the process. By the time he was fully bathed, he had done two complete and wholly uncomfortable rotations. The water was cold as he rinsed the last of the shampoo from his hair. 45 minutes had passed.
Stepping out of the shower, Barry began the process of drying himself. Again, he had to work in sections, being careful to dry everywhere, leaving no fold or wrinkle damp. Not that he ever stayed dry all that long. Even in the dead of winter perspiration was a constant problem. There were no environmental conditions possible in which he would not sweat.
All these were part of normal life for Barry, though. A doctor had first diagnosed him with Hypothyroidism when he was 14 years old. He started taking medicine which at least kept his weight and size under some control while he was in high school. Even then, he had been deemed too big to play football his senior year. The problem wasn’t a matter of finding a uniform large enough, but the fact that the strenuous exercise put him at risk of a premature heart attack caused by high blood pressure.
Then, in his sophomore year in college, the medicines stopped working. No one could adequately explain why. There were multiple blood tests, surgery, more tests, and then a second surgery. There would seem to be some improvement for a few months, then it would stop. His blood pressure would climb and Barry would have difficulty breathing. Doctor after doctor tried something different but nothing proved effective long-term.
Barry stayed in school as long as he could. The academic environment was relatively safe even if there was still a large amount of fat shaming, especially when he ate at the cafeteria or food court. As long as he was in school, there were laws requiring that the university accommodate his size. Eventually, however, with a Ph.D. in computer engineering, there were no more classes 7to take.
Moving into the real world hadn’t been easy. Weighing a hefty 365 pounds made it difficult to get past the first interview for any job. Employing Barry meant buying special equipment such as larger office chairs and specially-designed cubicle space among other accommodations. Potential employers looked at him and saw increased expenses over potential productivity. Finally, he had secured a job with a tech company that allowed him to primarily work from home, only occasionally having to come in for group meetings. Even that came with another challenge, though. The insurance company refused to cover Barry, saying that his Hypothyroidism was an extreme pre-existing condition.
That job had lasted 15 years until the company had been bought out. The new company said Barry’s position was “redundant.” After dozens of failed interviews, Barry decided to contract on a project-by-project basis was his best option. Most the time, that worked well for him. He would work on a project for six to eight months then move onto something else that was new and exciting. At the moment, though, the options were slim. He was learning a new programming language that was in heavy demand but had yet to produce something that could demonstrate his proficiency. He was working on a new app he was sure would make every tech company in the world want him, but in the meantime, he still needed to eat.
Barry chose the clothes he felt made him look the most professional: black slacks and a black cable knit sweater. The sweater would be a little warm but the morning’s temperatures were on the cooler side and rain was in the forecast. He would endure a slight discomfort for the duration of the meeting.
Finding a parking spot less than half a block from Burns Coffee was exciting. Long walks mean increased perspiration. The last thing Barry wanted to do was arrive red-faced and sweaty just from walking. He went into the coffee shop and ordered a small coffee, chose a seat at the nearest table, one that was open enough to not make his size an issue, and waited. This contract would pay his rent one more month. Without it, he was 30 days away from homelessness.
Searching For Autonomous Creativity
Amanda Grace Hadley-Byrnes walked across the living room picking up the torn pieces of paper left behind by her four-year-old. Where he had gotten the paper or why he had torn it to shred and left it all over the place were questions to which she did not know the answer. This was a common, occurrence, though. She rarely knew the answers for why her children did anything.
At 36, most people would look at Amanda and think she had every reason to be satisfied with her life. There were the kids, Devin, the four-year-old, Elise, who had just turned seven, and Alexander who was ten going on 30. Her husband of twelve years, Bruce Byrnes, was an upper-level executive at a major pharmaceutical company, making more than enough money for them to live comfortably, which they did. The last insurance appraisal on their suburban home put its value at $1.3 million. Both Bruce and Amanda drove two-year-old vehicles that carried the “luxury” reputation. Twice a year Amanda flew to New York to shop for the upcoming season. Amanda was in the enviable position of not having to do anything she didn’t want to do. Life was comfortable.
Yet, there were things she wanted to do and there always seemed to be another obstacle in her way. This morning, that obstacle was child care. An outbreak of measles had forced the preschool Devin attended to close until they could be sure no other children were infected. This presented a challenge as Amanda’s day was already full of meetings, none of which were appropriate for Devin and canceling any of them could mean a significant loss of opportunity. Already, she had sent messages to four potential babysitters. Two had already declined. Amanda was trying to be patient and wait until 8:00 before sending another message.
In the meantime, she had to get Elise and Alexander off to school and shove Bruce out the door to work. No part of Amanda’s morning was ever easy. While Elise was perfectly happy having cereal for breakfast, Alexander was constantly changing his mind as to what was appropriate for his “dietary needs.” This week, he had settled on whole wheat toast, lightly buttered with exactly one-half teaspoon of strawberry preserves, not jelly or jam, spread evenly across the surface. Every time Alexander changed his menu Amanda questioned whether she was coddling him too much. At the same time, though, none of his requests so far were all that outlandish compared to the fit he would throw if she ignored what he wanted. Should she give him grape jelly instead of the strawberry preserves, for example, he would sit there stoically, refusing to eat, until her back was turned. Then, he would fling the toast across the kitchen and stomp out of the room. That was the mild reaction. If she completely ignored him and set a bowl of cereal in his place, Alexander would yell, scream obscenities, dump the bowl on the floor, and tear his clothes. The medication helped keep the effects of his autism muted while he was at school but mornings could be rough. It was easier for everyone to give him what he wanted.
“Have you heard from a sitter yet,” Bruce asked as he came into the kitchen looking, in Amanda’s opinion, as though he’d stepped from the pages of GQ magazine.
“Not yet,” she answered. “I was waiting until 8 before giving anyone a call, at least give them time to wake up.”
Bruce took two mugs from the shelf and poured a cup of coffee and handed the first one to his wife before pouring the second for himself. “I’d go ahead and call, I think. Yes, it’s early, but that communicates the urgency of the matter. Isn’t this morning you have the meeting with that tech guy?”
Amanda took a slow sip from the mug before answering. “Barry? Yes, I’m meeting him in town at ten at Burns Coffee. I’m really hoping he can do what I’m needing.”
“His credentials are pretty impressive and Phil Watson in IT said he did a fantastic job helping with their analytics software,” Bruce said. “How much are you offering him?”
“Two K,” Amanda replied.
Bruce took a slice of toast from the toaster and took a bite. “I hope that’s not too small a project for him.”
Amanda threw a dish towel at Bruce. “Did you have to take that piece of toast? Now I’ll have to fix two more. You know how Alex is if they don’t match.” She removed the remaining piece of toast, took a bite, then dropped two more pieces of bread into the waiting slots. “I’m hoping that he’ll look at this as a challenge. I’m not aware of anyone else who has an app like this. Maybe it could be something he can market or sell.”
“You’re not keeping the rights?” Bruce questioned.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s not like I want to get into the software business. I just need something to help with retention and repeat business and there’s nothing in the market that does that for photographers. Everything’s either inadequate to the need or complete overkill.”
Bruce shrugged. “Sounds like you’re handing him quite an opportunity.”
Amanda had started taking pictures of Alexander when he was still a baby and found that she had a natural gift for creating interesting and compelling scenes for her young son. When friends started asking her to take pictures of their kids as well, she had decided to take a couple of classes at the community college and bought a “real” camera. Working with children and taking creative portraits had brought her more joy than she ever expected and after Elise turned two when Amanda thought she was done having children, she turned her hobby into an official business.
Then, much to both her and Bruce’s surprise, along came Devin, just as Amanda was starting to build a regular clientele. She had worked almost up to the day the baby had been born, but when she decided to take two years off to take care of him she returned to find all her customers had found new photographers. She had to start all over again. Amanda was hoping that a specialized phone app might be just the competitive advantage she needed to get her business booming again.
“Mom, this ponytail is being impossible. Can you help?”
Amanda looked down to find Elise standing there with a ponytail holder in one hand and a brush in the other.
“I tried, but it keeps getting all lopsided and makes my head look funny,” the girl said.
Amanda took the brush and easily put her daughter’s hair in a proper ponytail. “There, perfectly balanced. Not lopsided at all,” she told her.
Elise trotted off to the kitchen table where her bowl of cereal was waiting. Amanda finished preparing Alexander’s toast just as he slid into the kitchen in his sock feet. He looked at the toast, gave his mom a thumbs up and skated over to the table. Amanda set his morning medicine in front of him and he gulped the pill down between bites.
“Dinner at Riley’s tonight?” Bruce asked. “Since your day is looking rather full. No need to worry about cooking dinner.”
“Sure, sounds good,” Amanda responded. At the same time, her cell phone buzzed with a notification. She looked at the phone and smiled. “Sarah’s available. She’ll be here in about 30 minutes.”
Bruce looked up from his own phone. “Good, Devin loves Sarah and maybe that will give you time to reconsider your wardrobe for the day.”
Amanda looked down and realized the t-shirt she was wearing had a massive hole under the left arm and the old tights she had tossed on were practically transparent. “I guess this is a little less than professional,” she laughed.
Elise piped up, “You’re a professional mom, you always look professional.”
“She just says that because she wants desert tonight,” Alexander added.
Amanda kissed the top of both their heads. “Either way, it was sweet and I appreciate it.”
Thirty minutes flew by. Bruce took Elise and Alexander to the bus stop while Amanda woke Devin and got him dressed for the day. He was just finishing breakfast when Sarah rang the doorbell. Amanda answered the door with Devin in her arms.
“My, he’s almost as big as Mommy!” Sarah teased.
Devil smiled and reached for the sitter.
“Tell me about it,” Amanda replied. “Alexander will be as tall as I am within the next year.”
Sarah laughed. “That’s what you get for marrying a guy more than a foot taller than you.”
Amanda shut the door then caught Devin as he lunged back her direction. She set him down and he ran off toward his room. “Do you mind watching him while I finish getting ready? I’ve not had a minute to myself this morning.”
“Sure, I think I can keep him entertained for a few hours,” the sitter replied. “Mind if I take him out in the backyard?”
“That’s fine. I think his jacket is in the front closet or maybe in his room,” Amanda called as she trotted up the stairs. She slipped into the master bath and turned on the shower, making sure the door was locked before taking off her clothes. Even with a sitter in the house, kids have a way of showing up at the least convenient moments.
Amanda looks at herself in the mirror. She didn’t think she looked all that bad for the mother of three. Sure, her breasts sagged a bit more than they once did and there was a bit of pooch to her belly that would probably never go completely away, but for 5’2” Amanda thought she looked pretty hot. It was an opinion Bruce shared and made sure she heard it. She ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. “Yeah, I still got it,” she said out loud to herself.
Shower time was brief, makeup time was not, but Amanda still managed to be in the car and on the way to Burns Coffee within an hour. She felt strong and independent. This meeting could be the start of something big. She could take her creativity to new heights, completely autonomous, not reliant on Bruce’s money at all, which was important.
She was getting a bit tired of him.
Bumped And Cancelled
Carson Fenton Asherwalt III walked into Burns Coffee and half screamed at the barista, “Large-cap, double shot.” He had the look of someone in charge, his pressed blue and white striped dress shirt was the background for the bright red tie and dark dress slacks. His salt-and-pepper hair was cut close and combed back. If ever anyone looked like an executive, Carson did.
He took a seat on a stool at the counter and started talking. “I’ve been flying all over the planet for nearly 40 years and I always use the same car rental company. Yesterday, I walk up to the rental counter at the Milwaukee airport, show them my member’s card, and they tell me they don’t have a car for me! I asked the girl if she had my reservation and she did but said they were out of cars. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I asked if she had something in a smaller size. I had meetings that I needed to get to and didn’t really have time to mess with a cab. They never take the shortest way. No, they had no cars at all. No cars at all! How does that happen to a major car rental company when you made the reservation two weeks in advance? And in Milwaukee, of all places. It’s not like there are thousands of people rushing to get there.”
The barista nodded and set a glass of water in front of Carson.
Carson glanced quickly around the coffee shop before continuing. “The girl at the counter says there’s nothing she can do. She gave me a card and said I’d need to call customer service. So, I call customer service and get some guy in France. Fucking France! What is customer service doing in France? I mean, I get outsourcing some functions, we do it ourselves, but goddammit how is some geek in France going to help me get a car in Milwaukee when he doesn’t even know where Wisconsin is? And you know what? He didn’t. He said there was only one car available and it was reserved. I asked who it was reserved for and he said he couldn’t tell me. Privacy shit and all.”
The barista set the cappuccino in front of him. Carson paused long enough to take a long drink, consuming half the cup in one gulp.
“I hang up with the customer service guy and go back to the counter. I ask if my membership gave me the ability to perhaps get the same price from another provider. Of course, it doesn’t. I’m really starting to wonder what the point is to having the damn membership in the first place. If I can have a reservation for two weeks and they still not have a car for me when I arrive, what’s the point? Everyone else seemed to have cars! Why does the second largest provider in the country not have cars at the Milwaukee airport? I ask her what time the person who had the reservation for the one car was supposed to show up, she said he was supposed to be on the 1:15 flight but hadn’t shown up yet. I asked how long they would hold the car before releasing it. Two hours.”
He took another sip of the cappuccino and drummed his thick fingers on the counter. The barista tried to act interested without actually committing to the conversation. After all, what could he say? The man had obviously made it back home safely. Certainly, there were other transportation options.
Carson caught his breath and continued. “I call my contact in Milwaukee and explain to them what happened. They said they could have someone out there to pick me up in an hour and a half. Why it took so damn long to get someone out there, I don’t know. Their office is only 30 minutes from the airport. Still, they said they’d send someone if I couldn’t get a car in that length of time. Fine.”
“So there I am, just hanging around the rental counter, waiting to see if the person who reserved this one car, the last car in the entire car rental universe, comes to pick it up. When he’s not there at 2:15, an hour after his flight landed, the girl at the rental counter pages him.
‘Mr. Carson Walt, Mr. Carson A. Walt, please check in at the car rental counter. Mr. Carson Walt.’
“Of course, I’m both perplexed and excited. I rush over to the counter and ask, “Do you mean Carson Asherwalt? That’s me! I’m Carson Asherwalt! That’s my car! That’s the car I’ve been asking for this whole time!’”
“The clerk looks at her screen and asks to see my membership card again. The poor child is obviously confused. The membership number on the reservation is MY NUMBER but whatever fucking piece of shit entered it into their reservation software apparently thought Carson Asherwalt was three separate names, that Asher was my middle name or something. They put A as the middle initial and Walt as the last name. Why? I don’t know. Maybe they were thinking of Disney.”
“Anyway, I tell her again, ‘That’s my car! Please let me have my car!’ and she has the fucking audacity to say, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s been some mistake. The name doesn’t match the member number. I need to call our home office and figure out what to do.’”
“I’m like, ‘Don’t you have a supervisor here you can call? Why do you have to call France?’ but sure enough, she calls France and gets THE EXACT SAME PERSON I TALKED TO IN CUSTOMER SERVICE. And you know what? He refuses to release the car. Since the name and the member number don’t match, he doesn’t know who actually made the reservation. He’s confused. She’s confused. I’m livid …”
At that moment Carson’s phone rang. He looked down and saw it was from his boss, Greg Abbott. Carson put his credit card on the counter and told the barista, “Start me another cap, double shot. I have to take this and I’m sure I’ll need it.”
Carson answered the phone as he walked toward the back door of the coffee shop. “Hey Greg, I’m grabbing some coffee and I’ll be in …”
“Don’t bother,” said the voice on the other end. “Carson, you and I have been friends for a long time, we’ve gone fishing together, we’ve gone to strip clubs together, we’ve been through a lot, but what you did at the airport in Milwaukee yesterday was over the line. Kostenrawski doesn’t even want you back in the building. He’s disabled your key card. They’re sending your things to your house. I’m sorry.”
“Wait, what do you mean? I’m fired? I don’t get to tell my side of the story?” Carson objected. “This isn’t right, Greg, and you know it. Kostenrawki has to let me defend myself. He has to. I’m not going to just roll over and play dead. They were the ones in the wrong, not me!”
Greg sighed. “Carson, you broke the girl’s nose! She has cuts all over her face! She’s still in the hospital! Both she and the rental agency are talking about suing us and Milwaukee police are getting the FBI involved because you fled the state! We can’t sweep this one under the rug, man! We can’t let your temper take down the entire company.”
“I’ll sue,” Carson threatened. “I’ll sue Kostenrawki for wrongful termination, I’ll sue that bitch at the airport for defamation of character, and I’ll sue the fucking rental agency for breach of contract. You just wait and see!”
“Do what you think is appropriate,” Greg said. “Rember, though, that’s a company phone you’re on. We’re going to need that back.”
Carson snapped. “Yeah, come pick up the pieces.” He threw the cell phone as hard as he could onto the concrete wall of the coffee shop, causing it to break into multiple pieces. He then went over and stomped on those pieces, breaking them even more. Finally, he reached down and picked up the SIM card and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
Returning to the coffee shop, Carson returned to the counter where his credit card and the cappuccino were waiting. He nodded at the barista who smiled and nodded back. He slipped the card back into the wallet. He was surprised the charge for the coffee had gone through. The company owned the credit card, too. He took a sip from the coffee and wondered how long it would take the FBI to find him if he didn’t return home.
Another Cup Of Coffee
Shyreese slipped her long legs from underneath the sheets while trying carefully to not wake the three-year-old sleeping next to her. Mornings were challenging enough without having a fussy preschooler on her hands. She looked at the clock on the antique end table next to the bed. 2:59. She reached over and turned off the alarm set to go off at 3:00, smiling that she had once again managed to beat it. There was an internal satisfaction in winning this contest every morning. She didn’t like to lose at anything.
Slipping her feet into the house shoes at the side of the bed, Shyreese, or Reesie as her friends called her, slipped on a light robe and then quietly made her way from the bedroom to the kitchen. For all the coffee she made during the day, the first cup was just for her, blended with a touch of chicory, reminding her of growing up in New Orleans. Breakfast this morning was a day-old blueberry muffin, a massive piece of sweetened cake that would be the only non-vegan thing she would eat today. At least, that was the plan.
After the coffee and muffin came a quick shower, slipping into her typical work uniform of tight jeans, the kind that complimented her ass, and a loose t-shirt with the sleeves cut out. Sleeves just got in the way, no matter what the temperature might be outside. Reesie worked too hard to deal with that little bit of extra body heat. She could tell a difference. She didn’t need anything holding her back.
Shyreese Nichole Appatone was the definition of a strong, independent woman. Having grown up in New Orleans, raised by a single mother who had four other mouths to feed, Reesie had learned quickly how to take care of herself both at home and on the streets. The last thing she wanted to do was be a burden to her mother, so she worked hard at school, ran track and won, got good grades, and held down a part-time job. Everything was a competition for her. Get the best grades. Run the best time. Sell the most moisturizer. Dodge the most bullets.
Liking girls was never something she questioned. Reesie’s brothers like girls, so why couldn’t she? Reesie’s boss dated girls, so why couldn’t she? The matter was never a question for her until the day she kissed her girlfriend outside the door of the restaurant she worked in. Someone whistled. Someone else called them a name. Her boss told her to never do that in front of the restaurant again. Reesie immediately saw the topic as something else to win, but this one wouldn’t be so easy. The day someone threw a brick through her mother’s bedroom window, Reesie knew she’d have to leave.
Moving to the Midwest may not have seemed like the most intelligent move. Bigotry and hate were as rampant here as any other place in the United States, possibly more. The difference was that here no one knew her. She could just work and hide her relationship. Even when the law changed allowing Reesie and her partner, Timora, to marry, she kept the wedding small, told only the tightest circle of friends. She had decided that the only way to win this contest was through stealth.
Reesie’s competitive spirit never ended, though, and when the owner of the coffee shop where she was employed decided it was time to sell the business and retire, Reesie was the first person to make him a serious offer. Getting the financing had been tough, but she stayed at it until all the pieces were in place. Now, Burns Coffee was hers. She got to be the boss. She relished the change to prove she could win.
At almost exactly the same time, Reesie and Tinera had decided to adopt an eight-month-old Korean boy they decided to name Ravie. Ravie had a cleft palate, no vision in his left eye, and severe neurological disorders. At first, the adoption agency was hesitant about even taking an application from a lesbian couple, but Reesie’s determination and mild intimidation tactics had convinced them to go ahead. Once counselors and social workers saw the compassionate nature of the two women, they decided the baby was a perfect fit for the couple. Again, Reesie kept the event quiet. She knew not everyone would understand. There would be battles to be fought, but she would fight them on her terms when she was ready.
Today, though, the only battle would be the impending rain. Rainy days brought mixed emotions. On one hand, the weather would increase traffic during the non-peak periods of the day. More people were likely to slip into a coffee shop to escape the rain while they were shopping or whatever. Rain during a peak rush hour was a curse, though. Burns didn’t have a drive-through window. There wasn’t room. Customers had to find a parking space and come inside. If it was raining, many would decide that coffee could wait. She would lure them in with heavily discounted specials on lattes, where her margins were high enough to absorb the loss and still turn a profit.
Reesie returned to the bedroom and kissed Tinera and Ravi each on the cheek. She looked at them lying there and thought how blessed and wonderful her life was. She was winning and doing it all on her own terms. Her mother would be proud.
The opening routine at the coffee shop was straight forward. Reesie arrived at 4:00, sharp. Unlocked the back door, turned off the alarm, turned on the back lights, and made a quick walk through to make sure there were no surprises that had popped up overnight. There was a popular bar directly across the street and while the patrons rarely caused any trouble, they would often leave empty bottles and other debris in front of the coffee shop. On one occasion, someone had busted the glass in the front door, but most nights it wasn’t a problem.
Reesie was assembling the cappuccino machine when Reggie, her morning barista arrived. Reggie was 15 years younger than Reesie, immaculately groomed, his plaid shirts perfectly pressed, the one-inch cuff on his jeans sharp and precise. Fully tattooed arms extending from beneath his shirt sleeves excited the single girls who frequented the shop and Reggie was good at providing just the right amount of flirt without going too far. He could read a patron like a book and often knew what they were going to order before they even spoke. He put people at ease and kept the shop running smoothly while Reesie handled the back end. They were a good team.
This morning, Reggie came in and grabbed a hose from the storage room. “Puke by the front door,” he explained before Reesie had a chance to ask. “Don’t worry, I’m on it.”
Reese smiled. Sure, there were always competitive challenges to this business. Coffee prices fluctuated daily. The big national coffee chain down the street had a better location. The mom-and-pop stores around her didn’t always provide much in the way of foot traffic. She made it work, though, enough to see profits increase by 35% the first year, 65% the second. This year looked to beat anything in the shop’s history.
Coffee carafes were full, creamer containers were fresh, and the morning’s danish delivery was set out and looking very tempting. Shyreese unlocked the front door, set the large sandwich board on the sidewalk, and looked toward the sky. Yeah, it was going to rain. The ink of her own tattoos itched on days like this and no amount of lotion could stop it. She’d have Reggie go ahead and put “Caution: wet floor” tents by each door for when they were needed.
As was the routine, officer Karen McDougal was her first customer. “Good morning, Karen,” Reesie said with a smile. “What’s the outlook for the day?”
“Curious,” Karen said. “We have a mandatory meeting at 10:00 this morning. We typically only have those on days when the president or some other goofball is in town messing up our traffic. He’s in Germany today, though, so I’m not sure what’s going on.”
Reesie handed the officer her 12-ounce Guatemalan Fair Trade coffee and a cheese danish. “Maybe they’re going to try a different approach to all the shootings around town,” she suggested. “The current plan doesn’t seem to be working.”
Karen shook her head. “Two more last night. What gets me is that it’s all stupid shit. Someone doesn’t like the brand of beer someone else brought to a party so they pull out a gun. Who the fuck cares? It’s beer. Not worth dying over. I’ll never understand that.”
“You’re kidding me, over beer?” Reesie asked.
“Yeah, beer, pizza, the color of onesie Aunt Lizzie gave the baby—it’s all stupid shit. Sure, we have the occasional drug deal gone bad and if it’s South of Tenth and East of Delphi we know its gang-related, but that’s the minority of what we get. Grandpa leaving the gun out and the six-year-old thinking it’s a toy or boyfriend and girlfriend arguing because his lazy ass hasn’t paid his share of the rent in three months, the stupid shit, is 70 percent of the gun violence in the city. If you have any idea on how to combat stupid, I’m all ears.” The officer unwrapped the cheese danish and took a bite. “You know, you keep giving me these and I’m not going to pass my PT test next month.”
Reesie laughed. “Come over and chase Ravi around the park for an hour. That’ll keep you in shape.”
Karen shook her head. “White cop chasing Asian baby. I don’t need those optics. I’ll hit the gym a little harder.”
Reesie slipped a blueberry muffin across the counter. “Here, take this for after your meeting. You may need it.”
Karen nodded as she took another bite of the danish. “Definitely,” she finally said as she took the muffin and headed toward the front door. “Call if you need me. You’ve got my number.”
Reesie laughed. She had almost asked Karen out before she met Tinera. Her number was still on speed dial, but Reesie had never called.
Not The Average Tuesday
Reesie looked across the coffee shop just as her watch beeped 10:00. The rain hadn’t started yet, though the clouds looked as ominous as ever. At the near table sat a large man looking very uncomfortable in a black sweater talking to a well-dressed diminutive woman. Something about an app. The girl in the front chair had her laptop open and seemed to be working, but looked as though she were about to cry. Carson was going off about some rental car problem, but Reggie was handling him sufficiently. Two young women who hadn’t seen each other in months were catching up at the high top, and the principals of the software company down the street were having their weekly meeting at the back table. And Adam was asleep on the couch. Again.
The bell at the front door rang and a late middle-aged gentleman, his hair nearly shining from the shade of silver, walked through the door. He pulled a worn wallet from the front pocket of his jeans and deposited $3 in the honor jar. Obviously, he’d been here before but Reesie didn’t recognize the face. He filled his cup from the carafe with the house blend and took a seat on the bench across from the counter. He looked at his watch, then at the door. She recognized that look. He was waiting for someone.
Reesie checked all the carafes and pulled the two that were nearly empty, then ground the coffee she would need to fill them. The morning was going smoothly.
Then, at precisely 10:15 AM, her cell phone rang. Never mind that it had been set to vibrate only all morning. The phone rang.
And so did every other cell phone in the coffee shop. Conversation stopped as everyone simultaneously stared at their phones.