Phil Goes for Coffee Again
by K. E. MacLeod
He suspects people do not think as well of him as they once had. Or perhaps they never did, and he is just realizing it now. Or perhaps he is heading for a delusional state from which the only exit is the fog of medication. And, of course, by then it will be verifiably true that people don’t think of him as they once had.
Phil knows this metaphysical malaise is not uncommon when he (1) has had too much sleep, (2) has read a bunch of contemporary literary fiction and then (3) has spent time in the coffee shop eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. Though he knows this is a predictable chain of events, it is almost impossible to resist the impulse to enter into the emotional slurry. Which is why he is, once again, installed at a central table in the neighborhood bistro. Which is why he is listening to a family seated nearby with as much attention as possible while pretending to read a paperback.
The wife says, “It takes forty-five minutes to get downtown.” She spills about a quarter of her triple-pump, sugar-free hazelnut, soy latte on the tile floor. Immediately she yoo-hoos at the barista and announces “There is coffee on the floor.”
The husband says, “It is hard to see coffee on this type of floor.” He gets up and makes a trip to the condiment counter to get a stirring stick, tracking light brown wet stuff from table to counter and back.
The mother-in-law says, “They have scones here.” She provocatively rattles a small paper bag. The wife reaches over, breaks off a piece of the bagged scone and tucks it into her mouth. The mother-in-law laughs while moving the little bag to her side and comments “There is no line at the cash register.”
The daughter has taken refuge in one of the more remote wingback chairs. All Phil can see from his spot are her white roller shoes rolling back and forth and the leading edge of a paperback the girl is holding in front of her. He wonders if she is actually reading, or just hiding behind pages. Or maybe she is reading, but it’s a really stupid book—something about a pre-pubescent celebrity or a pale vampire going to the prom.
The family gets up to leave. He is sure they have no clue that, in spite of using words in sentences, they don’t have conversations, verbal give-and-take. Serial monologists—that’s what they are.
Now there, Phil says to himself, that’s just the kind of mean-spirited assumption that could shift opinion about him from good to not-so-good. The family is probably quite nice. Phil sees them get into a Volvo wagon with a number of bumper stickers on it concerning endangered things and issues involving various types of rainbows. He deliberately smiles at the departing car, for the sake of his own soul.
In the process of smiling toward the outside, Phil sees the image of a shop patron reflected in the window glass. The man is sitting on the edge of his chair, hunched over a packet of colored markers. He takes out one, holds it very close to his eyes, scanning it intently from one end to the other. Putting the examined color back in the packet, he retrieves another one, one after another, slowly, deliberately. In this way, the man judges each marker. Twice.
Finally, about the time Phil is getting hives from watching the process, the man clicks off the cap of a red marker. From a plastic bag on the table next to him, he extracts an egg. It takes Phil a long moment to identify the object as an egg, since it is outside the category of what he expects to see in a public place in mid-September.
It is not so much what he sees—a thin man in tee-shirt and jeans with disheveled curly gray hair—as what he hears that interests Phil at that point. As the man scribes tiny words in red on the shell of the egg, he quietly talks to himself. “…every one of them and it is very, very good, for when the chance of doing beautiful, beautiful things is so close but not too high, not too high, not too much at all …” And on, in that manner, until the egg is fully covered in tiny red writing. At that point, the egg man chuckles, packs his various belongings in the white plastic bag and gets up. “Got to go, got to go. Bye.” He gives a slight wave to the general lobby area. “Bye.” He walks out trailing an air of immense satisfaction. From behind the counter, a barista calls out “Bye, Dean.”
Phil discovers it is impossible at this moment to analyze how he views the egg man. There is an odd blank but slightly clean/warm space inside his brain where a response, an opinion, a remark would usually sit.
A clumpy, smushy sound attracts his attention—for which he is grateful—especially when it turns out to be the noise made by a middle-aged woman walking into the place. She is bundled up in a long quilted coat, the color of which might be best described as green illness with a low grade fever. What is surely very long hair is caught up in what is also surely a hand-knit beret. Though she is by age and self-cultivated appearance past childbearing, the front of her coat bulges suggestively.
Phil cannot help but watch. The woman, whom he suddenly decides to call Freya, flits here and there along the merchandise displays. She picks up a box of tea and turns it carefully upside down. It doesn’t seem as if she takes enough time to actually read whatever labels might be pasted on the bottom before she sets it down again, ultra-carefully. There is a short pause as she occupies space without any recognition of her surroundings showing in her eyes.
Swish, shush, clump, clod. The squeamy coat and down-in-the heels clogs make small environmental sounds as Freya walks to the counter. She places an order for rooibus tea in a voice so low that the barista leans far over to hear even a portion of her words. In a revelatory move, Freya opens her coat and extracts some wrinkled dollar bills from a well-stuffed fanny pack that she has positioned, instead, on her stomach.
Phil is assaulted by a desire to ask Freya what had possessed her to do such a thing. It is such a strong feeling, he worries that he’s snorted or expressed some other rude reaction out loud. He surreptitiously scans the room for any signs he’s been publicly inappropriate. No. No. Not so far.
Then something catches his eye. There, in a comfy chair in the corner, sits a woman in a gray hoodie bent over a laptop, typing furiously. As he watches, she looks up from the plane of her bowed head—directly at him. And then ducks that gaze back down, her typing momentarily off the beat.
Phil cannot close his book, button up his jacket and leave fast enough.