Evening Coffee

September 2, 2008 at 3:50 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

The inside of the coffee joint was almost affluent, its blue-painted walls, light wooden shelves, and warm lighting betrayed by the shabbiness of its off-white drop-panel ceiling. The “acoustical” panel, to euphemize: always the last hallmark of short funds to be eradicated by a low-rent but aspiring grub spot. The polyester trousers of interior design.

 

Shoddy ceiling or no, I felt like a junkyard dog in the “Best Terrier” competition. It’s rare that I ask for coffee from a menu that doesn’t advertise along with it a full stack of flapjacks and a side order of grease-sodden bacon, and rarer still that I stop in any joint after sundown that doesn’t have half-busted neon signs in the windows and something a bit stronger than caffeine in the bottles behind the bar. Too easy to see faces in a shadowless place like this, for your peripatetic eyes and those of everyone else bestowing custom there alike. But our circumstances aren’t always shacking up with our self-mythologies. Besides, if you can’t smoke in a bar in this town, you might as well not smoke in a coffeehouse.

 

I stepped up to the register, feeling naked as a rattlesnake under the soft glare from overhead. My rubber soles rapped a drum major’s tattoo on the large tiles of the floor and fuzzy golden discs of light intruded into the corners of my eyes. I addressed the girl behind the counter. “I’ll have the usual.”

 

She stared for a moment, her bemused eyes standing out from her otherwise plain, round face. “The usual? Have I seen you before?”

 

“Just make something up.”

 

“I…I’m sorry,” she said, flustered. “I’m new here, I don’t–”

 

“Anything. Make anything up.”

 

She hesitated, then set her fingers to punching imaginary keys on the inconstant touchscreen surface in front of her. “Four eighty-five.”

 

Looks like I’m drinking top shelf tonight. I pulled out my card. It flexed between my fingers and my thumb like a well-stuck knife blade. Three minutes later I was handed a clear plastic cup filled with ice and a dark tan liquid. And how cutely nostalgic, a straw. There better be shots of something besides espresso in there.

 

I surveyed the seating. One slouching couch-chair and a herd of small table sets, hard and spindly. All the wall seats were window seats, too, so I risked the exposure and sat as close to the copper-lit night as I could. Cars swished by on the main drag outside, tunneling glibly through the semi-darkness on missions of their own, saluting only in farewell with a fading red fanfare. I turned my eyes straight down, into the transparent lid of my swishy-modern libation, and tried to minimize their exposure to the interior light. My lips closed around the straw tip. Sucking on it felt like riding a brake-by-backpedaling bicycle again, foreign but easily done without a moment’s reorientation.

 

The sweet, smoky concoction suffused my mouth, a half-cold splash of combating flavors and textures. I had to admit it had an appeal, the way kissing a cheap broad with cheaper perfume does: cloying, yeah, but counterweighted by an inescapable current of earthy bitterness, and with a hardwired zing coming up through it too (at least in the best of cases). The sweetness had grace notes as well – hazelnut, I guessed. No way to metaphor that.

 

I began flicking the tip of my tongue up and down the top half-inch of the straw, letting the tender part at the end of my lingual member scratch itself mildly on the sharp plastic rim. I hadn’t removed the straw from my mouth, though I was only inhaling the latte intermittently. My eyes darted here, there, not needing my direction to swerve around over their surroundings. A scattering of college kids filled out the rest of the shop’s customer roster. They leaned over to fix their eyes on row after row of indistinguishable text in thick, joyless books, or they leaned back to let their fingers clatter across yielding laptop keys and produce text of their own. It was, I guessed, the first weekend of the semester. This is where you come to find the overachievers, then, the cretins who’ve swallowed the worm of lucre, the hook of condescending praise, and the line of corporate exploitation. Or hell, maybe I’m an asshole, maybe they’re just earnest would-be academics, fools of a lesser order, studying, studying, studying until they find out, too late, that everything worth knowing is either gut-rippingly obvious or well beyond the brittle, clawing grasp of man’s overweening mind. Let the naïve be naifs, I mused: better to let them enjoy the well-compartmentalized view afforded by their blinders for as long as they can manage to keep them on. They’ll join the rest of us in the dark, dirty bars and the darker, dirtier alleys behind them soon enough.

 

My right heel began tapping in double time, jerking up and down in rhythmic spasms as my ankle, knee, and hip co-moved with smooth, unbidden harmony. I had finished my drink. Every digit and appendage twitched, besotted with caffeine and exuberant at its power to free them from the autocratic regime of my nervous system. I had been infiltrated, hijacked, though to no real end. Time for countermeasures. I pulled out my flask from my back pocket and poured a surreptitious dollop over the lingering ice cubelets. It could be tea, I reasoned. Fuck it, who cares what they think it is? Too true. I threw it back in one frigid, shaky gulp.

 

Soon I was vibrating and losing coordination. How do these college assholes throw back vodka-Red Bulls all night long? The light had at last succeeded in boring its way through my skull, and I felt the pressure building up behind my eyes and around my cranium. I had to move, go somewhere, do something, even if I botched all three. Standing up, I lurched towards the door.

 

“How’d I do?” chirped the barista as I tried to speed past.

 

I started. “Huh?”

 

“The drink, how was it?”

 

I thought about cursing her out but stopped short. “It left me cold,” I said. Ugh. Bad puns never let you see their true colors until the last word is about to spout from your mouth and leave you all wet. You get that one instant of horror and shame and then fuck.

 

“Um, good then?”

 

“Yeah, kid. Best I’ll ever have.”

 

I took off for the exit again and the safety of the night. “Not if you make it the usual!” she called at my back before the door swung shut behind me. The usual. I swigged once more, no pretense this time, and I pulled a smoke from another pocket. Lighting up, I set out into the night, watching my surfaces transit from near-black to pale electric orange and back again as I moved under the streetlamps. I had no idea where I was going.

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