41 • The Usual
Will and Cameron walked into the hall outside the cafeteria. The nurse was already out of sight.
“Damn, ” Will said. “Do you remember how we got here?”
“Some day I’ll teach you to read the sun and shadows and moss on trees. For now, just go left.”
“Umm. Those things are unhelpful in the middle of the night and indoors.”
“Sure, but then we can always read the actual signs.” Cameron pointed across the hall to a sign that said “ROOMS 200-298” with a right arrow and “ROOMS 300-398” with an arrow to the left.
Will looked at the back of his hands, then put them in his pockets and walked to the left, Cameron snickering behind him.
When they reached Joe’s room, Will walked in and smiled to see Joe propped upright on his bed, a tray in front of him with a cup of juice.
“Hey, Pop, ” he said. “You look like hell.”
Cameron punched him in the arm.
“Will!” Joe said, and smiled weakly. “Oh, and look. You brought Cameron. Your Mrs. Jenkins will be quite pleased to see the two of you still getting along.”
Cameron slipped past Will and leaned over the rail to kiss Joe softly on the cheek.
“You gave us a quite a scare. But you’re looking better already.”
“Say, Cameron, ” Joe whispered. “Did you see my wife here earlier? She’s quite a looker. Gotta watch out for Will here. I think he has a little something for her.”
He winked at Cameron. “You, ” she said, and smirked.
Joe dozed off after nibbling on a slice of white toast with peach jelly and a few sips of his apple juice. After some assurances from Myrna that they would take good care of him for the night, and not feed him anything from the vending machines, Will and Cameron left the hospital at 3:00 and drove home.
Cameron leaned her head against the window glass and slept most of the way. Will turned the radio on low and listened to classic 70s rock, the rhythm he tapped out on the steering wheel always a beat or two off. He fought the urge to dig in the glove box for a cigarette.
Will had no sooner laid back on his pillow, shirt unbuttoned and belt unbuckled but otherwise fully dressed when his wakeup alarm sounded on his phone. Joe or no Joe, Will needed to get to the office and work on the Schulz fire. Nina needed a place for her kids and at least for now that meant getting a place for Justin to come home and bed her. It’s just another kind of work, Will reasoned; not the kind of job Nina trained for but the one she had. But she surely knew it and this was, she saw, her best hope for caring for her children and making sure they were fed and clothed. But if Justin could get what he wanted without needing to come home, then he didn’t need to put his house back up and Nina would have nowhere to go.
This was why, among other reasons, he avoided coffee at the café with Mad Dog, Stu and Charlie. They rolled dice for the coffee buy and analyzed people’s lives like they were no more than that, not real people. The few times Will tried to stand up to them about people like Nina he was derided as a hippie liberal who wanted nothing but to throw money at a problem.
Which was true, Will knew. To throw money after a problem doesn’t often solve it, at least not without creating new ones, but throwing dice and not throwing money doesn’t exactly do much either.
Even Robin’s Marian wept, at least according to Keats: the wild bees weren’t singing to her for “honey can’t be got without hard money.”
Will dropped his toothbrush into the cup and stared at himself in the mirror. A half-moon of toothpaste foam sat at the corner of his mouth. His eyes were shot red. He bent over the sink and filled his hands with cold water, splashing his face again and again and finally held it in the stiff terry of a towel that had been hanging on the rack a few days too long.
Coffee. That much he knew he needed. But Charlie and Stu would have no time for Keats and Robin Hood this morning. After he showered and dressed and ran his fingers through his damp hair without looking in the mirror again, he drove to the Coffee Bean on Main Street. He rarely went into the little coffee shop unless he needed neutral public space to meet with a claimant. He felt uncomfortable about coffee shop coffee and besides, it was one of those places where the baristas tried to force a familiarity that did not exist in fact and just created needless awkwardness Will rarely had time for.
He pulled open the heavy glass door and was instantly reminded that more than a coffee shop, the Coffee Bean was an experiment in sensory overload, as voices of customers talking and laughing mixed with the eclectic Indie stylings of the staff picks weekly playlist to form virtual bricks in an acoustic wall held together by the mortar of the espresso machine’s roar over clanging cups. The oily scent of roasted coffee beans piled in burlap sacks was oddly soothing while at the same time overwhelming.
“Good morning!” The smiling girl at the register crooned. Her blonde hair was shaved on the right, and straight bangs fading from a cherry red to black fell across her left eye under her official red Coffee Beanie, complete with propeller. A fine gold ring rested obediently under her nose, bobbing up and down when she spoke, in rhythm with her plump lips, painted a smooth purple.
You know where you live, right? Will wanted to ask her. But he refrained. He stood with his hands in his pockets, looking up to scan the three enormous chalkboards suspended over the happy girl’s head, straining to read the names of drinks he’d never heard in the dim light of the currant painted walls and heavy mahogany furniture.
“What can I get started for you? The usual?” she asked..
“The usual?” Will was still scanning the boards for a regular coffee.
“Yeah. You know, like you usually order.”
Will hadn’t been in the Coffee Bean more than two or three times in the three years since the owner had purchased the old Exchange building and refurbished it for upscale boutique shops. Somehow the coffee shop met a need and survived while the parade of gift shops and cosmetic shops that had occupied the adjacent space marched on as casualty after casualty of the rural economy.
“The usual. Um, sure. Why not, ” Will said.
The rainbow-haired girl tapped a couple of keys on her register . “Okay! That’s a triple low fat macchiato, right?”
“Um, no. I was thinking just coffee. You have that here, right?”
The barista let out a laugh that reverberated off all the metal of the place and stopped as abruptly as it started. “Of course we have coffee.”
“Alright then. Coffee. Black. As tall as you have.”
“Sure!” She turned to a coworker. “One enorme café ordinario, blanco, two percent!” She shouted, though he stood within arm’s reach and had observed the entire conversation.
“No, not blanco. Black. No milk, ” Will said.
“Oh, right! I always forget you take yours black!”
“No problem.” Will pulled his wallet from his back pocket.
The barista took a paper cup from the top of the stack and opened a Sharpie marker. “What’s your name again?”
“Sorry, your name?”
“Oh, okay! Spell that?”
“Will. W – I – L – L.”
“Oh, right!” She scrawled across the back of the cup and handed it to her coworker at the prep station.
Will paid for his coffee and hesitated before he dropped two quarters into the tip jar decorated with green tulle and ribbon and small, bright colored foam flower stickers. “TIPS NOT EXPECTED ——– BUT APPRECIATED” read the yellow index card with bent corners taped to the jar and accentuated with a smiley face complete with dimples and a small tongue. These were the burdens of expectations Will could never remove from his shoulders, those that masqueraded as appreciation, but appreciation that as soon turned to resentment when such non-expectations failed to be met.
He turned from the counter and stepped back to peruse the postings held to a slate framed corkboard with small, gold-headed thumbtacks and advertising everything from farm equipment auctions and the Knights of Columbus pancake supper to a cooking class at the court house and a used stationary bike for sale. Handcrafted wreaths made from recycled red plastic drink cups were clearly less popular than six-week-old kittens, judging by only two tear-off phone number strips left on the photo of adorable calicos next to the intact page for the wreaths for sale.
“Enorme café ordinario for Walt!”
Will continued reading.
“Walt! We have your café ordinario!”
He wondered if there was a place that gave them permission to make up the names of coffee drinks as though they meant something real.
“Hey Walt!” Will turned to look for the missing customer and caught the barista’s eye. She was standing at the counter staring at him, tall paper cup in hand. “I’ve got your coffee here. Have a great day!” She set the cup down and walked away.
Will glanced left and right and saw no other customers waiting. He felt his hands ball into fists and he looked at his boots. He glanced back up and forced a smile. “Thanks, ” he said, and walked to pick up his coffee. He pushed the door open with his hip, opening the top of the cup as he did so, only to see steam rising off a light brown foam. He stopped and looked back inside where the Coffee Bean staff stood alongside the espresso machine, their beanie propellers spinning along with their animated conversation. He kicked the door the rest of the way open with his boot and walked out, pressing the cap back on. Inside his cab he slipped the cup into the holder in his center console and saw the name “Walt” written in thick, loopy black letters across the top.
You got the usual, Phillips. Just like you ordered.
(to be continued)