Fischer “Fish” Kaldi is an employee of Ezprezzo, a strictly managed coffee franchise. Desperate to win-over a business partner so he can open his beloved shop, he has had his eye on a team of feuding business students….
BY SUNDAY, I’VE COUNTED AND RATIONED THE BEANS I PURCHASED WITH THE LAST OF MY MONEY AND THERE ARE ONLY A FEW BATCHES’ WORTH OF EACH SPECIAL LEFT. They have to win me a believer, or else I could lose my shop forever. So despite my boss’s warnings and his constant, lurking presence, I share a Special with anyone I can, casting my beautiful lures into the city’s business sea.
Like every typical Sunday afternoon, the shop bursts with excited, frantic energy as students pack the undersized shop and spread their books, computers, and countless papers over the limited spaces of countertops and chairs. The beehive atmo-sphere thrums with wild productivity and I wonder when my body will run out of adrenaline. And once again, a familiar trio of student voices cuts through the conversation.
“Call Moxy!” Michael cries.
“I just did,” Gabriella
“Well, call her again!”
“Okay,” Gabriella sighs.
“I can’t believe you gave her the Arab slave-trade section,” Michael laments. “Dr. Stanley will be all over us like flies on… fly paper….”
“Why didn’t you take it like I asked you?” Gabriella asks, holding the phone away from her mouth.
Michael turns to Ralph. “Somebody’s going to have to cover Moxy’s stuff.”
Ralph yawns, digging at his ear with a paperclip.
“Hi, Moxy, Gabby again,” she says, her voice forcedly pleasant. “We’re at Ezprezzo trying to cram this thing together and– ”
“Get over here!” Michael snaps, leaning toward the phone.
She holds it away from him. “—so, if you’d come by and help us, that’d be great!”
Gabriella ends the call and stares at her phone. “I’m worried about her.”
“She’s okay,” Ralph says.
“How do you know she’s okay?”
“We are not okay!” Michael interrupts. “She needs over here, now!”
Gabriella shakes her head and takes a deep, meditative breath. “Try to relax, Michael,” she says. “What do we have left?”
Michael slaps the table. “Everything. The Arab trade routes past Lake Victoria into eastern Congo, pirating in the Indian Ocean, the Dutch – Moxy was responsible for all of it. God damn it!”
“Calm down,” Gabriella says, standing. “I’ll check my email.”
I hand a customer his receipt as Gabriella approaches. She hands me her cup of spiced root beer, emptied to the brown, slushy cubes.
“Another?” I ask.
“You know Moxy, right?” she asks. “Our fourth member?”
“She’s not answering my calls. Has she come through here?”
I give the cup a shake and the ice rattles. I’m nauseated by the panging feeling that I know too much.
“Yeah,” I say. “A couple days ago.”
“Friday. She stopped by for her sketch pad. And then again, later that night, at Manny’s Diner.”
“Was anyone with her?”
I swallow. “Look, I don’t know her or who she spends her time with, so I don’t want to jump to conclusions.”
“Please tell me.”
“There was a guy,” I say. “Big dude.”
Gabriella’s face falls.
“Nothing seemed out of sorts,” I say. “I think everything was okay.”
I leave it at that. Sure, the Brobdingnagian did stare buckshot at me, that territorial snarl familiar to those who are not the fittest survivors. But any protective boyfriend would do the same, right?
Gabriella taps nervously on the counter. “You’re sure she was alright?”
“Look, I just… ran into them.”
“She wasn’t upset?”
“I don’t know. I recognized her, that’s all. But I think she was
“Okay,” Gabriella says, chewing her lip. “Thank you.”
“Am I missing something?”
“Moxy has a rough history with guys,” she says.
“She met someone this week. Someone no one knows.”
Michael’s voice punches from behind: “Gabriella, let’s go!”
Her eyes close, the frustration palpable. “Thanks,” she says.
Moxy has a rough history with guys.
How was I supposed to know? Besides, if a girl has a bad history, it doesn’t mean she has to have a bad future.
I watch Gabriella relay the information about Moxy, gesturing to me. Michael and Ralph peer my way, as if I have something to do with their missing partner. Maybe I do. I don’t know anymore.
I deliver Gabriella’s refill as Michael’s mighty hand pronounces doom over their project.
“We need to figure something out, at least for the Arab trade routes,” he says. He pushes a beaten tome toward Ralph. “Can you get started on it?”
Ralph shoves it right back. “Nope. Nice leadership, dickhead.”
“Damn it, Ralph! I’ve already taken on too much!”
Gabriella groans. “We need to restructure everything and share what we’ve got or we’ll never get this done.”
“I just said that,” Michael fumes.
“Here are my notes from that unit,” Ralph says, passing a mangy clump of papers to Gabriella.
“You took notes?” Michael scoffs.
Ralph rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I copied them from your sister.”
Gabriella holds her face in her hands. “Enough!”
Michael stands and gathers his supplies in his arms. “Forget this. I’m working alone until you two grow up.”
Ralph shrugs. “Have fun.”
“Where are you going?” Gabriella cries.
Michael ignores her and sulks to the far wall where a sliver of countertop stands available. He sits and opens his laptop and begins typing with a bitter scowl.
“Wow,” Ralph says.
Gabriella buries her face in her arms. She rises and digs her thumbs into her eye sockets. “Where are you, Moxy?” she moans.
Ralph runs his fingers through his urchin hair. “You still worried?”
“Of course I’m worried!”
Ralph drums a pen on the table, then stands. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?”
“I gotta take a shit.”
Ralph meanders to the bathroom but it’s occupied, so he pulls out his phone to kill the boredom. Gabriella looks at him, then to Michael. Her eyes finally find mine and she releases a tragic, pent-up breath before deflating like a parachute. Tears sparkle for her to quickly wipe away.
I don’t waste a moment to debate with myself. I search the shop for my co-worker, Rajdeep, and find him outside, chatting with a pan-handler. I cross to the door and peek outside. No incoming customers. Eric is nowhere to be found. Probably smoking another cigarette.
I sprint to the back room a scoop the necessary beans from my satchel into my apron, drawing little-by-little from each bag. I stuff the bottles of spice and flavor beside them and rush back to the bar.
On the floor of the shop, the bustle swells as the students labor onward. My three lost ones, previously the loudest bunch in the room, work in a hush as Ralph ambles back to the table. I toss the goods into the grinder and repeat the recipe in my mind, my lips moving soundlessly.
Grounds into the French press. Strawberry and acai. Three delicate, beautiful beads of chocolate. Cream.
The mugs hit the tray with three clinks and I scoop it up, turn to deliver, and there is Eric. He holds a juicy wad of stained rags.
“You can thank me later.”
“Damned parents let their kids hold the bubble tea.” His eyes jump to the three mugs, then back up to me. “What’re those?”
“Cappuccino,” I say, “for some students.”
His brow tightens. “Oh.”
I don’t have time for this. I swing around him onto the floor. The mugs hit the table.
“Complimentary beverages, my young friends,” I say.
Ralph reaches for them instantly. “Is there tequila in this?” he moans.
Gabriella doesn’t move.
“You’ll want to taste this,” I say, tapping her shoulder.
She shakes her head. “I don’t want anything right now.”
“Gabriella,” I say. She gives me a Don’t call me that look. “Trust me – I made this just for the three of you.”
The ribbons beneath her skin seem to loosen, releasing their grip on the project, Moxy, and so much else, if just a little. She looks down at the mug, then up at me.
“Is this what I think it is?”
I smile, imagining myself to resemble Santa Claus.
“Yes, yes it is.”
I bolt to the other wall where Michael scrunches between the window and two girls in Greek letters talking with wild gestures. Elbows fly dangerously close to the boy’s blood-rushed cheeks.
“Excuse me,” I hail.
He looks up at me, frowning. “What?”
“I’m embarrassed to say this, but a concerned patron overheard your group’s disagreement. Apparently he – or she – wants to help, and bought the House Special for all three of you.”
Michael sours and his left nostril twitches. “No thanks,” he says.
“I’m sorry if this seems rude,” I say, “but these drinks aren’t cheap. The House Special is a blend of exceptionally rare coffee beans, so you’d be rejecting a very pricey gift.”
His eyebrows narrow, the little beams within darting about the shop, suspicious. “Who bought it?”
“The buyer has chosen to remain anonymous.”
He considers. “Fine. Bring it here.”
“The buyer specifically requested that the three of you sit – and drink – together.”
I toss up my hands. “I’m sorry. He-she insists.”
An elbow jabs him. “Hey!” he whines, leaping out of the metal chair. He looks past me, to the table, and snarls. “Fine.”
Gathering his things, Michael follows me. I point to the lone mug. “Here you are, sir.”
“Thanks.” Jerking a chair from the table, Michael sits.
And finally, the three are reunited and my prized Caffé di Amicizia is within their grasp. I give a dramatic bow.
Anxious wonder rattles within me as I stand behind the bar and wait. Will they drink this time? Will it work?
And will one of them believe?
For the moment, they sit in petulant avoidance, children in time-out. Each reaches for the mug, fingering the handle, but not drinking.
I turn to the curtain. Eric is there.
“Can I grab a smoke?”
“Didn’t you just have one?”
He rolls his eyes and his mustache twitches. “I was cleaning up that mess, man, come on….”
He disappears. Good. Eric is best when out of the picture.
I duck into the back room and watch Eric step out the alley door. My satchel hangs open again, the fault entirely mine this time. I know it’s completely reckless to do so, but I don’t have time to watch my back with Bruce so willing to dump the shop into anyone’s greedy hands–
I hear it.
“Mi – chael! Mi – chael!
I rush to the bar.
In the middle of the shop, standing on his chair and pumping his fist, is the spindly, bespectacled Michael.
“What’re we gonna be?” he cries.
“Great!” Ralph and Gabriella shout in unison.
“What’re we gonna be!?”
“This project is going to change the world!” Michael shouts.
Every eyeball stares at the skinny boy standing on his chair with his knees bent like mangrove roots. He gyrates and swings his boney fists in triumph.
“This group – these heroes – are going to change the world!”
“Yes we are!”
“Dr. Stanley doesn’t even know!”
“We can restore! We can rebuild!”
“You!” Michael says, pointing a finger into the crowd and drawing it around, like a band leader. “You are all witnesses!”
“Brothers and sisters, we are here to put an end to slavery!”
“We are here to destroy it! To wipe it off the face of the Earth! Forever!”
“Gabriella, my sister,” Michael cries, crouching to lay a hand on her shoulder, “Gabriella will find that piece of the human heart that looks away, that part that walks past someone beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. She will expose it!”
She gives a great sob as Michael shifts his weight to Ralph. “And Ralph – noble, wise Ralph – you will lead us someday when we have laid down our distractions and foolishness! You! – You! –will guide us to a better tomorrow, where no man or woman can be called a slave again!”
“Come! Let’s make this project our proverbial bitch!”
“Let’s have some worship!”
“Let’s have some… worship!”
And Michael leaps down from the chair and hugs them both and they slap his back and wipe tears and settle into chairs, laughing because there are no more tears to weep, and the entire bar erupts into applause.
I lean against the bar while my legs wiggle beneath me. Eric emerges, reeking of menthol. “What happened?”
“Someone got preachy.”
He shrugs, says, “Huh,” and disappears to finish his cigarette.
Everywhere, people lean together and talk excitedly, gesturing toward the Team That Will Destroy Slavery. The three converts sit close to one another, scouring over their papers, attacking the project as if it had insulted their mothers.
It wasn’t the caffeine. Nor the flavors. Alone, these traits are mere aspects of the whole. My Specials aspire to be something new entirely. When combined, each ingredient sacrifices its native properties to adopt those of its new lovers, coalescing into a brand new creation. Whoever wrote that there is nothing new under the sun didn’t live long enough to try my Specials.
Then I hear Eric behind me.
“Hey, Fish,” he says. “Could you come here for a minute?”
He has emerged from the back room, a strange frown etched on his face.
“What for?” I ask.
“It’s important,” he says.
“Just come on back,” he says, but he’s interrupted by Rajdeep who passes him and stands beside me.
“I’ve got the bar,” Rajdeep says, smirking stupidly. “Bruce needs to talk to you.”
Every blood cell in my body instantly stops at the sound of my boss’s name.
I knew it.
Eric’s funny expression betrays the reality behind his request. He watches me as I step past him, through the curtain, into the fluorescent, lifeless back room.
And there stands Bruce.
Fired from Ezprezzo and banned from the premises for his stunt with the three students, Fish sneaks into the shop so he can interview more prospects and keep an eye on Bruce. After another disappointing meeting, he spies his best friend (and potential business partner) Sully lurking across the room….
EZPREZZO GROWS LOUD WITH THE KINETIC BUSTLING OF TOO MANY CROWDED SOULS. With the departure of my last candidate, I suddenly want to get out as fast as I can. I’ve been here too long, tempting an ugly fate like a fool.
But I want to finish my coffee. Can I steal another minute or two? I listen for Bruce’s voice, but hear nothing. I sip my Vedova and imagine the mountains, yellow and black with snow-capped hats, breaking with earthquakes, peeling back the skin of Earth to show more of her precious innards. I open my eyes and smile. Words come to me and I whisper them.
Life-giving dark roast
Grown by soldier, mother, slave
Picked with bloody hands
Maybe this is my calling. Coffee Poet.
I open to a fresh page to scribble down the poem. I finish the word “slave” when a voice calls out from around the corner, an authoritative command that echoes through the room.
“Clear tables and sweep up!” I hear Bruce order one of his underlings.
I gulp the rest of the Vedova, my heart rate skyrocketing.
Despite my outlaw status, I had to come home and see if Bruce had sold my baby yet, and to whom. The first time I was terrified. I wore a college hoodie and a ball cap. I made camp in a nook behind the old bookshelves, hidden from the bar’s view, and stayed out of sight most of the time. When the interviews began, I upgraded to slacks, a dress-shirt, and my one decent tie. I let my beard grow into a messy thicket but trimmed the edges. Thankfully, Bruce has only appeared a few times, and when he’s shown his face, I’ve politely adjourned and grabbed my bag, slipping out the side door.
So I stand to make a covert exit like before, but the front door clicks and steals my attention. A pair of women enter, their shape sharply familiar as they disappear toward the bar. Yet I don’t have time for curiosity, so I rise, gather my bag and coffee mug, and lower my head to hurry out the door–
“You’d better make our drinks right,” one of the women demands, her words shrill and cutting. “I’ll be watching you.”
I close my eyes as her face swims before me, taut and cold – a vindictive and merciless customer from a few weeks ago. A sickening fear twists in my belly.
“And if there’s a flavor of the day, we don’t want it. Do you understand?”
Against all wisdom, I turn and arc my head to peer around the corner until I see her. She wears blade-like heals and stands tall and erect, with a shorter girl huddled beside her like a nervous child. At the bar, Rajdeep scurries in a panic. Bruce hovers behind with crossed arms.
“We don’t have all day,” the taller woman hisses. Her right arm wraps around the girl, clenching her tightly. The fingers flinch as she speaks. The short one whispers something, turning her face, revealing a soft cheek and curls that slide down her gentle forehead. I recognize her instantly.
And beside her is the customer who nearly flayed me for serving the wrong drink.
How are they together?
The tall one shoots a look to the door and pulls Moxy closer. I, too, glance at the door, curious.
It doesn’t open.
Rajdeep drops the drinks before them.
“Have a nice night,” Bruce’s voice thunders, and the girls bull their way through the maze of tables to an empty one not far from mine. Every eye follows until they sit and begin to chat in hushed, alarming tones, as if a fight were about to break. And as I peer into the crowded shop, I see him, sitting at the counter against the far wall, staring intently at the girls, his mouth slightly agape.
I backpedal to my table and flop into my chair, drunk with confusion and anxiety. Questions flood my mind, and it’s a battle not to scream each of them aloud.
Sully stands. If he has seen me, he doesn’t show it. Wearing a business suit and a tacky tie, he wobbles with each step, following the taut rope of his stare at the girls. His chipmunk cheeks inflate with each breath. He arrives at the table, halts, and looks upon Moxy with enormous, liquid eyes.
“I hope I’m not interrupting,” he says softly. “My name is Sullivan Adams, and I wanted to introduce myself– ”
But the tall one swings a palm in the air, erecting a fleshy wall between herself and Sully, and snaps, “Excuse me? Who the hell are you?”
Sully coughs, his eyes huge and tender.
“And where’d you get that shit-ugly tie?” she adds.
Sully freezes like a set of electrodes were rooting him to the floor in invisible torture. He opens his mouth, but the only sound that comes out is a choking gag.
“Go on,” the woman says. “Go on.”
He wavers on the tight-rope of his shame before taking a few
steps backward, then turning in a pitiful one-eighty and shuffling back to his table.
I stand and rush across the room, ducking my head as I come in full view of the service area. I hear Bruce yammering on about recipe integrity to Rajdeep before I arrive beside Sully and seat myself uninvited next to him.
“What are you doing here?”
Those puppy eyes hang heavy and bloodshot. “She didn’t even talk to me, Fish.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. I left work early. Three-thirty?”
My face tingles with burning anger. “Three-thirty? Did you see me?”
“And you didn’t come over?”
He shakes his head.
“Thanks, buddy. It’s good to see you, too.”
I want to shame him further. The wheels in my brain crank wildly, furious that the man I spent so much time and energy on would ignore me for five hours. But before I can fire another volley at him, the door opens and in walks a giant. The massive creature takes slow steps, peering about the room with deliberate patience. I squint at his face in the dark. He prowls up to the bar, out of sight.
“That was him! Did you see?”
Moxy’s voice cuts through the buzz of the shop.
Her companion stands to scout. She whirls back and wraps her body around Moxy. “We need to go!” she hisses.
“I don’t want to run anymore, Trysta!”
“Moxy, get up!”
The tall woman, apparently called Trysta, risks another look. The man is still out of sight.
Moxy wiggles her head, a furious ‘No’.
I’m wondering who this Trysta is and why she’s so afraid when I realize that the wait for answers is about to end. The man reappears, his face illuminated by an overhead light, and I recognize him: The guy named Geo. He moves to the center of the shop, standing in full view of practically every table. His small, fish-white eyes rake the bar and settle in the girls’ direction. His hands hang loose at his sides. He stares headlights at the girls. My heart crashes into my ribs as he stops, hovers over Moxy, and lays a hand on her shoulder.
“Let’s go,” he says.
“Don’t touch her,” Trysta growls.
“I’ve missed you, baby,” Geo says.
“Get out of here.”
“We’re all friends here.”
“The hell we are,” she spits. “Get out.”
“You shouldn’t tell Moxy what to do,” he says. “Right, baby?”
Moxy’s doe eyes are wide and wet, hiding in the shadows of the two forces above her.
“Don’t answer him,” Trysta commands. She rises to stand nose-to-nose with the force of nature known as Geo. He sneers at her, the muscles under his cheek flicking madly. “Get out,” she hisses.
“Moxy’s leaving with me.”
“No, she’s not.”
Their eyes smash like atoms amid the murmuring tension of the shop. The man’s jaw twitches as Trysta’s fists tremor at her side. Moxy cowers, infant-like in frailty and beauty.
Then he strikes.
His knuckled hand flashes in the dark and slams into Trysta’s chest, toppling her backwards over her chair. He snatches Moxy by the armpit, hauls her to her feet, and huffs, “Let’s go,” towing the stumbling girl out the door into the night.
I’m on my feet but indecision nails them to the floor. That man is Goliath reborn, the kind of creature who eats lesser men with ketchup. I shake in place, unsure of what to do, as a figure flies across the shop to the door, a blur of pudginess and khaki and chubby heroism. My mouth croaks his name as Trysta rears up and crashes into him, sending his body flailing into a table of guests. She howls and throws open the door to race after Geo and his precious cargo. I come to myself and rush after them.
“Sorry!” Sully says to the shocked customers, and hurries toward the door. He throws it open and flies outside after the odd trio.
I pant after him.
“What are you doing?” I shout.
“I’m helping her!” he gasps.
“He’ll kill you!”
Sully springs on ahead of me.
Geo has crossed the street into the parking lot. The striking Trysta, once a monstrous skyscraper of a woman, stumbles through traffic waving her arms while headlights splice her body into stark shadows over the road.
“Stop!” she screams. Vehicles squeal to a halt, blasting their horns, as she braces her toppling body on hoods and wails, “Moxy!”
Sully picks his way through the cars, me clambering after him. Up ahead, Geo opens the door to a red car and shoves the girl inside like luggage. He slides into his driver’s seat and slams the door just as Trysta reaches it.
“No!” she spits. The headlights burst into blinding beams and the engine rumbles to life. She pounds the window but it holds true and the car heaves forward and sprints away, sending her flailing to the pavement.
I turn back to find my friend. I can’t see him.
“Sully!” I shout.
The red engine bellows, victorious in the night, as Trysta crawls to her feet and takes after it. I scan the dark lot for Sully. Back near the sidewalk, a stocky figure lopes toward a blue sedan. He hops in, and it lurches from its parking spot.
“What are you doing?”
It happens terrifyingly fast. Not like a movie, where the cars crawl toward each other in slow-motion eternity until they collide and each driver’s face ripples like gelatin in the spraying rain of glass. Before me, with horrific swiftness, Sully’s humble blue flies toward the sleek red and the two smash and crunch like the crushing of a beer can.
I rush toward them, shouting. Somewhere in the dark, Trysta spits endless curses. The two smoking automobiles rest in a ‘V’, Sully’s front end buried in the other.
The red door opens. Geo growls with ancient fury and rises over the puny vehicles. He vaults over the puckered hood and rips the blue driver’s door open and pulls Sully out and throws him to the cement. He rears back, the fin of his elbow rising above the broken cars, and knifes down into Sully’s face, knuckles shattering cheekbones, the nose popping. Sully wheezes, all his airways filling with blood.
“Don’t touch him!” I shout.
Geo looks up and finds me in the dark.
“You want to die, too?” he says, wobbling a little over Sully’s withered body.
I slow to a walk. “Just let her go.”
He looks back down at Sully, draws back a leg, and kicks.
Geo turns back to me. “You done yet?”
Another kick lands somewhere in Sully’s midsection and he moans.
“Don’t hurt him,” I say, holding out both hands. “We can work this out.”
Geo laughs and flicks blood from his knuckle.
“We ain’t working out shit.”
He readies another kick.
Then from the back of his car a shadow flashes against the screen of night. He swings his head as Trysta charges and her hands strike at his neck, but he throws a stiff palm and deflects her to the ground. Shrieking, Trysta rolls and springs up, ready to attack again.
He raises a finger. “Don’t do that, bitch.”
She flies at him, low and angled at the legs. He jukes and kicks at her back, sending her tumbling to the cruel pavement once more. She lays still.
Anyone coming Geo’s way is simply meat for the grinder. I suck a deep breath and wonder how much pain I’ll have to endure before he just rips my heart out. He sneers proudly over his broken trophies. “Enough?”
Then, a soft thud. His face goes purple. The jaw loosens, and a weak squeal leaps up his throat. He’s on his knees, cradling his testicles and keeling over. Sully rises from behind him, panting like a primate, his fist a tiny rock. Tottering on his wounded frame, my friend unleashes a haymaker and Geo flops to the pavement.
“Sully!” I shout, rushing to him.
“Get the girl,” he rasps.
I help him to the red car and open the rear door. Moxy sits inside, folded into a pile of scarlet tears. Sully wipes blood from his mouth and reaches in.
“Hurry,” he says, “before he gets up.”
She trembles, unmoving.
Sully extends his hand. “It’s okay.”
She doesn’t move.
“Trust me,” he says. “I won’t hurt you.”
I realize she’s looking at me too, her eyes flitting back and forth between us.
“Me neither,” I add stupidly.
She studies us a moment longer. From the unseen side of Sully’s car, Geo curses loudly. Sully reaches further, his arm quaking with hidden pain.
“Please,” he says, “hurry.”
Those huge eyes leap toward the attacker’s hidden voice and back to Sully. Then, with quivering fingers, she gingerly takes his hand. He guides her from the car, one step at a time.
“There,” he says. “I promise – I’ll take care of you– ”
From the darkness, another hand, slender and crimson, snatches Moxy’s away.
“Get out of the way!” Trysta snaps. She turns her back to us, shielding the little girl with her body. Moxy’s eyes sparkle in the strangled moonlight, glancing our way. Her mouth begins to move but no sound comes out.
“I’m so sorry,” Trysta says to her, leading Moxy into the murk of the parking lot. “I almost lost you. Please forgive me, please forgive me….”
“Hey!” Sully shouts. “I saved her! Don’t take her away!”
Trysta whirls to face us. “Don’t you take a step, boy. I mean it.”
Sully begins to disobey her, his leg inching toward them. “I want to make sure she’s okay!”
“I said, ‘Don’t!’” Trysta snaps. “Follow us, and I’ll kill you myself. Got it?”
Sully reaches out, his arm shooting like an arrow toward Moxy. But she doesn’t turn, or see him, or say a word, only resting her head on Trysta’s shoulder. Walking quickly, they fade into the pale pools of distant light.
“We should do something,” Sully says, his voice shaking.
I say nothing. The sound of Trysta’s anxious voice evaporates as they scamper into the distance. Passing out of the light, they turn up a street, silhouetted against the orange wash of a distant gas station.
Then they’re gone.
I turn back to the site of the battle. All is quiet. We peer over
“Where’s the guy?” I ask.
Sully looks at me, his eyes wide.
We look back at the smashed hoods of the cars, smoke misting up from both clicking engines. Our attacker is gone.
Sully mouths, Where is he?
I shake my head and walk the dreadful steps to peer around the blue sedan. Nothing there. Taking Sully’s arm so he can lean on me for support, we circle the red car and look for any trace of our quarry.
“Isn’t this where you hit him?” I ask.
Sully coughs and nods. “Right in the balls.”
We check the cars. No one in or out. Just black inkblots of blood streaking the pavement. The wails of sirens cry out nearby, their destination grimly certain.
“Where in the world…?” Sully wonders, holding his side as we spread from the wreckage and look for signs of the man. He’s gone. Whether after the women or into the black walls of the city around us, we don’t know. Sully and I collapse on the curb as the authorities approach. He cringes from the pain, holding his ribs, and laughs.
“I’ve never been in a fight in my life, you know.”
“I can tell.”
He laughs again, wincing as his lung presses against ribs that are certainly bruised or splintered. “If only I’d had that Special of yours before. What’s it called again?”
“Caffé del Schiavo,” I answer. “And no, it wouldn’t have helped. It doesn’t work like that.”
“That’s too bad,” he says. He sniffs and wipes his nose, painting his arm red. He grins at it and says, “Would you look at that?”
The first of the squad cars pulls up beside the wrecks, aiming blinding floods at them. A second arrives behind it and sends another light searching through the dark until it finds us and we both hold up our arms to shield our eyes.
“This’ll make a helluva story,” he says dreamily. “I took down a giant.” He smiles through his hand into the floodlights, blood framing each of his white teeth. Then, with a countenance of striking confidence, Sully looks away into the fantastical darkness and says, “Maybe she’ll remember me. Maybe she’ll remember that I was her hero.”
The man’s capacity for hope in the female species is unrivaled.
I pat him on the back. He smiles at me. And with a gentle grunt, Sully stands, raises his hands, and presents himself to the police.
The shop hires a new employee named Alexis Anderchuck, or “Froggi,” and it falls to Fish to keep her carefree spirit in check….
IN MARCH, THE SNOWS BLOW HARDER AND THE SHOP OVERFLOWS WITH WEARY GUESTS GRIEVED WITH THE LONG WINTER. One week before the university’s spring recess, Froggi approaches me a broad grin.
“Just so you know,” she says, “I’ll be back this afternoon. There’s a roundtable on Relevant Faiths at the university and I’m representing mine.”
“Wanna know what it is?” she asks.
“It’s called The Fellowship of Sába Sacá,” she continues. “You should join.”
Rag in hand, Froggi bounces through the shop to wipe vacant tables and pick up trash. I stare for a moment, amused at her teeming energy. She tosses the rag into a hamper, unstrings her apron, and zips out the door. I watch her flee, my cheeks tempted into a smile.
The bar hushes, the majority of its occupants probably attending the same roundtable as Froggi. I sweep and mop while a few lonely customers enter and exit with few words other than their order and a quick ‘Thank you.’
I pass the time by wiping tables and checking in with the sparse crowd. An old man sleeps in the rocking chair. A young student shows me his plans to move to Mexico and study anthropology. Lakshmi, a pretty associate professor of political science, prepares a slide show on civil rights and the gay community. I offer refills, but none take. It’s a quiet afternoon.
Then they come.
The attendees of the roundtable roll like floodwaters over the streets and stuff the shop with bodies and opinions and coarse shouting.
Cowards! someone cries.
I search for Froggi in the chaos, but her chromatic curls are nowhere to be seen. I scurry to fill each order.
Spineless bastards! a young woman yells.
The line shoots to the doors. Outside, some customers see the mania and turn away.
I guess God really is dead, then, a professor laments.
“What the hell happened?” I mumble.
That’s when Froggi arrives.
With her fiery face and bright green hair, she’d make a perfect Christmas ornament. But her normally boisterous and pleasant countenance is twisted into a puckering exclamation point.
She bowls through the crowd and lashes herself to an apron and announces, “I can help the next fucking guest.”
“Language, Froggi!” I shout.
Despite her coarseness, curiosity about her sour mood tickles me with earnest fingers, but we’re slammed. Froggi hustles with fresh fury, moving customers faster than I’ve ever done myself. Finally the line dwindles and guests settle themselves into chairs and stools.
“Froggi,” I say, “can we talk for a moment?”
She scowls at me. “Is this about Sába Sacá?”
“Sába Sacá,” she says. “My religion.”
I open my mouth but the saliva sticks in my throat.
“What is it with everybody?” she shouts.
Her eyes narrow and curls tremble as her head shakes. “You didn’t hear?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“They canceled the Relevant Faiths roundtable.”
“Okay!? Not okay!” she snaps. “Not okay at all! We were having a peaceful dialogue! A productive conversation with understanding and listening! Muslims were there! Hindus! Christians and Jews and Mormons! And I was about to explain how it all blends together in a single Fellowship, the Fellowship of Sába Sacá, when they shut it down!”
“Who shut it down?”
“Students! Hundreds of them, Fish! They brought air horns and whistles and… and vuvuzelas! Vuvu-fucking-zelas!
“To shut us up,” she growls, her eyes rolling back in her head. “Because, it’s offensive.”
“Yes,” she mockingly crows. “Religion is a trigger. Religion is judgmental and exclusive. Religion is this, religion is that.”
She scoffs in anger and pours herself a shot of espresso and downs it.
“So what does President Esboz do?” she continues. “Does he demand that these instigators and trouble-makers leave? No! He announces that the roundtable is canceled and that all on-campus religious organizations will be under review. Are you kidding me!?”
“Keep your voice down, Froggi,” I whisper.
“Why? Am I being offensive?”
I sigh. I hate doing this. Discipline is not my wheelhouse.
“Possibly, yes,” I say, eyeing my customers.
Froggi shakes. “How am I offensive?”
“There… there’ve been complaints,” I say.
“Talking about Sába Sacá?”
She scoffs. “Well, I don’t care. How would you feel if someone told you to stop talking about coffee?”
She stares knives into my eyes. “How would you feel, sir, if I was offended by coffee?” she quips. “Don’t talk about it! I don’t like it! It makes me uncomfortable!”
“Froggi, that’s ridiculous– ”
“Coffee is a trigger! My brother used to drink whole pots of coffee and get hyper and call me a fat slutty bitch and all sorts of things and then beat the shit out of me, all when he was high on coffee!”
“You’re a bigot, Mr. Fish! You’re an exclusive, prejudiced bigot, and I’m offended!”
She’s out of breath and leans against the bar, clutching the mug, her chest heaving gently. I glance at the customers; One is staring and quickly looks away. I turn back to Froggi. Her glistening eyes study me.
“Well?” she snaps.
“I’m sorry you’re so upset,” I say. “I don’t mind if you talk religion with customers. Just don’t ram it down their throats.”
“I don’t,” she says. “Why would I do that? Has anyone ever responded positively to that kind of evangelism?”
She pants and drains the coffee droplets in the cup and sets it down. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but those assholes really crossed the line.”
“It sounds like it.”
Froggi sighs and wipes the fresh beginnings of tears from her sockets. “What about you, sir?” she says softly. “What do you believe?”
“I’m not religious.”
“Forget religion,” she spouts. “What do you believe?”
My hands shake in tiny undulations at her question. The mere mention of existentialism makes me hyperventilate.
“I don’t know,” I say at last. “Coffee. I believe in the power of coffee.”
She sniffs. “That’s not a belief. Coffee just is.” She pauses. “Maybe coffee is a deified presence too. Who knows?”
I try not to snort. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, Sába Sacá is unified beliefs in all good things. All religions coalesce into one. That’s all I wanted to say today at the roundtable, anyway. That’s it.”
“Don’t you believe that?”
“I don’t discuss my beliefs at work,” I say.
“Wrong,” she says, her lips curling into a self-satisfied smile. “You believe in coffee, and coffee is your work. You’re basically at church all day long, Mr. Fish.”
“That’s not the point.”
She pauses for a moment, nibbling a finger. “I think you believe what I do and just don’t know it. Wouldn’t that be froggy?”
“I doubt it.”
She giggles and smiles, her wrath wiped away. The corners of her mouth wink at me. “You do. I think deep down we all want to be at peace. To reconcile difference into unity, to dissolve plural truth into one cohesive absolute truth. You know. Sába Sacá. Right?”
Her smile vanishes as an adorable pout pinches her face. “You really don’t believe in anything?”
“I told you,” I say, “I believe in coffee. It brings people together unlike anything else. Hopefully, I’ll brew a Special someday that will make brothers out of the most mortal of enemies.”
What I’ve told her is true. Every recipe of mine is an attempt at finding an ultimate Special, a beverage that will allow the lion and lamb to share a cup. With every creation, I feel like I take steps toward discovering such an elixir.
“You think coffee is that powerful?” she asks.
“Of course it is.”
She falls silent, watching me, her patience both discomforting and beautiful. Then, with a click of her tongue, she snatches up a rag and says, “Whatever, sir,” and hops onto the floor to wipe tables.
AFTER THE LONG DAY, Froggi offers to help me lock up.
Normally when I close, I play an old Ella Fitzgerald record and croon along. So as I hoist chairs onto the table tops, upending them for the evening, I open my pipes until Froggi’s voice startles the hell out of me.
“Bitchin’ tones, sir!”
I clear my throat. “Don’t you have class in the morning?”
She frowns, then shrugs. “Not sure.”
“Don’t stay too late,” I say. “You need your sleep.”
“I don’t sleep.”
“Well,” she says, pausing and cocking her chin to the side like an elbow, “I sleep in class sometimes, and in the library, and occasionally I’ll grab a few ‘z’s in the back room. On my break, of course.”
Knuckles rap against the glass of the front door window. We peer into the sleeting twilight and see a man leaning against the door.
We let him in. It’s a thin young man, tall and proud in a damp tan coat. I recognize him but a name doesn’t come to mind.
“Fischer Kaldi?” he says.
“My name is Michael Cooper. I’m here on behalf of a number of concerned individuals regarding the ingredients of your beverages.”
I recognize him: The skinny Alpha from the Slavery Group. The boy who stood on a chair and preached redemption and emancipation.
“I remember you,” I say, hoping to disarm him. “You tried my Amicizia Special. Italian for ‘Friendship.’ If I remember correctly, you loved it.”
He closes his eyes as if to erase the memory. “Then you may include me in the group of concerned individuals. Your drinks have profound psychological effects on the people who drink them. Would you agree?”
“Everyone reacts differently.”
“But you do advertise and sell these drinks based on their unique psychology-altering properties, don’t you?”
“We believe that the drinker brings something to the picture.”
“Something, but not everything.”
I can see where this is going. I have no reason to give this kid anything. He has no court mandate, no warrant, no proof of anything. Michael sighs and reaches inside his coat pocket, spreading a piece of paper on the nearest table.
“This is a petition, signed by over one hundred of your customers, demanding that you disclose the ingredients of your so-called Specials.”
I skim his document and push it back across the table.
“You’re gonna need more than that.”
“There is serious concern,” he scoffs. “How can we know that you are serving a safe product?”
“Every ingredient we use is on display in the back room. We’ve had multiple inspections.”
He sniffs, unimpressed. “Inspections are a pony show. The only way to prove that you aren’t poisoning or drugging your customers is to disclose every ingredient, including the beans.”
“I have,” I say. “You can go now.”
“If you don’t take this seriously, the authorities will,” he says.
“Then I’ll speak to them about it. I’m sorry I wasted a Special on you, if this is all you’ve done with it.” I flip the latch on the door with
a noisy bang and hold it open so the winter winds whip in his face. “Good night, Mr. Cooper.”
He stares back, a flash of hatred igniting his eyes. “You made a fool of me,” he hisses into the cold.
“My Specials make fools of no one.”
He screws up his face as his nostrils wiggle with frustration.
“Very well,” he says. “You’ll hear from us soon.”
“Looking forward to it,” I growl. “Get out.”
I lock the door and watch the little bastard trudge into the night. He glances over his shoulder to glare villainously back through the windows. I pull a chair and fall into it, exhaling with a huff.
“He’s full of shit,” Froggi asks, fingering her green locks. “Right?”
“I hope so,” I sigh.
I’ve bought the same beans from the same sellers for years. I’m convinced that I’ve done nothing wrong. They would never sell me tainted product.
Well, most of them wouldn’t.
We finish closing the bar in silence and I try to forget about the visitor and his officious threats. On the drive home, I replay the conversation in my mind and cycle through my providers, a ball of guilt jabbing my tender guts as I come back again and again to the one named Janet, the supplier of my rarest and most precious beans.
WHEN I ARRIVE THE NEXT MORNING, red stickers seal the doors of the shop as two police cars idle at the curb, officers leaning against the idling vehicles. Between them, his arms crossed, Michael Cooper stands in a suit and tie, his suspicious eyes darting about until they find me, and he points, sending the police in my direction.
In response to Michael Cooper’s complaint, Fish seeks out the supplier of his rarest beans, a mysterious man who goes by the pseudonym “Janet.” But Janet doesn’t take unscheduled visits. And when Fish arrives, he is greeted accordingly….
THE ROOM IS INCREDIBLY HUMID.
They shove my limp rumpus into a chair and zip-tie my
wrists to the armrests. I’m aware of this, but powerless to respond.
My mind swims in a terrible dream where I’m scrubbing my mother’s jam-infested feet, kneeling before her, up to my pelvis in water. I hold her foot with my left hand and wash with my right, a wadded rag in my fingers. She smokes and blows the plumes of cancer at me and sneers down, her lip curling serpentine and cursed.
“Where’s your father?” she snarls, yanking her foot away.
“I don’t know,” I say.
My father is dead. But in this dream he’s alive and I have to find him.
“Don’t you leave!” she snaps as I stir to get up and look.
“But you asked where Papa was.”
She crosses her legs, one over the other, and thrusts another
smelly heel at me.
“You’re with me now.”
Her lips wrap around the butt of the deathstick and take a sweet, eye-hushing pull. The shocking electricity of winter, ice, everything frozen, bursts in my face. I blink water and gasp, the world sharpening before me. I’m in a hot, dark room. Everything already sweats. My whole body sags heavy, like I’ve been asleep a very long time. My wrists burn. The hazy room shifts into focus. Janet stands before me. Somewhere behind him, the scarlet ebb of a furnace glows through the dark. Below me, the floor is a spattered mess of opaque stains, likely grease, dirt, and a lot of dried blood. I lift my head. This, I realize with groggy horror, is where people end up before they’re never seen again.
“I wish you hadn’t come here, Fish,” his silk-and-diesel voice coos. “I told you not to.”
I mutter something, but it’s filled with brain mud and throbbing pain.
“We had something special,” he says, interrupting me. “It was beautiful.”
“Janet,” I wheeze, “please listen– ”
“But I’m wondering why you’d come here and ruin this beautiful thing we had going.”
The sound of dragging wood mars the concrete floor. Solid, rigid, polished.
I squint into the dark.
“Janet! Listen to me! I need your help!”
“Janet? Who the hell is Janet?”
“It’s… you… you’ve always– ”
“That’s when we were friends. When you followed the rules.
But we aren’t friends now, Fish.”
“Yes, we are! Let me explain– ”
“Yeah, explain!” he says, the leathery voice low and haunting. “Explain why you led the police here!”
He squares up, a scrawny and maniacal Jackie Robinson, the lumber wiggling in his wrists.
“Two unmarked cars,” he seethes. “In and out of the parking garage, and all the way down here.”
“Janet, I didn’t know!”
“I didn’t know!” he wails, mocking me.
Then he swings.
The maple flashes in the dark and my left leg shatters white hot, the nerves stabbing a thousand icepicks up and down the bone. The pain surges to the crown of my head and recedes, wavelike, concentrating in a pulsing singularity of unspeakable agony.
“Stop!” I cry, spit flying.
The urge to vomit washes over my whole body. I gag and close my eyes and mother is there again, her feet and the water. I clench my fingers around the ends of the chair, and for a moment the fury in my shin vanishes into numb glory.
He swings again.
The tibia splits like a twig.
Bile surges from my guts and I spray my chest with hot acid. Nerves in my leg scream of a blood-soaked apocalypse.
“Why’d you lead them here?”
My ears hardly register his question, deaf with the ringing and screeching of an appendage in trauma. My body trembles uncontrollably.
“You betrayed me, Fish!”
“No!” I cry.
I’m bracing for another swing of that two-by-four, probably to my other leg or my arms or even my pathetic little head. I’m wheezing, begging with each breath, tears pouring down my bloated cheeks, shaking my head, whispering, “Please, no, please, no….”
I’m an idiot. I should have abandoned the damned beans and lied to the police and nixed my Specials like Sully said. I should have found my accuser and threatened to sue his ass into the dirt for slander, and then I wouldn’t be in this forsaken boiler room with a murderer.
“Are you a snitch?” that hateful voice asks. “Tell me the truth.”
The weapon drags on the floor, whistling the dirge of hot stone.
“Let me explain,” I rasp, sucking what precious oxygen I’m allotted before the beam releases my brain from its prison. “I’ve been set up.”
“You’ve been a rat this whole time.”
“No. My old boss… mentioned drugs….”
“You should have covered your shit.”
“Please – I know nothing… about what you do.”
He rests one end of the two-by-four on the floor and crouches be-fore me like a cricket, his eyes swirling with lust and fury. His head cocks to the side. Seasoned by unspoken brutality, Janet smells of a man’s final desperate moments, and wheezes with the anxious, elated breaths that foreshadow the snuffing out of a helpless life.
“What do I do with you, Fish?”
I blink to shut out the pain. Beneath my trousers, that left leg is purple watermelon and jackhammer needles. I cough up a little more vomit. Sparks frame my vision and I wonder if the effort to explain things will knock me unconscious.
“Please,” I say. “Help me.”
His hollow eyes narrow. “Did this boss mention my name?”
I shake my head. “You… don’t have a name….”
He frowns, glancing at unseen henchmen behind me. His lips part, but say nothing. The man-formerly-known-as-Janet stands, tossing the two-by-four in the air and catching it by the midsection. He scowls down at me, wordless. Then he flicks his fingers. Thick ruffian fists shear away my bindings and haul me up by the armpits from the chair. Instinct presses body weight against both legs and nuclear pain streaks up and down as I howl, leaning on the right. The guys support my weight.
I’m eye-level with Not-Janet. He holds the wood before my nose.
“I’m gonna find out for myself. Until then, I’d make my eternal peace if I were you.”
They bag my head and haul me through the bowels of the basement or underground lair or whatever the hell it is, and my left foot clips a threshold, tugging the leg, and I wail. It is a pain with no face, a pain that leaps and swells and churns like an inexorable auger, a curling finger of the devil. I close my eyes and come the closest to praying since my father died, until those hands release me and gravity throws me to the floor and the wind explodes out of my chest.
A door slams, and I’m alone.
Oh, you god of suffering. You thing of all things and no things. Father of creation. Mother of destruction. Where the hell are you now?
With a heavy arm, I pull the bag from my head, but it doesn’t mat-ter. I’m lying on the floor of a tiny room, likely a closet, with only a sliver of gray light peering at me from beneath the door. Nausea tortures my belly, prodded by the knifing sensation in my leg. To die right now would be a gift.
What are they going to do to me? I try to retrace the conversation, measuring the likelihood of Janet arriving at a merciful conclusion. I didn’t think to mention E-zprezzo’s name, or Bruce’s. Does Not-Janet know that information anyway? He seems like the kind of scum who’d know every detail to cover all possible bases.
And what of Sully? I shiver and imagine a posse of thugs arriving at the shop and making life even more miserable for him. I swore he wouldn’t suffer because of my choices.
I stretch on the floor, trying to find some comfort despite the screaming pain throughout my body. Moaning softly, I whisper a prayer to the stuffy closet that somehow all would be resolved, and that Sully would be spared. A hand flies to my coat pocket, the resting place of my cell phone – perhaps they didn’t find it and I could give Sully a call to warn him – but there is nothing to find, and I exhale with a groan and close my eyes.