Barista Of Corner Booth Souls
S tacy of the corner booth is a nervous sort. Her petite frame wrapped in black jersey knit dress, her legs crossed at the ankles, her long white fingers tensed as one hand works to scratch the chipping nail polish off the other, pausing only to curl her short dark hair behind her ear again as it falls into her face and her concentrated gaze. She doesn’t want to be like this, used to rub red pepper into her nail beds to stop herself from biting, used to smoke a lot of weed to pretend to be relaxed in college, used to smoke cigarettes to keep her mouth and fingers busy. As a young girl she watched her parents and sister develop their adult suburban neuroses: her father’s over-heated frustration with wrong orders at restaurants, her mother’s worried calls to family members halfway across country every time there was a disaster on the news, her sister’s tallying of favors and chores to make sure no one got short thrift, but which left everyone short-tempered. Stacy swore she would never grow old if that’s what getting old meant.
Hank is old old. I figure he’ll die before the year is out, his dark skin liver-spotted, his hand shaking as he takes his bagel with cream cheese and coffee. Can’t pronounce sudoku still, though his granddaughter has tried to teach him. He solves the sudoku in the paper every morning, sitting at any table that’s near a window. The daughter and her husband gave him a whole book full of sudoku puzzles, but it sits on the coffeetable at home still. He doesn’t understand why he’d want to solve a whole bunch of puzzles at once. The pleasure is in the freaking out.
A large coffee and a croissant. Too busy to meet my eyes as he hands me a credit card. That’s fine, I’m too important to remember this blob in the black coat and the business haircut’s name.
Stacy’s fragile. I want to pat her hand, tell her not to worry. I don’t think she’ll make it to Hank’s age anyway. She wasn’t born to last long. I have a secret hope that neurotic families like hers will die out.
Hank throws away his finished sudoku, tips his old-fashioned Harlem hat to me. Last week his granddaughter was inducted into Alpha Kappa Alpha. He was so proud he wore a pink-and-green striped tie, brought his granddaughter in and treated her to breakfast.
I think maybe Stacy would look less wan if she’d wear a color other than black. I try to imagine her in white, but it’s hard. She’s paler by the day. Taking courses to better herself, reading literature she doesn’t like to educate herself, measuring herself by the difference in the smiles of those around her and the discomfort she feels in her own head. Painful to look at; I take pity. I bring Stacy a special cup of tea.