The man sat alone. The coffee shop was quiet. One woman at the front reading a novel with a garishly bright cover. Sleeve of protective plastic over the protective dust cover. It was nice to see people still using the library, even if they used it the way people used to use video stores. Trashy pop novels are the same as trashy pop movies, but even Shakespeare was considered low-brow sludge in his day. Now look at how he’s treated. Make up a few words and you’re a genius, right? The guy wields the language so incompetently that he can’t express himself using the hundreds of thousands of pre-existing words and people give him a pass. Creating words isn’t creativity, it’s laziness. Ridiculous. But as much of an eyesore as that cover was, the woman pretty much left him alone. Eye contact and a nod as he walked by with his black coffee in hand, steam drifting up from the ceramic mug. The guy at the counter had been friendly, and the man could tell he wanted to chat. Slow morning.
–What can I get you? he’d asked.
–Coffee. Black. the man replied.
–Room for cream?
–Yeah, all right. These beans are roasted to perfection, you know? Why would you want to destroy that artistry with cream?
The man nodded silently, glancing up from underneath his down-turned brow, counting out some singles. He slipped a couple into the tip jar while the guy behind the counter poured.
–Oh, thanks a lot, man. That’s awesome.
The man offered a half-smile. More of a smirk, really. It was the kind of smile that meant I Don’t Care more than anything else. It seemed that people couldn’t take a hint. He was never really a man of many words. That thought caused him to smirk for real. The coffee guy thought it was for him.
–You live around here? We just opened this place up a few months back. I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.
The man shook his head. –First time in.
–Awesome. Well, I really appreciate your business. The coffee guy set the mostly-full mug on the counter, wiped his hand on his apron and offered it. –I’m Mark, by the way. What do I call you?
–Kevin. the man said, making the name up on the spot.
–All right, Kevin. If I can do something else for you, let me know, okay? Do you need the wifi password?
The man shook his head. He picked up the mug and half-gestured with it before turning away. There was an odd behavior he’d created for himself, the man thought. These little passing indulgences of other people’s needs. The half-smile that meant nothing. The shake of the head that communicated nothing. The nod, the not-a-salute with the coffee cup. What did they really tell anyone? What did Mark take from them? Whatever he wanted. And then the lady with the book about a murder that didn’t happen and the witty lady cop who’d subvert every stereotype before finally catching the bad guy in a dramatic chase or shootout or whatever. The man didn’t know, didn’t care. It didn’t matter. It was pappy crap and he’d never actually read it. And then sitting at the table by the window so he could look out into the world. Midday on a Tuesday. Sun bright shining, but the air frigid cold. People walking by wrapped up in thick coats and scarves, hats, gloves. Noses and cheeks red. Windburn. That made him smile. It’s details like that, he thought, that could give the world that real feeling. Actually lived in. It’s not just cold, but real cold. Livable, but uncomfortable. That struggle to survive, even in a modern world, was there if anyone really wanted to look for it. One jot or tittle and the industrial world that everyone relied on could just crumble. Could just fall apart. And all the little technological contrivances that made life so comfortable would be nothing. Gone. As if they’d never existed. How many people would die? he wondered. It wasn’t something he’d really given thought to. How many people were there in the world? Seven billion? More? And how many of them had the skills to scavenge and hunt and gather and find clean water or clean dirty water and build their own shelters. Maybe he should give it some more thought. Not that it would help or hinder him in such an eventuality. Not that he needed the help. The real evolution of man, he wanted to write, isn’t in some trivial biological advancement, but in the way that man learns to subdue his world. Nature would always have the last word. A disaster could always eradicate the population of a city or a country. Typhoon, catastrophic earthquake, volcano. Man can’t control those things. He considered whether they should; what would happen if a civilization had the technology to manipulate the very world they lived in. The man smiled genuinely, pulled out a small notebook from his coat pocket. Yes, he wore a coat, too. Even in this weather he didn’t get cold, but when in Rome and all that. Walking around in knee high snow in a pair of basketball shorts, people would give you some funny looks, he knew. Pants, coat, long-sleeved shirt; the man didn’t like hats and refused to wear one. It was one of his idiosyncrasies. He didn’t allow himself many, but he thought it gave him character. He thought the little oddity, even though it set him apart, would help him blend into the background. Everyone has their eccentricities, he knew. He always considered the differences in people, not to a point of fixation, but as an understanding that every variation was a potential conversation. Some people had the same differences, and that could create intimate bonds of friendship or animosity. That’s what he loved about the world: Action creates equal and opposite reaction in multiple directions. No conservation of energy, but multiplication. It was a shame how almost no one saw how beautiful that could be. Sparks of energy flashing through neocortex, telling the body to release chemicals that interact with other parts of the brain that control other parts of the body, signals sent in cascades of electricity and more chemicals and sparks and flashes and movement. And all that becomes emotion. Visible and invisible. The kind people tell other people about, and the kind they just keep in their own heads. A young man outside walked by with his little dog straining at the leash. The man watched the dog tug and pull, its yearning to move faster and get out and see the world held back by some dude who was too busy to pay attention to his world, nose in his phone, looking for the next human connection. The man sitting by the window in the coffee shop opened his notebook and thumbed through its pages, each one covered in scrawling words that were a language of his own. Almost a code. He traced a finger across the page. Paused. Tapped a forefinger on an ellipsis. He pulled a pen from the inner-pocket of his coat and unscrewed the cap. He flicked over to an empty page and jotted a few short sentences about the young man and his dog. The guy with the dog was crossing the street, surprisingly using the crosswalk, and the man wondered if he’d see the truck that hit him. Killed him. Let his dog go free into the world to find out what it was all about. But there was no truck. The dog guy stepped up onto the far sidewalk and turned to continue on his way. With his eyes on his phone, he never saw the young lady stepping out of the dry cleaning place. They collided. His phone fell, her purse went flying. Papers and lipstick and car keys strewn about. Either one could have gotten upset, expecting the other to watch where they were going, but it went the other way.
–Sorry. they both said.
–Oh, no, I had my head in- they both continued in unison. Awkward pause in silence, the debris at their feet all but forgotten in a fleeting moment of intimacy that was too uncomfortable for both of them.
–Here, let me help. the dog guy said, kneeling down, beginning to gather the lady’s things. The lady, for her part, picked up his phone and handed it over, acknowledging the cracked screen with a frown.
–Now I’m really sorry. she said.
–I should have been watching where I was going. he admitted. Squatted down on the sidewalk outside the dry cleaners with their hands full of each others’ lives, the lady was surprised by the little dog and his curly brown fur and his wet nose and warm tongue. She laughed and fell back.
–Oh, what’s her name? she asked.
–His. the guy corrected. His name is Barthezal.
–Hi, Bart! she greeted the dog excitedly. The guy offered a hand, she took it and got up. The man at the coffee shop window turned away. He knew how the rest was going to go, the same way he knew the dog was male. Turning his attention back to his notebook, the man flipped back a few pages and read a few lines. Skipped ahead a few pages and cross-referenced. He looked up as the bell on the door jingled and watched three more patrons walk in. They didn’t look like they belonged in that part of town. The man thought about where they might be from. Another part of the city, for sure. Or maybe another town altogether. Would it make sense if they were driving through on a journey of some kind? From the looks of them, they could be transporting a large quantity of drugs or guns. Or nothing at all. But what would be most interesting? And then the man realized it wouldn’t matter and he’d never know. Neither would anyone else. But he wanted them to have names, so he took a sip of his bitter, black coffee—it was pretty good—and named the three of them. The one leading the way was Mac. He had that tough guy look that showed that he wanted to be a tough guy but was still trying to figure out what that meant. The guy who came in next was a bit bigger, but his features were softer. He was a little overweight, but carried it okay. The man could almost believe that he had a healthy body image. He imagined the chunky guy staring at himself in the mirror, wishing to be a bit leaner, a bit more built. The second guy he called Adam. The last through the door was the smallest of the three, but the most aware. When he came through the door, his eyes scanned the room, checking windows, looking for exits, searching for fire extinguishers, slipping from table to table, sizing up where to sit and who to be aware of. The man called him Eddie. Eddie and Adam took a seat while Mac walked up to the counter. Ordered drinks and stood around waiting. The man watched the old lady with the colorful novel stare openly at the odd new patrons. She kept the book up, as though she thought it would keep her from notice. Eddie noticed. Didn’t move, but noticed. Eddie noticed the man by the window, too. Eddie’s eyes were keener than most.
–What’s up with your nails? Eddie asked. The man knew he was being addressed, but ignored the comment. He wasn’t hoping to avoid attention, he was just getting Eddie to provide more information. –Hey, man, Eddie said, your nails are all black. What’s up with that?
–Ink. the man replied.
–What’s that mean? Eddie asked, turning in his chair to face the man more directly.
–My fingernails are stained with ink. the man answered flatly.
–How’s that happen?
The man considered the question. How does something like that happen in this modern world? If he had broken a pen, wouldn’t there be ink over more of his hands. If his fountain pen leaked it could leave similar staining on his fingertips.
–My fountain pen leaked. the man decided.
–Those are pretty expensive, yeah? Eddie asked. The man could almost see Adam salivating. Had Eddie chosen a new mark? Were they gonna roll this odd man by the window in the suburban coffee shop, or were they just gonna run him out? Adam was suddenly as eager as the little dog straining at the end of a leash, but he had more discipline. Eddie had beaten and chastised and ridiculed him until Adam was under his control. Eddie wasn’t a great person.
–Sometimes. the man replied.
–How much did you pay for that one? Eddie inquired.
The man shook his head. –Nothing.
–It looks pretty expensive.
The man turned back to his notebook, knowing how Eddie would react, but turning his attention anyway. He heard Eddie’s snort and the scrape of his chair as he pushed it back. The man felt the change in the air. Not everyone has that kind of instinct. The kind that lets you feel the change in emotional atmosphere. Some people have it and ignore it. Some people have it and use it to make themselves safer. The man had it and sipped his coffee. This was going according to plan.
–You’re rude. Eddie declared simply.
The man glanced up and nodded. –Working. he told Eddie.
–Yeah, me too. Eddie explained. –You know what I do? Eddie asked.
The man nodded.
–Oh, you do? Adam, he knows what I do. This is good. What do I do, Ink Stain? Eddie began working himself up, and the man helped him along.
–You hassle people in the hopes that they give you an excuse for violence. You revel in pain and misery. You use physical aggression as a means to evoke a pleasure response. Your body dumps dopamine into your brain and for a little bit, you forget how meaningless your life is. How empty and droll. How everything before this moment is muted, like the memory of a dream fading upon waking. How nothing in your existence has seemed as detailed as this coffee shop. It’s why you noticed my fingernails. It’s why you suddenly have a pit in your stomach and you don’t know what’s causing it. Eddie’s face paled.
–What does that mean, man? Who are you?
–Kevin? the man was uncertain. He flipped to the first page of his book and nodded. –Kevin. more certain this time.
–Is that supposed to be funny? Eddie barked. –You know, you’re really starting to irritate me. Eddie continued.
The man shook his head. –Sorry. he apologized. Before Eddie could respond, the man continued. –Not for irritating you. Just for, well, you know. I’ve been told you’re not supposed to just say what you’re feeling; you’re supposed to show it.
–You want me to show you how irritated I am? Eddie was now huffing, his fists balling at his sides. His cheeks pulsed as he clenched his teeth and his nostrils flared with each heaping breath. Was that irritation, the man thought, or was it anger? Before he formed the question, Eddie reached over and ripped the notebook off the table.
–Man, I’ll show you irritated.
–I would be careful with that. the man advised. Behind Eddie, Mac was coming back with three to-go cups. Maybe they were just passing through. It was a chance meeting anyhow, so why not?
–What’s going on? Mac made himself known.
–This dirty dude here’s running his mouth and we were just about to give him a lesson on manners. Adam explained.
–We weren’t gonna do nothing. Eddie corrected. –I was about to fix his attitude and you were gonna sit there and keep quiet. Eddie didn’t turn to look at his companions, but they stood suddenly silent. They didn’t have any words to reply. The man didn’t think words were necessary. The message was clear. Everyone knew who the boss was and where the real threat existed. –Don’t you wanna know how I’m gonna fix your disgusting attitude? Eddie spat.
The man shrugged; he’d already figured this part out.
–I’m gonna take your little journal here, and I’m gonna burn it in front of you. Dear diary, I was needlessly rude with a seriously bad dude today and he showed me what a little punk I am. I tried to apologize, but he told me it was too late for that. Eddie chuckled and his buddies laughed with him. The man didn’t really have much of a sense of humor, so he wasn’t sure if that was tough guy banter, but he saw how things were going to work out.
–It’s no diary. the man explained.
Eddie looked confused for a moment. –I know that. he claimed, then started flipping through it. –What the hell is this? Eddie was confused. –What language is this?
–It doesn’t need to be language. the man told him. –It’s not meant for your eyes. If it was something that would be edifying for you, or something I wanted to be edifying for you, I would have written it in a language you could understand, but those words are just for me.
–Whatever, man. he replied, drawing a lighter from the hip pocket of his jeans. A flick of the thumb convinced a tiny flame to dance on the little metal box.
–Do you even want to know what you’re holding? the man asked.
–What is it? Eddie acquiesced.
–It’s a world of my own creation. It is a reality that did not exist before me, and if you choose to destroy it, it will never exist again. I could try to re-create it. I could try to rebuild it. I could try to get all the little pieces right, but it would never be the same. Something would always be different.
–Should have thought of that before you started giving me attitude.
–I did. the man said simply.
–Did you? Eddie touched the flame to the corners of the pages, letting them leaf open so that more than one caught the fire. The man shook his head and smiled, turning his head to look at the idyllic city street one last time. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flames growing, licking up the sides of the pages. Eddie dropped the book as he was suddenly overcome with a sense of dread. The man at the window of the coffee shop smiled because he was free. The sky outside was no longer the dazzling clear blue of crisp winter. No, the sky outside was suddenly flickering with orange light, and the man knew that the old woman at the far side of the café was thinking that the hour was getting late. She was right in a way.
Copyright © 2017 Chad D. Christy
All rights reserved.