First published in Front Porch Review, January 2011
You read the sign. “What’s that supposed to mean?” You decide to find out
“Tipping makes you sexy.” That’s what the sign says on the counter. What’s that supposed to mean? You note the big jar on the counter. Coins and bills. Quarters and ones. You think, The bills were put there by the baristas. That’s what you would do if you were working behind the counter. You would slip a couple bills in before the morning rush started. You’d add them after the first couple quarters. Who tips a buck for a cup of coffee?
But of course this isn’t just a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee is what you want. Earlier this morning you thought, I’ll walk downtown and get a good cup of coffee. The coffee maker at home is fine. Really. But you can’t face another morning alone.
Chris is not coming back. You have to admit it. Chris is not coming back. You realized that when you woke up. That’s when you decided, I’ll downtown and get a good cup of coffee.
Chris always insisted on making the coffee, and it tasted like crap. That was the price you paid for letting someone into your life again, if only for a few weeks. What did I expect at my age?
You walk past the new Starbucks to the corner of 1st and Main where there used to be a Dunkin’ Donuts. There is a hand-lettered sign on the newly remodeled building—Cup o’ Joe. Bet their coffee is better than Starbucks, better than that crap Chris made. You walk in. It is a mistake. Everyone in the place is under thirty except for the woman working the register. You feel like an old fool. Old fool.
The special today is a double shot caramel latte for $3.85. You have no clue what a double shot caramel latte is. You want a 25¢ cup of coffee like you got at the Hilltop café in 1969 when you were eighteen and shipping out to Vietnam. With an order of cinnamon toast you still had a dime left from a buck to leave as a tip.
You look at the chalkboard behind the counter and see all the other offerings: caffe misto, toffee mocha, expresso con panna, caramel macchiato. What’s the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?
“I’ll try the special.”
Photo by Chevanon Photography on Pexels.com
The woman behind the counter, a barista, Thuy according to her name tag, smiles at you. It is not that uncertain smile you get from teenaged store clerks wondering if they should offer you the senior citizens discount. It is a real smile. Like the smiles you got after you finished basic training, before you shipped out, when you were young and buff and a Marine and you ruled the world.
You ask her, “What do you recommend?” Your question surprises you because you never admit to indecision.
“My favorite is the double shot caramel latte,” the barista tells you. “It’s the special today.”
You really just want coffee, even though they charge a $1.45 for it. You glance again at the menu board then turn back to the barista. She is still smiling. She has long dark hair and black lipstick. Thuy her nametag says. You remember another young woman named Thuy.
“I’ll try the special.”
Thuy has an intelligent face and dark eyes. Her features are Caucasian, oriental, Pacific Islander. It is difficult to tell her age. A distant longing bordering on desire washes over you as she turns to make your drink. You stare at the flawless curve of her neck exposed by the braid that cascades down her back. You wonder how her skin would taste if you could kiss it. You reread the sign. “Tipping makes you sexy.”
Sexy. It is tough to be sexy after sixty.
Thuy turns back to you. She catches you staring. Her smile fades. She is too polite to say anything.
Thuy has poured the drink into a giant blue cup on a blue ceramic saucer. You forgot to ask for it To Go. Now you’ll have to stay.
Thuy holds the latte out to you with both hands, like a gift. Without thinking you pull a dollar bill from your left pocket and place it in the jar. She smiles again.
“There are seats at the counter,” she tells you.
You can watch her prepare the next latte as you sip the sweet taste of coffee and caramel. You know you will return tomorrow even before you sit down. Facing you across the counter is another sign. “Help wanted.” You smile as the hot liquid crosses your lips, warming you.
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