I spent $1.15 on a soda so small it could send a thirsty toddler into a major meltdown. And they call it a “tall,” not “microscopic, two sips and you’re done, small” as they probably should. The cup—and I just measured—is just a tad taller than my middle finger is long. And trust me, I have small hands.
Still, because I sit here in the café, taking up space, I felt compelled to buy the drink. It’s not as if I don’t really want it, I do; it’s the idea of dropping over a dollar for less soda than I could get in a 25 cent can of WalMart’s house brand (which, in my esteemed opinion, is pretty darned tasty.) I’m not the only one. There were seven or eight other people in here, doing what I’m doing—pretending to work or study—and all purchased the obligatory cheapest menu item to feel justified in taking up space.
Somehow I doubt the bookstore police (oh, yeah…the café is in a bookstore) are going to storm in and beat us all about the head and shoulders with wet sweat socks if we wander in and sit down without buying anything. It’s the principle of the matter: you take up a business’s space, you buy at least a small part of their product.
I do this a lot. I wrote at least half of a novel sitting in this café (but hey, not all in one day…), and have taken notice of the regulars here. Many seem to be students of the university down the road, in search of a quiet place to study and work on class assignments. I’ve often felt the impulse (but never acted on it) to point out that the McDonalds just across the street from the school, is usually just as quiet, and a whole lot cheaper.
I know that because I wrote part of a novel there, too.
Come to think of it, of the three novels I’ve written, most of them were penned in McD’s, the café, the food courts of Travis AFB and Wright Patterson AFB, Burger King, and Taco Bell.
There’s a pattern there.
And it’s evident: writing books contributes to weight gain.
But, the regulars.
Of all the regulars, the most visible is Douggy. I know his name only because some of the employees greet him with the same infectious enthusiasm that the regulars on Cheers greeted Norm. They gleefully call out his name, and instantly have ready for him his favorite beverage along with a cookie or brownie. They watch for him; when someone notices Douggy in the parking lot, it’s a race to the door to let him in, and accompany him to the café where his favorite table, or one close to it, is cleaned off, and where he is served.
Douggy is most visible because he arrives via the county bus-taxi service in a large and brightly painted motorized wheelchair, and because he is carefully fed his cookie or brownie by the blonde girl who works behind the counter, as they carry on a conversation only she can really understand.
People stare, and whisper, as people are wont to do. Most of the regulars smile and wave their fingers when Douggy arrives, acknowledging him as one of us. A person and not a sideshow.
The day I inadvertently sat at Douggy’s table, engrossed in my own work (or perhaps a game of computer Scrabble; it’s hard to remember, but with my work ethic…it was probably Scrabble), no one said anything, but as the door to the bookstore was held open, my internal voice piped up, and I casually moved to another table.
Confetti did not pour from some hidden spot in the ceiling. No one cheered or offered me a bright and shiny mylar balloon for my consideration. My moving was expected; not required, but expected. Kind of like what anyone would do if they were perched upon Norm’s Cheers stool. The courteous thing to do is move, without fanfare and without expectation.
There’s another guy I see here quite often. He sits with his back to the window, holding a coffee cup between his hands, and watches people in the café. Well, he stares. And he doesn’t seem to care that people not only realize he’s staring at them, but it makes them uncomfortable. I tend to think of him as “Creepy Guy” (not to be confused with the old man at the YMCA pool who stares at me while I swim. He’s “Creepy Old Guy.”)
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Creepy Guy take a sip from the coffee cup he holds possessively between his hands. As far as I can tell, he just buys the thing to have a reason to sit there and stare.
There’s an older couple (older than me, in any case, and these days I’m quite happy to find people older than me out and about) who are here almost every time I am. They each buy a coffee and a freakishly huge cookie, then sit at a table for two, where they talk about their grandkids (perfect little angels, of course, even the one who whipped it out and peed on the fake tree at the mall food court), the trips they’ve taken (making me want to go see the World’s Biggest Ball Of Twine, too), and their finances. That last one usually sparks a tense, teeth-clenched, under-the-breath argument about shoes she doesn’t need, and tools he’s too stupid to use correctly. As far as I can see, he hasn’t yet cut a finger off, but she reminds him that he did sand a hole through one of the chairs that goes to her grandmother’s antique dining set.
That shuts him up for a minute, and I’m pretty sure she’s headed to the mall and every store that sells spiffy new shoes. Often—though not as often as I see other people—there’s this young woman (25 or thereabouts) who brings her young son; most of the time she has just bought him a new book, and he sits at the table, pretending he can read. His face is unusually serious for a three year old, but it’s a seriousness borne of determination: he will read the entire text of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie before they leave. When he’s done, he slams the book closed and proclaims “That’s just not right.”
I’m not sure what’s not right. Mice do like cookies; I’ve seen one try to carry off an entire Oreo. And I’d think that if you did give a mouse a cookie, or a part thereof, you’d be obligated to follow through.
There’s usually an odd assortment of FrankenWalkers, kids just learning to master their own feet, and quite often they’re fascinated by what must be extremely new shoes. They walk with their heads down, staring at the contraptions Velcroed in place; I now understand this, having recently acquired a spiffy new pair of red, white, and blue Converse Chuck Taylor’s. Yes, for the first day or so, I frequently watched my feet, enthralled by the canvas pseudo-flags sticking out from the bottom of my jeans.
Okay. Yes. I’m 42 years old. I bought shoes better suited to a 16 year old. But they’re spiffy. They’re Chuck’s. And they match my brand new red, white, and blue leather flag jacket.
It’s not a midlife crisis thing. Not even accounting for the fact that last year I bought a shiny red convertible. Nope.
Do I wonder what the other regulars think about the middle aged housewife who sits there with a notebook or sometimes a laptop computer, scribbling away, dressed like a backwards teenager?
Sometimes. But I’m fairly sure I’m not as interesting to them as they are to me. At least not on the days I’m not talking to myself.
Once in a while, kids (especially those who are there often) will walk up and ask what I’m doing (and as tempted as it is, I’ve never answered “writing porn, go ask Mommy what that is!”) and start a conversation to the horror of their parents—parents who were paying such close attention that they failed to notice when their precious offspring wandered away.
Most of them are attracted by my jacket; that’s my assumption, spurred on by a two year old who pointed at me and squealed “Fag!”
That’s toddler-speak for “flag.”
The thing about the regulars: while we acknowledge each other, we do not speak to each other. It’s silent courtesy; we know we’re not there to socialize for the most part. Some of us are there to write the next Great American Novel, some are there to scratch out the Perfect Term Paper, some to unwind, to reconnect with the person on the other side of the same table, but we’re not there to make friends. Any details we know about one another are discovered only through bits and pieces of overheard conversations.
Douggy has not been seen in the café in over a week. His absence has been noticed, definitely, but people miss days here and there. Being at the café from 1-3 p.m. is not a requirement, and there is Real Life out there. So the first few days of Douggy’s absences were noted, but not with concern.
But today Creepy Guy put his cup down on the table, and asked of no one in particular, “Where’s Douggy?”
Everyone looked up from what they were doing and glanced at Douggy’s vacant table. Not only was Douggy not there, but the blonde who always greeted him with an explosive smile and cookies, who patiently fed him and wiped his chin of crumbs and dribbles, always with the utmost care and respect, was also absent.
So today we talked, comparing mental notes. “When did you last see him?” “How was he? Looking tired? Happy? What?” “What about the girl? Anywhere around so we can ask her?”
We moved from our respective spots and sat together, wondering out loud where the kid with the bright grin and killer wheels was. As far as we could figure out, no one had seen him in at least a week. Neither had we seen the blonde girl.
Our loud conversation caught the ear of the other girl working behind the café counter; she set aside her towel and came over to us, pulling over a chair from another table.
The blonde is Douggy’s sister.
And Douggy, who evidently refused to allow his disability to get the better of him, bravely driving his brightly painted wheelchair on even the busiest of streets, entered a crosswalk at precisely the moment the driver of a minivan chose to answer her cell phone.
She took her eyes off the road just long enough to miss the fact that the kid in the wheelchair had rolled off the sidewalk. Just long enough for her to plow into him at full speed. At 45 miles an hour.
Douggy never had a chance.
The silence that fell over the two tables we occupied was an uncomfortable pause of concern; in a movie it would have exploded like a spent bubble, anger demanding retribution, the driver of the minivan’s head on a platter.
One by one we retreated to our former tables. And then one by one people left. Students went to their classes. The older couple headed out, and as he shoved his empty cup into the trash can he commented on the sale at shoe store just down the street. The café girl went back to work, cleaning the counter.
I looked at my too-expensive toddler soda, wondering what I should think. What I should feel. I did not know Douggy, not in the least. I do not know what caused him to live out his life in a motorized wheelchair, or even how long he had been in it. I never guessed that the blonde was his sister.
I never thought to ask.
I never presumed to strike up a conversation with Douggy or his sister. Or anyone else.
I’m here to work.
I come in here and pay too much money for too little drink, so I can work.
Creepy Guy pushed himself up with a loud sigh, crumpling the foam coffee cup in his hand. He paused before heading for the door, and looked at me. Not in my general direction, but at me, he looked into my eyes.
“I’ll see ya around,” he said. “Take care.”
copyright 2003 K.A. Thompson
This work first appeared in the anthology A Clear Horizon