Black Coffee

by Steve Tait

“Black coffee, please.”

“Huh?”

“Iced coffee. Black.”

She stares, then looks around, hoping for a miracle.

He closes his eyes, thinks. “Oh. Um, oliang.”

The young lady, complete with dirty, once-red apron and candy-pink T-shirt, offers the tiniest of smiles, pacified, relieved. She twists theatrically on her heels and saunters back towards the drink station.

Pleased with himself, he relaxes on the hard metal stool, rests his hands on his knees, and raises his chin just a little. His first word of Thai. Success.

The drink, served in a big glass mug, is sloshed across his table, coming to a halt in front of him, leaving a long brown tail in its wake. Shifting his eyes to the young waitress, he thanks her with a smile. But she’s gone, already laughing with a friend standing by the counter.

He takes a sip. “Ah, Christ.” A hit of overwhelming sweetness catches him unawares. He pushes the concoction away and turns his attention to the restaurant. Or the café. Whatever it is, it’s his first, the first he’s found, just around the corner from his hotel. Basic. Cream coloured walls, white rectangles where posters must once have been, a floor of unadorned cement.

He taps the rickety metal leg of the table with his shoe, sending more coffee sloshing onto the tabletop. Absentmindedly, he runs his hand along the edge of the table, feeling the worn plastic table covering against his palm.

Then he looks at his hand.

“Ah, yuck.”

Behind him, on the next table, he sees the dispenser. Toothpicks in front, napkins behind, tiny, bright pink things, each little more than the size of a finger. He grabs a handful, wipes his hand, the pile of tissue disintegrating between his fingers.

Okay, he tells himself. That’s it. Too much fussing. You don’t want to look like you’re just off the plane. He pulls out the book he started on that very flight. Yes, he’ll read. Cool, calm, and educated, even if it is just a cheap detective thing.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and lacerations to the face suggesting that he had not gone down without…

 

Holy shit. Look at those girls! Three of them, parading through the café, all with those tight black skirts and even tighter blouses. One in particular, her raven-black hair pulled back from her face, tied back haphazardly, held in place with a pencil. He watches her sit, all restrained grace, her eyes downcast, her back straight, her bosom straining through her blouse. He has prepared himself for this, done his homework. He’s ready.

But no. He tears his eyes away. No need to go at it like a bull at a gate.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and lacerations to the face suggesting

 

‘Excuse me.’ Yes, he knows the word in Thai. That will get him in. Then, ‘Are you thirsty?’ The perfect follow-up, and the only one he knows. He’ll buy them a drink, a coffee, a whatever.

“Ah, shit!” He reels back as if slapped. Should have known. The waitress, that same young girl, arrives with a tray of drinks, large glasses of some bright pink milky concoction. What is it with this colour? he wonders.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and

 

Look at her giggling, straw in her mouth, perfect teeth, eyes dancing. They’d communicate silently, through the eyes. He can picture it perfectly. They’d both recognize the urgency. She’d nod towards the unisex toilet at the back of the café. They’d glide towards it together, pushing their way in through the flimsy metal door. Once through she’d turn, slamming his body hard against the door, her mouth on his, her body leaning into him.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down…

 

He tosses the stupid book onto the table, letting it sink into the puddles spreading across his table, sick to death of the impotent inspector. Retrieving his coffee he holds the straw to his mouth.

A sudden shuffle at the students’ table. He swings his head.

“Ah, crap!”

His head goes one way, the straw another, the glass somewhere else again, leaving a long brown stain down his fresh white T-shirt. And just to top it off. They’re not. Are they? The three of them, standing together, hands held and released, quick hugs. But no. She’s sitting back down, watching her friends depart.

From behind his restored black coffee he sees her dig into her shoulder bag. She pulls out a book, a textbook. “Beginner English” it says on the cover.

Right. I’ll do it now. I’ll offer assistance, two young people, students, helping each other out. No, Wait. Let her get settled first. Let her get immersed, until she’s desperate for help. Then he’ll be the saviour.

He considers grabbing his own book, looks at the paperback now warped as it soaks up the liquid on the table, gives up on the idea. But look. She’s pulled up her head, there’s a frown on her pretty face. She’s at a loss, he can feel it.

He tenses, ready. This is the moment.

“Noooo!” Eyes to the ceiling as he groans. He slaps his forehead, curses. “Idiot, idiot.”

Draining the last of her pink syrup she rises to her feet, throws the bag over her shoulder and, with head held high, waltzes from the café, seeing nothing and nobody.

He slumps, arms spread across the table, oblivious to the sticky rivulets running across it. He stays that way, only slowly straightening, murky liquid running down his forearms. Taking his time, he pushes himself to his feet, snatching the little umbrella he had placed on the stool beside him. With a final glance at the table in front of him, he notices the book, but makes no effort to retrieve it.

Moving towards the exit, his eyes are drawn to the now empty table across the café.  He lingers, takes a final look at nothing, and allows himself a single, unhurried chuckle. And then he’s gone, the rhythmic beating of his thigh with the small black umbrella marking his departure. Thwack, thwack, thwack.

 

* * * * *

 

He stares at the menu written on the wall behind the counter. Without his glasses he can barely make out a word. He squints, moves a step closer.

The woman at the counter, young but with a weather-worn countenance, adjusts her cap before smoothing out her matching brown apron, logo prominently displayed. She’s waiting.

He hesitates, uncertain. “Coffee. Black,” he finally says.

“Size?” Her voice is a monotone. He’s boring her, wasting her time.

“Oh. Um, I don’t know. Average. Medium.”

He pays, waits, before being sent to the end of the counter. He does as he’s told, staring at the satchels of sugar stacked high, beige with that logo in dark brown this time. And the napkins, mountains of them, large square piles, the same beige, the same brown logo front and centre.

He has his coffee now. With cane in one hand, coffee in the other he looks for a place to sit, spying a table towards the back of the café. It’s right in front of that silly imitation limestone wall, flanked by beige on either side. He blanches, pulling his eyes away from the décor. It’s all so disillusioning to him; not Thai, not anything, just achingly inoffensive. 

Then he sits, easing his long stiff frame into an armchair. He exhales, relaxes, appreciating the cool of the air-conditioning. He leans back, shuffles a little, rests his forearms along the polished wooden armrests. He raises his eyebrows. Hmm. Not bad at all. It’s not often his poor old lower back gets the support it needs.

“Damn comfortable, this.”

He pulls out his e-book reader, his nod to the modern age. He’d read, enrich his mind for a change. Yes, he’d get his head out of other people’s business for once. There’s a newspaper on the table beside him. And women’s magazines beside it. He’s tempted. But no. That article from the New Yorker. The one about neoliberalism. He ought to read that. Shit, he thinks, scoffing at his own ignorance, shouldn’t he at least know what it is?

 

The market has become the organizing principle for social, political, and economic…

 

“Whoa,” he says beneath his breath. Now that’s an entrance. Two of them, professional types, sashaying into the coffee shop as if they own the place. Look at that – brilliant silk dresses, they’re shimmering, all lustrous burgundy and emerald green. One of the women stands out. She strides across the café floor, hips swaying, the greens and golds of her dress dancing around her curves. But it’s the enigmatic smile that does it for him. So calm, assured, at ease in her own delightful skin.

She’s no business of yours, he tells himself roughly.

 

The market has become the organizing principle for social

 

But that soft, smooth skin. And that laugh. As if a wave of goodness has washed over her friend, unabashed warmth. So evidently successful and still so unaffected.

He casually dumps the Kindle onto the marble tabletop, rests an arm over the armrest, twisting his body slightly, so as not to have to crane his neck. This is it, he thinks. Perfect. It’s made for me. I’ll waltz over there. “Mudmee silk, I presume.” That’ll get their attention. “Hand woven, no doubt. Yes, look at that.” He’ll reach in, run his fingers along the hem of her dress. “You can feel it, the character, the uniqueness of the weaving.” And looking into her eyes, “So elegant in its simplicity.”

Captivated, eyes wide, their surprise will give way to admiration. They’ll see him not as some aging retiree but as the fashionable sophisticate that he is.

Fucking hell. Already? They’re on their feet. They wai each other, say their farewells, speaking in hushed tones. But hang on. They separate. She’s alone at the table. And look at her – the way she settles herself, legs crossed, arranging her skirt just so. How does she do it? So casual yet held together so perfectly.

He’ll invite her to dinner, that’s what he’ll do. French, something long and lingering. Then she’ll lead him back to her penthouse apartment, views along the Chao Phrya. And there, in front of the enormous picture window, with all sounds of the city locked out, he’ll take her, leading her to the floor, the exotic Persian carpet, Mukmee silk long since discarded.

“Huh? What? No!” He barks at the waitress with the dull, hooded eyes. “Leave it. Please. I’m not finished,” he says, although he is, or might be. He isn’t sure.

He pulls the coffee mug closer, the Kindle too. Now, neoliberalism. But all he sees is that screen shot, a hundred fountain pens, nibs aligned.

“Do it,” he hisses to himself. He braces himself, feet pressed hard against the floorboards, hands gripping the armrests. Then hesitates. What’s that? Her iPhone? Crap. She pecks at the speed of light, thumbs ablaze. She’ll be done any second. Except she isn’t. She types and types.

But finally, the typing slows, then stops. And before he knows it, it’s gone, back into the depths of her bag. He steals himself, takes a breath. But she beats him to it. A quick look at her watch and she’s sliding around the table, hair thrown back, chin held high, eyes set on the door. And just like that she’s gone.

He throws his body back, allows his arms to hang limply over the sides of the chair. His head drops back and he’s still. In time he straightens up enough to stare at the door, still closing ever so slowly behind her. He shakes his head and lets out a single, solitary chuckle.

With steady hands he packs his Kindle into his bag. He checks his coffee mug, peering into its depths, surprised to find that it’s not empty at all. He pushes it away, uninterested.

A glance at his own watch. 4:30. Right. If he leaves now he might still be able to do that casserole. Those monster eggplants, the zucchinis and the sweet potato he’d trudged across the city to find. He could pick up some chicken but no, she likes her veggie fare. Yeah, get it into the oven soon and it’ll be done by the time she’s back. And the movie. She’d made him promise. That new Scarlett Johansson thing. Well, he could go along with that – little eye candy on the big screen.

Soundlessly he gets to his feet and collects his cane. He makes his exit, slow, rhythmic steps, tapping his cane gently against his leg as he goes.

 

Editor’s Note on Black Coffee:

Black Coffee is not Steve Tait’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:

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