A Coffee Story
Though it had none of the porcelain mugs and grounds-saturated brewing machines and caffeine charged university youth but instead just piles of paperwork and metal cabinets and a cheap plastic desk with an outdated computer, the back office of the cafe smelled just as strong of coffee. As though that chocolate-smooth and rich aroma was no longer some organic emanation from a roasted bean, but a pervasive yet impalpable ambience formed by a sort of affective overflow of the persons coffee had developed a close kinship with.
The owner sitting at the desk had put on reading glasses and was looking through the applicant’s curriculum vitae which had only taken up one side of a page. The applicant sat across and chewed on his thumbnail nervously as the owner flipped to the other side of the folio and, finding it empty, flipped it back.
The owner took off his glasses and looked at him. “A painter for seventeen years,” the owner said.
“Seventeen years and eight months. After art school.”
“Ah. Did you paint something I might know?”
“I… I doubt it.”
“Come on. Give me a shot. You’d be surprised how much I’ve learned about local art putting up this cafe.”
The painter bowed his head in embarrassment and fiddled with his thumbs. “I never sold anything.”
“Oh. Not even one painting?”
“It’s alright. It took quite a while to realize it — seventeen years and eight months of unbought paintings — but I guess being a painter wasn’t for me after all.”
The owner placed his glasses back on and looked again at that one-sided resume. “And then you taught art for a year?” he said.
“Yes sir. One academic year. At a boy’s high school.”
“Only one year?”
“Oh. Yes. It turns out teaching wasn’t for me just as much as painting wasn’t (perhaps even more). It turns out knowing about art doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to teach it.”
“And now you’re applying in my cafe. To be a janitor.”
The cafe owner inclined his head and leered at him through the reading glasses while holding his chin, like some doctor observing the unknowing patient for subtle yet adverse symptoms of some disease.
“Anything wrong, sir?” he asked the owner.
“Nothing. Nothing. I just thought you’d think this job a little…”
“Well sir. Considering that I need the money to support myself and that I’ve invested all my years into one ambition — painting — only to find out that that it wasn’t for me… Well. What good is that. I hardly serve for anything else.”
“I see.” The owner stood up and so did the applicant. “Mr. Byron,” said the owner. “Congratulations. You have a job.” They shook hands.
“When do I start?”
“Today. This afternoon.”
The owner of the cafe gave him his janitor’s uniform and a mop and he got to work. In those first hours on the job as he went about mopping the floors and wiping the rag on tables for new customers it was as though the uniform and mop possessed some magical but unnameable effect. The customers wouldn’t even look at him, not even a turn of the head or a side glance in that reflexive response to the approach of the palpable warmth of human presence, as though the uniform and mop had somehow transported him to some parallel and entirely distinct realm superimposed onto that in which the customers operated, he and they like two spheres of different orbits never to touch nor remark on nor even acknowledge the other.
Until it happened. The spheres collide.
As he was holding a tray on each hand to carry them to the trash bin his hip clashed against a table. A cup of coffee tipped over and spilled all over the customer’s laptop and onto her shirt. Meanwhile Byron lost his balance and tipped the trays and all their contents all over the floor in a wet styrofoam mess. The customer had jerked her chair back and had stood up and now glared at him with furrowed eyebrows and slackened jaw. She did not say anything. She did not need to. The rage on her face said enough. The other customers and employees of the cafe were watching them now.
“I’m sorry,” Byron said. “I’m so sorry.”
She stopped looking at him and turned to her table and opened her laptop. The screen flashed on and there seemed to breathe a great, unanimous sigh of relief, as though up to that moment there had been a collective suspension of breath throughout the entire cafe. She glared at him again. “You’re lucky it’s still working” she said.
“I’m so sorry,” Byron said. He had brought out a rag from his pocket and made to clean the table but she stopped him with a gesture of the hand.
“Where is the manager?” she said. “Where is he? I demand to talk to him. Please call him.” She spoke out loud with eyes opened wide and frenetic and she looked around her as though she addressed no one in particular and everyone in the cafe at the same time.
The owner came out of the office and walked to the scene. He made a quick, peripheral glance toward Byron who was now crouched on the floor picking up the cups and rubbish that he had spilt from the trays. It was as if that glance, along with the panting and agitated customer with the wild coffee splotch on her shirt, already confirmed almost psychically a looming suspicion in his mind, the following explanation she was to make rendered unnecessary.
“That janitor of yours did this to me,” she said. She pointed to the stain on her shirt.
“Madame, I — ”
“He wet my laptop too. Luckily it isn’t broken. You know how much these cost nowadays?”
“Madame — ”
“Good for nothing. He should be fired.” She pointed a quivering finger to that frightened middle-aged creature on the ground, like some zealous pharisee condemning a sinner to stoning. “You can’t have good for nothings in your cafe spilling coffee on people’s laptops. You’ll go out of business for sure.”
“He’s a new hire.”
“Fire him then.”
“We’ll make sure to make the right measures.”
Her face darkened as she looked at the owner. “Listen,” she said. “I’ve always come to your cafe because I’ve respected your commitment to good service. The moment I realize you’ve broken this commitment — hiring oafs such as this here janitor, for example — I’m out. You lose a loyal customer. You understand?”
“Yes ma’am. Can we offer you a free…”
She had stopped paying attention. She took her laptop and her handbag from the table and left. The owner had turned to Byron now. He had stood up with his head bowed and the tray with the unkempt heap of coffee-soaked rubbish in his arms.
“It was an accident,” Byron said. “I’m sorry.”
The owner tapped him once on the shoulder. “Back to work now,” the owner said. The voice was not harsh. It was almost pitiful.
Late in the evening all the customers had left and the cafe was empty. Byron was mopping the floors. The owner got out of the office and was making to leave the cafe. He stopped beside Byron.
“Been a tough first day, hasn’t it?”
“You’ll get better at it.”
“That’s what I said about painting. And teaching.”
The owner’s lips curled into a small, sympathetic smile. “Day by day,” he said. “Let’s take it day by day.” He placed his hand on Byron’s shoulder and went to the door and before going out said: “Don’t forget to turn off the lights and lock the door when you finish.”
Byron sighed and dropped the mop on the floor and took a seat by one of the tables and resting his head on his arm propped up on the table surface he cast a hesitant retrospection on his forty-one years and thought about how perhaps the life of a man is but a mere passing from deception to deception, unsuccess to unsuccess, a fast turning wheel without exit nor destiny but the halting of which would mean an end more painful than the actual running and turning and turning.
He stopped the thought. He raised his head.
He had been gazing on the used white paper mat laid out on the table on which the last customer had spilled a coffee stain not much bigger than the span of a hand. He squinted and looked at it more attentively now, as though he were looking not just at the stain but past it, even into it. As though that confused and vague splotch were some peephole or portal to another realm of a fury of myriad notions and strange countenances.
He jerked his chair back and rushed to behind the counter and grabbed one of the felt tip markers the baristas used to write customer’s names on the coffee cups. He rushed back to the coffee stain and inclining toward the table started to draw on it with the marker, his hands moving with an energy and fluid dynamism they had not seen in years. He stepped back, panting from the sudden flurry.
On the stain he had drawn an eye. Around it he had drawn the wild and frothy lines of ocean waves and above it had drawn clouds. The coffee stain, once a muddled blemish, was now a lively and headstrong whale swimming through the waters on a cloudy day. The white paper mat once trivial and disposable was now a work of art.
He chuckled to himself. There seemed to gush forth from his heart that mysterious and vague joy that manifests itself in tingling at the fingertips, that unnamed and almost divine sensation triggered by the act of creation and its resulting contemplation. He could not remember how long it had been since he had felt this.
There was no stopping him now. He ran back to the counter and gathered the used styrofoam cups and in them collected the remaining dregs of coffee left over from the day. In each cup he diluted the coffee with varying degrees of milk, creating various shades from dark black to a very light brown. He brought out more of the white paper mats and laid them out on the table and then brought the makeshift coffeecup-palette there. He took a plastic spoon from an adjacent table and dipped it into one of the cups and splattered it onto the paper mat. He studied the mat and then dipped the spoon into another cup and splattered it again. When he had finished he took the felt tip marker and started to draw on it. He set this mat aside on another table to let it dry. And then he repeated the process. He worked furiously, his heart seeming to fill itself now with a plethora of landscapes and battles and passions and fantasies, the sprinkling movement of his arms like some biblical baptist baptizing with a pentecostal fury.
The following morning before opening hours the owner found the janitor sprawled on a table, sleeping. He walked up to him to wake him but he stopped. Laid out on the surrounding tables were the coffee blotch paintings, now dried.
The owner took one of the papers. He held it out at arm’s length and bent his head sideways and turned to the still sleeping painter and then back to the painting. He walked toward a wall of his cafe and held up one of the coffee paintings against it. He squinted his eyes and studied the painting as if it were hanging there. He did the same to the other paintings in turn. He started to chuckle. “Pretty darn beautiful,” he whispered to himself.