Nancy M. Long
She sat in the covered patio section of the Starbucks, hair down and laptop up on the table. It was a beautiful sunny day with just a touch of cold in the morning air. It was a shock to see so many people already lined up inside and sitting at the tables. It was worth a little chill to sit alone. There was probably enough juice on the computer for the length of a latte. The first sip gave her a little shock as the heat didn’t hit her until it was on the tip of her tongue. Like a jolt of electricity she pulled her head back.
Damn. Peace was broken by a strange man wheeling over what looked like a tool container. He’d come off the bus and she’d watched him limping this way for a while. He stopped at one table, standing awkwardly over it before rolling over to be at the table just in front of her. He still hadn’t sat down.
He stood fiddling with his phone, seemingly unsure whether or not he wanted headphones in or out. There are sandwich bags attached to the black plastic box but she doesn’t shift to better see them. Instead she keeps her eyes focused on the computer ahead of her, calculating the best time to squeeze back inside. There is still some seating in the front of the store along the window. Though, it looks back out onto the patio.
As Chuck’s setting up his phone with the Wifi he sees the girl typing away at her laptop. Not one to enjoy sitting alone he sets up camp next to her so that he can watch the soccer game on his phone. He liked to use the Wifi here. It was free and there was a bathroom inside. He tried to be discreet and sat with his back mostly to her, looking out into traffic so that he could see her without looking at her. He’d noticed her sneakers while walking up, black with a white Nike logo striking across the side. He put his cane on the back left of his chair where he knew she could see it.
‘Oh thank god.’ She thought, watching a young guy, Asian decent, walk out with two lattes in a to go container and sit down at the far end of the patio giving them breathing room, like a normal person. The more she looked at the side of the older man’s head the more unnerved she was becoming. His GoArmy hat, rather than instill patriotic feelings, reminded her of all the untreated mental health issues facing the vets. As if to punctuate the point he says out loud, to no one in particular, “Wow. Wow, oh wow.”.
The young guy gathered his things and left. She kicked herself realizing that the to go cardboard carrier should have been the clue and that a second person was not coming out. Alone again with this person and his diminishing boundaries, her arms started to itch with the combination of pollen and goosebumps.
Grabbing the opportunity given by the young guy leaving, she followed suit and put away her laptop like she too was on the move and while the man was focused away from her she slipped back into the Starbucks through the patio side door and found the one open space in the back of the cafe. She sandwiched herself in between spreadsheet guy and procrastination man, who sat manipulating his phone in front of his blank laptop screen.
This felt normal. The group of older men chatting in the corner struck her as military but didn’t give her any of those nervous chills. They talked about their lives like football announcers, in clear bold voices. One still had his buzz cut though they all looked retired. She sighed relief as normalcy started to set back in. The man on the patio watching soccer would not come in, she knew that.
He heard her leave behind him. He wondered if it was the smell. He didn’t think it could get through the box. He’d filled in the spaces with kitty litter. He’d learned to do that from the computers at the library. He thought about the typing girls feet, under those wide sneakers. There was a hole in the right toe, he noticed, like her big toe was trying to get out. He pictured that toe, wiggling around in there, rubbing against the inside of her shoe.
She was getting back into her groove. Typing away at her latest story about murder and mayhem. She was far away.
‘Damn it!’ She thought as she looked up and there he was again, limping by with his black box right in front of her. She wondered if he recognized her, if he knew she’d come in to avoid him. He wheeled straight through to the bathroom. She recognized the way his eyes just glazed the scenery around him, not looking anything straight on. She did the same thing when she was trying to be stealthy. She made a note to herself to stop doing that. After a couple of minutes she looked at the time 9:11AM.
She’d picked up this habit from her last job where she would time and chart how long a certain co-worker was in the bathroom. His record had been close to thirty minutes, averaging twenty minutes each day at around nine in the morning. It became a form of entertainment each morning to track his bathroom stats. It broke up the data entry tasks of the morning and took the bite out of her boss’s catty remarks.
Exit, 9:29am. He wheeled by once more and she made an effort to look up at him, to gather a description in her mind. White male. Almost six foot but stooping. Long hair under the ball cap, light dirty brown. A large protruding belly, distending unnaturally from under his black jacket. His facial features were exaggerated with a big bulbous nose and fleshy lips. He walks with a heavy limp, supporting himself with a cane and his rolling black box.
After he’d gone by a smell crept up on her. A musty smell so strong that it thickened the air. There was something about it that brought the goosebumps back and she drank her latte a little faster. She’d planned on milking it for as long as she could, usually a bit over two hours of writing time per latte, but today she’d make an exception. It had been about an hour before she was walking out of the front door of the coffee shop, looking over her shoulder at the patio. He was still there, at a different table now, positioned so that he was looking at the Starbucks with a decent view of the front door. He had his earbuds in and was looking down at his phone. She didn’t pause.
He watched for a while as the Nike sneakers walked away. His attention shifted then to the Birkenstock coming toward him. He could see everything. The foot was framed in two light brown suede straps on black rubber soles. He couldn’t see detail from this far but he could see that the toes had been painted light purple. He pictured the toenails a little long and smooth all the way across. She was through the Starbucks door before he could get another look. He thought about the toes in the box, wiggling around in the gritty litter.
It was getting warmer outside. Pretty soon someone would come out here to sit. He had nowhere else to go so he’d wait it out. He put his hand on the black box, full palm over the bags of eye bolts and spare pieces of piano wire. The tips of his fingers reached the black plastic of the box itself.
Back at home she took off her Nike's, noting the hole. She knew she needed new shoes and like last month promised to buy some. She took two steps before her foot smashed, toenail first, into the out of place leg of the piano bench. She dropped to the ground, gripping her foot in both hands. She was still happy to be home. Here, nobody could hear her expletive filled outbursts.