“Bagels with Arabica”
a short story
Gary Baker, April 2012
A sudden wave of warmth came over Leaf as he stepped into the threshold of Cafe Gruyer -- pronounced ‘grue - yay’ as the french owner would always claim -- and he smiled. The alkali-earth taste of fresh brewed espresso and Arabica filled his mouth as though he’d just taken a gulp of pure Costa Rican air. It was a portal to the tropical cafetería of his homeland, despite being smack dab in the middle of San Francisco, California.
Leaf stepped up to the counter of the small cafe, noting with glee just how the various polished brown marble tables with their dark lacquered oak chairs along his path made the inner-city palace of a shop feel more homely. The walls of tarnished bone-yellow suited the deep maroons of the espresso machines perfectly, and the occasional palm saplings added just enough greenery to give the place an even more authentic home-style cafe vibe.
The order counter was a great slab of gray marble, purposely placed to draw the customer in and make a purchase before being lulled into the live jazz music that musicians played on a small one-step stage in the back left corner. Stacks of white porcelain mugs leaned against the back wall of the work space, right beside more of a dark slate-gray tone. It reminded him of the pillars of smoke that would rise up from the pits of methane and sulfur on Volcan Poas and Volcan Arenal after week-long storm surges. Usually, he visualized, the methane would be ignited by such magnificent travesties as bolt-lightning along the mountains backside. Both the storm and its effects, he remembered, were worth greater viewing than even the latest Michael Bay film; though they were often just as explosive.
“Can I get you anything?”
Leaf startled, having lost himself in memories long gone enough that he hadn't seen the barista come up. “Oh, um,” he muttered, stalling for time while he quickly scanned the menu of the wall above the mugs, “yeah, I’ll just have a cup of the house blend -- black, and twelve ounce, please.”
She smiled and let the soft ringlet curls of her golden blonde hair sway as she typed his order into the register. “That’ll be two seventy-five.” She chimed. He handed her three dollars in cash, and mumbled to keep the change. Then a sudden rhythmic hum, and she handed over his receipt. “Sit anywhere you like, sir, I’ll bring it out to you.”
He turned away from the counter to face the double-glass doors where, just outside, he could see a city bus stop with three people in their thick jackets and slacks stood cowering from the heavy misting rain. Beside them, almost in the curb, lay a homeless man with a thick white beard in a blue raincoat and a soaked pair of light tan khaki jeans. “Actually,” Leaf paused, smiling, then dug out a ten dollar bill from his back pants pocket and turned to place it on the counter, “how much food will this buy for the man out front?”
One makeup drawn eyebrow rose higher than the other, as she failed to hide a beaming grin. “Well you've got a choice: either three bagels with cream cheese, or three slices of coffee cake, or one bagel with cream cheese and a cake with a small coffee.” She paused. “Then again, I guess you could really just mix and match from all of the above.” She leaned on the counter, craning her neck to look at the sleeping man out front as he slept the day away despite how bad the rain was getting. “But for him? I’d suggest the bagels -- he’s always looking for our extras in the garbage bins after closing.” Taking the money, she scribbled a quick note on a pad to the left side of the register and winked at Leaf. “I’ll toss in a fresh cup of joe for him as well -- on the house.”
Leaf nodded. “One last thing: do you know when the Pagan gathering is being held? I heard somewhere that it was here, and wanted to check it out.”
As she began preparing the two drip coffees, she shot a quick motion of her head towards the wall on his far right. “The flyer’s over there, but they won’t be on time -- they never are.” With a glance from behind the main espresso machine, her blue eyes twinkled as she added. “Maybe you’ll even see me go on break before they get here.”
“I’d like that.” Leaf turned away, blushing, and made his way to a wall seat where he could watch her give the man outside his meal all while still being able to enjoy the music.
The seat itself was a comfy caramel orange with a pattern of white apple blossoms made to look like they were blowing in the wind, and the window behind it was double-paned with signs of precipitation condensing on the innermost plane. The table was just like the rest but shaped instead into a large rectangle to better fit the wall seating. All the others like it were set with the day’s newspaper, a small vase with a solitary rose, and a copy of the latest New Yorker.
Leaf pulled his arms free of his coat, with water resistant black fabric on the outside and speckled white faux pas wolf fur on the inside, to set it on the oak chair across from where he planned to sit. The New Yorker on the table showed its usual cover of the man in a top hat holding some object before himself, and a wall of red brick behind him including green bushes on either side, so he pushed it aside to make room for the coffee on its way.
The sudden drop of a beat in the music followed quickly by the bassist bringing up a thrum-bum-bum that led into a deep cello solo, gave an odd overtone to his wait. Then, just as suddenly, came the tone of an older man to Leaf's left, “so I overheard that you’re looking to find out more about the Pagan gathering?” Leaf turned to him and dipped his brow in acknowledgement to the man in a brown petticoat over a pale blue dress-shirt. “The way that I see it?" The man said, "don’t bother. Nothing but a bunch of phonies looking for hard-earned cash from out of your pocket.”
Leaf paused in thought. How could he handle this without looking like the sort of ‘phony’ that the man inadvertently claimed all pagans were? So he smiled with a slight breathy laugh. “How so?”
The man smirked, making his wrinkled forehead shift under his balding scalp. “Call it ‘religious intuition’, dear boy.” Suddenly the man’s hand shot toward Leaf from the man’s table, insisting that the younger shake it. “The name’s Jeff. I’m an evangelist pastor for the northern Californian area.”
“Um,” Leaf paused, trying not to sound dumb or pugnacious by telling his pagan nickname, Leaf, though it was much better than his real name, Sagittarius, based on the stars during his birth. To hell with it, he thought as he grabbed the man’s hand and shook it. “Leaf.”
Jeff stared, though whether astonished or annoyed Leaf couldn't tell. “A nickname, I presume?”
“Properly Sagittarius, but yeah its a nickname. If you ask me, ‘Leaf’ is a much better nickname than ‘Sag’ or ‘Ter’, though.”
“Indeed.” Suddenly the man was silent, as if rethinking his yet unvoiced religious compounding of monotheism being better than the rest. It was only then that the man visibly noticed the thumbnail-sized Wiccan star pendant at Leaf’s collar. “Right,” he began, “well it’s been fun, but it seems that I have to get back to the church.” The pastor stood and grabbed his newspaper before quickly pacing to the door where he shifted his way out and used the periodical to keep himself dry.
The last few sips of the man’s drink sat abandoned on his table.
The girl from behind the counter appeared at his side with two coffees in white mugs, one more in a to-go cup, and a clear plastic bag of bagels in her hands. “Wow,” she exclaimed as she set the two in-house mugs onto the table, “I've never seen him leave so fast, before.” She smiled at him blissfully, and strode through the glass doors with the bagels and coffee to go, pausing under the slight overhang of Cafe Gruyer. Leaf leaned back to watch through the window as the woman tried to keep from getting soaked in what had become a serious downpour, in just her basic faded black sneakers, black slacks and a white button-up beneath her mocha-brown apron.
She leapfrogged her way from cafe door to the umbrella of a pedestrian to the bus stop overhang, then stepped close to the sleeping man before kneeling at his side. Her small hand reached for his side, holding both the cup and bag in the other, and nudged his shoulder gingerly until his eyes fluttered open. Her lips moved hastily as she talked to him, before she handed over the steaming mug of house blend with the bagels. Suddenly, he smiled and tried to tilt his beanie to her like an old-fashioned cowboy would to a lady of wealthy birth, then rolled to his side and shimmied his way under the overhang where he began nibbling on one of several asiago cheese bagels. When he saw that they were fresh, and even warm, he beamed with delight, and began shivering with what had to be tears of joy.
Finally, the barista returned and made her way inside where customers struck her with a loud wave of applause, blessing her with tidings of good cheer and gracious thanks. Leaf almost felt sorry for her as she removed her apron and tilted her head so that her hair could hide just how flushed her cheeks had become.
“Thank you.” He mouthed as she pulled an empty seat out and sat down next to him.
“So,” changing the subject, she grinned through still-blushing cheeks, “Sagittarius, huh?”
“Most people just call me Leaf.”
She tossed her hair to one side and leaned on her upturned left palm, watching him with slightly accentuated eyes from faint violet mascara. “Well either way, that was the nicest thing I have ever seen anyone do.”
As if she had set him up in benevolent revenge, it was then his turn to blush; he hid himself with a sip from the white mug. Her soft tone seemed to sing--seemed to perfect the world--and it seemed to emanate the essence of the generosity that Leaf had just shown. “Hey,” he argued pointedly, “you’re the one who changed that order into a bag of bagels and a coffee -- so the way that I see it, we can call it a dual effort.”
She gleamed affectionately, and her lotus-pink nails suddenly appeared in the air in front of him as she held her hand out for his own. He grasped her soft hand in his own, amazed at how tender her fingers were despite working around hot metals and rough chemical cleaners all the time. She flushed, and found herself tripping over her own words. “I’m Aria--but my friends call me ‘Arabica’ because, well, I’m always making coffee and that kind just so happens to be my favorite, but I really don’t mind it unless they use that whole ‘abc's of Aria’ thing agai--” With a start, Aria realized that she had almost turned to rambling, and trailed off with Leaf chuckling behind another sip.
The girl sighed, and lifted her own mug to drink. “Sorry,” she winced, “I guess I almost lost myself there, didn't I?”
Leaf grinned, “it was... engaging, to say the least.”
“You are too kind, dear sir.” She mocked playfully.
He smirked, and shook his head softly. “Yes, well ‘everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody’.”
Aria gaped, then recovered herself by quickly responding, “Yet after what you just did for that man out there -- or how you just referenced Mark Twain -- I highly doubt that your ‘dark side’ is anything less than an even greater kindness.”
It was fate, Leaf just knew it. The mere fact that she had picked up on such a small notion within his own modesty meant that she must hold such as well. Perhaps, he mused, being obsessed with literature might finally be paying off. “Alright,” he laughed, quickly glancing to the rose in its crystal vase and back to her, “then how about this one? ‘What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell just as sweet.’”
She paused, thinking as she took another sip of coffee. “I want to say that’s from Ibsen,” seeing his face as his lips perked into a devious grin, she retorted “but that would be way off.” Finally, Aria set the mug down and scowled into the darkly reflecting pool, “I know I’ve heard that one before, I just know it!” Suddenly, her blue eyes lit up with excitement and met his own with startling clarity while her smile deepened into a broad grin that pressed slight dimples into her cheeks. “That’s a line from Romeo and Juliet, spoken by...” Again, she paused and sighed, as if thinking deeply about how to beat the predicament he’d given. “Well I’m just going out a limb here, but was that Romeo referencing Juliet?”
“Other way around, actually.” Leaf said, and placed his half-full coffee down. “And since you brought it up, how about this one? ‘A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.’”
“Indeed,” Aria exclaimed. She had grasped it instantly, as if she herself had been thinking about it earlier. “Obviously that’s Ibsen, most likely from a letter for someone, right?” It was then that her excitement seemed to fall, shifting back within herself. Her voice was tight, almost a whisper, “is that why you did what you did for the man out front?”
All he could do in that sudden moment of changed resonance was shrug, “Yes and no.”
Her eyes searched for a reason, for answers, for anything that might give a better answer than that which he had just given. He could only watch as she scanned his face, those sharp blue eyes with hints of green darting to and fro across his every feature. He became suddenly aware of the near skin-tight grey t-shirt he wore which contrasted uniquely with his dark navy jeans, and the resplendent silver pentacle at his neck.
Continuing his response, merely to stay sane beneath such a beatific gaze, he leaned back with his head almost touching the glass of the window. Outside, he could see the man scowling as if still pondering his new-found fortune, while finishing the second half of a bagel. But he was out of the rain, and that was the point. “I guess I just felt sorry for him, really, and when I find myself feeling glad for not being in another person’s shoes the only logical option seems to be to help them somehow.”
“I’ll bet that makes life even more depressing, having a moral obligation to help out nearly everyone you see.”
Leaf laughed, a light, breathy retort of amusement, “I’m not that well off.” He lifted his head back to face her, sitting in her white dress shirt with her hands clasped under her chin with her elbows propped up on the brown marble table. Her latte-blonde ringlet curls hung around her slender freckled face highlighted by her bright cyan mascara, and the faint tint of pink on her lips. “No, actually it keeps me openly excited about life. The more I look around, the more I feel connected, and the greater connection almost opens a window into the greatest high a person can get.” She raised a single painted eyebrow again, probably in disbelief, making him come close to bursting with insane giggling. “When you can get high by making someone’s life better by any degree, you begin to wonder just how the world ever came to prosthetic drugs in the first place.”
Her smile returned, that cosmic sign that everything would be okay, and she dropped her arms to the table to lean toward him. He found himself staring eye to eye with her, with only a white mug of still-steaming coffee between her elbows to scapegoat for him were he to make a quick glance down her shirt. Yet by the way things had been going, he was not about to ruin everything by trying to see if he could do as much without being caught. She shifted a little bit, from one elbow to the other and back, and he watched from the corners of his eyes as she drew closer to him.
She wasn't testing his resolve, he realized, she was trying to get him to look.
No, he thought, adamantly sure that no girl in their right mind would try to sabotage things like that, I won’t do it! I will show her the honesty that she deserves. I’m here to see the pagan group, not act like a creep. But it burned, not allowing himself to peek. He could feel his sanity wane while she watched his eyes as one would a king cobra when trying to catch it with their bare hands. The unnerving draw that all men feel faced with this situation tugged at his very existence, yet he dared not listen.
One false step and things would turn far worse than they could by not seeing a hint of cleavage while in a cafe. Yet, he admitted, if I fight too hard it might look like something else entirely.
Finally the insanity won out and his eyes glanced at her lower neck--no lower, he told himself--revealing slight details to his mind that registered only when his eyes had locked on hers again less than a fragmented second later, like the solitary burgundy freckle just below her left clavicle.
As quickly as it had begun, Aria leaned back in her chair while she inspected him like a painting up for sale. He knew that he had failed the test she had set up for him, that flirting from here on was as pointless as talking to a child about quantum physics--some might get through, yes, but only a miracle would let them absorb any decent amount. Well at least she knows I’m straight, he mused.
Smiling, Aria stood from her seat and quickly scribbled something on the napkin under her mug before looking to the clock and back to him. She winced, “break time’s over, it seems.” She started walking back toward the counter while tying her apron back on, when she suddenly turned his way again, beaming. “Thanks for the coffee.”
With that she returned back behind the counter and jumped in to help her short, Hispanic coworker take care of a growing line of customers.
Sure that he had just offended her, Leaf leaned forward to check the scribbles to see what she felt he’d needed to know before leaving him alone. He expected to find something along the lines of ‘real smooth’ or ‘guess what you’ll never see again’ written, but what he found instead almost stopped his heart. Written clearly in elaborate flowing cursive, three numbers held in parenthesis followed by seven others which all led to a glyph-like letter ‘A’ with the words ‘call me’ squished on the side.
He had done it. Somewhere between wanting coffee and being adventurous enough to try a new cafe, he had gained himself the greatest high a man could get. Love -- well, Leaf thought, a date, at least.
Then something tugged at Leaf, something deep within the confines of his recently-blown mind, and he turned to look toward the stage that he’d felt a compelling need to see. It was then that he saw just how busy Cafe Gruyer had gotten, with a growing line behind the order counter and even more simply waiting around in cliques. A woman with blonde dreadlocks stood near the door in a gray business suit and tie, a younger man in a wet baggy blue t-shirt sat by the musicians drawing on a pad, two middle-aged women in fluorescent raincoats flirted by the far window over a plate of steaming scones, and an older man with tribal beads around his neck and in his silvery hair talked with three young adults like old friends. Finally, a man with multiple brow piercings over his left eye and a white collared shirt under a purple sweater vest and a red workout jacket turned to the crowd behind him and began motioning for two others to begin combining tables near the man in blue.
The man turned to pay the tab when a quick head motion from Aria made him turn to Leaf and smile. He shoved a five into the urn-like tip jar, while the woman from the door ordered her own drink, and made his way through the crowd to Leaf’s table. His mocha brown ‘Leonardo DiCaprio’ style bangs and half-trimmed sideburns almost hid the bar-studs through his upper ear cartilage on both sides, revealed only when he quickly tucked the longer strands behind his ears. “So you’re Mr. Sagittarius?”
Leaf smiled and leaned forward to fold the note from Aria and tuck it away into his wallet, “I see you've been talking to Aria.” The man nodded. Going with the theme of the day, Leaf stuck out his hand for the man. “Call me ‘Leaf’.”
He grabbed Leaf’s hand firmly. “Daniel.” His eyes suddenly dropped to the pendant on Leaf’s neck and smirked. “I’m guessing you don’t work with the local evangelists in trying to ban us from meeting in public dining establishments.”
Thinking back to Jeff, Leaf realized that the man had certainly seemed to be trying to plant anti-polytheism seeds which, politically, made sense when looking into banning a group from their locally known events. The basic idea would be to get the public to despise a certain group and call it unwanted, and the law would be forced to abide if enough supported it. “No, actually I work with the National Park Service over at Muir Woods and Agate Beach.” He stood and hung his jacket over his elbow while they walked toward the combined tables where many from the crowd had begun seating themselves. “You?”
“Full-time bartender at Cuckoo’s down the street.”
Leaf laughed, throwing out a “wouldn't that be a nice job to have” and sat back down on another bench arrangement that, coincidentally, gave him cause to glance back over to Aria with whom he shared a long stare ending in a fit of uncontrollable glee. He turned back to listen in on conversations within the group about life, love, and everyday moments of hilarity, and let himself be drawn into yet another reason to call the night well-spent.