I. Assume you are only allowed one refill.
When asked what your novel is about, you snap “Death!” Then you turn away. You listen. What was that? Was that a dog barking, or was it laughter?
II. A pair of friends comes in.
These are not good friends—just friends. You hold the newspaper in front of your face, hoping they won’t see you, that they’ll leave without ever knowing you were here. You are working, after all. This novel will not write itself. Not with all these interruptions anyway.
When they sit nearby, you lean back in the chair and close your eyes and pretend to sleep, the newspaper over your face. You’re sitting in a nice, comfortable chair that makes this possible. These chairs are one of the reasons you come to this place. So comfortable. So relaxing. Like home.
You’re just pretending to sleep. You’re not actually sleeping. And when you stop pretending. Your friends have gone. There is a half cup of cold coffee near your hand. It is so bright in here. What happened to your newspaper?
III. You drink some of the cold coffee.
If you were at home you could microwave it. If you were in a restaurant they would keep refilling it until you asked them not to anymore. But this isn’t your home, and it isn’t a restaurant. This is a bakery, and your coffee is cold.
You call a friend and ask when he plans on getting here. He says, “What?”
You say, “I thought we were meeting this morning.”
He says, “No, that’s next week.”
You say, “My bad.”
You knew this already, that you were meeting him next week, but you wanted to make sure your friend knew.
IV. You’ve read all the magazines except House Beautiful.
You’ve begun to read House Beautiful, but you stop. You set House Beautiful aside. If you read House Beautiful, you will have no more excuses. The cold coffee sits near the manuscript. You set House Beautiful on top of the manuscript so it won’t seem so stark.
V. The music changes.
This music seems like the most wonderful thing you’ve ever heard. You ask the brown-haired boy behind the counter about the music.
“What music is this?”
He looks at you. Or is he looking through you? It is difficult to tell from the expression on his face. “Everyone knows what music this is,” he says with a sneer.
“I don’t what it is,” you say.
“Okay,” he says. “It’s Michael Bolton,” he says.
You say the name to yourself: “Michael Bolton.” You repeat the name as you return to your seat, to your manuscript and magazine and cold coffee: “Michael Bolton. Michael Bolton. Michael Bolton.”
Michael Bolton is an angel.
VI. This is your regular place but not your regular server.
You wish the girl in the halter-top was working this morning. You ask the brown-haired boy behind the counter what has happened to the regular girl: Cindy. He tells you he doesn’t know Cindy. This isn’t his regular store.
You will have to remember to tell Cindy that you missed her when she was gone. But you will not really have to tell Cindy anything. She will see it all over you. You will wear it like a canary bow tie.
When you approach the counter again, the brown-haired boy scowls like a doberman towards a passing stranger. You tell yourself to have courage. Maybe it’s not a scowl. Maybe he has to sneeze and he’s getting ready, and when he is about to sneeze his face looks like this. More likely, though, knows what you’re doing, that you’re about to ask for a refill. He must know, as you hold your cup as you approach. You ask for a refill and he obliges with the coffee pot.
There is that anxious moment when you wonder if he’s going to charge you. Did you already have your free refill or didn’t you? Does the brown-haired boy remember if you’ve already had your free refill or not? Will he be inflexible on this point or will he allow two, even three refills as Cindy sometimes does. And if he is inflexible on this point, do you have any money to pay him? What will you do if he asks for money? How will you pay him? You are almost certain that you spent the last of your money on this cup of coffee in your hands. The last few nickels of your money went into the tip jar after you paid for the coffee.
You do the thing between pretending and not knowing. You wait for him to say “here you go”—see if he moves toward the cash register. But he says nothing, and does not move at all. He sets the coffee pot on the counter and looks at you, still scowling. So you smile. You say “thanks” as you turn away, leaving it up to him to decide what you’re thanking him for. As you walk away, he takes an order for a skinny decaf double dry mocha. You look back and the scowl is gone.
VIII. You change your lucky number from seven to two.
You look for the number two on the front page of the newspaper, and find it twice. This must be a sign. The story in which the number two appears is about a wildfire. Perhaps you will become a firefighter. Perhaps you will become an arsonist. These are two of your options. You fold the newspaper in half and set it aside, near enough that people might think it belongs to you. Your coffee is half empty again, and growing cold.
IX. Assume day-old pastries are half price.
You dig in your pockets to see if you were wrong, if you have any money—enough to pay for a day-old pastry. You don’t have enough, but you stand near the pastry window anyway. There is a day-old cinnamon roll and a day-old roast-beef sandwich and a day-old pink cookie. Though you stare and stare at the pink cookie, the brown-haired doberman boy does not offer you a discount.
X. By the end of your time here, you come to admire the scowl.
There is no hope in it. It doesn’t make you think of glory. It doesn’t make you think of happiness. It doesn’t make you think of a different life for yourself, as if you are missing out on something in the life you currently lead. He’s trying to help you. This could help you, if you let it. The last of your coffee is cold. You drink it down quickly.
XI. You’ve already had your free refill.
This time you know without thinking, without asking. Instead you ask the doberman boy where and when he usually works. He tells you. The scowl has faded. You dig in your pockets again but find nothing. Not even lint. Not even an old receipt or a broken, bleeding pen. The doberman boy hands you a folded piece of paper. He’s written something there, and you put it into your pocket without looking at what he’s written. At least now you have something in your pocket. You pack up your untouched work and don’t even glance at the pink cookie as you leave.