I don’t sleep. I stay up reading email subject lines. This one was most enticing: “Legal Grounds + Fall.” Legal Grounds is the coffee bar by the precinct. Get it, Legal Grounds? It’s a coffee shop? I never did, either.
The preview text read:
The Pumpkin Spice Latte just got real. Get ready for sweaters, cozy nights in and a Pumpkin Spice Latte made with real pumpkin, spices, espresso and steamed milk.
I hit delete knowing I would be there, but that comma bothered me, the one between “pumpkin” and “spices.” It’s the spice part that people are after, the cinnamon and clove. Maybe a dash of nutmeg. No one actually wants their coffee to taste like baked puree from a reject fruit. A simple hyphen could have saved our soulless coffee culture from years of angst. It was always meant to be read: pumpkin-spice latte.
Pumpkin. Hyphen. Spice.
Several hours of staring at the wall later I walked into Legal Grounds and approached the counter, stood there. Eventually someone asked what I wanted and I say world peace but right now I’d settle for a pumpkin spice latte, please. It’s no great labor for the cashier but the barista taunts me with
that seasonal look from across the bar, sort of a sideways glance through the middle of an eye roll. I get it, I’ve ordered these on-menu at other establishments and been refused service, like they just put it on there as an in-joke, a filtering system, like moths to a light, just to watch ’em go zap. But I’m not the one who sent the email. I’m just the one who apparently was dumb enough to sign up for it.
Or was I lured? Did they know I would show, somehow? Were they expecting me?
A few minutes later my drink is up, little paper cup, leaf in the latte art. I take a sip, it’s damn near undrinkable. They doubled-down on the pumpkin and took a half measure on the spice.
A true pumpkin, spice latte. Or a pumpkin latte with spice, maybe.
Repeat business was obviously not their objective. Based on both taste and service they did not seem to actually want to offer this particular potent potable in any sort of ongoing capacity. And yet, they took extra care to promote the use of “real pumpkin”; presumably, they told everyone they know. So who did they think they were fooling with this milquetoast noblesse oblige abomination? If it was so much to ask, if providing this specific item diluted their coffee integrity so much, if their business model was not, in
fact, just empowering a crowd of over-entitled soft-palated dilettantes and automatons, then why all the fuss? No one is forcing it onto their so preciously curated carte du jour. But if they’re going to email me at two o’clock in the morning, if they’re going to get me all excited like that, then please just make me a coffee milkshake that tastes like autumn sucked into a cup, top it with NoDoz sprinkles, and hand it over.
Or did it go deeper? Had I just been poisoned? And was this part of a larger, systemic campaign targeting seasonal beverage drinkers and all their kinfolk? How high up did it go, I wondered. I kept sipping on the latte while I pondered my next move. There might not be much time left and even a
poisoned gourd-heavy PSL was better than what else I had to drink.
Then I spotted him from across the room, an old pal, kicked off the force when he became a man.
Or told people that he was a man all along, I guess. I made a pass at him once before I knew, before his trip to Thailand. The doctors are gods over there. No one would know now and his last few girlfriends haven’t complained.
“Hey Brian,” I say, no preamble needed. Old enough friends are like that. “You ever order a pumpkin spice latte here?”
“Fuck you,” he says. Old enough friends are like that.
“Cause I just ordered a pumpkin spice latte, and I’m wondering if you want to try it.”
He took a sip and almost spit it out. Asked what kind of game I was playing. Asked why I wanted a perfectly good coffee to taste like a rotted-out jack-o-lantern. So I wasn’t crazy after all.
I’ll bite, I thought, I’ll see where this goes. I drank what was left in one gulp. It was still steaming so I immediately regretted it, milk burns all the way down. I sat down next to Brian and passed out.
I came right back, a moment or a day later, I’m not sure. Brian was patting my face. I sort of wished I was a woman so we could give it a try, maybe try to make it work, but I knew it would never work. Brian was too good.
“What the hell was that?” Brian said.
“I think someone poisoned the PSLs and I wanted to see what would happen.”
“All that’s gonna happen is milk burns all the way down. It behooves you to not drink hot milk like that.”
Brian was always using words like “behooves,” words that sound funny but aren’t really. He liked to say I was lugubrious, back when we saw each other every day.
“They’re putting real pumpkin in them now,” I said.
“There was never supposed to be any pumpkin in them in the first place,” he said. “You know that. Some copyeditor in the marketing department took a vacation and by the time the guy got back the whole thing was already in the zeitgeist, so he just went along with it, dropped the hyphen altogether. Of
course people eventually found out there was no actual pumpkin in their fancy five-dollar pumpkin drink, so they changed the formula, put a drop of pumpkin in, but didn’t change anything else. And then every other marketing department in the country saw that and thought, sure, squash is cheap, pump it in everything we got. And now here we are. Nobody wants the real pumpkin but they don’t want to admit to not wanting the real pumpkin even more than that. So here we are. It’s all image. All they have is image.”
At that moment I decided I had to kiss Brian and he shoved me back into a table.
“You ever pull that shit again and I don’t want to see you,” Brian said. “Now go home and sleep it off.” And he left.
And I did too.
But I don’t sleep, so I walked. I walked all over town, I think. I’m not sure. Everyone was photographing everything. I made it home just before two and just stayed up again.
Another day waiting for the sun to rise.
This story was written by Robert John Miller.
For Reedsy’s curated feed of writing prompts and the chance to enter our prompts-inspired Short Story Contest, head to reedsy.com/writing.