Gregory T. Janetka is a writer from Chicago who currently lives in the outskirts of San Diego where he is inspired by pretty things. His work has previously been published in Foliate Oak, Flyover County Review, Gambling the Aisle, Deltona Howl and The Flash Fiction Press. He is terribly good at jigsaw puzzles and drinks a great deal of tea. More of his writings can be found at gregorytjanetka.com.
THE COFFEE HOUR by Gregory T. Janetka
Edward Celery Peddlebottom III hated being a “third.” He hated being an Edward and a Celery as well, but he was okay with being a Peddlebottom - it was the unnecessary parts he objected to.
A third. Thirty-three percent. Bah. As if someone had screwed up the first two attempts and needed another go at it. His mother would listen to him gripe over his name and always reply “third times a charm” with a weak reassuring smile.
In fact, she hated the name just as much if not more than he did. Heck, it took all of her power to shift “Celery” from his first to his middle name. The family were third-generation celery farmers. It was how they made themselves and her husband, who had never been twenty miles from the farm, was so proud he wanted to name their firstborn after their cash crop.
His wife crafted her argument to stroke his ego, convincing him to name his son after himself, being a second. Edward II was proud to be second, and it was the perfect note to play on. Neither of the first two Edwards had a middle name but the second agreed that it sounded more important and would bring added respect. The third wore it with the pride of a yoke. His mother's power of manipulation only went so far, however. She had wanted him to be known as “Ezekiel” or “Elisha,” but in the end he went by Eddie, a name his father would never acknowledge. Six additional children would follow – three boys and three girls – none of which would be legally identified with celery whenever they signed a check or introduced themselves to a potential lover.
Eddie woke up, stretched and rolled off the mattress that sat in the middle of the otherwise empty studio apartment. Making the incoherent sounds of waking amid the soft constant din of the city, he grabbed a pair of boxer shorts from the floor but misjudged as he put his foot in, sending him stumbling into the door frame of the bathroom, leading the old black and white cat to meow. He climbed into the bathtub in order to open the window, found the tub still wet and, getting out, slipped on the well worn tile, leading him to step into a pile of kitty litter that the cat had kicked out overnight while burying his business.
“How'd you get it all the way over here?” Eddie shouted.
Sighing, he stepped back into the bathtub to wash his feet off, dried them with a hand towel and took baby steps across the floor. Skirting his way around the rest of the litter he made his way to the nook of a kitchen that consisted of a miniature refrigerator, miniature stove, sink, and cabinet with three shelves. Swinging open the door he reached for the glass jar of instant coffee. It was empty. His head dropped as he remembered he was going to buy it yesterday but, seeing how it was his 30th birthday, had not gotten around to it. Not that it had mattered – knowing no one in the city he ended up buying a case of beer (from England, no less) and having a dance party with his cat. What could he expect? You didn't meet people in the big city after just six weeks. Well, at least he didn't.
This just wouldn't do. Making it to the city meant many things, above all it meant he could have coffee whenever he wanted. Every day if he so choose, and he did choose, damn it. Adding some water to the empty jar he swished it around to remove any clinging dust from the sides and drank the result, leaving an unsatisfying bitter film in his mouth.
Eddie opened the fridge – a dozen beers, a red mesh bag with a handful of reflective red apples that were mealy and inedible, various condiments, a bag of browning salad greens and some leftover pasta. On the bottom shelf sat a bowl of blue-green liquid that looked like it could be used for illumination purposes. He grabbed the bowl and a spoon and sat on the floor. It had been an attempt to make comfort food – his mother's gelatin dessert – but twenty-four hours later and it still hadn't set. Fishing chunks of pineapple from the bottom he let them drop back in with a series of audible “plops” and watched their slow descent. He placed the bowl in the freezer and hoped for the best.
Back to bed, eye fixed out the sixth floor window. What must have once been a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan had been replaced by the building 20 feet away, sky sacrificed for rusting fire escapes and uninviting windows. There was a clap of thunder. He took off his glasses and listened to the first drops of rain.
Upon taking the first whiff of old wood in the entrance way, he had resolved to dig into the history of the building but never had. It looked to have been a fashionable, upper-middle class hotel some 50, 60, perhaps 70 years ago. While modernizations born of necessity were evident, much of its true self remained under layers of paint – transoms painted over, dumbwaiters sealed shut. Yet the heart of the building remained. Decades of history, of lines intertwining, of romances starting, of marriages ending, vacations, lonely nights and lonelier days. He resolved his life wouldn't be absorbed into the commingled mess of the others long gone, unremembered.
With considerable effort, Eddie got dressed. In lieu of an umbrella or rain jacket he grabbed his hooded sweatshirt. It would be warm but better that then soaking wet. Descending the six flights (the elevator hadn't worked since the first week he moved in), Eddie started walking toward the grocery store. Lost in thoughts of the previous day he forgot to put his hood up. He had had such high hopes for 30. Long believing he would never make it to 21, let alone 30, he saw it as a golden milestone, a sign. It meant bigger things, it meant that he had a chance.
Putting aside his normal routine of getting up early to troll the want ads, he let himself sleep in for his birthday. Taking his time the first stop was the liquor store for rum, then the grocery store where she worked – the girl with the elephant tattoo on her wrist. They hadn't spoken for two weeks. Despite his best effort to get in her line, the next cashier kept waved Eddie over. Always the same guy. Like he knew, damn it. This time would be different. She was stocking tomatoes. He had rehearsed so many times - it was his birthday – was she free? He could think of nothing he wanted more than her company. Lunch at a old time lunch counter just like in the black-and-white movies he loved so much. He circled the store to get up his nerve but when he made it back to produce she had disappeared, along with any confidence he had had.
Back to the apartment, drink some rum, pet the cat. He tried to read his favorite book but didn't get far. Pacing, he decided to take the train into the heart of the city – there had to be something going on, there always was.
And there was – plenty in fact. Surrounding the latest skyscraper that was clamoring its way towards the top of the city's famous skyline were streams of workers on strike. For better wages, for better conditions, for the things we all want. He agreed in principle but felt uncomfortable and kept walking. In the park a gay military drill team performed. They were good. He wondered if their rifles were loaded and worried one might go off and he kept walking until he spotted a comfortable looking boulder next to the water and sat to watch the lake. It might well have been an ocean. How can a lake you can't see the other side of be a lake? In the grass that butted up to the rocks there was a baby bird squawking away, impotently flapping its featherless wings. It made him want to cry but he stopped himself from picking it up, knowing, as his father always told him, that if the mother smelled you on it she would reject it, condemning it to death. He thought he'd take it home but there'd be no keeping it away from the cat. And so he left it, probably to die.
Turning away from the bird he watched a man wearing a generic security uniform sit down on the bench behind him. He'd never seen anyone with such huge muscles - it was straight out of an 80s action movie. Expressionless, and wearing wrap-around sunglasses, the man made Eddie's heart rate skyrocket, leaving him afraid to move. The man reached into his bag – Eddie couldn't look. Then he heard the familiar sound of Windows starting up and glanced back to see the man holding a laptop. The man then replaced the sunglasses with a pair of delicate wire-framed spectacles and transformed into a twelve year old boy. The intimidation and fear drained from Eddie in an instant as he let out a nervous laugh.
Eddie continued to make his way around the park, walking past the iconic white stone buildings until he found the art museum, which was free every Thursday. One of the featured exhibits detailed the multitude of products that could be produced from the parts of a pig – from ham, to digestive enzymes put into shelf-stable bread, to gelatin used to bind corks. All 185 products were cataloged and on display, but what made it art was anyone's guess. After that he stuck to the old rooms, those that saw little foot traffic. The ones that people would get to “if we have time.” Which they never did.
Back outside the sun had begun to set, turning the metropolis into a dusty golden joy. It also meant he could go and have dinner. The necessity of it made him very happy. He thought of going somewhere that gave you free cake on your birthday, but he didn't know of any and opted instead for a small Mexican place where he had a burrito the size of his prematurely born brother Joe. It was good and spicy, the sweat forcing him to push his glasses back up his nose following every bite. When he left there sun was down and the bars were open, the city his. The hours that passed were choppy, awkward, bizarre. He tried to strike up conversations but no one wanted to converse, only lecture – especially one film student who went on about establishing shots and mise-en-scene for a full twenty minutes without taking a breath. With a head full of booze and heart full of unfulfilled expectations Eddie boarded the train, going in and out of sleep but waking just before his stop. Back at his place he tried to call friends he thought might still be awake, but no one answered. And so 30 was officially in the books.
But today was a new day. Everyday was a new day. He stepped inside the store, wiped his glasses on his shirt and scanned the aisles for the girl with the elephant tattoo. No dice. That's alright, he didn't feel clever right now. Eddie headed straight for the coffee, picked up the small glass jar of instant, paid and left. Hell, he should get food. Damn if his mother's voice wouldn't get out of his head. Sticking the jar in his pocket he went back in, bought a five pound bag of red potatoes, salad greens and McIntosh apples. While he was in line there was a change of shifts and there she was, elephant permanently in tow.
“Hey stranger, how've you been?” she asked.
“I, fine. Yesterday was my birthday.”
“Well happy birthday. Did you have fun?”
“Yeah, it was alright. Not quite what I expected 30 to be, but you know.”
“I know what you mean. I turned 19 last month, it felt weird.”
19? She was 19? Oh god. “Sure...sure...” he said. She finished the transaction and wished him a nice day.
The city was nice in the rain. Clean. Rainbows of oil danced over the asphalt as cigarette butts rode the waves. The size of the drops had doubled. Eddie always tried to take a different route home, even if it was only half a block. Looking for a new route he eyed the St. Thomas Aquinas Grammar School and cut through the grounds. The water soaked his pants. Losing 15 pounds since coming to the city, he had to continually pull them up under normal conditions, add the water weight on top of that and it was a constant struggle. Besides which the rain continued to make his glasses slip down his nose. In the midst of pulling up his pants and pushing up his glasses, Eddie crossed over a blacktop basketball court and the bag with the apples, and the coffee, broke, sending apples scurrying like cockroaches, and the jar of coffee straight down, shattering.
He didn’t believe in God yet turned to the sky anyway, shaking his head – either he was right, there was no God and it was a cruel universe that would allow this to happen, or he was wrong and God was punishing him for his lack of faith, for leaving his family, for his cowardice, for any number of things. He fell into a cross-legged position and looked at the instant crystals running across the wet pavement. The smell wafted up. It was the smell of Jenny's house, the taste of Jenny herself. The first time he had coffee was with her on his 15th birthday. Never allowed to drink it on the farm, his heart shook, his hands trembled and she looked prettier than he thought a girl could be. Fifteen years ago and still whenever anyone mentioned happiness, that was what he pictured – her, looking over the top of the green mug she cradled in both hands, obscuring her smile, but unable to hide the one in her eyes.
His father, a pious man, had banned the substance from their home not for religious but health reasons, claiming that anything that lingered on the breath in such a manner was unclean. Food should leave the mouth fresh – like celery did. Of course as often as they ate garlic and onions, that argument held no weight. Eddie believed the truth had more to do with his mother's refusal to kiss his father when he had coffee breath and boy, did his dad like to kiss his mom. After Eddie and Jenny shared that first cup, they shared their first kiss.
Before he could unlock the door he heard Charlie meowing as if he had been gone for days. Poor codependent cat. Eddie stripped off his wet clothes and changed. Sitting on the edge of the bed he bit into one of the salvaged apples. It was warm and tart. He must remember to throw away the ones in the fridge. Charlie climbed beside him and settled in. Eddie ran his hand over the silken black and white fur and playfully shook the stub of a bobbed tail, the genetic defect that had been his saving grace. When their cat had kittens Eddie's youngest sister Eloise, six at the time, fell in love with Charlie, the only one with such a tail, and decided the rest of the litter would look better that way and so took an ax to their tails, leaving father the unpleasant job of sending the little things back where they came from. Since then Charlie had been his shadow.
The apple was good but Eddie was still without coffee. Embarrassed to find he had been chasing after a teenager this whole time he couldn't go back to the store. He remembered a convenience store on the corner. He'd gone there to mail his taxes when he had first moved. It was the sort of mom and pop operation that seemed an impossibility these days, a place no one ever went unless they were out of options. And he was and so he went. On the counter beside the rotating hot dogs and cheese pump machine sat two glass coffee pots on silver warming plates. Grabbing the one with the black handle he poured the brown-black liquid into a styrofoam cup. It didn't smell half as bad as he thought it would. As he brought it to his lips something bobbed to the surface. A cigarette butt? Half a golf pencil? He couldn't tell but it must have been in there for some time. Disgusted, he slammed down the cup, splashing his shirt in the process and left.
Eddie began wandering, refusing to return to his apartment. In an instant he saw outside of his small sphere of influence and realized that this, one of the great cities of the world, must have coffee shops everywhere. He chided himself for not exploring more, like he had planned. At home he had carried maps of the city everywhere. While other boys snuck Playboys and comics into their textbooks, he studied maps and travelogues. When he got there the city would be his, he decried, demanding it from the universe. He would escape and it would be his. But when he got here it was a thousand times bigger and more confusing that he had imagined. And people didn't say hello back when you passed them on the street and your neighbors couldn't care less who you were and so he holed up in his apartment. When he did go out it was only to major tourist areas where he felt safe.
The money he had saved up was going fast. Everything cost more here, he knew that, but it seemed to cost more everyday and he still had no prospects for a job. No one wanted a kid from down on the farm. All those movies about the kid that goes to the big city and makes good? Bullshit. No one cared about that kid and all that kid cared about right now was coffee and he couldn't trade his life for a cup. He walked. Turning whenever he felt like it, when he liked the curve of the street, when it felt right. The green and white street signs blended together, not to mention the brown and white honorary street names. What would he want his name on when he was dead? A park bench? The wing of a museum? Honorary titles were for the rich and well-connected, honor was for the unknown. Print it on a sewer grate and be done with it.
But as he wandered a strange thing happened. Passing a row of brick storefronts he looked up and saw an elderly woman with a shopping cart full of a lifetime of trinkets. She smiled at him and said hello. He made a gruff noise but then looked at her, at that toothless smile, and said hello back, and in that moment the city was the city he had dreamed of. The upsurge of hope was short-lived, however, as at the next corner a car clipped the curb and nearly took him with it. Shaken up, he realized he was lost. He spun around, none of it looked familiar. Okay, the city was a grid, just have to remember what the numbers meant and he'd be fine. But he couldn't remember. Everything was clear when looked at from above. When it came down to his own perspective the world was nothing short of a mess.
And so he kept walking. What did it matter where he was? The only thing that mattered was getting a goddamn cup of coffee. Those twelve ounces had taken on mythical proportions. If he could only get a cup of coffee everything would work itself out. He took the second street to the right and headed straight on into the clouds.
Eddie sniffed the air. Nestled between a Greek restaurant on one side and a Chinese take out on the other was Caravane, a small bicycle-themed coffeehouse. With his hand on the door he noticed the girl smoking under the awning, rain swirling in. Her face hidden in the mass of reddish-blonde waves that went halfway down the back of her jean jacket, Eddie gave her one look and decided she couldn't weight more than 97 pounds. In fact, she weighted 97 pounds exactly. Something intangible about her captured his imagination and wouldn't let go.
Taking his hand off the door he said, “Hey, you okay?”
Two piercing sea green eyes shot through him.
“I just got fired. Do you think I'm okay?”
“Oh. I'm sorry. What are you going to do?” It was a stupid question but he didn't know what else to ask.
“It just fucking happened, how should I know what I'm going to do?”
“Well, you want to go get some coffee?” he said, gesturing to the door.
What Eddie didn’t know was that she slept through both of her alarms this morning. Then her car broke down on the way to work and she had to abandon it and run, making her even later. She should have been fired for that but wasn’t. The mocha spill, however, was the last straw. The enormity of the entire day, of the last 26 years, culminated in her palm as she wound up and gave him a slap that echoed to the surrounding counties.
His jaw ringing, his eyes fell to the ground and sought patterns in the random blue, white and black mosaic tiles. After whirling around they recovered themselves to form a date – 1921. That must have been when this place was originally built, when it was a florist, he thought, although he had no evidence to support that it ever had been. To the side of the 19 her plain white flats looked a bit small for her feet, but bowed out on the sides. He wondered if they could possibly be comfortable, or perhaps they'd become a second skin. He looked up and met her stare in a haze of cigarette smoke.
“Really funny asshole,” she said.
He held her gaze and she felt the tension raging throughout her body, building, fully preparing to hit him again, hit him for every creep that ever hit on her, hit him for her unemployment, hit him for the fear and uncertainty that clouded everything.
“Damn it!” she said as the hot cherry from the cigarette burned her finger. She threw it on the ground.
“Look, I'm sorry. I’ve been trying to get a cup of coffee all day. I ran out and then I bought some but it fell out of the bag and broke and then I got lost and then I don’t know anymore and you seem so sad and I thought we could get some coffee that that would be nice.”
She looked at him sideways and as he tensed for another slap she put the cigarette out with her foot.
“I'm Rose,” she said, hands deep in her pockets.
“Eddie, I never want to have coffee again.”
“That's okay, I'm not big on it anyway.”
It was the first honest thing out of his mouth since he'd moved to the city.
“How do you feel about tea?” she asked.
Without replying she crossed her arms and began walking, Eddie following a step behind. The rain had settled down to a fine mist but the wind picked up, sending wisps of her hair in all directions, which she made no effort to reign in. Quickening his pace he caught the scent of coffee coming from her, from the oils that had leeched their way into her skin and body over the last two years, 40 hours a week at a time. He fell into her gait and hoped the scent would never fade.