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The Last Coffee Shop

Andrew Beeston

Andrew Beeston

You move to a new town - everything is different, exciting, worth exploring - and you wander into an alley. You aren’t the type to wander into alleys but you notice a blue door and you have to know what’s inside.

You turn the doorknob, it squeaks a bit, and the owner of the shop, who you would later learn operates as the barista and the cashier and the dishwasher as well, cracks open the door just enough to poke her head out. She looks around before whispering into your ear.

‘Are you looking for coffee? I’ve got some coffee… I mean, if that is what you’re looking for.’

It’s clear that you’ve already had your morning cup - you’re bright eyed and chipper, unlike the owner, who is pale and tired and mostly hidden - but you nod and smile. You’re amused. You want to see how this story unfolds. You walk inside and the door slams behind you.

‘You don’t have to tell me what you want. I know what you want,’ she says while securing her apron with a second knot. You’re offended by her gall but you’re also intrigued. You take a seat and you wait. As if by magic, you watch her transform from timid to confident in her own space.

You study your surroundings. It’s much narrower than you thought it would be, but simple and stylish and clean, as if the whole thing had just come out of a box and you were the first to enjoy it. It’s clear she has taste but in a safe way, she sticks to a palette of blues and grays, but because there are no windows, there’s hardly any light so everything looks a little black.

You count four round tables with a long booth on one end and stools on the other. She later tells you she’s crafted these herself. You notice a painting of a white dog on the wall and, as you've guessed by now, she’s painted that, too.

When the grinder stops, you notice that there’s music playing. It’s Ellie Goulding’s 'Anything Could Happen.' Finally, something you don’t like.

With a loud thud, she sets down an oversized mug before you, the froth spilling on your side where she can’t see. ‘You’re going to love it,’ she says with her arms folded. ‘Go on.’

You’re afraid that you’ll have to fake liking it, and you hate the pressure of performing.

Lifting the mug to your lips, you’re surprised to learn that she has read you well. The milk is creamy, the flavor like amplified almonds, an appropriate contrast to the espresso, which is bold but not burnt, perfect for swirling in your mouth. There’s plenty of foam from which you can taste assertive, fragrant notes of something familiar, but you’re not quite sure what that something is.

‘It’s lavender,’ she answers in a shout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

***

For the next few months, you're the cafe's sole customer. You blame the location and in a lightbulb moment suggest that the owner invests in a sidewalk sign.

She has one up by the next morning. The writing is crooked and there are a few misspelled words, ‘carppuccino’ and expresso’ for example, and when she isn’t looking, you correct them.

That day, four new customers walk in, and they, too, are charmed. They tell her she looks rather young and ask why she decided to open the shop.

‘I wanted to open a place where people could gather, where they would be greeted and feel warm and welcome, but it isn't going as well as I'd thought.’

This bothers you because you want to keep the cafe a secret, your secret. You soon dismiss this feeling as selfish and vow to yourself that you will help her.

You suggest that she make friends with the business owners in the main plaza, the ones who recently posted a sign that reads, ‘Absolutely NO coffee shop parking or your car WILL be towed.’

‘No way, I’m not talking to them,’ she tells you. So, you go over there yourself and return with good news. In exchange for daily cups of coffee, they’ll give her four parking spots. She agrees.

On your days off, you find small ways to help. You sand down the tables and eliminate the splinters - you got one yourself but you thought ‘better me than someone else’- and you help her build a website. You make flyers and post them on utility posts, even when it’s pouring rain, and on announcement boards at the university a few blocks away, even though maintenance tells you not to because ‘you don’t even go there.’

Three years later, business is booming. She invites you over because she needs help building more tables and chairs. You get there and discover that the sly fox has already finished most of the work. She cooks you a dinner of shrimp and angel hair pasta, and she doesn’t let you wash the dishes.

‘Sit on the sofa. Pick something to watch,’ she insists.

When she joins you in the living room, she doesn’t come empty-handed. She’s prepared for you a wooden tray with mint tea and lemon butter biscuits. You watch a few TV shows, a mystery that gives you goosebumps and a comedy to warm them away.

You tell her that it’s time for you to go. She nods. Just as you get up to leave, she tackles you, a gentle tackle, and keeps you where you’re at. She looks at you, presses her lips onto yours for longer than you can count - you know it’s a good one because you begin to close your eyes and she reaches under your dress. You think you might go all the way but she complains about a sharp pain in her back. You massage the area and tell her that maybe it’s time she hires some help. You fall asleep together there until the next day.

Taking your advice, she hires a fledgling who proves to be an excellent addition. You begin to notice there is now some wear on the tables, and that makes you smile. It’s a sign of success. There are now other regulars, creatives, a man with cerebral palsy, a few veterans, students, and church groups, depending on the time and day. There was an extension in the back, perfect for first dates. It was finally a place where anyone could gather.

It isn’t long, however, before customers begin to complain about the long lines and limited hours. Sensitive to the criticism, the owner hires an entire team of fledglings.

 

***

One afternoon, you visit and there’s no line, just like the old days. When you first walk in, she doesn’t notice you. You wave and she puts up a finger to say, ‘just a minute.’ You assume that she must have a good reason, perhaps there is something wrong with one of the machines, but you don’t see her trying to fix anything. She talks to the fledgling, the first one she hired. You can’t help but eavesdrop.

‘Tim never packs the espresso tight enough,’ she tells the fledging.

‘I know, right? And that makes the machine explode. I taught him how to do it a thousand times. And the new girl? She doesn’t make the drinks as good as I do, does she?’

‘No, of course not. You’re the best at making drinks.’

‘I know, right. You are, too!’

‘We’re definitely the best!’

‘It’s probably because we actually studied coffee and have some barista experience. Ten of them is the same as one of you or me.’

‘I know, why did I even hire them?’

They cackle and they cackle, and they don’t stop there. They begin to bad mouth rival coffee shops, the landlord, and even the man with cerebral palsy, saying ‘he never even buys anything,’ and ‘his wheelchair takes up too much space.’

‘Here,’ the owner says, reaching into the bakery case for some pastries. ‘Take these home, they’re from yesterday but I’d rather them go to you than the others.

‘No, I can’t…’

‘Yes, you can! You’ve worked hard for it.’

‘Are those almond croissants? Oh my god, I totally can!’ the fledgling receives the pastries and walks to the back to stuff them in her bag.

The owner signals for you to step forward. ‘I’m sorry,’ she shakes her head. ‘It would’ve been a little awkward to cut the fledgling off, don’t you think?’

You look at her. You wonder if she knows your thoughts.

It’s just a coffee shop, she’s just one person, but one that kissed you… on the lips… with tongue… with her hand on your thigh… and a little bit higher than that…  but she wasn’t the only one who’s done that so maybe you should forget it and get your drink and leave… but you can’t believe how cocky she’s become… but she doesn’t owe you anything, no one does...

You order a drink with your eyes cast down. She winks at you, says it’s ‘on the house’ because you’d waited so long, but she doesn’t notice your eyes, how they’re full of questions and hurt. You grab your cappuccino from the counter and walk out the blue door. You think about looking back but you don’t. For once, you’re glad that there are no windows.

Outside, you hear two older women say that there’s a new coffee shop opening down the street, it’s supposed to be better than this one. It isn’t tucked away in an alley either. There are large windows so there will be light.

Maybe you’ll go there when it opens. Maybe you’ll invite Tim, the bad barista, and Martin, the man with cerebral palsy, maybe you’ll see the two ladies there. Maybe because it’s new, you will be greeted and feel warm and welcome there.

You listen as the cars whizz by, you taste the lavender one last time as the heat from the takeout cup slips away.

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