SMELL THE COFFEE
by Robert M. Detman
During the summer I worked at Café Trevi, and as the season turned to Fall my prospects were dwindling. The cold days and yearning and lassitude were closing around me. Thanks to Fitch, I would soon find a way to avoid my job on the weekends. The Monday after Labor day, he showed up at the café.
"Life is short," he said, suggesting I hang out with him the next weekend at a friend's vacation place two hours North. "Live a little. Get out of your rut."
"But I have to work."
"Screw work. You won't get bored up there. We're building," he said. "That's real work. It's fun."
Fitch and I went to Architecture school for undergrad a few years earlier. Our first year we'd been in the same dorm. After we both moved to Chicago, we kept tabs on each other, depending on the degree of interesting activities we were or were not doing. Fitch had a floating pompadour of blonde hair and cultivated, strange shaped sideburns. He looked cool and together, though to talk to him for one minute was to realize how hard he worked at this smoothness.
I was in unequal competition with Fitch, who, to his slight amusement, had any number of women after him. There was his fiancée, Liza, on again since that summer of negotiations—they'd talked it over for months—the wedding would happen next summer. And there was Ana Waldheim. For some reason Fitch got invited up to Ana's family's place in Wisconsin. The lodge was once a boy scout camp that the Waldheims had bought with two other families and that they were renovating as a weekend retreat. The Waldheims and their friends were moneyed folks who must have tolerated Ana's aimless school friends. Ana and Fitch had camped out in the woods on the property a few times during the summer.
With his eyes cocked to the mirror behind the espresso machine, Fitch told me about Ana.
"I knew her at State. She swims," he said, pausing for emphasis, "like, marathons."
He glanced around. He waved his hand as if he was snapping out time, or strumming a guitar, a nervous gesture. He was looking for a cigarette. He was always looking for a cigarette.
"Liza doesn't know I've been hanging out with Ana," Fitch said. "And you're not to tell her. Just do it, for me."
I hadn't talked much to Liza anyway—I'd met her two or three times. Fitch kept her out of his normal life, which included morning rounds to Trevi. Liza was a society girl, and Fitch spent choreographed, stuffy, jacket-and-tie affairs up at her parent's house in Highland Park. I imagined Ana was the same type.
On weekends I had to be at Trevi by 5:30 to get ready to open by 6:00 for the 3 or 4 customers that needed my lattes in the cold Chicago mornings. In order to do this, I had to operate on a kind of auto-pilot and arise at 5:00, zombie-like, and take the train and a bus connection to get to the cafe. Once there, I followed a routine, carefully outlined by Lou: sprinkle some food flakes for the lone fish in the burbling tank, turn on the Pavoni, ground a pound or so of fresh beans, make one pot each of Columbian Supremo and Columbian Supremo decaf (redo each hour), unstack the chairs and shuffle the tables into place, bring the extra chairs out (the Fire Marshall didn't work on weekends), turn on the overhead lights, dim them because the customers didn't like bright lights so early in the morning, and put out the painted wood "MUSIC TONIGHT" sign.
From the back room, pull out the cash drawer containing one hundred dollars in tens, fives and singles. Turn on some music, but not too loud (upstairs tenant), usually Bach. Unlock the door and turn the open sign.
Once set up, I daydreamed, read the newspaper, or scanned the old New Yorkers for John Updike stories, all the while watching for my regulars with their commiserating words. They must have wondered what I was doing with my life. At twenty-six years old and laid off from my last office job, I lacked the motivation to look for another.
I worked in the café because it lulled me into a routine that, I reasoned, allowed me to think. I made no money. Everyone told me I should go back to graduate school but the idea seemed inconceivable. I couldn't decide what I wanted to do, let alone needed to do. If anyone asked, I said I was in the experimental phase of fulfilling the promise of my university education.
Everyone I looked to made me envious. There was the stock broker guy with his sexy woman, both of them in sweats with their love buzz hanging in the air. Where did they need to go so early in the morning? There was the skateboarding kid who might have been ten years my junior and, attached to his mother (she told me their story—divorced, they moved around a lot—they had gotten a comfortable little apartment by the lovely St. Michael Cathedral, perhaps I'd heard of it?), he was young and fresh faced and full of promise.
I always looked at him and wondered if he'd waste the next decade like me—I wanted to tell him not to. "Have a good morning," I said with a smile.
Hope came in a trickle. After an entire summer there was the glimmer of Tracey, who worked the shift after me, a woman whose seriousness of purpose baffled me and undermined my less noble desires.
One day when my shift ended, my stroke of courage was to ask her out for coffee. That ill-conceived cup left me surrendering any possibility that we would find common ground. Still, I basked in the rapture of her physical presence.
Tracey was tall and preppy in an artless way—she wore Ralph Lauren shirts and big metal belt buckles, but she had a body begging attention, wide hips, curvy moves. And, she pretended to be nice to me. The combination was odd and therefore exotic to me. Tracey met Fitch when he came by as my shift was ending. He tried to smooth her and she wasn't buying it.
Tracey would offer me advice, saying, "Remove toxic relationships from your life."
I thought she was talking about Fitch, but I as easily thought she might have been thinking these thoughts about me. She was going somewhere and I knew I didn't figure into it. By the way, she said, she was getting married.
The next Saturday Fitch walked in with a striking dark-haired woman who was not Liza.
"Mark, I want you to meet Ana."
"Hi," she said, piercing me with her green eyes.
From her background, I expected Liza number two. Over self-consciousness barely concealed behind a screen of false interest, pretended ditziness as bait to guys like Fitch. But Ana was stunning. She had long, dark hair and was petite and muscular, though I noticed the fact was disguised under seasonal clothes: a big fluffy sweater, corduroy overalls. I imagined her sleek swimmer's body trying to come to the surface.
Ana didn't seem moved by any hint of lack of self-confidence and so I expected she had a way of dealing with Fitch. Fitch must have known I would like her. I put on my confidence act. Ana finished her Master's degree that year and I was afraid of what she might think about my working at a café.
"Kevin tells me you make great foam," she said.
I looked to Fitch, suspecting he'd not made more of my three years since college.
"Oh, that," I said, embarrassed. The first comment Lou said after showing me how to make a Cappuccino, over the steam shrieking and roiling the milk in the metal carafe, was, That's great foam. You sure you haven't done this before?
"Aren't you taking the GRE or something?" Fitch said, sounding supportive but in an underhanded way.
"Yeah. I didn't want to work full time so I could study. You know. It's about time."
Ana smiled and her green eyes settled on me. I laughed, feeling self-conscious.
The next day, I called the café from the Chevron station in White Elk, Wisconsin, hoping Tracey would pick up and I could impress her that I, too, had a life beyond Trevi. But Lou answered the phone.
"I couldn't make it in this morning," I said.
"I know," he said. I glanced at my watch, it read quarter to eleven.
What did he expect? He paid five dollars an hour plus tips—on a good morning, the stack of worn out dollar bills that burst the seams of my wallet and pockets full of change which I turned into more bills just covered my rent that week. I wasn't saving for the future, that un-navigable possibility.
The main lodge at Ana's family's place sat beside a private lake amid several acres of thick woods, far back on a dirt road between farm fields. The building, constructed of giant pine logs, boasted two great rooms divided by a large stone fireplace. They'd taken out all of the institutional artifacts—the wobbly bunk beds, the industrial laundry tubs, the grease-laden cast-iron stove—and installed a new gourmet chef's kitchen, leather couches and huge butcher block tables.
Ana enlisted our help in building a garden shed she had designed. Crafted from hand hewn timbers, the work required brute strength. Ana seemed pleased to direct us on the heavy work. She played the schoolmaster and we were her pet pupils. Enraptured with her, she made us feel worthy. We worked ourselves to a sweat in the garage where the saws and equipment were, cutting and joining beams using traditional methods, giving our muscles an unprecedented workout.
We bundled the timbers with chain and hauled them behind the ATV down to the garden and the construction site. We climbed the framework of the shed and bolted the beams in place, working through the warm hours of the days when the sun wasn't yet obscured by winter clouds. Ana hoped we might finish before Halloween. It still wasn't cold enough for snow.
We would move around all day like this, getting caught up in the hard work of it, enjoying the time outdoors. At such times, I was glad to know Fitch, even though he drove me nuts half the time with his cocksureness.
Fitch snuck off with his cell phone. I knew by his secrecy that he didn't want Ana to know about his impending nuptials, nor did he want Liza to know about Ana. When he came back I attempted to broach the topic.
"Anything interesting happen this summer?"
Fitch gave me a contemptuous look meant to shut me down.
In her smiling and coy manner, Ana looked off into the distance. "I, for one, had a great summer." She proceeded to tell us about her trip to Spain, and a spring internship at a New York firm. We listened and didn't have anything quite so illustrious to offer.
Such real success made me feel in the presence of someone who I hoped to be worthy of. We basked in her easy ambition. Yet I saw how Ana appreciated us both. She was a non-judgmental, good soul, and if Fitch wasn't worthy of her, I tried to appreciate him, too, for having hooked us up with her.
After a day of hard labor we headed inside to repair. As Fitch and I wandered around the empty lodge smelling like goats, Ana let us plunder the gourmet stock in the Sub-Zero.
The next weekend, on the drive up to Wisconsin, I made Fitch stop at the gas station. It was time to call in to the café.
"Maybe I should have the weekends off?"
"But you said you would work today," Lou said on the other end of the phone. I had wanted to work weekends because it filled up the time and made them go faster.
"Why don't you decide if you really want to work at Trevi? Otherwise, I'm gonna need to do something."
Do something. It was not quite an ultimatum. I needed to do something.
That weekend, after we had worked outside for awhile, Ana walked back to the lodge to make lunch, and Fitch began to talk.
"You like her," he said. I thought he was goading me.
"Yeah, sure. She's nice."
"Well, I want you to know, she's off limits."
"I didn't know you were in charge," I said.
"I'm just telling you, I don't think you should get your hopes up."
This pissed me off.
"I wasn't," I said.
"Besides," he said, "I did her."
As was often Fitch's M.O., he seemed to want me to respond. So I took the bait.
"Just like that, eh?"
"Yeah, just like that. A few weekends ago. We were camping up here. She wanted to do the deed. What else could I do?"
Fitch's sureness always became my bane, and I knew this perception had to stop. Because in a strange way, I owed him.
"I don't want to know about it," I said. And in truth, I didn't. I didn't know if I actually cared. I felt Ana to be far out of my league anyway, although imagining her stooping to Fitch made me wonder.
"Look, Fitch, what are you trying to prove?"
Ana came back from the lodge, with the all knowing look upon our discontent. She smiled, keeping her distance from the scuttlebutt between us. Recognizing it, she would be diplomatic, I thought.
"I've been wanting to thank you guys for helping out," she said.
"No, thank you," Fitch said. "We're enjoying it."
"Yeah, thanks Ana. I think this place is really special."
"I'll make a nice dinner for you guys."
Ana's family was not around when we were there, and Fitch acted like he belonged there. He wandered around. He pulled books off shelves, opened storage closets and peeked in, or stalked the upstairs rooms. He was more familiar with the place than I was, but I thought he was being a bit too bold. With his audience, he was in his element. Ana took him good-naturedly. I resented his attitude and hoped she wasn't taken in by him. I began to doubt his claims on her. Ana too, was cool, in a more detached, real way than Fitch, and she was too controlled for someone so loose. But this mattered less to me because I noticed that my mood lifted whenever I caught Ana's smiling eyes.
We sat in the kitchen, behind the big butcher block counter, and talked about our careers. My café job became a topic.
"As far as I can tell, you want to be there," Fitch said. "Maybe you're wasting your time. You know, we all understand."
"Maybe he's got a reason," Ana said. "Not everyone's like you, Kevin. Mark's just trying to center himself. It's an admirable quality. Maybe that's the best way for him to figure out what he wants to do."
I wasn't certain how she saw me, but was embarrassed to have enlisted her sympathies toward a conviction I didn't have. But she had put Fitch in his place. I wanted her.
When Ana stepped away for a moment, Fitch tried to lay into me.
"I thought I was helping you out, bud. But you've got to help yourself."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm sure she doesn't think as badly about you as you do yourself. You've got to recognize that."
"Knock it off," I said.
"Forget it. Just forget it," he said, finding his mode. "Isn't it great to have a place like this to go to? It's like your very own vacation house."
I was fed up with Fitch's self-righteousness. I finally spoke up.
"You know, you are so manipulative," I said, knowing I wouldn't trigger any reaction in him. "You think the world revolves around you."
"Of course it does. Don't you wonder about it, though? Don't you ever want things to be your way? You have to believe it is that way, I think. You have to live like it is. What else is there?"
"Being a decent human being."
"Oh, bullshit," Fitch said, "That's the excuse you use to prevent yourself from enjoying life. You want the answers handed to you, but it's still not enough. You've got some idealized life you think you want. But it's no different than this," he said, pointing to the ground, "this here. This what we're doing. I get what I want. I can have whatever I want. I'm not taking from anyone. Wake up, man."
I wanted to tell him to fuck off, though I figured he might have a point. For a moment I tried to imagine that I undermined myself. I could almost convince myself Fitch had my best interests in mind. I knew I dawdled and spun my wheels. I did want to change. It just couldn't happen by will alone.
Ana was what I aspired to. I was going to work on myself. I had to just let Fitch get to me. If he hated me so much, why had he been spending time with me? Fitch needed me. It seemed ridiculous.
One day we quit early after we had accomplished a substantial amount of work on the shed. We knew our visits there might be coming to an end. Fitch got on the ATV and drove it around. It was a last ditch effort to have some fun, and we were now fighting to get it away from each other to explore the lodge's seventeen untouched acres.
Fitch talked about going faster, too fast for the quick turns and narrow passages of the gravel trails. "Don't drive in the fourth speed," Ana said, "It's too fast." We watched Fitch maneuver the ATV around, speeding through the woods at the edge of the property, snaking it through swales and along the main gravel road and down to the lake. He would disappear for a minute then we heard him coming from far away, and he would ride past, whooping and waving his arm.
"Fitch is a crazy guy," Ana said, laughing.
I relished my opportunity to take this reckless ride.
Behind the handlebars of the ATV, something pushed me on. Adrenaline. Fear. Excitement. I caught my breath and leaned back, and at full throttle the machine almost took off ahead of me. Rushing through the cold wind was joy blasting me in the face. I let it out on the narrow two track through the cedar grove, down from the edge of the lake, up a slope through a tunnel of twisting, gnarled limbs, heading toward the light. I wanted to get past what blocked me. I had a goal. It made me straighten up and thought I felt nervous, I went forward. I was fired up.
Before I had ten feet to change my course, I saw it coming. I was heading for a V of thick stumps like two giant arms wanting to catch me. In a split second the engine made a horrible cutting sound, and the abrupt hit threw me glancing past the trees. The ATV, on its side, wheels still turning, the front staved in by the crook of trees, grumbled with a sick ticking. I lay on the ground with a throbbing in my rib cage. Ana, on the porch of the lodge, saw me, and, confused, alarmed, came for me. I was stunned, but stood up, off-balance on the soft ground.
For a few buzzing seconds I felt overcome by my act, my survival. Two feet to the right and I would have been beaned on the tree.
I walked toward Ana's bright figure. Fitch stood behind her, waiting, a big, detached question mark. Ana walked toward me, cautiously, and put out her arms to brace me.
"Wait a second, Mark. Look at me. Are you okay?" She stopped me with her hands.
I fell into her arms, a sudden softness, my face into her sweater. She put her arms around me. I inhaled. Just as I had imagined, she was sweet.
"Mark, let me see you," she said.
"There wasn't any way to stop," I said, as I tried not to cry into her sweater, overcome with gratitude. And I knew nothing could stop me now.
Bio: Robert M. Detman is an MFA graduate of Goddard College, and has contributed to publications including, The San Francisco Chronicle, The King's English, Kitchen Sink and NewCity. A forthcoming review will be in Rain Taxi.