We’d already had the sign out for three days, and no real prospects. You’d think with the plant closed and the holidays so close, we’d have got a few bites, at least. But only Ron came in, and that was more of a joke than anything. He had way too much history on both sides of the counter for us to take him seriously. And he knew it.
Cal had this idea that his coffee shop was going to be filled with holiday shoppers, all drinking giant lattes or his “patented” Christmacchiato. I told him when it’s this cold and there’s so little money people’ll stay home scrounging around on eBay drinking the cheap hot chocolate you make from packets.
He wouldn’t hear it. “When I first opened this place we poured plain coffee from glass pots and handed out huge pieces of homemade peach pie. Now we got these things from the starship Enterprise.” He jerked a thumb towards the gleaming espresso machine. “But I still know what people want.”
I’ve been working for Cal since high school, and I know when he sets his mind to something, that’s it. We had the holiday people coming, he said. We had to be ready. He was going to get another barista if it killed me and him both.
So when she came in out of the cold with a big smile, introduced herself, and asked about the job, I didn’t even notice the scarf. I just thought, hallelujah, Fatimeh. Did I say that right?
And the scarf wasn’t even that big a deal when I finally did notice it. It was a nice light blue cashmere one, and it framed her pretty face so nice. But Cal picked up on it right away. While I was asking her to fill out an application, he caught my eye and crooked his finger.
“Back booth,” he mouthed silently. “Right now.”
“What’s with the scarf?” he whispered as I slid in opposite him.
“It’s cold, Cal.” I looked back at Fatimeh, hoping she wouldn’t walk out on us.
“Nah — it’s one of those Muslim things. That’s a Hee-jab.”
I rolled my eyes. “Even if it is, it’s just a scarf, Cal.”
He shook his head. “Find out if she’s Muslim. Ask her. No, wait. You can’t do that, dammit. But find out.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Cal. I’ll find out if she can work the machine without scalding herself and ending up in the ER, like Ron did.”
Cal made a face and sat, arms folded, to watch.
So I went back to the front booth, where Fatimeh was filling in her application. She looked up and smiled at me.
“Do you have any experience as a barista?” I said it loud enough for Cal to hear in the back.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “I worked at a coffee shop in my neighborhood for six years before I moved here.”
And here came Cal. “Just what neighborhood are you talking about?” He looked at me like ‘this is how you find out the real stuff.’
Cal shot me a triumphal glance.
I sighed. “That’s in Cincinnati, right?”
Fatimeh’s eyes widened. “Yes! Are you from around there, too?”
I didn’t even look at Cal. I just said, “Well, Fatimeh, would you make me a macchiato?”
She was up and behind the counter in a second. Found the apron and everything before I could even get there to show her.
“She should make a Christmacchiato…” Cal whispered to me.
“Let’s start basic, alright?”
Fatimeh was working the machine like she’d already been there a year. Boom boom boom, the espresso’s in the cup. Whoop, whoop, whoop, and the foam’s done. And then she poured the foam on top, moving her hand around real fast.
“Here you go.”
On the top of the drink was a real pretty design. I showed it to Cal.
He looked at it and snorted. “What’s this supposed to be?”
“Cal, it’s a macchiato,” I said.
“Nah, this — this doodad stuff she wrote on it. What’s it supposed to mean?”
“It’s a flower,” she said. “I can do a Christmas tree, too, if you like.”
“Cal, that would be perfect for the Christmacchi—”
But he pulled me aside. “Come here. We need to talk.”
He pushed me towards the back booth. “Look, don’t get carried away. You don’t know anything about her.”
“Who’s getting carried away? I know she can work the machine. We’ll check her references in Cincinnati. What else is there?”
“Okay, maybe she can do the work. But this is a very social position, you know? She’ll be dealing with our customers. And it’s Christmastime, too. What would they think of her in that Muslim scarf thing?”
“Look, Cal, you said the whole deal about Christmas was the crowds coming in. She’s a really good barista, and she can do those pretty designs. She said she’d do a Christmas tree, too. So what’s the big deal about—”
“The big deal is,” and then, even though we were way in the back, out of earshot, he pulled me closer and whispered, “the designs she makes with the foam — they could be a code, you see? Secret messages.”
I tried hard not to laugh. “To who?”
“We don’t know! That’s the point!” Then he turned around fast and started toward Fatimeh. “I’ll handle this.”
The next week when Ron came back to work, I told him about Fatimeh. He didn’t exactly side with Cal, but he said it was important to be real careful nowadays. And besides, some of our regulars might not like having someone like Fatimeh around. Even if they still came, they might treat her rudely, and was that fair to her?
I guess that’s true. But I still think about Fatimeh and those pretty designs. Maybe she would have taught me how to make them, too.
Regina Higgins lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. She’s the author of Magic Kingdoms, a study of classic children’s literature, published by Simon & Schuster. She is currently writing a novel.