The loud man says, “You know how to tell he’s lying — when his lips are moving,” like it’s news. Across the room the man with the butterfly bandage taped across the bridge of his nose thinks he’s the one who can sniff out the truth. He taps at his keyboard, one eye on the clock marking the time until his wifi password expires. He sits near a woman he half-recognizes from somewhere. The grocery story? The therapist’s office? A student’s mother from the middle school where he works? His inability to place her irritates him like the ticking away of his online minutes.
The leashed dog shivers in the rain. He’s resigned to his master’s ways, his loud master who is dry inside chewing biscuits and spitting half-truths along with bacon gristle. The dog owner comes here every morning with his table of ham-faced, slack-bellied cronies to discuss city politics in thick drawls. These men don’t sleep well, are here when the morning barista comes to unlock the door. Like the dog, she, too, is resigned to their ways, the compliments she must pretend to welcome, the banter in which she’s required to engage. Buttering their biscuits, she’s imagined mixing powders into sugar shakers, tinctures into jellies. She’s majoring in pharmacy and learning the difference between a lethal and a religious experience.
The barista was raped, last spring, on a wet night which would have deterred all but the most deranged of stalkers. Unlike the eighty-five-percent of women raped by a friend or acquaintance, hers was a true dark alley experience, when she decided to cut through the parking lot behind the College of Education and the Marine Sciences building. It happened near the dumpster. The streetlight illuminated the words stenciled on its green metal surface NO UNAUTHORIZED DUMPING. She read them over and over, even included it in the campus police report, she was embarrassed to see when she picked up a copy for insurance so her therapy appointments could be extended beyond the ten covered sessions. The perpetrator has still not been apprehended. She doesn’t like the shadowy forms of the old men waiting for her to unlock the coffeehouse door in the morning murk.
The baker is un-rushable, even when they’re running low on biscuits for the breakfast crowd. He is up to his dark elbows in flour, hands gently patting out the dough. He eschews mixers and measuring cups, says he knows by feel when it’s not too wet, not too dry, hits that sweet moment of just right. He pats the dough into a rough square, cuts individual biscuits with an antique tin cutter. The barista takes some comfort in his stolid flour-dusted presence whenever she has cause to enter the brightly lit kitchen.
The half-recognized woman nurses a hangover. Her cure is a bacon cheese biscuit with double bacon. This is the only thing she will eat all day. Her fitness tracker will monitor her heartbeat, her steps, her sleep and wake cycles. It will remind her to drink water and to go to bed before midnight. A decade ago, she would have caught the attention of the tableful of old men, like the college student at the table adjacent to them who politely pulls her earbuds out again and again to answer their questions. She’s too young to know better, has just gotten used to being visible. But the hungover woman has stopped dyeing her hair, has lines beginning to etch themselves into the corners of her mouth. The gift of aging is privacy.
The dog owner glances toward the counter and shakes his empty cup. No self-serve for the regulars. A clap of thunder makes the room jump, followed by a flicker of the overhead lights as the power cuts off and on. Everyone else — the barista, the hungover woman, the man with the butterfly bandage across his nose, even the baker, who poked his head through the swinging door when the lights flickered — is arrested by the sight of the yellow dog with the red collar patiently waiting out the downpour. A cop in uniform pushes open the door, stomping his wet boots on the mat before sauntering up to the counter. He salutes the old men, who salute him back, part of the morning routine. The barista grips her pen tightly, though she knows his order by heart.
The man with the butterfly bandage turns back to his keyboard. Only twenty-three minutes left and he’ll be out of wifi and free refills. He is writing a fantasy novel with a central conceit that there is no magic, no quest to fulfill, no destiny to meet. The world around his characters is what it is. He calls it an inverted fantasy. The hopeful author thinks he’s really on to something. To strip away the shimmer of possibility until life’s rawness is exposed is the real magic.
When her shift ends, the barista slips into the kitchen to tell the baker goodbye. The bright space is empty, he’s stepped into the alley for a cigarette, pressed up against the bricks in the shelter of the dripping eaves. The barista slides her hand across the baker’s floury table. She presses her hand — floured fingers and thumb — to her throat. Right where she can feel her heart beat. Right where it will leave a mark.
Heidi Espenscheid Nibbelink is Midwestern by birth, Western by heart, and Southern by circumstance. She lives in Athens, Georgia where she works as a high school counselor and gigs around town as an oboist-for-hire. Her short stories have been published in New Pop Lit, Shark Reef, Drunk Monkeys, Steel Toe Review, and other journals. She is presently an MFA student at the Sewanee School of Letters, University of the South, Sewanee, TN. Find links to her published work at heidinibbelink.com, or follow her on Twitter @AnnoyedOboist.