I sent this story out to a few places for publication, but it didn’t generate much interest. Regardless, it’s the kind of fiction I love: crawling inside the head of an unreliable character and teasing out whatever can develop. Here, a painfully awkward young man enters a coffee shop for his daily exchange with an attractive barista. Every step for him is imbued with symbolic meaning, which builds to a tenuous crescendo that threatens their very relationship. In the end, however, he manages to save them both . . . even though she has no idea of the role she plays in his imagination.
THE MANY ELABORATIONS OF CAESAR
He sees his image in the storefront glass and stops. “You are a child of history,” he repeats, a light fog escaping his mouth in the chill morning air. “You are an undiscovered gem.” The phrases originate from a thrift store self-help tape, now transformed through repeated playing into indecipherable gurgles of alien tongues, scratchy and deep-throated. Not that it matters. He had memorized the narrative long before the soothing female voice on thin cellophane deserted him. Now, whenever he sees a reflection of himself, the words automatically tumble out. A lock of dark hair strays onto his forehead, and he raises a hand to smooth it in line with the others. Perfect. He loves winter. The large down parka with the attached hood makes his image look large and powerful. It surrounds his small frame, with a belly that greedily gathers mass and deposits it strangely, like a woman in her third trimester. A fact made even more conspicuous by the backdrop of frail, awkward limbs and thin hips. Naked, he is the human equivalent of an overgrown, overfed Chihuahua. In his parka, he is a colossus. He looks beyond the reflected image and spots her inside. He exhales through his nose. The resulting twin contrails remind him of a fighter jet. Of Frank Sinatra casually blowing cigarette smoke through his nose as a beautiful woman’s husband tells him to go to hell. He turns and moves towards the door.
Seven, eight, nine. He slows and takes a half-step. Ten. Ten is a round number, and luck favors round numbers. Grasping the cold metal handle of the door, he pulls hard and hops across the threshold, being careful not to step directly on the metal strip. Thresholds are like cracks. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. A sudden wall of warmth envelopes him. He inhales cinnamon and vanilla, carried on a layer of dark roast. It reminds him of a home he has never lived in. A Hansel and Gretel house, like a Thomas Kinkade painting, with a chalet and smoke curling upwards from a stone chimney that protrudes through a deep layer of snow on a steep roof. His childhood roof was flat. He once read that roofs in places like Kinkade paintings are made steep so the snow will slide off. It is required in the building codes. A flat roof will collect snow like a series of blankets, increasing until the weight reaches forty, fifty, sixty pounds per square foot. Multiplied by an area covering a typical twelve hundred square foot residential footprint, the amount would approach an additional seventy-two thousand pounds of force. An equivalent of fourteen Honda Civics parked on the roof. But Honda Civics are hard to draw, he thinks. Snow is easier.
Inhaling deeply, he collects the molecules of other scents, sorting them from their jumbled pile into individual categories. He lowers his eyes to the vinyl floor tiles and concentrates. Jamaican Blue Mountain. Sumatran Organic. A dark Viennese blend. Highlander Grog. Highlander equals hi equals hello equals greeting. He imagines her calling his name. Caesar. Like hot and cold storm fronts mingling at the vestibule, producing a thunderclap. The name is not Phillip, which is flaccid and weak. It replaces Phillip. The voice on the tape had given him permission. Pick the name of the person you know you are. He had tried others that did not seem applicable. Laertes. Charlemagne. Beowulf. Then, fate intervened. On a mixed bag of Iceberg and Romaine, marked down by the grocery because of an upcoming expiration date. The word ‘Caesar.’ Sseee-zarrr. He pronounces the name slowly in his head, bathing his synapses like syrup. The sound pleases him, and he smiles.
He then looks up and sees her. She is wiping the plastic laminated surface of the counter with a wet rag. Her arms are bare to the shoulders, exposing multiple tattoos over caramel-colored flesh, taut with hints of power rippling beneath a silk layer of epidermis and subcutaneous fat. The silver loop through her lower lip catches the light and throws it back, like a boy throwing a stick to a dog. Black, glistening hair is piled high behind a lime green head band, and when she leans forward he can see straight down the open neck of a sleeveless shirt that is far too large for her. The view makes him pause. He wonders if she remembers their last argument.
She glances up at him and looks back to the counter. “Be with you in a minute.” Yes, he thinks. She is furious. He noticed the previous day that she had worn her large gold hoop earrings two days in a row. He had memorized all of them. The red danglies with the silver chains. The thick, plastic aqua half-moons. The paperclips with the tiny metal skulls. The long, serpentine daggers that hung from surgical steel fish hooks. She obviously lacked structure. Hoop should be followed by dangly, then dagger, half-moon, skull. Or half-moon, dangly, skull, hoop, dagger. Even skull, dangly, hoop, dagger, half-moon was acceptable. But to wear the same two days in a row was lazy and immature. Like constantly repeating ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘are we there yet?’ So he told her. Even though his exact words had been, “just cream, please.”
He steps forward and notices the gold hoops are again hanging from her ear lobes. He sighs and shakes his head. She then looks up and all previous thoughts evaporate under the gaze of hazel eyes the size of planets. A thin spaghetti strap, black, slides down her shoulder and caresses her skin as she leans slightly into the counter edge. He resists the monumental urge to move it back up over her shoulder. “Can I help you?” she asks.
He suddenly realizes he has not prepared. Three connections, he thinks. I need three connections first. It is required for his digestibles. There were three fates in Greek mythology. It is also the most elementary polygon, as well as the first number of pi. He glances to the stack of New York Times at his right side and spies a front page headline on unrest in Kenya. The background music of a Paul Simon song is accompanied by the liquid undercurrent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He then looks up. She stands before him, curious and waiting. He can see southeast Asia, Native America, the Balkans and Ireland in her skin, her eyes, her hair, her lips. Not to mention Africa. Africa! He looks to the board quickly. “The Tanzanian blend,” he says. “Medium.” She smiles and moves away. In his ears, his heart sounds like a machine gun firing repeatedly into a steel trash can.
She turns around as she’s filling the cup. “Anything else in it?”
He nods affirmatively. “Just cream, please.” She comes back and he hands her two dollars and fifteen cents, assorted ahead of time and laid out with his clothing the night before. As they make their exchange, their fingertips graze each other. Lightly, like gossamer or a butterfly’s wing or frog’s hair. The effect for him is like grabbing a high-tension power line while standing in a swimming pool filled with mercury. It is through this lightness, not heavy mutton-like handshakes, where true communication occurs. It is why Michelangelo did not paint God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel as though they had just concluded a business transaction. Caesar understands this. We are o.k..
He smiles. “I like your earrings.” She smiles in return. He then turns around and leaves, happy they have bypassed this emotional hurdle as lovers. Even though he has really said nothing at all.
(Patrick Stuart; short story, 1280 words)