At Java House that night Maurice was trying to sweet talk one of the U. of A. girls again. His victim this night was a tall shapely blond with a braided ponytail and a backpack full of campus library books, which she stacked and re-stacked as if she was hunting for the right order to discover their mysteries. The girl listened to Maurice’s initially disarming coffee banter without ever looking at him, while Maurice, on his fifteen minute break, talked quickly toward his goal of asking for her number. She seemed to endure him sitting there at her corner table with the inverted flower pot lamp shining down on her steaming cappuccino, and probably because Maurice had long cultivated a French accent via Berlitz study tapes he’d copped from an old boarder who’d skipped without paying the rent. Maurice had never actually been to France, of course, but his mother was half French, and he also loved French roast and French onion soup and French fries. A short balding man who resembled Frenchy on Hogan’s Heroes, Maurice never mentioned his now overweight middle-aged Hispanic wife Maria, nor their two cherubic cartoon-loving children. Instead he pushed around a little coffee bean with his ringless ring finger as he chattered on. Michael overheard the conversation from behind the counter, but of course he’d heard it all before.
–“Did you know,” Maurice asked, “that the coffee berry was discovered hundreds of years ago by an Ethiopian goat herder by the name of Kaldi?”
–“Really,” the girl said, as dully as a basketball star at a spelling bee.
–“Oui. It gave the monks a big pick-me-up, too. Then from Ethiopia, it traveled to the Arabian peninsula where it was cultivated. Then to Turkey, where it was called a bean. It was in Turkey, of course, where the beans were roasted, crushed, and boiled in water.”
–“Is that right?”
–“Oh yes! The coffee tree is actually a tropical evergreen shrub that can grow to a hundred feet. Takes four thousand hand-picked green coffee beans to make a pound of coffee. It is second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage. Ranks second to petroleum in dollars traded worldwide.” He paused for the kicker. “Do you know how many cups of coffee are consumed every year?”
The girl crooked her jaw. “I’m sure you’ll tell me,” she intoned.
–“Four hundred. . . “ he paused again for emphasis, “billion.”
She rolled her eyes ceilingward, saying nothing.
–“In Europe it was known as Arabian wine. Catholics once thought it should be banned, and referred to it as the drink of the devil. But then the Pope started drinking, and gave it his blessing.”
–“Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”
Maurice chuckled with a leering smile. “Of course you know it was a French military man brought a plant over and planted it on the Island of Martinique. Now it’s grown all over the Caribbean, plus Latin America, Africa, Arabia, and Indonesia. Hawaii, India and Southeast Asia too. What’s your favorite bean?”
–“Jamaican blue? Oh yes! Bean there, done that. That’s my favorite too. Richest, most expensive. Depending on the ups and downs of the market, it’s around forty bucks a pound, you know. Got a taste like. . .” He searched in the air for the right phrase, his fingers pursed. “. . . like sweet love in the afternoon.”
The blond girl finished her espresso, repacked her books, and at length gave Maurice one of those looks that said, nice try. Without bothering to answer his next and inevitable question, she got up and left. Maurice rose as if to follow her out.
–“Don’t you want to know–” he began, but then he decided to give up on his less than hopeless gambit. He tossed his coffee bean up into the air and caught it behind his back. His expression never changed.
–“Nice try,” Michael said.
–“So what you doing after work?” Maurice chided him, minus the accent, on his way back to the kitchen…and not expecting an answer. “Got you a threesome going? Two stewardesses from out of town?”
Michael continued to polish the counter with a dry towel, waiting for the next customer. Then he happened to look up at the terracotta clock that hung over the entrance. It was 11:12, less than an hour to close, and he was suddenly reminded of the worried look on the pretty face of his shrink when he’d told her everything he’d dared to tell. Instinctively, then–like knowing whether a scene would make a great photo or not–he knew it would be bad tonight when he closed his eyes. Even worse, the more he thought about it.
He looked around for some other audible conversation to follow as distraction. Anything to fill the time, be it stream of consciousness ramblings involving the mating habits of supermodels, warmed over jokes about politicians flying to Rio on goodwill junkets, or pipe dreams about someday actually being able to afford to drink Jamaican blue. But the eight customers left in the joint weren’t talking much anymore. Three were loners, studying. Another rough old guy in Army fatigues nursed a cheap cup of Colombian and stared at the wall as if waiting for the End.
–Instinctively he knew tonight would be bad, indeed…