She works at the bakery where the people who drive cars with NPR bumper stickers go to get their morning coffee. He doesn’t have the NPR bumper sticker, but he comes here every morning for the coffee. And for her.
He watches the flour dust roil around his feet like surprised ghosts as he walks through the bakery’s double doors. She is standing behind the counter, counting change and dropping coins in an old woman’s outstretched palm that shakes like an autumn leaf in the breeze.
“Seventy-eight, seventy-nine- hello there! – eighty, ninety and four dollars.”
She sees him out of the corner of her eye and half smiles, though she keeps her eyes on the old woman who pockets her change and thanks her, shuffling away with a loaf of bread.
He smiles politely as she turns her attention toward him and puts his hands in the pockets of his jeans. She is wearing the well-worn straw cowboy hat again. Everyone who works at the bakery is required to wear a hat. Another girl always wears a Castro-style cap with a paisley leaf embroidered on it. A young guy wears a “Keep Austin Weird” trucker cap. The bakery owner himself wears a Cubs cap and is teased unmercifully for it by customers and employees alike. He likes her because she shows some personality with her hats. The Russian earflap with its luxurious fur lining, the lumberjack red and black plaid flannel cap, the Patagonia trucker cap. The only words he’s ever said to her- outside of asking for a coffee, please- was to compliment her on her green tweed Irish flat cap.
“Thanks!” she said, and tipped it to him. He had never seen anyone with amber eyes.
She had motioned with a barely noticeable nod of her chin and raise of her brow to the Russian earflap the next morning, but he wasn’t sure if this was a greeting or a proffered opportunity to compliment her again and begin a more full conversation.
“Have a nice day, miss,” he said.
He learned to read sitting next to his mother as she read, “Go, Dog, Go” each night before bed and following along with his eyes. It wasn’t long before he had memorized it and could recite it along with her. Recitation became recognition and recognition became reading.
“Hello,” they would read together as a yellow lab dog walked on two feet toward a purple poodle who would reply, “Hello!”
“Do you like my hat?” The purple poodle, wearing a blue derby with a sunflower hanging from the band, would ask.
“I do not,” the yellow lab would reply.
“Good-by,” the purple poodle would leave in a huff.
“Good-by,” the yellow lab would say.
She moves from the cash register to her left and stands up on her tip-toes to see him over the display case, putting one hand over the other on the case’s top, she can just barely rest her chin on her hands. She asks him, “What’ll it be?”, with a crooked smile.
He asks for a coffee, please, and they move in unison toward the cash register.
“One-fifty,” and she puts her palms on the much shorter counter, the insides of her thin wrists facing him, and leans on them as he produces two dollar bills from his jeans pocket. She punches a few keys and the drawer pops open and he is surprised, as she returns two quarters into his palm, that her hands are dry and visibly cracked.
She sees him see her hands. “Climbing.”
He puts the quarters in the “Support Counter Culture” tip jar. “Oh.”
“I tried to have nice girly hands, but lotion only helps so much. It’s the only time I’ve ever admitted defeat.”
“Hello,” the purple poodle, now wearing a blue cavalier hat with a broad feather in the band and riding on a scooter, says.
“Hello,” says the yellow lab, now wearing a derby and carrying a cane under his arm while also pushing a scooter, says.
“Do you like my hat?” the purple poodle stops the scooter and primps her cap proudly.
“I do not like it,” says the derby-wearing yellow lab, leaning on his cane.
She was sitting in the corner of a local coffee shop one evening, reading something sizable, occasionally sipping from a mug and licking her pointer finger to turn the page. He sat down at an adjacent table.
He didn’t recognize her at first. Hatless, her daffodil-colored hair tied into a messy bun that rested at the base of her neck. She wore a thick woven sweater and curled her knees to her chest, pulling the neckline of the sweater to below her nose and furrowing her brow. He had come to read, too, and viewed the time as sacred. He resolved not to break the silence, settled in to his own sizable novel and burrowed into Updike.
“OHMYGODMYFAVORITEPERSONINTHEWHOLEWOOOOOOORLD!!!” The door burst open, breaking the plasmapause of fiction. A drunken young woman stumbled in and over and collapsed onto her as she quickly moved the mug out of harm’s way. She gave a tense giggle as she caught her friend and noticed him for the first time. He thought he saw a faint pink glow from her cheeks as they caught each other’s eye, but he couldn’t be sure. The drunken young woman sloshed all over her and asked partially enunciated questions about how she’d been and what she’d been up to. He found the whole thing distasteful. Particularly when the drunken young woman began to talk about who she was “TOADALLYGONNAFUCKLAYDERTA-”
She clapped an open palm over the drunken young woman’s mouth, though the inebriated shouts continued through it unabated. Shushing her friend, she removed her palm and the drunken young woman leapt back into assaulting the small coffee shop with her lack of inhibition and filter. Their mutual friends became “bitches” and “whoring around” was mentioned as a totally legitimate option for the coming weekend’s activities.
He buried his nose in his book and tried not to hear.
“AREWEBOTHERINGYOU,YOUJUDGEMENTALPRICK?!” the young drunken woman looked over at him, glaring. “BECAUSEIFYOUTHINKIGIVEFUCKABOUT-”
She clapped her hand over the young drunken woman’s mouth again and mouthed a “so sorry” to him. “You cannot be drunk in public places, sweetie,” she turned to her friend. “You’re going to get the police called on you. Get out of here and text me later and we’ll get you home.”
He felt his face radiating and buried his nose in his book again.
“OHMYGOD,I’MSOSORRY! IDIDN’TMEANTO-” the young drunken woman began to tear up. Her voice wobbled.
She smiled kindly toward her friend, but sternly pushed her up and pointed her toward the door. “It’s fine, but you’d be better off going to a bar where everyone is as loud as you are, sweets.” The young drunken woman trumpeted her laughter.
He watched from over the margins of his book as the young drunken woman swerved out the door.
“Hello again,” the purple poodle, now skiing up a hill and wearing a lengthy stocking cap, says.
“Hello,” says the yellow lab, also skiing and wearing a Santa cap and scarf.
“Do you like my hat?” The purple poodle asks.
“I do not like that hat,” the yellow lab says.
“Good-by again,” the purple poodle zips down the slope.
She smiles at him when he enters the bakery the next day. She is pulling a shot from the espresso machine at the far end of the counter where they keep the self-serve pump-pot coffee carafes. The steam rises and partially obscures her heart-shaped face.
He orders a coffee, pays the girl with the Castro-cap and takes his mug over to the carafes. She quickly glances up at him as the steam wand whistles through the milk. The girl with the Castro-cap lifts a large basket of bread loaves and moves behind her. He pours coffee into a paper cup, watching it swirl and rise toward the lip.
“Whachu doin’, gurl?” She says to the girl in Castro cap. “Comin’ all up in ma space?!”
“WhaCHU doin’, gurl?!” The girl in the Castro cap shoots back. He tries not to look up, and more importantly, he tries not to laugh.
“I was jus’ sittin’ hur, frothin’ that mee-ulk and I was thinkin’, ‘Shoot, I bet she bring her fine azz ovah if I ax!”
“You was thinkin’ that?!”
“Ish yeah, gurl!”
“You was thinkin’ that?!”
“I said, ish yeah, gurl!”
“My fine azz?”
“Yo fine AZZ!!!”
She shouts louder than she had intended and he cannot help it. He looks up at her and they catch one another’s eye and he laughs and she laughs and the girl in the Castro cap’s cheeks explode and she drops the basket of bread loaves and hides behind a nearby rack of bread and they laugh harder. She looks at him and he looks at her and he has never seen anyone with amber eyes and their laughter dies down a bit and he has never had more and less to say. Their laughter stops and they hold one another’s gaze for a moment.
“Hello again,” the purple poodle says, now standing beside a tree and wearing a copacabana hat filled with fruit, treats, flowers and decorations and spilling confetti. “And now do you like my hat?”
“I do!” The yellow lab says, now wearing a paper party hat. “What a hat! I like it! I like that party hat!”