Linda had gotten up late that morning and had known that she didn’t have much time to watch in the cup this morning, but she took the chance and was paying for it. She took the stairs because she knew it was faster than the elevator. Even in her best professional heels she was holding the handrails and taking two steps at a time. She passed the man from the floor below her on his way up. He said, “Hey, watch it lady. Why you always in a rush?”
She smiled and said, “Good morning.” And she kept right on at the same pace. The man was always coming up around this time of day. He didn’t look like the in-shape type, but he always took the stairs. She figured he must be sitting all night driving a cab or something, so he takes the stairs to feel like he’s getting some kind of exercise. The truth was they never spoke other than the polite ‘good mornings’ they would exchange when she wasn’t rushing. In fact, that was most of life in The City for her. It was be polite and keep to yourself. The City could be safe if you kept to the good parts of town, but grifters and confidence men were everywhere. Anybody too friendly was either new to The City and hadn’t been ripped off just yet, or they were out to rip you off.
She’d had it happen to her when she had first arrived. He had seen her at the coffee bar. She had gone there a lot before she realized she couldn’t afford it. Finances were already tight without a ten-dollar cup of black coffee in a crowded storefront, and she had been going once or twice a week, sometimes more. Francisco was a handsome older man with slicked back hair thinning on the top. He had paid attention to her despite her simply sitting and watching her coffee.
She was thrilled at first. The man would sit in the table next to her and offer to pay for her cup the next time they were both in the shop together. He seemed to always be there just after she had paid for her cup. After a few times, he would just come and sit at her table and look into her eyes. He would lower his voice and talk about the future they could have. After about a week or so she thought she was falling in love. And that is when he asked for some money.
It was just a hundred dollars at first. He said his mother needed just a little help with her groceries. The next week he had asked for five hundred dollars to get his car looked at. She said, “Francisco, I wish I could, but I don’t have five hundred dollars.”
He said, “Sweetheart, its important.” He had taken to calling her sweetheart although they had never met anywhere besides the coffee bar. He said, “My boss is ready to fire me. It’s really important.” He looked into her eyes and got his lip to quiver.
She said, “I can’t do it this month, Francisco. I barely have enough to pay my rent.”
He said, “I know, sweetheart. It’s just your old Fran-Fran, over here, is in a really tight spot.” He put his hand on hers. He said, “Why don’t you never call me Fran-Fran? You know I like to hear it.” He looked at her for a while then he said, “I know a nice girl like you has got some jewelry. I swear I’ll pay you back.”
She told him that she would try to come up with the money. He said, “Please do, sweetheart. I don’t think you’d respect me anymore if I had to beg you in front of all of these people here.”
That was the only time the man from downstairs had ever stopped her to talk. He said, “I saw you the other day at the coffee bar talking to that old man. Don’t you be giving him no money.”
She said, “Who, Francisco?”
He said, “Is that what he told you? He was Chico to my sister, and Johnathan to my grandmother. I had to threaten him with a knife to get him to leave my Gammy alone.” He spit in the corner under the stair rail against the wall. He said, “I don’t imagine you’d ever get him come here, but if you do, and I see him, I’ll kick him down the fucking stairs.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “Look I don’t mean to be rude. You look like a nice girl to me. You’ll find you a nice man. Just this Francisco, or whatever. You tell him you ain’t giving him no more money. I bet he won’t never talk to you again. He’s a thief. He don’t love you.”
The man from downstairs was right. When she told Francisco she wouldn’t give him anymore money, he said, “See that lady over there.” He pointed to a gray-haired woman in a pants suit sitting across the room. “I am going to go over and talk to her. And if you say even a word, I’ll slap you around in front of everyone here. And you will feel too stupid to ever drink another cup of coffee here again.” She had never seen Francisco again.
*** Part 3
At least until she came barreling around that corner. She was walking fast and looking down at her phone to see what time it was. She cut as close as she could to the cement column at the corner of the bank building. There was another half block and she was racing to make it before the morning deadline. And there was Francisco coming around the same corner. At least it was him for a second. Or she thought it was him.
No, no it was him. It was Francisco. She had run into him hard and was knocked onto the sidewalk and her attaché case had fallen and come open. Her papers had gotten wet with what looked, smelled, and felt like hot coffee. Her head was swimming, and her arms were dripping with scalding coffee.
It had been Francisco for. He had looked so much older and worse for wear. It had seemed that the last three years had not been good to him. He had been walking and drinking from a Styrofoam to-go-cup of coffee. In the split second of impact, the coffee cup had come open smashed against Francisco’s face. The coffee splashed up and off his face into the air, and Linda was transfixed by the scattering of the black liquid glittering in the sunlight. The falling globes of coffee all at once revealed the man that she had seen in the coffee before she had left her apartment.
All in that split second, she had seen the young man and his two thousand dollar suit and the boat and the beating and the blood and the woman and the note. All at the same time, and all in vivid detail. She smelled the clean linen smell of the high-end tailor shop. Felt each time he was hit with. Felt the whisper of a woman’s lips on his cheek and her hand in his pocket dropping a note. Felt the draw of the toy boat and the mystery of the business cards. Felt the pain of spending his last dime on that suit. Heard the warning from the man at the deli not to go. Felt the caress of a woman’s hands removing his clothes. Felt the frightened excitement of the door flying opened. Saw three men with cutoff broom handles. Heard them asking him for something, but he gave them his name. Was it Raul? Was it Allen? And she felt his passion, and his youth, and his erection, and its fade, and his death. Most of all, she felt his death. And all in that split second.
And Francisco was gone. He had slammed into her knocking her to the ground, and he was gone but for the coffee on her and her papers and the broken cup and lid being kicked across the ground by the people walking past. Some passersby had hooted their approval at seeing her fall. Others had gasped, but none seemed to know exactly how it happened. Although not many had stuck around to voice their opinions. Most had continued walking past. But one man had offered her a hand up. She had expected it to be the young man with the expensive suit, but it was not. It was just some man she may or may not have seen before. He helped her up, handed her the attaché case and then he was on his way checking his pockets to make sure she had not stolen his wallet.
She had not seen what had happened to Francisco or whatever name he was using these days. It was possible that he had just slipped past in the confusion, but it sure didn’t feel that way. There was so much anger at seeing Francisco and confusion and other emotions in that split second that she was sure that he had simply vanished. She had never sent anyone away through the coffee or knew if it even worked that way. In fact, she didn’t know how any of it worked only that it did. She could suppress it sometimes when she had time to concentrate, but this had all happened so fast.
She walked into the copy editor’s office and said, “Mr. Hutchinson, is there a computer I can use?”
He swiveled around in his chair. Then leaned back in surprise. He said, “Jesus, Mrs. Carla. I’d ask how your morning was, but I think I can tell.” He got up from his chair. “Here, sit down. You can use mine.”
It was a good thing that she was able to access her work remotely because here papers were brown, soggy, and wrinkling by the time she got them to the newspaper building. Honestly, she wasn’t sure why she went through the extra effort of actually going down to the building when she could have just emailed the documents in the first place. She felt like she might have to explain something to the Mr. Hutchinson or something like that. But he never did ask. He’d always loved her work and seldom made any changes.
She just thought there was something better about the weight of actual paper. Something you could touch. And it gave her a reason to leave her apartment and interact with real people that weren’t her clients. And she liked seeing Mr. Hutchinson. He was a chubby old man and he kept pictures of his wife and his kids and their kids. And he always had something interesting he had just read while he was getting it ready to go to print. But this morning he was only interested in what had happened to her. And all she could tell him is it all happened so fast.
No, she wouldn’t give up her walks to the paper. She liked The City. There was just something honest about not knowing someone and not being forced to pretend to know them. That is what she liked about living and walking there. The City simply existed. It didn’t care if you didn’t know it. The people simply existed. Most people didn’t care if you didn’t know anything about them. And the majority seemed to prefer that you didn’t know them. When she got back to her apartment, she was tempted to pour herself a cup of coffee from the pot she left on the eye to keep hot. But she decided instead to get herself in the shower and change into clothes that were not stained and smelling of stale coffee.
She nearly screamed when she saw the naked and bleeding man lying in her bed. It was Raul or Allen or whatever she thought his name might be. It was the young man from her vision, but he wasn’t dead. He was beaten and bloody and seemed to be in and out of consciousness. She was sure she had seen him die, but here he was. Alive or just barely. She wet a clean towel from her bathroom and began to clean the blood off him. The thought of the police did cross her mind but didn’t call them. She knew that she had brought him here, and now she owed him something. The police would just take him away, and he would end up broken like Judy. Linda was determined to help him.
*** Part 4
Linda had dressed the young man’s wounds and covered him with clean sheets and found her largest bathrobe folded it and laid it on the bedside table. He mumbled her name and something about the toy boat she had seen in her vision but nothing particularly intelligible. After a few hours he regained enough consciousness to hold short conversations. She asked him his name, and he wasn’t able to tell her right away. She said, “Your name is Raul or Allen or maybe something close to one of those. You had been handing out business cards in the street. Can you remember any of that?”
He said, “Maybe. I’m not sure. Allen. Not Raul. But I did. But Allen.” She could tell he was straining to remember anything.
She said, “Do you remember the business cards? Could you tell me about those?” She was starting to be embarrassed by how much this resembled giving someone a reading.
He said, “Yes. No. I think Linda has my toy boat.”
She said, “I’m Linda. You’ve been calling my name. Do you know how you know my name?”
He said he didn’t know, and his head hurt too much to talk for now. She agreed to wait and told him where the robe was. She told him, when he was up to it, she would help him put on the robe. When she thought it was safe enough to leave him on his own, she went out and bought some men’s underwear, tee shirts and a couple pairs of sweats. He wouldn’t look as nice as he did is his expensive suit, but he would be covered up.
While she was out, she felt like she was being watched. It was more than likely here imagination, but it seemed like she kept seeing the same two men’s faces in the crowd going down one street and then another. This was The City and with so many people around all the time she was bound to see people who resembled one another, but this felt different than that. It wasn’t the typical I think that guy looks like someone I know. But more like I swear I just saw the same guy two blocks over. She had just called Allen through the coffee, and her head still felt a little funny from that experience. Maybe this was Déjà vu brought on by that experience. She was so young that last time she had brought someone through she couldn’t remember how she had felt afterwards.
When she got back to her apartment Allen was asleep, so she left the clothes on the bedside table and went into the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee. She thought the visions she saw in the coffee might explain things better. She knew it didn’t work that way, but she wasn’t sure what she knew anymore. And the coffee didn’t give any special enlightenment, it only showed her the things it always did. But it did sooth her, and it eased the strange feeling in her head.
She must have been truly and deeply engaged in what she was watching because she didn’t hear Allen get up. He was dressed and standing in the bedroom doorway. He watched her leaning over the cup of coffee for a while before he spoke. He said, “What do you see in there?” She looked up somewhat surprised. He said, “It’s not just your reflection, is it?” She came up with a few quick excuses, and Allen listened quietly. He said, “Can I see?”
She seldom had anyone over besides clients, and they typically sat on the couch. Even when they did decide they wanted their reading done at the table, none had ever asked to see in her coffee. She knew seeing into the coffee was only her gift, but she held a little hope that under these circumstances, he might see some answers she couldn’t see. She pushed the coffee cup over to the chair beside her. Allen sat and looked into the cup of coffee with a faroff stare like he was concentrating.
For once, Linda was focused on someone with coffee without feeling the pull to look into the coffee itself. His left eye was purple and nearly shut and the bridge of his nose was swollen like it could be broken, but she could see through all that to how handsome he was. That wasn’t just here memories of him from the vision. Besides much of the vividness of her vision that morning had already faded like waking from a nightmare. You know you had it. Your heart is still racing. But you can no longer remember all the details. In a minute you will only remember how you felt. In another few you will even have forgotten you had a nightmare in the first place. Only she had a handsome nightmare, and he was sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee.
Allen frowned and looked a little while longer. Then, he pushed the cup back over to her. He said, “I don’t see anything, but my own stupid face.” He sat beside her and put his head on his hand wincing a little against the pain in his face. He said, “Do you mind if I drink a little of that coffee? It might help to clear my head.”
She said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Yes. I should have offered. Let me see if I have some cream and sugar.” She got up from the table and started toward the fridge. He told her not to worry about that he could drink it black. She said, “It has been cooking for hours. Why don’t you let me make you a new pot?”
He said, “Don’t go through the trouble. Right now, I don’t think I could taste much of anything.” They sat there and talked for a while. Her coffee sat next to her getting cold, and he drank his one small sip at a time. She was pretty sure he could taste it, and he didn’t really like it. But he drank it, and he never once spoke about their future together which she felt was a nice change.