She read to him in hushed tones, her voice quavering like a burbling stream. The rise and fall of the sudden vowel, the atrophy of consonants, the vibrato of dialogue spilling fluidly across the café. His oaken hands were clasped before him, his eyes hollow and milky. Every few minutes he would raise the paper cup to his mouth and suckle at the warm, bitter steep of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. He tasted honor, history, community, and backbreaking labor. He tasted commerce and trade. He tasted freedom. He tasted the before times, before he lost his sight, before his hearing had started to go, before he felt so…dependent.
“And like his sure-footed burro, the caballero forged into the valley, his deerskin windbreaker slick with early morning dew….”
The door chimed, the heavy glass plates parting to usher in men and women frocked in trades-cloth: a man in a four-button merino wool suit, too hot for the season, a woman in bright green scrubs, another man in board shorts and Teva sandals. One would save lives today, one would break spirits, and one would question everything as the line between life and death blurred to grey.
They all ordered the Yirgacheffe.
“The river ran strong in the fall as it wound down from the valley. The thick sweetgrass matted at the banks, the verdant bows dipped in reverence. He stooped and drank in between the furrows, his thick corduroy pants flecked with deep red clay, the clay of the ancients…”
A buzzer sounded. “Hot Bread,” a faceless voice called out, a pastry phantom busking in the recesses of the half-empty café. The smells slunk low between the iron tabletops, wound around argyle socks, sneakers, and tanned legs, and buffeted up into the nose of an anxious man with a thousand-yard stare. He drew in a breath, his eyes glazing, pupils dilated as the fresh flourish of yeast and flame-kissed crust flared memories of youth. His eyes watered alongside his taste buds, and his hands clenched tighter inside his pockets as he held position just inside the door.
“While a burro may drink but once per day, a man is victim to his frailty, both of spirit and of mind, and must purge the chill of death with deep draughts of the free-flowing streams that wind between the valley peaks. He must assuage the parch, the yearning, the fear of dying with the crystal wash of snowmelt as he pays penance on the rocky shoreline for his sins…”
His wife shifted in her chair, lifted a paper cup to her lips, and drew in a hot gulp, as though willing the hero to hydrate in vicarious sympathy. The old man lifted his cup and drank, unconsciously mirroring her habits: their decades-forged routine. He followed the deep draught of muddy waters with a crust of rosemary ciabatta. The flavors danced, spun tales and memories into taste, and he leaned back heavily in the creaking iron chair, his palms pressing into the table. His mind wound through Little Havana and grandma’s kitchen and humid afternoons under the chardonnay arbor. He could smell the ripened peels of the opaque grapes, their light green flesh fading with the season as they plumped, juices bursting from sun-split skins.
“Large Caramel Latte.” A voice called out, shattering the reverie. His wife picked up the tome and began to read once more. His hands re-gripped the coffee, his sightless eyes brimming with anticipation, cragged and pocked with the passage of time. The anxious man stepped forward, his right hand outstretched, fingers quivering, unstable. He took the coffee. Three patrons sipped their Yirgacheffe at separate tables, their eyes studying separate phones, their ears listening to the quaver of the old woman’s hushed tale.
“At the edge of the clearing lay an estuary, its fingered streams splayed across the valley trailing thin, blue veins into the horizon. He reigned his burro, stepped down heavily onto the soft soils, and pulled the flat-bladed shovel from his saddle bag. Then he began to dig. The muscles of his shoulders swelled as the sun set in the distance, the rays dancing between the billowing dust plumes.”
“Hot Bread.” The voice shouted once more, the echo spilling into the room as patrons shuddered and suckled their brews.
“Now! Give it to me now!” Another voice came, forceful and stark. Heads swiveled. The anxious man stood, body heaving, a steaming latte in one hand, a black steel viper in the other. The diminutive girl behind the counter shook, her hands dancing along the keyboard as though springing Tchaikovsky’s 9th symphony from beneath the monotone strokes. There was a chime, a fumble, a shriek, and groan. The man grew furious and dashed his latte violently against the counter, his fingers flailing as he wrenched cash and coin from the uncovered coffers.
“And as he dug, he watched the sun dip low behind the towering peaks whose snow-kissed tops sluiced violet. He tossed shovelful after shovelful over his shoulder, his head bent in purpose, his eyes steeped with grief. The foggy waters pooled over his irises and spilled down his cheeks, small ponds filled between the rich and fertile troughs of soil where his shovel blade cut deep. He was convulsing, his pain wrenched free of the iron vault where he had locked it away for so many days…”
The man in the suit rose, his eyes darting from the anxious man to the door. He chose the path of least resistance and fled, his half-empty cup of Yirgacheffe left cooling on the webbed iron of the corner table. The scrubbed woman also stood, her face ashen, her resolve steeled and purposeful. She stepped forward, but was barred from momentum by the man in board shorts and sandals. He smiled confidently and gestured for her to stay back. Then, with a flourish, he tousled his hair, flexed his beach-built biceps, and launched at the villain with reckless abandon. The two men collided, a whirlwind of caramel skin, sun-bleached locks, and curses.
“The caballero lifted his shovel for a final time, tossing the detritus balefully onto the riverbank. Then he rose, lifted himself from the deep indentation, and strode to the grazing burro. He untied the thick leather straps and hefted the burlap bundle down, gently nestling his prize amongst the sweet green blades of grass. He pulled back one side of thick, cool sackcloth and then the other. His eyes caught on the pale, peaceful face beneath and his heart split. He plunged to his knees, pounded his fists into the earth, and wailed…”
A cry rose up from the tiled floor of the café. A muzzle flared. A man fell, collapsed against the sudden shock of the white heat which seared his belly and roiled his bowels. Another man stood, black viper smoking in his palm, his breath unsteady, teeth chattering. The nurse rose, her eyes saucered as fear pulled her back to the safety of the Yirgacheffe. But even the lure of a quality African brew cannot withstand the call of training, of professional confidence, and she leapt into action.
With his palms tight against the sides of the coffee cup, the old man drew in a sharp breath. His wife had stopped reading. He sensed that something had changed. There was an acrid smell in the air and something darker, something metallic seemed to ride the waves of fresh bread and pastries that still buffeted from the swinging kitchen doors. “Keep reading, dear.” He asked calmly. “I want to hear what happens.” He felt her rise, heard the book collapse shut on the table, and then the murmur of a crowd, the burbling of voices and footsteps and somewhere, far in the distance, the bellows of police sirens.
When the chair legs finally groaned, he sensed her fear and reached across the table to take her hand. He patted it gently, years of familiarity forging the calming sense of safety. She picked up the book, turned to the final pages, and heaved a sigh onto the table. Then, voice quivering but louder, rising over the din in the background, the clatter of a stretcher, the commands of officers, the tears and wails of the workers, she began again to regale him.
“He carried the small bundle across the field, the burlap twisting free in his arms. He let it billow, flutter out, claimed by the wind. She would need it no longer. He lowered her lifeless body into the hole he had hollowed. His hands shook. She was so small. Barely three years old. And here, tucked beneath the loess soils of the valley, entombed between the estuary streams, nestled below the swaying sweet grasses of the plains, she would find peace. Then he lay down beside her and slept for the first time in days, his dreams reuniting father and daughter in the calming chill of the meadow.”
The old man finished his cup of Yirgacheffe, the bitter grains thick and pulpy on his lips. He reached out and his wife met his hand with her own. Their fingers joined and he felt the wetness on his fingertips. He pressed his palm to her dewy cheeks, wiped away the tears that lingered, smiled soothingly, and began to rise. “Come dear,” he suggested, his arm crooked out for her as he stood. She took it, slipping her purse over the other shoulder, and then led him through the growing crowd, past the anxious man who was sullen and handcuffed, past the bagged body of the proud surfer, past the nurse who was sobbing in the corner, and into the blazing sun of another Central Florida day.