BLACK COFFEE — A short story

November 24, 2006

[This is a short story I wrote in 1995.]


You press the lighted button beside the brown paneled door and listen closely for the faint ring beyond, knowing that sometimes these silly things don’t work and you end up standing at the door expectantly while nobody inside has any idea that you’re there. Sure enough, you aren’t able to hear the chime until you press a second time, a little more firmly. You are relieved that your signal is answered promptly, since the gloomy skies are just beginning to give way to drops of rain. Never mind the fact that it is a comfortable 58 degrees, warm even for Austin in January; rain is wet, and there is no pleasure in being wet when it is an unplanned event.

George greets you as he opens the door and invites you to come in out of the moisture. You ask him how he is doing, as you shuffle your feet obligatorily on the welcome mat and step through the doorway onto the tile floor. He responds without hesitation that he is fine. He asks how you are doing, and you, too, respond in the automatic way which is expected: Oh, I’m doing pretty well: it’s Saturday, you know. You think to yourself how you are not really that well and how you know damned well that George is his usual depressed self. Maybe that means he’s doing well, but you don’t believe that. Surely it is not healthy for anyone to be down all the time. George chuckles and concurs, yes it’s Saturday . . . finally!

You admire the Spartan, contemporary spaciousness of George and Margret’s condominium as you stroll from the entry in the front to the breakfast nook in the back, with George following. You tell him — as you always do when you visit — that they have such a beautiful home and what they’ve done to it is just fabulous. With the black slate tile entry that opens into a dramatic whitewashed living/dining area with a 20-foot ceiling and uncurtained windows at the top, the place has the vertical feel of a trés chic Beverly Hills apartment. It evokes a feeling of richness beyond it’s intrinsic value. You wonder if you would be comfortable living in a place like this — a game you often play in your mind when you visit the homes of others. You decide that you could make it comfortable, if you had to, but that you really aren’t a “society” person and would probably be uneasy with the elegance of the place. You would be afraid of being considered pretentious.

Margret greets you with a hug as you reach the breakfast nook. She has already set the small, round cafe-style table, and she invites you to sit and asks if you’d like some coffee. You reply that you’d love some . . . black, please. The warm aroma of steaming eggs and chorizo escapes her skillet and fills the hungry room. So, are we having migas this morning, you ask her. We are, she responds, and then turning to you queries with selfless concern, do you like migas? Margret is the epitome of an ever-gracious hostess. She would never serve a guest something for which he or she has no taste. If one vegetarian were to accept an invitation to a barbecue at her home, Margret would prepare a vegan casserole and several non-meat sides just for the sake of that one person. That’s just the kind of person she is. You put her at ease: are you kidding? I love migas! And then the conversation veers off in the direction of you having recently read where migas originated. Outside, the rain has subsided, and the clouds have begun to clear.

The conversation over breakfast follows several paths, but most of them center around you and your work or George and his work. George is a frustrated mid-level manager in a large, locally owned accounting firm. His love of the ledger waned years ago, and since then he has been passively searching for another way of making a living. Passive is your word to describe his search. For as long as you’ve known him, he has talked about this new project and that great idea and this business scheme and that enticing job, but never have you seen him so much as raise a finger to act on any of his brainchildren. They were stillborn, each of them.

Plates having been cleared away, you accept Margret’s offer for another cup of black coffee, your third. You are beginning to feel the warm glow that caffeine magically imparts on you each morning. The overcast is nearly gone now, and golden sunshine is pouring through the patio doors, setting the breakfast table ablaze with light. It has become a beautiful morning.

George begins, as he has so many times before, to tell you of something that he’s been thinking about. (In your mind you note with melancholy that it is always “something that he’s been thinking about”. Never is it something on which he has actually been actively working.) He was on the road the other day and he stopped at a roadside fast-food joint to order a barbecue beef sandwich. A few miles down the road — fast food waste littering the passenger seat of his car — he realized with frustration that he had a piece of meat stuck between two of his teeth. The toothpicks provided with the quickie meal were of little help, only aggravating the situation. He thought to himself, I wish I had a piece of dental floss. And thus was born a brilliant idea: Jiffy Floss! What if, George muses from the other side of the steaming cups of coffee, someone were to offer individual packets of single-serving dental floss to restaurants and hotels and hospitals? (He never speaks in personal terms when he relates his ideas, it’s always someone else who makes it happen — like a self-fulfilling prophesy.) Don’t you think people would buy it? It might seem a little vulgar, people flossing their teeth in public and all, but don’t you think the idea of the toothpick was considered vulgar when it was first introduced? Can’t you just envision a little dispenser of Jiffy Floss on every restaurant counter, between the chocolate-covered mints and the toothpick dispenser?

You respond excitedly, that’s an excellent idea, George! The more you think about it, the more you believe that it will fly. The three of you discuss the concept with animation until your coffee cups are again empty of everything but lemon sunshine.

It comes as no surprise to you that the conversation ultimately takes a nihilistic tack when George starts shooting the idea down with deft devil’s advocacy because of “complications”. The Department of Health would be a hassle to work with. And how long would it take to develop a machine to wind and package the floss? Where would he set up production? Their condo didn’t even have a garage for them to start that mythical and much ballyhooed mom & pop garage operation. And would he really rather make and sell floss than be an accountant? He isn’t so sure.

The discussion segues to another of George’s brainstorms and then to another and another, none of them bad ideas and yet none of them being given a chance to mature and bear fruit. Your mind wanders to your own unfinished projects and half-baked ideas. For a moment you begin to doubt that you are any more action-oriented than George. Without warning, a clap of thunder rocks the house, saving you from the spiraling mire into which you find yourself being pulled whenever you engage in extended discussions with George. The conversation is suspended as the three of you stand and move to window to scan the newly formed clouds. Noting the blackness that has crept over the landscape and the sprinkles which, in a New York minute, turn to rain and then to a downpour, Margret voices her hope that Saira has not left school, yet.

Saira, their only daughter, is a first-year student at Texas Tech in Lubbock. She is supposed to be driving home to Austin today to spend the weekend and pick up some of the things she intentionally left behind when she moved to Lubbock in August. These storms are supposed to let up, Margret indicates, when the front passes through around mid-day, according to the Weather Channel. Hopefully Saira will wait until then to leave.
After a brief exchange in which you all question how you ever lived without the Weather Channel, Margret asks, did I tell you about Saira’s new job? She hadn’t, so she does. Apparently Saira is studying Radio, Television, and Film — RTF, in college-speak — and she was anxious to actually work in some aspect of the field. She did not overlook the obvious, as many would: she applied at the local television station in Lubbock. You think to yourself how you would not have applied at the local station, because you would have logically reasoned that every other RTF major in town has already applied there, and what chance would you have with your lack of experience? Whether Saira had these concerns, you aren’t told, but the station rejected her first application outright . . . due to her lack of experience. But you know, Margret relates proudly, Saira didn’t give up like most of us would have. She submitted a second application offering to work for free, just so she could get the experience. The station hired her . . . at five bucks an hour, mostly because of her spunk, Margret adds speculatively. And now, Saira says she’s getting on quiet well there, and they have already given her a raise and more responsibility.

Good for her, you chortle. With that kind of determination, she deserves to have any job she wants! You look over at George to see if he is absorbing any of the deeper meaning of this, but he is just staring at his coffee . . . probably still depressed.

Glancing out the window at the glistening green lawn still being pelted by raindrops, you state offhand that you need to be going soon. Margret asks if you can’t stick around for lunch — they have so much food in the freezer left over from last weekend’s Super Bowl party, they can’t possibly eat it all, even with Saira at home. But you gracefully decline, listing for them the various items on your personal inventory of things to do today. One item catches George’s attention: roller-blading with Eric at 3:00. George asks you if you know that he and Margret have joined a fitness club. Really? You are surprised. George and Margret have never demonstrated sporting interests and are typically pretty inactive. Yes, we had our first consultation with our personal trainers this week, and our first full workout! Really?! You don’t want to appear too surprised, but you probably do anyway. This is major news. George notes that he has been wanting for years to get in shape, and they decided that now is the time. He is pretty sore this week, but he is going in again tomorrow morning to work out. You show your support with your enthusiastic response. This is a great thing for them, you affirm. This will really change your lives. Guaranteed.

Before darting out the door into the rain, you thank them for the wonderful breakfast and wish them luck on their workouts tomorrow. Don’t work too hard, you cliché, jokingly. We won’t, they chuckle.
You climb into your car and crank the ignition. The radio roars into action, straining the speakers beyond distortion with the normally sweet harmonies of the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream. You jerk to grab the volume knob and turn it down. How does that happen, you wonder. Does someone climb into my car after I park it and turn the radio up? Another unsolved mystery, you muse.
On the drive home, the clip chunk clip chunk of the windshield wipers presses you into deep thought, as you invoke memories of Aaron Nessman, an accountant with whom you used to work back in Iowa City. Aaron was the person who first turned you on to self-help literature. Oh, the debates and discussions the two of you used to have! Mostly you agreed with him, however. You would team up in arguments against other, less-enlightened associates, insisting that everyone’s lives would be better if we would all just develop good habits of self-empowerment. All these brilliant authors must be right, you had thought. I can change my life if I think positive thoughts and discipline myself to be successful. Never mind the fact that Aaron had been digesting this stuff for years, and he was still not successful in his own eyes . . . nor in yours.
Then one day, you finally figured it all out. You realized at last that self-help is little more than a seductive drug, coaxing the restless masses into believing that one day, if they read enough self-help literature, they too will be rich and famous. You introspectively observed that you had been doing nothing but reading and dreaming about improving your life. When you got depressed in your lack of progress, you disappeared into the fantasy of another self-help book. That moment of clarity is when you got rid of the books — Mandino, Carnegie, Hill. You came to the awareness that we each cut our own path, but that we have to do it, not read about it or dream about it. History repeats, you mumble to yourself as you realize with horror that George will never make this discovery. Maybe his new pursuit of fitness reflects a change in the wind, a breathe of new life. But you are skeptical. Most likely, he will continue to wallow in the opium of his fantasies until he dies. It is a dark thought, and you push it out of your mind. You focus on the rain-blurred road. Clip chunk clip chunk clip chunk.


The next morning, fog hovers mystically over your sparkling tinsel lawn as you sit at your breakfast table, reading the paper and sipping a delightful new blend of organic coffee. The phone rings. An unfamiliar voice asks for you by name. You respond cautiously that you are the person they want, thinking to yourself surely this is not a telemarketer! Who would have the gall to call on a Sunday morning to sell you something you do not need? Maybe a Seventh Day Adventist . . . or an agnostic . . . you jokingly suppose in your uniquely demented way. The person speaks her name and identifies herself as a friend of George and Margret’s. Yes? You begin to suspect that something is wrong. I was asked to inform you that George died this morning. Excuse me? you hear yourself saying. I’m sorry, but George is dead. He was working out at the fitness club, and he suffered a collapsed lung. Normally this is not a fatal occurrence, she explains, but his many years of smoking left him with reduced lung function. The paramedics were able to keep him alive until they reached the hospital, but he was not able to survive on one lung. He died in the Emergency Room at 9:47 AM. God, please tell me that this is a joke. I’m sorry, this is no joke. George is dead. She pauses. You can’t hear her breathing — you wonder if she’s still there. Do you have any other questions before I call the next person on my list? No, that’s all right. Thank you. And you hang up the phone. Outside, the fog has become infused with rays of honey sunshine — according to the Weather Channel it’s going to be a gorgeous day.


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