Short Story: “Smartass at a Coffee Shop”

She’s sitting in the next booth, reading a Jackie Collins book and just generally pissing me off.

Maybe it’s the fluorescent pink hardback she’s holding open so wide that my spine feels like it’s being cracked, too. Maybe it’s the perfect manicure that’s gripping the shiny dust jacket, or the way her Prada eyewear frames her eyes, which flit across the pages in a way that suggests she’s only interested in two or three words of each paragraph.

Or maybe its because my life is nowhere near as perfect as hers, as I can’t just sit and read while Drummer For A Fiona Apple Cover Band Serena serves me endless $5 lattes and High Schooler Just Doing This Because It Looks Good on College Applications Ethan wipes down my table every couple of minutes to get a glance at the surgically perfect cleavage peeping out of my shirt.

Instead I’m here, peering over my laptop screen while Barista Who Foolishly Bought the Bankrupt Co-Owner’s Shares Walter gives me the fisheye for ordering a single small green tea. I learned long ago to take advantage of free hot water refills so I can continue to steep my brought-from-home tea bags. My chewed nails still have last week’s self-applied polish clinging on for dear life, and the last book I read was the owner’s manual to my new, but already outdated, Macbook.

There are only a few words typed out on the glaring white Word page: my name and the date, written like it would appear on a pretentious wedding invitation. “January the Fourteenth, Two-Thousand and Six” takes up more room than “Jan. 14, 2006.”

Now she’s paying her bill with a platinum credit card that catches the light as she holds it out to Serena. She’s probably charging fifty bucks of coffee and milk to her company’s account just because she can and wants the rest of the world to know it. As she clacks out of the restaurant in thousand-dollar shoes, I can only imagine she works for some high-profile PR agency or couture fashion house, which makes me hate her even more.

My editor calls me two minutes after the Jackie Collins reader walks out. He’s pissed because my second chapter is too short, or my first chapter is too long, and I’m not following the plot structure I’m contracted to observe in everything I write for Rose Throne Publishing, Ltd., a decades-old peddler of ripped bodices and oiled pecs. My editor likes balance, and I suppose I can’t blame him. After all, it’s because of him my books get published — and straight to paperbacks sold for pocket change to vacationers and rebellious teenage weirdos about to hide the lurid lasciviousness among ignored copies of Catcher in the Rye.

He also points out, and rightfully so, that I’m almost a week late with the third chapter. The problematic truth is that I didn’t plan on a Chapter Three because I was hoping to move on from this shit job by the time Chapters One and Two ended up on his desk. I was just lucky that a good enough plot presented itself to me for Chapter Two after I found that life would continue like usual after finishing Chapter One.

That’s why I don’t care or blame him for not liking the route the story is taking. This story wasn’t even meant to leave the parking lot.

Another patron walks into the café and orders a macchiato. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and the nightclub stamp fading on the back of his hand on this chilly Wednesday morning tells me all I care to know about his social habits.

He winks at me, and I return the favor by staring back at the glare of an empty Word document.

I’m down to the last tea bag in the box I brought from home, so I ask for a to-go cup as I pack up my laptop and notebooks. I’m too busy shooting a saccharine smile at Walter as he hands me the cardboard cup to notice that my phone’s still on the table.

The Nightclubber doesn’t even try to hide the full-body scan he’s performing with his eyes when he asks me how my day is going. I don’t give him the satisfaction of answering before breaking out into the freezing wind tunnel of Jackson Boulevard.

The beautiful thing about Chicago is that it’s freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. There’s no in-between. The most accurate bumper sticker I’ve ever seen says “Chicago’s Four Seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, Construction.”

And I love it.

In the middle of January, it’s impossible to catch a cab. Overhead, the El rushes past. Tourists cover their ears from the sound. It’s really not that bad. Lake Michigan’s up ahead, where the wind makes everything colder. It’s a God-send in July, but a Devil’s advocate in January.

Jackie Collins Reader is visible a block ahead, walking in her fabulous shoes toward Michigan Avenue.

My editor probably tries to call me again, but I can’t answer because I don’t have a phone. I guess he’ll just have to wait, or talk to Busboy With A PhD in South American History Ricardo, whose Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are perfect, but whose English is limited to phrases like “More coffee?” and “Have a nice day.”

Or maybe the Nightclubber has got my phone and is adding every saved female contact with a 312 area code to his list of viable dates. The joke’s on him: Half the women in there are married or over 40, as they’re all my relatives or people at the publishing company.

As I cross the street against the light, I’m not thinking about this because I’m trying not to get killed by oncoming cars. When they honk at me, I trick myself into thinking it’s because I look stellar in my $20 jeans and Nordstrom Rack parka. The slip-on loafers can’t hurt, either.

When I head up to my apartment three stories above a 7-Eleven with a perpetually broken slurpee machine, the red light on my answering machine is blinking. It’s Walter, the angry barista who was pissed about me taking up space and paying the bare minimum for heated tap water and a single bag of dead leaves.

“Hello, this is Walter from Kayama. I’m just calling to let you know that we found your cellphone at the table you occupied this afternoon. Please come by to pick it up by the end of the day. We close at half-past four.”

“Or what?” I talk back to the recording. The clock reads 4:23.

When I walk into Kayama the next morning, Walter is wearing the same annoyed puckers look he probably had when leaving the message, and I wonder if he went home to his two pugs with that expression on his face. I know I could make it up to him by ordering a $7 double-grande frappucino and $10 ham-and-gruyere tart the size and consistency of a Little Debbie cupcake, but I don’t have that kind of money. Just my phone and a small tea to go, please.

The bell above the door jingles while Walter is begrudgingly filling a cup with hot water. Click-clacking announces the arrival of Jackie Collins’ biggest fan. Today she’s reading Chelsea Handler, as she’s done skimming her read from yesterday.

She orders a $6 cup of Joe this time, and I walk out with my tea clasped in one hand and my phone in the other. Check Kayama off of my hangouts list. I don’t like cafes seeped in animosity and echoing with the heel-clacking of shoes worth more than my rent payment.

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Taken this weekend at Third Coast, an excellent Chicago brunch place that isn’t half-owned by an annoying barista named Walter. If you go, try the stuffed French toast.

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Excerpt: “Caravan”

They left Agatha in the car to fume. She might have just gotten back from the Philippines after Typhoon Huanan, but storm destruction was child’s play compared to what could be lurking in the Midwestern home on Cherry Drive.

Agatha, of course, was not happy. She continued arguing with them, then with the empty front seats, after they parked their Ford crossover on the street. Only a distant thunder rumble and leaves rustling in a pre-storm gust answered her back.

On the porch stood the homeowner, a pedestrian-looking woman in a Disney World sweatshirt and jeans. She watched her guests walk up the pathway, arms crossed and a scowl of both impatience and relief on her face.

“You’re not exactly what I expected,” she said when they made it to the porch. “But Lindsey says you’re the best option for our area, and maybe she’s right.”

“We’ll do our best,” said the man, slate eyes matching the color of the dark clouds roiling above. “I’m Handel Onderzoeker, and this is Maeve.”

Next to her attractive but unmemorable husband, Maeve looked like a character in a fantasy novel. Her hair was cropped short to her head with tufts of deep purple breaking up black-brown sleekness. The faint lines around her mouth hinted to a wicked smile, and her dark eyes reflected the streetlights lit early because of the darkening October skies.

“I’m Judy Turner,” the homeowner said absently, distracted by her survey of Maeve. “Let me show you the piano.”

She turned to lead them into the house, talking behind her the entire way.

“It just started playing in the middle of the night. We just moved here, and before we signed the papers a few of the neighbors warned us that this place had a tendency to change hands over and over. Then Jerry Gomez down the road said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was haunted, and everyone at the D’Angelo’s cookout started talking about things they had heard about. LaVonte Simmons next door — smart man, and a specialized pediatric surgeon at Memorial Children’s — said he had once heard someone wailing in the backyard, even though he didn’t see anyone when he looked over the fence, and I just can’t forget that. Of course, I don’t put a lot of stock in that haunted stuff, but when a doctor even says he’s seen something, I just couldn’t ignore it. And then last night? At first I thought it was a neighbor kid trying to give us a scare — you know how Halloween time gets kids hopped up on sugar and acting stupid — but when I came down, it was just going by itself like someone was sitting there, playing it.”

She led Handel and Maeve into the parlor. The wallpaper had been changed and the carpet replaced many times over the decades, but the crown molding and high ceiling of a bygone era remained. An faded upright piano in the corner sat innocently, the bench tucked in neatly and a stack of well-loved practice books nestled into a basket on the floor beside it. Its keys were yellowed with tobacco and age, like an old man’s teeth.

“There’s definitely a presence here,” Maeve said, drawing closer to the piano. “Was there a particular song that the piano played? Anything you recognized?”

“It could have been playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and I wouldn’t have known,” Judy said. “I couldn’t think straight, and it stopped just a few seconds after I got down here. There’s probably a pretty solid explanation, but Lindsey said to call you. My sister is the most superstitious woman I’ve ever met, always has been. When we were little she came home from a sleepover in tears because her friends had forced her to play Bloody Mary. Said she actually saw something in the dark bathroom mirror, if you can believe it. I just told her it was her own reflection, but that didn’t matter to her.”

“No, Bloody Mary is real,” Maeve muttered to herself as she moved around the dowdy woman to the side of the piano.

“You’re sure it’s not a player piano?” asked Handel. He played the skeptic in the two-hunter team, while Maeve was the mystic — their rendition of good cop, bad cop. “We’ve worked with people who own player pianos and don’t realize it until it starts going one night because of a loose gear or something.”

“Positive,” the woman said. “It came with the house. The last owner said he didn’t want to pay to move it out of here, but I think he just didn’t want to deal with getting it through these narrow doors. I hardly know how they got it in here eighty years ago let alone how they would get it out now. I’ll get you his number so you can talk to him.”

She turned to leave the room but caught sight of Maeve. The ghost hunter had closed her eyes and rested her head and hands on the top of the piano, smiling serenely.

“I think it wants to play again,” she crooned, more to it than to the two people in the room.

The homeowner looked at Handel with a raised eyebrow. He shrugged as if to say, “She always does this.”

“There’s someone here who wants to play it. A man? Maybe the original owner. He bought the piano for his daughter, who ran away from home three weeks later with the chauffeur.” Then Maeve lifted her head and gazed at where the invisible player’s eyes would be. “If you want to play, play.”

Handel crossed his arms, waiting for the music to start. Maeve had a way of talking to spirits, and they had a way of listening to her. The middle-C key pressed down, then up again, then down in a typical tuning exercise.

Judy gaped at the keys now starting to pick up a melody. For the first time since their arrival, she was speechless.

“I think you need to get out of the house,” Handel said to her quietly. “We don’t know if this is an angry spirit, and if he’s upset at you for buying the home, then you might be in danger.”

Judy sputtered that she would be in the backyard and left the room quicker than Handel had ever seen a client run. Once Handel saw her standing on the edge — the absolute edge — of the yard through the large parlor windows, he nodded at Maeve.

“Time to call it off?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Maeve said, turning from the piano. “It’s playing our song.” Handel could hear it now; the piano had started playing a soft version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” that mellowed the original’s exotic jazz beat into a hypnotic lullaby.

Handel took his wife by the waist and started dancing with her to the music, the soft carpet muffling their steps as they turned and swayed to the spectral playing. The parlor dropped away, and the ghost kept playing.

~

They were back three years to their wedding night, before Maeve knew of Handel’s dark past and Handel knew of Maeve’s even darker secret. Before they started calming domestic hauntings. Before they realized just how much they would end up needing each other.

“Thank you,” he whispered into her ear as her veil tickled his nose.

“For what?”

“For making me feel normal.”

When he was with her, his father wasn’t a convicted serial killer. When she was with him, her terrifying childhood didn’t exist. But neither knew that about each other at that moment. They wouldn’t confess either of their respective unsavory histories until early the next morning when they would awake in the honeymoon suite to the curtains on fire and a spectral laugh emanating from every corner of the room.

~

The upright piano stopped playing, but Maeve and Handel still stood in each other’s arms in the middle of the parlor, both of them remembering their last night of normalcy with each other three years before.

Then a tapping on the window — Judy was impatient again.

“You’re two sick people,” she said after Handel had retrieved her from the back door. “I have a haunted piano in my house, and you find time to slow dance. If you think I’m paying you for —”

“You won’t hear him play anymore, Mrs. Turner,” Maeve spoke in her airy voice, the one she put on for the clients. It was a tone of voice that always incurred the most mysterious of reactions from homeowners — wonder and annoyance, but mostly respect.

Maeve, carrying out her Ghost-Huntress persona, explained what she had heard when she put her hands on the piano. The man who bought the piano had done so for his daughter’s wedding to his boss’ son, a prominent community figure who had money and would eventually inherit the streetcar factory. It was going to be the marriage of the year in the small Midwest town that thrived because of the betrothed’s company, and the father had wanted to play the couple’s first dance to bring a sense of intimacy to the event that would surely be a magnet for every social vulture in the county.

The daughter, however, ran away from home with a newspaperman a week before the wedding. Her father died shortly after — some said of embarrassment, but really it was from tuberculosis — and he had never gotten the chance to play for the married couple. Every time his spirit returned to play the piano, he was met with screams and fear from the home’s new owner rather than dancing and joy. Judy, who was clearly a recent divorcee from the tan line around her left ring finger, was the last person he wanted in his house.

But they hadn’t. So Maeve and Handel did, and now he was able to cross over to the afterlife, his goal fulfilled.

Whether Judy believed it or not, Handel couldn’t tell. She signed the papers and gave them the hundred dollars in cash, as per their policy. The rules of the contract they made every client sign stated that they would come in for a small fee, assess the issue and fix it if they could. If a week had passed and the haunting had stopped, the homeowner would pay the rest of the $2,000 bill. It had worked so far; they were raking in six figures every year, with a 95 percent success rate.

The sky outside had started to sizzle with a fall mist as they walked out of the house. Agatha was still in the back of their crossover, staring glumly out the window. As they approached the vehicle, Handel slowed to a stop and looked at his wife.

“Ran away with a newspaperman?” he asked. Maeve shrugged, a mischevious smile blowing across her face with the breeze before it was gone again. Handel shook his head: “You realize that’s part of the plot from It Happened One Night, right?”

“I only borrow from the best,” she said, her voice returned to its normal tone, before taking his hand and leading him back to the car.

“If I’m going to write about you, I’m going to need to shadow you,” Agatha said as they got in the car.

“There wasn’t much to see here,” Handel said. He knew Agatha trusted him more than she did Maeve, so he was the one to make their excuses. “Just a haunted piano that played on its own. The next house will be more interesting, I promise.”

“And you’ll let me come in with you?” Agatha pressed.

“Yes,” he said. “But you might regret that later.”

“Why?”

“Our next client says his guest bedroom has a tendency of swallowing unwanted visitors.”

“If that doesn’t hook a few readers, I quit journalism,” Agatha said, nestling back with satisfaction. Her editor was going to love her.

 

This piece was the kickoff for a bigger project I’m working on. The idea came to me when listening to Rachel Portman’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” heard in the film Chocolat.