Forty became fourteen, fourteen became one hundred and one hundred became seven. Only in retail did that kind of math make sense and then only to the people who signed the paychecks. Right now, Jack only needed a dollar, seventy-five to get through the next hour, which would lead him to the four he desperately needed to turn one hundred into one, twenty-five and make it to ten and a half if he was really lucky.
The aroma hit his brain, lifting the fog as he took a deep breath. The cafe was brightly lit which stung his eyes at first, but then he settled on the Halloween décor which was already covering the walls. In a glass case in the corner, a scarecrow with a pumpkin head waved at him from top of a cake he wished he could bite into – mostly because the chemicals used to preserve it would put him in the hospital long enough to get some sleep, but he was sure it would be a tasty way to start the unintended vacation.
“Here you go.” Kathy filled the mug to the brim and nudged it towards him. As always, she didn’t leave room for milk and she gave him that playful, all knowing grin that annoyed him when he first met her almost two years ago.
Even now he could remember conversation that cemented their relationship. He had just come off the night shift at a school for trouble teens and was about to begin an eight hour shift at the store. With only two hours to get showered and dressed, he stopped into the Bake Shop, just down the road from his apartment.
“Coffee with three espresso shots please.” He said, pulling out his wallet.
“We usually only serve it with two.”
“Can I have three please?”
“Alright, but even two shots isn’t very good for you.”
“Make it four.”
Whether it was from exhaustion or not, Jack’s voice remained deadpan and maybe that’s why Kathy laughed that morning. She gave him his four shots with a friendly reminder that it still wasn’t good for his heart. Her smile made the bitter coffee easier to swallow.
Anytime he had a buck, seventy-five, he went to the Bake Shop. She wasn’t always there, but she was always there. Even if the cashier was a snotty college brat, his brain was rarely functioning enough to register that it wasn’t Kathy’s concerned frown or affectionate grin responding to his simple requests for coffee and however many shots he thought he would need. Sometimes she talked him down from the ledges so to speak.
Today she ordered for him. Jack was barely awake and this time it wasn’t because he had two jobs, or three jobs, or one job that was equally tasking until the big thing in the news occurred. This time the hours were barely enough to cover the rent and to please the other people who wanted his sweat and his blood. This time he couldn’t sleep, because he was certain that every morning would be the beginning of his life on the streets.
Kathy must have seen him, barely awake, his head in his hands and his elbows on the counter.
“It’s light roast,” she said. “None of your ‘Next Stop Cardiac’ crap. Just drink it.”
He couldn’t argue with that. Mostly because he was too tired to know what he was arguing about. The first cautious sip was warm and bitter. Jack grimaced. How had he managed to choke this stuff down all of his adult life?
Jack reached for the sugar and Kathy stopped him.
“Oh no you don’t.”
“Jeez, Kathy I’m not in the mood.”
“None of us are, Jack.” Kathy leaned forward, almost getting right into his face. They had never been closer than the counter before, but he wasn’t as surprised by the action as he was by how serious she seemed all of a sudden. “But all the sugar in the world isn’t going to make it any sweeter.”
Kathy pulled out a packet of salt and tore it open. Before Jack could say anything, she carefully shook a small amount into the coffee and started to stir it with the spoon.
“What are you doing?”
“There, take a sip.”
Jack stared at her, incredulously. He looked from her to the coffee and had to fight the urge to get up and storm out. All he wanted was this little but of comfort to help him understand the six months of showing up for his shift on time, doing a damn better job than the guy who had been there for ten years, only to have to suddenly compete with some bratty high school kid for his right to a fair amount of the hours. Instead she was making things more complicated.
“Right or wrong, the coffee is on the house.” Kathy said, easing the tension. She knew when to push him and when to let him be. Clearly, this was time to push and he didn’t want to storm out.
“Fine,” Jack said.
He took a sip and was surprised to find that the bitterness had gone. There was no salty flavor exactly, but the bitter coffee was somehow tastier. Jack took another sip to see if he was imagining things and it was the same.
Kathy stood back and shrugged.
“Just a little trick I picked up,” she said. “Maybe everything else will get better too.”
For the first time that he could remember, Jack found himself returning the smile.