Monday, January 17, 2011

Strange Tongue (Part 1 of 3)

David Stokes is as regular as a period.

My mom told me not to speak of things I have no earthly way of knowing about, but there’s really nothing else to it. David arrives when you expect, orders the same whole milk grande latte with a dash of nutmeg on top, stays for about as long as you’d expect, and when he leaves, it’s a temporary relief. He’ll come again and probably sooner than you’d like.

Today is no different. At exactly four oh three, he pushes through the drafty front door of The Bean Queen and walks right up to the counter. I’m already steaming the milk, but he states his order anyway, “One grande latte, whole milk, thanks, Alan,” like it’s all one word, like my name is an ingredient in his 4pm fix. He leaves a five-dollar bill on the counter and moves to claim his usual table in the corner. It’s the one beneath the art deco print of an impossible looking girl looking at her reflection in a mirror. It’s about as odd as he is, but I think his preference is more about the corner and less about the art.

The machine squeals as it presses the last of the juice through the beans. I hit the button with one hand, frothing the milk with the other. It might not be as fancy as the prints on the walls, but mixing the perfect latte, especially for someone as regular as David Stokes, is an art. My mom taught me to take pride in my work, even when others didn’t.

I pull a mug from the top of the machine, where steam warms the ceramic. In the bottom, I place one of her favorite earrings. A stud. It’s small with a diamond set in gold, all of it fake if I knew her at all. We never had money for luxuries, though that hadn’t stopped her from bending over backward to get me a laptop for my freshman year of college. Her argument was that “Education isn’t a luxury, Alan,” but neither was medicine.

Selling the laptop was the only time I’d ever lied to her, but we needed the money. She needed the money. And now I need her.

I slip the small folded paper envelop from my pocket. Its contents look like nutmeg and sugar and smell like fresh cut wood and something light and sweet. The woman who sold it to me through the back ally door of the local new age boutique store down the road called it Strange Tongue. I hadn’t bothered to ask what was in it, only what it would do. If it didn’t work, I’d be out more than the price of a laptop.

Covering the earring with the powder, I glance over the top of the machine. David Stokes is in a red shirt, which is almost funny. His coat and scarf hang on one of the knobs that dot the wall sporting a mural of a regal looking coffee bean. As expected, he’s covered the table with his organic chemistry books and is tearing up the paper of his notebook with formulas and atomic structures. It’s perfectly predictable. David Stokes is perfectly predictable, which makes him exactly what I need.

The woman’s instructions had been to find a creature of habit. Spirits have an easier time with chaos, she said, so finding a creature of habit was basically like ensuring that whatever happened wouldn’t be permanent.

“I’m sorry,” I say under my breath. David has no chance of hearing me, but saying it aloud makes me feel better. “And thank you.”

The espresso goes in first and the powder hisses as it melts into the black liquid. I lean over the cup and speak the words the woman gave me. They’re written in clear block letters on a sticky note in my pocket, but I’ve been repeating them to myself all day. I watch for a second to be sure the earring doesn’t float, which I realize now I probably should have done before, but the surface becomes placid. The earring stays at the bottom and I pour the milk over, shaking the foam into a delicately ridged pattern that David will never notice.

Before I can think twice, I slide the cup onto the counter and take the five. “David,” I say, slapping his change down.

As usual, he takes the leftover dollar and stuffs it into the over-sized coffee mug on the counter with a handwritten sign that reads, “If you fear change, leave it with us!” I barely manage a “Thanks, man,” before he scoops the change into his pocket and returns to his table.

Focus is difficult after that. I keep one eye on David in the corner as I mix drinks that are more syrup than coffee for girls who are more sparkle than substance. They lean on the counter, fishing for discounts with low-cut tops, but my eyes are on David. I don’t know what to expect, but I don’t want to miss it.

Five sips in, his head dips and I make change for the girls in a rush. They leave in a burst of giggles. I didn’t miss the shot at my preference, but I also couldn’t care less.

David hasn’t moved for a full minute. His head is bowed over his chem books, his hands limp on the table. I slide into the seat across from him. It wobbles beneath me as I lean forward.

“David?” I ask, not knowing what else to say.

His eyes blink slowly and his arms fall from the table to wrap around his stomach. The gesture makes his shoulders slope in on themselves. He looks cold, small. When he raises his head, there’s a little frown on his lips, the kind that sits to heavily in the eyes that the lips have no hope of hiding the hunger behind them. It’s a frown I know so, so well.

I lean forward until my chest presses against the table. My heart pounds against it, each beat coming more quickly than the previous one, all my hope raging inside me like a storm. I swallow and know my voice will shake before I speak. Beneath the table, I press my hands into fists and those against my thighs. I don’t know what I’ll do if this hasn’t worked.

I take a slow breath and in a shallow voice, I ask, “Mom?”

Valerie's up on Wednesday with Part 2!

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