Okay, so, now we were someplace else. My coffee shop. Again.
The evening crew was there, near to closing up shop as the four of us swept in through the doors, me at the front. Missy Oxpecker was manning the front counter and doing a piss-poor job of it, as usual. She didn't even look up at us when we came in, because she was too totally occupied with non-work related conversation with a new girl I had never worked with before. The new girl's name was, um, 'Bubbles'. This was a really bad sign.
"Okay," Missy was saying, inbetween cracks on her gum. "So then, I was like, ugh! And Derek and Josh were both, like, ugh. And we were all, like, totally."
"Wow," said Bubbles, big-eyed. "No way."
"Uh huh," said Missy. "Totally. So after that, Josh was all, y'know, and so he said, 'You wanna?'"
"Uh huh?" said Bubbles.
"And I was all like, 'oh.' And he was like, 'What?' And it was, I dunno, ew, or something."
"Yeah," said Bubbles, breathlessly.
Missy shrugged. "So after that, um," she said, and then spent a little while trying to find the exact right word.
"Well, you know," she said. "Goy."
"Yah," said Bubbles.
All right, so, you might maybe think after reading this far in the story that I'm kind of bad with all the little sorts of words that people sort of throw in that don't really mean anything. But I would like to think that I can sort of tell a story or, y'know, communicate things while I'm doing so. This is not the case for Missy Oxpecker. Missy Oxpecker is totally incapable of saying anything with any content whatsoever. Other than people's names, statements that put things in some kind of time order and a handful of choice coffee-related phrases that allow her to (barely) perform her duties here, the only things that she does that actually convey any meaning are her hand gestures and the grunting noises she occasionally makes, and you kind of have to interpret what she means by those by watching her expressions. She is a total fucking devo, and I don't mean that in a good way, either. Seriously. She's like Neanderthal with nice hair and a boob job.
Did I mention she fucks with the biscotti, too?
"Okay," said Missy, "So after that, he was all, y'know, gah, and so I was all, y'know, come on, and so we--"
"Missy," I said, coldly.
Missy Oxpecker finally looked up at us.
I stood at the front of our little geek formation, leaning in on the counter. Little puffs from the overhead blower were catching my hair and doing dramatic things to it. Henry stood at my right backside, arms folded, his eyes shielded behind recently-applied clip-on sunglasses, and to my left was Dorian, his leg propped up on a chair, exposing the silver and black of his cowboy boots. Tim brought up the rear, and though unlike Dorian and Henry he was wearing a non-dramatic type of coat (red and poofy), his arms were totally full of really really serious-looking silver cases and stuff. Plus he was pulling off a pretty good 'smug boy genius' face. It was a total geek-slash-badass moment.
"Oh," she said. "Trish."
She looked at everybody else, then, and kind of sneered. "Who're you?" she said.
"We're drama students," said Dorian, evenly.
Henry nodded. His face was a mask.
"Oo... kay," said Missy.
"Missy," I said, "we need to talk to the manager tonight."
"He's sick!" chirped Bubbles. "Rollie phoned in and he sounded just awful and so we called Stu and he said, Cal's qualified to manage, or at least, he's watched a lot of those manager training videos, hasn't he? And Cal was freaking out but Stu was, like, I can't find anyone else on such short notice, and so--"
"Missy!" called a harried, snippy little British voice from the back, amidst hisses and clangs. "I do so hope that you're up there preparing the counter for close!"
Missy rolled her eyes and blew at her bangs. "Whatever," she yelled back. The one and only part of this job that Missy has down is the baristatude, and that she's got in spades.
Missy turned back to Bubbles and started in on her gum again. "So anyway--"
"MISSY OXPECKER," said the voice of Cal, "PERHAPS I HAVE NOT MADE MYSELF SUFFICIENTLY CLEAR. YOU WILL BEGIN, OR CONTINUE, AS THE CASE MAY BE, PREPARING THE COUNTER FOR CLOSE SO THAT I AM NOT FORCED TO ABANDON MY POST HERE AT THE STEAM SANITIZER, FOR IF I AM FORCED TO ABANDON THE STEAM SANITIZER AND FINISH YOUR DUTIES FOR YOU WHILE YOU STAND ABOUT RABBITING, I WILL PERSONALLY LAY UPON YOU WITH THE NINE-TAILED LASH UNTIL YOUR DESPOILED FLESH HANGS IN TATTERS ABOUT YOU, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? TATTERS!!!"
Pause. Missy's jaw hovered mid-chew. The water sink dripped, once. Henry nudged his glasses back into place.
"Additionally," said Cal, "I'll, er, write you up to Stu. And he won't be happy about it."
Missy sighed again but began waving a rag in the general direction of the counter. She jacked her thumb over her shoulder.
"Cal's in back," said Bubbles, meekly.
"Thank you," I said, and started around the counter, my little crowd of geeks following right behind me. Dorian took a moment to take off Henry's clip-on sunglasses as we went.
"Crying out loud," said Dorian. "It's night out."
If Henry had an answer, I couldn't hear it.
* * *
Cal let out his breath and leaned against the steamer as it chugged through the last of another cycle. "Madness," he said, shaking his head. "Time was, I commanded respect in those I pronounced my imprecations against. And now, look at me. Barely able to keep a single gaggling bird on task. I told them putting me in charge tonight was a mistake."
"You're doing okay," I said.
He shook his head. "That girl is driving me crackers, Trish. We had things like her back where I used to live, and they were no more pleasant there."
"England," I said.
"Er, yes," said Cal. "England. Right."
Caliban's funny. He's this mincy blonde little twenty-something British kid, but he always talks like he's like a hundred million years old, like from back in medieval times or something. I think his whole family must be like that. I mean, I haven't met them, or anything, but when they name their kid, like, something out of Shakespeare, you just know that they're kind of hoity with their language. It's a whole different scene in England. If my family was going to name me after anything it probably would have been "Laverne and Shirley" or something.
"I'm exhausted, Trish," said Caliban. "Absolutely knackered. I've had to deal with a twenty-minute lecture from a harridan with a bad perm job about how we don't carry the shade-grown in decaf, a concerned citizens brigade threatened to bring us up on charges to the city health inspector, something about a loose cat or something, and I was forced to eject a transient with my bare hands. What's more, the hot water stopped working properly at four -- we only just got it going again -- and I'm desperately trying to make up for lost time with this bloody sanitizer." He kicked at it, dispiritedly. "And furthermore," he continued, "I've been forced to perform the work of three humans at once because my fellow employees are more concerned with PISSING AROUND than doing their blooming JOBS, ALREADY!"
If Cal was, like, expecting any response from the front to his little yell, he didn't get one. He sagged. "I'm just not management material," he said. "No matter where I go."
"Well, okay then," I said, feeling sad for Cal but also with this particularly devious machine-like glee at the same time, like wheels turning, the Track and Field Mind in action. "Maybe I can help."
"Bah," said Caliban. "Seems pointless for you to clock in. The work's almost finished anyway. Assuming Miss Oxpecker has gotten off her lazy bottom and has the front in some reasonable semblance of repair, all I've left is a couple more sanitizer cycles."
Cal leaned heavily against the counter, rubbing at his sunken eyes. "Shouldn't take me more than... oh, a half hour or so," he said.
"You gonna make it a half hour?"
"Sure," he said, sounding unsure. He sighed again. "I tell you, Trish, total exhaustion is a great feeling the first couple times around, but it loses its shine in a hurry."
"Okay, well, tell you what, though," I said, warming up to my cover story. I gestured back at my geek posse. "I've got a couple of guys here from the drama department at the University, and they're, um, totally, like, um, writing a play or something that takes place in a coffee shop much like this one."
"That's correct," said Dorian, stepping forward, his eyes sharp. "It's called 'Higher Ground'. I daresay that it has the potential to become my greatest work yet, but, how do you say it? It lacks a certain... verisimilitude. For a long time I've followed the ancient writer's maxim of 'Write What You Know', but sometimes, inspiration chooses an unexperienced vessel. And so I was chatting about it with my good friend Trish, here, and wouldn't you know it, she told me that--"
"Right, right," said Caliban. "You'd like to show them around the workings. Yes?"
"Yah," I said, looking sideways at Dorian, who actually had gone so far as to work up his entire cast of characters on the way over here and was looking just a teeny bit pissy now. "So, um, it's gonna take these guys a while to do what they gotta do, so I was thinking, hey, why don't I finish up the sanitizing, you take off and I'll lock up when we're done. Does that sound cool?"
Cal thought it over for a second, then nodded. "All right," he said. "I know Stu trusts you."
Okay, um, that was kind of guiltifying. If I responded, though, Cal didn't notice. "He probably would have phoned you tonight anyway, had you not already been on the morning shift," he said. "And I have to admit that going home and sleeping for about sixteen hours sounds awfully awfully good right about now."
"Yah, sure," I said, beaming fakely. "You leave it to me."
Caliban looked intently at me, and for the first time, I noticed that there was something really peculiar about his eyes. Kind of like Garuda, the way he could stare a thousand miles through you, only in reverse. Like you could stare a thousand miles into him, and you wouldn't like what you found at the end. It was really unnerving.
"Don't mess anything up," he said. "Please. At the end of the day, I do like my job, and I'd like to keep it."
I swallowed. "Roger that." And then, to express some British camaraderie with him, I saluted. sharply. "Cor blimey!" I said.
Cal blinked at me. "Er, right," he said, starting to take off his apron. "Very good. Take care of the place, and I'll see you whenever we're on together next. And thanks for the help."
"Jolly good!" I said, trying again, since I was starting to think that maybe the first one didn't take.
"Right," said Caliban. "Well, cheerio, lads. Have fun learning about the inner secrets of the wonderful world of caff work."
"Cheerio," said Henry and Dorian, in unison.
"Yeah, um, bye," muttered Tim.
And shortly, he was gone, along with Missy and Bubbles, leaving the four of us alone in the deserted coffee house. We heard the lock of the front door click shut behind us, and the neon glow from the front flickered out.
In a cloud of white vapor, the steamer chugged into another cycle.
"All right, boys," I said, surrounded by mist. "Let's get to work."