The man seated two tables away seems compelled to talk – to the barista who brings him a fresh cup of coffee, to the family members who call him every twenty minutes on his cell, and to me, typing away and trying to look unapproachable. He translates his phone calls for me. “My wife,” he mouths in the midst of a set of convoluted directions. After another call, he told me, “My daughter. She just had a baby.” “Oh! Congratulations,” I say. “Well, she isn’t married,” he responds. I smile and look down, and after this, try to avoid all eye contact. It’s difficult because at this point he’s half-twisted in his seat, his shoulder open to me, inviting conversation. He seems to be only pretending to read his newspaper, which I can hardly criticize, since at the moment I’m only pretending to write my novel.
A man walks by and barks something incomprehensible and both of us – the newspaper-reading man and the novel-writing girl – look up, following the progress of this t-shirted man with a heavy backpack as he crosses the street in front of us and continues out of view. “Does he have an earpiece?” Newspaper man asks me and I shake my head. I had the same thought: Maybe angry t-shirt man had a Bluetooth device; maybe whatever conversation he was having was so important that he couldn’t be bothered to wait until he got to the office, or home, or his parole agent’s, and he liked to have his hands free just in case. But sadly, no earpiece; the important conversation that couldn’t wait was only with himself. I felt bad for him, and then sad for myself, because what is this piece of writing if not a conversation with another part of myself?
Back to Newspaper man, whose phone rings. It’s his wife, lost again in downtown Modesto, needing further directions. “From Graceada, cross Needham onto 14th and you’ll see it. The little coffee house on the left. What’s the name?” This last part to me; I wish I had an unfriendly face, or at least an inscrutable one, dark like a secret agent.
“The Queen Bean,” I say.
“The Queen Bean.”
“The Queen Bee,” he repeats into the phone.
Let it go, Paula. Let it go. But I can’t; the same impulse that caused me to labor with a pen over sophomore essays, scribbling comments and hash marks that my students wouldn’t read or care about, leads me to repeat, “The Queen BEAN.”
“Oh! The Queen Bean,” he says in the phone. “Cute.”
The barista brings him a sandwich stabbed through the heart with a toothpick. I begin to dread the arrival of his wife, who, despite muddled directions, will soon be here. The man takes a bite of his sandwich, then asks, without benefit of swallowing, “You come here often, huh? This is like your regular place?”
Yeah, I guess I do. I guess it is.
Paula Treick DeBoard