Reggie is across the street with his cardboard sign. Good guy, but that I can’t do. I can’t beg. People looking at me like a stray mutt. You wanna give me something, fine, I’ll take it. I’ll steal, I don’t care. But that “good-morning-ma’am-beautiful-day-thank you-god-bless” shit ain’t for me. I don’t lie either. Reggie ain’t a veteran. Not of any war, anyway.
But Loretta’s sign was something else. She taped a positive pregnancy test to it – you know, one of those piss sticks? Most people walking by were horrified. But others, and maybe this is all that matters, others stopped and gave her fives, tens, twenties. Did she draw those two little pink lines? Hard to tell under her sweaters and jackets, but 9 months is 9 months and she’s been using that sign for at least 7, so she’s either getting close or about ready to blow town.
Marsha’s already here. I see her through the window, papers and those color-coded manila files, her leather briefcase and gray skirt and white blouse. She looks down at the notepad in front of her, then reaches across the table, across a stack of binder-clipped forms, makes a note with her pencil. Always notes. And highlights. And Post-Its. I can’t go in yet. I duck into the alley for a smoke.
It’s funny how a smoke stops time, right? Like, I’m standing in four inches of snow, watching all these cars slosh through the intersection, people on the sidewalk trudging to work, but as long as I keep inhaling and exhaling, I’m safe. Protected. It’s like for those minutes, the whole world’s a snow globe in the palm of my hand and I’m just looking at it.
But that’s all bullshit. Truth is, I’m late and Marsha’s pissed, pissed in that Marsha way where she don’t say anything, just shuffles the papers a little harder, clicks her pen a few more times, checks her watch and exhales. One last hard drag, the filter crackles, and I step inside.
It ain’t a Starbucks, but it ain’t a mom-and-pop place either. All the moms and pops are dead, I guess. Now all these places are owned by kids in their 20s, 30s. Perfect haircuts, tight pants, arms covered in tattoos. Where they get the money for all that shit? The kind of place where you can’t order a regular coffee without answering two or three other questions about roasts and what not. “You want me to leave a little bit of room?” the girl with the spikey blonde hair or the boy with the shellacked pompadour asks. “No.” Room for what? Room for you to gyp me out of a full cup of coffee? I turn and Marsha still has her head down, reading and scribbling. And the other thing I don’t like – I gotta walk over to the milks and sugars and do the rest of their job for them. Maybe after I take a piss I can clean the toilets, too, huh?
“Hiya, Marsha. Sorry I’m late.”
“It’s your dime.”
I laugh. “Uncle Sam’s dime, really.”
Marsha looks up. She’s got those sad Irish eyes, the kind that droop a little at the corners. Ice blue and the blackest hair I ever seen. Steve Earle sang a song about that. Look it up.
“You know, Ed, this is for your benefit. You know that, right?”
Worst cup of coffee I ever had, but Haley’s covers it. They count these meetings as “professional development.” Believe that shit?
“I know. And I’m grateful for your time. Truly.”
“Fine,” she says. “Let’s pick up where we left off.” She slides over some forms and flips through them, explaining which benefits they cover: VA-Form 21-526EZ, VA-Form 10-10EZ, VA-Form 21p-527EZ. They all end in “EZ” – that some kind of joke?
And as she’s talking, I get that snow globe feeling again. She could say anything right now. She could say, Ed, if you don’t pay attention and remember exactly what I’ve told you, the second you stand up you’ll drop dead. She could say all that and I still couldn’t focus. If my mind wants the world to live in a little glass dome, then maybe I should pay attention to that, listen to what my instincts are telling me. Isn’t that what they’re always trying to get us to do in those groups and meetings at Haley’s? That one hippie fruitcake that comes in every week telling us to “listen to our bodies”? I’m listening.
“Ed, are you listening to me?”
I hold up my coffee cup. “Loud and clear.”
Her eyes pass over me like a scalpel. She holds a pen with her name on it. Marsha LeBron, LCSW.
“Can I ask you something, Marsha?”
She glances back up. I can’t tell if she’s curious or disgusted.
“What do you like to do for fun?”
She squints at me, like she suddenly can’t see me that well.
“Ed, I don’t have time for—”
“No, I’m serious. I’m not trying to waste your time. What do you do for fun?”
She clicks her pen closed. She sits back in her chair and takes a sip. Man, she’s really thinking about it. Either no one’s asked her in a while or she don’t know how to have fun. Maybe both.
“I don’t know. The usual boring stuff, I guess. Hiking, movies, reading. I work a lot.”
I sip my coffee. Still tastes like shit but buys me time.
“Don’t sound boring to me.”
Ask about me, ask about me, ask about me.
“We really need to get back to this, Ed.”
“Don’t you wanna know what I do for fun?”
She’s looking at me like I’m a magician and she already knows how I do my tricks.
“If I say, ‘yes,’ then we finish these forms, ok?”
I smile. “Deal.”
“Ok.” She clears her throat. “What do you like to do for fun?”
I want to tell her about cigarettes and stopping time, about snow globes and how I’m not like Reggie or Loretta or most of the scumbags at Haley’s. I want to tell her about the coffee I’m drinking, about where all the different kinds of beans come from. And not just the names of the places, but the people I met there, the foods I’ve tasted, the sounds I’ve heard. I want to tell her that the things I enjoy the most are getting harder and harder to do. I want to tell her that her hair is black and her eyes are blue and whether she knows that song or not she’s in it, she is it. I want to tell her that standing in four inches of snow ain’t so bad with a cigarette and that I’ve gotten used to watching the world go by, watching everybody else walk and drive and order coffee and hail cabs and shoot baskets and blow their noses and make notes and fill out forms and sit in circles and share their feelings.
I want to tell her that it ain’t so bad, ain’t as bad as it seems, and that if I put a little more sugar in my coffee, it ain’t so bad. I want to tell her to take some time off, live a little, ya know, because too many forms are bad for your health. I want to tell her not to worry about me, though she probably doesn’t; not to think about me, though she probably doesn’t; not to waste too much time on me because she does. I want to tell her that the best part of my week is hearing them buzz the door at Haley’s, stepping out onto the sidewalk, walking down to the coffee shop and seeing her in her clean, pressed clothes and perfect hair and the way the muscle in her forearm twitches as she scribbles, and that the only reason I’m late each time is because I don’t want this to end.
“I like reading, too.”
Anthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN Discovery Prize and Indiefab’s Book of the Year award. His work has appeared in Boston Magazine, The Literary Review, Sport Literate, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. He currently directs the low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.