Friday, June 2, 2023

Little Indulgences

November 26, 2012

Jonathan David Price

Coffee is all that matters to Mr. Johnson at this hour. One cup at eight. Only in the morning. He has only missed his coffee twice, the day he had to leave his wife and kids, and the day his mother died. He was bitter both days. Mr. Johnson likes his coffee bitter—two squirts of milk and a pinch of sugar—just like mother used to. A little sugar goes a long way, Tommy, in coffee and in life. That’s what she said. Coffee, hot or cold, but never tea or juice or anything else. Work is at nine, and it’s one cup from Grounds for Change before. One cup, always French roast. This is important.

Brown cup in hand, he paces the coffee shop, looks at things he would buy if he ever had to make his coffee himself (but he would never want to unless he had to): a stainless steel coffee machine, matching bean grinder, travel mug, and a pound of French roast beans. The people in Grounds for Change don’t seem to notice these, nor smell the shredded beans, nor see the art for sale on the walls. But they especially miss these peripherals. They must already have them at home. Mr. Johnson might not care about them either, if he had them. But he has no use for them now. The brew is here every morning; it took too long to find just the right place after the last incident.

Kids are often in the coffee shop, kids running around the room, kids who seem to belong to everyone and to no one. “Don’t touch that,” a surrogate mother warns a little girl. “Shh,” Mr. Johnson tells a bushy-haired boy with lollipop-stained lips. He places his finger to his own lips. Kids are there too, two boys at home; but kids are here just the same, it’s all the same. It must be. And they are doing well at home. Bitter. Yes, she is bitter. She shouldn’t be. He left her the house. And she never much liked him there anyway.

Ordering is the hardest. Each day there is a risqué special, but he cannot diverge no matter how much they want him to. The road beyond French roast is perilous. Plain French roast it is, with two squirts of milk and a pinch of sugar. She’s waiting for his order. He looks her in the eyes, knows she knows. ‘Something different? Something new?’, her eyes ask. “No, Small French roast, please.” The ritual ensues, this liturgy of life. He takes the cup off the counter with his left hand as she rings it up, brings it to his nose; it fogs his glasses with its steam. The exact change is waiting in his right hand, moistening—sweaty nickel, copper, and steel. He breathes twice onto his drink, watches his breath create waves in the fluid. She announces the price, points to the display. He smiles and hands her the amount, asks for a cozy with his eyes. She turns, looks, grabs one, and smiles back, her hand extended. He adds two squirts of milk and a pinch of sugar and tips the cup to her in approval and petition, thankful she did not ask him to try something else or point out the daily special. She half-smiles back, proceeds. He sips, goes in peace.

Mr. Johnson has become suspicious that she will soon ask him. On a pad he has noted the prices of each peripheral he would have to buy to make his own coffee if she does: a stainless steel coffee machine, matching bean grinder, travel mug, and a pound of French roast beans. From last month’s paycheck, he put aside the exact amount for everything after hearing her ask a woman in front of him to try a special creamy caramel cappuccino. He hasn’t heard her ask since and hopes it was merely a phase or a mistake, that the management had quickly corrected her advances. All the prices are the same as yesterday. The total needed, the price of everything.

In between customers at work, the men’s shoe section of the Great department store, he wonders what he would do were she to ask, ‘Would you like to try one of our specials, Sir?’—like the last one did. ‘No, I’ll just have the French roast, yes, the small one.’ It would be that simple. No screaming, no, no restraining order. She would get it—he would pay, ask for a cozy, add two squirts of milk and a pinch of sugar, and be off. But just in case, he has enough money in his wallet for a stainless-steel coffeemaker, a matching bean grinder and travel mug, plus one pound of French roast. If the industry fails him again—fails to train its help properly—he will go underground and become a freelance coffee-brewer. But he doesn’t want it to come to this. And it shouldn’t have to. And he is not sure he could bear it.

He walks the storeroom at the department store when things are quiet, escaping into the columns and rows of shoes. He counts what must be re-ordered. Then he does his own sorting. For the whole storeroom to be right, each box must be in its place hierarchically, by brand, by style, by shoe color, material, by size, by the number of imperfections on the box, by discoloration of the box lid, by inventory date, by…well, there is always sorting to be done, and the storeroom is never quite organized to his satisfaction. When he has exhausted every category he can think of, he will resort to counting them. 5,672 one time before Christmas. That’s a record. Six months later there were only 3,245. By the time he has counted them, there has usually been enough reshuffling by other employees that he can begin to sort them again. Today he counted 3,765. And the most shoes were in the loafer section, quite fashionable this season.

It’s morning again and that feeling is upon him. Something makes him uneasy, as if his skin were translucent, a fluid, penetrable by eyes, until he gets his cup. He knows what he will do if she asks: he will be strong and get what he wants. And if he can’t be strong, he won’t be violent, but merely buy what he needs to brew his own. It won’t happen again.

The door creaks when he opens it. No one looks up. He wipes his feet longer than he needs to, and pans. A polka-dotted tie here, blue blouse there, mangy kids there, there, and over there, a mom with too many drinks in hand, a man reading an illustrated history of cutlery: present unawares. He checks each price first. They are all the same. He taps his wallet in his left pocket, assuring himself that he is safe no matter what happens.

Perpendicular to the counter is the line outstretched toward him. He attaches himself to it. Or it to him. More signs fill the place: spring blends, cool drinks for the warmer weather, extra special specials. Probably from Corporate. Certainly not the management’s idea. They know the regulars are the salt of the earth, the guaranteed business. They would not divert us from the standard cup.

“Ma’am, would you like to try our Koni blend with whipped cream and cinna-licious sprinkles?” This customer being offered a special is only two in front of Mr. Johnson in line.

“No thanks, I’ll have the regular, small, please.”

She’ll forget to ask about the specials when it’s his turn. He counts on this. These people ask it so many times a day that sometimes they forget.

“Hey, it’s Mudgy,” the employee making drinks says to the girl taking orders.

“Shh.” They must remember Mr. Johnson’s outburst when a child spilled his soda on his right shoe. They call him Mudgy now, short for ‘curmudgeon.’ One of them is a show-off English major who thinks she is going to be in the New Yorker someday.

Mr. Johnson knows they have a little fun with him, and he is fine with that as long as they play within bounds: don’t ask, don’t tell about anything but French roast.

“Do you want to order, Sir?” It’s Mr. Johnson’s turn. “Sir?”
“Yes, I’ll ha—“

“I almost forgot to ask. Do you want to try one of our specials?” Something shimmers in her eyes. Mr. Johnson cannot tell if it’s innocence or malice.

“What? I—” The change in his right hand is getting heavier, growing as if it is going to burst through his fist. His face reddens as his irritation becomes more pronounced. He stares uncomfortably long into her hazel eyes, searching for a reason, reason. A snicker comes from the boy making drinks. “How dare you!” Mr. Johnson says. He throws the change at the counter and it scatters as if it were glass breaking. Those behind him step back, exhale. He turns and pushes through them to the door, shaking his fist all the while. The audacity of that woman. She has no business doing that.

He clears his parched mouth with his tongue. There will be some coffee at work. But it is not the same. He almost leaves, but cannot bring himself to talk to Management, especially to explain why he needs to go. He does not think of lying about his reason. And the time is wrong, the coffee must come before, it does not matter what comes after. It’s too late now.

The feeling of loss is upon him like sunlight. He remembers the kids. There are two boys and an ex-wife who would have made a good wife if she were not crazy. Things like that cannot be fixed. Too bad those kids have to live with her. A shipment of shoes arrives. He counts the boxes in the storeroom. 4,189.

In the morning, to avoid recognition, Mr. Johnson wears a hat and prop beard he used to wear to Civil War reenactments when he played Lincoln. He never officially played Lincoln. Only serious re-enactors, who have given their lives to the cause (and are properly ugly), get to play him. Nevertheless, he would show up bearded, wearing a black suit, and wander the silent battlefield with a solemn look on his face, never giving a thought to the problems two Lincolns on a hushed battlefield might have caused.

At the coffee shop, he talks to himself in a muffled voice, sometimes through a handkerchief, as he feigns a cold. No one notices the miserable yarn spun right in front of them. Good. Nothing has changed. He gets into line.

To the person in front of him the girl at the register says, “May I take your order?” Only one more person and he will have his dark drink which he will make the color of brackish water with two squirts of milk and a pinch of sugar. He sees the rote movements in his head, the cooper color. He knows the cost of this natural grace—it can be bought. One sip should lessen his bitterness, perhaps make it a bittersweet.

She orders, “Yes, a medium French roast.” This woman is keeping on the straight and narrow, staying away from the specials. Good for her. Her reward is great.

“Sorry, we’re all out,” the girl says, “But we do have all our special drinks.”

Mr. Johnson, forgetting he is stiff Abe, interjects, “You’re out of French roast?”

“That’s right. It’s been a busy morning,” she says. “We’ll have some more, like, as soon as our shipment comes in from the county warehouse.”

“How long will that be?” Mr. Johnson says.

“Forty-five minutes,” she says, and looks back to the boy making the drinks, who nods in agreement.


“Sorry, the early morning shift forgot to bring the beans from the warehouse. Why don’t you wait over there?” She points to some chairs where he can wait.

“Who is on the early morning shift?” He is sad and suspicious, and gathering sweat around his faux beard.

“Today it was just me.” She closes one eye a little. Was that a wink?

“I can’t wait forty-five minutes, I have to go to work!”

“I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do for you.” She motions to the next customer.

Mr. Johnson rips off his beard and slams it to the counter, breathes in through his nostrils. “I will be here tomorrow at eight sharp, and morning-shift problems or not, I expect a small cup of French roast!” Customers gawk. Through the congregation of whispers Mr. Johnson exits. He thinks he heard one of them laugh as he turned to the door and passed by the coffee peripherals, too angry to think of them.

The coffeemaker at work is broken. And it is not the same. He wishes it could be the same. Mr. Johnson puts in an order for another coffeemaker. “Be here in a week, Gotta get approval from the Big Guy upstairs,” he is told.

Sharp smelling feet sometimes touch his hand as he horns them into a new pair of dress shoes. Now these earthy odors linger in his nose, reminiscent of French roast. Cigarettes in the break room are reminiscent too, as if both shoed feet and burning tobacco share in the essence of those little over-roasted beans. He rehearses what happened the past two mornings, about why he didn’t just calmly pick up the peripherals, pay, and take them home with him—the ease then of keeping the feast. He’s not ready to do it yet, not if he can make the shop work the way it should. The peripherals will be bought for a price, if they have to be.

The kids are getting older. He remembers them now by name: Jeremiah and Paul. Three years since the divorce. They don’t know what it means to have no father, except that the guy who used to sleep there at night is gone. He leaves the break room and spends the afternoon sorting the dress shoes by brand, by style, by color, by size, by date they were made, by date they were shipped. Yes, Jeremiah would probably wear a size ten now. He’s fourteen, probably tall too. He imagines his son comes into the shop for shoes. He suspects the shoe would fit, size 10, no problem. He puts it aside for later. By imperfection on the box, he sorts them, and then counts them until it is time to go home: 4,864 of them. He thinks on the morning—normalcy again—routine. The coffee, taste and see.

The morning is upon him. The sun calls him to seek his fill. No disguise today, just industry and persistence. No matter what she says or does, he will not leave without a small cup of French roast. The paper will crisp across his hand, his pallet ready for the diurnal splash of bitter brew.

But she is not here today. Perhaps it is her day off. Even the ridiculous need a vacation. He gets into line. The line creeps toward the counter. A table tent beside the register becomes prominent, readable. Delicate letters spell out, No French roast today, sorry!, with a smiley face drawn at the end.

“No what?”

The brewer to the cashier, “It’s Mudgy.” There seems to be plotting between them. They look over at a woman, who is sitting in the corner, typing on a laptop, talking on a phone.

“It’s who?” Mr. Johnson says.

“N-Nobody. May I take your order, Sir?”

“Where is the French roast?”

“Our early morning staff didn’t show up and I . . . It should be here no later than nine. Can I get you one of our extra special espresso beverages instead?”

“Who wrote the sign?” Mr. Johnson picks it up.

“It was here when I got here. Must have been Management.”

Mr. Johnson sneers. He puts the sign down and leaves the line, realizing that he must revolt, that the establishment has again failed him.

“You can wait by the peripherals for it to arrive,” the cashier says, snickers with an actor’s caution. The brewer lobs a wet rag at the cashier in slight disapproval. The cashier waves in the next customer.

Aghast, Mr. Johnson checks his left pocket for the money he keeps for just such a day.

He turns toward the coffeemakers and beans for sale on the far wall. He inspects each price. They are all different. He is seventeen dollars shy of the price of everything. He looks to the counter, breathes a slow breath. “This is not happening.”

Mr. Johnson rushes to the counter and nudges a customer aside. “When did the prices change?”

“Oh, they changed yesterday. New season, new prices!”

Yesterday he forgot to check the prices when he ran out. Yesterday he let down his guard. He returns to the wall of peripherals, prices out each item, checks his money again. He looks at the counter, the sign snarling back at him, with its delicate lettering telling him he cannot have what he needs—the passive force of the word. He imagines her plotting against him with them, having a pretty laugh at his expense—keeping his kids away from him and telling them that he’s dead—joyfully changing the prices and making sure there is no French roast to be had—changing her address, name, appearance, getting a restraining order against him, denying him his rights and privileges. They were making sure he had to face it. All and each and every thing.

“Give me my cup.” They oblige him, “Fill it, Dammit! god-fill it, dammit ” They all stare at him, and the woman with the laptop gets up and slowly approaches the counter.

If they won’t fill it, then he needs everything: the coffeemaker, matching bean grinder and travel mug, plus one pound of French roast. He collects them, and with all in hand, he looks at the room of people trying not to look at him, the kids, moms, fathers, whomevers. He scoffs at the sign, the employees, the woman with the knowing, gentle gait now perched at the counter, the smell, the art, and flees the store. He throws everything into the car and fires it up.

While he is backing up, the gentle woman stands behind him yelling, “Police, freeze!” Her badge extended, she is going for the gun. Mr. Johnson knows: it is now. He accelerates in reverse into the officer, and pins her between the car and the building. He keeps the tires spinning until she stops moving.

Mr. Johnson drives home. He gets there in time to set up the coffeemaker, grind the beans, wash out the travel mug, and brew a pot of coffee. He removes two pairs of shoes from his closet, sizes 10 and 7, and places them under the two kitchen table chairs. He pours four cups of coffee. To each he adds two squirts of milk and a pinch of sugar—a little sugar goes a long way, “in coffee and in life,” he instructs. He tips his cup to the god in gratitude, shivers, and takes his first sip in three days—then goes forth to answer the knock at the door.


Jonathan David Price is the Editor-in-Chief of the Clarion Review.


One Response to “Little Indulgences”
  1. Bwakali says:

    Great piece! I am off to brew some coffee for myself – but I will try not to become addicted!

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