Coffee Break

Tom felt as if his brain were on strike. Overworked and under-stimulated. Time for some coffee. He pushed his chair back from his desk and made his way to the break room, pinching the bridge of his nose in a futile attempt at preventing an oncoming headache.

“Hey! Tom!” He recognized his project supervisor’s voice, and pretended not to hear. But Jim was nothing if not persistent. “Tom! Long time no see! How’s my favorite lead engineer?”

“Oh! Hey. I’m doing alright. And you?” He waited for Jim to catch up before entering the break room.

“Great! I’m great. How’s that little assignment coming? Hope it’s not giving you too much trouble!” Jim laughed.

Tom forced a smile. “No, no, of course not,” he lied. Never let the enemy see your weakness. He dumped the old grinds from the coffee machine, silently cursing his co-workers. What kind of savages don’t refill the pot after they drain it? He talked as he filled the machine. “There were a few bugs in the legacy code, but nothing I can’t handle.” He wondered how long his nose would be if he was Pinocchio.

“Good man! That’s what I like to hear.” Jim checked his watch, and they stood in awkward silence for a while before Jim spoke again. “These machines take forever, don’t they?”

“Yeah.” Tom’s headache was really kicking now. He hated small-talk.

“Say,” said Jim, “how’s your wife doing?”

Tom imagined smashing the coffee pot on the counter and slashing Jim’s face with it. It brought him no joy. “She’s fine,” he said. “She’s gonna go visit her mother this weekend.” He failed to mention that she had already left that morning, indignant and dragging the kids behind her. She understood why he’d been so busy lately, but that didn’t mean she was happy about it. She deserved a break. Maybe after this weekend he would pay for her to visit a spa and get a good massage. Maybe he’d make her a nice dinner. Get some good wine, light some candles, put on some mood music. Maybe he’d buy her some new lingerie, too. Something sheer. Something red.

“Visiting her mother? That sounds nice,” said Jim, breaking Tom’s train of thought. The coffee finished trickling into the pot, and Jim poured himself a mug with cream and sugar. “Well, it’s good catching up with you,” he said. “I look forward to seeing that finished code Monday morning!”

“Of course,” replied Tom, privately dreading the prospect of spending the week-end at the office. As Jim left the break room, Tom poured himself some coffee. “I should have been a writer,” he muttered, as he returned to his desk.

Appearances

 “Let’s make this quick,” I said, as we pulled into the gas station. “I don’t want to miss the previews.” James laughed and went inside as I filled the tank. Three bucks a gallon was outrageous, but this was the only station for miles and we were in a hurry. Live Free or Die Hard had just hit theaters, and I wanted to see if Bruce Willis could still make a good action hero. I was wearing my “In McLane We Trust” tee-shirt for good measure, knowing that only die-hard fans would understand.

Once the tank was full I went inside and was greeted by a bubbly girl with bright blue eyes and matching hair. Soon as I saw her, I knew why James was taking so long to grab a snack and drink. He’s a sucker for a pretty face, especially one with that “manic pixie dream-girl” look. I saw him at the back, holding a box of Mike & Ikes and staring at the drinks behind the glass, probably sneaking a look at her in the reflection. “See anything you like?” I asked. He didn’t catch the sarcasm.

I perused the candy aisle, grabbing a bag of Sour Patch Kids while I watched the cashier from the corner of my eye. She smiled brightly at each customer, her deep-red lips and peachy cheeks exuding affection as she took their money and bagged their snacks and sodas. I pondered how much time she spent at the mirror every morning getting her look just right and practicing her smile. It almost looked authentic, but convenience-store clerks couldn’t love their jobs that much. And why would anyone need to doll themselves up for a job like that anyway? Her hair was a pristine bob, not a strand out-of-place, and she moved with such grace that it had to be intentional.

James finally picked a drink and headed for the counter. I grabbed a soda quickly, not thinking about my choice, and hurried to stand behind him.

I bet she and I have nothing in common, I thought. I bet she shops at hot topic and reads poetry in coffee shops. I bet they all snap instead of clap, and smoke clove cigarettes to be different. I bet she listens to The Cure and Siouxie and the Banshees and watches The Rocky Horror Picture Show religiously. I bet she knows all the lines. I bet James is churning away in his brain trying to think of the perfect pick-up line. She’s totally his type.

It was his turn, and he approached the register.

“Is this everything?” asked the girl. Her name tag said Cindy.

“Yep.” Said James. She bagged his groceries as he swiped his card, then handed him his receipt. “I’ll meet you at the car,” he told me, then walked out the door.

I approached Cindy and put my snacks on the counter, watching as James jogged across the parking lot. Cindy said something, but I wasn’t paying attention. She looked at me expectantly, her perfect teeth exposed by her perfect smile.

“Huh? Sorry.” I fumbled.

“Is this everything?” she asked me again, with a little laugh.

“Yeah, um… thanks.” I felt my cheeks flush. I swiped my card, embarrassed.

“I dig the tee,” she said, pointing to my shirt. “Have you seen the new movie?”

“What? Oh! Die Hard!” I was surprised she got the reference. “No, not yet. My friend and I are actually seeing it today.” I looked out the window again and saw James in the passenger seat, already eating his candy.

“Well have fun,” said Cindy, handing me the receipt with a smile. “Let me know how it goes!”

“I will,” I replied, and thanked her as I grabbed my groceries. She must think I’m such a dork, I thought, as I tossed the bag in the back seat.

I didn’t notice the hand-written phone number scrawled on the receipt until a week later when I was cleaning out the car. She was delighted that I called. (It would have been rude not to.)

Rush Hour

The asphalt shook with
idling engines.
Muffled bass-lines thumped beats
that rattled windows
and nerves.

Bikers barked at tired truckers,
cacophonic curses thrown,
panicked mothers shocked,
trying desperately to shield the ears
of hungry, wailing children.

No one moved an inch.

All at once a trillion hallelujahs
graced the sneering lips of drivers
eager not to drive, but to arrive,
as sweat-drenched cops cleared lanes
around the wreckage.

My bloodstream’s thousand fiery tongues
fell silent
as steel-mouthed behemoths rolled past
and at last I saw the catalyst.

Flashing lights blazed beams
across bodies
blossoming in bloody pools.

My prayers went heaven-sailing
for the families of those involved,
but also that I might arrive
safely, soundly, sanely back
to the red-bricked shack I called home.

To sugar-knots and TV shows,
my kitten and my piles of clothes
and notes and books I’d yet to read…

But walking through that door,
I could not shake the memory
of bodies on the asphalt
and how selfish we can be.

This truth, since, has haunted me.

In a Pine Grove Blanketed With Needles

We explored each other’s tastes.
Shared romantic melodies
voiced secret yearning,
subconscious desires,
forbidden dreams.

We were enchanted,
trespassing in this secret,
magical place.
Where others saw a tree farm,
we saw the wood
between our worlds,
where two could become one.

Ancient pines reached for the shine
like my nervous hands,
which ached
to touch the curls
of the angel before me.

I could live in that moment.

I have forgotten the taste
of your smile, the sound
of your joy, the smell
of sweat, perfume, pine.
All that’s left is the shadow
of the memory
of my angel in the woods.

The Tyrant and The Boy

Upon the bold Triceratops
I ride with form and grace
and wield the sword Excalibur,
its sheathe about my waist.
My nemesis calls from my room,
his voice cuts through the air:
“Come clean this mess,” the man exclaims!
(He cannot see my glare.)

For eons we have battled hard,
this agéd king and I,
from the dawn of life itself
when light first reached my eyes.
He issued forth demands, decrees,
insinuations vile,
“You let the dog track mud inside!”
“No running down the aisles!”

But not today, nor ever more!
I will defeat my foe!
For with each day that slowly passed,
I felt my power grow!
He’s issued forth his final charge,
and as he soon shall see,
my trusty blade Excalibur
shall end his tyranny!

I spring forth from behind the throne
(his preferred place to rest)
and gallop boldly to my room
(but not at his behest)!
My wooden sword extended forth
to land the killing blow –
Alas! My blade did not strike true!
My swing was much too slow.

See now, the mighty tyrant turns!
He gleams his vicious grin!
He speaks: “Oh ho! What have we here!
I don’t mean to offend,
but you are not the first young knight
to challenge me this way!
Your brother fought me tooth and nail;
he just would not obey.

“I’d make him sit inside his room
to think on what he’d done,
I’d ground him for a week, or three,
forbidden any fun.”
What torture has this fiend in mind
for me, if I should fight?
I fear, if I were grounded too,
I wouldn’t last the night!

I must be quick, and clever too,
come up with some deceit,
some misdirection so that I
might not admit defeat!
Perhaps I’ll play his little game,
perhaps he’ll drop his guard,
and when he least expects me to,
I’ll flee into the yard!

I start to put away my toys.
He heads out through the door.
I dash around the giant’s legs
like a mighty wild boar!
In massive strides the king gives chase
through kitchen, hall and den,
around the couch and ottoman,
he moves fast as the wind!

But my Triceratops, you see,
he’s more than meets the eye!
I dismount from my loyal steed
and cast him to the side.
A noble sacrifice, my friend,
a noble death indeed!
The tyrant giant staggers now
and trips upon my steed!

My freedom beckons from the door
before my gleeful eyes:
below me shall be verdant fields,
above me birds will fly!
But wait! What’s this? Oh, curséd lie!
A subtle pane of glass
within another door, and locked!
My dreams of freedom pass.

I turn and face my wicked fate,
the tyrant on his feet,
approaching with a staggered gait,
his face as red as beets.
“Go to your room, right now,” he yells!
So to my room I flee,
afraid to boost my captor’s ire
I obey his decree.

My conquest is a wretched loss.
I hang my head and sigh,
and thinking of Triceratops,
my loyal steed, I cry.
But father comes into my room
and sits down by my side.
“Don’t worry, son, your dino’s fine.”
I look into his eyes.

“I’m proud you’ve got such spirit, boy.
Reminds me of my youth:
rebellious and adventuresome,
and fighting nail and tooth!
But save your spirit, son,” says he,
“for bigger foes than me.
The world is full of danger, boy,
and someday you’ll be free:

“Free to work and free to earn,
and free to pay the rent,
and free to waste your days away
until your life is spent.
And you will have to fight, my boy,
to save what coin you can
to help support the family
you’ll have when you’re a man.”

He looks at me with weary eyes,
and then he cracks a smile.
“But all of this can wait,” he says.
“You’ll stay young for a while.”
He gives my arm a little squeeze
and says “Forget the room.
Let’s go outside and play a while;
the sun is setting soon.”

And as my tyrant foe and I,
Triceratops in tow,
head out beyond the crystal door
into the fields below,
a thought begins to resonate
as day comes to an end:
My father’s not my greatest foe,
he is my closest friend.