Stanley stood in a small line at the coffee shop and watched a curious woman with ribbons of gray shrieking out from underneath her hair net greet everybody by name and know what they wanted to order.
A man with a briefcase stood before her looking tired and glum.
“How’s your knee?” She asked him.
“Fine I guess. Why do you ask?”
“You have to take care of your knees, Curtis” she lectured. “God can’t do it all. How many times do I have to say it?”
“I’m going now.”
The man got his drink and when she waved goodbye he produced a disgruntled smile that creaked open like an antique chest of drawers, exposing yellow teeth. The woman carried on mirthfully, indifferent to the grumbling of the grumpy regular.
Stanley didn’t think that sort of thing happened in Beverly Hills. He’s been coming in everyday for almost a year and hadn’t seen her before. Why didn’t she know him and ask him about his ailments? Like his neck that has had a kink in it for a month now.
It’s just like the doorman in the building who always jokes with everybody else but when Stanley picks up his boxes at the front desk and remarks about the size of the package, the guy never says ‘that’s what she said!’
He adjusted his glasses and tried to appear casual as he watched the lady take more orders. He wondered if people would remember him if he had more hair.
“How’s the kids?”
“First one,” the pregnant lady proudly stated, patting her belly in front of Stanley. It must be hard to remember everybody, he figured.
The lady wiped her hands on her apron and concluded, “Well, they grow up so fast.”
It was Stanley’s turn next and he took a deep breath, preparing not to be recognized. Why do I care so much? He asked himself. It’s just coffee. That’s all.
“Good to see you again,” she chirped at an insanely high decibel.
He felt his stomach drop as a feeling of joyous shock came over him — it was as if his name was announced in a lottery as the new King of Norway. She did remember him! But he hadn’t remembered her… maybe he’s the asshole?
“Good to see you again, too,” he lied. “How are you doing?”
“Happy as a titmouse. The usual: Caramel Mocha?”
Stanley had never tried Caramel Mocha and his stomach wasn’t partial to the sugary drinks, but he didn’t want to upset the moment. “Yes, thanks,” he said, then added, “Carol,” after reading her name tag.
While waiting for her to whip up the caffeineted concoction he watched the sports highlights on the television; although he found basketball lacking sufficient strategies for his taste and thought that Lakers fans were too boorish and loud, everybody around him was deeply invested in the screen and the scenes of jubilation inside that garish stadium downtown, and so he pretended to be interested as well.
“Here you go, Steve.”
“Stanley,” he corrected.
“Okay now. You’re going to be late for work.”
Stanley felt that Carol was a little odd but he was happy to make a friend so in a rare act of generosity he left fifty cents rattling in the coffee can-turned-tip jar. “Thanks, love,” she told him and he took his drink and left feeling like a million bucks. What’s a million bucks these days? He left feeling like Bill Gates as he walked back to his building with the rising morning sun throwing shadows across the sidewalk and the steel blur of commuters whizzing by angrily.
The doorman was sitting behind the marble counter in a gray suit whose shoulders were too big, Stanley thought, the sports section splayed open in front of him pinned down by his elbows. Stanley walked up to him, brimming with a sugary, convivial rush. “Big Lakers win, huh?”
The doorman was startled, not so much by the question, but by the questioner. “What’d you say?” He mumbled.
Stanley thought that maybe he’d had it wrong. “The Lakers won last night, right?”
The doorman came alive. “Oh yeah, man! Kobe did it again. Lakers played so good the knuckleheads downtown rolled wheelbarrows on fire at buses!”
Stanley laughed. “Must have been some win.”
The doorman chuckled and shook his head.
It felt good to make him laugh. Not so much because his joke was so funny, he realized, it wasn’t even a joke as much as an observation, but just because after all these years, the doorman finally shared a laugh with him.
“I know. I get your packages. You got that huge painting of a train.”
“It’s a subway.”
The doorman’s dark brown eyes didn’t blink.
“Well, yes, a subway train,” he agreed.
Stanley felt dumb, like a clueless French bourgeois asking his butler what that interesting wooden contraption with the large, sharp blade was for? cutting onions?
The doorman put out his hand. “Marvin.”
Stanley relaxed and smiled. “Marvin, well, nice to meet you… you know, officially.”
“Right on. See you around, Stanley.”
While Stanley waited for the elevator, he rocked on his toes and tried to process this giddiness that had him floating on the carpet. Why does he care if the lady at the coffee shop and his doorman know his name? He’s the number three art buyer in Beverly Hills, quoted in 16 different publications and the personal buyer for Tobey Maguire. He has a Jeff Koons doodle hanging on his bathroom wall.
Still, it felt good to foster this connection.
He closed the door to his condo and stood at the entrance, taking the room in. The floors were a richly polished redwood. His collection of painstakingly selected art pieces were highlighted by spotlights that shone even during the day. There was not an item misplaced, a dust particle to be encountered. It bespoke the sterile air of a gallery and that’s how he liked it. Immaculate. It brought him comfort to breathe it in anew every time.
But not today. It didn’t feel like home. Or, rather, it didn’t feel like a home.
He could rattle off a thousand interesting facts about all of his art and the artists that made it but not a single thing about himself.
He pictured what Carol and Marvin would say about his condo. “Psst. Why do I care what a coffee jock or a doorman have to say?” He scoffed. His voice echoed off the walls and Stanley detected a quiver that alarmed him. What does this mean?
He sat down on the sofa and fingered a button stitched into the cushion, an extra five hundred-dollar accessory. Maybe they’re the ones that have it right, and all this doesn’t mean a thing if everything else in life makes you miserable? It would be nice if something as simple as a sports team’s victory could bring me riotous joy. That’s much easier than trying to convince a SoHo collector to part with his beloved Basquiat (of two weeks) for less than a million. People love to round-up 900,000 dollar pieces to a million for the sheer love of the number. People’s attraction to that extra digit has cost him thousands over the years, he calculated mournfully.
Stanley made up his mind to talk to Carol tomorrow. He wanted to know the secret to being ‘happy as a titmouse.’ She was like a stain on his brain. This type of feeling there’s no Scotch Guard for.
He went to his shop and made his calls but his heart wasn’t in it. He couldn’t erase her from his mind and had a fitful time trying to sleep that night. In the morning when he woke up, the sheets were drenched in sticky sweat and he was utterly exhausted, as if he’d had sex in the night — an act he only faintly remembered with a trace of nostalgia, like summer ice cream cones on Catalina Island when he was nine.
Naked in the shower, Stanley considered masturbating, but he didn’t know what to picture or how long it’d take, so he passed. His shampoo collection was lined up in two tiers, in order of tallest to shortest, with all the labels facing out, on lonely display. One shampoo per hair follicle left on my head, he estimated wistfully.
He felt old, but he really was old, so this was okay. He dressed himself slowly, carefully going over the fabric of his suit and how it fit his body. He guessed that his suit cost more than Carol makes in two weeks, then wondered why he bothered to do that kind of math.
Sure, he’d been with women before, but not in awhile, and certainly not a barrista! It wasn’t a sexual attraction, was it?
If he could go from men to women, why couldn’t he go from the successful lawyer-closeted-type to someone who works at Starbucks?
Stanley pounded down the sidewalk with an urgent gait. The leather oxfords he wore weren’t conducive to this kind of walking and his heels rubbed against the backs and started to peel off skin. He wanted to to talk to Carol, no, had to. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, it wasn’t a date he necessarily had in mind, but he wanted more time with her to figure out what it was she was supposed to teach him. He wanted to get to know her more, that much was for sure.
The universe was instructing him to seek her out, it was driving him mad. But that’s how the universe tells you what to do, it drives you mad. Paint melting clocks on the beach, the universe says.
He got there and the line was spilling out into the parking lot. He’d never seen it this busy. After a couple of minutes he was able to get inside the door. He looked around but Carol wasn’t behind the counter.
Maybe she was in the back? Or it was her day off?
They seemed understaffed and this was unacceptable to Stanley because the only reason he came today was to talk to Carol, and she’s not even here now and there’s this impossible line. He wants to hurry up and get out of here and forget all about this.
Stanley passed the next five minutes figuring out exactly how this Starbucks was negligent to their customers and why he should take his money elsewhere.
Finally it was his turn and the young man behind the counter, who would be slightly attractive if he didn’t have all that acne Jackson Pollacked across his face, waited for him to order with the look of a wounded animal hoping to be put out of his misery.
He asked for a simple drip coffee and watched the teen scribble S-T-A-N-L-E-Y on the cup and pass it assembly-line like to another bored teen, then punch the register using one finger, with what Stanley thought was caveman dexterity.
After handing over his three dollars and pocketing his change, he inquired, “Is Carol working today?”
“Carol. The woman with the gray streaks in her hair — real happy woman.”
“Oh, the new hire!”
“Are you sure she was new? Carol?”
The boy looked around and leaned closer to Stanley in order to speak softer.
“We had to fire her. That’s why we’re so slammed right now.”
Stanley was blindsided. “Why’s that?”
The boy was frightened by his tone. “There’s no one else to come in,” he stammered.
“I’m sorry. I mean, why did she get fired? She seemed nice.”
“Oh. No, man. She was crazy. It was her first day and she was going around talking to everybody like she knew them. Just making things up. Telling people she didn’t know she loved them — you can’t have somebody like that working for you. It’s deranged.”
Stanley felt like a shattered vase. “Really? She was nuts?”
“You could sprinkle salt on her, throw her in a bowl at the bar and drunks would gobble her up.”
His eloquence escaped him. If things weren’t confusing already, this new wrinkle made him feel like a modern day Jimmy Stewart in an Alfred Hitchcock production. He wondered if insanity is contagious.”Wow. That’s… she seemed, it’s sad, at her age.”
Maybe he hadn’t fallen in love with her, but she put a spell on him, or not a spell, really, but her mental illness spread to him, like the bubonic plague, and drove him to obsess about the previous carrier of whatever virus this is. No, that’s not right, that only happens in the movies. Stanley really didn’t know what to think now.
The boy gave him a strange look. “I guess,” he conceded indifferently. “Why? Did you know her?” He asked Stanley.
“I thought she was nice. That’s all.”