A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tribute to Tobias Wolff

At five in the morning it was still dark in their tiny room and would be for the rest of the day if they didn't open the curtains. They, the curtains, looked alive, Becca thought. Or formerly alive. Grey green strips of skin twitching in the fan. Postmortem reflexes.

Somewhere in the murk, Kirk asked, "How long have we been here?"

And she said, "Forever," and meant it until she heard the word come out of her mouth. She was glad only Kirk heard something so cliche. The curtains would stay put, though, Becca decided, but she would not.

It took about an hour to carry out the command. They were staying in a friends' spare room while they searched for work and an apartment. San Francisco was overcast and cold, the streets empty and peculiarly empty. There was not a parking space in either direction for the length of the block, but not a person in sight. Becca felt unusual. Lonely. Even next to Kirk. He stood next to her looking up and down the block, atrociously alert.

"Well, food," he said and started walking. Becca was certain that he didn't know where he was going, but was still too tired to care. It was good to be moving. Not quite as good as bed. Laziness would get her no where, she thought.

"How long have we been here?" Becca asked.

"You said 'forever,'" Kirk said.

"No, I'm serous."

"Sunday before last," Kirk said without hesitation.

Becca made a quick calculation while stepping over dog shit. The air was greasy, but she was catching a whiff of espresso. "Ten days," Becca said. "You know, there's a joke about when the Beatles got to Iceland some reporters rushed them at the airport. One of them asked, 'What do you think of Icleand?' and John said, 'How should I know? I just bloody got here.'"

"That's how you feel about San Fran?" Kirk asked, rounding a corner and making for the coffee shop where they'd eaten breakfast for three days straight. It wasn't a bad choice. They had great sandwiches and the espresso was amazing.

"Yeah, kind of," Becca said. "I don't feel like I can form an opinion."

The cafe sat in the middle of a row of boutiques. Deep green shutters, unvarnished hardwood floors, heavy marble tables, band posters plastered over every wall all made Becca think of a kind of blase abandon that appealed to her. There was no TV, just a little radio playing blues. They ordered eggs and toast and sat down at a table not far from the serving counter. The air reeked of tart, black coffee. While they ate, Becca read them and Kirk consulted the Chroincle, taking notes on a legal pad.

There was no one else in the coffee shop except the old man behind the counter, polishing a porta-filter. When he finished with the porta-filter, he picked up a thick, leather-bound book and stood facing the door, turning the pages slowly. He wore black slacks and a black vest over a white, formal shirt. When Becca stood close enough to him, she could smell his cologne. While he took their orders, he barely said a word. The first time they came in, Becca thought he might be mute, but the second day they came in he looked up and told them, "Hello."

After about a half hour, a middle aged man in a brown business suit walked through the door. "Hello, Roy, long time no see."

The barista put down his book. "You're back," he said.

"Yeah, we just got in a few hours ago and I thought to myself, 'Now, where could I get the best cup of coffee in town?' Well, that's right, Roy." The man waited for a second. Becca stopped reading and watched out of the corner of her eye.

"Well," the man said, "I'd like a cappuccino."

Roy nodded and stepped over to the espresso machine. There was a metal clink and he stood back up, pouring a little milk into a stainless steel beaker. The man who had just walked in watched for a moment and then said, "It's colder up here."

Roy looked at him and then went back to his work, saying "Colder than New Orleans, I'd imagine."

"Not that much. I'm a little surprised how little difference there is," said the man. "It's so humid that it gets underneath your skin."

The milk hissed and growled as Roy steamed it. Becca had to lean a little to hear what the man said next. "A week feels like forever when you're volunteering. Especially in a city like New Orleans. You wouldn't believe what it's like down there."

Roy did not look up. In one smooth movement, he filled the porta-filter with espresso, tamped it down, brushed off the excess, and pushed the filer into the gasket. A loud click of the switch. A moment later, steaming espresso poured into a tiny metal shot glass.

"We were staying neighborhood that hadn't recovered from the storm yet," the man said. He wasn't looking at Roy, anymore, but down at his hands. Ever so often, as he spoke, he would look up at the old Barista, checking for a reaction. "There was an older man, Harry, who lived next door to the church where we were staying in his gutted house. After working on site every day I'd come by and he'd be working on his house, by himself. I would hear him hammering and sawing, see him carrying wire and pipes, all day long. He was disabled. He used to work in construction and his hip was so badly injured in an accident that he couldn't work on site anymore.

"Every time I got home from work he'd ask me over to play dominoes. That's what everyone in the neighborhood played. I'd get daiquiris and we'd sit around for an hour talking and playing dominoes until he told me he had to get back to work. That was the only time I didn't see him working.

"He was determined, you know. Absolutely determined to rebuild his life even though no one was helping him. Not at all like the man who's house we were rebuilding. This guy, every time we saw him, all he would do is complain about how screwed over he'd been by the government, the city, people stealing his money, all that. But Harry never once complained that whole week."

Roy handed the man his cappuccino. Becca noticed that Kirk wasn't taking notes anymore. The man did not drink his cappuccino, but just held it, speaking directly to Roy. "One day I got home and instead of a house there was a hole in the ground next door. The city had declared his condemned and in the eight hours I was at work they tore it down. And there was Harry, standing there over this big hole and shaking his head. I didn't know what to say to him, but I walked over and he looked up at me and I don't think I'll ever forget what he said. He just shook his head and said, 'This is going to take longer than I thought.' Can you believe that? I think I would have shot myself right then and there. Those people down there just have a different attitude than we do. It's all about attitude."

The man looked at his watch. "I'm going to be late. Shit, sorry, I wanted this to-go."

"I'll remake it," said Roy and reached for the saucer.

"No, no, that's all right. Just put it in a to-go cup, please."

The old barista unceremoniously poured the cappuccino into a white, paper cup and handed it to the man. "Thanks, Roy, you're a good man," said the man and walked out of the cafe quickly.

Becca looked over at Kirk who had sat his paper down and was looking at her. They stared at each other for a moment until finally Kirk said, "Wow."

He took a sip of his cold coffee and shook his head, "There are no apartments or jobs in this city."

Outside the wind blew. The barista had gone back to his book. And Becca was two thousand miles away or some impossible distance crashing on a friends couch with Kirk on borrowed money. There was nothing here just as there was nothing there. Becca decided that she would not move from her chair.

She said, "We could hang ourselves."

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