Happy Friday! It's time for some flash fiction! This week's story comes in at 907 words and was loosely inspired by my trip to an open mic night at Sozo Coffee House in Chandler, AZ. It should be noted that it's entirely fiction. Names have not been changed to protect the off-key, nor have I any particular commentary on actual people. The coffee shop in this story is one of my own design, as are its denizens.
I hope you enjoy it.
Open Mic by Jamie Wyman
Thing about working in a coffee shop is that you get to meet a wide variety of people. Hipsters, soccer moms. The college kid scribbling poetry. The fifty-something typing up his magnum opus. Everyone needs their poison. A bleeding-heart liberal and the staunchest conservative can't work together on policy reform, but by God they agree on how to take their Caramel Machiatto (skim, tall, extra shot). The shop brings in money by serving up the same things to all types.
And at no time is the melting pot nature of Hallowed Grounds more apparent than every third Friday of the month when we throw open the doors to give everyone a shot at 10 minutes on stage.
The line stretches down the block. Musicians, beat poets and stand-up comics all waiting to get on the list so they can try out a new tune, or practice an old bit.
As I make my way up the line, I offer my kindest greetings. Carlos and I share a fist bump.
“White mocha frappe?” I ask. He smiles and nods. Those three words might be the only English the kid understands, but he can sing like Dylan.
“Smiley” Riley sits with her back against the brick wall, plucking at the pink ukelele in her lap. “How was the final?” “Passed!” she beams. “Flying colors!” “How's Brax?” “Teething. Up all night miserable. Poor thing.” “Try frozen bananas. Gives them something to gnaw on and soothes their gums. Sister did it with my niece and it worked like a charm.” Her eyes glitter and it's all the gratitude I need. “Thanks. I'll try that.”
Stepping over instrument cases or napping drummers, I slowly make my way up the line. Petey Ferrell is going to do a speed painting, but he won't tell me of which celebrity icon. Not unless I slip an extra shot of espresso into his Jitterbug. He grins, flashing a gold tooth. The smile makes the teardrop tattoo by his left eye scrunch up.
The goth-Lolita-ska band has all of their instruments and amps at the front of the line. Lisa taps out frenzied rhythms on her thighs, her feet slapping the sidewalk where a pair of kick drums should be. Her make-up is perfection and despite the froth of ruffles, she looks fierce in her costume. Something in the set of her shoulders, though...something isn't right. Problems with Carrie, maybe. They've been on the rocks for months. It's only a matter of time before that relationship explodes. I make a mental note to add a touch of hazelnut to Lisa's chai on the house, just to give it that extra flavor she likes so much. When she smiles, the piercings in her cheek only deepen her dimples. If I can get that look tonight, it will be the best tip I'll get all week.
Then there's Merle. He's gotta be pushing seventy. His skin is that dark, leathery tan that says he spends most days working outside. Liver spots and moles. One or two pink scars that serve as a reminder that Merle not only kicked some ass in Vietnam, he also beat Cancer. Takes his coffee black, but orders a chocolate cupcake almost every time I see him.
“Don't tell the wife,” he says. Every time.
He wears a gold ring on his left hand, but I've never seen him at the shop with anyone but his shadow. When he gets on stage, Merle likes to sing cowboy songs or old prison tunes. And he sounds like the angel of Johnny Cash.
Carlos. Riley. Petey. Lisa. Merle. And scads of others. Some are new this week, their eyes darting around with a nervousness that I can spot a mile away. I'll learn their orders, too. Assuming they come back. They don't always.
The ones who do, though. They stick in my memory. Each of them is a story, and I enjoy getting to know those tales almost as much as I enjoy listening to their music or their poems.
When I finally get into the shop I see Maureen the performance artist is first in line. She's got a cow bell, three Kazoos and a jar of pickles.
“New piece tonight?” I ask her. She nods. “It's something I call 'Octopi Wall Street: A Hentai Love Affair with Money.'” “Can't wait,” I say with a smile.
I slip behind the counter and put on my apron before pulling out a clipboard with The List on it. Right now, each slot is empty. The paper is pristine. Soon, it will be full of scrawled names and at least one signature where the “i” is dotted with a heart.
I ask Maureen, “Can I borrow your cow bell?” She hands it to me along with a drumstick. Clanking away at the bell, I call out, “Alright, folks, The List is up!”
They flock to it. I start making the drinks to get a head start. Carlos's white mocha frappe. Petey's Jitterbug. I pick the best cupcake in the case and set it aside for Merle.
Only after they've signed up do they come back to me and place their orders. Between steaming milk and pouring chai, I take a look at them, my beautifully diverse sea of humanity. My regulars and my newcomers. Spending time with them like this? It's precious.
The only decision left to make now is which one to kill.