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Everyone has a story. That was Meredith's schtick. How she got us talking. Sometimes she asked about our favorite childhood candy, our biggest fears. What we'd dreamed about the night before. She asked, we answered. I never thought to question her about why she wanted to know, just like it never occurred to me to wonder why we all wanted to tell her. Today it was about crazy.
"So, Tesla, tell me. What's the craziest thing you've ever done?" Meredith said this with gleaming eyes and lips wet from where she'd licked them.
Unlike some of the other times, I didn't have a ready answer for her. "Haven't I told you enough stories?"
She shook her head, her sleek honey-blond hair falling just so on the shoulders of her soft, pale blue cardigan. "Never enough. Carlos here already told me about how once he got caught jerking off to old people porn."
I paused, jug of coffee in my hand, and looked at them both. "Whaaaat?"
Carlos is a writer. We get a lot of them in Morningstar Mocha because we offer a bottomless refill for under two bucks, and free Wi-Fi. Carlos was in there every day, tapping away at his keyboard with his earbuds in before he headed off to his day job. Today he'd succumbed to the seduction of Meredith's charm and actually closed the lid of his laptop. That was pretty crazy.
Meredith came to the Mocha to use the free internet and drink coffee like the writers did, but she wasn't a writer. Meredith sold thingscandles and cookware and jewelry, all from those home-party companies. She wasn't annoying about it the way Lisa, who sold Spicefully Tasty products, was. Meredith would be happy to sell you a pair of earrings or a fancy-smelling jar of wax if you asked her to, but she never pushed her stuff on anyone. She knew how to be subtle.
"Porn of old people fucking," she said. "You know. Like lemon party."
I didn't even know what that was, but Carlos made a face, so I guess he did.
"I was young. It was all I could find." He shrugged, barely embarrassed.
I laughed, put the full jug on the counter and lifted the empty one. "No offense, but that doesn't sound too crazy to me. I mean, who hasn't looked at gross porn at least once or twice."
I paused, just to give him a little bit of a hard time. "Can't say I've ever buffed my muffin over it or anything."
Carlos laughed and rolled his eyes. "Like I said, I was young."
"I told you." Meredith reached across their tables to poke him. "Our girl Tesla's a wild child."
I got that a lot. Maybe it was the Doc Martens, which I refuse to believe will ever go out of style, or my short-cropped hair. It was platinum-blond at the time, and that day I'd tied a cute Strawberry Shortcake bandanna around it, very 1940s Rosie the Riveter. Well, except that I was frothing milk and filling coffee jugs instead of fixing airplanes. If crazy was retro clothes and lots of eyeliner I might qualify, but not because of my day-to-day life.
I made a little wiggling gesture with my fingertips. "Yeah, o-o-oh. I'm s-o-o-o wild. And cra-a-azy! Watch out, I might just do something really nutty like wipe up the crumbs on your table."
"I meant it in the best way," Meredith said.
"Thanks." I started to say more, but my boss came out from the back room and shot me with the death-ray lasers of her gaze. "Talk to you later, when Joy's not breathing down my neck."
"Did you refill the self-serves?" Joy asked, and continued without waiting for me to answer. "I need you to pull all the baked goods today at four instead of five. Someone's coming from the women's shelter to pick them up. And listen, that pa-nini on the menu? We're taking it off at the end of the week, so push it hard so I can get rid of that avocado."
We had half a dozen panini sandwiches on the menu, but at least the bit about the avocado tipped me off. I gave Joy my best and brightest, if dumbest, smile. Made sure to add the blank doll eyes, too, just because I knew how much she loved feeling superior. Hey, everyone's got a hobby, right?
Hers was being a bitch. Mine was letting her think she was getting away with it.
"Sure thing. No problem." I settled the empty jug near the coffee machine.
"Don't fill that nowit'll be off temp when it's time to replace it." She said that as if I hadn't worked here for almost two years already.
I didn't bother arguing. There are just some people in the world you can't please except by not pleasing them. And life's too short for making drama, you know? Sometimes you just gotta play nice, even when someone else is trying to grind your Play-Doh into the rug.
But then she floored me.
"I'm leaving at twelve-thirty, and I'm taking the rest of the day off."
"Are you okay?" It was the first question that rose to my tongue.
Joy took most weekends off, her privilege as manager, but that meant she never took days off during the week. And leaving early? No way. Privately, I thought this place was the only thing she had in her life.
Her sour expression showed me I'd stepped out of line. "What? Of course! Please don't tell me I need to stay, Tesla. I mean, you can handle this, right? Do I need to call Darek to come in earlier?"
Her tone made it clear she had about as much faith in me handling the shop as she would if the mop in the corner came to life and started grilling up paninis. "Yes. Of course. Have fun."
"It's an appointment," she said. "Not fun." I shut up after that and got to the business of serving coffee and pastries and pushing panini sandwiches on poor, unsuspecting squares who didn't know the reason I raved about the turkey avocado club was because we were trying to get rid of it before the end of the week. By the time Joy was about ready to leave, the line of customers stretched all the way to the front door. That happened every day, though. I wasn't worried.
"I called Darek," Joy said. "He'll be here in twenty minutes. I can't really wait for him____"
I liked working with Darek. Still, the fact she'd needed to call him in early twisted my nipples a little. "It's fine, Joy. You go. I can handle this."
"With one hand behind her back," said the next customer in line, Johnny D., without being prompted. I love that guy.
You can't work in any sort of job dealing with the public and not get to know the people who come in day after day. Regulars. Well, I have regulars and then I have favorites.
Johnny Dellasandro was definitely a favorite. He's older than my dad, but has the most adorable little boy I've ever seen. He's made of fabulous, that guy, always with the smile and the wink. A dollar in the tip jar. A girl notices those things. He likes flavored coffee and sweet things, and he likes to sit with his newspaper in the booth closest to the counter. Sometimes he comes in with his girlfriend, Emm, sometimes with his little boy, sometimes with his much older daughter and his grandson.
Joy never gave him a sour look. She shot me another one, though, as if it was my fault she had to leave. Then she shrugged into her coat and left.
"Where's your little dumpling?" I asked Johnny when she'd gone.
"With his mama today."
"Must be nice to be a man of leisure," I teased. "Swanning around coffee shops and whatnot, being all pretty and stuff."
Johnny laughed. "You caught me."
"What can I get you?"
"Chocolate croissant. When you getting in those peppermint mocha lattes again?"
"Not until closer to Christmas," I told him as I pulled out the biggest croissant from the case and settled it on a plate for him. "We have the pumpkin spice, though. I can get you one of those."
With Johnny served, I moved on to the next customer. One at a time, that was how to do it, making sure to listen carefully to the orders so I didn't make mistakesit was no good being fast if you were sloppy.
Eric was an emergency room doc who liked a pot of tea while he sat at a table in the front window and wrote list after list on yellow legal pads. Lisa the law student always had a jalapeno-cheese-stuffed pretzel and an iced tea while she studied. Jen was a regular I hadn't seen in a while, and we chatted about her new job for a minute. I spotted Sadie the psychologist at the back of the line and gave her a wave. Sometimes Sadie came in with her husband, another tasty bit of eye candy, only Joe was the kind of man who never even looked sideways at another woman. Today she was alone. Sadie waved back with the hand not on her hugely pregnant belly.
"Hot chocolate, extra whipped cream, and
" I tilted my head, looking Sadie up and down when she got to the counter. "Bagel with lox spread. Am I right?"
She laughed. "Oh
I was going to be good, but you've convinced me."
"If you can't indulge when you're pregnant, when the heck can you?" I tipped my chin toward the front of the shop, where Meredith had snared some other regulars into telling stories.
Laughter rose and fell. "I think there's something exciting going on up there. Grab a seat. I'll bring it over."
Sadie huffed a sigh. "Thanks. I swear, I used to be fit. Now just the walk from home to here has me winded. And my feet hurt."
"No worries." While she waddled to a table in the sunshine coming through the large front windows, I set to work toasting the bagel, steaming the milk, adding the chocolate syrup.
"The queen's holding court," Darek said as he moved behind me to hang up his coat and put on his apron.
I looked up at the sound of Meredith's laughter floating toward the back of the shop. "Doesn't she always?"
I'd known her only a few months, uncertain of when she'd gone from a regular to a favorite and then to a friend. It might've been the day Joy went into one of her raging shit-fits and Meredith had calmly but coolly put her in her place by reminding her "the customer is always right, or this customer goes someplace else to spend four-fifty on a mocha latte."
Since then Meredith had weaseled out most of my life history over coffee and sandwiches. I guess I'd had a crush on her from the moment she'd walked through the front doors of the Mocha with her oversize handbag and complementary dark glasses, her shoes that matched her belt, her perfectly styled blond hair. Meredith was the sort of woman I thought about trying to be sometimes, before ultimately accepting it took a lot of money, effort and desire I mostly didn't have. She'd become a part of our little coffee shop community even though she didn't live anywhere close to the neighborhood. More than that, she'd become a part of my life. She thought I was crazy. Wild. And she meant it in the best way, whatever that meant.
She really didn't know me at all.
The crowd waiting for food and coffee dwindled, though most of the tables remained occupied. The Mocha's a popular place all day long. Sadie left. So did Johnny and Carlos, my regulars. A few of Darek's came in, but he took care of them. With Joy gone for the rest of the day I had time for a break, and I took my oversize mug of chai to Meredith's table.
She looked up from her computer when I sat. "You missed some good stories today. You still haven't told me yours, though."
"Haven't I told you enough crazy stories?" I'd told her plenty, most about my summers as a kid in the commune. "What, The Compound wasn't wacky enough for you?"
"Those were about a place you were, not things you did. There's a difference."
I sipped chai and looked her over. "Do I look like someone who does crazy things?"
I shrugged. "I don't even have any tattoos."
Meredith waved a dismissive hand. "Every sorority girl has a tattoo these days. Piercings all over the place. They wear nipple rings like it's something special." She eyed me. "When I said you were our wild child, I didn't mean because of the way you dress or wear your makeup."
"What, then?" The mug warmed my hands better than the sunshine slanting through the glass. Early October in Pennsylvania can be glorious, warm and fragrant with the scent of changing leaves. This year, it was getting cold early.
Meredith shrugged, so graceful and artless that jealousy slivered through me. I could practice for a million years and never look that elegant. "Let's just say there's something about you."
"There's something about anyone, isn't there?" I lifted a fingertip to point discreetly toward Eric, sitting alone with legal pads and lists. "Check out Dr. McSexypants over there.
What's he doing with all that stuff? Every time he comes in here, he's writing on those legal pads. Why don't you ask him about a story?"
Meredith laughed, low and throaty, not the same laughter that had earlier filled the shop. This was just for me. "Because he won't tell anyone about them. Still waters run deep and all that shit."
"Maybe I have still waters, too."
She shook her head, playful. Charming. "No, honey, you're more like a waterfall."
"Because I rush a lot?" I asked with a wink.
"Nope. A thing of natural beauty with some treasure hidden behind it. C'mon, Tesla. Tell me. The craziest thing you've ever done."
There was no trying to deny her. What Meredith wanted, she'd have, and she made me want to give it to her. "I don't think anything I've done is crazy. Crazy's like
I dunno. Putting a dead bird in your locker at school so you can bury it later. Lighting stuff on fire."
"Okay, not crazy. Wild, then. Free? Unique?" She paused, thinking. "Unencumbered."
"Ah. You mean sexual."
Meredith wore a huge diamond and a gold band on her left hand. She talked sometimes about her husband, but only in the vaguest of ways. I knew his name was Charlie and that he was a teacher at some fancy private school. They had no kids.
"Yes-s-s," Meredith hissed with glee. "Sexual. Tell me, Tesla. What's the wildest sex thing you ever did?"
I wasn't surprised she wanted to know my wild sex secrets. She liked to talk about sex a lot. Well. Who doesn't?
"Hmmm." I turned my mug round and round in my palms, the ceramic sliding on the tabletop. "The craziest thing, huh? I'm not sure I can beat old people porn."
"Did you know Sadie was married to someone else before Joe?" Meredith said quietly.
"No. She was? Huh." I shrugged. "Was that the craziest thing she'd done? Got divorced?"