Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chapter 20. The Cafe

Max propped up the pillow on the mattress he had dragged out of his bedroom to replace the couch. He leaned his head against the wall as he watched the yellow glow of the morning sun gradually erase the blue-black night that leaked in through the slats in his blinds. The couch, the TV, and the piles of laundry that once cluttered his apartment were long gone. He’d laboriously hauled everything out the front door three weeks earlier and down the steps to the parking lot, where he left them in a heap - to the thorough annoyance of the building superintendent. After a few days pounding on his door and threatening to evict him, the super slipped an envelope through the mail slot. Max hadn’t bothered to open it, and instead tossed it onto the growing stack of pizza delivery boxes on the breakfast table in his kitchen.

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Chapter 20 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.

A spot of sunlight crawled down Max’s chest as the usual morning concert of slamming doors and pounding footsteps grew. The staccato rhythm above his ceiling meant the yellow Lab upstairs was prancing in anticipation of its morning walk. A piercing series of beeps, like the warning of a delivery truck backing up, leaked through the wall from the apartment next door. It was followed by the loud blathering of shock Dee Jays, which meant he would soon hear the hiss of a shower, a pell-mell rush down the stairs, and the sputtering of a scooter coming to life and buzzing off up the street.

Max never heard the woman across the hall leave in the morning or return in the afternoon. He guessed that she wore the soft-soled shoes of a nurse or a librarian or bank clerk - something that required her to be on her feet all day. Other than the whispers of her television in the evening, or the occasional hallway conversation with a delivery boy, there was little evidence that anyone lived there at all.

In all the years that he had rented his apartment, Max had never bothered to learn much about his neighbors. When he bumped into them in the hall, or the trash room, or even at the annual get-acquainted cook out in the courtyard out back, he barely listened when they told him their names. And when he did catch a name here or there, he generally did his best to forget it as soon as possible.

But after three weeks holed up in his apartment, Max yearned to deduce as much about the people who surrounded him as he could, from the sounds they made throughout the day, the distorted glimpses of them in the fish eye view through the peephole in his door, and stolen glances through the slats of his lowered shades.

There was the old man with the yellow lab, who left each day at ten with his dog on a leash and an umbrella under his arm - regardless of the weather, the young dark-haired kid with the scooter; and finally the light-footed woman across the hall. There were others as well, but they lived in apartments too far away for Max to gather anything about them other than their schedules.

As the day's cavalcade of sound died down, he knew there would be little to look forward to until the afternoon, when the procession would reverse itself and his neighbors would come back to roost in their nests and watch TV or talk on the phone. Even the wrinkled, olive skinned old man who vacuumed the stairs and dusted the railings wouldn’t come by today. He apparently only attended to Max’s building twice each week, and he had taken care of his duties the day before. Traffic noise and the clatter of the mailman filling the boxes at the bottom of the stairs were all that was likely to interrupt the hours of solitude ahead of him.

Max rolled off the mattress, dressed in pin stripe boxer shorts and a white t-shirt, and headed to the kitchen. It was his custom recently to start the day with a bowl of cereal, but only after tugging at the oven door, which he had sealed with criss-crossing lengths of duct tape. It seemed tight enough, but he wished he had more tape just to make sure.

He took a bowl down from his cabinet and filled it to the brim with dull brown flakes, then opened the refrigerator and lifted out the plastic milk jug. It was nearly empty, just enough to cover his cereal. He would have to drink his coffee black this morning. He tossed the empty jug into the sink, spooned some instant coffee into a cup of hot tap water, and sat at the table to eat. He stared absently at the duct-taped oven as he shoveled cereal into his mouth.

He was going to have to pick up some milk. Otherwise, he would be eating dry cereal with his tepid black coffee tomorrow. On top of that, it was coming up to the point that he needed to refill his prescription. He had increased his dose since he went into seclusion, both to avoid any risk of a seizure and to take the edge off his loneliness.

Max scooped out the last of the cereal and poured the remaining milk into his coffee. Bits of cereal flakes floated on the surface, turning the brown liquid nauseatingly chunky. For a moment, he wished he hadn’t tossed out his laptop with his TV and couch. He could probably have found a grocery delivery service online to bring his supplies to him. The regret, however, was short lived. He’d had enough online excitement for a long, long while.

He put the bowl in the sink, swigged the last of his coffee, and went in search of something clean to wear for his first day outside in a week. There wasn’t much to choose from. Most of his wardrobe had gone out on the curb with his furniture. In the bedroom, he found a pair of sweats that were only a bit dirty at the knees, and a threadbare flannel shirt. He stopped in the bathroom for his daily dose of drugs. When he closed the medicine cabinet, he peered at his red-rimmed eyes, pale cheeks and forehead, and the grey-flecked stubble. He ran a hand over his chin and briefly contemplated shaving and showering. Why bother, he thought, if he was going to be a hermit, he might as well look the part. He raised and arm and sniffed his armpit, then wrinkled his nose at the musky stench. He certainly smelled like a hermit anyway.

He walked into the living room and slipped his feet into his tennis shoes, without bothering to tie the laces. Max suppressed the urge to giggle. The thought of stepping outside made him light-headed with nervousness and excitement, like a child about to walk on stage in a school play. As he placed his hand on the doorknob, he wondered what he would say if he ran into one of his neighbors or someone from the university. He convinced himself that the odds of meeting anyone at this time of day were slim, and he proceeded out the door and down the steps.

The street in front of Max’s apartment was lined with fruitless pear trees in full bloom. The pear tree flowers emitted a bitter fragrance that was a harsh contrast to their delicate white petals. Initially he had been startled to find that the trees did not have perfume to match their blossoms. Considering the fact that few people ever walked this street, Max supposed it made sense for the city managers to choose to plant trees that looked nice even if they smelled badly. These roads were built for cars, not pedestrians. It was a fact that was made even more apparent when he reached the intersection at the end of the street.

There was a button on the corner lamppost that was installed, according to the faded sign above the button, to facilitate the passage of bikers and pedestrians. As far as Max could tell, it didn’t do anything, regardless of how many times he pushed it. The lights would occasionally flash the signal indicating that it was time to cross, with no correlation to how hard or often he pushed the button, but the cycle was far to brief to make it to the other side even at a sprint. Fortunately, cars included detectors to avoid collisions, both with other vehicles and with humans foolish enough to stray into traffic. Once Max stepped off the curb, he knew he would make it across safely, although he would have to suffer the blaring cacophony of car horns and the crossing light’s prerecorded rebuke for lingering too long in the intersection.

“Screw you,” shouted Max to the bleating cars as he jogged to the other side of the street and into the shopping center parking lot. The lot itself was not much friendlier to foot traffic than the intersection. Driverless cars arrived and departed in rapid succession, with the arrivals having deposited their passengers immediately in front of whatever store they chose to visit first, and departing cars zipping off to pick up their owners, who stood with packages in hand at the curb.

With his head up and hands in his pockets, Max meandered toward the supermarket. Noise restrictions in the lot limited cars to muted beeps whenever Max got in the way of one coming or going, but they inevitably released a fury of alarms if he even brushed a fender in passing, which he did from time to time just for fun.

He stepped up onto the curb and joined the flow of customers trickling into the grocery store. He paused long enough to make sure he didn’t recognize any of the nearby shoppers, then touched the thumb-print scanner on the handle of one of the shopping carts in the corral just inside the door. The cart’s display screen indicated that Max had been identified and flashed the balance in his checking account. He pondered his remaining cash and did some mental calculations. He could probably last another few weeks before he would run out of money. Then he would have to return to work, if he hadn’t already been fired for taking unauthorized leave, or start living on credit. Better still, he could find a new job - one that allowed him to work with his hands instead of a computer. For now, all he really needed was milk, drugs, duct tape, and a few other supplies.

He started off down the first aisle. The cart glided out and followed along behind him, muttering about sales and specials as it went. Max paused long enough to punch the cart’s mute button and headed toward the pharmacy counter at the back of the store. The auto-pharmacist scanned his retina, confirmed that Max was due for a refill on his prescription, and sounded a tone to let him know his pill bottle was ready behind the dispenser door next to the scanner. The shopping cart screen briefly noted the debit for the purchase. He turned and headed for the dairy aisle for a gallon of milk, then picked up a box of cereal, toilet paper, the duct tape, and some new razors. He contemplated buying more supplies, but the thought of dragging everything up the hill to his apartment discouraged him. At some point, he would have to break down and drive his car to the store. For now, he’d make do with the bare necessities.

The cart followed Max to the exit. On the sidewalk outside, the cart’s screen flashed a message indicating its gratitude for being of service, and tumbled the items Max had purchased into a plastic bag at the front. He lifted out his groceries. The cart whipped around and puttered back inside to await another customer.

Max stood on the curb for a moment and soaked in the spring sunshine. He had intended to shop and head straight home to his dreary apartment. But the walk had given him a taste for the outdoors. He looked up the sidewalk toward the cafe with tables scattered out front. A cup of real coffee and a muffin would be a nice change of pace from his diet of pizza and cereal. And even better, it might be nice to speak to someone for a moment, even if it was only to place an order with the waiter.

He hefted his groceries and headed for the café. The outdoor tables were deserted. It was the slow time of day; after the breakfast rush and before lunch.

Max settled in at a seat with his back to the café door, leaving him with a clear view of the parking lot. He placed his elbow on the arm of the chair and rested his chin on his knuckles to watch the cars rolling into place on the grid of parking spaces. Eventually, a pimply-faced waiter in a green apron appeared at his shoulder with a menu tablet in hand.

“Good morning,” said the waiter. “Care to hear today’s specials?”

Max only wanted a blueberry muffin and an iced coffee, but he nodded anyway. The sound of a human voice was refreshing. As the waiter rattled off the list of drink choices and pastry options, a disturbance erupted through the café door. The waiter paused and Max glanced over his shoulder as a man with an aluminum-foil scull cap, dark sunglasses, and a robe of dirty linen stumbled out of the café waving a fist-full of dollar bills.

“It’s called cash, you tools,” shouted the lunatic. “Remember money?”

“We take credit and we take debit,” a voice shouted back from inside the café. “Order whatever you want, but no cash.”

The lunatic stuffed the bills into his robe, stomped past Max’s table, and turned to stand on the curb. His face was red with fury, and veins stood out on his neck and forehead

“All I have is cash.”

The waiter shrugged at Max in a “What can you do?” sort of way.

“You want I should starve?” the lunatic shrieked at the waiter.

Then he turned on Max

“How about you?” said the lunatic. “You think my money is no good?”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Max in as calming and even a tone as he could muster. “It’s just a bit old fashioned.”

“It’s legal tender.” The madman lunged halfway across the table to hold a bill in front of Max’s nose. “See, says so right there.”

“It might be legal, but you’re not likely to find a cash register anywhere around here. They can’t make change.”

“I don’t need change. I just want something to eat.”

Max blinked at the crazed man. He was gaunt and the skin on his arms, neck, and face was sunburned a deep red. He certainly looked like he could use a meal.

“Tell you what,” said Max, “I’ll put it on my tab. Place your order and you can give me the cash.”

The lunatic clenched his jaw and appeared for a moment as if he was going to spit. He lifted his sun glasses and squinted briefly at Max with piercing blue eyes. His rage seemed to ebb a bit. He pulled out the chair on the other side of the tiny table and dropped to his seat with a thump.

“I’ll take a bear claw, two plain bagels, a large coffee, and water.” He reached into his robe and slapped a crumpled wad of bills on the table.

“Should I make that to go?” the waiter asked Max, raising an eyebrow suggestively.

Max tilted his chair back on two legs. He didn’t mind having company, but this wasn’t really what he was hoping for.

“Yes, please,” he said. “That would be great.”

Max added his coffee and a blueberry muffin to the order, and the waiter escaped into the café. The lunatic adjusted his robe and apparently crossed his legs, although under the layers of cloth it wasn’t exactly clear if that was what was going on. He pushed his foil cap back on his head a bit, revealing bushy black eyebrows and a tan line across his forehead that evidently came from wearing the metal hat for long hours in the sun.

“So,” said Max, tapping the table. “Come here often?”

“Are you trying to be funny?”

“No not at all,” said Max, attempting a weak smile.

The lunatic rubbed his grimy hands together and winked conspiratorially.

"Do me a favor. Act like you think I’m crazy.”

Before Max could respond, the lunatic sucked in some air through his teeth as if he were trying to loosen a bit of food that might have been trapped there.

"Go ahead and ask.”

“Ask what?”

“Go ahead and ask why I’m dressed this way.”

“O K,” said Max slowly, “why are you dressed like that?”

The lunatic tilted his head and cupped his ear. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” said Max. "I thought you wanted me to. . . "

The lunatic leaned forward, still cupping his ear, and said in a stage whisper, “What did you say?”

“I said why are you dressed that way?”

“Come again.”

Great, thought Max, he’s hard of hearing as well as crazy. He cleared his throat. “Why,” he said,” louder this time, “are you dressed that way.”

“One more time. Didn’t quite get it.”

“I said,” Max shouted as the waiter appeared with a muffin and coffee on a tray in one hand and a paper bag in the other, “why are you dressed that way?”

The lunatic slammed his open hands onto the table and pushed himself to his feet. He screamed at the top of his lungs, “None of your goddamned business! That’s why!”

The waiter stopped so abruptly at the commotion that Max’s coffee sloshed onto the tray, and the muffin tumbled to the table.

“Sir?” the wide-eyed waiter said to Max, “Should I call security?”

The lunatic reached out and snatched the bag from the waiter’s hand. “Call the cops. Call the army. Call your mommy while you’re at it. Just tell me what I owe this man.”

“Sir?” said the waiter, blinking at Max.

“Yes, please. Tell me what he owes.”

“Thirty-three thirty-four, plus tip.”

The lunatic advanced on the waiter. “Thirty-three dollars and thirty-four cents? For a bear claw, two bagels, coffee, and water?”

“Yes. Plus tip.”

“Plus what?” screamed the lunatic inches from the waiter’s face.

“Forget it. I mean the tip. Forget the tip.”

The lunatic stuffed the bag under his arm and smacked his hand down on the wad of cash on the table. He picked up the money and counted out four, wrinkled bills.

"There’s forty. Keep the change or give it to him.” He jerked a thumb at the waiter. A dark spot began to form at the bottom of the bag. It seemed the lunatic had upset his coffee.

“Well?” said the lunatic to Max.

“Well what?”

“Count it. Aren’t you going to count it?”

Max looked at the bills and then back at the lunatic, wondering to himself how much damage he could do if he hit the man with the bag of groceries at his side.

“No. That’s all right. I trust you.”

“You should count it.” The lunatic wheeled around and strode to the curb, while clutching at his robe to keep from stepping on the hem. “I’d count it if I were you. You never know who to trust these days.” The bag peed brown liquid as the lunatic dashed maniacally into the parking lot.

“Thanks,” muttered Max, taking a deep breath and rolling his eyes at the stunned waiter. “I’ll do that.” He crushed the bills in his fist.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the waiter, on the verge of tears. “I dropped your muffin.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll get you another,” mumbled the waiter, “on the house.”

Max decided he’d gotten his fill of human contact for one day.

“Make it to go,” he said as he pushed his chair back from the table and reached for his grocery bag.

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