The Café

She watched the steam ebb around her coffee cup. At seventeen, she was yet to be saturated in the foray of grown-up habits, except for her morning coffee wake-me-ups. At least her mother Josie allowed her to have coffee. On the news, there was another local shooting. A woman, only twenty-two, shot in the leg by her boyfriend.

A bus crash in Tennessee leaves five dead. Protestors take pepper spray to the face by police…

The disjointed world made the anxiety in Deb more intense, like seeing a speeding car behind you in the rearview and it may not stop.

It’s not menstrual.   

It’s not stress. 

           “You’re such a hypochondriac, Deb,” said Josie. “You’re fine. You’re young.”


It was her senior year, the start of volleyball. She liked playing, her tall and slender body leaping high above the net, spiking the ball. She enjoyed letting the sweat roll off her arms. It made her feel as though she outplayed the other girls. She would let the shower water engulf her face and the warm steam made her forget about her mother and Ronnie’s financial troubles.

Over the past summer, she worked part-time at the Bistro Café, not far from where she and Josie rented their condo, the one Ronnie had bought five years ago, before the divorce. She wondered about her father, how he left them the house after the divorce; how he would be responsible for the rent and utilities, but was always late on sending any money.

Josie went through her Camel’s like a fiend these days. She worked at the local UPS.

“Political shows? What?” Deb asked, nodding at the TV with her mother beside her. “Into political shows now?”

“I’ve always been,” said Josie. “Why do you care? I like to keep up on this stuff. It affects all of us in one way or another.”

Deb snarled her lip. She didn’t want to tell her about the headaches again, the pain in her arms and neck, a flicker of pain like a bright bulb near her eye. All the pain in her body…

To Josie, it was fabrication. It was a way for Deb to get out of working, going to school.

The idea of dying in an already deathly world around her caused her stomach to churn, as though she’d eaten something foul. When she took pain pills, it temporarily relieved her angst. She knew that she only had a few months to live.

Was it Lyme disease from a rogue tick after hiking with Ronnie over July Fourth weekend?

Why her father was into hiking, camping, living in tents for a weekend, she had no idea. Maybe it was a divorced man thing? she thought. Maybe her father was homeless and wasn’t working? She remembered the quick match to her scalp:

“Hold still!” Ronnie yelled, bending the end of the match onto the tick’s body as it flung off a strand of her blond hair.

It was awful that she may end up dying from a tick bite because her father wanted to go on a new trail. As he’d put it, “Like Yellow Stone National…” And Ronnie would laugh at his own silly exaggerations, as grown men often did, believing his kind of humor entertained other people. His facial hair turned salt and pepper; his eyes reminded Deb that he might be high.

Foolish Dad, dumb-ass Dad and his camping enthusiasm.

Or maybe she had gotten sepsis after slicing her finger on the broken door handle when getting her class schedule the other day? The word sepsis, what a weird-sounding word, how it stuck with her for a while. It can be a serious blood infection. She had never said the F word so loud, and the P.E. teacher, Mr. Preston, heard her loud and clear and stared her down from the other end of the hall.

She hoped that she would not end up like her former classmate Margo Tannley, who passed away in 2015 from Stage 4 something. She envied Margo’s long beautiful brunette hair, before chemo ravaged it.

I will not go through chemo! I will not be a test subject by Big Pharma! I will spit and kick!   

The unnerving feeling of annihilation at seventeen clouded her head. Then she realized that it was believable because seventeen-year old girls died all the time around the country, around the world. Some of them with medical and financial burdens pressed onto their families, others without any inclination of warning by some drunk driver going the wrong direction. Or, there was that chance of dying from an aneurysm, ruptured spleen after falling in volleyball practice…

Life went on, thought Deb. People mourned and spoke about you in the future tense: “That girl would have done great things.”

At the café that Sunday afternoon, Deb watched the customers in between tables and wondered what they had going on in their lives. Couples: men and women glared at each other with intense eyes, wrinkled foreheads. She wondered if the love between them had been canceled out by their fast-paced routines every day.

Manager Nicole warned Deb to wear long sleeves so that her tattoos were not visible. What bullshit policy crap! Many of the customers who came in and spent money had tattoos all over their bodies. They were not offending anyone!

The rumor going around was that Nicole had crashed into a tree a few miles from her house in 2012. Her body never quite healed. She was drunk, coming back from a party. Nicole walked with a slight limp, still had a trachea scar, and her jaw slightly uneven, which made her speech hard to understand. But for what she’d been through, Nicole was still attractive and had a steady boyfriend who made a lot of money designing and building homes.

Anxious as hell for some reason. Autumn coming. Colder temperatures. She liked the fall—her favorite time of year, when Deb could be isolated and away from the daily static: walking down a park path, appreciating the beauty of the orange-filled sky and the trees and the wind whipping up dead leaves across the grass; she liked pumpkins on porches, little kid monsters asking for candy (only five years ago that was her on Halloween, being that innocent and anxious child sugared on Sweet Tarts and Snicker’s bars). Her days were now numbered, she thought. Something would get her body soon.

A new girl started at the Café. Kelsee job-shadowed Nicole. Kelsee had tattoos on her left and right arm. She looked about twenty years old and was pale, tired, bloated. Did some boy knock you up, little vamp? wondered Deb.

She watched Nicole from a distance point at Kelsee’s tattoos, pointing to her arms to wear long sleeves, reminding her about company policy, just as she had warned the other servers.

On her break, Deb took another pain pill, or it might’ve been something stronger from Josie’s cabinet, like Vicodin. And she thought about the future, one day herself being a mother and happily married—to be impregnated with all those dividing cells that would soon fuse tissue and bone, a beating heart. Maybe her future baby would cure diseases? No, her future baby would likely be another bad attitude kid growing up to be a waitress, a blogger with big-author ambitions, or a stripper with unfinished tattoos and quick hands to snatch any dollar bill from perv customers who eyed with lust. If a boy, she imagined him on a skateboard with long hair and pimples, a boy with crooked teeth who talked with a mild stutter. He would share her nose and mouth, have his father’s eyes and sexy dimples, and be a whiz at algebra. But other than that, he was no one special, just another kid like all other kids who nurtured from infanthood into kids and then propelled into that unbalanced teenage consciousness. Eventually, so clumsy the transition, this child becomes an adult; and one day he’d deal with ex-spouse shit and money traps like Josie and Ronnie, and it would be the epoch of their routines for years to come and it would drive them crazy.

It would never happen to her because she was at the end of her lifeline, but she would really love to see her own child grow up, to hold and to protect—mold into some creature that she could be proud. Most women wanted that, at some point. All women wanted that kind of life after getting past the heated noises that burned like an invisible laser beam through their lives.

The pregnant woman leaned away at a table at the Café. The projection of Deb as the woman could be her many years from now and beyond any metastasized tumor in her body, and a life beyond the moment of dealing with her senior year of high school and Josie’s and Ronnie’s shitty issues. So many things that could happen before then, so many variables to jut out and alter it. But it was fun to fantasize and know that it might happen one day. Deb had to get back to work. She had to deal with what was pertinent, “in-the-now,” and as she looked up and saw Nicole coming toward her, kind of fast, with a stressed look in her eyes, favoring her weak leg, and before she could say anything, Deb looked down and realized that she didn’t have to worry, she had on a long-sleeve shirt this time


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