Chapter 7: Liam
I blink open my eyes.
A blank wall stares back at me. I click the radio alarm off with the slam of my hand on its top, blinking my eyes shut for a few seconds to get them clear and the will to sleep out of my thoughts. When I open my eyes again, I find that it’s 7:45 and I have fifteen minutes to drop Jeremiah off at school and get to work.
“Shit!” I throw the blankets off my body and walk to my dresser, hurriedly throwing on the first things my hands find, and throw my toothbrush and toothpaste into my backpack along with my new pack of cigarettes I bought at the corner store on my way home yesterday. I slip my arms through the straps and run downstairs, yelling Jere’s name as I hit the last step.
“Debby picked him up.” I turn my head to find Jimmy sprawled out on the couch, a bowl of cereal clutched close to his chest and another spoonful entering his mouth. He’s in his jeans and t-shirt already, his eyes transfixed on the television’s screen, his hair wet from a recent shower.
He doesn’t spare me a glance.
“Shit,” I announce one last time and then slam the front door behind me.
I take the taxi to work today, considering how little time I have to get to it. Morning traffic’s clear and I end up walking through the front door three minutes early. I bid a good morning to Bentley and then head to the restroom, shutting the door behind me and twisting the lock on the knob. I turn around and lean my back against the door, brushing my hand back in my hair and letting out a breath I’ve been holding in for so long.
I glance up at the mirror that hangs on the wall across from me over the sink, watching my reflection as it stares back at me. I inch closer to it, slowly twisting my arms out of my backpack straps and dropping it on the floor, and then stop when I’m only an inch away from the penetrating glass.
This is what stares back at me: blue eyes the color of ice with the faintest brown flecks surrounding the pupil; a jaw that’s hardened over years of clenching my teeth while trying to keep tears from falling; shitty brown hair that’s too damaged for me to do anything good to but mess up even more; a thin, bony body from losing my appetite one too many times because of smoking.
I’m a piece of shit, and I’m too damaged for anything good to happen to me. My life is shit; my appearance is shit; my reputation is shit.... The only thing I’ve got that’s stable is my son, and his education. He’s starting first grade this upcoming September.
I unzip my backpack and pull out my toothbrush and toothpaste, running the brush under the water and washing my teeth since I didn’t have the time to at home.
Rinsing my mouth, I look around the tiled bathroom. It’s as clean as it can be, and it’s still pretty dirty looking.
I stuff my things back into my backpack and walk out of the bathroom, finding Bentley gone from his position behind the counter, and the instruments and rows of CD’s standing as my only company. I walk behind the counter and stuff my backpack into its cubby, bending down to the lower shelf and pulling out my guitar. Bentley had given it to me for my seventeenth birthday, it being the guitar I’d discovered how the strum of its chords made my heart react.
I sit back on the stool and curl myself over the wooden structure, resting the body on my lap and my fingers hovering over the five chords. I pluck out a guitar pick out of the bowl on the front countertop that we give out for free and then sit my arm on the top of the guitar, hovering the pick over the strings.
And then I play the first song I learned - the one Bentley taught me.
It’s a soft melody, and you have to play real light or else the song will come out a completely different way. I play my fingers across the stem and pluck the guitar’s strings with practiced hand movements. The melody lulls memories back into my head and I daze off as I remember them, the scenes flashing before my eyes as if they’re being displayed on a movie screen.
“I’m gonna go hit the sack; would you lock up fer me when yer all finished up?”
Squirting another sprits of cleaning juice into the sodden paper towel in my hand, I give him an automatic nod and return to my polishing. I hear him grumble something that’s inaudible to my ears and then walk with heavy footsteps out the door, it dinging as he opens and shuts it behind him. This isn’t the first time he’s left me here to lock up; it’s been getting to the point where it’s most days a week I’m the last one out of the store.
Moving over to another guitar to clean, I glance to see that there’s only one left after this to clean. And then, home. Or, to Debby’s, and then home. Jere spends his days there while I’m at work, and will be until he starts school. And then after school, Debby will pick him up, take him to her house, and then I’ll pick him up there after work... again. Same old, same old.
After polishing up the guitar, I move to the last one and stand... awestruck. I couldn’t place a song to my feelings - not even a word. The only thing I could come up with was love. This is what love feels like. Gingerly placing down my supplies, I gently unhook the guitar from its post and walk over to a stool nearby, setting the wooden beauty professionally on my lap. Other than this, I have no idea what to do with it. I don’t know how to play. How to sing. How to make a beat on its base.
“Would you like to learn?”
Nearly falling off of the stool, I slam a hand to my chest where my heart pounds wildly, and whirl around to the front of the store where the cracking voice came from. Bentley. I sigh in bewilderment. Of course. “What Mr. Bentley?” I ask, my voice hoarse from the scare. He chuckles, sauntering over to where I was recovering.
“Would you like to learn?” he asks again, gesturing to the guitar that’s still in my hands... As beautiful as ever. I mentally roll my eyes at myself. Stupid.
“I-I’m sorry, sir. I’ll put it back. I was just curious,” I mutter, hurrying to place it back on its post, but he stops me with his hand.
“No, son, no. It’s fine. I’d be curious, too, if I were alone in a shop full of them.” He offers me a smile and a notched eyebrow, and I sigh, still trying to control my heart rate. “Do you want to learn?”
I gaze down at the guitar’s slick surface and silently move my fingers down each of the chords. I look back up at him, studying his expression; his hands are held behind his back and his elder face is solemn and patient, his eyes anticipating whatever answer I have to give him, yet seeming to know already what it is when I don’t at all.
And that was the word that started my passion. My reason to still try. My reason to still be me.
“You seem pretty zoned out today,” Bentley comments as I haul in another box from the delivery truck outside.
I give him a side-glance as I pass him to the storage room in the back of the store, surprised and amused. I find myself grinning as I set the box down among the others who vary the same size and walk back out into the shop to retrieve more. “Aren’t I always?”
He follows me out this time and waits for me at the bottom of the truck; the delivery man hands me another few boxes and piles them one after the other into my arms until it’s clear that I won’t be able to see anymore if I carry more. Someone holds my shoulders and slowly leads me down the ramp, helping me out as if I were handicapped. When I feel the level concrete underneath my feet instead of the slanted, metal ramp, I check over my shoulder and find Bentley’s wrinkled hands holding onto them.
“Not this much,” he says simply as we continue back into the store. He helps me set the boxes down among the others with shaky arms, and I watch cautiously as he grabs one of the heavier ones. “I’ve got to hit the gym,” he comments, letting out a breathy laugh as he straightens back up and claps his hands together. I offer him a grin, but it’s strained; he doesn’t seem to notice as he grins back and saunters back into the store. “Oh, was that all? Could’ve sworn we had more to come in.” I look up, and sure enough the delivery truck’s gone and we were left to unload the dozens of boxes that awaited us - really me - in the room.
To be honest, I thought we were going to get more today, too. I turn to go back into the room to unload the boxes, but Bentley stops me when he says, “You wanna go get some coffee with me? I can’t wait too late or else I’ll never fall asleep tonight.” I look back over my shoulder at the piles of boxes that awaited me. “Don’t worry about them damn things,” he says, reading my thoughts. “They aren’t runnin’ off to Mexico, now are they?”
Grinning and shaking my head at his choice of words, I walk back to the room, shut off the light and close the door behind me.
“Go get yer backpack; you can just go straight home when we’re done.” I nod and do as he instructs, walking behind the counter and sliding my arm through one of the straps. Bentley’s at the front of the store, digging the doorstopper up with his foot and holding it open for me to pass through. He shuts the lights off and closes the glass door behind him, locking the store up and then turning to me with his hands in his coat pockets.
“Are we going to the one down Times Square, or...?” I ask. He goes for coffee often, but never invites me to come along; I don’t know where he fetches it since the cups he comes back with are a bare chocolate brown.
“No, we’re gonna take a small walk to this small one a few streets down. Best coffee around, I’m telling you now.”
I nod and follow him as he turns around and starts walking down the sidewalk. The distant sounds of New York and our footfalls accompanied us and filled the silence that prolonged the walk. Despite his age, he walks pretty fast, so the walk that should’ve taken about fifteen minutes only took ten. The street is bare, only several cars parked along the side of the street and bare walls of tall buildings and hotels running alongside it. There’s some slow-running businesses and shops like ours dotted here and there, one of them reading Cornelia’s Coffee Creation in large, yellow, loopy cursive. Sure enough, that’s the one we slow down to.
I open the glass door and Bentley nods to me as a silent thanks, entering with me following behind him. The shop is relatively small compared to other shops surrounding it, but it’s that kind of cozy-small that makes you feel at home for no typical reason at all. There are individual brown couches dotted around the shop, and circular tables with two chairs at each spread here and there. There’s a single aisle down the middle leading up to the counter and cashier, which Bentley walks down with a distinct familiarity.
The floor is a brown carpet, which is personally not what I would have chosen if I were given a coffee shop to run, and the walls were bricks with framed black-and-whites photos of coffee shops with the same name around the world hanging on them. I’ve never heard of this place. The front counter has a window stuffed full with all sorts of pastries and desserts that make my stomach rumble with hunger, and there’s a blackboard with a long list of heated and iced beverages written in boxy letters on the wall behind the counter.
The double doors adjacent to the chalkboard swing open and a women about the same age as me glides out and stands in front of the cash register with a wide smile and an ecstatic expression on her face. She had slick brown hair that’s pulled up into a short ponytail and a chef’s hat that has the name of the shop written with black Sharpie across the front. Her face is plump and happy, her cheeks round and her freckles light on her nose. Her eyes are dancing with a joy that I can’t even begin to imagine how they can remain that way for so long.
Her voice is high and musical. “Hi Bentley! Your usual?” Beside me, Bentley gives her a polite smile and nods, stepping over to the side to look over the pastries. “And who’d you bring today- your son?”
My eyes dart back to her when I realize she’s talking to me and I shake my head, pulling my lips together. When she keeps looking at me expectantly, I mutter, “No, I’m his employee.” She nods, but her blue eyes still pierce the side of my face. “Um, I’ll have a coffee.”
“Anything in it?”
She nods, the same grin on her face, and then spins around and goes back in the door she came out of not two minutes earlier. I raise my eyebrows, amused and baffled. Bentley sees this and chuckles and my lips twitch. The girl skips back into the shop with two brown coffee cups in her hands and sets them on the counter adjacent to the cash register.
“Will that be it?”
“No, I’ll have one of these red and white things,” Bentley says, pressing the tip of his finger to the glass and pointing to the food he desired. She walks to the glass and lowers the back to where she could retrieve the food.
“Oh, the strawberry shortcake? Sure thing!” She snatches a paper plate from under the counter and a pair of tongs, plopping a slice of cake on it and sliding the glass back up. The food’s smell wafts toward me and I breathe in its mouthwatering aura. My stomach rolls.
The girl announces the price and I snap back, digging into my back pocket and feeling the lighter’s slick surface instead of my wallet. I pull my hand back and dig into my other pocket but by the time I pull it out, Bentley is already handing her a ten. “I would’ve paid,” I say, slowly sliding my wallet back into my pocket.
“It’s alright, son. You can another time,” is all he says before he drops his change into the Tips jar and hands me my coffee.
I nod obediently and he grabs his food, directing me to one of the circular tables the furthest away from the counter. We sit across from each other, silently sipping our drinks and him eating his cake. My stomach groans silently every time I glance at the food, but I scold it and avoid eye contact with the pastry. “You can always get some, if you’d like,” Bentley says, sensing my unease and hunger. He scoops another forkful into his mouth in a teasing gesture.
“I’m fine,” I say, but we both know I’m lying. I haven’t had a dessert like that since... last year. Every year I bake Jeremiah a cake for his birthday, and then cookies for Christmas to give to Santa. We have ice cream every Thursday, but I don’t get any; I only have enough for him. Those days where we have to buy an extra one for Jimmy isn’t so bad, but buying an extra one every week just can’t be done. Jere doesn’t mind, so I don’t either.
When he finishes his cake and we sit there silently, sipping at our coffees and glancing around the vacant shop, I sigh. “I’m guessing us getting coffee isn’t the reason you brought us here.” He shakes his head. “Then what.”
He grumbles and sets the cup down, leaning forward towards me and laying his forearms on the table. “You need to go to college.”
I blink. College. That word hasn’t been in my vocabulary for the past five years, and now, for some reason, it is. It can’t be now; it can’t be ever. “I can’t,” I say simply.
“And why not?” I look down at the table and rotate my cup in my hands, possible answers swirling around in my head. I can’t look him in the eyes and tell him the truth - that I can’t afford it. But when I look back up I see it in his eyes that he already knows. “Son, I know you’re not stupid - I’ve seen you do many things that my part of the brain has already shut down on, and I know that it’s not because you don’t have the time.”
I shake my head solemnly.
“Then what is it?” I open my mouth, but he interrupts. “Look me in the eyes and tell me. We’re no strangers.”
And I do. I look into his chalky, gray eyes and see all the years I’ve ever looked into them; I see the wrinkles crinkling his skin and crows feet gathered at the corners of his eyes. His lips are skinny and as pale as the color of his face; his hands and arms seem as paper-thin as tissue paper. His veins raise above his skin, all purple and sickly green, and his hair is as white as my t-shirt.
“I can’t afford it.”
“And why not?”
His question catches me off guard. Why not? There’s many answers for that one, too, but none that I can tell him truthfully. He knows when I’m lying - he knows me. “I don’t have the money.”
“I give you money every week.”
“Then where does it go?” he asks, looking pointedly at me.
My eyes widen when I realize what he’s talking about. “Are you talking about my smoking?”
“Boy, I’m not talking about anything but you. I’m just wondering where the money goes that you work so hard for.” He sits back in his chair and crosses his arms across his chest. I stay hunched over my cup, trying to keep myself from smiling.
“Well, Mr. Bentley, I don’t spend it all on smokes - I promise you that.”
He looks at me expectantly, but I say nothing more.
“Then why can’t you afford college?” he asks me one last time.
“It’s just something I can’t afford to think about.”
“And why not?”
“It’s not something I’m allowed to consider.”
“And what can you consider, son?”
“A job at Juke Box Hero.”
“That’s not much.”
“It’s all I’ve got.”
And, for some reason, that shuts him up.
After a moment, he reaches for his coffee and takes a sip; our eyes are locked on each others. When he sets the cup down, he says, “If you don’t find yourself a college to go to, you’ll have to find a new job instead, ’cause I’m not employing idiots.”
And, with that, he tosses his cup into the trash can, hollers a goodbye to the girl, and leaves without a glance back.