Double Latte

Moody Street Dam, Waltham MA by Elsa Lichman

 

I didn’t get a good look at his face, and that’s the honest truth. I was sitting at a table outside the coffee shop, just like I always do, but I was reading. Not reading a book or newspaper, I’m ashamed to admit. I had my nose in my phone. I know – I hate it when my grandson, Charlie, does nothing but thumb through his device, but there I was, just as bad: riveted to a People.com story about Jennifer Aniston’s vacation. I do remember the guy’s voice: pleasant, very calm. He said, “Could you please keep an eye on my dog?”

The dog settled right next to me. Just a few minutes later, I had a kind of crazy premonition. Except I don’t believe in that stuff. But I felt a prickling at the back of my neck and a pressure behind my eyeballs. I jumped up, unclipped the dog’s leash, scooped her into my arms, and ran. In that split second, and when I heard the first roaring noise, I was thinking earthquake.

Earthquakes are often on my mind. Comes with the territory I guess, living in California. Sometimes when I’m in the shower or sitting on the john, I think: gee, this would be a bad time. But, see, it’s just a passing thought. If an earthquake did happen right then, I would think maybe I’m psychic, but it doesn’t so I’m not, and that’s what I mean when I say I don’t believe in premonitions.

But something made me run across the street. I found myself crouched behind the tall terracotta planters in front of the gardening store. I was covered in dust, and my ears congested like I’d been on an airplane. After a moment, I peered over the pots. The deli was shattered, but the coffee shop where I’d been sitting, four doors down, looked fine: not an earthquake then, but… Oh my God… some kind of explosion.

I froze. Talk about déjà-vu.

The nightmares had lasted for years, but I thought I’d put all that behind me.

Sirens started blaring in the distance, a bunch of people ran down the street, someone screamed. I heard a whimpering at my feet. A woman lay on the ground, curled in a ball, a shard of glass sticking out from her ankle. She moaned once but otherwise seemed unfazed. She looked up and said, “Is your dog okay?”

It was only then I realized I had the dog in my arms. Without thinking, I told her about the man who’d left it tied up next to me, and then I tried to find him but couldn’t. That’s how I found myself talking to the police. Me, of all people. The next day they fetched me to come down to the station. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the squad car outside, but Charlie was there so I couldn’t run or hide.

“Gran,” he said, “there’s no reason to be afraid. They just want to interview you. You’re a key witness, is all.” Made me proud in a way. I raised him right, in spite of everything. I learned my lesson the hard way with Joanne. Back when she was little, I didn’t pay attention the way I should have. None of us did. We figured kids could raise themselves, like weeds sprawling over an empty lot.

I’m way more careful with Charlie. Not real strict, but careful. I make sure he’s sticking with school. And now he’s set his mind on college. You should see his application essay. He wrote about losing his mom and what he learned from that. He’s real smart. When the police showed up, I had to set a good example. So off I went, against all my better instincts.

I told them the guy was young-ish, maybe late thirties, with short hair – dark brown, not black. They pestered me about his eyes, his nose, his chin: blue or brown, narrow or wide, round or square. And his race, of course. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t black. But could he have been Latino or Middle Eastern? I don’t know. Like I say, I didn’t get a good look. I made stuff up in the end just so I could get the hell out of there. The picture they settled on looked vaguely like my mother’s cousin Reggie, but he died years ago, so I figured no harm done.

They still haven’t found the guy. Most likely, he was killed. They thought he may have planted the bomb, and hounded me with more questions: was he carrying a backpack, or did it look like he was wearing explosives under his jacket? I didn’t have a clue. But it didn’t make sense to me that he would do it. Who brings their dog on a suicide mission?

They never asked more about Millie; that’s what we’re calling her. She’s an odd sort of mutt, part pug, I think, part terrier: a flat nose, perky ears. I’ve never had a dog before. If you’d asked, I would have said I’m more of a cat person, although I haven’t had a kitty since childhood. When Joanne was little, she campaigned for a pet, and I agreed to a goldfish once, nothing more. But here I am, surprisingly fond of this pup.

Charlie has fallen in love with her. She had a name tag, but the engraving was worn off so bad we couldn’t read it. We tried to decipher the phone number. I thought the area code was 619 which isn’t anywhere near here, but that means nothing nowadays. The other digits were anyone’s guess: 883 or 338? We called some possibilities in the first few days but then gave up. Charlie worked out that even if 619 is correct, there’re still millions of options. Seven million, I think he said. He’s good with numbers that way.

Charlie doesn’t like it that I bring her back here to the coffee shop every day. I tell him it’s in case the guy shows up. He scoffs and tells me that ain’t going to happen. It’s been two weeks. And he thinks it makes me look guilty. Criminals return to the scene of the crime, he says. Weird how he came up with that. But I stay calm and say I want to support the businesses in the area. They’re hurting. And this place has the best rhubarb-cherry scone.

I don’t tell Charlie the real reason.

Truth be told, I don’t understand the real reason myself.

It started the day the coffee shop re-opened. I was just curious. I had to come see, to make sense of what happened. The deli is completely demolished now, a gaping hole surrounded by yellow caution tape. It’s kind of creepy. The coffee shop, being down at the corner, escaped serious damage. I sit in my usual spot outside, turning my back to look over the terrace with its landscaping. That has cleaned up nicely. It’s mostly succulents so they’re pretty hardy.

At first, I thought I was imagining things. I’m still not sure. I have to sit for a while and space out, like I’m meditating, before I see it, something in my peripheral vision. If I turn, it’s gone. But I feel it every single day, like a tugging at my shoulder blades.

The police chief said at the news conference it was a miracle there were not more casualties. Four dead inside the deli itself, plus an elderly man who was standing right in front has since died from his injuries. It could have been a whole lot worse. No one claimed responsibility for days until a previously unknown group called Vegan Vengeance tried to take credit, but no one believes them.

I’ve started bringing a book with me, to make like I’m reading. But I can’t concentrate. Power Play, it’s called. The librarian gave it to me last week; she thought I’d like it. Historical fiction, she said. I had to laugh. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement. Anything more than fifty years ago is considered historical, she said. Maybe she was fishing, trying to find out if I grew up around here. She’s new, this one, came on board last year, hasn’t learned to quit her probing. Or maybe she just sees me as ancient.

Of course, Charlie considers me old. But inside I feel the same I always have. I rarely look at my reflection, but if I do catch a glance, I think there must be some mistake; the woman with the slack chin, droopy eyelids and thinning hair can’t be me. When I get a trim, I’m always startled to see gray hair on the floor. I dyed my hair blond when I first fled out west, but when the roots came in gray instead of dark brown, I stopped.

I’m mostly retired now but I still go in to the library a few hours a week, to help out. It was a good fit for me: thirty-five years as an assistant. I never qualified as a librarian – going back to school would have been risky – but I learned a lot. And in those first few years, it allowed me to sit at the microfiche, scouring the Chicago newspapers, following what happened at the trial.

Maybe Charlie is right, I should go someplace else for coffee. Yesterday, I caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure lurking behind me: strange-looking, wearing a long dress, young but kind of old-fashioned. I don’t know. It’s just a flash. Maybe I’m going crazy, hallucinating. This whole thing has me messed up.

I’ve tried to avoid going over the past. I had to stop ruminating on the what if’s. In the beginning, I was too afraid. I couldn’t afford to slip up. I had to fully inhabit my new life: Margie Henderson, widowed, with her little daughter. Joanne was just a toddler; she never knew any different. But I had to concentrate to eradicate my old identity.

Now, sipping my double latte on the terrace and pretending to read, I’m bombarded once again with questions about that day, decades ago. What if I’d been in the getaway car, ambushed and arrested with the others, instead of fleeing from my lookout post on the corner? What if I’d spoken up the day before? Deep inside, I knew it was wrong. Not that they would have listened to me. They were determined to blow up something, and I was just Jay’s little sidekick. But I could have tried. Or what if I’d left, way before I was an accessory to murder, gone back to my folks in Cedar Rapids, raised Joanne in a suburban cul-de-sac? Maybe I would have stayed away from the whiskey sours. Maybe she would have stayed away from the heroin.

I attended a few meetings after Joanne died. I had to do something. I tried the program in the basement at St. Joseph’s. But when they started talking about Step Eight – making a list of people I’d harmed – I became physically sick and bolted from the room. There was no way for me to make amends. I quit the program and did it on my own, keeping my focus on Charlie. And you have to give me credit – I’ve been sober ten years now.

Yesterday, sitting here spacing out, I saw myself as a young woman, with my long brown hair, bell-bottom jeans, and tie-dyed T-shirt, sitting on a train. I jumped off, skipping over to the opposite platform, to travel in the opposite direction, to a parallel life that might have been. But the train entered a tunnel. I waited and waited to see what would emerge at the other end, but I remained stuck in the darkness.

The media coverage of the deli explosion has faded now. Two days ago, the newspaper carried a small item on page five: one victim remains unidentified. No match from DNA or dental records. No family has come forward. No one has come forward looking for Millie either, but they don’t mention that. Now there’s a rumor it was a fractured gas main, not a bomb: a cover-up by the power company. Charlie says there’s a bunch of stuff on Twitter, lots of crazy theories. No one knows what to believe. He explained to me what trending means. Hashtag Deli-Conspiracy.

Conspiracy. That’s what they would have thrown at me. I’d have been looking at life. Jay and the others are still in there. I’ve never been able to visit, and most likely Jay doesn’t even know Joanne died. Or that we have a grandson. Charlie asks questions sometimes, of course he does. I don’t like lying to him. Or to my friends here, like in my quilting group. They’ve stopped asking.

Jay never meant to get anyone killed. Those guys didn’t know what the hell they were doing. I know that’s little consolation to the family, but it’s the truth. I saw the photos of that poor woman at the funeral, with her little girls in cute black dresses and matching shoes. Shit. I snap my head around. Is she the one hovering behind me?

She’s not there. I see only the guy in the dark suit, sitting at the table closest to the café entrance. He’s holding the newspaper in front of his face, but I can tell he’s staring at me. He was there yesterday, I realize now. Very straight, buttoned-down, the kind we would have taken for a Fed back then. Goddammit. I used to be vigilant, but I’ve let my guard down. I look away, brushing scone crumbs off my lap, then make a show of unraveling Millie’s leash so I can take another peek. His eyes bore into me.

I feel a deep chill, from my jaw to my tailbone. I get up and cross the street, carrying Millie into the gardening store. I watch him through the ivy trellis in the window. He walks over to my table and opens his briefcase, pulling out a plastic bag. Shit. I left my coffee cup there in full view.

“Can I help you find something?” A woman is at my elbow. “These marigolds have just come in. Aren’t they lovely?” She holds a pot of orange blooms in front of my face.

I tell her I’m just looking, thank you. She distracts me for only a moment, but when I turn back to the window, the man in the suit is gone. I squint, scanning the terrace. I see only the boy from the coffee shop, wiping tables and collecting cups.

Millie squirms in my arms. She needs her walk.

“Okay, Millie. Let’s get out of here.”

 

 

Author's Comment

This story was initially inspired by a tiny incident outside a coffee shop in Berkeley, close to my home, when a young man asked me to keep an eye on his small dog while he popped into the deli. I had one of those “what if” moments, imagining some kind of emergency separating him from the dog, leaving me to take care of it. This idea then merged with an issue that has long fascinated me, and which resurfaced when I read Richard Power’s novel, The Overstory: the plight of former radicals who have been living quiet lives in hiding for decades, especially those whose involvement was very minor. I played with this through several drafts before the story ended up where it is now.

Bios

Barbara Ridley was born in England but has lived in California for most of her adult life. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on creative writing. Her debut novel, When It’s Over (She Writes Press, 2017), set in Europe during WWII, won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Silver Medal in historical fiction. Her work has also appeared in The Forge Literary Magazine, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, Blood and Thunder and Stoneboat, among other places. She can be followed at www.barbararidley.com

14 Comments on “Double Latte

  1. Hi Barbara,
    I’m new to Persimmon Tree so your story is the first one I’ve read. I’m so impressed and glad that I found this site. Thank you for this thought provoking, well done story. Excellent!

  2. Thank you. Compelling and engaging story. I love how the voice of the narrator just keeps us moving, wanting more.

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