~The Coffee Shop~

"Did you make good tips today, Dear?" My mother, always worrying about how much I bring home. "Yes Mom, didn’t do too bad".

"Oh good, you can go downtown and buy Steven some school clothes then," as if that wasn’t what I was planning on doing. My precious little Steven; the light of my life; the only thing that matters in this world will be starting school this year. He has grown so fast right before my very eyes. His beautiful blond hair glistens in the sunlight and his eyes are the bluest of blue. I swear, when you look at them just right the whites of his eyes turn blue. Every time he smiles the dimples in his cheeks seem to get deeper. I sometimes tease him and call him Tigger as he has the cutest bounce to his little step. Too bad his father wasn’t here to witness all this. Maybe it is best that he is not.

I met Jonathan Sparks one day at the coffee shop where I worked. I was pouring coffee and happened to look up catching his beautiful blue eyes staring a hole through me. "What can I get you, Sir?" I asked. "I’ll take page 1". I couldn’t help but bust out in laughter at his answer.

"You must be hungry," I said.

"No, not really. I just don’t want to leave. I think I’m in love". One of those phrases a waitress NEVER hears.

"Well Sir………"

"Please, call me Jonathan," he interrupted.

"Well, Jonathan, you see you are going to have to wait in line. Look around you. All these men feel the same way you do. I have such a hard time deciding". With a sheepish smirk I turned with my coffeepot and headed back to the kitchen. Once inside I cupped my hand over my mouth to help mute the laughter that was building up inside me.

Going back out to take his order I noticed that his chair was empty. A bit of disappointment swept through me, but it was not unusual for a man to come into the coffee shop, make a pass and leave.

Meanwhile, life goes on. The same routine customers frequented the coffee shop. It was an endless source of mind occupiers. Never a dull moment. There was Old Jake the town mess. Don’t know how else to describe him. Wearing a dingy sheep skin jacket and boots that looked as if they had seen better days, he proudly walked through the coffee shop door. Slowly but with purpose he made his way to the counter. He had a full head of gray hair pulled back and secured by a long leather lace. The unmistakable odor that followed him drew the attention of everyone in the room. His weathered blue jeans had patches and tears and the sweater he wore under his jacked had been knit by hand. His red and black Ascot bore stains from the morning meal he just devoured.

Although his appearance let one to believe he had not bathed in a month or more, this man was respected and revered wherever he went. He had lived the history we had learned in school and to talk to him was like talking to a living history book. His 5’6’ frame was frail with age but his mind was as sharp as a tack. He could care less about the outward appearance. All that mattered to him was someone to tell his tales to.

After ordering a cup of black coffee he would turn and head toward the first table that would invite him to sit. Although he always smelled like he had just stepped out of a pig sty, no one turned him away. He was walking, talking history and he knew everything about everyone and where they came from.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I was a postman?" he began. "In those days we would go by horseback through the Black Hills from Grassy Butte to Williston. It would sometimes take a week to get through. Look how quickly mail is delivered today. Life was tough back then but we had values."

His stories would go on for hours with his audience changing continually throughout the day. He loved the attention he would get which seemed to fuel his stories. It also eased the loneliness he felt after the passing of his beloved wife of 53 years. Old Jake as he became affectionately known had no heirs. With Hatty gone his coffee shop audience became his children and he loved them all. His hands vividly gestured the frustrations he felt as progress and poverty took over his life.

In his prime he was a respected rancher and part-time teacher. Interstate highways and public schools forced Old Jake to sell his meager ranch and move into the small town of Arnegard where he was able to pick up odd jobs to make ends meet.

Mel, the town drunk was always in at the crack of dawn for his half a pot of coffee. You would never know it to look at him now, but he was once a very strapping man. This man would never consider going out of his house, let alone come to the town coffee shop with a single hair out of place. He used to be known as "The Man Most Likely To" and at one point in his life even campaigned for City Council. When I was young I had the wildest crush on Mel and pictured him running for President one day. The beautiful white brick three story home in the middle of town used to be his. I would pass it on the way to school and marvel at it’s beauty dreaming all the while that one day I would be living in that house with Mel.

No one is really sure what happened, but one night that beautiful house burst into flames and took Mel’s wife and three children with it. Mel was never the same after that. He lost everything he had including his law practice and seemed to just not care anymore. When he took to drink we all knew that we would never see the old Mel again. Sitting in the coffee shop every morning he would look down, drinking his coffee, but as soon as 8am rolled around, he knew his favorite watering hole would open up and off he would go for another day of bar hopping. I felt sorry for Mel. I wished so much that I could soothe him but he just didn’t want to be bothered. The world around him doesn’t exist anymore. The bars are now his only family.

Around 11 Jim the musician would come strolling in. He hated to hear music while he was eating; especially if there were singers in the song. A lot of times he would stuff napkins in his ear to avoid hearing "the noise" as he called it.

Jim recorded one record for the old Mercury Records label back in Chicago and after being given a recording contract and advance on that contract, he met the girl of his dreams and decided to postpone being a recording star to raise a family. Big mistake! He never got the chance again. Mercury wouldn’t record him since he backed out and never repaid the advance and he then became blacklisted among the recording industry.

"Don’t you have any respect for your customers?" he would scream and pound his fist on the table.

But he always came back. There were other restaurants in townm, but he always came back to ours. He was a mediocre musician but thought of himself as another Liberace or Burt Bacharach. His playing was his livelihood and even though he didn’t draw a crowd he kept going night after night.

Sara, now there’s an attitude for you. She is what one would call a bitch with an attitude. She walked around town like she owned it and looked down at everyone who came in contact with her. No wonder she had not been able to keep a man. Who would want her?

"Sara, would you like your usual today?"

"Yes, poached egg on toast, and do you think I could get a cup of HOT coffee today?" she snapped. I wanted to strangle this woman. Who does she think she is? Just because she is married to the leading physician in town doesn’t give her the right to be so high and mighty! Of all my customers I really disliked this one. She could put a damper on anyone’s day.

I guess it is time I introduce myself. My name is Alycia Sparks. I have been working at the coffee shop for almost 6 years now. Being a waitress is not what I want to be in life, but at the time it was all that was available. After Steven came along I was too scared to quit. I had him to think about and I would do what it took to make sure he was well cared for. Fortunately, I have a mother who truly cares for me and invited me in after the accident that took Steven’s father from us. I don’t know how I would have lived if it weren’t for Mom.

I am getting a little ahead of myself here so let me go back to when I first met Jonathan Sparks. Three weeks went by before he meandered back in the coffee shop. I hardly recognized him as he had grown a beard and mustache since our initial meeting.

"May I help you sir," I said as he took a seat at the counter.

"I’ll have coffee and page 1." Immediately I knew who he was. A smile swept across my face as I returned to the kitchen for more coffee. It was great to see him again.

After I returned and he gave me his order I couldn’t help but ask him why it had been so long since he had been in?

"Well pretty lady, I had a job to do and couldn’t come back till it was done."

"What type of work is that?" I asked. Nothing like being nosey right off the bat.

"I’m an insurance adjuster and I was accessing damages out at the Wilson place after the tank explosion took their home. Quite a mess."

"Yes," I said "but the good thing is that no one was home at the time. They have six children, you know."

"Yes, but we will get them taken care of soon enough. Tell me, what are you doing after work? Care to join me for dinner?"

I was dumbfounded that he would ask me on such short notice. "I would love to, but I need to get home. My mother will worry about me. Perhaps another night"

"Make it tomorrow then. That way you can get your mother’s permission ahead of time." He chuckled.

Jonathan and I dated for almost three months before he asked me to marry him. I was crazy about him and even though our courtship was short I gladly and happily said yes. Two weeks later we got married in front of a Justice of the Peace, as I really couldn’t afford a big wedding and neither could my parents. Our honeymoon was short, but Jonathan promised that he would make it up to me as soon as we could afford it.

Almost immediately I became pregnant with Steven. Jonathan was the proudest man in town. He would walk around constantly telling people that he was about to become a father and expected everyone to congratulate him over and over. He was very protective of me as well, making sure I didn’t lift anything too heavy or do too much around the house. He was wonderful and I felt very fortunate to have found him.

Two months before Steven was born I lost Jonathan. I had no idea that he had a history of heart disease in his family and one evening he woke up in terrible pain. I didn’t know what to do and by the time the paramedics got there my husband was gone. It still amazes me when I think about it. I had him for such a short time. At least I have a constant reminder of him in the form of my precious son.

The coffee shop is good to me and pays me well. Not to mention the tips I receive every day, which helps me to do the things for Steven that I want and need to do.

I have no desire to be with another man. Jonathan is still a big part of me and I am not ready to give up on him. I don’t feel another man could take his place. Working at the coffee shop is like living in a motion picture at times. I feel I am a friend, counselor and confidant all wrapped up into one package. My customers love me and know if there is anything bothering them, I am there to listen and MAYBE if they are lucky I might have some sound advice.

Two weeks ago Jake came into the coffee shop and was noticeably quiet. He wasn’t his usual self. Tom, the mailman came up to him at the counter and asked him if he would like to join his table.

"Not today Tom", Jake said.

"You ok Jake?" Tom asked.

"Didn’t you hear about the shooting at the Club last night? They killed Dave." Jake was visibly shaken. Dave was our town police officer and usually worked the night shift. All ears were now on Jake.

" Some idiot from out of town went into the Legion Club last night around 11:00 and asked to be served a beer. Mick (the bartender), noticing that this young whippersnapper was very drunk and refused to serve him. He got mad and pulled a pistol out of his pants pocket and demanded to be served. When Mick still refused he shot the mirror behind him. The customers scattered and shortly after that Dave walked into the club. The stranger shot Dave. Can you believe that? He shot DAVE. What is happening around here? This used to be such a peaceful town.

"I know Jake," Tom said. "You just never know what is going to happen. One minute everything is fine and the next, some stranger walks in and changes all our lives."

"Too bad we can’t put a big bubble around our little corner of the world and keep all the ‘riff raff’ out, huh Tom?"

"True Jake, but wouldn’t life be boring then? I feel terrible for Dave’s family, but I am sure that the culprit will pay for what he has done."

Jim the musician was sitting in the corner of the room doing his usual stuffing of napkins in his ears. "Do you think you could turn that blasted radio off for one morning?" Jim snapped.

Mel sat peacefully at the counter with his hot cup of black coffee.

The door swung open and in pranced Sara "What’s going to be done about this town? I can’t take much more of this crap around here." Sara yelled.

"OH SHUT UP SARA!" Everyone echoed.

Meanwhile, life goes on.

August 1999 KLJ



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