Before we begin, a little background:
Along with a myriad of other gigs, I am a barista. I serve both coffee and connection. In exchange, I have the flexibility and freedom to pursue my education and creative side projects. This story begins at the small coffee shop where I work. There are all sorts of random things adorning the walls, desk area, lobby, and even in the espresso bar area. For instance, to many of the customers’ wonder, an unknown person managed to reach the rafters of the high ceiling and place four cups of descending size. Side by side, they remained for many years until recently when my store was remodeled. The store scavenger hunt also includes tiny stickers of adorable dogs and the store logo hand drawn in several inconspicuous places. I got accustomed to the random wall coverings. One such random artifact is a tiny black and white cutout photo of a nameless baby. It’s been there long before I starting working at the store and survived two renovations. Last year someone taped up a note near the picture begging, “Who IS this kid?”
I thought it was interesting that other people noticed and wondered about the baby as well, so I posted a follow-up note. A proposition. The note invited people to create a short story about who the baby might be. Much like the art assignment (mentioned in my last post; link here), I gave my fellow partners some homework. Use an old photograph to tell a story. Without realizing it at the time, I stumbled upon Ransom Riggs thing and stole it for myself. It was an extra credit assignment so not that many people took part in my little “short story contest” (there was no prize). Two other people besides myself wrote stories. One was written as a fairy tale, but when she couldn’t finish it, she revised it down to a one-sentence story. It read: “Decafaniquequa. The End. I WIN!”. I found it clever and hilarious. The second entry was a haunting tale about the disembodied cry of a baby that was heard each night as the baristas closed up shop. The following tale is my contribution to the collection. A narrative. The story itself is fictional, but many of the people and details are real. Most of the drink orders are authentic too. It is kind of historical fiction. I wrote it to seem true to the partners and customers who read it and from the point of view of my store manager who has been at the store for over 10 years. Her name is Jennifer. I leave it up to you to ponder which parts are truth and which parts are make-believe.
I Hope You Enjoy,
Who Is This Kid?
written by: Bryanda Minix
(February 4, 2014)
They say nature abhors a vacuum, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when the faded black and white photograph, which to me became as much a part of the structure of the building as a load-bearing wall (but to the other baristas was just a question mark, an open-ended question unanswered), elicited curiosity. “Who IS this kid?” “LOL, that kid stares at me while I am on my break”. “Whose baby is that!?!?” “What’s the deal with the creepy baby on the wall?”
The years sneak up like pounds on a scale, before you know it, you’re looking down like “who added all these numbers?” Have I really been at this store for over ten years? I am the only one left who knows that the faded picture, the “creepy baby”, has a name. I know the story very well, though part of me wishes I could forget. The other more sentimental part chose never to take down the picture. I guess someone had to remember.
The story goes back pretty far, back to when I first came to this location. I can’t tell you who the baby in the faded photo is without starting there. Not without telling you about my first regular customer… the first person whose name and drink I memorized.
Her routine was dependable. Monday through Friday, I could set my watch to her arrival. I always knew it was 6:30am because she’d be there: her hair gathered loosely in a bun on top of her head, a bird’s nest of long red curls; the laces of her running shoes never tied; always paying with five dollar bills and always leaving a tip. Her drink was dependable too: 1 pump vanilla syrup, 1 pump hazelnut syrup, non-fat misto topped with creamy foam and cinnamon. I always had it ready for her.
All it took was three visits. The first visit, I learned her name and could recall 50% of her drink order. The second, I remembered her name, nearly forgot the cinnamon, and learned that she worked in the Medical Center as a nurse at Texas Children’s Hospital. On her third visit, I had her drink ready for her as she pulled into her usual spot in front of our store on S Rice Ave.
She was the first customer to mention how this location use to be a hardware store. I joked that we still sold tools… battery packs and generators in the form of caffeine.
It took a few weeks before I realized another favorite customer, equal part nerd and rock star (tortoise shell P3 glasses, Cary Grant hair, and lots of tattoos: the Pythagorean theorem and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 among them), was her husband. He usually bought a pound of Verona on Thursdays, because even thou they came every morning, they still made coffee at home, enjoying one or two cups before hitting the road.
Some mornings he’d be with her at 6:30, his running shoes also untied. They came together the morning they announced they were expecting their first child. They would also stop by our store after each visit to their OB/GYN who was another regular of ours, who always got a grande non-fat, no whip mocha… in a personal cup. The couple became everyone’s favorite. They continued leaving generous tips even after every barista, seeing the increasing growth of the belly bump, insisted on giving them decaf (her, because she was pregnant and him, because it wouldn’t have been fair).
Her routine changed a little after the baby was born. She started getting sugar-free syrups and opted for breve instead of non-fat milk; she miraculously learned how to tie her shoelaces; and she showed up at 6:15 instead of 6:30, toting a wide-eyed red-haired baby girl in one arm.
The baby had her mother’s red hair but lacked her mother’s punctuality; she arrived nearly two weeks past her expected due date. I lost $20 dollars in the pool we had going. She had her father’s nose and his family’s forehead, but her eyes, neither mother nor father’s, seemed to belong to someone 60 years her senior. An older retired regular, venti-extra-hot-two-Splenda-cappuccino remarked, “Oh my, why, it’s like she’s been here before… just looks at yah so… just like she’s gettin ready to tell yah the answer to a question yah hadn’t even asked yet”.
That was it. She had an old soul. She was a very quiet baby who seemed to pay acute attention to everything. She didn’t smile at everyone, but the whole team knew how to make her laugh. All we had to do was hide behind the register or espresso bars then pop back out looking lost or surprised. It always worked and we never got tired of the sing-songy coos that followed each giggle.
I made her coffee like I always did, had it ready at the register before 6:15, but she never came. Her coffee got cold. Days later, it was Ms. Melanie, another regular, who enjoys her coffee with a newspaper, no cream, no sugar, had brought me the newspaper clipping. I didn’t need to read the article thou, I already knew what happened.
She had been up all night with her baby girl who, sick with fever, kept waking up wailing. You see, it was his turn to sleep. The day before, he got a call from the daycare informing him that his daughter had a sudden high fever. They requested that he pick her up immediately. He dropped everything and cancelled the rest of his day, so he could care for his little girl. He never got the chance to stop by our store for his pound of Verona.
Her routine was off that day, from the start. She woke up with a stiff neck, having slept in the rocking chair next to her baby’s crib. The baby’s fever broke around 3am. Usually, she naturally woke up at 5am, but the clock on her coffee maker read 5:45am. Though intellectually she had done the math and figured she had about two hours of sleep, she felt as if she had only rested her eyes for a moment. There was no coffee.
In a fog, she tried to recover her routine. She had already called out for the day, with the intention of bringing her baby to the doctor, so she allowed herself little cheats. She threw on a sweater over her pajamas and shoved her tired feet into her running shoes; she didn’t bother tying the laces. Afterward, it was that small act, the image of her untied shoelaces, that haunted her with regret. She believed it evidence of her distraction and neglect, a red-flag that had she taken notice of, could have rescued her. She never stopped blaming herself.
Still in the brain fog, and purely from muscle memory, she strapped her still sleeping baby into the car seat. She took her familiar route, driving the 5 blocks toward the place she felt could make everything better. Her favorite coffee shop. Our store.
Two seconds. Had it only been two seconds? She drifted to sleep at the wheel, and into the intersection of S Rice and Bissonet, for maybe two seconds. But that is all it took. She blinked back into consciousness, having enough time to see the grill of the dairy truck and the terror on the face of the driver trying to make is delivery on schedule, but not having enough time to avoid the impact. The clock on the dashboard stopped at 6:13am.
Inside the store, four men we nicknamed “The Board Members” (due to their diligent attendance, “reserved” seating, and lively discussion) had an unimpeded view of the intersection. Myself and the one other barista on duty could see only the lights from the vehicle headlights as they reflected through the windows, creating a grotesque dance of shadows on the walls. We could all hear the tires screeching, the metal crushing, the glass shattering.
It was Gil, at the time just a rookie officer, that regretfully informed us that the impact had ejected a baby and her car seat from one of the vehicles, killing the tiny child instantly. The baby had been sleeping the whole time; she never woke up.
In the officer’s hand was something he retrieved from the wreckage, in the hopes of making a quick ID and gathering eye witness accounts. I saw what was in his hand, and immediately thought about the now cold cup of coffee at the register: I pump sugar-free vanilla, 1 pump sugar-free hazelnut, breve misto topped with creamy foam and cinnamon. A shiver shot through my spine, blanketing me in an icy numbness. He handed me the personalized Starbucks mug, remarkably still intact, all the baristas had gotten it for her as a shower gift. On the cup were two messages: “No more decaf, we promise!!!” and “You’re gonna be a GREAT mom”. We had all signed it.
I carefully cut out the photo from the article Ms. Melanie gave me and taped it to the wall near my desk. Our store baby. The baby who we had observed as a growing belly bump, the bump we took care never to give caffeine, the baby with red hair and an old soul whose eyes were her own, was gone.
Her picture remained, even after two remodels. I knew she was there. I simply allowed her to fade into the background. However, human nature abhors vacuums too, the cavernous voids left behind after someone we care about is lost, as well as the empty space behind a question mark. So this time… rather than let you fill in the blanks, I decided to fill the vacuum, answer the question, and tell you what really happened.
And I’ll go ahead and answer the other question you’re probably about to ask anyway: what is the baby’s name? That, I could never forget, for it is the same as my own. But we all just called her Jenny.
Thanks for Reading!!!!!
Let me know what you think. Should I post more of my short stories more often? Any feedback from fellow writers is welcomed and appreciated.
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