Spring the first

        Travis moved into his apartment on a rain-glazed Sunday, one of the last cold days of the year. He had found a promising new job in a coffee shop staffed by self-proclaimed ‘open-minded’ people. They realized he was different; he wouldn’t naturally fit into the coffee house crowd... Yet he was accepted and treated as one of them, accepted like all the other social outcasts that crowd independent coffee houses. At least on a superficial level. The poets came in from the street finding shelter from the “dark rain”; the Goths sat outside and smoked their cloves under the umbrellas, discussing how terrible their sheltered lives were.
        Travis could never truly understand them. So many of the Goth kids had it made, rich parents, nice cars, friends… yet they still whined about how horrible the world was. But he kept his mouth shut – they were nice to him, the appropriate thing to do would be to be nice back. One of the poets called him an artist of life; another referred to him as ‘brother.’ On many weekends they invited him to poetry readings and shows at a place called The Coffee House. The Coffee House wasn’t really a coffee house, only some guy’s broken down house in which shows and readings were held. From afar it all seemed out of place, on the outside he was the definition of a country boy, but his naively characteristic open-mindedness gave him a place in the culture. He felt at home.
        As the year progressed, lukewarm spring days gave way to Alabama’s infamous summer weather. The aspiring poets in their black suits and slick shoes migrated to the parks; the already unsettled late-night students grew so antsy at the thought of approaching summer that few of them even made it to the café. The spots they left were now occupied by ornate spring-hill ladies, gossiping and sharing their deteriorating mindsets, attempting to ease their loss of youth – and the loss of life as they knew it. It seemed that they created a lot of their own misery, telling stories behind each other’s backs about whoever was not at the table at that given day. They did, however, leave tips whenever Travis complimented the ladies on their looks - unlike the other new group. Occasional strolling couples, appreciating the dynamic tablecloths of shade in the circular oases of cool marble and steel reacted far less positively to Travis’ commentary on their genuine beauty. But that never stopped him.
        The outside terrace wasn’t terribly big; the rising terra cotta walls were covered in vines and deteriorated in a romantic countryside way. The visitor was trapped in this recessed square, cornered by age-old buildings and open to the street only by a three-feet wide fire aisle between two of the buildings. The gentle breeze collected through this portal and the framed blue skies above rendered a sheltering and personal atmosphere. Alongside the coffee-and-cream colored walls were bushes of elephant grass and occasional flowers, giving a border to the shiny black cobblestones and easing the eye upwards towards the rustic balconies above the café. It was apparent that this square had witnessed generations: the walls were deteriorating rapidly, as were the balcony railings. The paint was coming off and revealed the layers underneath, the lowest of which was an awkward green coat, probably complementing a long weathered generation of wall-paint. Many of Travis’ breaks were spent lounging in this backyard, on rainy days on the balconies above it. Like ants they would run from the warm rain and honest thunder, in the same move avoiding the chaste air generated by and left after these apocalypso storms. While the young couples readily returned after the rains or even sat through them under the parasols, the elderly ladies waited until all signs of these natural baptisms were dried out of sight in the arduous Alabama heat.
        Eventually Travis fell into a numbing rut. The coffee place paid a few dollars above minimum wage, allowing him to save up for a car, a ’86 Lincoln Towncar. The driver-side window was permanently shut – somehow the salesperson had managed to roll it down while pushing on the glass, but Travis was unable to reconstruct this move. This would have proved a major hassle were it not for the gaping hole on the bottom of the car. The passanger-side floorboard was rusted through, allowing Travis to easily dispose of cigarette butts and leftover coffee while driving. Even with 130,000 miles on the tachometer, the car ran steadily. Occasionally it would act up, start shaking when stopped at a light – but aside from that, it was dependable.
        Shortly after the purchase of the car, Travis received a letter from his mother telling him that his father had run off. Apparently she caught him with another woman, causing him to run out of town and never return. The paper was wrinkled and the ink smeared with what probably were tears -at least she was rid of him. Travis resigned to visit her when he had the opportunity, he could understand her loneliness now. Momentarily he lacked the money and means to do so, and in some parts of his heart the desire – after all, her predicament was still better than his – she had a house and opportunities, also she never helped him. He resolved to visit her whenever he could afford the trip.

        Life went on like this for a year, and turned into him chasing paychecks to pay the rent and car, living to sleep, working to live. The insurance and car payments were killing him, the rut consumed his quality of life: even the lounging in the backyard turned into an emotionless routine. After that year it and all the other perks had become as monotonous as his workplace was becoming hostile. In the beginning his bosses figured he would merely pass through and the crew he worked with was agreeable. As they left one by one, they were replaced by what seemed a mob of ultra-leftist feminazis. The concepts of white male superiority, the concepts on which he was raised, had caused his co-workers to avoid and even slander him. The verbal comments from Travis ceased over time, but his lack of physical courtesy to certain customers and coworkers had resulted in two “writeups” already. The third would be grounds for termination, even being late would be an excuse for dismissal. This ambient pressure and lack of human interaction caused the days flow into one and the weeks and months dissipate in the anticipation of paychecks.

        On a distinctly mediocre Thursday afternoon a man in a smoke-gray pinstripe suit wandered into the otherwise deserted café. At first sight, he seemed an embodiment of the day: well-adjusted, well-dressed, unsettlingly clean, in the middle of his prime and while not particularly handsome, equipped with a well-defined face which many would find attractive. The one distinctive mark on this fellow was his shoes. The heel of the left shoe was about an inch wider than that of its counterpart.

        “Nasty accident.”

        Travis was taken aback by the disturbingly worn bass voice and found himself noticeably leaning over the polished counter, glaring at the odd left shoe. As Travis stumbled back, the man coughed and continued an octave higher: “I’d like a medium Grande.”
        Summoning his composure, Travis responded: “I’m sorry, that looked painful… I myself was knocked in the heel once, that’s why I was looking.”

        “Quite alright. At least you’re observative. I like that.”

Unsettled, Travis pushed the cup towards the handsome stranger.

        “And my total is…”

The voice had turned comforting.

        “Just take it.”

        Coffee at these places is not as much a good as it is a perk. The employees get as much as they desire for free, so it is often given as a gift to friends or used to settle customer disputes.

        “Thanks.”

        He knew this.

        Coinciding with the manicured hand’s grasping the hot cup, Travis felt a welcoming, warm atmosphere surrounding and invading him.

        “Why don’t you sit a spell, certainly you could use a rest.”
Travis looked around, and seeing no other customers inside the store, sat down with the man. Gracefully, the man aligned the steaming cup with his emblem-less red tie on the table and reclined.

        “My name is Toby. Yours is … ” Feeling the eminent need to establish contact with this man, Travis answered with his full name and leaned forward, minimizing the distance between his physicality and the strange guest. “I am in a position that can benefit us both greatly.” Only with its recess did Travis notice the stranger’s inquiry into his eyes. “You seem stuck, desperate in this position. You want a way out. Money is a way out. I can give you that. I am stuck also, albeit in a much different way. There is a certain person who is making life quite hard on me. You have probably seen her, she visits this café rather frequently, most days of the week and every Monday at 7:30.” The gray jacket gave birth to a soberly toned black and white photograph of a young lady who smiled out of a pearly white dress. It didn’t take long for Travis to recognize the face which had raised his eyebrows in youthful inquiry on many mornings. “Don’t ask questions, don’t give me answers to what you think I want to know. My proposition is as follows. Upon her next visit, you place this capsule into her coffee. If all goes well, she will cease of a heart attack in the following twenty-four hours. In exchange, I will provide you with a new identity and $40,000 in clean cash. A way out. I can give you that.”

        Travis remained at the table, staring alternately at the pill and at the picture. Grabbing both, he made a decision.


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