Though Hal often felt dead on the inside, it was only on rare occasions like today where she also looked dead on the outside. Hal was crouched over the counter, hand to her face.
My head hurts. My head hurts. Why did I stay up late again? Why does work exist? Why can’t I live in a world where I get paid for doing nothing? Cats are really cute… My head is screaming in pain.
While the cafe was set up and ready to go, the barista was not. The last thing Hal needed at this time was a customer to come bursting through the front door. Suddenly, the bell above the front door chimed and Hal began to wonder if it was always that loud. A voice too loud for 9:00 AM in the morning came ringing into the cafe.
Too noisy. Please leave.
Hal was suffering for multiple reasons now, but did her best to put on her customer service face nonetheless.
“Welcome to Abri. What would you like to drink?”
“I come to this cafe every morning and you still give me the same greeting every time? Come on, show me some familiarity!”
Hal squinted through blurry, sleep-deprived eyes. The spiked brown hair, chin scruff, and typical salaryman briefcase and suit and tie took longer for Hal to recognize than it should have, creating an awkward silence for a few seconds. Hal relaxed her face muscles as the familiarity of the person standing in front of her slowly kicked in.
“Oh, it’s just you.”
“C-could you like, say my name at least? I’ve been coming here for over a year now…”
“Lou. Now order something.”
The awkwardness on Lou’s face instantly turned into a smile again.
“I’ll have my usual.”
“Don’t remember. Give me a real order.”
Lou stood silently for a moment, clearly not prepared for this turn of events.
“Um, well it’s a custom order. It’s, uh, an americano with a double shot of espresso, and, uh… Uh…”
“Did you just forget your own order?”
“What?! No, it’s just, uh…”
Lou sighed and looked down in defeat.
“You know what, forget it. I’ll just have the Breakfast Cereal blend.”
Somewhere in Hal’s sleep-deprived brain, a neuron connected. While she did not know why at the moment, she knew that she had to prevent Lou from ordering the Breakfast Cereal blend.
“Americano with a double shot of espresso and whipped cream on the top? On it.”
Hal reached for a specific bag of espresso beans. All the nuances of what Lou liked in his coffee came flooding back into her mind. She may have been half-awake two seconds ago, but Hal had never felt more energized this early in the day. As Hal measured out the espresso beans and began to grind them, she became acutely aware that Lou was still standing at the counter and almost seemed to be begging for someone to talk to him. Hal sighed.
“What is it?”
Lou grinned widely.
“Whatever could you mean?”
Of course he’d play dumb to drag it out. The bastard.
“You seem louder than usual today. Or maybe it’s nothing…”
“Oh, it’s quite something! I finally got my first promotion at my job!”
“Seeing how you handled being under pressure this morning, I’m surprised.”
Hal’s sarcasm went right over Lou’s head.
“I know, I was too! I’ve been working at this place since I graduated from university, I’m so happy!”
Hal stopped grinding the beans at Lou’s remark.
“Lou, how long have you been working at your company for, again?”
“Ten years. Why?”
“Uh… Never mind. Some things are better left unknown.”
Hal took the grinded beans and began to tamp them.
“O-okay then. Well anyway, I was at the office yesterday and got called to my supervisor’s office. I thought I was gonna get reprimanded again, but he promoted me! I guess all of those overtime hours mattered after all!”
“Cool. Maybe you’ll stop coming here and go to a more expensive coffee shop from now on.”
“Are you crazy? I could never stop coming here! Besides, I’m not even getting paid more! The change was mostly cosmetic.”
“Yeah, I know. I was a little disappointed too when I first heard that, but on the other hand, this is my first promotion! I can only go up from here!”
Hal figured questioning everything Lou was saying would slow down her brewing too much and went on to put the beans into the espresso machine, not forgetting to also put a small cup under the machine.
“So if the pay didn’t change, what did?”
“Well, as of yesterday, I am no longer a clerk. I am now… a senior clerk! How cool is that?!”
Hal stayed silent, though Lou seemed to want a response to his rhetorical question. The silence permeated throughout the cafe for a long moment, Hal unwilling to give Lou the satisfaction for a second time today. The only noise to be heard was the espresso machine humming and the slow, steady drip of espresso into a cup. Eventually, Lou cleared his throat.
“Uh, anyways, they also gave me a few tougher assignments to do. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it on top of my usual workload, but my supervisor told me that since I’ve got the skill of a senior clerk now, he was sure I’ll be able to do it!”
Hal swapped the now full espresso cup with a clean one. She began pouring hot water into a mug, but spilled a bit when Lou finished his sentence.
Don’t think about it too hard. Just keep working. He probably needs a good cup of coffee anyway.
Hal waited patiently for the espresso cup to fill up, then carefully poured both cups of espresso into the mug of hot water. She reached into the fridge to grab a bowl of homemade whipped cream and added a dollop of it onto the surface of the coffee. Hal took the mug and placed it on the counter, careful not to spill.
“Double shot americano with whipped cream.”
Lou not only paid, but left a generous tip, wearing a smile that Hal desperately wanted to punch.
Lou took his americano to a seat near the front windows, an odd choice for the man who would choose to converse with Hal at any turn. Hal reasoned that work might finally be getting to him and figured she shouldn’t argue with a decision that ultimately gave her less work. As Hal began to prepare a few more things for the inevitable arrival of the regulars, she heard a distinctive pouring sound coming from somewhere near the front windows. Hal turned to Lou to find him with his briefcase open and spoon in hand. Sitting on the table next to his americano was a bottle of creamer. Lou looked like a deer in headlights.
“Did you just take out a bottle of creamer from your briefcase?!”
Hal couldn’t hold in her exasperation any longer, letting it loudly burst out of her.
Hal could barely hear Lou mutter his response.
“Because if I asked for creamer, I thought it’d make me look less manly…”
“Bold of you to assume I see you as a man in the first place! How long has the creamer been sitting in your briefcase?!”
“Th-the commute to work isn’t that long and they have a fridge to store stuff in…”
Hal pinched the bridge of her nose, then reached into a cupboard and slammed a bag of sugar onto the counter. When she next spoke, she spoke with an icy, taunting voice.
“Well, if you’re going to have creamer, you might as well have sugar.”
Lou looked frozen, like an animal just realizing it was trapped in a cage. Hal could only sneer at his fear response.
“What’s wrong? You want it sweeter, don’t you? Don’t be shy. There’s a spoon inside the bag. Take it while the coffee’s still hot.”
Without saying a word, Lou slowly scampered up with his mug and reached inside the bag of sugar to grab the spoon. He slowly and shakily poured a tall spoonful of sugar into his mug as Hal silently observed him with a cold, hard stare, then made his way back to his table, still shaking, muttering a word of thanks as he did. Lou quickly stirred his coffee and attempted to chug it before sputtering and spitting most of what he tried to chug back into his mug. Watching this, Hal considered Lou’s statement about wanting to seem manly again. She then smiled to herself and put the sugar back into the cupboard.
Ah, retribution, what a beautiful thing.
When Lou finally finished his coffee and left for work, Hal had some time to cool down. Hal made a mental note to sweeten Lou’s coffee from now on and decided that she should give Lou a coffee on the house the next time he came by. She considered this gesture as she went from behind the counter to pick up Lou’s mug. No matter how much he annoyed Hal, Lou was still a regular, coming for coffee nearly every morning. Hal was reminded of this fact when she picked up Lou’s mug and noticed that not a single drop of coffee was left in his mug. This had turned out to be a good start to her day after all.
. . .
‘The quietest moments are offset by the biggest moments of surprise.’ Didn’t Sun Tzu say that once or something?
Hal pondered this as she watched a 2-meter tall cat walk through the door to Abri. It was late afternoon and Hal was not expecting any other customers, much less a bipedal cat. The cat was neon orange with black stripes all over its body and large plastic eyes on its well-rounded head. Its fur was thoroughly ruffled and plastered-on smile painfully wide. Needless to say, the cat would not look out of place at a theme park. However, a customer was a customer and Hal refused to lose sales to a radioactive-orange cat.
“Uh, hi. Welcome to Abri. What would you like to drink?”
A raspy, muffled voice came out from the cat.
“I’ll have an iced vanilla latte. Thanks.”
“And your name is…”
Amaretto attempted to pull out a chair and sit down, but nearly knocked over the table with his bulky body in the process. He eventually managed to sit down at a table in the centre of the cafe with some deliberation. Hal could only think of how many tables he might knock down on his way out. Getting to the task at hand, Hal took out a bag of coffee beans, measured, and began to grind.
“You’re taking this surprisingly well, by the way.”
“Not the first time I’ve had a cat drink here.”
Amaretto laughed heartily and Hal watched in horror as he ripped off his head, revealing human flesh underneath.
“I put my head back on specifically to get a reaction out of whoever was in this cafe, but I think that was the best reaction I could’ve gotten!”
It’s okay. It’s okay. Calm down. It’s just a costume, remember?
Hal coughed awkwardly, then looked at Amaretto again, his tan face and shoulder length jet-black hair in stark contrast to the cat’s unnatural orange glow. She dared herself to look at the decapitated head sitting in Amaretto’s arms, but quickly turned back to her coffee beans to prevent herself from screaming. Eventually, Hal recovered from the shock and managed to get a few words out.
“Do you, uh, do that often?”
“The, um, whole taking-off-your-head thing.”
“Well not on the job, obviously!”
“You dress up as a cat for a job?”
“What, you think people dress like this for fun?”
“Fair point. I did not consider that.”
Amaretto let out a laugh, then squirmed around under the catskin. Finally, an arm popped out of the neckhole holding a business card. Amaretto was too far for Hal to read the card, but could clearly see how colourful the card was.
“You know how you can hire a clown to come to a kid’s birthday party? I’m that, but a guy in a tiger costume.”
Hal looked amused.
“So what came first, the job or the tiger costume?
“Funny story actually…”
Hal let Amaretto prattle on about his history with his cat suit while she finished grinding the beans, depositing them into the nearby french press. She steadily poured hot water into the french press, stopping when it looked and felt just right, and gently stirred the pot with a wooden spoon. She went to the cupboard for a drinking glass when she noticed that only a few mugs were left in the cupboard. Turning to the drying rack, she found nearly all of the mugs there, proof of the many customers that had stopped by that day. Hal grabbed a glass and turned her attention back to the french press. She inserted a plunger into the pot and pressed down on it, stopping the plunger just above the ground coffee.
This many mugs used on a hot summer’s day? I’ve worked too hard today…
As Hal worked, she found Amaretto’s talkative self quite comforting. She was content with Amaretto’s musings being the background noise to fill the usual silence of the cafe and carried on with her coffee-making, only really half-listening to what Amaretto had to say.
“...but when they saw this suit, they hired me on the spot! Ever since then, I gotta say, this has been the best job I’ve ever had! Not that I’ve had any other jobs, but still!”
Amaretto attempted to make eye contact with Hal, who noticed out of the corner of her eye, but did not turn around fully.
“What was your first job like?”
“Abri was my first job. As you can tell, it went well.”
“Wow! How long have you been doing it?”
“Ten years or so. Maybe more.”
“Looks like we’re in the same position then! I’d hate to ever leave my job.”
Hal reached into the freezer next to the fridge for the ice cube tray, plopping a few ice cubes into the glass.
“I guess I’m the same. I wouldn’t mind staying for another ten years.”
“More like forever.”
“I don’t know about forever… I think I’d get tired of brewing coffee eventually.”
“I’d never get tired of playing with kids.”
“Really? Wouldn’t you run out of energy eventually?”
“Nah. I have three little brothers. I’ve built up a resistance.”
“That’s still surprising. If I had three little brothers, I think that’d make me want to stay away from children even more.”
Amaretto laughed. Meanwhile, Hal pressed down further on the plunger, letting it exert steady pressure onto the ground coffee. She then picked up the french press and began to pour steaming coffee into the icy glass. Amaretto gave up on making eye contact with Hal, choosing instead to look straight ahead as he talked.
“There’s always this moment whenever I enter a birthday party or celebration or whatever. It’s when I walk in and one kid turns to look at me. That kid shouts and suddenly, everyone’s got their eyes on me. For a minute, they all freeze, like they’re checking if they’re dreaming, then everyone runs towards me. Amidst all this chaos, I’m somehow the centre of attention and everyone at the party loves me. The kids love me cause I’m a talking animal, the parents love me cause they don’t have to entertain the kids anymore, and I control the attention of them all. That moment never gets old. No matter how many kids try to jump on me or destroy my costume, that moment always comes back to me.”
“It’s nice to hear that something good comes out from all of that.”
Amaretto smiled and nodded.
“It really is, isn’t it?”
Hal used a spatula to transport the vanilla syrup from its jar to the glass. She spread it out around the sides of the glass, watching as the syrup slowly dripped down to the bottom. Finally, Hal picked up the jug of milk and poured the milk into the glass as the white of the milk bloomed into pitch black of coffee, mixing together into a beautiful shade. Hal pushed the drink towards Amaretto. She watched as Amaretto struggled to get out of his chair, causing a nearby chair to fall over loudly, and decided to deliver the drink to Amaretto’s table instead. Amaretto gave his thanks, then produced a wallet from under his catskin. After Amaretto had paid and Hal had gone back behind the counter, Amaretto took a long sip of his latte and let out a satisfied breath.
“That’s soooo good! You know-”
Amaretto took another long sip.
“-you never realize how thirsty you are until you have a good drink like this!”
“I guess it gets pretty hot in costume.”
“Not just that! During the birthday party I was at before this, a kid ripped off my tail and I ran like crazy to get my tail back!”
Amaretto shifted around in his seat, trying to show the base of his tail.
“Right now, my tail’s just taped on.”
“That sounds… bad.”
“Not the worst thing that’s happened to the costume. At least I can still sew my tail back on. One time, a kid used a lighter to burn off my whiskers.”
It was Hal’s turn to be amazed at how well Amaretto was taking things.
“I still can’t imagine how you put up with kids. Especially with incidents like that.”
“It’s kinda weird to say, but things like that make me like hanging around kids even more.”
“There’s something innocent about it, you know? Kids don’t usually do stuff like this with bad intentions. They do it cause they’re curious.”
“Well don’t let their curiosity kill your cat…”
Amaretto laughed again, almost tipping over in his seat.
“There was this one kid, though. He wasn’t the worst to the costume, but he sure did rough it up when I came to his seventh birthday party.”
Amaretto took another big sip of his drink to prepare himself for his story.
“The thing is is that I got hired for his eighth birthday party this year. It was great seeing him again and I think he was a bit lighter on the costume, but he was also taller than last year. And he dyed his hair, I didn’t know that eight-year olds could do that!”
Amaretto leaned back in his chair to the best of his ability.
“I wonder if I’ll see him again next year and if he’ll change again. I wonder how many years in a row I’ll be able to see him.”
Amaretto turned to try and make eye contact with Hal again. Despite her hatred of eye contact, Hal looked around Amaretto, but didn’t turn away.
“It’s weird watching someone grow up like that, especially when you’re watching from a tiger costume!”
Hal smirked and Amaretto took one last gulp of his latte, slamming the empty glass onto the table with a loud thunk.
When Amaretto left the cafe, Hal cleared a way around the chairs and tables for him to walk through. She regretted how futile this act was when she watched Amaretto knock over a table on his way through Hal’s path. As Amaretto picked the table back up, Hal’s eyes shifted to the head lolling near Amaretto, scarring her one last time and making sure that she would always remember him. At the same time, Hal couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed to see Amaretto leave, like life had just lost flavour again. Amaretto may have been just as mundane as any other customer, but Hal could see the magic in him that the kids could see whenever he put on his tiger costume. Amaretto opened the cafe door, shouting one last word of thanks, and the bell above the door chimed softly. As Amaretto left, Hal’s second day at Abri came to a close and the second cat to ever grace Abri walked through the cafe’s door before disappearing from sight.
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