V. (The present.)
But today, today was going to be different, he said to himself. He was going to stride up to the counter firmly once he caught her eye, say something pleasant and personal, order something sophisticated, and then engage her in witty conversation as she rang him up.
He had carefully read through several articles on various websites (always diversify your sources, he thought) on how to engage in meaningful small talk, so he felt reasonably prepared. He’d also jotted down a few notes in his perennially present notepad. Plus, after all, he had his Grenafaux-spotted, tangerine tie. That, in and of itself, was a conversational gold mine.
He stood in place, and shifted his weight to one leg, affixing his gaze upon the menu board in what he hoped was a casual, friendly manner. From his peripheral vision, he noted that she was baking something in the back; a shimmer of heat and the scent of rising bread wafted his way as she noted the arrival of a customer and scurried his way.
Her face brightened as she saw him – whether it was familiarity or fondness, he could not tell. He hoped it was both. “Good morning!” she said heartily.
Her eyes were looking particularly richly brown today, and her hair was mussed carelessly. She wore a white tank top and black apron, her customary getup. He mused that she didn’t even wear makeup…then again, her eyelashes were so dark, and her eyebrows so prominent, she didn’t really need any. In fact, she looked better without.
He realized he was staring abstractedly at her, and said automatically, “Yes, good morning, thanks, and how’s it going?”
He felt it was too many words, but she simply said, “I’m doing well. Busy day. What can I do for you? The usual?”
“Yes, please, drip coffee, medium.” He shuffled forward a little, his voice slightly hoarse, and coughed as quietly as he could.
She turned to grab a sizable brown mug. “Some room for cream…wait…just a little bit, right?”
She tilted her head to look at him in confirmation, and he nodded dumbly. She then switched on the grinder and he closed his mouth as she quickly went back into the kitchen. He thought rapidly…comment on her clothes? Nope, she was wearing same outfit as always. Was the tattoo too personal a topic? Did it mean anything? Was it the painful residue of a drunken night?
He glanced at her as she drew the loaves of bread from the oven, and saw the tattoo shift and coil as her muscles tautened. It was an interesting spiky spiral of some sort, but most of it was obscured by her white tank top.
“Excuse me, was that all you’re getting?” Angela asked, her tone of voice somewhat off – was it amused? He quickly looked back at her, then at her hand as she slowly depressed the plunger of the French press, and the rich black coffee filtered slowly into the top of the cylinder.
“For now, yes,” he said almost absentmindedly, and Angela’s other hand darted to the cash register, danced over a few buttons, and then she announced: “That’ll be $2.10, then.”
He handed over his credit card, and the girl came back in, carrying a giant pan stacked with loaves of bread. Strong fragrant scents of wheat, ciabatta and baguette assailed his nose, and he breathed in deeply. The white receipt paper spooled out, and Angela handed it and his card to him with a smile, saying, “There you go, Percy. Nice tie, by the way!”
For a brief moment, he thought of simply asking Angela, or responding to the compliment, and hopefully extending the conversation, but the girl was right there behind Angela…what would she think if she overheard him? Moreover, even if he waited until she was gone, and asked Angela, what would he say? He was interested in her? Simple as that, wasn’t it?
He was rather a timid man.
So instead he smiled at Angela, shambled back to his favorite little table adjacent to a window half-obscured by a coiling potted fern, and collapsed into a chair. He still held the receipt and card in one hand, his coffee in the other. He stared blankly at the receipt, and wished for the dozenth time that they printed the names of cashiers at the bottom at the Corner Cafe.
A fierce internal monologue erupted:
Why the nervousness? She’s quite nice, and she won’t be taken aback if you just ask her her name, if you do it graciously, just say something like, “Pardon me, but I forgot your name”…but she knows you don’t know her name…doesn’t she? Maybe. Maybe not. Damn it. Maybe you can ask Angela. How is it so easy to ask Angela her name? Because she wears a name tag? Damn it, why doesn’t SHE wear a name tag? Too hip…wait, are name tags not hip? Wait, who says hip anymore? It’s always been cool. Don’t say hip. Say cool. Damn you, you are hopeless. Well, maybe it’s not cool to wear a name tag. Maybe not here. Maybe she doesn’t want people to know her name, and so she doesn’t wear her name tag. Or maybe she only wears it when you’re not around. Damn it. How would she know? You’re far too paranoid. Go up there, like a man.
“You know he has a ridiculous crush on you, right?” Angela asked the girl, and she turned to glance quickly at Percy, seated in the corner, sipping his coffee with careful dejection.
“I’m not sure…I mean, he hasn’t even asked me my name,” she said doubtfully. “Not even a number.”
“He’s a little weird, not going to lie,” Angela stated firmly, turning her back on Percy.
“I mean, it’s probably his mother or something, naming him Percy, for heaven’s sake. But still, he seems nice, and he’s decent-looking.”
“What’s with the tie?” the girl asked with interest, rinsing out the French press. Angela carefully preserved the discarded coffee grounds in a wooden pail.
“It’s quite eye-catching,” Angela agreed. “Maybe normal for a singer. He can pull it off, though, I guess. Well, whatever.”
Percy’s vagaries were only mildly interesting to Angela; she sensed his fundamental wishy-washiness on some level, and didn’t quite care for it. She turned and faced the girl, smiling excitedly. “Did you hear back from the agent?”
“Not yet,” she sighed, “but she said she would get back to me in a few days.”
“I’m sorry,” Angela said sympathetically. “That must be frustrating.”
“It is somewhat,” the girl agreed, “but I’ll just keep shopping it around. They don’t have an exclusivity rule.”
“I’m sure it’ll get picked up,” Angela said, pushing one hand through her hair while using the other to wipe off the counter. “It was pretty damn good. Very innovative, striking style and strong voice…it’ll get picked up.”
At that moment a customer came in through the door, and hailed Angela. The girl smiled at her as she turned, and then saw Percy approach her, his jaw set, faint frown creasing his brow, with a complete focus on her present location. Such a complete focus, as a matter of fact, that he bowled over a chair in the way and nearly tripped into an elderly man’s bowl of tomato soup.
She instinctively moved forward to forestall a crisis, but Percy recovered his balance just in time, and within a few seconds stood before her.
“Could have been quite a red-letter day,” she said, with a smile, and almost immediately regretted it. What if he took that as a very feeble pun? She hadn’t even meant it that way.
But she overestimated Percy’s ability to multitask by several tasks. He pursed his lips, looked her straight in the eye, and said, with an unnaturally firm and loud tone of voice:
“I’d like your name, please.”
She was rather taken aback, and answered almost without thinking: “Erm, okay, it’s Callie.”
His face had abruptly flared with regret at his word choice, but at her statement he and his face fell completely silent. Then he moved his lips slightly, and said, diffidently, “Callie.”
He fell silent once more, as a red flush began to meander up his neck, and the tips of his ears happily jumped the gun and transformed into vivid crimson.
“With a K?” he asked, after a pause for a quick gulp of air.
“Nope,” she said, restraining a wild desire to laugh, as clearly Percy was embarrassed, “with a hard C.”
He pondered that revelation for a moment, and also thought of fleeing at that point, and never returning ever again to the Corner Cafe. The snazziness of his tie could not save him in this moment. It probably was clashing horribly with his uncontrollable blush, he thought, but he was in too deep already, so some strange impulse shook his vocal cords once more:
“Any Y’s, or double E’s, or anything of that sort?”
Percy fell silent once more. He brushed his hair back with one hand, nervously. Callie regarded him gravely, her composure impeccable.
“Well,” he said, straightening his tie with both hands, one at the knot, stiffening it into place, the other extending the tie. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Callie said, kindly. “Is there anything I can get you?”
He paused once more, and then said, “No.” He shuffled his feet slightly as he said it, and tilted slightly to the right, as if gravity was tugging him toward the floor, where he could wriggle away. But then, that would be rather noticeable, and even odder than just walking out, he thought, quite seriously. No, that was not the way.
She had fallen silent in turn, and they stood there for a moment, and she didn’t quite know how to salvage the situation without possibly embarrassing him, until she saw him fiddle with his tie, and she said even more kindly, “That’s quite a striking tie.”
His eyes almost lit up internally, and he said with unexpected authority, “Yes, it’s a new pattern of dots, really, called Grenafaux, almost a blend of the small diamonds on a normal paisley pattern, but combined with a polka dot. I think they’ll be quite popular this coming fall season.”
She nodded, somewhat surprised, and then he looked down at the tie, and then back up at her, and she asked curiously, “But why tangerine?”
“I thought you might like it,” he said, with disarming honesty. And then, he almost blushed once more, but manfully resisted it, and said, his voice growing hoarse, “You told me once you liked tangerines.”
“I do,” she said, touched. “You have a good memory.” She leaned back against the counter, relaxing somewhat, wondering at the rather strange yet likable person Percy was revealing himself to be.
“Only for a few things,” Percy said, feeling that this honesty tangent seemed to be developing well. “I have a small pad for most other things.”
He adroitly flipped open a small pad from somewhere on his person, and saw in it a note that he had written to himself days before, after encountering it online. A sudden fire kindled in his brain at sight of the note, and he knew exactly what to say.
“For instance, phone numbers,” he said, with as much nonchalance as he could muster, and put one elbow on the counter, directly into a glass jar of dog biscuits. He ignored the placement; this could not wait. “If you could put yours in here, that’d be great.”
Callie was quite surprised. Based on the past few minutes, she had anticipated it to be a few more weeks before Percy asked for her number. She took the pad silently, grabbed a pen from the cup crammed with writing utensils near the counter, and as she was about to write her number, saw this written in the pad:
#32. If you have your pad on you, and the topic of your bad memory comes up, say that you can’t remember all things, so you have the pad for some things, and then ask for her number.
This would have given her pause, had she not realized from the past few minutes that Percy was quite an odd creature. And after all, she had Angela to back her up or intimidate anyone who became onerous…Callie paused to glance toward Angela, who was half-hidden to the side, chopping carrots, leeks, and parsley.
Angela looked up, glanced at Percy, and nodded approval. Callie scribbled her number, and then handed the pad to Percy. Percy looked at it, almost in disbelief, and then smiled at her; not widely, not a boisterous grin, but a baffled smile of wonder. He pocketed the pad, and plunked down a five-dollar bill for no reason.
“You have a good day,” Percy said, his voice somewhat distant and dazed, and then he left abruptly. His bag was still in the corner near his seat, but that appeared to be unimportant. Callie thought of calling after him, but he had already whipped hastily around the corner.
“So he finally asked your name?” Angela stated more than asked, coming up to Callie.
“Yes, and even my number.”
“Was that what the notepad was about?”
“Yes,” Callie said, and chuckled slightly. “What an odd duck.”
“Well,” Angela said, reaching for the blender as another regular came in, “hopefully he wrote everything down, so he doesn’t forget.”
If Percy had heard her words, he would have scornfully guffawed at them. He nearly jogged down the street in his jaunty, effervescent stride, practically bleeding confidence all over the street. He had had the guts to ask her name. And even her number. He had had an honest-to-God conversation. He had even acquired the correct spelling of her name! And he mentally laid it out in giant black letter blocks:
C. A. L. L. I. E.
Or wait, was it C.A.L.L.Y.? Or even, C.A.L.I.? He consulted his notepad, and saw no hints, no clues.