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CoffeeHouse Angel

Suzanne Selfors

  Coffeehouse Angel

  Suzanne Selfors

  For my little sister, Laurie Selfors, who likes her coffee ultrastrong and her marathons ultralong. She amazes me each and every day.

  Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

  Hebrews 13:2, The New Testament

  For a single good deed, one will be rewarded tenfold.

  6:161, Al-An'am, The Koran

  Do you believe in signs?

  Lightning striking a car you just stepped out of, a black cat crossing your path, a piece of frozen toilet waste falling from an airplane and crashing through your living room ceiling--that kind of thing? Happenstance, maybe. Or maybe something bigger than you is well aware of your existence and trying to tell you something. I never used to believe that kind of stuff.

  But then I met him.


  The first time I saw him, he was lying in the alley behind my grandmother's coffeehouse. I figured he was some sort of bum.

  The yellow bulb above the back door cast an eerie light, pooling around his brown hair like melted margarine. What was he doing out there? Homeless people didn't hang out in Nordby. Too much rain. No public shelters or bus stations. Was he dead?

  I took a cautious step out the door, leaning to get a better look. His chest rose with slow, deep breaths, but the way he was stretched out on his back, his arm flung over his face, I couldn't tell if his eyes were open or closed. Maybe he was passed out drunk, or waiting for me to get closer so he could grab me--another sixteen-year-old girl, gone.

  Problem was, I had forgotten to take out the trash the night before and I needed to get it into the Dumpster or it would stink up the coffeehouse. But he blocked the way.

  He was dressed in a khaki kilt and a ragged sweater. His bare legs were pale against the cobblestones and his toes stuck out past the ends of his sandals. December, in my part of the world, is way too cold for sandals.

  "Hello," I called. "Do you need help?"

  "Sleepy," he mumbled. That was all he said.

  Who wasn't sleepy at 6:00 a.m.? I would have loved another hour in bed, but as usual, I was working the early shift--alone. Suddenly, I wished I hadn't said anything to him.

  If he turned out to be some kind of murderer, there was no one around to hear my screams. None of the other shops had opened yet. The employees of Java Heaven, our next-door neighbor, didn't show up until seven. That's right--two coffeehouses, side by side. Maybe that's not unusual in the coffee-drenched world we live in, with coffeehouses sprouting up as fast as cavities after Halloween. But we were here first!

  Anyway, no one would be out walking a dog on such a cold morning, or window-shopping in the dark. Even though Grandma Anna was upstairs in our apartment, she'd have her radio on full blast, which would drown out my cries if that guy strangled me.

  Maybe I was overreacting, but normal, safe, sane people don't usually sleep in alleys.

  He rolled over.

  I dropped the bag of garbage, ran inside, and locked the door. Then I did what I always did when I didn't know what to do. I called my best friend. We were both early birds--me because of my job, Vincent because of swim team practice.

  "Vincent," I said, clinging to the ancient rotary phone my grandmother kept in the kitchen. "There's a guy lying in our alley and he's freaking me out."

  "Maybe you should call the police."

  That wasn't such a good idea because my grandmother Anna Svensen, owner of Anna's Old World Scandinavian Coffeehouse, had gotten a stern warning from Officer Larsen just a few days before. "You can't keep calling the department for every little thing," he had lectured after pulling his head out of the freezer.

  "But it's groaning. I thought it might be dangerous," she had explained. "Maybe it's a fire hazard. You want this place to burn down?"

  "If you're worried about a fire hazard, then for God's sake, Anna, call an electrician.

  Groaning freezers are not part of my job. Or lost keys, or late deliveries, or tourists who forget to tip." He tucked his thumbs under his belt. "There might come a day when you've got a real emergency and you'll want me on your good side."

  Grandma Anna didn't like people telling her what and what not to do. And because her husband had served as a Nordby police officer for most of his life, she believed that the local force should be at her disposal, end of story.

  "I don't want to call the police," I told Vincent. "It's not a real emergency. But can you stop by?"

  "Sure," Vincent said. "I'll be right over. Hey, don't go into the alley, just in case."

  I hung up the phone, feeling a bit less worried. It wouldn't take Vincent long to shoot down Main Street on his bike. I checked the back door again, to make certain I had locked it. Then I began my morning chores.

  Every morning before school I worked at our coffeehouse, getting things ready for Grandma Anna, who would hobble downstairs at seven to open the doors to her loyal customers. I didn't mind the early hours. I liked the darkness, the way all the shops slept, the way the seagulls called from the docks. Vincent often stopped in before swim practice to grab a scone or Danish. We'd sit at the counter and share the quiet, as if we were the only two people in the world. For a few minutes he'd forget his single-minded goal--to earn a swimming scholarship to a top university and go to the Olympics. And I'd forget my single-minded goal--to, well, I didn't have one.

  Vincent had known that swimming was his thing from the moment he had accidentally toddled off the edge of the Nordby public pool. What was my thing? My life was an ode to failure--the closet at the end of our hallway held the proof. A guitar, a harmonica, a recorder, a chess set, a fencing mask, a dried-out box of clay, skating boots, sheets of choir music, a microscope, and some boxing gloves-- evidence of things started but not finished. Desired but not achieved. Okay, I admit it. I lost interest the moment those projects went from "fun new idea" to "oh crud, I actually have to practice." But I kept hoping that something would flow, something would come as naturally to me as swimming had come to Vincent.

  Each of us is supposed to be good at something. Maybe that's one of the big lies they feed us in school, like telling us that Columbus discovered America, or that your vote actually counts, or that girls and boys are equal. Hello? Ever heard of biology?

  Maybe the horrid truth is that some of us aren't meant to be good at anything. But I wanted to be able to say, This is what I'm good at, it's what I was born to do. This is my thing.

  Even if I had discovered some God-given talent like Vincent's, I wouldn't have had much time to pursue it. The coffeehouse supported Grandma and me, so my working there was a matter of survival. I may sound like I'm complaining, but I really love the place. It had been my home for as long as I could remember. I fit right in with my pale blond hair and hand-knit sweaters. Look at the Norwegian girl in the cute embroidered apron. Take a picture of her and stick it on a postcard!

  I slipped an apron over my head and poured coffee beans into the grinder. Fog drifted past the front picture windows. The guy in the alley would definitely be cold. Didn't homeless people usually carry blankets around with them? A shopping cart filled with extra shoes, a poncho or two, maybe a tarp?

  I measured the coffee and dumped it into a huge percolator. A smaller percolator was saved for decaf. Only a few of Grandma Anna's customers drank decaf.

  Scandinavians like their coffee strong and jolting--a craving for caffeine that is embedded in their DNA after all those centuries of darkness and cold. That's my theory.

  My thoughts kept drifting to the homeless guy. Had he tried to rob the place? Was he a drug addict who needed quick cash? Nothing seemed disturbed. Maybe he was just down on his luck. I peered out the back window. His arm had fal
len to his side. The yellow light cast a jaundiced hue on his sleeping face, which seemed young. Maybe he had run away from home.

  "Meow." Ratcatcher, the coffeehouse cat, rubbed against my leg, whining for breakfast. Her belly often collected dustballs because it hung all the way to the floor.

  "Meow." She nipped my ankle.

  "Good morning to you too." I tore off the corner of a day-old Danish and dropped it.

  Ratcatcher inhaled the morsel. She was supposed to keep the rats in check. We had never seen a rat in the coffeehouse, but they scurried along the nearby docks.

  Ratcatcher once caught a field mouse, but she didn't eat it. She preferred pastries.

  I started to bag up the day-old pastries. Ralph, one of our regulars, usually took them down to the dock to feed to the seagulls. The pastries were perfectly good, just a bit dry. I ate them all the time. What if the homeless guy was hungry? What if he had to pick food out of garbage cans? He probably needed the pastries more than the spoiled gulls needed them. And on such a cold morning, he would probably like something warm to drink too.

  Vincent had warned me not to go out there, but I could just slip the food out, real quickly. I wouldn't have to go near the guy. I poured some coffee into a large Styrofoam cup, dropped in a sugar cube, stirred in some cream. Then I grabbed a packet of chocolate-covered coffee beans--a free sample from our supplier. As quietly as possible, I cracked open the back door. Reaching, I set the Styrofoam cup on the stoop and placed the bag of pastries and the packet of coffee beans next to it. Then I closed and locked the door, my heart beating wildly. Maybe I shouldn't have risked it.

  He could be an escaped lunatic. He could have a gun. I would be blamed for the sugar and caffeine rush that led to Nordby's worst crime spree.

  I nearly had a stroke when Vincent pounded on the front door. He leaned his bike against the picture window. Vincent's a big guy. "As big as a barn," my grandmother liked to say. He has one of those wide, V-shaped swimmers' bodies. It's like his upper half got switched with someone else's lower half.

  Vincent had been my best guy friend since the fourth grade. Don't worry, this is not one of those "I'm in love with my best friend" stories. 'Cause I wasn't. But my grandmother couldn't seem to get that through her head. She thought that boys and girls couldn't be best friends because it went against nature. She didn't know what she was talking about. This wasn't the Old World. Boys and girls are best friends all the time.

  I liked Vincent right away because he was different from the other fourth-grade boys.

  He never traveled in a pack. He never tried to pull up my skirt to see my underwear.

  He never, ever told me that I was too tall, or that I was stupid, or that my salmon sandwiches were gross. We became best friends. Just like that.

  "Hi," I said, letting him in. He threw his gloves and knit hat onto a table. His black hair was flattened against his forehead.

  "Is he still in the alley?"


  Vincent pulled a piece of paper from his coat pocket. "I looked up shelters in the phone book, in case he's homeless. There's one over in Kingston. I wrote down the address." He walked to the back door and unlocked it. "I'll give him some change for the bus. Your grandma won't want him hanging around. It's not good for business."

  He hesitated a moment, then grabbed a rolling pin off the counter.

  "What are you doing?" I asked.

  "You never know." Vincent had this way of keeping a level head, no matter what happened. I think it was all that swimming, lap after lap, like underwater meditation.

  He was like a floating Buddhist.

  He opened the back door and stepped onto the stoop. I peered over his shoulder. The guy was gone. The goodies and coffee cup were also gone. Vincent handed me the rolling pin. "Guess you won't have to worry about him." He scrunched his nose and picked up the garbage bag. "This is rancid." He carried it to the Dumpster at the end of the alley. "You sure you didn't imagine that guy? Maybe you just saw some shadows." He nodded toward a pile of crates.

  "I didn't imagine him," I insisted. "I left some coffee out here, and some pastries."

  "You talked to him?"

  "No. But the bag and the Styrofoam cup are gone, so that proves I didn't imagine him."

  Back inside, Vincent washed his hands. "I'll be late for practice."

  "Thanks for rushing over."

  "No problem. I always have your back, Katrina. See you at assembly." He grabbed his hat and gloves. I handed him a scone, half of which he stuffed into his mouth. He could eat an entire meal in the time it took me to butter my bread. Ratcatcher watched enviously.

  I stood on the sidewalk as Vincent pedaled his way up Main Street, past the dark shops and empty parking spaces. Off to perfect his talent. "Bye," I called.

  He waved, then disappeared around the corner.

  I was glad that the homeless guy had gone. It was hard enough to get all my chores done and still get to school on time without adding a possible murderer to the mix. He had looked young, maybe even my age. He probably wasn't a murderer. I hoped that he'd gone back home--to someplace nicer than an alley. Maybe that coffee would keep him warm on the way.

  I picked up the newspaper and was about to go back inside, when a flash of white caught my eye. A small something, glowing like a paper lantern, rolled down the quiet street. It rolled past the trinket shop, past the hand-knit sweater shop and the candy shop, and then, caught by a breeze, bounced up onto the sidewalk. It rolled past the bookstore and the barbershop and came to an abrupt stop at my feet.

  It was a large, empty Styrofoam coffee cup.


  Last year, this guy named Aaron started calling me Coffeehouse Girl. At least it wasn't Hurricane Girl, the obvious choice, since my name is Katrina. And it was better than being called Lard Ass, or Crater Face, or Homo-- delightful titles bestowed on some of my classmates.

  "Hey, it's Coffeehouse Girl."

  "Wanna take my order, Coffeehouse Girl?"

  "Hey, Coffeehouse Girl, why don't you introduce Lard Ass to the concept of nonfat milk?"

  His teasing wasn't a big deal. Neither the popular girl nor the shunned girl, I existed somewhere in the mundane middle--the perfect place for the untalented. Fortunately, the nickname hadn't spread beyond Aaron and his buddies. And it didn't feel like a malicious nickname. It was just a factual statement. That's who I was--the girl who worked in that weird old-lady coffeehouse. And that's what I smelled like, not like an old lady but like freshly ground coffee. Sometimes the grounds got caught in the hem of my shirt or on my shoes. Sometimes the percolator's steam scented my hair.

  Aaron's buddies would sniff me.

  "Coffeehouse Girl smells gooooood."

  "I'd like to drink her up."

  "I've got a grande for you, Coffeehouse Girl."

  I wonder if it's a universal law that boys become annoying turds around age eleven and slide downhill from there?

  But they never said those things to me when Vincent was around.

  Vincent didn't have a nickname. He could have, the way he always smelled like chlorine, the way his goggles left imprints around his eyes, the way he shaved his legs before races. But no one bothered Vincent. He had broken every swimming record held by Nordby High. Though swimming didn't draw the same kind of frenzy as basketball or football, the line of swimming trophies in the gym's trophy case couldn't be missed.

  His size didn't hurt either. Half Native American, half Norwegian, he looked like the offspring of Geronimo and Conan the Barbarian, minus the killer attitude and weaponry. In other words, he was an absolute hunk. So while others bore the weight of Freak or Loser, Vincent got left alone, which was exactly how he liked it.

  Vincent and his dad belonged to the Suquamish tribe, as did about a quarter of the students at Nordby High. The most famous member of the tribe was Chief Sealth, also known as Chief Seattle. The tribe owned most of the land to the east of Nordby, and it had plans to build a huge casino and resort. But until t
he resort's completion, there was little tribal money for higher education. And Vincent's dad didn't bring in much from his job as a security guard. So Vincent needed that swimming scholarship.

  Monday morning always began with an assembly in the gym. Paper coffee cups with Java Heaven cloud logos overflowed from the trash can. Kids hung out at Java Heaven because it offered the trendy stuff like smoothies, energy drinks, and iced espresso. Senior citizens hung out at Anna's because it offered the stuff senior citizens prefer, like percolated gut-eating coffee, nondairy creamer, and sugar that comes in cubes.

  Elizabeth, my best girl friend, waved from the bleachers. I sat between her and a freshman I didn't know. Vincent sat with the swim team a few rows lower. If this had been a picnic, or a movie, or that God-awful monster truck rally he had dragged me to, then Vincent would have sat next to me. But in high school, you gather at the watering hole with your herd. Vincent's herd all wore matching Nordby Otters Swim Team sweatshirts.

  I didn't have a herd.

  "Face is sitting down there," Elizabeth informed me. She always knew exactly where Face was sitting. You'd think she had stuck a GPS unit up his butt or something.

  "Face is soooo cute."

  She said that at least four times a day.

  Face was Elizabeth's code name for David Cord. She didn't want anyone to know that she had a killer crush on him. Face was not a member of the mundane middle. His herd wore polo shirts and spent most rainless afternoons at the Nordby Golf Course.

  "Good morning, students," Principal Carmichael greeted from center court. "As you all know, winter break begins next Wednesday." Screams of glee erupted. Students stomped their feet. Mr. Rubens, the phys ed teacher, jumped out of his chair and blew his whistle. The enthusiasm settled back to boredom.

  The principal cleared her throat. "We have a lot to accomplish before winter break, but guidance counselor appointments are of the highest priority. Yellow notices have been placed in lockers to remind those students who have not yet met this requirement. These appointments are mandatory."

  Someone behind me hollered, "Fascist!"