There was a coffee shop I passed every day at the corner of Walnut and Remington. Within my first two weeks of being on the west side of the city, Tank’s became the sole bright spot on the daily trudge to work; a hole-in-the-wall knot of nutty and chocolate aromas, a bustling bar full to the brim with people, and the beauty of genuine human laughter. I grew attached to the shop, a fond friendship based on being a third party outside observer, much like watching the neighbors children grow from tots playing in sprinklers to obnoxious teens sneaking out late at night through overlapping backyards. I felt a kinship to the place, although I expect everyone who passed Tank’s felt the same, yet I never stepped foot inside.
Simple white brick exterior was washed with years of steady rain and the beat of sunlight. The front door was a slab of unadorned pine, a pang rattling through my chest each time I saw it and ached for my own Midwest home. Most days, however, the door was thrown wide open and people fluttered at the edge of the step discussing work or their husbands or the weather. Windows offered a pristinely sharp view of well-worn leather couches, pallet chairs, and tall wine-barrel bars, repurposed to house anyone in need of a warm place with wifi connection or espresso. Various pieces of art could be seen along the walls, mostly consisting of watercolor rivers and ancient farmhouses with rockers on the front porch. Barnwood frames guarded black and white snapshots of towering pecan trees and rusted trucks. To my own shock, I’d fought tears one morning after glimpsing the front section of the counter, so rarely exposed in busy rushes, to see it’s foundation was the entire front end of a Model B John Deere.
I hadn’t admitted it to anyone but I missed home with the burning persistence of an undiagnosed ulcer. I’d moved, thinking I could better utilize my law degree in a larger population, after an offer with a well known firm. Surrounded by men double my age and triple my wealth, they grew fond of my cut-and-dry tact. I found, unlike others, I mirrored no one, choosing instead to find my own path through the tangled briars of politics in the legal office. I found the guys who enjoyed my sarcastic banter, much like my brothers. I found the girls who blushed at my smile. I found the old men who seeked to live vicariously through me, prodding and poking for private details I very little shared.
What I also found was loneliness. I didn’t fit into the showboat mold my colleagues so easily paraded about and we had very little to connect us through conversation past small talk. At the end of the day, I was still a good ole boy from Missouri with the remnants of a hayfield tan and sugar drawling over my lips. My arms and legs were fundamentally good at tennis and golf but I hated them both. I preferred a cold beer over bourbon and, while women hadn’t been a struggle, I felt an odd numbness toward dating any of them. I was in the prime of my life, hours spent in the gym when I couldn’t sleep, surrounded by all the opportunities I could’ve ever asked for.
Yet, most nights I fought the urge to pack my bags and flee with tension migraines and white knuckles. I would pick up the phone to call home but never managed to finish dialing, instead laying in the dark wondering what in the hell was wrong with me. A huge part couldn’t help but wonder what my father would think, how my pride would suffer once people caught the jist that I couldn’t cut it outside the cornfields. Guess some people can’t get over their glory days, they’d say. Must be hell to realize being quarterback won’t float you through life.
Another part of me wanted to flip my middle finger to those people and be where my momma’s cooking was. To scream at the top of my lungs: “I was fucking successful and I was fucking miserable, you small minded pricks.” To be defiant and succumb. To be where I could pull my truck into the barn and tear it to pieces with my own hands, nothing but the sound of my own breathing, tree frogs, and an old FM radio. To be where my nieces and nephews were, playing flag football and taking piano lessons, growing every day while I was thousands of miles away. To smell cows, for the love of God; that’s how bad I ached for home.
Something about Tank’s felt like home.
Maybe that’s why I kept choosing to walk by, hoping I wouldn’t shatter the dreamlike persona I’d assigned it. Letting it remain a safe haven without taking the chance it wasn’t everything I hoped it would be. The art, the rustic ease, the way people seemed to slow down when they walked inside. My own personal escape from the cavern of depression I was carving for myself.
“Come have a coffee,” the girl smiled, catching my attention as I passed Tank’s one morning. “I see you walk by and hesitate, you know. Just come inside.”
Blonde curls had been tossed haphazardly into a knot at the base of the girl’s neck, freckles dotting her cheekbones like ticking on a birddog. Looking back, it wasn’t the most poetic comparison but in a way it’s what gave me the courage to smile back at her. She was petite, a tiny, fair complected thing who barely reached the middle of my chest but there was a light about her. An episode of Tinkerbell my youngest niece had once made me suffer through danced at the edge of my consciousness, bubbling the tiniest laugh in my chest for a moment I almost wanted to share with her. Her Tank’s t-shirt was loose, showing off a freckled shoulder and tennis shoes, small enough for a child, danced on the sidewalk.
“Don’t have time,” I stated, shrugging my shoulders. The collar of my jacket brushed my jaw, static shocking the beard I’d let grow for weeks but I did my best to look apologetic. It was a blatant lie; I was off that day, free to wander about the metropolis as I pleased. “But I’ll be glad to toss that in the dumpster for you.”
Nodding, she swung the black bag my way and called a quick “thank you.” As she hurried back into the shop, people greeted her with gentle hellos and familiar grins. I watched her make her way behind the counter before turning away from the open pine door, an odd sense of disappointment clinging to my throat with my own cowardice.
The dumpster was tucked in the alley between Tank’s and a consignment shop for used clothing, the smell of coffee and laundry detergent mixing for a much more pleasant experience than expected. Turns out, not all city alleys are made for murder scenes, I mused. For the second time in a matter of minutes, I found myself smiling.
“Something about trash make you happy?”
Heart racing, I spun toward the velvet voice before my eyes immediately fell to the prosthetic leg leaning against the coffee shop’s back doorway. Silently chiding myself, I met the stare of a woman who seemed to be fighting the tug of a smile all her own. At war with charm and authenticity, I wondered in those first few seconds what had happened to her with a tender curiosity. Hair the color of charcoal fell in waves to her collarbones, her framed wrapped in a soft, green sweater dress the same hue as my favorite color but it was her voice which had rattled my naturally flirtatious nature. The way it drawled at the end of the question. The way the word “something” hadn’t ended with the letter G.
“No. Just surprised an alley could be so…nice,” I finished lamely. Reaching down, I tucked my hands in the pockets of my jeans and kicked a piece of plastic on the ground before picking it up and tossing it into the dumpster, too.
An alto laugh trickled in the space between us, rich with light amusement.
“Well, if you think the alley is nice, you should try the establishment itself. Not my shop, of course, but I hear they’re having a sale next door,” she teased, pointing to the opposite wall of the clothing store.
“Wait, you own this place?”
The question leaped from my lips at the same time I took a step toward the woman, my tone filled with pathetic, magnetic wonder. From her vantage point, I’m sure I looked much like a deer in the headlights or maybe some twisted parody of a caffeine junkie looking to find his next fix. Her features softened, showcasing a series of scars along her hairline and one ear, vibrant ivory against her olive skin.
“Earlier. Out front. I saw Emilie invite you in,” she drawled, dodging the question. Propping the door open with one arm, her leg caught the barest ray of sunlight and glared into the alley. “She’s a nice girl. An even better waitress. Breakfast is on me if you change your mind and decide to come inside.”
With a quick turn, she slammed the door.