[Black Coffee, 4,303 Words, Genre: Realistic Fiction/Dark Humour]
It was raining outside. In the middle of winter, I was staring down at my coffee, it was black. I had an agreement between myself and the manager of the café that I could smoke inside, as long as I kept myself in a secluded corner at the back, out of the way of prying eyes and anybody else who might raise a complaint. The winter was cold and if I had to go outside to smoke, my fingers would become frozen and I wouldn’t appreciate it very much. I had a long standing relationship with the café manager. I had been coming into the café for the past twenty years and we knew each other well. Or well enough. We didn’t really spend any time together outside of business hours, but she knew I was a long standing customer and was willing to make several concessions for the continued business. The cigarette burned in-between my fingers, my index and fore. I toked on it in-between sips of my coffee. As I mentioned earlier the coffee was black and I would stare down at it, seeing my reflection in its contents. I had been working insurance for the past twenty years, mainly in litigation and procedures. It was a lot of paperwork and administration. Most of it was digitized.
For the past week I had applied for leave. For no other reason that I had accumulated enough of it and my manager insisted I take it for the benefit of the company. I didn’t really know what to do with it. Travelling never enticed me. The only release that I ever found for myself was in my work. Most people annoyed me and although I appreciated music, I was never inclined to the popular tastes. I would listen to classical and jazz records at home. Things that I had found in opportunity shops. Long forgotten masters of the arts, who had been sent to waste away outside the scope of popular opinion.
The cold front was almost unbearable outside. I was dressed in a black cotton and wool infused suit. Over the top I wore a grey woollen trench coat and to keep my head warm through the onslaught of my hereditary genes that caused me to thin at the top, I wore a felt fedora hat. Grey to match my trench coat. Underneath the attire I wore a plain white cotton shirt. I was dressed for work, but I wasn’t going. It was just the type of wear that I felt comfortable with. The coffee was black and it was also hot, which gave me some respite from the weather. I had no friends to speak of, most of my acquaintances were work related. And so I went to spend some time at the café that I always stopped off at before I would have to set myself to the tasks at work.
As I stared down at the black coffee, I saw my reflection. The wrinkles in my skin, the marks of a face that would never smile. The cigarette burning away in-between my fingers. My fingers were stained with nicotine and I smelt of ash and smoke. I looked at my reflection in the black contents and a realization came upon me. I was a relic. Just like the records I would listen to at home. The way I had lived my life had become an antiquated notion. The sort of stuff that some struggling writer writes about to record a world without sensibilities. I had a work ethic, which was the thing that had saved me throughout all these years. But the work environment had changed. People’s values had changed. And I was stuck in a world that had lost its mind, chasing after some vision of epitomized success.
I had finished my cigarette and coffee. It was time for me to leave. I paused there in my seat. I had nowhere to go. Nowhere to be. I suppose I could go see a film, but none of them really appealed to me anymore. I would do as all relics do and retreat into the confines of my own home, listening to a jazz concerto on my record player. That… I supposed, would have to do. I checked that I had everything in my pockets. My wallet, my phone, my keys. I picked them all up and hid them across the pockets of my wear, knowing that there was a place for everything and everything had its place. I went to pay for my coffee at the counter. I made small talk with the cashier about the cold front and the relentless spray of cold rain. She thanked me and I left a tip for her services.
I exited the venue and braved the rain as it poured down, complete with a callous degree in temperature, my trench coat protecting me. As I exited the front door, a man bumped into me. He was much younger than I and was only dressed in a white business shirt and black trousers despite the weather. He bumped into me and fell to the ground. Out the corner of my eye I could see some hoodlum running away, dressed in a blue jacket with a hood covering his features. At that point in time, he was not my concern, although he should have been. The younger man that had fallen to the pavement, awash in rainwater, held my attention. I looked to him and bent down to help him back to his feet. But that is when I saw a red patch staining his white shirt and spreading its circumference. The young man had a puncture in his chest and now he was clawing at my trench coat. He was young, only in his mid-twenties at my estimate. He was trying to pull me down, his mouth to my ear. So I placed my arm around his back, supporting him and bringing him up so that I could hear him. In the rain, the blood was flowing from out of his body and onto the cement surface. The blood mixed in with the rainwater and was being washed down the street, with the flow of the cold rain, his bodily fluids were draining down some unknown gutter. He was trying to tell me something, though I found it difficult to make out what it was…
“Don’t… Don’t… Don’t… Give this to the police.” He was clutching at something, in his hands. It was a white envelope, marked with his blood and damp from the rain. I took the envelope from him and placed it in a pocket within my trench coat. If there was anything else that the young man had wanted to say, I was there to hear it. Although he was delirious through blood loss and drawing his final breath. There was nothing else coherent that he had to say and within my arms, he drew his final breath.
Bystanders had gathered around the scene. Someone had called the proper authorities. An ambulance arrived, as did police officers. The ambulance attempted to do what they could, but they called it in, seeing that there was nothing that they could do. The police officers interviewed me. I told them about everything that I had seen, but neglected to mention the white envelope. They took my name and details and I told them, in turn, that if they had any more questions, they just had to call. They referred me to counselling services, if I needed to talk to somebody about what I had just been through.
For the rest of the day, I did as I had planned. I returned to my home. A single bedroom apartment in a high rise. I made sure that my own inhabitance was of meticulous upkeep, the walls were painted in beige white. The tiles of the kitchen were of polished white ceramics and I had prints from famous artists hung on the wall that I could look upon and ponder in my idle time. I took the white envelope out of my trench coat’s pocket and placed it on a corner table that I kept near the door. Its contents didn’t immediately interest me; I was only following the young man’s dying request. I hung my trench coat on the coat rack that I kept next to the hallway door that exited the apartment. I beat my hat on my thigh, getting rid of any excess rainwater. Then placed it on the coat-rack on an adjacent peg next to my coat. My clothes were stained with the young man’s blood and I immediately went about removing the stains in my laundry. With the rain, the blood stains were faint and easily removed. I changed into a pair of woollen pants and a T-shirt with a caricature of a gorilla eating a banana and the phrase, ‘I go ape-shit for bananas’, printed on its front. I turned up the central heating of the apartment and soon enough, it was of a cosy, warm temperate.
I went to the bathroom and relieved myself, urinating the black coffee that had passed through my digestive tract. I then went and washed my hands in the bathroom basin and find myself, once again, staring at my reflection in the mirror. The years had not been kind, smoking cigarettes had caused me to age pre-maturely and there were strokes and lines that marked my face. I stared at my eyes, the irises were lacking the lustre that they once had. The crow’s feet surrounding my eyes didn’t help me feel that much better about myself. I shrugged off any antagonistic feelings and went to the kitchen to prepare myself a drink. I always kept a few bottles of whiskey on hand. Different brands to suit my tastes. I mixed a generous shot of Jamiesons Irish whiskey and then mixed in some soda water from one of those single serving Schweppes bottles. I went and found a record from my collection, a recording from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I sat in my sofa seat with my whiskey and soda in hand, and kicked my feet up on a cushion seat.
Listening to the album I relaxed in my seat. Pulling out a cigarette and lighting the tip. The music was good, I didn’t feel as old as I should while I listened to it. I sipped on the whiskey and soda and closed my eyes. I had recent events in my mind. Mainly the fact of the young man dying in my arms. Who was he? Who had he been? Why had he been stabbed? I could not help but remind myself of the fact that those answers were probably held within the white envelope that lay waiting on the corner table, next to the front door. I tried to ignore such nagging thoughts and pushed them to the back of my mind. I had done what the boy had asked me to, keeping the envelope away from the police. That had been his last request. A request to a complete stranger, but there is definitely a moment of intimacy in holding a man draw his last breath. I kept on listening to the music. The piano, saxophone and Blakey on the drums.
Whatever I did to occupy my mind, I kept on coming back to thoughts of the white envelope. Eventually I submitted myself to my curiosities and went to retrieve the white envelope from the corner table next to the front door. It was still marked with his blood, but the central heating had dried the dampness away. I opened up the white envelope and I found two things. One; a business card for a hotel, and two; four hundred dollars made up of eight fifty dollar notes. There was no letter, only a business card. I looked at the business card and saw that it had a room number written in black texter. The room number was, ‘42’. I acquainted the room number with the reference to ‘The Hitch-hiker’s guide to the galaxy’. A book that I had read in my adolescence, long ago. There seemed to be some form of pattern emerging from the synchronicity of events as they had occurred. The hotel wasn’t anything special, some unknown four star hotel in the North-Western suburbs. But there was definitely some form of cosmic synchronicity at work within the continuation of events. I kept on going over everything that had happened thus far: the boy dying in my arms; the white envelope; the four star hotel; and the four hundred dollars. I kept on analysing and re-analysing the information. Smoking cigarettes at a quickened pace and drinking a steady line of whiskey and sodas. My mind eventually exhausted itself and I fell asleep in the comfort of my sofa seat as the record I was listening to came to an end.
I woke up at two in the morning with a slight hangover. It was dark outside and still raining. I wanted to go back to sleep, I should have gone back to sleep, but there was no cause for it. My internal battery had recharged and I could not manage to find further rest.
I went to the bathroom where I indulged myself in a hot shower. The hot water enclosed itself on my naked flesh and I leant up against the ceramic tiling, breathing in the steam and clearing my lungs. I thought once more of the intricacy of recent events and then committed myself to, after showering, visiting the hotel in a quest for further answers. I popped a couple of paracetamol tablets while still in the shower and then waited for them to kick in, eradicating the hangover in my head that felt poorly. The hangover slowly dissipated and I was reinvigorated by the time I stepped out of the shower. I dried myself with a plain white towel and while steam still lay as a heavy blanket in the bathroom, I mentally prepared myself for the unknown.
I got dressed in the same wool and cotton infused suit that I had worn yesterday. Changing only my underpants, socks and white shirt. I made sure that I had everything with me and then retrieved my trench coat and grey fedora hat from the coat rack next to the door. I retrieved the white envelope and its contents from where I had last left them, placing them in the inside pocket of my trench coat. I exited my own apartment and took an elevator down to the parking garage where my vehicle waited. I drove a Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan, painted sleek black. I pushed the central locking mechanism on my keys. Unlocking the vehicle and disabling its security system. I got in the driver’s seat and pulled out of the underground parking garage where other vehicles of the high rise’s residents found shelter from the rain. Traffic was minimal as I drove out to the northwestern suburbs. It was situated in North Melbourne, the Mercure, that was the name of the hotel. It was still raining heavily and I drove at a reduced speed to account for any road hazards. I placed a CD into the audio system of the car, this time I listened to the greatest hits of Benny Goodman. My journey to the hotel had the vibe of a black and white animation from Disney. Considering the circumstances of why I was visiting the hotel, it felt out of place. But what the hell, I enjoyed the music. I lit another cigarette in the car and wound down the window slightly to release the smoke out into the night air.
I drove by what looked like an accident, two cars had piled up at an intersection and there were police and ambulance on the scene. I kept on driving and then found myself at the Mercure hotel. I found a parking space nearby and stepped out into the night. It was now quarter past three in the morning. It was still raining, but it had eased off slightly. I made my way from the parking bay into the hotel lobby. There was a dining room and café, but at this hour they were non-operational. I made my way to the concierge or night clerk of the hotel. He sat behind the desk and was waiting by the phones for any requests from the hotel’s occupants. As I entered and approached, he stood up from the desk in an effort to greet me.
He was an odd looking fellow. Tall and skinny, dressed in the uniform that the hotel had provided him. He was Indian, or maybe Bengali, and had dark rings around his eyes. A look to them that had seen too many nights and not enough daylight. I took off my fedora as a measured response, revealing my thinning hairline.
“Greetings sir, do you have a booking?” He asked me.
“No, I’m not here for that.” I responded.
“Then what… are you here for at twenty past three in the morning? The café does not open for some time yet and any other services we have are currently disposed.”
I had to be careful with how I proceeded, “I’m here to see someone.”
“Who are you here to see? Are they expecting you at this hour?”
“I have something of theirs’… I have to see it gets to them.”
“Leave it with me and I assure you it will.”
“I can’t be certain of that…” There was a space of about five minutes where the concierge and I entered into a staring competition with one another. He held out his hand as if asking for whatever it was that I wanted to give over. I did not budge from my stance and remained firm in my own convictions. After that period of time passed, the concierge let up.
“Who is it that you wish to see? I could perhaps give them a night call to see if they are willing to see you.”
“I don’t know their name. I have their room number.”
The concierge exhaled loudly, “What is their room number?”
“Forty-two,” I replied as a matter of fact.
“Okay…” And then the concierge, or night clerk, busied himself behind his desk. Picking up his phone and making a phone call to room number forty-two. There was a small dialogue that I didn’t quite catch between the occupant of the room and the night clerk. Nothing that I could hear and everything was spoken in hushed tones. After some time, the night clerk hung up the phone and addressed me, “You can go to the room. But you have to keep it down, other guests are resting.”
“Thank you.” I stated and then followed the signage to find the indicated room. I made sure I treaded carefully, making sure not to cause any unnecessary noise as I made my way through the hotel corridors. After navigating the hotel corridors and floors, I found myself outside room number forty-two. I knocked on the wooden door and awaited the response.
The man who answered the door was a short, overweight man, wearing a dressing gown and black shades. Through the split in the dressing gown you could see a mass of chest hair, all curled up and encompassing his body. He wore tracksuit pants that covered the bottom half of his body and plain grey slippers that covered his feet. He was bald on the top of his skull, with his hair combed over the top in what could be described in no other fashion but sleazy. He spoke with an American accent, looking me up and down, “Ahh… The unannounced guest has arrived and it is by my understanding that you have something that you wish to give me.”
I stood there for some time, not quite knowing what to say. This man was the same age as I, perhaps slightly younger, but we were of the same generation. “Yes, that is correct…” I eventually replied.
“Well, come in, we can’t talk out here and disturb the other guests, now, can we?” It was a rhetorical question and I walked into the hotel room at his invitation. I stood at the centre of the room and looked around. There was a queen sized bed along one side with the blankets pulled over. On the bed lay the latest issue of Penthouse magazine, with the cover spread outwards, marking some unknown page. There was a desk lining the other side of the room and a digital television next to it. Beside the bed lay a bedside table with an ashtray and a cigar slowly burning in the container. The American walked over to the ashtray and picked up the cigar and began toking away on it, breathing out puffs of smoke. “They say you can’t smoke in this place. One hundred percent smoke free… But there’s nothing on television and no other way of entertaining myself, so I thought, what the hell!”
I took out a cigarette from my packet and joined the man in the intake of nicotine. “I’m sorry to disturb you at this hour…” I began.
But the American interrupted, “No, you didn’t disturb me. I’m suffering from jet lag. I just got in a couple of nights ago and have been living like a vampire trying to adjust to this time zone. Now, tell me, what brings you here?”
So I explained it all. The recent sequence of events. The young man dying of a stab wound outside my favourite café, the white envelope that he had entrusted to me, its contents and the pathway by which I had come into the situation I was now in. And then I asked him, “What is it that you do exactly?”
“I’m an antiquarian piano dealer. I seek out pianos throughout the world made with ivory keys. I then go about restoring them and reselling them. They’re very hard to come by and a lot of people pay top dollar for them. I’ve come here to Australia to chase down a few different leads. You can tell if the piano keys are ivory sometimes if you look for veins on the surface. Ivory keys will have a fine line between the key top and the stem. But none of that really matters… Why, what is it that you do?”
“I work for an insurance company. Mainly administration…”
“I see, and this envelope, you believe it is my property?”
“As far as I can tell,” I replied and handed over the white envelope with the money inside, “I’m glad to be rid of it. It’s just been a frustration to my mind.”
The American took the envelope with the four hundred dollars in fifty dollar notes enclosed. I bid him farewell and thanked him for his time, then exited hotel room number forty-two. Closing the door behind me, careful not to make any noise. I then proceeded down the hotel’s corridors and made my exit of the venue.
It was now coming to the early hours of morning and my favourite café would be opening soon. I drove my Mercedes-Benz down towards the café and waited inside the car, waiting for the café to open as I chain smoked cigarettes.
I was now back at my favourite café. Sitting in the corner again, smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee. Everything that had happened recently was the oddest turn of events that I could imagine. From the young man dying in my arms, to the American piano dealer in the Mercure hotel. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. If there was an explanation to the entropy that existed, I was doing my best to fit the pieces together and so far I could not come across a reason for the bizarre sequence. I looked into the black coffee. There in its reflection sat a man that I didn’t understand as I used to.
His skin was wrinkled, he no longer pursued things for his own self-benefit. A man who had been so confused by the chaos and self-serving nature of the world that he had attempted to do what was right.
And what was right? If he had handed the envelope over to the police, would they have found any motivation for the younger man’s death? In all probability it had been a random attack. One of those things that he had borne witness to. That he had become a part of. It was all just an absurdity. That’s why he hated the world as it currently existed. In his work, things made sense. There were things that he had to do during the course of a work day: enquiries that he had to process; a unified and conformed order to the running of the business. It all made sense.
He would be back at work soon enough. In a couple of days time he would enter the weekly routine once more. And as he sat there and thought about it all, he was remembering that there were things that he had to do. Ironing his shirts, the backlog of data that he had to process and the ironing out of proverbial bullshit that the insurance industry offered.
And that’s all this recent sequence of events were. A crease in his shirt that he had to iron. More bullshit that he had to deal with, a world gone mad that made no sense. His work wasn’t his punishment ordained by a monetary system of capitalist values. It was his refuge from the insanity that the rest of the world presented.
And as I looked into my black coffee. That man, I mean I, made sense.