S. S. Mandani ~ This Is a Stickup Story

Twenty-two grams in. Thirty-four grams out.

Shot for shot for shot.

I tweak the dial, get­ting close to the per­fect grind.

This ain’t no mocha hut. Man, this is a legit cof­fee shop,” yells the barista from the morn­ing shift. He’s con­vinc­ing him­self and appar­ent­ly talk­ing to me. Baristas do that. “You got­ta dial in between shifts. Issa thing. Quality over quantity.”

We’d get two hun­dred twen­ty tick­ets before the end of the day.

He sat­u­rates the cof­fee grounds with his gloved hands in a tod­dy of meady cold brew con­cen­trate. When he’s done, he announces his depar­ture with a “YERRRRR,” and takes the L to the E back to Queens.

I haven’t spo­ken a word yet.

The adjust­ments have been made. The dosage, the grind size, the tamp, the out­put. I pull for “qual­i­ty” and qual­i­ty does pre­cise­ly fol­low. A pure liq­uid, my inten­tion pours out gold. The line ambers, blonding to a harp thread. A menis­cus of cre­ma froths at the mid­line of the Gibraltar glass. A per­fect dou­ble. If tof­fee mar­malade could dance.

I serve eight cus­tomers in suc­ces­sion. Drip. Drip. Cortado. Iced Oat Latte. Drip. Split dou­ble shot (I give her a ristret­to). Large Cold Brew. Drip.

Then a gym bro orders a Red Eye, which hap­pens once a week. That’s just ask­ing for a bow­el move­ment. But hey, to each their own. I just per­co­late, pull, and please.

He says, “Make it a large,” and I flinch.

I don’t want to kill the guy. A sleazy pitch­man from a 90s infomer­cial appears in my head instruct­ing, “The customer’s always right, kiddo!”

I say noth­ing. He tips nothing.

I lis­ten to “Upbeat Jazzy Coffeehouse Hits,” pre­tend­ing to know more than the John-Coltrane-type-of-jazz I usu­al­ly lis­ten to while show­er­ing. A reg­u­lar comes in. We chat for a few min­utes until she feels like she’s hold­ing up the line.

I feel like I’m hold­ing up the line.”

It’s all good,” I say with a smile. A cus­tomer ser­vice smile. They’re one and the same after six months on the job. It takes six months for a smile to fos­silize. I look at the tip: $4.00. “Bye Madelyn!” I yell as she yanks the door open.

She turns around and smiles. It’s gen­uine. I think about being human until the next cus­tomer walks in.


I taste the drip from the fresh­ly brewed urn to make sure it isn’t burnt and dis­card any left­over chaff from the last batch. Mmm, it’s good. Single ori­gin, sus­tain­ably farmed, respon­si­bly irri­gat­ed good.

Cloudlight fil­ters in, cor­rect­ing the mood in the shop.

The after­noon inter­lude of silence begins and I use the time to read a cof­fee-stained book, a main­stay on the shelv­ing unit, about the dai­ly rou­tines of cre­atives. I open to the same pages: Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco, Franz Kafka, Zaha Hadid, Toni Morrison. I restock the alter­na­tive milks and all the pow­ders: cer­e­mo­ni­al grade matcha, masala chai pow­der, cocoa, turmer­ic blend, etc. I prac­tice my lat­te art, send­ing milk into a white two-dimen­sion­al pot­ted tulip etched on the sur­face of a cor­ta­do glass.

On point.

A per­son runs in, stam­mer­ing, “There’s an armed rob­bery down the block at the 7‑Eleven”


Down the block!”

What inter­sec­tion?”

I don’t know. Avenue A and 11th Street.”

Oh, man. That’s a cou­ple blocks away.”

Yeah, down the block.”

Not real­ly down the block. But, yeah, close enough.”

Can I get an espresso.”

It’s a dou­ble. That good?”

Yeah, yeah.”

I hand the shot over to act­ing-hip­ster-prob­a­bly-dig­i­tal-mar­keter guy.

Stay safe!” he yells back as he exits the shop.

I lock the door. Soon enough, a queue starts to form out­side. I unlock the door every time to serve each cus­tomer, explain­ing there are armed sus­pects near­by. At first, they’re sur­prised. They ask a few ques­tions, and take a sip of cof­fee. Then they go about their day. I decide enough time has passed and keep the door unlocked.

For a few min­utes, no one comes in. Until two peo­ple do: a woman and a man, ski masks in hand. They walk in and lock the door behind them. I try to yell, but my throat is arid, suc­cu­lent soil.

In her but­ter soft voice, the woman says, “We don’t want to hurt you, kid. We just got­ta lay low for a minute.” She’s tat­tooed, tall, and dressed in all black. Based on my cus­tomer repos­i­to­ry, she may be a Janet, Kimberly, or Svetlana. Although, I am hor­ri­ble at the guess­ing game baris­tas play.

The man glares at me and then out­side. He is not on the same page. He wants to run. He motions at the cash reg­is­ter. I open it and some­how say, “There’s noth­ing here, see. We stopped tak­ing cash. Germs and all.” He leans over the counter to see wrin­kled sin­gles and rolls of quar­ters, dimes, and pen­nies for mak­ing change. He mum­bles and waves it off, walk­ing towards the win­dows to be on the lookout.

They look like they could be customers.

A police car wee-ooohs. Everyone ducks includ­ing me. Instinct.

Let me have a cof­fee. This place looks nice. Like you got good cof­fee,” Janet says. I’ve decid­ed on Janet. It’s a demand, but I receive it kindly.

I don’t see any guns, but the man has a hand in his leather jack­et wield­ing some­thing. Must be the “armed” part.

Espresso or drip?”

You do cappuccinos?”

For sure. I can do that.” I go to work. I pull a ristret­to shot, steam the milk, let­ting it whirlpool, stretch­ing it into the per­fect micro­foam con­sis­ten­cy. I pour and serve a per­fect eight-ounce cappuccino.

The woman takes a sip. Her eyes go wide. “This is a cappuccino.”

Yes it is.”

This is the best cap­puc­ci­no I’ve had.”

Oh, thank you—”

And I’ve been to Italy.” Janet smiles between every sip, her eye­lin­er curv­ing up into appre­cia­tive eyes. The man looks back, whis­per-shout­ing, “Hey, hey. Let’s go. We’re clear.”

Janet can­not look away from the espres­so machine. It’s glint­ing under the orb lights as if it knows it’s being admired. In one for­ev­er moment, she encap­su­lates all the dreams for her­self, all the desires of the peo­ple in her life, and shoots it out of her eyes in a lasered inten­tion. “How much does one of these cost?”

The espres­so machine?”

She nods, focused on it.

This one’s some­thing like fif­teen thousand.”

Fifteen thou­sand,” she par­rots back.

Without say­ing anoth­er word, she drops a fiv­er into the tip jar, loops the man’s arm with hers, and walks out of the shop.

I try to yell out, but my throat is, yet again, desert sand. And they are gone.

I am alone. The Smiths play in the back­ground. Dua Lipa is next. Then Gus Dapperton, Dirty Projectors, Enya (iron­i­cal­ly), Sufjan Stevens. Bön Iver (of course), Maggie Rogers, and so on. Coffee shop bangers.


It’s ten min­utes to close. Before I toss the trash onto the curb and haul the recy­cling into the refuse room in the cel­lar, I clean the espres­so machine. The woman’s voice, a caramel tone, replays in my head in soft waves. She reminds me of my moth­er and how eter­nal a mother’s voice chimes. Leaning against the espres­so machine, it’s heat warm­ing me whole, I call Ma and tell her thank you thrice over. I tell her I love her and how grate­ful I am. Her voice is gold­en, and she leans into it, as if she’s been wait­ing for this call all along.


S. S. Mandani has received sup­port and fel­low­ships from the University of British Columbia, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing, and The New School, where he holds an MFA in Creative Writing. He has flash fic­tion forth­com­ing in X‑R-A‑Y and is at work on his first nov­el, “Electric Earth.” Equal parts Murakami and Calvino, the nov­el explores Sufi mys­ti­cism to tell the sto­ry of how cli­mate change brings togeth­er a dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly of jinns to fight a cli­mate world war span­ning a hun­dred years. It envi­sions a murky, yet hope­ful future.