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