By DS Levy
Floating on the bubbly foam of her extra hot latte is a wilting tulip pattern that looks like the wounded black bird she saw lying dead by the fountain yesterday.
When she looks up, the woman is staring at her again. The woman with the long brown hair and dark eyes. The woman who could be from anywhere, of any descent. LeeAnn knows what she hears on the street: People are diverse. Everyone talks as though they didn’t already realize there are so many different kinds of people in the world, and yet LeeAnn believes people are fundamentally the same, like the Headwaters Park pigeons with their pecking order.
But the woman. This woman. Definitely staring at LeeAnn, eyes focused not on the people beside her, not on the door to see who’s coming and going, not on the window looking out onto the empty downtown street (it’s Saturday). Her dark eyes are laser beams locked on LeeAnn, who feels the penetrating gaze as it tries to puncture her personal bubble space.
LeeAnn thrusts her hand into a frayed pocket on her overcoat and rummages around. Nothing there. She claws at a gap in the seam with her dirty fingernail until she can secretly poke her middle finger out. There, you bitch. Take that.
LeeAnn comes to this coffee shop when she has money, when it hasn’t been lost to the hole in her pocket. Her book is cracked open to a page, this morning 102, some words glaring up at her, daring to be read. She’s not even glancing at the page. She couldn’t even tell you what the book is about. It’s a mostly successful prop.
The dark-haired woman has high cheekbones and full ruby-red lips, a color no doubt glossed on. LeeAnn sees the shine from here. The woman is with three others, two women and a man, quietly engaged in conversation, probably a serious topic. Perhaps the woman is only thinking, staring through LeeAnn rather than at — a person after all is just an object — to steady her thoughts, to keep them from flying all over the place. Like a flock of pigeons. Like the ones LeeAnn launched this morning as she’d walked to the coffee shop. Pigeons live downtown in Headwaters Park. Dirty, foul birds, they shit anywhere, everywhere.
Thoughts are dirty pigeons scuttling under foot, LeeAnn thinks. Don’t feed them. They’ll only come back and shit on your shoes.
And then there’s the young man at the next table. A writer, no doubt. Anyone who sits with a computer open listening to music through ear buds and writing in a leather-bound journal has to be a writer. And just what might he be writing? LeeAnn lifts her eyes from her book, steals a glimpse at him hunched over his journal, pen hovering over a blank page, cooing to words. Dirty birds scratching their sharp little claws all over the page. He is young. Wears a long-sleeved T-shirt that says “Portland.” The bill of his baseball hat hides his eyes. He scratches a burgeoning beard, sips his coffee, stares out the window. Sips again. Puts his pen to his mouth. Tugs at the light brown stubble on his chin. And that damn pen held fast to the page, unmoving.
LeeAnn’s hot latte turns lukewarm. The broken wing of the tulip pattern fades, smudges like a tattoo worn and stretched out over the years by age and girth. The young man has no visible tattoos. The woman with ruby-red lips has no tattoos, at least none that LeeAnn can see. She waxes poetic, don’t we all have tattoos of the heart? Tattoos of the heart, who can stomach such drivel? LeeAnn certainly has no pen in her hand or tattoos on her heart, no one to love her like they do in the movies. She feeds the pigeons sometimes. They love her feeding hands. But they don’t love her like she wants to be loved. Dirty birds. One fluttered up and flew overhead the other day and shit runny green droppings on her shoulder. You fucking bird! she yelled. Fucking, fucking, fucking!
The woman is definitely looking at LeeAnn, her dark eyes probing LeeAnn’s own dark portals, in and down, down, down to LeeAnn’s heart, and up, up, up to her brain, and down, down, down again to her guts rumbling with fear and disemboweled pain and a feeling she can’t quite describe but feels troubled by.
She finally sips the lukewarm brown latte. The bitter-burnt foam tickles her lips. She licks the foam mustache off her upper lip and probes the open gaps in her teeth with her tongue.
All around her patrons hover over their cappuccinos and expensive caffeinated drinks. Those two men in running shorts and shoes, that woman with her child, the couple so desperately in love. They all twist in their chairs, look over at her. Can’t keep their beaks to themselves.
And then there’s Mr. Writer, what’s he staring at? Don’t look this way for inspiration. She’s got a few stories she could tell him, a few to make his gelled hair stand on end. That’s a cliché, of course. Language handled so many times by so many people it’s lost all meaning. LeeAnn too has been handled so many times, by so many people — mostly men.
“Here’s something bitter for your story, Mr. Young Man in a Baseball Hat,” LeeAnn says, words spilling out of her mouth. “Come over here and taste this if you need inspiration. But don’t look at me for any of your stories. Come here and I’ll fly off, that’s what I’ll do. Pick up and fly off, fuck off.”
And what is that dark-haired woman still looking at? What does she fucking want?
“Okay, LeeAnn,” a voice says from above. “C’mon.”
She looks up and Randy, the barista, is standing next to her. Must be wearing padding on his feet to have stalked her so silently. Predators are stealthy.
“I’m still drinking my latte,” she clips.
“I can put it in a to-go cup,” Randy says, gently tugging at her arm.
“But I’m still drinking.”
“You’re making a scene,” he sighs. “Again.” This is the second time this month Randy has had to escort her out.
LeeAnn stares at him, him with his dark, thick glasses and beak-like nose. Randy the peregrine falcon casting his shadow over her. Randy with all the tattoos on his arms and legs and neck. Randy, Randy, Randy.
She looks down at her mug, at the dissolving broken wing. Floating away from the center, the center …
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold …
And that woman! And Mr. Young Writer!
“C’mon,” Randy says, softly touching her shoulder.
She flaps her arm.
She is sipping, goddamit!
She is pecking at her foam, head bobbing to better see. She is crouching over her mug, now stepping back, now forward, head sling-shooting to catch up to her feet. And what are they all staring at? And who are you all to tell her she has no place in here, in the warmth to which she has come looking for a few seeds, a few nibs of this and that? Isolation has no place in a coffee shop. Shitty pigeons are friendlier.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
She follows Randy to the counter, where he pours her lukewarm latte into a paper cup and sends her on her way. Her and her book. Good-bye, strange woman with dark hair. Good-bye, Mr. Writer. Good-bye, tata, and all of that!
Outside, LeeAnn walks along the wide cement sidewalk, careful not to step in any pigeon shit. There is so much of it these days. Everywhere she looks. Exploded splashes like bombs dropped from overhead. She looks into empty glass windows, offices, banks, restaurants. All darkened spaces until Monday, when the pecking people return. But first comes Sunday. Sunday, and then Monday. Maybe she can get a bed in the shelter come Monday.
She crosses the street to the fountain in the park where she can sit and finish her cold latte. The shitty pigeons will want to know where she’s been all this time.
DS Levy writes from the Midwest. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, Levy’s work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Little Fiction, Columbia, Carolina Quarterly, and others. Follow her on Twitter @122cats.
Featured image courtesy of Henk Kruger.