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A Spoonful of Sugar
Warm steam drifted up from the white mugs on the tables, and the cloying aroma of coffee brewed several hours ago lingered in the air, burrowing into all the customers’ hair. It was a bitter cold day, and the couple had come to this refuge in a frenzied haste that only an Alaskan-type, dead-of-winter frost could incite. They had come fully bundled in their scarves, hats, and parkas, and neither one could really be bothered to shed their layers. Instead, they took their coffee mugs to a private booth covered in tacky polka-dotted plastic upholstery in the corner by the window.
The booth made an uncomfortable groan as the couple sat down. The woman placed her mug down on the laminate table and took three pink packets of sweetener out of the container on the table to pour into her drink. She hated the bitterness of coffee and found she could only stand it when it was overpowered by sugar. The man, who had probably lost a great number of his taste buds to a guilty love of spicy Indian food, took a large swig of coffee - this unfortunately sent him into a violent fit of coughing, and he wordlessly excused himself to the men’s room, leaving his wife pouring sweetener in her coffee.
They had been coming to the little café on the corner of 4th and Chester for some time now, although the woman was not quite sure exactly how long that was. Nor was she certain why they had chosen this place to settle down each Sunday afternoon. Truth be told, she hated every inch of the place - everything from the smooth jazz playing just loud enough to disturb her thoughts, to the dim lighting that strained her eyes and gave her headaches, to the coffee itself; the coffee was really just terrible.
And yet there she was, on this freezing Sunday afternoon, stirring her coffee with a worn metal spoon, her fingers numb and cracking at the tips. She took a mental note to get crazy glue at the supermarket later for them as her husband returned from the restroom, his hat now wrung in his hands as he sat down; he placed it to his side, cleared his throat, and took a more modest sip of coffee.
“So I’m gonna go over to Billy’s later today and watch the game.” He stared into his coffee mug, his hands cupping it as he set it on the table.
“That’s nice,” she said absently as she clinked the spoon on her mug and let the empty sugar packets soak up the excess drink.
The machines at the bar screamed and sprayed a scalding mist into the air, liquid bubbling and foaming into the white mugs; the woman picked at the cracks in her fingers.
“Billy says Peter’s enlisting.”
“No kidding. How does Nina feel about that?”
The man scratched at his thick brown beard. “I expect she’s not taking it too well. You know how she is, all protective.”
“Never imagined Peter would join the army. He’s just not the type.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Their conversation dropped off into the low squawking of a saxophone. Whatever progress either of them had made in thawing out their bodies regressed immediately with the opening of the café door, which sent a burst of chill the couple’s way and nipped at their exposed skin.
“God, it’s freezing out there,” the woman complained, reaching for her zipper which was already done up to her chin.
Her husband grunted a reply and glanced up at her. “Hon, your finger’s bleeding.”
She reflexively glanced down at her hand to see that, right above her over-trimmed and plain nail, a red dot of her blood was beading in between the rough and raw crack on the tip of her middle finger. She cursed under her breath and reminded herself that she’d made a note to pick up some crazy glue.
“You should put something on that; maybe go see if they have a band-aid at the bar.”
The woman looked at her husband, at his scraggly and overgrown beard - she would not kiss him with that beard - and at his crossed brown eyes as he took a swig more of his coffee.
“Sure. Good idea.”
Attempting to scoot out of the booth was much harder than sliding in, she discovered; the plastic covering had adhered to her jeans and was making some very lewd noises, and the bulk of her coat was severely impeding the mobility in her upper body. She felt like an engorged penguin trying to get out of the water and back onto the ice. But with a heave and several groans she had unstuck herself and walked up to the bar to stand beside a hot-tempered woman with an empty mug in her hands.
Suddenly a burst of cold air slapped her face, and she retreated a little into her coat. The door had let in a little girl whose mouth was plastered into a giddy grin and a little boy with an impish expression on his face. They’re hands were gripped tightly together as she slid her feet across the entry mat and he stomped his to get the excess water off their shoes. With his free right hand, the boy reached over and pulled the girl in, walking her backward toward the bar. He wagged his eyebrows. She giggled.
This, the woman thought, could only be love.
“What can I get for you?” the man behind the counter asked, drawing her attention away from the two kids.
“Yeah, I was just wondering if you had a band-aid or something.”
“Um, I think we might have one in the back. One sec.” He wiped his hands on his red apron and walked over to the storage room.
The woman looked back to the kids, who were now fully engaged in some sort of tickle fight. She had to correct herself: this could only be true love.
Yet watching the kids play, she couldn’t help but feel the faintest hint of nostalgia. She turned her head behind her. There was her husband of 14 years. He was patting his stomach as his cheeks puffed out and he belched.
He must have sensed she was watching because just then he looked up at her and gave her a thumbs up with a questioning look. She replied with a thumbs up and half-smile and sighed, turning back to the bar where the barista now stood, holding out a little strip across the bar in his outstretched hand.
“Here you go, mam.”
The woman politely thanked him, walked over to her booth, and stuffed herself back in.
“Mind if we get going?” her husband asked. “I’m pretty beat and I wanna take a nap before I go over to Billy’s.”
“That’s fine,” she sighed, shifting. Getting out of the booth was not as easy as it used to be.