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Perks

By Thomas J. Misuraca

I’d only gone out to coffee three times so far that week, but there were five holes punched on my coffee card.  After the sixth punch I would receive a free drink.

Terry’s Cafe was the last independent coffee house in a city filled with corporate coffee chains, so I felt obliged to support it. Not a difficult task, since it was in walking distance from my home, had great coffee and comfortable chairs.  The employees knew me well and often had my small café latte ready by the time I reached the counter.  But they never punched my drink card more than once, nor would I expect them to. 

Their customer incentive plan fit perfectly into my schedule.  During the summer, I went there Monday through Saturday afternoons to work on my book.  On Sunday I was eligible for a free drink, so I went there in the morning to relax and read the paper. I ordered a large coffee, since I had the time to enjoy it.

I thought back to my last three visits.  I was certain Jeffery, the full-timer, waited on me one time that week, but a new girl was there the other days. Why was she punching my card twice?  Did they neglect to train her on punch card procedures?

I was a social studies teacher at a high school a few towns over, so I had a good sense of young people.  This girl was in her late teens, maybe on the edge of twenty.  Though she was friendly to the customers, I could tell by her reserved mannerisms that she was shy.  Were the extra punches a way to win my favor?  But why would she care what I thought of her?

The next morning I went into the cafe and saw the new girl behind the counter.  From the line I tried to see how many times she punched other people’s cards, but the counter blocked my view. I had one more punch before I was eligible for a free drink, so there was no way she could double punch this one.

When it was my turn, she exclaimed, “Hey honey, café latte, right?”

“Yes,” I concurred.

“For here?”

“Yes.”

As she rang up my drink, she asked me, “Are you working on a book or something?”

I handed her my drink card and my money. “I’m trying to pull some research together for a history book.”

That was how I spent my summer vacations.  Now that I could afford not to work at the local convenience store, I worked on my book.  I researched in the morning, then pulled together my notes while I had my afternoon coffee.

“Sounds exciting,” she told me.

“If you’re into that sort of thing,” I replied, knowing most girls her age could care less about history.

“I’m trying to take some college classes when I have extra money,” she told me.  “Right now I’m focusing on history because it was the only thing I wasn’t burned out on in high school.”

“I’m sure your history teacher would like to hear that.”

“Yeah.  She probably would.”

Sensing the people behind us were growing impatient, she handed back my card with my change and said, “Looks like your next drink is free.”

“Great,” I tried to sound enthused as I moved down the bar to retrieve my latte. 

***

I sat in the corner and worked on my book.  It was difficult not to stare at her when she came out from behind the counter to wipe the tables.  Though her body was covered with an apron, I could see the lines of her well-shaped, petite figure beneath.  Her eyes were ice blue and if it weren’t for her bright, white smile, they would be the prominent feature on her face.  Locks of blonde hair dangled from beneath her cap. 

She caught my gaze and smiled back at me.  She was not at all uncomfortable that a strange man was staring at her and practically drooling.

No young girl would want a forty-something like me.  My hair was receding and I was never quite sure what to do with the remainder.  My gut hung over my belt line a little more every year.  And since it was summer, I only wore jeans and old white t-shirts, showing off my hairy arms.

I’d never been married and stopped pursuing women shortly after college.  Even if this girl were looking for romance, she’d be greatly disappointed with the results.  In truth, I knew a few extra punches on a coffee card and polite conversation were more likely an attempt for better tips.

As it got busy, she was hidden behind a barricade of customers.  My thoughts were too jumbled to get any work done, so I went home early.

***

Jeffery was working the next day, and I had confidence that he would follow procedures properly.  I prepared my card and money, then remembered all the spots on my card had been punched, so this drink would be free.  I wondered if I should get a large coffee or my regular drink for free.

“Latte?” Jeffery asked me.

It was time to make a decision.

“No.  A large coffee,” I told him, then held up my card.  “And I have this.”

“Trying to throw me off there, huh?” Jeffery laughed as he took my card. I put a little extra in the tip jar than usual.

I went to my regular table and placed my books and notes before me.  The size of the drink felt awkward in my hand.  I was unworthy of such a large drink on a weekday.  It was criminal; I stole a third of that coffee.  I should have ordered a small.

Guilty thoughts overwhelmed me and I couldn’t concentrate on my notes before me.  For the second day in a row, I headed home without much accomplished.

***

When I walked into the café on Saturday and saw her behind the counter, my first instinct was to turn and walk out.  Before I could do anything, she spotted me and waved.  I was trapped.

I took my place in line, which was always longer on Saturdays.  I opened my wallet to get my money ready.  It felt strange not to have a card in there. I usually started my week with a new card, not ended it with one.

She had my latte ready when I reached the counter.  To my surprise, it was in a large cup.  I thought she had made a mistake, until she charged me for a small.

I should have said something right there, but there were too many people around me.  I didn’t want to cause a scene.

When she took my money, she asked, “Where’s your card?”

“I don’t have one.”

“We’ll have to fix that!”

She handed me a new card, but before she did, she graced it with two punches.  Two!  My stomach clenched.  Was she going to give me the keys to the store next?

“Now you get lots of work done,” she said to me in a mock motherly voice.

I was too stunned to say anything.  I nodded and carried my drink away.  It was a warm day, so I decided to sit outside.  I had to escape her.  There was no way I could get anything done if she was smiling and waving at me all day.

All the smokers sat outside.  I smoked for most of my twenties, and now the smell of it made me sick.  Between that and the bitter tasting latte, I could not get comfortable.

The new girl came out to clear the tables.  When she saw me she said, “It’s a perfect day to work outside.”

“Yes it is,” I replied, a tremble in my voice.

“Some people hate the summer,” she told me, “but I just love it.  I don’t think it could ever get too hot.”

Personally I preferred the snow and ice, but I did not want to engage her.

To my horror, she took the seat across from me.  “So, how’s your book coming?”

“It’s coming,” I told her, unable to make eye contact. 

She sat there for a few moments.  I do not know if she expected me to say something, but I was not ready for a conversation.

“Well, I should get back to work,” she said and returned inside the store.

It was a busy day, so she would need to come out and clean again.  Thinking about her sitting across from me made my stomach hurt so much, I couldn’t finish my drink. 

I threw the almost full cup in the trashcan, collected my books and notes and left the café.

I went to the Starbucks on the next block, a very busy and impersonal coffee house, which I frequent to this day.


Thomas J. Misuraca has had more than 60 short stories accepted for publication in literary magazines all over the world, including Byline, Thema, and Spoiled Ink.  He has also written and edited young adult books for Angel Gate Press.  Last summer, Midnight Times profiled him on their website.

Thomas's novel excerpt, Friends of Dracula, is available online, and you can visit his website.


Photo "Caffé 1" courtesy of Vinicio Capossela, Gissen, Germany.

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