The coffee was unspeakable.
Inside his cup slushed a caffeine slurry somewhere between weak cement and baby formula with a shot of gravy. He was alert now, and wished that he wasn’t. He wanted to gag even before he heard the deep drawl by the cash register.
Kyle Brandon was equally offended and resentful. It was 1973: who the hell was this guy to be using racial epithets? He was no prize of European descent; no Scotsman or Irishman would claim him. And what the fuck was it with these deep southern accents in Ohio? He was barely an hour’s drive from Cleveland, about as North as you can go without swimming across the Lake. The Underground Railroad used to run through here. Now it would be running as far away as it could go.
He heard asterisks, lots of them. The girl bearing their bruise couldn’t have been more than 15, just a kid on an errand. She didn’t need this. Nobody did.
The corpulent man spoke again. The girl suppressed a shudder as flicks of saliva ricocheted off her cheek. “Maybe you didn’t hear me. Back in my granddaddy’s day little (asterisks) like you knew their place. Now why don’t choo get down there and do what y’all are told.” The girl just stood frozen, not believing what was happening. She shivered, not knowing what to do, unsure of how far away the front door was.
Kyle Brandon had had enough of the coffee, the day, the long drive, and the goon.
He grabbed his ticket and approached the counter. He reached inside his jacket to pay. His wallet was made of steel. The man sucked in a gutful of air at the sight of a long barrel aimed squarely at his rotund face.
“We don’t have much m-money here, mistah.”
Brandon was amused at the sudden genteel formality. “This place is a shithole. Why would I expect you to have money? I’m not here to rob. I’m here to prevent a crime.”
“First, you’re going to apologize to the young lady.”
“A-p-pologize—to the lady?”
“Yeah. The one right here. In front of you.” He was aware of the girl still shivering, still in shock.
“M-miss, Ah’m…sorry if I, uh, oh-fended your, uh, delicate sense—”
“That’s enough. Jesus.” Could this guy be more of a cliché? Did Kyle drive home from Kentucky in the wrong direction?
“All right. If that’s the best you can do, we’re done here.”
“When you go,” said the fat man, suddenly finding an ounce of the “bravery” he’d shown the girl, “I-I’m gonna c-call the police,” he gasped.
“Yeah. Do that,” Brandon sighed. “Also, they’re going to need a mop.”
Then the Ohio Café turned red.
The portly man’s bulk dropped to the floor as sloppily as he had lived, the left wing of his overalls getting caught on the edge of a booth on the way down, jerking his head down. From Brandon’s angle it almost looked like he’d simply slipped and fallen against the counter, albeit repeatedly, a scenario that he had even less patience for entertaining after his seemingly eternal wait for the worst service he’d ever had. It took restraint not to shoot him again.
“I wouldn’t get the coffee,” he said to the young woman, head bowed down. He handed her a sketch he’d made on the back of his bill.
“God bless you, sir,” she said.
Brandon grunted on the way out. The rusty bell tingled. He found his car and gunned the engine.
He still badly needed a decent cup of coffee.