Excerpt from “Days of the Never Was” from Juice and Other Stories, on sale now. In “Days,” three pairs of friends drive into a strange fog bank, and re-emerge, with their lives forever changed.
Diana Harper sat in the sparsely populated food court in Columbia Mall, waiting for her perpetually late colleague, Drew. Though they had been work friends for years, this was their first weekend meeting. It wasn’t a date, she reminded herself. She and Drew could not have been less alike. He was a right-brained, smooth talking, gregarious salesman from inner-city Baltimore. She was an ordered, introverted, though friendly financial planner born of an upper-middle-class, suburban upbringing. Though they met for lunch often, and coffee most mornings, she found her anxiety rising as the clock ticked five, then ten, and finally fourteen minutes late.
It didn’t worry her that he was late; she had anticipated that. She’d long worked out Drew’s timing – five minutes late to meetings, ten for telephone conferences, and a call exactly ten minutes late for lunch, saying he would need ten more minutes. No, Diana spent the entire twenty five minutes – including her normal ten minutes early arrival buffer – wondering if he would view her impulsive invitation as more than just a friendly gesture.
“Three, two, one,” she said, looking at her watch.
She giggled when in he strode, looking unhurried, exactly fifteen minutes late. A quarter hour was the Drew correct protocol when meeting for coffee. He did not consider this to be a date. He mouthed an apology, but she waved it off, and the barista brought over her coffee, which she had asked to be brewed precisely at precisely 9:15 a.m. Diana did not like her coffee cold.
After getting his own cup, he sat, frowning, sinking into the molded plastic heavily enough to rattle their table. He was not a big man; though just over six feet, he boasted a lithe, athletic frame that would have been more at home on a soccer field than at a sales meeting. Their athleticism and grace of movement were the sole physical features they had in common. His sitting so heavily in the seat, therefore, meant only one thing: somebody done the brotha wrong – again. Diana smoothed her brown locks and awaited the inevitable firestorm. It was quick in coming.
“Sorry I’m late, Dee” he said, his brown forehead rippled into waves of annoyance. Drew was the only person who truncated her name to its first syllable. She liked it.
“You’re not late,” she responded, smiling through her steaming latte.
Drew pressed the button on his phone, checked the time, and shrugged.
“You going to tell me who’s ‘keeping the Black Man Down’ this time?” Her smile grew brighter.
“Those fools at the coffee counter.” He glanced at her coffee and the complimentary baklava she’d been given with it. “I saw they brought you yours right to the table. I tried to get them to top mine off with one-third decaf, and they act like they don’t know the damned recipe for decaf.”
“Well, what exactly did you ask for?”
“What I just said. I wanted two-thirds regular low-fat latte and one-third decaf, no latte.”
“Those are two different prices, Drew. The kid probably didn’t know how to charge you.”
“It’s called math – two-thirds x plus one-third y. I know they teach algebra out here in the rich suburbs. They could have figured it out if they wanted to. But they were too busy trying to get me away from the counter. Probably figured I was scaring away business.”
Diana looked around. “There are like, five people in the whole mall. Who would you be scaring away?”
“Aw, don’t give me that. All they see is a black man. I had to buy two damned coffees and get an extra cup so I could mix it myself. Burned my hand too.” He interrupted his rant to blow on the base of his thumb. “It hurts.”
“I really don’t think they are trying to oppress the black race by forcing you to pay extra for coffee.”
“You don’t believe that because you’re white. No offense.”
“I don’t actually find being called white offensive.” She smiled.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” He looked away, drinking his private brew, taking in the two-story expanse of the food court. Finally, some five sips later, he looked back to Diana. “You look really nice.”
She began to laugh. “Well, hello to you too, Malcolm X.”
A frown flashed across his face, but quickly turned into a broad smile. “Forget you, Dee. See, you just don’t know how good you got it. He helped himself to a bit of her baklava. You come in, looking all rich and pretty …”
“Why thank you. Twice.”
“Ignoring you. Anyway, all you have to do is show up in the mall, and they bring your shit to the table. I come in, wearing hundred dollar jeans, and I can’t even get a decaf blend.”
“One, you made that sixteen year old girl have to do calculus to figure out your coffee, and two, I got tableside service because I tipped them. Did you tip them?”
“You’re missing the point.”
She laughed. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s you this time.” Diana stood. “Grab your coffee. You can walk me around the mall. Since I’m looking rich and pretty, I might as well show off.”
Drew gave her a crooked smile, his real one – not the practiced full-thirty-two-teeth grin he saved for customers – and joined her. “Why did you want to meet for coffee anyway?” he asked, as they rode the escalator to the second level.
I’ll give you three guesses. – Bill