An Extra Shot From the Java Man
by Harris Gray
[To the reader: What you’re about to read actually took place, in JAVA MAN. It just wasn’t in the book.]
I met my first love in Davis, California. I was sixteen and working in my dad’s insurance agency, processing crop insurance applications while Dad visited beetle-bitten almond orchards and ratted out marijuana growers to the feds.
“Did you find any pot plants today, Jim?” At the dinner table, over steak and potatoes and mixed vegetables, i.e. peas and carrots, Mom and I were quick to inquire about the “sexy” side of Dad’s job; otherwise we were going to hear about production history, borer beetles, or another perfect example why the federal crop insurance program should be abolished.
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“Did you confiscate them?” When Dad talked marijuana, Mom pictured a few potted plants under a grow light in a ramshackle backyard shed. I saw acres of fog-shrouded, manicured row crops on gently rolling hills, a hidden, forbidden, stoners’ Napa Valley. Dad’s descriptions left a lot to the imagination.
“This one belonged to Dougie Fosseton. The coffeeshop owner. Says he had hail damage to his kiwi shrubs. Looked more like fungus. Brian,” Dad had two inflections for my name, “dire warning” and “world of promise”. This was the latter. “Fosseton is a perfect example of a buyer for the type of insurance product I’ve been talking about.”
Dad pushed straggler peas and carrots onto his mashed-out baked potato, and mashed them in. “He makes a bundle selling overpriced coffee to yuppies and idiots. But he’s a one-man operation. He has any number of risks threatening his livelihood, but he doesn’t like to think about it. He would pay a price to have an insurance policy covering everything. House, car, hobby farm, business. No matter how he loses money, this policy would pay.”
“Yeah. Wow. That would be great.”
Dad tapped his head. “I don’t know how to do it, I just know it’s possible. You have the smarts to figure it out, Brian.”
Mom started to tick off perils. “Fire, flood, recession, earthquake, flu epidemic…”
Dad was nodding. Mom was great at imagining things that could go wrong.
“…solar flares, asteroids, terrorism, lupus—”
Dad waved his hand. “Not healthcare. We wouldn’t touch that. But everything else.” He looked at me, envisioned me in the future, in his insurance office working alongside him, a Plexiglas bubble around my ever-expanding brain, long ago having busted free from its confining skull. “Design a product like that, and we kick the feds out of the insurance business. And you get rich.”
I was squirming. Mom to the rescue. “Did you report Dougie Fosseton to the DEA?”
Dad gnawed at the fat nestled in the corner nook of his T-bone. “He said it was for medical purposes.”
“Isn’t that what they all say?”
“He runs a coffeeshop. He has a job he can do just fine, stoned.”
“Well that’s good to know, anyway,” said Mom. “I will stay away from his brownies.”
That was the first time I had heard Dougie Fosseton’s name. In the months to follow I would learn Dougie was a legend in the industry, and his Davis Drip coffeeshop a Mecca. My love story and my patronage at the Drip had just begun, as a Saturday morning smokescreen, a quest for an aroma strong enough to cover up the Friday night stale beer stench before heading into work at Dad’s agency. The shop was tiny, the small roaster in the back permeating the room and filling the street with that burnt tang. I would sit there drinking coffee until my pores were clogged with it. I imagined the java on my breath and clothing to be a cloaking device, but I’m sure now that my dad simply assumed I was chewing coffee grounds on the way in, to sober up.
Wasn’t long before I started hitting the shop weekdays after school. I always brought homework, but more and more I would sit there, my back to the open-air front, and study the workers. They were surly and uncommunicative to the customers, talking low amongst themselves at any opportunity. Patrons were a necessary evil to be suffered for the opportunity to debate revolution and grow more hair with like-minded beatniks. Even as I loathed them I was attracted to these hairy sullen baristas.
And I was amazed how, despite the best efforts of the Drip’s employees to alienate anyone not wearing dreadlocks and hemp clothing, the customers kept coming back. They were willing to absorb this abuse, or neglect at best, for the coffee.
Some stayed, like me, to get high on the fumes of espresso and ink from the stacks of alternative press magazines piled like fortification for the low wall along the open front. Most—these were better dressed, who ordered not drip coffee but high-priced espresso drinks—they took it to go, a few to browse the year-round farmers’ market across the street, the majority to hustle back to their cars before the meter readers nabbed them, and to their offices, before their drinks cooled down.
I drew conclusions in a very short time:
A. I couldn’t work there, because
1. I hated those employees, and
2. I didn’t like their sadistic drink preparation. I watched customers pour a pint of half-and-half in their coffee to mellow it out. I watched good kids, better kids than I, get hopped up after a couple slurps of their cappuccinos and wander into the street to be struck and bruised by some greenie on a bicycle. I watched those baristas sneer and mock their hapless victims.
B. Coffee is a caffeine delivery vehicle. And a large and growing number of people were aware that pricey gourmet coffee was in fact an economical productivity booster. Those people by and large took their drinks to go—those lattés and cappuccinos represented three hours of quality effort back at their desks. So a coffeeshop should make it easy for them to get in, get out, and get to work with a hot drink.
C. Like alcohol, caffeine makes some people smarter, more attractive, and better able to spot others who recognize these qualities. These folks do want to hang out at the shop for a while. A coffeeshop should make them feel welcome, should make sure there are no communist manifesto-writing, Ceylon tea-sipping hippies sitting in their favorite seats.
And then there’s D.
D. Caffeine makes some girls horny. At least for a little while.
A couple afternoons a week my visit to the Drip would overlap with the homework session of the most beautiful girl I had ever, have ever, seen in person. She had long golden-brown hair—if all the luxurious body, all the bouncin’-and-behavin’ had been stretched out of that glorious mane, the silken scented ends would have reached her butt. Her butt, her full firm butt, equaled only by her full firm breasts. Those were the days of silky running shorts and t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up, modest by today’s standards, revealing nothing more than her lightly-muscled limbs, but showcasing everything else with devastating effectiveness.
Back to the hair. It seemed to be in a constant falling motion, an endless cascade of heavy, heavenly velour. Yet compared as hair inevitably must be to the face, it became irrelevant. Her face leaped out from the hair, dominated that hair, to the point where you could only see blue eyes sparkling and white teeth shining, and vaguely recall how you had admired the frame before falling in love with the painting.
Her cheekbones were wide and her cheeks full, her chin just prominent enough to avoid the roundness that would have left her face stuck at Wholesome. She had a few pimples on that chin. This was no issue. In fact, I had a Maybelline zit-popping tool Mom had bought for me, always in my pocket, I would do the honors for her. She had dry skin on her knuckles. I wanted to rub Jergens on them and strap a five-gallon Culligan cooler to my back so I could hydrate her every few minutes, sixteen hours a day for the rest of our lives. The injustice of these imperfections made my heart ache for her, and gave me hope that I might actually have something she needed, some instrument or skill or herbal remedy to ease her suffering.
Marnie, Marnie was her name. My Marn, I called her, and she didn’t seem to mind. My Marn was two years older than me, a freshman business major at Cal-Davis. Fortunately I’ve never been the tongue-tied type. After figuring out her schedule (weekdays, two-forty-five to four-fifteen, Saturdays from nine to nine-thirty), her passion (entrepreneurial case studies), and her drink (decaf Earl Grey, with a touch of honey), I began to regularly tease her.
“I don’t know how you think you’re ever going to be the Davis Drip spokesmodel if you don’t like coffee, or poetry.” I had already ragged on her posture the previous day, for being too straight, and her table choice, right in the middle of the floor, a distraction for everyone. “You have a pretty face,” I told her, “but that’s just not enough.”
“No one’s ever shot me straight like that before,” Marn said with a crystal clear voice, not a crackle or a twang, the sound of fairy laughter in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows under a brilliant blue sky.
“Well it’s time for you to hear the brutal truth,” I told her. “You’ve got to put down that practical business theory trash and pick up some Ginsburg. And for God’s sake, buy a cup of coffee already.”
“Your advice is sound,” Marn replied, a smile spreading her wonderful lips all the way back to her glistening molars. “But I’m going to have to pass on both counts.”
“And you’re not slouching again,” I criticized.
It wasn’t until the following week, when I told her how the introduction of coffee on the Amsterdam commodities exchange inspired the creation of the modern-day stock market and drove the explosion of wealth and capitalism, that she took a drink of my coffee. She made a funny little face, and asked for more.
“Your first one’s on me.” I stood at the counter and waited until the hairball sitting on the stack of burlap bean bags could no longer pretend not to see me, and ordered my Marn a shot of espresso.
After two sips her chest started to heave; reluctantly I cut her off. I had to physically take the cup away from her, had to bend her thumb back until she whimpered and let go. I still remember her face, framed by that Vidal Sassoon hair and two white Rastafarians politely arguing California politics in the background—desperate for more, pleading with me, imploring me with her eyes and her pouty lips.
“This is for your own good.” And mine. I was sixteen and ready to explode. I crossed to the potted palm, poured out her drink, told the barista to cut her off, and walked out, only then hyperventilating from all that chest heaving.
My Marn called me that night. I never knew how she found out my last name or got my phone number.
“I’m in the mood for a walk. Will you join me?”
I hate walks, but that didn’t factor into my decision.
We walked around the Cal-Davis campus, my Marn talking a mile a minute about her plans to conquer the white collar productivity consulting world, me listening. She would stop every hundred yards or so when she was so overwhelmed by an idea, by her potential, by the intrinsic beauty of the business world, and we would be toe to toe, her breath in my face and her hands periodically rubbing my chest or squeezing my arm to convey her excitement. Finally she halted us under a London-style streetlight in a redwood grove beside Lake Spafford, out of sight of the nearest dormitory building, and in mid-declaration mashed her body against mine and kissed me passionately.
“If we could design an insurance trigger to respond to excessive efficiency ratios…”
I’ll never forget that phrase, nor understand it, for as long as I live. Was that Fate whispering in my ear? Or my dad?
I promised to do some spitballing a little later. After we had kissed and writhed against each other for a few minutes, me trying to friction her shorts off, my Marn finally confessed, to waiting for shift change at the Davis Drip and then ordering a four-shot latté.
“Oh God, Brian,” my Marn gushed. “I’ve never felt so alive, mentally and physically.”
“Isn’t caffeine wonderful?” I gasped, trying to accidentally rub open her bra clasp.
We walked again the next night, and the night after that, and then again two nights later, each tour of the campus a little shorter before we reached that secluded grove. Compared to the tree-lined boulevards of the town proper, I had always considered the campus to be bleak and denuded, the students exposed to the elements—which were mild, don’t get me wrong. But ever since those walks with my Marn, my gold standard of oases has been that campus, and that grove. When we finally crossed the threshold into that humid redwood den of lust, my head would begin to swim, the delirious delightful fog not lifting until I came in my pants.
Every time. I was sixteen, cut me some slack. I strolled into that grove cool and collected, but after a few minutes of grinding I looked like a Price is Right contestant working frantically to rearrange the prices before the buzzer went off. But my Marn was not going to be rushed. She had a long-term plan for our courtship, a rigid timeframe of incremental steps that were so small as to only be noticeable in an accelerated time-lapse retrospective. Each night my Marn would say goodnight and we would go our separate ways, she to her dorm room and me to the Jack In The Box bathroom to towel off.
I never made it to the showcase showdown, if you get my meaning. The frequency was reduced—a mere two walks over the next week. Worse, and I had hoped I was only being paranoid, but it seemed to be taking longer and longer to reach the grove. My Marn didn’t seem to be stalling. She was absentminded about what I thought was our mutual goal; she was lethargic. I thought someone might be drugging her.
Turned out someone was. My Marn was at the Davis Drip when I arrived—I couldn’t get there early enough to beat her—and usually still there when I left. Her business cases no longer gave her pleasure; she wore a frown as she read, and when I would interrupt to make an insightful, witty observation, irritability replaced the sparkle in her eyes.
My Marn had desperately wanted to believe what we all want to believe—if a little caffeine is good for the mind, then a shitload will turn me into a fucking genius.
Instead, her zest was disappearing, along with her sex drive. Meanwhile my needle was redlining. I had to act fast to inject the passion that had gone missing. Which made for a bad time to get chicken pox. Any time after puberty is a bad time, I learned. By day three I was pooping blood and vomiting what looked like chicken soup out my eyeballs. Mom was sure I had the Ebola virus. I lived, so it probably wasn’t, but I had lost eighteen pounds and two precious weeks.
In a last desperate act to save our relationship, I convinced Dad to let me hand-deliver Dougie Fosseton’s claim check.
Dougie’s Spanish-style house sat on the outskirts of town, pale yellow and shuttered, literally and figuratively, as I found Dougie living behind the house in a mud hut in the middle of his supposedly hailed-out kiwi shrubs growing up and across a network of wires. Knocking on a mud-and-palm-frond door seemed inappropriate, so I shook it a couple times and entered.
I had an Apocalypse Now moment, spotting Dougie’s vague form in the rear of the unlit hut, the smoke from whatever he was enjoying caught in the slant of sunlight through an irregular Gilligan’s Island window. So I jumped a little when he proved to be exceptionally mobile, coming right at me.
“Jim Lawson’s boy.”
“That’s pretty good. Everyone tells me I have my mom’s features.”
“It’s your height, dummy,” exclaimed Dougie. “You’re short, like your dad. You got my money?”
I wanted to scratch a zero off his check, and then rip it up in his face, and turn a fire hose on his hut of mud. But even more than that, I wanted a job. “I love your coffee shop.”
Dougie spat on the floor. Almost made me want dirt floors. “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?”
“You don’t like your own shop?”
“Listen to me.” Dougie stepped in so close I could smell the reek of overripe kiwi and study the coffee bean tattoo like a tear below his wandering left eye. “I singlehandedly strangled three pirates in the Celebes Sea to keep them from plundering my cargo of primo coffee beans. I broke through rebel lines to deliver coffee and a cold press to missionaries in Zimbabwe. I invented the fair trade concept to win the love of the daughter of a Guatemalan plantation worker. That’s what it’s about.” He may or may not have been sniffing me as he talked. “I created that shop as a portal, to give people a glimpse of coffee. Now look at it. I was crazy.”
Other than his use of past tense, I couldn’t have agreed more. “What’s fair trade?”
“Never you mind.”
“Well that Guatemalan chick must have been something else.”
“Fucking pirates got her.”
That little bean tattoo glowed in the gloomy hut, as if absorbing the angst from all the tears Dougie could never cry.
“I’d like to work for you.”
Dougie eyeballed me viciously. “You meant to say, you want a job in my shop.”
My reply surprised me. Not an uncommon occurrence for me. “I have some ideas. To make you love your shop again.”
“Impossible.” Dougie returned to his rattan chair beside the window. “But go ahead and start whenever you’d like. If I don’t see changes by this time two weeks from now, you’re fired.”
“Thanks Mr. Fosseton. Oh, I almost forgot.” I gave him the claim check. “For your ruined kiwis.”
Dougie stared at the check like it was missing a zero as I hustled out, on my way to the Drip to begin monitoring and controlling my Marn’s caffeine intake.
It didn’t work. When I would refuse her a coffee refill on her triple cappuccino, my Marn turned snippy, and downright abusive when I would secretly give her decaf. Besides all her other superhuman qualities, her taste buds were drop-dead on.
She started stepping out on me. I spotted her leaving the Shell gas station with a 20-ounce cup of cheap swill in her hand. It broke my heart. I was sure I would never get her back.
Meanwhile I had fired two employees. I don’t know how these twenty-somethings felt, being canned by a sixteen year old, who wasn’t their manager. Maybe they called Dougie and he backed me up. All that mattered was they stopped showing up, and those who had been spared started doing what I told them.
Which included opening the shop at five-thirty instead of seven-ish. And showering, with soap. And working in shifts, rather than whenever their friends were working, with heavier staffing in the morning, instead of the times their chakras glowed brightest.
Simple stuff, things I ask of my staff to this day. At its most basic, it’s all about making sure the customer knows we’re thinking of him, and that we’re glad to have her there.
Exactly two weeks into my employment, on Dougie’s judgment day, the truth hit me. I was doing just the opposite with Marnie. I was treating caffeine like over-the-counter Spanish fly, and throwing a hissy when it stopped working. I wasn’t treating her like my favorite customer. Romantic relationships and running a business, there is no difference. I couldn’t dial Marnie’s number quickly enough.
“From the coffeeshop.”
“Yes I know.”
“Brian from the Davis Drip.”
“Oh that Brian.” She still loved my shtick. “What do you want, Davis Drip Brian, who always thinks he knows best?”
“About that. Marn, my Marn. I just want you to know I’ve been thinking of you. And that I want you here, in the coffeeshop. I want you in my life.”
I heard Marnie wet her lips. Because central California was going through a dry spell, and me and the Culligan man weren’t there to keep her hydrated. “I’m no longer your Marn. You know that. You know you lost the right to call me that.”
I cleared my throat. Despite the fact our choir teacher told us a small cough is easier on the vocal chords. “What I called to say is, I love you. And I’ll never deny you a shot of real, honest-to-goodness espresso again.”
“Dougie Fosseton didn’t kill three pirates, break through the Zimbabwean rebel front lines, and invent fair trade coffee in order for me to serve you decaf. I’ll never do that to you, or anyone, ever again.”
“Who’s Dougie Fosseton?”
“Never mind that.”
“Fine. When can I see you?”
“I have basketball practice til seven. I promised Mom I’d help her with my science project afterward. Let’s meet at the Drip at eight-thirty.”
Practice got out twenty minutes early—it all came down to me hitting two free throws after running two minutes of ladders—I was terrible at the line, coach clearly never thought I’d pull it off, but he was a man of his word—and Mom did a bang-up job on the marshland-vs.-water treatment plant filtration system, I only had to sculpt a tiny clay beaver, which looked like a brown snowman with a flat tail. So I was at the Drip by eight-ten. I got a hard-on when I saw my Marn’s bike in the sidewalk rack.
We closed at eight. I imagined Marnie pacing the park across the street, early, eager. I let myself into the dark shop and fired up the espresso machine, flipping switches and twisting knobs, playing that honey like a church organ, pumping out heavenly shots of the dark nectar that my Marn craved. Nay, deserved.
There came a sound from the office.
I’ll tell you this. Before I opened that door, with absolutely no reason to suspect anything amiss, I had already come to grips with what I was about to see.
And this was no small resolution. Letting Marnie go also meant I was breaking up with Dad. No, it’s not like I was picturing Marnie’s hair and body, with my dad’s face. But sort of. Marnie and Dad represented the same future; a future I was probably capable of, and even thought I wanted. Now in one lightning moment, with one muffled sound from the office behind me, all my decisions had been accelerated. Right there, right then, at age sixteen, I had to decide my future. I knew that if I lost my Marn, it meant that I was never going to partner with my dad.
And with my hand on that door knob, I was okay with it.
The past two weeks at the Davis Drip were the best of my young life. I had found my calling, and it was coffee. Who knows if what I was feeling was like Dougie described, all swashbuckling and romance. But I wanted to know coffee from beginning to end, from the planting to the roasting to the brewing, crop to cup. I realized I was going to spend the rest of my life in this business. How fitting to have this moment occur in a coffeeshop.
Still, it was difficult to see my Marn bent over the desk and crumpling next week’s work schedule, the one I had just filled out, in her passionate throes, with Dougie working her over from behind. I probably could have turned around and walked out, with neither of them the wiser, if I hadn’t moaned in horror.
“Holy crud,” Dougie exclaimed. “You little workaholic.”
Marnie straightened up, pulled up her running shorts. “Oh Brian, I’m so sorry.”
I shook my head. “How could you?”
Marnie gave me a sympathetic look. “The man kills pirates. And he can get beer.”
Dougie realized what was going on. “Whoops. Looks like that’s my cue to head on home.”
“That’s fine, I’m leaving,” I said, retreating. I had almost closed the door when I popped my head back in. “What do you think about your shop?”
Dougie already had his hand back down Marnie’s shorts. “Bang-up job, young Lawson. This was my biggest revenue week in five years. I’m gonna keep you around.”
He nodded at Marnie’s crowded shorts. “You’re okay with this?”
“Yeah. Honestly, yeah, I am.”
And I meant it. That’s how it is, when you’re in love.
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