This story is by Amber Cotton and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The barista wiped down the counter for the thousandth time, almost stripping the varnish from the wood. After the regulars bought their morning caramel cappuccino concoctions, he would go hours without seeing another soul until close. Bennie’s Beans lost business every summer, and the owner blamed the larger coffee chains down the road.
“They sell frozen and iced coffee, can you believe that?” he said last week before the temperature dropped. “Coffee is supposed to be hot, dammit!”
The barista opened the first pumpkin spice mix carton of the season and winced. The brown liquid mix sloshed in its container, and he held it as far from his body as possible. Last year he couldn’t wash the sickly-sweet stench out of his uniform until February. He was about to load it in a dispenser when the front door opened. The auburn and golden leaves littered the ground outside and scattered into the shop every time someone entered. They were still soft, but the barista didn’t enjoy sweeping them up any more than when they were brown and crunchy.
An older man and woman appeared in front of the register while the barista dwelled on leaf-hating thoughts. Someone cleared their throat and he snapped back to reality.
“Can I help you?” He prayed they didn’t force him to use the jug of Essence O’ Pumpkin.
The man considered the menu chalkboard behind the counter. Today’s special was a cafe latte with a splash of vanilla called Bennie’s Vanilla Bean Shot. The daily special hadn’t changed since someone invented the Macarena.
“I think I’ll just have the Earl Grey tea. Lemon if you have it.” The older man removed his cap, smoothed down the white tufts of hair, and turned toward the woman.
“Just a small coffee with two creams and sugar, please,” she said as she looked up at her husband.
The man paid with a few bills and change. The barista didn’t recognize the couple, though most people passed through town to visit the Great Lakes. The town didn’t have much to offer but a few gas stations with attached restaurants touting the best barbecue in the state. They were restaurants in that they served food, but whether or not it was edible or clean was a gamble.
“Have I seen you two before?” The barista poured the hot tea and reached for the coffee all at once.
“No, we’re from back East. My wife wanted to stop and enjoy the weather after being in the car all day. The cabin is supposed to be only an hour away, but she insisted,” the man said as he nudged the woman.
She looked at him a second before grabbing the ceramic cup from the counter top. “I refuse to celebrate the majority of our anniversary from the car. I’m not a sappy lady, and I don’t expect pomp and circumstance, but the radio plays the same five songs. Thank you dear.” She smiled at the barista, slid her arm underneath her husband’s, and steered him to a table.
They found one near the large windows farthest from the main entrance. The shop appeared older from the outside, but the inside was cozy with its dark wooden surfaces and red tablecloths. The decorated tableware was charming even if it was mismatched. The woman held a red cup and blue saucer while the man’s tea cup displayed a happy puppy completed by a gold saucer.
The barista watched the couple as they sat down. He headed toward the back room to restock the napkin holders or take a smoke break. He hadn’t decided which yet.
“You look beautiful in that light,” the man said as he pulled the chair back. He set his cup down without taking his eyes off her face.
“You’ve said that every year for the past 42 years.”
“That doesn’t make it any less true.” He smirked and took a sip of his tea. The smirk was replaced with disgust.
“Not that good?” The woman giggled and tasted her coffee. She regretted not asking for ten times the amount of cream of sugar.
The man looked in the direction of the counter top and entryway.
“It’s hard to fuck up tea, but they managed to do it. It tastes like they brewed it with the dirt and leaves outside.”
“Well, it will be over soon so buck up, pookie.” She called him pookie whenever he was being a grump or an idiot, which was more often than either of them liked.
“What are we doing this year?”
“I haven’t really decided yet.” He took another sip of the dirt tea.
“The romance is in the mystery, sweetie.”
“The last time we didn’t plan everything out, it was chaos!” she said in a harsh whisper. “You become more careless the older we get. It’s not only infuriating, it’s childish.” She folded her arms as her eyes wandered to the picture frames on the wall.
“It will be fine. Besides, we can afford to be childish. We’re obviously not young anymore, and no one will look at a couple of retirees that way, especially on their wedding anniversary. It’s our tradition.”
“I’d rather spend these last few years together than apart.” She looked out of the windows as the wind swirled leaves around the empty street square. A smile crept across her face. “There is nothing quite like it though.”
“There’s my girl.” The man returned her smile. “I thought we were going to start groaning about our grey hairs, wrinkled skin, and dentures.” His eyes darted toward the front of the shop. “Do you remember last year?”
“You know I do,” the woman said as she leaned closer.
“The look on that girl’s face before I slit her throat was priceless.”
“It was nothing compared to her boyfriend trying to call the police when he realized what was in my cheesecake.” She relaxed slightly, taking pleasure in the memory.
“It tastes bad enough on its own without all the arsenic.” The man winked. “How much did you put in there anyway?”
“About as much as I gave your sister and brother-in-law. Was that back in ‘85?”
“I think so, but it’s hard to remember the longer we go on with this. That was a huge mess, by the way.” He downed the rest of his tea, set the cup down, and grabbed his wife’s hands. “I told you in our vows that you would never have to worry ever again as long as we were married.”
“Well, you lied,” she said squeezing his hand. “I worry all the time, and more so when you don’t have a plan. As fun as last year was, it was too much to clean up. I was exhausted.”
“But you had fun. I know you did, and I’m right there with you, sweetie. They say improvisation keeps you young, right?”
“Actually,” she sighed, “I enjoy getting older and I’d like to make it long enough to see the end. I’d follow you anywhere.”
They stared at each other until they heard the cash register chime open. The barista was back to close shop for the afternoon when he remembered the couple sitting by the window.
“We’ll be fine this year, you’ll see,” the man said as he picked up his cup and cap.
“Whatever you say, pookie.”
The barista closed the register, picked up his backpack, and approached the couple as they gathered their belongings.
“You guys can just put those on the counter,” he said pointing at their cups and saucers. “Bennie won’t mind a few dirty dishes in the morning. I’ll lock up behind us unless you folks needed anything else.”
“Actually son, we were wondering if you had any plans tonight?” The man put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and pulled her to his side.
The woman’s eyes brightened and she projected her sweetest voice. “Do you happen to have a girlfriend? We do enjoy double dates this time of year.”