Coffee, Me, and Tea
The place was called Coffee, Me and Tea, the capital letters written in curving script mimicking steam coming off a hot cup. Ken Hutchinson shrugged. As long as the coffee didn’t cost more than the paltry five dollars he had in his pocket, he was content.
Actually, as long as it was hot and contained sufficient quantities of caffeine, he’d be happy. If it cost some exalted price like $4.95, he’d be walking out.
Going in, Hutch immediately liked the ambiance—not fancy or overly cutesy. There were rough wooden planks in the ceiling, and a variety of chairs, no two matching, clustered around what were probably second hand tables. A few people sat, sipping their coffees and teas, chatting or reading newspapers, but no one was loud or obtrusive. The music playing was vintage eighties, a Bon Jovi song ending and the Police taking up the next tune.
Exactly the place Hutch needed to settle his mind. He had choices to make, soon, before he went home. Nancy was due back from her work weekend, and they needed to talk. Difficult subjects needed to be discussed, and there would possibly be vicious comments thrown—by both of them.
“What’ll you have?” a voice called out.
Hutch jerked his head up, feeling the heat of a blush on his cheeks. He’d been too much in his brain, not paying any attention to his sole job—buying a cup of coffee.
A curly haired man with lively blue eyes and a bright smile stood at the counter. Behind him, an espresso machine and several pots sitting on a stove proved that there were warm drinks to be had.
“Uh,” he hedged, glancing up at the chalk board. Far too many exotic versions of coffees up there, some with South American names, some with African, and many hyphenated with au lait or latte. “What’s popular?” he asked in vain.
“Today, the Torino blend is selling like hot cakes,” the man said. “Dark brew, with shot of espresso to get you reved up and a streak of milk to smooth it out.”
Good God, no. “Don’t you have plain coffee? Roasted beans and hot water,” Hutch specified.
“Oh, you’re one of those,” the man said over his shoulder, turning to pour coffee from a pot into a white china mug.
Even from across the counter, Hutch could smell the rich aroma of the brew. “One of those?” he asked. Was he being insulted?
“Eats healthy. Desecrated liver, and butterfly bones.”
That was hitting it close to home. Hutch had tried to improve his diet lately. The article he’d read had very much focused on desiccated liver. “Des-icated,” he corrected.
The curly haired man shrugged with a teasing grin. “Want a Danish with this?” He slid the cup of coffee across the counter, waving a hand at the plate of pastries under a glass dome.
“Too much fat and refined sugar!” Hutch retorted, digging the fiver out of his pocket.
“Hey.” His grin turned mischievous, “I got a super power, I can read what my customers want with their brew.” He held out his hand, palm up. “Can I hold your hand?”
“I don’t even know your name.” Why was he talking to this man for so long? Weren’t there any other people clamoring for coffee? Hutch glanced over his shoulder: nope, not another customer without a cup in sight.
“Dave Starsky.” Starsky waggled his fingers.
Reluctantly, Hutch placed his hand in the warm palm. A tingle raced up his arm, his heart pounding. What the hell? He hadn’t had this kind of reaction since…he shied away from the implications, trying to stand there, in front of a coffee shop full of people, holding a stranger’s hand. At least his palm wasn’t sweating. Nancy always said she didn’t like holding hands because his were always damp.
Starsky tapped his forehead, gazing at Hutch. “Lemme see…plain toast. Wheat not white, with…” He tightened his grip slightly. “Boysenberry jam.”
“That—“ Hutch was almost reluctant to admit what an accurate guess he’d made. “Sounds great.”
“Terrific!” Starsky pulled out whole wheat bread and shoved two slices in the toaster.
“I’ve only got five dollars.” Hutch put his Lincoln on the counter. There was a small tip jar to one side of the cash register containing a couple quarters and one dollar. Starsky wasn’t making much here.
“Coffee’s a buck fifty,” Starsky said, rummaging around in a small cupboard. “The toast is on the house, my treat. My mom’s into making jam.” He brandished a canning jar containing dark purple jam. “Me, can’t stand the stuff, but everybody’s got a favorite.”
“My grandmother used to make it,” Hutch said, incredulous. He’d wandered into this place on a whim, depressed at where his life had taken him and worried about his future. Yet, now, he felt happy and content. “In Minnesota.”
“Ma sent me a whole box full from New York. The ladies at the synagogue’re all knitting and canning for the poor. Guess that includes me.“ He smirked with an mocking raise of one shoulder as the toast popped up. Starsky eyed Hutch for a moment before smearing jam on the toast without butter.
How did he know? Hutch smiled for what seemed like the first time in a long time. “Thank you, Dave. My name’s Ken.”
“You don’t look like a Ken,” Starsky commented, handing over the toast. “What’re your friends call you?”
“Ken. But I’ve always thought of myself as Hutch—short for Hutchinson.”
“That’s you.” Starsky nodded with satisfaction. “Nice to meet’cha, Hutch.”
There still weren’t any other customers waiting in line, so Hutch crunched into his toast without moving away from the counter. The coffee was just the way he liked it, smooth and black, a perfect counterpoint to the tart, sweet jam covered toast.
Starsky rang up the sale, handing over three dollars and five dimes. “Don’t spend it all in one place,” he joked with a wink.
“Can I buy you a…” Hutch looked down at the pastries all dripping with cinnamon and icing, Not what he’d ever want, but just as Starsky’s prediction had been accurate, he knew who ate the sweets here. “Danish?”
“Thanks but I get whatever doesn’t sell at the end of the day,” Starsky replied. “I eat ‘em when I’m driving a hack at night. Keeps me awake.”
“You’re working two jobs?” Hutch was concerned for what his future might hold and determined to conserve his finances for the next quarter, but he’d never had to work two jobs. Honestly, he hadn’t really had one job, unless working as a lifeguard every summer counted. His trust fund provided enough for the small apartment he and Nancy lived in, and her salary as a fashion consultant paid for groceries and utilities. That was going to change very soon, though. He had aspirations.
“Startin’ a new gig in one month,” Starsky said. “Not sure I can fit a job around the new hours.”
Just when he’d vowed to have coffee here every day, if it meant chatting with Dave. “Where’ll you be going?”
“Police academy.” Starsky puffed out his chest proudly. “Gonna be a cop.”
Hutch gaped, almost choking on the toast he’d bitten into. He swallowed hot coffee too quickly and ended up coughing.
Starsky obligingly whacked him on the back. “You okay?”
“I’m starting at the academy in September, too,” Hutch managed when he could speak, only sputtering a few crumbs onto the counter.
“Hey.” Starsky held out his hand again, taking Hutch’s empty cup. His fingers curved around Hutch’s for a moment—maybe too long, maybe just exactly the right amount of time. “I’ll save you a seat.”
“Unless I get there first and save one for you.” Hutch laughed. Damn, that felt good. His fears for the future vanished as long as he knew Starsky would be there with him.