Joyland

New York |

Thirty-three Drops

by Jeff Parker

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

I took the elevator from triage to the main floor. I wasn’t supposed to have any liquids, much less a coffee and cigarette, but like that Miles guy in Risky Business, sometimes you just got to say, “What the fuck. Make your move…” This orderly in the elevator. He looked me up and down—my gown was blue, and I had slipped my bare feet into some loafers I found on the bench outside the change area—and then his gaze fixed on my left ear. There was nothing to see there. The golf-ball-size wad of gauze was tucked between my brain and the inside of my skull. “You got the look of life all around you,” the orderly said, talking to my ear. For no reason at all he said this. “I need a coffee,” I said. “Get you some fresh air on top of that. Worse you can do is hang around. This place’ll kill you. Two Brazilian girls run a café on the corner. Go out the exit and walk left one block. If you miss it, ask any dude you see.” Brazilian coffee and Brazilian girls. I was anticipating a Styrofoam cup served by a woman with a mustache, and that sounded good to me. I walked out the hospital doors. There was a long line of orange and green taxis standing at the curb. I was tempted to climb in one and ask to be taken to like Wapush or Sheboygan. I walked left one block and found myself staring at a plate glass window that read, The Last Drop Café. I cried when I saw it, but since I haven’t had tear ducts since 1993 it didn’t mean a thing. The Last Drop had a logo, a single dot suspended over a splash. I walked up to the counter and there they were. The Brazilian girls. Obviously sisters. I ordered a Brazilian dark roast and this one sister poured from a ready pot. They smiled with very clean lips and teeth, but there was something dirty in their eyes. She overfilled my cup. Coffee splooshed out. She got panicky, picked up the cup and wiped it with a pink sponge, dabbed the counter. The cup kept dripping. I counted the drips. Seven. Ten. She was patient. She smiled at me again with the clean lips and teeth, and I paid. I sat at a wooden table in front of a wall-sized mirror. I could see myself—I did not look well—and the whole room in the mirror. I studied the dot in The Last Drop Café logo. A photo of a kitten riding a tricycle hung above my head. I sipped the coffee. The coffee tasted like what you imagine shame would taste like if you could filter hot water through its grounds. Hip sounding music that I didn’t recognize played. I watched in the mirror as a man came inside and spoke in sign language with the other Brazilian sister, the one who hadn’t served me. She took his order and responded to him in sign language. Then he sat down at a table near me and took out an iPod from his pocket. His elbow hit the table and it wobbled and the coffee ran over the cup. It dripped off the edge of the table onto the floor. Twelve. Sixteen. He plugged the ear buds into his ears and rocked back and forth, and I could hear the slight buzz but couldn’t catch the tune. A few minutes later, a blind woman came in with one of those golf balls on the end of a white stick. It immediately reminded me of the golf ball of gauze in my head, which I had managed to forget, which had been my intention all along. She clanged the golf ball between the legs of the chairs as she went down the aisle. She ordered something from the Brazilian girls. This time it was the sister who’d taken my order. Even though I was resentful to this blind woman for screwing up my program, I felt sorry that she couldn’t see their clean lips and teeth when they smiled at her. My Brazilian sister carried her coffee to the table for her. The woman clanged her ball on a stick against the chairs some more. When she finally settled down she ran her hand across the table until it hit the coffee cup. A little of the coffee splooshed out. She held it to her mouth and slurped. Drips. Five. She reached down into her bag and removed a book. She opened it on the table, put it down in the spilled coffee and seemed to read it. I understood that you can’t read Braille by looking at it, but I craned my neck anyway to see if it was in Braille. It was not. It was regular words printed on a regular-sized page for people with regular sight. She held the book open for some time without moving her head. I tried to look at her eyes but I couldn’t see them. She turned the page. She slurped the coffee again, dripped on the pages of the open book—two—stared down at the pages for some time, and turned the page again. I looked at the deaf man, who closed his eyes and bobbed his head to whatever was buzzing in his headphones. I felt that I must leave this place, but I wasn’t done with my Brazilian coffee. I went outside and sat down at a cast iron table in a cast iron chair on the patio next to a bald man sitting there smoking. I bummed one. He checked out my hospital gown. “What are you in for?” he asked in a South African accent. “Having my tonsils out,” I lied. “That’s a good surgery, man. That’s an excellent surgery to have.” “Thank you,” I said. “Look, this may qualify as oversharing, but I don’t wear deodorant.” “You smell fine from here.” “I just had a shower, but it’s becoming a problem.” “As we get older, we start to mold,” I said. The guy looked to be about the same age as me, but he was one of those dudes with a way in the world that I would never have. “You’re telling me, man. When I was younger, even the funk pheromones brought the Betties running. The Betties, man.” “Maybe you should try it for a while. You might like it.” “Gives you Alzheimer’s.” The wind shifted then, and I caught his scent. Whoever was putting him onto deodorant was trying to do him a favor. “And underwear,” he said. “Be honest with me now, do you fucking wear underwear?” “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I wear underwear. I’m wearing underwear right now under this gown. And I think that’s okay.” “What is the point?” “I find,” I said, “that it helps keep me together.” “Is that what people are always on about underwear for? To keep themselves together? You are going to get ice cream after you have your tonsils out. That ice cream you’re going to get after that tonsil surgery is going to taste like the pussies of those Brazilian sisters in there. Rocky Road. Your chocolate in my peanut butter. Double your pleasure, double your fun. That is the difference between ice cream to a kid and ice cream to us moldy men. To a kid, ice cream tastes like Hide and Go Seek at dusk.” “Can I ask you something?” “You can ask me anything, man.” “That blind woman in there.” I pointed through the plate glass window. “That blind woman is reading a regular book with her eyes. And that guy there. He’s deaf. He ordered his coffee in sign language. And he’s listening to headphones.” My new South African friend looked. “You can’t spend your life worrying about this shit. Eyes on the prize. Anyway, what? Do you think I can talk or something? Mute all the way. Were you going to ask me something?” “What kind of surprises me about this place is that these beautiful Brazilian girls with their ice cream pussies would open a café around the corner from a hospital and call it The Last Drop. Me, I’m just having a minor tonsil surgery, but imagine if they were like cutting a hunk of something out of my brain and, like, I might die. Imagine if I didn’t have anyone—not even a talking mute like you—and they were going to cut a hunk of something out of my brain, and I came down here for what might be my last coffee ever in my life and saw that the place was called The Last Drop.” My new South African friend brought his eyebrows together. “Man I’ve been coming here for two years. I come here for no reason. I come here just to lay eyes on those Brazilian Betties. I never even thought of that. But now that you mention it, that is some cruel, cold-ass shit.” I watched him drink from his coffee cup. He didn’t slurp and nothing spilled. He put the cup down with authority in a situated and solid position. He kept his foot on one table leg to keep it steady. I felt comfortable with him and very proud that I had inspired even such a small revelation in a person like this.