She flipped through the pages in his eyes, ignoring the extraneous details, closing her mind’s eye to the flashy images she encountered, focusing intently on finding the one part of the landscape that didn’t fit with the rest. There had to be a blank page somewhere, something that prevented her from seeing who he really was. Something was missing.
Karen Sanders had been working at The Coffee Cove for two years now, and she had met many different people in that time. They all had some sort of idiosyncrasy that she could pick out by the time they left the place, and she made it her mission to find out what this quirk was each time someone caught her eye.
There had been a young man, for instance, who had come in several weeks before. Glancing to the right of the entrance, he had found the person with whom he was apparently supposed to meet and promptly walked over to the table and sat down with her. The man had gazed at her intently from the start, uncomfortably crossed and uncrossed his legs throughout the conversation, nervously run his fingers across the creases in his pants repeatedly and finally, when she had gotten up to use the restroom, he had looked down at the table, grimacing, while tapping his fingers quickly on the arms of his chair. He shook his head and clenched his fists more and more tightly with each passing second until she returned.
She was smiling as she approached the table and when she sat down, the look on the man’s face returned to the mask of contentment that had been there just minutes before. When she finally rose to leave again, he hugged her for a long while, perhaps a bit longer than friends tend to hug, and when she left the building, he watched her leave, dropping his head ever so slightly when she was finally out of sight.
Their visit lasted for twenty minutes, perhaps twenty-five, and by the time the two of them had finished, Karen could see that this man longed for more than mere friendship with this woman, while she, in her current state of boyfriend-induced bliss, had absolutely no idea. Karen didn’t need to hear a word or even try to eavesdrop on the conversation to come to this conclusion.
This instance had been one of the more obvious displays of emotion that she had encountered, but even though she had been on her lunch break and was being careful not to stare, she couldn’t help but be fascinated. That was just how she was. The people that surrounded her were always of great interest to her. She liked watching little kids run through schoolyards, smiling and laughing as they chased each other around trees, falling in the grass and getting up just as quickly as they went down. The homeless people that walked up and down the street throughout the day wore different expressions from one person to the next, and were of surprisingly disparate temperaments and sensibilities. Some appeared content with their lot, others depressed; some seemed to sleep the days away, others looked for drink and drugs to kill the pain of the day in preparation for the torture of the night.
There was always something definitive that she could draw from watching a person for a time, or from merely looking at the person for a few seconds. People in her mind tended to be that obvious, transparent; nothing to hide in some cases, unable to effectively hide things in others. There is always a way to see beneath the surface of things if you know where to look, a professor of hers had once said. That was usually the fun part for her, trying to find that habit, that look, that movement or gesture which would lead her into the nature of the person she was studying.
But the young man she was presently looking at was different from anyone else that had ever attracted her attention during her tenure at The Cove (the nickname that many people had given the place). He never did anything to warrant anyone’s looking over at him for any particular reason, the coffee servers not withstanding. Every morning, he would come in at about ten or so and, looking to his left, would go and sit at one of the metallic tables that ran along the wall on this side of the building. It was a widely-held belief among her co-workers (though she could neither prove nor disprove it herself) that he in fact had sat at the second table from the counter each and every time he had ever come to The Cove.
He was always clean-shaven and attractive in appearance with his thin, dark, wire-rimmed glasses on, and his thick, straight, dark hair cut short. His tendency during the Autumn and Winter months had been to wear a long, gray trench coat that covered most of his reasonably tall frame, so no one could really guess at what else he wore beneath it. Now, however, with Spring in full swing, and the seemingly year-round Washington coastal rain and cloud cover lifting somewhat, he seemed a bit more inclined to allow a few inches of skin to actually meet with some of the sun’s rays from time to time.
A long, beige satchel with dark brown straps was always draped over his shoulder as he came in, and when he would sit down (his back to the window), he would carefully remove the pack from around his neck and place it on the table in front of him. Unzipping one of the bag’s several compartments, he would carefully remove his laptop from the bag and set it on the table. After connecting to the outlet in the wall next to his table he would proceed to punch a couple of keys, move the scrolling button at the bottom of his computer, open up a program and then begin to type. It often seemed as though he had been thinking about what he would write before he actually began to do it, since there was rarely a lag of any sort between the time he opened the program and the time he began writing.
This is how he spent his time at The Cove. From the moment he sat down in that chair, he never asked anybody what time it was, never said a word when someone bumped into him on their way to the bathroom, never verbally asked any of the servers for something to eat or drink. None of the workers could say for sure if he had ever said a word to anyone in all the time he’d been coming here.
The only time he would ever come close to deviating from this pattern would be whenever one of the employees would finally go over to his table and ask if he would be ordering something. At this time, he would always pull out a twenty-dollar bill with a note attached to it and hand it to the man or woman who had come over to his table. According to the other workers, it always read, “Please use this to buy me as many cups of regular coffee as this will allow. Keep the change.” Always the same message, always written with the same black ink pen in the same neat handwriting. Without awaiting any sort of comment or response, he would always immediately resume his typing as though no interruption had ever occurred. When the server had brought him his coffee, he would always nod his head slightly in appreciation, giving no other acknowledgment to the server or to what he or she had just done for him.
Karen, in all her time at The Cove, had never waited on him, but found herself curious as to who he was. Even as she worked and was helping or “studying” other customers, she continually found herself looking back over at him. It was always the same thing. Seeing him come here day after day, doing the same things struck her as more than a little odd. Plus, by virtue of him engaging in this same routine every time she saw him, she didn’t have anything else to go on. He never talked with people or met anyone here, so she couldn’t draw additional information about him from such events, and he never seemed inclined to take a break from whatever it was that he was writing either, so she never had opportunities to see if anything else was of interest to him besides his computer. Why does he always have to be writing?
She turned to her right and saw Janet, one of the managers, pointing to her watch. Looking at her own, she saw that her lunch break was practically over. Gathering the remainder of her lunch and stuffing it back into her bag, she stood up and walked to the back room behind the front counter, where she placed her lunch bag in the refrigerator. After a few moments, she came back to the front of the shop and began to wait on customers again.
Business had been slow at The Cove thus far, but it was a Friday and it was still early yet. Fortunately for her, the real business always seemed to begin just as she was leaving for the night and everyone else was looking to start their weekend off on a fun note. But there was always something for her to do, even if business was poor. If she could clean up the areas surrounding the coffee machines a bit, she did; if there were some tables that looked like they could use some cleaning up, she did that too. Sometimes she would walk around the shop to see if things had been misplaced or if someone had taken one of their magazines and thrown it in the trash, or even dropped it on the ground, as many customers seemed to be in the habit of doing.
It was exciting for her to work in an environment where she could interact with many different sorts of people all day long. Working forty hours a week at a coffee shop wouldn’t make her wealthy, she knew, but it was work that she could take pride in doing. The pay was decent and she had been very money-conscious in her younger years, so she had her share of funds in reserve to pay all of her bills and still have plenty to use for fun. She always joked around with the customers and her co-workers when time allowed (and whenever one of the other managers wasn’t looking), and because of her attitude, the days at work generally went very smoothly and quickly.
Six-thirty soon came around and she got herself ready to go home for the night. It was the middle of May, so the sun would still be out for a couple more hours now. She liked knowing that while she worked most of the day, she could still drive home and be able to enjoy some late-day sunshine. Her stomach began to growl a bit now as she made her way to the front door, but she knew that she could wait a little while longer until she got home before eating anything.
As she headed for the door, she looked to her right and saw that the man was still there at his computer, seemingly unfazed by his surroundings, by what she guessed would be abject hunger by this point, and without any apparent regard for how long he had been sitting there in that uncushioned metallic chair. An amused, yet uncomprehending smile came across her face as she shook her head and turned back towards the door before making her way out into the evening.
* * *
An energetic tune danced its way out of her speakers as she drove home, her window all the way down and the late-day sun streaming into her car. Occasionally glancing over to the right as she drove, she caught glimpses of the Puget Sound at the various intersections that she passed, seeing the streets disappear downhill until there was nothing but water, hills and trees. She had lived in Tacoma nearly all of her life, her family having moved there from Bremerton when she was just two years old. Now, nearing twenty-four, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Perhaps her favorite street on this side of Tacoma, if not the entire city itself, was 30th Street. Beginning in the north end of town and extending eastward, clear down to the waterfront and Old Town, this road captured the beauty of the city more than any other. Whenever she had the time and the inclination, she would drive several blocks west of The Coffee Cove, turn right and head towards 30th Street. Turning right again, she would find herself on her favorite part of the street itself. There was a slight decline in the road and for a few blocks she saw beautiful, colorful, well-kept houses-many of which bore no resemblance to any of the others ones that stood nearby-with front yards and vibrant flower bushes growing around the fronts and sides of most of the houses, each of which stood a ways from the curbs themselves.
Many of the houses looked as though they had been built many decades before, not because they were run-down to any extent, but because of the style in which some of them were made. The majority of the houses stood tall and narrow, some with old-fashioned wooden shutters to cover the windows, accessible from their second-story windows, and a few brick houses boasted their own simplistic beauty with their mix of earthen bricks and mortar. There was even a house with four columns across the front, holding up the balcony above, as well as one with a chimney made entirely of rocks. From the top, the rocks were small and rounded and held together by mortar, and as the chimney continued downward, the rocks grew larger. Shortly before reaching the ground, the rock chimney gradually spread out like the base of a tree in a child’s drawing and seemed to spill out onto the ground instead of reaching it uniformly. Such were the defining characteristics of this street that made it so charming and memorable to her.
The yards on either side of the street would suddenly meet with a four-foot-wide sidewalk that separated another stretch of grass that sat just beyond it, which extended to the curb. This portion of the street was the most captivating to her because for several blocks it was lined with trees from beginning to end: trees that stood tall and graceful and whose branches were so long that they stretched across considerable portions of the street itself. In one small section towards the end of this stretch, the branches of several trees extended so far that they actually met with the trees directly across from them, creating a kind of canopy effect as she drove beneath them.
Watching the little bits of light breaking through the cracks above reminded her of a time when she had gone camping with her parents when she was four years old. She couldn’t remember where they had traveled to, but she remembered walking around in their campsite one day and suddenly looking up after having noticed spots of light scattered across the ground. She remembered standing there, gazing up at the intermittent streams of light that came through the high-reaching trees, and turning slowly in circles for a minute or two, searching for every last one of the rays that seemed to come from some distant land that lay above the treetops. The dust in the air floated in and out of the rays, thickening them, giving the rays an almost magic-like feel as though each bit of light was seeking to break through the world of darkness that lay beneath the trees. Every day, these rays would light up the area just enough to make it look like it was mid-morning, even though it was really early afternoon.
The mixture of the two put her at ease then: the trees standing tall and stretching their arms above her and her family as if to protect them, the rays of light coming through to brighten up their world below. She felt protected in this space and she felt safe with her family; she felt like she was home. It was the earliest memory that she had of anything.
Much as it did back then, this scene still had the same effect on her today. There was something soothing about driving beneath this miniature canopy. It didn’t matter what the circumstances were, she never hesitated to drive down this street every chance she got, even if it was out of the way (and it often was).
The Twin Creeks apartment complex sat in the north end of Tacoma, and was comprised of several hundred apartments, two tennis courts, a weight room and a pair of pools (one indoor, one outdoor) that seemingly always needed attending to. As she pulled into her parking spot, Karen climbed out of her car and walked down the concrete path in front of her until she came to a stairway and made her way up to her apartment on the second floor. After fiddling with the lock for a moment and giving the door a good shove, she pushed through the doorway and into her apartment.
Turning on the lights, she immediately opened up one of the sliding, wooden hanging doors on her right that opened into a small closet. On the floor lay a bookshelf that had once rested atop an old dresser of hers when she was a child. Taking her keys and purse, she placed them on top of it and peeked around the corner to the left at her answering machine. The small red light blinked twice at her as she walked around this tiny nook and into her kitchen.
She opened up the fridge, exchanged the remainder of her lunch for a bottle of water and looked around as she shut the door and took a sip. The small kitchen quickly gave way to the charcoal gray carpet that covered the rest of her apartment, and directly ahead of her lay a small, circular, wooden dinner table and two chairs, both of which faced out towards the balcony just beyond. Along the railing were four terra cotta pots with various plants spilling over the far edge, perhaps in an attempt to avoid her dirty, eighteen-speed bike that rested against the railing beneath them. The metallic black color had long since begun to fade through years of use, and her excursions into the muddy trails of Point Defiance, as well as to other areas affected by the Northwest’s mixture of dirt and rain, had left mud cakes so thick in some places that she dared not try to remove them. Bikes weren’t made to be kept clean anyway.
Crossing the living room, she passed through the doorway directly to the right of the front door and into her bedroom. Kicking off her shoes, she sat down at her desk and wriggled her toes some as she turned on her computer. She smiled as more sun shone into her room through the window above her desk as she began to check her email. One message appeared.
It was from Rachael Taylor (Rachael Kensington now, she had to remind herself), the best friend that she had made while in college, as well as her former roommate in this complex until she had gotten married five weeks before. She was now living in Shoreline, a suburb of Seattle about an hour north of Tacoma, and was getting acclimated to her surroundings rather well. She and Robert wanted to know when would be a good time to get together with her and Mark for dinner sometime. Karen shook her head and grinned as she responded. The two of them always had to ask what everyone else wanted to do instead of ever suggesting anything. She told them that Wednesday night would be all right with her and she suggested they eat at Hong’s Teriyaki Bowl.
Making her way into the front room, she walked over to the answering machine, pushed a button and began to listen to the first message.
“Hi, Karen. It’s me.” She moaned and walked back into the kitchen upon hearing her father’s voice. “I was thinking that you and I could go and have lunch and maybe walk around down by the waterfront sometime this weekend. Got to take advantage of all this sun while we can, you know. Anyhow, I don’t figure to be doing very much tonight if you want to give me a call. Otherwise I can just call again in the morning. Bye.”
The second one was from Mark. “Hey babe. I got a call from Matt at work today and he said that he and Monica are going to head over to The Firehouse tonight with a friend of theirs. He wants us to come along. I said that I was game and that you probably would be too, so I told him we’d be there around eight or so,” he said. She checked her watch. It was a few minutes after seven now. “Call me when you get this message and we can figure who gets to drive and who gets to drink, all right? Bye.”
You got to drink last time.
Picking up her phone, she took a seat on the couch against the far wall and dialed Mark’s number.
“Hey babe,” he said in his smooth voice. “So are you picking me up?”
“Well, you’re going to end up drinking more than me anyway, so I may as well be the one to get us home in one piece, right?”
“Well, you know me,” he chuckled guiltily. “You’re so smart to remember that I can hold more liquor than you.”
She leaned her head back against the wall and sighed away from the receiver as her eyes widened and rolled simultaneously. “I guess I have to play to my strengths, don’t I? All right, then. I’ll pick you up around 7:30.”
“Great. I’ll be ready.”
“All right. I’ll see you later.”
She hung the phone up and walked into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She stood five-foot-six inches tall, and had straight, shoulder-length blonde hair and large brown eyes. Her small, low-cut blue t-shirt fit comfortably over her slender body and medium bust, falling just short of her waist. Even beneath her dark blue jeans, one could see that her lower body was trim but muscular from being so active. Her hair was a tad frazzled from the day’s work, but she could fix that easily. As she ran a comb through her hair, her eyes began to get irritated by her contacts again, so she changed them after she finished with her hair. Blinking fiercely as she continued to look in the mirror, she went over the rest of her appearance. The shirt was still in good enough shape to make it through the evening with everyone, and she was always comfortable in pants (she rarely changed out of a pair once she started the day in them), so she decided to wear the clothes that she had on. She reapplied her red lipstick and sprayed some perfume on her neck before deciding she was ready. It was 7:15 when she walked out the door.
Arriving at his place ten minutes later, she walked up to the front of his house and rang the doorbell. She walked around on his porch while she waited, checking on the peeling green paint that appeared at various points on his house. Mark said that the people who had owned the house before him had failed to mention that the paint was in such poor condition when he bought it from them. Karen argued that he ought to have asked about it, even if he really did know nothing about paint and (clearly) couldn’t tell by looking at it how old the job was; she also pointed out that he ought to have inspected the area more thoroughly anyway, even if he was too embarrassed or too na