"The Guy Who Came in From the Cold"
There's a line of cars outside at the curb, even this early in the day; near the holidays, the parking meters are free. Inside Loser's Blend the day is picking up, with a few of the regulars straggling in for their first cup of the day, and perhaps a bite to eat.
The winter sun, just peaking above the low buildings across the street, casts long streaks of warmth through the dingy windows and onto the worn wooden floor, stained from countless decades of foot traffic, spilled food and sloshed coffee, a patina of archeological proportion. Next to the door, in a corner of the room segregated by a well-worn counter, is Dub, manning the coffee roaster.
Dub hails from nowhere, and everywhere; just ask him and he'll tell you. As he works his magic at the coffee roaster, there is a constant banter between him and some of the regulars, seated at the counter with their cups of coffee and plates of food and computers and notepads, as if he were some piano bar entertainer, working the cocktail crowd, holding court. This is Dub's element, his stage from which he works his art. Behind him, as he expounds on the recent Occupy Movement that had brought in lots of new business to the shop, hot roasted beans pop and sputter in a smokey haze. The shop espresso roast, legendary for miles around, is being cooked up.
The door creaks open and, along with a waft of frigid cold air, enters a portly figure attired in nondescript street clothes, a dark blue, stained backpack hanging from his shoulder. The regulars have this way of sizing up a person without appearing to be paying any attention at all to them, as if they sport some sort of periscopic vision, able to see around corners and behind their backs. A couple, seated at a table near the middle of the room, cloister in secretive conversation, whispering and pointing at the figure by the door.
Dub is multitasking now, in mid-conversation with a young fellow at the counter while simultaneously scooping out hot beans into a large plastic tub, when he abruptly pauses in mid-sentence, frozen in position, the hot beans beginning to burn his gloved hands. "Well, hell..." his voice trailing off, "...look who the dog drug in. I'll be damned if it isn't old Barney. Barney the Cigarette Guy. Man, how you been?"
Barney stands there by the door, silent but with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, scanning the room for familiar faces, then finally locks eyes with Dub. "Busy. Yea, been real busy. I've been fine, thanks. Say, you haven't seen that Bill fella anywhere around here, have you?" Barney teeters on his worn shoes, then leans against the window sill in an air of uncertainty and doubt.
"Man, you okay? Here, let's get you a cup of joe." Dub leaves the half-filled tub of beans to cool, carefully placing his gloves on the counter, and heads over to the serving line to pour a cup.
Hesitant at first, Barney finally sits himself down at an empty stool by the bar, backpack at his feet, head down, his elbows heavy upon the counter like the weight of his soul and all of its baggage have finally somewhere to rest.
Dub places the hot cup of coffee at the counter with a friendly "here you go" and resumes his roasting, stirring the still warm beans in the roaster with a large perforated metal paddle, beans smoldering with hisses and pops, eying Barney every so often with an air of fatherly concern concealed behind his long braided beard and rainbow-colored spectacles.
Barney, hands around cup like a moth to flame, sips his coffee silently in grateful solitude, slowly melting, slowly unfolding like a flower ripening from its bud. "Bill. Have you seen him?"
Dub pauses, staring into the dark, oily shine on the beans like gazing into the heart of a raven's eye, haunting and bewitching. "No, man, ain't seen him lately. Why, what's up?"
"Aw, nothing really. I've been away, is all. Far away." His voice, thin and reedy, trails off into some thousand yard stare of foreboding silence.
Dub stirs his beans, checking the temperature gauge on the roaster, then suddenly remembers. "Hey, man, there's a package up front, with your name on it. Here, I'll get it." He returns a moment later, placing a coffee-stained manilla envelop on the counter next to Barney's cup. "You need a refill? Yea, you're going to need a refill, I can tell. It's on the house, today."
Dub walks back to the serving line, Barney's cup in tow, while Barney sits staring at and fondling with the corners of the envelop like it were some ancient papyrus scroll, foreign and mysterious. Finally, he picks it up, flipping it over and over in his hands as if weighing some evidence, and finally builds up the strength to unwrap the string binding that secures the flap. The envelop is unmarked, aside from "Barney the Cigarette Guy," lettered in flowing fountain pen script on the front side, and a small, printed product code on the reverse side along the bottom edge.
"Here you are. Hot and black, right?" Dub places the cup down at Barney's elbow, eying the envelop and its contents, now spread on the counter before him, with curiosity. Before Barney is arrayed an unruly stack of silver gelatin, black-and-white prints, images that he instantly recognizes as those he had made off and on during the last few months, when the window had opened and he had made his escape.
Escape. A funny word, that. In retrospect, it seemed easy, giving up one's livelihood, abandoning one's dream to pursue another, exchanging the toil and drudgery of utter certainty for the thrill and excitement of the unknown, a vision-quest of sorts, on the road for months in search of something so intangible yet solid enough to be felt now in his well-worn fingers as silvery shades of emotion on feathery paper, like one's soul poured out in full upon a fine printer's paper, fixed and solidified for all to behold, tangibly real yet pure dream-stuff, as real as memories can ever get, wondering if the memories imbued within these subtle silvery hues could be implanted within whomever else would behold them, like little 5 by 7 time machines, each one, able to bring a person back to another time and another place.
"These are wonderful. Whose are they? I mean, did you take these?" Dub is now totally engrossed in the images, ignoring the tub of beans and the sideways glance from his mates behind the serving line, who simultaneously wipe the counter, wait on customers and wearily watch Dub and Barney over in the corner, wondering what it is that could be so important.
"No. I mean, yes. I mean, I took the pictures, mailed the rolls of film back to Bill as I took them, and he must have developed and printed them." Barney's voice trails off into a whisper as he picks up one particular print that brings back a peculiarly strong memory, not so much staring at the print as into it and through it.
"Where did you take all of these, if I may ask?" Dub has now walked around the counter and is seated next to Barney.
"Oh, various places. Streets, bus stations, towns, cities, that sort of thing. Here, take a look at this one." Barney hands Dub a print of a lone figure, half in and half out of the stark light near an alley's entrance, hunched down in a near-crippled walk, knapsack slung over hunched shoulders, head turned toward the lens, eyes like penetrating fire.
Dub just sits there, staring into the print as if there were present some depth of understanding out of proportion to the mere angstrom-thick emulsion's metallic tones, as if it were some portal to somewhere else entirely unseen. Hands slightly trembling, he finally sets the print down gingerly upon the pile of other prints equally as enticing and stares off into space, through the dingy windows, past the foot traffic and parked cars and low horizon of shops across the street, past the sky with winter clouds beyond, past the troposphere and stratosphere and ionosphere, past the sun's coronal delight, into the heart of the matter.
There is a lone, haunting singer's voice penetrating the quiet chatter of customers and clatter from the kitchen, and the sun is rising higher in the cold air above the shops across the street as a flock of black crows fly north against an arctic breeze, and streaks of early morning light now shorten and brighten along the patina-stained floor, as Dub and Barney sit at the counter and silently contemplate a pile of photographs, when a cold breeze suddenly interrupts the room's warmth as the door slowly opens and in walks Bill, camera in hand, just wanting a cup of hot coffee.
It's going to be a good day.