When I'm between stories, I tend to write a lot of flash-fiction. Really, I like this stage. It gives me the opportunity to write in different styles and follow characters only so far as I want to follow them. This time, I have something odd for you. I don't even really know what it means, only that it was inspired by a new worker at the Starbucks near us whom I describe (in the physical sense) honestly. I assigned him a unique personality, gave him a tattoo, changed my personality, and invented a conversation between the results. Also, every idea in my writing life begins with flash-fiction about coffee. Fly Away Home? Coffee. Anon, Sir, Anon? Coffee. I'm not promising anything or even predicting. I'm only saying. Enjoy.
The man behind the counter--who was he?
Revelation came like hail: unexpected and with the sound of thunder. Outside, a deluge thrashed the parking lot.
He looked like Ishmael. The Moby Dick protagonist. Or, if you preferred it, like Ishmael’s ginger counterpart.
When he handed her drink across the counter, she wanted desperately to say, “Have you ever been whaling?” but to her shy nature that sounded like some odd sort of come-on: something she wished fervently to avoid. Instead, she murmured a thank-you and took her coffee to a nearby table. She had only ten minutes and that she would spend studying the Ishmael who wore the name “Levi”.
It was not difficult to watch him, though the workspace was crowded with his fellow baristas. He was too tall and thin a figure to lose even in a mist. So tall and thin and straight that he reminded her precisely of a mast. Even his face had that wooden peg look, striking one across the face when aided by the baldness of his crown and the curly red beard fringing it beneath. But he was young. Paradoxically young and weathered as only a man who has grown up on an ocean swell can be.
She sipped her mocha and tasted seawater. No, the flavor was salted caramel and she only projected the briny association. Still, when the man named Levi approached her table and wiped it down with a clean white cloth, she held herself very small and very quiet in the largeness of that silent question: “Who are you?”
She might ask if she was very bold and cared less about the fact that she was the only customer in the shop. But she was not very bold--not in that way.
Levi slid his cloth across the polished table and swung to the opposite side with a sailor's sure-footed gait. Stubbornly, she kept her lashes cast down, focused on a book she was not reading and the unintelligible mark he had scrawled on the side of her paper cup.
He paused and she shifted her eyes. Not a lot, but enough that she caught the tight angles of his muscular arm and the peculiar color of his skin. It was not pale as one might expect from a ginger, but beard-colored. His beard-colored. Copper, yet not. Too faded to make a true auburn--and who had auburn skin? No, the sun had darkened his arms and bleached his beard till they were equal shades of a nameless, ruddy gold.
“Excuse me.” The voice belonging to Levi rumpled the smooth air between them and startled her gaze to standing position. There, she met his eyes and it was to the credit of her nerves that she did not flinch. For his eyes were matched to the rest of him: guarded, golden, sun-smirched.
“May I clean your table?” he asked.
“Yes.” She felt a disquieting sensation that if he was Ishmael, he had scented a whale. And who was the whale in this analogy? There was a rough familiarity in his look that unsettled her.
Slowly, she moved to let him pass his white cloth over the already-clean surface. His palm quietened between her hands and her book and he waited.
Finally, she felt compelled to speak. “Yes?” Still not looking.
“You love ships, don’t you?” And the odd thing was, his voice so near sounded like the sizzling foam of a wave as it licks back to sea.
How could he know she loved ships? How could he know so specifically it was ships and not the ocean itself that held a match to her gypsy-candle heart? For indeed, she respected the ocean with an awe approaching fear and could not quite love it. How did he know that, or anything at all?
Seeming to understand he had spooked her, Levi bent his orange-rind elbows and stood his wooden face to her angle and she could not avoid the meeting.
“How long since you tasted sea air?”
The flavors of mocha and pink salt warmed her tongue. Who was he, this man who conjured waves with his antiquated words?
“Too long,” she confessed. Then, “How?”
“Your eyes are an ocean.” This was no flirtation. “And you steer by a star.” He turned his arm outward a fraction and there, crossing the blue veins like lines of longitude and latitude on the charts she loved so well, was a peculiar tattoo in copper ink, shaped like a compass-star.
She dared not meet again those eyes that saw too much and told too little with their metallic probing. “Who are you?”
He swirled his cloth in the space between her hands. The tendons beneath the tattooed star shifted with the colors of an unquiet sea. “I am like you.”
A reply came, though her mind screamed that it was long-since time to leave this moment: “And what am I?”
“A brave, lone ship seeking a lone white whale. What your white whale might be, oh, I couldn’t guess, but you are consumed with the finding of it. As am I.”
“As everyone is,” she protested, not wanting to be linked in any way with this strange being.
“Ahhh, no.” Levi smacked the table too suddenly and unfurled his full, stiff height. She could not help that he pulled her gaze upright with him and pinned it on his face.
“Not all are as we,” he said, far too loudly for privacy’s sake. “Will you find your whale? I wonder.”
“Quiet, would you?” In her death-grip concern that he might vanish like a nightmare without explaining himself, she grabbed the star-drawn wrist. His skin under her fingers lavished heat like summer sand. “Who are you?”
“I am Levi.”
“But what do you mean?” she half-sobbed in an outraged whisper.
A smile on his face fit as strangely as a smile would on a ship’s wheel. Carven, unnatural, almost macabre. “I am what October means when it rears scarlet against the parchment year. I am what the road means when you’ve been home too long. I am what the sea means when it whispers, ‘come away.’”
Thoroughly frightened, she released him and saw the pale circles pressed by her fingertips into his skin.
“Furthermore,” he said, backing away and swinging his cloth with that meaningless smile, “I am what you mean when you stare at me so. I am,” he finished with that tone like the end of a wave, “boundless curiosity. The real question would be, what are you?” He winked one copper eye in his copper-mast face and returned to his duties behind the counter.
She stood without feeling anything and turned with her drink to face the rain-streaked door. It was past time to go. Raising the cup to her lips, she paused, seeing again what Levi had scrawled. On the side of the cup, suddenly legible, was a symbol, not letters. Not meant to be read, but noticed: the sailing-star and a trail of water behind.
Copper, like everything.