Five sales. In one day.
Pretty stellar if you work in a car dealership.
Not so hot if you hawk boxes out of your car at ten bucks a shot.
Still, all things are relative.
Beckman stood, gawping apparently mindlessly, with the words on the menu board nothing more than hieroglyphs before his eyes.
His mind hopped between his less-than-stellar work performance, and the recent sight of a charred hulk of a building which should have been his latest Coffee Planet stop-off, but not even he liked beans roasted quite that dark.
So here he was, in a random café a block away, seeking alternate beverage arrangements.
Five is not great. But it’s better than zero, which is what you had two hours ago.
So—what to drink? What to drink, now that the de-facto rest stop is mostly ash in the atmosphere?
‘Can I help you, sir?’
He snapped from the impromptu reverie.
Her head was cocked to the side, no doubt curious as to why this gormless stranger was spending most of the afternoon selecting a simple beverage.
She barely shaded five feet, had long brown hair, and wasn’t wearing the employee-branded polo shirt. But he clocked her knapsack, her chirpy demeanour, and put two and two together—though he left it unsaid.
There was something else too.
She had buck teeth.
Beside a river somewhere, a gummy beaver was struggling with a chainsaw he’d had to buy from Home Depot. Poor little guy.
If she lived in a log cabin, it would be too funny. Luckily, he’d never find out. She was pretty enough, but (1) he liked his lips in their current state, (2) his chat-up small talk was so rusty it would take ten gallons of WD-40 to loosen up, and (3) he’d only be in town for a couple more hours. The peripatetic life is no cradle for romance.
Plus he was being cruel. He was hardly a matinee idol specimen—at least she had a distinguishing feature—he had none.
‘Just… picking something out.’
‘Try the coffee.’
He smiled. ‘You work here—you’re biased.’
There was a beat in which she wondered how he knew, and he got a self-satisfied glow from knowing, and knowing how he knew. It wasn’t rocket science: the emergence from the Staff door, the zipping up of the hoodie, the wave from the guy behind the counter.
Was she impressed? Did it matter?
You’ve got maybe ten years on her, buddy. It’s not cradle-snatching, but even so.
She shrugged. ‘Only part time. And I’m not on commission. And I’m off today now, so I won’t get your tip.’
Her hand gestured over the wooden board above the counter ten feet away. Someone approached, surmised that Beckman wasn’t the beginning, end, or entirety of the queue, and passed by to make their order, in a commendably faster-than-glacial pace.
‘Mocha, tea, sodas…’ She flashed a querying eyebrow.
He wanted to make it plain that, as a thirty-seven-year-old man, he was very adept at Reading Stuff, but didn’t want to come across as an ass.
‘Is that your hand?’ He indicated the faux chalk writing. That was a flat-out guess—his observation skills had limits.
‘Yeah. If only I’d used magic decision-chalk though, huh?’ A toothy grin appeared—a white Stonehenge—but there was a twinkle in her eye too.
Bet she makes a packet in tips.
Probably shade your commission too, road warrior.
All while in the same spot.
So not your vibe.
Did I just use the word “vibe”? What am I—twenty?
‘Don’t let me keep you. You were heading out.’
She glanced at the wall clock. ‘Dale let me go five minutes early. So I guess I have room for one more.’ She jerked her head towards a table. ‘At least take the weight off, while you’re not deciding.’
She followed him over to a square wooden table where they sat on adjacent sides. She hung her knapsack on the chair back; he did likewise with his trusty shoulder bag. It went everywhere with him—Linus’ blanket, minus the sucking.
Why is she volunteering to take time out from not being bored senseless by an older, thirsty, indecisive travelling salesman to risk the exact opposite?
Is this what they call “a spark”?
Need to get that WD-40 working on the ol’ Spotting The Signs muscle.
One thing at a time. Or probably one thing, period.
‘So—you not drink coffee?’
He glanced towards the window. ‘Only Coffee Planet, and I see they had a little accident.’
‘Fire is fire—it doesn’t judge.’
‘For some. Not for me.’
‘Ah—I get it now. You run this place. Happy to see the competition suffer.’ He smiled to show he was only partly joking.
‘Run? Ha! No, this is Dale’s place.’
‘All the same… business must have picked up.’
‘I guess. Why the third degree? So what if one of a faceless chain takes a hit? Capitalism sucks.’
There was a hint of vehemence in her tone, but he let it lie. He’d come in for a beverage, not an argument. Yet he was no closer to the former.
‘You have a job,’ he pointed out.
‘Just until the other thing takes off.’
‘The other thing?’
‘I make jewellery.’
He’d noticed the earrings—a chain of delicate metallic spheres leading down to a small cup, like a string of coffee beans being dropped into a mug.
After The Teeth, it was the second thing he’d clocked. All the while he was—on perpetual autopilot—keeping his senses attuned for any sign that she might be a potential customer.
Nothing yet, but, hell, five sales in two hours? He’d earned a break.
He nodded. ‘And you like coffee. Or you like modelling your wares for people who do.’
‘What can I say—Dale makes a great macchiato. So—how about it?’
‘The thing is…’ He stopped, hand hovering in mid-air, his mind absent of her name—because it hadn’t been established yet.
She caught his awkwardness. ‘Jolene. Yeah, like the song.’
He had an impish thought. ‘What song?’
Her eyes narrowed. The twinkle reappeared. ‘No, I’m not biting, Mister…?’
‘Beckman. No, not like anything. Not for a first name, anyhow.’
‘It’s a doozy, that’s for sure.’
‘Pair of conversation-starters, aren’t we?’
‘You know—it helps—chatting with customers and all. So—you not a coffee guy?’
He cracked a couple of knuckles. ‘I pretty much stick with Coffee Planet.’
She arched an eyebrow.
Wish I could do that. Just the one. It’s a great weapon. No, not weapon. Tool.
‘Okay, so I’m loyal as hell.’ He fished in the inner pocket of his charcoal jacket and pulled out a wad of CP-branded loyalty cards, held together with a rubber band which was into late middle-age and in need of being put out to pasture before it twanged into impromptu non-existence and decorated the surroundings with its captives.
Her other eyebrow arched.
Now that’s just showing off.
‘They oughta make you MVP,’ she suggested.
‘And this isn’t the whole nine yards. I got a box at home. I think I’m the loyalty department’s wet dream.’
‘You should do an interview. World Record or something.’
‘Somebody will have more.’ He carefully replaced the wad, now conscious of Ol’ Stretchy’s waning health. ‘Somebody more dull than me.’
‘Dull? With a name like that? You’re just a guy who knows what he likes. Nothing wrong with that.’ She flashed a toothy, conciliatory smile. The coffee earrings danced, reminding him of his thirst.
He looked around for a server. She caught the drift, scanned the room and was less reticent in fluttering a hand at a maroon-shirted female. Quickly, with zero-hour upon him, Beckman checked the drinks menu again.
The server arrived. ‘What can I get you, hon?’
Beckman lifted his hands from the table and clasped them together.
She angled her body towards him. She brought the tip of her pencil up to the order pad.
She wants that order from you. Whenever you’re ready.
Any time now.
You’ve had ages to choose.
It’s just a drink. Pick one.
Not coffee, obviously.
He bit his lip. Checked the menu again. Checked Jolene. Swallowed.
‘The milkshake is very good,’ Jolene piped up, simultaneously causing and saving his blushes, which vanished in a puff of quantum weirdness.
‘Yeah?’ he asked.
Milkshake? How long has it been?
You do like milkshake. And this was by way of something different—the Beckman lame-ass celebration for the above-average end to another mediocre week.
What could go wrong? More to the point, could it get worse than the decade which has passed in the last ten seconds?
‘I will. I’ll have a vanilla milkshake.’
Woo hoo! Wow—you’ll be tying your own shoelaces next.
Maybe we did find your distinguishing feature after all—cataclysmic idiocy.
‘Great,’ the server replied, turning to Jolene. ‘You, hon?’
‘Just a latte, thanks Emi.’
Emi set off to prepare two dairy-heavy beverages.
Apologise, style it out, or change the subject?
She beat him to the punch. ‘Did you never try Coffee Planet’s milkshakes?’
He shook his head. ‘Coffee all the way.’
‘You know, they’re getting rid of those cards. Gonna be pushing their app.’
She shrugged. ‘Progress. Convenience.’
‘You guys have an app?’
‘Dale only got a cell last year. Let’s say it’s not likely soon.’
‘Well, you know where you are with cards.’
‘Bit of stickler, aren’t you, Beckman?’
‘Life on the road needs some touchstones.’
‘I figured that’s what you were. What are you selling?’
Is it that obvious what I do? Do I care?
He tugged his shoulder bag off the chair, opened the flap, withdrew a brown box and set it on the table.
Jolene peered at the anonymous carboard cuboid. ‘Not coffee—or jewellery—that would be too funny, right?’ She smiled.
She nodded slowly. ‘Okay. For where?’
‘And this is what you’re in town selling. Fancy box of pills?’
‘Yes—and no. No pills, and any town.’ He sighed. ‘Ideally where people actually buy.’
‘Is this what the Friday afternoon drowning-your-sorrows-in-unspecified-drinks is? I’d go straight to bourbon.’
‘Hell, it’s not that bad. Never is. Actually this afternoon kinda rescue my visit. Five customers. Five living, breathing, hurting souls.’
‘Five? Why, what is it—like two hundred bucks?’
She whistled softly. ‘Jeez, I make more than that in tips.’
‘Yeah, but you don’t get to travel the world, Jolene.’ He whipped out the pack of used loyalty cards, then winced at his maltreatment of Ol’ Stretchy. ‘You don’t get to down the filters, get the stamps, burn the gas, enjoy motel sheets, and—on a good day—have a milkshake with people like you.’
On cue, Emi arrived with their drinks, glanced in his direction, and scooted away.
Probably scared I’ll change my order after all that. Don’t blame her. Should have gone for water—hard to screw that up.
Jolene was unashamedly spectating as he cautiously picked up the glass and took a tentative sip.
‘I won’t take it personally if you gag,’ she said, displaying the full piano keyboard.
Actually, this is pretty fine.
‘Actually, this is pretty fine.’
‘So, wallow away, Beckman.’
‘Actually it was kind of a celebration.’
‘Five is good?’
‘It looked like zero here, so, yeah. I’m not graced with the greatest territory. Some towns are good—maybe a hundred a day. Some not so good. But I didn’t strike out—so that’s the plus.’
She raised her latte glass in toast and they chinked. ‘To… success.’
Strong word, but okay.
Her brow knit. ‘So, without the fire, your celebration would have been just another Coffee Planet cup? Really?’
‘Like I said, it’s an anchor.’
‘An anchor is designed to prevent movement, and you’re a travelling salesman. What did I miss?’
He held her gaze as his mind churned over the question.
Her pupils, he was almost certain, were grey-green. Eye colours were pretty easy for him to interpret. There were only a handful of common colours, and he’d long ago matched their names to the specific shade of grey which inhabited his monochromatic world. In the pantone of real-life, for “normal” people, there were countless things he could only take best guess at. Anything which existed in a defined palette—like eye colour—was an area of certainty he held on to.
Like an anchor.
‘I never thought about it. Maybe having fixed things I can rely on—like the taste at Coffee Planet—takes away uncertainties I don’t need. Means I can put more time and energy into trying to find customers for this.’ He tapped the box. ‘So, why change from what works? Why try another coffee, maybe hate it, and have to go somewhere else to get my fix of body fuel? Time is money.’
‘So you’re not one for new experiences?’
Was there a hidden agenda in those words? Unlikely.
‘Every day is new—even the same coffee from the same store. It’s not Groundhog Day, you know?’
‘Depends where you draw the line, I guess.’
He smiled. ‘I’m trying your milkshake, aren’t I?’
‘Maybe this could be your new habit. We could be your new stop-off.’
‘Not unless you have branches state-wide.’
‘You get around, huh?’
He sipped his very-passable milkshake. ‘Hundreds of square miles of the ass-end of nowhere.’
‘To cure headaches.’
‘It’s better than a lot of shit people do.’
‘You go door-to-door?’
He shook his head. ‘Sit around. Watch people.’ He gestured around. ‘Cafés, malls, diners. Queues are good, medical centres. Anywhere people hang out, and I can spot them.’
‘Lot of killing time.’ She slugged her coffee. The large part of his body dedicated to caffeine processing gave a silent whimper.
‘Yeah. I could write a book. You know—if my life story was anything to write about.’
That amused her, and the twinkle in her eye appeared. A twinkle which might be seized upon by other guys. People like his objectionable colleague Tyler Screw-Anything Quittle.
‘Spot them how?’ she asked.
Should I open Pandora’s Box? Give away the secrets of my roaring success? What’s she gonna do, drop a cosy life in a small town for a lifetime on the road serving the Pegasus Corporation?
And what if she did? It’s a free country.
Except it would be someone else to run against in the Salesman of the Year competition.
The key word there is “man”. Mr Malvolio would never employ a mere woman. It’s unthinkable to the guy. Wow—I think we found another reason to despise the slave-driving SOB.
Anyway, where were we?
He took another sip. ‘Call me a student of the human condition. When people have headaches, all the signs are there.’
‘Then you wade in with the patter.’
He chuckled. ‘Patter is for peddlers. If I told you I’ve been doing this for eleven years, and never had a single refund or complaint, you can see why the thing kinda sells itself.’
‘I wish my stuff did.’
‘Running your own business is brave, Jolene. I could never.’
She shrugged. ‘Well, I’ll see how it goes. If only people gave off vibes, like they do for you. You know—clutching themselves in a way which means they’re desperate for artisanal metalware!’
‘You have a business plan?’
She shook her head. ‘My boyfriend gives me some ideas, but he’s not really the type.’
‘Fireman, here in town.’
Muscled Adonis with IQ shading three figures. Twice her size probably.
Fireman, though? Should have got to Coffee Planet quicker, sunshine.
Well, if he ever needs the Jaws of Life he doesn’t need to look far…
‘Wow. Good for him. You worry about him?’
‘Nah. He gets scrapes, but don’t we all?’
He subconsciously leant in slightly. ‘Headaches?’
She eased back by a similar amount and her eyes creased. ‘You pitching to me, Beckman?’
He held up a hand. ‘Sorry. Force of habit.’
‘No. You know what? You seem like an honest guy, and yeah, Erik does get headaches, so I’ll wrap up your stellar day and take a box—okay?’
Not quite ready for the annals of history, but it rescues a day of tumbleweeds in town.
He slid the box across. She dug into a pocket and pulled out an Alexander Hamilton.
‘When—not if—it works, spread the message and maybe I’ll come back and buy you more than a coffee.’
‘I’ll do that. Just not at Coffee Planet, okay?’
‘They rebuilding?’ he asked, trying to make it sound absentminded, and failing.
‘Yeah. Worst luck.’
‘Room for everyone on this planet. From the road warriors to the… artisan metalworkers.’
‘What happened? Anyone hurt?’
‘No. One night. Place just went up—that’s the story.’
‘Last man out forgot to turn off the sandwich toaster, I guess.’
She looked away. ‘Yeah, probably.’
‘This isn’t so bad—as a change.’ He swirled the cream liquid in the glass. Noticed her earrings again. ‘You make nice stuff, Jolene. Much as I know about it.’
‘Thanks.’ She bit her lip, pensive for a moment. ‘Do you want any pieces?’
‘I’m happy with plain skin, thanks.’
‘I meant for your wife? Girlfriend?’
‘Not applicable.’ He avoided a desperate sigh.
‘Significant mother is about the closest I’ve got.’
Jolene’s brow furrowed. ‘Significant how?’
‘She’s my mother. Isn’t that pretty significant? Take her away, and what have you got?’
‘A different mother with a less imaginative line in names for their kids?’ she suggested.
‘Kid, singular,’ he clarified. ‘You know, I never asked which of my parents actually cooked up my name.’
‘Would it matter?’
He reflected on two relationships, one merely distant, one metaphorically out near Jupiter. ‘No.’
But maybe I’ll ask mom next time we speak. Just for idle conversation. Which is about all we have anyway.
And this here was what—Kierkegaard, climate change, the meaning of life?
It was a sale, Beckman. Another town, end of another day, another week.
And, actually, a conversation not largely about headaches, sport, or the weather. For once.
Thanks for the nudge, Jolene. You’re… okay. Maybe that fire was a blessing in disguise.
He slugged his milkshake. Time was pressing.
A thought struck. ‘You ever ask Dale about putting a small display up, with some of your pieces?’
‘Yeah. He wasn’t keen.’
‘Did you offer him commission?’
Her face lit. ‘You think he’d go for it?’
‘Is he an ass?’
She shook her head.
He shrugged. ‘So, a few bucks commission is a free lunch. Can’t hurt to ask.’
‘I wrote the book on commission-based business. Well, a pamphlet.’ He sipped the last of his drink. ‘Actually, on today’s sales, maybe a Post-It Note. The little ones.’
‘All the same…’
‘I wish you luck, okay? And thanks for keeping me company. Glad I hung around.’
She downed the coffee dregs. ‘I should be going too.’ She tapped the box. ‘Can’t say I’m not intrigued.’
‘Every day is an adventure.’
She stood, pulled her knapsack onto the table, put the box inside, and refastened it. ‘That’s right. Never know what you’re going to discover. See you around, Beckman.’
He flicked his hand in farewell. ‘Bye, Jolene.’
But his mind wasn’t on the departure. It was racing at the sight of the cloth badge sewn onto her bag.
The one which read, “Capitalism Sucks.”