Is “Coffee Shop Quirky” a legitimate literary genre? If it isn’t, then it ought to be, as that seems to be my niche. In honor of this most revered holiday, National Coffee Day, I would love to share an old short story of mine that celebrates the creative relationship between draughts and drafts, caffeination and imagination. After all, “A steaming beverage is often the friendliest of muses.”
Today my journal burst into poetry. That’s how I know things are serious. Whenever I’m being reasonable — which is most of the time — I write my personal narrative in prose. On occasion, however, it explodes into poetry and then I know that I am either going to be brilliant or mad.
This time, it’s both.
I was writing as I am now thinking: linearly, in understandable syntax.
But then, it happened.
Poetry happened. In an inspired instant, I realized at last the cause of the discomfit I’ve felt for the past few months. No, not months. Years. My whole life, even. This unsettled anxiety finally climaxed. As I near that age which I dread as a creative death sentence—retirement—I find that this simmering stress can no longer be repressed. And so, verse.
The resultant poem, in my professional opinion, is scarcely legible and poorly written. (And, as I glance with no small amount of pride at the wall of books which I myself have authored, I believe that my professional opinion is to be trusted.) Regardless of its disappointing review by Yours Truly, though, this poem exists. Conceived in my mind, it fought its way above its sibling ideas to be singly born of my pen: ink and thought, as dear as flesh and blood. Poor as it may be, it is mine. And, poor as it may be, it has something of genius in its fiber, like a great mind in an ugly body. (And, being such a mind in such a body myself, I believe this combination generally bears more potential than brainless beauty.)
Still, I tore the scribbling from my journal and tossed it in the rubbish bin. Now, though, I regret aborting my pitiful brain–child and extract it from its underserved cradle, holding it loosely in my hands. This, this I can use.
I tack above my desk and I skim it again. The more I consider it, this pitiful yet promising brain-child, the more the brilliance of its suggestion washes away the gore of its hasty, unmetered birth. I like this little idea, in all its ragged, unrhymed swaddling clothes, and I intend to raise it. It will become my last great creation, growing from larval poetry into something marvelous. Already I am imagining, planning a place furnished to suit this idea which has been raised from reject to ruler…
A week later, I have a venue large enough to show that my career has paid me well and yet small enough to have ‘atmosphere.’ Another week and I have hired the staff: a young man to assist in my new art of espresso brewing and a grad student to make the place ‘hip.’
A couple more days and I’ve furnished the shop with the immense chairs that have until now sat unused in my vast, overpriced, empty home. Another day and my coffee shop is open for business. A few more days and it has regular customers.
Better yet, my ideas have writers, for The Inkwell Café is open for business.
“What can I get started for you?” My voice is a third higher than normal: my customer service voice. I use it whenever taking—or giving—orders. It’s a slow day for business, but not for ideas, so I ought to be extra service-oriented. Those ideas are my real business, after all; selling coffee is just the medium. Inspiration is my end and caffeination merely my means.
The customer squints at my face for a moment before blushing and looking away. She is not quick enough; I saw it in her steel-blue eyes in that split second of contact. I think she may recognize me, perhaps remembering my younger face from the back flap of a bestseller. She, too, is a writer. I can see it in the twitch of her right fingers where a pen ought to be, the tiny creases around her eyes from reading in dim light, and the hungry, searching look with which she is now searching for a menu. Yes, she is a writer—or, at least, she will be.
I like her already. I’ll brew something innovative for her. Out of courtesy, I ask what she would like, though I am already deciding for her.
“I’m not sure,” she says. There is no menu in sight. She makes a show of looking around and gestures helplessly.
“We don’t have a menu.” I am blunt, dropping the service voice.
“Oh,” she laughs. “Good to know I haven’t gone mad.”
“No, just me,” I say, winking at her. She laughs again. Either she doesn’t believe me or is undaunted by lunatics. If the latter, she will make an outstanding writer.
“So, what’ll it be?”
“There’s no menu,” she says. “What do you suggest?”
I stare at her and she stares right back. We are analyzing each other and it thrills me. I have not had such a customer in ages. Not since the young man who went on to win a Pulitzer. Too bad he never came back to thank me. My eyes flick upwards in annoyance as I remember him, but I knew the price of sharing ideas on the sly. I cannot reasonably expect any credit. I must be content that that story found a host.
I return to the girl. I had an idea earlier that would just suit her. She would give it a superb voice: innocent yet with gumption. Yes, she would do nicely for just such an idea.
“We have a terrific blonde roast,” I say.
She side-eyes me and tosses her hair. “Never been a fan of blonde roast. Ironic, isn’t it?”
So much for that idea. She needs something a little bitter, but also frothy. Paradoxical. I rack my brain for ideas long tucked away. “Spanish latte with almond milk,” I conclude. “Exotic yet homey, sweet yet spicy. It’s got a nice foam to it, but its espresso flavor is strong and clear.”
“Delicious,” she says.
“Name?” I ask.
“Austen,” she says. “With an ‘e’.”
This confirms my choice. Names are important for authors as well as characters. She slides into a window seat and whips a notebook from her overstuffed purse. She begins scribbling furiously, but then stops, grimacing. The muse is not coming readily today.
I smile to myself, knowing I can help with that.
I sprinkle spices over the steamed milk. It’s a slow day, so I take my time, enjoying the process of preparing not only the idea but the brew. I find it is more effective that way—gives it all a personal touch.
“Austen, your Spanish latte is ready!” I have Matthew call out the order. He’s a terrible writer but I keep him around. He has a good shouting voice.
Austen’s face is scrunched up against the afternoon sunlight and the words that refuse to come on command. But then, she takes a small, tentative sip of the latte. She leaves behind a tiny smudge of lipstick on the rim of the mug. Another sip. And another. And then, like magic, she is writing. It is as if the coffee is flowing through her, transfiguring into ink that spills effortlessly in cursive rivers. Remarkable. She might be the best subject yet.
By the time she finishes her latte, she has turned the page in her notebook four times.
Not bad for only a ten-ounce latte.
But then, I put a lot into that latte, just as there must be a lot in that story. Both draught and draft were born of an idea full of spices and surprises, espresso and expressions. She slaps her notebook shut in victory, licks the rim of her cup—now caked with dried foam smeared with lipstick—and marches out of the Inkwell with her head held high. I recognize the bounce in her step. It is the dance of a writer who has just written something with which she has fallen wholeheartedly in love.
I take a sip of ice water and sigh contentedly. It was a brilliant idea and a delicious latte. I’m glad I found a customer to enjoy both.
“What can I get started for you?”
The young man stares blankly for a moment, not replying. I understand.
It’s a busy day. Finals week is hitting the university students hard and they have discovered The Inkwell to be a haven for the studious and procrastinating alike. Its armchairs—once forlorn in my lonely home—are now filled with tired, caffeinated bodies, each typing away at a paper or skimming a textbook.
The wear and tear of exams is heavy upon them, so I made a pact with myself: no specials. Only regular coffee orders this week. Rather than recommending elaborate beverages suited to creative writing, I prescribe drinks like a doctor. (Or a dealer—either way, it gets the job done.)
I turn back to the exhausted boy before me. I ought to assign him a simple drink: Americano, maybe a protein bar on the side.
But one look into his eyes and I know. He doesn’t need something to get him through this week but through life. Coffee alone cannot do that. This young man needs a story, a holiday from himself but a journey of self-discovery nonetheless. I can see the story now, in my mind, buzzing lonely and patient by itself: an age-old idea, but suited to a young person in need of something to care for and, in this, something to care for him.
“On the house,” I say, waving him to a seat. This reversal of my plan occurred in a moment. Two blinks and I have decided to do something that might well change his life.
He does not protest. There is a longing in his eyes, and I see clearly that he wants but is too weary to ask. My decision is confirmed.
“Is it, really?” I raise my eyebrows, already writing it on a cup.
“No, but it’s fitting.”
“Waiting for Odysseus, are we?” The idea in my mind could hardly be more apt. Hints of home, undertones of growth, a wistful flavor…perfect.
“Something like that.”
He looks into and beyond my eyes. They are just another set of windowpanes that he is straining to peer through. This present and vacant expression is one I’ve seen before in a mirror during the one time in my life when not a single inkling buzzed in my mind, begging to be written. I never felt so lost as I did then. I was a writer unable to write is a powerless creator, a queen bee without a hive.
If I had any doubts about my decision—concerns for his final grades, for instance—they are erased. His look is one that begs for an idea. His eyes are the mirror I once stared into in despair. I cannot deny a starving man.
He does not ask what I am making and I don’t charge him. We understand each other, this young man and me. He sits in a corner, facing nobody and staring diligently at a book he has read to pieces.
“Orange mocha with double espresso for Telemachus,” calls Matt.
The young man picks up his cup, the ship that will bring his epic inspiration back, though he does not yet know it. I watch as he takes a first taste. Nothing. He frowns as tries to decide whether he likes it or not, but liking is not what matters. What matters was that he keeps drinking until his mind springs back to life and ideas begin buzzing. Another swallow and I can almost see a new resident flit behind his eyes, which are no longer half-curtained but startled awake, thrown wide by dawning inspiration. A manic grin props up his sunken cheeks as he flips open a laptop and begins pounding furiously—euphorically!—at the keys; his Odysseus, his muse and identity, has returned and he rushes to meet him.
It is another busy day. Finals are over and, like flowers poking their heads up from beneath an avalanche of papers, the university students are slowly coming back to life. I like to see them laughing again, going on dates again, reading for pleasure again. Sometimes—and best of all—all three at once.
Such a couple is here today: two lovers of words. I don’t slip them any ideas, but I do help nudge them along. I work best as a secret muse but do like to play cupid once in a while. Latte art is as useful as enchanted arrows and I am particularly skilled at making foam hearts. Some chocolate shavings and a hint of rose syrup further set the mood.
I sneak glances at the pair, my heart warming as they playfully argue over Jane Austen versus Emily Brontë. I hope they settle on Austen, as any relationship founded on the Brontë sisters is doomed from the start.
“Austen!” calls a voice. I start, sure someone has read my mind.
The speaker, a brunette with eyes that are deep in both set and expression, is waving to a blonde in a green sweater. I remember her and the idea I prepared for her. I wonder how it turned out.
“Lynn!” Austen nods toward the bar and her friend pats the seat beside her, saving it.
“Hello,” I say, pretending I don’t remember, that I’m not anxious to ask after the charge I entrusted to her capable, ink-stained hands. “What can I get started for you?”
“I liked what you made last time.”
Ah, so she remembers.
“Spanish latte with almond milk,” she says.
I cannot help my curiosity and ask, “How was it?”
“My best yet,” she says. An odd way to describe a coffee, but the gleam in her eye tells me that she isn’t talking about the coffee. Not really.
“What would you recommend this time?” she asks. She quirks an eyebrow wickedly, but it is only endearing on her open, cheerful face. “I’m thinking something…darker.”
“Darker wouldn’t suit you,” I say before I catch myself. I should let her order whatever she wants, but there is more than mere bitterness at stake here.
“Oh, I think it would,” she persists. “Nothing too dark, of course, but perhaps with some suspense. A little more mystery to its…flavor.”
I flinch as I meet her gaze. Those steely eyes are wide and lovely, like a cartoon princess, but also piercing. Unavoidable and undaunted.
I nod. “I have an idea.”
“I thought you might.” She moves to take her seat beside her friend, but I stop her.
“Would your friend like anything?”
“Certainly,” she says without delay. “But nothing too strong. She’s more of the soft and sweet type—needs to ease into the idea of…coffee.”
A man behind her cocks his head, confused at the evasive conversation he is overhearing, but if Austen realizes how strange her words sound, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she smiles back at him with her enormous, focused eyes. He drops his wallet and mumbles an apology, but she is already chattering away with her friend. She did not offer to pay, but I do not press the matter. I provide only the coffee, after all; she will provide the greater service once the idea takes root. Amused, I get the flustered man a house roast. Nothing creative for this one, but maybe he’ll make something of it on his own. Sometimes my customers surprise me.
“Austen, I have your tall dark roast with a pump of sea salt vanilla,” calls Matthew. “Lynn, I have a lavender London fog with sugar sprinkles.”
Both girls retrieve their drinks. I can feel Austen’s eyes on my downturned head, but I refuse to watch. When they leave, I pass a peppermint tea latte to Matthew and go to busk their table. Under Austen’s saucer, I find a napkin covered in the hasty script of a writer whose mind outpaces her pen. I tuck it into my pocket. Only later, when I am alone, do I decipher it. An idea I know all too well stares up at me, though it is adorned in different words, dressed in the voice of another writer.
The words on the napkin are fractured and stained, torn where her pen was too rough in its ardor. And yet, the idea itself is all the more beautiful than I could have imagined.
A package lies on the counter when I arrive at The Inkwell. It is a cold November day and the rain is drizzling, not committed enough to pour nor whimsical enough to mist. The skies are foamy with dark clouds and I know by their London fog color exactly what drink will be most popular today.
“What’s this?” I ask, picking up the package. I expect Matthew to respond, but a dreamy voice floats over from the book-lined corner.
“It could be any number of things,” says Dahlia, the resident philosopher. I must have hired her at some point—probably to give marketing advice and keep inventory—but she has since nested in the oldest, most ragged armchair to read her life away. I can think of worse jobs.
“Who left it?”
“I didn’t see.” Her owlish eyes are hidden behind thick glasses and a heavy book I wonder if she understands.
“Some help you are,” I mutter.
The package is wrapped in newspaper, I notice, letting it fall to the floor in a crinkly mess. A beloved sight greets me: a new book, freshly printed and neatly bundled in a colorful sleeve. I raise it to my nose and inhale the smell of fresh paper and ink. I always recognize the smell of my own books, but I imagine that this one—born of another pen—smells familiar too. It’s a silly thought, this, but then I see the author’s name.
I open the back cover and see a blonde with steely eyes, the regular customer and the owner of the napkin that I keep pinned above my desk beside the poem that started it all.
I turn to the dedication.
“A steaming beverage is the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”
That is all. It occurs to me she never would have known my name. I never wore a name tag. It must have been my own egoism that made me think she recognized me. After all, writing sells, but my face never would, and nobody expects their favorite author to be brewing coffee in a shabby cafe. As an anonymous writer and barista, then, I achieved my goal, for I have been able to whisper into the minds of many while knowing few.
I read the dedication again and feel a tear roll down my cheek onto the page. I turn the pages and let them fall open to a story in the middle. Even reading from the inside out, I find myself utterly lost in a story that I thought I knew but has grown to be more beautiful than I’d ever dreamed. I flip back and read the title of this brainchild: “Telemachus.”
I sway in shock but keep reading until I finish the story of a young man I remember all too well. Then, I am out the door, racing home.
“Watch the cafe!” I shout to Dahlia.
I arrive home and race to my office in a single heartbeat. It’s here somewhere. I know it. I left it pinned up here. I shove aside the napkin Austen left behind once, nearly three years ago…so many drinks and so many stories ago.
There. I find it. The paper, the poem. I write no letter. I simply sign my name at the bottom of the sheet which bears the bastard idea that started this all, that saved the lives of its siblings, the stories I feared would never be written. Austen will understand. We share a mind, though I am beginning to like hers better.
I fold the poem into an envelope and am on my way back to the cafe before I realize: I have no address. I cannot send the poem, this explanation I owe to the one who has taken on the demands of the muse in my stead. I slow my frenzied driving, waving at a cop and hoping he will let me by on account of the weather. He does.
When I return to The Inkwell, I find it as empty as before. Dahlia is still buried in her book and Matthew is puttering away behind the counter.
I sit at the bar and unfold the poem, tasting its words once more, allowing the guild of success to sweeten their sounds:
“My mind is a hive, Swarming with ideas, But I am no queen bee, Busy though I keep. I cannot bear them all And so they fall, They fall, They fall. Stillborn with wings yet twitching, Larval thoughts that sought to fly, To soar, to grow, To spread their honey and their seed, Now seek only to quietly die. I, their ruined ruler, And, worse, failed mother, Cannot nurse them all. It is Darwin’s dream To watch them wrestle in my sleep, To see the victor, the most compelling, Clamber over its siblings— Those fading glimmerings That rise and fall, Shine and die, Knit together and unravel In the twinkling of my mind’s fickle eye. These victors grow. They live and are born and raised and bound To rest in triumph on the thrones Of store shelves and bedside-tables. But I grieve the little ones. The miscarried, unborn, ideas Will drive me mad. They always have. They fade and fall, But never leave. Small ghosts, They linger, ignored In favor of more substantial stories. And yet, I hear their buzzing, Though they are supposedly still. And I listen to their voices Though they are supposed to be mute. I ache to ignore their infant mews. I cannot help that I want to watch them grow, To suckle them on fresh black ink And let them pour onto the white sheet. I know not how they might turn out, And yet I love them. They are my flutterling ideas, Captured in butterfly nets And window glints And moonlit nights And crisp old grandfather books That might have given them an inheritance Of literary greatness. But they fall, They fall. They fall, smoked into restless sleep By their own creator Who had more besetting, bestselling stories To write and send forth. If only I could share– Could find a host For these baby ghosts, These tiny ideas that deserve to live And yet are crowded out by each other. If I could whisper them Into the ears of another writer. If I could father them For another mother... Oh, I am prideful in my work But not jealous of my ideas; I love them too much to keep them all for myself When I cannot give all of myself to them. I am tired. And old. The books on my shelf have multiplied Into sequels and trilogies. I am a grandparent. I can raise no more novels of my own; They are too many for me. But, perhaps. Perhaps… I can work some sweet magic. I have written of such things before. If I could just tip these ideas into the minds And into the hearts Of others… If I could find hosts to drink them in, To feed on them as bees on pollen… Then they, these starving stories, Might have hope Of growth and flight And I might set them free Without having to write. Mad, perhaps, but brilliant as well: I’ll lay aside my pen and become an inkwell.
As I read my poem for the first time since its conception, I know that this little idea has saved its siblings. The thoughts of this ragged poem blossomed into a setting and a plot that transformed drink to ink—the ink I am now reading in print.
I close the cover of Austen’s book and caress the title. It reassures me, balm to my aging spirit and worrying mind. She knows. I need not send her my rambling poem. In her soul she must know, for the truth is all here in her words. I am relieved by this and by the promise that this book offers. Its surrogated ideas now return to me, whispering back: “So long as places like the Inkwell exist and people like you—people like Austen—exist, ideas will always find lovers, and stories always achieve incarnation.”
I speak the title of the collection to myself, savoring the rich honey of its sound as it drips from my grateful, trembling lips: “The Inkwell.”