"Scared the shit out of me, Raf."
He winked. "Sorry, C. No headphones in the front, though."
She nodded, but he could almost feel the eye-roll as he headed into the kitchen. The eternal pile of dishes remained.
Rafael immediately threw himself into the work; there was a backlog from the last few days. Soups to make, meat to cut, stock to grab from the back room. He moved as fast as he could, leaning on the steel counters for support. Something else that needed cleaning. Once he hit a rhythm, he moved smoothly, the work guiding his limbs without thought or concentration. Clarissa was, for once, focused, running back and forth from the kitchen without wasting time. Maybe she realized what a state he was in, or maybe she just wasn't hungover for once. Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant change.
Midway through the lunch rush, they ran out of salt cod. Rafael kicked himself for not stocking more, before he remembered that his usual supplier had been out as well. Such was the of a restauranteur, he reflected; an endless series of fuckups that cascaded down the line until they reached the uncomprehending customer. Red wine was running low too, but he couldn't deputize the underage Clarissa to get it and couldn't risk leaving the place in her hands, either. Reluctantly, he sent a text message asking for help.
The rest of the rush went smoothly, although it was a close thing when his leg almost gave out while carrying a pot of almost-boiling stock. Only quick reflexes sliding it onto the counter saved him from being scalded by it. He had a morbid fear of being burned; as a child, the broad scar on his father's shoulder, sustained putting out an engine fire one night, had always made him feel distinctly noxious.
He poured himself a quick nip of whiskey under Clarissa's disapproving eye to steady his nerves and settle the sick tension that crawled into his stomach whenever he thought about burns. The music had stopped playing, he realized, leaving the guests to speak in hushed tones or risk having their conversations carry through every corner of the cafe. He rummaged through the CDs stacked at haphazard angles under the counter. A disc of capoeira music reggae-inflected and arranged for guitar seemed somehow appropriate for reasons he couldn't quote pin down, so he popped it in, grinning slightly at the bemused looks of a few who had never heard its peculiar rhythms before.
The winding down of the lunch rush left a Tower of Babel made out of dishes in the sink; several in fact, that he and Clarissa tackled as quickly as possible.
“How did the funeral go?” she asked, finally.
He shrugged. “A funeral. What can you expect, you know? Man goes in the ground, people cry, it's a tragedy.”
Clarissa frowned. “Wasn't he your friend?”
He stared at her for a moment, stock-still, hands immersed in the hot, soapy water. “Yeah, he was.” He turned back to the dishes. “Was. Not is.”
“That doesn't seem very healthy, you know...”
“It's not. It's a very unhealthy situation. But what're you gonna do?”
“Me?” She paused, drawing back in confusion. “I don't know...me? Do you want to talk about it or something like that?”
He laughed grimly. “No, not you, personally. Just what is one...never mind.”
He withdrew from the kitchen to pick up and run the last of the checks. More and more people using cards these days, even if just for a drink or a cup of espresso. Of course, he was guilty of the same sin. It still annoyed him from the perspective of the owner, but turning down cards or even setting a limit was bad business, now. Too many people had nothing but plastic. It was always the oldtimers, the immigrants, the working men who carried around a bundle of $100s wrapped in a rubber band or, in certain especially stylish cases, an old money clip. There was something reassuring about cash, especially, he thought, the soft, almost sensual feel of well-worn bills. Not to mention how easy it was to spend off of plastic.
By one-thirty in the afternoon, only Jorge remained, scribbling furiously in his notebook. He wrote with remarkably neat, precise script; letters formed as neatly as a schoolgirls flowing out of the pen clutched in his meaty paw. Seeing the cafe empty, and hearing the distinct blast of Clarissa's headphone from the back room, he took his glass sat down beside his last and best customer. Jorge nodded affably.
“My condolences,” he said. For such a large man, he had an oddly soft and almost childlike voice; nevertheless, there was a sharpness in his small eyes that belied a fierce, almost predatory intelligence. They were the only part of him that did not appear to be on the verge of falling asleep at any moment.
“Obrigado,” muttered Rafael. He perked up slightly. “No, but thank you. It's been a shitty week.”
“Of course. You knew him very well, didn't you?”
Rafael tilted his head to the side in thought. “Yes, and no. Since high school...no from just before. The summer before.”
“Sounds like you knew him pretty well, then.”
“Sure, yeah. I mean, he was a hard guy to know, in some ways. Mystery wrapped in an enigma. All that. But yeah, I guess I knew him pretty well.”
“I imagine the funeral must have been interesting...”
“Not really, actually.” Rafael paused to think back to the previous day for a moment. “No, not really. It was all over pretty quickly, to be honest. I got a pretty bad feeling from James, though.”
“James...?” Jorge tilted his head at a questioning angle.
“Yeah, the older brother. I guess we've never really seen eye-to-eye. On anything.”
“Any particular reason for that?”
“You know, not that I know of.” Rafael felt the lie acutely. “Well, I mean, the obvious.”
Jorge reached across the table and softly a laid a hand on Rafael's shoulder “Accidents do happen. With surprising frequently, in fact.”
He stiffened and turned away. “Even so. I can understand. I sympathize one-hundred percent with him, to tell you the truth. I'd feel exactly the same way.”
Jorge shrugged his broad shoulders and ran a hand thoughtfully across his patchy beard. “Well, I just happen to think you're being excessively hard on yourself. About the whole thing.”
“Could be. Could be.” Rafael stood and took the last sip from his glass. “Good talking to you, anyways.”
The door opened as he turned back to the bar. Jason stepped in, pausing momentarily as the sunlight poured in around him. For that second, he appeared like some gilt statue of a candomble saint, light glinting off of the silver hairs that streaked his dreadlocks. He dressed, as always, immaculately, in an incongruously professorial style; tweed blazer, complete with leather patches, and high motorcycle-style boots. He held a pair of red wine bottles in each hand.
“Bom dia, meu amigo!” he shouted in his best attempt at a Brazilian accent, raising the bottles high.
“Boa tarde,” corrected Rafael, tapping his watch to indicate that it was now afternoon.
“Well, at least I try, man.” Jason set the bottles down on the bar and sat down in one of the stools.
“Well, A for effort. Want a drink?”
Jason eyed the glass in Rafael's hand. “As long as you're having one, it'd be rude not to, wouldn't it?”
Rafael laughed. “Sure, yeah. The usual?”
“No, actually. Not really in the mood, to be honest. Just rum, if you got it.”
Rafael raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Of course I've got it. I've got a bunch, actually.”
“From Barbados? Better be Bajan?”
“Claro que sim.” He produced a fat bottle made of thick glass and wrapped in wicker, pouring a generous slug of rum over ice. Jason reached out and tossed back half the glass in a single swig.
“Much appreciated, man.” He held the glass up and swirled it around in front of a hanging lamp. “This is good shit, no doubt.”
“Do you think I'd have anything else?”
Jason leaned across the bar and flicked a two-thirds empty bottle of Ron Roberto bottom-shelf rum sitting in the speed rack. “What's this, then?”
Rafael laughed and sat down on the other side of the bar. “Well, I didn't give you that, did I?”
“Most certainly. I'd have to beat your crippled ass for that.”
Rafael took an aspirin and began fixing himself an espresso. “Very fucking funny.”
Jason cocked an eyebrow. “But seriously, man, how you holding up?”
“Oh great. The bluebirds woke me up today with their beautiful song and then I went to the meadow to pick flowers and just think about how great the world is and how much I fucking love nature. It was like a Disney movie, let me tell you.” He slammed the demitasse down on the bar with excessive force, spilling some espresso. “And then I got here, and guess what I heard? My leg never got broken and Louis was still alive.”
He never saw Jason's hand coming around, just felt the blow on the side of his head that stunned and him and nearly rocked him off of his seat. He shook his head to get the ringing out and rubbed the side of his skull ruefully.
“You gotta stop talking that shit, man.” Jason shook his head. “I know it sucks. But you gotta stand up and look at it straight. Stop getting it twisted.”
Rafael hung his head. “I deserved that.”
“Yeah, you did.” Jason's expression softened. One hand toyed with the gold bar that ran through the top of his ear. “Sorry. I hate to see ya like this, I do. But you gotta straighten it out in your head. Or it's gonna eat you up like the sickness.”
Rafael stirred his coffee listlessly. “Sure, but how? You don't know what it's like...”
“The hell I don't. I know exactly how it is.”
Jason set both elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Back in Bridgetown, when I was maybe 12, maybe 13, one of my brothers was teaching me how to ride his bike. A little one, one of those 100cc things that just blow smoke everywhere and make a whole racket. So I'm riding up and down de street, just fooling, you know?
“Where's this going, Jay?”
“I'm getting there. So here we are. And there was this girl, lived next door. Most beautiful thing I've ever seen my whole life. Half-lebanese, skin like honey, little sweet braids that smelled like coconut. Always said she wanted to be a swing dancer, like on Dirty Dancing. Used to sneak out the fate when her grandaddy fell asleep and practice dancing on he beach at night. ”
“With you, of course?”
Jason laughed. “I wish. Wasn't as good-looking then as I am now, “ he said with a wink. “Anyways, I was in love like nothing else, brother. You know in that way, when you're just a boy, and there's only one thing in the world you want. So I'm riding and I see Clara. I think, man, this is your chance to impress her. So I pop a wheelie, you know. Trying to show off.”
“And you hit her?”
“Well, some geezer opened the door of his car and hit me. So I spin out, you know. Lose control, head over heels, and bam.” He smacked his fist into his palm. “Bike goes right into her knees. I broke an ankle, she broke both knees. Basically laid up in bed, crippled. Couldn't dance, couldn't barely walk.” He took a long drink. “Fucking tragedy.”
“Man, that's...” Rafael shook his head. “That's pretty bad. Not really your fault, though. I mean, sure, it was stupid, but it was the guy who hit you, really.”
“Yeah. And that's my point. Accidents happen.”
Rafael bit his lip. “I guess. You got a point. Shame about that girl, though.”
Jason smiled slightly. “Well, it turned out alright in the end.” He fished in his pocket for his wallet and pulled a ragged-edged, faded photo from the back. It showed a dancer, lit by spotlights, back arched and leg thrown out in a graceful turn.