Hard Day's Coffee: A man's progression in the world of fine grounds.
The microwave beeped as the kettle started singing in the dimly-lit kitchen of Ecter House. Ecter is not the man moving about the kitchen, nor the one shouting out of the telephone receiver; to all knowledge there had been no owner or renter of the house in all its history with that name. The current owners of the house said 'forget the name, it's cheap' and thus did no background check to see what history the house had, why it was named so, or even why a house just outside an American city even had a name.
"No, it's not!" blared the man on this side of the speaker as he struggled to keep the phone under one ear while pulling four coffee mugs from a high cupboard. Once he had laid them in a row the caller said something nasty before cutting the conversation off in a key that signaled 'I'm right, I don't care what you think.' Faced with such stubborn invincible authority, Patrick Evans slammed his own phone back on the hook and stood breathing heavily, hands on his hips. A little ruffling scratch to his red brown hair and lips pursed sideways told you he wasn't really as upset as he looked despite being interrupted in his morning jog on the treadmill and now the news would be finished. He might be tempted to watch other things as he struggled to keep on his feet, but Ecter House had no satellite and could not get any other TV channels worth watching.
After a resigned sideways glare at the phone, Patrick turned off the stove and opened the microwave. As he was removing the hot milk from the surprisingly clean interior he reached to get the most important ingredient — the instant coffee. An inch of hot milk dripped into the bottom of each mug was followed by a scoop of Fescot's instant coffee. It was cheap, but — having never tasted anything better — it was good enough for the residents of Ecter House. Grabbing the hot water off the stove Patrick hastily dipped the spout in the first cup. Just as hastily he cursed and pulled his hand away from the boiling liquid that bubbled out. Frowning now, he divided the rest of the water between the cups, keeping his now-burned fingers away from the flow.
"Coffee ready!" he called, grabbing two small coffee spoons and stirring two cups simultaneously. The first other resident of Ector House came down the stairs, straightening his tie. Anyone who saw Ronald Wynn in the evening, laughing on the couch with a bowl of chips would think he was a TV couch potato. It was Patrick's theory, however, that the only reason Ronald was overweight was because he spent too much time making money to bother exercising much. A few neighborhood walks a week plus plenty of laughter left Ronald overweight but healthy... despite all those chips he consumed while reading things like 'True Stella Awards' on the couch.
"Work been good?" Patrick inquired when he saw Ronald's happy face.
"Better than ever. I have a meeting with Alex White from Jacknut Cereal this morning about an ad for his new 'sugar free' mix."
"That's good," said Patrick politely as he finished mixing the 2nd set of cups.
"Indeed it is — and it's this morning."
An awkward silence passed while Patrick held still his hand in the middle of using it to pass Ronald his coffee. "Ah," said the wise man, reaching back to pull out man's greatest invention.
"Thanks, Pat," called the businessman as he left the house with his sparkling clean travel mug to drive away in the only car owned by any resident of Ector House.
Patrick was rinsing out the unused coffee cup when the third resident of the house came down, strawberry-blond hair swinging about the shoulders, blue eyes like crystals on a pretty face, slender body dressed in a cute T-shirt and jeans... a pity Van is a guy, sighed Patrick once again. He could never be sure if Van wore his hair long to be a jerk or if he was simply mocking the world and its classifications. But really, no man should be that pretty. Granted, Van was only 16, and could yet grow out of it. The pretty boy rubbed his eyes as he reached the counter. Patrick handed him his coffee then raised his eyebrows.
"Is that a flower on your shirt?"
"No, it's your imagination." Van's voice even sounded like a girl's — at least that he would grow out of... maybe.
"Although thy T-shirt may be tur-ned wrong, I clearly see a blooming flower."
Van almost spit out his coffee. Swallowing hastily, he set the mug down long enough to put a light jacket on. "It was cheap."
Used to Van defending his garage-sale-bought wardrobe, Patrick just sipped his own coffee with a grin.
Van glanced at the remaining cup. "You made 'him' coffee again? Do you think he really drinks it?"
"Do you want to stick around long enough to find out?" Patrick asked, handing the boy a cold piece of toast.
"No," Van agreed, pulling out the margarine. After buttering — figuratively speaking — their brown bread, the two slipped on some shoes and left the house, coffee in hand.
Every morning the two of them walked to the neighborhood park to eat, leaving the house empty for a half-hour while the last resident of Ector House drank his coffee and left. Or maybe he went back upstairs to his room; the other residents knew almost nothing about him from the start and had since learned they didn't want to. Albert Rice was an ill-tempered man who slouched, snapped, glared, and smelled of booze. The others sometimes wondered where he worked — what job would take him — but kept quiet as Albert's payments always made their way to Patrick more on time than their own.
Legally, Patrick owned the house, and was renting out rooms for a small profit. He never picked his tenants, and though he liked a change of pace he hadn't kicked the current bunch out yet. At first it was because he liked Ronald, felt sorry for Van, and was sure that if he got to know him better Albert would be a good person. Now it was mostly because they'd all been there so long. Ronald could surely move out — probably purchase his own house just as or even bigger — but for some reasons of his own he stayed. Patrick found it ironic that this random bunch of suspicious-past people were more loyal than his original partners.
After graduating their junior year in college, Patrick and three of his best buds decided to buy a house together for the money it saved. #1 got a job in Montana and left to finish his degree there. #2 had to go back home to Alaska for a family crisis. #3 just left, and Patrick still didn't know why. All three sold their shares of the house back to their remaining buddy, and now Patrick could see that they had gone about it all wrong anyway. That was 10 months ago, and since then he'd had three sets of tenants. The first set were annoying, but Patrick didn't know any better and let them stay. After 2 months they disappeared, leaving most of their bills unpaid. The second set were annoying too — so Patrick kicked them out and felt good. For the last 7 months it had been the same group, and Patrick imagined at least two of them good friends. Now in graduate school, Patrick was able to offer all kinds of advice to Van, in his first semester. When the boy arrived at the door at first, telling him he was going to start college with the next semester, Patrick was skeptical. But after almost four months of school, Van seemed to be doing fine.
"You a genius kid? Did you home school? Private school?" Patrick had asked him, but Van didn't like talking about his past, short as it may be.
Despite this, Van had opened up to Patrick like a brother — well, not like Pat's other brother — and let his guard down. Any day now Patrick would pry again and this time be successful. People had told him he pried too much into other people's business, but really, could it be helped? After all, it was what he found out about his parents that got him shipped off to Idaho in the first place; and he was more than happy to leave his eccentric family.
Van distracted him from his thoughts by pointing to the park. A family of starlings was taking breakfast from an old woman in purple who smiled as they approached.
"Nice morning today," she said; "you'll have nice days, you will."
"Thanks, granny," Van said, going to the swings.
"Good day, Ms. Fletcher." Patrick and Van sat on the swings, gently moving back and forth, the smell of the coffee drifting up and down. Van at first wondered why Patrick had to worry about him walking to the park each morning when an old woman did it, but Patrick pointed out that a woman who has lived that long alone can take care of herself. "And besides, Van Goe, you're too pretty to be walking alone."
Truth or not, no man likes being called pretty, and Van had refused to speak to him for weeks. After that they started walking together every day, and that was that.
'Van Goe?' you ask? His name must have something to do with what made him run away from home; for although the boy had not said as much, Patrick could think of few other reasons for a boy that young to be living on his own. But Van had a credit card in his own name, so sometimes Patrick wondered if he was really 16.
"You know, she's always right," Van said quietly, tucking his hair behind his ears.
"Yeah. Every time she gives us a fortune like that it comes true."
Patrick raised his eyebrows. "How so?"
"Well, last week she said to me, 'Your mail will be bad today' and I got a bill."
Patrick rubbed his forehead. "You didn't pay it, did you?"
"I had to. He may be stupid, but he's my friend."
"Yes, but it's his fault. He's the one who broke the table, not you."
"I know. But it's only $50."
"Only? You're wearing a shirt with a flower on it."
Van frowned. "Yeah. Not enough to argue legally over, is it? Don't worry, I won’t forgive him easily for putting my name on the tab, but I'll try 'n get it out of him."
"And if you can't?"
"You've got to be more aggressive, you know."
"Non-committal noise, ya know?"
"'Whatever'," said Patrick sarcastically, and Van grinned. No one who goes more than a couple months around a teen fails to grasp the idea of a somewhat 'off' vocabulary and marks of speech.
"Think he's done?" Van asked, and to Patrick's nod they started walking back home. Ever since their first meeting Van had been afraid of Albert, for good reason. Protective of the boy, Patrick decided not to let them meet ever again if he could help it.