Jamila is watching from behind the bar as crimson treetops sway outside. Each swing of the door welcomes crisp October breeze.
It seems that work holds the years hostage, though it is more likely that working at a coffee shop called He-Brews It! in Manhattan is paltry to her. A crackling fireplace near the leather couch, bougie drink menus, and charcuterie boards: all were additions made by the new management to appeal to upper crust suckers. Jamila rolled her eyes at the improvements. Her new boss, Bacon, introduced the updates.
Jamila finds Bacon’s name to be seemingly himself, though more his upturned nose than the pithy reference. The bored son of a rich New Yorker is nothing but a doll who gets to choose his playhouse. It’s all make believe for a goateed baby like Bacon. When he changed the uniforms so Jamila resembled a red-clad bellhop… that was when she decided she hated him for his twisted aesthetic.
Today, a young med student fans her neck as the windows of He-Brews It! fog from body heat and the fireplace. Jamila doesn’t know the woman’s name but affectionately calls her Scarlet, because she often wears red nail polish that stands out in a sea of blue hospital scrubs. Scarlet hunkers down to study fat textbooks on Tuesdays and Saturdays—from the hellish hours of 5 a.m. until the morning rush begins.
Scarlet lifts up her kinky curls to relieve the sweaty stickiness on her neck, unveiling sharp collar bones and a pendant necklace.
Good, Jamila thinks, Scarlet loves it.
Jamila knows it’s a stethoscope charm around Scarlet’s neck, though she cannot technically see it from behind the bar. The barista smiles privately as the med student glides the pendant between her thumb and forefinger. Jamila thinks, I’ve got a feeling that today will be a good one.
Bacon would probably be irritated if he knew that Jamila refills Scarlet’s cup every hour for free, but the young med student stood up for her one day when a particularly irritable doctor dumped his coffee all over the cash register. He complained that it didn’t take a fucking neurosurgeon to make a half-decent cup of joe. And, he ordered a powdered donut, not a peanut butter one, which would’ve landed him in the hospital. When Jamila apologetically handed him the correct donut, he bit into it once before throwing it at her face, leaving her covered in a cloud of sugary dust. Scarlet left Jamila a one hundred dollar bill after she chewed out the man. Though Jamila protested with reluctant tears, Scarlet insisted.
The same man sits at the table closest to the register today, with a salt-and-pepper beard, smug smile, and cheetah print polo.
Though Jamila hasn’t seen him here for three years at least, she has not forgotten the name she gave him after he webbed coffee all over her cash register: Homer. Like the yellow man baby on television.
Scarlet bites her lips while fingering her materials. She taps her emptying mug against the laminate table, points at a diagram on the page of her book, snaps lead further down the mechanical pencil shaft, and scrolls through her Macbook screen. It is as if she is declaring, “I am a woman of science!” in her concentration alone.
Jamila wonders if the med student even knows how to turn the volume down in her cheeks as she studies, but that is what makes Scarlet so intrinsically her. She has a purity to her, the softest smile.
Homer, however, leers at Scarlet as though he’s surveying her dancing half-naked on a pole. The look sends shivers down Jamila’s spine.
The med student must not recognize the lewd gaze of her voyeur. Sharks have the sea, Jamila thinks to herself, and yet this one chooses He-Brews It! for the hunt.
The barista fantasizes about what karmic divinity would tumble out of Scarlet’s mouth if Homer deigned to speak to her. After the renewed annihilation of his character, what medication yard would he have to drag himself across?
It would be a shark revolution, a war against god complexes.
Jamila’s thought is interrupted when loud voices bring more crisp October air inside.
Screaming children in jerseys, one of them crumbling in tears, follow a chaperone ordering seven charcuterie boards. Jamila doesn’t have the empathy to warn the adult that six thinly cut slices of gouda, seven grapes, and two walnuts on each platter will not sate the team’s monstrous energy. So, she runs the transaction and hands the measly cheese plates to the deflated chaperone, who sighs at one child eating cheese under the cloak of the adult’s skirt. Jamila notes silently that some people’s children, clearly, have not been born enough to be in public.
The clown car of children has distracted Jamila for long enough; when she looks over at Scarlet’s table, the textbooks are splayed out in vulnerable abandonment. Their owner has reappeared, instead, in the lap of Homer, who gives a bearded kiss to the back of Scarlet’s head.
“You really should at least eat something,” Homer chastises Scarlet. But his deceitful hand rests on her knee with the love of a mayor for his taxpayers. “A snack, at least.”
“Coffee can be a snack,” Scarlet protests.
“The food pyramid would beg to differ.” He squeezes her thigh, then says, “Why don’t you grab your stuff, bring it over here?”
Scarlet fans her hands dismissively. “It’ll be fine over there for a few minutes.”
“This isn’t Gettysburg,” he says.
“Stroudsburg,” she corrects.
Even Jamila knows where Scarlet is from, she thinks.
“Regardless,” Homer maintains, “this city will eat you alive if you’re not careful.”
Jamila takes some orders from a few more customers. She notices a palpable sorrow in Scarlet’s motions as she transfers her study materials over to Homer’s table and sits next to him. To the untrained eye, the two of them might look like an ideal pair: he in his white coat and she in her scrubs. But Jamila knows his dark underbelly, knows that the most precious songbirds are captured into servitude.
A woman with bug-eyed sunglasses on the top of her head gnarls her words into whiny coils as she debates her order with her friend. Jamila doesn’t bother naming the customer anything remotely name-like; Mantis will do, she thinks.
Barely visible beyond the two customers, Jamila’s stomach drops when Scarlet caresses Homer’s beard with painted nails. Jamila normally finds much temptation in Scarlet’s kindness. But Scarlet’s behavior now is spiraling. A distortion of the woman who once stood up to the monster she fondles now.
“Should I get the turmeric latte?” Mantis asks.
Mantis’s friend sucks air through her teeth. “Turmeric doesn’t taste good as a drink.”
“Is there black pepper in it?”
“No,” Jamila says.
As she stares at flashes of Homer past the two Upper East Siders, she realizes he looks a little older than the last time she saw him: his salt and pepper beard used to have more pepper in it. Now, there was more salt—tablespoons more of it.
Maybe that is where Scarlet’s confusion lies, she thinks. Not in character, but in converting teaspoons to tablespoons.
Mantis puzzles at the menu. “Oh, hmmm.”
“You know,” Mantis’s friend starts, “I heard that Gwyneth Paltrow drinks raw garlic lattes as of late.”
Jamila watches Homer gesticulate grandiosely. She swears she hears him say: “A hose is very long. Not a lot of girth.”
Mantis scoffs. “She does not.”
Jamila’s staring at Scarlet’s mouth, waiting for words of disgust. Instead, she interprets Scarlet saying: “Are you talking about the Blue Man Group song?”
Maybe Jamila’s lip-reading skills are not as sharp as she thought.
“Hey. Hey! Jam-uh-lah!” Mantis’s friend butchers the letters on the barista’s silver name tag. “Do you have those garlic lattes on your menu?”
Jamila prickles her nose. “No.”
“On your seeeecret menu?” Mantis prods.
“We don’t have a secret menu.”
Mantis puckers her lips and raises her brow. “Starbucks has a secret menu.”
“It’s okay,” Mantis’s friend says. “Raw garlic is spicy anyway.”
They order caramel macchiatos, walk out of Jamila’s line of sight, and take their noisy chattering with them.
Their absence finally exposes Homer fondling the stethoscope charm that has found a home in the valley of Scarlet’s prominent collar bones. Jamila seethes at the possession of what isn’t his to have.
“You like how it looks on me?” Scarlet asks Homer.
“Uh, yeah!” He fumbles for enthusiasm as though it’s difficult to locate, Jamila notes. “Yeah, I dig it.”
“Well, don’t act so surprised.” Scarlet bites her lip like a shy child. “I mean, I know, I figured you snuck it in my textbook when I fell asleep at your place last night.”
In Jamila’s gut, a pit grows heavy in panicked gravity. Her heart races as she prays Homer will correct Scarlet’s naïve mistake.
The doctor chews on the inside of his cheek.
Instead, he says, “Can’t get anything past you, can I?”
Jamila’s stomach boils.
As soon as she has an intrusive thought, she dismisses it, realizing the idea is scary, bad, and very un-Scarlet-like. She recalls that sometimes, you must go with your gut, but usually you shouldn’t.
Homer snaps out of contemplation and settles into familiarity. “‘Fell asleep’? Is that what we’re calling it now?” His arm shifts, and Jamila realizes that he has buried his hand in Scarlet’s lap.
The med student chuckles and brushes his arm away, much to Jamila’s relief. “You know what I mean.”
“I do.” He kisses her cheek. “Only the best for the future doctor.”
It was Pablo Neruda who said that forgetting is so short, but love is so long. At least, that’s what Jamila thinks he said. It’s been a while since she read his poetry, but she knows he knew his stuff. It must be this short forgetting that caused the songbird to become trapped in the shark’s cage.
No, that’s unfair, Jamila scolds herself. It’s not the songbird’s fault for assuming the world is pure. It is the shark’s fault for taking advantage of the feathered creature’s trust. After all, a wing is the fin of a bird, if you think about it. Perhaps Scarlet looks at Homer and sees two birds of a feather.
Jamila looks over at their table once more and watches Homer bring Scarlet’s hand to his lips. His eyes linger on her neck, where the pendant sparkles against her skin.
Then again, sometimes you do go with your gut.
Jamila leaves behind a customer mid-order. Smirking, she mixes an additive into a coffee pitcher and shuffles to save Scarlet from the trap.
Jamila becomes suddenly aware of her body as it moves away from the counter. Her mother used to say that she waddles side to side, her torso rigid like a penguin. Her mother isn’t a problem anymore, just like Homer won’t be soon enough. But her words still linger in Jamila’s head. Maybe it is this inconveniently-timed recollection, or maybe it’s her nearing Homer’s table, but she becomes meek in her resolve.
As she hovers over the couple, Jamila takes in the largeness of Homer. He is a formidable opponent, the size of Scarlet and Jamila together plus a few vertical inches. Jamila clenches her fist and decides that she will rid Scarlet of sharks one at a time. Starting with the one filling the chair nearest the register—her register—that he once cobwebbed with coffee.
Jamila runs through a slew of expletives in her head, thinking indirectly how lovely it would be for her fist to discover the hollows of his cheek.
When Homer raises his gaze to question her presence, Jamila’s stare drops to the empty mug in front of her.
“Refill?” she forces through a clenched smile.
Scarlet turns, and the world stops as the women lock eyes: as though all the gestalt switches have activated to reveal the larger meaning of Jamila’s three years of small gestures.
The med student smiles, and while Jamila wondered moments ago if she maybe made Scarlet up, Jamila’s chest softens as she tops off Scarlet’s mug with the nutty coffee.
“That necklace,” Jamila breathes, focused on Scarlet. “It’s so beautiful.”
Feeling for the pendant, Scarlet reaches for Homer’s hand and grins warmly at him. “Thank you,” she says.
“I, um, I am thinking about buying one for my, uh, sister,” Jamila says, turning to Homer. “Where, where did you buy it, if I may ask?”
Homer’s breath catches in his chest before he lets out an exhale. “Oh, uh, you know, I’m not sure I remember. Not a jewelry guy, normally, you know.” He winks at Scarlet.
Jamila leans into her words with growing ease: “Hmm, I could swear I’ve seen it somewhere…”
“Sorry, can’t be of more help.”
Scarlet sips coffee while rubbing Homer’s palm meditatively with her thumb.
“Actually”—Jamila jumps at the thought—“I remember now! It was Sephora. Did you get it there?”
“Right!” Homer jumps at the name. “Sephora. Yes, the woman there was so helpful.”
There is a lull hanging above the table. The women know it, but Homer doesn’t. There’s an uneasiness in Scarlet’s demeanor now. She waits for Homer to continue. He doesn’t. He relaxes into his chair.
“Are you sure it was Sephora, babe?” Scarlet chooses her words slowly. “With the black and white stripes?”
“Of course, sweetheart.” His words cut across the table, and a startled Scarlet withdraws her hand. “You think I don’t remember the name of the place I spent two hours looking for a gift for you?”
Jamila smiles as Homer digs deeper into the lie.
“Noah,” Scarlet murmurs. Her easy enthusiasm has vanished from her face; her gaze is heavy now. “Sephora doesn’t sell jewelry.”
Homer’s jaw clenches, and he rolls it back and forth in silence.
Jamila lets the tension linger, relishing in Homer’s ignorant undoing, before she decides to interject.
“Oh. My mistake. ”
Scarlet’s lips part with no words escaping them. Jamila seizes the moment to refill the coffee. She pours some in Homer’s half-empty mug without asking.
It’s Homer that breaks the silence.
“Don’t you have something else to do?” he directs to the barista, placing a hand on Scarlet’s thigh again. She brushes his hand off.
Jamila stares at him with a doe-like expression. “Sorry, sir, just doing my job.”
His eyes narrow with a burning fury, but then the muscles under his salt and pepper beard start twitching
“Wait. I know you…”
Jamila’s skin crawls as the nasally voice of Bacon encroaches. He appears next to her, their hips an inch apart.
“Howdy there, folks! You’re in good hands with Jamila here. My name is Bacon. Anything I can do to make your morning perkier?”
Jamila restrains the urge to groan, but as Homer’s glare bores into her, she is suddenly grateful for Bacon’s intervention.
“We’re good,” Homer snips. “Just the two of us enjoying some time together.”
The description sounds more like a threat than a statement, but Bacon does not seem to notice.
“Ah, love. Love, love, lovely couple.” Bacon puts his arm around Jamila’s red, buttoned bellhop dress. “At He-Brews It!, we love love!”
Scarlet points at Jamila and Bacon and asks, “Oh, so you two are…?—”
“Bacon and I work together,” Jamila spits.
A shiver runs down her spine, and when she finds Scarlet’s face again, Jamila is held hostage in what feels like years again, but this time, she doesn’t mind. The med student’s eyes—the most olive green—twinkle with a new emotion.
“So, the manager of He-Brews It! is… Bacon?” Homer asks with condescension and inquiry.
Jamila is unsure if Scarlet can hear her heart racing, but she knows that the two of them are bound in an understanding. Scarlet mouths, Thank you, and Jamila wonders if the med student is aware just how much she will thank her soon.
“Unique, isn’t it?” Bacon beams. He explains that he earned his name when he converted from playing guitar to bass. A bass-convert.
Maybe, if she screams it in her thoughts, Scarlet will hear it: I think about you all the time. I think about you ALL THE TIME.
“Bayyy connn! Get it?” he chortles.
“Ah,” Homer murmurs. He sips his coffee at last.
Jamila pretends the shark doesn’t exist. She hovers over Scarlet now. Close enough to feel her body heat. Close enough to stare into those olive green eyes and see flecks of gold in them. She’s never been close enough to see gold in them.
Scarlet’s gaze is laser-focused on Jamila, who catches her breath at the intense connection.
“I bet you think about me,” Jamila prays.
But, she says it out loud. Or maybe that is precisely how she wanted to say it.
Jamila feels all three of them staring at her as though she is staked with wooden poles. She feels disoriented in her body, as though it is wobbling slack. And though she wishes Scarlet would respond, the object of her affection becomes glassy-eyed. She doesn’t shove away Homer’s hand when he reaches for her this time.
“Wowza,” Bacon says. “C’mon Jam-Jam. That’s enough of a break. Enjoy your day, lovebirds!”
He ushers Jamila toward the entrance of the employee-only area and away from the linoleum table. Before she has a chance to collect herself, she hears a man gagging, a loud thunk, then a squeal from Scarlet. Jamila would recognize her voice anywhere. The ruckus is followed by loud voices anew and a scream to call an ambulance.
Truly, what medication yard would save Homer now?
As Bacon rushes in a panic toward the collapsed doctor, Jamila smirks and empties the pitcher of coffee down the drain. Karmic divinity, indeed.
In the shark revolution, Homer forgot that gods take many forms, that this city will eat you alive if you’re not careful.
“A wing is the fin of a bird,” she mutters under her breath, “if you think about it.”
She knew today would be a good one.
About the Author
Alysa Levi-D’Ancona (she/her) is the author of An Absurd Palate (Querencia Press, 2023). She earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington Bothell, and teaches high school English by day. Liminality, surrealism, postmodernism, absurdism, and speculative fiction are the pepper of her pages; cats, coffee, cooking, hikes, and warm blankets are the salt of her earth. Levi-D’Ancona’s writing has also recently appeared in Querencia Press, Occulum, Stone Pacific, The RavensPerch, UWB Crow, Clamor, Alice Says Go Fuck Yourself, and TulipTree Press.