The blonde woman in the far corner of the café was not the reason he was here, but he wished she were. Her white button-up shirt was open wide at the collar and golden hair fell over her shoulders as she leaned forward, reading the books sprawled open on her table, holding a coffee in one hand and a pen in the other. A blonde curl dangled over her green eyes as she read. Johnny wished she was the reason he was here.
He hadn’t realized he’d been watching her, his thumb and fingers drumming absently on the café table at which he sat holding a mug of coffee. He knew he was staring after he’d thought she wasn’t the reason and jerked away, splashing a bit of hot coffee over the brim onto the back of his hand. A few drops soaked into the large, white envelope resting face-down on the table. “Dammit,” he ejaculated, and, reaching for a napkin to clean himself up, he saw Jessica standing at the café entrance, a thin golden crucifix at her throat, looking down at him with her dark eyebrows raised.
Johnny shifted in his chair. With a soiled, crumpled tissue in his fingers, he stood shakily and gestured his wife toward him.
Jessica approached his table in the center of the café. She was dressed in a dark blouse and skirt; the severity of her tight-bundled brunette hair and her thin, straight lips vibrated in her strict movements. He waited as she slung her purse straps over the back of the chair across from him and glided into the seat. “You’ve grown your hair out,” she said.
He reached both hands up to the beanie on his head, the crumpled napkin still in the fingers of one hand and flattened the beanie down over the brown, curling locks protruding from under it. Stuttering, he replied, “Oh. Oh, w-well. After so many years of keeping it down… I thought I’d let it fly.” Over her shoulder he noticed the afternoon sun sinking slowly behind the Post Office building across the street. A mail carrier stood at the bottom of the flagpole lowering the flag, the rope gliding through his hands. Johnny saw the blonde woman with the books too. She was gazing up now, her chin raised, two fingers brushing her cheek, watching the flag come down. Johnny felt Jessica’s eyes, hot and black, and looked back to her. “I-I thought… I’d let it fly.”
Jessica looked at her lap, smoothed her skirt over her thighs, and looked back up. “I hadn’t realized it had been so long. You’ve been away a while. We’ve missed you. You know that.”
“I… had some questions,” Johnny said. “Had some answers to find.”
“Away from me?”
“Away from the family, yes.” His grip tightened over the soiled napkin. He fiddled with it for a few seconds, then finally set it aside, his fingers sticky. The blonde had returned to reading her books.
Jessica let her gaze fall to the porcelain mug on the table, next to the coffee-splattered envelope. He felt tingles on the back of his hand where the coffee had splashed. She glared at him. “Coffee in the afternoon?” she said. “It gives you jitters.”
“I’m tired.” It sounded feeble. His fingers jittered around the smooth handle. The coffee was still hot and he hadn’t sipped it yet. He was still tired. The mail carrier across the street had the flag draped over his shoulder and was ambling toward the door of the Post Office. Behind the Post Office, in the direction he walked, the courthouse rose in the distance. Johnny pressed his jittery fingers onto the envelope in front of him and stroked it, staring at the courthouse.
“So,” Jessica said. He looked at her. “I won’t grant you the divorce you requested.”
He stiffened, caught his breath. He fought to speak, but the words came out like splashes of coffee from a shaking mug. “Jessica, I’m… not trying… to upset… you—”
“This is your place for solitude, isn’t it?” she interrupted. Her eyes bounced around the café in which they sat, taking in the soft mahogany tables and earthy green ficus trees, the dark oranges and browns coating the wide walls decorated with paintings of landscapes and coffee beans and famous dead writers. A large mirror hung on the wall to her right, framing the two of them in its huge border, Jessica’s pale, severe countenance and suited body across from his stubbled, sun-kissed face, his body clothed in a second-hand jacket and jeans. Jessica eyed the patrons, too—the newcomer murmuring for her coffee at the counter, the latecomer joining a group of smiling teenagers seated under the mirror, the regular whose fingers tap-danced over his laptop’s keyboard. Jessica sneered. “This is your church now, isn’t it?”
Johnny noticed that Jessica hadn’t turned to see the blonde in the corner.
He shifted a little, wondered if his coffee had cooled, but it was yet too hot. “It’s—” he started, words rattling in his brain. “It’s a-a place that’s quiet. These people… don’t know each other. I’m not… tied to them. But I can… share this with them.” He embraced the café with a steady gaze. “It’s just a café, I know… but I can be with people, without… without them being… without having to… to give myself to them.” The liquid in his mug was dark, black, still. He regarded it and finished, “We can do our own thing, without having to consider each other. It’s peaceful here.”
“Selfish,” Jessica muttered. Johnny looked up. Her arms and legs were crossed, her thin chest still under her sharp gaze. “This is why you want your divorce, so you don’t have to consider me, your wife.” His eyes flicked over to the blonde. She was lounging in her chair, forgetting the books again and looking out the wide window next to her, toward the orange sun in the purpling sky. Sprawling, she had a hand at her mouth while the other lay on her jeans-covered thigh, one leg bent up and the other stretched out. Her chest heaved under her white shirt as she watched the sun slip behind the brown stone of the courthouse. “You vowed to love me and give yourself up to me,” Jessica said in a tight voice.
Suddenly, the blonde looked at him.
She was smiling, or smirking. But he couldn’t tell if it was for him or if the smirk had already been on her pink lips before this. But the blonde was looking at him, amused.
“Look at me, Johnny.” His eyes snapped back to Jessica. “Love me and give yourself up to me, Johnny,” she repeated. “Do you remember that? The family’s been asking after you. They wonder where you’ve been. They speculate. They interrogate me. We’re tied together, that’s what these mean—” She reached for his left hand with hers and jerked it up in her grip. On a finger of her hand was a sparkling diamond ring. On the fingers of his hand was the vibrant kiss of a sun tan, smooth and unblemished. There was no mark of the thing left.
When she saw this, Jessica’s mouth and eyes went wide. “So,” she breathed. “It has been a long time.” She sat back, her cold hand dropping from his warm fingers, his hand falling slowly to the table. “Father will be disappointed,” she said. Then she shot forward, her voice chilled. “You need to come back, Johnny. The family can fix you. This damaged heart, this lack of faith—we can restore it. There are some things that are closed to the power of man’s reason, to what he can do on his own. You can’t solve this yourself.”
Johnny bit the inside of his lip as she spoke. He hadn’t heard words like this in the six months since he’d left. Now they clamped his chest tight. He felt as if the pain in his lip was the only thing connecting him to life—the physical pain was preferable to the deathlike fear gripping his heart. The beginnings of a tear liquefied in the corner of his eye. He was shaking. Trembling. “Until you,” he said, “I never felt flawed.”
Silence. “Until me, Johnny?” She sat back with a sneer. “You were always flawed. We’re all flawed. I was your savior—you’re lucky I was the one on the other side of the door when we met, willing to take you under my wing and introduce you to Father. The only thing you’ve done to save yourself was to open the door at our knock that day. And now you think you were fine just the way you were, behind that door, by yourself.” She spat the last syllable.
He dabbed a dry portion of the soiled napkin at the corner of his eye and met her gaze. “I shouldn’t have opened the door.” He heard his voice steady. “I should have left it shut—then I would have figured out that nothing was closed to me. Eventually. Would’ve seen that the world isn’t so evil. Everywhere you look—everywhere you look—it’s evil. But I’ve looked now. No, it’s not. It’s so good.”
She glared at him, her dark eyebrows curving. “What have you been doing these six months, Johnny? With whom have you been doing it?”
“Writing,” he shot, his chest still tight. He paused, found a calm. “Writing,” he said again. “Like I always wanted.”
“You never wanted it. You wanted to become a teacher. I remember the night.”
“I didn’t speak the night we sat with Father.”
Her eyes flashed.
He breathed, lowered his voice. “I didn’t… speak that night. We sat with the family and… and Father decided that my love for words should be my gift… for the family. I was supposed to read that… damned book cover-to-cover and then turn it into lectures for them… tell them what was wrong with them and the evil world and how our Father would make it right—”
He stopped. Jessica’s eyes had grown cold. A thin smile slipped over her mouth. She drawled now. “That’s our Father’s job. To decide for us. Do you think you can decide the course of your life without at least his guidance?”
Johnny gulped. His mouth was dry. A young man at the counter called out a coffee and a grinning teenager came and got it.
“Listen to you, Johnny,” Jessica said, draping her arm over the back of her chair. “You can’t even speak to me clearly.” He let her gaze hold him, feeling suddenly cautious. He looked down at the envelope as she drawled, “Father thinks there’s someone else.” His eyes darted to the blonde. She wasn’t looking at him; she was studying. Had she ever been looking at him? His gaze slipped back to the envelope. “He thinks you couldn’t really do this on your own. Someone had to be there, loving this little new-you. I was certain there wasn’t. There was only writing, and this place—” she indicated the café “—and wherever you’ve been living. Rented a room, did you?” She scoffed. “How could you even pay for it?”
“A guest house,” he said, low. He reached into his coat and pulled something from it. “With this.” He held a pen straight up in the air between them, solid, black, metallic.
Jessica rested her eyes on it. He saw movement over her shoulder. The blonde was watching it too. He held his breath. “So.” Jessica exhaled. They locked eyes again. “So, my-my. You’ve been writing.” Her pupils were shaking. Slowly, he pulled the pen back toward him, but stopped short, letting it linger in the air for a moment—letting the blonde see it a moment longer—then he tucked it away inside his coat pocket. Jessica was distant now. She said, “Whose name— Have you been using your name, my name?”
“No,” he answered at once. “A pen name. My mother’s name, her first name.”
Jessica raised her chin. “Time away, a place to live, work to do— You really expect to have this divorce.”
“I’m…” He paused, breathed. “I’m demanding it.”
“You’re disobeying Father.”
“He’s no longer my father.”
Johnny let his eyes dance toward the blonde, hoping to see her staring… but she was studying her books, yawning with her face in her palm, turning a page and paying him no mind.
“I won’t grant this divorce,” Jessica said. “You’re going to Father and you’ll beg on your knees for his forgiveness, Johnny. That’s what a real man does, he gets on his knees. This boy you’ve become is ridiculous.”
He gripped his mug. The coffee was still hot. No, it was warm; the heat was in his grip. He laid his other hand flat against the envelope, pressing down. The heat of his hand rose into his chest. He met Jessica’s stare with his own. Then…
“I’m taking Lily.”
If Jessica had looked angry before this, she was now furious. The red flecks in her brown eyes burned. Her cheeks paled. He saw that the hand draped over her chair gripped the wood. She began tapping a manicured fingernail on the tabletop. She said, tightly, quietly, “Like. Hell. You. Are.”
“I am… taking Lily.”
“Lily belongs to us,” Jessica said, not moving except her lips. “She belongs to the family. If you leave us, I’m not letting you take her with you.”
Behind Jessica, the sun had nearly set. Purple hues oppressed the last vestiges of the orange afternoon. The distant courthouse had lit up from its base, gleaming despite the coming darkness. The blonde, he saw, shocked—she was standing, leaning a shoulder against the window, her fingers in her pockets. Her head was down, kicking listlessly at the café floor with her toes… until her eyes rolled to meet his. She saw him looking and raised her face up and away, toward the courthouse. Johnny pulled the crumpled napkin back into his fingers. He looked at Jessica.
“I want her to choose,” he said. “Lily can choose.”
“It’s not for her to choose when there is only one right way.”
“Then let her see the wrong ways.” Johnny was breathless. “I’ll show her all these wrong things with the world, and when she sees that they’re wrong, you can blame me. Blame me for it. I’ll hold the weight of it.”
The blonde turned and sat down, flipping through the pages of a large textbook.
“We’ve already been through this with the Judge,” Jessica said, looking upward. “We decided this the day she was born.”
“No,” he said, “we haven’t been to see a judge at all. But we’re going.”
Johnny opened the flap of the thick envelope on the table and pulled from it one heavy sheet of paper. “Yours is in the mail.” He slid the sheet to her. A court date was stamped in the corner.
She looked down. “Who’s advocating for you?”
His eyes were level. “I’ll be my own advocate.”
Jessica shot forward landing a fist on the paper. “You haven’t been with Lily in six months, Johnny. You left the family and you left her in our care. You don’t get to walk back in and take her.” She sat straight. “You don’t know her anymore. She’s become deeply spiritual. She’s corresponding with an important church, reading their materials, contributing prolifically. She’s not the audacious little girl you so wanted her to be, flouting rules and running through the mud, godless except for you, godless like you. She’s hardly outside anymore. She’s pious. You should see how she locks herself in her room and reads and writes. The envelopes she gets and the responses she sends to the Holy Church of St. John’s, she’s never been as righteous as she is now—”
Slowly—slowly, because he thought that if he moved faster, his shaking hand would topple the coffee mug over the side of the table—he turned over the thick, white, coffee-stained envelope. Blazing up from its clean face was a shimmering, gold-embossed crucifix. Next to it, above an address, were gold words that read, The Holy Church of St. John’s.
“A simple order of stationary,” Johnny whispered.
Jessica’s eyes lingered on the face of the envelope, longer than it was needed to read the writing. In the upper left corner of its face there read Jessica’s home address, under the name Lily Flannery, scrawled in green, playful cursive.
Jessica didn’t move. Johnny reached forward and opened the envelope again, pulling from it the bulk of its contents. He flipped the thick stack of white pages over. On the first page was a story title, and below it the words by Johnny Alice.
Scribbled across the thin top sheet, in the margins and between the lines, were the playfully cursive green markings that defined Lily’s name on the face of the envelope. This is so funny! said a scribble. Great set-up! said another. Cut the exposition, Daddy… said another. There were dozens more. Through the thin sheet of paper, the underlying sheets could be discerned, with heavy green scrawls dancing around the strict double-spaced text.
Jessica was leaning in so close that Johnny felt he need only whisper… “This is my latest story, Jessica. I have been writing. And I’ve been doing it with Lily.”
She raised her pale face to his tanned, blushing cheeks. “You have not been with us. This isn’t what she wants.”
The envelope was flat now, its bulk having been removed. But as the last sunlight slid from the purple sky outside, Johnny reached into the envelope and took out the last item. He slid the single sheet of paper filled with green cursive writing in front of Jessica.
I’m stifled here. Everyone is so interested in me and everything I do. With all this mad attention I don’t know who “I” am supposed to be! Get me out of it. Tell Mom—tell Jessica—I want out. She won’t believe me. Tell her I want to be with you. I don’t care how you tell her, just make her know it. Make her see what’s real, once.
Your Little Angel,
Jessica did not move. With her head bent before him over the paper she said through her teeth, “She has to trust me.” Jessica raised her face to his. “What can she know at her age? She needs to have faith.”
“I’m taking Lily.”
“Come try it.” She sat up quickly. “I’m sitting in your place. I have the family, our congregation, our Father with me, everyone who knows what she needs far better than you do, Saint Johnny. What do you have?”
Johnny paused, his chest tightening. It wasn’t fear; it felt like a damning sensation, like he was the one damning her, that the power belonged to him and to anyone who dared to use it.
He gripped his mug and lifted it to his lips, finally sipping his coffee. Over the brim, the blonde’s eyes met his. The coffee was warm, black, and bold. What did he have?
He set the mug down lightly on Lily’s letter.
“Righteousness,” he said.
In a flash Jessica stood up so hard her chair went skidding behind her. She seized the porcelain mug from his hand, raised it high over her head, then cast it to the café floor. It shattered, exploding coffee everywhere.
The café went silent as the music of John Mayer’s “Stop This Train” drifted through the air. The teenagers, the baristas, the regulars, and the stoppers-by all rested their wide eyes on Jessica, shocked. The blonde was looking at Johnny; she was smiling.
“M-ma’am… m-miss,” a young man mumbled. The shuffle of the patrons rejoined the soft musings over the speakers. “M-miss,” the young man, the barista, said, “are you al-right, miss?” He had a brush and dustpan in one hand and a towel in the other, setting to work at their feet.
Jessica’s cold eyes were spikes aimed at Johnny. She pulled her purse from the chair and lifted the straps over her shoulder. Then she smiled. “Mmmm, Johnny,” she said silkily. “Johnny, ‘Hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned.’”
He inhaled deeply, then bowed his head to her in acceptance.
Jessica spun on her raised heels and sped out of the café, into the coming night outside.
Johnny put a hand on the shaking shoulder of the young man before him. “It’s all right, son,” he said. The teenagers sitting beneath the wide mirror leaned together and laughed, murmuring comments about that crazy… Coffee beans ground behind him at the counter. The café resumed its faint hum. Where was she?
The blonde sat at her table, reading, smiling, and not looking at him. He fiddled with the soiled napkin again, gripped it in his fingers, and stood up.
“Excuse me,” he said as he approached her. He knew he was shaking, didn’t know if she could tell. The blonde lifted her green eyes up to him. “May I…” Johnny paused. The green eyes were clear, her porcelain cheeks soft and blushing from warmth, her pink lips gentle and full. His heart slowed, and he said in a deep, steady exhale, “May I spend the next few moments with you?”
She laughed out loud. “Well,” she said, “I’ll take boldness like that as well as I’ll take a coffee in the afternoon.” She stretched her arms out to both sides and her chest heaved. “And right now,” she yawned, “I need one.” She paused, looked to the table he’d just left. “Who is she?”
He turned. Back at his table, the barista had finished cleaning and stood up. Jessica’s presence was gone now. The barista winked at Johnny. Johnny grasped that the young man had heard their conversation; he’d get their coffees. Johnny turned back to the blonde and her question about Jessica. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Then it doesn’t.”
“You’re a scientist?” The books strewn before her were calculus and astronomy, chemistry and biology.
She laughed. “I’m a student of science. ‘Scientist’ is still a ways off.”
“You were listening,” he said abruptly.
“Studying.” She winked.
“I can’t.” He pressed a hand to his temple. “My head’s… It’s spinning. I’m thinking of— Hell, you know it. I’m thinking of…”
“Lily,” she breathed. “I know it.”
The barista placed two coffees on the table. “Please enjoy!” He grinned and bowed out.
Staring into the mug, Johnny said to the blonde, “She’s going to have a hard time of it.”
“Did you know that?”
He nodded. “We both knew it.” She said nothing. “It’s as if…” He paused, shuddering. “As if my whole world has stopped.”
She was still as she looked up at him. She sighed. “Well, they may try to stop it, try their damnedest to get you to stop it… and yet it moves. The world moves.”
“Can I…” He felt taken aback at the electricity here. For the first time that afternoon, Johnny smiled. “Can I take you out for a drink?”
The blonde smiled too. Suddenly she slammed her books shut, shaking the table and spilling a few drops of the hot coffee over the back of her hand. He reached out with the soiled napkin and wiped her clean. She stood up before him, a head shorter than he. Laughing, she answered, “No! I’m taking you for one.” Johnny beamed.
They split, retrieved their books and papers from their tables, each left two dollars on her table for the coffees, and they met at the café door, waving goodbye to the barista, who was grinning after them.
Outside, night had come. The lights of the Post Office and the courthouse blazed through it. “You know,” she said at his side as he opened the door for her, “Heaven hath no glory like a self-righteous man.”
“What makes you say that?”
She laughed, brushing his stubbled chin with her fingers as she walked through the door. “Just the energy from an afternoon coffee,” she said.
Johnny smiled, knowing she had reason enough.
Christopher Chinchilla is a U.S. Marine veteran turned fiction writer who is currently working on a short story collection and a novel. He lives in Southern California with his fiancée, Tritia, and their dogs, Jake and Lady Belmont.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “COFFEE IN THE AFTERNOON”:
What attracted us to this piece initially was the strong conflict between Johnny and Jessica, a cowed father who developed the courage to stand up to her for his daughter’s sake. It made for a good story on that basis alone.
On deeper examination, however, one sees the story craft here, how it builds layer upon layer. Author Christopher Chinchilla shows us how to open a story with key details and a subtle hint of the conflict in the first sentence (“…not the reason he was here, but he wished she were.), even before we know Johnny’s name. He repeats the conflict at the end of the first paragraph (“Johnny wished she was the reason he was here.”) to show us that it’s important. By the end of the second paragraph, we know the real reason he’s here.
Note also how the setting details and character descriptions are added a little at a time and in a way that controls the flow of the story, instead of being dumped and halting the story. Further, the reader remains firmly anchored in the character’s head throughout.
And we say well done!