You get to know the people who come in. If you spend long enough behind a counter, you get an idea of what they like, not just in their coffee, but of what makes them happy. You can look at someone once, and see all the commonplace joys and the tiny miseries that make up the fabric of their lives. You learn to see these things, even when you don’t want to.
I was 19, working at Thatchman’s in the Village. Vietnam had ended, and there was still a giddy sense that we’d won—not Nixon, or the US Army, but we, the people. We had called for peace and they had heard us.
I’d done nothing. Oh, I’d marched and shouted with everyone else, but I hadn’t prevailed in any real sense. I was at Columbia, studying comparative literature and 18th Century French poetry. If I’d done something remarkable, actually done something, I was certain that my life would have been fundamentally altered. It would be there on my skin and in my voice and my eyes. People would see my unflinching commitment to progress and idealism.
Instead, I was just a girl in a cafe, pouring coffee and distributing sandwiches, while outside, the world went on and on in one long, greasy smear.
The man was older and always wore the same suit. Or maybe it was a different suit and he just had a lot of them. Either way, his wardrobe was conspicuous, because no one else was wearing suits at all. He kept his hair shorter than the men at the docks and in the warehouses, and much shorter than the men in the Village.
At first, I suspected that the only reason he came into Thatchman’s at all was because of the dogs. He had two of them, black with gold, like Rottweilers. They were much bigger than Rottweilers, though—massive through the shoulders and as high as my hip. Side by side, they padded after him, silent and slow. When he snapped his fingers, they sat. When he nodded, they got up and followed him.
On the first day he ever came in, it was raining. He walked in under the jangling bell, brushed the drops from his shoulders and took off his hat. He wore a hat.
At the counter, he smiled, moving close and leaning on his elbows. “Can I trouble you for a cup of coffee?” His voice was low and rough, with a marked accent. English, but not the Queen’s. His coat was expensive, but his pronunciation was working-class.
“You’re not supposed to have dogs in here,” I said. “It’s against health code.”
That made him smile, giving me a sly, sideways look. “They’re uncommonly well behaved dogs, and trust me, Thatchman doesn’t mind. I’m an old friend and he owes me a long list of favors.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. Joe Thatchman had moved down to Florida over a year ago and was easily in his 70s.
I poured the man his coffee and picked up my textbook. It was a history of the French Revolution.
“La Terreur,” he said, glancing out at the rain, then smiling his sly smile. “ Il pleut, il pleut, bergère, rentre tes blancs moutons.”
His French was bad, but he spoke in an easy rush that proved he knew the language, if not the inflection.
“I’m not a shepherdess,” I said, closing the book. I’d been reading an account of the execution of Fabre d’Églantine, who had gone to the guillotine singing verses from his own songs and distributing handwritten poems to the crowd. Singing the one about the shepherdess and the rain.
The man sipped his coffee and then made a steeple with his fingers. “And what would you rather be in the course of this sorry life? A shepherdess, or a sheep.”
I didn’t answer, but he kept smiling, like he knew what I was thinking. “What’s your name, shepherdess?”
“Charlotte,” I said, and was startled to realize that up until that moment, I’d been planning to lie, to say Marjorie or Carol or Betty. But his eyes were a dark, thunderous gray and I told him the truth.
After that, he came almost every morning, sweeping off his hat and bowing. He always said the same thing: “And how is the lovely Charlotte today?”
And every time, I expected him to say My. How is my Charlotte? But he only took off his hat and snapped his fingers and made the dogs sit obediently at his feet.
“I was in the war,” he told me once, leaning on the counter.
His eyes were paler than usual and I looked into them a long time, trying to see the villages burning, or the bodies, but there was nothing. His irises were strangely flat, without the splintered interruptions of color or variation.
I didn’t ask which war.
His mouth was close to mine, and he smelled like burned metal and oily smoke. I wanted to taste it, to lick it off his skin, but I just turned to the back counter and poured the coffee.
I had never been in love. At 14, I’d mooned over Peter McCourdry who lived down the street. He was five years older, and when his mother got a telegram saying he’d been killed in Hue, I cried with the rest of the girls from my block, because it was a sad and ugly thing, but I didn’t feel the raw pain of heartbreak. I was crying because he was dead, not because I’d loved him.
My man with the dogs came in one day, smiling and whistling, but his eyes were sober. “I won’t be around much longer,” he said. “My contract is up and I have to be moving on.”
“Let me do something to send you off,” I said before I could reconsider. “Come over and I’ll make you dinner.”
He shook his head, looking suddenly grave.
“We could meet at Alexander’s for a drink,” I said, uncomfortably aware that I was starting to sound desperate. “It wouldn’t have to be a big thing. It wouldn’t have to be serious.”
He reached across the counter and took my hand. “Do you know what a brimstone dog is?”
In his eyes, I saw the bodies then, but not just the grisly casualties of land mines and napalm. There was so much more—machetes, axes, bayonets, hoes and rakes and sickles. I saw revolutions, howling mobs, all the things they tell you in history classes, but which never take on the staggering proportions of fact.
I shook my head and let him caress the back of my wrist with his thumb. His touch was warm, and I felt myself pulled closer, like I was falling towards him.
“A brimstone dog does not rise above his station. He doesn’t own anything, he doesn’t want anything. His job is not to seek or to covet or to ask questions. He always does exactly as he’s told.”
He leaned over the counter. His eyes were dark now, almost black, and I thought that he would kiss me, but he only bent his head to whisper in my ear. “A brimstone dog is no shepherd. His business is destruction, and he destroys everything he touches. But girls like the lovely Charlotte have glorious years ahead of them. They have lovers and families and true callings, and if they wish it, they have the inalienable right to try and save the world.”
He left with his dogs trailing after him, and I cried in the storeroom, harder than I had ever cried for anything. It was months before the jangle of the bell stopped sending my heart soaring frantically, cruelly, every time I heard it.
I thought I saw him once, years later. I was guest lecturing at NYU that spring, and had become all the things he’d talked about. Wife and mother, activist, scholar, humanitarian. My hair was gray, cut short.
I saw him across a crowded avenue with his dogs and stopped to watch as the rest of the city surged around me. He did not look a second older than he had on the day he had promised me my future. He did not look like a man at all, but the calm, impassive face of some terrible storm. A force of destruction, but in his way, he had created me.
The dogs of war were side by side, padding after him. It was raining.
Photo by roujo