The Back Forty, Ch. 1: Sabbatical

Mary Anne's house

“Can I get a large pumpkin spice latte please?” he said as he pulled out his wallet.

“Do you mean a tall?” The girl behind the counter typed something on her phone, then slid into her pocket. He closed his eyes, sighed, then looked at her.

“You have three sizes, right?”

She seemed startled at his question. “Yeah.”

“One of them is the smallest size, ones a little a bigger and ones the biggest right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Give me a pumpkin spice latte in that biggest size.”

“You mean a venti?”

He took another deep breath. Sometimes all the morning meditation in the world didn’t work when speaking to minimum wage. “Yes, a venti.”

As the girl set about making the espresso, Cain deflated a little. He slumped over the counter and rested his forearm on the espresso machine and his chin on his forearm. At the plate glass window at the front of the Starbucks, a couple sat across from each other. As they sipped coffee, they flipped through a Fodor’s New England travel guide perpendicular to both on the table in front of them, pausing occasionally to look at a photograph of foliage or a beachfront. On the floor next to the table, a little girl braided a doll’s hair. She was talking softly to the doll when she seemed to sense Cain looking at her. She glanced over at him and smiled. Cain waved at her with his pinky finger 3 times. The little girl smiled at him a moment longer and went back to her hair styling.

“$6.75” said Minimum Wage.

Cain pulled cash from his wallet and put in on the counter. Dropping his change in his pocket, he shouldered his backpack and looked around for a place to sit. Instinctively, he sat in a chair in the corner at a table in the back of the coffee shop. Even at the Starbucks at O’Hare International Airport, you never could be too careful. He took a long sip from his drink, barely noticing how scalding hot it was. At least October still had pumpkin spiced lattes going for it, he thought, and immediately chastised himself for his bitterness.

That’s not true at all. October used to be your favorite month, he thought to himself. And it probably will be again. Just not this October. No, certainly not this time.

As he settled into his seat, he pulled his CBD vape pen from his pocket and took a big drag as he opened the Sunday New York Times, he had plopped on the table. How had the George Carlin bit gone? You could probably beat a flight attendant to death with the Sunday Times if you really wanted to. Something like that. He smiled gently as he flipped through the paper looking for a weather report. Not that weather would matter much. He had packed his two bags, the backpack and the TSA-approved bag that fit in the overhead (he hated checking bags) hastily before he left his apartment. He was wearing his black leather jacket and he thought he had packed at least one of his three black hoodies. At least, he hoped he had. Fall in New England can get real cold real quick. Besides, it was difficult to focus on packing after you walk in on your girlfriend banging your neighbor. As if on cue, his smart phone rang. “Kalina work”, the screen said.

A third sigh. Deeper than the other two. The deepest one yet. He swiped the screen and held the phone to his ear. For a moment, there was nothing but silence.

“Look, I can explain,” she said.

On his list of Stupidest Things to Say to a Boyfriend/Girlfriend When They Catch You with Someone Else, that one had to be in the top three. He knew. He had tried it himself a couple times. It ranked below, if not on par, with “It meant nothing” and “Please don’t let this come between us.”

“You said that before. Nothing to explain, Gorgeous.” He used one of her pet names for him on purpose. He sipped his coffee. “I’m leaving for a while.”

“Please, just come over so we can talk about this,” she said.

“Talk about it,” he said and took a mammoth pull on the vape pen. “What exactly do you want to talk about? If it’s the color of his boxers or what kind of condom he was wearing, I’m really not interested.” He was amazed at how steady his voice was given the fact that he knew somewhere, deep down, he wanted to chuck the phone against the wall and return to his paper. And, at any rate, he knew the boxers were a blue plaid number. He had inadvertently kicked them aside as he came through the door to surprise her. He had told her he had to go Milwaukee for the weekend to meet with a vendor there. Instead, he had unlocked her front door as quietly as he could and walked in on her on her sofa with his across-the-hall neighbor she met at the neighbor’s party last Christmas.

Instantly, he remembered the times he was in her position at similar moments. So this is what it felt like to be the cheater and not the cheatee, he thought. For a few seconds, he didn’t breathe. Her eyes had met his and she started stammering to say something. Exhaling the last of the breath in his lungs, he had calmly walked over to the coffee table in the middle of the room and put down the purple envelope and the cactus with a purple bow tied around the pot. When he walked back to the door, Kalina finally broke out of her stammering spell and blurted out “Wait! I can explain!” as he closed the door behind him. Snapping him from the daydream, a voice on the PA announced the last boarding call for American Airlines flight 383 to Atlanta.

“Are you at the airport?” she said, her voice now shaky.

“Yep,” he said and turned the paper back to the front page. Next to the story Fourth Teen Found Dead in Great Meadows was the headline with 50 Coronavirus cases reported in Texas in one side column.

“Baby please, just … come home. We can work this out.” Damn. He had forgotten about that one. It seemed she was following the cheating playbook page by page. He thought about when he had sent her that text message a year ago. She had started the chain by saying that she didn’t know he liked black girls. He had replied that she was smart and funny and that’s what he liked about her, that she could have been a smurf for all he cared. That made her laugh and she texted so. He had asked her out that day.

“I’m going home. I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he said, ignoring her appeal. “I’ll see ya.” He ended the call. Now he needed a real cigarette. He slung his backpack over his left should, picked up his coffee and swept the Starbucks for the nearest door outside. As the automatic door slid shut behind him, he thanked God that he had decided to stay on this side of the security checkpoint. Not only because it provided him with one more chance to have a real smoke, but also because he was dreading having to deal with the largely miserable rent-a-cops that comprise the Transportation Security Administration. He fished around in his jacket for his pack of Winstons. As he pulled the pack out of his pocket, a photo came out with it and fell to the ground. He bent over, picked it up, and stared at it, forgetting for the moment to light his smoke. Cain didn’t know when the photo was taken or even who took it. He had found it in a box as he unpacked in his new apartment a couple years prior. Whenever it was taken, the house he had grown up in looked abandoned.

“Like it is now,” he said to himself and lit his cigarette. Like he felt now. Abandoned for the new gorgeous guy Kalina was now duping. It was 8:45 AM and he already wanted a beer. Maybe a shot-of-Jager/Pabst value pack.

“Yeah, that’d be a good idea,” he said to himself and exhaled. “That would be just what the doctor ordered.” He decided he would wait until the sun went behind the yard arm, as Tragic would say. Tragic seemed to have some old-timey slang expression for every situation. That was one of the main reasons Cain had asked him to be his sponsor. When Tragic shared, it was like listening to Merlin or Gandalf the White, but with Tragic’s own brand of gutter wisdom. He put the photo back into his pocket and looked out onto the cars pulling into and out of O’Hare like an explorer surveying the approaching coastline as his ship slid ashore.

He would wait.

He would wait until he knew what happened to his sister before he even started to deliberate the mess of his life Kalina had handed him on platter. Oddly, he wasn’t even that upset or even concerned with his girlfriend cheating him at this particular moment.

Hisconcern lay with Mom’s brass music box.



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