Harvest House Publishers
“Where are you, Keith Richardson? And don’t even try to tell me you’re at work because I know better! They said you showed up today long enough to take a week’s vacation. I’ve been leaving messages on your cell for hours.”
Keith grimaced and held the phone away from his ear.
“Do you know how worried I’ve been? I was on the verge of calling the police. And now you answer like everything is business as usual—and that after I left twelve messages!”
His fingers tightened against the phone. Jenny’s voice always screeched when she was mad. Today was worse than ever. He was certain his wife would take it up an octave if she knew he was in a taxi in Seattle. He’d stormed out this morning after their fight-of-the-day and never bothered telling her he’d hopped on a plane.
“Keith! Are you going to answer me?” she shrieked.
He envisioned his wife’s reddened face, her intense brown eyes. Th e image left him indifferent for once. Keith couldn’t even conjure the passion to return her anger.
“I’m in Seattle,” he stated as if he were reciting the weather forecast. “I turned off my cell when I got on the plane. I’m okay,” he added, “and by myself, for whatever that’s worth.” Without further explanation, Keith disconnected the call.
He’d added the bit about being by himself to hopefully circumvent another type of argument. Even though Keith had never been unfaithful, Jenny had put them both through misery with her jealousy. The last year had been worse than ever. Granted, a few women over the years had thrown themselves at him, despite his wedding band. But Keith had enough sense to keep his head and his wedding vows.
Too bad I haven’t had that much sense elsewhere, he thought and winced against the 3:00 sunshine blasting through the cab’s window like a heavenly spotlight. The cloudless skies and cool spring air couldn’t have been more annoying. Even the Seattle rain was letting him down today. Keith would have preferred a gloomy, wet afternoon over this cheerful irritation.
Gritting his teeth, he loosened his tie and released his shirt’s top button. The cab was as stuffy as the driver was blunt. The smell of stale cigars increased Keith’s longing for fresh air. He was on the verge of shrugging out of his stifling overcoat when he leaned forward and strained for the first glimpse of Mac’s Place. Once he spotted the green sign above the matching canopy, Keith’s jaw relaxed. He was certain heaven’s pearly gates were topped by a green canopy.
He closed his eyes and relaxed against the seat. The taxi’s hum, the whirr and honking of traffic all blended with fond memories of a haven where he was accepted and appreciated for who he was. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen that glow in Jenny’s eyes. He wondered if he’d ever see it again.
His cell phone bleeped anew, and the distinctive ring indicated the caller was Jenny. Frowning, Keith glared at the phone he still held. The message icon validated Jenny’s claim of leaving messages. The taxi slowed. Keith glanced out the window. Mac’s Place was only feet away.
“That’ll be $28,” the driver barked and shot a glance toward Keith’s noisy cell.
Keith pressed a button that ended the beeping and turned off the phone. He was in the mood for coffee and nothing else. He dropped the phone into his overcoat pocket, dug out his billfold, flipped the driver his fee and tip, grabbed his briefcase, and emerged into the sunshine.
The second the taxi door banged shut behind him, Keith was amazed at how a place so familiar could appear so new after only a few years. He gazed at the storefront of the small café and coffee shop, once his primary hangout. The place hadn’t changed much. Yet he had changed in ways he couldn’t explain, and the new Keith longed to connect with the man he once had been—the man who’d claimed Mac’s Place as his second home.
The only thing that would have made the moment perfect was a sudden downpour that would force Keith to pull his coat over his head and make a mad dash for the door. It was pouring the last time I left Mac’s Place, he reflected and glanced toward the sky. Any hopes of rain were annihilated. The sky was as cloudless as when the plane landed. Unable to stand the overcoat another second, Keith slipped his billfold into his pants pocket, shrugged out of the coat, and draped it over his arm.
A breeze danced along the street and cooled the perspiration beading his collar. The cold moisture brought back even more memories. Three years ago when Keith left Seattle, he had been lighthearted in spite of the downpour that soaked him to the skin. He would never forget his last night in his favorite coffee shop. The visit had turned into a celebration of his new job and new wife. Today he felt as if both had turned into boulders he was dragging uphill.
As he stepped forward, the cell phone in his coat pocket bumped against his thigh. A hint of guilt nibbled at the back of Keith’s mind, but he dashed it away. His bankrupt life needed change. And the relationship with Jenny was at the top of the list. As long as Keith continued to interact on the old levels, the relationship would remained stagnant. Of course, hanging up on her and turning off his cell weren’t exactly the steps toward a fresh start either.
The cafe’s door opened. The smell of creamy cappuccino and the house’s special mellow brew enveloped him in a welcoming beckon. A stocky man exiting looked Keith squarely in the face and didn’t even smile. Keith returned the favor.
While impatient pedestrians maneuvered around him, Keith took several hesitant steps toward the door. What if no one remembers me? he worried. And Joe? What about Joe? What if he’s not even here anymore?
He reached for the worn, brass knob…and then pulled back. What if they do remember me and ask how I’m doing? Somehow, in his drive to escape his problems, Keith had failed to assess the dynamics of his old haven. In longing for the comfort of the past, he’d neglected to prepare himself if they’d forgotten him—or practice his speech if they remembered him.
The door opened again. This time a young woman exited. She was about 30, had long blonde hair, and the kind of eyes a man remembered. When she took a second look at Keith, he thought of Jenny and ignored her.
He was here to remember…to be remembered, and nothing more.
Laughter greeted Keith as he slowly turned the knob and pushed open the beveled glass door. The sweet smell of blended coffee beans wafted over him like a warm blanket. Keith absorbed the ambiance of worn, wooden floors and the antique service bar that welcomed him home. He spotted a small group of men sitting at a table near the counter and recognized the guy at the center of attention: Joe, as usual. And the best Keith could tell the guy was about to win the corniest-joke-of-the-century award again. He smiled, increased his pace, and relished the sound of creaking floorboards. The closer he grew to the group the more his problems faded.
“So the panda gets up and heads toward the door,” Joe said, his back to Keith.
Keith noted his friend wore the usual gear—a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt with Mac’s Place scrawled across the back.
“And the waiter said, ‘Hey, you can’t come into my restaurant and act like that,’ ” Joe continued midst the low chuckles rippling through the group. “So the panda says, ‘I’m a panda, pal. This is my regular routine. Look it up in the dictionary.’ ”
Joe paused before delivering the next line. “So the waiter walked over to the bookshelf, grabbed a dictionary, and read—”
“‘Panda. Native of China,” Keith interrupted. “Eats, shoots, and leaves!”
The tiny audience turned inquisitive stares toward him. One began a hesitant snicker, and then another, until everyone at the table was laughing at the stolen punch line.
Everyone, that is, except Joe. The former basketball player stood to his towering height and turned to face his joke spoiler.
“Keith Richardson!” he accused with a broad grin that revealed his chipped front tooth. “Of all the coffee joints in the world, you had to walk into mine! And I was on a roll!”
“Joseph Conrad, you never could tell that joke right. Good thing I got here when I did.” Keith dropped his briefcase and overcoat into an empty chair.
A quick handshake turned into a back-whacking hug.
“What has it been? Three years?” Joe stepped back, gripped Keith’s shoulders, and looked his friend eye to eye.
“Three years, one month, ten days. But who’s counting?” Keith tried to sound upbeat, but he wasn’t sure he’d even come close to fooling Joe. His keen eyes missed little. Keith averted his gaze, and spotted a cup of steaming coffee that called his name.
“Seems like yesterday we were holding your farewell party,” Joe recalled. “Hey, remember the skit Rick and Charlie did? Rick was playing you, trying to get onto an airplane carrying that guitar of yours and hitting everything and everyone in sight.”
Keith smiled and continued the story. “Charlie played the female flight attendant, trying to get me to my seat without killing anyone. Of course we all nearly killed ourselves laughing at Charlie’s scrawny legs sticking out of that skirt. That was quite a skit—and closer to the truth than they’ll ever know. I still have that guitar, but I don’t take it on airplanes anymore.”
“Good!” A tall, bearded man from the next table stood and walked toward Keith. “But I’ll have to say it’s more dangerous when you’re playing it than when you’re swinging it at people.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied a short, scrawny guy who made a similar move. “I always thought his singing was more lethal than his guitar playing.”
“Rick! Charlie! You two old coots! I didn’t even see you!”
As usual the two regulars had blended with the scenery at Mac’s Place like a well-worn bar stool that no one sees but everyone enjoys. The hand-pumping and back-whacking resumed, and Keith came close to convincing himself that the last three years had never happened. But the memories of the morning’s bitter fight and his credit card being declined at the airport insisted that the last three years had happened, and happened with a vengeance.
“When did they let you two out of jail?” Keith chided with a sarcastic grin.
“They threw ’em out!” Joe chimed in. “The other inmates complained that their horrible puns were cruel and unusual punishment.”
“The jailers separated us,” Rick spoke up. When he wiggled his brows, Keith noticed one of them had nearly been replaced by a mangled scar. “So we had to use ‘cell’ phones to talk to each other.” He tugged on his graying beard, which was as pale as his skin was dark.
Keith’s groan mingled with Charlie’s.
“That was really bad, man,” Charlie countered.
“See what I mean?” Joe said and rolled his eyes.
“Boy, it’s good to see you clowns!” Keith couldn’t have stopped his grin even if he tried. “I had no idea who might be here today.” He gazed around the sparsely occupied tables but recognized no one else.
“What brings you to town?” Charlie asked as he pulled a couple of chairs up to their table. They all sat down except for Joe, who stopped by the joke victims for a quick word and then hustled behind the coffee bar.
“I flew in from Detroit for some real coffee,” Keith replied and longingly gazed toward the stainless steel machines and coffee-related gadgets behind the service bar. Nobody could do coffee like Joe.
“Good choice!” Joe said with a wave. “I’ve always said my coffee’s worth a trip across the nation.”
“Oh brother!” Charlie complained. “He’s having another ego attack.”
“When you’re good, you’re good,” Joe said with a bow fit for an encore.
Keith glanced toward his two companions.
“Makes me want to put salt water in the Bunn,” Rick mumbled.
“What an idea,” Charlie whispered. His blue eyes bulging with mirth, he nudged the saltshaker toward his friend.
The three shared a chuckle, and Keith was so inspired he removed his tie and suit coat and dropped them in the chair with his overcoat. Something about the “Vietnam vets turned fishermen” always made Keith want to slob out in a pair of frayed jeans and a leftover shirt and think about nothing but whether or not the cooler was full of Cokes and if there was still bait on his hook.
“What are you two up to now?” Joe eyed the pair and included Keith in his final glare.
“Who us? We wouldn’t—”
“What makes you think we’d—”
The two continued with such innocent-sounding platitudes and guileless expressions that Keith laughed outright.
“If you run with those two long, you’ll be in jail, Keith!” Joe warned with a fond grimace. Then, without missing a beat, he asked, “So what’ll it be? You want a Red Eye?”
“You remembered!” Keith said. Joe’s Red Eye—a shot of espresso in a cup of Mac’s Blend—was the sweetest. “Can you add some cream?” he asked and stood.
“Cream! When did you pick up that nasty habit?”
“Up in Michigan.” Keith meandered toward the service bar and settled onto his favorite bar stool. The fit was as good now as it had been three years ago. He relaxed against the back and nearly closed his eyes to savor the moment.
“I found me a coffee shop there,” Keith continued, but he didn’t add that the place was as personable as a sterilized surgery ward. “Problem is their coffee smelled like a pair of gym shoes after an all-day basketball tourney. I had to do something. Now I’m kind of used to it. You can leave it out if you want.”
Joe smiled even broader. “For you, dear friend, I’ll bring out the half & half.” He went to the small refrigerator behind the bar, mixed the cream with the coffee and espresso, and handed the steaming cup of coffee to Keith.
He eagerly sipped the velvet liquid and savored the way it slipped down his throat and warmed his stomach. He inhaled the steam and went for another swallow before sliding off the stool and following Joe back to Rick and Charlie’s table.
“Now tell us. What gives?” Joe grabbed his chair, turned it backward, straddled the chair, plopped into the seat, and rested his arm along the top rung. “Are you just visiting, or can we persuade you to give up your dreams and move back to Seattle?”
Keith strangled on his latest swallow and hacked until he reached his vacated chair.