Shaft-Getting

Man walks into the coffee shop, and he’s talking before the door closes behind him. I think he’s talking to me, so I turn toward him. He says he’s got shaft work to do at the old Eagle Building. It takes three or four seconds to realize he’s talking to the old guy with the newspaper. The old guy’s in here all the time, holding his newspaper like he’s got a giant moth by the edges of its wings. He sits a bit away from the table, which seems like an accessory to his daily scene, and his legs are comfortably crossed. He should be wearing a robe and a pair of slippers. He’s not that old, though. I’m figuring he’s a buyout retiree, or maybe he’s one of those half-retired consultants.

The man continues his talking with the obvious joke that comes after saying you’re working in a shaft, but the old guy has already begun his greeting and response to his first statement, so the joke hangs out there, lost. I can see in his eyes that he wants to try it again, but decides against it. I want to tell him that the joke came too close to the tail of his first statement – that he was overzealous in his plan – and that his delivery suggested he had made this statement about “getting the shaft” four or five times before he even got to the coffee shop, or else he practiced it in the truck on the way over, or his wife said it to him while chasing her flaxseed oil capsule with a glass of orange juice, leaning on the door jamb in the entryway of the kitchen, and she delivered it so perfectly that he knew it had to be his line for the day. She’s home with a baby and a sick kid all day, so when would she possibly use it anyway?

The old guy must have retired from the same kind of work: shaft cleaning, duct work, or maintenance, something filled with dirt, grease, and labor, because he knows the man – puts an ee on the end of his name like he’s had a beer with him once or twice. The man’s name is Rick or Jim to me, but he’s Ricky or Jimmy to the old guy. It occurs to me that he’s Ricky or Jimmy because the old guy’s in a good mood. My father would call me Frankie when things were going particularly well for him, or else it was an irritated, booming Frank, a sound like a stab in the air, a salad bowl thud off the kitchen counter, or a hard thigh to the corner of the coffee table.

The old guy says, “Nah, I’m not going in today. But they’re serving lunch again this year to the guys.”

“Yeah? They had that thing catered last year. What a spread.”

“Yeah, but you need a ticket.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, you need a ticket this year. I’m not going in, but I got a ticket. I’m going in for that lunch.”

“I don’t have a ticket.”

“You’ll be filthy from all that shaft work anyway. I’m just going in for that lunch and going home to relax.”

The old guy shakes the giant moth in his hand to get enough momentum to turn the page of the newspaper without much trouble. I’m not sure what he thinks he’s reading, but he’s been turning the pages too fast to give proper attention to even one article. This might be just a routine for him. The newspapers read the same things every day, anyway. They’re reality Mad-Libs, and the reporters are filling in Proper Nouns every morning. Shaft goes to the counter to get his coffee. It’s too small a space to guarantee he’s out of earshot, but I have to say something to the old guy.

“Is it possible to get another ticket?”

“What’s that?” the old guy folds down the side of the paper he had gripped in his right hand.

“I was just wondering if you could get another ticket.”

“No, no, no. They don’t give out these tickets to just anybody. It’s a catered meal, and they cook up only a certain amount of food. Nope, got to have a ticket, son.”

I turn away, half to think about it and because the old guy’s still got the corner of the paper folded down. I want him to know the conversation’s over for now. On my right, the store manager is opening cardboard boxes one at a time. They’re filled with bags of coffee beans, travel mugs, and French press carafes she’ll have to stack on the shelves. I don’t want to turn back to the old guy, so I count twenty-seven boxes of merchandise she has to verify, unload, and display. She and I have spoken about this before – how she has no business doing this since she’s the store manager. There are teenagers behind the counter steaming the milk and grinding the beans. Her reasoning changes every time: the manager is responsible for inventory, she’s likes doing this kind of work, the girls who work the counter are nicer to look at. The answers get more personal each time, so I don’t ask again. I don’t care what the girls look like behind the counter. All I’m interested in is the coffee. If it’s fresh and it’s fast, the girls could look like bag ladies.

Shaft is back with his coffee, “Take care,” he says on the way out. The old guy sits behind his newspaper and says nothing. He’s been on this page longer than the others. I’m sitting in front of a large window that overlooks the parking lot, so I can see Shaft get into his truck, do something I imagine is finding a proper place for his coffee, and start the engine.

Back inside the old guy begins to get up to go, takes a last sip of whatever he had to drink, and lays the folded newspaper down on the table. I turn back in his direction, and pretend to look out the window on his side of the coffee shop. I want to see the page the newspaper is opened to, because he’s been on that one page for a comparatively long time, but I don’t want him to know I want the paper. I don’t want this guy to think I want anything from him.

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