“Black as the Devil’s favorite sin,” you’ll hear a regular distractedly rattle off while she’s waiting for the conception, but that’s not quite it. That hue is more closely related to melted rust, called Sepia by interior designers and gold by Texan rigging companies.
A moment later, when you cradle your prize gingerly in your shaking hands, you peer down into its heart–not for the first time–and although you’ve visited this headspace before, you’re still slightly surprised at the serenity you’re observing. How is it that this miniature bronze pond, quiet and stationary except for the occasional heat bubbles frothing along the sides, can gift its disciples with rejuvenation? That thought has always seemed incongruent, like bearing false witness.
So you gently tip the ceramic, watching the pond slosh and ebb, mindful that a few seconds from now, everything in this kingdom will be terraformed. Nothing retains warmth forever. You scoop the potion, peel back the plastic barrier, judge your height with the facial expression of an Olympic swimmer about to dive, and then pour.
Your gaze follows the thin milky stream as it plows into the pond’s center, plummeting into the eye and spreading chaos throughout the tiny world. The cold seeps into the heat bubbles, birthing strange hybrid shapes. Vaporitic ghosts rise to mark where the swirling white plunged into the calm. Organic, hypnotic motion. Your thoughts slip East, to Madrid, to that cafe with the name you continually mispronounced even after several months of patronage. She’d chortled about that more than once, saying she found it endearing. The pinches of melody are there if you listen intently enough. Snatches of conversation from the students, many of whom she’d taught. TV personalities covering sports you never realized existed. The smell of fresh grounds, chocolate, oranges. But like a distant voice perpetually insisting you’re dreaming while the dream is in progress, you hear another note, as you have before; are those details real? The core memory certainly is, but your brain could be replaying it with arthouse panache, contaminated by time and a yearning for–
Someone in a heathered topcoat apologizes as he brushes past, mashing the buttons on his phone and pleading for the Wi-Fi to grant him an audience. You watch the patterns in the small chipped mug change. It’s steady work, this constant transformative opus, and the tide swells angrily. Tendrils wisp out like sentinels, estuaries blooming and breaking.
Her backstory was smoke and shadow; she spent her childhood tearing all over Stevens Point, Wisconsin, she coveted Songs From The Big Chair over Appetite for Destruction, and once, when she was twenty-five, she met Prince in an airport. He’d gaped at her over velvet-hinged sunglasses, growled inaudibly, and offered her herbal tea with fresh honey. She’d accepted, because it was Prince, or the Artist, or whomever, and that was appropriate decorum. When she mentioned it to you one day, offhand, as if she was asking how you prefer your toast, you suspected that particular story was unfinished–if it ever happened at all–but she wouldn’t elaborate. She said she couldn’t afford those types of luxuries.
The rust-colored whirlpool is lighter now. You stare as the cream collides with the mug’s wall, scampering halfway up and then sliding back down, spilling further into itself. “That’s a metaphor for something,” you mutter, and scribble a mental Post-It note. It could be the foundation of that epic poem you’ve been planning to pen for years. You never remember what a caesura is or how iambic pentameter works, but you have a penchant for language. She read poetry on the weekends. You rarely recognized the authors, but you’d cajole her into sharing their creations, and they would never fail to stir you in unfamiliar ways.
You’re relatively sure that’s correct.
You twirl a coffee stirrer clockwise, galaxies expanding and contracting with the movement. You imagine you understand why astronomers and nephologists choose their careers, the exceedingly complex mathematics and scientific aspects notwithstanding. Their true pursuit must be to unlock aesthetic mysteries. With the smallest nudge of your stirrer, Pangaea separates. A virus clones itself to death. Clouds transition from one form to another so quickly that it flummoxes your perception.
You could lose yourself down these spirals.
The note she’d left was so brief it might’ve just been suggestion. She’d excused herself and sprinted towards the restroom, and far too many precious seconds passed before you’d noticed her swan song: Water glass. Napkin. Specialty ink. You’d absorbed the words as they dissolved in front of you. No permanent evidence. It was completely nonsensical–assumed names and INTERPOL and “a breakdown in diplomatic relations.” She had confidence that eventually, they’d conclude their hunt could not reach fruition. She solemnly vowed that she’d search you out one day and explain. A vow whispered with drowning letters.
You cautiously press your fingertip to the mug’s side and hold it for a few seconds. The scalding heat has been downgraded to merely tepid, as if the temperature decided it was bored with your company and moved on to more exciting appointments. How long have you been sitting here? Your frame of reference is corrupted. Two minutes, perhaps? Or twenty. Or six years.
You glance up at the staff. Overclocked, they buzz from station to station, hurryingly jotting shorthand, whirring mixers, pumping flavor into cups. Their eyes flicker ever so subtly whenever you’re in line, so you assume they recognize your face, if not your name. You wonder if anyone’s noticed that you never actually drink the coffee you order. The warmth is fleeting; a thorough interrogation takes requires time and reflection, and those, you tell yourself, you have.
The spirals and patterns will explain everything.
You need only be patient a little longer.
@GuyInYourMFA is a great Twitter account that parodies the mechanics of writing literary fiction, my usual genre. A few months ago, I saw this tweet:
And particularly because I don’t drink coffee, it was a challenge I definitely wanted to try, joke or not. It’s not *quite* 1,000 words, but it’s awfully close.