Writer’s Notebook: Coffee story (with apologies to Orhan Pamuk)

This is not done. It’s probably not even good. But it’s been an interesting exercise.

But I’ll explain more later.

I can tell you only a little about the man and woman before they entered my shop. They both were new, you see, and so much of what I know about them I know only from observation. I can tell you, for instance, that the woman had recently been to the salon, because her hair looked too perfectly coiffed and still smelled of chemical fixatives and the sterile solution the scissors and combs rest in. Also, at the salon or perhaps somewhere between there and my coffeeshop, she had drunk a cup of what I’m fairly sure was rooibos tea, though I can’t imagine why anyone would stop for herbal tea on their way to coffee. What I cannot tell you, though, is where the woman was born, or who her parents are, or which of her childhood dolls or stuffed animals she might still have on her bed or in her closet at home.

I can tell you that the man smokes unfiltered cigarettes — I believe Camels — and covers the smell with a faint spray of musk cologne. And I know that he takes his laundry to the cleaners on the corner of Pettygrove, about a block away, because he placed his wallet on the table as he sat down and one of old Murray’s hand-scrawled receipts was folded among the bills, a heavily-penned corner protruding. But I do not know the name of this man’s childhood dog, or indeed what sort of car he drives — he kept his keys in his pants pocket.

I can only guess what brought them to my shop. I assume they had planned to meet here, because they approached each other immediately after the man entered, the little bell on the door still dinging when they came together. But they clearly were unfamiliar with each other. The man feigned swagger as he entered but let go his act quickly and awkwardly as she drew nearer; and when the woman leaned in to kiss his cheek hello, she seemed about to kiss his other cheek as well, in the European or the Middle Eastern fashion, but changed her mind and only bumped his shoulder with hers. They both laughed at this, each gesturing with arms outheld in shallow shrugs, but it was short, nervous laughter full of half-formed and abandoned apologies.

They sat and ordered coffee, he a tall black and she a Turkish coffee, medium sweet. The woman’s phone buzzed — no phones ring anymore, they only hum inside jackets or purses, everyone so much politer now than they were a few years ago — and she checked the caller but set the phone aside. The man removed his own phone and checked it as well, then he set it atop his wallet. The woman eyed his wallet. I cannot tell you if she was wondering what he hoped to prove by setting it out like that, or if she was guessing he might offer to pay for the coffees, and if the latter, whether she would refuse or accept. She simply looked at it, longer than a glance but not long enough for anyone to deduce any motives. When she looked back at the man, he smiled at her and slid the wallet and phone from the table, dropping the phone in his suit jacket pocket and holding the wallet on his thigh, under the table.

First, why I’m writing this. And second, why it looks like this.

A new literary acquaintance of mine, the excellent Dena Rash Guzman, is working on the next issue of the literary magazine Unshod Quills. A while ago she put the call out for some material related to a series of prompts: coffee, David Bowie (Dena is a HUGE Bowie fan), “enough rope” (whatever that means), “dancing about architecture” (is that “about” in the American sense of “relating to”? or in the British sense of “around”? You decide!), childhood, and — awesomely — Joan of Arc.

Obviously, the topic of coffee has a lot of appeal for me, and my friend and mutual-Dena-acquaintance Ryan Werner basically challenged me to write something about coffee.

This is that something.

But why does it look this way? Well, I have to confess, I love coffee so much that my head was just swimming with ideas for how to approach this, so much so that I couldn’t really latch onto an idea long enough to get started. I needed an exercise, some formula to plug into or a style to mimic (or steal). And then yesterday, while I was sipping Persian tea — made the right way, by an Iranian grandmother (I’m not kidding) — and waiting for a student (the tea-maker’s granddaughter) I’m tutoring, I started thinking about Turkish author and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. This past summer I read his brilliant novel My Name is Red, an historical murder mystery set in 16th-century Istanbul and told through the perspective of multiple narrators, who give the chapters their titles: “I Am Your Beloved Uncle,” “I Am Esther,” “I Will Be Called a Murderer,” and so on. But Pamuk doesn’t just open the door to different kinds of narrators; he takes the door off the damned hinges and throws it away: The opening chapter is told from the point of view of the person who was killed, and is titled, “I Am a Corpse.” Later, drawn pictures begin telling stories — “I Am a Dog,” “I Am a Horse,” “I Am a Coin” — not literally, but through the voice of the artist creating the drawing, like performance art; but the narrator adopts the persona of the thing he’s drawing, so the “dog” and the “horse” and the “coin” effectively “tell the story”:

Behold! I am a twenty-two-carat Ottoman Sultani gold coin and I bear the glorious insignia of His Excellency Our Sultan, Refuge of the World. Here, in the middle of the night in this fine coffeehouse overcome with funereal melancholy, Stork, one of Our Sultan’s great masters, has just finished drawing my picture, though he hasn’t yet been able to embellish me with gold wash — I’ll leave that to your imagination.

And all these object-narratives take place in a Turkish coffeehouse, where the artist sits drawing his sketches (and telling his stories) for the audience of the coffeehouse customers.

So yesterday, as I’m drinking my Persian tea and thinking about this — and thinking about my own experiences sipping Turkish coffee in Istanbul and, later, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai — I start wondering if I might try to tell a story from the point of view of coffee itself.

Imagine the cup sitting on the table. Not a fresh cup, probably — a cold cup, two-thirds empty, left behind, a dirty spoon resting on the saucer and a bit of undissolved sugar settling into the bottom of the cup. It watches the rest of the coffee shop and observes, as only a cup of coffee can.

Which is ridiculous. I am not nor will I ever be Orhan Pamuk, and I’m not going to pull off a story told from the POV of a cold cup of coffee. So I gave up that idea even while I was writing. Now, this story is probably from the perspective of some regular, that old widower who shuffles down the block from his rickety old house to sit in the coffee shop all day pretending to read the paper but really just watching the world come and go, because it’s the only social interaction he gets anymore.

Come to think of it, that might not be such a bad story after all. Maybe I’ll think about finishing this….

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4 thoughts on “Writer’s Notebook: Coffee story (with apologies to Orhan Pamuk)

  1. Point of information. ‘About’ has, in fact, a dual meaning in Britain. Both definitions and uses fit. This apparent ambiguity actually gives opportunities for nuances and subtleties, such as in the movie title ‘About a Boy’.

    M

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