The Second Crack

By Chelo Diaz-Ludden

Literary fiction

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359
8 mins

Day 1

December 15, 2010

Day 1

In an act of rebellion that surprises me, I pour the espresso into a Japanese tea cup with no handle, then sit and sip. Unlike my adventurous sister, this is the way I travel the world, cup by cup. Over fifty countries grow coffee and I’ve visited them all without ever leaving The Bean. I’ve sampled Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, India, Malaysia, and Vietnam, all from this small cup. My thumb pad rests along the crack in the porcelain that’s been filled in with gold, a Japanese tradition that honors past wounds. I think that if people were repaired the same way; foreheads etched with brass hairline fractures, chips of silver embedded along fingers, bolts of gold shot through hearts, then we would know the places to be careful with. I lift the cup to eye level. At this angle there’s no telling how deep the crack, it could be only decorative.
After I drain the espresso, a hint of wine scent from the Kenyan beans lingers in the bottom. Nausea splashes up my throat. I rinse the cup out, set it in the sink behind me, and then run down my checklist to see if there’s anything I forgot to do:
left a note for Suz
filled coffee bins and display cases
unlocked The Bean
turned on the open sign
brushed the door zither twice for luck
All in that order.
It’s five minutes ‘til 7:00 and looks like rain. I’m all about safety, so I drag out the rubber mat that reaches from the door to the counter. I don’t want anyone slipping and falling. Nothing bad has ever happened to any customer inside The Bean. The dishes are vintage Pyrex, every hour I check the temperature in the soup pots, and every night I go over the tables and counters with bleach.
I wash my hands, then scan the dining room. A vase with fresh roses is in the exact center of each table and the Christmas lights wound around the coffee tree are plugged in. Johnnie’s popsicle-stick snowflakes hang between the tree’s waxy green leaves and bright red berries. The snowflake with Suz’s name twists around and around as if it’s caught in a gust of air from a door or window, the glittered ‘S’ going from sparkle to shadow and back again.
Suz isn’t downstairs yet. I let her sleep in because she’s not used to Portland’s time zone anymore; there’s a nine-hour difference between here and Johannesburg. Having her back for the holidays feels like a crevice filled in, but with a nick left along the edge. After she left for Africa there was no one on this continent who knew and loved all my strange fissures. We’d grown up inseparable; in every childhood memory, she’s there, my twin, my better half. We began sharing a womb, then a crib; a year later, a wagon; at five, a tricycle; at six, a bus seat; and at eight, a tragedy. Now we can’t even share a cup of coffee. She drinks tea.
This morning she's going to help me figure out how to save The Bean. The city wants to widen Rose Way, then put an onramp and overpass to the 405 two blocks down. Some of us business owners will lose our property through eminent domain. Others, like me, might as well lose it. The gas fumes, traffic noise and gritty air will ruin The Bean’s friendly atmosphere, which is one reason I’m in the black. And the people who live here will lose too, all the up-and-comers who moved here for the plethora of rose bushes, the sprinkle of gourmet restaurants, intimate wine bars, and health food stores, the short drive to downtown’s Saturday Market and Powell’s book store. We could all lose a neighborhood that breathes easy. And I could lose my niche. Dad is on my case about a contingency plan, which I do need. But it can’t involve giving up The Bean, only saving it.

My pulsating head requires another espresso. This time I fill the grinder with a Chiapan roast. It’s not just cups, coffee beans crack too. They’re heated until they make a popping sound and smell like toast. That’s the first crack. But it’s not long enough for a dark roast. Only after the second crack, when they split, do they reach full potential and take on a smoky bittersweet taste.
I wince as the beans whir around in the grinder. The noise masks Bea’s entrance and I don’t notice her until she’s right next to me. Her silver braid hangs to the side and she’s wearing a red and turquoise serape. She stashes her spiral notebook full of Beat poems under the counter and tells me, “Menudo might help.”
“I look that bad?”
“You look wobbly.” Bea examines me like she’s lifting a corner of my skin. She does this by squinting. Bea claims it’s because she needs glasses but I think she sees just fine. “How’s your sister this morning?” she asks.
“Still sleeping. Why?”
“She sounded off key yesterday, total cacophony.” Bea slips the serape over her head and folds it in quarters. “And today you have a lot of static.”
Holding onto the coffee tamper, I swallow the gluey wad balled up in my stomach. Being a poet, Bea has some strange ideas, like listening to rose bushes. Once I asked her if she saw their auras too. She gave me her Yoda smile and said she was “more of an aural person.” But she can get that same crazed light in her eyes that Suz gets. Last week she rushed into The Bean all excited because she’d heard the roses singing a bacchanal hymn of petals drunk on dew, started scribbling in her notebook as she clamored about “songs and poems no one will ever hear if they bury those roses under concrete.”
I chalk up Bea’s claims of static and cacophony to an overdose of poetic imagination. But she is right about the wobbly feeling. I usually don’t drink more than half a glass of wine, half a beer, half of whatever everyone else is having. I never want to go past that tipping point where things slip out of your hands. But last night Suz and I celebrated her return and I guess we got carried away because this morning the oak floor has a southern slope.
Bea points out that I forgot to put the coffee trivia on the board. Shit. I grab Java Bits and open it up. My morning ritual. How could I forget? I copy the passage under my thumb onto the whiteboard:
Your large nonfat peppermint mocha latte started out in the 15th century as a small brass thimble of thick dark syrup drunk in Damascus, Istanbul and Cairo.
I cap the felt tip, relieved that the gap in my routine has been filled. Bea says she’d like to spend a year in Istanbul. “Not this year, I hope.”
“No, but soon, before I get too old for one last adventure.”
Karen, a regular, comes in. Through the window I can see her bike leaning against the verandah railing. Portland has bike paths all over the place. Sometimes it seems like the bikers have overtaken the drivers. But the drivers are starting to push back and some riders, including Karen, have come into The Bean complaining of close calls. I fear that the battle between cars and bikes will only get worse around here if the freeway ramp gets built. Karen’s dark red hair is frizzy from the rain. She pulls her customer card out of her pack. I smile, try not to look like yesterday’s espresso, and ask her if she wants to try our new mint mocha.
She shakes her head. “Not in a holiday mood yet.”
“Black with room for cream then.” For coffeehouses, the holidays call for more chocolate, more mint, more coffee, more of anything that helps you cope with crazy people who used to act normal but are now in manic-depressive-hyperactive Christmas mode.
“How’s that petition going?” she asks.
“We got three-hundred-thirty-two signatures.”
Most everyone on Rose Way has endorsed my petition to stop the city’s freeway plans. Karen gives me a thumbs up. She was one of the first to sign, but her landlord, who lives across town, is hoping to make big money selling her duplex. I could make money too, if I wanted to sell, which I don’t. I give Karen her change and she drops it into the donation jar for Mariah.
After she leaves, I call Suz. She doesn’t answer. I leave a message, reminding her that Dad and Johnnie will be here soon. Then I gnaw at the bits of flesh around my nail as my stomach coagulates. In Johannesburg it’s dinnertime, but that doesn’t mean anything because Suz’s inner clock is messed up and she said she couldn’t sleep on the plane and she was too excited to sleep the night before she left, so I’ll give her a bit longer. Once in a while, I imagine taking off on some big adventure like Suz, but then I think about the bugs and germs, and getting lost in a place where I don’t understand the language and then I decide that there’s no place like The Bean.

A half hour and a dozen customers later, the fact that Suz still hasn’t come down pecks at my brain. She’ll only be here eight more days and yesterday she said she didn’t want to waste a minute of our time together. Worrying about Suz has become a habit, kind of like biting my hangnails. After Suz left for South Africa, I read up on malaria, cholera, and guinea worms so I could tell her all the things she needed to do to stay safe. Portland is way less dangerous than the townships of Johannesburg, but I keep thinking I should go check on her.
I tell Bea I’m just going to run upstairs to the apartment for a minute.
Bea nods. “Take your time. Take the whole day off. She won’t be here that long.”
“She wants to spend time in The Bean.”
Bea gives me her squinty look.
I rush out the door. Outside, the drizzle soaks my skin. I should have grabbed a raincoat. When I cut across the grass, my tennis shoes get wet and freeze my toes. Suz is always taking on one cause after another, she flings herself around like a hose under too much water pressure. The Bean was her idea. Nine months ago, we’d sat across from each other in the Breakfast Barn, sipping cheap Robusta. I mentioned that I could make coffee a hundred percent better than the sludge we were drinking. Suz said, “Well, it’s better than Dad’s instant.”
Which was true, but before Dad’s instant, there was Mom’s brew and then in our college years we became coffee connoisseurs. Portland has a lot of them.
“I’ve got an idea.” Suz leaned forward. “Why don’t we make our own coffee?” Her face was crazed with a fervor I’d seen way too many times. “Think about it, Annie, we could serve great coffee and food and then donate the food we don’t sell to the soup kitchen.”
“What about teaching?”
“That school is full of rich kids who don’t care about anything but their iPods and Xboxes.” She waved her hand. “The same with their parents and the administration. But selling fair trade lattes and taking leftover food to the soup kitchen, that would mean something.”
“We’d have to make money first.”
“Of course.”
When I nodded my head, I meant that I was thinking about it, wondering about just how much food she would end up giving away and if we really could make enough money to support ourselves. She grinned, taking my nod as a ‘yes’, then ran with her brain storm, dragging me, who likes to worry things while sipping cup after cup of Arabica, along with her. And Suz spun the idea as only she could. I saw shelves overflowing with coffee beans from around the world, every kind of coffee pot, coffee press, and coffee grinder, along with coffee cups and mugs, coffee books, biscotti, muscular arms lifting giant mugs of java...
Okay, maybe she didn’t go into the last bit, but back then I didn’t get out a lot and my bed had been empty for way too long. The point is that by the time we bought this old Victorian and a state-of-the-art espresso machine, I’d put heart and soul into The Bean and thought she had too. The day we signed the mortgage, we sat on the top step, dissing the cheap espresso we’d bought from some chain down the road. I looked over at Suz and thought I saw my own happiness mirrored. But in the pure blue of her eyes, or more likely in its dark pupil, other plans were brewing.
I don’t blame her, really. Suz can’t help giving succor; she’s been doing it all her life. Still, she waited until we were almost ready to open The Bean to tell me that she had to do something big before she got tied down and it was too late. I thought it was already too late. I told her, “Our sign in the window says, Grand Opening June 15th.”
“So we change it.” Suz shrugged.
“It’s been up for a month and we have ads running in the newspaper.” I tried to bite down on my hangnail, missed, and got a bit of flesh. Watching a drop of blood rise on my index finger, I told her, “Mundane details like dates are important to most people.”
“It’s a number, Annie, not a five-year-old shivering in some cardboard shack.”
I couldn’t argue with that so I opened The Bean, on time, by myself, while Suz went off to save the world, or at least help Roofs Over Africa keep out the rain.

By the time I walk around the back corner, the damp air has swelled my sinuses. I cringe a little at the army of inky slugs invading the grass. I should be used to them by now. They love Portland’s climate. Some mornings when I come down there’s so many of them the grass is almost black. They creep me out and once in a while I’m tempted to poison them. This morning there’s a fat black slug teetering on the edge of the bottom stair. I step over it. The slug lives.
I grab the door knob and pause, holding onto the cool metal. Before a door is opened, the other side is unknown. Suz finds this exciting; I find it disturbing. I twist the knob twice, then push open the door. Inside, the living room looks just like I left it, but the apartment is too quiet, no sounds of a faucet running, cupboard opening, or the heavy breath of sleep. Suz’s bedroom door is open. I walk in and stare at the empty bed. The wad of nerves from this morning volleys around inside my ribs and mixes with Bea’s warning about cacophony. I inhale... and tell myself that Suz just went... somewhere. When I walk to the kitchen, my shoes squeak across the wood floor. The note telling Suz that I’m downstairs and all she has to do is press the start button if she wants coffee, is propped up against the espresso machine. I peer inside. It’s full of water and grounds. Then I check the box of tea bags. It’s still unopened. I look around for a note.
I can’t believe she didn’t leave me a note.
On the counter are two wine corks and one red wine bottle. I hold the empty bottle up to the light. The glass is dark umber, thick and heavy. On the other side, I can see the outline of my fingers, curved crab-like around the glass. I set it down, pick up the two corks and look around for the other bottle. It’s not on the counter. I open the recycle bin, but it’s not there either. Just in case, I check the garbage. Not there.
Shit. I don’t remember last night.
I set the two corks by the sink and walk back into the bedroom. Suz’s bed is unmade, but that doesn’t mean anything because she never makes it. When we were young and shared a room, I made her bed. One time she sneaked back into the bedroom and pulled the sheet out below the comforter. When we got home from school, she pretended not to notice, but I couldn’t ignore it. I remade her bed, furious. Suz claimed she was trying to get me used to a messy world. I told her it was a good thing that there were people like me to straighten it out. She laughed and said, “I guess we’re made for different chores.” I threw a pillow at her, then picked it up and set it back where it belonged.
Her smell still lingers in the bed. I tug her sheets back into position, smooth wrinkles from the blanket and comforter, then fluff the dent from her head out of the pillow.
We were supposed to go out to dinner and then she was supposed to go over to Cameron’s and meet his wife and new baby. Years ago, Suz liked Cameron; he was in law school and donating time to legal aid. She dumped him when he scored a job with Anderson, a big time financial firm, but they stayed friends. I don’t know if she went over there last night or not. I don’t know if we went to dinner. I don’t even know if she slept in her bed last night or the sheets were tangled from her nap. They should put a skull and cross bones on wine labels to warn people like me who, every once in a while, have to relearn their limitations.


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