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Just a Cup of Coffee
a short story by B. Russell

The water is boiling on the stove in the frying pan because I don't have a teapot or a pot of any kind for that matter. Well, that's a lie. I have pots, but they're lying filthy in the sink and I don't feel like cleaning them or anything else today. Nothing's getting clean today. Today is Thursday and I'm unemployed and without prospects at the moment. There's almost no food in the fridge and no money to fill it up. All I've got in there is a bag of baby carrots, a quarter jar of peanut butter and a tin of instant coffee. Sounds like a bachelor's dinner to me.

I pour the boiling water awkwardly from the frying pan into the mug, spilling a little on the countertop, then I try to scoop the instant coffee granules into the mug with a fork, because I've run out of clean spoons and I accidentally threw away the plastic scooper that comes with the can. It doesn't work very well at first because it keeps slipping through the prongs, but then I shift the fork back so the granules balance on the flat part of the fork head. Perfect. I mix it together and viola, I have the warm part of my meal to go with the cold part. All good meals should have a warm part and a cold part. Variety is the spice of life.

The phone rings. I'm right next to it, but I let it ring a couple times so that whoever is calling doesn't think I'm desperate. I clear my throat, then pick it up and say "Hello?" in my most presentable phone manner. It's mom, and I relax again. I suppose it was silly to think that an employer would call here at a quarter to midnight.

"Hello dear, it's your mother," she says.

"Yeah, I know it's you, mom. You call me almost every day, for Christ's sake, you'd think I'd be able to recognize your voice by now."

"Now Jacob, you don't need to use that language with me, I'm your mother remember?"

"Sorry Mom."

"It's fine, dear. How is your job-hunting going? Any luck today? I've been worried sick about you."

"I've got a few interviews coming up, I'll let you know how it goes," I lied. In a couple of days I'll talk to her again and make up a story about how such-and-such company liked me but I didn't have the particular skills they needed at the moment, but they'd keep my resume on file if anything came up. My mother feels a lot better about things if she thinks I'm doing the best I can.

"That's great dear! I'm so happy. Oh, did you ever call back your Uncle Robert? You know that if you're in a bind you can always get a job at that little cafe he has."

"No, I haven't called him. But I promise I will if worse comes to worst, mom. Hey, can we talk tomorrow? My dinner's getting cold." I eye the cup of coffee again, not intending in the least to call Uncle Robert.

"Why are you eating dinner so late? It's bad for you, you know, waiting this long to eat."

"I ate earlier this evening, it's really just a snack, mom. But anyhow, I have to go."

"Do you have enough money, Jacob? I can send you a little money if you need it."

"I think I'm all right, mom." We've done this dance many times before. She offers me some family welfare, I refuse at first but she insists, and we go back and forth a few times until I give in and she sends me the money I so desperately need.

"Are you sure? I'd feel a lot more comfortable if you had a little extra. It never hurts to have a little extra, just in case."

"Nah, I'm all right, mom. I've still got a little in the bank, I should be okay for a little while."

"Oh, ok then. Well if you need any, just ask."

Oops. That didn't go as planned. But I didn't want to backpedal so I moved on. "I will mom. Look, I have to go. The pasta's getting cold. I'll talk to you tomorrow, ok?"

"All right dear, take care. We're very proud of you."

"Goodnight mom." Click. I turn back to the coffee, little wisps of steam are still coming off the surface of the liquid. I wonder how old this stuff is, it was left in the fridge by the last tenant that lived here. I pick up the can and search unsuccessfully for an expiration date, then I decide it's not worth the effort and put it down. My stomach is really rumbling now so I open the fridge and pull out the jar of peanut butter and the carrots. Don't ask me why I put the peanut butter in the fridge. I could just leave it out if I wanted to, but there's so much space in the fridge and it seemed simpler to me to put all the food in one place, so I wouldn't have to go to two places every time I wanted a meal. Very practical, really.

I tear into the peanut butter with the baby carrots and scarf them down. Five minutes later, the peanut butter's gone and I still have one-fourth of a sack of baby carrots. Dammit. I had hoped the peanut butter would go a little farther than that. I try scraping the walls of the jar to get some of the peanut residue, and when those returns diminish I'm still hungry so I just munch on the raw carrots. I absolutely hate carrots, I have no idea why I bought them. I must have figured they were a healthy thing to eat, and I'm a healthy guy so I should pick up a bag. So of course I avoided eating them at all cost until they were the only edible things left other than the peanut butter. And now they're both gone.

I have no idea why I thought moving out here was a good idea. When people ask me why I did it I tell them I'm pursuing a dream, and when they inevitably ask me what dream it is I'm pursuing I tell them I'm not sure. That confuses them usually, but it makes perfect sense to me. I didn't have a specific aspiration for coming. I didn't say, "Hey, I'm Jacob and I'm here to climb the corporate ladder." My reasons for being here are just like dreams, they don't make much sense when you explain them and you can't really remember most of them the next morning. Sometimes you forget completely.

Oh, I forgot about the coffee! I reach over for the mug and have a sip, and I find that the coffee's lukewarm now. I set the cup back down, trying to decide whether it tastes bad because the coffee's old, or because I let it sit too long. Feh. I pour the coffee out and set it on top of the graveyard of dishes in the sink. What was I thinking having coffee this late anyway? The caffeine would keep me up all night. Not that I had anything to do the next day, but it never hurts to keep yourself on a healthy schedule.

I had a friend who told me never to let myself get addicted to caffeine. "Caffeine is the Devil, I don't let any of that stuff in my system." He wouldn't drink coffee or tea or soda, not even non-caffeinated soda,, he just stuck to fruit juice and water. A few years ago he walked into an intersection without looking and got hit by one of those new Volkswagen Beetles. I don't know how I feel about the new Beetles, I prefer the older design to the new look. Anyhow, his spine got broken and he was paralyzed from the waist down. A real tragedy. But he was the healthiest damn kid I knew before that happened.

As it worked out, I wasn't falling asleep that night. I was too hungry to sleep, so it turns out I could have had that stale, lukewarm cup of coffee after all. It might have even made me feel less hungry so I would have been able to fall asleep. Well, except for that devil caffeine, which would have kept me up. So I guess it would have all been the same in the end.

I press my hands against my stomach tightly to see if that helps. It doesn't, so I try lying very still, and when that doesn't work I turn the light on again and decide that I'm going to stay up and read a while. I don't want to even look at the classifieds, so I pick up Steppenwolf and try reading that for a while. Steppenwolf is this book about an older man who doesn't have a job and rents out a room in this nice middle-class apartment complex, and he sits around and broods, and at night he goes out to bars and drinks. He seems to be independently wealthy so he doesn't have to worry about paying for his apartment or his next drink or next meal. This being said, he's absolutely miserable and loathes himself and his life completely. This confuses me because I figure if you've got a place to live and food to eat and you don't have to work at all, you're made and I don't see what he's complaining about. I would kill to have what he has. I put the book down and shut the light off again. I think some other things happen later on in the book, but I can't seem to get past the beginning.

I start thinking about what I'm going to do tomorrow. I'll probably have to call my mother again and fess up to her. I'll tell her I'm out of money and I need her to wire me some because I'm not going to find a job anytime soon. Then she's going to ask me to move back home again, and I'm going to say no way. Then again, maybe I won't. I'm not exactly making it out here. Not the way I planned, not at all. Or maybe she'll not ask me to move back home and will just send me the money. Or maybe she just won't send me the money at all and tell me to tough it out. I really don't know. She's not being as predictable as I was sure she was.

I start drifting off. Finally. Nothing puts me to sleep quicker than the sound of my own thoughts. Hell, tomorrow will be fine. I don't need food, I've got plenty of coffee to tide me over. Cups and cups of stale lukewarm coffee to keep me going, day in, day out. I'll be hungry, that's for sure, but at least I'll be awake to know it. I close my eyes and let the night take me.



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