Routine: A Short Story

by Chris Linden

You’ll go to work at six thirty like you do every morning. You’ll open the doors, turn on the espresso machine, and wait for the crowd to form. It’ll be another normal day in another normal job. You’ll smile at your regular customers and ask them how their weekends were. You might even have their drink ready before they order. George comes in for a cappuccino at nine every morning. Helen gets a regular drip coffee to stay at ten fifteen. Carol has a large decaf latte to go at seven a.m. — you’re not sure why someone would order decaf that early in the morning, but you make it every day nonetheless. It’s always the same people, the same drinks, the same time.

One Tuesday morning in the middle of August, you’ll see a man come through the front door. Moments later you’ll catch a scent reminiscent of either a transit centre or a bottle depot. You’ll watch as he moves from table to table asking people for change, a cup of coffee, a muffin. Your first response will be to ask him to leave — this is a reputable establishment, after all — but you’ll be halfway through steaming a pitcher of milk. You’ll see Tony, large Americano at eight twenty-five, walk over to the till with him. You’ll take Tony’s money and get the man a drip coffee and a muffin. To go, you’ll insist. You’ll give the man his coffee, and he’ll crack a smile filled with the yellowest teeth you’ve ever seen. You’ll respond with a half-hearted, “Have a nice day.”

You’ll forget about the man as the next rush hits. It’ll be lined up to the door. There won’t be time to think about previous interactions; customers will need to be served. Mark and Kevin will be in for their ten o’clock espressos. Sarah will need her nine thirty mocha. Your last drink of the shift, as usual, will be Teresa’s drip coffee. She always gets the featured blend and this day will be no different. You’ll make her coffee then swap with Marcus, who works the closing shift. You’ll head home because it’ll be just another day.

The next day you’ll do it all over again. Time always passes too slowly for your permanently-caffeinated taste, and the minutes will tick past as the morning wears on.  You’ll glance at the clock throughout your shift. Seven forty-five. You’ll make a few more drinks. Eight a.m. You’ll call out an extra-hot large half-sweet vanilla latte with soy and wonder why an order needs to take more than five seconds to say out loud. The woman who picks up the lengthy-titled latte will chirp on about how she would never make it through her spin class without her coffee. You’ll wonder how quickly you would vomit if you had the same drink before spending an hour on a stationary bike.

Eight twenty-five. Tony will come in and order his large Americano. You’ll remember the man he paid for the day before, but the man won’t be there. He’ll have just been an anomaly, an irregularity in your otherwise regular life. The usual nine o’clock rush will hit and the morning will slip away as each order will blur into the next. Before long, it’ll be noon, and you’ll be free to get lunch. You’ll sit in the office on your break, eating leftovers from last night’s meal. You’ll finish your break and resume your shift half an hour later. As you walk out of the office, you’ll see the man waiting at the end of the bar. Your co-worker Kelsey will serve him his coffee, and he’ll crack that same yellow smile, first at her, then at you. You’ll nod and wave in what you think is a friendly manner.

The man will become a regular customer, though he won’t be like any of your other regulars. He won’t come for coffee at the same time every day. He won’t order the same thing. He’ll tell you he wants to try everything on the menu to figure out what he likes best. This will make you smile — a real, genuine smile. You’ll ask for his name, and he’ll tell you it’s Matthew. He, like most of your other customers, won’t ask for yours.

Your conversations with him will grow longer over the weeks following his first visit. You’ll ask more interesting questions than, “What kind of coffee would you like today?” or, “Would you like a muffin to go with that?” You’ll learn that he has a son around your age, whose name will be Danny. He’ll tell you that his family lives in Manitoba. He’ll add that he and Danny’s mom have been divorced for a few years. You’ll ask why he’s in Edmonton, and he’ll say that he moved to Alberta to work in the oilfield. He’ll have been out of work for a little over a year.

You’ll never speak to him for more than five minutes at a time, but you’ll begin to look forward to those unpredictable five minutes as August turns to September to October. The weather will cool, and the leaves will be all but gone by the second week of October. You’ll be planning family dinner for Thanksgiving Sunday, as usual. Matthew will come into the cafe the Friday before Thanksgiving, and he’ll ask about your holiday plans. You’ll tell him that your extended family will be coming to town for the weekend, that the house will be full and more hectic than you prefer. You’ll pause part way through your conversation and ask if he has any plans. He’ll tell you that he doesn’t, and he’ll leave it at that. You won’t pry. You’ll consider inviting him to your family dinner. “What’s another person at a table set for fifteen?” You’ll ask yourself, but you won’t extend the invite. Your mother will be stressed enough without having to worry about you bringing a stranger over for dinner. Or at least that’s what you’ll tell yourself.

You’ll see Matthew again the following week. He’ll ask how the holiday was, and you’ll say it was fine. The conversation will be short, but you’ll blame that on the group of six who came into the cafe right after Matthew. You’ll see him the next day and the day after that. Life will settle back into its usual routine.

One day, in the middle of November, after the second big snowfall of the year — the one which won’t melt until the spring — Matthew won’t come in. You won’t think much of it – your shift ends at two, so he’ll probably come in later. He won’t come in the next day or the day after that. You’ll start asking the afternoon shift if they’ve seen him. They’ll say that they haven’t.

After a week, you won’t think about him anymore. Your life will be back to its same old routine. Your other regulars will still be there. George will still come in for his cappuccino at nine. Helen will get a regular drip coffee to stay at ten fifteen. Tony will still be in for his eight twenty-five Americano. This pattern will persist throughout the rest of the winter.

Early in January, a young man will enter the cafe. He’ll be about the same age as yourself, and you’ll be sure that you’ve never seen him before. He’ll order a drip coffee and a muffin and start chatting with you at the end of the bar while he adds some cream. He’ll tell you that he’s from Manitoba and that his name is Danny. He’ll mention that his father hasn’t contacted him in a while, but that when they last spoke his father told him that he had been coming to this cafe regularly. You’ll ask if his father’s name was Matthew, and he’ll say yes. You’ll tell him that you remember his father, but that you haven’t seen him in a couple of months. Danny will say that his father was supposed to visit him for Christmas, but that he hadn’t arrived on the bus that he was supposed to take. Danny will tell you that he had come to Edmonton to see if he could find him but that he hadn’t had any luck. He’ll thank you for your time, and you’ll ask him to let you know if he finds any more information.

A few months later you’ll be riding the bus, on your way to work at six fifteen in the morning, and you’ll see a newspaper abandoned on the seat across from you. You’ll start flipping through it, skimming the headlines without any grabbing your attention until one sticks out — a short, three-paragraph article at the bottom of a page in the “Region” section. It will mention that a man was found dead in the River Valley. He’ll be unidentified, and the coroner’s report will say that he’ll have been there most of the winter. The bus will pull up to your stop, and you’ll put the newspaper aside.You’ll open the cafe and serve the same people the same drinks at the same time, but you’ll hardly notice what you’re doing. It’s routine enough that you could do it in your sleep.

Banner photography courtesy of Tracy Benjamin