The Jackson Pollock
Getting a cup of coffee is not the honest ritual it used to be, as sacred as a clean bra, or saying grace before a meal, or reading a magazine cover to cover. Such activities ground a person, more effectively even than religion. These days, coffee is decorated. It is too distracting to fulfil a person’s real need for a hot bitter sip, a little caffeine shiver—the get up and mojo required to face every goddamn new day. Now getting a cup of coffee is an event demanding several decisions about species of milk, as well as appreciation of the fern leaves and hearts and snails and apples that unnecessarily appear in coffee cups, which themselves are much smaller than they used to be.
It makes me tired. And what is wrong with the world in which my son, graduated with a Master’s degree, can only find work making coffee? Not even making sandwiches and coffee. He stands in one place all day every day, behind a coffee machine that looks like a Camaro, and pours pictures in people’s lattes, which those people then cover with landfilling plastic lids and slurp while texting and driving.
And what is wrong with the world in which my son is dead? The unbelievable shit frequency with which I forget. Yesterday I walked into the fancy cafe where he used to work. I say ‘fancy’ with about a box of iodized salt; I wouldn’t blame anyone for mistaking it for an industrial design studio with a species of chandeliers in bad imitation of the decor at Versailles. I walked in for the first time since it happened, likely sporting a sour look on my face. I never have been able to pretend to like a stupid person or a stupid thing. And what could be more idiotic than the establishment in which my son earned minimum wage for the last two years of his life? He always reminded me that it was minimum wage plus tips. Oh honey, hold the door. The place still made me sick. But he did all he could to calm me down about it, try to make me enjoy myself when I came to visit.
He invented a coffee design for me called the Jackson Pollock. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, but I got a kick out of it. I mean, the fact is that Blake could make one of those fern leaves in three seconds, and he made a point of taking about two minutes on my latte, allowing the brown foam to set a bit, then laboriously drizzling trails of white foam across the surface. Usually he ended with a big blob, slightly off the centre, of whatever was left in the pitcher. Once he almost got fired for the appearance of my coffee, until I told the manager to calm his soul, I had studied art history in college, I was just fine with an abstract design. I’ll never forget the look on Blake’s face. His scalp pulled back so his shaggy bangs rose above his eyebrows. He was mortified. I was damn proud of him. That was less than a year ago.
The worst part of Blake’s accident is the feeling that I have lost my partner in crime, my son I wanted the world for and who apparently cannot even experience my own species of indignation any more. The impact of the other car broke his collarbone. They put a foam brace on him, even though he was probably already gone when it happened, so that his corpse wouldn’t be deformed. Not that they told me any of this beforehand. I went in to see him and thought they must have made a mistake, he was just injured. In fact, he broke his collarbone in fifth grade and it was probably exactly the same place. I thought, Why in hell would they bother with a brace, if he was dead? He looked just like he had the first time around. The funny way he would sleep flat on his back with his hands folded over his stomach like an old man. The attendant girl at the morgue got flustered. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Christ, I was embarrassed. Blake, not my husband Bill, was the one who always understood what I meant.
Yesterday I walked in to the cafe, the only woman in the place not wearing ankle boots (more like sprained ankle boots, I always say to Bill). I ordered a regular latte from the new girl at the till. She was very kind to me anyway, even though I refused to consider any modifications or a five-dollar scone with jam for another dollar, and had that sexy young girl’s bedhead; Blake would have liked her. I waited even longer than usual for my coffee. I was grim but cheerful about it for twenty minutes, then I started to look for any species of real problem. Nothing. Nada. The girl at the till was still taking orders with her big smile. Men in dress pants and expensive sneakers were walking out as if they needed to take a pee, trying to balance recycled cardboard trays in one hand, reefing on their electronic car keys in the other and trying to shoulder open the double doors. Blake’s cafe used to be the main branch of a bank, for crying out loud.
I peered around the topknot of the woman in front of me, probably a philosophy professor, and discovered the cause. The young man standing at the espresso machine was moving very slowly because of his collarbone brace. It held his neck stiff, like those snakey woollen scarves Blake and all of his friends were always winding around their necks starting the first of September. He couldn’t look down to see what he was doing, which was why he was taking so long to make every goddamn drink. Furthermore, he was sticking his ass out in order to put his eyes at the right level, and that was just causing a traffic disaster behind the bar. His hair was falling into his face, not improving the situation. I tried to push forward to get a better look, but the woman with the topknot stood firm.
The next minute, she swooped in to take a compostable cup from the counter, turned around, almost crashed right into me, and spilled her coffee. She looked down at her duffel coat (probably from Holt Renfrew or some other place) and back up at me. What did she expect? I was standing in the same place the whole blooming time. Not my fault if she didn’t consider the fact that there was a line of people behind her. I stepped out of the coffee puddle that was spreading all over the floor and looked over to check on the handicapped barista’s progress.
He was standing up straight, half turned towards me and the redhaired woman like he wanted to know what the problem was. He looked about the same height as Blake and he had the same bony wrists and ballpoint pen reminders Blake always had written on his hand. I could only read one, something about picking Mom up at four o’clock. He was wearing one of Blake’s t-shirts, the green one I kept throwing out because it had bleach stains. It was in even worse shape than I thought; it had a big rip, and one of the sleeves was hanging off. At the back of his neck, his hair puffed over the top of the foam collar as if it had been growing over it.
I took a step back and bumped into the person standing behind me. And the barista, he reached for the big velcro strap on his brace and turned around and I just about lost it.
There were all these stray chest hairs poking up above the collar of his t-shirt. Honest to Jesus that’s the first thing I noticed, even though the boy’s collarbone looked like a shiny red goose egg with sharp white piece of bone sticking through the skin. Blood was trickling down into the fabric of that godforsaken shirt, which it was already crusted with blood and in fact, some of the red stains were already turning brown. You could tell he was trying to stand up straight, but he looked like one of those dancing puppet dolls from The Sound of Music that one of the von Trapps has been jerking around; his chest was caving in while his shoulder dropped down way below where anyone’s shoulder should be.
He was looking into the distance behind me, calm as you please. All these beads of glass were stuck in his stubble, in the oval shapes that would only surprise a person who’s never seen a shattered windshield. His face was covered in blood, evenly like someone painted it, except where the blood had been obviously washed away by the tears running out of his eyes, which they never blinked at all, and the snot coming out of his nose. There was even glass in his eyelashes, that I always teased him should be featured in a mascara ad.
I tried to think of something to say that wasn’t stupid, but before I could speak up, the manager showed up at Blake’s elbow. He smiled me, seedy little bastard, and said he was sorry for the wait. My regular latte would be right up.
Blake nodded at me and the shard of bone in the goose egg poked out farther. The goddamned philosophy professor reappeared.
The manager took the cup out of Blake’s hand and slid it across the counter toward her. And then Blake opened his mouth. Pieces of his teeth sprayed out and bounced off the counter. It was like some clumsy person spilled a cup of dry rice. The redhead professor leaned in toward him, elbowing me while she did it. Blake didn’t even look at me. He didn’t even look at his mother once. Some of his teeth shards fell down the redhead’s blouse, which was of course open and when she leaned it showed cleavage. He flapped his hand at her replacement coffee and oh god he told her it was an abstract design.