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Amusements


Amusements
by Jacqueline West

She’s opening the shop this morning. She starts the coffee machine, the water heating in its reservoir as she takes the ruffed white filters from their stack. Today it will be Vienna roast, Sumatran, French roast, cinnamon-hazelnut, and house decaf. He’ll order the French roast. He’ll ask for it black, then add cream and three packets of sugar when she isn’t looking. She already knows this.

She heaps the ground Vienna roast into its paper bowl, her hands quick and clean. She removed the polish from her nails last night. He’ll prefer the natural look. She’s wearing her hemp-string necklaces, silver and green beads that Charlie made for her ages ago. She’s heard he’s in Paris now; an architect.

The coffee spatters into its carafe. She grinds the beans for the next batch, inhaling the rich sawdust smell, the scent of her own skin beneath it. She smells like lavender today. He’ll like lavender. Someday, it will remind him of her. Every time he catches a whisper of it from an opening closet or on a passing woman’s hair, he’ll feel his heart twist. He’ll go home to his desk, and everything he writes will have a hint of loss in it, even the happy scenes. That bittersweet balance will become his signature.

It’s eight o’clock. She turns the sign on the door from Closed to Open. Heidi arrives, shouts, “Hello, Amy! I’m here!” She hears the lights snap on in the kitchen. The refrigerator chuffs and slams. Heidi’s knife taps a cutting board.

The coffee shop where she works is in a college town. Soon students, professors, locals, artists will be filling the mismatched seats. She turns on the lights above the battered wooden tables. Glow streaks the brushstrokes of Cam’s latest collection, arranged on the walls. Cam used to be a regular: medium cappuccino, dry. Now he comes in erratically, orders without meeting her eyes, hurries out again.

His new paintings are clockwork-themed. Cogs and wheels and pendulums intersect with the lines of a woman’s body. In one close-up, you can see the cogs forming a circle in the iris of her eye. They are the best work he has done yet. Cam knows it. He told her so, on the day that the paintings were hung. His anger at her rose from his skin like a scent.

Today, her first customer is a woman. Latte with a half shot of caramel.

She has been with women, but this one isn’t her type, she can tell. This one works with numbers and files and neatly planned programs; she needs order, not its opposite. She gazes at the paintings as Amy packs the espresso and steams the milk, pushing her expensive sunglasses up into her short, dark hair. “How much for this one?” she asks, pointing at the canvas to the left of the counter, where a woman’s elegant ankle tapers into a clockwork foot.

“It’s sold, I’m afraid.”

The woman gives a disappointed smile. “Oh, really?”

“They all are.” Amy smiles back. “It’s the first time we’ve ever sold out a show.”

More customers are lining up, and the woman backs away with her latte, still staring up at the canvas.

Amy pours coffee, foams milk, swirls syrup in the bottom of a mug.

“Hey, Amy.” A man whose arms flicker with tattoos leans against the counter. He gives her a hooked smile.

“Hey, Patrick. The usual?”

He watches her pour the shot of espresso and fill the paper cup with dark roast. “You look different today,” he says.

He’s right. Her long, wild hair is pulled up in a loose knot. Her blouse is flowing ivory, dotted with needlework. Patrick liked her in black t-shirts for metal bands. He liked her hair loose. He liked her red nail polish.

“Do I?” she says. She touches a wisp of hair, making sure he’ll get a faint breath of lavender, not cinnamon.

“What are you doing after work tonight?” he asks anyway, his smile wavering.

“I’m busy tonight,” she says. She sets the to-go cup on the counter.

“How about tomorrow?”

“I don’t know,” she says slowly. She gives him her smallest smile. “Ask me tomorrow.”

He steps away. His eyes are confused; she feels them sweep her again, wondering what he got wrong. “Okay,” he says. “See you.”

He’ll head back to the tattoo shop. The next Bettie Page he inks will have Amy’s blue eyes.

“Heidi, can you take the register for a second?” she calls toward the kitchen. “I forgot to put the music on.”

She flips through the stack of CDs. Their cases are cracked, gummy, worn. Brian’s is the most worn, even though it’s among the newest. People request it; the hometown boy now on national tour, Grammy buzz already spreading.

The first strains of guitar filter through the shop, at once softer and louder than the grind of coffee beans and the hiss of the steamer. She sees patrons’ lips moving along. They all know the words. They don’t know that they are singing about her.

There’s a lull around 10:30. The students are in class, the start of lunch rush an hour away. The timing is perfect.

She sees him pushing open the old wooden door, a burst of late spring sun glazing the shoulders of his canvas coat. She knows who he is. She doesn’t recognize him; she didn’t know what he would look like, but she knows that he’s the one.

She smiles warmly—not too warmly—as he approaches the counter. He’s carrying a heavy satchel with a shoulder strap. It gives his head a sideways, almost sheepish tilt.

“What can I get you?” she asks.

“Just coffee, please. Large.”

“Vienna, Sumatran, cinnamon-hazelnut, or French roast?”

“French roast, please.”

She smiles again. “For here or to go?”

“For here,” he says, watching her hands tap at the register. “Please.”

“Have a seat and I’ll bring it to you.”

He sidles awkwardly around the tables, hauling his satchel. His hair is long and dark brown. It hasn’t been washed today. Strands of it fall over his eyes as he settles himself at a table. She watches him take out a notebook—black, leather-covered, thick with inserted notes—and a pen.

She takes her time pouring his coffee. She chooses a green mug on an aquamarine saucer. He will notice this. He will remember.

She winds her way to his table. She knows how to move through the shop without bumping chairs or spilling drinks, and the technique gives her a graceful, almost dancelike sway. He looks up long before she sets the cup down.

“There you are.” She smiles at him. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

She drifts off through the shop, wiping tables, straightening chairs. Once her back is turned, he adds cream, three packages of sugar. Then he opens the battered notebook and scribbles for several minutes. Now and then his head rises, like a long-distance swimmer taking a breath. His eyes are glazed and distant. They focus when they land on her.

“You look like you could use a refill,” she says, stopping beside his table. “I’ve got a fresh pot of French roast.”

“Oh.” His smile is hesitant, still unsure of his luck. “Yeah. Great.”
When she sets the full cup back down, he has closed the notebook and pushed it aside, marking his place with a pen.

She knows what to ask. Not What are you working on? Not Are you keeping a journal? It needs to be open-ended, without pressure, a hint of compliment layered inside. “Are you a writer?” she asks.

He grins. He combs ink-stained fingers through his hair, brushing it out of his eyes. “No. I try. But that’s all it is.”

“I bet that’s what all writers do.”

His eyebrows twitch. “Do you write?”

“Me?” She touches the beads at her throat. Makes sure they catch the light. “No. I read. I’m a pretty bad writer, but I’m an excellent reader.”

His smile broadens. “What do you read? Do you stick to certain genres, or…?”

She gives a little laugh. “I’m pretty erratic. I just finished an e.e. cummings collection, I finally plowed through Infinite Jest, and I’m halfway through Middlemarch. And I’m reading Cat’s Cradle for the fourth time, so I’m not sure that counts as reading anymore. It’s more like a mantra.”

“So you’re a Vonnegut addict too?”

Of course she is. She smiles, almost bashful. “When I was a junior in high school, I decided to make him my imaginary grandfather. Like an imaginary friend, but wiser and more nicotine-stained.” She sends the smallest, bird’s-wing glance toward the notebook. “Are you working on a novel?”

He rests his fingers on the closed cover. “It’s sort of a memoir in novel form. Or a novel in memoir’s clothing, or something. I’m not sure if it will turn into anything real at all.”

“It will,” she says. She gives him a last smile, looking straight into his eyes, before turning back toward the counter.

“What do I owe you for the refill?”

She waves a hand. “It’s on me,” she says. “Just come back again soon.”

He doesn’t answer aloud. He doesn’t have to.

As she brushes past the tables, a blond girl with dreadlocks glances up at her, doing a careful double-take between Amy’s face and the painting above her textbook-strewn table. Cam made her clockwork eyes beautiful and terrifying, their interlocking metal gears grinding everything in their gaze. They are such a light brown, they are nearly gold. He’ll be angry at her for a long time. His anger will burn into beautiful things.

When the writer with the satchel gets up to leave, he takes his time, making sure Amy looks up from the counter. He waves. He combs the hair back out of his eyes again, smiles at her, then steps through the door, walking like a man who wants to be watched.

This one will take time, she can tell. A few months, at least. She’ll get to know his friends, let him take her to his favorite spots, listen as he reads aloud from his work. His writing will be good—technically good, but lacking something. She’ll betray him then, maybe with a friend of his, maybe with the next stranger. This one doesn’t need anger, or a myth of the girl that got away. This one needs heartbreak.

As day fades to evening, she leaves the shop, walking home along the busy, shady street that winds away from campus, through old houses remodeled into cafes and boutiques and bookstores. Brian’s face, that famous wounded wolf expression, stares out at her from the cover of the newest Rolling Stone. She buys a copy at a newsstand. He’s wearing a shirt she doesn’t recognize, something expensive and trendy that his managers picked out, or something the photographers chose. His hair’s a little longer, carefully careless. But she recognizes the necklace peeping out of his collar: the tiny wooden square she bought for him on their trip to Seattle, its veneer scratched with the infinity sign.

In her second floor flat in the old brick house, she pages through his interview. The reporter did a good job catching the rhythms of Brian’s speech. She can practically hear him in the room with her, his sweet, always slightly hoarse voice. They talk about the inspiration for the album. Every song on the album is about her, in one way or another; on the surface, in songs like “Four-Leaf Clover/Her Green Eyes,” and at the edges of other songs, hidden in references that only Amy will catch. Brian mentions a breakup, peripherally, and then talks about the recovery after that type of loss, the way we sometimes need to mourn for people who are still alive, but utterly gone.

He never mentions her by name.

A review of the album follows. Glowing terms. A masterpiece. Five stars.

Smiling, she sets the magazine aside.

She takes down her long, wavy hair and heads to the bathroom. Inside the mirrored cabinet, she checks her vials of oil: myrrh, eucalyptus, cinnamon, vanilla, mint, lavender, night-blooming jasmine, sandalwood, musk, freesia, lily-of-the-valley, ginger. It was lily-of-the-valley for Brian. She takes the little glass bottle from the shelf and sniffs at the stopper, remembering.

He won’t thank her when he wins the Grammy. They never say thank you.

She closes the cabinet again and looks at herself in the mirror.

Her eyes are already changing color.

* * *

Jacqueline West is the author of the award-winning middle grade fantasy series The Books of Elsewhere. Her short fiction and poetry for adults have appeared in journals including Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, and Ideomancer. She lives amid the bluffs of eastern Minnesota, surrounded by large piles of books and small piles of dog hair. Visit her online at www.jacquelinewest.com.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I gather writing ideas everywhere: memories, art, music, travel, fairy tales and folklore and mythology, things I’ve heard (or overheard), things I’ve noticed through a blurry car window. I’m an idea magpie, which is why I carry a little notebook with me everywhere. You never know when you’ll spot something sparkly.

The inspiration for “Amusements” stemmed from a conversation I had with my husband during a road trip. We were listening to the radio, and we started talking about a popular album that’s all about the songwriter’s painful breakup, imagining what it must be like to be the girl who had been immortalized in this incredibly famous and personal way… and then I started twisting that idea around in my mind, making the girl into something more complex and unexpected. So you could say that travel, mythology, music, things I’ve heard, and car windows all went into this one.

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