Cold Coffee

By Elizabeth Gromley

It was January, the time of year when the sun hovers over the horizon for a few hours a day, reflecting against the snow so brilliantly that it hurts to see. I prefer the clouds in the winter, muting the broken sheets of ice in the road, quieting the dirty blankness, making the grey slush seem how it should seem: dull. I'll take the sun when I can feel its warmth, during those other three seasons when what it offers is more of a factor regarding temperature.

Paul was bartending, and Lloyd and I were serving. These verbs I use loosely; business was very slow. The pipes for our plumbing system ran below the restaurant, perpendicular to the stilts holding the place up. Un-insulated a few feet above the ocean, they'd frozen days ago, shutting us down for the better part of the week. But that day they were flowing again, and the three of us were called in to work, which meant more or less standing by the wood-burning stove, tossing logs in to keep it roaring. Besides the faulty plumbing, there seemed to be something wrong with the heat. The thermostat simply would not rise above sixty-two degrees. But it was cozy by the fire, where we sat in knit hats, our hands outstretched towards the warmth. From October through March I smelled perpetually like woodsy smoke, and people would ask me if I'd just been camping. No, I'd answer. I work in this restaurant...

It was four-thirty. I looked at the bleak gloaming out the window. Hard mounds of pebbly snow stood their ground against the wind gusts as sections of newspaper raced across the parking lots. Shadowy commuters in long coats jogged to frosted cars, their headlights lighting up the steam rising from each other's mufflers in rush hour haste, only to sit in gridlock on the bridge towards the expressways.

"Think anyone will come here tonight?" I asked, and the boys shrugged.

"They could," Paul said. "I think there's something happening down the street."
He was referring to the brand new Boston Convention Center, a grand glass meeting space erected nearby. It was close enough to significantly affect business. For clusters of days at a time we'd be waiting on stamp collectors or surfboard designers or hotel concierges or math teachers. Out-of-towners tended to be lousy tippers, but in the wintertime, I was poor. Conventions meant quantity, not quality, yet it was so cold I thought most of the conveners, whoever they were, wouldn't be walking to dinner but taking cabs back to the hotel, eating room service staring down at the chilly glitter of an unfamiliar city. It's what I would have done.

The wood popped and burned in our empty restaurant, and we were quiet. Behind the bar were the pumping tanks where we held the live crabs and lobsters. It was a wall of water, a wall of sound, three levels separated by chicken wire down the middle. At the base, pound-and-a-quarter lobsters meandered next to the pound-and-a-halves. On the second level we kept the big ones, the two- and three-pounders, lethargic, barnacle-speckled beasts whose burly claws required more than one rubber band clamping them shut. While the smaller lobsters were livelier and spry, the crabs on the third level were the most ornery. It took skill when one of the Spanish guys had to fetch one to toss into the pot in the kitchen. There were two kinds, the small, squat Jonah and the formidable Dungeness. Miguel was best at it, climbing the ledges of the tank and picking out the next to be snuffed. He was quick and knew how to grab them from behind as they danced and charged, wielding unbanded claws at his hands in the water. A pinch from a Jonah crab caused painful bruising, but I'd seen whole fingers turn black, infected and broken from the clamp of a large enough Dungeness. It was all of their fates to be boiled alive, smashed open and eaten, and the incarceration fueled their cantankerousness. Two glass portholes in the crab tanks made it possible to see the occasional sparring or creepy, alien legs climbing futilely towards an escape. One only had to ripple the water to scatter the live lobsters from the dead. Filmy brown shells and half-eaten bodies were thrown away regularly. A weekly waste chart in the kitchen documented the cause of each demise; often it said simply, caniballismo.

The front door opened. A man and woman paused.

"Are you open?" the woman asked.

"Yes," Paul responded. "You can sit wherever you'd like." He had been right about a convention. These two people still wore their nametags, laminated on strings around their necks.

They chose the bar. Paul made his way over, pouring two beers, handing over menus and making banal jokes about the weather. I wandered over out of boredom. The man's nametag identified him as Norman P. Murphy. The woman was Laura Cormier. Both were from a place called the Family Crisis Center of Lincoln, Nebraska. Norman was older, slight, and he'd winked at me as he hung his overcoat on one of the hooks near the fireplace. Laura wore thick glasses. She was not slight. She was smiley and loquacious, happy in that way offensively exclusive to heavy people: jolly. With their flat accents, earnestness and enthusiasm I might have taken them to be schoolteachers, but between spoonfuls of clam chowder, they told us that the convention was one of social workers.

"We thought you folks would be busy, busy, busy!" Laura said. "A lot of people I met today, visitors like us, want some Boston seafood. Let me tell you, you can't get chowder like this in Nebraska. It's delicious! Mmmm..."

I looked at Lloyd still drowsing by the fire as the telephone rang. It was a woman, Carol Wright, calling to make a seven o'clock reservation for twelve people. Could we accommodate them, she wanted to know? Yes, I assured her, there is plenty of space available tonight. I hung up, about to relay the news to Lloyd, but the phone rang again. It was a man this time, wondering what time our kitchen closed for the evening. He was planning on coming in with six people around eight; should he make a reservation? It's a good idea, I told him, and got his name. As I was writing it down the front door opened. Seven tagged people were unwrapping scarves, removing earmuffs and stamping snow off of their shoes. They weren't all together; Lloyd sat the three-top in my section and gave himself the other four, though we were pooling our tips that night, so it didn't really matter.

"Here they come," Laura said to me, clanking her spoon against her empty ceramic bowl. "My hungry colleagues. I recognize the lady in the blue hat from yesterday. She gave an interesting talk about adolescent anxiety."

The ideal dinner rush is like one of those time-lapsed clips of a blossom, when a bud forms and quickly burgeons, bursting into a dewy new flower. It stays that way for a while before it dries up, dropping one petal at a time, the pistil the last to fall off of the stem. While reproduction is spent, the branch, with all its sap and wisdom, knows it'll happen again and again as long as it stays alive.

Our broad efflorescence resulted in an accumulation of money, and though we weren't expecting it this particular night, the place filled up, the bills were high and the social workers were generous. I met Larry Peabody and his group from the Tennessee Correctional System (Larry himself head of the Tennessee Sex Offender Treatment Board; impressed, I shook his hand). I served five women from an eating disorder facility affiliated with the University of Oregon. All of them ordered fish 'n' chips. I tied a plastic lobster bib around the neck of an arthritic man in a bowtie, Samuel Bellicose, who worked in a methadone clinic out of Tallahassee, Florida. Every coat hook on the wall was bogged by wool and Gore-Tex, noses were red and runny, but beneath the kitschy naked mermaids, splintered buoys and white Christmas lights weaved through hanging crab traps, the buzz was spirited, one of genuine appreciation. The local beers and clam chowder were hits. Even the heat kicked in, and we were warm again.