Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Chapter 4.2

When Barkus walked into 'Mary's', he saw Lynn sitting at a table with a computer, a cellphone and an expression of frustration mixed with harrasment and just a touch of death-rage. He elected to order at the counter and wait until she was done to ask if she wanted company, but she looked up and waved him over to join her instead. He took the cup of coffee that Mary had automatically poured for him and as he pulled the chair out, Lynn shook her head at the person on the other end of the phone and sighed in frustration.
'No, you don't throw them all out the window and hope that things magically work out which is what I can tell you are hoping I'll tell you to do.' Pause. 'Because I know you Genevieve. Instead of hiding under the bedcovers you are going to deal with this properly. You are going to brew yourself a big pot of coffee and you are going to go back to the orange file that I gave you in November, the one labeled “Steps to complete student application”. You will find the step that each application stalled at and you will finish every one of them up. Yes, even the ones that are from 6 months ago because it's not the student's fault that you didn't do it six months ago.'Pause. 'Yes, even the ones who have quit in the meantime because if they decide to try again they will need this info on file or it will go against them.' A longer pause warranted a sip of coffee. 'Well I'm sorry Genevieve but you're in grown-up world now. The actions that you do or do not do have direct repercussions on the lives of other people. In this case, your getting hammered for a solid week in the middle of completing student applications at the beginning of the year and not getting your work done means that some students are in danger of failing their courses at the end of the year, despite perfect attendance and straight As in exams. You fucked up Genevieve, this is what it takes to fix it. Luckily for you, it is definitely fixable at this point in time, you are just going to have to put the hours in and finish the damned paperwork!' In the pause, Mary delivered a blueberry pie topped with real whipped cream, melting deliciously from the warm pie. Mary then cocked an ear towards Barkus in a mime's pose that made him grin and Lynn chuckle soundlessly, then her face turned serious again as 'Genevieve' told her something else.
'Grilled cheese and ham on wholegrain please,' Barkus said in a stage whisper.
'Well thats the good thing about compassionate leave isn't it?' Lynn said bluntly as Mary nodded and slipped away. 'Thank you for keeping me informed, but don't pay too much attention to office gossip and certainly don't give it too much credence. Okay, keep me updated on your progress. Thank you I'll pass it on. Bye, bye now, yep, bye.' Lynn cut the call, then sighed and made a face at Barkus.
'It's amazing how subordinates can think it won't be noticed when they don't do the work,' he said in response. Lynn rolled her eyes.
'Genevieve is a good kid and has high hopes, but she has a bad habit of slacking on the groundwork. Hopefully this will teach her to pay attention until the work is done, not until her flatmate gets ready to go drinking.'
'Yeah, we all have to learn that particular lesson at some point.'
They lapsed into silence then, Barkus enjoying his coffee while people-watching and Lynn looking over a document and trying to eat blueberry pie at the same time before losing a spoonful over her lap. This was not the disaster it could have been because it fell on the napkin that Lynn had placed there for, presumably, that very reason.
'Well that's an easy lesson in paying proper attention to your food,' Lynn said, picking up the napkin and eating the piece of pie. 'Mama always told me not to mix food and work. It's bad for the digestion.' Mary walked over from the counter, Barkus' toasted sandwich in one hand which she smoothly slid in front of him before turning to Lynn.
'Extra napkin?' she asked, proffering said item. Lynn grinned and laid it across her lap.
'Nothing ever gets past you Mary,' she chuckled. Mary grinned back.
'Doesn't stop 'em from trying though. Anything else I can get you there Barkus?' Barkus, mouth already full, shook his head. 'Well enjoy then,' and she turned back to the register where someone was waiting to pay and, knowing Mary's clientele and how well they all know each other, have another coffee while chatting at the counter. Lynn closed her laptop and pushed it away.
'I am taking that warning from the Universe before I end up with blueberries in my bra,' she said firmly. Barkus laughed, remembering a trip to a U-Pick with Gina in the early days of their relationship. She had had to throw out a favourite set of underwear afterwards.
'No, lingerie and soft fruit stains don't mix,' he agreed. Lynn raised an eyebrow at him.
'Personal experience there Barkus?' she teased. He assumed a lofty pose
'Gentlemen don't tell tales about their ladies,' he replied then considered. 'Or about how much said ladies curse when hand-scrubbing bras with baking soda.'
'Ugh, been there.'
'So what is so interesting that it distracted you from delicious blueberry pie?' Barkus asked, finishing the side salad conscientiously, but glancing at said pie. He didn't know when his hangover belly disappeared, but he was glad for it.
'I don't know if everyone would find it interesting,' she said, pulling the pie closer to herself. 'They're recent papers on Anthropology focusing on the anthropormorphic phenomenon.' At Barkus' blank look she continued; 'The habit of putting human characteristics and feelings on inanimate objects and natural forces. Being polite to machines and saying that a volcano is angry for example.'
'Okay, is that what you do? You work in Anthropology?' he hazarded, putting his plate aside and sipping his coffee.
'Not really, I work in University admissions. I oversee the machinery of registering students and making sure they don't get caught in the cogwheels. You could say that Anthropology has an effect on my work though, cos you wouldn't believe how ingenious and moronic the average human being can be at the same time.'
Barkus thought about some of the people he had to deal with over the course of his life and he nodded agreement.
'So how come you're going through Anthropology papers then?' he asked. 'Figuring out a better way of dealing with your superiors and minions?' Lynn laughed.
'No, I'm reviewing papers for relevance to Sarah's comedy sets.' She laughed again at his non-plussedness. 'You were not expecting that answer were you?'
'No, but that's being happening a lot in this town,' he admitted. 'Okay I'll bite, why are you reviewing Anthropology papers for relevance to Sarah's comedy set?'
'Because later tonight I'll be reading the relevant ones out loud to my father and a microphone. I record papers and books and articles for Sarah to listen to while she's on the road.'
'Okay. Why?'
'Because she can't read them herself, or at least not easily. She has strong dyslexia, even that Specials menu,' she gestured to the wall where several lines of text described mouthwatering dishes. 'She would have a challenge reading that. She still tries,' she added swiftly, and with a touch of pride in her girlfriend's grit. “But there's no way she could get through scientific papers, but that's the kind of knowledge she craves and uses in her comedy.'
'So you read it to her instead.' Lynn nodded and captured the last streak of cream and crumbs with her fork. 'I look after my father and he enjoys listening to them too so I read aloud for a good 2 or 3 hours every evening. Then when Sarah goes on tour she listens to the sound files. She says it keeps her sane while she's on the road.' Lynn said it off-handedly but the little smile belied her pleasure.
'Oh yes?'
'Yeah, before we met and I started doing this, she used to go off the rails quite a bit. The thing about showbiz is that it's a series of excitement and dread before the performance, exhilaration during the performance and sheer emptiness afterwards, until the next bout of excitement and dread begins, that's how she describes it. And that's when the show goes well. If you die on stage instead, that's a hell of a hole to try and climb out of. Different people deal with it in different ways and Sarah has found that her best way involves listening to the newest research on her downtime.'
'In your voice of course,' Barkus pointed out.
'That might have something to do with it, true,' Lynn conceded with a smile. 'I did ask her if listening to me made things easier or harder when she was away, and I didn't get a straight answer but she hasn't asked me to find a new reader yet.'
'That might just be her survival instinct though,' Barkus laughed. Lynn smiled, but there was a “oh you don't know everything” slant in her expression. 'So how does your father like it? Is he into Anthropology too?'
'Daddy has a broad interest. He was, still is a Reverend, but he, he doesn't do all that much practical work these days. In his dealings with people he got to see the direct effects of a lot of the theoretical Anthropology before he knew what the theories were.' She grinned suddenly. 'He used to get very animated when he thought that a researcher had grabbed the wrong end of the stick. Sarah said she used to double over laughing when she heard him get going. She's used a lot of his insights.'
'If you don't mind me asking, what is your father ill with?'
'ALS. Also known as Lou Gherigs disease, full title being Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It's a neurodegenerative disease, robs you of all muscular function and dignity before you die. Incurable.' Barkus was taken aback by her matter-of-fact tone.
'I'm sorry,' he managed to say. She shrugged.
'Don't be, you didn't give it to him, genetics did.'
'How long has he had it?'
'3 years and 8 months since diagnosis. He was doing just fine up to a few weeks ago when he lost his ability to speak. He was a Reverend see, losing limb mobility was hard, but bearable. He would sit out on his porch in his chair and people would pull in and chat with him. He would always talk to anyone and the more differently they saw the world, the more he loved talking to them. Most of the town would end up sitting on that porch, debating and discussing and pulling the world apart for hours. That's what he loved, the battle of wits, the verbal sparring that makes you see the world anew, the insights that can only gleaned from other people. Now, he can't even do that.' She sighed and suddenly appeared smaller and more frail. 'He's slipping faster now, but he's not scared at least. He's made peace with it.'
'But you're scared,' Barkus said flatly. She threw a suddenly fiery look at him.
'He's my father,' she snarled. 'I know that he's ready for it, but how can I be? How can I let him go?'
Barkus paused, aware of the minefield that this conversation had become.
'One of my work colleagues, Jim, he lost his wife Laura to ovarian cancer. They battled every step of the way, but she knew what was coming long before he could even talk about it. Gina and I, we used to go around to their house quite a bit, so did some of our other friends and between us we made sure that there was someone there for them every evening towards the end. Gina and the other women would insist on bringing half a restaurant of food because poor Jim would forget that he needed to eat and sleep. He was on knife-edges, 24/7, he wouldn't leave the house in case she needed him. Even when she told him to, he'd only go as far as the yard and even than only when there was someone with her. He was in dread of missing out on a single minute with her and when he had to finally face up to the fact that she was really dying, well. It nearly broke him, it really did.' Barkus sighed while Lynn stared at the wall, lips tight. 'Laura was able to speak to him right up to the end of course and I don't know what would have happened if she wasn't. I remember about a week before she died, Gina and I were in the kitchen, batch-cooking and Jim came in with a bottle of scotch and 2 glasses. Jim rarely drinks so when he gave me a glass and walked out to the deck, I followed. What else would a friend do? We sat out there and drank and he told stories, so many stories about Laura and how they met and what happened over their 15 years together and we laughed till we cried. And then he told me what Laura had asked him to do.' Barkus paused, remembering that evening, when the moths were fluttering against the porch lights, and the sounds of children's laughter wafted over from the neighbours and his old friend was staring into a yawning chasm, pain and grief etched deeply into his face.
'She asked him to let her go,' Lynn said flatly.
'Yes,' Barkus said simply, coming back to the here and now. 'She said that she wanted him to go on living, not to stew over her death. She knew him well enough to know that he needed that shove, that he wasn't going to let go of his pain on his own. If she had not told him to let her go, he would spend the rest of his life staring at her picture instead of moving on. But she needed him to start facing it before she died so that she would know that he would be okay.'
'You think people should be forgotten just because they're dead?' Lynn growled, but it was the hurt swipe of someone who knows that the other is talking sense but doesn't want to face it right now so Barkus just shook his head.
'No, Jim will never forget Laura, regardless of who he meets. And you should not forget your father whatever happens. But you cannot drag your pain around with you forever and until your father sees that you're okay he can't leave either.' Lynn looked like she might say something there but stayed silent. 'And don't tell me that you'd rather keep him here past his time when he has already made peace with it. That would be selfish, and even I know that's not you Lynn. Your father loves you, but he won't be able to rest until he knows that you'll be okay. You need to listen to him and let him go.'
And what about you Barkus? What do yo need to let go of? Barkus blinked and shoved the voice away, feeling a cold sweat pop out on his brow. He wiped his forehead with a hand that shook only slightly, but Lynn was lost in her thoughts and didn't seem to notice.
Very quietly, Lynn picked up her laptop and stood up. 'I'll uh, see you around Barkus,' she said. 'And, thanks.' She left, heels clicking rapidly. Barkus staying sitting, staring at the wall, his stomach started to churn and his temples started to throb.
Why did I use Jim? he asked himself. It was a true story, but it happened more then 5 years ago. Why didn't he talk about his own losses? Why didn't his own experiences jump to his lips like his friend's had? The edges of his vision darkened and his breath shallowed. Why am I forgetting them? What's going on with me? And then. Because she needed to hear about someone facing reality and you haven't been whispered a deeper voice. Because she doesn't need to hear about denial in the face of pain. She needs to hear about reaching the other shore, not drowning in illusions of false normality. And you are drowning John.
“Barkus? John Barkus, are you there?”
Barkus was dimly aware that someone was speaking to him and he forced himself to look up. He recognised Annie with an older man he didn't know. He forced his eyes to focus, shoved his mental anguish into a box and ordered his legs to hold him steady as he stood to greet them.
'Annie, good to see you again,' he said and was relieved when his voice emerged steady and warm.
“ You were miles away Barkus, I hope we didn't interrupt anything important,” Annie said airily, but her quick eyes noted his damp forehead and the lines of strain around his eyes. “This is Albert Roberts, my uncle. Albert, John Barkus.”
'Pleased to meet you Albert,' Barkus said, extending a hand. 'Are you Lynn's father or another Roberts?' he said without thinking, them almost immediately mentally kicked himself for a fool.
'No, I'm another one. Peter is my brother,' Albert said while enfolding Barkus' hand in a firm grip. “I'm sure Peter would like to meet you, but he's not as active as he used to be.”
'Yes, Lynn said actually,” Barkus admitted, sitting down with them. “I had forgotten for that moment.”
'Yes,' Albert sighed. “Sometimes I do too.” There was a quiet moment before Mary bustled over with a jug of water and three glasses.
'Afternoon Annie, Albert,' she beamed. “What can I do for you today?'
“Salad with vinaigrette please Mary,' Annie said with a smile.
“Hot chicken sandwich on white please,” Albert said. “Hows the new help doing back there?”
“Really well. He's got a knack for it and he enjoys it,” Mary enthused. “If he can handle the shiftwork then he's got a good career ahead of him.”
“Lets hope he can manage the long haul then.” Mary smiled again and went back to hand in the orders.
Barkus drew in a deep, slow breath, pasted a warm smile on his face and said, “So, what can I help you with Albert?”
Barkus tried to pay attention, as both Annie and Albert talked and he distractedly wondered why they were coming to him instead of directly to Sheryl as it seemed that Albert saw that his farm was in trouble and wanted advice on, essentially, a re-haul. He said this in a pause and Albert flapped his hand dismissively and Annie's face turned deadpan.
'Sheryl Monroe might have some fancy books but I want someone who's been tried and tested. I think that fella's you Mr. Barkus,' Albert said brusquely while Annie sipped her coffee, her expression slanted away from Albert. Barkus made a mental note on this, then went back to trying to keep track of Albert's rambling narratives. A song from the cafe speakers caught his ear and memories crept up behind him. Of his father playing the old piano to records, he and his bothers and sister dancing behind the stool, his mother smiling while her hands were busy churning out jams, jellies, relishes and pickles. Those days that felt like they'd go on forever and then, suddenly, did not.
''What do you think Barkus?' Barkus snapped back to current events and looked up to see Annie and Albert looking questioningly at him. He rewound the conversation and grabbed a phrase from nowhere.
'Lady Ashford Pickles actually.'
'What?' The red faced man got redder. 'I'm looking to keep a livelihood going here and all he can think about is his stomach.'
'Well your business is growing food Albert,' Annie reminded him with a smile. It had an almost magical effect as Albert first appeared to try bluster then grinned himself.
'I suppose I can understand that problem,' he admitted, slapping his generous belly. 'But I got to deal with a financial problem Annie and I want a solution.'
'My parents ran a farm,' Barkus said quietly. 'And Dad always got a ribbing when he compared the figures from his and Mom's sides of the family business.' He smiled freely, and Annie thought she got a clearer glimpse of the real John Barkus. 'He ran the livestock and the fields you see, and Mama had the dairy, the garden and the value-addeds.'
'Value-addeds?' Annie asked.
'You know, things like pickles, chutneys, socks. Stuff that isn't just 'pick it, weigh it, charge it' items. When the final reckoning came round each year, Mama had almost as much profit as dad despite the fact that he had 10 times as much acreage as her. The secret she said, was to find what people really wanted to enjoy and make it available to them.' Albert was watching him carefully and Annie had an eyebrow raised. 'For example, she found out by accident that all our neighbours really wanted a type of pickle called 'Lady Ashford Pickles'. Thing is it needs yellow pickling cucumbers, no green at all and there were none to be had anywhere at the kind of price where you didn't have to wait for a special occasion to pop a jar. So Mama immediately contacted someone 2 days drive away that had yellow cukes and went and swapped seeds with her. The following year, three-quarters of our cukes were yellow and Mama made them all into Lady Ashford pickles and inside 2 weeks Mama was driving a rented truck to pick up as many yellow cukes as she could lay her hands on. Everyone in our town wanted 10 jars of Lady Ashfords and she was the only one around. She doubled her profits that year. Of course the next year other farmers had caught on and there were competitors but because Mama kept the Lady Ashfords almost the same price as the normal ones and because she simply made the best, no matter how many she made, she was always sold out.' Barkus laughed. 'I think we were the only kids in town who didn't have Lady Ashford pickles twice a week cos Mama kept selling them all!' Albert was clearly mulling this over, but was smiling.
'So is that still the case?' he asked as Barkus smiled at the past. 'Is she still selling out every year?' Albert and Annie watched as Barkus' face swiftly folded into neutrality, but they still saw the brief flash of grief.
'No,' he said softly. 'There are no more of Mama's Lady Ashford pickles.' He cleared his throat and picked up his coffee cup. 'Excuse me, I'm just going to get a refill.'
As he walked up the cafe, Albert and Annie shared a look. Albert sighed;
'Well I guess he does have a point,' he admitted. 'So how on earth am I going to find out all this?'
'Get one of the teenagers on it?' Annie offered with a wry grin. Albert started to snort, but then a thoughtful look appeared in his eye.
'Huh,' was all he would say.
By the time Barkus returned, Albert was scribbling furiously on a borrowed sheet of paper while Annie was sipping her coffee and watching the middle distance with a faint smile.

“Alright, I got a yellow here from last time,” Barkus heard Jim say as he walked in. There was still 20 minutes before the place opened officially, but the door was open and he didn't think Jim would mind. He stopped dead. Jim was standing with a clipboard and a pen with 3 leather-clad bikers standing on the stage in front of him, for all the world like uncertain schoolboys at a play rehearsal. Everyone, actors, Jim and audience turned to look as the door slammed shut. In the face of their stares, Barkus forced himself to walk over saying, “Is there still time to audition?”
“How you doing Barkus?” Jim asked, turning back to his clipboard. “Earl and George guys, yellow.” Barkus stared as all three men pounded a boot on a small patch of floor while Jim watched, hawk-eyed.
“Er, have you guys spent way to much time playing Battleship, or is there really a town talent show going on?” The three men on stage burst out laughing. Jim grinned and passed him the clipboard, Barkus took it and saw a diagram of the stage with numbered, coloured stickers on it.
“See?” Jim pointed. “Number 1 here is a yeller, not too bad but needs keeping an eye on, and down here is where to find it on the stage. So in this case, it says “Hard-on rock” and “Permed Reba”. If you would do the honours Bob?”
One of the actors obediently walked to a spot and dropped a curtsey to a chorus of whistles and catcalls. Barkus looked to see a landscape behind Bob with, yes a single pillar of rock sticking through the trees and turned, and turned and turned. The watching audience burst out laughing as he turned right around into Jim's huge grin.
“You cant see it from here,” he told him, chuckling. “But Bob there can.” Barkus looked from Bob to the clipboard to the stage.
“This is how you check the structural integrity,” he cried as light dawned. “That's pretty clever.”
“Yep,” beamed a proud Jim. “It's a pretty neat system if I do say so myself. The lads stamp with a certain amount of force and I can tell by the shaking if the stage needs fixing yet.”
“Officer Stewards did say that you kept a pretty tight ship.”
“Did he now?” Jim's chest swelled visibly. “Well thats a compliment and a half coming from that quarter.” Jim glanced at a clock over the bar then said offhand: “Did you want a drink? Sort Barkus here out would you please Jane? While I finish this up.”
“Sure thing boss,” a young red-headed woman chirped, coming over from a stack of pop-cans with her own clipboard in hand. “What can I get you honey?” She took the opportunity to sweep Barkus up and down with black-rimmed eyes and her smile deepened. “Anything strike your fancy?” she continued, placing her hand on her cocked hip.
“A beer for now please,” Barkus replied and smiled back.
“What kind?” she laughed. “We have more than one you know.”
“Whichever you prefer.”
She grinned again and turned away. His eyes followed the swing of her hips as she walked back to the bar, then, instinctively, checked the other men in the bar. The only ones who seemed to notice the exchange gave him the little signals which meant “no problem here, go for it if she wants you to.”
“Here you go honey.” Jane handed him a large brown bottle with a colourful label.
“What's this?” he asked surprised.
“It's called a 'Blonde Ale'. It's from a micro-brewery within the province called Pickeroons.” She shrugged one shoulder. It's not my favourite, but its a good one to start off a rookie.”
“A rookie?” he laughed, the bottle half-way to his lips.
“Well, if you're used to fizzy piss like Bud Light,” she said wrinkling her nose. Barkus was suddenly reminded of all the times he defended real coffee and he smiled.
“I suppose if I'm going to say that I'm open to new experiences I had better follow up on it,” he admitted and tried the beer. Jane's eyes watched his face as he swished the liquid around in his mouth and swallowed then regarded the bottle again.
“And?” she prompted.
“I think I could get used to that,” he said, nodding. “How much is it?”
She told him, then swiftly followed with, “But as you can see its 500ml and the hops and the jobs are New Brunswickan so most of the money stays in the province.”
“Are you getting a commission for this?” She laughed.
“Not yet, but Jim only got it in on trial on my assurance so it's in my best interest to convert people. It's pretty bad if you work in a bar and have to drive 50 miles to get the only beers you like,” she added.
“Yes, I can see how that would be annoying,” Barkus agreed.
“I got to get back and sort out these cans before the crowd comes in, but will you be hanging around?”
Barkus analysed her delivery, posture and twinkling eyes and nodded slowly. “I might be out for a bit, but I'll be back.”
“Good,” was all she said before she got back to what she was doing, head high and hips swinging. Barkus sipped his beer and considered that his day was definitely looking up.
“So Barkus,” Jim boomed jovially. He walked behind his bar and hung the clipboard on a hook. “What did you have in mind before you walked in?” He winked and Barkus smiled.
“Some advice and an introduction, I guess.”
“Oh yes?”
“Yep, you appear to be holding the traditional social space of the barkeep as well as the job itself.”
“And it's of use to you eh? Who do you want to be introduced to?”
“I don't know the name of course, but in every community there's a guy who holds the reins of the main male group.” There was a non-commital shrug. “In your opinion, would this leader be sympathetic to the idea of joining the Square workforce and bringing the rest of the men with him?” Jim rubbed his chin, mulling it over.
“That depends, just what do you want the boys for?”
“General labouring, unless they have extra skills then they would be offered the opportunity to use them.” Jim didn't reply, but got himself a glass of water instead, so Barkus plunged on. “Young men need older men around as figures to emulate.”
“You sure you want them emulating the Boys?” Barkus shrugged.
“Did the Boys stand aside when people's homes got washed away? Or burnt down?” Jim raised an eyebrow. “Mary mentioned it at lunch today, how they got together and got people's lives re-started.” Jim nodded slowly.
“You have a point there,” he mused. “But most of the time they spend drinking and smoking and sitting around.”
“But when they were needed they stepped up. Young men and boys need to see that you can have a good time and still do what's right. That you don't have to be a saint to be a good man. And there's nothing wrong with the girls seeing that either,” he added.
“I hope you're not too disappointed there Barkus,” came the solemn reply. Barkus shrugged again.
“Maybe I will be, but its always worth a shot to give a man a chance to prove himself.”

“And what makes you think they want to prove themselves? At least, in the way that you mean?” It was a couple of hours later and Barkus was standing beside Gus's truck while the man himself was hanging into the engine bay.
“As a general rule, people want to spend their energy doing useful things. A lot of problems come from this urge being stifled or ignored or unappreciated. There are few places where a young man can look to for a productive, healthy rolemodel and I want to see if the boys are man enough to fill that role.” Gus pushed himself out of the engine with a grunt and accepted the rag Barkus passed him with a nod.
“In what way?”
“In the Square, in whatever way their skill or fancy takes them. Them being there is what's important.” Gus looked questioningly at him as he eased the hood down and clicked it into place. “As long as only one segment of society gets involved you're shutting out a lot of people because no one sector can represent everyone,” he explained.
“Democracy through action eh? Come on,” Gus motioned toward the cab. “Lets see if those new plugs made a difference.”
“Well the more people invest into something,” Barkus said when the engine had roared into life and Gus swung the nose onto the driveway. “The longer it will remain relevant and the less long-term damage will happen.” Gus grunted.
“Would you destroy your best friend's car?”
“Depends on what he's done,” Gus laughed. “No I see your point. Well, well, you're a surprising fellow, John Barkus. I had not taken you for a social analyst when you arrived..” Gus, eyes not leaving the road, reached into a pocket and took out his silver case. He slotted a rollie behind his ear and a joint between his lips. Barkus smiled.
“Blame my,” tiny pause, “ex-wife for that. She's spent years, decades, trying to figure out the difference between groups of people and their reactions to circumstance.”
“Oh yes?” Gus exhaled and passed the joint over.
“It's like a piece of meat between her teeth, she just cant leave it alone. I guess after 20 years it's rubbed off a little.”
“You guys been married for 20 years?” Barkus shook his head and coughed out a plume of smoke.
“Long engagement,” he wheezed. He took another puff saying, “But it's been 20 years since I saw her at a bar, reading ferociously with a ciggarette burnt all the way to the filter and a flat beer in front of her.” He smiled at the memory, passing the joint back. “I've always liked nerdy girls so naturally I went over.” He laughed and Gus smiled. “I managed to get her attention long enough to make her laugh and arrange a lunch date and then her nose was back in the books again.”
“She made you work for it,” Gus supplied, passing the joint over again and opening the window to let some of the smoke out.
“Yes she did. But she would have been amazed that anyone would have seen it that way. She was just being herself, so intense, so committed.” He stared through the joint in his fingers to 20 years before. “And 20 years later, here we are,” he muttered.
“Why are you here, John Barkus?” Gus asked in a certain tone. Barkus took a big haul, held it in for a moment and exhaled, relaxing.
“Because of a cinnamon roll.”

Barkus stared at his plate in silence. His colleague's coffee had washed across the table, people scrambled, gathering notes and lifting laptops, grabbing tissue to dam the flow. But he stared at the small plate beside his coffee mug where his cinnamon roll was sitting, gently melting in the sugary, lukewarm slop that Mark called coffee. His last home-made cinnamon roll with special apricot filling. His very. Last. One.
“Oh my gosh John,” Mark babbled, his face red. “I'm so,” his voice died in his throat as Barkus turned his head to stare him in the eye. The whole room fell silent except for coffee dripping onto the carpet.
“Why don't you ever curse Mark?” Barkus asked him, in a voice as flat and heavy as iron bars. “Don't you sometimes think that a good, clean curse would do better than apologies and mumbles?”
Very quietly and deliberately, Barkus picked up his plate, tipped off the pooled coffee, picked up his mug and left. Somebody had the presence of mind to open the door for him.

“After that?” Gus asked. Barkus sighed.
“One of the partners came to see me as I was packing up my stuff. She offered me a sabbatical until the end of my current project load, 24 months.”
“That's a long time, are they still paying you?”
“So long as I stay out of jail, yes. There are therapy conditions but the sessions don't start for another 2 weeks. I decided to go for a road trip first.” His forehead crinkled. “Huh, I may have to reschedule those,” he mused.
“That's a sweet deal just for staring at someone in a funny way.” Barkus sighed again.
“I wanted to kill him,” he said quietly. “Over a cinnamon roll, I wanted to flatten his stupid fat head against the table, stamp on his fingers, break his elbows, I wanted to tear him apart. Over a cinnamon roll.”
“Store bought?”
“Hell no, what do you think of me? My ex-wife's special recipe she inherited from her Gram with a few little touches of her own. I found that last one in the very back of the freezer when I cleaned out the flat. How it didn't get freezer burn I don't know but I saved it for my coffee the next day. Even took a detour on the way to work to get the right beans. Then I got grabbed by Mark to lend weight to a risky design I helped him with and wouldn't take no for an answer. So I went in just to sit there and he went and knocked his McDihorrea coffee all over my last, last home-made cinnamon roll from my wife.” Silence. “I wanted to kill him like I had never wanted anything else in my life and he knew it. They all knew it. So my reward for leaving as I did was to get straightened out in my own time.” Pause. “I have to pay for the Shrink though.”
“They know how much you earn I 1guess.” In the silence, Gus re-lit the joint and took a drag. “So what did you do then?” Barkus smiled bitterly.
“Well I was in luck there,” he said accepting the joint. “I had already sold my place, just couldn't stand being alone in there, it was so big and empty.” Silence. “A family has it now, two kids and a dog.” More, even more depressed silence fell until Barkus shook himself and passed the joint back.
“What kind of coffee was it?” Gus asked, taking a toke.
“You said you took a detour to get the right beans,” Gus said patiently, handing the joint back to Barkus who stared at it, then smoked it again.
“Yes,” he nodded, releasing a cloud of smoke. He coughed harshly and Gus slapped him on the back a few times. “I got them from a small independent store I knew. They were unwashed, Fair Trade beans, shipped direct and roasted in-store. I knew how much everyone made and I got a great cup of coffee for a decent price.”
“You're used to defending your coffee I take it?”
“Not defending, more like using it to point out how shit the mass-produced, over-priced sludge is. Free is too much for some of those “coffees”.” He added the visible punctuation. Gus looked at him.
“You didn't really just do the quotation marks in the air, did you?” Barkus blinked
“Yeah, yeah I kinda did.” He stared at the stub of the joint left in his hand. “This stuff is good.”
"This is direct from producer to user, I cut out the middle man." Gus's eyes twinkled when he looked over. 'Organic, outdoor and grown within a hundred miles.'
Barkus stared at him, then threw back his head and laughed. He didn't know if it was the weed, or the moon that was climbing into higher into the sky or the lack of proper sleep, but he felt lighter. An enormous weight had been partly lifted from his chest, it wasn't all the way gone, but the difference was enough to make him feel like he could leap mountains and dance on the wind. He laughed at his pride, at the path that lead him here to this spot, he could even laugh at the half-healed blisters and ground-in dirt that covered his hands. He laughed and laughed while beside him, Gus smiled.

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