Leonard Summerscale sat like a mannequin in the center of a roomful of chattering diners. Knives and forks slaked against plates, ice swam brightly in glasses of water. Waitresses called orders to the cook before they were halfway back to the kitchen. Above the din of lunchtime in the city, the bell on the door chimed. Only then did Leonard’s face reanimate, as the scarecrow with red hair threw his arm up and navigated his way to where Leonard sat.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Reverend.”
“No problem, Len, none at all. Your message sounded so urgent. What can I do for you?”
“Please, have a seat,” Leonard said, indicating the chair opposite him at the two-seat diner table.
Reverend Bast slid into the grease-slicked, padded chair. The red vinyl cushion released a squeak and a puff from a tear near the edge. Leonard busied himself flagging down one of the waitresses performing an awkward ballet through the narrow aisles; a balancing act of three plates occupied the length of each arm.
“The service is usually much better, much better.”
“Don’t fret, Len. It is lunchtime.”
“Of course, I’m sorry.”
The harried waitress in a rumpled, powder blue uniform finally appeared at the table. She placed a menu in front of each man, shoved her sagging ponytail off her shoulder, and wiped the back of her hand across her nose.
“What’ll you have, Reverend? There’s a ten percent discount for men of the cloth.”
She jabbed her pencil in the direction of his collar.
“Well, lucky you,” Leonard said. “That should save you a few pennies.”
The Reverend’s eyes scanned the a la carte section of the menu as he mentally replayed Leonard’s voicemail. He was sure invite you to breakfast had proceeded his congregant’s request to talk.
“I’ll have the poached egg on rye toast, black coffee, please.”
As the waitress scribbled on her pad, Leonard waited with fingers steepled. He paused long enough to draw the young woman’s attention, making eye contact with her, before he spoke slowly, deliberately.
“I’ll have two eggs fried hard, and I do mean hard, with the yolks broken, brown, crispy edges, the whole nine yards. Please encourage the cook to properly season the eggs; I should be able to see the pepper flakes but not the salt. Shredded hash browns, toasted thoroughly but not swimming in grease. The ham steak? Is it sugar cured or country style? Oh, no matter–you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. Wheat toast, hold the butter, cut from corner to corner. Is there mixed fruit jelly on the table? Very good. And decaf coffee. Be sure it’s a fresh pot. I know how long the decaf sits around in a place like this. Also, please bring real cream or at least milk. I despise those little plastic containers of oily, faux cream.”
The waitress shifted her weight from one foot to another. She chewed the inside of her cheek before smiling and saying, “You got it.”
The Reverend straightened jelly packets in the swiveling caddy as Leonard tsked at the waitress’s retreating back. He turned a conspiratorial look upon the Reverend and said, “Well, let’s see how much of that she gets correct.”
“I thought you’d been here before,” the Reverend asked.
“Oh, only a few times with co-workers. They chose to dine here. It’s not the sort of venue I’d normally patronize.”
“So, what can I do for you, Leonard?”
“Yes, the real reason we came. Now I know we haven’t been in your congregation long, and by we, I mean myself and Mrs. Summerscale–”
“–lovely woman, so very helpful in the nursery–”
“–and while we agree with the majority of your theology–”
“–there are a few minor points I’d like to discuss on another occasion, still, I believe we made the correct choice in churches to attend.”
Leonard folded his hands across his stomach and leaned back in his chair. The Reverend remained silent for ten seconds until he understood it was his turn to speak.
“We…do enjoy your presence, and that of Mrs. Summerscale.”
“Ah, Mrs. Summerscale. What a tactful segue you’ve provided, Reverend, for it is the subject of my dear wife that brings me here today.”
Leonard gazed toward the water-stained ceiling tiles and puffed his cheeks, his customary gesture when preparing for a long discourse on a topic of interest to no one but him. His efforts were halted momentarily by the arrival of their coffee followed by several moments of fussily arranging his cup and saucer, requesting an orange coaster to indicate to passing waitresses that he preferred decaf, and polishing his spoon as if for inspection by a Marine Corps drill sergeant.
Clouds of milk lightened Leonard’s coffee to an acceptable shade of taupe, placating the man to his previous state of calm. His voice achieved a stunning decibel of self-importance as he said, “Have you ever really considered coffee, Reverend?”
“I know I’m pretty worthless in the morning before I’ve had mine.”
Leonard’s eyes rose from his cup to contemplate the patches blushing the Reverend’s freckled cheeks. His uneven smile and softened expression conveyed the verdict of I know, I know. The Reverend thought to mention that Mrs. Carrick, the church secretary, always had a fresh pot ready for him prior to Sunday service, but he let it go.
“The average American adult drinks around three, eight-ounce cups per day. That’s 382 billion cups of coffee consumed in America alone every day. I suppose that makes me below average, eh Reverend?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Leonard. You’ve done marvelous things since joining the Board of Elders.”
A twitch in his left eye brought Leonard’s finger to the rescue. His hand in front of his face muffled his sigh.
“I only require one cup of coffee a day, and decaf at that. So many people are dependent upon the addictive qualities of caffeine to sustain them. But for me, coffee is a cup of warm reassurance that I shall succeed at whatever I set my mind toward for the day. That is to say, I don’t require coffee, Reverend, I enjoy it.”
“Indeed. How lucky for you.”
Another pause ensued as Leonard waited patiently for the Reverend to say something, anything, of relevance to the conversation. He came to the young man’s aid with, “As an unmarried man, you couldn’t possibly know the sheer joy of having your wife responsible for providing a fresh pot of coffee every morning. Such is the pleasure that Mrs. Summerscale brings to my life.”
“It’s the simple things, like drinking coffee together, that solidify a marriage. Or so I’ve heard.”
“You miss my point, Reverend: while I enjoy the coffee, what solidifies my marriage, any marriage for that matter, is the consistency with which the ritual is conducted. Therein lays the quality of any relationship. Do you understand?”
The Reverend twisted sideways in his seat.
“And when that consistency is disrupted–well!”
The Reverend twisted in the other direction, mostly to avoid Leonard’s hands thrown up in frustration but coming across the table with the rapaciousness of an eagle’s talons.
“Play nice, fellas. You’re breakfast is here.”
The waitress who placed their food on the table was not the one who took their order. This woman, with face haloed in bad orange foundation and crusted scabs of concealer, smacked down plates of food and topped off their coffee cups with the practiced movements of a seasoned professional. Her abrupt behavior brooked no complaint as the matriarch of the herd lumbered off to refill the cups of other customers, supervising the younger waitresses as she moved, her hosiery sagging around her ankles.
Both men obediently bowed their head to pray. Leonard’s head remained in the position of supplication long after the Reverend said Amen. When he opened his eyes, he caught the Reverend with fork in hand, spearing his first bite.
“You’re a young man yet, Reverend. What are you? Twenty eight, thirty tops?”
“I’m thirty five.”
A waved hand and gravelly snort dismissed the comment.
“See–young yet. Must be that peachy complexion beneath those constellations of freckles. One might even say peach fuzz.”
Leonard barked a laugh around a mouthful of food at his joke and set himself to coughing until his face reddened and his eyes watered. The female elephant, continuing her crisscross migration through the diner, delivered three hearty thumps to Leonard’s back as she passed.
“Thank you, Madam, thank you.”
The pair resumed eating in silence. The Reverend finished his meager breakfast. He sat with a napkin draped over his crossed legs while Leonard, only half way through his meal, restarted his conversation.
“I’ve established some basic but essential points for you, Reverend, and although I’ve applied them to marriage, if you take time to review what I’ve said at your convenience, your earliest convenience, you’ll see that what I’ve instructed also applies to life.”
The Reverend, whether willingly or unwillingly he did not know, remembered nothing Leonard had said prior to his choking fit. He had, however, managed to track the progression of a toast crumb from the corner of Leonard’s lips, into his mustache, watched it disappear once into his mouth, reappear on the tip of his tongue, and miraculously land in the opposite corner where it rode up and down with the movement of Leonard’s chewing.
Leonard mistook the Reverend’s intense concentration as interest and enthusiasm.
“But it is with much hesitation that I must admit to you as…well, if not my spiritual counselor or close confidante…then as a somewhat significant figure in my life that all is not well between me and Mrs. Summerscale.”
“What seems to be the problem?” the Reverend’s mind directed his mouth to say.
The crumb had fallen to Leonard’s chin. The Reverend rooted for it to hang on.
“I can’t quite place my finger on it. Mrs. Summerscale and I have been married for thirty five years, so I’m quite attuned to my wife’s quirks. Still, this event of which I shall inform you came quite out of the blue.”
A knuckle swiped across his chin came to rest on Leonards’ greasy lips. He meant to look thoughtful but only succeeded in redepositing the crumb to the hairless divot on his upper lip. The Reverend clenched his jaw; surely an indication of real concern.
“Exactly two weeks ago, Tuesday, Mrs. Summerscale arose promptly at 5:30 AM and donned her robe as she always does. Then she went to the kitchen to prepare my breakfast. All was well. I finished my bath, shaved and dressed, and descended to join her. Mrs. Summerscale had already placed my oatmeal and cream on the table. She had even stirred in half a cup of dried currants, a pleasant surprise as they are my favorite.”
A sharp intake of breath on Leonard’s part pulled the crumb back to his bottom lip. The Reverend’s brow creased, and his troubled congregant pressed on.
“Just as I was enjoying my first bite of oatmeal, the coffee pot gurgled, indicating that it was done brewing. Peripherally, I watched Mrs. Summerscale retrieve a cup and saucer from the cupboard and prepare my coffee.”
Lips pressed together then pursed shifted the crumb to Leonard’s upper front tooth. The Reverend leaned forward and pointed.
“Now just a moment, Reverend. I haven’t finished my story.”
“Please go on.”
“Mrs. Summerscale approached the table where I sat, and she…she arranged the cup near my right hand as I prefer.”
Leonard’s voice wavered with distress at the memory. The crumb, taking on a life of its own, worked its way across several teeth, moving in an eastward direction, before popping back into the bristles at the edge of Leonard’s lip. The Reverend pressed his balled fists into his mouth.
“And that’s when I saw it.”
The Reverend nodded wildly.
“My coffee was a muddy shade of black.”
“I’m sorry?” the Reverend allowed to slip from behind his bony knuckles.
“Yes, it’s true. You heard me order my coffee today with cream, or at least milk, so you are aware of how I take it. But then so isn’t Mrs. Summerscale aware, abundantly aware, of exactly how I take my coffee. Imagine my utter shock at looking into a cup of plain black coffee served by my wife. I asked her what was the meaning of this, and do you know what she replied? She said, ‘Oh isn’t that how you take your coffee?’”
“I don’t understand.”
“Reverend, really? For thirty five years Mrs. Summerscale has prepared my coffee to perfection. It is a–to what shall I liken it–an intimate knowledge of my very self, a dance between principle partners? For her to suddenly forget, or worse, become quite negligent and offer me a cup of coffee on the other end of the taste and shade spectrum? Why this can only indicate some gross aberration in foundation of my marriage. God forbid I entertain the thought, but do you suppose Mrs. Summerscale is having an affair?”
The Reverend smacked the table with both palms, fingers splayed, causing the dishes, silverware, and salt and pepper shakers to jump in unison. He threw back his head and laughed uproariously for five minutes until the redness in his face surpassed the color of his carroty hair. All other sound and movement in the diner fizzled to quiet and stillness.
“Oh–Oh really–really, you are too funny, Leonard, too–damn–funny. You old fool. You pompous, cheap, old fool.”
Leonard’s mouth sagged like a mastiff’s; his head turtled into his shoulders at the unwanted attention directed toward himself and the Revered. The Reverend wiped his mouth, neatly folded his napkin, and stood to leave.
“By the way, Leonard. You have a toast crumb stuck in your mustache.”