“You ever going to leave, Michael?”
Tomas laughs; big belly laughs. It’s the same old conversation. The one we have every time, a sort of ritual.
Only this time I don't remember coming here, but mornings are like that, and a day like today can melt away memories as easily as it turns the roads to soft toffee.
He sets the coffee down before me, as well as one of those rich chocolate muffins -- the kind that looks so tempting behind the glass, but always makes you feel slightly sick and very guilty when you’ve finished.
“I didn’t order that.”
He ignores me.
Sisyphus, where the bottomless coffee is only a dollar, but it always ends up costing you so much more.
Brisbane in summer has the heat of a Tennessee William’s play, with all the passion boiled out, and Sisyphuswith its air conditioning is a delicious comfort. The coffee here is dark and bitter and truly bottomless. Just when you think the cup is empty it’s full again, hot, black and defying reason.
“The city, she’s got her hooks in you, and that job, what do they pay you?
"I know what they pay you.”
“Just waiting for something better.”
“You’ll be waiting forever.”
My turn to ignore him.
The air is cool and tangy with the eccentricities of Brisbane; espresso coffee; perfume; sweat, and fine tangles of smoke. I bring my lovers here; at first they complain then, with them as well, it becomes an obsession. A third of the clientele I have slept with, fractured romantic journeys begun here, talk all hyped up on caffeine, eyes as sharp as pins.
Sisyphusis the hub of my existence. I did not drink coffee before I came here, before I left my hometown and my safe, small town heartbreaks. I did not even find the smell appealing. Then She brought me here.
I flick through the papers, always a day or two old, check the employment section find an interesting job – the sort of thing She wanted me to do, something that put my qualifications to use. A quick call on the mobile reveals that it is taken. The muffin tastes great; I fold the newspaper and drop it beside me. In the interim, someone has topped up my coffee; a little tear of milk spins in the umbral whirl of the cup.
I wave to Tomas.
“No more after this.”
I always bring a book to read. I like reading in a cafe. Coffee, book -- and this time, muffin -- simple little intellectual comforts. I like the idea of reading in a café, but I never get more than a page read. I’m always too anxious, always waiting for something. Some revelation, some startling visitor, some current lover, some thing to arrive. It seldom does but the coffee drinking, the caffeine rush creates an anticipatory hunger, a restless ache.
I wish that I could do this forever, that I had time to sit and read and drink and watch the world drift past the window. But life is not like that, so, instead, I sit and drink, all too aware of time rushing by, that the moments, the loves, the conversation and the books are all too fleeting. Nothing lasts forever, except, perhaps, the perpetual top ups at Sisyphus, destined to outlive the heat death of the universe.
“You going out tonight?”
“It’s a weekday, Tomas”
“Every day’s a week day. That’s why the coffee’s so strong here.”
I glance at my watch.
“I really should get going.”
“Finish your muffin. I cook them myself, you know.”
“But I didn’t even order it.”
Tomas is gone. I smile, I love Sisyphus. The coffee is cheap; it makes the idea of paying for a muffin that I didn’t order seem okay. I gulp down the rest of my coffee and stand up. Only I can’t, my legs are stiff; there is no sensation there. I look down at my cup and it is full again.
Oh well, another coffee isn’t going to hurt. Not here.
Someone from a nearby table starts quoting poetry. A little Robert Frost, some Kenneth Slessor, all about sleepy towns and schooner bees and the tolling of five bells.
“Tomas, I can’t remember coming here.”
“You’re always here, Michael. Hey, when are you going to leave?” He tops up my coffee.
Poet guy has moved onto Dylan Thomas and the sparing of angels and madmen and good nights and gentleness unwanted. Someone opens and shuts an umbrella; if it rained this morning it didn’t cool anything down only added to the humidity.
Outside, the traffic along Elizabeth Street has slowed to a crawl. The back-packed, garish overflow from the Queen St mall, stumble by. No one comes in. Unless you work in the city, or spend a lot of time here, these places are invisible, dingy, without charm. Some revelation is at hand and the coffee swirls, all bitterness down my throat until I remember that I like sugar and shovel in three teaspoon’s worth.
A moment of hyper-melancholy and I call Her – though She’s long past anything like I want her to be.
“Who is this?”
“Look this isn’t funny, Michael’s-“
The last word is a whisper, it might have been, dead. Damn phone, I always forget to recharge it, the battery light’s flashing. It’s dark outside; I don’t remember night coming on. Some point of transition has been dislodged – like when you go to a late afternoon movie, sun still shining, and come out to stars. I try to get up and fail. Tomas grips my shoulder with his sausage fingers.
“Another coffee, Michael?”
“Do I have any choice?”
“Of course. Of course.”
Sisyphus, where the coffee is bottomless.
“Tomas, how long have I been here?”
His brown eyes soften for a moment, and he taps at the left side of his chest.
“A while. A while.”
Auden and sanguine frogs leap from Poet Guy’s mouth. The coffee is bitter till I add a little sugar, and then it isn’t so bad.
Tomas brings over another muffin, macadamia nut and butterscotch. It’s still warm and fragrant.
“How much is all this going to cost?”
“Michael, you’ve paid your coin. That’s all.”
I nod my head and pick up my book. Time to read. Time to watch the crowds go by. InSisyphusthe coffee is bottomless, once you’ve paid your dollar. Coffee bitter or sweet and without pause. In SisyphusI sit, drink and read and pick at my muffin.
“When are you going to leave?” Tomas asks and I laugh.
“Not for a while,” I say. “Not for a while.”
This story originally appeared in Vernacular 4.