As I walk into the dimly lit space I take a deep breath appreciating the aroma of the fresh coffee beans stored in glass canisters along the wall. Just the smell of coffee is energizing to me and one of the perks I most enjoy about owning a cafe. I hit the light switch next to the glass doors and then turned to lock them again. The shop doesn’t open for another few hours and even though this neighborhood is relatively safe I still don’t feel comfortable leaving the doors opened unattended. I place my laptop bag down on the counter, allowing my fingers to run across the edge of the brown and gold marble top. The day Michelle and I picked it out, she practically squealed when we found it in the back of a close-out store, discontinued and marked down for final sale. After making my signature morning coffee blend, and an egg and cheese sandwich, I turn on the sound system of the café’ as a Lauren Hill song starts to play. I’m not normally a dancer but being alone eased my apprehensions about moving my body in public enough to sway with the beat. I began going about the routine of opening up and an hour later I was ready to head to the back to do what had driven me to come in so early in the first place.
I’ve been leaving the closing duties to my night manager and best friend for the past three years and never once had she come up short until about a month ago. The first time I caught the discrepancy I blew it off, it wasn’t that much money so I figured she may have given someone back incorrect change. I knew Jasmine would never steal from me, but the very next week it happened again and has continued to happen, so here I am. I would have preferred to have still been in bed cuddling with the woman I had spent the night with. Tasha, Asha, something basic like that, but my mind is busy with trying to figure out who’s been stealing from me. Done with breakfast and satisfied that I had everything ready to go for the day I grabbed my laptop off the counter and moved to my office.
When I first bought this place, I didn’t feel I needed an office. I was always more of the personality, so I often could be found at the front of the house making small talk with the customers, mixing up new blends and playing with recipes. Michelle was a full time producer and my part time book keeper. She was known to be content spending hours in this very space going over the operations of the business. Some of her knick knacks are still scattered here and there, I feel a twinge of sadness whenever I acknowledge one. I sit down at my desk and glance at the picture of us I haven’t been able to get rid of. Michelle with her caramel-colored sun kissed skin in a yellow sundress, her long brown hair caught on a breeze, big beautiful brown eyes and a smile that still melts my heart. I stood next to her holding a sold sign in my blue denim shorts and matching yellow polo shirt, my dread locks barely long enough to pull into a ponytail at that time. In the background stood the 2-story house I had just bought for us. The happiness in both of our faces in this picture, taken just a short year ago, made it seem impossible to believe that I’m now waiting to hear back from the realtor to confirm if the sale of our dream home, to this lovely expecting couple I met a few weeks ago, is finalized.
I open my laptop and connect it to the security camera software. A few clicks and I’m in. It only took me about 20 minutes of investigating to find footage of Mercedes, the newest member of my team, dropping money from the cash register on the floor, sweeping it into a dustpan, and throwing it away. Cameras in the supply room showed that’s where she went to pull it out and pocket it. How could the mother of 2, that had come into my shop just months ago begging me for a job to help her and her kids get back on their feet, be stealing from me. Roast is scheduled to open in a few minutes and she is scheduled to be here any moment to open up for the day. I close my laptop and walk back up to the front of the house to start the drip coffee, our most popular with the first crowd of the day, and I prepared to fire Mercedes as soon as she walked through the door.
5 a.m. came and went with no sight or sound from Mercedes, it figures. She must have caught wind that I was on to her and decided to save herself the embarrassment of being fired. All the same to me except it seemed I had the monopoly on coffee today and I could have used some help. Unlike most coffee shops, I don’t have a drive-thru window. With there being so many competitors in the coffee industry, I knew I needed to offer my customers something different. I got the idea when I started my first cafe in a small town in California where the days were a little lazier. I found an abandoned warehouse that I was able to purchase from the city for pennies with the intention to install a drive-thru once business picked up but then something happened. People would come in and spend the day drawing on the customer wall I had put up. They’d spent the day reading, hosting poetry nights, and enjoying each other’s company. The lack of a drive-thru seemed to inspire people to get out of their cars and enjoy their day with me and other people. Business had gone so well at my first café, Bean, that I was able to open my second location, Roast, right here in Houston.
This morning one of my regulars, Earnest, is keeping me company. We first meet the day Michelle walked in with her best friend Camry, to announce to me that she was in love with her and they were moving to Atlanta. I hadn’t seen it coming at all. Angry, hurt, and embarrassed, I tried to slap Michelle when Earnest grabbed my hand in midair and walked me to my car before I embarrassed myself any more that day. Before that day, I thought that Michele and I were unbreakable. Before that day I would have literally given her my heart.
“Good morning Zoe’, Looks like you finally took care of that little bit of business on your arm there.” He said, pointing at the fresh tattoo I had added to the collection on my forearm.
I turned to give him his coffee and lifted up my sleeve so that he could see the new tattoo, a vine of roses I had gotten as a cover up of Michelle’s name.
“So you finally went through with it huh, how do you feel about it now that it’s done?” He asked.
“I feel good about it. it was time. Plus, it was cramping my style with the ladies if you know what I mean. ” I added.
“Yeah, I’ve been seeing you making nice with the ladies that have been coming through here. Watch yourself now. It’s all good to have some fun and I know you still blowing off steam but don’t mess around and get yourself caught up out here. These women are crazy now-a-days and they know where you work.” He said as he took a seat on a barstool near the end of the counter where I was working.
“You know I was thinking about getting something done with the girls’ names on my back. The wife has been teasing me saying I’m too old to handle the pain.”
“Nah, If I can handle it, I know you can.”
“We’ll see, she’s liable to have a fit if I go off and get something like that done. Where’s that new girl, what’s her name Benz?” He asked.
“You mean Mercedes.” I replied, laughing at his obvious attempt at throwing shade. “You’re not going to be seeing her around here anymore. Why do you ask, you got a little crush on her or something?” I asked teasingly, while wiping down the counter.
The crowd had thinned out considerably so I started to prepare for the lunch rush that would start soon.
“Nah, nothing like that. I’m surprised you kept her around as long as you did, is all I’m saying. She didn’t seem like much of a good fit for the job and she certainly didn’t seem to care for me too much. I figured she may have been an opportunity hire for you.” He said with a wink.
“Now you know I love my business too much to even think about shittin” where I eat.” I told him. “I brought her on ’cause I felt sorry for the kids but now, I can’t do nothing for her. I just might have to recruit you to become my hiring manager. Lord knows I could use the help around here and Jasmine is only one person. Tell you what, I’m looking for someone to fill Mercedes’ spot, if you can think of somebody good for the job give me a holler and I’ll make sure it’s something in it for you too.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He said as he unfolded a copy of the day’s newspaper.
“It looks like you’re about to get it started for the day, I’m gonna head to the back to knock out some paper work and see if I can get Jasmine to come in a little early for me today. Holler if you need anything.” I told him.
After trying to reach Jasmine for an hour I managed to get her to answer the phone. When she did, I could hear her girlfriend in the background yelling.
“Hey, did I catch you in the middle of something?” I asked.
“Yeah kinda, I know you can hear this girl tripping back here but what’s good?” She asked
“I was trying to see if you wanted to get out of the war zone and make some extra money today. I was ’bout to fire ol’ girl Mercedes because the cameras caught her stealing money from the register, but she didn’t show up for work today. I got some stuff I need to go handle later this afternoon so I was trying to see if you’re good to slide through a little early.”
“Damn, shorty was getting it like that? I knew something was up with her the way she was always looking over her shoulder. Yeah, I should be able to come in a little early, what time you thinking?”
“How soon can you get here?” I asked “I need to go by the bank and we have some new kids starting in Big’s and Littles today so I’m going to go meet my new little.”
“Well, let me calm shorty down over here, and I’ll hit you up when I’m on my way.”
“Bet, talk to you soon.”
After tackling the lunch rush, placing the coffee order, counting down the registers from the night before, and going over some accounting tasks I pack up to get ready to head to the bank to make a deposit. A necessary evil since I hadn’t begun to turn a large enough profit to hire an armored car to pick up the days deposit and take it to the bank for me. People often assume that because I wear masculine clothes, have sharp facial features, and my toned arms are covered in tattoos, I don’t fear being robbed like any other woman but since when has looking masculine ever stopped a bullet from a robber’s gun. I was crossing the parking lot when a white Audi almost ran me over, causing me to drop the deposit bag I had tucked under my shirt. “What the fuck!” I yelled, but whoever was driving the car hadn’t heard me. I snatched the bag from the concrete and tucked it back under my shirt. I checked to make sure no one else had saw me drop it or was planning to follow me. I got into my car, slammed the door, and headed to the bank.
The line at the drive-thru is moving pretty quickly so it looks like I won’t be late to meet my new Little today at the community park. I’ve been involved in the Big’s and Little’s community outreach program for most of my life. My parents started me in the program because as the youngest of my 3 siblings I was starting to get into a lot of trouble skipping school, vandalism, smoking weed and doing just about everything else associated with being a troubled teen. It was of no fault of my own mother that I was behaving this way I just thought I was grown and nobody could tell me anything.
I didn’t realize it then but looking back I realize I started acting out when I realized I was more interested in what girls had going on under their skirts than I was with boys and the things they were doing. My first mentor happened to be a queer woman named Ashley. Ashley had shown me the ropes of being an out lesbian in our small town of Kernville, and that it was okay to walk in my own skin. Normally, mentors were rotated out yearly, mainly because most of the Big’s in our town were not a part of the program by choice, rather by court order as community service but Ashley was different. She remained my Big until I aged out of the program as a Little and became a Big myself. We are still very good friends and it was at her encouragement that I got involved and stayed involved in the program. The program is one of the first things I looked into when I moved to Houston. I love the work I do with the kids and I believe they give just as much to me as I give to them. Being there to help out the youth who may not have any good guidance otherwise has become a major part of my life. When Michelle left, keeping my promise to my Little was the only thing I made myself get out of bed for every week.
With the deposit made, I left the bank and headed down I-45 south. The community outreach center is located on the south side of Houston near the gayborhood where I met last night’s conquest. At the next stop light I send her a text thanking her for a good time and an empty promise to get with her again soon. Truth be told I’m not interested in anything serious right now just an occasional warm body to share my bed with from time to time.
I pulled into the parking lot of the park. With my window down, I can hear the children’s laughter from across the field. I was about to step out of the car when my cellphone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out to see a text from Jasmine telling me that I was missing out on some beautiful women in the café today, followed by a picture of two extra fine women. One of whom had been driving the expensive car that had almost run me over. Even though she has a girlfriend, Jasmine is always interviewing for her next which is probably why they all seemed to turn psycho after they got with her. I respond to her messages with a series of emojis before I get out of the car to go inside and meet Victor, my new Little for the year.