Seated on a three-legged stool, Neuheisel inhaled the steam rising from the cup of Costa Rican coffee then with a soup spoon broke the thin crust that began to appear at the surface of the cup. Briefly he closed his eyes then filled the spoon with coffee, leaned over, and noisily slurped it into his mouth. Jenny, the young woman he was training to be a barista, smiled. For a moment he let the coffee sit on his tongue, making sure it touched all his taste buds, then spit it out into a large brass bowl in the center of the table.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said after filling her six ounce cup with coffee.
Again she smiled, sliding a little closer to the table.
“First off, you should identify the aroma. Is it earthy, burnt, spicy? What comes to mind when you smell it? Then, in describing the taste, you should not only consider its acidity but whether it’s sweet or bitter or salty or sour. Also, pay attention to how it feels in your mouth. Does it feel strong and full or pale and thin?”
“That’s a lot to find out.”
“It is but that’s what a good barista should be able to know after just a small sip.”
Nodding, she started to lean over her cup when Mark Kinnear, who managed a rare coin shop at the opposite end of the Applewhite Shopping Plaza, burst into the coffee shop. His face was quite flushed, as if he had just run over from his shop.
“You’re in a little early, Mark,” Neuheisel observed, not used to serving him coffee before eleven o’clock.
“Have you heard?” he asked, a little short of breath.
“That can’t be.”
“I know but it is. A customer told me not more than five minutes ago.”
“That just can’t be,” he insisted, almost knocking over his cup of coffee. “We were told he’d be in the hospital for six months at least. That was what was said.”
“Apparently he was out on some work detail and just walked away.”
“Can you believe it?”
“I guess I can believe just about anything these days.”
“You think he’ll come back here?”
“I’m afraid he will, Oscar.”
Leland Breer arrived in Kingston not quite four months ago, claiming he was once a foster child of Andrew Carrol who passed away a few weeks earlier. For many years Carrol taught geometry at William McKinley High School in the southeast part of town then served as principal there for the past eight years. No one in the Carrol family had heard of Breer and all were adamant he was not telling the truth. The middle-aged man didn’t have any proof to support his claim but did know quite a bit about the late educator.
Neuheisel, a nephew of Carrol’s, assumed that Breer was probably once a student at McKinley, which would explain why he knew so much about his uncle, but he had no idea why he would make such an outlandish claim. His uncle, whose wife died very early in their marriage, never had any children of his own, and as far as Neuheisel knew, never was a foster parent.
“So why would this guy say that he was his foster child?” Charlie Horsfall, a second cousin, asked Neuheisel when he heard about the claim.
“I haven’t a clue.”
“Maybe he hopes to inherit something from Andrew’s estate?”
“Maybe, but that’s not going to happen,” he said. “You know, as well as I do, that Andrew scarcely had a penny to his name when he died.”
“For someone as intelligent as he was with numbers, he could be very naïve dealing with manipulative people.”
“Practically anyone who asked him for something got it.”
“That’s for sure.”
“If he was still alive and this Breer character approached him with his hands out, he would’ve given him something.”
“No doubt about it.”
“Once he discovers there is no inheritance to be divvied up, he’ll be on his way. Mark my word.”
Breer didn’t go away, however, to the surprise of Neuheisel and others in the Carrol family. A gnome of a man, with sprawling brown hair that concealed his shirt collar, he continued to sleep nights at a charity house near the train station. During the day, he just wandered the streets, telling anyone who would listen how grateful he was to Mr.Carrol for taking him into his home when he was a youngster. Never did he express any interest about sharing in Andrew’s estate. Sometimes, around noontime, he would appear in Applewhite Plaza and sit cross-legged in front of the waterfall fountain with a child’s lunch pail opened beside a small cardboard sign that said “Thank You, Mr. Carrol.”
The first time Neuheisel spotted him there he assumed he was just tired from walking and wanted to rest for a while, but when he continued to appear with his sign and lunch pail, he suspected he was really panhandling. He never asked for money, though, just sat there staring at the cascading fountain. Indeed he seldom said much of anything, he was so absorbed in his thoughts. But whenever someone did drop some change into his pail, he always smiled and said, almost in a whisper, “Bless you.”
“I thought there was a rule against panhandling in the plaza,” a gruff customer grumbled one afternoon to Neuheisel after she ordered a double espresso.
“Yes, there is.”
“Then why isn’t it being enforced? That’s what that fellow squatting in front of the fountain is doing, isn’t he?”
“So it seems.”
“He should be told to move along, as far as I’m concerned.”
“He’s not bothering anyone, though,” he replied, surprising himself by his remark.
“Not yet, maybe, but he will. And, besides, he’s a damn eyesore.”
He was that all right, Neuheisel conceded, glancing out the window at the solitary figure who at times was out there a couple of hours straight. He was so still, almost as if in a trance. Always he wore a frayed Army field jacket with his name stenciled above the right pocket, and Neuheisel wondered if he ever had to look at it to remember who he was. Now and again Neuheisel was tempted to give him some money but never did because he didn’t want to get involved in a conversation with him and have to listen to his make-believe story about being Andrew’s foster child. So, instead, he often had one of his baristas take him a cup of coffee and a Kaiser roll. It wasn’t much, he knew, but he felt obliged to do something more than just gawk at the man as so many others did.
Not everyone he spoke with was hostile to Breer’s presence in the plaza. Some were quite amused by it, especially when pigeons landed on his head and shoulders as if he were a statue. And others found his patience admirable, envious of his ability to sit still for such long stretches of time.
“What are we going to do with this damn fool?” Kinnear asked Neuheisel one afternoon in exasperation.
Neuheisel shrugged as he prepared a cappuccino for another customer.
“I spoke to this guy I know who is a cop and he said that the vagrancy ordinance is really too vague to be enforced anymore. So, as long as this guy is not actually asking for money, there’s nothing law enforcement can do.”
“I’ve seen folks put money in his lunch pail but I’ve never seen him ask for anything.”
“Neither have I.”
Neuheisel served the cappuccino then took another order.
“Something has to be done about him.”
Neuheisel again did not reply.
“Don’t you agree, Oscar?”
“I don’t know. The guy’s not doing anything really.”
Kinnear cocked his head back, resting a hand on the counter. “You know, my friend, you sound like this sister-in-law of mine who seldom is ever willing to take sides. We call her ‘our Switzerland.’”
Neuheisel smiled at the characterization but Kinnear didn’t as he turned and shambled out of the coffee shop.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Jenny remarked one afternoon as she looked out the window at Breer. “I don’t know how he can stare at that fountain for so long. I know I couldn’t do it. My eyes would be in pain after just a few minutes.”
Neuheisel crossed his arms. “They must not be very strong.”
“Oh, no, Oscar. My vision is fine.”
“No, I was referring to your eye muscles.”
She frowned. “They seem pretty strong to me.”
“Maybe we should test them,” he suggested with a hint of a grin.
“How are we going to do that?”
He leaned over the counter. “Now do as I say and turn around and stare across the room at the clock on the wall.”
Still frowning, she did as he wished, with her back braced against the counter.
“Now look up without raising your head.”
Not sure what was going on, she looked up at the bladed ceiling fan.
“Continue to look up but now close your eyes.”
Quickly she shut them, feeling strangely vulnerable all of a sudden.
He waited a couple of minutes then told her, “Without looking down now, open your eyes.”
To her amazement, she was unable to comply, and he smiled as he watched her struggle.
“I can’t do it, Oscar. I don’t know why but I can’t.”
“Relax, kid, and lower your eyes to the floor,” he instructed her. “Now see if you can open them.”
Easily, then, she did, blinking rapidly. “What happened? Why couldn’t I do it before?”
He snickered. “I guess your muscles aren’t as strong as you thought they were.”
Confused, she ground her knuckles in the sockets of her eyes, sure she was every bit as strong as that poor man staring at the fountain.
Toward the end of the month Breer was involved in a nasty incident at the plaza. A couple of skateboarders, apparently with nothing better to do, began to skate back and forth in front of him, gradually edging closer and closer until the tails of their oversized flannel shirts brushed the brim of his baseball cap. He shouted at them to get away but they ignored him, laughing and pounding their chests as they skated as close as they could without bumping into him. Frightened, he pulled a small penknife out of his pocket and held it up for protection. The skaters laughed even harder. Clumsily he waved it back and forth, hoping they would leave him alone, but they were having too much fun. Then, as one of them charged directly at him, he swiped the side of his bare left leg with the dull blade and the skater spun off his board, shrieking in pain. Shaken, he continued to wave the knife back and forth until others in the plaza rushed over and took it away from him.
Moments later, his tie askew, Kinnear burst into the coffee shop. “He’s done!”
Neuheisel rose from behind the counter, a striped towel draped over his left shoulder. “Who is?”
“That chucklehead out in the plaza,” he panted. “He just stabbed some kid with a pocket knife.”
“I saw it out the window.”
“That’s great, Oscar. Then you can tell the police what that fool did. I was working in the back room so I didn’t see the attack. I just heard about it from a customer.”
“All I can tell anyone is what I saw and what I saw was a couple of punks tormenting the guy who was only defending himself.”
“Christ, man, he stabbed a kid!”
“That kid was threatening to slam into him.”
“Kids are kids. They always act a little crazy when they are on skateboards. Sure, they get on some people’s nerves but that doesn’t give anyone the right to swing a knife at them.”
“No, Mark, it doesn’t but that kid was asking for trouble, and he got it.”
“I can’t believe you really believe that.”
Neuheisel clucked his tongue. “All I’m doing is telling you what I saw.”
“Well, as I said, I didn’t see what happened but I know that guy who squats in the plaza every other day is dangerous and needs to be put away.”
Kinnear got his wish. Shortly after Breer was taken into custody, the police, upon learning about his strange practice of squatting for hours in front of the plaza fountain, initiated an involuntary examination of his mental state. The two psychiatrists who conducted the exam concluded that Breer posed a threat to others and recommended he be committed to the state psychiatric hospital in Antelope to receive treatment. A judge agreed, and, despite his protests, Breer was shackled and carted off to the hospital.
Neuheisel was incensed when he learned of the decision. There was no question that Breer was often very confused, sometimes to such an extent that it was difficult for him to separate his desires from reality, but not for a moment did Neuheisel believe Breer presented a danger to anyone. All he did was defend himself against two kids who were getting some peculiar thrill out of tormenting him. If anyone posed a threat, he believed, it was those two punks.
He was not inclined to take sides in disputes, as Kinnear pointed out to him a few weeks ago, but he was convinced that Breer’s commitment was a serious mistake. And late one evening he expressed his opposition in a letter to the judge who ordered it and then, with some hesitation, mailed it the next morning.
“You ever hear back from the judge?” Jenny asked after he told her about the letter he sent earlier in the week.
He shook his head, spooning a dollop of whipped cream on a mocha coffee.
“Not a word?”
“Hell, I doubt if the judge ever saw it. One of his clerks probably opened it and dismissed it as being from some crank and never showed it to him.”
“You think so?”
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” he said after serving the mocha drink to a customer. “Nearly everyone who works at the plaza thinks he did the right thing. I’m definitely in the minority.”
She didn’t reply which led him to believe she agreed with the other merchants that the plaza was better off with Breer gone.
“Sure, the guy was an embarrassment, sitting hour after hour in front of the fountain, but that doesn’t mean he was dangerous. He was just a nuisance, an eyesore to some, he wasn’t menacing anyone.”
Just before he entered the coffee shop, Kinnear closed his soaked umbrella then set it in the stand beside the front door. “You looking for him?” he asked when he noticed Neuheisel staring out the window.
He frowned. “You know who, Oscar.”
Neuheisel shook his head and stepped away from the window.
“Any day I expect to see him back out there in front of the fountain.”
“Something drew him here and, I have no doubt, something will draw him back.”
“He won’t come back. He learned he wasn’t welcomed here so he’ll go somewhere else.”
“I hope to God you’re right.”
I don’t, he thought to himself, half wishing the poor man would return so he could tell him how embarrassed he was by the way he was treated by so many in town.
* * *
Thomas Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His stories have appeared in such publications as Gravel, The Steel Toe Review, Stymie, and Welter.