by Uday Mukerji
“You’re a smart kid, Billy. One day, everyone in that office will be talking about your good work.” I remembered every word my father had said to me ten years ago as I slowly walked past the glass tower again. The steel and glass structure, twelve-story insurance office with revolving doors was a marvel to look at when it was built in the early nineties. I bet every kid in our town had been fantasizing about getting a job in that swanky office. Men and women who used to work there also looked very different from our regular folks in their factory uniforms. It was a slice of big-town lifestyle planted in the middle of nowhere at one end of our town.
As I walked with eyes on my own reflections on its spotless glass facade, I failed to notice a puddle of water right in front of me. I fumbled as one of my crutches slipped from my grasp. “Damn! Crutches … I hate these things.”
I had to take my prosthesis off because of a skin breakdown since I had come back to town three days before. Venturing out with my backup crutches maybe wasn’t such a good idea. But I was also dying to get out of the house.
I quickly stretched my arm to reach for the falling crutch, but I missed it by an inch. Where did that water come from? As I looked at my crutch into that small puddle of water, a young lady in a black, knee-length skirt suit, picked it up, smiled at me, and handed back the crutch to me.
I said, “Thank you,” and I stood there watching her as she hurried back into the building. She could be around my age…in her early twenties. I loved the way she smiled—confident and yet with a tinge of girly shyness.
I crossed over to the other side of the road and looked for the convenience store from where my father had brought me an ice cream almost a decade ago. But it was gone.
I hadn’t visited that part of the town since my dad had passed away nearly eight years before. That area had gone through a major revamp. Those mom-and-pop stores were long gone, and swanky, little shops had replaced them with cool new offerings.
I ordered a cup of coffee from a café opposite the tower. From the chit-chats inside the room, it appeared to me that all their customers were from the same insurance office. While most of them were ordering takeaways, I decided to sit and enjoy my coffee and ruminate on old memories.
After my accident, my mother had very little choice but to move in with my grandparents. Having already lost her husband, and herself suffering from cancer, she was desperate. My multiple surgeries, rehab, and a long recovery took a toll on everyone in the family, especially, on my ailing mother. Finally, she succumbed to the disease three months before.
And I decided to come home. My grandpa had said, “What’s the rush, son?” But I knew it was time I picked up the pieces, got myself a job, and jump started my life.
A lot had changed in the last three and a half years since we left Richmond. After coming back, I was also curious to see what had happened to this part of the town, especially, the glass tower. But why? I knew that dream was over for me.
Although the people in our town had gotten used to seeing much taller and fancier buildings these days, they still remembered that insurance office as the glass tower, because in our childhood days, it was the only tall building wrapped in glass.
“Hi, remember me? I haven’t seen you in the office before … are you in the appraisal?” asked the same girl who had helped me pick up the crutch a while ago. What’s she doing here? … Does she think I work in that office?
I said, “Of course, I remember you, but I don’t work in that office. Although once that was my father’s dream.”
“What happened?” asked the girl with genuine curiosity.
I looked at my crutches on a chair next to me and said, “Life happened.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m here if you want to—?”
“Talk? … Nah.” I interrupted her and said, “You don’t want to hear that.”
“Trust me, I do, and I have fifteen minutes, but hang on…let me place my orders first. I have to pick up something for my boss.” and the girl ran inside the coffee shop.
I looked at her from a distance. She had dark black, short bob hair, and she looked professional in an expensive suit. But why would she want to know more about the accident? Is she going to ask about my accident insurance plans? Isn’t it a tad late for that?
The girl pulled up a chair in front of me and said, “Now tell me what happened. By the way, I’m Kate Kline and you are…?”
“Billy…it’s Billy Decker.”
I told her briefly…how I had lost my left leg to a fatal road accident on a football tournament trip in my final year in high school. “And that marked the end of my hope of scholarships for any college admissions. Guess what, I didn’t even go to college.”
“Trust me, you missed nothing. I’m still fetching coffee after graduating with an honor’s degree in finance. Gotta start somewhere, right?” I wasn’t sure whether she was comforting me or herself.
Suddenly, someone shouted her name from the counter, and she ran to collect her orders. When she came back, with two coffee cups and some takeaways in both hands, she looked at me and said, “You know what, there’s always more than one way to reach your destination. Think harder … reroute your dream … maybe, you can work with them instead of working for them,” and she left.
“You need a hand?” I blurted out. But I soon realized I was in no shape to give her a hand. What was I thinking? The days of chivalry were over for me.
“I got this.”
I was still looking in her direction as she walked out. She turned back before she crossed over to the other side and shouted, “See you around.”
I came home soon after. I was glad I went out. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Kate. She appeared like a fresh breeze in my mundane life. I couldn’t even remember when was the last time I talked with anyone about my father or my missed goals in life. Kate’s one line kept hammering me, “Reroute your dream … there’s always more than one way to reach your destination.”
I spent a restless night, tossing and turning in bed. As if that wasn’t enough, I ran out of coffee in the morning. I had forgotten about the grocery shopping on my way back home. But why was I even considering a stranger’s pep talk? Kate didn’t know anything about my limitations … besides, she was just a young girl, and probably, her parents are rich too. What would she know about the real world? The glass tower wasn’t my goal anymore. That was my father’s wishful thinking. Maybe, as the agency had recommended, I should take the cashier’s job at the supermarket.
I headed out to the park to settle my lunch with a pizza or a burrito. Cooking was out of the question, and I needed to clear my head, anyway.
There was a menu board hanging outside the food truck. I ordered a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. But as I waited for my turn with my eyes on the food truck, I realized Kate was right. I was too rigid in my thinking. After all, there might be a way to make my father’s dream a reality.
What happens if I do a mini version of the food truck? Coffee with Croissants? I liked the name. The day before, I had spent close to an hour in the café opposite the glass tower, and I had noticed more than ninety percent of their customers were from the same insurance office.
I wanted to call Kate and tell her about my idea. But I didn’t even have her number. Besides, who was I kidding? I only met her for five minutes. Maybe she was just trying to make a conversation. I laughed at my imagination.
But the next thirty days were grueling. In one month, I secured a bank loan and a handicap permit to park my coffee cart next to the glass tower, learned how to make coffee professionally, and arranged with a baker family, I knew from my schooldays, for daily supplies of fresh muffins, croissants, and some sandwiches.
The early morning, on July 15, I drove my coffee cart to the glass tower and parked at one corner in front of the building so that people getting in and out could see the Coffee with Croissants bar right in front.
But the security guys didn’t quite like the idea of a coffee stall right in front of the building. As I was serving my first four…five customers, I got interrupted by a bunch of security guards. The situation soon became tense. First, I showed them the permit and tried to assure them of no nuisance on my part.
But they were adamant. “You gotta move to the side. The city council cannot allot this space to you. We’ll file a complaint.”
“But no one will be able to see me at the side from here, sir. How will they know?” I argued.
“That’s your problem, not mine,” said one of the guys in pressed uniform.
But soon, I also got some support from my customers and the onlookers. The silent observers suddenly became vocal. “The guy’s earning an honest living. Why don’t you leave him alone?” asked one middle-aged guy.
“Give him a break,” said another.
“He means no harm. What’s your problem?” asked one lady from behind as she pushed through the crowd.
“Kate!” I gulped. Her support meant a lot to me.
“How are you doing? …I like it,” said Kate with a big grin on her face as she affectionately touched the hanging signboard—Coffee with Croissants.
“You know him?” Interrupted a senior guard.
“Yes, he’s my friend,” replied Kate.
But you don’t understand miss; Mr. Kline won’t like it,” argued the security manager.
Mr. Kline? I was puzzled—then, who is Kate Kline? But I had no time to ponder. I was about to be evicted even before I started.
But Kate fought back firmly, “That’s his problem; isn’t it? The office belongs to him, but he doesn’t own the town.”
The onlookers cheered and clapped at Kate’s assertiveness. But I didn’t want to create a scene or any unpleasantness on the first day of my new business. I pleaded again, “Give me a few days; once people get to know my shop here, I’ll move to one corner. I promise.”
“Nothing doing, you gotta move now. The boss will be here soon,” said one of the guards.
“He isn’t going anywhere. Why don’t you ask your big boss to settle this right now? We’ll see what he has to say to your high-handed approach,” asserted Kate.
Soon, a big, fancy car pulled up to the curb. However, seeing a commotion in front of his office, instead of going straight into the building, the suited gentleman came forward and asked the security guys, “What’s going on here? … Did anyone call the police?” He seemed to be on the edge.
After hearing everything from his people, the gentleman looked at me and said, “You can’t encroach public space like this. You gotta follow the rules, son.”
“I have a permit, sir,” I said faintly.
“Why didn’t you say so? Well, that changes everything. But what I don’t understand is why here? You could easily earn more in the downtown area.”
I said, “It’s not always about money, sir. My father once dreamt about me working in this office. But I failed him because my life didn’t go as planned. I know I’m not qualified to work here, but I bet, my coffee is. All I want is for everyone to give Billy’s Coffee with Croissants a chance.”
The gentleman patted on my shoulder, smiled, and said, “Well, what’re you waiting for? Pour me a cup.”
About the author
His second book, Dead Man Dreaming, recipient of Book Excellence Award, was published in October 2019 by Adelaide Books, New York.