“What the fridge are all of you doing here?” the professor bellowed, looking up from his bed on Saturday morning to survey the faces of the café regulars and his students gathered there in his room in Northwestern’s University Health Services.
“For that matter, what the helicopter am I doing here?” he added.
Everyone clapped as the nurse rolled in the professor’s breakfast. “Just what the doctor ordered,” she cooed, winking to the folks nearby, who were in on the joke, “It’s the new ‘Professor Emeritus Special’: one hard-boiled egg, crusty toast, and a little honey on the side!”
Lissa tried to catch Hank’s eye, but he was too busy mulling over what the professor had just said. In those two utterances, the professor had proven the attending physician’s diagnosis that it wasn’t a stroke as everyone had feared. After seeing the EKGs and the blood work, the doc had said that all the professor needed was a good night’s rest, some fluids and a hot meal. Now that the good professor had had all three, it was plain for everyone there to see (or hear) that he was back from wherever his wandering mind had taken him.
The professor’s odd choice of words proved something else to Hank, who’d taken a course in psycho-linguistics. “Fridge. Helicopter.” Hank realized that Jimmy D’s new system of cuss-word substitutions had spread among the regulars. In other words, the folks in his café had become a community. He’d read about little “linguistic islands” that evolved in remote Indonesian tribes, or in tiny Swiss villages, where the dialect was so distinct that it sounded like gibberish if they used it in Zurich, but here, right in front of him, was clear evidence that a community had formed these past few months.
Although he couldn’t quite pin it down, Hank, sensed that a lot of things were starting to converge in his little café on Sherman. It was all coming together fast and he had more deadlines than a city paper at midnight.
When Lissa got back to the café, the kid in the bean outfit was behind the counter, pressing espresso, grinding Italian roast for a French press and refilling the half and half pitcher.
“What the hay—?” Lissa gasped.
The kid looked up and waved quickly. He looked like one of those speeded up cartoon characters, moving from task to task as though he’d been doing them all his life. He still had on his bean outfit, which had deflated a little since he’d started wearing it and now it looked more like, well, as the Whittler’d put it succinctly, more "like a turd on Dog Beach." But the kid looked happy as hello.
As Lissa walked past, Bobby whispered, “Oakey said I should take over the counter—she’s inside. It’s not good.” Then he turned to the line of customers, “Thanks for the tip! Next, please!” You’d never know it had only been a month or so since he’d nipped that tip jar and done the old skedaddle down Church Street.
“I’m so sorry, Lissa.” Oakey said as soon as she saw her.
“What happened, Oakey?”
“Sherman. Please, it’s not his fault. He’s just a cat. Well, he’s more than a cat, but he’s a cat. And--” Oakey stopped talking and melted into tears. Then she held up her right hand, which Lissa could see was wrapped up in gauze and about the size of a small boxing glove. “Sherman jumped down off the shelf. I was practicing my Spring Love Blossom cappuccino art. He jumped and I jumped and I fell down and the boiling water.” She sobbed. “Now I can’t do it.”
“Do what, Oakey?”
“I can’t do the Spring Love Blossom next weekend!”
By the time folks filtered back from the professor’s room, word about Oakey’s accident had spread faster than a prairie fire. But no sooner had Hank gotten gob-smacked upon hearing the news, Lissa already had a new plan for their entry in the Great Evanston Coffee and Barista Challenge.
As she explained it to Hank, “I was sitting right where you are now, wondering what we could do, when I saw Bobby out there, working the counter like he’s been doing it for years. Turns out, he has. More or less. Oakey’s been training him on the side. Sort of took him under her wing. Called him ‘Little Brother’ in Korean.” Then she added, “Hank, you should see his version of the Spring Love Blossom! The kid’s really good. I mean good.”
“Good enough to win next weekend? Lissa, we’ve got a lot on the line here. The Challenge, your deadline two days later.”
“My deadline?” Lissa blurted out, astonished at the accusation.
“Look, I’m sorry, but everyone knows, I mean most people think it’s you who’s been writing up those deadline number notes and things.”
“Ok, now you listen to me, Hank, and you listen loud and clear, because I’m only going to say it once: I love you. You got that? Now we’ve got some work to do. There’s a week to go. You go out there now and tell Bobby to get out of that outfit and start practicing. I’ve got to find Sherman. If I know that cat, he knows what’s happened and he’s feeling pretty awful about it.”
Episode 29 will appear on Friday.