[Shorts] Coffee and Croissant

706pm. It’s always that time of the day that he appears. However much we try to take note of his arrival, we’ll always end up being distracted just at that moment. We’ve had a ceiling light blow, even though it was a LED bulb. A mug I was clearing from a table suddenly cracked all over but still held its shape – but I could feel it crumbling if I pressed too hard. It took us all 10 minutes of held breaths before the cup reached a garbage bin safely. And then we realised it was already past 706pm, and he was standing at the counter, waiting quietly and patiently for us.

Not even a smirk detected.

Lee, our best barista, always tells us not to bother trying. “He’s got his own secrets to keep. Don’t keep trying to find things out that aren’t yours to find.” He always gives the gentleman a nod when he appears, and listens calmly to him every time. Unlike my first time, when I was on cashier duty.

There’s no other word to describe it – he just appears. The door never chimes, and we’ll be looking away for some reason, and when we look back, he’ll be lounging against the counter, staring at the menu. For what, I have no idea. He always orders the same thing, the same way.

“Bean water, bitter.
Cow’s nutrients, heated and foamed.
Black and white, no more.

A baked pastry,
The fat of a calf’s first food.
Curved, gently, warmed well.”

I remember vividly my first response.

“Heh?”

Lee quietly serves him a coffee with milk, and a heated up croissant with a pat of butter every time. I have no idea why he doesn’t just ask for a coffee and a croissant like a normal person.

Why? Why????
Image by Elisa from Pixabay

He always takes his food and drink al fresco. Our cafe has a few tables that are placed outside, and it’s quite pleasant to watch the traffic flow past from. Around that time in the evening, the crows in the area will also congregate, and despite gentle requests and reminders, he will sometimes pluck bits of the croissant to throw to them. They never fight for the delicacies though. Every time he throws a piece, one of the flock will alight from the trees above, and solemnly prance over to the proferred pastry, snapping it up in its beak. Very often, the bird will then bob its head towards the gentleman, as if in thanks.

All in all, he is a strange person. Which was why one day, my curiousity overcame my reluctance to disturb a regular. As I delivered his coffee and croissant, I couldn’t help asking.

“Uhm… If you don’t mind me asking, what do you do for a living?”

He took off his shades which I hadn’t even noticed him wearing up till that point, and turned to face me. He didn’t seem put out, which was a good start. But as I try to remember his eyes and how they looked like… I can only say that somehow, I can’t remember. I can’t remember their colour, or shape.

“Vocation, job, tasks.
These things I do daily, yes.
Sure you want to know?”

I nodded.

“Walk close with many.
Steps I shadow, oft unseen.
Not to guide, but watch.

Such a common task,
Yet no one ever sees me.
My company palls.

I am everywhere.
Even when life starts, sometimes.
My presence lingers.

People fear my work.
They wonder what comes after.
The answers don’t come.

I have heard regrets,
Seen the results of follies,
Too few meet in peace.

Most try to run away.
I am inexorable.
There is no escape.

Live your life fully,
Care for those around your heart.
Spend time more wisely.

When I come knocking,
What will I find, human soul?
How well will you rest?

Gold chests are hollow.
Tasks completed mean nothing.
In that final count.

My job is lonely.
So peace it is that I seek.
Coffee and croissant.

A moment daily,
A breath along with nature,
Becomes bearable.”

Then he smiled.

“The answer you seek.
You hear but not understand.
What is your answer?”

“Are you…” I was stammering and shaking like a leaf, for some reason. Why was I so worried? Why were the crows so quiet? Who was this man? Did I guess right?

“Are you a tax collector?”

I really don’t remember much else of that moment. I remember his laughter dissolving into the sobs of regret. I could feel the eons of loss upon loss, grief and sometimes joy, weighing down on my shoulders as he gazed with his indescribable eyes into my soul. I remember having to stand at the cusp of great joys, only to have to hear the cries of extreme grief where there should have been laughter. I still can feel myself walking with those in despair, as they stayed near the brink, and yet not having to take action, because their walk was not yet done. I felt the pain of great despair, walking alongside the ones I observed, seeing their inevitable, inexorable steps, wanting them to stop but not being able to intervene. I heard tears, even as I heard acceptance, regrets alongside anticipation of rest. I wanted to scream even as I wanted to sob, wanting to tear myself away and never return, even as I felt my loneliness, my duty to have to do what I was tasked to do. I was torn apart and remade, every day, saved by a cup of good Arabica brew, and the smooth silkiness of a pat of butter on my tongue, with the crispy crunch and soft layers of a warm croissant. I lived days and times where the work never would end, and yet also times where the work was in the midst of acceptance and joy, even if there were tears of loss. I could do nothing, even as I had to keep to my task of observing, walking alongside, and gently directing the steps beyond the final steps.

I remember everything, and yet I remember nothing.

And then he laughed.

“I collect a price.
One everyone has to pay.
Return to sender.

The tax of a nation,
The price of living itself,
You understand well.

Return to your tasks,
Your question has been answered,
Do you really see?”

And with a bow, he finished,

“Thank you, stranger child.
My burden not yours to take.
Leave me be now, please.”

As he sat back down, I felt the stares of the crows on my neck, and I suddenly felt an urge to be somewhere else really quickly. Lee had rushed out of the cafe at that point, grabbing hold of my shoulders and gabbing something to the gentleman as he gently directed me back into the warmth and safety of the cafe. I didn’t feel unwell for long, but I never want to ask that gentleman much again.

But I still wonder.

Why does he have to talk that way? Is he a foreigner?

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