I’m standing in line at the coffee shop and this guy behind me is bragging to his buddy that his girlfriend told him she loves him and he didn’t say it back. I glance down at the San Francisco Chronicle and see two headlines: the first that a two-time All-Star pitcher died in a boating accident off the coast of Miami, and the second that a series of attacks in Aleppo have killed 58 Syrians, 18 of which were children. I blink at the headlines, staring at them, though, I hardly absorb them. I realize there is an idea behind these headlines, something visceral, poignant, but there is also something hauntingly vacant. It’s a terrible thing to understand lurking hostility in situations you cannot fully understand but—
The guy in line keeps going on about his girlfriend, pausing, only momentarily, to ask me, “Have you already been helped?”
“No,” I say, and turn back around.
I’m slightly irritated he asks me this as I’m clearly standing in line. Though, I suppose he’s a little puzzled by the fact I’m already holding a cup of coffee. You see, my girlfriend doesn’t like the coffee shop I go to, so every Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I have to go to two coffee shops: the first place to get my coffee—
The Syrian kids...
—the second place to get hers. Normally something like this would annoy me, except for the fact that every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday she has to do the same thing. And I suppose that’s a fair trade off considering—
“Next in line,” the barista says.
“Café Latte,” I say. “With room for milk.”
“There’s already milk in there, sir.”
“She wants more.”
“My girlfriend.” I pause. “What does that matter?”
The barista goes on as if I’ve said nothing. “More what?”
“She wants more milk than is already in there.”
“I’m not sure if we can do that.”
“What do you mean?” I say. “It’s a coffee shop.”
“Let me just go check with my supervisor.”
The barista heads off and briefly engages with a Salvadorian woman wearing a hairnet and a stained apron. I notice a small teardrop tattoo under her left eye and a faint scar running across her cleft chin. The Salvadorian woman nods patiently. She looks at me, waves, and smiles.
I wave back.
The barista must be new.
The barista comes back a moment later and says, “Sorry, I’m new. It’s only my second day.”
I nod, but say nothing.
“Just the Café Latte then?” she asks.
I slap the copy of the Chronicle on the counter. “And the paper, too.”
“Let me go and check to see how much that is,” she says, and heads back over to the Salvadorian woman.
Since it’s Sunday the Chronicle costs $3.00 + tax. A hefty sum considering nobody reads—
I try to take my usual way home, but one of the streets is blocked because of some charity 5K race. I catch a glimpse of one of the fliers and see the race is to raise money for puppies. Specifically, it’s to raise money for blankets for puppies. Across the street I see a homeless man huddled in a gap between a new French restaurant I haven’t tried and a Korean nail salon. He holds a Styrofoam® cup with a trembling hand and watches listlessly as the runners pass him by.
“You’re saving so many puppies!” I hear one of the race-watchers shout to the runners. “You guys are heroes!”
I double back and hike up six blocks to an overpass and head back to my apartment. By the time I get home, my $6 Americano has gone cold.
I give my girlfriend her $8 Café Latte and she reminds me we have to go to her friend’s BBQ later. I ask what friend. She says a name I don’t recognize, but I just nod and say, “Oh, that’s right.”
“Did you hear the terrible news?” she asks.
“About the Syrian airstrike?”
“No,” she says, confused. “About that pitcher who died in the boating accident in Miami. Isn’t that just terrible?”
“Yes,” I say. “It’s terrible.”
Our Frigidaire® microwave does a lousy job of warming my coffee and I can’t seem to get it hot again.
“Is the microwave broken?” I ask.
“Huh?” she says.
“Never mind.” I give up and dump the $6 Americano down the drain.
On my $399 iPhone 6 I get a CNN News Alert. Through the cracked screen I read that a Malaysian Airlines flight carrying 189 passengers has gone missing somewhere over the Indian Ocean. I tell my girlfriend about the plane and she says, “Well, it’s the last day Mercury is in retrograde, so hopefully tomorrow will be better.”
Mercury always seems to be in retrograde, I think.
My girlfriend only drinks a third of her $8 Latte and I end up pouring that down the drain, too.
Unbeknownst to me, we’ve been enlisted to bring chips and dip to the BBQ, so my girlfriend and I stop at the nearest Safeway. She wants to get Tostitos® and Hidden Valley® Buffalo Ranch Dip, but I see that Lays® and Lipton® French Onion Dip are on sale and buy those instead. She grouses as I’m checking out that nobody likes French Onion Dip, but since I don’t know anybody who’ll be at the BBQ, I don’t particularly care.
I swipe my Chase Sapphire ReserveSM card in the machine and the cashier says, “Does your card have a chip?”
“Yeah,” I shrug. “I guess so.”
“You need to put it in the chip reader then,” she says. “You can’t swipe it.” She’s annoyed. “It says right there to use the chip reader slot for cards with chips.”
“All right,” I say, and use the chip reader.
As I’m signing my bill for the $7.58 chips and dip, the cashier asks my girlfriend if she heard the “terrible news.”
“About the baseball player in Miami?” she says.
“No,” the cashier says. “I didn’t even hear about that. What happened?”
My girlfriend relays the tragic tale and we never up hearing the terrible news the cashier had to deliver.
We take the BART to Oakland for the BBQ. On the way I overhear a guy telling his girlfriend that a golf legend (whose name I don’t hear) passed away at the age of 87. I wonder if that was the “terrible news” the cashier was referencing. The guy’s girlfriend asks him if he heard the news about the pitcher who died in Miami and he says he had.
“It’s probably because Mercury is in retrograde,” the girl says.
“Yeah...” he says to no one in particular.
They sit in silence until the BART arrives at Lake Merritt Station and the girl and her boyfriend get off.
My girlfriend and I get off at the next stop and hike the last four blocks to the BBQ. It’s hot, and as I’m hiking up the hill I can feel the Lipton® French Onion Dip start to sweat in my hand. I keep shifting the Lays from the crux of one arm to the other and can hear the chips breaking as I do. I know that by the time we get to the BBQ the Lays® and French Onion Dip will be in such rough shape nobody will want to eat them.
We get to the party and the friend whose name I had forgotten turns out to be Olivia. She greets us with a sad sort of smile and asks, “Did you hear the terrible news?”
What a way to greet your party guests, I think.
“About the Malaysian flight?” I say.
She shoots me a contemptuous look that makes me think her family has stock in Malaysian Airlines and says, more to my girlfriend than to me, “No, about Arnold Palmer.”
“The pitcher?” my girlfriend says.
“No, he was a golf legend.” Olivia shoots my girlfriend the same contemptuous look I thought was reserved only for me and I can see my girlfriend thinking Olivia must have stock in the Professional Golfers Association. “Who’s the pitcher?” Oliva asks.
My girlfriend tells her about the pitcher who died in Miami and she looks so crestfallen I’m absolutely convinced Olivia has stock in Major League Baseball®.
“Mercury, am I right?” says Olivia.
“I know!” my girlfriend says.
“Thank god it’s the last day of retrograde.”
They both sigh. I just stand there with the crushed Lays® and heat-stroked French Onion Dip.
“Where’s your new boyfriend?” my girlfriend asks. “I can’t wait to meet him.”
Olivia slumps her shoulders. “He’s in Seattle for some conference.”
“Oh...that’s a bummer...”
“Yeah...” Olivia sighs. “But when the mice are away, the cat will play, am I right?” She cackles.
“It’s ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play,’” I say.
“Huh?” Olivia grunts.
“It’s ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play,’” I repeat. “Not ‘when the mice are away, the cat will play.’”
“I don’t think so,” she says. “It’s like when the mice are away, the cat can just relax and not have to run around chasing mice.”
“Well...Where do the mice go?” I ask.
“I don’t know!” she shrieks. “Where does the fucking cat go?”
Things are not going well with Olivia.
I ask where I should put the bone-battered Lays® and coagulating French Onion Dip and Olivia snatches them from my hands mumbling something about how she would have preferred Hidden Valley® Buffalo Ranch Dip. About five minutes later I see her shoving the dip in the back of her stainless-steel Viking® refrigerator and stuffing the chips in the corner of her mahogany-finished lazy Susan. It turns out I was right about nobody eating the chips and dip, and this gives me a fleeting moment of satisfaction. But the brief jolt of serotonin immediately evaporates as I remember the Blankets for Puppies 5K.
As I’m eating an undercooked Costco® burger and poking at over-mayonnaised potato salad the guy next to me shows me the News Alert on his $599 iPhone 7. It says seven priests have been indicted for child abuse and another 13 are under investigation by the FBI.
I ask the guy if the Catholic Church released a statement. He shrugs, says he doesn’t know, then asks me if I heard about Arnold Palmer. Instead of answering I take a bite of the E.coli-laced beef and motion that I shouldn’t talk with my mouth full.
He nods that he understands, but still seems miffed. I wait for him to mention Mercury’s retrograde, but he moves off and I don’t see him the rest of the party.
I suppose it’s just as well.
Across the yard I see Olivia yelling at one of her friends that there aren’t enough Solo® cups. The friend has two bags of Solo® cups in her hands and I’m unsure what Olivia is concerned about. I can’t really make out what she’s saying; it’s just a cacophony of unadulterated rage. The only thing I can make out is, “Are you trying to ruin this party?” None of the other guests seem to be paying them much mind, and I figure this is usually how Olivia acts when she throws a party. I can’t help but wonder why my girlfriend is friends with her.
I have three Anchor Steams® and an Absolut® and tonic before my girlfriend comes and asks if I’m ready to go.
I’ve been ready for some time, but all I say is: “Sure.”
She asks if I want to walk up to the lake and watch the sunset.
I say, “Sure” again.
Even though the sun is beyond the ridge of the city, it’s still agonizingly hot. There’s a layer of perspiration on my girlfriend’s forehead and the $85 Everlane® linen shirt I’m wearing is sticking to my back. I hope that by the time we get to the lake things will have cooled down. But I’m wrong, and things have only gotten muggier. As we round Lake Merritt’s farthest peninsula I see a black man by one of the water-damaged picnic tables. He’s on his knees, hands behind his head. There are six police offices surrounding him, each has their pistol drawn. They’re all screaming, and the black man just kneels there, a placid, resigned expression on his face. The cops keep screaming, their voices one indistinguishable blur. All I can make out is one cop yell, “You want me to fucking waste you? You fucking want me to waste you, motherfucker?”
We stop walking and watch this unfold with a mixture of terror and confusion. A small crowd gathers around us.
A second policeman yells, “You got a gun?” And then, louder: “You got a gun, cocksucker?”
While the policemen shout at the obviously-unarmed-black-man, a girl behind me says to her boyfriend, “I thought the Riesling we had at lunch today was too sweet.”
“That wasn’t Riesling,” he says. “It was Moscato.”
“Are you sure?” she asks.
“What’s the difference between Riesling and Moscato?”
“Moscato is sweeter than Riesling.”
“Surely not all the time.”
“Most of the time,” he says.
“He’s reaching for something!” a third cop yells.
The black man lies down on his stomach, keeping his hands behind his head. And, while he still hasn’t said anything, one of the cops (I believe it was the one who called him a “cocksucker”) yells, “Shut your mouth! Shut your fucking mouth!”
“Then what’s the difference between Muscat Blanc and Moscato?” the woman asks her boyfriend.
“They’re the same thing,” he says.
There’s a long pause before she says, “No, that can’t be right.”
Shots ring out and the black man seizes, his body contorting in the most horrific of angles. He emits a low, guttural groan before his body becomes still. The first and third cops holster their weapons, but the other four keep their pistols trained on the lifeless black man.
“Somebody should call this in,” the fourth cop, hands shaking, mutters. But nobody calls it in.
They just...stand there.
“Oh my god...” the girl whispers to her boyfriend. “I completely forgot to ask, did you see Arnold Palmer died?”
“I know,” the boyfriend says. “Wasn’t that terrible?”
They turn around and head off in the opposite direction. The rest of the crowd disperses as well, a few of them muttering something about the pitcher from Miami. They all seem to agree it’s because Mercury is in retrograde.
My girlfriend and I stand there a long time. It takes a while for me to realize she’s taken my hand in hers. I’m no longer sweating, but the night still feels hot and the bugs have started to come out.
It takes close to thirty minutes for the ambulance to arrive. The paramedics get out and chat with the six police officers for a few minutes before inspecting the black man’s body. They shake their heads listlessly. One of them lights an American Spirit® while wearing latex gloves.
I feel my mind twisting as the cops huddle up and offer each other solemn praise, occasionally patting one another on the back.
Bugs are everywhere.
“I’d like to go home now,” my girlfriend says unevenly.
“All right,” I say.
We walk past the cops and, amidst their murmurs, I hear one of them say, “Did you guys hear Arnold Palmer died?”
“Yeah,” the paramedic smoking the American Spirit® says. “He was The King.”
“Terrible fucking news,” the cop who called the black man a “cocksucker” says.
(Originally published under the title “Out of the Fold”)