Cold, Sweet Tea
Such heat. wave upon wave. through air thick as tapioca. brutal oppressive. under the awning, the shade just makes it worse. adding weight, piling on heavy. a bead of sweat starts to form on his forehead. welling up slowly till gravity pulls it down the side of his head to dangle for an itching instant on his chin.
The waitress brings him a glass of frozen tea. leaves boiled, sifted and separated, the run-off poured into a glass and put into the freezer over night. and as he watches, it melts. the water in the air condensing on its side, making a little puddle, darkening the wood of the table. the wait is unbearable, and when enough has melted to make a mouthful he slurps it greedily. the ecstasy of cool. he bites into the ice, impatient.
And the next table over, a man, lank and skinny, sits, tapping a finger on the table, mumbling some kind of devil voodoo through the solid air. the words come soft and unintelligible. edges dulled by the soupy breeze. his leg jiggles, agitated. the fear of god in his eyes. they flick wildly around. a man done wrong. paranoiac passion written all over his face, a terror of everything.
The waitress comes over with his drink on a small, round, cork-bottomed tray. and as she sets the drink on the table, his eyes widen with fear. and his hands are at his head. scratching and pulling his hair.
"get 'em off me!"
He stands up, jerks vertical, the table tipping. the menu in the surface flickers and goes out. the glass of tea smashes and the ashtray dumps ash and butts all over the stone. the people around him stand up, backing away, afraid. it might be catching, borne from his stinking mouth on the moist air, to infest their blood, and bring the madness down on them.
He falls to the ground, writhing screaming. kicking. and his skin, torn by the glass beneath him, wet from the expanding puddle of melting tea, begins to bleed. softly, slowly at first, until he is a flailing red mass of lank hair and sticky, sweet tea.
And when the van arrives, spilling out medics wearing latex gloves and medical face-masks, he is picked up bodily. dragged kicking and screaming onto a stretcher. and they shoot him full of something. finally he subsides, the animal violence dulled to an occasional twitch. and he is put in the van and taken away.
The matron, thin emaciated, emerges from the cafe pushing a mop and bucket. she struggles to get the small castors over the uneven stone. her tiny arms, withered and thin, eaten away by anorexia, look like they might snap under the strain. she grunts, breathing heavily.
And as she slowly sweeps the mop across the flags, diluting the bloody tea and glass, spreading it out more evenly, she sings quietly to herself. a song from her childhood, maybe, that her mother used to sing. the melody a memory of happiness and health, a youth now long gone. words from an old language spoken to the tune of three little notes.
She notices him watching her, and gives him a friendly smile, and he can see the shape of her skull through the sagging, wrinkled skin of her face. her eyes are a watery grey, a hint of jaundice yellow around the iris. she replaces the mop in the bucket and comes over.
"i am sorry you had to see that. He was a lonely man. He got lost some time ago and never managed to make his way back."
She leans over and taps the menu in the table,
"order anything you like. consider it an apology."
And he looks down at the table, scrolling through the menu. everything heavy. meat and potatoes and rice. he orders the spacious.
She smiles and returns to the mop and bucket, and struggles it back inside. the patrons, now calmed, return to their tables and are reabsorbed by the air. they appear gelatinous, thick custard statues, moving slowly. sipping their cold, sweet tea.