And some would have described her as a girl with piercing blue eyes, but we knew she was not the Main Character, so we left off with that. Interestingly, the next customer was a man with piercing brown eyes, which we hadn’t thought of before. However, this observation led more to us discussing what piercing really meant than to our decision about the man’s status as a character. In that way, he was allowed to be more real than the rest of us.
Should we consider the contest? That was what some of us wanted to know, to define the rules, fix them to the board and our minds. Unfortunately, the line was starting to get held up. We served them coffee. Some had tea. When they needed eggs, they were cracked. When they needed lemons, they were sliced. We did more sometimes, but that was the gist of it.
The church bell rang outside. It rang inside, too, but only as a recording on a teenager’s phone. If they were the Main Character, things would be difficult for them. That was unanimously agreed between us, Main Characters should always have some sort of harrowing task or great burden, some pivotal moment that justified their existence. But then the teen was off, out the door and into the street, heedless of their possible duty as our protagonist. Teenagers can be annoying like that. Not as bad as old people though, we all agreed. As customers they were like alcoholics, vacillating between uncomfortable affection and needless spite, and it could only be assumed they would behave the same way as a Main Character.
Some of us posited that an older person may have already been the Main Character at one point, which could be the source of their frustration. But it was quickly decided that all Main Characters eventually become guides and tutors to new Main Characters, and would therefore incapable of the vices of our particular customers.
Unless they had died, one of us mumbled, but just as we were trying to figure out which one had said the ludicrous idea, a baby started crying and throwing its food. No way for a Main Character to behave at all. We settled into work again, cracking, slicing, serving, and searching. All the while, the ownerless idea flitted and hummed around us like so many flies.
What if the Main Character had died? Was there always a protagonist to take their place? Perhaps it was something traded, a deuteragonist situation perhaps, or an antagonist-turned-pro, or maybe a hastily-written-substitute-agonist.
A young woman ordered a single shot of espresso with a dollop of whipped cream. Espresso con panna. She waited patiently for us to stumble over each other, preparing the shot, the cup, the saucer, and even smiled when we she told us we had forgotten the whipped cream. She sat alone, in the corner, reading a book. It doesn’t matter what book, it could have been A Brief History of Steam Train Collisions or the latest collection from a certain Argentinian poet. Writers don’t actually exist, and their works serve only to define their readers, whether A or B is their favorite. There is only the Writer who, of course, writes the Main Character.
The young woman was a good candidate.
Her friend was not, and we won’t talk about her, except to reiterate that she sat alone.
The sun was going down, and the river that flowed outside was high. Perhaps the girl would dive into the river to save someone. Better yet, dive in for no reason at all. She might reemerge with that same oh-the-whipped-cream-if-you-don’t-mind smile, or disappear into the river never to be seen again, immortal as a memory.
But for now, she sat reading and sipping espresso, and we sliced more lemons in our anticipation. Some of us cut our thumbs. We ran out of band-aids and settled for paper towels and electrical tape. Eventually it was only us and the girl (friend notwithstanding). We stayed open late, waiting for a Sign. She looked around hurriedly, realizing the time and the dark outside, and before we could stop her, had run out the door.
Some of us took that to mean she must be the Main Character. What else would she be rushing for? But she was not Our Main Character, we decided.
But we had stayed too late, and weren’t getting overtime. We all cleaned our slicings and servings up off the floor, swept up our shift in a dustpan coffin, and wandered out the door.
Except for me. My espresso had gone cold, so I added some hot water for the ride home.
Carleton J. Whaley is Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of The Slag Review. His work has been published in The Long River Review and is forthcoming in Paper Darts.