The Coffeemaker lived on La Rossa Strada, so named because most of the buildings on either side of the street were painted red. He lived in the upstairs of an old building faded nearly to pink, and had his coffee shop in the downstairs, where large windows looked out on the wide, stone street. A bright counter ran in a gleaming curve like a wooden C around the left side of the shop, as seen from outside. Behind the counter, like a great palace in miniature, was the machine. The Coffeemaker’s espresso machine. It stood nearly three feet tall, brass and copper plating glittering in the faintest light, covered in knobs, levers, pressure gauges and tubes standing out from it like its relative the steam engine. In the dome on top, beneath the model of a golden eagle, was a bevy of small white coffee cups, tumbled together like puzzle pieces, waiting to be brought out on the slatted copper shelves and filled with coffee.
The Coffeemaker was a quiet man, dark and strong and full of energy, like the coffee he made. He seldom washed his brown hands, brown from handling the beans and grounds, for, as he said, “it would take the flavor out.” He could tell the temperature of the beans turning in their great roasting drums by reaching in and letting them bounce hotly against his fingers.
The Coffeemaker owned a cat. He was a great grey and black striped animal with yellow teeth and tawny eyes. His name was Lungo, for he was enormously long in body. When he stretched out, putting his paws forward and rattling his claws, people stared at him in wonder.
In the mornings, when the Coffeemaker’s neighbors came in for caffe latte and cappuccino, they rustled their newspapers at the counter and laughed at Lungo, draped along the windowsill like a roll of carpet.
“Some cat, Achilleo,” they would call to the Coffeemaker as he stood behind the counter, his brown hands moving across his machine like an artist or an engineer.
“Such a cat as this you won’t find any day or any month,” the Coffeemaker answered, sliding them their tiny cups of hot, milky coffee. “He keeps the mice away from my door, and his own hair to himself, and besides this he is one long streak of luck.”
As if he knew they were talking about him, Lungo stood up and stretched, yawning a wide cat yawn, and padded lazily behind the counter to his dish of latte, delivered every morning from the Coffeemaker’s friend half a mile out of town, with whom he shared several cows.
“Thinks he’s the boss,” the men laughed, then sadly took their last sips and headed out the glass door to work.
“You hear that, Lungo?” The Coffeemaker said, bending down to tug the cat’s leathery ears, “they say you think you’re the boss.” He laughed to himself while Lungo licked one of his fingers absently and strolled out the door. The Coffeemaker had a sudden moment of sharp remembrance, that feeling that he’d lived this exact moment before, of watching Lungo leave. So many mornings, (how many?), since the one day Lungo left and didn’t come back.
Before he was the Coffeemaker, before the shop, before the roasting drums, the coffee beans against his fingers, the smell that became his own, clinging to him wherever he went, before the machine. Then he was a boy in an attic bedroom that smelled like cows because he smelled like cows, sleeping, though he wanted to stay awake to dream.
Then he was just a boy dreaming about coffee.
The Coffeemaker put the little white cups down into the soapy sink carefully, only his fingertips touching the suds. He went into the back and took down two trays of the cooling beans he’d roasted at four that morning, and rattled them together, their little clicks like music.
He put a small handful in the machine and listened to the grind of it. He pushed levers, watched dials and rising jets of steam, and at last, the cup on the shelf, coffee streaming into it. This was pure caffe, espresso in its simplest, best form. He sat at the counter and sipped it, both hands on the cup, eyes closed, tasting the time of the roast. Was it one second too dark? No. He opened his eyes and smiled as two ladies came in.
The coffee is perfect.
It was on his uncle’s farm. He’d been sent to stay for a week to help with the cows. His uncle had more cows than the boy’s father, but his farm was cleaner. In the half light of morning the boy went down to the kitchen where his uncle stood at the table looking out the window, drinking from a steaming green mug. The kitchen was full of a deep smell that made the boy’s heart beat fast. His uncle turned and smiled to see him up and dressed so early. He took a curiously shaped pot off the stove and poured a dark liquid into a second mug and handed it to the boy.
“Long day, son. Drink up.”
He put his lips to the edge of the warm mug. The steam touched his tongue first, then it was in his mouth, bitter, burning him, scalding him with flavor. Magic sliding down his throat. His uncle laughed at his face. “Here’s a boy who’s never tasted coffee before!” He turned the word over in his mind. Caffe.
After that week he didn’t drink it again until a year later, when he had it at the house of one of his mother’s friends. The moment he tasted it he knew something was wrong. It’s burnt, he thought. But it was great, it was wonderful anyway.
The Coffeemaker put more beans in the machine, an Arabica Robusta blend of his own. A group of tourists filtered in, several asking for lattes and looking startled when he handed them the cups of milk they’d ordered.
Lungo came and stood outside the window, looking in and then turning his back, as if to say, “I’ll come in when these peasants have cleared off.”
One night, when the boy was lying in bed, turning the pages of a book about coffee that he’d managed to procure with the determined help of the local librarian, he fell asleep with the light still burning, the coffee pages in his strong milking hands.
He dreamed he saw a cat come walking down the side of the chimney, a big barn cat he didn’t remember. It was a great black striped fellow with yellow eyes. He came and sat by the boy’s bed and examined his claws. Glancing at the book in the boy’s hands, he said, in a confidential sort of tone, “You know, if you like coffee so much, you ought to open your own shop.”
“But how can I?” The boy said, “I’ll never have enough money.”
“Oh,” the cat said, brushing the boy’s words aside with the swipe of a paw, “I have connections in Venice. You don’t want to milk cows all your life, do you?”
“I thought not.” The cat reached into a little fur pocket on his side and pulled out a few coffee beans and crunched them between his teeth. “I’ll see what can be done.” Then he hopped down and walked out the door.
The boy woke and got up to turn out the light, remembering something about a cat and coffee, and there, curled up by the door, was a kitten. It was too young to have gotten there by itself, for its eyes were barely open, though its body was unusually long, curled around like a furry question mark.
From then on, Lungo was always nearby. He held a strong disdain for the barn, and never set foot in it, but waited outside for the boy, lounging and sunning himself and pretending he wasn’t waiting on anything or anyone.
Years passed, and the boy was still only the boy who dreamed of coffee, tasting it maybe once or twice a year, no money in his pocket, and no prospect of making any. Since he didn’t want the farm, his younger brother was to inherit, a small chap nearly ten years younger than the boy, who had a great fascination with cows.
When the boy was almost twenty, he was again sent to his uncle’s farm, and Lungo went with him, draped around his neck like a scarf.
Before his Uncle’s house he stood, stroking Lungo and gazing at the kitchen door. Something felt different; emptiness seemed to hold the air in a fist.
His uncle came out and called to him. “Achilleo! Come in. And who is this? He is a lucky cat, is he? Well, lucky cats can come inside.”
They went in and sat at the table where the boy had sat long ago, a green mug sweating under his hands. He asked about the cows.
“Ah, the cows. I’m selling my cows, Achilleo. I have only five of my favorites left, and three will go to my neighbor and two to your father that you will take when you go.”
“Then why am I here?”
“To help clean up. I’m selling the farm too. Next week I’m moving up higher in the hills. I came from the hills, and when a man comes from the hills he must go back to them in the end.”
They worked hard all that week, cleaning out the barns, going through the house, deciding what to pack and what should stay.
In the mornings they drank coffee.
At the end of the week the boy’s uncle sat with him in the kitchen and they drank coffee even though it was evening. They didn’t talk for a long time, but as they were men, this didn’t bother them. Lungo was under the table twining himself around the boy’s ankles.
“Now,” his uncle said, straightening up and pouring them both more coffee, “you’ve worked for me as a boy, and that was well and good. But now you’ve worked for me as a man, and I must give you wages.”
The boy who was not yet a coffeemaker held up his mug and smiled.
“Oh no, with my nephew I drink coffee. That is not wages.” And he pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and laid it on the table between them.
One week later the boy’s uncle was in the hills of his childhood, and the boy, Lungo on his shoulder, was standing outside a Venice coffee shop, money in his pocket, a city guide in his hand. It was like a picture of heaven when the lights came on and the streets turned to rivers of golden glass.
For two years he traveled from town to town, picking up odd work, sitting in every coffee house he could find. Now the boy who dreamed of coffee was “that coffee boy with the long cat.”
Late afternoon turned the rooftops of the red houses red-gold, and the Coffeemaker was busy with the before-dinner crowd. Coffee cups sang on the bright counter, lovers exchanged sips and laughed like they were clever, the machine called out its gritty song and a fine brown dust filled the air and settled to the surrounding surfaces like perfume.
The Coffeemaker moved about, brown fingers never faltering, smiling at the chatter, remembering every order without making a note, moving with the steady rhythm of the machine. Lungo climbed up to the windowsill and watched. The Coffeemaker caught his eye and winked.
The boy and his cat had been staying for several months in a small town not exactly by the coast and not exactly in the hills. They had a tiny attic bedroom over a noisy restaurant, and the boy had several fairly steady lines of work, though the coffee wasn’t good there. In all this time, Lungo almost never left the boy’s side to go off by himself or to sing with other cats at night. But one morning, very like the morning Lungo sauntered out of the coffee shop years later, the boy was cleaning in the restaurant. The door to the street was open, and Lungo jumped down from a chair and walked out, flicking his tail in the air without looking back.
At first the boy thought nothing of it, but when Lungo didn’t return that night, he grew afraid. All night he lay awake waiting, but Lungo didn’t come back.
In the morning he hurried through some chores then left everything and went out to search. All day he walked through the town, searching and calling his name and asking if anyone had seen him, so that by evening half the town was peering into trash cans and down gutters. But Lungo had disappeared.
The boy wandered the streets until it grew dark. He still called now and then, but his steps grew slower and slower and he no longer saw where he was going.
At last he found he was back in front of the restaurant. It was lit up with laughing, shouting voices and he couldn’t go in, so he sat on the curb with his chin on his knees, arms around his shins. Now he was a boy without a cat, alone, lost in a town of bad coffee.
How long he sat he didn’t know, before he heard something. He looked up. He thought he’d imagined it, like his dream of the cat walking down the chimney so long ago, but then he heard it again. A soft meow, then a longer yowl, like that of a very frustrated cat. The boy jumped up and looked around, trying to follow the sound. He ran down the lane between the restaurant and the building beside it. The howling became louder, then fainter. He stopped and went back until he stood facing the brick wall of the restaurant. The howling stopped a moment, then started up again, more desperate than before. The boy began pushing aside some crates stacked against the wall, and there, cut into the bricks, stood a small wooden door. It had no latch or handle or any visible hinges, but when he pushed on it, it gave, opening inward to a tiny passage. He hesitated a moment, then ran out of the alley, into the restaurant and seized a candle from one of the tables and hurried back.
The passage led into a small cubby with a flight of stairs going down on the left. He followed it, one hand against the cold stone wall. When he reached the bottom the candle dimly showed a large round room. It was empty but for stacks of old crates and something under a dusty sheet. And a cat.
When the boy climbed down the last step, a streak of grey and black flashed across the floor and attacked him with frenzied greeting, half clawing and biting in ecstasy. The boy sat down on the floor, put his candle aside and for a while forgot everything around him.
But after a few moments Lungo remembered himself and stiffened, pushing away from the boy and sat down to clean his paws as if nothing had happened. The boy, meanwhile, looked around the room. A second stairway leading up stood against the opposite wall, letting into the restaurant. He was about to leave when he was attracted by the thing under the sheet. Odd bits stuck out and poked up like no ordinary piece of furniture. He stepped closer and tugged the sheet, and it slid smoothly away.
And there she was. Tarnished, covered in grime, lost, forgotten, and perfect. Bellissima. The machine.
The boy wiped the water out of his eyes and looked to his cat, who yawned as if to say, “Oh that? Sure, I knew about it ages ago.”
He got it for a song, which was all he had in the world. The restaurant proprietor said he’d got it from a man in Venice who used to own a coffee shop. For months the boy spent every evening cleaning it, taking it apart and putting it back together, until it lit the cellar with its shining copper light.
He got a loan with the help of his uncle, and opened his shop in a nearby town the following year.
The streets were growing dark and the lights were coming on and it was closing time. The Coffeemaker stood polishing the counter, the machine already cleaned and the cups washed. Lungo came wandering in and draped himself across the Coffeemaker’s shoes.
Suddenly, in the stillness, the old phone on the wall by the door rang shrilly. Lungo leaped in the air and the Coffeemaker started. He’d almost forgotten the phone worked. Slowly he lifted the receiver.
It was a woman’s voice he did not know, telling him his uncle had died. In his will, the final debts for the shop were cancelled. The coffee shop was entirely his.
That night the Coffeemaker and his cat sat by the roasting drums, trays of cooling beans sitting companionably about. The Coffeemaker was holding an old green mug to his lips, the steam just touching his tongue. His cat sat beside him, very upright on a wooden chair. Every once in a while he reached out a paw to the cooling trays and picked up a bean or two and crunched them thoughtfully between his teeth.