“Discontinued?” What do you mean, discontinued?” She shrieks.
Laura has waited all year, as she does every year, for autumn to come. She’s waited all year to come to the local coffee shop, Lus Córdoba, and drink the Candy Corn Latte every Saturday, for as long as autumn lasts.
For the rest of the year, it’s too painful for eighty-year-old Laura to come to Lus Córdoba. Ever since her husband, Beckett, died of a heart attack coming out of the shop twenty years ago, Laura can’t stand the sight of it. She can’t stand entering the coffee shop that was their daily haunt, can’t stand remembering.
Beckett hated espresso. But it was Laura’s favorite. Beckett loved chai, and Laura loathed the taste. Laura hasn’t had a sip of espresso in twenty years; but she can’t break their autumn tradition, coming here every Saturday to order Candy Corn Latte-the only drink they both liked.
“We’re trying something new this year, Ma’am.” Gino tries to smile, but his heart is pounding. “We can offer you Maple Cinnamon Latte, Autumn Spice Latte, Fall Chocolate Espresso-“
“Does it look like I came here for something new?” Laura points a threatening finger at him.
Gino has spent a year being an outsider in this town. He’s fifteen years old, short and slight, the son of the mayor’s daughter- a well-off, educated girl who’d run off to marry a black racecar driver. His grandparents still do a double take at the sight of him, and the popular goons at school have sent him home with a black-or blacker- eye at least five times. Most his classmates are barely civil to him-and his grades don’t do him favors with the teachers.
The coffee shop is his safe haven. He applied because his Opa told him to do something useful with his time, and his boss, a fat, milk-white, fifty-year-old lady named Calpurnia, took one look at him and gave him an apron.
“Can you carry the coffee grounds?”
Hell yeah, he could. Carry them, grind them, work the espresso machine, wash plates and cups, make the drinks. He became Calpurnia’s hands and feet, and the regulars are used to him now. They like him, joke with him, give him tips. Gino wishes he could live and sleep in Lus Córdoba.
But this lady isn’t a regular. And she’s screaming like a banshee, on the verge of tears.
Gino imagines Calpurnia firing him, and his hands start to shake.
“Quit terrorizing my boy, Auntie.” Calpurnia scolds, waddling out of the kitchen with her hands on her hips and full of flour. “Nobody buys that old drink anymore. I kept it on the menu for you-but It’s been long enough.”
Calpurnia’s youngest son, Richie, moved out half a year ago. Calpurnia had raised eight children to mind their own business and have a mind of their own-so it was no surprise to her, or her man Victor, when they moved out of this has-been town, one by one, to make their own way in the world.
Calpurnia has never been sentimental. But she is a creature of habit, and having no one to spoil and scold after twenty-eight years with her children has gotten difficult over these past months.
So Calpurnia has decided to make a little change in her life.
“Long enough?” Laura growls. “Long enough??”
“Calpurnia.” Murmurs Gino, almost under his breath. “I can make the latte, if you tell me how.”
Calpurnia’s eyes narrow-she stares Laura down.
Gino wishes he could shrink into the floor rather than stand between the feisty, pudgy old lady and the wrinkled, sharp-eyed, near-hysterical bird in the wide-rimmed blue hat. The other regulars turn away, hunching over their coffee or staring nervously out the window.
“It’s off the menu.” Calpurnia growls.
Laura opens her mouth wide, ready to burst into furious tears. Gino squeezes his eyes shut-and the doorbell rings.
“Laura, Laura, Laura. Contrary as ever, I see.” Laughs an old man, over six feet tall in height, with curly white hair and a big, round belly. “Come, give us a kiss.”
When he was young, Julian had always sworn he was going to marry his best friend, Laura. He was sure he’d work at his Papa’s grocery until he became mayor, and never leave his hometown. But when Laura married her high school crush, Beckett, Julian took off. He went to college, to get rich and forget about Laura. A year later, he met the love of his life.
He buried Rose about a week ago, after a year of romance and pain and pretending leukemia didn’t exist. And he took off again, headed back to Lus Córdoba because he aches for something familiar that doesn’t smell like Rose’s perfume.
And here it is. The perpetual coffee mixed with pastries baking, and Laura in front of him like nothing has changed since he left-almost sixty years ago.
“Who are you?” Asks Calpurnia, baffled. Gino stares.
“Julian.” Says Laura, breathless.
“One and the same.” The old man grins, opening his arms wide.
Laura swore to herself that if she ever found him again, she’d bash the man’s head in, with her own cane if she had to. Julian, her neighbor from birth and her very best friend, who basely abandoned her, mere weeks after she got married.
She wrote him letters, thousands of them, all through the birth of her children. When her first granddaughter was born, she gave up. And she cried, although it had been twenty-eight years.
Now he shows up here, with those crooked teeth and that cocky smirk, as if the past sixty years have never been.
Laura walks up to him. She has to look up, even though she’s wearing heels-just like Julian, to tower over everyone, even in his old age.
She wraps both arms around him and hugs him tight.
“Hey, you.” She mumbles.
And Julian-Julian, who never cried once, not even when he busted his knees as a kid, not when his first girl broke his heart, not when Laura got married, not when his Papa disowned him for leaving, not when Rosa died or was buried…he bursts into tears.
Gino takes advantage of the commotion to scurry into the kitchen. Calpurnia walks in and keeps right on baking, humming and laughing between her teeth.
She pretends not to notice as Gino dives into her archives and comes out victorious a few minutes later, with the Candy Corn Latte recipe in the left pocket of his apron.
He makes the drink as the bird lady laughs and consoles the newcomer-a couple of the oldest regulars walk up and clap him on the shoulder, demanding to know what’s become of him in the last sixty years.
Gino keeps his ears open-this should be one of the best stories he’s to hear in this little shop, which is practically made of stories.
“Later. Later.” The old man croaks, coming up to the counter. “To be honest, I’d like to try something new this time…the memories can wait.”
Julian looks at Gino, his eyes narrowed. Gino starts to sweat again.
“What’s on the menu, young man?”
“We have a new line of autumn specials.” Gino gets out. He starts reeling them off. “We can offer you Maple Cinnamon Latte, Autumn Spice Latte, Fall Chocolate Espresso-“ He swallows. “and Candy Corn Latte.”
“Espresso?” Julian’s bushy eyebrows lift. “Laura here likes espresso.”
Gino doesn’t dare look at the bird lady-who laughs.
“You can have the Candy Corn Latte on me, young man.” She smiles at Gino-as it turns out, the bird lady does have a nice smile. “Have a little taste of the past…do tell me if you like it.”
She hands Gino a couple bills-and tells him to keep the tip.
“All right, then.” Julian sniffs, and nudges Laura gently to one side. “Let’s try something new. Two Fall Chocolate Espressos, for myself and little Laura.”