In a small coffee shop in Cleveland, Ohio, not far from Playhouse Square, two men were discussing the state of the war. One of them, a redhead with glasses and a flat cap, seemed particularly agitated. “The president said he wasn’t ruling it out,” he said. His friend, a tall bald man with a long beard, just shook his head. “They already used them in the Middle East,” continued the red-headed man.
“There is a significant difference,” said the bearded man, “between using nuclear weapons on foreign soil and using them against American citizens. Even if they are rebels.”
Jared listened to the two men as he swept the floor behind the counter. He knew eavesdropping on them was rude, but he couldn’t help it. It was that time of evening when hardly anyone showed up. Not many people needed coffee after six o’clock. He and Kelly barely needed to do anything. Jared looked around the shop at the customers. Apart from the two politically-minded individuals, there was a middle-aged couple a few tables away. The husband had on a Cavs jacket and an Indians baseball cap. Every so often he would turn away from his wife and look over at the two men discussing politics. His wife, meanwhile, was trying to keep him engaged in their own conversation, which had to do with school choices for their children and how they were going to pay for college. The only other person in the coffee shop was a young woman, around college age, who was pretending to study a calculus textbook but kept checking her phone every few minutes.
Looking around, Jared realized that, once again, everyone in the coffee shop was white. This wasn’t surprising: people of color hadn’t been coming to the coffee shop for a long time. Jared recalled one particular Middle Eastern couple, neighbors of his named Aleah And Brahim, who used to be regulars. Aleah would get a medium latte and Brahim enjoyed a large black coffee. One day, while Jared was driving to work, he noticed a couple of black vans parked in front of their house. They stopped showing up to the coffee shop after that, and the next time Jared drove by their house there was a for sale sign in front of it.
Even the staff of the coffee shop was now completely white. Jared’s friend Jamal had left the coffee shop a little over a month ago. Rumor was that he’d run away to New York City, deep in rebel territory, with one of the regulars, Marcus, who he had been dating. Jared liked Marcus. Marcus would come in and order a latte with a shot of pumpkin spice every fall, and Jamal would laugh. “You’re such a little white girl, Marcus,” he’d say. But if Jamal and Marcus had been planning on fleeing to New York, they had never told Jared. Sometimes Jared wondered what had really happened to the two of them. Were they really going to New York? If so, did they make it there? Did Jamal join up with the rebel army, or were they living peaceful, civilian lives?
“Would you really put it past the president to go that far?” the redheaded man asked his friend. “He’s always said that we need to get tough on them.”
“But what happens when the war ends, and there’s a big radioactive crater where New York used to be?” replied the bearded man. “Think of all the money that would need to go into the rebuilding effort. Do you really think that the president wants to spend that much, especially with the national debt as high as it is?”
“I suppose not,” conceded his friend. “God, can you just imagine, though? All that destruction, thousands of people dead. And not just troops, but civilians, too.” The bearded man nodded, a grim look on his face.
The man in the Indians cap leaned towards the two gentlemen. “Hey,” he said. The men ignored him.
His wife put a hand on his shoulder. “Jack, don’t,” she admonished. Jack ignored her.
“Hey,” he said again, louder. Again, the two men ignored him. Jack got up from his seat.
“Hey, you ginger fuck,” he said, “you some kind of rebel sympathizer?”
That got everyone’s attention. Even the woman in the booth stopped pretending to study and was now looking up at the scene unfolding a couple of tables away from her. The red-headed man turned to face his accuser. “I’m sorry?” he asked, a bewildered look on his face.
“I asked,” said Jack, “if you and your friend were a couple of rebel-loving traitors.”
“Of course not,” said the redheaded man. “I wasn’t—”
“Because it seems to me,” said Jack, interrupting him, “that any real American wouldn’t have the slightest bit of sympathy for these traitors. If they wind up dead in a crater, then I say they got what’s coming to them.”
“But what about the civilians?” asked the redheaded man.
“Anyone who’s over there with the rebels is just as guilty as any rebel,” said Jack. “They’re just as guilty of abandoning American values as the rest of them, and they deserve to die just the same.”
“Even the women and children?” asked the bearded man.
“Everyone,” said Jack. “Which brings us back to you two rebel-lovers.”
Jack’s wife stood up and put her hand on his shoulder. “Jack, stop,” she said. “They’re not worth it.”
“Shut it, Martha,” barked Jack, pushing her hand off him. He stepped towards his two targets. “I think we should have a look inside your houses,” he said. “I’d bet we’d find some interesting stuff.” He inched closer. “Stuff like letters to rebel soldiers. Maybe even a prayer rug or two.”
Jared could see where this was going, and he knew he needed to put a stop to it. “Hey,” he said.
Jack turned to look at him. “What?” he asked, annoyed.
Jared swallowed a lump in his throat. Jack was at least six feet tall, and he had a chest like a barrel of whiskey. Standing across from him, Jared felt like a housecat that had just picked a fight with a mountain lion. He shook himself out of it. It was too late to back down now. “If you’re going to continue to harass our customers,” said Jared, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Jack turned towards Jared, directing his fury at the barista. “Oh yeah?” he said. “You a rebel-lover, too?”
Jared pointed at the flag by the door. “You see that?” he said. “I put that there myself.” He hadn’t, but Jack didn’t need to know that. “Now, do you see the sign next to it? The one that says ‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody?’”
Jack didn’t say anything. He just stood there, his eyes going over every inch of Jared’s face as if he were memorizing it. Jared felt a sinking feeling grow in the pit of his stomach. He knew what happened to the people who spoke up. Everyone did. One day a friend or acquaintance of yours would be running their mouth off. A few days later, they were gone without a trace. No one ever wondered where they had gone off to. Not aloud, anyway.
Finally, Jack broke his gaze from Jared’s face and sat back down at the table with Martha. A haze of tension seemed to drain away, and the coffee shop returned to a level of normalcy. The woman in the booth went back to her textbook. Jack and Martha tittered away about the educational prospects of their children. Jared continued sweeping the floor. And the redheaded man and his bearded friend began conversing again, albeit in more hushed tones. The malaise of a lazy Ohio evening began to take hold once again.
A few minutes later, the woman in the booth got up and asked for a refill on her mocha. Kelly rung her up at the register while Jared began making the drink. As she waited, the woman once again whipped out her phone and began scrolling through what must have been status updates. At last Jared finished her drink and brought it over to her.
“Here’s your drink, miss,” he said, holding the cup out for her to take. The woman didn’t respond. Jared struggled not to roll his eyes. “Miss, your drink,” he said again. The woman still didn’t respond. She was staring at her phone, her face completely pale, as if all the blood had rushed out of her at once.
“Oh my God,” she said, her eyes glued to the screen.
Jared was becoming a bit impatient. “Miss,” he said again, more forcefully, “your drink.”
“They did it,” said the woman, her voice shaking. “They actually did it.”
Something in her tone unnerved Jared. He began to feel that something was wrong. “What did they do?” he asked.
“New York just got hit with a nuclear missile strike.”
Every eye in the shop shifted towards the woman. For what felt like hours, no one said a word. Slowly, Jared put down the mocha in his hands. Then he began taking off his apron. For a moment, he just stood there with his apron off, not doing anything, not saying a word.
“Kelly,” he said finally, “I’m not feeling very well. I’m going to go home.” Kelly didn’t say anything. Jared went to get his coat from the back of the shop.
“Am I just going to be here by myself, then?” Kelly asked suddenly, as if she had just awoken from a trance.
Jared almost told Kelly to call Jamal, but he stopped himself before uttering it. “Call Brent,” he said instead. “He owes me a favor, anyway.” He heard Kelly sigh.
“OK,” she said.
Jared grabbed his coat and walked outside. The sun had just finished setting, and a cool night breeze wafted through the air. There was a National Guardsman patrolling the street, his eyes scanning up and down the sidewalk on both sides. Eventually those eyes came to rest on Jared. Jared kept his head down and didn’t say anything.
I wrote this story about a year ago. I tried to get it published in a punk zine, but that didn’t work out. I didn’t try to get it published elsewhere. I was afraid it would be seen as “too political.”
After what happened today in the Senate today, I simply don’t care anymore.