Chapter 6. Flat white

Cathryn could have spent all day sitting looking at Henry as he lay there breathing almost imperceptibly, the long clear reverse leeches of intravenous tubes feeding him, drip by drip. She took his hand for a time, but it was like holding the limp foot of bird. It still had the weathering that bicyclists get, but no longer the nutrition. Henry’s hands were strong enough to get a glass jar of sauerkraut open in less than a minute most of the time, but not now. His hand, like his whole body, seemed little more than an asterisk for the real thing, but the real Henry was buried in a footnote that she had no access to.

So here she was, walking into Skullbox Espresso, trying to find that footnote and bring him out of it into the body text. Maybe this dictionary thing was really unrelated. But until he was talking again, what else did she have to go on? And the nurse and Doctor Nurse had said positive things but looked more concerned than she thought they should.

Skullbox Espresso wasn’t one of her usual haunts; it lurked on a side street near the art museum. Its walls were covered with torn and cut patches of paper with drawings and paintings on them, and there were shoes nailed or stapled to the ceiling as though walking across it. The furniture appeared to have been acquired in a late-night raid on a junk shop or junkyard. It was mostly loose tables, but at the back were a few booth tables with high dividers. There were quite a few people in the place, and she didn’t see a blue blazer right away, so she got in line at the counter. The sound system laid down a carpet of vinyl jazz so that no conversation really stood out much: “I went there last year and it was like going back in time” “had to redo the whole project from the start” “such a dick, wanted us to do it only in black and white” “those are so nice, where did you get them” “so what do you know about the blockchain” “the problem, Maxim, is that many of the people who buy dictionaries don’t want just the literal sense”

Oh. Wait, what? She looked around. If she could have squinted her ear, she would have.

The voice, a fairly resonant baritone, continued. “I’m talking to people who can’t be kept from using impact as a verb and do not want an endless succession of asteroids and vehicular accidents visiting them…” The voice was coming from one of the booths at the back. She couldn’t see anyone on the side facing her; there must have been one person on the side she couldn’t see.

“And what would you like, my darling?” The young woman at the counter, whose hair was half-dyed to match her freckles, leaned slightly towards Cathryn.

“Oh! Um. A…” What would be least hazardous? She still didn’t know what words were safe and what weren’t, and the only way to find out was to make an unpleasant mistake. She would normally get a latte, but she knew that that really just meant “milk,” and it’s pretentious to say “caffelatte.” But don’t take too long… uh… “A flat white.”

“Coming right up!” The barista half-twirled over to her steampunk machinery.

Cathryn was seized with a pang of dread. What kind of literal horror could flat white visit on her? But then she thought, “It can’t hurt me, and it might be funny.” A sheet of paper would lack caffeine but… But when is white a noun, anyway? She lost herself pondering what surprise would be set in front of her and was almost disappointed when the barista set in front of her exactly what she had asked for: a beverage like a small strong latte. The barista was moving quickly and hadn’t even poured a decorative pattern into the top, so its top was a pure flat creamy white like a wall… Wait. No, just coincidence. Right?

“Four sixty-five,” the barista said. Cathryn had her money out already and set down exact change. The barista took it and moved to the next person.

Cathryn picked it up and sipped it. It was what it was supposed to be. She headed towards the booths, looking around as she went. She saw no blue blazers and bowties, but she felt confident she knew which booth to look in. The conversation was ongoing. She paused just before getting to the booth.

“I know what they said,” the voice was saying, “but you don’t have to take them so literally. …Look, Maxim, I have to meet someone now. She should be here any minute. I’ll come see you this afternoon at 3:30. …Fine, text me. … Send me a text message.… Goodbye.”

Now that he had hung up, she felt it was safe to enter his line of sight. She walked forward and, indeed, the man of the voice was wearing a blue blazer. It wasn’t navy, it was a proper blue, somewhere between sky and royal, and it was of evident high quality. But… he wasn’t wearing a bowtie. He was wearing a straight tie. She hesitated.

He stood up and extended his hand. “Cathryn?”

“…Yes.” She shook his hand and, as she did, she looked at his tie. It featured bows, as in archery. She didn’t want to ask if this was his sense of humour or if it was the dictionary.

Pierre von Falk was, by all sounds and appearances, an American, probably over 40; his head was shaved and his face almost was too. He was lean and dapper and had a professional smile. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. He gestured for her to sit across from him and, once she had started to, he sat as well and slid towards the wall.

“I hope you don’t mind my bothering you,” Cathryn started. “You must be busy…”

“No, not at all, “ Pierre said. “The diplomats don’t get up early. I’m having lunch with them at noon. And the spelling bee is over.”

“Spelling bee?”

“Oh, yes, one of my promotional things is that I help organize spelling bees. I can combine that into business trips. …Sorry, just a moment, I just thought of something I need to remember to do.” He pulled his phone out of the right inside pocket of his blazer, flipped open the notes on it, and tapped in something quickly. Cathryn, who had a practiced ability to read upside down, glanced and saw what looked like “keep max away from bee.” He put the phone away again. “So tell me what you’ve… noticed.”

“I… well… For one thing, I noticed that some words have fewer definitions online than in the print edition. Um. Terrific. Nauseous.”

Pierre pulled a momentary face as though he was saying “ooh” silently, as in “ooh, that’s not good.” “Nauseous,” he said.

“Yes, and… here’s the strange thing and pleasedon’thinkI’mstrangeorcrazybut—”

Pierre held up his hand. “Trust me. Let me tell you a little thing. We had a party last week to celebrate the launch of the new edition. Someone decided to make it carnival-themed. But, you know, just decoratively. We had a great spread of food coming.” He leaned forward slightly, lowered his voice just a little. “Not everyone in that office gets to have lunch with diplomats. So it was a… it was looked forward to. And it wasa great party! But somehow, when the caterers brought the food, there was no meat in any of it. Now, the vegetarians and vegans were just fine with that. But I know that caterer and I know and love their sausage rolls. Nope! Farewell to meat!” He flipped his hand up. Then he paused and looked at Cathryn to see if she would pick up where he was going with this or if he would have to explain.

“…Farewell to meat,” Cathryn said. Half laughed. “Carnem vale. Carnival.”

Pierre smiled, nodded with meaning. “You see what we’re up against. …So I guess you might have had some trouble with nauseous.”

“I’ll spare you the details,” Cathryn said. “But that’s not all.” She tried to figure out what to say how, and after a few seconds, because she had been nervously holding onto her breath, it just tumbled out: “My husband said he was literally starving to death.”

“Oh shi—” Pierre caught himself in mid-word, pulled out his phone, opened an app, typed in four letters, scrolled down slightly. Phew. “Shit.” He looked up at her. “He hasn’t updated it yet.”

“Who? What?”

“Oh— The guy who’s updating the definitions. He hasn’t done shit yet.” He put his phone back away and, half to himself, said, “Updating. I don’t think that’s a fair word for it. More like downdating.”

Cathryn leaned in, made her voice more confidential. “What’s going on?”

Pierre splayed his hands, looked around perfunctorily. In a low voice: “They’ve decided to start contracting out some of the functions to freelancers. They hired this guy to handle the web version and I don’t know what their brief to him was but he’s been interpreting it in a way that… I don’t even know, but somehow you see what’s happening. But he doesn’t report to me. I can’t tell him to stop. And I haven’t been able to reason with him. Yet.”

“So you think…”

“I think if I can… Well, I don’t know. He’s an odd one.” He suddenly looked at his watch. “I shouldn’t be late for lunch. Look, let me give you my email.” He reached into the left inside pocket of his blazer, pulled out a Worcester Dictionaries bookmark and a pen, wrote his email address on the back, and was about to give it to her. He paused and wrote more on it. “Let me give you my phone number too, just in case,” he said as he wrote. Then he handed it to her. “Call me if anything else happens.”

He slid over and got up. “Nice meeting you. I hope things go better for you. …Your husband is…?”

“In the hospital.”

“I’m really sorry.” He was. “Give me a call in a few days.” He waved briefly and headed out.

Cathryn sat back down. She noticed what she hadn’t before: that he appeared not to have had a beverage of any kind. She put the bookmark in her purse and sipped her flat white, which was approaching a nice, non-scalding, drinkable temperature. The jazz played on. She tried not to overhear any of the nearby conversations, just in case.

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