Coffee Au Lait
By Carol aka Catfish Foss
(Inspired By challenge ‘Coffee Au Lait’)
He wasn’t used to this weather any more, having become so acclimated to California. Of course, having spent most of his retirement years as head of NIMR with frequent cruises, now only odd visits, aboard Seaview, his blood was just too thin for this Boston blizzard.
Shaking the snow off of his boots, he entered the popular cafe. Boasting honest to goodness Baristas, and coffee blends from around the world. Stopping by for a hot cup of coffee was just the thing to rid him of the chill. Christmas shopping in Boston in December was hard cold work.
“Can I help you to a table, sir?” a uniformed Boy Scout asked, as he saw the elderly gentleman with a cane in hand.
It took a moment for Nelson to nod his head in agreement. Damn it, he wasn’t that old. But his reddish auburn hair so representative of his family had grayed and whitened, and he needed the cane for a recent sprain, so it wasn’t the boy’s fault to consider him frail and infirm.
“That’s a nice table,” the boy said pointing with one arm as he took Nelson’s free arm to lead the way. “George Washington carved his initials into it.”
“Oh not again!” another boy, also a Boy Scout, one of several at the counter seats, groaned over his hot chocolate, “Give it a break, Lee. Cheech, first you gotta’ write them stupid stories, and then you gotta’ bother everyone you meet with a history lesson? ”
“Edward!” the counter hostess, far too aged to being wearing very well the red and white velvet holiday outfit (with a puffy short skirt). chided, “don’t be rude! And his stories are just fine, thank you very much, even if some of the tales, even that table, are pure invention. Now, apologize.”
“It’s okay, Miss Ivanovich,” Lee told her. “I’m used to it. But George Washington did so carve his initials into that table, and I’m still going to be the best damn writer in the world, you all just wait and see,” he added toward Edward and stuck out his tongue.
“Boys! Boys!” a woman at the ‘wait for your older’ line said. “Behave yourselves or I’ll tell your Scout Master about your inappropriate behavior.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Cranford,” all of the boys said in unison.
“You know,” Nelson said, rubbing his fingers over the carved in the G W initials, which were joined by several others, including a rather ribald poem. sitting down, resting his cane on the window ledge. “You know, it’s quite possible old George did scrawl in his initials there. Quite uneven. All the carvings are. No modern knife would do such a bad job. And I remember several cases of rebuilding and renovating older buildings like this uncovering Revolutionary artifacts right here in Boston.”
“That may be,” the counter lady said, “but there’s not one shred of proof.”
“Well, I’m gonna’ believe it anyway,” Lee said.
“Suit yourself and don’t wipe that marshmallow whipped cream mustache off your nose and upper lip like that.”
“Oops,” the boy said with a grin which was not unlike Lee’s ‘sunshine smile’ that Nelson missed so much.
“Actually,” Nelson said, “I understand that in the olden days, wiping one’s mouth with one’s sleeve after a meal or drink was quite proper. My sister, who’s on the board of the historical society told me so.”
Just then a harried server, in the same costume as the counter lady, approached handing Nelson the menu.
“Just a cup of coffee,” Nelson told her.
“Regular, DeCaff, Au Lait? Cinnamon, Mocha, Rum, Butterscotch, Vanilla, the house special roast, or the 1776 special?””
Nelson hesitated. Granted, he knew coffee shops had a wide assortment but he’d never tried anything but plain old coffee.
“And the design? Charles can make a heart, a flower, a flag, and if he’s feeling really adventurous, he can sometimes make a cat or dachshund.”
“Heavens...just have him design whatever he’s in the mood to do,” Nelson said and resumed his attention to the boy who had rejoined his friends at the counter seats.
“Hey,” Mrs. Cranford said, “why are you looking at Lee like that?”
“What’s that?” a cop, spraying some of his doughnut asked, getting up approaching Nelson dangerously.
“He reminds me of my son.”
“Your son around?”
“No,” Nelson sighed. “He was killed in the line of duty.”
“Oh, sorry,” the cop said as everyone quieted down.
“He had the same enthusiasm as the Lad, the same ‘doing the right thing’ mind set...and the same smile. Had the same name, too.”
“No kidding?” Lee asked as he hopped off his stool and hurried over to Nelson. “Was he a cop? Or maybe a fire- fighter? They sure did a good job during that last terrorist attack here but I don’t remember any of ‘em getting killed...”
“Lee was a submarine captain.”
“Served with me aboard the old Nautilus before she was scrapped, and some years later as Seaview’s captain.”
“I’m awful sorry about your loss, Mr. Crane,” the cop said. “I don’t remember too much about the last conflict, we’ve had too many of them over the years, but I remember that glass windowed sub.”
“High tensile plastic, actually. Had a whale of a time inventing it...name’s Harriman Nelson, actually. Lee became a son to me, in all the ways that count. Technically we had no blood relationship. I only wish I’d told him how I’d come to feel about him before...before...” Nelson sighed. “Sorry. It’s been years but the ache still over powers me at times, even while I’m visiting my sister and her family for the holidays.”
“Here you go, sir,” the server approached with the Late.
“Oh my God!”
“Yeah, Charles did a great job with the Betsy Ross flag.”
”Er, yes, thank you,” Nelson said as his vision cleared from Lee Crane’s finely executed face in the cup to the flag, “I’m sorry. Suddenly I’m not feeling well. Let anyone who wants the cup have it. On me,” he added, taking out of few bills to cover the cost and tip. “Lee? Come here a moment.”
“I want you have this,” Nelson said, taking out the gold and onyx stone ring from inside a small box housed in his coat pocket. “It was Lee’s. I think he’d want you to have it.”
“I wonder how much it’s worth,” Edward muttered.
“Lee made this ring himself as a boy, when he was about sixteen according to his adoptive mother, “he almost always wore it. Except on that last SEAL mission...”
“According to the papers, if I remember,” the cop said, “his body was never recovered from that extraction mission for those refugees. That ring must be the only thing you have left to remember him by.”
“Go on, take it, Lad. Whenever anyone tells you not to bother with your dreams, you look at this ring and do the right thing. Lee told Mrs. Crane shortly after he was adopted that he was going to become the best damn submarine captain in the world. And he did. You go become the best damn writer in the world. I look forward to you winning the Pulitzer Prize.”
“I will, I promise.”
“Good Lad,” Nelson said rising as Lee helped him back on with his coat and to the door.
“I’ll walk with you to the curb...you getting a taxi? Or a bus? I know my way around so you won’t get cheated.”
“No worry about that,” the cop said. “I’ll drive him home. Now you boys have another round of hot chocolates on me. See to it. Charles.”
Lee and the boys said their goodbyes to Nelson as the cop escorted him out into the howling snow to the patrol car. As it drove away the boys returned to the cafe. All except Lee, who stood, waving, until the vehicle was out of view.
“You’ve made a friend for life, sir,” the cop told Nelson. “That boy’s had a hard life. Abusive family, ward of the state now...has a foster family...a real good one...smart kid too. And you know, he just might become a prize winning author.”
“Whatever he puts his mind too, I’m sure he’ll accomplish it.”
Instead of joining his friends at their counter seats, Lee sat down at the worn table and rubbed his fingers over the GW.
“Hey, Lee, let’s see that ring on your finger,” Edward called out.
“Too big for me, right now,” Lee said, taking it out of his pocket, letting the gold band and onyx stone glimmer while Charles was about to remove the late. “Hey! Wait a minute!”
“What’s wrong? You want it?”
No way was he going to tell anyone that he had seen a man’s face in the cup. A man in a flight jacket with shoulder boards of a full commander. With shining eyes and a ‘sunshine’ type smile...just how Nelson had described Lee Crane’s eyes and smile.
“But someday the ring will fit,” Lee added, grabbing his puffy jacket, heading to the door.
“Don’t you want that extra hot chocolate?” Charles asked.
“Gotta’ get to the library.”
“The Library?” all of the Scouts asked together in derision.
“The library. I gotta’ find out how to become a submarine captain. Oh, I’ll be a writer too. But I’m also going to be the best damn submarine captain in the world as well.”
The laughter followed him out, but somehow, he didn’t mind.
It wasn’t long before the patrol car drove up to the mansion’s heavily decorated entrance. In minutes Edith, toddler balanced on her hip, another toddler on Chip’s, met Nelson and the cop.
“Is everything all right?” Chip asked. “We saw you on the door cam.”
“He’s not feeling well,” the cop said. “couldn’t even touch his latte. A real nice one too, the Betsy Ross one. Gave it away.”
“Oh, Harry, I’m so sorry...let’s get you some hot chicken soup....”
“No, dear...I’m just going to go lie down awhile.”
“I can call for a doctor, Mrs. Morton. Can’t be too careful at his age. I’m sure somebody would come out for a police call...”
“Not necessary, officer,” Nelson said, “but thank you anyway.”
“You know, that was real nice of you giving Captain Crane’s ring to that boy. I can get it back if you change your mind...”
“Harry!” Chip said, his brows furrowed.
“Easy, Chip. It was mine to do with as I saw fit. And I think...no, I know, that Lee would be happy about it. Good day, Officer, thanks for the lift.”
“Any time,” the officer said, doffed his cap, got into the patrol car and was off.
The Christmas tree sparkled with lights and decorations as Nelson took the elevator seat up the massive staircase. Not that he needed an elevator chair, but Edith had insisted since a fall of a few years ago.
A picture of Lee, in fact, the identical photo of Lee in his flight jacket smiled at him from atop the dresser.
“Of course,” Nelson said as he pulled off his shoes and put on some warm slipper, “damn macular edema must have triggered the image into my late...old fool, Harriman...sad old fool...oh Lee, Lee, Lee,” he moaned as a tear rolled down his face.
“Harry?” Chip called from the open doorway. “Want to talk about it?”
“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.”
“Try me. Does Edith really need to have the cook heat up some chicken noddle soup for you?”
“Heavens, I’m not sick... I’m homesick for Lee and...something happened at the cafe....something I don’t want you to tell Edith ab out....”
“Go on,” Chip said, sitting down next to Nelson on the edge of the four poster. By the time Nelson finished, Chip patted his arm. “Don’t let it bother you. Your mind simply took over for a few seconds...”
“Yes, I know, but damn it, Chip. It’s been years. And it still hurts.”
“And it always will. Come on down. You got a call from Annapolis. They need to put Seaview in dry dock...she’s got a little rust... not the thing one wants in a Naval Museum...you know,” Chip added as he rose and picked up the picture on the dresser. “I always liked this picture...we all did...always will.”
“Even if my mind puts it together in a late,” Nelson chuckled and headed downstairs with his friend and brother in law.
Lee wearily closed the books about the Navy and the Naval Academy spread out in front of him.
“Find what you needed, Lee?” one of the volunteers asked.
“Yes, no, I’m not sure.”
“Well, we’re about to close. Tell me what you want and I’ll see the reference librarian call you with the information.”
“I need to know all about how to become a submarine captain and to find out all I can about Captain Lee Crane. He was killed in the line of duty.”
“Going to write a new story?”
“Yes, no, maybe, but I do know that I am going to begin writing my new life.”
As he pulled his jacket back on, he pulled out the boxed ring from his pocket and opened it. The gold band and Onyx stone glimmered before he replace it into the box and into his pocket.
“Someday you’ll fit. Someday, in every way that counts.”