By Anthony Neil Smith
I can’t walk with my coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Actually, not with a mug either. I have to sit down and drink, and I’m careful even then. It’s this fear I can’t shake, picturing myself walking down the hallway at the office, past other professors and students, carrying a big Styrofoam cup full of coffee—two sugars, a splash of skim milk. I’m taking confident steps, the coffee is warbling and trembling the whole time. The outside of the cup is hot to the touch, and then I take a wrong step, just a tad off balance, a little short, and the steaming coffee flits over the side and runs down. Just a trickle, but it scalds my fingertips and I imagine how bad that has to feel. The thought makes me shiver and flex my fingers.
There’s only one way to stop the pain then, and that’s to get rid of the coffee. But what do most people do when it happens? They hold the cup away from them, afraid to splash their shirts and ties and dresses and jeans. Like they’re thinking, Fingertips be damned. Must save the coffee! For me, the impulse would be to toss the cup, the whole thing, right then and there, no waiting. So it’s a mess. Who cares? That can be cleaned up. I could still type or hold a pen the rest of the day then.
There’s other things about coffee, too. First, I won’t drink the office brew anyway. Aside from the walk back to the office from the lounge, there must be a hundred people a day touching the handle, the spoons, sugar container. With the germs there, it’s an epidemic waiting to happen. Also, every time somebody makes a new pot at the office, it’s a different flavor, one of those weird Hazelnut Vanilla Cream Chicory jobs. And without washing out the pot, we get this blend of those different flavors until the whole mixture’s like sewage.
I have to make my own at home before I come in. I measure it just right, put in the exact amount of water, get my sugar and creamer and milk meted out. I drink it along with four chocolate chip cookies every morning. And never more than two cups all day. I’m afraid to drink any more after hearing how bad it is on the heart to take four or more cups a day like some people do.
Take James, one of the other professors in the department, an expert in Medieval Poetry whom I’ve been talking to lately. We both love jazz, and sometimes swap albums and tapes, comparing collections. He bugs me, though. He’s always got a mug of coffee in his hand, a strange looking thing with a fat base that narrows towards the lip. He’s never without it, and I suspect that James must be draining two pots a day. What’s worse is how he uses the mug like he would a free hand, waving it for emphasis. He’ll be discussing anything—poetry, basketball scores, Gene Krupa—and be swirling the mug the whole discussion, extending it forwards, up, to the side.
James can also walk and sip. Now that’s scary. It’s hard enough to imagine the walking without spilling a drop, but coordinating hands, eyes, feet, and mouth at once to bring the lip of the mug up in mid-stride, tilting the mug, wrist and head back together to drink, losing eye contact with the floor and the space directly in front of him for a short moment, then returning to normal without any injury or stain at all is incredible.
I’m envious. Annoyed by the pompous silky-smoothness of the execution of that move, sure, but I’m secretly envious of anyone who can do it. I imagine that the fearlessness of the Walk & Sip carries over into other areas of James’ life. In his teaching, his hobbies, his academic writings, his relationships with women. He could be one of those types who nonchalantly has affairs with his students, or who lets everyone slide with inflated grades. He could be a bungee jumper, or a heroin addict.
Whatever the case, this much is certain: Fearlessness is good for one’s career. I’m sure that’s why James was given tenure over me. I was a great teacher, popular with students. I had been published widely in scholarly journals concerning Early American Puritan Literature. I had been loyal to the University for five years, waiting patiently for tenure the whole time, but James got it before me. All because he can walk and sip coffee and wave his mug around calmly in the face of danger and I can’t.
So, I had to break away. I forced myself to pour a third cup when I got to work that day, and from the office pot, too. I was scared to death on the walk back and went too slowly. Everyone was staring, thinking maybe I was having back pain. But I made it to the desk without a spill. I kept wiping my hands on my pants, wishing I had time to wash them, and was just rising to go do so when James popped into my office, mug in hand, smile on his face. He said he liked the Scofield tape I had let him borrow, even though it wasn’t quite his taste.
We talked about Mingus, about Monk, somehow drifted into Pharaoh Sanders, and I held tightly to my Styrofoam cup the whole time, my fingers tingling from the radiating heat. I had no choice but to act casual, look relaxed, try waving the cup around a little as I talked. Little swoop here, lazy jab there. I was doing fine, acting like a fearless human being for once in my life.
And then the coffee sloshed over. It ran down and touched my index finger before pooling in the web by my thumb. I panicked. The sting was immediate, and I stopped dead in the middle of a sentence with only one blind thought in my head: Lose the coffee. I tossed it right out in front of me, onto James’ face and neck. The cup bounced off him and he screamed, steaming as he did so. I looked at him, then at my wet hand. James dropped to his knees and slapped wildly at his face as all the other professors came running into my office. I examined my white shirt where the splash had hit me and wiped the brown dots into long smears. They were cold by then, and I wondered about that, how something that could scald so thoroughly could cool so quickly.
Anthony Neil Smith is the author of fifteen novels, with his latest The Butchers Prayer, out now from Fahrenheit 13. His short fiction has been published widely in crime fiction and literary journals. In addition he is also a professor at Southwest Minnesota State University, and lives in Marshall with his wife and 2 & 3/4's cats. He likes cheap red wine, Italian exploitation flicks, and Mexican food.