Simon and Mills buried the dog the day before the coffee shop opened.
“I’ll be okay,” Simon said when they came home from the vet’s office. He held Bailey’s leash tangled tight around his fingers, tips iced white, until Mills unwound it and tossed it into the mess of their garage where it was lost among tennis racquets and empty cardboard boxes.
“That can’t be true,” Mills said as he held Simon’s head with both hands. Simon inhaled the smell of his palms, the orange-scented lotion he plied into his hands each night. Mills kissed Simon’s forehead, and then they laid down on the couch, silent until bed because what else was there to say or do?
The coffee shop, nestled in the corner of an industrial style building with residential lofts on the second floor, stood right across the street from community college where Simon taught. The building was all black window frames and bright neon signage, wrought-iron railing surrounding the apartments’ small balconies. Simon insisted they leave early that morning to check it out, to be good citizens of the world supporting a new small business. Despite the grand signage draped over the entryway, they were the only customers when they arrived.
“We could become regulars here,” Simon said after taking his first sip of coffee, which tasted like burnt, bitter paint. “I’ve always wanted to be a regular somewhere.”
Mills frowned and blew on his still-steaming cup. “But we hardly ever drink coffee.”
“They serve tea, too.”
The furrow in Mills’ brow deepened, the skin above his nose crinkling into a miniature maze of flesh. He set his coffee cup down. Mills’ movements were deliberate and slow as always, his large hands constantly shocking Simon with their capacity for daintiness.
“Tell me, Simon, what color is our tea kettle?”
“Trick question. We don’t own one.”
“This is a nice place, though.”
They both looked around, eyes circling the room. For a coffee shop it was, Simon had to admit, somewhat sterile. Perhaps in springtime, when more sun poured through the windows that took up the two exterior sides of the shop, things wouldn’t be quite so gray. The brown concrete floor and matching tabletops didn’t help, nor did the buzz of the two standing refrigerators shaped like Pepsi cans. A sheet of corrugated metal ran along each side of the pastry case, decor that seemed more appropriate for a storage shed. Then there were the hookahs. One towered on a table next to the door like a snake staring at incoming customers, ready to strike. The other was mounted on a large circular booth in the back corner near the restrooms, whose doors were adorned with hand-painted pictures of fruit, a banana on the men’s room and a peach on the women’s.
“We don’t smoke, either.”
“You used to,” Simon said.
“Cigarettes, and I quit, thank you.”
Of course Simon knew this; if not for cutting himself off cold-turkey, Mills might not have written Smokers, the short story collection that was sending him jetting to all sorts of bookstores and college campuses for readings and signings, including the one he would be leaving for within the hour.
“Isn’t hookah much safer?” Simon said. “We could start, as a new hobby.”
Mills stared at him. “That seems unwise.” His voice softened. “We should get going, probably.”
“But your coffee.”
Mills stood and walked over to the counter where a dark-haired girl leaned against the glass display case holding oversized scones and cakes that looked too dense. A note written in pink marker on the glass proclaimed that they had been fresh-baked that morning, but Simon didn’t believe it, and he knew for sure that Mills didn’t either.
“Can I get a to go cup?” he asked.
Without a word, the girl bent down and produced a white plastic cup, setting it in front of him.
“Maybe a lid?” he said, and one was plunked onto the counter like loose change.
Simon stood and they walked out.
“You’re really sure you’ll be okay?” Mills said as they climbed into his car.
“Yes,” Simon said, even though a large, chunky part of him wanted to say no. Wanted to say, Of course I’m not okay, because our dog is dead. Our dog is gone, so please stay. But he couldn’t do that; Mills had a career just as much as Simon did, and Mills would never ask Simon to mess up his own for anything.
The drive from the coffee shop was over almost as soon as it began. Rain spattered the windshield as they idled in the parking lot in front of Simon’s building.
“You could start dropping me off every Tuesday,” Simon said. “And we could go to the coffee place in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, I could park there so I don’t have to stay cooped up in my office until my night class.”
“You want to start smoking that bad?” Mills said.
“It’s just an idea.”
Mills smiled and ran a hand through his hair, then fiddled with the pine-shaped air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.
“Just think about it while you’re driving, okay?” Simon said.
“Sell lots of books.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Simon tried not to, but as he walked into the Humanities Building he thought of the dead dog. They had adopted Bailey less than a year ago, Mills’ idea when he came home from the first leg of his Smokers book tour and, when asked how the two weeks had been, Simon said, “Boring.” Mills had dragged him out of their house and drove them straight to the animal shelter nearby. The mutt with large swaths of golden retriever blood, eight years old and recently abandoned for reasons neither Mills nor Simon asked about, was perfect: trained, calm but friendly, shoving his nose into both of their extended hands and flopping over in search of belly rubs moments after being introduced. They had to wait an endless three days for paperwork processing and had to undergo two home visits before Bailey was theirs. But the day he was, they stopped at a pet supply store, the kind where you could bring your animals in, and Bailey strained on the leash, wanting to smell everything, poking his snout at bags of food, squeaking toys, plastic litter boxes. They filled the cart with everything they imagined they might need and plenty they didn’t: a sprawling dog bed, metal food and water bowls, a closet’s worth of jingling toys and pull ropes, bags of treats, extra tags for his collar.
Simon was the fun parent, taking Bailey on morning jogs before breakfast, returning breathless and dewy with sweat before Mills was out of bed. He lost weight, the belly that had started pressing against his belt buckle when he hit thirty flattening like a deflating balloon. Mills was the bad cop, clapping his hands or smacking at Bailey’s nose and chasing him away after committing some doggy sin.
Simon slumped through his composition classes, a pair back to back; as soon as they were over, he had no memory of what he’d said, his brain flicking into autopilot as he explained thesis statements for the thousandth time. The great mystery that he had never managed to solve was how he had landed his teaching gig; both he and Mills—and several other PhDs in their program—had applied for it, Simon’s CV by far the least impressive. Mills was the one whose resume popped with magazine publications and impressive conference presentations. Yes, Simon had slightly better course evaluations and spent way more time crafting his teaching philosophy statement, but even after signing his contract, he still felt a weird pang of failure and jealousy every time Mills, who hadn’t wrangled a single job interview, bashfully admitted that another magazine had bought one of the stories he’d written about people quitting smoking. That was the central thread of Smokers: in every narrative, someone addicted to nicotine made at least a passing attempt at quitting, some successful, others not so much. In the acknowledgements, Simon was mentioned specifically, for helping Mills quit smoking. What that thanks didn’t mention was Simon had given Mills an ultimatum: no more cigarettes, or no more Simon.
“They killed my mother,” he’d said the night he put his foot down. They’d been together for over a year. Both were recently ABD. “I won’t let them kill someone else I love.”
Mills had blinked at him, pulled his pack of cigarettes from his pocket, and tossed it on the floor of Simon’s apartment. “Okay.” And that was it.
By the afternoon, the coffee shop’s windows had turned into kaleidoscopes of searing orange, green, and yellow light from the sign extolling free wi-fi. A high-backed chair from an empty table held the door open, and the same sleepy girl from the morning was standing behind the counter, talking to a young man slouching against the glass, his shoulder blades pinched beneath a nylon jacket.
The young man turned and glanced at Simon, then unfurled himself from the counter, making his way to the large corner booth in the back where four other men sat, two of them holding the pipes of the large hookah. Simon watched him slide in and pick up the third tube and take a deep inhale, the water burbling.
“Hi,” Simon said to the girl, who blinked and stood up straight. “Long day, huh?”
She pulled her arms from the counter.
“I was here this morning. You served me some coffee. I don’t remember which kind, though.”
She forced a smile. “Can I get you something?”
“That coffee would be great.”
“We have a lot of coffee.” She pointed at the menu, hand-written on a chalkboard hanging behind her, the letters slanting toward one another like good friends. Simon hated to admit it, but Mills had been right: most of the words made no sense to him whatsoever; Simon couldn’t explain to anyone the difference between mocha and lattes and Americanos, nor did he know whether Brazilian, Colombian, or Peruvian coffee was the best.
“Whatever I had this morning was four dollars and sixty-two cents with tax included, if that helps.”
“Probably a grande Colombian dark blend,” the girl said.
“Let’s do that, then.”
She rang it up, pushing buttons on the cash register. “That’ll be four sixty-two,” she said with a smile. He handed her a five, then dumped the extra coins in her tip jar, whose three or four singles and handful of quarters laying at the bottom looked lonely.
While she poured his coffee, Simon asked, “So, can you tell me about hookah?”
“What about it?” she asked, setting down the coffee.
Simon shrugged. “Anything, I guess. I’ve never done it. Is it like a cigarette?”
The girl chuckled. “So much better for you than a cigarette.” Then she went on, pointing toward the young men at the back, explaining about the bowl and the windscreen and coals, that the hoses meant that, technically, they weren’t using a traditional hookah, “but who would really know,” she said with another shrug. “Then the smoke goes down through the hookah’s body to the water base at the bottom, where it cools and gets humidified.”
“What’s it taste like? I mean, there are flavors, right?” Simon pointed up to the board touting peach, mango, even a bubblegum flavor.
“Hey, Jeremy,” the girl yelled toward the table in the back. The young man she’d been talking to when Simon walked in looked up.
“Mind if, uh—”
“Simon tries your hookah? He’s a first-timer.”
Simon felt his face blanche as the young man looked him over and stood, nodding and smiling. He walked toward Simon with a swagger, and the other men at the table looked up, grinning. Simon felt old, like a father chaperoning teenage girls to a concert, his limbs somehow too long, his clothes dated, his muscles saggy.
Jeremy stuck out his hand and Simon took it. The man’s grip was strong, his hands tan, cuticles clean and pink.
“Nice to meet you. Come try.”
“You own this place?”
“Well, technically we’re renting. So you haven’t had hookah before?”
“Never smoked a thing in my life.”
This was true. It had caused him frustrated trouble during graduate school; he and Mills, before they’d fallen into bed together after a party where both drank at least three glasses too many of rich red wine, hadn’t spent much time in the same orbit even though they were fellow fiction writers who had started the program at the same time. Mills cavorted with the troublemakers who were often late to their comp classes and came up with lesson plans on the fly, often while drinking pints of Purple Haze at the Southern Monkey, a smoky bar south of campus. They were tattooed and had grisly facial hair—Mills the only exception, clean-shaven always, except for mornings he was hungover—and they all smoked. Not just cigarettes, but weed and occasionally peyote and, just once, apparently, opium. When they were at the same parties, Simon glanced at Mills from afar where he slumped on couch arms, his spine bent into a C-shape even though he was a muscular runner (despite his nicotine habits), arms regularly on display thanks to the short-sleeved t-shirts he always sported. Mills would inevitably vanish outside whichever ramshackle rental was hosting, caught up in whirls of exhaled tar with his fellow smokers. Simon spent much rueful time taking glimpses out windows and through open doorways at the slouchy object of his affection.
Jeremy gestured for Simon to take a seat at the booth and the young man closest to Simon slid across the beige pleather to give him space. Simon sat.
The other men were Jeremy’s age, mid-twenties. They all had smooth, tan skin, prominent cheek bones and jawlines. None of them spoke to Simon, but they nodded, gesturing toward the hose that Jeremy had sucked on moments ago.
“I’ve never done this before,” Simon said.
“Let me get you a fresh mouthpiece first.” Jeremy pried off the tip. He disappeared behind the counter and came back with a piece of colored plastic two inches long that looked like a miniature traffic cone. “Slip this over the end.”
Jeremy handed him the hose. The glass and metal were cool, and the hose weighed less than Simon expected. He worried that he might grip it too tight, snap the thing in half.
Once the mouthpiece was in place, Simon looked up at Jeremy. He could feel the other men staring at him. “Now inhale. Deep. Like you’ve never breathed before.”
Simon placed the tip of the hose in his mouth and sucked. He didn’t have a chance to notice the cherry taste before he started choking, two long, slow coughs that hung in his throat before he was able to hock them out.
“Sorry,” he said, setting down the hose. His throat felt raw, like he’d swallowed a lit match. Seizing warmth spread through his torso and he coughed again, shuddering. When he reached for his coffee, he realized he’d left it at the counter.
“It gets much easier,” Jeremy said, the men in the booth nodding and grinning.
“I think this one time might be enough,” Simon said. He wanted to slide out of the booth and get his coffee, or some water, anything he could pour down his throat to calm the burning itch. But Jeremy was standing directly in front of his only way out, the oversized buckle of his belt at Simon’s eye level, his crotch seemingly ready to bounce Simon back in if he made a move to escape. “I forgot my coffee.”
Jeremy stepped aside. Simon could feel the men around the table smirking, and he didn’t look back as he grabbed his drink from the counter and sat far away from them at a small table butted up against the front window. He opened his messenger bag and pulled out a stack of essays. He’d had them for two weeks, and his students were restless to get them back. It wasn’t until he finally unfurled them that he discovered that Bailey had somehow gotten to them, gnawing on the stapled corner of the topmost paper. Instead of anger, Simon felt an overwhelming sorrow as he ran his fingers along the edge of the teeth marks. Only a day after taking Bailey to the vet for the last time, he was already forgetting the exact look of him. It was all Simon could do not to cry. But he felt the gaze of the men and he bit his lower lip and sucked in air through his nose, his esophagus still raw. He felt old, a creakiness stirring in his wrists and knees. The hookah burbled as one of the men took a long, deep draw.
Simon looked at his watch: he had nearly an hour before his night class. Mills wouldn’t be back in town until at least nine-thirty, half an hour after Simon’s class ended. He uncapped a pen and tried looking down at the first essay, but after reading the introductory paragraph three times he’d made no marks. The burning in his throat screeched out at him and sipping on his coffee, which had settled to a cool, thick sludge, did nothing to soothe it. He stared out through the window flecked with spits of rain. The parking lot was a blank black mass. Simon shoved the essays back into his bag and sucked down the rest of his coffee. The girl at the counter shouted some kind of goodbye, and he raised an arm toward her as he stepped outside.
The rain was heavier than it looked from inside, and Simon was soaked just waiting for the light to change so he could cross the street. He imagined a tiny flood in his bag that would soak everything up, turn the essays into a pulpy, unintelligible soup. Bailey used to love rainstorms, the only dog he’d ever seen that would dash to the window and bark, tongue lolling, at every crash of lightning and roll of thunder. Rather than spook him, stormy weather would wind him up, and he would chase his tail, dart through Mills’ legs, leap up toward Simon’s waist, whimper to be let outside. Simon once loosed him into the backyard during one such downpour and watched through the glass door as Bailey sprinted through the grass, chasing every rain drop as it fell, his golden coat thickening and plastering against his blocky xylophone of ribs, his whole body studded with soil.
Simon let himself into his office, flipping on the light and shutting the door behind him. His office, on the inner side of the hallway, had no windows, and the walls were aircraft carrier gray, the computer desk a plastic laminate that reminded him of a doctor’s office. The air still smelled of the rice-and-beef lunch he’d brought with him. Sitting back in his seat, Simon rubbed his face and took a sip of water from the bottle he kept on his desk, the liquid lukewarm. He stared at the dark computer monitor in front of him for a moment, his mind as blank as the screen. He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed Mills’ number.
His voicemail clicked. Simon looked at his watch: five-fifteen. Of course: Mills was probably at the pre-reading dinner with a select batch of students from Stephens College, which was hosting his visit.
“You’re right. I don’t like coffee,” Simon said. “I liked having a dog, but I don’t like coffee. Or tea. Or, it turns out, smoking.” He told Mills about trying hookah, its burning touch in his throat, how it felt like he had been blasted by a blowtorch.
“I don’t know what we do now,” Simon said, exhaling. “It’s scary.” He told Mills he would be in his office after his class was over, that all Mills needed to do was come to him and he would open the door. When he hung up, he set the phone down on the desk and crossed his arms in front of his keyboard, lowering his head onto his wrists. Simon took a deep breath and held it, his throat throbbing and sooty.
In the weeks before he was put down, Bailey wasn’t the energetic dancer he used to be. When Simon went jogging, the dog slowed down first, and in the beginning Simon chalked this up to his own increased endurance, his O2 content, his better resting heart rate and the conditioning in his legs. But then Bailey started vomiting up his food and refusing his favorite toys. When he fell down into the grass with a whine one afternoon, Simon was hit with a sharp pain like someone had slipped a knife into his belly. Mills insisted they take Bailey to the vet, where an ultrasound revealed a cancerous mass the size of a football in his torso.
“There’s nothing we can do,” the vet said. He was in his fifties or sixties, white-bearded and yellow-toothed. They took Bailey home for one more night. They fed him McDonalds hamburgers and curled around him on their bed. They took him to a park and unleashed him and watched as he barked at squirrels and managed a short burst of speed to give chase to one that sauntered too close.
“I don’t know how to say goodbye to him,” Simon whispered in the dark that night, but Mills was asleep. He slipped out of bed and found Bailey on the couch. Simon didn’t pet the dog because he didn’t want to wrench him from a final night of comfortable slumber, so he simply sat next to him, watching the hitchy rise and fall of the dog’s ribs.
Light knocking woke Simon. His mouth was raw, his lips chapped. When he sat up, he knocked a stack of papers off the side of his desk and they fluttered across the office floor like a swift snowfall.
The knocking came again, this time louder. Simon looked at the clock on his cell phone: nearly ten. He’d slept right through his night class.
Simon stood and pulled the door open. There was Mills.
“Jesus, Simon. Thank goodness. Answer your phone now and then, how about it?”
His head was still groggy. “I’m sorry,” he said, standing up.
Mills looked down at the swath of paper on the floor. “What’s going on? I thought you were going to the coffee shop after class. You weren’t there.” His black hair was thick on his head, streaks of water clotted into his clothing.
He remembered the voicemail, the mealiness of his voice. Mills would have hated the way he sounded.
“You didn’t get my message?”
“You know my stupid phone swallows voicemails.”
Of course. That was why Mills preferred texts; his phone would wait for weeks to announce voicemails, if they arrived at all. Simon tried to picture his voice swirling into the air. Where did those lost transmissions go?
“I came back here,” Simon said.
“Clearly. Let’s go home. It’s late.”
“You know,” Simon said, bending down to pick up the papers, “there was a time in our lives when ten was early.”
“We didn’t even know each other then,” Mills said, joining him in a deep squat on the floor.
Their heads were close together, and Simon could feel Mills’ breath along his ear. It smelled of mouthwash and something acrid.
“You smoked a cigarette,” he said.
The day Mills got his book offer, he came bursting into Simon’s apartment without knocking. Simon was already packing, readying for the move from Louisiana to Missouri. He and Mills hadn’t yet broached the tough questions in their path: where would Mills go, jobless and wandering? Would he follow Simon? Would they sever their ties, bask in the good times they’d had but recognize that distance would otherwise destroy them?
“Look!” Mills had said, handing Simon a printout. It took him a second to understand.
“A two-book deal?” Simon said.
“They want me to write a novel, too.”
Simon pointed to the publisher: a big one. “They bought both?”
“That’s great,” Simon said.
“The advance,” Mills said. He pulled Simon into a tight hug.
“Great,” Simon said into his Mills’ shoulder.
Still squatting in Simon’s office, Mills didn’t deny the cigarette. Instead, he said, “It smells like you did, too.” He gathered up Simon’s papers and pulled them to his chest as he stood. “It’s been a rough day, hasn’t it?” He held out the essays.
Simon felt a lurch in his chest, some knotted combination of loss and betrayal. He opened and closed his mouth.
“It was only one cigarette,” Mills said. “I promise.”
Simon nodded. “Your reading was good?”
“I’m sorry I went.”
Simon hugged Mills, chin lodged against his neck. Mills’ breath was hot against Simon’s throat. The papers crumpled between them. “I wish my voicemail would show up.”
“What did it say? You can just tell me.”
Simon took the papers. He turned and set them on the desk, losing them among the rest of the clutter. “It doesn’t matter.”
Mills raised an eyebrow but shrugged and turned toward the door. Simon gathered his things and they walked out, the long hallway dark and empty, a silence filling the space around them. Mills reached for Simon’s hand and Simon let him take it, but he could only wonder how long and far the quiet could carry them, whether it could keep them holding on or if they would let go, the things between them expelled into the air like so much dirty exhaust.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016 and was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.