Little Theresa buys a cup of coffee


There were many uncommon occurrences that day at the Epiphany Cafe; but there was one, about an hour after the re-enactment of the creation of the universe, that might have signaled that life would return to normal. A regular who had been missing for a week returned for her morning cup of coffee. However, what she did with that coffee told us all that nothing would never be the same.

This woman was so thin that she scarcely disturbed the ground when she walked. She was not especially pretty, but had a habit of looking you full in the face, so that it affected your heart. She didn’t make your heart beat strong; she pulled it out of your chest a little, so that you felt more open after meeting her, more expansive, like you were given more air to breathe. She even looked at those people no one else ever looked at and gravitated towards the very ones everybody else avoids. She had even once conducted a complete, but one-sided, conversation with the Waving Man, while he craned around her, looking for cars.

When she was still a child, she had heard about Mother Theresa. Even though she was not Catholic, nor particularly religious, she announced to her parents that when she grew up she would go work with the good nun in India. They were wryly amused and told all their friends the story with a mixture of delight and dismay. Her feelings didn’t change when Mother Theresa died. She wanted nothing more than to travel to Calcutta and clean the wounds of lepers. Her parents would rather she go to college. “No,” she said. “Buy me an airline ticket with the money you would spend on tuition, instead.”

They weren’t going to spend any money on tuition. They were going to apply for college loans and grants, but there were no loans and grants for an apprenticeship in sainthood. Therefore, she got a job at the bookstore next door to the Epiphany Cafe. She worked when she could and saved what she could, but no matter how thrifty she was, no matter how much coupon clipping, budgeting and saving she did, she never raised enough to buy a ticket.

Here’s what the problem was. Her bank was at the corner, down the street from her bookstore and the cafe. Every second week she would cash her paycheck and stuff an allotment of rent into an envelope and an ever dwindling allowance of cash into her purse. Whatever was left over she gave to whoever she passed on the street on her way home. She gave to everyone who asked and those who didn’t ask, even those who said they had no needs. She gave to drug addicts and single mothers, retirees and businessmen, students, and con men; pushers and pullers, pensioners and probationers; the deserving and the non-deserving, alike. She gave as promiscuously as the sun shares its rays on the good and the bad. She gave as if she would never reach the end of giving.

Then at thirty years old, she felt terrible that she had never made it to India.

Her parents, who thought they loved her, said, “You told us you were going to India, but you made little of your life. You work at a bookstore.”

She had a habit of drinking coffee, stopping at the cafe every morning on her way to work. It woke her up. She needed it to get going in the morning. It was her only indulgence. Nonetheless, as time went on, the coffee tasted more and more bitter, no matter how much sugar she put in. With every sip she was more selfish; every swallow was a scalding disappointment.

At last she hit upon an idea. She would stop drinking coffee and put the dollar-sixty-nine towards a one way ticket. Drop by drop fills the coffeepot. By her calculation, it would take a year. Bad habits are hard to break. She made it about a week, the very week before the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy.

Maybe if she had come to the Epiphany Cafe that week, the Geeky Guy would’ve asked her on a date and I’d be telling a different story. Maybe then the Moodus Noises would’ve have groaned and the creation of the universe wouldn’t have been re-enacted. Maybe then, everything would’ve gone on as normal, or what passes for normal in Kenilworth. Maybe I’d be dead by now, a forgotten causality of the insensate mill of familiarity.

When she took her place in line, tears were streaming down her cheeks. She was a hopeless addict, a failure at everything she attempted. If Mother Theresa could see her now, she’d be ashamed; if her parents could see her, they’d be ashamed. She was ashamed of herself. When her turn came at the counter, she stepped up and, tears or no tears, shame or no shame, just as she always did, she looked at the Lisping Barista, full in the face. She had her money ready, so no one would have to wait. A dollar-sixty-nine in exact change, the cost of a small Fair-Market Guatemalan to go. She placed it on the counter as she had always done. The Lisping Barista, who had waited on her every morning, had her cup out and was beginning to draw the Guatemalan, her usual, but the slight woman with the reckless gaze said no, she didn’t want coffee this time.

“I’m paying for the next person in line.”

There was no one in line behind her, but there would be, eventually. She stepped away, as awake as a person can ever be. She woke up that morning, even without drinking her coffee. Every morning thereafter, she would return to do the same thing.

One onlooker, a retired teacher and unlapsed Catholic, well read in the lives of the saints, thanked her on behalf of the unknown beneficiary. She called the thin woman Theresa.

“Why do you call me that?” she said. “That’s not my name.”

“It could be,” said the retired teacher.

“Like Mother Theresa?”

“No, Mother Theresa named herself after her favorite saint, Theresa of Lisiuex. They call her the Saint of the Little Way. Theresa couldn’t do any great deeds, so she did small ones: looking at people, giving whatever she could, spending time with everyone, buying them coffee. You’re just like her. Thank you.”

The retired teacher went back to her Kindle. The thin, not very pretty, but open and generous, woman felt that, for the cost of a small Guatemalan, a dollar-sixty-nine cents, she had received a great sum without even asking for it. She was incalculably rich.

Now, she had one more thing she could afford to give.

She gave up her need to go to Calcutta.


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S. Harry Zade

Writing a blog keeps me alive.

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