Coffee Break Fiction

The New Standard, Part 2 (see below for Part 1)

February 22, 2011

Dennis and Amy headed south towards the Chicago River. The sidewalks had cleared with most already at work. As they crossed the bridge over the muddied river, Dennis stopped and rested his elbows on the railing. Amy did the same. They faced east, towards the lake. She closed her eyes into the sun as it glared down and thawed her from the cold winter. Dennis took in everything about the scene. The architectural structures, decades apart, that fit mindfully together to create the great city of Chicago. He framed the city through an artist’s eye, catching things that a person might miss. But then again he had paused to really look around and pointed out little details about the river, streets and city to Amy. She had been so used to numbly walking to work, that she had lost her curiosity about the vast city and about life. It appeared that Dennis absorbed the environment whereas Amy tiptoed through it. This caught her off guard, really waking her up to the magnificent city.

Dennis was flapping his arms up and down, animated, as if he were a chicken . . . Amy rolled her eyes. Just as she was starting to relax again, the nutcase came out to play.
“What was that, man? What the hell was that man?” Dennis asked the waiter and then looked up at the ceiling. They sat in a booth at the diner. He had turned into a dope-smoking hippie with his long drawl and goofy laugh.
“Two coffees?” The kid had just commented on a movie from the 1960s. His class had watched the flick. He was an art student from Columbia College, waiting tables to pay for college. A thick silver chain hung from his side and linked his belt loop to his wallet.
“No man, hey man, wow, I was watching this object man, like that satellite we saw the other night, right? And like it was just going across the sky man. I mean it just changed directions and went whizzing right off.” Dennis hunched over and laughed maniacally.
“We have scones and croissants.” The kid commented as he tapped a pencil to his writing pad. “Something to munch on?”
“Oh yeah man, like I’m stoned man,” Dennis responded. “I saw a satellite man and it was going across the sky and it flashed three times at me and zig-zagged and whizzed off, man. And I saw it.” Dennis zig-zagged his finger in the air. Amy slumped down in her booth, trying to disappear.
“Anything else . . . to eat?” The waiter hunched his shoulders and reached for the menus. As he stood up he flicked his head back to move his angular hair out of his face.
“Amy . . . .hey, Aaaaammeeee?” Dennis waved his hand in front of her face. She popped her eyes open and blinked a few times. It was like she had been somewhere else. “Anything to eat?” Both Dennis and the waiter were staring at her. She shook her head no.
“What was that there?” She furrowed her brow at the waiter.
“That scene . . . that druggie scene with satellites, spaceships, aliens and Martians?” Amy zig-zagged her hand through the air as her whole body moved with the motion.
“You reading my mind?” The waiter scratched his head and then leaned in.
“What?! You are both crazy.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Well, then, so are you,” he blurted and walked away. Dennis sat there, grinning.
“Why does that happen?” Amy slapped both her hands on the table. “Does anyone else notice this? No one’s even looking,” Amy scanned the diner. That little scene would have for sure caused a stir. “What’s going on?” Amy squinted at Dennis, trying to figure it out.
“People have established opinions of me. They have opinions of you and everyone else, too, which isn’t always good. “
“What does that have to do with me?”
“It means everything. You’re percepting their perceptions.” Dennis explained as if it made any sense to Amy. She placed her elbows on the table and rested her chin in the palm of her hand. The waiter dropped off their cups of coffee.
Dennis took a cube of sugar and held the tip in his coffee. The coffee grabbed onto the corner and veined its way through the cube. Then Dennis dropped the cube into the cup. “One person can saturate a society, positively or negatively, with judgments and perceptions.”
“Confused . . .” She mumbled and took a drink of her coffee.
“Weirdo hicks, man, a bunch of weirdo hicks here.” Dennis muttered under his breath, but loud enough for the couple that passed by their table to hear.
“Haay, ya know who that es?” The man whispered in his Southern accent to the lady beside him. He wore a sweater vest with khakis.
“Hey, yeah you,” Amy waved her arm to get the guy to turn back around. “You think he thinks you’re a hick?”
This caught the man off guard. He paused and then responded, “No,” he laughed nervously. “He was in thaat movie . . . thaat sixties druggie waan. Riiight?”
“This is annoying.” Amy crossed her arms and sat back in the booth, ignoring the couple until they left. Dennis laughed his druggie laugh. He was exaggerating and having a good time.
“Lighten up, kid. Yer sensitive. Open up to it. Use yer heart, not yer brain,” Dennis remarked and held his hand against his heart. At least he tried to explain, but she wasn’t getting it.
“Do you have art in the Art Institute? Is it that diner scene? Like 1950s or something?” Amy changed the subject. She was getting a headache trying to wrap her brain around everything that was happening. Dennis had mentioned that art had played a big role in his life through his paintings and photography.
“No, that’s Edward Hopper.” He winked at her.

After finishing their coffee, they ended up at the Art Institute. Dennis made a beeline to the modern wing. Amy knew little about art and thought that squiggly lines splattered across canvas was child’s play. They stood in front of an abstract painting and she almost blurted out a snarky comment when she saw movement in the art. She watched it from her heart. Time stood still as she examined the colors and smells of the object. A piece of artwork had never moved her before, but then again she didn’t take the time to breath it in. She could feel the artist standing beside them. Dennis seemed to evaporate into the painting and maybe he was pulling her in as well. It was then she had a shift, realizing that her observation skills were rusty. Her eyes and ears had been a hindrance. She took things at face value, not giving much weight to all around her.
“What are you doing to me?” Amy tiptoed over the words.
“Nothin’, it’s all you.” Dennis smiled. They moved through the upstairs gallery and she could hardly contain her excitement about discoveries in each piece.
“The artist must have just gotten fired, but he was happy about it. Released from a job he didn’t like,” she commented as she peered into the painting that had structure but turned fluid.
“You’re right in a sense. The artist freed himself, but not from a job, from his mind,” a man standing behind them commented. “Hi, I’m Angel, a gallery assistant here. Have you seen this artist’s work before? He cranks art out like a frickin’ fast food restaurant.”
“No, ees not how much zou work on somezing zat matters, ees how much zou geet for eet.” Dennis pulled a French accent out of his hat. The warning bells went off in Amy’s head, but this time she decided not to judge it.
“I wish I could own one of his paintings . . . one day,” Angel said.
“Here, zou have change?”
“He sometimes comes to town. Too bad he wasn’t here now. I’m sure he’d love to meet you,” Angel looked at Dennis as Amy stepped out of her mind. A little voice beside her floated through the air, Ya, but zere mine now Andy, huuuh? She blinked hard a couple of times.
“I’d love to meet him. He’s from New York?” Dennis asked.
“Andy Warhol?” Amy blurted out.
“Oh yeah, you knew Andy, didn’t you? How awesome,” Angel rubbed his hands together.
“No, that movie you were in . . .”
“Yeah Basquiat, one of my favorite movies,” Angel beamed.
“I get it! I get it I get it I get it!” Amy sang and shuffled her feet in a dance move. “Oh, sorry.” She looked at Angel and then winked at Dennis. There was magic in a simple moment. Be open to it, she thought, get out of my head. The rest of the afternoon went like the blink of an eye as they roamed the museum. She had never felt so free in her life. He had freed her. Dennis denied this, saying that it was she who had sought it out, even if she hadn’t realized it. They said their goodbyes after the museum. She hugged him tight and didn’t want to let him go. How could she reach him? He convinced her that she knew how and then got in a cab and drove away.

She called her boyfriend on the way to the train and apologized again. She told him that if he could see through the crap he could get to the magic. This surprised him because she had been negative recently. Amy tended to get drawn into the drama of the workplace and her friends. It dragged her down. He hadn’t figured out how to deal with it. And a new job wouldn’t help because it was within her. They had a huge fight the night before and he questioned whether they should stick together. He had called her that morning and she told him to give her time, she was ready to change but had no idea how to do it. It pained her to think that she could lose him. Her voice was raspy then, from crying all night but now when she spoke it was clear. The sound in her voice was excitement as she told him whom she had been hanging out with that day.
“He died . . . today,” Mark responded. There was a long pause. “I just saw it on the Internet . . . the news story. He’s a fascinating guy.” Had she lost it? “Babe, I’ll come meet you, where are you?”
“No . . .” she whispered as her throat tightened. “I just met him. He was real.” Her eyes welled up but she then noticed a familiar face walking her way. “I’ll call you back,” she said. As the lady in a purple beret approached her, Amy stopped her and asked if she remembered seeing Dennis that day. It was the lady from the design center. She pulled out her autograph and said of course, how could she forget. And then she went merrily on her way. What is real and what isn’t? Am I dreaming? She turned around but the lady had already disappeared.

The next day, on her way to work, she passed by the homeless man that had called her, “a real looker.” She looked down at him, sitting on the sidewalk with his sign. “Even better looking today,” he said without moving his lips. She heard his perceptions and had all along but her mind had been too busy to realize this. It was her heart that was in charge now. “Thanks Dennis,” she whispered.

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