When motion caught her eye, Beatrice looked toward the entrance. From where she hunkered in front of the espresso bar fridge, she had a clear line of sight through the glass of the pastry case, and could watch customers approach. Between the trays of lemon bars, cherry bliss cake, and almond cookies, she saw two middle-aged ladies coming up the walk. She waited. As the custom door chime sounded, both women started and looked around for its source.
It had been one of the first things Althea, co-owner of The Pie Hole had insisted they implement—a sound bite from a Mister Bungle song. Every time the door opened, Mike Patton shouted, “Fuck!” startling the unwary and inciting scattered laughter. Not only was it entertaining for their regular customers, it had also proven surprisingly cathartic during rushes. Bea smoothed her dark hair back from her face and did a quick spot check of the front of her apron.
Rising, she greeted the newcomers cheerfully. “Afternoon, Ladies. Welcome to the Pie Hole.”
It often helped to move them out of a state of shock and remind first-time guests of why they’d come in the first place. She smiled encouragingly, luring them close enough to the counter to take their order.
“Does your door always cuss at visitors?” The taller one asked, looking around and distractedly finger-combing her fluffy blonde hair.
“Yes, actually it does.” She made her smile warm her gray eyes as she looked at the second customer who wore the expression of one who’d just found a roach in their soup.
Such an expression did nothing for her extremely round face with its thick cheeks and quivering jowls. Rather short, she seemed to collect most of her mass about her middle. Gold rings strained around several of her pudgy, truncated fingers, and her pale blue eyes seemed to bug from their sockets as they bored into Bea. Those hands restlessly smoothed a knit tunic across her considerable midriff, splaying starfish-like and stroking downward in a gesture that appeared to be more an unconscious habit than an attempt to tidy her appearance.
Bea decided that the woman’s dyed red hair was several shades too rich for her, because it made her look sallow and flaccid. Or maybe that was just the meanness oozing to the surface. It was hard to tell.
“I don’t think that’s a very good business practice.” She sneered, the harsh gravel of a middle Georgia accent bending her words awkwardly.
Bea said nothing, her smile becoming fixed and draining from her gaze as she let the silence uncoil across the polished wood of the counter like so much rope.
The taller, blonde woman seemed to take the pointed hint that her friend’s rudeness was unacceptable. “So what do y’all serve here other than coffee?” She asked, drifting closer to the pastry case. “Anything you’d especially recommend we try?”
“Well, in addition to our coffee selection, we serve a number of loose leaf teas and tisanes….” She drifted into her well-worn New Customer routine.
She was just beginning to recommend the cashew blondies or the honey cinnamon cheesecake when Tubby Rudeness cut her off.
“What do you mean, ‘All Gluten-Free Goodies’?” She demanded, stabbing a stubby finger tipped with a frosted nail at the sign in the pastry case. “These can’t possibly be gluten-free. And who wants that anyway, ridiculous fad!”
“I know I do.” A voice said from the far corner of the shop.
The blonde, visibly cringing at her friend, asked at large, “Oh? What vendor do you buy from? I’d like to be able to offer something different to my guests.” She did not enlarge upon what sort of guests she entertained.
“Everything we serve is baked in-house by Althea,” Bea indicated the dim corner table from which the voice had emanated. “She’s co-owner and head baker.” She added in the general direction of the Rudeness, “I assure you, it’s entirely possible. And if it weren’t true, we wouldn’t say it.”
Either not hearing or choosing to ignore her assurances, the woman spluttered, “Why is there a man lying on the floor over there? What sort of crazy place is this?”
Casting a glance over at Nate, who was stretched out in his usual spot, chin in hand and weight balanced on his elbows, Bea blandly imitated Jane Goodall, “He appears to be reading one of our complimentary in-store comic books.” Raising her voice, she called out, “Hey, Nate! Whatcha reading?”
When he responded with a noncommittal grunt and did not look up, she mused, “Must be a good one. Nate,” Again, she raised her voice, “Be a good boy and say hello to the other guests.”
Deliberately tucking his lank, mousey hair behind his ears and sighing, as if girding himself for a leap, he looked up and gifted the ladies with a broad grin. While it exposed a double row of disreputable, crooked teeth, it was also possessed of a charming and unfeigned sweetness.
Tubby had apparently had all her abused sensibilities could stand, and decided she would not stay to order. “Are you coming Theresa?” She asked with impatience, standing in front of the door.
Theresa produced a business card and slid it surreptitiously across the dark wooden counter. “Let me know when we can do lunch.” She winked and then turned to follow her friend from the shop, stifling a guffaw as the door obligingly screamed, “Fuck!”
Bea picked up the card and stared at it:
Orchis, a Body Retreat
Theresa Gresham, Proprietress
Bea stood there for a moment in dumb silence, but was brought to her senses by a round of applause from the customers in the café. “Did that actually just happen?”
Althea drifted behind the counter and poured two big mugs of coffee, adding cream to both and sugar to hers.
“Yes. And it was like watching a terrible traffic accident.” She set Bea’s coffee in front of her. “I’m still not sure how you managed to avoid strangling that woman, but I should probably be glad you didn’t. Bad for business, murder is.”
Even though Thea’s face betrayed no hint of humor, Bea chuckled, which turned into a full belly laugh as the door screamed once more. Janette had arrived for her afternoon shift.
“What’d I miss?” She made her way behind the bar and looped an apron over her bright purple hair, positioning the neck strap across the top of her cranium. As she fixed a drink for herself, she let it hang idly, swinging loosely in front of her.
“Oh, only everything.” Thea let down her curly red hair, gathering it in her hands and twisting it up more securely. “You just barely missed Bea committing justifiable homicide on a hateful cow of a new customer.”
“Damn it! I never get to see the good stuff!” Shaking her fist in mock-rage at the meaningless injustice of her life, she contented herself with crossing her tattooed forearms under her breasts and leaned against the counter, pouting.
Stabbing a pencil through the twisted mass of her hair, Althea mimed kicking Janette and offered her reassurance. “That’s okay, I’m sure there will be other opportunities to watch Bea inflict violent injury on someone horrible who completely deserves it. Can you mind the shop, Slick? I’m taking her out back for a smoke break.”