Fort McMurray

Live Cafe

Exiting the double doors of the Provincial Building facing Main Street, I walk down the concrete steps stained with purple and brown hues of (hopefully) once upon a time beverages covered in patches of sticky, frothing spit.  Crossing the driveway, I leap over the knee-high rusted bar separating the parking lot of government vehicles from public transportation on the opposite side.  I linger and hide behind a bus as I wait to dash across Main Street, when it’s clear of traffic.  I should use the Franklin Avenue cross walk, but my destination is right in front of me.

The sky is a stark grey.  Just like yesterday and the day before.  Soon rain would pour down from above washing the hard working buses clean.  The last bus pulls in.  Here is my chance.

Traffic is clear, but I still hustle across the street with my olive green carrier bag in hand.  I feel it bounce off my left leg, as I half walk, half jog to the other side.  Finally, feeling the safety of the sidewalk underneath me, I reach for the door in front of me.  The handle is always surprisingly heavier than it seems.  Feeling a drop of rain plop against my neck, I swing the door open and enter Live Cafe.

My eyes briefly linger on a group of three lounging to the right of the door.  I don’t give them much thought as I weave in and out of mixtures of wooden and plastic tables to get to the front.  Under the dim lighting, I stand at front waiting to see three familiar faces behind the counter.  Instead, I’m greeted with the back of the customer in front of me.  Waiting for a couple of minutes, I’m able to switch between observing her body language and the display of cheesecake sitting in a bright round cake dish.  The cheesecake looks tempting.  The woman in her purple floral shirt seems tired.

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

In response, her floral back slouches forward as she struggles to find change in her purse.  Shaking her head and mumbling words which most likely mean “no”, she turns away to walk to the end of the counter where her caffeine fix will soon arrive. Moving forward, I see two familiar faces smiling at me.  One is clearly in her twenties with a face which would be perfect for a Neutrogena campaign.  The other is older, but it is hard to tell by how much.  But their smiles both made them appear eternally youthful.  I couldn’t help but to smile back, as always.

“How are you?” the older woman asks.

“Good!” I respond, “You?”

“Good thanks,” as quickly as she appeared she disappears.

I step forward to speak with the younger barista.  Waiting in line, I had decided to get a white chocolate mocha—skim, no whip cream.

“What can I get you?”

I place my order.

“Would you like that with whip?” she asks with her head down scribbling madly on the paper cup in her hand, already knowing the answer.

“No thanks.”

One day, I will surprise her and order whip cream, I think to myself.  As if not believing in my answer, she asks whether I would like to try something new.

I listen attentively to her description of the new version of a white chocolate mocha and somehow miss everything she says except for the words truffle and nut, heard above the loud grinding of the coffee machines behind the counter.  I tell her that I have an allergy to nuts.  “Have you tried it?”  I ask feeling a bit guilty about my refusal to order something new, despite my allergy.  Her head vigorously nods.  I smile at her enthusiasm, “Well I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through you then.”

The till beeps.

After effortlessly paying with my debit card, I walk off to my right, following the trail of customers waiting for their orders.  Once again, I’m staring at the back of the lady with the floral shirt and the tired slouch.  “White chocolate mocha!” a man’s voice calls out from behind a series of coffee machines.  Avoiding eye contact with the woman who ordered before me, I move to the front of line, feeling her eyes watching my own back.

Above the steaming cup covered in black scribbles, I meet two piercing deep blue eyes.  It reminds me of the hue of the Mediterranean Sea.  Clutching my hot non-truffle mocha, I allow myself to dive in and take a holiday.  It works as well as the picture of the Coliseum waiting for me on my desktop at work.  But this method is slightly better.  Turning right, I walk a few paces to grab a lid from the tray behind me, where the slouchy woman once stood.  I steal a glance at my appearance in the mirror covered in strange blotched stains, before deciding that it isn’t as exciting as staring at the reflection of people sitting behind me.  I don’t stop to reprimand myself for staring openly–it’s not rude to look at a reflection of a person after all.  Forcing a lid onto my cup, I look into the mirror again, but this time, for a free seat.

Sliding into a seat in the middle of the room with the wood chipping away in places, I comfortably watch the world pass by.  I smile at a few people as they pass.  Without realizing it, the world is narrowed down to one person who’s absorbed by the newspaper spread on the table below him.  The table is much too short for his frame.  His face is partly hidden beneath the shadow of his red baseball hat.  As far as I can tell, he doesn’t notice me at all.  Why is he so interesting?

Trying to focus on something else, I’m drawn to the bright glowing platter of cheesecake.  My mouth slowly begins to water, but it stops.  Does the sign in front read $4.50 a slice?  Not possible.

My cheesecake fantasies are interrupted by shouts.  But I’m not worried as it’s only the sound of the radio overhead.  It forgets as always, that blaring out ads will not necessarily convince people to buy the products it’s selling.  The loud ads are replaced by two tenor voices fervently discussing the dangers of helicopter flying on a local talk show.

Despite the loudness of the radio, the cafe is still calm.  It has its own rhythm.  The buzz and whirring of the coffee machines at the front.  The subtle clinks as the baristas pick up cups from table tops.  The muted conversations of customers mixed with occasional bursts of their laughter.  The sound of fingers lazily hitting keys on laptops….

Carried away by the rhythmic noises around me, I unconsciously steal a glance to my right once again.  The man in the red hat is gone.  Startled, I realize that he reminds me of someone I once knew…despite the fact that half of his face was covered in darkness.  Suddenly, I worry about the time.  Is lunch almost over?  Searching for the time, I smell a hint of bleach, and a mop swirls by in front of my table.  According to my blackberry, there are twelve minutes remaining until I have to cross Main Street, walk into the Provincial Building, and sit in my blue and lavender desk chair.  I mentally prepare myself to go back to work instead of observing cafe rhythms and cheesecake.  I look down at my cup.

I haven’t taken a single sip from it since I’ve sat down.

A Game of Words

I sit within the emptiness of the Young Adult section in the Fort McMurray Public Library.  Teenage books about the dangers of plastic surgery and fantasies involving angelic vampires keep me company.  I have come to the library in the hopes that its environment would inspire me to write.  As I experiment with several positions in my four-legged chair, I drag it along and leave the marks of my struggle for all to see, scrapped against the hardwood floor.  My hope for inspiration was slowly being crushed with each passing minute.

Beyond the door behind me, the library is full of bodies hidden behind piles of notebooks and sleek laptops.  Here is a typical scene for any library, but there is a particular vibe felt in the air of this library, and it can even be felt occupying homes on every street in the city.  The ‘Fort McMurray Dream’ inspires and drives residents to believe that success is given to those who work hard.  Hard work leads to satisfaction and happiness (until it’s time to pay your imploding rent or mortgage bills).  I passed by many tired minds sitting throughout the library focusing on unlocking the secrets to this happiness with searches for jobs on computer screens and throughout classified ads in newspapers.  Images of big yellow tanker trucks packing oil rich soil beam down at us all from walls above the polished cubicles and spacious table tops.

A rush of cool air brushes against my neck as the door opens.  The room quickly fills with more bodies.  A young woman whizzes by as a blur of fuchsia (the effect of her bright cardigan) while jangling a box of pencils and paper.  Soon after, a mother walks in with her two children and leaves behind one of the two— her son.  He is a skinny adolescent, who looks even thinner under the bagginess of his brown T-shirt.  I watch him sit before the woman in fuchsia with surprisingly excellent posture, as his back sits upright in the chair before me.

The two swap tips as they converse about the latest and greatest X-box games.  Silence builds as the conversation dies.  It is now time to begin what they are here for—perhaps a peer-mentoring session.

The energy of the gym seen from the window stretching behind the woman, captures my attention until I hear, “I’m sure more people will come eventually, but we can start.  Which game would you like to play?”  Her face is cheerful but her voice lacks genuine excitement.  I imagine this exact line has been said before to other boys and girls.

Under faded lights, he looks at his choices, pauses for a brief moment, and apathetically declares, “Scrabble is good.”

Letters rattle and shake.

Looking at the bag of letters she asks, “Would you like to pick out a letter and figure out who goes first?  Whoever gets closest to ‘A’ gets to start.”

The boy reluctantly reaches out a hand to grab a letter.

“Oh, you get to go first!” She sounds hopeful that her “student” will be just as excited as her to begin playing.  If he is, he does not express it.

As words materialize on their game board, I look at the glaring blankness of my laptop screen.  My empty thoughts are interrupted by, “Oh that’s a good start.”  There is reservation in her soft voice, as if she wants to say more, but she is holding back.  Instead, unspoken encouragement is given as she smiles at his efforts.

No one else has come to participate in this battle of words.

“You can’t just start a random word. Here’s what you can do,” her reserved nature begins to crack as her fingers point to possible solutions, but she leaves his word intact and prepares for her turn.  Afterwards, she jots down a few notes before perching her chin onto her clenched fist.  Her eyes challenge the boy to make his next move.

“Nicely played!  That’s a triple score.”

The congratulation is taken in their customary silence.  My ears are buzzing from the increasing volume of silence spreading throughout the room.  As they sit they both radiate an intensity which despite their quietness forces you to look at them and watch their next move.  And in that moment, I suddenly feel a surprising revelation.

I realize that the two are playing a disguised game.  It still involves words, but the game is directed by one significant rule.  Only speak when necessary.  It is not a straightforward game as it seems that the two are carefully calculating their every move, including their use of speech (or lack of) with one another.  I hope their hard work pays off.  In the meantime, they both seem to agree that it takes more than a conversation to get to know a person.

The game goes on.