Reuben’s Hot and Cold – Chapter 1

A white man with short dark hair, wearing a blue business shirt and looking skeptically to the side.

Reuben liked to handle the business side of the coffee shop before his staff arrived, sitting at one of the steel-and-wood-block tables against the long, white-tiled wall. It was tranquil to work alone in the quiet space, steam from his second cup of coffee of the day curling upwards into a sunbeam. Occasionally he even indulged in a pineapple or red bean bun that he’d picked up at Wong’s on his daily morning walk. The paperwork—even if it was digital these days—was never-ending, and it was a best practice to keep on top of it. If he did it here, he didn’t feel as though he were bringing business home, even if home was literally a flight of stairs away.

Someone rapped on one of the panes of the glass garage door that separated the shop from the patio outside. It wouldn’t be warm enough for a few weeks yet to keep it open, and even on steamy summer days Reuben didn’t roll it up unless the place was open for business. It was astonishing how many people couldn’t read a business hours sign, Reuben thought, looking up in pique.

Una McGillicuddy peered into the shop through the tunnel of her cupped hands. Her eyes alit on Reuben, and she waved with frantic delight, as though they had spotted one another through a gap in a crowd.

Reuben checked the time. Just after eight. Was something on fire? He got up and unlocked the front door. “Why are you here early?”

Una bounced on the balls of her feet. “I had this dream about this secret goblin restaurant under Lovegrass Lake and I woke up totally inspired!”

“You don’t start until nine.” Reuben began to close the door.

“Oh hey, it’s fine, you don’t have to pay me for the hour. I just want to see if basil works better with lemon or lime.”

Reuben shook his head at the one hundred and ten pounds of sparklers in a pink chef’s jacket that he’d recently hired to make ice cream. “Never work for free, Una.”

Una gave a frustrated little growl through her teeth, like a puppy not wanting to share a toy. “But I’m forgetting what it tasted like.”

Just as well. Nobody needed basil in their ice cream. “Come back in fifty-four minutes.”

Una hitched up the straps of her Darth Kitty backpack. “You’re a very strange boss.”

“Mm-hm.” Reuben relocked the door and went back to his laptop.

The key to a successful business wasn’t in making more money, or even in controlling your costs. It was knowing what your goals were. Reuben’s goals included not running the kind of shop where employees worked unpaid overtime, even if it was flattering that someone wanted to do so of their own volition. 

Of course, his goals had also included bringing exquisite coffee prepared flawlessly to the masses. He would have regretted that first affogato, except that the masses apparently wanted high-butterfat ice cream made from local organic ingredients more than they wanted perfectly balanced black coffee. Several thousand dollars a week more, in fact. Reuben was still sometimes bemused at the turn his business had taken, but he tried not to dwell on it, because the idea of profiting handsomely as a result of pure chance gave him a headache.

Not that the coffee side of the business didn’t have its adherents. Today, like most days, he had a reliable stream of customers as soon as he opened at nine: regulars who came in for the only nel drip in town, people fortifying themselves before a grocery run or a browse through Four Leaf Plants next door, new parents looking for some badly needed caffeine closer than Main Street. Reuben was kept grinding and pouring until the pre-lunch lull, when he took the opportunity to have a seat and down the blueberry and kale smoothie he’d brought with him.

 He stood up as a customer came in. Instead of going to the counter, though, the man trotted over and planted himself in the chair opposite Reuben. “Hi! It looks like I came at the right time. Got a minute?”

His wide face and strawberry blond hair gave him the air of a choirboy, the impression intriguingly marred by the two glinting rings through his right eyebrow and columns of silver up and down the curves of his ears. What was his name? Van, Reuben’s mind supplied. Van Parsons from The Mysterious, Clover Hill’s ode to kitsch and microbrewing.

“I do. What for?”

Van took a small notebook from somewhere inside his battered leather bomber jacket. “I thought we could schedule the road trip for the tourist passport. How’s next Tuesday for you?”

This time, Reuben’s mind supplied nothing useful. He pursed his lips. “The road trip for the what?”

Van reached into the other side of his jacket and came out with a full-colour brochure, which he slid across the table to Reuben. North Fairview County Trail of Tastes, it proclaimed over a collage of chocolate truffles, amber beer, and glossy red jam oozing off a wooden spoon. 

Right. Reuben had procured the brochure during a trip up to Baymill to check out that new roastery, and brought it to a Clover Hill Chamber of Commerce meeting in some inexplicable moment of weakness. He’d long since put it out of his mind. “That was almost a year ago.”

“Yeah. Nobody had time to look into it during the summer, so I figured we could scope it out now,” Van said.

“It’s already April.” It was utter fantasy to think that something like this could be whipped together before the tourist season started in earnest.

“Sure, but we can get a jump on it for next year.”

“All I did was make a suggestion,” Reuben said, with the distinct sensation of being on thin ice.

Van leaned against the back of his chair with an air of amusement. “It was your suggestion. That puts you on the committee. Look, I don’t make the rules.”

He had Reuben there. “Who else is on the committee?”

“Everyone sitting at this table.”

Reuben must have sighed audibly, because Van leaned forward. “C’mon, Reuben, it’s a good idea. A bunch of businesses have already said they’re interested. And it’ll be a great way to attract customers to those of us who aren’t on Main Street. I just want a second opinion on how it works in practice.”

Reuben opened the brochure. The centre was a map, surrounded by ads for participating businesses and what the the purchase of a passport granted at each one: a packet of loose tea, a little stack of shortbread in cellophane, some complicated coffee concoction topped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. “Do we have this season’s brochure?”

“No, I figured we could pick one up en route, if it’s a going thing this year.”

Reuben folded the brochure back up and tapped the edge on the table thoughtfully. “If it wasn’t a successful venture, that would be useful to know.”

The shop door opened and Mr. O’Leary, one of Reuben’s regulars, came in. Reuben excused himself from the table, and as he fixed Mr. O’Leary a French press of Golden Sunset Blend, suitable for the cream and sugar he liked to dose it with, he mulled over the proposition. It was a good idea, which was why he’d gone to the hassle of bringing it to the Chamber of Commerce in the first place. Research this year feeding into a product for the next was a rational timeline. What he knew of Van’s business dealings painted the man as competent and fair to his employees. Reuben just needed to manage Van’s expectations of the time Reuben had available to work with him.

“Tuesday might work for me,” he said, coming back to the table. His former full-time barista, Laverne, now had a one-year-old at home and was working a half shift on evenings and close, but she might be willing to switch with him for a day. “But I’m only available for the research aspect of the project. I can’t commit to anything further than that.”

“No problem. We’ve got another committee writing a grant proposal to the town to hire a writer and a graphic designer. We just need to compile the raw data.”

A thrilled squeak came from the doorway that led to the storeroom-slash-office and the small addition that housed the ice cream makers and freezers. Reuben turned to see Una. “I’ll get another spoon!” she called, and disappeared back through the door.

“Do you want me to drive?” Van asked.

I’ll drive,” Reuben said firmly.

“Cool. I’ll navigate.” He made an entry in his notebook with the stub of a pencil. The pages were printed with a grid, filled with block letters interspersed with dots and asterisks and double underlines.

“I don’t know if it’s quite right,” Una explained, crossing the shop with her hands cupped around a bowl. “Tell me what you think.”

Reuben took a spoon and looked dubiously at the large glob of shamrock-green ice cream in the bowl, soft from the machine.

The other spoon held aloft, Van gazed pensively into the air. “Is that basil I taste?”

Yes.” Una clapped her hands together. “Too much? Not enough?”

He twisted his mouth thoughtfully. “I’d up the lemon, but I’m a fan of lemon.”

Reuben scooped a little of the ice cream onto the edge of his spoon. “Did we have lemon and basil on hand?” He knew the answer.

“No,” Una said, “but I got some across the street at Holly’s. It’s okay, I didn’t put it on our account.”

Reuben fixed her with a stern look. “Don’t pay for your employer’s expenses, Una. Put the receipt on my desk, and I’ll reimburse you. Are the regular flavours made?”

“Vanilla’s made and chilling, boss. Chocolate and strawberry are in the big machines now. I used the little one for this batch. I just couldn’t get it out of my head, you know?”

Van took a second spoonful. “Yeah, I’d order this.” 

The front door opened again. Successfully having avoided putting herb-based dessert into his mouth, Reuben abandoned his spoon and stood up. “I should get back to work. I’ll call you to confirm about Tuesday.”

“Excellent.” Van smiled. The sun twinkled off the arc of his earrings, scattering sparks of light. “It’ll be fun.” 

Fun was not something that came Reuben’s way often, and in any case, he preferred to have a clear delineation between that and work. Still, when one was mired in all the day-to-day minutiae of running a business, it was beneficial to have a reason to look up at the horizon once in a while.

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