East in Paradise
Coffee is life, but these days, grabbing a cup in town is enough to kill me. Gone are the days when I could breeze into Golden Café, order my usual extra-large cup to wake the dead, and be out in two minutes, tops. When the most I’d give were the customary greetings polite enough to satisfy the etiquette Granny drilled into my thick skull. And yeah, I’d smile, too, because that was easy enough.
Now, everything is a production: the predictable turn of faces when I walk through the glass front door. The good-neighbor greeting when the customers see me, and then . . . then comes the announcement.
“And here’s our hero: Captain Mitchell Dunford.” Samuel Cornelius’s voice booms as I take my second step onto the retro black-and-white checkerboard tile.
My entire body winces as the café comes to a screeching halt at the declaration. Utensils clatter to a stop. The whir of the cappuccino machine frother ceases. Tourists huddled over their cups of hot cocoa, wearing Gold Country hats and T-shirts, raise their eyebrows as if I were the leprechaun himself.
And Granny asks why I don’t head into town often . . . it’s because of this. It’s because of the whirlwind my presence causes. From the second I came back home to Golden two weeks ago, it’s been a fiasco.
I’m reminded each time I come to town that I’m not the same person who left for the Army almost nine years ago.
But I suck it up, square my shoulders anyway, and casually salute. It earns me a round of applause. I’ve realized the more affable and cool I am, the faster I can grab my coffee and get on with my day.
Plus, Sam Cornelius is like family and a Golden original. His dad opened the café decades ago. The man gave me my first taste of coffee when I was twelve. Granny would kill me for being rude, and crossing that eighty-something-year-old woman is not something I ever intend to do. She’s tougher than a drill sergeant.
“Extra-large coffee for you, Mitch.” A cup slides in front of me, steam spiraling from the dark liquid. The aroma hits my nostrils, and my blood pressure rises to living status. Yes. Yes. Yes. Just enough oomph to get me to smile.
“Thanks, Jaime.” I nod to the little girl behind the counter. Or, not so little anymore. The years have put what looks like two feet on her, and braces and the coffee shop apron have replaced the pigtails and overalls she used to wear.
Her eyes examine me. “No cream or sugar, just how you like it. Want a banana muffin to go?”
Shaking my head, I snap the cover on the cup. “No, thanks, just coffee.”
“Did you know eating a big breakfast is key to a healthy diet and a good mood?” The silver of her braces gleams in the overhead light.
“Jaime Lynn,” her mother warns from behind. Eliza Cornelius has one hand on the cappuccino machine and the other on her hip, eyes trained on her daughter.
“I was just repeating what you say all the time, Momma. Mitch has to eat because he’s too skinny”—she turns to me—“because you’re all by yourself in that big house. And she told Grandma Cornelius what you need is a woman.”
“Jaime!” Eliza hisses, and comes to stand at her daughter’s side. “I’m sorry, Mitchell. Just . . . just ignore her. She’s eleven. The things kids say.”
“It’s fine, Liz.” I shrug off the comment. “Don’t worry about me, Jai. I’ve got King Lear up there keeping me company.” King Lear is a legend, a sixteen-year-old vineyard cat that adopted my family, known for his lion’s mane and mammoth paws and because he thinks he rules our land like Simba from The Lion King.
It works as a distraction, and Jaime’s face lights up. She goes on about felines and how she wishes she could get a cat. It starts an avalanche of chatter from her parents, and just like that, I’m off the hook, hopefully occupying the locals, who love to make up stories about my return.
Poor Mitchell Dunford.
He had a rough go at it overseas.
How is he ever going to get that vineyard up and running?
He doesn’t know anything about the business.
Yep, I’ve heard it all. From the rumors that have circulated since I came home. From Granny, who isn’t afraid to smother me with the reality that the vineyard is going to be a challenge to reopen. She thinks that if I know what I’m up against, I’ll be more prepared to fight. Little does she know I share her doubts, and it’s going to take more than awareness to make a success out of a business that’s hanging on by the last of its roots.
Thankful for the diversion Jaime’s created, I stick my hand out, a quarter on my palm. The girl slaps me five, swiping the coin, beaming.
Spinning on my heels, I march to the front door, but just before walking out of the café, I pull the hood of my sweatshirt over my head to block the rest of the chatter. It doesn’t matter that it’s the last week of May in northeast California on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, with the sun high in the cloudless sky, and the weather holding steady at seventy-five degrees. Or that I’ve grown my hair out so I don’t feel the wind as much as I used to.
The interaction at the café was about enough talk to last me the whole day. Except I’ve got an afternoon to kill while my Realtor, Rocío, is showing Lavenderhill, the parcel of property I’m having leased at the vineyard. She suggested I hide out while potential renters are touring the place, and with my truck on the fritz again, I couldn’t go farther than into town. Besides, the one-cup coffeemaker with the pods I have up at the house is shitty on the best of days, and the coffee it makes hasn’t been giving me the brainpower to figure out how to tell my brothers that strangers are going to be living on our land.
Main Street greets me with the usual noise of a tourist town, of a manicured façade of the grand old days when gold was plentiful and everyone wanted a piece of it. Vintage brick and old siding, windowsills painted in teal and red. Galvanized iron cornices with intricate patterns. Cashing in on tourists, Golden got smart in the last decade and renovated Main Street using historical records to restore it all to its previous glory. Now, tour companies have put our little town on their map, sending buses to flood our brick-lined streets with smog. They bring droves of tourists with selfie sticks and steady business to our Gold Rush Museum and local establishments.
Nice for cash flow, but Golden no longer feels like home. My brothers and I used to take Main Street by storm on our skateboards and scooters on Sunday mornings when it was quieter than a ghost town. There were so few residents we’d fly down the street and have enough time to get out of the way of the solitary car that’d pass. Now there’s a yellow line painted down the middle of the street.
Tucking my chin into my chest, I trek to the city square. While rounding the corner quickly, with the comfort of a park bench in mind, I hear a pop in the distance. My heart rate rockets as my eyes dart to the left, and I glimpse a car with a flat tire pulling off to the side . . .
Just before I barrel into a person coming around the corner.
Crushing the cardboard cup against my hand.
Spilling coffee down the person’s white shirt.
“Oh fuck!” the woman shrieks, pulling her shirt away from her body. She bends over at the waist and a waterfall of my daily wake-up pours onto the sidewalk.
“Shit. I’m sorry.” I’m on full auto, already peeling off my sweatshirt. Leaning into the woman, I pat the front of her shirt with mine.
“Hey, watch it.” She jumps back. Though a head shorter than my six-foot frame, she rises up to some kind of a ready stance like she’s going on the offensive. With her long black hair draped over one shoulder and covering half her face, she appraises me suspiciously.
“Sorry, I . . . my bad. Did I burn you?”
“No . . . crap . . . I’m not burned. Just fucking wet, and late.”
“I wasn’t looking.”
“Obviously.” Backing down, she sweeps her hair into a bun. Now that I see her face, I’m stuck in my tracks. The woman is gorgeous and ferocious. Mahogany eyes, golden brown skin, a flower tattoo that starts behind her ear and snakes along her neck. She’s got four piercings down one ear, three in the other. Another tattoo peeks out of her shirtsleeve at her wrist. “Great. I can’t damn well go to a meeting like this.”
Red lips that happen to cuss as much as mine do.
“What are you smiling at?” Those red lips curl into a snarl.
“Nothing.” I clear my throat. Shit. I really need to work on my poker face.
“This is funny to you?”
Here’s the thing with tempers. I might have my own, but I’m a master at defusing it. Though I find this woman intriguing and am tempted to ask what kind of business she has in Golden, first things first. I’ve got to fix this.
“No. I’m stone-cold serious, and I’m sorry. Really, I am. Lemme get you a shirt.” I point to the shop across the street.
She looks at the storefront with T-shirts filling the window. With ones that say I ? Golden, California Girl, and I Left My Heart in San Francisco, which ironically is a three-hour drive from here. Her face twists into a frown and her eyes bounce to me, then back to the store. “No, thanks. I just need to go.”
“Then take my sweatshirt.”
“You’re huge. I mean”—she shakes her head as if catching herself—“I’ll swim in your shirt.”
“Okay.” I can’t help but notice how her cheeks turn pink and how her voice softens. “But the nearest clothing store is a half mile down the road.”
Her teeth rake her bottom lip. She flips her wrist and looks at her watch, then as if making a decision, heaves a sigh. “Okay, fine.”
This woman is on a mission, and she doesn’t look back as we cross the street to the tourist shop. A buzzer sounds when we walk into the place, and we’re greeted by floor-to-ceiling Day-Glo T-shirts with every joke slogan imaginable shoved in our faces.
The woman approaches the first rack, sifts through a couple of hangers, and shoves a shirt into my hand. “Here.”
I can’t offer a suggestion because the shirt is . . . not really what I assume is her style, so I bring it to the counter. She waits for me near the front door. Silas Rau, first-generation Golden, tips his head at the glowering woman while he rings me up. “Date’s not going well, I see.”
I sigh. “Not a date, Silas.”
“Well, duh, especially if you take her to buy a T-shirt. Ice cream’s a better option. Dinner even.”
“Thanks for the tip.” I push a credit card across the counter, moving the transaction along. Rau’s much like the shirts he peddles: he’s got something to say about everything, and worse, he’s a gossip. Granny’s going to know about this incident by tonight. When he’s done swiping, I say, “No need for a bag or receipt. Thanks.”
When she sees me coming toward her, the woman exits the shop and walks to the corner of Main and First. It’s only then I take in the full view of the damage. Her shirt is sopping wet, from the collar down to its hem.
My insides twist. Damn.
She’s shifting feet, looking like she wants to run. And I don’t blame her.
As tourists glide past, I hand her the shirt. “If you want to change, my place is a mile from here.”
“No, that’s quite all right. I just need to get out of here. Um, thanks . . . for the shirt.” She waits for the street to clear, then steps off the curb.
“Wait,” I call out as she stomps across the street. “I didn’t get your name!”
But the woman, now in a quick stride up First Street, doesn’t turn. The white back of her shirt disappears over the crest of the hill, taking with her the momentary excitement of the day.
My adrenaline crashes, and I realize that, dammit, I need another cup of coffee.