I’ve decided to start something new. Each Friday, I’m going to post a short fiction piece. Some will be reprints, some will be contest winners and others will be losers and rejects that I think deserve to be read. This is one of those. It’s my very first Woman’s World romance reject. I wrote it in 2005 and while my craft skills are improved and I could probably rewrite it better, I want to let it stand in all its glorious ineptitude.
Whole Latte Lovin’
Jason pretended to make a call on his cell phone as he observed the café employee whose name badge said Maggie. An attractive strawberry blonde with hazel eyes, she obviously didn’t feel well. He watched her hands to ensure she didn’t touch her nose then his coffee cup. The shop manager approached and laid a hand on her arm.
“Maggie, I need to apologize,” said the woman whose own badge read Diane. “I was out of line telling you to come in today. I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me.”
Maggie continued to dispense whipped cream, gently building a white mountain on top of the coffee. “Tall mocha for Jason,” she called out. Then in a lower tone, “Thank you, Diane. I appreciate that.”
Jason took the drink and instead of heading for his car, sat on the overstuffed purple couch. This might be worth a little extra time. After ten minutes his wish was granted when another employee took over the drink counter and Maggie picked up a cloth and headed toward the condiment bar. Jason went to get a stirrer he didn’t need.
“Hi,” he said. Original opening.
“Can I get you something?” Maggie asked as she wiped up stray sugar granules.
“No, thanks. You look like you should be home in bed. Do you have that nasty flu that’s going around?”
“Yes, I did, but my fever broke last night, so I’m not contagious anymore and I’m feeling better. Much better than yesterday.” She seemed about to continue, but paused. “Thank you for asking.”
“Well, I hope you didn’t have to work when you were sick?”
Maggie seemed to choose her words. “I called in sick three days, but we’ve been short staffed lately. Some people have quit and our manager hasn’t hired and trained replacements yet.” Jason recognized the code for “My manager is an idiot and can’t keep employees.”
Maggie continued, “She asked me to come in and make some calls to get my shift covered. She didn’t realize how sick I really was until I dragged in here. You probably heard her apologize. But no need to worry, I’m not contagious.”
Jason smiled. “What kind of manager makes a sick employee come in to find a replacement?”
Maggie smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Well, since we’re understaffed now, some associates had to work double shifts. She was trying to make sure no one was on overtime. Flu really messes up schedules.”
Jason admired both the refusal to malign Diane and her eyes. “Have you thought about becoming a supervisor? Or are you happy pulling lattes all day?”
“I’m a shift supervisor now. I’ve been asked to consider management and I am thinking about it. But if I started the training, I’d have to work at other stores, and I really don’t want to leave my regulars here.”
“What do you mean, your ‘regulars’?”
“This is an older neighborhood with lots of retired people. I have customers who come in once or twice a week for coffee and a visit. When I first started, I never thought I’d still be brewing espresso five years later. But I really feel like… it sounds cheesy, but I make a difference here. I know someone else could get drinks for Mr. Chester and Mrs. McCabe and the others. But I enjoy making their visits personal. They’re lonely, and the others treat them like they’re an annoyance. Or as if old age is contagious. I ask about their grandkids and their arthritis. I flirt with the men and make excuses when the women want to fix me up with their grandsons. If I went to another store, I’d feel guilty about leaving them. So, I hang in.”
Jason stared at her for a moment.
“What? Do I have something in my teeth?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m having trouble processing what I just heard. You stay in this store, with an inept manager, and don’t promote because you think what you do matters?”
“Well, when you put it like that, it sounds stupid. I know it’s just coffee, but it’s also companionship and community and …I don’t know, it’s just …”
“No, I don’t think it’s stupid, I know exactly what you mean. It’s your way of giving something to the people here.”
“Yes, I guess so.” Maggie wiped off the cream container. “Are you sure I can’t get you anything else? I have to run the register now.”
“Nope,” Jason replied. “I’m fine. Take care, and I hope you feel better soon.”
“Thanks.” Maggie moved to the counter, tossed the rag into a sink of suds and stepped to the register as an elderly woman entered. Jason turned his back to the door and examined the travel mugs. He heard Maggie’s greeting.
“Hello, Mrs. Porter. How are you?”
“Good morning, Maggie, I’m fine, thank you. I missed you.” He made his escape while they discussed whether Mrs. Porter wanted three or four pumps of hazelnut syrup in her latte.
Jason got into his car and set the drink on the portable scale. He pulled the evaluation sheet from his briefcase and began rating the visit. The mocha was fine, weight wise. He tasted it. Good flavor balance with both the espresso and the chocolate, neither one overpowering. He had dawdled too long to get an accurate temperature, but judging from the temp now, it had been about 180° when served.
Jason paused as he came to the section for personal comments. He knew the rash of employee resignations had the corporate office concerned. It was one reason he had been sent to do this undercover evaluation.
He also had a personal interest. His grandmother was in the habit of stopping by this store for an occasional latte. She told him what a wonderful place it was, with the sweetest employees, but an awful manager. He had dismissed her comments: Grandma didn’t understand the café business; she still perked her coffee, for heaven’s sake. And she wanted to fix him up with one of the employees.
Grandma had evaluated this store exactly right. Bad management, great employees, wonderful dating possibilities.
On the form he made a suggestion that Diane be moved to a different store and given some retraining in employee relations. Then he added his recommendation that Maggie Rogers be encouraged to promote, with an assurance that once trained, she would be assigned to this location. He replaced the form in his briefcase after signing it, “Jason Porter.” Yep, his grandmother had great sense about both business and romance.
A month later Jason returned to the store for a follow up visit. Just as he thought, his grandmother was there for her coffee. And as he had hoped, she was talking with Maggie who wore a new name badge that read Manager.
Jason slipped behind his grandmother and put a finger to his lips as he caught Maggie’s eye. “Excuse me ma’am. Are you causing trouble here? This new executive trainee should get back to work. After all, we don’t pay our managers to chit chat all day with the customers.”
“Jason!” his grandmother exclaimed as she whirled around. “I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been trying to tell Maggie that my grandson was here last month and he made the decision to give this store to her and to move that awful Diane out. But I don’t think she believes me.”
“Well, it wasn’t my decision to make, but I did make the recommendation.” He turned to Maggie. “We haven’t formally met. I’m Jason Porter, Corporate Operations. I was in a while back and we spoke for a few minutes. I was very impressed by your commitment to this store and to your “regulars” like my grandmother.”
Maggie blushed as recognition lit her eyes. “I remember! You came in the day after I had been sick, and you overheard Diane’s apology.” She stopped abruptly.
“What’s the matter?”
“I said I make excuses when customers offer to set me up with their grandsons.”
“I don’t need Grandma to find dates for me. But I am glad she’s fond of you, and I would like very much to get to know you better.”
“I’d like that, too.” Maggie smiled at him.
Mrs. Porter watched with satisfaction. “I hope this means I get free hazelnut lattes from now on.”
Jason put an arm around her shoulder. “Grandma, any time you want to tell me about a management problem, I promise I’ll listen. But I don’t think you need to arrange any more dates.” He looked in Maggie’s eyes and smiled at her nod. “And you can have all the lattes you can drink.”