Pete chucked away his surname years ago, never carried a wallet, didn’t own a telephone, television, or radio and never read the newspaper. He cooked on a camp stove, slept on an army cot and aired his clothes in the evening breeze laced with eucalyptus. He learned just enough electrical wiring to work for himself. Every morning he eased into consciousness on his favorite stool in his favorite café, Pan’s Palace. He passed most afternoons at Mort’s Barbershop chewing the fat and collecting news from the street. Most evenings he stationed himself in a chair in front of Stu’s Corner Shop to set the world to rights. Here and there he picked up the odd scrap of work other electricians wouldn’t touch. Based on barter his trade flew so low under the radar not a taxman on the planet could spot it. He saw himself as free and independent as a body could be; not an individual or institution could touch him until …
On one of the finest of spring mornings Pete, in one of his sunniest of dispositions, perched onto his personal stool at the end of the counter in Pan’s Palace, as usual his usual was there waiting for him. “Morning, Mary Beth.”
The little bell over the front door jangled. Pete’s steady breakfast companions plodded in looking like they’d just come from the funeral of a friend.
“Not who,” said Ed, “what.”
“All right then, what died?”
“Life as we know it,” said Barry slumping onto the stool next to Pete and giving Mary Beth a nod of thanks for his usual which arrived at exactly the same time.
Ed heaped three spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee and added an extra shot direct from the sugar dispenser. Staring into the depths of his mug he stirred slowly. The spoon clanked solemnly against the sides like a toneless death knell.
“Four sugars,” said Pete. “This must be serious.”
“Harry Bucks serious,” said Ed without looking up.
“What about him?”
`”He’s bought this place …,” said Mary Beth.
“ … and both places either side of it,” finished off Barry.
Harry Bucks had two interests in life. One: making money. Two: keeping his humongous hippopotamus hind-quarters resting on top of a great big fat pile of it. He was a business bulldozer who plowed his way through poor neighborhoods in the name of progress and profit. There was no place for a barely-break-even café in Harry Bucks’ burgeoning empire. Pan’s Palace, despite having the best coffee and the best muffins either side of the Mississippi, was doomed.
“Grief,” said Pete. He flashed straight through denial and anger, knew bargaining was useless and refused to countenance either depression or acceptance. He descended into deep thought.
“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” said Barry.
“How do you figure?” snapped Pete.
“You haven’t said anything for five minutes. This is the most peaceful morning coffee I’ve had in years.”
“Well I’m anything but peaceful. That son of a water rat’ll put up one of them new fangled mall things, tear the soul out of the neighborhood. Nothing but faceless chain stores funneling the life blood of this community into his bank account. Something’s got to be done.”
Pete racked his brains. He went to Mort’s and ransacked others. At Stu’s he cogitated, deliberated, speculated, contemplated, meditated, pondered and mused. He fussed and he fumed and he foamed. He blustered, raged and roared. He came away with a headache.
At midnight, without quite understanding why, Pete found himself at the back door of Pan’s Palace with a sore brain, a screwdriver in his hand and not the shred of a plan. The door was open. Pete crept in stopping and listening with each step like a leopard on a hunt.
“What the f—“
“Watch where you’re going you ox. You stepped on my foot.”
“Is that you Mort?”
“Shhh! You want the cops on your tail?”
A dozen flashes of light revealed the whole kit and conglomeration from the café, Mort’s and Stu’s had turned up. Even Mary Beth was on hand and they all had roughly the same idea. Hammers tapped, crowbars pried, screwdrivers turned, saws sighed. Everything was loaded into the back of a truck. Then they hung up a sign saying, ‘Thanks. Good luck!’
Much later that morning Pete called on Mary Beth. She was pulling some muffins out of the oven.
“Five minutes. Take a seat on the back porch.”
Pete found Barry, Ed and his personal stool waiting at an improvised counter. Mary Beth came out with a pot of coffee and a plate load of muffins. Pete picked one off the plate. As his teeth sank into its softness and the gentle fire of apple and cinnamon shot straight through to his follicles he thought:
Fortune? Who cares? Happiness depends,
on ensuring one has a good group of friends.