For the month of September we’ll be following one of the characters I play in a Dresden Files tabletop RPG in little vignettes. The Dresden Files setting is basically modern fantasy, in a world much like ours but where vampires, werewolves, faeries, ghosts and other supernatural creatures hide in the shadows. Veniamin Kovalenko is just entering the wider world, trying to make his way as a fixer and private detective. Here, we see him just a few days into moving to San Francisco from the middle-of-nowhere California. He is about to have his first cup of coffee from an honest-to-God snooty coffee shop.
Veniamin was acutely aware of how out of place he looked. He was tall and lanky — 6’6″, but just over 200 pounds — with a mop of reddish-brown hair and a beard that looked like it belonged to a lumberjack or hermit. There was no way for him to tame that much pelt so he just didn’t bother. It covered his eyes and obscured his mouth so that any expression he made was hidden and his voice sounded muffled, flat and distant.
He thought a suit would make him look more civilized, so he bought one off the rack with half of the money he came to San Francisco with. While it covered his gangly limbs, the sleeves and legs were far too thick and his discomfort with the clothing showed. Even though he was wearing it for the first time it already looked rumpled, as if he had slept in it, as if he had worn it and nothing else all week.
“Welcome to Philz, what can I get you?” The chipper barista didn’t seem phased at all by the human match-stick that loomed over her across the counter. She beamed at him the same way she beamed at every other customer.
Veniamin blinked at her as if he was surprised she was there. He stared at her, then up at the chalkboard menu above her. Maybe it was the font, or maybe it was the way every square inch of the board was filled with something, but it was hard to make out anything intelligible. The confusing gaggle of words and numbers simply washed over him, threatening to drown him in much the same way his suit wanted to. He didn’t know why he thought this would be a good idea. He felt like he was in shock. He wanted nothing more than to run to the redwoods and climb one of them.
“Uhm,” is what he managed to say.
“It’s your first time here, huh?” She gave him a sympathetic look, then glanced back to the chalkboard. “You kind of have that deer in the headlights look.”
Veniamin felt the blush rising in his cheeks. He sniffed once. Behind the overwhelming scent of roasted coffee beans, he caught her lip gloss — cinnamon, tinged with the smell of powder and the synthetic berry of her shampoo. His shoulders slumped a little, and he felt his heart slow down. He liked berries, synthetic or otherwise. “Yeah. Sorry. I have no idea what to get.”
The barista smiled at him. “No problem! I would recommend the Tesora roast; it’s kind of our gold standard. Full-bodied, low acidity, kind of a rich and nutty flavor with a smooth, clean finish. It’s nice and middle-of-the-road, so you can taste it and decide where you’d like to go for your next cup. Okay?”
Veniamin blinked. He had no idea what those words were supposed to mean when put next to each other. But she seemed to know what she was talking about, and was the first person to speak to him this long and still be friendly. “Yeah, OK.”
“Great. How do you take your coffee?” She looked at him while her arms seemed to move of her own accord, grabbing a filter and stuffing it into the top of a coffee machine.
“Hot?” Veniamin hadn’t expected the question. There were ways to take coffee?
The barista laughed and nodded. “Right, right. Medium cream, medium sugar?”
“All right, I’ll get that right out to you!” Finally, the barista looked away. She turned, grabbed a scoop of almost-black beans and ground them. When she returned to the coffee machine, he was still there. “Oh! You can pay at the cashier right there, and I’ll call you when your cup is ready. What’s your name?”
“Veniamin.” He drew himself up straighter, eyes glittering behind his hair. He said his name like it was a challenge, as he had been taught.
The barista simply nodded. “All right, Benjamin, I’ve got you.”
“Thank you.” Veniamin hesitated. He felt like there should be something else to say, but nothing came. He had the distinct impression that he was coming across as a weirdo. He turned and lumbered to the cash register.
Most of the pastries next to the cashier smelled stale, but there was a fruit danish that at least smelled sweet enough for it not to matter and some small rectangular bar that reeked of nuts, cardamom and honey. He bought both along with his coffee, found a corner to squeeze into, and inhaled the pastries before his name was called. The small bar was practically inhaled; the fruit danish gone in two bites.
As he chewed, appreciating the way the spices and honey lingered on his tongue, he watched the people who filled the coffee shop. Most of them were staring down at their phones, but some were reading papers or having quiet conversations. He couldn’t hear what they were saying from here. At least, not as he was…
He loosened his tie with a small grunt. He was wearing a suit. He was in a coffee shop. He was in the middle of downtown San Francisco. He was supposed to blend in.
“Benjamin!” The barista called out, looking around briefly before spotting him.
He rose, strode over to the barista, and took the cup.
“Why don’t you take a sip to let me know how it tastes?” She looked excited for some reason.
Veniamin sniffed. The coffee scent was buried under cream and sugar, but blended they all worked together to create something more. He closed his eyes, let the smell bounce up to his brain and light it up. Then he took a sip.
The heat didn’t bother him. The cream smoothed out the bitterness of the coffee, while the sugar lifted the lighter aspects of the taste on his tongue. The coffee reasserted itself along the back of his tongue, a lingering bitterness that was managed by the thickness of the cream. Veniamin found himself smiling as the warmth traveled down his throat and spread through his chest.
“Good?” The barista looked pleased, and that pleased him.
“Great.” Veniamin took another, longer sip. He felt more like himself, like he was in a forest, or fishing out in a river. “Thanks.”
“No problem, Benjamin. Have a good day!”
“It’s Veniamin. What’s your name?”
“I’m sorry. My name? It’s Marian.”
Veniamin stuck out a broad hand. “Marian. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for the coffee.”
She beamed, but there was something different in her expression this time. “My pleasure, Veniamin. Take care.”
Veniamin smiled, hoping it would show through his beer. He floated through the crowd at Philz and out of the door, feeling for the first time the magic of San Francisco.