Our sitting tipped the tiny cafe's count to "half full," joining a man with the newspaper, a pair of women studying and a shop regular who tittered with the barista while buying her bulk beans. My coffee mate and I were laughing and catching up, taking advantage of the holiday time warp. Not long into our conversation, a young guy walked through space and asked if we knew Mr. Wilson. We didn't. The young man moved on, melting into ambient cafe shapes and noises behind our conversation.
Standing on the opposite side of the high table next to ours, the young man blurts out "HOW MUCH?" but to no on in particular. He walked out. We raised our eyebrows and kept talking.
"Are y'all seeing this?"
The woman directly behind me asked as she was pushing away from her table. The young man was back and had taken the open seat at the woman's table. He sat in her colleague's chair, staring at the open laptop, unresponsive to the woman's queries and requests for him to move. Her friend returned from the ladies' room, the manager approached at the same time and all of our antennae were attuned. I nod to affirm that, yes, we were all seeing that this young man was not mentally among us in that moment.
The woman sprang from her chair, wringing her hands and mumbling, “...something’s wrong with him...” Her fear was palpable. . The sympathizer in me felt a mild pinch at her reflex. I cataloged the footage as a worse case reaction to someone with mental illness. I didn't want her to be afraid of him by default. Then he screamed again.
This time, the sound escaped his depths like a colony of bats. He used all of his musculature to expel the noise from his gut. The woman stumbled backwards into the high table. The manager positioned himself between her and the boy. The study partner swiftly reached in to collect their things. The young man sat quietly again, his eyes unfixed but facing forward.
A young woman enters the shop, cell phone pressed to her face. She'd been outside for some time. Through the cafe window we'd seen her scowling at an open car hood and its steady column of smoke. The first responders from the fire department had arrived to help her gawk at the disabled car.
The Cell Phone Woman huffed with irritation at the sight of us all suspended on a shared held breath, eyes pinned to her friend. She went back outside to flag the first responders. The team of five entered the cafe and stalled into a semi circle around the boy. They tried to engage him verbally but some awkward inertia held them at a curved distance. My coffee mate and I repositioned ourselves to armchairs at the back corner of the shop; our wide vantage included everyone.
One by one, the small cafe community aroused. Man Reading the Paper in the back of the shop kept saying We need to call somebody. The Store Manager assured us that an ambulance had been called. The Woman Buying a Bag of Whole Beans kept calling on the Lord. The fire fighters explained that they couldn't just examine him or remove him from the building if the boy didn't want them to. The Frightened Woman starts a slow-simmering rant about how the firefighters, four white and one black, didn't care about him or about any of "us." The Study Partner offered that rationalizing with someone in an irrational state was pointless but antagonizing the rescue team wasn't helpful either. The atmospheric pressure in the room was tinderbox weighty.
"HOW MUUUUUCH?!" the boy bellowed again. Doubled over in his seat, the knots in his expression relaxed once the scream had been freed.
The responders had the prompt they apparently needed to begin poking and prodding at the boy. The Frightened Woman continued to grumble about the boy, commenting on the last time somebody snapped out in her presence.
"He lost it and almost killed me," she said. For the first time, I spied the scar, a long cord of shining flesh that stretched down the side of her neck, across her throat and down into her shirt. Of course her fear of the mentally ill would be a default...
Around the room, everyone had emit their own scents of fear and foreboding. The Study Partner and the Newspaper Man discussed whether to record the responders on their cell phones. The Manager amplified his customer service smile, watching the windows for an ambulance. When a police officer entered instead, my coffee mate wiped at an early tear. Could this be the spark to a combustible room?
The boy is screaming again. Cell Phone Woman complained that this is the third day in a row she had to deal with this. Someone had given him a pill to try a few days ago, she said, and he'd been tripping ever since. The responders stay on the job even when a second team arrives. The officer was another cafe regular, in and out. My colleague and I finished our brainstorming session.
Entering the coffee shop, I was adding my fresh cup and conversation to its anonymous hum. Leaving, each voice, face and fear was distinct and beckoning.