“Hey, big boy.” Black gave him a slap on the shoulder as he sat down. The physical contact was strangely helpful, energising. He kind of wanted to ask Black to do it again.
“Late night, Hershie?” Black leered at him.
Hershel almost claimed that he’d had a threesome, two women fighting each other for possession of his bod; but he felt too low for that kind of banter.
The People’s Republic, a socialist coffee shop, was Maurice’s unlikely favourite meeting spot. The music consisted of low, Tibetan-sounding horns and the service was not service. You might order a coffee on arrival, as an opening gambit, and the waitress might write it down – again, just a first move; and then there was nothing. Only when you’d complained once or twice, bringing some real anger to your tone – revolutionary fervour was valued – might your beverage arrive. The cappuccinos were surprisingly good, though (made, presumably, by a bourgeois machine hidden in the back), and anyway it was worth it for the waitresses. They were always seething, oppressed not only by living in a country that subscribed to neo-liberal capitalist policy but perhaps also by being obliged to labour in an anti-capitalist coffee shop that could not pay much, given that there were so few patrons. Hershel found their rage appealing. If he’d been a more energetic person, he would’ve liked to be as emotionally expressive as the servers.
This afternoon, the coffees came fairly quickly – some mistake, maybe; they might have been intended for patrons who’d already left. Hershel smiled at the waitress and was rewarded with her choicest scowl. She had curly black hair, putting him in mind of Camille and making him feel sad and horny. He looked at the foam pattern on the surface of his coffee. “Is this a heart? I think she likes me.”
Black checked out Hershel’s mug. “Maybe, man. But check,” – he gestured at his own blurred foam – “a vagina.”
Hershel laughed, despite the trepidation he felt whenever he had to spend time with Black. The guy was sometimes amusing, you had to hand him that. Also, his affection for The People’s Republic was in his favour. No one who enjoyed an angry socialist coffee shop with Tibetan horn music had completely bought into a corporate ethos. Maybe Black still regarded himself as a boy from the Cape Flats, an outsider, and this place was his way of showing that he wasn’t completely at ease with the lifestyle he’d carved for himself.
“Thanks for meeting me on a Sunday – appreciate it,” Black said. “We can get this out the way before the week starts.”
Out the way?
“Hersh, we’ve always levelled with each other,” said Black. “Let’s forget the bullshit for one second. What’s this market like? Terrible. What’s your performance been like?”
He paused, and Hershel, compelled by rhythm and truth, responded, “Terrible.”
“Is that your fault? Not entirely. In good times, we all pat ourselves on the back and say what geniuses we are, but a baboon could have rented commercial property ten years ago. In a downturn, we’re questioning our abilities, asking ourselves how to work on our flaws, feeling like losers.”
This was leading up to something not good. Black sipped his coffee and then sat fondling the mug.
“Hersh, these are harsh times. And at the moment, you’re weighing us down. We like you, but you’re ballast.”
Hershel had the confused, panicky feeling that if he just managed to lose some weight, he’d be okay.
Black gulped down the rest of his coffee. “Let’s give it a month. If you can’t increase your revenue stream to match Liam’s by then, we’ll need to put a retrenchment in motion.”
“Maurice, in this market, a month isn’t – I mean – it’s the end of the year . . .” He swallowed, trying to push away the nausea. This was Black’s cowardly way of firing his ass. Even if Hershel got Kaat’s business, he’d never reach Liam’s income level. He’d have to go stay with his mother. Sit at the dining room table on Friday nights, in a room still haunted by the absence of his unfaithful father, eating chicken and brisket brought over by Ruth and her husband.
The waitress, who’d been morosely staring out the door, wandered over. She was wearing a red Che Guevara T-shirt and black jeans, and she didn’t speak as she reached out her long, skinny arms to take the mugs.
“Can I have another cup, if you can make it quick?” Black asked.
She looked at him silently. Even for The People’s Republic, this was a new low in customer relations. “Tell you what,” she said finally, in a low voice. “If you don’t use our premises to fire people, I’ll bring you coffee. Otherwise, you can pour a jug of hot coffee straight up your arse.” She turned away.
“Jesus.” Black turned to Hershel. “Did you hear that?”
When Hershel, still floored by Black’s deadline, didn’t reply, Black took out his wallet, shaking his head, put some money on the table and got up to go. “My treat, Hersh. Keep fighting.” As he left, he touched Hershel’s shoulder.
“Don’t come back soon,” said the waitress. Without turning, Black gave her the finger.
“Thank you, I guess,” said Hershel when she came to give him the bill (Thanks – Chi was scrawled defiantly at the bottom) and take the money from the table.
“Yeah, fine. By the way, a guy phoned for you a few minutes ago.”
“Someone called Avram. He described you, asked if you were here. I said no.”
“You said no?”
“We don’t inform on customers. You want to tell him you’re here, do it yourself.”