This is a story of two coffee shops that face each other on opposite sides of the street. One is General Arthur’s, named after a World War II veteran who had taken up donut-making until his death from a heart attack. Now it’s Jeff Dong who oversees the General’s ten varieties of donut, including the “world famous” bacon-chile surprise. The other shop is Bradley’s, whose original owner had long ago retired to the golf course. But the name of the place stuck.
Bradley’s looks like a Hollywood set decorated for Leave it to Beaver complete with a windowsill filled with fabric mini sunflowers. General Arthur’s offers oak chairs with a lottery machine positioned inside the doorway. Both shops have glass counters where customers can admire donuts and other breakfast offerings. Each morning they stop at either General Arthur’s or Bradley’s before going to work.
The two shops share enough business for both to be successful. But there is a difference.
“Did Zach come in already this morning?” inquires one guy of Bradley.
Everyone assumes that the proprietor standing behind the glass counter wearing his horned rim glasses and white apron must be Mr. Bradley. But his name actually is Forest. Forest Palmbo. “Yes,” the imposter Bradley says. “Already got his Diet Snapple.” They laugh. Both men know that Zach never deviates from his morning diet, and they take comfort from that fact.
“Can you come tonight?” the man now whispers, taking his coffee and oat bran muffin as he hands over several dollar bills and waits for his change. “I’ve already checked with Autry. He can make it.”
“What time?” asks Bradley, smiling at the next customer who is checking out a display of cigarettes.
“7:30.” Before heading out the door the man who works at the Private Training Council, which is a few blocks up the street turns and says, “At the usual.” Bradley watches him leave and turns back to the next customer. Sometimes he wishes this never had started.
Around 4 p.m., Bradley unties his white apron and throws it into a plastic bin along with the others. This is Friday and Bradley packs leftover pastries into several pink cardboard boxes, separating donuts from muffins from scones. His knuckles protrude like hills from white plastic gloves. He tapes each cardboard box shut and wraps them together with twine. Then he peels off his white gloves and loads the package into the trunk of his car. It will take another hour for him to wipe glass counters clean, remove crumbs from two toaster ovens, and prepare coffee machines with freshly ground beans for the morning’s brew. Bradley takes one last look at the clean counters, shakes his head, locks the front door and plops into his Chevy. First he’s driving home to shower.
He shows up at another restaurant at 7 p.m. This one is distinguished by plastic ivy vines that wrap around four oak beams in the central dining area and to the cash register.
Next appears Autry, a man who buys his shirts in extra large stores. He prefers to keep a safe distance from the action. Bradley opens the pink boxes and carefully lays pastries on silver trays. The trays are on tables near the front of the room. They are covered in white tablecloths. People begin to enter. The restaurant is only open for this special evening’s event. Bradley removes a small brown bottle of something and pours a few drops over the pastries. He calls it his “day-old freshener.” He later passes the same bottle to Autry who gives his own food items a dunking.
John Greuner, the man who spoke to Bradley in the restaurant, now moves toward the front of the room. He straightens his tie and brushes a few pieces of lint from his shirt, smiles at several people who sit down at a table nearby. He stops to chit-chat. Autry stands in the back. Later, he will be the one to clean up.
Bradley tells Greuner everything is ready.
“Okay,” he says and straightens his tie like a man testing a noose. “Everyone sit down, please. We’re ready to begin.” A group of about 40 men and women find seats in front of a large white screen. They are dressed in suits, mostly black, wearing name tags printed on large sticky labels.
“I bet you’re all wondering why you’re here.” People are streaming toward the seats now, holding coffee cups and munching on Bradley’s muffins. Autry has provided catered aluminum trays of steaming pork buns and vegetables, already emptied by the early arrivers, unemployed workers who are excited by the prospect of a free meal. “The Private Training Council, as you know, has been tasked by the City to develop jobs. You’ve been invited here today as prime candidates for the job development program.” Greuner stops for a moment and radiates goodwill and competence. Someone raises a hand but Greuner ignores it and continues. “The training program is fully funded by federal stimulus monies and lasts for six months. At the end of six, assuming that you successfully complete the program,” and Greuner licks his lips, “you will be fully guaranteed a job in your desired field.”
The man in the audience in the second row waves his hand again. Without waiting this time to be called upon he asks, “Are the jobs local?” He’s been out of work for the last seven months and hopes he doesn’t have to relocate to find work, which would mean moving his family. His kids are teenagers. Still, he can’t believe his luck. In fact, most of the people sitting in metal chairs look like they’ve just won the lottery, wanting to toast each other with their coffee cups.
“Certainly. Most of them are,” Greuner quickly corrects himself and glances at his watch. But then something strange happens. The people in the audience begin to shrink; shrivel is the more appropriate word. It’s as if all the water in their bodies begins to evaporate and what’s left is an outer layer that folds from their bodies into brittle strips, plastering the floor in confetti of all different colors. It looks like a celebration, maybe a graduation party. From the back of the room Bradley begins to pack his pink cardboard boxes and Autry goes to the parking lot to get the vacuum cleaner stored in his trunk.
“Decreasing the unemployment figures meeting by meeting,” Greuner circles around to the back of the room. “That’s the way,” he says to himself, but loud enough for Bradley to hear. “Bit by bit.”
In a few years, Greuner heads up an agency with a multi-million dollar budget. Bradley decides to retire and hit the golf course and insists that people call him by his actual name, “Forest.”
Jeff Dong, the owner of General Arthur’s, can’t understand where his business went and is considering filing for bankruptcy. A number of his friends warn against it.