NaNoWriMo Word Count: 1,845
“I never think to come into this place,” said Ax, sitting back in his chair at French Meadow Bakery. “I suppose I stick to the mid-town area, where I can walk or bike. But the bus was easy to get here. Have you been to the Global Market, Miriam?”
Miriam kept her hands folded around the outside of her mug. Even with her fingerless mittens of purple and red that one of her roommates had knit for her, and the warmth of the hot African Skies herbal tea, Miriam’s hands were cold to the bone, sucking up all warmth. “No, I haven’t,” she said, “But where I work, they get in hand-rolled tamales from one of the shops.”
“I know which ones you’re talking about. Often have three or four for lunch,” said Ax.
Miriam considered what it would take to polish off two tamales let alone double. But then again, the man hulking in the seat before her looked like Paul Bunyan come to life in his senior years wearing, a thick buffalo plaid flannel that looked like a great blue and black swath of checkerboard material. “One’s about my limit. I like the ‘green firecracker chicken.’”
“Spicy, that one,” said Ax. “This cup of meil is great. Don’t find meil too often.”
“What is meil exactly? I don’t drink coffee, so it’s not familiar to me,” said Miriam.
He looked at her with both bushy white eyebrows raised over thick black-rimmed glasses that looked retro, although Miriam suspected they had been his same frames since the style was first introduced. “No coffee? Where did you grow up?”
“Uh, Minneapolis,” she said.
“In a basement? Did your parents not let you out? How do you grow up in Minneapolis and not drink coffee?”
Miriam smiled at the thought of describing her mother, a self-proclaimed earthbound soul making the city green. Of course, back in the 1980s that meant Florence, Miriam’s mother, was into the co-op movement and keeping the old victory garden in south Minneapolis thriving. So she shrugged and said, “I grew up on tea and in co-op aisles and city gardens.”
“Did your parents get involved in the co-op wars?” The way Ax asked about the labor tensions of the earlier co-ops made Miriam momentarily imagine her mother mixing peanut butter with a rifle slung across her back.
“Flo was involved and her partner Gabe,” said Miriam. “But I wasn’t born until after all that and really I just remember endless buckets of peanut butter and Gabe always cutting and wrapping cheese from the small factories in Wisconsin. I still love co-op cheese. I guess it’s really Wisconsin cheese. But no cheddar is alike from the different makers. I think people don’t realize that.”
“Is Gabe your father,” asked Ax.
“My other mother,” answered Miriam. This was the point in every conversation where she gauged whether or not to say more. She was good at reading body language, seeing the discomfort people tried to hide at learning that she was raised by two women who loved each other. To her surprise, Ax didn’t flinch, or even readjust his seat. “My father was a University student, helped out two women who wanted a child, and went on to become a lawyer in Seattle. I’ve seen him a few times.”
“Are they still living, your mothers who don’t drink coffee? Didn’t they support the fair trade movement,” he asked.
Miriam laughed and said, “Yes, they did, but if they drank anything dark, it would have been some aged Chinese tea. And yes, they just celebrated 30 years as a couple. They hope one day they can marry.”
“Might be with some of the legislation pending. Minnesota is progressive that way. I’m hoping for some meaningful climate change laws, ones that would also create clean energy jobs for people in our state,” said Ax. He paused, then added, “Still can’t believe your mothers would raise you without coffee in the home. Seems un-Minnesotan.”
“Dagen certainly likes his coffee,” said Miriam, wishing she could think of anything else but the man who kept filling up her mind. His soft green eyes, slanted smile, long slender fingers.
“Ah, that boy does like his coffee,” said Ax. “I’d take credit that I introduced him to the brew, but growing up on one of the last Finnish homesteads in Brimson, I think he was nursed on the stuff.”
“Boy? How old is he,” she asked.
Ax blew out a sigh, looked into his empty mug, then said, “Twenty, but I know that’s wrong. Just can’t believe he’s 35-years-old. We’re going to be the same age soon.” Ax rose and said, “I need another cup of this fine meil. You want some more hot water for your wimpy leaves?”
“Sure,” she said, handing him her cup, then tucking her hands into her armpits. It was so cold today. High below zero. It didn’t matter how far below, one or 20 degrees. The snow still squeaked the same and the air made your nostrils stick each time you drew a breath.
“Oh,” said Ax, pausing as he started toward the counter, “Meil is coffee, milk, honey and nutmeg.”
Miriam nodded. Actually that sounded like a drink Flo would concoct only it was with the almond milk she’d make each morning. At night, she’d heat up what was left of the milk, sweeten it with raw honey and strike a nutmeg against a metal file for those aromatic flakes that became the smell of bedtime to Miriam.
When Ax walked back with two full, steaming mugs Miriam was staring at the ice-glazed windows. “Brisk day, isn’t it,” said Ax.
“Seriously? No I call this down-right cold. I question my sanity sometimes, staying in this city. I dream of warm places,” said Miriam.
“Then go,” said Ax.
Miriam clung to the cup like it was a living coal and she a block of ice. “I did. Went to Austin, Texas and worked with an agency there,” she said. Slowly she smiled, looked at Ax who pulled his mug away to reveal a meil mustache and said, “It was too hot.”
Ax laughed. “Something we learn as we go through life. No place is perfect.”
Miriam nodded. “So, I take it you’ve known Dagen since he was a kid?”
“Since he was born. His mother had him at home. His sisters, too. I tell you. Miriam, he comes from sisu,” said Ax.
“Sisu, isn’t that a finish word? I think there’s a sisu marathon up north. It means tough or courageous,” said Miriam.
“Something like that,” said Ax. “Some say it means ‘guts’ but really it’s about finishing what you started no matter what. He was born into sisu, but sisu is what tears him up.”
“I don’t understand,” said Miriam.
“You know, if we are going to have this talk, about Dagen, and then talk about what I really took a bus over here to discuss, we need to order food,” said Ax.
“I really don’t need to pry about Dagen. I was just curious and now that I’ve met him and he’s literally a world away, I was looking to stay connected,” said Miriam.
“How do I say this without sounding like an interfering old man,” said Ax. “Dagen’s like a son to me. He’s had heartache and hardship but pushed through. True sisu. But that boy can attract the worst women.”
Miriam didn’t say anything, but Ax shook his head at her anyhow, indicating that he didn’t mean her.
He continued, “Really not-nice women. Maybe it’s his looks or that he’s laid-back or that he’s a lonely man, or all of the above. But women want to control him, and he really is free spirited like those of his heritage. Instead of meeting better people, he stays above the arctic line as if the ice shelters him. Really, I think he’s running from the guilt that he sold his mother’s homestead. It was that or drop out of college. He stayed in school, but lost his anchor to home. That place was his parents’ sisu and I think it shames him that he let it go.”
“This is really personal,” Miriam said, “I think I’d kick either mother in the shins if they talked so openly about my pains in life to Dagen.”
Ax sighed. He said, “That’s what I meant about not sounding like an interfering old man.”
“Let’s order lunch and discuss the other topic. Dagen said you might have a job proposition for me,” said Miriam.
Ax nodded. “You order lunch and I’ll order breakfast. Then we’ll talk shop,” he said.
Both walked up to the front counter. It wasn’t so busy because the lunch crowd wasn’t yet descending not to mention that many people were not wanting to go out into the cold. Miriam ordered a Wild Acres turkey burger with a side of avocado. That was one thing she loved about Texas, avocados. She now liked them with eggs, sandwiches and even breaded and fried.
Ax ordered not one but two breakfasts. He ordered the blueberry corn pancake and the Cajun hash-browns. Then he added a third meil and excused himself to go use the “boy’s room” as he called it. Miriam shook her head at the counter attendant who commented that Ax could pack away the food. They both surmised that being an arctic explorer must have altered his metabolism. Miriam thought if certain co-op customers realized that going to the arctic could super-size your fat-burning capacity, they’d be looking to go on the “arctic diet.”
Ax walked back over to their table that now had a laminated placard of Marilyn Monroe to alert their server when their food came up. Miriam had grabbed silverware, napkins and a large bottle of Tabasco sauce. Ax eyed the Tabasco and asked, “Pick that habit up in Texas?”
“Yes,” she said, “That and avocados.”
“I once visited a friend there and we had grapefruit every day. Giant ruby reds. So good, but nothing I get here in Minnesota, even at the co-ops, comes close.”
“I understand,” said Miriam, “I’m still waiting for someone to create the ‘avocado of the month club’ so I can relive the ones that I ate in Austin.”
When their plates arrived, Miriam almost suggested that they move to a bigger table to accommodate all of the food Ax had ordered. He handed over Marilyn Monroe to the server, arranged a few things and announced that it would all fit. Miriam was doubtful until Ax dumped his Cajun hash browns on top of his blueberry corn pancake and handed the plate to the server who looked startled.
“I’m not sure those flavors will blend well,” said Miriam.
Ax just smiled, poured the entire single-serve pitcher of pure maple syrup over it all and handed that to the server, too. Just as Miriam took a big bite of avocado, Ax said, “Dagen’s in trouble, Miriam and he needs a friend.”