It’s dawn on Sunday, and a prematurely grey-haired man in a fitted charcoal suit approaches a coffee stand across from an empty departure gate inside of New York’s LaGuardia airport. He orders a non-fat latte from a twenty-something whose black canvas apron is decorated with her frizzy blonde hair. A gold-plated nametag is pinned upside down to its bottom left pocket.
The man notices a kitschy commercial song coming from behind the counter while he waits for crooked Zoe to make his drink. His eyes settle on a small color television hung above the espresso machine—at which Zoe is cursing.
A diaper commercial fades into a news program. A picture of the latte man appears in a box to the right of the anchorwoman’s head. He’s standing next to an old man in front of a Christmas tree. The latte man in the picture looks as sad as the latte man looking at it.
“Jesus Christ,” he says, in a voice that’s soft and low like tires on gravel in the distance.
Zoe hears his voice and twists her neck back. Her eyes follow his up to the screen and she sees the Christmas picture. Her face stretches, stretches, stretches, at the corners, until her eyes and mouth are wide enough open to the let the burst of recognition out.
She pulls a fresh to-go cup off of the storage stack under the black granite counter, and she begins making a new, better, latte for London freaking Williams, whose famous blue eyes are still frozen on the screen, on a photograph taken the last time he stood in a room with his father. The anchorwoman tells London’s story like she knows it.
[…] This wedding marks the first time that America’s fallen prodigal son, LONDON WILLIAMS, will face his entire family since being released from prison after a four-year sentence. Former Master Publishing Co. CFO Williams rocked the nation when he admitted to embezzling 500,000 dollars from the media giant in 2008.
London’s head drops. The front pockets of his slacks take the shape of his knuckles as his hands roll into fists. Crooked Zoe’s cellphone burns in her nametag pocket like unspent birthday money. She knows that her friend Sophie (who Tivo-ed every trial hearing) will love to hate knowing that London’s blue eyes are so sunken that Zoe didn’t even recognize
She hears his gravel voice again but can’t make out the words.
“Close your eyes. Start counting slowly, and count up as high you need to until you to realize that your feelings are all temporary, and that the present moment is filled with peace.”
London closes his eyes and starts: “1, 2, 3…” like his therapist taught him to. Zoe’s shaky hands spill foam out of the frothier. The anchorwoman keeps telling the story like she knows it.
Master had been the publisher of William’s Travel, a lifestyle magazine founded by London’s father, Joseph, in 1961. When sales for the magazine reached an all-time low in early 2007, Joseph, in what he later called an unofficial “donation,” gave Master all of his personal savings, totaling $500,000, in an attempt to save his namesake magazine from going out print.
“18, 19, 20, 21,” London counts.
Shaky Zoe places a lid on London’s latte more carefully than she would on her own. She uses a fresh hand towel to wipe the drip marks from the edges of the cup. She smiles in vain as she slowly turns back toward her favorite felon.
His eyes are closed. Her big black pupils shift from left to right. She doesn’t know what to do.
She places the cup on the counter, quietly, before pulling an iPhone out of her nametag pocket.
London was unaware of the exchange until after his father received a grim diagnosis of stage four prostate cancer in early 2008.
“27, 28, 29,”
Zoe suffocates a giddy smile. She bends at the knee and tilts her phone until the angle is right.
London’s face, with its quiet desperation wholly translated, pixel by pixel, appears on the viewfinder.
When asked about his motivation during a candid, in-prison interview, now 35- year-old London, famous for clean-cut good looks and tendency to attend red carpet events with celebrities, couldn’t hold back tears. He claimed that when his father refused cancer treatment on the grounds of avoiding “pointless” medical bills, he became “blinded by grief,” and that he let “ethics take a backseat.”
Zoe’s camera flashes. Peace leaves London’s body in one sharp exhale, escaping through his clenched teeth, grinding off of his tongue, until it sounds like something.
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
He said, “I offered to give my dad money for treatment, but he refused. I just felt totally out of control and I panicked. And when he told me about the money he gave to Master, I was livid, and the only thing I cared about, the only thing, became getting my dad his own money back so that he would accept treatment.”
London’s pockets lose their shape. He grabs the latte off of the counter with such force that the thoughtfully placed lid bursts violently off of the second, better latte. It empties fully onto the linoleum floor between the gate and the stand. The dozen bodies in the area turn to witness.
London looks at Zoe with his heart in his eyes, and she knows he’s sad, not angry. They both look down at the spilled latte.
London was arrested only days after securing the last of the $500,000. Joseph never accepted treatment, and he lost his battle to cancer in 2009, a month into his son’s sentence.
“Christ.” His voice is soft and low, like a freight train that begs those in the distance to clear its path track.
Zoe, yet unmoved, watches him. She sees the grey hair where there used to be brown. She sees dull eyes where there used to be bright ones. She sees espresso down the front of his Oxford shirt, which she imagines him buttoning this morning—white, and crisp, and pressed with promise. Then she imagines him in an empty hotel room later tonight, tossing that shirt, ruined by a stain, into a corner where he can’t see it.
“I’m really sorry,” she squeaks out before the well in her throats cracks.
London looks up at Zoe and sees her hair-covered apron, and her swollen eyes, and her crooked nametag, and her finger reaching up to turn off the TV.
A few empty seconds pass before he says, “Don’t be sorry. Hand me that mop and I’ll clean this up.”
Zoe’s voice isn’t as shaky as she steps closer to the counter and tells London, “You don’t have to clean it up, the staff will do that.”
“They shouldn’t have to,” he says, “it wasn’t really an accident. I want to clean it up.”
“Are you sure?” Zoe doesn’t understand.
She goes into the storage cabinet and takes out a roll of paper towels after handing London the mop. “It’s my fault though. I just wanted to prove to my friends that I met you, because we all love you.”
London stretches his hands out in front of him, “Paper towels will work better. Toss me that roll.”
“You love me?” he asks with a smirk, as they both lower to their knees. “That’s…curious.”
“Why? You had the balls to tell Jay Leno that you’d never date Pepper Dalton since it’s clear she can’t keep a boyfriend, and that she’s the anti-feminist. Which she is.”
London smiles at the floor. “Well, I’m glad you appreciated that Pepper comment, because I got in big trouble with Master for that one. Apparently we had signed a deal to publish her coffee table book.”
Zoe lifts her head and laughs, “You’re kidding!”
“I wish. In my defense, I was so nervous to be on Jay Leno that I took four shots of whiskey in the green room before going on.”
Zoe laughs harder, “I respect that.” They both stand up to dump the dirty paper-towels in a trashcan.
“But, really, listen. I’m not someone you should be making an example of,” London starts, as he looks away from Zoe and reaches over the counter for a dishtowel to wipe his hands. Zoe waits for him to look back at her before she answers.
“But…all the stuff you did, it was just for your dad…”
London clears his throat, looks back to where the spill once was, and Zoe makes out a faint “yeah…” under his breath.
“I think we got it all,” he says as he turns back around.
“I think we did. So, uh, do you think I can get that picture now?”
London grabs the handle of his suitcase before he turns and walks away. He lifts his eyes to the ceiling and clenches his teeth so that no one hears him say, “Christ. All I wanted was a latte.”
He gets a cup of drip coffee from a serve-yourself stand, and Zoe gets to tell her friend Sophie that, yes—prison had turned the lovely London Williams into a very angry man.