The Only Shop in Town


On the last day of November, a Thursday, I awoke as usual before dawn. That’s the way I like it: up and at ’em before anyone else. Downstairs in the kitchen I filled the four bowls for the cats, also up and at ’em and mewing for breakfast as soon as they hear me. Cats placated, I opened the fridge for the milk to heat for my café con leche, strong coffee with milk. Two big cups of it is how I get from up to at ’em.

At this moment I am awake and functioning but not fully engaged with the day. The whole 10-minute routine that begins with putting my feet on the floorboards and takes me to pulling open the refrigerator door is preliminary to the real start of my day, much as putting on running shoes and stretching is preliminary to a footrace. At a race, an announcer alerts runners to gather, and so you push and mingle, positioning at the starting line. In my kitchen, the milk carton in one hand, the whisk for frothing in the other, the pan on the stove, the cup on the counter, the coffeemaker at the ready—this is tantamount to standing on the starting line, antsy, checking laces and stopwatch. It is the best part and the worst, all anticipation, a minute or perhaps two from the start. Soon you will feel the jolt of release from the signal, and you will be off. You no longer think about the race—you do it. You no longer think about the coffee, you do it. Glug-glug of milk into pan, finger pressing the on switch to start the coffee brewing, whisk poised. The process is begun. The outcome is ordained. I will have my coffee as surely as I will cross the finish line.

Sometimes I think the only point in running races is to stop at the end. The finish line around a bend, not yet in sight, the climb to the top of the hill, the effort to keep going greater all the time, the desire to slow down tempered only by the desire to overtake the runner right in front of you, the reward drawing closer to counteract the wish to stop, stop now, wherever you are. Instead, you push on to the arch and the gathered spectators, cheering but looking beyond you to the runners coming after. You cross. There! Finished!

Crossing the finish line is not really finishing anything; it is finishing the preparations. Now you can recover your breath and go on with the day. Your first sip of coffee, your first breath after the race, both so small compared to the effort to get there, but so crucial to continuing. The day settles around you, things assume again their proper proportions, and normal life takes up. All this release from 15 kilometers or just five. Or from a cup of morning coffee, set in motion when you reached for the milk carton.

That morning, however, there was no milk carton in the fridge. To the cupboard I went. No carton there either.

This is where I should panic. Morning without coffee? How can that be? A morning without coffee can’t even be contemplated—there’s no working brain with which to contemplate. Philip Larkin drank coffee. So did Winston Churchill, Bach, Beethoven, and Baudelaire. And everyone else you can think of. If they didn’t smoke opium, they drank coffee. Larkin, writing about dying, evoked the horror of death—nothing left to feel with—and that’s what my morning was. No brain, no energy, no hope or desire. And no plan to change the situation. How could there be? David Sedaris wrote of a morning in his French village when the water was cut off, leaving him unable to brew his coffee. He discovered that he could devise no alternative plan for getting coffee because he needed the coffee to think of a plan to obtain it. A morning without coffee and everything comes to a halt. It is a breath without air.

No energy, however, so no frenzy or fear. Instead, just dull incomprehension. In that state I made a cup of ginger tea. This was no solution, but it bought me time. What did I do with it? Sat lethargically. Asked myself when I could reasonably venture out for milk. Asked myself again. Sat some more.

Stores in Spain do not open early because people do not get up early. Exceptions exist, but looking at all-but-empty streets on a Saturday morning, nine o’clock, I conclude that no one with the option to stay in bed chooses to rise, as do so many people I know in the States: four a.m. for a forest service worker in Missoula, Montana; five a.m. for a Virginia couple; five also for my stepmother in Durango, Colorado; six for my girlhood friend also in Colorado. Take a predawn walk in my hometown, and you encounter others doing the same. Choose six a.m. for shopping, and the grocery store is already lit up. But in Spain, what were my chances of finding a store opening early, and how early is early?

Had I been in any American town of comparable size to La Pola, with its 12,000 inhabitants, I’d have had my milk in no time and my coffee shortly after. But I wouldn’t have seen what I did that morning in the predawn dark, when I balanced my needs against my chances and stepped out into the morning’s dark drizzle. Not a shop open but many cheerily lit bars and cafés, tables out front on the sidewalk under awnings for customers who are smokers. Anything else open? The four bakeries I passed. Coffee and bread, the staples. But no market of any size or shape. I traversed the town, hit the main streets, and since I knew the larger grocery stores wouldn’t open until 9:15, swung past all the small corner shops. Around a bend I went, about to give up. Would I have to settle for the public ritual of coffee in a bar when I wanted my private one? Then, down that still-dark street, a patch of light from a ground-floor window. When I reached it, I found a hole-in-the-wall shop and the owner arranging boxes of fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk in front. “Good morning,” I said, and informed him his was the only open shop in La Pola. “I know because I’ve just crisscrossed the entire town.”

“I get up earlier than anyone,” he replied, a statement made without pride or complaint.

He did not tell me I was the only active shopper in the town, but he might have. I looked around inside. Cheese and meat under the glass counter at the back, canned goods, condiments, and flour on one side, household cleaning supplies on the other side. And there near the floor were the cartons of milk, within reach. I sighed. Mountain races, street races, dashes and marathons, trail races, crosses, benefit races. This year’s Christmas races coming up, the New Year’s races too. And what do you know—a milk race. And it was over. Life was about to begin.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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