By Anthony Long
Toby Jenks looks up from his newspaper and freezes.
Striding down the hill toward the café, laptop tucked under one arm and a sour look plastered across his thick, wheyfaced mug, comes Joel Kaplan, a thoroughly objectionable human being known around the place as the Human Air Vent. (“But does he suck or does he blow?” it was fairly asked.)
At the next table, a vagabonding young German couple have finished their coffee and are slipping the guidebooks into their haversacks and making ready to leave. She’s a pretty, dark-haired girl with a soft voice. Toby thinks she looks merciful.
“Please,” Toby says. “Please stay. Don’t go.” She looks at him quizzically. In desperation Toby summons his dwindling reserve of high school German. “Bitte … bleiben Sie hier. Umm, uh, both of you. Nicht gehen, bitte. Nicht jetzt.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl says, switching easily to nicely clipped British-accented English. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, yes,” Toby says, looking out the window. “In about ten seconds the worst person on earth is going to come walking in here and if you guys leave right now, he’ll sit down at that very table and my day will be completely ruined. Maybe my life. Please.” Toby gives her a beseeching look and another involuntary “bitte” leaves his lips. The Germans crane their necks to inspect Kaplan, and the young woman turns back to Toby with a distressed look of her own. Kaplan has that effect on people, even total strangers.
“I’ll buy you guys another coffee,” Toby says.
Now she smiles, and lays a comforting hand on Toby’s arm. “You don’t have to,” she says. “We are in no particular hurry.” Toby looks at her companion, who grins and nods under an unruly mop of strawberry colored hair.
“Ausgezeichnet. Danke schoen.” Toby says, visibly relaxing. “I’m Toby.”
“Bitte schoen. My name is Renate. This is Dirk.”
Dirk’s grin widens.
Kaplan enters the café and immediately scans the tables, like a hawk hunting for field mice. Because Renate and Dirk are all packed up and look ready to leave, Kaplan, grunting and nodding only to himself, starts to beeline it for their table.
Toby waits until he’s about to set the computer down before saying, “What are you doing, Joel? These nice people just got here.”
Kaplan spies the empty coffee cups and stares down at the Germans. Renate meets his red-rimmed, piggish eyes evenly. “Sorry,” she says with a shrug and a smile. Dirk’s grin has vanished. He’s pulled out one of the guides and is pretending to study it. Never mind that it’s a guide for Los Angeles.
“Just got here,” Kaplan says, repeating Toby in a raspy bark, the sound of something gone wrong in a sawmill. “That’s just great.” He straightens up and looks toward the back, but the café is packed on this summer Sunday. He wavers, looking right, then left. Then, to everyone’s horror, he sets his computer down at the only empty seat to be had – the one directly across from Toby. Before Toby can protest, Kaplan swings his sloping shoulders and ample belly toward the coffee line.
“I can’t believe this,” a stricken Toby says to his new friends. “He knows I’m physically repulsed by him.”
“Just tell him to go away,” Dirk says.
“I can’t. Café etiquette. You have to share table space when it’s crowded like this,” Toby says, glaring at Kaplan. “Of course, that prick never does. But nobody in his right mind would want to sit with him anyway.”
“What makes him so unpleasant?” Renate asks, although it’s fairly evident from her wrinkled nose that she’s already got an idea.
“Nothing at all,” Toby says, “if you find total negativity appealing, and you don’t mind a little misogyny with your table talk.”
Dirk looks puzzled, like he’s a couple of years behind Renate at Berlitz, but she is following Toby just fine.
“He hates women?”
“Women? Yes. He hates women. But to be fair, Kaplan hates everything. He hates that sugar dispenser on your table. He hates life.”
“Life?” Dirk says.
“He’s a miserable human being. And he does everything he can to make sure everyone around him feels the misery.”
“Perhaps we should leave,” Renate says, glancing warily in Kaplan’s direction. He catches her looking and gives her the bug eyes before turning his attention to the pastry shelf.
“Please don’t go,” Toby says. “At least I can talk to you for a while.”
“I meant all of us. All three of us.”
“No,” Toby says firmly. “That’s exactly what he wants us to do. He’d love having this table all to himself. I won’t give him the satisfaction.” Seeing their bemused expressions, Toby amplifies. “I know it seems petty and stupid, but you don’t know this guy. It’s … it’s a matter of honor.”
“Honor,” Dirk says.
Kaplan returns with his coffee and a croissant, sits down, and immediately pops open the laptop. He shoves it well into the middle of the small round table, crowding Toby out, and begins gnawing on the pastry as he powers up. They ignore Kaplan the best they can, talking inconsequentially for a while. Renate and Dirk are working their way up the coast, from San Diego to Vancouver. The Germans really know how to travel. This is their third day in San Francisco. While they talk, Kaplan burrows into his screen, muttering to himself.
“Can you tell us a good Italian restaurant in North Beach?” Dirk says, still flipping vacantly through the L.A. guidebook.
“Well….” Toby says, but that’s as far as he gets before Kaplan cuts in savagely, spraying croissant crumbs: “Good restaurant? Ha. There aren’t any good Italian restaurants in North Beach. They’re all bullshit.” Renate notices that Kaplan doesn’t make eye contact while he’s talking, in fact doesn’t even look up from his computer until the word “bullshit” and the last bits of croissant have died on his lips. When he does look up, he gazes past her to some vague spot outside in the street.
“Joel is from New York,” Toby says hopelessly. “He thinks everything in this town sucks.”
“Well?” Kaplan demands, looking up at the ceiling.
“There are some very good Italian restaurants in North Beach,” Toby says, ignoring him. “Try Sodini’s. It’s just a block over that way, on Green Street.”
“Sodini’s is bullshit,” Kaplan rasps, one eye more or less on Toby while the other rolls around uselessly in its socket.
“He’s just trying to provoke me,” Toby says to Renate and Dirk. “This is Joel’s idea of a good time.” He glares at Kaplan, drumming his fingers on the table.
“Perhaps you would like to join us for dinner at this Sodini’s,” Renate says, patting Toby’s hand until the fingers lie still. “We could take a little walk first. You can show us around.”
There goes that big evening of takeout chicken and the Giants-Mets on TV. Toby smiles. “Sure, I’d love to.” Renate really is quite pretty.
Kaplan, staring at his computer screen, snorts. A bubble of snot pops out of his right nostril. He inhales it.
“Want some Kleenex, Joel?”
“This crazy bitch,” Kaplan says. “Ha. What a crazy bitch.”
Renate flushes, unsure, but Toby’s seen this act before. “Look, man, if Hillary Clinton pisses you off so much, don’t go to her website.”
“That shows what you know,” Kaplan shoots back, a stubby finger twirling the scroll key. “This is some twat from the Union of Concerned Scientists.” He snorts again and the snot bubble makes another brief appearance. In a sneering falsetto meant to mimic the twat scientist, Kaplan recites from his screen: “ ‘The debate is no longer about whether global warming is happening, because it is.’ How the fuck does she know? She’s probably blowing Al Gore, the bitch.” He shakes his fist at the laptop and barks like a seal.
Renate shifts uncomfortably in her chair and looks at Dirk. They both look at Toby. She raises a meaningful eyebrow.
“So, what part of Germany are you guys from?” Toby says, pretending not to notice.
Renate has fallen silent.
“We live in Munchen,” Dirk finally says. “But I was born in Dresden.”
“Dresden.” Kaplan croaks. “They really bombed the shit out that place.” He makes an indistinct, cackling sound.
Renate looks down, shaking her head. Dirk stares at Kaplan. Toby does, too.
“What?” Kaplan says, looking up. “They did. The bombed it flat. It’s not like they didn’t have it coming. Fucking Krauts.”
“That’s it,” Toby says, sliding out from behind the table. “You’re a dick.” Kaplan is already moving his computer to claim Toby’s spot. Renate and Dirk stand with Toby. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We should have just left, like you said. Dinner’s on me.” Toby pushes them gently toward the door. “You’re a total fucking dick,” he calls to Kaplan over his shoulder.
“It is all right,” Dirk says when they’re outside. “He is a very sad man.”
“Oh my,” Renate says, looking back into the café and pointing. Dirk and Toby turn.
Three young Asian tourists, giggling women, have settled in next to Kaplan. He’s looking over their heads and his lips are starting to move.
“God,” Toby says. “I hope they’re not Japanese.”