“Is that one new?” One of Molly’s favorite customers nodded his head towards Nia, who was preparing another batch of coffee. Molly turned her head to look behind her. Her regulars weren’t used to seeing new people. Just because… well, small towns don’t like outsiders. It’s always been that way.
Molly turned back around. Was Nia even really that new? For some reason, she couldn’t actually remember when she'd joined Molly's team at Witer’s Coffee Shop.
“Um…kinda,” she told the customer, partially under her breath. “But I think you’ve just been away too long. You haven’t been going to another coffee shop, have you?”
“Well,” the man replied, his eyes fixed on Nia. “I’ve never had an African American make my coffee before.”
Molly felt a twinge in her temples. Maybe it was too much caffeine. She’d had what felt like a dozen espresso shots this morning, shot after shot pulled by Nia. She couldn’t figure out how she did it. Nia’s shots tasted good…delicious, really. But they didn’t taste like Molly’s. And the customers at this cafe expected their coffee to taste like it always had.
“Well, there’s a first time for everything!” Molly giggled nervously, and slid his receipt across the counter.
“Phew!” Molly pretended to wipe sweat from her forehead with her forefinger. “What a rush!”
Nia stopped wiping down the espresso machine to look around the cafe. There were 3 customers in the shop, tops. She raised an eyebrow. Just then, Sarah, a regular, walked up to the counter to return her ceramic coffee cup.
“You looked really comfortable making all those lattes!” Sarah was looking at Nia with a smile. Nia turned to face her, taking a beat before returning the smile. “What else do you do? I know you’re more than just a barista!”
Nia’s face fell slightly into what Molly assumed was her neutral expression, but always looked to Molly a little bit angry.
“Well, right now, I am just a barista,” Nia replied. “But I probably define ‘barista’ a little broader than most.”
“Oh! How’s that?”
“I’m a project manager. A technician. An educator. A statistician. A QA analyst. And I make coffee. I guess it helps that I’ve been all those things even before getting into coffee.”
That was news to Molly. She had also been impressed. She knew Nia had previous coffee experience, had even managed multiple shops. But for some reason, she was still surprised at how well Nia handled herself. Molly’s temple tingled.
Molly didn’t understand it, but Nia always seemed to shake her head when she had something to complain about.
Like when another one of her regulars asked for his drink to be remade. Nia pointed out that he hadn’t tried the cortado she’d made for him, but Molly didn’t want any trouble. This guy had never complained before, but he was giving Nia a really hard time for some reason. Nia had shaken her head back and forth when Molly explained that the man just wanted to be sure he knew what he was getting. The customer is always right, after all.
Nia’s head shaking had started to bother her. It somehow seemed to come with an ache in Molly’s temples. Maybe it was Nia’s negative attitude that was giving her headaches. She made a note to have a conversation with Nia about staying upbeat.
The bell on the front door sounded. In walked Seamus, perhaps the most regular of any regular at Witer's Coffee—he came in at least three times a week, and sometimes more like every day. Seamus took a seat at the counter in front of Molly. She was glad Nia was in the back. She had a strong feeling that Seamus didn't care much for Nia. Just because… well…
“Heard you got yourself a Negro.”
Molly's temple was aching, and she didn't particularly feel like finishing her thought. She ignored his comment as she stepped closer to the counter.
Seamus didn't stop. “What’d you hire a Negro for? I told you, you gotta watch out for them.”
“I had to,” Molly heard herself saying. “You know how it is.”
“I told you, they’ve got magic!” Seamus said, his voice getting louder. “And they got some kind of crazy vendetta against us, I’m telling you…”
Seamus made Molly uncomfortable. She was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to use that word anymore. Regular or not, he was making her head hurt.
“You look tired, Molly. Feeling ok?”
Molly’s head was pounding by the time Seamus left. She turned to see Nia standing behind her. Nia’s voice was concerned, her face blank. Maybe now was the time to talk about Nia’s attitude.
“Um… yeah, just been getting these headaches lately. Actually, Nia, I was hoping we could talk—”
“Here, try this.” Nia reached out with a cup Molly hadn’t noticed her holding. “I’ve been playing around with a new latte recipe. I’d love your thoughts.”
Nia had never asked for Molly’s advice on anything before, though she’d offered it several times. She was curious—Nia’s coffee drinks were always tasty. She accepted the cup and took a few sips. The drink was stellar.
“What recipe did you—” Molly’s mouth snapped shut. She was dizzy. Her temples throbbed. Her mind raced with images as though she were seeing a series of flashbacks. She could barely see Nia standing in front of her. Instead, she saw Nia in her head. She saw Seamus. She relived his words in her mind, and then a dozen more incidents in which Nia’s race was the focus. She saw Nia as a Black woman. She saw Nia not shaking her head in attitude, but in recognition of what she had to deal with. She saw Nia not being overly dramatic but trying to point out the injustices around her. She saw the injustices for what they were. In that moment, Molly saw herself as well. What she saw terrified her.
Nia sipped her own coffee and watched Molly over the rim of her to-go cup. She shook her head. Some people were resistant to her magic. But everyone got it eventually, once the drinks took hold.
Molly was lost in the power, but Nia was already planning her next move. The number of coffee shops she had yet to visit was… frightening, a never-ending list. It was time to move on. She was tired, but she couldn’t show it. A spirit worker’s work is never done. The thought made her sigh.
As she glided through the cafe and out onto the street, Nia thought about how she never knew how those who drank her special lattes reacted to the insight they gained. After all, she couldn’t put in the work for them.
Molly leaned against the back counter, confused and exhausted. She was alone behind the counter. A young Black woman she had never seen before walked away from her through the cafe and out the front door; she must have missed her entrance. Seamus was still there, staring, as the bell on the door tinkled. Molly lifted her eyes. The woman was gone. Seamus walked back up to the counter, scrunching his mouth as though he’d just tasted something unpleasant.
“I can’t stand what their kind is doing to this town. Heck, to our country, for God’s sake.”
Molly’s heart was pounding. The blood rushing to her head was loud and hot. She was absolutely terrified of a knowledge she’d just gained, though she didn’t know how: Racism has always been here, inside of me, and I can see that now.
And then? She opened her mouth and began to respond.
Niki Tolch (@notcaffeinatedenough) is a coffee professional based in Chicago. This is Niki Tolch's first feature for Sprudge.