Free Short Story – The Last Bag of Beans

It came to pass that the world ran out of coffee.

Some blamed the coffee shop glut; others blamed the millennials for their obsession with coffee shops. Many blamed various acts of the Inconveniently Multiplicitous One and Only True God.

For a brief time, it was suggested climate change was the culprit, but this was dismissed immediately by the coal and oil lobby. As this view was only challenged by a few greenies, school kids, scientists and politicians not on the payroll, it was quickly accepted that the fires, floods, droughts, diseases and mass extinctions were perfectly natural.

Whatever the cause, the world was down to one single bag of medium roast Arabica discovered in the final effects of a thoroughly unremarkable ex-barista named Dave.

As a condition of his will, Dave required that the bag of beans be gifted to one lucky citizen of the world. This citizen was to be selected from a list of all emails that had ever been hacked.

It is due to this strange series of events (and the lax security practices of Gardener’s Monthly to which he’d subscribed for 25 years) that Mr. Barry Cheshire of South Westin, New South Wales, Australia, found himself the center of global attention.

It was a fine Wednesday morning when Barry walked out into his front yard to collect the junk mail. He was surprised and confused to be greeted by a view not of the dusty and deserted main street of South Westin, but of the local police sergeant holding a small cardboard box and behind him a noisy line of people stretching far off into the distance.

“What’s going on here, Sarge?” Barry asked.

The police sergeant quickly told the story of what was in the box.

“A bag of coffee beans, how wonderful,” Barry said. “So, who are all these people?”

“They are all citizens of the world, coming to petition you to hand over that bag of coffee beans.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Barry said. “These beans will–”

A sudden commotion in the line drowned out Barry’s words as a strange orange man, bobbing on a golden throne hovering above the crowd pushed and yelled his way to the front. As the strange orange man got closer, Barry could see the throne was sitting on a litter borne by a dozen or more men, some dressed in soldiers’ uniforms, others in grey banker’s suits. In between bursts of abuse, the orange man worked frantically on a phone with his small, child-like hands.

“I am King Donovan of the Wholly Subjugated States of America,” the man said as he got to the front of the now angry crowd. “And I have a deal for you.”

King Donovan thrust a book into Barry’s hands.

“What is this?” Barry said.

“It’s my new book – How to Buy Friends and Fool People. It’s going to be a classic. I will swap you for the coffee beans.”

Barry looked askance at the book. “Never been much for reading myself, more of a headlines and sports pages kind of guy, but thank you for the offer.” Barry handed the book back to King Donovan, who went a slightly redder shade of orange before ordering his litter bearers to turn around; tapping his phone with renewed ferocity.

The next group in the line were all old men dressed in rich robes, jeweled and embroidered in gold. They all wore a range of hats, from small, unassuming caps, to grand pointy affairs with more jewels and more gold. Each man was trying his best to look down his nose at the others, which was quite comical as some were much shorter than the others.

One of the men stepped forward, their leader Barry assumed by virtue of him having the tallest, pointiest hat. “I represent the Multitudinous Representatives of the Inconveniently Multiplicitous One and Only True God,” the man said. “We will forgive your sins and offer you a guaranteed place in heaven in return for your bag of coffee beans.”

“No thanks,” Barry said.

The man looked confused, “But you will go to hell and burn in fire for all eternity if you refuse our offer. Heaven is your only salvation.”

“There’ll be virgins.” A voice piped up from behind the man.

“There has only ever been one woman for me,” Barry said. “My May was the kindest, most wonderful person in the world. She never harmed a fly. I have also been the best man I can be. If there is something beyond this world and you’re saying that we can’t go there without joining you lot with your bowing and your praying and your killing each other, then so be it. The answer is still no.”

As the old men moved away, it revealed most of the noise in the crowd was coming from the group of well-dressed men next in line, all shouting at each other in different languages. After a moment or six, a dapper gent at the front noticed Barry standing there and stepped forward.

“My apologies Mr. Cheshire,” the dapper gent said with a heavy French accent. “We are the Heads of the Disunited Rabble Formally Known as the European Union. We came here to make you a great offer for your bag of coffee beans, but none of us could agree on what that offer should be, so I’ll think we’ll just leave.”

As the well-dressed men moved off, next in line was the strangest sight Barry had ever seen. Atop a low, four-wheeled platform, an extremely lifelike statue of an ancient-looking man sat astride what appeared to be a gilded megaphone.

“Good morning Mr. Cheshire,” the statue said, its voice booming from the megaphone and frightening the daylights out of Barry.

A younger and much more alive-looking man stepped from behind the statue, “Sorry Mr. Cheshire, I didn’t mean to startle you there. I am Locky, Son and Official Mouth Puppet of the Late Mr. Maddock, Master of All Truth, Stuffed and Mounted for Eternity.”

“Hello Locky,” Barry said. “Did you know your late father appears to be talking out his bottom?”

“Yes, he was good at that, but I digress – if you give me your bag of beans, I can make anything you desire to be true become truth. Don’t like your neighbor? No worries, we can make him a terrorist and have him put away. Don’t want a politician to win? We can make sure everyone believes they’re in league with Satan or born in another country. Heck, we can even make you a king, like King Donovan.”

Barry was aghast, “That just sounds dishonest to me. And I don’t want to be like King Donovan, I just want to live in peace here in my own home.”

Locky leaned forward and jabbed a pointy finger at Barry’s chest,” you’ll regret this Mr. Cheshire. The headlines never lie, and tomorrow your name is mud. And if you try to say any different, we’ll just call it fake news, and you’ll be even worse off.”

Barry grabbed Locky’s finger and pushed him away, “Sergeant, can you escort this young man and his stuffed father away, please.”

As the police sergeant led them away, Barry had a strong urge to go wash his hands but was distracted by the strange pair next in line.

Both men were well into middle age but dressed in t-shirts and jeans and sneakers like they’d just left school. They introduced themselves as Messr’s Zinzerburg and Dormer, Global Arbiters of Friendship and Self-worth.

“I can get you a million followers,” said one.

“I can have 2 million people hanging off your every tweet,” said the other.

“What’s a tweet?” Said Barry.

“You’ll have millions of friends!” The two shirted and sneakered men cried, ignoring Barry’s question.

“What would I do with a million friends?” Barry said. “This is only a small town, where would I fit them all?”

“Oh, you don’t ever meet them,” the men said. “All your friends will be online.”

“You mean on the computer?”

“Yes, and on your smartphone.” The men said.

“I have a phone. But I don’t think it’s very smart – it has buttons and hangs on the wall,” Barry said.

“We’ll give you a smartphone. Then you can take your friends everywhere.”

“That sounds really silly to me. Friends are people you share a beer with, a weekly game of cards and sometimes even your deepest hopes and fears. You can’t carry friends in a pocket.” Barry shrugged an apology, “I don’t think I’d like even one of these online friends you talk about, let alone a million of them.”

The next group in the line we’re more finely dressed men, this time standing around a group of expensive sports cars. A couple of the men had women with them that Barry would have guessed to be their granddaughters if it wasn’t for the very un-granddaughterly way they were hanging off the men. The women wore more gold than all of the old men in hats combined.

“We are the League of Distinguished Billionaires,” the most finely dressed of them all said. “We will give you a billion dollars and membership to our club in exchange for your bag of beans.”

“What would I do will a billion dollars?” Barry asked.

“Why you could own all this and more,” the man waved in the general direction of the sports cars and the women.

“For starters, one of those things wouldn’t last a week before the roads out here tore out the suspension,” Barry said, being very careful to point at the cars and not the women. “And I am sure I would not be comfortable with a whole lot of money I didn’t earn.”

“Aah, a traditional man I see,” said another of the men, stepping forward to greet Barry. “Very good, we can also teach you about this fantastic caper called trickle-down economics, where you do a little work and get to receive great floods of money while everyone else gets a trickle.”

“No. Thank. You,” Barry folded his arms and shook his head in the most definitive manner he could muster.

On and on it went, for most of the day, but not one of the people in the line could offer Barry something that would convince him to part with his bag of beans. Finally, only the police sergeant, Barry and an elderly man with a computer tablet and a satchel stood at Barry’s gate.

“And what do you want to offer me for my beans?” Barry asked the elderly man, his shoulders slumped with weariness.

“Oh, I’m not here for your beans, I am an intern from the Daily Waffle News Channel.”

“You look a bit old for an intern,” Barry observed.

“Oh, they only call us interns, so they don’t have to pay us,” the man said. “I’ve worked on the news desk for 37 years.”

“So why are you here?”

“I’m here for the story – I want to know why none of these people could convince you to part with those beans?”

Barry perked up and smiled, “I was wondering if anyone was ever going to ask. Come inside, and I will show you.”

Barry led the reporter into his tired but tidy kitchen and fished an ancient coffee grinder and stove-top percolator from a cupboard. “Please, take a seat,” Barry pointed to a small, well-worn dining table with two chairs, but set for one.

As Barry carefully ground a cup full of beans and set the percolator to brew, the kitchen filled with a delicious aroma that reminded the reporter of man buns and smashed avocado and stupid American sitcoms about friends who hated each other.

When the percolator gave a final burp and a hiss, Barry lifted it carefully off the stove, sniffed the coffee once, and said, “Would you like a cup?”

“Oh my, yes!” The reporter said, his eyes now watering to match his mouth.

Barry pulled down a plain, impeccably white coffee cup and matching saucer from another cupboard and carefully poured the dark liquid into the cup. “Milk and sugar?” He asked.

“Just black is fine.”

Barry placed the coffee on the table. The reporter, who’s whole body was now threatening to go to water just at the heady smell of the coffee, reached out a tremulous hand, lifted the cup and took a sip.

Suddenly, a billion tired and worn neurons fired at once and the reporter’s brain filled with 1000 plots, a hundred novels and at least one cure for all that was ill in the world. As his mental planets and stars and galaxies and universes aligned in a crescendo of ecstasy, there weren’t enough superlatives in all of the languages of the world to express how he felt. Instead, he stuck with time-honored tradition and let out a deep, satisfied aaaaahhh.

When the reporter had nearly finished the brew, Barry topped the cup up with the remaining coffee.

“You not having a cup?” The reporter asked.

“Oh, I don’t really like coffee,” Barry said.

“But…but, I don’t understand.”

Barry picked the now empty percolator up and stepped to the back door. “Come,” he said. “Bring your coffee.”

Barry led the reporter out into a garden full of life and dazzling variety, the likes of which the reporter had only ever seen in books and documentaries. A narrow path of pavers, worn and sunken in the middle from decades of use wove between rows of garden beds and myriad pots of all sizes. Everywhere you turned, there was a riot of color. Sweet fragrances and the gentle hum of bees and insects hung in the air.

“My May passed two years ago this week,” Barry explained as he led the reporter through the garden. “It was a slow process for her, and this garden was her sanctuary. In the end, when it got too much for her, she’d sit in her chair out here, and we’d just talk for hours about our lives and what we had together.”

Barry’s eyes grew misty, but the slight smile did not leave his face. “When we made that final trip to the hospital, May had to leave this house and her garden and all that we had together behind, but she took those memories with her.”

Barry’s eyes grew hard again as he thrust his chin towards the front of the house. “What those silly people out front today don’t realize is that none of that stuff matters. You can have all the money and cars and boats and partners and stuff in the world, but you can’t take it with you. In the end, all any of us can take with us in those last moments are the memories of the life we lived.”

Barry led the reporter to a row of low shrubs packed with waxy dark-green leaves and awash with soft, velvety white flowers. A subtle aroma that reminded the reporter of grandmothers and tea and home-made biscuits wafted up from the bushes.

“May’s gardenias,” Barry said. “They were her favorite. My fondest memories of May all revolve around them. I remember she was always saying the same thing, ‘Barry, gardenias are not as hard to keep alive as people think. You just have to remember rule number one:’”

Barry upended the percolator, dumping the spent contents on the bushes. “‘Gardenias love coffee grinds.’”