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The sonofabitch was breathing with his whole face, and the sound drove Palmer to thoughts of homicide. The café wasn’t spacious, and the sonofabitch sat three seats away from Palmer at the countertop against the window. No one sat in the two seats between them. Palmer glanced sideways over his right shoulder and saw that the sonofabitch, other than breathing like a man struck in the nose and gasping for air, was marking tests with a red felt pen. The sonofabitch, Palmer figured, was a professor at the community college two blocks south of the café.
Palmer’s tolerance for strange, incessant noises was miniscule, and his patience was wearing thinner than a runway model from the 1990s. Palmer was reading a collection of poetry by Philip Larkin, yet his focus on the words was dwindling. The loud breathing had invaded his mind, turning Larkin’s poetry to fuzz.
Palmer, his full attention now on the sonofabitch, now saw that the sonofabitch was drinking ice water. Ice water! Couldn’t the sonofabitch drink ice water at home? Palmer drank a double espresso with one half pump of hazelnut syrup, something he couldn’t make himself at home. The sonofabitch could be sick, Palmer thought, but couldn’t detect a pallor of sickliness; the sonofabitch was a heavy breather, nothing more.
Palmer shut the Larkin collection and slammed it onto the countertop. He’d hoped to stir the sonofabitch into noticing him, but the sonofabitch couldn’t be bothered by the disturbance. Palmer fumed. The sonofabitch was winning; the sonofabitch was focused; the sonofabitch could not be provoked. Palmer then chose to defeat the sonofabitch with his own show of stoicism. He lifted the collection of poems in his hands, opened to a random page, and began to read once again. Palmer regained his focus, blocked the sound of the heavy, bellows-like breathing from his ears. And for a moment, he read unperturbed.
Palmer rejoiced internally when he found he was able to ponder one line and its myriad possibility of meaning. But then the sonofabitch sneezed.
Palmer’s hands came down with the book and harshly thumped the countertop. He stood violently, the stool toppling to the floor behind him. The sonofabitch jolted and looked at Palmer, his red pen trailing undirected across some student’s answer to an essay question.
“Jesus Christ,” Palmer roared. “Do you mind?”
The sonofabitch looked small to Palmer as he loomed over him, looked small as he said, “Excuse me, sir,” in a small voice, smaller than his small frame; and thin, thinner than the wear on Palmer’s patience.
Now, Palmer could not see all the patrons in the café because the room dog legged right behind a wall with cubby holes where mugs for sale and bags of whole-bean coffee were on display. But he could see two tables and three people clearly. At one table sat a young man, which Palmer pegged as a student, with a laptop open in front of him and wearing headphones. At the second table was a couple holding hands, two women, who seemed to Palmer, to be in their late thirties. Finally, there was the barista behind the register. Palmer took his eyes off the small sonofabitch just long enough to realize that all these other eyes were locked on him and the situation he’d created. But he was Palmer, and he would not put an end to the scene for the sake of a few onlookers.
“Damnit, man,” Palmer growled. “I can’t concentrate.”
“I’m sorry,” the sonofabitch said. “Am I bothering you?”
Such a small, unimposing voice, Palmer noticed yet again, a submissive voice. This man had never commanded a classroom in his life, had never had a student’s full and undivided attention. His voice carried with the sheepish floundering of a mouse’s squeak. And Palmer’s voice boomed, and filled the café with his anger.
“Why don’t you tell me if I’m bothered by you?” Palmer raged. “Why don’t you tell me why I have to hear breath—in and out, in and out—that you take?”
The sonofabitch’s face reddened. Palmer knew then that this incident wasn’t the first time in the small sonofabitch’s life when his breathing had been put on trial.
“I’m sorry,” the sonofabitch said, collecting his papers into a pile. “I’ll go.”
The sonofabitch had no fight in him. Seeing that, Palmer’s anger deflated. Palmer looked at the other patrons, at the barista. No one said a word, no one jumped to the sonofabitch’s aid. Palmer figured that no one had ever stood up for the small, tremble-voiced sonofabitch and that the sonofabitch had certainly never stood his ground in a conflict.
Palmer picked his collection of Larkin off the countertop and said, “No. Don’t bother. I’m the one who’s leaving.”
Palmer walked past the still-seated sonofabitch and came to the glass door. Before pushing it open and exiting, he turned to face everyone within the café. He could see them all now, and there were quite a few; all their eyes were fixed on him.
“You sonsofbitches can all go to hell,” Palmer said. He pushed open the door and stepped into the winter cold.


Sean Fitts lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. He is a graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia. His poetry had appeared in Sisyphus Quarterly and Instigatorzine. His one-act plays have been produced by The Barn Theatre in Montville, New Jersey.


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