“What?” I turned back to ask.
“Hello!” a voice called brightly over the Bee Gees song crackling through the place.
I spun to face the man behind the illuminated display case. The radio sat there on the counter, producing at least as much static fuzz as crooning disco. “Hi,” I replied.
“Howdy,” the man said with a deep nod. He was at least as old as my parents and wire-thin, his thick glasses held to his face with neon-yellow Croakies.
“Hi,” I said again. My brain was caught in a hamster wheel, the same realization playing over and over: this elderly gentleman was in his underwear.
“Welllll, hello there!” he chirped, apparently determined not to lose this game. He leaned his elbows on top of the case. His underwear, thankfully, included a white T-shirt, and he had mercifully opted for white boxers rather than briefs.
“Hi,” I said one last time.
Gus sidestepped between my open jaw and the counter. “Can we just do a dozen day-olds?”
“Shore!” The underwear-baker grapevined down the length of the display and grabbed a to-go box from the stack on top of it. He carried it back to the old-school register and tapped out a couple of numbers. “Five dollars flat, my man.”
“And coffee?” Gus said.
“Can’t in good conscience charge you for that stuff.” The man jerked his head toward the carafe. “That shit’s been sitting in there sizzling for three good hours. Want me to make you the new stuff?”
Gus looked to me pointedly.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s for you. What do you think? Free and bad? Or a dollar and …” He couldn’t bring himself to say good, which told me everything I needed to know.
“That shit” was always sitting in there, sizzling.
“Free,” I said.
“Five flat, then, as discussed,” the man said.
I reached for my wallet, but Gus headed me off, slapping five dollar bills down on the counter. He tipped his head, gesturing for me to accept the foam cup and box of donuts the man was holding. To fit twelve into this box, they’d been compacted into one box-shaped mash of fried dough. I grabbed them and plopped into a booth.
Gus sat across from me, leaned across the table, and pried the box open. He stared down at the donut guts between us. “God, those look disgusting.”
“Finally,” I said. “Something we agree on.”
“I bet we agree on a lot.” He plucked a mangled maple-nut donut out and sat back, examining it in the fluorescent light.
“All the important stuff,” Gus said. “The chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere, whether the world needs six Pirates of the Caribbean movies, that White Russians should only be drunk when you’re already sure you’re going to vomit anyway.”
He managed to fit the whole donut into his mouth. Then, without an ounce of irony, he made eye contact with me. I burst out laughing.
“Fffwaht?” he said.
I shook my head. “Can I ask you something?”
He chewed and swallowed enough to answer. “No, January, I’m not going to tell this guy to turn his music down.” He reached over and snatched another donut clump from the box. “Now I have a question for you, Andrews. Why’d you move here?”
I rolled my eyes and ignored his question. “If I were going to ask you to encourage this guy to make one small change to his business practices, it would definitely not be the radio volume.”
Gus’s grin split wide, and even now, my stomach flipped traitorously. I wasn’t sure I’d seen him smile like that before, and there was something intoxicating about it. His dark eyes flitted toward the counter and I followed his gaze. The underwear-clad man was positively boogying back and forth between his ovens. Gus’s eyes came back to mine, hyperfocused. “Are you going to tell me why you moved here?”
I stuffed a donut chunk into my mouth and shook my head.
He half shrugged. “Then I can’t answer your question.”
“That’s not how conversations work,” I told him. “They’re not just even trades.”
“That’s exactly what they are,” he said. “At least, when you’re not into foot jobs.”
I covered my face with my hands, embarrassed, even as I said, “You were extremely rude to me, by the way.”
He was silent for a minute. I flinched as his rough fingers caught my wrists and tugged my hands away from my face. His teasing smile had faded, and his brow was creased, his gaze inky-dark and serious. “I know. I’m sorry. It was a bad day.”
My stomach flipped right side up again. I hadn’t expected an apology. I’d certainly never gotten an apology for that happily ever after comment. “You were hosting a raging party,” I said, recovering. “I’d love to see what a good day looks like for you.”
The corner of his mouth twitched uncertainly. “If you removed the party, you’d be a lot closer. Anyway, will you forgive me? I’ve been told I make a bad first impression.”
I crossed my arms, and, emboldened by the wine or his apology, I said, “That wasn’t my first impression.”
Something inscrutable passed across his face, vanishing before I could place it. “What was your question?” he said. “If I answer it, will you forgive me?”
“Not how forgiveness works either,” I said. When he began to rub his forehead, I added, “But yes.”
“Fine. One question,” he said.
I leaned across the table. “You thought they were doing your book, didn’t you?”
His brows knit together. “‘They’?”
“Spies and Liquified Pies,” I said.
He pretended to be aghast. “Do you perhaps mean Red, White Russians, and Blue Book Club? Because that nickname you just gave it is an affront to literature salons everywhere, not to mention Freedom and America.”
I felt the smile break out across my face. I sat back, satisfied. “You totally did. You thought they were reading The Revelatories.”
“First of all,” Gus said, “I’ve lived here five years and Pete’s never invited me to that book club, so yeah, it seemed like a fairly reasonable assumption at the time. Secondly”—he snatched a glazed cake donut from the box—“you might want to be careful, January Andrews. You just revealed you know the title of my book. Who knows what other secrets are on the verge of spilling out of you?”
“How do you know I didn’t just Google it?” I countered. “Maybe I’d never heard of it before.”
“How do you know that your Googling me wouldn’t be even more amusing to me?” Gus said.
“How do you know I wasn’t Googling you out of suspicion you had a criminal background?”
Gus replied, “How do you know I won’t keep answering your questions with other questions until we both die?”
“How do you know I’ll care?”
Gus shook his head, smiling, and took another bite. “Wow, this is terrible.”
“The donuts or this conversation?” I asked.
“This conversation, definitely. The donuts are good. I Googled you too, by the way. You should consider getting a rarer name.”