Fiction: "Earl Grey" By Jane Neal

Early Grey
By Jane Neal

Sam worked in a small bookstore with a tiny cafe which that served almost no one. The owner was deep into pushing the indie-book-and-coffee-shop-that-doesn’t-really-care-about-profits aesthetic. But it gave her something to put toward her student loans and fill up her rusty old blue Subaru. 
The major drawback of working there was the customers. There wasn’t a whole lot of prime real-estate available when the owner set up shop. Because of this, it lay smack dab between an Adult Toy Store and a sleazy-looking bar that catered to raucous bikers. The revving of an engine now caused Sam to flare up with irritation, so much so that she felt like Pavlov’s rabid dog.  
Jeers would always erupt from clusters of large, beefy men and the clouds of smoke they produced. The outside patio was always clogged with them, swilling their sweating beers and falling off of and breaking their chairs. This was her greeting every time she entered and exited the store. Sam would report the harassment each time, but it soon became a routine with the owner. It didn’t matter how she broached the topic. Her extreme discomfort, the harassment, or the steady decline in sales due to unsavory neighbors. They would do nothing more than have a chat with the bar owner, which resulted in a withholding of catcalls for three days at most.


Most days, the employee discount and meager paycheck just didn’t seem worth it.  
On a quiet Saturday morning, Sam was supposed to be shelving newly released books at the front of the store. People rarely ventured in. So, instead, she cracked open a thick and depressing novel she had been struggling to get through. The bell on the front door tinkled and she jumped about a foot in the air, tossing her book across the desk. Looking up, her heart plunged into her stomach when she saw it was a man who was the very picture of a typical biker. He was huge.
She couldn’t help but think his arms looked like the pork sausages she was never allowed to eat, the ground meat stuffed tight into its plastic casing. He was wearing a very worn black leather jacket and what looked like a white T-shirt underneath. His dirty blue jeans were tucked over his black boots, a chain looping out of his front left pocket. 
Sam tried not to let his massive size or the fact that his eyes were hidden beneath dark aviator sunglasses intimidate her. He kept his arms close around his generous beer belly, increasing her sudden anxiety. 
He stood there, appraising the area, she guessed. Maybe he was planning a break-in? 
She tried to calm down and find a more reasonable line of thought. Approaching him cautiously, she asked him if he needed help finding anything.
“Oh yes,” he said. His voice was deep but kinder than she would have expected. “Do you have the complete works by Emily Dickinson? I only have the collected.”  
He gestured to the interior of his worn, black leather jacket. Startled at first, she saw a very battered and badly taped up copy of Emily Dickinson’s collected works. Sam’s brain went blank and she wasn’t sure how to proceed.  
“Um, yes,” she said, slowly at first. Her customer service kicked in and she regained her composure. “Yes, we always have that in stock, right this way!” 
Sam guided the man to the poetry section nestled in next to the cafe. She saw his head turn, gazing out towards the empty chairs and tables.  
“Did you,” she began, stopped, and started again. “Did you have another question?”  
He turned to look at her and smiled, his bottom lip disappearing under his bushy white mustache. 
“Do you serve Earl Grey?  It’s my favorite,” he explained.  
Sam laughed and she felt her face grew warm.  “Mine too.  I can make you some.” 
He bought his book and a mug of tea. She gave him his change back and guided him to a small wooden table with two beaten-up chairs. He sat down and she put the kettle on. 
She prepared the tea bags and mugs. The kettle whistled and she poured the boiling water, the steam fogging up her glasses. The man came over to give her a hand and the steam fogged up his sunglasses too. They laughed at each other. 
He took off his sunglasses to rub them on his shirt. Her own lenses cleared up and Sam noticed his shirt and jeans were quite dirty with a lot of holes. Probably from motorcycle maintenance, she guessed.  
“Here,” she said, pulling out a clean cloth and holding it out to him. “You can use this.” 
“Thank you very much,” he said, wiping off his lenses. His eyes were a twinkling grey and he looked much kinder when she could see them. 
“What is your name, by the way?” Sam asked. She felt unusually forward but also strangely compelled to learn more about this odd stranger.  
He looked up at her and seemed a little surprised. He smiled, however, and handed her back her cloth. He put his sunglasses back on and told her.  
“I’m Earl.” 

Jane Neal is a writer from Boise, ID.

"My name is Jane Neal. I am a feminist who is also a voracious reader and self-proclaimed animation nerd.  

Ever since I was little, I've been mesmerized by animated films and the craft that went into their storytelling. I didn't care for reading until Harry Potter. When I read that, I realized that books and their stories can captivate just as much as a beautifully rendered animation sequence. Drawing is a lot of hard work and takes much more self-discipline than I can muster to fit my impossibly high standards, so I turned to writing.

I love creating stories and I am very passionate about social justice and representation. My goal is to write stories that hopefully subvert typical tropes and trends with characters who don't look like most protagonists. Although diversity and representation is increasing, especially in YA Lit, there's still a long way to go."

On Her Work:

"I really love cute, slice-of-life stories. My spouse was a manager of a cafe and told me about a big, burly dude who would come in an order Earl Grey tea. I laughed and then had to draw it out. I decided he was a feminist and although he didn't look like, was a huge softy on the inside. My intention was to maybe do a graphic novel, more likely a picture book about he and his granddaughter (who was inspired by a really cute girl I saw running around the cafe) helping him at his bike repair shop. The shop also has a giant, fully orange cat."  

On Female Creators:

"Women are already underrepresented in so many areas. I think it's important because I don't want to only read the same, well-trodden story by a similar group of people with similar experiences. I also feel that even when content is created by a woman, it can fall into the same tropes and whatnot because of how intricately woven the patriarchy is within our society.  

The more women who share their own experiences and create from that, the more better and nuanced representation we will see in writing and film and art. And not just in regards to gender, but gender identity, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientation, everything.  

Women aren't all the same and that should be reflected in media and art as much as it is for men."  

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