“Half a Toast” by Miriam Zolin, Melbourne Australia

Connected October 11, 2011 14:10

topic: CONNECTED medium: TEXT
Liesl Schillinger, of the New York Times Book Review, had this to say about “Half a Toast”:
I liked the way this story kept me guessing, even though it was short. And after reading it once, I read it again, with new appreciation for the author’s intent. Like the barista, the reader sincerely tries to engage with Suzy and for a while doesn’t understand how cut-off she is, and how disconnected from direct human engagement. I like the way Zolin shows, without overplaying the emotion of it, how Suzy’s wiredness limits and deforms her social interaction.

One of the Winners of the “Connected” Contest

She was a little breathless. ‘He said half. He only wants half a toast.’ The barista smiled. ‘Yeah, thanks.’ She had an edge of panic in her voice. From half a serving of toast. ‘I just didn’t want you getting ripped off. He only wanted half a toast, did you hear him? You’d be wasting the rest.’ The barista looked at her, his round face taking it in. The tightness of her shoulders, the way her body leaned forward, ready to leap, it seemed. At him or away. ‘I know him,’ said the barista. ‘He’s a regular. It’s alright. He always gets toast and he always asks for half and I always pretend to get it wrong. He’ll come back later and pick it up. It’s like a routine. But thanks.’ She calmed perceptibly at his explanation. ‘Ming’ said the barista, held out his hand. ‘What?’ she stepped back. ‘Ming,’ he said again. ‘It’s my name’. ‘Oh.’ she grinned. ‘Suzy’. And put her hand out too, seeming to thrust, unused to the mass, velocity and social calculations that would have come automatically to someone used to shaking hands. ‘

What can I get you?’ he asked, after letting the grinder briefly populate a pause that was extending beyond comfort. She answered like a question, probing. ‘A coffee?’ and handed over her takeaway cup. ‘What sort?’ he asked. She was not used to this type of interaction, he could see. Well- networked, possibly, linked in to friends and community in a virtuality of online games, conversations, concerts, lectures. A workplace where she probably sat in a pod, wi fi’d into a workstation, with whisper software activated so she could talk her documents and spreadsheets into a central database. Getting most of her food from vending machines. Forgetting, if she ever knew, the taste of hand-made coffee.

He filled the filter with grounds. Pressed them down with the tamper. Clicked the filter into the machine, propped the cup under it and pressed the button. A moment, and a stream of rich coffee started into her cup. ‘Lartay?’ she said, again lifting it at the end like a question. Saying it like she’d only read it on a screen and didn’t know how it should sound coming out of her mouth. ‘Okay’, he said, ‘one caffè latte coming right up.’ Getting the accent right as though he was on the Via Veneto. It was a quiet morning; he had time to talk. ‘Haven’t seen you here before’. She tensed again. Taking things the wrong way, he could see. Eggshells.

‘Normally I just go to the vendo’, she shrugged, and pointed to her earpiece. ‘But my plugin’s not working. Only got a bit of cash in my old backup, vendo won’t accept this old thing – ‘ she waved the card at him – needed coffee…’ she stopped short, and looked at him. Not speaking; a little glazed and faraway in the eyes. Like someone had switched her off. A small dismissive noise then, almost a grunt, and she was back in focus. Looking at him. ‘Sorry. I thought I could hear… I’m unplugged. They’re gonna ping me when I’m back on line.’ ‘Oh,’ he smiled. ‘Disconnected.’ ‘Yeah, busted chip, musta wore it out with all the downloads’, she grinned and then just as quickly changed expression as she noticed that he didn’t have one of his own. She tapped her ear. ‘You lost yours?’ Ming held the jug of milk under the steam and felt the tiny vibrations in his hands as it heated, listened to the steam moving through the milk, watched the turbulence and the froth beginning. He looked up at her. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I unplugged years ago.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, wary. He moved the jug down, listening for the milk and steam to tell him with their particular song that the temperature was right. That the milk was ready to pour. ‘I gotta stay connected,’ she asserted. ‘Feels kinda empty, kinda dark without it.’

He tapped the jug on the counter top and looked at her ‘You don’t like the quiet then?’ Concentrating on moving cup to counter top, tapping the milk again, removing extra froth, pouring a steady flow of milk into the shot of coffee, he didn’t notice that she had not answered. ‘You should see this in a glass’ he said. ‘Stop by some time and I’ll make you one. To watch the milk and the coffee swirling. I never get tired of it.’ He looked up. She’d glazed again. She held up her finger. ‘Hang on,’ she said ‘I’m being pinged. I’ll be with you in a sec.’ Ming smiled, ‘Sure’ he said, and with a toothpick drew a heart in the coffee’s crema. He handed her the cup and she took it with barely a glance in his direction, waving her backup cashcard at the reader on the counter. Ming turned to the bench behind him and put the other customer’s toast into a carry bag, ready for his return. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Suzy stop a few steps down the street as she walked away from his coffee cart, wondered if her eyes were a little glazed and a little faraway as she held her nose over the coffee, savoring the aroma before she took a sip. She half turned back, almost said something. But changed her mind, continued, re-connected.


Miriam Zolin


  • Adele Ogier Jones

    This is perfect – right down to the toothpick heart on top. Really a gem. Adele

  • Emma

    This is my nightmare of what the future will be like. Sometimes being disconnected is the best way to be connected – love it.

  • Thanks Emma! It’s a dark picture, I agree. I dread the thought. I’m with Ming, all the way :-)

  • Stefan Carey

    I think we’re there already. We’re disconnected and distracted, and we’re not ‘in’ the moment. A slow mental pace is reserved for holidays after a week.

    Lovely piece.

  • Is there anything more satisfying for a lover of drama than the moment she realizes she has created a girl in her exact dramatic likeness I think not.