“Human Comedy on Parade at the Agora Café,” by John Mara

Dec 20th, 2020 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

The early morning commuter train from Boston screeches into the station at historic Concordia, the affluent community where a sports jacket is required at the town dump and where geese are prohibited from flying in over the town line.

Regaled in their finest prep school attire, Adam and Abigail Rockwell alight from the train the way their pilgrim ancestors alighted from the Mayflower—first. With perfectly coiffed hair, a chiseled face and physique to match, Adam was cast in the mold reserved for Mayflower descendants. He doesn’t live in the world; the world exists to ingratiate him. Adam married Abigail because she was cut from the blonde version of the same mold. Her DNA keeps the Rockwell bloodline pure, even though she’s shed most of her family’s uppity patina. Between them, they swing a cherub-faced toddler, the promise of their family lineage.

Following the example of the Plymouth landing, Adam inhales the fresh air of his adopted land and proclaims, “Ahhh, the suburbs!” thus staking a claim to the good life Concordia holds for his nuclear family.

A puff of smoke from the train’s engine, though, interrupts the solemn flag planting and reduces the trio to spasms of coughing. “Run for it!” Adam says. Ducking beneath the prophetic cloud, the hero’s legs exemplify his command.

The smoke clears, and Abigail, with the pint-sized progeny in tow, ambles over to where Adam’s flight to safety has ended. “Phew, that was a close one,” Adam puffs, the family posterity intact. “Good thing you followed my lead.”

“Funny our escape lands us at the Agora Café.”

“My dear, I need caffeine.” While Abigail and little Winston slept through a red-eye flight—first class—from San Francisco, Adam corrected student papers. A newly-minted Finance PhD from Stanford, Adam has accepted an associate professorship at Harvard, and the whole family flew east to pay a visit. Abigail, too, is polishing her dissertation, A Modern Twist on de Balzac’s Human Comedy, to earn a doctorate in nineteenth century French literature.

“We’ve got a half hour before Winston’s interview at Minuteman Nursery School,” Adam says. “Let’s rub elbows with the natives.” Putting first things first, Adam and Abby are scouting Concordia as a place to anchor their ancestral roots—and to launch what is certain to be Winston’s prodigious academic career.

“Welcome to my Agora!” greets the trio as Adam opens the café door. “How may I delight you with exceptional service today?”

Adam flinches at the barista’s purple hair and array of ring piercings. “Do you live here? In Concordia?”

“I’ve owned the Agora for ten years. But don’t worry sir, I commute. “

The showstopper avoided, Adam reads ‘Hello, I’m Aristotle’ imprinted on the barista’s apron. “Ah, cute. A barista, in the Agora, named Aristotle. Aristotle must be a . . . ‘work name?'” Adam says, with air quotes.

“No, Aristotle is my…’real name?'” Ari says, his air quotes replacing Adam’s. “My roots trace back to the agora in Athens.”

“How nice.” Adam chuckles to lighten the mood. “I suppose you majored in philosophy, Aristotle.”

“Actually, philosophy was my major. For an acropolis-sized student debt, I’m left with nothing but the revelation, ‘I am.'”

Adam feels a tug on his sports coat. “Stop digging a goddamned hole, Socrates!” Abby whispers. “Now hold Winston while I order something.” She scans the menu board.

Winston, a miniature cutout of Adam, wears a doll-sized version of his father’s Hickey Freeman sports coat. The lad may not gain admittance into the nursery school, but he’ll be a shoo-in at the town dump.

“Winston, huh?” Ari says, aiming for payback. “You named the kid after a menthol cigarette?”

“We named him after Winston Churchill? You know, the Englishman who saved Western civilization?”

De-escalating the dustup, Abby snags the two five-dollar bills stuffed in Adam’s shirt pocket and plunks them into the tip jar. Accepting the monetary olive branch, Ari flashes a smile.

With peace accorded, Ari turns to brew a fresh pot of coffee. That’s when Adam sees an opening. “Ten bucks, Abby? A bit rich, don’t you think?” He grabs one of the fives from the tip jar and returns it to his pocket.

Seeing the fiver missing, Aristotle the Cynic invokes his inner Diogenes, “Ah, to find but one good man.”

Abigail notices the long line of commuters forming, all anxious to score some caffeine for the morning train ride into Boston. She forces a polite smile for the foot-tapping throng. “Hurry up, ya prick,” Abby hears, and the commuters nod at the sentiment. Abby spots a macaw, but can’t tell if the advice came from the bird or the little blue-haired lady holding it in a travel cage.

“Stand aside and let the others order,” Abby whispers.

“A Rockwell was first off the Mayflower and we’ve never stood aside since.” Adam isn’t about to compromise centuries of Anglo privilege in a Greek café.

“Two lattes, please!” Abby blurts. “And an OJ for Winston. Hurry, Aristotle!”

Ari turns the order in a flash. “That’ll be ten dollars and fifty cents.”

Elbow-deep in her purse, Abby digs for her wallet. A small foiled package tumbles onto the counter. “Ribbed condoms, Mrs. Rockwell?” Ari bellows, the pilfered five having ended their brief Anglo-Grecian détente. “Wow, a whole dozen too!” He winks, and Abby’s soon-to-be neighbors rubberneck and snicker in line.

But Abby has a bigger worry than her sexual kimono flung open. “I can’t find my goddamned wallet!” Marooned without money, Abby hyperventilates like an asthmatic without an inhaler.

“We’re juuust about done here!” Adam announces to the throat-clearing, non-Mayflower horde in line.

“Hurry up, ya prick,” echoes back.

“My wallet’s somewhere in that bottomless bag, too,” Adam says. “Pay up and let’s get outta here.”

“Shit, neither wallet’s in here! Oh God, Winston emptied the bag while we snoozed on the train.”

“Ten fifty, sir.”

“Do you take returns?” Adam tries, but Ari folds his arms. Adam slaps the five-dollar bill he palmed onto the counter. Then, suspending four centuries of ancestral pride, he plucks the other five-dollar bill out of the tip jar. “Boooo,” cascades in a soft chorus down the coffee line.

Aristotle overlooks the monetary transgression: winning the Battle of the Agora is worth the five bucks. Tightening the thumbscrews, Ari peers between long, purple dreadlocks and says, “Fifty cents more, sir.”

Doubling the shame, Abigail spills the coins in the ‘Take One, Leave One’ cup onto the counter like a Vegas sharpie rolling dice. With hands trembling, she counts out fifty cents of loose pennies and nickels. “Try ’em on for size, my little friend!” she says to Ari with a wave of the condoms for the amused onlookers to see. Then, she arcs the foiled package into the tip jar.

Behind the counter, the delivery woman stacking milk crates on a dolly weighs in, “Kiss your horny weekend goodbye, pal!”

“That does it! Let’s blow this f—ing agora!” Starting for the door, Abby broadsides the mortified woman standing behind her. “Sorry lady, we’re in a hurry.”

“To see me, Mrs. Rockwell,” the lady purrs, lowering sunglasses.

“Are you… Miss Perkins?”

“Yes, I’m the Minuteman Nursery School admissions counselor. I recognize you from the family photo in your impressive admissions folder,” Miss Perkins says. “Something has come up,” she adds with eyes scanning the tip jar and scattered coins. “We won’t be able to meet today.”

“What about our application, Miss Perkins? Are you aware of the Rockwell legacy?”

“Let’s just say that words spoken and actions taken before the interview—here in the Agora—weigh on our decision.”

“You spied on us!”

“We’ll build a Rockwell wing on the nursery school!” Adam says, remembering that Minuteman is a surefire feeder into Harvard.

Her regular coffee order ready, Miss Perkins pays Ari and replenishes the tip jar with two fives. “Sorry for the bother, Aristotle,” she says, eyeing Abby.

“Oh, it’s no bother, Miss Perkins. All day and every day, I get to watch human folly on display here in the Agora.”

“There’s a book in there somewhere, Ari.” Miss Perkins struts to the exit.

Adam and Abby slither to the side door, forgetting their order—and Winston. “One moment, Mr. Rockwell, sir,” Ari calls. “You owe seventy-five cents.”

“How’s that? We paid up! Sort of.” Adam follows Ari’s eyes to the confectionary display, where Winston is about to mouth a piece of chocolate skewered on a stick. Diving like a cornerback, Adam intercepts it to save the seventy-five cents—and the Rockwell family name. He angles away to wipe a wad of spit from the chocolate and then delivers the bounty to Ari. “Now are we good?”

Ari inspects the purloined candy. “Not so good. See the baby teeth marks?”

Adam searches for an escape hatch. “Would your bird care for a candy treat, ma’am?” he says to the cage holder.

“Nice try,” Ari says, offering no clemency. “Seventy-five cents.”

Winston whimpers, and the sterling Rockwell name is tarnished yet again. The lad is toilet trained, but a treat denied is enough to trigger an accident in his big boy undies.

The wafting odor crinkles every nose in the joint, and the inconvenienced coffee patrons become an unruly mob. Brandishing a leather briefcase, a lawyer—the one with those late-night TV commercials—threatens, “You’re looking at a class action law suit, buddy.” “Hurry up, ya prick!” follows, this time from the little lady, not the macaw.

As the human folly percolates to a crescendo, a ten-year-old guttersnipe at a back table rises to his full height of four feet. With front teeth missing and black hair rumpled, little Joe is no friend of a warm bath. He checks the clock to time his operation with military precision. At the right moment, he nods to Aristotle, ready to calm the adult storm that’s brewed. The patrons open a path for the lad’s advance. As an initial volley, Joe stands on tiptoes and plops three quarters onto the counter to pay the Rockwell ransom. “For the gentleman’s debt,” he squeaks and then goes to a side counter to make his next, bigger move.

But the local parish pastor, next in line, interrupts Joe’s operation to sermonize the ready-made flock. “Follow this young man’s example, brothers and sisters! Never let a few coins stand in the way of a good deed.” His parable delivered, the short-armed pastor searches his deep, deep pockets to pay for his latte—extra-large.

With the priest’s flock looking on, Aristotle lets the good Father sweat the payment. Then, breaking the daily stalemate, he says, “It’s on the house, Father O’Hegarty.”

Father O slots a prayer card into the tip jar. “May God bless your good deed, my son. The Eastern Orthodox one, of course.”

At the side counter, peeling from a wad of tens, Joe pays for the dozen lattes Ari has prepared in the course of the adult shenanigans. Then, Joe stuffs a ten into the tip jar. “You’re the best, bro,” the barista says of the daily ritual.

A whistle blows, sounding the impending departure of the commuter train. Joe hustles to the door, balancing the twelve lattes on a carrying tray. “Ten dollars, ma’am. Thank you, sir,” Joe squeaks over and over, as he sells the lattes that cost him four bucks each.

“See that, Abigail? The little rogue meets a market need. For a hefty price, too! Calculate the profit margin. The kid’s an entrepreneurial cracker jack!”

“Winston shits his pants. I drop an F-bomb on Miss Perkins. We lose two wallets. And you’re anointing a boy genius?”

“Forget about Concordia. Let’s take the express train back to Boston.” He puffs his chest like a rooster. “There are plenty of nursery schools for the Mayflower Rockwells, my dear.”

“Hey, wait a minute. Your mini Joe P. Morgan there sold six lattes. He’s eating the other six. With the tip, the rascal made two bucks, by my count.”

“Ya, you’ve got a point there,” the Doctor of Finance concedes.

“No Minuteman after all, sir?” Ari says as a final strike for the Greek side. Holding Winston at arm’s length and upwind, Adam and Abigail follow Joe out of the café

Aristotle pours out the hard-earned coffee the Rockwells abandoned on the field of battle. Scooping the coins scattered on the counter, he chuckles at the latest episode of human absurdity on parade in the Agora Café—with little brother Joe directing the band.


Balancing the six left-over lattes, Joe climbs aboard the train. As the departure whistle blows, the Rockwells clamor aboard too.

Abby spots a familiar tear in one of the seatbacks. “What luck! This is the train car we rode in on.” On hands and knees, Adam and Abby search the seats for their missing wallets.

“Times are tough for everyone these days, my friend,” a new rider sympathizes, puzzled by the matching jackets and tailored slacks worn by Adam and Winston.

Unattended, Winston scampers up and down the aisle. “Smells like goose shit in here,” a passenger sniffs. “Can’t be,” a fellow rider says. “Geese aren’t allowed here in Concordia.” Just in case, the passengers check their shoes and lower their windows.

As the train gains speed, Joe works the aisle. “Hot latte anyone? Twelve dollars!” Eight hands shoot up.

“Why twelve?” one buyer says. “In the Agora, you charged ten.” The six lucky holders of ten-dollar lattes rattle their cups to mock the less fortunate.

“Convenience fee,” the entrepreneur says. “I see nine hands up and I have six cups. Who’ll make it thirteen dollars?” Seven hands stay up. “How ’bout fourteen?” Six hands stay up, and Joe delivers the uber-priced lattes.

“Wow, fourteen bucks a cup, Abigail! Not even Starbucks gets that. The kid unloaded his overstock and maxed out the premium using an auction technique. His profit just jumped from two bucks to, let’s see, eighty-six bucks!”

“Never mind your Horatio Alger,” Abby says as the surly conductor follows behind Joe. “How we gonna cover the train fare?” Abby searches for the return ticket she purchased earlier in Boston.

“Family of three?” the conductor says. “That’s ten dollars, ma’am.”

“Our ticket’s in here somewhere, conductor.” Abby rummages the depths of her purse and flashes the café smile. “Swing back in a moment, would you?”

As the conductor lumbers away, Adam dives for his second interception of the morning. But he’s too late; the ticket fluttering in Winston’s hand sails out one of the open windows and climbs like a kite in the train’s wake.

The stern conductor returns. “Find your ticket, ma’am?”

“It flew out the window, sir.”

“Ah, many do. Tickets are piled on the track bed.”

“No, really sir.” Abby fakes a search for cash she knows isn’t in the purse.

“The fare must be paid before you step off the train,” the conductor says.

“What now?” Adam says, knowing how a collared turnstile jumper feels.

Seeing Adam busted, Joe funds another Rockwell rescue package. He walks the aisle with the empty coffee tray, soliciting coins like a steward on an international flight. “Loose change anyone? For those aboard less fortunate.”

Joe counts ten bucks of coins into a coffee cup, and necks crane as Adam accepts the bailout money. “You’re a savior, Joe,” Adam whispers and then shrinks into his seat.

Mercifully, the train pulls into Boston’s North Station where the trip began. “Thank God Almighty!” Adam says. Exercising their birthright, the Rockwells alight first, but this time the ticket scofflaws are shadowed by the conductor. “Ten bucks!” he insists, and Adam pays out of the cup. “Hurry up, ya prick!” echoes from inside the train car.

With gums flashing, Joe emerges next. “Dug these out of the ‘Lost and Found’ basket, ma’am,” he says and hands over the two missing wallets.

“Joe, you’ve done it again!” Abby rewards him with the day’s first genuine smile.

Sweetening the reward, Adam hands Joe a buck for his troubles.

“Thank you, sir. I’ll add it to the Joey Fund.”

“Oh, I bet you will.”

“That’s right, sir. Twenty percent of coffee profits go to the Joey Fund. ‘Joe for Joey’ is my motto.” Toting the empty coffee tray, Joe skips over to the North Station Café.

“What a marketing gimmick,” Adam says to the conductor.

“Hey pal, I’m the kid’s Uncle Nico. Joe’s already dropped five grand into his charity.”

“So, he’s an entrepreneur and a humanitarian?” Adam thinks it over. “In that case—Uncle Nico—I want to see your nephew in my classroom someday. But first he needs proper schooling.”

“Are you kidding? Proper learning comes in the Agora. On the train. Here in North Station. Yes, he hoodwinks every adult in sight, my friend, but at least the Joey Fund gives back.”

After Nico boards the train, Abby says, “You know, the man’s right about proper learning. For my dissertation, I read books. But Ari the barista observes people—just like de Balzac observed them in the streets of Paris two hundred years ago. Adam, I want to go back to Concordia and sit in the Agora for a week.”

“Oh no, I won’t face that barista again. Let’s visit Plymouth instead and see the Rockwell footprint in that rock.”

“But think of the humanity that parades before Aristotle in his Agora. Sleazy lawyers and sneaky spies! Priests, swindlers, and wise guys! Money grabbers and humanitarians—often occupying the same body! Snarky old ladies with dirty-mouthed macaws! Mayflower riders, for heaven’s sake.”

The Concordia departure whistle blows, signaling a quick turnaround. Seeing her chance, Abby says, “Enjoy Plymouth Rock, honey. But watch your wallet.” She hands over Winston and, before Adam can react, hops onto the train. Right behind, Joe climbs aboard, balancing six lattes.

“Hot latte anyone? Twelve dollars!” Joe shouts as the train starts out.

Abby waves a hundred-dollar bill. “I’m buying all the coffee, Joe. You’ll see another fifty if I can ask you a few questions on the ride.”

Sitting beside Abby, Joe dangles his spindly legs over the seat. “What are the questions about, ma’am?”

Abby poises a pen, ready, like de Balzac, for some practical learning. “They’re about your singular mastery of the modern human comedy.”

Joe smiles through the gap in his teeth. Whatever the lady means, the band leader’s already notched a record fleecing of this latest adult on parade.


One year later, business is brisk at the Agora. The book Aristotle co-authored with Abigail, Human Comedy on Parade at the Agora Café, is a best seller for its ‘practical absurdity and philosophical content,’ as the editor put it. Aristotle’s name is featured first, ‘for the marketing bump,’ Adam insisted.

Miss Perkins read the Human Comedy and admitted Winston into Minuteman Nursing School after all, although Adam is not allowed to parent help. The Rockwells moved to Concordia, where Adam wears a sports jacket to the dump and never refers to the Mayflower.

The Joey Fund was endowed with a seven-figure anonymous gift and is now an adjunct to the Red Sox Jimmy Fund. Another anonymous check to the Harvard Divinity School retired Aristotle’s acropolis-sized debt. Adam doesn’t mind chumming with Ari, now that he knows Ari’s a fellow man of the Crimson cloth.

Aristotle bought a house in Concordia too, where he home-schools younger brother Joe. Rounding out the not-so-nuclear family, their Uncle Nico moved in. Nico co-manages the Joey Fund endowment with Joe and Adam.

On a sunny, geese-free fall morning in Concordia, Adam and Abby arrive early at the Agora to claim the prime viewing table. A wondrous assortment of humanity gathers, and they cajole, debate, laugh, and buy coffee. In time, a whistle blows, and Joe gouges scrambling commuters for lattes.

Grinning at the absurdity, Aristotle takes a break with Adam and Abigail. “You know, Doctor Abby, I’ve grown beyond ‘I am.’ And I’m no longer a Cynic.”

“And just what is Aristotle’s modern philosophy of life?’

“Diogenes, roaming the agora with his lantern, never found his ‘one good man.’ Inside all the folly, there’s some good and bad in all of us. We should try harder to find the good.”

Two harried parents enter the café, swinging a cherub-faced toddler between them. “Wipe the snots off Sarah,” the mother says. “Her interview’s in fifteen minutes.” At a corner table, Miss Perkins matches them to a photo in an admissions folder. Behind the nuclear family, the short-armed Father O’Hegarty lines up, wearing the deep-pocketed trousers.

“But I’m still an Absurdist, too.” Aristotle adds, considering the morning’s events. He goes behind the counter. “Welcome to my Agora. How may I delight you with exceptional service today?”

“Two lattes, please. And an OJ for Sarah.” But the frazzled mother can’t pay up. “Ah shit, my wallet’s in the car. I hope,” she says, and Miss Perkins jots a note.

Aristotle smirks at what he observes, as his toga-wearing namesake did long before him. The human comedy paraded through Aristotle’s agora, climbed onto life’s stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and then marched through de Balzac’s Paris streets. Coming full circle, it rocks on today in Ari’s Agora Café.


A 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee and 2020 ‘Best of the Net’ nominee, John Mara writes fiction lakeside in New Hampshire with the creative input of his wife Holly. They often attract mortified glances in restaurants while discussing dastardly characters and plot structure. A multi-genre writer, John tends to converse in the genre he’s thinking about and makes better dinner company when it’s humor, not horror. You can find John’s 20+ short stories published in Liquid Imagination, Bewildering Stories, J.J. Outre Review, Youth Imagination, and other venues.

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