The Human Café
By JD Miller
Introduction: A picture of a café:
Let me tell you a story.
It’s not a very pretty story. But there aren’t very many stories that are pretty all the way through and still worth telling.
It starts with a bench, beside a window; vinyl and ketchup and ceiling fans basking in lethargy. The dull glow of neon and forgetfulness, a table steeped in coffee-stains. Home. I loved it and it loved me back—almost as living as I was.
There is no small part of me that thanks that place for keeping me alive. But more of me thanks those two humans who sat across the table on the day that it all began, with a notebook and half a smile and the smell of rain on the asphalt.
Chapter 1: A Café That is Human
“That’s horrible,” Lana declared. “It sounds like you’re eating people.”
“Yumm,” said Caesar. “Humans!” His mouth was already full, but he scooped another bite nonetheless.
Lana rolled her eyes and jabbed him with a mostly disinterested scowl. “Don’t be a moron, Michael.”
I chuckled a little and stared out the window, clicking my pen absentmindedly. There were a few flies butting their heads against the glass, tangling themselves up in the cackle of the neon sign. I don’t quite know how they got in, or how they were alive at all, as cold and wet as it was outside.
When I looked back down, the bold letters watched me, bleeding through the cover page faintly. The Human Café. I’m not sure why, but the name felt perfect. It held onto my tongue, as I mulled it over in my mouth. “Not like that,” I said. “It’s metaphorical. A Café that is human. Or full of humans, or something.”
Lana shrugged. “It’s still horrible.”
“I like it,” Caesar stated, making a thoughtful face. “It has an air of mystery. Intrigue. Suspense.” He held up his fingers, pinching some invisible measurement, “and just a dash of cannibalism.”
Lana didn’t bother with a response. She was shouldering toward her sketchbook like she was leaning into the wind, with her pencil in hand, and her other arm around the page so that we couldn’t see what she was working on. (I had a pretty good idea what it was, anyway.)
“Do you really not like it?” I asked her.
She returned the same indifferent expression, and said nothing. She let her eyebrows do the talking for her, and they were not overly impressed. I looked back at Caesar, who was making quick swipes at the touch-screen of his phone, which seemed to possess his attention completely.
“Which one should I start with?” I asked.
He made another swipe, frowned, and slapped his phone down on the table. He looked at me, as he took another bite of food. “Do the one about the werewolves.”
Lana made a disgruntled sound, tucked beneath her breath. Caesar made a face at her, and speared the uneaten food from her plate, folding a pancake in half to fit it into his mouth more conveniently.
“Well which one do you think I should start with?” I asked.
The eyebrows gave me a sort of shrug. “I don’t care.”
“Just not the werewolf one,” I muttered.
“You can do the werewolf one if you want,” was her response. I knew her tones well enough to know that I should keep looking. She still hadn’t looked up from her notebook, and I watched the end of her pencil bobbing.
It was easier for her, I thought. The pictures in her head were crisp. She could capture them, actually hold onto them. She could put them into her fingers and squeeze them out onto paper, as if she knew exactly what they were supposed to look like.
But the pictures in my head were disorganized smears. They swelled and shrunk like the tide, sometimes sharp and sometimes blurry. They came at me in rushes, and they retreated in droves. I could never hope to hold them. I only hoped that they would catch me up when they rushed in.
Hers were destined for pages. Mine could hardly be contained on them.
“What about the Queen?” she suggested, finally. “That would be an easy one to start with.”
A smile crept over me gradually, concluding in a nod. It would be an easy start. And maybe that was best.
“Okay,” Caesar said, “but then the werewolves? Or that one chick who hunts evil spirits?”
“Maybe,” I said, and I clicked my pen again. When I touched it to the paper, I felt that familiar lurch of energy nibbling in my fingertips and that itch in my mind. The picture was there.
The gates. The soaring gables. The glowing, golden peaks of a thousand spires. And those eyes, staring up at me, like the very eyes of the world.
It seemed so close. And when I closed my eyes, I might as well have been there. I might as well have been one of those ships, caught in the swells and smashed against the rocks. I might as well have just gulped the salty waves, for all the good I did trying to stay afloat. I couldn’t hope to contain it all. But I tired. I pinned it down, as best as I could.
And when the pen started to glide, it carried me off with it, out of the booth, out of the café, out of the city and the rain, without my feet ever having to move.
the eyes of the world
The city lunged out of the water like a giant crown, a bristle of spears bound up in red walls. Some said that it stood upon a single column of unfailing stone, defiant of the constant, tidal battery, and island overgrown with towering spires and chiming bells. Others said that it was not an island at all, but a massive ship, built before the rising of the sun, with an anchor that descended all the way to the core of the earth. For centuries the waves had marched against those walls, but they were nothing more than flies, battering at windows.
A fleet of a thousand ships could hardly have done more. Men were no more than sea foam cast against the stones, in the black shadow of Calypso’s ancient walls.
The harbors sprawled over the blue and gray water like shackles on the sea, with a forest of towering warships howling and swaying in their midst. The two giant fish-tailed bulls—each over fifty men tall—stood on either side of the Gate of Poseidon, the bronze guardians of the city within, watching over the ships with sun-fired eyes and making triremes and galleons look like toys.
The city was a monument to color—the sun draping her in a gown of light that no human conjuring could rival. Banners and tapestries danced fluid and blazing against the deep blue sky; flowers, trees and plants of all kinds overflowed their rooftop gardens and laced the architecture with green ivy veins. People just as colorful and crowded overflowed their homes and filled the streets with a river of living dyes, an ocean with its own tides and currents.
But high above the bellowing water and the gale of voices and streets and snoring ships, a single tower rose like an alabaster tree-trunk to support the stars. The sunlight split around it, forking off in branches that sloped back into the city. In this tower, fearless of the height and the wind and the distant water, a woman sat on a balcony with nothing but a few feet of stone and a thousand feet of air separating her from the streets and the waves.
She was not an old woman; but she sat as though innumerable centuries rested on her slender shoulders, alongside the freckles that she tried to hide. Her veil fell to her toes, but it did nothing to keep out the heat of the sun on her bare arms or the gnaw of the wind against her stomach. Her hair was woven through her crown—or the crown through it—and it sat upon her curls like the city itself sat upon the tossing mane of the ocean—Defiant. Immovable.
Here, there was no noise. Not from the city or from the harbors or the sea. Just the winds, which crashed into each other all around, an invisible brawl that she was caught in the middle of. But those forces do nothing to unsettle her. She hardly seemed to notice them. In fact, she was hardly there at all. Her mind, and her eyes, were somewhere very far off.
The lion, which served as her throne, held so still that it seemed more like some oversized golden statue than a living thing, breathing gently with the tide. It blinked slowly and lazily, half dozing, but entirely vigilant.
The woman did not mind the flick of its tail, or the occasional whine of its nostrils. Her eyes were set very distantly on the horizon and her arms outstretched. The winds wound themselves through her splayed fingers and crawled up her arms. She tasted every breeze, plucked out the words they carried. The choicest of them were even allowed to slither in past her veil, to perch on her freckled collar, and to whisper in her ear. When their whispering was done, they slid away. Amidst the torrent of sound and taste, the lion was just one flavor out of thousands.
As the woman sat like that, a tremble entered her arms. They were becoming too heavy to bear. Soon, she might need someone to hold up her arms, to keep her firm against the wind. Perhaps sooner than she used to think.
Nevertheless, she continued to stare; and she stared until her arms quivered so badly that she dropped them back to her sides, her muscles aching.
She slumped on her seat, and the great living sofa stirred slightly, to accommodate her with a low purr, more comforting than concerned. Someone stepped through the huge open doors behind her and onto the balcony.
“Your Highness,” he said, “are you alright?”
She did not look at him to speak. “Something is happening,” she said. “My eyes are strained. My arms are tired. There is something wrong with the stars. The winds…” She couldn’t think of the word. What was wrong with them? “They’re different,” she concluded. “Something is changing.”
“What would you have me do, your Majesty?” asked the voice again.
She was silent for several long moments. She ran her fingers through the coarse mane on which she rested her head, and breathed in its familiar smell. The lion smelled like lilacs. She never knew quite how. But he always had. And suddenly, she was curious. Even with the weight of the world pressing on her shoulders, she wondered. Was it in the soap? How often did they really wash him? And who was actually responsible for doing it? She nearly laughed at the image of the great beast, dripping wet. Did he struggle? Did even a mighty lion look like a house-cat, when it was wet?
“Your Reverence?” The man repeated. “Are you alright?”
“Help me rise,” she said quietly, and instantly, two men were at her side, with their gentle hands on her arms to pull her back to her feet. The lion rose beneath her, and she hung her arm around it as they walked inside. “Where is Perrius?” She asked weakly.
“I am here, my Queen,” replied another voice, as the figure neared her.
“I am growing weaker,” she said.
“Not so, my lady,” he replied earnestly. “The physicians assured me that you would begin to regain your strength very soon.”
“What do fish understand of stars?” she muttered. “They see them move, but do not understand where they go.” The ground had changed under her feet from sun-warmed balcony steps and painted roses to thick fur carpet. “I know my strength, and it is slipping from me like sand through an hourglass. Something is shifting in the weight of the world, Perrius.”
“My Queen needs only to rest,” Perrius said soothingly, but she shook her head.
“No. The time for rest is over, Perrius. Another time has come.”
“My Queen, what would you have me to do?” His tone was almost a plea.
Without opening her eyes, she pointed to the far chamber wall, her hand trembling as she extended it. “A boat is approaching. Small. It glides like a swan over the water. A man guides her, bathed in the dust of cities I have seen only in whispers. Bring him to me. He has a gift that I would see.”
The familiar hands of Perrius wrapped around her own and closed her fingers before gently laying them against her chest. He eased her onto her bed. “As you have said, my Queen, it shall be. But until he is here, I beg you to rest.”
“I shall attempt to,” replied the queen, with a deep, raspy breath. “But I fear my dreams shall be no better for me than my waking.”
On his little craft, the lone man attracted no real attention as he nuzzled his way forward on the breeze. As he cut across the waves and toward the spiderweb of harbors, the shadow of the wall rose slowly to swallow him up, inking the water black.
Here, so many ships had lost control over the ages, crashing against those suddenly cruel rocks—friends and invaders alike. But the waves were no threat to him; they were a wild horse to be broken, and he had saddled their spirit long ago. By now, they knew each other almost as friends.
The traveler, in his heavy robe and hood, nestled his little craft between two towering vessels that looked down on him like war-horses on a newborn foal. Two men, their bare torsos shining and tan in the light, met him there and helped him up as he climbed the ladder to the dock.
“Greetings, stranger,” called the portsmen, their tongues strained with accent.
“Greetings, friends!” called the stranger, but his language and tone caught the two men off guard; it was their own, natural one.
“You surprise me,” said the portsman. “Your tongue knows our words well.”
“My tongue knows a great deal of words,” replied the stranger. “It is my custom, when coming to new lands, to first master their language.”
“You must be a scribe,” said one of them.
“No, only a traveler, with open ears.”
“No simple traveler, I think,” said the other, “to have come very far in so unusual a vessel.”
“Yes. Very far,” he nodded.
“And what brings you, from so far, to our city?”
“What excuse must any man require to make such a pilgrimage,” he chuckled. “Is this not the Crown of the World?”
The portsman seemed to understand, now. “You are a pilgrim! Do you come to visit the temple?”
“I am no priest,” he said in response. “I have come, rather, to visit your palace.”
The two men traded frowns with one another and aimed them both at the stranger. “The palace? What business does a simple traveler have there?”
The man opened his arms, a faint smile still playing about his face. “As you’ve seen already, my friend, I can be no simple traveler. I have gifts to present to your Queen, but more—I have news that she must hear.”
“I don’t know who you believe you are,” the postman said with a shake of his head, “but I advise you to curb your arrogance—it is not so easy to gain the audience of her Holiness.” But at the same moment a figure on the far end of the dock appeared, striding toward them.
He was tall, draped in a purple robe that left his arms and most of his chest bare, and he carried a long, silver scepter in his hand. He must have overheard, because he called out with a loud, important voice as he neared.
“As it so happens,” he said, “this time, it is that easy. The Queen has requested your presence, Stranger.”
Confusion crossed the faces of the portsmen, but did not touch the traveler, who looked pleased. Perhaps he had expected this all along. The tall man pointed at him with the scepter. “I am Lord Perrius; Steward and Champion of the queen. No one is allowed entrance to her chamber without offering. You bring a gift?”
“I do,” said the traveler, gesturing to his small ship below.
Perrius nodded to the portsmen. “Retrieve it,” he said, and pointed his narrow eyes back at the stranger. “What gift do you boast before your Queen of Light?”
“Dirt,” he said, very boldly.
Perrius fixed him with a scowl as cold and dangerous as the scepter. “Do you mean,” he said coolly, “that before the magnificence of our Queen, the Preserver and Life-Giver, all offerings seem as futile and lowly as dirt?”
“No,” said the traveler. “I bring a gift that, before any man, seems as lowly as dirt. And that is, dirt.”
The Steward lowered his scowl all the more, his voice as dangerous as the incoming tide. “A thousand captains and sea-lords have requested the presence of the Queen,” he said venomously. “They have bought her audience with the treasures of temples and palaces, fleets of gold and crates of pearls, the wealth of slaves and silks and spices, creatures from lands unknown, all surrendered at the perfect feet of the Queen. And yet you would stand before the mightiest ruler in the world with DIRT?”
“Her majesty has all the wealth that she could boast,” replied the man. “But I have come with something else. Stories. Earth. The dust of city streets, the ashes of insects and gods. Truth. Is not truth, after all, what she seeks?”
Perrius snorted. “What scheme could a wandering minstrel pursue, that would bring him to speak his nonsense before the Queen of Atlantis?”
The traveler met the man’s eyes with a boldness that may have chilled a lesser figure. “Perhaps you should ask your queen,” he replied. “It was she, after all, who sent you to retrieve me.”
In her chamber, high up in the city, lying on her bed beside the massive lion, the queen smiled in wonder, the wind whispering between her toes. The man was brave. And something about him was unlike any other that she had seen. There was something in him, and in the chest that the portsmen drew out of the little boat, that made her stomach tingle with excitement, that made her arms feel life again.
“Bring him to me, Perrius,” said the queen. “I would look upon the eyes of this stranger.”
On the dock, Perrius nodded obediently. “Come,” he said. “For better or worse, your foolishness has earned your audience.”
The traveler looked up toward the high tower and smiled thinly. The bow he offered was a slight but authoritative one, like the bow of an equal, or a trusted advisor. “Your Servant thanks you, your Greatness.”
2. how we hate the rain
The world was caged in gloom. It hung outside the café windows like curtains so thick and dreary that it was hard to lift even my own spirits, let alone Lana’s. Caesar was (unapologetically) himself. It took more than meteorological dysfunctions to change that. Some new video game had captivated his attention so thoroughly that he had not even touched his food.
Outside, the downpour had puddled on the asphalt like little black mirrors reflecting the sky, oceans with their own raging tides. How terrifying it would be, I thought, to be a sailor on that sea, with drops the size of houses hammering down. To ants, perhaps, on a boat made of leaf, this might seem like the end of the world.
But then again, ants had survived enough of these storms that I’m sure they were no longer fazed. They were, after all, the inventors of the storm cellar. I wondered, for a moment, whether theirs flooded or not.
“I hate the rain,” Lana muttered.
The warmth of the café had fogged up the windows. I watched the blinking of the blurry traffic-lights beyond them, and the way they reflected on the beaded moisture before I reached over and drew a smiley face on the glass beside Lana. She hadn’t looked up from her drawing in quite some time, but she gave me a brief glance. The light was casting streak-marks over her face. They looked like tears.
Personally, I didn’t mind the rain so much. It was comfortable—warm and flannel. It made that itch in my mind grow even if it chased off all the pictures in the process. It slowed everything down.
But she had never liked it—at least not in the times that I had known her. It changed her, I thought. It was as though, when the rain began, all the best parts of her retreated. She saved those parts only for the sunshine.
Gradually, I think some of her dislike had rubbed off on us, in the nature of being changed by the people you love. Caesar and I had no reason to be anything but ourselves—but she did. And that, I supposed, is how we came to hate the rain.
I turned my attention back to the black-skinned notebook in front of me; it seemed nearly as dismal as the day itself. I skimmed over the last story I’d written, but felt no rush of color or excitement in its words as I had when I’d first conjured them.
Atlantis was waiting. I needed to go back. I needed to speak to the stranger and the Queen. But I didn’t. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that I even knew what was supposed to come next. I flipped to the next page and studied the blankness for a moment.
“What are you playing?” I asked Caesar, and this may as well have been a verbal abandon of all hope of productivity. Lana identified it as such with an outrageous eye-roll.
“It’s a new one,” he said, his eyes glued open and staring. “It just came out yesterday. It’s called Titan’s-Blood: Vengeance.”
“Oh,” Lana muttered, looking up fully for the first time, “Let me guess: Fueled by a cliché tragic backstory, an invincible hero must undergo a series of identical trials before finally facing an underdeveloped villain with just enough unanswered questions to sell the next game.” She blinked at him. “Anything like that?”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded, a tight smile flattening his mouth. “They must have sent you the demo packet,” he said.
“No,” she replied gruffly. “I just suffered through listening to your commentary on Titan’s-Blood: Alliance and what was it? Titan’s-Blood: Awakening?”
“Don’t forget Titan’s-Blood: Doomsday,” I added.
“Oh yes,” she chirped, “let’s not forget Doomsday.”
He chuckled dryly, setting down the game momentarily to scoop a substantial amount of ice-cream sundae into his mouth.
If the rain had any effect on me, it was to make me quieter; if it had any effect on Caesar, it was to increase his already substantial desire for sugar. “Vengeance is totally different,” he said.
“Oh?” Lana challenged. “What’s the difference?”
“The graphics are better,” he said, happily. “And the blood is a lot more realistic.”
“Yay,” she said. The rolling of her eyes seeped into the language of her shoulders. “Realistic blood.”
“Not to mention you can skip the tutorials and all the boring narration,” he added.
Lana mustered all the sarcasm I thought one person could hold. “Oh yes, let’s skip the only part of the whole game that could have any substance.”
“Well you have to admit,” I chimed in, “that way he’s technically spending less time on it.”
“Yeah, obviously,” he said, stuffing his grin with ice cream. “Geez, Lana. Why else would I skip them?”
She scowled at him—and me, by extension—but had no other words to add. So she looked back down and blocked the notebook with her arm.
My smiley face had mostly melted back into fog so I drew him again. This time I gave him eyebrows but thought they made him look somewhat psychotic immediately afterwards. An angry clown.
“Are you going to go back to Atlantis?” Lana asked, after a few minutes.
“I probably should,” I muttered. My arms felt like the pillars that held up my head, which seemed heavy and empty at the same time. Filled with cement, and hardened by rain.
All of our collective homework sat in the backpacks under our table. But none of us had even looked at it yet. For a moment, I considered breaking protocol and pulling it out. It was bound to happen sooner or later. It might just be easier.
Caesar saved me from considering it further. “You should write the werewolf one,” he said.
“Oh my word, Michael,” Lana snapped, facing him. “Are you ever going to give that one a rest?”
“Well yeah, duh,” he replied. “When he writes it!”
Lana reached under the table, pulled out Caesar’s backpack, and slapped the little copy of Henry V down on the table. “Read,” she said.
“But mom,” he whined. She took his ice-cream sundae and stuck it on the windowsill. He scowled and set down his phone to reach for it. She grabbed the phone off the table, and promptly sat on it. “Ew!” he barked. “You’re gonna break it!”
“Read,” she commanded.
His frown was a pouting child’s. It was too dreary to laugh, but I offered my most entertained smile. Lana returned to drawing. I returned to pen-clicking.
I didn’t have to wait long to feel her hand, under the table, passing the phone to me as stealthily as she could. The pencil didn’t stop moving for a moment in her other hand. (Not for the first time did I reconsider Caesar’s assertion that she was a classically trained ninja.)
I set the phone on the seat beside me.
“What should I write about?” I muttered, looking out the window.
“Write about something different,” Lana said. “Something you haven’t done before.”
Caesar looked up. “You could write about—”
Lana pointed her pencil-tip at him. “If you say one word about werewolves, so help me—”
“I wasn’t going to,” he jabbed back, meeting her eyes. “I was going to say that you could write about a poor little boy who has his only prized possession stolen by an angry old woman who wants to take away his ice-cream and eat his soul—”
I kicked him under the table and he hid his face behind the book. “Sorry ma’am,” he said. Lana leaned back into her drawing. I could see frustration in her shoulders, the way she hunched over the paper. But she was not really angry; not yet, anyway. Caesar would not push his luck, today—but he couldn’t keep his stiff face for more than a few seconds. He soon uttered a malcontented sigh and waved the book around somewhat disdainfully. “Have either of you even read this book?” He asked.
Lana and I looked at one another, and I raised my eyebrows. “Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more—Or close the wall up with our English dead.”
“There is some soul of goodness in things evil,” quoted Lana, “would men observingly distill it out.”
Caesar scowled. “There’s something wrong with you two.”
“Oh come on,” I chuckled. “Or close the wall up with our English dead? Even you could get into that. It’s like the Shakespearian Return of the King.”
“Thank heaven Shakespeare didn’t write Lord of the Rings,” Lana teased, “or Caesar would have to reject the whole thing out of principal.”
Caesar pointed from me to Lana, suddenly serious. “I just want you to be aware you’re treading on sacred ground, please tread lightly.”
I grinned but didn’t reply. I drew the smiley face again, leaving off the eyebrows this time, and looked back out at the gray sky. In a few moment’s time, everything had reset. Lana to her notebook, Caesar scowling to his Shakespeare. I was left with the empty page and a swelling dissatisfaction with its blankness. I could have done my homework. Caesar had already broken protocol, after all, at Lana’s insistence. But I didn’t want to stop staring at the blurry, passing cars.
Each of those little teardrops had a story, I thought; albeit the same story. The same birth, the same growth. They fell the same way, I supposed. They even fell at the same speed (thanks to a man in a leaning tower, a few hundred years ago). Gravity was their version of time, pulling us forward, dragging them down.
But they still had their differences. Some of them fell straight onto the street. Some of them hit rooftops first. Some hit dirt, or the grass swallowed them up. Some fell on cars and got to see the roaring in their bellies up close for a moment or two. Others got struck by lightning before they even had a chance to touch down, vaporized (or polarized).
Some of them collected and built rivers, trickling down the gutters, launching little cigarette-butt canoes and leafy warships. Drowning ants. Or maybe the ants knew how to swim by now. Maybe they were manning the little boats, shoving off in frigates and men-of-war, breaking tiny bottles of champagne and cheering, off to discover new lands.
The sky kept firing on them, and the ants, I guess, had no way to return fire. Their only means of defiance was survival.
Dragonflies hummed by. The rain didn’t bother them. They were born underwater.
For some reason, worms crawled onto the street to die. Sacrifices to appease whatever angry worm-gods were sending the destruction. I imagined their slimy pink councils meeting somewhere to discuss which members of society to offer up. Perhaps the old; perhaps the young. Little worm-virgins, for the dragons (or volcanoes) of the sky. They were drinking themselves to death. (And they were getting flattened by cars.)
There was no story in my head, though there was one all around me. But there were plenty of words. They were desperate, yearning words, but everything was calm inside of the café and inside me, quiet despite the sort of static in the air, the clanking of glasses and hissing of the grill in the kitchen.
I didn’t resort to poetry often, because it was always hard to force. But when it came, I didn’t stop it. (Maybe it was all of the Shakespeare I’d had to read, that week.) I set the pen down, and stammered out the few lines that I could:
letters in bottles
Like rain, we all are born the same.
To fall, and land—and there remain.
We pool, and splash; and for a while,
Forget we fell in single file.
Like bottles full of desperate words,
We bob along, until we’re heard.
Like ants upon this earthly skin;
Breathe out. And then breathe in again.
Once more unto this breach, my friends
‘Twixt earth and sky, ‘twixt start and end.
Once more unto the break of day,
Where all shall soon be wash’d away.
(So mount your cigarette canoe.
I’m just an ant. But so are you.)
3. the place where i was me
Lana was on vacation. It was an annual event, one that I tried to talk her out of hating every time it rolled around. I had not yet succeeded. I don’t know why she disliked leaving so much, but she always did. Caesar’s situation was not much better.
“It’s so stupid,” he had announced to us. “My stupid cousins are coming over. Which means that mom will make me wear that stupid freaking mask so I don’t get sick.” He had kicked the foot of the locker as he said it. We should have been hurrying off to class, but we were lingering in the hallway trying to wish away third period. “I hate that mask,” he’d growled.
I had seen him wear the mask before; it was like putting on a lead jacket. It dragged his soul into the ground, even as it pulled his thin eyebrows into a scowl. The elastic straps made his ears stick out even more than usual. I suppose it was his version of Lana’s rain, but as he said, “At least rain doesn’t make her look like a chimpanzee.”
“She has a point,” I tried to console him. “Your cousins are like germ-crawling snot factories.”
“It’s better than getting sick,” Lana added.
“Sure,” he replied, “remind me of that the six-millionth time my cousin asks me why I’m wearing it.” He kicked the locker again. “It’s just…”
“Stupid?” I suggested.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
I nudged him. “You’ll be fine. I can come over and play God of Conquest if you want. I’ll even wear a mask.”
In light of this, Lana had not complained much, about her own predicament, the day before she left town. I only hoped that, wherever she might be just then, it was not raining like it was here. The rain had not let up since the last time we had sat together at the booth, which I now occupied completely alone.
The smiley face on the window had been wiped away long ago I noticed as I sat staring through the window it had once decorated. The protocol, I decided, did not apply, when I was the only one present, as I was that day. My notebook was still sitting in front of me, patient as always. But so were a stack of other books, all tapping their metaphorical feet and wondering how long they’d have to wait their turn. I was in no real hurry.
A coffee cup snared my attention back to the real world as it slid across the table in front of me.
“Hey there, Champ.” My mom slipped into the booth across from me. The blue of her little dress nearly matched the blue the seat behind her. In some bygone age, they probably would have been exactly the same. I accepted the coffee happily and she stared out the window with me, and I wondered what she saw there. I wondered whether her eyes and mind settled in the same places as mine, or if we were both just restless.
“How was your day?” She asked. Her breaks were never long, but she always made the best of them now. Three years ago she’d begun to trade a cigarette and a half, behind the building, for ten minutes with me.
One of many things she had traded, over the years.
I think that’s why I started coming here first. But now it was because I belonged in that booth, and the whole world knew it. That spot, in that place, was everything that I ever could have called home: the tear in the vinyl cushion beside my leg with the yellow foam oozing out and the initials (RD), carved into the tabletop by someone’s fingernail. (We’d once spent a solid month trying to discover whose initials they were. But they might as well have been mine now.)
There, in the flickering shadow of the neon light, where the air smelled like safety—and coffee—and the world was securely on the other side of the glass—this was where I belonged.
The place where I was me.
I shrugged in response to her aging question. “Yours?”
She returned the gesture identically but bobbed her eyebrows in that way I knew. “Tips are good.” She winked over a mug of her own, as I smiled.
“Did you write another one?” She asked.
“No,” I shook my head. “I can’t decide what to write. And it’s not as fun alone.”
“Well you’re not alone now,” she said, and then frowned. “I should tell you, though; Angelina’s called in sick and I grabbed her shift. It’ll be good for us, but I won’t be done until late tonight.”
“No worries,” I said. This made little change to my day.
“Want me to swing you by Caesar’s later?” She asked. “I could take you on my lunch break if you want.”
I shrugged again, but chuckled. “Maybe. He’s not answering my texts. Which probably means his mom took his phone to make him play with his cousins.”
My mom had known Caesar practically as long as I had, and this just made her smile. There was a little, birdish laugh that I’d observed before, sometimes stuck in my mother’s throat; it chirped out, alongside or between her words. I suspected that it was shaking itself awake now. Coffee always seemed to bring it out.
“When did Lana say she would be back?” she asked.
“A week, I think. Maybe longer. It depends.”
“Well I hope she comes back soon,” she said, and there was the little laugh I’d expected. “You boys always fall apart without her.”
For a few moments we enjoyed the comfort of the silence, easily as worn and familiar as the cushions, before she checked her watch, sighed, and slid out of the booth. “Are you hungry for anything?” She asked.
“No,” I shook my head. “But thanks for the coffee.”
“You bet, Champ.” She gave another wink and tossed her curly hair back over her shoulders.
“Any ideas what I should write?” I mumbled.
“You could write about this place,” she replied, straightening her name-tag and smoothing her apron. “Unless that’s too boring. See you soon, Honey.”
I watched her leave and then returned my attention to the window and beyond. But the name-tag remained at the forefront of my mind.
It was my mother’s name. A very old, dusty name, handed down as a substitute for anything of actual worth. She had never been fond of it, but it grew on her, very slowly. It was something that became her.
Like this place.
Like black coffee.
I sipped again and cracked open the notebook. The blankness in my mind snapped open with it, and I felt that I could breathe a little more easily. The words bled out black and natural, like a sigh spilled into the afternoon.
the society of esthers
In another time, the woman might have made an excellent Viking. In another, an excellent sort of nursemaid for unruly young boys, a drill-sergeant for cats. Her odd yellow coat, the color and smell of apricot marmalade, fit her like a suit of armor. Her black umbrella she carried something like a sword, with which she seemed more likely to threaten away the raindrops than shield herself from them.
She was, at barely over five feet, not the most impressive figure. But whatever she lacked in height, she made up for with her wardrobe shoulders and the flat-lined mouth that she kept tightly closed, even when she smiled—which she didn’t very often. When she approached the Café, it was in a quiet way. She did not stand out, with her steel gray hair and her sturdy chin, her cool, sometimes ferocious
The café was tiny from the outside. She could only assume that it was just as tiny within. The aging, flickering sign traded winks with the throbbing yellow traffic-light across the road; they had been flirting in the same manner for years.
It was a humble little place, she thought. A ridiculous little place that, even from a distance, smelled like unbearably cheap coffee and ketchup and grease. But there was the smell of pie, too. And for good pie, many unbearable things could be endured.
The woman enjoyed the rain as much as a household cat, and as she stepped inside the café, the bell on the door yelled a greeting in her ears, which was enough to make her wince. A little brown-haired woman in a little blue dress wiped off a table and smiled over at her. “Good mornin’,” she said.
The woman grunted. She scanned the café briskly, taking in all the smells and sights that indicated life, in any of its inordinate forms. An old man was sitting in one corner, armed with a newspaper and a veteran’s hat and facing an oversized cinnamon roll. A pitiful variety of cacti decorated the counter (dreaming of dust and heatstroke). Apart from these and the little bustle she sensed from behind the kitchen door, the whole place seemed empty.
She made her way to the first booth beneath the window with the painted letters and sat down. As a matter of ritual—with no room for deviation—the woman propped her umbrella up beside her. From her great coat with its many pockets, she drew out a very severe-looking pen, a pair of ancient spectacles, which she perched with both hands upon the tip of her nose, a pocket-watch roughly the shape and weight of a doorknob, and a small notebook, very black and very square.
Each of these she laid in its intended place at right angles to one another, as neatly as if she had a ruler. When this was all done, she laid her hands on the table beside her, flatly, and took a deep breath (for which she opened her mouth only a small, catfish amount). She opened the notebook delicately, and the words on the page looked back up at her without blinking, no matter how many times she read them. This was the page that had brought her here, with its scribbled address, and the very bold name:
She closed the notebook and laid her spectacles down with the utmost care.
So she had come for a pancake-flipper. A coffee-pourer. A floor-sweeper. In her imagination, the young woman in question may as well have been dressed in rags and sporting a pair of shackles.
But this was of little consequence really, and no real inconvenience; the name may as well have read Cinderella. And the woman in the marmalade jacket may as well have been a Brick-Shaped Fairy-Godmother. She felt rather like one, and she rather liked the feeling (though she allowed no indication).
So this was the palace of Esther Hollens. The woman looked up at the roof.
The radio was about fifty years behind the times. Posters of assorted celebrities were looking at her over microphones or automobiles or sports equipment, with a dusty lack of interest. Most of them—if not all—were dead by now. But the notebook had brought her here, to this little place that time forgot. This dustbin.
A roadside museum curated by the lonely.
It took only a few moments for the dark-haired waitress to trickle over to her table, all dimples and cheap hairspray and re-hemmed uniform. Her nametag said Katie. “Good mornin’ Shugga,” she said, in an accent so thick and syrupy that the woman was almost surprised that it made it all the way out of her throat. “What’re we havin’ today?”
“Tea,” said the woman stiffly, “Black tea, with lemon. English Breakfast, please, NO Earl Grey, and no sweetener. Not even on the side. 1% milk, not whole, not skim. A single egg, fried over hard. And pie.” She sucked a long breath through the nostrils. “Blackberry?”
“You bet, Shugga,” Katie nodded, still smiling.
“The whole pie, if you don’t mind. Cut into six even slices.” The woman looked the waitress in the face. “The berries are fresh, I hope.”
“I’m sure they are,” Katie said. The order must’ve rattled her a bit; her pencil had stopped on its pad, but it took to moving again.
The woman in marmalade returned her eyes to the roof. “That will suffice,” she said. “The tea first, please.”
“You bet, Shugga,” Katie continued to nod. “Anything else for ya?”
“Is there a woman here by the name of Esther Hollens?”
The incessant nod. The woman wondered if Katie might not actually be a bobble-headed ornament tossed from some trucker’s dashboard. “Yes ma’um, she’s just in the back. You a relative a’hers or somethin’?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I hoped I might have a word.”
“You bet, Shugga. I’ll send her right out.”
The woman looked back down at the little notebook and twitched her nose. Secretly, she was beyond glad that the nametag had said Katie rather than Esther. She might not have survived an entire day of nodding and Shugga. Of course, women like herself tended to curb the enthusiasm of whimsical youth.
She could only hope that Esther Hollens was a more sensible creature.
Cinderella. She entertained the thought again.
Soon, her tea and egg came to keep her company. The tea was weak, the lemon old, and the egg more medium than hard. But she pushed them each away only after she’d finished them, and waited with her hands folded for her pie to arrive.
For something so bright and yellow to devour so much of something so dark purple, without slowly turning to some shade of green, was remarkable. For the woman had nearly finished the entire pie when the bouncing curls and serious blue eyes of Esther Hollens presented themselves.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said, her cheeks red and warm from the kitchen. “Katie said you wanted to speak with me?” She held out her hand. “I’m Esther.” She was perfectly and delightfully devoid of any kind of ridiculous accent. This pleased the woman very much. For the first time, she produced a smile, dabbing at her square mouth with a napkin before speaking.
“Yes,” she said. “The baker of pies.”
“Yes ma’am,” said the young woman, her smile quiet.
“Your pie is excellent.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” And then, more hesitantly, “Katie said that we were relatives…?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said the woman. She offered her hand. “I am Esther Mae Melbourne.”
The young Esther, looking somewhat uncertain, took the hand that was offered to her. It was warm but oaky, and made its up-and-down bob almost mechanically. “Pleased to meet you,” said the young waitress. There were no dimples, here; but there was a crease, across her nose, that appeared when she smiled. The older Esther quite liked it.
“I don’t meet many people with my name,” said the younger.
The older looked woefully at the sky. “Indeed. The greater generations are behind us. A dying, but faithful breed. Remnants of a glorious heritage.”
The younger Esther smiled thinly. “I guess so.”
“You inherited your name from your grandmother, did you not?” Said Miss Melbourne.
“Sure,” said the waitress. “Did you know her?”
“I did,” said the gray-haired stranger. “It is on her behalf, and on the behalf of us all, those few who remain, that I am here.” She reached into her jacket pocket and drew out a single rectangle of paper, crisp and sharp as metal. She looked the young Esther in the eyes as she handed it to her. “I have come a long way to meet you,” she said.
A line formed on the young Esther’s forehead. It was not an ideal line, but it was nothing a little discipline couldn’t iron out. “Not just to eat my pie, I hope,” she chuckled.
Esther Mae smiled very faintly. There were certainly no dimples here; only creases of concentration, like slips from a chisel. “We Esthers need to stick together,” she said. “There are more of us than you might think. But less than there once were.”
Esther Hollens took the card with a very confused expression. When she looked back up, the confusion had settled into her voice. “Is…is this a business card?” She asked.
The other Esther smiled again. “An invitation.”
“To what, exactly?” Asked the waitress, a hand on her hip. There was an attitude about her that her older, like-named counterpart quite enjoyed. “Like a bridge club or something?” She joked.
Esther Mae Melbourne smiled very thinly, her eyes like bullets that a musket might have fired, once. “We are the descendants of queens,” she said. “Co-inheritors of a forsaken kingdom. But not forgotten. Keep that card with you. If ever you have need, you know how to reach us.”
Esther Hollens gave a half-suspicious look at the woman, and then thanked her. She put the card into her apron pocket, asked if she could get the woman anything, and then said goodbye. Her slight shape slipped back into the kitchen and disappeared.
Miss Melbourne finished her pie and pushed the plate away. She clicked the doorknob watch open, examined it for a moment, and then tucked it back into her breast pocket. The spectacles went back around her neck; the notebook and pen to her thigh. The umbrella was sheathed under her arm as she stiffened and marched back out into a world too gray to fully support her coat’s choice of color.
On the other side of the road, at a ruin of a bus-stop not far from the winking traffic-light, Esther Mae sat down beside a very tall woman with hair the texture and shape of cotton candy and the definition of periwinkle. Her lips were ridiculously red, and her dress—and shirt, and stockings—a ridiculous clash of plaids.
“Good day, Esther,” said the tall, thin woman.
“Good day, Esther,” said the woman who was brick-shaped.
“Will she join us?” Asked the woman with the blue hair.
“Not yet,” replied the one with the steel. “But we shall see. In time, when she realizes that she has nowhere else to go, perhaps we may make the acquaintance of young Lady Hollens once again. She will see the virtue of our society. And desperation shall, as ever, be our ally.”
The bus trundled in. And the bus trundled out. And the town was two Esthers less.