Silent Bob looks for the Foggy Cities

The Geeky Guy was not the only one who thought he was married to the Lisping Barista. So did the drug dealer, Chai Latte; only it wasn’t exactly marriage he thought he had. He thought he had something that’s often confused with it. He had possession. But, don’t believe it from me. Let’s let the Lisping Barista tell it.

Chai’s been really, really generous. Whenever I need money, he gives it to me. I get all the drugs I want. He gets me some clothes and some jewelry I never thought I’d have. I ask for some money to fix up my car, but he says I don’t even need a car. I ask him, “Do I need to work?” But, he says, “Working’s important for your self-esteem, Baby.” He’s right. He has a good work ethic and lots of self-esteem. He goes to work every day, right there with me. He never leaves my side.

Chai’s got lots of friends and they’re OK, but they’re not my Chai Latte. There’s only one I don’t get. That’s Silent Bob. He intrigues me because he never says anything. He just looks at you. His face says it all; but, not quite. You still want to hear what he has to say; not because you need to, but you want to have the satisfaction. I get turned on by coaxing words out of Silent Bob. At first, I just get one at a time. At this stage, whenever he says anything, it sounds weird; not because it actually sounds weird; but it’s weird he says anything at all. It’s like when the couch or the chair or the refrigerator speaks up and says something. In that case, you really want to hear what it has to say, even if it’s nothing intelligent; but because you want to hear it do it and because you want to be able to say you made it talk.

Anyway, so, days go by with me getting one word at a time out of Silent Bob. Then everything comes all at once. It’s like that old movie about Helen Keller where she finally learns how to talk and then you can’t get her to shut up. Well, not quite like that. Silent Bob is still what you might call reticent; but it felt that way.

My breakthrough came when I asked him where he was from.

“Yoopee,” he says.

I don’t know where that is. I failed geometry; but, before I can ask him, he adds, all on his own, “I’m a Yooper.”

“What’s a Yooper?” I ask.

He tells me he’s from the upper peninsula of Michigan. He shows me with his hands. He makes a mitten with one and a claw with the other. He comes from the claw.

I ask him how he got here. That’s when he really gets talking.

“When I was a kid,” he says, “I used to look ‘cross lake and see land, other side. Door County, Wisconsin. At night, lights. We call them Foggy Cities, eh? I always wanted go Foggy Cities.”

“So, did you like the Foggy Cities?”

“Nope, Foggy Cities just like Yoopee. So, I keep looking eh? But, I take wrong turn.”

There’s something just so adorable about Silent Bob, looking for his foggy cities. We all have our foggy cities. The things that get us going, but we can never find.

But, there’s also something else.

“I like the way you talk,” I say; and I really do. It’s different and it makes me think about words. There’s so many ways to say the same thing. When you find a different way, it makes you think about all the others.

He looks uncomfortable and embarrassed. I know why. I know exactly why.

“I don’t like the way I talk,” he says. “I sound stupid; but, I can’t change it.”

So, he feels the same way about his Yooper accent as I feel about my lisp. I want to make it all better for both of us, so I do a dumb thing. It’s the right thing, but dumb.

I lean over and give him a kiss, right on the lips.

That was the exact moment Chai Latte decides to walk in the room and see us. That’s how I got this black eye. No, it wasn’t falling on a doorknob like I tell everyone. The next thing I know, Chai tells me I’m quitting my job. Only, now, I don’t want to.

The Geeky Guy is married

In his mind, the Geeky Guy was already married to the Lisping Barista. No marriage license was necessary. That’s just a piece of paper. No ceremony had been held. That’s just for the relatives. There was no reception, no ring, no gown, no honeymoon, no corsages, no awful gowns for seven bridesmaids, or ill-fitting tuxes for seven groomsmen. They’d just be a waste of money. In his mind, there were vows; but they were never spoken. Anytime the Geeky Guy tried to say anything to the Lisping Barista his throat got small, his head began to whirl, and his heart took up tap dancing. But, no need. Vows never need be spoken when love is involved. Vows, paper, and ceremony just get in the way when two spirits are joined. Love is an understanding, fireworks, a little bit of chemistry, people on the same page, tuned into the same frequency, with a certain amount of simpatico. Love is commitment; and, boy, was the Geeky Guy committed.

The Geeky Guy was most certainly married to the Lisping Barista, in his mind; but it was a secret marriage. No one knew; not the general public of the town of Kenilworth, nor even the best customers of the Epiphany Cafe. Rabbi ! never blessed the union and the Town Cop never questioned it. The Therapist Emeritus never analyzed it because the Geeky Guy never told her. One couldn’t be sure whether the Lisping Barista, herself, his very wife, his better half, the love of his life, knew she was married to him. She might’ve, but they never talked about it.

His sister, the High Street Witch, didn’t know; she, especially didn’t know. The Geeky Guy was on the outs with his sister, with whom he lived, over nothing less than this association with the Lisping Barista and his impetuous purchase of the Epiphany Cafe. He and his sister lived in the same dilapidated house, stuffed full of newspapers and electronic discards from the neighborhood, but they seldom saw each other, much less spoke to one another. It was easy to avoid seeing someone in that house, a maze of clutter. It was easier to avoid speaking; for having a long-established routine, the business of the household didn’t require much consultation. It wasn’t easy to feel the icy chill of sisterly disapproval, though, and the implication that, if their parents had been alive to see it, they would have had something to say.

The Geeky Guy knew he was married to the Lisping Barista because she was all he ever thought about. From the time he woke up in the morning to the time he went to bed, she was in the front of his mind. From the time he went to bed to the time he got up again, she might as well have been at his side. Like some wives, she had never been to his workplace; although he had pictures of her, snuck by his iPhone, appearing in a slideshow on his computer. Whenever he wanted, and he wanted to quite often, he could toggle back and forth between her photos and his spreadsheets and CAD programs. Unlike most wives, she had never set foot in his home; but they spent their time together most of the other hours of the day. The Geeky Guy spent every available hour at the Epiphany Cafe, nursing his cappuccino, watching his wife work. No one thought this was unusual. As the owner of the Epiphany Cafe he had a right to the comfortable chair by the potted plant, with a low table close at hand, and a good view, both of the cafe directly and the street through the plated glass window. No one thought he was married to the Lisping Barista because he rarely ever spoke to her, except a few words pertaining to the business of the cafe.

The Geeky Guy had to be married to the Lisping Barista, even though they could never be seen kissing or touching each other. Plenty of kissing and touching occurred in his imagination, and, being the kind of guy he was, he might not have kissed or touched in public, anyway. They never even looked into each other’s eyes, but the Geeky Guy seldom looked directly at anyone. He was a geeky guy, after all.

Most would scoff if they heard the Geeky Guy was married to the Lisping Barista in those terms. No kissing, no touching, no sex. No cohabiting, no talking, no pet names, no sweet nothings whispered in any ears. But there were also no arguments, no broken china, no visits by the in-laws, no shattered promises, and no tragic misunderstandings. It was a better marriage than most conventional marriages. If only every marriage went so well.

The Geeky Guy was most certainly married to the Lisping Barista, in his mind, and, in his mind, he believed she felt the same about him. After all, the Lisping Barista did say yes to him when he asked her out on a date. He only had to ask once and she had an answer right away. She drove him in her car and they went to hear a band she picked out. He met her friends. They kissed and groped and she had put a very private part of him inside a moist part of her. In doing so, they had performed almost the very consummation of marriage.

So, the Geeky Guy considered himself married to the Lisping Barista. That’s why he couldn’t understand why she continued to go out on dates. Oh, the Geeky Guy knew about the dates. It might be said, he had gone on them, as well. He followed behind, at a discrete distance, when she visited Gillette’s Castle with the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. He paid the admission fee and looked at them looking at the painting of the actor and builder of the castle, William Gillette, famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. When the tour guide had caught them kissing, he had caught them kissing, too. He followed them as they fled, hand in hand, through the woods and into the cave. Peering from behind a tree, he saw again the white flash of her breasts and a pink nipple, before they were covered by wide hands not his own. He was even there to see them leave the cave; the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat had the embarrassed look of someone who had seen something he wasn’t supposed to see, and she had the look of someone who had seen him see it.

The Geeky Guy was not present when the Lisping Barista had been evicted from her apartment. If he had been, it would’ve gone quite differently. She wouldn’t have had to stand naked in front of her neighbors. Oh, maybe for moment, but he would’ve been there, taking off his shirt and covering her with it to spare her the shame he would’ve seen on her face. She wouldn’t have had to spend the night in her car. None of that would’ve happened; or, if it did, it would’ve been the kind of story they laughed about afterwards.

The Geeky Guy did see her get picked up by Chai Latte and taken to his house. He watched from across the street as people arrived and left the drug dealer’s place. He saw the bedroom light go on and the two pass through the doorway. He witnessed her smile at someone as they left in the room.

When he was at the Epiphany Cafe, watching the Lisping Barista, the Geeky Guy heard her talk. She would go on, to anyone who would listen: Chai Latte, this, and Chai Latte, that. No one could be better than Chai Latte. She was glad she gave Chai Latte a chance. No one understood what he was really like. She didn’t know what she ever did before meeting Chai Latte. Then, one day, the ultimate happened. The way things were going, it had to happen. The Lisping Barista failed to come to work. She had done so before when she was hung over, or sick, or slept late; but, this time it was for good. In her place, Chai Latte had sent a note. She wouldn’t be coming anymore. She was his.

Was this any way for a wife to act?

The Geeky Guy was confused. You’ve got to remember, dear reader; that the Geeky Guy did not know as much about women as you and I probably know, even though we are likely to not know much, either. The only thing he knew about women, he got from his sister – a strange bird, too – and a pair of books left over by his parents.

And so, the Geeky Guy went to those books. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex was not very helpful unless he needed to know the number of days in a woman’s cycle or the exact placement of her fallopian tubes. When it came to the expectations a husband may have of his wife, it was as vague and non-specific as the section that failed to describe how the penis penetrates the vagina.

The second book, Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott, was much more helpful. In this Victorian romance he found, not an exact match to his particular plight, but one that was pretty darn close. The heroine, Amy, had run off with a cad of a man. The hero was in pursuit. Since the Geeky Guy figured himself as the hero, and not the cad; he knew what he had to do. He would do what the hero did in the book. He would confront the cad, in this case, the drug dealer, with the point of a sword. The Geeky Guy didn’t have a sword; but he had something better. He had a handgun his parents left in their nightstand.

The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat takes up residence by the dumpster

When he wasn’t killing or not killing his cat, Schrodinger, the eminent and perplexing physicist, wrote a book that defined life. A living being, he said, was a pocket of order, surrounded by chaos. What’s more: living beings grow more orderly as they evolve; in the same way that everything else gets more disorderly. Life is the exception to the second law of thermodynamics; at least as long as it lasts.

By that measure, it was not entirely clear whether the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was a life form or not, at least by looking at him by the Epiphany Cafe’s dumpster, as he slept off his remorse.

Every morning began inside the Epiphany Cafe as they all do. The customers went about their business of re-ordering the world. They tapped their phones and drew and digested sap from the virtual tree of knowledge. They chewed pastries and converted starches and sugars into inspiration. They filled blank screens with little lines of meaning. They sloshed their drinks, saw it was good, and rested from their labors.

While, the cafe, itself, was a tiny pocket of peace; outside, by the dumpster, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had abandoned himself to Chaos. Beset at every turn by the hounds of guilt, the reptiles of regret, and the hissing snake of shame, he wrapped his arms around the legs of Mother Chaos. She offered a dangerous safety from the murderous, madding crowd. A forlorn foundling, he curled in her lap and suckled her shriveled, pendulous paps; not until he was full, for there was nothing there to nourish him, but till he could suck no more. She stroked his hair; not to comb it into regimented rows, but to twist it into cow licks, tangles, and split ends. She told him stories that made no sense; sightless shaggy dogs that lost their way, imparting no moral, and revealing no truth. She rocked him with a syncopated sway that had no swing and deserted its beat. She carried so much everything, that she gave nothing; but, her nothing was plenty, plenty more than he could handle.

He had tried doing it the other way, the way most recommended. He had come to the cafe, carrying his secret, and laid it trustingly at a therapist’s feet. But she handed it back to him. He tried doing it another way, a way fallen out of fashion, but possessing the authority of tradition. He brought his confession to a holy man, the most respected figure in the town’s long history, the Revered Abraham Pierson, Puritan preacher and founder of Yale. But Revered Pierson was a dead man and, when the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat kelt in front of his tombstone and told the story a second time, he heard no response from the inert rock. Therefore, he did it his way, a way that had worked before. He entered a liquor store, carrying no disclosure but what was printed on dollar bills. This offering was readily accepted. What he received in exchange was not sanity or forgiveness, but forgetfulness, and a sloppy embrace with the aforementioned Chaos.

Thus, from a confusing current of impotent thoughts that had flowed unceasingly through his mind, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat bobbed to the surface. Unmoored from any anchor of self respect, the current took him and he was swept away, unencumbered by dignity. It may be that every ghost that he had ever known visited him that night, but nothing they could say could get a grip on him before he was pushed away by the surge. If guilt was a rock, he glided over rocks. If regret was a maelstrom, he eddied till the exit. If shame was a cataract, he took the plunge into deep pools below. When he, at last, reached the end of the mad cascade down the mountain, he was pushed out to sea and drowned himself, far beyond observation, intervention, or memorial.

His way worked, at least until he awoke. Then, he would do it again.

Inside the cafe, in the tidy pocket of order, we began to be aware of the body by the dumpster. We would never have recognized this man, but for the cowboy hat fallen from his head, tipped open like a imploring palm. We knew him as the former barista, not our favorite, the Lisping Barista, who moved effortlessly between the cash register, espresso machine, and fridge; but the other one, the one who didn’t know how to make fancy coffees, but never stiffed you in your change and gave you all the refills you wanted. We knew that man, but we didn’t know him. We only knew the hat, the self conscious drawl, the little he could do for us then, and the much he demanded now.

He was just a body by the dumpster. He had became as much an apparition as the ghosts who haunted him. We watched him intently as we averted our eyes. As the days went on, his body shrank more and more, while its effect grew larger. It spoke through the set of silent lips. It looked at us through the impertinent scorn of a blank stare.

There was much debate, within the Epiphany Cafe, over what should be done. Some counseled compassion. Through him, they said, we became human. We understood his fears, even though he never told us them. We sympathized with his refutation of everything, even though we would never do the same. It was as if we had been initiated into a mystery. We exchanged meaningful glances, pleased with ourselves, as if we had performed some trick for an eternal reward. We were a chorus of affirmations to everything we imagined him asserting. We spoke of him with the air of obsequious sycophants, so our flattery compensated his humiliation. He influenced the moral tone of our world as though he had the power to distribute honors, treasures, or pain; but he gave us nothing but distant, unuttered contempt.

Others objected to the body’s presence. It was an affront to our acceptability, a risk to our security, a burden on our property values. We looked to Kenilworth’s Town Selectman to do something about it. The Town Selectman looked to the Town Cop. The Town Cop looked to the Geeky Guy, who was the owner of the property near the dumpster. The Geeky Guy looked to the Lisping Barista, not because she possessed any authority, but because he was always looking at the Lisping Barista, and would never want to do anything of which she would not approve. The Lisping Barista looked to Chai Latte because Chai Latte was her new boyfriend and she thought he could do anything. Chai Latte, who was the ne’er-do-well son of the Town Selectman, looked at his father and felt relieved that, for once, someone else was a bigger pain in his father’s ass than he was. He said he should be left alone.

“Don’t hassle the guy,” said Chai Latte. “He’s just trying to live his life.”

“There you go,” said the Lisping Barista, “I told you Chai Latte was a nith guy. Everyone thinkth heath juth a drug dealer.”

Was it even possible to tidy the mess by the dumpster, or was the very presence of a dumpster a concession that there were some things that could not be fixed? We had it good here, in the Epiphany Cafe, everything was finally right. Perhaps the only thing that kept it in order were the walls that kept the chaos out. As Schrodinger might say, a stalwart membrane is necessary for life.

While everyone was busy looking at everyone else in the Epiphany Cafe, most failed to look at the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat and consider what he really needed. Some brought food, but with the dumpster nearby, he didn’t need food. Some tried to get him to go to a shelter, but the dumpster provided shelter. Some even tried to talk, but the dumpster’s hulking presence was all the company he needed. Its cardboard boxes became his clothing. Its decay his perfume. As the buffalo was to the American Indian, as the seal was to the Eskimo, as a Salvation Army Thrift Store is to an urban hipster, so was the dumpster to the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. But there was one thing the dumpster did not have. It could not provide alcohol, the one thing he most needed.

Fortunately, there was one person in the Epiphany Cafe who knew what he needed. She knew because she knew how to pay attention. She knew because, by crying the tears of God, she had acquired the generous, libertarian sensibilities of God. Every day, instead of buying a coffee at the cafe for a random customer, she would buy a bottle of vodka at the liquor store and leave it anonymously by the dumpster. She reasoned: just as God provides seeds and worms for the birds of the air, and soil and sun for the flowers of the field; He made vodka for those who need it.

The Lisping Barista finds her people

What a difference a day makes. The rest of the Epiphany Cafe, as well as the general mental health of the Kenilworth area, was far worse after the Therapist Emeritus retired. But the Lisping Barista, on the other hand, seemed well rested, collected, calm, and back to her happy self. She had all her piercings in. Her tats glowed with a vibrancy they have not had since she first got them. She could be overheard singing a song from the Spellbinding Fish Fry. How could this be, after working a double? Was it especially restful, sleeping in her car?

I had to wait most of the day to find out, when she finally had a chance to write in her journal and I had a chance to snoop.

I had underestimated Chai Latte. I thought he was just a slimy drug dealer, but he’s a nice guy. He let me stay last night in his apartment.

Nothing could be more gratifying for me than to see she had the same name for him I did: Chai Latte. But, she’s a barista; why wouldn’t she?

I was really hoping that cowboy dude would show up yesterday. One, I needed him to work his shift, so wouldn’t have to work a double. Two, I would’ve asked for the keys to his place, so I could get some sleep. I was going to make it worth his while, but he never showed up. Then, when I’m done with his god damn shift, I clean up and take out the trash. He’s passed out, shit faced drunk, by the dumpster. I nudge him with my foot. “Wake the fuck up,” I say, but he groans and turns over. “Whatever,” I say. Too late to work for me, anyway.

I was getting ready for another night in the old car, when Chai Latte drives by and asks me, what’s up? Normally, I’m like, fine, keep it rolling. I don’t need to get messed up with a drug dealer’s shit on top of everything else; but every problem, when you look at it in a different light, looks like a solution. So, I tell him I’m having a fight with my roommate. Can I sleep on his couch?

He says, sure, and I say cool; so I follow him over to his place. He shows me the couch and I play him some Spellbinding Fish Fry. He doesn’t even roll his eyes when I tell him the Deep Fries are going to save the world. I must have been tired because the next thing I know, I don’t know anything. I’m passed out on the couch.

When I wake up, he’s playing some shred rock and there’s a bunch of guys sitting around with beers, passing a joint over me. I know them all from the cafe, like I know everyone, but not their names. I’m a little embarrassed because I’ve been sleeping. When I wake up, I slurp a whole gallon of drool from the pillow, but they’re cool. They pass me some weed and offer me a beer.

I’m not big on beer, but I like weed an awful lot. I take both to be sociable. One guy is talking about how he’s been in the hospital. He still has that plastic bracelet they put on you. That’s their mark. His girlfriend had called the ambulance when she found him passed out. Passed out just like I just was and passed out like the cowboy dude. Anyone else would just say, whatever, like I did, or pass a joint over him, like they did, but this girlfriend calls the ambulance and they bring him to the emergency room.

“Bitch,” says one guy. That’s all I ever heard him say, other than “Honduras black”.

Plastic Bracelet Guy wakes up at the emergency room and goes all ape shit on them because he was supposed to have been to work hours ago. He’s on an asphalt crew, which he doesn’t need to tell us about. We can smell it on him. They’re not going to let him out until they ask him a million questions. He doesn’t like that one bit and charges at the security guard, who used to be a bouncer at a tough club in New Haven and probably should still be there.

The bouncer bounces him right back to his room and, in no time, they have three out of his four limbs immobilized. A doctor shoots him up with Haldol and Ativan, but it doesn’t take effect before he lands a right cross on the doctor’s jaw with the one free limb.

By the way, Plastic Bracelet Guy didn’t know they shot him up with Haldol and Ativan, I know because I’ve been shot up with it before, at an emergency room, as a matter of fact, under very similar circumstances. Since I knew this, I contributed by informing him.

“Haldol and Ativan,” I said.

“Bitch,” says Honduras Black, looking right at me, like I just said something wrong. But, I could tell he wasn’t talking about me. He was still talking about Plastic Bracelet Guy’s girlfriend.

When Plastic Bracelet Guy wakes up a second time, it’s late at night. The shift at the hospital had changed and he missed a whole day of work. He’s probably fired because this isn’t the first time. He’s still tied to the bed, so he starts calling, but no one hears him. He starts to try to get out of the cuffs, straining this way and that, till he succeeds, not in getting out, but in tipping over his hospital bed. That’s when the staff comes with another shot of Haldol and Ativan.

“Bitch,” says Honduras Black, again. All this is still the girlfriend’s fault.

Right about now, I notice another guy in the room. I’ve never seen him at the cafe and, all night long, he never says anything. I call him Silent Bob, after the guy in the movie named Silent Bob, even though he looks nothing like him. Silent Bob keeps his eyes on me, only it’s not creepy. It’s kinda nice, like he’s got a thing for me, or something.

Plastic Bracelet Guy wakes up a third time, but I don’t have to tell you what happened. I’m not sure how many times he woke up and they kept giving him Haldol and Ativan, but it was enough that I lost count. The weed starts to take effect and I’m on my second or third beer by the time he’s home and chewing out his girlfriend, who started all the rigamarole in the first place. She calls the cops on him again and he runs out of the house before they get there. He skips over telling us the reason she had to call them.

“Bitch,” said Honduras Black.

I was about to bring up some important questions, something like: did they release you from the hospital or did you escape? Why did your girlfriend call the cops? Are they likely to show up here, looking for you? Or will the guys in the white coats come by, with another shot of Haldol and Ativan?  I was interrupted by a knocking at the door. I almost jumped out of my skin. They all laughed. All but Silent Bob, who just smiled.

It was just a geeker, looking for some cocaine.

“Awe, Man,” said Chai Latte. “Look at yourself. You’ve had too much already. Let me give you something else to bring you down.”

The Geeker didn’t look at himself, but I looked at him. He was a mess. His hair was a mess. His eyes, which pointed in two different directions, were a mess, too. Even his clothes were a mess. That’s when I changed my opinion of Chai Latte. He isn’t just a  drug dealer. He’s a nice guy, too. He cares about people.

The Geeker takes something into a corner and shoots up, sitting on the floor, like he’s been in a geeker world so long he forgets what chairs are for.

Chai’s friends stay the night. Plastic Bracelet Guy crashes on the couch next to me. Honduras Black glowers over his last beer until he falls asleep. Even his snoring sounds like he’s saying the word, bitch. Silent Bob nurses his beers and stays awake long enough to watch me and Chai go in the other room. I give Silent Bob a smile as I go.

Here’s another thing about Chai Latte. You know how I can’t even follow through with fucking anyone without some crazy shit going on? Well, Chai is the one guy who has the decency to get me drunk first so I don’t think about it too much. That shows consideration.

For the first time in forever, I fall asleep without crying myself to sleep first. In the arms of Chai Latte, with violent Plastic Bracelet Guy, misogynistic Honduras Black, a mollified geeker, and Silent Bob in the next room. I’m finally with my people, a tribe of misfits who have the good sense not to judge.

Chaos ensues at the Epiphany Cafe and God weeps

Those of us who spend a lot of time tapping on our laptops at the Epiphany Cafe know that the mood there varies according to circumstances and the characters who walk in through the door. It’s most often energetic, ebullient, and elated; seldom staid, sluggish, or sleepy. It has the personality of an over-educated grad student home to see his parents; someone who has plenty to say, but can never be understood. As a gathering place, the Epiphany cafe will never be mistaken for a barbershop where events of the day are combed over, or a diner, where they’re chewed over. Those places process the things that happen; the Epiphany Cafe makes them happen. They’re like your great aunt who spends more time cleaning than making a mess. The Epiphany Cafe is your two year old nephew, who’s just learned that he can reach the shelf where the knick-knacks are kept. That is to say the the Epiphany Cafe is always a little bit chaotic; but never like it was immediately after the Therapist Emeritus announced she was retired.

To be fair, before she left that day, the Therapist Emeritus referred every one of her clients to someone else. Before abandoning her people in the middle of multiple simultaneous nervous breakdowns, she gave them all a number they could call, negotiate a fee, and get an appointment with a stranger, two or three weeks hence. It was the least she could do, as a medical professional.

The telephone crew had come in for coffee when she first broke the news. They spread it to everyone else. They had little else to do, since no one used landlines anymore, but get coffee and spread gossip. Within an hour, all the neurotics and psychotics in the Kenilworth area were streaming into the Epiphany Cafe to get their number, too. Not since the last Emo concert had so many people who needed therapy ever been in one place at one time.

The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat got referred to a colleague the Therapist Emeritus didn’t like, for no shrink likes to treat a patient who actually needs it. The Geeky Guy got someone who specialized in geeky guys. The Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker had already pecked her iPhone, found someone else, and was out the door before she could say goodbye.

The Therapist Emeritus didn’t leave the Epiphany Cafe without first saying goodbye to everyone, except me, of course. Like I said, I’m a fictional character and might just as well be invisible. Rabbi ! gave her a blessing. The Waving Man, had he been there, despite the fact she wasn’t a car. The Therapist Emeritus even had a word for the homeless Lisping Barista, who, by that time had worked all day, not slept all night, and was a hot puddling mess. The Therapist Emeritus asked how she was getting on with her journalling and encouraged her to continue, ignoring what any therapist emeritus might be expected to see.

Just before she left, Little Theresa came in the door to buy her daily cup of coffee for someone else. Little Theresa didn’t even make it to the counter before she stopped in her tracks. She looked around, got a feel for the place, and began to cry. She didn’t know why she was crying, that is, she couldn’t tell anyone what was sad; but she did know why she was crying. It was the only reason she ever cried, except whenever she barked her skins on her Landlady’s coffee table. She was crying the tears of God.

You see, God can’t cry on His own. He has no tears, nor eyes to weep them. He has to use the tears that Little Theresa provides. She doesn’t mind, even though this kind of crying is just as painful as any other. It’s the least she could do. It’s something that needs to be done.

Just before the Therapist Emeritus left, she stopped to say goodbye to Little Theresa. Then she made an error that, perhaps, demonstrated that she was right to retire. She made a serious mistake that showed that she had lost her diagnostic stuff. She mistook Little Theresa for someone who needed therapy.

The Therapist Emeritus did not sit down right then with Little Theresa and shrink her head. She was retired. But she did give Little Theresa the number of a colleague she could call, even though Little Theresa had never been a client of her’s. She then bid the Epiphany Cafe farewell, forever.

Despite all the hours we spent at the cafe together, I had never spoken a word to the Therapist Emeritus. I was always afraid she would see right through me. Still, I was sorry she was gone. I had depended on her to draw out the stories of many of the characters I met here. Moreover, I was losing more than someone else’s shrink. I was being abandoned by a literary device. My imagination would henceforth have to compensate for the loss of data.

You never know how much good a therapist emeritus is doing until you don’t have one anymore and chaos takes over what had been an orderly arrangement of specious interpretations. By the time she left, the nerves of Epiphany Cafe were already shorting out and blowing a fuse. The drug dealer, Chai Latte, enjoyed a sudden spike in business. The quick exit of the Therapist Emeritus did more to jazz up and jangle the nervous system of the Epiphany Cafe than gallons and gallons of coffee ever could.

The panic stricken state of mind was not any more obvious than it was with the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. His eyes darted under his hat, as if he was being surrounded by a posse of ghosts. They had their guns drawn and had him dead to right. There was nothing more he could do than to run out of the Epiphany Cafe and flee to the grave of the righteous Reverend Abraham Pierson. There he would fruitlessly ask for an intervention, saying that he had confessed his sins already, couldn’t he catch a break? But the good Reverend Pierson did not appear. Perhaps he was off duty, sleeping late, or preferred to haunt at the stroke of midnight.

The Lisping Barista was sorry to see the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat go. She had been counting on asking him for a place to stay. It was true she thought he was crazy and his running out of the cafe seemed to confirm it, but the Lisping Barista wasn’t afraid of crazy. She was also sorry to see him go because he had been scheduled to work the next shift and it didn’t look as though he’d be back soon. Dead tired and homeless, it looked as though she was fated to work a double and then sleep in the car.

Without comprehending why, Little Theresa – so sane, she might be mistaken as crazy – sat in the middle of the cafe, face up, tears streaming down; doing the only thing that could be done: crying the tears of God. When she was done, He felt so much better.

The Therapist Emeritus makes a decision

The further the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat got in his story, the wider got the eyes of the Therapist Emeritus. She could hear the whole thing, the things he was not saying, as well as the things he was.

He seemed to be telling the story of some boy who had witnessed extreme violence between his parents. This boy responded to his father’s abandonment by pretending to be a sniper and going on a killing spree. The boy had shot most of a neighboring old man’s dogs until the old man, believing he was next, decided to kill himself.

This story was gruesome, horrible, and ingermane. Why would a man, consumed by guilt and tracked across the country by ghosts, interrupt a session, and deliver to his therapist a story about some boy, as if that boy had anything to do about anything?

Why, indeed, but for the fact that the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had been that boy, now grown to be a man haunted by ghosts. I think we, at last, have discovered the secret sin the old Puritan preacher had alluded to. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was a killer.

I don’t know if the Therapist Emeritus had the same problems with this story as I did, but it was evident from her wide eyes that she had problems with something. I thought it was strange that the creatures the boy had killed weren’t the ones haunting the grown man. He wasn’t being pursued by Old Man Jenson and his kennel full of baying hounds; they seemed to outsource their haunting to others. I didn’t know ghosts did that; but clearly the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat thought so.

It was also odd that the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat thought he could admit to something without actually admitting to it and release himself of guilt by confessing in the third person. Maybe, though, this was just his opening bid; he would try a half-assed non-apologetic apology, but would be willing to go full strength if he needed to. I suppose I can’t blame a guy for seeing what he can get away with, even if he is a mass murderer.

Here’s another thing about the story I’m not sure I get. So, the boy kills a bunch of dogs. He shoots them down with a powerful rifle while hiding under cover. That’s pretty bad, but at least dogs aren’t people, right? He’s not really a mass murderer, technically, because murder, unless you are a member of PETA, is the killing of humans. Here’s the thing, though: as he was shooting, he was imagining his victims were humans, not dogs. So, what is he guilty of? Killing humans, as he intended, or dogs, as he actually did. I know, in a court of law he would not be tried for murder, but are the statutes the same in the spiritual world, where ghosts have their citizenship? I think, in a spiritual sense, he is guilty of murder because he imagined the dogs as people. He’s no different than those people who, from time to time, show up in public places with automatic weapons and kill humans, imagining they are dogs. For that matter, he’s also guilty of the killing of Old Man Jenson, who, strictly speaking, killed himself; for Jenson would not have done so if the boy had not besieged him and shot all his pets.

Oh, I can hear you saying, the boy imagined he was at war. War excuses killing. To my thinking, war may or may not excuse killing, but, in this case, imagining he’s at war excuses nothing, for he was not in a war, or, at least, not in the usual sense.

I can also hear you say, give the guy a break, he’s insane. He had a dysfunctional family, an abusive father, a violent mother; he was poor, the product of a broken home, and lived in a trailer. He was young and didn’t know any better. His parents failed to keep an eye on him. They didn’t lock up their guns. The guy needs therapy, not condemnation. That may well be, but it is not my opinion that is condemning him; it’s those ghosts. Ghosts don’t care about whether you’re insane. As far as they’re concerned, a state of insanity is where they want you to be.

But, enough about me and what I think. It’s not my assessment that matters here. I’m just a fictional character. What really matters is what the Therapist Emeritus thought. She was the shrink, after all. Did she have a flashing insight or a searing diagnosis? More importantly, what did she do? Did she have an intervention that freed him? What therapeutic model did she apply? Did she prescribe medication? No, like I said before, she didn’t have a license to prescribe medication. Did she teach her client the difference between catharsis and decathexis, fixation and delayed gratification, parataxic distortion and narcissistic coenaesthetic expansion? Did she deliver an anomalous paradoxical intention? Not this time, she didn’t. How about all those skills she learned: NLP, CBT, EFT, DBT, ACT, and EMDR? Did she go all Albert Ellis on him? No, she didn’t have a good impression of Albert Ellis. Did she suggest he go out on a date? No, she already did that. She did the best thing a therapist emeritus can do in the circumstance, an intervention all of her therapist friends would secretly approve of, even as they said her actions were unethical.

She decided it was time to retire.

Yes, the Therapist Emeritus decided to retire. She had once done so before and it didn’t stick, but she was serious this time. She would go on that cruise, take up that hobby, see her grandchildren, go out with a bang. She would stop seeing clients in a coffee shop and volunteer at a soup kitchen if she was bored, or, maybe a dog shelter. She would never again listen to anyone speak more than three sentences at a time. She would say to everyone what she really thought, without obfuscation, discombobulation, or bewilderment. She would never again nod her head and say go on, unless she meant it. More importantly, she would make the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat someone else’s problem, and all the people like him.

She actually said, “I’m retired.”

“You’re what?”

“Retired, don’t you know what retired means?”

“You weren’t retired when I came in and interrupted a session.”

“You noticed that, did you?”

“When did you retire?”

“When you were about halfway through your story. About when I figured out the boy wasn’t really a sniper and he was really you.”

“You can’t retire now. I need help.”

“You’re right, but I’m not qualified to give it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m retired.”

The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat tells his story

The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat began telling his story to the Therapist Emeritus, interrupting this time a session with the Geeky Guy. He didn’t even stop when they objected, saying they would be done in fifteen minutes. He didn’t even seem to care that the Geeky Guy was his boss, now, and might be accorded some respect. You would’ve expected him to wait in line, take a number, put in his reservation, but he budged in, as if he had a bad case of diarrhea and his story was a good shit. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat spoke strangely in the third person, in an obvious attempt to distance himself from the protagonist of the story and disavow the actions he took.

I won’t tell the story to you as he told it, for the stories of overwrought people are really not that good. Their stories have plenty of angst, but lack the organization, comprehensibility, and polish that you, dear reader, have come to expect in these pages. Therefore, I tell you the story as I would tell it. Sit back and listen, or, rather, read, and know that no deed is without consequences, even if no one else is left alive to see it.

You never would have thought there was a war on to see the towering masses of clouds reviewed by the late winter sun. They were indifferent to the three bodies that lay, unmoving, a hundred yards from the sniper. A fourth writhed in pink snow. The sniper shivered as the clouds blocked the sun. He bit his sleeve with his chattering teeth, lest the sound draw them to his position. He hadn’t moved for an hour. After his first shot he had been surprised at how easy it was to kill. He followed the first with three more and then stopped, thinking they would see the flash of his rifle.

He was really just a boy in a hurry to become a man. Sniping came natural to him. It was in his blood. After the Big Fight and Dad left, his Ma would lie in bed for hours without moving. Once he thought she was dead until he pulled the covers from her head and revealed her pink, black, and blue face. Only her infrequent blinking told him she was still alive.

He busied himself with his Nintendo outside her door. The bright sunshine slashed through the cracks of the curtains, drawn over the trailer windows. He kept watch for hours. So long, in fact, that, when he stepped out of their metal box to go to school, it seemed as though he was leaving the real world to enter a fantasy.

Days later, when Dad returned, Ma was up and feeling better enough to complain about the Nintendo. She stood by the stove and he continued playing as if he didn’t hear her. They both made like they didn’t hear the door open. Dad came behind her and cupped her breasts with his hands as she stirred the boiling spaghetti. He let go when she lifted the pot to dump in the colander in the sink. The boy watched them out of the corner of his eye. Ma held the boiling pot in front of her and Dad reached his arms out, as if offering to take the pot from her. His arms were splotchy with tattoos. Dad cooed to her, but he could see from the stubborn set of her jaw that she wasn’t having any of it. She dumped the boiling spaghetti over the tattoos. A moment later, vapor roiled where his Dad had stood while the man ran, screaming from the trailer.

Ma pulled the plug on the Nintendo and ordered the boy to clean up the mess his father had made while she toasted bread to put under the sauce.

A dozen more targets stood between the sniper and a ruined house. One man, who commanded the rest, came out of the house to look over the dead bodies. He had a rifle with him. The rest pretended not to notice as he lifted it and took aim at the one the sniper had crippled. As the sound of his mercy killing rang across the hills, the man scanned the landscape, looking for the sniper. The sniper might have plugged him right then, but he had sport in mind. Instead, he took aim at the one nearest and got him through the ear. The commander scurried back to the house.

Some time after Dad left for good, the boy sat outside the screen door of the trailer and asked his Ma if he could have a pup. He could see her outline through the screen, sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette. She could not see a pup licking his hand. The boy had found the mutt dumped by the side of the road.

“We can’t afford no dog,” said Ma. “I just got rid of one worthless beast and I won’t be getting another.”

The boy took the pup to Jensen’s place at the top of the hill. He had a dozen dogs already and he wouldn’t notice one more. As the boy approached, a platoon of dogs set up a howl and the pup would go no further. The boy picked him up and they marched on, gravel crunching under his steps. Old Man Jensen lived in the two or three rooms that were left of his house after a fire. On one side stood a bare utility pole, like the house’s scepter, the wires taken down. The wall facing the pole was gone except for charred studding, through which Jensen stepped, loading a rifle.

“Who’s there taking one of my pups?” Half of Old Man Jensen’s face was burnt like his house.

“I ain’t takin’ it, sir, I was just…”

“Don’t give me none of your backtalk. Just leave it there and go away.”

The boy ran on home, half burning with shame, half with anger. The pup ran after him, but its legs being short, it could not keep up.

A column of smoke arose from where the boy’s trailer was. When he returned, he saw his Ma had lit a fire behind the garage and was burning up his Dad’s clothes. She had also thrown his Nintendo into the fire. The boy got there just in time to see the plastic warp and shrink before catching.

“You’ve been sitting around too much,” she said. “I want you to get out of the house and start doing other things.”

He might have complained that night, but she was making spaghetti again.

The sniper fired mechanically, reducing every creature in front of the dwelling to a pile of meat. When the sound of the last of his shots died, the clouds continued on their way. The warmth-less sun glared down on him still. The only sound: a wailing from inside the house.

The boy followed his Ma’s advice and stayed out more. He lingered in the garage, going through his Dad’s tools and sitting in the driver’s seat of the disassembled Fairlane they had meant to fix up. Standing by the wall were Dad’s guns: a .22 with a plastic stock, a shotgun, and a hunting rifle with a telescopic sight. The boy sat in the driver’s seat with the rifle, pressed the butt against his shoulder, and examined knotholes through the scope. The dark, woody stock was as muscular as Dad’s arms. The bolt, which could pinch a child’s fingers, had the same oily sent as his hair.

Days later, the boy watched from the garage as Ma left to get groceries. Then he snuck out with the rifle and a backpack full of ammunition. He spent an hour shooting at trees in the woods. When he returned, the Fairlane was on a flat bed truck and Dad was hauling the last of his tools out of the garage, his arms swathed in bandages. Ma had returned and the car was filled with bags.

“You seen my rifle?” he said.

“Is that all you can say? Your boy’s been wanting to see you. As if you care.”

“All’s I got is a room in a boarding house. You know I can’t have no boy there. You got the trailer. You keep him, unless you want to give me that trailer.”

The boy returned to the woods without ever being seen and loaded up the rifle. With a gun in his hand a boy’s not a boy anymore. A squirrel chattered in the tree above and he took aim at it. It took a minute before the end of the rifle settled down on the target; he had never taken aim at a living thing before. With a slow squeeze of the trigger, he knocked the squirrel down from the tree. With a gun in his hand, no boy feels rage anymore. All he feels is power.

At last, the sky above the sniper went dark. The towering masses of clouds snuffed out the stars. Snow was starting to drift behind the twenty corpses he had made, as if the late winter wind was on burial detail. The sniper hoped that more snow would come to cover his deeds. He could not brag of this to anyone. There was nothing to brag about, killing so many that could not return fire. After hours of lying motionless, he rose. He expected a bullet to fly right through him; he half hoped it. The sniper crouched and ran to the side of the building and listened for a while. It took a minute before he could hear something other than his heartbeat, and then he had to contend with his mind. There was only one thing he could do to say he was brave. He had to stand before the one remaining and invite being gunned down. That was the only thing that could make it right. The sniper’s heart began to pound again as he entered the building and looked for the remaining man.

The boy had waited till dark fell before returning home. Ma had brought in the groceries by then and she was in bed already. She was awake, though, and called him in her room.

“Your Father left us with nothing,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re gunna do. He even took the Fairlane that he said he was fixing up for when you turned sixteen. I asked him when he was gunna see you, and he just started talking like he wanted the trailer, too.”

The boy had hid the rifle in the garage and took a bullet with him. He went to bed and sucked on the bullet, hoarding its metallic taste. When he closed his eyes he saw the squirrel through the scope and marveled at how he could turn it into a cold corpse with a squeeze of his finger. He imagined biting the bullet’s firing pin and sending the lead through the roof of his mouth. Death must be a lot like sleep, he thought. One minute you’re awake, smelling smells, tasting metal, watching your father, and listening to your mother; and the next minute you’re asleep.

The first room the sniper entered had no furniture. One wall had collapsed during some calamity and the roof teetered, unsupported over his head, threatening to dump a load of snow into the room. The second room was filled with old hunting magazines and a duct-taped recliner. He wheeled suddenly to face something that moved from behind the recliner, almost forgetting his vow not to fire. There was the pup he had dropped off with Old Man Jensen two weeks before. It licked the boy’s hand as he scanned the room again, the rifle butt resting on his hip.

The room was getting too dark to see anything. The boy decided he would bring it on. He called out, “I’m sorry I shot your dogs, but you had a lot anyway. You can get some more. You can keep that pup I brought you. I can’t have it. My Ma won’t let me keep it.”

No one answered back with either a shout or with a bullet. As the boy circumnavigated the recliner, he discovered the reason for the silence. Old Man Jensen was lying on the floor, holding his rifle, like an oversized lollypop stick, in his mouth. He was lying on his side and, when the boy turned him over, one side of his face was covered with burns and the other side was covered with blood.