The Lisping Barista reveals some things about herself

The Therapist Emeritus had warned the Geeky Guy. When you’re dating someone, she said, you may think you know what to expect, but you don’t.

Nothing was as he expected; not the date and not the Lisping Barista. He proposed they talk over coffee for a half hour, get to know one another. It seemed to be a safe and proper thing to do with a young lady. The next thing he knew, they were on the highway.

He preferred driving. He felt better driving. He was anxious when he didn’t drive. She had pointed to her car, made room for him in the passenger seat, and told him he was paying expenses.

“Tho, are you ready to have a good time?” she said.

“I guess,” said the Geeky Guy.

“Then, leth do thith.” Whatever that was.

And so the Geeky Guy went on his first date, ever.

When you’re dating someone, said the Therapist Emeritus, there’s a lot of people involved. There’s the person as she actually is, there’s the person as she exists in your head, and then there’s the person she is trying to be. Additionally, all the women in your life show up and teach you what to expect. Finally, to top it off, there’s a parallel set of people on your side, confounding her. Dating is the process whereby all these people, imaginary or not, meet each other and, with any luck, get along.

The Lisping Barista’s car was just the type that all young baristas drive: a beater, broken down in all the ways that don’t matter too much and in some of the ways that do. She had a Life is Good sticker on her window: a grinning maniac, freewheeling on his bicycle. She had the same kind of grin on her face; freewheeling, also.

“You’re gunna love thith conthert. Ith all juth like thingth ought to be, everyone juth thitting back and enjoying life.”

She had some hypnotic, jam bandy, folky, blue grassy music playing. She shut her eyes and let the melody carry her. He liked music as much as anyone, but he’d already been in one car accident. He didn’t want to be in another.

He cleared his voice. He opened his mouth a few times before he spoke. Finally, he said, “Excuse me.”

“You’re excuthed.”

‘I mean,” he said, gripping the seat. “Just one thing…I know you love this music and believe in its power to create a better world. But I wonder… if you could, just… you know…”

“Yeth? Could I what?”

“Could you please drive with your eyes open? At least most of the time?”

“What? You don’t think I can drive with my eyth clothed?”

She kept her eyes closed. There was an eighteen-wheeler to the right and a balding businessman in a Beemer to the left. Up ahead was a minivan with kids in the back watching their umpteenth showing of Beauty and the Beast. Then there was a curve.

“No, you can’t.” he said tensely.

“You don’t believe in me?”

They were still closed. The Beemer had passed and was replaced by a Honda with a mattress strapped to the top. The mattress was beginning to sail. Both the driver and passenger had their windows open and hands out, holding it down as best they could. To the right was the clear underbelly of the eighteen-wheeler, brakes hoses dangling, but not enough room to fit underneath.

“I believe in you, I just don’t believe your car can drive itself.”

“You don’t know my car. Ith very talented.”

They entered the curve. “Look out!” he shouted.

She made the curve, though her eyes were still closed.

“Thee, I can do it.”

The traffic slowed ahead. Even though he was in the passenger seat, he stomped on the brake, an imaginary brake, the brake he wished he had.

“You can’t!”

She braked in time, but they got close enough to see that Belle was entering the Beast’s castle.

At last, the Lisping Barista turned her head so that he could see that, though the eye on his side was closed, her left eye was open and had always been open.

“You’re right, I can’t,” she laughed. “Tho, I don’t try.”

He was a fool to try dating, a fool to ask her out, a fool to get in the car, and a fool to fall for her trick.

“Ith there anything elth you would like?” she asked. “I’m at your thervith.”

The dating phase was when the implicit terms of the relationship are set, unspoken provisions are negotiated, and unwritten contracts signed. Let’s just hope that the real person shows up before too many promises are made, the Therapist Emeritus had said.

“Where’s this concert we’re going to?”

“I told you, Mathachuthetth.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Mathachuthetth. Math-a-chu-theth.”

“Massachusetts? We’re going all the way to Massachusetts?”

“I’th not that far. I’ve driven hundredth of milth to hear thith band.”

“Yes, there is something you can do,” said the Geeky Guy. “Could you, could you please take out that tongue stud so that you can speak clearly? It’s like I’m talking to Sylvester the Cat.”

“Thertainly, Thir.”

She let go of the wheel for an interminable time and extracted the stud with both hands. He reached to steer the car himself. She dropped the stud and dove to the floor to retrieve it. He wavered into the left lane that had just, fortunately, been vacated by the Honda. To their right, the trucker looked with alarm and put down his coffee cup. Finally, the Lisping Barista came up from the floor with the stud and placed it in the Geeky Guy’s hands as she took the wheel again.

“Thank you,” he said, feeling as though she had given him a jewel of inestimable worth, instead of a tongue stud, covered in spit and floor debris.

“Ith that any better, do I thtill thoud like Thylvethter?”

“You’re hilarious,” he said.

“I’m not being hilarioth; I alwaths talk like thith.”

“It’s not the piercing?”

“No, I have a lithp.”

When you are dating someone, it’s amazing that it ever works out at all, considering all the confusions, complications, and gaffes. You do your best to hide the real you from your date, but, despite your best efforts, if she is looking at all, she will find it.

“I’m despicable,” he said.

“No, ith pronounthed dithpicable. Thath one word I can thay right. You’re dithpicable.” She laughed.

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Rabbi ! has everyone guess his age and the Lisping Barista saves the Geeky Guy from a flashback

Rabbi ! had been working on his laptop, preparing a sermon for next Shabbat. He could only get so far typing text into a box. At some point he had to speak. No sermon is complete unless it’s spoken and no sermon is delivered to the congregation on Shabbat unless it’s complete. Therefore, all of us at the Epiphany Cafe were accustomed to previews of the laughing Rabbi’s sermons whether we liked it or not.

He shouted out to everyone, and no one in particular. “Guess how old I am. Go on. Guess.”

A few took a chance on some guesses. No one wanted to guess a number too high.

“Ha! You don’t know, do you? It’s a simple question, is it? But there’s no simple answer.”

We waited for it. We knew a well delivered sermon requires a sense of timing.

“It’s been sixty-two years since my birth,” he dramatically declared, “but the atoms in my body have been around since the Big Bang; or longer, if you believe there were previous Big Bangs before ours. Therefore, I am, simultaneously, sixty-two years old and six billion years old.”

We were glad he finally told us, so we didn’t have to continue to guess.

“An ancient piece of granite, having spent most of its life entombed far below the crust of the earth, and only brought to the surface after continents collided and glaciers eroded, is my contemporary. A star I see in the sky, which may have been extinguished millions of years ago and sent out its light as a last breath, may have been a companion of mine in my nursery. The dinosaurs were my playmates. The saber-toothed tiger my first friend. My atoms are an old deck of cards, shuffled and reshuffled by riverboat sharks, cut by saloon sharpies, and folded in Caesar’s Palace. I am as old as the universe.”

None of us thought he looked a day over fifty-nine.

“Not all of my organs are the same age. A healthy liver is younger than a failing heart. Of all the parts of my body, my head is the oldest. My hair turned gray long ago. My hearing and vision aren’t as sharp as they used to be. I no longer have a sense of smell and I have to remember what something tastes like if I’m going to enjoy food at all.”

He laughed at this part, even though it wasn’t funny.

“My brain may be the same brain I was born with, sixty-two years ago, but it looks far different than it did when it was a brambling bush. There used to be dozens of alternate routes I could take to arrive at the same thought. There used to be a capacity to retain languages, names, numbers, and facts. It has since been pruned. The meandering byways have become a superhighway you get on and, once you do, you can’t find an exit….”

He lost me there. He could prune that part and the sermon would be better.

“Further down, my fingers, which have inherited my mother’s arthritis, are just starting their progression towards rigor mortis, even though I haven’t died yet.  My abdomen, which used to be as tight as a drum, has begun to sag; but my legs are the same as they were when I was a teenager, running on the high school track team. I have aged from the top down.”

Aged from the top down. That’s good, we said. That’s a good line.

“…My brain may be sixty-two years old, but my mind is as old as the people who’ve influenced me. I’ve read the words of Moses so much that they’ve become my own. I’ve borrowed the faith of Abraham, the patience of Job, and the dedication of David, although I always seem to misplace them when I need them. Every time I feel myself in exile, the poetry of Isaiah comes to my lips. Thus so, with Shakespeare, Thoreau, Homer, Sartre, and Proust. You can hear Melville’s rolling rhythms in my rhetoric, Blake’s incisive insights in speech. When I yelled at my kids, it was my mother’s voice I heard. When I open my mouth, my father’s bad jokes come out. Everyone thinks they’re mine, but they’re older than me.”

By now, he was on a roll and looked like the end wouldn’t come soon. A sermon in a synagogue was one thing, a sermon in a coffee house, quite another. Some were beginning to get restless. The High Street Witch, having said a cruel thing to her brother, left the cafe. A new customer came in and gave her order. The Lisping Barista foamed some cream. The Geeky Guy, deeply affected by the mean thing his sister said, stared vacantly into space.

“I’m as old as these greats and as young as the Millennials I chat with on the internet. My music is Boommerish, my movies from Generation X. Like many Jews, I feel I’ve just escaped the death camps, and may, just as easily, be sent back. When I see a low-flying airplane, it’s 9/11. When I go to the town where I was born, I’m a child again.”

You might not know it to look at him, but the Geeky Guy was about to demonstrate the Rabbi’s point about the variability of time. Although his body inhabited today, while he stared into space, his mind was returning to when he was no more than eleven, when his parents died in a terrible accident. His mother’s decapitated head was about to land in his lap.

“According to Jewish tradition, I was present when Moses came down from Sinai, thousands of years before I was born. I heard the roar of the Almighty’s thunder and saw the glint of the inscribed tablets.”

Whenever the Geeky Guy remembered the accident, it was never in story form so that he could convey it from beginning to end. He tried several times with the Therapist Emeritus, but was never successful. Flashes of memory. The same every time. Like stills, rather than video. No sound. A series of images. No transition between. Never in a chronological order. His rescue might come before he reached for his mother’s head and cradled it in his arms. The impact itself would occur before he saw the tractor-trailer skid ahead of them. It felt like he was accelerating into the images till they crowded around him, pressing from all sides. Trapped. Occasionally, he would burst free of them by desperate means of what was, for him, some outrageous behavior: punching a pillow, snapping at someone who didn’t deserve to be snapped at, or going for an awkward run, elbows flailing, until he collapsed into a heaving heap when he couldn’t run any longer. Usually, he curled into a ball and cried, unaware of the passage of time. His sister would call into work, both for him and herself. As mean as she could be, she would sit and stroke his head for hours. Sometimes days would pass until he fell asleep. When he woke up, the images would be gone.

“The most literal-minded among you might be asking, how can I be two places at the same time? How can I be at Sinai with Moses and G-d, while simultaneously sipping coffee in a modern cafe? I’ll tell you how. I do it the same way I can be simultaneously sixty-two and six billion years old. The way my hair can age faster than my thighs. The way everyone from Homer and Heraclitus to James and Joyce can share their mind with me. Our conception of time is like a poor translation, or a blueprint ignored by the builders, or instructions written by foreigners that cannot teach you how to assemble an entertainment center.”

The Rabbi had raised his voice during this last part, to build emphasis. He paused again to build drama, although it seemed like I, alone, was listening to the Rabbi’s sermon. Outside, the Waving Man waved, as he had been doing as long as anyone remembered. The Therapist Emeritus demonstrated unconditional positive regard for the zoophile even though she didn’t like what he did with gerbils. The Lisping Barista put up a non-fat cappuccino. Chai Latte sipped a chai latte. The Geeky Guy sat in a smashed car in the middle of the café.

I was about to enter the debate, arguing that it is not our concept of time that’s the problem, but the construct of the self. I don’t know if rabbis ever want their sermons to become debates. They may say they welcome dialogue, but I suspect they don’t. At any rate, that’s not why I didn’t speak up.

The Geeky Guy was just about to have a full fledged flashback. If he had, he would’ve run out of the cafe, missed his date, and returned to the arms of his sister, as always. Something unexpected happened, though.

The Lisping Barista had just finished her shift. She took off her apron and went up to the Geeky Guy. He didn’t notice she was behind him. She spoke and he jumped.

“I’m thorry I thartled you,” she said.

She placed her hand on his shoulder.

The Geeky Guy breathed hard and said it was OK.

No developing flashback is so bad that a pretty girl can’t save you. She talked about music playing overhead that he’d not been paying attention to. She knew the band.

“Thpellbinding Fith Fry. I uthed to follow them.  Ith all peath and love and underthanding. They’re playing up in Mathachuthetth tonight.”

He didn’t understand a word, but that didn’t stop him from saying, “Sounds good.”

Then she said words that changed everything. The most catalytic words since she said yes.

“Hey, I know, let’th go.”

The High Street Witch looks for her brother

If you think you’re brave, step out of the Epiphany Cafe and turn right. Go about three blocks and take a left at High Street, by the Sherwin-Williams. Continue a quarter mile till you come to an unpainted Victorian on the right, its yard overcome by sumac saplings. Tread carefully on the porch, avoiding the soft spots. Knock on the door; the bell hasn’t worked in years. Peer through the windows as you wait and you will see piles and piles of stuff. Busted furniture that could be mended. Broken electronics that could be fixed. Old newspapers that could be read. The accumulation of more than a decade of life that could be discarded, but hasn’t, because that would confirm the passage of time. You would note that objects entered the house, but nothing ever left. You would wonder if people entered and never left. You would lose your interest in entering and turn to leave, but a woman of indeterminate age in an unfashionable long dress and unkempt hair will come to the door. Take one look at her and run off the porch if a soft spot doesn’t catch you.

The Kenilworth kids call this woman the High Street Witch. If you saw her in this context, you’d think she was a witch, too. All the essential elements of witchiness would be there, right down to the black cat who’d answer the door with her, twining around her feet. She has a wart, too; not on her nose, but on her cheek; although it might be a mole. She possesses a broom, leaning in a closet. She has been known to cackle, especially when watching her favorite sitcom. If you thought she was a witch, you’d be wrong, though. She’s not a witch, but a devoted sister and a reliable employee at a nearby pathology lab. She doesn’t get out much.

If you’d gone to bravely knock on the door the day the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy, you would’ve missed the High street Witch. She would’ve been at the Epiphany Cafe, where she never goes. She would’ve been there looking for her brother, none other than the Geeky Guy, himself.

He hadn’t come home when he usually did, right after his appointment with the Therapist Emeritus. After he had asked the Lisping Barista out, and she said yes, he hung around and waited for her to get off work. This agitated the High Street Witch. She set off, not on her broom, but in her Nissan, cruising the streets of Kenilworth till she found him.

Seen at the Epiphany Cafe, away from her ramshackle house, cat, and broom, you wouldn’t have thought she was a witch at all. She’d been an earth mother type with a hard edge; an aging hippie, not all that old; a sister who’s more like a mother; or a mother who’s never given up. You wouldn’t know what to think of her because she would straddle multiple categories. All you’d know is that she and the Geeky Guy were very, very attached, and that bond was about to be tested.

“You’ve got a what?” you’d hear her say when she found her brother.

“A date,” he’d say.

She’d repeat her question, not because she didn’t hear, but because she didn’t believe. He never had a date before. Neither had she, for that matter. They didn’t need to go out on dates. They had each other.

“Where is she?” She’d ask because there was no one with him at his table but an Excel spreadsheet.

He’d nod towards the barista. “With her,” he’d say. “After she gets off work.”

She’d look the Lisping Barista’s way, but she didn’t need to study her close. Piercings, tats, and dreads were one thing, that she existed at all and would have any kind of connection with her brother, was strange enough.

“You like her?” she’d say. Everyone else in the world was surprised the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy. She, alone, was surprised he asked her.

He shrugged, feigning indifference, although he did like her, very much; if only because she’d been the one to say yes.

“It was a therapeutic exercise.” He nodded this time to the Therapist Emeritus, having tea with a zoophile, who had passed the Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs when he came in for his appointment. The zoophile was talking to her about how he admired the Setter’s graceful tail, the Beagle’s silky ears, the Labs’ fine coats, the Dachshund’s patrician nose, and the St Bernard’s soulful eyes so much he’d have a hard time choosing among them and would fantasize of a composite dog to warm his bed.

The High Street Witch never liked the Therapist Emeritus. She never thought she was necessary, and once thought she was a threat; but, had been mollified when nothing changed after years of therapy. This was different, though. This was an existential menace. This was war.

“I don’t understand. You see your therapist to get over our parents dying. How does going out on a date help you do that?”

“She thinks I need to move on.”

If you were an old time resident of Kenilworth, you’d know the story of the siblings and their parents. You’d know that the parents, always careful driving on the Turnpike, couldn’t be careful enough the icy day they brought their daughter back to college after Christmas break. On the way home, a truck jackknifed ahead of them. They skidded, too, and didn’t stop until their car passed under the truck. Most of the car passed under the truck. The rest, the top, sheared off after striking the trailer, loaded rock-solid with tons of timepieces, coming from the Waterbury Clockworks. The parents were decapitated; but the Geeky Guy, then just an ordinary boy, sitting in the backseat, appropriately harnessed, was too short to lose his head. He was later extracted from the wreckage with nary a scratch, clinging to his parents’ heads, one tucked under each arm, like footballs, to keep them safe.

You would also know that the sister would selflessly foreswear college and come home to raise her brother. If you were the Kenilworth garbage man, or anyone he told, you would know that the first thing the siblings did was to throw out all the clocks. From that moment on, time stood still in the dilapidated house on High Street.

Time now posed to resume its remorseless clicks into the future. Clouds had gathered, darkened, and threatened to bring change. The sister did what she’d always done. She cast a spell. A cruel, calculating, guilt-inducing accusation, designed to preserve a stagnant status quo.

“You wish I’d died with them; don’t you? You wish you had my head under your arm, too. Then you’d be free to do what you want.”

Maybe she really was a witch, after all.

I get an aura’s autograph

Of all the marvelous and startling things that happened at the Epiphany Cafe that day, the one thing that everyone talked about afterwards was how, around one-thirty-six, a movie star walked in and ordered a cappuccino. There was no sustained buzz over the Crazy Dog Lady and her six dogs, Little Theresa’s generosity, the re-enactment of the creation of the universe, the breakthrough of the Therapist Emeritus, the Moodus Noises, or even that an attractive young woman said yes to a geeky guy. No one remarked or even seemed to notice that a fictional character, namely, me, spent most of the day writing on a fictional laptop while drinking a series of French roasted Guatemalans and eating a scone as dry as the Kalahari. Never mind that a caffeine addicted river had run uphill so that it could rush by the cafe. Forget that the woods and hills were teaming with fairies and ghosts; they’d always been there. No, it was the Movie Star who everyone talked about.

The moment he walked in, I had set aside my writing and was almost done reading Water Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, to keep up my cover as a cultured professor. I knew a movie star was among us from the reaction of everyone else in the cafe. The Lisping Barista didn’t look up at first when he stepped up to give his order, but, when she did, her hands met at her face in a position often associated with prayer. The hands covered her mouth and nose, but left her eyes exposed so she could stare at him.

“Oh, my god!” she said, giving way to uncontrollable giggles.

This caused quite a commotion around the cafe when everyone looked up to see what all the noise was about and saw that there was a movie star standing by the counter. The Movie Star only wanted to drink a cappuccino. He would have wished he could do so in peace, like everyone else, and not be the cause of a hullabaloo everywhere he went. He would do it with us, grace us with his presence, if we comported ourselves, or take it to go, if we did not.

He was recognizable to me, as well, although I didn’t know his name. He was the guy in that thing I saw. I remember it well. He drove fast cars and chased bad guys down crowded city streets. He was able to get out of the way of bullets, and caused women to wet themselves with excitement. He looked just like he did in that movie. The same, but different. His mannerisms were the same even though he wasn’t playing a part. There was something else about him. He stood out. There was an additional dimension to him. He may have been more real than everyone else in the cafe. He had a shine.

In his essay, Benjamin was arguing that Art has always been copied, but copies lack something inherent in originals. Anyone with paint, brush, canvas, and some skill can attempt to reproduce the Mona Lisa; but no one will plan their vacations around a copy, no one will rush through miles of corridors at the Louvre overlooking uncelebrated masterpieces and crane past crowds to see the very painting that they have seen in photos, on coffee cups, and neckties, a million times before. There’s just something about originals.

Benjamin said that the originals of Art link us back to the time, the place, and the person that created it. They situate the Art within history, within a sphere of authenticity. Copies are free of these moorings and can be used for alien purposes. A copy of an icon of Christ Pantocrator, loosened from the churchy context of the original and not used in worship, as it was intended, can be enlisted to win votes, perhaps, or to sell cars. Endlessly reproduced, it loses its power; but, if we see it in the original, within its proper context, the power is present.

The Lisping Barista was able to recover long enough to make the Movie Star’s cappuccino, pull him into a selfie to post on Facebook, and get his autograph on her apron, close to her breast. Others in the cafe pressed him into such service as well. He was gracious in the way that only well-coached celebrities can be. I wasn’t going to be the only one without an autograph, so I had him illegibly sign my copy of The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, adding considerably to its value, for a reason I will never understand.

He decided to drink his coffee in the limo with tinted windows waiting outside, parked, obscuring the view of the Waving Man, who only cared about cars in motion. After he left, I was able to go back to the essay. Benjamin said that originals have retained the magical, cultic purpose of earliest Art. Cavemen, presumably, painted buffalo on their cave walls to call them forth. Byzantine iconists painted Christs and Madonnas, not just to depict their imagined appearances, but to make the spirits real. Art is a form of incarnation, a technology of miracles.

His essay was written in 1936, when cinema was young. Benjamin thought that this new form of art was different from all the rest. There are no originals of the movies we see. There’s no original of Gone with the Wind in a museum somewhere. All there is are copies. Cinema, Benjamin thought, was an aura-less art form. Art in general was being scraped clean of aura by profligate reproductions. The gods were leaving. It was just another example of the disenchantment of the world in the modern age.

I guess Benjamin never met a movie star.

The Crazy Dog Lady buys lattes for her dogs and a Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat saves the day

Not everyone who came to the Epiphany Cafe that day was an eccentric human being. Several perfectly ordinary dogs patronized the place, accompanied by an eccentric human being. The Crazy Dog Lady of Kenilworth entered with her six dogs. In order of size: a snarling Dachshund, a baying Beagle, a hyperactive Setter with a feathery tail, two Labs with cold noses, and a drooling St Bernard.

No dogs were permitted in the cafe. There was a sign out front, but that didn’t stop the dogs, who couldn’t read, or the Crazy Dog Lady, who didn’t care. There was a leash ordinance in Kenilworth, but the dogs were unleashed. The dogs couldn’t read the ordinance, and the Crazy Dog Lady didn’t care. Let me re-phrase that. She did care. She cared very much about all those rules and made it a point to violate them whenever she could. You see, she was the Crazy Dog Lady and a dog had once saved her life.

The Crazy Dog Lady ordered six lattes with no espresso and, one, by one, bent down to serve them to the dogs, letting them lap from the cup as she held it. The St Bernard was first, because his mouth had the highest elevation. Then she served the rest in decreasing order of size. The Dachshund was always last. Maybe this was why he was always in a bad mood. The Crazy Dog Lady never got anything for herself. She was trying to economize.

After the St Bernard finished his latte, he went over to consult with the Therapist Emeritus, in session with a recovering depressive. The St Bernard lacked the requisite keg of brandy around his neck and he was not the dog who saved the Crazy Dog Lady’s life, but he did what he could to save the Recovering Depressive’s life by licking her hands and making her laugh. It was a nervous laugh, but it was a laugh just the same, and laughs have healing properties of which science is only beginning to appreciate. The Therapist Emeritus had to admit to herself that dogs have healing properties, as well. Even a mediocre dog was a better therapist than the best therapist, but the Therapist Emeritus would never admit it to anyone else.

When the first Lab, a chocolate one, was done with his latte, a vanilla one, he checked out the drug dealer. Chai tousled his ears and drummed his side. The Lab collapsed and showed him his belly. Chai scratched until he found the spot that made the dog kick his legs. I didn’t see whether any drugs were involved with the dog’s ecstatic experience. If they were, the two had made the exchange very stealthily.

The second Lab, who was white, and very hard working, offered to help the Lisping Barista behind the counter, but the space there was very small and they always seemed to get in each other’s way. The White Lab had an affinity for poking her nose up the back of the Lisping Barista’s shirt while she worked. All the rest of us in the cafe had wanted to go up under the Lisping Barista’s shirt ever since we first saw her, but only dogs have license to do what all the rest of us just dream.

The Setter made her rounds, sweeping over everyone at the cafe, dusting the tables with her tail, turning her head to every new thing, and never getting a solid pet from anyone. Rabbi ! rescued his mocha from the tail and watched her make her rounds, seeking G-d’s sparks with an efficiency he envied. The Setter, who was drawn to motion, seemed to overlook one Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker in the corner, frozen in terror, and Googling the route to the door.

The Beagle ignored the Crazy Dog Lady’s entreaties to come get his latte, stood just out of my reach, and bayed like I was a coon up a tree. Perhaps he sensed that I was fictional and wanted to alert the others. The Crazy Dog Lady had to go to him with the latte and interrupt his speech by putting it under his nose. He drank it while keeping one eye on me, in case I did anything fictional.

The Dachshund irritably followed the Crazy Dog Lady when she served the Beagle and, when she was done, padded after her back to the counter. When she bent down to give him his latte, he sniffed it suspiciously, like a cat. Perhaps the cream had just begun to turn or it was made from cows fed antibiotics. At any rate, the Dachshund pronounced it unfit for canine consumption. If only he’d been served first, he could have warned the rest. The Dachshund turned away from his cup and went to find something else that was wrong with the world.

The Crazy Dog Lady put the Dachshund’s cup on the floor in case he changed his mind. She went to talk to the people interacting with her dogs. By now the White Lab was done with her work behind the counter and was checking the tables. The White Lab had the Geeky Guy pinned in his chair and was burrowing his nose into his crotch. After the Geeky Guy had asked the Lisping Barista out on a date, and she astonishingly said yes, he had gone to work on some incomprehensible mathematics on an Excel spreadsheet. The mathematics was no help to him now. The Crazy Dog Lady didn’t grab the White Lab by the collar and pull her away, as anyone else might have done. Neither the White Lab, nor any of the other dogs, possessed a collar, or tags. Instead, seeing the White Lab sexually assaulting the Geeky Guy, she chose to give the man a long-winded lecture. She told him the story of how a dog had saved her life.

“I was a college student once,” said the Crazy Dog Lady to the Geeky Guy, “But, I didn’t know who I was.”

The Beagle, who had finished his latte, took a few minutes to lick his chops before he resumed his baying. This gave the Crazy Dog Lady a chance to begin her speech so that we could all hear it.

“I didn’t have a sense of direction, so I didn’t know where I was going. I decided to take a year off and find myself.”

By this time, the Setter had discovered the Dachshund’s discarded cup on the floor and was helping herself. The Dachshund, who didn’t want the latte, didn’t want anyone else to have it, either, or wanted to warn the Setter that the cream had turned bad, began to snarl.

“I got a job house and pet sitting for the winter on Fisher’s Island, out in the middle of Long Island Sound.”

The White Lab, not finding what he was looking for in the Geeky Guy’s crotch, pulled it out, and noticed the Setter squaring off against the Dachshund. She decided to check for herself whether the cream in the Dachshund’s latte had turned bad. The Geeky Guy tried to go back to his spreadsheet, but now the Crazy Dog Lady was standing over him, telling her story.

“It was just me and Rex, the family’s border collie in the house. We were the only people on the island most of the winter, and it was cold.”

Chai Latte got a phone call, so he stopped scratching the belly of the Chocolate Lab.  The Lab rolled to his feet, wagged his tail, and nosed Chai’s arm. “Go away,” said the drug dealer. “Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” The dog nosed him again. “Go on,” said Chai, pushing him away. “Git!”

The Beagle began to curl his lip at me. I maneuvered my briefcase between us. Neither I nor the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker had a clear route to the door.

The Dachshund’s latte fell over on its side, and so did the White Lab, angling for a position to finish it. The Dachshund and the Setter continued to face off, although, by now the Setter had forgotten what she came for. The St Bernard had stopped licking the Recovering Depressive’s hand and had laid down on her feet. He rested his muzzle on the floor, his lips spread to each side, like the skirt of a curtsying courtier, and took a nap. Drool ran in rivulets under the table.

“It turned out that spending the winter with no other human beings on an island in the middle of the ocean is not a good thing for a young woman trying to find herself. I started to get lonely. I fell into despair. I was depressed. I questioned the meaning of my life. Then I decided there was no meaning. It was all pointless. I got suicidal. Nobody and nothing cared whether I lived or died. But Rex saved my life.”

Here’s where the Crazy Dog Lady’s voice began to break.

“I couldn’t kill myself.” She swallowed. “What would become of Rex?”

With all the commotion, no one had noticed that a weather-beaten man in a cowboy hat had strode through the doors of the cafe and stopped to take in the scene. The door swung shut behind him. He looked as though he’d seen a lot, but he had never seen anything like this.

“For the first time, I had meaning and a purpose in my life,” declared the Crazy Dog Lady. “Another person needed me. I had responsibilities.”

The St Bernard began to snore. The Chocolate Lab, getting no more petting from the busy drug dealer, looked for someone else to pet him. He settled on Rabbi ! who was delighted to do so. The Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker took a chance and bolted towards the door, in her haste running into the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. Chivalrous as only a man in a cowboy hat can be, he raised his hat, said excuse me, ma’am, but didn’t step aside nearly quick enough for her.

“I was able to last the winter on that island and, in the spring, when the people came to take over their home, I asked them for the dog. They wouldn’t give him to me, but when I took the ferry back, Rex got on with me. We were together for years, until he died.”

Here the Crazy Dog Lady wiped away a tear. Rabbi !, who had read Christian philosophers as well as Jewish mystics, pronounced her a Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith, willing to put complete trust in herself and act independent of social norms. He was about to expound some more when the Setter, being a bird dog and attracted to motion, took off in pursuit of the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker. She began to flap her arms. She often flapped her arms when she got nervous. The setter saw the arms flapping and thought the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker was a wounded bird. She did what Setters do to wounded birds. The Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker began to scream in pain.

Seeing that the Setter had abandoned the fight for the latte, the Dachshund went to claim his prize and was deeply disturbed to find the White Lab had finished it. No Dachshund was going to take that from a White Lab, so he attacked, and a dog fight ensued.

Meanwhile, the Beagle had taken up his baying again. I must’ve given him the creeps. The St Bernhard awoke with all the commotion and gave a slow ruff. Never wanting to be left out, the Chocolate Lab joined the chorus. Chai Latte, who was trying to talk on the phone, screamed to everyone. “Shut the fuck up!” The Crazy Dog Lady continued to bend the Geeky Guy’s ear, who wasn’t listening. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I had heard her story before. She was talking about how, after this particular dog died, she’d devoted herself to the care and advocacy of all dogs.

By this time the Lisping Barista thought she should begin to enforce the rule of no dogs allowed in the cafe. She stepped from behind the counter, tried to get their attention, and asked the dogs to leave. She couldn’t make her voice heard over the din of the dogs and the screams of pain and anger. Besides, they may not have understood her lisp.

The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat came to the rescue. First, he separated the Setter from the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker, who bolted out the door without ever giving thanks, then he assisted the Lisping Barista, who was looking helpless and forlorn. With the aid of his hat and not inconsiderable cow poking skills earned in windy western corrals, and putting himself in perils of dog bites and unwanted licks, he herded the canines out the door while the Lisping Barista held it open. Seeing the purpose of her life leaving, the Crazy Dog Lady left, too, breaking off the end of her story in mid sentence.

If the Lisping Barista had not needed her job, and if she had not already said yes to the Geeky Guy, she might have ridden off with the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat right then. As it was, she gave him a large dark roasted Costa Rican, a chocolate chip cookie the size of a dinner plate, and a job application to complete. She promised she’d give a good word to the manager. A very good word.

Chai Latte comes in to the cafe with all his fictions

As chance would have it, the very next person to enter the Epiphany Café, and benefit from the munificence of Little Teresa, was Kenilworth’s leading drug dealer, wearing an unseasonable knit cap, battered jeans, and a UConn sweatshirt.

How did I know he was a drug dealer?

It’s simple, I’m acquainted with everyone’s fictions. 

The drug dealer, whom I will call Chai Latte, after the only words I have ever heard him speak, was swarming with fictions, like maggots gather on a rotten piece of meat.

First, there was the fiction he would have us believe. A simple University of Connecticut alumni or basketball fan, as proclaimed by his sweatshirt, he comes to the café every day to drink his favorite drink, a Chai Latte, signifying urbanity and sophistication. He graciously accepts the free Wi-Fi that keeps him in touch with friends across the whole world. He’s generous about sharing his table with people of all ages who sit briefly with him, without a word, and then hastily whiz away.

Then there were the fictions he told himself. He was one who shares the keys to the portals to the spiritual realm; a kind of shaman, respected in other, more enlightened cultures, but disreputed in this one. Other times, he told himself he was a shrewd businessman, giving people what they all wanted, no different than the score of respectable burghers that line Kenilworth’s main streets.

There’s the fiction the town police constructed. A relatively harmless fellow, more danger to himself than anyone else, and besides, the son of Kenilworth’s First Selectman, what passes for a mayor in small Connecticut towns. Freakishly loyal to those higher on the drug dealing food chain, the police said Chai was not worth squandering their limited resources. 

Rabbi !, no doubt, thought of Chai Latte as a dying ember from G-d’s foundry, despite being a Goy. He would laugh when he saw Chai Latte, laugh again when he heard what he was up to, and laugh a third time to hear what he said about it. To Rabbi !, it was not important that Chai Latte was a drug dealer, a basketball fan, a shaman, a businessman, or the son of the First Selectman, since all things contain a shred of G-d hidden within. What was important, was that Chai was another piece of the puzzle.

Chai’s mother knew him as darling little boy, the apple of her eye, the nut some squirrel carried far from the tree. His father thought of him as one who’d do well in California, or any place the hell away from here.

The Therapist Emeritus thought she knew him well. To her, he was a single, unemployed, 28-year-old white male college dropout, living alone in an apartment, with a history indicative of polysubstance dependence, complicated by sociopathic and narcissistic personality traits. His father had given him an ultimatum to get into treatment, but Chai stopped coming as soon as the father stopped paying attention.

Little Theresa would be pleased to hear that her dollar-sixty-nine went to Chai Latte. Anyone was more worthy of it than she. The Waving Man would have no opinion of him, but, if he ever spoke, he would have a lot to say about Chai’s souped-up Honda Civic and how, when it drives away, it’s gone before he has a chance to raise his hand.

The Lisping Barista thought of him only as a nickel bag of Hawaiian Skunk Weed, delivered daily when her boss was never around, in exchange for a free large Chai Latte, to go, in case he had to run. He was also granted unmolested seating at a table the other side of the potted plant from the Therapist Emeritus. Today she gave Chai just a few more thoughts than usual when she considered whether it was right to give a free drink to someone who paid for it in barter. She decided it was, so as to not draw attention to their arrangement.

So, you can see, lots of Chai Lattes showed up that day at the Epiphany Cafe.

Which, of all these fictions, was the true Chai Latte? No single one was authentic, by itself; but, they all were, collectively. Every person is a congregation of fictions, some known by the person, others only beheld by others. It takes someone with keen observational skills and imagination, like me, for instance, to patiently assemble them all and not have a bolt or a washer left over. It takes someone who knows he’s fictional. It takes one to know one.

Little Theresa buys a cup of coffee

yes

There were many uncommon occurrences that day at the Epiphany Cafe; but there was one, about an hour after the re-enactment of the creation of the universe, that might have signaled that life would return to normal. A regular who had been missing for a week returned for her morning cup of coffee. However, what she did with that coffee told us all that nothing would never be the same.

This woman was so thin that she scarcely disturbed the ground when she walked. She was not especially pretty, but had a habit of looking you full in the face, so that it affected your heart. She didn’t make your heart beat strong; she pulled it out of your chest a little, so that you felt more open after meeting her, more expansive, like you were given more air to breathe. She even looked at those people no one else ever looked at and gravitated towards the very ones everybody else avoids. She had even once conducted a complete, but one-sided, conversation with the Waving Man, while he craned around her, looking for cars.

When she was still a child, she had heard about Mother Theresa. Even though she was not Catholic, nor particularly religious, she announced to her parents that when she grew up she would go work with the good nun in India. They were wryly amused and told all their friends the story with a mixture of delight and dismay. Her feelings didn’t change when Mother Theresa died. She wanted nothing more than to travel to Calcutta and clean the wounds of lepers. Her parents would rather she go to college. “No,” she said. “Buy me an airline ticket with the money you would spend on tuition, instead.”

They weren’t going to spend any money on tuition. They were going to apply for college loans and grants, but there were no loans and grants for an apprenticeship in sainthood. Therefore, she got a job at the bookstore next door to the Epiphany Cafe. She worked when she could and saved what she could, but no matter how thrifty she was, no matter how much coupon clipping, budgeting and saving she did, she never raised enough to buy a ticket.

Here’s what the problem was. Her bank was at the corner, down the street from her bookstore and the cafe. Every second week she would cash her paycheck and stuff an allotment of rent into an envelope and an ever dwindling allowance of cash into her purse. Whatever was left over she gave to whoever she passed on the street on her way home. She gave to everyone who asked and those who didn’t ask, even those who said they had no needs. She gave to drug addicts and single mothers, retirees and businessmen, students, and con men; pushers and pullers, pensioners and probationers; the deserving and the non-deserving, alike. She gave as promiscuously as the sun shares its rays on the good and the bad. She gave as if she would never reach the end of giving.

Then at thirty years old, she felt terrible that she had never made it to India.

Her parents, who thought they loved her, said, “You told us you were going to India, but you made little of your life. You work at a bookstore.”

She had a habit of drinking coffee, stopping at the cafe every morning on her way to work. It woke her up. She needed it to get going in the morning. It was her only indulgence. Nonetheless, as time went on, the coffee tasted more and more bitter, no matter how much sugar she put in. With every sip she was more selfish; every swallow was a scalding disappointment.

At last she hit upon an idea. She would stop drinking coffee and put the dollar-sixty-nine towards a one way ticket. Drop by drop fills the coffeepot. By her calculation, it would take a year. Bad habits are hard to break. She made it about a week, the very week before the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy.

Maybe if she had come to the Epiphany Cafe that week, the Geeky Guy would’ve asked her on a date and I’d be telling a different story. Maybe then the Moodus Noises would’ve have groaned and the creation of the universe wouldn’t have been re-enacted. Maybe then, everything would’ve gone on as normal, or what passes for normal in Kenilworth. Maybe I’d be dead by now, a forgotten causality of the insensate mill of familiarity.

When she took her place in line, tears were streaming down her cheeks. She was a hopeless addict, a failure at everything she attempted. If Mother Theresa could see her now, she’d be ashamed; if her parents could see her, they’d be ashamed. She was ashamed of herself. When her turn came at the counter, she stepped up and, tears or no tears, shame or no shame, just as she always did, she looked at the Lisping Barista, full in the face. She had her money ready, so no one would have to wait. A dollar-sixty-nine in exact change, the cost of a small Fair-Market Guatemalan to go. She placed it on the counter as she had always done. The Lisping Barista, who had waited on her every morning, had her cup out and was beginning to draw the Guatemalan, her usual, but the slight woman with the reckless gaze said no, she didn’t want coffee this time.

“I’m paying for the next person in line.”

There was no one in line behind her, but there would be, eventually. She stepped away, as awake as a person can ever be. She woke up that morning, even without drinking her coffee. Every morning thereafter, she would return to do the same thing.

One onlooker, a retired teacher and unlapsed Catholic, well read in the lives of the saints, thanked her on behalf of the unknown beneficiary. She called the thin woman Theresa.

“Why do you call me that?” she said. “That’s not my name.”

“It could be,” said the retired teacher.

“Like Mother Theresa?”

“No, Mother Theresa named herself after her favorite saint, Theresa of Lisiuex. They call her the Saint of the Little Way. Theresa couldn’t do any great deeds, so she did small ones: looking at people, giving whatever she could, spending time with everyone, buying them coffee. You’re just like her. Thank you.”

The retired teacher went back to her Kindle. The thin, not very pretty, but open and generous, woman felt that, for the cost of a small Guatemalan, a dollar-sixty-nine cents, she had received a great sum without even asking for it. She was incalculably rich.

Now, she had one more thing she could afford to give.

She gave up her need to go to Calcutta.