S. Harry Zade explains madness

I can tell, dear Reader, that the one problem you’re going to have with my story is that you don’t understand why the Lisping Barista would run out of the house in the middle of the night, with no shoes, no jacket, and no three-hundred-thousand dollars she had risked so much to take. You might be more inclined to believe the neighbors’ account of the event: that the Lisping Barista had been hanging around the haunted house too long, came under the spell of the Witch, and became frightened by the headless ghosts of her parents. The simplest theory is often the best, except when it must resort to supernatural beings to explain things away.

I am in possession of a bit of backstory that may spread light on her behavior. Where did I get this backstory, you want to know? What you are really asking is, have I pulled it out of my ass? No, it didn’t come from that part of my anatomy. It’s elementary, my dear Reader. I got it from a process of deduction. It all came from the operations of my mind.

Let’s start with what we know. The Lisping Barista caught the Geeky Guy red handed in bed with his sister. That, by itself, is horrifying. Few people, who have discovered this about folks they were visiting, would want to stay. No, they’d be getting a hotel room as soon as possible. If both guests and hosts are like fish, reeking after three days; coming across incest is like tripping over a skunk. The stink is immediate.

Despite the Geeky Guy’s protestations, it really doesn’t matter whether he and his sister’s embedded embrace was as chaste as he claimed. We do not know whether the Geeky Guy was naked in that bed, but he was nude enough to need a sheet to cover himself up. That’s coming pretty close to the act of incest, whether they took it all the way, or not. If you get that close to something that unthinkable, your disgust detecting device needs an adjustment. We residents of Kenilworth have always known that there was something strange about those two.

As off putting as incest may be, it’s still no reason to run out of the house in the middle of the night, without shoes, jacket, and lacking three-hundred-thousand dollars that you took the time to count each day. The jacket is easy to explain. The Lisping Barista had no jacket when she entered the house, days before, having been shot by the Geeky Guy, so she had no jacket when she left. Leaving in the middle of the night is to be expected of someone on the run, as she was from the Drug Dealer. She would cherish the cover of darkness. As for the three-hundred-thousand dollars and the lack of shoes? Gathering them up before she left would have involved the Lisping Barista going back up the stairs and cornering herself in the attic. No, she had a clear route to the door, so she took it.

After she hit the street, I did my best to catch up. I had shoes, but was no match for her. The Geeky Guy broke off his chase after about three blocks because his feet hurt. It took about the same distance before I stopped, hands on my knees, blowing my guts out. After I caught my breath, I continued at a walking pace. I couldn’t see to follow her, but I had an idea where she would go. She would head out of town, by the most direct route possible.

When you encounter seemingly inexplicable behavior, like being in such a hurry to depart that an otherwise rational person leaves three-hundred-thousand dollars behind, it helps to start with the assumption that you can explain it and then try to imagine what would. Aside from ghosts, the first thing that came to my mind was that the Lisping Barista was a victim of childhood sexual abuse from her own brother. Such a thing, I’m told, is far more common than realized, it being always on the hush-hush. The thought is riveting and repugnant. It sheds a light on so much, yet raises so many questions.

Let’s imagine that the Lisping Barista was the youngest of many children, born to parents more interested in making babies than watching over them. Competition was fierce among the Lisping Barista’s siblings, a dog-eat-dog nursery in which she was the runt. All punishments were passed down, like clothing that no longer fits, from eldest to youngest. Any favors received by the youngest were bitterly resented by those ahead in line. Elder siblings were given parental responsibilities, with none of the authority, which they tried to make up for by force. The normal inhibitions that govern interactions between close relations, namely, that one does not have sex with them, was overcome by increments; for here is nothing so grand, or atrocious, that can’t be accomplished bit by bit. The urge to have sex was introduced to the elder siblings, perhaps in the natural way or the unnatural; but, at any rate, they had the desire, but no legitimate means to carry it out. Small transgressions were overlooked or rationalized away, paving the way for larger transgressions. Small children were silenced by prohibitions against tattling, or they simply lacked the words to describe what was going on. Innocence was exploited, and cooperation harnessed by small gifts. Then the younger sibling’s shame was put into play. She blamed herself for what happened, just so she could feel more in control. If she did speak up, she was disbelieved because the cure, which would involve the dissolution and public shame of the family, was perceived to be worse than the disease. Things went on like this for years, the little sister pushing her dresser in front of her door every night, until the big brother went on to others, or she moved out, went mad, or drew a knife.

Now let’s imagine that she grew older and left home. She put these memories into an inaccessible filing cabinet and hid the key. She developed a fondness for tattoos, cutting up her body, and grew dreadlocks incongruent on a blond, white woman; showing an eagerness to change whatever she was given. The Lisping Barista developed a certain, shall we say, enthusiasm for initiating sex, together with an indifference about following through. A victim of sexual abuse might be expected to either disavow all interest in sex, with men, at least; or to advertise her appetite for the activity, as a way of compensation; sort of like whistling in the dark. However, once she initiated sex, all the memories would return, and she’d freeze; sort of like someone whistling in the dark, until she realizes her whistling tells the lurkers where she is.

As the Weather-Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat would say, her brother’s ghost accompanied her wherever she went. As the Reverend Abraham Pierson would say, she had a demon. As the Therapist Emeritus would say, she had flashbacks and all the indications of a post-traumatic stress disorder. As the rest of us would say, she was bat-shit crazy, but we loved her anyway.

If she was crazy, her craziness had a reason. It was too much for her to see the Geeky Guy in bed with his sister. It brought up all the memories of not having any choices. She was a kid when it happened to her, after all; but, she had choices now. She could run out of the house in the middle of the night, leaving behind three-hundred-thousand-dollars, and nowhere to go if she wanted to. It may not be the most sane thing she ever did, but she was taking a step, if not running headlong, towards sanity.


The Lisping Barista loses her shit

“It’s not the way it looks. She was going to tell.”

That’s all I heard before the cat took off. The High Street Witch’s black cat, which had my listening device slipped under her collar, reckoned hollering was about to start. Humans would begin to yell, flail their arms and stamp their feet. Things would be thrown, and objects would be broken. Cats would be kicked, their tails stepped on, and their feline feelings miffed. Therefore, the cat took off, tail high, until it found a place to hide, and waited out the storm, its shining eyes looking out from underneath, witnessing the human equivalent to a cat fight.

The cat, with my listening device, was not so far away, or hidden, that I could not hear the voice repeat himself, “It’s not the way it looks. She was going to tell. Honest. You’ve got to believe me.”

It was clearly, without doubt, the Geeky Guy whom the Lisping Barista caught in bed with his sister. He could have explained that, since their parents died, this was how they comforted each other. The world is a lonely place when you’re an orphan, you have no one to hug you or to hold you. Yes, we were sleeping together, he might’ve said, but we were actually asleep. He could have said his sister was jealous of her, resentful of her, and threatened to tell the Drug Dealer where she was hiding. He was doing it all for her.

If the Geeky Guy had said all that, and the Lisping Barista believed him, we’d have a different story to tell; but all the Geeky Guy could do was repeat what he had already said, ineffectively, over and over, again.

“It’s not the way it looks. She was going to tell.”

I could not hear what the Lisping Barista said back. I pictured her standing and staring, with the same inertia that she had that night in the bus; the immobility she had in the cave with the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat; the fixity of a person whose mind wasn’t there. It had already gone somewhere else, and she wasn’t listening to anything he had to say.

The sister, for her part, was already out of bed and had left the room, abandoning her brother to his futile explanation.

If Lisping Barista’s mind was not there, where had it gone? I have a theory that, when the Lisping Barista saw the Geeky Guy in bed with his sister, her mind excused itself and went into a back room of the brain, where the files are kept. It fingered through the cabinets until it found something that could help in this situation. It took a long time searching, for the folder was hidden away, where it could not be found unless she was really sure she wanted it. When she pulled the file, and opened it, she found documentation that everything that was happening now, had happened before in a similar way. No, it wasn’t a perfect match, but it was a close analogue to it. The file told her what she had done then and how it turned out. She was determined to do things differently.

By the time the Lisping Barista’s mind returned, she had a plan. It wasn’t a very well thought out plan, but it was a plan that had to be executed immediately, decisively, before she changed her mind. I could tell this was happening from my post in the lilacs because the activity inside the house seemed to have paused for a long caesura, as if it had held its breath, waiting to see what she would do. Then, when the Lisping Barista’s mind returned with an ill-conceived, but definitive plan, the house sprang into activity. I could hear feet pattering and stomping on the floor. Lights were turned on. Doors were slammed shut. The hollering, as the cat predicted, began. Nothing was said that illuminated anything. Just more, it’s not the way it looks, fuck you, she was going to tell, and when you’re done thcrewing your thister, go thcrew yourthelf.

A scuffle could be heard. Towers of papers were toppled. The cat abandoned one hiding place, to find another. Something broke. The sister grabbed her broom to clean it up. The Lisping Barista emerged, none too well dressed for the outdoors, without shoes, without jacket, and without a bag that might have contained three-hundred-thousand dollars. A foot fell through the soft spot on the porch, and she was launched out into the yard. The Lisping Barista tumbled a single summersault, sprang to her feet, and ran down the road. The screen door flung open, again. The Geeky Guy emerged, wearing a bedsheet over his head, like a hood. “No!” he said, “Nooooo! Don’t gooooo!” The screen door banged shut and he followed her down the street, as best he could, unaccustomed to bare feet. The screen door opened again, and the High Street Witch emerged, still carrying her broom. The cat made its escape. The door banged shut. The Witch began to laugh.

When the commotion had begun, I could see that the neighbors heard. Their lights switched on and they peered out their windows to see if they needed to worry. When the screen door began to bang, they came out, just in time to see the Lisping Barista running barefoot down the street, a headless ghost, chasing after her, wailing, “Ooooo! Ooooo! Ooooo!”, and the High Street Witch, cackling to herself, with her broom and her cat. Any suspicions they had about the haunted house of High Street, were confirmed that night. They had a story they would tell for a long, long time.

S. Harry Zade fudges a little

With the Epiphany Café closed, I had to go somewhere else to find my stories. Therefore, your intrepid reporter has been lurking in the lilacs outside the Geeky Guy’s house. This location does not have the advantages I enjoyed in Kenilworth’s finest coffee establishment. I could sip the take-out from Dunkin Donuts and sit quite comfortably on the ground, with my back against a trunk, but the rain could get me wet and spiders liked to size me up for their web. However, a fictional character need not fret about the weather if his author doesn’t mention it and he will never get bit unless it advances the plot, so I was happy to spend hours in the lilacs gathering information to share with you.

I’m sorry to say I had little to go on. I could not directly witness the proceedings inside the house. I had planted a bug by catching the witch’s black cat when it was let out, slipping it under her collar, and waiting till it was let back in. She now was purring at the foot of the witch’s bed, along with whomever her companion might be, while I sat outside with a set of earphones on and a receiver tucked underneath my jacket. I could just make out the creeps and groans of the floor as the Lisping Barista came down from the attic to go on her exploration. I could see shadows cast to the inside of the curtains, and I could use everything I knew about the characters involved to assemble a reasonable narrative of what was going on. However, I must confess that most of what I have already told you about what happened in that house is constructed from the little bit of data I have gathered.

Some more meticulous readers may object to my rendering scenes I did not observe. Wait just one cotton pickin’ minute here, they might say; although I’d doubt it, few people say cotton pickin’ any more, if they ever did. Wait a minute, they would repeat, you mean to say that everything we just read as written by the Lisping Barista was made up?

Yes, that’s right, I would answer. Everything since she left the Epiphany Café is entirely my own creation. I have learned to mimic both her patterns of thought and her writing style by studying her closely. Then, I used my imagination to present to you what is, strictly speaking, a story that blurs the lines between what you call truth and fiction.

Don’t get me started on what you call truth. You know my beliefs about fictional characters and the ones who are said to be real. I shouldn’t need to repeat them here. I can summarize them by saying everyone is fictional, anyway. The same goes for events. Every bona fide event, even those reported by the Associated Press, or some other highly respected source, is fiction. That is to say, the event as it occurred was cut and pasted, photoshopped, proofread, and edited for your consumption. You see, events don’t come with a narrative; we create a narrative for them. There is no beginning, no end, and no context. The things world leaders utter in their own language are nicely translated for you. News photos are framed to exclude extraneous distractions. Soundbites are fashioned to get right to the point. There’s nothing between the lines, for there are no lines. It’s all just blooming, buzzing confusion until us storytellers nicely package it for you.

What I have done is akin to an archeologist who finds an ancient manuscript with four out of five words missing. He fills in what he supposes is there. It’s like an astronomer who takes a reading of a star one day, another reading a week later, and traces the line between them as the path the star had traveled. It’s no different than Darwin studying the birds and beasts of the Galapagos and constructing a tale of how they got to be so different. It takes imagination to see the truth, so I should not have to apologize for using my imagination.

I was in the lilac bushes, explaining this to you; explaining it to myself, really, for you, dear reader weren’t there, except in my imagination; when a passerby, walking home from the bar, stopped because he thought he heard someone who sounded like a professor of literature lecturing in the lilacs. He listened for a while and peered through the bushes, to see if he could make out a classroom, a podium, and a tweedy, self-absorbed instructor, surrounded by sleepy students, staring at their phones. I halted my hectoring, sat very still, and counted on incongruity to hide me better than the bushes ever could. In the end, he pulled his eyes away, shuddered his head, and staggered on, carrying an amusing anecdote to tell his wife when he got home. She wouldn’t smile at the story, but she would renew her efforts to get him to stop drinking.

Returning to our imaginary conversation, the meticulous readers might ask, how is it possible to tell truth from falsehood? Is it all fake news anyway?

I believe stories can be tested for truth. Truth is not correspondence to things in themselves, for the things in themselves can never, ever be adequately represented on a page. You know truth by a different test. It has a ring.

For instance, the story the passerby would tell his wife, that he’d heard a literature professor lecturing in the lilacs on High Street, did not have the ring of truth for her. The story that his wife would tell herself, that he’d heard voices because he was drinking too much, did. If only he had said he found a homeless man, camping out on High Street, talking to himself, then that would’ve been a story that could be believed; but it would’ve been a story so unremarkable that it would not have been worth telling.

The ring of truth is not something that can be explained; you know it when you come across it. When a story has that ring, all the parts harmonize together. The characters sound like human beings you might have heard speak and the plot flows out of things they might have done. You can trace their history up to their present situation and their conflicts are something you would care about, if you were them. The setting has enough details to make it seem like an actual place and the conclusion is not dropped out of the sky, but it emerges as a natural consequence of what has happened.

Let me tell you what happened next with the Lisping Barista, so you can see the ring of truth in action. You will read a work of imagination, constructed from few actual facts. Then you tell me if it has that ring I’m talking about.

The Lisping Barista goes exploring and finds something she wasn’t supposed to see

I’ve been in this attic for, like a week or two and I’m going crazy. Boooooring. Yea, I’ve got the oxies, all the stuff in the attic, three-hundred-thousand useless dollars, no place to spend it, and my gratitudes for company, but that’s not going keep a girl like me happy for long. I’m used to doing things, seeing people, going places, and doing my little part in bringing peace, love, and understanding into the world. Sitting around, waiting for my guy to come to in, just for nothing to happen when he does, seems like something my grandmother might think was a good idea and she had her cooking, sewing, and bridge parties to keep her company. All I have is a bunch of old stuff no one wants, or I can’t use, and a guy who doesn’t seem to want me.

Yea, that’s right. He doesn’t want me. Most guys are all over me; but we’re like an old married couple, never having sex. He just wants to cuddle, but I push him away because it’s too aggravating. He complains as much about that as I complain about not fucking. There’s something unusual about that man.

So, it’s the middle of the night when I wake up and he’s not there. I haven’t been too good with time and there’s no clock anywhere in this attic. There’s no noises in the house. All there is, is traffic outside. It must be no one’s home. It’s the perfect time to go exploring.

I’ve got this reoccurring dream where I’m walking around in someone else’s house uninvited. There’s always some weird things about the house that seem perfectly normal in the dream, like there’s a giant hole in the roof over the living room that looks like it belongs there. Something unexpected always happens and I’m always worried I’m about to be caught. Walking around this house is a lot like that. In this case, every room is jammed to the ceiling with junk and there’s only one path I can take, and I have to walk sideways to get through. None of the doors can open all the way and the windows might as well not be there, they’re blocked by heaps of stuff.

If you’ve ever been in an antique shop, filled to the ceiling so you can’t move around or even see what’s there, you might have an idea of what the inside of the house looks like. Only it’s mostly electronics and piles of old newspapers. Not anything that anyone would ever buy, so it keeps piling up and up. I wouldn’t know how people could live in a place like this, except that I’ve been doing it for the past week or two, maybe three.

I’m feeling on edge as I creep from room to room. I’m not supposed to be here, which is strange, because I came into the house invited and the guy hasn’t wanted me to leave. He sets me up in the attic and tells me his sister wouldn’t want me around, so don’t go down and be really quiet. It was all good to me because I need to be hiding out from Chai Latte anyway and don’t want the witch getting pissed at me and telling him. He brings me everything I need and keeps me as content as a caged bird.

So, I’ve been having lots of time to think. You know how I’ve been changing my mind about love? You remember, I decided love wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Well, I’ve been thinking that way about peace, too. I’ve had nothing but peace up here in this attic.

There’s no weed, but I get all the oxies I want. There’s no sex, but there’s plenty of cuddling. For once in my life, I don’t have to work. I can’t do everything I want, but there’s nothing much I want and, if I wanted anything, I’ve got three-hundred-thousand dollars to buy it. There is the fact that Chai Latte would be wanting to kill me for taking the money, but, if he hasn’t found me yet in this attic, I don’t think he will. I may be kidding myself, I did read Anne Frank’s diary, a chick I can now relate to, and I know how it ends; but, if she can fight with her parents, fall in love, and believe in the hidden goodness of mankind, I can find peace when I know someone is looking to kill me.

Here’s the thing though, once you get peace, you’re not going to want it anymore. It’s fucking boring. You’re going to want to stir some shit up once and a while. You’re going to be compelled to explore a haunted house, poke around through someone’s belongings, and maybe get caught. You’re going to want some danger.

So, that’s why I’m creeping downstairs, looking for what I might see when I think they’re not home.

I get into one room and it’s so dark I run into the bed. When I reach down to stop from falling, I touch something, and it moves. It’s a body. Then it wakes up. I can tell it has long dark hair. It’s that witch, the sister. Then she says something, loud and clear. Too loud to be said in the middle of the night.

“So, now you know.”

Only, I don’t know anything. All I know was that I got caught creeping around the house I’m hiding in. Hiding from her. Really, she’s the one who knows now. She knows I’m here. What am I supposed to know?

Then there’s movement in the bed beside her. It’s a small bed, just big enough for one person. The sister must have someone she’s fucking. That’s it. That must be what I know. But who would want to be fucking that witch?

The person sits up suddenly. I can’t see who it is. Then he says something.

When I hear the voice that says it, that’s when I know. Knowing, and understanding, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. There’s some things you don’t want to know. So, now I’m three for three. Peace, love, and understanding, all gone to shit.

The natives of Kenilworth get restless

While the Lisping Barista was nursing her wounds in the attic of the High Street haunted house, and the Geeky Guy was nursing her, nothing much was going on at the Epiphany Café. The café was closed. You see, now that the Geeky Guy had the Lisping Barista in his attic, he had no need for the café, which he had purchased for the sole reason to get close to her. Furthermore, he had no stomach for business and all the petty aggravations that come along with having to schedule workers and keep the place clean, prosperous, and fully stocked. He created spreadsheets for every task, but found that a spreadsheet by itself does not keep the half and half fresh and the napkins waiting. Consequently, if the café had run out of a crucial item or if the Geeky Guy hadn’t found anyone to work a particular shift, or if he had forgotten to ask, the café simply closed its doors. All of its customers’ epiphanies would have to wait for another day.

The people of Kenilworth are a fine, generous, charitable bunch most of the time, when it suits them; but they weren’t getting their fix of caffeine. The river, which had come all the way from the Frenchified regions of northern Vermont, not to mention New Hampshire, seemed to pause outside the café and shift back and forth in nervous waiting that the scientist types said was due to the comings and going of the tides. We all knew better, though, and recognized in the river’s agitation, our own feelings about the café’s closing. Eventually, the river moved on. What the environmental impact was on the shellfish and cod fisheries by discharging so much disappointed New England water into the Atlantic Ocean, we’ll never know. Could this be enough to tip the balance towards climate change? Might the Lisping Barista’s reluctant residence in the attic of the High Street haunted house prove to be ultimately responsible for the flooding of the Maldives Islands or the next big hurricane to hit Haiti? We can only speculate. What we do know are the immediate effects on the people of Kenilworth and what they did about it.

The first time the Crazy Dog Lady walked her dogs to the Epiphany Café and found it was closed, she continued right on to the Dunkin Donuts down the street; but they would not let her dogs in. She let out a howl when she saw the sign on the door. This was not right, she cried. It was discriminatory. The dogs, themselves took up the howl, even though they didn’t understood the full implications of the policy. It was enough for them that their alpha was upset.

The Town Cop, who was not directly affected by the café’s closing because he preferred Dunkin Donuts anyway, set aside his Boston Cream to see what the ruckus was all about. His presence was enough to deter the Crazy Dog Lady from storming the Dunkin Donuts and starting a revolution, but it was not enough to deter her from calling him a pig. The Town Cop, who still wore his thinning hair in a ponytail in homage to his hippie days, just shrugged his shoulders and said that, seeing as though he was a pig, he would have another donut.

Things were tough for the only cop in the town of Kenilworth. A long time ago the people of Kenilworth decided that they weren’t citizens anymore, they were only taxpayers. As soon as they realized that, they stopped paying taxes. They allowed their roads to deteriorate so they could have more money to blacktop their driveways. They each put a basketball hoop over each of those driveways because the one at the town park had fallen to the ground. They saved so much money by not paying school taxes that some of them could afford to send their kids to private school. They cut the police force to a single, pony-tailed, ex-hippie cop and hired the laid off policemen as private security guards. This cop, believing that arresting many people would only mean the crime rate was soring, seldom arrested anyone and preferred to hang out at the Dunkin Donuts with strangers, tourists, passers-by, and others who didn’t know any better. You see, before the closing of the Epiphany Café, few residents of Kenilworth ever went to Dunkin Donuts, for they knew the café was the better option. The Town Cop could spend all day eating donuts and the taxpayers wouldn’t know any better.

All this, of course, changed when the Epiphany Café closed its doors and we began to flock to the Dunkin Donuts. The Town Cop, who was no dummy, could see that times were a changing, ordered a box to go, got in his car, and found a quiet place in the woods to eat them.

The Town Drug Dealer also knew the value of keeping up appearances. He and the Town Cop had an understanding. The Drug Dealer would not deal drugs in front of the cop and the cop would not arrest him. Therefore, the Epiphany Café’s closing had shut down his business until he saw that the Town Cop had left the Dunkin Donuts with a box. Then he moved right in.

The only one really happy about the Epiphany Café’s closing was the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker, who was grateful for the No Dogs sign at the Dunkin Donuts. However, she soon found something else to be afraid about. There were so many people at the Dunkin Donuts, with the Kenilworth residents joining the passers-through, that there were a couple of times she forgot to breath. Actually, she remembered breathing, but she told herself that, with so many people in one room, there would not be enough air left over for her. Therefore, the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker, exited the dog-free Dunkin Donuts just as she had often exited the dog-ridden Epiphany Café; only now, when she stepped out of the door, she was greeted by the Crazy Dog Lady and all of her dogs who had set up a picket line in protest of the sign. This all was too much for the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker, who went back into the foyer and pecked her iPhone.

Most of us crossed the Crazy Dog Lady’s picket line and passed the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker in the foyer. Nothing like equal rights for dogs would keep us from our coffee. The exception was Kenilworth’s patron saint, who went on being saintly without the café. She had been accustomed to stopping every day and paying for the latte of the unsuspecting and undeserving next person in line; but, with the café closed, she found another object for her charity. The Leatherman got an extra slice of bologna in his sandwich, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat got a better brand of vodka, and the resident saint got busy cleaning the dog shit up from in front of the Dunkin Donuts.

The better brand of vodka for the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had an unforeseen consequence. The good people of Kenilworth had learned to tolerate the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat living by the dumpster of the Epiphany Café, just as they had learned to tolerate the town’s other homeless person, the Leatherman. The Leatherman was easier; he stayed in the town only once in a while as he passed through on his regular circuit through Connecticut and Hudson Valley, New York. The worthy Kenilworthians liked to check their calendars against his unvarying appearance and compete with other towns for who could be more generous. The Leatherman had been at it long enough that he had become an institution. Tales about him had passed from one generation to the next. Father prohibited their sons to chuck stones at him. Mothers sent their daughters to him with flowers. There were feature articles written about him in the newspaper. Even the dogs didn’t bark as he tramped past them from town to town.

The Leatherman was one thing; the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, quite another. As beloved as he had briefly been as a barista at the Epiphany Café, he was still very much a stranger around these parts. Because his hybrid southern-midwestern-western accent had yet to pick up a Connecticut brogue, he didn’t sound like them. With his cowboy hat, he didn’t look like them; and, after a few days living by the dumpster, he didn’t smell like them, either. They barely tolerated him because he kept to himself, out of sight, out back; but, after the Epiphany Café closed and he started drinking a better brand of vodka than they could afford, they got grumpy and began to complain that their home had a problem with homelessness.

With most of the town of Kenilworth hanging out at the Dunkin Donuts with strangers, tourists, passers-by, and others who didn’t know any better, these complaints had an effect they wouldn’t have had if the Epiphany Café was open and the two groups were segregated. Previously, the residents of Kenilworth would only complain amongst themselves till they got it out of their system, and nothing would come of it; but, now, with them complaining in front of the strangers, tourists, and passers-by, with all their potential tourist money and investment capital, it was getting embarrassing. The Town Selectman had to get in the act. He blamed the Town Cop.

If the people of Kenilworth had been citizens, and not just taxpayers, they would have urged the Town Selectman to find a place for the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat to go for rehab; but, with things as they were, rehab was too expensive. A mob began to form at the Dunkin Donuts. Between bites of crullers, the good people of Kenilworth began to talk, not of getting rid of the homeless, but getting rid of the worthless cop. What were they paying their taxes for, if it wasn’t for the Town Cop to harass the homeless that filled their town?

The Drug Dealer, who knew which side of his donut had chocolate frosting, packed up his wares and set out to look for the Town Cop. Because he knew all the hiding spots, he was able to quickly find the cop and tell him that the taxpayers were on the warpath. Get to the dumpster behind the Epiphany Café, he said, and evict the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat and then find the Leatherman and convince him to alter his route, before the taxpayers find a real cop to do your job.

By the time the people of Kenilworth had passed out enough torches and pitchforks to overthrow a dynasty, the Town Cop had the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat in the back seat of his car and was going off to meet the Leatherman before he crossed the town line. He had been sighted in Essex yesterday and could be expected to take up residence at the Kenilworth Burial Ground in two days.


The Lisping Barista writes a gratitude list

So, here I am, the madwoman in the attic. I always knew it would come down to this. Wait, that’s not all. I got an angry drug dealer who used to be my boyfriend and all his henchmen after me; my current boyfriend shot me in the arm; and the Spellbinding Fish Fry are playing in Ohio by now. Can things get any worse?

The Fry have got a song where they say when things get bad, just go through all the things you’re grateful for. That’s what I’ll do. Just like in the song.

They start off with some things about the sun and the sky, but I can’t start there because I’m stuck in the attic and can’t see either one of them. But, let’s see. There must be something I’m grateful for.

Gratitude Number 1
I got drugs. Not just Vicodin or Percosets, I’ve got a guy bringing me oxies. That’s what he does for me. And he gives me all of them, even though he has a broken collar bone and all I got is a bullet graze on my arm. I’d rather have some weed, but that would entail going to my drug dealer ex-boyfriend, hazardous for him and impossible for me, so we have to settle for what he can get from his doctor, his dentist, the good people at the emergency room, and any other doctors he can find.

The oxies put me in a permanent state of suspension from my body, like the two of us have agreed to disagree and are calling it quits from each other for a while. My body’s always been better off without me, anyway. We get along better this way, if you know what I mean.

Gratitude Number 2
I got the nicest guy in the world, who thinks he’s in love with me. He isn’t the guy I’d pick because I don’t pick nice guys, but he’s a guy who brings me drugs and straightens out these old dresses I sleep on every morning like they’re a bed to be made. He brings me food when I need it and even a pot to piss and shit in. Then he empties the pot so I don’t have to go downstairs.

As nice as he is, I figured out he’s not one of the thirty-six people alive who’re keeping the world from being destroyed. He got disqualified when he shot me because no one like that would’ve shot anyone for any reason. That’s why I don’t mind him shooting me so much. It takes a lot of the pressure off me, having to keep him good, so as not to destroy the world.

The fact that I don’t have to keep him good means that I’m free to fuck him, but the weirdo never wants to fuck. I’ve quit asking. He’s always afraid his sister will hear us. There’s something about those two I can’t put my finger on. It’s like he’s really married to his sister and I’m the mistress he’s trying to keep a secret. A mistress he never fucks.

Notice that I said he thinks he’s in love with me. I didn’t say he is in love with me. He doesn’t know me. In fact, all this love is getting in the way of him knowing a thing about me. It keeps him from seeing me for the loser I am. So, he keeps loving me, which is what he wants to do. He just wants to love someone, so he invents someone to love.

Notice I didn’t say I’m in love with him. Although, he’s cool, I guess. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s the love he thinks he has for me that’s getting in the way of any loving I could do. It’s like he doesn’t need it from me. I can treat him as bad as I want and he’d still go right on loving me because he can’t see a thing. If things keep going on like this, I could end up hating him because he pays no attention to me, even though he’s up my ass constantly.

Chai Latte is the guy I really love, for all the shit he’s done to me. I think it’s like this. You don’t fall in love and then choose a person. You choose them first and then fall in love with them because you chose them. And you choose them before you know them, so you don’t really need to know them to love them. In fact, it’s better if you don’t know them.

Also, only one person in a couple can choose. That’s why only one person can do the loving. The one who doesn’t do the loving ends up hating because everyone wants to be the one who gets the choice, even though it’s hard and you’ve got to work hard and get beat up. That’s the way it is. It’s not the way we want it, so it takes a while before we understand.

For now, I’m happy being the one loved, rather than having to do all the loving. It’s easier that way, even though I don’t get to choose. Screw choice.

Gratitude Number 3
For whatever reason it’s important, I guess I have to include on my gratitude list the fact that the sister doesn’t know I’m in the house. When I worked at the cafe, I’d see her come in wearing her long dresses and cardigans, no matter how hot it is outside. She asks me if I’ve seen him and, when I say no, she looks like she wouldn’t believe anything I would say, anyway. Then she gets a look in her eye that tells me there’s a whole lot of crazy going on.

If I’m a madwoman in the attic of a crazy house, does that make me sane?

Gratitude Number 4
I got this attic all to myself. There’s a broken window on one end and a good one on the other that’s really dirty. Birds fly in and out whenever they want. It’s like I’m a bird in a cage and the real birds are free to come over and see me. They whistle their songs to me and I learn to whistle them back. It makes them happy when I talk like them.

There is a whole lot of junk piled up in this attic, but it’s actually better than the rest of the house. You couldn’t get more of a mess downstairs if a newspaper truck collided with a tractor trailer full of electronics and they both overturned in a flea market.

When I get bored, I go through the boxes up here and find all the things these people kept and forgot they had. That’s what gratitudes are, I guess. Stuff we got in the attic and didn’t even know we had. The Fry ought to add something in their song about that. I’ll have to tell them.

Gratitude Number 5
No gratitude list would be complete if I didn’t add the Spellbinding Fish Fry. It breaks my heart that I can’t be with them right now and I left my music behind when I ran out of Chai Latte’s, but I got all their songs in my head. Anytime I want, I can just sing them. It also warms my heart to know that out in Ohio, they and all the Deep Fries are working hard to bring peace, love, and understanding to the world.

I am starting to see that, when I get more understanding, it changes what I know about love. I don’t know about peace. Peace could turn out to be very different from what I imagined it would be, just like love. It might turn out to be something I don’t want, either.

Gratitude Number 6
My boyfriend can’t find me here. The drug-dealing boyfriend, Chai Latte, I mean. He’s going to be pissed when he finds out I’m gone and even more pissed when he finds out I took the money under his bed. I would’ve taken more if I could carry it. I would’ve taken less if he hadn’t been such a prick. But then I wouldn’t have needed to run away at all, would I?

When I’m not snooping around the attic, I’m counting my money. Three thousand hundred dollar bills. More than this girl has ever see in her life, certainly all at once; probably more than I got from every shit job I ever had.

Gratitudes Numbers 7 through 3007
$300,000.00. I really like writing all those zeros.

By my calculation that’s enough to drive out to catch up with the Fry and follow them all the days of my life without having to stop at these towns to make enough money to go on. If I sleep in the car and get someone else to buy my weed, that is.

So, what am I doing, hanging around in this attic like a madwoman, or a caged bird, or a kept mistress who never gets fucked when I’ve got all this money? That’s the thing that erases all the gratitudes. I can’t leave because of that prick I love, Chai Latte. He’s got to be watching my car and he’ll kill me. What was I thinking? I never should have let the nice guy drag me up here in his attic, but I thought it was a good idea for someone to love me. I should have taken off while I could have. Now, I’ve got to lay low for a while, at least as long as the drugs hold out. Then I make my move and do my part in spreading peace, love, and understanding to the whole world. Peace and understanding at least.

Rabbi ! shares a parable

You may be wondering, Dear Reader, why I, S Harry Zade, don’t come right out and tell you what happened to the Geeky Guy and the Lisping Barista. Why do I dick around with these long digressions? What is it with the rabbit trail of the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat? Who cares about the agonies and the ecstasy of Kenilworth’s resident saint when there’s real action going on. Time is money, you might be saying; let’s get on with it. Enough of this swirling around suburban streets; where’s the highway? Indeed, enough of the journey; it’s time we arrived at our destination. Are we there yet?

Similarly, you may also be wonder why I, S Harry Zade, as a literary stylist, don’t favor the pared down style of simple, direct, and unadorned prose that’s so much in vogue. Less, is more, the writing teachers say. Take out all necessary words say the resident geniuses at Bread Loaf and Iowa Writers Workshop. Remove everything but the minimal necessary to convey meaning. A journalistic style was good enough for Hemingway; why isn’t it good enough for me?

Well, there’s a couple reasons why. One practical; the other deep. The practical reason is that I’m a fictional character whose sole purpose in life is to be your narrator. I live to tell stories and will get killed off the moment I’m done telling them. In a sense, I’m paid by the hour and will linger by the time clock for as long as I can before I punch out.

The deep reason is why you should indulge me. It’s what you get out of it. It justifies bushwhacking through the brambles when you could be at camp, eating s’mores by the fire, already, before stretching out for an early bed. Of course, I can’t just tell you the deep reason; I have to impart it my own way.

It reminds me of another sermon by the Laughing Rabbi, as he told it to us at the Epiphany Cafe.

There was a man who lived way up in the hills and ate nothing but raw wheat, which he grew himself. Day in and day out, nothing but plain wheat.

It sounded horrible to us. No caramel almond milk lattes, no peanut butter cookies as big as a dinner plate, no cheesy smushed paninis, no scones, no danishes; why, not even any sandwich wraps.

The man came to town one day, got hungry, and looked for something to eat. None of the stores had raw wheat. None of the restaurants served raw wheat. He walked into a bakery. They had something which they called bread.

They sold him some bread. It had a hard, flaky crust on the outside and a soft, warm, fragrance inside. The showed him how to drizzle honey on it and he ate.

How did you like it?” asked the baker.

“Oh, it’s OK,” said the man from the hills. “What’s in it?”

The baker said, “This bread is made from wheat.”

The man was still hungry. He pointed to another object in the baker’s display case.

“What is that?” he asked.

“That’s a croissant,” said the baker.

“I’ll have that,” said the man from the hills.

He ate the croissant with strawberry jam, just like they showed him.

“How do you like it?” asked the baker.

“Oh, it’s OK,” said the man from the hills. “What’s in it?”

“It’s made from wheat, ground into a fine, white flour. There’s also lots of butter.”

The man was still hungry. He pointed to another object in the baker’s display case.

“What is that?” he asked.

“That’s a chocolate cupcake,” said the baker.

“I’ll have that,” said the man. He ate the chocolate cupcake.

“How do you like it?” asked the baker.

“Oh, it’s OK,” said the man from the hills. “What’s in it?”

“It’s also made from a finely ground, wheat flour. I’ve added chocolate and shortening and it’s topped with a creamy frosting.”

Finally, the man was full. It was time for him to leave. The man had to go back home to the hills.

“Can I get you anything to take home with you?” asked the baker. “Besides bread, croissants, and cupcakes, I also have biscotti, danish, muffins, scones, turnovers, cookies, pies, tarts, cakes, baguettes, and rolls. Maybe you’d like to try them?”

“What are all those made out of?”

“Basically, wheat.”

“Why would I take anything home with me? I already have wheat, and eat wheat every day. If wheat is the basic ingredient of everything you make, then I’ve already had it all.”

The laughing rabbi laughed. We didn’t laugh. As laughing rabbi stories go, this was one of his better stories; but, what did it mean? We didn’t get the point.

Ever since the enlightenment, Western men and women have been preoccupied with narrowing everything down to the essentials. This has resulted in the elocution of the laws of physics and all the advances of science; but it has also given us reductionism in philosophy and fundamentalism in religion. It’s brought us impersonal architecture, unrecognizable art, and incomprehensible literature. We have turned people into numbers and governance into bureaucracy. We would just as soon interact with machines than people. We’ve dismissed everything that makes life worth living as mere fluff. We have become a civilization of wheat eaters.

So, there you have it. What would you rather have, Dear Reader? Bread, croissants, and cupcakes, biscotti, danish, muffins, scones, turnovers, cookies, pies, tarts, cakes, baguettes, and rolls, or raw wheat?