The Lisping Barista at the Epiphany Cafe
The young woman miraculously said yes to the Geeky Guy.
I’m sorry to have to start in the middle of the story like this, but you should be used to it by now. In real life, stories always start in the middle. When you were born, the tale had already begun. It’ll continue after you die. At times it will seem to go on without you, even if you think you’re still alive.
Then there will be times when your story seems to go nowhere. It had been like that for me. I was a forgotten novel in a drawer, a half told tale, a shaggy dog that lost the scent. My life had stopped while my author went on a long digression, a parenthetical parable, a superfluous sermon. He piled and piled metaphors on me till I couldn’t move. Alliterated allusions abated my breath. I was sitting there, waiting for an editor to cross me out. But then something happened. Some may call it inspiration, others might say it was transformation, still others believe in transubstantiation; I like to think of it as a revelation. I was cut and pasted, rearranged, restated, and put where I belong. I found myself at the Epiphany Cafe, overhearing a fetching young woman astonishingly say yes.
By outward appearances, it looked like a perfectly ordinary coffee shop. Not the kind from your parent’s generation where the buxom waitress calls you honey; but of the class of expensive whipped concoctions, hip baristas, and scribes arrayed at table tops, heads down into their manuscripts. A place where no one knows your name, but they know how you like your latte. Please don’t imagine it was a chain: a Starbucks, Seattle’s best, Tim Horton’s or Dunkin Donuts. It was one of a kind. It could be anywhere, but you could never open one again, anywhere else. It was at the perfect location: the intersection of Inspiration and Perspiration; over by where you get off, and on, the Ego Highway; before you get to those housing tracts, where every where looks the same.
The young woman was the conductor of the espresso machine, standing where she always stood, when the Geeky Guy approached her. She was a craftsman of crushed beans, an artisan of whipped milk, a master of macchiato; and she also crushed, whipped, and mastered our hearts. Women and men, we arranged our laptops so we could peer over and watch. She was a clash of artistry and awkwardness, bangles and chains, purity and piercings. She had enough tattoos so that, if you knew the language, you could read her life. By means of the cuts on her arms you could see right into her and know she was in pain. You would just want to take care of her, but there was a counter in the way. The closest you would get would be the tip jar, which overflowed when she was on shift. But then the Geeky Guy, who no one expected, rose up, went forth, and asked her out on a date. He suggested coffee, which didn’t seem bizarre till later, and she said, so that we all could hear, yes.
To be precise, with her pierced tongue, it sounded more like, “Yeth.” That’s why I call her the Lisping Barista.
All about me, S. Harry Zade
Since I’m unlikely to ever meet you, I’m going to tell you something I never tell anyone. They all think I’m an English professor because I favor a tweedy look and have more books in my bag than electronics. When someone asks me something, I answer in a thoughtful, but incomprehensible manner, as if it were more important to be clever than clear. I tend to privilege sound over sense, erudition over having something to say. I let them think what they think because they would never believe who I was if I told them the truth.
I’m really a fictional character.
That’s right, I was created by a man in dirty sweat clothes who hadn’t washed his hair in four days, gone punchy from too many hours at a word processor. He’d just screeched at his wife because she knocked on his door to ask if he wanted breakfast. What was so important that he couldn’t be disturbed? He was conceiving me. He gazed at the screen, cupped his hand ever so gently over the rounded form of the mouse, fondled the keyboard, and brought me into being. The imperfect man to whom I owe my very existence is a perfect prick.
I’m really not that different from you.
You may think that you’re really special, being real and all; but what is real? It means that you don’t know you’re a fictional character, too.
Just think of the many poses you take. Sexy with your boyfriend, prim with your parents; studious with your teachers, goofy with your friends late at night; a hard worker, a lazy slouch; fun in Facebook, serious in LinkedIn. Which, out of that expansive cast, is your true self, anyway? The one you go to bed with at night? Do you look the way you think you look when you look in the mirror in the morning? Buddha said it best: the self is an illusion. He might as well have said a delusion, a painted smile on a sad clown, a fudged report, a generalization, a weak end of a flashlight beam, shaking on the trail where the woods are full on monsters.
It’s true that being fictional means that I can’t actually eat or fuck or sit on a purple cushion and pick my nose; but I can imagine doing those things very vividly. Rather, my author can imagine it and, presto, I’m doing them.
Let me demonstrate. There. I just let loose a silent but deadly fart into the cafe. It felt good. There was a sensation of relief and a passive-aggressive vanity in the action, sort of like the surreptitious satisfaction boldly giving birth to a bursting baby bubble. At the same time, I’m pleased that its arrival was not accompanied by trumpets that would’ve blown my cover. I took clandestine delight in watching my neighbors crinkle their noses and look slyly around. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats, hoping no one would suspect them. They weighed the pros and cons of packing up their laptop and moving, versus waiting for the smell to dissipate.
So, you be the judge. Did I capture the experience of furtive farting? If so, for what do I need a body?
From what I can tell, no one who has a body seems to know what to do with it. The Geeky Guy, for instance, moves around as jerkily as a marionette. All the scribes at their laptops around me seem to have forgotten that they have bodies as they squint into the virtual world, drink too much coffee, and hold their arms in uncomfortable positions till they get tendonitis. Then there’s the Lisping Barista, who seems to have fought a war against her body, as wonderful as it was; defacing it with permanent graffiti, revising it with piercings, and slicing it to ribbons with a razor. It seems as though these so called real people are doing their best to be disembodied and making themselves into fictional characters; as if they weren’t already.
As a self-knowing fictional character, I can claim an advantage all the rest of you don’t have. I know the purpose of my life. It’s revealed by the name my author has given me. If you sound it out, S. Harry Zade becomes Scheherazade, a clever allusion to the story teller of Arabian Nights. Apparently, I’m supposed to tell stories or die. Perhaps it’s this very virtue, the ability we fictional characters have of knowing the meaning of our lives, that has caused you real people to fictionalize yourselves. I enjoy a good measure of clarity and singleness of purpose you guys don’t seem to have.
Be that as it may, it is the narrative imperative that has given me anxiety, for I’m not allowed to have writer’s block like any normal human being. Failure to produce a steady flow of entertainment can send me to the chopping block. I can be rubbed out and made to disappear more easily than you, for it’s not necessary to dispose of a body when one can be done in by a delete key.
So, like a shark that must keep swimming or else it dies, I must continuously tell stories. This is what brings me to the Epiphany Cafe. A writer has contradictory needs of both solitude and fellowship. I must rub elbows with my fellows to pick up some experiences. I need constant stimulation, a steady flow of material, story leads, and compelling characters; and then I need you all to leave me the hell alone. The Epiphany Cafe is just the place for me.
This is why it meant so much to me when I overheard an attractive young woman, the Lisping Barista, say yes to the Middle-Aged Fat Guy, even though she was not saying yes to me. I knew I was witnessing a story.
Strange occurrences near Kenilworth
Stirred from its subterranean slumber in the frenchified regions of northern New England, the waters of the Connecticut River arose, staggered around a little, passed the Green Mountains on its right, the White Mountains on its left, and, as if it could do nothing without its morning cup of coffee, went straight to the Epiphany Cafe. The River didn’t stop for Emily Dickenson in Amherst, it didn’t shoot hoops at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, or linger to light a cigar with Mark Twain in Hartford. It was on a mission for some caffeine.
Halfway down the state of Connecticut, the River did something rivers never do. It had a broad, fertile, populous valley directly in front of it. It could have taken this easy path, discharged into a good harbor at New Haven, and become as famous as the Hudson; but, no; it took an inexplicable left hand turn and cut through some granite hills, willing to flow uphill if needed, so that it could get its double shot of espresso latte.
Many have commented on the mad path the River took back into the hills, but, to my mind, have not come up with a satisfactory explanation. The original inhabitants, no doubt, had a story that may have involved trickery or a giant turd falling from the sky to divert its course. At any rate, the explanation is lost, a causality of the Pequot Wars. We are only left with what the geologists say, something about glaciers, to justify the River’s irrational behavior. I think my coffee idea is as sound as any because I know how good it is at the Epiphany Cafe.
To be accurate, the River does not come straight through the door of the cafe and wait patiently in line at the counter for the Lisping Barista to take its order. If the River came in, no other customers would be able to keep their feet dry; therefore, it courteously passes a few miles away and asks the inhabitants of the little town of Kenilworth to get it some take out.
The townspeople are so accustomed to unusual occurrences that they think nothing of it. A nearby caffeine addicted river is just the start of it. The forests in and surrounding Kenilworth are teaming with fairies, ghosts, and other magical beings to such a degree that it’s commonplace. There are known ghosts that go back to colonial times, four hundred years; and unnamed ghosts older than that. There are fairies behind every rock, and there are plenty of rocks in Connecticut. There are ogres under every bridge, and every place a road meets a stream there is a bridge. Even the trees, of which there are as many as rocks, will stand and wave as you pass by. Despite the abundance of evidence, few in Kenilworth will acknowledge it’s an enchanted place. They keep their heads down into their tablets and mistake the mystical for routine.
For instance, immediately after the Lisping Barista astonishingly said yes to the Geeky Guy, a low, rumbling sound could be heard from the hills across the River. The coffee itself got jittery. The cups rattled, all the newcomers to the region sat up straight and looked for an exit, but the natives of Kenilworth barely missed a keystroke. The Lisping Barista revealed she was not from around here.
“What wa’that?” she asked.
The Geeky Guy attempted to reassure her. “That’s just the Moodus Noises,” he said, as if that explained anything. He went on to talk about unusual seismic activity, tectonic plates, and the verities of the Richter scale. It was just one of those things that could be fully explained by science if we knew the explanation. Nothing to be afraid of.
I believe the very foundations of the earth shifted when the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy.
The Therapist Emeritus has a breakthrough
Mother Earth continued to moan and groan for a few long minutes, like the old lady she was; long enough for even the newcomers to get used to it and realize they weren’t going to die. No earthquake followed, even though the scientist-types insisted the sounds were earthquake related. No volcano blew its top, even though the more imaginative envisioned fire and brimstone. If there was an apocalypse, it passed by the Epiphany Cafe. So, the Lisping Barista went back to work. Soon you couldn’t hear the supernatural over the blender.
It took longer for most of us at the Epiphany Cafe to get used to the fact that the Lisping Barista had said yes to the Geeky Guy. The event was as uncanny as wonderful. As dangerous as astonishing. It was the next step in a dark room. A jump into the cold water. If this could happen, then what else was possible?
There was one person, though, who knew it was going to happen. She knew because she had set it up. She knew because she was a master head shrinker of the eclectic school of Narrative Rogerian, Experiential Jungian, Integrated Lacanian, Interpersonal Freudian, ad hoc Cognitive Dialectical Behavioral Family Therapy. She knew more about you than you could ever know, and she hasn’t even met you. She can read your mind and tell you why you did the things you didn’t know you did. She could interpret the dreams you forgot. If she analyzed you, you’d stay analyzed. If she hypnotized you, you’d bark like a seal.
She knew because she, and only she, was the Therapist Emeritus.
There were other therapists in the Kenilworth area. There was a community mental health clinic up the road in Middletown where the staff were so busy that they did their paperwork while you talked. There was a pinstriped psychiatrist who was free with the anxiolytics until you got addicted, then he wouldn’t see you anymore. There was a score of young women in private practice who took more care picking out their outfits and selecting their office furniture than they spent on your anguish. There was a halfway house all the way out in the woods where the counselors would shout slogans by day and take a Bacardi behind a tree at night. There were self help groups, mutual help groups, and groups that were no help at all. There was a whole league of life coaches who would never utter a discouraging word. With its enchanted forests, hills that grind their teeth, caffeine addicted river running uphill, and well-insured, half-mad clientele, the area was a boomtown for therapists, a hotbed of holistic healing. The business of head shrinking was expanding in Kenilworth. All species of psych people flocked to the area, but none like the Therapist Emeritus.
Alas, she had recently retired.
The Therapist Emeritus had taken inventory of her 401(k), took down her shingle, and sold her couch on Craig’s List. She dutifully parceled out her clients to colleagues and planned to take up weaving. There was no special reason to weave, she was already a woolly woman with hair as curly, fine, and gray as a sheep. She thought she would like working with her hands, rather than her ears; spinning fibers into threads and threads into yarn, shuttling between warp and woof. The woven cloth would gather warm on her lap. She could lose her thoughts in its intricacies. Her cat would play at her feet. When it was finished, well, something would be finished. She had never finished anything before.
The Therapist Emeritus liked buying the materials well enough, loading skeins in her arms when she could have used a shopping cart. She insisted on assembling the loom herself and spent the better part of a week doing so, cursing at the instructions written in a language other than her own. Then, when it was time for her to make her first blanket, she found that the blanket would not make itself. She called her friends and invited herself over for tea.
Once she started going to tea, she forgot all about the weaving. Wrapping her fingers around the cup, slowly rocking in her chair, nodding and making encouraging sounds whenever they were called for, seemed to fit her better. She felt more at home doing that than she ever felt on the bench by the loom. On the bench, she had been a strand out of place, a loose thread, a dropped stitch. She was made for tea and trouble.
Because she was a reflective person, the Therapist Emeritus reflected that the way you spend your years changes you. Just as a laborer develops calluses on his hands, and may develop them on his heart, fitting him better for his work, so too, does spending one’s life as a therapist. It made her reflective, for one. It also gave her a capacity to ever so slightly nudge things along and sit and watch the rest happen. Blankets don’t get made that way.
The Therapist Emeritus had a lot of friends, but not enough friends to fill up a retirement, so she started calling her old clients. They were all glad to hear from her and told her stories about their new therapists. Nine colleagues talked too little, six talked too much. One had an annoying thing she did with her pen. Another seemed intent on the clock on the wall. Still another didn’t match his socks to his tie and one shoe was more scuffed than the other. No couch was as comfortable as the Therapist Emeritus’ couch, no one’s tea was nearly as hot, no one’s stress balls were quite as firm. The plants by the windows failed to grow and the books on the shelves looked like they’d never been read. There was something not right about her former client’s new therapists, nothing that deserved calling the ethics board, but still, something not quite right. It didn’t take long before the Therapist Emeritus started meeting her old clients for tea.
It turned out that the Therapist Emeritus liked her clients better than her friends and certainly liked them better than weaving; so she sold the loom and most of her fibers before she even had made a single scarf, leaving a ball of yarn for the cat. She volunteered to see her old clients gratis at the Epiphany Cafe and soon had a permanent spot in the comfy chairs over in the back corner, behind a potted plant. I often set up nearby, knowing good stories would follow.
The Geeky Guy had been one of the Therapist Emeritus’ old clients for years. They met twice a week. Lately, he’d been talking about being lonely, so she began a new nudging campaign.
The Therapist Emeritus was a nudger extraordinaire. She had found that it did no good to tell people what to do, make recommendations, prescribe courses of action. Instead, she would nudge. Soon the Geeky Guy was asking every woman in the cafe out on a date so that the Therapist Emeritus could observe. He thought it was his idea. Every woman turned him down until there was one left, the Lisping Barista. She’d been saved for last. Not because she was undesirable, but because no one thought he’d have a chance.
But the Lisping Barista said yes, surprising everyone but the Therapist Emeritus.
You might say, by knitting people together, the Therapist Emeritus already was a master weaver.
The Waving Man waves
There was one peripheral notable, a prominent Kenilworth character, who did not witness the Lisping Barista saying yes to the Geeky Guy. He was outside, waving at cars, when it happened. If he had seen the miracle, I wonder what he would’ve had to say. I always wonder what he has to say because I’ve never heard him say anything.
This man stood all day, every day, outside the door to the cafe and waved at cars as they drove by. He’s never come in. From a distance, from inside your car, you might think he was a friendly kind of guy or someone who mistook you for someone else he knew better. He couldn’t be waving at you, you would think. Some people wave back. Others drive by in an uncomfortable, unsettled manner. If you were a Kenilworth resident, you would have passed the Waving Man many times; you would say that he just waves because waving is his thing. You would wave back, or not, and never give it another thought. He was just another one of those mysteries you learn to live with when you live in Kenilworth.
A journalist, driving through the town from New York City, came upon the Waving Man and wrote a whole article in the New Yorker, or some such publication, about how much friendlier people are in small towns, using the Waving Man as an example. The townsfolk of Kenilworth knew the journalist couldn’t have actually stopped to talk to the Waving Man, because, if he had, he would’ve said that people in a small towns are no different than they are in a big cities. We have our nuts, too.
Kenilworthians who have walked by and attempted to speak to the Waving Man know that face-to-face contact is a different matter. The Waving Man waves only at cars, never at people. If you walked by, he would look right past you and wave at the car behind you. You might think you were invisible, or not worthy of attention. Having experienced the Waving Man’s slight, you might question whether he was even waving at the people in cars, or the cars themselves. He seemed to prefer cars over people, much as town planners privilege traffic over pedestrians and parking spaces over greenery.
Some townspeople have tried to stop and say Hi, or Good Morning to the Waving Man. The bravest have said, You waved at me before when I was in my car, do I know you? Still others have been known to stick out their hands for a handshake. Invariably, all those people are rewarded with nothing more than a cold shoulder. The waver is all about cars and, if you aren’t a car, he won’t have anything to do with you.
Standing, as he often does, by the door to the Epiphany Cafe, a lot of foot traffic goes by every hour. The morning, when people are on their way to work and picking up a last minute cup of coffee, is especially busy. The waver speaks to none of them, for this is also a busy time for automobile traffic. Many occasions come up when someone is struggling through the door with hands full. The Waving Man could easily open the door for them, but he won’t do it. Nothing will distract him from the business of waving at cars.
The Waving Man has even been known, in his eagerness to wave at cars, to stand in front of the doorway of the Epiphany Cafe, blocking people from getting in or out. This can be especially aggravating when you have your hands full of coffee cups. I once witnessed one harried office worker, laden down with coffee for the whole firm, dressed in high heels and a fancy outfit, push her way through the door, assuming it would open as it always does. She crashed against the Waving Man, trying to catch a Chevy going around the corner. She spilled all the coffee on her dress and swore a blue streak, not fitting for a lady. He seemed oblivious to her yelling, but had a big, hospitable grin for the next sedan.
By the time the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy, the sentiment of the people of Kenilworth had fully turned against the Waving Man. They were no longer amused by his friendly antisocial antics. There were mutterings that he should be put away. A good talking to was proposed; a mental hygiene arrest was run up the flagpole; a distant home for the developmentally disabled was floated by. A group of young toughs, sensitive to the opportunities that public opinion affords, had come out of a bar the night before, fueled by countless drafts of beer and righteousness, and decided to teach the Waving Man a lesson. The Waving Man had been putting in extra hours to wave at headlights. He should’ve called it a day. He didn’t seem to learn his lesson, though, he was at his post early the next morning, waving at cars as he always does, looking like a raccoon, with two black eyes. No one in the cafe had any sympathy.
I, for one, did not share their scorn, for I can see the Waving Man in all of us. I have watched, day in and day out, the people of the Epiphany Cafe have brief, perfunctory human interactions and then bend for hours to their machines, more intent on thumbing, pecking, and swiping than greeting, gabbing and granting. They seem to prefer text over voice and the glow of a screen to an actual face. Inside and outside the cafe, I have heard folks express love and concern for humankind, but treat actual people like shit. No, the Waving Man is just like the rest of us, only more so.
How Rabbi ! got his name
The moaning of the Moodus Noises was not the only uncommon occurrence at the Epiphany Cafe that day. After the Lisping Barista amazingly said yes to the Geeky Guy and before the Moodus Noises ceased their moaning, Rabbi ! entered the building. Then there was a re-enactment of the creation of the universe.
Rabbi !, who presided over Kenilworth’s Reform congregation, owed his exceptional name to his eccentric parents. ! was the name on his birth certificate, both first and last. It was the name on all his report cards, the name he used when he had his bar mitzvah, and the name on his divinity school transcripts. ! was how he signed his checks, his tax returns, and all the Temple correspondence. Among other things, ! represented the victory of persistence over bureaucracy, for every registrar he and his parents came across objected to the designation. Nonetheless, his parents would doggedly insist that’s what they named their child. If the official continued to object, his parents, both Holocaust survivors, would roll up their sleeves, show their concentration camp tattoos, and call the office holder a fascist. That always clinched the matter, for no one wanted to be put in the same category as Hitler over a punctuation mark.
The next trouble Rabbi ! and his parents encountered over his name was that no one knew how to pronounce it. They preferred to say that it was unpronounceable, like the unpronounceable name of G-d, blessed be His Name. Rabbi !’s father, who was a rabbi, also, and his mother, who might as well have been a rabbi, would give a sermon whenever someone asked how to pronounce !’s name. ! was made in G-d’s image, and since G-d’s name is unpronounceable, therefore !’s name should be unpronounceable, also.
Everyone said the same thing.
First, they would uncomfortably laugh, “Ha!”
Then they would say, “What do we call him, then?”
His parents would answer, “You just said it.”
“What did I say?”
“‘Ha!’ You said ‘Ha!’ That’s what you call him. Call him Ha!”
And so, Rabbi !’s name was pronounced, “Ha!” like a laugh.
It turned out that giving Rabbi !, the name, !, and pronouncing it, “Ha!” was prescient, and his parents didn’t even know it. That’s because Rabbi ! grew up to be a man who laughed a lot. In fact, he laughed so much that many people who knew him and preferred not to have to explain his name to others, just called him the Laughing Rabbi, instead.
Just to prove my point, the Laughing Rabbi was laughing when he entered the Epiphany Cafe, despite the ominous rumbling of the Moodus Noises in the background. The Laughing Rabbi stepped up to the counter, laughed again, and got the attention of the Lisping Barista, who should have been paying attention to something else. She should have been paying attention to an empty carafe she absentmindedly left on a hot burner. That’s when the creation of the universe thing occurred.
There was an explosion.
Hot glass shattered everywhere, on the counter, on the floor, one acrobatic shard vaulted into someone’s Sumatran Americano. The whole business of the cafe came to a halt while the Lisping Barista swept up the damage with a flashlight and a broom and brewed the flustered customer a gratis replacement.
She apologized to Rabbi !.
The Laughing Rabbi, who was very patient, laughed. Then he stroked his beard and said, “That’s OK, young lady. You have demonstrated what happened when Ein Sof created the universe.”
Then he laughed again.
“Ein Sof,” he said when he finished laughing, “is a Kabalistic name for G-d. But it’s not an ordinary name. It’s a name that’s not a name. A name for a nameless being. Ein Sof refers to those characteristics of G-d that are beyond any human comprehension and, so, any name would just scratch the surface. It’s the designation for whatever existed before anything existed.”
He laughed as you might shake a sack to settle the contents, to make room in our little brains for an expansive paradox.
“When Ein Sof made the universe, there was a catastrophe. He poured His Infinite Light into vessels that could never contain it. They shattered. Shards of the vessels and sparks of Infinite Light went everywhere and now they are in every little thing. Whenever you laugh, whenever there is joy, you’re finding debris from Ein Sof’s accident.
“My parents named me ! for the act of finding Ein Sof’s sparks. Our job is to go over the whole world and collect these sparks and put them all together so they can all be whole again. Every time you laugh, you’re finding another one, another little bit of Ein Sof.”
He concluded his sermon by saying his name over and over again.
“Ha! ha! ha!”
The Lisping Barista looked down from her sweeping at the dustpan. Jewels of glass glistened in the dust. And then she, despite everything, laughed also.
Little Theresa buys a cup of coffee
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.”
‘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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
What the Geeky Guy knew about women
There wasn’t a lot that the Geeky Guy knew about women. He’d only known a few. His mother was a woman, but she was long dead. His therapist was a woman, but, being one, she couldn’t tell him about women without talking about herself, a serious breach of therapeutic ethics. His sister was a woman, but she was his sister and belonged to a separate category altogether. Besides, she was also a witch.
There was no reason the Geeky Guy would know anything about women. If he was anyone else, the Geeky Guy might’ve learned about women from friends, or women, themselves, might’ve been friends; but he had no friends. Maybe he was too geeky.
If he was anyone else, he might have learned about women at work or overhearing stories about women at work, but he was an engineer, and worked with other engineers, all men, who also knew nothing about women.
He didn’t start off being an engineer. He went to school to study biology, but found he couldn’t understand life, so he became an engineer.
If he was anyone else, the Geeky Guy might have already known about women by having gone out on dates; he was twenty-eight years old, after all; but the Geeky Guy was not like anyone else.
Anyone else would have learned about women from watching TV shows; but the Geeky Guy never watched TV. He and his sister had dozens of TVs, some working, some not; big-assed TVs left over from their childhood and newer flat screens found on the side of the road, only needing a minor tweak to get working again; but he never watched them. The Geeky Guy was a tinkerer and a putterer, not a watcher.
If he was anyone else, the Geeky Guy might have learned about women from movies, but he saw no movies. He didn’t know anything about movies because he didn’t watch TV. When you don’t watch TV you don’t know what movies to watch; you might even forget about movies and not think they’re important.
If he was anyone else, the Geeky Guy might have learned about movies, thereby learning about women, from reading newspapers. He and his sister got a newspaper delivered to their haunted house every morning, and this newspaper had news about movies, but he never read them. They kept the newspaper their parents had subscribed to because they were unwilling to change anything. They would pile each morning’s newspaper on top of the last to save it to be read later. The Geeky Guy thought newspapers were meant to be read in order, no more than one a day, since it was a daily newspaper. It works that way with medication.
He never read newspapers when he was a kid; kids have little interest in newspapers. When he began, he began with the newspaper that had been delivered the very next day after the accident that killed his parents. The first article he read was the article about the accident. It didn’t say much, but it spelled his father’s name wrong and over-reported his mother’s age by five years. It was enough to read for one day. When he was able to return to reading newspapers, he went back to that same day’s newspaper, but skipped that article, since he’d already read it.
That’s why the Geeky Guy never caught up, never read about current movies in newspapers, and never went to movies, learning about women that way.
If he was anyone else, the Geeky Guy might have learned about women from books, but he read few books. In fact, other than those books assigned to read in school, the Geeky Guy had only read one book, an ancient novel left over on his parents’ bookshelves. His eye naturally caught on the title: Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott. You can imagine why this book caught his eye. It had the same name as his home town. Both the book and the Geeky Guy’s hometown had been named for the same Kenilworth in England, a town that possessed a famous castle and a mysterious murder. A coincidence, you think? Although the Geeky Guy had scientific sensibilities, he still couldn’t shake the feeling that this was no coincidence and the book, Kenilworth, might hold secrets he needed to know. Therefore, he read Kenilworth over and over again.
Everything he knew about women the Geeky Guy learned from the heroine in the novel. She was named Amy. Whenever the Geeky Guy imagined himself with a woman, and it wasn’t often, he thought of being with Amy. After their marriage, Amy would come to live with him and his sister in their decrepit old house on High Street, but it would cease to be decrepit. Amy would clean it up. She would devote herself to scrubbing the floors and getting rid the piles of junk through the house. She would wash the windows and replace the curtains with a bright, floral design. In the spring, when the ground was soft, she’d pull out the sumac and plant a garden. His sister would continue to live with them; she would take the third floor. Amy would cook them all dinner and she and his sister would be great friends.
Amy would transform their creepy house because, being a woman, she would be able to create life and make people act better than they are. That’s what women do. That’s what the Geeky Guy knew about women.
There were other times that the Geeky Guy imagined his imaginary wife Amy. Shadowy times that involved the lights out, passion beyond reason, furtive guilt, and a wet spot in the bed. Amy would never speak of those incidents in the daylight. No woman ever would.
So there you have it. Everything the Geeky Guy knew about women, he’d read in a Victorian novel.
The Spellbinding Fish Fry has a moment
Dating seems harmless enough, but you never really know what to expect when any two people come together; sometimes magic results, other times, an explosion, often, a fizzle. It’s a little like a chemistry experiment. It’s intentional chaos.
“What’s the music?” the Geeky Guy asked.
“Thpellbinding Fith Fry,” she said. He had to peak at the CD cover to understand.
Spellbinding Fish Fry was a jam band she followed. She was a Deep Fry, as they called themselves, and had gone to hear them one-hundred-and-twenty-nine times, following them around the country for almost four years, sleeping where she could, working when she had to. They were, in fact, going to hear them now in Massachusetts, the one-hundredth-and-thirtieth concert for her.
“Every thow ith different,” she said. “You don’t know when the betht one ith going to be; tho you have to go to them all.”
Spellbinding Fish Fry, he learned, had been together more than a dozen years, had none of the original band members, and had gone through four drummers, six rhythm guitarists, seven fiddlers, two organists, and three bass players. Some had come and gone and come and gone again. The Lisping Barista knew the whole history. It was all by design, part of the master plan, she told him. The only constant was the audience. They changed band members as people changed their underwear, to keep them fresh. Every new musician brought in new ideas, introduced new genres; every old member got progressively more stale, no matter who they were.
“I like that they keep it thtird up,” she said, and she explained she liked her personal life that way, as well. Keeping things stirred up, never staying in one place or with one person for long enough to get stale, no matter who they were.
They stopped talking and listened to the band playing its overlapping themes. For a while, nothing new happened. The musicians stayed on a pulse. Then things started bubbling up. The fiddler had a thought and made a decision. Extemporizing, she tried to pull the band in a particular direction. It was the moment, the moment everyone knows; when you get out of the way and make room for an uninvited guest.
The music was all about living in the moment, without memory or desire, intention or regret. The Lisping Barista was all about the moment, too. The Geeky Guy was along for the ride, his seatbelt strapped tight, hopefully behind some functional passenger side airbags.
A date is really a two person jam session, and a relationship, a jam band. In a date, two people come together and, though they may not be musicians, they play. Out of a basic rhythm of greeting and parting, question and answer, statement and response, hug and kiss, fondle and stroke, a new tune emerges. They may play old standards, or they may improvise. They may fuse genres, or clash inharmoniously. To varying degrees, or not, they make room for one another, share the stage, surrender the lead.
Perhaps because he had a thing for the fiddle player, the rhythm guitarist was the first to pick up on her new idea. The organ followed, and soon the whole band had fallen in line, although it was not like a line of soldiers, marching a fascist goosestep, eyes right, saluting their leader. It was like a procession of cows, all facing the same direction, but swatting their tails, grazing, cud-chewing, and mooing at different intervals.
The promise of the musical moment had been fulfilled, documented on a CD, and played over and over again to hear, but still the Geeky Guy did not believe in it.
The Lisping Barista’s trust in the moment seemed reckless. The forgetfulness of the road, the hypnotic music, the friendship of strangers appeared rash. Her belief that every new band member would add something good, that every new riff would not be discordant, that she could travel around the country, sleep in parking lots and bathe in rest stop bathrooms, paying no attention to a career, a long term relationship, a biological clock, all was too good to be true. Her faith looked imprudent. The Geeky Guy thought the Lisping Barista lived life a lot like she drove: a little too trusting that others would watch out for her when she was not watching out for herself.
And then he started to get nervous.
The Geeky Guy avoids a panic attack
If Heaven really exists, it would be just like a folky, bluegrassy, neo-hippie music festival. Forget the whole bit about angels floating around in nightgowns in the clouds, strumming on harps; they’re wearing the skimpiest of clothing, enjoying the perfect bodies God gave them. They’re playing the guitar, the fiddle, the upright bass, the drums. They’re swaying with hula hoops and keeping those sticks you keep in the air with two other sticks. They dance and they dance and they dance. When they’re not dancing, they’re smiling and they’re still smiling when they are dancing, that blissful smile that tells you they’re transported by the music. And everyone’s young. Even the old hippies, circled in chairs in the shade, reunioned with friends for the thirty-ninth consecutive year, are young, forever young, and released from the cynicism that arrived with the mortgage papers, was supplied, along with staplers, paper clips, and keyboards in cubicle farms, and accrued with a 401(k).
Despite the abundance of joy around him, the Geeky Guy wasn’t feeling it. He was wishing he’d never gone on this date. He would’ve like to have been home, reading a two year old newspaper, or in his workshop, with his screwdrivers, voltage meters, and soldering guns, repairing a TV he would never watch, rather than following the Lisping Barista, as fine as she looked from behind, past the rows of tie-dye venders, patchouli merchants, and foot reflexologists. Peace, love, and understanding is all very well and good; but it can’t compete with peace, calm, and predictability. He was OK with getting a girlfriend, but not at the cost of losing himself.
So, what was the problem? What could possibly be wrong with accompanying an attractive female to hear good music outdoors on a beautiful day in a loving environment? What could possibly be wrong with that?
If I were going to create a hell, I would not need to go through the expense of digging a hole in the middle of the earth, staffing it with demons, supplying it with pitchforks and fueling an unquenchable fire. No, I could build it right in heaven, with angels and an everlasting soundtrack of hallelujahs. St Peter would have no need to guard the pearly gate, keeping out all unredeemed sinners. He could just let them in, provided they possessed a single thought.
What would be the thought? What single, simple thought could possibly ruin being in heaven? What electrochemical signal, cognitive track, firing of synapses could hell of a heaven make?
The Geeky Guy was afraid he would have a panic attack.
Please note, he wasn’t actually having a panic attack, actually having one is unnecessary. He was worried he might have one. A panic attack would ruin everything.
The Spellbinding Fish Fry was not on till later, but an opening act tuned up on the grandstand in the middle of a county fair racetrack. The dusty track was packed with people. The Geeky Guy would’ve preferred having his panic attack at a little distance, but the Lisping Barista dove right into the crowd and he had no choice but to follow. No sooner had they arrived at the foot of the stage, than the band began to play. The Geeky Guy wanted to tell the Lisping Barista they were too close, he didn’t feel well, could she take him home. He leaned to her ear and she turned it towards him. He could smell her hair, it smelled of coconuts; but she couldn’t hear him. She just smiled and flashed her eyes, as if to say, isn’t this heaven!
The Geeky Guy tried to do the things the Therapist Emeritus had taught him. He slowed his breathing; but, when the music started, the crowd began to dance and kick up dust, till he could barely breathe at all. He tried to focus on a distant point, but his concentration was swarmed by fears, apprehensions, and trepidations. Even the music, which should’ve been overpowering, for he was by the speakers, seemed to diminish, revealing a single, reiterating, reductive thought, like a strumming bass line. I’m going to have a panic attack. I’m going to have a panic attack. I’m going to have a panic attack. Where is she?
The Lisping Barista was gone.
She had spotted some friends and gone off through the crowd to meet them.
The Geeky Guy turned from the stage to look for her, pushing his way through the crowd, first in one direction, then in another. Every single face he encountered had a broad grin. They were laughing at him, he thought. He was going to have a panic attack and everyone would laugh. They were laughing already.
Of course they weren’t laughing at him. They were smiling because they were in heaven. If you were in heaven, wouldn’t you smile? They barely noticed the Geeky Guy.
He had reached the edge of the crowd and broke into a run as the Lisping Barista spied him out of the corner of her eye. She’d been talking with her friends, Deep Fries, both; a rugby player with a busted knee, and a fat woman with too much makeup. The Rugby Player and the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup had just been telling her where their bus was parked, what they had on board, and when they were going to smoke, drink, and snort it. As important as this was to know, the Lisping Barista said, there goes my guy, and ran off after him. The Rugby Player and the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup followed at a more stately pace; The Rugby Player, because of his knee and the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup, because she was just plain fat.
His instincts were direct: run to cover; even though the thoughts that brought him to that point were complex. He had seen that the Lisping Barista had seen him, but he had already committed himself to avoiding his panic attack. Once evasive maneuvers take over, there’s no going back. There’s no saying, there’s your ride home, the very person you were looking for, the one you were afraid of losing, you found her now, you can calm down. No, circumstances demanded that he hide, so hide he must.
The Geeky Guy ran into a nearby shed, which happened to be filled with costumes and people trying them on. He bushwhacked through yards of tulle and hid himself within a labyrinth of clothing racks. The Lisping Barista tried to follow after him, but a piercing got caught on some lace. By the time she freed herself and located him by his heavy breathing, he had stopped and was sitting on the floor behind some long dresses. His feet stuck out where he might’ve tripped her.
Fortunately, the Lisping Barista knew how to deal with people avoiding panic attacks, when she wasn’t avoiding one of her own. Even though she saw his feet, she tripped over them anyway, went sprawling to the floor, and slid obliquely to his side.
“Oh, there you are. I wath looking for you.”
The Geeky Guy didn’t say anything. He was trying to breath.
“You found a nith plathe.” She gave a long sigh and cradled her hands behind her head. “I got thome friendth I want you to meet, but leth thtay here a while.”
It was a nice place, there on the floor, behind the long dresses, smelling of coconuts. In fact, it was beginning to seem a little like heaven.
The Geeky Guy and the Lisping Barista get ready for the Happiness Parade
As chance would have it, the shed that the Geeky Guy ran into when he was avoiding a panic attack held all the supplies for the festival’s annual Happiness Parade. It was packed to the rafters with masks, costumes, and banners; enough for a half dozen happiness parades; enough to supply a division of happiness soldiers to march on gloom and declare war on melancholy. A number had already reported to duty and were picking through the racks and selecting their equipment.
“I’m glad you came here. We can get ready for the happinith parade,” said the Lisping Barista to the Geeky Guy.
Many regular festival goers considered the Happiness Parade the high point of the festival, even better than camping next to an all night drum circle, getting baked by the sun while you are already baked by pot, and the performances of dozens of local bands who had hastily rehearsed for a couple nights in an empty garage. The Lisping Barista, who had been to the festival before, came to hear the Spellbinding Fish Fry, but the Happiness Parade was a close second. It gave her the opportunity to get her freak on, strut her stuff, and declare her allegiance to and wave the flag of Peace, Love, and Understanding.
The Geeky Guy, who was unfamiliar with the mores and ideology of the festival, was never one to parade around and draw attention to himself. He had avoided one panic attack, but he could never be sure another might not come along. However, he had to concede that getting dressed up in a disguise would give him a ready-made and portable hiding place.
“Look at all the wayth of being happy,” she said, draping a pink boa. “I don’t know what to pick.”
The Geeky Guy tried on a wizard’s hat for a spell, but it had no magic for him. He skipped over the clothing, he couldn’t be sure they’d ever been properly washed, and went right to the shelves of props. There was a frightful monster’s mask. He could conceal his fears behind a fearsome display of anger. A neat trick. He could do that.
The Lisping Barista squealed from behind the racks. The Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup laughed hard, doubling her number of chins.
The Rugby Player was wearing a diaper, a baby’s dress, and bonnet, and was sucking on an oversized pacifier.
“Awethome,” said the Lisping Barista. “Hey, here’th a Mother Hubbard dreth. Now if we can find a big baby carriage.”
The Geeky Guy searched the prop section. There indeed was a big baby carriage there. They had everything. He pushed it over to them.
“That’th perfect,” shouted the Lisping Barista. “I know, you be old Mother Hubbard and puth him around.”
“No, I couldn’t,” said the Geeky Guy.
“Why not?” she said. “Are you too macho to wear a dreth?”
The Rugby Player sucked on his pacifier. The masks hung on their hooks and looked down, gravely. The wizard’s hat nodded.
“No,” said the Geeky Guy. “Too grumpy.”
“Lithten here, you,” said the Lisping Barista, grabbing him by the shirt and pushing him into a private place within the racks of clothes. The Rugby Player dropped his pacifier.
The Lisping Barista looked the Geeky Guy in the eye, “I have one thing to thay to you, Mithter Grump.”
Their noses were almost touching. The Rugby Player looked on. The Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup touched up her lipstick.
The Geeky Guy asked, “What’s that?”
“You may not want to be happy, but I do. Thtop ruining my happineth. Thtop being tho grumpy.”
Some spit from her lisping got him right in the eye. He flinched and may have looked like he was crumbling. He chose his words to compensate for how weak he felt.
“Make me,” he said.
The Lisping Barista smiled a mischievous smile. You could tell what she was doing just as soon as she turned her nose to avoid his. She closed her eyes. She slightly parted her lips. The Geeky Guy’s heart bounced on a trampoline; again. Couldn’t breathe.
She kissed him.
“There,” she said. “Thtill grumpy?”
The Geeky Guy gets happy, very happy
The Lisping Barista had the Geeky Guy decked out in happiness, and women’s clothing. He went into a dressing room and came out wearing a Mother Hubbard dress that she selected. On his lips, where she had planted a kiss, she smeared red lipstick. When his blush had faded, she replaced it with rouge. She combed mascara into his eyelashes, hung a purse on his wrist, and crowned him with a blond wig. She gave him a full grown baby, her rugby-playing friend, who gazed up from an oversized carriage and squeaked his pacifier.
“You look thtunning,” said the Lisping Barista to the Geeky Guy. And he was.
“I’ve got to get my cothtume on. You two get in line for the parade. I’ll thee you later.”
She gave him another kiss, this one on his cheek, so as to not smear his lipstick.
“What’re you going to be?” he asked. But she had gone already and disappeared into a face painting tent with the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup.
The drums started, calling them to the parade. His heart took up the strong beat. He was in a dress, after all, and appearing in public.
The Rugby Player removed his pacifier and reached into his diaper to pull out a reefer. He squinted and lit it. He offered it to the Geeky Guy, who, even though he had never, ever smoked before, took a hit. It would help keep away the panic attacks. As instructed, he sucked in a big lungful, as if he was diving underwater. He held it in as if he was going down for pearls. Then he coughed it up, as if he was drowning.
“Go easy,” said the Rugby Player. “This isn’t any old hippie hemp. It’s good Colorado hydroponic skunkweed. You don’t need much.”
He was right, by the time the Geeky Guy had finished hacking up a lung he was already high and the Rugby Player had become hilarious. The Geeky Guy no sooner was done doubling over coughing, than he doubled over laughing. Waves of happiness washed over him, but it wasn’t all from the pot. He had lots of reasons to be happy. The Lisping Barista had kissed him, not once, but twice. He was at a music festival that would save the world; the epicenter of revolution. And everyone was happy. The happiness would spread, thereby saving the world. Everyone, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, black and white, cool and Geeky, would join the Happiness Parade.
He tried to explain it all to the Rugby Player, but lost track of the point he was trying to make. The drums continued and he urged the Geeky Guy to push him in the baby carriage and take their place in line.
They claimed a position in the vanguard of the Happiness Parade, behind a trio of drummers, next to a zombie type creature and in front of a basketball player on stilts. The drummers got them dancing and then marching in a dancing sort of tread. The roadway was lined with happiness; smiles everywhere, contentment all around; banks of faces enjoying, among many other things, the incongruity of a man in a dress and another man in a baby carriage. When this is possible, everything is possible. Stifling rules tossed. Freedom unbound.
The Geeky Guy even liked wearing a dress and enjoyed the cooling breeze coming from down below. He could’ve skipped the wig; but it was true, blonds do have more fun. It was nice to have a purse to hold his stuff even though he had to sling the purse over his shoulder. The makeup, once it was on, he forgot about. It may be too weird to say that every man has always been curious to know what it’s like to be a woman, but it’s true and every man should be brave enough to admit it. Playing dress up doesn’t really get at that experience, but it’s a start.
They marched and strutted and juked all the way down the road that ran through the music festival. If he hadn’t been high, the Rugby Player would’ve have gotten carriage sick from all the different directions the Geeky Guy pushed him. The crowds cheered them from the roadway and joined the back of the parade when it had passed. Those in the vanguard took their place at the roadside, watching, once they circumnavigated.
The Geeky Guy scanned the crowd for the Lisping Barista. “Do you see her?” he asked the Rugby Player, who just squeaked his pacifier and lit another joint.
There were countless ways of being happy. There were platoons of young women in sundresses and young men in cut offs. A boy and his mother danced sweetly down the street. A man carried a goose puppet. Kids piggybacked on their parents’ shoulders. A redhead sowed the crowd with condoms. The crowd scattered to collect them as children do candy. The Geeky Guy picked up two, not really knowing what they were. There were hula hoopers and stilters and even one hula hooper on stilts. There were bare chested fat men and bare bellied thin women. There were parasols and banners. The zombie that had marched with them had many friends. There were pom-poms and boas and tutus, guitars and flutes and horns. There was a drum so big it needed three men to carry it. There were masks and gowns, and an occasional giant head, but there was no Lisping Barista, not until the end of the parade.
She paced, as if the grand finale, with a dozen attendants, arm in arm with the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup. The Lisping Barista was dressed as a bride, the bride of the Happiness Parade, her fat friend dressed as a groom. The Lisping Barista had the flowers, the headpiece, and the long, white dress with two girls carrying the train. The Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup had a tux with tails and a top hat and a mustache. But here’s the thing. The Geeky Guy wasn’t sure of it at first. He had to look twice to be certain and, when he was, he thought, perhaps he shouldn’t have looked at all. Both of them were bare chested. Their costumes were nothing but body paint from the waist up.
On a different day, under different circumstances, the Geeky Guy might not have known what to feel; but for now, he only felt glee. This was the Happiness Parade, after all; and the Geeky Guy, for the moment, was happy.
The Geeky Guy finds the meaning of life right where a zydeco band said it was
There’s planes, trains, and automobiles, but no one has ever been transported further and had a smoother ride than with music. Moreover, the usual modes of transportation never take you anywhere significantly different than where you were in the first place and you never show up in as good shape as when you left. You’re frazzled, weary from the road, and the blood has pooled and gotten stale in your legs. You’ve enriched the lives of Arab Sheiks and have impoverished Gulf Coast crustaceans. You may have gone miles, but you haven’t arrived at the only objective that matters: a meaningful life.
They had to return the costumes they’d worn for the Happiness Parade. The Geeky Guy removed his dress and wig, emptied his purse, and rubbed off the lipstick. He didn’t know how to remove mascara, so he kept it on, looking pretty. He left the shed at the same time that the Lisping Barista arrived, still in her wedding dress and, except for the body paint, bravely bare chested. She saw him and oddly became bashful. She covered her breasts with her veil and blushed.
“Don’t look,” she said. “I like to keep thome mythtery.”
He averted his eyes, even though there wasn’t much mystery left that everyone hadn’t appraised. His eyes landed directly on the bare breasts of the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup, took a jolting hop, and settled safely on the ground.
“Thtay here,” said the Lisping Barista, “We’ll thee you thoon.”
As he waited with the Rugby Player, a row of pennants surmounting a dance tent stiffened in the breeze, seeking to fly away from their flagpoles and go free. Flocks of birds, celebrating a windfall of discarded veggie wraps, dropped tofu burgers, and crumbled falafel, gamboled through the air till, hungry again, they returned to earth for more. A few napkins and juice cups skidded down the field before they were rounded up and recycled by a team of environmentally conscious volunteers. It seemed that everything about this place that wasn’t already free was trying to get loose and run wild. So, too, was the grip the Geeky Guy normally had on himself.
A zydeco band had already wound itself up and was unreeling a bayou opus from the grandstand. The crowd flocked to the track and began to raise dust again. The Lisping Barista came out of the shed looking more normal, except for some white paint around the neckline. She smiled and the Geeky Guy began his voyage towards significance.
This journey involved a number of transfers, but not the bothersome kind like you make at the airport, where you have to get off a plane and rush through the terminal, only to find that your flight has been delayed. No, this was more like going from ride to ride at an amusement park, starting at the flying teacups, squeezing in the first car at the roller coaster, and then winding up all wet at the flume. What began with a smile led to a stroll to the foot stompers, hand in hand. They watched them for a time until the Geeky Guy couldn’t help himself and began to do some foot stomping himself.
It wasn’t so very long ago that the Geeky Guy would see a couple in love, joined at the phalanges, delighting in each other’s company, and think, that’ll never be me. Never is an awful word, and a mean one; luckily it never knows what it’s talking about. It’s like its cousin, always. They always make sampling errors, mistaking some characteristic of a limited number of occurrences to be representative of the whole.
An elderly accordion player nodded sagely as he played. He knew all about how une fille can appear out of nowhere to warm his bones. He understood that life consisted of surprises, and surprises like to be cuddled. He squeezed his concertina most affectionately, and fingered her in the places that made her scream.
A hyperkinetic washboard player would not be upstaged. He leapt a good four feet in the air and came down with a mad itch. He scratched enough for a tub of laundry, but not a single shirt got clean. That wasn’t the point.
A bright blond fiddler let her strings deliver a dissertation. It professed that life, like music, didn’t need to mean anything other than what it was. Its meaning is no meaning, its purpose is no purpose, and its logic is illogic; but it must have intricacy, artistry, and a beat.
The Lisping Barista’s friends joined them and they danced comfortably in a ragged circle. The incipient panic the Geeky Guy had felt just a short time ago seemed remote and incongruous. They all were more than one happy family; they were one organism. Not just the Lisping Barista, the two friends, and the Geeky Guy; but all the dancers, They were a thousand-foot-stomping millipede, moving in one accord, directed by a fiddle, a washboard, and an orgasmic concertina. This might be what all the cells in a body feel like when they come together, and click; after they sort out who’s going to be the liver, who the spleen, and who the fifteenth eyelash from the right of the left eyeball.
For all the movement everyone was doing, no one was going anywhere. They were already there. The Geeky Guy looked over at the Lisping Barista and took it all in, to save the image for later. She was a round and cozy young woman. No sharp corners or razor edges. She danced with more grace than heaven could hold. Light brown dreads bopped on top of her head. Six pieces of metal intersected various parts of her face, not counting her tongue stud. Her nipples, which he and the rest of the parade had seen, were pierced also; but he don’t know about anything else. Nothing else, for the moment, but the moment, mattered. It was a moment he’d want to last forever.
The Spellbinding Fish Fry falls short of changing the world, a Mongolian throat singer makes everyone sad, and the Lisping Barista gets horny
If you had to chose between the two, seeing and hearing, many would pick seeing. That which you see exists outside and independent of time; eternal, you might say. All images, such as that of the Lisping Barista dancing, you apprehend all at once, when you come across them, as if time did not exist. The things we hear are not that way. It takes time to unfold the meaning and structure of sound. Then, once it’s unfolded, it disappears, as ephemeral as a flower. So, because hearing must play along with time and seeing can blindly pretend as if time does not exist, seeing is better than hearing, many believe.
As much as they loved the music, many of the listeners of the Spellbinding Fish Fry, by the end of the set, would be likely to agree. It was great while it lasted, but when it was over, it was over.
The music festival had continued in a happy vein long into the night. The zydeco band was replaced by an Irish band, which led into an indeterminate period of silence, as everyone waited for the Spellbinding Fish Fry, chronically late, to arrive and take the stage. No one was sad during that period of silence. The Deep Fries were hopped up on hope, a plentiful supply of smoke, and a steady buzz of the promise that everything would be right with the world. A couple dozen stoners even continued to dance, even though there was no music, still wound up from the zydeco and the Irish jigs.
When the Spellbinding Fish Fry, at last, took the stage, the stars of that warm summer night had already come out to hear them. The moon emerged from behind a cloud just to see what all the applause was about. When the musicians struck their first chords, the planets had, at last, something to dance to. The Milky Way could join hands and sing. The band played long into the night. If they could have played long enough, all the debris from the big bang could have come back together, fitted themselves whole, and gone on as if nothing ever happened.
As it was, the band had to stop. The fingers of the guitarists and the fiddler, as strong as they were, began to cramp. The vocalists’ throats were scraped raw. The drummer developed carpal tunnel. The dancers lost the beat. The upright bass player could no longer remain upright. Once again the possibility that humans could make the world anew faltered on human limitations. Once again, the night took over and everyone had to stop.
As the musicians filed off the stage, a dusky, dumpy man with Asian eyes took their place. At any other festival, the headliners, the Spellbinding Fish Fry, in this case, would have closed it down; but this festival was committed to doing things differently. A Mongolian throat singer followed their act. He stood alone, without accompaniment or amplification, and began to intone whole chords all at once. He was singing sad songs of the Siberian steppes, but the audience, which was sad already, and didn’t know Mongolian, took them to mean sadness that another attempt to better the world had fallen short. All that was left was one cheerless, out of shape, alien man, singing alone, trying to be a whole choir with his one voice.
Most of the crowd began to gather their stuff and head home. That’s the way it goes, they said to themselves. What can you do? They’re playing in Portland next week. All the Deep Fries will be there. But the Lisping Barista could not accept defeat. She wanted to keep it going forever. When the music plays, everything’s alright. When it stops, everything turns to shit.
At this point, she and the Geeky Guy had been sitting in the grandstand. The Rugby Player and the Fat Woman with Too Much Makeup had already moved on and were planning their route to Portland. The Geeky Guy thought they’d be leaving, too; but the Lisping Barista just sat there. He looked over and found her weeping.
“Are you all right?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“What do you want to do?”
She swung her leg over him and straddled him. Her feet hung under the bleachers. She grabbed him by the lapels and kissed him deep. Her tears made his face wet. When she stopped kissing him, they were both out of breath.
“I want to fuck. I want to fuck my brainth out.”
What the Geeky Guy knew about sex
So, here was an attractive woman who was actually interested in having sex with the Geeky Guy. You might think he’d be interested right back. Well, he was; sort of.
There was the small matter of the audience, for they were sitting in the middle of a grandstand, surrounded by hippie-type music lovers, young and old, who had remained to hear a Mongolian throat singer intone melancholy airs, not the Lisping Barista moan. And moan she did, when she began to ride his lap, though thankfully in the same key, a major octave above the throat singer’s bass.
Many may not have noticed at first when she climbed on the Geeky Guy’s lap, but, a good portion of the crowd was not watching the Mongolian’s show by the time she arched her back and offered her breasts to nuzzle. He ambivalently nuzzled where he had never nuzzled before. The boards of the bleachers bowed and the necks of the bystanders bent.
The Geeky Guy was definitely a step or two behind her. There was a risk she might interpret his slow response as a lack of enthusiasm. She seemed capable of picking someone else out of the crowd, anyone, to fill her sudden and very intense need. She might just as well have picked someone else. The Geeky Guy was just at the right place at the right time. There were plenty of other people in the crowd better suited to bone the Barista.
If he had glanced around at their faces, he could’ve seen that they thought so, too.
“Is there someplace where we can go?” asked the Geeky Guy.
Her eyes were as big as saucers. They looked the way you do when you leave the eye doctor’s with dilated pupils. They looked as if she would find a place, whether there was one or not.
The Lisping Barista took the Geeky Guy by the hand and pulled him, practically running, out of the grandstand. There was camping allowed right at the festival for all those who didn’t mind spending the night not sleeping; those who have a preference for listening to the banging of drums, the strumming of guitars and catching a few tunes over their necessary rest. Tents crowded right up to the back of the grandstand, but they were all occupied by people passing their joints, sitting cross legged on the ground. They smiled as the two ran by and shouted encouraging words.
They came to a converted school bus, modified for festival camping. The door was ajar, indicating someone had left. The Lisping Barista called inside, “Hello, ith anyone home?” When no one answered, she flashed her eyes, devilishly smiled, and they entered.
They hadn’t even climbed all the way up before they were all over each other, kissing and rubbing things together. Most of the seats where the school children had sat had been removed and replaced by bunks and a kitchen area. They brushed aside a curtain, nudged a pot to the floor that had been sitting on a camp stove, spied an unmade bed at the end more private than the rest, and took a dive onto its tangled sheets. Bedsheets, pillows, blankets, and comforter were twisted up together, and soon the two people were, too, so that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.
When she started to touch him in places where she had not touched him before, places where no one had ever touched him, his body began to respond in the way it was programmed to do. Whenever the Lisping Barista would rub something that was his, he’d moan, and she’d moan when hers was rubbed. It only took a few seconds before they did a lot of moaning together, their hands seeking out those parts that brought forth the most response.
Unfortunately, the unexpectedness of her moves and the motivation behind it left him uneasy. It gave him the willies. You know how you’ve heard that sometimes sex is not about love, and all that? Well, sometimes sex is not about sex. Sometimes it has more to do with fear and despair and the fear of despair. Sometimes it’s about using someone to avoid something. Sometimes it has to do with proving a point to someone gone a long time ago. Sometimes it’s about proving something to yourself.
The Geeky Guy had no such advance knowledge of sex, but he had a sense of it. Consequently, he wasn’t into it as much as he could’ve been. Remember, all the Geeky Guy knew about women, he’d read from a single Victorian novel. There were no sex scenes in that novel. There was romance and intrigue, adventure and Scottish politics, there was swashbuckling, but no sex.
The Geeky Guy soon was defeated by her clothing. Buttons were far too small for his fingers, a belt buckle too intricate, a zipper too complex. Those hooks on the back of her bra routed him utterly, so that she had to undo it herself. Her tight jeans required both of them to pull off. She set to work on his garments with a practiced efficiency. A few quick movements undid his pants, revealing that part of anatomy of which a man is the most proud, and the most bashful.
You may be wondering how he knew how to do any of this; what to rub of the things that were hers and what to do with the things that were his. Well, he had impatient instruction from the Lisping Barista; but, besides Kenilworth, there was another book from his parent’s library that he had studied. One that gave him some theoretical understanding of the task at hand.
The book wasn’t from their library, precisely; he had found it in a nightstand beside their bed, on his father’s side, in a drawer, under a flashlight, by some nail clippers, beside a .22 caliber pistol reserved for intruders in the night. The book was The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex, a 1950s style textbook, complete with cross-sectioned drawings of organs, lists of diseases, and dire warnings of the evils of masturbation. The Geeky Guy skipped over the warnings, but studied the diagrams. He learned how the sperm originated in the testicles and how it swam up the fallopian tubes to fertilize the egg. He was thoroughly familiar with the phenomena of erection, tumescence of the female genitals, and the vagaries of female organism. However, he could not figure out, for the life of him, because the book never told him, how the sperm got into the female’s body to begin with. None of the diagrams illustrated that part of the operation. It would’ve been helpful to have a demonstration of just how tab A fitted into slot B.
It’s not like the Geeky Guy had any friends who could’ve told him. His parents were both dead, so they couldn’t have had that awkward conversation about sex, and no one ever thinks it’s a sister that should do it. The State of Connecticut, although predominantly blue, had succumbed to the red reticence on the matter and kept sex instruction out of the public schools. He didn’t have any farm animals to show him and all the pets were neutered. As far as he knew, the sperm just magically traveled from the male’s penis to the female’s urethra. No matter how unlikely, unsanitary, and uncouth, there didn’t seem to be any other way.
No thanks to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex, the proper procedure had finally come to him as he was sitting at his workbench one day, innocently screwing a bolt into a hole provided. The discovery made him shout out loud, involuntarily. Eureka! he said, I’ve got it! It made his sister call downstairs to ask if something was wrong. It made him blush and lie when he said nothing.
It could be fairly said that the Geeky Guy invented sex, or at least the penetration portion of the process. Even though it had been going on for thousands of years, known to every monkey, fish, and retile on the planet, none of them had told the Geeky Guy, so he was left to figure it out on his own. Thanks to his native intelligence and imagination, he was able to do so, but it was a shame he couldn’t publish, patent, or profit from the results.
By the time the Lisping Barista’s hand, and then her tongue, caressed his penis, it would appear that the Geeky Guy had set aside his hesitation. His eyes were closed, his knees all but buckled, and his mouth made a groan that would’ve done the Mongolian throat singer proud. His pants were down to his knees and his hands gripped the top bunk to keep from falling. His heart picked up the tempo. But his mind, however; his vagrant, wanton, cheating, polygamous mind, could not stay on topic. There was something he didn’t understand.
You might think he’d focus on the sensations at hand, shut out all thoughts, and concentrate only on pleasure. You might think that, if he had to think, he’d think about how fortunate he was, how beautiful she looked, or the many, very many, terrifying risks he was taking. There were diseases he might catch, all carefully documented in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex. There were crabs he might acquire, and laws he was breaking. He might be getting involved with a nut case, someone who would stalk him, blame him, sue him, ask him to marry her. He could become a father. He could be imperiling his immortal soul. He didn’t think about any of that.
You may not be surprised if I told you that, while having sex with this gorgeous young woman, the Geeky Guy was imagining getting it on with someone else; a model, maybe, some celebrity, a movie actress, perhaps. Freud might even suggest that he was fantasizing about sex with his mother. But, no, that was not the case; it was none of those. Nothing like that even entered his mind.
What was he thinking about, you ask?
You see, since everything he knew about sex be learned from nuts and bolts, he was trying to figure how whether he should rotate on the axis of his penis, whether she should, or whether they should do it together.
Rabbi ! explains sex and something unexplainable happens
Since both sex and narratives are improved by delay, let’s leave the Lisping Barista and the Geeky Guy to their foreplay for a while. We’ll get back to them before they finish, I promise. For now, let’s return to the Epiphany Cafe and hear what Rabbi ! said about what they were doing; the Laughing Rabbi’s take on sex.
A few weeks ago the Rabbi was preparing for another one of his Shabbat sermons and wanted to try it out on us. I could see him working himself up to it, writing furiously on his laptop. A few times he would look up, prepare to speak, but, finding a child in the cafe, desist till the youngster left. Finally, once all present were of age, he cleared his throat and made this declaration:
G-d loves sex!
Rabbi ! has a way of getting our attention right in the beginning of his sermons and coming to the point directly. He went on.
G-d invented sex. He drew the world’s first pornographic image on His drafting table when He laid out how the penis could be inserted into the vagina. He wired all those nerve endings, making those parts exquisitely sensitive. He did the plumbing Himself, soldering all the tubes and lines and passageways into a complex system, to provide both pleasure and progeny. He concocted the recipes for seminal and vaginal fluids. He wrote the program to promote bonding. Of the six days He spent creating the world, He did some of His best work on sex.
It was clear these insights excited Rabbi ! with orgasmic delight. He laughed heartily at his own humor. The rest of us laughed, too; but it was a nervous sort of laughter; the kind where you don’t want to be seen laughing, or don’t want to encourage the speaker too much.
Back on the bus, the Geeky Guy was loving sex, too, even though he lingered on the appetizers and hadn’t begun the entree. It was turning out much better than The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex, ever let on. There were feelings involved that he’d never felt before, there was excitement, there was wonder, and there was bliss.
The Geeky Guy, stood over the nude body of the Lisping Barista, He loitered over the pleasant hills and dells, peaks and hollows of her body. There was a pleasing complexion and tone, like a well sanded and varnished piece of furniture. There were the saucer eyes that somehow saw something in him that no one had ever seen.
Back to the Rabbi.
On the seventh day, G-d stepped back and watched all His animals breed. He marveled at what He had done and said it was good. He said it all was very good. For some reason, we don’t believe Him.
The Laughing Rabbi laughed a good belly laugh, as God must have laughed when He first watched his creatures have sex. God must’ve had a sense of humor when He created the giraffe, the duck-billed platypus, and the beast with two backs.
The Geeky Guy kneeled on the bed beside the Lisping Barista and, with his hands began to feel every part of her. His fingers explored the same territory where his eyes had been, but, the systematic scouts that they were, told him much, much more. They confirmed that she, too, had a heartbeat, blood running through her veins, and a stomach that, at intervals, vibrated. She was a bag of flesh, like him. He located her clitoris, right where The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex said it would be. She shuddered as the Geeky Guy had when she had first touched his penis. Wanting to feel all of her at once, he pulled her close, her skin against his.
The Rabbi had said:
G-d, didn’t have to create sex, you know. He could’ve designed us to procreate like amoebas and just divide down the middle. He could’ve avoided procreation altogether and just created all the people that would ever be in one shot; but no, He made us feel incomplete by ourselves and gave us a yearning for union with each other.
Why did He create this yearning? I think He created it in us because He created us to be like Him. He has this yearning, you see; so, we have to have it, too.
Everything that exists in our world has a parallel in the supernal world. The desire you see between one person and another, you see between G-d and every person.
No matter how close to the Lisping Barista he could get, the Geeky Guy could not feel her completely. There were still parts of her he was still not touching and parts within that he could never feel. Her skin was the only part of her he could contact. There was so much more of her that was unreachable, untouchable, unknowable. The very thing that joined them, her skin and his skin, together, maddingly, kept them apart.
The Geeky Guy thought that inserting his penis into her might surmount their separation. He’d be inside her; he’d be joined to her. His semen, if he ejaculated it deep within, would remain a part of her, swimming to and fro, seeking out her secrets, probing her innermost recesses. He thought that giving her his penis and his semen was the same as giving himself to her, letting himself be surrounded, encapsulated, enclosed, taken over; but he knew better. Penetration only goes so far. In the end, she was she and he was he.
Rabbi ! had told us all about it.
So, G-d created sex. If that were the only reason to love sex, it would be enough. But, there’s more. Sex is a pattern, a model for our union with the divine. The act of sex is an earthy enactment of what is going on in the supernal realm. The unification of two parts of creation, male and female, is just like the soul being penetrated and filled by the Light of the Creator.
At the same time that G-d desires and works towards union with His world, He also keeps Himself apart. It would be too much, He would overwhelm us, blow us away, if He made Himself too present; or, if we were too present to one another. We want the truth, He wants to give us the truth, but we can’t handle the truth.
He pulls Himself away so we can have free will, so that we can be full participants. He waits till we are ready, till we are beyond ready, to interact with Him, having carefully, sensitively, and masterfully aroused an interest in Him.
G-d can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent in the same way that a person while having sex, can both desire to complete the act, while also desire to prolong it. You want to have an orgasm, but you don’t want to have it too fast.
Despite the fact that their union could not be total, the Geeky Guy was about to penetrate her anyway; but then he noticed something that brought him up short. Something had changed so imperceptibly since he kneeled on the bed. The Barista, who, before, had been so aggressively sexual, so insistent, so avid, was now lying motionless, as passive as the bed on which she lay. Moreover, she didn’t seem to be paying attention. Her mind was elsewhere, and it wasn’t on esoteric Jewish theology. She was dissociated, tuned out, in a trance. Something was wrong.
The Geeky Guy might’ve had his way with her; she was there, lubricated, and he was ready. He had consent. He really wanted to. He was ready to explode. But, no; he wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be right. He wanted to do this with her, not to her.
The Lisping Barista didn’t seem to notice when the Geeky Guy got up off the bed, covered her with a sheet, and put his pants on. She still was out of it when he heard someone at the door, preparing to come in. He shook her and told her to hide.
The Geeky Guy remembers when he fought the Battle of the Bedsprings
Once, when the Geeky Guy was a small child, when he was a Geeky Boy he crawled under his parents’ bed with his plastic army men and commanded them to fight the battle of the bedsprings. He posted snipers in the coils while tanks and an anachronistic cavalry faced off down below. The battle had not yet started, so he hadn’t begun to make shooting sounds with his mouth. His father came home early and he and his mother thought their son was outside playing, so they hustled to the bedroom for a quickie. The Geeky Boy didn’t understand what was happening, of course; not until years later. He had not yet read The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex. At the time, he thought they were going to take a nap and he’d see what a nap was like from underneath the bed. It was loud.
His parents weren’t loud, the bed was, although they made noises they normally wouldn’t have. The bedsprings coiled and uncoiled in a kind of dance. The wooden slat that held up the middle of the bed creaked and wood fibers intermittently popped. His mother gasped as if she was the one doing the dancing and was out of breath. His father grunted as if he was pushing against something, trying to move an immovable object.
As the bedsprings boogied, several of the soldiers plummeted to their deaths. A bazooka man got caught and crushed, his weapon bent and useless. When the spring had done its worst to him, it released him, and he fell, trapped within the interior part of the helix. Army men did not like to leave their wounded behind, so the Geeky Boy reached in to save him, timing his intervention for when the springs relaxed. He must’ve timed wrong, or the lovers above must’ve altered their rhythm. Perhaps his father paused to delay ejaculation, or his mother shifted to get a better spot. Whatever the reason, the bedspring pinched his probing fingers and he cried out.
“Stop,” said his mother.
“What?” his father said.
“They’re outside,” he declared. But the Geeky Boy began to sob with pain.
“Under the bed!”
The bedsprings recoiled a final time and the bazooka man catapulted out. Abruptly, his parents’ feet struck the floor and his father dragged the Geeky Boy out by his ankles.
His father was angry, unaccountably angry. He was seldom an angry man, but the Geeky Boy could see it in his face. He forgot all about his pinched fingers. He saw something else, too, something very disturbing, something that for years he associated with anger. His father’s penis was stiff and pointy. That’s the thing that stuck in his mind; the sight of his father’s angry penis, an inflamed sword that would gut him if he ever went under their bed again. He’d never seen one like that before, certainly not his father’s, but also not his own at the time, for he was very young. Until he read The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex, and was properly informed, he had the theory that a penis must get that way when you’re angry and it must be a weapon of some kind.
The father shouted that the boy was never to go under their bed again, and he gave a solid swat on his backside to remember the lesson by. The Geeky Boy was grateful for the swat because it meant that he would not be pierced with the dagger. He was doubly relieved when he looked a second time and saw that it was gone; his penis had resumed it’s normal state. The Geeky Boy never went back to get the army men till after his parents died.
That incident happened a long time ago and the Geeky Guy learned a great deal since then. He understood the purpose of an erect penis, but nothing will ever stop him from having an inexplicable feeling of doom when he heared bedsprings creak.
The Geeky Guy and the Lisping Barista were now hiding under the bed where a minute ago they’d trespassed and had been having sex. The owners of the school bus were going at it in their place above them. They were much more unrestrained vocally than his parents had been. The Geeky Guy had an irrational belief that he’d be stabbed if he got caught and was beginning to have another panic attack.
Fortunately, something had broken the Lisping Barista’s trance. She was entirely back to normal, or what passed as normal for her. She boldly crawled out from their hiding place, as naked as the day she was born. She got the couple’s attention and said, with an amazing amount of aplomb, “We’re going to go now and give you thome privathy.”
The day ends with the Geeky Guy just getting started
After that one remarkable day at the Epiphany Cafe when the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy, things settled down, but nothing was the same. Not every day witnesses such extraordinary events, nor does every day need to. Some days are content to hide in the herd, populate the middle of the bell curve, become part of the furniture, keep their heads down, be average, unassuming, and standard. Not every day is ambitious, striving, or in need of affirmation. Every day is exactly twenty-four hours long and puts its daylight on one minute at a time, like every other day. Not every day is as pretentious as the day that the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy and the Geeky Guy almost got laid.
In retrospect, perhaps the most significant thing that happened that day was the one thing that didn’t happen. The Geeky Guy almost had sex with the Lisping Barista. He came pretty close to full engagement, complete penetration, the rounding of all the bases. He hit what might have been an in-field home run and was rounding third, coming in to the plate, and preparing to slide, only to find that the catcher, the ball, both teams, all the umpires, fans, and TV announcers had left the stadium. He was all ready to have sex, but there was no one there with him. Home plate was there. He could’ve crossed the plate, slid right in, and gotten up to round the bases again and again, running up the score; except there was no one to keep score, no one to change the numbers on that big board erected in the outfield, no one to cheer.
The fact that the Geeky Guy came so very close to having full on sex, but didn’t, was the most significant thing that happened that day. It was a thing that never happened that he would never forget. He imagined what it would’ve been like if it had happened. They had come close enough and engaged in sufficient similar activities to give him a taste. His imagination was whetted. He had become a fully qualified, barking, drooling, straining-at-the-leash, wanting-to-go-out-back-in-back-out-and-back-in-again, horn dog, and there was no two ways about it.
The thing is, before this happened, the Geeky Guy had hardly ever thought about sex, or women, or men in that way, either. He was as close as you might come to asexual. Not that he was adverse to the activity. It didn’t turn him off, although the whole thing did seem bizarre and unhygienic. Other people could do it if they wanted and he wouldn’t think any less of them. Oh, he spent some time in the basement with his father’s Playboy magazines, just like any boy, and time cruising the internet, just like any man, but if an ad popped up for travel deals, he’d click on that, too. He did study The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex with a certain degree of alacrity, but there was something about learning about sex from a textbook that sapped the magic and urgency out of it. He could take it or leave it, and, considering all the trouble involved, he’d just as soon leave it.
But, then the Therapist Emeritus had to come along and get him to ask women out on dates, just so he could say he did; and then the Lisping Barista had to come along and say yes; and, after a few more yeses, and why-don’t-we’s, he was now a fully sexual, fully functioning, stud who couldn’t wait to get in his girlfriend’s pants.
But, could he call the Lisping Barista his girlfriend?
In one moment, she had gone from saying yes to everything; to saying, what were we talking about? Her pupils had gone from being as big as dinner plates to being as empty as a starving Somalian’s stomach. Something had happened and he didn’t know why. He didn’t even know what had happened. He tried to ask her, all the way home that night, but she wasn’t talking. When he dropped her off, she never even kissed him goodnight.
It was late by then, but the Geeky Guy was just getting started.
The Owner of the Epiphany Cafe makes a deal
The next day, the Lisping Barista didn’t show up for work. She was supposed to open the Epiphany Cafe, but when the usual early-morning customers came by, everything was still locked up. The Waving Man took up his position just outside the door and waved at every car as it passed by. He didn’t say a word to the people when they saw the closed sign still dangling in the door. He didn’t stop them when they yanked on the handle, just in case. He didn’t console them if they stalked off, angry, or crept off, sad. He did wave at them when they drove away, as if he was thrilled to see them and couldn’t wait till they came again.
Not everyone made a big deal out of the Epiphany Cafe being closed. Some just drove by and saw the windows were still dark. They’d get their coffee somewhere else or go without. The Connecticut River, for instance, did not stop for coffee. It kept right on going, at least for a few miles, until, under the influence of the tides, it seemed to change its mind and turn back. Only one customer, one who knew the Owner, stopped to give her a call, and tell her the Lisping Barista had failed to show.
The Owner of the Epiphany Cafe, a worn out woman of a certain age, came to open up the cafe; but she didn’t unlock the door until after she waved away the Waving Man. “Go wave somewhere else,” she said. “You’re driving away my customers.” The Owner had little patience for anyone, including the Waving Man.
What little patience she had with the Lisping Barista had been completely used up. She no sooner put on an apron, brewed her first pot of coffee, and waited on her first customers, the local telephone line crew, than she began to complain of the Lisping Barista not being reliable. Up until this point, the Lisping Barista had been a perfect employee and she was well known as being the main attraction to the place, responsible for more sales than the daily drink specials. Any reasonable boss would have figured something had come up with the Lisping Barista and she had to have a good reason to not be there, but the Owner was not a reasonable boss; she was a tired boss, who long ago regretted buying the cafe, and was annoyed whenever she had to show up, herself.
The Owner had not been in the cafe that morning for more than five minutes before she decided, and told anyone who would listen, that the Lisping Barista was fired and she was looking to hire a better barista. None of the members of the local telephone line crew were ready to give up goldbricking. They’d rather be paid to drink coffee than to make it, but, seeing as though their specialty was communications, they said they’d spread the word. The morning was not yet half done before the whole town of Kenilworth, except the Lisping Barista, who was not paying attention, knew that she had been fired.
The local telephone line crew played telephone with the information. They spread it around, like they said they would, but it came out garbled and distorted. Everyone had a different idea of why the Lisping Barista got fired. The Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker thought she was fired for serving the Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs. The Crazy Dog Lady heard the problem was Rabbi !’s proselytizing. Little Theresa feared she got in trouble for giving away free coffee and went right to the cafe to explain. The Owner wasn’t having any of it and turned Little Theresa away when she tried to buy a cup of coffee for someone else. “I don’t have time to keep track of who paid and who didn’t.” Rabbi ! was told it was the broken pot. Chai Latte figured she’d been busted by the town police and the town police figured she’d been busted by her boss. The Therapist Emeritus hoped she’d run off with the Geeky Guy. That would’ve been a feather in her cap, a perfect conclusion to a successful treatment. The High Street Witch knew the Geeky Guy had come home that night and went off to work the next day. She was just glad the Lisping Barista was gone.
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat heard when the owner gave him a call, offering him a job. Someone had told her the Lisping Barista had taken his application. “I hope you’re more reliable than your friend,” the Owner said to him, “and show up every day when you’re supposed to.” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat said he was much obliged, ma’am; and assured her he’d reckon he’d be at least as good as he was in the last job he had.
The only one who was not told the Lisping Barista had been fired, except for the Lisping Barista herself, was me, yours truly, the author, S. Harry Zade. I supposed because I’m a fictional character, everyone treats me like I’m invisible.
The Geeky Guy was one of the last to hear. He’d been working all that morning, squinting into a spreadsheet, without benefit of a wake-me-up cup of coffee. He thought showing up at the cafe that morning would reveal his eagerness to see the Lisping Barista. He understood, perhaps from his reading of Kenilworth, or from what anonymous people had said, that women prefer men who don’t tell them they like them. They favor the strong, silent type; the kind that keeps his feelings to himself and communicates in snarls and grunts. No, he shrewdly counseled himself, it was best to play it cool and hard to get.
When he finally heard the Lisping Barista had been fired, the Geeky Guy went right down to the Epiphany Cafe, without even clicking save on his spreadsheet. He didn’t know what had happened, for her to get fired, but he knew it must’ve been his fault. He didn’t know what he could do, but he knew he had to do something. If she was fired, that meant she would leave. She’d go back to following the Spellbinding Fish Fry, which she loved, and he loved her too much to want her to be happy in anything that didn’t include him. Yes, that’s right, he loved her, or at least he knew, from his reading of Victorian literature, that, after having seen her naked, touched her in her womanly parts, and had her touch him where he most liked to be touched, he was supposed to.
The Geeky Guy had read enough about Scottish castles, ladies and knights and chivalry to know a damsel in distress when he saw one. Every damsel in distress needs a knight in shining armor. By the time the Geeky Guy arrived at the cafe, he knew just what he had to do. He stepped up to the counter and didn’t even bother ordering coffee. He knew who the owner was, without ever having met her. She was the tired one, exasperated by every customer. She said, not, May I help you? But, What do you want?
He looked up at the menu board, as if the price might be listed there. Not finding what he was looking for, he just asked, “I want to buy your cafe. Is it for sale?”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat begins a ghost story
Not everything is as it seems. Not everyone wearing a cowboy hat in a Connecticut coffee shop is a cowboy. Not every moody, taciturn man, brooding over his latte, has a story to tell. But, sometimes things are exactly as they seem. Funny how it always surprises me when that happens.
I won’t go into detail about how the Geeky Guy bought the Epiphany Cafe. Analysis of financial transactions is a literary form that has yet to catch on. Suffice it to say that he was a single man with no children, possessing an engineering degree and a good job, living in his deceased parents’, free-and-clear home, with his sister. All that was needed was to move around some money, then the owner would present the keys to the Geeky Guy and he’d wait for the Lisping Barista to come in and pick up her check. He had already worked out what he would say. I saved your job by buying the Epiphany Cafe for you. Now, would you run the place for me? He wasn’t being too clingy or forward or stalkerish, weird, or presumptuous. It was a business proposition. Really.
I also won’t go into detail about how the Owner trained the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat to make lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, and all the other forms of coffee with fancy Italian names he couldn’t pronounce. The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat listened intently, asked appropriate questions, and even demonstrated his learning, but promptly forgot all the recipes as soon as the Owner left. All he knew how to make was plain coffee, which he renamed, Cowboy Coffee, in reference to himself. In fact, he erased the whole menu board, with all the prices that complicated the making of change. He scrawled Cowboy Coffee $2 across it, just to simplify matters.
The Therapist Emeritus was curious about this psychological specimen that had walked into and taken over the barista duties. She didn’t get too many cowboys around these parts. Therefore, in the early evening, when people feared caffeine would keep them up all night, switched to beer, wine, and hard liquors, and things got slow at the cafe, she pulled the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat away from the counter and drew his story out of him as you yank a loose thread and unravel a sweater. She was a retired shrink, after all, and had not completely abandoned her shrinkish ways.
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat did not seem all that approachable when he first stepped into the cafe the day before and rounded up the Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs. In times of crisis, he was clear, loud, and direct. In times of non-crisis, he mumbled under the brim of his Stetson; but when the Therapist Emeritus asked him what brought him to the Epiphany Cafe, he laughed, pushed his hat back, and actually made eye contact. She was that good.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Just to kill Tom.”
He said it just like that, which made me wonder if he was a gunslinger. Then it occurred to me that he had a southern accent and he was there to kill time, not Tom. That would’ve been good for anyone named Tom, if there was anyone named Tom who needed killing.
We learned that the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had been a real cowboy. Not a horse-riding, lasso-spinning, get-along-little-doggies type of cowboy, but a guy who actually worked intimately with cows, albeit in the Midwestern dairy industry, rather than ranching, traveling from farm to farm, trimming hooves. Later, after he had finished his coffee, it was my pleasure to watch him pull out a plug of tobacco, shove it in his mouth, lean back in his chair, and spit into his cup at intervals. Then I knew for certain we had the real thing.
He hadn’t trimmed any hooves for a while and there were few milk cows in Connecticut for him to ply his trade. He was going a little stir crazy where he’d been, so he thought he’d travel around a little to clear his head and stay out of a hospital. It was beginning to help, he explained. There are not many problems that seem so big when you trek back and forth across the country.
The Therapist Emeritus asked him if he had a story to tell, believing it’s best to be direct about these things. She didn’t mention that she was the kind that put stir crazy people into hospitals, for that tends to inhibit some tales and lengthen others.
He began in the way that people will do when they have a lot of time on their hands, when they have carefully constructed the story themselves and finally have someone to tell it to, and when the listener seems willing to wait for the point. He brought us into the farm kitchen of Art and Edith Gates, as if he had never left.
The Ghosts of Onion Hill
“I found the cow – mooing over her – dead calf,” gasped Art, entering the kitchen where the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat sat with his lunch bag. Edith kept him company, baking bread. Halfway through the morning, the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had taken an advance on his lunch. He’d be hungry again by two.
“She ran off – into the woods – to have her calf – He was – stillborn,” continued Art, pulling bready air into what was left of his lungs, crippled by emphysema. “Her udder was – bustin’ full.”
Edith scolded, “Whatcha doing traipsing after cows in your condition? Let Jack do it. You left the farm to him. Let him farm it.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat didn’t relish the thought of watching an old couple battle it out, but the only other choice was to sit in the barn, staring at a cow chewing her cud while she stared at him chewing a sandwich. The cow wouldn’t likely have anything interesting to say. She’d also either be resentful of the trimming he’d just done on her hooves or troubled over being driven into the squeeze chute and tipped on her side. The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had eaten too many lunches in barns already, shit underfoot, flies harassing, and dogs, indifferent to the misery of cows, slinking around, vying for hoof trimmings. No, he thought, maybe he’d stick around and get some of that bread.
“I’m always telling Father,” Edith continued, “he shouldn’t be walking a’tall with his lungs the way they are, least of all in those woods. Nothing good ever happens in those woods.”
Art plugged the hoses from his oxygen tank into his nose and mounted a defense. “If a man can’t walk – on his own two feet – he isn’t much of a man.”
“What woods you mean?” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat asked.
Edith answered, “They’re right behind the old foundation you passed up the road when you came here. You must have seen it. It’s a huge foundation. It was a beautiful house, built just like a southern mansion with the big pillars outside. It had a wide porch and, when you went inside, there was this grand staircase. Us girls used to pretend we were southern belles coming down the stairs to meet our beaux.”
“Who lived there?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. He rotated a loose linoleum tile back into place with his foot. Art and Edith’s place was originally going to be the garage when they built it years ago, but they ran out of money to build a real house and then ran out of money to keep what they had in good repair. Edith kept it filled with bread smells and scolding.
“No one,” Art replied, “A fellow – Conklin built it. Then he – passed on – Never got – to live there.”
When the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had clattered up in his truck that morning he’d passed a foundation of laid stone, supporting an enormous chimney, bedecked by unruly lilac bushes. What was left of the old Conklin place seemed more substantial than most of the dwellings around. In front was a sign saying, Onion Hill. A vandal had changed the U in Union to an O. Onion Hill rose up behind the old foundation, covered with beech and maple: the woods where nothing good happened. The children of the area turned the big, empty Conklin manor into a playhouse while living in shacks at its base.
“No one else moved in?”
“There were – legal problems,” answered Art. “So it stayed – empty for years – Then it collapsed.”
Edith erupted, “Legal problems! I’d say there were more than legal problems. Old Conklin built that house with evil money and nothing good ever came of it. People around here used to care about right and wrong, but not Father. He never would have bought the place if he did.”
“Edith’s always – been over-wrought,” the old man said.
“No one would buy the house because the house was cursed,” said Edith. “That and the woods behind it. Father thought he got a good price, but he never could make anything of this farm. There’s a curse on it. Conklin was cursed, too, ever since he…”
“Cursed with nothing more – than a bunch of jealous – superstitious neighbors – gossiping against him,” Art muttered.
“… killed his brother,” she continued.
“What happened?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
She repeated, “He killed his brother,” as Art said simultaneously, “It’s a – long story.”
“So, who wants to trim hooves?”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat continues the story of the Ghosts of Onion Hill
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat spit tobacco juice into his cup. Even though he was the official barista, I went behind the counter to get a new cup of coffee for him, just to keep his tongue loose, and one of those dinner-plate-sized cookies, for the Therapist Emeritus, just to keep her mouth shut. You don’t want someone interrupting a good storyteller with too many questions when he’s in the zone, even when you’re not supposed to be listening.
“Thank you, rightly, Sir,” he said to me. A moment later he had us back in the bready kitchen of Art and Edith Gates, somewhere where the second knuckle of the frostbitten middle finger would be on the mittened hand of Michigan.
Art, skirmishing his emphysema, began his story.
“They say – years ago – the two brothers – were out – hunting deer.”
“Poaching deer,” Edith said from the refrigerator, pulling out the butter.
“Well, a fellow’s got to eat, I guess,” said the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, getting hungry again, even though he’d just finished lunch.
“The State’s – got no right,” said Art, “telling a man – he can’t shoot deer – when they’ve been eating – his crops all year.”
“What did Conklin do,” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, “shoot his brother?”
“His brother – shot a deer – but only – drew blood – so they had – to track it.”
Edith broke in, “Don’t forget it started snowing to beat the band. It was snowing so hard the younger brother gave up and headed for home.”
“Wouldn’t the snow would make the deer easier to track?” the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat asked. Blood on snow is easy to spot.
“No, it was snowing too hard for that. This was a blizzard, you see. That older brother was just too bullheaded to quit. Just like Father, smoking away for years while I kept telling him to quit, till finally he gets emphysema. Now he goes chasing after runaway cows when he can hardly breath.”
“He had to have his deer, huh?”
Art said, “Oh – we don’t know – all we know is – what Conklin said – after it – was all done.”
“And be prepared to hear a lie,” said Edith.
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat could see, behind the refrigerator, layers of cardboard nailed to the wall. Some of these old farmers lined their rooms with flattened boxes to keep out the cold in the winter time.
Edith continued, “The younger brother was just a kid, really. A young fool who thought he knew better than his elders. They’d just inherited their father’s farm and were always arguing about how to run it. We think the younger brother just wanted things his own way and thought of a way to put an end to it.”
Art said, “You think that way – I don’t.”
“So, he saw his chance to get rid of his brother,” said the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. “That’s pretty extreme, but if he really felt strongly and thought he could get away with it, he might.”
Edith reproached him, “No God-fearing person would even think of such a thing.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat feared he would not get any bread.
“You thought of it,” said Art.
Art turned toward to the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat and said, “She’s all mixed up – she never thinks – long enough – to know what she’s saying – she just says – whatever hits her – She’s just like – Conklin – He wouldn’t have – gotten in trouble – if he ever thought – about what – he was doing.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat said, “It sounds like he had a lot of sense to me. He went home, instead of running after a deer in the middle of a blizzard.”
“It was a blizzard, all right,” said Edith, approving of the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat’s statement. “It was the biggest blizzard here in a hundred years. The snow just about buried the cabin the brothers lived in. It came down fast, like out of a big dump truck. The young Conklin went home and piled wood on the fire. It got dark, with the snow in the air and all. The drifts covered the windows till it was just as dark as night. He kept piling that wood on the fire, but it was so cold it didn’t make much difference.”
In the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat’s first year up in Michigan he was just beginning to renovate his place and he hadn’t put siding up yet. You could throw a cat through the walls sideways. He’d wake up in the morning with a pile of snow in the kitchen and the water frozen. He’d go out and the air would be so cold it would reach right in and sting you in the lungs. On days like that you could spend all day just surviving, like Art straining for his next breath. All you could do was find someplace warm and sit and wait for it to get better. It’s not so bad when you have someone to stay warm with, but women get tired of that kind of living pretty fast. Then you’re by yourself and there’s nothing you can do. All you can do is sit and think.
“Did I say the wind was blowing?” added Edith. “It was a regular blizzard. The wind got caught in the trees around the cabin and made an unholy racket with howling and such.”
Art continued, “That Conklin – he sat there – he started thinking – the wind howling – was a ghost.”
“I don’t doubt it,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat said, knowing what he was talking about. “When a person starts to think, he’s likely to think anything.”
Edith said, “After a while, the older brother found his way back. The good Lord helped him find the cabin. He had to dig through the snow to get to the door, though. He knew his brother was in there from the smoke coming out the chimney, so he started calling his name to let him in.”
“That fool – Conklin,” said Art, “sitting there – listening to ghosts – he thought his brother – was a ghost – calling his name – trying to get in.”
“That’s what he told everyone, anyway,” said Edith. “He got up and took a hammer and nails and nailed the door shut. He had to have a cold heart to sit there in the cabin by the fire all night and listen to his own brother right outside the door, crying to be let in. He never lifted a finger to help, so filled with foolish pride. In the morning he got up, pulled the nails out, and opened the door. His brother fell in, frozen like a ham you take out of the freezer.”
“What did he do then,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat asked, his face twisted into a wry smile, “cut him up and have him for supper? He wouldn’t need to be shooting deer out of season, then, would he?”
“He was tried – for murder,” said Art, solemnly. “They said – not guilty.”
“That’s what they said. But the Lord has His own justice,” said Edith. “Conklin never slept a night after that and no one decent would have anything to do with him. So finally, he went away.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat could easily imagine Conklin lying awake at night and hearing ghosts. He’d go to sleep just long enough to dream about opening a door and, when the frozen body hit the floor, he’d sit up wide awake, covered with sweat as cold as that blizzard.
“So, that’s the end of it?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. “That’s why the woods are cursed? Wait, who built the big house?”
Art said, “Conklin made – good money – while he was away – came back – with a wife.”
“So, he made out all right,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat said. “Sometimes it pays not to think too much about things.”
Edith hoisted herself up from the kitchen table and, armed with oven mitts, began to take out the bread.
“I don’t know,” said Art. “It seemed he – had something good – all that money – and a wife – He built a big house – But he was so – tied up – with the ghosts – in his head – he couldn’t see – the woman loved him.”
“You had to feel sorry for the wife,” added Edith. “She thought the universe turned on that man. She hardly knew she had married a monster, just like I didn’t know I was marrying a stubborn fool. He kept on talking about hearing things all the while they were building that house. It was built for her, you know. She came from the South, just like you, and he built it like that so it would remind her of home. He started talking about the ghost so much she started to hear it, too, so she left. I guess she knew she was better off without him. He went back in those woods Father likes to tramp around in when he can hardly breathe. He took a shotgun with him and blew his brains out. The poor girl never even came back up for the funeral.”
The three of them examined the bread coming out of the oven. None of them had risen properly.
“Maybe the yeast was too old or the flour was too heavy,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat offered.
Edith drove them out of the kitchen. Art and the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat walked to the barn. The cows, thinking they might get some ensilage, penned easily in an aisle. One at a time they twisted their tails till they entered a chute. Then the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat would hit the hydraulics and the chute would squeeze the cow immobile and rotate her till she lay on her side. Art sat and smoked while the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat picked the shit from under their nails and trimmed them up.
Art’s son Jack came by and watched. Jack said, “I’m hoping you’ll be done by tonight. The trimming is stressing the cows and their milk production dropped.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll work here till I’m done, even if it takes all night. I don’t have anything better to do.”
“That’ll be good,” said Jack. “I saw you having lunch in the old place. You didn’t need to do that, you could’ve come to the house. I’ve been meaning to tear it down ever since my parents died. ”
“You say they died?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
“Yea, my mother surprised everyone by dying before my father. They’re both dead now and I can’t figure out what to do with the old place. My wife would never live in there, herself. She’s got to have everything new.”
Art fell into a fit of knee slapping laughter. You’d never think a man with emphysema could laugh so hard. You’d never think a dead man could laugh, either.
As soon as Jack left, the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat packed up his rig and departed Onion Hill. He didn’t care to trim any more hooves at that place or any place, ever. The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat sold his business to a kid with more money than sense and took off. He wasn’t going to spend one more night talking with the old couple, smelling bread he’d never eat, tending the fire as the wind played on his lonely house. He set out to find a place where Art and Edith could never find him.
Teenagers from town must still hang out at the old Conklin place. The foundation would be strewn with beer bottles and used condoms. Around a fire circle, hidden in the lilacs, the kids would do well to peel away the layers of the legend of Onion Hill, and caution each other from snuggling too cozy with the notions of the head.
Rabbi ! helps the Head Surveyor see things differently
Nothing ever happened at at the Epiphany Cafe without the Head Surveyor witnessing it. He examined every part of the town of Kenilworth. He had the whole place measured, calculated, charted, and appraised. There was nothing that missed his omniscient eye, except that which cannot be measured, calculated, charted, and appraised.
For instance, the Head Surveyor didn’t know what to make of the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. He liked his coffee: Cowboy Coffee. It was good, stick-to-your-ribs coffee that kept the Head Surveyor going through a whole day of surveying, tromping through the overgrown thickets, briers, and rock strewn fields. It sharpened his eye for the transit and steadied his hand for the rod. The Head Surveyor liked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat’s coffee, but he wasn’t sure about the man. He was a working man, to be sure, but not a plain man. Not an upfront, straightforward, easily understood man, but a man with thickets and briers, who’d traveled a rock strewn path. His fences built on the wrong side of the line. His corner stakes were missing. There was something about the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat that he could not put his finger on, something, perhaps, the Head Surveyor had overlooked.
The Head Surveyor was mulling this over when Rabbi ! asked him a question. Knowing the Head Surveyor liked to measure things, the Rabbi had a question that wasn’t really a question, it was more like a rhetorical device that set up another sermon. Knowing the Head Surveyor liked to measure things was like blood in the water for Rabbi !.
“What is the circumference of Cedar Lake?” the Laughing Rabbi asked, inquiring of Kenilworth’s largest body of water, a mill pond over by the old piano key factory.
The Head Surveyor, having his maps with him, pulled them out, put on his glasses, and estimated. “Oh, about seven miles.”
“No, I mean precisely.”
The Head Surveyor paused. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would need to know the circumference of Cedar Lake, much less the Rabbi of the local Reform Congregation, but he liked to measure things; so he pulled out a ruler and measured. Since the Rabbi wanted a precise measurement, the Head Surveyor thought he would demonstrate his precision by talking through all the steps of his calculation. Little did he know he was playing right into the laughing Rabbi’s hands.
“The legend on the map, says that one inch equals one mile. I can eyeball it and quickly estimate that it’s seven miles, all around. But, since you want a precise measurement, I’ll count up every quarter inch, corresponding to quarter miles. This way I won’t be cutting through all the coves, inlets, and points that comprise the shoreline of Cedar Lake.”
The Rabbi keep quiet while the Head Surveyor counted up his quarter inches and waited until he completed his calculations.
“There,” said the Head Surveyor. “The answer is thirteen and a half miles.”
“Thank you. But what would be the answer if you counted every eighth or sixteen of an inch on the map?”
This took more time, but the Head Surveyor didn’t mind. He really liked counting things and coming up with an answer. In fact, he liked to count, precisely because counting gave him and answer. The Head Surveyor was an answer man, who liked to reach the final word about everything.
“Counting every sixteenth of an inch I get twenty-seven-and-three-sixteenths miles.”
The Rabbi laughed, “Interesting how the lake gets bigger the smaller the unit of measurement.”
The Head Surveyor was dead serious. “That’s because of the irregular outline of the lake. If the map were bigger and had more detail, I’d get a much more accurate count.”
“What if you went to the lake, itself, and paced it off? What if you walked with your right foot in the water and left left foot on dry land and transcribed the shoreline in a clockwise manner. Would you capture in your measurement all the cove, points, and inlets that eluded you before?”
“Pacing it off is not an accurate manner to obtain a measurement. I would use a Gunter’s chain or a walking wheel.”
“OK, if you used them, then.”
“It would take a long time, but, yes, I could; and it would capture all the cove, points, and inlets that using a larger measuring device skipped over, before.”
“But, surely not all the irregularities along the shoreline,” countered Rabbi !. There are thousands of rocks on the border between water and earth that create irregularities in the outline of the lake. Would your chain or wheel capture those?”
“Each link of the chain is eight inches, so no, not every irregularity caused by a rock would be accounted for. The wheel would do better, but I’d have to carefully transcribe the outline of every rock bordering the lake.”
“Interesting,” said the Rabbi. “Although, if you ever looked at the surface of a rock… it’s rough, angled, or curved. There are cracks and pits. Could you account for all those on where the rock borders the water?”
“I don’t know of a device that would enable me to measure the circumference of the lake in that way.”
“But, if you did, would the circumference be greater than if you just used the wheel or the chain?”
“Of course. in this circumstance, the measurement would be greater as the measuring devices become more precise.”
“What if you went down to the molecular level! The shoreline follows all the crevices and ceases between the compounds of water and mineral.”
A lesser man would’ve been annoyed at the Laughing Rabbi by now, but the Head Surveyor had full control over his emotions. He prided himself on his objectivity. He could be neutral in every boundary dispute, detached from every claim. Personal bias was banned and prejudice was prohibited. He had his shit under control. It was as if the Head Surveyor did not exist at all, except in the form of a measuring, calculating, charting, and appraising machine. It was all a matter of mathematics. Numbers, angles, and lines could settle everything.
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” he said.
“Then there’s the sub-atomic level to take into consideration and if there’s more levels smaller than that, we don’t know, but there could be!”
The Head Surveyor shrugged. “So?” He was a practical man.
“So, what is the true circumference of Cedar Lake?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
“You, what? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.”
“I said I don’t know.”
“You’re the Head Surveyor!” The Rabbi laughed. “How could you not know the true circumference of Cedar Lake? Not only do you not know; it sounds like you can’t even find it out!”
The Head Surveyor looked positively shamefaced. He hung his head. Then he thought of something and recovered.
“I do know. It’s infinite. Given an infinitely precise device for measuring, the circumference of Cedar Lake, and any lake, would be infinite.”
Rabbi ! laughed, pulled on his beard, and laughed some more. “Infinite!” He clapped the Head Surveyor on the back. “Infinite! That’s what I thought you’d say, my friend! It’s funny how the Infinite is everywhere and hides in plain sight!”
How the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat got his hat
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was not always a weather beaten man in a cowboy hat. I have no idea of his former identity, although I do know he wore a Michigan Wolverine hat. After hearing the rest of his story, I believe he lost track of his identity, also. He traded it away as he wandered back and across the country, attempting the shed the unnatural voices of Art and Edith Gates and all their ilk.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Wolverine’s Hat, before he was the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, sold his hoof trimming rig and drove an ancient Ford truck until it died by an Oklahoma turkey farm. He got a job as an inseminator; of turkeys, that is. Yes, he inseminated turkeys; necessary because they’ve been bred too fat to do it themselves. If you were responsible for impregnating thousands, you might forget your own name, too.
While he was working, he found that the gobbling of the hens he’d violated could drown out the voices of the dead. But you can’t screw turkeys all the time. Art and Edith Gates stayed back in Michigan, but there were ghosts everywhere who, having found someone who could listen, had something to say. None of them offered the promise of freshly baked bread, but they all creeped him out as only the dead can do.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Wolverine’s Hat had noticed that, arriving at new locale, it took a day or so for the dead to find him. He concluded the thing to do was to go on the road and never stay anywhere for long. Therefore, he joined a circus and marched, carrying a shovel, all over Texas behind the elephants.
In time, even the constant traveling didn’t keep him ghost free. For one thing, the circus would stay in a new town for a few days before moving on. This gave the local spooks a chance to find him. In time, the ghosts got better at honing in, so that no sooner had the big top been raised and the elephants watered and taken for a walk, than the dead were already lining up to bend his ear. It was as if someone had erected a neon sign over his head or all the ghosts had written Yelp reviews and gave him a five star rating.
Listening to the dead talk is not as interesting as you might imagine. Art and Edith Gates had an good story to tell, but they’re not all like that. Most ghosts wanted to talk about the same thing. They were all pissed off that they were dead, held particular people or institutions responsible, and wanted our hero, the Proto Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, to do something about it. Unfortunately, there was nothing the Proto Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat could do about it. Dead was dead and that was final, but it didn’t stop them from complaining and not getting annoyed when he claimed his hands were tied.
In Texarkana, he jumped ship, taking a job with a carnival heading into the Southeast, hoping to evade them. He’d seen enough of elephants, anyway. The carnival people put him to work cleaning puke on the Tilt-a-Whirl.
As it turned out, the South was filled with ghosts; and they liked a carnival every now and then, just like anyone else. It was in Murfreesboro, just down the road from a battlefield, that he finally cracked. Caught in the cross fire of an argument between Civil War veterans over what was worse: death by minie ball versus grapeshot, he started screaming at them to shut the hell up. This made him stand out from among the carnies as a little crazier than they rest. By the time they released him from the Murfreesboro psych ward, the carnival had already moved on to Mississippi.
He’d gotten two things from the psych ward: good drugs and good advice. The drugs made the ghosts go away. The advice was to seek a less stimulating environment. Therefore, as soon as he was released, he headed out to the Great Plains, where few people had ever lived and, consequently, few people had ever died.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, before he was a weather beaten man in a cowboy hat, got a job helping with the wheat harvest; but he couldn’t get insurance, so he had to give up the drugs. It didn’t matter so much, though. Except for the occasional Indian brave, he was mostly ghostless. Once, over by the old Oregon trail, he stopped his combine to let a wagon train pass, but it was almost lunchtime, anyway. Looking back, being an itinerate wheat harvester was probably the best part of his life, but you never know it when you’re living it and the harvest, like all things, had to come to an end.
He was celebrating the end of the harvest, and wondering what to do next, on one end of a bar in Mitchell, South Dakota. On the other end was a lone woman and she was making eyes at him. She didn’t look too good at the first beer, but, by the time he’d finished his sixth, she could’ve been Miss South Dakota. The Proto Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat would normally have been too shy to talk to a Miss South Dakota, except for the six beers, which had the happy effect of escalating his boldness at the same time it augmented her beauty.
He slid over to her end of the bar, bought her what she was drinking, and got himself a seventh beer. She’d been wondering when he’d come over and talk to her. She was lonely, sitting there by herself. She got right to the point. It had been a long, long time, an eternity, really, since she last had a man. What she really wanted, more than another drink, was a quickie in the coatroom, just to make her feel alive again.
Perhaps the Proto Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat should’ve known better, but, as they say, he was thinking with the wrong head. Maybe the beer was doing the thinking for him, or he wasn’t thinking at all. He’d never had a woman be so bold before. Usually, they played it coy and made him want it so bad he’d do anything to get it. This was a new thing, and, being a new thing, he didn’t know what to do with it.
When the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat told this story at the Epiphany Cafe to the Therapist Emeritus he skipped over the sex scene. He was a gentleman and the Therapist Emeritus was a lady. He did let slip an important, but graphic, detail because it was crucial to the understanding of what happened, as well as his state of mind, afterwards.
What he told us was Miss South Dakota was unnaturally cold inside, as cold as a Michigan blizzard, as cold as a cold beer drunk at the end of a hot day harvesting wheat, as cold as hell, literally. Indeed, it was so cold inside Miss South Dakota, he didn’t even have to pull out, although he did, and very swiftly. His second head, having a mind of its own and not without some sense, shriveled from the cold and shock so much it just fell out.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat couldn’t get out of that bar fast enough. He left his seventh beer untouched, only to walk into another bar, next door, and order another. He drank that down faster than he ever drank another beer, ordered a ninth, and then a tenth. When he finally slowed down his drinking, he noticed he’d sat next to a weather beaten man with a cowboy hat; an authentic one.
Our Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, before he was the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, looked at the weather beaten man with a cowboy hat that he was to become. The man drank his beer slowly, even watching the bubbles as they rose to the surface. His cowboy hat was on the counter. His hat mashed hair hadn’t been washed in a week.
“Why are you sad, partner?” Our proto Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat asked his prototype. Even though he was not yet the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, he knew how they were supposed to talk.
The man took a long time to answer, as if he had to watch the answer rise from his beer in the bubbles. Finally, he gave a sigh, and replied.
“My woman died a few months ago. I miss her terrible.”
Our hero didn’t asked whether she was bit by a rattler, scalped by an indian, fell off a horse, or murdered by an outlaw, all likely demises when you’re a cowboy’s woman. He did ask this:
“Don’t you ever see her ghost?”
The real weather beaten man with a cowboy hat sat up straight. As sad as he was, he still gave a little laugh, but not a it’s-really-funny laugh. More of a you’re-a-strange-one laugh. He looked around the bar for another place to sit, but, it being crowded, elected a trip to the men’s room. You’ve got to go to the men’s room a lot when you drink beer.
The real weather beaten man with a cowboy hat had been so sad, it was still sad when he left. He’d left his stool in such a rush he’d left his cowboy hat behind. The hat just sat there and gave our hero an idea. It was an idea that would solve both their problems. It was such a good idea, he executed it immediately. He took the man’s cowboy hat and left that bar in Mitchell, South Dakota with a new identity, leaving his old Michigan Wolverine hat behind.
Little Theresa pays attention
Little Theresa, Kenilworth’s own home-grown saint, didn’t know how to pray; but she did know how to pay attention.
She didn’t know a Thee from a Thou, couldn’t decline the verb beseech, would get get lost in a labyrinth and tangled in a rosary. She was never sure to whom her prayers were addressed, which pronoun to use, what was the proper name for the Divine. She could never know that her prayers were heard, her appreciation acknowledged, her petitions fulfilled. When she came across a meaningful prayer, she would learn to recite it; then, once recited, it would lose all its meaning.
She tried to pray standing up and sitting down, on her knees, and whirling on her feet. She lifted her head and bowed it low. She raised her hands and folded them on her lap. She stretched out on her stomach, touched her forehead, and ate the dirt. She stretched out on her back and marveled at the stars. She twirled and danced and sat very, very, very still. She sang and muttered, davined and declaimed, supplicated and invoked, implored, petitioned and entreated. She spun prayer wheels and fluttered prayer flags. She prayed on mountaintops and in closets, in despair and in delight. Whenever she did it one way, she thought she should be doing it another. When she spoke, she didn’t know what to say.
No, Theresa, Kenilworth’s own saint, didn’t know how to pray; but she did know how to pay attention.
When she paid attention, she suspended her thoughts. Prayers then were non-existent. Petitions couldn’t be further from her lips. She was an empty cup, waiting to be filled. A radio tuned to the station. A lover, legs spread, wet and eager for penetration.
She told herself that God will only come to those who desire. He is no rapist. She has to desire ardently, passionately, fully prepared. He only comes to those who have learned to pay attention.
Attention was an effort, but it didn’t tire her. Indeed, when fatigue set in, her ability to pay attention vanished. She found the greatest rewards of attention are not to be sought out, but waited for, expectantly. She couldn’t find them herself and, if she searched for them, she created constructs she couldn’t tell from truth.
Because Little Theresa, the patron saint of the Epiphany Cafe, knew how to pay attention, she knew that Chai Latte’s sales were down, Rabbi ! had doubts, and the Waving Man was not waving at cars, contrary to appearances, but wanting to be the first to greet someone in particular who drove an unknown car. She knew that the Crazy Dog Lady, at times, got annoyed with her dogs, and the High Street Witch loathed her brother. She could tell, before anyone else, that the brother, the Geeky Guy, had a crush on the Lisping Barista. However, she couldn’t say why the the Lisping Barista had disappeared or where she had gone, only that she had more pain than all the rest; a searing, unyielding, and, as yet, unidentifiable pain.
Little Theresa wasn’t psychic, that’s not how she knew these things. She didn’t have a special conduit of information direct from God; despite being a saint. No, that’s not how she knew what she knew. She knew because she paid attention.
Paying attention to people and paying attention to God was the same thing, as far as Little Theresa was concerned. She found that all people ever need is attention and the most difficult thing to pay attention to was pain. Not many can do it. Doctors would rather prescribe drugs than pay attention to pain. Nurses are more eager for their shift to end. Ministers would just as soon say a prayer and be done with it. This isn’t because paying attention is hard. Paying attention consists only of not doing something, emptying your self of its contents, so it can be filled with another’s pain.
It doesn’t sound attractive to be filled with another’s pain, but, to a saint, it is. It’s indistinguishable from being filled by God.
Because she could pay attention, Little Theresa knew that I was listening in on the counseling session between the Weatherbeaten Man in a Cowboy Hat and the Therapist Emeritus when no one else knew. She knew that I was not a real person and, lacking my own life, had to inhabit the lives of others. She didn’t judge me for it because she was a saint and because judgement would’ve broken her attention.
Little Theresa didn’t need to listen in on the counseling session. She already knew what was in a person’s heart. She could pay attention.
What was the pain she recognized in the Weatherbeaten Man in a Cowboy Hat? The pain of being lonely when others are pressing their demands upon you. The pain of possessing knowledge that cannot be shared.
The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat sleeps late in Boise City
The town was Boise City, Oklahoma; the place on the panhandle where a hole might be to hang up the frying pan, should Oklahoma prove really to be a frying pan, and should you ever want to hang it. From what the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat had seen of Oklahoma, hanging it up might be best you could do with it. From what he had seen of Boise City, a hole might be the best way to describe it. Since few people lived there and few would ever want to live there, he reasoned, few would have died there. It would be delightfully ghost free.
He could not have been more wrong.
The hole that was Boise City had an optimistically grand courthouse, a busy truck stop, a tired motel surrounded by eighteen-wheelers, and every store but a liquor store boarded up. There were a few neglected houses, and dust; lots of dust, as if God’s vacuum cleaner bag had busted and He said to hell with it. There was so much dust that Boise City was rich in dust, holding on to its wealth till the market turned. So much dust that three allergists, a Kleenex franchise, and a Visine outlet could move into the boarded up stores and make a go of it. The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat looked at all the dust and thought only one thing. It would be a good place to get a cold beer.
The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat couldn’t find a bar in Boise City, but following every third pickup truck would take him to the liquor store. He bought the cheapest beer they had, favoring quantity over quality, and rented a room at the motel. In addition to the trucks, in front of every second door was a pair of cowboy boots, sent out to air and collect the Boise City dust.
Our hero’s night at Boise City was unremarkable, but he spent the morning in a fitful, headachy sleep as the big rigs began to roll. It was early afternoon when he found that something about Boise City had changed. Something uncanny. Something creepy, surreal, and unsettling. He stepped out of the room hatless, and looked around before he could identify it. The view had been swept of trucks, the cowboy boots gone, and the sky was as bright and as beautiful as you’re apt to get in the panhandle. But that wasn’t it. There was something else powerful and haunting.
Then he figured it out. The wind wasn’t blowing. He was in the Great Plains and the wind had stopped.
The wind in that part of the world is usually a constant soundtrack, a talkative companion with something to say about everything. So much so, that you stop listening; but then, when the companion is gone, you feel utterly alone, disoriented, and forsaken.
You see, without the wind to comfort you, the land in those parts is too big, too flat, too empty, positively claustrophobic in its immensity. You’re lost without the wind.
He turned to flee back to his room to turn the air conditioner on, although it was not hot, just so he could feel and hear some kind of wind.
A man in overalls was sitting in a plastic chair outside his door.
“You ain’t one of them suitcase farmers? Are ya?” said the man, who could talk without ever moving his lips.
“I don’t own a suitcase,” said Weather Beaten Man without his Cowboy Hat. It was true. He kept his clothes in a duffle.
“I guess so,” he answered, not understanding what the man said, but knowing how to win his approval.
“Then ya wanted at the rabbit drive.”
And that was that. He was going to the rabbit drive. Whatever that was.
The Weather Beaten Man went back into his room and no sooner had he emerged with his Cowboy Hat than the scene was filled with laconic populace, all walking with sticks or metal pots in their hands, towards a distant spot on the horizon. Men, women, and children, none had much to say, but he could see restrained joy in their eyes. They were the type to never utter two syllables when one would do. Save your breath, you might need it later, they might’ve said, had they ever spoken. Nonetheless, there was something sparkling and optimistic about their appearance, as if they thought today would be a good day. They evidently hadn’t had many good days, so they couldn’t commit themselves fully to it. It must’ve been dangerous to hope too much, but they couldn’t help hoping.
He soon learned that there was a lot to like about the day Boise City was having. There was the weather, for one thing, and the rich hue of blue that was the sky, for another. They’d been up early, throwing open the doors and windows, hauling out their furniture, and hanging up their sheets to air them out. Many had their church clothes on, because it was Sunday, and came direct from praying for and receiving assurance of their deliverance. Then, there was the rabbit drive. More like a party than anything else. The perfect way to spend a perfect Sunday afternoon.
“We do this ever’ Sunday,” said one rabbit driver. “‘Prized I ain’t seen ya.”
The crowd was well drilling in rabbit driving. When they’d walked clear out of town, they spread to spitting distance from one another, without so much as a word or a shouted direction from anyone. Far off, cars and pickup trucks were parked and country people were climbing out of them. The whole county seemed to have turned out, forming an immense circle, which, fully assembled, might have enclosed a thousand acres.
The people all began to walk to the center, banging pots and pans together and beating the ground with the sticks. The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat still had not gotten the hang of rabbit driving when a jack rabbit darted right by him, escaping the circle. His companions looked annoyed. Someone may have said, we got a city boy here. Some boys broke ranks and tracked down the rabbit, clubbing it to death when they found it. That’s when the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat understood the purpose and felt the horror of rabbit driving.
As they walked on and the circle contracted, the field ahead seemed to be in motion. A field of rabbits, like a herd of sheep, began to stir. The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat looked to the crowd for any with mercy, pity, or compassion; but they were of one mind, of murder and extermination of rabbits.
“They eat what’s left of the crops,” said a rabbit driver, but the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat couldn’t find any crops but dust anywhere to save.
At last the circle compressed the herd into a tight mass. Three or four deep, by this time, the people yelled, swung their sticks, and banged pots to keep the rabbits enclosed. Teenage boys stepped into the circle and began to beat rabbits with their clubs. The animals screamed, screamed like babies screaming for their mommas, screamed like babies getting beaten by sticks.
It was not hard to imagine what might have gone through the mind of the rabbits, faced with this implacable front of humanity advancing towards them. Had there been survivors of previous rabbit drives who lived to tell the tale of annihilation and woe? Or was there something about a man with a stick, or a woman banging a boiling pot that communicated instinctively to their long ears a terror from which to run? Imagine the horror with which they saw their companions clubbed to death and the dread with which they regarded the closing circle.
“T’ain’t right doin’ this’en a Sunday,” said someone with the closet thing to sympathy. “T’ain’t right on the Lord’s Day. T’ain’t right at all.”
No one had looked up for a long time. They were all intent upon rabbits. Then one man straightened his back and saw the Lord’s judgement. A black cloud of dust had assembled to the north and was preparing a drive of its own.
The first to see it shouted, “Look at that! It’s gunna be a booger!” One by one, everyone stopped to study the cloud. It was as big as a mountain range, as ominous as Armageddon, as dark as three midnights cooped in a barrel. It hung low, for a cloud, hugging the earth, rolling on itself from the top, down.
They only looked for a moment before the crowd dropped their sticks and even their pots and pans. They grabbed their children and ran. The rabbits, released from the circle, ran with them, stride for stride, right at their feet. Before the storm caught up with them, the sky darkened with flocks of fleeing birds. The people were screaming, just as the rabbits had been screaming a moment before. One family reached their truck. They sped away, but the driver couldn’t see where he was going and overturned in a ditch.
It was not hard to imagine what might have gone through the minds of the the people of Boise City, faced with this implacable front of dust advancing towards them. Had there been survivors of previous dust storms who lived to tell the tale of annihilation and woe? Or was there something about a black cloud as big as a mountain that communicated instinctively a terror from which to run? Imagine the horror with which they saw their companions overcome by suffocation and the dread with which they regarded the advancing storm.
One woman, running ahead of the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat, carrying her child, stumbled and fell. Our hero reached down to help them up. When they touched, a static shock, caused by the storm, knocked him down, as well.
In the time it took for the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat to recover, the storm was upon him. Our hero rose to his feet against a sixty-mile-an-hour gale. The dust, as fine as powder, as strong as a firehose, pushed him onward and scoured his skin. The harder he ran, the harder he breathed and the harder it was to breath till he weakened, stumbled, and fell again.
The dust quickly collected in the lee of the Weather Beaten Man. His cowboy hat blew on ahead without him. As dust began to fill his ears, the sound of the wind disappeared again. He would die there and be buried under a mountain of dust, utterly alone, disoriented, and forsaken.
Or so it seemed until the maid attempted to enter his motel room to clean it and woke him up. It took him a long time to get his bearings and to determine which of the two worlds he inhabited was real and which was imagined.
S. Harry Zade reveals the truth about the past
What if a person really could repress the horrors of the past?
Yes, I know; the shrinks tell us it’s impossible to do without paying a price. They say that we have a lumber room of the mind, a hidden closet in which we stuff all the traumas and memories we wish we had no use for. They say, in time, the contents of this room start to smell. Left alone, strange noises will begin to emerge. House guests, looking for the bathroom, will open the wrong door and let all our heartaches escape. The closet gets crammed with memories, so that, if you try to put one more in, two more are dislodged and tumble out at your feet. That is to say that all the horrors will find a way out, somehow, or they will make life difficult if they remain locked up. There is no end to the neuroses, psychoses, character dysfunctions, family dysfunctions, and general malaise we are subject to if we try to put anything into that closet.
The shrinks tell us it’s impossible to be effectively rid of the past, and want us to take their word for it. In fact, the Therapist Emeritus was just now telling that to the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. He had just been going on about the ghosts that just would not leave him alone. She claimed these ghosts represented haunting stories from his past, things he was trying to forget.
“So,” she said, “See, you can’t do it, can you? That’s what we therapists have been trying to tell you people. No one ever listens to us. It’s like we’ve been talking to the wind. You have to deal with the past.”
The Therapist Emeritus didn’t really say that. But she thought it.
She did say that he had to deal with his past, clean out the closet, pull out every item in turn, dust it off, and find a place on the coffee table to keep it. Face his demons, or be ever running away from them. Deal, she repeated, as if he was a lackadaisical croupier and she, an eager blackjack player. Become conscious of the unconscious, she urged. And she would be the very person to help him.
“I don’t see what these ghosts have to do with me,” he said to the Therapist Emeritus. “It’s not my past I’m trying to shake, it’s THE PAST. It’s y’all’s past. It’s other people’s ghosts who won’t leave me alone. I don’t have any ghosts.”
The Therapist Emeritus slowly nodded her head as one does to a child who has just said some fantastic thing that shouldn’t be believed.
“Of course you have ghosts,” she said. “Everyone has ghosts. If you have disappointments, regrets, lost loves, or sadness, you have ghosts. Traumas and injuries are ghosts. Even those that may seem minor to an adult, can be overwhelming when they happen to a child. If you have ever changed anything about yourself, the part you left behind is a ghost. There’s ghosts all over, inside and out. You can’t say you don’t have any ghosts, if you have ever lived.”
There’s a difficult moment in therapy when the therapist purports to know more about the mind of the patient than the patient knows about himself, and the patient begins to believe her; not all the way, but a little. That moment between the Therapist Emeritus and the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had just occurred.
“OK, so maybe I have ghosts. But, my ghosts aren’t nothing compared to these ghosts. I can deal with my ghosts. I just can’t deal with these.”
The Therapist Emeritus now had a smile for the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, as one smiles at a child who had just said something adorably naive. She thought, it’s no use trying to explain repression to someone who is repressing. They’re never going to get it.
But, what if the therapists are wrong and it is possible to forget the horrors of the past? Maybe the therapists don’t know. After all, therapists only see people who have trouble. People who don’t have ghosts, never have a reason to see a therapist. In fact, anyone who would have successfully forgotten the past, wouldn’t know they forgot the past, because they had forgotten it. In fact, get this, maybe we all forget the past all the time and don’t even know it.
If that’s the case, then why couldn’t the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat do it?
He couldn’t because he believed the past still existed in the form of ghosts. In the same way, the Therapist Emeritus believed the past still existed in the form of repression. For all their differences, both the Therapist Emeritus and the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat believed similar things. They both believed the past, whether in the form of one’s own ghosts or other peoples’ ghosts, still existed and walked among us, doing ill. But, what if the past doesn’t exist at all? What if, once the present occurs and recedes into the past, it becomes, well, past? What if the past, being past, is no longer real and is replaced by nothing but a fiction? What if both ghosts and repressed material were figments of the imagination?
If the past was a fiction, then you might be able to rewrite it, making it quite possible to forget the past.
In that case, why couldn’t the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat do it? Why couldn’t he rewrite the ghosts out of his story?
First of all, he has to have a story. A story is what glues everything together and establishes a self. If he had no story, he’d have no self; and, having no self, is a fate as bad as, and indistinguishable from, death. A person must have a story even if he never tells it to anyone; and, if he does tell it to someone, he must have something to say. Therefore, he has to have a story so much, he must construct it out of nothing.
Why couldn’t the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat replace his past with a story that included no ghosts?
That has to do with his selection of genre.
I may not be a therapist, but as a fictional character who everyone thinks is an English professor, I still possess particular insights and understandings. As a fictional character, I know what I’m talking about and, as a professor, I should be allowed to profess. This is my theory about what happened to the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
When most people sit down to write a story, they have trouble either knowing what to say, or how to say it. Most people, professional writers included, generally end up writing a story that conforms to a genre. It’s easier that way. You don’t need as much imagination. You have the general plot already outlined. All you have to do is fill in specifics. Readers also prefer genres. They want to know what they’re reading before they invest the time and money to read it. They want a story to reinforce their particular view of the world.
In choosing his horror story genre, Stephen King seems to say, there’s evil in the world, you can face it and vanquish it. Danielle Steele, the romance writer, claims, your instincts are good and you can use them to find a perfect love. In the same way, The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat ended up writing his life into a ghost story. The spiritual world and the corporal one are divided, but we can bring them together.
The Therapist Emeritus has her genre, too. She likes to consume stories conforming to the standard therapeutic narrative, I was lost, but now I’m found. If she succeeded in persuading the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat to rewrite his ghost story into that genre, then his story would contribute to her own, in her own favored genre in which to create a type of detective story. There are secrets, but I can uncover them.
But what if the real secret is that the closet full of memories and traumas is really empty? What if all the smells and noises emitting from it are nothing but stories we tell to scare us away from the truth, that the past is gone, never to return. What if the therapists and their patients both have created genres that assert that secrets cannot be buried, while they bury the one secret they cannot accept? The past does not exist and we are all just full of shit.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat aspires to be the town drunk
After the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat saw what he saw in Boise City, he decided to get as far away from the dust bowl as he could. He thought he would go to somewhere lush, verdant, and green; where a man’s feet need never touch the ground because there’s always vegetation to bear him up. Where the air is not black with dust, but having a bluish tinge from the water molecules floating around. He thought he would go where water itself is not hoarded like a precious gem. He got as far as Pecos, New Mexico, which is not very far at all and not much different from the place from which he came. He stopped there because he’d seen an opportunity which ignited his imagination and gave him a new goal in life.
The flag in front of the post office in Pecos was flying at half mast when he drove through. He hadn’t been listening to much of the news lately, so he wondered who had died. Was there another school shooting? Had 9/11 repeated itself? Was another president lying in state? He turned around, stopped, and went in to ask the Post Mistress what had happened.
The town drunk had been found dead outside, it had been cold last night and he perished from exposure.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat immediately knew that any town that honored the town drunk by lowering the post office flag was a worthwhile town in which to live. He also knew that the position of town drunk was open. His next stop was the grocery store, where he bought some beer and immediately applied for the job.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had always been a hard worker. Whatever job he had, and he had quite a few, he always performed to his utmost. He was never one to shirk responsibilities, loiter near the water cooler, steal post-it notes, complain about the boss, or have someone else clock him out. He was conscientious, diligent, industrious, and persistent. He never minded the dirty work. Someone had to do it. He was the first to start each day and the last to leave. Everyone always said he was a model employee and would be amply rewarded someday.
And so, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat set right to work at being the town drunk of Pecos, New Mexico, a dusty little town on the wrong side of the mountain from Santa Fe. The Pecos River was said to have originated there, although for most of the year, no river could be found. What did flow in plenty were the various forms of alcohol available to any one with a job, a social security check, or savings from a better day. It turned out that most of the population of Pecos would vie for the position.
The indigenous people had a head start on the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. Pecos had quite a few, hanging on to their ancestral pueblo, irritably putting on their ancient dances for the tourist trade and selling jewelry in sunbaked turn offs. If you called them American Indians, they would correct you and say they were Native Americans. If you called them Native Americans, they preferred American Indian or just Indian, but never call them Injuns. They resented losing their land to, first, the Spanish, then the Mexicans, then the New Mexicans, and, finally, the Americans, forgetting they had taken the land, millennia earlier, from someone else. In reprisal, they never told anyone the meaning of their dances, hiding the fact that, perhaps they had forgotten, themselves. They loved their dances, nonetheless, because they gave them an excuse to stand in the hot sun, stomp around in a dusty courtyard, and get a good buzz on. Although they did not believe in owning land, they felt one of their many candidates for the position of town drunk should get it because the land belonged to them.
Then there were the Mexicans, who really had Native Americans’ DNA, but were from Mexico. They could be called Native Mexicans, except Mexico, like the entire western hemisphere, is all American; so they were Native Americans, after all. They’d crossed the border to reclaim a region stolen from them in the Mexican War, which, for them was the American War. They claimed the position of town drunk for one of their own. After all, they were the ones who invented tequila; and tequila, as everyone knows, is a better drink for a town drunk than anything else.
The Mexicans could easily be confused with the New Mexicans, who were more American than the Americans, who were newer to New Mexico than the New Mexicans, but not more American than the Native Americans, who’d been there longer than anyone. The Americans called them Spanish because they thought they spoke Spanish, but they spoke English as well as anyone else and Spanish infused with a lot of English. They had strange customs of lighting candles on Friday nights, which caused some to suspect they were really crypto Jews, gone underground during the Spanish Inquisition, and fled to the New World. The New Mexicans claimed the position of town drunk because it was their town. They had founded it and they gave the name to the river, which was often not a river.
Then there were the Americans, who were really emigrated Scots-Irish, by way of the Appalachians, into the desert, to escape the law or make some quick money. These bewhiskered, bad skinned, rotten toothed types wanted the job of town drunk because they belonged to the greatest country in the world and ought to enjoy the privilege of being white.
There was a fifth group in the population of Pecos, New Mexico, but they did not compete for the position of town drunk. They scarcely knew there was a town drunk and, although their zip code indicated they resided in Pecos, they really belonged to suburban Santa Fe and had more in common with well-to-do New Yorkers, Londoners, and Singaporeans than with the other residents of Pecos. These Cosmopolitans would never pass out and freeze to death because they lived in all the best houses. They had more Native American jewelry, pottery and rugs from the Native Americans, than the Native Americans. More weathered wood panels, furniture, and strings of peppers from the two strains of Mexicans than the two strains of Mexicans. More barbed wire, lassos, and leather chaps from the Americans than the Americans. Many of them drank as much as any town drunk, but they did so from delicate crystal glasses; and they drank fine wine, rather than the fortified variety, like the Americans, rotgut whiskey, like the Indians, or tequila, like the two strains of Mexicans. They belonged to the whole world, while estranged from the earth. Therefore, just as the Cosmopolitans might play at being Native American, dabble at what they called Spanish culture, and call themselves Americans, they could never be a true town drunk; for that required an authenticity forever out of their reach.
The racial politics of Pecos, New Mexico was all so confusing that the only thing anyone could do was get drunk, and there weren’t even any Blacks.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat didn’t stand a chance to be appointed town drunk; but that didn’t stop him from trying. Although he had more in common with the White Trash Americans than any of the other groups, he could not point to a long linkage of drunks, as could they, and his drink of choice was beer. He hoped that the degree of difficulty would factor into the decision.
The curious thing about Pecos, New Mexico, was that there were no ghosts in Pecos, New Mexico. You might assume otherwise because Pecos itself had been settled for hundreds of years and the adjacent pueblo for thousands of years. That’s plenty of time to accumulate ghosts. There ought to be enough ghosts to fill the football stadium on a Saturday night, all the churches on a Sunday morning, and cause a traffic jam on Route 25 to Santa Fe, Monday through Friday. But, in all the months the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat spent in Pecos, he did not encounter a single ghost. Maybe because he was shit faced drunk all the time. Maybe the ghosts saw he was engaged in serious business and left him alone. Maybe all the living people, so avidly represented the interests of their ancestors, that the actual ghosts could rest easily in their graves, knowing that the living, like a team of lawyers, would advocate for them in their place.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat might have elected to stay in Pecos for the rest of his life, whether he succeeded in getting appointed as the town drunk, or not, if only because of the freedom from ghosts. But he had to leave very quickly. Easter was coming and the Penitentes were looking for this year’s Jesus.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat is appointed Jesus in Pecos, New Mexico
One day, during Holy Week in Pecos, New Mexico, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had been nine beers into that morning’s allotment and was beginning to think he ought to slow down before he passed out and wasted his buzz. He had a comfortable spot behind the recycling bin of the dollar store on a bed of discarded cardboard boxes. The sun was high enough to be warm, but not so high to be hot. Tires on Route 50 provided a steady hum for background music. He had enough work sweeping floors, mucking out stables, to keep him in beer, but not so much as to interfere with the drinking of it. He’d been three months free of ghosts. Things didn’t get much better than this for the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
He’d just started to doze off when a delegation of New Mexicans blocked his sun. Every one of these gentlemen thought the job of town drunk ought to be his and resented the fact that the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was making a decent run towards it. Even though they all, individually, desired the job, they would’t have minded if one of their own group got it, for at least then there would be some pride in association. They might have gotten used to it if the Indians, the Old Mexicans, or even the Americans were awarded the position because, after all, they were neighbors. It was inconceivable that a Cosmopolitan would win it, no matter how much fine wine they drank. But this interloper was a different matter. If he could be permitted to waltz right in and take the job, than what was to stop the rest of the country from doing so.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat thought these New Mexicans might try to beat him up. The spot behind the recycling bin of the dollar store was a perfect place to do it. They could have done it, too, if they wanted. There were, after all, many more of them. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat might have run off, but that, of course, would have been what they wanted. He reasoned, no man can be a true town drunk without getting beat up at least once. Furthermore, anyone who could beat someone else up, even as a member of a group, couldn’t be considered the town drunk; for what town drunk could ever have the coordination, much less the inclination? They would disqualify themselves for consideration. This was a test and he needed to let them do it. He would not run away. Besides, after nine beers, running was out of the question.
The delegation of New Mexicans was smarter than that, though. They would never fall for it. They knew what was at stake and they knew all the tricks to getting it. They didn’t beat up the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. Instead, they told him how much they admired him and offered to make him one of their own.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat might have seen through this stratagem, too; but he’d been a loner for too long and an offer of belonging is an intoxicating beverage for anyone. Besides, they also presented tequila.
And so, for the next few days, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat became an honorary New Mexican. The immigrant Mexicans were envious. They had a far better claim to membership than that Gringo. The Americans were scandalized. Here was one of their own, gone native. The Native Americans were above it all, for they had their pride. The well-to-do Cosmopolitans didn’t know anything about it, but, if they had, they would’ve asked where they could buy an honorary membership and did it come with a certificate, suitable for framing. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat could not believe his good fortune. This was too good to be true. If only for that reason, he should’ve know it was too good to be true.
The group of New Mexicans began work right away on their Easter preparations. There were usual statues to carry through the street that the Cosmopolitans had come to expect from authentic Hispanics. There were beans to boil, peppers to chop, and corn meal to grind for the feast. There were gaudy garments to mend. There was also, and this was done on the sly, whips, their lashes already encrusted with blood, to take out of hiding, thorns to weave into a crown, and a tree to cut down for the cross. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat participated in all these preparations and thought himself lucky to be included. The Indians had never invited him to stomp around in their dances. When he tried to take a mid afternoon siesta with the Old Mexicans, they moved on. The Cosmopolitans never invited him to their wine and cheese parties. Even the Americans wouldn’t swear half so much when he came around. He was especially honored when the New Mexicans appointed him to be their Jesus.
At first the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat thought this might be like an annual play. He figured they selected him for his hair, which had gotten long by that time, his beard, which was more full than any they could’ve grown, and his kindly expression. He thought he’d make a good Jesus, as maybe we all do, if we only think about the parts where the Son of Man walks around, preaching, healing the sick, and riding into Jerusalem on a purloined ass. He got a little concerned when he saw the whips and the crown of thorns, but chalked them up to a gesture towards realism. The cross didn’t worry him at all. He could carry it around town all day long, if he had to. But, when they loaded all the paraphernalia into a pickup truck and drove off with him, far into the mountains; then he started to get worried.
He said there didn’t seem to be much point in putting on a passion play where no one would see it. One of the New Mexicans pulled out an iPhone, reminded the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat he could take a video, and claimed they were making a documentary. They got to a wind swept hilltop and unloaded the cross. They passed around a fresh bottle of tequila. They asked him to strip to his skivvies, lie on the cross, and spread his arms. He complied with this, too, in the awkward way that someone half in the bag might. But, when they pulled out a clawhammer and a five pound sack of sixteen penny nails, then he knew they had more in mind than he had bargained for.
This would’ve been a good time for all those spirits he had befriended to come on out of wherever they were and give him a hand. It would’ve been a good time for all the karma he had stored up to count for something. Even if there had been a drunken version of St Peter with a sword, ready to lop off a New Mexican’s ear, that would’ve been acceptable. But no, even the universe conspired to allow the New Mexicans to nail the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat to a cross, plant the butt end into the stoney, volcanic soil of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and leave our hero to rot alone for their sins. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, for nothing much has changed in two thousand years and what was good for the goose is good for eighty generations of her goslings.
While no legions of angels came to the aid of the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, the spirits in the bottle of tequila did. The man attempting to drive a nail into his hand had far too much to drink and had no business wielding a hammer. He had enough wits to know that he couldn’t set the nail with a little tap as a carpenter often does. He had to give it a good initial wallop to get it through the hand and into the wood. When he did so, he missed the nail head by a good six inches and, instead, got a good blow on the hand of the man holding Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat’s forearm. When the unlucky New Mexican withdrew his hand in pain, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was half free. Without ever thinking of his aspiration to be the town drunk and his vow to be the recipient, and not the deliverer of punches, he got a good one in on the face of the guy holding his other arm. The guy on his legs was a simple matter of a few adrenalin powered kicks. Before the guy holding his broken hand could say shit-god-damn-it-you-drunken-idiot-your-mother’s-a-whore three times in agonized Spanish, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was halfway down the mountain, running in his skivvies and wearing a crown of thorns.
I said the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat wouldn’t have been able to run when he was behind the Dollar Store after eight beers. Why was he able now, after half a bottle of tequila? Well, that is a mystery to go alongside that of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection. We shouldn’t ask too many questions about such things. Just marvel that they happen at all.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat never returned to Pecos after that. It would’ve been quite a sight if he did. Even the most skeptical resident of Pecos, upon seeing this year’s Jesus, alive and strolling among them, would’ve found faith. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat abandoned his ambition to be the town drunk. He would gladly do his drinking without a prestigious position. We shouldn’t be surprised that, when he made it down the mountain, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat got some clothes to go over his skivvies and a new cowboy hat to replace the crown of thorns. People will do anything for someone they think is the Son of God.
S. Harry Zade goes on about Time
I don’t know what Time is, exactly; but I do know that it’s what keeps everything from happening all at once.
I don’t remember who said that originally. It might’ve been Einstein, who understood Time better than anyone else ever did, relatively speaking. Still, even Einstein didn’t completely understand this substance or force called Time, if it is a substance or force; why it does the things it does; why it moves in only one direction; or how to stop it. What no one knows about Time can fill a library and take forever to read. It’s as impenetrable as those other great mysteries: gravity, the origin of matter, or where the socks go when you put them in the dryer.
Not only do I not know what Time is, I don’t even understand Time in the way you understand it; but I do understand it in a way you don’t. You see, for us fictional characters, Time behaves differently and is considerably more malleable.
You know the way cartoon characters seem to be immune to physical forces? They can run off a cliff, pause before they fall, get flattened when they hit the ground, inflate themselves up again, and walk on as if nothing happened. That’s how Time is for us fictional characters. It’s optional.
There’s a lot of things that are optional for me, as a fictional character. I don’t need to eat like you do, unless it advances the plot or means something. Placed in a coffee house for a setting, I have to drink a lot of coffee, scarf down pastries from time to time, and lunch on nothing but panini; but that’s only to establish the setting. I have no more need for sustenance than the plate on which the panini is served. Sleep is unnecessary, unless it’s to dream. So is brushing my teeth everyday, taking a shower, and clipping my toenails, for you generously assume I have good hygiene unless you’re told otherwise. I’m exempt from all the drudgeies of life. I go from one interesting, meaningful, or dramatic moment to the next.
Here’s another way in which fictional characters are different from you. You’re at the center of the world. Everything relates to you and goes through you. That’s the way it is for everyone who’s real. That’s the way it is for me, too, but only because I’m the narrator of this story. If I was a more peripheral character, spoken of in the third person, I would not know that I existed and you would know me only by what you could observe.
You, too, might have a sense of how Time can be subjective. The days before Christmas pass more slowly than the days before the start of school. Weekends are far shorter than any two days of the week. The first bite of a chocolate chip cookie can transport you to eternity. You’ll understand, then, how, in fiction, time can stand still as the author narrates every subconscious motive and delves into a dozen flashbacks, all in the time it takes for a character to open a door. You’ll also understand how days, weeks, years, and even decades can pass without the documentation of even a single line in text.
Because you understand the malleability of Time in fiction, I trust you’re not getting too impatient with me as I pause the romantic plot of the Geeky Guy and the Lisping Barista, suspended right after boy meets girl, boy looses girl, and before girl walks back into the Epiphany Cafe to pick up her paycheck. If you prefer ghost stories and thrillers to rom coms, you might even prefer hearing about The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. You might get a little antsy during long philosophical digressions like these, kind of like having the suspense interrupted by a lecture, but you’ll need to know how to read my book, if you’re going to read it.
What I don’t expect you to understand is the single most radical aspect of the relationship between Time and many fictional characters. It’s something that’ll blow your mind. I’m told that you experience things as one damn thing after another, moving from cause to effect. The choices you make will lead to the outcome and you have little idea of the consequences beforehand. It’s like you’re walking through a dark room and might take a tumble down the stairs or bark your shins on a coffee table before you find the light switch.
For us fictional characters, Time is in reverse. Effects come before causes, the end determines the beginning.
It might be hard for you to understand what it’s like to live backwards this way, to be thoroughly predestined. It’s a little like a detective story. A body is found. Someone is dead. The rest of the tale will uncover how he got that way. It’s a little like a standard Rom Com, too. You know the couple will fall in love and live happily ever after, despite the fact that they seem to be on the outs now. The pleasure is in seeing how its done.
You can only experience the pleasures of predestination in stories, through fictional characters. Stories can end with everything resolved, all neatly tried up in a bow, or they can end in the middle, with many questions unanswered, but every story must end.
Real life, I am told, is not that way. There is no ending. Oh, I know, you’ll die someday, but, if you knew how and when, you’d do all you could to avoid it, and you’d be successful and live forever, if you wanted to. When you’re given a puzzle, you don’t know if you’ll solve it. When you meet someone, you don’t know if you’ll fall in love. When life ends for you, it’s continuing for everyone else. Your end is no end at all.
In fiction, when the book ends, all of us characters go together, at once. There’s no afterlife. Even if there are sequels, they end, too. Real life has no endings, except fictional endings. You’ve read so many stories you might think endings are real.
So, you won’t understand what Time is like for me; unless you think about your own fictions, especially that great, unconscious fiction: your Self. You’ve read so many stories, you might think that, too, was real. Your Self is not real. It’s as much of a fiction as I am. But, behind all the fictions you create, there’s something else that’s real, which I don’t have. It’s about time you knew it.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat goes for a walk
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had to stop talking sometime. He could not have talked forever. The night was getting on and it was time to close the Epiphany Cafe. Epiphanies can’t come constantly, twenty-four hours a day, you know. The Therapist Emeritus had to stop listening sometime, also. She couldn’t be a therapeutic instrument twenty-four hours a day, either. In fact, she had already stopped listening and it was time to make her not listening official.
Perhaps you noticed that, just as soon as the Therapist Emeritus told him the ghosts he saw were his own ghosts, not those of others, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat stopped talking about ghosts and started talking about more corporal experiences, like aspiring to be a town drunk and almost getting crucified by New Mexican Penetantes. This was an indication to the Therapist Emeritus that she had struck truth, for the truth is shy and vanishes when found. The Therapist Emeritus would not be a therapist emeritus if she did not notice what the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was not saying, as well as the things he was. The Therapist Emeritus would not be a therapist emeritus if she did not return the conversation back to where the truth last showed, speak to it directly, and address it as if she knew it well.
“If you want to get rid of ghosts, you’ve got to go looking for them.”
This didn’t seem to make sense to the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. He screwed up his mouth and shook his head; but paradoxes are not easily forgotten. He let the conversation rest with that, followed her out the door, and turned the closed sign behind her. I lingered over my coffee until the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat locked up. Then we went out together and I lingered in the shadows to see where he would go.
He pensively walked all over Kenilworth for hours. He seemed to think, as he walked: To get rid of ghosts, you have to look for them. You have to look for ghosts to get rid of them. He may have been ready to dismiss the idea when he came upon a barking dog. The dog followed him as long as he walked away, but the moment the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat turned and approached the dog, it backed off. Perhaps ghosts were like that, too. Ghosts don’t like to be confronted, they prefer to take you by surprise.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat stopped for a few slices of pizza to think it over. I thought he was going to call it a night, but he went straight to the old town center. In the spirit of looking for spirits that he didn’t want to find, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat entered Kenilworth’s ancient burial ground, over by the Collegiate Museum, behind the whitewashed Congregational Church.
The bells of the church chimed twelve times. It was midnight.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat talks with Abraham Pierson, a Puritan preacher
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat took his time going through Kenilworth’s ancient burial ground, daring the ghosts to come out and talk with him. He looked confident to me, from where I was, tailing him from the shadows, until he tapped on the light on his phone. Then I could see how much it shook. He examined all the tombstones in turn, reading what he could of the moss-sown inscriptions, pulling up his head from time to time to listen to every sound coming from the darkness.
The tombstones by the entrance to the cemetery were upwards of four hundred years old. They possessed ghoulish visages, frightening in themselves, at the tops. Maelstroms, eddies, and spirals fell along the margins. The inscriptions proclaimed the more grim aspects of God, in keeping with Puritan sensibilities, quite out of touch the the kumbayas of the present. The weather had weathered away most of the etchings. The markers tipped this way and that; some had fallen to the ground, as if they, themselves, were going the way of their owners; proof that stone was scarcely more mortal than flesh and could not be counted on to provide immortality.
For all the trembling revealed by the light, any other man would have decided to return at day, to have a word with the ghosts on his own terms; but the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was determined to keep at it. He was made of stern stuff. He would face down his fears if it killed him.
His light seemed to linger over one longer than the rest. Later, when the encounter was finished, I returned to read the inscription.
There lieth the body of ye Revd Mr. Abrah. Pierson the first rector of Yale Colledge in Conecticut who deceased March ye 5th 1706/7 aged 61 years.
I couldn’t tell you why this one marker held more interest for the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat than the rest. It was no grander than the rest, although it might be supposed the Reverend Abraham Pierson was important in his day, being the rector of Yale, and all. In fact, the tombstone was far less grand than many others elsewhere in the cemetery, in newer parts, of merchants, financiers, and industrialists. Maybe it was the humility of the marker that interested the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat as much as its great age or anything the inscription proclaimed.
At any rate, in time, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat turned away to examine the other markers. It was then that he thought he heard a noise. Someone speaking King James English. Someone talking as if he had something important to say.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat whipped the light back to the Reverend Pierson’s stone, but there was no one there. He listened. My heart was beating so strong I was afraid he would hear me, so I can imagine how hard his heart might have been going and could not imagine how he could have heard anything over it. He stayed steady though, and scanned his light slowly around the grave till he was satisfied no one was there. He turned away, triumphant he had scared a ghost away.
That was when the voice spoke again, loud enough so I could hear it, too. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was a brave, brave man and stood his ground. His phone, though, which was then functioning as his flashlight, took flight from his hand as he spun around, dashed itself upon a monument, and was smashed to bits. We were all three, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, the apparition, and me, in complete darkness, for the moon had already gone to bed and the nearest streetlights were far beyond the spire of the Reverend Abraham Pierson’s old church.
“If ye seek a specter, ye may happen on an evil angel in its stead.”
“Say what?” said the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, with sincere surprise. Then, after remembering his purpose, he added, more deliberately, “Come on out and let me see you.”
Oddly enough, the man from whom the voice came could be seen more clearly in the dark than he could when he had the light. He stood behind the grave of Reverend Pierson, and might be supposed to be the spirit of the godly man, himself, for he placed his hand upon his tombstone as one would a pulpit, and paused, with no urgency to speak, as one finds with people of self assurance and authority. He was dressed queerly, like a pilgrim in a school play, in an archaic cap and cape. Although his expression was not full of kindness, it was not full of threat, either. He addressed the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat as he would any member of his congregation who he thought was becoming lost in the ways of sin.
“The Devil and his minions have been known to impose the shapes of innocent persons in their spectral exhibitions.”
“Speak plainly,” said the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, who had clearly lost patience with the dead and believed that fewer words said more. But the ghost was accustomed to his congregation devoting their entire Sunday mornings to him, back before kickoffs were invented and the need to get home before them. The ghost began a long dissertation on New England history.
“We people of God settled in what was once the Devil’s territory. The Devil was exceedingly disturbed, as he perceived the people accomplishing the promise of old made unto our blessed Jesus that He should have the utmost parts of the Earth for his possession. Thus irritated, the Devil hath tried all sorts of methods to overturn this plantation. Never were more satanical devices used for the unsettling of any people than have been employed towards the extirpation of the vine which God had here planted…”
“I don’t need a whole history lesson. I just want to know why you speak to me and what will make you go away.”
The ghost continued, as if he had what he was going to say all worked out and couldn’t read off the script.
“All those attempts of Hell have hitherto been abortive. Having obtained help from God, we continue to this day. The Devil is now making one attempt upon us through you, an attempt more difficult, more surprising, more snarled with unintelligible circumstances than any we have hitherto encountered, an attempt so critical, that, if we get well through, we shall soon enjoy halcyon days with all the vultures of Hell trodden under our feet…”
“So, you’re here to warn me of the Devil. Well, I thank you, rightly, sir, but I got it under control. You may go back into your grave and get some more of that, there, dirt sleep.”
“Thou poor afflicted neighbor. Thou art infested and infected with demons. If thou art provided by grace, thou may arrive at a capacity to discern the shape of thy troubler. The Devil stands ready to fall upon thee, and seize thee as his own, at what moment God shall permit him…”
“I get it. I’m fucked. Fire and brimstone and all that. I’ve heard that from plenty of preachers before you. I suppose you want me to stop swearing, stop drinking, come to church, and stop chasing after women.”
“In a bad way, the inclinations and resolutions of thy wickedness grow stronger and stronger. Thy sin gains strength by being persisted. At first, thy heart smites thee for a lesser transgression. Thou conquers, smothers, keeps under, and gets over, the reluctancies and goeth on to greater and greater degrees of impiety. At length, thou mocks at fear, and like an horse rushing into the battle, thou rushes upon the grossest abominations.”
“OK, so, I’m sorry. I repent.”
“Some uncommon dispensation of God, it may be, awakens ye to consider His ways. Now, thou begins to wish to lead a better Life! Thou bewail thy follies. Thou cry out of them as cursed follies. Thou resolve that thou will no more abandon thyself to such follies. Thou make vows to God, and say, I will no more transgress! But thy vices get head again. Thou quickly become as vicious as thou was before.”
The ghost was really getting into it. He pounded on the tombstone with his hand. He would’ve hurt himself had he been able to feel pain.
“So, what do you want from me? What am I supposed to do? You don’t want me to say I’m sorry. What do you want me to say?”
The ghost of Reverend Abraham Pierson, the first rector of Yale College in Connecticut, fell silent and scrutinized the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat till he seemed to know everything about him, including all the things the the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had not yet told us. I don’t know what powers gave this ghost the ability to do that; whether he was sent by God and had been thoroughly briefed, or whether, as the ghost, himself, warned, he was a representative of none other than Satan. It may be that the Reverend Abraham Pierson, in his life, had uncommon talents as a pastoral counselor, the therapist emeritus of his day, and could discern guilt, repression, and projection. It may be that the ghost just made a lucky guess. When he was done scrutinizing the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, the Reverend Abraham Pierson, delivered his message with all the power a puritan preacher, endowed with talents, and allied with supernatural powers of an unknown origin could command.
“Thou flatters thyself that thou can keep an secret eternal. But thy wicked crime is not concealed from God. The glorious God has astonishing ways to bring out the secret wickedness in which thou indulge thyself.”
Here the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat turned white, whiter than when he first saw the ghost; as white as a ghost when he heard the ghost proclaim:
”Be sure, thy secret Sin shall find ye out.”
S Harry Zade makes a confession
In hearing a ghost, dead some four hundred years, refer to a secret sin of his, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat heard enough. He hightailed it out of there and didn’t even stop to share with the Puritan preacher a brief fare thee well. Nor did he explore the rest of the quiet tombstones of the cemetery. The project of confronting the dead, which he had so avidly began in the ancient churchyard, was now abandoned to this new development.
From what I understood of the Reverend Pierson’s warnings, uttered in difficult and archaic, if lurid, prose, was that he, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, was damned. He had committed some horrible sin, which he, in his seemingly thorough exposition to the Therapist Emeritus, had omitted. This sin, like a gaping wound on his soul, left him open to infection by demons. These demons were using specters of the dead to get to him and would somehow involve him in a bitter revenge on the worthy inhabitants of Kenilworth. The town had been founded a few centuries ago, brief in the lifespan of demons, to wrest the land away from Satan.
This warning apparently made quite an impact on the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, even though he shared little of the Reverend Pierson’s theology about demons and damnation and none of his prejudices about Native Americans.
I wanted to call after the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat and get him to think and listen to reason, but I was trying to stay inconspicuous. I wanted to say, wait a minute, the Reverend Pierson was a ghost, right? He’s a ghost, warning you about ghosts; saying that Satan took on the forms of ghosts just to fool you. What if the ghostly apparition of the Reverend Abraham Pierson, the first rector of Yale College, was really Satan? Wouldn’t that be a double feint, worthy of the Prince of Darkness? Think of the chutzpah it would take for the Devil to play the specter of a respected, historically significant preacher and dress in purity, piety, and a Pilgrim costume. What balls it would take for Satan to denounce himself and his own evil, just to work some additional mischief on the unsuspecting town of Kenilworth. The only one who could pull that off would be Lucifer, himself.
Indeed, a case could be made that the Puritans, their hands bloody from the English Civil War, were, themselves, Satan’s legions, landed on the beach at Kenilworth, to claim an innocent Eden for the Devil. The original inhabitants, already decimated by disease carried by previous Europeans, had abandoned their village, allowing the monstrous minions to move in. You could argue that the ones who tell you the most about God are the enemies of God. The ones who complain the most about the Devil are, like corporations that pick your pocket while they say they’re saving you money, themselves, double agents, just trying to throw you off. We moderns, post 9/11, may understand this better than most. Not everyone who claims God as their own is a citizen in good standing of the Kingdom of Heaven. We get that; but, it doesn’t mean we aren’t confused.
For the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, it was enough that the ghost could refer to a secret sin. This was the trump card the preacher played. At that moment, standing alone in the ancient burial ground, I, S. Harry Zade, the narrator of this story, did not know what this secret sin might be that the Weather Beaten Man carried around with him, under his cowboy hat. You can be assured that you will know as soon as I do. A storyteller cannot reveal a secret sin in a story in act three, without telling you what it is by act five; or, sooner, depending on the exigencies of the plot. Even though the longer you read, the longer I live, I would never waste your time, dear reader, with extraneous details.
The notion that a secret sin could result in his being haunted by ghosts led by the Prince of Darkness was an idea that even the Therapist Emeritus could share, even though she wouldn’t say it the same way. She would substitute the phrase disavowed impulse for sin, hallucinations for ghosts, repressed for secret, contribute for result, emanating for led, and have his own unconscious psyche doing the emanating, rather than the Prince of Darkness providing the leadership. Replace any famous Puritan Preacher with the modern equivalent and you get a therapist emeritus. Take any dire warnings of eternal damnation and four hundred years later they are transformed into clinical formulations. Take the fact that a secret sin could result in his being haunted by ghosts led by the Prince of Darkness could so easily be transposed into repressed disavowed impulses contributing to hallucinations emanating from his own unconscious psyche, and you can see that nothing ever changes, it seldom gets better, but you can dress it up however you like to follow the prevailing fashion.
What was the secret sin, or repressed disavowed impulse, of the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat? Have we seen any clues in the things he has said? Is there anything about his manner that might lead you to believe he was a monster? I have, myself, gone over his story as it has been presented thus far and seen no sign of it, except for the possibility that there being no sign, is, itself, a sign. It shouldn’t be too hard to believe that any secret sin might result in the person developing a counterbalancing, compensating characteristic; a proud man acting humble, a lustful one respecting women, a glutton of human flesh becoming vegetarian. We so often take steps counter to our initial impulses that it might be good if we all had a secret sin, if only so that we would act against it.
Still, despite the advantages, no one should ever wish to have a secret sin of their own, for it leaves them vulnerable to extortion by supernatural beings. I could see how worked up the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was to have it alluded to, much less revealed. I could see this, even though the night was pitch black and I couldn’t see my glasses, much less my hand, in front of my face. Having a secret is worse than having a zit on your nose. You must keep it concealed continuously and monitor its ripeness for the moment you can pop it and release its oozing contents on the bathroom mirror. When that secret is a sin, it offers a secret pleasure, to be sure, but its puss is of the toxic kind that splatters, spreads, and clogs all your pores.
I should take this occasion now to confess to you a secret sin of my own. Pop my own zit, if you will, among friends. I don’t do this to relieve my conscience, for I have no conscience. My author never supplied me with one. Nor do I do it to avoid extortion by ghosts. I stood nearby while the Reverend Abraham Pierson spoke. I knew he knew I was there; ghosts have a way of knowing such things that mortals overlook; but I had no fears he would call me out. My secret sin is of a species that a Puritan preacher would never comprehend. In fact, in the whole graveyard, there would not be more than one or two dead people who could rise up out of their graves, point their finger and accuse me. I have a thoroughly modern sin, a secret that I could freely tell because most would not grasp. A sin that even the most puritan could never dream of.
You may have wondered how I know so much about the characters that frequent the Epiphany Cafe. It’s true that I have good hearing. It’s true that many of them divulge their most private thoughts to the Therapist Emeritus. It’s true I sit within earshot and it’s true that she pays little attention to their privacy and protects their confidentiality with no more than the potted plant she sits behind. It’s also true that, as a fictional character, I can be unobtrusive and given no more heed than a potted plant. All this is true, but I have other means at my disposal to learn their stories.
It’s like this. People come to the Epiphany Cafe to use the Wi-Fi that the owners have so generously provided. There’s a password, however, and it keeps changing. The patrons have to buy something at the counter and remember to ask the barista what it is. They inevitably forget it, or can’t spell it, and then there is a line to endure before they can ask her, or him, again. I’ve provided Wi-Fi with my phone under the name of Get Your Epiphany Now. Everyone thinks the network belongs to the cafe. It requires no password. Then, when I’ve got the patrons hooked in my network, I hack into their data. Ingenious, huh?
No one would never suspect me for doing so. I look like a tweedy English professor of a certain age. You might peg me as a Luddite, not a hacker; but my activities are a secret, and secrets, as I have said, engender compensatory concealments. Even though I don’t look like a hacker, I am one, nonetheless. I don’t look like a fictional character, either; but I am one, anyway.
I must hasten to say that I have stolen no money, identities this way. I could have hijacked their bank accounts, credit cards, and direct deposits, but I’m not interested in money. Fictional characters have no use for money. We need stories. I do this to feed my, and your, never satisfied appetite for stories. You should thank me for it, not judge me, for it is you, in the end, who benefits. Therefore, I don’t feel at all guilty about it. You can feel guilty if you’d like, but keep on reading, for marvelous things will soon occur.
Little Theresa leaves food for the Leatherman
I tried to follow the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat out of the cemetery, but, as he passed through the gate, Little Theresa was just coming in. She greeted him warmly, as she addressed everyone, but his only response was to pull his hat down to cover his face. Perhaps that would work for him to conceal his identity in a land where everyone wore cowboy hats, but in Kenilworth, Connecticut it only made his behavior all the more conspicuous. Little Theresa was not one to question anyone or conclude they were up to no good, so she merrily went her way and called out that she’d see him at the cafe tomorrow.
Seeing this, I fought several simultaneous impulses. On one hand, I wanted to continue to follow the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, as I had been doing all night, to see what he would do next. Now that I knew he had a secret, I had even more reason to shadow him, for I hoped to see that secret revealed. On the other hand, I didn’t want Little Theresa to greet me and let him know I had been tailing him. I had the cover of a well placed tombstone to duck behind. She could pass me and never suspect I was there, but he was traveling at such a rate of speed that I would lose him if I elected concealment.
I also wanted to know what Little Theresa was doing, entering a cemetery late at night. Her behavior was just as mystifying as his. She had a picnic basket hooked in her arm as if it was noontime in a park and positively skipped through the wrought iron gate of the ancient burial ground with no fear of ghosts. She looked more like she was going to see a boyfriend than the cold sandstone and marble memorials of people long since forgotten.
In the end, I elected to hide and follow the young woman, if only because I could satisfy two impulses rather than one. I hoped to find out later the secret the Weather Beaten Man kept. I’ll let you know as soon as I do. For now, come with me and investigate this new development.
Little Theresa skipped by my hiding place, never suspecting I was there. She breezed through the older portion of the cemetery, populated by the town’s Puritan ancestors. None of them rose up out of their graves to warn her of a secret sin or to urge her to mend her ways. Perhaps they knew that she was the closest thing Kenilworth had to a resident saint. Maybe a memo had been passed around to all the dead, identifying her as possessing all the goodness and grace they had only dreamed of when they were alive. I suppose the dead Puritans could have risen up, welcomed her, and embraced her as being saintly, but they were probably ashamed of their own shortcomings. They knew they seldom quite practiced what they preached and to see someone who truly embodied the generosity one might expect from someone assured of salvation was too much. Her bright sunshine cast them in a deep shadow, even in the middle of the night.
Little Theresa went directly to the newer part of the cemetery, where the larger, more ostentatious monuments were, the dead of a more prosperous time, who had less concern of ethics and morality. One mausoleum stood, looming over the rest, its occupants a family of respectable means, but evidently fallen into hard times of late, for the living descendants didn’t seem to keep up appearances. The tomb had been broken into, probably by some partiers, halloween tricksters, or grave robbers. The door hung by a single hinge, affording access to the inside of the crypt.
Little Theresa went right up to the door, stood, and called inside.
“It’s me,” she said. “I’ve come to bring you some food.”
No one from within answered her, but I could sense that someone stirred enough to lift his head, move an arm, or shift a leg.
She kneeled and emptied the contents of the basket on to the marble stoop of the tomb, chattering a little about the weather, how she always knew where to find him, and to enquire about his health. No one responded, but, when she had finished laying out his meal, and, satisfied that no news from him might mean good news, she concluded by saying, “Well, then, I’ll see you next time you pass by. See you then. Bye-bye.”
Little Theresa left as breezily as she had arrived, still carrying her picnic basket, lightened of its food and by the knowledge of having done yet one more good deed.
The thing I most wanted to know now was who was within that tomb. I didn’t think it would be a ghost. It was unlikely she was venerating some ancestor’s tomb, for, if that were the case, she would fix the door, not leave a fat sandwich, wrapped in wax paper, a container of potato salad, a carton of milk, and some bread. No, it had to be a homeless person sleeping in the tomb. Someone with a regular routine, with basic needs, and shy of human contact.
I didn’t have to wait long before someone emerged from the crypt. It only took as long as it takes to know the benefactor was gone. I saw then a grubby, disheveled man with long hair and a long beard, clad entirely in leather. He was serious about leather. He had leather pants, a leather coat, leather hat, leather boots, and leather mittens. If he had any underwear and socks at all, they would’ve been leather, too. His leather coat was not of the type worn by motorcyclists, The Fonz, or James Dean. It was far from fashionable. It most closely resembled a patchwork quilt, for he had sewn on scraps of raw leather at odd angles. What skin I could see resembled leather, as well. Even his hair and beard hung thick and clotted, like leather straps.
This was someone I knew. Not someone I had ever met, but someone legendary in these parts. This was the Leatherman, who, for decades now, had silently traced a consistent route through New York State and Connecticut, sleeping in caves and, apparently, tombs; living off the offerings of anyone who would give him food.
It was said that he was French Canadian and never spoke because he knew little English. It was said, but I didn’t know how anyone would ever know, that he was searching for his lost love, a girl he had seen in a shoe repair shop when he was a child. She had smooth round legs, a bright skirt, and a smile that lit up the mysteries of life. She made everything make sense, but he let her slip out of his grasp. He’d been looking for her ever since.
The Leatherman saw me. When you live like an animal out in the open for as long as he, you never miss anything. He watched me as he devoured his sandwich, paying no heed to the wax paper, content to pick it later out of his mouth.
If I thought I could, I would’ve stayed a while and got his story, but he could see I wasn’t his girl, so he had no use for me. He had life pared down to its essentials and had a single purpose. I studied him as he ate. As I looked into his eyes, the only part of him not leather, I could see that, despite his rough appearance and greedy mastication, he was as gentle a soul as could be imagined. While he would be driven out of any respectable modern town, just like Little Theresa, he could pass through the Puritan graveyard and be free of censure and condemnation.
Little Theresa gets creative
Little Theresa rented a little room from an old woman with a big house and lots of space to spare. All the furniture Little Theresa had was a bed, a dresser, and a chair in the room; but that was enough for her. There was also a wastepaper basket and a braided rug made with old ties, twisted in a spiral pattern. There was a crucifix over the bed, a mirror over the dresser, and a picture of her parents and older sister Scotch taped to the mirror. There was a door to the rest of the house, another door to a small closet, and a window that looked over the back yard. Summertime, the view was blocked by a maple tree. In wintertime, she could see the neighbor’s house where three German Shepherds barked all night long. Little Theresa liked her little room. Simple as it was, it had more than enough for her. The only thing about the room she disliked was the crucifix the landlady hung over her bed.
Some people might dislike a crucifix hanging over their bed if they weren’t Christian and didn’t like or approve of the things it symbolized. Although Little Theresa didn’t advertise it, she was very much a Christian of the Roman Catholic variety. Some might object to a crucifix because it presented a gruesome spectacle of a naked man nailed to a cross. While this crucifix indeed had a naked man nailed to a cross, a loincloth strategically hung over the area that usually offends. A crown of thorns was placed on the man’s head and little nails could be seen transfixing the man’s hands and his crossed feet, but no blood dripped from the holes or down his face. He had a scar on his side where a spear had been thrust through, but it might as well had been an old scar, for it had lost its goriness. It was as tasteful and moderate a torture scene as could be portrayed.
One strange thing about the crucifix was that it was not made of wood, as you might expect, but of some substance that resembled gold. Little Theresa knew that Jesus had not been crucified on a gold cross, so that bothered her a little. No, it bothered her a lot. In fact, that was the one thing she disliked about her room and would change about it if she could.
If the crucifix had only bothered her a little, she might have just turned her head and pretended it wasn’t there. It hung over her bed, after all, and, except for the butt end of the cross, when she looked directly up from her pillow, it was well out of her eye shot. Unfortunately, the crucifix hung on the wall opposite the mirror and was reflected by it. That made it seem like there were two crucifixes in the room, which made the room doubly unsatisfactory. She just couldn’t avoid the golden crucifix.
One night, she couldn’t sleep. The dogs were barking, but she was up, thinking about the crucifix being made of a substance resembling gold. She took it down, first placing it on the dresser, then inside the dresser, and finally, under her socks. It was no use. She still couldn’t sleep. The crucifix was all wrong and she knew it, even when it was hidden. Something had to change.
Little Theresa might have painted the crucifix so it wouldn’t resemble gold, but that wouldn’t be right. It was her landlady’s crucifix. She might have asked the landlady to take it away; but that wouldn’t be right, either. The landlady would worry she had lost her faith. Little Theresa hadn’t lost her faith and she didn’t want the landlady to worry. She had a very strong faith, a faith that could not easily be explained.
To solve her problem, Little Theresa did something she rarely ever did. She went shopping. She was not one to solve her problems by shopping, as many people do. She usually felt better after giving away stuff, rather than getting more. But this was different. She needed a new crucifix. She would get one that was right for her and give the old one back to her landlady. The landlady would see that she still had a crucifix, so would not worry that she had lost her faith.
There weren’t any crucifix stores in Kenilworth, so she traveled to New Haven one day, just to buy a crucifix. Many were gold or inlaid with jewels. They wouldn’t do. Some were a plain cross, with no naked man. They wouldn’t do, either, for she knew that the reason the cross meant anything at all was because there had been a tortured naked man nailed to it. She had read what St Paul wrote about the cross. It was once an object of shame and degradation, an offensive scandal to the early Christians, of whom he was one. None of the crosses in any of the stores were symbols of shame and degradation. None of them were an offensive scandal. They were all symbols of riches, victory, safety, and domination. They were all wrong. She had to find a way to get the original meaning back.
She didn’t get home that night from unsuccessful crucifix shopping, till very late. The neighbor with the three German Shepherds had walked his dogs already, like every night, and, like every night, he didn’t pick up after them. Little Theresa stepped right in a giant dog turd in front of her house. She cleaned it up as best she could before walking into her landlady’s well-kept house, tracking dog shit all over her clean white carpet, but she missed a hunk. As she scrubbed and cleaned her landlady’s formerly immaculate white carpet, Little Theresa got an idea; a wonderful, creative, radical, dangerous, appalling idea. An idea that would preserve the original meaning of the crucifix.
That night, Little Theresa still couldn’t sleep, she was so excited about her idea. In the morning, she went and bought sandwich bags. Her landlady had sandwich bags that she could have used immediately, but it wouldn’t be right to take a single one. Little Theresa had to get her own. That night, while returning home, she followed the neighbor as he walked his three German Shepherds. When the neighbor failed to clean up the dog shit, Little Theresa was right behind him and sprang into action. She picked up the dog shit in a sandwich bag, herself.
To anyone who might have observed, this would’ve seemed like standard, saintly Little Theresa behavior. She cleaned up all the dog shit she could find and, in doing so, made the world into a better, more dog-shit-free place. She did that kind of thing every day, but it was what she did next that was so wonderful, creative, radical, dangerous, and appalling.
Everyone has to find their own way to connect to God in a way that works for them. Everyone starts off doing what everyone else does, what their parents do, what their youth leaders tell them to do. Some of that clicks, a lot of it doesn’t. The true saints among us are not satisfied with the standard ways if they don’t work; they’re always looking for something more authentic. In doing so, they take chances and may offend everyone else; but they hit upon forms never before tried that capture meaning in more vivid ways.
Little Theresa brought her bag of dog shit inside and placed it open on her dresser in front of the mirror and the Scotch taped pictures of her parents and older sister. The dog shit was dirty and disgusting. It stank up the whole room. It made her feel like puking. It was perfect.
She then took the gold crucifix down from the wall and stuck the end in the dog shit until it stood erect. She then smeared the shit all over it, till the gold-like substance was completely obscured. She even smeared the naked, tortured man till he was covered in shit. In doing this, she did not intend any disrespect. On the contrary, by doing this, she meant to acknowledge the tremendous sacrifice that dying on the cross involved. She had recaptured the original meaning of the cross, not by going back towards traditional forms, but by moving forward into new forms and expressions.
Little Theresa knew that her landlady would not understand. Neither would anyone else if they saw the gold crucifix smeared with and mounted in dog shit. The good thing was that no one, other than the landlady, ever came into Little Theresa’s room, so they would never know. The landlady would know, though, for she came into Little Theresa’s room to clean and to look around when Little Theresa was gone.
Little Theresa would have to clean up her display and air out her room every morning, before going to work, so as to not offend her landlady’s sensibilities. Every night, on her way home from work, for her own sensibilities, she would follow behind the neighbor to collect dog shit to put on her dresser. It was just another thing Kenilworth’s resident saint did that made her a saint. Another thing that made her so very alone, yet connected with the things that, in the end, to her, really mattered.
The Lisping Barista returns and the Geeky Guy saves the day
A lot happened the next day at the Epiphany Cafe. Not as much as before, when the Lisping Barista said yes to the Geeky Guy, but it was a close second in eventfulness. The Moodus noises made their rumblings early that morning, waking everyone up before they were ready. This meant a lot of business at the Epiphany Cafe, as people stopped for a jolt of caffeine. Everyone was in a bad mood when they arrived, what the people of Kenilworth called a Moodus mood; but as soon as they saw who was at the counter, they felt better.
The Lisping Barista had returned.
There was no fanfare when she had arrived early that morning; she simply passed the Waving Man and unlocked the door. She erased where the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had written Cowboy Coffee $2 and wrote in the cafe’s full range of fancy coffee concoctions. She threw out the stale cookies, the greenish pre-made sandwich wraps, and fired up the panini press. In no time at all, she was making express magic at the espresso machine, as if she had never left. She apparently hadn’t heard that she’d been fired.
It didn’t take long before word spread that the Lisping Barista was back. The telephone crew was the first in the door, and they told everyone else. The Connecticut River babbled on about it. The Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs wagged their tails off. The Moodus noises stopped their grumbling. Rabbi ! gave God His due. The Therapist Emeritus nodded, smiled her inscrutable smile, and said it was very interesting. Chai Latte was especially pleased, for not only could he now get a chai latte, but he was also back in business, selling a kilo in no time despite the fact that the Town Cop gave up his customary Dunkin’ Donuts run to see what the fuss at the cafe was about. The only thing missing was a big brass band.
The Lisping Barista took it all in stride, accustomed to a multitude of admirers. The espresso maker hissed, the foamer slurped, and the tip jar overflowed. The cafe soon settled into an eighty megahertz hum, conducive to the arrival of the muse. While she’d been gone, she acquired one new piercing and no new visible tattoos. Her hair, a blond girl’s version of dreadlocks, seemed especially gnarly. There was an angry, red scar on her wrist. She was the worse for wear, but that was still pretty good.
There were a few notable Kenilworth residents who hadn’t been in yet. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was the one who was supposed to open up, not the Lisping Barista, but he was missing in action. Someone said that he’d been at the Seven-Eleven, buying a case of beer before dawn. Little Theresa, having to clean up her nightly crucifixion display, was running late to work. She wouldn’t be giving away a cup of coffee until later. The Geeky Guy, who had been at the cafe all day, every day, since the Lisping Barista got fired, hoping to catch her picking up her check, was nowhere to be found. He had an appointment that couldn’t be missed. The Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker came to the door, but saw the Crazy Dog Lady was there with her dogs, so she turned away. The High Street Witch came to the door, too, but saw her brother, the Geeky guy, wasn’t there, so she turned away.
The Owner of the Epiphany Cafe was rarely there, anyway; but she did come in at noon. The Owner of the Epiphany Cafe had heard the Lisping Barista was working, as if owners had no say in the matter. Consequently, the Owner of the Epiphany Cafe came in and fired the Lisping Barista again.
In the time it took for the Owner of the Epiphany Cafe to form the words, You’re fired, everything changed. The telephone crew got disconnected. The Connecticut River all but stopped its flow. The Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs put their tails between their legs. The Therapist Emeritus had that look on her face when she disapproves but doesn’t want anyone to know. The Moodus noises swore out loud. Chai Latte swore out loud. Even Rabbi ! swore out loud, but it was in Hebrew, so no one understood. The Town Cop reached for his nightstick. If there had been a big brass band, it would’ve sounded like shit.
The Lisping Barista did not have her apron off before the Owner of the Epiphany Cafe realized that the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was missing in action and she had no one to run the shop. Not one to run the shop, herself, she declared the cafe closed.
“Everyone out,” she said. “We’re closed.”
At that moment, the grumbling of the Moodus noises could not have been heard over the grumbling of the patrons of the Epiphany Cafe. If the Connecticut River had flooded its banks, no one would’ve been surprised. The Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs wrinkled their noses. The Therapist Emeritus called it a setback. Rabbi ! compared it to the Babylonian Exile. The Lisping Barista asked for her check. The Owner of the Epiphany Cafe said she wasn’t paying her for the morning’s work because she’d been fired already. Everyone slapped their laptops closed, clicked the lock key on their phones, shut down their tablets, got their coffee in to-go cups, scarfed up the cookies that were going to be thrown out anyway, and started to pack up. The Town Cop thought it had been a lot simpler when he just went to Dunkin’Donuts. Chai Latte said that, if he had to leave, he was never coming back.
“I’m selling the place, anyway,” said the Owner of the Epiphany Cafe. “So I really don’t give a crap.”
As the patrons began to file out the door, they met with unexpected traffic, for the Geeky Guy’s appointment was over and he was just trying to come in. They told him it was closed. The Moodus noises said he was between a rock and a hard place. The Connecticut River told him to change his course. The Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs said, Look! squirrel! The Therapist Emeritus urged him to let go. Chai Latte said chill out. Rabbi ! said choose life. The Town Cop tapped his nightstick and said move along son, there’s nothing to see here.
“But you don’t understand,” said the Geeky Guy. “I own this place now. I bought it. I just came from the closing.”
It took a minute before it really sunk in. The Moodus noises paused. The Connecticut River froze. The Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs took a sniff and all the people said, practically in unison, “So, we don’t have to leave?”
“No,” said the Geeky Guy, “Why would I want you to leave? Stay. Drink coffee. Use the Wi-Fi. I own this place now.”
The Moodus noises gave a cheer, the Connecticut River, a wave. The Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs acted like they saw a cat. Rabbi !, as if the messiah had arrived. Chai Latte got a good high. The Therapist Emeritus declared a breakthrough. The Town Cop said the case was cracked. If there had been a big brass band, you wouldn’t have heard it.
“Tho,” said the Lisping Barista. “Are you hiring a barithta?
The Geeky Guy gets busy
It didn’t take very many words for the Geeky Guy, the new owner of the Epiphany Cafe, to hire the Lisping Barista. There was a bit about wages. The Lisping Barista could name her own. There was a bit about hours. The Lisping Barista could come and go as she pleased, so long that there was someone present and qualified to make coffee. And there was a bit about how the Geeky Guy wanted the Lisping Barista to manage the place, because, really, what did he know about running a cafe.
There was nothing about how the Geeky Guy loved her, felt protective of the Lisping Barista, and wanted to be with her always. There was nothing about how he bought the place just to save her job, so she would stay in town. There was nothing about how the Geeky Guy wanted to finish what they had started on that mattress at the concert before, somehow, the Lisping Barista’s attention had been distracted. There was nothing about castles and fair damsels and men who needed to save them. There was nothing about any of that because there was nothing written in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex about buying a cafe and hiring a girl you have a crush on. Therefore, they spoke briefly about wages, hours, and job title, and then the Lisping Barista went back to work. There was a lot of coffee to top off because everyone was staying and wanted to celebrate.
Something happened later, during a slight lull in orders, that the Geeky Guy would struggle to understand. The Lisping Barista was sweeping through the cafe to put away some dishes. The Geeky Guy was setting up the cafe’s new account books on an Excel spreadsheet. He understood Excel spreadsheets. As she passed by, she said to him a set of words that he would ponder for hours.
“It’th bithy today.”
At first he thought she was saying something, or someone, was bitchy; but then, after a few minutes of code breaking, he substituted S for the sound of Th and came up with a sentence that made some sense.
It’s busy today.
It, indeed, was busy today; but why did she say so?
You see, the Geeky Guy was a mathematically inclined individual who often had a lot of trouble understanding what people meant. He spoke English as well as anyone and could even comprehend the Lisping Barista’s lisp; but he found the interpretation of any given utterance to be baffling, mystifying, and variable. He knew there was so much he didn’t know; and he knew that, if the Lisping Barista was saying something, it must be important.
When she said, It’s busy today, she may have been just stating facts. She’d been a barista for a long time and knew busy days from slow ones. She wouldn’t even need to count up the register to tell which were the busy ones. He was new to the cafe business and might need to know that he should not expect to make as much every day as he would today. It would be important information to have, information that fell well within the duties of a manager to impart to a new owner.
Then again, even the Geeky Guy knew there was an emotive function to utterances. The Lisping Barista may not have been imparting information so much as she was expressing an emotion. The Geeky Guy heard that people, particularly women, often did that. As he thought, he identified several particular emotions she might have been expressing with that brief sentence. Wonder, relief, gratitude, fatigue, complaint, and anger all seemed likely candidates. The Geeky Guy would have to be a lot better at reading inflection, body language, and context to know just what she was expressing about her emotions, if she was expressing anything at all. He wasn’t normally quite this socially impaired, but he was in love.
He might have followed that line of inquiry further, but he was pulled up short by another thought. Language has a command function. Sometimes people, particularly less powerful people, employees, for instance, will embed a request or a mild imperative in a perfectly harmless, unassuming sentence. It’s busy today, may well mean, Help me, I can’t do this on my own, I’m just about at the end of my rope, or You’re not doing enough around here. It was that last possibility that disturbed the Geeky Guy. He was new to being the owner of a business that employed his girlfriend, so he wanted to get it right. He wished that if people wanted or needed something, they would just go ahead and say it because it was all he could do to sort it out.
The Geeky Guy might have concluded his thought right then and offered to help, but another notion crossed his mind. What did It in the sentence refer to? What was the It that was busy? The phrase, It is busy, might be written mathematically as, It = Busy. That might be something the Geeky Guy, being mathematically inclined, would understand, except he didn’t. It made no sense that It was the same as Busy, or that Busy was the same as It, which would necessarily follow. It and Busy seemed to be entirely different things, not interchangeable at all. This was the reason the Geeky Guy disliked words and preferred numbers.
The Geeky Guy knew that there were people who loved words and talking so much that they would speak even if there was nothing to say. This was known as small talk. It’s busy today, may have been an example of this small talk that people warned him of. The Geeky Guy had once been confused by small talk until a fellow engineer explained that it was the same as pinging. He understood pinging as a query a computer on a network will do to determine whether any other computer is connected to it. People will ping each other with this small talk just to determine whether there is someone out there and if the connection was still working.
The Geeky Guy liked the idea that the Lisping Barista might be pinging him because it meant that they were on the same network and it mattered to her that they maintained a connection. That made him feel good all over, except that he wished she would be programmed to just say ping when she wanted to ping. He would say ping right back. This way they would not confuse pinging with something important to say.
There was also the possibility that the Lisping Barista said, It’s busy today, for no reason at all, other than that she liked the sound of the words. In that case, it wouldn’t matter whether he heard it or not. It was only important that she heard it.
The Geeky Guy did not know enough about prosody to to use the terms, but I could tell him that, It’s busy today, was a spondee, followed by an anapest; two knocks preceding a swing. The sound of, It’s busy today, perfectly matched the sense of a barista getting slammed by orders, followed by a lull. Furthermore, the repetition of the S sound, or, as the Lisping Barista actually verbalized it, the Th sound, was consonance. The Th sound, was a reasonably good analog to the ambient noise of the cafe when busy. Then, there’s the assonance of the vowels in the words, It’s busy. Although the vowels in the two words are written differently, they sound similar to each other: uh; very much like the sound of someone struggling and grunting under a load.
So, you see, three small words from the Lisping Barista gave the Geeky Guy plenty to think about. That’s what love does. Whatever little you have, it multiplies.
The Lisping Barista starts a journal
There’s this therapist who always hangs out at the cafe. I ask her if I could start seeing her. She says no. She’s like, I’m seeing too many people already, I’m supposed to be retired. I’m like, what’s one more? But I see the way she looks at me. She thinks, just because I have tattoos, piercings, and dreads, I’m a freak.
That’s how the journal of the Lisping Barista began the day after the Geeky Guy bought the Epiphany Cafe. I witnessed her talking to the Therapist Emeritus and getting turned away. For no good reason, I thought. I would much rather overhear their sessions than have to hack into the Lisping Barista’s computer, provided she even kept her journal on her computer and not in a spiral notebook or fancy bound volume with home made paper. Furthermore, being an employee, the barista would know enough to use the cafe’s Wi-Fi and not the router I provided.
I made haste to the cafe’s device, set up in a never-locked storeroom by the john, and swiped a crucial wire. The next day, she brought her laptop and opened it up when it was slow. Spellbindingfishfry was her password. How predictable can these people be? I got it on the first try and went in to see what she was writing.
Anyway, so she says to keep a journal. She goes, look inside and write about how you really feel. OK, I will. Thanks for your help, bitch. There’s probably no difference between writing in a journal and talking to a shrink, anyway. I’ve seen her talk with people. She never has anything to say. She just sits and smiles and drinks tea. Sometime she knits. What a racket. I wish I could be paid for sitting on my ass instead of running around here all day long, listening to people whine that their cappuccino isn’t foamy enough, and shit like that.
I hate to keep harping on this point, but it’s true. I, S. Harry Zade, am not the only fictional character walking around here. You all are as fictional as me, including the way you say you really feel in a private journal. I can’t believe the Lisping Barista is nearly as bad ass and angry as she would like the imaginary reader of her journal to think. She’s got to be hurt that the Therapist Emeritus didn’t want to work with her, afraid that she’s beyond help, and ashamed of being in need. In trying to come across as tough, she’s compensating for feeling excluded.
What would I tell her, if she would listen? Only that I’m going crazy. Bat shit certified crazy. On second thought, I don’t need her to tell me. I already know. I just need someone to put me back together again. Find out where my mind keeps going off to and keep it connected to my body. I need a “find my mind” app set up, so it’ll beep when I lose it and am ready to find it again.
OK, that’s better. Now we’re starting to get down to it; but she is trying to be cute when there’s some serious stuff going on.
It happens every time I meet someone good and he treats me well. I don’t have any problem with the assholes and pricks I usually date. It’s the good guys that bring out the crazy in me. Every guy I’ve ever been with turns out to be an alcoholic, ex-con, and/or woman beater; but, hook me up with a nice guy, who cares about how I feel, and it’s like something in me checks out, goes away, and I have to do something radical to get me back.
The Lisping Barista looked up from her laptop when the door opened to see the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat come in, a day and a half late for his shift. She waited to see if he would come to the counter and order something or put on an apron and get to work. But, he had lost his mind, too; and knew this was the last place he’d seen it. He went straight to the Therapist Emeritus and interrupted her session with the Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat didn’t get any further with the Therapist Emeritus than the Lisping Barista did. She told him she was in session. Come back when she was done.
If the Lisping Barista had been feeling excluded, at least she wasn’t alone. She went on with her writing.
So, this guy likes me, I mean really likes me. He’s a super dweeb, but he really likes me and you know what they say about them; they become internet millionaires. So, I’m with him, we go hear the Fry, and everything is clicking, but then I check out. It’s like the monitor goes fuzzy and you can’t get a picture. Nothing. By the time I come to and go back to work, I lost my job. The geek swoops in and saves the day. Cavalry to the rescue. Real nice, but he’s not helping. I need him to be a dick. Like, how messed up is that!
The Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker said, no, go ahead, I’ve got places to go anyway. Actually, she had seen her nemesis, the Crazy Dog Lady, with her dogs, out of the corner of her eye, crossing the street, getting ready to come in.
The Lisping Barista might have been able to continue her journal and I might have been able to hear what the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had to say, but the Crazy Dog Lady came in before the Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker made the door. Two labs and a baying beagle, a stuck up dachshund and a hyperkinetic setter, a drooling Saint Bernard and one new, additional dog, a congenial Catahoula Cur changed everything. Everything else stopped. It stopped until the barista interrupted her writing, and whipped up seven lattes with no espresso. The dogs lapped them up and fought over what was left. Then the beagle bayed, the St Bernard drooled, the Labs chased their tails, and the dachshund found something wrong with everything. The Catahoula Cur put her front paws on the lap of the Therapist Emeritus , who was helping the Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker through a panic attack. The Cur gave her a big smooch. Did I say she was congenial? No one did any excluding, journalling, character creating, blowing off steam, head shrinking, dissociating, mind finding, computer hacking, or conversation overhearing then. It was as if, for the better part of an hour, the Epiphany Cafe lost its mind and didn’t know where to find it.
Rabbi ! almost brings about the apocalypse
No sooner had the Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs finished their lattes and left, than Rabbi ! rehearsed his sermon. We always get to hear, in advance, what he’s planning to say this coming Shabbat. When he rose to address the patrons of the Epiphany Cafe, we could see it was going to be a hell and damnation doozy.
At any given moment, G-d could get pissed off and destroy the whole world. He’d be justified, too. He’d just be doing whatever any good craftsman would do. He’d be getting rid of substandard product. A glassblower discards vessels that develop a crack. A good writer cuts bad sentences. A carpenter will scrap wood cut wrong and start over. If our beautiful barista was making one of her great coffee drinks, a low fat, caramel macchiato, and she found the milk was spoiled, she’d throw it out, right? She’d throw it out and start over. That’s what G-d would do, and He could do it at any moment.
Everyone nodded, for they knew their barista would never serve spoiled milk. The Lisping Barista, herself, who had been making a mocha, gave it a conscientious sniff.
Any time now, G-d could say screw it, it’s effed up beyond recognition. Sure it would be a tragedy for everyone to have their lives end so suddenly and the world just stop. All we’ve worked for and hoped for, gone in the blink of an eye. But He’d be right, the world’s screwed up and nothing can change it. It’s only going to get worse, so save it from its misery. Then, poof, gone. He wouldn’t do it by water this time; but look out for fire. We’d be out like a flash in the roaring of the flames.
Almost as if by cue, the Moodus noises gave out a groan. Accustomed as the people of Kenilworth were to the Moodus noises, they gave a start. That was just creepy, the serendipitous sound the earth made to accompany the rehearsal of Rabbi !’s sermon.
Even Rabbi ! was startled. He laughed, although he was stricken by fear. By talking about the destruction of the world, he didn’t mean to initiate it. He took note to dial it down when he gave the sermon on Shabbat. He didn’t want the world to end so soon. He had tickets to hear Matisyahu later in the month.
But not yet. Not yet because, as long as there are thirty-six righteous people alive, G-d will not destroy the world. He will still have hope that these thirty-six can redeem, repair, and reform the rest.
The Moodus noises stopped and Rabbi ! seemed very satisfied with himself, as if he were one of the thirty-six and had just then saved the world. We were satisfied, too; but wished he would stop talking and taking so many chances.
They are, what we call in Hebrew, Tzadikim Nistarim, the hidden righteous ones. No one knows who they are; but G-d knows. He can see who they are because he can ascertain a person’s heart. If anyone ever claims to be one of the Tzadikim Nistarim, don’t believe them, because, if someone were to claim to be one of the thirty-six, even to themselves, that is positive proof that they’re certainly not one. You could be one of the thirty-six and not know it. In fact, you wouldn’t know it. That’s why it’s so important to live righteously. We could all be depending on you. If you kill someone, you could be killing or one of the thirty-six. If you tempt someone to sin, you could be tempting one of the people whose goodness we are all depending on. By killing or tempting a single person, you could be destroying the whole world.
Rabbi ! went on and on. He was incapable of giving a short sermon; but many of us knew we had heard the main points. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat knew enough to be grieved by this talk of the end of the world and a person’s potential part in it. It may have had something to do with that secret he carried. He began his session with the Therapist Emeritus.
The Lisping Barista opened her laptop and began journaling again. The things she wrote explained everything.
The Lisping Barista saves the world
I get it now, and I didn’t even need to see that shrink. I know why I can’t have a good guy. I understand what’s wrong with me and what I have to do.
The Lisping Barista was positively pounding her keyboard with conviction. I’ve been hanging around the Epiphany Cafe for some time now and I’ve never seen anyone write like that, so quickly, with so much assurance, and so little backspacing or need to cut and delete.
So, this Rabbi at the cafe, a big windbag, starts going off about the end of the world. It’s the standard, get yourself right before the Lord, kind of sermon; but he has a twist. He says God could’ve wasted the world years ago, but, as long as there are as few as thirty-six good people, he’ll wait. There might be just thirty-six good people now and if one of them messes up and we go down to thirty-five, then zap, we’re gone.
So, I get to thinking, do I know any of the thirty-six? I know I’m not one of them, that’s for sure. There’s a whole lot of people I’m positive aren’t either. Funny how we don’t have to worry about bad people destroying the world, only the good ones.
The rabbi says if you were one of the thirty-six, you wouldn’t know it. So, that leaves the rabbi out, I guess. He’s all right, but, if he was one of them, being a rabbi, he’d know it. Besides, he often forgets to tip.
That therapist isn’t one of the thirty-six. She ruined her chance when she wouldn’t help me. The crazy lady with all the dogs can’t be one of them. She’s pretty good with dogs, but people aren’t her forte. The woman who hates dogs isn’t one of them, either. How can you be a good person and hate dogs? The dealer that gets me weed is out. I can’t even believe I’m considering him. There’s the guy that waves at cars outside; but all he ever does is wave. It’s not like he’s curing cancer or anything.
There’s that skinny chick that comes in every day and buys coffee for the next random customer. I’ll have to think about that. That thing she does seems pretty good, but it’s too obvious. It’s almost like she’s trying too hard. I think she’d like to be one of the thirty-six, but it ain’t happening because she wants it too much.
There’s that old professor type, who’s always listening in on conversations and doing something sketchy on his computer. There’s something just not right about him. I can’t put my finger on it. Not him, no.
I looked around to see if anyone was watching me. Old? Professorial? Sketchy? I’ve got to be more careful.
I thought about the dude with the cowboy hat. He seemed pretty good when he helped me that day when everyone was freaking out about the dogs. He’s cool. But then he doesn’t show up for his shift. And the dogs were in today and he just sits there. And look at him, now. He just looks guilty. No, can’t be him. Almost, but not quite.
The only one left I know is that geeky guy that took me to hear the Fry and then bought this place so I wouldn’t lose my job. What about him? What he did was good. Kinda creepy, but good. He gives me a raise. As soon as he bought the place, he rips out those crappy hand dryers in the bathrooms and puts in paper towels that really do dry your hands. That shows consideration. He changes the menu so that the drinks are called small, medium, and large, instead of large, giant, and ginormous. That takes honesty. Yeah, it’s him. He’s one of the thirty-six. He’s got to be.
You had to give it to the Lisping Barista. She had a point. I never liked those hand dryers, either.
This means I have an awesome responsibility. I have to protect the world from being destroyed. He wants to fuck me, I know he does. I also know that, if he did, it would be the biggest mistake of his life. He wouldn’t be good any more. It’s a good thing I didn’t fuck him when I had the chance. As soon as he got it in, it would have been all over. God would’ve been pissed. Zap. Finished. There wouldn’t even be a scorch mark on the mattress, there wouldn’t even be a mattress.
Even if the rabbi has got that thirty-six thing all wrong, it’s still not a good idea. Even if there is no God, or if there is one and He doesn’t give a shit, I’m not a good idea. I’m just too messed up for the likes of a guy like that. I’d do better with a douche bag or a prick. One of those alcoholics, drug addicts, and women haters I’ve already been with. I can’t screw them up.
Let’s just say the geeky guy gets his way and we get married or something and live in a house with a white picket fence. It’ll just be a matter of time before my crazy makes him crazy. Then his crazy makes me even crazier, which makes him crazier, still. I’ve seen it happen and it ain’t pretty. I’m better off keeping my distance. We’re all better off. You can thank me for saving the world. You’re welcome.
The Lisping Barista decisively slammed her laptop shut. She was finished. The Geeky Guy was finished. But the world would go on forever.
The Therapist Emeritus uses her favorite intervention to help the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat
If the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was ever going to disclose his secret, he wasn’t going to do it now. Both he and the Therapist Emeritus had other ideas.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat told her about his visit to Kenilworth’s ancient burial ground and some of his interaction with one of the town’s forefathers. Having ghosts accosting him was the kind of thing he had to deal with all the time, just the thing he was trying to stop. He blamed her for it. If you want to get rid of ghosts, you have to go looking for them, she said. Well, it didn’t work. What else did she have? There had to be another way.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was careful in his account of the interaction with the Reverend Abraham Pierson to avoid any mention of a secret sin he possessed. He thoroughly avoided the solution to his problem that the good preacher suggested. All he needed to shake off the ghosts who wouldn’t leave him alone would be to do what the ghost suggested; but that was too simple, I guess. Too simple and too hard.
For her part, the Therapist Emeritus didn’t pick up on the fact that the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat failed to tell her what the ghost said. This should have been an obvious omission. She was a better therapist emeritus than that. She could have been having an off day. She may have been blinded by the limits of her imagination.
The Therapist Emeritus knew who the Reverend Abraham Pierson was; a Kenilworth elementary school was named after him, as was a curvy, suburban street. There was a statue of him on the green. No proud resident of the town would ever fail to claim that Yale University held its first classes within its borders and the Reverend Pierson was the first instructor. Yes, the Therapist Emeritus knew who the Reverend Abraham Pierson was, she just couldn’t believe the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat spoke to him. You see, the Therapist Emeritus didn’t believe in ghosts and, if you don’t believe in ghosts, then it doesn’t matter what they say.
So, what did the Therapist Emeritus do? What method of getting rid of ghosts did she recommend? Did she prescribe medication? No, she didn’t have a license to prescribe medication. Did she teach her client the difference between a projection and an introjection, repression and depression, fixation and sublimation? Did she deliver a well-timed psychodynamic interpretation? Not this time, she didn’t. Did she use all the skills she’d learned in workshops she had attended on NLP, CBT, EFT, DBT, ACT, or EMDR? Did she Rational Emotive his ass? No, she did the best thing a therapist emeritus can do in the circumstance, an intervention so well crafted, so exquisitely honed over years of experience that it should be patented, bottled, and sold; monetized in the open market.
She suggested he ask someone out on a date.
He needed a distraction, she said. Have fun, get to know someone, maybe get laid. No, the Therapist Emeritus did not tell the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat to get laid, but she might as well have. He was a man, after all; and, for a man, getting laid is the answer to everything.
“Who would go out with me?” said the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
“You never know until you ask.”
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat looked around the cafe and went right up to the Lisping Barista.
She said yes.
The Lisping Barista and the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat visit Gillette’s Castle
I couldn’t wait until the Epiphany Cafe opened the next morning, so I could hack into the Lisping Barista’s laptop and find out what happened on her date with the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. I had no prurient interest. I was not looking to be tantalized by accounts of sex. It’s just one of the many things I do for you, dear reader, because you might have prurient interest and a taste for sexual tantalization.
The Lisping Barista was late. All the early morning coffee drinkers were lined up by the door by the time she got there, looking as though she had been up all night. The odds of being tantalized seemed pretty high; but, by the time she had opened up and filled the backlog of orders, it was mid-morning before she could get down to any writing.
That dude with the cowboy hat asked me out yesterday. We’re both new here and didn’t know what there was to do in town, so we asked around. Go to Gillette’s Castle everyone said. It’s so romantic. Some rich guy built a castle on a hill by the river. He died, so now it’s a state park. Pretty cool, I guess.
Indeed, Gillette’s Castle is the Kenilworth area’s major tourist destination. The castle overlooks the Connecticut River, high on a hill. You’d think you’re in Europe. It’s the perfect place to take a date. It’s got everything: scenery, historical interest, picturesque architecture, private nooks, and forested bolder-bestrewed grounds in which to do some serious necking. It was built by the actor, William Gillette, famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
Anyway, so we take the ferry and walk around this castle and talk. He’s good looking and he has that cowboy thing going on. I guess he’s an actual cowboy, not just a guy with a hat. He’s been out west and seen places I never even saw when I was following the tour. He’d never heard of the Spellbinding Fish Fry, so I tell him all about them. He samples a few tracks from my iPod and seems to like them. He’s into listening, both to me and to the music.
Actually, he’s a perfect gentleman, holding doors open for me and stuff like that. The castle was beautiful and all the trees and the river, good to look at, but I think, something’s not right. Things are too perfect. Nothing is supposed to be perfect this way, except maybe music.
Perfect things make me nervous. Like when you’re visiting your grandmother when you’re a kid and it’s not childproof. There’s a glass coffee table, a white carpet, lots and lots of things to break, and nothing to do but listen to the grownups talk. You know there’s going to be trouble and you’ll be the one that’ll be blamed. If it was me in that situation, I’d just go ahead and break the coffee table with some valuable figurine just to be done with it. When you’re a kid, there’s no sense in being bored out of your mind and careful for, like, hours, only to break something at the end. Just get it done with and be out of your misery.
Anyway, so we’re walking around this castle, talking about the Fry. We get in this tour group and this guide shows us around the place. It’s like the opposite of my grandmother’s living room. Nothing is delicate. It’s all rocks, antlers, and velvet cushions. The tour guide is rattling on about how many stones were used in the building of the castle, how much the windows cost; you know, stuff no one cares about, and everyone is listening politely. I get to thinking, I hope the cowboy dude doesn’t think I’m a lady. If he thinks that, he’s going to be disappointed when he finds out otherwise.
A picture of the Gillette guy who built the castle is hanging on the wall. I stop to look like I’m studying it and let the tour group move on. Cowboy dude stops with me and looks at the picture, too, like he’s really interested. I suppose he thinks I’m interested, so he has to be. I’m not, though. As soon as he gets in reach I hook my arm around his neck, pull him close, and duel a bit with his tongue. I follow that up with cupping his ass and moving my fingers down his butt crack to where the balls hang.
I think he got the idea I wasn’t a lady.
I don’t want to make this sound like I wasn’t into it. I love fooling around and sex is the second best thing to do, after the Fry. I did it out of principle. I don’t like being put into a corner and expected to act in a certain way. I like to be free, unpredictable, and a little crazy. I like to keep my options open.
He didn’t seem to mind.
We do some more kissing and cupping and exploring fingers down cracks until the tour group loops around and some prissy crone with her grandkids lets out a gasp. The tour guide stops talking about windows and rocks and tells us to take it outside. The cowboy dude already has his hands on my breasts by then and I’m not pushing them away. He grabs my hand and we run outside, straight into the woods, and find a cave like we know where we’re going.
Woods cover the entire state of Connecticut and caves abound in the area near Kenilworth. You can hold hands, go in any direction, and run into the woods and find a cave.
Anyway, so, one thing leads to another. We’re in a cave. He has my shirt off and I have his pants off, then he goes for my pants and I’m after his shirt. We get to the point where there’s nothing more to take off, except his hat. Apparently, he never takes off his hat. This is about the time when my madness sets in for me. You see, I started jumping his bones because I didn’t want to be typecast, in this case, into a lady. I want to be free. But, once I jump his bones and get something started, I find I’m getting typecast into something else. A slut. I don’t want to be a slut any more than I want to be a lady. I want to be a slut as much as I want to be a lady. I actually want to be both, sometimes at the same time, or at least to be free to go from one to the other.
This is where I don’t know what to do because, if I try to stop things now, bad things happen. It’s like stopping a runaway train. You get run over. This is when I check out and go fuzzy.
I know, I’m a flakey, cock-teasing bitch. A real piece of work. That’s what I’ve been told.
Anyway, so, at this moment, I’m on my back with my head towards the entrance of the cave and he’s on his knees facing it. He’s ready and about to put it in. I’m all divided inside and getting ready to just let my mind leave so it doesn’t have to deal with what’s about to happen. My cunt can deal with it, but my mind has to avert its eyes.
He’s the kind of guy who can’t look at me when he fucks me, so he looks up through the entrance to the cave. He thinks he’s going to just see leaves and trees and maybe the river. He’s going to dream he’s fucking a supermodel while he’s fucking me. I’m going to go off to never-never land while I’m getting fucked. It’s going to be so fucking awesome for both of us.
Anyway, so, he’s about to stick it in and he looks up. He sees something that makes him go soft in an instant. I don’t know how they do it. It’s a mystery to me how they can get so hard so fast and so soft just as fast over just a little thing. At the same time that he goes soft, he starts yelling. Here I am, getting ready to be fucked and drifting off into wherever it is I go and he starts screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Go away. Can’t you guys ever leave me alone!”
I turn around and look. I don’t see anyone, but I figure they went away when he started screaming. I also figure he knows them. I ask him who it is.
Yeah, that’s right. The guy in the picture we pretended to be looking at when we started messing around. The dead actor guy who built the castle.
And I thought I was crazy.
The Waving Man gets picked up and a Nigerian Prince gets coffee
While the Lisping Barista was writing her account of aborted sex in a cave, another marvelous wonder occurred just outside the door of the Epiphany Cafe. A second one, unconnected, would soon follow. Some, with seats by the window, witnessed the first. They scarcely believed what they saw. They tried to tell the rest of us about it, but we scarcely believed them.
“Someone picked up the Waving Man!” they said.
You remember the Waving Man, dear reader. He was the guy who stood just outside the door of the Epiphany Cafe, day and night, waving at cars. He never said a word to anyone, even when they asked him a direct question. He never came in. Little Theresa used to try to buy him coffee, but he never would take it.
At first we thought he’d been abducted. He was too friendly, some said. It was bound to happen sooner or later.
“No, no, it wasn’t like that,” they said. “He knew them. They got out of the car and went up to give him a hug. They started talking. Then he got in the car and went away.”
You mean the other people started talking, we said. The Waving Man never talks. He just waves.
“No, no, he talked! I saw him talking a mile a minute.”
Did he continue to wave at other cars while he was talking to the people in that one? We’ve never seen him miss a car.
“No, no, they were talking for a good five minutes before they left, then I could see him still talking when they drove away.”
Get out, we said.
“No, no, it’s true. We saw it with our own eyes. The Waving Man talks. He talks! And it looks like, all this time, he was waiting for someone.”
We agreed it was an astounding development, if true. The Waving Man. Who would’ve known?
As marvelous as that wonder was, the second was equally extraordinary.
A real, live Nigerian Prince walked in through the door.
We could tell he was a Nigerian Prince by the way he was dressed. He was dressed like they do in Nigeria. He had one of those hats they wear with no brims, one of those tunics they wear, with things embroidered. He had an accent like they have in Africa. He introduced himself as Prince Somethingorother. He didn’t pronounce it Somethingorother. He pronounced it they way they pronounce it in Nigeria, a way we can’t pronounce, proving he had to be genuine.
The Nigeria Prince Somethingorother ordered a cup of coffee; appropriately an African Arabica. He was a friendly chap and took his coffee from table to table to introduce himself. Many of us were skeptical that he was real, until we heard what he had to say. Once he spoke up, then we had no doubt he was authentic.
He asked everyone for money to return to Nigeria.
He had been in exile for years, forced to flee because of political trouble in his country. Things have changed there, though. Very much improved. It is promising. He can now return to his home and claim his title and property. He is very wealthy there, but he has no money in this country to pay his airfare. If you could only be willing to help a little bit, then he could return to his country. He will write down your name and address and send you back the money, with plenty of interest. He can afford to be generous because he is very, very rich.
So, you see, he had to be the real deal.
Almost everyone gave a little bit, if only because we admired his hustle. We liked the way he had it all down, right to the smallest detail. He was the complete Nigerian prince. He told us everything we expected to hear. You’ve got your ordinary, everyday hustles; but this prince was the king of hustlers.
You know the drug dealer hustle. Chai Latte had it pretty well. There’s the barista hustle. The Lisping Barista, with her piercings played it good. There’s the cowboy hustle, personified by the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. The saintly hustle of Little Theresa, the geeky guy hustle of the Geeky Guy, and the scholarly hustle of Rabbi ! are all well known and accepted. The Therapist Emeritus has her therapist hustle. Therapy is nothing but a hustle, anyway. The Dog Fearing iPhone Pecker has a hustle, too. She hustles out the door when the dogs come along. The Crazy Dog Lady has the Crazy Cat Lady hustle, only she does it with dogs. The dogs have their hustle, too, even if they don’t know it. All they have to do is act like dogs and they get their food dishes refilled. Hustles abound. They’re cheap, they’re easy. They make life simpler than it has a right to be.
The beauty of a hustle is that, if you play the role you already know how to act and people already know what to do with you, then, you’re understandable, rational, and predictable. There have already been paths made to take you where you want to go. There are already people there to meet you. They’ll say that you’re good at whatever it is you do because you look like someone who ought to be good at it. If you look and act the part, they’ll overlook your actual performance.
We thought the Waving Man had been doing the waving man hustle. We thought we knew him: an addled man, friendly to all. Little did we know he was actually waiting for someone and someone actually wanted to see him.
By the way, there’s also the lady hustle and the slutty girl hustle. That’s what the Lisping Barista was trying to avoid. Both of them. Like trying to keep your wheels out of the ruts in a muddy, dirt road.