BY ZACHARY JENSEN
I. The Café Owner
I think it would be best if we kept these things to ourselves
When one is dirty, there is usually a desire to become clean – to wash away the layers and coatings of one’s actions and begin anew. The ritual of it all can be rather soothing. Necessary. The turning of the right faucet valve to let the water flow, the turning of the left faucet valve to introduce the heat, waiting patiently for a time until the water has had a moment to warm up, the placing of the tips of one hand up to the water to check that the temperature is just right, withdrawing the hand because it is not, then after another moment cautiously enveloping the hands fully into the water and letting the stream flow over them for a moment, the feeling of the water as it attempts to pass through the hands in a wild cascade of futility, grabbing the bar of soap and rubbing it briskly against the hands, followed by rinsing the hands, sometimes repeating the last two steps once or twice until satisfied, and lastly, grabbing a towel from the shelf, drying the hands with said towel, feeling the coarseness of the worn fabric against the skin as it absorbs the water, hanging the towel on a hook to let it dry for a few more uses, finally with the knowledge that it would just be a waste, throwing it in a basket with the other towels. His hands were dirty in this moment and he needed them to feel clean.
The sink looked like it had seen better days. The receptacle that was meant for cleaning hands, or faces, or sometimes in a rush (and he was always in a rush) bodies, was reduced to a sorry state. There was a blue glob of what was probably toothpaste sticking in one of the rounded corners. Large soap streaks lined the area underneath the faucet. Hair was coiled and sticking out of the trap. And if one looked closely you could almost see the pearl white texture of the porcelain that has long since been permanently stained. If that wasn’t enough, lackluster pink tiles – the results of a remodel in the sixties – with grout that has shifted from a white to permanent gray surround it, leaving plenty to be desired.
Nonetheless, he needed to wash his hands. So he did.
He did so with a vigor and frustration that dwelled quite deeply in his soul. He wanted so desperately to wash away all the faults and misunderstandings that came from his ignorance as a man. His indelicate way of misunderstanding the feelings of others, coated him so completely that the layer could not be washed off in a single scrubbing. It would take multiple washes. It would take multiple attempts. But he felt that if he washed frequently enough he could, in at least a small way, become clean. He had to become clean. If he did not succeed in this then he would surely never be able to be happy with himself. And if he could not become happy with himself, how could he be happy with another?
He looked at the mirror and sighed. It was not a sigh of resignation, but something similarly rooted in the certainty of failure. He held a gaze with the face looking back at him for as long as it took to place himself in the world. Any world. Some days it took but an instance to orientate, to know exactly where one was, others far more. Today was somewhere in-between. The face was unrecognizable at first. The hollowness of the eyes was foreign to him. For as much as he stared at himself every morning, he never really paid attention to his eyes. The eyes that held marbled irises were now a dull gray with the passage of time. They were collapsing under the weight of all they have witnessed. All that was done. The cheeks, like tiny hillsides, were succumbing to the burden of supporting the orbs above and were now concave. The rest of his face did not fare well either. It had been a while since he had shaved; leaving patchy stubble that created an extra layer of gruffness. He still had all the hair on his head, though he always left it unmanaged. His nose was slightly crooked from being broken in a fight. No one really noticed this fact, but he did. It was what anchored him in the mirror each and every time. For all his unremarkable features, he still had the occasional woman look his way as they passed through town.
You can look at something every day and never really see it for what it is.
It was time to prepare the café for the day, the final ceremony to the disquiet of solitude. To loneliness whose weight leaves a light depression on any surface that is unfortunate enough to feel its touch.
When contact is at a premium it is easier to accept what is given without questioning the cost. Without question he was short on time. Whatever remained of the town would be trickling in shortly expecting coffee, breakfast, conversation, silence, or most likely spirits. He had to begin now. He hated it when he found someone waiting outside for him to open. It wasn’t the making people wait that bothered him. It was the fact that they watched him from outside and waited impatiently for him to prepare the café that got on his nerves. On days that it happened he would get the urge to close the blinds and tell the customer to get lost – he never did, though it did make him work slower and angrier than usual.
The last time it happened – about a month ago – he entered the café to find Tómas standing outside on the porch looking in expectantly. It was an unnervingly cold morning. The kind where one could see their breath become a warm mist that almost froze in the air. Perhaps Tómas just wanted to come inside so he could get warm, but that is not how it came off. Without setting up, save for starting the coffee, he let Tómas in. He got so frustrated at the situation that he snapped at Tómas for taking too long. I don’t have all day! He yelled with an intensity that most people have not seen before. Not here at least. After taking the order, he stomped over to the coffeemaker to pour a cup, burning himself in the process. He smashed the mug on the floor causing the porcelain to create a starburst of shrapnel that flew through the air. In the cleanup his thumb was cut open leaving what is now a scar. Knowing what was good for him, Tómas made a quick retreat. No one has shown up early since.
He knew today would be no different.
He left the bathroom in his living quarters at the back of the building then sat down on his bed for a moment. The springs in the mattress had become curved and distorted. He liked to imagine that they were attempting to embrace one another lovingly. As they desperately tried to reach a partner it became clear that the distance was far too great and any further attempt would cause them to unravel. Or snap. Instead of risking it all they opted to play it safe and give up. In the end, they would just lie down resolutely, and sleep in the same position that he did – on their side. Alone. The truth was the mattress was far older than he’d care to admit and there were no means to acquire a replacement. It was still better than sleeping on the floor.
He picked up a pair of pants from a twisted pile of clothes on the floor. For reasons he could not recall, one leg was inside out – half in, half out. Split between two worlds. The fabric felt gentle and worn in. He grabbed a random shirt that was lying upon the desk opposite the bed and put it on. They felt like what he imagined home was supposed to feel like right before you burn it to the ground – Comforting and safe, although a place one knew they couldn’t rely on for long. Like the arms of a lover you are unable to be with anymore. Because of time, or space, or love, or some other specter that causes a shift. It feels right in the moment, but you know it won’t stay that way for long. He slipped on some shoes and made his way to the café up front.
Entering the room he gave a half-hearted glance at the floor – did he need to sweep yet? Most objects, whose size was of the inconsequential variety, would fall right through the cracks at some point. Everything fell through the cracks at some point. It was inevitable. He opted against it and just kicked a few things around.
It’s the absence of a thing people usually notice – not the thing itself.
The café was a continuous work in progress. When he first came upon the building, it was not the least dilapidated, but it had the most potential in his eyes. By cannibalizing things he found lying around the town he was able to construct a building that fulfilled the purposes of living and working. No matter what work was done though, a perpetual state of disrepair seemed to overtake the building. Meaning that he constantly had to fix something. A barstool, the stove, a table whose legs gave out while a customer was dining, and most recently the jukebox that he had found one day on the other side of the small still watered sea he lived adjacent to. Even though it only took a quarter of a day to walk all the way to the other side not many people went there anymore, though excursions could prove very fruitful at times.
He turned on the antique jukebox, set it to random play and walked off. Outwardly, like his life, the thing looked to be held together with little more than desperation. As much as it was meant to fall apart, to cease all function, it had a will – no a need – to go on. And it did go on because for all its outward ugliness, its insides were not beyond an occasional tightening of a bolt, or shifting of a gear, and off it would go.
The selecting arm of the machine struggled for a moment, regained its bearings, then selected a 45, picked up the 45, placed it through the center spindle onto the platter, began to slowly spin, raised the needle arm, placed the needle onto the spinning black disc, and finally began to let the music fill the spaces in the room. The crackling from the speakers became the overlay for all that was struggling to live. Not quite perfect, but good enough.
Before unlocking the doors, there was one last thing he had to do. He pulled out a dusty bottle of scotch (the one that was not watered down) from under the counter, saved for the especially difficult days – though they have all been especially difficult for quite a while now. With a glass in hand he poured two fingers of the golden liquid in a cascade that caused tiny bubbles to rise to the top. He waited for the seas to settle before taking it all in one large gulp. In ceremony. The burn of the scotch as it slowly went down was a reminder that he was alive. That he could feel something. Time to open the doors. Time to face the day.
Zachary Jensen is a writer, journalist, and educator from Los Angeles, CA. He currently teaches English at Cal State University Northridge. His work has recently appeared in LA Record, Cultural Weekly, Entropy, and Palometa. He is the Managing Editor of Angel City Review and the Editor of the Animals chapbook series at Business Bear Press.