More from the Vaults: “Cafe Tales” (not horror)

It’s a comic, postmodern take on the noir detective tradition, so its genre and age (written ~1997, but I like it as a period piece) will keep it out of my upcoming collection Leaping at Thorns. But maybe, if you’re looking for a break, you might enjoy. And more than most of my other fiction, it’s really about the movies.

CafeImageTo be clear, I invented the fictional The Smokey Cafe of this story many years before discovering my favorite cafe in Louisville, Smokey’s Bean. The Smokey referred to in the real place-name is a delightful canine.

I did try writing a couple of follow-up stories. They sucked.

Café Tales # 1: The Sugar Schism

L. Andrew Cooper

Having decided to become a detective, I needed a setting. A coffee shop about two blocks from where I lived, The Smokey Cafe, seemed perfect. My friend Nancy disagreed. “Ricky,” she said,” full name, Ricky Rocket, “you should really start looking for places to go other than that damned café. I mean, I know it’s trés chic in the 90’s to bum around in cafés instead of bars, but variety, Ricky, originality.”

“But,” I said, “Nancy, why do you think we’re spending so much time in places like that these days, eh? It seems to me like these places are the heart of mystery, and mystery’s heart, my dear, can never be fully explored.” With that I grabbed my umbrella (it wasn’t raining, but I am a detective), and I headed out the door.

The Smokey Café’s convenient location made getting there easy. I walked along the brick sidewalks of the city, never once regretting my lack of an automobile, and soon the neon sign was in sight. At one point a pink neon coffee cup with neon-white wires of steam rising from the top appeared upright, inviting, and then it blinked off at the same moment another version of the pink cup, this time tilted downward about forty-five degrees, appeared slightly to the right, and then that blinked off and was replaced, still further to the right, by a neon man’s wire-haired profile looking very pleased to have the cup tipping toward his lips. Above all these flashes were the green neon wires that spelled out, “The Smokey Cafe: Always Open.” The sign was a lie, because I had come here last Christmas Eve to see if they were serving egg nog and had been greeted by doors locked without explanation. The experience did not leave me embittered. I was just happy they were open the next afternoon like always. I never got an explanation. Smokey herself might not even know.

Another characteristic of Smokey’s that made it rare and mysterious was that it actually had—yes!—a parking lot strategically placed between its expansive windows and the street. I have never seen an open spot in this parking lot. I often wonder how the café got the lot in the first place—none of the other stores around here have them; I believe a city ordinance prevents businesses from providing customers with places to park cars. Smokey maneuvered around such forces. How she did what she did mattered little to me. Hers was not my mystery, at least not yet. I crossed the congested asphalt and opened the glass front door, nodding approval at the Thank You for Not Smoking message that was emblazoned on the Smokey-branded glass.

Stepping past the paradoxical prohibition, I prepared to get my nightly dose of caffeine. I walked to the counter and surveyed the crowd. Everyone was too subtle. A man and a woman occupied one of Smokey’s two booths, having what appeared to be polite conversation. The round tables scattered around the floor were mostly empty, but two men sat at the most central table and two women, their foils, sat at one of the smaller tables next to the big front window.

My table, two down from the women’s and against the same window, was unoccupied. I nodded approval as I took it. Other loners sat here and there, but they weren’t suspicious-looking. People with people are people who need alibis. Loneliness has nothing to hide.

I dropped a dollar bill on the counter and grabbed one of the medium-sized coated paper cups. Filling it with steamy French Roast, I savored the peculiar atmosphere that gripped the place. It bore streaks of betrayal, speckled with fear. I poured in a dab of Irish Cream and meandered to my table, eyeing the couples engaged in all-too-normal-sounding conversations. Setting my umbrella on the seat opposite mine, I reached for the sugar shaker. Smokey’s, unlike its café brethren, still provides a sugar dispenser on every table. The shaker felt not like a thing of mystery in my hand, but natural, and, when the sugar stopped flowing into my cup, I thought nothing awry, other than that I would soon face an uncooperative white crystal clump. Indeed, the problem seemed nothing more than an ordinary blockage. I started to unscrew the metal top so I could break up the clump. Something was amiss: the clump blocking the square hole’s lid was too solid, and part of it glinted.

I pinched the clump between two fingers and lifted it from the sugar to give it careful consideration. As I brought it to my face, the sugar crumbled, and soon all that remained in my fingers was—an earring! It was small, a stud, and the jewel it held was a relaxed, deep shade of green. The earring was not a hidden treasure of the conventional sort. It was supposed to look like genuine jade, but its texture combined with its reflections of the ceiling lights to reveal that it was genuine plastic. But who would have put this lone earring in a sugar shaker? With what motive could someone do such a thing? The figure-eight-shaped back of the earring was still attached, so it couldn’t have fallen out when someone else had opened the shaker to break up clumps. Why?

My intense ruminations came to a sudden halt when I heard a voice from across the room bark, “I’ve had enough, you son of a bitch!” I looked up just in time to see the woman who had been sitting with the man in the booth stand and splash a cup of coffee in the man’s face. The man let out a little scream of surprise.

Cramming the earring in my shirt pocket, I stood to intervene as the woman stormed from the shop. Another loner also stood, and I stayed motionless as he started to follow the woman out. When he passed me he said, “Don’t worry. I’ve been watching. She hadn’t refilled her cup for almost thirty minutes. It wasn’t hot.” With that, the watcher and the watched vanished. Realizing that someone else was on the case, I sat down to ponder my own mystery.

My mind held no doubt that the earring had been placed here deliberately. But by whom, and why would someone want to hide a single, worthless earring? Ah, but wait, don’t assume that it’s worthless. Money is only one way to define value. I nodded in approval. This earring was worth something to someone. A scenario presented itself. A boy, fifteen years old, wandered into the restaurant next door. He felt underdressed, but when no one stopped him from going in, he felt free to wander among the tables. He walked through the aisles of women on their lunch hours and men meeting friends to gab over hot tea and appetizers. Not knowing what he sought, he searched.

The boy was average. He did all right in school and stayed out of trouble. Perhaps he stayed out of trouble too much. The other kids had wild stories about sex, drugs, shoplifting and never getting caught. The boy—Brad—didn’t know which scared him more, sex or drugs. Sure, the shoplifting seemed scary, too, evil theft, yet it seemed like it might be the evil of which he was capable. He knew he couldn’t shoplift in a restaurant, but he had just come from a drugstore down the street, and the strategically placed mirrors in the store’s corners had made him put the plastic-wrapped Penthouse back on the shelf. For some reason Brad had come to this restaurant, and he was looking for something, something he could just grab. He thought about stealing one of the ashtrays from the bar, but they lacked appeal. Smoking was another one of those things his friends… his peers… did that he couldn’t bring himself to try. So he sat at the bar to think. The man behind the bar said, “Hiya, kid. Can I getcha somethin?” Brad thought for a moment and ordered a Coke.

Sipping his Coke, Brad looked around the restaurant. After scrutinizing couple after couple (everyone was coupled), his interest finally landed on an older couple sitting close to one of the exits. They were getting ready to leave. The old lady was wearing a rabbit fur coat, her hair the frosty blue-grey deemed dignified rather than old, and her face, plugged and painted, was smooth. The man with her, who Brad assumed was her husband, was, by contrast, rough. Bald on top, his head’s sides sprouted dull wires. Yellow patches spotted his wrinkled greenish skin. He looked sad and eternal; she, superior and gentle. She whispered to him, laughed, caressed his hand, pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from her purse, hung the purse on her shoulder, stood, and went out the door. The old man signed the bill, put his American Express back in his wallet, pocketed the wallet, and walked toward the bathrooms.

Brad could see something left on the table other than the check. Two somethings. He finished his Coke, slid off his stool, and practically tip-toed to the table. He found the small green earrings, and judging from the old lady’s costume, they were worth something. Without thinking, Brad swept the earrings from the table and into his hand. Palming them, he sped for the door. By the time he reached the sidewalk, his heart thumped so hard against his eardrums that he had to sit. He hurried a few paces and looked to his right—

to the flashing neon coffee cup and its Smokey invitation. It would be as good a place to stop as any, so he went inside. He flopped into a chair at a table next to the big window that overlooked the parking lot. Pictures of the old man and woman flashed relentlessly through his mind. He imagined the old man coming back from the bathroom and going to the car to meet his wife. They wouldn’t notice anything missing until they got home. Then there would be hell to pay. Still, she looked like she had a lot of money, so would she really miss them? Brad imagined not. Feeling better about himself, Brad pried his fingers apart to look at his prize. His fist had been clenched tight; the earrings had made deep dents in the center of his palm.

The restaurant had been dark, and there the earrings looked worth a small fortune. Here, in the full light of the café’s window, Brad saw them as cheap. The fur coat must have been a fake, too. Underneath the make-up and hair-dye the old woman was as withered as the old man. Brad had stolen her cheap costume jewelry, part of her desperate disguise. Hello again, guilt! They’d be long gone by now—what could Brad do about it? He couldn’t give the earrings to the bartender. If he had found them by accident, he would have turned them in before leaving the restaurant. The feeling of guilt and the impossibility of repentance combined with a shallow feeling of triumph: he had actually done something crazy! But the satisfaction felt limited. Brad couldn’t keep the earrings. He looked for a place to ditch them and saw the sugar. With a shaking hand he unscrewed the metal top and dropped them in. Then, like an itch, the shallowness of triumph urged him to keep the earrings as a trophy. They wouldn’t do any good for anyone in the sugar dispenser. At least they could be a prize for him. Yet keeping the earrings seemed like branding himself as a sort of traitor. In the end he compromised—he snatched one of the earrings out of the sugar and left the other there, taking half a trophy and leaving half an offering for forgiveness.

The scenario seemed credible, but one aspect of the solution nagged me. Why would the woman have taken the earrings off in the first place? Sometimes people take off big dangly earrings when they become uncomfortable, but with the little ones people more often forget they’re there. This one weak link made my whole theory fall apart. As a detective, I had to be more meticulous in my reconstructions of crime. So I challenged my intellect to go further, to find out what had really happened to make that lone earring end up in the sugar shaker. I looked around the cafe, at the two pairs who remained, and thought back to the couple that had left so dramatically. Single people—men, mostly—come here to think in quiet, to sip coffee and enjoy solitude. Couples come here to talk, either to get to know each other better or to work out problems. My logic seized this fact and ran with it. As their display indicated, the couple that had just left had come to work out problems, and they had failed. Such failures might not be all that uncommon. In fact, Smokey had even said that she had once had to replace the front door because some guy had run away from an argument and slammed the door so hard that the glass had cracked. Maybe the lone earring in the sugar shaker was the product of a similar tiff. A man and a woman might have sat at this table, discussing whether they should end it. “Kathy,” the man said, “I really think I’m in love with you. I don’t know how to tell for sure,” and he laughed, “but I know I’ve never felt like this before. I don’t want to lose you. I’d do anything.”

“Oh, come off it, Troy!” Kathy spat. “Did you hear that today on TV? Or did you read it somewhere? I really don’t think you would recognize a true emotion if it bit you. I mean, what do you think a relationship is supposed to be? It’s certainly not this. Troy, you’re a sweet man, and I know you mean well, but this is not what I want. These,” she said, removing the earrings, “and the carnations, and cards, and the discounted candies—I know you don’t have money, so why do you give me things all the time? Do I really seem that shallow to you?”

“No, it’s just….” Troy’s eyes rifled through the room in search of assistance and found none. “I don’t know, whatever, nevermind. Just forget it.”

Kathy’s face thawed. “Oh, Troy, I… I just had to tell you that this isn’t what I want. I want someone who will spend more time trying to understand me than he does trying to please me. That’s the most pleasing of all. But you never picked up on that. You never seemed to notice what I needed, and instead you tried to give me what you thought I should need. Flowers and candy and jewelry aren’t what I’m about, and I can’t pretend that it’s working anymore. Even if you do love me, and I don’t think you really do, I can’t pretend to love you.” Kathy finished with a sigh and buried her face in her hands.

She didn’t see Troy push away from the table and stand. When she heard the front door open and felt the flooding blast of cool air, she looked up from her hands and saw Troy gone. Beyond the window, he crossed the parking lot toward the sidewalk, turning away from town. “Troy, wait,” she said, but of course he didn’t hear. A sensation in her chest—warm sinking chased by a shiver—made her get up to chase him. When she reached the parking lot, she saw him in the distance, and at that moment, he started to run. She ran, too. She tried to call his name as she pushed herself harder and harder to catch up, but only a low grunt emerged with her heavy breath, heaving for oxygen as legs pumped. Troy turned one corner and another with a sureness of direction that meant an intended destination along with a desperation of speed that meant a man running for his life.

They cleared the city’s edge and ran through a dusty, dead field, uniform but for railroad tracks. By the time Troy reached the tracks, Kathy had narrowed the gap to twenty yards. She stopped running and screamed his name. He stopped to look at her, not comprehending why the woman he loved who could not love him had chased him so far. He thought he heard her yell, “Troy, I’m sorry, come back,” but he couldn’t be sure because blood pounded so furiously in his ears. His chest threatened to explode. The run had been cathartic, and now he felt drained, reality ebbing from consciousness. All the world was dusty black of night sky and abandoned field on edge of city, and everything sounded a low chugging whir, a high pitch whistling in the distance. Above the rest, in an instant, he heard Kathy scream, “Oh my God—!”

After the police finished questioning her and ruled it could be nothing but accidental death, Kathy couldn’t think of anywhere to go. She didn’t want to go back home, see his clothes, his car, his toothbrush. She couldn’t get out of her mind the image of Troy turning to face the train in recognition. That look somehow told her he really didn’t mean to die, it really wasn’t suicide, but it was still her fault because she had chased him. She went back to Smokey’s. She sat at the same table where they’d argued. She glanced down. One earring remained on the table. The breeze from the opening door must have knocked off the other, sent it crashing to the floor to pursue its own paths. While she rolled the remaining earring between her fingers, her eyes landed on the sugar dispenser. It seemed fitting. She unscrewed the metal top and pushed the earring into the sugar, burying it there, wondering what blood would look like in the middle of all that sugary white.

The tragic quality of this scenario fit with other aspects of my disposition, and the symbolism of the earrings was nice, but alas, the narrative was even more improbable than the first. There weren’t any above-ground train tracks anywhere close. My cup of coffee had drained while I’d gamed this scenario. I rose to get another, and I saw that only one other person remained in the café. The hour was late. I decided against that cup of coffee, decided to take the mystery home with me to leave for another night like this one. When I opened the glass door, no cool breeze met me; the night was warm and still except for the dull drizzle that must have started only moments ago. The rain in the streetlights made the night air feel like steam. I opened my umbrella and stepped into the parking lot.

A black BMW pulled into the lot and stopped in front of me. Its headlights shone blindingly, and as my eyes adjusted, two people emerged from the car. The first one out was a man, dressed in an immaculate black suit with black sunglasses over his white face. He held an umbrella exactly like mine, and I thought I recognized him. Into the umbrella’s shelter stepped the second of the car’s occupants, a woman. She had the medium height and thin angularity of a model. Her red dress stopped at her knees, a black belt accentuated her waist, and her shoes matched the dress. Her face was as stark white as the man’s, and her eyes shone light blue from far behind dark eyeliner. Her full lips glistened a dark shade of red. Her black hat had a wide, floppy rim, from which hung a netted veil that stopped midway down her face. The man and woman stepped between me and the headlights and transformed into silhouettes. “Excuse me,” the woman said, to me, “I left an earring inside. I was wondering if you saw it.”

I studied them, the perplexing elegance of the woman, the misplaced height of the man. Between them, water-flecked light glowed from the headlights’ unblocked edges. I looked into her eyes, pressing close. “I love the sharpness of rain in headlights,” I said. I walked away.

As I left, she said to her companion, “Gosh, Marty, why do I feel like we just got beat up by an art film?” With burning ears, a tickle in my cheeks, and an approving nod, I continued toward home.

Talking to you is way more interesting than talking to myself. What do you think?