Short stories

The Name of the Girl from the Corner Cafe – Part One


He walked with the alert alacrity of a man who had doused his morning coffee with freshly ground nutmeg. The sun already shone a warm, embracing yellow, but its rays seemed even fresher and finer to him. The sky seemed bluer, the scamper of traffic a hum of happy productivity, the passersby only a handshake and hello away from friends. And all due to one word…a name, actually.


Of course, he still didn’t know how to spell her name. You never could tell with spellings these days, he said to himself for the second time that day.

He had said it to himself for the first time as he carefully Windsor-knotted his Grenafaux-dotted, tangerine tie earlier that morning while staring at his list of incoming tweets. (The spelling of Quvenzhane Wallis’ name had prompted this thought.) Given his job, he had to stay connected to the financial pulse of the world.

He took a few steps to the left, ended up in his bathroom, and pursed his lips as he eyed his reflection. Tangerine was a bold choice, but he needed something bold and eye-catching. On his wall was a diploma stating he had graduated with a degree in computational finance; when he popped up in photos of official events, editors tagged him as “Generic White Guy”; he was an ordinary-looking fellow, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, average height, and an average face; to cap it all off, his parents had once actually contemplated naming him Keith. 

He was aware of all this, of course. So he needed something that could be a good conversation starter, something to stand out, and the tie would serve well, or so he hoped. The dots were quirky, the knot substantial, the color striking. He wagered that it had nearly as much personality as he did, at least on first sight. (He was fairly confident that he had more personality than his tie, at least, after the first hour or so of conversation had eased things.)

A fruit fly buzzed in front of his face as he took one more look in the mirror and absentmindedly swatted at the fly. He detoured into the kitchen briefly on his way out, in order to check his homemade fly trap. He had poured molasses in the bottom of a glass jar, mounted a cardboard turret atop the jar, fastened it with duct-tape, and then inserted a tube with a hole cut facing the molasses through the cardboard. The fly trap was abuzz with flies, and he thought momentarily of releasing them into the wild. (He was a gentle soul.)

But then he steeled his heart, and the tangerine tie flopped gracefully as he bent down, laced up his shoes, and straightened the cuffs of his khakis. Then he stood up, picked up his brown briefcase, stuffed one overly boisterous flap of his shirt back behind the firm barrier of his belt, and launched out the door.

Today, he was going to learn her name.


The Corner Cafe couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a pub, a cafe, a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a brewery. Whether this was due to the owner’s oddities or market demand, its identity crisis had created a loyal base of customers.

After all, if you wished for a fresh cup of coffee, you could see the harassed barista tramp downstairs and retrieve some recently-ground beans from the midsize grinder. Or if you wanted a morning glass of Sangria, the kitchen in back always seemed to have blueberries and raspberries and the requisite wine and brandy on hand. There were even stainless steel vats of modest proportions down below employed for brewing some beer (although the type and composition of beer changed dramatically every week).

It was only two stories (one above ground, the other below); the upper was crammed with small wooden tables and chairs, window-seats, a long, winding wooden bar, and a kitchen, while the lower was devoted to the equipment mentioned above and supplies. Consequently it always felt jam-packed.

And despite the jam-packed-ness, it was probably teetering on the edge of financial collapse most of the time, according to the man in the tangerine tie’s odd financial intuition. After all, there was never any expansion, nor any new equipment, nor extra staff to assist the three harried baristas/barmaids/brewers. The Corner Cafe was essentially a place of stasis, with an oddball, unchanging appeal, which is probably why the man in the tangerine tie felt oddly reassured as he strolled in that fine sunny morning.

He made a beeline for his favorite spot: approximately five feet in front of the bar and the giant chalkboard menu. White words sprawled across the chalkboard with vague clarity. You couldn’t simply read off the menu; he had once ordered a blackcurrant espresso shot with mixed greens at 7pm. When it had arrived, he was so mortified (both physically and mentally) that he consumed it in silence, and then was compelled to leave by dreadful gut rumblings. (Or borborygmi, his word of the day, he thought to himself, as the memory of the incident rippled through his mind.)

It was his favorite spot, of course, because he was certain to see her.


He had no idea who she was, or even what her name was. All he knew of her was that she wasn’t new, but rather had recently returned from a vacation or other absence, which explained why he hadn’t seen her in the two months or so he had frequented the cafe. He had gleaned that morsel of information from the very first day he had seen her.

(Flash backward nearly a month.)

Her back was to him, as she spoke to Angela, who was slender, tall, animated, and remarkably quick. (She was a law student at the nearby university.) Angela always made him nervous, mainly as he suspected she already knew everything about him…her intelligence was so readily overpowering it was almost unbearable. Looking at her, he had known in his heart that the only reason women hadn’t taken over the planet was that they were smart enough to realize it wasn’t worth it.

So the conversation went on, and he was hesitant to interrupt. He normally had the confidence of a freshly neutered tomcat, and that, coupled with Angela’s proximity, led to extreme reticence. He consequently paced in place, with a sort of odd foot shuffle combined with intense scrutiny of the menu board, as if the choice between a latte and an espresso was of great importance.

“Sorry, how can I help you?”

And he pulled his gaze down, and met hers, and then frozen. She had the most striking eyes and eyebrows, you see: dark and strong and thick, tapering off at the ends (her eyebrows, that is), while her eyes delicately teetered on the fine line between darkest brown and lightest black.

He became aware that the dark eyes were growing puzzled, and he promptly said the first thing that came into his head: “Chocolate.” (He had been mentally categorizing the color of her eyes.)

“Hot chocolate?” she had asked, and he had realized what he had said, but there was no way out now, so he mildly had said, “Yes,” even as a hot breeze from the 80-degree morning wafted in to punctuate his sentence. He wasn’t quite sure why he was unable to speak casually with her, but then his tidy, orderly mind rustled around for a moment, and efficiently produced the answer: he found her so attractive he had absolutely no desire to say or do anything that could be wrong, in her eyes.

She smiled pleasantly, displaying white even teeth, and then promptly whisked around to the refrigerator. Her hair was a thick dark shining mass, while her faintly freckled nose was firm, small, and pert. A tattoo stretched in some spiraling pattern on her brown left back shoulder, exposed by her white tank top and black apron. He had sufficient time to contemplate the ramifications of his decision, as she grabbed a small iron pot and a bar of chocolate. (They made real hot chocolate at the Corner Cafe.)

Meanwhile, Angela took over the register and rang him up. She coughed significantly, and his gaze ambled over from the tattooed brown shoulders moving briskly behind the bar.

“That’s all you’re getting?” Angela asked, with a cheery smile, adjusting the comb in her Afro.

“Yes, for now,” he said, and automatically reached for his wallet.

“So that’ll be four dollars, then.”

“Sounds good,” he mumbled, and placed a five-dollar bill in front of her. She regarded him with interest, one eyebrow that had been plucked into skinny submission arching slightly, even as she handed him one dollar back. He promptly deposited the dollar in the tip jar, and then an inactive silence congealed between them in a fatty, leering manner, until he could stand it no more.

“Seems like a hot day,” he said, feebly, conscious of her gaze, and knowing that it was most likely related to his order. What business had a grown man ordering hot chocolate on a hot day? Why mention the weather? Weather talk was the stale toast of conversation. He cleared his throat with a skittering hrrrmmph, aware of sudden dryness in his mouth.

“Yeah, but you don’t seem to mind the heat,” Angela said, glancing back at the stove. “Hot drinks cool you down somewhat, I guess.”

“It’s for my throat,” he said, for some reason. As the words left his mouth, he looked down at his paisley-patterned blue tie and contemplated a self-gag.

“Do you have a cold? Are you a singer?” Angela asked, her keen mind already leaping to deductions.

“Yes, a singer,” he stated, and his mind, somewhat removed from the conversation, watched the falsehood exaggerate with the fascination of an engineer eyeing a trainwreck. “Dry, strained throat.”

“Did you just get out of a performance, or have you been rehearsing a lot?”

“You know,” he said, vaguely gesturing, and then, mercifully, the chocolate had been ready. The girl came over, and placed a thick green porcelain cup filled with hot brown liquid chocolate right next to him. Her slim brown fingers moved deftly and accurately. He idly noted her fingernails had been nibbled down to the thinnest line of white.

“There you go,” she said kindly, and then added, “watch out, it’s really hot.”

Indeed, wisps of steam curled up from the hot chocolate, yet he willfully ignored them, and grasped it firmly about the base. Slow heat began to assault his fingers, and he immediately realized he had made a grave miscalculation. Yet he had already begun the slow shift of his heel to turn, and so he smiled almost helplessly at Angela and the girl.

“Do you want a tangerine slice?” the girl asked, looking down at the chocolate almost critically. “I always like pairing it with a little fruit.”

“Sure, sure,” he said, and thought for a moment he could see his knuckles smoking. She plopped a few tangerine slices down on his plate, and smiled at him once more. He would have smiled more nicely in return, had moisture not begun to collect in the corners of his eyes.

“Thanks, have a nice day,” he said, then quickly pivoted, and scurried for a table in the darkest, deepest corner of the cafe, where he could blow on his hands, and pretend to drink his piping hot chocolate. He managed to actually down some of it before he realized with a jolt that he hadn’t even had the balls to ask the girl her name. 


The Fascinating Depths: Yeezus, Vampire Weekend, and Mad Men Season Six

The experience of looking down from a great height is intoxicating. After all, why do people climb mountains, if not to look down from a great height? (Unless they’re really into sweat and thin air.) Whether literal or figurative, depths are fascinating.

I recall submerging in Lake Chelan’s limpid green waters, ten feet down, and looking out through the cold clear waters as my heartbeat rang in my ears. I recall standing on top of a bridge, peering down at the flowing river far below, and leaping on a sudden whim, even as my breath caught in my throat. It’s a strange fascination…not exactly a death wish, but rather some odd desire to know exactly what depths we can plumb.

And of course, in Mad Men, those depths are nearly all metaphorical. Don Draper has descended to the depths of depression and depravity before, but this season most heavily underlined those themes than any prior. It opened with Don reading Dante’s Inferno on a beach, just to ram that point home. Even though Don grappled with crushing depression and alcoholism in season four, and prior seasons saw suicides and deaths, this season was even darker, not merely in its portrayal of a nation reeling in the dark late 60s, but also because the darkness pervaded every area of Don’s life.

He tried to be an attentive father and husband in season five, while balancing professional demands, and yet he wasn’t able to pull it off. Throughout the sixth season, Don failed his marriage, failed his children, failed in his work, and even failed in his latest extramarital fling. And yet, in the penultimate episodes, he had to explore the depths even further. Don had to blow work off and take his colleagues’ sacrifices and his place for granted. He had to betray his friend and canoodle with Mrs. Rosen once more in an attempt to rekindle his savoir faire, and consequently fail his daughter more grievously than ever before.

These dark depths are seductive, especially when lived vicariously. It’s no coincidence Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the most powerful and compelling shows on TV right now, both explore evil in a very realistic world. Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner know that building a narrative in which we are slowly, almost blindly led into seeing exactly how easy it is to do terrible things, into the depths each of us is capable of sinking to, is how to play to the intoxication of depths.

It took several listens (heck, I’m listening to it right now) for me to realize that was Yeezus‘ appeal also. It’s a different kind of depth; after all, it’s not as if Kanye is capturing his darkness. Rather, what Kanye West seems to be doing with this hasty, intriguing record is plumbing the depths of his imagination, creativity, and audience.

Why did he rush the album through production, and throw in vocals haphazardly? Some critics have guessed that the sound matters the most, or that it’s simply Kanye’s experimentation or boredom with the radio and his own public image. I think some of those are close to the truth, but what’s even more important is that the haphazard nature of the album speaks more to someone who’s rooting out the closet just to find what’s in there.

Tracks like ‘I am a God’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ showcase West’s self-absorption at its most self-aggrandizing, and also his deep urge to address racism…while also conflating such issues with his own past heartbreak. He then mines obscure sounds and throws it all together in Yeezus (which really is best listened to as a whole album rather than singles) in an exploration of his creative depths and those most potent, latent, rooted themes that have pervaded all his work.

Rummaging around in the depths is what also makes Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, intriguing. These themes are extremely religious and relationship-centric. ‘Ya Hey’ and ‘Diane Young’ focus on heavy Biblical themes and doomed relationships, tying together philosophical musings along with the fundamental realities religion grapples with. The depths may not be ego-centric and culture-heavy as those in Yeezus, but they are creative, personal, and spiritual depths all the same.

In the above link Koenig speaks of how he sees this latest album as dealing with more adult issues, which is virtually the essence of true depths. Once you’re a grown-up, the amount of damage you can inflict on not only yourself but others is astronomically greater than the flailing of even the most petulant ten-year-old. Once you’re old enough to grasp how far you can fall is precisely when the depths become most fascinating.

Another critic (the name escapes me, sadly) mused that Yeezus is Kanye’s clean-up record, his method of dealing with all the issues of previous albums, before he embarks on fatherhood. I have no idea whatsoever, but all I know is that the album sounds like someone determinedly creating a meal with whatever was left in his pantry that looked good.

But in the end, the depths are most fascinating because they are what we hope to eventually ascend from to the heights of our dreams. The sixth season concluded with Don’s realization that he simply couldn’t achieve what he wanted if he built everything on a lie (just a snippet of excellent analysis of Mad Men by Todd VanDerWerff which was invaluable to my understanding of the season). Yeezus ends with a cheery chorus and repeated assurance of “Uh-huh honey”, while Modern Vampires of the City overall packages its most disturbing lyrics in its second-catchiest tune, ‘Unbelievers’.

Plunging into the depths wouldn’t be nearly as fun if we couldn’t climb back up on the bridge, or eventually kick our way to the surface, and climb back out into the sun.

(All images are reproduced from non-licensed material, I believe. My dad’s a lawyer; I was trained to exercise due diligence.)

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