It was the dead of night. It was the middle of nowhere. A dove hooted; neon hummed and buzzed. A pink word blinked on the gable above the front door: “Coffee. Coffee. Coffee.”
A single light strung high on a pole and powered by a silent generator cast a pool of greenish light on the little restaurant, and a barn, and a tractor up on blocks. He saw this light from a distance and thought it could have been a campfire, or truck lights; there was some movement to it. As he came closer, the light seemed full of seaweed and made everything look underwater. Fish swimming in and out of the barn would not have surprised him.
“I’ll have some coffee, please,” said the man, seating himself at the counter. “Are you open?”
The boy, doing some reading curled up in a customer booth, scrambled out holding a finger in a paperback as a page marker. His name was on his button: “Hi, I’m MARK. How can I give you maximum service today?”
“24/7,” said Mark, without resentment at the intrusion of a customer. A lanky teen with a carrot-top ‘fro, he wore a clean white tee tucked under a dirty white apron tied around his flat belly. His hair was unruly and gave him the look of a philosopher whose ideas had been much abused.
“I like to see a man with a book,” said the customer. “An old Supreme Court justice was on his deathbed and he was reading a book, and someone asked him why he was reading a book and he said, ‘To improve my mind.’”
“‘To improve his mind’,” said Mark, considering. ”Wow. He’s really hardcore. But truly human? He was going to die soon, wasn’t he? And he was prepared to shut out his loved ones while he finishes The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Wow. Some guys are cold-hearted.”
He went behind the counter to the coffee maker. “You can have some of this stuff I made at 11, or you can wait and I can make a fresh pot. Some people like the sludge.” Behind him was a shelf of little clocks, all different kinds: Empire State Building clocks, miniature grandfather clocks, a map of Rhode Island clock, a Big Ben miniature. They all said roughly 3 a.m.; he had not tried to synchronize them too closely. “When I get 24 clocks,” said Mark, “I’ll set each one an hour apart and we’ll be able to tell the time around the world.”
“Nothing against your sludge,” said the customer. “I’ll go with the fresh pot.”
Mark slapped the basket into the machine and pushed the red ON button. From his knapsack he pulled a pad and made some notes. The scratch of his pencil on the textured paper pleased him. He was composing, philosophizing.
Then he turned and observed the customer; the customer scanned the place and looked at Carrot-top. “Name’s Orson,” said the customer. Orson was a young man, slightly older than Mark; his presence was dominated by a sense of resignation, which Mark read as ‘experienced’. Orson was wiry and small with a buzz cut, and a jaw that came with a blue shadow, and a jailhouse tattoo on his neck. He had a hard look when he set that jaw, but he didn’t seem unkind; he just looked like no one had done him a kindness for some time.
“What are you reading?” asked Orson.
“Well, this here’s The Golden Bowl: Fiction of the Gilded Age.”
Indignation and dismay. “Really?”
“Community college. English course.” The water steamed behind him and coffee began to drip into the pot; the good fresh smell began to waft through the restaurant and no doubt out to the barn. Mark reached for the bag and handed it to Orson. It was a metallic green 12-oz bag of ground Italian beans. Orson grunted with satisfaction when he read it. “I expected trucker’s brew,” he said
“This is my private four a.m. stash.”
“Well, thanks for sharing, brother,” said Orson. “I have a long history with coffee. Used to grow pot on Kona, lava soil great for it, and when it got too dangerous, I switched to growing coffee—same plot of ground, same work, and a payoff that was almost as good.”
“I’ve been to Oahu.”
“Oh, Kona is great. And Hilo. You surf?”
“Around here? Only with my mind. How was your weed that you grew?”
“I made a living. I made a living growing coffee beans, too. But that’s history.”
Orson fell into a reflective silence thinking of Kealakekua Bay and the green hills that sloped towards the Sanctuary down the coast. Certain girls and women floated through his thoughts too, slipping easily in and out amid images of the easy street-life in Pahoa.
When the coffee pot was full, Mark pulled down two mugs and set them on the counter. “Here ya go, Orson.” He poured both mugs full and picked up one. They both blew over the steaming liquid, sipped through tightly pursed lips, both went Ah-hhhh, and put the mugs down sharply. Orson said, “Ever see Wings of Desire? Peter Falk? Drinking coffee at the circus at daybreak?”
“Never saw it. Saw ‘Columbo’.”
“Falk says that one of the joys of living is coffee and a cigarette in the morning. And then he lights a cigarette and drinks cup of coffee, and it looks so cool, so tempting. It’s the definitive ‘coffee and a cigarette’ in movie history.”
“We have cigarettes!” said Mark. They looked at each other for a moment to read each other’s agreement, then Mark broke for the cigarette rack and grabbed a pack of Camels.
“One,” said Orson. ”That’s all I want. But I’ll buy the pack.”
Mark with an educated hand knocked the pack a few times, and pulling out two, handed one to Orson and lit him with a Bic, then lit himself. Two billows of smoke rose, and there was some coughing and anxiety in the sharp exhalation of the smoke. They sat there and indulged, looking out the steamy windows at the night. “I call this my Night School in Logic,” said Mark. “At this hour, in this dark, you get to look at your own mind and decide if you’re on course, if the logic is true.” Orson nodded his head appreciatively. “Anything you can learn on your own helps.”
“Like you: What’s your logic?” asked Mark, blowing a sharp jet into the yellow room. “Where are you headed?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, because the truth must be told, I was released from Rankin Correctional Institution four-five days ago and I’ve been walking ever since.” And thinking, like a bat out of hell. What had he got himself into now? It had taken him a long time to learn to sleep at Rankin, and that had produced a lot of thinking. Most of it was useless; at first, it was loops of thought, argumentative and defensive. But his thinking had smoothed out and become almost logical, especially when it dealt with the future.
“I’m free but I don’t feel it,” he said. “I feel like I’ve moved from one form of oppression to another. I wasn’t expecting this. I had it all thought out. I guess you’d say my logic is faulty. I feel like I’m under a terrible hammer. That’s the way it is. I avoid people, they scare me. They see just what they need to see, maybe. They don’t say what they think. So I go by night. I bypass the cities. I don’t want to talk. But looky-here, I’m talking.” A guard in a booth had watched Orson pass through Rankin’s main gate and hesitate at the curb. The guard stuck his head out and said, “Anyone meeting you, Clyde? Anybody coming to pick you up?” The guards called everyone Clyde when they were on the way out. This guard was soft. “No? Got money for a cab? Go back in, they’ll give it to you.” But this Clyde would not do, would not go back in; couldn’t do it, no way, would not chance the symbolism. When you go back in, anything can happen, they could discover a clerical error while he was inside and never let him out. Instead, he began walking away from Rankin Correctional Institution with determination, if not purpose.
“Night’s a comfort,” Orson said. “One thing about prison, you learn about the outside/inside game. And this one guy always told me, Some day you’ll be on the outside and you’ll still feel you’re on the inside. He called it ‘hollow freedom.’ And now I have it.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Mark.
“In real life? I’m aiming to be a pastry chef.”
“Yeah, I worked Food Services in the Rankin, learned some good stuff. I learned to do bread, bagels, pizza, donuts. I liked it. No, I’m a doer. I want to learn to make Choux pastry.”
At that moment lights swept across the interior of the restaurant as a pick-up truck parked in front. Shortly after, a man in denim walked in all a-jangle with keys. He was a tall thin man with big ears and enormous hands; he had played baseball in the major leagues for a year years ago, and then had come home to the farm. Careful not to intrude on their conversation, he took a seat as far away from them as possible.
Suddenly the shop was filled with musical confusion: zithers, ukeleles, triangles, bells, chimes and harps, all starting and stopping and repeating. The miniature clocks on the shelf were sounding five o’clock in the morning.
Mark sauntered down the counter and poured the newcomer some coffee. “Right on time, Leon.”
Orson, in his excitement, was talking to the room. “Choux is a kind of ingenious pastry dough, it uses moisture in the pastry itself to create the steam to puff the pastry. I’m going to make puff pastries! Eclairs! Cream puffs! Profiteroles. Croquembouches—you know those crunchy balls?”
Orson pulled out his wallet and produced a picture of an elaborate pastry. “This is a St. Honore cake. This is what I want to learn.”
Leon came up behind him and looked over his shoulder. Mark had a look from behind the counter.
“It takes a whole morning for me to make one,” said Orson. “ Puff pastry base with a ring of pate a choux piped on the outer edge.”
“Well I’ll be darned,” Leon said.
“After you bake the base you take these small cream puffs and attach them to the pate ring.”
“Damn!” said Mark in admiration.
“You fill the base with a crème chiboust and finish it with whipped cream. That’s all there is to it.”
“Love that whipped cream,” said Mark.
“This is light, light pastry cream, made with beaten eggs.”
“Easier to slaughter a pig, I’d imagine,” said Leon.
The road that passed by the restaurant was a county road that turned into a state highway, which led to a turnpike, which is what all roads want to be. Just as a short story wants to be a novel, which wants to be a poem, which wants to be a psalm, so a jelly donut wants to be a cream puff, which wants to be a napoleon, which wants to be a wedding cake. All things aspire. Don’t think there is contentment in the plant kingdom. A buttercup wants to be a lily, a lily a rose. And animals: a dog may not want to be a wolf, but the wolf is always there.
Did I say it was fall?