She has trouble with the public. Their rubbery face mask. She likes the table by the window. She has pain somewhere in the vagueness of her body, a shape below her head. She wants to fly out of the top of her head. She watches the trolley tilt on its side and her friend empties out, comes into the cafe, orders chicken salad on dark rye, and doesn’t say another word. She can’t live like this much longer.
She feels better because Stan Getz is on the stereo. Like a dancer she adjusts her body to the light. She wants to pull the man’s mustache as he bends over the counter studying the menu. She blinks back what might be called tears and two more people enter the cafe.
She gets nauseous when she reads the Enquirer. “Woman gives birth to two-headed baby.” “Male dwarf says he must have a wife.” “Dr. Quintella says, if a man fondles his beard, it is an unsuccessful cover-up for a sense of personal inadequacy.”
She looks around the cafe. Two radios for each person. Two girls for every boy.
A lull in motion and she thinks of her mother standing in her kitchen munching a piece of celery feeling sorry for herself. This frightens her, so she writes it down in her notebook thinking it might be useful later.
The mailman goes by. An Indian woman and her child. A small dog. Two women come in. A man goes out.
She sits by the aquarium. Her boss is leaning over her shoulder from across the room. She doesn’t care. He doesn’t care either. A truck goes by with its empty flatbed rattling. She looks at her boss. He sticks his tongue out at her. Conrad the chef rides away on his bicycle and she dreams of cool autumn air and sitting in the grass. Geese squawk behind her and she feeds them almonds. There is an olive pit in the ashtray. A breeze shaking the trees inside the cafe. Her boss throws a beer bottle into the trash. The oven alarm goes off and he yells “alright, alright” in a falsetto. She imagines him in a dress, high-heels and nylons.
A woman with a high-pitched squeaky voice pulls up her blouse and begins nursing her child. She thinks this is too sexual of an act for the cafe. It makes her feel exposed and rigid in her own body. Then she decides it’s not the act but the woman who she doesn’t like. Something in the woman’s whiny, nasal voice that disturbs her.
She can hear her boss breathing again, but he doesn’t mean anything by it. She asks him if he wants to make himself useful, and he says, “no,” and continues drinking his Budweiser and reading Sporty’s Tool Shop.
Her landlord wants to buy her old chair. She’s asking $35.00 for it, but he only wants to give her $25.00 The second month she was in her new flat he tried to raise her rent. He told her he was thinking of moving into her apartment the following year. Then he told her he was thinking of selling the building. Recently, she discovered that she is paying the utilities for another apartment in her building -the basement apartment where his two sisters live – as well as her own. She doesn’t listen to her landlord anymore. She lets her dog shit on his stairs and waits for days to clean it up. She has written a letter to the Tenants’ Union and sent him a copy. He rarely comes out of the house when she’s around. He sits in his kitchen in a red bathrobe reading The Voice and listening to CBS.
The refrigerator man is the only one in the cafe. She’s thinking about another job. She wants to work for the Child Abuse Council. She has a child. Her daughter thinks she might be an abused child. She has only hit her child once. Her daughter reminds her from time to time, “remember the time you slapped me mommy?”
Watching the fish in the aquarium. Patty, Maxine, and Laverne hiding in their little underwater pagoda. Enormo is nibbling the rocks. She wants to be magnificent. To dazzle. To have a gourmet adventure in dining. Her favorite song comes on the stereo, I Want My Share of Love. Her boss moves her notebook and pen to another table. “I thought it would be better for everyone concerned. I don’t want to get chicken fat on your book.” She leans against the fish tank and breathes in the smells coming from the kitchen, moussaka and bean soup. Her boss comes up to her and asks, “do you need inspiration? How about a cream pie?”
Keeping track of things. A gentle noise of bells and the Budweiser man steps through the swinging doors. Laughter from behind the Benjamin Fichus. Someone asks for water. She wants to finish her salad without interruption. The oven alarm goes off. Conrad takes the chocolate pound cake out of the oven. Laura Nyro is singing, Wedding Bell Blues.
The music rips through her like a horse from another star. Another star without all this metal and equipment. Her boss opens the lid of the fish tank and peers in. He’s adding another air supply. The air is cool outside, a few clouds giving it a purplish color. She wishes it would rain inside the aquarium.
Her boss hands her a magazine and says, “here’s something you might be interested in.” Twenty-five finely crafted porcelain thimbles, lovely roses, pink, green, and white cameos, the blue-onion design, meadows, cherries, blueberries. The sweet tooth of the public. Traffic slips past. The saleslady fumbles with her keys. Change falls to the floor. She thinks twenty years pass by very quickly.
She needs to rely on her instincts more. To climb to the top of the pile out of sheer magnetism.
Someone needs her. Are people lonely? Are they going to dinner parties? It’s Friday. She wants to sleep under a melancholy moon. Her life has been condensed into a small space. Puffs of smoke. Trolley bells. Pianos in distant rooms. She can’t decide whether to eat something or just leave the cafe. She turns to her boss in desperation, and he says, “I can’t help you.”
When she returns to work on Monday, she finds that her boss has hung up old posters of Meat Charts. “Parts of the Hog” they’re called. “I did it to offend the vegetarians,” he says. “Just so they don’t start taking us too seriously. Some woman was in here the other day, and she said she found the posters disgusting. She belongs to the Vegetarian Society. I told her that some of the most obnoxious people I knew were vegetarians.” She remembers hearing a news report that talked about pigs raised in germ free conditions. One man had trained his pig to fetch the evening paper. Pigs can have nervous breakdowns. They are very sensitive. She has not been able to eat pork since hearing the broadcast. She hasn’t bothered to tell her boss.
She turns around and a paper bag is on fire. Her boss steps on it and the bag disintegrates into tiny grey birds.
She buys a pair of hiking boots with green rubber soles and green canvas tops that says, Made in France on the side. She has a shoe fetish. She has:
a pair of green thongs with paint splotches
a pair of black plastic beach shoes
a pair of white and blue canvas walking shoes
a pair of turquoise swede moccasins
a pair of orange hiking boots
a pair of t-strap shoes with gold buckles
a pair of cowboy boots with green and orange flowers on them
a pair of silver Chinese slippers with ankle straps that snap
She remembers a picture her mother took of her a long time ago sitting in a circle of shoes. Twenty-six pair.
She needs to swim. To stretch her body the length of the pool.
Open market fire bang cry crash rain dash flash back hawking world big goose street streaks light running through body…
she doesn’t know how to take space how to take what isn’t there how to take it the space how to resist to dance.
She is alone with the cat. She needs to extrapolate. To walk backwards through the clock. Her face is changing rapidly into something unexpected. She has extremely sensitive eyes. Zebras trot noiselessly across her bed.
She reads the postcards her daughter gets from her grandmother. She does not receive mail from this woman, her mother, anymore. Her mother wrote, “I feel there’s been a death in my family.” They no longer speak, although her mother did call and ask for her Social Security number recently, and she did ask her mother for the exact time of her birth.
California refuses to estimate the size of its marijuana crop. Her boss comes in and says, “careful, I’m the birthday boy.” A cockroach scurries around the side of the espresso machine, and he squashes it with a paper towel. She’s going to write him a birthday poem. She’s decided she’s being paid to write. After she makes a few sandwiches, she takes out her notebook and pen and begins. Her boss comes over and pretends to slap her face.
She wants to start over. She could be anywhere doing what she’s doing. It doesn’t matter that it’s San Francisco. A school bus stops out front. A little boy with bushy black hair goes by and sticks bubble gum on the window. Three girls come into the cafe and spray paints the bathroom black. A woman calls and says her child will only eat tuna. When she finally gets outside, her head feels as though it’s been struck by jet lag. She closes her eyes for a moment as she waits for the streetcar. She wants to catch a ride with the wind.
A blonde child is sitting on her mother’s lap rocking back and forth smacking her lips. She rubs her forehead. It is greasy. Her hands smell like garlic. The rent is due. She has a cough. Her lungs are full of dust. There’s a wall of anxiety forming inside her. She has no permanent personality. Unstable, breaking down and reassembling itself. She doesn’t want to mail in the phone bill. She feels hot and cold. She looks at Conrad in his short tight jeans and thinks he has a very round ass for a man.
She wants her friend to extract meaning from the poem she has just written. A woman with dark curls comes into the cafe. She stares at her from behind the pastry case, a little surprised by how beautiful the woman is.
She remembers that she has forgotten some important idea, but she can’t remember what it is. Her boss is moving around the room more today than usual, wrapping and cutting meat, clearing tables and sweeping up. Just enough noise and movement to disturb her revery. He goes by and knock over her water glass. Enormous red and yellow dahlias unfold in the morning in his garden. He cuts them and brings them to the cafe. He fills each little white vase with one of the dahlias and places it on the table.
She left the dough in the microwave too long and as her boss pulls it out it sticks to his fingers. He makes a face at her and says, “Yuk.” She wants to eat something, but she doesn’t know what. It has to be something quickly prepared and consumed since she may be interrupted at any moment. This kind of lifestyle is absorbing, rupturing. She doesn’t want to be intimate with the public. Working here means knowing what time they get up, where they work, and when they work. She tosses out what’s left of her salad, which managed to taste entirely like an unsalted potato chip.
She has a novel out on the counter wedged between the bread and condiments as well as her own notebook. She needs further ideas, a new train of thought and intention. She wonders why Joyce Carol Oates begins a book with a family massacre. “You have to start somewhere. I choose, I make a choice that reveals a pivot point in the dark. I offer a triangle of light barely big enough to step into.”
She steps into the light. It reveals her as a child. She used to think her shoes were about to disintegrate. Her mother would take her from store to store before school started each September. She saved her new clothes for special occasions. She saved her shoes and would look at them to see if they were getting dirty or scuffed. Then she would take them off and put them in the cardboard box. She was preserving herself.
Her legs ache from Karate class. Last night, she learned how to open-hand punch an attacker in the nose, puncturing the skull and causing instant death. “We will be slapping, punching, and pushing each other just to get used to being knocked around,” the instructor said. “We have to get used to our own pain. A little physical pain is nothing.” Now she feels she’s ready for sudden changes in the environment. The light is different today. October light. Oblique. Yellow fading into white.
A man steps up to the counter and says, “I want you to know I admire and appreciate your wonderful desserts, but I’ve lost 32 pounds since June, so I’m afraid I’ll have to keep a safe distance.” She looks into the pastry case. Conrad has just polished the glass. Profligate Poppyseed Cake with Caramel Coffee Frosting. French Suicide Cake. Peanut Butter Bonanza Bars. Orange Insanity Tarts. Eat-Your-Heart-Out-Liz-Taylor-Lemon Cheesecake. Obscene Born-Again Brownies. Oatmeal-Raisin-The-Dead Cookies. Pear-Upside-Down-Around-The-World-In-80-Days Cake. Then the there’s the ever faithful Carrot Cake. The public loves it and she admits it’s good, but she does wish the carrot cake period would end and a new evolutionary cycle in cakes would begin.
Frank Sinatra is singing in the background. His music reminds her of hot afternoons and swimming pools without water. The times of day when things become dizzy and shades are drawn. She contemplates a life lived behind dark glasses and drawn shades. Losing one of the senses through disuse, losing balance and falling through one trap door after another until reaching a suspended, threshold between the concrete exact world and the supernatural.
Someone calls the cafe and says, “I’m stranded. I have no money. I can’t get back to San Francisco.” Things loosen, the huge metal straps unbuckle in mid-air. The belts and ropes come undone and hurl through space.
A woman leaves the cafe with her young son. The boy has a strange resemblance to her as a child. Light brown hair, full fleshy brown arms and legs. It brings back the feeling of well-being when the perfect part of the self was evident, visible. The self when it was loved. She looks at her hands, the broken, bitten nails. She wants her hands to heal.
She rips the last order off the hook and is finished. She wonders why LA lifeguards appear from the storm drain with a deep oily purple on their skin.
She can draw from a basic image. She’s groping along an exposed steel frame and brick panel like a blind woman. She’s standing on a mathematically precise plane of green lawn. She does not want to compromise.
A black woman named Jima is laughing a deep resonant laugh on the other side of the wall, making motions with her hands, her head draped in orange and deep red cloth. More women laugh. Their voices echo through water gardens, pools, and fountains. There are plateaus and destinations. Shallow snow-filled bowls, dogs sliding down walls of ice. A man with a boy’s face comes in and goes out. It is afternoon in the Wyoming Rockies, and a gold cloud is planting itself on the top of a broken rock.
Her clothes are dirty and she thinks of Liz Taylor who never slept on the same sheet twice. A woman enters the cafe. She smells antiseptic. This reminds her of desert wind and earrings lying in wet sand. Three men are at the back table, the one that’s reserved for employees. She wonders why anyone would choose to sit there, in the deepest corner of the world.
Her boss says, “there’s a cloud over my head today.” There’s a woman in the cafe who disturbs her. She usually comes in with her baby, but today she’s alone. She stands at the counter reading the menu saying she shouldn’t have anything. All of her movements are calculated, deliberate, as though she’s incapable of a spontaneous gesture. She gives the woman an extra portion of soup because she dislikes her.
A man with lizards tattooed on his upper arms comes into the cafe and orders pineapple-upside down cake. There is a violent wrenching in her neck and shoulders. She craves the winter air. Tomorrow she will go to the park and feed the geese.
Larry comes into the cafe. He is tall and thin with red shoulder length hair. There is something frayed, frazzled about Larry’s whole being. He drives the streetcar up and down Church Avenue. She thinks he might vanish into a crevice between light and air.
A man and woman come into the cafe. The woman is old and hunched. Very small, intense and pointy. She orders mint tea. She is wearing a bright white shirt with big red flowers on it. The man is much younger. His face has a powdery, mask like quality. He calls the old woman, Freida. From the side she can see the resemblance. The mother, the son.
She stepped out of her clothes at the Lotus Sutra and into the herbal pool. She was the only woman there. A man with a bright blue rose tattooed to his ankle. A boy lying outside on a white mat with a rock crystal in his navel. A little girl, no more than three or four, sitting on the edge of the hot tub saying, “I just love this, I love this, after a while it soaks through.” She holds the child’s foot in the palm of her hand for a moment. Lying on the white massage table she feels the tensions slowly releasing, easing their hold on her. She becomes invisible. The child’s very white feet move under water.
Exchanging the defective parts for perfect ones.
A man with a tiny mustache, wearing a pin-striped suit comes in. There’s a high sheen on his black shoes. He’s carrying a small leather bag. He has two topics of discussion, Haydn and Mozart. “There are no surprises in Haydn,” he tells her.
“He wrote the Surprise Symphony,” she reminds him. The melody of the symphony floats through her mind “papa Haydn’s dead and gone, still his memory lingers on.”
“It was a predictable surprise,” he adds. He orders espresso and asks her to “please draw it out.” He would also like her to remember his name which is Cezar, but she insists on calling him Chester. He spends eighty-seven cents each time he comes into the cafe. He has given up going to La Boheme because they can’t remember his name either.
Self-absorbed she leans on one foot by the counter, lost. Opening up to something indescribable. A cloud burning weightless. Tiny mysterious radios. Revolving magnetic spoons. Hair, fuel, the rough wing and claw. Horses moving with complex purpose.
She drives past city hall, passing limousines packed with glassy-eyed men and women. Straining in their clothes. The material world straining its limits, breakfast, car, office, car, lunch, car, city hall, car……..
She’s sitting by a golf course with her back to the road. A man crosses the street in his golf shoes making a clippety, clippety sound. A man in an XKE goes by with his little boy who looks like a little man. There are buzzes, hisses, the army purging the bushes at Land’s End. With her back to the road like this, she thinks someone could shoot her and keep driving. She moves to a warmer spot sitting just outside the shadow of Joan of Arc’s statue. Brilliant grey stones hover above. Her daughter’s favorite heroine. Women in dark wool pant suits enter the museum. This makes her feel safe. The dense stuffy air, the material sense of well-being that these molded specific shapes contain. The concrete consciousness. Three men of various distortions mill around under the archway of the Palace. Three women of inexplicable facial feature sleep under the bridges of America, their bodies lost to rivers. She considers going into the museum. Ten bodies round the corner of the Palace. A chartered bus revs its engine. Her head aches furiously. If she goes inside, she can find out the time and make a phone call.