Cafe – 1 of 4

It was a simple ceramic bowl, glazed in lavender and containing crimped-edged rectangular packets of sugar and sugar substitutes. Blue packets of Equal, white packets of Domino, pink packets of Sweet ‘N Low, brown packets of Sugar In The Raw, a natural cane turbinado from Hawaii.

Alain read these facts in small print and reminded himself of what he knew of Hawaii… men in silver suits posing next to spurting magma; brown-skinned women waiting on the tarmac, leis dangling across their bosoms, arms stretched out in welcome. He rubbed the sides of a packet, felt the rough granules within, then carefully put it back next to the others like it. Continuing to regard the bowl, he decided that it was for the moment the most interesting and attractive object in the world. It occurred to him that the arrangement held the aspect of spring, a display of colors that approximated the season, and it seemed to him that they must have been conscientiously grouped this way. But Alain’s eyes may have been keener than those of the girl who opened the café that morning. Whatever pride she felt when pulling down chairs and distributing a single stem vase to every table, she probably managed these chores with a degree of interest proportionally opposed to the attention now being paid to them. Alain ran the edge of his finger along the rim of the lavender bowl, happily self-absorbed yet aware that he was not alone in his ebullience.

It was as though there had been a general call to the streets. This was at last, after seemingly endless months, a day one could enjoy on its own, regardless of one’s obligations. There were people everywhere, shopping, procrastinating in the sunlight, standing in traffic. Joggers rushed resolutely by, seamlessly picking up where they left off in the fall. Doors were left open. Racks of winter merchandise spilled out onto the sidewalks. There was laughter and conversation.

Alain raised his fist to his lips and coughed. He suddenly did not quite feel up to this level of demonstrative excitement. It was perhaps premature. Surely there would be more lousy days. A ceramic bowl of sugar packets resting upon a wobbly tabletop in the sun can be the most interesting and attractive thing in the world, but only because it, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. That is, Alain realized, it could have been anything: a clean ashtray, an abandoned scarf, or the pattern of stone that formed the patio floor. The only thing required was that it interrupted the light waves in an appealing manner. He knew that the bowl’s specious, elevated existence would cease the instant his mind turned away from it, and this did not bother him.

Even still, due to a run of bad luck, Alain desperately wanted to come across, at least then, as being in a good mood. Of course, with his ever-changing disposition, Alain did not always feel good, nor would anyone think that was the case now. It was also true that, due to the same problems, his appreciation for the happy turn of weather had to remain understated. He simply did not feel up to it, no matter how badly he wished he did. It is to be understood that Alain was someone who, despite reservations, couldn’t help but wear his heart on his sleeve… or hold a shovel in his hand, pin a boutonniere to his lapel, or bear forth whatever else he was unconsciously clinging to as a reminder of how he should behave towards the world, and it to him.

Presently he was clinging to a few sheets of paper in a manila folder: resume, references, recommendations, etc. Obviously not an unconscious choice. Obviously not a metaphor. The hitch in Alain’s mood was based on the very real dilemma of not being employed, a situation which required that he carry very real documents around in a much too real manila folder. All of which was particularly repulsive to him.

For weeks after being laid off the only emotions Alain had felt were a sort of fatuous “oh well” and an occasional frustration, which is merely anger stripped of its point. Of course he knew, understood, felt the urgent need to find new employment, but all he could seem to do was say, “oh well.”

Things soon threatened to get desperate. There really was a war now, and Alain half hoped that it would involve him directly. The thought didn’t disgust him, though he knew it should. Selfish, yes, but too abstracted to point out any real moral flaw. It wasn’t the war that Alain wanted to be a part of, but a life outside the bounds of normalcy, a societal breakdown to mirror his own… to interact with people on the most basic level, which is where Alain felt comfortable, where he could do the most good, where he could be free of trying to fit in and manage his life on the basis of income and expenditure. But was this worth a disaster? Was he comfortable in his wish, which, though too abstract to point out any real moral flaw, was undoubtedly selfish, lazy and irresponsible? Alain knew he was all of those things. His life was full of self-inflicted disasters. He had hurt people in this abstracted, amoral way over and over.

“We are complicated, selfish animals. Though we may love, or hate, we are always ready to take advantage at the slightest provocation, to cause or relieve pain in ourselves or others so that we may feel unique, or perhaps the same. I don’t know which, or if it is both. Being utterly unknown is just as horrible as being utterly known. I wonder if we will remain like this, wavering in the half-light, for all time… destroying one thing so that we can build another.”

Alain turned all of this over in his mind at the café, and had no inclination to leave. His manila folder lay as a reminder of what he had come out to do, what he had no intention that day of doing.

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SM

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