The Sad Café
Anonymous and Articulate
June 12, 1988
The café began to feel like Pepper’s only real home. It was a place where she could be anonymous and articulate, letting her stories meander from her mind into the notebook that her theatre geek friend Parker had given her when she told him that she wouldn’t be returning to KU in the fall because she was pregnant.
Parker had designed the notebook cover himself. It was a light grape shimmer honoring Pepper’s love for purple. There was a flourish of light blue lace around the border and a little pouch inside for Pepper to store her writing and drawing implements. When Parker handed the notebook to Pepper, he said that it was imbued with magic to bring the thoughts that transpired in her head out into the world so the magic could be shared with anyone who read them.
Pepper sometimes thought that Parker must be a magical being in disguise come to walk among undeserving humans. He had twinkling blue eyes, a shock of wavy blond hair sweeping over his brow, and angular, elfin features. He was somewhere between five foot seven and five foot eight and weighed about 130 pounds.
Parker knew that Pepper was unhappy, and he tried to shine light into her dreary world. He came by her apartment with VHS tapes and snacks and the pair painted each other’s fingernails and did each other’s hair and makeup. They did crafts together or went to Zenobia’s café to work on their art.
“Honey,” Parker teasingly inquired one afternoon at Zenobia’s. “Does Larry ever get jealous of you spending so much time with a super-sexy stud muffin like me?”
“Larry knows you’re gay, Park,” Pepper replied. “So, he isn’t jealous about me spending time with you. The truth is, I’m not sure how much he’d care if I did cheat on him. He didn’t seem to care all that much about the almost affair that happened with Virgil. He’s told me that he thinks I have too great an appetite, and I’m pretty sure he meant sex rather than food.”
Pepper and Parker were sitting at a table near one of the long benches on the perimeter of the café. When his friend’s eyes filled with tears, Parker opened his arms, and Pepper nestled against him with her head on his shoulder. After a moment, Pepper dried her eyes and giggled.
“Okay, what?” Parker asked.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Stud Muffin, but I’m really glad you’re gay. If you were straight, I’d probably fall in love with you because you’re too cute, too cool, and too totally sweet. I can tell you anything and you don’t judge me even though I’m a terrible person.”
“Okay, Pep, confession time,” Parker prodded. “You need to tell old Father Parker why you think you’re a terrible person. Out with it, Sister! The truth is obviously eating away at you and is going to leave your soul hollow and desolate if you don’t set it free. Papa Parker is in the confessional, and you need to testify!”
“With an offer like that, how can I refuse? I’m just hoping that even you won’t think I’m too toxic to touch with a ten-foot barge pole once you know the truth. I only married Larry because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but now that I’m pregnant, I need to get serious about trying to make the marriage work.”
“Baby, as confessions go, that was the weakest confession that Papa Parker has ever heard in all his long, hard days as a priest at the Chapel of Sin. It don’t take a crystal ball to see that you don’t love Larry, that despite not loving him you don’t want to hurt him, and that you only married him because you’re a lost soul and he provided an anchor. Come on, you need a laugh. Let’s go over to The Velvet Ribbon and look at the crazy sex toys.”
“Maybe you’re the one who needs to confess, Padre Parker,” Pepper smirked. “I think that you want to go over to the smut shop because you’re hoping that Kenny Summerfield will be working.”
“Well, what if? Ken likes you. We can laugh at the sex toys together.”
“Why don’t you ask him out, Park? It’s pretty clear that you’re nuts about him.”
“That’s kind of why I don’t ask him out. I don’t want to put my heart on the line just to get it broken, and I don’t want to ask Ken to put his heart on the line for me to break it. I’m gonna be going to Nueva York this summer to intern with Valko Borisov.”
“The Russian erotica photographer? No way!”
“He’s Bulgarian, you philistine,” Parker laughed, taking Pepper’s hand, and helping her to her feet. “The Bulgarian Bad Boy whose sinful photographs set every fundamentalist prat’s pants on fire. But he’s also a fashion photographer. I am going to learn a lot being Valko’s gofer.”
“Well, you’d better write me every week and tell me all about the debauchery you’re getting up to with The Bulgarian Bad Boy. I am going to buy you the biggest box of condoms, and you’d better promise me that you’re going to use them.”
“Don’t worry, Babycakes, I’ll be careful,” Parker promised, linking his arm in Pepper’s as they walked out of the café into the bright afternoon sunlight. “Honestly, I’m probably going to be super tired from being Valko’s pack mule, carrying all his cameras and equipment to shoots.”
“As long as you don’t end up being his drug mule.”
“Pep, you read too much, or at least too much of the wrong stuff. Yeah, there’s a lot that can happen, but I don’t think I’m going to have time to be going wild. I’m going to learn everything about photography that Valko can teach me. Then I’m gonna get rich and buy you a house.”
July 12, 1988
It was a slow day when Pepper arrived at Zenobia’s Café at two in the afternoon. There was only one other patron in the shop, an urbane young man with his nose buried in a book sipping on an iced Xtra Xpresso. Pepper ordered an iced decaf mocha and a big cookie with bright yellow frosting and sat down to read the letter from Parker. She felt desperately lonely and wished that she had someone to talk to.
“How’s your little friend doing?”
Pepper gave a surprised glance at the elderly woman with the wild white hair standing behind the counter. She couldn’t recall Zenobia—or at least she assumed the venerable lady was Zenobia—ever saying anything beyond a polite “thank you” before.
“He’s fine,” Pepper replied. “He’s having more fun than I am, I can tell you that.”
“What passes for fun, maybe,” Zenobia said knowingly. “May I sit with you? I’ve been on my feet since three o’clock this morning.”
“Yes, of course,” Pepper replied, delighted for the company and whatever wisdom the Bohemian crone might have to share.
Zenobia fixed herself an iced coffee into which she poured steamed milk with almond flavoring.
“I love the steamed almond milk, but it wouldn’t do to be falling asleep at two o’clock in the afternoon, would it?” she inquired.
“I suppose not, but it would be delightful to have a steamed almond milk and snooze on one of the bean bag chairs up in the loft. I have to admit that this place has become my home away from home. If I brought my cats here to live in the loft, it would be just about perfect. Oh, don’t worry, I’m only thinking aloud. I would never impose in that way. I’d ask for a job here, only I’m afraid I’d just end up pissing you off. I can be the world’s best employee. I have a lot of enthusiasm. But then the black dog takes hold of my mind and I slag off for months sometimes.”
“I understand,” Zenobia said. “This is why I have a long list of people I can call on short notice. Many otherwise good workers have psychological problems. I almost wonder at the people who don’t have psychological problems. This world is full of horrible, hurtful things. I wonder that some people don’t seem affected by it. To tell you the truth, I don’t quite trust such people.”
“Me either. I find that they’re usually only in things for themselves.”
“Yes indeed, you’re quite right. Machiavellian spirits, the lot of them. Fortunately, we don’t get many of that kind in here. I much prefer the bleeding hearts and artists, although some of those are rather full of themselves too. A pretty girl like you has encountered their kind, I’m sure, all meaningless caresses and hollow promises—and limp dicks, if I may be so bold.”
The young woman snorted, and the old woman chortled.
Zingers and Zephyrs
The urbane young man walked behind the counter and made himself an iced latte. He noticed Pepper’s startled expression and extended a slender hand with sparkly purple painted fingernails.
“How do you do?” the dapper chap offered with a fetching smile. “I’m Nate Y. Lathrop, Zenobia’s nephew. The Y stands for Youngblood, or maybe for yes because yes is always best. A no is never nice, but sometimes it’s necessary, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You’re very theatrical, and I like your nails,” Pepper said. “They remind me of my friend Parker. He made me this notebook, and he and I used to paint each other’s nails. I really miss him. I have a bad feeling that he’s in over his head in New York, and there’s nothing I can do to help him because I’m broke and pregnant.”
“Shall we do a reading for her, Auntie?” Nate inquired.
“You do readings?” Pepper asked.
“No charge. However, you must be in full agreement with the caveats. There is no guarantee that any reading we give will lead you to fame, love, or wealth. We would prefer not to be forced into the position of making anyone fall in love with you. It doesn’t tend to end well. We would rather not kill anybody. And we truly advise against bringing anyone back from the dead. It isn’t pretty. With those conditions, would you like advice from the Universe through us?”
“Yes, I would,” Pepper decided.
“Splendid! Then open your hands and your heart, and let’s have a look.”
Zenobia and Nate scrutinized Pepper’s hands. They murmured between themselves in a language that Pepper didn’t understand. After several minutes, the pair looked up, nodded, and faced Pepper again.
“That you are artistically talented is no secret,” Nate said, pointing to Pepper’s notebook.
“Parker is artistically talented. He made the notebook.”
“You are artistically talented, but you have trouble focusing,” said Zenobia. “Note the small lines here, here, and here.”
“I was always in trouble at school for daydreaming and doodling.”
“Such rubbish,” Nate sighed. “The daydreamers and doodlers make the world a more interesting place. We change lives. Don’t you forget it!”
“You look like you’re younger than I am, but you sound old and wise,” Pepper noted.
“Looks can be deceiving, and there are those who would say that I’m a wise-ass. I do have my undeniable talents, but Auntie is the true master of the craft. You can rely on what she says.”
Quick Casseroles and Inky Obstacles
“You have an interest in music,” Zenobia noted. “However, although music features prominently in your life, this is not the avenue that would be best for you to pursue.”
“Well, no worries, I already gave that up,” Pepper said. “I became estranged from my family after I married my husband. They didn’t like him. They were begging to patch things up, and Larry said that the only way he’d go along is if they agreed to come to family counseling with us. During one of those sessions, my father said that he felt my pursuing a career in music was foolish, because out of everyone in the family, I have the least musical ability. My dream was crushed, and I haven’t touched an instrument since.”
“Your father was incorrect, and I suggest not following your family’s edicts too closely,” Zenobia advised. “They want you to build a life of quick casseroles and inky obstacles. My dear, you could never be happy in such a life. The arts call to you, and you must listen or spend this lifetime wishing that you had.”
“I wanted to be an artist, but I’m not very good at it,” Pepper sighed. “My mother is a good artist. When I showed her some pictures I’d been working on, she laughed at them and told me that I’d best concentrate on my studies. I wanted to be an actress, but my father told me that I was always too quiet during school plays and my mother said that I wasn’t pretty enough to be anything but a bit player. What else is left?”
“Well, being a DJ would be a good side job,” Nate suggested. “You get to play music, and it would piss your family off.”
“That isn’t my calling though, is it?”
“No, but it would be a good side job.”
“My dear, think about it,” Zenobia pressed. “When it comes to creating, what is your first love?”
“Well, it’s writing. But I’m hardly H.P. Lovecraft.”
“Good news!” Nate announced. “H.P. Lovecraft is hardly you!”
“You and my friend Parker are two of a kind,” Pepper noted. “You’re both funny and you say just what I need to hear. So, do you really think that writing is what I should be concentrating on?”
“Absolutely,” Zenobia confirmed. “Writing is what will save you from a lifetime of misery, but I need to make myself clear. I am not saying that writing will make you famous, wealthy, or save you from sorrow. I am saying that it is the one thing that can save your life.”
“May I ask you a foolish question?”
“There are no foolish questions, Dear.”
“Oh, there are foolish questions,” Nate countered. “But only idiots ask them. You aren’t an idiot.”
“Are you a real witch? I don’t mean someone who just decided to call themselves a witch, but someone who was born a witch. Do you know what I mean?”
“I am the descendant of a very powerful line of witches,” Zenobia replied. “And you, my dear young woman, are more special, important, and interesting than either you or your parents realize.”
This story is dedicated to Walter Cessna, a beautiful soul whose life was cut short by AIDS. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to know him and wish that I had been able to know him better.
Walt said that I inspired him to put together his book, Fukt 2 Start With. I am so pleased that I encouraged him in this endeavor. His words live on here. http://bit.ly/Fkt2SW
I encourage everyone to take the chance and get to know a wonderful soul.
You can also read more about Walt in this 2012 interview.
I was also inspired by watching the documentary of Howard Ashman, the playwright and lyricist who co-composed the lyrics for several of Disney’s classic movies including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and the Little Mermaid. He also wrote the screenplay for Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and contributed two of the songs.
I had one of those weekends where I almost stopped writing for good because I feel like it isn’t leading anywhere. But I think that perhaps Walt wouldn’t want me to do that, so I’m going to give it another chance even though I am feeling very discouraged by life right now.
For anyone who wants to give the old “you’re just a baby beginner, success will come with time” spiel, don’t. I’m not a “baby beginner.” I’m 56 years old and I’ve been writing with the intent of being a published author since I was a teenager. I have several published books.
I don’t think that I’m a bad writer, my style and subject matter simply don’t have popular appeal. I’ve tried to force myself to write popular appeal stuff. It never works. I always go back to writing what I like to write.
I also have a quirky and somewhat abrasive and defensive personality. My self-esteem is shaky at the best of times, I have ADHD (and no, I don’t want to medicate it) and my baseline mood is moderately depressed (I have no desire to medicate that either, particularly since all the medications I tried for it made me manic, psychotic, or both.)
What I do suck at is promotion, but I don’t have the budget to hire someone to do it for me.
At this point, I keep writing because when I try to quit, I also quit everything else. Like cooking, washing the dishes, and housework, such as that is. The one thing I may suck even worse at than I do at promotion is housework.
The story is autobiographical, albeit with a great deal of artistic license taken.
So, there you have it—a fractured story with broken characters written by a shattered spirit and dedicated to a beautifully flawed soul. Enjoy or don’t. I can’t make the decision for you.
The Sad Café is a song written by Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, and J. D. Souther about music club the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and all the musicians that would be hanging around there at night, singing together. It was performed by The Eagles, appearing on their 1979 album “The Long Run.”
First Line Friday
Putting My Feet in the Dirt
Write a story about somebody reminiscing on an event that happened many summers ago.