I went to a Starbucks on a calm June afternoon in Bakersfield. It was a hundred degrees. I would turn twenty-six in a week. I ordered an iced coffee. The barista put only three ice cubes in the cup, so I asked for extra ice. By the time I sat under a green canopy, most of the ice had melted. The heat didn’t bother me as much as the ice did.
I chain-smoked, I read chapters of The Brothers Karamazov, I pulled out a pen, and I wrote in my notebook. It wasn’t for a manuscript, not even a short story; I wrote out query letters to agents, for practice. I hadn’t even begun on a screenplay or a manuscript. I practiced the query unmolested. I read or I wrote in a public halo. People wouldn’t bother me. It was an unwritten rule.
A beatnik joined me out there with a skateboard. He represented a small ilk of that town—this young, scrawny dude who wore a black Ramones t-shirt and a plaid golf cap and red suspenders; he smoked cloves and he drank regular black coffee. We yapped about Bukowski and Dostoyevsky and Led Zeppelin and The Muppets until he skated away. I sat out there alone again in the heat. He liked Nietzsche (my kind of person), and he had come from Northern California and used the word “hella” instead of “very”.
A young stoner girl invited herself to my table. She had some nerve, but she also had pigtails.
“It’s hella hot out here,” she said.
“What’re you reading?”
I showed her the cover.
“He’s Russian,” I said.
“Ah, I’ve read that book, it gets me off.”
“Gets you what?”
“I mean, I love the writer.”
“I’ve read them all,” I said.
“You’ve read them all? That makes my puss throb.”
“Nothing. That’s hella hot. I feel like a horny genus when I smoke weed.”
“I smoke, too.”
“I watched the fight last night. Did you watch it?”
“The boxing match? I was reading.”
“You are such a sexy boy. Would you read to me while I sit beside you topless?”
“My brother’s house. He isn’t home.”
“Unless you have something better to do.”
Just what was the angle? I closed the book and lit another cigarette.
“But I have four questions I ask that helps me weed the wrong people out quickly. Are you game?”
So there was the catch.
“You seem aggressive,” I said. “Am I supposed to be submissive?”
“Are you playing the game or not?”
“OK OK, I’m game.”
“Have you been to jail? Do you like your mom? Can you host? And what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?…And about your question, I am the sub. I’m just like this when I’m hella baked.”
She helped herself to my pack of cigarettes, and used my lighter, too.
“OK,” I said, “I’ve never been to jail, I love my mom, and I’m not a host.”
She sat back in her chair, curled her legs up against her body, and cocked my cigarette in the air. One of her shoulder straps slipped down her arm.
“And the last answer?” she said.
Now, this was the age before smartphones, and I needed one for that question, if not a standard encyclopedia, and since graduation I hadn’t been carrying those around. I had answered her honestly. I had never taken Physics in high school. Physics was the science of motion. That included the speed of thought or emotion. So a swallow was a bird. A regular swallow was smaller than the average crow.
The girl watched me with this condescending smirk on her face.
“Fifteen miles-per-hour,” I said.
She shook her head so disappointingly.
“I thought you’d pass.”
“Oh, this is bullshit.”
“Sorry, move along.”
“Where was I wrong?”
“You needed three out of four. Four out of four, and I would’ve flashed you my boobs. You, my friend, got two out of four.”
“Fine. Which ones did I get wrong?”
“Three and four.”
“What are you, a Batman villain?”
She took another cigarette for the road.
“Sorry. Move along!”
“Beat it,” I said.
She flipped a quarter to the table, and she walked off, alone, away from that shopping center, like a lone road-warrior, whatever her name was.
A barista came out with his mop, along with a stack of clean ashtrays. He took my old one away and replaced it with a new one. He seemed cool. But some people seemed cool before I talked to them. He went to a Presbyterian church and majored in Religious Studies at the state college.
“That’s Ashlee,” he said, “with two E’s.”
“What questions did she ask you?”
He stopped for a moment, with his arm at the end of the mop. He pulled his hat off and rubbed his forehead, staring onward where Ashlee had disappeared.
“Something about the anatomy of a snowflake?…I think?”
“Did you get it right?”
“I actually did.”
“So what happened?”
He pressed his cap back on his head, and pulled it down farther as a gesture. He went back inside, that asshole.
I waited the next fourteen years for the next Ashlee with pigtails. Or the same Ashlee with pigtails. She wouldn’t arrive. I moved to Cambria, which had less than half as many people as Bakersfield did, and which meant fewer intellectuals but also fewer idiots.
One morning I went to a coffee shop on the main drag. A barista stood behind the counter with pigtails. She looked even more beautiful than Ashlee, with these vacant blue eyes. I had found my new coffee shop.
One of those mornings stepped in Manfred Ellerbe, writer of nature—and his nature was mean. He tucked the day’s newspaper under his arm.
“Where the hell is the bathroom?” he asked the barista.
“Umm, we don’t have one.”
“Don’t have one? What do you mean ‘don’t have one’? What kind of place doesn’t have a shitter for its customers?”
She stroked her pigtails, either thinking or panicking. “Umm, the nearest one is down the road.”
“In this shit town?” he said. “What’re you afraid of? That I’ll stink this place up? That I’ll shoot up? That I’ll die in this fucking place?”
“Umm, umm, Sir, I told you, it’s half a mile down at the Shell station.”
“Even a shit-town can’t trust a man on the shitter,” he said, and he pushed himself out of there. He fucking hurried, too.
I ordered a cappuccino and brought it out to the sidewalk where I could legally smoke. The coffee shop, as with most coffee shops, had prohibited smoking in the patio, or even in the front of the shop. Each day, society peeled another layer of freedom away from its people. Someday they would hook me up to a respirator.
I lit up at the corner. Manfred didn’t wait for the gas station. He crouched over a sewer across the street, right in front of an antique shop. Its owner rushed outside.
“That’s inexcusable, I’m calling the cops,” she said.
“Yeah? Have them bring some ass-paper,” he said.
He walked back to the coffee shop like a walking shit on fire. I looked elsewhere, so he wouldn’t think I was watching. He went to a seat in the corner. He spread the paper apart like it was a dead turkey. He had ordered a coffee, so they couldn’t throw him out.
The cops showed up, two of them. One of them wrote a citation for indecent exposure and another for defecating in public. If he were in a certain town, Manfred would’ve caught a sexual offense. He picked his towns wisely.
“But why is a public bathroom private property?” he asked the cops.
“What do you mean?”
“They call them public bathrooms for a reason.”
“This shop doesn’t have a public bathroom, Mr. Ellerbe.”
“OK. But the shop is open to the public. Don’t you think anyone should have a right to shit where they want?”
“Get it together,” the other cop said, “and watch what you say to a police officer.”
“What is it these days? A man can’t shit anywhere but home.”
“There’s children present. Good day, Sir.”
A kid was in the other corner, with his mother. In a stroller, and he was already texting on his phone.
“At least you gave me some paper to wipe with,” Manfred shouted at the cops.
What a morning was that.
I went to the coffee house every morning when Pigtails worked. Manfred always read in the patio. Never did he speak to me, let alone acknowledge me. He intimidated me, even for someone who wrote about nature.
Cambria was a peaceful town with draconian bathroom laws. A nationally distributed magazine had voted it the friendliest town in the United States. My neighbors left pecan pies and Indian Pale Ales at my doorstep each Thursday, as part of a community-giving program. Deer or some other animal had nibbled away at the pies one time, so the neighbors didn’t think too well about consequences. I stuck a note on my front door:
PLEASE KNOCK. DON’T LEAVE THE PIES AT THE FRONT DOOR.
I gave back, and it took time out of my day. Their generosity wasn’t necessary.
I lived in the woods, by myself, where I hiked a trail each morning before I went to the coffee shop. Nothing but trees and bushes waved at me in the breeze. They warned me about something. I was insane. I had moved to that town with a second mind, and that mind had split itself from the other mind as gradually as Pangaea. Why did I move to Cambria? Bakersfield wasn’t so bad. Turn around, the trees said. Don’t get any closer. Hooves or something pattered nearby. The whole forest encircled me, entrapped me. I had wandered too far. Was it a deer or a bear or something worse? The trees wouldn’t say. It could’ve been one of those sasquatch monsters, the ones that were always blurry. I turned around, and it scampered somewhere, and it stopped. It was never in my periphery, but it huffed at me and growled in my left ear. It might’ve attacked me at any moment. A sasquatch couldn’t have moved as swiftly, so it couldn’t have been that. It could’ve been a mountain lion or, worse, a family of mountain lions planning an ambush. Where were those cops and the townspeople then?
I ran back to the neighborhood-road three miles from home. I was in Manfred’s situation, so I knocked on the nearest door. A furry doormat ahead of my feet said MR. BEASLEY on it. He was an old white man. He wore an Australian safari hat with the neck-string hanging down.
“What can I do for you?”
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Beasley, but I need a bathroom.”
“But of course.”
“I feel bad doing it in the woods. It might confuse the deer.”
“Come on in,” he said.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Did you bring nothing to read?”
He put his hand on my back. “I have plenty of literature.”
Mr. Beasley had some classics on his bathroom shelf: some Huxley, some Saroyan, some Vonnegut. He even had five of Manfred Ellerbe’s books. One of them was his bestseller: The Diabetic’s Guide to Birdwatching. I pulled another book of his from the shelf: How to Love Nature and Get Laid Because of It. I had never read any of Ellerbe’s works. Every paragraph had at least one profanity (balls, fuck, piss, shit, tits, pussy, cocksucker); he used them in place of more proper words.
I flushed the toilet, struck a match, and washed my hands in the sink using a bar of soap that was shaped like a duck.
Mr. Beasley stood and waited at the other side of the door. His hat was still on, but he wore a yellow raincoat. He had this despairing anger in his eyes. A silver squirrel peeked out of the pocket of the raincoat.
“You said you lived nearby?” he asked.
“I don’t know that road. Sounds like you’re making it up.”
“Barton, I know that road.” He rubbed the squirrel’s head with his thumb. “I know Barton very well. Would sure be nice to get familiar with a new neighbor. That’s unless you’re in some kind of a rush. Was that all you needed was to use my bathroom? To scope the place out?”
So I sat in Beasley’s living room, and he made me a cup of tea. He sat in his chair across from me, with the squirrel in his lap.
“What’s the squirrel’s name?” I asked.
“She looks like a Beverly.”
Mr. Beasley had a shark’s head planted over a fireplace. He just stared at me drinking the tea, studying me as if my head might compliment the shark’s. He didn’t even ask me any more questions. He just watched me drink the tea.
“I noticed you have some books by Manfred Ellerbe,” I said.
He cursed in Latin under his breath. He let go of Beverly, and Beverly jumped away and ran for cover somewhere in the kitchen.
“Manfred is a mean bastard,” he said.
“You must love his writing, though.”
“They’re fine. They sure better than his crime-fiction books. You know what they say: a good artist is usually a mean son-of-a-gun.”
“He wrote crime-fiction, too?”
“Back in those formative years. They all involved Navajo Indians.”
“That explains the necklace he wears at the coffee shop.”
“You see him at the coffee shop, do you?”
“Every time. It has those bird feathers and the red gemstones in the middle.”
“When you see him again, can you tell him something for me?”
“You tell him that I better not see him again.”
I took another sip of the tea, and Mr. Beasley watched me without saying another word for a long while. His eyes were yellow, like old urine.
“Stand up,” Mr. Beasley said.
“Go ahead, stand up.”
He didn’t answer back, so I stood. He shook his head. Something had changed his mind.
“No, sit down.”
So I sat back down.
The tea tasted like tea, with a slice of lemon and a hint of THC. It hit me at the bottom of the cup, but it could’ve been my imagination.
Mr. Beasley pointed at another chair closer to him in the living room.
“Sit over here,” he said.
“I should get going.”
“Are you tired? You may rest in the bedroom.”
“That’s all right.”
I put the tea cup down on a coffee table, and I went straight for the door without thanking him or shaking his hand. He followed me right to the door, but he didn’t close it. His yellow eyes glowed in the sunlight.
The next time I went hiking, I shit in the woods. And I shit in the woods the next time after that….Beverly might’ve crawled up one of those trees.
And the next time at the coffee shop, I sat at a table next to Manfred. Somehow he always got the table in the corner, the one table where the sun couldn’t glare on him.
“I’m a writer, too, Mr. Ellerbe.”
But he didn’t answer back.
I rested my legs on another chair.
“You better not let Mr. Beasley see you again,” I said.
That time, he glanced up from the paper. He set it down, drank his coffee, and he looked my way. His eyes carried too much intensity. So why? Why did I get involved? Why? I was a writer. He didn’t respond with words, only with that stare.
By mid-morning, a bunch of families crowded the patio. They threw a birthday party for their four-year-old (out of all places), and they popped balloons. I anticipated each next pop. The pops went off in my stomach. I couldn’t finish the pages I was writing.
One kid climbed onto a chair at Manfred’s table, and Manfred rolled up his newspaper and batted him away. The kid didn’t even cry or yell for his mommy.
Another kid had brought his pet turtle. He let it out the cage, too. The kids hopped on other tables and they popped their balloons, and the turtle crept under the noise. It bit and pulled at my pant leg, and I kicked it away. I was between assholes and idiots. I was trapped no matter where.
By duck-duck-goose time, the idiots ran the assholes right out—me and Manfred Ellerbe. No wonder he wrote about Indians. They had been run out as well, by idiots with diseases.
I searched with my GPS navigator for the closest coffee shop. It directed me to a Starbucks in Santa Maria. Starbucks had taken away the ashtrays in the fourteen years since that afternoon with Ashlee, at least in California. She still never showed up.
The literati no longer showed up either. They had migrated elsewhere collectively, unless they had died off like the natives or built their own reservations: other coffee shops; secret coffee shops only the literati members knew about. I was no longer affiliated with that society. I had nothing they wanted. Acquaintances had fallen away and disappeared. So now the idiots had pillaged the coffee shops with their demands: no smoking. Smoking polluted the air. So did service dogs and boisterous children. They polluted the air with either noise or germs. But the idiots were fine with that.
Manfred showed up to the Starbucks in Santa Maria as well, by happenstance. He stood ahead of me in line. Starbucks advertised a new drink, a Unicorn Frappuccino, a pink and blue smoothie with fruity syrup. He cut to the front of the line, to a barista who wore hoops in her earlobes which spread them as widely as quarters. She also had a ring between her nostrils. He pointed at the advertisement on the wall:
“What the fuck is that?”
“That’s the Unicorn Frappuccino.”
“What does it do?”
“It’s very sweet. You want to try it?”
“Like hell I do. I drove all this way because my shop got raided by morons with balloons, and now I see this thing that looks like you threw a bunch of Care Bears in a blender? Give me a dark roast, quick! My morning’s ruined.”
“You can’t talk to my employee like that,” the manager said, this tired middle-aged man with bedhead.
“Who? Her? The one with the ring in her nose? She looks like a bull. Or am I supposed to knock on a door with that thing?”
She poured his coffee, half-crying.
“Just pay for your coffee and leave,” the manager said.
Manfred tipped her, though, with a raggedy dollar bill.
“This should help fix your earlobes,” he said.
“Get out of here,” the manager said. “Don’t come back.”
Ellerbe took his coffee irritably towards the milk-bar, and he almost tripped over a young boy.
“Jesus, Kid, I almost burned your scalp.”
“I want a Unicorn Frappuccino.”
“Why’re you telling me? I’m not buying you that garbage.”
The kid even tugged his leg.
“Give me a Unicorn Frappuccino.”
“You on drugs, Boy? I’m not your dad. Now piss off.”
“You’re my new dad, my old dad sucks.”
“I’m sure he does, but I’m not buying you a damn thing. I learned enough from my ex-wife.”
“Words of wisdom, Kid: if it’s sweet and vibrant, it’s for idiots. Now, out of my way!”
Ellerbe pushed forward until the boy fell off his leg. The kid got so upset, he called for his father, wherever his father was. Manfred didn’t care. He poured a drip of cream in his coffee—no sugar. The manager waited for him at the milk bar.
“Now leave,” he said.
“Go fuck a unicorn!”
Manfred was the last intelligent one in that place.
A Disney cartoon ended at Edward’s Cinema in the same shopping center. At the same time a charter bus let out a whole other herd. The parents led their kids or pulled their dogs, or they pushed their babies in strollers, all to the Starbucks—where the intelligentsia once escaped to from those families. Now where? The families must’ve figured this out. Starbucks no longer served just coffee and pastries. They had sold out further to cookies, cupcakes, and lollipops: idiot food. The kids jumped on seats. They climbed underneath tables, where people sat. One of them threw a jar of white sugar and a handful of wooden sticks to the floor. The jar broke in shards. The parents didn’t mind. They either texted on their Androids, or they smiled lovingly at their precious gargoyles.
“He’s so adorable.”
“Thanks. Yours is adorable, too.”
They bragged about their kids’ soccer leagues. Some brought their service dogs. They all gave me a panic attack. Where was my service dog for the other service dogs? Being a writer was hard enough. I researched when I didn’t write. I looked for dark souls and found them in bars, and I listened to their drunk honesty, and I absorbed their emotional poisons, just for perspectives on a scene I was working on. The emotional side brought an immense pain that went numb after so long. So I drank, I smoked joints, but the emotions either hurt me more or numbed me further. I could’ve just drank coffee and stared out a window for the rest of my life like an emotional vegetable, which sounded pleasant, and I did so in that coffee shop, with the idiots abound. Eckhart Tolle wrote that I could hush the mind by staring at a tree, and I did that, too, at a large oak tree. It was next to a 76 Station. I could’ve stared longer at the tree or at that bright orange sign, even all day, but the writer in me rebelled. The writer was like a passive shark without any teeth. Just dry gums. He preyed on psychotic strangers and wrote about them later. He must live through their feelings. How else would the writer have felt the stranger’s narrative?
A baby cried in its stroller as if it were boiling. The dogs sniffed my ankles. They hopped onto the couches with the children for muffin crumbs. That or they licked them off themselves, off the chairs or off the floor. Piece by piece everything picked away and took, and picked away….They stripped away my dollars, my social life, my sexuality. Idiots didn’t pick up after themselves; I picked up after them.
A barista swept the broken glass and the wooden sticks from the floor into his dustpan. He kneeled and he pet the dog at my ankles with his bare hands.
“Lynne,” the manager said to him, “go take the coffee bar. Stacy is going on break.”
But Lynne pet the dog some more. The dog licked its own asshole and licked Lynne’s face and lips lovingly, cluelessly, and Lynne scratched and rubbed its belly some more.
“You going to wash your hands?” I asked him.
One of the customers butted in.
“My dog needs more water. Can you fill a bowl?”
Lynne rubbed his hands on his green apron.
“Right away, Mr. McGuffiin.”
He hurried back to the counter with the broom and the dustpan.
“I didn’t see you on the bus,” Mr. McGuffin said to me. “You with our group?”
“Never,” I said.
“I mean, yes, I’m with the group.”
“You ready for the petting zoo? Where’s your little rug rat?”
“He’s in the car.”
“What car? By himself?”
“He can’t stand public interaction. He likes the windows rolled up, too, when it’s hot.”
“So you’re not going to the zoo?”
“I would, but he’s allergic to zebras.”
McGuffin squinted at me. Sarcasm was a foreign dialect to some.
This all occurred before I got my cappuccino. One idiot had ordered a dozen of the Unicorn Frappuccinos to-go, through his Android app on the way there. He cut to the front.
“That’s a nice hustle,” I told him.
“I love it,” he said, “it’s like the Fastpass.”
He paid extra, so he and his kids could cut to the front of the lines. Capitalism at its worst.
Sometime before the Mayan calendar ended, the idiots had found out about the coffee shops: another lot outside of Walmart and McDonald’s. Most Walmarts had McDonald’s inside of them—like a physical death inside of a spiritual death. The idiots still went there, yes, as long as the places let them in. Something about coffee attracted them, or places that served coffee, but not regular coffee. As Mr. Ellerbe had said, the idiots craved bright coloration in their drinks.
The herds left the store by noon, and they had whirled it into wreckage. The whole inside of the Starbucks frowned. Posters hung by their last hinges. Whole plain bagels lay face down on the floor. The baristas mopped up slobber, broken donuts, puddles of coffee, off the floor and off the chairs.
The idiots climbed back into their charter bus. Those poor zoo animals had no idea.
Manfred showed up to the Cambria Coffee House every day for a whole year. He degenerated more each day. His skin looked more dry and gray and dusty than his newspapers did. And like old pages, his skin went from gray to yellow. His beard hung down to his tits. He wore the same clothes every day: a lemonade-yellow dress shirt and beige pants with blue leather loafers. They all fell to dust. Refinement turned to dirty, worthless rags.
Major news corporations had resorted to digital media. Even at the sidewalks, those boxy newspaper vendors with the fun lids, the ones next to the ones for real estate ads, were empty. The real estate vendors looked brand new. The newspaper vendors were as hollow and busted as microwaves in a landfill.
“What happened to the newspapers?” I asked the barista.
“Umm, like, that’s one less thing to clean up.”
“Did you request this?”
“Umm, did you want a refill?”
“There’s a man shrinking out there. He needs a newspaper.”
Out came the manager.
“What’s this about?”
“We need newspapers. Why don’t you sell them?”
The manager had pink hair.
“Nobody reads anymore,” she said.
One morning, Manfred showed up with an iPad. It happened overnight. There was no foresight into this—no hints that Manfred would show up with one. Where was his haughtiness in grunting and flipping the pages irritably, and raising an eyebrow over his glasses? Look at me! I’m reading the paper, and you are not. The Dow Jones has dropped today, but you wouldn’t know, you aren’t reading the paper. Manfred with his iPad looked weak and distracted. He hunched over it and swiped the screen from left to right with his fingers. Change was sad.
I moved over to his table.
“Mr. Ellerbe, may I call you Manfred?”
He didn’t look up from the screen.
“How about Mr. Ellerbe?”
“I write novels, and I value the works you’ve written. The other day I read a chapter of Woodpeckers and Blue Balls.”
(That was a lie. It was on Mr. Beasley’s bookshelf, but I never read a page of it.)
“Get to the point,” he said.
He croaked; he no longer roared.
“This means I also value your opinion, so if you have time, which it looks like you do, I’d like to—”
“Send it to my email,” he said.
He surprised me. The answer had come too unexpectedly.
“Are you sure?”
So I wrote down his email, drove home, and I sent it out. I mopped my kitchen afterward. I hadn’t mopped my kitchen in a year. Something in me had changed in those close hours. I wasn’t depressed.
I couldn’t sleep in so much mania. These fantasies converged with nightmares. I signed books at a book signing at a famous bookstore in Santa Barbara. Young groupies flashed me their boobs, I signed their copies, and their boobs, and they gave me their addresses. But I was homeless—a famous author who was also homeless. It all depended on the help of Mr. Ellerbe.
But Mr. Ellerbe didn’t show up. I followed up with another email, but he never replied.
A week later he didn’t bring his iPad. He didn’t even drink coffee. His hair had dirt, grease, and flakes in it, flies swam around him, his beard veered right, and his eyes appeared crooked like Columbo’s. He stared at nothing, and he muttered to himself.
I graciously bought him a coffee, but he just stared into space.
“Are you OK? Did you read my novel? I mean, manuscript?”
But he just mumbled incomprehensible words, looking lost at something.
I let him be, and I went upstairs. Why did the gatekeepers always lose their minds at the worst times?
Upstairs was a study with a sleeping fireplace, with two white cloth couches, and with a coffee table in between. A married couple sat at the long table, and they both read the newspaper. They must’ve subscribed to it. Somewhere in that slow town of Cambria, a paperboy must’ve still pedaled before dawn and thrown copies at doorsteps. The couple had shown up for the first time, it seemed. They kept silent. They might’ve kept silent at home, too. Once in their relationship they probably told jokes, or they laughed during sex. But they ignored each other contentedly, in comfortable misery together without a convincing enough reason for divorce. If they couldn’t share happiness or satisfaction, at least they could share comfort in having neither.
“Excuse me,” I said to them.
But neither answered. I wasn’t there. They flipped their pages, and they both drank tea out of porcelain teacups, along with porcelain saucers, and silver spoons.
“Can you give up some of the paper? My friend downstairs needs it.”
The husband raised his eyes at me. The wife kept her eyes on the pages.
“No,” she said.
How audaciously rude. Her tits belonged on top of a Christmas tree. My legs shrank. The wooden floor appeared closer, but my arms had shrunk, too, so I couldn’t touch the floor. The front page of the Wall Street Journal waved into focus. The date on it was April 27, 2008. The headline concerned the Democratic presidential primary. I had smoked too much Blue Dream in the car. I stood up, and I tripped over one of the chair legs—the leg giggled at me. What were they doing there in that nice town? Why did Manfred go insane?
A couple of dumb people sat in the room, too. They sat on the couch, connected at the hip. They didn’t read anything. They stared off like a couple of sad, blank, tired farmers. They drank coffee smoothies and held the cups with napkins. What jobs did they have, if they had any? It was a Tuesday morning. I got out, and I missed that shop until the next spring.
I wrote short stories at home. Some days were more suicidal than others. It depended on the days of the week. Mondays and Tuesdays were the most severe. Wednesdays lessened the feelings.
The isolation got so intense one morning that I went to a diner, with dumb people abound. Their lips smacked on onion rings. My waitress overpoured my water, and the water flooded my notepad and reached my laptop. Their egg sandwiches were only eggs they cooked in microwaves between plain dinner rolls.
I tried another place. The same magazine that had voted Cambria as the nicest town in America had also voted the breakfast burrito of this cafe as the best in the world. They fluffed the scrambled eggs, they burnt the bacon and the buttery hash browns just right, but all the seats were taken. I rushed to an empty table, but someone else had already reserved it.
In all those months, Manfred hadn’t written me back about my manuscript. Either he had never read it—hopefully in this case—or he had read it and thought it was so terrible that he didn’t waste his time with me, or he had read it and thought it was such a timeless classic that he resented me: why should he help someone who was more brilliant than he was? He couldn’t let such brilliance outdo him. Those possibilities scratched, along with the fantasies and nightmares.
I went back to the shop. Those same couples appeared upstairs, but Manfred Ellerbe wasn’t anywhere. A bunch of old men sat at his table and played Bridge and talked about fishing. And he remained missing many days thereafter.
The smart couple left their table one morning, and they left without the newspaper. I waited for their exit, and I gathered all the loose pages from the table. The date was correct. Some people just read old news for the sake of reading old news, like my grandmother who hoarded newspapers from the 1930’s. Others loved certain books so much that they read the same books over again; the same with movies or albums. It went on for decades.
The first page I turned to was the obit section. The name MANFRED ELLERBE stuck out. It was like a long word in a word search.
How could it be? People like Manfred didn’t die. They were never born. They just appeared overnight like new billboards. They seemed entirely alone. They were never infants, either. And they just looked eternally forty-one—like James Woods. Somebody must’ve known the reason for his death.
I brought the section down to the barista with pigtails. I ordered a cappuccino. She held the marker to the cup.
“What was your name again?”
Now, I had gone to that shop for two years every morning when she worked. She had asked for my name every time, and had even written it down slowly enough for remembrance.
“You know Manfred?” I asked.
“Umm, I think so.”
I showed her the obit section.
“Umm, what about it?”
I pointed to his name.
“Manfred. Wait! That’s him?”
“Manfred Ellerbe, the writer.”
She covered her mouth like a beauty contestant who had ripped her gown. The manager came out with a mop bucket. She dumped a bunch of soapy water across the floor and began mopping.
“That’s so sad,” Pigtails said.
“I found out just now.”
“I heard something like that, like about a death or something.”
“You talking about Manfred Ellerbe?” May said.
“Yes,” I said.
May mopped around Pigtail’s feet.
“Poor man,” she said.
“What did he die of?” I asked.
“He read himself to death.”
“It’s true,” May said. “One of his neighbors found him face-down on a stack of papers. Those pages were in the hundreds.”
“But I’ve never heard about this type of death.”
“I watched, like, an episode about it on TedTalk,” Pigtails said.
I sat at the curb with my cappuccino and cigarette. A curtain of fog rolled over the storefront across the street, near where Manfred once took a dump in the sewer. Nobody knew about his family, neither May nor Pigtails.
Nor the two policemen. They strode back to their car, sipping coffees. One of them told a joke, the other laughed.
“I just have a question,” I said.
“What is it, Bud?”
“Yeah, it’s too bad what happened to that man….I wouldn’t say he was young, but to die that way…” The cop whistled at the disbelief. “Too damn sad to see him like that.”
“So you found him dead in his house?”
“Yep. Face down in his book.”
“Facebook,” the other cop said. “Get it?”
We got it.
“So he read himself to death?” I asked.
“What was he reading?” I asked.
“Whoa, slow down, Boss. What’s with the questions? You Inspector Gadget or something?”
“Yeah, and what’s with the tone? Giving us the third degree.”
“Please, I was close to Manfred. Did you read anything of it? Did you remember any keywords or sentences?”
“I think you better sit over there,” the cop said.
“I think he should, too,” Mr. Beasley said.
He stood right behind us. Beverly wasn’t with him.
“Morning, Mr. Beasley,” one cop said.
“Morning to you, Officers. You too, Ben.”
“Now, I was the one who discovered his body. I went by his window and saw him face down.”
“What were you doing at his window?” I asked.
“Again with the questions,” one of the cops said.
And Mr. Beasley hated the question, too. Otherwise he would’ve given a quick answer.
“Did you see what he was reading? You can at least tell me that.”
“I can tell you, but you won’t like the answer.”
“Good day, Mr. Beasley,” one of the cops said. They both got back in their SUV.
Mr. Beasley watched me and blinked, watched me and blinked. He still wore that safari hat, but he also had on muddy boots as if he had sifted through a swamp.
“I couldn’t see what he was reading,” he said.
“Could you tell how far along he was?”
“Not very far along. Maybe nine pages.”
I looked up reading-related deaths online. Pigtails was right about that episode of TedTalk. Biblionomia killed mostly lonely men in their late fifties. His death caused many interpretations, and only one certainty: Manfred would never tell me what he thought about my manuscript.
I put on a suit I hadn’t wore since my cousin’s wedding two years ago. Manfred wasn’t worth a damn to me, but I went to his funeral that next morning. The cemetery overlooked Morro Bay. That same curtain of fog was drawn over the top of the Morro Rock. The rock seemingly moved or drifted away from the curtain, but the curtain moved right along with it.
A priest showed up. So did four other men. Three of them said they were fans of his. That left me and one of his cousins.
“Are you one of the pallbearers,” the priest asked me.
“Pallbearers? I’m just paying my respects.”
The priest looked over at those four other men, checked his watch, and turned back to me.
“We could sure need you,” he said.
“Need me for what?”
The priest was the fifth pallbearer. All six of us carried the casket to its new home. We stopped and rested halfway. The priest looked older than Ellerbe. We brought the writer of nature and of crime-fiction about Navajo Indians to a forklift over his grave.
“Wait,” the cousin said. He was from Oklahoma. “We’re putting him on that?”
“Yes, we are,” the priest said.
“You don’t mind if we just drop him in ourselves?”
“Don’t be ludicrous,” the priest said. “This is a sacred coffin with a real person in it.”
Well, he wasn’t real anymore; just his corpse.
“Just saying,” the cousin said, “I think it’s rather disrespectful if we lower my cousin down there with that. Manfred would a been mighty damn ticked off.”
“Just let me read my scriptures,” the priest said.
He pulled a little book from his pocket, and he read verses. But a tractor buzzed from a few graves down. It drowned out the father.
“I can’t hear you,” the cousin yelled beneath the buzzing. The priest rolled his eyes, and he went over to the lawn-keepers. They turned it off.
“Now, if no one else will disrupt the scriptures, I will read on.”
“I say we lower him down there ourselves,” the cousin said.
“That’s ridiculous,” another one said.
“Just listen to Father,” another one said.
The cousin kept quiet for the rest of the reading. The priest slapped the book shut, and he looked over us all.
“Any other comments?”
No one peeped.
“Good,” he said.
We lifted the casket up to the forklift, but one of us slipped. The casket fell right down the grave, and Manfred spilled out.
“Ah hell,” the cousin said.
The priest uttered Catholic apologies in Italian. I peeked unwillingly at the body. It was turned over halfway. His cousin had old mud on his slacks, so he was the one who had slipped.
“Well, we cain’t just leave him there like that,” the cousin said.
“He’ll still rest in peace and all that.”
“Let the gravediggers do that.”
“We can still bury him that way. Makes no difference.”
“Why don’t you go down there and straighten it out?” I asked the cousin.
“I’m going to need y’alls help.”
“This is atrocious,” the Father said.
“It wasn’t my idea to put him on that damn forklift,” the cousin said back.
The priest removed his white collar from his neck.
“Don’t raise your voice at me.”
The three other pallbearers cut in on the fight. I stood back and reached for my Marlboros.
Someone else showed up. He stood next to me in jeans and a sport jacket, and he lit a cigarette, too.
“Sorry, I’m late,” he said. “What happened?”
“Manfred fell out of his coffin. Now the cousin and the priest want to kill each other.”
“There’s an Applebee’s down the road,” the man said. “Happy Hour.”
“Yeah, but look at him down there. What if he was your mother?”
“I cremated my mother,” he said. “That’s worse.”
“But Manfred is still alive inside that dead body of his. He’ll feel the worms eating away at him.”
“My mother was burned to dust. She could still feel the burning without nerves.”
“Are you related to Manfred?”
“I was his agent.”
“Is that so?”
The agent peeked over the grave for a look at his body.
“Well,” he said, “he did want to look good in his grave.”
We finished our cigarettes. The cousin had settled down. So had the priest.
The agent introduced himself as Percy Cohen.
“I have a lot of things to ask you,” I said to him.
“Yes? Go ahead.”
The other pallbearers climbed down the grave, and the cousin might’ve fought me, too, if I didn’t help.
“In a minute,” I told Percy.
He stayed on the lawn. So did the priest; he was older than Manfred was.
Most of the embalming had worn off. We scooped his corpse and rolled it back into the casket.
Afterwards, I looked for Percy in the parking lot. A silver BMW drove away with its windows tinted. Its license plate read: AGNTCHN.
“Pardon, Sir?” the cousin said.
He caught up.
“What you did for my cousin there was mighty noble and honorable.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Were you two close?”
“Not really. But Manfred was…he was…Manfred was…was a man.”
“Can I get a cigarette from you?”
So that was what he wanted. He even offered me a dollar for one.
“Put it away,” I said.
“That’s so nice of you. You are a good man.”
I reached for the pack, but it was gone.
“Ah shit,” I said, “I lost it.”
“What you mean?”
I meant the pack must’ve fallen in the grave, but I didn’t say that to Cousin Frank.
“They fell out somewhere.”
“No thing,” he said, “I’ll just buy me a pack later.”
“There’s an Applebee’s down the street,” I said. “Let’s get a drink.”
“That’s an idea.”
“His agent said he was going there.”
“Oh, Percy?” the cousin said. “He’ll be at my wedding.”
We showed up to Applebee’s separately. The hostess asked me if I was ready for a seat.
“I’m just having a drink,” I told her.
She walked away.
The cousin sat at the bar alone, gazing mindlessly at a television that showed a UFC fight. But Percy hadn’t shown up. His Beamer was nowhere in the parking lot either.
I bought Cousin Frank a Budweiser in a 24-ounce glass.
“You’re the best,” he said.
“Guess he ain’t showing up,” he said.
“It’s nothing. Can you pass something along to him at the wedding?”
“You should come, too,” the cousin said.
“Are you sure?”
“And you’re sure he’ll be there?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s the best man, but I need other men, too.”
“Don’t worry about a gift or nothing special. Just show up with that there suit.”
Well, that week I had no other plans. I worked out a new proposal, and I rewrote it eight times. Agents liked proposals over actual manuscripts. They hated reading the actual manuscripts. Manuscripts were too long. Agents had that leverage over writers.
I showed up to the wedding in the same suit, and the proposal for Percy—even the manuscript itself, in case he were exceptional. The wedding was in the bride’s backyard, in Fresno. The neighbor’s pit bull barked through a wooden fence. It couldn’t jump the fence, but it tried its hardest. It wasn’t leashed up either. I stood the farthest from that end of the backyard, over in a garden of cactus.
They served drinks everywhere, whether free or expensive: office parties, golf courses, Chuck E. Cheeses. The wedding had a wet bar of sodas: Coke, Dr. Pepper, A&W Root Beer, Orange Fanta. I hadn’t drank Orange Fanta since grade school, and the adults at the wedding drank it mostly over anything else at the bar. The only liquor the bartender poured were a few bottles of Jack Daniels. I got through only one Jack over ice.
The sodas lasted into the reception. And worst of all, Percy never showed up.
The trip wasted my time. Fresno was 100 degrees hot, with no shade in the backyard. Flies landed and crawled along my neck through the wedding, where I stood as one of the best men. The flies teased me about Percy. I swatted them away through the whole ceremony. But maybe Cousin Frank had Percy’s phone number.
His uncle served tri-tip instead of prime rib, on paper plates, along with potato salad, baked beans, wieners, and dinner rolls, like the ones at the grill. The flies helped themselves to the bloody meat, and the watery baked beans and the runny potato salad. If I had ever gotten married, it would’ve been inside, in a cold, insulated hall where no flies could survive.
I sat at my table with the flies. Everybody, except for the elderlies and me, was line-dancing to pop music. There was no DJ; just a portable stereo on a lawn chair.
Cousin Frank thanked me at my table.
“Where’s Percy?” I asked him.
“What can I say? He never showed up.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you have his phone number?”
“Matter fact I do, somewhere.”
“Can you find it?”
Cousin Frank tried his Android, but it was deader than Manfred was. Only a moron would lose his battery at his own wedding.
“Maybe somebody else here knows his number,” I said.
“Oh, nobody here knows Percy. Hey, what did you want to tell him?”
I would’ve rather not have, but I showed him the proposal.
“I just want to give him this.”
“Manuscript,” I said.
“Oh, Percy don’t take no unsolicited materials.”
“I tried with him once when Manfred were still alive.”
“You wrote a book?”
“Nah, but I had a damned good idea. It was a children’s book about my Uncle Larry.” He pointed over to Uncle Larry who threw another slab of meat on the grill. “My uncle fought in Iraq.”
“Your uncle was in Iraq?”
“Damn straight. But I made him into this kung-fu kangaroo who used an AK-47. I pitched it to some folks down there in Hollywood. They’ll call me back soon, boy, I’ll tell you.”
“Sounds like a hell of a children’s book.”
“You know, I wish my cousin Manfred could a joined me here. Though I don’t know if he would a showed up either. He said we would not a made it through the honeymoon.”
“Me and my girl are going to the Poconos.”
Cousin Frank rambled on about his children’s book. I left the table, and he was still rambling. His voice faded into country music and the line-dancers.
What a waste of mileage. I lived in my own nightmare, with flies, line-dancing, Orange Fanta, rednecks, evasive agents who didn’t accept unsolicited materials, and happy-go-lucky Okies who sold scripts but didn’t even write. Fresno took four hours from Hollywood, and I couldn’t even get Percy Cohen’s phone number. All I got was Cousin Frank’s friendship on Facebook.
I did return to the Cambria Coffee House, but with even less comfort than before. More families showed up each day, as well as old hippies who took up the seats, and they would sit there all day and mumble to themselves. Their brains had been sandblasted by acid and Agent Orange. Not every old hippy was like Willie Nelson. Pigtails couldn’t kick them out either. I never got her. She married her surfer boyfriend. She got pregnant after eight months, and she never lost the weight. She still couldn’t remember my name.
I accepted Frank’s request on Facebook for a pipeline to Percy Cohen, but he really had no clout. Percy didn’t even have a Facebook profile. As for Frank, he never posted pictures of his honeymoon, not even his wedding pictures. He wrote me on Facebook a week after the wedding. The wife had lost her mind in the Poconos. She had hurled a knife at his head and chased him with a hammer. Evidently she could get her hands on some knives and hammers in the Poconos.
He divorced her and pressed charges for domestic abuse. He needed thousands of dollars for a lawyer, so he begged his friends on Facebook, including me. I wrote him back: Why don’t you sell a story to DreamWorks.
I unfriended him, I blocked him. That Manfred was one wise piece of shit.