HOME

 

The Man We Call, '2 Espressos'

"Every tale has a telling, and that is the he and the she of it."
                                    óJames Joyce, from Finneganís Wake

  

He drank French espresso from two cups, wrote poetry for one hour, then read unconscious for half an hour. 

Everyday to start his day he would drink French espresso from two cups, write poetry for one hour, then read . . . unconscious . . . for half an hour the same page from the same book at the one round oak table center the floor of his favorite cafe.  It didnít matter how he awoke or how he had slept.  It didnít matter whether he awoke on his own, or to his phone, or to his musical alarm the way the alarm mixed into music the people, traffic and weather outside his window.  Whether the night he left behind had left him too little or too much sleep, so long as the night would leave him just as dawn spread across his blankets.  So long as he was in time to take his time starting his day in every way the same way as the morning before and the morning before that:  always the first customer at Our Warm Welcome.  Nothing more or less was necessary.

What drew us in was the sameness, the repetition, and the finite orderliness of his order.  It didnít matter the season, the weather, the day of the week, each morning we would find him yet again standing outside our cafe, making several small hesitations, several comings and goings of glances and resolves, stepping forward and backward, backward to look at the sign "Our Warm Welcome" over the door, then forward to peruse the menu under the door window.  Next, he would peer through the small square window, then stare blankly for several long seconds before at last pushing through the door with the usual preoccupied smile and heading straight toward the round oak table, the only table we the three wait staff share.  In a ball and chain of habit, his short, brisk steps always seemed to take him over --- rather than him taking them --- to his usual spot center the floor.  There he would swing his book bag under the seat facing our counter, sit down straight and proper with hands flat on the table, and await service.

"May I please have a double-shot of your fine French Espresso, and . . ." he always paused, gazing ahead with eyes opening wide, as though newly-inspired, "could you please put them in separate cups?"

Not until his order was on the table would he reach into his bookbag and pull out his journal.  With shoulders hunched low, he would write in a fury one hourís worth of poetry, stopping only for alternate sips from his two tiny cups of French espresso.  When the cups were empty, the hour complete, he would slip the journal back into the bag and take out the book he will forever be reading, as though transfixed -- yet unconscious --- for his eyes do move, left-right back-forth over the opening page of Finneganís Wake

Always for exactly half an hour. 

Closing the book quietly, he would slip it back into his bag, place $3.00 on the table, then like a ghost disappear out the door.  Each morning was just like the morning before, if not more like the morning before that, if not exactly to the day that very first morning we noticed him standing outside our cafe, staring through the small window of the door before stepping inside and starting our day along with his.

Business was slow then and he became our biggest challenge.  We often offered the man we soon were calling "2 Espressos!" house specials on the house.   Many mornings, we placed warm muffins and alternative drinks in his reach, gather around him in a half-circle and make him repeat his order repeatedly.

"May I please have a double-shot of your fine French Espresso, and . . ." here he would always pause, his eyes rounding thoughtfully, inspired, "could you please put them in separate cups?"

"Care instead for a tall Cafť Alait?" one of us offers.  "This time," another says, bending close, "how about a Cafť Lattť Grandť?"  "Yes," the third joins in, whispering near his ear, "the Kenyan beans came in just this morning; weíd love to know what you think?"  We glance around, sharing furtive smiles. 

Gazing ahead with palms flat on the table, he waits until we have exhausted our suggestions:  "Just a double shot of your fine French espresso and," he pauses again, but thoughtfully, his voice so calm, measured, eerily intense, "please, 2 cups."

"Yes --- Yes --- Yes!!!" we all answer and leave to steam out two piping-hot cups of our very finest.  Behind the counter, we would watch the dark brown espresso trickle into two small cups.  As soon as the steam whistles us out of his earshot, we snap our fingers to the rhythm of his order:  "The man just drinks his French espresso in 2 cups, writes poetry for one hour, then reads transfixed for Ĺ an hour  --- "No," one of us corrects, "not transfixed, unconscious!"  "Yes, I agree; his eyes do move!" --- "They move, sure, but for only Ĺ an hour?  Always exactly Ĺ an hour, unconscious the whole time?" 

During his hour and a half of writing and reading, we would pester him as much as possible.  "Excuse me!" one says, bumping his chair, "Thatís a nice shirt youíre wearing." Another says, polishing the silverware on his table, "Oh, but you wonít be needing these, will you?"  The third asks, rearranging the sugars, jams and salts on his table.  For seven months, we circled him that way, flirting by hook or by crook, daring him at the very least to make eye contact.  Just to see how far we could get, just to dig up any telling aspect of that deeply hidden personality.  Vultures we must have seemed, our bodies as forward as a lecherís, our eyes as alert as a pick-pocket artistís, each of us craving that special moment our Mr. 2 Espressos would need additional service.   In a competition of warm and warmer welcome, we joked, we mused, we put wagers on which of us would get to him first --- and what would be the change, that which with a stir-strawís weight might finally break 2 Espressos of his ways.

Nothing stirred him.  Aside from giving his order, he wouldnít even acknowledge us.  He was either resistant to or incapable of eye contact.  Whenever one of us stood directly where he seemed to be focusing, 2 Espressos would then gaze elsewhere, slightly left or off-right, fixating perhaps on some introverted drama that brought him every morning smiling into Our Warm Welcome, or perhaps gaze at all or part of the service area behind us:  the long dark Oakwood counter with assorted plates and trays of bagels, scones, muffins and cookies; the two glass cabinets shelved with pastries, cakes and pies; the high shelf against the wall stocked with 19 glass jars of coffee and tea varieties, and under the middle of this shelf our rather common double-spouted espresso machine.  

Nor did he respond to greetings. Even when in planned confusion, when in perfect sequence one of us boldly greeted him at the door and mirrored his faraway smile, before another of us backed into him while mopping the area of the floor leading to his table, just the instant before the third called out from across the room, "Hey, Mr. 2 Espressos!" --- he wouldnít let on whether we affected him in any additional way.  It was as if we the wait staff and they the tables were all one and the same obstacle, the way he could sidestep one diversion after another at the same clip, hardly missing a short, brisk step. 

Yet, we had gone seven months without feeling that he had been rude.  It was his smile, we think now; it was that curious and rather preoccupied smile that had us thinking the routine was a game we were all playing.  Whether we were all playing the same game or our Mr. 2 Espressos was the  unwitting game we were playing, the rules were the same.  We the three wait staff had to try and alter 2 Espressosí ritual while he continued sipping, writing and reading, as though oblivious to any such contest.  Such an introverted and repetitive smile, and yet there was something ironic about that:  the way the smile kept itself up day after day, as if pulling him through the door every morning, as he leaned forward in his hastened steps.  At the very least, it was a smile worth repeating. 

We couldnít help wondering whether he had made other visits to our cafe prior to the day we first remember noticing him, or rather, noticing his routine.  If indeed there had been other visits at, say, other times, did he first or has he ever sat at any table other than the one he took command of?  Was the round oak table the only place to sit?  Did he first or has he ever entered our cafť in the afternoon or evening?  Has he ever eaten here or requested a menu, has he ever perused the "Beverages" section?  Did we have a special on French espresso the very first day his ritual took place?  Did he once order something else?  Did he or did he not like the service, the night staff, or any one of the three of us?  Were we more or less hospitable that first day, or more or less rude and ironically self-involved?  It was possible that he had haunted our cafe for weeks, all the while invisible in our memories, before at last settling into the ritual as we now know it. 

Oh, what we would give to witness a second time his first ever jaunt into Our Warm Welcome.

"Youíd think weíd remember his tip --- 20% is rather common --- Yes, but thatís 50 cents split three ways --- Maybe he didnít leave a tip the first time out? --- Or, maybe he left a bigger one --- Could be that the 20% drew from a larger order? --- Or that the tip came from another table?"

If 2 Espressos happened right along with his ritual, how then could his ritual have evolved?  Which came first, the ritual or the man? Were there at least a series of slight adjustments with which he perfected his first visit?  What were the circumstances, relevant or not, that led, for example, to the calm, measured words with which he first ordered us via a double shot of French espresso, the tone so eerily even and yet thoughtful, it always seemed he was newly-inspired:  ". . . and, could you please put them in separate cups?"  What was the weather like, what was the traffic like the day before?  What of the writing, what of the reading, why begin with one hour of poetry followed by a trance upon the first page, if not the first sentence alone from, of all books, James Joyceís Finneganís Wake . . . always for exactly half an hour?  What were those CDís we first played?

"Maybe that first day of all days," one of us continues, and then the others join in, "And everyday thereafter! --- All he truly wanted --- Was something short and sweet --- You mean, bitter and lasting? --- Yes, something he could sip for an hour --- While he writes --- Before he gets to reading --- Yes, and heís been feeling that way ever since --- And just incidentally keeps repeating as our first customer of the day --- And everyday thereafter that."

After seven months, we were closing in more out of impotence than impatience.

"How about our house blend this time?" one says, and another decides:  "On the house!"  "Yes," agrees the third, "youíre our first customer of the day! ---And as our most regular regular, you deserve something special."

"Just a double-shot of your fine French Espresso, and," he says, stopping as though recalling a dream before his eyes open suddenly wider, "and please, 2 cups?"

It didnít matter which coffee beans had come in fresh and special, which exceptional dishes were exceptionally hot or cold, left over or made to order his way, our way, and any darn way he liked.  It didnít matter the food we served, the questions we asked, the noise we made, or how many customers stepped in or out, bumped through the cluster of tables and sat near him or intentionally far, far away from him: Whether it was a well-figured woman dressed to stun gliding across the floor before stopping to ask if she could share his table or a loud, gruffly man shaking rain off his coat, before plopping himself into the nearest seat at his table without so much as asking if the seat was already taken --- 2 Espressos didnít seem to think, didnít seem to think much of anything, save his routine.  Either he did not notice or he refused to let on whether we or anyone else effected him in one way or another.  We looked close but could not tell whether he noticed how we smiled at him from behind the counter, rolling our eyes collegiately, joking with the other customers while pointing at him --- at the oddity of him, at his peculiar behavior, his uncanny itinerary, the way this man 2 Espressos was always drinking and writing and reading the same way everyday.  Not a thing we did tainted his tastes, suppressed his appetite, much less impassed his travels from his bed to our cafť.  He let no person, place or thing add to, subtract from, let alone inspire change in his ritual.  Every morning within ten minutes after we open, it was him standing outside making several methodical comings and goings, stepping forward and backward before pushing through the door with his pre-occupied smile and taking the same short, brisk steps as if the steps themselves were taking him over --- rather than him them --- into order, yes, to order, at the only table the three of us share. 

We tried to joke, we tried to make light of him. One of us bought a used copy of Finneganís Wake, and passed it around.

"I didnít find it so interesting, that I couldnít just move on to the next page --- Or even the page after that --- Yes, I was even reading it over and over, but then it made me feel creepy, so I stopped."

We tried to joke, we tried not to think about him, we couldnít help but think about him and it, our most regular regular  ordering his most unusual usual  --- this motionless as if emotionless man, this disturbed and disturbing, inaccessible man and his inaccessible ways, who seemed so intent on remaining a stranger stranger  than most --- and more so by the day with his ritual, this routine, these habits, those ways, this itinerary that more and morever seemed like an agenda of some kind, perhaps sickly designed to startle us into our day, his way (Yes --- Yes --- Yes!!!):  his day was becoming our day, for our days were becoming increasingly alike. "Dooming us!" we tried to joke, we the three-headed wait staff forever chained to his tapeloop service."  Each day started off in the darkening void of his opaque gaze.

It was all we could do just getting to work, knowing that weíd be seeing that same eerie grin on his face; that heíd be ordering the same Siamese-double shots of French espresso, a half hour for each shot but which he needed separated into two fast-cooling, identical cups; that heíd be writing fast and furiously some kind of automatic writing  ("Who says it has to be poetry!"), pausing only for the short, measured sips he alternates from the cups ("Probably the only punctuation to his writing; Ďcommas hunt in pairs!í"); that heíd again submerge into some deluge of the same 1/2 hour trance, again and again his eyes darting left-right back-forth over and over again over that first page ("If not the first sentence alone!") from James Joyceís Finnegan's Wake, as though he were rereading and reforgetting every other second ("Yet always for exactly half an hour").  Meanwhile, he was taking over our best table ("Verily the center of our warmest welcome") and leaving ("Without so much as a how-do-you-do or a decent tip") only 50 cents we have to split 3 ways ("The cheap bastard!"), and thus starts our day, counting pennies ("Yes, just has to be poetry.  What else but a poet!").

What we really feared was that we  were the game he was playing.  It just didnít make sense the way he showed up every morning outside our cafe, always stepping forward and backward, back and forth, looking up and down from menu to sign, sign and menu, then stopping only to peer through the window.  Sometimes we would wave for him to come in, but he would continue staring for several or more seconds.  What could he be seeing, repeating, seeing?  Was he ascertaining that we were open for business or that the round oak table was indeed unoccupied?  Or, was he observing us observing him?  It was all we could do to keep still and remain in Our Warm Welcome whenever he burst through the door, always with that frozen, ambiguously emotionless smile.

We resolved that if we could not awaken 2 Espressos we'd just as soon scare him away, far, far, all the way away, with the closure of our closest attentions.  One morning, we rearranged the tables, but when he arrived, it did not seem to bother him that he was no longer in the center of Our Warm Welcome.  The next morning we dismantled the round table and stored its parts in a closet, but he had no problem making the transition to a square table a little off-center.  The day after that we sabotaged the center table with table syrup and loose pepper, poured salt into his sugar jars, replaced his silverware with plastic spoons, and served his French espressos in two extra large Styrofoam cups.  He didnít seem to care how his elbows stuck to the table, didnít sneeze even once from the pepper, didnít use sugar or stir utensils, and didnít seem to mind the Styrofoam.  He kept coming back, everyday in the same way as before.

We grew restless, we grew relentless and bold.  We bumped his chair repeatedly, swept at dust in and out and back under his table, and slopped at the grime on his table with a grimier dishrag, rearranging the smears in various patterns of disgust, and still he kept coming at us.  We placed hot bowls of soup atop his journal, pressed napkins maternally into his lap, sat two huge and loud lip-smacking eaters at his table one day and the next day matched him up with a patron we knew would talk all morning long in his ear whether he listened or not, and still he kept coming at us.  The only abuses he openly objected to were whenever we dared to serve him more or less espresso from beans other than our finest French Roast in either of the two otherwise identical cups.

"May I please have a double-shot of your fine French Espresso, and," he would repeat whenever the brew wasnít quite right, for example, the day we spiked a few Jamaica Blue Mountain beans in with the French Roast, "could you please separate  them into 2 cups." 

On the day of our major confrontation, we each spat into the bottom of one of the cups.  But by then our spite had grown to such a venom, even our spit could not hold itself under for long; when we sat the cups on his table, it loosened from the bottom and bubbled onto the soot-black surface. 

"Just a double-shot of your fine French espresso and," he repeated, pausing longer than usual, his eyes again widening with surprise, but this time at the unmistakable shine of the pasty-white float that was now separating into three directions pointing our way, "please, 2 cups." 

Leaving the cups on his table, we returned to the service counter.  "Heís unstoppable!" one of us said.  "Like a machine!" another added. "Or, like, unconscious all the time!" joined the third.  Looking back, we were on our way to respecting him again.  However much we altered his environment, he seemed the one with all the imagination for all his secret adjustments.  His ability to remain finite was infinite. "Heís just fucking with us," said one.  "Heís certainly up to something," said another.  "Yes," said the third, "heís not here just killing time."

Then we became silent, and without looking up, without so much as a word of conference, we each decided to refuse servicing 2 Espressos.  Whenever we reflect back on our cruelty that day, we often recall that moment of silent contemplation, and the sureness that the three of us were each thinking the same thing.  Ever since serving 2 Espressos,  there had been many such syncronicities --- the "3-way reflex" as we now call them --- and we are equally sure that this sensitivity results, ironically, from all our one-sided intimations with 2 Espressos, all that close-and-closer scrutiny of that everyday-steadfast first customer of the morning.  That day, the 3-way Reflex took to another level and became its own entity.  Something in the silence, perhaps in our breathing or the accustomed leaning of each body, but we were very much aware of this strange unity, that we were each taking one decision for granted as being shared by all.  Nothing has been the same since.

Walking to his table, we even had something of the same speech working in our heads.  We were more or less prepared to tell him, We have no more French Espresso, no more clean cups, and no time to watch over you sipping and writing and reading the way you do.  Then, in a gentle tone we would explain, We have our other customers to consider  (Indeed, recently some of our patrons had picked on our vibes and were now frequenting other cafes), and a good many of them have made complaints about you sitting here every morning the way you do, and always taking over our best table, one that we normally use to seat four to six patrons.  We donít want any trouble, we would assert and maybe even place a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder, but we are all  prepared to call on the proper authorities if you persist any further. 

But when we reached his table, one of us stuttered for a second or two, and then we all lost our nerve and fell into routine.

"We have a special today! --- Anything you want! --- Half-price! --- How about a ham --- And cheese --- On Rye --- Or in an omelet? --- Care for a toasted bagel? --- Or prefer instead our eleven grains French Toast? --- Anything here free! --- To our first customer of the day!!!" we echoed this last declaration.

"Well okay," he complied, his voice remaining calm, thoughtful, "Iíll have a double shot of your fine French espresso, and --- "

"Weíre actually all out of French Roast --- The next shipment wonít arrive till this afternoon, maybe not till evening --- Yes, weíve been low for sometime now! --- But you can order anything --- Anything else you want, free --- Yes, youíre our customer of the day and we really do want you to come back!"

"Just a double-shot of your fine ---"

"But we donít have any to serve you --- Weíre trying to tell you weíre all out! ---Yes, completely out of stock --- Youíre more than welcomed to wait, but --- Or you can order something else --- Something to tide you over till the next shipment arrives?"

"Okay," he said, hands fixed to the table, "Iíll wait." 

We looked up, startled.  After seven months pining for change, we at last had an addition to his vocabulary --- and of all changes, those two, too ironic words:  Iíll wait.. 

We urged on.  "Will you let us serve you a complimentary cup of coffee while you wait? --- Yes, todayís special is Dark Italian Roast --- Which you might like to know is very similar to the French in taste and appearance --- It might even have a few French Roast beans in the mix too --- Oh yes, Iím sure it does! --- Letís go ahead and make him 2 shots of espresso from it, shall we! ---Donít worry about the bill, itís on us! --- Yes, and would you like anything else with that, perhaps a muffin or a scone? --- Oh, the scones look great this morning! --- We could heat one up for you, too --- We donít use a microwave here --- Oh no, we always reheat the breads in a toaster oven --- Which is really the right way for breads."

Polite, or as patient as ever, 2 Espressos waited until we were finished:  "Just a double-shot of your fine French espresso and . . ." he paused, as newly-inspired as ever, "please, 2 cups."

We felt the cold air from the door that opened and closed.  In the gray regions of our periphery, we followed four shadowy legs weaving through the clustered tables toward the far corner, and without looking up we knew that they were two men who were new to our cafe.  Soon they were at the corner window, seating at the one table where it seems all new customers come to sit.  They huddled briefly over the menu, closed it, then shifted their seats to face us.

In a whisper to 2 Espressos, one of us said, "Well, youíll just have to wait then."  "Or come back tomorrow," said another.  "Yes," said the third, "weíve been patient with you long enough."

The two men were shifting in their seats, demonstratively waiting for eye contact --- for one or more of us to nod to them, then come over to take their order, and it would be order upon which they had already decided even before entering our cafe. But so close were we at last to freeing up such a vast space in our heads, we didnít look up, we didnít dare break the tension.  One us began clearing the table.  She placed the cup with the spit-tainted espresso onto her tray.  When she reached for the other cup, 2 Espressos placed his hand over the rim, palm-side down. 

"Just a double-shot of your fine French espresso and . . . " again he paused, this time mechanically, "please, 2 cups."

"We said, we donít have anymore," another said, then in a hoarse whisper added, "youíll have to get it somewhere else."

"Iíll wait," he repeated, and again we looked up, sharing looks that all but ignored the new customers.

"Why?" the third asked, "what is it with this damn espresso?"

His fingers trembled slightly before closing over the cup, and then we all saw it, were exhilarated by it:  his face colored, ever so slightly, but it was there, that for which we had long been aiming:  no, not his personality, his mortality. 

"Why 2 cups," one prodded, "why must it always be 2 shots in different cups?"  "Is it for meditation?" probed another.  "Are you praying?" followed the third, and in rapid-fire sequence we continued jabbing away.  "Donít you get bored reading the same page? "Are you making a statement? --- Is it an esthetic? --- Is it political? --- Is it women you hate? --- Or is it just us? ---What, or who are you writing about? --- If you would only tell us --- If you would just tell us what youíre up to --- Yes, just tell us what you want and maybe we can help---"

"I want," he said, interrupting us for the first time ever, before returning partly to form: "May I please have a double-shot, and" he paused wearily, "please, just 2 cups." 

"No you donít! --- Not in front of us --- We can get pushy too, you know --- We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone --- And you have been hostile here --- You only get what you pay for, and you keep using up our best table!" 

The new customers got up quickly.  We followed their steps as before without looking up.  We must have been quite the curiosity:  three waitresses in a half-circle hovering over a man whose hand was cupping a cup palm-side down, the four fingers touching the table like legs of a table. They studied us the whole way through the clustered tables with slow and slower steps, and yet they could not have been aware that they themselves were being observed; for they were observing us observing them, and we could even sense how their sympathies aligned with 2 Espressosí, who must have looked so out-numbered holding so gallantly to one tiny cup --- of what, they could only imagine.  They could not have heard much and probably assumed we were bickering over small change or some other petty matter.  Near to the door they were almost haughty in bidding us to look at them, at their mockingly incredulous expressions which were designed to soften us and perhaps get us to give credit where credit might be due, baiting us by mumbling to each other this-or-that about service, and obviously they meant only the word --- service --- to be heard.  So we each resisted all the more.  They could not have been aware that our anger then was directed not at 2 Espressos but at them.   In our 3-way reflex, we were willing  the two interlopers to leave.

Behind them, the door shut a little faster than necessary and the gust from outside swept in and pendulated two napkins to the floor.

"Slobs!" one of us said.  The others agreed in silence, all eyes focusing all the more on 2 Espressos.  He seemed much older then, and growing noticeably older by the second.  During the seven months of all our analyses, speculations and fantasies about the double-life of our most regular regular, we had not even considered his age.  So ageless he had seemed, we overlooked age altogether.  Now he was showing it, looking increasingly stiff and fragile, hunched slightly over the table with his hand holding onto the small cup as though steadying himself with a cane.  Through his thin pale fingers, faint whiffs of steam lifted and disappeared, and suddenly he was a man in his fifties and getting older by the second.  One of us reached again to swipe the cup out from under him. 

"Just a double-shot of your fine French espresso," he said again, his eyes fixed in a glaze on his hand over the cup, "just a double-shot, please."  He did not have the energy to finish.  "Please."

Back behind the counter, we tossed a scoop of French Roast beans into the grinder, packed two shots worth of the fresh grinds into the small metal strainer, hurried the strainer into the arm of the espresso machine, connected the plastic double spouted adapter underneath it, then set two cups underneath the spouts.

So bound and determined to have his day and drink it too," one of us said, as we waited for the espresso to trickle into the cups."  "He must really need it," said another, "the espresso, I mean --- Yes, and he doesnít seem in a hurry to finish that first page, either --- Must like it plenty, how else does it hold his attention everyday? --- Just drops him into a trance every single time --- Sure wish I could read over his shoulder, but he scrawls too fast."  We contemplated the two trickles of espresso filling their respective cups.  "He probably wouldnít even notice one of us running her fingers through his hair --- You mean, while heís writing? ---No, while heís in that reading trance --- Yes, you could probably pass a hand over his eyes without him seeing it."

We did not so much as look up, we did not need to.  On that day, our 3-way reflex, proved itself more devious than it had ever been before or since.  Since then, we occasionally find ourselves capable of extremes in behavior that are usually more generous, but sometimes more cruel, than any of us are individually capable of.  Watching the last drops of espresso trickle into the two cups, we begun collaborating on a plan that we would not discuss until long after it had been carried out.

When we served him two fresh cups of the real stuff, he allowed us to remove the other cup.  For the rest of his visit, he was back to his ageless old self, writing in a fury while taking short alternate sips from the two fast-cooling cups of French espresso.  As expected, the breakfast crowd came in and kept us quite busy.  But we each had some kind of us an internal alarm that was set and synchronized to the very minute when our venerable 2 Espressos would be at his most vulnerable.  When that special minute arrived, somehow we had each finished serving the brunt of meals to our customers, and thus created a simultaneous lull.  2 Espressos slipped his journal back into the bookbag and pulled out his worn copy of Finneganís Wake, which flopped open to the first page, and that was when we turned in our steps and converged on him from three directions.  Only when at his table did we know our roles, and fell into them accordingly.  With 2 Espressos locked away in another steel-trap trance, one of us began clearing away the two empty cups, and at the other side of the chair another bent low to his ear, as though to suggest yet another menu option.  With the view of both sides of his chair blocked (and our other regulars likely assumed we were, as usual, merely fussing over our center-stage patron), the third pulled out of his bookbag the beige and blue journal, concealing it quickly in the fold of the menu from his table. 

We hurried behind the service bar, crouched low under the counter, and opened the journal in the middle.  Both sides were filled up almost without a margin, each page running into the other and stopping within 1/8 an inch of the outside margin.  The pages are unlined, yet his handwriting is so tiny, there was no reading it under the shadow of the counter.  Nevertheless, certain words and even whole phrases leaped into recognition, and as if running from them we began flipping through the pages.  The rest of the journal was the same; it was as though he had photocopied the same block of text from the same pair of pages throughout the journal.  Such was the shape and consistency of the wild upslanted dashes, tall consonant loops, shrunken vowels, high crossed tís, and blotted dots over the  iís, that were appearing in the same areas of each page page-after-page.  Over and again the same apparitional words and phrases were making eye contact:  "Everyday to start my day ... 2 cups French espresso ... 1 hour ... Finneganís Wake ... unconscious 1/2 hour"....  Then centered tiny on the first page, we found a lone inscription that we recognized more than read:

 

Every Day                             Start the Day

drink French espresso:                    in 2 cups

write poetry:                                      1 hour

read unconscious:                            Ĺ hour

     

We slammed the journal closed and slipped it back inside the folded menu, then hid the menu under a large pot.  We shared looks of foreboding terror, then hurried back to our customers and waited for the breakfast crowd to thin.  When we returned to the service bar, we tried to excuse him of his journal.

"I saw a documentary once about this pianist who kept reliving the same few hours over and over and --- Kind of like 2 Espressos? --- Yes, just like 2 Espressos! --- What happened to him? --- Who? --- The pianist! --- I didnít really understand that part, he would just play the same songs on the piano and wait for his wife to show up --- Did he know he was repeating himself? --- No, he would have these seizures and then start up again? --- Why was he waiting for his wife? --- What was he going to do to her? --- Nothing, he would just get ecstatic because in his mind he hadnít seen her for ages and so would start hugging her and kissing on her and --- Did they have sex that way too? --- Would he get aroused over and over like it was still the first time? --- It never explained what happened when she stayed in the room? --- Oh, thatís pretty creepy! --- And he kept a journal, also! --- Just like 2 Espressos! --- Yes, just like him --- What did he write? --- Was it poetry? --- Nothing special, just the same mundane thoughts over and over and --- Thatís kind of like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, typing that same sentence over and again --- Yes, ĎAll work and no play makes Jack a dull boyí ---Oh, now thatís too creepy ---He was just sick, right? --- Yes, he was very, very sick! --- We better get his journal back to him --- Heíll be done soon --- We only have 10 minutes left before he finishes reading. ---

Then one of us said exactly what the others knew she would say:  "Maybe we should keep it.  After all, how will he come back if thereís no journal?" We looked over at him, at his eyes shifting back and forth, as regular as a grandfather clock.  "Yes," said the third said, how  will he come back!" 

When his trance was over, we watched 2 Espressos slip Finneganís Wake back into his bag, place $3 on the table, then head out the door, his short brisk steps seemingly without any effects from the lightened load.  The following morning, he didnít show. 

The next morning, we feared and hoped he would push through the door with his smile as faraway as ever, and armed perhaps with another beige and blue journal.  When he did show the third morning, we braved opening his journal again.  Under the bright light from an open window, we began reading the journal word for word, this time beginning at the beginning, and this time reading what looked like 8 paragraphs on each page, all of them of the same shape and size, and buried partly in the middle fold, and each with a very slight increase in the spaces separating them.  Reading closer, we decided that the paragraphs were poetic stanzas, each with four lines, and each line consisting of 24 syllables.  We flipped through the pages as before, and as before found that the same text had been rewritten on every pair of facing pages.  This time, however, we couldnít help but notice various changes made from one version to the next, such as new or alternative word choices and phrases.  Safely curious under the pre-noon light, though frequently glancing at the door, should our most regular regular  show up out of time, out of tune, and in the way we feared most, his inscrutable blank expression framed in the small, square window of the door, observing us observing himówe read closer, and closer yet, then closed the journal again. 

When our shifts ended we sat around where else but the round oak table, to study the 2-page poem version unto version.  Like proofreaders, we compared each stanza to all its later versions by reading them aloud to catch every change or inconsistency.

Only the 1st quatro remains unchanged throughout the journal:

It doesnít matter how I wake or how well I sleep.  Whether I wake on my own or by the alarm,
all alone or all in pieces Iíll bloom my peace soon enough, so long as I awake around dawn
in time to take my time starting my day in every way the same way as this: making it downstreet
to drink French espresso from 2 cups, write poetry for 1 hour, and read entranced for 1/2 an hour

While keeping to the above repetitive style, the other 15 quatros evolve through a series of changes.  The major changes, such as descriptions of weather, events and dreams, seem to keep in memory the statements they have replaced; yet, many of the subtlest changes, such as alternative punctuation, shifts in line breaks, and here and there a rearranging of words and phrases, seem to create entirely  new statements in their wake.  Naturally, the first and last versions of each quatro are the most noticeably different. 

For example, the 2nd quatro always describes the "awakening sounds," sounds which change version after version.  In the first version, the phone rang "in some far corner of my sleepy head before rattling into motion right beside my bed"; in the last, "voices from the alarm right beside my bed mingled with them other voices inside my sleepy head."  The 3rd quatro always merges these sounds with the sounds from outside.  In the first version, they "mix into music the muse of people talking, taxis honking and pigeons cooing just outside my street-level window"; in the last, they "mix into the view of people passing, the traffic stuttering, and the pigeons flocking all right outside my street-basement window."  The 4th quatro develops these inside/outside further by filtering them through the weather.  In the first version, the "wild winds of hail drum the pavement as if to raise in the same rhythm the unearthly voices climbing out the subway"; in the last, "the gauze sheets of snow veil to a soft murmur the voices warmer than skin, billowing the subway.  In the 5th quatro, the combined sounds above now merge with dawn.  In the first version, "while the sun rises slower by the second, shadows of bars over my window fold open with the folds of my blanket, alight as if freeing me to fly"; in the last, "with the sun rising slow and slowing by the second, shadows of snowflakes drift in and out the holes of my blanket, light and lightening, as if showing how I fly."  In the 6th quatro, he is still in bed.  In the first version, he rises "like the sun lost from the old but new in the center of thoughts newer than the day"; in the last, "like the sun in the glories of its old glare, by anew in the clarity of its own center."  The 7th and 8th quatroes continue as such, methodically making his bed as though tying a new knot, dressing into the usual clothes with or without his winter coat, then heading down the street as though upon a secret path into a new park.  In the last line of quatro 8, the last of the left page, he stops in front of a small, square window, counting tables.  Always he counts a total of 16 square tables.  Over and again, these 16 tables "seem to swirl around a hollow center."  In the 9th quatro that begins the right-side page, he enters our cafe as if into "the voided center that swirls the eddy," as in the first version, or "the emptying swirl that centers an eddy," as in the last version.  Always he ends the 9th quatro feeling he is "the center of warm and warmer welcome."   In the 10th quatro, we appear. 

Yes, we.  Not until reading the last version, written the day of our confrontation, did we see ourselves as "one of them," "another" and "the third," though he keeps us consistent throughout.  The word "we " confused us, perhaps because we were looking for it.  In the first version, "we donít need silverware or plastic spoons, we donít need much more than one of them to lean left while another leans forward and the third leans back waiting"; in the last, "we donít need alternatives or specials, we donít need to wait while one has Ďnone to serve' and another is Ďall outí and the third is Ďout of stock, completely.í I am Ďbound-determined" to have my day and drink it too." 

"I said that," one of us said, pointing to the quote, "but I always say bound and determined."

So far as we can tell, there doesnít seem as much reasoning in how he organizes the remaining quatros.  They all describe as minutely as ever only that which the three of us have been seeing and contemplating for over seven months.  That is, he describes the physical process of the ritual without explaining why or how the process originated.  Alternately lifting 2 cups of French espresso, alternately sipping from the fast-cooling brew --- he seems concerned with little else.  But that no longer matters.  We had already intuited that his ritual served as some form of daily catharsis, however unstated his need for the catharsis was.

What matters is that we are in every version of quatro 10. We the wait staff who always "never greet me in twice the same way."  For several months 2 French espressos had so demonstratively shut us out, that our discomfort was actually quite simple: was he or was he not controlling us, was he or was he not forming obsessive and elaborate opinions about us, and perverting us with his behavior, each of us who were so under his spell?

"Thatís a round-about way of gathering an audience," another said.

After a month, we began asking about him at other cafes.  Most of the wait staff answered our questions with looks of incredulity.  Why were we pursuing him? they asked, but what they wanted to know was, What did he really do  to provoke us? Were we that emotionally  involved.

Yes, we are.

One of us found a waiter at Cafe Piccaro who remembers 2 Espressos.  Though he hadnít seen him for over a year, he remembers the ritual and asked to read his journal.  One of us looked around and counted 12 tables in the small cafe.  There was no round table of any kind and the one in the center seemed much smaller than the others. 

"Itís personal," she said. 

"Well, if one of you sees him again," the waiter said in a low mumble, then paused, lowering his head, before looking up, inspired, "please say hi, and that heís always welcomed here." 

We like to imagine heís been haunting one cafe after another, conspicuously inaccessible, always holding out there for as long as the wait staff let him before he leaves behind yet another unfinished poem. 

"Thatís sure a round-about way of gathering an audience," another says, now given to repeating herself.

The journal we have is 80% complete.  None of the tiny, handwritten pages are dated or numbered, but each version of the poem marks the day by the hour it took to write the pair of pages.  We have only for 40 days and 40 versions of the same poem, and we wonder about the earlier months.  We like to imagine a huge closet filled with beige and blue journals with two pages completed for every poem, and that he will soon be scattering them in places other than cafes. 

Giving to repeating herself, the third always puns, "Sure wish I could see what he wrote after ours."

Itís been four months now, and we know he will never come back.  Often enough, we do read from his journal the poetry "aimed at nothingness," but which next to nothing is good and plenty and as "fast as a toilet fulfills space," and never fails to return us to our warm centers.  Everyday he is like a ghost stepping short and briskly out of this journal, then lifting and lowing two piping-hot cups of French espresso, dreaming up their differences as he contemplates awakening to the sounds of people, traffic and whatever the weather was like outside his window, dreaming their differences in the anticipation of being "dazed and submerged in the delicious deluge of Finneganís Wake."  When business is slow and repetitive, we quote from the journal, and in so doing we create what seems like an endless variety of misquotes.  Itís as if our own deviations are what now continue version after version the endless swirl of this poem that has no beginning or end, but as many lives as its days, each written within the irony of our craving for an event.

 

  ó Chris Custer