The Lighted Cafés Of The Boulevard

An original short story

 

Samantha works on the third floor of the nursing home, where the residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s live. She holds my hand as the elevator rises slowly, like a battered propeller plane climbing in the midst of a storm. Neither of us says a word. I wonder if any of the elderly here once knew how to fly, or even how long it’s been since they’ve been on an airplane. Sam always talks of the residents’ desire to escape—their inability to grasp the permanence of their situation. She says that one of the men, Tom, arrives at breakfast some mornings dragging an old brown suitcase behind him, convinced that once he finishes his runny eggs and pulp-free orange juice, he’ll take the elevator downstairs and hail a taxi to catch his transatlantic flight that doesn’t exist.

I’ve heard a good number of these stories from Sam—Kay thinks she’s a college student back in her small Southern hometown, Marty talks to every female like she’s his wife, one woman (whose name the agency doesn’t actually know, so everyone just calls her “The Woman”) tries to force-feed her meals to a stuffed cat—such that visiting these people for the first time makes me feel anxious, as if I’m seeing a play I know the plot of, wondering how the actors will choose to perform it.

When the elevator opens, Sam leads me to a living room with a dark brown carpet and blue paisley curtains. I move from armchair to armchair, shaking hands with musty old men, with stringy women who appear boneless, women with milky blue eyes. Most of the people I’m introduced to can’t remember who Sam is. Tom rambles about his upcoming trip to Europe. Kay asks if I’m a professor at the university. I meet The Woman— she thinks Sam and I are her grandchildren, asks us what we want for Christmas. Some of the other women latch on to my hand and don’t let go until I pry them off. We walk through four identical living rooms, with identical paisley curtains and identical fireplaces filled with fires made of papier- mâché. Sam is looking for a woman, Gloria, about whom I have heard many stories. Gloria has tried to force her way out of the home on multiple occasions: Sam says that once she elbowed a caretaker in the nose and actually made him bleed a little. Sam finds Gloria sitting alone at a table near a small kitchen, chewing on her fingernails. When she sees me, her eyes light up, and she reads my oversized name tag loudly:

“Jason!”

Her nose has a slight dent in it, and she still has a few brown freckles, mostly on her left cheek. It reminds me, her face, of the face of a schoolteacher I once had in elementary school, old Ms. Davis. God. The resemblance is really strong.

As if on cue, Sam says: “Ms. Gloria used to teach third-graders in Chandler!”

Now I’m beginning to think we’re on the edge of discovering a great coincidence. Gloria says, in that sing-song voice of my old, freckled teacher: “Jason, can you do me a favor?”

“Sam,” I say. “What’s Ms. Gloria’s last name?”

She thinks a minute. Gloria is leaning forward looking at me, mouth open. A string of saliva from her bottom lip hangs in midair and then catches to the lacing of her pink bib.

“I think it’s Davis?” Sam says.

“No way,” I say, in disbelief. “Sam, I’m pretty sure Gloria was my third-grade teacher.”

“What?” says Sam.

Gloria grabs onto my wrist and her hands are freezing cold.

“Jason, Jason, I need a favor.”

“Ms. Gloria—Ms. Davis—do you remember me? You taught me in third grade! At Davidson Elementary? Something like twelve years ago?”

Her grip on my wrist tightens. Desperation, not recognition, is in her eyes.

“Jason, a favor! Please, dear, help me to the elevator so I can go downstairs. I need to get out of this shithole place.”

REUNION

After the nursing home, Sam and I drove to Old Town Scottsdale, to eat and browse through the art galleries. We split a pesto pasta dish outside a small restaurant on Main Street. When we finished we watched an old black man play the accordion. Sam searched through her wallet and dropped a crumpled five into his case. “God bless ya!” he shouted after us.

By this time the sun had gone down. The air was warm and the Scottsdale sky was a hazy purple. Owls called to each other from lofty Palo Verde branches. Sam and I started going in and out of different galleries. In one of them—a gorgeous space with dark green paint on the walls and dark brown furniture throughout—we chatted with the owner, who bore a strong resemblance to Mark Ruffalo. His paintings were set in thick frames made of golden swirls that looked like braided blonde Rapunzel hair. Almost all of them were landscapes: a bridge in Venice, the Tokyo skyline, Patagonia, the Milky Way above an empty desert.

The necessity of printing one word after the other on the page makes it difficult to depict what happened next, when Sam and I stepped out of the gallery and onto the street. At the exact same time, we both looked at each other and spoke. I said:

“Did that guy look like Mark Ruffalo?”

And Sam said:

“What a nice man.”

And then after a brief moment of disorientation she asked: “Who in the world is Mark Buffalo?”

We crossed the street and went into a small gallery with Jackson Pollack-esque paintings hanging in the windows. Inside were more spattered canvases and several white dresses decorated with large pink and purple swirls. Sam and I stood looking around the gallery, alone except for a blonde, middle-aged woman behind a white folding table. There were beaded mobiles hanging from the ceiling and strings of lights shaped like unicorns along the walls. It looked like a palm-reading sorceress was squatting on a seven-year-old girl’s bedroom.

“Welcome in,” the woman said, in a highpitched, unnatural, breathy voice. “What brings you to the Wonder Gallery?”

This seemed like the kind of question that begged for conversation, so I said, “Just browsing.”

“Are you the owner?” Sam asked.

“I am! Well, actually”—here we go—“my mother and I own it together! She got it twenty-or-so years ago when I was finishing high school here, at St. Michael’s! So, I went to ASU and studied art history, and when I graduated she wanted me to go in with her on it!” Oh, here we really go. Sam went to St. Michael’s.

“I went to St. Michael’s!” Sam said. “Did you like it there?”

“No way! Umm, it was kind of hard for me to vibe there, you know. With the nuns.

There was lots of negative energy. I don’t think I was very happy there. I don’t think I had much peace. But look at me now!” She spread her hands outward and smiled.

Sam started: “Yeah, I understand—”

“Oh! By the way!” the woman said, “I’m in charge of all the reunions for St. Michael’s High! Give me your number, and I’ll add you to the group! I organize events and get people together to reminiscence about the good old days.”

“How fun!” Sam said, but I could tell she was growing tired of the woman’s squeaky voice, and all its unnatural enthusiasm. Sam and I, at this point, had been together for five months, and I was beginning to learn these things about her: how she stood on her tiptoes when excited, twirled her hair when nervous, rubbed her forehead when sleepy. I suppose I should describe her now, as she was back then, so you can picture her doing these things: she was slender, four or five inches shy of my six feet, with deep green eyes and small features, and long, oak-brown hair.

“Did you grow up here?” Sam asked the woman.

“Yes! On Sixteenth Street and Missouri. I went to Springer for elementary school and then—”

“I went to Springer!” Sam said. The words sounded almost more disappointed than excited. She rubbed her forehead.

“Oh! Well I’m in charge of the reunions for Springer, too! I’ll add you to the group!”

I felt like we had better get out of there before Sam and this lady realized they were long-lost sisters. I squeezed Sam’s hand, out of nothing but impatience.

“Thank you!” Sam said. “Well, I think we’d better get going now, but thanks for being so welcoming!”

“Okay! But first, come over here,” the woman said, wagging a finger to Sam. “I’ve got some special lady wisdom I want to share with you.”

Now Sam looked visibly uncomfortable. She said, “Okay,” and glanced at me, twirling her hair. I shrugged and gave her hand another squeeze. What was the worst that could happen? I figured this strange sorceress woman probably had some oddball secret to share from her old school days, something I couldn’t understand. Sam let go of my hand and walked over to the woman. They stood together behind the white table. I could hear the woman whispering:

“I’m just not so sure about your guy friend there. I don’t know about his energy…”

“Oh, come on, Sam,” I said, “you guys can gossip at your reunion.”.

WORK

That summer I worked at Herbert’s Books, in Tempe. I was just gearing up to go to college, far from the sweltering heat of the parched Phoenix desert, all the way out in North Carolina. Sam was staying in Arizona—something I was just beginning to worry about, around the time we met the weird sorceress energy gallery lady. Sam and I had had a nice laugh over that whole conversation on the way back to the car.

Herbert’s is an old bookshop on Mill—right in the middle of all the bars and restaurants near Arizona State University. I was excited to work there. I knew, even then, that I wanted to be a writer, that I wanted to live and work in the literary world. I couldn’t wait to write lots of those little recommendation notecards that are hung on the shelves, to show everyone that I had a sophisticated literary taste. I pictured myself having literary discussions with customers as I checked them out. But it turns out most everyone buying a book hasn’t read that book yet, and therefore, doesn’t really want to hear too much of what you have to say about it. And most of the customers were just college kids getting required reading texts, anyways.

One day in late July—that time of year when the temperature doesn’t dip below one hundred, not even in the early morning—Herbert’s hosted a book event with a pretty well-known writer, probably the most famous writer to do a signing at our store. I won’t say his name, but he’s won a National Book Award this century. Everyone was pretty nervous in the buildup. It wasn’t uncommon for university professors to read their work, but this guy was big. All twelve or so of us employees had to attend—half of us to help run the event, and the other half to bulk up the size of the crowd. I was a crowd guy: They put me in the front row. The author was smartly dressed, in a navy blazer and tight-fitting khaki pants rolled up at the ankles. There were maybe fifty people there, all told. The book shop owner, Herbert’s son, gave a little introduction and read out a list of the author’s accomplishments: In addition to his National Book Award, he’d won a Guggenheim fellowship, received an honorary degree from Georgetown, and written a book that was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. After the intro there were thirty seconds of polite applause. I was buzzing—this author was living the life I wanted so badly, the life I dreamed of for myself. I watched him walk to the front of the room, set his hands on the sides of the little wooden lectern, unfold a piece of copy paper from his jacket pocket, and begin to speak. I don’t remember any of it verbatim, but the first few sentences went something like this:

“Well, thank you all for having me here, folks. I’d say the pleasure is all mine, but events like these are always strange because they mean I have to crawl out of the basement where I write and actually put on pants.”

Muted laughter. Anxious rustling. Was this what we’d come to see? The author continued:

“See, the life of a writer is nowhere near as noble or glamorous or mysterious as the DeLillos or Pynchons of the world would have you believe. You follow the trends, find the formulas. Like, first and foremost, you’ve got to hook the reader in the first paragraph. If you’ve read my novels, you know I start off with something to grab your attention—conflict, maybe, or humor. Then it’s just a matter of keeping that attention, of giving the reader what he wants. So, I sit in my basement and type words onto a screen and call up to my wife and tell her to read what I’ve written and stop me the moment she gets bored or uninterested.”

Well, stop there then, Mr. Writer, I wanted to say. The rest of the speech was a smattering of continued self-deprecation, jokes at the expense of the writing profession, jokes at the expense of academia, jokes at the expense of independent bookshops and invested readers, who are “enablers of this basement-dwelling life I somehow get to lead.” That line I actually remember—that’s verbatim. In fact, during the course of his speech, this man said the word “basement” twenty-two times after I started counting. When he finally finished speaking, and the stunned bookshop owner waved a microphone in the air and asked for questions, it took five minutes before someone could come up with something to say.

It was me, of course. I was the someone. And the reason it took five minutes is because I was hell-bent on finding the best possible way—the rudest possible way—to put the anger I was feeling into words, all my young, angsty, aspiring-writer anger.

God, it was an awful question, but it was awfully good. I can’t bring myself to type it. I don’t even think it could be printed if I did. But let my refusal to reveal to you my terribly offending question be a form of rebellion in itself, a sign of my flouting the golden rule this writer laid down that sweltering day at Herbert’s Books in Tempe, the rule of always giving your reader what he or she wants. You don’t always get what you want.

CAFÉ/TERRACE

When I was young, I was afflicted by powerful daydreams. They crawled their way into my mind during class, on long car rides, in church—even as I stood in center field, as a Little Leaguer. Huge, sweeping daydreams that could make me cry, and did. I remember having to leave a school rally in tears after my mind transported my fragile body to a dark forest rife with monsters, eight-armed beasts that chased me through the trees. I related this daydream to the principal, a bleak man in his upper sixties who told me that monsters weren’t real and that, by failing to scream the name of my school’s mascot during my grade’s allotted time slot, I had lost our class the chance to win a pizza party. Actually, now that I think about it, Ms. Davis had been at that rally, her nose dent deepened by the sun.

As I got older, the daydreams became less fantastical, and more emotional. Once, as I sat in the front seat of our blue Subaru on the way to the doctor’s office, I daydreamed my mother in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. But my daydreams were good as well as bad—I saw myself winning admission to excellent universities, becoming a Rhodes Scholar, accepting a Booker Prize. The daydreams came maybe once a month during high school, and would last up to two hours. To this day, I’m still not sure if I fell asleep during these episodes, or if I just sat staring at a single point on the wall as my imagination stormed the cockpit of my mind.

The daydreams reached their highest intensity right after I met Sam. She became the recurring main character, the star of each and every daydream. I dreamt of her driving across the country with me, of her falling on a hike and getting hurt, of her receiving the medical-school acceptance she so desperately wished for.

I had my most powerful daydream at eighteen, two weeks after I listened to the worst speech I’d ever heard at Herbert’s bookstore, and two months after I ran into my old teacher at the nursing home and met that crazy woman in the art gallery. The circumstances for the dream were this: I was in the backseat of a car in central California, with my parents in the front, on the way from Phoenix to visit my grandmother in the Bay Area. What’s surprising about the dream, especially given that it’s the most powerful I’ve had, is that nothing out of the ordinary happens in it. It just stirred within me the strongest feeling of fulfillment I’d ever felt. Maybe the strongest I’ve ever felt.

Here is the dream. Sam and I are sitting on the balcony of a restaurant at night, bathed in yellow light. I am lean, light, balanced—somewhere between thirty and thirty-five. I know, without a trace of doubt, that we are in Colmar, in France, a place we’ve spoken about visiting. I am in a gray T-shirt and maroon shorts. Sam is wearing a white sweater. Age has made her even more lovely; her green eyes sparkle as she looks at me, intently, intentionally, with love. In front of us is a woven basket of soft, smooth bread. I feel a trace of butter linger on my tongue. It is gloriously humid—the kind of cozy evening humidity that makes you feel as though you’re in a warm pool, and your skin is sparkling, and you can breathe underwater. Above us, the moon sits like the spot of a flashlight on a black ceiling, yellow and round and luminous. Sam and I eat slowly, talk a bit, invent different lives for the people strolling past us. Everyone is holding hands, walking in twos and threes—no one is alone. The street beside us is made of cobblestone; the buildings across the way are brightly colored, red and green and blue, with brown beams woven onto their surfaces. Halfway through the meal, I feel a light tap on my shoulder, and turn. It is a young man, perhaps twenty, holding a white book, with my name on it. In his other hand is a pen. I greet him graciously, scribble my signature onto the page in the front flap, and wish him well. I turn back to Sam. She is smiling.

Another remarkable thing about this dream is that I remember, in great detail, not just its contents, but also how I felt afterward. The best way of putting it is “ready.” What a wonderful, soul-warming thing, to be ready. I felt ready for college, for a world away from Sam, a world away from the city I had grown to love, a world away from the people who raised me. All my questions—what would happen to our relationship? Would I ever get published? Would I even live to see adulthood?—receded away from me in the moments after the daydream, as if their answers didn’t matter.

I know the answers now. It wouldn’t be right for me to put them here—they’re too heartwarming, and too heartbreaking. But just knowing how things turned out is overwhelming, like being hit with a wave before you get the chance to pull in your breath. Now I feel as though I have more answers than questions. Some days I sit on café terraces in this city where I’m living, pull a pen from my pocket, and turn over a napkin. I search my mind for questions and write them down when I find them.

Cardellini is a rising junior majoring in English. He is the recipient of the 2019 William M. Blackburn Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding achievement in creative writing. 

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