by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
8) Our Impoverished Souls
By now the lunch crowd’s descending. (You’d be surprised how many people want custard-filled coffee cake for lunch, even though we offer three kinds of sandwiches.) I double-check the alley to see if the beverage truck’s coming when I’m seized by the ethereal shivers that have been visiting me several times a day, on and off, for weeks.
Every hair on my body stands on end and I float back inside with the sense that if I wanted to, I could rise off the floor. I think I can see every molecule in the room: they look like infinitesimal, incandescent sailboats.
Carlos taps me on the shoulder. “Don’t go too far, man, you might not get back.”
A line unfurls in my mind: Everything that happens has already happened. From the front comes giggling. Four college girls accompany a rotund character in cape and beret, whose sex I can’t tell at first. I look carefully, and decide the person’s a he.
The group, tittering, moves to a big table, where they order éclairs and double lattes. The androgynous person brandishes a black cigarette in a shiny gold holder.
I clear my throat. Press my palms together. “I’m afraid there’s no smoking.”
“No need to soil yourself. I only pretend to smoke.”
Two more sets of customers enter and seat themselves. I pour water and retreat to the counter, where I get the lattes going, set the paper doilies on the plates, and begin reaching for the éclairs. Whereupon Carlos’s maddening breath once again fills my ear. “Juice man’s here,” he whispers. Like it’s a big secret. He takes the tongs from me and I stand watching mindlessly as he lays down the last éclair and slyly licks each of his long, sugary fingers. To punctuate the gesture, he grins and looks away.
I glimpse his profile—catch and really register it for possibly the first time. There’s something naked about it. His eyelids have no lashes. In this light, from this angle, his skin wears a greenish undertone. Is it the light? A new hair dye? And then: Why didn’t I see it before? No wonder his face looks strangely lizardlike. He’s shaved off his mustache! But, there he goes, zigzagging from table to table.
Carlos the gila monster, the chameleon, serves the students first, then scurries around, filling orders. I ought to be grateful. Carlos is eagerly, efficiently, helping me out. Mr. Raging Superiority is pouring coffee, wiping away crumbs. He’s laying out napkins and dispensing miniature jugs of cream for god’s sake! Is this going to be a regular thing?
Until the New C. of C., Carlos was always the genius and I was the dullard with purse strings. He’s ridiculed and berated me for twelve years straight because he’s a fabulously gifted baker and he knows it. People come from all over for Carlos’s creations. Newspapers and magazines semi-annually pronounce his pastry the best in Chicagoland and invite local celebrities to write about their favorites.
So I’ve always put up with a lot of shit from him. But only in the last two weeks has he taken to sidling up to me, casually massaging my shoulders, and whispering, “Relax.” His shoulder or forearm is constantly grazing mine. His finger runs along the underside of my arm, and over my chest, under my chin. Twice today, Carlos has placed his firm, dexterous hand at my hip!
His heat and energy make me drool. It’s all I can do not to curse and shake my fist. Someone’s yelling, “Yo, Malcolm!” from the kitchen when Carlos puts his cold-blooded lips again to my ear. “What did I tell you? Juice man’s here.”
Bald Paul from Mystic is leaning against the pie shelves, smoking a cigarette like a horn player off his jazz muse, though I happen to know his talents are driving a truck, lifting weights, and believing it’s only a matter of time until he wins the lottery. Hairless except for a priapic little black “soul patch” between his mouth and chin, his presence alone embarrasses me.
I point to the no smoking poster, and he shrugs. My juice, my coolers, sparkling water, a whole week’s worth of milk, cream, and butter are stacked by the walk-in fridge. I glance at the stuff and move fingers in an attempt to look like speed counting. Then I sign the receipt.
Back at the front tables, the thespians are eating their gooey éclairs and holding—that is, looking at—the fliers I’d buried in the supply closet, back behind the paper towels, as soon as I’d realized that Six Ways to Overcome Loneliness was really a pitiful concept.
Take-out customers and those waiting for tables are also holding the fliers, as Carlos announces to the room at large that the six ways of loneliness derive from six levels. “Loneliness,” he intones, “is the starting point for any and all spiritual awareness.”
“Hear, hear,” says the person in the cape. Jumping to his feet, raising his cup, he says, “To our impoverished souls! May they grow fat. May they grow bold.”
I hurry over to a front table where the dry cleaner from across the street and Stanley, the pharmacist who works next door, sit looking incredulous.
“What is this?” Stanley asks, a flier in hand.
The dry cleaner, whose name I don’t know because unlike R.Ph. Stanley Larson he doesn’t wear a name plate, winks. “Getting in on the next big thing, are you?”
Shaking my head, I get them sandwiches. How did Carlos dig up and distribute the fliers so fast?
When I return, the dry cleaner wants to know where I am on the six levels to awareness. Four? Five? And are there points in between?
Fool that I am, I say, “Yes, there are points in between.”
“So right now, you’re trying to surpass what? Four? Four and half?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“Of course. I shouldn’t have asked.”
For a second, I wonder if he’s making fun of me but when he and Stanley leave, they both ask for fliers to post and hand out in their stores. Apparently, the brilliant Carlos is brilliantly selling his scheme.