Alone Together

by Jason Bentsman

                Am I destined to become one of these wretches sitting at the café at eleven pm every Saturday night? One is hunched over a little notepad, scribbling something intently. Poetry? Notes? Scribbling something inscrutable with almost affected concentration and intensity. He wears a black unmarked baseball cap, his hands are covered in faint blue tattoos. The man next to him is obese; his body runs over the armchair he sits in. The fat of his bent forearm spills onto his bicep. “Free pastries,” announces one of the counter attendants. “They’re good. They were baked today. We gotta get rid of them.” The obese man is the first to get up. He looks around shiftily, pushes up with his arms to propel his bulk to standing position, ambles to the front wall where the tray of pastries has been set down. Returns with a large slice of cold pizza, places it atop a large plastic cup half full of fountain soda. Leans back in the armchair, takes a bite of the slice, then props it on his knee. He has an oval downcast face and a nose that ends in a bulb. His hair and beard are brown and bushy, and he wears very thick glasses. He must be in his early thirties. He is dressed all in black: a black t-shirt that reads in red lettering, “Army of the 12,” black slacks, black socks, and old black shoes coming apart at the bottoms. He is engrossed in some kind of handheld game, the console held close to his face, his thumbs twiddling the keys. Every half minute or so he reaches for the slice of pizza, absently takes a bite, and props it back on his knee. Maybe it’s not a game he’s playing but a program of some kind. He finishes the pizza in several minutes. Gets up—is he going to the bathroom? Returns with a poppy seed sprinkled croissant, resumes his activity. I’ve given in and have taken a large cupcake—a vanilla cupcake glazed with chocolate and sprinkles. Meanwhile a few attendants are dragging metal chairs across the ground toward the counter; they are readying to close. The man who was scribbling furiously in the notepad left a few minutes ago. He asked me for the time, then left. The obese man is discretely scratching or rubbing his crotch with the back of his hand; it is very evident because he sits almost directly across from me, and must sit with his legs spread wide in order to get comfortable in the armchair which is too small for him. A crashing and commingling of dishes and silverware, then pans and pots, then repetitions on this theme come from the counter. A party of three—the only acquaintances in the café—get up to leave, bundle themselves, go. A man with dreadlocks in the far back munches on a muffin, glances around expectantly when he believes no one is looking, bobbing his head in rhythm to the festive island music playing quietly from overhead speakers. The obese man has returned with something else! A muffin! This man has no shame; rather, he is too far gone for shame; one must have hope in order to feel shame. The music has turned off and the café immediately takes on a lonelier and slightly ominous quality—the buzzing of an electric fan overhead, the opening and closing of the bathroom door, the clanking of cleaning and setting-in-place at the counter. This is too much even for the attendants; within minutes a new song is played, a reggae song, which is switched quickly to a more upbeat reggae song, switched quickly to an even more upbeat song, a rockabilly piece in which a woman with a high-pitched, almost whining but not unpleasant voice, a voice that sounds almost like a bow drawing out notes on a fiddle, keeps repeating, “Call my name, call my name…” The next man who goes into the bathroom briefly whistles the melody of this song during the interim of silence before the next one. The sound of coffee beans ground in a grinder. “Are you done with that pot?” an attendant, a chubby brown-skinned girl in a pink shirt, asks the obese man—who is chewing his muffin like a cow chews grass. “Yes, I am,” he replies matter-of-factly in a deep tenor: just the sort of voice one would expect from this man, the voice of a giant, of the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. A young man in the far corner has put down the book he was reading and reclines back on the red felt couch he sits on, his head propped on the back where two walls intersect at a right angle; he turns his head to the side and closes his eyes tiredly, the shadow of his reposed profile stretches down the wall. He is an altogether average looking young man, probably in his early twenties, not ugly, not handsome. The tapping of a spoon on an empty mug near the counter. An Indian man who was sitting at a table in the far corner with his back turned to everyone hops up, throws on his jacket, and strides away briskly. The café has no smell in particular, a vague mingling of teas and coffees, but predominately a lack of an odor. There must be ventilation. The blades of the fan spin vertiginously. The languorous people below are oblivious to this contrast of speed above them. An amorphous shadow apes the blur of the fan. A young woman with a blue headband and tumescent, ravaged eye sockets moves to leave when her attention is piqued by the handheld device the obese man is operating. She asks him about it. He responds, in an even voice neither surprised nor particularly eager, that it is actually a rare laptop he purchased at a university lab some ten years ago. “It’s like a baby laptop!” the young woman effuses, genuinely excited. “It’s so cute. I love little things.” They begin a conversation centered on the laptop. “Was your first thought, ‘That’s so cute’… Can that cause brain cancer too?… Can you get it jammed?… I’ve seen cool laptops, but never anything so cute… Can you put in a petition for them to keep making them?… Dollar signs. That’s all they see. They see dollar signs… It’s so little. I can’t believe no one else would want that… Can I have it? Just kidding… I’m gonna go out and smoke a cigarette.” A new song has come on, quieter. Electronic jazz. These people engaged in these things intently—He took a fourth pastry! A muffin!—These people engaged in these things intently with themselves. And I am one of them, writing intently on a piece of paper. As the man earlier was scribbling on a piece of paper, I am scribbling intently, inscrutable to everyone but myself—inscrutable even to myself. I am one of them. I am filled with disgust suddenly and resolve to leave immediately. “What are you doing on that thing?” The young woman with the headband has returned. “I’m just doing some creative writing,” answers the obese man. An attendant sprays a wooden table with disinfectant, wipes it with a rag. Moves to the next table. Paintings are hung around the room: arbitrary splotches and clouds of color with vague forms emerging from within. In one, candy canes swirl around yellow green light, and what looks like a red meteor streams through. In another, broken ladders. Another, a necklace of purses with smiley faces drawn on them. Another, the entirely expressionless faces of two children bathed in blue. An attendant walks from the bathroom dragging a garbage bag. The ceiling is made of ornamented tin panels and painted a light blue that becomes light green in patches, that merges toward the center into azure.

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