Folks sometimes mix up Coco Kitchen and Cocoa Café.
Coco Kitchen is on the north side of Tanglewood, on the corner of Tanglewood and Main. Coco Kitchen is owned by a Thai lady-boy named Coco. At noon Coco opens her doors to proletariat and vagabonds and serves them lunch, buffet-style. She doesn’t charge. There’s a big glass jar on the far end of the buffet counter and there is a sign on the jar that reads: Please Give What You Can.
The buffet counter goes like this. First there is a big stack of plates, most chipped, some soiled with minute specks of congealed black dirt that even the industrial-strength Ecolab dishwashers can’t remove. Then there’s the food. Always there is a lentil dish, slow-cooked in a tomato stew, with chunks of potato. There is also chicken curry. The rest of the dishes vary.
Sometimes a young attorney from the Office of the City Prosecutor, just down the street, will enter, not minding the bedraggled clothes, oily hair, and tired chins of the people whose protruding elbows brush his while he eats. The tables in Coco Kitchen are established to maximize economy, and Coco thinks strangers ought to touch elbows when they dig into her food. (Coco employs two Mexican illegals. She pays them less than Starbucks but more than Walmart. Since there are no W-2’s to fill out, Coco eats the wage tax.)
The young attorney will drop his leather bag on a vacant chair, move to the buffet counter, and pick up a plate. He will notice a smudge on the plate. Subsequently he will take another plate, the next one in the stack, and often this plate will be smudged as well. He will then proceed to rummage through plates, sometimes getting as deep as six or eight, grabbing plates with his right hand, cradling the unacceptable ones in the crook of his left elbow, standing there in his constant search for pristine china, forming a second stack of usable plates.
Once there was an old woman with a crumbling teddy bear—she had left her handcart, unlatched and unprotected, full of quilts she had made and the knitting materials she had used to make them, outside the doors of Coco Kitchen. The old woman took a plate from the attorney’s makeshift stack, asked his permission to cut in front, and moved to the food, hovering over the metal hot-pots so the steam moistened her face. She poured lentils on her plate until the tomato stew overflowed the edges and spilled onto her worn New Balance sneakers. When she did this she seemed at ease, for her teddy bear was protected, comfortably secured, bonded and certified in her left armpit.
This is Coco Kitchen.
Cocoa Café, on the other hand, is right across the street, on the south side of Tanglewood. Cocoa Café is owned by a man named Ardell and the woman with whom he lives. I think they are not yet married.
They are fixing the intersection of Tanglewood and Main, you see. They’ve been fixing it for months now. I’m not quite sure what they’re doing, but I have noticed that they’re working with the methodical lethargy of a blooming petunia, and with the focused precision of a Dot Moth larva munching on said petunia.
(Presently, I must confess the following: I’m spying on them, the construction people. From my former employer I liberated a copy of the work plans for this intersection and continue to do my job, though now, I suppose, I am working pro bono. Additionally, it occurs to me that the city government might prefer to call me an insurrectionist, particularly since I have idled the past three weeks of my unemployment collecting bomb-making materials. I have theories.)
It was a Friday morning, late-November-cold though it was early October, and I had to sit on the steps, in the shade, where you had to huddle in your overcoat and keep your hands in your pockets. It was 10:18, according to my deceased grandfather’s Seiko, which some years ago he bequeathed to me, along with an old yellow Pontiac. (The car still runs, and I have come to enjoy the idea that I can operate a motor vehicle featuring an actual hole in the floorboard, right where my heel is when I push the accelerator. I’ve covered the hole in the floorboard with a shred of gray carpet held in place by gray electrical tape.) All four patio tables were occupied and I figured that soon someone would get up and leave and if I could sit in the shade and wait it out, then I might get lucky. But for a long time no one got up.
At 11:33 I got thirsty. It’s always happening when I watch roadwork and smoke cigarettes. I wanted to go inside, to purchase a cup of coffee, perhaps some water. (The bottled water they sell at Cocoa Café comes in clear glass bottles shaped like dildos, and I’ve yet to find another establishment with the moxie to carry that particular brand.) As much as I would’ve liked to go inside, though, I didn’t. I had already been waiting for over an hour, reaching and crossing the threshold where one becomes pig-headed. I fancied the very moment I opened the door and went inside, one of those tables would open up, and some fellow walking the sidewalk, just passing by, would be powerless to the invitation of the solace of a vacant table out there in that warm sun, on that nice brick patio. (In an ephemeral, detailed permutation of this fantasy, I envisioned the Dot Moth workers engaging in their own bit of insurrection. Upon seeing a table open, they would choose to cut short the workday and cast their orange-covered hinds on chairs around this table—my table—all while I was inside the café, purchasing a dildo or some coffee.)
Not another person was sitting on those cold concrete steps, waiting it out like I was, but I imagined nonetheless it would happen just like I feared—most days it’s the luck I have—so I lit another cigarette to keep my nose warm.
Set to wait things out, I maintained my ass on the steps.
Soon, though, came an icy and malignant zephyr, attentively pernicious in its penetrating chill. The zephyr penetrated my coat and rode up my spine, into my blood, transforming my blood, I imagined, from the placid, benign blue of hospital hallway walls to the dark blue of an evening sky in southwestern Alaska.
I decided that anything was worth being in the sun, even sharing table space with another somebody.
That’s when I went up to her.
“Would you mind?” I motioned to a chair on which she was resting her feet, which looked to be very small and were obscured by shiny black clogs. I furrowed my brow so she’d see I was desperate for sun and not company and not get wrong ideas. Women like it when you’re desperate for warmth, though not for dates.
“Of course,” she said, looking a bit discombobulated and right cute. “Of course,” she repeated after several seconds during which the whip of the wind was louder than the jackhammers.
She’d been sitting alone at this table in the sun for the hour I’d been sitting on the steps in the shade.
Though I did not ask for her name, nor offer mine, she said, “I’m Annalynn.”
Now I had a name to go with the pale, pretty face, but also a question. I wondered if “Annalynn” was one name or two—I didn’t mind much, the not knowing. Sometimes you have good luck, and I was thankful that I’d found a seat in the sun and it was a shared table with a pretty, pale-faced woman named Annalynn (or Anna Lynn).
I didn’t say much by way of introduction. Sometimes I get scared when I get to talking to people—not necessarily pretty women, though they’re difficult, too. Through my cigarette I said: “Thank you. I sure do appreciate you letting me sit here in the sun.”
She smiled and went back to her paperback. Pretty face aside, the attention she’d been giving to her book was the main reason I picked her. I picked her because she’d been reading a creased, senescent, ratty-old paperback, orphan strands of tape holding together the spine, still coming apart. For the entire time I’d been watching her, watching all four tables—my eyes occasionally moving to the construction—waiting for any party to look like it was about to leave the patio, Annalynn had been reading.
I liked the way Annalynn had been reading. She was immersed. The racket of jackhammers didn’t seem to bother her at all. Not the way it bothered the others, who would, in routine flow of conversation, cast their eyes upon the Dot Moth workers and sling profanity at the intersection.
Sometimes Annalynn would get so flustered by what I deduced was an exciting part in the story that her forehead would turn the same shade of red as her nose (pointy and regal, with a bump on the bridge that made it look like it had once been broken but healed handsomely) and her cheeks (lofty and defined), and you could almost sense her, out there in the sun with her feet on the chair, the temperature of her blood rising with the rising of some strange, exciting plot, until she had to wipe her brow with her gray scarf or the wool sleeve of her navy blue overcoat, which was, I was pleased to note, the twin of mine.
Annalynn looked like a fast reader. She would lick her left forefinger, reach across and turn the page with such precise alacrity that a casual observer might say she had to be skimming. But if you looked closely enough, really looked at her, you’d see that she wasn’t skimming at all, that her blue eyes were fluttering like Ron Guidry’s left wrist all through ‘78.
Her lips, I had noticed, trembled stilly in burst-fire with each syllable she encountered then passed by.
On the tabletop, Annalynn had this cup of coffee and she hadn’t touched it, not in an hour, and by now I guess that cup of coffee had turned cold.
So that’s the other reason I picked her, aside from the pretty face: Annalynn looked like she wouldn’t mind a stranger sitting down next to her, minding his own business, smoking a cigarette or two in the comfortable sun, ostensibly watching the last of the October bumblebees conduct business on the dying flowers in the mulched area between the brick patio and the cracking sidewalk of Tanglewood Drive.
No, Annalynn might not mind at all; she might just sit there in her paperback, always in her paperback, and she might not expect me to say anything, might not even look at me.
She was kind enough to allow me to leave my duffel bag on the chair, to watch it while I went inside to get something to drink. Inside the duffel bag were the final pieces of the puzzle, the fuses I’d purchased in West Valley City that morning. She would not have been so kind to me had she known I’m planning to blow up 66 intersections across the city, forming concentric circles of slow-burning fires around Temple Square.
Then again, perhaps she would.
Inside the store, I had the thought that I should buy her a cup of coffee to replace the one which had gone cold. After all, she had offered me a seat. Sadly, I quickly shooed away any hope for a future with this dear woman, for I had aluminum, magnesium, fucking plastic explosive in my trunk.
When I returned to my chair on the patio, Annalynn didn’t look up.
Soon thereafter a little boy came by. He was on a scooter, the thin kind the width of a grown man’s sneaker, and I noticed right away that the kickstand was broken. There was a little girl, too, ladybug-cute in her billowing blue dress and her frumpy gray coat, running behind the boy, trying to keep up with the scooter. The scooter hissed and halted and the boy looked at me. The boy tilted his head to the side, looking more like a Chocolate Lab than a boy. He regarded me for a time, then he said: “Can I have a cigarette?”
“No way,” I said. “No way, little boy. These are bad for you.”
“Why do you smoke, then?” asked the boy.
I threw away the cigarette right then, threw it in an empty flowerpot on the far end of the patio.
I said: “You see? I just quit.” It was ok. I had plenty of cigarettes.
The boy said: “My dad smokes. He’s not nice to me. But I have a new dad now. He speaks Spanish.”
The boy got this far-off look in his eyes and I thought: Sunday. Sunday is the day.
Briefly I looked away from the boy, at the flowerpot in which I’d thrown my burning cigarette. There was a sign scotch-taped to the base of the flowerpot. The sign read: I am not a trash can. I am a flowerpot. All of my flowerpot friends laugh at me when they see cigarette butts in my soil. If you are a kind and decent person, please do not use me as an ashtray.
I had to read that sign twice, and immediately felt like a heel for throwing my cigarette in the soil of this imploring flowerpot. I assuaged my guilt by telling myself it was for a good cause, that I was a crusader against lung cancer in children; also, I promised myself I would get up and get the cigarette when the boy and the girl had left.
I didn’t have anything else to say to the boy, nor to the girl. I looked at him and smiled. Then I looked at the girl and smiled.
Since I didn’t have any good reason to look at either of them further, I glanced up at Annalynn. She was smiling at me. Her eyes were smiling, too. They looked like blue diamonds; there was a pretty flaw in her left iris.
But the boy on the scooter, he wouldn’t leave. He just kept looking at me. I can’t figure what he was thinking but he kept looking and finally I chose to return his stare. Ultimately, the little girl in the blue dress saved me. She tugged at the boy’s denim jacket and just like that, without a nod or a smile, the boy looked away. He pushed his foot hard against the pavement and they were off.
Annalynn, however, was still looking at me, still smiling at me. (I never came to discover that it was, in fact, “Anna Lynn.”)
“Kids are funny,” I said at 12:51.
“They say what they mean,” she said.
I liked the way she said that.
Still, that same thought, dangling and revolving, pollinating my brain: Sunday. Sunday is the day.
I got up to rescue the flowerpot from my cigarette.
George Tihin is a law student at the University of Utah. He was born in New York City and received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University
Copyright 2003-2006 AntiMuse