★ ★ ★ ★
Global warming was on hold for the moment, at least that’s what ran through my mind as I entered the Starbucks located a short but treacherous walk from my tenement. My frozen face and tinkling eyelashes quickly thawed in the char-edged warmth of the coffee shop, a venue I rarely entered. The reason I found myself there on this occasion owed more to the gift-card my friend Spelios had given to me for Christmas than any powerful inkling to drink the coffee, which I find on the whole rather bitter. I don’t know, I’ve been to Italy and France, where they know coffee, and it never tasted like that, unless you went to a French or Italian Starbucks. I don’t get it. I don’t know why people pay a premium for this charred crap, I really don’t.
I went in, stamping my boots and slapping my sides. A polar vortex had engulfed us in snow, ice and razoring winds. My down-filled parka kept the torso warm enough, but the face suffered agony unless I donned my balaclava, which vanity kept me from wearing on this morning. The hipsters and yuppies who frequent this Starbucks would not have directly acknowledged me had I worn one, but they would have all tacitly noted and tabled my presence with some alarm. Masked men provoke fear in most people. Even I can admit to trepidation when encountering balaclava-clad men. More often than not they are up to no good.
What I noticed immediately—and this took my by considerable surprise—was the number of patrons in the coffee shop resting their heads on their respective tables. I counted at least seven men and women doing just that. Some had laptops open, some were half-way through breakfast sandwiches or scones, and all had paper cups of coffee or tea steaming away. But as though stricken by a sudden bout of collective narcolepsy or some bizarre species of hydrocephaly, where their skulls had swollen to unmanageable masses, almost all the people in the place were resting their heads on their tables. One dude by the window, hair on end, teeth and eyes shining, proved the exception, hammering away on a laptop. His nervous, buzzy energy ran counter to the low, throbbing hum underscoring the others.
What I also found odd was how many of those resting their heads on tables did so with their eyes open, and shared the same empty, enervated expression. A couple of the patrons had their eyes closed, and they could have been sleeping, though their profound lack of vitality might have been easily mistaken for death.
I approached the cashier, a blonde zaftig individual with a nose-ring of a dull hammered metal and matching earrings. I reject Starbucks nomenclature when ordering coffee there. Small has never been tall in my universe. I asked for a small latte and when the person—Dana according to the name-tag, quite helpful—gently corrected me, I didn’t fly into a rage as I would have on many other occasions. I’ve been known to go ape-shit for trifles. Not an enviable M.O. but I accept myself for who I am these days. Nevertheless, the depressive ambience of the cafe had dulled my spirit and muted my customary fires.
The fellow by the window continued clattering away; perhaps he was writing a screenplay or an auto-fiction, you know, one of those stories that isn’t fiction and isn’t autobiography. I guess that’s the prevailing form today. Telling a total lie isn’t enough, nor is telling the total truth. You’d best mix it up. People like that shit. I told Dana that I also wanted the most expensive sandwich they sold. Dana smiled and suggested the smoked chicken and cranberry-camembert on a ciabatta bun. I took a quick glance at the glass display case and saw one sweating in its cellophane sheath. It barely looked edible and was absurdly over-priced, but I grabbed it anyway, and presented my gift card to Dana who rang in my order. When Dana informed me that five dollars remained on the card, I thought about the generosity of Spelios, the man from my tenement who gave me the gift card. I had given him a bottle of Canadian white wine, something I regretted at that moment.
Unzipping my parka, I found a free table facing the bar, where the barista, wearing a hairnet and thick-lensed black-rimmed glasses, pulled his levers and did his thing. His fluid tattooed arms and measured bearing reminded me of a hybrid mime-magician street performer. I glanced around and no one had moved a muscle save for the hyperkinetic typist by the window. It was disquieting.
When the barista called out my name I jumped up to the bar to retrieve it. The smiling barista’s teeth seemed larger than normal—hinting of the leporine—but who am I to judge? Some people have small teeth; some have big teeth.
I looked at his name-tag. Fred. Hm. Not what I expected. “Let me ask you something, Fred,” I said.
“Shoot,” he said, amiably enough.
I gestured at the patrons. “What’s going on?” I asked.
Fred flashed his teeth. “Oh yeah. Today is Blue Monday.”
“Aka the most depressing day of the year.”
I could see that. January had always been a drag. The cold I could bear, but the lack of sunlight made me moody and listless. I took long walks and drank orange juice to compensate, but too much orange juice can fuck up a stomach, at least mine. But where had I been that I’d never heard of Blue Monday? Man, was I out of touch. I had all but stopped interacting with the world, stopped keeping tabs on it with the acuity and enthusiasm of the past. Things had gotten too complicated and ugly in the last few years, at least to my reckoning. An hour online could pollute a mind irrevocably. People had gotten meaner and more selfish than ever. And I don’t think it was just my age talking, that is to say, I hadn’t become a cranky old man at 50. Nevertheless I had withdrawn from the world, or at least from interactions with it.
“Yeah,” Fred continued. “Bad weather, post-Christmas debt, failing new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and yet an overwhelming need or obligation to take action—all of these combine to crush the spirit.”
“I hear you. Been feeling the bite myself, but not like these folks.”
“Some feel it more than others.”
“How do you get by, Fred?”
“I ingest lots of raw honey and practice hot yoga. That keeps my equilibrium balanced.”
“Raw honey, eh? The organic stuff, I bet.”
“Of course. Haha.”
“Yeah. You seem pretty happy. I drink orange juice, lots of it, but it kills my stomach. I’ll make a note to myself to get some raw honey.”
“I swear by it.”
I peeled off my parka, sat down and started in on my sandwich. It tasted good, I must admit, no fridge funk or fishy sauciness. On the other hand, the lukewarm latte disappointed me on a number of levels. As much as I wanted to like Fred, his weak barista skills made me hate him a little. This wasn’t fair, I suppose, hating someone for making a mediocre latte, and yet this was how I felt. Lying about it seems pointless. We all walk around with a miniature tiger of judgment in our hearts, just waiting to pounce. For as much as we would like to get along with everyone, some people invariably disappoint us and provoke primal antagonisms that cannot be rationalized or guilted away. But I wasn’t about to say, Fred, you’re a fucking disappointment to me, to the coffee industry, and your whole family. Had he been blessed with telepathy he would have read my thoughts and reacted accordingly, but this wasn’t the case.
A red-faced man wearing a puffy white parka suitable for polar climes entered and with him a gust of the Arctic that made me cringe. None of the resting heads stirred. The man stamped his boots and stiff-legged his way inside. He paused to look around, then selected an empty table and tossed his white thermal gloves on it. He moved to the cash register and ordered from Dana. At that moment I noticed the music softly burbling over the speakers. I don’t know if anyone else did. Andy Williams was singing Christmas carols. I was shocked that no one had protested, I certainly had a mind to air my objection to Fred. I mean, it had been three or so weeks since Christmas. Maybe it was his idea of a joke. I suspected that Fred had more to do with the music selection than his colleague, Dana, I can’t explain why.
The man in the fabulous parka picked up his order and sat at the table where he had planted his gloves. His face resembled distressed red leather. It hurt me to study him. He unzipped the parka, opened it up, and took a sip of his drink. Then, without further ceremony, he rested his head on the table with his eyes open.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know . . .
I couldn’t believe it. White Christmas? In mid-January. It was wrong. I was definitely going to say something after I finished my sandwich. I bit into the ciabatta bun and my teeth met resistance. I heard a crunch. Pain shot through my jaw. I opened up a paper napkin and spit out the food in my mouth. Among the chewed up fragments of chicken and cheese I detected an ivory crown. My tongue plunged into the back of my mouth, probing the afflicted right side. Sure enough, it found a jagged chasm where the devastated rearmost molar sat. Further probing provoked a white-hot pain that shot through my jaw, down my neck, and into my shoulder. I must have yelped because the guy on the laptop turned from the window and stared at me with his bright eyes.
“Are you okay?” asked Fred, leaning over the counter with concern.
“I broke a crown,” I said, clutching the right side of my face.
“Oh my. How did that happen?”
“Have no fucking idea,” I said, inspecting the sandwich for anything untoward.
All seemed fine until I saw, to my utter horror and disgust, wedged between the white chicken and greyish camembert, a piece of white plastic. I pulled it out of the sandwich and held it up. Fred’s lips curled back. It was a piece of a broken plastic spoon or fork. I looked at Fred again and he was saying something to Dana.
I continued holding up the piece of plastic; I wanted someone to acknowledge it before I lost my cool. The guy by the window had returned to his masterpiece, fingers flying. The other patrons, including the red-faced newcomer, remained inchoate.
Finally Dana rushed out from the cash station and approached me with one arm held back, shoulders tilting, head reared.
“Look,” I said. “Look what I found in the sandwich. It broke my tooth!”
“Oh, wow,” Dana said. “That’s awful. I’m going to get you to fill out a report.”
“A report? Will it pay for my crown? You know how much that’s gonna cost to replace? Ow!” I grabbed my jaw as a twinge of pain rang through it.
“We’re insured for this type of thing, I’m sure. Must hurt, eh?”
I stared at Dana. I didn’t want to lose my temper. It’s not as if Dana had broken off a piece of plastic cutlery and jammed it into my sandwich. That made no sense.
“What should I do with this?” I asked. “Keep it for evidence?”
“I don’t know,” Dana said.
Fred leaned over. “Hey, buddy, just fill out the forms and I think corporate will take care of you.”
“Oh yeah? Good to know. But ask me, Fred, if I needed this on the most depressing day of the year. Like, who the fuck puts a piece of plastic in a sandwich? That’s, that’s like attempted murder for fuck sake.” I was getting heated. I knew better than to continue ranting. It only got me revved up. Before you know it I’d be knocking stuff over, waking up all the zombies.
Dana returned with a sheaf of papers and a pen.
“It’ll take a few minutes. In the meantime, I can refund your money and get you a fresh latte if you want.”
I nodded assent, what else was I going to do? I’m not going to say I had bad luck, that’s too easy. But if something like this was going to happen, I would be the likeliest victim. That’s just the way I rolled, that is to say, that’s just the way my life rolled. The fucking pain was uncanny. And this was just the start of it. Now I’d have to go see my dentist, on the other side of town. Not that I had major plans that day, but I wanted to go for a nice walk and then watch some Netflix. I hadn’t worked in two years. I was unemployable, for a variety of reasons. Not that I was incompetent, but I didn’t get along with most people—still don’t. I don’t look for conflict, but it always finds me. So I had retreated from the work force altogether. I lived on some savings, money remaining from the sale of my dead mother’s house, and credit cards. My net worth was close to zero. But I had generous friends and my sister helped me out on occasion. Still, unlike most of the other people in the Starbucks, I wasn’t depressed. That’s right. Despite my bad luck and relative poverty, I was not depressed. I was happy to be alive. My buddy Tony Demarco passed away a week before Christmas after a long battle with cancer. Left a wife and two kids. Now that’s depressing. No, I wasn’t depressed that morning in the middle of January, that Blue Monday as they called it. The depression came later.
A woman walked in, dressed in a brown body-length coat the consistency of burlap, that together with the oversized brown toque on her head and matching brown mitts, brought to mind the dancing bear in “The Polka King” Jan Lewan’s travelling band, before he was charged with running a Ponzi scheme. She walked up to Dana, leaned over and ordered something in a whisper.
I began filling out the forms, occasionally feeling a twinge of pain in my jaw. The Christmas carols continued.
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for roasting …
I had long ago stopped feeling anything at Christmas, that is to say, I had long ago stopped experiencing that Christmas feeling. It had been commodified and synthesized to extinction. Childless and unmarried, nothing forced me to artificially sustain the celebratory hoopla and false festive airs. And after my mother had died, a few years before that time, nothing remained of the Christmases I used to know. All the magic and warmth, or whatever it was, had long since vanished. So, on the whole, I found Christmas and Christmas carols repugnant, or at best sentimental and nostalgia-provoking. Nostalgia, in particular, can sink you. But hearing those songs at that moment, sung by Andy Williams, combined with the cracked crown, pulsing pain, and the optics of those people resting their heads on their tables, I found myself on the verge of hysteria.
There’ll be much mistletoeing
And hearts will be glowing …
My eyes blurred up and I could barely read the silly forms I was supposed to fill out. This was fucking stupid. I was feeling fine when I woke up that morning, perfectly fucking fine. Now all this. As if the universe couldn’t accept a sanguine individual on the most depressing day of the year. In other words, it would prove it’s point, hammer it into my brain, one way or the other.
The late-entering woman in brown sat down at a table beside mine with her beverage. Without removing her coat or hat or sampling her drink, she immediately rested her head on the table, facing me. She shut her eyes, though not completely. This, combined with the dark circles and her pallid complexion, gave her a ghoulish countenance that only intensified my dismay.
It’s the most wonderful time
Yes the most wonderful time
I realized the music had hit some kind of loop. Those two lines kept repeating, again and again. I glanced over at Freddy who had his back to me. I wanted him to kill the carols. I got up and walked over to the counter. Pain shot through my jaw. I held it and tried to draw Fred’s attention by slapping the counter. Dana barked something at him and he whirled around with a surprised look that to all appearances seemed feigned. He didn’t want to confront me—as though he knew I’d at last been bitten by the Blue Monday bug and could pass the contagion on to him.
“Hey, Freddy, your stupid Christmas carols are on a loop.” Pain whistled through my broken molar as I spoke. I had to stop. I made a cutthroat gesture common with professional athletes to indicate I wanted the music, that music stopped.
“But I don’t control the music,” he feebly offered.
“What,” I said, “does corporate set your music list? Kill the fucking carols, man. Can’t you hear it’s on a loop? And it’s fucking January! What’s the matter with you? No wonder all these people are depressed.”
It’s the most wonderful time
Yes the most wonderful time
Now Dana came over. Dana explained that they didn’t have the password to change the music. That the manager, who was off that day, had the password, and that he was skiing that morning at Blue Mountain.
“But it’s on a fucking loop,” I said.
“Sir,” Dana said, “language.”
“Language? You broke my fucking tooth. Now you’re trying to drive me mad with this music. Why are you playing Christmas carols in January?”
“Enough!” I cried, slapping my hands to my ears.
I returned to my table seething. I had to fill out the forms or I’d be on the hook for the crown replacement, but I couldn’t concentrate. I looked over at the window guy who continued clattering away unfazed. I admired him, in a way. People who can maintain focus no matter what’s going on around them are rare. The other folks continued resting their heads on the table.
All of a sudden a great weariness overcame me. I mean, it came on abruptly. My arms and legs felt like sandbags. My head, my head felt leaden, dense. I could scarcely hold it up. I wasn’t exactly sleepy—just heavy. So fucking heavy. Like gravity had finally decided to finish the give-and-go game it was playing with me.
I scattered the illegible forms and rested my forearms on my table. Dana brought me a fresh latte and silently set it by my elbow. I didn’t or couldn’t acknowledge its receipt. I could hear the guy on the laptop clacking quietly away and the looping Christmas carol droning on and on. The sounds wove together heavily in my mind like thick ribbons or ropes, tightening and pulling me closer and closer to the table top. At last my head yielded. I let it fall with a soft thunk. It felt wonderful. Yes, most wonderful.
Salvatore Difalco’s work has appeared in many print and online magazines. He splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.
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