Strange things sometimes happened at the café. Mostly all was normal, mind you, otherwise it wouldn’t be a café, a place where people come to relax among others, a place where tapping away on a laptop is accompanied by a periphery of human shapes and sounds, comforting, assuring. After all these people were quite capable of working at home in the quiet of their own private space and in fact most did for many hours a day and yet they still felt the need to occasionally go where others were doing the same thing, each at their own table, rummaging through websites, blogging, writing letters of application, buying and selling, even composing great works of literature, or bits of nonsense to amuse their friends. But such a background of busy normalcy must have a counterpoint of some kind, even if that counterpoint is encountered rarely, once in a blue moon.
Jennifer came into the café every day, twice a day, once in the morning at eight and again at three in the afternoon. She brought a laptop with her, a Mac, but seldom turned it on. Instead she filled page after page of hard covered notebook with a precise, neat, tiny script, the content of which everyone in the café, even the most uncommunicative, speculated upon. The shy kept their speculations to themselves whereas the bold spoke about them with one another. Some thought she was writing a novel. Others thought she was keeping a journal, a boring, literal journal filled with the mundane details of her everyday life. One of the bold, an ancient professor pensioned off thirty years previously after making indecent suggestions to young women students, asked her outright but received nothing in reply but a smile and evasions. Some, while passing her table, tried to make out the script but it was too small to read from afar and all they came away with was that it was exceptionally neat and tiny. The old professor gave the opinion that such a neat script could only come from the hand of a woman educated by French nuns. He believed that her lack of response to male flirtation was a by product of such an education, the result of which, in all too many cases as far as he was concerned, was what he called ‘Christian Frigidity’, a state where the victims, as the professor termed them, were incapable of sexual response, other than, perhaps, to French nuns or the nubile students to be found in their academies. The professor held that this kind of education was an abomination and the cause of most problems in the modern world.
What Jennifer was actually writing we don’t know but whatever it was it was long winded. According to the estimate of the café owner, a tall elegant man with roaming eyes and a loud voice, Jennifer had filled twelve of the notebooks since coming to the café some seven months before. These types of notebooks contained sixty-two pages, a fact the owner knew well for he owned a stationary store in the downtown which sold them. Sixty-two times twelve is seven hundred and forty-four pages, Considering that her script was tiny and that she completely filled the pages, starting at the very top and finishing at the very bottom, the owner estimated that if typed and printed the number of pages would be over one thousand. ‘War and Peace’ is what? – thirteen hundred? Another month or so would get her past Tolstoy’s novel and well into the range of ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, although many would say that Proust’s work was really a series of connected novels rather than a single work.
Gregor thought it unlikely that Jennifer was writing a novel. She seldom spoke but when she did she did not display any of the intelligence or command of language Gregor thought necessary for the composition of a novel. If she were writing anything literary he thought it more likely that it was a confessional piece, very modern, full of megalomanias and self justifications. People who wrote this sort of thing could go on forever flooding the world with their personal revelations which would no doubt, as in the case of not a few such writers, find a champion or two among desperate academics searching for a niche where they could expostulate without fear of contradiction other than from the odd fellow obsessive.
Rudolf thought Jennifer a neurotic filling the pages of her journals with gibberish. Doing so in the café, he claimed, created a kind of shadow audience which compensated for the fact that her scribblings would never find a real one. Although he thought Jennifer neurotic and engaged in a useless and self indulgent chore, he liked her for she was good looking, friendly and brought to the café a certain allure of mystery and muted sexuality. Otherwise the place would be even more boring than it already was. There were far too many old men like himself, superannuated has beens who even when they had been were nothing much to talk about. It was Rudolf’s opinion that among the city’s educated classes the ideal personality type was that of a bureaucrat – soft spoken, anonymous, self effacing, who never had an opinion on anything and thought those who did to be rude and inconsiderate. The café was full of these people, ‘dwarf servants of collegiality’ Rudolf called them. Their utterances were so commonplace, unoriginal and so devoid of emotion or imaginative excitement that an excitable man like Rudolf, if he arrived before Gregor and Andrew and sat by himself, waiting, felt he had been plunged into a dreadful surrealist movie where the protagonist finds himself in public place filled with animated corpses.
Andrew thought Jennifer to be in need of a philosophy to console her for the lost love he was sure she had suffered. This philosophy would allow her to be comfortable in herself and at peace with the world and thus free from obsessive scribbling. (He was sure it was obsessive) He was also sure that all obsessive behavior was a substitute for wise vision which he considered indispensable for defeating the consumerist illusions created by the modern world. As well he thought that it might not be such a bad idea that she find a new lover to distract her from the loss of the old, although it was unlikely she would find one here among the pensioned off fossils surrounding. It would be better if she went off to a café where there were people her own age. But he thought the gap of age and experience between him and her far to wide and deep for him to make any effort at benevolent counselling. He was afraid any such attempt would be interpreted by both the young woman and his own friends and acquaintances as sexual and predatory. He did not want to place himself in the category the professor was in, that of drooling old fools whose mind fail to keep up with both their appearance and their chemistry.
The owner, Fritz by name, had no opinion on Jennifer, or at least none he was willing to express. Café owners are like the madams of brothels – they must be catholic and universal, appreciators of all tastes or, at least, to seem to be so. Judgment is bad for business and, besides, exhausting when you deal everyday with hundreds of people representing a microcosm of the human race with all its quirks, eccentricities, perversions, egoisms and extravagances. To judge them all would be so depleting that one would be left incapable of filling the coffee cups or washing the pie plates. Far better to keep one’s mind on one’s own business and leave them to their own devices. Yet Fritz did have some feeling for Jennifer, whom he liked, an avuncular feeling that wished her well, appreciated her beauty and was glad of her business, for besides the coffee and pie she bought twice a day, he was sure when she was there many of the old codgers lingered longer, purchasing an extra cup of coffee and a cookie or two. But he had a daughter five years older than Jennifer and experience had taught him that young women have their own paths which could only be vaguely discerned from the far away world of an older man and it was best to be friendly and supporting but not interfere.
Jennifer was tall, over six feet. In certain men this excites the imagination for they dream of such sensuous length stretched out before them in the same way Baudelaire dreamt of Giantesses upon whose breast he lay in a swoon of infantile delight. No doubt this is the great mother who has a place in the dreams of all men even the most lusty and aggressive, if we are to believe the stories of dying soldiers crying out pathetically for their mothers. Our mothers are where we come from in the most simple and ordinary way and in the extreme moments of our lives the abstractions of intellect and religion are of no use to us.
She walked with a bit of a stoop as tall women often do, perhaps from embarrassment that their eyes are above the level of most men’s or that their breasts are at the level of many men’s mouths. She was quite aware that her presence in a café whose patrons were mostly men and older ones at that, made a stir. But then again the presence of a tall, beautiful woman makes a stir anywhere, even in a church or at a papal reception. The café was across the street from her block and she was unwilling to travel the two kilometers to get to another. Besides if she went to a café frequented by the young, the beaus would hit on her and she would be forced to waste time fending them off and putting up with their explosions of pique. At the café she was treated, discounting the professor’s occasional senile attempt to resurrect a Don Juan of some fifty years before, with the friendliness older men extend to a daughter’s friends. They chatted a few moments and then left her to her scribbling, pausing now and then to gaze at her speculatively out of the corner of a non-committal eye.
No one knew where Jennifer came from but it was clear she did not come from the city or any of the small towns scattered in a great circle around it for she had an obscure accent best described as a dash of the American south combined with a touch of middle European. It was very light, a matter more of cadence than the pronunciation of specific, individual words. Gregor thought it gave to her speech an elegant distinction. Rudolf thought it added the flavours of garlic and mint to the pleasant musical lilt of the young woman’s voice. It reminded Andrew of mystical mysterious women he had seen portrayed in movies, women free from modern rationalism, still carrying about them a slight scent of the barbarous past. The professor’s swashbuckling attempts at encounter included direct questions about her place of origin but Jennifer had deftly turned them aside. One patron claimed his analysis of her accent told him she came from Vienna. Another said there was no doubt in his mind she hailed from Memphis, Tennessee, from the elites and had been educated in private schools. This may have been true, at least the private schools part, for, as far as anyone knew, she didn’t work and must have had some source of private income. And her wonderful, lucid writing script suggested something other than public schools. The professor may have been right when he claimed she was taught by French nuns. When asked why not Irish nuns he snorted, “Irish nuns teach uniformity of script. For beauty and compactness the French version must be relied upon.” The professor, in the far off mists of his youth, had been briefly taught by Irish nuns and he did not have a good opinion of them. “Mean and vicious,” he called them. “Mother Mary with switch and stilletto.”
For seven months Jennifer came to the café regularly. Unlike Robotman her times of arrival and departure varied but she was there every morning and afternoon, excepting Sunday, of course, when the café opened at noon. Then one Thursday she failed to show. Friday came and went with no Jennifer and then the weekend and into the next week.
“Perhaps,” said the professor, “we should send a delegation over to talk to the superintendent of her building. She may be sick.”
Some of the patrons kicked this around for a bit but, as no one was willing to join a delegation, the suggestion died a natural death. Andrew, however, took it upon himself to visit the super that evening when he was in the neighbourhood. The super was an old school friend. Although Andrew had to endure his old friend’s smirk, he did learn that Jennifer had gone away quite suddenly the week before. She left the building early in the morning carrying two suitcases and climbed into a cab. No, the super had no idea where she went or even if she was coming back. Jennifer paid her rent a year in advance in cash. She could stay away four months and the apartment would still be hers. Yes, he had used his passkey to enter the apartment and have a look. He considered it his duty under the circumstances. Everything was normal. Jennifer was a very neat and tidy person and the place was immaculately clean. Notebooks? No, he hadn’t noticed any notebooks. They were either hidden away in a locked drawer or she had taken them with her.
There was a patio at the back of the block and Andrew and the super sat there to drink the mickey of scotch Andrew brought with him. They poured their drinks into ancient melamine cups and added coke and ice. It was a pleasant place to get mildly sloshed – glossy leafed lilacs blooming, a cool breeze after a hot day, birds singing in the trees. The patio’s floor was a mixture of irregular stones with varied textures fitted together and sunk into a bed of mortar. There was bright green moss extending from one end of it to a wrought iron fence. The other end was a stretch of well tended grass ending at the sidewalk. An old man came through the back door to have a cigarette and then go back to his apartment but other than that they had the place to themselves.
Twice, in the wee hours, the super told Andrew, there had been loud shouts from Jennifer’s apartment. The super heard them for he lived a floor below, one apartment over and was a light sleeper. It was a woman shouting and it soon ended. After lying awake for a time wondering if he should get out of bed and knock at her door, he decided it was a nightmare. This occurred first in the second month after she moved in and again two days before she left in the cab. When Andrew left three hours later he walked home, leaving his car in the block’s parking lot. Although he had drunk only one third of the mickey, that is a little over four ounces, he didn’t want to take the chance on being stopped. It didn’t take much to be over .08.
A month passed by and Jennifer did not reappear. Speculation ran amuck. Perhaps she had been kidnapped. Perhaps someone from the past had blackmailed her. Maybe a relative died. Perhaps she was really a high class call girl and had gone back to her city of origin and resumed her profession. Maybe she had finished her writings in the notebooks and had simply gone back to where she came from. Perhaps she had moved from one section of the city to another to avoid a bothersome man. The professor wondered if she was an undercover agent of some kind.
“What kind?” asked Rudolf. “One who spies on old geezers to find out how they are spending their pensions?”
The professor did not appreciate this remark. Rudolf had a reputation for being rough tongued. The professor told his friends Rudolf was rude and uneducated.
“You shouldn’t taunt the old man like that,” Andrew told him. “He might die of a heart attack or a stroke.”
“That wouldn’t be such a bad way for the old buzzard to go,” said Rudolf.
When the year on the apartment was almost up, the superintendent received a letter from Jennifer. It contained two thousand dollars in cash and instructions to have the furniture, etc, forwarded to an address in a large city to the east, COD. The super was delighted. Two thousand was a fortune to him and he did as he was asked. Men from a inter continental moving company were called in, and, after packing everything up very carefully, they loaded it into a large trailer and drove away. The super told Andrew but Andrew did not tell the other patrons at the café. He decided it was none of their business. He did tell Rudolf and Gregor. They were old friends and it seemed like a betrayal not to.
Nobody heard of Jennifer for two more years. So much time passed by that she was now seldom spoken of. Then Andrew received a call from his friend the superintendent.
“I have something you would like to have a look at,” he said.
“What?” asked Andrew.
“What kind of photograph?
“When you come I’ll show you. Tonight at eight?”
“OK then,” said Andrew. His friend had a paranoid, secretive side. Best to play along.
When he arrived at the super’s apartment, Dominic first took the mickey bottle and poured them both a generous drink. Then he sat Andrew down at his desk in the corner, under the light of a bright florescent lamp and spread out a sheet of newspaper on the desktop. A photograph, a large one filling in the top half of the page. There was Jennifer, or at least a woman who looked like Jennifer, dressed in a fancy dress gown, hair done up professionally, bejeweled, Andrew was glad to see, in an elegant, simple but no doubt expensive manner. She was on the arm of a middle aged man. Andrew recognized the man right away. He was a plutocrat who controlled a whole stable of international corporations. He had an unsavory reputation. Some claimed he was a legalized gangster and that his father and grandfather had knocked people off as an everyday way of doing business. Andrew read the caption. They were man and wife. The caption called her ‘the fabulous Mrs…., wealthy socialite’.
Andrew stared at the photograph for some time and then said, “Well, it sure looks like her but two people can look remarkably alike, especially in a newspaper photograph.”
“True,” said Dominic, “but I have more. When they print the resolution is not so good but the original digital is. I have an old pal at the newspaper and he emailed me this. Here.”
He reached out and turned on the computer. He selected a photo file and brought it up on the screen. The computer was a desktop with a 27 inch screen, (Andrew suspected Dominic watched porno on it) and the resolution was excellent, fabulous. It was Jennifer all right. There was the characteristic mildly smirky smile and the slight hint of the birthmark she had on the left side of her forehead, just below the hairline, imperfectly covered by the makeup she was wearing.
“Holy crap, isn’t that weird?” said Andrew.
“It certainly is,” said Dominic.
It took several days for the news to filter into the café for the paper carrying the picture was a scandal sheet and the café patrons took pride in not allowing it in the door. It was the professor who brought in a copy, waving it above his head as if he were a newspaper boy selling extras in a classic American film. Everyone gathered at the front counter for a quick look and then it was passed around from table to table for closer inspection.
The professor spent the rest of the morning tediously telling everyone who would listen how he had come upon the photograph. Apparently he stepped into a greasy spoon on a charitable errand (unbelievable for everyone knew the professor did not do charitable errands) when he saw the photo staring up at him from the front counter. It was a matter of pure happenstance he said. Otherwise no one would ever have known. This was untrue. The professor subscribed to the scandal sheet. He liked glossy photos of celebrities and spent a half an hour every day looking at them.
Andrew did not mention to anyone, even his friends, that he already knew, he had already seen the photo. He acted surprised as if he were seeing it for the first time. He was a little sad about the whole thing for he had a great affection for Jennifer and once had, in the odd moment of day dreaming, the fantasy that given the right circumstances they might have warmed to one another and made a trade of physical beauty for the beauties of mystical philosophy.