Mr. Lee's Cafe
There was a tiny brass bell that hung over the front door of the Gogoratu Cafe. It rang every morning at 8:30 and then again three hours later.
Those rings always belonged to Mr. Lee.
The employees of the Gogoratu Cafe didn’t know much about Mr. Lee, other than what they could see. And what they could see was that he was slender, about 5’9’’, had a full head of wavy, silvery hair, and a smile that felt cozy. His most striking features were his eyes, the color of the desert sky in the afternoon. Those eyes were uncanny and seemed to peer deep into you and know exactly what you were thinking. And hardly anyone would’ve found that an intrusion, because Mr. Lee always came off kind and uncritical.
He would always arrive at the cafe wearing a tan fedora. However, as soon as he’d open the door and the tiny bell rang, the hat would come off, and he’d carry it in his hands. His outfit always consisted of brown or gray slacks and an extra-large button-down rayon shirt with vertical stripes. He had such an expansive collection of these shirts with every color, pattern, and combination imaginable that no one at the Gogoratu Cafe could honestly claim they’d ever seen him in the same shirt twice. (This was, in fact, a frequent topic of conversation among staff members.) Mr. Lee would also have the latest novel he was reading tucked underneath his arm.
He would then greet the barista. The barista would always reply: “Good morning, Mr. Lee!”
The face of barista might have changed steadily over the years, as employees came and went. But no matter who owned the face, it was always happy to see Mr. Lee.
He would then order something off the menu. Something to drink and a little something to eat. Unlike his punctuality, what he’d order was altogether unpredictable.
Each drink from the menu was a different memory.
He would carry his drink and tiny morsel to his seat by the window and watch the sky, and the ships and sailboats come and go along the deep blue sea. He’d listen to the wind and the seagulls and the little pieces of casual conversation and laughter among those who walked past the cafe along the sidewalk. He particularly loved the summer months—not because of the sunny, warm weather (even though he did enjoy that very much), but because that was tourist season. He loved the tourists for who they were—people who’d come to his town for just a taste of what he’d spent a lifetime enjoying. Of course, whenever time would allow, he‘d take in a few of pages of his book.
Mr. Lee lived in the tiny coastal village of Patricia, Oregon that was known more than anything else for its whale watching tours. In particular, a company called Ahab, famous for hosting outings on their own replica of The Pequod, the fictional whaling vessel from Moby Dick. While they couldn’t promise their customers a glimpse of the Great White Whale, they could at least provide once-in-a-lifetime views of orcas, humpbacks, and gray whales—depending on the season, of course. And then there were always the dolphins who loved trailing The Pequod and wowing the tourists with their wily acrobatics.
Patricia was also known for its huckleberry jam festival every second weekend of May, and its impressive assortment of fudge and taffy shops—the quantity of which had greatly dwarfed the number of gas stations in town. Patricia was also a great place to fly a kite, as long as it wasn’t too windy.
Mr. Lee would also see images out the window that weren’t there—images that had sprung from his memory.
A sip of the Americano, and Mr. Lee would see a man walk by the shop, trailed closely by a small boy. The man was his father Wilfred, and the child was himself at five years old. The child was fluttering his lips to make motor sounds and had his arm raised high, gripping his favorite toy: an aluminum biplane. The father was strong and youthful, grinning from ear to ear, as he scooped up his child and glided him through the air just as his child had been gliding the biplane.
Another sip of the Americano, and the child would age two years, dressed in a tidy black suit. His father had been a fighter pilot in the Great War, and his Spad VIII aircraft went down somewhere near the French village of Gondreville in June 1917. His family didn’t have the money to fly his father’s body back home, but they had a funeral service in Patricia regardless. Somberly, the child stood beside his mother Morgana, cherry-red lipstick, face obscured in a black veil.
Mr. Lee wiped away a tear from his eye. He continued to sip his Americano but couldn’t bear to look outside the window any longer. So he read his novel—a book from a burgeoning young author named Daniel Harriet whom he’d corresponded by post over the years. Mr. Lee would often get letters from young authors looking for advice and encouragement, and he was always happy to give it. Occasionally, Mr. Lee would receive a package—a completed book from one of his longtime correspondents.
A sip of the cappuccino, and Mr. Lee would see a young version of himself and his first wife, Rose walk past the cafe, gripping each other’s hands and swinging their arms. Rose had long, auburn hair, emerald eyes, and faint freckles on her nose. She also had proclivity for peach dresses that were oddly mismatched with her brown boots—but for Rose, the look fit her perfectly. Then they would stop and he’d whisper something in her ear, which made her eyes brighten up, and then she would throw her head back and laugh. They were both 18 years old when they married—a whirlwind romance. Rose and Mr. Lee said they’d be together forever.
But another sip of the cappuccino, and it would be four years later. He would see the couple walk down the sidewalk from the opposite direction screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. He would scream something at her with intensity, and she would scream something back with even more. Then he would say something truly hurtful, and then she would tear up and bury her face in her palms. He would try to console her by putting a hand on her shoulder, but she would evade that and run away. They would divorce soon after that, but Mr. Lee never regretted marrying her for a minute.
A sip of espresso, and the cafe window would become that of a P-40E Warhawk, soaring through the sky with the green farmlands of France rolling underneath. After his divorce from Rose, Mr. Lee had followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the United States Air Force. One of his campaigns to Düsseldorf had brought over that same region of France that had claimed the life of his father. His plane was hit just over the German border, and he thought for sure he was about to suffer the same fate. However, he ended up landing his plane safely in a wheat field before getting captured by the German military. He spent the remainder of the war as a POW. He came home weighing only 95 lbs, but his mother Morgana was all-too-eager to cook him all the food he could eat, fattening him up to 140 lbs in no time—a weight that he remained ever since.
A sip of the caramel latte invited images of his second wife, Lilian, when they first met. She had brown curly hair, gray almond eyes, and the kind of mysterious smile that kept secrets. She had a fondness for flowery, full-length dresses and blue berets. He wore sweaters and corduroy pants in those days. She worked as a librarian at the Patricia Public Library. She was an assistant when they first met, but she became head librarian soon thereafter. Mr. Lee liked books, but he liked Lillian even more. He’d often find himself staying up a couple hours later than he should at night just so that he could finish a book and have a legitimate excuse to visit the library the next day.
Another sip of the latte, and Mr. Lee would remember when he’d finally mustered the courage to talk to her. He asked her out to coffee. Caramel lattes. They talked about Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Mr. Lee tried to convince Lilian to appreciate the works of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and Mr. Lee needed some encouragement to appreciate Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. The one thing they agreed on the most was that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was utter drivel. They got married and lived happily together for 32 years until her death from liver cancer.
Mr. Lee would drink lemon tea and be reminded of his own heyday as a writer. He authored a modestly popular children’s book series that took place in the late 19th Century about an orange-and-white tabby cat named Gulliver who traveled the world with his wealthy teenaged human Harold. They would often tour impoverished regions of the world where Harold would talk to people who lived there and learn about their lives, their customs, and their daily struggles. (Gulliver would do the same, except he’d talk to cats.) Harold and Gulliver were usually powerless to help the situations of those they visited. At the end of each book, Harold would discuss what he’d learned with his father Edmond, who happened to be a powerful railroad magnate. Their conversations were usually quaint and subtly exposed how little his father really knew about the world he controlled.
Mr. Lee would see his middle-aged self walk down the sidewalk, being trailed by a couple of starry-eyed children. They would have some of his books gripped in their hands, and they would ask for his autograph. No matter how many times that had happened to Mr. Lee, he felt honored by it. As time passed, however, he wrote his books with less and less frequency. Then he had stopped entirely. His books then went out-of-print, and he wouldn’t be recognized casually around town very often. Apart, of course, from the baristas of the Gogoratu Cafe who would continue to greet him from day to day when the tiny bell rings at 8:30 in the morning.
It was a rainy day, however, that the tiny bell failed to ring at 8:30. The employees of the Gogoratu Cafe at first thought he might have been ill that day. But the next day and the day after that, the tiny bell still failed to ring.
Even though he has been long forgotten, if you ever find yourself in the Gogoratu Cafe on a day that’s sunny and the rays of light are refracting through his window at the just right angle, you might just catch a glimpse of Mr. Lee sitting there, looking out, and smiling.
Image borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.