WHAT THE HELL?
That was how I began my teen years, and it only got better from there.
I Tess Hartford stood in my cafe, lovingly called The Hepcat Cafe after one of my favorite Ska bands, at nearly five am brewing a new blend of breakfast blend. It was a concoction of three separate coffee beans, one a little dark to get you going, one very blonde to taper off the dark and in the middle, smooth vanilla. You couldn’t taste the vanilla at all, but it had hints of it to take away the bitterness of the dark.
It was a Tudor Style cafe at the corner of Waterloo in Akron. It was directly behind the neighborhood I had grown up in and not far from the local university.
The floors were a dark wooden tone and always polished. In contrast, the walls were white. Each wall was decorated with posters of my favorite indie movies. The booths and tables matched the floors in a dark Mohagony tone. They were large enough so that people could stay comfortable and visit awhile.
Hanging above was a massive ceiling fan that steadily blew even in the winter. It kept the heat and the cool air circulating as it spun softly and quietly above me.
I swept the floor with a large broom and waited impatiently for my two employees Angie and Rich, to arrive. Ninety percent of the time, they were both late.
I had music going that created a low key vibe, Mazzy Star “Fade Into You.” As usual, coffee was brewing, filling the air with a specific relaxing tone. The bells I had attached to the top of the door to my cafe opened and all of the peaceful serenity was over.
I smelled the smoke before I saw him. I rolled my eyes sighing.
“Nigel Booth, this is a non-smoking establishment.”
“Bloody hell don’t get so bent out of shape. No one is here yet and won’t be for at least another hour.” he puffed on the cigarette.
“It’s gross, and don’t most people vape now?”
“Most people are morons. Real cigarettes are for real smokers, Tess.”
“Nigel, put it out or just go outside!” I said, irritated.
He rolled his eyes and adjusted his leather jacket as he took it off, throwing it on the stool at the bar in front of him. He had on a long-sleeved t-shirt rusted blue jeans and black shit kicker boots.
Nigel was an import from England and dressed like a 1970’s punk rocker. He was a bit older than the rest of the patrons that hung out here. I had met Nigel in college, and he had become like a cat, whether or not I liked him, he never left as he was always around. His hair he wore slightly bleached at the ends and spiked a bit on top of his wavy head. He only wore a constant scowl on as if he smiled, it may ruin something he worked so hard at maintaining.
Nigel had never gone back to England after his stint here in a Master’s program for journalism. He swore he’d never return to that shit-hole of a country. Instead, he wrote for a rather popular magazine in Cleveland. He didn’t even live on this side of town but stopped every other morning on his way into work for what he referred to as “the worst cup of coffee” he had ever drunk. He claimed my coffee was so bad that it kept him wired for hours and was not for the light of heart. We had his face put on the bags of coffee and sold them from the cafe titled as “WORST BLEND EVER” of which were sold out already this year.
Nigel came back in as it had already begun to snow. Most of November had been colder than usual but relatively baren of all ice and snow.
“My balls may freeze right off in this shit-hole town.” he rubbed his arms for an overly dramatic effect. He walked behind the counter and poured his own cup of coffee. I had not even bothered to stop him. I was so unmoved by his antics.
“You can always go back to where you came from,” I mused “Instead, you choose to torture the rest of us with your presence.”
“Oh, but Tess my angel, you would miss out on such pleasantries of conversation like whether or not your shit for brains employees will turn up at a decent hour.”
He was smirking, only slightly, so I knew he was trying to be funny.
“Oh, let’s not get crazy.” I laughed.
“You know if I were you, I’d fire the both of them and hire a couple of college interns.”
“To work in a cafe?”
“Why not? You can get free labor and say it is for restaurant management.” he lit another forbidden cigarette, thinking I wouldn’t notice it, it was so casual.
“GO OUTSIDE! Didn’t you just have a cigarette two minutes ago?”
“No,” he said flatly angrily, tossing his cigarette in his empty coffee cup.
“Then what the hell were you doing outside?”
I heard the door open again before I get a response.
“Tess!” it was Geno. Geno and his fiance Lombardy. Both men went by their last names since college. If you ever actually asked me what their first names were, I don’t think I would even know.
“We have news,” Lombardy said, grabbing Geno’s hand.
“Oh, hi Nigel, what got you up so early?” Geno asked.
Nigel rolled his eyes and looked down at his phone, ignoring them but all the while eavesdropping on the conversation in case he had a retort.
“My grandmother on my father’s side left us that little farm out by Medina,” Geno said.
“Oh, how cool. Will you guys be moving then?” I asked, genuinely excited for them.
“Oh, you bet your sweet ass!” Geno high-fived me.
It was nearing six in the morning, and the cafe began to get busy. Finally, Rich came in, he was supposed to be there at five. I should have been more stern with his not arriving in a timely fashion, but I let it go.
Nigel seemed to perk up from a quiet that had been dormant for too long.
“What’s your excuse today?” he smiled, lighting another cigarette.
Rich stood five foot two exactly. He was Phillapeno, and he wore his hair long in a man bun on top of his head. He was a drummer in a band called – well, I don’t know actually. It tends to change its name regularly, as do the band members.
“Oh, last night was lit. You should have seen the stage, Nigel. You should write about us in that Zine you work for.”
“It isn’t a Zine; it is a nationally published publication. I don’t do stories on shitty local bands.”
Rich burst into laughter. “Tess this guy is crazy.”
“Nigel, can you please put out the damned cigarette?”
“I just want to hear what his excuse is for being late. The other one will be here shortly too, I imagine. It is the best part of my morning. I love a good storyteller.” He said, looking directly at Rich.
“Oh, my car door froze. I had no idea it was that cold out.”
“It’s winter in Northeast Ohio, and the temperature has been in the low teens for a week now, but you had no idea it would be cold. I love this.” Nigel continued to laugh wickedly.
I gave him a look that said I was done listening to him.
Geno and Lombardy were in their own conversation, ignoring the rest of us.
I often thought about how I wish I could find someone that looked at me the way Geno looked at Lombardy.
The cafe began to grow busier by the second.
I realized that Nigel had not left yet, and it was way past his usual time to go.
“Why are you still here?”
“Is that any way to talk to a paying customer?”
“You don’t pay. Seriously, why are you still here?”
“I have one story to finish, and it isn’t due till tomorrow, so I’m working out of the cafe today. It should be an interesting Monday for all of us.”
I sighed and went behind the counter to sip on my own cup of joe.
Rich was patiently slinging eggs when I noticed the door open. It was my server, Angie, and behind her was my ideal man, Chris.
Chris and I had been friends since high school, and I had a deep infatuation with him most of my young life. Then it all changed when we got older. He and I became fast friends once we had entered college. We never dated, but he had spent many nights listening to me whine of a broken heart.
I hadn’t been on a date in ages, but my cousin April always had a string of young suitors lined up for blind dates. In fact, I was going on one at her home later that night.
Angie came up to me, her hair messy mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” It was easy to forgive her. She was a young, awkward girl standing nearly six-foot-two. In contrast to Rich, they were instead comical standing by one another.
“Hey there,” Chris said to me.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey man, what is going on?” Geno asked him.
“Not much, you guys going the Crapping Mary show in two weeks?”
“No, I didn’t care for their last album,” Geno said sorrowfully.
“The album was pretty rough, but their live show rocks live, man.”
“Yeah, I don’t know, are you, Rich, and Nigel going?” asked Geno.
“Nigel, you going?” he yelled at Nigel, who was typing furiously into his laptop.
“NIGEL IS GOING IF NIGEL STILL HAS A JOB! On that note, I may go to the Rash Scratchers show in Cleveland that night. It is a once in a lifetime show. They never tour, and I have to write a review.” Nigel responded, annoyed.
“The Rash Scratchers are fucking badass,” Lombardy spoke up.
“Yeah, too bad, they both are going to be in town on the same night,” Chris said, sighing.
Chris looked at me, moving closer to me.
“Hey, Tess, are you busy tonight? If not, I was wondering if you could go with me.”
“Oh, Damn, I would if I had not already promised my cousin April I’d go on this stupid blind date tonight.”
“That’s okay. I was just going to say we haven’t hung out for a while.”
“I know it seems like the last time was college graduation.”
“Have fun on your date.” he winked.
“Yeah, I can’t wait.” I rolled my eyes.
“So, how is your sister?”
“I guess she is still in rehab.”
Side note, my sister, Melissa, was exactly like my aunt Pam. Pam had even hung out with my sister at one point, and it was a bad combination. She was in and out of rehab so many times, my parents nearly mortgaged their home to pay for it.
I had raised my nephew, and now that he was twenty years old, he still lived with me in my apartment on the west side. He was in school full time, and I didn’t mind having a roommate. Especially one that was barely there. He spent a lot of time with his girlfriend.
My cousin April was Pam’s daughter. April didn’t like to talk to anyone about her mom, except me. She knew I understood what she was going through because my family had gone through the same things with my older sister, Melissa.
“Well, I hope this time it sticks. I bet it will help you will see.” Chris said, trying to give me hope.
I had no heart to tell him my sister was already sneaking pills into rehab the last I heard.
I met Edmund at my cousin April’s at precisely six o’clock. Edmund had flowers in his hand and held them out to me as though he were expecting me to have the cooties. He also stood nearly three feet taller than me. I had to look up at him as though he were a tree. I don’t have a height prejudice or anything, but he was an odd fellow.
His arm was fully outstretched, and I looked at April, unsure.
“Hi,” he said in a squeaky voice.
“Hello,” I said.
“Here are some pretty carnations for you.”
“Thank you. They are um lovely.”
I took them in my hand and hid a blush but not from any romantic feelings but rather to hold in a laugh I knew was coming if I continued to have to stare up at him.
“So April tells me you own your own cafe. OUCH!” he said, accidentally hitting the ceiling with his head.
I looked at April, who was now giggling under her breath.
April’s husband Ted looked at him, and Ted suggested we all sit at the dining room table. April put some chips and dip on the dinner table.
“Did you know Tess and I are two years apart?”
I looked at April, confused as to why she was telling him that.
“Wow! You know I have this thing with the number two. In case you didn’t know, I’m an accountant. Always loved numbers. Two is my favorite.”
“Oh, I see,” I looked at April.
“What is the name of your cafe? Maybe I should stop in sometime.”
“It is called The Hepcat Cafe.” April interrupted.
I wanted to strangle her.
“That is neato,” Edmund said.
By the time the night had wound down, I knew I would never see Edmund again. I was still sober when I left immediately after dinner.
Besides little interest on both our parts, I could never hold a conversation with Edmund, the Jolly Giant.
After I got home, I got a phone call from my cousin April.
“I’m sorry, was it that bad?”
“Oh, well, you know.”
“I’ll take that as a no. But Edmund is a millionaire. Think of all the money you’d have. Ted and I are actually together for financial reasons and look at how well it worked out!”
“Bullshit. You guys have been together since high school.”
“He was nice.”
“Yes, very nice,” I said, sighing.
“Why didn’t you like him?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like him.”
“Did you check your ceiling for skidmarks?”
“Oh, stop it!” she giggled. “This is why you are single.”
“You are too picky!”
“I do try April, but I have my limits.”
When I got off the phone, there was a knock at my door. When I opened it, I saw Christ holding a bottle of wine and snacks.
“Come now, tell papa Chris all about it.”
I let him in, and he sat on my sofa as though he belonged there.
“I’m glad you finally got Hulu.”
“If I didn’t have these blind dates, I doubt we’d ever have anything to talk about.” I chuckled.
“I just come for the free television until my house is finished being built. Living in a cardboard box is rough.”
Chris had got a new job and was making great money for the movie industry. He worked in PR, which was big now in Northeast Ohio with all of those Marvel films.
“So what was Edmund like?” he asked, pouring me a tall glass.
“He was nice.”
Chris laughed. “AND?”