A century ago, sailors coming into port on the Willamette had used this old wooden building as their house, to settle accounts, trade gossip, and plot the next haul. Then Howard and Lucy opened a coffee shop inside. Howard doubted the sailors drank any coffee, tea was cheaper and more prevalent, but along the old wooden floor, sunken and scarred, artfully arranged burlap bags of beans sat stacked like shanghaied drunks. Lucy loved the old wood, the sound of water slapping the decaying shore, but, in the end, she was just as enthusiastic to be out of the business as she had been to open the shop in the first place. When Howard balked and said he was too old to start over, Lucy was furious. She’d been a kindergarten teacher when they’d met, and she wasn’t accustomed to being contradicted.
“You always wanted to be old, and now that you are, you don’t like it in the least,” she’d said as they stood arguing in front of the old-fashioned register, the same one he used today. “Whereas, I have always wanted to be young and now that I’m not, I find age doesn’t matter whatsoever.” They had no children, no close family. There was nothing to keep Lucy. She moved to Taos and opened a shop that sold ceramic magnets. Every Christmas she sent Howard a deeply religious Christmas card of the tackiest possible quality with inappropriate comments written inside, in her firm cursive. “Are you boffing any of The Ovals? Merry holiday, darling!” Of course, she knew very well he wasn’t. Most of the readers who came to the open mic at the coffee shop on Friday nights were high school students. Still, when the notices started to arrive that the riverfront was going to be developed, and they were planning to tear down all the buildings, including the maritime counting house, Howard wished Lucy was back to scold and storm and make matters right.
Howard ignored notices. He paid little attention to the modern world; he only believed in the past. Recently, he’d learned that the site of the counting house may have been an Indian burial ground, unusual for being so close to the river. In his office, books and articles on the subject stacked up Howard-high, essays and scholarly works alongside crackpot newsletters and faded answers to his letters requesting more information regarding rituals and ceremonies, long dormant. Howard couldn’t help himself. Every time he uncovered two pieces of theory that seemed to connect one known fact, he felt like a man holding a cackling wire in each hand.
Now the mailbox bulged with papers warning him other papers were coming. One afternoon when he went to empty them into the trashcan, he was confronted by a woman who said her missing niece was last seen at their open mic, reading a poem. Howard wrote down all her information, and then stuffed it into his coat pocket. When he turned to go back inside, he noticed a flyer stuck to a pole with a wad of gum. It read: PROTEST. The rest of the text was gone.
Howard could have gone to the police — posting notices was illegal — but instead he went to Raj. He would have gone anyway; he ate his lunch at the Taj Mahal Café every Tuesday. He brought the letters from the city in a brown paper bag. Lucy had given him a briefcase, but papers in his office had swallowed it, almost as if in revenge.
Raj was sitting in front of his computer and swiveled the screen at Howard. “Look at this terrible thing,” he said. Raj had lived in America since 1978 but sounded, as Lucy would have put it, as if he just got off the boat. He told Howard that English contained many useful modern idioms, but they were drowned in a bland speech rhythm that made everything sound like one, flat, certain idea.
“Two and a half stars!” Raj said. “How was it five only a week ago. How can they disappear so fast?” Raj’s restaurant was even older than the coffee shop but both owners felt they had been stranded on some distant entrepreneurial shore as other businesses lifted on tsunami of popularity. Twenty years earlier no one in Portland wanted Indian food that wasn’t in a buffet, but when dinner service became popular, suddenly a dozen places sprang up to compete with the Taj Mahal. It was the same for Howard. The fresh beans of the coffee house, and their higher cost, were once viewed with suspicion. But as soon as the idea had traction, his shop had been buried by dozens of newer, even more expensive types of coffee places. If not for the open mic that Lucy had instituted, Howard wondered if he’d have any customers at all.
“I think I’ve contracted a plague,” said Howard, between bites of curry.
“Curses are floating around this world,” agreed Raj, “and they must land somewhere.” He wore a baseball cap to cover his balding head, and when he spoke his hands would form a corridor into some intricate matter, usually involving a dish or a woman. “Maybe you have got hold of an ovary at last? And you are being punished, though it was worth every pain.”
“Oval,” said Howard.
Raj closed the computer and sat down. “I don’t understand these names you give your clients.” he said.
“It was Lucy, some system she had, based on their reading style.” Howard could no longer remember what Oval stood for — maybe the way the young girl poet’s hair framed their face like a locket?
“The English like to control,” said Raj. “This is why they often issue insulting names.” He fanned out Howard’s wad of papers, reading them upside down as he slurped at his tea.
“Howard, it is not good. You cannot sell a shop they are going to tear down. Have you spoken to your neighbors?” Howard shook his head. That hadn’t occurred to him.
“And why waste your time with these old books?” said Raj. It was their custom for Raj to scold Howard. “It is one thing to read the classics, since they have been proven to be useful. They’ve stood the test of time. But why dig around in what others have thrown away? Lucy is long gone. You need a woman.” Unlike Howard, Raj had an active sex life. He preferred at least two girlfriends at once. Once he told Howard about making love to one, while the other waited in the lobby of his condo and as he described the feeling of one woman beneath him while another waited in the wings, his skin smoothed, the years fell away, and Raj’s eyes shone like a bottle in white sand.
An accountant came in, and Howard told them both about the missing girl. “Kids can make or break a place now,” said the man, looking over a menu. “You need to turn them into your brand ambassadors.” Howard excused himself to return to work. On the way, he imagined the missing niece, passing out free coffee coupons among the other runaways. As if they didn’t have enough crazies wandering in already. Perhaps it was the curry, but Howard did a rare thing, he stopped at home and took a nap. On the couch, with a pillow pulled over his head, he dreamed about Uncle Mort, his fathers’ brother. They were in a white canoe on a black river. Mort pointed to land while Howard had his hands full, trying to bring two chairs together, which he knew, even in the dream, should have been oars.
On the tram back to the coffee shop, a woman stood up, her cheeks drained of color, eyes glistening like a bejeweled saint. She turned to Howard, raised her hand and then toppled sideways. A rider pulled the bell, the bus screeched to a halt and she was laid on the filthy floor while good Samaritans buzzed around her. Howard decided to get off and walk. He thought about spirits, which moved from person to person. One article noted that the medicine bags, highly prized for their efficacy were, in fact empty. “Authority lay not the bag, but with the man who carried it,” wrote the author. The face of the woman on him, stuck to him like a cobweb.
At the shop, the woman with the missing niece was waiting.
“I’m Marilyn,” she said. “The aunt.”
“There are so many kids who come here,” Howard said, though this was not entirely true. “They read from their phones, as if a poem was a voice message, listened to once.” But looking at the photo she handed him, Howard did remember the girl. She had paid for her coffee with coins from a purse shaped like an owl, a small girl somewhat like an owl herself, with transparent bangs across her pale forehead. This girl had been extra beautiful, extra alone. She didn’t sit in any group; but had the air of an orphan.
The woman said. “In my day if you wanted to get lost, you got lost. Not posting your whereabouts on Facebook, like babies playing peekaboo.” They were interrupted by a crash. Howard looked out the window. The garbage box near the loading ramp lay sprawled. Trash blew everywhere.
Marilyn only glanced at it and said, “I love how close you are to the river. Didn’t this place used to be a mausoleum?” As she turned to leave, a fellow with his bike on his shoulder blocked the steps. She squeezed by him and it seemed to Howard that they exchanged a look. One of the symptoms of the plague he told Raj he believed he had contracted was a sharp and penetrating paranoia.
The boy with the bike bought some coffee (the shop wasn’t even open; Howard just gave him a cup), went outside, and erected a small tent on the cracked concrete. By evening there were a half dozen more; by the weekend a small tent army was living outside. “They tear things down!” said one young (or maybe not so young) man as Howard tried to enter his shop. “They don’t give a fuck what happens to what gets torn down with it.”
Soon the Korean family who owned the corner store was doing the best business of the year and the open mic was also fuller than it had ever been. But Howard felt new weaknesses descend on him. He attempted a pull-up on the exercise bar Lucy had installed above the bathroom door and crumpled to the floor. Now he experienced a dark, malignant terror every time he sat, the fear that the pain would invade his back again was much worse than the pain itself. It occurred to him to go see Uncle Mort. He was in his 90s now but had been a renowned diagnostician and even had a disease named after him; Howard was not sure exactly which one.
Mort responded to his email with a note to say he was getting married. This was followed by a second letter that he was not. The fiancée was Russian, and either noble or insane, depending on how Howard understood the situation. Did she really wish to bear him a child, to make up for the disaster she claimed her relatives had perpetrated on his? Or was it something to do with money. Howard sent Mort several Xeroxed articles on matrilineal descent among the Haida, and Mort encouraged him to drop by.
As Howard locked up the shop and walked out, people with paint buckets worked on a hand-made banner. He passed the empty dirt corral local lore claimed had once housed police horses. When the wind blew from a certain direction, shadows seemed to move inside like ghosts who dreamed of peaceful sleep, but now knew not where they were being led. From another direction came the distinct scent of shit.
The old-age home had immaculate landscaping; chairs and tables out in the sun, as if people here were on vacation. The woman at the front desk asked if he had an appointment. That seemed odd — Uncle Mort had to be here; where else on earth would he go? But, sitting down on the couch, he thought: If we strip the elderly of control of their own time, they’ll have nothing of free will left. He waited on the overly floral couch without picking up a Golf Digest or availing himself of stale coffee. It seemed important to touch nothing.
A woman walked by, stopped, and turned on her heel and came back. She wore a name tag that said KIRSTEN. “Dr. Walsh?” she said. This was the name Mort had taken. It came from a postal box in the English countryside where he had been sent on the Kindertransport during the war. On his return home he learned his large, prosperous, gregarious family had been wiped from the face of the earth. He always said if anyone was coming to grab his grandchildren, Walsh would buy them some lead time.
Howard said, “I beg your pardon?”
“I am Raisa,” she replied.
“Your name tag says Kirsten,” said Howard. The woman glanced at the receptionist, who was staring at her computer screen with the focused attention of a terrier. She waved Howard to follow her, and so he did.
She opened a door and ushered him in. When she turned on the light, Howard saw they were standing in a linen room. The woman said “I know your father. Mort.” She pronounced it Mart. “He’s my uncle,” said Howard, but the woman’s hands brushed his words away impatiently. She pulled a pin from her hair and an elaborate braid, the thickness of a South American python, unfurled down her back. She pointed to the floor. The space between linen racks was roughly the length and width of the bus aisle where they’d stretched out the fainting woman.
Howard protested, but she gave him another shove. He knelt down and Kirsten/Raisa grabbed a washcloth off the nearest stack and lightly smacked it across his face. The effect was highly erotic, Howard couldn’t keep himself from moaning.
“Oh, grow up.” She pointed again, and he laid flat, awkwardly. “I am guessing 57? Good health?” Howard was sixty-two. She crouched beside him. “You will correct history with a sample or expect major trouble.” Howard shook his head in protest. The woman grabbed her braid and flipped it over her shoulder. She took a vial out of her jacket and put it into his pocket. “Return full. Granted one request if successful. Though naturally, there is no guarantee.”
“If it’s boy,” said Howard, “Circumcise him.”
“This is the whole point — are you deaf as well as unbright?” She tapped her watch, turned on her heel and left.
Howard lay frozen, afraid to move. He realized, with a start, that his pain had vanished. He felt a heaviness in his heart. It was the phone in his jacket. A dozen messages, the last of them urgent. Howard held the phone to his ear, listened, and left.
As he got closer to the river, lanes of cars idled, honking in frustration. He convinced someone to lift the police tape blocking pedestrians but immediately his arm was grabbed — it was Raj. “Have you seen it?” he asked. Howard shook his head. They both took off at a trot, Raj holding his cap. At the landing they stopped, stunned. The buildings had burned to the ground, only the coffee shop and the artist’s illegal squat remained.
It was one o’clock in the morning before Howard turned the key to his condo. The questioning by the police had gone on for hours. He had not been allowed into the coffee house. The whole area had been declared a crime scene. Raj gave him a number. “You need an Indian lawyer. They are very persistent and will set everything right while these cops run around with their heads up their anus.”
He listened to his messages while sitting in a chair he never used, in clothing that still smelled like mentholated pylons. Lucy was on the message machine. “Oh, Howard,” she said, “Really?” And this could have referred to many aspects of the day.
By the end of the week the news was official. The fire had been caused by crack pipes. “Not cracked pipes,” he said to Uncle Mort. “Drug pipes.” The old man had waited for him for hours. Howard had called the old age home repeatedly, looking for a Raisa, Kirsten, even a Craisa. Nothing. She was hidden. Or biding her time.
The city decided to honor the Korean shopkeepers with a medal for rescuing the artist’s paintings, and daringly, their dogs. Howard, on the advice of his lawyer, offered up the coffee shop for the ceremony, an open mic for the people to express themselves. His books and papers had been returned to him. In the pending settlement request the lawyer had called it “an important historic archive.” But he there they sat, untouched, as he tried to will Raisa/Kirsten both into and out of being. What is history worth after all, he thought over and over, while the boxes of papers went unread.
At the open mic, Raj’s beautiful date got up and efficiently made coffee drinks and steaming cups of teas while the girl Howard had hired for the event slumped nearby. “You should marry that one,” said Howard. “You are joking,” said Raj. “She is the CEO of a major multi-national. She would never in a million years have me. She is only in it for the sex and the food, I think.” His liquid eyes watched her every move.
Howard drew a line under the name of the last open mic reader, as was the shop custom. A man in a weather-beaten hat walked up and wrote his name under the line. Howard stood to
protest and then realized this was a kid. At the same time, he heard a sound, like a kitten mewing. It appeared to be coming up under the floor, though there was nothing down there but the river.
The boy got up on the stage. When he removed his hat, Howard could see one of his eyes looked far to the side. Wrong bodies in most of these kids got fixed, at an early age. But no one had bothered to fix this one. He held papers up and read from them, and one eye was on the words, while the other looked out into the world. The crowd grew silent. They had never had a real poet on this stage in all these years.
Then Howard heard the noise again.
He walked out and followed the sound down the street to the old, vacant lot. It had survived the fire by being nothing and continuing to be nothing. He saw the figure of a girl there, splay-legged in the dirt. “Who’s gonna hear you now?” said a man, standing over her. “Hey!” Howard yelled. The man turned and the gun turned with him. Howard picked up a cement chunk. He had not played a single sport, even in grade school. His eyes were weak. His hand-eye coordination was atrocious. He threw the cement chunk and hit the man square in the chest and knocked him over like a tower of books.
The girl crawled to her feet and scrambled to the top of the pit. Howard brushed his dirty hand against his pant leg before taking hers. Everything was trembling. The girl pushed her bangs out of her eyes. It was the runaway.
“He said he would wait until I was 18. It’s only three and half years. But he got drunk and didn’t want to.”
“Please call your aunt,” said Howard.
The girl said, “We saw the fire from a row boat on the water. It was incredible. Fire on its greatest enemy. I’ll never forget it. You saw it twice. Once in the happening part and again in the reflection.”
Howard said, “This was a burial ground.” They had stopped holding hands. “The Indians say that since I saved your life you are responsible for mine,” said Howard. “Even though we have always believed it is the other way around.” The girl’s face was turned from him, she strode ahead toward the coffee shop, the only lighted place for a square, burnt mile. Under the smoke was the air of spring. If he wanted to keep up, he would have to move.