Cafe of Cats and Snakes: Bryan Edenfield
Bryan Edenfield was born in Arizona but has lived in Seattle since 2007. He was the founder and director of the small press and literary arts organization, Babel/Salvage. He hosted and curated the Glossophonic Showcase and the Ogopogo Performance Series. His writing has most recently been published in Mantra Review, Underwood Press, Meekling Review, TL;DR, and Plinth. He was a recipient of the Jack Straw Writers Fellowship for 2018 and is currently the host and producer of the Hollow Earth Radio program, Glossophonics.
Asked for a poetic statement, Bryan says: "We are all always animals...."
"The story you're about to read follows a dream logic, or perhaps a daydream logic. "
The Cafe of Cats and Snakes
Like most male editors, I walk a lot. During the rainy months, I walk something like 15 miles a day. This includes pacing in the backyard and at bus stops, but it does not include the pacing I do in my room. That’s a different sort of activity.
You don’t really need to know this, but because of this excessive walking, the fragile area around my asshole has begun to itch and bleed. All of my socks and underwear have holes and I cannot afford replacements. An ache has developed in the small of my back caused by an electrobyte, or nerve damage or parasite or whatever, lodged in my shoulder muscle. The heal and outsole of my left shoe is worn down to a thin porous fabric that lets the wet in when it the rains. My right shoe is marginally better but the asymmetry skews my gait and causes me further back pain. Still, I walk everywhere everyday. Well, sometimes I take the bus, but only when crossing certain pedestrian unfriendly bridges, the kind that tempt suicide.
I walk meditative walks in the evening after dinner and think about the fallacy of mind/body duality, or I think about elephants or my shitty life or maybe glaciers and volcanoes.
On my breaks at work and on my way home from work I walk frenzied anxiety-fueled walks designed to shake the demons from my messy skull, as the saying goes. During these walks, I rant silently to myself about labor and economics and how I am wasting away as a human doing the pointless drudgery that I get paid (barely) to do. Sometimes I forget social norms and begin ranting in maybe audible whispers. I don’t know if people notice.
In the mornings I walk sleepy dewdrop walks and imagine my surroundings in a perpetual state of melting and write short novels in my head that I then promptly forget. In the middle of the night I walk insomnia walks and contemplate throwing myself off the bridge. They installed a suicide guard on one bridge and the other is too noisy and pedestrian unfriendly, as suggested before.
And on days off I walk long destructive walks that give me bloody toes and frozen lungs and cause many of the aforementioned butthole problems and clothing hole problems. I’m on one of these Billy-Keanean journeys when I stumble, worn and sweaty, into a cafe full of cats and see my ex-girlfriend Penelope eating a slice of pizza.
She loves pizza. She does not eat meat and thinks vegetables sully the purity of the pizza and so worships the simplicity of a slice of unadorned cheese. She sometimes adorns with a shaker of pepper flakes, but that isn’t the case right here right now.
Cats, those dirty orange kind that look like they’ve been dropped on their heads, brush up against her legs while other more elegant varieties purr in the rafters above. The cafe is otherwise filled with milky-faced teenagers that giggle and selfie and giggle, and 40 year old white dudes that smile too much and wear comical t-shirts and humorless cargo shorts. Penelope sips tea with her pizza (she does not drink coffee or soda or alcohol) and I sit next to her.
“My feet are very tired,” I say by way of hello. “And something sinister is growing along my spine.”
“That is disturbing. You know, sometimes I walk by the bookstore and see you in there shoveling the proverbial snow.”
“Oh I quit that. I don’t work there anymore. I work at Hopeship Industries sorting through garbage. Similar gig.”
“I guess I actually haven’t walked by there in some time. Time moves in undulations. It’s odd. What brings you way out to Belmont?”
“I’m on a walkabout. What brings you here?”
“I go to school up the street at Central. I’m studying 20th Century European Literature. I got back from France a few months ago. It was miserable. My boyfriend made electronic music and experimental films, so he was pretty insufferable.”
“And now I’m an academic and have no time for men. You?”
“I don’t have time for men either. I live with my girlfriend’s cousin and organize garbage for a living, cataloging it for online sale. Garbage is mostly worthless, but you can put it online for a penny and make money on shipping, if you have the proper resources.”
“Remember all those scavengers that sold books to us at Tell It Again. They hunted through garbage too. Are you their ally or are you their enemy?”
“My job makes their job obsolete.”
“I am the internet.”
We sit in silence for a moment until a faceless woman asks me if I want a coffee or a scone. I ask if they have pizza and she wrinkles her nondescript nose. “Across the street.”
“I bring this in from Mamma Mia’s,” Penelope says with her mouth full. “It annoys them here.”
“It doesn’t,” says the faceless woman. “I’m just gluten intolerant. I can smell the gluten.” Her blurry features solidify: a thick mole below thin red lips, round vacant eyes, an olive complexion, dyed blue hair. But then she vanishes to make coffee. She brings it to me, I didn’t know I had asked for it, and takes five dollars from my hand that I didn’t know I had. She says: “I need to clean the cat box now. I mean, doesn’t gluten just flabbergast you? It’s downright demonic if you ask me, the way it lives and hides in certain kinds of flour, the way it seems to strengthen when you pummel it.”
“Is that how it works?” I ask but she is gone.
“Remember when we had to clean the cat box?” Penelope asks. There were three cats at Tell It Again Books, all of them now dead.
“It made me sick. I have a semi-permanent sinus infection from that place.” “I have a sinus infection too but it’s from smoking.”
The coffee tastes like pepper and chocolate, spicy and full-fisted like a punch to the roof of my mouth. Or so I am told.
Penelope finishes her pizza. “I’m going to lead you down to the basement. There’s a club down there and I think a magic act is about to begin; you’d enjoy it. We could dance and maybe take a private booth and I’ll let you touch my shoulder.”
She wears a loose black sweater that, as if sentiently connected to her words, slips down from her left shoulder and reveals her sparkling red shoulder freckles.
“We can watch the snakes,” she then says.
“Snakes? I’m terrified of snakes.”
She leads me down a dark staircase into a glowing red room illuminated only by candles flickering inside of bulbous glass containers, the bubbly kind that eager students make at glass blowing school. The walls are brick and placed randomly throughout the space as if in an unfinished maze. These walls without thesis sometimes have curtains strung up from one to another to create the private booths Penelope mentioned. Some of the curtains are lush velvety things or like thick exotic rugs covered with filigrees and arabesques. Others are just shower curtains: vaguely transparent, waterproof, and decorated with flowers or maps of European cities or illustrations of warblers.
At the center of the room, a few tables cuddle around a circular stage. Most of these tables are taken but we find an empty spot with a flickering candle and a menu written entirely in pictures.
A full bottle is $30, or a half-full bottle is $16. A wine glass is $10. A plate of sticks is $12 and a bowl of squares is $10. Also available: a ball of squiggles ($9 normally or $8 when the clock smiles); a plate of circles, squares, and triangles ($9 at smiling clock, $11 normally); or, a cylinder of sticks ($7 smiling clock time only). When do clocks smile? No one knows.
A muscular man, head shaved and skin cratered, saunters onto the stage with the walk of a well-known rapper. He wears a thick, oversized hoodie covered in skulls; a variety of gleaming metallic chains dangle from his neck. In the flickering red light, he and everyone else look like a devil. Maybe a few snakes slither around on the ground, maybe I’m just hallucinating.
He bows before the audience and sets down a small stool on top of which is a cheap-looking top-hat. The magician smiles and his teeth are very small.
“There is a hole below me. That’s how these tricks work. The hole is in the stage and moves up through the four thin legs of this stool and into the round top and then through the hat, which is itself always only a well controlled hole, an object defined by the empty space that desires to be filled. Men love hats because they are cunts for our heads.”
“I don’t like hats,” I whisper to Penelope. “I don’t like the way they prevent me from seeing the roofs of buildings. Plus they muss up my hair.”
“You’re no typical man, are you?”
“I’d like to think I’m not.”
The magician continues: “Beneath us is a demon filled world. I will pull up the carefully calibrated snake.”
He begins pulling a long rope up through the hat and hands the end to a woman sitting at the closest table and asks her to pass it along to her neighbor, and he to his neighbor, and so on and so on until it weaves through the entire room, though somehow the end never comes to our table.
In some unseen part of the room, erratic music plays. It is the sound of robotic strings plucking out a melody at a fluctuating tempo, like a music box whose speed is manipulated by an impatient child fiddling with the turnkey at the bottom. The song speeds up and slows down in glitchy, increasingly disturbing bursts. The music has an aquatic quality, a chiming and watery harmonics that suggest the plucked strings are connected to hammers that slam into vials or bells of some kind, maybe underwater.
“I’m studying the so-called ‘Three-Line Novels’ of Félix Fénéon,” Penelope whispers to me, her bare shoulder brushing against mine. “Of course, in light of certain social media trends, his work now seems beyond prescient; it seems banal. The banal prescience of Félix Fénéon.”
“I don’t know what any of that means.”
“I wish there were more women to study. I’m working on something with Unica Zürn but I just keep not getting her.”
“What’s to get?”
“I mean I haven’t gotten her books yet. They haven’t arrived. Actually it’s more complicated than that.”
The magician removes his sweater to reveal another tighter sweater, this one covered in stars. The transformation is remarkable: he no longer seems muscular but looks rather like a drug addled teenager desperately trying to look tough but caught in a moment of embarrassing authenticity, the fragile street urchin. He now plays the before unseen instrument by winding a comically large crank with his boney right arm, exposed by a rolled up sleeve. The instrument is bafflingly complex, interconnected gears and tiny pendulums and flimsy pipes and tubes. I am convinced the music actually emanates from speakers hidden in the walls and that what happens on stage is all for show, a hoax.
“The thing with Zürn is that I keep losing her books,” Penelope continues. “I bought a copy of Dark Spring years ago at Bay Books back when it was in the Square, you know, before it moved over here.”
I can barely hear her. The music is deafeningly loud and wildly intricate, like the whistles of birds amplified and distorted. She talks about the geography of bookstores for a few minutes then continues with her story:
“I was reading it on the bus. I only read it on the bus. It was my bus-book. I read the first two chapters and then went to a bar, this was before I stopped drinking, and read some at the bar, which I never should’ve done. I got drunk, so drunk that in my hung stupor the next day I completely forget I even owned the book or knew it even existed. So obviously, I didn’t know I had lost it, either on the bus or at that bar, until three years later when I was in a conversation with my half-brother. He complained about female authors all being like Jane Austen, and while my initial inclination was to defend Jane Austen I decided, for him, a better route might be to just tell him of female authors who most certainly were not anything like Jane Austen, and I thought of many, including Zürn, even though I had never really read her. And then I wondered: why haven’t I read her, and remember I had started but then just stopped, inexplicably, as if I had forgotten I had even started, and I wondered aloud, where did that goddamn book go? Later, I searched my room, I still lived with Beth at the time, but it was nowhere, and I asked Beth if she maybe borrowed it or saw it lying around but no, it was lost. It slowly dawned on me what had happened, how I lost it. Can you repress inconsequential memories? I don’t know. But anyway, I hope someone worthy found it on the bus seat or the floor of that bar. I don’t even remember what bar it was, or what bus route. It was probably the 16. The 16 bus route doesn’t even exist anymore. The bar was probably Darren’s. It doesn’t exist anymore either. Everything vanishes. Maybe the book vanished completely too.”
She continues: “And then I bought Trumpets of Jericho only about a year ago, also from Bay Books, but the new location over near that shitty 24 hour diner and across from the record store. I was reading it while hunting for a new apartment, and please know that when I say ‘reading it’ I mean the 43 page introduction by Susan Sontag, or whoever, that takes up most of the book. I found an apartment place only a few blocks from here, surprisingly cheap but also I make a lot more money than I used to. I’m a coordinator for a very successful nonprofit that sends books to prisoners, so things are okay. Anyway, somewhere in the process of moving I forgot about the Zürn book and, once settled in the new place, began reading Astragal because someone mentioned it in class. A few weeks ago I realized I needed to read Zürn in order to make a point about feminism and surrealism and thought to myself, hey don’t I have a copy of the Trumpets of Jericho? I hunted through my apartment but it was nowhere to be found. So I am doomed. Anyway, I ordered it and Spring and they’ll be arriving in the mail shortly. Albertine Sarrazin just doesn’t cut it, the criminal.”
Her legs intertwine with mine and I want to brush my hand up the inside of her thigh but suddenly have the strange sensation that everyone, magician included, is staring at me. The music stops and the room brightens. Penelope tilts her head, suggesting we abscond to a private corner secluded by shower curtains.
I am a taken man, practically married if you consider living in the mother-in-law unit of the girlfriend’s cousin tantamount to marriage. My rent is only $500 a month and the room is a miniature house. Sometimes they knock off $50 or $100 when I pull up dead plants in the backyard or babysit the hellions. Zoey the girlfriend spends 4 out of 7 nights with me there and has turned my bed into a fortress of comforters and pillows. So what if I overheat almost every night and hallucinate people breaking in through the windows and rummaging through my stuff; commitment is commitment. I have a pretty good deal going, even if I hate my job and sleep poorly.
“I should be going.” I stand and head for the exit.
“You should,” she agrees. “It’s time for you to wake up screaming.”
But instead I walk home, bleeding.