The Aleph Cafe
I met my new friend on Thursdays for tea, over a period of three weeks, before I realized that he’d been long dead. It was at a place in the city called The Aleph Café, a narrow storefront located between an antique store and a carpet remnant shop. My new acquaintance was a delicate, thin man with a Czech accent. He wore a high white collar, a dark tie with a loose knot, and a wool suit colored dark gray. His face, when he looked directly at me, appeared to be made from sharp angles that culminated in a prominent nose.
The first day I entered the coffee shop I had in mind a mocha latte. It was quite cold outside, and ever since my infantry days I never fared well during the winter months. He stood with his back straight, wearing only his wool suit jacket, as the clerk behind the counter waited on him. Straight black tea, he told the young woman. She interrogated him over which type. He repeated the phrase as if those three words were the only words he knew in English. When the clerk handed him a paper cup with a plastic lid he looked at it as if it was some curio from a distant planet.
“You want it for here?” asked the clerk.
He clicked his heels together and nodded.
The clerk took the tea from him, removed the lid, and pour the tea into a porcelain cup.
Once the odd-looking little man took the cup and saucer from the clerk, he turned on his heels. He gave me a quizzical look. So, I stepped aside to allow him to pass. As I placed my order, he sat down at a table near the window overlooking the street.
I headed for the door with my mocha latte. In the little man’s hand was a fountain pen, the nub of which hovered an inch above a legal pad.
“The words are difficult, sometimes,” he said when he looked up and caught me staring at him.
“You’re a writer?” I asked.
“I was,” he answered. “Please,” he indicated the seat across the table. “My English is not good.”
“What are you writing?”
He held up the legal pad, showing me the blank page.
“Nothing,” he replied. “That’s just it.”
“It can be hard,” I told him. “You can’t force it.”
His eyes widened.
“You are a writer, too?” He put the pad down on the table.
“Yes,” I told him.
That was a lie. I hadn’t written anything of worth in nearly a year. My day job was writing ad copy, but even there I was going through a dry spell.
“Do I know you?” The stranger sat with his legs crossed.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” I replied. I told him my name, extending my right hand to shake his.
He declined the gesture, choosing instead, at that moment, to write some words down in German. As the seconds passed, it became apparent that he was no longer interested in talking to me. So, I left him alone and returned to work where I stared at the clock until my work day was over.
My routine at work was a simple one. The mornings were filled with meetings about current and potential clients. Around 11:30 AM, I typically sneaked out for a break that consisted of a cigarette on the way to coffee shop and a cigarette on the way back. I expected to see the strange man again at the shop on Friday, but he was not there. After my first break I returned to my desk that was littered with framed photographs of my wife and children; though they were, that winter, removed from my life.
At my desk, I stared at a computer screen until 12:30 PM. Then I would leave the office again and go off to lunch. Some days, without my boss’s knowledge, I went home to my apartment long before the workday ended.
A week passed in this fashion until the following Thursday. As I entered the coffee shop, I spotted the strange little man at the table by the window. He was dressed in the same suit, high-collared white shirt, and dark tie. When I first he entered he did not see me since he was busy writing on his legal pad. I don’t know what struck me that day, given that I had gotten so used to my routine, but I ordered a cup of Earl Grey tea instead the usual mocha latte.
“The dry spell is over?” I asked as I approached the stranger’s table.
He looked up at me, squinting a moment before he recognized me.
“It’s been more like a drought,” he said. “A long one. How about you?”
“Same here,” I admitted.
He returned to his work. Then, without looking up, he told me, “I used to work for an insurance company.” He wrote a few more sentences, and, looking up at last, he set his pen down. “From eight in the morning until six in the evening. It was awful.”
“I didn’t get your name before,” I said.
“How rude of me,” he said. “Please, forgive me. My name is Franz.”
“Jack Dawson,” I said.
“Yes, you told me. I remember.”
I didn’t press him for a last name.
“What are you working on?” I asked, instead.
“Once, a long time ago,” Franz said, “I started writing a novel about this country, but certain circumstances, beyond my control, did not allow me to finish it.”
“What’s it about?”
“Son of the jackdaw,” he said.
“A play on your name,” he told me. “My father sold fancy goods and clothing. He used the jackdaw’s image in his business logo.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do. It’s as if we’re destined to become friends.”
“It would seem so,” I said, not quite sure where any of this was going.
“Did you like your father?” asked Franz.
“Sure, I guess,” I replied. “He’s passed on.”
“I know,” he said. “Mine too. He was hard on me. We didn’t like each other very much when I was young.”
I took a sip of my tea.
“How long have you lived in Philadelphia?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” said Franz. “I’m only visiting for a short time. I have an assignment.”
“Are you a—”
“I was going to say reporter.”
“I have a favor to ask,” he told me. “If I may be so bold.”
It wouldn’t be the first time I was hit on by a gay guy.
“Go ahead and ask,” I said. “We’re friends now, right?”
“Do you know any good prostitutes?”
On the third Thursday of the month, my wife telephoned from California to tell me that our sons aged eight and eleven years old had been enrolled in a San Diego public school. Cara, my now estranged wife, had taken the children to California under the guise of going to Disneyland over Christmas break. Instead of coming home before the winter break ended, Cara decided to say with her older brother Chet in San Diego. My wife also informed me that she intended to file for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.
After Cara’s phone call that morning, the last thing I wanted to do was go to work. So, I called in sick at work and walked to the coffee shop where I first met Franz. He was there, filling page after page with his chaotic handwriting. I felt bad about interrupting him. He didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ve been thinking about prostitutes,” I told him.
He looked alarmed.
“Aren’t you married?” asked Franz.
“Until this morning,” I told him. “Technically, I am still legally married, but my wife has left me and taken my sons.”
“And you think somehow a prostitute will make you feel better?”
“No, but you asked about them.”
“I did that because I cannot seem to relate to women; even now, after…”
“Never mind,” Franz said. He scribbled some more, filling another page with his wild penmanship, before putting his pen down. Then, he said, “Anyway, I have an assignment.”
From an attaché case beneath the table, Franz pulled out another legal pad and a fountain pen—one identical to the one he was using—and placed both items on the table before me.
“My English isn’t that good,” he reminded me. “But I wrote the first two sentences of a story you should write.”
I looked down at the legal pad. The page was blank save for a couple of sentences written in carefully rendered English: What troubled Mr. and Mrs. Diamant most about their little son’s portrait was his eyes that looked like those of a dead man peering into the void where ghosts dwell. They worried that one day their son would grow up and, having learned all the right words, share with the world the truth concerning the land of the dead.
“Is it a ghost story?” I asked.
“It is whatever you make of it, son of the jackdaw,” Franz replied.
“You never told me your last name,” I said.
He did so that day, and I nearly fell off my chair.
The following Thursday, I went back to the coffee shop. Franz Kafka was not there. I wanted to return the fountain pen he had loaned me. I also wanted to tell him that I had finished the story he wanted me to write.
Work hadn’t gotten much better. I still faked my way through the day, given that I was living on my own now. My wife Cara, despite wanting to leave me, encouraged my sons to call once a week. We agreed that I would fly out over Easter weekend to visit the boys.
The story I ended up writing that Franz Kafka’s ghost had started was a departure from the work I typically produced. My ghostly friend taught me the value of stretching my limits. Ever since I finished that story, I have moved on to writing other stories. I wanted to thank him for that too since it sparked something within me.
The coffee shop was empty the day I walked in to see if Franz was there. When I asked the clerk behind the counter about him she couldn’t recall Franz at all.
“Are you sure it was this coffee shop?” she asked.
The months passed. I didn’t go back to the coffee shop. The ad copy I wrote at work improved. I kept on writing, even when I visited my sons in San Diego. My wife and I acted civil toward one another while I was there, but we both knew there was no chance of reconciliation. The day after Easter, I flew home.
After I boarded the plane, I sat down in my aisle seat. Next to me sat a regal-looking gray-haired gentleman. His gaze remained fixed on the seat back in front of him. He wore a blue suit and held a black and white cane. Before the plane taxied to the runway, the gentleman insisted that we change seats. As he spoke to me, his gaze never met mine.
“I saw enough of the world,” he said, “before I lost my sight.”
I changed seats with the man and thanked him.
Once the plane was off the ground, and the airline attendants assured us it was safe to take off our seatbelts, I felt more comfortable.
“You don’t like to fly,” the blind stranger next to me said.
“It’s not my favorite pastime,” I admitted. “My name is Jack, by the way,” I said to the man.
“I am Borges,” he told me.
I looked at him as he fiddled with his cane.
“Sure, you are,” I said.
Borges shrugged. “Believe that I am he, or not,” he said. “Believe that Kafka beseeched me to send his regards, or not. It matters not to me.”
by Richard J. O’Brien
- Richard J. O’Brien has published three novels: Under the Bronze Moon (Sinister Grin Press, 2018), Infestation: Bud McCracken and the War Against the Bugmen (Sinister Grin Press, 2016), and The Garden of Fragile Things (Vagabondage Press, 2015). This winter, Between the Lines Publishing will release his fantasy novel To Dream the Blackbane. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Literature, Weirdbook, The Del Sol Review, Duende, Encounters Magazine, 13 Horror, and others. Folks can follow James on Twitter @obrienwriter and visit me online at https://obrienwriter.com.