ah, the coffeehouse! it is a wonderful place, where all sort of talk transpires; somewhat like a daytime bar, yet both more and less refined, depending where your coffeehouse is. if you so happen to be in a coffeehouse in an asian country, expect smoke, noise, heat, random smelliness, and more beer than actual coffee; if you are in a coffeehouse along a wonderful street in, say, france, with a beautiful view of, say, the seine, you can feel content enough to while away your life there.
and it is true, that some people while away their entire lifes sipping at empty cups, staring at the scenery until the sun grows tired of staring back and slinks under the sea, then the streetlights shimmer on and the stars smile about the cafe, while the dear dreamer still sips his empty cup. for every good old man knows- the beauty is not in the sip, but the sipping. those same thinkers, will spend weeks just perfecting the angle at which their wrists bend to hold the cup, how far to extend the pinky if they are sipping tea, and countless other details only a professional dreamer might appreciate. almost as a painter putting the final touches, mindful of every detail, these people have perfected the art and form of sitting at a cafe and staring at the scenery.
steinbeck was one of those people, and especially one of those rich enough to live near and frequent his favourite cafe. he went there everyday- and everyday, each day went past him there. he was once a painter, but this vista had fascinated him- he had seven unfinished canvasses at home- and now old, was content to let his mind do all the painting. some days there would be a boat or two on the river, and he liked their shadows at sunset; other times there were no boats, and the raw beauty of nature fascinated him; other times, it was raining, and the dark mood echoed the depression that was always on the edge of his consciousness. there were simply too many sides to any painting, he decided then. there was no use painting anything; the best recollection would have to be done in the memory. he went back everyday, drinking in whichever change had decided to appear, and glad of the familiarity of the riverbanks and monuments. in fact, he had decided long ago, and told the cafe's owner (by now another familiarity) to stop bringing him the morning paper. it was all quite trite, pointless, farcical, that peculiar human hubris and vanity. the scenery was so much more fascinating.
of course, today was different; that is why i am narrating it to you. he had a paper in front of him, his pocket-watch on its little gold chain was open, and he heard its ticking rather distinctly. he was waiting for somebody to arrive and ask him some questions, the nature of which he had divined to be rather urgent, judging by the other's tone. of course he had invited him to the cafe. there was nowhere else to have a talk. still in the early morning hours, one coffee and half a tea down, jenkins was late. not one to be unduly impatient, steinbeck nevertheless felt some of the old hustlebustle return to his joints, which positively itched instead of ached today. he told the manager to put on his favourite song, which now happened to be a lively ancient aria, called "habanera". he whistled along with the violins, chuckled at his attempts to sing along to the soprano, and even ba-dumm dumm dummed along to the "ba-dumm dumm dumm" parts. he had never felt (before this) that same irrestible, consuming desire to waste a short amount of time that felt disproportionately draggy.
eventually, jenkins arrived. the playlist had cycled through, and it was back to habanera.
"sit down, my boy! it's been quite a while, hasn't it?"
"if your idea of quite a while is a decade, then yes, rather."
steinbeck chuckled. it had indeed been a decade.
"so, jenkins, what brings you to this old man's retirement? i didn't think i would still be interesting to the latest bunch of youngsters, you know."
"it's, ah, sir, about something i'm confused about, and i thought, well, you seem to have a lot of experience in this sort of matter-"
"you mean love? you have the hots for somebody now, jenkins? well, i never! you're only a youngster, full of ideals, surrounded by pretty women your age- i wonder how you ever could have fallen in love!"
jenkins blushed a slightly more blushy shade of blush.
"yes, quite, sir. i have fallen in love, if you could put it that way."
steinbeck chuckled again. he was beginning to enjoy the concept of making conversation.
"well, the only other way i could put it would be lust. i assume she's lustworthy now, eh? don't think a man like you would've fallen for her otherwise, personality nonwithstanding."
jenkins became a deeper shade of embarassment.
"and besides, love is a phase all of us go through, and never really grow out of, isn't it now? i think you'll learn that in a few decades, when you're as old and creaky as i am."
he let his amazing insights into human life sink in for a few moments. jenkins took a few moments out of his awe and reverence to comment.
"sir, i think that's too much old-man philosophy in too short a time. could you instead listen to me for a while and laugh at my youthful foolishness before you continue with the life-changing insights? i would be much appreciative if you would deign to do that."
steinbeck snorted. the sarcasm was almost, but not quite, the sarcasm he knew and loved so well. something told him that jenkins was being at the very least a little sincere in his pleading.
"well, why don't you tell me all about her, and then you and her, and then let me interrupt your raving about how utterly destructive her qualities are and how she has taken over your entire life? and you can leave out her dimensions, i'm quite certain she's hourglass."
jenkins' face tried very hard to turn redder, but his circulatory system gave up at beet bordering on maroon. the heart nevertheless feels everything the body cannot, and the voice expresses best what the face fails to.
"well, just begin, jenkins. i won't interrupt you unless i have something particularly funny to say."
true to- and better than- his word, steinbeck failed to interrupt jenkins' short but passionate description of miranda. of course the urge to chuckle good-naturedly could never be resisted. the morning went by- time has no meaning to one in love- and the two talkers had moved on to wine. at least the drink gave jenkins a plausible excuse to blush- onlookers wouldn't point and say "now there's two people talking about love"- but his gesticulating gave him away nevertheless. some other old people passing by would tip their hats to steinbeck and laugh about the good old days, they themselves thinking about the times they had someone as silly as jenkins to give advice to. eventually, jenkins paused to sip at his glass again.
"she's quite the angel, sir! i've fallen hopelessly in love with her, i feel."
steinbeck chuckled, as old wise people are wont to do.
"that's what i told myself the first three times, jenkins. you know you can never ever love one woman- you can only love women, all of them, as a whole. a little older, you stop thinking about silly things like that, and love humanity as a whole. at my age, you love the whole world and leave it at that."
"i know what you mean, jenkins. listen, listen to the song. 'l'amour est un oiseau rebelle'- that means 'love is like a rebellious bird'. you catch it, put it in a cage, all the music is gone."
"how can i just let it fly about at its own will? it has no regard for my feelings, yet to its fet are tied my heartstrings- every time it flies further from me, it tugs, it hurts! surely you know how i feel- you must have felt despair when you were younger."
"aye. that was a long while back though."
"that was a long while back. i miss being utterly suicidal, did you know? those were some of the best days of my life- when i felt that life actually meant enough to be worth dying for. it sounds silly now, perhaps. but you'll understand."
if he would or not- jenkins didn't quite care. all he knew was that he wanted some advice as to how to win the heart of his beloved, and steinbeck was being painfully nostalgic. he decided to get to the point anyway.
"sir, i would like to know how to win her heart."
steinbeck looked at him incredulously, then burst into full-blown laughter.
"ah, my boy, i can't tell you how! i don't know! she- who she is- you know better than i, and she knows better than you! you'd best ask her how to win her heart. every heart is different, you know. if i could know how to win any heart in the world, that would just mean the hearts in this world are all the same- and that sort of world doesn't deserve to be lived in."
jenkins groaned, now sure that his trip had been in vain.
"but sit down a while longer, talk with me! there is so much i have forgotten about this world, and so much that has passed me by. you have just gotten me addicted to civilization again; and you had best tell me all about what has happened. i shall not forgive you otherwise."
so they talked and talked and talked; sometimes it was steinbeck, most times it was jenkins. as they talked about the world, more of it flew by them; salads gave way to filets mignon, white wine to red, blue sky to red. a whole afternoon went past them just like that, two people spending as much time as the rest of the world did. of course they hardly noticed it; time sneaks by, like a wizened old ninja master- a ninja master nontheless. the men came and went, the women came and went; the coffehouse filled and emptied according to the whims of people. still, the building stood; the river flowed; the manager refilled their cups and glasses; the two people, one young and one old, both silly, talked over a table with a grand view of the scenery. one thing steinbeck learned in those few hours- that the world had not changed a single bit. so much of madness, more of sin, and horror the soul of the plot- as poe would have put it. in his own words, hubris and vanity. yet jenkins sat before him, inevitably sidetracking into how much he loved miranda, and steinbeck could not but help feel that the world had some saving grace in its silliness.
they talked and talked, and now it was steinbeck's turn to listen; he did gladly. almost forgotten was the real reason for jenkins' visit. now miranda was someone steinbeck would occassionally mention to make jenkins blush, or jenkins himself would mention in passing when talking about his writing and singing. the old record playing over the speakers (the manager had more, but was out- the staff in charge were too lazy to change it) had turned back to that silly old song many, many times.
eventually, they settled and watched the sun set. jenkins heard his phone ring, and answered it. the prospects were not amusing, to say the least.
"sir! sir! bad news, sir! they've started the nuclear war! i think the bombs are going to start falling soon- get somewhere safe! i'm off to find miranda!"
jenkins hurriedly gathered his coat and sped off, leaving steinbeck alone to muse over the remains of their dinner. the sun was low over the horizon, the cafe now deserted- save the manager, who returned to gather some belongings, and was off with a quick tip of his hat to jenkins. only the stoic scenery remained with steinbeck now, his friend until the last.
"hmm, a nuke," steinbeck thought to himself. "i think i've seen a video about it before- ah, yes. i'm supposed to duck and cover, aren't i."
steinbeck ducked under the table and covered the back of his neck just as a white flash blinded the air, knocking down the cafe and vapourizing a gigantic crater in the river.