Monday, June 06, 2016

Good Things Happen at Tina’s Café

A Fairy Tale by Daniel A. Olivas

During waking hours, Félix José Costa would never allow himself to wonder how different life would be if he were just like everyone else.  Average.  Common.  Normal.  In that way, he was quite wise despite his relative youth.  Even at twenty-six years of age, Félix knew that it was a fool’s destiny to expend energy imagining something that could never be.
But in his dreams—oh, those dreams!—he was like everyone else.  In his nocturnal visions, Félix would saunter into the Ronald Reagan State Building’s entrance on Spring Street and wave to the security guard, a heavyset, middle-aged man who would smile for no one but Félix.  Good morning!  How about those Lakers!  And then a manly fist bump, another wave, a jaunty nod from both men.  He’d then stroll along to the elevators waving to friends and colleagues, right hand (and sometimes his left) happily and publicly displayed for all to see, another beautiful day in Los Angeles, this grand City of Angels, Lotusland, a magical metropolis where dreams come true.
Compare reality: five mornings a week, after enjoying a cup or two of coffee at a nearby café, Félix enters his building, faux leather briefcase slung over his right shoulder, both hands jammed into his pants pockets, a slight turn to the guard so that he can see Félix’s California-issued, laminated identification card clipped to his jacket pocket, a silent dance without emotion, and then on toward the elevators, averting his eyes from passersby.  He eventually gets to the eleventh floor, finds his barren cubicle, and begins his day as a legal secretary for three deputy attorneys general and one paralegal, employees in the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice.
Félix had learned the word for his “circumstance” when he was relatively young.  His mother, Josefina, being quite educated and unafraid of reality, believed in truth regardless of where it might lead one, even her only child.  A day after Félix’s sixth birthday—after a short life filled with mockery and vicious jibes from neighborhood children and classmates—Josefina wrote the word on a piece of scrap paper and had Félix find it in the family’s well-worn American Heritage Dictionary.  Félix was very good with words and loved the musty smell of their dictionary.  He flipped the pages until he came to the word his mother had written down: “pol-y-dac-tyl (pŏl'ē-dăk'tǝl) adj.  Having more than the normal number of fingers or toes.”
Félix rested his right hand on the page, palm on the cool, smooth paper, six fingers spread wide.  There was that word: “normal.”  And he sighed.  But Josefina swelled with pride because Félix pronounced it correctly.  What a talented boy!  What a handsome, promising, smart boy!
Félix’s father, Reymundo, was not as educated as Josefina.  No, he was a man of the old ways.  His son was cursed.  Period.  And the only way to fight a curse was through magic.  One week after Félix learned the word for his condition, and unbeknownst to his wife, Reymundo took his son to visit a childless widower cousin named Tony who lived south of Koreatown on Ardmore Avenue near 15th Street in a rambling, two-story, wood frame house built circa 1910 that was excessively large for Tony.  But too many memories kept him in his home.  Tony had what people called a sunny disposition, a man who never complained but spent his days appreciating the little things in life.  He stayed put, thanked the heavens for his abode, for the many years he had spent with his late, lovely wife, Trini, and lived alone with his memories.
Nevertheless, Tony knew others suffered from loss, and he possessed a gift that could help them.  Put simply, he could do wondrous things with mud and a few primordial incantations.  For example, if your husband of fifty years finally succumbed to that undetected anomalous coronary artery, Tony could make a new spouse for you, complete with that little paunch and a more or less working male anatomy, out of the deep-brown mud from his backyard.  Your beloved beagle got hit by a car?  Presto-change-o!  A new canine with the same sweet disposition and memories…expertly shaped by Tony’s elegant, long fingers out of mud.  And Tony offered his talents at a bargain, too!  If you were hard up, he’d take payment in house cleaning, tree trimming, or home cooked pork tamales.  People said that Tony was a saint.  One would be hard to argue with such an assessment.  But some asked Tony why he didn’t make a muddy double of his late wife.  Tony would only wave the question away, shake his head, and say: “Not possible.”  This response could have several meanings.  Some thought that he would lose his gift if he selfishly used it for himself.  Others believed that Tony idolized Trini so much that he didn’t know if he could do her justice with simple mud.  Regardless, Tony’s friends, family and neighbors appreciated what he did for them and that was that.
So, one bright Saturday morning, Reymundo told Josefina that he was going to take Félix to hike at Griffith Park knowing full well that his beautiful, brilliant wife did not like to perspire in public.  She wished them well.  Though the west San Fernando Valley had more than its share of trails that snaked up into the Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Park sat at the eastern end of that same mountain range and boasted other attractions such as an observatory and planetarium not to mention the nearby zoo, the Autry National Center, and the Greek Theater.  Reymundo and Félix kissed Josefina goodbye, hopped in their Honda Civic, and left Canoga Park for nature.  But they took a detour to visit Tony who lived just a few miles from their final destination.  Though Félix was puzzled when his father stayed on the 101 instead of switching over to the 134, he kept quiet and simply enjoyed the ride.  When they exited at Normandie Avenue, Félix knew where his father was taking him.  After a few minutes, they parked in front of Tony’s house.  Félix figured his father needed to chat with his cousin for a few moments just to see how he was getting along in that big, empty house.
But no.  Félix’s father clearly had other plans.  Tony came out to greet them, hands and arms covered in dark mud.  Despite his equally muddy Levi’s and red T-shirt, Tony could not hide his innate elegance.  He had a head full of white, curly hair, a countenance made up of sharp, regal features.  Tony could have been an actor, everyone had said, but he loved his magic too much to think of such silliness.
“Vámonos,” he said through a broad smile.  “Follow me to the backyard.  I don’t want to hug you two since, as you can see, I am a muddy mess.”
Tony’s yard was immense, a double lot, with a massive, ancient avocado tree at its center.  A grassy lawn covered most of the yard.  Here and there were a few small lemon trees, a rose bush or two.  Félix’s eyes were drawn to Tony’s shed at the far end of the yard just to the left of a thick cover of morning glory vines that twined in and out of the chain link fence that separated Tony’s property from a well-maintained four plex apartment building.  Hundreds of flowers had just opened fully to display trumpets of vibrant blues and purples, dappled with morning dew.  To the right of the vines was a vast, wet pit of mud which was clearly the source of Tony’s medium of choice.
Tony walked toward the shed as his guests followed.  When they entered, Tony clicked on the overhead fluorescent lights and stopped.  The loamy smell overtook Félix for a moment making him blink and then sneeze.  He had never been invited into his cousin’s workspace before.
“Come in,” Tony said.  He pointed to an ancient, blue velvet couch and nodded to Reymundo who obeyed the silent command to sit.
“Un momento...I have little more preparation to take care of,” said Tony as he walked to his workbench where a wet pile of mud sat waiting.  “Make yourself at home,” and he turned to the mud, plunged his hands into it and started to hum a little, nondescript tune.
Félix stood still and scanned the sparsely furnished room.  Other than the couch, a lone, metal folding chair stood in one corner.  A muddy, white towel hung from a large nail in the wall behind the workbench.  Above his father’s head was a single wooden bookshelf attached precariously to the wall.  Félix could make out a few of the titles.  Sculpture of Africa by Eliot Elisofon.  Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portillo.  He squinted a bit to discern what other books sat on the shelf but could only make out two that had the word “wrestling” in the titles.  Félix’s mother had always said that despite Tony’s belief in magic, he was quite an intellectual who read two or three books a week on everything from art to philosophy to history.  His reading material seemed to support this.  Tony also seemed to enjoy the art of wrestling, and judging from the tight ropes of muscle that undulated in his shoulders and arms while he worked the mud, Tony very likely wrestled in his younger years.  Félix had tried to watch a wrestling match during the last summer Olympics, but he found it boring and nothing like he thought wrestling should be like.  It seemed to him that the two men almost never touched each other but looked more like two cats prancing on their hind legs.  Yet the Cuban won the gold over the American.  How?  Why?
“Estoy listo,” said Tony.
Félix jumped just a bit and turned to the workbench.  Tony stood to the side of the mud which he had sculpted into the shape of a small sheet cake.  Félix walked slowly toward Tony who offered a welcoming smile.  Finally, the boy stood in front of the workbench and looked down where he saw what Tony had been doing: in the mud were two perfectly formed imprints of five-fingered hands.  Félix’s stomach leapt.
“No tengas miedo,” whispered Tony.  “It won’t hurt.  Just fit your hands into the mud, palms down.”
Tony understood: “Fit your two outside fingers into the pinkies...the mud will give just a bit because it’s still wet.”
Félix turned his head to his father who now sat at the edge of the couch, elbows resting on each knee, hands folded as if in prayer.  He nodded to Félix.
The boy turned toward the workbench and slowly placed his hands into the mud.  It felt cool, moist, almost comforting.
“¡Excelente!” exclaimed Tony as he scooped up fresh mud and covered Félix’s hands.  When Tony finished, he stepped back and admired his work.  He then closed his eyes and mumbled something in a language Félix did not recognize.
“Now what?” asked Reymundo.
Tony’s eyes popped open.  “Now,” he said as he reached for the towel, “you and I will go and have a beer in the house while the boy stands here for an hour.”
“What?” said Félix unable to hide his alarm.
Tony smiled: “Do you think that great magic can happen in a minute?”
Of course, this made sense.  Félix sighed, nodded, and closed his eyes.
“Good boy,” said Tony.  “Reymundo, I have some cold Buds in the fridge.  Let’s go.”
Reymundo stood and walked to his son.  He kissed Félix on the top of his head.
“It’ll be over soon,” he offered as Tony led him toward the door.  “You are a brave young man.”
Félix kept his eyes closed for the entire hour falling into what his mother called a self-induced trance, something the boy had mastered when he needed to escape this world.  An hour later, the sound of Tony’s cheerful voice brought him back to this world.
“Let’s see those hands of yours.”
Félix’s father stood to the side.  Tony opened a battered tool chest that sat on the workbench, reached in and pulled out a mud-stained wooden stick that resembled a large, broken spoon.  With the sharp end, he slowly chiseled away the now-dried mud.  Tony and his father affixed their eyes on the stick and followed it as Tony uncovered first the thumbs, moving outward toward the offending extra digits.  When he finally finished, Félix lifted his hands and wiggled his fingers.
Six fingers on each hand.  Félix sighed.
Tony turned to Reymundo.  “Have you explored surgery?”
“The insurance won’t cover the procedure, and it’s so expensive.”
Tony asked, “How could they not cover it?”
“Look,” said Reymundo.  “All of his fingers work perfectly.  So, they consider it merely cosmetic surgery.  Elective.”
“Pendejos,” muttered Tony.
                                    *                      *                      *
Twenty years later, Tony was three years dead and his favorite cousin, Félix, now lived in his big house.  And one Thursday morning, after catching the bus at Pico and Ardmore, Félix sat at Tina’s Café enjoying a delicious cup of Yuban, reading the Times, a half hour before the workday began.  His twelve fingers wrapped around the coffee mug.  He felt so at home here.  The other customers were not professionals but men and women who had little money and even less hope of improving their lives.  Not one of them ever stared at his hands.  All offered a smile and a nod, nothing more.  But that was quite a gift as far as Félix was concerned.
He had discovered Tina’s Café while trolling Yelp for places near his office.  He was intrigued by its lone three-star review written by what appeared to be a homeless man named Barney:
Located at 357 1/2 S. Spring Street.  Founded in 2008, Tina’s Café has nurtured a loyal following with its dedication to traditional coffee brands such as Folgers and Yuban.  Convenient location with some of the lowest coffee prices in town.  Decor has a garage sale feel to it, and the lighting could be improved, but the seating is comfortable and encourages random conversations.  Unfortunately, the service is poor: Owner is often distant and seems preoccupied with some other venture, but this might be an act.  Also, customers must clean up after themselves or else the owner gets very cross and points a finger at the offending mess.  Even so, a much better deal than the nearby Third Street Deli.
Félix tried to speak with Tina the first time he came in a year ago, but true to the Yelp review, she was not responsive.  She was content to pour coffee and collect money, but not much else.  Was she pretty?  Maybe.  Young?  Not certain.  Félix suspected that Tina was about five years older than he, but then again, she could be two or three years younger.  Was she Mexican?  Probably not.  Maybe Filipino or Native American.  She did not engage any customer in conversation.  Tina was Tina, and that was that.
But on this Thursday morning after Tina poured Félix a second cup of coffee, she didn’t turn to attend to other customers but, rather, stood before Félix and waited\ for something.
Félix looked up and tried to smile, but his face wouldn’t comply.  Tina’s face remained passive as she stared into his eyes.
“Yes?” Félix finally said.
“You have six fingers on each hand, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Good,” said Tina before turning away.  “Glad you know it.”
The next morning, after Tina poured Félix’s first cup of coffee, she said, “I have three breasts.”
Félix almost fell out of his chair.  Tina laughed.
“Not really,” she said.  “I just made that up.”
Félix looked down at the tabletop, and put his hands onto his lap, out of sight.
“But,” continued Tina now that the dam was broken, “I’m sure there are women out there, someplace, who do have three breasts, don’t you think?”
Félix nodded.
Tina pulled up a chair, sat down with a little grunt, and put the coffee pot down on the table.
“Women just love those hands, don’t they?”
Félix looked up at the clock on the wall, pulled out three dollars, dropped them on the table and stood.
“Going to be late for work,” he said but didn’t move.
“No you’re not,” said Tina.  “You always leave here at 8:15.  It’s only 7:50.  Sit.  You have time.  I won’t bother you anymore.”
As Félix took his seat again, Tina stood and walked to another customer.  A minute later, she came back to his table.
“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I was being rude.  I have no right to ask such questions, right?”
“Not a big deal,” said Félix.  For reasons he could not understand, he hoped she’d sit down again.
“Saturday morning,” she began, “I think we should meet at the base of Angels Flight.  Then we can figure out what to do for the day.”
Before he could stop himself, Félix said, “I’d like that.”
“Groovy,” said Tina.  She finally smiled.  “Let’s make it ten in the a.m., as my papa would say.”
“Ten in the a.m.,” he said.  “It’s a date.”
“You bet it is,” said Tina.  “There’s nothing else you can call it even if you tried.”
                                    *                      *                      *
Félix stood at the base of Angels Flight at Hill Street.  He was seven minutes early so he walked back and forth and occasionally looked up at the two, orange and black funicular cars as they clacked up and down the parallel tracks.  Félix looked at the time on his iPhone.  Five more minutes.  He then noticed a small plaque and took three steps, leaned close, and read it:
Built in 1901 by Colonel J. W. Eddy, lawyer, engineer and friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Angels Flight is said to be the world’s shortest incorporated railway.  The counterbalanced cars, controlled by cables, travel a 33 percent grade for 315 feet.  It is estimated that Angels Flight has carried more passengers per mile than any other railway in the world, over a hundred million in its first fifty years.  This incline railway is a public utility operating under a franchise granted by the City of Los Angeles.
“You know they have names.”
Félix tried not to show surprise but he failed.  He looked up into the morning sun and squinted into Tina’s shadowed face.
“Sinai and Olivet,” said Tina.  “That’s their names.”
“The cars, silly.”
“Oh,” said Félix.  “Why?”
“Biblical, of course.”
“Of course.”
Tina held out her right hand, palm up.  At first, Félix thought she wanted to hold his hand, but then noticed that she presented four, shiny quarters.
“Our funicular fair,” said Tina.  “We pay the kind gentleman at the top.  Fifty cents per person each way.”
“I know.”
“Oh, you are a wise and experienced man.”
Félix blushed and turned away.
“Let’s go,” she said.  “Time is not on our side.”
When they got to the top and paid their fair, Tina said: “Must.  Drink.  Coffee.”
“There’s a Starbucks right over there.”
 “Starbucks is evil,” she said.  “Starbucks was created to destroy small business people like me.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Félix.  “Of course you believe that.”
“Yes, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
“I am.”
“Good,” said Tina as she started to walk toward the Starbucks.  “Let’s go to Starbucks.”
Félix didn’t move.  “What?”
“Starbucks is evil but I have a hankerin’ for a Caffè Vanilla Frappuccino Blended Beverage.”
Félix took a step and then another after Tina.  “That sounds good.”
“Yes, it’s delicious,” she said with a smack of her lips.  “And then we’ll sit and talk for a bit about very important things and go to MOCA which opens at 11:00 to look at an exhibit or two or three and then come back here and grab some Panda Express since I am already now craving orange chicken for lunch and we can talk about less important things and then we’ll take Angels Flight back down and find a bar or two or three and have a microbrew or some fancy girl’s drink and then find some other places to hang out because we are young and the day lies before us like a cornucopia filled with unforgettable and life changing experiences.”
Félix smiled.
“It does appear that you like my plan,” said Tina.
“I think I do.”
Tina stopped walking to let Félix catch up to her.  “I repeat: you are a wise and experienced man,” she said when he finally stood by her side.
“I guess I am,” he said.  “I guess I am.”
                                    *                      *                      *
            And they spent the day more or less as Tina had planned though it was Félix’s idea to walk to Olvera Street to eat dinner at La Golondrina Mexican Café.  They spoke of many things, whatever came into their heads, as the hours passed.
For example, at 10:31 a.m. over their blended Starbucks coffee drinks, Tina said: “You know, George Bernard Shaw wrote a scathing review of Brahms, called him a ‘great baby’ and that he was ‘addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.’  Can you imagine?  Brahms?  A ‘great baby’?  Craziness!”
            And at 12:57 p.m. as they stood in line at Panda Express, Félix said: “Did you know that Panda Express Executive Chef Andy Kao is widely considered the creator of orange chicken?  And they sold over sixty million pounds of it last year.  Amazing.”
            And it was precisely 2:13 p.m. as they rode Sinai back down to Hill Street that Tina offered this: “Wilshire Boulevard was named after Henry Gaylord Wilshire who was from Cincinnati and was known as a bit of a flirt and a definite rabble-rouser.  At least that’s what I read in a book by this guy named Kevin Roderick.”
            Their day ended at 10:03 p.m. at the base of Angels Flight, just as it had started.  They stood facing each other, swaying in the cool evening, bellies full.
            “One kiss?” asked Félix.
            “One kiss it is,” said Tina.
            And they kissed, bodies apart, faces turned in, lips tentative, a flicker of tongue.  After a few moments, they pulled back in unison.
            “I assume you will come by the very famous Tina’s Café on Monday morning,” said Tina.
            “I’ll be there,” said Félix.
            “I know you will,” said Tina.
            And they went their separate ways.
                                    *                      *                      *
            It was a foggy Monday morning as Félix stepped off the bus and walked toward Spring Street.  He had had all of Sunday to think about his day with Tina.  The chilled air allowed him to see his breath.  Félix tried not to smile but he couldn’t help himself.  He would soon be in Tina’s Café having a hot cup of Yuban poured by Tina herself.
            Félix walked past a storefront with its name, MIKE’S USED FURNITURE, in old fashioned, golden script emblazoned across the plate glass.  Below the name was: Est’d 1962.  He stopped and walked back.  He looked up at the address: 357 1/2 South Spring St.  The lights were out, the store not yet open for business.  Félix pulled his hands from his jacket pockets and cupped his eyes so that he could look into the store.  He leaned forward and squinted.  Instead of  Tina’s Café, he saw bureaus and chairs and tables and loveseats neatly arranged and ready for sale.
            Félix pulled back, placed his palms onto the plate glass, unable to catch his breath.  He closed his eyes and tried to conjure Tina’s face in his mind’s eye, but couldn’t.  His legs began to buckle and it took every bit of concentration to avoid falling down onto the cold sidewalk.  After a full minute, Félix opened his eyes and focused on his splayed fingers.  He blinked once and then again and then once more.  Five.  Five!  Five fingers on each hand.  He brought his hands away from the plate glass, turned toward the street, mouth open like an empty wallet.  And at that moment, every memory of Tina slipped from his mind.
He closed his mouth into a tight smile.  And with a little laugh, Félix José Costa raised his perfectly normal hands into the cool, Los Angeles morning.

[“Good Things Happen at Tina’s Café” is featured in LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press, 2016).]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well done. I knew there would be a twist and so there was - surprising and full of magic.