As winter began to loosen its grip on the Canadian prairie, I hoped that Humbug might thaw out a little as well. Business had picked up a little since closing down for the morning hours. Unfortunately, the fallout from evicting the leeches resulted in almost zero afternoon coffee traffic as well. I could barely believe that the coffee row leeches had taken the hint and actually stopped coming in on Saturdays. I wondered which restaurant they would victimize next. Apparently Mike and Lyle Duerr interpreted my morning closure as meaning they were no longer welcome to come in at all. Although I never made a profit from them, they weren’t that bad to have around. The additional food sales from staying open an hour later, however, more than replaced the lost income from coffee sales. If I ignored Marty’s wages, the cash flow statements had actually just turned positive.
I had only given Marty nearly fulltime hours to help him escape Humbug - paying him out of my own pocket. Now that he was a Catholic and ‘not gay’ anymore, that really seemed like a pointless expense. He was a hard worker, though, and I still felt lucky to have him around. I worried that, if I cut his hours back, he might leave for a better job. I just wished I had the customer traffic to justify his hard earned wages. Also, although I felt the expense was no longer justified because he was ‘no longer gay’, I worried that I might actually be firing him because he was Catholic. I really don’t like Catholics, but I didn’t want to unfairly prejudice them in my work environment either.
I began to hope that Humbuggers might finally be able to stop viewing my bistro as their old coffee shop. The customer base began to shift to people who were appreciating the food and even more customers began driving in from the surrounding area. Overall, the bistro was just a lot more comfortable place to eat once it was no longer infested by mouth-breathers. Given the new operating hours, it was conceivable that I could operate with no staff at all, except perhaps on Saturdays. I decided to wait and see if warmer weather would get the front doors swinging a little more often before making a decision about Marty.
Years of cross-country skiing on the prairie gave me some good insight into the winter weather. Almost every year, the end of winter could be marked by a hefty snow storm in or around the second week of February. That year the storm never came. I had only seen this happen a couple of times over the previous fourteen years. It’s a very bad omen for summer, typically indicating that wintry nights won’t relent until well into May and hot summer days will be few and far between.
The miserable weather refused to yield and my optimism wasn’t warming up either. I had Jeffrey cut back to three-hour shifts on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which was just fine for him since his church paid his living expenses and all he needed was a little spending money. Marty still spoke of moving to Cuspidor and I felt that might be a good idea in case he ever fell off the wagon of his newfound heterosexuality. I hoped he would move soon and save me the discomfort of reducing his hours.
My mornings were absolutely delightful. I began to work later in the evening to prep as much as I could for the next day, allowing me to sleep in a bit and work at a more relaxed pace. Marty came in about a half an hour before opening to brew coffee and get the front end ready for opening. Being able to stay focused and in the kitchen each morning allowed me to really work on the part of the business I loved most – cooking. It was also a lot more efficient to work continuously without have to run to the front every ten minutes to pay homage to the leeches.
We had been closed on Sundays since Anna had left and that meant no left over turkey or stock. I took the turkey a la king off of Tuesday’s menu and tried to replace it with a few different entrees. I really wanted to stick to the hot pot format so I could have something I could serve over rice or in a smaller portion in a bowl. I also wanted to find something that might appeal to the average Humbugger while not disappointing my more adventurous diners. In the end I had to scrap the rice and settle on smokies and perogies.
For those who aren’t familiar, perogies are little dumplings; most often stuffed with potato and cheese. After boiling them, many people like to fry them. I opted for boiling them and then and slathering them in butter as they sat in hot holding. The result was similar to frying. The smokies, a favorite Canadian sausage, I sliced and roasted in a light coating of olive oil and pepper. This added a little spice and crispiness while not making the familiar food seem too alien to the more pedestrian diners. I compromised a bit on my ‘no fry zone’ policy and fried julienned onions in olive oil and butter with a light sprinkling of salt and sugar as a topping for the perogies. I’ve always found that a little sugar added to sautéed onions really brings out the natural sweetness and heightens the caramelization. The combination of the perogies, smokies, sautéed onions and Caesar salad made for a rather heavy meal but it did start to attract a wider assortment of diners.
Tuesday mornings were my favorite through this period. I was still often low on sleep because of the heavy load of prep work required for opening day each week, but having both Jeffrey and Marty around gave me energy. They would often get into heated religious debates while working together and I always had to laugh when I, the atheist, had to provide them with biblical quotes for their citations. Marty would condemn us for not following ‘the true church’, I would condemn them both for believing in an invisible man, and Jeffrey stuck to his ‘what would Jesus do’ approach and condemned no one.
One morning we found ourselves a bit behind and working madly to get ready for opening. I was running back and forth with hot pans as Jeffrey ducked underneath with clean dishes and Marty dodged us both with pitchers of ice water or iced tea. I yelled for Jeffrey to fill the whipped cream canister, and moments later I heard a blast of air that sounded like a big truck had just set its breaks in the serving area. Heading up front to investigate, I found Jeffrey sitting on the floor, cross-legged and cross-eyed, beaming a smile that didn’t quite fit between his ears. Beside him was the top for the whipped cream canister and it became apparent that he had tried to screw the nitrous-oxide canister into the lid before screwing the lid onto the main canister. He had gotten a full dose and was as high as a kite.
Marty was already opening the front door and turning on the open sign and I didn’t know what to do with Jeffrey so I slid him against the counter just beside the register. He just sat their giggling like a maniac but didn’t seem to be going into any sort of seizures so I decided to just let him ride it out. Marty started having some fun with him, flicking Jeffrey’s nose just to watch Jeffrey react by shaking his head like a wet dog. I told Marty to stop but he just couldn’t take me seriously while I was laughing so hard.
Jeffrey was still in his ‘cussing’ phase, which became a real problem as customers filed in. Whenever someone would inquire about the ‘SUPE’, Jeffrey would just exclaim, “There is no FUCKING SUPE!” This really confused the customers who had no idea where the voice had come from, for Jeffrey was tucked neatly out of sight just behind the counter. A couple of times I managed to stifle his outbursts by giving him a quick kick in the ribs. He started to try to roll around, moaning, “What we have here is failure to communicate,” in the best Strother Martin voice he could muster. I dropped behind the counter to beg him to keep quiet and finally seemed to break through – but all he kept saying was, “I’ll get my mind right, Boss – I’ll get my mind right.” He seemed to be reliving clips from Cool Hand Luke. He spent the rest of the afternoon asleep on the sofa in my office with a terrible headache.
Marty began coming in late on occasion, always making the excuse that the highways were bad. He didn’t live that far from town and I counseled him to try starting out earlier in the morning. It soon became apparent that he wasn’t driving from home but was making the trip from Cuspidor. My suspicions were quickly confirmed when he walked in one morning and exclaimed, “To hell with the sanctity of family – I’m in love!”
“So you aren’t Catholic anymore,” I asked.
“You’re back to being gay?”
“Did you miss it?”
“Oh, did I ever!”
“So you are back with Daniel?”
“Nope, he was way too controlling anyway. I’ve found my soul mate and I’m truly in love. His name is Vince.”
“And you’re sure this isn’t just lust?” I smirked.
“Oh now you’re not going to start up with that, are you?” he scolded.
“Oh, I don’t mean that I think you aren’t gay, or that gay equals lust. I just mean that only a few weeks ago you were devoted to denying your sexuality altogether. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to fall in love.”
“Well I am. We’ve spent almost every minute possible together for the past week. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve spent on gas driving to Cuspidor and back. I just can’t get enough of him. And it’s not lust either – most nights we just lay together and watch movies.”
“Sounds like true love to me,” I said, facetiously.
I began to grow concerned for Marty. He obviously had a lot of forces tearing at him, but he had been remarkably volatile in the short time that I had known him. In less than five months he had gone from being an aspiring monk, to being a gay barista, to redefining his Catholic faith and devotion to the sanctity of family, to being infatuated with a new boyfriend. I began to question whether or not he might be wrestling with even deeper issues and, finding himself in freefall, flailing about to latch onto anything that might help him define himself. All I could do was hope that he wouldn’t spot any army recruitment posters.
One day Dave, the old coffee shop owner, stopped by to congratulate me on evicting the coffee row leeches. He hadn’t set foot in the bistro since I opened, and I could understand how it was difficult for him to be in there after having owned the coffee shop. He actually ordered a Baja burrito and sat on the sofa. Traffic was slow, so I had a chance to talk with him.
“How’s the burrito, Dave?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s really good. There isn’t anything else like this in town.”
‘Yeah, I had hoped that might actually draw in more customers.”
“I guess you’re getting to know the town, huh?”
“You might have given me a heads up,” I chided.
“Would you have believed me?” he asked.
“I guess not.”
“I wish I could have kicked out coffee row,” he said, “but they were the most regular customers I had. I just couldn’t make any money off of them.”
“They won’t be missed. The only morning customer that I’ll miss is that woman with the coal dark hair and icy blue eyes who always ordered a white mocha on Tuesday mornings.”
Dave stopped himself midway through taking a bite out of his burrito and said, “That’s not funny – not funny at all.”
“What?” I asked.
“How do you even know about her?” he asked.
“What do you mean? I just assumed that she used to come in when you had the coffee shop for the same order. She just had such a regular habit of having that white mocha as soon as I opened the doors every Tuesday.”
“And she dressed really well?” he asked.
“Yeah, she always dresses up really nice. Usually she has a blue scarf and it really stands out with her blue eyes because her skin is so pale.”
Dave just stared at me for several minutes and I started to feel really uncomfortable. Finally I just asked, “What the hell is wrong, Dave?”
“I hope that you’re just playing a sick joke,” he said, continuing, “She was a regular customer going back to the days that the coffee house first opened. About a month before you bought the place she died. She was hit by a big farm truck right out the front doors in the street. It was a terrible day, and she was wearing that blue scarf. I remember her laying there in the snow in the street with her eyes open, those icy blue eyes and that bright blue scarf. She was so pale and it seemed like the scarf and her eyes were the only part of her left.”
“Oh fuck off, Dave. I gotta tell you, that is a hell of a story.”
“Ask around then,” he said, as serious as a heart attack.
I did ask around, and I was told of the well dressed woman with coal black hair and icy blue eyes who was run over by a big farm truck just outside the old coffee house. I scoured my memory to try to think of another person who had seen her in my bistro but I realized that she was the only customer that I had ever seen before 8 a.m. since the day I had opened. I had never had any staff start work that early. A shiver ran down my spine.