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The Love's Ends Cafe
This piece was inspired by a random photo in a Wheaten College magazine, that showed six women lined up. These six women became my characters, running the Love's Ends Cafe.
My aunts at the Love’s Ends Café love to tell stories. While the town of Christmasville, Florida crumbles in the sun’s scorching heat, mosquitos drone in lazy circles, and the air smells like manure and crop dusters so badly that you can scarcely breathe, the Love’s Ends Café is the only place to go.
Let me tell you a little story.
It was the summer of 1986 and I was nearly fifteen when I decided to spring free from home. I brought little Billie Moon, my cousin, along with me. I remember that Night of Horrors well…
“Skip, let’s go to Antarctica,” Billie told me. His widely-spaced eyes looked very hollow and scared. He was a skinny kid, like an underfed chicken, who had tiny ears, flat lips, and an oversized skull. We were huddled together in the darkness of my bed.
“Where do you wanna go?” I asked.
“Anywhere on earth, away from Lillian.”
“Yeah, someday, someday, someday…”
“We’re going to Antarctica! Tell me about Antarctica!”
I scratched my head, trying to think. “It’s always snowing in Antarctica and there are icebergs and seas and penguins and no Lillian.”
Billie grinned at that, and I grinned back. We were kindred spirits.
Dread settled in my heart as I waited for Lillian, the old drunk, to come home from her nightclub. When Billie fell asleep snoring on my lap. I sang to him softly:
“Hush, little baby,
Don’t say a word,
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don’t sing,
Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring,
And if the diamond ring turns to brass,
Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass.”
Crashes and bangs rang at the door. The drunken hag said, “Where’s Billie? Skip, where’s that little scamp? I’ll beat him till his bottom bleeds. I’ll make him apologize!”
“Billie has done nothing, Lillian,” I shouted. “If you come in here, you get a knuckle sandwich for supper!”
It was a June night like this, nine years before, when I became an orphan. Momma and Daddy had driven into town to buy balloon animals for my sixth birthday. When a policeman woke me up to tell me, I just screamed and howled because I’d never get my balloon animals.
After the accident, I had to live with Lillian, whom I never called Grandma because Grandma didn’t fit her. No words of mine can describe that lady. When I was eleven, my little cousin Billie got orphaned also and went to live with us. I retreated into my Cave of Sadness and wouldn’t come out. I broke into buildings. I shoplifted things like yoyos and candy cigarettes. I sassed my teachers and stood on my desk and hollered. Almost every day, I wrote “I WILL NOT ACT OUT IN CLASS” on the blackboard.
“Barrel of trouble, Skip Baily—that’s all you are. Why can’t you ever behave yourself?”
People have told me that countless times. They don’t know the Real Skip Baily, and they’ve never seen my sketchbook. My sketchbook is my most precious possession.
THE SKETCHBOOK OF SKIP BAILY:
The night sky is like the inside of a coffee can and my heart is like a rolling marble down the sidewalk. The star big and bright I have called my star, Cassiopeia, Cassy for short. Cassy is my home and I have a house there where my wicked stepsisters are locked in a broom closet and there’s hot chicken pie waiting by the glowy room. Everything I could ever dream for is there, like waking up on Christmas morning and tripping over wrapping paper and what’s waiting for you isn’t a stupid old doll but a pair of roller skates. Roller skates to run away and have adventures on all your life. That is my home star and I sing to Cassy every night— “I’m coming soon…soon…”
Lillian pounced into my room. There she stood like a seventy-year-old hooker, with detergent-colored eyes, wearing a tight sparkly shirt and creamy blue lipstick. Her scowl was like crawling roaches. “You’ve got it coming, little cupcake. I’ll learn you!” She snarled as she slapped me, and I staggered backwards. “You are nearly fifteen, and it’s time you paid rent. I didn’t take in you out of charity, you know. Hand over the money!”
A beer bottle zinged over my head. Lillian was really boozed up and really mad. She was gonna kill me and Billie. I flung open my bedroom window and rampaged my dresser—I stuffed clothes wildly into an old shopping bag. Hurry! Run away, run away, run away!
“Where do you think you’re going, Skip Baily?”
“To Antarctica! Away from you!” I hollered. I wasn’t afraid anymore. My only thought was Hurry! Run away, run away, run away! I spilled my closet and stuffed my shopping bag, sticking my sketchbook on top. When I dashed for the window, Lillian grabbed me so hard that I nearly ripped in half.
“Stop! I’ll kill you, young lady! Your gander is cooked, young lady—you won’t escape!”
Hurry! I grabbed Billie and leaped through the window. We landed face-down in the yard. Dirt and blood trickled down my face, and Billie wailed. We picked ourselves up and ran.
Ran like Hades.
“Skip! Where are we going, where are we going, where are we going?”
Billie sobbed hard in the moonlight. I tried to hold him, to comfort him. My heart whammed away in my throat. Lillian would chase us—Hell or highwater wouldn’t stop her now.
Poor Billie flung himself on the grass. He begged me, “Where are we going?”
Finally, I sighed and gave up and told him. “We’re not going to Antarctica. There’s this town called Christmasville where we got kinfolk.”
Billie’s sobbing stopped. “Christmasville? Does Santy Claus live there?”
“Yeah, Billie, Santy Claus has his toymaking shop in Christmasville. You can eat candy-canes all day and ride polar bears.”
The town I lived in was Riceville, deep in sugar-cane country, a million miles from anywhere. I didn’t have a map of Florida, but I knew, just knew, where I had to travel. Sometime after my parents’ death, I’d found my mother’s last possessions in a Salvation Army donation pile. A few dresses, a jar of smelly perfume, a framed photograph—and a menu from the Love’s Ends Café in Christmasville, Florida. The photograph showed Momma with four younger sisters, all wearing hair ribbons and Catholic school jumpers, and the back of the picture read CHRISTMASVILLE, FL.
My hope was feeble, tremulous. Thinking of it made me dizzy. Go to Christmasville. Go to the Love’s Ends Café!
Billie and I wandered out of town and slept in a ditch full of cigarette butts and smashed whiskey-bottles. Purple wild thistles waved about us. The moon looked very faraway and lonely.
The next few days were a blur. We wandered through the woods and fields. I was terrified at how Billie looked like a tiny, silent old man. Once we stripped off all our clothes and bathed in a cow-pond, splashing and laughing and shrieking. We picked berries and pillaged trash-piles for food. Then there were the police-cars. Every time one passed, Billie and I leapt like gazelles to hide.
On the third day, I made up my mind to thumb a ride, or die trying. “Please, kind sir, would you take us to Christmasville? Me and my little friend?” I hollered.
The beer-bellied, tattooed, bald eagle of a man took a swig from his beer and drawled, “Hop onto the pickup bed!”
Gratefully, Billie and I swung ourselves into the man’s truck. Riding in the bed was a thrill, in spite of the gravelly road, dirt-clouds blowing in our faces. Sun was shining for the first time in forever. Billie squealed for joy.
“Name’s Jarvis Tucker,” said the man, “Where you do you hail from?”
“Riceville,” I said. “Billie and I are gonna visit our grandma, Lillian, who runs the Love’s Ends Café.”
“How come you’re thumbing rides alone on a country road? Your folks ever taught you about Stranger Danger?”
“After living with my mama’s temper, I ain’t afraid of strangers.”
Jarvis laughed, sounding like a dog about to puke. I was glad he asked no more questions. His radio was playing “Life in a Northern Town,” which made me dream of snow. We rode most of that day, and I was plumb exhausted when Jarvis let us off. Gravel dust covered me and Billie, and our butts hurt from bouncing on the truck-bed.
“It’s a three-mile hike into Christmasville,” he told us. “Be mighty careful, you darn rascals!”
Dark was falling like a quilt. Billie babbled about the Man on the Moon. We tried not to think of how scared, sad, and lost we were. Focus on the stars. Focus on Cassiopeia. Remembering what my Sunday school teacher told me when I was little, I whispered, Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Prayer is just something you have to do when you’re stranded on a black country road at midnight. Gritting my teeth, I prayed harder and harder while the tree frogs and crickets struck up a mournful sound.
“Look, a light! A light!” Billie cried.
“That must be Christmasville. That must be the Love’s Ends Café!” I said.
Laughing with glee, we ran toward the light. We ran as fast as Billie’s stubby little legs would carry him.
A cheap blue strobe-light glowed from the Love’s Ends Café. Peering into the windows, we saw checkered tablecloths, booths, a TV, and a Pacman arcade. Smells of frying shrimp and sounds of laughter drifting into the night. The place looked just like Heaven. Home! I’m finally home!
“Lemme inside! I have to pee!” Billie whined.
“Let me think!” I snapped. What to do now? What should I tell the people? Hey, I’m your orphaned niece! Please adopt me! Please, please, please! What an idiot!
Grumbling, I rooted through my shopping bag and pulled out my mother’s family picture. Well, here we go, Skip Baily!
“What on earth do you kids want at this dog-blasted late hour?”
The black-haired, freckled young woman behind the counter peered over her horn-rimmed spectacles, her mouth widening in horror. Then Billie let loose, shrieking and yowling like a wounded cat, rolling on the floor.
The customers in the Love’s Ends Café snickered. I slapped Billie, hard. Another lady interrupted Freckled Lady and said, “Don’t let these innocent kids see the bathroom. Summer’s doing science experiments in there—she’s floating bat skeletons in the toilet. With all the filth and crud and craziness around this restaurant, I’m simply humiliated! Honestly!” She had feathered hair and blue lipstick and platform sandals. Her eyes narrowed at us sulkily.
Freckled Lady grinned at us, so warm and friendly that I was at home right away. She said, “My name is Winter Martinez, and that’s my sister, Autumn. Would you believe I have three sisters named Spring, Summer and Autumn? And we’re all Cuban. Where do you kids hail from? I’ve never seen you before!”
Now’s the time, Skip Baily. I swallowed hard. Then, clear in the sight of God and the Love’s Ends Café, and I told the biggest whooper of my life.
“My name is…my name is April Martinez. This is my little cousin, Billie Martinez. My Momma told me that her kinfolk ran the Love’s Ends Café in Christmasville…and that you were Cuban. My parents are both named Martinez. So I decided…I wanted to visit Momma’s family. You must be my aunt. Momma told me so much about you. I can’t believe we walked all this way!”
Winter gazed at us for a long moment. I felt myself melting into a puddle of embarrassment. These people are not my relatives! Winter is not my aunt. Never in a million years!
My thoughts were interrupted as Billie peed all over the floor. Winter hollered, “Autumn! Grab the bucket and Lysol and please, help me deal with these kids!” Autumn stalked into the room with a disgusted expression.
Desperate, I pulled out Momma’s photograph. I showed it to Winter. “See? Those are my aunts—Aunt Winter, Aunt Spring, Aunt Summer, and Aunt Autumn. Right?”
She glanced at it briefly, then got a cardboard smile. Good thing that my aunt’s faces were gray blurs; I couldn’t really tell them apart. That photograph saved my neck.
“Tell me all about yourself—tell me how you and Billie made it here,” she said.
Panic leaped into my throat. “I’d rather not say,” I said.
“Well, well then. How old are you, April?”
“I’ll be fifteen in August. And Billie is five,” I answered, honestly.
“What’s your mother’s name?”
“Don’t you know? My mother is your sister! She’s told me so much about Aunt Winter. Why don’t you know me, your own niece?”
Winter’s black eyebrows arched. Her expression was concerned, like I had the Devil’s name written on my forehead.
“I have three sisters. Younger sisters. None of them are married, or have children—they all live here, with Mama and Grandma, as no one wants to marry them. I have no long-lost relatives. No nieces or nephews.”
“Please!” I shouted, clasping my hands, “Please don’t kick out me and Billie! We’ve got at least to stay the night—Wait a minute! You’re not my Momma’s sister—you are my grandmother’s stepsister’s nephew’s daughter. That’s right! You’re such a distant relative, it’s confusing, so it’s easier just to say that you are my aunt. Isn’t that right?”
“Absolutely right, April. We are all relatives.” Winter swept a dirty dishrag across the counter with a decided gesture. Relief swept through me. We get to stay here at the Love’s Ends Café!
Winter called, “Mama! Autumn, Spring, and Summer—we got company staying tonight. Fix up the spare room for the guests!”
Just like that, Billie Moon and I were swept away into the world of the Love’s Ends Café.
Billie and I seated ourselves in a booth and garbaged down burnt anchovy-covered pizza. Winter led us up the rickety stairs to the rooms above the restaurant. Shadows fell eerily across the walls. We fell asleep on a spare-room bed. My eyelids were so heavy, they were like cinderblocks.
Rain crashed on the roof, thunder boomed, lightning crashed, and Billie snored. We were not in a rain-soaked ditch, plucking chinaberries to eat, kidnapped by creepy men with hooks for hands, or at home with Lillian beating the spit out of me. For that, I was supremely and unfeignedly grateful.
When Billie woke up, he asked me, “Are we in Antarctica?”
“No,” I said. “We’re in Christmasville. At the Love’s Ends Café.”
“Where’s Santy Claus? I want Santy Claus!” he hollered.
“Hush up! Child, turn around and listen to me! These people here aren’t really relatives. But we’re gonna pretend they are, so we can live here forever. You can’t give us away, you hear? You’ve got to call me April, not Skip. Or bad things will happen.”
“What bad things?” He got a solemn, scared look on his owlish face.
“We’ll be thrown out on the street and Lillian will come back and she’ll lock us up at Alcatraz to die in the electric chair and you’ll wish to God that you never, never told. So keep your mouth shut!”
Billie shut up.
I picked through my shopping bag of ratty dungarees and T-shirts and dressed quietly, then tiptoed downstairs. It’s time, Skip Baily. Time to explore the Love’s Ends Café. Time to meet the Family.
THE LOVE’S ENDS CAFÉ CREW: MEETING THE FAMILY
The restaurant was run by six ladies. They’d long ago chased off all the men, or else they’d died, so the place was a henhouse full of crazy women.
1.) Miss Julia Castillo was the matriarch, the abuelita, seventy years old, all shriveled up in her walnut-brown skin. She was so thin, she couldn’t have weighed over ninety pounds. She crocheted dishcloths and babbled to herself all day, except when she had her “little visitations from the Virgin Mary,” when she retreated into her room for hours or days.
2.) Miss Carol Castillo Martinez was Julia’s oldest daughter, an obese lady with a shrill voice that could scare the feathers off a hen. Her quick brown hands flashed as she chopped shrimp or vegetables. She talked so fast that she was like a tornado. Not only did she do all the cooking, but she’d set up a medical clinic in the back kitchen where she sold a medicine called Mami Martinez’s Linseed-Gooseberry Cure-All Oil.
3.) Winter Martinez, Miss Carol’s oldest daughter, had a geeky, crooked-toothed smile and loved to talk. She had recently returned from Massachusetts in a mud-splattered pickup truck—she’d entered Harvard’s medical school, but flunked out because the dean made a computer error.
4.) Autumn Martinez was brainless as a fruit-fly. She did almost nothing but whine and fuss in front of the mirror.
5.) Summer Martinez, twenty years old, was a spunky tomboy who had built a fifty-foot beer-bottle tower in the backyard. Miss Carol yelled that Summer’s tower kept customers far away. Summer loved to play darts and ride dirt-bikes.
6.) Spring Martinez was eighteen and schizophrenic, coat-hanger thin and dull-eyed. She practically lived in the psych ward.
Here’s what the Love’s Ends Café looked like:
Long ago, it had been a refined place, a nightspot with festooned lights and elegant couples dancing to the music of live salsa bands and sipping margaritas. Now, the place crumbled to bits. Dirt clung to every surface. It had greasy windowpanes, icky flypaper, ketchup stains and hairballs stuck to the counter. Cheesy fake flowers in Coke bottles were decorations. Hot, fetid air seethed in my lungs, mixing with the icky smells of Miss Carol’s cooking.
The upstairs rooms, where the family lived, had peeling wallpaper and packing-crates. They were cramped and stuffy as hell. Billie was fascinated with the claw-foot bathtub and the toilet’s pull-chain, which he yanked all day. The back kitchen was our living room, where we played Monopoly and had philosophical discussions. On June days, we lazed in the back kitchen and babbled nonsense and sucked ice cubes, waiting for customers who never came.
Miss Carol had this cross-stitch poem hanging over the sink:
Take away the sunshine,
Take away the moon,
But don’t take away
My crab Rangoon.
Call me a fool,
An idiot buffoon,
But don’t take away
My crab Rangoon.
I could eat it all day with a fork and a spoon—
Don’t take away my crab Rangoon.
When I am dead,
I shall rot away soon—
Place over my grave
A crab Rangoon.
She loved that poem more than anything and sang it while washing dishes or frying tortillas. Though the family was Cuban and never served crab Rangoon, that poem said everything about life here.
We had an ugly oversized cuckoo clock that screeched whenever the door opened. Summer had found it on her trash-picking adventures. Miss Carol howled about how it kept business miles away, but they could never get rid of it.
On my second day here, Miss Julia showed me the Thinking Room. That’s where she stored musty family photos, diaries, letters, and things she’d collected over the years. While I explored, Miss Julia told me her family story. Her voice was soft and warm as a patchwork quilt, as comforting as chicken soup when you’re sick.
“Me pequeno pollo, we escaped Cuba under the searchlights of Castro in 1963. Aye! I remember it like yesterday. I and my husband, Juan, our grown daughter Carol, and her husband Louis Martinez. Carol was seven months pregnant with Winter.”
“Why are all four sisters named after the seasons?” I asked.
Miss Julia chuckled toothlessly. “Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn were the first English words Carol learned. She practiced them over and over throughout our boat ride. Our boat was just a lot of flimsy packing-crates nailed together. When sea-storms swamped us, we bailed water out like crazy until our arms were numb and we were half-dead with cold and exhaustion. Do you know what my husband said then?
‘Hell or highwater will not stop us now. Better to sink beneath the cruel and icy waves than be shipped back into a communist death—ripped to pieces by those bloodthirsty dogs who call themselves leaders!’ You see, we could not criticize Castro in Cuba, even in our own homes. We said, ‘Wherever five people gather, one is a spy.’ My husband had been arrested before, and he was a wanted man. A subversivo.
“When Castro’s patroller boat found us, the worst thing ever happened. We were shipped back into the jaws of a communist death. It was the Virgin Mary herself who brought freedom and consolation and delivered us. Those prison doors opened all by themselves. We walked outside, found our boat, and made it safely to Miami. Thank the blessed Lord!”
“Thank the blessed Lord,” I said. I mopped my brow.
Miss Julia told me tons of family stories and showed me her treasures. She had a crusted tortilla shell ten years old in which she claimed she’d seen the Virgin Mary’s face. There were two things in the Thinking Room which I couldn’t fathom. One was an oversized, locked chest freezer. The other was a little silver pistol, stuck between a jazz record and a Time magazine.
This Love’s Ends Café had more secrets than I’d bargained for, and I was only beginning to discover them…
“Fool!” Miss Carol shrieked at Billie, swatting him with her greasy spatula. “What do you want me to do with this little boy? He won’t work around the restaurant. He won’t sample my cooking. He won’t try my medicines. Kid won’t do anything but gape at me like a toad. Fool! What do you want me to do with him? Fry him and serve him to customers? I could try surgery on him!”
“Don’t get rough on Billie,” I said. “What the heck, he’s only five years old!”
“You go out, fool! Both of you—you are not welcome here. You bums, you vagrants, you scum!”
I narrowed my eyes at Miss Carol. “Don’t call Billie Moon an idiot. Didn’t I tell you that Momma homeschooled us? He’s the smartest kid on earth.”
“Really?” she chuckled. “Who is this Momma, a cuckoo-crazy fundamentalist?”
“Momma’s fine. We have lots more fun being homeschooled than any other kids—we sew our own clothes, bake our own bread, and read books by ancient Roman generals. We take field trips to every country there is. Momma made us a hot air balloon and we traveled to Antarctica. Once I sailed the Gulf of Mexico until a shark nearly ate my bones. Once Momma stranded us a Pacific island and we had to survive on coconuts for six weeks.”
Miss Carol snorted as she popped snuff into her mouth, chewing it in her blackened teeth. She brandished a rolling-pin and hissed, “Liar!”
Lies were my way of life at the Love’s Ends Café. They were the bread and water I lived upon.
Sure enough, Miss Carol’s hatred was one thorn in my flesh, and I knew she’d kick us out on the street before long. We’d be on the run; Lillian would catch up to us and murder us. Suddenly, a black and twisted urge rose like bile inside me. Snatching a butcher knife from the drawer, I flung it with all my might into the wall, where it hung shivering. Miss Carol said, “Try that again, Miss Smart Aleck, and I’ll call the police. Leave my knives alone!”
Laying my head on the counter, I bawled and wept like Billie. “Help me, help me, help me! I’m running out of love and nobody ever loved me and nobody will ever love me.”
Miss Carol bent over me tenderly, holding out a bottle of Mama Martinez’s Cure-All Oil. “There, there, take this tonic, and you’ll feel fine. I’m going to perform surgery on your little cousin’s tonsils, so it’s best if you leave now.”
Surgery! I started up, horrified. Did the woman seriously plan to remove Billie’s tonsils in the back kitchen of the Love’s Ends Café? I grabbed Billie and we fled the room. Miss Carol laughed behind us, saying, “Freedom! The kids are gone!”
That night, I could not sleep for the life of me. Finally, I gave up, deciding to explore. I tiptoed downstairs into the Thinking Room with my Girl Scout flashlight in hand. Time to find out what that chest freezer contained. And what is that gun doing on the floor?
With the dangerous life I led, I might well need to swipe that pistol.
In the Thinking Room, I slammed into Winter. She sat on a trunk, staring into the darkness with the saddest face I’d ever seen.
“Sorry…please, I am very sorry!” I stammered. Sweat stood out on my forehead.
“Please stay here, April. I want to tell you about our family,” she said, in a kindly voice.
“Miss Julia told me how your people escaped Cuba,” I said, plopping down beside her.
Winter groaned. “She didn’t tell the whole story. That lady’s crazy as a cuckoo-clock. She’ll say, ‘Did you read the papers? Hear that Napoleon got defeated at Waterloo?’ She wanders at night and God knows where she walks around.”
“Please go on,” I said.
“Well, the real reason we fled Cuba was our great-grandfather, a Red Guard and psychopath axe killer named Marco Castillo. He had sworn vengeance on family, because Miss Julia’s husband was subversivo. Well, when we arrived in America, we vowed to forgot all that. Our family curse was broken. Or so we thought.
“My mother, Miss Carol, got married and divorced to my father, Louis Martinez, six or seven times. He was a seedy nightclub owner from Havana who turned the Love’s Ends Café into a flea-infested place. After our grandfather dropped dead in 1980, my mother bragged, ‘If it wasn’t for me, this restaurant would crumble to bits!’ But my childhood was full of terrible things that I couldn’t explain or describe.”
“My mother and father fought like tigers and broke porcelain while my sisters and I huddled under the bed. Sometimes our father whipped us all with a belt-strap just to teach us a lesson. Did I tell you that we had a little brother, also? His name was Ramone and he looked a bit like that Billie child—had an oversized head and small ears. I loved him so much.
“When I was a child, I loved no one more than Ramone. Had black curly hair and light-filled eyes—real Cuban eyes, Miss Julia always said. He looked real cute riding on his Fire Chief, and he always went barefoot. As he got older, Ramone skipped school and ran with college-age kids, breaking into buildings and hopping trains. Why, Lord, why didn’t I stop him? It was his fifteenth birthday when my world ended. His gang got into a quarrel with opposing punks. Gunshots fired, and my brother staggered home all bloody. He…he…he died in my arms before the ambulance could arrive. Some days… I still can’t believe it.”
She burst into sobs and I was paralyzed. Winter’s little brother had died and she couldn’t protect him. That’s a bad omen. Means Billie will die, and I can’t protect him.
“Listen,” I said hastily, “you don’t have to kick me out of the Love’s Ends Café. Billie and I will go home to Momma and Poppa soon.”
Winter gazed at me, so direct that I squirmed. “By the way, April, what’s wrong with your knees? They’re all scabbed and scarred over,” she said worriedly.
I looked at my bare, skinny knees. Flashbacks leaped at me. Lillian used to make me kneel on crushed whiskey-bottles, which cut me so badly that I stayed home from school.
“My knees? Nothing’s wrong with them. I ride dirt-bikes and crash a lot,” I said. Shrug.
“Mm-hmm? Really?” Winter didn’t believe a word I uttered.
We sat together in the Thinking Room, staring into the dark. We each thought of our own private troubles, though we didn’t speak them aloud. Winter and I have more in common than we realize. Who could ever guess it was so?
Weeks hurried on like a speeding pickup truck. Our days were long and hot and lazy. Customers trickled into the café’ after midnight—that’s when all the freaks and loners gravitated toward us. Observing them was great fun.
There were railroad workers, truckers, nurses in bloodstained scrubs, stoned teenagers, paranoid bipolar people, veterans, fundamentalists, Mormons, hunchbacks, and cripples. Something about a café attracts life’s losers like a magnet. They weren’t just Miss Julia, Miss Carol, Winter, Autumn, Summer, and Spring.
The Old German Lady, Frau Schultz, always ordered a huge Salisbury steak and then just sat alone and cried. There was a man we called the Drunken Idiot, who told fantastic stories when he’d downed a few glasses of gin.
Those nights, I hunkered in the back kitchen and wrote about the customers in my Sketchbook. That summer, I filled up every page with poems and stories. Whenever Miss Carol tried to snatch and read my Sketchbook, I’d throw butcher-knives into the wall.
“No one sees my Sketchbook and lives!” I said.
We all played Monopoly and chess and had wonderful philosophical discussions about nothing.
“My, my, my, doesn’t the world feel round today?” Miss Carol said.
“The world isn’t round! The word is flat as a hockey-table,” Autumn said.
“Queer things are happening these days,” Winter said. “Such very strange and queer and awfully strange things happen these days!”
“Such as what?” I asked.
“Do you ever feel this dreadful apartness from everyone and everything? You feel like moldy cottage cheese which no one will throw away because it’s too disgusting. Your soul is shriveled and weary and friendless. You would give anything for excitement and adventure.”
“Oh, yes! I often feel that way!” I said.
Billie crowed, “EEEE-AYYYEEE! A-EEE, A-EEE, A-EEE!”
Autumn glared at Summer. She said, “You are a lunatic and crazy and bananas and bonkers and bipped and crazy, crazy, crazy!”
“Mama! Summer called me a bad name!” Autumn wailed.
“Don’t call names, children,” Miss Carol scolded.
“Tengamos paz, por favor,” said Miss Julia. “Let’s have peace, please!”
Those days, you could find Miss Julia in her Thinking Room saying Hail Marys while Miss Carol fried disasters and scolded, Winter moped around and looked sad, Autumn read Hollywood gossip and complained, Summer lugged wagons of old beer-cans, Billie played toy trucks, and I scratched mosquito bites and wrote in my Sketchbook.
One day I discovered some old paint-cans and painted the steps a sickly guacamole green. Miss Carol hit me six times with a rolling-pin. “Shame on you! Fool! Between your painting and Summer’s Tower of Babel, we’ll keep customers miles away!”
That day, Billie caught a ladybug in a glass jelly-jar. He had been sucking fruit bars and his tongue was bright blue. The ladybug wandered around, bewildered. He sang sweetly, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children will burn.”
Disaster has many faces. Often, it’s sudden and breathtaking. Like the Challenger shuttle blowing up in space, or the Chernobyl power plant leaking nuclear poison. I read about them in the newspaper while searching for articles called “Florida Girl and Boy Disappear.” I found none. Life with Lillian had been a slow, draining disaster—but a disaster, nonetheless.
Then came June 21st at the Love’s Ends Café—a day which changed everything.
Crazily, it started out like an ordinary day. I slept until 10 AM and stumbled into the kitchen to find Miss Carol up to her elbows in hot grease, frying pasteles. The whole world reeked of greasy donuts. Heart attack on a plate was what Winter called them. She wore a tipsy sombrero and billowing tent dress, and the cassette player sang “La Cucaracha.”
“Today is the anniversary of our family’s escape from Cuba,” Miss Carol explained. “It’s a celebration!”
“Today’s a celebration for another reason,” Summer said. “Today, Spring is coming home from the psych ward. I baked her a cake that says WELCOME HOME, SPRING!”
I had never met Spring before. What does a schizophrenic person look and act like?
They all chatted away eagerly. “Remember when we piled into a Chevy and drove across America to the Woodstock concert?” “Remember when Autumn ran away from home?” “Remember Easter 1973?” “Remember how Spring’s first day of kindergarten?” “Remember Winter’s tenth birthday party?”
Miss Julia said, “I remember when Miss Carol dyed her hair blue. Thought she was getting rid of her gray roots and accidently used housecleaning solution. One minute she was a black-haired Cuban lady, and the next she was a space creature.”
Miss Carol shook her spatula in her daughters’ faces, saying, “You girls must find husbands or scram. Remember, I got married at sixteen—your grandmother married at fourteen! We will have no more old maids at the Love’s Ends Café!”
“Nobody wants to marry me,” sulked Autumn, spritzing hair-spray around her feathered locks.
“I wonder why,” Winter said, sarcastically.
Later, when Billie went outside to play, I played Pacman and read the funny-papers. Autumn told me a joke about a man who drank too much laxative, and we laughed like maniacs. Then Summer went out junk-collecting on her dirt-bike, and I tagged along. She swerved around corners too fast and nearly threw me off the pedals. We got chased by a German Shepherd and splattered with mud. I carried the beer-cans, which smelled like death and swarmed with flies.
“Why do you collect beer cans? Your Tower of Babel really is hideous,” I said. “It’s like a symbol of a dysfunctional family.”
Summer huffed. “You don’t know true beauty and fine architecture, girlfriend!”
When we returned to the Love’s Ends Café, Spring was back home. Sobbing her brains out and tearing her hair.
I gaped at her, unashamed. “Gosh,” I said. “You are one gnarly schizo!”
Spring jumped like an angry cat with vengeance in her eyes.
“Gosh, don’t have a psychotic fit,” I said. “Do you hear voices, or are you just the paranoid type?”
“The voices are real,” Spring said. She sounded like she was shouting down a manhole. Like I wasn’t in the room. “The voices are real!”
“What do they say? Do you ever see little green men walking around?”
“The voices are real!” Spring shrieked. “The voices are blue and green and gold—they are cylinders and triangles and love and hatred. They’re coming at me—save me! Save me!”
She flung herself on the floor and tore the buttons on her blouse open. “You’re one of them,” she accused. “They’re always gaping at me. They gape at me but they won’t come near. See that mirror over there? One half of me is a repeating decimal of sadness. I’m standing outside myself looking at myself. The repeating decimal is trying to kill me. See these scars on my wrists? You know where they came from?”
“Calm down, psycho,” I cried, exasperated.
Miss Carol stalked into the room with Spring’s “medicine,” which I was sure they hadn’t prescribed at the hospital.
She told me, “Leave Spring alone. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers. Here now, Spring, stop that fearful howling and take your medicine like a good girl!”
Spring did not want to take her medicine. She kicked and howled some more. When Miss Carol finally forced the pill down her, she stood and got a dull look. Drugged or not, she seemed safe now—or so I thought.
“You can talk to me,” I said, hoping to sound friendly.
“Please talk to me—I’ll be a friend to you. Maybe I’m the only friend you have in this nuthouse. My name is April Martinez, and I’m staying at the Love’s Ends Café for a while.”
Still no answer.
“Alright, if you want to give me the silent treatment, fine!” I started to stomp out. Then Spring noticed me and began to speak.
“I’ve had such terrible dreams,” she said. “They keep getting worse.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. I’d had countless nightmares about the accident which killed my parents.
“The dreams are so foggy and vague—but strangely sharp, also. I dream that I’m locked in the Love’s Ends Café. It’s not just locked, but barred and shuttered and dead-bolted. I can’t escape and I’m terrified, so terrified! I bang at the doors and windows, shouting for people to rescue me. The never see me…they never rescue me.”
Then an idea jumped at me. Lillian used to have books by Sigmund Freud which I read when she wasn’t watching, and I learned all about the head and what makes people crazy. I learned about symbols in dreams. Hey! Maybe I could do psychoanalysis on Spring!
“Lie down on this here couch,” I said. When she did, I plopped into a chair and glanced at her sideways like TV therapists do, twiddling my thumbs.
“Tell me anything you want,” I said. “Whatever pops into your mind.”
That was a grave mistake.
Spring was on a rampage. She smashed all the cups and plates, ripped up the carpets, and flew around flipping booths. She tore apart rolls of paper towels and stuffed them in her mouth. Nothing I could say would stop her—I felt like I’d released a man-eating tiger from the zoo. Spring lunged for the door with a savage cry. “No!” I shouted.
Summer, Winter, Autumn and Miss Carol burst down from upstairs. “What’s going on? What’s going on?” they cried.
“Spring is destroying the Love’s Ends Café!” I cried.
Winter face-palmed. “That’s not the worst of our troubles. Miss Julia and Billie have gone missing. They have vanished into thin air.”
A cold wave passed over me.
Spring thankfully discovered the cake which said WELCOME HOME, SPRING! She greedily began to devour it, distracted from her destruction.
“Have you called the police?” I asked weakly.
Winter paced worriedly. “I can’t fathom how Miss Julia and Billie disappeared—Christmasville is a very small town, with few places to check. Where could they have gone?”
The phone rang again, and we all jumped like we had springs in our underwear. “I’ll get it,” I cried.
When I heard the voice on the telephone, I screamed. I yanked the cord as hard as possible. Lillian!
“Young lady, your gander is cooked. I know where you are, and I’m coming to fetch you home.”
I slammed the phone and broke into a cold sweat.
“Who was it? The police?” Miss Carol demanded.
“It was…it was nobody,” I lied.
Summer said, “Alright, then. I’m going to search the country roads. Autumn’s coming, too.” The door slammed.
Billie Moon! Why wasn’t I protecting him? Why, Lord? He’s all I have in the world! What if…what if he’s dead, like little Ramone Martinez?
My hiccups started and I plopped into a chair. “Breathe into a paper bag,” Miss Carol told me. I ignored her and hiccupped and prayed, faster and faster, while the tension in the room stretched like a poised slingshot.
“Someone’s at the door, Mama!” Winter cried.
“I’ll open it!” I cried. “Probably, it’s the cops.”
I opened the door, and there stood Miss Julia and Billie. They looked like they’d been in a slobber-knocker. Miss Julia’s hair flew free from its bun; she had a black eye and a fat lip. Billie sobbed into her dress.
“Terrible! ¡Nunca puede suceder!” cried Miss Julia. Then my breath left my body in a slow whoosh.
Lillian lunged into the doorway, pushing them both inside.
My peaceful weeks at the Love’s Ends Café were gone, and my gander was cooked. Billie’s gander was cooked, also.
“Please come in, Lillian…please make yourself welcome,” I said, trying not to hyperventilate.
Same old Lillian, only uglier and meaner than ever. She teetered as she walked; her breath reeked of whiskey. I saw the little silver gun in her pocket, like the gun in the Thinking Room. Don’t come near me! Stay away!
“So this is where Little Miss Runaway has been hiding,” said Lillian. “Living with strangers in a trashy restaurant. I’ll be damned, this was the last place on earth I thought you’d go. The cops and I have searched for weeks. We nearly gave you up for dead. Which doesn’t matter, because soon you will be dead. You are a sneaking piece of filth…”
Lillian bumped into the cuckoo clock. It crashed to the floor, prompting Miss Carol and Winter to cry, “What on earth just happened?”
“I’ve had enough of you and I hate you more than words can say!” My voice shook. The way she looked at me, it was like Hell. Like every bad dream I’d ever had. Tears threatened to spill, but I held them back.
That’s when Lillian pushed up to the register, pulled out her gun, and said, “I am Lillian Baily, this girl’s grandmother. You people give me all your money. The cops are on lookout, and I don’t want a hostage situation on my hands. Give up nice and quiet and live.”
Winter turned death-white and turned to the telephone. Miss Carol snatched a frying pan and butcher-knife. Spring buried her head and shrieked. Miss Julia and Billie were like plaster statues.
And me? I ate the Rotten Tortilla of Guilt. These nice ladies at the Love’s Ends Café would die and it would be entirely my fault. Skip Baily, you fool. You ruin everything!
There was only one thing left to do, and I did it.
Stepping in front of Lillian’s little silver gun, I said, “Take a chill pill, Lillian, old girl. Shoot me and let them go free.”
She snarled, considering this. “I don’t want to kill you any more than you want to die—but I have to. I have to—”
The old coot broke down into drunken sobs, horrible to hear. Then her personality changed. “Alright, sniveling fool! Now it’s time to burn this place to the ground. You people have ten seconds to escape, and hand over the money!”
What happened next is a confused blur. Furniture crashed and slammed around me; shrieks rang out. I was down on my knees. Smoke filled my senses like Lillian’s laughter and blotted out every trace of light. Blackness. Nothingness. The Love’s Ends Café is burning and Devil, here I come. We’ll all be burnt to a crisp!
The next thing I remember is lying under stiff hospital sheets and glaring lights with severe burns on my arms, unable to move or think. I turned my head painfully. Winter and Miss Carol stood beside me, watching me.
“What just happened?” I squeaked.
But nobody would tell me anything.
They took me home to the Love’s Ends Café in a few days, but I scarcely remembered it. They tell me that I was out of my head for days, raving and howling like Spring. I cried, “Billie, Billie, Billie! Billie, Billie, Billie!” and thought that Lillian was there, pointing a gun in my face. Miss Carol tried all her cures on me, to no avail. Sometimes I saw Billie’s face over me, small and owlish and worried. When I finally got to my senses, they had to tell me the rotten news.
“Where’s Billie?” I demanded. My hands clutched the sheets spastically. “Don’t tell me the kid is…”
“Skip!” cried Billie, burying his face in my neck. He hugged me like he’d drown.
“Where did Miss Julia go?” I asked. I saw the women’s grief-stricken faces, and a horrible sick feeling came over me.
“She didn’t make it,” said Mis Carol.
“There was a fire at the Love’s Ends Café. Good Lord, it was Lillian, wasn’t it? She tried to burn us all to bits. The murdering hag! The filthy, lowdown sneak! The rat!” Frantically, I muttered every cuss word I knew and several I’d made up.
Winter put her comforting arms around my shaky shoulders. “Miss Julia died trying to rescue Billie from the flames,” she said. “She saved your little cousin’s life.”
My mind whirled as I tried to picture Miss Julia’s shriveled walnut face. How long had I known her? Twenty-five days. Three-and-half-weeks. How could it be that this Cuban lady who was a perfect stranger had saved Billie’s life?
Winter and Miss Carol sobbed into each other’s shoulders, Autumn began to sniff, and Summer reached blindly for an empty box of Kleenex. Only Spring stood stiff and numb in her drugged haze. What should I say? What should I do?
Lillian had broken into the Love’s Ends Café like a hurricane.
She had robbed every penny from the register, carved terrible words on the walls, smashed every window, and set the place afire.
When everyone had else escaped, Miss Julia returned to fetch Billie and burned to a crisp.
Now, the blackened walls of the restaurant remained. The Love’s Ends Café had survived, but we couldn’t reopen for many months. At least Lillian, that old coot, was rotting in jail and she’d never get free.
Life was so sad and pathetic around that dog-blasted restaurant that I couldn’t stand myself.
The ladies went around silent and subdued in their black dresses, sniffling and weeping. Summer hung black balloons from her Tower of Babel, and Miss Carol draped the booths in black cloth. Everything reminded us of Miss Julia: her knitting-basket, her beads, her cross-stitch of the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish in the kitchen. It seemed impossible that she was just gone. We were too exhausted and benumbed to talk much.
My illusion of safety and home had fallen down the Sewer of Reality.
Here’s why: After the ladies got over their grief, Billie and I would leave this place. We couldn’t go back to Lillian, with her in prison—we’d be torn apart and go to foster homes. The thought depressed me so badly that I wanted to puke.
On the eighth day, I got out of bed and decided to run away. Just Billie and I. We’d thank Winter and Miss Carol for their kindness, and then we’d thumb rides to Antarctica.
“Where are we going? Don’t make me leave!” Billie cried.
“Antarctica,” I muttered.
I stuffed my dirty underwear from the floor into my shopping-bag of clothes. With Miss Julia’s death, I’d fallen into slovenly habits. My room looked like a pigsty. Well, it was all over now. Determined, I stuck my Sketchbook on top like a foolish hat.
Taking Billie’s reluctant hand, I went downstairs into the blackened kitchen where the ladies stayed as usual.
“Please don’t send Billie away,” I told them. “You can send me to Alcatraz, but please, not Billie! Not Billie!”
Seeing Winter’s troubled face, I took in a big gulp of air. Tried not to sob.
“You know I’m not your relative.” My words tumbled like falling blocks. “My name isn’t April Martinez—it’s Skip. Skip Baily.”
“Well, duh. We always knew the truth,” said Winter.
“You did? How much did you know?” I gaped.
She stepped toward me and wrapped her arms around me; I was cocooned in her embrace.
“Dear heart, your mother grew up in Christmasville. She was my babysitter, you see. Her name was Diane…Diane Watson Baily. You look exactly like her—I knew that you were her kid from the moment you showed up. Or else, we would’ve kicked you out long ago.”
I got up to examine myself in the mirror. My hair was feathery thin, blond, sticking out in all directions. I had a stubborn cowlick. My chin was nicely shaped, but my teeth were crooked and my nose too long and thin. Am I really the spitting image of my mother?
Winter was lost in La La Land. “Even though she was fifteen years older than me, she was like my older sister. A swell friend. She talked to me like I was an adult. We went all kinds of places together—the beach and the amusement park and the zoo. We played chess and Monopoly and backgammon together. When your mother married your father, I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. She faithfully sent me letters, and I kept them all.”
“My mother…knew you?” I squealed, incredulous. The brakes of my befuddled. brain skidded to a stop.
“Sure, I knew her. When you mother’s letters stopped coming when I was fourteen, we contacted the police. They said that Diane Baily had died in a car accident, and that was all. No other details. Though I knew she had a little girl named Skip, I never knew what happened to you…never knew, for all these years.”
Your mother grew up in Christmasville. She was my babysitter.
My thoughts of Momma lately had gotten so dreamlike that I feared they would slip away altogether, like the last bite of cookie. I had to know everything about her: What was her favorite color? How did she wear her hair? Did she sleep in lace nightgowns? What on earth did she think of me? I had a zillion questions, but Winter asked me, “Can you tell your life story? Please?”
So I told all I knew about myself. From the time Momma and Poppa died, until now. All the shameful, juvenile-delinquent things I did. Skipping school and shoplifting and being a liar and runaway. How I hated balloon animals and Chevrolets and ditches and birthdays, and I hated Lillian, but I mostly hated my own trouble-spewing self.
“Now you can send me to a foster home or a home for juvenile delinquent girls or whatever. Face it— I know that I can never live at the Love’s Ends Café.” I stood.
Miss Carol said, “The girl’s crazy. To talk of leaving when she had been here nearly a month—well, she always was bound and determined to stay. Whether we liked it or not.”
Spring threw her arms around me and kissed me. “She said she’d be my friend and try to help talk through my troubles,” she said.
“You ain’t going nowhere, girlfriend,” said Summer, sassily.
Autumn rolled her eyes. “Why anyone would want to live here is beyond me. Well, I guess you’re stuck in this nuthouse.”
“Skip Baily can stay with us all her life, if she wants!”
“Please, don’t run away from here!”
Was it really happening? All these crazy women. All this love. They were standing up for me. Letting me stay here. I had a home.
“Gosh, you people really are loonies,” I said, my voice ragged. I sank woozily into Miss Julia’s rocking chair.
Bangs and crashes rang from the door. I jumped in a cold sweat. Lillian has returned! Autumn got a curious expression on her face and opened the door. A string bean of a dude with a pierced nose and mullet walked casually in.
“Who the blazes is he?” shouted Miss Carol.
Autumn smiled possessively at the dude and linked her arm in his. “Welcome, the newest member of our family. Rutherford Granger and I are engaged!”
“Engaged!” A collective gasp went up. We had no idea that Autumn even had a boyfriend. She always whined about wanting to join the nuns.
“Show us the ring!” demanded Summer.
Grinning sheepishly, Rutherford showed us the ring, but he was too embarrassed to speak. Every time he and Autumn exchanged looks, her face lit up like fireworks. She was so sweet and giddy, a totally different person.
“That looks like a Star Wars ring from a cereal box,” I said.
“What matters is the love in our hearts, babe,” Rutherford said.
“So what profession is he, a disc jockey?” Winter asked.
“He is opening a truck stop on Higgins Road and I get to be a truck stop waitress,” Autumn crowed. You’d think she was Queen of the World
“Also, I am a disc jockey on weekends,” he told me. “What is your favorite music?”
“Tears for Fears all the time,” I said, and crossed my fingers.
Then Rutherford told a joke about Alf the Alien working at a truck stop that sent us into hysterics. I told him that he should go TV. He told me that my life story beat anything on television.
“Autumn has told me so much about you freaks…I mean, you people,” he said.
“If only Grandma were here,” Autumn muttered. “She would’ve loved to plan our wedding. Why, why, why did we have to wait until it was too late?”
We swarmed around Autumn and Rutherford like bees around a crushed beer can. That was a very wild evening around the Love’s Ends Café. Summer defied all expectations with her cake that read in icing WOW, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE ENGAGED! Our party went on and on, with only minor mishaps. Spring only had three little psychotic fits. Billie pigged so much cake that he threw up and I had to tend him half the night. We laughed so much at Rutherford that we nearly suffocated.
Afterwards, when I stumbled downstairs into the kitchen, I nearly fainted with surprise.
The ladies at the Love’s Ends Café had made me a three-decker chocolate-strawberry cake that read WELCOME HOME, SKIP! Besides that was a pink ruffled gift bag, in which I found a locket and a sketchbook.
Winter told me, “That locket belonged to your mother. She gave it to me for my seventh birthday.”
“It’s lovely. Must be so expensive,” I said, fingering the thing. Its silver clasp showed two hands and it read Home is with my friend.
“Actually, she got it from a vending machine. But I love it, anyhow. Miss Julia got you the sketchbook. ‘With love to my pequeno pollo, my little chicken,’ she said.”
The Love’s Ends Café, with its loonies and its Pacman arcade and its checkered tablecloths and fake flowers in Coke bottles, is my forever home. Here I have more mothers than any girl on earth. They are the cuckoo clocks always over my head.