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The Memory Café: A Mystery Short Story

IN THE August 2 ISSUE

FROM THE 2014 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Barry H. Wiley

The Memory Cafe first appeared in Potpourri Magazine.

We had eight in our party and, like those at the other three tables we didn’t come just to eat. We came for her, for Jane. Not for Chef, Angelo Meoni, whose menu was uninspired and whose specialty was dense tomato sauce.

Meoni had opened the café a few weeks earlier on a narrow one-way street in Boston’s North End. Its clean white plaster walls, wooden chairs and tables, and polished planked oak floor were expectant, but undistinguished, its only decoration small black-wire baskets of flowers hanging above each table. Just another Italian restaurant in a neighborhood whose air was already flavored with garlic and oregano. But within a few days people had begun to fill the five small tables night after night. They all came for Jane. Cafe

As a sales manager for a manufacturer of computer memory chips I had been told of Jane and of Meoni’s café by business friends who knew I would be deeply intrigued by her capabilities. The first time I visited the café alone, to judge the quality of the food and the ambiance. But I had, like others, already returned twice because of Jane.

Jane was ordinary–not ugly, only symmetrically uninteresting. Her untied dark hair hung limply almost to her shoulders. She acted tall, but was only just above average in height. She wore her narrow body awkwardly, as though uncertain as to where each leg would go next. When Jane walked between the tables without her tray, her arms flailed the air without rhythm, suspended weights apparently acted on only by gravity and air resistance.

She approached our two tables pushed together, the elbow of one arm ricocheting off her hip, the other arm hanging at her side weighted by the tray held loosely in her fingers. Jane always wore a freshly starched white peasant blouse and a plain blue skirt with large pockets. Her only jewelry was a single strand of small pearls about her neck. For all her personal awkwardness, she always followed the same precise pattern around the tables and back to the kitchen in the rear regardless of where people were sitting.

She stopped next to my chair, glanced at our faces, up to the plaster wall, then back to the faces and finally to me. “Good evening, Signor Wallace,” she said in a quiet voice without music. She manipulated the round black tray with one hand, flipping it casually so that one edge was tucked into her hip, the other caught by her bent wrist, her hand hanging limply. Her smile moved her face, but her eyes, though alert, were withdrawn and guarded, lacking friendship or warmth.

After reciting the evening specials, she took our drink order without notes, listened to our appetizers, then to our dinners each with numerous variations. Then four of my party, important customers from San Jose, flipped through their menus to change their drinks and dinners, while the other three, engineers from my own company, switched their appetizers and entrees. I altered how I wanted my dinner cooked and changed the wine to a 1990 Tignanello instead of an earlier vintage Chianti Classico. Jane only nodded, her eyes moving from one speaker to the next, and back again without effort, and then back yet again to me, never taking notes.salad

“Enough, Signor?” she said, her smile unchanged. “There are others to serve.”

I nodded.

As soon as Jane had disappeared into the kitchen all eight of us swapped chairs. I felt foolish but my visitors wanted to test her memory to the fullest. Other diners had exchanged tables earlier, laughing awkwardly, and had also transformed their orders in innumerable ways with no reaction from Jane – only her fixed smile and her loose-jointed movements. At the last minute one of my engineers reached up and removed a rose from the basket of roses over our table. When the others mocked his petty vandalism, he mumbled: “I thought a souvenir for my wife …” then shrugged, shoved the rose back into the basket and hunched down in his chair. As we laughed, I glanced back toward the kitchen.flowers

A large man with a closely trimmed black beard, Chef Angelo Meoni’s shoulders nearly touched each side of the kitchen doorway as he came out to visit the tables. Pausing at one table, he grinned widely while critiquing his evening’s menu. Thrusting his fist into their midst, he proudly displayed the large left thumb he shoved into each ball of ground beef to create the cavity for his cheeses, spices and tomatoes. He stepped back to let Jane serve the stuffed meatballs – suffocated, as I could see, under a stiff tomato sauce that reduced the Chef’s talents to mere rumor. He greeted us with a friendly wave of his hand as he walked briskly back to his kitchen.

Upon her return to our table and without an instant of hesitation, Jane placed each order correctly before the appropriate person. And my Antinori Tignanello ‘90 was perfect. She paused for a moment, her eyes moving from person to person as they all shook their heads in disbelief. meatballs

“If you want to keep one of the flowers, you must ask Chef Meoni,” she said, gesturing upward toward the basket.

The engineer who had taken the flower looked wide-eyed at me. “Harry, she’s not real! She never even took a breath. She had it all locked in her head – even the positions of the damn roses! How does she do it?”

Jane looked at me indifferently. “Anything more, Signor?”

As amazed as everyone else, I said, “No, thank you.” No matter how complex the situation, her memory’s access time, the time required to process and deliver needed information was scarcely nanoseconds, incredibly faster than anything we could design with silicon and software. Unbelievable!

As she moved away to stop at another table, the seven applauded, then I joined in. Jane never missed, never took notes, never forgot, and never acknowledged the applause.

Though Chef Meoni had composed and installed an elaborate Italian Ristorante name on a gold-and-green sign hanging outside, those who came called the place The Memory Café. They came for Jane, not his unbending tomato sauces. They came to see her miss.

Serious money began to move, betting she couldn’t keep everything straight. I was told that one party of 18 took all five of the tables one night, spent nearly an hour changing their orders and tables again and again, but she didn’t miss a thing. The men changed suit coats, women changed scarves, jackets. One woman went into the ladies room, returning in a different dress and wearing a wig. Jane didn’t miss. Over $2,000 changed hands that night; one of the losers told me later.

With the press of business, Chef Meoni naturally began to consider expansion. It was a complicated decision for a restaurant business based on one waitress’s memory. But to turn away customers each night pained Meoni deeply. The issue, as I understood, wasn’t rent or investment in kitchen space, but how many tables would fit inside Jane’s head and how quickly could she serve them. Meoni had recognized that his prosperity was not because of his unique sauces, but what would happen to him if she missed – in a neighborhood flowing with garlic and oregano?

I don’t know what conversations Meoni had with Jane, but there were seven tables the next time I visited the Memory Café along with a new plaster wall and an expanded menu. But still only Jane, no one would accept being served by anyone else.

And the bets were increasing. One group staged a mock Mafia hit with machine guns firing blanks. Frightened, Jane had dropped her tray, spilling dinners on the floor and over her white blouse, as she, like everyone else, dove for cover. The enraged Chef called a contact in the North End. It never happened again, nor, I was told, were the mock attackers seen again. After she cleaned up, Jane delivered each of the dinners without hesitation or mistake.

I came in early one night not so much to eat as to watch once more her swift fathomless mind in action. I noticed that Meoni’s renovations had not altered the uneven light from two large white globes suspended by brass chains from the ceiling.

I waited as Jane hung new baskets of fresh flowers over each table and filled each of the seven cheap glass vases with single blooms of daisies or roses. The tables were too small for bouquets. I watched her follow the same pattern around the empty tables and back to the kitchen again and again as she brought out more flowers. Reaching the front of the restaurant, she always pivoted on a large knot in the floor planking, always on her left foot, always keeping her eyes averted and her back to the window and the traffic outside as she moved along her invisible track.flowers

I wondered what kind of a world Jane lived in each day in which nothing, pain or joy, could ever fade away, even to the position of a single rose among dozens.

What would happen to the restaurant, but more to Jane, if she missed? To never miss is a phenomenon, but to miss only once is not.

She understood, of course, the wagering and the increasingly elaborate efforts to trip her, but seemed unaffected by it. Moving her awkward loose-jointed way around the empty tables, she changed her face to resemble a smile, nodded as she approached my table. “Signor Wallace, you are early. Are you trying to trip me like the others?” she asked with her characteristic indifference. She still had a few violets in her hand.

I immediately felt bad. I had never wagered on the fragility of her mind. I hoped she didn’t think I ever would. “No, of course not,” I replied. “Just hungry a little early. But may I ask – computer memories are my business – but your memory, you’re amazing. Is there any limit?”

Without the skeptical crowds and their disturbances, Jane was calm, her smile resting a little deeper across her face. She brushed a lock of black hair back from her eyes. They, too, were black. But at my question her eyes reflected immediate retreat. Motionless, she didn’t respond, balancing herself carefully, then after a moment she said softly, “There are limits in my living, not in my mind.” She held the violets to her face, her dark eyes softened briefly. “I love their fragrance. The flowers are so reassuring.” She moved away, resuming her pattern, still holding the violets to her face.

My meal completed and sipping the last of my Chianti, I watched Jane suddenly freeze as she approached a table. Her tray stayed balanced at her fingers, but her face went suddenly pale, her dark eyes widened, the whites beginning to show. Taking small steps, she backed away cautiously. wine

Chef Meoni had appeared at the kitchen door apparently to start one of his evening visits with his customers. Seeing Jane standing motionless, his smile instantly vanished. He moved quickly around the tables to her side. Bending his head to her, she never turned to him, he nodded at her whisper then he asked the people to rise while he shifted the table back to its original position. Once the table was relocated, I suddenly realized that when the people had moved the table to get a better view out the front window they had covered the knot in the floor, blocking Jane from completing her never-varying pattern. Her peace restored, Jane delivered the order, pivoted and returned to the kitchen, color returning to her face as she passed. Meoni remained, joking with the customers, extolling his new sauces. But adding the two additional tables had clearly encroached on the stability of Jane’s pattern.

Within the café, Jane had become a North End icon, yet when I saw her away from the café, dressed all in simple blue, with her awkward step, she went unnoticed in the sidewalk crowds. Bending forward slightly as she walked, Jane held her arms crossed tightly against her chest.

I discovered Jane again late the next day in the same blue dress on the same street walking slowly, expressionless, toward the café. Nothing seemed to interest her, as she only looked straight ahead. I had noticed at other times that she always walked on the same edge of the sidewalk, avoiding the same cracks in the same way, like balancing along a tightrope. She would wait for people to move out of her way before going on, rather than walking around them. Once when encountering some temporary sidewalk repair, Jane paused for several minutes before moving quickly around it, her face taut and pale.

I had grown fond of this gangling young woman with her prodigious mind. Not enough to socialize, but enough to hope that there would be a rational future for her. Cramming even a mind like hers with countless menus and faces couldn’t last forever. When I learned it was her birthday on Wednesday, I resolved to let her know she was appreciated as a fellow human being.

Her favorite color, in fact her only color, was blue, and with her love of violets, I bought enough of them to fill all the baskets on the walls, with a few large ones left over for the table vases. I had sent a birthday card around to be signed by those whom I knew ate regularly at the Memory Café, which we would give her as a surprise when she came back out of the kitchen.

That night the other diners learned what I was planning and, as soon as Jane had disappeared into the kitchen, everyone replaced the flowers in their baskets and vases at their tables with the violets I had brought. I had her card waiting for her return with a few remaining violets on my table.

Hot vapor rose, hovering languidly above the dishes on her tray when Jane returned. She took only a few steps – then stopped, a look of confused horror spreading over her face. Blinking again and again, she looked rapidly around, slowly lowering her tray, squeezing it more tightly, her hands going white in the effort. Color drained from her face, as she looked back at the gently oscillating kitchen door, then into the dining room again. I had risen from my chair and taken a step toward her, her card in my hand, a brief speech almost at my lips. People at the other tables primed to applaud her special day, looked over at me expectantly.oysters

Hesitantly, Jane approached a table to deliver the dishes on her tray. But no one there had ordered what she offered. Jane turned to the next table, but it wasn’t theirs either. She looked around rapidly; she didn’t know where to go. Ashen, she slowly turned toward me with tears of hurt flowing across her cheeks, a growing terror in her eyes. The café had gone silent.

Bewildered by her reaction, I sank back into my chair as she approached. Her face twisted in deep agony, she dropped her tray on my table, brushing the violets aside. “Do you despise me so, Signor Wallace, that you must destroy my only world? Now where can I go? Where?” she sobbed, and then ran awkwardly from the café, one hand over her eyes. Jane had finally missed, but oddly there had been no wagers that night, so no winners.

I ran to the door after her but she wasn’t in sight among the people walking on the street outside. I ran to the nearest corner but she was gone. When I returned, I found Angelo Meoni standing near my table shaking with fury, a large wooden serving spoon gripped in his huge hand. Others were standing behind him pointing at me. He shook the dripping spoon at me. “Mother of God, man! You have scared off my waitress! You leave me to run this place alone! The food is spoiling! Get out! Get out – get away!”

I quickly backed away from his raised spoon and left, utterly baffled. What had I done?

I tried desperately to locate Jane, to try to restore whatever I had destroyed, but no one in the neighborhood had noticed her comings and goings. And how could I describe her most lovely aspect, which was invisible? With other responsibilities pressing in, I finally had to give up my search.

I returned to the café one evening several days later after a long business trip in order to apologize to Jane for whatever I had done, but the door was locked and the gold-and-green Ristorante sign was gone. A dim night light glowed from the back, and pressed up against the window I could just make out my violets, dry and dead, still hanging in the baskets on the wall. All seven tables were pushed against one wall with the chairs piled on them. I could just make out the knot on the oak floor where she had always turned.

A large shadow emerged from the dark kitchen which I recognized as Angelo Meoni when he passed under the night light. I waited uneasily as he turned to close the café door. At first he only glanced back at me, and then stopped, the door half-open behind him. “You! Bastard! You destroyed me and you destroyed Jane!” he shouted. “Bastard!” He shook a huge fist at me.

I backed away. “What did I do?” I demanded. “What did I do?” I shouted back.

He stepped toward me. “You destroyed her with your damn violets. The flowers she placed each night were the anchor for her God-cursed memory. Only Jane knew what they meant. Without that anchor her mind would be crushed under a flood of a million memories. Mother of God! I wish I had never met her. Expanding a business on a memory. My God, I was insane to try it, and to try to help her. Now I am destroyed! Now I owe the wrong people and God only knows where she ran.” He shook his head, his grim face etched by the shadows. “And God help the next man who tries to help her.” Meoni turned back, jerked the door closed, locked it and then with a hard glance at me he strode rapidly into the sidewalk crowds. I glimpsed him suddenly crossing the narrow street, then he was gone.

Empty and confused, I looked back into the dark café. A unique life destroyed – with a few violets? I recalled the vivid strange horror in Jane’s face as she ran from the café. Taking a deep breath, I realized then that not forgetting can be more terrible than not remembering. I turned, swept away slowly into the passing crowd. Now there were two memories wrecked by a few violets.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Barry H. Wiley has published mystery short stories featuring John Randall Brown, his mentalist-detective; and has had four books published, three non-fiction and one novel. His latest book, non-fiction, The Thought Reader Craze, from McFarland Publishing, won the 2013 Christopher Literary Award. The reviews in the UK and US have been very positive, calling Craze the book a skeptic must read before challenging paranormal claims. You can learn more about Barry on his website.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Maria Ruiz
Twitter: @profile
August 3, 2014 at 5:56pm

This is a sad story but so interesting. I almost felt caught up in the game and would go out looking for Jane.
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