J. David Bell published academic prose for fifteen years before returning to his first love, short fiction. His stories appear or are
forthcoming in such periodicals as Third Reader, Word Catalyst, Queen City Review and Gander Press Review. He publishes
creative work under a pen name so his academic colleagues won't know what he's up to. "Mishap" is dedicated to the small,
artsy coffee shop that tried valiantly, but failed, to establish itself in his neighborhood.
Everyone here’s got a story to tell. Or a story to sell. Of course, no one ever does. If they did, they wouldn’t be at Mishap.
At five a.m. I open to catch the early crowd. I sweep the floor, poof the pillows, start a fresh pot of coffee. Fan the magazines:
Poets & Writers, Audubon, Mother Jones. Set cork coasters on end tables. Wintry mornings like this one, I sprinkle a handful of
salt crystals, the biodegradable kind, on the square of pavement outside the front door. The room itself is warm alike in comfort
and color: the walls a pale stucco red, the bookshelves a deep cherry, the throws a mix of psychedelic batik and the crisp
primaries of the Native Southwest. Cozy tables, just room enough to squeeze two or three bodies apiece, pepper the floor; a
raised step by the picture window beckons the armchair-and-divan set. Assorted brass floor lamps with tasseled shades and
pull strings lend the place a golden library-carrel glow evenings, just before I close. By then you can count on three or four
diehards milking the last drops of discourse from their cups. Once in a while the guitar guy’ll swing by for a set, Levon Helm and
Joan Armatrading, that provenance, background mainly, though when the spirit moves you’ll have a sing-along. Scones and
pastries on the counter first thing, rich aromatic coffee brewing all day long. I’m not over-particular about payment; folks can
nibble and refill as they please. I know they’re good for it.
This morning’s no different than most: the chime jingles and in walks Pandolph Rubinstein, stamping his feet and blowing his
hands, making a show of shoving the door shut against the brief wintry blast. He slicks thinning black hair over his crown and
casts a glance about the room. Seeing no one but me, he shucks his black overcoat and drapes it on the brass rack by the
door. Large and potbellied, with fleshy jowls and bulbous nose wobbling beneath unruly eyebrows, he’s dressed as always: gray
three-piece suit, wide red tie, a silver pocket-watch he now holds in his palm, eyeing the dial before snapping it shut and stuffing
it in his vest. Pandolph’s torn between conflicting desires: to stake the first claim, to make a grand entrance to a roomful of
admirers. The result is he’s never content. Mornings like this he’s surly and curt until another body shows, on the rare occasion
someone preempts him he’s downright unpleasant to whoever the poor soul might be. But he recompenses any bruised feelings
when he’s in his glory: surrounded by his coterie, red-faced with caffeine and good cheer, holding forth on his latest opus and
sprinkling lavish tips in his train. He’s been a fixture at Mishap from the start, his quirks and prickliness easy to overlook in such
a steady customer, though we’ve barely exchanged thirty words in as many years. It works best that way. I fill his cups, he my
coffers. Anything more complex would only sour the setup.
Pandolph kicks off his rubbers and leaves them to drip by the front door. He nods to me, strides to the divan and nestles into
its cushions, snapping open the Times. The air thus agitated carries a whiff of a husky, appley aroma, the patina of his morning
pipe. If today follows form he’ll peruse the front page, pausing periodically to withdraw his pocket-watch and purse his lips in a
pout, until the chime sounds again. Then he’ll fold the paper beneath an arm and rise to greet the arrival, unctuous and
imperious as a maître d’. Should the newcomer be one of his literary cohort, Pandolph will steer him to the table closest the
counter (and heaven help the tyro who usurps that throne). Should the straggler be a stranger — it does happen, we’re always
open for more — he’ll scrutinize the yokel clinically, literally looking him up and down while holding him, once again literally, at arm’
s length in his oversized paws. Soon enough the rube is sure either to grin or drop his eyes. That accomplished, Pandolph will
herd him to the head table, buy him a cup, regale him with his latest sketch or diatribe. Few indeed have spent any significant
time at Mishap without entering Pandolph Rubinstein’s amateur Scriblerus Club. For all I know, fewer still would return if not for
dread of his disfavor.
This morning, though, it’s two of his closest compañeros the chime announces: Alfonso Redlove first through the door, Joe
Beloe trailing. That’s the word for Joe, trailing: he doesn’t follow so much as float, a vapor stirred by a draft. A wraith,
crepuscular. His age impossible to guess, ashen face and colorless hair a toss-up between the dull resignation of midlife and the
cruel slash work of impending mortality. Alfonso, by contrast, is a skittish nubbin of a thing, all tics and torsion, with red-
rimmed eyes and a wild curlicue of hair to match. Where Joe drifts soddenly through space, less aging than dissolving, Alfonso
simmers, threatens to boil, snap, explode. Pandolph knows this, of course, and keeps the twain about him for the endless mirth
and material their divergent natures suggest. But they need him as well, if only to defer the inevitable: the moment Pandolph
cuts them loose Joe will simply dissipate, Alfonso combust. Their liege’s overweening indulgence keeps the former just barely
intact, the latter just this side of temperate.
“Gentlemen,” Pandolph greets the two with a flourish. In anyone else you’d call it a bow. “I believe our especial haunts are
unoccupied.” He signals me with a finger and a regal dip of his head as he leads his accomplices to their miniature Round Table. I
set three cups before them and pour. Pandolph rubs his mitts over the steaming brew. “Now, where were we?”
“Chapter Three!” Alfonso shrieks, already too jittery to remark the rhetorical. Pandolph is, naturally, writing a novel, titled
Lusitania, a historical epic set aboard the decks and within the steerage of that ill-fated liner. His dicta concerning Prussian U-
boats and Archduke Franz Ferdinand no one dares challenge; the likeness of his plotline to that of Titanic only one young whip
was foolish enough to spot. At the mention of this apparent coincidence the room had frozen while Pandolph’s beefy face
swelled like a basilisk’s and his beetle-black eyes crisped the youth where he sat. “That accusation, sir, is groundless!” he
grated, and it was some time before his trembling, solicitous bevy could convince him not to carry the slight to the point of
actual fisticuffs. The bumpkin had slunk out into the night, never to return. A double mocha latte, on the house, had restored
Pandolph’s equanimity. Really, it was the least I could do. For all his faults, Pandolph has stood by Mishap through each of his
three failed novels, all abandoned in the early going. The youth, by contrast, had merely popped in one evening on a whim, his
sole literary output a trifling tale of adolescent awakening. He did not, I think, even imagine himself a writer. He was clearly the
one to go.
Far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the bulk of Pandolph’s current work-in-progress remains, like its predecessors, locked in his
fulsome and feverish brain. But he knows the entire thing by heart, straight to the end, and neither of his lackeys seems to
suspect, or care, that this grand tapestry of death and despoliation is doomed never to see the light of day. And to be fair, it’s
not as if either of the duo has been any more prolific. Alfonso, rumor has it, has thrashed through a half-dozen snippets of
flash fiction, all of them consumed by fires of mysterious origin, while Joe, that rarest of writers, has never set quill to sheepskin
or fingertip to keyboard. Some instinct must warn him that were he to commit himself to immortalizing a single thought or
utterance, his dissolution would be complete.
“And then, gentlemen, the shockwaves of the torpedo rattle the hull,” Pandolph narrates grimly, his voice a low, ominous growl.
He’s arranged his cup, the creamer, and a spare coaster to represent, by appearances, the British cruise liner, the German
submarine, and some unidentified land mass the foundering passengers are clearly incapable of striking. Alfonso hovers
breathlessly over the diorama; Joe stares dully from hooded eyes. In close quarters, Pandolph’s grandiloquence can be
magnetic, though during his one public reading at Mishap — a dreadful miscalculation on my part, with an old pal, a chap with
one-time connections to the literary world, in attendance no less — he’d degenerated into a sputter of disconnected plot points.
“Time, for these poor unfortunates, stretches agonizingly, like a newsreel that has slipped its spool. They do not suspect, nor
admit, that they are dead.” His voice rings with a sonorous formality over these final words, as if they’re lines recited from a
poem. “These pitiable mortals are cast helpless, adrift, on the ruinous seas. They welter—” He looks up, annoyed, as the door
chime spoils his protracted climax with the report of a fresh arrival.
But it’s only old Skim Elbows who slouches into the room, Skim who crosses the floor shedding adjectives in his wake: gangly,
baggy-sweatered, pale. A caricature: the scarecrow made flesh. His rubbery arms drape his sides, his face sags in a long, lean
slab of suffering. His hiccupy drawl no one’s managed to place. His sole claim to fame a not bad opening line: “The men’s room
smelled like a Dolly Madison raspberry Zinger.” He offers it up as token homage to the room’s literary éclat, and those who’ve
produced or at least promised more accept his submission with pitiless tact. But he’s never made it past. Often the last to leave
of a night, he confesses to me his predicament: the impossibility of choosing the right word when s’ durn many flutter about his
head, flagging and nudging, vying for annunciation. S’ many wuhds to choose from — Gaw-awd! And the cruel reality: certain of
them must be banished to the pit even when, as is apt to be the case, ten or twenty or a hundred fulfill the requirements of
sound and sense equally well, none offering to bow out gracefully, none sparkling with consecrated authority. And then, when
he’s exhausted his cup, his grief, and my ear, he stumbles out into the night like some tipsy prophet or pariah. Of all my
regulars, it’s Skim who most misgives. And not for him alone — for what he portends for the others.
“Howdy, felluhs,” he offers the trio he’s interrupted, waving a hand distantly at them. No offense meant; just he can barely see
them through the veil of sorrow that stifles him. “Lenny,” he tells me, “set m’ hup. Power m’ some cawfee.”
He slumps into a chair, stares listlessly at his large, useless hands. You get the feeling with Skim that anything he’s looking at
he’s beseeching for inspiration: to write, to die. I circle from behind the counter and fill him a cup, slide a blueberry scone onto
his plate. He doesn’t look at me or the drink, just picks at the scone’s orange drizzle with a chapped index finger.
Pandolph and company, having afforded Skim the barest of pitying looks, have returned to their animated, one-sided
discussion. The Lusitania has split, waves roiling into the hold with the pent-up fury of a biblical flood. Pandolph cackles as he
runs down the deathbed reaction of each passenger: eyes raised in entreaty and reproach, teeth gnashing in vitriol and dismay.
The dead, as he’s informed us many a time, number nearly twelve hundred, with another seven hundred or so destined to
surface and survive, so this’ll take some time. Whether moved by the mortal tally or not, Skim has collapsed at his table,
burying his head in his arms. I’ll not need to freshen his cup once this long, terrible afternoon.
And so it goes. The bell chimes, the shop fills. Chairs scrape to seek Pandolph’s colony or gravitate to form separate huddles.
The clamor of voices mingles with the bubbling of the brew. Today all the faces are familiar. Manny Orificio — we call him Mo —
cringes in the lee of Pandolph’s shoulder, sucking the tip of his thumb, a round, featureless dwarf whose sonnets exalt the
graces of rice cereal and milk. Elsewhere, a standing argument seems to have flared anew between Selwyn, indefatigable
archaeologist of Lost in the Funhouse, and Margot, one of our rare female regulars, with her papery lips, flyaway hair, and
Capotesque true crime dreams. Then there’s Major Tom (he refuses to yield his given name), he of the speculative fiction bent,
presently trapped in an irresoluble tangle of time loops and tesseracts. As the afternoon thickens the guitar guy wanders in for
a moment’s warmth, stays to treat the crowd to The Bells of Rhymney, the toe of his Timberland tapping the beat, his soft
tenor and Jerry Garcia beard taking those old enough to remember back to the time before. Pandolph holds court through it all,
his voice booming like an emcee’s at a sports arena: “The matter, gentlemen, is closed!” His disciples nod wretchedly; if
Pandolph says the matter’s closed, there’s no use trying to open it. I circle the room, clearing cups and coasters, replenishing
swizzle sticks, wiping the occasional spill with a bit of white terry cloth. Excepting Skim, whose shoulders shudder with silent
grief, Mishap appears most cheery today. And why not? The wind whistles outside, but within my shop the air thrums with the
rhythms of their fellowship, such as it is. They expostulate and lilt, clink cups and trade breath. They shut out the night. I take
no special pride in this, but I do serve my purpose. At the least, I offer these lost souls a chance to dissemble, to forget.
The door rings once more and opens to a young man, perhaps in his late twenties, tall and lean, with ample brown curls and a
thin black knit scarf slung across his throat. He rubs hands enclosed in matching, fingerless gloves. His eyes, wide and luminous
and ringed with thick lashes, circle the room as if in momentary blindness or doubt; his head tips quizzically. For an instant I
prepare for Pandolph’s welcome of another lost sheep, but then it strikes me: I know this face, even know it well, though I’ve
not seen it in ages. Oddly, it’s the face’s unmarred youthfulness that masks it; he should be much older by now. But to all
appearances he is not. The same boy who lounged in this very shop throughout his school days, now better than fifteen years
past, stands once again on my doorstep. He smiles shyly and advances to the counter.
But the others, just seconds before seemingly lost in banter, are too quick for him. They spring to their feet at once, even the
guitar guy, surround him, block his path. He finds himself hemmed in by the ghosts he left behind, their faded looks and
dwindled frames a striking contrast to his own unblemished, springtime beauty. Hands shake all around; there are murmurs of
“Michael,” the name a magic mantra against age and defeat. Only Skim, still huddled in his misery, fails to join, or even heed, the
Pandolph, for his part, waits a moment so as not to betray his dignity, then, squaring his shoulders, wades through the crowd
of well-wishers to fold his hands around the newcomer’s in a manner at once lordly and obsequious, like a funeral home director
welcoming a foreign dignitary to a poor man’s wake. “Michael,” he says warmly. “So good of you to come.” I am struck that
Pandolph, for all his girth, shows up absurdly small before the towering prodigal. His retinue — Alfonso leaping ineffectually like a
child at a ballgame, Joe sepulchral as a wax dummy — somehow make their leader seem even smaller.
Michael returns Pandolph’s handshake, his gaze. If he fails to recognize the man, he is too polite to let it show. “I was in town,”
he says. “A signing. I thought I’d stop by and see the old place... ”
“Of course, of course.” Pandolph gestures broadly, taking in the entire room, as if he has assumed ownership of the
establishment. “We are delighted, honored. Please. Join us.” A hand still clenched around Michael’s, he begins to tug toward his
“I... ” As gently as he can, Michael extricates his fingers from Pandolph’s grasp. “I really can’t stay. I’m expected... interviews... ”
An apologetic smile plays on his full lips. Released from his tormentor, who stands hunched and panting as if from some intense
physical exertion, Michael closes the distance to the counter, reaches across for my hand. “Lenny,” he says. His smile is
gorgeous, embracing. “How are you?”
“Michael,” I say. I realize my voice is shaking. “Michael.” It seems to be the only thing I can say.
“You’ve kept the place up,” he says, nodding to the room. “Right over there... ”
There is no need for him to finish. Right over there, in the far corner by the bookshelves, was where he’d park himself of an
afternoon, one long leg curled over the other, sipping coffee from a plastic thermos, thumbing paperbacks, tucking those
sinuous, fulgent curls behind an ear. Everyone knew him, simply, as Michael: quiet, softly articulate. Not exactly aloof, willing
enough to join the rank and file in talk, but reserved, courteous. No one ever saw his writing, no one ever asked. At the end of
each day he’d uncoil himself from the table, replace his book on its shelf, and stroll, hands in blazer pockets, out into the night.
When at first he disappeared, everyone assumed he’d given up the ghost, Pandolph going so far as to compose a requiem to
the vanities of youth. But no one ever pursued it. When, some years later, we watched his rookie effort scale then mount the
bestseller lists, no one spoke of that either.
“I’m just passing through,” he says now, gently inclining his head. “I’m sorry I can’t stay longer.”
“That’s all right,” I say. I grip his hand. “Michael,” and I fumble, “you... we are so proud of you. One of our own... ”
“I wasn’t even sure the place still existed,” he says. His eyes take in the room, his expression tender and confused, inward. “Or
if it ever did. It was like a dream.” He smiles wryly, as if embarrassed by his own indulgence. “Still here... ” he murmurs.
I nod. “Still here.”
He shakes his curls and laughs. The others, who have stood awkwardly silent through our exchange, start as if from a trance.
Perhaps, like me, they are shocked to hear again the sound of Michael’s laughter. Perhaps, like me, they are struck by how it fills
the room with a warm fragrance. “Don’t ever shut this place down,” he wags a finger at me, chidingly affectionate. “If they ever
try... ” He laughs again. “Well, just don’t.”
I assure him I won’t.
“Look,” he says. “I’ve really got to run. But” — he turns magnanimously to the room — “all of you. Keep writing. Never give it
up.” Then, with a trace of the ungainliness of bygone days, he ducks his head, shielding his eyes beneath long lashes. He backs
for the door, feels for the knob, and, placing an open hand on his heart, steps into the street. The chime sounds, curiously
abrupt. The napkins billow under the chill breath that circuits the room, then settle.
I draw a deep breath, feel my heart pumping, blood rushing in my face. I barely know why. The room has not moved, the figures
arrayed in ranks like sarcophagi. Pandolph stands as before, head bent, shoulders stooped, arms limp at his sides. His breath
rattles in his throat. He appears to me at this moment something less than solid: there is a jellied translucence about him like
the mucous lining of a sea creature. “Ungrateful,” he rasps to himself. “Wretch.” Then his eyes settle on mine.
“You,” he exhales. A fleshy finger points. “You.”
All eyes have turned to me, in appeal or accusation. I picture a scene out of Night of the Living Dead, only these shades lack
even the clockwork volition of Romero’s zombie host.
“You,” Pandolph says once more. He pulls himself erect and closes on me. “This is your doing. All your doing.”
I begin to protest, but Pandolph thunders: “Silence!” His jowls work, his meaty fists clench. “I have no intention of abiding this...
public humiliation. To be... mocked, defamed, by this... callow suckling. In my own shop!”
“It’s — ” But Pandolph will not be diverted.
“How dare you?” His voice quivers. “How dare you bring — him — here? How dare you — ”
“I had nothing to do with — ”
“Silence!” Pandolph storms again, and for the first time in our acquaintance I honestly believe him capable of violence. “This —
betrayal — of my trust I cannot countenance. Not for one moment. Cannot. For one moment. Countenance.”
The others, I see, are nodding, their faces drawn and sickly.
“What was the deal, Lenny?” Pandolph presses. “That you’d amuse yourself with our antics? That you’d feed on our sorry tales?
What did you intend to do with the material collected in so... ghoulish a fashion? Where is your manuscript, Lenny? For whom
have you been saving it?”
“If you think I opened this place — ”
“Why else?” Pandolph spits, and the others nod in unison. “Why else draw us here, like flies to a spider’s web? Are we — ” He
glances wildly around the walls as a new idea strikes him. “This is no haven, no place of rest. This is . . . a tomb!” The others
shudder, but Pandolph is relentless. “And you its crypt-keeper. All is lost! Lost!” His brow crumples, his voice breaks. “What was
the arrangement, Lenny? What the price? How could you use us so?”
I search his face, trying to formulate a retort to so wild a fancy. I think to tell him that it was fate, simple fate: Michael’s talent,
hidden to all while he lingered among us, could not be contained, must find its natural outlet. If you had such gifts, I yearn to
tell him, you would not long have remained at Mishap either. But my words halt at the sight of him: baggy flesh splotchy and
contorted, eyes agape. His is indeed such a look as a man might assume on waking to find his life but a solacing dream, his
reality the horrors of the abyss. The others, pale as reflections, float on the edges of my vision. I raise my hands in gesture of
peace, but I know I’ll not again see peace in those eyes.
The room breaks up, the apparitions retreating. The guitar guy snaps his Gibson into its case, slings it across his shoulder,
tramps out into the dusk. The rest follow. Joe and Alfonso seem to have lost all will; they are sucked along in the vortex of their
fallen idol, who, in his stumbling rush, forgets to retrieve his rubbers. I stand by the window, watching their figures vanish
behind a shroud of snow. It occurs to me, not for the first time but with a fresh, keen edge of regret, that I know nothing of
their movements on the outside. What do they do to hold body and soul together? Where do they spend the night? Does any
warm fire welcome them? We have never spoken of such things.
When I turn from the window, I realize Skim Elbows has not budged. He raises his head, sizes me up with eyes empty and
despairing, and croaks: “We ah awl fail-yuhs.”
I spend more time than necessary on closing rituals: sweeping crumbs and crystals from the floor, tallying receipts. Their eyes
will not leave me. I’d barely bundled Skim off for another night in the deep freeze — I thought of asking him to stay, but really,
where would I keep him? — when Pandolph’s words returned. His recriminations, as he himself might put it, are baseless. Run
Mishap so I might engross material for a nonexistent manuscript? Engineer Michael’s return so I might feed on the sight of them
abandoning at long last their shriveled dreams? The very idea is preposterous. I am no writer.
The fact is, when I opened this joint, now almost thirty years gone, my motivations were obscure even to me. I suppose I
harbored some leftover conviction about founding a cooperative, performing a community service. I longed to be useful — or
better, indispensable. And so the place came to be. I won’t say I woke up one morn and discovered it sprung to life—there was
the business with the loan, the inspections and permits, all the carpentry I poured into the rundown storefront I’d chosen as
the site of my business venture — but looking back, as with anything you’ve done for a length of time, it does gather the feel of
inevitability. I remember the grand opening: free refills, homemade oatmeal cookies, the guitar guy leading the skimpy crowd
through It Ain’t Me, Babe and Early Mornin’ Rain. Then the concept took hold, the drop-ins multiplied, the regulars emerged,
stayed. My life before Mishap receded, seemed needless, my life after Mishap I rarely projected. The work was steady, the
clientele if not satisfied at least established, and why dwell on what might have been, what might yet be?
Now, though, I wonder. Whether Mishap arose by choice or design, noble experiment or cosmic gag. I turn to the night window
and catch myself in its glass: my hair pulled back in a graying ponytail, my spectacles perched on the bridge of my nose, my
forehead creased and patched as my jeans. Back still square and straight, forearms still thick, but the signs of mummification
unmistakably setting in. Growing old or, like the others, sealed in an ageless death. I’ve carted pushers into the street by the
scruff of their necks, I’ve chased neighborhood punks for pitching rocks through the picture window, I’ve forked over the
contents of the register to the guy with the switchblade and ski mask. And for what? All the long years of skimping and struggle
come to this at last.
I ball my apron and set it on the countertop. My movements are heavy, reluctant, as if the years I’ve been reviewing have
settled on me at once. I weigh options, outcomes. It may be, come morning, all will be forgiven, all forgotten. Maybe Pandolph
will appear on schedule, assiduously avoidant of the past evening’s unpleasantness. It may be he will enter rejuvenated by our
tiff, having come to see it for what it was: a misunderstanding, an overreaction. Maybe he will storm Mishap inspired by his
encounter with literary genius, arrive ready to roll up his sleeves, tackle chapter three.
But I know this is wishful thinking. I know Pandolph, and I know he’ll never again cross my doorstep. And if not him, who else?
My eyes take in the room, its empty tables askew, its corners thrown into shadow. I think once more of Michael, a young god,
as it now seems to me, returned to his temple too late, once its pillars and altars have crumbled to dust. He may loll awhile in
the ruins of the sanctuary, finger the chipped pottery and mosaic tiles, strain for the sound of voices raised in solemn chorus of
praise. But he will wait in vain. He was, perhaps, the only real thing about the place from the get-go, and so when he touched
down among us he promised a taste, a semblance of his reality. But when he left, he took something his homecoming could
never restore, and we reverted to form; we became grotesques. Now his votaries’ day is done, his reality lost forever. He was
an enigma, an accidental visitor. It was never meant to be in the first place.
Should you happen by Mishap tomorrow morning or the morrow after, you may find the place vacant, the hand-painted sign
whitewashed, the front window shuttered. Time to be moving on, I guess.
J. David Bell