About the Author
We told ourselves that watching the fire gnaw away the old café — the hallowed haunt of our idealistic tribe — was the turning point in our young lives. In truth, however, the funeral pyre of our days of angry dreams was already a mere formality. Fire hoses melted the flames away bit by bit, leaving a crisped wooden shell. We’d often spoken of wanting to toss Molotov cocktails at police officers in defense of our black brothers and sisters — who remained purely hypothetical, of course, as none were actually in our little circle. Yet blue uniforms swarmed around us unchallenged. Instead of shouting or mouthing off, we solemnly gave our reports to officers and fire marshals, then congealed into a tearful, quivering clump.
According to what Amy told me later, the evening had started out like any other. Aside from two students from the nearby college, Louie’s was bereft of all but the regulars. George and Phyllis sat in the corner extolling the benefits of free love, agreeing in principle that monogamy was unnatural — even though they were both far too jealous of one another to let it become anything more than theory. Barry sat sipping gin and scribbling his fourth manifesto. “This one,” he’d said many times, “will set the whole world alight. I shudder to think of the destruction that will be unleashed when the old guard comes tumbling down. But the truth must be told, dammit!” Amy strummed her guitar in paeans to peace that described burned villages and dead babies in Southeast Asia. She talked about “vibrational energy”, which allowed her to believe that her audience was larger than her half-interested friends and Moonbeam the cat stalking across the wooden roof beam overhead.
There was more than enough time for everyone to file through the exits when Lud began shouting “Fire!” By the time he’d thought to yell, he’d already exhausted the ancient extinguisher which had been gathering dust and bowing out the plywood wall. He didn’t grab anything on the way out. His patrons, by comparison, gathered up their notebooks and instruments before calmly walking out of the building. The conspicuous exception was Barry’s manifesto, which went up in smoke. I was fairly certain that he’d deliberately left it to burn, knowing that the symbol of what was lost would eclipse any of the trite ramblings he’d actually committed to the page. “I’m convinced,” he would be able to say later, “that government agents set the fire to ensure that my words never got read.”
The whole neighborhood was gathered to watch the flames begin to punch through the giant painted “Louie’s” above the entrance. Ludvig used his anglicized name for the place, thinking it sounded warmer. His ever-shrinking body of patrons added the appellation of Coffee House or Bar or Cafe depending upon their own inclinations. To us he was always Lud. By the time I arrived that night, Lud was crying while we watched the place burn.
Our huddled enclave of “comrades” (as we referred to one another) alternated between anger and sadness in the light of the flames, but none of it was very convincing. Our once-endless passion had already begun to fizzle, and we’d had to manufacture our continuing outrage at the establishment through sheer habit. We pulled signs out of closets and marched around the block every now and again, but the end of the draft had robbed us of the once-furious populace we’d hoped to stir to into resistance. So we nursed drinks at Louie’s, relegating our once-profound belief in consciousness-expanding drugs to stories we retold each other with bard-like reverence, and silently dreaming up incremental changes we might slip into the world from comfier perches than our tiny rented rooms.
A verdict of faulty wiring was delivered by the fire department and insurance company. Given the run-down nature of Louie’s (and the surrounding area), there was little surprise from anyone — including Lud. He left town a short time later, buying a condo down south and tending bar at someone else’s tavern.
Amy fell into a period of mourning from which she never truly recovered. A decade later, she was still busking on the street and playing coffeehouses for a fistful of change, strumming songs about acid rain and freeing Peltier.
For most of us, however, the coda to that stage of our lives was anti-climactic. The sedate relegated their protests to writing letters to the editor, while the more militant explored arson and bombs. I just clambered aboard the flotsam of the era, heading for whatever shores I could find.
After a string of passionless relationships with self-important men, I had met my first real girlfriend at Louie’s a few months earlier. We were living together by the night it burned down. When the relationship eventually evaporated, it did so peacefully, without taking my self-respect along with it. The boyfriends that I’d managed to tolerate for more than a few weeks had done their best to torch my confidence on their way out.
I went back to school, found that I enjoyed studying, and secured an academic sinecure for a while teaching a handful of classes a week to budding poets. I became an eccentric department fixture, constantly quoting Edna St Vincent Millay and Sappho and mentoring several female students who’d been told too many times to hover silently in the background.
Committee meetings and department politics eventually sapped my energy, especially when several colleagues had taken to referring to me behind my back as “the angry lesbian in residence.” When I finally stepped away from it, I knew what I wanted to do next. Many years after the night that Louie’s burned down, I had the chance to try my hand at running a cafe of my own.
I’d tried to emulate the old watering hole at first, but the casual feeling of Louie’s with its wood paneling and a cat wandering around through a jungle of secondhand tables was unsightly and unprofitable. The singer-songwriters that I hired to play would bring two or three friends (after promising and assuming that many more would show up), and wail their ballads of unrequited love and the difficulty of being themselves to empty chairs. There were no firebrands discussing justice, just packs of scowling youngsters who considered the world to have been chewed up and spat out before they’d even gotten into it.
The place evolved at its own discretion as I responded to my patrons’ needs and preferences. Soft jazz was piped in to replace live music. The color scheme lightened by degrees, finally arriving at bright peach paints that reminded people of beach sand. Pub grub was scrapped and my menu shrank into adorably-named specialties like Sunny Cran-Bran Medley Muffins. My brightly-lit bistro matured into a place where people enjoyed coffee meetings and first dates, where laptops and cell phones eclipsed human contact — and manifestos became blogs that screamed into cybervoid.
I loved running the cafe, and never mourned my original vision for it. When it became too much for me, the gentrifying neighborhood waged a bidding war over it — whose proceeds allowed my wife and I to retire comfortably. We finally began our world travels, albeit not quite the way we’d once imagined. Our knees and backs do not allow us to head down to El Salvador and wade through mud to help feed starving children or empower women who haven’t had our opportunities. Nor do we climb mountains in Tibet, seeking enlightenment in snow-coated monasteries. Instead, we sit in foreign cafes and walk hand in hand through museums and parks, content with the choices that we don’t remember making.
The night that Louie’s burned down, a shadow padded out of the smoke-swaddled darkness and brushed against my leg. Moonbeam the cat had escaped the flames completely unscathed. We gathered around our purring mascot, weeping and gently stroking her unsinged fur. Moonbeam savored our farewell, accepting our affection with more patience than she had during her tenure at Louie’s, before stalking off into the night.
About the Author
Kit Storjohann is a writer, photographer, and film archivist living on the east end of Long Island, New York. As a founding member of the North Fork Writers Group, he had his stories featured in their anthologies “Seven Voices: Volume One” (2015) and “Seven Voices: Volume Two” (2018) both published by The New Atlantean Library. His pieces have also appeared in “The Mindfulness Bell”, the online version of “Here Comes Everybody”, the anthology “Beach Reads: Paradise” published by Third Street Writers, and the “Kosmos Journal”. He also has work slated to appear in the upcoming issues of “The Moving Force” and "Toho Journal".