Manthri and the Cracked Mug

 “Dear Melanie,
Thank you for your interest in the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, we cannot extend an invitation for attendance this year…”

I stare at the screen while some Santa Cruz stoners blast Bob Dylan dubstep outside my window. My theater friend Katie, a spry optimist, thinks UC Santa Cruz is a hip place to be. Rebellious and deviant but laid back at the same time. All I see is laziness disguised with progressivism, lots of rich white stoner kids talking about how much they love Malcolm X. My classes have turned into reality television shows, people hanging on their seats while me and the potheads go at it. It used to be almost exciting.

My roommate barges in and, before she puts on Kesha’s “Tik Tok” for the tenth time today, I bolt out for a stroll, deciding to blow off rehearsal for “Slugs Musical Medley,” the college’s annual musical variety show set in a musty old barn at the front of the campus. “Mein Herr” was my song this year and I was amped to be the vivacious Sally Bowles. Katie was my backup dancer, doing sexy chair moves as I tried to carry a tune. The other performers were wince-inducing, and in my current emotional turmoil, I couldn’t stand to listen to another pitchy and off-key performance of Footloose. All my dreams of being in serious, live theater were in Chicago, where I had applied to five universities with the hopes of going there and making it big. University of Chicago marked the very last rejection letter.

db30199b5a5fe01dd288fe349a42b900As I pass by the million-dollar ocean view just paces away from my dorm, I scoff. The immense natural beauty disguised the cultural wasteland in which I was condemned. In Chicago, there are bright ques, black box theaters scattered everywhere, and dramatic, beautiful skyscrapers to hold it all together. The only local theater in Santa Cruz is the “Jewel Theater Company,” located in the back of a restaurant with just thirty dusty seats. Aspirations and expectations for excellence just didn’t exist here. Everything had to be “equal.” Wasn’t art all about stretching beyond and building your artistic muscle? Striving and working towards something?

A bus rolls up, headed towards downtown Santa Cruz and I hop on with no idea of where I want to go. We pull up to the station and I see the familiar faces. Transient, banjo-playing New Age kids prancing around, whipping their dreads so fast they might take out anyone who dares get close. I walk past them and the usual haunts. The used bookstore. The historic theater. The Greenpeace man asking me rhetorical questions I don’t appreciate. A man with corn yellow hair and a full beard invites me for a banjo lesson and I actually consider it. Maybe instead of trying to find “highs” in life, I should be trying to find a comfortable bottom.

“HEY! HEY! YOU ALL! Stop. Stop right now. Absolutely not, NO.”

I whip around towards the strange, throaty voice shouting behind me. A tall, tan man leaps out of a jet-black German antique convertible. He charges towards three young people playing music outside of an elegant looking coffeeshop. A redheaded girl with the harmonica plays some notes to his face as retaliation. The furious man snatches the harmonica, pulls a crisp handkerchief from his pocket, sanitizes the handkerchief and cleans the harmonica, then plays a note so fiercely inches away from their faces that they were speechless. Inching closer, I hear:

“I’ve called the police on you before. We caught you with marijuana in my cafe. You think it’s okay to play this racist music that somehow gets a pass in the New Age? In front of my coffee shop?”

The ginger looks to defend herself, but the man wags the harmonica in her face.

“Anything with the banjo is inherently racist. Period. White people should never touch it. Come back here and you’ll be hunted by the state.”

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He hands it back to her, straightening his collar and walking briskly into the cafe entrance. The name of the cafe, in ivy green letters on a stained glass sign, reads Lulu Carpenter’s. I walk past the disheartened band to take a look inside. The walls are all brick, and there’s a marble bar with a glass case full of pastries. There’s a barista with a rose in her hair pulling shots from a steel espresso machine. As I walk in, she greets me with a radiant smile and the mysterious man is moving around like a tragic and beautiful hurricane, grinding coffee, bussing tables, and wiping them down. I order a latte from the calm and somewhat somber barista who introduces herself as Marzan. She hands me a beautiful, silky latte with a vine drawn in the middle.

Before I knew what I was doing, I walk up to the mysterious man and shoot out my hand.

“Hi there. Are you the owner?”

“Yes. Manthri. Are you a first time customer?” The grimace fades away from his face and his large, black eyes settle on me. He holds a white ceramic mug in his hand with a faint crack inside. I can’t tell if he knows that it’s not a stain as he scrubs it mercilessly with a dry towel.

“Yeah, Melanie. Nice to meet you. I was just walking around and saw this place for the first time.”

“I’ll give you a quick tour.” He takes me to the back patio, where there’s a small fountain and warm lighting. He points out the Impressionist art on the walls in the seating area and then talks about their process for making espresso. No bullshit Starbucks trickery here, he presses. He personally roasts the beans. He doesn’t even care to compete with them. He was at another level.

“Are you guys hiring?”

His eyes fall into a tight squint. Setting the mug down, he mumbles something to the barista who glances at me and disappears behind a door I didn’t notice, obscured by the mirrors on the wall. The cafe was empty besides some elderly women chatting lightly at the table next to us. They nod to me and smile at each other, as if I had no idea what I was getting into. He whips out his iPhone.

“Let’s schedule a time to chat. When are you free this week?”

Our interview is at 4pm. Sharp, his text read. I grab the corner table with the view of the patio and the bar, fixing my huge purple scarf. I realize it’s just a little too “modern hippie,” looking more like a homeless person job-hunting than an aspiring professional. I was just about to ditch the scarf when a generously proportioned man walks in. Manthri. His flat expression makes his mouth a straight line and he doesn’t have the becoming presence he did yesterday.

“Thank you for coming on time.” His voice is deeper. Direct. More frog-like. “So, it was nice talking to you yesterday. I’m always looking at people with an appreciation for the shop, who appreciate quality. And I know you’re a student at UC Santa Cruz. But tell me, what’s your experience in food service? Do you have any?”

“I helped my uncle out with his festival food stand last summer. I was in charge of the fries. We had about four or five people on staff but, I really held up the fort and I learned how to work quickly.” I don’t mention that I was completely useless and my uncle Mark had to make me cut lettuce because I dropped the fry bowl.

After answering a couple more questions with an unexpected confidence, he whips out his iPhone. “Do you have your resume with you?”

“Oh. No. No, I didn’t think to bring it. Shit.” The sounds of the cafe ring in my ears. Clinking mugs. The clanging of the register. My heart folding in on itself. Manthri’s index finger freezes mid-phone swipe. He glares.

“Okay. That’s fine. I’ll pull it up on my phone.”

A gob of sweat forms underneath my massive purple scarf. Flies migrate to my quarterly-eaten cookie while Manthri’s bullet-like gaze stays steady on the phone’s screen. Without glancing, his hand, like the tongue of a frog, clenches upon the fly’s fragile body, which floats gently on top of a single chocolate chip on my plate.

“I hate flies,” he muses. His colossal eyes glance expectantly from me to the dead fly on my plate. “Are you going to eat that?”

“No. No,” I mutter, practically leaping towards the bussing tray. Time to regroup, Melanie. You’re learning about the Spartans in Greek History, right? Re-strategize. Loss is not an option. Giving up and playing the banjo is not a reasonable pursuit, at any time, any period of your life.

“I actually was trying to transfer to Chicago this year. I’ve been disheartened by the general nothingness here. In Santa Cruz, I mean. I love theater and, as I’m sure you know, Chicago has some of the best theater in the nation. I heard back from the last school I applied to yesterday. And. I didn’t get into a single one. But I jumped on the bus and found Lulu Carpenter’s! It just fills in a bit of what I think is missing. About living here.”

He nods. “Chicago is a great city and Santa Cruz is indeed, full of human waste. Just several days ago, a man covered in peanut butter was “suntanning” in front of my cafe. I have zero tolerance for this beach sand and cocaine cocktail nonsense. Zilch. But, I see here on your resume you have excellent grades. How could you not get in?” Devoid of context, this may have been a compliment, but under his intense glare, it seemed more like a suspicious interrogation.

“I don’t know. Well. The way I see it now is that…the death of opportunities give birth to new ones. And I’d really, really love to work for you. I want to be a part of something really, really great.”

“Hm.” He whips out the dry towel from his back pocket, wipes off our table, and then all the others. I can’t tell if the interview is over. After his lap, he returns.

“What’s your schedule on Saturday?” He was now wiping that faintly cracked white ceramic mug.

“Nothing. I mean. Just laundry, but you know—”

“Great. 9 am. Sharp. Black shirt and pants. Hair tied back. Eat breakfast before. No phone. And that—,” he points to my scarf, now lying limply on both sides of my shoulders, “—has to stay at home. I never want to see you wear that in here.”

“Thank you.” I stand up. “Thank you!” I try shaking his hand, but he continues at the mug, turning away.

“You definitely swore in our interview.” He places the mug delicately on top of the espresso machine. “But I have a good feeling about this. I don’t say this a lot, either.” He walks off and out of the cafe, hopping in his black antique convertible, gearing up and zipping off in seconds. He believes in me. But how is it I feel set up to fail? If there were already high expectations, there was no way to raise the bar.

I sit and admire Lulu Carpenter’s, my new home. A chatty girl picks up a latte, juggling it while shouting at her iPhone. The omnipresent iPhone. My mom asked me if I wanted one for my birthday, but I declined. My anxious mother is living off social security because she didn’t have the emotional regulation to be in a workplace, scraping by on seventy bucks a month. Maybe I feel at home in these elegant surroundings because it’s always where I dreamt of being. Just a couple levels above eating instant macaroni and waiting in line at the food bank with my mom. Maybe now that I have a job, I can prove to myself that I’m not like her. That I can fight past my anxieties and self-doubt.

As I’m about to walk out, Marzan calls me over. She congratulates me on the job though she seems hesitant. When I tell her I’m in school and doing a play, she withdraws even more, doling out a dry “good luck.” She’s been working at Lulu’s for two years, she says, and she still has a year or two more to go in community college before she can transfer to a four-year school. She’s an academic, a philosopher at heart, but Manthri’s right-hand girl. He’s even offered her a position as a store manager with a raise and she declined. Even as a brunt worker, she struggles to keep up.

“Once you set the bar high, he’ll set it one step higher,” she says, wrapping teabags swiftly and whipping out drinks like a pro. “I envy you, Mel. Can I call you Mel? You’re at a U.C.! You’re in your second year, engaged in artistic pursuits. You know, matters of the mind and heart. I understand wanting to work here, but just know what you’re in for,” she barely looks at me as she stocks the pastry case, her dark hair falling from her bun. Her tone matches a concerned mother advising her daughter away from an infinite sea of destruction and misery. Am I a girl wanting to work at a coffeeshop or a scabby meth addict?

“Is he really that demanding?”

“Well. Not always. And I shouldn’t blame it on him. As a brown person, I have this strong loyalty towards him. We both come from the Middle East and share some similar neuroticisms that First Worlders don’t exactly get. No offense, or anything. You seem great.” We laugh. Marzan is as bitter as they come. But she was fun. And I was eager to prove her wrong.

Katie calls me to rehearse, having spent three hours watching YouTube cabaret videos to spice up our routine. I bail, feeling the need for the stage lights starting to fade. It’d take weeks for the performers to catch up to where we are, I tell her. Manthri understands excellence. Artisanship. Wherever he sets the bar, I’ll be a mile away getting my running start.

Saturday afternoon. I showed up twenty minutes early, hair pulled back as tight as I could. The day has gone like a Vaudeville film, Manthri testing my physical limits, having me carry crates and crates of milk, easily weighing thirty pounds each, up from the basement. I try to emulate his “hurricane style,” picking up every single dish I find, fixing every odd angle. But there he was, blazing behind, fixing most of the work I’d done. He stops me occasionally, having me taste different espressos for their distinct flavors, while also elucidating his demanding behavior. He “can be a Nazi and there was no denying it” but “sometimes fascist like behaviors were good for business.” Some discomforting connections crop up as I remember that German antique convertible.

I plaster a smile on my face, my only hope being that I’m doing a good job, realizing now that the air of sophistication at Lulu Carpenter’s is built on bucket loads of sweat.

From the sink, I can see the motley crew of guests as I scrub rubbery cheese off plates. A man in the far corner, dressed in a dusty workman’s jacket, pulls out a canvas and some paint. Bags of clothes lay by his feet, and he pulls out a pair of glasses from a sock. His hand trembles as he paints, his eyes round and focused.

“That man comes in here a lot. And this dish that you put there isn’t clean.”

I jump in shock, hot water splashing in my eye as Manthri snatches the dish from me. I’d already been desensitized to boiling water, having spilt some on my thigh earlier. Manthri had to set me aside while I held in a stream of curse words. “He’s so peaceful over there. But the poor thing can barely paint.”

“His name, supposedly, is “Shmaltz.” He buys a coffee one day a week, the rest of the time he sits in here like it’s his living room.”

“Looks like he’s homeless.”

“Sure is.” Manthri takes some dishes and scrubs mercilessly, doing a load in a matter of minutes. His mania gives him an energy that was as infectious and lively as it was scary. As I pull the rubber mats to do a detailed sweep behind the bar, he approaches me, correcting me on where I’d put the mats and pointing out I didn’t open one of the windows. I look outside, trying to find something to hold onto. Maybe Marzan had my number. A First World enthusiastic newbie? Done for. “So Melanie. You jumped into it today. I like people who just go for it, excited to work.”

“Oh. Well thank you.”

“You’re quick. Clumsy. But with some more work, maybe you’ll be helping me run the place one day. Now. Go take your lunch.”

“Wow. Thanks. I’ve been having so much anxiety today about—”

“Lunch.”

Looking around, I can already see where my magic can work into the shop. Maybe a Friday open mic? Book club hostings? Espresso flavor of the month? I sit at a table near Shmaltz. His empty canvas evolved into a picture of an angel-faced child with eyes that were stone and sad. His hand slowly moves to his bottle of water, plopping the paintbrush and turns towards me.

“Are you new? I haven’t seen your pretty face around here.” His voice fades in and out, choking out a laugh that was desperate and charming.

“I am, yes.”

He shows me his painting, a picture of his granddaughter who he doesn’t know. He glances at Manthri several times, noting their somewhat tense relationship. He wavers in and out of the present moment like a rubber band. Sure, he isn’t really all there, made increasingly clear as he starts explaining his theory on how cats were sent to earth by the devil himself. But he still buys a coffee or pastry once or twice a week. And he’s sweet.

The cafe is quiet, besides the murmur of two students laboring over some project. But then I hear cheering, rapidly approaching. Break over. Manthri peers through the window, perseverating on the faint crack in that same ceramic mug with a dry towel. His barrel chest is heaving up and down and I hesitate to break him from his trance.

“Hey Manthri, my break is done.”

“Shit. Fucking shit. Fucking lunatics.” He bounds for his phone at the end of the bar, seething at the Santa Cruz police department about some permit. Ripping the plug from the speakers that were playing relaxing Gypsy jazz, he bolts to the sidewalk. I’m too stunned. I want to calm him down but there’s no taming him. Shmaltz scuffles to my side, laying a hand on my shoulder. He says Manthri won’t be stopped. Hordes of protesters gather in front. I recognize the one leading the masses; the righteous ginger girl with the harmonica.

“WE’RE HERE TODAY TO RECOGNIZE THE RIGHTS OF THE WORKING PEOPLE OF SANTA CRUZ! THE WORKERS OF WATSONVILLE, THE COOKS, THE UNDERGROUND CLASS! THE RETAILERS! THE CLEANERS! THE BARISTAS! WE NEED A HIGHER MINIMUM WAGE! WE NEED TO BE ABLE TO LIVE!”

“You don’t have a permit to protest. You’re chasing away customers from a local business, isn’t that a twist?” Manthri stands, foiling their righteous cheers with his sardonic tone.

The ginger grins triumphantly, cocking her head, leaning towards him with the megaphone. “Oh, LOOK WHO WE HAVE HERE LADIES AND GENTS! MANTHRI OF LULU CARPENTER’S! I’ll let you guys in on a little secret. His little known chef, Ramundo gets paid minimum wage. But doesn’t get paid for all the ingredients he’s bought for Manthri from Costco! He works in a hot, unventilated basement and developed asthma from—”

“Get AWAY FROM MY CAFE. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no legal right to be here, you’re destroying the vitality of the Santa Cruz community, you LOW-LIFE, free-loading lunatics. Get off the drugs and get some—”

Hisses and boos are lauded at Manthri and water bottles shoot towards him. I whack them away and he barely notices, wiping the same faintly cracked mug. He hands me the dry towel, and before I know it, he throws the large mug full speed in their direction. It shatters among them and they disperse. Screaming, swearing. Cursing, running. Manthri staggers into the patio chair behind him. The bags under his eyes glisten with sweat.

I walk back in, stupefied. I tidy up what I can until Manthri walks in, humming the Bee Gees. He was smiling, casually wiping the bar.

“I’ll be texting you your schedule tomorrow for next week. Good work today. You can go now.”

Shmaltz is outside and rain starts pouring down. I give him my umbrella and my coffee, and he thanks me for the nice chat. I smile, still shocked at the chain of events that transpired in a matter of minutes. Shmaltz says Manthri is full of surprises. Even more astonishing is that I’d still do anything to get the promotion. The first thing I want to do is call Marzan to meet up for a drink. Maybe she can help me figure this out. We meet at the Red Room, which looks exactly as it sounds, everyone’s skin basked in red light, musty make-out nooks littered about.

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“Wow. This is your kind of place, Mel?” She sits down, looking rather small in the gigantic bench. She organizes the menus and re-centers the candle. It’s like sitting down with Manthri’s mini-me.

“Not really, I just couldn’t think of anywhere else. I don’t go out to drink much. Are you uncomfortable?”

“No, no. So, you mentioned something crazy that Manthri did? I’ve been locked reading Nietzsche and haven’t heard a word.”

After getting some ciders, I lay it out for her from start to finish, from the backbreaking, Herculean labors of first-day training to the pinnacle of the day. Manthri and the cracked mug. Sounds like a great name for a creepy children’s book, she says. But her jaw drops as I tell her about him chucking it at the protestors. From her stiff posture, it even seems like she’s doubting me, thinking my story more like a performance for a stage than the truth. I tell her I don’t want to believe it either. I was having trouble even just recognizing it as an event that happened.

“That’s nuts, Mel,” she sighs, swigging her cherry cider. The bar gets packed, the music pumping louder, but her eyes are glazed. “Manthri is very much a beast trapped in his palace. That’s how I think of him. A big, mythological creature who is multifaceted and tragic. But beautiful. And so, it’s not really out of his character to do something like that.”

“It’s not? Has he done things like this before?” I start to pluck at my eyebrows, concerned I may be working for the town’s pariah.

“Well. He’s from the Third World, Mel. He goes by his own law. It works over there. I think he’s just having trouble adjusting. Either that or. Well, he belongs to the highest caste, in the caste system. My theory. Don’t tell anyone. Years of genetic inbreeding, might have made him. Well. You know…”

Our night dwindles to an end. I walk her to her apartment and see Shmaltz sleeping on the bench outside. The evening’s ocean mist is already rolling in and I sink. What did a person have to do in the world to spend a cold night on their own, exposed to the elements? Why did we throw people away, so readily? Before I know it, I’m thinking out loud, telling Marzan about Shmaltz being a sweetheart to me on my first day. She nods but looks off as she is wont to do, her way, I’m learning, of expressing disagreement.

“I suppose. I just can’t help but be a little disgusted by them sometimes. They can be really. Well, smelly.”

I stop her, the blood rushing straight to my head. “My dad is homeless. So. I know you didn’t know that. It’s not your fault, you know? For thinking that way. But, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t share those opinions with me.”

Marzan retracts, stunned. What was she going to say to that? Most people didn’t say anything when I told them about my dad. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there wasn’t a dry satisfaction in telling people because it always threw them off. People can see a homeless person and judge them, but rarely do they think of them as sons or daughters. Fathers or mothers. When I talk to Shamltz, it’s like kindling something I thought was lost: a chance to understand my father and who he is. A sensitive person who couldn’t protect himself from the world’s sharp edges. Someone who just is looking for a kind place that doesn’t exist.

“Oh. Wow. I’m sorry. That’s awful, Mel. I will say. Just be careful with being too understanding. At Lulu’s. I’m all for being compassionate. But sometimes, it’s bad for business. I only say that because I know you want to work up to being the manager. And Manthri is, as you’ve found out, special.”

The clocktower rings. Ten o’clock. We’ve been talking for three hours. Another rehearsal officially missed. That’s three in a row now. For the first time in awhile, I actually crave rehearsal. I need one sanctuary from thinking about the past. My mom, my dad. Lulu’s. For the next month, I continue to rehearse for the “Slugs Musical Medley,” even with doe-eyed freshmen singing a pitchy “I Wanna Be Like You.” I hand Katie a Lulu’s gift certificate as a way of apologizing.

Manthri never brings up the protest. I don’t ask about Ramundo, the allusive chef, who I occasionally see sneak in and out from the basement. Regulars bring up the event in disbelief. But I like to think Manthri and I have a special understanding: I want to be his right-hand and he knows it. Gradually, he starts phasing more and more out of the picture, and he gives me more responsibilities. I start taking on shifts for baristas when they’re sick and taking inventory for the entire store.

Although I’m in a good spot, I see Manthri give another barista, Julia, some more duties as well. She’s taking some inventory and ordering milk. Why don’t I order the milk? Could he be priming us both? I make a bold move and decide to decorate the store for Christmas, though it’s mid-November. Marzan agrees to help. I fill my arms with tinsel, a Christmas countdown calendar, stockings for the employees, a wreathe, lights, and other Christmas goodies and get to work. A Santa hat bobbing merrily on top of my head, I’m in high spirits. Customers are amazed and give Marzan and I high fives as we set up.

Shmaltz walks in from the rain outside, shaking off the droplets and laughing in surprise at the Christmas makeover. He plays with the little reindeers on the counter, having them talk to one another, and Marzan gives me a sarcastic glance, which I ignore. Despite my continual protests, she’s convinced that the Santa Cruz homeless are a “special breed of degenerates.” I hand him a stocking, which is filled with paints and chocolates, and take out a tiny canvas, a meta-painting I did of him painting his granddaughter on my first day at Lulu’s.

“You don’t know how much this means to me. It’s too bad I don’t have your gift ready yet. It will just have to wait! Maybe I can get it started this evening.” He slurps his coffee, admiring the tiny painting.

“Shmaltz, I love having you around! Without the incantations you taught me, how would I ward off the goblins for Christmas?”

“Oh, you’re so precious, thank you.” His eyes start to water. I nod and smile before I tar up myself, and he walks over to his corner table, staring at his gifts and sorting through the candies, picking out the buttercups. The tinsel is almost curled around every column. Marzan tries to encourage me to get Shmaltz to pay for his coffee, but I pretend not to hear. I guess telling her about my father could only go so far, even though she herself told me she was a refugee in Iran. On the run, just her and her brother, at age six, looking for a sanctuary. If Lulu’s could be that safe place for people trying to escape the chaos in the world, then why not share it with people who needed it most?

Absorbed in thought, I remember the first and only Christmas I had with my dad. My uncles and aunts got him cleaned up, made him brush his teeth ten times a day for the 25 days of Christmas. I was eight, shy and nervous. My mom decided not to be there, telling me to say hi for her instead. He walked into my uncle John’s dining room, tall and skinny, but with the same round eyes I saw in the mirror every day. I don’t remember much, but him handing me a large tiger plush animal he won at a street carnival for me. And asking him why he was homeless.

“I’m not. Because I have me. And all that I know,” he said, somber but smiling nonetheless.
A loud screech brings me back to the present moment. Manthri’s new red antique car pulls up, bought with the money he made from selling his private jet. The customers hush up. These days, Manthri was more of a myth, spending more time in Felton with his golden retriever Humphrey than here at the shop. It looks great, silver and gold tinsel strewn in the seating area, bountiful wreaths hanging on the walls, and the Lulu’s family stockings hanging on the shelves.

He storms in as usual but stops, letting silence hang heavy.

His mouth cracks a smile that pours like water over my perspiring face. “I LOVE Christmas! I love this!” I wince in surprise. He admires the decorations and comes behind the bar. “Marzan?” He looks at her, but she nods to me. “Melanie, thanks for doing this. The store looks superb, and customers eat up this Christmas stuff. I do have one thing I need from you.” He ushers me his close, his chest hair uncomfortably close to my eyeball. “I need you to tell Shmaltz he has to go. I know you’re giving him discounts on our coffee. He has to pay full price. He has to go.”

Sunken, I look at Shmaltz, his lips pursed and round eyes peering at his sketchbook. “It’s raining outside. Could we wait until it stops raining?”

“Decorations and no gall? I need your back-up, your trust. On everything. If you can’t deliver, I’ll find someone who can. Julia is doing a great job. Did I tell you she manned the morning shift on Sunday, our busiest day, all on her own? You think you could do that?” I shake my head no. “We all have our strengths. You, my dear, are the people person. The diplomat who can take charge of these situations.” He opens his arms wide as if to concede, half-smiling. “And we’ve seen how I deal with the Santa Cruz low-life.”

“Manthri. Is there another way?” My Santa hat droops. He responds with silence. Marzan is looking at me as if to say, this was it. This is where he’s setting the bar. Will I jump over? Or fall flat on my face? If I don’t do this, I know I’ll be fired. As I pass her, she grabs my arm.

“Just make sure you want this. Because I’ll tell you what. After two years at community college in Santa Cruz, I’m ready to quit. I’ll walk out with you.”

I look at her, then at the rest of Lulu’s. My corner of the world. A warm place, for people to talk, read, enjoy the comforts of a beautiful cafe on a cold night. For some. I walk over to Shmaltz, trying my best to smile. Manthri glowers at me. Testing me. At his table, I see Shmaltz drawing a picture of cartoon zoo-animals sitting around at a cafe. “Shmaltz. I have some unfortunate news. I have to ask you to please leave the cafe.”

He looks up at me with his big green eyes, twinkling and tired, not completely registering what I’m saying. “What’s that?”

“I… We need you to leave.”

“Why?”

“Because you haven’t been paying full price for the coffee. This is a business,” Manthri tilts his head in approval. “And the price of the coffee is the price of the coffee. So, I’m sorry. You’re welcome to come back when you can pay full price.”

Shmaltz furrows his eyebrows and tucks the candies and paints safely in the stocking I gave him, along with the mini canvas. He tears out the drawing of the zoo animals and hands it to me.

“That’s for you. Merry Christmas.”

His head low to the ground, he slowly scuffles out.

The rest of the night, Manthri hangs around, wearing one of the Santa hats I left for the employees to show their spirit, probably trying to build up his reputation with his customers again. I worry about Shmaltz out in the rain, imagining him clutching my presents as they get soggy. He sits alone, in some safe corner with no one at his side in the night. I’ve worked so hard to just stand here, cleaning dishes. And even now that I’ve gained Manthri’s ultimate faith and trust, I feel the same as I did when I returned to Santa Cruz from Chicago. Vacant. Depressed. Yearning for something else. I can make pretty rosettas on lattes, work fast and hard, and transform Lulu’s into a dazzling Christmas wonder. But the excitement I thought would be here, at this moment, never arrived.

I think of the freshmen clapping along to Katie and I’s performance during our last rehearsal. All of them so naive, moronic, even, but joyful. The lyrics of Mein Herr start ringing in my head. Sally Bowles was one, free woman. She could flip on chairs and say goodbye to lovers whenever she pleased. She never stayed in one place. But wherever she was, whoever she played on stage, she always stayed true to herself.

“Melanie. You wowed me tonight. I don’t usually offer promotions this soon in the game. But I’m going to need help for the holidays. I want to make you the store manager.”

“Oh. Wow. That’s…” I swallow. “No.”

“Oh?”

“I’ don’t want to do this. And give me that hat. You’re not Santa, you’re evil.” Manthri hands me the hat and I leave, Marzan winking as I pass.

The next day, I go to rehearsal where Katie’s saved a seat. The freshmen nail at least a couple more notes in Footloose. The barn was, truly, a run-down, shabby theater. But it was my new corner of the world. A place where I don’t need to be the “best” but to share my excitement with others.

I go downtown one day, past the banjo-playing hippies and the old haunts, and find Shmaltz, gazing at the sky from a lone bench, and hand him a flier to come to my show. Lulu Carpenter’s is across the street. I see Julia, running around like a hurricane for the breakfast rush. She’s beautiful, perfect, and makes a great facade for the man I see in the background, unaware, manically wiping off every surface.

I tell Shmaltz it won’t be a great show. No coffee will be served, and it would be in a musty barn. Physical places stopped meaning so much to me after working at Lulu Carpenter’s, I say. I’m starting to feel at home in a place with no certain direction, no street address, no shiny decorations, no walls, and no reputations.

Shmaltz grins. “That’s the only home I know myself, dear.”

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.