The Empty Cafe:
Short Stories

By Michael Hoffman
Published by 1st Books 
June 2001; ISBN: 0759619867; 259 pages

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The Empty Cafe by Michael HoffmanOfficer Bill


"Please, just... calm down!"

"Calm down! Calm down, he tells me. My kid vanishes into thin air somewhere in the middle of Bangkok and he's telling me to calm down! Would you be calm if it was your kid?"

"My kid!"

"Yes, your kid."

"Listen, Mr. - "

"Sonenfeld."

"Mr. Sonenfeld. Permit me to remind you that your boy is missing through no fault of mine, and your belligerent attitude is not helpful!" The officer, his beige uniform shirt open at his fleshy perspiring neck, glared up at his interlocutor, but almost immediately his expression softened. "I'm sorry, forgive me, that was uncalled for. You are upset, understandably. Sir, madam, please, sit down, I'll have them bring you some brandy" - raising his voice so it would reach the outer office, he said something in Thai, at which Sonenfeld heard a chair scrape against the floor, followed by brisk high-heeled footsteps - "and once you've settled down," he resumed, switching effortlessly back to English, "you can tell me what I believe my American counterparts call 'the particulars'." He smiled faintly. "Sit. You arrived in Bangkok when, exactly?"

It seemed that Sonenfeld was about to launch into another tirade, but his wife touched his arm and he subsided at once. "Last night," the wife said in a soft voice heavy with weariness. "Late last night. I hardly shut an eye all night. And this morning we were just walking, you know, when - "

"Where were you walking?"

"Where?" Sonenfeld cut in. "How the hell do we know? Good God, we don't know this city from... from Hades. We were walking single file: my wife in front, me behind her, and Teddy behind me, me glancing behind every few minutes to make sure he was there, though hardly doubting it, and the last time I looked back he - he - "

 

"He wasn't."

Sonenfeld gulped air through twitching lips. "No. He wasn't."

"You were walking - ah, here is your brandy. Sip, please. You were walking in the vicinity of your hotel?"

"No," said the wife. "We had taken a tuk-tuk to Chinatown."

"Chinatown! Yawarat Road?"

"That's it, yes. Yawarat Road."

"She's the one with the sense of direction," Sonenfeld grumbled acidly, the first gulp of brandy making his head spin. "To me, it's pure chaos. I think my vision is truer."

"We were just walking, not going anywhere in particular, trying to get the feel of the city, to get the lay of the land, so to speak. We were going to just wander around today, and start our more organized sightseeing tomorrow."

"Organized, ha!" muttered the husband. "Her organization."

"Mine, yes. Someone has to impose order on - "

"On chaos? Why?" he shouted distractedly. "Why not just accept it for what it is? Flow with it! Become one with it! Ha ha!"

"We will agree," the officer interposed tactfully, "that to the first-time visitor Bangkok can be the very image of chaos. Now listen to me. I will dispatch a patrol to scour every inch of territory in the Chinatown area. Chaotic Bangkok may be, but the laws of physics apply here as elsewhere. People do get lost, yes, but they do not - as you put it - vanish into thin air. We have faced this difficulty before, and believe me, no visitor has ever yet had to return home without their children. Okay?"

"Say - how come you speak such good English?" asked Sonenfeld, as though noticing for the first time.

The police officer smiled. A missing upper front tooth gave him an oddly childlike appearance. "Dostoevsky, I believe it was, observed that a mind under stress is often preoccupied with the most irrelevant, the most trivial questions. A man being led to the scaffold will see a blue building, for example, and it will occur to him that it would look better painted red. My English? Is actually better than my Thai. I was born in the United States of Thai parents. I have a masters degree in criminology from Stanford University."

***

Mark and Madeleine Sonenfeld returned to their hotel. There was nothing to do except sit and wait for a phone call that would tell them their boy had been found, was safe, would be with them again as soon as the police car carrying him could negotiate the traffic between Yawarat Road and Banglampu. The tourist police officer who had taken care of them - he had told them his Thai name and, grinning at their inability to pronounce it, said, "Just call me Bill" - had counselled patience. "It's bound to take at least a few hours; please, try to relax; a tranquilizer would be helpful; trust me, I know my business."

Certainly he seemed to, the distraught mother and father agreed. If Teddy was findable, Bill was the man to find him. But how does an eleven-year-old boy walking with his parents suddenly disappear? It defied comprehension. A main thoroughfare, in broad daylight... "I'll never forgive myself," murmured Mark, "for not walking behind him, keeping an eye on him. How could I have been so stupid, so... irresponsible?"

He was a big man, two meters in his socks and going prematurely to paunch, pacing the little hotel room like a tiger in a cage. A fierce tropical sun streamed in through the window. From somewhere a bus horn sounded.

"I have never," he resumed in a voice throbbing with suppressed anguish, "seen a city so utterly... utterly..."

"Chaotic?"

"Chaotic. No. I was searching for another word, a word to put chaos in the shade, a word that hasn't been coined yet, for only such a word could do justice to this... this..."

"This chaos."

He smiled in spite of himself. "This is what happens when a writer marries a critic."

"Turn down the air conditioner just a bit, would you mind? Some day, Mark, after yu've written a novel about this and I've criticized it, we'll all three of us remember with a pleasant little frisson of terror how scared we were, and have a good laugh over it."

"Shall I tell you, in essence, the fundamental difference between you and me? It's that even under the most benign circumstances I am alive to the underlying presence of tragedy, whereas you, in the very midst of traagedy, see nothing but comedy."

"'Nothing but' is an exaggeration, Mark, a gross exaggeration, though what you say is not without a grain of truth. Listen. I'm going to take Bill's advice and try go get a little sleep. I won't suggest you do the same, because I know you'll only bite my head off, but what I will suggest is that you go out for a walk for an hour or two and let me get some rest, because honestly, I didn't sleep at all last night and very little the night before, and I can't think straight. Go. I'll be here by the phone. God willing, when you come back I'll have good news for you."

"God willing. Ha!"

***

Never had he experienced such heat. He was a seasoned traveller, and climates ranging from the equatorial to the sub-polar were familiar to him, if only in passing, but this searing, choking urban heat that seized one by the throat and seemed to fuse the brain to the roof of the skull had a quality all its own, a malevolence against which he felt utterly helpless. If he didn't give up his walk immediately and retreat to the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel, it was only because the scenario sketched by his wife, of him returning after a couple of hours and being greeted with triumphant news, had taken such firm hold of him that he was determined to give it time to materialize.

He warned himself as he left the hotel to pay strict attention towhere he was going so that he would be able to find he way back - he had, as he had confessed to the police officer, a wretched sense of direction - but the heat, the noise, the exhaust fumes, the crowds, all converged upon him with such force that he was soon thrown into numb confusion. "Tuk-tuk, sir? Where you go? See Sleeping Buddha? Fifty baht!" "T-shirt, sir?" "Shoes, sir?" There seemed no human activity that was not represented on these streets. Buying, selling, cooking, eating; on the bare sidewalk under some kind of table a shirtless man was curled up, sound asleep. Mangy wild dogs roamed about listlessly with their tongues hanging out, their saliva dripping onto the pavement. "See sexy show, sir?" A grinning child who couldn't have been more than three sidled up to him, extending a paper cup. "Hallo! Hallo, good sir!"

A bus stopped and opened its doors and, without thinking, driven by a furious desire for rest, he boarded it. Only after the doors had closed behind him did it occur to him to wonder where it was going. He was gripped by panic. "My God - I don't even have my wallet with me! I'm in the middle of Bangkok, in a bus going God knows where, and I don't have a cent on me - not a single solitary baht!"

Dizzy, he seized a strap and clung to it as though for dear life. An advertising poster directly opposite him caught his attention: "Need help? Call 1699. Tourist Police." He laughed out loud, a harsh, raucous, monosyllabic "Ha!" Heads turned towards him; he felt himself blush scarlet.

The poster reminded him of Bill, who, he recalled, had said something about the laws of physics applying even in Bangkok. "No one disputes that," he said, pursuing the argument in his mind with the officer, "but does it not occur to you that he could've been snatched off the street by some child prostitution ring, eh? The laws of physics have nothing to say against that, do they?" It seemed to him that the possibility only struck him after he himself had put it into words, and, as though responding to a suggestion somebody else was making to him, he gasped in surprise and pain. A slight woman with long hair tied back in a pony-tail approached him, the top of her head barely reaching his chest. Around her waist was a money-belt. "Three baht," she said. Frantically he turned his pants pocket inside out. "Forgot my damned - "But the wallet was in his hand. He gaped at it, stupefied.

"Three baht," the conductress repeated, smiling and holding up three fingers.

"Yes, yes, I... Three baht. Three baht." With trembling fingers he handled the unfamiliar currency.

He got off at the next stop. He was hopelessly lost. He seemed to be in the middle of some kind of market, a maze of lanes crammed with tiny stalls purveying everything under the sun: clothing, kitchenware, fruit, vegetables, spices, cold drinks, movie posters, compact discs. Evening was beginning to fall. "My God," he thought. "I've been in this city less than a full day, and yet nothing, nothing is left to me of my former self!" He laughed; it seemed an apt phrase. "I must remember to write it down when I get to the - " Suddenly he stumbled, righting himself with a violent, wrenching movement. "What the..." Looking down, he saw what had nearly upended him: a large, gaping manhole. His senses reeled; his head seemed to fill with the sound of deep, filthy, black water lapping playfully against a cement wall. He felt as though he were drowning in a sea of nausea. "Teddy!" Could the boy have fallen into a manhole?"

***

A taxi took him back to his hotel. "Hello, sir," said the doorman, opening the door for him. The elevator was on the second floor and climbing. He took the stairs three at a time. On the fifth floor landing he paused momentarily for breath, then marched to his door and pounded on it. "Well?" he demanded when Madeleine, after what seemed to him an age, opened it. Before she could answer, the phone rang. For a split second Mark had the crazy impression that the ringing was issuing from her open mouth. "I'll get it!" he cried, brushing past her. He snatched the receiver. "Yes?"

"Mr. Sonenfeld?"

"Yes."

"This is Bill."

"Yes."

"Wait just a moment please."

"Dad?"

"Teddy! What the hell - where - my God, do you know what - "

"Teddy!" Madeleine shrieked. "Oh my God." And for the first time since the ordeal began, collapsing in a heap on the bed, she burst into loud, broken, wrenching sobs.

***

When Mark and Madeleine insisted on taking the officer out for dinner as a token of their gratitude, he surprised them by suggesting, in all seriousness, that they go to McDonald's. "How'd you like to go to a Bangkok McDonald's, eh, boy?" he said, chuckling and rumpling Teddy's thick curly blond hair. Teddy's delight suggested to his parents that Bill, among other evident attainments, knew a thing or two about child psychology. "It's a pretty poor return," Mark began, but Bill cut him off with a laugh. "Return for what? All in a day's work, all in a day's work! And it so happens that nothing would quite hit the spot right now like a simple hamburger and coke. For tomorrow night, I'll give you the name of an authentic Thai restaurant that few tourists know about."

"Be our guests."

"Thank you; unfortunately I have another engagement."

The facts of Teddy's disappearance had turned out to be simplicity itself. Captivated by a market vendor selling CDs, he had stopped, unnoticed by his parents, to browse, and by the time he had browsed his fill they were hopelessly separated.

"Were you afraid?" his mother asked him.

"No way! I could've taken a tuk-tuk to the hotel!"

"May all my disappearances end so happily!" Bill said.

"I thought you said they did," Mark murmured.

Arriving at the restaurant, Mark and Madeleine were astonished to see a roomful of small children - there was not an adult among them - leap up from their tables and run delighted to greet the officer. Some of the youngest ones jumped up and down in their excitement. The older ones, more dignified but no less happy to see him, saluted him with a barrage of gleeful chatter. At one point, evidently having heard something pleasant, Bill threw back his head and laughed without restraint, the missing tooth, though in all likelihood knocked out in a barroom brawl or in a street fight for dear life, once again conveying to Mark an oddly childlike impression. Bill said something to the children, who settled down at once and, to Teddy's shrinking astonishment, suddenly turned to him, solemn but friendly, to extend their greetings. A boy who looked to be the oldest among them - he was about Teddy's age - extended his hand in a very grown-up way and said in shy English, "Hello. Welcome." Rising to the occasion, Teddy shook hands with the boy, at which the others, down to the very youngest who were scarcely of an age to walk unassisted, formed a ragged line, each waiting his or her turn to shake the newcomer's hand. The ceremony complete, the oldest boy said, in accented but reasonably correct English, very solemnly, "Come with me to my table. My name is Tinsulanonda. Call me Tim."

With a last backward glance at his parents, Teddy allowed himself to be carried off. The Sonenfelds followed Bill to an unoccupied corner table. "What's this all about?" said Madeleine, laughing.

"I wanted you to see it. It's a sort of Big Brother program I'm involved in. Involved in - why be modest?" An irrepressible boyish grin suffused his features. "I founded it. The children are all orphans. The boy Tim is half American, as are two of the others. First dad vanishes, then mom soon after. Old story. Every Sunday night we have dinner here. Well! What would you like? Big Macs, fries and cokes?"

When Bill, having placed their orders, returned from the counter, Mark asked him, "Do you have any children of your own?" To his surprise, Bill's face clouded.

"I... I'm sorry, did I - "

"No, no, it's all right, it's all right! Mrs. Sonenfeld, you did say hold the mustard, didn't you? Not to worry - no problem! Look over there - your boy is one of the gang already. He's a fine boy, a hard-core hockey fan, he tells me. Perhaps they'll be able to get together again before you leave. We'll see if we can arrange something. Ah, she's calling us - our order is ready, I'll be right back. No, sit - I'll get it."

"I seem to've blundered," Mark murmured to his wife, ruefully massaging his freshly shaven cheeks.

Bill returned with a heavily laden tray. "Here we are, no mustard and ice coffee for madame, cokes for us. Fries, salt, ketchup... we're set. Forgive my momentary... my momentary what? What's the word I'm looking for? Lapse? You ask about my children. It's been twelve years, twelve years... But time, you know, is never what it is, always what it seems. Sometimes it seems a million years ago, other times it seems yesterday, other times still, tomorrow. My son was a schizophrenic, Mr. Sonenfeld. Two days before his twentieth birthday he... he committed suicide. He dived head first from his bedroom window. Our apartment, where we lived at the time, was on the seventh floor. He heard voices, you see. He was on medication. Sometimes the medication stilled the voices. Sometimes it only made them shout louder."

"Mr. - er, Bill, I - "

"Please, please, there is no need. Shall I tell you a thought which sometimes occurs to me? It is that the voices my son was hearing were telling him the truth - that he, who could hear the voices, was really sane, whereas we, who are deaf to them, are insane. His sanity, of course, made him unfit for life on this insane little speck of dust floating in a remote corner of space... And so maybe - maybe he was diving to the center of the universe, where the truth prevails, and where he was welcomed with open arms, a lost soul who had miraculously found his way back home. Do you think that's possible?"

"I - I'd never thought of it that way before," Mark stammered, "but... yes, now that you mention it..."

"Here." With some difficulty the officer drew a bulky wallet from his pants pocket, and extracted from the wallet a small photograph encased in plastic. "My son."

The Sonenfelds stared at the photograph intently, each apparently groping for something to say, the right word, and, not finding it - for he seemed a perfectly ordinary, though rather handsome, young man - maintaining an uncomfortable silence. Bill replaced the photograph in his wallet and shoved the wallet back into his pocket. "I'm getting fat," he muttered under his breath, patting his thigh and wincing.

Copyright 2001 Michael Hoffman
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)


Synopsis

Somewhere between fantasy and reality is the unexplored world in which Hoffman’s characters live. A man reading a newspaper is suddenly transformed into a young god's elder brother. A foreigner in Japan, falsely accused of assaulting a young girl, finds his innocence slowly slipping away from him. Why did the woman in the restaurant scream? You would have, too. In Bangkok a small boy goes missing; surely he didn't vanish into a manhole? The empty cafe fills, reason unravels. In the novella Solitude, the last of eight tales comprising this volume, Solomon Rose returns home after 22 years to confront a dilemma soluble only by murder.

(back to top)

Author

Michael Hoffman was born in Montreal, Canada, and has lived in Japan since 1982. His short fiction has appeared in various North American and Japanese magazines. He is the author of One-Armed Yatsu & Other Stories, also available through 1stbooks. As a freelance journalist he is a regular contributor of essays, book reviews and translations to Japan's English-language media. He is co-author of the bestselling Tokyo Confidential (The East Publications, Tokyo), a collection of tall but true tales from the Land of the Cherry Blossom Blushing in the Rising Sun. He is currently at work on a long, ominous novel set in a Japanese backwater.

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