"Joe Jones"

An excerpt from Anne Lamott's recently re-released novel about a rundown riverfront cafe and the funny, broken people who congregate there.


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Anne Lamott
September 12, 2003 11:19PM (UTC)

The winter rains are over. In new green meadows orange poppies bloom. Purple and white lupine grows everywhere. Sails filling with sea breeze, boats slice through the bay. An egret leaps off a lonely black piling. Sea lions bark, gulls cry, the herring are back. Mud hens and mallards paddle around, and old Japanese people fish from the shore with ice chests beside them on the sand.

A woman sings softly as she walks along the water, chanteys and old cowboy songs. She is wearing a necklace whose gold letters spell APRIL, although that is not her name, and is dressed in what she will tell her customers is a tribute to spring: green culottes, blue T-shirt, pink sneakers, white socks.

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She ambles along, sexy and sweet, near forty, somewhere on the cusp between curvaceous and fat. Her lips are full and thin out into dimples. Her skin is finely crinkled around peaceful brown eyes. She bleaches her short hair pale blonde, but other than this she resembles the torch singer Helen Morgan. A wreath of plastic grapes would not look out of place on her head.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Jessie's Cafe is a restaurant from another era, the sort of broken-down waterfront dive one might expect to find in Steinbeck or Saroyan. The main room is empty when Louise steps inside, but she hears water running and the clatter of dishes coming from the back room.

"Willie?"

She walks to the back room, where a fair, slight man in his early twenties stands over an aluminum sink full of soapsuds and dishes.

"Hey, Lou."

"Kisses?" She closes her eyes and puckers up. He kisses her. She opens her eyes and surveys the mess. Dishes are stacked on every available surface, and both garbage cans are full. She exhales noisily. "Looks like Pompeii after the big event."

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"Coffee's made."

"Good."

"Grill's on."

"Great."

She leans in the doorway, watching him work. He scowls.

"Don't stare at me."

"Cut your hair again, didn't you." It is not a question.

He shrugs. "Maybe."

"Maybe? You're starting to look like a molting deer."

He turns and gives her the finger.

"No kidding, ducks."

He whisks a dirty potato masher through the soapsuds, pretending to ignore her.

"Willie, no lie -- you look like some old deer that the others in the herd are trying to nudge gently out towards the highway."

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"Oh, go away."

"You burnt, baby, huh?"

"Get out of here."

"Up all night?"

"No."

"Willie, my love, you'd lie if the truth would work."

"Lou?" plaintively.

"Willie?" she whines. "Why do you do that shit?"

"What shit?"

"Dexedrine. Hearts."

"It's none of your business what I do after work."

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"Yes, it is. I'm your best friend."

"So why don't you get off my case."

"Because my love for you is not blind and sloppy. It is harsh, and strong."

He rolls his eyes. He has heard this line so many times before. It was from one of Virginia Woolf's journals.

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"Let me get my work done."

She laughs at him. "It's not like you're doing brain surgery."

He smiles through a scowl.

"I'm not saying it's my business that you hang out with a bunch of possibly AIDS-riddled screaming nellie faggots."

"You're homophobic."

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"No, I am not homophobic. Maybe I have certain aesthetic problems with the, how you say, graphics of what you guys do."

"Why don't you just try not to think about it."

A Handi Wipe falls from the shelf above the sink, off to his left, and he startles, as if a guillotine blade has just dropped. "See?"

"Well, don't be a hypocrite, man. You used to do it."

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"I used to do a lot of shit I don't do anymore."

"So ..."

"I used to cry when different foods on my plate touched each other. But I don't anymore. It's kid's stuff, man."

"What."

"Speed."

"Well, it's cheaper than coke."

"Yeah, so's Drano."

"Lou--"

"Willie? Read my lips. In about two hours, you're gonna hit the wall. Won't be nothin' left of you but buttons and hair. Who's gonna serve the food I cook? Who's going to help me clean up?"

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"I, I--"

"You're gonna woofle around all day, mewling and puking. And then you're going to go into your algae browser mode."

"Lou--"

"I want you to straighten up and fly right."

"Get out of here."

"I couldn't take it if something happened to you."

"Luuuuuu ... Get out of here."

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"You drive me out of my mind, Louise."

"Kisses."

He laughs at her quietly, bends forward to kiss her.

"Thank you. How we doing on mayo?"

"Check it out, man."

She walks behind him to the far end of the narrow room, to the burlap bags of potatoes and onions, the bins of beans and flour and sugar, the plastic gallon containers of mayonnaise and mustard and relish. There is plenty of everything.

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The main room is in reasonably good shape. Louise wipes down the bar, arranges place settings at the counter and tables, pushes in chairs, grooms the vases of blue daisies. She goes behind the bar to put on Willie's favorite tape, Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits, and turns the volume on loud. She can almost smell Willie smiling in the back room. She salts the grill behind the counter, checks the stove's oil well, studies the two packed refrigerators as if looking for something to wear, reaches for parsley, scallions, and celery. She takes them to the cutting board, where she begins mincing, threshing, dicing. She puts the heat on under pots of beans and soup on the burners, and turns the grill up a tad. She stirs leftover hotcake batter, adjusts the temperature of the deep-fat fryer, and is doing this all at once, like lateral juggling.

Cutting, stirring, tasting soups, tamale pie from yesterday, through it all she's chanting silently, over and under Sinatra, the power of God is in me, the grace of God surrounds me, the power of God is in me. She can wrap herself in this protection the way a parrot fish spins a transparent sleeping bag around itself at night on the ocean's cold floor. Chanting quiets her crazy mind, and now, shelling peas, she does it to keep from hag-riding her breakup with Joe, three months before.

Left to its own devices, her mind is a fat hummingbird flitting through leafy trees of anxiety, apology, sorrow, excuses, and dreams of grandeur, dreams of humiliation. Sometimes she watches it run off, and it makes her laugh and shake her head. It's like a video game. Bright fast blips of worry and anger come at her, and, after fending them off, she's attacked by the huge lumbering Czechoslovakian blobs of tiredness and broken-spiritedness which break into small, faster missiles of regret when she fires at them. What a half-baked species we are, she thinks, and does what she can to make her insides more habitable.

"Willie?" she calls.

"Yeah?"

"Come here."

"No, I'm busy. I'll be there in a minute."

"Now, right now, right this second. Immédiatement. Ee-mmmeee-ja-mah."

"Lou," he whines from the back room, "I'm going to come out there, and you're just gonna make me give you kisses...."

She continues the lateral juggling. Willie shuffles in.

"I'm not givin' you kisses."

"Come here!"

He walks over to her at the grill.

"Dolly, will you see if there's an opened can of tomato paste in the fridge? I've got my hands full."

"Just open a new one, Lou."

"Come on."

"No, Lou, what if it's been there a coupla days? It's gonna look like something cultured in a petri dish."

"Please, darling?" Willie walks wistfully to one of the refrigerators, opens it, looks inside, shakes his head. "Algae browser," he says, abstractedly. "What a lovely, soupy existence."

One year ago, nearly to the day, at Willie's behest, Louise broke the news to his grandmother Jessie that Willie was gay. Louise and Jessie were sitting on the porch of the cafe with cups of jasmine tea. Louise waited for Jessie to arrange herself in the director's chair, and for the peeping, clucking, and cooing to subside, before giving her the news. Jessie did not respond immediately -- her hearing aid rang. She looked up and around, then back at Louise's face.

After a moment, with deeply concerned indignation, she said, "I thought he just had good posture."

Willie is an angel with butter-colored hair. Willie, an orphan, steps high over bugs, lives with -- takes care of -- his grandmother, but now for the last six months there's been speed in his life. Shit, thinks Louise from the pinnacle of her wise old years, too soon old, too late smart. "Listen to your broccoli," she shouts at him. It is an old Mel Brooks routine: Listen to your broccoli and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it. Listen to your broccoli, she urges Willie. "But I do, Louise," he pleads.

"Then why don't you ever turn it down when it's offered?"

"Because I'm weak."

They both smiled at the truth when he said that. He isn't weak, Louise knows. Innocence has a lot of power. When he's on, his sweetness can light up the room. His presence is somehow reassuring, like wrapping oneself in a towel still warm from the dryer. He knows it, and used to mince up to the initially homophobic Joe Jones with a mug of coffee and twitter, "Cream and two sugars?" batting his long blond lashes. But on days after nights on speed, he moves around the restaurant like a gopher who has left his hole and is being stalked by a cat.

"Willie?"

"NO MORE KISSES."

"No more kisses. Will you go see if the mail's come?"

"I'm trying to get the pans scoured. Why ya always have to be Miss Takeover Broad?"

"Please."

Grumbling, he leaves the back room and shuffles out the door.

He returns with a pile of letters, mostly bills, she guesses.

"Letter from Joe," he says, holding out an envelope. Her eyes grow wide as she stares at it.

"I can't stay here much longer," it begins. "I know you don't want me right now, but this place sucks. I could take it if you were here. Honest, Lou. Hawaii seems almost evil to me. It's probably good to remember that Hawaii for a couple of hundred years experienced the same measure of white domination that India, Africa, South America, and other places did: geographically a goodly distance from 'Home' for the whiteys that made all the rules and did all the raping of women, resources, and manpower. So, during his time of power, whitey behaved toward the native population in ways he could never get away with at home. This always seems to have long-lasting effects on the native population, like turning a huge percentage of them into shitheels, thieves, craven liars, and people you wouldn't want to meet on the beach. It also does quite a trip on the local whitey population, turning many of them into shitheels, liars, thieves (on a grand scale), and deeply neurotic guilt-ridden despots. The only reason you'd want to meet them on the beach is because they own the beach. So my plan is this -- Everybody go home. It should all be done on a racial basis. All the whiteys should live in whiteyland, and all the natives should live in nativeland, and those who are the result of mixing the races could either commit suicide or join the merchant marine. I have to go now. In tomorrow's letter I will tell you my plans for the merchant marine. I miss you. I'm sorry and I want to come home, Joe Jones."

Not Joe, not JJ -- Joe Jones.

Louise puts the letter down on the candy counter, licks her lips, and stares off into space as if suddenly following a flicker of a partially remembered dream.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

At noon, Willie and Louise stand side by side at the cutting board assembling baklava. Willie paints paper-thin sheets of filo dough with melted butter and lays the bands on top of the nutmeat mixture Louise spreads in the pan.

"Honey."

"Little flower."

"Lou. I mean, drizzle the honey on top."

"Oh."

Willie, in charge of desserts, as always, lowers more buttery sheets into the pan. Louise is staring off into space.

"Scalpel."

"Huh?"

"Lou! Come on. Pay attention."

Louise looks into the pan, shakes her head to clear it, and spreads another layer of nutmeat.

They both look out the window as an old Plymouth screeches into the parking lot. "There's Grandma." The car comes to an abrupt halt twenty feet shy of the row of trees where white lines indicate parking spaces. The car bucks forward for several feet and stops again. Jessie's wizened face is fierce with concentration -- you can almost see that her knuckles are white on the wheel. The car bursts forward again, stopping a foot in front of the eucalyptuses. "God!" Willie yells, "I can't take it." Jessie backs the car up a bit. Willie shakes his head. A moment later the car shoots forward and comes to rest against a tree.

"Ouch!" Willie cries. "Boomp! It makes my nose hurt."

After another moment, Jessie scuttles out of the car as if it is about to burst into flame. She stands several feet away, gaping at it. Then she dusts off her hands and stands sizing up the world -- the bay, the trees, and, finally, her cafe, where Willie and Louise stand waving at the window.

She is thin, stooped and gorgeous at seventy-nine. She drapes a green beaded cardigan over her antler-like shoulders and draws herself up to her full five-foot-three.

Her walk is like an egret in muddy water up to its knees, strutting, jutting.

Willie and Louise turn and smile at each other and wait to hear her footsteps on the wooden steps of the porch.

"She shouldn't be driving, Willie."

"I don't want to deal with it today."

Louise nods. In a moment they hear her footsteps and what sounds like an excited dove clearing her throat. Throwing open the front door, she steps inside and stands, poised expectantly.

"Jessie, my love."

"Grannnnndma."

"Willie, Louisa, oh!" Jessie clasps her hands in joy.

Her voice has a lovely silvery rustle to it, like birdseed going up a vacuum cleaner.

"I missed you," Louise cries, having not seen her since last night. "You must have a seat imm-eee-ja-mow, and I'll bring you a lovely cup of tea."

Jessie sits down at her table, one by the window.

"Did you remember to buy me a paper?"

"Have I ever forgotten?"

"What's that?"

"Have I ever forgotten?"

Louise washes honey and nutmeat off her hands and brings Jessie a cup of tea and the morning's Chronicle. Louise bends down and kisses Jessie's neck a dozen times.

"You're my love, Lou," the old woman says. "You're my love, and Willie."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Jessie has owned the cafe for seven years now, Louise's been the cook for six.

"I lived," Jessie said once, "on a farm near New Orleans, back when the vendors sold food on the street. Just after dawn you'd hear horse-hooves and cart wheels, and the vendors would cry as loud as they could, 'Yellllllllow bananas, lady, dime a dozen.'

"'Strawwwwwwwwwwwwberries, strawbries.' And this most mournful man of all, oh, love, so sad, he'd cry, 'IIIIIIIIIII've got algator pirs.' Alligator pears, don't you see? Avocados."

Jessie's Cafe begins to fill up with favorite regulars, strangers, and extras sent over by central casting. Louise greets them all from the grill, berates and cajoles and insults them while she shakes a corn dog in the deep-fat fryer, ladles out soup or cassoulet, flips burgers, and rubs rosemary between her fingers that she then massages into lamb chops.

"Thanks a lot, Lou."

"Hey, thank you. Take it easy -- Keep 'em in the boat."

"Yeah, okay, see ya later."

"Club 'em if you have to, okay? But keep 'em in the boat."

"Hi, Jessie. Gee, you look so pretty today."

"Hi, Dana! Hi, Sam. Hi, Booney."

Jessie beams at the new arrivals, Sam and Dana Waters, classically mellow California couple with their two-year-old son in a stroller, which they carry up the stairs of the porch, the baby prince in his litter.

"Hello, Gristdancers," Louise calls from the grill. Joe nicknamed them four years ago, when they first started coming in. They had both been reading books by Ram Dass -- Sam was reading "Grist for the Mill" and Dana was reading "The Only Dance There Is."

Sam is a fine painter, a Marin County local colorist -- landscapes and seascapes. Dana quit her job as a graphic designer when Boone was born. Louise loves them, like she used to love the fellow members of her high school basketball team -- camaraderie within a prescribed arena.

"Hi, Willie," they say as Willie comes in from the back.

"Hi." Willie smiles. He bends down to look into Boone's serious face. The child looks like a large howler monkey, his hairline beginning only an inch above his forehead, his lower face and jaw canted forward so it occurs to you you could almost fit a muzzle on him. Boone studies Willie as if a message is appearing on Willie's face.

"You gotta get Boone a bigger stroller," says Louise. "He's too big for that one. It makes him look like an outpatient."

Serving these people fills her account. Thinking of Joe drains her just as living with him used to. But no matter how much she cooks and serves, chants and prays, his presence in her head is a sickness that gives her fever dreams: Happy and bad memories agonize her. She so vividly remembers his devotion to everyone at Jessie's, his eagerness to please, how sweet and funny and bashful he could be, how much Willie loved to tease him.

Joe took Jessie out on a date the year before, dinner and a movie on her birthday, and while driving her home he smashed into a deer that jumped out in front of the car. He was distraught when he told Louise about it in bed that night. The next morning at the cafe, Willie came over and punched him in the arm, shaking his head with admiration. "Heard you bagged a buck," he enthused. Joe smiled sheepishly.

Don't think about that now. Think about his self-centeredness. Think about his unfaithfulness. No, don't think of him at all. But it is as if there is a picture of Louise's skeleton, and over it is a transparency showing her muscular system, and over that there's a transparency of her organs, and over that is a transparency of her cardiovascular system, and over that is a transparency of Joe Jones. It is dark gray with regret, depression, anger, and what the poet Lermontov called the bitter record of the heart. God, she prays, take away the obsession, take away the hate. Let what I have here now be enough.

Yearning, said another poet, is blindness.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Jessie's best friend Georgia Malone arrives at three by taxi. An empress dowager, Isak Dinesen in an aqua double-knit pantsuit, she shuffles in wearing surgical paper slippers and a white beaded turban.

"Why, Georgia!" Jessie cries, with delight.

"Pffffttttttt."

"Sit down! Yoo-hoo, Louise, Georgia's here."

"Hi, Georgia." When Louise turns around from the grill, Georgia has sat down next to Jessie and is glaring out the window. Louise studies them. Jessie, a one-woman aviary, runs through her repertoire of bird-sounds, coos, clucks, peeps, cheeps, and occasional whistles of inhalation. Georgia periodically makes the only sound anyone in the cafe has ever heard her make, an abrupt spluttery raspberry. Joe called it Georgia's fark. Sometimes hours pass between the two old women in their seats by the window and the only noises are the birdsong and the Bronx cheer, unless, like elephants, they communicate by tummy rumbles, too low to be heard by other human ears. It is one of the goddamnedest things Louise has ever witnessed, this particular best-friendship. When Jessie chatters, Georgia glowers -- when Jessie reads, Georgia appears snubbed.

Today Jessie chatters. "Did you watch TV last night? Not much on, was there, Louise? What did I watch last night? Did I tell you?"

"I don't know, Jessie."

"Willie?" Willie sticks his head out from the back room. "Did I tell you what I watched last night?" Willie shakes his head. "Oh, for Pete's sake, I wanted to tell Georgia. Yes, now wait, I remember; it was that nice, thin young man from New York. Singing. What's his name, Louise?"

"Who?"

"That nice, thin young man from New York."

Louise asks, "What does he do?"

"He sings. And he plays the banjo."

Louise thinks for a moment, asks, incredulously, "Pete Seeger?" Jessie nods.

"Pfft."

"Jessie," Louise tells her, "he's no longer young, and he never lived in New York City."

"I've been thinking, Georgia," Jessie continues. "We ought to go to the zoo. Joe took me there last year. They have a new white tiger there, a boy. Maybe some day next week--"

"Pfft." Georgia is glaring.

"It was just an idea, Georgia. You don't have to get sore."

Louise is still at the grill, chanting, chanting to keep Joe at bay, the grace of God surrounds me. Her craving for him can be, and is now, a lag as jangling as the craving that hits when the last line of cocaine has been snorted. It's like a mosquito bite, late at night, on the fingertip.

Joe Jones is such a mix. Self-centered and giving, devoted, unfaithful, sad and funny, needy, tough, arrogant, and shy. Stricken by fears of death, given to flights of whimsy. So loyal and committed to all of them, and then he'd go and sleep with someone who meant nothing to him, destroying his life in the process -- his home, with Louise, and the one real family he's ever had, the people at Jessie's cafe.

He was out of a job when they first met. The high school at which he coached basketball had been closed down because of state budget cuts. Joe was broke, and so, for her thirty-eighth birthday, he gave her a beautifully wrapped library book. It was a collection of photographs by Imogen Cunningham of people over ninety. One was a gnarled old woman wearing a bookie's visor. There was a quote at the top of the page. "When we were young," she said, "we were all puritans and all we talked about was whether it was right or it was wrong. And then I married a man from Sardinia."

"I'll take it back for you in a month," Joe said.

It became her favorite book in the world. Jessie and Georgia went through it almost every day. By the end of the month Joe had landed a job as a security guard, guarding things no one would want to steal.

Please, God, she prays, send me someone else to love.

"Pfft."

Louise smiles at the grill. Okay, I get it, she says silently. She brings the two old women a lovely pot of tea and a plate of Willie's lemon cookies, hot from the oven. Georgia beams mischievously, almost evilly, at the cookies, as if she is getting away with something.

Remember what Jessie said last year, Louise: You have no new ideas on how to make it work. You have tried everything with Joe. You have been trying so hard to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear -- maybe you two should just be friends. But you can't save yourself, Louise. Because we are addicted to our allergies, and you are allergic to Joe. But stop trying to be your own savior. Give it up to God. Let God be your savior. It gets you off the hook, and it puts God on the hook, where He belongs.

Louise looks over at Jessie's frail, stooped back. Thank You for Jessie, she prays, thank You for Willie, for people to serve. I'm doing the best I can. It's just that -- I've been sick, You know? Do you remember that old joke, where the lion is dangling the mouse by the tail, swinging it back and forth before his eyes and sneering? He says to the mouse, "You are the weakest, most pitiful creature I've ever seen in my entire life," and the mouse says, "I've been sick."

She sits down on the porch with a cup of tea and reads Joe's letter again. It doesn't really sound like him at all. There is a reason for this, which Louise will never know.

While Joe was lunching with his mother at the yacht club, a funny old guy wearing black socks with sandals, Bermuda shorts, and a porkpie hat sat down at their table and started to talk, and this is what he said: It's probably good to remember that Hawaii for a couple hundred years experienced the same measure of white domination that India, Africa, South America, and other places did...."

Joe Jones is not well educated, but his memory serves him well.


Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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