There is but one haunt that remains open along the cobbled streets of old Montreal into the late hours of Christmas Eve. Le Café Depot: a bistro of sorts, where coffee is brewed beyond the confines of space and time; where Bedouin grounds are steamed by Algerian hands, poured into copper cups and passed off as espresso so dark it is said even the purest of cream can change neither its colour nor taste of tar.
And so it was on a Christmas Eve not so long ago that Stuart Marley found himself sipping such a potent brew.
Marley might as well have been dead, to begin with. The warmth of his soul had left long ago and was surely not to return on a lonely, frigid evening stroll. He loved the cold, the way it drove people inside, leaving frosted footprints in its wake. But on this particular evening, not the cold of a Quebec winter’s night or the frost in Marley’s veins could keep the sound of joy, happiness and Christmas cheer from penetrating the frozen shell that was his being.
He could hear them: families, singing by the firesides in the second storey apartments above the darkened shops which lined La Rue Saint Paul. His ears grew colder with each overheard utterance of “fah-lah-lah-lah-lah, Lah-lah-lah La.” Pulling his coat closer, he tucked his lobes beneath the upturned collar, but it did little to stop the children’s laughter from cutting through the frosted air.
Looking at a moonless sky, Marley glimpsed a father and child, looking out at the cold from a lit up window. The boy’s face, filled with colour, looked warm as he perched in his father’s arms. The young lad was talking, his father laughing. Marley could not hear their conversation, but – with all the hope that remained in that pulmonary artery above the acidic basin that was his stomach – he hoped the father was laughing at the child.
He imagined the conversation in his head. Child, speaking with a lisp that had family members worried he might grow up to be retarded and or gay: “What time does Thanta come, father?” Father, feeling it better to crush the boy’s innocence before exposing him to the world outside, laughs at the child: “Oh Timmy, you silly bastard. Santa’s not coming, not for you, not for me, not for anyone tonight.”
The look of gratification that crept across Marley’s frown as he watched what he hoped was a child crushed by his own father’s honesty disappeared when the boy leaned up in his father’s arms and gave his old man a peck on the cheek.
“Bah,” Marley grunted, and looked away.
It was then he heard the sound of dereliction creaking from the wrought iron rings that struggled to hold Le Café Depot’s wooden sign from swinging away with the winter’s wind. Feeling the familiar kiss of frost-bite on his cheeks, Marley decided to seek refuge in the warm café.
The door to Le Café Depot creaked as he pushed it open. A great steam irritated Marley’s frown as he walked inside.
The café was a desolate sight to behold, just the type Marley liked. Round tables were topped by upside down wooden chairs. A lone, bearded Algerian stood behind the counter, humming a Christmas carol as he wiped down the milk steamer on his cappuccino maker. Marley couldn’t be certain, but he thought he heard the nocturnal croak of a dozen crickets coming from somewhere beyond the counter.
The open blinds rattled against the door as it closed behind him. He approached the counter – slowly, looking for some sort of menu sign. There was none.
“Ze weather outside eez . . . ” the barista sang beneath his breath, still cleaning the cappuccino machine, not even so much as acknowledging Marley’s existence.
“I’m sorry?” asked Marley.
“Ze fire eez so delightful, and zince ve ‘ave no place to go . . .”
Marley stood like a man scorned twice by a blaze he did not understand. He was not but three feet from the bearded barista, but it was as if he were dead.
The man continued singing.
“I – I was hoping to get a cup of coffee,” tried Marley.
Marley’s words cut through the barista’s song and he stopped, short of completing the chorus to his carol. He put down the cloth, squinted hard and looked Marley squarely in the mouth. Then, without so much as moving the lips that were lost somewhere beneath his beard, the barista seemed to speak.
“Vut kind of café eaz eat you are luke-ing for, sir?”
An uneasy warmth quarreled with Marley’s cold interior as the barista spoke. He could feel the frost on his lashes trying to thaw. It made him uncomfortable.
“Aw, just something strong,” Marley replied, removing his gloves to blow cold air onto his fingers.
The barista spoke again without moving his lips beneath his beard.
“Are you sure you know vut eat eaz you are doing? Me, I do not long for any trube-le.”
Marley’s face grew cold again. He had not expected such an odd response.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
The barista’s squint grew softer and his eyes opened wide. “I say, I do not vant any trube-le,” he repeated, again without moving so much as a whisker. He raised his hand and pointed to the cappuccino maker. “Once eat commences ze brewing, dere eaz no turning back. Oui?”
“Look man, all I want is a black coffee,” replied Marley, himself now squinting inquisitively toward the barista’s immovable lips.
“So eat be.”
As the barista turned to the cappuccino maker, Marley felt a cool breeze on the back of his neck. He could hear the blinds rattling against the door again. He turned to see if it had blown open, but it had not. He could no longer see the cold outside through the windows for the blinds, which were open when he came in, were now closed and the door appeared locked. Marley stood frozen in space and time.
He could see the bearded Algerian in his periphery as he pulled out a mallet, held it firm above his head then pounded it thrice into the cappuccino maker. He tried to look straight at the man, but he could not move. He swore he heard the crickets scatter from sight as the cappuccino maker rumbled to life.
Within moments the entire café was thick with steam. Marley, still cold, could no longer see the bearded barista. He could see nothing but a whitish grey fog.
The blinds were rattling again. The floor beneath Marley shook as the machine rumbled louder and louder.
Then, without notice, the rumble subsided – its industrial chug replaced by the tranquil sound of liquid streaming into a copper cup.
Marley still could not see through the steam, but as the stream turned to a slow drip he found himself gripped with the feeling that, somehow, the end was near.
Suddenly, the Algerian laughed so maniacally that if Marley’s tear ducts were not still frozen from the cold outside, he would have cried.
He clenched his eyes shut and tried to scream with all the cold breath that remained in his lungs. But he could not. He had no voice.
He did not know how long he stood frozen in place – all concept of time had been lost somewhere in the steaming – but when he opened his eyes he was surprised to learn that the Algerian had vanished, leaving nothing in his wake but a tumbler of cream and a copper cup three-quarters full of coffee so dark it cast a shadow over Marley’s entire being.
Marley reached for the cream and poured it slowly into the copper cup. He watched in horror as the white disappeared into the black abyss as if it were swallowed, whole, by the darkness.
He held the cup to his nose and sniffed for an aroma, but there was none, for not even scent could escape the coffee’s grip.
He closed his eyes tightly, opened his mouth, put the copper to his lips and, with one swift gulp, inhaled the Bedouin brew.
The grounds burned as they flushed down his esophagus. His eyes burst open as he swallowed. His head shook uncontrollably, his cheeks wiggled like the drooping jowls of a bulldog against his jaw. Warm tears ran down his face and legs.
Marley again heard the croak of the crickets as he brushed back the tears with the palm of his hand. He looked at his watch. It was almost midnight, and for some reason, Marley felt excited that a new day was about to dawn with that hour’s passing.
He turned on his heel and looked around the café for the barista, but he was nowhere to be seen.
As he exited once more into the cold of the winter’s night, Marley felt strangely insulated from the frost he once craved. His shirt was moist with perspiration. He touched his cheek. It was warm. He unbuttoned his coat and slipped his hand against his heart. Something profound had changed in Marley for it too was warm.
Turning back for one last questioning look at Le Café Depot, Marley was shocked to find it gone, erased from existence.
He walked to where moments before the door had stood. Rummaging through the snow, searching for any sign of the door, he felt his toe kick something solid, something large yet lost somewhere beneath the snow. He reached down and brushed the snow from the object. It was a plank of wood, pierced through with two iron rings. He grabbed the piece of wood with both hands, stood up and looked it over. It was a sign rotted so deep he could not make out what was written on its visage. Struggling to make sense of its message he bent the wood in his hands, breaking it into pieces and sending it crumbling back into the snow. Within moments, a cool wind swept down the cobbled alley, carrying snowflakes, and the remnants of the sign off with it.
Marley watched as the wind brushed past him, but still, he felt warm.
Looking up into the moonless sky once more, Marley spotted the father he’d seen earlier standing in a window above him. The man was now alone looking out at the cold. He was singing. Marley struggled to hear his voice, but was sure he knew what the man was caroling, and for reasons he could not comprehend, Marley joined him in his song.
“. . . and since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
Just then, the bells inside the twin steeples of Notre Dame de Montreal began to chime. It was Christmas morning, and for the first time in years, Stuart Marley was alive.