The café was a wide hallway in a refurbished century home. It had Doric columns at the entrance and stained-glass windows in the doors. It was all offices now, walls moved around, glass doors upstairs, very sleek. You had to look hard to see the bones of a family reading the paper or playing checkers. But inside the main-floor dark hallway lived magic.
Halim’s Bibbeh always claimed the boy had a wizard’s touch. (He fashioned her Turkish coffee pot into a lamp that never needed a new bulb, and, she swore, he cured her arthritis with his drinks.) Halim was a quiet young man, who’d studied art and mathematics at Waterloo University. The math was for his parents. After college he worked three years at cafés, playing with art on the side. One café was a famous chain, but at the co-op, staff braided their beards and sported tattoos. He enjoyed the complexity of coffee, the precision of temperature, grind size, the mineral content in water, the aromatics. The other staff joked around, but coffee, to Halim, was serious.
At twenty-seven, Halim decided to open his own café.
His extended family tried to reason with him. They argued and prayed. A café! What a gamble! Still, family was family, even crazy. They lent him money and helped Halim hang Edison bulbs and install four train tables with seats, scrounged from an old Via Rail car.
Beside the tables, Halim mounted four unusual windows, piano lights above each. They looked like sorcery and perhaps they were. Behind the pebbled glass were painted scenes one might see if crossing Canada on a train. Halim, born in a refugee camp (more of a mud pit, really), had never left Waterloo since arriving at age four. He designed the paintings working from hundreds of photos. After work, he liked to sit and look at his scenes: a rusty car at the back of a farmer’s field; skinny backyards with scrap tin forts; the prairies before cities had sprung up; mountains. Sometimes a blade of grass shivered.
In February, The Narrow Café opened, with a seven-thousand-dollar espresso machine.
Local people wandered in, curious. They liked his perfect brews and the fresh herb pastries from a Lebanese bakery. Thought his windows were spellbinding. With various milks, spices and Fair Trade beans from 6,000 feet up in Los Andes—or indigenous farmers in Chiapas–Halim created something new. Word spread through social media. The lawyers and accountants upstairs soon had to bring their lattés back to work.
By the time fall leaves were under snow, the café was so popular that he’d had to post a sign, then ask people quite firmly to leave after one hour, laptop or no. He kept a blackboard behind the cash to jot the time someone sat down. Locals nicknamed him The Coffee Nazi; students hated him.
Others loved him, however. He brought in a Golden Latte in his second year, a base of shaved turmeric root, cardamom and ginger. He whipped it up with various milks and honey. It was a life changer for some. Later, he melted Camino chocolate in a copper pan, added local fresh eggnog and cinnamon. He couldn’t keep up with the lines; people had to wait ten minutes sometimes, even with him hiring a part-time cashier. These drinks couldn’t be hurried.
Part-time help was difficult. The first was a good student from the mosque, but she quit after four months for a job closer to the university. The second was always late or missed shifts. Just when he’d given up, a receptionist upstairs quit to work for him. Isa tidied up, did cash, and then learned coffee. She was quick, had two dimples, and laughed with people. (This astounded Halim.) Isa agreed that coffee was a religion, and declared his coffee made her feel freer. More—Isa. He taught her to steam velvety microfoam. In time, Isa’s espresso was excellent. She dyed her hair purple to celebrate and threw out all her dark skirts.
Eventually the hall was too narrow so Halim took out the furniture, put in an elbow shelf and raised the window art. It became a standing-only or take-out café. That lasted a month, until he brought out the Winter Dogsledding Espresso with steamed cashew milk, honey, fennel and vanilla. Then the line had to coil around like a snake.
People complained, but kept coming. The following summer he invented the Northern Lights Ice Café, with peppermint extract and something he refused to explain. They were wild about it and the lines went right out to the sidewalk. The businesses upstairs grumbled about noise; police complained about illegally parked cars. Halim didn’t know how to stop them. He liked experimenting; he loved the aromas, the tastes. After work, he rested, gazing out his painted windows.
The relatives were paid off after the first year, but after the second, Halim was wishing for a day off. A weekend. A twenty-hour sleep. A trip, maybe by train.
That second February he hung up a sign, “Will be closing for repairs in March,” and got a lot of guff about it. He spent the entire week in a hotel two hours away by train–sleeping, and occasionally ordering in.
By August, the claustrophobia of people’s faces always surrounding him, demanding, had begun to fill every dream. He shortened his hours from 7 to 5, then began to close Monday mornings.
Monday mornings he was seeing a psychologist.
The counsellor was kind, intelligent, and seemed to understand the deep reasons that he couldn’t say no to people, how he’d love to travel, but work was life, right? His parents knew that (one a dental assistant at two clinics; the other a bus driver/night custodian). He enjoyed very much creating liquid art with his drinks. The therapist served him ginger tea and he felt strangely grateful. His hand shook, sipping.
Following her advice, he began to close on Mondays entirely, and shortened Sundays from 11 to 3. There was a great deal of bellyaching from customers.
Six months later he had enough money to consider a month off, even two. But who would take over the Narrow Café? What would his parents think? Holidays were for other people, rich people, not people like his family.
His counsellor had bought a discreet diffuser but he noticed the lavender and citrus immediately. Curious, he could hardly pay attention to her radical suggestion. Something about a large wedding. Could she pass on his business card? He rejected it, then considered it. He’d have to close the café for a day. What on earth would he wear?
Create coffee for happiness, she said. And let Isa have a chance to run it. He barely noticed over the scents. Long ago, his grandmother, Bibbeh, had rubbed basil leaves or rosemary and made him smell them, name them. It was she who’d encouraged his experiments. She’d even dabbled in “peasant perfumes”. Such a waste of time, his father had said. How had Halim forgotten?
He took the wedding planner’s card.
It was nerve-wracking, wearing a smart suit (chosen by the wedding planner), and learning a new machine. But freeing. They’d placed bowls of flowers at his station, and hung a blackboard. Everyone adored his Wedding Wishes Espresso with its citrus dash. They took his business cards.
Back at the Narrow Café, Halim confided in Isa. He’d rather enjoyed the event. Could he do both, she asked. She was wiping the counters and looked up to see him staring at the windows.
Why not take a holiday? she asked. You’ve bloody well earned it.
No, I couldn’t.
Don’t you trust me to look after things? She joined him near the windows, looking out. It’d be here when you get back. I did fine when you were gone.
I know. I know it was just a day. Still—
It was all done on the hush and hush, and took two months to arrange. Isa helped him find another barista to train (about time), a newcomer from Syria. He had mud on his shoes, a light in his eyes.
Halim left his parents a loving letter and promised future contact. He invented a new coffee for the last week. With basil and cedarwood in it for Bibbeh, it was called, “Letting Go Latté.” It was hard to kiss his espresso machine goodbye. On the last day of work, Halim opened the pebbled window to his favourite scene, the Rockies, and stepped through.