The store above the love-themed café sold hats. It took Cheyenne a year of drinking red-tinged coffee almost every day before she ventured upstairs to check out the hats.
Hats were something extra. Unnecessary. So was drinking coffee the color of bloodied mud in a café surrounded by red cardboard hearts and photos of dreamy celebrities and multiple gilded prints of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.
No, hats were worse than unnecessary, because Cheyenne hated them. She thought they made a face look like an intentional portrait against a canvas’ complementary background. She made the trip upstairs at the request of Jake, who owned the café. He had a wife upstairs who sold hats, and after a year of drinking Jake’s coffee, she felt loyal to his brand.
It was a Saturday morning, and Cheyenne was enjoying a steaming love coffee and still-warm love breakfast cookie. She dipped the cookie, which was heart-shaped and covered with electric red sprinkles, into her sweet cup, and she wished that this comfort and containment would endure.
“It’s early,” Jake said as he sat down at her table, which really was her table, which was always free for her, which was under a row of black-and-white posters featuring Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Doris Day with their eyes scribbled over with red marker, the pupils replaced by hearts.
“I’m your only customer,” she said with a hint of apology. “Do you want to close down for a while and go back to bed?”
“No. That would be lazy,” he said. He pulled the dishrag from his lap and wiped his brow. “More people will come once the rain stops.”
“I’m sure,” she said.
The windows were covered with thick black shades, and the loudspeakers played sultry French songs at a high volume, so there was no way to tell what the weather was doing. But when they had both arrived at 6 am, the rain had been cold and merciless.
“Maybe you can lure your roommates out for some coffee,” said Jake, wriggling his eyebrows seductively.
“Maybe…” she said. “But when it’s cold, they don’t like to leave the house.”
“It’s warm in here, though,” he said.
“But you’ll grow weak and cold without more snacks. Perhaps a piece of love quiche?”
“At lunch,” she assured him.
He checked his watch.
“It’s okay if I sit here until then?” she said.
“Of course,” he said. “That’s what cafés are for.”
He returned to his counter and waited, used love cookies as drumsticks to keep time with the French jazz.
Sometimes she brought something to pretend to do—a book or laptop to hide behind. Today she just sat and looked at Marilyn, Audrey, and Doris. Admired their eyes. Swirled the last quarter cup of coffee around and around her giant red mug. It was easier to contemplate her love for Jake when she wasn’t looking at him. She had fallen in love with him the first time she visited the love café, inspired by the taste of love coffee and love cake and love paninis and by hearing Jake talk about his wife Louise. The hat artist. The ethereal queen. The woman whose dreams inspired him to follow his dreams, whose dreams were just upstairs from his own.
Cheyenne thought she was inspirational, too. Or she could be. She enjoyed her job as a librarian, and she was passionate about books just like Louise was passionate about hats. True, she didn’t own her own business, but why was that so essential for being inspirational? Maybe she could open up a bookstore. Sometimes while she sat at her table, she considered how much money it would take to open her own business. What would it take to make her bookstore more successful than Louise’s hat store? Would Jake choose who made the most money as the most inspirational, or who had the biggest heart for the business?
Cheyenne had never crossed paths with Louise. She avoided visiting the hat store, and Louise never descended to make an appearance at the love café.
“Cheyenne?” Jake sat down at her table again and shattered her internal calculations.
“Yes?” She took her last sip of love coffee and prepared to order another. It was the least she could do for Jake, even if it ate into her bookstore-opening funds.
“I was thinking,” he said. “You’ve been such a loyal customer to me this year. Without you, I doubt I could keep the place afloat. I’m barely breaking even as it is. It isn’t just about the money; it’s about the emotional support. I believe that you believe in my dream.”
“I do!” she assured him. “Everywhere should be so full of love.”
“Yes, you get it. And I want you to keep getting it. But I have a little favor to ask, though I hate to. And feel free to say no. But Louise is getting down lately. Not only is she lacking customers, but she’s even lacking browsers. She’d give anything to have a few people walk in, look at her stuff, make a face, and then walk out again. It’s agony to slave away and not even have the pleasure of seeing someone react to what you’ve made. I know you said you don’t like hats, but maybe just once?”
“Of course!” She wasn’t otherwise occupied and couldn’t pretend to be. She owed it to Jake.
“Thanks, Che,” he said. “I’ll give you a refill on the house when you get back.”
She passed through the red curtains that blocked the view of the narrow stairwell. The walls of the stairwell were covered with combined images of hearts and hats…hats with hearts along the brim, hearts wearing hats, hat-shaped hearts, heart-shaped hats. What had Jake and Louise to do but play, combining and crisscrossing their passions? Lives of pure fun.
She passed through yellow curtains at the top of the stairwell, and she was greeted by hats stacked on top of hats. Some stacks were high as the ceiling, and others were just over the top of her head.
“Hello?” she called.
“Feel free to look around!”
Louise had a deep, silky voice. Cheyenne blushed.
The hat assortment appeared chaotic at first glance, but upon deeper inspection, the hats had been sorted thoughtfully. The stack of fedoras was arranged according to the rainbow (ROYGBIV). The stack of top hats was arranged according to size (large to small). The stack of golf caps was arranged according to fabric (soft to rough). Once she passed the hats she recognized, she entered a passageway lined with stacks of hats whose names she did not know. Hats in strange shapes…hats like rhombuses, hats like octagons, hats like pancakes, hats like spirals, hats like icicles, hats like snowflakes, hats like leaves. Hats like nothing. Blobs, post-blobs, pre-blobs.
At the end of the passageway, she turned left, and there was Louise. Louise was tiny, but her hands were large. Her dark hat had a dark veil that covered her face. She was hand-sewing a zipper onto a transparent plastic hat.
“Nice hats,” said Cheyenne. Realizing this was damning Louise with faint praise, she hastily added, “They’re amazing.”
“Jake sent you up here,” Louise said.
“He told me how great it is up here.”
Louise raised her head, inspecting Cheyenne, but Cheyenne could barely make out Louise’s face behind the veil. There were two glints where her eyes should have been and a protrusion that was likely her nose.
“You love Jake,” Louise said, and she returned her attention to her hat-in-progress.
“I like Jake. As a friend. Or a chef. A coffee-maker. A decorator. I like his café. I don’t love him. You have nothing to worry about.”
“I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”
“Jake’s told me a lot about you. He worships you.”
“He doesn’t worship my hats. He doesn’t even understand them.”
It was true that Cheyenne had never seen Jake wear a hat.
“How much does this one cost?” she grabbed a hat from the top of a nearby stack. It was a soft white hat shaped like a cross.
“Three hundred dollars,” Louise said.
“Oh,” Cheyenne said. “I’m sorry. Well, I know it has to be expensive. After all, it’s homemade. Or handmade.”
“It’s okay if you’re too poor to afford it. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not too poor. But I have a budget.”
“You want to save your money for daily coffees. That’s all right. There’s another way you can have it, if you really want it.”
“How?” Cheyenne said, not quite sure what Louise meant by “it.”
Louise jerked her head in the direction of the green velvet curtains behind her.
“Through there. Upstairs. I have a collaborator.”
“Someone in fashion?”
“Not really,” Louise said. “An artist. Jake is a non-artist. I am a semi-artist. This man upstairs is a true artist. He is a puppeteer.”
“That sounds interesting,” Cheyenne said. She slowly backed away from Louise, moving towards the black curtains that would lead her downstairs again. The green curtains seemed to pulse with anxious energy. She heard a sound like a whirring saw from upstairs.
“Don’t go,” Louise said without a trace of desperation in her voice. “We have a deal to work out.”
“I want to be upstairs with the puppeteer. You want to be here, upstairs from Jake.” She finished sewing the zipper and raised her head. She handed the clear, head-shaped plastic to Cheyenne. “For free,” she said.
“Thank you,” Cheyenne said.
“Tell Jake you made it.”
“Tell Jake you made all of these.”
“He won’t believe me!”
“He will,” Louise said. “He will believe whatever you tell him. If you want to be me, tell him Cheyenne was a part played by Louise. If you want to be you, tell him Louise was a part played by Cheyenne.”
“Then what?” Cheyenne said.
“Use your imagination. I am ready to go upstairs to join my love. I will take my semi-artistic sensibility somewhere it can be combined with someone else’s artistic sensibility.”
“You’re going to make hats for the puppets?” Cheyenne said.
“It’s better than making hats for hearts.”
“How will I keep this up?”
“You have ample merchandise. You can learn to make hats while you sell these hats. It will take you quite a while to sell them all. You have time.”
“How long have you waited for me? How old is your plan?” Cheyenne asked.
“I thought I’d have to wait until I was almost old. But I knew you’d come. I knew you’d read books about how to open a business. I knew those books would lead you to books about how to conquer fear. And I knew those books would lead you to books about acting instead of analyzing. You smell like books. Soon you could smell like life. That’s what Jake likes.”
Cheyenne held the transparent hat for a moment, then unzipped it and tried it on. It zipped around the circumference of her head. Louise held up a mirror. The hat made her head look like a mechanical raindrop.
“I’m giving you everything you ever wanted,” Louise said.
“It’s true. But what will I tell my roommates?”
“Tell them you ran off with a man. They’ll never look for you up here. They hate hats. Or at least, they never wear them.”
From the green curtains, an orange puppet appeared. He waved his hands. Surely the puppeteer lurked behind him.
“I’m coming!” Louise called in the direction of the curtains. She bowed her head at Cheyenne, and then she and the puppet disappeared behind the green curtains.
Cheyenne walked slowly down the stairs. She brushed the red curtains off like cobwebs and gratefully accepted the warm cup Jake held out for her. She showed him the hat. She told him that she made the hat, that Cheyenne had been playing the part of Louise all these years.
Jake beamed. “I knew it was you,” he said. He held her tight. “I knew it was.”
He fished a red marker from his apron pocket and drew a large heart on the plastic hat. When he put it on his head, he looked like a mechanical raindrop with a wound.
“You look wonderful,” Cheyenne said as she thought about whether it was possible to seal the third floor off from the rest of the building, the rest of the world.
“There’s more wonderful where that came from,” Jake said. “Go back to work! In a minute, I’ll be upstairs with your lunch.”
Obediently, she ascended the stairs and took her place.
Ivy Grimes has an MFA from the University of Alabama and currently lives near Washington DC. Her writing has appeared in FRiGG, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM,The Delmarva Review, Dappled Things, Five:2:One, Weave, The Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at www.ivyivyivyivy.com.