A Fine Place to Forget
Cafe Oubliette has all of the usual cafe fare; pastry, soaked mushrooms, flatbreads with cuttle jam, a small but tasteful selection of tablets and ampules. But the menu lists more exotic items as well. One of these is a dish called Fish and Chips. The Fish is lakefood; white, breaded in flour and fried to a consistency between firm and soft, like an egg poached in reverse. Chips are finger-sized wedges of turnip, also fried, and heavily salted. It is all served slippery with vinegar so your tongue is like to flinch back in your mouth as a startled snail. But press on, and you may become one of the few who develop a taste for it. The dish is presented on the plate folded in a wax paper pouch, garnished with a square of newsprint. The newsprint, like the rest of the meal, is an item apparently unique to the Cafe, densely printed with unrecognizable symbols. Most people keep these scraps. Outside the Cafe you’ll see them used as bookmarks, pasted on the back of street signs, or for sale in the market folded into the shape of a beetle. The mysterious pieces of paper seem to inspire creative expression. Just a week ago, one young woman deep in her cups spent a boisterous evening brushing auburn bangs from her eyes and “reading” everyone in the Cafe bar a horoscope from her scrap. ”Your patience shall be its own vicious reward.” “Avoid confined spaces, a terrible love waits in ambush.”
The dish, they say, is a favorite of the proprietor, who insists that it stay on the menu, and laments that it fails to sell only because the recipe is perpetually not quite right. But who knows the truth? Regulars cling to rumors of Cafe Oubliette’s founder even more tightly than those few who can stomach Fish and Chips hold to their cryptic scraps. We pass our inklings back and forth between ourselves and worry them smooth. The truth, if ever anyone knew the truth, has been so diluted by supposition that it is as well as forgotten.
There are no clocks in Cafe Oubliette. Guests bothered by this are, of course, free to bring in their own time pieces, though most regulars choose not to. They say there’s simply no need; there’s never any question of when it’s time to leave. Ask a touch later in the evening, and some may add that your watch wouldn’t be in synch with the clocks outside, anyway. Or with anyone else’s watch. It is a popular, if softly-spoken theory that, while time may be a steady flow most places, in Cafe Oubliette it pools and spins. The orrery is often cited as evidence.
The orrery is in one of the Cafe’s smaller dining alcoves, perched against the stone wall in a space that might otherwise seat a table for two. It is the only thing in the Cafe that could be accurately called clockwork, with silently spinning gears and rods visible through the wooden lattice of its plinth. Though the mechanism makes no noise, it is far from unobtrusive. Should you be seated in the orrery’s alcove, you may find yourself distracted from conversation by a moon that suddenly spins too fast to see, or a flare of constellations tilting ninety degrees about their axis. Many customers have gotten lost contemplating the orrery. What worlds’ precessions are being tracked? Why does the number of planets change from day to day?
Ask the staff about the orrery, and they will admit to knowing very little. Only that, irregularly, one of them will have to retrieve a key from behind the bar and wind a hidden mechanism at the base of the plinth. They might tell you, though, of the man who became obsessed with the orrery. The first time he was seated in its alcove, he spent his entire meal watching the machine. He returned the next day with a notebook, and spent another night observing, his pen poised. He came again the next day, and the next, and eventually his notebook was joined on the table by a stopwatch. Then a small clock. Then two more clocks. Then a pendulum. Weeks went by, and the man’s appearance became unkempt, but still every day he came and dined silently, with only his equipment, and his copious notes, and the orrery. It was a shock when, finally, he failed to appear. The staff report he has never been back since. Who is to say if he abandoned hope, or found what he was looking for?
The specialty of the house in Cafe Oubliette. The bartender always makes it a little differently, depending on whim and the timbre of the evening. (Today, you think, with a scatter of pomegranate? No, I saw the price of ginger in the market today; I’m sure it will be that.) Only three ingredients are guaranteed: 2 parts rosewater, 4 of gin, and the Get. The Get is provided by the customer, and is never the same thing twice. (Last time, I swear, the biggest cluster of star anise there ever has been. Made my throat catch just to look at it.) The Get must be accepted. Sometimes the bartender will accept immediately, plucking the Get from the bar top without a word. Other times, the Get must be justified with a tale worth forgetting. Not all Gets are deemed worthy. Customers who have their Gets turned away are rarely seen again, in Cafe Oubliette or anywhere else. But if the Get is accepted, the bartender will prepare a round for the house. A Drink to Forget is always shared.
2, 4, get me
pour yourself a brimming sea
2, 4, get you
pour myself another few
2, 4, get us
pour it all without a fuss
2, 4, get them
pour excuse for a poem.