What is in a name?
Better yet, what is a title?
A one-word or multi-worded representation of an entire story that may—or may not—be anywhere around four hundred pages long.
I peruse the shelves of the local bookstore, picking up random hard-back and soft-back novels, reading the title, then reading the blurb on the back to make sense of why the author chose the book’s name.
Some are obvious.
Some are anything but.
Carla, the shop’s owner and my landlady, watches me from behind the counter. It’s nine in the morning, and I’m the only one aside from her inside right now. I can see the question dancing behind her eyes, no doubt wondering what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
After all, I’ve lifted and laid down more than a dozen books. Either I’m an indecisive nutcase—which I will give no comment on—or I’m on a mission. A secret mission.
I read the covers and backs of five more novels before the curiosity gets the better of her.
“Alright, hon,” she says with an amused smile. “I’ve got to ask. What on earth are you doing?”
“Research,” is my distracted reply.
In my periphery, I see her skirt around the counter, coming to stand a little closer. “Research?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “What kind of research? Driving people crazy?”
I cock a brow in her direction. “No. Title research.”
My answer is rewarded with a confused frown. “Title research? Do explain.”
I shake my head. “It’s not that interesting.”
One of her hands rests on the top of the nearest shelf, supporting her weight, while the other lands on her hip with an indignant huff. “Try me.”
I sigh, my eyes going skyward. Can’t she see I’m busy? I’ve been at this for almost forty-five minutes with little result. And, quite honestly, I’m beginning to feel a little frustrated. It’s come to my attention recently, that my book has no title. A fact I’ve decided to try and remedy…. with no success.
“I’m writing a book,” I finally answer. “And I’m trying to figure out a good title for it.”
Her eyes go wide, and an excited smile cuts her mouth. “You’re writing a book? That’s so exciting.”
Oh, if only you knew, I think. It’s exciting and rewarding, but also tiring and trying. I’ve bumped into so many brick walls over the last several months, I’ve got metaphorical bruises.
I lift a hardback book. Though it sits close to my face, though my eyes register the uniquely scrolled title, I don’t actually read it.
It returns to its original spot on the shelf.
I shrug in response to her earlier statement. “It’s interesting. But I don’t have a title for it yet, and I want to make one. A good one.”
“That does sound like quite the predicament,” she comments. Her bright blue polished nails scratch at her hair. “Well, wish I could help you in some way. You’d think after being around books all the time, I’d know more about writing or naming them.”
I wave the apology away. No reason for her to be sorry. It’s not her fault. “It’s fine, Carla. It’s my problem.”
I set what I’m pretty sure if the fiftieth book I’ve looked at back down onto its shelf. My brain hurts. “I’d better get going.”
“Oh? Isn’t it your day off? Any big plans?”
I shake my head. “Not really. Just didn’t want to be stuck inside all day.”
“I understand.” Carla moves back towards the counter, sliding behind the cash register. “Hope you find a solution to your predicament. Let me know how that goes.”
I wave over my shoulder as I exit the shop. “See you later, Carla!”
The bell rings as I open the door, and rings again when it shuts behind me. The silvery sound elicits the memory of a similar one. A pleasant ring that echoed off dark gray walls and midnight blue furniture.
Is it open today?
I shake my head, trying to remember the exact number of days or weeks it’s been since I last set foot inside the disappearing café. So random, so unpredictable, I never know when I’ll see it again. But I really, really want to.
You never know, another voice whispers back. Today might be different.
I think back to all my past visits, trying to find one—at least one—common factor that might dictate why it appears some days, and not others.
First, it’s always a Monday. I strike this one from my mind, though. The only reason I come across it on Mondays is because that’s my day off. For the rest of the week, I work long hours, and I’m so tired by the time I clock-out, the thought of perusing the streets nearly robs my entire body of what energy it has left.
It has nothing to do with placement of the month, or time of the day. Every time I’ve visited the café, its been morning, noon, near evening, and always a random Monday of the month. So, no pattern there.
There’s got to be something else, I reason. Something I’m clearly missing.
I walk as I think. My feet moving me further into the downtown area.
What could it be? What am I looking over?
The agitation at my lack of understanding grows inside my chest, pushing its way up my throat until I exhale it out on a loud, frustrated sigh.
My gaze moves skyward. Could someone give me some help here?
I pause, my steps halting with a sudden realization.
Help. Help!! Yes, it’s all about help! So far, every time I’ve gone to the café, it was during times I’ve struggled. Struggled with my story, with my characters, or with my own running thoughts. Every time I’ve needed to consult someone, to get advice or ask questions, the café has appeared. Maybe that was the key.
Whatever hesitation I’ve experienced in the past is lost to me now. I rush down the sidewalk, heading for the archway and the gated door. Its hot again today, and by the time I’ve reached my destination, a bead of sweat makes its way down my temple.
I ignore it, though.
There is no wasting time on pauses today. I cross the street and walk right through the archway, stopping only when I spot the chalkboard sign.
Come On In!! It beckons, with multicolored letters. My gaze moves to the drawn picture of a white mug beneath.
I climb the cement stairs, carried by the sound of music box twinkles and piano music.
The double doors are set wide open, embracing anyone who walks through. Golden light shines from round globes hanging from the ceiling.
My shoes make very little sound on the light, gray floors, and the customers I see—and many of them I recognize—do appear to notice my presence. Al reads in the corner. Jan types away at her usual table, large headphones cover her ears. Ginette and Lucy also sit where I saw them last time. Their heads bent towards their own computers, engrossed in their work. To my surprise, as I pass, Ginette’s eyes lift from her digital screen, and she smiles, waving in my direction. Shock nearly glues me to my spot, but I smile and wave back. It’s the first time anyone has ever moved like that without C.C. prompting them to. Usually, they’re all so still and quiet, it’s almost eerie.
I shake my head and stride towards the counter, occupied only by empty air, and steaming kettles at the back.
The rose gold bell with its tiny chalkboard sign rests atop the wood. In the past, I would have hesitated. Would have worried about disturbing the others in the café. This time, however, I reach out, immediately pressing the top button.
That same, silvery sound echoes off the surrounding walls, and I find myself looking around, as though I might see the noise in its flight around the room. No one looks up, no one moves to turn in my direction.
Slowly, I go to turn back towards the counter, and nearly jump out of my skin at what I see.
C.C. leans against the countertop, her cheek resting on one of her fists.
When did she get out here? I never heard any footsteps.
She pegs me with a pleasant smile. “I knew you’d be back.”
“I’d hope so,” I say, remembering my last visit. “You read my story. I need your feedback.”
A happy light floods her features, and she snaps her fingers. “That’s right! I did read it.” She walks back towards the lower cabinets, opening one of the doors and pulling out a handful of papers. She slaps them down on the counter, a half smile tugging one edge of her mouth up. “And I liked it! More please.”
I chuckle and shake my head. I reach into my large purse, extracting more papers I’d stored there for the last few weeks, just for this occasion. “Lucky for you, I actually do have more.”
C.C. jumps up and down, clapping her hands with evident excitement. “Yay,” she snatches them from my hand. “Thank you.”
“You know, if you’d give me an email address or something, it’d be so much easier for the both of us.”
She waves the thought away. “I don’t have an email. Human to human interactions suit me better.”
Somehow, I’m not surprised to hear this. “I should’ve known.”
C.C. lays the sheet aside, regarding me with something akin to amusement.
“What?” I ask, suddenly feeling conscious. Is there something on my face?
She blows a stand of rose-gold hair from her face, the rest sitting in a messy bun at the top of her head. “Something’s troubling you.”
It’s not a question. And, considering everything that’s happened so far, I’m not surprised by this either. Why wouldn’t she know?
“Yes,” I admit.
When I say nothing further, she arches both brows. “Well? What’s going on?”
The last few times I’ve been here, I’ve confided in her, told her the current obstacle I was trying to overcome. And every time, she’s helped me, either by giving her own advice, or pointing me in the right direction to learn from someone else. Certainly, she could help me this time too, right? Isn’t that why she’s here now? Why the café is here now?
“The story is coming along,” I answer. “The characters, the world, the plot. Everything seems to be coming into fruition. Making sense of itself when I feel stumped. But, there’s one thing I find myself struggling with this time around.”
“And?” The barista prompts, leaning a little closer.
“I don’t know what to call it. The biggest thing I want right now is a proper title. But I can’t seem to come up with one.” I present an exaggerated frown. “Please help.”
The expression rouses a peal of laughter from her. She shakes her head. “What am I gonna do with you?” She taps her chin, eyes squinting as though contemplating the best way to aid me. She points my way. “You, over there.”
I follow the direction she points, taking up roost on my usual barstool along the counter’s side. “Are you going to make me something.”
She grins over her shoulder as she fumbles beneath one of her lower cabinets. I honestly begin to wonder what else she has under there. Pots? Pans?
To my surprise, what she pulls out isn’t a lion, tiger, or trapeze artist. But a glass pitcher with a cone like top. Its round shape almost makes me think of a sand timer, but with the end cut off on one side. Next, she lays a flat, black scale beside it, a thick, white square of what appears to be fabric, and a container of ground coffee.
She sits the one-sided, sand-timer pitcher on the scale, pushing buttons on the end. The music box twinkles, and piano music follow along with her movements as she folds the fabric paper into a cone and set it in the top of the pitcher.
I want to ask what she’s doing but find it difficult to form the question. I’m mesmerized by what she’s up to.
When the fabric paper is set just how she wants it, she removes her favorite copper kettle, it’s exaggerated, curving spout longer than the usual. She tips steaming water over the white cloth, and I watch the bottom of the pitcher grow foggy with steam.
She sets the kettle down, swirls the pitcher a bit, then carefully dumps the small bit of water into a sink I never noticed before beside the other pots and kettles.
Once the water is gone, she opens the jar of ground coffee, opens a nearby drawer, lifts her set of rose-gold measuring spoons, and measures out a couple scoops of ground coffee into the cone-shaped cloth.
It’s here she finally speaks. “This is called pour-over coffee. It’s one of my favorite coffee-making methods.”
“Why?” It seems like an awful lot of work to me.
She smiles, as though reading my thoughts. “Because the results are often bolder and richer.” She lifts her copper kettle again. “With pour-over coffee, speed is everything.” A clear, string of water pours from the kettle’s spout, falling into the very center of the coffee cone. She pours just enough to wet the grounds, then pulls back, letting it sit. At my questioning glance, she says. “Let it bloom first.” After about thirty seconds, she lifts and tips the kettle again.
“You always start in the middle,” she explains, eyes watching the water as it slowly hits the grounds. “Then start looping it around in circles.” Her arm moves, causing the mini water stream to wind around the full opening at the top. “The slower you pour,” she continues. “The better the result.”
I watch as the lower half of the pitcher begins to fill with coffee.
C.C. isn’t in a hurry. She takes her time, until she’s filled the bottom halfway. Then she stops, sets the copper kettle back in its usual resting place. “Then you let it sit,” she says. “For a few more minutes.”
For reasons I can’t really explain, I find myself leaning a bit closer, eyeing the fresh-made coffee as though it has a secret to tell.
I hear her opening another one of her cabinets but am too enthralled with the drink to pay any attention to what she’s looking for. A white mug lands on the counter, startling me. She holds up a hand in apology. Then gently lifts the cloth and its ground out of the top.
She tosses it in a garbage can I cannot see.
C.C. gives the coffee a couple more seconds to cool, then fills the white mug. She slides it closer to me. “Give it a try.”
My lips purse with trepidation. I’m not much a black coffee drinker. My preference leans more towards sweet. But C.C.’s yet to give me something I didn’t like. So, after giving the liquid a cooling blow, I take a tentative sip. I pause, take another, and pause again.
It’s not as bitter as I expected. It’s has more of a potent flavor, richer than I’ve had before. No need for sweetener or cream. Not in my opinion.
C.C. leans in expectantly.
I smile, shake my head. “Delicious. As usual with you.”
She beams at me.
I take another sip, set the mug down. “Alright, what’s the lesson this time.” When I’m receive a cocked brow, I see through the façade. “Come on, I know you’re teaching me something with this. I don’t what, though. Do you plan on making me guess?”
A chuckle lights the air between us. “Am I so predictable?”
Not at all.
“Only with this,” I answer. “So, what’s the lesson. Tell me.”
“Hard work yields the best results. You’ve worked hard on this story, chasing your own thoughts around and around until your head is almost too muddled to hold any. As with the steeping tea, it’s better to let them sit sometimes, make themselves clearer.” She pours more coffee into my mug, replenishing the small amount I’d already drank.
“A title is meant to be the embodiment—for lack of a better word—of the story. It holds the very essence of the tale. Not only to catch potential readers but give them a small peek into the world without lifting the cover.” She holds up the pitcher, giving it a little swirl so the contents circle the inner walls. “The best title, like the best coffee, takes time and patience. Let your mind brew on it a little longer. You’ll develop one in time.”
“So, wait it out,” I divulge, sipping more of the coffee. The more I drink it, the more I like it. C.C. may have just converted me to a black coffee drinker, as long as it’s prepared like this anyway.
“Worked for you last time, didn’t it?”
I nod in acknowledgement. “You really think I can create a good one?”
Her mouth curves up on either side. “I do.”
I down the rest of the coffee in my mug and stand. “Thanks, C.C. You’re always a really big help to me.”
She swats the thanks away. “It’s my pleasure. Anything to help a friend.” Her hand lands on top of the papers from the story she’d read. She slides them my way. “I’m not quite as good at it as Ginette and Lucy, but I made little comments here and there. Hope they help.”
I slip the sheets into my purse, fumble a five-dollar bill from my wallet, and shove it into the tip jar. “Because I know you won’t charge me.”
She laughs. “I guess I am getting predictable.”
“Only with this.” I repeat.
Just as I make to turn for the door, I remember something. “Hey C.C., can I ask you something?”
“This café, what’s the name of it? I’ve been in a number of times now, but I’ve never seen a sign or anything.”
Her red lips part into a smile I’ve seen people wear before. A smile of someone who knows something others might not know. She reaches out and taps the bell’s button, causing the familiar, pleasant sound to flood the room. “Nothing?”
“Are you sure?”
My brows cinch. “Yes, I’m sure. I haven’t seen anything at all.”
One of her brows curves towards her hair. “Positive?”
My hand flies out, snatching the bell before she can ring it again. “Would you just tell me?”
“I already did.” With that, she scoops up her pitcher, her ground coffee, measuring spoons, and scale and breezes into the back room. The message, to me, is as clear as any.
Until next time.
I shake my head. Why didn’t she just tell me. I glance down towards the bell, intending to place it back in its spot, when something catches my eye.
Something I hadn’t noticed before and might have overlooked for who knows how long.
Etched along the bottom edge of the bell, I see three words. Only three.
The Character Café
I set the bell back down. The Character Café?
I walk for the door, peeking over my shoulder at the customers, the steaming kettles, the empty counter. The music follows me down the stairs and past the chalkboard sign.
Come Again Soon!
My mind is distracted my entire walk home. I pay no attention to people I pass on the sidewalk, or the temperature outside. I punch my code into the first door, climb the wooden stairs, then unlock the second door, closing it behind me.
I walk to my kitchen, pour myself a glass of water, and take a long drink. My eyes rove over my small, cozy apartment, landing on the laptop sitting on my coffee table. I think of the story hidden away inside, of the characters and the world I’ve created. And then, I think of the café.
The Character Café.
“A title is meant to be the embodiment….of the story.” C.C.’s words echo inside my head. “It holds the very essence of the tale.”
Did that apply to only books? Or did it work for people and places too? If so, then what does The Character Café’s name say about itself?
I think of the other customers, people I’ve interacted with and like. I think of C.C. and her mysterious ways. And I think of the café itself. It’s tendency to be there one moment, then gone the next. I lift my story from my purse, flipping through the pages and reading little comments here and there. Words of praise, and words of advice.
It’s proof. Proof of a person named C.C., who I’ve only ever seen inside the café. And proof of an establishment that might be open, but then might not. Of how it seems to speak to people—Creatives, as C.C. likes to call them—with a creative talent, of how it’s come around when I’ve needed it for one reason or another. And every time, someone with the right answers just happens to be there.
The Character Café.
Quite the name, I think. Quite the name, indeed.