In the Lamont Cafe, pictures of local artists hang on the wall. One artist hangs his portraits in the same spot every time one is taken off. His demented portraits hang right before the counter and greet any customer who orders. One portrait was of a woman, crying, her tears reacting like acid on her skin. The skin on the woman’s face melts, her teeth, muscles, and tendons are exposed. The artist portraits, although out of place for a cafe, are familiar to Lamont. The cafe is a monochromatic paradise. The counters are gray, the booths are faded black, and the white concrete walls are stained by years of dirt.
Another portrait shows someone smiling. Their cheeks disappear as their lips stretch past their face. Their hair is long and greasy. They experience a manic type of happiness. Something crazy lingers in the lines of the subject’s face. They look like they’re on drugs. The artist is sure the subject wasn’t high. However, that’s how the artist saw them.
The artist doesn’t like to think that his drawings evoke happiness. He sits in a single booth of the Lamont Cafe and looks at the spot on the wall. It’s empty -waiting for another one of his portraits. They all showcase something the subject is oblivious to, but somehow manages to reveal itself. The barista remembers; on another ordinary afternoon, a man walks into the cafe and stops before the counter. He looks at the portrait next to the counter -it’s him. He looks at his face -it’s demented and brusied visage provoked anger in him. In petulance, he rips the portrait off the wall. The barista tells the man he has to pay for it. The man pays for his coffee and leaves.
The barista told the artist of the encounter. Neither could help but laugh -but neither were laughing for the same reason. For the barista, this is just another day for his catalog of funny days at the cafe. For the artist, he could’ve made the portrait much worse.
As the artist sits in the booth by the window, he inspects his notebook. His subject is a man: handsome, with a square jaw, and blue eyes. The curly long hair on the man’s head is aflame. The man’s scalp is burning, ash falls on his shoulders, the smell of burnt hair seems to linger, and he smiles. The artist likes to think this man would do anything to charm an audience. Despite the pain and the melting flesh on his head -he smiles. The artist cracks a smile thinking about when he shows his portrait to the man.
“Ahh another gentle portrait?” The barista is wiping down a booth. “Should I be expecting another customer theft?”
“No money is worth a reaction like that,” the artist smirks.
“May I see?” the barista leans over the artist; one hand balancing on the edge of the booth, the other on the table. “Does he like the pain or is he pretending it doesn’t exist?”
“Both -and neither” the artist answers.
“Up to the viewer’s discretion?” the barista looks down into the eyes of the artist. He knows the artist well. He sees his desire and craving to make art. He’s always there in the early afternoon, with a different drink order every day, and a new book. The artist sees the barista as well. He’s not tied to material pleasures. He seeks the importance of the mundane, the neighborhood regulars, and structure. Someone enters the cafe: a woman. The barista ventures behind the bar and takes her order. They see each other, yet they always end up on opposite sides of the counter.
The artist, who is curious about the barista’s ‘viewer discretion’, gazes out the window. Even in the city streets, an overcast of gloominess lingers. Snow speckles the gray streets. Clouds shade the buildings from the sun. The artist looks inwards and sees a collection of pots in the windowsill of the Lamont Cafe.
The vibrant hues of orange, green, and blue captivate the artist. The pots are crafted into little monsters, their heads house viney plants that lay over the side of them. Their arms curve around to make handles and a large tongue sticks from their mouths.
“I call the green one Claire,” the barista says. “She’s my favorite of the three.”
“Did you make these?” the artist asks.
Amongst the bleak environment of the Lamont Cafe, the pots welcome the guests of the cafe. How did the artist never see them before? How did such playful creations never seek him out? The artist is mesmerized. Never has he seen so much color in Lamont.
“They are adorable,” the artist smiles. “Yet so terrifying.”
“Not as terrifying as your portraits.”
The artist looks down at his portraits. The barista is right. The portraits are violent and disturbing. While the barista’s pots are full of whim. Suddenly, the artist wonders how he could let this happen. How could he let such darkness into his art? This is all he has known of art: to bring something out of darkness. Yet the barista exaggerates the goodness the light provides.
“How long have you been making pots?”
“Decades, so many years I can’t count.”
“Has it always been these monsters?”
“Always pots -but not always this style.” The barista looks towards the pots as if he is looking at the past. “I started making simple pots in primary school. Then I got into making ancient Aztec pottery, then Native American, then stuff more abstract. It was only recently that I started doing these little monsters.”
“Which one is your favorite style?”
“I like them all for different reasons,” the barista yearns at the monsters tenderly. “But I do enjoy the monsters.”
“I do too,” the artist smiles. The barista goes back to wiping tables -but before he can completely turn his back. “Is that why you make pots? To enjoy them?”
“When I make a pot, I take in consideration how people are going to use it -some people want to put flowers in them, others want to just use it for decoration. Do you make your portraits to make people happy?”
“Yes. Though it doesn’t seem to be working very well,” the artist says.
After a long silence, the two men burst into laughter.
“Who would be happy after looking at a picture of a burning scalp!” the artist admits.
“That one of the woman with spiders for eyes really had me feeling fuzzy inside,” the barista chimes.
“I still can’t believe that man took my portrait off the wall and left.”
“I can!” the barista collects himself. He sits down across from the artist. Now they are across from each other. The noise of laughter dims to a vulnerable silence. “Do you enjoy seeing people angry?”
“No -actually, I’m not sure,” a gust of silence comes over the artist. “I don’t draw with the intent to make people mad. I just draw what I see. So all I see is the darkness in others. Does that mean I want to make people angry? -or steal my art? I don’t think so.”
The barista watches as the artist sinks deeper in thought. Like a dark pit of despair -he’s contemplating everything. The barista cracked a fault open and caused an earthquake. “I don’t think it’s bad what your art does. Some people just don’t get it -it’s different.”
“Different is just a nice way of saying weird. It’s alright -you can say it: my art is weird!”
“Your art is weird,” the barista smiles. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“When someone rips your work off the wall -yes.”
“You just said ‘no money is worth a reaction like that’.”
“Yes, but then I see your pots and they bring such joy to this world. And I can’t help but want to do the same. To make people feel comfortable.” Identity exhales out of the artist as he loses it. “You’ve seen what my art does to people -it doesn’t make them comfortable. It makes them angry and rotten. And it’s my own fault! I’ve accepted that I can only make things that disgust people without trying otherwise!”
The artist begins to bargain. “Treat me like I’m made of clay. Run your fingers in the crevasses of my body, run your palms down my spine, and mold me into something joyful. Then throw me in the fire, pot a plant in my head, and perch me on the windowsill for the world to see. So I can spread joy.”
The barista sits aghast. As flattered as the barista is, something pulls over him. The desire of the artist to replicate his own work was an act of desire. The artist desires to be on the same side of the counter as the barista.
“I can’t do that.”
The artist sat in disbelief.
“In no way could I draw something as graphic as you. I can’t bring myself to it.” the barista turns the portrait over so it faces him. “It’s magical how you can take something that is real like a portrait and fictionalize it, but still keep it so based in reality. It’s something I could never imagine. I wish you would draw me -head decapitated and my body searching for it.” He traces the lines with his finger to feel them. “You should never diminish how you view art. I know it’s easy to be inspired by others and want to be them. But there are so many who wish to create what you do. There are so many artists that would kill to have someone be so angered by their portrait they rip it off the wall. Don’t let your desire cloud yourself.”
The door to the Lamont cafe opens -a couple. They head towards the counter and peer around. The barista turns the portrait to face the artist. He gets up and makes his way behind the counter to serve the couple. The couple doesn’t notice the portrait beside the counter. That’s when the artist knew.
So the artist continues to sketch -the barista pours two coffees -the snow continues to fall -and it is just another day at the Lamont Cafe.