The Willow Pond Café / Chapter 1

The café in this novel is based (loosely) on an actual restaurant in the Boston suburbs.

Chapter 1:  Hank returns to the Café, and a Park Ranger learns about the Café’s history

To his surprise, Hank Martinez made two wrong turns after exiting the 128 on his way to the Willow Pond Café, in the Boston suburbs.  It hasn’t been that long since I worked here, he thought.  How could I forget the way?  But, the Café was on the edge of a secluded state park, and the road signs and directions hadn’t improved since he had been in Los Angeles.  It was easy to mistake Bedford Road with Bedford Lane, or with the Old Bedford Road, and the street signs were often absent.  It was still a townie area.  The attitude among the locals was generally:  if you don’t know what road you are on, you shouldn’t be on it, and they weren’t too obsessed with street signs.  Even with smart phones and GPS, people occasionally stopped at the Café to ask directions for somewhere nearby, like the VA hospital.  Or not nearby.  More than once when Hank was working at the Café he had directed a lost motorist back to Boston, 25 miles to the east.

It was April, and the Massachusetts weather was still taunting with the promise of warmer days and greening of the trees.  Springtime, long and cold and rainy, was like an abusive spouse and the residents were the codependent partners.  They were beaten week after week with the wet and the cold, but then were grateful, even jubilant, when they got an occasional day of warm sun.  I hope they don’t expect me to wear shorts and a t-shirt just because the temperature gets above 50 degrees, Hank thought. 

He arrived at the restaurant and pulled into the gravel parking lot.  The front of the long one-story building, which faced the road, was mostly windows looking over a porch with rocking chairs.  On either side of the building were small groups of silver maples and white oaks, planted by the state to reclaim some of the land cleared long ago for farming.  After four years everything was the same:  the restaurant sign, the rocking chairs, the outside lighting, light brown color on the wooden exterior.  But that was the deal with the state.  Much of the Café’s building was on state park land and the Café needed the state’s permission to keep operating.  The agreement with the state prohibited anything new:  no new signs, no major renovations, no additions, not even a parking lot expansion.  The park was under the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department and they were zealous about protecting the park from any encroachment by the restaurant or its customers.  If Fish and Game had their way, Hank reflected, the restaurant would be a small snack shop open from 10 to 2.

And there was, in fact, An F&G truck parked in front of the Café.  Could be an inspection, Hank thought.  The operating permit required annual inspections of the restaurant and grounds.  Or it might just be coffee.  The Café was a nice warm place if you had been outside in the cold.  Next to the truck was an older Chevy Impala.  So Charles is still hanging out here, he observed.

Hank walked up and entered the vestibule and looked over the Café’s event calendar and the dozens of other various posters and messages.  The SPRING CALENDAR looked new, recently posted, with three months of concerts and events.  Hank automatically looked for prominent bands scheduled to play there, but knew that he probably wouldn’t recognize any acts in the spring, when it was still too cold to play outside.  The patio in the back of the Café, next to the Pond, could handle a larger audience and could justify name bands, in summer and fall.  During the colder months the music was mostly indoors and the audience and the acts were much smaller. 

The owner of the Café, Eddie Emerson, had a good eye and ear for identifying new bands who would soon make it big, and often booked them at his small venue.  The restaurant’s late night regulars knew they would get a first look at bands who would soon be playing at the larger Boston clubs, like the Paradise or Brighton Music Hall.  They were eager, sometimes too eager, to hustle the last diners out the door and then move the tables and chairs around to open up the stage, if the band was playing inside.  When Eddie first started running the restaurant, over thirty years before, he would get bands like the B-52s and Talking Heads to show up unannounced and play a set.  Nobody remembered that any longer but the Café still had a reputation for weekend nights. 

The calendar also showcased something called a “Sound Barrier Fundraiser”, which was unfamiliar to Hank.  The “Spring Renewal Celebration” was scheduled for the following week, which meant, Hank guessed, that the annual permit had already been approved.  Eddie wouldn’t schedule the celebration unless he already knew they had passed, he thought.  I don’t think he would, anyway.

The Café had been a fixture in the area for years, for decades, and was immensely popular with locals.  Outside of the area, the Café’s appeal had ups and downs over the years, depending on the prevailing attitudes toward the menu (a lot of fried food and beef) and the décor.  The restaurant was old and had all sorts of ancient stuff on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, or serving as benches on the floor.  There were old farming tools, fishing tools, fishing trophies, apple barrels, Boston sports memorabilia.  One of the larger tables was lighted by bulbs hanging from a wagon wheel suspended from the ceiling.  An old table —  even older than the restaurant itself – was patched together by a couple of dory oars.  No one knew, even Eddie, how it got that way. 

It was popular, but even so the Café led an uncertain life.  The actual Willow Pond, behind the Café, was a protected watershed and bird preserve.  It was part of the Lathrop State Park.  Eddie had bought the restaurant, all those years ago, with the idea of creating a performing arts center within the Lathrop Park, like Wolf Trap in Virginia.  That never happened, although Eddie kept trying throughout the years.  What did happen, because the restaurant was on park land, was that the state of Massachusetts required an annual inspection and re-permitting from the Fish and Game department.  

Inside the F&G there was a faction friendly to the Café, and an unfriendly faction, and every April they had their annual argument over the permit renewal.  For the past few years the unfriendly faction had been gaining strength along with the focus on environmental protection.  In fact, the only argument the friendly faction had was the profit sharing from the Café, which was part of the original deal.  The state took a big chunk of the Café’s profits as a fee for operating in the park, big enough to overrule – for the moment – the unfriendly faction.

When Hank had been working at the Café, while he was going to school in Boston, there had been a year when the permit had been held up for two months and the Café was shut down altogether while a new line to the local city sewer was installed.  In other years the permit had been delayed for weeks while the F&G decided.  The year-to-year existence had a big impact on the Café, with the staff not knowing whether the permit would be held up or perhaps denied altogether.  But it looks like they already got it this year, he thought.

When Hank entered the restaurant it was much darker and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust.  He could smell the aromas of the restaurant:  the lingering odor of fried food from the night before; fresh coffee; the day’s new chowder boiling.

He saw Eddie talking to someone near the bar.  After a moment Hank recognized him, Donnie, one of the rangers he knew when he had worked here.  Eddie saw Hank and shouted in his good natured way:  “Hank! The LA man is here!”  He trotted over and gave Hank a bear hug, smiling and radiating his good vibes.  “How good to see you!”  he said sincerely.  “Let me look at you.  How is my sister?”

“Mom is fine, sends her love,” Hank said, genially getting out of the hug.  “She says she wants to come out with Dad for the foliage next fall.  He’s never seen it.” 

“That’s fantastic!” Eddie said.  “You know she says that every year, though.  Do you think she means it this time?”  Eddie was simultaneously acknowledging that his sister made the statement every year, and yet buoyed that this might be the year after all.

“Could be, but you know how busy she always is with her pediatric practice.” 

“Yeah.  Well, it’s great that you can be here for the Spring Celebration.”

“I saw the notice.  You know, it was already spring when I left L.A. two weeks ago.  I hope it will be spring here soon.”  Hank allowed himself a comment about the weather differences.  The weather debate, as he called it, between Boston and southern California could get tedious quickly.

From a darkened booth in a corner, they heard Charles’s gravelly voice:  “Good to see you, Hank.” 

“Hey, Charles, good to be here,” Hank replied, speaking to the dark corner.  You couldn’t see anyone sitting there unless you got closer.  “You know, if you are serious about keeping that antique Impala, bring it out to L.A.  It’s about rusted through by now, isn’t it?” 

“Well, I am trading it in on a new Mercedes,” Charles boomed from the dark.  “With the raise and bonus I am getting at the newspaper.  Anything I can use from California?  I may as well write a God damned column about movie stars, no one cares about anything else nowadays.”

Charles had been at the Boston daily forever, it seemed, and was riding the up and down waves of the industry consolidations and layoffs.  He was weathering the storms, so far.  He had been using the Café for years as an office to write his weekly column and other stories, usually sitting in the same dark booth in the mornings.  He would leave for the lunch rush and then return in the quieter afternoon, to work on his laptop or speak quietly in his baritone voice on his phone.  He was virtually encyclopedic, and when Hank needed a term paper on short notice Charles could pretty much dictate 5,000 words extemporaneously on just about any subject.  

“Don’t mind him,” Eddie told Hank.  “He thinks it’s bad that he wasn’t selected for the paper’s latest severance deal, but it’s best that he is still writing for them.  He’s the best.”  Eddie wasn’t speaking particularly loudly but Charles responded anyway.  “I should have been selected, God damn it, but they won’t lay off any minorities, God damn it,” he grumbled.  “With my tenure at the paper, I would have gotten a year’s severance.  A year!”

“And instead we will still look forward to getting the paper,” Eddie replied, putting a good spin on it.  That’s my uncle Eddie, Hank thought, looking at Eddie’s stocky figure.  Always putting a good spin on things. 

Edward Adams Emerson had been born too late for Woodstock but had the basic elements of the aging hippie.  Loose clothes, long vests, armbands and funny twine bracelets on his wrists, sandals even in Boston’s colder weather, long thinning hair pulled back into a short ponytail.  And quite a lot of weed.  Eddie was a high functioning pot smoker.  He was the owner and front man for the Café (although his daughter Beth actually ran the place), he kept a successful calendar of musical acts year in and year out, and he kept the state Fish and Game people happy.  He had an engaging personality and seemed to connect with just about everyone he met.  He always knew something good about you, something good about your life, whoever you were.  “I heard you got that grant!” he might say to a Brandeis professor lunching at the Café.  “Tell me about the city”, he would say to someone who had been to Philadelphia.  “It must have been wonderful, how great for you to be there!  Did you see the Rodin museum?”  He was constantly on the phone, talking rather than texting.  His enthusiasm didn’t translate well to texts or tweets.  And people generally took his calls in the hopes of getting tickets to a sought-after show.  Hank wasn’t nearly as gregarious and when he had been working at the Café, his mature side admired, but his college kid side scorned, his uncle’s unaffected affability. 

“Hey, you remember Donnie, right?”  Eddie led Hank back over to the bar.  Hank did remember, and tried to conceal his uneasiness from remembering.  He had spent more than a few nights evading Donnie when swimming in the pond (against park regulations) or smoking weed on park grounds.  The last time he had seen Donnie, Hank and a girlfriend were running from him through the wooded part of the park after skinny dipping in the pond.  He had never been sure whether Donnie had recognized him.

Donnie had spent his entire career with the Fish & Game and preferred to show it.  He would wear his old faded uniform, which showed lots of time outside in the Massachusetts parks:  wet or cold most of the year, hot and sweaty the rest of the time.  Graying hair, lanky build, not too much of a paunch.  Some of the rangers needed to add tummy panels to their shirts so they could tuck them in.  His weathered face and observant eyes had seen a lot of winters.  He was relaxed and amiable but quick to remind the Café’s staff of the state’s power over the restaurant, and of the rules in general.  You were good with him as long as the rules were obeyed. 

“Good to see you, Hank,” Donnie said.  “Been a while.  Did you get rich and marry a movie star out there?”  Eddie started to shove his shoulder to indicate it was a sensitive subject, but changed it to a light tap.  Hank noticed and wondered whether Donnie had just reminded Eddie of his aforesaid power.   “Donnie, lay off,” Eddie said, “he just got here after a long drive.” 

“No worries, “ Hank replied, “and no and no.  But, do you know the actor Scarlet Johansson?”

“Of course, wow!”

“I know a guy who is dating her backup stunt double.”

“Oh. Ha.  Okay.  So you drove out here?”  Donnie criss-crossed all over eastern Mass to the different parks, but being local, and having lived his entire life in eastern Mass, would never think about driving three thousand miles in one direction. 

“I did, took my time and went through Louisiana.  Wanted to get out of LA quickly, and then slowed down.”  Hank left L.A. in a hurry, driving straight through to El Paso, about 800 miles and 11 hours away.  But he was in no hurry to arrive in Boston. Gradually slowing as he got farther east, he was poking along, barely 300 miles a day through the south.  “I actually spent an extra day in Picauyne, Mississippi, yes there is a town called Picayune, at a motor court there.”

He was about to describe his time there, at the Mississippi hamlet, when another ranger, a younger woman, walked up looking at a tablet.  “There she is,” announced Donnie.  “Hank, this is Harron Baum, new on the Fish & Game team  She is part of the Division of Ecological Restoration.”  Someone under 60, Hank thought.  “Harron, this is John Hancock Martinez, we call him Hank.  He used to work here at the restaurant.” 

“Oh, another relative?”  Harron Baum asked, studying Hank for a family resemblance and tapping on the tablet.  “Yes, my nephew!”  Eddie said proudly. 

“Just call me Ranger Baum,” she said to Hank, smiling, “it’s easier and you don’t have to worry about the spelling.  Not the bird, but H- A- R- R- O- N.”  Hank introduced himself and looked her over.  A little shorter than Eddie but the same stocky build, not like Donnie’s lean and lanky frame.  Thirty-something.  And a brand new uniform, sharp stitching and bright new nametag.  Kind of tight on her, he noticed.  She might have to shed that skin and get a new one if she grows much more, he thought, resorting to a New England shellfish analogy.

“Shall we begin?”  She said, a little more official.  Eddie looked at Donnie, who said “Ranger Baum will be point on the permit process this year.” I thought it was already approved, Hank wondered.  What’s the deal?  But he didn’t say anything. 

“I’ve made some initial notes and comments about the permit renewal.”  She looked pointedly at Hank. 

“I’d like for Hank to hear this, if it’s all the same to you,” Eddie said, earnestly.  “He will be helping out in the office for a while.”  If I must, Hank thought.  That’s what I promised Mom. 

“Very well,” Ranger Baum said, thinking a little about whether that would change what she had to say.  She had her approach ready for the two older men but was thinking about Hank listening.  “Would you like to sit?”  Eddie asked.  “No, this is fine,” Ranger Baum replied.  She was shorter than all three men, and didn’t want to give the impression that she needed to sit to equalize things. 

“Okay.  First off, let’s address the noise pollution.”  She referred to her tablet.  “Noise levels from the facility are suspected of frightening protected bird populations in the preserve, specifically the Cistothorus platensis, the sedge wren, which nests here in the preserve in the spring.  Human-made noise pollution impacts animal habitats and directly influences their ability to communicate properly, which has implications for survival and population numbers for birds.”

Eddie nodded, trying to imagine what a sedge wren looked like.  The pond had a million birds, it seemed to him.  He tried to understand the impact on one particular bird. 

Ranger Baum continued:  “The facility has numerous musical events here which are the primary origins of the noise pollution.  In the past a sound barrier, on the back patio between the facility and the preserve, has been recommended “  she looked at Donnie, lingering on the word recommended, “but now this will be a requirement for the continuation of noise levels above 75 decibels.” 

Eddie looked blankly at Ranger Baum.  “About the same noise as a toilet flush,” Hank said.  “That’s right,” she agreed enthusiastically, missing Hank’s intonation.  “Noise levels above that are correlated with nesting disruptions and population declines.” 

“We can’t flush toilets?”  Eddie asked.  It wasn’t sarcastic; he was trying to understand the level of restriction.  “Let’s just stick with the 75 decibels as a marker,” Ranger Baum replied.  “A sound barrier will take care of most noise pollution.  So we’ll need to see a schedule of when that will occur, certainly no later than the next nesting season, next spring.”   She looked at Eddie and waited.  “Yes, we will get on that,” Eddie said.  “We’ve been raising funds for the wall for a while now.” 

Ranger Baum smiled.  “That’s great, thanks Mr. Emerson.  Oh, and another thing:  I noticed, during the walk around the building, one or two feral-looking cats hanging around the dumpster.  We can’t encourage that; feral cats are a tremendous threat to songbirds here in the park.  So we are urging you to control them.”  Ranger Baum again gazed at Eddie and waited for his response. 

“Okay,” she continued, “now let’s check off some housekeeping items:  You will remain the owner of the Willow Pond Café over the next year, yes?” 

“Of course,” Eddie replied.

“You need to be the owner to renew the permit,” Ranger Baum reiterated.  “It’s not transferable.  And you will keep a 1 am curfew on outside lights, correct?”

“Also correct,” Eddie said.

Ranger Baum listed a few more requirements, all as obvious and known as the first two.  She’s making sure of her authority, Hank noticed.  Making Eddie agree to the requirements, even though they were already agreed to. 

“Now, a few items within the facility itself which were observed during the inspection,” Ranger Baum said, staying formal.  “There are some things in need of repair.  There is a broken and unrepaired light fixture near the rest rooms;  a corner booth has a shattered glass panel, right at head level for the diners; and the janitor’s closet has an obvious hole in the wall, open to the men’s room on the other side.  There seems to have been an attempt to repair the hole, not to close it up, but to put a wire cage around it. 

“All of these are potential building code violations,” Ranger Baum added, “and could impact the permit.” 

Eddie had been attentive and apprehensive when Baum mentioned “a few items within the facility,” but was quickly relieved as she went through the list.  He nodded understandingly, even merrily, as she spoke. 

“The Café has a long, great history,” Eddie began.  Ranger Baum looked at him intently, trying to make the connection.  “You can see a ton of mementoes around, pictures of local celebs and athletes, other souvenirs.”  He walked Ranger Baum over to a glass case on a wall.  “Here’s the baseball that beaned Aaron Boone, Yankee manager, at Fenway during batting practice one game.  Very precious to us.  The glass case is like the Blarney Stone, everyone touches it before a Yankee game. 

“We try to discourage actual kissing,” he added. 

Baum looked puzzled and a little skeptical.  Eddie noticed and said “Yes, kind of surprising, but we have a lot of Red Sox believers here.

“Here is another memento:  a broken pool cue,” he continued, pointing out another glass case.  “This cue was snapped in two by Rajon Rondo, former Celtic, with his one hand.”  Eddie looked closely at Ranger Baum to make sure she understood the significance. 

“Basketball player” said Charles from his booth.  “Extremely hard to do with one hand.”  Eddie nodded in agreement.  Ranger Baum said “Okay, but the list here…”

“Right, your list,” said Eddie accommodatingly, “and here is the light fixture.”  They walked over to the wall where a wall sconce, high up and close to the ceiling, was broken and dangling from the fixture, about 7 feet off the floor. 

“So way back when,” Eddie began, “Kevin McHale is a player on the team…” 

“The Celtics basketball team,” Charles interrupted.

“.. and he comes here to the Café every now and then,” Eddie resumed.  “He is up here after a tough loss to the Sixers.  Kevin had had a lousy game and a there was a table of fans who weren’t shy about telling him.” 

“The fans were criticizing him right here?” Baum asked, getting drawn into the story.  “Yeah, it was a little different back then,”  Eddie replied.  “The players were a little more accessible, for good or for worse.”

Very different,” Charles added.  Celtics players would still use the Café after workouts at a nearby facility but they were very low key and most regulars left them alone, so they wouldn’t be driven away. 

“Right,” said Eddie.  “Anyway, there is some loud talk, and then some louder talk.  McHale is in a bad mood and nobody is especially sober.  There is some shouting.  One guy at the table thinks that he is not making his position clear enough.  He stands up and gets closer to Kevin in order to present his argument better.  McHale picks the guy up, he’s strong, slams him up on the wall, and the guy’s head busts the lamp.  And that’s the McHale lamp dunk,” Eddie says.  Baum looked up at the light, about 7 feet high.  Donnie nods in affirmation, and they hear “Yes, it happened” from Charles’s booth.  “Everybody is pretty surprised,” said Eddie, “including Kevin,  that’s a powerful slam by him.  Right away Kevin is sorry, the guy is sorry, his friends are sorry,  they all have a drink, get some ice for the guy’s head, and swear eternal enmity to the Sixers. 

“We took all the glass out and disconnected the power, so no hazard,” Eddie says.  “We got Kevin to autograph the wall, but it’s a little sloppy up there.”  Baum looked up to see a scribble seven feet up, not knowing what to think.  If this is a ruse, she thought, just to avoid fixing the light, it’s a pretty elaborate ruse. 

“Yeah, a little different environment back then,” Eddie said, noticing Baum’s expression. 

“Now, the cracked glass, well that’s over here at what we call the Senator’s booth,” he continued, walking over to a corner booth.  Above the plush seats in the booth there was a row of glass panes, each about one square foot.  In the middle of the row, one pane had been shattered, with a dramatic pattern of shards radiating from the center.  “For several years, the state’s senior senator would come here occasionally, mostly for peace and quiet, to get away from the city.  One afternoon, when the place was pretty empty, he was with one of his aides, just him and her in the booth.  They were working on a bottle of Glenlivet pretty good, and checking out the dimensions of the booth.   After a while, in a moment of enthusiasm I guess, he arched his back and his head jerked backwards and hit the glass pane.  Cracked it and made that interesting pattern.  He had that big head, you know.  We’ve put epoxy on the pane, so no further deterioration or damage will happen.” 

Ranger Baum looked at Eddie.  “You mean that was…”

“Yes, that senator.”

“Shouldn’t you have just fixed the glass?”  Baum asked, vaguely worried about preserving the evidence, although it was years prior. Also, she didn’t especially want to further this topic.

“Well, it’s a memento, a piece of history.  He didn’t care.  We didn’t get an autograph, though.”  Before Baum could respond Eddie went on.  “Now, you are wondering about the ‘hole’ in the bathroom.”

Baum looked at Eddie and Donnie, wondering if she did want to know.  This seemed to be getting away from her.  “It’s another souvenir,”  Eddie continued, still enthusiastic about the history.  “It’s Manny’s breakthrough.”

“Baseball,” said Charles from his corner. 

“The Sox are slumping, Manny is slumping.  After a bad game he is up here thinking and drinking, and he punches the wall out of frustration and anger.  His punch goes through two layers of drywall.  You can see right into the maintenance closet.  But the thing is, the next day, he goes 4 for 4, sore knuckles and all.  We were going to patch it but held off.  He starts a streak of hitting .400.  Helped turn the season around.  So it’s called Manny’s breakthrough.  Another restaurant memento.” 

“Manny Ramirez, Red Sox, baseball,” said Charles from his booth, after Baum was silent for a minute.  She wasn’t sure what drywall was; or whether you could punch through it.  It didn’t seem likely. 

“But you don’t have signs or anything,” she pointed out. 

“No, it’s kind of an off-the-menu thing,” Eddie replied.  “Most of our regulars know. ”  Baum looked at Eddie and Donnie, trying to tell if she was being pranked.  You could never tell with this sports mania, she thought.

After a moment she shook her head dismissively and pulled herself up.  “Well, irregardless, the sports fixation is not the issue. Our main concerns are not about these details, although if there are building code violations then they certainly need to be corrected.  No, Mr. Emerson, for the operating permit we are more concerned about making the facility here, the restaurant and resources which are on the park grounds, more available to more groups.  Not to just the traditional classes. We need more inclusivity and diversity:  ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, the disabled, for example.  The permit for this year has been approved, as you have been informed. Off the record, I should tell you that I was opposed to that decision. But for next year, we will base the permit on how well this facility is utilized by all groups;  on how well their voices are heard here.  We’ll be actively monitoring the progress on that throughout the next 12 months.”

Eddie nodded, but looked to Donnie for some guidance.  The elder ranger just shrugged.  “This is how the department is going to view the agreement, Eddie,” he said.  “And it’s not any different from the other parks.”

After a few minutes the two rangers said their goodbyes and left, leaving Eddie and Hank looking at each other.  “Hey, we’ve got a year,” Eddie finally said. 

* * * *