A strange coffee house... A dead pop singer... An evil song that refuses to die...
Bolted to the wall of Max’s coffee shop, about 6 feet off the floor, is a faux wood grain early 1960s TV cabinet with a mismatched black formica door. Behind the door is a mad doctorish collection of dials, pulleys, meters, gauges, and knobs called Victor. A one of a kind jukebox, Victor has been filling the establishment with sound since long before Max acquired the place from its previous owner, who gave the contraption its name. Max knows how to work Victor, but neither he nor anyone else has a clue what makes Victor work.
But work he does. Somewhere within his mysterious innards, Victor has room for countless songs, from tinny-sounding numbers from the dawn of records to reverb-washed synth-pop of the 80s. They form a pleasant background for working and imbibing coffee. You can enjoy them if you want to, and ignore them when you need to. Perfect.
But there are a few songs that won’t let themselves be ignored no matter how urgent the need or how hard you try. You’ve heard them: the annoying tunes that invade your consciousness and entrench themselves in your head, glued to your brain cells by a viciously viscous combination of irresistible melody, lyric and gimmick. The maddeningly unforgettable pop tune is the sonic equivalent of a psycho Ex or a cold sore: suddenly there, never completely gone. Always lurking.
One of those insidious tunes is a pop ditty from 1950, “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake,” sung by a bubbly chanteuse named Eileen Barton. To say that it bugs me senseless would be an understatement. Victor has an annoying habit of spitting it out at the exact moment when I’ve achieved trance-like concentration on my writing, when the words are cascading from brain to fingers to hard drive. The worst part is, when the song is over, its sugary hooks keep replaying themselves in my head. It’s like hitting a huge pothole after cruising down a hundred miles of placid highway, and then hearing pieces of your car shaking loose for the rest of the ride. Eileen Barton’s contribution to pop history is a guaranteed brainjacking.
For my first few months as a patron of Max’s famously humble coffee establishment, I try to close my ears to it and go on working. But it’s impossible. The female singer’s timbre and delivery are calculated to kick you while you’re down, and keep kicking: “If I knew you were comin’ I’dve baked a cake…” Again: “Hired a band…” Again: “Goodness sake…” Always leading to the inevitable “Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do…” Like the scream of the damned or the first time you hear your mother fart, that horrendously annoying line cannot be unheard.
Failing in my efforts to ignore it, I try a new tactic: to make peace with it in the spirit of love-thy-enemy. I Google Eileen Barton. She died in 2006. When she sang this number she was vivacious and sexy, with a sassy smile and a curves-meet-angles body absolutely made for the soft but enhancing drape of a cashmere sweater. Unfortunately, making peace with the song doesn’t help. The brainjacking continues. And it worsens: now the sugary hooks continue to reverberate through my head for hours after I’ve gone home.
So I try yet another tactic: surrender. I allow the song to carry me back in time, relive “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” as if it’s 1950, in the hope that when it’s over I can switch off the mental radio and regain control of my life.
But this tactic is a disaster; it only gives birth to additional distractions. Now my mind begins to paint vanilla buttercream-scented pictures of private, all-cake dinners with the gorgeous chanteuse, whose sweater vanishes inch by inch with every bite. The song ends, but there she is, 5-foot-6 of bubbly pop tart wearing nothing but a smile and a few deft smears of Duncan Hines frosting.
Under some circumstances that might be pleasant. But the point is that I, like most people, need to own my braintime. In a time-is-money world, there’s no room for all-consuming obsessions. But now, as deadlines flash by beyond my grasp and my life loses all semblance of what it was, I come to the frightening realization that by opening the door to Eileen Barton and her song, I’ve let in the mental hellhounds to shred that life to ribbons. The images won’t stop. When I go to bed, read the news, try to work, or drive to the store, my mind is filled with Eileen… the bounty of her Betty Crocker charms… vision after vision of zesty sessions with the cake-obsessed charmer who bends over just so to put her prize into the oven… legs meeting apron meeting sweet, kneadable dough.
At last, I realize: I’m doomed. My life has been invaded, defeated and occupied by a vapid pop ditty from over a half century ago.
Today, as I sit at Max’s and try to ignore the visions, the echoing lyrics, I fix on a scrap of hope. Could all this be due to the stratospheric caffeine content in Max’s deceptively pleasant house blend? I’m about to unburden myself to Max when the song appears out of nowhere, as it always does. When I look at Max with mute desperation, I’m surprised to see the same look on his face.
“You too?” I ask, astounded.
“God, yes!” The words burst from him as if he’s been carrying a heavy, terrible secret. “It pops into my head when I’m in the ’47 Plymouth,” he gripes. “I want to turn off the radio, but I can’t because it’s not on the damn radio, it’s in my head! And it won’t leave.”
“Can’t you just delete it? I mean, Victor won’t mind.”
His face goes pale. He’s worried, he says. The previous proprietor, a Mr. Gertler, urged him to never mess with the music contained in the bizarre contraption. Max adopts a nasal twang in imitation of the old man.
“’Vic’s as much a part of this place as the walls and the book shelves and the Hamilton Beach milkshake blender. No, sir, you gotta promise to leave them songs alone, or no deal.”
Finally, it was written into the contract: Max was to leave Victor’s immense song list alone, duds and all, or the keys to the coffee kingdom would go to someone else.
He signed, and endured. Poor Max, all this time he’s been suffering, too. How many other people’s minds have been hijacked by this and other pop ditties, we wonder. Could this all be some kind of conspiracy to deliver humankind to the Dark Powers? The Masons, perhaps? I mean, how effective can a soceity be if the brains of half its population are hopelessly hijacked by corny lyrics and facile melodic hooks? Seriously, you wouldn’t need drugs, pornography, or alcohol to cripple a civilization into submission.
All you’d need is Justin Bieber.
About two hours and three cups into my latest visit, Max emerges from behind the counter to stand framed by a collection of rusting metal advertising signs. “What do you think of the music?” he asks. He raises a brow, conspiratorial. Duke Ellington is playing. I love it, of course.
“No,” Max says. “Maybe I should ask, what do you think of the playlist?”
And it occurs to me: It’s been an Eileen Barton-free morning. No cake. No visions of cashmere sweaters and flour flecked cheeks. No “Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do.”
Max smiles and produces the local paper. “Check it out."
He eagerly folds it and points at the obituary page. There’s a pixilated image of a white haired man standing in front of an antique, cast-iron coffee grinder.
“It’s Mr. Gertler, the guy who sold me this place,” Max says. “His oxygen tank blew up last week at the senior center in Stanton. When I saw his obit last night, I got to thinking… There was no time frame specified in the sales contract, and the contract is only binding as regards to him, and he has no direct heirs. So I figured that with him gone, there was no reason to keep Eileen Barton on the playlist.”
I congratulate Max on his tactical brilliance and settle down to catch up on my work. It’s remarkably easy to find my way back into my own head now that it’s not filled with visions of cake, echoing lyrics, and buttercream-smeared cashmere sweaters.
I own myself again! Max does, too. I can see it in his bearing: lighter, more carefree. His conversations with customers are more animated and expansive. No doubt some of them, too, have been suffering all this time.
Closing time. Max sends the last customer into the night with the day’s final cup of caffeine-rich house blend. We know that the dawn will bring not only a new day, but a new era.
About one and half cups into my next visit, my fingers are flying across the keyboard. Words are rushing onto the page with an exhilarating freedom I haven’t experienced for months. Then something strange happens. The aroma of fresh ground house blend that normally suffuses the place slowly begins to get usurped by another familiar aroma: vanilla buttercream. A palpitation flutters through my chest. I look up to see Max behind the counter. He’s noticed it, too. The look on his face is going from perplexed to alarmed.
Suddenly, Victor’s formica door flies open. His dials and gauges flash. Then the cursed sound blares through the speakers: “If I knew you were comin’ I’dve baked a cake!” Eileen Barton is back with a vengeance. The bubbly voice and catchy melody reverberate through the tiny establishment. And the visions, the dreaded visions, start again.
“I don’t get it,” Max shouts, breaking into a sweat. “I swear I deleted it!”
“Do it again, do it again,” I holler with rising panic.
He does. But two minutes later it interrupts a single by The Yardbirds. He tries again. Again. At least ten times in the next hour I watch him go through the process of searching for the tune in Victor’s endless playlist, finding it, and dumping it. But like a cadaver in a 50s monster movie, it always reanimates. At one point a customer is walking in just as it comes through the speakers again. He claps his hands to his ears and flees down the sidewalks, crying, “No, God, no!”
Clearly some other kind of intervention is called for, and while driving home, wrestling to keep visions of Eileen Barton’s flour-covered body from blocking my view of the road, it comes to me…
Hailng from the East Coast as I do, where cemeteries exist in a state of year-round Fall, and brown leaves skitter among the tombstones, it’s a strange thing to see a cemetery in the blazing sunshine, the bright blue sky overhead punctuated with exuberant palm trees.
And the priests sweat more out here in the California sun. This one, a skinny old man whose cheerless mouth looks like a knife slash, finishes his eulogy and prays over the grave of the departed. A few friends and acquaintances, none of them under 75, mutter among themselves as the coffin is lowered into the ground. I hear no reminiscences, no kind words, only murmurs about a lawsuit.
“Not a chance,” grunts a leathery woman wearing flower-print sandals. “Wayne blew himself up smoking. What kind of idiot smokes with an oxygen thing up his nose?”
I approach the priest, who is none too eager to chat, and introduce myself.
“Father Darcy,” he offers without a handshake. “What can I do for you?”
I ask him if he knew the departed personally.
He squints one eye, instantly suspicious. “Why do you ask?”
I hesitate, look over both shoulders, then lean closer to him. “I’m wondering if he ever mentioned the name, Victor.”
For a nanosecond his eyes pop, then they narrow. He suddenly turns on his heel and heads for his car, his black robe billowing behind him.
“I don’t know anything about it.”
A shadowed driver sees him coming and starts the engine of the behemoth black 1985 Lincoln Continental. I hurry after him.
He jumps in the back, slams the door and raps on the driver’s seat. The wheels belch pebbles and dust as the car does a quick turn. It bumps over a stone curb, narrowly misses a tombstone marked “Blessed Be My Little Lamb,” and begins to accelerate past me towards the gate.
I take a huge breath, cup my hands to my mouth, and sing: “Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do…”
Brake lights. Tires growl against gravel. The car stops. The back door opens. Father Darcy pops his head out and fixes me with a steely gaze.
It’s midnight. The aroma of fresh ground house blend permeates the darkened recesses of Max’s as Father Darcy, Max and myself gather around Victor. The dull green glow from his dials and meters washes over our faces and casts quivering shadows across the bookshelves and rusting signs. Max goes through the steps of deleting the song. Then he scrolls through the thousands of remaining selections to prove that’s really gone.
“Okay, he says. “Watch.” He pushes a button. Twanging guitar fills the coffee house as the playlist begins with Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” Then, halfway through the song, Bill vanishes into a curtain of static, and Eileen Barton fills the room.
All of us, including the priest, cover our ears and wince. Father Darcy’s already sour face twists further with disdain. “I detest that song with an Old Testament passion,” he barks. “It pops into my head when I’m delivering my sermons. And… And..”
“And you get the visions?” I ask him. “The cake, the frosting and… you know, everything?”
Even in the pale green light I can see the blush rising in his cheeks. He suddenly yells at Max, “Turn it off, just turn the damned thing off!”
Max complies, and we all take a breath to center ourselves. Then the priest says to Max, “I need two things: a cup of coffee, light on the cream, and holy water.”
A few minutes later Max emerges from the kitchen with a steaming mug at the same moment that Father Darcy emerges from the bathroom with a cup of water in his hand. He takes the mug from Max and sips it while he paces back and forth in front of Victor, deep in thought. Finally, he motions at us to stand back a few feet.
Max and I take up position by the bookcase as Father Darcy puts down his empty mug and holds up the cup of holy water. As he moves it close to the dials and meters, steam begins to rise from it. A voice, faint at first, can be heard from the speakers. It gets louder and more coherent as the holy water gets closer to the machine. It’s a man’s voice, reed-thin and with a marked nasal twang.
“Leave us alone! Go away, damn ya! She’s mine! Mine!”
Max gasps, astonished:
“It’s Old Man Gertler…”
The water suddenly boils over. The priest drops it to the floor. “Just as I suspected,” he mutters to himself. Then he turns to us and declares:
“No doubt about it. Your jukebox is possessed.”
Stay tuned for Part Two....
© 2015 Richard Day Gore