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In a quiet mill town in Georgia sits a building that used to be a café. The café was bright and cheery, and served as a meeting place for everyone in town. The café has been closed a long time now, but its story is still worth telling.
The owner of the building is Miss Amelia, a tall, gawky, masculine woman who once ran a general store on its first floor. Folks in the town couldn't remember her ever having so much as a friend, though she loved her father deeply. After he died, she took up his businesses. Shortly after his death, a local man named Marvin Macy, (a handsome orphaned troublemaker) proposed to Miss Amelia, and she said yes, though no one in town was sure why. After the ceremony, Miss Amelia rejected any semblance of regular married life, and after ten days, the defeated Marvin Macy left town, became a robber and murderer, and was sent to jail for his crimes.
After this marriage, Miss Amelia kept to herself, selling her whiskey and doing her doctoring. Until one night when a stranger came to town, a small sickly hunchback who claimed to be in some far-flung way related to Miss Amelia. She was kind to the hunchback in a way the townspeople had never seen her behave: offering him free whiskey and inviting him to have supper. He disappeared into the upper apartments of the building, where Miss Amelia lived, and no one saw either of them for two days.
The town was sure she must have murdered him, but they were proven wrong when the hunchback, known now as Cousin Lymon, emerged looking healthier, clean, and in new clothes. Whoa.
Miss Amelia started to sell liquor and dinner in the store every evening, and suddenly the town had a café. Each night strange Cousin Lymon hopped around making jokes and mischief, making everyone feel happy. The town saw how well Miss Amelia took care of him, and believed that this odd couple might very well be in love. Cousin Lymon got a share of everything she had, and the only thing Miss Amelia kept from him was the story of her marriage to Marvin Macy.
Life went on like this, happily, for six years, until Henry Macy, Marvin's brother, received a letter from his brother, saying he'd gotten out of jail. A month or so after, Cousin Lymon saw a stranger get dropped off in front of Miss Amelia's building and began to follow him all over town. Miss Amelia, gone for the day on business, returns to find a crowd outside the café watching Lymon try to charm the stranger, Marvin Macy. She's enraged.
After that, each morning, Cousin Lymon called for Marvin Macy at his foster mother's house, and then followed him throughout the day. In the evenings, both ended up at the café. Miss Amelia did her best to coax Cousin Lymon back into their life together, while simultaneously doing everything she could to get rid of Marvin Macy. Nothing worked, and though she was unhappy, everything else went on as usual.
One day Cousin Lymon announced that Marvin Macy would move in with them. She consented against her clear preference, and tied a punching bag to a tree branch in the front yard. She began to practice daily. The town was waiting for a fight.
On Groundhog Day, it was time. Both Marvin Macy and Miss Amelia ate raw meat and napped in preparation. The town gathered, excited. The café floor was cleared of its tables, and at seven o'clock the fight began. Cousin Lymon watched from his perch on the counter as the two boxed.
They were well matched and neither had the upper hand for quite some time. They began to wrestle, and Miss Amelia pinned him, appearing victorious. But Cousin Lymon sailed from the counter and landed on Miss Amelia's back, tearing at her neck until she lost her ground. Marvin Macy was then able to pin her, and win.
Miss Amelia licked her wounds sadly, and dragged her body into bed for the night, while Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon stole every valuable thing she had, and destroyed everything else, dismantling her whiskey still and carving bad words into the café tables. Then they left town, never to return. When Miss Amelia woke to find this, she boarded up the building and was never seen again; the only sign of her life the lights in the upstairs windows. Now the town is so boring, you might as well listen to the singing of the chain gang down the road, the narrator says.
In a final section, headed "The Twelve Mortal Men," we see a chain gang patching the highway and singing together. The music, the narrator says, is beautiful, simply because they are singing together.
A young piano player worries she's no longer any good, as she comes of age and watches her colleague surpass her. Her teacher was once complimentary and supportive, but now is critical and visibly disappointed. She decides she can't take it anymore, and leaves her lesson, seeming to abandon piano playing.
A jockey comes to terms with his best friend's career-ending injury, angered and drunk while watching a trainer, a bookie, and rich man eat supper as if nothing has happened.
A university music department head hires a mysterious Finnish composer, and, realizing she's pathological liar, discovers he doesn't care, and is in love with her anyway.
An expatriate newspaperman returns to the States for his father's funeral. The day before he's to leave, he sees his ex-wife through a drugstore window, and decides to call her. She invites him over for dinner, and, seeing her happiness, he lies to her family about his own. When he returns to Paris, he tells his girlfriend's son that they will start having fun times together.
A husband-and-father returns home from work to find his wife drunk, yet again. He worries over his beloved children, as he has ever since his wife dropped the baby in the bath. After taking care of the wife and putting her to bed, and bathing and putting the children to sleep, he too goes to bed, looking at his wife "for the last time."
A young newspaper boy is waylaid by an old man in an all-night café. The old man tries to explain that after his wife left him, he began to look at love as a science that could be practiced, on a rock, a tree, a cloud, a goldfish. Leo the café owner teases the old man, but the man tells the boy he loves him. After the man leaves, the boy asks what that was all about, but Leo doesn't answer.
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