Study Guide

Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud

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A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud

  • It's very early in the morning when a newspaper delivery boy decides to step out of the rain for a coffee at an all-night café run by a grump named Leo.
  • At the counter, there are soldiers and factory workers, and a man in the corner hunched over a beer.
  • The boy unfastens his hat's ear flaps so he can hear better, in case anyone wants to have a conversation… but no one in the café is talking.
  • He's about to leave, having gotten his coffee, when the man with the beer calls him over.
  • The man seems happy to talk to him, and when the boy, just twelve years old, comes over, he grabs the boy's chin.
  • The boy is startled by the man's touch—for good reason.
  • The man tells him: "I love you." Ick!
  • Everyone else in the café laughs, but the man seems sad, tells the boy he didn't mean to tease him and that he wants to explain.
  • The boy sits down beside him, and Leo brings him another coffee.
  • The man shows the boy a photograph of woman (her face is blurry) as if it's supposed to explain something. He shows another photograph of the woman in a bathing suit, with a big-looking stomach. The boy is confused.
  • The man explains that the woman in the pictures is his wife, and asks the boy whether he's ever seen her. He says he hasn't and asks if she's dead.
  • The man says no, he'll explain. He bends over his beer and drinks.
  • Leo says that one day he'll drown in his mug.
  • The boy knows he should go finish his route, but he can't figure out how to leave gracefully, so he stays put.
  • The man says that he's talking about love, which is to him a science. He says that he loved his wife, and she loved him. But one day he came home to find she had left.
  • The boy asks if she left him for someone else.
  • Of course, the man says.
  • Leo teases the man, and says that he's been chasing his abandoning wife for eleven years.
  • The man politely asks Leo to be quiet, and continues, saying: many things in my life have impressed me, but I had never loved before. Yet when I met my wife, I knew I was in love.
  • The boy asks her name.
  • The man says he called her Dodo, but that doesn't matter. That's not important to what he's trying to say.
  • The buzz of the café continues: Leo cooks, and customers ask for more coffee.
  • The boy asks if the man ever found his wife.
  • The man says yes, I went all over to find her, for two years, from Oklahoma to Alabama, Georgia, Chicago, Cheehaw (that's the neighboring town in the title novella!) and Tennessee. But by the third year he realized he no longer even remembered her face.
  • Leo teases the man more, but he pays Leo no mind.
  • Suddenly, the man says, anything—a scrap of music or a little piece of glass—reminds him of how powerless he is, of his loss.
  • The boy is a little confused, asks where the man was then.
  • The man ignores him, talking about his pain over his lost love, how he drank and slept with women, and behaved badly.
  • By the fifth year, the man explains, the idea of the "science" came to him.
  • Leo, who has been listening in, tells the man to get on with his story.
  • The boy wonders what happened next.
  • Peace is what happened next, the man says, while he was in Portland. It is hard to explain, but he then felt peace.
  • Outside, day is dawning. The soldiers leave and the factory workers eat breakfast.
  • The man says: a man's first love is a woman, but that's riding a bike for the first time with the training wheels off. The man grasps the boy's lapels, and says, a man must first learn to love small things: "a tree. A rock. A cloud."
  • It's still raining outside and everyone in the café is gone except the boy, the man, and Leo.
  • Having realized this, the man says, I started trying to love things like a goldfish, and went on working on the project from Portland to San Diego.
  • Leo tells the man to shut up.
  • Still holding the boy's collar, he tells him that he's now been practicing this kind of love for six years and can love anything, that it's a scientific practice.
  • The boy is uneasy, and asks if the man ever found his wife.
  • The man acts as if he doesn't know what he's talking about.
  • The boy changes his question, and asks if he ever fell in love with another woman.
  • The man says no, that's the last step, that he's not ready.
  • As that man leaves the café, he tells the boy to remember that he loves him.
  • The boy finishes his coffee, and asks Leo if the man is drunk. Leo says no.
  • He asks if he was impaired in some other way, but Leo won't answer. Leo, having run the café for so many years, has seen a lot of characters.
  • The boy pulls down his earflap and gets ready to leave, saying only: "He sure has done a lot of traveling."

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