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March 20, 2023

Hot Cocoa

By Ben Bartman

"Get outta my house."

A thud came across the wall of Duke's Kenmore Double Door carton.

"Not your house."

"Sh-sh-ure is."

Duke shimmied ass first out of tonight's home. The cold air nipped his nose and he nearly dropped this evening's refreshment. He stabilized himself. A stranger standing next to his cardboard shanty came into focus. He was bigger than Duke and he couldn't stop from swaying. Every time he listed toward the box he would kick it. Finally the toe of his shoe broke through.

"You fucked up my house." Duke slurred.

"Mine for tonight."

"Bullshit, Got here first."

"Mine for tonight."


"Take my bottle."


Give, ya, uh, this." He held out an unopened bottle of Red Mountain.

Duke did not hesitate.

The aroma of hot cocoa slid past damp dumpsters spoiling the smell of the garbage. But Duke didn't notice. He stumbled out of the alley and turned left onto the sidewalk.

His bottle of Red Mountain and a roach clip with the tatters of weed fraying at the end consumed his attention.

He thought there was an empty port-a-potty nearby where he could sleep for tonight. His full bottle would insulate him from the chill.

He staggered by a row of old brownstones and smelled something familiar. He knew it was food but he couldn't recall what food. It wasn't the aroma of seared meat with onions, or garlic bread. It wasn't buttered fennel on broiled fish. The smell reminded him of hot coffee. He broke loose the bottle cap and drank, but the mystery remained.

He stopped in front of a long set of marble stairs where the aroma seemed the strongest. He looked up at the ornate wooden double doors. One half opened slowly. Duke closed and opened his eyes but the fog did not lift with his eyelids. Now the shadow of the entrance covered one half of the opened door.

The scent intensified. It seemed to pour out of the door and flow down the stairs. It pushed him backward till his butt nestled on the front fender of a parked car.

He rested and enjoyed the smell. It made his mouth water. He wanted more.

A long swallow from his bottle bolstered his courage and he edged closer to the first marble step. Hid foot felt the depression from a hundred years of first steps.

Cocoa! That is the smell. The revelation broke into his mind recalling something about his mother and cold weather and coming inside after trick-or-treating. Steaming hot cocoa, too hot to drink, blowing on it to cool and watching the marshmallows spin around. A cup of cocoa must be waiting for him up there. He took a step and another.

He was midway to the top. The Red Mountain fog began to thin. He took another drink. It tasted bitter. He swallowed and then sucked the saliva from under his tongue to wash away the taste at the back of his mouth.

At the top step he rested to catch his breath. He turned and faced a landscape of cars' roofs. For a moment he was suspended above the world, floating. To his left the door remained open for him. Warm delicious air billowed through it.

He turned and looked inside. The entrance hall began on the other side of an inner windowed door. He saw a single lamp on a small credenza that lit only part of the hall. The rest disappeared into darkness.

"Please come inside,"

Duke startled. He looked around but saw no one. The quick twist set off his vertigo. He put his free hand out to catch the door jam.

"You will be warm in here."

"Where're ya?"

No answer.

He placed his foot on a small marble threshold. A motion sensor turned on the light in the foyer lined with coats on hooks and boots paired up below. Then the warm breath of cocoa embraced him and pulled him forward.

Years of homelessness and inebriation alerted him to possible dangers to his body, and the fear of soberness to his mind. He recalled the last bitter swallow, but he still clutched his bottle of warmth.

"Please come in. The inner door is unlocked."

"Who're ya?"

"Please come in. The inner door is unlocked."

It was a pleasant woman's voice. The words were repeated but it was not a recording.

"Dammit! What'd ya want?"


Duke raised himself onto the threshold and stuck his other foot cautiously on the floor inside. Immediately he felt the warmth of the home. He raised the Red Mountain to his lips, drank but didn't swallow. He spun around and spurted it out onto the stoop and then ran his sleeve across his lips and tongue. He sucked more spit into his mouth to rid the after taste and spit again. He placed the bottle on the floor next to a pair of men's galoshes.

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

"Who're ya for shit's sake? Talk to me."

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

He knew this was a real person. Each time she repeated the invitation there was a slight change in tone and timing.

He grasped the handle of the inner door. The heavy brass knob was warm. He turned it and pushed. The warmth poured passed his gritty jackets and torn shirts till his body felt something that had eluded him in his cardboard homes: comfortable embracing warmth.

He stuck his head inside.

"Hello? Can I come in?"

"Please come in and sit by the lamp." Someone was next to him. But the weak incandescent hue from the lamp could only illuminate the area around the table and chair. He saw no one. The rest of the house was dark. He felt alone.

Duke took a tentative step inside but not far enough to close the door behind him. His street-wise fear cautioned him from closing off an escape route.

"Please come in and sit by the lamp." The voice now came from the hall in front of him. He heard a gracious invitation from a hostess with an enchanting voice.

He heard his mother, his favorite teacher and his family welcoming him home. But he knew they were long dead. Then the smell of cocoa beckoned him.

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

He stepped into the hallway, closed the door and walked toward the chair. His filthy clothes, gritty fingernails, and the last vestiges of Red Mountain lingering on the back of his tongue embarrassed him.

Duke sat down but did not lean back. He was alert. He looked back through the window in the door and saw night waiting for him outside. The light from the bright white street lamp came through the front door and reminded him of his recent past.

He turned and watched the hallway disappear beyond the light of the lamp. He stared into the blackness trying to discern an outline; but perfect blackness stole even the light from the lamp post and returned nothing.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome," he said. He surprised himself.

"What is your name?"

The voice was not electrified. It was real. It was sincere and endearing. She was next to him but remained invisible. He waved his hand to where her face and body should be, but nothing was there.

"My name is Duke."

"Thank you."

"Who're you?"

No reply.

For sometime Duke sat in the chair by the table with the lamp. He spun the shade once to look at the bucolic scenes painted on each fabric panel. Then he leaned back and rested. The chair was a Victorian design; heavily carved and ornamented.

He realized he was sober, but still out of habit wanted something to drink. Then he recalled the awful taste of the Red Mountain. He turned his thoughts to his current conundrum.

The smell of cocoa returned and elicited memories he tried to forget: his past; his past as a child, and his past as a parent reliving his childhood through his children. His mind became exhausted from hauling up buckets of memories from the well of his life. His conundrum pushed aside the ascending memories.

What is happening? He felt as if the hallway was moving by him while he sat. His right arm rested on the table with the lamp. Everything was dusk-like; the lampshade used most of the light to illuminate the themes painted on its shade.

Duke looked up and watched a doorway pass in front of him. He was moving down the hallway. He turned to look at the light from the lamp post, but it had shrunk to a twinkle. He wanted a drink; then recalled he didn't. He was scared. Things were happening that shouldn't. He tried to stand, but his vertigo held him back.

"What's happening?" he shouted. He closed his eyes to dissolve the conflict between what his head felt and what his eyes saw. The vertigo subsided. He opened his eyes and found himself by a fine wooden table with the lamp on it, but now so far down the hall that the light from the street gave up. Dark wooden double doors stood across the hall from him.

"I know the truth and I say it's time."

"Don't be an old fool. It isn't and you know it."

Duke listened to the argument from behind the double doors. He heard a man.

"Woman! You vex me so."

"Get over it. There are some thing's I know better than you."

Duke stood up and carefully put his right foot out to test the floor in front of him. It was solid. He slowly transferred his weight and put his left foot further until he reached the double doors. He listened. The two people were howling at each other.

"You are one dumb bitch."

"You're a dickhead."

"A serial rapist wouldn't screw you."

"And you would screw a snake if it would hold still long enough."

Duke smiled, then grinned and started to laugh. He couldn't stop. This sounded so crazy. Then he looked up, the doors parted and he saw the inside of the room. The colors were dusky and muted, the light was dim. The room was empty.

"Please come in and make yourself at home."

"Who -- Who's this?"

"Please come in and make yourself at home."

He stuck his head inside and looked around. The grayness ate the room's past. Was there a fight? Duke was frustrated.

"Please come in and make yourself at home."

"No! Not until you tell me who you are."

"Please come in and make yourself at home."

"Hell no." He turned around to sit in the chair by the table with the lamp. It was somehow different. The chair did not have armrests and on the table stood a beautiful Tiffany stained glass lamp. He turned toward the street light, but saw nothing. He turned his body and started to jog in the direction of the street light, then faster. He never got winded. No matter how long or hard he ran he didn't break a sweat. Each time he passed a set of dark double doors he heard the same voice Please come in and make yourself at home. And each time he said Hell no.

His frustration turned to rage

"What are you?"

"Please come in and make yourself at home."

"Fuck you!"

He stopped, turned toward the wall, drew back his elbow and closed his fingers into a stiff fist. Then he rotated his hips to give his fist additional momentum and straightened his elbow and hit the wall. He felt nothing; he heard nothing; his fist went through the wall.

The wall didn't break. The pain he expected never showed up. His hand disappeared beyond the wall.

He immediately pulled it back fearing something awful might happen to his hand now that it was out of sight. It returned as good as it was before the punch. Duke put his hand flat on the wall. It felt solid. He scraped the wood with his finger nails and sensed the raised grain. He pushed a little harder and his hand went through again. Again he snapped it back.

He stepped back and looked up and down the hallway. To his right darkness; to his left he thought he could see a flicker of light. A squint did not make the light any clearer.

The solid wall, paneled in old mahogany with wainscoting chided him. Think I'm real? Well, stick your hand through again -- if you've got the courage.

"You're a dream." Duke replied. Then he held his hand to his mouth. "Oh my God, I'm talking to myself?"

"No. I don't suspect you're the courageous type. Just another alki on a binge."

Duke turned toward the meager light and started to run. He ran hard fueled by fear. But he did not get tired or out of breath. He turned to look at the wall and saw that he hadn't moved. He looked down and saw his feet running along the carpet in the hall. He watched it pass beneath his rhythmic paces. But when he looked up nothing changed.

Control yourself, Duke. Get a grip. You think you have to listen to hear? Skip the anvil and stirrup and go right to the brain. No need to overuse your cochlea.

Duke thought to himself. Don't answer. It is all in your mind. You are insane if you answer.

Come, come Duke. Let's converse like gentlemen. Well maybe one of us is a gentleman. The other is just a wall.

Oh shit a wall is talking to me. It must be the Red Mountain.

Duke spun a quarter turn and faced the wall and stood with his feet apart. His vertigo returned. He began to shiver as if he were cold, and sweat gathered on his cheeks and flowed under his chin where it dripped on his shoes. They became soaking wet and made sloshing sounds when he shifted his weight. He looked down and watched his perspiration flow like dishwater from a sponge through his soiled sneakers.

My my, you really got yourself in a tizzy. Ought to learn to take it easy.

He spun around to see where the voice was coming from. But the sudden turn set off his vertigo again and he fell to the ground with his hands outstretched to stop his world from spinning. Then the carpet began moving under his body. But he wasn't moving. At least he wasn't trying to crawl, walk or run. It wasn't right. He felt he had to move his feet or the carpet would be pulled out from under him. So he got up and ran. He looked to the right and the wall stood still. He stopped running and the wall began to move back toward the darkness. Good riddance.

He started to run again and the wall appeared next to him. He stopped and the wall moved backwards.

He sat on the carpet with his legs spayed before him and pressed his palms into his eyes to stop the dizziness.

Anger took its place. Why do you want to hurt me?

"Stop fucking with my head," he yelled. But the sounds in his head got so loud he covered his ears. He didn't hear his words. He put his hand on his throat and said, "T-e-s-t-i-n . . ." He didn't feel the hum of his larynx.

Reality broke. The large and small expectations of everyday life ceased. And the line mooring him to certainty was cut. He doubted, and then he doubted his doubts. He slipped farther and farther into nothing.

At the bottom he breathed deeply as the exhaustion of his run finally caught up. But it wasn't bringing fresh oxygen to his lactic acid-soaked muscles. It was feeding his brain, metabolizing more food than ever as it searched in vain for order.

He was sitting at the kitchen table with two of his friends. They were three Power Rangers. Their trick-or-treat booty filled three large bowls. The smell of cocoa was strong; it was coming from the mug of streaming light brown liquid. Marshmallows bobbed on top. Duke put his nose into the steam and drew in a lungful through his nose. Chocolate aroma filled his body.

He lifted the mug and cautiously tested the contents for heat. Not too hot. He tilted it back and gulped down all of the deliciousness. Then he put the cup back on the table.

"Hey bar-keep, how about another brew."

A kid no more than ten years old stepped up on something behind the bar, pulled a frosted mug from the frig and used two hands to pull back on the tap.

"Here you go," he said in a deep male voice.


Duke grabbed the ice cold handle of the mug and walked over to the pool table.

"Hey, Duke. How about some nine-ball?"

"Sure, rack'm."

He looked for a table to rest his beer but didn't see one. He chugged the remainder and gave the empty mug to a passing waitress. Except it wasn't a passing waitress.

"Dammit boy you need to learn manners." This came from an old woman lying in a intensive care ward with a respirator in her throat. How did she say that? He lay down on the floor next to her bed. The nurses came and went and paid no attention to him.

Whack! A sharp pain started at the back of his thighs and drew heat to the back of his legs. Whack. Wack.

"I hope you learned your lesson."

He lay next to the old woman in the ICU and felt the cool floor carry away the heat and the pain.

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

The room tilted ninety degrees. He watched the old woman slip off her bed and disappear into the floor. He stood next to the bed which stood on its end against the wall with all the bed clothes piled next to his feet.

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

Sounded familiar; I've heard that before.

"Who are you?" Duke thought he said.

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

What do you want?"

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

He turned his head around to look where he thought the woman stood.

He was back in the foyer. He looked in back and squinted from the glare of the street lamp. He turned and looked thought the window of the inner door and saw a table, a lamp and a chair. Something was different. There was a steaming mug on the table. He knew it was filled with hot cocoa. It was for him. He put his hand on the warm door knob. Then took it off. He turned to look at the stoop and the lamp post. He lowered his eyes and saw the bottle of Red Mountain and remembered how bad it tasted.

Then he turned to look through the window again. The end of the hallway was hidden in the darkness but the cup of hot cocoa remained. He could see the steam raising. Then he turned to look at the stoop, then back at the hallway.

"Please come in and sit by the lamp."

Article © Ben Bartman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-04-30
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
04:17:05 AM
Another sturdy cardboard box would have prevented this ...
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