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Rosalind Finds the Plot

On a warm day in August, Rosalind Peoples is taking a bath in a huge white claw-foot bathtub with enormous brass fixtures, the bathroom filled with summer sunlight. Rosalind and her mother Dez Peoples, a well-known American poet, are the guests of Oliver Rochambeau, a French movie star, at his spectacular estate in Burgundy, a 19th Century villa surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.

Dez is sixty-eight, Rosalind thirty, and they are ostensibly visiting Oliver, who is sixty-four, to work on a screenplay based on Dez’s collection of poems In Lausanne. However, the real purpose of their visit is for Oliver and Dez to carry on with their love affair—Oliver married, Dez not.

Rosalind wishes Oliver would divorce his wife and marry Dez, though Dez says she doesn’t want to marry Oliver. For his part, Oliver loves his wife, the delightful British actress Aurelia Nichols, and has no plans to divorce her. Aurelia spends most of her time in England where she is a mainstay on a long-running BBC drama and doesn’t mind Oliver’s affairs so long as he is a good and loving husband, which he is.

Dez and Rosalind have four months remaining on a five-year fellowship that has provided them with a lovely house in Lausanne, Switzerland, along with generous monthly stipends. At year’s end, barring unforeseen largesse, they must return to America, specifically to the small town of Ophelia near Seattle, though neither of them wants to go back to America. They have applied for permanent residency in Switzerland, but have been told the chances of gaining such status are slim.

Five months ago, Dez published In Love Poems, her sixteenth volume of poetry. The book of seventy-seven love poems came out in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and Portuguese editions simultaneously with the English edition and is a great success in Europe.

The screenplay of In Lausanne has yet to materialize because Oliver and his movie sidekick Paul Descartes and the several writers they hired over the last year and eight months have failed to come up with a story line uniting the poems into a movie Paul and Oliver want to make.

Rosalind was in love with Paul for several months after he and Oliver descended upon them in Lausanne to secure the movie rights to In Lausanne, and Paul was likewise smitten with Rosalind. But unlike Oliver, Paul is not one to have affairs, and he remained faithful to his then-fiancé now-wife Mariana Borba rather than succumb to his attraction to Rosalind.

After recovering from her infatuation with Paul, Rosalind met a charming Swiss fellow named Leon, and they have been lovers for seven months now. Leon is a piano tuner and pianist a few years older than Rosalind. He says he will gladly marry her, which would allow her to go on living in Switzerland but won’t solve Dez’s citizenship dilemma; and Rosalind wouldn’t think of staying in Europe if her mother is exiled to America.

*

Hunger eventually overcomes the pleasure of lolling in the warm bath, so Rosalind climbs out of the tub and stands at the second-story window overlooking Oliver’s vineyards. As she gazes down at the vines heavy with grapes, she is startled by a vision of how to shape the forty-two poems of In Lausanne into a comedy drama she knows Paul and Oliver and Dez will love.

“Oh my God,” she says in English, which she rarely speaks now that French is her everyday language. “How did we not see it?”

*

Rosalind finds Dez and Oliver on the veranda having coffee at a big dining table shaded by an enormous blue umbrella, both wearing floppy sunhats and short-sleeved shirts and dark glasses.

Dez has the dreamy look of a woman well loved and appears to Rosalind to have shed ten years since she and Oliver began their love affair a year ago.

Oliver, his mother British, his father French, a rakishly handsome fellow with curly black hair going gray, greets Rosalind in English with a Devonshire accent. “Ah fair Rosalind. Did you tell the kitchen what you want for breakfast?”

“I did,” says Rosalind, sitting across from Oliver and Dez. “Merci.”

“I’m taking your mother to see Cathedrale Saint-Etienne today,” says Oliver, smiling warmly at Rosalind. “Would you like to join us?”

“No merci,” says Rosalind, glad to see her mother so relaxed and happy. “I’m working on something I hope to dazzle you with when Paul and Mariana come tomorrow.”

“Is this about the screenplay?” says Oliver, excited. “Tell us.”

“Not quite yet,” says Rosalind, nodding graciously to the young woman who serves her coffee. “I want to make sure I’m not imagining things before I make my presentation.”

“I know there’s a movie in there,” says Oliver, making a fist and thumping the table. “But it eludes us.”

“Thank goodness I don’t care,” says Dez, gazing at her lover. “Though I’d love to see you as the gardener and Paul as the man who is forever lost.”

Oliver frowns. “I, the gardener? No, I see Paul in that role.”

“Either way,” says Dez, looking at Rosalind. “Who do you see as the gardener, darling?”

“I’m less concerned with casting right now,” says Rosalind, sipping her coffee, “than with narrative flow.”

“Plot,” says Oliver, beseeching the sky. “The elusive plot.”

“Elusive?” says Rosalind, arching her eyebrow. “Or too obvious?”

“If you find a viable plot for this movie,” says Oliver, raising a declarative finger, “we will hire you to write the screenplay.”

“Then I’ll finally have a career,” says Rosalind, making a goofy face at her mother. “Other than attendant to the queen.”

“I prefer duchess,” says Dez, making an equally goofy face at her daughter. “Far too much responsibility being a queen.”

*

When Oliver and Dez motor off to the cathedral, Rosalind sequesters herself in her bedroom with a copy of In Lausanne and writes the titles of the forty-two poems onto pieces of white typing paper, one title writ large per page. Now she numbers the titles 1 to 42 and lays the pages out on her queen-sized bed in seven rows, six pages to a row.

After studying the arrangement of pages for some minutes, she moves Poem #7, The Gardener Goes Fishing, to where Poem #1 is, and moves Poem #1, The Unlikely Rose, to where Poem #14 is, and moves Poem #14, The Cook and the Mouse and the Cat, to where Poem #2 is, and continues reordering the pages until all the poems have changed places.

Satisfied with the new order of poems, she renumbers the pages to match their places in the modified sequence, gathers the pages in their new order, sits down on the bed, and slowly leafs through the pages to confirm the new sequence does, indeed, make an intriguing story with a beginning, middle, and end.

*

Walking in the olive grove in the late afternoon, Rosalind considers whether she wants to write a screenplay based on her mother’s poems, and she decides she does.

And the moment she makes her decision, she feels something shift inside her.

“I know what I am,” she says, looking up at the myriad silver leaves. “I’m a story teller.”

*

Paul Descartes, a beautiful Frenchman in his thirties famous for his comedies, and Paul’s Portuguese wife Mariana Borba, also in her thirties, famous for her beauty, arrive at Oliver’s villa the next morning to stay for a few days and unwind after six weeks of filming a big-budget thriller in Miami.

During lunch on the veranda, Mariana says in French, “This was the last American movie I will ever be in. Paul is contracted to do another, but I would rather make movies about real people, not violent cartoons. I did not become an actor to be in cartoons.”

“The Americans are very good at choreographing car chases and scenes of violence,” says Paul, nodding in agreement, “but their stories and dialogue are idiotic. For example, in the movie we just made, which they are calling Secret Killers—original, no?—the hero played by Lloyd Carter, a rogue government agent fighting a host of villains, says to me, ‘We go through that door, our chances of surviving are not good.’ And I reply, ‘What else is new?’ We shoot the scene this way seven times and it falls flat every time. So I say to the director, ‘What if instead of What else is new? I say Then why go through the door?’ And when I suggest this to him, everyone on the set laughs.”

“A big laugh,” says Mariana, laughing at her memory of the film crew laughing uproariously at Paul’s rejoinder.

 “And Lloyd,” says Paul, continuing, “gets very excited and says, ‘Yes, then I will say You got a better idea? And I say, ‘We could go for coffee at a nice café.’ And again, everyone on the set bursts into laughter. And the director glares at me and says, “This is not a comedy.” And I say ‘Yes, I know, but you do want a laugh here, don’t you?’ And he says, ‘That’s none of your business. That’s why we have writers.’ So I shut up because they were paying me more money than I have ever been paid to be in a movie and we did the scene again with What else is new? And that was that.”

“You could not pay me to go to this movie,” says Mariana, shaking her head. “Though they paid me a fortune to be in five scenes with Lloyd. In three scenes I wear bikinis, in one scene a transparent nightgown, in the last scene… nothing.”

“For that,” says Oliver, nodding thoughtfully, “I would go to this movie.”

“Speaking of movies,” says Paul, turning to Rosalind, “Oliver tells me you have a new idea for In Lausanne? I so want to make this movie, but we have yet to find the story that ties everything together.”

“I found it,” says Rosalind, smiling at her mother.

“And if you like her story,” says Dez, looking at Paul, “Oliver promised Rosalind you would hire her to write the screenplay.”

“Yes, of course,” says Paul, nodding emphatically. “What is the story?”

“I will make my presentation after lunch,” says Rosalind, sipping her wine. “Lest we be too distracted by this marvelous food.”

*

When everyone is seated in the living room, Rosalind stands before them and says, “Once upon a time there were four people. A charming fellow who is forever lost, a woman who is a cook and speaks to animals, a man who is a gardener and speaks to plants and insects and birds, and a woman who has a dog and is looking for love. In fact, they are all looking for love.

“At the beginning of our story we spend some time with each of the four people and we are fascinated and amused by their eccentricities and kindness to others. Then each of them sets out on a journey. The woman with a dog is the only one of the four who knows she is looking for love, but they all are, and that becomes clear as we watch them on their adventures.

“Then the woman who is a cook meets the fellow who is forever lost and they fall in love, and the gardener meets the woman with a dog and they fall in love, too. However, through a series of delightful twists and turns, the gardener becomes paired with the woman who is a cook, and the man who is forever lost becomes lovers with the woman with a dog, and in the end they are neighbors, all of them good friends. The final scene is a supper in the home of the woman who is a cook, our foursome very much who they have always been, only now they are together and content.”

Having told the story, Rosalind presents Oliver and Paul and Mariana each with a list of the forty-two poems from In Lausanne in the order of the story she just told.

Paul quickly reads the list and jumps up to embrace Rosalind. “You found our movie,” he cries. “It was there all the while.”

“Fantastic,” says Mariana, the next to embrace Rosalind. “Now this is a movie I will gladly pay to see.”

“Oh you won’t have to pay,” says Rosalind, looking into Mariana’s eyes. “Because you will be the woman with a dog.”

*

Upon their return to Lausanne, Dez gets a call from Karl Fleury, the sponsor of their fellowship from the University of Lausanne, asking if he might come see her.

Karl comes to lunch the next day and during dessert Karl announces that because of Dez’s valuable contributions to Swiss culture, attested to by a petition signed by hundreds of Swiss artists and writers and academics, Dez and Rosalind have been granted permanent residency by the Swiss government.

“And,” says Karl, his eyes sparkling, “the university would like to offer you a three-year extension of your fellowships and residency at The Writer’s House.”

“Oh Karl, dear Karl, thank you,” says Dez, rising to embrace Rosalind. “Now I won’t have to kill myself.”

“You’re not serious,” says Karl, startled into nervous laughter.

mother and daughter cling to each other

sobbing in relief and joy.

fin

Lounge Act In Heaven

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Only Be Rosalind

Dez Peoples is sixty-six, an American poet living in Lausanne, Switzerland with her daughter Rosalind, who is twenty-eight, a photographer and writer. They have lived in Lausanne for three years and have two years remaining on a fellowship from the University of Lausanne that provides them with a lovely house and monthly stipends more than sufficient for their needs.

Six months ago, Dez published her fifteenth volume of poems called In Lausanne, the American edition appearing a month before the German, French, and Spanish editions came out in Europe, after which In Lausanne became a cause célèbre.

*

On a glorious afternoon in April, Dez and Rosalind return to their house from a long ramble along Lake Geneva with Rosalind’s cute brown mutt Bianca, and they are just sitting down to a late lunch when someone knocks confidently on the front door.

Genevieve, Dez and Rosalind’s charming housekeeper and cook, answers the door and says in French to the two men waiting there, “May I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Oliver Rochambeau,” one of the men replies, his voice a resonant baritone. “And this is my friend Paul Descartes. We would very much like to speak to Dez Peoples. Is she at home today?”

“Madame sees visitors by appointment on Thursdays,” says Genevieve, who has made this speech many times to those wishing to see Dez. “I will give you a card with the number to call to make an appointment.”

“Oh is there no possibility of seeing her today?” asks the other man with some urgency, his voice a pleasing tenor. “We are only here for the afternoon and then we’re returning to Burgundy. We would only take a moment of her time.”

“I’m very sorry,” says Genevieve, who has the feeling she knows these men, but can’t remember where she’s seen them before. “Many people wish to speak to her.”

Rosalind, who has been listening from the kitchen, appears with appointment book in hand, smiles at the two handsome men—one of whom she guesses is fifty-three, the other thirty-five—and says in her fair French, “Hello. I’m Dez’s secretary. Would you like to make an appointment to meet with her?”

“You can only be Rosalind,” says the younger of the two men in fair English. “You are just as your mother describes you in She Walks Her Dog, only much more beautiful.”

“I am Rosalind,” she says, sticking to French. “Who are you?”

“I am Paul Descartes,” he says, bowing to her. “And this is my colleague Oliver Rochambeau. We are hopeful of securing the film rights to your mother’s book In Lausanne.”

“Ah,” exclaims Genevieve, clapping her hands. “Now I know who you are. The funny detectives. These are my husband’s favorite movies. Please don’t leave. I must go get him.”

“Well,” says Rosalind, pleasantly disarmed, “you may as well come in. We’re just sitting down to lunch. Please join us.”

*

When Genevieve’s husband Henri comes in from the garden, Dez insists Henri and Genevieve join them for lunch, which prompts Genevieve to open an excellent bottle of French chardonnay to go with her fish stew.

Oliver tastes the stew and says, “Mon dieu. I have never tasted better.”

“Incroyable,” says Paul, gazing wide-eyed at Genevieve.

“The fish was caught this morning,” says Genevieve, blushing. “And the onions and potatoes and herbs came from Henri’s garden just this morning.”

“A genius cook for a genius poet,” says Oliver, raising his glass to Dez. “To your extraordinary poetry.”

“To Genevieve,” says Dez, raising her glass.

“We are in the book, you know. Henri and I,” says Genevieve, smiling at her husband. “I am the cook in The Cook and the Mouse and the Cat, and Henri is the gardener in the seven poems about the gardener.”

“I love the gardener poems,” says Paul, grinning at Henri. “You’re immortal now.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” says Henri, shivering with delight to be praised by his favorite movie star. “I’m just a gardener.”

“When I read your poems in French,” says Oliver, gazing at Dez, “they are like little mysteries, you know. Addictive. And they always make me smile at the end. But when I read them in English they are great comedy. I assume you wrote them in English.”

“Yes,” says Dez, who is having a most extraordinary experience sitting across from Oliver, her attraction to him overwhelming. “I only write in English. So far. Though I have begun to dream in French.”

“We are told,” says Rosalind, tickled by her mother’s infatuation with Oliver, “that the German and Spanish translations are funny, too, but the French translation is more nostalgic, or as you say mysterious.”

“French humor is so different than English humor,” says Paul, gazing at Rosalind as if seeing a vision. “Not the physical comedy, of course. But the languages are so different. Did you laugh the first time you read these poems?”

“I did,” says Rosalind, profoundly smitten with Paul. “I had no idea Mama could be so funny in writing. I mean… she’s very funny in… in life, but her poems before In Lausanne were never so funny.”

“The first time I saw your movie The Stolen Jewels,” says Henri, gawking at Oliver, “I laughed until I cried. The scene where you keep handing the food under the table thinking Paul is there and he has long ago crawled away and it is those two big dogs who keep nudging your leg and you keep feeding them? I have watched that scene hundreds of times and I always laugh so hard. This is genius to me.”

“We have a DVD,” says Genevieve, pouring out the last of the wine into Dez and Rosalind’s glasses. “Sometimes we just watch the cooking scenes and laugh.”

“I am so happy to have met you,” says Henri, getting up from the table and bowing to Oliver and Paul. “Please excuse me. I must finish in the garden before dusk.”

“I will go now, too,” says Genevieve, following Henri. “We hope to see you again.”

“What a charming couple,” says Oliver, switching to English. “And what a cook is Genevieve. Be careful some rich movie star doesn’t steal them away from you.”

“Oh they are not ours,” says Dez in English. “They are attached to this house which we’ve been given for five years by the university, after which other writers will take our place.”

“Then take them with you,” says Paul, nodding emphatically.

“That is beyond our means,” says Dez, suddenly weary and wishing these enchanting men would go.

Sensing her weariness, Oliver says, “We will leave you now, but if we could meet tomorrow morning after breakfast to discuss the movie rights to your book, we will find a hotel room and come again tomorrow. If not, we will speed home to Burgundy and I’ll call you if that seems better for you.”

“Tomorrow at ten will be fine,” says Dez, very much wanting to see him again.

“Excellent,” says Oliver, finishing his wine. “Thank you for the marvelous lunch. It was a great pleasure to meet you.”

“A delight,” says Paul, winking at Rosalind.

*

When Paul and Oliver are gone, Dez and Rosalind retire to the living room—Dez lying down on the sofa, Rosalind collapsing in an armchair.

Silence reigns before they both speak at once, Dez saying, “I can’t believe…” and Rosalind saying, “Can you believe…”

“You go first,” says Dez, closing her eyes and seeing Oliver gazing at her.

“Oh my God, Mama, I’m in love,” says Rosalind, hugging herself. “Has there ever been a more beautiful enchanting man than Paul?”

“Only Oliver,” says Dez, imagining his arms around her. “I haven’t felt this way in forty years, if I ever felt this way. I thought I might have an orgasm during lunch just looking at him and hearing his voice. I really did.”

“They’re probably both married,” says Rosalind, pouting. “Though I saw no rings. You don’t think they could be gay, do you?”

“If Oliver is gay, I am gay,” says Dez, who feels she has become someone entirely different than whoever she was before she met Oliver. “Would you borrow the DVD of their movie from Genevieve? I need to see him again or go mad.”

“Oh Mama, you really are in love,” says Rosalind, who has never known her mother to be in love with anyone.

“Is this love?” says Dez, falling asleep. “Being demolished?”

*

When Dez wakes two hours later, she finds a comforter over her and Rosalind sitting at the table by the window writing in her notebook.

“What time is it, darling,” asks Dez, speaking English.

Rosalind looks up and smiles. “Not quite six. And you called me darling. You must still be in love with Oliver.”

Dez sits up. “So it wasn’t a dream. They exist. Oliver and Paul.”

“They exist,” says Rosalind, closing her notebook. “And we both fell in love with them as have thousands of other women before us. I sleuthed around on the Internet. They’re both huge stars in Europe. Oliver’s mother is British, his father French. He’s been in lots of French movies and lots of British television shows. Paul is entirely French, a comedian and acrobat and singer turned movie actor. They’ve made three movies together as the Funny Detectives. Henri loaned us two of their movies. The Stolen Jewels and The Pilfered Recipe.”

“How old is Oliver?” asks Dez, holding her breath.

“Sixty-two,” says Roz, coming to sit with her mother on the sofa.

“Married?”

“He’s been married twice and has two grown daughters. I don’t think he’s married now, but he may be in a relationship with a British actress. Not sure.”

“And Paul?”

“Paul is thirty-four and engaged to a Portuguese actress named Mariana Borba who was in the last two Funny Detective movies. She’s insanely beautiful, so my only hope is that you make it a condition of the movie sale that Paul dump her and marry me. Please Mama?”

“Of course, darling,” says Dez, putting her arms around her daughter. “Shall we watch one of their movies before supper?”

*

They sit side-by-side on the sofa and watch The Stolen Jewels on Rosalind’s big laptop computer. The movie is brilliantly silly, the two detectives going undercover as a chef and a waiter in a gourmet restaurant in Paris where murders of restaurant critics and rival restaurateurs occur at regular intervals throughout the film.

Paul plays the part of Victor, a man of few words, keenly observant and capable of remarkable feats of dexterity and strength except in the presence of attractive women whose mere glances in his direction transform him into a colossal goofball. He masquerades as a waiter and is by turns phenomenally graceful and hilariously clumsy.

Oliver plays James, a man of dubious intelligence who frequently shares with Victor his deductive reasoning reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’s reasoning in those classic mysteries. However, unlike Sherlock, James is invariably wrong. Yet in the end, the two funny guys catch the murderers and save the day.

*

At movie’s end, Rosalind says, “I wish we’d never met them. They’ve set the bar impossibly high. Who could ever compare to Paul?”

“Only Oliver,” says Dez, wistfully. “But I could never live with him. I would be too distracted to ever write again. I’d just follow him around worshipping him.”

“So sayeth the renowned feminist poet,” says Rosalind, nudging her mother.

“Feminism schmeminism,” says Dez, getting up. “Let’s go out for supper.”

*

“You know who Oliver is?” says Dez, as she and Rosalind walk home in the moonlight from Brasserie Saint-Laurent, their favorite restaurant in Lausanne.

“A handsome charming movie star,” says Rosalind, stating the obvious.

“He’s my masculine alter ego.” Dez laughs. “Listen to me. I’ve lost my mind.”

“I think it’s wonderful we both fell in love,” says Rosalind, gazing up at the nearly full moon. “Regardless of outcome, I like knowing I still can. I was beginning to wonder.”

“I assumed I couldn’t,” says Dez, thinking back over her life and finding no evidence of feeling about anyone as she feels about Oliver. “But it turns out I could. I’m speaking of love, not lust. I fell in lust all the time before you were born.”

“But you do you lust after Oliver,” says Rosalind as they arrive home. “Hence the near orgasm at lunch. Lust certainly plays a large part in my attraction to Paul. I felt like we were having telepathic sex at lunch today. I was anyway.”

“Maybe that’s all this is,” says Dez, unlocking the front door. “Lust at sixty-six. I haven’t lusted after anyone in twenty-nine years, not since lust made you, my darling.”

*

They have chamomile tea and oatmeal cookies in the kitchen before going to bed.

“Doesn’t it strike you as a bit far fetched, if not absurd,” says Dez, frowning at Rosalind, “that they want to buy the movie rights to In Lausanne? What movie, I wonder, do they see in that collection of poems?”

“Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was based on a poem,” says Rosalind, tossing a little piece of cookie to her dog Bianca. “When I was sleuthing around about Oliver and Paul, I also asked about movies based on poems, and there are quite a few. The Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s A Wonderful Life. Alice’s Restaurant. Several more. Poems that tell good stories.”

“Yes, but those poems all have plots,” says Dez, chuckling at the thought of her poems becoming scenes in a movie. “Mine are merely moments of the continuum.”

“That’s what stories are,” says Rosalind, thinking of Paul’s amazing strength and grace in The Stolen Jewels. “Maybe they’ll want you to help them write the screenplay and they’ll need to meet with you many times.”

“Yes. And they’ll come to realize they can’t live without us,” says Dez, yawning. “And we’ll have a double wedding and live happily ever after.”

“Where?” asks Rosalind, yawning, too. “Where will we live happily ever after?”

“Here,” says Dez, finishing her tea. “In Lausanne.”

*

After breakfast the next morning, Dez tries on three different dresses in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, and when she is in her last dress, by far the most revealing of the three, she comes out of the trance she’s been in since meeting Oliver and sees she is sixty-six, not fifty-one or forty-three or thirty-four.

So she hangs up her dresses and puts on a favorite turquoise dress shirt, turquoise earrings, and black jeans, captures her graying brown hair in a ponytail, and says to her reflection, “You are a handsome woman in your sixties. Oliver has come for your poems, not for you.”

*

Rosalind puts on her sexiest dress, a summery green opalescent curve-clinging scoop-necked thing, paints her lips burgundy, and impales her short auburn hair with a red rose bud.

*

Oliver and Paul arrive promptly at ten, both wearing white summer suits, and Oliver present Dez with a bouquet of seven spectacular roses, which Genevieve puts in a white porcelain vase and makes the centerpiece of the kitchen table where Dez and Rosalind and Paul and Oliver convene for coffee and Genevieve’s just-baked cinnamon coffee cake.

“So…” says Oliver, looking at Dez, “we would like to offer you 10,000 euros for a one-year option of the movie rights to In Lausanne, against a purchase price of 150,000 euros should the film be made. And you would get two per cent of the net proceeds, should there be any, which is highly unlikely.”

“Hence the movie business maxim,” says Paul, whose gaze keeps returning to Rosalind’s lips, “the money you get is the money you get.”

“Okay,” says Dez, who is greatly relieved to be over her infatuation with Oliver, though she still thinks he’s marvelous.

“Okay?” says Oliver, placing a hand on his heart. “Yes? Fantastic. I will have our agent contact your agent and we will go from there.”

“I don’t have an agent,” says Dez, feeling glad she doesn’t. “My editor at Werner Schaffen is Dirk Rosenfeld. I will ask him to represent me.”

“Whatever you like,” says Oliver, nodding. “We are absolutely thrilled to have the chance to make a movie from your poems.”

“We’ve made lots of money with our silly movies,” says Paul, exchanging glances with Oliver, “and now we want to make something more meaningful. Something deeper. Something that touches the soul, not just the funny bone, but the funny bone, too.”

“We can’t wait to see what you come up with,” says Rosalind, looking at Paul and thinking I would do anything to be with you.

“Which brings up another matter,” says Oliver, placing his hands together as in prayer. “We would love to show you the screenplay as it develops and hear your critique, for which we will pay you.”

“No need to pay us,” says Dez, shaking her head. “We’d love to see the drafts and tell you what we think.”  

“Well then,” says Oliver, looking at Paul and Rosalind and lastly at Dez, “we will take no more of your time.”

“You are welcome to take as much of our time as you want,” says Dez, speaking without forethought. “We are in love with you and hope to see you again.”

“The feeling is mutual,” says Paul, delighted by Dez’s candor. “I’m about to shoot two movies in quick succession, sadly neither with Oliver, after which I plan to turn my full attention to In Lausanne.”

“Whereas I am not so busy,” says Oliver, sounding happy to say so, “and I would love to visit you here and for you to come stay with me in Burgundy where we can work on the screenplay and I will be your tour guide.”

*

When Oliver and Paul drive away—Paul having kissed Rosalind on the lips in parting—Dez and Rosalind walk with Bianca on a footpath tracing the shore of Lake Geneva.

“I may write a hundred love poems now,” says Dez, holding Rosalind’s hand. “What will you do?”

“I will live for as long as I can,” says Rosalind, smiling dreamily, “in the magic of his kiss.”

fin

Here We Go

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Rosalind and Dez In Lausanne

This is the sequel to Rosalind’s Choice.

Dear Katrina

Rosalind here, hoping all is well with you and the gang at Café Bleu. I’ve taken to writing actual letters again as part of my attempt to wean myself from my phone, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. So far the results are good. I’m less anxious, sleeping better, and I have much more energy during the day.

I miss you, but I don’t miss the daily grind, pun intended. Remember when we calculated I made 50,000 lattes a year during my four years there. I wonder how many tens of thousands of tables I cleared? Not that I think what I’m doing now is any more important than working at Café Bleu. I don’t. But I’m grateful for the respite and the change.

We’ve been living in Lausanne for exactly nine months. I still wake up many mornings thinking I’m in Seattle. Then my new reality dawns on me and I jump out of bed and wander through this lovely old house to the kitchen where most mornings I find Mama speaking her quickly improving French with Genevieve, our cook and housekeeper.

Yes, we have a housekeeper and a resident gardener and handyman. Genevieve is fifty-seven and her husband Henri is fifty-four. They live in a large cottage on the other side of our enormous vegetable garden. They have lived here for eleven years, cooking and cleaning and gardening for the writers who come to live here. They insist we are their favorites of the five writers they’ve served, and we believe them because we adore them.

If it were up to Genevieve, she would work for us seven days a week, coming and going throughout the day, cooking all our meals, and cleaning a room or two. However, Mama insists we fend for ourselves two days a week, so Genevieve allows this, though she often comes over on her supposed days off to see if we need anything, stays to chat, and the next thing we know she’s making us lunch or soaking beans for tomorrow’s stew or helping me improve the supper I’m making.

Henri has granted us a patch of ground in the vegetable garden because Mama loves to garden, but then he assumes dominion over what we plant, so now we mostly acquiesce to Henri being the gardener, we the lucky recipients of his bounty.

Both Henri and Genevieve speak very little English, which is a good thing because otherwise we would never learn French, which we are both learning pretty well due to blabbing with Genevieve who was a chef in a fine restaurant before becoming housekeeper and cook of The Writer’s House, which is what our house is called by the locals and our hosts at the university.

What do we do all day?

For the first few months we were zealous tourists exploring Lausanne, which is a beautiful old city. We’ve been to Geneva twice and Zurich for five days in May to visit Mama’s translator Dirk Rosenfeld and be feted by her publisher Werner Schaffen. Then in August we went to Germany for three weeks and Mama read at universities and in small theatres.

In America a few thousand people may know of Dez Peoples, but in Germany and Switzerland and France and Spain her poems are taught in schools and universities, and the German, French, and Spanish translations of her poetry sell thousands of copies every year.

And now that she’s here instead of on the other side of the world, she has visitors. Poets, novelists, philosophers, professors, playwrights, journalists, musicians, all wanting to talk to her and have her sign copies of her books and invite her to read with them or come to their universities. And I am her appointment secretary! Wednesday and Thursday afternoons are reserved for these visitors, and every week or two we have a dinner party. Mama’s sponsor at the university, Karl Fleury, a wonderful man who refers to Mama as my poet, comes to the parties with his Spanish wife Carmen, and we invite three or four other people, and Genevieve and I make a feast.

Et moi? I take long walks with Bianca who has no trouble communicating with Swiss dogs, and I go to market with Genevieve almost every day. I’m learning so much about food and cooking from her. When you come to visit, we’ll go to market every day and cook marvelous things together.

And I’ve started writing stories and poems and scenes for plays. I haven’t finished anything I like very much, but I’m enjoying the practice. I’m also taking lots of pictures, mostly of people who come to visit, and of Genevieve and Henri and Mama. Switzerland is so picturesque, but I’m most interested in taking pictures of people.

I can hear you wondering what about men? Well I am madly in love with living here in what Mama calls The Land Where You Don’t Need A Car Because Trains Go Everywhere, but I haven’t fallen in love with anyone. Yet. I’ve been on a few dates and had a thrilling kiss from a handsome guy who was eager to get married and have kids with me, but I am definitely not ready for that.

We have four years and three more months here. The guest room awaits you.

Love,

Roz

*

On a Thursday in early October, Dez gives an interview to Andrea, a young French journalist. They sit in the living room of The Writer’s House and Andrea records the interview on her phone.

Andrea: (her English quite good) How is it for you living here?

Dez: Unlike anything I’ve ever known or dreamed of.

Andrea: How so?

Dez: I’ve been publishing poems in America for twenty-five years, and by American standards I am a successful poet, though only one of my books sold more than a thousand copies in America. In those twenty-five years, I’ve gotten a handful of letters from American readers and a few other American writers. But here I am something of a literary celebrity because Dirk Rosenfeld translated my poems into German for the Werner Schaffen editions and their success inspired French and Spanish translations. But if not for Dirk’s translations, and his insisting Werner Schaffen publish me in the first place, I would not be here and you would have no interest in me. Furthermore, I might never have published another volume of poetry in America if not for the success of the German English edition of my first volume.

Andrea: You don’t think another publisher would have done for you what Werner Schaffen did?

Dez: They never would have heard of me. The fact is I am the beneficiary of incredibly good luck.

Andrea: Yet your poems are masterpieces. Surely you would have eventually been recognized.

Dez: I appreciate your praise, but I think you are naïve. A far as I’m concerned, culture results from nepotism and the occasional fluke. Many brilliant writers never succeed in publishing anything, and the same is true for musicians and artists.

Andrea: So how did Dirk come to read your first volume of poems? Before Rosalind, yes?

Dez: (nodding) Dirk tells the story better than I. You should ask him.

Andrea: I will. But for now would you mind giving me your version?

Dez: He was in Paris on business for Werner Schaffen. He and I are the same age, so he was thirty-nine. He went to a café for lunch and there were two American women having a difficult time with their waiter. Dirk offered his services as translator for the women, they asked him to join them, and during the meal, when they learned he was a translator of English books into German, one of the women handed him a copy of Before Rosalind and said, “You should translate these poems. They’re fantastic.” Dirk read the book on the train returning to Switzerland and became my champion.

Andrea: Did you ever get a chance to thank the woman who gave him your book?

Dez: I did. Her name is Elaine Cantrell. I sent her a copy of my second book Now She Is Two and thanked her for giving my first book to Dirk. She wrote back and we’ve corresponded ever since. In fact, she and her partner are coming to visit here in the spring. We’ve never met in-person, but we’re old friends now and I’m looking forward to spending time with her. She’s a psychotherapist in Boston.

Andrea: Your daughter Rosalind is here with you in Lausanne?

Dez: I would not have come without her.

Andrea: May I ask why?

Dez: She’s my best friend and I wouldn’t want to spend five years living so far from her. My residency here is for five years.

Andrea: And then you’ll return to America?

Dez: Barring another miracle.

Andrea: What do you mean?

Dez: I mean I would love to live here for the rest of my life. I have no desire to return to America. It’s a punitive society. If you don’t have lots of money, life is hard there. And even if you have lots of money, the culture is ageist and sexist and racist and painfully mediocre. Here you have free healthcare, fantastic public transportation, free education, hundreds of excellent small publishers, marvelous theatres and performance venues, and an ethos of sharing. Most of what people here assume are the basic rights of life don’t exist in America. So why would I want to go back?

Andrea: I’m sure the Swiss would love to make you a citizen of their country. And so would the French and the Germans.

Dez: From your lips to God’s ears.

fin

Missing You

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Coastal Drama Games

In 1972 I was living in a commune in Santa Cruz and piecing together my minimal living by working for three bucks an hour as a landscaper and house painter while playing guitar and singing for tips in cafés and pubs. So when a young lawyer offered me thirty bucks per meeting to attend California Coastal Commission meetings in Santa Cruz and write reports on those meetings for his law firm, I jumped at the chance.

The California Coastal Commission was established along with the Coastal Protection Act in 1972 through a state ballot proposition sponsored by environmentalists hoping to slow unchecked development of California coastal areas. The commission was a serious work-in-progress in those early days, and the meetings I attended at the county building in Santa Cruz were, in the vernacular of those times, trippy.

I was one of the only people attending these meetings not there to try to convince the commission to approve building projects theoretically verboten under the new Coastal Protection Act. Each supplicant made his or her case—sometimes it was a coastal city or town, sometimes a resort developer, sometimes the builder of a house—and most of these cases were made with the aid of slide shows projected on a big screen in the darkened room.

Approval or disapproval of these projects couldn’t have been based on what was revealed at these public meetings. By that I mean, incredibly destructive projects that never should have been approved often were, and projects that seemed benign were frequently not approved.

*

In 1973, having by then covered several of these Coastal Commission meetings, I got a call from a man I will call Mark who said he was a good friend of my uncle Howard and had just built a new house in Aptos. Mark wanted to invite me (and a date) to dinner with him and his wife and another couple. He said Howard had told him he had to meet me, that he and I would hit it off, and I would love to see his new house.

My uncle Howard was a big time entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. We were not close, but I always liked him and vice-versa. Mark sounded interesting, my girlfriend Nancy and I were paupers, and the idea of going for a nice meal in a snazzy new house appealed, so I accepted his invitation.

On the night of the dinner party, we donned our best hippy garb and followed the directions Mark gave us to his house. And the closer we got, the more perplexed I became because we were headed into what I thought I knew to be coastal land that was never to be built on, land the Coastal Protection Act was specifically designed to protect.

However, Mark had somehow gotten approval to put in a quarter-mile asphalt road just north of a state park and running right along the shore to a spectacular rocky point, waves crashing below his enormous modern house cantilevered over that rocky point.

We parked our jalopy between two dazzling new cars and walked on the beautifully lit cement walkway inlaid with ocean rocks and fossils through a gorgeous Japanese garden to the massive front door and rang the melodious doorbell.

Mark was a short wiry fellow in his sixties, his wife Maureen a gorgeous blonde in her twenties wearing a shimmery diaphanous dress I mistook for negligee, their friends Jason and Lisa in their thirties. I was twenty-four, my girlfriend Nancy twenty-two.

While Maureen and Jason and Lisa had wine in the living room, Mark gave Nancy and me a tour of the spectacular house. On the tour Mark explained that my Uncle Howard had been his attorney on a number of business deals, and then he, Mark, worked for Howard gratis for a couple years to learn what he needed to learn to pass the bar and become his own lawyer.

When we stepped out on the massive deck overlooking the ocean, I mentioned my Coastal Commission gig and expressed amazement that the Coastal Commission had approved the construction of Mark’s house, not to mention the road to the house.

And Mark said, “We found evidence of a former dwelling here.” Then he smiled wryly. “Several planks of old redwood.”

“Here?” I said incredulously. “There was a house here before this one? But there’s no level ground. This is jagged rock. Your house is an engineering marvel.”

“There was sufficient evidence of a possible former dwelling to warrant building here and on other feasible locations along my access road,” said Mark, sounding ultra-lawyerly. “And I’m on very good terms with a majority of the commissioners.”

“Wait,” I said, aghast. “You’re subdividing the land along the road?”

“Just on the ocean side,” he said, ushering us inside. “We don’t want to overbuild and put undue stress on the fragile coastal environment.”

*

 Following the delicious meal cooked by their excellent chef, Maureen asked us what we did, and Nancy said she was studying jazz piano at Cabrillo College and working as a waitress, and I said I was an aspiring writer working as a landscaper, and my trio Kokomo was the Friday and Saturday night band at Positively Front Street, a pub near the municipal wharf in Santa Cruz.

Then Nancy added, “And Todd leads Drama games.”

Everyone’s eyes lit up.

Drama games?” said Maureen. “Tell us more.”

I had learned a bunch of warm-up exercises and interactive Drama games from my friend Rico’s wife Jean while living near them for a time in Ohio where Jean taught Drama at Central State University and gave weekend acting workshops. When I settled into commune life in Santa Cruz, I orchestrated Drama game nights at our commune and a few other communes in town, and that landed me a gig leading Drama games for emotionally troubled teenagers in a local residential treatment program.

“Can we do some Drama games now?” asked Maureen, shimmying in her shimmering gown.

I was reluctant, the group insisted, we had an hour of fun, and the games ended with us standing in a circle with our arms around each other improvising tonal melodies and harmonizing rapturously.

When the circle broke, Maureen said, “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”

Lisa and Jason echoed Maureen, and Mark said, “Oh my God, Todd. You could make a fortune from this. You can franchise this, and for a modest percentage I’ll set the whole thing up for you.”

“But these aren’t my exercises,” I said, shaking my head. “They’re taught in Drama classes and workshops all over the world.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Mark, excitedly. “It’s all in the packaging and the marketing. This could be huge!”

*

Needless to say, I did not pursue packaging and trademarking and franchising and marketing of those Drama games, but my friends and I had fun coming up with names for the hypothetical venture, including The Walton Method: Drama Games to Liberate Your Inner Creative Child.

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Rosalind’s Choice

This is the sequel to After Rosalind.

The only child of a well-known American poet, Rosalind Peoples always thought she would be a poet, too, but at twenty-five has yet to develop the habit of writing poems. An attractive gal with short auburn hair, a yoga practitioner and dutiful twice-daily walker of her cute brown mutt Bianca, Rosalind lives in Seattle, works in a bakery café called Café Bleu, and shares a small apartment near the university with her boyfriend Zorro Bernstein, an aspiring filmmaker ten years her senior who makes frequent schmoozing trips to Los Angeles and directs videos for musicians hoping to go viral on YouTube.

Rosalind’s mother, Dez Peoples, lives in the small town of Ophelia, Washington, a three-hour drive from Seattle. Dez has published fourteen volumes of poetry with American publishers, and all those collections have been published in German-English editions by a Swiss publisher; and her last four volumes have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, yet she still works in a stationery store to make her minimal ends meet. She has been offered teaching positions at several universities but declined the offers because, as she said in a recent interview with a German literary magazine, “All I know about writing poetry is to try to make poems I’m satisfied with, but I have no idea how to teach someone to try.”

Rosalind graduated with a degree in English from the University of Washington, her special interest the comedies of Shakespeare and the stories of Edith Wharton and Isaac Bashevis Singer. “That and three bucks,” her boyfriend Zorro likes to say, “will get you a cup of coffee and no refill.”

*

On a cold Saturday morning in late October, Zorro is smoking dope and watching a college football game on television in the living room of their small apartment when Rosalind comes in with a letter in hand.

“So you have another dupe in Los Angeles,” she says, throwing the letter at him. “I didn’t open it, but the return address is North Hollywood and she wrote on the envelope See you soon, honey pie.”

“Oh God, Roz. I’m…”

“I don’t want to know,” she says, cutting him off. “I’m going to my mother’s for a few days. Please be gone when I get back.”

*

Rosalind arrives at her childhood home in Ophelia in time for supper, after which she and her mother sit together on the sofa in the living room, a fire crackling in the fireplace. They sip peach brandy and enjoy the cats Miranda and Gonzalo and the mutt Bianca nestling around them.

After Rosalind vents about Zorro ending their three-year relationship in such a sneaky cowardly mean-spirited way, Dez, who is sixty-three and hasn’t been in a relationship since Rosalind’s father left when Rosalind was a baby says, “A blessing he’s gone.”

“He loved talking about integrity,” says Rosalind, furious with herself for trusting the wastrel. “Artistic and otherwise. Now watch. He’ll end up making horror movies.”

“Was he born Zorro?” asks Dez, who always wanted to call him Zero.

“Born Malcolm,” says Rosalind, making a spluttering sound. “He said the name Zorro came to him in a dream. That should have set off warning sirens but lust made me stupid.”

“As lust will,” says Dez, gazing fondly at her daughter. “So now what?”

“Oh I’m keeping the apartment,” says Roz, shrugging. “Housing in Seattle is insane. I just have to find a good roommate, someone who won’t mind sleeping in the living room.” She grins at her mother. “Want to come live with me?”

“I would love to live with you,” says Dez, a tremble in her voice. “But not in Seattle.”

“You want me to move back here?” says Rosalind, wrinkling her nose. “I love it here, Mama, but not yet. You stayed away for twenty years. Shouldn’t I stay away for at least ten? Prove I can make it on my own? Find my calling?”

“You’ve made it on your own since you were seventeen,” says Dez, getting up to put another log on the fire. “And your calling will find you when you’re ready to be found.”

“Are you okay, Mama?” asks Rosalind, sensing her mother’s disquiet. “Missing Grandma?”

“No, not at all,” says Dez, shaking her head. “She was a ghost those last two years. A very confused ghost. Exhausting.”

“So what’s bothering you?”

“I have to make a decision about something that involves you,” says Dez, her eyes brimming with tears, “and I’m having a difficult time, which is why I’m so glad you’re here, though I’m sorry Zorro ended things the way he did.”

“If he’d just been honest,” says Rosalind, unused to seeing her mother so emotional. “What do you have to decide?”

“Well…” says Dez, heading for the kitchen. “Tea?”

“Mama, what is it?”

“I’ve won a prize,” says Dez, stopping on the threshold between the living room and kitchen.

“The Pulitzer?” says Rosalind, who thinks all her mother’s books should have won the Pulitzer.

Dez laughs. “No. I don’t think I’ll never win that one. This is from a university in Switzerland that gives writers stipends so they can write without having to work at another job. I would be free to do anything I want.”

“Fantastic,” says Rosalind, ever amazed by what her mother’s poetry brings her. “So what’s to decide?”

“I would have to move to Switzerland, to a beautiful house in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.” She pauses. “For five years.”

“You would live in Switzerland for five years?” says Rosalind, stunned by the thought of being apart from her mother for so long.

“If I accept the prize,” says Dez, nodding. “And I’ll definitely accept if you’ll come with me.”

“I could come with you?” says Rosalind, grimacing in disbelief. “For the whole five years? They’d let me?”

“I told them I might only accept if you came with me, and they said that would be fine and they would increase the stipend to accommodate you. Of course you don’t have to, and I may accept even if you don’t come, but I’m not sure I can be happy living so far away from you for five years. This is my dilemma.”

“What about my dog?” says Rosalind, who is so flummoxed she can hardly think.

“You would bring Bianca,” says Dez, calmly. “And the cats would stay here with whoever I rent the place to. Cat lovers, of course.”

*

Rosalind has been to Europe twice with her mother, once when she was eleven, once when she was thirteen, their trips paid for by Dez’s Swiss publisher. And they certainly would have gone to Europe a few more times except Ernestine, Dez’s mother, began to falter mentally and Dez would neither take her to Europe again nor leave her in the care of others and go without her.

 *

The next morning, Sunday, heavy rain keeps them inside, and after breakfast they play Scrabble by the fire.

“Is this what we’d do in Switzerland?” asks Rosalind, smiling sleepily at her mother, neither of them having slept well. “Play Scrabble and loll around?”

“If we want,” says Dez, using all her letters to spell gigantic and taking a seemingly insurmountable lead.

“But seriously,” says Rosalind, her head throbbing. “In Seattle I have to work six days a week to pay the rent and buy food. If I didn’t have to work… what would I do?”

“You can get a job in Switzerland if you want,” says Dez, grouping and regrouping the letters on her tray. “Or you can travel. Take pictures. Build birdhouses. Raise rabbits. Work in the garden. The house has a lovely garden and a big lily pond. You could write a play. Take piano lessons. There’s a fine piano in the house. You can do anything you want. Or nothing. We just get to live in a wonderful place and not worry about money for five years. What a concept.”

“I feel like such a failure,” says Rosalind, spelling fritz, the z landing on a triple-word-score square, which makes the seemingly insurmountable lead suddenly surmountable. “I’m twenty-five and I haven’t done anything with my life except make lattes and live with a phony jerk and pick up dog poop and ride on your coattails.”

“When have you ever ridden on my coattails?” says Dez, frowning. “You had after-school jobs in high school, got a full scholarship to college, and you’ve supported yourself ever since.”

“You know what I mean,” says Rosalind, disconsolately. “My resume reads BA in English, University of Washington, used to take pretty good pictures, daughter of brilliant poet. I don’t deserve a five-year dream life in Switzerland. I need to make something of my life. Become something.”

“I didn’t publish my first poem until I was thirty-nine and you were two,” says Dez, spelling index, the x on a double-letter-score square. “Until then my resume was BA in Dance, San Francisco State, three years with money-losing dance company, waitress.”

“Yes, but you were always writing poems,” says Rosalind, spelling alarm. “You knew what you were. A poet. What am I?”

“So let’s say you don’t come with me,” says Dez, getting up to answer the loud knocking at the door. “And you stay in Seattle working as a waitress. Why would that be a better way to make something of your life than living with me in Switzerland?”

“I would not be dependent on you,” says Rosalind, closing her eyes and seeing the picture she took of Dez twelve years ago, standing at the prow of a ferryboat plying the waters of Lake Zurich.

Dez opens the door and here is Becky Fletcher and her adorable children, Wade who is four and Jenny who is two. Becky was Rosalind’s best friend in elementary school and high school.

“I should have called first,” says Becky in her booming voice, “but we were driving by and saw Roz’s car, so… hey Roz.”

“Hey Becky,” says Rosalind, coming to give her old pal a hug. “Oh my God. Look at your gigantic children. They’ve doubled in size since August.”

“Tell me about it,” says Becky, laughing uproariously. “Can you believe it?”

“Come in, come in,” says Dez, smiling at the little cuties. “I’ll make some cocoa.”

“Oh don’t go to any trouble,” says Becky, who would clearly love for Dez to go to some trouble. “I should have called first.”

“It’s fine,” says Rosalind, helping Becky out of her sopping raincoat. “Come get warm by the fire.”

“I like cocoa,” says Wade, frowning gravely. “Only not too hot or I burn my mouth.”

“I have to pee,” says Jenny, doing a little jig.

“First we pee,” says Becky, scooping up Jenny and carrying her down the hall to the bathroom, “and then we have not-too-hot cocoa.”

And in this moment of Becky disappearing down the hallway with Jenny, and Bianca coming to sniff Wade as he takes off his raincoat and drops the soggy thing on the floor and follows Dez into the kitchen, Rosalind decides to go to Switzerland with her mother, though she doesn’t realize she’s made her decision until some days later.

*

Only when she gets back to her tiny Zorro-less apartment in Seattle and she’s sitting on her ratty futon and the traffic is roaring by outside her too-thin windows and another long week of making lattes and clearing tables awaits her, does she realize she’s made up her mind.

“Mama,” she says when Dez answers her phone. “I’ve decided to come with you and be your fellow artist in Switzerland, though I have no idea what kind of artist I’ll be.”

“Oh darling,” says Dez, who has only called Rosalind darling a few other times in her life. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Why are you proud of me?” asks Rosalind, mystified by her mother’s choice of words. “I haven’t done anything to be proud of.”

“If you knew you as I know you,” says Dez, vastly relieved that Rosalind is coming with her, “you would know why I’m proud of you.”

“Tell me.”

“I would have to tell you the story of your life,” says Dez, crying for joy.

“Tell me one thing.”

Dez closes her eyes and waits for a memory to emerge.

“A year ago when you took that marvelous picture of me for Ordinary Amazement, you dressed me in a long gray skirt and a white blouse and stuck an overblown yellow rose in my hair and had me stand in the vegetable garden while you went up on the roof of the house and took picture after picture of me looking up at you, my fearless daughter moving around on the steep roof with the sureness of a practiced acrobat, never doubting you’d get something good.”

fin

Darling

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After Rosalind

This is a story about Desdemona Peoples, known to her friends and those who read her poetry as Dez Peoples. She works at Oberon’s, the only stationery store in town, and used to be married to Larry Peoples who is now married to Penny Peoples. Given that they all live in Ophelia, Washington, a small town, you may wonder why Dez doesn’t drop Peoples and go back to using her maiden name Persons to make things less confusing for everyone. And the reason she doesn’t go back to Persons is poetry.

A striking brunette, Dez was born in Ophelia, the youngest of three kids with two older brothers. Her father Skip was a logger, her mother Ernestine a housewife who took in sewing work to supplement the family income, and both Dez’s brothers became loggers, too. By the age of twelve, Dez was determined to get out of Ophelia and never come back. Blazingly smart, she thought everybody in town was an idiot. Now she knows everybody in Ophelia is not an idiot, but when she was twelve that’s what she thought.

Dez graduated from high school at sixteen and went to college at San Francisco State where she majored in Dance. Upon graduating with honors, she moved to Portland and joined a modern dance company called Epiphany, had parts in several plays, and wrote poetry. She worked as a waitress, had a series of musician boyfriends, wrote hundreds of poems, and tried to get them published with little success.

When Dez was thirty-seven her father died and she went back to Ophelia to take care of her grieving mother. After she’d been home for a month, she had a fling with Larry Peoples who had briefly been her boyfriend in high school, and because her birth control implant gave up the ghost six months early, she got pregnant, married Larry, and took his last name to make things less confusing for everyone in Ophelia.

Much to her surprise, Dez enjoyed being married to Larry who was sweet to her during her pregnancy and sweet to their child Rosalind until Lindy, as Larry called Rosalind, was three. Then Larry got together with Penny and had little to do with Dez or Rosalind ever again.

But during Larry’s initial sweetness to her and their child, Dez stopped signing her poems Desdemona Persons and started signing them Dez Peoples, and the minute she made that change, literary magazines started publishing her poems, which led to Seven Painted Elephants Press publishing her first volume of poems Before Rosalind, which was subsequently published in a German-English edition by the Swiss publisher Werner Schaffen. And when Before Rosalind proved successful, Seven Painted Elephants Press published Dez’s second volume of poems Now She Is Two and Werner Schaffen published a German-English edition of that collection, too.

Which is not to say Dez became famous, but as poets in America fare, she was faring quite well, which is why when she and Larry divorced, she kept on being Dez Peoples.

*

On a muggy Saturday in August—Rosalind eight, Dez forty-six, and Dez’s mother Ernestine seventy-two—Dez and Rosalind are working in the vegetable garden in back of the two-story house where Dez grew up, digging horse manure into the soil for planting pole beans and potatoes.

Ernestine comes out on the back porch and says, “Phone for you Dez. Somebody named Lulu.”

Rosalind laughs. “You mean Zulu, Grandma.”

“Lulu, Zulu,” says Ernestine, laughing, too. “Some sort of ulu.”

“Dig on, Roz,” says Dez, hurrying to the house. “I won’t be long.”

Zulu Manhattan is Dez’s editor at Articulate Dinosaur Press in Seattle, publisher of Dez’s last three volumes of poetry. Dez’s latest volume, her seventh, Controversial Recipes, just came out in America and Europe and is getting stellar reviews. Werner Schaffen has published German-English editions of all seven of Dez’s books and she now has a small following in Germany and Switzerland.

“Hey Dez,” says Zulu, her accent southern, “we just got a call from Nathan Grayson. Well… from his people. Do you know him?”

“No,” says Dez, sitting at the kitchen table and using the same wall-mounted telephone she grew up with. “Somebody sent me the book he won the Pulitzer for. Can’t think of the title. Haven’t read it yet.”

“Well you better read it, honey,” says Zulu, emphatically, “because he apparently loves your work and wants you to open for him at a big show in Seattle on October fifth, PBS taping the show for a national Christmas special. Wants you to do about twenty minutes. They’ll pay you two grand and put you up at the Four Seasons and interview you for the special, too. Yes?”

“I’ll need to check with my mother,” says Dez, terrified. “Make sure she’s available to take care of Roz. Can I call you back tomorrow? Or Monday?”

“Monday at the latest, darling,” says Zulu, hearing the fear in Dez’s voice. “Grayson is going to be the next poet laureate, you know. Or the one after that.”

“I probably can do it,” says Dez, breathlessly. “I’ll call you back.”

Dez hangs up the phone and bows her head. This is her dream come true and her worst nightmare. She wants to be successful and wants to be anonymous.

Ernestine comes in from the garden cradling zucchinis and cucumbers in her apron, dumps the produce on the kitchen counter and says, “You okay, Dez?”

“They want me to read with Nathan Grayson in Seattle,” says Dez, anguished. “In October. For a PBS Christmas show.”

“For your new book?” asks Ernestine, getting Dez a glass of water.

Dez smiles at her mother who knows nothing about poetry except that Dez is a poet and Psalms in The Bible are poems.

“Nathan Grayson is very famous,” Dez explains, “and it certainly would help my new book if I read with him and a million people watched the show, but I’m not sure I want to.”

“Why not?” asks Ernestine, frowning at her daughter. “Wouldn’t take long. Three-hour drive to Seattle, read your poems, come on home. We’ll hardly know you were gone.”

“You make it sound so wonderfully simple,” says Dez, giving her mother a hug. “But it isn’t.”

*

As they plant the bean seeds, Dez tells Rosalind about the reading in Seattle.

“Can I come?” asks Rosalind, nodding hopefully. “I love Seattle.”

“I don’t know if I’ll do it,” says Dez, sinking her hands in the soil and closing her eyes.

“Why not?” asks Rosalind, frowning at her mother. “We could go to Pike Street Market and get fish and chips and salt water taffy and go on a ferry boat ride.”

“It’s complicated,” says Dez, thinking Maxine is the only person I know who will understand what I’m up against.

*

When Ernestine and Rosalind take the mutts Portia and Petruchio for a walk, Dez sits at the kitchen table and calls Maxine in Portland. Maxine is an artist ten years older than Dez who makes her living staging houses for real estate agents. She and Dez shared a flat and were waitresses together when Dez lived in Portland.

“Hey baby girl,” says Maxine when she hears Dez’s voice. “I’ve been meaning to call you and tell you how much I love the new poems. The one about the old lady buying whiskey in the Pakistani liquor store? I laughed until I cried. You just get better and better. And who took the picture of you on the jacket? You look like Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“Roz took it,” says Dez, smiling as she recalls standing in the vegetable garden, her hair still wet from her shower, Rosalind snapping pictures with a tiny camera. “You got a minute?”

“For you, baby girl, all day.”

Dez tells Maxine about the gig with Nathan Grayson and her mixed feeling about saying Yes, and Maxine says, “Self-sabotage or self-preservation? That is the question.”

“I’m not unhappy,” says Dez, as if that might be a good enough reason not to read with Nathan Grayson.

“What are you afraid of?” asks Maxine, getting out her notebook.

“I write poetry,” says Dez with anger in her voice. “I don’t want to be mistaken for Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“You’d be sensational,” says Maxine, writing Sensational at the top of a blank page. “And that would open a Pandora’s Box of interest in you. Tell me why that’s bad.”

“I like not being famous,” says Dez, hearing how false she sounds.

“And what will happen if you don’t do it?” asks Maxine, writing Pandora’s Box under Sensational.

“If I don’t do it,” says Dez, knowing how the world works, “my publisher will drop me and I will ever after be known as the uppity bitch who wouldn’t read with Nathan Grayson.”

Maxine laughs. “You are so not an uppity bitch, baby girl.”

Silence.

“I’m stuck,” says Dez, quoting Rosalind who often says I’m stuck when seeking help.

“Let’s go back to the beginning,” says Maxine, writing The Beginning under Pandora’s Box. “Why do you write poems?”

“To capture moments,” says Dez, thinking of Rosalind on her knees in the garden placing big white beans in the little trench snaking through the dark brown soil.

“Why capture moments?” asks Maxine, writing Moments.

“To share them with others.”

“Why do you want to do that?”

“To connect. Maybe help.”

“Help?”

“You know… maybe awaken someone a little.”

“Do it, Dez,” says Maxine, writing Awaken! “Pandora won’t bother you much in Ophelia.”

*

So Dez takes the gig.

*

At the end of Dez’s sound check a few hours before the big show, Nathan Grayson and his entourage enter the vast theatre and Grayson strides down the center aisle to meet Dez coming off the stage.

A movie-star handsome fellow in his fifties, his hair a flawless gray pompadour, Nathan takes Dez’s hand in both of his and says, “Your author photos don’t lie. Why no videos?”

“I’m low tech,” says Dez, who got her hair cut stylishly short for the reading. “Just write.”

“So you’ll do about ten minutes,” says Nathan, winking at Dez. “Sound good?”

“I was told twenty,” says Dez, having memorized six poems that take her seventeen minutes to recite without haste.

“Less is more,” says Nathan, winking at her again. “Aim for ten. They always take fifteen.”

“Will do,” says Dez, wanting to like Nathan but finding him repulsive.

“Perfecto,” says Nathan, winking at her a third time. “Just be yourself.”

*

The first poem Dez recites is called Café Idyll, about a day in her life as a waitress—the seventeen hundred people in the audience entranced from the first line and roaring with laughter throughout.

Aiming to finish under fifteen minutes, Dez skips her second and third poems and performs A Tale of Two Bass Players, a funny poignant imagining of her long-ago bass player boyfriends showing up in Ophelia to take her back to the life she had in Portland before the coming of Rosalind.

The audience goes bonkers when she finishes the poem, cheering and whistling and applauding thunderously.

Now something in the wings catches Dez’s attention and she glances to her right and sees Nathan Grayson gesturing wildly for her to stop, to be done, though she’s only been on for nine minutes.

And when the stage manager and the show’s director fail to calm Grayson down and he’s about to walk onto the stage and do God knows what to get Dez off the stage, Dez leans close to the microphone and says, “I’ll close now with a poem inspired by Nathan Grayson who so graciously asked me to read with him.”

Which simple speech quells the beast.

*

After Rosalind

When I was a child my older brothers would say to boys

questioning the little girl playing ball with them, “She’s tough

as nails. Not afraid of anything.” Which was true for all my

life until at thirty-seven I swelled with child, my Rosalind,

and in a second-trimester dream I drew my sword to fight

a man who would slay me before my babe was born. And

in that bloody duel was born my fear and the prayer

Oh let me live until my babe is born and weaned and strong.

And when my babe was four-years-old my prayer became

Oh let me live until she can make her way without me.

Now Rosalind is eight and as fearless as I

before she came to be, and in a dream

two nights ago that same man came to slay me.

But this time when I drew my sword I felt no fear,

for Rosalind was beside me, her sword drawn, too,

a cunning smile on her soon-to-be-a-woman’s face.

*

A gorgeous day in October—Rosalind thirteen, Dez fifty-one, Ernestine seventy-seven—they are having breakfast in a café in Zurich, Switzerland with Dirk Rosenfeld, Dez’s translator at Werner Schaffen, publisher of all ten volumes of Dez’s poetry in beautiful German-English editions.

“Soon,” says Dirk, watching Rosalind take a sip of coffee from her mother’s cup, “you will be having your own cups of coffee, Roz.”

“I prefer sipping from my mother’s cup,” says Rosalind, smiling at Dez. “I suppose I might move away some day and then I’ll have my own cups of coffee, though I only ever want a few sips.”

“It begins with a few sips,” says Dirk, nodding sagely. “Then one day we want a little more and a little more, and soon one cup is not enough.”

“That’s me,” says Ernestine, never having imagined she would ever go to Europe as she has now twice with Dez and Rosalind. “Two cups every morning and sometimes three, and another two in the afternoon. But not Dez. She finishes the one with breakfast and that’s it for the day. Been that way since she was twelve.”

“Not counting the twenty years I lived away from home,” says Dez, remembering the cozy flat she shared with Maxine in Portland, purple paisley curtains, big pillows on the living room floor, Othello the cat snoozing on the windowsill, the air rich with the scent of coffee brewing.

fin

Morning Coffee

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Without A Story

There once was a man who made his living writing funny short stories. The man’s name was Azben Hummingbird and the stories he wrote came to him unceasingly for fifty years until one day they stopped.

“How strange,” said Azben to his cat Hernando who often curled up on Azben’s lap when Azben sat by the fire writing in his notebook. “Nothing.”

Azben sipped his nettle tea and thought back over his life and remembered a few other days when nothing came to him to write, and these memories reassured him the stories would come again, probably the next day.

But no story came the next day or the next or the next, and Azben could not remember ever going so many days without a story coming to him, and he began to worry.

You see, Azben could not make up stories. He had tried on a few occasions, but after making up just a few sentences he would start to feel terrible, as if he was committing a crime. Then he would read the sentences he’d written and find the writing poor, so he would burn the page and feel immensely relieved.

Thus he knew it was not a good idea to try to make up a story, yet after a week of no story coming to him he did try to make one up and only got a far as The day dawned chilly before his head began to ache. So he stopped writing and decided to go for a walk.

*

Azben and his wife Zenevia lived in a lovely little house on the edge of a forest about a mile from the ocean.

“I’m going for a walk,” said Azben, finding Zenevia in the kitchen making bread to go with minestrone soup for supper. “Would you like to come with me?”

“Can’t right now,” said Zenevia, shaping her loaves. “Bread, soup, etcetera. Would you mind picking up a quart of milk on your way back from the beach?”

“How did you know I was going to the beach?” asked Azben, getting a basket for bringing home what he knew would be more than a quart of milk.

“Because you always walk to the beach when you’re pensive,” said Zenevia, smiling at her husband. “And I know you’re pensive because you’re frowning and you only frown when you’re pensive. Oh and some cheese and wine and…”

*

Azben sat on a driftwood log and watched the waves rolling in, and he thought Stories came to me as unceasingly as these waves. I wonder why they stopped?

Then he thought about the last story he wrote, a story about a boy who runs away from home and intends to never go back, but a few hours into running away the boy remembers his mother is making a pumpkin pie, his favorite, for dessert after supper, and supper is probably going to be spaghetti, also his favorite, and then he encounters a ferocious dog who gives him quite a scare, after which an ominous man offers him a ride, so he goes home and no one ever knows he ran away.

“For which the fiction editor at Neon Bloom paid me two hundred dollars,” said Azben, speaking to a passing cloud, “and said it made her cry the best kind of tears.”

*

After supper, Azben and Zenevia played Gin Rummy on the rug by the fire and Zenevia won for the fourth night in a row.

“No story has come to me in seven days now,” said Azben, putting the cards away. “Not a line. Not a word. Not even a syllable.”

“Is that a long time?” asked Zenevia, going into the kitchen to put a kettle on for tea. “Seven days?”

“It’s forever!” said Azben, irate. “In fifty years I’ve never gone more than a day or two without a story coming to me.”

“Maybe your muse needed a vacation,” said Zenevia, who recently retired from teaching school for fifty years.

“My entire life my muse never took a vacation,” said Azben, his voice growing shrill, “and now, without warning, it leaves for Hawaii?”

“It?” said Zenevia, perusing the tea bags. “I’ve always imagined your muse was a she.”

“I’ve never imagined my muse was anything,” said Azben, exasperated. “Stories came to me. I wrote them down. Now they’ve stopped coming. I don’t know who I am or what I’m here for if not to write the stories that come to me.”

“You’re Azben Hummingbird,” said Zenevia, gazing at her husband. “You’re married to me, Zenevia Chickadee. We live in our house together, grow vegetables in big tubs, and have two cats. Every afternoon you build a fire to warm the living room for the evening. You’re seventy-three, I’m seventy-two.”

“Yes,” said Azben, putting another log on the fire, “and until a week ago I wrote stories every day and sent them to magazine editors who sometimes published them. And every ten years or so I’d publish a collection of stories. Now what do I do?”

“You’ll find out,” said Zenevia, bringing him a cup of chamomile tea.

How will I find out,” he asked despondently.

“Time will tell, dear. Time will tell.”

*

Another week went by without a story coming to Azben so he bought a ukulele and taught himself to play ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’ Inspired by his success with the old show tune, he learned several other songs and then composed an original ditty called ‘Cats Are Lots of Fun.’

Then another week went by without a story coming and Azben deep cleaned his office that hadn’t been deep cleaned in ten years and got rid of so much stuff the room seemed twice as big and rather elegant.

But when another week went by without a story coming, Azben began to feel desperate and crazy, so he went to the only psychiatrist in town, Morvuli Grebe, and told her what was going on.

Morvuli pondered Azben’s situation and said, “These things happen.”

“I despair,” said Azben, despairingly. “I’m at a loss. I’m a rudderless boat on a turbulent sea, and now I’m using tired clichés, which I never used to use. I feel I’m disappearing, and painfully so. Is there some sort of medication that could help me?”

“I can prescribe something that will make your despair more tolerable,” said Morvuli, “but it won’t make the stories come again.”

“What will?” he asked with the innocence of a child.

“I don’t know,” said Morvuli, who was remarkably humble for a psychiatrist, “but I know someone who might know. Do you know Taligaba Nighthawk?”

“I’ve heard of her,” said Azben, frowning. “Lives at the top of Hermit Thrush Mountain. Something of a cuckoo, no?”

“Unique,” said Morvuli, writing Taligaba’s phone number on a piece of paper. “Give her a call. And if your despair becomes unbearable, we’ll get you started on some despair-blocking meds.”

“Do they have any unpleasant side effects?”

“Possibly,” said Morvuli, nodding. “That’s the trade-off. Less despair, possible other things.”

*

A few days later, Azben drove his old pickup truck to the top of Hermit Thrush Mountain to consult with Taligaba Nighthawk.

Taligaba emerged from her brown adobe house wearing a black robe, her long white hair in a three-strand braid, and Azben thought if I did have a muse she would look like Taligaba Nighthawk and live in an adobe house at the top of a mountain.

“Welcome Azben Hummingbird,” said Taligaba, bowing theatrically to Azben. “Come in and get warm by the fire.”

When they were settled in Taligaba’s living room, Azben told Taligaba everything he could think to tell her.

“And,” said Azben, his voice full of excitement, “Morvuli Grebe thought you might be able to help me restore the flow of stories.”

Taligaba gazed out the window and said, “There is only one way I know of to restore the flow of stories.”

“And that is?” asked Azben, holding his breath.

“You will have to completely, and I mean completely, let go of wanting stories to come to you again.”

“But I do want them to come again. More than anything.”

“Therein lies the problem. Let go of the wanting and maybe they’ll come again.”

Maybe?” said Azben, horrified. “Maybe isn’t good enough.”

 “Maybe is not only good enough,” said Taligaba, laughing. “Maybe is the best we can ever hope for.”

“But why would they suddenly stop coming after fifty years of never stopping?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps stories come to people like you for fifty years and then stop for a year and then come again for two years and then stop for one. Who knows?”

“I’m at a loss,” said Azben, despondently. “A terrible loss.”

“Don’t be,” said Taligaba, encouragingly. “There’s no end of things to do.”

*

So Azben returned to his house and lived in despair for several more months. Sometimes the despair verged on unbearable, other days not quite so terrible. Some days he almost called Morvuli Grebe to get started on despair-blocking meds, other days he felt he could overcome his suffering au naturel.

One evening, as he was chopping an onion for the soup he and Zenevia were making, he realized he’d gone the entire day without despairing about stories no longer coming to him, and he thought Maybe I’ve turned a corner.

And then he remembered Taligaba Nighthawk saying, “Maybe is the best we can ever hope for,” and he cried the best kind of tears.

fin

La Entrada

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Ego Chronicle #17

Todd’s bud vase made in 1966

Just prior to my senior year of high school, much to my parents’ dismay, I decided not to continue on the science and math track they had hoped would turn me into a doctor. Instead of Math and Science, I took Drama and Ceramics, the first and only high school classes I loved.

In Ceramics, my excellent teacher Mr. Dunning started us out with hand-building projects, which I found delightfully challenging. If we proved diligent and hardworking, as opposed to being goof-offs as many kids were, we might graduate to learning how to use a potter’s wheel. After two months of making things with slabs of clay and coils of clay, Mr. Dunning promoted me to a wheel.

Our wheels were kick wheels, not electric. Having learned to wedge my clay to remove all the air bubbles, I was instructed in how to center a ball of clay on the wheel. This seemingly easy step in the process of making a bowl—easy for Mr. Dunning—took me several days to master, and, in truth, I never mastered centering. Sometimes I managed to center the ball of clay, sometimes not. Once the ball of clay was centered, the ball could be opened and the sides lifted into a cylinder. From this cylinder, a bowl or vase could be made.

After two weeks of practice, I finally managed to throw what I believed to be a beautiful bowl. I was overjoyed. From mere mud, I, a young Zorba in the making (Zorba the Greek was a potter), had created a beautiful artifact.

The protocol was to raise your hand when you wanted Mr. Dunning to come examine your work. So I raised my hand, Mr. Dunning approached, and before I knew what was happening, he took his fettling knife and sliced my bowl in half so we could examine the walls for thickness, air bubbles, and other possible flaws. My precious creation. Cut in half. I’d spent weeks trying to make a bowl and… SLICE!

I went back to work, but was too upset to make another bowl that day. The next day, however, I made an even better bowl, raised my hand, Mr. Dunning approached, whipped out his blade, and cut the bowl in half.

Battling my tears, I listened to his comments, he departed, and I made another bowl, a most excellent bowl, my best bowl by far.

I raised my hand.

Mr. Dunning approached.

I took up my own blade and cut the bowl in half.

Whatever For

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Todd’s New Oasis

I’m happy to announce the publication of my new book Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories. Some of you may be familiar with my science-fiction novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror because I brought out a coil-bound edition of the novella nine years ago and several readers declared it their favorite of my fictional creations.

So because I’m glad Little Movies is available as a paperback and e-book online, and the paperback can be ordered from your favorite local bookstores, I decided to bring out Oasis Tales of the Conjuror in the same way and couple the slightly revised novella with two of my longer short stories The Golden Light and Of Water and Melons and two shorter tales When Is It Done? and Clumsy Booby. The collection makes for a lovely 200-page paperback and e-books.

For those of you who like supporting your local bookstore, you may order the handsome paperback of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories from them, as well as the paperbacks of Little Movies tales of love and transformation and Buddha In A Teacup.

Here are links to book sites where the paperback of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories may be purchased. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.

The Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Nook e-book editions of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror and other stories will be available in a few weeks. I hope you will share this announcement with your sci-fi and short story-loving friends. Your reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble are very much appreciated.

Here are the first four chapters of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror.

*

Oasis

In a land where the rainy season lasts four moons and drought rules nine, the tiny paradise possesses both abundant water and fertile soil. Cradled by rugged mountains to the west and north and east, with a vast desert lapping her southern fringe, the oasis and her six hundred citizens are loosely allied to the city of Tropolis, a hundred miles to the north.

 A wall of stone twenty-feet-high and four-feet-thick encloses the oasis entirely, save for a breach in the containment at the southeast corner where waters of the marsh flow into the desert. This great wall was completed fifty years ago in the aftermath of a terrible war, and though the ramparts have yet to be tested by any foe, the people of the oasis are glad for the illusion of security and the very real barrier the wall provides against the fierce desert winds.

Nearly all the land of the oasis, three square miles, is cultivated. Only the seventy-acre marsh and four massive granite outcroppings are kept free of human interference for the benefit of fish and insects and rodents and tortoises and lizards and snakes and birds.

Conjuror

Anza the conjuror is fifty-nine, handsome and lean, a masterful guitarist, his brown hair turning gray. He is a widower and lives alone. His daughters Serena and Luno left the oasis five years ago to seek their fortunes as singers in Tropolis. Luno has a child named Desai, a boy much loved by his grandfather. Serena has yet to give birth.

 Anza’s commodious house overlooks his three acres of ground. One acre is wild, a haven for birds and bees and tangles of wild vines and fourteen promising oak trees. One acre is given to grapes that Anza trades to Tul for the making of wine. And one acre is given to fruit and nut trees—apricots, apples, almonds, walnuts, and plums—and to a garden of vegetables and flowers and amaranth. Anza also keeps quail for eggs, rabbits for meat and pelts.

 The conjuror’s supreme wish is for Serena, Luno, and Desai to leave Tropolis and come live with him in the oasis.

Figs

One morning in the first days of the dry time, old man Chesha, short and stout and stiff-legged, mounts his skinny donkey and rides from his home at the northern end of the oasis to visit Anza in the south. Chesha intends to hire the conjuror to cure his fig trees of an invisible malady. To pay for the conjuring he will give Anza three ounces of black tea, a valuable offering. Chesha is renowned for his stinginess. Thus giving Anza three ounces of black tea will be a most painful sacrifice for the old miser.

“Stone and lumber,” mutters Chesha, frowning at Anza’s house of oak and brick. “They say his house stays cool on the hottest days, while my hovel of twigs cooks me cruelly. I might as well have no house at all. See how rich he grows from conjuring. I work from morning until night to make ends meet, while he waves his hand and gifts rain down on him.”

A black cat sits in a patch of sunlight on Anza’s threshold, gazing curiously at the old man on the donkey.

“Anza,” shouts Chesha, disdainful of those who keep pets. “I have tea for you, but I will only pay if…”

“Welcome, my friend,” says Anza, appearing in his doorway. “What brings you so far?”

“I think you know,” says Chesha, fearing to look at the conjuror. “My fig trees. The fruit is late. Very late. You knew I was coming, didn’t you?”

“I’m a conjuror,” says Anza, smiling at the old man. “Not a seer.”

“Will you conjure for me?” asks Chesha, whimpering. “If my trees won’t fruit I’m ruined.”

“I will come at dusk,” says Anza, gazing at the cloudless sky. “But before I arrive, you must water your orchard and leave a cup of wine under each of the trees.”

“Seventeen cups?” cries Chesha. “Are you mad? I am not rich. I live in a hovel. I work from morning until night to make…”

“A cup of wine for each tree, my friend,” says Anza, closing his eyes. “And water your trees deeply else the cure will fail.”

Chesha rides home in a fury, whipping his donkey with a bamboo stick. “Seventeen cups. Seventeen! I have but two cups in my house. Where am I to get fifteen more cups in which to pour the wine? I have the wine, but it’s meant for me, not to be wasted on trees.”

The truth, however, trumps the old man’s outrage, for Chesha is the second wealthiest citizen of the oasis, a notorious glutton and a guzzler of three and four bottles of wine every day. What’s more, his fortune is derived entirely from the sale of his fabulous figs. No other fig trees in the oasis bear so heavily or produce such delicious fruit, though Chesha has never watered or fed them. And no one knows how old his trees are, for none among the living was alive when the magnificent trees were planted.

 Chesha, who never married, inherited his house and five acres from his Aunt Bysar when he was thirty, a bequest that made him rich beyond his wildest imaginings. His figs bring buyers from near and far, and his days are filled with bargaining and selling and counting his gains.

But now the fruit is late emerging, very late, and for the first time in his life Chesha faces the prospect of poverty. So the old miser purchases fifteen clay cups from Uma the potter and irrigates his orchard, though it pains him to spend water he might otherwise sell to his neighbors.

When at last Chesha has placed a cup of wine near each of his trees, he shakes his gnarly fist at the golden horizon and grumbles, “There. I have done what the conjuror demanded. Now he must work his magic and bring me greater gains than ever before.”

Tambourines and drums announce the coming of Anza at the head of a procession of seventeen people.

“What is this?” splutters Chesha, sneering at the conjuror. “I hired you, Anza. Not these others. This is no wedding. My trees are dying.”

“I have come to conjure,” says Anza, bowing to the fig trees. “These good people are my helpers, one for each of your trees.”

And the people go into the orchard and take up the cups.

“What are they doing?” cries Chesha, stamping his feet. “How dare they drink my wine?”

Anza raises his hand to silence the old man. “If my conjuring is to succeed, your trees must all drink in the same moment.”

“If these people pour my wine into the ground and my trees do not fruit,” says Chesha, glowering at Anza, “I will give you nothing.”

“And if the fruit emerges?” asks Anza, smiling slyly. “Then what will you give?”

“Three ounces of black tea,” says Chesha, gritting his teeth. “We bargained so this morning. You agreed to come for that price and that is what I will pay, but only if….”

“I agreed to come,” says Anza, nodding slowly. “But I will require more than three ounces of tea to ease the malady of these trees.”

“How much?” cries Chesha, wringing his hands. “I am a poor man. Without my figs, I will starve.”

“But if your trees give forth their bounty, you will be rich. So I ask you, my friend, to give one of every four of your figs to these people who are not so fortunate as you, and to give them a quarter of your harvest for the rest of your life.”

“These people?” says Chesha, glancing furtively at the men and women. “Who are they that I should give them my figs?”

“Your brothers and sisters,” says Anza, raising his hands to the sky. “Now I will conjure. Are we agreed on the price?”

“Brothers and sisters? They lie! I have no brothers or sisters.”

“Then we will go,” says Anza, beckoning to his helpers. “We will leave you to your cups of wine and your barren trees.”

“Wait!” cries Chesha, terrified. “I agree. One of every four figs to these people. For the rest of my life. Now conjure and save my trees.”

Anza gestures for his helpers to give the wine to the trees, and as the precious liquid seeps into the ground, Anza falls to his knees and presses his forehead to the ground.

Now the trees begin to shiver and rattle as if swept by a powerful wind as thousands of tiny green orbs emerge on the branches and the air grows sweet with the scent of divinity.

Anza weeps convulsively, for he has conjured the terrible sorrow of the ancient trees, abused by Chesha for fifty years, though they never failed to give him their fruit.

Messenger

Lev is eleven, a big strong boy with brown hair and dark green eyes. Known as the boy who loves stories, he is forever asking people to tell him tales so he might write the good ones down. Lev has traveled away from the oasis twice in his life, once with his father to Tropolis to sell almonds, and once with his mother to visit her sister in the farming commune on the shores of Blue Lake, seventeen miles to the south.

Marga is ten, tall for her age, with light brown hair kept in a braid, her eyes the blue of morning sky. Known for her lovely voice, she is the youngest member of the women’s choir at Southgate. She has never traveled away from the oasis and is not greatly drawn to the outside world.

Every few days, Lev and Marga walk from their school at Eastern Plaza to Northgate to visit Lev’s godfather, Tornio, the watchman of the northern gateway and the seventh oldest citizen of the oasis.

The children stand on the threshold of the gateway, scanning the hills for dust clouds presaging a bus or truck or caravan. Seeing no sign of anyone approaching the oasis, they knock on the open door of the gatehouse and Tornio invites them into his little room.

Tornio is tall and skinny with bony fingers and a hooked nose, his gray eyes ringed with wrinkles gained from a lifetime of squinting at the bright horizon. He loves visits from the children, for they break the monotony of long days in which he has little to do.

As is his custom, Lev requests that Tornio read the day’s entries from the gatehouse log. Happy to oblige, the old gatekeeper dons spindly reading glasses, straddles the creaky stool behind his desk, and places his finger at the top of the page.

“Here we are. Late morning of the third day of the fifth moon of the dry season. I was roused from my review of yesterday’s entries by the screeching of a hawk, she who nests in the wall some sixty yards west of the gate. She is an exquisite raptor, seven years old, with splendid red tail feathers and exceptionally long legs. I have taken the liberty of naming her Twyla for I once knew a woman named Twyla, a dancer with long legs. Given there are no Twylas among the current population of the oasis I foresee no difficulties arising from my giving the hawk this name. Twyla is often away hunting, for she has two fledglings to feed and I fear her mate has fallen to feather hunters, which means she is solely responsible for the feeding of her ravenous offspring. No easy task, I’m sure.

“At the sound of her cry, I took up my telescope and espied a telltale dust cloud. By its volume and density, I surmised this mass of dust to be the creation of the bus from Tropolis. My surmise proved correct. Bus #7 (twelve seats) driven by Alix Inger, badge number 174, is sounding quite unwell these days, like a person with a raspy cough. When I mentioned the rasping to Alix, he replied, ‘This old gal needs an overhaul, but what can we do with the shortages and all?’

“I remarked to Alix that he had inadvertently made a rhyme, but he gave no indication he grasped my meaning. I discerned he was vexed from his long journey, though he reported no difficulties en route and said he expected none on the return trip if the bus did not break down.

“The conveyance disgorged seven oasis residents returning from Tropolis. They reported success in trading raisins, dates, oranges, and figs for a variety of staples, notably flour, rice, and tea. Baza came home with two young parakeets, yellow with orange breasts, lively and full of song. The parakeets, that is, not Baza, though Baza is certainly lively and a fine singer.

“As is his custom, Alix parked in the shade and slept for two hours. He then ate his breakfast and sounded his horn to announce his departure. Three people boarded the outgoing bus, each carrying sacks of oranges that are commanding excellent trade in Tropolis what with the shortages.

“Alix saluted me as he drove out the gate and drove slowly until he was clear of the oasis so as not to stir up too much dust hereabouts. Alix is a most considerate driver.”

Lev gazes out the window, the far hills displaying dramatic afternoon shadows. “Maybe I will be a bus driver. Wouldn’t it be exciting to drive across the plain and over the hills to Tropolis and back again?”

“Are there more entries?” asks Marga, smiling wistfully.

“No,” replies Tornio, taking off his glasses. “Only the morning bus.”

“Do you think anyone else will come today?” asks Lev, wishing he didn’t have to go home and milk the goats. “When the sky grows pink, caravans seek stopping places for the night. So says a poem we learned in school.”

“No telling,” says Tornio, placing a tin kettle on his iron stove. “I will make for us a pot of tea to share and then you, Lev, must tend to your goats, and you, Marga, must weed your vegetables.”

Marga nudges Lev, for Tornio only serves them tea when he has a story to tell.

“I was born eighty-three years ago,” he begins, nodding to affirm the magnitude of the number. “In Tropolis. The great famine having ended four years before my birth.”

“How did the famine end?” asks Marga, never having known hunger.

“Slowly but surely the outlying communes were able to grow enough food for everyone,” says Tornio, continuing to nod. “And, of course, there were not so many people to feed, the famine having taken two of every three people.”

“Two of every three,” says Lev, awestruck by the power of death. “Imagine if two of us suddenly disappeared.”

“I can imagine,” says Tornio, dropping mint leaves into a yellow teapot. “The famine resumed when I was seven and my family ate little for two years. Many of our neighbors died. But this is not the story I wish to tell.”

“May we never know famine,” says Lev, reaching into his sack and bringing forth a small chunk of candy. He breaks the morsel in two and gives one piece to Marga, one to Tornio.

The old man grins at the boy. “Blessings and thanks for your generosity.”

“Blessings and thanks to you,” says Lev, smiling at his godfather. “And for the tea we are about to drink and the story you are about to tell.”

“Yes, yes,” says Tornio, snatching up the kettle and dousing the mint to sweeten the air with scented steam.

“Blessings and thanks,” says Marga, popping the candy into her mouth. “Which story do you wish to tell, Tornio?”

“How I came to live in the oasis,” says Tornio, adding a pinch of chamomile to the brew. “When I was not much older than you, Lev.”

The children exchange frowns of wonder, for though Tornio has spoken many times of his birth in Tropolis, they have never imagined him as anything other than the old watchman of Northgate who lives with his wife Ahdi in a stone house on the edge of Tul’s olive grove.

“When I was fourteen,” says Tornio, pouring tea into three black cups, “I was the swiftest of runners.”

Lev and Marga snicker, for oasis children are often admonished for their tardiness with the expression Slow as Tornio.

“Oh, I know,” says the old man, chuckling. “I’m an ancient tortoise now, but when I was fourteen I won the race around the outer walls of Tropolis. Thirteen miles. Against the swiftest men and women. Indeed, my victory gained the attention of the ruling council.” He nods slowly, savoring the memory of his triumph. “Remember, children, this was before the revival of engines, when everything was carried by mules and on our backs, not in buses or trucks. And the most important messages were entrusted to the fastest runners.”

“They paid you to run?” asks Lev, dazzled by the thought. “Now that would be a dream come true.”

“Hard work,” says Tornio, clearing his throat. “When the war came, I ran many miles back and forth between Tropolis and our forward army.”

“What enemy were you fighting?” asks Marga, having only recently heard about the war from her mother.

“Peoples of the north,” says Tornio, his voice falling to a whisper. “People just like you and me. Their crops failed. So they came south to take food from Tropolis and her allies.”

“Thousands of people died,” says Lev, repeating the words his father spoke but a few nights ago.

“Yes,” says Tornio, nibbling his candy. “And there came a decisive battle won by the army of Tropolis and the peoples of the north were annihilated, save for two hundred who rushed southward to this oasis.”

“They came here?” asks Lev, his heart pounding.

“They came here,” echoes Tornio, gazing out the window to the north. “You are finally of an age to hear the truth. Until now we have not wished to disturb your childhood with such fearful history.”

Marga reaches for Lev’s hand as he reaches for hers.

“So…” says Tornio, grimacing at the memory, “the rulers ordered me to outrun the invaders and rouse the people of the oasis to fight until the army of Tropolis could arrive.”

 The children hold their breaths, for as the old man speaks they seem to hear the starving people fast approaching.

“I ran those hundred miles in less than a day,” says Tornio, closing his tired eyes, “arriving just in time to warn the people of what was coming. And the battle did rage for three days and nights until the army of Tropolis came to kill the last of those poor peoples of the north.”

“Here?” says Marga, sobbing. “Those people were killed here?”

Tornio nods gravely. “I was badly wounded and lingered on the edge of death for many days. But the people of the oasis would not allow me to die. When I recovered, I helped build the walls that protect us now. When the walls were complete, I was given work in the vineyards, and when I married Ahdi we were given our house and two acres on the edge of Tul’s olive grove. And when I grew too old to labor in the vineyards, I was given this job, for I saved the people of the oasis by running those terrible hundred miles.”

Walking home from the gatehouse, Marga says to Lev, “I wonder why our people didn’t share their food with the peoples of the north?”

“Perhaps there were too many of them,” says Lev, wondering the same. “Even now there are people here in the oasis who don’t have enough food. Think of Nori and how we share our school snacks with him to quell his hunger. Imagine two hundred more without food. There would surely be famine.”

“And two of every three of us would perish,” whispers Marga, stunned by the thought of such enormous loss.

“There are six hundred acres within the walls of the oasis,” says Lev, stopping at the entrance to Marga’s yard where a dozen citrus trees shade the garden of vegetables and herbs. “With three hundred acres under cultivation and nearly six hundred people to feed. My father says we are too many by at least a hundred.”

“That’s why Anza’s daughters moved away,” says Marga, nodding, “because the council decreed no new children may be born here until at least fifty people die.”

“Who do you think will die next?” asks Lev, taking Marga’s hand.

“I don’t want to think about death,” says Marga, wrinkling her nose and shaking her head. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” says Lev, kissing Marga’s hand. “May your dreams be full of wonder.”

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What’s In A Name? Revisited

I recently read aloud to Marcia part of my essay What’s In A Name? I originally posted the piece on my blog ten years ago. We had several good laughs during the reading, and since everybody can use a good laugh, I re-post here part of the article for your reading pleasure.

By the way, I have now posted an essay or short story or something on my blog at least once a week for thirteen years. All of these several hundred pieces are archived and searchable by title and subject matter here on my blog page. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you will find the archives and a search box.

What’s In A Name?

“Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

As I answer the ringing phone, I am distracted by my cat chasing his tail and do not hear the brief telltale silence presaging a stranger seeking money. “Hello. This is Doralinda Kayamunga of the NRA calling for Mr. Tom Walsmar.” I hang up, though in retrospect I wish I’d thought to ask Doralinda how she got Tom from Todd and Walsmar from Walton.

My childhood friends delighted in calling me Toad Walnut, and did so with such frequency that their teasing ceased to rankle. Please note: their playful distortion of my name was intentional, whereas the thousand and one subsequent manglings of Todd and Walton result, as far as I can tell, from endemic dyslexia. I have been called Tom, Toby, Tad, Ted, Tony, Don, Rod, and Scott hundreds of times in my life, usually in combination with Watson, Walters, Weldon, Waldon, Walsmar, Wilson, Welton, Waters, Waldo, and most recently Watton.

For goodness sake, my name is not Jascha Heifetz or Ubaldo Jimenez or Ilgaukus Christianoosman. In England, Walton is as common as Smith. My surname derives from Walled Town, and in medieval England nearly all towns were walled towns. In those long ago days, a person might be known as Roderick of Walled Town or Sylvia of Walled Town, and over the ensuing centuries, William of Walled Town became Bill Walton of UCLA and the Portland Trailblazers.

I’m sure that you, at one time or another, have had your name and/or names misread and mis-said, but I have yet to meet anyone with a name as simple and straightforward as mine who experiences such persistent moniker mishandling. My wife, Marcia Sloane, her first name frequently spelled Marsha by even her close friends, and her last name often presented minus the E at the end, posits that the very simplicity of Todd Walton is the cause of people mistaking my name (s) for others. She has yet to convincingly explain why simplicity breeds confusion, and in support of my theory of rampant dyslexia I remind her that when she recently gave a talk at the Unitarian, both the Beacon and the Advocate referred to her as Marika Solace.

Perhaps the most egregious distortion of my first name came in 1967 at the outset of my first year of college at brand new UC Santa Cruz. Dazed and confused, I dutifully followed the orders in my freshman orientation packet and went to consult with the advisor assigned to me, a nationally renowned sociologist I shall not name. This mean little man would soon be locally renowned as a middle-aged sex fiend preying on gullible undergrad females. To that end, he made sure only females landed on his list of advisees. So why was I on his list? Because some administrative dweeb transcribed my name Todi, and this horny old fart took the misspelling to be an Italian (or possibly Finnish) girl’s name. Needless to say, he was extremely displeased when a sweaty boy and not some svelte female darkened his door. After a brief and icky meeting, he grimly suggested I find other counsel. Todi, indeed.

 “And we were angry and poor and happy, 
and proud of seeing our names in print.
” G.K. Chesterton

When I published my first novel Inside Moves, I did what all first-time authors do; I visited myriad bookstores to see if they were carrying my book. In several of these stores, my book was shelved in the hobby section, the resident geniuses having read the title as Inside Movies. When the book and subsequent film provided me with a brief stint of notoriety, I was asked to provide congratulatory blurbs for other books. And on the back cover of one of these books I was Tod Wilson, author of Night Moves. On another, I was John Walters, author of Forbidden Pulses, my second novel being Forgotten Impulses. What a woild!

 “Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”  W.H. Auden

In 1973 my mother offered me her doddering and essentially worthless Ford LTD so I could move with my girlfriend and our paltry earthly possessions from Palo Alto, California to Eugene, Oregon. We got as far as Sacramento when the old car began to shimmy like my sister Kate. By some miracle, we managed to pull into a wheel alignment garage moments before the car could shake into pieces. As it happened, we had just enough cash to fix our coach, but the mechanic said he was booked solid for three days.

And so, resigned to crashing on a friend’s floor for the duration, I despondently signed the estimate sheet. But when the mechanic saw my signature, his eyes widened and he blurted, “Walton? You’re a Walton? Walton’s mountain? John Boy. The Waltons. That’s our favorite show in the whole world. That show… that show is the story of our life. You’re a Walton?”

I had never seen The Waltons, but I’d heard of the popular television show and been called John Boy by countless cretins, so I vaguely knew what this fellow was talking about. I also knew that the creator of The Waltons was named something like Hammer, and the stories were based on his family’s history. However, since Hammer lacked the grace and elegance of Walton, he decided…

“I gotta tell my wife,” said the mechanic, nodding hopefully. “Could you…if we did your car this afternoon could you hang around so my wife can meet you?”

“Sure,” I said, struck by the happy realization that for the first time in my life there might be some advantage to being named Walton.

And though I felt compelled to explain to these good people that I was no relation to the fictional characters they worshiped, they would hear none of my disclaimers. I was a deity to them, and all because I hadn’t followed the lead of many of my cohorts and changed my name to Rainbow River or Jade Sarong.

The mechanic’s wife presented us with a special pumpkin pie “just like the Walton’s have for Thanksgiving supper.” She spoke of the Waltons in the present tense, for they were very much alive to her.

This blessed nonsense culminated in the mechanic donating all parts and labor to our exodus from the golden state. Then he fervently shook my hand and declared that meeting me was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. Yet neither the mechanic nor his wife seemed stupid or deranged. Indeed, they struck me as intelligent and resourceful people, their only shortcoming an inability to distinguish a television show from what they imagined to be a docudrama set in the Deep South about people related to me.

When I asked if I might know their last name, the mechanic said, “Oh, it’s a common old name where we come from.”

“Still,” I said, having finally surrendered my fate to the largesse of satirical angels, “I’d love to know your last name?”

“Knuckles,” said the mechanic and his wife, speaking as one.

“Knuckles?” I echoed. “I’ve never heard of anyone named Knuckles.”

“Dime a dozen where we come from,” said the mechanic’s wife. “And every last one a cousin.”

Bill Evans