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short story

Many Grandfathers

Eliana, who is four-years-old and three months, and lives near the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, is going to be in a movie made by a famous director.

She has never seen a movie, but she has seen television shows at Grandpa Jose and Grandma Rosa’s house, and Uncle Fernando showed her on his laptop some of the video he made of her, the video that got her the part in the movie. Grandpa Bertram, who is going to be in the movie, too, explained to Eliana that a movie is like watching a story book come to life on a gigantic television screen.

Eliana’s mother Conchita, who is Grandpa Jose and Grandma Rosa’s daughter, is very excited about Eliana being in the movie and is taking a week off from selling houses to help Eliana with whatever being in a movie entails. When Eliana asked her father Zeke what he thinks about her being in the movie, he said he will help in any way he can and he is very much looking forward to the filming being over so life can return to normal.

During a Zoom visit on the computer with Grandpa Blake and Grandma Marjorie, Zeke’s parents who live far across the ocean in Hawaii, Grandma Marjorie said she was “tickled pink” Eliana was going to be in a major motion picture, and Grandpa Blake said the director of the movie, Jason Somebody Somebody, made another movie called Tiny Giant Changes that is one of Grandpa Blake’s top ten favorite movies.

Eliana assumes Tiny Giant Changes is about a tiny giant who changes into something else, probably a larger giant. When she told Grandpa Bertram what she thought Tiny Giant Changes was about, Grandpa Bertram laughed until he cried. And when Grandma Alison came to see what Grandpa Bertram was laughing about, Eliana told Grandma Alison what she thought Tiny Giant Changes was about and Grandma Alison laughed until she cried.

*

Uncle Fernando, who is twenty-four, has worked for the famous movie director Jason Randle Jones for five years now and lives in England where JRJ is based. Fernando comes home to Mercy a couple times a year to visit family and friends, and on a recent visit he filmed Eliana doing a variety of things: picking flowers in her family’s vegetable and flower garden, building a sandcastle at the beach, and having a conversation with Grandpa Bertram, who is British. And whenever Fernando filmed Eliana, he asked her to share her thoughts.

Eliana, extremely sophisticated for a four-year-old, is exquisitely beautiful with long raven black hair and huge brown eyes. She speaks both English and Spanish with gorgeous fluency and an impressive vocabulary courtesy of the many adoring elders she spends time with, and her favorite thing in the world is acting out stories with her friends, her mother and father, Grandpa Bertram, Grandma Alison, and Grandma Rosa.

When Jason Randle Jones, a spry seventy-seven, saw the footage Fernando shot of Eliana, he asked Fernando if he thought Eliana’s parents would be willing to bring Eliana to Spain to be in the memory sequences for the movie he and Fernando are making from a script they wrote together – working title Mystery Child.

Fernando shook his head and said, “Not a chance.”

JRJ graciously accepted his protégé’s verdict and declared, “Then you and Carlotta and Olaf and Pearl and Andrini will go to Mercy and film Isabella’s early childhood memories there, which means dear old Bertram can play the part of Tristan, and Alison can play Clarice. They’re perfect for the parts, don’t you think?”

“No one could be better,” says Fernando, who owes his job with JRJ to Bertram and Alison who are both seventy-seven and have known JRJ since they were in their early twenties and were in the first feature-length film JRJ ever directed, the extremely low-budget comedy Crime Wave In Dover.

“I’d love to come with you,” says JRJ, sighing heavily, “but as you know better than anyone, I’m too bloody busy.”

*

So in early September, Fernando arrives in Mercy with JRJ’s renowned film crew: Art Director Carlotta McCray and her two assistants, Cinematographer Olaf Dorfmier and his two assistants, Sound savant Pearl Templeton and her two assistants, and Lighting wizard Andrini and his two assistants, along with Olaf’s precious 70-millimeter movie camera and Pearl’s state-of-the-art recording equipment – lights and reflectors and such to be rented in Oakland and trucked to Mercy for the shoot.

 When the team members are settled in three adjacent vacation homes on the Mercy headlands, Fernando guides them around Mercy to acquaint them with the places and people they’ll be filming.

On the second night of their Mercy sojourn, Fernando takes the crew to Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in Mercy, for what Fernando promises will be superb fish & chips and fine local ale, and they happen to go on a Thursday evening when Ricardo Alvarez is playing piano on the little stage as he has every Thursday for the last twenty-four years. Pearl and Olaf are drawn to Ricardo’s exquisite music as moths to a flame and stay for all three sets after which Pearl asks Ricardo if she might record him so she can share his music with Jason Randle Jones.

To which Ricardo replies, “I know just the piano.”

*  

Given the iffy nature of weather in Mercy, when Day Three dawns sunny and clear, Fernando decides to take advantage of the sunny day to shoot the two memory sequences set in the big vegetable and flower garden at Eliana’s house, the garden in fabulous bloom.

As the crew is setting up in the garden, Bertram and Alison arrive, Bertram to play the role of Tristan, the deceased grandfather of Isabella who is the main character in the movie, a middle-aged woman undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis – Eliana to play Isabella as a young girl.

Eliana and Bertram have rehearsed the seven memory sequences many times over the last few weeks, their rehearsals essentially long sessions of play-acting to prepare them for improvising the scenes in front of the camera.

For the first memory to be filmed today, Memory Sequence Three, Carlotta McCray, the art director, deep-voiced with a mild Scottish brogue, dresses Eliana in the pretty blue pinafore created especially for this memory. After consulting with Fernando and making a quick call to JRJ in London, Carlotta has Conchita capture Eliana’s long black hair in a loose braid.

Carlotta dresses Bertram in gray slacks and a pale green shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, leaves his wispy white hair somewhat unruly, and sends him to the garden so the crew can use him to position their equipment, run sound checks, shoot some trial video, and so forth.

Eliana’s father Zeke is on hand to do any shaping of the garden landscape Fernando and Carlotta may require, and he is in awe of the swift proficiency of JRJ’s famous crew.

When all is ready, Carlotta escorts Eliana to the garden where Grandpa Bertram smiles down at her and says, “So this is the scene when we’re making a bouquet and…”

“I ask you if it hurts the flowers when you cut them,” says Eliana, eager to begin, her speech tinged with the slightest Scottish brogue because she is a preternatural mimic and has just been speaking with Carlotta. “And then we keep playing until Fernando says stop.”

“And you are Isabella,” says Bertram, winking at Fernando to begin filming. “And I am your grandfather Tristan.”

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE THREE

Tristan and Isabella are in the garden. Isabella is choosing flowers for a bouquet and Tristan is cutting the flowers for her. Isabella asks Tristan if it hurts the flowers when he cuts their stems, and their conversation springs from this question.

Isabella touches the petals of an enormous yellow chrysanthemum, and with a charming British accent says, “We’ll definitely want this one, Grandpa.”

Tristan comes close to cut the flower.

Isabella frowns gravely as Tristan snips the stem. “Does it hurt them when you cut them?”

“I doubt it,” says Tristan, handing her the flower. “And besides, I imagine they like being in bouquets.”

Isabella ponders this. “More than they like being in the garden? But the bees can’t visit them when we take them inside, and I know they like it when bees visit them.”

“How do you know?” asks Tristan, smiling warmly at his granddaughter.

“Well you can see how happy they are when the bees land on them and snuggle them,” says Isabella, watching a bee land on a flower. “Just look. They obviously love each other.”

“Yes,” says Tristan, watching the bee on the flower. “It is rather obvious, isn’t it?”

“The problem is,” says Isabella, finding another flower for the bouquet, “if we don’t pick them now they start to turn brown and their petals fall off, and who wants flowers like that for a bouquet?”

“The way I see it,” says Tristan, cutting the flower Isabella has chosen, “flowers have the best of both worlds. They get to be born in the garden and grow into their beauty and be loved by bees and butterflies, and then they get to be in bouquets for everyone to admire.”

“I like bouquets,” says Isabella, sighing as she points at the next flower to be cut, “but I like flowers better growing in the garden.”

“Well… not everyone has a garden,” says Tristan, snipping the flower. “Do you think we have enough flowers now?”

“Enough for me, but not for Grandma,” says Isabella, shaking her head. “She likes big fat bouquets.”

“Yes, she does,” says Tristan, laughing. “She certainly does.”

*

With three excellent takes of Memory Sequence Three in the bag, the sound confirmed to be flawless, the crew takes a break for snacks and coffee, after which Carlotta and Fernando and their assistants set things up in another part of the garden for Memory Sequence Five.

A small wooden table and four wooden chairs are placed next to a patch of spectacular red and gold gladioli, and Bertram in black trousers, white dress shirt, and red bow tie, his hair somewhat tamed, sits at the table with his back to the gladioli. Eliana in a white blouse and red shorts and sandals, her hair in a ponytail, sits opposite Bertram with blossoming snow peas behind her. The small teapot on the table is dark blue, the four mugs the same dark blue, and in the center of the table is a large red plate heaped high with cookies.

In one of the other chairs sits a large white teddy bear wearing a black bow tie, and in the other chair is a small black dog, a real living mutt named Eso, the family dog, sitting on his haunches and waiting patiently for someone to give him a treat.

Olaf beckons Carlotta to look through the camera’s lens at the scene as he has framed it, and after she studies the scene through Olaf’s lens, Carlotta moves the teapot an inch closer to Eliana, makes a bit more space between the mugs, and brushes back a strand of Eliana’s hair.

Fernando studies the monitor mimicking Olaf’s view and says, “Perfecto.”

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE FIVE

Tristan and Isabella are sitting at a small table in the garden having a tea party during which Isabella wonders why her mother has been gone for so long.

Tristan watches Isabella pour his tea, nods his thanks, and waits for her to fill the other three teacups before he takes a sip.

“Delicious,” says Tristan, gazing at Isabella. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such marvelous tea. What kind is this?”

“Chamomile,” says Isabella, sipping her tea. “Not too strong for you?”

“No, just right,” says Tristan, sighing contentedly and gazing around. “Perfect tea on a perfect day.”

Isabella nods. “I only wish Mama would come home. She’s been gone for days and days and days now.”

Tristan grows still and pensive.

“She’s never been away this long before,” says Isabella, pouting a little. “Usually she only goes away for a night or two.”

Tristan points at the little black dog and says, “I think one of our guests is longing for a cookie.”

Isabella smiles lovingly at the little black dog. “How rude of me.” She places a cookie on the plate in front of the little dog. “Here you are, darling.”

With remarkable daintiness, the little black dog takes the cookie into his mouth and jumps down from his chair to eat the cookie on the ground.

“Isn’t he so polite?” says Isabella, delighted by the dog.

“The soul of politeness,” says Tristan, his eyes full of tears.

*

That night the crew convenes in one of the guest houses to watch the video coverage of the day’s shoot, and when the little black dog takes the cookie and jumps down from his chair, Olaf declares, “That scene alone could win JRJ another Oscar.”

“Might win you another one, too,” says Carlotta, raising her bottle of beer to Olaf.

“This child is uncanny,” says Andrini, shaking his head. “As if some Shakespeare is speaking through her. Where do such beings come from?”

“We were all once thus,” says Pearl, sipping her wine. “Before we lost touch with the source.”

“Which she has not,” says Carlotta, exchanging knowing looks with Pearl. “Not yet.”

“How lucky we are to witness what she and Bertram create together,” says Olaf, savoring the moment. “And to capture their magic on film.”

*

The next day’s shoot takes place on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, the sky overcast, which is ideal from Olaf’s perspective, and the sea is calm, which Pearl appreciates for audio purposes. They set up quickly where the incoming waves exhaust themselves, and Andrini and his assistants deploy several powerful lights to make the scene a bit sunnier.

Eliana and two of Fernando’s nephews, Juan, six, and Leo, seven, armed with little shovels and assisted by Zeke with a big shovel, build a large sand castle fronted by a moat, the castle left to be completed by the children while the scene is being filmed.

“Bueno,” says Fernando speaking Spanish to Eliana and Juan and Leo, “I know it’s a little cold, but we must have your shirts off. In the movie this is supposed to be a hot summer day.”

The children take off their T-shirts so they are only wearing shorts. Carlotta musses up the boys’ hair and does away with Eliana’s ponytail to let her hair fall freely where it will.

“Now in this scene,” says Fernando, speaking to the boys, “Isabella, that’s what you call Eliana if you want to say her name – Isabella – is exhorting you to build the sand castle.”

“What’s exhorting?” asks Leo, frowning at Fernando.

“She’s commanding you to build the sand castle,” says Fernando, nodding. “She’s like the queen. This is her castle and you are the workmen.”

“Why does she get to command us?” asks Juan, wrinkling his nose. “She’s just a little girl.”

“I explained all this to you,” says Fernando, giving Juan a warning look. “If you won’t do what I tell you, I’ll get another nephew.”

“Okay,” says Juan, shrugging. “I’ll do it.”

“Remember,” says Fernando, stepping out of the shot. “En Español.”

Now Fernando gestures to Olaf, filming begins, and the children resume their work on the sand castle.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE FOUR

On a beach in Spain, Isabella directs two boys in the building of a sandcastle.

The children work zealously.

Now Isabella surveys the ocean and says urgently, “The waves are coming. We must build the walls higher.”

Leo stops working and says, “Of course the waves are coming, Isabella. That’s what waves do.”

“We can defeat them,” says Isabella, defiantly. “We will build the walls so high the waves will never get through.”

“We could build the walls ten-feet-high and the waves would still knock them down,” says Juan, giggling. “It’s only sand.”

“When the tide comes in,” says Leo, pointing out to sea, “this beach will be at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Then why are we building the castle here?” asks Isabella, looking around. “Why not over there?” She points inland.

“Because it’s fun to try to stop the waves,” says Leo, smiling at her. “Even if we can only stop them for a little while.”

Now a wave rushes in, fills the moat, and touches the front wall of the castle before receding and leaving the castle intact.

“We did it!” shouts Juan, shaking his fist at the retreating wave. “We defeated the ocean!”

“Quick!” says Isabella, leaping into action. “We must build the walls even higher, for now the ocean is angry and will try even harder to defeat us.”

“When the queen tells us to do something,” says Leo, smiling wryly at Juan, “we must obey.”

*

The next day, for Memory Sequence Seven, Carlotta dresses Eliana in a lacy white dress, brushes her long black hair so it tumbles over her shoulders, places a red rose in her hair, situates her on a small sofa in Bertram’s studio where he makes his sculptures, and gives her a small guitar to hold as if she is playing the instrument. Eso the little black dog sits on the sofa beside Eliana and gazes at Bertram who is wearing a paint-spattered smock and standing at an easel bearing a large blank canvas.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE SEVEN

Isabella, holding a small guitar, sits on a small sofa posing for a painting Tristan is making of her. At some point in their conversation she learns from Tristan that her mother is dead.

Isabella gazes at her grandfather. “Do you want me to be happy or sad in your painting?”

“I want you to be thinking about the song you’re playing,” says Tristan, sketching the scene with charcoal.

“What song am I playing?”

“What song would you like to be playing?”

She thinks for a moment. “‘El Cancion de la Luna’.”

“Then imagine you are playing that.”

Isabella closes her eyes and purses her lips.

“I would rather you had your eyes open,” says Tristan, sketching swiftly.

Isabella’s eyes open. “Do you know ‘El Cancion de la Luna’, Grandpa?”

“I do,” he says, nodding. “Your mother sang it to you all the time when you were a baby.”

“And we will sing it together when she comes home,” says Isabella, trying not to cry. “She’ll come home soon, won’t she?”

Tristan bows his head and weeps.

“Is my mama dead?” asks Isabella, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Is she, Grandpa?”

He looks at her and nods.

*

They shoot Memory Sequence One in a room in an inn featuring antique décor, the room appointed with a small Bird’s Eye Maple bed and matching night table. Carlotta makes up the bed with a gorgeous old comforter and has the enormous lamp on the night table replaced with a smaller one.

Eliana in a white flannel nighty is sitting up in bed with the large teddy bear who attended the tea party in Memory Sequence #5. Bertram sits on the edge of the bed reading to Eliana from a large storybook.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE ONE

Tristan, Isabella’s grandfather, is reading a bedtime story to Isabella about a dragon named Malthius. It has only been a few days since Tristan and Clarice brought Isabella to England from Spain to live with them.

“Once upon a time,” begins Tristan, “there was a very friendly dragon named Malthius who lived…”

“Why do they always say once upon a time?” asks Isabella, thoughtfully pursing her lips. “We don’t stand on time, do we? Why not just say Once there was?”

“I suppose they say Once upon a time because it’s an expression left over from a long time ago and people liked it so much they kept using it,” says Tristan, looking at Isabella. “I’m happy to say Once there was if you like that better.”

“I do,” says Isabella, nodding. “And Mateo likes it better, too.” She turns to the teddy bear. “Don’t you, Mateo?”

The bear says nothing.

“He does,” says Isabella, nodding to Tristan. “He whispered to me.”

“Good,” says Tristan, starting to read again. “There once was a very friendly dragon named Malthius who lived…”

“I love the name Malthius,” says Isabella, snuggling down under the covers. “When I go back to Spain, I’m going to get a puppy and name it Malthius.”

“What if the puppy is a girl?” asks Tristan, arching his eyebrow. “Will you still name her Malthius?”

“Don’t be silly,” says Isabella, yawning. “Malthius is a boy’s name.”

“So you’ll be getting a boy puppy,” says Tristan, closing the book.

“Maybe not,” says Isabella, yawning again. “If I get a girl puppy I’ll name her Constanza.”

“Why Constanza?”

“Because,” says Isabella, closing her eyes. “I think Constanza is the most beautiful name.”

“I think so, too,” says Tristan, giving her a kiss on the forehead.

*

For Memory Sequence Two, they use the kitchen in the oldest of the three houses where the crew is staying.

Alison, Bertram’s wife, her silvery gray hair in a bun, a blue paisley apron over her billowy white blouse, stands at one end of the kitchen table overseeing Eliana making balls of cookie dough, while Bertram sits at the other end of the table sipping coffee and leafing through a newspaper.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE TWO

Tristan’s wife Clarice and Isabella are making cookies while Tristan has coffee and reads the newspaper.

“Make them a little smaller, darling,” says Clarice, hovering close to Isabella. “They will flatten out and double in size as they bake in the oven.”

“Show me how big,” says Isabella, looking up at Clarice.

“Please?” says Clarice, expectantly.

“Please show me how big to make them,” says Isabella, who takes her cookie making very seriously.

Clarice makes a small ball of cookie dough and places it on the tray.

“Ah, pequeño,” says Isabella, nodding. “I see.”

“Pequeño means small?” asks Clarice, who speaks no Spanish.

“Sí,” says Isabella, smiling at Clarice. “Pequeño means small.”

“Says here,” says Tristan, reading from the paper, “the price of gold has tripled in the last six months. And you know the world is out of whack when gold does something that. Doesn’t bode well for the future.”

“The world is always out of whack,” says Clarice, watching Isabella work. “That’s wonderful, darling. You’re a fabulous cookie maker.”

“And this is my very first time making cookies,” says Isabella, placing a ball of dough on the tray. “Imagine how good I’ll be the next time we make cookies.”

Clarice and Tristan exchange looks and laugh, and Isabella laughs with them.

*

The beginning of Memory Sequence Six was shot at the same time Memory Sequence One about the dragon named Malthius was filmed, with Eliana sleeping in the same bed and bedroom at the inn. The second half of Memory Sequence Six is filmed in a hallway in the house where Memory Sequence Two, the cookie scene, was filmed.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE SIX

Isabella wakes in her bed and hears Tristan and Clarice arguing. She gets out of bed and goes to hear what they are saying.

Isabella opens her eyes and listens intently to Tristan and Clarice arguing. She can’t quite make out what they are saying, so she slips out of bed to get closer.

Standing in a dimly lit hallway, Isabella hears Clarice say, “What’s the point of waiting any longer to tell her? The sooner she knows, the sooner she can start adjusting to her new reality.”

“I want her to feel more at home here before we tell her,” says Tristan, passionately. “So she won’t feel cast adrift without any ground to stand on.”

“She’s stronger than you think, dear. You must have faith in her resiliency.”

“Can we please wait another week before we tell her? Please?”

“One more week. And then I’m telling her if you won’t.”

*

A few days before Christmas, Fernando returns to Mercy from England and takes Zeke and Conchita and Eliana and Bertram and Alison and Ricardo and Ricardo’s wife Lisa to supper at Campeona, the most exclusive restaurant in Mercy. Ricardo is a waiter at Campeona, but tonight he dines here as Fernando’s guest.

During the lull between the sumptuous meal and dessert, Fernando announces, “We are calling the movie Isabella Remembers, and it’s fantastic. Better than we ever thought it could be. And the memory sequences we filmed here steal the show. They really do. JRJ calls them pure magic.” He pauses momentously. “And we are going to use Ricardo’s music for most of the soundtrack.” He raises his glass of wine. “We will premiere the film at Cannes in May, and you are all invited. We will pay your expenses if you come, and we very much hope you will.”

*

As it happens, no one from Mercy attends the world premiere of Isabella Remembers, which wins the top prize at Cannes and is hailed by movie reviewers around the world as Jason Randle Jones’s finest film.

Bertram returns to his sculpting, Alison to her psychotherapy practice, Zeke to his gardening, Conchita to selling houses, Ricardo to waiting tables at Campeona and playing piano on Thursday nights at Big Goose, and Eliana to pre-school at the Mercy Montessori.

*

In October, a year and month after the film crew came to Mercy and filmed the memory sequences for Isabella Remembers, the movie plays for three nights at the Coast Cinema. Zeke goes to the movie once, Ricardo and Lisa and Bertram and Alison go twice, and Conchita and her brothers and sister and parents go three times.

*

 A few days after Isabella Remembers shows in Mercy, Conchita picks up Eliana after kindergarten at the Montessori.

Driving home, Conchita asks Eliana in Spanish, “How was school today, Pumpkin?”

Eliana frowns and says, “Holly said her mother saw me in Fernando’s movie and said I’m famous now. What happens to you when you’re famous?”

Famous just means lots of people know about you because you were in Fernando’s movie,” says Conchita, pulling up to their house. “But nothing will happen to you. Don’t worry. Pretty soon people will forget about the movie and you won’t be famous anymore.”

“Is Grandpa Bertram famous now, too?”

“Yes, he’s famous, too,” says Conchita, getting out of the car. “But he was already famous for carving his statues.”

“What about Grandma Alison?”

“Yes, she is famous, too. But not for long.”

“And nothing will happen to me while I’m famous?” asks Eliana, following her mother to the house.

“Nothing,” says Conchita, who hasn’t told Eliana about the hundreds of requests they’ve gotten from newspapers and television stations and journalists wanting to interview and photograph Eliana, or about the several movie offers they’ve received. “You’ll just live here with us and go to school and play with your friends. As always.”

*

After her snack, Eliana goes out into the garden and stands where the tea party sequence was filmed last year when she was only four.

She remembers Olaf sitting behind his enormous camera, and Andrini and his two helpers holding long black poles bearing big squares reflecting sunlight, and a huge man holding a long boom from which a microphone dangled above them – how quiet everyone was as they watched and listened to her and Grandpa Bertram pretending to be Isabella and her grandfather Tristan, how she would forget she was play-acting and forget she was Eliana, and how surprised she always was when Uncle Fernando would say, “Cut” and she would be Eliana again and not Isabella.

fin

Grandfather

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Hello Again

Dear Readers,

This is a note to my subscribers and is about my most recent post (the one before this one). For technological reasons beyond my understanding, notice of my posting yesterday of my short story Ricardo and Blair did not go out to the wonderful folks who subscribe to my blog. I enlisted the assistance of my web wizard Garth Hagerman to solve the problem and we thought we had but apparently not entirely.

Here’s hoping you get this Hello and enjoy the new story.

Todd

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short story

Ricardo and Blair

Most Thursday evenings over the last twenty years in Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Ricardo Alvarez, his long black hair in a ponytail, plays piano for a few hours on the small stage at the south end of the pub.

For the first seven of those twenty years, the poet Helen Morningstar was certain she was the originator of what Ricardo’s twenty-three acolytes say to each other on Thursday evenings when they take their seats close to the stage – Magic Time.

Then one night near the end of Year Seven, Helen, who was twenty-nine at the time, drank more than her usual one glass of good red wine nursed through the entirety of Ricardo’s performance, and she opined to Artie Green, who has been coming with Helen and Monte Riley and Sonia Benítez to hear Ricardo since Evening One, that she invented the groupies’ greeting Magic Time, and Artie replied, “Methinks you misremember, dear, for it was Ricardo who spoke those words when he first sat down to play for us seven years ago.”

And though Helen had no memory of Ricardo saying Magic Time to the Original Four before he played his first tune on the Big Goose upright (now a six-foot grand), she much preferred Artie’s origin story to her own and ever after believed Magic Time first came from the lips of their messiah.

*

Ricardo was born in Mercy, the youngest of three children, his mother Maria a maid at the Mercy Hotel, his father Roberto a logger. The family of five, along with Ricardo’s paternal aunt and maternal grandmother, lived in a little house on Portuguese Street, so named because in the 1800s when Mercy was a logging boomtown, Portuguese Street and Lisbon Lane were where the Portuguese families lived – Portuguese men comprising a large part of the work force that cut down all the old growth redwoods within fifty miles of Mercy. Over time, the Portuguese barrio became a Mexican barrio, and today the neighborhood is a mix of Mexicans, hippies, and retirees, with only a few of the original houses remaining. 

When Ricardo was five, his father Roberto was seriously injured in a logging mishap and was unable to work for three years. To pass the time during his recuperation, Roberto took up the guitar and Ricardo was so keen on learning the instrument, too, Roberto bought Ricardo a small guitar. After just a few months of practice, the little boy could play well enough to accompany the singing of Mexican folk songs, and he eventually became a superb guitarist.

With the insurance settlement from Roberto’s accident, Maria and Roberto were able to buy their little house, and for Ricardo’s seventh birthday they bought him a big old upright piano, which Ricardo took to like a fish to water.

Ten years later at the age of seventeen, a self-taught virtuoso, Ricardo began playing piano on Thursday nights at Big Goose. In those days he was working as a dishwasher at the Mercy Hotel and would go on being a dishwasher at the hotel until he was twenty-one and got a job as a waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, a gig he kept until he was twenty-six and moved with his wife Lisa and their two little kids Vincent and Jessica to Los Angeles where Ricardo hoped to make it big with his music.

Those nine months in Los Angeles were the first stretch of Thursdays when Ricardo didn’t play at Big Goose. The other stretch was for three months when Ricardo was thirty-two and a wealthy couple from New York City with show biz connections heard him play at Big Goose and decided he was the second coming of Bill Evans and George Gershwin rolled into one. They bankrolled Ricardo’s second crusade to make it big with his music, this time in Manhattan.

When his songs fell on deaf ears in New York as they had fallen on deaf ears in Los Angeles, Ricardo returned to Mercy where today he is a waiter at Campeona, one of Mercy’s snazziest restaurants, his wife Lisa is a loan officer at Mercy Savings, and Vincent, sixteen, and Jessica, fourteen, are fine musicians, Vincent a guitarist, Jessica a pianist and singer.

*

This Thursday, the week after Thanksgiving, the night stormy and cold, only a dozen of Ricardo’s regulars brave the bad weather to get to Big Goose to hear their maestro play.

And the minute Ricardo sits down at the piano, a drunk guy named Blair – snarled black hair and wild beard – sitting at a table in the middle of the pub shouts, “Play the blues, Cardo. None of that New Age crap.”

“Blooze!” shouts Blair’s companion, another drunk guy named Phil – scraggly blond hair and lopsided mustache. “Play the blooze.”

Helen Morningstar, for whom listening to Ricardo is a spiritual experience, fixes Blair and Phil with an icy stare and Blair flips her the bird and says, “Back off Morningstar. Free country.”

Which outburst prompts Justin Ogelthorpe, the bartender and bouncer of Big Goose, to come out from behind the bar and approach the two drunk guys – Justin who happens to be Helen Morningstar’s husband and also happens to be six-feet-six and mostly muscle.

“Blair and Phil, my esteemed fellow humans,” says Justin, smiling his Cheshire-Cat smile. “May I remind you that Thursday nights here we feature Ricardo playing his music for people who want to hear him play and not hear you interrupting the show. So get with the program or I must ask you to leave.”

“I’m a paying customer,” says Blair, jutting out his chin. “Freedom of speech.”

“Irrelevant,” says Justin, locking eyes with Blair. “Either keep it down or I will facilitate your exit. Simple.”

“Actually,” says Ricardo, gazing out on the forty or so people in the pub, most of them speaking quietly among themselves – his twelve fans reverently awaiting his music – “I’ve been playing lots of blues lately and thought I’d open with one tonight. So this is for you Blair. No title yet. If something comes to you, let me know.”

He plays a lush opening chord, waits for the notes to decay to near silence, and with his left hand begins a slow bluesy bass line way down low – a train leaving the station and ever so gradually gathering speed until the train is rolling along at a bodacious clip and he adds bluesy flourishes with his right hand, the flourishes coming faster and faster until he’s playing a glorious run of notes – love requited! –  a marvelous melody resolving into flourishes again as the train disappears in the distance.

*

During the break between the first and second sets – Blair and Phil gone – Justin hands Ricardo a napkin on which Blair scrawled Choo Choo Train Blues.

“I like it,” says Ricardo, smiling at Justin. “Only I’ll shorten it to Choo Choo Blues. Too many songs with train in the title.”

“He wrote on a napkin for Helen, too,” says Justin, serving Ricardo the usual between-sets lemonade. “Apologizing.”

“He’s had a rough life,” says Ricardo, who has known Blair since kindergarten. “Considering his horrible father and cuckoo mother, Blair’s a sweetheart.”

*

As she often does, Helen spends the intermission writing in her notebook – Ricardo’s playing unleashing torrents of words.

I wanted to kill that drunk and what does Ricardo do?

Gives him a beautiful song. I wanted to answer hate

with hate and Ricardo answered with love.

He made a train with his music and I rode that train

from the railroad yard of despair to the glorious

heights of acceptance and down into the valley

of forgiveness, wounds healed with love.

I know why I come here every Thursday,

faithful as the moon. To be opened by his music,

opened to the miracle of being alive.

*

Blair pulls up to the decrepit trailer where Phil lives on his mother’s property two miles south of Mercy, the truck’s headlights illuminating broken down cars and piles of junk.

“Got some killer weed,” says Phil as he always does when Blair brings him home. “Come on smoke a bowl.”

And for the first time in years Blair says, “Not tonight, man. Gotta get home.”

“What for?” says Phil, grimacing. “So Sheila can bitch at you?”

“I just want to,” says Blair, shrugging. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Fuck you,” says Phil, getting out of the truck. “Won’t even smoke a bowl with me.”

Blair watches Phil stumble through the mess to his trailer and thinks He’s crazier than my mother was.

When the trailer door slams, Blair backs away and heads north on the coast highway, his truck long overdue for servicing, though he hadn’t noticed the telltale sounds until now.

*

Blair pulls into the driveway of the old two-story house in Mercy he inherited when his mother died six years ago, the house he’s lived in his entire life save for the six years he was in the Army. His father died when Blair, an only child, was twenty-four and stationed in Germany. When Blair’s mother called with the news of his father’s death, Blair tried to feel sad, but instead felt a wild joy that lasted for months and made him decide not to stay in the Army.

He imagined Mercy would be paradise with his father gone, but within a few weeks of getting home he felt lost in the same way he’d felt lost before joining the Army. He wanted to get a job as a car mechanic, having been an excellent car mechanic in the Army, but when he got turned down at a couple garages, he took a job at the lumber mill and was glad to be making money again.

Sheila worked at the mill, too. She and Blair fell crazy in love and got married when they were both twenty-seven, and they were happy for a few years. They went to Europe once and Hawaii twice and had a blast, but they never could save enough money to get their own place, so they went on living with Blair’s mother who was a hoarder and delusional and smoked like a chimney – the house a giant rat’s nest except for Blair and Sheila’s room.

Then the mill closed and Sheila went to work in a bakery and Blair worked for UPS until he hurt his back and went on disability. Then Sheila got fired at the bakery for arguing with her boss, and because of that firing she was out of work for six months until she finally got a job trimming bud for a large-scale marijuana grower.

When Blair’s back was better he got a good-paying job driving a cement truck and they were finally saving money so they decided to get pregnant. But Sheila had a miscarriage and Blair got busted for driving the cement truck without the proper license and his driver’s license was suspended for six months. Sheila got her boss to hire Blair as a trimmer, but he was too slow and mangled the buds and they let him go.

Then Blair’s mother died and left them the house and eighty thousand dollars, which was just enough to get them out of debt. They threw away tons of Blair’s mother’s junk, cleaned the house from top to bottom, tried to get pregnant again, Sheila had two more miscarriages, and the doctors said she couldn’t have kids.

Now they’re thirty-eight. For the last three years Blair has been a clerk in a liquor store and Sheila is still a trimmer. They have separate bedrooms – angry strangers sharing the old house – and lately Sheila has been thinking about divorcing Blair and marrying a wealthy older guy she met a few months ago. She hasn’t slept with the guy yet, but she’s on the verge. He has a beach house south of Mercy and a condo in Maui and millions in the bank, and though she doesn’t really like him, she is so tired of trimming bud from which she’s developed arthritis in her fingers, and she hates living with Blair who she hardly recognizes as the person she loved so much she couldn’t imagine living without him.

*

All that is true when Blair gets home a couple hours after listening to Ricardo play piano in Big Goose.

He finds Sheila sprawled on the living room sofa watching an old movie on their big-screen television and Blair thinks She’s still the most beautiful woman in the world to me even though she hates me now.

“You’re home early,” she says gruffly. “World ending?”

“Just wanted to talk to you, Dove,” says Blair, coming into the living room and sitting in an armchair across the room from her.

“Hold the presses,” says Sheila, turning off the movie. “You haven’t called me Dove in a million years. You need some money? That why you came home early? Ran out of cash?”

“No, I…” He gets a CD out of his pocket. “I wondered if you’d like to listen to some music with me.”

Sheila sits up and squints at him. “You stoned?”

“No,” says Blair, shaking his head. “I was at the Goose and Ricardo was playing and… I thought you might like to hear some of his music. I bought a CD from Justin on my way out. Thought you might like to hear it.”

“I’ve heard Ricardo there a few times,” says Sheila, wondering where this is going. “Sure. Put it on. You hungry? I got takeout Thai tonight. Some left.”

“Maybe later,” says Blair, popping the CD into the stereo.

*

They sit on the sofa a few feet apart, listening to the music, neither of them saying a word during the first two songs.

When the third song begins, a tender ballad, Sheila turns to Blair and says, “Hold me?”

They move close to each other and he puts his arms around her and says, “I want to start over, Dove. I can make good money as a mechanic. I just have to be more aggressive about getting a job and then I’ll make enough so you don’t have to trim anymore and you can make jewelry or whatever you want. I want to do this, Dove. I’m not high.”

“I can tell,” she says, relaxing in his embrace. “You sound like the old you I fell in love with.”

“I really want to try again with you.”

“I want to try with you, too. And maybe…”

“Maybe what? Tell me.”

“Maybe…” She starts to cry. “Maybe we could adopt a baby. I want to be a mother. You know I do.”

“Yes,” he says, holding her tight. “We’ll adopt a baby. And you’ll be a great mother. I know you will.”

“And you’ll be a wonderful father.”

*

Thursday again, the faithful gather close to the stage at Big Goose to hear Ricardo play, and they are joined by Blair and Sheila – Blair with his hair and beard trimmed, looking sharp in a silky green shirt and black corduroys, Sheila looking fine in a sexy red dress and glittering earrings.

Now Ricardo sits down at the piano and Helen turns to Blair and Sheila and whispers, “Magic time.”

fin

Bill Evans

Categories
Uncategorized

Hello Out There

Dear Readers,

This is a note to my subscribers and is about my most recent post (the one before this one). For technological reasons beyond my understanding, notice of my posting today of my short story End of the World did not go out to the wonderful peeps who subscribe to my blog. I therefore enlisted the assistance of my intrepid web wizard Garth Hagerman to solve the problem and he thinks he has done so.

To test whether or not Garth has solved the problem, I am posting this note, and if I get an email alert after I post this (I’m a subscriber, too!) we’ll know we’re back in business.

So… here’s hoping this works and you enjoy the new story.

Todd

Categories
short story

End of the World

“Miles, right?” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. “What can I get for you today?”

Miles, a slender fellow with short gray hair, today his sixty-third birthday, gives Justin a dazed look and says, “I’ve only been here once before, about three months ago. You and I spoke for less than a minute. Yet you remember my name. I’m amazed.”

“You’re a memorable guy,” says Justin, who is forty-five, six-feet-six, with carrot red hair and a Cheshire Cat smile – his ability to remember faces and the names that go with those faces phenomenal. “Was it beer or wine I served you? This I don’t remember.”

“A local porter,” says Miles, feeling a slight lifting of the gloom that has gripped him for as long as he can remember. “Delicious. And fish & chips, the fish broiled. Also delicious. I’d love a half-pint of that same porter and fish & chips again.”

“For future reference,” says Justin, filling a glass with dark Mercy Porter and placing the brew before Miles, “I take food orders along with booze requests until five. Thereafter our wait staff will take your food order once you’re seated. And by golly, it’s only 4:49, so you’re in luck.”

“Great,” says Miles, getting out his wallet.

“We’ll settle up when you’re all done,” says Justin, waving to the waitress and pointing to Miles as she returns from a foray among the tables. “Conchita will cater to your every whim. Within reason.”

Conchita, a lovely Latina in her early thirties, six months pregnant, steps up to the bar and rattles off orders for beer and wine and mixed drinks before she turns to Miles and says, “Miles, right? Have a seat and I’ll find you.”

*

Miles chooses a small table with a view of the bar, sips the delicious porter, and feels he might cry – the friendliness of Justin and Conchita breaching the dam around his heart.

“Oh well,” he says, allowing himself to shed a few tears. “It is my birthday, after all.”

Somewhat relieved by his little cry, his glass empty, he looks up as Conchita arrives with a big platter of fish & chips and coleslaw and a half-pint of porter.

“Justin thought you might want another to go with your food,” says Conchita, setting the porter down and picking up the empty. “This one’s on the house.”

“Thank you,” says Miles, his tears on the rise again. “When is your baby due?”

“November seventh,” she says, placing a hand on her belly. “Three more months. You have kids?”

“A daughter,” says Miles, unable to quell his tears. “And a grandson. They live in Portugal.”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” asks Conchita, scanning the room to gauge how long she might linger with him. “We’re having a girl and collecting possible names. My mother wants me to name her Luisa after my grandmother, and my grandmother Luisa wants me to name her Felicia after her mother. And my husband’s mother says she’d love it if we named her Doris after her mother.”

“Eliana,” says Miles, his jaw trembling.

“Ooh,” says Conchita, winking at Miles as she moves away. “I love that. Enjoy.”

Now Miles really cries and ceases to care if anyone sees him blubbering, and when his tears abate, he has a long drink of the porter, eats a few of the scrumptious chips, and digs into the tender fish, the deliciousness of everything momentarily easing his sorrow.

*

Walking home from town at dusk on a trail through the woods that allows him to avoid walking on a road save for the last quarter mile – his house a mile inland from Mercy – Miles is pleasantly drunk and lost in thoughts of Justin and Conchita and the gaiety of the pub, when an enormous mountain lion steps onto the trail just twenty feet ahead and gives Miles a searching look before vanishing into the dark forest.

*

His heart still pounding from the encounter with the giant puma, Miles arrives at his house at the dead end of Auden Street, a lane intruding into the vast redwood forest, and he is filled with a longing to not be alone, a longing he has kept at bay for the seven months he’s lived here.

He starts a fire in the woodstove in the living room and clicks on the electric kettle in the kitchen to boil water for tea – his house fully electric, the electricity supplied by a large array of solar panels standing to the south of the house where he also has a big vegetable and flower garden, his two acres deer-fenced to keep out the many ravenous deer.

Squatting by the woodstove to feed the fire, Miles longs to have a friendly dog to go on walks with, a cat or two sprawled on the sofa, and someone making tea in the kitchen, someone he can tell about meeting the mountain lion – none of which he thought he would ever long for again.

Sure of the fire’s continuance, Miles goes into his office, notes the light blinking on his answering machine, a rare occurrence, and taps the space bar on his keyboard to awaken his computer, the screen revealing a dozen emails yet to be opened, most of them with the subject heading Happy Birthday – none of which he cares to read.

He returns to the kitchen and is about to make a cup of tea, when a vehicle pulls into his driveway and headlights penetrate into the house for a moment before the driver turns the headlights off.

“What did I order?” he says, assuming this is a delivery truck, UPS or Fed Ex, and thinking Must be more birthday nonsense.

He turns on the outside lights to illuminate the parking area and the path to the house, and a moment later someone opens the gate. Hearing footsteps on the gravel path, Miles waits for the delivery person to leave the package on the porch and depart, but now someone knocks on the front door and Miles thinks I must have to sign for something.

He turns on the porch light, opens his door, and is startled to see Conchita standing next to a man holding a little black dog.

“Hello,” says Miles, his heart pounding.

“You left your wallet at the pub,” says Conchita, handing Miles his wallet. “We got your address from your driver’s license. My shift just ended and you’re on our way home, so… we just live another mile inland.” She turns to the man, a sturdy fellow with curly black hair. “This is my husband Zeke. Zeke this is Miles.”

“Hey,” says Zeke, lifting one of the little dog’s paws to wave at Miles.

“Thank you so much,” says Miles, blushing. “Must have been the porter. I’m a cheap date. Usually stop at half a pint.”

“Zeke’s the same way,” says Conchita, laughing. “And by the way, happy birthday. I saw your DOB on your license.”

“Oh thanks,” says Miles, on the verge of tears again. “Would you like to come in? Have a cup of tea?”

Conchita and Zeke exchange looks and Conchita says, “We don’t want to bother you.”

“No bother. Please,” says Miles, gesturing for them to enter.

“This is Eso,” says Zeke, nuzzling the little dog. “He’s house trained and his paws are clean.”

“Fine,” says Miles, petting the friendly dog. “I love dogs.”

*

They sit by the woodstove, Eso sprawled on the hearth, and Conchita and Zeke tell Miles a little about themselves – Zeke born in Mercy, does garden maintenance for a living, his parents retired to Hawaii some years ago, Conchita born in Mercy, too, her parents and grandparents and most of their descendants still living in and around Mercy, the baby she’s carrying her first.

“What about you, Miles?” asks Zeke, his voice full of kindness. “How do spend your time?”

“I mostly garden now,” says Miles, not wanting to talk about his past but feeling he must a little. “Take long walks. Eat. Sleep. Read. That’s about it. I was a professor at UC Berkeley for thirty-five years. Ecology.”

Zeke frowns. “Are you Miles Cain?”

“I am,” says Miles, nodding. “Have you… how do you know of me?”

“I read your last three books,” says Zeke, looking at Conchita. “And recounted much of what they say to my patient wife.”

“Oh,” says Conchita, awareness dawning. “You’re the end-of-the-world guy.”

Miles feels her words as a knife in his heart. “Yeah. That’s me.”

“Great books,” says Zeke, looking at Miles with deep respect. “Brave and honest and what everybody needs to know. Thank you for writing them.”

“Fat lot of good they did,” says Miles, wanting more than anything for Conchita to know him as someone other than the end-of-the-world guy. “I often regret writing them.”

“No, no,” says Zeke, shaking his head. “They’re incredibly important. In this world of climate-change deniers and…”

“Too late,” says Miles, shaking his head. “We’ve gone beyond all the crucial tipping points. No way back.”

“Too late for what?” asks Conchita, gazing at Miles and sensing how deeply sad and lonely he is. “We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families. Whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right? I could die in childbirth. Zeke could die tomorrow in a car accident or fall off a ladder. But we’re alive now and we’ll be alive until we die.”

“And as you said in your books,” says Zeke, who often thinks about how life may be when their daughter is ten and much of the world is in chaos from climate disasters and the breakdown of society, “the earth has seen a thousand tipping points that make the current trends seem fairly insignificant.”

“But you will suffer,” says Miles, bowing his head and weeping. “Everyone will suffer so terribly, and it didn’t have to be this way.”

“Maybe it did,” says Conchita, getting up and going to Miles and resting a hand on his shoulder. “In the meantime, welcome to the neighborhood. We’re having a barbecue on Saturday and we’d love for you to come.”

In between sobs, Miles manages to ask, “What can I bring?”

*

Miles hasn’t spoken to his daughter Eliana in two years. She stopped communicating with Miles when he published his last and most successful book If We Don’t Change NOW and refused to express any hope of humanity averting a climate crisis that will render the earth uninhabitable by humans and most other living things. Eliana’s mother Sharon divorced Miles twenty years ago when he refused to add a note of hope to his first bestseller about climate change Avoidable Disasters. And his subsequent marriage to Jane, a fellow ecologist, ended because Jane couldn’t bear his relentless anger and pessimism.

But one of those birthday phone messages Miles got yesterday was from Eliana and her husband Goncalo and their ten-year-old son Hugo calling from Portugal and singing Happy Birthday, so Miles feels emboldened to call Eliana and ask for her apple cake recipe, apple cake to be his contribution to the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s.

“Papa?” says Eliana, surprised to hear her father’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“I will be if you can remind me how to make your fabulous apple cake,” says Miles, thrilled to hear his daughter’s voice. “I never can remember all the ingredients.”

“I’ll email the recipe to you,” she says, doubting the recipe is why he called. “How are you?”

“Sixty-three,” says Miles, laughing.

“Not how old are you,” says Eliana, laughing, too. “How are you?”

“Oh I don’t know,” he says, carrying his old landline phone out onto his deck, the morning sun just now ascendant over the redwoods to the east. “I had a bleak birthday until I went to the pub for an early supper and had a delicious dark beer and glorious fish & chips and met two very nice people, and then on my way home I encountered an enormous mountain lion and…”

“You were walking?” she gasps.

“Yes, at dusk. And when that giant puma decided not to eat me, something changed in me and when I got home I wanted a dog and a cat and friends for the first time in eons. But enough about me. How are you doing? How’s your handsome husband and your splendid son?”

“Hugo…” she begins, and Miles can hear she’s crying, and he thinks of Conchita saying We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families, whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right?

“Hugo said he would never eat again until we called and sang Happy Birthday to you,” says Eliana, crying some more. “He’s incredibly stubborn. I can’t imagine who he got that from.”

 “I’m so glad to hear from you,” says Miles, feeling as if he just escaped from a terrible prison composed of a maze without end, a small break in the wall allowing him to get out right before the break was repaired. “You sound good and strong.”

“I’m okay. Are you… do you have a garden?”

“I do. Just learning how to grow things here. Very different climate than Berkeley. Never gets very warm here even in the summer.” He knows this will change soon and even here life will become untenable. “Lettuce and chard and peas grow wonderfully well here, and potatoes. But my zucchini are pathetic, and tomatoes and eggplants will require a greenhouse, which I have yet to build.”

“Are you writing anything?” she asks tersely.

“No,” he says, looking up as a raven glides by. “How about you? What are you working on these days?”

“Short stories. As always.”

“I loved your last collection,” he says, remembering when Eliana was six and announced she was going to be a writer of stories like the ones in Winnie the Pooh, and that is what she became. “Did you get my letter about that?”

“I don’t read your letters. I need to go.”

“I love you, dear.”

“You do?” she asks, sounding like a little girl.

“Always and forever.”

*

Forty gregarious people attend the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s, and Miles’s apple cake is a big hit.

As the party is winding down, Conchita introduces Miles to her cousin Sylvia, a beautiful woman in her fifties who wants the apple cake recipe.

“I know you,” says Sylvia, giving Miles a dazzling smile. “I’m a checker at Walker’s Groceries. I check you out all the time.”

“Oh, yes,” says Miles, who is hanging out with Justin and his wife Helen. “I didn’t recognize you out of uniform and with your hair down and without your glasses on. You’re a whole other person.”

“That’s a delicious apple cake you made,” says Sylvia, who hasn’t been involved with anyone, and hasn’t wanted to be, since her husband died when she was thirty. “Can I get the recipe from you?”

“Of course,” says Miles, getting lost in Sylvia’s big brown eyes. “I… I’ll… where do you live? I’ll make you a copy and drop it by.”

“In town,” she says, astonished to feel so attracted to him. “Or… you could come for supper tomorrow and bring it then.”

“Oh jump on that one, Miles,” says Justin, nodding emphatically. “Best Mexican food in the world. And that’s not hyperbole.”

“You come, too,” says Sylvia to Justin and Helen, blushing to have been so forward with Miles.

“Que hora?” says Justin, bouncing his eyebrows. “We’ll bring the booze.”

*

A year later, on his sixty-fourth birthday, Miles wakes in his new queen bed to the sweet sounds of Sylvia making coffee in the kitchen, their pups Camino and Flora skittering around on the tile floor at Sylvia’s feet hoping for treats.

Now he hears Sylvia speaking in Spanish on the phone, and though his Spanish is not great yet, Miles recognizes the words for birthday and party and tomorrow afternoon and cake and enchiladas and tamales and watermelon mingling with the names of his friends who will come to sing for him: Pedro and Maria and Carlos and Justin and Helen and Zeke and Conchita and their darling baby girl Eliana.

fin

La Entrada a piano solo

Categories
short story

Why You Are Here

On a Saturday morning in September, nineteen-year-old Fernando Ontiveros is stocking dairy products in a big refrigerated display case in Walker’s Groceries in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. Fernando has worked at Walker’s since he was fourteen, after school and on weekends while in high school, full-time since graduating from Mercy High in June.

A handsome fellow with shoulder-length black hair, Fernando is hoping to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts a year from now, but to do so he must make a short movie that will, as he explained to his skeptical parents, knock the socks off the faculty at that esteemed training ground for many of tomorrow’s movie and television directors.

Fernando has been writing and directing and shooting short films since he was nine, and though he is a fine actor and singer, making movies is his great passion. He has spent thousands of hours experimenting with lighting, camera angles, tracking shots, and sound recording, and he has meticulously studied hundreds of great movies, old and new, in search of cinematic techniques to improve his art.   

“Excuse me,” says a man with a British accent. “May I impose upon you to help me locate the Egret Creek wine?”

Fernando turns in the direction of the voice and smiles to see the man known around Mercy as the shy guy from England, a slender fellow with short gray hair turning white, a man Fernando has long been curious about and never spoken to until this moment.

“You may,” says Fernando, his accent revealing the influence of his Spanish-speaking parents. “Are you looking for red or white?”

“Both,” says the Englishman, smiling in response to Fernando’s smile. “My wife and I… I wouldn’t say we’re addicted, but we are deeply habituated to drinking and cooking with the Egret Creek wines, and they’ve always been right here,” – he gestures to the island of boxes of wine, some of the boxes open to reveal their contents – “and now they seem to have disappeared, which for us would be a catastrophe.”

“They are there,” says Fernando, loving this fellow’s accent and the way he phrases things and his gentle manner and expressive hands. “We just shifted everything a few feet to your left. Look again.”

The shy fellow returns his gaze to the island of boxes and exclaims, “Goodness. There they are. Just not exactly where they’ve been for so many years.” Now he looks at Fernando and confides, “I would blame my age, but I think it’s more a matter of deeply entrenched habit.” He laughs a soft musical laugh. “How kind of you to put up with an old cuckoo like me.”

*

That night, very much under the influence of his encounter with the shy guy from England, Fernando writes the first draft of a screenplay for a short film based on his encounter with the shy guy, the scene continuing beyond what actually happened – Fernando loading a few boxes of wine onto the old fellow’s shopping cart and ultimately helping him load the boxes into his truck, while the Englishman babbles in his charming and humorous way – the end of the movie a surprising exchange about the meaning of life.

*

A few days later, having reworked the script several times, Fernando goes to the Mercy Players Company theatre and shows the script to Harold Thorndyke, the company’s General Manager who frequently stars in their productions and was Fernando’s Drama teacher at Mercy High for two years before landing the cushy gig at MPC. Harold loves Fernando’s script and volunteers to play the role of the elderly British fellow in Fernando’s movie, though Harold is only forty-six, his British accent is pathetic, and he is one of the worst actors Fernando has ever seen.

“I’ll keep you in mind,” says Fernando, heeding advice gleaned from the autobiography of his favorite movie director Jason Randle Jones: be kind and courteous to everyone unless it’s absolutely impossible not to. “I’m very glad you like it, Harold.”

“I really do,” says Harold, who spent four years in Los Angeles trying without success to get a toe in the door of the television biz before falling back on his BA in Drama and becoming a high school Drama teacher. “It’s poignant, yet funny, and the dialogue is marvelous. Write us a play, Fernando. With a big part for me. Just kidding. Not really.”

*

Buoyed by Harold’s praise, Fernando shows the script to his Uncle Mario’s wife Joan Steinberg who was a Drama major at Sonoma State before switching to Business and eventually opening a chocolate shop. Joan loves the script, too, and says to Fernando, “You know, really, there’s no reason why the main character can’t be a woman, and I would be happy to play the part.” She laughs her high staccato laugh. “When I was in the Sonoma State production of The Importance of Being Earnest, my British accent was so indistinguishable from the real thing, the reviewer in the Sonoma State Star said my Lady Bracknell was England incarnate.”

“What an intriguing idea,” says Fernando, who is sorely tempted to ask Joan to give him a sample of her British accent, but decides not to. “I’ll definitely keep you in mind, Joan.”

“In any case, it’s a marvelous script,” says Joan, half-smiling and half-frowning at Fernando as if she doesn’t quite believe he wrote it. “Your ear for dialogue is remarkable.”

*

Fernando’s savvy girlfriend Dolores Garcia, who also aspires to be in the movie biz, loves the script, too, and says, “Hey Nando, why not ask the shy guy to play himself? He’s right here in Mercy. Wouldn’t hurt to ask him, would it?”

“Genius,” says Fernando, acting as if the idea had never occurred to him, though it has always been his intention to ask the shy guy to play the part. “You’re amazing, Dolly. If I make it big in the movie biz, you do, too.”

Aroused by Fernando’s enthusiastic praise, Dolores initiates some profound smooching.

*

With the intention of sending the shy guy from England a letter introducing himself, Fernando asks several of his fellow employees at Walker’s Groceries if they know the shy guy’s name, and he hits pay dirt with Sylvia Viera who has been a checker at Walker’s for thirty-five years and is one of Fernando’s mother’s many cousins.

“His name is Bertram Hawley,” says Sylvia, speaking in Spanish to Fernando on their break in the small employee lounge at the back of the big grocery store. “He always pays by check. So does his wife Alison, but Bertram does most of the shopping for them. And the cooking, too, I think. The first few years he shopped here he was so shy he never said a word to me, though I always said Hello how you doing? Nothing. Then one day I said Hola Bertram because I knew his name from his checks, and he smiled his shy little smile and said, ‘You know my name?’ and I said I did and I knew his wife was Alison, and after that he started talking to me a little more, and now we talk the whole time I’m checking him out.” She arches her eyebrow. “You know what he does for a living?”

“Tell me,” says Fernando, holding his breath.

“He’s the guy who makes those big wooden statues of naked women they show at the Fletcher Gallery every year.” She gives Fernando a wide-eyed look and nods. “Can you believe it? We go every year. Maria and Pedro would never miss that show, and I like it, too. Those carvings are so real you think they’re gonna come to life.”

“I go every year, too,” says Fernando, laughing. “So he’s that guy? He’s famous. Those things sell for fifty thousand dollars and the show sells out every year. His phone number on his checks?”

Sylvia nods. “And his P.O. box, too. I always look at the checks to make sure the total is right, you know, and I’ve been looking at his checks twice a week for more than twenty years, so I know them by heart.”

*

Before finalizing his letter to Bertram Hawley, Fernando attends a big family barbecue at his Aunt Conchita’s farm a couple miles inland from Mercy, and while Fernando is hanging out with Conchita’s husband Zeke who is tending the three barbecue grills, Zeke asks Fernando what he’s been up to and Fernando tells him about his movie script and his plan to approach the shy English guy.

“I’ve been doing yard work for Bertram and Alison since I started gardening,” says Zeke, basting the chicken legs and thighs with Conchita’s spicy barbecue sauce. “That’s ten years now. Three hours a week. Bertram’s a great guy, but I doubt very much he’ll be in your movie.”

“Why not?” asks Fernando, frowning. “Because he’s so shy?”

“He’s more than shy,” says Zeke, thinking fondly of Bertram. “He suffers from extreme anxiety and panic attacks. He was an actor in England, but after he was in a terrible car accident, he had to give up being in plays and movies because he couldn’t be around large groups of people or do any kind of stressful work.”

“He told you that?” asks Fernando, who always feels a little uncomfortable that Zeke, a sophisticated white guy in his thirties, is a gardener, while nearly all the men in the Ontiveros Viera Gomez Martinez clan, the sons of farm laborers, are plumbers and electricians and building contractors, and their children are lawyers and doctors and software designers.  

“Oh yeah,” says Zeke, laughing. “Once Bertram gets talking, he can really talk.”

“Would you introduce me to him?” asks Fernando, undaunted by Zeke’s doubts about Bertram being in the movie.

“Sure,” says Zeke, who admires Fernando’s artistic ambitions. “I do their place on Tuesday afternoon from two to five. Probably be best if you came with me one day.”

“I’ll take next Tuesday off,” says Fernando, beaming at Zeke. “And I’ll put your name in the credits of every movie I ever make.”

*   

The following Tuesday afternoon, Zeke picks Fernando up at the four-house complex at the north end of Mercy where Fernando has lived his whole life with his parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins and nephews and nieces.

Fernando is wearing a fine brown leather jacket over a gray shirt with a black bowtie, gray corduroy trousers, and red running shoes, an outfit he imagines a movie director would wear to meet with a star he hopes will play the lead in his new film.

Zeke’s little black mutt Eso sits between Zeke and Fernando in Zeke’s old truck as they drive to Bertram and Alison’s house in the forest a mile inland from Mercy.

“I like your script,” says Zeke, who used to spend more time writing short stories and novels than he did working as a gardener, though he hasn’t done much writing in the last few years. “Especially the first half. The ending feels a bit glued on. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do know what you mean,” says Fernando, nodding. “The first half is pretty much what Bertram actually said to me, and the second half is my attempt at carrying on in his voice. I’m hoping if he agrees to do the part, he’ll help me rewrite the dialogue so it sounds more like him.”

“I admire your confidence, Nando,” says Zeke, turning off the highway onto the gravel drive leading to Bertram and Alison’s house. “I could use some of that.”

“It’s not so much confidence,” says Fernando, shrugging, “as what my grandmother told me a million times when I was growing up and what Jason Randle Jones, my favorite movie director, says in his autobiography. If you don’t ask for what you want, you’ll never get anything.”

*

Zeke parks in front of the lovely old redwood house flanked by two large modern studios, one in which Bertram carves his wood sculptures, the other in which Alison sees her psychotherapy clients. Donna, a very friendly Golden Retriever, comes to greet Zeke and Eso and Fernando, and now Bertram emerges from his studio and beckons to them.

“This is my wife’s nephew Fernando,” says Zeke, as he and Fernando enter Bertram’s high-ceilinged workshop where a human form is emerging from a massive seven-feet-tall pillar of oak standing under a big skylight in the center of the room. “Fernando, Bertram.”

“I know you,” says Bertram, not seeming at all anxious as he shakes Fernando’s hand. “You’re the kind soul who helped me see the Egret Creek wines a few feet to the left of where they’d always previously been. And, of course, I’ve seen you many times over the years at Walker’s, not to mention strolling around town in the company of beautiful young women, and I can see why you attract such a coterie of admirers. You’re a charismatic. Has anyone ever told you that? Because you are.”

“No one ever has,” says Fernando, gazing around the studio and wanting to make a movie here. “Why do you think so?”

“I don’t think so,” says Bertram, shaking his head. “I know so. Just listen to your voice. Ageless and preternaturally calm. You’re in synch with the rhythm of the natural world and not with the pretenses of human folly.”

“I think you’re the charismatic,” says Fernando, grinning at Bertram. “Has anybody ever told you that?”

“One person,” says Bertram, smiling sadly. “One dear person who died too young.” He shakes himself away from the memory. “What brings you here today, Fernando?”

“I’m applying to film school,” says Fernando, clearing his throat, “and I have to submit a short movie as a major component of my application. I’ve written a script inspired by our interaction about the Egret Creek wine, and I’m wondering if you would like to play yourself in the movie. Be a few hours of work one night at Walker’s after the store is closed, and a couple hours during the daytime in the parking lot. For which I will be happy to pay you. Would you like to see the script?”

Bertram, astonished, says, “The one person before you who thought I was a charismatic was a brilliant young director named Andrew Foster. He’d written a movie for me to star in, a comedy. I’d only ever had supporting roles in movies. He and I were driving away from the studio where we’d just signed big fat contracts to make our movie, all systems go as the studio head liked to say, when we were hit by another car and Andrew was killed. And that was the end of my life as an actor and the beginning of my life as a person beset by anxiety, though I’m much better now than I used to be.”

“I’m so sorry,” says Fernando, bowing his head.

“Long time ago,” says Bertram, looking at Zeke. “I told you about Andrew, didn’t I?”

“Never about the movie he wrote for you,” says Zeke, shaking his head. “Just that he was your dear friend.”

*

That night Bertram and Alison are sitting on the rug by the fire in the living room playing Scrabble and Bertram asks, “Did you read Fernando’s script?”

“I did,” says Alison, who is British and the same age as Bertram – seventy-three – and was an actress before she became a psychotherapist. “I loved the first half and found the second half a bit stilted, though potentially quite charming.”

“I think we can fix the second half,” says Bertram, using three of his letters to spell JINX and take advantage of the X Alison left dangling at the end of INDEX.

Alison looks over the tops of her glasses at Bertram. “We?”

Bertram nods as he selects three new letters. “I’d like to try to do this, dear. I think it would be good for me. Face my demons in a short movie about me buying wine.” He chuckles. “Cinema verité.”

“I’m mildly stunned,” says Alison, using the J of JINX to spell JASPER. “I hope you’ll let me come watch.”

“I am depending on you coming and watching,” says Bertram, thinking of his dear pal Andrew and what a joy it was to act for him. “Holding my hand in between takes.”

“What fun,” says Alison, remembering how very much Bertram loved acting.

*

At midnight in Walker’s Groceries where the dairy products are on display, Fernando makes a final check of the four video cameras he’s using to record the scene from various angles and distances. Now he nods to Dolores, his Assistant Director, and goes to his mark in front of the big refrigerated display case.

Four camera people – Fernando’s Drama pals from Mercy High – step behind the cameras, and when Dolores says, “Press Record,” the four camera people do so, and Dolores says, “Take Five, and… Action.”

Fernando begins stocking the shelf with containers of yogurt, and a few moments later Bertram pushes his shopping cart into the scene, stops at the island of wine boxes, scans the boxes, and not finding what he seeks, turns to Fernando and says, “Excuse me. May I impose upon you to help me locate the Egret Creek wine?”

“You may,” says Fernando, turning to Bertram and frowning. “Are you looking for red or white?”

“Both,” says Bertram, frowning in response to Fernando’s frown. “My wife and I… I wouldn’t say we’re addicted, but we are deeply habituated to drinking and cooking with the Egret Creek wines, and they’ve always been right here,” – he gestures to the island – “and now they seem to have disappeared, which for us would be catastrophic.”

“They’re right there,” says Ferdinand, pointing to the Egret Creek wines. “We just shifted everything a few feet to your left. Look again.”

Bertram returns his gaze to the island and exclaims, “Good God. There they are, though not exactly where they’ve been for so many years.” Now he turns to Fernando and smiles. “I would blame my age, but I think it’s more a matter of deeply entrenched habit.” He laughs a soft musical laugh. “How kind of you to put up with an old cuckoo like me.”

“Not at all,” says Fernando, smiling in response to Bertram’s smile. “You buying a case?”

Three cases,” says Bertram, turning to the wine again. “I wonder if I might further impose upon you to load them on my shopping cart for me. Back’s a bit wonky these days. If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” says Fernando, coming to load the boxes of wine into Bertram’s cart. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Bertram gazes in wonder at Fernando and says, “How marvelous it must be to know why you are here. I wish I did.”

“And… cut,” says Dolores, the four cameras stopping simultaneously. “Brilliant. Best take yet.”

*

On an evening in February, four months after Fernando put the finishing touches on his short film Why You Are Here, Fernando and Dolores arrive at Bertram and Alison’s house for supper, the other guests Zeke and Conchita.

When supper is over and before Alison serves dessert, Fernando struggles to say, “I heard from USC film school today and… they don’t want me. But there are other film schools, so…”

“Indeed there are,” says Bertram, looking at Alison. “Will you tell him our news, dear?”

“We sent your film to our old friend Jason Randle Jones and he rather likes it,” says Alison, her cheeks reddening. “Called it brilliant and he doesn’t use that word lightly. Said he’s watched it three times so far and cries harder with each viewing.”

“Jason Randle Jones?” says Fernando, the name giving him chills. “Director of Tiny Giant Changes and The Magpie Game? You know him?”

“I was in the first three movies Jason ever directed,” says Bertram, smiling at memories of good old JRJ. “He’s one of the only people from my days as an actor who’s kept in touch with us over the intervening years. Owns three of my sculptures, one for each of his houses. Says he wants another. I told him I’m sculpting a man now and he said he’d wait for me to get back to women.”

“He’d like you to come work for him,” says Alison, smiling brightly at Fernando. “Which would mean you’d be moving to London, but Jason will pay you very well so you can afford it.”

“Oh my God,” says Fernando, bursting into tears.

“Isn’t it wonderful,” says Bertram, putting a comforting hand on Fernando’s shoulder, “when the universe says Yes?”

fin

Now and Then

Categories
short story

Zeke’s New Gig

In the morning in their bed in their little house at the end of a gravel road two miles inland from the far northern coast of California, Zeke and Conchita wake to their alarm clock radio tuned to an oldies station, Moby Grape singing 8:05, though it’s actually 8:15.

Conchita wants to make love and so does Zeke, but he has to meet his boss at a new client’s place in forty-five minutes, so they promise each other sex tonight when Conchita gets home from the pub where she’s a waitress, and they jump out of bed.

Sturdy and strong, his curly black hair a bit longer than he likes, Zeke, shirtless and barefoot in his underwear, opens the front door of their house and follows their small black mutt Eso out into the clear cold April day, and while Eso races around sniffing and peeing, Zeke circumnavigates the little house and makes sure nothing is amiss on their three-acre farm bordering a vast forest.

Eso poops next to the compost pile where Conchita and Zeke trained him to poop as a puppy, and after shoveling Eso’s shit into the compost, Zeke releases the nine chickens from their coop into the scratch run, gathers seven eggs, and stands for a moment on the edge of the big vegetable patch.

“This weekend I’m planting chard and peas,” he says to the garden. “And another row of spuds. Don’t you worry.”

Zeke and Eso go back inside via the squeaky kitchen door and find Conchita in her bathrobe putting the finishing touches on Zeke’s lunch while simultaneously making coffee and toast and tending six eggs spluttering in coconut oil in a cast iron frying pan.

“I’m gonna start setting the alarm for a half-hour earlier,” says Conchita, watching her nearly naked husband feed the ravenous little dog. “I’ve been so wanting you in the morning lately and we never leave enough time for love.”

“Brilliante mi amor,” says Zeke, going to get dressed. “I’ll come by the pub after work to catch a glimpse of you.”

She flips the eggs and says, “What a good husband you are. How did I get so lucky?”

He returns a moment later wearing a red T-shirt and old black trousers and sits down to put on his socks.

“I’m the lucky one,” he says, gazing in wonder at his wife. “What’s your day before you go to work?”

“Vacuum the house and do some laundry,” she says, bringing their breakfast to the kitchen table and sitting down across from him. “Then I’m having lunch with Lisa at Jessica’s, and if I have time I’ll go see mi madre.”

“Gracias por la comida,” says Zeke, closing his eyes for a moment before eating, his Spanish excellent after seven years with Conchita and spending lots of time with her parents and brothers and sisters and their families.

“Gracias for another day of life,” she says, closing her eyes and thanking God for Zeke.

*

With Eso beside him in his twenty-year-old pickup, Zeke drives down a winding two-lane road through a redwood forest to the coast highway where he turns left and heads south, skirting the seaside town of Mercy where he was born thirty-two years ago. The cerulean sky is full of billowy white clouds and Zeke is hopeful the new gardening gig will prove to be a good one.

Four years ago, Zeke’s parents, Marjorie and Blake Levine, moved from their big old house in Mercy to a condominium on Maui, Blake having sold his Mercy dental practice and both Blake and Marjorie ready for warm weather year round. Until Zeke was twenty, Marjorie and Blake assumed he would follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother Aaron and become a well-paid professional, a doctor or dentist or lawyer or college professor, and when Zeke declared he was going to be a writer, they assumed his writing, like his guitar playing, would be his hobby while he made good money otherwise.

Then he dropped out of college, became a gardener, fell in love with Conchita, and…

“They were gravely disappointed,” says Zeke, scratching Eso’s head. “But what can we do? We are who we are. Si?”

Eso gives Zeke a look to say I love who you are.

*

Two miles south of town, at the end of a half-mile lane, Zeke finds his boss Zella waiting for him outside the closed gates of an estate overlooking the ocean.

Zella is Serbian and in her fifties, tall and pretty with long silvery blonde hair. She employs six people and pays them thirty dollars an hour while charging her clients thirty-one dollars an hour for the labor of her employees and doing twenty hours of gardening a week herself.

“You are always so prompt,” she says, getting out of her little white pickup – Wildflower Garden Maintenance painted artfully in green letters on both doors – her brown mutt Zephyr jumping out after her and happily greeting Zeke and Eso. “One of the many things I admire about you, Zeke.

“I know this place,” says Zeke, smiling at the baronial gates. “When we were in high school my friends and I used to sneak in here. Whoever owned the place back then was rarely here and we’d hang out on the big deck looking down at the waves and smoke dope and fantasize about being rich and famous and owning the place some day.”

“How would you get rich and famous?” asks Zella, going to the call box on the fence adjacent to the gates and pressing a button.

“I was going to write novels that got made into movies,” says Zeke, remembering the kids he came here with – Randy Chan, David Zulguri, Mimi Cantor, Cheryl Little, all aspiring writers and musicians – Cheryl Little the first girl he ever had sex with. “Randy was going to write and direct movies. David was gonna be a rock star, Mimi an actress and singer, and Cheryl a novelist, too.”

“That’s amazing,” says Zella, pushing the button again, “because the woman who owns this place writes bestsellers they make into movies. Her assistant called them bodice rippers. I had to look up this expression when I got home. Means historical romances with lots of sex. Oo la la.”

“Conchita loves that stuff,” says Zeke, laughing. “I don’t.”

“Hello?” crackles a voice from the little speaker on the fence.

“Hi. It’s Zella Wildflower,” says Zella, leaning close to the speaker. “Here with your new gardener.”

“Okay,” says the voice, and a moment later the big gates swing slowly inward.

Zella and Zeke drive their trucks into the estate, the dogs chasing after them. The grounds have been neglected for years – flower beds overgrown with weeds, dozens of dead shrubs, a maze of hedges in desperate need of trimming, and two ponds clogged with algae, their naked-goddess fountains encrusted with lichen and mold – many weeks of work needed to return the garden to its former glory.

They park in front of the huge two-story house reminiscent of the plantation mansion in the movie Gone With The Wind, and the grand front door opens. Two women emerge, a pretty white woman with long reddish brown hair wearing a summery blue dress, and a striking black woman wearing red leather pants and a shimmery purple shirt, her hair cut very short.

As the women approach, Zeke does a double take – the white gal none other than the just-remembered Cheryl Little.

“Cheryl?” says Zeke, staring at her in disbelief.

“Zeke?” says Cheryl, gasping. “You’re the gardener?”

“Maybe not,” he says, laughing nervously. “Might be too weird.”

“I had no idea you still lived in Mercy,” she says, turning to the black woman. “This is Zeke Levine. We were in high school together.” She returns her astonished gaze to Zeke. “Zeke, this is my assistant Marz.”

“As in the planet?” asks Zeke, grinning at Marz.

“M-A-R-Z,” says Marz, drawing a Z in the air with her finger. “Short for Marzipan. My mother had a serious sweet tooth.”

“You’ve met my boss Zella,” says Zeke, turning to Zella and half-expecting her not to be there and this whole thing turning out to be a dream.

“Yes,” says Cheryl, heading back inside. “She knows everything that needs to be done. If you have any questions just ring the bell.”

“Is it okay if my dog hangs out with me?” asks Zeke, before the women disappear into the house.

“Fine,” says Cheryl without looking back at him.

“We love dogs,” says Marz, winking at Zeke and giving him thumbs up.

*

When the front door closes, Zella asks quietly, “Was she your lover?”

“She was,” says Zeke, stunned by seeing Cheryl again, and here of all places. “My first.”

“Did you part as friends?” asks Zella, nodding hopefully.

“What a good question,” says Zeke, trying to remember. “I think so. We weren’t a couple or anything. Just pals who had sex a few times. Her folks moved away when she left for college, so she didn’t come back in the summers and I lost track of her.”

“Do you want this job?” asks Zella, looking around to assess the amount of work to be done. “If this place was mine, I would mostly let it go back to natural. But they wants us to make it fancy again. Manicured lawns, a maze of hedges, roses and tulips, the ponds restored and the fountains scraped clean. Like a set for one of her movies.”

“I could sure use the hours,” says Zeke, nodding. “Is she planning to live here, or…”

“I don’t think so,” says Zella, shaking her head. “She told me she has places in New York and Paris. They wanted a place in California and she loved it here when she was a girl, so…”

“I can do this,” says Zeke, liking the feel of the place. “You could put two people on this job for a couple months to get the place in shape.”

“Good idea,” says Zella, going to her truck. “She says cost is no problem. Emilio wants more hours. You like him?”

“Yeah, Emilio’s great,” says Zeke, following her. “So how about I do three hours here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays?”

“Fine,” says Zella, putting on her work gloves. “Can you do a few hours now? I want to clean up the beds near the house and get the wisteria on the porch under control.”

“Absolutely,” he says, glad she’s staying with him. “Thank you so much, Zella, for all the work you’ve given me.”

“You’re welcome,” she says, getting her rake and shovel from her truck. “It will be good for me to get a feel for the place.”

*

After working for three hours with Zella at Cheryl’s mansion, Zeke and Eso have lunch on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River. And while Eso chases sea gulls, Zeke remembers a Sunday afternoon during his last year at Mercy High when he and Cheryl and Randy and David and Mimi snuck into the estate and sat on the big deck and Zeke read aloud a short story he’d written, and it was after he read his story that Cheryl jimmied open a door and took him upstairs and they made love on a bed in an otherwise empty room, and she was so sweet and encouraging as she taught him the ways of love.

*

Conchita comes home from the pub at midnight, takes a quick shower, gets in bed with Zeke, they make love, and in the aftermath of their loving she says, “I don’t want to wait any more to have our child. We keep saying we will as soon as we have enough money saved up, but every time we get ahead, something happens. We need a new roof or the car breaks down. I don’t want to wait anymore. I’m thirty-one. I’m ready to be a mother and you’re ready to be a father.”

“I want what you want,” says Zeke, feeling a pang of guilt for not making more money. “We’ll be fine.”

“I’m gonna get a real estate license. My sister and I are gonna take the course together at El Mar Realty and start our own company. Ontiveros Realty.”

“Who wouldn’t buy a house from you?”

“Are you teasing me?”

“No. You’ll be a great realtor if that’s what you want to do.”

“I want to make more money and not spend the rest of my life serving beer and fish & chips.”

“I got that new gig today,” he says, kissing her. “Nine more hours a week.”

“Oh good,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “That makes thirty-two hours for you. Don’t do more than that, mi amor. You won’t have time for the garden or for me.”

Two mornings later, Zeke arrives at Tara, his name for Cheryl’s place, and starts removing dead plants and preparing beds for rose bushes and flowers.

After he’s been working for a couple hours, Marz comes out the front door and says, “Hey Zeke. Come have some coffee. Rebecca would love to talk to you.”

“Rebecca?” says Zeke, smiling quizzically at Marz and enjoying her get up – pleated gray slacks and a white silk shirt splashed with red parrots. “You mean Cheryl?”

Marz nods. “She’s Rebecca to everybody but you now.”

“Okay,” says Zeke, turning to Eso who is snuffling around in the weeds. “Don’t go anywhere, Okay? I won’t be long.”

Eso gives him a look to say Where would I go? and Zeke follows Marz to the front door and takes off his muddy boots before going inside.

The spectacular house is largely empty of furniture, sunlight slanting through the big windows into the high-ceilinged living room. Marz explains that Rebecca’s interior designer is on the case and they hope to have the place fully furnished by the time they come back in October for a couple weeks.

Rebecca is sitting at a large table in the dining room adjacent to the spectacular kitchen, looking lovely in a loose-fitting green dress and typing at lightning speed on a big-screen laptop.

“Oh good,” she says, closing her laptop and rising to greet Zeke. “Can we have a hug?”

They embrace and Zeke and Cheryl’s bodies remember how well they fit together all those years ago, and Zeke becomes aroused and feels adulterous and ends the embrace.

“I’ve got to make some phone calls,” says Marz, leaving Zeke alone with Rebecca.

Rebecca gives Zeke a look to say Hug me again, but he doesn’t and sits down.

“How wild and mind-boggling that you bought this place, Cher,” he says, shaking his head. “Beyond incredible.”

Rebecca stays standing and says, “You’re the only person who ever called me Cher and I didn’t hate it. Au contraire. I loved it coming from you.”

“And now you’re Rebecca,” he says, trying to see the person he used to know. “Rebecca who? Little?”

“You didn’t immediately look me up on your computer?” she asks, giving him an incredulous look.

“I don’t use the computer much,” he says, shrugging. “Hurts my head.”

 “Oh,” she says, sounding disappointed. “You want some coffee?”

“No, I’m good. So… Rebecca who?”

“Rebecca Montaigne,” she says, sitting in the chair beside him, her eyes saying Kiss me.

“The name is familiar,” says Zeke, sensing how deeply tired she is. “Forgive me for not knowing your books. Zella said they’ve been made into movies.”

“Five of the nine have been made into movies so far,” she says, getting up and going into the kitchen. “You’re sure you don’t want some coffee? I just made some blueberry muffins.”

“Coffee and a blueberry muffin sounds great,” says Zeke, letting go of doing any more work here today. “What are the names of your movies?”

A Royal Disaster,” she says, pouring two mugs of coffee. “The Abduction of Rosella. Ramparts of Love. Broken Diamonds. And coming soon to a theater near you Mirabella’s Revenge.

“My wife loves your movies,” he says, thinking of how thrilled Conchita will be when he tells her he’s the gardener for the author of her favorite movies. “And so do her mother and sister. Whenever your movies come to the Coast Cinema, they get all dolled up for the show and go out for drinks afterwards and talk and talk about the movie and the costumes and how gorgeous everybody is. And they often go a second time before the movie leaves town. And for Christmas they give each other the DVDs.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” says Rebecca, bringing their coffee to the table. “You’d hate them.”

“Maybe not,” he says, shaking his head. “Knowing you wrote them, I might love them. Not knowing you wrote them, and historical romances not being my thing, I didn’t go. But I will next time.”

“Don’t bother,” she says, fetching the plate of muffins. “Big budget junk.”

“Not according to my wife,” he says, thinking of Conchita in all her finery going with her mother and sister to see the latest Rebecca Montaigne bodice ripper. “For Conchita, your movies are high art.”

“So what do you do now besides gardening?” She sits beside him again and he sees the sorrow in her eyes. “Do you have kids? Are you still writing? Still playing the guitar?”

“No kids yet, though we want to have one, maybe two, and I haven’t written anything in…” He thinks for a moment. “Three years. I wrote four novels, the first two just learning how, you know, the third and fourth pretty good, I thought, but I wasn’t able to interest an agent in either one, so… and I still play the guitar and write songs. Mostly I work and spend time with my wife and friends and walk on the beach and… live from day to day.”

“I thought you were a genius,” she says wistfully. “I thought for sure you’d write a novel that would make you as famous as Hemingway.”

“Maybe I will,” he says, gazing fondly at her. “Maybe I’ll be a late bloomer and write something great when I’m thirty-nine or fifty-five or seventy-two. We never know what might happen, do we?”

She thinks for a long moment and asks, “Did you love me?”

“Of course,” he says without hesitation. “Very much.”

A frown and a smile fight for control of her face, the smile triumphing.

“I thought so,” she says, crying a little. “You just didn’t know what to do about it and neither did I. We were too young to know how to preserve it.”

“I’m glad to see you again,” he says sincerely. “And I’m glad for your success. And I’d like to be your gardener. But only if it’s okay with you. You know what I mean? I don’t want to be a pain in your life.”

“You were always the nicest person, Zeke,” she says, standing up and going to the door that opens onto the deck. “You still are. I’d love you to be my gardener. It’s like something out of one of my books.”

“You were always the nicest person, too,” he says, getting up and following her. “How long are you here for this time?”

“Another week,” she says, opening the door to the sweet ocean air. “And we’ll be back in October. Always my favorite month here.”

“By then we should have your garden looking magnificent,” he says, going out onto the deck with her.

They stand side-by-side watching the unceasing waves and remembering those magical times when they and Randy Chan and David Zulguri and Mimi Cantor climbed over the fence and made their way through the maze of hedges to hang out here and dream together about their glorious futures.

fin

Mystery Pastiche

Categories
short story

The Whole Point

In Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, as the warm October afternoon gives way to a foggy dusk, the bartender Justin Oglethorpe, forty-three, a muscular six-feet-six with curly red hair says, “I’ve been a bartender for seventeen years. Fifteen here at Big Goose.” He looks around the spacious pub. “And believe it or not, most of the time I enjoy the heck out of my job.”

Justin is talking to Michael Frosbisher, fifty-one, five-feet-nine, a good-looking guy twenty pounds overweight with brown hair going gray. Born and raised in Mercy and voted Most Fun To Be With his senior year at Mercy High, Michael lives in Los Angeles now and makes seventy grand a month as the co-creator and head writer of the long-running television sit-com Danny and Maureen.

“Well it shows,” says Michael, looking up at Justin. “You’re by far the best bartender I’ve ever known, and I’ve known way too many, believe me.”

“I appreciate the compliment, Michael,” says Justin, who went to San Jose State on a basketball scholarship and sat on the bench for four years before finally getting into the last game of his last season there – and with San Jose State trailing by thirty-six points and only six minutes left to play, Justin took and made nine three-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds, and had the time of his life.

A scout from China approached Justin after the game and asked him if he would be interested in trying out for a Chinese basketball team. Justin said sure, tried out for the team, and was offered a one-year contract with the Jiangsu Dragons, which he turned down because he wanted to go home to Mercy more than he wanted to play basketball in China.

“How is your beautiful wife Cecily?” asks Justin, who has served beer to Michael many times over the years. “She’s the only Cecily I’ve ever met, though the town is rife with Cecilias.”

“My wife,” says Michael, seeing Cecily glaring at him as he got in his car and drove away from their big house in Brentwood to make the long trip to Mercy, “is having a rough time these days. Our daughter Twyla just started her first year at Brandeis, and our son Paul goes off to Yale next year, and dear Cecily, who has spent the last twenty years catering to their every whim, suddenly doesn’t know what to do with herself. I begged her to come with me, but she doesn’t like it here, so…”

“What did she do before you had kids?” asks Justin, pointing to Michael’s empty glass and giving him a quizzical look.

“I would love another,” says Michael, nodding. “She was an agent at a big talent agency.”

“I thought for sure you were gonna say actress,” says Justin, serving Michael another glass of amber ale. “She’s a knockout.”

“Yeah,” says Michael, remembering the first time he saw Cecily and the world disappeared and she became all that mattered to him. “We met at the wedding of a mutual friend and fell madly in love etcetera.”

“Could she go back to being an agent?” asks Justin, who knows next to nothing about show biz.

“She’d rather die,” says Michael, remembering how incredibly relieved Cecily was when he became a staff writer on the sit-com You Can’t Be Serious and was finally making enough money so Cecily could quit the job she hated. “But enough about me. How’s the gorgeous Helen? I assume you’re still together.”

 “Helen es muy fabuloso,” says Justin, waving to Jack and Norman as they walk in the door at 4:30 on the dot as they do every afternoon. “She moved in with me six months ago, which enabled her to quit her horrible fulltime job and get a much better part-time gig. Best six months of my life.”

“For her, too, probably,” says Michael, who finds Helen enchanting and heroic. “She still writing poetry?”

“Helen will write poetry until the day she dies,” says Justin, smiling as he thinks of his beloved. “Hold that thought.” He turns to Jack and Norman as they approach the bar – Norman tall and skinny, Jack small and round-shouldered. “Gentlemen. Pints this afternoon or are we starting slow with the little glasses?”

“Pints,” says Jack, his head void of hair. “To quickly drown our sorrows.”

“Guinness for me,” says Norman, his attempt at a British accent comically awful. “And not too much foam, if you please.”

“Stop, Norman,” says Jack, rolling his eyes. “You sound more German than British.”

“And you, Jack?” says Justin, loving these guys. “What are you having?”

“Something not bitter and not dark,” says Jack, smirking at Norman. “And a muzzle for this guy.”

“Conchita will bring you your drinks,” says Justin, bowing to them.

Jack and Norman head for their usual table and Michael asks quietly, “Are they gay?”

“No idea,” says Justin, filling a pint glass with Guinness. “Nor do I care.”

Michael nods. “You’re a wise man, Justin.”

“Let people be who they want to be,” says Justin, raising a hand to beckon Conchita the barmaid standing at the far end of the bar gazing raptly into her phone. “And to complete my report on Helen, she published her third book of poems a year ago and her publisher called last week to tell her they just did a second printing so they’d have enough copies for the Christmas rampage. That’s a big deal for a poet. Means she sold more than a thousand copies.”

“Fantastic. Can I get a copy at the bookstore?” asks Michael, his heart pounding at the thought of publishing a volume of poems.

“You can get a copy right here,” says Justin, reaching under the counter and bringing forth a briefcase full of copies of Helen’s book Inevitable Impossible. “And if you stick around a little while, the poet herself will be here and sign your copy.”

“Wonderful,” says Michael, holding the volume of poems in his hands and gazing at the cover – a tall slender woman with long black hair walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, a huge wave crashing behind her. “I can’t wait to read these.” He looks at Justin. “I haven’t read a poem in twenty-five years. Not since I stopped writing poems. I guess I was a fake or I wouldn’t have stopped. Right?”

“I’m sure you were not a fake,” says Justin, placing Jack and Norman’s pints on a tray and waving to Conchita again. “You simply learned to disguise your poems as television scripts.”

“I’d much rather write poems, believe me,” says Michael, remembering the glory days of scrambling to make enough money to pay his rent and eat – when the poems came fast and furious.

“Speaking of poetry,” says Justin, pausing portentously, “Helen’s got me writing poems now. I write every day. Never in million years thought I’d write poetry, but I love it.”

“Is she teaching you?” asks Michael, gazing in awe at Justin

“Oh yeah,” says Justin, raising his hand to greet more regulars. “She’s a master of cadence and clarity.”

*

With a signed copy of Helen’s book on the seat beside him, Michael drives from Big Goose to his folks’ place a couple miles north of Mercy, their old falling-down house sitting forty feet from the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. They paid seven thousand dollars for the small redwood house on three acres in 1969, and now those three acres are worth at least four million dollars.

Michael’s older brother Duffy, a large-scale marijuana grower, is there for supper with Tess, his very young wife, his third.

Tess, a cute busty blonde, greets Michael with, “We watched Danny and Maureen last night and I laughed so hard I thought I was gonna pee my pants. You’re a genius.”

“Thanks,” says Michael, wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with someone so much younger than he. “Which episode? We filmed this season last year and we’re nearly done shooting next season.”

“The one where Danny stops to help the woman with the flat tire,” says Michael’s mother Irene, a roly-poly eighty-two, standing at the stove boiling spaghetti noodles, her glasses fogged up. “And they kind of fall in love.”

Kind of?” says Michael’s father Arnold, a wiry eighty-five, calling from the nearby living room where he and Duffy are watching basketball on an enormous television screen with the sound off. “The whole point was if Danny hadn’t been married to Maureen, he and the gal with the flat tire would’ve gotten married in a minute. They were perfect for each other except he’s already got Maureen.”

“Danny would never leave Maureen,” says Irene, beckoning Tess to come drain the noodles. “That’s the whole point of the show. Right, Mikey?”

“The show has a point?” says Michael, giving his mother a dubious look. “Who knew?”

I know,” says Irene, cleaning her glasses. “And you know it, too.”

Tess empties the big pot of boiling water and noodles into the colander in the sink and is engulfed in a cloud of steam. “It’s about meeting your soul mate,” she says, speaking from the cloud. “And the irony of meeting someone perfect for you but not getting to be with them because… whatever. I so get that.”

Duffy, a taller skinnier version of Michael, is enthroned in one of the four armchairs in the living room. “I never care what the episode’s about,” he says, shaking his head. “I just want to look at Maureen. She could just gaze into the camera for twenty minutes and I’d be happy. And she’s like… Do whatever you need to do, Danny, and he’s like terrified of living the life he wants to live. She’s the most fabulous woman on earth and he’s a total putz. You’re a genius, bro.”

“What’s he want somebody else for?” says Arnold, grimacing. “Who could be better than Maureen?”

“Come eat,” says Irene, directing her command at Arnold. “We’re sitting at the table tonight, not in front of the television.”

“The sacrifices I make,” says Arnold, getting up from his armchair to come sit in his customary place at the head of the table.

Duffy sits at the table where he has always sat since he was a little boy. Tess brings him a beer and sits beside him. Michael sits across the table from Duffy where he has always sat since he was old enough to sit up, and he and Duffy exchange looks to say Here we are again.

*

After supper, Michael drives a mile north of his folks’ place to the beach house he’s renting for his two-week stay in Mercy, settles on the living room sofa, and calls his wife.

Michael: Hello darling.

Cecily: Don’t darling me.

Michael: But you are my darling.

Cecily: If I’m your darling, come home.

Michael: You come here. Fly up to Santa Rosa. I’ll pick you up. My folks would love to see you. We’ll have a fifth honeymoon.

Cecily: You wish.

Michael: I do wish.

Cecily: Do you have to stay for two weeks?

Michael: I need to stay for two weeks. My father is eighty-five, Mama’s eighty-two. I only see them twice a year. I need to breathe the good air here and walk on the beach and not be in LA.

Cecily: You’d like to move there, wouldn’t you? Marry some teenager like your dope head brother.

Michael: I would like to move here with you.

Cecily: And you would write and what would I do? There’s nothing there.

Michael: Can we change the subject? Please?

Cecily: To what?

Michael: To I love you and I’ll be home before you know it and you’ll be glad to have a happy rested sane husband instead of a nutcase.

Cecily: If you loved me you’d come home.

Michael: And if you loved me you’d be happy I’m where I want to be for a couple weeks.

Cecily: So you’re saying I don’t love you?

Michael: Do you? Love me?

Cecily: I don’t know anymore, Michael. You used to love it here and now all you want to do is be in Mercy.

Michael: All I want to do? A week in the summer with you and the kids, and two weeks in the fall? What about the forty-nine other weeks of the year when I’m with you in LA every day and night?

Cecily: You’re right. I’m sorry. I just feel like everybody’s going away. Twyla’s overjoyed not to be here. Paul can’t wait to go to Yale and never come home again. And you’re in Alaska finding yourself.

Michael: I’m in Mercy being myself.

Cecily: Fine. Have fun.

Michael: I’ll call you tomorrow.

Cecily: Only if you want to.

*

Michael pours a goblet of red wine and settles again on the sofa in the living room to read Helen Morningstar’s book of poems.

He opens to page fifty-one in honor of his age and finds the title poem Inevitable Impossible.

Many moons ago a woman in a little house in a small town on the

north coast of California sat at her kitchen table in the morning

before going to work trying to write down the dream she just had,

the dream more of a feeling than anything that happened, a feeling

of being lost yet about to be found. Then the timer on the stove

beeped telling her to go to work. She put down her pen and

gathered her things and walked across the small town to the

office where she worked for a man who sold insurance and settled

insurance claims and paid her barely enough to live on. And all

that day and for many weeks and months she continued to work

on the poem about feeling lost yet about to be found until one

morning, a Saturday when she didn’t have to go work and could

stay with the poem, she realized she was attempting to translate

feelings into language. And thinking of herself as a translator,

not the original poet, she was able to complete the poem and

send it to an editor at a literary magazine who bought the poem

for fifty dollars and two free copies of the magazine, and now,

all these moons later, the poem is in a book and you are

reading these words the poet hopes will ignite something

in you that has needed igniting for a long time. All of this

 impossible, yet inevitable.

*

The next evening, a Thursday, Michael goes to Big Goose to have a beer and listen to Ricardo, a piano player, and Ray, a stand-up bass player, make music together. A dozen or so of Ricardo and Ray’s groupies are sitting close to the little stage, and one of those groupies is Helen, tall and slender with long black hair in a braid – a beautiful Latina in her late thirties.

Still very much under the spell of Helen’s poetry, Michael asks Helen if he might join her and Helen says, “I’d be delighted.”

Michael sits down and Helen introduces him to the other person at the table, a Mexican woman named Maria who Michael recognizes as the sales gal at Brindisi, the one and only upscale women’s clothing store in Mercy. Cecily likes to shop at Brindisi when she comes to Mercy with Michael in the summer, and she refers to the store as a little island of civilization in the wilderness.

When Ricardo and Ray take a break after their first set, Michael says to Helen, “I’ve read Inevitable Impossible three times now. Can’t put it down. All the poems, I’m not kidding, seem to have been written specifically for me.”

“I’m glad,” says Helen, blushing.

“‘A feeling of being lost yet about to be found,’” says Michael, quoting her poem. “That’s me every time I come home from Los Angeles, except I never stay here long enough to be found before I return to my whirlpool of confusion in that terrifying megalopolis.”

“Why do you go back?” asks Maria, gazing at Michael and thinking I really like this guy. I love how he talks and how he’s not trying to be anything he isn’t.

“Wife, kids, work,” says Michael, shrugging. “One kid in college, the other starting a year from now.”

Maria nods in understanding, and so does Helen.

“I would love to move back here,” says Michael, never having told anyone of his longing to live in Mercy again. “Though my wife would never move here with me.”

“What do you do in Los Angeles?” asks Maria, mystified by how much she likes Michael – liking any man a rarity for her. “For a living?”

“I write a television show,” says Michael, thinking of how he and Devora do most of the writing, though there are nine other writers on the staff, and when he and Devora don’t do most of the writing, the show stinks. “Danny and Maureen.”

“Oh my God,” says Maria, placing a hand over her heart. “That’s my mother’s favorite show. Maureen is her best friend, I swear to God. For Christmas last year my brother and I got her the boxed set of the first ten seasons. She watches an episode every night and on Tuesday night when the new one’s on, our house becomes the church of Danny and Maureen.”

“How about that, Michael?” says Helen, beaming at him. “Your shows all seem to have been written specifically for Maria’s mother.”

“She’d be in heaven if she could meet you,” says Maria, clasping her hands in prayer. “How long are you here for?”

“Ten more days,” says Michael, sighing with relief. “Ten more days in paradise.”

“Come for supper?” says Maria, nodding hopefully. “I’m a very good cook.”

“I can attest to that,” says Helen, giving Michael an encouraging look. “You won’t be sorry.”

*

“So how was it?” asks Justin, serving Michael a beer a few afternoons after Michael went to Maria’s and dined with Maria and Maria’s mother Sylvia and Maria’s brother Pedro.

“Big fun,” says Michael, taking a long drink of his beer. “Best Mexican food I’ve ever had and the sweetest people I’ve ever met, not counting you and Helen and my mother and Duffy’s wife Tess and Ephraim Espinosa who takes care of our yard in Brentwood and makes the place look like Versailles.”

“Sweet is right,” says Justin, thinking of Sylvia and Pedro and Maria who come to Big Goose for fish & chips every other Wednesday. “When I shop at Walker’s and get Sylvia for my checker, I always feel like I’m buying groceries from a saint. She must have been thrilled to meet you.”

“I guess so,” says Michael, shrugging. “And after supper, dozens of her friends just happened to drop by to meet me. I felt like Mahatma Gandhi.”

“To them you are a mahatma,” says Justin, nodding. “To my mother, too.”

“I want to feel flattered,” says Michael, smiling sadly, “but I feel like such a con man. The show is so much shtick. So predictable. No discernible originality. You know what I mean? Same old same old.”

“What’s original?” says Justin, waving to Jack and Norman as they enter. “It’s not what happens in a story that makes it great, it’s how the pieces fall together, how the story is told. And you do that very well, Michael. You need to own that.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Hold that thought,” says Justin, turning to Norman and Jack. “Gentlemen. What cravest thou as the deep chill of winter inexorably approaches?”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Please Justin, don’t get him started.”

“I live to get him started,” says Justin, winking at Michael.

“Ah winter,” says Norman, hoping to sound Shakespearean. “Such bitter cold spurs my craving for bitter beer. I’ll have a Guinness, foam be damned.”

“Red wine for me tonight,” says Jack, rolling his eyes again. “Your best pinot noir, please. John Gielgud and I will be at our table.”

“The fair Conchita will bring your drinks,” says Justin, bowing to them as they depart.

“I love you, man,” says Michael, looking at Justin. “And I love Helen’s poetry. As far as I’m concerned you’re both angels.”

“Speaking of poetry,” says Justin, pointing at Michael, “I made a little book of my first ten poems I thought were good enough to share. Want a copy?”

“I’d love one,” says Michael, taking out his wallet. “How much you selling them for?”

“Not for sale,” says Justin, reaching under the counter and bringing forth a little spiral-bound book. “Just for friends.”

*

About My Name

When I was twelve, my mother’s father was dying so my mother and

I went to stay with Gramps and Grandma for the last seventeen days

of Gramps’ life. He was only sixty-seven, but he’d smoked all his life

and the smoke got him. He was a professor of Latin and wrote a book

called A Few Good Romans. The day before he died, I sat on the bed

beside him holding his hand and he said, ‘Justin comes from the Latin

 Justus, meaning just and fair. I hope you’ll be that in your life.’ Then

he acted like he was hearing something I couldn’t hear and said,

‘Hold on. This just in. Get it? This. Just. In. Justin.’ Then he laughed

and said, ‘My god you’re big for twelve, kiddo. Don’t ever be a bully.

Promise me.’ I promised him I would never be a bully and would

try to be just and fair. And he said, “Good, but don’t take any shit

from anybody either.’

*

On Michael’s last day in Mercy, a rainy Saturday, he stops by Helen and Justin’s house, having arranged to purchase twenty signed copies of Inevitable Impossible to give to friends as Christmas presents. They insist he stay for coffee and pie, and the three of them sit around the kitchen table talking.

“I don’t want to go back to Los Angeles,” says Michael, taking a deep breath, “but I will. And I’m going to tell my wife I need love and if we can’t love each other then we should call it quits and start anew. And if we can love each other, then let us begin.”

“Good plan,” says Justin, shaking Michael’s hand. “Life is short, my friend. I’m with you.”

“And I’ve started writing poetry again,” says Michael, smiling shyly at Helen. “I want to thank you both for inspiring me to try again.”

“You’re welcome,” says Justin, raising his mug to Michael.

“Welcome,” says Helen, raising her mug, too.

“And I got this great idea,” says Michael, a twinkle in his eyes, “that Danny will start writing poetry, and of course everybody will tease him and call him Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and e.e. whatever, but he won’t stop writing. Could be a running gag for years. They just extended us another two seasons. I can do anything I want with that show so long as it’s funny.”

“Everybody gives Danny a hard time about writing poetry except Maureen,” says Helen, gazing intently at Michael. “Because she loves him and she’s thrilled he found something he feels passionate about. Right?”

“Right,” says Michael, laughing. “That’s the whole point of the show.”

fin 

No One Knows

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Categories
short story

Zella

She is very pretty, tall and erect, with long blonde hair turning silvery. Born in Serbia fifty-four years ago, she moved to Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California, seven years ago. People often use the word slender when describing her, though Zella would never use slender to describe herself. She would say, “I have little fat on me and I am tall so maybe this makes me seem slender to people, but if you ever saw me naked you would not say I am slender.”

Though she left Serbia when she was thirty and lived in England and Canada before coming to Mercy, her Serbian accent is still quite strong. She wears glasses, no makeup, and prefers skirts and dresses to pants when she’s not working, her work gardening. As far as anyone knows, she has little interest in being in a relationship, though since she arrived in Mercy, several men and women have pursued her with a relationship in mind.

She lives in a small house a mile south of town and has a big vegetable and herb garden, two cats, and a medium-sized brown dog named Zephyr who accompanies her everywhere. Her business Wildflower Garden Maintenance gives her twenty hours of work a week as well as work for three other people she employs. When not gardening for others, Zella works in her own garden, takes long walks in the forest, plays the piano, and spends time with her friends.

There is another thing Zella does – she occasionally gives counsel to friends and friends of friends – and that is what this story is about.

*

Margaret Essex was once-upon-a-time a beautiful woman with raven black hair, a gifted singer and dancer and actress. At the age of twenty-three, she gave up her promising performing career to marry and have children. When she was thirty-three, she became chronically depressed and remained so for twenty years, suffering from frequent and debilitating migraine headaches, taking anti-depressants, and spending a fortune on unsuccessful psychotherapy.

Her depression took hold when her daughter Rosemary was ten and her son Lionel was eight. Her husband Jim, a software engineer who spent five days a week in Berkeley and made the five-hour drive to and from Mercy most weekends, was sympathetic but had no clue how to help Margaret feel better. When Lionel left for college at seventeen, Rosemary having started college the previous year, Jim divorced Margaret, stayed in Berkeley, and married the woman he’d been involved with since shortly before Margaret became depressed.

One warm sunny day in April, on Margaret’s fifty-fourth birthday, Margaret and her best friend Jean were on their way home from picnicking on the beach a mile south of Mercy, and they swung by Zella’s so Jean could pick some flowers – Jean and Zella good friends.

They found Zella in her garden with her dog Zephyr, and while Jean picked a bouquet of beauties for her kitchen table, Margaret sat on a garden bench praying that her nascent headache wouldn’t grow into something too terrible.

Zella came over to Margaret and asked quietly, “May I pick you a bouquet for your birthday?”

“Oh no thanks,” said Margaret, looking up at Zella and smiling faintly.

Zella gazed at Margaret for a long moment and said, “Come for tea some time. Maybe I can help you with your headaches.”

Margaret shook her head. “I doubt it. No offense, but… no thanks.”

A week later, having suffered terribly for six days with a murderous headache and the attendant nausea and insomnia and thoughts of suicide, Margaret called Zella and arranged for a visit.

Two months later, Margaret ceased to suffer from headaches, stopped taking anti-depressants, and her twenty-year depression gave way to happiness.

*

In early October of that same year, two psychotherapists are walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River. Frieda Leibowitz is fifty-eight, a Jungian, tall and lanky with shoulder-length graying red hair. Joan Van De Kamp is sixty-two, a generalist, uncomfortably overweight, her gray hair cut very short. They are commiserating about their various aches and pains when a beautiful woman runs up to them – obviously a dancer – a woman neither of them recognizes.

“Frieda! Joan!” the woman shouts, beaming at them. “I’m so glad to see you. Isn’t this the most glorious day?”

“Margaret?” says Frieda, staring at the woman and thinking Can this possibly be the same Margaret Essex I worked with for three years?

“Margaret?” echoes Joan, squinting at the woman in an effort to recognize the Margaret who was her client for five years. “Margaret Essex?”

“It’s me,” says the woman, gazing in delight at the startled psychotherapists, “though I don’t go by Margaret Essex anymore. My name is Rona Hermosa.”

“Rona Hermosa?” says Frieda, struggling to reconcile this vibrant youthful woman with the haggard elderly woman she was unable to help. “Did you remarry?”

“No,” says Rona, laughing. “The name just came to me.”

“Do you still live around here?” asks Joan, continuing to squint at the woman. “Or are you visiting from Hawaii? You’re so tan.”

“Still live here,” says Rona, smiling brightly. “Though I recently sold my house and bought another one closer to town.”

“Well you look fantastic,” says Frieda, dumfounded by how healthy and energetic the former depressive appears to be. “New meds?”

“No meds,” says Rona, waving to a woman with two dogs waiting for her in the distance. “I’m off all meds now and the headaches are a thing of the past.”

“That’s wonderful,” says Frieda, incredulously.

“Incredible,” says Joan, sharing Frieda’s disbelief.

“So great to see you,” says Rona, giving each of them a look of love. “Just wanted to say hi.”

Now she races away to join her friend.

*

Frieda and Joan resume their walk, neither speaking for several minutes.

At last Frieda says, “Maybe she’s in love.”

“I saw her six months ago,” says Joan, shaking her head. “In Walker’s. She was standing in front of the vegetables. Skeletal. Frozen. She looked eighty-five. Now she looks forty.”

“Maybe she stopped eating gluten,” says Frieda, at a loss to explain the remarkable change in their former client.

“She stopped eating gluten twenty years ago,” says Joan, wincing at a pain in her hip. “Maybe she’s getting stem cell injections.”

“People do spontaneously get better,” says Frieda, wishing she would spontaneously feel better. “Just not usually so dramatically and so soon after being so very ill for so many years.”

“But she looks so young,” says Joan, shaking her head. “She must be taking something. Mega-vitamins?”

“Well remember how young Beverly looked those first few months after she and Hank got together,” says Frieda, who would love to fall in love if only my husband would disappear. “Maybe she’s got a young lover.”

“Please,” says Joan, rolling her eyes. “Beverly and Hank got together twenty-five years ago when they were in their thirties. Margaret’s sixty-something, isn’t she?”

“No, I think only fifty-something, though she always looked so much older,” says Frieda, feeling a little dizzy. “I hardly know how to process this.”

“Margaret was the most intractable client I’ve ever had,” says Joan, recalling the hundreds of hours she spent with Margaret getting nowhere. “I was sure she’d be dead by now.”

“She defined herself entirely by her illness,” says Frieda, remembering her parting words to Margaret at the end of their last session. I’m so sorry, Margaret, but there’s nothing more I can do for you.

*

The next day, Joan calls two women she knows who also know Margaret. She tells each of them she saw Margaret on the beach looking well and wonders if they know what’s going on with her these days. One of the women tells Joan she hasn’t seen Margaret in a couple years, not since Margaret became such a recluse. The other woman says she recently called Margaret to see how she was doing and when Margaret told her she’d changed her name to Rona Hermosa, the woman got so angry she hung up and hasn’t spoken to Margaret since.

“Old women who change their names make me sick,” says the woman. “It’s such a pathetic denial of reality.”

 “An unwillingness to face the truth,” says Joan, though having seen Margaret, she’s not sure she agrees with herself.

*

Frieda, the lanky Jungian, decides to leave the Margaret investigation to Joan, but a few days after the beach encounter she bumps into Margaret at the post office, they get talking, and Margaret invites Frieda to come see her new house that afternoon.

“I’m working until five tonight,” says Frieda, amazed anew at how well Margaret seems to be. I never realized how beautiful she is. All those hours with her and I only saw her terrible sorrow. “And then I’ve got to go shopping and race home and make dinner for Dick. If dinner’s not on the table at six on the dot he throws a huge hissy fit about his blood sugar and… are you around at one today? I take an hour for lunch and could zoom up and see your place then?”

“Come for lunch,” says Margaret, excitedly. “I made a stupendous minestrone soup yesterday and have gallons left.”

“I’ll be there at one,” says Frieda, surprising herself by hugging Margaret, though it is Frieda’s strict policy never to hug former clients because they so often become clients again.

“I always knew you’d be a good hugger,” says Margaret, laughing. “See you at one.”

*

Frieda arrives at Margaret’s at one on the dot and gazes admiringly at the recently built house – a rambling one-story place situated on three level acres, two acres of forest, one acre of meadowland.

Margaret comes out onto the wide deck on the south side of the house and waves to Frieda before going back inside. Frieda gets out of her car and is greeted by a darling young Golden Retriever who follows her up onto the deck where a table set for two is shielded from the sun by a big blue umbrella.

Frieda loves the house and the surrounding land – loves the newness and openness of everything.

“Here we are,” says Margaret, emerging from the house with a tray bearing two big bowls of soup and a loaf of just-made bread. “Isn’t this place amazing? The couple I bought it from just finished building the house when the woman was offered a professorship at Oxford and couldn’t turn it down.” She sets the tray on the table. “I made my offer the day they put the place on the market.”

“No bidding war?” asks Frieda, sitting down at the table. “I’ve heard the market around here is so hot, the asking price is just so people know where to start the bidding.”

“That’s what happened when I sold my house,” says Margaret, sitting across from Frieda. “My asking price was 1.3 million, which seemed insanely high to me, but that’s what my realtor suggested, so I went with that and there were seven bidders. The house sold in two days for 1.9. I was astounded. Still am.”

“May I ask what you paid for this place?” asks Frieda, nodding her thanks as Margaret places the bowl of soup before her.

“I’m embarrassed to tell you,” says Margaret, gazing around in wonder at where they are. “They were asking 1.7 and I offered seven hundred thousand and they took it.”

Frieda frowns gravely. “Now why would they do such a thing? This place is worth at least two million.”

“That’s what my realtor said, too,” says Margaret, slicing a piece of bread for Frieda. “What happened was, after Jennifer and Scott, the previous owners, showed me around the house, we walked all over the property and they told me everything they had intended to do here, and when we came to that large depression,” – she points to a place in the meadow fifty yards from the house – “I said, ‘Wouldn’t a pond be lovely here?’ and Jennifer burst into tears and Scott said, ‘That’s what we were going to put here. Exactly here,’ and Jennifer embraced me and said, ‘Oh Rona,’ – they only knew me as Rona – ‘we want you to have the place. Whatever you can afford is fine.’ Because they wanted the place to go to someone who would love it as much as they did, and apparently they didn’t need the money, so…”

“Unbelievable,” says Frieda, feeling so jealous she could scream.

“Life-changing,” says Margaret, sighing gratefully. “Now I not only own a beautiful house, I have money.”

“Lucky you,” says Frieda, tasting the soup. “And speaking of life-changing, this soup is fantastic. My minestrone is always so… eh. How did you spice this?”

“I’ll make you a copy of the recipe,” says Margaret, delighted Frieda likes the soup. “A long list of ingredients. Do you know Zella?”

“The gardener?” says Frieda, telling herself not to eat too fast, the soup so yummy.

“Yes,” says Margaret, nodding. “This is her recipe.”

“She does our yard,” says Frieda, dipping her bread in the soup. “Well… Emilio usually does our yard, and Emilio works for her. Dick has a huge crush on Zella. Whenever she comes instead of Emilio, Dick always acts like a complete idiot around her and then denies he has a crush on her after he gives her a gigantic tip, though he never tips Emilio, so I do.” Frieda laughs. “But despite Dick being in love with her, I like Zella, though I don’t really know her.”

“She’s wonderful,” says Margaret, gazing out on the meadow. “She’s helping me with my landscaping. We’re going to put in twelve fruit trees and dig the pond together, by hand, and we’ll make a path from here to the pond with rose bushes and Japanese maples and beds for flowers and vegetables along the way.”

“We’ve talked about putting in a pond for thirty years,” says Frieda, gazing out to where the pond will be. “Never got around to it. Too many other projects started and never finished. Dick is a great one for starting things, but not much of a finisher.” She shrugs. “Oh well. We all get along the best we can. Right?”

Margaret nods. “And I was barely getting along and thinking I had no choice about how to get along, though you told me again and again I did have a choice, only I couldn’t believe you. I think you were very wise to stop seeing me. I was a psychic black hole and it must have been terribly draining for you to spend time with me.”

“And now you’re well,” says Frieda, dreading the prospect of lunch turning into a therapy session. “So what happened?”

 “Zella helped me,” says Margaret, sensing Frieda’s dread. “But let’s not turn this into a therapy session. Tell me about your son Edward. Jean told me he’s studying wolves in Montana. How exciting.”

“He is,” says Frieda, relaxing. “He’ll be home for Thanksgiving with his lovely wife Miyoshi and my darling one and only grandchild Akira who is four and beyond wonderful. Our daughter Sara may never have kids, which is probably just as well. She’s so persnickety, if you know what I mean. So much like Dick, though she’d be horrified if she knew I thought so.”

“Four is such a great age,” says Margaret, smiling at the thought of being four. “So open to everything. How fun for you to have a grandchild.”

“They’re staying for two weeks,” says Frieda, smiling sublimely. “I’m taking the whole time off. I can’t wait.”

“My kids have yet to have kids,” says Margaret, thinking of her daughter Rosemary who is thirty-one and single and chronically depressed, and Lionel who is twenty-nine and single and seriously conflicted about his sexual identity. “I’ve begged them both to come home for Christmas and they both said they will. This will be our first Christmas together in nine years, and my first time seeing either of them since I became Rona and emerged from my depression.”

“Which came first?” asks Frieda, skeptically. “Rona or the emergence?”

“They arrived simultaneously,” says Margaret, jumping up from the table. “Would you like more soup? I’m gonna have a skosh more. And if you have time I’ll make you coffee or tea to go with some of Zella’s yummy nut bread.”

Frieda looks at her wristwatch. “Sadly I’ve only got fifteen more minutes, but I’d love some coffee. Black, please. And I’d love a copy of the soup recipe.”

“Coming right up,” says Margaret, dancing into the house. “I’ll give you a big jar of soup to take with you.”

What a delightful person thinks Frieda, petting the sweet young Golden Retriever and looking out over the meadow to where the pond will be. It’s as if she had a soul transplant.

*

Margaret accompanies Frieda to her car, and as they are saying goodbye Frieda surprises herself by saying, “I’d love to see the inside of your house and hear about how Zella helped you.”

“Saturday?” suggests Margaret.

“I see clients until two on Saturday,” says Frieda, feeling a sharp pain in her lower back as she says this. “Then I’m free until four.”

“Shall we say two-thirty?” says Margaret, nodding hopefully.

“I’ll be here,” says Frieda, hugging Margaret again. What’s gotten into me? Since when do I hug anyone, let alone ex-clients?

“I have one request,” says Margaret, looking into Frieda’s eyes. “I’d love for you to think of me as Rona. And no problem if you forget.”

“I’ll do my best,” says Frieda, blushing. “Rona.”

*

Driving back to work, Frieda finds herself saying Rona over and over again and thinking Rona is a perfect name for the woman who used to be Margaret.

*

On Saturday afternoon, after a tour of Rona’s lovely high-ceilinged house, an unexpected rain keeps them inside, and Rona and Frieda sit at the kitchen table having tea and delicious home-made almond-butter cookies.

“I went to see Zella because she said she might be able to help me with my headaches,” says Rona, looking out at the rain. “They had become so incredibly painful and persistent I was seriously considering suicide. And I mean seriously.”

“I am so sorry,” says Frieda, no stranger to migraines. “Fortunately I never get more than a few a year and they only last a few days, and what dreadful days those are.”

“I assumed Zella was going to give me some kind of herb tea or herbal tincture,” says Rona, continuing her story, “but instead we sat in her living room by the fire and I braced myself for some kind of talk therapy. And we did talk. For days and weeks and months, but not like any kind of talk therapy I’d ever had.”

“I’d love to know what you talked about?” says Frieda, thinking She is Rona. Not Margaret. Rona.

Rona thinks for a moment and says, “Zella told me that in Serbia where she was born and lived until she was thirty, her name was Malina Savik and she was a midwife and had a husband and two children. When she was thirty, war broke out and her children and husband were killed and she suffered through all sorts of horrors before she finally made her way to a refugee camp from where she went to England and got a job as a nurse’s aid in a large hospital. She underwent intensive therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and depression, and started taking powerful anti-depressants. Then after five years in England she moved to British Columbia and continued working as a nurse’s aid, continued taking anti-depressants, and lived a life she described as one of endless drudgery and feeling numb most of the time.”

“I had no idea,” says Frieda, thinking of beautiful Zella. “She seems so strong and confident and… happy.”

“Zella is,” says Rona, nodding. “Malina was not.”

“What changed her?”

“One day in the hospital, after she’d been in British Columbia for three years, she was taking care of a young Haida woman recovering from surgery, and an elderly Haida woman named Hala came to visit the young woman, and Hala looked at Malina and said, ‘I think if you come visit me, I can help you feel better.’ Zella says she hardly remembers how she got to Hala’s house in a small town several hours from Vancouver, but somehow she got there and a few days later she quit her job at the hospital and lived with Hala and her family for the next two years, during which time Malina became Zella Wildflower and stopped taking anti-depressants.”

“So Zella changed her name, too,” says Frieda, knowing the name changes can’t possibly explain either of these miraculous transformations.

“Yes. We both changed our names,” says Rona, nodding. “But first we had to find our real names, and once we found them, the old names and the people attached to those names could finally die and we could start anew.”

“And how did you find your real names?” asks Frieda, fighting the part of her that wants to scream Bullshit! Delusional bullshit. Hackneyed spiritual crap. “And how do you know they’re your real names?”

“We found them while playing with our friends,” says Rona, knowing Frieda is resisting believing her. “Zella found hers when she was swimming in a river with Hala and another woman and they were pretending to be otters. She said she heard the river singing Zella Zella Zella, and when they came out of the water and were sitting in the sun, she told Hala she thought her name was Zella, and Hala said, “Of course it is. You are Zella Wildflower.”

“And how did you find yours?” asks Frieda, her ferocious skepticism at last softening into a willingness to listen without judgment.

“I was in Zella’s garden,” says Rona, closing her eyes. “This was after two months of spending all day every day with Zella, going everywhere with her and rarely being apart from each other. It was a warm sunny day and we were naked and being little girls, four-years-old, and talking like four-year-olds, picking flowers and talking about boys and wondering why they had penises. We’d been four-year-olds for days and days and we never wanted to be any other age. Then Zella came close and whispered, “Hey what’s your name? I keep forgetting.” And I looked around her garden at the hundreds of flowers being visited by bees and butterflies and hummingbirds, and I heard the garden singing Rona Rona Rona, so I said, ‘I’m Rona.’ And Zella said, ‘Such a beautiful name. Muy hermosa. Rona Hermosa.’ And the moment she said my new name, Margaret died and I felt her fall out of me and dissolve into the earth, and I was purely Rona Hermosa.”

“And your headaches never came back,” says Frieda, telling the rest of the story. “Because in the absence of Margaret, no longer carrying her identity and her terrible sorrow, you could be who you really are.”

“Yes,” says Rona, opening her eyes and smiling at Frieda.

“Rona,” says Frieda, her eyes sparkling with tears. “Rona Hermosa.”

fin

When Light Is Your Garden

Categories
short story

The Master

Maury and Ethel Fleischman moved from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California, seven years ago when Maury was sixty-seven and Ethel was sixty-six. They had just moved to Miami two years earlier – Maury retiring from his job at an ad agency in Manhattan where he worked for forty years as a copywriter and content writer, and Ethel retiring from her job at the Bronx Zoo where she was a secretary for thirty-seven years.

They were loving their new life in their one-bedroom condominium a few blocks from the beach, the cold winters of New York a thing of the past, when their daughter Gloria, their only child, was about to give birth to her first child Naomi, and Ethel insisted on going to Mercy to be with Gloria before, during, and for a time after the birth. Maury was not keen on going to California – he loathed flying – but he had never been apart from Ethel for more than a day since they got married when he was twenty-two and she was twenty-one, so he went with her.

A few days after Naomi was born, Ethel said to Maury, “I want to stay here and help Gloria with Naomi.”

“For how long?” asked Maury, who missed balmy Fort Lauderdale.

“For the rest of my life,” said Ethel, knowing Mercy might as well have been Mars to Maury.

“The winters are cold here,” said Maury, gazing at his beloved. “Nor are the summers warm. There are frequent droughts and the cultural apex is a pub called Big Goose. Maybe Gloria and Oscar would like to move to Fort Lauderdale.”

“Maybe elephants can fly,” said Ethel, fondly remembering the elephants in the Bronx Zoo. “But I don’t think so.”

Divorce not an option, Maury and Ethel sold their condo in Florida and bought a small cottage on the outskirts of Mercy. Maury never complained about the move and threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of grandfather to Naomi and eventually to Colin. He and Ethel became regulars at the senior center, joined the one and only Jewish congregation in Mercy, the rabbi a woman named Sara Feinberg, a radical socialist feminist, and Maury, a chess master, volunteered to oversee the Chess Club at Mercy High.

*

Now seventy-four and at peace with the perpetually cold weather in Mercy, Maury plays chess every other day from two to three-thirty at Café Brava, a cheerful bakery café in the heart of Mercy, and on Wednesdays and Fridays after his stint in the café he walks up the hill to the high school to hang out with the five male and two female members of the Mercy High Chess Club.  

The club’s faculty advisor, Jacob Knight, runs the high school media lab and is a good but not great chess player. Club members Larry Montague and Karen Schwartzman can both beat Jacob with ease, so Jacob is grateful to have Maury on hand to mentor Larry and Karen, though Maury knows neither Larry nor Karen will ever be a chess master or even a near master.

“The thing they lack,” says Maury, playing chess with Albert Feinberg one afternoon in Café Brava, “is what my mentor Hiram Vogel called Third Level Vision. These kids, despite their good grades and high IQs, barely have Second Level Vision.”

“Define the levels, please,” says Albert, a burly software design consultant and husband of the radical socialist feminist rabbi.  

“Level One Vision is you know the rules of the game,” says Maury, taking Albert’s bishop and knowing the game is over save for a little more futzing around. “Level Two Vision is you see the pieces as both individuals and members of collectives, and you understand how your moves shift the course of the interaction. And Level Three Vision…” He arches his eyebrow. “Want to make a guess?”

Albert moves his castle to threaten Maury’s queen. “You’re clairvoyant?”

“No,” says Maury, moving his queen diagonally two squares. “Check. Level Three Vision is seeing the game as a manipulation of the collective symmetry.”

Albert frowns at the board. “And you just manipulated the collective symmetry to checkmate me.”

“Correct,” says Maury, nodding. “However, to knowingly manipulate the symmetry, which is in constant flux, that’s Level Four Vision. Seeing the symmetry is not the same as knowing how to shape the symmetry.”

“So when two people who know how to shape the symmetry play each other,” says Albert, moving a pawn forward to start a new game, “who wins?”

“The one with Level Five Vision,” says Maury, bringing forth his knight.

“How many levels are there?” asks Albert, wondering if Maury is pulling his leg.

“According to Hiram Vogel,” says Maury, waving to a passing friend, “there are seven levels of vision, each level corresponding to one of the seven chakras.”

“You’re kidding,” says Albert, moving out a second pawn.

“Hiram opined,” says Maury, knowing already what his next six moves will be and what Albert’s next seven counter moves will be, “that the way a person plays chess is a reflection of the state of their karma.”

“How so?” asks Albert, already unhappy with how the game is unfolding.

“I have no idea,” says Maury, bringing out his other knight. “Hiram was an excellent chess player, but methinks he was something of a crackpot.”

*

This afternoon, a rainy day in October, Maury arrives at Room 12 of Mercy High and finds a handsome Mexican lad named Teo Macias in the mix with the seven regulars. Teo tells Maury he is sixteen, learned to play chess from his grandfather when he was little, and hasn’t played since he was eight.

“Speaking of eight,” says Maury, who immediately likes Teo, “you make eight players, which means I won’t play and instead will wander about watching the action and making intriguing suggestions. Why don’t we start you off playing Fred and that will give us an idea where to place you in our hierarchy of champions.”

“You talk just like my grandfather,” says Teo, laughing. “You’re funny but you’re serious, too. Somebody quick remind me how the horses move.”

“They are called knights, not horses,” corrects Karen Schwartzman, rolling her eyes. “And those aren’t castles, those are rooks.”

“Gosh I hope I can remember,” says Teo, winking at Maury.

“Why will Teo playing me give us an idea of how good he is?” asks Fred Holmquist, frowning at Maury. “Why not have him play Derek or Alan?”

“In the current rankings,” says Maury, pointing to the list of seven names descending the right side of the chalkboard – Larry Montague, Karen Schwartzman, Mimi Espinoza, Fred Holmquist, Derek Calder, Alan Farmer, Pablo Valdez – “you, Fred, are the fourth of seven. Dead center. But if you’d rather not play him…”

“No, that’s fine,” says Fred, nodding. “I just needed to understand why me or I’d be thinking about that instead of concentrating on the game.”

When the kids are spread out around the room playing – three minutes the maximum time allowed between moves – Maury notices how relaxed Teo is compared to the other kids, save for Larry who feels secure in his idea of himself as the best player in the club.

After a few minutes, Teo says quietly, “Checkmate.”

“Wait,” says Fred, frowning at the board. “Oh yeah. Wow. Okay.”

“Go again,” says Maury, moving from Alan and Mimi’s game to watch Fred and Teo play.

After several moves by each player, Teo looks up at Maury and asks, “Do we coach each other or… how does this work?”

“I might do a little coaching when I’m playing or watching,” says Maury, smiling at Teo, “but we usually wait until the game is over before we discuss what went on. Why do you ask?”

“I think I could help him,” says Teo, smiling at Fred. “Avoid my traps.”

“Tell me after the game,” says Fred, grimly. “Assuming you beat me again.”

“Okay,” says Teo, sitting back and waiting for Fred to make his move.

A few moves later, Fred takes Teo’s queen with his rook and Teo looks up at Maury again. “You don’t think this would be a good time to coach him?”

Maury shakes his head.

“Checkmate,” says Teo, moving his knight to a lethal and unassailable position.

“What the fuck?” says Fred glaring at the board. “How… oh shit. How could I have not seen that?”

“My grandfather would say the exciting prospect of taking my queen clouded your thinking,” says Teo, gazing earnestly at Fred. “But it might have just been my subtle genius.”

“You really haven’t played since you were eight?” asks Fred, who is a mellow loser and accustomed to losing to the top three in the club.

“Yeah, eight,” says Teo, nodding. “That’s when my grandfather died and we moved from the San Jose to Mercy. I got heavy into soccer and didn’t know anybody around here who played chess, so…”

“What made you want to start again?” asks Maury, noting the other games are nearly finished.

“I didn’t make varsity this year,” says Teo, shrugging, “and I didn’t want to play JV, so I thought I’d do this. See how I like it.”

“That’s nuts,” says Derek, tall and slender with thick-lensed glasses. “You were the star player last year. You were like all-league, weren’t you?”

Teo nods. “This year is different.”

“Well…” says Maury, his voice full of kindness, “the soccer team’s loss is our gain. Mimi? You want to play Teo?”

“Okay,” she says, speaking so quietly Maury only knows what she said by reading her lips.

Mimi is sixteen and one of the most beautiful girls in Mercy. She is also by far the shyest person at Mercy High. She fares a little better against Teo than Fred, but not much, so for the last game of the day, Maury has Karen play Teo.

Their game is a long one and still undecided when the janitor arrives and says, “School closing in five minutes and then I gotta clean in here. Sorry.”

Teo tips his king over and offers his hand to Karen. “Well played.”

Karen blushes and shakes Teo’s hand. “You were better than I thought you’d be. I thought you were just a jock.”

“And I thought you were just a hot brainless babe,” says Teo, smiling at her. “How wrong I was.”

*

That night Maury and Ethel go to Gloria and Oscar’s for supper as they often do, and after Naomi and Colin get in bed and Maury tells them a funny good night story, he joins the grownups in the living room for apple pie.

“How’s the chess club doing?” asks Oscar, forty-four and devilishly handsome, a Mercy native and foreman of a roofing crew – his father Mexican, his mother Nicaraguan.

“We have a new member as of today,” says Maury, taking his customary seat in the rocking chair by the fire. “Teo Macias. Much better than he pretends to be and delightfully sophisticated. If he hadn’t told me he was sixteen I would have guessed twenty, but then what would he be doing in high school?”

“I know Teo,” says Oscar, growing somber. “He’s one of the best soccer players there’s ever been around here, and there’s been some great ones, believe me.”

“So how come he didn’t make the varsity team this year?” asks Maury, frowning. “If he’s that good.”

“Oh he’s that good,” says Oscar, nodding. “He’s unbelievable. But the Ramirez boys… well, it’s complicated. There are five of them. Brothers and cousins. Three seniors and two juniors, and they’re all very good players. None as good as Teo, but there are five of them and the coach… well, he chose the five over the one. He wants to win, so that’s what he decided.”

“I don’t understand,” says Maury, shaking his head. “Why can’t they all be on the team? Eleven players on a team, right?”

Oscar nods. “Yes, but if Teo was on the team, he would be the star, you know, and he would play a position that one of the Ramirez boys would play if Teo was not on the team. So if Teo was given that position, none of the Ramirez boys would play and they might…” He shrugs painfully. “They might even hurt Teo. It’s not right, but that’s life around here. Soccer is the most important thing to most of the men and boys. We are the best team or almost the best team in our division every year. When I was on the team we won the championship two of my three years on varsity. And if the Ramirez boys don’t play, then other boys won’t play, so…”

“But it’s so unfair,” says Maury, aching in sympathy for Teo. “To be that good and not get to play? That’s terrible.”

“So what else is new?” says Ethel, looking at Maury. “How many times were you passed over for promotions you deserved? How many times did people with less talent and experience get promoted over you?”

“A few times,” says Maury, shrugging.

Ten times,” says Ethel, remembering how Maury suffered through those terrible betrayals. “At least.”

“This is what I’m talking about,” says Oscar, pointing at Ethel. “It isn’t fair. But it’s the way it is, you know? When I played in college…” He smiles at Gloria. “Where I met your wonderful daughter, there was a guy on the football team, you know, American football, and he was like Hercules. Ferocious linebacker. A one-man wrecking crew. But he protested the war. Protested racial inequality. Coach would hardly play him, and when he tried out for pro teams, you know, as good as he was they wouldn’t touch him.”

“When I tried out for plays in college,” says Gloria, a beautiful gal who aspired to be an actress and is now a Second Grade teacher, “the best actors almost never got cast. Had nothing to do with talent, and I wasn’t about to do what you had to do to get the parts, so…”

“That’s life,” says Ethel, nodding emphatically. “The trick is not taking it personally.” She smiles lovingly at Maury. “You often compare life to a chess game. So now Teo can’t play varsity. What’s his next move gonna be?”

“If he gets into college and they have a soccer team,” says Oscar, smiling hopefully, “maybe he can be a walk-on. Get noticed by the pros that way. He’s that good. He’s not only a great athlete, he’s a genius the way he sees the field, the way he moves without the ball, the way he finds the open man. And the choices he makes? Oh man, when he gets the ball in the open field, we all just hold our breaths and watch amazed, you know?”

*

Walking up the hill from town for the next meeting of the chess club, Maury is joined by Teo, rain about to fall.

“Pablo told me you’re a master,” says Teo, smiling at Maury. “My grandfather was a master. He played Bobby Fischer one time. Did okay. Bobby won of course, but at the end of the game he said to my grandfather, ‘Nice try.’ Pretty cool, huh?”

Very cool,” says Maury, who has studied many of Bobby’s games as one might study passages from The Bible. “Did your grandfather say what it was like playing against Bobby?”

“He said he could tell Bobby was seeing things my grandfather would never be able to see. As if Bobby could see the future.” Teo nods. “That happens to me sometimes when I’m playing soccer. I see what’s going to happen before it happens, assuming I do what I intend to do. You know?”

“I do know,” says Maury, putting his hand on Teo’s shoulder. “That’s what Bobby Fischer was seeing. Everything that might happen as the result of the move he was about to make. Everything.”

“I think so,” says Teo, as they approach Room 12. “What my grandfather called impeccable anticipation. And speaking of everything, thanks for letting me join the club.”

“Happy to have you,” says Maury, bowing in thanks as Teo holds the door open for him.

 *

At the next three meetings of the chess club Teo plays Karen three times, the games are all close until the end, and Teo loses every time. And the three times Teo plays Larry, those games are close, too, and Larry wins every time.

So brilliantly does Teo manipulate the symmetry of each game, only Maury is aware that Teo is losing on purpose.

   *

“The most incredible thing to me,” says Maury, speaking on the phone to his friend Karl who lives in Queens and is also a chess master, “is how convincingly he loses. The last several exchanges seem entirely plausible to his opponents because Teo is playing at exactly their level, so when he loses, it really seems like their choices determined the outcome, but they didn’t. They couldn’t do what he does in a million years. And neither could I. Oh I can lose on purpose, but when I do, it’s obvious.”

“Do you know why he’s doing it?” asks Karl, a retired psychoanalyst.

“I think he wants to belong,” says Maury, knowing Teo loves the comradery of the little gang of shy people. “And he’s afraid if he beats them, they won’t stay open to him, won’t want to be his friend. I told you about him not being allowed to play on the soccer team because he’s too good. Well I think maybe he’s afraid of being too good for the chess club. I don’t know. Have you ever tried to lose on purpose and make it seem like you’re trying as hard as you can to win?”

“Sure,” says Karl, laughing. “Every time you ever beat me it was because I let you. And you never suspected.”

“I never did,” says Maury, laughing. “God, I miss you Karl. Miss our games on Sunday. You sure you don’t want to move out here? What’s Queens got that Mercy doesn’t have? Besides everything?”

“I would move there in a minute,” says Karl, who is seventy-nine and sick of the city, “but Linda would never live anywhere without good deli, and by good I mean the real thing. So it’s stay here or move to Florida or Los Angeles, and hurricanes and alligators and freeways do not appeal, so here we stay.”

“Give her a hug for me,” says Maury, closing his eyes and imagining Karl and Linda sitting in the living room with him and Ethel, all of them laughing until they cry.

“Hug Ethel for me,” says Karl, fighting his tears. “By the way, have you played this kid yet? Teo?”

“Not yet,” says Maury, opening his eyes. “I’m actually afraid to.”

“Don’t be afraid,” says Karl, their connection breaking up. “And let me know what happens.”

*

The next meeting of the chess club provides an ideal opportunity for Maury to play with Teo – Mimi home with a sore throat, only seven members present.

 Maury and Teo sit opposite each other at a small table far from the others, Teo playing black, Maury white

Teo smiles at Maury and says, “Now go easy on me.”

“I will not go easy on you,” says Maury, shaking his head. “I will play the only way I know how to play, which is to do whatever I can to win.”

“You think of it as a duel,” says Teo, speaking quietly. “My grandfather taught me to think of it as a dance.”

*

The next morning, a Saturday, before going to shul, Maury calls Karl in Queens where it’s three hours later.

“Well,” says Karl, expectantly. “Tell me.”

“We played to a draw,” says Maury, excitedly. “Not once, but twice. It was beyond belief how he synched his play with mine. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Not even close.”

“He’s a master,” says Karl, breathlessly.

“After the second game, I asked him, ‘Could you have beaten me? Please tell me the truth.’”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Never. I would never do that to you.’”

fin

Something Marcia and Todd cello piano duet