Marvin and the Cat

November 12th, 2018

guitar pegs

At dusk in late October in the far north of California, Marvin Rees, forty-two, gazes fixedly out one of the three south-facing windows in the living room of his spacious three-bedroom house, the golden brown grass of his two-acre meadow cropped low by hungry deer.

An only child raised in the suburbs of San Francisco, Marvin is a sturdy five-foot-eleven, bespectacled and clean-shaven, his wavy brown hair just beginning to turn gray. His mother was an optometrist born in Los Angeles, her parents Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, his father an accountant born in Massachusetts, a descendant of early English colonists.

Marvin’s ten-acre parcel is located on Big Salmon Road, three miles inland from the coastal town of Wakanachi. The narrow, pot-holed, asphalt road climbs steeply eastward from the small town, the first mile twisting and turning through a dense redwood forest before leveling out at five-hundred-feet elevation for a few miles and eventually becoming a dirt road that climbs ten miles further inland and vanishes near the high point of a ridge, 2374 feet above sea level, this high point called Goose Mountain by the locals, though Goose Mountain does not appear on any official map of the area.

Wild huckleberry bushes grow profusely on the fringes of Marvin’s meadow, and beyond the huckleberries is a vast forest of pines and tan oaks and spruce and firs and redwoods, only a few of these trees more than a hundred-years old, this section of the coast range clear-cut a century ago.

Marvin moved here three years ago from Mountain View where he worked for a gigantic Internet company. He lived in the same small apartment in Mountain View for sixteen years, since shortly after he graduated from college with a master’s degree in Computer Science, and for the last three of those sixteen years, he shared his apartment with his partner Irene who worked for a different gigantic Internet company. They were planning to get married, buy a house, and have a child.

Then one day, during a high-level meeting at the company he worked for, Marvin referred to the idea under discussion as shortsighted. This idea turned out to be the brainchild of the head of Marvin’s division, and two days later Marvin was fired. When Marvin refused to see a therapist about what his dismissal notice termed anger issues, Irene ended their relationship.

With the money Marvin had saved for his part of the down payment on a tiny tract house he and Irene were planning to buy on the fringes of San Jose, he bought his house and ten acres near Wakanachi outright and had several hundred thousand dollars left over. He chose Wakanachi because of his fond memories of camping at Wakanachi State Park with his mother and father when he was a boy. He loved the wild beaches of the Wakanachi coast, and he loved the forests of the Wakanachi Wilderness with their sparkling creeks and rivers.

For the first few months of living in this remote part of California, Marvin made an effort to get to know his neighbors on Big Salmon Road and to become part of the Wakanachi community. But his neighbors did not respond kindly to his overtures, and the choir he joined, the only one in town, was affiliated with a fundamentalist Christian church. Feeling uncomfortable singing songs about being a helpless sinner and needing Jesus to save him, Marvin quit the choir after three practices.

In those same first few months, he went to one or another of the two pubs in Wakanachi several times a week, played pool and darts with various men, and introduced himself to women he surmised were single, but he felt shunned in those places, so he eventually stopped going and reverted to what he had been in Mountain View, a social isolate who spent lots of time in the evenings playing his guitar, listening to music, reading books, and watching sports on his computer—the difference being that now he no longer has a partner and is often lonely at night.

During the day, though, Marvin is not lonely.

He heats his well-insulated house with two woodstoves, a large one in the living room and a smaller one in his bedroom, and the wood he burns in those stoves comes from dead and dying trees he harvests in the forest on his ten acres and on the national forest land adjoining his property.

There are thousands of dead and dying trees in the forest because after a hundred years of recovering from the clear-cut a century ago, the redwoods have regained their height supremacy over the other tree species and created a dense canopy that limits the sunlight reaching the shorter trees, thus quickly ending the lives of nascent trees and slowly killing the larger ones.

So every day, unless the rain is falling too hard or the air is too cold, Marvin goes into the woods with his log saw, axe, and sturdy two-wheeled hauling cart, cuts down dead or nearly-dead trees, saws them into sixteen-inch-long rounds, fills his cart with these rounds, and hauls them back to his woodshed where he uses a maul to split the rounds into pieces that will fit nicely into his woodstoves. He does this work without a chainsaw because he dislikes that snarly roaring sound and the danger in using such a tool, and he loves wielding a crosscut saw and axe.

When he first began his labors in the forest, he was incapable of cutting down any tree with a trunk thicker than four-inches-in-diameter, he could barely pull a load exceeding fifty pounds, and he was exhausted after fifteen minutes of work. Now, after three years of such labor, he works ceaselessly for four hours most mornings, fells tall trees with trunks up to sixteen-inches-in-diameter, and pulls loads exceeding two hundreds pounds up steep inclines.

He has also taken to riding his bike to and from Wakanachi every other day to get his mail at the post office, walk two miles on the beach south of town, shop at the food co-op, have a bowl of soup in the bakery café, and then ride the steep road home. He is now on a first-name basis with two postal clerks, three clerks at the food co-op, and several employees at the bakery café. Once in a great while he will have a brief conversation with someone in the post office or café or co-op, but he rarely says more than Hi. I’d like to send this package and Yes, I’ll have the soup, please.

The result of his new lifestyle is that for the first time since he was a soccer player in high school, he is in marvelous physical condition and his days are enjoyable and often delightful. Only at night is he lonely, sometimes achingly so.

Judging from the people he sees shopping at the food co-op and patronizing the bakery café, he is certain there are kindred spirits out there with whom he might commune if only he could meet them. He has always been shy, and since failing in his initial attempts to make friends in Wakanachi, he is shier than ever. Indeed, he has yet to strike up a conversation with anyone in town since those first few months, though he rehearses such conversations every night while watching the flames in one or another of his woodstoves.

Which explains some of why he is gazing so intently out his window as dusk settles over the land—his longing for contact with others having heightened his senses regarding any movement he sees out his windows. And he thinks he may have just seen someone or something, not a deer, moving through the huckleberry bushes on the edge of his meadow.

He is about to turn away from the window when a beautiful orange and white cat steps out of the bushes and walks daintily into the golden brown meadow. This cat is definitely not a bobcat or baby puma, but a house cat in the prime of her life. For some ineffable reason, Marvin feels certain the cat is female. She stops walking and looks at Marvin’s house, makes eye contact with Marvin, and after looking at him for a long moment, turns away and disappears into the bushes.

“A cat,” says Marvin, who often talks aloud to himself. “I wonder where she came from?”

His nearest neighbors are a quarter-mile away, and in his three years of living on Big Salmon Road, Marvin has never seen a house cat on his land, save for the two cats he used to have.

After supper, Marvin calls Ravi, his friend who started an app-development company the year before Marvin was fired from the gigantic Internet company where he and Ravi were colleagues and friends. Ravi tried to convince Marvin to move to Portland, Oregon and work for him there, but Marvin longed to live far from the madding crowd. So now Ravi pays Marvin a hundred-dollars-an-hour for two or three hours of work every day, work Marvin usually does in the afternoon before making his supper.

When they finish discussing the latest app Marvin is troubleshooting for Ravi, Marvin says, “A very interesting thing happened today. I saw a magnificent cat on the edge of my meadow. Orange and white. Shorthaired. Can’t imagine where she came from. Didn’t seem to be lost, but she didn’t strike me as feral.”

Ravi says, “I am not fond of cats. Lisa wants one, but I’ve convinced her to wait until Sasha is at least three and won’t poke the cat in the eye and get scratched. I was once badly bitten by a cat. Do you have a gun? Maybe you could shoot it.”

“I don’t want to shoot her,” says Marvin, laughing. “I love cats. I’ve had two since I’ve lived here, only they didn’t last long. Sushi was taken by a hawk. I know because I saw the hawk flying away with her in his talons. I don’t know what happened to Felix. Fox, coyote. Who knows? I decided not to try again. But here was this beautiful cat today, so… I don’t know.”

“You need a girlfriend, Marvin, not a cat.” Ravi sighs sympathetically. “Portland is swarming with lovely women. We’ll set you up with one of Lisa’s friends, we’ll find you a great place to live, and you can work for me thirty hours a week. I could really use you here. Things are exploding. I’ll pay you a hundred and sixty an hour if you’ll move here. Please?”

“I like it here, Ravi. I really do. I just… I’m just… isolated. You know?”

“From the pictures you’ve sent me, you’re more than isolated. You’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“This is definitely not nowhere,” says Marvin, his eyes filling with tears. “The place is not the problem. The problem is me. I’m not good at meeting people. I just… I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”

“You’re a brilliant problem solver,” says Ravi, his voice full of sympathy. “I have faith in you, Marvin.”

The next morning after breakfast, Marvin is about to head off into the woods when he sees the orange and white cat again, this time much closer to his house. She is sitting perfectly still in the meadow, watching something on the ground a few feet in front of her.

Marvin gets his binoculars, and with a close-up view discovers the cat is watching a gopher who occasionally pokes his little head up out of his hole. After several minutes of watching the cat sitting absolutely still, Marvin puts down his binoculars, and just as he does, the cat pounces, snags the gopher with the claws of her right paw, yanks him out of his hole, grabs him in her mouth, and carries him off into the bushes.

“Well done,” says Marvin, his heart pounding from witnessing the deathly display.

And for the rest of the morning, as he dismembers a dead bull pine he felled a half-mile from his house, he thinks about the cat and what a fantastic huntress she is.

That night, as he is falling asleep, Marvin thinks he hears a cat mewing plaintively outside his bedroom window. He holds very still and listens intently until he realizes that what he thought was a cat mewing is the wind whistling through the trees.

The next day, riding his bike down his driveway on his way to town, he sees the orange and white cat just twenty feet to the east of the driveway, curled up at the base of large fir tree, napping in a pool of sunlight; and it occurs to Marvin she might be homeless, which gets him thinking about ways to entice her to become his cat.

On the steep climb back from town in the afternoon, Marvin decides that before he leaves a bowl of milk on his porch for the cat, he should check with his nearest neighbors to make sure the cat does not belong to them.

So he showers and shaves and puts on clean pants and his favorite teal blue long-sleeved shirt with a yellow sunflower embroidered on the pocket, this embroidery done by his mother a few weeks before she died five years ago. He brushes his hair, finds two bottles of red wine to bring as gifts, and drives his little white pickup a quarter-mile west to the adjoining property, the driveway marked with a small wooden sign saying WALKER.

When Marvin visited the Walkers three years ago, a woman in her fifties he assumed was Mrs. Walker answered the door, and when he said he was her new neighbor, she replied tersely, “Not mine,” and then walked away, leaving the door open and shouting to someone in the house, “There’s a man here to see you.”

Regretting his impulse to introduce himself to the Walkers, Marvin nevertheless waited a moment, and a big man in his sixties with a bushy gray beard came to the door, a man Marvin assumed was Mr. Walker. And this big bearded man growled, “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”

“I’m not selling anything,” said Marvin, flushing with embarrassment. “I’m your new neighbor and wanted to introduce myself. I’m Marvin Rees.”

The man gave Marvin a doleful look and said, “Your timing couldn’t be worse.”

“Sorry,” said Marvin, turning to go. “Very sorry. I would have called first, but I found no Walker in the phone book.”

“I’m not in the book,” said the man, shouting after him. “Once you’re listed, every jackass in the world calls you.”

So it is with some trepidation that Marvin turns into the driveway marked WALKER and drives through pines and huckleberry bushes to a large stone and redwood house on a knoll overlooking several acres of wetlands, beyond which rises the forest.

As Marvin pulls up to the house, the front door opens and the big man, who used to have a bushy beard and now only has a bushy mustache, comes out onto the porch and waves to Marvin; and Marvin assumes the man thinks he, Marvin, is someone else. So he gets out of his truck prepared for the man to be disappointed when he realizes Marvin is not the person he was expecting, but the man does not seem the least disappointed as he comes down the four stairs, a big smile on his face.

“I’m so glad you came back,” says the man, his voice pleasantly gruff. “I’ve been meaning to come see you, but… well, here you are. Welcome to the watershed. A belated welcome. My wife was leaving me the day you came to visit and I was pretty wrecked for a couple years and… I’m sorry, man. Tell me your name again.”

“Marvin,” says Marvin, shaking the man’s hand. “Marvin Rees.”

“Miles Walker,” says the man. “But everybody calls me Silk.”

“How come?” asks Marvin, smiling curiously.

“Oh, God,” says Silk, shrugging self-consciously. “Buddy Bosford gave me that name forty years ago and it stuck.”

“Buddy Bosford?” says Marvin, startled by the name. “The guitarist?”

“Yeah,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin. “You know Buddy?”

“Well I know of him,” says Marvin, laughing. “I’ve got all his albums and I’ve watched lots of his videos and I play Freight Train exactly the way he does.”

“You play guitar,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin.

“I’m not great, but I love to play,” says Marvin, blushing as he hands Silk one of the bottles of wine he brought along. “This is for you.”

“Thank you,” says Silk, smiling at the bottle. “I love red wine. This is a very good winery.” He looks at Marvin. “Hey, come in, come in. I’ll make coffee.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “I just…”

“Not at all,” says Silk, clapping Marvin on the back. “I’ve got two dogs. They’ll growl, but they’re just talking. They’ll be your best friends in five minutes.”

After two cups of coffee and pumpkin pie, Marvin and Silk sit by the fire in Silk’s living room playing two of Silk’s many guitars, Silk playing tasty licks to a song Marvin wrote in college, a blues with several surprising chord changes called Mimi Won’t Go There.

When they finish the song, Marvin says, “I see why Buddy Bosford named you Silk. You’re fantastic.”

“I used to be,” says Silk, gazing intently at Marvin. “You’re very good. What are you doing Wednesday night? Buddy comes over most Wednesdays and we drink wine and noodle around. He’ll love your song. You got more?”

“Buddy Bosford comes here on Wednesday nights?” says Marvin, gaping incredulously at Silk. “Here? In your living room? The Buddy Bosford?”

“I know,” says Silk, nodding. “Most people think he lives in Nashville, but he’s lived here for forty years. He bought that beautiful farm just north of town forty years ago with the money he made from Green Cadillac.”

“Wow,” says Marvin, smiling in wonder. “Who knew? I came over to ask you about a cat, and now…”

“We’re guitar buddies,” says Silk, nodding. “And I promise to be a better neighbor. You go by Marvin or Marv?”

“Either is fine,” says Marvin, hoping Silk will call him Marv—almost no one ever has. “Whichever rolls off your tongue easier.”

“Marv,” says Silk, smiling and nodding. “I like Marv. And what were you saying about a cat? I don’t have a cat. I’m a dog person.”

The ten-acre parcel adjoining Marvin’s land to the east is meadowland, four acres of which are a defunct apple orchard, only a few of the old trees still alive. The main residence is a rambling old white farmhouse with a wide front porch, and there is also a large new cottage fifty yards north of  the farmhouse, brown adobe with solar panels and a satellite dish on the roof.

When Marvin came here three years ago, the cottage was not yet built and there were two ferocious dogs who kept him trapped in his truck until a grizzled old man hobbled out of the farmhouse onto the front porch and yelled at him to get off the property or he’d call the sheriff.

The large wooden sign at the mouth of the driveway says DuPrau, and for some reason Marvin has never associated that name with the grizzled old man who told him to get off the property.

Two dogs come out to greet Marvin this time, too, but they are both smiling old Golden Retrievers with tales wagging, and when Marvin gets out of his truck, both dogs crowd close to be petted, so he gives them plenty of pets.

Now the front door opens and a white-haired woman wearing a purple paisley muumuu comes out on the porch and shields her eyes from the lowering sun. “Hey, it’s the bicycle guy,” she says with an accent born in Brooklyn. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi,” says Marvin, approaching the bottom of the stairs, bottle of wine in hand. “I’m your neighbor to the west. Marvin Rees.”

“I know,” says the woman, squinting at him. “I’m Sally DuPrau. I’ve seen you at the co-op and at the cafe and riding your bike.”

“I’ve seen you, too,” he says, nodding. “Um… I came to ask you about a cat.”

“A cat?” she says, coming down the stairs to him. “We have three. Are you trying to get rid of a cat or do you want a cat?”

“Well, no,” says Marvin, laughing, “I wanted to find out if the cat that has been visiting me lately is yours, or if she’s a stray and I might entice her to be mine.”

“You said that so well,” says Sally, grinning at him. “You want some coffee? Tea?”

Sitting at the dining table in Sally’s sunny kitchen, Marvin learns that the beautiful orange and white cat is, indeed, one of the three DuPrau cats. Her name is Cleo, she is five-years-old, and from a very early age she has been the most wide-ranging cat Sally has ever known, and Sally has known many cats.

“Somehow she avoids being eaten by hawks or foxes or coyotes or pumas,” says Marvin, sipping his tea and looking westward, his house not visible from Sally’s place, a finger of the forest delineating the border of the two properties.

“Until she doesn’t,” says Sally, nodding sagely. “They get older and lose a step and death is there to snag them.” She smiles sweetly. “Snags us all eventually.”

“Yeah,” says Marvin, thinking of his mother who died five years ago, his father who died when he was twelve.

“So you fix computers?” says Sally, nodding hopefully. “I’m a techno idiot, but I’d sure love my pad thing to work better than it does.”

“I wouldn’t say I fix them, though I can,” says Marvin, nodding. “I do know quite a bit about computers. What kind of trouble are you having?”

“It’s just so slow,” says Sally, grimacing. “And it keeps freezing up. Not that I use it very much. I just do a little email every once in a while. But Meredith, my daughter, is going insane trying to get her web site to do whatever it is she wants it to do. She moved back here from New York just a couple months after you moved in, and she’s been pretty happy here except for the slow Internet and whatever’s going wrong with her web site.”

“I might be able to help you,” says Marvin, imagining Sally has an out-of-date device and an ancient operating system. “And possibly Meredith, too. I’d be happy to take a look.”

“How much do you charge?” asks Sally, matter-of-factly. “You open to doing trades? I do Reiki massage.”

“Oh I wouldn’t charge you anything,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “Glad to help.”

“Hold that thought,” says Sally, jumping up. “I’m gonna go get Meredith.”

Marvin looks around the sunny kitchen, marveling at how completely his life has changed in the last few hours.

Now Sally returns in the company of her daughter Meredith, fortyish, attractive, with shoulder-length brown hair wearing blue jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt with the words vee shall see written in red lower-case letters just below the V.

Marvin rises to meet her and says, “Hello. I’ve seen you in town.”

“Hi,” says Meredith, shaking Marvin’s hand. “I’ve seen you, too. Welcome to the neighborhood. Three years after you got here.”

“Thanks,” he says, blushing at her touch. “Very nice to meet you. I… I love your shirt.”

“Oh,” she says, looking down to see which shirt she’s wearing. “Do you go by Marvin or Marv or…?”

“Either is fine,” he says, shrugging pleasantly.

“I like Marv,” she says, blushing a little, too.

“When Marv came to say hello three years ago,” says Sally, sitting down, “I was in New York helping you get disentangled and Fritz was here with his pit bulls and scared Marv away.”

“As he was supposed to,” says Meredith, sitting opposite Marvin.

“True,” says Sally, nodding. “I told him to protect the place, and if Fritz is anything, he’s a literalist.”

Meredith smiles shyly at Marvin and says, “You’re kind of my hero, you know.”

I’m kind of your hero?” says Marvin, pointing at himself. “How so?”

“Well,” says Meredith, glancing at Sally, “when I got back from New York I was…” She takes a deep breath to allay her tears. “I’ll just say it. I was extremely depressed and feeling like… what’s the point? I had a very successful first novel and then three terrible flops, all of which coincided with a disastrous marriage and an even more disastrous divorce so… I didn’t have much hope of things getting any better.”

Marvin nods, knowing very well about the low tide of hope.

“And every day,” says Meredith, looking at Sally again, “my dear mother would take me into town for coffee and a muffin at the bakery, and a walk on the beach. And then we’d visit her friends, just so I’d be in life, you know, and many times on our way home we would see you coming back from town on your bicycle. Except in the beginning, you weren’t on your bicycle, you were pushing it up the hill and going so slowly I imagined it took you hours to get home.”

“In the beginning it did,” says Marvin, remembering those first months of pitting himself against that steep and curvy mile, how on several occasions he wept as he trudged up the seemingly endless road through the dark forest.

“But then one day we passed you and you were jogging up the hill with your bike.” Meredith’s eyes sparkle as she remembers. “And when we got a little bit ahead of you, I looked in the side-view mirror and saw you smiling, and I smiled, too.”

“And then,” says Sally, getting up to put a kettle on for more tea, “you were riding most of the way, going not much faster than you could walk, but you were riding.”

“I remember the first time I rode all the way home,” says Marvin, delighting in the memory. “I was high as a kite for days.”

“So was I,” says Meredith, nodding. “The day we saw you reach the top of the climb and you were standing up on the pedals, pumping hard, I felt exultant. A contact high.”

“I’m glad to know this,” says Marvin, feeling shy about making eye contact with Meredith. “I thought only the nature spirits had witnessed my transformation.”

“Oh, no,” says Sally, coming back to the table. “I’m sure lots of people on this road have been inspired by you.”

At which moment, Cleo comes through the cat door into the kitchen and freezes at the sight of Marvin sitting at the table with Sally and Meredith.

“There she is,” says Marvin, smiling at the magnificent orange and white cat. “Hello Cleo.”

And Cleo, intuiting that Marvin is a friend of the people who feed her, leaps up onto Marvin’s lap and allows him to scratch the top of her head and run his hand down her spine, eliciting a most eloquent purr from her.

“That’s a first,” says Meredith, arching her eyebrow. “Cool Cleo so quickly wooed.”

“I think they must have known each other in a former life,” says Sally, winking at Marvin.

“I’m sure of it,” says Marvin, entranced by Cleo’s purring.

“And by the way,” says Sally, bouncing her eyebrows at Meredith, “Marv is a wizard with computers, too.”

fin

Lila’s Crisis

November 5th, 2018

Lila's Crisis

On a warm September day in Los Angeles, Lila and Desiree are having salads and smoothies for lunch at Boffo, a hip eatery on Sunset Boulevard. Lila is thirty-three, Desiree twenty-nine. Lila’s mother is descended from Wisconsin Swedes, her father a Chicagoan descended from Greeks. Desiree’s father is an African American from Atlanta, her mother a Latina from Dallas. Both Lila and Desiree are waiters at Elusive, a restaurant in Beverly Hills known for super-elegant ambience, fabulous food, exquisite waiters, and a clientele from the high end of show biz.

“Wait, wait, wait,” says Desiree, her accent southern. “Who’s Lorenzo?”

“Our new sous chef,” says Lila, surprised Desiree doesn’t know. “Lorenzo Balotelli. Don’t you just love that name? Balotelli. And don’t you just love his voice? That deep baritone with a subtle British accent, yet he’s so obviously Italian. And he’s so cheerful. The kitchen has been so happy since he started.” She sighs. “Two weeks and three days ago. But who’s counting?”

Desiree squints at Lila. “You have a crush on him? The fat guy?”

“You think he’s fat?” says Lila, mimicking Desiree’s squint. “Not just husky?”

Desiree gapes at Lila. “You crazy, girl? That man is carrying twenty pounds he most definitely does not need.” Her squint returns. “What about Cameron? I thought you were engaged. He was swarming all over you three weeks ago, and you were lovin’ it, yeah?”

“Well… I did give him a tentative Yes,” says Lila, wincing. “But he’s not exactly… intellectually…”

“What?” says Desiree, aghast at this heretofore hidden side of Lila. “He’s handsome and rich and he’s got two big movies about to open and another three coming fast behind. No offense, honey, but you’re not gettin’ any younger. You don’t want to blow this. Trust me.”

“I know, but…” Lila pauses portentously. “The more I get to know Cameron, the less I find we have in common.”

Desiree grimaces. “That’s not what you said when you got back from Puerto Vallarta. You said you were wild about him. You said the sex was stupendous. Didn’t you?”

“That was three months ago,” says Lila, looking at Desiree and thinking I wonder if she would still be my friend if she thought I was carrying twenty extra pounds. “We were so stoned the whole time, I’m not even sure we left LA. And he gave me that incredible diamond bracelet and swamped me in luxury.”

“I’m not seein’ the problem here.” Desiree frowns gravely. “A life of luxury with a hot movie producer, plenty of good weed and good sex? What’s not to like?”

“It’s just that… there isn’t much there, if you know what I mean.” Lila shrugs. “He’s not… deep. Not even a little bit.”

“Let me ask you this,” says Desiree, swirling her wine. “You ever known a really rich guy who was deep?”

Lila reviews the rich guys she’s been involved with over the last seven years and shakes her head. “No.”

“I rest my case,” says Desiree, smiling smugly. “This is the game, baby. And you’re about to win. So I suggest you stick with the program, close the deal with Cameron, and get that deep stuff with your girlfriends. You know? That’s my plan once I land somebody like Cameron.”

Home to her sweet little apartment in Hollywood, Lila is tempted to call her mother in Sunnyvale and tell her about Lorenzo, but instead of calling, she sits down with pen and paper and starts writing a letter. During her first three years in college, Lila wrote hundreds of letters to her mother and sister and best friend Carlotta, and dozens of letters to her father, too, but none since college.

Dear Mom,

I know. A letter. What’s gotten into me?

That’s all she writes because she knows what’s gotten into her. She wants to date Lorenzo, though she knows if Cameron finds out, he’ll be furious and break up with her and…

“Unless,” says Lila, speaking to her cat Witti, short for Wittgenstein, “we call the first date with Lorenzo a business meeting since I am aiming to be a restaurant manager and he’s worked in several famous restaurants.”

The large gray cat drowsing on the sunny windowsill blinks at Lila as if to say Sounds like a plausible fib.

A few days later, Cameron goes to New York for a week of high-level hob-knobbing, and Lila has her first date with Lorenzo, lunch at Gunga, a Brazilian Indian restaurant in Santa Monica owned by Lorenzo’s friends Kabir and Eloa.

Midway through their scrumptious meal, in answer to Lila’s question about how he became a chef, Lorenzo says, “So there I was in Paris, twenty-five-years-old, doing research at the Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne for my doctoral thesis on the influence of Neostoicism on the philosophy of Montesquieu, specifically regarding the necessity of separation of powers in government, when it occurred to me, after several embarrassing and frustrating experiences in cafés and restaurants, that I did not know enough practical French to order a nourishing meal, which realization had the effect of a timely slap from a Zen master. So I gave up my academic pursuits, went to England and took lodgings in the garret of a friend studying Anthropology at Oxford, got a job busing tables in a pub, the cook there was something of a genius with fish, and I was thereafter, forgive me, hooked on cooking.”

“What a bizarre coincidence,” says Lila, clearing her throat. “I have a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. My senior thesis was… now don’t laugh… Kafka and the Existentialists.”

Lorenzo laughs uproariously. “I’m sorry,” he says, red-faced with mirth. “My senior thesis was… wait for it… The Trouble With Sartre.”

Lila laughs harder than she’s laughed in ages and says, “There should be a law against twenty-two-year-olds writing about Existentialism.”

“Yes,” says Lorenzo, still laughing. “Speaking of the necessity of separation of powers.”

And now, quite unexpectedly, Lila bursts into tears and cries for a long time, her unbridled sorrow causing Lorenzo to cry, too.

That night at Elusive, the last diners served, Lorenzo intercepts Lila in the kitchen and hands her an envelope. “I had a wonderful time with you at lunch today. Wrote a little something for you.”

Lila looks at the envelope and nearly gives it back for fear that further intimacy with Lorenzo will either create an uncomfortable situation for her at the restaurant or make it impossible for her to continue her involvement with Cameron; and though she doesn’t love Cameron, he is a rising star, handsome and wealthy, and he brings her into contact with other such men and women, and this is the game Lila has been playing in earnest for seven years now, so…

“Thank you,” she says, putting the envelope in her pocket. “Gotta run.”

Dear Lila,

I am fairly certain your tears today were not the result of my laughing at the title of your senior treatise, mine being equally youthful; and I comfort myself with the knowledge that crying is good for us, especially if we haven’t had a good cry in a long time.

I know you have a fellow, as my mum calls boyfriends, but I hope that won’t preclude our socializing in the future. I appreciate so many things about you and I am keen to know more. How about a picnic lunch at the beach tomorrow, a stone’s throw from my hovel in Venice?

Warmly,

            Lorenzo

The next morning at nine, in a large windowless room with hardwood floors and gigantic mirrors covering the walls, Lila and twelve other women are sweating profusely as they perform a grueling dance and exercise routine accompanied by a relentless hip hop rhythm track, the routine featuring dozens of squats and kicks and leg lifts and all manner of jazzy moves—the name of the hour-long class A-List Booty.

“You’re dragging, Mary,” shouts Chita, the draconian instructor who is simultaneously executing the punishing routine and haranguing her disciples. “You call that a kick, Leslie? Hit the fuckin’ roof, girl. Move it, ladies. That window of perfection started closing when you were eighteen, and the only way to keep it open is to work your butts off. Those men don’t want you for your brains, girls, they want your booty. Now kick it, Angela. Faster Lila. Faster, girl. Stay on the beat.”

Driving home from the gym, Lila gets a call from Cameron in New York, his somewhat nasal voice coming through a speaker in the ceiling of her Audi. “What’s happening, cute stuff?”

“I just finished working out,” she says, never comfortable talking on the phone while driving. “Now I’m on my way home.”

“Miss me?” he asks, his tone implying she must.

And though she knows she is expected to say, “You know I do, babe. Can’t wait to see you again,” she cannot bear to answer him, and so she touches her phone and terminates their connection; and when he calls back, she doesn’t answer.

An hour later, as she is about to leave for Lorenzo’s place in Venice, Lila calls Cameron on her landline phone and says, “Sorry about that. My phone just suddenly died, and there I was yacking away in a traffic jam when I realized you weren’t there. Sorry.”

“Why didn’t you call me immediately when you got home?” he asks, sounding deeply aggrieved.

“I did. I am. I went to Trader Joe’s and the farmers market, and now I’m home.”

“You should always have a second phone with you,” he says sternly. “I don’t appreciate being cut off like that.”

“Well I don’t appreciate your tone of voice,” she says, trembling with indignation. “I didn’t do anything terribly wrong and I don’t deserve to be chastised. It’s not a big deal. Just let it go. Okay?”

“No, I won’t let it go, because it’s not okay. What’s the matter with you? How dare you talk to me like that?”

“Jesus, Cameron,” she says, fighting her impulse to hang up. “You think I’m ten-years-old? You should hear yourself. You sound like a pompous idiot.”

“Take that back,” he growls. “Or it’s over between us.”

“Are you serious?” she says, shivering at the thought of how close she came to marrying this man.

“Apologize, Lila! Now!”

“Not a chance,” she says, hanging up.

Now she waits a moment before leaving her apartment, hoping Cameron won’t call back, but he does; and to her horror, he leaves a message apologizing for being so insensitive, and blaming his behavior on the terrible stress of vying for the movie rights to the red hot Young Adult novel Teen Vampire Zombie Detective—his apology ending with a tearful marriage proposal.

On the Venice beach, sitting side-by-side on a large green towel, Lila and Lorenzo dine on goat cheese and avocados and tomatoes and black olives and sour dough French bread, their beverage a delicious cabernet they drink from flat-bottomed coffee mugs unlikely to topple over on the sand.

“I love this parade,” says Lorenzo, gesturing at the ceaseless passersby on the beach, some fully clothed, some wearing next to nothing. “Aren’t we a most amazing species?”

“We are,” says Lila, grateful for the soothing effect of the wine—Cameron’s tearful proposal still ringing in her ears.

“So how did you make the leap from Philosophy to waiting tables at Elusive?” Lorenzo smiles admiringly at her. “You are, you know, one of the very finest waiters I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. You are never in a hurry, you are gracious and strong, never fawning, never diffident, and always beautifully poised, like a jujutsu master calmly prepared for any possibility.”

“How kind of you to say so,” says Lila, ripping off a chunk of French bread and handing it to him. “If only I could live my life that way.”

“Well, that is the trick, isn’t it?” he says, taking the bread from her and dipping it into his wine. “We meditate, if we do, so we can eventually carry that calm state into our everyday lives.”

“Do you meditate?” asks Lila, who goes on binges of meditating and then inevitably falls off the wagon, so to speak, only to climb back on when the world becomes too much for her.

“I do,” says Lorenzo, sucking the wine from the bread. “Most days. I try to sit for fifteen or twenty minutes in the hour before I go to work, and on Sundays I like to start my day with a cup of green tea and a good long sit. But enough about me. There you were, Philosophy degree in hand, twenty-two, and…” He arches an expectant eyebrow.

“There’s a back story,” she says, sinking her bare feet into the sand. “Lila at twenty-two was very different than Lila at twenty-one and all the years before.”

“I love back stories,” he says, shifting his position to face her and not be distracted by the parade. “And I love your voice. You would make a splendid narrator of books.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “So would you.”

“Sorry,” he says, blushing at her blushing. “I keep interrupting. Go on.”

“Well you may not believe this, but…” She frowns, searching for the right words. “I’m having something of a… I wouldn’t call this a breakdown, but a cataclysmic shift. Right now. This minute. Even as we speak.” She looks into his eyes. “Meeting you has precipitated a crisis in my life, and by crisis I mean a moment of decision, only the decision is less about what I’m going to do than who I choose to be.”

“I understand,” he says quietly.

She has a drink of wine and says, “So the back story begins when I was a little girl. A little… “ She pauses for a long moment, her eyes drawn to the waves breaking on the shore. “Chubby girl.”

“Cute as the devil, I’ll bet,” says Lorenzo, nodding encouragingly.

“So said my mom and dad and grandparents, but the key word here is chubby, which I took to mean ugly.”

“Who said that word to you?”

“People. Kids at school. Just… everybody.”

“But not your parents.”

“No, never. But everybody else.”

Lorenzo nods. “Go on.”

“So I grew from chubby little girl to chubby big girl, and being chubby after Sixth Grade, my non-chubby girlfriends dumped me, the beautiful ones, so I buried myself in books and writing and studying and hanging out with other chubby not-beautiful girls. And boys didn’t like us or even see us, and it didn’t matter that I got good grades and played tennis and acted in plays, nor did it matter that I dieted until I thought I’d die. The best I could do was stocky. And then I went to Stanford and majored in Philosophy and Psychology, and I assumed I’d remain in academia forever, where being chubby is not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Lorenzo nods again, listening intently.

“And then a very strange thing happened to me at the end of my junior year.” She smiles wistfully at her memory of that incredible moment. “I had just turned twenty-one and I was taking a very demanding jazz hip hop dance class, and at the end of one of those classes, Sara, this gorgeous woman with a perfect body, approached me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna go clubbing with me on Saturday?’ And I thought she was joking or talking to someone else, but she was talking to me. So I looked at my body in the mirror on the wall, something I studiously avoided because I hated the sight of my chubby self, only my chubby self wasn’t there anymore, and in her place was a woman with my face and a body not unlike Sara’s, and I could see why she wanted to go clubbing with me.”

“You had no inkling of this change until that moment?” asks Lorenzo, frowning. “No whistles or catcalls as you strolled across the campus?”

“There might have been,” she says, shrugging, “but I never would have thought they were whistling at me. I was blind to my body, thinking only that I was ugly. An ugly virgin.”

“When all the while you were beautifully you,” he says, holding up the bottle of wine. “Another splash?”

“Yes, please,” she says, proffering her mug.

“So you went clubbing and…”

“The men liked me,” she says, nodding. “Even the handsome ones who had always been oblivious to me, and I could hardly believe what was happening because nothing in my life had prepared me to be attractive to anyone other than my mother and father and sister and my best friend Carlotta who was always telling me I was beautiful, though I never believed her.”

Lorenzo waits for Lila to continue, and when she doesn’t, he asks, “So how long did it take you to accept your new identity?”

“That’s a very interesting question,” she says, looking up at the sky and laughing a little. “Because for quite a long time, at least two years, I didn’t really have a new identity to accept. I only knew myself as chubby, regardless of the woman who appeared before me when I looked in the mirror, so for the rest of my time at Stanford I just fumbled around in the dark, so to speak, having awful sex with clumsy young men and trying to finish my youthful dissertations in Philosophy and Psychology, after which I decided not to go to graduate school, but to move to Los Angeles, the apex of the cultural obsession with so-called beauty. To see what would happen to me here.”

“So what happened?” asks Lorenzo, transfixed by Lila’s story.

“I entered the Great Game,” she says, smiling painfully. “Not the one Kipling writes about in Kim, but the game in which women gain social and economic power by aligning themselves with wealthy ambitious men until they reach the utmost heights they can before their youthful beauty fades, at which point a woman must marry the ultimate man she has conquered with her physical appeal and sexual prowess.”

A silence falls between them—waves lapping the shore and people talking and boom boxes sounding in the near distance.

Lorenzo wants to say something, but decides not to.

“And just three weeks ago,” she says, taking a deep breath, “I was literally moments away from agreeing to marry a very successful movie producer with buckets of money and a mansion in Beverly Hills, when you came into the kitchen for the first time, wandered around in a trance of delight and said, ‘Has there ever been a more Hegelian kitchen than this? Absolutely ideal.’ And I couldn’t resist answering, ‘I suppose if you need a non-personal substitute for the concept of God, this kitchen will do as well as anything.’ And you rushed over to me and cried, ‘Schopenhauer,’ and I said ‘Gesundheit,’ and you clapped your hands and said, ‘Heaven.’ After which, my crisis began.”

“You woke up,” says Lorenzo, his eyes wide with delight.

“Aroused by a rebel prince,” she says, smiling shyly. “And with her dormant intellect awakened after years of slumber, she finds herself on the edge of a precipice.”

“Or is it a precipice?” he asks, taking up the tale. “No. As the fog clears, she sees there is no cliff, but rather a fork in the road of her personal evolution, one fork continuing as the broad highway known as the Great Game.”

“And the other fork?” she asks, holding her breath.

“The other fork is a dirt track disappearing into a wilderness of uncertainty, the faded sign nailed to a tree saying Spirit Path; and her challenge, should she take that less-traveled path, is to fall in love with uncertainty and trust she will find everything she needs along her way.”

“Is that the path you’ve taken?” she asks, holding out her hand to him. “Falling in love with uncertainty?”

“I’m trying,” he says, taking her hand. “Sometimes I step off the path without knowing I have, but as I get older, I’m thirty-seven now, I seem to be getting better at finding the path again and getting back on.”

“Will you teach me?” she asks, playfully.

“No, Lila,” he says, laughing. “But I’ll learn with you. What else are friends for?”

On their fourth lunch date, Lorenzo’s first time at Lila’s apartment, they have delectable take-out Chinese and Lorenzo asks about the people in the photographs affixed to Lila’s refrigerator.

“That’s my dad in his vegetable garden in Sunnyvale,” says Lila, pointing to a slender fellow in his sixties, holding a basket of red and yellow tomatoes. “And this is my mom in the kitchen making salsa from those very tomatoes.”

“I like your mom and dad,” says Lorenzo, pointing to a photo next to the one of Lila’s mother. “And this must be your sister.”

“Yep, that’s dear Gina,” says Lila, nodding. “She’s two years older than I am, but I think she looks much younger than me.”

“I wouldn’t say so,” says Lorenzo, shaking his head.

“No?” she says, feeling she might cry.

“No,” he says, moving the picture of Gina a little to reveal the photo mostly hidden behind her. “Who are these two beautiful young ladies?”

The somewhat faded photo is of two teenaged women in summery dresses, their arms around each other as they smile at the camera.

“Oh my God,” says Lila, tears springing to her eyes. “I didn’t think I still had that one. That’s me with my best friend Carlotta our senior year in high school.” She shrugs painfully. “Used to be my best friend.”

Lorenzo looks at Lila and says, “But I thought you said you were chubby in high school. You’re a svelte goddess in this picture.”

“Am I?” says Lila, frowning at the photo and seeing a teenaged Lila who isn’t chubby at all, nor is Carlotta, though in those days they both believed they were fat.

“Have you got a photo album with pictures of you when you were a baby and a girl?” asks Lorenzo, putting his arm around her. “I love seeing childhood pictures of my friends. Next time you come to my place, I’ll show you me as a cowboy when we lived in Texas when I was five. I was impossibly cute but had no idea I was until twenty years later.”

Lila finds two big photo albums on a high shelf in her closet, the volumes so dusty she has to clean them before they look at the pictures.

She and Lorenzo sit close together on the sofa, the first of the albums open on their conjoined laps, and she steels herself for the ordeal of seeing her roly-poly self next to her skinny sister and skinny father and trim and sturdy mother—the first several pictures of her as a baby and a little girl confirming her memory of being chubby.

But the picture of her blowing out eight candles on her birthday cake is of someone neither fat nor thin, but very much like the other girls arrayed around the dining table helping her blow out the candles.

On the next page is a marvelous picture of Lila and her sister Gina standing on a boulder beside a sparkling river. Gina is twelve, Lila ten. They are wearing shorts and T-shirts and baseball caps, and they might be twins—skinny twins.

Lorenzo hums approvingly and turns the page, and here is a photo of twelve-year old Lila on Halloween dressed as a hideous witch; and Lila is about to blurt, “See how fat I am?” when she catches herself, looks closely at the picture and says, “I got boobs before most of the other girls in my class and I was so embarrassed I started wearing baggy clothes so people wouldn’t notice.”

“I wonder why?” says Lorenzo, turning the page. “I thought girls longed to have boobs.”

The last few pages of Volume One are full of pictures of cats and dogs and grandparents, and when Lorenzo reaches for Volume Two, Lila says, “Oh God, this is gonna be yucky junior high and high school pictures. I don’t think I can handle this.”

“Do you mind if I look?” asks Lorenzo, waiting for her approval.

“You can if you want to,” she says, getting up. “Coffee?”

“Love some,” he says, opening the album.

Lila starts the coffee brewing and goes out onto her little balcony with a view of the narrow street crowded with cars parked in front of old apartment buildings, the air warm, the sky hazy; and she thinks of Carlotta and how a large part of her happiness until she was twenty-one came from her bond with Carlotta. And now I only know she’s alive because I know my mother would tell me if Carlotta died.

She goes back inside and finds Lorenzo pouring their coffee. He looks at her and says, “Sometimes you take cream, sometimes you don’t, whereas I never do. But today I’m having a spot of the white stuff, as my mum likes to say, just because. How about you?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a spot of the white stuff,” she says, watching his face. “What did you think of the pictures?”

“I loved them,” he says, adding cream to their coffees. “Every single one of them.”

“Did you think I was fat?” she asks, clenching her teeth.

“No, I thought you were lovely.” He hands her a mug. “And I loved seeing you with Carlotta, seeing how much you loved each other.”

“It was us against the world,” says Lila, her eyes filling with tears.

“Yeah,” says Lorenzo, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I could see that, though your parents were there, too, and your sister, loving you.”

Three weeks later, on their ninth date, the first time they’ve gotten together at night, their physical intimacy having progressed to long embraces and sweet kisses, Lorenzo and Lila are having supper in Lila’s apartment: minestrone soup and rye bread and salad and red wine.

“This soup is fabulous,” says Lorenzo, frowning at his bowl. “She’s brilliant, lovely, learned and witty, and she can cook?”

“My mother’s recipe,” says Lila, happier than she’s been in a long long time. “Those Wisconsin Swedes, you know. Masters of Italian cuisine.”

“You got the oregano just right,” he says, beaming at her. “I’m madly in love with you, Lila. That did it. Getting the oregano right.”

She sits down opposite him at her little table, gathers her courage, and says, “What shall we do about it? Being in love with each other?”

“Well… I suppose we could go on being in love and see what happens. Yes?”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” she says, nodding. “But I’m wondering about…” She gives him a long look. “Sex.”

“I love sex,” says Lorenzo, nodding with her. “One of my most favorite things. But…”

“But what?” she asks quietly.

“Well… as insanely attracted as I am to you, and I don’t use the word insanely lightly, I would like us to know each other better before we… lose our minds together that way.”

“Why?” she asks, never having known a man to resist her sexually when she is so obviously desirous of sex with him. “You know me better than any man ever has, except maybe my dad.”

“I feel like I’m just getting to know you,” he says, setting down his spoon. “And you’re just getting to know me. Not that I don’t want to make love with you. I do, but… I am so enthralled by how we’re both opening and changing, as if our relationship has set in motion a kind of dual metamorphosis, and something tells me it would be wise to let this continue until…”

“We emerge from our chrysalises?” she says, trying not to laugh. “And see what kind of butterflies we’ve become?”

“Something like that,” he says, giggling.

“Okay, my love,” she says, laughing with him. “I’ll wait as long as I can, but just so you know, I’m ready whenever you are.”

fin

Wade Rises From the Sofa

October 29th, 2018

fract01

Wade stops walking, looks around the neighborhood he’s lived in for forty-five years, and says, “What am I doing?”

A few minutes ago, he was sitting on the sofa in his living room staring at the big-screen television when his wife Mimi came home from the supermarket and growled, “Oh shit. I forgot the fucking milk.”

“I’ll walk down to Balducci’s and get a quart,” said Wade, rising from the sofa.

Then he walked to the front door, got his old brown leather jacket off the peg on the wall, put the jacket on over his faded blue shirt, tapped the back pocket of his brown corduroy trousers to make sure he had his wallet, jingled his right front pocket to make sure he had his keys, and walked out of the house into the late October afternoon, the pale blue Oregon sky sporting wispy white clouds tinged with pink.

Wade is sixty-eight, six-feet-tall, straight-backed and neither fat nor thin. His hair used to be black and is now mostly gray and turning white, and though he hasn’t had a haircut in over a year, his hair is not very long. Until a few years ago, before he became a recluse, the four words almost everyone used when describing Wade were handsome, friendly, funny, and generous. His father was from Montana, his mother from Brooklyn, and there are hints of his mother’s Brooklyn accent and tonality in Wade’s speech.

Mimi is sixty-five, a bountiful five-foot-four, and she walks with a noticeable limp, hip replacement surgery on the near horizon. Her once reddish brown hair is now silvery gray and cut shorter than Wade’s. Her parents were both from Boston, and though Mimi has lived in Oregon for most of her life, she sounds like a Bostonian.

Why did Wade look around his neighborhood and say, “What am I doing?” when he was a block from his house on his way to Balducci’s to buy a quart of milk?

Because for the last three years, whenever Mimi came home and complained of forgetting to buy something, Wade has never said, “I’ll walk down to Balducci’s,” though prior to three years ago, ever since he was in his twenties, he would walk to Balducci’s almost every afternoon to get an item or two that Mimi forgot to buy at the supermarket.

Or did she forget to buy the milk or a jar of olives or bananas? The regularity of her forgetting, and the inevitability of Wade getting up to walk those five blocks to the little neighborhood grocery store suggests that her forgetting was not forgetting at all, but part of a ritual she and Wade enacted to get him off the sofa and out into the world.

Wade was a high school Physics teacher for forty-one years, and Mimi, a high school administrator, would often find Wade sprawled on the sofa when she got home from work in the late afternoon; and she knew the slightest impetus would send him on his way to Balducci’s, a little trek he much preferred to zoning out in front of the television, and an enjoyable way for him to spend time with their children Diana and Michael who often accompanied him to Balducci’s and back.

And the reason Wade stopped getting up from the sofa and going out into the world when Mimi named the items she forgot to get on her way home from the high school where she is now vice-principal, is that three years ago their son Michael was killed in a car accident. Michael was forty-two when he died, and Wade might have been a crystal goblet dropped from a hundred feet in the air onto concrete, so shattered was he by Michael’s death.

Wade is about to turn around and go back to his house when someone calls, “Wade. How you doing? Haven’t seen you in forever.”

For some reason, being hailed in this way causes Wade to look at the palm of his right hand and focus on the crease in his palm that palm readers call the life line; and he wonders why his life line is so much darker and more clearly delineated than the lines for fate and love and wisdom and marriage. Now he thinks of his mother for the first time in many years, his mother who read palms as a serious hobby.

Wade looks up from inspecting the palm of his hand, and here is Allan Wilder with whom he used to play golf every Saturday until three years ago. Allan is stout and good-natured and entirely bald and ten years younger than Wade. He is standing on the brick walkway leading to his front door, wearing a faded red Stanford sweatshirt and beige trousers and holding a red rake, the head of which is half-buried in a pile of gold and bronze maple leaves.

“Allan,” says Wade, his voice weak from three years of rarely speaking. “You look just like yourself.”

“So do you,” says Allan, dropping the rake and coming to shake Wade’s hand. “I missed you, buddy. I think about you all the time.”

“Still playing golf?” asks Wade, noticing how greatly Allan has aged in three years, some terrible sadness at work on him.

“Twice a week,” says Allan, beaming at Wade. “Remember what a terrible putter I was?”

“You took your eye off the ball,” says Wade, remembering how Allan would always glance at the hole a split second before he struck the ball. “You couldn’t help it.”

“Well I’m much better now,” says Allan, nodding emphatically. “When Joan left me two years ago, I put in a putting green in the backyard and now I make at least two hundred putts every day. I’ve trained myself to keep my eye on the ball until I hit it, and even after I hit it I keep looking at where the ball was. Like you told me to.”

“I told you to do that?” asks Wade, having no memory of ever suggesting anything to Allan about golf. “You put in a putting green? You’re kidding.”

“No, come see,” says Allan, beckoning Wade to follow him. “Astro turf.”

Wade takes the putter from Allan and positions himself over a golf ball fifteen feet from one of several holes in the artificial surface; and everything about this moment feels wholly new yet entirely familiar to him—a dizzying combination of sensations. But what is even more remarkable to Wade is his absolute certainty that he is going to sink this putt, the hole he’s aiming for seeming as big as a manhole to him. And though he is tempted to tell Allan about how sure he is of making the putt, he defers to Allan’s insecurity about putting and says nothing as he strikes the ball and watches it speed across the green and drop into the hole.

“Wow!” exclaims Allan. “You’ve still got it, Wade. You’re a master.”

”One shot does not a master make,” says Wade, his mother coming to mind again, how after his greatest triumph in a high school basketball game she reminded him, “Today you win, tomorrow you lose. The important thing is to do your best.”

“You’ve always been such a great putter,” says Allan, dropping another ball in front of Wade. “Try the hole in the far right corner.”

Wade smiles sadly at Allan and asks, “Why did Joan leave you?”

“She fell in love with a guy she met at a conference on syntactical errors in the translation of Aristotle.” Allan shrugs. “A subject dear to her heart and far from mine.”

“You’re kidding,” says Wade, frowning at Allan. “Where was this conference?”

“At Harvard,” says Allan, nodding. “Maybe it was a symposium and not a conference, but in either case she fell in love with him and… that was that.”

“I’m so sorry, Allan,” says Wade, poised over the golf ball. “I know how much you loved her.”

“Hey…”says Allan, fighting his tears, “you can use this putting green any time you want. House goes on the market in April, but until it sells, come play.”

“I will,” says Wade, striking the ball and watching it roll across the plastic greensward to fall with a satisfying clunk into the farthest hole.

After saying goodbye to Allan, Wade thinks about returning to his house and collapsing on the sofa, but the idea of getting a quart of milk for Mimi gives him a jolt of energy, so he carries on in the direction of Balducci’s.

But after another block, he is overcome with exhaustion and sorrow, so he sits down on the low brick wall in front of the Dorfmans’ house, the front yard bursting with roses—Susan Dorfman famous for her flowers.

Sitting with his back to the rampant blooms, Wade thinks about the last time he saw his son Michael alive. Seven months before Michael died, he came to Portland on a business trip. He lived in North Carolina with his wife Maureen and their two children.

During supper with Wade and Mimi, Michael and Wade got into a huge argument about Michael wanting to get a puppy. Michael and Maureen had just had their second child, and Wade was incensed that Michael would add a dog to Maureen’s life when she was already overwhelmed by the new baby and their four-year-old, while Michael was gone all day at work and forever going on long business trips.

“So what if he wanted a dog?” says Wade, clenching his fists and pounding his legs. “Why shouldn’t he have a dog? He loved dogs. We always had dogs. We got a puppy when he was a little boy. Why did I yell at him like that? What was wrong with me?”

“Wade?” says a familiar voice. “You okay?”

“Oh, hi,” he says, turning around and seeing Susan Dorfman standing a few feet away from him, her roses ablaze behind her.

Susan is tall and willowy, nearly as tall as Wade, her blue eyes reflecting the turquoise of her dangly turquoise earrings and her necklace of turquoise stones and her turquoise blouse and turquoise jeans.

“I heard you shouting,” she says, sitting down beside him and gazing at the houses and trees across the street. “I’ve lived here for forty-two years and never sat here until now. What a lovely view.” She taps his shoulder. “Hey, I just remembered. You helped me build this wall. You taught me how to lay bricks.”

“We were in love with each other,” he says, the long-unspoken truth coming out as easily as if he’d told her it might rain. “But we were both happily married. Or… thoroughly married. So what could we do?”

“Nothing we were willing to do,” she says, putting her arm around him. “I’m so glad you told me, Wade. I’ve always wanted to know. I mean… I knew I loved you, but… and I was pretty sure you were in love with me, especially after our kiss on New Year’s Eve. Remember? The year I turned thirty and you turned thirty-three?”

“A dangerous kiss,” he says, nodding. “A marvelous kiss. Maybe the best kiss I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, Mimi saw us kissing and she was furious about it for years and years, though she was having affairs long before you and I kissed that night.” He sighs. “I never had an affair. Just… never did.”

“We were so young,” says Susan, sighing, too. “Still trying to tame our lusty natures.”

“Did you ever have affairs?” he asks, gazing at her. “Something tells me you didn’t.”

“No,” she says wistfully. “Mel did. But not me.”

“The older I get the more ridiculous it seems that we weren’t lovers, you and I.” He smiles at her. “But even more ridiculous is that we were not better friends, because beyond the sexual attraction, you have always been one of my very favorite people. I could talk to you about so many things Mimi had no interest in. Because you were interested in everything I was interested in. At least I thought you were.”

“Oh, I was,” she says, nodding. “You and I were interested in all the same things. That’s why I always made a beeline for you at parties. Mel didn’t give a hoot about roses or gardening or art or music or… much of anything I cared about.”

“He liked golf,” says Wade, remembering how furious Mel would get when Wade beat him, which was not often.

“And gambling,” says Susan, nodding. “I’d be rich today if not for his gambling.”

A trio of cars go by—various genres of music wafting from their windows.

“So… how are you doing?” asks Susan, switching from having her arm around his shoulders to holding his hand. “About Michael?”

“I’ve been comatose since he died.” Wade closes his eyes. “I died when he died, only I didn’t die. I’m still here.”

“I can’t imagine what I would do if any of my kids or grandkids died before me.” She tightens her grip on his hand. “When Mel died I wasn’t that sad. I mean… I missed him, but… not really. We were never very happy together after the first few years. But if Molly or Jason or any of their children were to die… I can’t imagine going on living.”

“But I did,” says Wade, resting his head on her shoulder. “If you can call it living. I’ve been no good to Mimi or Diana or Maureen or the grandkids or anyone. I’ve been frozen.”

“You want some tea?” she asks, the air growing nippy. “Thaw out a little?”

“No, thank you, Susan,” he says, kissing her cheek. “I think I already am thawing out a little. I’m going to Balducci’s to get a quart of milk. You want anything?”

“Balducci’s isn’t there anymore,” she says, blushing from his kiss. “Come for tea tomorrow. Okay?”

“Okay,” he says, eager to see what has taken the place of Balducci’s.

As Wade nears the corner where Balducci’s used to be, his brain tricks him with a fleeting image of the little grocery store that dissolves into a spanking new café fronted by a red brick terrace on which large blue umbrellas rise from round tables surrounded by green plastic wicker chairs, the sign above the café entrance proclaiming FRACTAL BREW in large white san serif letters on a black background.

Wade approaches the new café feeling sad about the disappearance of the little grocery store that was a foundational component of his life for forty-five years, but also feeling mighty curious about FRACTAL BREW because he was, after all, a Physics teacher who was madly in love with fractals. He had a cat named Fractal. For thirty years he oversaw an after-school club for Math and Physics geeks called Imagining Fractals, the club T-shirt black with Infinitely Self-Similar writ in large white letters on both the front and back of the shirt.

“But why did they have to replace Balducci’s?” he says to no one. “Where will I buy things that Mimi forgets to buy?”

He enters FRACTAL BREW and marvels at the gleaming hardwood floor, the chrome and red-leather booths, the stainless steel table tops, the many and voluble customers, the black marble counter, and the sparkling kitchen beyond.

“I feel like Rip Van Winkle,” he says, stepping up to the counter and smiling at a young Eurasian woman in a fetching white dress, a red rose in her glossy black hair.

“I don’t think we have that,” she says, pointing at the big chalkboard on the wall. “I’m new here, but I’m pretty sure those are the only coffee drinks we serve, and I know we don’t have that kind of beer.”

“I meant the guy who wakes up after sleeping for twenty years and finds everything changed.” Wade studies the young woman and guesses she is twenty-three, the age of his granddaughter Lisa, Diana’s oldest child. “Would it be possible for you to sell me a quart of milk? Whole milk, not skim.”

“I’ll check,” she says, leaving the counter and sauntering into the kitchen.

Wade looks around the room and is struck by how familiar everyone seems, as if forty of his former students are having a reunion.

“Here you are,” says the young woman, returning to the counter with a quart container of milk. “That will be four dollars and twenty-five cents.”

“Thank you so much,” says Wade, handing her a five-dollar bill. “Keep the change. Did you know this used to be a little grocery store? Balducci’s. I must have bought five thousand quarts of milk here. Maybe ten thousand.”

“Awesome,” she says quietly as she puts the quart of milk into a snazzy black bag with FRACTAL BREW printed on both sides. “There’s a photograph of Balducci’s on the wall by the front door. I thought maybe it was an Italian restaurant.”

“No,” says Wade, shaking his head. “Just a little grocery store.”

Instead of going home the way he came, Wade wanders through the commercial district bordering his neighborhood, and he’s glad to see Rick’s Automotive is still here, Hobart’s Used Books is still here, Levant’s Ice Cream Shoppe is still here, and Kim’s Dry Cleaners is still here.

When he arrives at the corner of Delaware and 57th Avenue where he usually crosses Delaware to re-enter his neighborhood, he finds a woman and a boy squatting with their backs against the wall of a shuttered storefront, a flimsy cardboard box on the sidewalk in front of them. The woman is in her thirties and wearing a dirty orange jacket and greasy brown trousers. The boy is seven or eight and wearing a filthy gray sweatshirt and grass-stained blue jeans.

Wade gets out his wallet, intending to give the woman five dollars, when the boy says in a croaky voice, “Puppies for sale. You wanna buy a puppy?”

“Puppies?” says Wade, the word striking deep into his heart.

“Only two left,” says the woman, her voice croaky, too. “The mother is a Black Lab, and we’re pretty sure there was more than one father. We know a Dalmatian got to her, but we’re not sure who else.”

Wade peers down into the cardboard box and sees two little brown blobs of fur, his vision obscured by tears. “How much?” he says, sobbing.

“Ten bucks each?” says the woman, jumping to her feet. “You want one?”

“Two,” says Wade, handing her all the money in his wallet, seventy-eight dollars. “I want both of them.”

Darkness is falling when Wade gets home with the quart of milk from FRACTAL BREW and the cardboard box containing two puppies. He finds a note on the kitchen counter from Mimi saying she’s gone to her yoga class at the YMCA and will be home at nine.

He puts the milk in the refrigerator and picks up the two puppies, one in each hand, and they wiggle and whimper and one of them pees on him.

When Mimi comes home, she finds Wade’s car parked in the driveway instead of in the garage, and when she enters the house, she is startled to see the big-screen television gone from the living room. She hears Wade laughing in the garage, so she hurries through the kitchen and opens the inside door to the garage, and here is Wade sitting on the floor playing with two adorable puppies.

The sight of Wade with the little dogs makes Mimi furious. “Are you insane?” she screams. “Getting puppies at your age? You could drop dead any day now and I’ll be saddled with your fucking dogs.”

Wade looks at her and says calmly, “I picked up a quart of milk for you. And if you don’t want to live with a man with dogs, we’ll get divorced.”

“Divorced?” she yells. “We’re not getting divorced. Just get rid of the dogs.”

“Mimi,” he says, taking a deep breath. “Your yoga class got out at six. And then you went to your lover’s house for three hours and now you’re home. Did you think I didn’t know about your affairs? I’ve always known. Since way back when. You must have known I knew. Yoga classes don’t last four hours. Lunch dates don’t last five. Maybe I should have divorced you the first time you cheated on me, but the kids were so little, and… then later, I don’t know, I came to accept what you were doing and decided to stay with you until the kids went to college. But when they were gone, I felt too old and afraid to start a new life without you, so I just went along with things. But when Michael died…” He holds back his tears. “When Michael died and you didn’t change the pattern of your life even a little to spend more time with me, I thought if I ever recovered from my terrible depression, I would ask you to be my wife again and not someone else’s wife. And if you won’t do that for me, for us, then I and my dogs will go elsewhere and start a new life.”

“And the house?” says Mimi, never having imagined Wade would be the one to suggest divorce. “We would sell the house?”

“Or you can buy me out,” he says, allowing himself to cry.

“I would like to do that,” she says, looking away from him. “I have four more years until I retire and I’d like to stay in this house until then and possibly longer.”

“So be it,” he says, smiling through his tears. “I want you to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”

 The next morning, Wade wakes in the bed in the room that was Michael’s room when Michael was a boy and a teenager, and Wade’s very first thought is of the puppies waiting for him in the garage, how they need to be fed and petted, need to be taken out into the backyard to pee and poop and run and play, need to be loved.

And the thought of being with those marvelous little dogs propels Wade out of bed as he has not been propelled since he was a young man and every day was a glorious adventure.

fin

Naomi Drives To Portland

October 22nd, 2018

Naomi Drives To Portland

Naomi can count on one hand the number of times she’s left the greater Los Angeles area since she was born in North Hollywood sixty-two years ago. When she was twenty, Naomi married Simon Welch, a real estate agent, and expected to have children soon thereafter. When she didn’t get pregnant after two years of trying, she went to three doctors, each of whom declared her plenty fertile, while Simon refused to see a doctor to determine the viability of his half of the bargain.

Having planned her entire life around having kids, Naomi waited another year and then gave Simon an ultimatum. “Consult a doctor about your potency or I’m filing for divorce.”

Simon steadfastly refused to see a doctor, they divorced, and Naomi went to work as the secretary for a small-time movie producer named Sheldon Reznick. While working for Sheldon, Naomi, who reminded more than a few men of Marilyn Monroe if Marilyn had been short and brunette, caught the eye of a young director named Horace Fielding and he wooed Naomi zealously.

They were married when Naomi was twenty-six and Horace was thirty-three. Naomi got pregnant on their honeymoon in Palm Springs, and when she was eight months pregnant, Horace directed the tiny-budget comedy Your Name Again Was? that eventually grossed over fifty million dollars.

Seven years later, when their son David was seven and their daughter Rachel was five, Horace left Naomi for a nineteen-year-old fashion model from Sweden. By then, Horace had directed seven big-budget movies and he and Naomi were extremely wealthy. In the divorce settlement, Naomi got the five-bedroom house on the beach in Malibu, the condo in Century City, sole custody of the children, and twenty million dollars.

Three years later, when Naomi was thirty-six, she married Myron Lowenstein, a venture capitalist seventeen years her senior, with whom she had her third child, Frieda. Naomi and Myron were married for twenty-six years until Myron’s death three years ago when he was eighty-two.

“What’s so good about Portland?” asks Naomi, talking on the phone to her eighty-seven-year-old mother Golda. “First David moved there, then Frieda, and now Rachel. Finally they’re all about to have children and they want me to move there, too. How can I move? I’ve lived here my whole life. You’re here. I know where everything is. All my friends are here. I offered to buy them houses here, but they had to go to Portland. Why? David can work anywhere on his computer, Rachel can write television shows anywhere, and Frieda could have gone to law school at UCLA or USC. Why Lewis & Clark? Whoever they are. David goes on and on about how beautiful it is there, how fabulous the restaurants. What? We don’t have restaurants here?”

“It rains for hours and hours every day in Portland,” says Golda, angrily. “Those people there get so depressed they kill themselves. In droves. What’s wrong with sunshine?”

“Exactly,” says Naomi, despondently. “Frieda says it doesn’t rain so much there anymore and sometimes they have snow. Since when is snow a good thing?”

“Since never,” says Golda, making a spluttering sound. “Twenty-two winters I lived through in Detroit. If I never see snow again, I’ll be happy. We kissed the ground when we got to Los Angeles.”

“I’ll kiss the ground when I get back,” says Naomi, starting to cry. “But Rachel is due in three weeks. I have to be with her. I’m driving to Portland day after tomorrow. I’ll be gone for the rest of September and most of October, maybe longer. I’ll call you every day at the usual time. At least they’re in the same time zone.”

“You’re driving?” says Golda, aghast. “That will take forever. Why not fly?”

“I don’t fly, Mama. Remember? I flew to New York that one time with Horace? It was the worst experience of my life. How I lived to tell the tale I’ll never know.”

“His last movie was a bomb,” says Golda, snorting. “Serves him right, the schmuck.”

“Actually that was three movies ago,” says Naomi, who keeps close tabs on Horace’s career. “His last two films have been huge. Horror movies.”

“He should be ashamed.”

“He makes money,” says Naomi, looking around her immaculate home. “That’s all he ever cared about.” She clears her throat. “Money and young women. So I’m leaving Monday. I’ll spend the night with Lisa in San Mateo and then…”

“Lisa? Lisa who?”

“Lisa Leibowitz. You remember Lisa. We went to high school together.”

“I thought she lived in Glendale.”

“She moved to San Mateo twenty years ago.”

“Who knew?”

“I told you hundreds of times.” Naomi rolls her eyes. “Anyway, from San Mateo I drive eight hours to a place called Gold Beach. In Oregon. I’m staying in a motel there that Rachel and David both love. Right on the beach. As if I’m not already right on the beach. And I’ll get to Portland the next day if I don’t get killed first.”

“Why would you get killed?”

“I’m not planning on it,” says Naomi, sighing heavily, “but you never know.”

Naomi makes the drive in her big new silver Mercedes. From Malibu to San Mateo the trip is a piece of cake, and she has a nice visit with Lisa. The traffic she encounters the next morning between San Mateo and Cloverdale reminds her of driving in Los Angeles, but when she gets twenty miles north of Willits on Highway 101, she begins to feel uneasy about the absence of towns and houses; and the disquieting lack of traffic makes her wonder if something terrible has happened in the greater world, something that has made people afraid to go anywhere.

Now quite abruptly the highway shrinks from four lanes to two, with huge trees crowding the road on either side, and she feels she has entered a cold and alien place of endless forests void of people. So to quell her growing panic, she calls her daughter Rachel in Portland, and to her horror, her brand new phone won’t work.

“Why can’t I use my phone?” she asks the onboard computer. “My phone doesn’t work. Why not?”

“No coverage here,” says the robotic voice.

“How far to coverage?” asks Naomi, breathing hard.

“Garberville,” says the voice.

“How far to Garberville?” asks Naomi, her heart pounding.

“Forty-two miles,” says the voice. “At your current speed you will arrive in fifty-seven minutes.”

“Why no coverage until Garberville?” asks Naomi, her voice trembling.

“No coverage until Garberville,” says the voice.

Naomi’s heart is beating so fast, she thinks she might be about to have a heart attack; and just as she has this thought, a pullout appears on her right, so she eases off the road, and there at the far end of the pullout is a young woman holding a baby—a cardboard sign propped up against her backpack saying EUREKA.

And because Naomi is terribly frightened and desperate for help, she pulls up beside the young woman, lowers the passenger window, and says haltingly, “Can you… can you help me? I’m… I’m having trouble breathing.”

“I can help you,” says the young woman, speaking calmly.

“Thank you,” says Naomi, turning off her engine and closing her eyes.

The young woman opens the passenger side door, sets her baby on the passenger seat, hurries around the nose of the car to the driver’s side, opens the door, and places her right hand on Naomi’s shoulder, her left hand on Naomi’s forehead. “You’ll be fine,” she says softly. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

“Thank you,” says Naomi, keeping her eyes closed. “You’re very kind.”

“Had a scare, huh?” says the young woman, smiling at her baby who smiles back at her. “Where you from?”

“LA,” says Naomi, relaxing a little. “I’ve never been anywhere so far away from anything else, and there were no towns or houses and hardly any traffic, so I started to feel anxious and tried to call my daughter but my phone wouldn’t work, and that threw me into a panic and my heart was racing and I couldn’t get a deep breath and…” She starts to cry. “I thought I was gonna have a heart attack, so…”

“You’ll be fine,” says the young woman, her voice warm and tender. “Everybody gets scared sometimes. You’ll be fine.”

Naomi opens her eyes and smiles at the young woman. “What’s your name? Where are you going?”

“Teresa,” says the young woman, taking her hand away from Naomi’s forehead but keeping her other hand on Naomi’s shoulder. “That’s my boy Jacob. We’re on our way to Portland.”

“Why are you here?” asks Naomi, her panic subsiding. “In the middle of nowhere.”

“I guess so I could help you,” says Teresa, nodding. “I wondered why they dropped us off here instead of in a town. Just out of the blue they pulled over and told me to get out.”

“Who?” asks Naomi, grimacing. “Who would leave you here?”

“It was a couple,” says Teresa, shrugging. “Man and a woman. Picked us up at the north end of Willits. I don’t think she wanted to stop for us, but he did. She wouldn’t talk to me and he wouldn’t stop talking to me and she was not happy about that, so I think she gave him an ultimatum.”

“Are you… are you homeless?” asks Naomi, smiling sadly at Teresa.

“Kind of,” says Teresa, nodding. “At least until we get to Portland. Can you hand me my boy? I think he’s about to throw a fit.”

“Oh don’t do that, Jacob,” says Naomi, talking baby talk to the little boy as she picks him up. “Oh you are such a sweetie pie. Here’s your mother. Don’t worry.”

She hands Jacob to Teresa and gazes at the two of them, and they seem incredibly familiar to her, as if she’s known and loved them forever.

“I know you didn’t stop to give us a ride,” says Teresa, smiling hopefully, “but I sure would appreciate a lift to Garberville. Much better chance of getting a ride from there.”

“Garberville Schmarberville,” says Naomi, beaming at the young mother and child. “I’m taking you to Portland.”

They stop for lunch at a food truck selling Mexican food in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store on the southern outskirts of Eureka—a dozen pickups parked around the food truck, the clientele mostly laborers, most of them Latinos.

“Is it safe here?” asks Naomi, gazing out her window at the burly men sitting at tables near the food truck.

“Oh, yeah,” says Teresa, nodding assuredly. “And the food is really good. You said you liked Mexican. There’s a fantastic Mexican place in Gold Beach, too, but we won’t get there until dinnertime, so…”

“Maybe I could wait in the car with Jacob,” says Naomi, panicking. “And you get the food.” She rummages in her purse and comes up with a fifty-dollar bill. “How about that?”

“I think I better take him with me,” says Teresa, opening her door. “He’s kind of needy right now.”

“Okay,” says Naomi, taking a deep breath. “I’ll come with you.”

So they get out of the car and the men at the tables and the men in line at the food truck all turn to watch Naomi and Teresa and Jacob approach—Teresa a beautiful young woman with long brown hair dressed in blue jeans and a black sweatshirt, Naomi an attractive woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair wearing a long gray skirt and an elegant magenta blouse.

The closer they get to the men, the more terrified Naomi becomes, and she is just about to turn around and run back to her car when a big Mexican man at one of the tables smiles at her and says in English with a thick Spanish accent, “That’s a beautiful car you got there. Es un hybrid, sí?”

“Yes, a hybrid,” says Naomi, laughing nervously. “It’s so quiet you can hardly tell when the engine is running.”

“Es big, too,” says the man, nodding. “I don’t like those little Mercedes, you know? Want that leg room.”

“Yes, leg room is good,” says Naomi, grinning at the man. “You can’t ever have enough leg room.”

The man and his three companions nod in agreement, and Naomi’s fear vanishes.

Teresa hands Jacob to Naomi before stepping up to the window of the food truck to place their order, and as Naomi nuzzles Jacob and makes him chuckle, she is startled to hear Teresa speaking rapid-fire Spanish to the woman in the truck. Until this moment, it never occurred to Naomi that Teresa might be Mexican because Teresa speaks English without an accent and, judging by her appearance, she could easily not be Mexican.

They share a table with three Mexican men and an African American man, the conversation mostly about fishing until the African American man asks Teresa how old Jacob is.

“Ten months,” says Teresa, feeding Jacob a spoonful of rice. “Almost eleven.”

“Big boy,” says the African American man, grinning at Jacob. “Daddy big?”

“Tall,” says Teresa, nodding. “But skinny.”

“You never can tell how big they gonna end up,” says the African American man. “I got three kids and the one who was the littlest baby turned out to be the biggest. He bigger than me, and I’m big.”

“I have three kids, too,” says Naomi, eager to join the conversation. “And come to think of it, David was the smallest of the three and the shortest kid in his class until Fourth Grade, and then he shot up like a weed and ended up six-foot-two. His father was only five-seven. I don’t know how David got so tall. There’s no tall people on either side going way back.”

“My wife,” says one of the Mexican men, “in school, you know, she learn if they get lots of sleep then they grow more.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” says Naomi, liking everyone at the table. “And come to think of it, David was always a great sleeper. He could sleep through anything. I think you’re absolutely right. Sleep is so important. If I don’t get enough sleep, you don’t want be around me. Believe me.”

“I believe you,” says the African American man, nodding. “I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not getting up on a roof.”

“Sí,” says another of the Mexican men. “Remember when Juan came to work so sleepy. That’s when he fell.”

“Got to have sleep,” says the African American man, winking at Naomi. “Sleep is how we charge up those batteries.”

“What a nice bunch of guys we had lunch with,” says Naomi, walking with Teresa and Jacob down an aisle in a Target store in Eureka, a saleswoman wearing a red vest leading the way. “I’m so glad you took us there.”

“I lived here a couple years ago,” says Teresa, nodding. “That was my favorite place to eat. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for treating us.”

“Here we are,” says the red-vested woman. “These three car seats are all good for infants. You’ll need a bigger one in a couple years when he’s a toddler.”

“Which is the best one?” asks Naomi, gazing at the selection of car seats.

“This one,” says the woman, touching the biggest one. “You don’t want to skimp on your car seat.”

“Never,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “We’ll take that one. Could someone to show us how to hook it up in my car?”

“Um…” says the woman, frowning. “We don’t usually do that sort of thing.”

“I know how they work,” says Teresa, nodding confidently. “Not a problem.”

Jacob fusses a little when he is strapped into the car seat for the first time, so Teresa sits beside him on the backseat, caressing him and singing to him until at last he falls asleep; and the moment his eyes close, Teresa falls asleep, too.

And though Naomi is once again driving through a wild land of endless forests, she is no longer afraid.

Darkness is falling when they get to the Pacific Reef Motel in Gold Beach. Naomi gets a room for Teresa and Jacob adjacent to her room, and while Teresa takes a shower, Naomi plays with Jacob and talks on the phone with her daughter Rachel.

“Everything is going just fine,” says Naomi, sitting on the floor and holding Jacob’s hand as he stands next to her, trying to stay upright. “I had a fabulous lunch in Eureka and I’m looking forward to supper here in Gold Beach.”

“Go to the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, her words a command not a suggestion. “It’s just right next door to you. It’s the only nice restaurant around there.”

“I may try a little Mexican place a few blocks from here,” says Naomi, laughing as Jacob falls on his butt in slow motion. “I’ve heard it’s terrific.”

“Mom, just go the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, sounding annoyed. “It’s clean and the food is good. Okay?”

“I’m kind of craving Mexican food,” says Naomi, helping Jacob stand up again.

The little boy gives Naomi an enormous smile and squeals in delight.

“What was that?” asks Rachel, startled by Jacob’s squeal. “Sounded like a baby.”

“There’s a baby next door,” says Naomi, laughing again as Jacob performs another slow motion sit down. “Warm night. The windows are open.”

“Just go to the Schooner, okay? The last thing I want to do is worry about you. Okay?”

“I’m fine, honey. Don’t worry.”

Sated with delicious Mexican food from a little hole in the wall Naomi would never have gone to on her own, Teresa and Naomi and Jacob return to the motel, Teresa changes Jacob’s diaper, nurses him, and he falls fast asleep in the middle of the bed.

Sitting on the floor with their backs against the bed, Naomi and Teresa drink chamomile tea and Teresa says, “So… guess how old I am?”

“Twenty-two,” says Naomi, exhausted and wide-awake at the same time. “Twenty-three?”

“I’m twenty-seven,” says Teresa, shaking her head as if she disbelieves the number. “I had a whole other life until five years ago.”

“Tell me,” says Naomi, nodding encouragingly. “I’d love to hear.”

“I was born in LA,” says Teresa, closing her eyes. “My mother was from New Jersey, my father from Mexico. They met in a restaurant where they both worked. She was the pastry chef and he was a cook. They fell in love, got married, had my brother and me, and we were pretty happy until they got divorced when I was six. My mom got custody of us, but we saw my father on the weekends. He’d take us to the movies or to the beach and we’d get pizza or Mexican food. He was… he was a sweet guy.” She stops talking and sips her tea.

“Where is he now?” asks Naomi, having seen her own father every day of her life until he died ten years ago.

“I don’t know,” says Teresa, wistfully. “We didn’t see him much after I was eleven. He had some other kids with his second wife, but I never got to know them.” She shrugs. “I lost contact with him when we moved to Phoenix when I was sixteen. That’s where I finished high school and went to college at Arizona State.”

“What did you study?” asks Naomi, who never went to college.

“Drama and music.” Teresa makes a self-deprecating face. “I was gonna be a movie star. Silly me.”

“You could be,” says Naomi, knowingly. “You’re beautiful and you move beautifully, and you have a marvelous voice.”

“Thank you,” says Teresa, blushing.

“So then what happened?” asks Naomi, intrigued by Teresa’s story. “After college.”

“I never finished,” says Teresa, shaking her head. “I got really depressed halfway through my junior year.”

“How come?”

“Oh… my mother had this horrible boyfriend who was always hitting on me, you know, and I was afraid to tell her because she really liked him and…” She winces. “You sure you want to hear this?”

“More than anything,” says Naomi, her eyes full of tears.

“Why?” asks Teresa, her heart aching.

“Because I care about you, and because… it’s good to tell our stories to each other.” She touches Teresa’s hand. “That’s what we’re here for. To listen to each other. Don’t you think so?”

“Yeah,” says Teresa, whispering. “Maybe so.”

“No maybe about it,” says Naomi, tapping Teresa’s hand. “So your mother’s boyfriend was hitting on you and you didn’t tell her and…”

“I got into alcohol,” she says, looking away. “And drugs and… then I dropped out and I’ve been on the road ever since.” She looks into Naomi’s eyes. “But I’ve been off all booze and drugs, even pot, since before I got pregnant with Jacob. A little more than two years now.”

“That’s fantastic,” says Naomi, taking hold of Teresa’s hand. “Good for you, Teresa. That takes a very strong will. I’m proud of you. And who is Jacob’s father?”

“He was a graduate student at the University of Washington,” she says, allowing herself to cry. “I thought I’d finally found a really good guy to be with.  He said he wanted to marry me, but when I got pregnant he told me to get an abortion, and when I wouldn’t, he wouldn’t see me anymore. So… here I am.” She shrugs. “That’s the short version. I’ll spare you the gritty details.”

“So tell me this,” says Naomi, giving Teresa’s hand a tender squeeze. “If you had plenty of money, what would you do?”

“I’d get a room in a house in a good school district,” she says, nodding assuredly. “For Jacob. And I’d get a job and go to night school and get a degree in Psychology and become a counselor or a therapist.”

“That sounds wonderful,” says Naomi, excitedly. “That sounds like something I should do.”

 The next morning, after they take a long walk on a vast wild beach, they have breakfast in a café attached to a bookstore, and when their food arrives, Teresa bursts into tears.

“What’s wrong, dear?” asks Naomi, putting a hand on Teresa’s shoulder.

“I’m just… I’m just so grateful,” she says, weeping. “Last night… that was the first really good night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time, and all this good food… my milk is coming good again for Jacob.” She looks at Naomi. “You’re an angel.”

“You’re the angel,” says Naomi, putting her arms around Teresa. “I’m just a rich person who was afraid of the world until now.”

Inching along the freeway ten miles south of Portland, Naomi turns to Teresa and says, “Where am I taking you?”

“Downtown,” says Teresa, smiling brightly. “Anywhere downtown.”

“You have a place to stay?” asks Naomi, frowning.

“There’s a woman who let me sleep on her porch last year,” says Teresa, nodding. “She was real nice. I’m pretty sure she’ll let me stay there again.”

“No,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “You need a place to live. We’ll get you a motel room, and tomorrow we’ll start looking for a house.”

“A house?” says Teresa, staring at Naomi as if she’s insane. “What are you talking about?”

“You need a place to live and I need a house in Portland,” says Naomi, glaring at the stuck traffic. “What’s going on here? This is just like LA. Is this why my kids moved here? Because it reminds them of home?” She smiles at Teresa. “After all these years they’re finally having children and they want me to move here. And though I’m not ready to move here permanently, I will be spending lots of time here. So… I’ll buy a house and you can live there and take care of the place when I’m not here, and help me with the place when I am here. You can go back to school, and you and Jacob will have a home and I’ll be his grandmother.”

Teresa looks out the window at a homeless encampment next to the freeway and sees a man in filthy clothes crawl out of a battered tent, his face etched with lines of worry.

Now she takes a deep breath and closes her eyes and sees a beautiful old house on a tree-lined street, the sidewalk covered with snow, Naomi coming out the front door wearing a fur hat and a long black coat; and she’s holding the hand of a little boy bundled up in a snowsuit—Jacob three years from now.

“Okay,” says Teresa, opening her eyes and looking at Naomi. “I guess that’s what God wants for us.”

“I don’t know about God,” says Naomi, smiling through her tears, “but I know about me and I know about you and I know about Jacob, and if there were ever three people who were meant to be together, we are those people.”

fin

Zelman’s Van

October 15th, 2018

Zelman's Van

Zelman was born and raised in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. His given name is Zachariah Elman, though as far back as he can remember, which is thirty years to when he was three, his mother and father and older sister and younger brother called him Z.

At Cornell, where he majored in Music, his name appeared on the dorm roster as Z. Elman, and during a mixer on his first night of college, his inebriated roommate called him Zelman, and forever after he has been known as Zelman.

His senior year at Cornell, Zelman fell in love with the beautiful Mimi Osterwald, a Drama major, also a senior, and the summer after they graduated, they got married and moved to Queens, Mimi to pursue her acting career, Zelman to play guitar and piano and write songs.

Eleven years later, living in an apartment in Burlington, New Jersey, barely making ends meet, Mimi told Zelman she was involved with Albert Rosenstein, a television producer, and was moving to Albert’s apartment in Manhattan.

Unable to afford the apartment in Burlington on his own, Zelman gave two-weeks notice at the hotel where he played piano in the cocktail lounge, and two-weeks notice at the pizza parlor where he worked thirty hours a week. When his obligations to his employers were fulfilled, he loaded his clothes and books and two guitars and two ukuleles and a conga drum and bongos and maracas into his forest green 1972 Volkswagen van named Miles, and headed west, his destination Los Angeles where he had a college chum who was a recording engineer and had space in his living room where Zelman could crash for a while.

Zelman at thirty-three has longish brown hair, wears wire-framed glasses, and is slender for the first time in twenty years. He was never obese, but from puberty until recently he was more than a little chubby. Starting a year ago, he began swimming fifty laps every morning at the Burlington Aquatic Center, lifting weights for an hour every afternoon at the YMCA, and gave up beer, potato chips, and ice cream, all of which led to the disappearance of thirty pounds and the appearance of muscles.

As Mimi said several times in the weeks leading up to the end of their relationship, “Suddenly you’re all svelte and handsome. What happened to the sweet soft guy I married?”

“The sweet soft guy you married stopped feeling sorry for himself,” says Zelman, cruising along in the slow lane on Interstate 64 somewhere in Kentucky in late September, his van averse to going over fifty-miles-per-hour. “The sweet soft guy you married decided to stop partaking of your sob fest every night, which was apparently just a cover for your affair with that slimy putz Rosenstein who is old enough to be your father. Well, not quite.”

Zelman sighs as he does after every outburst concerning Mimi, his sigh an acknowledgement that he misses her, though he knows their relationship was founded on the expectation that whether they succeeded in their chosen careers or not, they would always live as comfortably as they had as middle class children and teenagers and young adults attending an Ivy League college; and when they could no longer afford to live so comfortably, their relationship began to founder.

“Which means she never really loved me,” says Zelman, exiting the interstate to get gas. “So did I ever really love her? Or was I just obsessed with trying to win her love because she was beautiful and vivacious and I was chunky and wimpy and thought if by some miracle she would love me, I would be transformed into…what? Not me?”

“What town is this?” asks Zelman, handing a twenty-dollar bill to the middle-aged Pakistani man sitting on a high stool behind the counter in the gas station quick-stop store.

“Which pump?” asks the Pakistani man, taking the bill from Zelman.

“Witch Pump?” says Zelman, wrinkling his nose. “Why would anyone name a town Witch Pump?”

The Pakistani man gazes stoically at Zelman. “Which pump do you want gas from?”

“Oh,” says Zelman, laughing. “Number Four. And can you tell me the name of this town?”

“Frankfort,” says the man, tapping the requisite keys on his computer to activate Pump Number Four.

Zelman is cleaning his windshield when a shiny black Porsche pulls up behind his van, and a man wearing black cowboy boots and black jeans and a red silk shirt and a black cowboy hat and dark glasses jumps out and says with a southern drawl, “Hello there. You want to make a quick hundred bucks?”

“Are you speaking to me?” asks Zelman, smiling quizzically at the man.

“I am,” says the man, taking off his dark glasses and blinking in the bright sunlight. “We’re shooting a music video just up the road here and if you’ll drive your van back and forth real slow behind the action, I’ll give you a hundred bucks cash. Take a couple hours.” He grins. “That’s a helluva van you got there, buddy. Iconic. 1973? 74?”

“72,” says Zelman, gazing fondly at his van. “My father bought it new when he graduated from college, and then he gave it to me when I went off to Cornell.”

“That’s not the original paint job, is it?” asks the man, frowning.

“No,” says Zelman, wistfully. “I did this by hand the summer after my junior year of college. Seven coats. Hence the profound shellac effect. Did you notice the thousands of tiny gold stars on the dark green? An homage to Seurat.”

“I did not notice the stars,” says the man, taking a closer look at the paint job. “Beautiful. You want the gig?”

“I do,” says Zelman, both curious and low on cash.

The action behind which Zelman slowly drives his van is performed by a troupe of nine amazingly limber female dancers ranging in age from seven to thirty, dancing with shopping carts in the big empty parking lot of a defunct mall. The dancers are wearing artfully ripped T-shirts of various colors tucked into white jeans, their feet shod in pink tennis shoes.

Burt Carlton, the man who hired Zelman and his van, is the producer of the music video. Vivienne Bartok, the director of the shoot, is small and slender and Russian, her black hair cut very short. She is wearing a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded blue jeans and red sandals. Zelman guesses Vivienne is about his age, though he also thinks she could be as young as twenty-five and as old as forty.

When Vivienne sees Zelman’s van, she gets very excited and says to Zelman with her charming Russian accent, “Here is what I want you to do. Drive by very slowly about ten feet behind the dancers, go out-of-frame, turn around, and then slowly return and stop right behind the dancers and stay there until they finish their routine. When the music stops, you will drive away and the dancers will chase after you with their shopping carts.”

The song for the video is five-minutes-long and features drum machines playing a syncopated rhythm over a great din of synthesized sound, the words of the three-note melody sung by a woman with a high screechy voice. For each of the takes, the song is blasted from a large speaker sitting atop the equipment truck. The first time Zelman drives by behind the dancers, he thinks the singer is saying, “You my slave.” When he drives back the other way and comes to a stop behind the dancers, he thinks the woman might be saying, “Glue my cave.”

In any case, Zelman loathes the song and hopes Burt and Vivienne won’t ask him to drive back and forth more than a few times.

After the third take, while the dancers take a break for water and to catch their breaths, Zelman gets out of his van and watches Vivienne direct her cameraperson to shoot close-ups of the golden flowers on the dark green.

“Is Zelman your first name or your last name?” asks Vivienne, pronouncing first fierce and last lest, which Zelman finds ironic and sexy.

“Both,” he says, looking around the parking lot at the dancers and the film crew and his old green van, and he is amazed to realize that just a little while ago he was driving along the interstate feeling as lost as he has ever felt, almost out of gas, and now he’s in Frankfort, Kentucky on a warm afternoon in early autumn, starring with his van in a music video and making a hundred dollars.

“What do you do, Zelman?” asks Vivienne, smiling curiously at him.

“I’m a musician,” he says, nodding to affirm this. “Piano and guitar and all manner of percussion. And I write songs. But I’ve had many other jobs to support my musical habit.”

“Have you got a demo I can listen to?” she asks, arching her eyebrow in a beguiling way. “Maybe this is why God brought you to me? I’m always looking for good songs.”

“No demo,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but if we can find a piano, I’d be happy to give you a concert.”

“We can find a piano,” she says, nodding. “But first, a few more takes of this dance with your van.”

Eleven more takes consume three hours, and dusk is descending when the assistant director finally says, “That’s a wrap,” and the film crew starts loading their cameras and lights and booms into the equipment truck; and the dancers get in their cars and drive away.

Burt hands Zelman a hundred dollars, ruminates for a moment, and gives him another hundred. “Woulda cost me at least three hundred to rent something like your van for the day. Thanks again.”

“Thank you,” says Zelman, shaking Burt’s hand. “Much appreciated.”

“Gotta run,” says Burt, winking at Zelman.

“Of course,” says Zelman, watching Vivienne talking to a crewmember, a handsome guy with a baseball cap on backwards; and as he watches her, he decides she was only making small talk when she said they would find a piano. Even so, he lingers a while longer in case she really does want to hear his music—and the longer he lingers, the more invisible he feels.

Now Burt pulls up beside Vivienne in his shiny black Porsche, she gets in, and they zoom away.

Zelman sighs, takes a moment to let go of his disappointment, climbs into his van, and starts his engine. And as he depresses the clutch and puts his hand on the 8-ball-knob of the stick shift, he sees a small peach-colored envelope affixed to the door of his glove compartment with a piece of pink duct tape.

So he kills his engine, opens the envelope, and finds Vivienne’s elegant gray business card with a note written on the back in the smallest neatest hand he has ever seen.

Z. Sorry for subterfuge. I’ll explain later. I’m at Brown Hotel in Louisville. Supper? My treat. Call me. V.

They partake of a delicious room-service supper in Vivienne’s plush suite on the third floor of the beautiful old hotel in downtown Louisville, the windows open, the evening warm and sultry. Vivienne is wearing a red T-shirt and pink sweat pants, Zelman a black T-shirt and baggy brown corduroy trousers, both of them barefoot. Vivienne has spicy prawns and mashed potatoes and a beet salad and two beers, while Zelman has fried chicken and mashed potatoes and string beans and a half-bottle of red wine.

They interview each other. Vivienne gets a quick overview of Zelman’s life, and Zelman learns that Vivienne is twenty-nine and emigrated to Los Angeles from Russia with her mother and father and younger sister when she was fifteen. While her father drove a taxi and her mother worked in a bakery, Vivienne suffered through a brief stint in high school before she landed a job as a gofer on the set of a movie produced by the father of a young man she met at a dance club. The gofer job led to more film production jobs, and she’s been in the movie biz ever since.

“I’m very ambitious,” she says, loading a small brass pipe with a glistening bud of marijuana. “I aspire to make feature films. But I actually have scruples, believe it or not.” She holds a match over the bud and takes a hit. “I don’t use sex to get what I want. I use my talent.”

She hands the pipe to Zelman, he takes a little hit, and hands the pipe back to her.

“You don’t smoke much pot, Zelman?” She arches a quizzical eyebrow. “Afraid you might say something you’ll regret?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I just…a little goes a long way for me.”

“Me, too,” she says, taking another hit and handing him the pipe again. “This is very mellow stuff. Good for talking and music.”

Zelman has another hit. “Your note said you would explain later. Explain what?”

“Oh Burt is in love with me,” she says, shrugging. “I give him no hope, but he has big crush, so…I have three more days working here and he would be jealous if he knew I invited you, so it’s better he doesn’t know. It will make the next three days less hassle for me if he doesn’t know. Unrequited love is one thing, but jealousy wrecks everything.”

“Whereas unrequited love inspires love songs,” says Zelman, finding her surpassingly lovely.

“Exactly,” she says, laughing. “He’s not a bad producer. Look how he found you and your van.”

“I can see why he’s in love with you,” says Zelman, gesturing as if presenting her to the world. “You’re a darling.”

“This is famous Chekhov story,” says Vivienne, nodding slowly. “The Darling. I am opposite of this character. Do you know the story?”

“I don’t,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “How are you the opposite?”

“She takes on ambitions of the men she marries. She cannot exist except as an assistant to powerful men, one after another. I have my own ambitions and I like being the boss. I like to collaborate, but not give up my power.”

“That’s why I love music,” says Zelman, itching to play a song for her. “I can play alone or share the magic.”

“There’s a piano in the ballroom they are not using tonight,” says Vivienne, having a last puff. “They said we could use the piano.”

Zelman is awestruck by the Steinway in the ballroom, a superb seven-foot grand in perfect tune, and being blissfully stoned, he launches into a jazzy bluesy improvisation full of longing and mystery that leads seamlessly into his song Nothing Anybody Says, his smoky tenor riding on glorious waves of notes and chords.

Now he looks up from the keys and sees Vivienne swaying to the music, her hands clasped, her eyes closed, a sublime smile on her face, and seeing her so enthralled by his music inspires Zelman to sing the last verse especially for her.

“What just happened?” she asks, opening her eyes and gazing wide-eyed at him. “You hypnotized me.”

“I played for you,” he says—a boy again, delighted by this enchanting girl who loves his music.

“Was amazing,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Come back to my room. We have much to discuss.”

In Vivienne’s room again, Zelman gets out his guitar and plays a rollicking samba-like tune with lyrics about the blurry line between love and lust, while Vivienne dances around the room with joyful abandon.

“Okay,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “here is my idea, Zelman. Yes, we are high and I must hear you again when I’m not stoned, but I know we can have big success together. First we will create videos that get hundreds of millions of views and then we make a feature film.”

“Videos of my songs?” he asks, sensing that isn’t quite what she means.

“Yes and no,” she says, picking up the hotel phone. “Hello. This is room 321. Can we please have coffee and cookies and French bread and butter? Yes, chocolate chip is fine. Thank you.”

“How yes and how no?” asks Zelman, trying and failing to imagine being married to Vivienne.

“The songs are important, of course,” she says, growing serious. “And your songs are wonderful, but without imagery they cannot prevail. Not today. The movies, the totalities of imagery and music, these are the songs now. Do you know what I mean, Zelman? If the Beatles came today and not sixty years ago their songs would be presented as soundtracks to little movies, otherwise we would not know of them. But more to the point, their songs would be designed to support the images. Songs now are subservient to imagery. Whether this is good or bad, I don’t know, but this is how things are. And this is what we can do together. Design music for movies and make those movies together.”

As he listens to Vivienne speak, Zelman realizes two things: he would love to be in a relationship with someone as straightforward and optimistic as Vivienne, though not necessarily with Vivienne, and he has absolutely no interest in designing music for movies.

The cookies and coffee and French bread and butter arrive, and after Zelman has two cups of coffee and a big piece of bread slathered with butter, he declares, “I’m going now, Vivienne. Take advantage of the caffeine high and eat up some miles on the empty interstate. I loved spending time with you. You’re wonderful. Thanks for everything.”

“Zelman?” she says, walking with him to the door. “I really like you. And I love your music. You will call me when you get to LA. Please? I really want to see you again, and I’m not just saying that.”

“I will call you when I get to LA,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I predict great success for you, Vivienne.”

“What about you?” she asks, taking his hand. “What do you predict for you?”

“A dog,” he says, embracing her. “I’d like to get a dog.”

“I like dogs, too,” she says, holding him tight. “Someday when I have a house with a yard, I will have a dog and our dogs will play together.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” he says, letting her go. “See you in LA.”

The next afternoon, Zelman stops at the FourWay Café in Cuba, Missouri, and as he peruses the menu, a woman wearing a billowy white blouse and a long rainbow-colored skirt enters the café, looks around at the twenty or so customers, sees Zelman, and crosses the room to him.

“Excuse me,” she says, her voice deep and warm, “is that your Volkswagen van out there? The green one with the gold stars?”

“Yes,” says Zelman, smiling at her. “Don’t tell me. You’re making a music video and want the iconic vehicle as a prop in your homage to the halcyon days of yore.”

The woman laughs and Zelman is struck by several things about her: how beautiful she becomes when she smiles, the jingling of her multi-faceted dangly silver earrings, the pleasant clacking of her three necklaces made of small chunks of turquoise, the sparkle in her blue eyes, the reddish hue in her long brown hair, the subtle Asiatic quality of her facial features, and the music in her laughter.

“I’m certainly dressed for such an homage,” she says, looking down at her billowy white blouse and rainbow-colored skirt and old leather sandals, “but I’m not making a music video, though I am a musician. No, I’m wondering about getting a ride with you to Arizona.” She pauses to see how Zelman reacts to that idea, and when he continues to gaze at her not unkindly, she adds, “For me and my daughter and our dog and our stuff. Our car blew up yesterday and I can’t currently afford the bus or the train or even to rent a car, but I can pay you three hundred dollars when we get to Arizona, assuming you’re heading west, which you might not be, but I thought I’d ask.”

“Are you and your daughter hungry?” asks Zelman, looking into the woman’s eyes and liking what he sees. “I would be happy to buy you lunch and we can see how we all get along. Or don’t.”

“We could use a meal,” says the woman, nodding thoughtfully. “But somebody’s gotta stay with the dog, so…”

They get their sandwiches and smoothies to go and dine on the tailgate of Zelman’s van.

The woman, Grace, is forty, a massage therapist, herbalist, and musician. Her daughter Teresa is fourteen, tall and slender with dark blonde hair in a ponytail that falls to her waist. She, too, is a musician. With them are two guitars, two violins, and two dulcimers.

The dog, Maurice, is a large seven-year-old Golden Retriever-Chocolate Lab mix, friendly, and keenly interested in food scraps.

They banter about this and that, enjoy each other, and Zelman is on the verge of agreeing to take Grace and Teresa and Maurice to Arizona, when Grace says, “We’re kind of in a hurry. I could trade off driving with you and we could go day and night without stopping.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to do that. For one thing, Miles, my van, can’t go over fifty and has to have a good long rest every seven or eight hours. With two more humans and a big dog on board, and all your stuff, forty-five would be the best we could hope for. Miles-per-hour. And then there’s me. I don’t like hurrying. Makes me anxious. I need to not be driving every other day or so. And also, though I’m headed for Los Angeles, I’m not keen on getting there any time soon, so hurrying is the exact opposite of what I want to do.”

Grace looks at Teresa, looks at the van, looks at Zelman, and says, “But if we go as slow as you want to, you’ll take us with you?”

“I will,” says Zelman, looking at Teresa and Maurice and Grace and their pile of instruments and suitcases and knapsacks and sleeping bags. “Assuming everything fits.”

 ∆

On the evening of his fifth day of traveling with Grace and Teresa and Maurice, Zelman sits by the campfire in their camping spot in Lake Scott State Park in western Kansas, listening to Teresa play her dulcimer and sing a song about a girl with hair of spun gold. Grace is walking Maurice on the path that goes around the little lake, hoping the dog will poop before bedtime.

The fire makes a loud crackling sound as Teresa sings the last note of her song, and Zelman hears the crackling as God applauding, and he applauds, too.

“Get out you guitar, Zelman,” says Teresa, her voice half a girl’s and half a woman’s, for she is still a girl though fast becoming a woman. “Let’s do that one you wrote about the guy going to the party.”

“You get out your fiddle, I’ll get out my guitar,” says Zelman, turning at the sound of Grace returning with Maurice and unhooking the leash from his collar so he can rush to Zelman and rest his snout on Zelman’s lap.

“Hey you,” says Zelman, petting the love-hungry dog and watching the women fetch their instruments from the van and knowing he has never been as happy as he is now.

fin

 

Juneau’s Farm

October 1st, 2018

Waiting For the Moment

Waiting For the Moment painting by Nolan Winkler

Two years ago, at the age of forty, Frederick Scott divorced his wife of seventeen years, gave up his life as an electrician in San Jose, California, and moved to Sedona, Arizona to become a follower of Sri Bihar, formerly known as Joshua Steinberg from Brooklyn.

When he arrived in Sedona, Frederick was pudgy and wan and suffering from indigestion and insomnia and depression. Now, after seventeen months of working twelve hours every day in Sri Bihar’s garden and kitchen in exchange for room and board and the honor of serving the guru and his seven anointed disciples, Frederick is lean and strong and healthy, no longer depressed, and sleeps well every night.

And Frederick might still be serving Sri Bihar in Sedona had he not, just a few weeks ago, and purely by accident, overheard his guru speaking on the phone to someone.

Having risen an hour before dawn to work for three hours in the ashram kitchen preparing breakfast for fifty sojourners—as those who make the pilgrimage to Sri Bihar are called—and weary from a subsequent two hours of washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, Frederick decided to spend his twenty minutes before reporting for lunch duty by taking a nap in the bamboo grove on the banks of Madan Creek.

The day warm, the creek in late summer little more than a melodious trickle, Frederick unfurled his prayer rug, set the alarm on his wristwatch for fifteen minutes, and lay down for a snooze. However, immediately upon lying down he heard footsteps on the dry bamboo leaves, and before he could reveal himself, he heard the unmistakable Brooklyn-accented voice of Sri Bihar saying, “So while I’m banging these beautiful women who come to worship me, I’ve convinced the men here to remain celibate so…wait for it…their inner feminine can blossom.” Then he cackled, did Sri Bihar. “I kid you not, Murray. These schmucks would put their heads up their butts if I told them to.”

Ten minutes later, Fredrick packed his knapsack with his few possessions, and hitchhiked from Sedona to Boulder, Colorado, where, in a state of shock, he stayed with his friend Rico and Rico’s wife Carla for three weeks before announcing to them one morning, “Yes, Sri Bihar is a charlatan, but I don’t regret my time with him. Those seventeen months got me over the mess of my previous life and now I’m prepared to carry on. I’m so grateful to you for letting me stay with you. I’ve decided to hitchhike to Nova Scotia and take a boat from there to England. I’ll send you postcards along the way.”

One hundred and thirty miles east of Boulder, in the town of Sterling, Fredrick has breakfast in a café called Paladin’s. On the café bulletin board, he sees a handwritten notice: Fulltime farmhand needed. Room and board and $600 a month. Call Juneau. 777-2297

In need of money, Frederick borrows the café phone and calls Juneau.

A woman with a husky voice answers on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Hi,” says Frederick, guessing from her hello that she is sad. “Is this Juneau?”

“Yeah,” she says softly. “Who’s this?”

“My name is Frederick Scott. I’m calling regarding your notice here in Paladin’s. Are you still looking for a farmhand?”

“Yes, I am,” she says, her manner becoming more business-like. “How old are you?”

“Forty-two,” he says, smiling at the waitress who allowed him to use the phone. “I’m accustomed to long hours of gardening and kitchen work. I’m in good health, I don’t smoke, and I’m quiet.”

“You local?” she asks, her tone implying she doesn’t think he is. “You sound a little British.”

“I am a little British,” he says, laughing. “And I’m not local. I was just in Boulder for a few weeks, and before that Sedona for seventeen months, and before that San Jose, California for eighteen years, and long before that I was born in England where I lived until I was eleven.”

“Can I meet you at Paladin’s?” she asks, sounding intrigued. “I’ve got some errands to run in town. I can be there in about forty minutes.”

“I’ll be here,” he says, cheerfully. “I’ll make a sign that says Frederick.”

“Can’t wait to see that,” she says with a touch of sarcasm.

Frederick is sitting at a table in Paladin’s enjoying a latte while he writes a postcard to Rico and Carla. On the table in front of him, a sheet of paper stands upright against a glass of water, the name FREDERICK written on the paper in large capital letters and aimed at the front door.

A woman enters the café, her eyes hidden by dark glasses. Sturdy and broad-shouldered, her brown hair in a ponytail, she moves with the strength and surety of an athlete. Frederick guesses she is in her mid-thirties until she takes off her dark glasses and his guess changes to mid-forties. She sees his FREDERICK sign and smiles, and he revises his guess to late thirties.

He gets up from the table as she approaches, they shake hands, and her grip informs him of her formidable strength.

“I like your sign,” she says, sitting down and looking away from him. “Just so we don’t waste each other’s time, I’ll tell you right now I need somebody for at least six months. So if you’re just passing through, this won’t work for me.”

“I understand,” says Frederick, nodding amiably. “And to be quite honest with you, Juneau, I do hope to eventually get to Nova Scotia, but I’m in no hurry, and if I like the job and the accommodations, I will gladly stay for six months.”

“I grow greenhouse vegetables year-round,” she says, opening a small notebook to consult a list she’s made. “In three really big greenhouses. I sell to local restaurants and the college and high school cafeterias. I grow about an acre of outdoor vegetables spring to fall, and two acres of potatoes. I have a hundred chickens for their eggs and raise twelve pigs a year, eleven for other people and one for me. There’s other stuff, too, but those are the main things I need help with. I also have two big dogs and two horses, and I usually board a few more horses over the winter. Oh, and I raise rabbits for their meat and pelts. I lease thirty acres to a farmer who grows alfalfa and I get a third of the bales.”

“And you and one farmhand do all the work?” asks Frederick, enjoying Juneau’s growly voice.

“Most of it. I hire high school kids when we get crazy busy in the summer, but I wouldn’t make any money if I had more than one person working full-time for me.” Now she glances at him and quickly looks away. “You interested?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding. “So far.”

“You go by Fred or Frederick?”

“Whatever you like.” He smiles. “Where does your one farmhand sleep?”

“You have your own cottage,” she says, waving to the waitress for coffee. “Has a bedroom and a little living room with a woodstove. Cozy. You take your meals with me. My last employee left three weeks ago. She was with me for two years, but she needed to make more money. It’s hard work and winters here aren’t easy, so…”

“Days off?” asks Frederick, warming to the idea of working for her.

“I try for easy Saturdays and Sundays,” she says, nodding her thanks as the waitress serves her coffee. “But chickens and horses and rabbits and pigs and vegetables don’t take days off. That’s why I pay the big bucks.” She laughs drily. “That was a joke in case you didn’t get it.”

“I got it,” he says, liking her more and more. “May I visit your farm to see what I think?”

She sips her coffee and muses for a moment. “Yeah. I have to go to the feed store and make a delivery to the college, and then you can follow me out.”

“I don’t have a car,” he says simply. “Or a truck. Or even a bicycle, though I intend to get one. A bicycle.”

“That’s a shocker,” she says, taken aback. “I’m ten minutes out going sixty. You’ll need a car.”

“For what?” he asks, sensing the job slipping away.

“You think I’m gonna lend you my car?” she says, incredulously. “Take the pickup any time you want?”

“I misunderstood,” he says, his tone apologetic. “I thought I’d be living where the job was and wouldn’t need a car. I do have a driver’s license if you needed me to drive, but…”

“I’m sorry,” she says, softening. “I guess it could work. I just…I’ve never known anybody over eighteen who didn’t have a car, so…but, yeah, I’ll take you out there.”

Juneau’s farm is spectacular, seventy acres of mostly level ground transected by a year-round stream flanked by aspens and alders—the old farmhouse and barn in excellent condition, the farmhand’s cottage delightful, the big farm dogs friendly. After a quick tour of the greenhouses and garden and barn, Juneau goes to make some phone calls while Frederick wields a hoe and weeds rows of broccoli and kale and chard.

He works steadily for two hours, stopping briefly a few times to drink water, and as he works he thinks about a woman he was smitten with in Sedona, Esther, a woman he would have courted had not Sri Bihar commanded him to remain celibate.

“Hey Frederick,” says Juneau, calling from the farmhouse porch. “Come have lunch.”

In the cheerful kitchen, enjoying their meal of sautéed vegetables and brown rice and spicy black beans, Juneau says, “My sister Janet and her husband Joe live in the other house on the property. The one we passed coming in from the highway. She teaches Biology at the college in town and he works at the lumberyard. I have a son in college in New Mexico. Kyle. He’s twenty. He comes home for Christmas and part of summer. I coach the Girls basketball team at the high school. I went to Western Washington University on a basketball scholarship. Got my degree in Horticulture. I go out with my girlfriends on Friday or Saturday night. I’m divorced and I’m not involved with anybody right now.” She takes a deep breath. “So that’s me. What about you?”

“Well…” says Frederick, sitting back in his chair, “first let me say you’re a wonderful cook.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “Glad you liked it because I make this sort of thing a lot.”

“Good,” he says, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. “So…there I was in San Jose, a successful electrician, living with my real estate agent wife in our three-bedroom house in an upscale neighborhood, two new cars, my big electrician’s van, no children, and feeling mostly okay about my life, but also a bit…disconnected from…I didn’t know what.”

“Why’d you stop being an electrician?” she asks, frowning. “They make real good money.”

“Yes, they do, but…” He smiles to keep from crying. “I found out my wife was involved with somebody else, and in the course of our rather contentious divorce proceedings, it was revealed that she had borrowed a great deal of money on our house, and so when all was said and done I had almost nothing. And concurrent with finding myself penniless, I found it impossible to concentrate as one must concentrate in order to be a good electrician, so I quit. And then after a few months of floundering around, I went to Sedona and worked in the garden and kitchen of the ashram of a man called Sri Bihar, a guy from Brooklyn masquerading as a holy man.” He chuckles at this brief summation of his life. “And now I’m here with you.”

“Wow,” says Juneau, nodding thoughtfully. “You want the job?”

“Well…” He frowns at his water glass. “How would you feel about me working for you for a few weeks before I make my decision?”

“Not great, but…” She looks out the window. “Are you leaning toward taking the job?”

“Juneau?” he says, waiting for her to look at him before saying what he wants to say. “I like you and your farm and the cottage and the work, but I need to see how this feels from day to day for a while. So if you need a firm commitment right away, I’ll have to forego the job. But I very much appreciate your considering me.”

“I watched you work,” she says, looking out the window again. “You have a good pace, and you’re careful. You seem like a good person. So…is two weeks long enough to decide? I really need to get somebody before winter sets in.”

“Yes,” he says, relieved. “Two weeks is enough.”

At the end of supper on Frederick’s ninth day on Juneau’s farm, a Friday, Juneau glances at him and says, “I was driving back from town today and realized…you never asked me how old I am.”

“My grandfather taught me never to ask a woman her age,” says Frederick, setting down his fork, his huge helping of mashed potatoes and chicken and salad devoured. “And I did ask you to tell me the story of your life, twice, and you didn’t seem to want to, so I thought I’d better not pry.”

“Takes me a while to trust people,” she says, clearing her throat. “My mother…” She shrugs. “You want to have a little wine? Sit by the fire?”

“Sure,” he says, exhausted from the long day of work. “I must warn you, though. I might fall asleep. Almost my bedtime.”

“We won’t work so hard tomorrow,” she says, getting up from the table. “You like red or white?”

“Red,” he says, loving how strong and supple she is. “But either is fine.”

She opens a bottle of red, fills two big goblets, and carries them into the living room where she sets them on a small table between two armchairs. Now she tosses a log on the faltering fire and says, “We can do the dishes later. Come on now, Frederick. I want to talk to you.”

“I’ll only drink a little,” he says, sitting in one of the armchairs. “I’m a cheap date. Half a glass and I’ll be drunk.”

“I can drink,” she says, sitting in the other chair. “I don’t like how I feel the next day, but now and again I’ll get so drunk I can’t remember ever being sad.” She takes a long luxurious drink. “I like this wine. Not too sweet, but not even a little bit sour. I don’t like that vinegar sour.”

“I like this wine, too,” he says, having a sip. “My grandfather was a wine snob and spent a fortune on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.”

They drink for a while and watch the fire grow large again.

Her goblet empty, Juneau gets up and goes into the kitchen for a refill, and while she’s there she opens the back door and in come the two big dogs, Poobah and Cocoa.

“My grandmother wanted to be an actress,” says Juneau, sitting cross-legged in her armchair, swirling the wine in her goblet. “She grew up in Spokane and was in high school plays and went to the University of Washington and majored in Drama. And then she went to Hollywood to try to make it in the movies, and after a couple hard years in LA she met my grandfather. He was just getting out of the Army and fell madly in love with her and they got married and came back to Sterling where Grandpa was born. They rented a little house in town and she taught Drama at the high school and he worked on a big ranch west of town, and then they bought this place and had my mother.”

“Did they have any other kids?” asks Frederick, smiling as Poobah lies down near the fire and rolls onto his back.

“No, just my mom.” Juneau closes her eyes. “She was so beautiful, at least how I remember her. She wanted to be an actress, too, only she didn’t go to college. She didn’t even finish high school. Ran away when she was sixteen and somehow got to LA. She was in a few commercials and was an extra in one of those Superman movies, and when she was nineteen she had Janet and two years later she had me, and when she was twenty-six she brought us back here and left us with Grandma and Grandpa and we never saw her again, though she called a few times to ask for money. She died when I was eleven. Not sure how, but Grandma thought it was something to do with drugs.”

“So you were raised by your grandparents,” says Frederick, reverently. “So was I.”

“Seriously?” says Juneau, opening her eyes and gazing at him.

“Yeah, my grandfather was a professor of History at Stanford, his specialty the English Renaissance, and after my parents were killed in a car accident in Tottenham when I was eleven, I moved from England to California to live with my grandfather, my mother’s father, and his second wife. I lived with them until I graduated from college. San Jose State. Physics.”

“So is that why you want to go back to England?” she asks, her eyes full of tears. “Get in touch with your roots?”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But I interrupted your story. Sorry. Go on.”

“It’s okay,” she says, setting down her empty glass. “We’re just talking.”

“Right,” he says, relaxing. “So you were only five when your mother brought you here.”

“Yeah,” she says, feeling nicely drunk. “I hardly remember anything from before then. Just little bits. But I remember everything after we got here, taking care of the animals, working in the kitchen with Grandma, sitting on Grandpa’s lap driving the tractor, going to school in town and playing basketball and volleyball and getting scholarships. Janet played volleyball at Oregon State and I played basketball at Western Washington. And then Janet got a high school teaching job in Portland, and when I graduated I moved in with her and got a job at a bio-tech company and we were having a good time living in the city, so different than here, so much to do, but then my grandfather died and we came home to be with Grandma and never left. We just couldn’t leave her. She died seven years ago. We both married local guys. Janet got a good one and I got a wife beater.”

“Oh Juneau, I’m sorry,” he says, bowing his head. “So sorry.”

“My fault,” she says, nodding. “I was a stupid party girl and got pregnant, and even that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t made him marry me. I should have just let him go. He went soon enough, but not before he beat me senseless a few times.”

Not your fault,” says Frederick, filled with anger at Juneau’s assailant. “It was his fault. His crime. For which he should be punished.”

“Oh he’s been punished,” she says, nodding. “And of course he’d been punished before he ever did that to me. People don’t hurt other people like that unless they’ve been hurt like that, too.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s dead. Died when Kyle was four. Crashed his car going a hundred miles an hour. We were divorced by then and I never really knew him, so when he died it was…it didn’t mean much to me except I wouldn’t ever see him around town again.”

“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” says Frederick, putting his hand on his heart. “I’m sure your insights about him are correct, but still…you didn’t deserve to suffer like that.”

A silence falls and their eyes meet, and she sees his sorrow and his innocence and his kindness, and he sees the same in her.

The fire flickers and Poobah snorts at something in a dream.

“You know,” says Frederick, gazing at the dwindling fire, “sometimes I’ll think of something Sri Bihar said in one of his talks, something that stuck in my mind because it seemed important at the time, though I didn’t really understand what he meant. And lately, just in these last few days, I’ll hear those words again and they make perfect sense.”

“Like what?” asks Juneau, feeling closer to him than she’s ever felt to any man except her grandfather. “I thought you said he was a fake.”

“He is a fake,” says Frederick, laughing at the absurdity of a chubby middle-aged Jewish guy from Brooklyn pretending to be a Buddhist sage and convincing thousands of people to give him lots of money to support his charade. “But he helped me. He gave me refuge and work and got me through a difficult time.”

“Like what did he say that you understand now?” she asks, frightened and excited to feel so aroused by him.

Frederick gets up from his armchair and puts another log on the fire, and another, and another. Now he turns to Juneau and says, “Only when we cease to be afraid, do we experience the mundane as miraculous. And only when we experience the mundane as miraculous, do we cease to be afraid.”

“What does that mean to you?” she asks, inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. “That you didn’t understand before?”

“It means if I am fully involved while weeding the chard, I am involved in a miracle, and being so involved, I am no longer afraid. When I feed the pigs and scratch their backs and they smile in their sublimely innocent way, I am involved in a miracle and I am no longer afraid.”

“What were you afraid of?” she asks, loving the sound of his voice.

“Of making a mistake,” he says, smiling sadly. “Of making someone angry. Of losing what I thought I had. Of dying before I was ready to die.”

“Are you afraid of me?” she asks, getting up and going to him. “Afraid of making a mistake by staying or leaving? Afraid of making me angry? Of losing me? Of dying before you get to England?”

“Yes,” he says, taking her hand. “I’m afraid of all those things when I forget I am involved in the miracle of standing with you by a fire in a house on the high plains of Colorado under a three-quarters moon, winter soon to follow the brief and glorious flurry of fall.”

“I’m afraid to love you,” she says, relieved to have said so. “Afraid you won’t love me in the same way.”

“What way is that?” he asks, smiling shyly.

“Tenderly,” she says, looking into his eyes. “Wanting me to be happy so I’ll want to make you happy.”

“You have a lovely way with words, Juneau,” he says, kissing her lips.

“So do you, Freddie,” she says, returning his kiss. “And you still haven’t asked me how old I am.”

“How old are you?” he asks, transfixed by the sudden revelation of her beauty.

“Forty-seven,” she says, leading him away from the fire and down the hall to her bedroom. “Going on twenty-five.”

fin

The Screw

September 24th, 2018

elk cloud

Elk Cloud photo by Todd

in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer

In the large coastal town of Croft’s Landing, Oregon, there are three hardware stores: Anderson’s, Pirelli’s, and Lowenstein’s. Each of the owners of these stores has a twenty-seven-year-old son who has been in love with Josie Parsons since at least high school, and in the case of Noah Lowenstein, since kindergarten.

Josie, who is also twenty-seven, was queen of the Senior Ball and valedictorian at Croft’s Landing High, attended Yale on a full scholarship, graduated summa cum laude in Drama, and moved to New York to take the theatre world by storm, only her storm never gathered much strength because she was forever falling in love with charming louts instead of pursuing her career and she eventually ran out of money and maxed out her credit cards and came back to Croft’s Landing to live at home, get a job, and pay off the staggering debt she accrued while living in Manhattan for five years.

Josie’s mother Constance is fifty-four and nobody’s fool. Born and raised in Croft’s Landing, the oldest of five farm kids, Constance turned down a full scholarship to Harvard and chose instead to attend nearby Oregon State. Upon graduating summa cum laude in Business, Constance returned to Croft’s Landing, married Jerry Parsons, had two children, Everett and Josie, and when Everett was in Third Grade and Josie was in First, Constance started helping people with their computers and now she has more work than she and her three employees can handle, the name of her business: Computer Help.

Josie’s father Jerry is fifty-seven, kind and generous and forever forgetting who he loaned money to. Born in Astoria, Oregon, Jerry was a commercial fisherman until he was forty-five, quit fishing when the catch became too iffy, and thereafter drove a school bus for six years before buying Zebra, a failing copy shop and stationery store. When Zebra continued to flounder after four years of pouring Constance’s hard earned money into the business, Jerry gave Zebra to Everett who was at loose ends after graduating summa cum laude in Studio Art from Evergreen College.

Everett added art supplies and a café component to Zebra, business boomed, and today there are seven Zebras in towns throughout Oregon and Washington, with three more Zebras opening soon. Jerry now works part-time in the original Zebra as a barista and recently began propagating cacti he plans to sell via his web site Gorgeous Glochids.

Josie works for Everett now, too, scouting locations for future Zebras, overseeing inventory in the seven shops, helping with in-store design and lighting, and producing radio and television spots. She has her eye on the vacant and decrepit Avalon Theatre in downtown Croft’s Landing and dreams of starting a collective of actors and dancers and artisans who will renovate the Avalon and perform original cutting-edge drama and dance there to be broadcast globally via the Internet.

However, pursuing theatrical glory pales next to her burning desire to get married and have children.

Everett, tall and lanky and red-haired like his father, sharp-witted and no-nonsense like his mother, his hair a few inches shorter than his sister’s shoulder-length auburn locks, gazes across the kitchen dining table at Josie and says, “You never finish one thing before you start another. That’s your lifelong pattern. Why not get out of debt and then buy the Avalon? Pay off the Avalon and then have kids?”

“And live at home until I’m fifty?” Josie glares at her brother. “Men can make babies until they’re eighty. Women have much smaller windows of optimal opportunity.”

“A baby at eighty,” says Jerry, contemplating his spaghetti. “Can you imagine?”

“Who do you want to marry?” asks Constance, renowned for cutting to the chase. “Are you in love with someone?”

“I fell in love three times in New York,” says Josie, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “I wouldn’t want to marry any of those guys, let alone have kids with them.” She opens her eyes. “No, I think the Chinese and Indians and Africans and Jews and just about everybody else in the olden days had it right. Let the wise elders find the best man for the job.”

Jerry, who is never immediately certain when his wife and kids are being facetious, looks first at Everett who is gazing in horror at Josie, next at Constance, whose mouth is open in disbelief, and lastly at Josie, who seems as forlorn as Jerry has ever seen her.

“I nominate your mother,” says Jerry, raising his right hand. “She’s never wrong about people.”

“I second the nomination,” says Everett, his horror changing to delight. “This could be good. We should film this.”

“I accept the nomination,” says Constance, gazing in wonder at her daughter.

“All in favor say aye,” says Josie, her eyes full of tears.

“Aye,” say Jerry and Constance and Everett.

“I have narrowed the field to three candidates,” says Constance, sitting down across the table from Josie at Chish & Fips, their favorite seafood joint, renowned for stupendous food and a maddening menu. “What are you having?”

“The cham clowder,” says Josie, despondently stirring her soup. “Let me guess. Brett Anderson, David Pirelli, and Noah Lowenstein.”

“They were on your approved list,” says Constance, opening her notebook. “Nobody else I’m aware of comes close to those three.”

“Hi Constance,” says Susie Kwong, the one and only lunchtime waitress at Chish & Fips. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” says Constance, perusing the menu. “What’s your Datch of the Kay?”

“Sned Rapper,” says Susie, serving Constance a cup of piping hot coffee. “On a bed of Rasmati Bice.”

“I’ll have that and a small Cesar salad,” says Constance, adding cream to her coffee. “Thanks.”

“Be just a few,” says Susie, sauntering away.

“I can’t marry Brett Anderson,” says Josie, shaking her head. “He’s like a second older brother. I would feel incestuous every time we had sex.”

“Then I’ll take him off the list,” says Constance, her pen poised above Brett’s name.

“No, leave him on,” says Josie, anguished. “I’m still holding out hope I’ll meet some guy in a bar. I’m going to Portland next week. Who knows what might happen.”

“Wait a minute,” says Constance, closing her notebook. “I’m taking time off from work to do this, Josie. If you’re not serious about me finding you a husband, I’ll stop right now.”

“Don’t stop, Mama,” says Josie, shaking her head. “I want you to choose my husband. I really do.”

“Okay,” says Constance, opening her notebook again. “So…Brett, David, and Noah are all healthy, smart, personable men with good jobs, and they’re all madly in love with you, so much so they’ve all stayed single despite numerous opportunities to get married. Also, I get along well with their mothers, which is no small thing since we’ll be sharing grandmother duties.”

“Are you saying Brett and David and Noah are still single because of me?” says Josie, outraged. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“How else can you explain it?” says Constance, looking at her notes. “Brett could have married Allison Cromwell or Tina Martinez in a heartbeat. And David? Half the women in town shop at Pirelli’s just to be with him for a few minutes.”

“What about Noah?” says Josie, remembering how much she loved playing guitars with him in high school.

“Who knows about Noah,” says Constance, shrugging. “But this is what some people do, Josie. Not just men. Women, too. They wait as long as they can, sometimes forever, for the loves of their lives to choose them. And you, so far, are the love of these three men’s lives. Has a day gone by since you came home from New York that they haven’t called you or come by the house or dropped by Zebra to see you?”

“Brett and David, yeah,” says Josie, sighing. “Not Noah. He’s too proud to chase me, or too shy, though he did ask me to go to the play with him on Friday. That should be fun. A Thousand Clowns.”

“My point is they are all viable options.” Constance closes her notebook. “The question is if you had to choose one of them, who would it be?”

“I don’t know,” says Josie, despondently. “That’s always been the problem. I never wanted to hurt any of their feelings, so I never chose any of them. They’re pals. They meet for beer and darts at The Raven every Thursday night. They play basketball together every Saturday morning. We should take them off the list.”

“Okay,” says Constance, nodding her thanks as Susie serves the snapper. “That leaves Mike Soper and Tom Rafferty.”

“Oh God,” says Josie, gnawing on her thumbnail. “Put Brett and David and Noah back on. And you choose. Okay?”

“Okay,” says Constance, her heart pounding. “Give me a few days.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “Honey? You awake?”

“Huh?” says Jerry, waking up.

“You awake?”

“I am now.”

“Do you have a preference?”

“For what?”

“Brett or David or Noah. For Josie.”

“Honey…you know me. I like them all. I’ve known them since they were little boys. How could I choose? What does Everett say?”

“He says Josie needs therapy.”

“Wasn’t she crazy about Brett in high school?” asks Jerry, yawning. “Senior year?”

“Yes. After he made that interception and won the homecoming game she was crazy about him for a few weeks and they did some heavy petting and then she was in The Taming of the Shrew with David and was crazy about him and they almost but not quite went all the way, and then in the summer before she went to Yale she and Noah were together every day writing songs and going on long walks and who knows how far they went and then she left for college and Brett and David were devastated.”

“What about Noah? Wasn’t he devastated?”

“No, because…I don’t think he ever thought Josie would choose him, so he had no hopes to be dashed.”

“That’s very poetic, honey.”

“What’s poetic?”

“He had no hopes to be dashed. That’s beautiful.”

“You’re so sweet,” she says, snuggling with him. “I never wanted anybody but you.”

Constance visits her mother Erma, a spry eighty-seven, at Pine Cone Valley Senior Community on the northern outskirts of Croft’s Landing. They have lunch in the cheerful dining hall and Constance updates Erma on the search for Josie’s husband.

“The three finalists are Brett and David and Noah. But I’m having a terrible time picking a winner. Any suggestions?”

“Well,” says Erma, cocking her head to one side as if straining to hear something, “if this was a fairy tale they would have to prove themselves with feats of strength and intelligence and…like that.” She returns her head to an upright position. “Some sort of test that two fail and one passes. Right?”

“Some sort of test,” says Constance, the back of her neck tingling. “Like what?”

“Maybe they have to solve some sort of riddle,” says Erma, looking out the window at wisps of fog blowing by. “And the one who solves the riddle is noble and good. Right? That’s how he knows the answer.”

“Because he’s noble and good?”

“In fairy tales,” says Erma, nodding. “Yeah. Something in his character allows him to solve the riddle.”

Brett Anderson, tall and broad-shouldered with a heroic chin, his blond hair in a ponytail, is standing behind the checkout counter in his father’s hardware store watching football highlights on his phone when Constance gets his attention by knocking on the counter.

“Oh, hey, Mrs. Parsons,” he says, freezing the highlights and pocketing his phone. “What do you need?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, holding up a wood screw, three-and-a-quarter-inches-long and a bit less than a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“Um,” says Brett, wrinkling his nose, “those would be in the screw section. Aisle Eight.”

“Can you show me?” asks Constance, nodding hopefully.

“I would,” says Brett, grimacing, “but I’m totally swamped right now. Hold on a sec, I’ll get somebody to help you.” He picks up the in-store walkie-talkie. “Yeah, customer needs help finding a screw. Thanks.” He sets down the walkie-talkie. “They’ll meet you in Aisle Eight.”

“Who will meet me, Brett?” asks Constance, sounding disappointed.

“Um…” he says, shrugging. “Gomez probably? I’m not sure. Why? Did you want somebody in particular to help you?”

“Yes, I wanted you.”

“Why?” he asks, scrunching up his cheeks. “What difference does it make?”

“I know you,” she says, turning away. “Makes the experience more enjoyable for me.”

“Next time,” he says, fishing his phone out of his pocket and unfreezing the highlights. “When I’m not so swamped.”

David Pirelli, olive-skinned and rakishly handsome, his black hair long on top, the sides shaved, a small diamond embedded in his right earlobe, his forearms tattooed with Chinese dragons, is loading cans of paint into the trunk of a car when Constance pulls into the adjacent parking spot.

After shutting the trunk of the paint buyer’s car, David opens Constance’s door for her and says, “Welcome to Pirelli’s, Mrs. P.”

“Thank you, David,” she says, beaming at him as she gets out. “How gallant of you. Do you open doors for everyone or just for Josie’s mother?”

“You get special treatment,” he says, winking at her. “What brings you here today?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, proffering the slender screw. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

David takes the screw from her, studies the old thing and says, “I’m pretty sure they don’t make these anymore, but come with me and we’ll see if we can find a close facsimile.”

In the screw section, after a quick search in a few of the many little drawers, David declares, “As I suspected, we don’t have anything this small in diameter that’s also this long. I doubt they make them anymore. Does it have to be this skinny?”

“I would prefer it to be that skinny,” says Constance, opening a drawer of long thin screws. “It’s not one of these?”

“No, those are eighth-of-an-inch in diameter,” he says, handing the screw back to her. “I told you they don’t make long screws that thin anymore.”

“So what should I do?” she asks, feigning helplessness.

“You could use a larger-diameter screw. Pre-drill the hole to make it bigger so you don’t split the wood when you put the screw in. That should do it.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Mrs. P.”

“You did the best you could,” says Constance, nodding. “Thank you, David.”

“My pleasure,” he says, accompanying her to the exit. “Sorry we couldn’t find the exact same one.” He stops abruptly. “Hey you know what I just thought of? Antique furniture stores. They might have boxes of old screws you could look through. Worth a try.”

“Good idea,” says Constance, going out the door. “Thanks so much.”

Noah Lowenstein, a soccer player in high school and now an avid playground basketball player, his brown hair longish and curly, is in the lumberyard behind the big hardware store helping Chico Alvarez select the very best twelve-feet-long redwood planks for a deck Chico is building.

Constance stands twenty feet away from Noah and Chico and watches the two strong young men search through several stacks of planks until they find fifteen beauties, which they load onto the lumber rack of Chico’s pickup.

“Muchas Gracias, Noah,” says Chico, shaking Noah’s hand before turning to Constance and saying, “Hola Señora Parsons. This is the best place to buy wood. They don’t let you hunt for the good ones at those other places.”

“As my grandfather used to say,” says Noah, greeting Constance with a little wave, “picky customers are better than no customers.”

“Did he really say that?” asks Constance, impulsively taking Noah’s hand.

“He really did,” says Noah, walking into the store with her. “He also said, ‘Customers who hold your hand get a ten per cent discount.’”

“He didn’t say that.”

“No, I made that up. But it’s not a bad idea for a promotional gimmick. Come into Lowenstein’s, hold our hands, and we’ll give you a ten percent discount.”

“Needs work,” says Constance, surprised that Noah seems in no hurry to let go of her hand, so she is the one to let go.

“Let me guess,” says Noah, striking a thoughtful pose. “You’re picking up more potting mix for Jerry’s cacti.”

“No,” says Constance, bringing forth the ancient screw. “I need to get another one of these. I’m restoring an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“This one fell out?” asks Noah, taking the screw from her and placing it in the palm of his hand.

“No, “says Constance, watching Noah’s face to see if he believes her. “One was missing, so I took this one out to show you what I need.”

“I see,” says Noah, carefully scrutinizing the screw. “Well…these are not mass produced anymore as far as I know, and maybe they never were. Are you in a hurry, Constance?”

“No,” she says, wondering if he senses something more than buying a screw is going on. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to do a little sleuthing,” he says, bouncing his eyebrows. “You’re welcome to come with me, but if you’ve got other things to do, you could come back in an hour and I’ll have something for you.”

“Another screw like this screw?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding confidently.

“You think you have one? Here in the store?”

“We will either have one,” says Noah, beckoning her to follow him. “Or we will be getting one. About this I am confident.”

Constance follows Noah through the store to a double metal door that swings open into a large storage area beyond which are three offices, one the domain of store manager Guillermo Macias, one the den of Noah’s sister Brenda Lowenstein-Adebayo, assistant manager, and one Noah’s.

“So,” says Noah, ushering Constance into his cluttered office, “I will make a quick phone call and then we’ll go from there. Have a seat.”

“Noah?” says Constance, sitting down. “This seems like an awful lot of trouble for one little screw.”

“On the contrary,” he says, picking up his old landline phone. “This is my favorite part of the job.” He taps in a number and waits a moment. “Sven. Hi, it’s Noah. Got a minute? Great. So here’s what’s happening. I’ve got an old steel wood screw. A little longer than three inches and not even a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. Almost a fat needle with threads. From an old handmade table.” He listens. “At least a hundred years old.” He looks at the screw. “Yeah. Could be. You have anything like that?” He listens. “Sure. I understand. Thanks so much.”

“No luck?” says Constance, enjoying Noah’s performance.

“Sven suggests…Sven is in Portland and knows absolutely everything about screws and nails and bolts and nuts and hinges and so forth…he suggests that this screw was probably not manufactured in the United States, but more likely was made in England or Germany or Switzerland.”

“How interesting,” says Constance, frowning. “My great grandfather was German.”

“That is interesting,” says Noah, raising a knowing finger, “but it doesn’t alter the fact that these kinds of screws are probably not made in Germany anymore, unless somebody is making them by hand.”

“So what do we do?” she asks, holding her breath.

“We make one by hand,” he says, winking at her. “Follow me.”

On their way to the machine shop at the west end of the hardware store, Constance says, “May I ask you something, Noah?”

“Of course,” he says, turning to her.

“Are you going to all this trouble for me because I’m Josie’s mother?”

“No,” he says, reddening and laughing. “I would do this for anyone, though it is more enjoyable doing this for you because I’m…I’m comfortable with you because…I know you like me, so…but I’d do this for anyone because that’s how we do things here. That’s the mission, as my father likes to say.”

“What is the mission?” asks Constance, gazing in wonder at him.

“I imagine it’s the same one you have at Computer Help. Helping people achieve their goals.”

“Yeah,” says Constance, trying not to cry. “You’ve certainly done that for me today.”

Late Friday night, Josie comes home from her theatre date with Noah, and finds Constance and Jerry sitting together on the sofa in the living room, a fire blazing in the woodstove, the house toasty.

“Hey,” says Josie, quietly. “I didn’t expect you guys would still be up.”

“We have something to tell you,” says Constance, taking hold of Jerry’s hand to give her courage.

“You made your choice,” says Josie, placing both hands on her heart. “Oh, Mama, I’m sorry, but Noah just asked me to marry him and I said Yes before he could even finish asking me and I realized he’s always been the one. I just needed some time to grow up, and so did he.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “You awake?”

“What?” he says, waking from a dream. “What happened?”

“Are you awake?”

“I think so. Talk to me.”

“Do you think Noah asked Josie to marry him because I went to see him and he intuited what was going on and…”

“Yes. It’s all because of you.”

“Not all,” she says, snuggling with him. “But partly?”

“All,” he says, drifting back to sleep. “Everything.”

fin

Ophelia’s Journey

September 17th, 2018

Winter Woods tw

Winter Woods painting by Nolan Winkler

Born in Visalia, California, the fifth of seven children in a tempestuous Italian family, Ophelia Martinelli is fifty-seven and has been a legal secretary in Martinez, California for the last twenty-five years. Small and pretty with shoulder-length brown hair not yet touched with gray, friendly and kind and interested in other people, her voice soft and songful, Ophelia attracts men as clover in full bloom attracts bees, yet she has never married.

She has one child, a daughter, Jean, who is forty-one. Jean has two children, Miguel, twenty-one, and Sara, nineteen; and now Sara has a son, Orion, who is ten-months-old.

“Which makes me a great grandmother,” says Ophelia to the man she is playing cards with at the table between them on the train.

Ophelia is traveling from Martinez to Eugene, Oregon, while the man, Harold Boatman, has been on the train since Santa Barbara and is headed for Portland.

Harold looks up from his cards and says, “That’s impossible. You don’t look a day over forty.”

Harold is fifty-two, the eldest of two children, his parents New Yorkers. He has been married and divorced three times, and is about to marry again. Portly and good-looking with a reassuringly rumbly voice, his close-cropped gray hair turning white, Harold is a longtime insurance salesman. He has no children, though his fiancé, Angela, wants kids, and Harold wants to please Angela, though he thinks he would be happier without children.

“My mother was the same,” says Ophelia, discarding the Ace of Diamonds. “She looked sixty when she was eighty.”

“Good for her,” says Harold, drawing the Jack of Spades. “My fiancé is thirty-seven and doesn’t look much younger than you.” He discards the Ace of Clubs. “And I’m fifty-two and most people think I’m over sixty.”

“What’s taking you to Portland?” asks Ophelia, drawing the Seven of Hearts and discarding the Four of Spades.

“My niece’s wedding,” says Harold, picking up the Four of Spades and declaring, “Gin.”

“Your fiancé isn’t going to the wedding?” asks Ophelia, relieved the game is over.

“Oh she’s going,” says Harold, nodding. “But she’s flying and I don’t fly if I can help it. She hates the train. I hate to fly.”

“I won’t fly,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I flew once. Never again.”

Harold takes a deep breath. “Buy you dinner?”

“No thank you,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I brought a picnic. I have plenty if you want to join me. French bread, goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, pears, oatmeal cookies, and a thermos of coffee.” She gazes out at the passing fields. “I must have good coffee.”

The next morning, a few minutes before the train arrives in Eugene, Harold gushes to Ophelia, “This has been the best train ride I’ve ever had, thanks to you. Even sleeping sitting up wasn’t so bad.”

“I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip,” says Ophelia, eager to get away from him.

“Can I have your email and phone number?” he asks, nodding hopefully. “Love to see you again.”

“No,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “Sorry.”

“Oh,” says Harold, disappointed. “Because…Angela?”

“Yeah,” says Ophelia, forcing a smile. “Angela.”

Ophelia is sitting on the sofa with Sara and Sara’s baby Orion in Sara’s depressing little apartment a few blocks from the University of Oregon where Sara was majoring in Psychology when she got pregnant and decided to have the baby.

Sara is short and buxom with long black hair streaked with magenta highlights. She is quarter-Italian, quarter-Irish, half-Mexican, extremely bright, terribly self-critical, and currently estranged from her mother and stepfather. She never knew her father. Having lost her scholarship, she is entirely dependent on Ophelia for money.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Grandma,” says Sara, handing Orion to Ophelia. “I’ve been so stressed out and I haven’t been sleeping and I’ve been eating junk food and…I just want to die.”

“Taking care of a baby is hard work,” says Ophelia, smiling at Orion smiling at her. “Did you ever figure out who the father is?”

“Yeah,” says Sara, plaintively. “There were only two possibilities. I wasn’t sure at first, but now Ori looks just like him. He’s half-Japanese, half-white. The father.”

“Have you told him?” asks Ophelia, making a silly face that makes the baby boy gurgle in delight.

“He transferred to Stanford,” says Sara, fighting her tears. “I texted him and he sent a hundred dollars to my PayPal account, so…maybe he’ll send more. I don’t know. He didn’t actually write me back. Just sent the money.” She shrugs hopelessly. “I don’t know what to do.”

“I thought you were going to arrange for childcare and go back to school part-time.” Ophelia kisses Orion’s forehead. “Do you need more money?”

“I’m just so tired,” says Sara, sadly shaking her head. “Things were working out okay when Carol and Rachel were helping me, but then…” She yawns. “I guess the novelty wore off and they had to study and now they almost never come over. They just…you know…finals and stuff.”

“When the novelty wears off, the baby is still here.” Ophelia holds Orion in a standing position, his little feet dancing on Ophelia’s knees. “I can stay for two weeks, honey. Help you get going again.”

“What if…um…” Sara’s eyes fill with tears. “Do you think we could come live with you until he’s ready for pre-school?”

“You mean move to Martinez?” asks Olivia, thinking Why does this keep happening to me? What is the point of all this?

“Until he’s old enough for pre-school,” says Sara, sobbing. “Or First Grade? I can’t handle this, Grandma. I’m falling apart.”

While Sara sleeps, Ophelia dresses Orion in a cute blue jumpsuit and pushes him in the stroller to the university, the day sunny, a nip of fall in the air.

They stop at a big fountain in the center of a plaza, Orion delighted by the geyser of water splashing down into the pool. Ophelia looks around at the impressive buildings and beautiful old trees and hundreds of students walking and running and biking and skateboarding, and her eyes are drawn to a young man and young woman with their arms around each other, the young woman gazing into the young man’s eyes, a dreamy smile on her face, and Ophelia wants to shout, “Don’t have sex until you graduate.”

She remembers gazing up into Zack O’Reilly’s eyes, Zack the quarterback of the Visalia High football team, Zack saying, “Don’t deny me, baby. I love you. We’ll be together forever. I swear to God. I don’t want anybody but you.”

Her reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a man hanging onto the leash of a large brown dog who bumps Orion’s stroller in eagerness to drink from the fountain.

“Sorry,” says the man, sturdy and good-looking with longish brown hair, his accent British, his blue eyes twinkling as he reins in his dog and smiles at Ophelia. “He’s a sweetheart, though something of an oaf. Answers to Bingo.”

Orion shrieks with glee and reaches out to touch Bingo.

Olivia reflexively moves between baby and dog.

“Fear not,” says the man, grinning at Orion. “Bingo loves children and he’s been well-tested on my grandchildren. Is this your grandson?”

“Great grandson,” says Ophelia, squatting down to officiate as Bingo brings his snout close to allow the baby boy to touch him.

“What a darling little boy,” says the man, looking down at Ophelia. “I saw you from across the plaza and thought, ‘Who is she?’ and had to come see. I hope you’ll forgive my curiosity.” He bows to her. “I’m Jon Richardson. Literature. May I know your name?”

“Ophelia,” she says, standing up and looking into his eyes. “Ophelia Martinelli.”

“Coffee?” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “Café just around the corner. Excellent coffee. Not quite as good as I make at home, but eminently drinkable.”

“I’m sixty-two,” says Jon in answer to Ophelia’s question. “A widower, as they used to say. Five years now.” He laughs self-consciously. “And again, I hope you will forgive me, but my long-shuttered heart opened for the first time in eons when I saw you from afar, so I came closer to find out who you were.”

“And now that you’ve seen me up close?” She gazes steadily at him, having no expectation he will say anything to distinguish himself from her previous suitors, though she likes the tone of his voice, a smoky baritone, and how easily he expresses his feelings.

“Now that I’m near you,” he says, taking a deep breath, “I wonder all the more who you are.”

“I’m fifty-seven,” she says, glancing at Orion slumbering in the stroller. “Not married. I live in Martinez, California. I’m a legal secretary. I sing in the choir at the Presbyterian, though I’m not religious. I came here to help my granddaughter with her baby. She had to drop out of college when she had Orion. Now she wants to come live with me in Martinez until he’s old enough to go to school, which is what her mother did. My daughter. Only she stayed until her children were thirteen and fifteen. So who I am is a mother and grandmother and great grandmother and legal secretary.” She smiles wistfully. “Who are you?”

“A professor,” says Jon, nodding. “A poet, too, but a more successful professor than poet. Father of two, grandfather of three. Owner of large mutt and two cats. Sing in the shower. Not religious, but I do believe in karma, and…I’m thinking I’d like to make a life with you.”

Ophelia laughs in surprise. “How would we do that?”

“You and your granddaughter and this little chap would move into my house that is plenty big for all of us, and we would carry on together.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I know it sounds ridiculous, given we’ve just met and know nothing about each other except what we feel, but…what if there’s a chance we’d do well together? Shouldn’t we try to find out?”

“We should,” she says, nodding. “But slowly.”

“Does this mean I’ll get to see you again?” he asks, surprised and delighted by her acquiescence.

“We could have supper tonight,” she says, offering him her hand. If he says Thai food, I may marry him. “The four of us.”

“Do you like Thai food?” he asks, gently taking her hand.

“Love Thai food,” she says breathlessly. “How did you guess?”

“I don’t know,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Just came to me.”

fin

Frank’s Muse

September 10th, 2018

heart of muse

Heart of Muse photo by Todd

Frank was thirty and lived on a monthly check from the state: four hundred and sixty-eight dollars. His rent for a small room in a three-story boarding house in a scary neighborhood in Sacramento was three hundred and forty dollars. That left him one hundred and twenty-eight dollars a month for food and drink and not much else.

A strong athletic man with a diagnosis of clinical depression, Frank was in love with Maria Escobido but didn’t think she would ever be interested in going out with him. He assumed she wanted a partner with a good job, and Frank didn’t have any job, so he barely spoke to Maria except to say hello and thanks.

He would go into Maria’s little grocery store every day, sometimes twice a day, and buy lemonade or beer or anything just to be close to her. He wanted to ask her to have coffee with him, but he never asked because he was afraid she might say Yes and then he would have to tell her about his life, which he was ashamed of.

Frank’s recurring fantasy was that he would save a man’s life and the man would turn out to be wealthy and hire Frank to be his chauffer. Frank would move into an elegant apartment in the carriage house adjacent to the Rolls Royce and Lamborghini and Jaguar. With his ample pay, Frank would buy new clothes and go into Maria’s little grocery store and say, “Hola Maria. Would you like to go out with me?” And Maria would say Yes and they would become lovers and live happily ever after.

That was how Frank began every day, lying alone in his little bed dreaming about Maria inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. And having imagined their kiss, Frank would get out of bed, grab his towel and soap and razor, and hurry down the hall to the bathroom.

Frank and the other tenants on the second floor of the boarding house had a system for the morning use of the bathroom they shared. Frank went first because he woke first. When he was done with his ablutions, he would rap on Larry’s door, and when Larry was done he would knock on Shirley’s door, and when Shirley was finished, she would tap on Sheldon’s door.

One morning Frank was too sick to get out of bed, so Larry didn’t get up until eleven because he was waiting for Frank to knock, and Sheldon and Shirley slept in, too.

Sheldon was a cartoonist, Shirley was the resident computer wizard at the Lesbian Crisis Center, and Larry collected kitsch pottery and books about astrology and the Tarot. Sheldon and Shirley and Larry were as poor as Frank, but they were happy, or so Frank believed, whereas Frank was miserable because he considered himself a failure and didn’t believe Maria Escobido would want to be with him unless he could get a decent a job or save somebody’s life and be rewarded with a decent job. And, of course, he would have to stop smoking pot because Maria was definitely not a pot smoker. But whenever Frank stopped smoking pot for more than a few days he wanted to die.

Frank always bought something in Maria’s grocery store before he would speak to her. He did this so she wouldn’t think he was a dead beat. She was always nice to him, sometimes effusively so, and one day they had a long talk about their favorite movies and she laughed at Frank’s jokes and smiled in a way Frank took to mean I like you. I like the way you think.

He came out of her store after that movie conversation feeling elated and confident she would say Yes if he asked her to go for coffee with him. But when he got back to his little room and looked in the mirror he thought No. She only spoke to me because I bought something. Why would such a marvelous full-of-life woman want to have anything to do with a loser like me?

Frank will never forget a broiling hot day in August when he decided to splurge on a beer and went into Maria’s little store and she was on her tiptoes reaching up to get a case of Heineken from a high shelf. She was wearing a sleeveless red T-shirt and the case of Heineken started to fall and the next thing Frank knew he was beside Maria bringing down the case and Maria’s breasts brushed his arm and she blushed and said Thank you in the sweetest way, and for weeks after Frank lived in a frenzy of love for her.

Monday through Friday at seven in the morning, Frank showered and shaved, dressed in clean shirt, sports jacket, jeans, and running shoes, wrote in his notebook for an hour or so, ate a couple bananas, and jogged five blocks to Plaza Park to see if anybody wanted him to deliver drugs. Frank was trim and presentable, and he would deliver drugs in exchange for marijuana, so dealers liked using him.

One spring morning, Marcus, a colossus with a deep rumbling voice, asked Frank to deliver a large bag of cocaine to someone in the capitol building.

“Marcus,” said Frank, smiling cautiously at the enormous drug dealer. “You know I appreciate the above-average quality of your cannabis, but this amount of cocaine is a large felony. How about I make multiple deliveries of smaller amounts? Then it will not be so terribly terrible if I get caught.”

“Talkin’ hazard pay,” said Marcus, his eyes invisible behind the darkest of dark glasses. “You deliver the whole enchilada in one run, I’ll give you two hundred dollars and all the weed you need for a month. Sound good?”

“Two hundred bucks and copious weed?” said Frank, his heart pounding at the thought of Marcus keeping him in fat joints for an entire month—no need to run drugs to get dope.

So he combed his hair, secreted a Ziploc baggy of blow in a hollowed-out law book, and joined a crowd of state workers swarming into the capitol building. Nobody thought he was anything but a casually-dressed servant of the state as he strode past the Governor’s office and caught an elevator to the third floor where dozens of ambitious men and women hurried to and fro with steaming cups of coffee and armloads of documents—the perfect moment to deliver cocaine.

Frank located the appointed suite, told the receptionist he had something for her boss, and a moment later her boss emerged from his office, a boyishly handsome man with thinning gray hair, his outfit not dissimilar to Frank’s, though he happened to be one of the most powerful politicos in California.

Coming close to Frank, the handsome politico said, “Hey. How are you?”

“Fine,” said Frank, wondering how this man could be so calm with his career in the hands of some stranger off the street who might be a narc. “Here’s that volume you requested. Hope this does the trick.”

“Just in the nick of time,” said the politico, sighing with relief as he took the book from Frank.

Riding down in the elevator, Frank thought What a joke. The ultimate loser bringing blow to a guy who rules the world, both of us wanting to get high, him in his mansion and me in my hole, him with snort, me with weed.

Marcus gave Frank sixty bucks and a bag of shake for delivering the coke to a major player in state politics, and Frank did not complain about the less-than-promised pay.

Life went on. He continued to buy food and drink at Maria’s little grocery store, go to movies on half-price Wednesdays, and score his weed by running drugs to bureaucrats and lobbyists and people living in high-rise luxury condos. He bought a case of beer every month when his benefit check arrived and shared his bounty with Larry and Sheldon and Shirley.

He lived this way for another five years and saw no way out but suicide.

For Frank’s thirty-fifth birthday, Sheldon and Larry and Shirley give Frank a gift certificate for a Tarot reading from Larry’s friend Amanda. Frank thanks them profusely, and as he studies the gift certificate that resembles a diploma he decides he’ll have the reading and then kill himself.

Three days after his birthday, Frank catches a bus from his scary part of town to a neighborhood of beautiful old houses, the streets lined with majestic elms and sycamores. Amanda is waiting for Frank on the front porch of a lovely yellow house, a big gray cat in her arms, her front yard ablaze with roses. Amanda’s skin is white alabaster, her eyes are emerald green, her lustrous red hair falls to her waist, her blue silk blouse is embroidered with dozens of tiny shimmering silver fish, and her voice is deep and songful and free of doubt.

Frank and Amanda sit across from each other at a small round table in Amanda’s living room, late afternoon sunlight slanting through the windows. Amanda asks Frank to shuffle the well-worn deck of Tarot cards and to hold the cards and think about his life.

So he shuffles the deck seven times and holds the cards against his heart and closes his eyes and has a vision of Maria Escobido gazing longingly at him. And he realizes he doesn’t have to buy something from her before he can talk to her. I invented that lie to defeat myself. Maria likes me whether I buy something from her or not.

“Thank you already,” he says, handing the cards to Amanda. “Revelations coming fast and furious.”

“Yes,” she says, turning over the top card. “This is you.”

“Always wondered who I was,” says Frank, reading the words on the card—The Magician. “Nice robe. Is he a chemist?”

“Alchemist,” says Amanda, searching Frank’s face with her brilliant green eyes. “You possess great power, but your power is unavailable to you because you don’t realize who you are.”

She turns over the next card—The Lovers—starts to say something, stops herself and turns over the next card—The Tower. She frowns at the image of a burning castle, touches The Magician, touches The Lovers, and lastly touches The Tower.

“You need to take immediate action or you will lose everything,” she says urgently. “This is definite. You can’t wait another day. You must act.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” says Frank, wondering if she knows he is planning to commit suicide. “Take action. How?”

“Live your dreams,” she says, tapping The Magician. “Take a chance.”

Frank returns to his scary part of town at dusk, heavy fog cloaking the streets. Benefit checks are late this month and people are angry and desperate. He walks past a shiny new black Cadillac parked in front of a vacant lot, nothing unusual about such a car being in his neighborhood—a drug dealer’s car.

And though he knows never to look into parked cars because men with guns do bad things in cars in his neighborhood, something makes him look into the car and he sees a man in the backseat sticking a needle into the arm of a girl with her mouth taped shut, her arms tied behind her back.

“No!” shouts Frank, yanking open the car door. “Let her go!”

The man lets go of the girl and reaches for a gun. But before the man can get hold of his gun, Frank kicks him hard in the face just as the driver’s door swings open and somebody huge starts to get out to kill Frank, but Frank slams the door on the killer and runs away screaming bloody murder as dozens of people rush out of their houses and swarm the car and rescue the girl who turns out to be Maria Escobido’s sister.

That was thirty years ago. Frank lives far away from Sacramento now in a little blue house in a coastal town in British Columbia. He owns a bookstore and his wife Sierra is a chef in a vegetarian restaurant. Together they grow a hundred kinds of flowers.

Frank sometimes dreams that he and Maria Escobido became lovers after he saved her sister, but that didn’t happen.

What happened was he ran back to his room, stuffed a few precious things into his knapsack and left a note for Sheldon and Larry and Shirley thanking them for being his friends and explaining that he would surely be killed if he stayed in Sacramento. Then he caught a bus to the edge of the city and from there hitchhiked north for a thousand miles and got a job as a dishwasher in a café. The owners liked him, and when he proved reliable they gave him a job as a waiter.

One day Frank charmed a customer, a woman who turned out to be a renowned restaurateur. She asked Frank to come work in her restaurant, which Frank did, and a year later he was promoted to maître d’ and kept that job for many years until he saved enough money to open his bookstore and buy his house.

Sometimes when Frank is standing at the bookstore counter reading or writing and the bell over the door jingles, he looks up expecting to see Maria Escobido.

Maria does a double take, smiles her radiant smile and says, “Oh my God, Frank, it’s you.”

And Frank replies with the words Maria always used when he would come into her store after a long absence. “Where have you been hiding, mi amigo? I missed you.”

Only Frank says mi amiga.

Undivided Self

September 3rd, 2018

25AUGstandards

Standards by Max Greenstreet (click on image to enlarge)

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

I recently made a recording of thirteen of my songs, and when I first listened to the recording I experienced what I’ve always experienced when I hear my own voice: aversion.

I’ve only ever liked my voice when I’m pretending to be someone else. When I used to hear recordings of my readings of stories, I would cringe. Why? And why do so many people dislike the sound of their own voices?

Well, I don’t know about other people, but I know I haven’t liked the sound of my voice until very recently because I have had a deeply divided self since I was an adolescent. Yet I wanted to sing for people and read for people and make those recordings, and I continued to do so despite disliking the sound of my own voice. Why? Because many people told me they loved my singing and reading, loved my performances. Why was my self-perception so dramatically at odds with the perceptions of others?

And what do I mean by the divided self? I mean that the various parts, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, composing who and what I am have rarely worked together harmoniously; and more to the point, parts of my psyche and my neurological system have been in dire conflict with each other for most of my adult life.

I’ve been in therapy for the last ten months with an excellent psychotherapist, and to summarize the work we’ve done together in the fewest possible words, I would say I have been learning how not to be separated from my essential self, how not to be a collection of divided parts, but a unified being.

So I decided to listen to the recording of my songs a second time, only this time I would listen as a person who is no longer divided. Before I fired up the stereo, I said to myself, “Every part of who I am appreciates every other part of of who I am. Everything that makes me what I am is unified, and this unification empowers me to transcend my old patterns of self-abnegation.”

Headphones on, I press Play, and the music begins. Solo guitar. Lovely. Now the voice begins to sing. I listen with no expectation of aversion, and I can honestly say that until this moment I have never actually heard my voice. What I heard before was a voice muffled by shame and confusion and impossible expectations, drowned by the din of voices telling me to be someone other than who I am.

Now I have no problem with the part of me that made this recording, the person singing with this voice. What’s more, when I record these songs again, I will be able to really hear myself singing, which will make the experience new and exciting and enjoyable, and give me much more control of my instrument, so to speak.

Thus the revelation is that my dislike of my voice was not a dislike of my voice at all, because I never actually heard my voice. My dislike of how I sounded was something taught to me by other people when I was a child and when I was becoming an adult. I learned to reflect and mimic the disapproval of my parents and teachers and societal elders. My self-hate was not original with me, but copied from others. No wonder I kept singing and performing and writing. Some part of me refused to believe I should hate myself. How amazing!

So to celebrate liking my voice, I made a new answering machine message, and wouldn’t you know it, I sang the message.

Speaking of liking our voices, our friends Clare and Nick and their son Vito, who is three, were here for the month of August and I had a few play dates with Vito and his grandmother Marion. We had endless fun with a big box Marion saved in our garage specifically for Vito’s visit, and wheelbarrow rides also figured largely in our agenda of Important Things To Do. But my favorite game with Vito was a game called Here I Am.

I’m standing on the deck at the bottom of the nine steps leading up to the garage. In front of the garage is an ivy hedge about three-feet high. Vito disappears behind the hedge and I say, “Hey, where did Vito go? He was here a minute ago, and now he’s disappeared.”

Hearing the feigned alarm in my voice, Vito dashes out from behind the hedge, stands triumphantly at the top of the stairs, spreads his arms wide, and proclaims, “Here I am!”

To which I respond, “There you are!”

After a few delicious moments of basking in the glory of being seen, Vito dashes behind the hedge again and disappears from view.

“Hey, where did he go? He was just here and now he’s disappeared again. What’s going on? Is Vito some sort of magician?”

Vito dashes out from hiding again and shouts, “Here I am!”

There he is, the undivided self, thrilled to be alive, thrilled to be seen, thrilled to be engaged in the marvelous game of life.

Nowadays I’m using my memory of Vito standing at the top of the stairs, smiling in delight, his voice ringing with clarity and sureness, whenever I feel the divisions beginning to reassert themselves inside me. I imagine a three-year-old Todd standing where Vito stood, arms open wide, singing, “Here I am.”

He is unburdened by feelings of shame or failure. He has never felt he wasn’t good enough. He does not feel inadequate or stupid or wrong. He is there. He is recognized. He is loved for being his undivided self.

And being undivided, with the greatest of ease, he can give his love to others and receive their love.

Undivided Self

Undivided Self photo by Todd