Archive for September, 2018

The Screw

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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