Posts Tagged ‘Alexandra’

The Fox

Monday, April 15th, 2019

baby fox

Rex Abernathy died six months ago. When news got around that he had left his four-bedroom house on three-acres and a large amount of money to Elisha Montoya, more than a few people in our small town were outraged. I was not among the disapproving, nor can I imagine anyone else to whom Rex would or should have left his house and money, but I do understand why some folks were upset and why the local legal system took an inordinate amount of time investigating and finally validating Rex’s will.

When Rex died he was eighty-one and had known Elisha, who is forty-five, for three years. Their relationship was platonic, though platonic doesn’t capture the intensity of Rex’s love for Elisha and her children, Conor, fourteen, and Alexandra, eleven, nor does platonic encompass how important Rex was to Elisha and her children—a father for Elisha, a grandfather for Conor and Alexandra.

Having observed several hundred Elisha and Rex interactions in Mona’s, the bakery/café where Elisha has worked for the last three and a half years, I am certain Rex would have pursued Elisha romantically had he not been thirty-six years older than she.

However, from what I know of Elisha, I am equally certain she would not have been interested in Rex romantically even had they been closer in age. However, as a father figure in the guise of a grim loner waiting to be rescued from his aloneness, Rex was tailor-made for Elisha, her actual father a ferocious alcoholic who abandoned Elisha and her mother when Elisha was six.

A renowned sourpuss, isolate, and curmudgeon, Rex was so quickly and completely transformed by his friendship with Elisha and her children, it was as if he’d had a personality transplant—the donor a gregarious saint.

And, yes, to some degree, Elisha and Alexandra and Conor have had the same heart-opening effect on many of those who patronize Mona’s, the one and only bakery in Carmeline Creek, a coastal town on the far north coast of California. I, for instance, a middle-aged musician and poet, was terribly lonely and uninspired for seven years prior to Elisha and her children moving into the apartment above Mona’s; and since their arrival, I wake every day to poem and songs arising in me.

However, now that Elisha and her children have, as of ten days ago, moved from their little apartment above Mona’s to Rex’s spacious house on Carmeline Creek Road, my daily involvement with them has been severely disrupted and I’m beginning to wonder if my dogs Zerc and Raj (Xerxes and Mirage) and I were only of use to them so long as they didn’t have their own dogs (they inherited two from Rex) or a place to grow vegetables or a living room with a fireplace in which to while away many an evening.

What I mean is: now that they no longer need what I have to offer, I’m struggling not to conflate their no longer needing me with their no longer wanting me, if you know what I mean. For the truth is, I was reborn with the advent of those three in my life, and now I fear…

The phone rang as I was writing the words and now I fear—Alexandra inviting me to come for supper this evening at their new place and would I bring Delia Krantz because she no longer drives at night.

“Is this a large gathering?” I ask, hoping they aren’t throwing a party disguised as supper.

“Hold on,” says Alexandra, her Irish Spanish accent a faint replica of her mother’s.

She sets the phone down and I hear her say, “Mama? Paul wants to know if this is a large gathering.”

A moment passes and Elisha comes on the line.

“Hey Paul,” she says, her voice warm and poem-inspiring. “Don’t bring anything. This is a Mona’s leftovers affair.”

“Who all is coming?” I ask, trying to sound nonchalant. “Besides me and Delia and the blessed trio?”

“If I told you Grady and Flo, would you not come?”

I wince. “Who else?”

“That’s it. You and Delia and Grady and Flo.” She sighs appealingly. “We’ve been missing our evenings by the fire with you, and we want to get back to that soon. Okay? The kids insist.”

“Okay. Yes,” I say, smiling into the phone. “The dogs wonder where you went.”

Delia Krantz is ninety-three, sharp as a tack, and very funny. Born in Chicago, she worked as the personal assistant to movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, after which she moved with her third and much younger husband Vince to Carmeline Creek, bought the old Dekker Mansion in the center of town, Vince absconded with Delia’s life savings, Delia sold the Dekker Mansion and bought a cottage at the north end of town a block from the beach and has lived there with a series of dachshunds for the last twenty-five years. She works part-time at the library and every summer directs a musical for the Carmeline Creek Lamplighters.

Grady Wickersham is from New Jersey. He is seventy-three, exceedingly wealthy, owns a large modern home overlooking Philomena’s Bay, and as far as I know, he never stops talking. Estranged from his two grown children born of a short-lived marriage, he owns seven mint-condition American automobiles from the 1960s, one for each day of the week. In the seventeen years I’ve known him, I have never seen him show the slightest interest in anyone but himself.

Florence Chevalier, Grady’s partner for the past five years, is Grady’s polar opposite. A yoga teacher and massage therapist, Florence is fifty-two, half-French and half-British, friendly, warm, brilliant, and Elisha’s best friend. She has a son, Braxton, a photographer who lives in San Francisco. Most people in Carmeline Creek believe Florence is with Grady for his money, but I believe she sees something in him no one else can see, something she loves, though what that something is I can’t imagine.

I am fifty-four, a native Californian, musician, poet, and owner of a small house on a quarter-acre I purchased seventeen years ago with money I made as a ghost writer. I would tell you the names of the seven books I ghostwrote, except I am legally bound never to tell anyone. The official authors of my books are household names in America today, and though I earned the tiniest fraction of what those official authors made from my creations, that fraction was enough to buy my house and keep me in groceries and guitar strings for twenty years and counting.

Twice married and twice divorced, no children, I have not been romantically entangled with anyone for ten years, three months, two weeks, and five days; but who’s counting? When it comes to companionship and just about anything else, I prefer women to men. I am profoundly heterosexual, distinctly feminine, and not in the least effeminate. When I go to parties and the women gather en masse in the kitchen and the men hang out in little knots elsewhere, I will be found in the kitchen.

“So there are these two old ladies,” says Delia, telling me a joke as we’re driving up Carmeline Creek Road to have supper at Elisha’s place. “Naomi and Ethel. They get together for lunch every couple weeks. One day over Chinese, Ethel says to Naomi, ‘So… anything interesting happen since last time?’ And Naomi says, ‘Oh not much, though I did get married.’ ‘Married?’ says Ethel, shocked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone?’ ‘Who said I was seeing someone?’ says Naomi. ‘I met him last week and decided to marry him.’ ‘Swept you off your feet, huh?’ ‘Hardly,’ says Naomi, shrugging. ‘But he meets my needs.’ ‘I see,’ says Ethel, blushing. ‘He’s good looking and good in bed?’ ‘No he’s ugly as a toad and I wouldn’t sleep with him for all the money in Miami if he was capable of such a thing, which he’s not.’ ‘So is he a good conversationalist with lots of money?’ ‘Nope. He’s a pauper and deaf as a post. I’ll be supporting him until he drops dead.’ ‘But Naomi, if he’s ugly and impotent and deaf and poor, why did you marry him?’ Naomi shrugs. ‘He can still drive at night.’”

During supper, much to my surprise, Grady speaks not a word and actually seems to be listening to what other people are saying. His behavior is so out of character for him, I grow more and more uneasy with every minute he doesn’t say something. Nor am I alone in my unease—Delia and Elisha and Conor and Alexandra keep looking at Grady as if he’s about to explode.

Finally the suspense becomes too much and Delia says, “I give up. What’s going on with you, Grady?”

He thinks for a moment and says, “You mean why am I not talking constantly so no one else can say anything?”

“Yes,” says Delia, nodding. “I’ve known you for twenty years and you have never once, until just now, asked me a question. And every time I have ever tried to say anything when you were in the same room, you interrupted me. Did you have a stroke?”

Grady laughs, and as he laughs, I realize I have never heard him laugh until now.

“You tell them Flo,” says Grady, looking across the table at Florence. “You’re a much better story teller than I am.”

Florence smiles at Grady and says, “Thank you for the compliment, but I think you should tell them.”

“Well, okay,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but please stop me if I go on too long.”

“Your voice is softer now,” I say, gazing in wonder at him. “If I closed my eyes I wouldn’t know it was you.”

“This is my real voice,” he says, smiling at me for the very first time in all the years I’ve known him. “I’m sorry you had to put up with that other voice for all these years.”

“Why did your voice change?” asks Alexandra, fascinated by this new version of Grady.

“Well,” he says, measuring his words, “to make a very long story short, I went to a healer, and he helped me so much that now I don’t have to talk all the time to mask my fear because I’m no longer afraid.”

“Who is this healer?” asks Conor, who is currently obsessed with the books of Herman Hesse.

“His name is August Quincy,” says Grady, smiling at Conor. “He lives near Fortuna. Flo heard about him from a friend and… the two days I spent with him were the most incredible days of my life.”

“What did he do?” asks Delia, mystified. “Hypnotize you?”

“In a way,” says Grady, nodding. “He helped me relax and then we… I know this may sound improbable, but he guided me back to the beginning of my life, to my birth, and from there we relived my life, resolving the many things that needed resolving.” He laughs self-consciously. “I think I’ll stop there for now because I really want to hear about all of you, since I never got to know you because I was always talking.”

After supper, over pumpkin pie and tea in the living room, Conor and Alexandra tell us about the fox who trots through the backyard every evening after they bring the dogs in for the night.

“Rex told us about the fox before he died,” says Conor, sitting on the floor between the two friendly mutts Larry and Mo. “He said in the fifty-six years he lived here, every evening, exactly seven minutes after he brought his dogs inside, a fox would come out of the forest to the west, cross the yard, and disappear into the forest to the east. He said the fox only crossed the yard after the dogs were inside for the night. Sometimes two or three foxes would go by, but always at least one. Every evening for fifty-six years. And sure enough, every evening since we’ve been here, a fox has gone through the yard.”

“Foxes don’t live very long,” says Alexandra, sitting between Elisha and me on one of the two sofas. “We got a book about foxes from the library and it said they only usually live for two or three years, though sometimes they live for ten years, but that’s very rare.”

“So let’s say the average life span of the foxes around here is two years,” says Conor, taking up the story. “If you divide fifty-six by two you get twenty-eight. Which means approximately twenty-eight different foxes were the fox that went by every evening when Rex lived here, give or take a fox or two.”

“But even though they were different foxes,” says Alexandra, nodding assuredly, “they always knew they should wait for the dogs to be inside before they went by, which means the older foxes must have taught the younger foxes to wait for the dogs to be inside before crossing the yard.”

“We’ve been experimenting since we moved here,” says Conor, looking at Grady, who is sitting with Florence and Delia on the other sofa. “One night we left the dogs out for an extra hour, and another night we brought them in a half-hour earlier than usual, but no matter when we bring them in, seven minutes later the fox goes by.”

“So he must be waiting in the woods with a view of the house,” says Grady, delighted. “And when you bring the dogs inside, he knows the coast is clear. Or she knows.”

I look at Elisha and say, “I can imagine two young foxes sitting with their mother in the forest watching the house at dusk. And now the back door opens and a human being comes out and calls to the dogs, and they go inside with the human, and the door closes.”

“But the foxes don’t immediately leave the forest,” says Elisha, returning my gaze. “The mother waits for seven minutes, until she’s certain the dogs are in for the night before she emerges from the trees, her children following her.”

“Or maybe they’re with a father fox,” says Alexandra, getting up to put another log on the fire. “The book we read said foxes are very good parents and their children stay with them until they’re seven or eight months old, which is almost full grown.”

“I wonder why their lives are so short?” says Delia, sighing. “They’re such beautiful animals.”

“Dangerous world,” says Florence, holding Delia’s hand. “A lovely world, but full of danger.”

“I wonder if foxes are born good parents,” I say, staring into the fire. “Or if they learn how to parent from their parents.”

“I think they learn from their parents,” says Conor, looking at his mother. “Rex told us the best way to raise a pup is to have an older dog for the pup to learn from. That’s why he always had one dog a few years older than the other, so when the older one died and he got a new one, the pup could learn from the older one how to be.”

Delia looks at Elisha and says, “Whenever I think of Rex before you came to town, you know what I remember?”

“Tell me,” says Elisha, who especially loves Delia.

“I remember the times when I would be behind him in line at the post office or at the bakery,” says Delia, laughing, “how I would always try to be extra friendly and extra generous to the clerks to compensate for how unfriendly and miserly Rex was. And then you three came to town and he turned into a whole other person, a sweet and generous man.”

“He learned from Elisha and Conor and Alexandra how to be sweet and generous,” says Florence, her eyes full of tears.

“I think he always knew how to be sweet and generous,” says Grady, remembering how terrified he was of Rex before the transformation. “I think he just needed to be awakened by their kindness, and once he was awake, there was no going back.”

fin

Promise of Joy

Monday, April 1st, 2019

joy bread

I live in a small town. I won’t tell you the name of the town because I don’t want swarms of people descending upon us to get a look at me. I’m kidding, of course. Why would anyone, let alone swarms of people, want to get a look at me after reading this story? And how would they know what I look like? Am I a woman or a man? Old or young? Unless I tell you, you’ll never know.

On the other hand, there is only one bakery in our town, and this is a story about that bakery, so if I were to mention the name of this town and someone reads this story and wants to get a look at me, he or she could go to the bakery where I almost always sit at the same table every day for approximately the same three hours. Thus if I were to tell you which table and what time of day, you would know where to find me, unless you’re reading this story a hundred years from now when I’m no longer alive, barring incredible advances in medical science.

You may wonder why I don’t always sit at the same table in the bakery if I’m such a creature of habit. I can explain in two words. These two words are not verbs or adjectives, but a person’s name. Pedro Steinberg. Are names words? Of course they are. They are proper nouns. As it happens, I would never use the word proper to describe Pedro Steinberg, yet his two names are unquestionably proper nouns. How ironic. Indeed, everything about Pedro Steinberg strikes me as ironic. What were his parents thinking? Pedro is a middle-aged Jewish man born to Jewish parents named Ira and Ruth, descendants of Polish Jews. Why did Ira and Ruth name him Pedro? Why not Peter or Ira or Fritz? Perhaps they were being ironic. Or perhaps, for reasons we can only guess at, they fell in love with the name Pedro and decided there could be no better moniker for their son.

In any case, Pedro sometimes commandeers my usual table before I get to the bakery at ten every morning, but only sometimes because most mornings he stays in bed or lolls around in his pajamas until well past ten, so he and I rarely compete for the table in question, a corner table adjacent to a window. Given there are only two corner tables adjacent to windows in the bakery, someone trying to guess my identity from this story could now narrow my identity down to at most four people.

But I’ll go you one better. My table is in the southeast corner. Therefore, should you come looking for me between ten and one at the bakery, and you know north from south and east from west, you will be able to narrow your search down to me or Pedro Steinberg or the people with whom we are sharing the table. I, however, am not chubby, the person I usually share my table with is chubby, and Pedro is mucho chubby and rarely shares the table with anyone, so there I’ll be if I tell you the name of our town.

By now you may be wondering: where is this story going? Or maybe you’re merely enjoying the way I’m easing into the tale and you aren’t greatly attached to where the story is going so long as the telling continues to please you. Or maybe you stopped reading after the second or third paragraph, rendering these words mere symbols waiting to be deciphered. Imagine a woman standing on a sidewalk watching a man walking away and no longer listening to what she is trying to tell him. She calls after him, but her voice falters and she falls silent.

The bakery of which I write is called Mona’s. This commercial footprint, to use a bit of architectural lingo, has had seven different tenants in the last fourteen years, and for five of those fourteen years, the footprint was vacant. The reason for this track record, so to speak, is that none of the tenants prior to the current tenant, Mona Castelli, were able turn a profit here, and Mona was on the verge of closing up shop, too, until something quite remarkable happened.

The footprint’s décor changed with each new bakery, the menu changed, business hours fluctuated from proprietor to proprietor, staff turned over countless times, prices went up and up, booths came and went and came again, chairs were comfortable, uncomfortable, sort of comfortable, too comfortable, wobbly, not wobbly. Cats were allowed, then disallowed, then allowed, then disallowed, and are now allowed again.

The name of the bakery has changed seven times. My favorite name was Il Trogolo, which is Italian for The Trough. Unfortunately, the owner of Il Trogolo and the baker she hired routinely overused cinnamon, and whoever made their coffee had a penchant for bitterness, so…

There are currently twelve tables and two booths in the large and not-quite-square rectangular footprint that is Mona’s, with a maximum occupancy of fifty-four. The walls are white and decorated with a constantly changing show of photographs and paintings by local artists. The unisex bathroom is large and clean, the pale blue bathroom walls adorned with three movie posters for goofy French comedies made in the 1990s. Hours of business are 7 AM to 5:30 PM, Sunday through Thursday, and 7 AM to 10 PM Friday and Saturday.

Mona’s baked goods are yummy, not too cinnamony, the coffee is excellent, there are numerous gluten-free and vegan comestibles available along with many gluten-rich and non-vegan edibles, the lighting is good, the chairs are comfortable but not too comfortable, and on the face of it, one wouldn’t have thought Mona’s needed a remarkable happenstance to survive and thrive, except…

From April through October our coastal town is a thriving tourist destination. And though it is also true that virtually all of the 977 year-round residents of Carmeline Creek enjoy patronizing Mona’s, when the rainy cold winter settles in on the far north coast of California, tourists rarely venture here; and the 977, few of whom possess trogolos of cash, were not buying enough baked goods and coffee to keep Mona’s afloat.

Yes, things looked dire, and we locals were girding our loins, so to speak, for yet another incarnation of our beloved bakery to close when…

I was just settling down at my usual table in the nearly empty cafe, a hard December rain pelting the windows and obscuring my view of Philomena’s Bay where huge breakers were crashing onto the beach at the mouth of Carmeline Creek. A steaming latte in a handsome green bowl awaited my lips, and a raisin and walnut muffin awaited my mandibles, when the tubular chimes hanging on the front door sounded with the entrance of a woman in her mid-forties with reddish brown hair accompanied by a boy verging on teenagery with similarly reddish brown hair and a girl a few years younger than the boy with light brown hair verging on blonde.

The moment I saw this woman and boy and girl, I thought Danish Irish Spanish Morocco Algeria.

The woman, solemnly lovely, approached the counter where Mona was lost in a trance of despondency about the impending closure of her bakery.

“Hello,” said the woman to Mona, with an accent both Irish and Spanish. “My name is Elisha Montoya. This is my son Conor and my daughter Alexandra. I see you have an apartment for rent upstairs. May we take a look? Also, should you be hiring, I’m looking for a job and have lots of experience as a cook and baker and waitress. I’d be happy to work for you for a week without pay to give you an idea of what I might do for you.”

Mona, who has long curly brown hair and wears large red-framed glasses and always appears to be perplexed, though she isn’t, gazed at Elisha for a long moment and said, “I can show you the apartment, though I’m not the landlord. And as it happens, my baker and counterperson both just found other jobs because, barring a miracle, I’ll be closing this place in two weeks, but… sure, I’ll give you a try.”

Which is how Elisha and Conor and Alexandra came to live above the bakery, and Elisha came to work in the bakery, and how two weeks later Mona did not close the bakery because business had picked up considerably since the coming of Elisha and the addition to menu of Elisha’s creamy potato and turnip soup, hearty Irish stew, spicy chai, delectable basil and cheese bread sticks, falafels, and hummus made with just the right amount of garlic.

Curiosity about Elisha and her children certainly played a part in the sizeable increase in patronage at Mona’s for the first week, and the new food items were undeniably a big hit with locals who have few affordable dining choices outside of cooking at home; but as a daily denizen of the bakery, I can assure you that the decisive factor in Mona’s turnaround was the change in the atmosphere, the new vibe that took hold here with the advent of Elisha and her children.

How to describe this new vibe? I’m currently at work on a quartet of poems inspired by my desire to elucidate this new tonality, and I’m also composing an upbeat dance tune fueled by the transformation of Mona’s geist, but until those poems are finished and the dance tune is second nature to my guitar-playing fingers, I think what happened when Rex Abernathy came into Mona’s a few mornings ago captures the Elisha Effect better than anything.

Rex Abernathy is seventy-eight-years-old, a former lumberjack. Rex, as my mother used to say about nearly everyone, is a piece of work. My mother used that expression to characterize people she thought were unusual and/or challenging in one way or another; and that’s how I’m using the expression for Rex, with an emphasis on challenging.

I’ve known Rex for seventeen years, and even before his wife Effie died seven years ago, Rex was a grim person who maintained a steadfast disinterest in other people, whereas Effie was a reflexively friendly person and genuinely interested in the lives of others. After Effie died, Rex ceased speaking to anyone other than his two dogs—he always has two. When one of his dogs dies, he immediately gets another from the animal shelter; and for all his grimness, Rex treats his dogs well and they adore him.

Eventually people in town stopped saying hello to Rex because when they did say hello, Rex would either ignore them or glare at them as if to say, “Don’t ever do that again.”

Every day for those seven years after Effie died, Rex drove to town with his dogs in his old pickup from his place a few miles up Carmeline Creek Road to get his mail at the post office, buy groceries, and pick up a loaf of bread at the bakery. He never uttered a word to anyone in the post office, even if he had a package to pick up. He would wait stone-faced for either Robin or Joe to bring him the package; and not once did he say thanks. Nor would he speak to anyone in the grocery store.

In the bakery, rather than speak, he would point; and because he always only got a loaf of bread, his pointing sufficed; and not once did he leave a tip.

That’s how things were with Rex for seven years, and I thought that’s how things would be with Rex until the day he died—the lonely man grim and silent and keeping everyone at bay with his palpable sorrow and simmering rage.

A few days ago—one year and four months after Elisha and Conor and Alexandra moved into the apartment above Mona’s and Elisha became the cook and baker and sometimes counterperson at Mona’s, and Elisha’s children started working at Mona’s, too—I’m sitting at the table where I almost always sit, enjoying a cup of potato and turnip soup accompanied by three still-warm-from-the-oven basil and cheese breadsticks, having earlier in my sojourn at Mona’s enjoyed a latte and a delicious pumpkin muffin, when Rex Abernathy comes in from the blustery day, the last day of March.

And I notice Rex is not wearing the filthy tattered orange coat over a frayed plaid shirt tucked into greasy trousers he wore religiously for the last seven years. No, he is wearing a clean teal dress shirt tucked into brown corduroy trousers. Nor is he wearing the beat-up Giants baseball hat that is synonymous in our town with Rex Abernathy. Instead, he is hatless and has combed his thinning white hair, trimmed his mustache, and shaved his usually stubbly cheeks and chin.

He does not glare around the room as if looking for a fight, but rather gazes around the sunny bakery and smiles at a large black and white photograph of Elisha’s daughter Alexandra standing in the open doorway of the bakery holding a contented tabby cat in her arms—the photograph taken by Elisha’s son Conor.

Rex steps up to the counter and smiles at Mona, who seems nearly as surprised as I am by the dramatic changes in Rex’s dress and demeanor.

Mona smiles tentatively and asks, “What can I get you today, Rex?”

At which moment, Elisha looks up from peeling potatoes with Alexandra at the big table in the kitchen and says, “Oh hey, Rex. We saved you some stew. Come sit with us.”

Rex bows politely to Mona and ambles into the kitchen where he sits on a stool next to Alexandra, who looks at Rex and says, “I wanted the last of that stew, but Mama said she was saving it for you.”

Now Elisha sets a big bowl of yesterday’s Irish stew on the table in front of Rex, along with a blue cloth napkin, a large silver spoon, and a big white mug full of hot black coffee, and Rex says as tenderly as I’ve ever heard anyone say anything, “Oh gosh, Elisha, there’s plenty here for Alexandra to have some, too.”

       fin