Posts Tagged ‘Alexandra’

We Might Be Friends

Monday, September 16th, 2019

end of something

Volume of Greenstreet photo by Todd

Paul Windsor, late fifties, bespectacled, his longish gray hair turning white, is sitting at his customary corner table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.

Something causes him to look up from reading Kate Greenstreet’s The End of Something, and his eyes are drawn to the woman with silvery hair who just took her place at the end of the short line of customers. He wonders what made him look up from the poem he was reading. Was it the words I thought we might be friends or something about this woman at the end of the line? Or both.

Paul’s wife Elisha, her long reddish brown hair in a ponytail, and Alexandra, Paul and Elisha’s seventeen-year-old daughter, her shoulder-length reddish brown hair tinted with purple, are working behind the counter, both of them wearing white dress shirts and black jeans; and this woman at the end of the line is wearing a long gray skirt and a peach-colored sweater.

He can only see the woman’s backside, but her posture and shape are familiar to him, and when she looks to her right and he glimpses her profile, he realizes this is Maureen, his first wife whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in thirty-two years.

His immediate impulse is to sneak out of the café before Maureen can recognize him, but the impulse passes and he closes his eyes and remembers the moment he met her—the opening night of a group show at the Hawkins Gallery in San Jose. His friend George had four paintings in the show and Paul was there out of loyalty to George. Maureen was gallery hopping with her friend Lisa who knew George and came to give George a congratulatory hug. George introduced Lisa to Paul, and Lisa gave Paul a hug, too. Then Lisa said, “This is my amazing friend Maureen,” and Paul and asked, “What’s so amazing about you?” And Maureen said, “Take me home and I’ll show you.”

Paul opens his eyes and sees Maureen at the counter talking to Elisha; and he feels gut punched, which is how he felt every time Maureen confessed her latest infidelity to him. They married a month after they met, separated after a year, divorced a few months after that.

Maureen pays for her bag of pastries and turns to leave; and Paul sees her face clearly for the first time and realizes this is not Maureen.

He puts down The End of Something, opens his notebook, and writes Maureen was constantly unfaithful because deceiving me made life more exciting for her. She never expressed the slightest interest in my writing or music, yet I invited her to live with me, married her, went deep into debt buying her a new car and expensive clothing and taking her out to trendy restaurants. Why did I do that when I knew from the beginning she cared nothing for me? Was it because she was beautiful and I never thought a beautiful woman would ever want to be with me?

The café door opens and the woman who is not Maureen enters again. She buys a cup of coffee and a cinnamon swirl and looks for a place to sit—all the seats taken except one at Paul’s table.

“Would you mind if I sit with you?” she asks, her voice identical to Maureen’s voice.

“No, please,” he says, thinking maybe this is Maureen transformed by thirty more years of life.

“Thank you,” she says, sitting down with a weary sigh. “I tried to get my daughter and her friend to come in, but they have no interest in leaving the car.” She shrugs. “We’re driving to Portland via the coast because it’s so beautiful, right? But they won’t get out of the fucking car. Pardon my French.”

“How old is your daughter?” asks Paul, imagining a surly teenager.

“Thirty,” says the woman, nodding dolefully. “Going on twelve. My fault. Should have kicked her out long ago, but…” She glances at The End of Something. “That any good? Mystery?”

“Poetry,” says Paul, certain now the woman is not Maureen.

“Wow,” says the woman, wistfully. “Poetry. Boy does that take me back.”

“To where and when?” asks Paul, wondering why he thought this woman was Maureen, when she is nothing like Maureen.

“To Santa Cruz a million years ago when I used to get really stoned and read Emily Dickinson.” She smiles, remembering. “Heaven.”

“Would you like me to read you one of these poems?”

“Here?” she says, glancing around the room. “Now?”

“Yeah,” says Paul, laughing. “My wife is the manager and she encourages the out-loud reading of poetry.”

“Okay,” says the woman, blushing. “But tell me your name first.”

“Paul Windsor,” he says, loving that she blushed at the thought of being read to by a stranger in a café. “What’s your name?”

“Victoria,” she says, taking off her sweater and revealing a shimmering sleeveless red shirt and tattooed arms—mermaids and unicorns—and a necklace of turquoise stones.

“I did not expect tattoos,” says Paul, gazing in wonder at her.

“Oh I used to be a super hippy,” she says, remembering those halcyon days. “Before I got pregnant and had to get real.” She winks at him. “You know what I mean.”

“Not sure I do,” he says, imagining her as a young woman smoking a joint and reading Emily Dickinson, the words amazing her.

“Yes, you do,” she says, bitterly. “To pay the bills. When mommy and daddy wouldn’t anymore. Right?”

“Right,” he says, nodding. “I see what you mean.”

“Is the poem sad?” she asks, biting her lower lip. “The one you want to read me?”

“No,” he says, opening the book. “Not sad.”

69. BLACK SNOW

I thought we might be friends. Or we were friends but

who we turned out to be was disappointing.

 

She walks to the corner of the field. One of those cold

bright days you remember from childhood.

 

The past, nothing.

New people, nothing.

 

She sees him but she doesn’t know him.

She’s wearing his coat.

Victoria purses her lips and says, “I like that poem.” She sighs. “A lot. Would you read it again, please?”

He reads the poem again, slower this time.

She nods. “I feel like that all the time now. Like I’m outside what’s going on. Like when I’m driving my daughter and her friend and they’re plugged into their phones and I look out at the hills and the sky and the clouds and the ocean and I think how beautiful it is, and they’re not even aware of it, and I’m just driving through it, driving them through it to some motel on the way to some hotel in Portland where they’ll go to some dance club and take Ecstasy and then we’ll drive back to Palo Alto the fast ugly way. For what? Like the poem says. The past, nothing. New people, nothing. Why do I live like this? It’s like I’m only half-alive. I should sell everything and get a place around here. Near the wild ocean. Have a garden and a cat and volunteer somewhere. Help people. I’ve got enough money. Let my daughter take care of herself, though I don’t think she can.”

A silence falls between them.

Victoria tears off a big chunk of her cinnamon swirl, dips the chunk in her coffee, and puts the drenched chunk in her mouth, her eyelids fluttering with pleasure at the marriage of bitter and sweet.

fin

Kate Greenstreet reading her poem 69. Black Snow

Todd reading his poem Why Now?

Orange Juice and Beads

Monday, June 10th, 2019

sunflower

Where in the world: Carmeline Creek, a town on the far north coast of California, population not quite a thousand

Where in Carmeline Creek: Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in town

When: Yesterday

What: I (Paul Windsor, middle-aged conversationalist) had a fascinating conversation with my friend Olaf Wickersham, recorded at the behest of my daughter Alexandra who is making movies with soundtracks composed of bits of conversations accompanied by accordion and guitar.

Olaf is sixty-seven, tall and fit, with a shaved head and sparkling brown eyes. He usually wears black clothing and bead necklaces, sometimes one necklace, sometimes several, the beads thereon for sale.

Me: Where have you been since I saw you selling your delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice on Main Street in August?

Olaf: I left Carmeline Creek on August 31, got a ride to Oakland and took the train to Los Angeles where I spent a few days in Santa Monica with friends. Then I took the train to Chicago where I visited my sister for a week, and from there I took a boat to Canada and trained to Halifax where I spent a week trading beads and visiting friends. From Halifax I sailed to Ireland on the S.S. Merveilleux.

Me: A freighter?

Olaf: Yes, a large freighter carrying lumber. I used to work on freighters to get to Europe and back, but I stopped needing to pay for my passage that way about ten years ago. Now I go as a passenger. September is usually a good month to cross the Atlantic by boat, though I have had some harrowing trips. One never knows about the ocean.

Me: How long does the crossing take?

Olaf: Two weeks, give or take.

Me: And what do you do to while away the hours?

Olaf: Read, write letters, play guitar, carve beads, walk, exercise, and I commune with my bead collection so I know what I’ve got to trade and how much I’m likely to ask for each bead.

Me: How many beads do you carry with you?

Olaf: Varies. This last time I set sail for Europe with about a thousand beads. Arizona turquoise, amethyst, tourmaline, bone.

Me: So you were in Ireland by mid-October?

Olaf: Yeah. I have a dear friend, Irene, with a small farm outside of Arklow. I stayed with her until Christmas. I’d take the train into Dublin now and then to trade beads and go to plays and hear live music, but I mostly stayed on the farm and helped Irene. Then I took the ferry to England, got a train to France, spent a week in Paris with friends, trained to Barcelona where I visited my nephew who married into a big family there, and in February I went to Morocco and spent a week in Marrakesh and a week in Fes buying and selling and trading beads. Then I went from Morocco to Mallorca for a week, and from Mallorca I went back to Barcelona to court a woman I’d fallen in love with. She was not amenable to coming with me or having me stay with her, so I soothed my aching heart by meandering along the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece, trading beads and visiting friends along the way. Then I went to Zurich where I sold several extraordinary beads to a wealthy collector, and finished my European journey in Amsterdam from where I flew non-stop to Los Angeles. And by the middle of May… well, here I am.

Me: And that is roughly what you do every year.

Olaf: That is roughly what I’ve done every year for thirty-five years, but I’m changing my pattern this year and staying in Carmeline Creek for at least a year without going anywhere.

Me: Why the change?

Olaf: I’m ready to try a different living pattern and I’d like to live on my little acre all the days of a year to really get to know the place and see how I feel about that. I’m tired of being a vagabond, though my vagabond life has gotten more comfortable with every passing year. I suspect my inability to create a satisfying long-term relationship is connected to my unwillingness to stay in one place for long, and I would really like to be in a good long-term relationship.

Me: Will you still sell fresh-squeezed orange juice on Main Street from May to September?

Olaf: No. I gave my cart to Ruben (Olaf’s longtime employee). He and Tania have done most of the hard work these last few years, while I became more the jovial barker. Fear not, there will still be fresh-squeezed orange juice available on Main Street.

Me: How did you get started in the orange juice business?

Olaf: I was living in Los Angeles trying to make it as an actor and a musician. I shared a garage with another guy behind a cruddy house in Echo Park before that area got gentrified. I had lots of part-time gigs and sold joints to tourists in Santa Monica when marijuana was still highly illegal. Just scraping by, smoking too much dope, and occasionally auditioning for a part in a low-budget movie. Then one hot summer day, I was working on a catering crew at the mansion of a big Hollywood producer, lots of movie stars and celebrities on display, and the wife of the producer, a gorgeous Mexican fashion model, had hired a couple Mexican guys to bring their cart to her mansion and make juice for the guests. They’d been selling fresh-squeezed orange juice on the boardwalk at Venice Beach for decades. They set up right next to the barbecue, and when I saw their colorful wooden cart and how fast they cut the oranges and pressed the juice out and filled those half-pint glasses—and how happy they were—I said to myself, “I’m gonna do that.”

Me: In LA?

Olaf: No, I had to get out of LA. I was dying there.

Me: How old were you?

Olaf: Twenty-seven.

Me: So where did you go?

Olaf: Well… my younger sister, the one who now lives in Chicago, was going to college in Berkeley and lived in a commune in Oakland. So I went there, camped in her backyard, built my first cart, and started selling orange juice in Oakland. And I did really well for a couple months until I got busted for selling without a permit. Long story short, I worked farmers markets and art fairs all over the Bay Area for three years, which meant I had to have a big pickup truck to haul my cart, and what with gas and parking and insurance and rent, I hardly broke even. So I gave up for a while, went roaming around for a year or so and discovered Carmeline Creek. A few months later, I moved here, rented a shed from Dominic Andrini a block from where I set up on Main Street, sold my truck, and settled into my routine.

Me: You didn’t need your truck for hauling the oranges?

Olaf: No, I ordered my oranges through Andrini’s and they delivered right to my cart.

Me: Why Carmeline Creek?

Olaf: Why did you choose Carmeline Creek?

Me: I stumbled on the place, bought an old house for next to nothing, and here I am.

Olaf: There you go.

Me: And you made a living selling orange juice?

Olaf: On a good day I cleared three hundred dollars. Sunny summers I made enough to live and travel for a year and then some.

Me: And the beads? When did you become a bead trader?

Olaf: Ah, the beads. The short version is that when I was in my early twenties living in Santa Cruz, I had a girlfriend, Mira, the great love of my life. She made jewelry and bead necklaces and was always looking for new sources of beads. I would accompany her on her expeditions, fell in love with the bead trade, and decided to go into the business in my own idiosyncratic way. Then Mira dumped me for a man with piles of money and a mansion in Malibu, and I followed her to southern California and embarked on my struggling-actor-and-musician phase. My goal, or I should say my fantasy, was to become a huge star and win my girlfriend away from the rich guy. But that didn’t happen, and when I left LA, I got into beads again.

Me: Will you continue to trade beads while you’re living here year-round?

Olaf: Oh, yeah. People will seek me out and I’ll communicate by phone and letters with people in the trade I’ve gotten to know over the years. However, I’m rich now, so there’s no great imperative to make money. I’ll do it because I love trading beads.

Me: May I ask how you came to be rich when you were not so rich a year ago?

Olaf: I can give you the gist, but not the deep specifics.

Me: Gist is fine.

Olaf: Well… as I’m sure you can imagine, being the imaginative person you are, there are legendary beads, just as there are legendary diamonds and legendary paintings and legendary guitars worth millions of dollars. By chance I came to possess a legendary strand of beads, and after three years of extremely careful and secretive negotiations, I was able to sell that strand for what to me is a vast fortune, which is now stowed in the Carmeline Creek Credit Union earning interest more than sufficient for my simple needs.

Me: Why did it take three years of extremely careful and secretive negotiations? Why not sell the beads right away?

Olaf: Because had it been known to anyone but the very few people I negotiated with that I possessed those particular beads, I would have been dead within a week.

Me: Jesus, Olaf. Really?

Olaf: Really and truly.

Me: But why?

Olaf: (thinks for a moment) Imagine if word got around that you had a strand of beads in your house or on your person or hidden somewhere, and those beads were worth several million dollars. Would you feel safe?

Me: No, I’d put them in a safety deposit box and sell them as quick as I could.

Olaf: And how would you go about selling them?

Me: Well, I don’t know. Go to a bead trader? Put an ad in Beads Quarterly?

Olaf: Not a good idea.

Me: Why not?

Olaf: Because if more than a few trustworthy people knew you had those beads, a surprising number of powerful, resourceful, and highly unscrupulous people would try to find you and force you, in one way or another, to relinquish those beads or they would kill you.

Me: My god, Olaf, how much were they worth?

Olaf: Impossible to say. Priceless? Worthless? Only worth something because people value them? Certainly rarer than the rarest diamond.

Me: So how did you sell them?

Olaf: It was very tricky. Much trickier than selling a famous painting or a rare guitar, because the thing about beads is they aren’t Picassos or Modiglianis or Gibsons or famous diamonds once owned by the Czar. They are beads, their identities and values known to only a small number of people in the world, many of whom are not what you and I would call honorable or law-abiding.

Me: And why were these particular beads so valuable? Were they diamond-encrusted blobs of gold?

Olaf: No.

Me: Worry beads passed down from Socrates?

Olaf: (frowns curiously) What an interesting guess. And not so far off. But… no.

Me: How many beads are we talking about?

Olaf: That I can’t tell you.

Me: Why not?

Olaf: The number is indicative.

Me: But you’re safe now, so…

Olaf: Ah but the person who bought them from me will never be safe so long as he or she possesses those beads privately rather than give them to a grand art museum or the national gallery of a large and powerful nation.

Me: Oh, so they’re works of art?

Olaf: Yes, and that’s all I’ll say. But if I ever learn that those beads are in the possession of some powerful and well-known institution, I will tell you the story of how I came to possess them and how I was finally able to arrange the sale without losing my life.

Me: Okay. And congratulations. What’s on your docket for the week ahead?

Olaf: Gardening, guitar, walks on the beach, carving, and with any luck entertaining a woman friend I hope will come up from Berkeley and spend some time with me.

Me: By the way, Alexandra has started a movie company. Perhaps you would like to do some acting in one or more of our upcoming films.

Olaf: I would love to. I always wanted to be an actor, you know.

      fin

The Movie Biz

Monday, May 27th, 2019

firewood wall

My fourteen-year-old daughter Alexandra has launched a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and I have agreed to work for her as an idea person, writer, actor, and caterer’s assistant. Elisha, Alexandra’s mother, has also joined the company as an idea person, actor, continuity maven, and caterer. Conor, Alexandra’s older brother, will be an idea person, writer, actor, art director, cinematographer, sound tech, and editor. Sylvia Espinosa, Alexandra’s best friend, who is fifteen, will be an idea person, actor, writer, and co-director of the movies. Alexandra will be the producer, co-director, and head of operations.

I thought interviewing Delia Krantz, who is ninety-six with lots of show biz experience, would be a fun way to help launch the new movie company. To that end, Alexandra and Conor and Sylvia and I meet with Delia at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek. Elisha is working the counter during the interview and is able to hear most of what Delia says. Conor is also recording the interview with a brand new super duper Balzini microphone plugged into his laptop so we can access the interview in the future.

Delia was born in Chicago in the 1920s and worked as the personal assistant to seven different movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s before moving to Carmeline Creek twenty-eight years ago. She lives in a cottage a block from the beach at the north end of town with her dachshunds Greta and Harpo.

Alexandra: Did you know Marilyn Monroe?

Delia: I did not know her, but I met her a few times when I was working for Mel Katz. Mel wanted Marilyn for the femme fatale in a cowboy remake of The Three Musketeers. If she’d said Yes the movie would have gotten made, but because the original part for Marilyn wasn’t big enough for her, Mel had his writers expand her role, and when they did, the script fell apart.

Alexandra: What’s a femme fatale?

Delia: A dangerously attractive woman.

Sylvia: What did you do for your job when you were assisting those movie producers?

Delia: I made all their appointments, attended most of their meetings, took notes during the meetings, typed up the notes, called people and gave them good news and bad news and no news. Things like that. I was on the phone constantly, juggling appointments and dealing with a thousand details. As Jerome Purcell said, I was his adjunct brain. I took dictation, wrote letters, made lunch and dinner reservations, arranged for transportation, and a million other things.

Conor: Who was Jerome Purcell?

Delia: He was one of the biggest movie producers in the world in the early seventies. He made Totally Goofing Around, Crazy Insane Killers, and You Gotta Be Kidding, to name a few.

Alexandra: I’ve never heard of those movies. Should we watch them to get ideas?

Delia: No. Watch Frank Capra movies. Watch Kate Hepburn. Watch Neil Simon. Watch Truffaut and Alec Guinness and Jimmy Stewart and the Marx Brothers.

Sylvia: Do you ever watch YouTube videos?

Delia: Sometimes. People send me links to videos of dogs and cats, but why would I watch videos of dogs when I have dogs? I mostly watch detective shows and old movies and British game shows. I’m addicted to Would I Lie To You, and truth be told, I’m still in love with Humphrey Bogart.

Alexandra: We watched The Maltese Falcon a few weeks ago.

Delia: Did you like it?

Alexandra: Kind of, but I didn’t really understand what was happening and it was kind of scary, though it wasn’t violent or anything, just creepy, especially that one guy.

Delia: Peter Lorre. It’s a confusing story. Verges on Kafka by today’s standards. You’d like the movies Bogie made with Lauren Bacall. Talk about chemistry.

Alexandra: Would you like to hear the idea for our first movie?

Delia: Love to. And by the way, Alexandra, I think it’s marvelous you’re getting into the movie business. You remind me so much of Mary Martin.

Conor: Who was she?

Delia: Who was Mary Martin? She was Peter Pan on television. In the 50s. Live. Every year. With Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music for her. She was the original Maria. A genius.

Alexandra: And I remind you of her?

Delia: In so many ways. Now tell me about your movie.

Alexandra: Okay. So… it’s about a man who goes on a walk, and he’s just walking along. Maybe he has a little dog on a leash. We’re not sure about the dog yet. Anyway, he keeps going by weird things and the things keep getting weirder and weirder, only he doesn’t seem to notice them. He’s just going along and maybe whistling.

Delia: Like what kind of weird things?

Alexandra: Well… we haven’t thought of them all yet, but the first thing will be a person holding a little balloon and hovering a few feet off the ground.

Sylvia: The second thing will be a cat sitting at the bottom of a tree and there will be dog up in the tree. You know, like a reversal of the usual dog on the ground, cat in the tree scenario.

Delia: And the man doesn’t notice these things?

Alexandra: No, he’s just walking along whistling.

Delia: Speaking of Kafka.

Alexandra: Who was Kafka?

Delia: He wrote a story about a man who turns into a cockroach. Dark depressing unsolvable emotional conundrums.

Alexandra: Oh. Well our movie won’t be dark and depressing. It will be funny because the man never notices these strange things no matter how weird they are.

Delia: Why do we care about this man?

Alexandra: What do you mean?

Delia: As Boris Zverev used to say, if we don’t care about the main characters, why should anybody care about the movie? And so he always tried to give us reasons to care about a person? To like them.

Conor: To identify with them.

Delia: (touches her nose) Exactly.

Conor: So maybe if we saw this man for a minute or two before he goes on his walk, and he talks to his cat or sings along to the radio while he makes breakfast or…

Delia: Yes. Humanize him, as Boris used to say.

Sylvia: Who was Boris?

Delia: Boris Zverev was the go-to script doctor in the 1960s. He saved a hundred movies from certain failure.

Alexandra: Do you have any other advice to help us with our movies?

Delia: You need a good story, to quote Frank Capra.

Conor: What makes a story good?

Delia: As Bernard Fuchs used to say… Bernard was a brilliant writer way back when… a good story involves interesting people trying to overcome an external challenge or challenges that also represent inner dilemmas. The only way the character or characters can successfully solve the mystery or win the battle or transcend the challenge is to go through some sort of internal transformation that can then be expressed on the outside. People love stories of transformation.

Alexandra: So once you have a good story, then what?

Delia: Then you have to write a good script, which means you have to have interesting, believable characters saying and doing interesting and endearing things, overcoming difficulties, falling in love, and keeping the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, all the way to the surprising and satisfying ending.

Alexandra: Do people always have to fall in love for a script to be good?’

Delia: In one way or another. The falling in love doesn’t have to be romantic, but who doesn’t like a good romance? It all goes back to creating a story and characters the audience can identify with, so we root for them to succeed. They, in a sense, are versions of us.

Conor: I think movies have changed since you were in the business. Not that what you’re telling us isn’t helpful, but movies now are more about imagery and sound and action. The story isn’t so important anymore.

Delia: (shrugs) If that’s what you like, but people will always love a good story. That will never change. It’s in our genes to love stories. (muses) May I give you a little history lesson about movies?

Conor: Yes. Please.

Alexandra: (excited) You know what we could do? We could make a movie about Delia teaching us how to make movies.

Sylvia: Yeah, and we would try to do what she tells us and fail hilariously.

Conor: A tragic comedy.

Delia: Who would play me? Don’t tell me. Me?

Alexandra: Of course! Who else?

Conor: So… the history lesson.

Delia: Okay, so in the beginning there was no sound in movies. Everything had to be conveyed with the setting and very obvious situations in which characters, archetypal characters, acted with their bodies and their faces and the occasional dialogue card. So just from looking at them you knew who was the villain, who was the victim, who was nice, who was bad. Their actions and facial expressions told the story. Then in the 1930s when sound arrived and actors could talk, most of the first screenwriters were recruited from among playwrights, people writing for the stage. And so most of the first movies were, by and large, plays or vaudeville acts turned into movies. Hence the term screenplay. A play for the screen. Now the thing about a play is, you’re limited to action taking place on a stage with one or two sets. That’s it. So those writers were very good at writing interesting dialogue because that’s what made for a good play. Movies don’t depend so much on dialogue, but dialogue is still extremely important. As is good acting. But there is a fundamental truth about plays and movies that has never changed. Which is… we learn the most about the people in the movie or the play by what they do, not by what they say. If a person walks by a person floating in the air and doesn’t notice them, we learn that the person walking by is not very observant and this influences how we think about him. In other words, actions speak louder than words. So I would say when you write your scripts, be aware of the non-verbal messages being conveyed by what people do.

Conor: Maybe the guy doesn’t notice anything because he’s lost in his own thoughts and he’s trained himself not to notice things because everything in his world is so weird.

Alexandra: Or maybe he does notice the person floating and the dog and cat reversal, but he doesn’t think it’s weird because everything in his reality is weird.

Delia: What happens at the end?

Conor: He goes by one last weird thing and we fade out.

Delia: No transformation?

Conor: We don’t know.

Delia: I don’t see the point.

Alexandra: It’s about how weirdness is normal now. What used to seem crazy is just how things are now and the man just accepts it.

Delia: Oh. So there’s no story. It’s what we used to call an experimental film. You’re trying out ideas to learn how to use the medium.

Conor: No, there’s a story. It’s about how life is now. People being oblivious to how weird everything is.

Delia: I guess that’s kind of a story. In an abstract way. Speaking of Kafka.

Alexandra: You’ve given us a lot to think about, Delia. Thank you so much.

Delia: You’re welcome, sweetheart. I’m very happy you asked me. I enjoyed remembering some of the people I knew so long ago, hearing their voices again.

fin

Willing To Pretend

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

blossoming cherry

Okay, so I’ve been in love with Elisha Montoya for four years, three months, two weeks and five days. I know with such exactitude because in my desk calendar for that year, on the day she and her children arrived in our midst, I wrote in purple ink: Elisha Montoya appeared in Mona’s today. Spanish Irish? Reddish brown hair. Quietly regal. Simply beautiful. Two sweet kids, Conor and Alexandra. Love at first sight.

So, yes, I am a romantic, though I’d stopped thinking of myself as such until Elisha came to town and became the leading light at Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, our small town on the far north coast of California. Schmaltz alert: Elisha became my muse, poems and songs gushed forth, and now she and her children are the emotional epicenter of my life. I haunt Mona’s most mornings, give Conor and Alexandra guitar lessons, the four of us have supper together two or three and sometimes four nights a week, and in every way except the conjugal bed, we are a family.

The few times I attempted to shift my friendship with Elisha, who is forty-six, into a romantic entanglement, she rebuffed me, not unkindly, but firmly, and so I let such hopes go the way of Dodo; and if that reference means nothing to you, how about the word extinct?

My name is Paul Windsor. I am fifty-five, five-foot-eleven, graying brunette, musician, poet, and gardener. I share my small house with two large dogs, Zerc and Raj (Xerxes and Mirage), good-natured Golden Retriever Blue Heeler siblings who require, at minimum, two long walks every day else they drive me mad with their restlessness.

Following two disastrous marriages and three angst-ridden relationships, I have lived alone for nine years, though in the privacy of my thoughts I am married to Elisha, minus tender kisses and passionate embraces and sex, a minus that makes me sigh every time I see her. Oh well.

So here I am on a sunny afternoon in May, in need of a haircut and about to leave for a three-mile jaunt across the headlands with Zerc and Raj, when Elisha shows up sans children and looking lovely in a long skirt and crimson shirt, a small red rose in her hair. She accompanies me and the dogs on our walk to the beach at the mouth of Carmeline Creek where I throw tennis balls for the water-loving mutts for twenty minutes before we return to my house with an hour of daylight left.

“What fun going on a walk with you,” I say, standing with Elisha in my rose-infested front yard, the dogs having run around to the back porch to drink from their water bowls. “Though you did seem mightily distracted and, dare I say, anxious about something, not that it’s any of my business except… did you want to tell me something?”

She forces a smile and makes an adorable spluttering sound. “Can we go inside?”

“Of course,” I say, smiling curiously at her.

We have tea at my kitchen table, the late afternoon sunlight making of Elisha a modern Ver Meer, and after a few minutes of idle chit chat, and with absolutely no forewarning, Elisha asks, “Would you be willing to pretend to be married to me?”

Now here’s a funny thing, not funny ha-ha, but funny strange. For a moment, maybe four seconds, I think Elisha asked me to marry her, and apparently four seconds is enough time for the neuro-hormonal consortium to flood my system with joy before my rational mind takes over and the joy is obliterated by bitter disappointment.

Pretend to be married to you?” I say, feeling stabbed in the heart. “Why would I do such a thing?”

“Oh, Paul, I’m sorry.” She winces sympathetically. “I just… I don’t know what else to do except run away again, and I don’t want to run away again. We’re happy here, happy for the first time in our lives and…” She makes another spluttering sound very much like the earlier one, but I don’t find it adorable this time. “I should have explained first before I asked you, but I’m just so…”

“Fucked up,” I say, realizing this is the first time I’ve ever been angry with her. “I know the feeling.”

“You never use that word,” she says, frowning at me. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“You’ve never insulted me before,” I say, shrugging. “But there’s always a first time.”

She bows her head. “I’m so sorry. I never want to insult you. And I’m sorry I haven’t been…” She looks up at me, her blue green eyes full of tears. “I’m sorry I’ve been afraid to… and it isn’t because I don’t find you attractive, I do. It’s just…”

“Stop,” I say, holding up my hand to add emphasis to my request. “Just tell me why you asked if I would be willing to pretend to be married to you, and we’ll be done with it. I have long been resolved to the twin roles of brother and uncle vis-à-vis you and your marvelous children. Please say no more about attraction, but do enlighten me.”

She fights her tears, and I wonder if she seems ultra-beautiful to me because I’m in love with her or if I’m in love with her because she is so beautiful to me, not that it matters, but that’s what I’m wondering as I memorize the way she looks, her long reddish brown hair alluringly windblown, her cheeks ruddy with emotion, her eyes sparkling.

“I lived with my mother in Dublin until I was twenty-six,” she says, getting up from the table and going to the window. “She was the manager of a restaurant and I worked there as a waitress. She was only seventeen years older than I, but we were not sisterly. She had survived my alcoholic father and rarely had more than a sip of wine or beer until she turned forty-three. But then she started drinking heavily and using cocaine and bringing strange men home to our little apartment, and life became intolerable there for me, so when I was offered a job as a waitress in Boston, I jumped at the chance.”

She comes back to the table, starts to sit down, changes her mind and returns to the window.

“I’ve always loved poetry and music, as you know,” she says, turning to look at me, “and on my nights off, I’d go to cafés to hear poetry and folk music and jazz, and I fell in with a gang of poets and musicians and their friends, and after three years in Boston, I moved with Kevin—I’ve told you a little about him—to a big farm on the outskirts of Montpelier in Vermont, a commune with three couples with kids and three couples without kids. And a month after we got there I was pregnant.”

She comes back to the table and sits down, but doesn’t speak for several minutes.

And I’m just about to ask what her getting pregnant sixteen years ago has to do with my being willing to pretend to be married to her when she says, “I don’t know how to explain except to tell you from the beginning. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” I say, my anger having morphed into a retroactive jealousy that I am not the father of Conor and Alexandra.

“Thank you,” she says, gratefully. “So… the saddest thing about my four years with Kevin was that I didn’t love him, and if I hadn’t gotten pregnant when I was too stoned to be careful, we wouldn’t have stayed together more than a few months. But once I was pregnant, I resigned myself to making a life with him. I’m what Flo calls a deep monogamist and… well, anyway…”

“Why did you move there with him?” I ask, ever curious about who we love or don’t love and why. “If you didn’t love him?”

“We went as friends,” she says, nodding to affirm this. “We both wanted to get out of the city and we were both intrigued by the idea of living in a commune, and when he was invited to join, he invited me to come with him. But I never imagined I’d have a child with him.” She laughs a little and shakes her head. “And then we had two, though he left me when I was four months pregnant with Alexandra.”

“What a cad,” I say, wishing I’d been there to help her. “So what did you do?”

“We stayed on the farm, my babies and I, until the wife of the man who owned the farm ran off with the husband of another of the couples, and then the man who owned the farm told everyone to leave and I went back to Boston with four-year-old Conor and one-year-old Alexandra and got a job as a waitress in a ritzy restaurant.”

“Was Kevin… did he help you in any way? Send you money or…”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “We never saw him again. He and I never got married, so…”

“But how… was he good to Conor before he left?”

“He was okay.” She shrugs. “He wasn’t comfortable with children. He liked fixing things and building things, but he was helpful with Conor, and Conor adored him.”

“Didn’t you say he liked poetry?”

“He did. He loved going to poetry readings. Something about being read to in that way fed him.”

“Speaking of feeding,” I say, trying for a little levity, “we’re approaching suppertime. Do you need to contact the dynamic duo?”

“They’re having supper with Flo and Grady tonight,” she says, gazing at me. “You hungry? I could make us something.”

“Or I could make us something.”

“Or we could make something together.”

We make spaghetti with a mushroom and zucchini and tomato sauce, I crack open a bottle of decent red wine, and as we cook…

“There you were,” I say, chopping tomatoes, “in Boston with two little kids, working in a ritzy restaurant, and…”

“After two years of doing nothing but working and taking care of my children, I met a man named Arthur Chance.” She drops the noodles into the boiling water. “And because I was starved for love, I made the mistake of sleeping with him.”

“Oh,” I say, feeling another upwelling of retroactive jealousy. “Why was it a mistake?”

“Because he took it to mean I loved him and wanted to be with him, neither of which was true.” She stirs the noodles. “And nothing I said would change his mind.”

“How many times did you sleep with him?” I ask, hoping she’ll say only once.

“Only once,” she says, nodding her thanks as I refill her glass. “One dreadful time. And then I told him I was very sorry but I didn’t want to see him again, and he said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ And for the next few months he called me every day, came to our apartment unannounced, came to the restaurant, and every time I asked him to leave me alone he said, ‘You need me, Elisha. You’re just afraid to love someone again because your husband abandoned you. But I will never abandon you, and eventually you will learn to trust me, and then we will be lovers again and husband and wife.’”

“Did you call the police?”

“I did,” she says, starting to make the salad. “They sent two officers to corroborate my story, and when they saw what Arthur was doing, they warned him that if he persisted they would arrest him. So he stopped coming to the apartment and the restaurant, and stopped calling me, but I saw him many times after that, never so I could claim he was following me, but I know he was. And eventually I stopped being able to sleep and my children were more and more upset by me being so disturbed, so we ran all the way across the country to a little town in Arizona, Caldwell, and lived there for three years until one day I got a phone call from Arthur at the bakery where I worked, and when he heard my voice, he said, ‘Ah, I’ve found you. It’s Arthur. How are you?’ And because he didn’t sound crazy, I said I was fine. Then he asked if I was married, and I said No, and he said, ‘I knew you were waiting for me. I’ll be out there in a few days.’ And I shouted, ‘Don’t you dare come here. Don’t you dare ruin my life again.’ And then I hung up.”

“Did he come out in a few days?”

“Yes. And when he came to the house, I told him I would call the sheriff if he didn’t leave, and he said, ‘But I just came to say hi. There’s no crime in that.’ Then he just sat in his car in front of our house, so I called the sheriff, and when the sheriff came, Arthur explained that he and I had been lovers in Boston and then split up, and when he decided to move to Caldwell, he discovered I lived there and came to say hi with no intention of bothering me if I didn’t want to associate with him. I remember distinctly his use of the word associate and how it made me want to kill him.”

“What did the sheriff do?”

“He asked me if Arthur’s story was true and I said it was a lie, but since I couldn’t prove that, and Arthur hadn’t done anything illegal, there was nothing the sheriff could do. And everywhere we went for the next few weeks, there was Arthur. So we ran away again. And after a year of camping and staying in motels in Idaho and Washington and Oregon, leaving no traces, we came here.”

“And now he’s found you again.”

“Yes,” she says, stirring the sauce, “only this time he didn’t call me. He sent me a letter care of the post office. He said he read an article on the internet about my inheriting Rex’s house and how the will was contested. He said he’s coming here to make sure I’m doing okay in the face of such hostility from the community.”

“And you are hoping that an apparent husband will finally convince this lunatic to leave you alone?” I ask, draining the noodles.

“Yes,” she says, carrying the salad to the table. “An apparent husband who does not take kindly to another man harassing his wife.”

“Do you think this lunatic might resort to violence? Should he find you with an apparent husband?”

“I doubt it,” she says, shaking her head. “But I don’t know.”

“Please forgive me for prying, but… have you had other lovers since you slept with Arthur?”

“No,” she whispers.

“Ah,” I say, nodding.

“Ah what?” she says, frowning at me.

“Your fear of him kept you from loving another.”

“Yes, it did,” she says, nodding.

After supper we sit on the sofa in my living room enjoying the crackling fire, my dogs sprawled at our feet.

“I see a number of problems with your plan,” I say, loving this time alone with Elisha despite the gravity of the situation. “May I enumerate?”

“Please,” she says, sitting much closer to me than she ever has.

“First of all, should this fellow come to our town, he will encounter no one here who knows of our supposed marriage. Second, your children will have to be enlisted in this pretense of our being married, and brilliant as your children are, they are not trained actors. Third, we would have to concoct a believable living-together charade involving all of us sleeping under one roof, this roof or your roof, and…” I pause portentously. “…you and I ostensibly sleeping in the same bed.”

“Seems crazy,” she says, nodding in agreement. “So what do you think we should do?”

“We?” I say, arching an eyebrow.

“You and I?” she says, looking into my eyes.

And though my rational mind is shouting at me not to succumb to impulse, I say, “I don’t think we should pretend. I think we should be lovers and get married and live together for the rest of our lives.”

“Okay,” she says softly. “That’s what I want, too.”

I freeze in quasi-disbelief, deduce from the available data that she wants me to kiss her, so I do, and our kiss turns out to be one of those doozies that propels us to my bed where, as the old saying goes, we know each other and the knowing is good.

We wake early the next morning with a renewed thirst for knowledge, and when our thirst is quenched for the nonce we make an omelet and look at each other as if seeing a miracle unfolding, which I guess one is.

Tummies full, Elisha calls Florence, strategizing ensues, and ere long we are a party of seven in Grady’s turquoise 1967 Lincoln Continental heading over the hill to the county seat to get married.

Grady, seventy-four, is driving, Florence, fifty-three, sits beside him, and next to Florence is Delia Krantz, ninety-four, honorary mother and grandmother to all of us, while in the backseat, Elisha and I bookend Conor, fifteen, and Alexandra, twelve—the mood jubilant.

I keep expecting to wake up and find myself alone in my bed as per usual, but Elisha keeps being there giving me alluring looks, and Conor and Alexandra keep being between us, both of them grinning.

Now we are getting out of the car and going into a big old brick building and standing in line to get our marriage license as prelude to gathering in a little room where a smiling woman with short gray hair reads a brief speech about marriage and Elisha and I vow to stick together through thick and thin unto death and Grady hands me a ring I slip onto Elisha’s finger and Florence hands Elisha a ring she slips onto my finger and we kiss and everyone cheers and cries.

Two days later at ten in the morning, I am sitting in Mona’s finishing a letter to my friend Cole who lives in Connecticut, updating him on my marital status. Elisha is behind the counter filling a bag with muffins for Jennifer Smits who works at the one and only bank in Carmeline Creek and is purchasing the muffins to share with her co-workers.

The door bursts open and Conor and Alexandra rush in with several copies of the Carmeline Creek Crier fresh off the press. Alexandra runs to Elisha, Conor runs to me, and my bride and I simultaneously admire the big color picture of us on the front page. We are standing on the steps of the county building, holding hands, Elisha looking gorgeous, I not gorgeous, but very happy. The caption reads Congratulations Elisha and Paul.

And the very next minute, and I mean the minute right after the kids brought us the Criers, the bakery door opens and Arthur Chance walks in. I know he is Arthur Chance because Elisha showed me a picture of him, though he is much older than he was in the picture—a few inches shorter than I, burly, his thinning black hair turning gray, his brown eyes magnified by thick-lensed glasses in black frames. He is wearing brown slacks and a wrinkled gray shirt and a garish yellow tie decorated with black squiggles. He reminds me of a harried businessman arriving home after a long commute, looking forward to a refreshing drink and a hug from his wife. And despite what I know about him, I don’t dislike him, nor do I sense he is prone to physical violence.

I stand up to face him—Conor and Alexandra beside me.

Arthur approaches the counter and says to Elisha in a surprisingly boyish voice, “There you are.”

“Please go away,” says Elisha, fighting her urge to scream. “You’re not welcome here.”

“You need me, Elisha,” he says, plaintively. “You need to not be alone.”

“She’s not alone,” I say, approaching him—Conor and Alexandra following close behind. “She’s with us. I’m her husband and these are our children. I appreciate your concern for my wife, but you are not wanted here.”

He sneers at me. “Mind your own business. This is between me and her.”

“No,” I say, shaking my head. “My wife’s business is my business, and if you don’t leave immediately, we will call the sheriff who is a very good friend of ours and no friend of stalkers.”

“She doesn’t have a husband,” he says, snarling at me. “You think I’m an idiot? Just stay out of this if you don’t want to get hurt.”

“Hey,” says Conor, stepping in front of me. “Don’t threaten my father. And stop bothering my mother. We don’t want you here. Just go away.”

“You need to see a psychologist,” says Alexandra, speaking quietly to Arthur. “You shouldn’t be following us. You need to leave our family alone.”

“What?” says Arthur, squinting at Alexandra and Conor.

“You need to leave our family alone,” says Alexandra, raising her voice. “We don’t want you here.”

Arthur blinks a few times as if waking from a trance and his snarl gives way to a look of bewilderment. Now he looks at Elisha who has been joined behind the counter by Mona, looks at Conor and Alexandra again, looks at the dozen other people in the café, all of whom are watching him, their fear palpable; and lastly he looks at me and I can see he realizes his psychic grip on Elisha is gone and there is no niche for him here, no place to hide, no victim to torture.

Now he hurries out the door—Conor and Alexandra and I following him out and watching him grow small in the distance and getting in a car and driving away, the car growing smaller and smaller until it disappears.

We’ve decided to sell the house Elisha inherited from Rex Abernathy and expand my house to better accommodate the four of us. Living in town, we won’t need to drive except to go on long trips, so we’ll only need one car instead of two. The kids can walk to school, Elisha can walk to work, and I can walk the dogs on the headlands mid-morning—four dogs now, a happy pack.

In bed this morning, Elisha and I were enjoying the sounds of the kids in the kitchen feeding the dogs and starting the water boiling for coffee and tea, when Elisha wrapped her arms around me and said, “You were so wise to suggest we not pretend.”

   fin

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