Posts Tagged ‘Arcata’

Maybe’s Good Used Stuff

Monday, February 11th, 2019

Maybe's Fire

Dylan Russell, forty-seven, widely known as Maybe, owns a store called Good Used Stuff on Highway 211, two miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River on the far north coast of California. Quite a few locals call the store Gus, and more than a few of those locals think Maybe’s name is Gus.

Maybe started telling people his name was Maybe when he was three-years-old. He was born in a small town in British Columbia, the middle child of his mother’s five kids. His mother’s name was Sylvia Bresson. She had her first two children with a man named Alvin Stillwater. Then she married a man named Clement Russell, and almost exactly nine months after she married Clement, Maybe was born.

So one day when Maybe was three and trailing after Clement in the hardware store, the clerk asked, “That your boy, Clem?”

And Clement shrugged and said, “Maybe.”

Titus Troutcatcher, Maybe’s neighbor, calls Maybe Raven; and Leona Chan, a bartender at Gypsy’s, calls Maybe Turq because most of Maybe’s shirts are turquoise and the exterior of Maybe’s house and the wooden floor of Good Used Stuff are both painted a soothing pale turquoise.

Unbeknownst to the public—and even Maybe sometimes forgets about this until tax time—the official name of Good Used Stuff is Found Treasure. That’s the name that appears on Maybe’s business license and on his business checks, which he rarely uses. And the reason no one knows Found Treasure is the official name of the business is that the first sign Maybe put up on the south side of the building, the side facing Highway 211, on the very first day of business nineteen years ago, was GOOD USED STUFF, the words hastily scrawled with a fat black felt pen on an eight-foot-length of butcher paper.

Two days later, business booming, Maybe put up a second somewhat smaller butcher-paper sign that said Buy Sell Trade. The next day, he put up a third sign that said Local Produce & Art, his fourth sign said Exquisite Driftwood & Rocks, his fifth Chairs & Tables, his sixth Potted Plants & Wood Carvings, his seventh Tools & Furniture & Whatnot.

Six months after opening shop, when Maybe finally finished carving the letters of the large wooden sign he had intended to affix above the front door of the storea massive plank of white cedar with ornate Gothic letters spelling Found Treasure—everybody in the county was calling his store Good Used Stuff; and Maybe had come to prefer that name, though the store carried as much new stuff as used stuff.

So he placed the finished Found Treasure sign on the biggest table in the store along with several other one-of-a-kind signs, and a wealthy couple from New York City bought the Found Treasure sign to mark the driveway of their beach house in Amagansett; and they were gleeful to get the sign for a mere three thousand dollars plus exorbitant shipping costs.

The aforementioned seven butcher-paper signs have since been replicated as handsome wooden signs that are affixed to the outside wall facing Highway 211. The largest of these wooden signs is a fourteen-foot-long, two-foot-tall rendering of GOOD USED STUFF securely bolted to the wall above the very wide red front door.

Good Used Stuff occupies a high-ceilinged room seventy-feet-long and fifty-feet-wide, essentially a barn with lots of windows and no loft. Three large fans hang above the airy space, their swirling rattan blades circulating the heat rising from an enormous black woodstove that dominates the northwest corner of the vast interior.

One of the many interesting things about Good Used Stuff is that a surprisingly large percentage of tourists who stop here do the following: they get out of their cars, gaze in wonder at the surrounding giant redwoods, climb the four steps to the long front porch, enter the store through the very wide red door, give the contents of the enormous room a cursory glance, and immediately skedaddle because they perceive the store to be nothing more than a repository of useless junk. Maybe calls these people Superficialists and makes no effort to override their first impressions.

Maybe’s house is not visible from the road or from Good Used Stuff unless one is standing on the roof of the store; and then one can see his house over a little rise a hundred yards to the north, a two-story turquoise building centered on a massive wooden platform suspended twenty feet off the ground in a ring of seven gargantuan redwoods.

The extra-wide front door of Maybe’s house, painted a fanciful magenta, opens onto a first floor featuring a large living room, kitchen, and bathroom, while the second floor has two small bedrooms, a large study, and a small bathroom. A wide metal stairway rises from the forest floor to the spacious deck surrounding the house, the wideness of the stairs and the extra-wide front door intended to enhance the schlepping of furniture up and down the stairs and in and out of the house—one of Maybe’s passions being the frequent changing of his home decor.

Maybe is five-foot-ten, fit as a fiddle, with longish brown hair, pale blue eyes, a slender nose, kindly lips, and a broad chin. He shaves every three or four days, and now and then grows a mustache, though he never keeps his mustaches for long. A wearer of khaki trousers and the aforementioned turquoise shirts, Maybe wears brown suede loafers when working in Good Used Stuff, sturdy boots when moving heavy things or operating a chainsaw or using an axe, and otherwise goes barefoot.

Friendly and thoughtful and a preternatural money maker, Maybe has not had a steady girlfriend since he moved to the Eel River watershed from Canada twenty years ago when he was twenty-seven. His reputation among local gals is that he is relationship averse. However, when the aforementioned Leona Chan, she who calls Maybe Turq, spent the night with Maybe for the first time four years ago, she asked him if the rumors of his relationship aversion were true.

Maybe pondered Leona’s question and replied with his slight western Canadian accent, “No, I love being in relationships. I just no longer have any preconceived notions about how long they should last or what form they should take. I used to aspire to lifelong monogamy. But after being married for seven disastrous years to a woman I should have spent two happy days with and not a minute more, I find it much more satisfying to let relationships be whatever they really want to be.”

And thereby hangs this tale.

A few miles inland from Good Used Stuff, at the end of a dirt track that goes unnamed on official maps of the area and is known to locals as Snake Creek Road, there stands an old farmhouse lovingly renovated by the current owners, Sharon Quincy and her sons Tober and Augie, both young men born in that farmhouse.

Sharon is thirty-nine, a New Jersey transplant, five-foot-three, strong and pretty with short brown hair and dark blue eyes. A former ballerina and grocery store clerk, Sharon is currently a violinist in the Eureka Symphony, a teacher of violin and guitar, a gardener and beekeeper, and plays guitar and violin and sings in the Snake Creek Quartet.

Tober is sixteen, six-foot-two, broad-shouldered, with long brown hair and his mother’s dark blue eyes. A home-schooled high school graduate, Tober is a gardener, carpenter, collector of stones, plays violin and sings in the Snake Creek Quartet, and recently started working at Good Used Stuff four days a week from eleven in the morning until closing time around five.

Augie is fifteen, a muscular five-eleven, with short red hair and emerald green eyes. He, too, is a gardener and carpenter, plays guitar and sings in the Snake Creek Quartet, and is attending classes two days a week at College of the Redwoods in Eureka with thoughts of becoming a chiropractor or a psychotherapist or both. Or neither.

Every Thursday afternoon for the last fifteen years, Sharon has delivered several dozen eggs and several jars of honey to Good Used Stuff, for which Maybe pays considerably less than Sharon sells her eggs and honey to the many people who buy directly from her. Maybe displays the large blue and brown and speckled eggs prominently on the Local Produce table, doubles the price he pays Sharon, and never fails to sell all the eggs by Friday afternoon and all the honey by Sunday.

He would gladly buy more eggs and honey from her every week, but because she can make so much more selling her produce to customers happy to pay twelve dollars for a dozen of her delicious eggs and twenty-two dollars for a big jar of her ambrosial honey, she does not sell Maybe more than she does.

Why, you may ask, does Sharon sell any eggs and honey to Maybe if she can make so much more money selling them otherwise? Because fifteen years ago when she was new to the area, had two babies to take care of, didn’t yet know many people, and was desperate for money, Maybe bought her eggs and honey and gave her cash she desperately needed. And until eleven years ago, when she started working as a checker at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, the money Maybe gave her was her only steady income.

Moreover, several times during her first few years of living on Snake Creek Road, Sharon borrowed money from Maybe to help her get through particularly difficult times, and when she would try to pay him back, he would say, “Oh just bring me cookies next time you make a batch for the boys,” or “How about a bag of veggies when your garden’s going good?”

Which is why she continues to sell eggs and honey to Maybe at a discount and will do so for as long as her chickens keep laying and her bees keep making honey.

So… 52 times 15 is 780, which is the number of times Sharon has brought eggs and honey to Maybe, give or take a few times.

And every single one of those times, Maybe has looked at Sharon and thought, “God what a lovely woman, what a splendid person.”

And every single one of those times, Sharon has looked at Maybe and thought, “What a charming man, what a generous soul.”

Which is to say, they have admired each other and liked each other from the moment they met, and the thirty-three times in those fifteen years when Maybe attended parties on Snake Creek Road, fifteen of those parties at Sharon’s house, they always had a fine time talking to each other and singing together and a few times dancing.

Yet though they have both been single for all but two of the fifteen years they’ve known and admired each other, neither has ever initiated any sort of anything the other might construe as the other wanting to even see about the possibility of possibly embarking on some sort of relationship beyond the friendship they’ve had from the outset of knowing each other.

It isn’t that Maybe hasn’t fantasized about making love with Sharon—he has, many times—nor is it that Sharon hasn’t daydreamed about being lovers with Maybe—she has, many times; but something has kept them from tampering with the undeniably sweet and satisfying connection they have with each other.

Furthermore, neither of them has ever told anyone, even their closest friends, about their imaginings of a relationship with the other, and so their separate secrets are a bond they feel when they are with each other, though neither is conscious of the other’s dreaming of a deeper intimacy between them.

On a warm day in early September when Tober was six and Augie was five, Sharon took them to a beach near the mouth of the Eel River, and while Sharon and Augie built a sand castle and flew a kite and threw a ball for their two dogs to chase, Tober searched for what he called special stones, his favorite thing to do whenever they visited the ocean.

Augie sometimes searched for stones, too, but he was more interested in flying kites and watching shorebirds and trying to understand why some waves were small and other were large, things like that. He appreciated the stones Tober found, but hunting for them was not his bliss as it was Tober’s.

And on that warm summer day, after several hours of culling the deposits of small stones exposed by the extremely low tide, Tober found four special stones, one jade stone as big and perfectly round as a golf ball, one radiantly blue stone the exact size and shape of a large chicken egg, one brilliant reddish orange stone the exact size and shape of a silver dollar, and one emerald green stone as big as an almond shaped like a teardrop.

At Tober’s request, Sharon made him a small black velvet pouch for these stones, and he carried the pouch of stones in his pocket whenever they went anywhere away from home. When Sharon asked him why he always took the stones with him when they’d go away from Snake Creek Road, he said the stones were protection against anything bad befalling them. When she asked him how he knew this, he said he didn’t know how he knew, but he was sure it was true.

Then six months after Tober found those four special stones, on a cold Thursday afternoon in March, Tober, now seven, and Augie, now six, went with Sharon to deliver eggs and honey to Maybe at Good Used Stuff.

The boys loved going to the gigantic store and seeing what Maybe had acquired and gotten rid of since their last visit. If Sharon wasn’t in a hurry, they might get to visit the woodshop where Diego Fernandez built tables and bookshelves and chairs, and Thomas Morningstar carved statues of animals and masks. And Diego might let them use the lathe or help them make something out of wood scraps, and Thomas might give them a carving lesson.

But on that day six months after Tober found those four special stones, after Sharon earned a brand new hundred-dollar bill for her eggs and honey, Maybe said, “Hey come see the amazing thing I got in trade for an antique sofa.”

Sharon and the boys followed Maybe to an area of the store where objects too large or too heavy to display on tables stood on the floor with enough space around them so customers could easily circumnavigate each of the objects; and here was a massive quartz crystal boulder weighing several hundred pounds, half the crystal pink quartz, half white quartz.

“Wow,” said Sharon, dazzled by the crystal boulder. “Wouldn’t that go good in my garden? How much are you asking for that Maybe?”

“Hard to say.” He shrugged. “The worth of things, you know. A mystical conundrum. What is the price of something beyond compare? Two thousand dollars?”

Augie looked up at Maybe and asked, “May we touch it?”

“Sure,” said Maybe, winking at Augie. “Thanks for asking.”

The boys placed their hands on the crystal, and after a long moment of silence Tober said, “It’s very beautiful, but it doesn’t have a lot of energy. Maybe it wants to be outside.”

“What do you mean by energy?” asked Maybe, frowning curiously at Tober.

“I mean like this one,” said Tober, getting his pouch of stones out of his pocket and handing Maybe the radiant blue stone that looked exactly like a chicken egg if a chicken egg turned to stone.

“That is one beautiful rock,” said Maybe, feeling nothing from the stone except coolness and smoothness.

“Can you feel the energy?” asked Tober, watching Maybe expectantly.

“No, but it feels good,” said Maybe, handing the stone back to Tober. “And it’s very beautiful. Where did you find it?”

“About a half-mile north of the mouth of the Eel,” said Tober, returning the stone to his pouch and wondering why Maybe couldn’t feel the energy coming from the stone.

“You have others like that?” asked Maybe, smiling hopefully at Tober.

“Not like that one,” said Tober, shaking his head. “But they all have energy.”

“Do you know Titus Troutcatcher?” asked Maybe, looking at Sharon. “He lives about a mile from here with his wife Tina.”

“We’ve heard of him,” said Sharon, wishing they could stay longer but needing to get home to herd their forty chickens into the coop and milk their two goats before dark. “He helped Fiona Marsh with her migraines. She hasn’t had one in two years since she went to see him.”

“Titus would be very interested in those stones,” said Maybe, wishing they could stay longer but sensing they needed to go. “He could tell Tober a lot about them. I’ll invite him to come by next Thursday to meet you.”

“That would be great,” said Sharon, telling her sons with a nod in the direction of the door that it was time to go. “I’ll set aside an extra hour for next Thursday.”

“In the meantime,” said Maybe, escorting them out to their truck, “if you ever want to sell me any stones you find, Tober, please keep me in mind.”

“I will,” said Tober, knowing his mother was always in need of money.

Then the following Thursday, Titus Troutcatcher, an elderly Wailaki man, was there to meet them when Tober and Augie and Sharon arrived at Good Used Stuff.

Big and thick chested, with long gray hair in a ponytail, his nose reminiscent of the beak of an eagle, Titus felt an immediate affinity for Tober and Augie and Sharon, and they felt similarly about him.

“You have the biggest hands I’ve ever seen,” said Augie, after shaking Titus’s hand.

“I’m seventy-three,” said Titus, chuckling. “You’re six, August. When you’re seventy-three, you’ll have big hands, too.”

“How did you know my name is August?” asked Augie, looking at Sharon. “Did you tell him, Mom?”

“No,” she said, smiling at Titus. “But what else would Augie be short for?”

“My whole name is October,” said Tober, who thought Titus was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen. “I was born in October and so was Augie, but there couldn’t be two of us named October.”

“Well there could have been,” said Titus, nodding, “but it’s better you have different names. Less confusing.” He nods graciously at Sharon. “These are fine boys. You’re a good mother to them.”

“Thank you,” said Sharon, her eyes filling with tears, for she had never before felt so strongly acknowledged for her devotion to her children.

“If they want to learn the ways of the animals and the plants and the nature spirits around here, I’d be happy to teach them.” Titus looked down at the boys. “You like the forest and the creeks and the rivers and the ocean and the tide pools, don’t you? I’ll teach you how to catch trout, too. That’s my name, after all. Troutcatcher.”

“Okay,” said Tober, nodding eagerly.

“When?” asked Augie, nodding eagerly, too.

“We’ll start one of these days,” said Titus, turning to Sharon. “With your permission.”

“Yes, fine,” said Sharon, wanting to hug him, but restraining herself. “I’ll give you our phone number.”

“And I’ll give you mine,” said Titus, looking at Tober again. “Now what about these stone people you found?”

“They’re not people,” said Tober, giggling. “They’re just ocean rocks.”

“Hmm,” said Titus, considering this. “When my people talk about trees, we call them standing people, and when we talk about trout and salmon, we call them fish people. My people are the Wailaki. We’ve been around here for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Since long before Christopher Columbus and anybody from Europe got over here. We call those stones you picked up stone people because we think all things are related to us and to each other and are part of our community. But you’re right, October, stones are not human beings. But they aren’t just stones. We think they’re alive, just like you and me and your brother and your mother and Raven are alive. That’s how those stones you found could call to you, because they have power. And they have power because they’re alive.”

Tober nodded humbly and offered Titus his pouch of stones.

Titus gently placed his enormous hand on Tober’s shoulder. “Let’s bring those stone people to the table over there by the stove and we’ll see what they have to say to us.”

So they sat down at a low round table near the crackling woodstove, Titus with his back to the stove, Augie to Titus’s right, Tober to Titus’s left, Maybe and Sharon across the table from Titus; and Tober gave Titus his pouch of stones.

Titus set the pouch on the table in front of him and undid his ponytail. “So…” he said, scratching his head, “what I like to do is invite Great Spirit to be with us, if that’s okay with everybody, because Great Spirit knows everything and we want to know what he knows about these stones.”

“Who is Great Spirit?” asked Augie, wrinkling his nose. “Is he the same as God?”

“We don’t use the word God,” said Titus, shaking his head. “We say Great Spirit.”

“Who is he?” asked Tober, imagining a giant gray cloud in the sky.

“You guys ask good questions,” said Titus, grinning at Tober and Augie. “Great Spirit is all there has ever been, all that is, and all that will ever be.” He shrugs. “My grandson calls Great Spirit the Great All Everything.”

“Is he a man?” asks Tober, doubting that everything there has ever been could be contained in a single person.

“No,” said Titus, chuckling. “We just say He because that’s how we were taught, but you can call him she if you want. Great Spirit doesn’t care.”

Tober nods. “So how do you call on Great Spirit’s power?”

“In many ways,” said Titus, holding out his hands palms up. “For now we’ll just say, ‘Oh Great Spirit. Come to us. Be with us. Please tell us what you know about these stone people October found near the mouth of the Eel.’”

Then Titus opened the pouch and poured the four stones onto the table.

The radiantly blue stone the shape and size of a large chicken egg stopped nearest to Maybe.

The brilliant reddish orange stone the shape and size of a silver dollar stopped nearest to Sharon.

The emerald green stone shaped like a teardrop landed near Augie.

And the jade stone as big and perfectly round as a golf ball rolled over to Tober and bumped his hand.

Titus took a deep breath, looked at each of the stones, and said, “These are powerful stones, October. You’ve been given the gift of seeing their power. Tell us how you found them.”

“I was just walking along, looking down,” said Tober, remembering that sunny day of the very low tide, “and when I saw one I liked the shape of or the color, I picked it up.”

Titus nods. “But why did you keep these four and not a hundred others?”

“Because these have lots more energy,” said Tober, nodding. “Lots.”

Titus picked up the stone nearest to Maybe and asked Tober, “Do you feel a strong vibration in your hand when you hold the stone?”

“Yes,” said Tober, pleased that Titus understands. “Stronger than from just a regular stone.”

“That’s wonderful, October,” said Titus, closing his fingers around the radiant blue stone. “What you’re calling energy, we call power.” He opens his fingers and gazes at the stone. “For instance, this stone has the power to quell fevers and anger and is good for sleep.” He looked at Maybe. “You need this stone, Raven.” He handed the stone to Maybe. “You should trade October something very valuable for this stone.”

“Okay,” said Maybe, clasping the stone. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Titus picked up the stone nearest Sharon. “This red stone is a heart healer. Heals old wounds and recent wounds, too. Makes your heart stronger. I don’t just mean the heart muscle, but your heart’s spirit. You might want to borrow this stone from your son, Sharon, and hold it on your heart before you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning.”

“Okay,” said Sharon, her tears flowing again. “I will.”

Then Titus took up the emerald green stone. “You see how this one is the color of your eyes, August? This stone is very powerful and will help you be brave, not that you aren’t already brave, you are, but this will give you even more courage and strength if you carry it with you.”

“Can I?” asked Augie, whispering to Tober.

“Yes,” whispered Tober, nodding emphatically.

Lastly, Titus picked up the perfectly round jade stone and turned it over and over in his hand. “This stone is a most powerful healer. Heals everything.” He gazed intently at Tober. “I could use this stone to help people who come to me for guidance and healing. May I keep this stone for three years from this day? I promise to take good care of her.”

“Of course,” said Tober, smiling brightly at Titus.

“Why of course?” asked Titus, touched by Tober’s generosity.

“Because you’re going to teach us the ways of the animals and plants and nature spirits of this place,” said Tober, his eyes wide with delight.

“And how to catch trout,” said Augie, picking up the emerald green stone and kissing it before he puts it in his pocket.

Nine years have gone by since Augie and Tober and Sharon first met Titus, and now they can’t imagine life without Titus and his wife Tina.

Titus taught them 10,000 things, at least, and then he initiated them into manhood when Tober was twelve and Augie was eleven. He taught them how to make fires without flint or matches, how to make spears and bows and arrows and snares, how to fish, how to hunt, and which mushrooms and wild plants are safe to eat, which are poisonous. He taught them many songs, told them hundreds of stories about animals and people and nature spirits, taught them how to predict the weather, and then he taught them ten thousand more things, at least.

In those nine years, Tober found hundreds of powerful stones and gave some of them to Titus, gave some to his friends, and sold many more to Maybe who sold them for great profit at Good Used Stuff.

Tober has been working for Maybe for six months, ever since he got his driver’s license and he and Augie bought a good used electric pickup truck. So now it is Tober who brings the weekly allotment of eggs and honey to Good Used Stuff, which means…

“How’s your mother doing these days?” asks Maybe, a few minutes before closing time on a Friday evening in April. “Been a couple months of Thursdays since I last saw her. She okay?”

Tober looks up from tallying the cash in the till, one of the many jobs Maybe prefers someone else do. “She’s well,” he says, his voice a deep baritone now. “And quel coincidence, she asked about you this morning.”

“She did?” says Maybe, trying not to sound too happy about that. “Well… say hi for me.”

“I’m glad you reminded me,” says Tober, putting a rubber band around thirty-seven twenty-dollar bills. “Because I was supposed to invite you to the potluck tonight. We’ve got a gig in Arcata tomorrow night and we want to rehearse in front of an audience. There’s gonna be tons of food, so you don’t have to bring anything.”

“What time?” asks Maybe, hoping to sound nonchalant.

“Six,” says Tober, putting the cash and coins in a metal box and handing the box to Maybe to put in his safe in the tree house. “You don’t have to let us know if you’re coming. Just come if you want to.”

Maybe locks up the store, locks up the woodshop, and hurries home to feed his cats before he showers and shaves and gets ready to go.

As he’s shaving, he laughs at himself for being nervous about going to a potluck at Sharon’s house where there will be lots of other people and…

“I’m not nervous about going to the potluck,” he says to his reflection. “I’m nervous about seeing Sharon after two months of not seeing her and she’ll know how much I missed her.”

He almost doesn’t go to the potluck. He almost stops at Gypsy’s and has a few beers and plays darts and asks Leona to sleep with him, though he doesn’t love Leona and she doesn’t love him, but they like each other and they’re both lonely and…

He speeds past Gypsy’s, and a mile further along makes the turn onto Snake Creek Road.

Ellen Nakamoto, twenty-eight, a bassist in the Eureka Symphony and the bassist of the Snake Creek Quartet, a statuesque redhead, her father half-Swedish and half-Japanese, her mother entirely Irish, is in the kitchen with Sharon when Maybe arrives bearing two bottles of good red wine.

“I’m so glad you came,” says Sharon, blushing a little as she takes the bottles of wine from Maybe and sets them on the counter. “I’ve missed you.”

“Me, too,” says Maybe, laughing nervously. “Missed you. Too.”

They both move to hug each other, both stop themselves, shake hands instead, and when their handshaking would usually end, Sharon changes her grip so she’s holding hands with Maybe and leads him into the dining room where a mob of people are serving themselves from a great many dishes of food on the big rectangular table.

Sharon gives Maybe’s hand a squeeze and says, “Help yourself. Shall I bring you a glass of that red you brought?”

“Yeah,” he says, nodding eagerly. “That would be great.”

After supper and before dessert, the quartet assembles at one end of the living room—Augie and Sharon with their guitars, Tober with his violin, and Ellen with her big reddish brown string bass.

“Thanks so much for coming,” says Tober, gazing at the thirty or so people crammed into the living room. “This is an excellent simulation of the electric atmosphere of a gig. As you know, we’re opening for Eliot Williams and the Skydivers at the Arcata Playhouse tomorrow night, the show is sold out, and we’re all very nervous except for Ellen who never gets nervous.”

“Not true,” says Ellen, shaking her head and laughing. “I just hide it better.”

“Anyway,” says Tober, continuing, “they want us to play for forty-five minutes, and our plan is to open with a tune you’ll want to dance to, and finish with a quartet Sharon composed called After the Rain. So… with no further ado, here we go.”

Augie begins by strumming a series of catchy chords with a fast samba rhythm, his playing excellent, and Sharon plays jazzy accompanying chords on the second iteration, her playing superb. Now Ellen adds a groovacious bass line for the third iteration, and lastly Tober plays a lovely violin solo atop the rollicking rhythm as preface to Sharon and Augie singing a tight harmony on the first verse, their conjoined voices a rare delight.

Pie and ice cream follow the rehearsal, everyone high from the fabulous music, and Maybe finds himself sitting at the kitchen counter with Titus and Tina.

“Seems like just the other day they were little boys just starting to play their instruments,” says Tina, her long white hair in a braid plaited with little yellow flowers, “and now they’re big men playing and singing like angels.”

“Remember the day, Raven, when I came to meet Sharon and October and August for the first time?” says Titus, sipping his coffee. “You wanted October to show me those four stones, and he gave me that round jade stone I used for seven years until I gave it back to him, and then he returned it to the ocean.”

“They’re gonna steal the show tomorrow night,” says Tina, enjoying her pie. “I know they are.”

“Hard act to follow,” says Maybe, no longer nervous about being around Sharon, their former comfort with each other restored. “Wish I’d bought a ticket.”

At which moment, Sharon comes in from outside, having escorted Ellen to her car; and though neither she nor Maybe has ever done anything like this before, he holds out his arms to her and she walks into his embrace and they hold each other for a long sweet moment, and Maybe says, “I was just saying I wish I had a ticket for tomorrow night.”

“I’ll put you on the guest list,” says Sharon, kissing his cheek. “We had one seat left.”

Now she gently pulls away and saunters into the dining room.

“That was nice to see,” says Tina, bouncing her eyebrows at Maybe. “Are you two…”

“No, no, no,” says Maybe, ardently shaking his head. “We’re just good friends.”

“A good friend makes the best wife,” says Titus, gazing fondly at Maybe. “Be brave, Raven. Trust your heart.”

       fin

Bernard Comes Of Age

Monday, December 24th, 2018

Age BW

Bernard Borenstein is seventy-years-old, a wiry five-foot-nine, with short frizzy gray hair growing whiter by the day. A charming person with a pleasingly deep voice and an infectious sense of humor, Bernard was born in Burbank, spent his childhood and teenage years there, and in 1972, at the age of twenty-two, bought the house in Santa Monica where he still lives today. He paid 23,000 dollars for the lovely two-bedroom home on an oversized lot three blocks from the beach, and the place is now worth at least four million dollars. Bernard paid cash for the house, the cash resulting from royalties from a song he wrote the lyrics to.

The song, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was one of ten songs Bernard wrote the lyrics for on the only album of a short-lived Hollywood rock band called Still At Large. Their self-titled album came out in 1970 and may have sold two hundred copies, but certainly no more than that.

However, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was subsequently covered by Roy McClintock of country music fame on one of his platinum albums, became a staple of country music radio stations, was covered by several other country music artists, and can still be heard today on hundreds of country oldie radio stations. Ironically, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was originally a blues ballad, and all the members of Still At Large detested country music.

Then in 1982 an instrumental jazz version of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ debuted on national television as the theme song for Brad Raymond’s comedy detective show Snoop For Hire, a show that ran for nine enormously successful seasons and was then re-run for another twenty years; and every time the show aired, Bernard made money, though his lyrics were never sung on Snoop For Hire.

Had Bernard invested his royalties wisely, he would be a very rich man today, but because thirty years ago he spent his considerable savings, and then some, launching a talent agency that floundered for ten years before dying a miserable death, he is not rich.

At seventy, Bernard, twice-divorced and single for thirty years now, is a self-proclaimed Chekhov character, and by that he means he has a valuable house, no car, and enough money from Social Security and the occasional royalty check to eat well, pay his property tax, cover his gas and electric and water bills, and not much more.

He is still hoping for another big hit, and to that end he is forever collaborating with an array of acquaintances on television scripts, screenplays, and songs. Some of his co-writers are roughly his age, some are younger than he, and one guy is in his nineties and has a great grandson who is an up-and-coming agent at a major talent agency.

On a hazy morning in late August, Bernard is sitting across the table from his old pal Lou in a booth at Jean’s, a Santa Monica café and bakery that has been in business for nearly a hundred years.

“Lately when I walk by that long wall of windows next to the sidewalk at Bob’s Market,” says Bernard, sipping his coffee, “I’ll look to my right and here’s this skinny old Jewish guy with gray hair, at least twenty years older than I am. We’ll walk along together, smile at each other, maybe bounce our eyebrows, but we don’t talk. And then he goes into the store and I lose sight of him. I wonder why I keep running into this guy? Who could he be?”

“A succinct summation of your powers of denial,” says Lou, a chronically under-employed actor in his seventies who wears colorful scarves and a burgundy beret.

“Are you suggesting…” Bernard feigns a look of horror. “…the old guy is my reflection?”

“I’m suggesting you did this shtick three days ago,” says Lou, raising his hand to beckon a waitress. “It wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now.”

“Who said it was supposed to be funny?” says Bernard, frowning at Lou.

“I’d love to continue this scintillating conversation,” says Lou, slapping a ten-dollar bill on the table, “but I have to go spend the rest of the morning deepening my already considerable debt to a dentist. At least he claims to be a dentist. It seems my one remaining tooth has yet another cavity.”

“I’ll call you,” says Bernard, wincing sympathetically as Lou grimaces when he stands up, his sciatica ferocious this morning. “Take it easy.”

“Famous last words,” says Lou, shuffling away.

The waitress, Darlene, a curvaceous gal in her thirties with curly brown hair and darting green eyes, arrives at the table. “More coffee, Bernie?”

“Yeah, why not?” he says, smiling at her. “You want to go out with me some time, Darlene?”

“Where would we go?” she asks, filling his cup.

“Take a walk on the beach,” he says, nodding hopefully. “Ethnic cuisine of your choice. Go back to my place. Watch a movie.”

“Sounds divine,” she says in a monotone. “But then my husband would kill us and I’m not ready to die.”

“Nor am I,” says Bernard, nodding his thanks for the refill. “I guess we’ll just have to make do with vivid fantasies.”

Julia Sapperstein, a big smiley woman in her fifties with shoulder-length hair dyed auburn, is sitting at Bernard’s seven-foot Mason & Hamblin grand piano in Bernard’s high-ceilinged living room, banging out chords and singing a song she and Bernard are writing together, a love ballad with the working title ‘So Why Did You Stop Calling Me?’. Julia’s voice is a pleasant tenor in the middle register, but when she strains to reach the higher notes, Bernard—making coffee and toasting bagels in the big airy kitchen adjoining the living room—cringes as if someone is scraping a chalkboard with her fingernails.

“Sorry about that,” says Julia seeing Bernard cringing. “Mary said she could maybe come sing this for us on Thursday. You free at two on Thursday?”

“I’ll move my appointment with George Clooney to four,” says Bernard, shrugging. “Let him wait. What else has he got to do?”

“You have an appointment with George Clooney?” says Julia, frowning at Bernard. “The George Clooney?”

“No, a George Clooney,” says Bernard, laughing.

“Have you ever met the George Clooney?” asks Julia, innocently.

“No,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “I’ve seen him in a number of movies and I once saw him walking a dog on the beach right here in Santa Monica. At least I think it was George. He had George’s face and demeanor and gait and charisma, so I assumed it was he.”

“Why would he have been walking a dog on the beach here and not in Malibu?” asks Julia, having a hard time imagining George Clooney on the Santa Monica beach. “What kind of dog?”

“You know, come to think of it,” says Bernard, pouring two mugs of coffee, “it wasn’t a dog. It was a lion.”

“You’re kidding,” says Julia, getting up from the piano and joining Bernard in the dining nook.

“Now she thinks I’m kidding,” says Bernard, glancing at an imaginary audience. “No wonder she’ll sleep with me.”

“Yes, I will,” says Julia, smiling sweetly at Bernard. “And that’s no joke.”

Julia leaves Bernard snoozing in his king-sized bed and writes him a note on a large blue post-it she affixes to his thirty-year-old answering machine on the kitchen counter.

Dear Bernie,

Thank you for a most wonderful time today. I think our song is turning out gangbusters. I can’t wait to hear somebody with a good voice sing it. You’re the best.

Julia

A half-hour after Julia leaves, Bernard wakes from a dream of arm-wrestling with Scarlet Johansson while pitching her an idea for a movie about the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. He takes a moment to enjoy what he remembers most vividly about the dream, the lovely glow in Scarlet’s cheeks, and reminds himself he just had sex with Julia, not Heather with whom he also writes songs and occasionally has sex.

He listens for any sounds indicating Julia is still in the house, and hearing none, he gets out of bed, puts on his blue terrycloth bathrobe, and wanders down the hall to the kitchen where he finds the note from Julia and sees the red light on his answering machine blinking.

The first message is from his only progeny, his son Mason, calling from Oregon. “Hey Dad. Got the check. Thank you so much. We’re doing fine, but every little bit helps. So… can you come visit sometime in the next couple months? We’ve been here five years and you haven’t seen the place yet. Gorgeous here in the fall. The kids would love to see you, and so would Nina. I know it’s a long drive, but I really want to see you and show you all the work we’ve done on this amazing place you helped us get. Love you.”

The second message is from Les Cutler, Bernard’s co-writer of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ and the former bass player of Still At Large. “Bernie. Les. When the fuck are you gonna get a cell phone? I never can get you when I want you. Call me as soon as you get this. And get a fucking cell phone.”

The third message is from David Chapman, one of Bernard’s younger collaborators, a college friend of Mason’s with great expectations of becoming a successful screenwriter. “Hi Bernie. It’s David. I’m slightly desperate to read you these new scenes. I incorporated all our new ideas and I think we’re really onto something here. Call me. Bye.”

“What a life I have,” says Bernard, looking around his comfortable little house. “If only one of my projects would pop and I could make some serious money again. But nothing ever pops. Nothing has popped since I was a kid and got lucky with a song. Yet I still believe something is gonna pop any day now because once upon a time something did.”

Bernard dons his mustard yellow Los Angeles Lakers sweat suit, loads his blue Dodgers tote bag with towel and sunblock and notebook and pen, steps into his beach sandals, walks the three blocks to the beach, buys a fish taco from his favorite mobile taqueria, and dines on the sand just north of the Santa Monica pier, the afternoon balmy, beauties in bikinis abounding.

“How can I be seventy?” he asks the roaring waves as he watches two young women wearing the equivalent of nothing playing Frisbee on the edge of the surf. “I’m old enough to be their grandfather, yet I have no trouble imagining being married to either of them, especially the brunette, and carrying on as if I am twenty-five.”

Having said this, Bernard has a revelation. If I had not been obsessed with having another success equal to or greater than ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ I could have stayed married to either of my wives and created a shared life instead of a life all about me striving for another hit.

“But what can I do about that now?” he asks, following the flight of the Frisbee back and forth between the two young women. “Knowing is not the same as changing, and I am, after all, seventy. Furthermore, what’s wrong with striving for another hit? Certainly better than just waiting to die.”

Home again, Bernard calls David and invites him to come over at four and read the new scenes. And because David’s parting words are, “Say hi to Mason for me next time you talk to him,” Bernard calls Mason.

“Dad?” says Mason, sounding like a boy to Bernard, though Mason is forty-four. “A daytime call? This is unprecedented. What’s going on?”

“Not much,” says Bernard, thinking of Maureen, Mason’s mother, and how she begged him to sell the house and move with her to Seattle, but Bernard wouldn’t leave Santa Monica, so Maureen divorced him and took twelve-year-old Mason with her. “Just returning your call.”

“You gonna come visit?” asks Mason, his voice full of hope.

“I’d love to,” says Bernard, realizing his brain is stuck on a picture of Mason at twelve. “How does October sound? I’ll juggle some things and zip up there for a few days.”

“Oh you gotta stay for at least a week,” says Mason, decisively. “Takes two days to get here. And thanks again for the check. We really appreciate it. And just so you know, that amount gets you an engraved tile in the bathroom in the guest house, which is almost done.”

“The bathroom or the guest house?” says Bernard, fighting his tears.

“Both,” says Mason, laughing. “Hey, can I call you back tonight after I talk to Nina and we’ll get something on the calendar?”

“Yeah, call me tonight,” says Bernard, starting to cry. “Be great to see you.”

After he hangs up, Bernard cries so hard for so long, he soaks his clothes and has to change before he calls Les.

“Your daughter?” says Bernard, frowning into the phone. “Which daughter? You have three, don’t you? Or is it four?”

“It’s four,” says Les, who also has five sons. “And I’m speaking of Grace, my oldest. Jenny is thirty-eight, a successful interior designer, Serena is twenty-nine and having a ball as an international flight attendant, and Crystal is six. Why would I want any of them to live with you?”

“So why do you want Grace to come live with me?” asks Bernard, sitting down at his kitchen counter. “How old is she now? Forty?”

“She’s fifty-two,” says Les, shouting. “You’ve known her since she was a baby. You used to give her piggyback rides. She adored you until you stopped coming to visit.”

“As I recall,” says Bernard, resisting his impulse to join Les in shouting, “I stopped coming to visit because your second and third wife couldn’t stand me. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” says Les, lowering his voice. “They couldn’t stand me either.”

“So if Grace needs a place to stay,” asks Bernard, having a hard time imagining sharing his house with anyone unless he’s married to them or he’s their father, “why can’t she stay with you?”

“Because she’s been living with us for six weeks now, and Carol says if Grace stays another week, she’s leaving me.”

“Why?” asks Bernard, perplexed by Les’s request. “If Carol can’t stand her, what makes you think I’ll be able to?”

“Because she’s a sweetheart and I’ll pay you. Two thousand dollars a month. And I know you’re gonna ask why I don’t just get her an apartment? Because she needs to live with someone, Bernie. She survived two horrendous marriages, raised two kids all by herself and did a damn good job. They’re both in college now, and she’s alone and lonely and… she’s out of gas. Lost. You know? But she’s a great gal, Bernie. She remembers you. She loved you. Please?”

“So suddenly I’m a babysitter?” says Bernard, wincing. “Jesus, Les. How would you feel if I asked you to take in my middle-aged son?”

“It’s not the same thing. You don’t have anybody there. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Will you at least talk to her? As a favor to your old friend?”

And only because Bernard feels beholden to Les for ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ he says, “Sure, I’ll talk to her. Come for breakfast tomorrow.”

The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe?” says David, a tall round-shouldered guy with short blond hair and huge back-framed glasses. “Starring Scarlet Johansson?”

“Thus spake my dream,” says Bernard, bringing two bottles of beer into the living room where David is about to read some new scenes to Bernard from the two screenplays they’re writing together, one a comedy romance set in the 1960s, the other a noir murder mystery set in the 1930s.

“Bernie, that’s genius,” says David, gaping at Bernard. “Scarlet would kill to play the part of Marilyn. They have the same mouth, the same cheekbones, the same body. Scarlet was made to play that part. Immediately. Before she gets any older.”

“What part?” asks Bernie, handing David a beer. “It’s an idea. What’s the plot? Is Marilyn doomed to relive her tragic life? Does she grow up happy and become a veterinarian and have three delightful children? Is she born poor and black in Mississippi? Or rich and Jewish in Beverly Hills? Is she perhaps a man this time? Does she run for President and win, only to be assassinated? What part?”

“All of the above,” says David, getting up from the sofa and pacing around the room. “She is born again and again, always essentially Marilyn, yet living different lives. My God, if we could pitch this to Scarlet, she’d option it before we finished pitching!”

“You think?” says Bernard, accustomed to David’s enthusiasm for outlandish ideas. “I don’t have her current phone number. Do you?”

“I’m this close to getting a good agent,” says David, showing Bernard a tiny space between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. “And when I get her, she’ll set up the pitch.”

“Oh, it’s a her this week,” says Bernard, dubiously. “Last week wasn’t it Larry Somebody at ICM?”

“Shirley Daytona,” says David, nodding assuredly. “At CTA.”

“David, listen to the voice of experience,” says Bernard, pretending his beer bottle is a microphone. “Beware women agents and actresses and artists who take the names of cities for their last names. If you dig just below the surface, you’ll find someone who is ashamed of being Jewish, and an agent who is ashamed of being Jewish is… well… silly. And who wants a silly agent?”

“If she can sell one of our scripts, she can be Bozo the Clown,” says David, taking a long swig of beer. “Shall I read you our new scenes?”

“I’m dying to hear them,” says Bernard, who enjoys working with David more than with any of his other collaborators. Why is that? Because he remains undaunted in the face of my relentless cynicism, and because he genuinely likes me, and he thinks I have talent. I should be nicer to him. From now on, I will be.

When David is done reading the new scenes, Bernard has another revelation, which he elucidates to David.

“It occurs to me that we set these movies in the idealized past because we find contemporary life dreary and hopeless and uninteresting. But why not set these stories in the present and reveal the humor and mystery of today? Maybe the reason we’re having so much trouble getting these scripts right is because we’re avoiding our field of expertise, which is being alive now.”

“I hear you,” says David, giving Bernard a pained look. “But I hate contemporary movies. Everybody’s on cell phones, everybody’s either fucked up or an idiot or a snide asshole or a clueless bimbo or an ideal person married to a rotten person and somebody’s always dying of cancer and everybody’s having an affair or they’re gorgeous but all alone and there’s always someone contemplating suicide and someone addicted to drugs or porno, and even when there’s a somewhat happy ending, the world is still rotten.”

“Right, but that’s not how it will be in our movies.” Bernard smiles warmly at David. “Our movies will reveal the divine in the every day.”

“And no one will buy them,” says David, despondently.

“Maybe not,” says Bernard, nodding in agreement. “Probably not. So shall we write a movie about a wizard who is also a vampire who is also a corrupt politician having an affair with a teenager addicted to porno?”

“Yes!” says David, excitedly. “And only one person can stop the vampire wizard politician. A woman with super powers from another planet.”

“I’ve got just the title,” says Bernard, pausing momentously. “The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”

“Now this we can sell,” says David, pointing at Bernie. “You laugh, but this we could sell. Tomorrow.”

After supper, Bernard gets a call from Mason, and when they have agreed on an October date for Bernard’s trip to Oregon, Bernard realizes he is afraid to leave Los Angeles, afraid to venture into the unknown.

Getting ready for bed, Bernard takes a long look at himself in the bathroom mirror and decides he likes his face, likes his smile, likes the spirit animating him; and he says to his reflection, “Yes, I am seventy, and yes I’m afraid to leave Los Angeles, but there is an undeniable youthful vibrancy to my je nes sais quoi, and so long as I feel this way, I shall not despair.”

Bernard is making hash browns and scrambled eggs and coffee and toast when Les and his daughter Grace arrive.

Les, his red hair lost to baldness, was an avid surfer and skier until he was thirty-five and broke his leg in six places in a skiing accident. When his leg healed, he took up bicycle riding and was a maniacal biker until he turned fifty and his fourth marriage collapsed. Now he is seventy-two, married to a woman in her thirties, and he is uncomfortably overweight. And though he never wrote another song after his band Still At Large broke up in 1972, he parlayed the money he earned from ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ into a huge fortune in real estate.

Grace is a pleasant surprise to Bernard. He hasn’t seen her since she was a sultry beauty in her twenties, an aspiring actress and singer. She is a mature beauty now, with short brown hair and a lovely figure, though she no longer affects sultriness.

She stopped acting and singing when she married at twenty-seven and threw herself into raising her two children, Timothy and Kathy, and being a devoted wife to a show biz scoundrel who left her when the kids were two and six months. She remarried a year later; her second husband a narrow-minded misogynist with inherited millions. She had two miscarriages with him, after which he divorced her.

Single again at thirty-three, her kids five and three, Grace got a job as a secretary at a Mercedes dealership, rented a small apartment in Studio City, and raised her kids on her own with no help from her mother who had moved back to France after leaving Les when Grace was seven, and with little help from Les who was busy supporting his series of wives and the children he fathered with them.

Grace’s children are now twenty-two and twenty, and both are attending college courtesy of Les. Grace works thirty-hours-a-week in a bookstore in Culver City and Les gives her five hundred dollars a month. And though her life has not been easy, she is an inherently positive person, empathetic and thoughtful and warm.

Ten minutes into breakfast, Les looks at his cell phone and says, “Shit. I have to be in Century City yesterday.”

And in the next moment, he’s out the door.

Grace smiles shyly at Bernard and says, “That was unconvincing.”

“I dislike cell phones,” says Bernard, glad Les is gone. “So many people use them to tinker with the truth. Have you noticed? More coffee?”

“I’m fine,” says Grace, who is also glad her father is gone. “At least regarding coffee.”

“What about regarding everything else?” asks Bernard, sad to think of such a delightful person being alone in the world.

“I’m actually pretty okay regarding everything else, too,” she says, liking Bernard’s directness. “It’s true I’m not very good at making money, but I’m happy most of the time, glad to be alive.”

“Les says you’re lonely,” says Bernard, sighing in sympathy.

“I’ve never not been lonely,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Maybe before my mother left I wasn’t lonely, but I can’t remember that far back.”

“You were lonely living with your kids?” asks Bernard, frowning. “Lonely for what, do you think?”

“A soul mate,” she says simply. “I’ve never had one. Or even a soul friend.”

“I’ve heard of soul mates,” says Bernard, getting up to make more coffee. “I think they’re found in the same eco-systems as unicorns.”

“You’ve never had one either?” says Grace, gazing in wonder at him. “That surprises me. You’re such a sweet person.”

“Me?” says Bernard, pointing at himself. “Sweet? I’m a caustic old narcissist.”

“Oh honey,” says Grace, her eyes sparkling. “I’ve known a hundred world-class best-in-show narcissists, and not one of them would ever admit to being a narcissist.”

“I was quoting my two ex-wives and several former friends,” says Bernard, filling the coffee maker with water. “But maybe I’m not a narcissist. Maybe I’m just a selfish egotist.”

“Why do you say you’re selfish?” asks Grace, smiling curiously. “A selfish person wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sharing his house with the middle-aged daughter of his annoying old friend. Just because you take care of yourself doesn’t mean you’re selfish. Why conflate self-love with selfishness?”

Pondering this, Bernard realizes he loves looking at Grace, loves her voice, loves her mind, loves the cadence of her speech, and loves her desire to go below the surface of things. Yes, he is attracted to her sexually, but far transcendent of this attraction, he wants to be her friend.

Four days after Grace moves into Bernard’s second bedroom, formerly his office, Bernard and Julia Sapperstein are in Bernard’s living room, Julia playing the piano and slaughtering the high notes of their song, working title ‘So Why Don’t You Call Me Anymore?’ while Bernard sits on the sofa cringing.

At which moment, Grace comes home from working at the bookstore, looking smart in a long gray skirt and billowy turquoise blouse. Bernard introduces Grace to Julia, Grace heads for her bedroom, and Bernard forestalls her exit by saying, “Grace? Would you be up for singing the song Julia and I are working on? The high notes elude us.”

“Sure,” says Grace, smiling at Julia. “Just let me change out of my bookstore uniform into something less constricting.”

When Grace is out of earshot, Julia glares at Bernard and whisper-shouts, “You didn’t say she was gorgeous. And why did you ask her to sing our song?”

“Because she has a great voice,” says Bernard, speaking quietly. “She was a pro before she had kids. Wouldn’t you like to hear a pro sing our song?”

“Are you fucking her?” asks Julie, squinting angrily at Bernard.

“No,” says Bernard, admitting to himself that the only thing he really likes about Julia is having sex with her.

Grace returns in jeans and a sweatshirt, goes to the piano, stands beside Julia and sings the words from the sheet music as Julia plays—Grace’s voice so fine, she makes the not-very-original song sound fabulous.

“Wow,” says Julia, smiling red-faced at Grace. “That was great. Will you sing on our demo?”

“Sure,” says Grace, sauntering into the kitchen and putting a kettle on for tea. “Would you like a little feedback about your song?”

“Please,” says Bernard, nodding eagerly. “You made it sound positively Bacharachian.”

“What are you, a mind reader?” says Grace, frowning at Bernard. “Because what I was thinking was… the melody is pretty close to ‘The Look of Love’ and you might want to modify…”

“Not true,” says Julia, defiantly folding her arms. “Just because it reminds you of that song doesn’t mean it sounds like that song.”

“You’re right,” says Grace, regretting saying anything about the song. “Lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“The melody isn’t even close to ‘The Look of Love’” says Julia, glaring hatefully at Grace. “That’s just how you sang it. The actual notes are not what you sang.”

“I’m sorry,” says Grace, looking away. “I’m out of practice. Sorry.”

“I have to go,” says Julia, snatching the music off the piano and grabbing her purse and stalking to the door.

“Julia, wait,” says Bernard, following her out the now open front door.

He catches up to her at her car where she turns on him and growls, “Why didn’t you say something when she accused me of plagiarism?”

“Us,” says Bernard, never having seen or imagined this side of Julia. “You and I both wrote the song.”

I wrote the melody!” shouts Julia. “You wrote the words. She didn’t say you stole the words from Hal David. She said I stole the melody from Burt Bacharach.”

“She didn’t say that,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “She said the melodies were similar, which they are. So what? As you said, lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“I didn’t say that, she did,” says Julia, opening her car door. “And I will never come here again as long as she lives here. You’re a shit, Bernie. A total shit.”

“I beg to differ,” says Bernard, pained by this sad demise of his relationship with Julia. “I just wanted to hear someone with a good voice sing our song. And I thought it was beautiful. And on that note, I think we should end our collaboration.”

“You used me,” says Julia, getting into her car. “You used me until you could ensnare somebody younger.”

“First of all, she’s not younger than you,” says Bernard, his sorrow changing to anger. “Second of all, I have not ensnared her. Third of all, you and I used each other as good lovers will, and you know it. And finally of all, I wish you well, Julia. I really do.”

Two weeks into Grace’s residency in the House of Bernard, after sharing Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine, Grace and Bernard retire to the living room and Grace accompanies herself on Bernard’s grand piano and sings for him—Bernard sitting on the sofa and thinking I’ve died and gone to heaven.

When Grace finishes her song, Bernard gapes at her. “You wrote that?”

“Yeah,” she says, nodding and laughing and blushing.

“When?” he asks, astounded by her voice and her tender love song.

“Just… in the last few days. Whenever you weren’t here.”

“God, Grace, it’s fantastic. There were a few lines that could use a little syllabic massaging, but otherwise it’s stunning.”

“I was hoping you’d help me with the lyrics,” she says, smiling shyly. “I mean… I think it would be fun to write songs with you.”

“I think so, too,” says Bernard, the back of his neck tingling. “There’s only one small problem. You’re about fifty thousand times more talented than I am.”

“That’s not true,” she says, playing a series of eloquent chords. “You’re a wizard with words.”

Three weeks into Grace’s residency, Bernard and Grace throw a little party on a Saturday night, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, for about twenty people, mostly Bernard’s friends, but a few of Grace’s bookstore pals, too, the highlight of the evening Grace performing the two songs she’s written with Bernard since coming to live with him.

Bernard introduces Grace’s performance by standing at the piano and saying to the assembled guests, “You’ll all be relieved to know I will not be singing tonight, not audibly. I contributed a little bit in the way of lyric tampering on the first song Grace will sing while accompanying herself on piano, and I wrote a good many of the lyrics of the second song Grace will sing accompanying herself on guitar. As you know, I made a good deal of money from a song I wrote shortly after emerging from puberty, but I can say without a doubt that the musical high point of my life has been collaborating with Grace on these songs.”

While Grace enthralls the guests, Bernard stands in the kitchen, singing along in a whisper and deciding to continue his collaboration with David, and possibly with Alida Schultz on their sitcom The Chess Club, and with Grace, of course, but to end his other collaborations and henceforth focus on quality not quantity.

Karl Sharansky is ninety-one and lives with Maureen, his attendant and cook, in an elegant apartment on the eleventh floor of a twenty-two story apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Maureen is seventy-four, Irish, and loves working for Karl. He naps prodigiously, eats two meals a day, and is a funny affable person with no end of money from the chain of do-it-yourself car washes he started in the 1960s.

Not owning a car, Bernard takes a cab from Santa Monica to Karl’s apartment on Wilshire, and over a delicious shrimp salad in Karl’s dining room, Bernard has to shout to be heard because Karl forgot to put in his hearing aids and keeps squinting at Bernard and saying, “Come again, Bernie?”

Hearing Bernard shouting, Maureen hurries into the dining room with Karl’s hearing aids, pops them into Karl’s ears, and disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.

“Say again,” says Karl, smiling at Bernard. “You’ve taken up mouse skating and smoking cigars? Never heard of mouse skating. Is that a thing you do with a computer mouse? So many new things all the time now. Who can keep track? Of course I know all about smoking cigars, but what is mouse skating?”

“No, I have a housemate now,” says Bernard, laughing. “And she plays the guitar and sings like an angel. She’s the daughter of an old friend.”

Karls sighs. “All my old friends are dead now. Well, not Maury Klein, but he might as well be dead. Stares into space all day. God only knows what he’s thinking about. If I ever get like that, shoot me. Please.”

“So…” says Bernard, relieved to be able to speak at a normal volume, “I brought the latest draft of our movie. I think you’ll like it, Karl.”

“You already made the changes I suggested?” says Karl, frowning gravely. “So fast?”

“Two weeks is not so fast,” says Bernard, deciding now is the time to end his collaboration with Karl and just be his friend. “My new housemate happens to be a blazing fast typist full of good ideas, and she helped me with this final draft. Oh, and I decided to set the story in present-day Los Angeles instead of in the 1950s.”

“Present-day?” says Karl, wrinkling his nose. “With talking computers and smart phones and cars that drive themselves? Why?”

“It works better this way,” says Bernard, nodding assuredly. “After lunch I’ll read it to you.”

“I have a better idea,” says Karl, winking at Bernard. “Sonny’s coming over to meet you and we’ll hand him the script together. You put in the deli scene? When Ruth tells Maurice she’s leaving him?”

“I put it in,” says Bernard, laughing. “It’s a scream.”

“Of course it’s a scream,” says Karl, laughing with him. “We’re comic geniuses.”

Bernard and Karl are having coffee and cookies in the living room with Richard Sharansky AKA Sonny, when Karl has to go to the bathroom and leaves Bernard alone with Richard.

“Karl pay you to write this script?” asks Richard, fixing Bernard with a steely gaze. “How much?”

“He paid me in lunches and coffee and cookies,” says Bernard, smiling at Richard. “I understand why you would think I might be taking advantage, but I’m not. I’ve known Karl for thirty-five years. I had a small talent agency long ago and represented his granddaughter Sophie, who would be, I think, your aunt.”

Richard taps the script on the coffee table and says, “Three things. This any good? Can you send me a PDF? What’s your arrangement with Karl?”

“The script is better than good,” says Bernard, appreciating Richard’s candor. “Yes, I can send you a PDF. Our deal is fifty-fifty. Shall I send you a copy of our contract?”

“Yes, please,” says Richard, handing Bernard a business card. “What’s the pitch?”

“A charming but shy young woman and her delightfully droll gay friend decide to open a bakery. To do so, they enlist the help and money of their grandparents, a snobby British guy and an ironic French lesbian. Chaos ensues, genders are bent, love conquers all.”

“I like it,” says Richard, whipping out his cell phone. “Repeat that.”

Bernard recites the pitch again for Richard to record, and this time Richard laughs.

“When the agent laughs, good things follow,” says Bernard, knowing very well he may never see or hear from Richard again, but relishing the moment.

“Who said that?” asks Richard, liking Bernard despite his tendency not to like anyone.

“I did,” says Bernard, getting up to go. “I’ll send you that PDF as soon as I get back to command headquarters in Santa Monica, and then I’ll alert the sentries to be on the lookout for the Brinks truck.”

“It’s all he talks about,” says Richard, laughing as he shakes Bernard’s hand. “The movie he’s writing with Bernie.”

On the one-month anniversary of Grace living with Bernard, two days before Bernard is scheduled to leave for Oregon, Bernard and Grace go out for Thai food, and Bernard invites Grace to continue living with him. She accepts with tears in her eyes and asks if she can count on staying for at least another few months and would it be okay for her kids to come stay with her now and then.

“Yes, of course,” says Bernard, clinking his glass of beer with her glass of wine. “Mi casa es su casa.”

“Tu,” she says, smiling at him. “We’ve lived together for a month now, Bernie. You can use the familiar. Not that you couldn’t have from the get go.”

“Is that what that is?” says Bernard, clinking his glass to her glass once more. “Tu es familiar. Mi casa es tu casa.”

“Gracias,” she says, smiling brightly. “I’m so grateful to you, Bernie. I feel like… I feel like I’m standing on solid ground for the first time in… forever.”

“I’m glad,” he says, taking a deep breath. “While I’m shaking in my shoes about going to Oregon. Every five minutes I think about calling Mason and cancelling, but… I don’t know. I want to go, but I’m afraid to go.” He looks away, ashamed of himself. “Last night I woke up in such a panic, I thought I was having a heart attack. It’s stupid, I know, but… I haven’t left LA in thirty years, and only a few times before that. I feel like an idiot, but… well, I’ll figure it out.”

“What are you afraid of?” she asks gently. “Or what do you think you’re afraid of?”

“Oh… dying,” he says, looking at her and laughing anxiously. “What else is there to be afraid of?”

She thinks for a moment. “Would you like me to come with you?”

Startled by her suggestion, Bernard says, “Would you like to come with me?”

“Yeah,” she says, eagerly. “I haven’t been out of LA since… forever.”

“And here the one thing I was not feeling anxious about was leaving my house unattended because you were gonna be there,” says Bernard, giddy with happiness. “And now you’re coming with me.”

“Is that an invitation?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Sort of sounded like one.”

“Yes,” he says, nodding humbly. “I would very much like you to come with me.”

They leave Santa Monica in their zippy blue rental car at five in the morning to beat the craziness on the freeways, and when they are an hour north of Paso Robles on Highway 101, Bernard driving and Grace gazing out the window at the passing beauty, they feel themselves leaving the gravitational pull of Los Angeles; and they turn to each other and exchange looks of excitement and wonder.

During a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Redding, Grace studies maps of California and Oregon and suggests they take Highway 299 from Redding to Arcata and make the rest of the trip to Yachats, Oregon via the coast.

“I love the idea of getting off the freeway,” says Bernard, taking a deep breath to quell his anxiety. “But what if the car breaks down? How will we survive out there in the middle of nowhere?”

“Maybe we won’t,” says Grace, slowly shaking her head. “But at least we’ll die together.”

“And believe it or not,” says Bernie, gesturing for the waiter to bring the check, “that’s a great comfort to me.”

“To me, too,” says Grace, gazing lovingly at him. “How about I drive for a while?”

Moments after they head west on Highway 299, where the four-lane road becomes two lanes, they feel they have entered a whole new world.

“This is fantastic,” says Bernard, gazing ahead in wonder as the road carries them up through the foothills into the mountains. “I love this. So much.”

“Me, too,” says Grace, her heart pounding. “And we’ve barely started.”

 ∆

Elated from their long drive from Redding through the spectacular mountain range to the coast, they have supper at a Mexican restaurant in Crescent City, after which they go to the Ocean View Inn to get rooms for the night, another seven hours of driving awaiting them on the morrow.

At the check-in desk, a friendly young woman wearing granny glasses says, “Just the two of you? No pets? Non-smoking? I’ve got one room left with a view of the beach, but there’s only a queen in that one. If you want a king and don’t need a view, I’ve got three of those available.”

“We’re getting two rooms,” says Bernard, smiling at the young woman.

She looks from Bernard to Grace and back to Bernard. “I’ve got a room with two queens. Eighty dollars less than getting two rooms.”

“What do you think?” says Bernie, turning to Grace.

“Up to you,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder.

“No,” he says, blushing at her touch. “I want you to decide.”

     fin