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Mrs. Espy and the Hippy

persimmons

Her name is Elvira Espy, Elvira Jeanine Espy, but everyone who knows her, save for her brother Scott, calls her Mrs. Espy. Scott calls her El, and on those rare occasions when he wants to tease her, he calls her Elvis, a moniker Mrs. Espy pretends to abhor but secretly enjoys.

Scott is seventy, Mrs. Espy is seventy-two, and neither of them have children. Born and raised in Boston on the outskirts of the upper class, both Mrs. Espy and Scott came west to attend the University of Washington as Drama majors, and now they both live in Bellingham, Washington, their houses several miles apart—Scott’s Victorian in a ritzy suburb east of the city, Mrs. Espy’s pristine three-bedroom Craftsman in an old neighborhood at the west end of town, two blocks from Bellingham Bay.

Scott and his longtime partner James own a men’s clothing store in downtown Bellingham, Scott James; and James does not care for Mrs. Espy, nor does she care for him, so they rarely intentionally collide.

Mrs. Espy spends an hour every morning carefully applying her make-up and fussing with her short reddish brown hair, and she stays in excellent shape by taking a long walk every day and going to a Senior Aerobics class at the YMCA four days a week. She lives alone and has been a widow for fifteen years. Her husband Darrel was a real estate developer and did not want Mrs. Espy to work at anything other than being a housewife, so she did not continue her longtime job as hostess at The Trade Winds, a seafood restaurant, after they were married.

She was thirty-four at the time of their nuptials, and Darrel died when she was fifty-seven. And though she occasionally entertains the idea of rejoining the work force, she doesn’t need the money and so contents herself with knitting, quilting, walking, and doing volunteer work, notably making costumes for the musicals Scott directs for the Bellingham Foot Lighters.

On a warm afternoon in August, the doorbell rings and Mrs. Espy incorporates the soft-sounding chimes into the dream she’s having as she snoozes sitting up on the sofa in her living room, a historical romance open on her lap. When the doorbell sounds again, she wakes with a start and looks around for her little dog Bingo, remembering in the next moment that Bingo died a year ago.

“One moment, please,” she says, guessing the ringer of her doorbell is the man with a deep voice who called this morning about cutting her lawn and taking care of her gardens.

En route to the front door, she steps into the small guest bathroom to survey herself in the mirror. She is displeased her lipstick is red and not pale magenta, and she wishes she’d worn a less-casual dress, but there’s no time to change, so she sighs and goes to meet her fate.

“Hello,” says a handsome man with long black hair in a ponytail and a burgundy bandana wrapped around his forehead pirate-style, his white dress shirt fit for a pirate, too, the top two buttons unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. “I’m Donovan Carter.”

“Oh,” says Mrs. Espy, frowning despite her best efforts not to. “Yes. You called about tending to my lawn and gardens.”

“Lovely place,” says Donovan, turning to look at her front yard, the large lawn flanked by rose bushes and flowerbeds and four spectacular Japanese maples, two on each side of the greensward.

“Yes,” says Mrs. Espy, torn between inviting him in and concocting a lie about having found someone else for the job.

Sensing her disquiet, Donovan turns to her and says, “Is this not a good time?”

“No,” she says, forcing a smile. “This is fine. I just… could you wait one moment, please?”

“Sure,” says Donovan, descending the seven stairs to the brick walkway that bisects the lawn.

Mrs. Espy closes her door, returns to the guest bathroom, looks at herself in the mirror and says, “The truth is, I never had a problem with hippies until I married Darrel. In fact, I lived a rather Bohemian life before I got married. I once dated a man with hair down to his shoulders. Arthur Katz. And there were boys in college with long hair I liked, but they weren’t really hippies. That was just the style. But Darrel hated hippies and I seem to have inherited an aversion to them from him. How strange. This man seems perfectly nice. He has beautiful teeth, speaks clearly, his clothes are clean, and the people at Landry’s said he’s a master gardener, so…”

She takes a deep breath and returns to her front door, steps out onto the front porch, glances around to see if any of her neighbors are watching, and goes down the stairs to join Donovan on the walkway.

“The Japanese maples are in need of pruning,” says Mrs. Espy, looking up at Donovan’s face and realizing he is quite tall. “Is that something you do? The men from Landry’s did a dreadful job, so I had Mr. Yamamoto do the trees in the south garden and the fruit trees in in the north garden, but Mr. Yamamoto injured his back three years ago and doesn’t do that kind of work anymore.”

“I’m a licensed arborist and I’ve been pruning trees for twenty years,” says Donovan, nodding pleasantly. “I will treat your trees kindly. Shall we have a look at the backyard?”

“I call it the north garden,” says Mrs. Espy, leading the way. “I call this the south garden. The word yard grates on me.” She shrugs. “Silly me.”

“Not silly at all,” says Donovan, his voice soothing to Mrs. Espy. “These are beautiful gardens, not yards. North garden. South garden. I like that.”

Arriving in the north garden, Mrs. Espy grimaces and places a hand on her heart. “The apple trees are a disgrace. Two years since they’ve been pruned. They’ve set a huge crop as you can see, but I feel terrible about not having them pruned properly.”

“Sometimes it’s good to let an apple run wild for a year or so,” says Donovan, taking hand clippers from the sheath on his belt and snipping off a little superfluous branch of the apple tree. “Healthy wood. We should thin this crop soon.”

“Yes, I was just thinking that,” says Mrs. Espy, liking his use of we.

Donovan looks around the garden and calculates how many hours he’ll need to catch up on the overgrowth. “Take a good six hours to get things ship shape in both gardens. I charge forty an hour, and after we’re caught up, I can come twice a month and cut the lawn and keep things in fine fettle. An hour to ninety minutes each visit. Same rate. Forty an hour.”

“Forty dollars for cutting my lawn?” says Mrs. Espy, aghast. “I paid Landry’s fifty dollars to do the lawn twice a month.”

“I would be doing much more than cutting your lawn,” says Donavon, smiling at her. “Now you know my rates, you can mull things over and let me know.”

They return to the south garden and Donavon hands Mrs. Espy a business card that appears to have been made by a child. “If I don’t hear from you in a few days, I’ll assume you’ve found someone else. Very nice to meet you.”

Mrs. Espy glares at the business card and says with barely disguised contempt, “Did you make this?”

“No, that’s the work of my daughter Coraline,” says Donovan, laughing. “She’s five. Her mother did the numbers so they’d be clear.”

“Clear enough,” says Mrs. Espy, quite upset. “I’ll call you. One way or the other.”

“Whatever you like,” says Donavon, crossing the lawn and opening the gate in the white picket fence, his truck an immaculate turquoise 1967 Ford pickup.

The next morning, Mrs. Espy is having her hair cut and tinted the same reddish brown she’s had since she was forty-two and Darrel pointed out the first incursions of gray into her light brown hair. Her hairdresser at Salon Monet is Lita, an easy-to-laugh woman in her thirties with spiky blonde hair. Mrs. Espy has been coming to Lita for three years now, ever since Daisy, Mrs. Espy’s hairdresser for the previous twenty-two years, retired to Moab to be near her daughter, a tour guide with two teenaged children and no husband.

“I’m in a quandary,” says Mrs. Espy, loving how careful Lita is with her cutting. “I’m looking for a new gardener, but the ones I’ve interviewed are either unacceptably slovenly, unskilled, they speak unintelligibly, or they are incredibly expensive.”

“I know a fantastic gardener,” says Lita, snipping away. “Donovan Carter. I think he’s only about forty-bucks-an-hour, and he’s a genius with plants and trees, and… oh my God, you should see the garden he and his wife have. It’s the Garden of Eden.”

“Sounds promising,” says Mrs. Espy, laughing nervously. “Have you got his number?”

“I have his wife’s number,” says Lita, stepping back to examine her work. “Teresa. She’s my belly-dancing teacher.”

“Belly dancing,” says Mrs. Espy, the two words sounding utterly nonsensical to her in the context of this conversation. “How long have you been taking lessons?”

“Four years,” says Lita, making a final snip. “Kicks my ass, but I love it. And you know, even if Donovan is all booked up, he’ll be able to hook you up with somebody else. He’s a great guy. He does have very long hair, but he’s definitely not slovenly.”

“I don’t mind hippies,” says Mrs. Espy, determined now to hire Donovan. “My husband hated them. He said they were freeloaders and a drain on the economy and… immoral, but clearly, Donovan and his wife are not freeloaders.”

“I’ve never thought of Donovan and Teresa as hippies,” says Lita, musing for a moment. “More… Bohemian. If you know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean,” says Mrs. Espy, writing a check for Lita. “A love of colorful fabrics and large pillows and ethnic cuisine and foreign movies and a more… sensual aesthetic than the norm.”

“Exactly,” says Lita, smiling affectionately at Mrs. Espy. “Didn’t you tell me you were in college in the Sixties? When the summer of love started the whole hippy thing? I’ll bet you grew your hair long and wore bell-bottoms and smoked a little pot. Didn’t you?”

“A little,” says Mrs. Espy, handing Lita the check. “Not much. But a little.”

“Oh Mrs. Espy,” says Lita, pleasantly surprised by the size of the tip. “You are so good to me.”

A week later, on a Tuesday morning, Donovan arrives at Mrs. Espy’s at nine for his first few hours of work in her gardens, the day overcast and cool. After re-introducing himself and thanking her for choosing him, Donovan gets to work and Mrs. Espy sits at her kitchen table listening to a CD Scott gave her called Smooth Jazz Versions of Hits From the Sixties and having coffee and a croissant while writing a note to her oldest friend Melissa with whom she has corresponded since they went to colleges on opposite sides of the country fifty-four years ago, Melissa attending Sara Lawrence and majoring in Dance.

Melissa has three children and five grandchildren, is an emeritus professor of Modern Dance and Choreography at Mount Holyoke, and most recently visited Mrs. Espy three years ago while checking out west coast colleges with her granddaughter Victoria. Mrs. Espy thinks of Melissa as her sister, though she has never told Melissa she feels this way for fear Melissa does not feel similarly and would be made uncomfortable by such a declaration.

Dear M,

I’m in my kitchen awaiting the inevitable roar of the lawn mower, this being the first day of trying out my new gardener, a character I’m sure you would appreciate. His name is Donovan and he is a swashbuckling hippy. That is, he looks like a hippy with his long brown hair in a ponytail and a handsome bandana worn around his forehead. What is a hippy? Darrel hated hippies, though as far as I know, he didn’t actually know any hippies or any man with long hair who dressed flamboyantly.

I think Darrel hated Scott, too. He certainly disapproved of him for being gay, which is why we never had Thanksgiving with Scott and James. I’m sure that was fine with James, but Scott and I look forward to spending time with each other at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not having children, we are the only family we have. So now we content ourselves with going out for a fancy meal on those days, and…

Mrs. Espy stops writing and wonders why she doesn’t hear the roar of the lawn mower. Donovan said he was going to do the lawn first and then prune the Japanese maples, and he’s been here for thirty minutes, so…

She goes into her living room and looks out the big south-facing window, but the wide front porch blocks her view of most of the lawn, and she is debating whether to go out onto the porch to have a look when she hears footsteps on the stairs followed by three louds knocks on the door.

Checking her makeup and hair in the guest bathroom mirror, she has a vivid memory of when she was hostess at The Trade Winds and often appeared in newspaper advertisements for the restaurant—the smiling hostess with long brown hair.

Donovan stands beside Mrs. Espy on her just-mown lawn and says, “As you can see, I’ve started taking out the competing smaller branches in these two maples, and now we need to make decisions about which of the larger branches to remove. The interiors are clogged.”

“Mr. Yamamoto said the same thing,” says Mrs. Espy, frowning at her lawn. “But I kept putting it off because I’m squeamish about taking big limbs. When did you mow the lawn? I never heard your mower?”

“I use a push mower,” says Donovan, approaching one of the Japanese maples. “Razor sharp blades. Does a much better job than those propeller power mowers.”

“A push mower?” says Mrs. Espy, frowning ferociously. “Doesn’t that take forever?”

“Took about fifteen minutes,” says Donovan, grasping the base of a branch emanating from the heart of the tree. “I suggest we remove this one, and possibly the one beside it, too.”

Mrs. Espy looks up from her scrutiny of the lawn and says, “Fifteen minutes? With a push mower? That seems impossible.”

“I’ll time it next time,” says Donovan, laughing at her fixation on her lawn. “But if this were my place, I’d replace the lawn with flowering perennials and wild grasses and two persimmon trees. You’d use much less water and get good fruit and a thousand beautiful blooms for you and the bees and butterflies to appreciate. Lawns aren’t really good for much unless you play croquet.”

“Which I don’t,” says Mrs. Espy, shaking her head. “It’s funny you mentioning persimmon trees. There were three here when we bought the place, Mr. Espy and I, a few months after we got married, and the first thing he did was take out the trees and shrubs and flowers and things, and put in a lawn. Mr. Espy was adamant that a house was not a home unless it had a good lawn in front. And…” She hesitates. “We thought we were going to have children. Didn’t end up being possible, but… he was always very keen about the lawn.” She clears her throat. “I like the idea of persimmons and flowers and wild grasses and using less water. I’ll think about it.”

“Good,” says Donovan, returning his focus to the Japanese maple. “So how about I remove this branch and we’ll see what you think?”

“Yes, do that,” says Mrs. Espy, nodding. “We’ll do the big branches together. One branch at a time.”

At the end of Donovan’s three hours, as he is loading his tools into his pickup, Mrs. Espy brings him a check for a hundred and twenty dollars and says, “I like your work, Donovan. When may I expect you to return?”

“I was planning to come back on Thursday afternoon from two to five, if that works for you.” He looks at the check. “Elvira. What a lovely name.” He smiles hopefully at her. “May I call you Elvira?”

Mrs. Espy blushes profoundly and says, “I would prefer that you call me Mrs. Espy.”

“As you wish,” he says, nodding graciously. “And there’s no need to pay me each time unless you want to. I’m happy to bill you monthly, the work itemized.”

“I prefer to pay you each time,” she says, her heart pounding from the shock of Donovan asking if he might call her Elvira. “Helps me keep track of things.”

“That’s fine,” he says, politely. “I’ll be here on Thursday. If for any reason I’m delayed or can’t make it that day, I’ll call you.”

“Thank you, Donovan, I appreciate that.” She takes a deep breath. “Were you… are you named after the singer Donovan? From the Sixties?”

“I am,” he says, nodding. “My mother was a huge fan. She had a framed poster of Sunshine Superman on the wall in her kitchen her whole life. She used to say his songs were the soundtrack of the happiest years of her life.”

“I liked him, too,” says Mrs. Espy, nodding seriously. “Not as much as I liked the Beatles, but I liked him. I liked how softly he sang. Never shouting. Gentle. As if he was talking to me.”

“Yeah,” says Donovan, nodding. “I think that’s what my mother liked about him, too. He was her gentle companion.”

“Is your mother still alive?” asks Mrs. Espy, knowing she probably isn’t.

“No, she died a year ago.” He looks toward the western horizon. “She was seventy-four. Heavy smoker for most of her life and didn’t stop until ten years ago when my first daughter was born and she didn’t want to expose the child to second-hand smoke.” He shrugs. “We didn’t ask her to quit, but she wanted to, and I think that gave her a few extra years.”

“You have two daughters?” asks Mrs. Espy, growing uncomfortable with the intimacy of their conversation.

“Yes. Safia and Coraline. Ten and five.”

“Unusual names,” says Mrs. Espy, surprised Donovan wants to keep visiting with her. “Lovely. Safia and Coraline. Sounds like the title of a novel. Is there a son in between the daughters?”

“No, two kids are all we wanted.” He puts the check in his wallet. “And those are Algerian names, by the way. Safia and Coraline. My wife is Algerian, only her name is Teresa.”

“Born in Algeria?” asks Mrs. Espy, not entirely sure what Algerians look like.

“France,” he says, nodding. “Paris. That’s where I kidnapped her and brought her to America when she was twenty-five, so she still has a strong French accent.”

“What were you doing in France?” asks Mrs. Espy, enchanted by her imaginings of Donovan in Paris. “How old were you?”

“I was twenty-six,” he says, smiling as he remembers. “Twenty-one years ago. I was a high school Biology teacher before I became a gardener and a pruner of trees, and I was in France on a summer vacation, went into a bakery in Paris to buy some bread, and Teresa was working there and took my order. I apologized to her in French for my minimal mastery of the language, she answered in minimal English, and we made a date to practice English and French together.”

Mrs. Espy and her brother Scott meet for lunch at Buenos, their favorite Mexican restaurant just three doors down from Scott James. They split the catch-of-the-day fish tacos and a spinach salad, and share a pint of Leaping Trout beer. Mrs. Espy drinks much more beer than she usually does, and by meal’s end she is drunk for the first time in many years.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw you tipsy,” says Scott, giving his sister a look of curious amusement. “Must have been before you were married to Darrel. To what do we owe this drunken outburst?”

“To be quite honest,” she says, smiling dreamily, “I think I’m under the influence of my new gardener.”

Scott arches his eyebrow. “Do tell?”

“When he first came to apply for the job, I thought he was a hippy.” She smiles as Donavon’s face comes to mind. “But that was just because his hair was long. He’s actually a very charming man. We pruned my Japanese maples together yesterday and we had the most wonderful time. He… I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a satisfying give-and-take with any man other than you. I certainly never did with Darrel.”

“Darrel was not a give-and-take sort of person,” says Scott, shaking his head. “He was more of a take-and-take person.”

Mrs. Espy glowers at Scott and he meets her glower with an impish smile, and they both burst out laughing.

When Donovan returns to Mrs. Espy’s house on Thursday afternoon, he has his daughters with him, and though Mrs. Espy is determined not to immediately rush out to greet them, she can only corral herself inside for ten minutes before hurrying out her back door and down the back steps into the north garden where Donovan is on an orchard ladder thinning the apples in the largest of the three apple trees, while Safia and Coraline are filling two large baskets with the many half-formed apples their father drops on the ground.

The girls stop gathering the fallen fruit to watch Mrs. Espy approach, and Mrs. Espy gasps at how beautiful they are to her. Safia is tall for ten, her long black hair in a ponytail, her skin olive-brown, her dark brown eyes enormous—Coraline a miniature version of her sister, her black hair short and curly. Safia is wearing red jeans and a black T-shirt, Coraline a red T-shirt and blue jeans.

“Hello,” says Mrs. Espy, beaming at the girls. “Your father has put you to work, I see. And here I was going to invite you in for cocoa.”

Without missing a beat, Safia looks up at her father and says, “Can we, Papa? Have cocoa with her?”

“When we’re done with the thinning,” he says, nodding. “Cocoa with Mrs. Espy will be your carrot, so to speak.” He winks at Mrs. Espy. “Be twenty minutes or so, if that’s okay with you.”

“She said cocoa, not carrot,” says Coraline, frowning up at her father.

“I stand corrected,” says Donovan, returning to his thinning. “Cocoa it is.”

Mrs. Espy is at her stove quietly singing “Hey Jude as she stirs the cocoa, when there comes a timid knocking on her back door.

“Come in, come in,” she says, opening the door and being amazed again by the beauty of Donovan’s girls.

Coraline enters first, Safia following, and Safia says, “Thank you for inviting us, Mrs. Espy. We love cocoa.”

“Who doesn’t?” says Mrs. Espy, leading them to her kitchen table where a plate of made-this-morning ginger snap cookies awaits them.

When the girls are seated, Mrs. Espy realizes Coraline needs a booster seat.

“One moment,” says Mrs. Espy dashing into her living room. “The Encyclopedia Britannica to the rescue.”

Following their delightful repast during which Mrs. Espy learned the girls are artists, dancers, gardeners, cooks, and musicians, and the girls learned that Mrs. Espy lives alone, knits, and makes quilts, Safia asks, “Could we have a tour of your house, please? We’re building our house in April and we’re always looking for good ideas.”

The moment they enter the living room from the kitchen, both girls hurry to Mrs. Espy’s piano, a seven-foot grand covered by a burgundy tablecloth on which stands an array of ceramic vases and glass bowls.

“Why did you hide your piano?” asks Coraline, frowning at Mrs. Espy.

“Well, I don’t play it anymore,” says Mrs. Espy, who was not expecting the girls to make such a beeline to the grand. “So it makes a good place to display my bowls and vases.”

“Why don’t you play anymore?” asks Safia, sounding concerned.

“Well, one day I just…” Mrs. Espy freezes for a moment, gripped by a nameless fear.

“What’s wrong?” asks Coraline, giving Mrs. Espy a frightened look.

“I’m fine,” says Mrs. Espy, smiling as her fear subsides. “Just couldn’t remember why I stopped playing. I guess I just got out of the habit.”

“I’m taking lessons,” says Safia, gazing avidly at what she imagines is hidden beneath the burgundy cloth. “Papa is teaching me guitar, but I go to Ruth for my piano lessons. Ruth Chan. We have a little piano. A spinet. It isn’t very good, but after we build our house, the very next thing on the list of things to get after a dog and a cat and chickens is a good piano.”

“I’m gonna take lessons, too,” says Coraline, nodding emphatically. “Starting in January.”

“And where are you going to build your house?” asks Mrs. Espy, hoping Safia doesn’t name some far-away place.

“In our garden,” says Coraline, tired of looking at the covered piano. “Do you have any pets?”

“I used to have a dog,” says Mrs. Espy, kneeling down beside Coraline and gently brushing the hair out of her eyes. “And I often think about getting another one.”

“We can’t have pets until we have our house,” says Coraline, looking into Mrs. Espy’s eyes. “But when we have our house we will.”

“Why can’t you have pets until then?” asks Mrs. Espy, looking at Safia.

“We rent the house we live in,” says Safia, lifting up the edge of the cover to get a look at more of the piano. “But we own the two lots next door, which is where we have our garden and where we’ll build our house when we’ve saved enough money. But for now our landlord says we can’t have pets.”

“Or chickens,” says Coraline, doing a little jig. “Can I use your bathroom, please?”

When Donovan and Safia and Coraline are gone, Mrs. Espy moves all her bowls and vases off her piano, throws off the burgundy table cloth, and sits down to play for the first time in thirty-eight years. She know the piano will be badly out of tune, but she doesn’t care because…

Thirty-eight years ago, just a few days after she and Darrel took possession of the house, the piano just tuned after being moved across town from her apartment, she sat down to play and…

“Oh what song was I playing?” she says, straining to remember.

And now the whole traumatic scene comes back to her.

She was just beginning to play “If I Fell” by the Beatles, setting the tone with a handful of lush chords as prelude to her singing, when Darrel stormed in from his study and shouted, “Would you please stop banging on that horrid thing? I can’t stand it.”

Mrs. Espy plays a sour-sounding chord, now another, and another; and now she gets up and goes to her phone and calls her brother.

“Scott?” she says urgently.

“Hey El, kinda busy right now. Can I call you back?”

“I just want to know who tunes your piano?”

Teresa and Safia and Mrs. Espy are sitting at Mrs. Espy’s kitchen table, Mrs. Espy giving Teresa and Safia their first knitting lesson. Coraline was taking the lesson, too, but couldn’t resist going into the living room to watch Horace Silverman tuning Mrs. Espy’s piano.

Teresa comes to a standstill with her knitting, her fingers refusing to do what her brain just learned, so Mrs. Espy holds the knitting she has begun in front of Teresa and slowly demonstrates how the needles need to interact.

“Ah, I see,” says Teresa, flashing Mrs. Espy a smile. “The fingers take time to learn the choreography.”

“What a beautiful way to say it,” says Mrs. Espy, setting down her knitting. “Shall we have some tea? Cocoa for the girls? You’ve both worked so hard and you’re doing so well.”

“Okay,” says Teresa, setting down her needles and sighing with relief. “I always wanted to learn to knit because I have these moments, you know, when I could be making something, but first I had to learn and… but I didn’t take the time so… but when Safia said you would teach her…” She looks at Safia who is doggedly working at her knitting. “You don’t mind I’m taking the lesson with you?”

“I don’t mind,” says Safia, frowning at her fingers holding the knitting needles. “I think I’ve gone wrong again, Mrs. Espy. Can you help me?”

“Right away, dear,” says Mrs. Espy, hurrying to her side.

Coraline comes in from the living room and goes to her mother for a hug. Mrs. Espy watches the beautiful woman with long black hair embracing her darling daughter, and she notices that Teresa’s hair has more than a few strands of white and gray, and how beautiful those strands are amidst the black.

Coraline whispers something to her mother and Teresa says to her, “Why don’t you ask her?”

“You ask her, Mama,” says Coraline, glancing shyly at Mrs. Espy.

“She wants to know,” says Teresa, gazing at Mrs. Espy, “if she can call you Grandma.”

“Of course you can,” says Mrs. Espy, going to stir the cocoa. “I would love that.”

“Lita,” says Mrs. Espy, arriving at Lita’s station in Salon Monet, “I was going to call you, and I’ll certainly pay you for today, but I’ve decided to let my hair grow a little longer and allow it to turn into whatever color it wants to be.”

“I can help you wash out the color we put in, dear,” says Lita, nodding assuredly. “You’ll be mostly gray and white. You ready for that?”

“I’m ready,” says Mrs. Espy, smiling bravely. “Yes. Do help me.”

The next time Donovan comes to Mrs. Espy’s house, he is pleasantly surprised to find several large pots of wild grasses and two six-foot-tall persimmon trees in even larger pots arrayed on the lawn, waiting to be planted.

The front door is open and someone is playing the piano, and because Donovan was only planning to be here for an hour today, he climbs the stairs to tell Mrs. Espy he will do as much as he can today and then rearrange his schedule so he can return as soon as possible.

In the living room, a woman with gray hair turning white is playing “Killing Me Softly, playing slowly and with great feeling. She is wearing a blue dress shirt and black jeans and sandals. Donavon watches her for quite a long time, enjoying the music, before he realizes she is Mrs. Espy.

When she finishes playing the song, she turns to him and says, “Donovan. Come in.”

“Wonderful to hear you play,” he says, stepping into the house. “Love that song. Love it slow like that. So… about the plants, I’m thrilled, but I’d only planned to be here for an hour today, so I won’t get them all in. But I’ll switch things around so I can come back either tomorrow or the next day to finish.”

“That’s fine,” she says, rising from the piano bench. “Shall we discuss where to put what?”

“Yes,” he says, smiling in wonder at her as she crosses the room to him. “Then we’ll be better able to see what else we want to get to fill in the spaces.”

“I am told you have a marvelous garden,” says Mrs. Espy, arriving at the door. “I’d love to see it someday.”

“Come any time,” he says, looking into her eyes. “Come… come for breakfast on Sunday. We always have pancakes on Sunday. The girls will be thrilled. They’re crazy about you.”

“Okay,” says Mrs. Espy, blushing. “I’d like that.”

“I like your hair this way,” he says, nodding his approval. “Are you gonna let it grow a little longer?”

“I’m gonna let it grow until I die,” she says sweetly. “And I’m going wear it just like yours as soon as it gets long enough to put in a ponytail or a braid.”

“Oh Mrs. Espy, you flatter me.”

“Elvira,” she says, officially. “I’m Elvira from now on.”

On a Sunday in October, Donovan and Elvira and Teresa and Safia and Coraline drive in Elvira’s large old Buick, Donovan driving, to a farm ten miles north of Bellingham to inspect a litter of puppies for sale, the mother a small Golden Retriever, the father a Border Collie.

“There’s only two left,” says a woman named Bess wearing blue coveralls and rubber boots.

She leads the way across the chaotic farmyard to the barn where the puppies are sequestered. “There were nine in the litter and we got five calls the day we ran the ad. If I’d known so many people wanted them, I would have asked a hundred each, but the ad said fifty, so that’s the price. They’ve had their first round of shots, but there’s more you’ll have to get.”

The plan devised by Safia and Coraline and Elvira is that the dog they get will belong jointly to Elvira and the girls and will live at Elvira’s house until the girls move into their new house a year from now. The girls will visit Elvira’s house regularly to help take care of the dog there, and Elvira will bring the dog to their garden two or three times a week while the house is being built, and leave the dog with the girls.

However, upon meeting the two pups and playing with them for five minutes, the unanimous decision is to take them both.

fin

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Satire

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Homage to Kokopelli photograph by David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

Satire has to be done en clair. You can’t blunt the edge of wit or the point of satire with obscurity. Try to imagine a famous witty saying that is not immediately clear.” James Thurber

Reading about the murder of twelve people and the wounding of eight others at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the continuing violence as the murderers have taken hostages in two locations in Paris, I recall Satan in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger saying, “No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is.”

“Satire works best when it hews close to the line between the outlandish and the possible—and as that line continues to grow thinner, the satirist’s task becomes even more difficult.” Graydon Carter

When I was in the Eighth Grade, I was momentarily seized with the satirical urge to claim I was God. You may remember how it was before the onset of high school. Having finally gotten the hang of childhood, and for a few glorious months before being knocked senseless by puberty and being placed at the bottom of the teenage heap, we experienced a brief epoch of self-confidence, which for me took the form of satirizing everything and everyone.

“Yes,” I proclaimed to one of my fellow junior high satirists, “I’ve used the name Todd up to now, rather than God, so the world wouldn’t know who I really was until the time was right to reveal the truth. Now that time has come. Let us sally forth and spread the good news. Want to be my first disciple?”

Yes, I was conflating God and Jesus, but so have lots of people.

In any case, after making a silly show of publicly blessing a dozen or so giddy disciples, I tired of claiming to be God and resumed my obsessions with baseball and girls. But satire once loosed upon the world is not so easily withdrawn. One day after school, I was cornered by three large boys intent on punishing me for daring to claim I was God and/or Jesus.

“Think you’re God, huh?” said the largest of the three, punching my shoulder. “Hurt, didn’t it? If you were God, wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

“I’m not God,” I said, gladdened to see a posse of disciples coming to my rescue. “I was joking.”

“Not funny,” said another of the boys, taking a swing at me.

I ducked, his fist hit the cinder block wall, and off I ran.

For the first two years of high school, several of my chums persisted in calling me God. Among these chums was a delicious young woman who greeted me every day with, “Hey, God. What’s going on?” in a sleepy sexy voice that always made me glad I’d been a satirist in junior high. On the other hand, I continued to be confronted by outraged Christians who felt I should be punished for mocking their beliefs. To defuse their righteous indignation, I would sincerely apologize for having been an idiot in my long ago youth, beg their forgiveness, and exit before I started to giggle.

“Satire is focused bitterness.” Leo Rosten

Speaking of bitterness, I recently read most of the stories in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, a thick collection of bitingly satirical short stories, and found I most appreciated his few stories in which satire played a part but was not the point. No matter how brilliant the writing, and Waugh was a brilliant writer, when every person in a story is a caricature and every plot twist the result of cruelty or stupidity, I could care less.

“Music is my religion.” Jimi Hendrix

When I got to college in 1967—UC Santa Cruz in its infancy—I made the erroneous assumption that my college comrades and I would be free to say whatever we thought and felt without fear of reprisal. We would, I imagined, delve deep into myriad questions and mysteries arising from our studies and shared experiences, and as the result of such delving our wisdom would grow by leaps and bounds.

A few weeks into my college life, I attended a dance in the Stevenson College dining hall and found myself boogying with a gang of exuberant gals and guys from Los Angeles. We had a wonderful hilarious time, and after the dance retired to the groovacious dorm room of one of the gals, the décor a triumph of paisley, a grandiloquent lava lamp center stage, and heaps of glistening bud to be smoked.

Someone took the Beatles (Rubber Soul) off the turntable just as the boys were getting warmed up, and put on a record by a discordant Los Angeles band I’d never heard of, the drummer rhythm deaf, the guitarists out of synch, the bass player hopeless, the singing god awful. After the first cut, I commented that they sounded like The Grateful Dead meets Sonny & Cher in a dark alley on a bad night. I might as well have declared to a sect of violent Christian fundamentalists that Jesus was a homosexual snake oil salesman.

The knowledge I gained from the anguish and vitriol my insensitive remark aroused has served me well, for I never again made the mistake of saying anything critical of the music beloved by those playing or listening to that music. I learned then, and have confirmed a thousand times since, that a person’s favorite music is sacred to them. To defame the sacred is dangerous, especially nowadays when so many people are willing to use violence in the service of whatever they deem sacred and therefore inviolable.

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Self-Loving

When Your Heart Is Strong crayon on monotype:paper Nolan WInkler

When Your Heart Is Strong drawing by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” David Packard

A friend of mine went to graduate school at Yale in theater management and marketing where his favorite professor was forever reminding his students: “For every hundred queries you send out, you can count on one response. This won’t necessarily be a positive response, but at least it will be a response.”

As a writer and musician who for many years fished, so to speak, in the smallest tributaries of the mainstream before experiencing a few years of success on the cultural Mississippi, as it were, of New York and Hollywood, only to return to the hinterlands where I have continued to cast my line for the past thirty years, I have sent out thousands of queries, stories, songs, novels, plays, screenplays, and music CDs to agents, publishers, producers, directors, DJs, magazine editors, and people randomly selected from the phone book, and in my experience the professor’s estimate of one response per hundred submissions is right on the money.

I was one of those young writers who, for fun and incentive, once papered the four walls of my rented room (from floor to ceiling) with form rejection letters from The New Yorker and Esquire and The Atlantic and Playboy and dozens of other magazines large and small—the collage of hundreds of colored rectangles strikingly beautiful, though the cumulative negativity of the verbiage writ on those disingenuous notes (we carefully considered, we’re very sorry) eventually caused me to burn them all in a bonfire of rage against the machine and in hope of exorcising the demons of self-doubt.

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Nowadays, as a sometimes self-publishing author and musician, I frequently encounter disdain and contempt from all sorts of people for manufacturing my own work. Yes, Mark Twain self-published most of his novels, and countless other revered writers and artists self-published, self-promoted, and self-sold, but the dominant cultural myth remains that self-manufacturing books or musical recordings is pathetic and disgraceful, especially for someone no longer in kindergarten.

This anti-self-publishing sentiment is especially true among people over fifty who were not raised on YouTube, though many people under fifty also make a clear distinction between an artist who brings out his or her own creations and the artist who manages to sell himself, literally, to a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Is this not a form of cultural idiocy? And from whence does this antipathy to marketing our own creations come from?

“This self-love is the instrument of our preservation; it resembles the provision for the perpetuity of mankind: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and we must conceal it.” Voltaire

So there’s Voltaire, the keen observer of social mores, three hundred and fifty years ago warning against public displays of self-appreciation, regardless of the emotional importance of such self-positivity, thus confirming that self-negation as cultural norm is nothing new. And who in our steep-sided pyramidal society and pyramidal economic system benefits most from this bizarre idea that it is shameful and wrong for a free lance artist to manufacture her own art and then alert the world that her art is for sale?

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” Seth Godin

A Seattle publisher recently reissued my novel Inside Moves in a handsome paperback edition after the good book had been out-of-print for over thirty years, and dozens of people who had previously snickered and snorted in derision at my self-published works wrote and called to congratulate me, a few of these brainwashed peeps actually saying things like, “Must be great to have a real book in the stores again.” How bizarre! I was going to say how fucking bizarre, but that would be crude.

 “Self-love is a big part of golf.” Lewis Black

Nine times. Think of the Beatles song Revolution 9 with that annoying voice in the background intoning interminably “Number Nine, Number Nine.” Recent marketing research indicates that busy publishers, editors, DJs, and other persons bombarded with press releases and poems and screenplays and songs and cries of “Look at me jumping!” by millions of Baby Roos (see Winnie-the-Pooh) need to be loudly informed about something nine times, on average, for the thing to penetrate their overloaded cerebrums and get them to take notice. Oy vey. Such postage and envelopes and mailers for the struggling artist!

Speaking of postage, over the last seven years I have sent out rafts of copies of my four piano CDs and the two music CDs Marcia and I made together, these rafts going to radio stations around the country, with one response for every hundred submissions a close approximation of my success rate, whether that means actual airplay for Incongroovity or Mystery Inventions or a terse: Go Away! We Only Play Music Recorded By Famous People.

I hasten to add that these are not large radio stations I apply to, but small ones kin to our own KZYX whereon you will be lucky, indeed, to hear our music, though not for lack of my sending them our CDs. Jamie Roberts, bless him, occasionally plays my recorded fiction, and Joel Cohen has played a few cuts of my piano music—local exposure a special thrill for us. The good people at KMUD are so stoutly unified in their indifference to my offerings, I have ceased to bother them.

But I have managed to win over a handful of daring and prescient DJs who now regularly spin my tunes in Warren Vermont, Bloomington Indiana, Arcata California, Fort Collins Colorado and Astoria Oregon. Mazel tov!

“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.” Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I was a preschool teacher’s aide, one of my favorite things about the three and four-year-olds I had the pleasure of overseeing was their unabashed love of their own artistic endeavors and creations: crayon drawings and finger paintings and block towers and sand castles and somersaults and dances and impromptu songs—everything! Countless times an excited little kid would show me his or her creation, and in response to my saying, “That’s wonderful!” the little Picasso or O’Keeffe would confidently reply, “I know!”

But something happens to most American children in the years following kindergarten and continuing for the rest of their lives, some multi-level, multi-layered reprogramming goes on at home, at school, on television, at work, in life, so that by the time children are six and seven-years-old they are much less likely to share their creations with an adult, and by ten-years-old most kids cease to create anything.

From happy self-loving declarations of “I know!” to complete emotional and creative shutdown in just a few short years—the result of our horrifying and incredibly effective system of mass repression.

What are you talking about, Todd? Look at the millions of people making YouTube videos of themselves and their kids and cats and stuff, and the millions of people taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones to go along with their tweeting and sexting.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

In my perusal of sports highlights on my computer, I am required to sit through commercials in order to see brief snippets of games I’ve missed for lack of a television. Thus I have seen many ads for razors, cars, big-budget movies, computers, running shoes, and Disney vacation resorts. In the latest series of Disney ads, people are shown publicly acting out in spontaneous and imaginative ways, and then being judged idiotic or crazy by their families and friends.

In one such Disney ad, a father and his two children are in a hardware store when the father gets the wacky idea of donning a welding helmet and picking up a fluorescent light tube and pretending to be Darth Vader wielding a light saber. In his excitement, the father gets carried away and knocks over a display, a heinous act that embarrasses his well-behaved children and dismays the other people in the store. But in a twinkling, the father and children and their mother are transported to a Disney resort where the father is allowed to duel with real (fake) light sabers and a Disney employee dressed up as the real (fake) Darth Vader—the children no longer embarrassed by their impulsive father.

The Voice accompanying this vomitous series of ads declares, and I paraphrase, “So if you want to be even just a little bit creative and spontaneous and playful without punishment and censure, you must give large quantities of your hard-earned money to the Disney Corporation and we will allow you to be slightly more carefree than you are allowed to be in real life, though we know that even when you come to this totally artificial place, you will be too inhibited to act in ways that will necessitate our having to punish you.”