Posts Tagged ‘dogs’

Beckman’s Daughter

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Beckman's Daughter

Julian Beckman, thirty-nine, is known only as Beckman to everyone except his mother and daughter. Beckman’s mother Alta, who is eighty-three, calls him Jewel, and Beckman’s sixteen-year-old daughter Jasmy calls him Sweet Papa. Beckman lives with Alta and Jasmy in the house where he was born, a big two-story place on a half-acre at the west end of Mountain Home Idaho.

Alta is German and was stunned when she got pregnant at forty-three, having been told by doctors when she was a teenager in Germany, and again by doctors in America when she was in her thirties, that she would never be able to get pregnant.

Adam McKay was Beckman’s father. He was seventy-two and fifteen years a widower at the time of his fruitful tryst with Alta, his housekeeper, and he was just as surprised as she when they produced a child together because he and Mavis, his wife of forty years, had never been able to make a baby. Adam was a retired backhoe operator who spent forty-five years building roads in Idaho and Washington and Montana.

Beckman was four when Adam died and left his house, two pickup trucks, a gigantic turquoise Cadillac, a barely-used backhoe, and 150,000 dollars to Alta.

Alta was not fond of Adam. They barely spoke to each other during their six years together, and they never touched each other again after they learned Alta was pregnant, so Alta was more relieved than sad when Adam died. And four-year-old Julian, who believed Adam was his grandfather, was relieved, too, because Alta and Jewel were inseparable, so her relief was his.

Thirty years later, when Jasmy was twelve and had a school assignment to write about her grandparents, she asked Beckman what he remembered about Adam.

Beckman thought for a long moment and said, “His skin was gray and he was bald except for a little patch of white hair just above his left ear. His face was quite lopsided, his teeth were crooked and gray, he smoked a stinky pipe, smelled of whiskey, and his voice rumbled like distant thunder. He watched television from early morning until late at night and often slept through the night in his armchair in front of the television. When he was a young man he built roads, but as an old man, when I knew him, he just sat in his ratty old armchair waiting for your grandmother to serve him. I never heard him laugh, but once I saw him crying at a movie on television in which a man was standing at a grave, weeping.”

Gig Antonelli, forty-five, a beefy fellow with longish brown hair, a wearer of colorful Hawaiian shirts and gray sweatpants and broken-down moccasins, is the owner of Gig Music, a high-ceilinged store jammed with old and new guitars, amplifiers, two dilapidated sofas, and a wall of banjos and mandolins and fiddles.

Gig, who always sounds stoned even when he isn’t, is standing behind the cluttered counter trying to tell the man on the other side of the counter that the guitar he wants to buy costs five hundred dollars, not fifty; but the man is French and understands very little English.

“Uno momento,” says Gig, who sort of speaks Spanish, his wife Mexican. “Yo tengo un hombre que parlez-vous Francais. Stay right there.”

Gig hurries to the back of the store and knocks on the door of one of the two rooms where he and Beckman give guitar lessons.

“Entré,” says Beckman; and Gig opens the door and looks in.

Beckman, very tall and slim with short blond hair, has worked at Gig Music for seventeen years, ever since he came home from college. He is sitting on an armless chair facing twelve-year-old Cal Crosby, a chubby kid sitting cross-legged on the floor playing a progression of three easy chords on a two-thirds-sized Yamaha guitar, his black hair falling over his eyes.

“Sorry to interrupt,” says Gig, rolling his eyes at Cal sitting on the floor instead of in a chair, “but we’ve got a French hombre up front who thinks the black Ovation is fifty dollars and I can’t make him understand it’s five hundred. Can you talk to him?”

“Sure,” says Beckman, speaking quietly as he always does unless he’s talking to someone hard of hearing. “I’ll be right back Cal. Just keep playing those chords until they start to feel automatic.”

At the counter, Beckman speaks fluent French to the man who wants the Ovation, the sale is made, and the man asks Beckman where he learned to speak such excellent French.

“My mother,” Beckman explains, “grew up in Strasbourg speaking French and German and she taught me both when I was growing up. And we still speak French and German at home, along with English.”

Beckman returns to the lesson room and finds Cal texting someone on his smart phone. So Beckman picks up Cal’s guitar and plays a sweet run of chords, a jazzy samba, and as he plays he thinks of Jasmy’s mother Krystel who last visited from Cameroon when Jasmy was thirteen, how Krystel and her husband Patrice were baffled by Beckman not allowing Jasmy to have a smart phone.

Cal looks up from his phone and listens to Beckman playing the samba, and when Beckman finishes, Cal says, “Will you teach me how to play that?”

“I will try,” says Beckman, handing Cal the guitar. “If you will try to practice for an hour every day.”

“An hour?” says Cal, giving Beckman a horrified look. “Every day?”

“Yeah,” says Beckman, nodding. “In my experience, the only way to get really good at anything is to practice our butts off.”

Jasmy, who seems much older than sixteen, is tall and graceful, her skin dark brown, her raven black hair long and curly, her lovely face made of equal parts Krystel and Beckman. And because Jasmy practices her violin for two hours every evening and often cooks supper with her father and grandmother, and because her friends let her use their phones at school and she’s allowed to use her father’s computer in the evening when she’s done with her homework, she doesn’t mind not having a smart phone.

Her greater concerns at the moment are that she doesn’t want to leave Mountain Home to go to college, even to attend nearby Boise State, the young man she’s been dating is threatening to break up with her if she won’t have sex with him, but she wants to wait until she’s eighteen, her friends want her to smoke marijuana with them, but she promised her father she would wait until she’s older, and she is afraid her breasts might grow too large and interfere with her volleyball playing.

Jasmy is six-feet-tall and may yet grow another inch or two. She is the superstar of the Mountain Home High varsity volleyball squad, and several colleges have offered her full scholarships to play volleyball for them. She is also a superb violinist, and her violin teacher hopes she will attend either Julliard or the Eastman School of Music, and the sooner the better.

Beckman is six-foot-five and was playing on the Boise State basketball team when he met Krystel at the beginning of his senior year. Krystel, who is from Cameroon and six-foot-two, was a junior, new to Boise State, and playing on the women’s basketball team. She spoke little English and was instantly enamored of Beckman, who not only spoke French, but was good-looking and taller than she and gentle and kind and took her on marvelous hikes in the mountains.

They were both virgins when they became lovers, and when Krystel discovered she was pregnant after five months of intimacy with Beckman, she went home to Cameroon, gave birth to Jasmy, and four months later returned with her baby to Idaho to complete her engineering degree and play for another year on the Boise State basketball team.

Her first day back, Krystel brought baby Jasmy to Beckman’s house in Mountain Home and explained to Beckman and Alta, “After I get my engineering degree, I’m going to marry a man named Patrice in Cameroon and we are going to have two children. I will keep Jasmy if you don’t want her, but I hope you will take her so I can finish my studies here and start my new life in Cameroon without such a difficult complication.”

Beckman, who had just graduated from Boise State with a degree in Anthropology, was instantly and ferociously in love with Jasmy, as was Alta, so they gladly agreed to take the beautiful baby girl. Krystel moved in with them for two months before her classes resumed, and while Jasmy grew attached to Beckman and Alta, Krystel breastfed her less and less until quite seamlessly Alta became Mama and Beckman became Papa.

When Jasmy was three-years-old, she became enamored of the word sweet and attached the adjective to Papa.

When Beckman was four-years-old, shortly after Alta inherited what to her was a vast fortune from Adam, Alta sold the trucks and backhoe and Cadillac, locked up the house, took a train from Boise to Portland, and flew with four-year-old Jewel to Germany to see if she wanted to live in Strasbourg again rather than stay in America. But after two weeks in her mother’s house, Alta became severely depressed and Jewel became depressed with her, so they flew back to Portland where Alta bought a brand new Volkswagen van and drove them home to Mountain Home.

The first thing Alta did upon their return was get rid of the television. Then she tore up the old carpeting in every room of the house to reveal the beautiful hardwood floors, and she replaced every stick of furniture with fine new furniture. She then spent a year overseeing extensive repairs on the house, including a complete kitchen remodel and repainting the house inside and out.

When Beckman was five and started kindergarten, Alta took a job as a breakfast and lunch waitress at the Manhattan Cafe, a job she kept for eighteen years until she was sixty-seven and baby Jasmy joined the family.

Alta liked being home when Jewel came home from school, and she spent her afternoons gardening and cooking and being available to her son if he needed help with anything or wanted to go anywhere. Beckman loved gardening and cooking with Alta, and in the evenings they would sit by the fire reading aloud to each other in German or French or English; and when Alta was sewing or knitting, Beckman practiced his guitar; and they never again had a television.

A gregarious person, Alta made many friends while working at the café, and she regularly invited two or three of her friends to join her and her son for supper. She had a handful of men friends, and there were men who courted her until she was in her seventies, but she was largely indifferent to romance and preferred the company of women and Jewel.

One night when Jasmy was four and Beckman was reading her a bedtime story, she interrupted him to ask in German why everyone besides Alta called him Beckman and not Julian or Jewel.

“Julian is a nice name,” she said in English. And then she added in French, “A beautiful name.”

“Well,” said Beckman, closing the book and replying in English, “it all began in First Grade on my first day at West Elementary School. Our teacher, Mrs. Bushnell, called roll and…”

“What is called roll?” asked Jasmy, who was not yet in kindergarten.

“The roll is a list of all the kids in the class. The teacher calls out the names in alphabetical order, and when your name is called, you say Present, which means ‘I’m here.’ The teacher does this to make sure everyone has gotten to school safely.”

“What is alkabektical odor?” asked Jasmy, her frown deepening.

“Al-pha-beti-cal or-der,” said Beckman, slowly pronouncing the two words. “That’s when you read last names that start with the letter A first, and then you read the last names that start with the letter B, and so forth all the way through the alphabet to the last names starting with the letter Z. That’s alphabetical order. In the order of the alphabet.” He gave her a wide-eyed smile. “You know your alphabet, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said Jasmy, nodding seriously.

She then recited the English alphabet, the French alphabet, and the German alphabet.

“Exactly,” said Beckman, applauding his daughter for her excellent recital. “You just said the letters in alphabetical order, and when the teacher called my name, Julian Beckman, one of the other boys in the class, I think it was Jay Worsley, though it might have been Johnny Wickett, loudly repeated my last name—Beckman—as if he thought there was something remarkable about the name, and all the children in the class laughed.”

“Why did they laugh?” asked Jasmy, outraged that anyone would laugh at someone else’s name. “Beckman is your last name. And Beckman is my last name, too. But nobody calls me Beckman. They only call you Beckman.”

“I know,” said Beckman, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “So listen to what happened next. At recess, when I went out on the playground—recess is when all the kids go outside and swing on swings or kick balls or run around shouting—I was playing catch with Colin Vogel who was my best friend at the time, when a boy called to me, ‘Hey Beckman,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Yes?’ and for some reason this made a whole bunch of kids laugh. So I laughed, too, and Colin asked me, ‘Do you like being called Beckman instead of Julian?’ And I said, ‘Beckman is fine with me if that’s what people want to call me,’ and from that day on, everyone called me Beckman, and they still do, everyone except you and Grandma.” He rubbed his chin again and frowned up at the ceiling as if trying to remember something. “What’s the name you like to call me? I forgot.”

“No you didn’t forget,” said Jasmy, giving him a playfully annoyed look. “You know I call you Sweet Papa.”

Many people who know Beckman wonder why such a pleasant person doesn’t have a girlfriend or a wife and never has, not since his love affair with Krystel. Several women over the last sixteen years have tried to win Beckman’s heart, but he remains resolutely single. The town cynics suggest Beckman is married to his mother, but this is not true, for the closest thing to a relationship Beckman has had since his love affair with Krystel resulted from Alta playing matchmaker.

The woman in question, an attractive German tourist named Elise, was sitting on a bench in Railroad Park in downtown Mountain Home in June of the year Beckman turned thirty. Alta and Jasmy were walking their two dogs, Schultzee, a Dachshund, and Canine, a gray shorthaired mongrel (both deceased now) when Canine took an interest in Elise. She spoke lovingly to the dog in German, Alta responded in German, and Elise came to stay with the Beckmans for the next two months.

Elise fell madly in love with Beckman, and he with her, but when Beckman didn’t pursue things with Elise beyond lovemaking, she traveled on.

The following winter, when Alta had a terrible flu and was feeling particularly mortal, she asked her son, “I wonder why you didn’t want to marry Elise. She was such a gem and you seemed so well-matched.”

To which Beckman replied, “She is a gem, Mama. But I was no match for her. She loves to travel, loves big cities, loves expensive restaurants, reads the latest bestsellers, measures herself against the latest fashion magazines, and measures her life against the snootiest of cultural arbiters, none of which I care about.”

“Do you think you will ever find someone to love and marry?” asked Alta, who very much wanted her son to marry a good woman.

“You know, Mama,” said Beckman, placing his cool hand on Alta’s hot forehead, “I don’t think much about that sort of thing. You taught me to live in the present, to be generous and kind and helpful, and not to dwell on the past or the future. And for the most part, that’s how I live. If love finds me, so be it, but I’m not going looking.”

“When did I teach you that?” asked Alta, soothed by Beckman’s touch. “I don’t remember.”

“You taught me every day,” said Beckman, speaking in his quiet way. “You still do. You show me by how you live, how you invite your friends for supper, how you work so happily in the garden, how you sing when you cook, how you love Jasmy, how you love our dogs and cats and chickens, and how you love me.”

Beckman and Jasmy play guitar and violin together, and sometimes they sing together, too. The name of their group is Jasmy & Beckman. They perform one Sunday morning a month as part of the service at the Unitarian Church and as background music for Visiting Time after the service. They also play for an hour every Saturday morning from April through October at the Mountain Home Farmers Market, and for an hour every Saturday afternoon, if they’re not playing a wedding, at Crazy’s, a coffee house and comic book store two doors down from Gig Music.

But mostly they play together at dozens of weddings throughout the year in and around Mountain Home and Boise, for which they make a hundred and fifty dollars per hour for the two of them. They have a two-hour minimum for weddings, and they charge for travel time if the wedding is more than a half-hour away from Mountain Home.

They usually play for thirty minutes before the wedding ceremonies while the guests assemble, they frequently play the processionals and recessionals, and they play post-wedding receptions. Thus during the peak months of the wedding season, spring through fall, they make nearly as much money from weddings as Beckman makes working full-time at Gig Music buying and selling guitars and giving lessons.

Beckman is a fine guitarist, his chord making pleasing and sophisticated, and he can play any kind of music: classical, jazz, hip-hop, rock, folk, reggae, and the very latest pop hits. Jasmy, however, is the overt star of the duo, her tone exquisite, her improvised solos exciting and soulful. She started playing the violin when she was six, took weekly lessons from a woman in Mountain Home until she was nine, and since then has taken lessons from the principal violinist of the Boise Philharmonic.

On a glorious Sunday afternoon in May, Beckman and Jasmy, dressed in the black clothes they always wear for weddings—Beckman in suit and tie, Jasmy in a long skirt and elegant black blouse, her hair in a ponytail—are playing Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” at a reception in a banquet hall in a hotel in Boise following a big wedding in a park on the Boise River. They are sitting on a small stage in one corner of the hall, having a hard time hearing each other over the din of two hundred raucous wedding guests. This is their last tune of the gig, and they are both eager to be heading home.

When Jasmy finishes a long solo and she and Beckman reiterate the opening phrases of the tune, a striking woman with long brown hair and olive skin emerges from the melee with an expensive camera and takes several pictures of Beckman and Jasmy playing; and when they finish, the woman introduces herself.

“I’m Portia Cruzero, the wedding photographer,” she says, her accent thickly Spanish. “I’m just new in Boise from Los Angeles, and before I was there I live in Barcelona, and I hope I can see you again at many more weddings. If you would like some photographs of you for your web site or concert posters, I hope you will call me.” She hands Jasmy her business card. “You have a card for me?”

“We’ve run out,” says Jasmy, enchanted by Portia. “But you can reach us through Meg, the wedding planner.”

“I will take pictures of you for no charge,” says Portia, beaming at Beckman and Jasmy. “For my portfolio and my web site. I would like to pose you in the mountains by granite. You know? I think it would be so dramatic.”

“Wasn’t Portia wonderful?” says Jasmy, as they drive home from Boise. “I just love her.”

“Yeah, I liked her,” says Beckman, smiling at his daughter. “Shall we take her up on her offer? To take pictures of us?”

“Definitely,” says Jasmy, nodding emphatically. “We could frame one and give it to Grandma for her birthday.”

“So… do you want to call her or should I?” asks Beckman, coloring slightly as he thinks of the beautiful Spaniard. “Maybe you should. You’re so much better at that sort of thing than I am.”

“Are you blushing Sweet Papa?” asks Jasmy, arching an eyebrow.

“Am I?” says Beckman, coloring a bit more. “She’s probably married. Don’t you think?”

“I don’t think so,” says Jasmy, never having seen her father so enamored of anyone. “But I think you’d better call her right away. She just moved here and I’m sure lots of men are already chasing her.”

“Not if she’s married,” says Beckman, shrugging. “How could she not be? She’s lovely and smart and charming and… she must be married.”

“Why?” asks Jasmy, enjoying her father’s disquiet. “You’re lovely and smart and charming, and you’re not married.”

“Oh but I’m a strange cat,” he says, frowning at the road ahead. “She’s not strange at all. She’s… wonderful.”

At school the next day, Jasmy borrows her friend Celia’s phone and calls Portia, and they have a long conversation full of laughter. Portia speaks French better than she speaks English, so she and Jasmy blab in French, and at the end of the conversation Jasmy invites Portia to come for supper on Friday, and Portia accepts the invitation.

When Beckman gets home from work and is sitting at the kitchen counter having a beer and watching Jasmy and Alta make supper, Jasmy says casually, “Oh… I called Portia today.”

“Did you?” says Beckman, taking a long swig of his beer.

“She’s coming for supper on Friday,” says Jasmy, making a goofy face at her father. “She’s bringing bread and wine.”

This Friday?” says Beckman, startled by the news. “Is she… is she bringing her husband?”

“She doesn’t have a husband,” says Jasmy, shaking her head. “But she does have a daughter. Cynthia, who is nine and loves spaghetti, so that’s what we’re having.”

“With a big salad,” says Alta, chopping an onion.

Beckman takes a deep breath and says, “Shall I ask her to marry me when she gets here, or should I wait until after supper?”

Alta and Jasmy exchange looks and Alta says, “Why wait?”

“I was joking,” says Beckman, blushing profoundly.

To which Jasmy and Alta say nothing as they carry on making supper.

So Beckman goes out into the backyard with his beer and sits at the picnic table on the edge of the vegetable garden where he is joined by the large mutt Eileen and the little mutt Colossus, and he thinks about Portia and how the moment he saw her, he felt he knew her, that they had been best friends long ago and thought they would never see each other again, not because they stopped loving each other, but because they lost sight of each other in the hubbub of life.

Now Beckman thinks of Krystel, Jasmy’s mother, and he admits to himself, really for the first time in a conscious way, that he has remained loyal to her for seventeen years, though Krystel and Patrice have been married for fifteen years and have two children.

“But I wasn’t really being loyal to her,” he says, speaking quietly to the dogs who are both looking at him. “I was punishing myself for failing as a mate.”

Having said this, he further realizes that his experience of conceiving a child with the first woman he slept with made subsequent sexual entanglements seem far more dangerous to him than they might otherwise have seemed had his first sexual experience not produced a child the mother didn’t want.

Now he hears the back door open, a moment passes, and Alta sits beside him with a second beer for him and a beer for herself.

“I’m happy you met someone you like, Jewel.” She bumps her shoulder against his. “I know you were joking about asking her to marry you, but sometimes joking tells us secrets we need to hear out loud.”

“I think I’ve been afraid to be in another relationship,” says Beckman, hearing how true that sounds. “But I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

“Good,” says Alta, nodding. “I never told you, but when I was twenty-five, I met a man, Friedrich, and we fell in love, and for two years we were inseparable and very happy. But when he asked me to marry him, I told him I could not have children and he was devastated and stopped seeing me. I was so sad, so depressed, I wanted to kill myself. But my mother encouraged me to come to America and see if I could be happy here. And you know the rest.”

“Tell me again,” says Beckman, clinking her bottle with his. “I like hearing how you came to Mountain Home.”

“Well,” she says, gazing at the setting sun, “first I went to my cousin in Chicago and lived there for some years and had some nice boyfriends, but I always broke up with them when I thought they were going to ask me to marry them. But then I wanted to get married, so I went to a clinic and they did lots of tests, and once again they told me I would never be able to get pregnant. And though hearing this didn’t make me want to kill myself, it did make me want to leave Chicago, so when my girlfriend said she was moving to Boise to work in a hotel, I asked if I could come with her. And when I saw the mountains and the lakes and the forests, I was so happy I decided to stay. I was a maid in the hotel where my friend worked for seven years, and then one day while I was cleaning a room, I tripped over a vacuum cleaner and hurt my back so badly I could hardly move for two months. The pain was the worst I have ever known. When I finally got better, I decided to look for an easier job, and that’s when I answered the ad for a housekeeper and came to Mountain Home and met your father.”

“Lucky for me,” says Beckman, giving her a gentle squeeze.

“Lucky for you I tripped over that vacuum cleaner,” says Alta, sighing as the sun vanishes beneath the horizon, “because that’s when something shifted inside me and I was able to make you.”

On Friday afternoon of the day Portia and her daughter Cynthia are coming for supper, Beckman is standing at the epicenter of Gig Music prying open a wooden crate containing four Epiphone guitars, when Gig says, “I’m thinking of selling the business, Beckman. You want to buy me out?”

Beckman sets down his hammer and pry bar. “How seriously are you thinking about this?”

“Mucho seriously,” says Gig, nodding. “I would have told you sooner, but this other opportunity just came up and I have to act on it pronto or it won’t happen.”

“May I ask what the other opportunity is?” asks Beckman, feeling a little wobbly—he’s worked at Gig Music for nearly half his life.

“A big music store in Tacoma,” says Gig, rubbing his eyes. “Five times bigger than this place. Huge inventory. Not just guitars. Everything. Been there fifty years. Super duper web sales. ”

“The fast lane,” says Beckman, who prefers the pace in a guitar shop in Mountain Home. “How much are you asking for the business?”

“Quarter mil,” says Gig, nodding hopefully. “But if you can come up with two hundred thousand, it’s yours.”

“There’s only about fifty thousand dollars of inventory in the store,” says Beckman, frowning at Gig. “Are you selling the building, too?”

“Building, inventory, name, reputation, everything,” says Gig, scrunching up his cheeks to quell his tears. “Selling my house and my duplex, too. Carmelita wants to get out of here. Her sister lives in Tacoma. Things have not been good at home lately, just between you and me, and I’m trying to save my marriage and make some serious money for a change. I can’t lose her, Beckman. It would kill me if she left me. So if you can pay cash, I’ll go down to one-seventy-five, but that’s rock bottom.”

“Can I think about it for a few days?” asks Beckman, looking around the chaotic store and thinking the first thing I’d do if I owned this place is get rid of those two hideous old sofas and replace them with sturdy chairs and one small attractive sofa.

“Monday at the latest, mi amigo,” says Gig, smiling sadly at Beckman. “But mañana would be ideal.”

Riding his bicycle home after work, Beckman imagines various scenarios without Gig Music in his life, and he keeps seeing himself converting the garage into a suitable place for giving lessons, which vision morphs into enlarging the garage and creating a recording studio.

“Though I do like getting away from the house,” he says, turning onto the quiet street where he lives. “And I like buying and selling guitars. I really do.”

As he walks his bike up his driveway, Colossus and Eileen come to greet him, and as he puts his bicycle in the garage, he has a grandiose fantasy of buying Gig Music and converting the garage into a recording studio—the audacity of his imagination making him laugh.

Only when Beckman enters the kitchen and finds Alta and Jasmy cooking up a storm does he remembers that Portia and her daughter Cynthia will be arriving any minute now; and he gives silent thanks to Gig for offering to sell him Gig Music and thus quelling the worrisome thoughts that have besieged him ever since Jasmy told him that Portia and Cynthia were coming for supper.

Jasmy is wearing a beautiful dress Alta made for her, yellow cotton painted with big red roses; and Alta, who rarely wears anything other than trousers and a sweater over a shirt, is wearing a lovely blue dress she last wore when Beckman graduated from college seventeen years ago.

“Does this mean I am to wear a dress, too?” asks Beckman, arching an eyebrow.

Alta and Jasmy ignore his jest and Alta says, “Go take a shower. They’ll be here soon.”

“I’ve laid out some clothes for you,” says Jasmy, stirring the soup. “Your teal dress shirt and black corduroy pants and your purple leather belt. You don’t have to wear them, but I hope you will.”

“I will,” says Beckman, clearing his throat, “but I want to say two things to both of you before I bathe and embark on my dressing ceremony.”

“Yes?” says Jasmy, gazing expectantly at her father.

“We’re listening,” says Alta, pausing in the act of opening a bottle of wine.

“I would caution you to temper your expectations vis-à-vis Beckman and Portia becoming an item.” He pauses portentously. “After all, we only spoke to her for five minutes and…”

“Fifteen,” says Jasmy, quietly correcting him. “And?”

“You both look gorgeous,” says Beckman, deciding not to tell them about the Gig Music situation until Portia and Cynthia have come and gone. “And I love you.”

“That’s three things,” says Jasmy, her dimples eloquent.

After supper, Beckman and Jasmy and Alta and Portia and Cynthia retire to the living room, and before any of them sit down, the adorable nine-year-old Cynthia whispers something to Portia, and Portia, who did not wear a dress, but looks fabulous in black jeans and a burgundy tunic, smiles at everyone and says, “I told her about your music and she wants to know if you would play for us.”

“We thought you’d never ask,” says Beckman, taking his guitar from its stand by the piano. “Do you have a favorite song, Cynthia?”

“Thank you next,” she says, nodding hopefully.

“You’re welcome next,” says Beckman, winking at her.

“No, Sweet Papa,” says Jasmy, getting her violin out of its case. “That’s the name of a song. Just get a nice groove going with a couple closely related augmented seventh chords and I’ll play the melody. It’s five or six notes repeated over and over again. And that’s the song.”

“Ah,” says Beckman, sitting down on the one armless chair in the living room and playing a lush jazzy sounding chord. “Who wrote this song?”

“Ariana Grande,” says Cynthia, nodding. “She’s my favorite singer.”

“Do you like her, too?” asks Beckman, looking at Portia and wondering if she really likes him or just seems to like me because she’s so incredibly charming.

“She’s not my favorite,” says Portia, looking at Beckman in a way that means she really likes him. “But I’m forty, so I think maybe I’m a little too old for Ariana.”

Jasmy plays an E on the piano, and she and Beckman tune together.

“Mama loves The Beatles and jazz and Spanish music,” says Cynthia, sitting on the sofa beside Alta. “But I love Ariana.”

“Everyone likes different kinds of music,” says Alta, smiling at Cynthia. “I like The Beatles, too, but when I was young I was crazy about Charles Aznavour. Have you ever heard of him, Cynthia?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I mostly listen to Ariana, but I like Justin Bieber, too.”

Beckman plays the lush jazzy chord again and Jasmy says, “More minor and not so complex.”

Beckman obliges, Jasmy nods, Beckman finds a second chord kin to the first, and Jasmy says, “Now back and forth in a kind of Girl-From-Ipanema groove.”

He finds the groove and Jasmy plays the brief plaintive melody over and over again; and Cynthia gets up and does a little dance while whisper-singing the words of the song.

At high noon on a Thursday, seven days after Portia and Cynthia came for supper, Beckman is standing behind the counter at Gig Music stringing a guitar, the building and the business now belonging to him, the decrepit sofas gone, but nothing else yet changed.

The bell above the front door jingles and Beckman looks up, surprised to see Portia entering the store.

She crosses the room to him and smiles flirtatiously. “Did you forget we were going to lunch today?”

“I didn’t so much forget,” he says, gazing in wonder at her, “as cease to believe you would come.”

“Oh Julian,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I barely slept waiting for this moment.”

       fin

Tober’s Stones

Monday, December 17th, 2018

Tober's Stones

Tober Quincy is nine-years-old and quite tall for his age. Highly intelligent and intuitive and talkative, his dark brown hair has yet to be cut since he was born and nearly reaches his waist. Some mornings he captures his hair in a ponytail, and some mornings his mother braids his hair in a three-strand braid she ties at the end with a red shoelace.

Augie Quincy, Tober’s eight-year-old brother, is also very bright and intuitive and talkative, but not particularly tall for his age. Augie’s red hair has been cut many times since he was four, per his request, and much to his mother’s chagrin he insists on wearing baseball caps most of the time, his current favorite a neon-orange Houston Astros cap that really bugs her.

Sharon Quincy is Tober and Augie’s thirty-two-year-old mother. She is five-foot-three, weighs a hundred and five pounds, and is remarkably strong and agile for a person of any size. Blazingly smart with a wry sense of humor, Sharon speaks English with a strong New Jersey accent and is also fluent in French and Spanish, languages she learned from her fellow dancers when she was in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet Company from the age of fifteen until she was twenty. She has shoulder-length brown hair, dark blue eyes, a simply beautiful face, and at a distance is often taken for a teenager.

An excellent violinist and guitarist and a voracious reader, Sharon homeschools Tober and Augie on their remote farm three miles from the Pacific Ocean in the far north of California. Sharon and Tober and Augie grow nearly all the food they need in their quarter-acre vegetable garden and large greenhouse, and what food they don’t grow, they buy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna where Sharon works twenty hours a week as a checker.

Sharon has many friends, but she hasn’t been in a relationship since Tober and Augie’s father vamoosed when Tober was five-months-old and Augie was in utero.

Lance is Tober and Augie’s father. He told Sharon his last name was Vogelsang, but Sharon doubts this is true; and she wouldn’t be surprised if Lance is a pseudonym, too. Tober and Augie don’t know much about their father except the little Sharon has told them and what they deduce from photos he sends in a Christmas card every January along with a fifty-dollar bill, the amount unvarying since Lance made his getaway nine years ago.

The postmarks on the envelopes are usually from Arizona, the town name changing from year to year; and one year the card came from Bangor, Maine. Because Lance doesn’t write anything in the card or on the backs of the photos, Tober and Augie and Sharon have no idea where the photos were taken, though they guess Lance lives somewhere in Arizona.

Three photos came with last year’s Christmas card, and Tober and Augie have looked at these three images dozens of times in the eleven months since they arrived, not because they miss Lance—they don’t know him to miss him—but because they enjoy how the photos fuel their imaginings and supply details for the stories they make up about their father.

In the first of the photos in this most recent batch, Lance, a broad-shouldered man with muscular arms and a big paunch, is sitting sideways on the rump of a large brown horse standing in front of what looks like the wall of an old barn. Lance is shirtless, his blue jeans tattered, his feet bare. His head is shaved, he has a gold ring in his left nostril, and he has a tattoo of a cobra coiled around his left arm, the head of the cobra on the back of his hand. A tattoo of a Chinese dragon covers Lance’s right arm from his wrist to his shoulder, the dragon’s nose touching Lance’s collarbone; and a tattoo of the head of a roaring male lion covers Lance’s heart. Lance is smiling, but despite the smile, Tober and Augie agree he looks sad.

The second of these three recent photos shows Lance wearing a lime green tank top, blue plaid Bermuda shorts, and red flip-flops. He is standing on a scraggly lawn at dusk, holding a can of beer in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other as he gazes up at a cloudless sky, the camera’s flash reflecting off his shaved head.

In the third photo, Lance is wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie. His hair has started to grow back, revealing much of the top of his head is bald. He is standing beside a woman with unnaturally blonde hair wearing a scoop-necked yellow dress that shows off the tops of her breasts. She and Lance are smiling, but again, despite those smiles, Tober and Augie think Lance and the woman look sad.

Sharon makes a point of not speaking ill of Lance in front of the boys, though when Tober was six and Augie was five, and Sharon was feeling particularly upset about something, she referred to Lance as a charismatic jerk; and when the boys were eight and seven, while Sharon was talking on the phone to her mother in New Jersey and thought the boys were asleep, she characterized Lance as a narcissistic schmuck.

In both instances, Tober and Augie looked the words up in the dictionary, and the definitions they found for charismatic, jerk, narcissistic, and schmuck sparked long discussions with Sharon about who Lance was, why she partnered with him, how they ended up far from the nearest town at the end of a dirt road, why Lance went away, and why he never comes to visit.

Sharon decided to make a life with Lance and have children with him because she loved who she thought he was, only she didn’t know who he really was and didn’t love the person he turned out to be. But before she realized Lance was not who she thought he was, she was pregnant with Tober, and while pregnant, Lance convinced her to empty her savings and buy an old farmhouse on ten acres of land at the end of a dirt track known to locals as Snake Creek Road, and to firefighters and law enforcement officials as the nameless dirt road just past the three-mile marker on Highway 211.

When Lance, who claimed to be ten years older than Sharon, was wooing her in San Francisco, he boasted of a degree in Design from the University of Oregon and claimed to be a master organic gardener. He said he knew all about raising chickens and rabbits, could build virtually anything, and was an old hat at living off the grid with solar panels. He also claimed to be an expert woodsman and auto mechanic.

None of this turned out to be even remotely true.

By the time Lance left Sharon after two tumultuous years of involvement with her, she was well established on Snake Creek Road. She had a bountiful vegetable garden surrounded by a sturdy deer fence, a new roof on the old farmhouse, the old glass greenhouse was repaired and producing lettuce, kale, green onions, and chard year-round, she had thirty hens laying copious eggs to eat and trade, and she was the master of seven robust beehives. A large solar array was producing ample electricity to power her lights and freezer and refrigerator and the pump for her well; and she had a great store of firewood for her two super-efficient woodstoves.

Sharon accomplished all this and much more with the generous assistance of her knowledgeable neighbors and without a lick of help from Lance. There are twenty-two people in six households, counting Sharon and her boys, living on Snake Creek Road, and these hearty homesteaders know all about living off the grid far from the nearest town; and they were happy to help such a likeable and hardworking young woman with a delightful baby and another on the way.

For most of those two years that Lance figured so largely in Sharon’s life, he was not with her on Snake Creek Road. He said he was doing design work in Portland, and he would, every few weeks, return to the homestead and give Sharon some cash. On a few occasions, he gave her several hundred dollars, but usually he gave her a pittance, stayed for a few days, and then left again.

The day Lance departed for good, he waited for pregnant Sharon to drive off in her little pickup truck with baby Tober to go grocery shopping in Fortuna, and then he ransacked the house looking for cash and Sharon’s valuable musical instruments. However, he found no money or instruments because Sharon had anticipated his search for cash and valuables and had removed her money and instruments to a neighbor’s house the previous day while Lance was sleeping.

Fortunately, Lance was not a vindictive person, merely desperate, so he broke no windows and killed no chickens. Instead, he took most of the food in the refrigerator, several bottles of wine, a large ceramic salad bowl, a down comforter, and a lovely porcelain statuette of Kuan Yin.

Tober and Augie have only watched television twice in their lives, both times for just a few moments. The first time was two years ago in a house in Fortuna where they went with Sharon to procure a couple kittens. The middle-aged man and woman who lived in the house had large flat-screen televisions in nearly every room, and all the televisions were tuned to the same football game, so as Tober and Augie followed Sharon through the living room and family room and kitchen to reach the door that opened into the garage where the kittens were, they saw fragments of what to them was a fantastically colorful and otherworldly spectacle of dozens of armored men, some wearing red uniforms, some black, doing battle on a brilliant green lawn surrounded by thousands of cheering people wearing red sweatshirts.

The second time they saw television was just a few months ago in a Japanese restaurant in Eureka where they’d gone with the Bernstein’s, their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road. Sharon was in New Jersey visiting her parents, and Tober and Augie were staying with the Bernstein’s for the two weeks Sharon was gone. George and Lisa are the adult Bernsteins, Cecily, ten, and Felix, eight, their children.

Cecily is Tober’s best friend besides Augie, and Felix is Augie’s best friend besides Tober, and Cecily and Felix are being homeschooled and growing up without television, too. There are seven kids on Snake Creek Road being homeschooled, and George and Lisa and Sharon and four other adults on the road are the faculty.

The television in question was mounted on the wall above the sushi bar. On the large screen, a man with receding brown hair and a sunburned face was being interviewed about a movie he had made. The woman interviewing the man was small with short blonde hair and a voice that reminded Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix of the duck Camille who quacks long dissertations when the children come to feed her and the chickens.

When George and Lisa realized the kids were riveted by what was showing on the television, they changed tables so the kids could no longer see the screen.

Cecily summed up the children’s feelings about not getting to watch more of the show by saying, “We know television interferes with the proper development of our brains, but surely a tiny bit won’t hurt us.”

Hunting rabbits with their bows and arrows, fishing in the Eel River, and making blackberry sorbet from fresh-picked berries are near the top of Tober and Augie’s list of favorite activities, but going to the libraries in Fortuna and Eureka to check out books is at the very top of their list. And today they have come to the big library in Eureka with Sharon to return seventeen books and check out more.

While Augie scours the shelves for books about animals he and Tober haven’t read multiple times, Tober goes to use the bathroom, and on his way passes the open door of a conference room in which twenty people are listening to a handsome man with reddish brown hair speaking about Queen Elizabeth of England and the mysteries surrounding her life. The man, according to the name written on the blackboard, is Alex Redfield. He’s wearing a black jacket, a purple shirt, and black corduroy trousers; and he has an enchanting Scottish brogue that makes Tober grin.

Tober and Augie have learned a little about Queen Elizabeth, not the current queen of England but the long-ago queen of England, from Lisa Bernstein who co-teaches the homeschoolers History and Geography with Hank Carpenter who used to be a professor of History at Cal State Sacramento before fleeing academia to build a rammed-earth solar home on Snake Creek Road where he lives with his wife Ivy, an herbalist and astrologer.

Alex Redfield, however, is much more interesting to Tober than Lisa or Hank because he speaks so beautifully, almost as if he is singing his words in his deep Scottish-accented voice; and his sentences are the most beautiful sentences Tober has ever heard.

Tober stands in the doorway of the conference room for ten minutes, mesmerized by Alex, and when the presentation is over and the twenty people applaud, Tober writes Alex Redfield in his little notebook, goes to use the bathroom, and on his way back from the bathroom looks into the conference room and sees Alex is still there talking to a woman who attended the lecture. So Tober decides to ask Alex if he can recommend a book about the long-ago Queen Elizabeth suitable for a nine-year-old.

When the woman departs, Tober approaches Alex and says with his characteristic confidence, “Excuse me Mr. Redfield. I only heard the end of your speech about Queen Elizabeth, but you made me want to read a book about her. I’m nine, but according to the results of the last test we took to measure our reading and comprehension levels, I’m in Tenth Grade, though I’m not really in any grade because we’re being homeschooled and don’t have grades.”

Alex, who Tober guesses to be about the same age as George Bernstein who is forty-two, smiles at Tober and says, “Well, I suppose you could read my book about Elizabeth. There are a few racy passages, but nothing R-rated. The copy they have here is checked out to someone who attended my lecture today, but I know copies can be had on the Internet for mere pennies plus the shipping.”

“We don’t have a computer,” says Tober, handing his little notebook and pencil to Alex. “Would you please write the name of your book in my notebook and I’ll put my name on the waiting list here, and if the wait is much too long, I’ll ask my neighbor George to get a copy for me. He has a computer and buys lots of books that way.”

Alex takes the notebook from Tober, smiles at how neatly he printed ALEX REDFIELD in all caps, and says, “You know what? I’ll just give you my copy. How about that?”

“That would be wonderful,” says Tober, beaming at Alex. “I will trade you something for it. We have honey and eggs in the truck, and I have some beautiful stones I found at the beach two weeks ago at a minus tide. Do you like stones?”

“I do,” says Alex, enchanted with Tober. “Where are these stones you speak of?”

“Here,” says Tober, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a little pouch he made from the skin of a rabbit he killed with his bow and arrow. “Hold out your hands.”

Alex cups his hands together and Tober pours ten exquisite stones into Alex’s hands.

“They’re gorgeous,” says Alex, his eyes wide with delight. “Where is the beach where you found these stones?”

“Mouth of the Eel,” says Tober, picking out the red one that resembles carnelian. “North side. This is the one you want, isn’t it?”

“It is,” says Alex, nodding. “Though truth be told, I want them all. But you should certainly get more than one measly book for these.”

“I’m sure your book is not measly,” says Tober, gazing sternly at Alex. “I’m sure it’s very good. And you can have all these stones, and the pouch, too, and owe me two books. How about that?”

“Agreed,” says Alex, nodding graciously. “And how will I get those two books to you?”

“We have a post office box in Fortuna,” says Tober, putting the stones back into the rabbit-skin pouch. “ Box 347. My name is Tober Quincy. Tober is short for October, but everyone calls me Tober except my brother and mother who call me Tobe. Would you please sign your book for me?”

“I will,” says Alex, taking the pouch of stones from Tober.

At which moment, Sharon and Augie come into the room, and Sharon says, “Ah here you are, Tobe. Sorry to drag you away, but I’ve got to be at work in forty minutes.” She smiles at Alex. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“No problem,” he says, returning her smile. “We’re just exchanging addresses to facilitate our future correspondence.”

Dear Alex Redfield,

My name is Tober Quincy. We met at the Eureka library three weeks ago and you traded me your book Queen Elizabeth I: A Brief Introduction To A Most Complicated Life for ten stones and you owe me two more books. I have finally finished reading your book with the help of my mother and Hank Carpenter who was a history professor. I love your book even though some parts are confusing for me because I don’t know enough about the history of England. I love how you write sentences and I want to learn to write sentences the way you do.

The most interesting part for me is about who Elizabeth’s father was if he wasn’t Henry the VIII. You thought her father might be Mark Smeaton who was a musician who was friends with Elizabeth’s mother, and if Elizabeth looked like him that seems like a good clue. Probably because I’m only nine, I don’t understand why people wanted to kill Elizabeth when she was just a girl and not doing anything wrong and why Henry the VIII cut off Elizabeth’s mother’s head and Mark Smeaton’s head, too. Henry the VIII sounds like a very sad person with a terrible temper.

Hank tried to explain to me and my brother Augie, short for August, why people were so violent in those days and why everyone kept killing other people, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t agree on things without killing each other all the time. The book made me like Elizabeth, but she must have been afraid all the time about people trying to kill her and attack England.

Even Elizabeth who was very smart and spoke so many languages killed people when she didn’t like them. This is very primitive and not a good way to do things, but Hank says England in the olden days was very violent and history is complicated.

We are having a potluck party at our house for everyone on the road and other people, too, starting at noon on the seventh day of Hanukkah. Would you like to come? It would be great if you could come. If you want to come, call my mother Sharon Quincy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna and she will give you directions. I hope you can come.

Thanks again for your wonderful book.

Your Friend,

Tober Quincy

At 11:30 in the morning on the seventh day of Hanukkah, the day sunny and clear and very cold, Tober and Augie and their two big mutts Bozo and Nina arrive at the unmarked junction of Snake Creek Road and Highway 211 to await the arrival of Alex Redfield. Sharon told Alex to be on the lookout for the boys and Augie’s neon-orange baseball cap, and though Alex said he would aim to arrive at noon, Tober and Augie wanted to be at the junction a half-hour early to make absolutely sure Alex doesn’t miss the turn.

To pass the time, they play Frisbee for a while, both boys expert at flinging the disc, and when they tire of Frisbee, they sit side-by-side on a gray boulder and take turns reading aloud from a book about pumas the Bernsteins gave them for Hanukkah Christmas Solstice; and in the middle of a fascinating passage describing how pumas hunt by surprising their victims rather than chasing them, Alex arrives in an old forest green Volvo station wagon.

He makes the turn, comes to a stop, and rolls down his window. “Hello Tober. Hello Augie,” he says, grinning at the boys. “Thanks for coming to guide me. Jump in. I’ll drive you up to the house.”

“The dogs won’t get in your car,” says Augie, shaking his head. “And we can’t be sure they’ll follow us home and we can’t leave them here.”

“You go ahead,” says Tober, pointing up the road. “We’ll run after you. It’s one-point-four miles to our house at the very end of the road. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

By the time Tober and Augie get to the house, Alex is inside being introduced to everyone by Sharon; and Augie and Tober agree, without saying anything aloud to each other, that they will probably have to be quite aggressive about prying Alex away from the adults if they want to show him all the things they intend to show him.

However, this turns out not to be the case because after an hour of chatting with people and sampling scrumptious hors d’oeuvres, Alex finds Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix in the kitchen cutting up apples for the two big pans of apple crisp Sharon is making to go with homemade ice cream, and Alex asks the children if they’d like to give him a tour of the house and the farm.

“We’re eating in an hour,” says Sharon, making eye contact with each of the children, “so don’t take him too faraway, please.” Now she looks at Alex. “Have you got a watch?”

“I do,” he says, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a beautiful silver pocket watch. “I shall sound the alarm in forty-five minutes, if necessary.”

“Good man,” says Sharon, mimicking his Scottish accent. “And good luck to you.”

The tour takes the children and Alex around the house and up the hill to the grand old oak where Tober and Augie and Abe Peoples, an excellent carpenter who lives on the road, built a tree house with three walls on a sturdy platform about fifteen feet off the ground. After climbing the rope ladder to the platform and exclaiming about the spectacular view, Alex climbs down the rope ladder and follows the kids from the grand old oak to an outcropping of red rock the children call Lizard Point, and from Lizard Point they follow a slender trail down a steep hill through a copse of pines to the Bernstein’s house, a two-story beauty made of oak and river rock.

In the Bernstein’s house, after introducing Alex to their three cats, Cecily performs part of a Bach partita on the grand piano, Felix holds forth on the contents of two of the eleven cigar boxes comprising his insect collection, and they show Alex the large woodshop where George makes exquisite furniture sold in art galleries.

From the Bernstein’s house, the quintet climbs back up the hill to the Quincy place where Alex is shown the verdant young cover crops in the vegetable garden before being led to the chicken coop wherein forty hens are roosting and where Alex is encouraged to gather eggs to take home with him. And for the final outdoor part of the tour, Tober and Augie each demonstrate their considerable skill with an axe in the splitting of rounds and the creation of kindling.

Returning to the farmhouse, the boys show Alex their bedroom, their collection of animal skulls and feathers, their hundreds of books, and their guitars and violins, which they play a little to prove they are both quite good musicians.

They leave Alex alone while he uses the bathroom, and after giving him a peek into their mother’s bedroom, they lead him to the dining room just as the midday meal is about to be served.

A half-hour before dusk, Alex says his goodbyes to everyone, and Tober and Augie accompany him to his car.

“I had a wonderful time with you today,” says Alex, opening the car door. “And I brought you two books, Tober, to complete our trade. One is a book of stories I read countless times when I was your age. Tales of a Knight Errant. And the other is Island Reveries, essays by a very good writer about the islands and birds off the west coast of Scotland where I spent many a happy summer. I think you and Augie will both love these books.”

“I know we will,” says Tober, taking the books from Alex. “And…” He wants to say more, but words won’t come out.

“And what?” asks Alex, smiling warmly at Tober.

“Will you come visit us again?” asks Augie, nodding hopefully.

“I will,” says Alex, giving each of the boys a gentle hug. “I’ve been at the university in Arcata for a year now, and I was despairing of ever making any good friends, and now I’ve met you and your mother and your wonderful neighbors, and they’ve all asked me to come again, so I will.”

“When?” asks Tober, cradling the precious books.

“When would you like me to come again?” asks Alex, touched by Tober’s interest in him.

“Tomorrow,” says Tober, nodding assuredly. “It’s not supposed to rain and there’s a negative tide at eleven in the morning, and we could go to the beach on the north side of the mouth of the Eel and have a picnic. I know we’ll find some good stones. I’m sure we will.”

“Come for breakfast,” says Augie, taking Alex’s hand. “We’ll make pancakes and then we’ll go to the beach.”

“Don’t you think we should see if this fits into your mother’s plans for tomorrow?” asks Alex, looking toward the house where Sharon is coming out the door to see what’s keeping her boys.

“Hey Mom,” says Tober, calling to Sharon. “Can Alex come for breakfast tomorrow and then we’ll go to the beach for low tide and hunt for stones?”

“Fine with me,” she says softly. “If that’s something he’d like to do.”

“I’d love to,” says Alex, letting go of Augie’s hand. “And now I must be on my way before it gets too dark. Long drive home and I’m not a great driver in America. Everything about driving here is the opposite of England, and I’m especially not a good American driver in the dark.”

“Spend the night,” says Sharon, matter-of-factly. “If you don’t mind sleeping on the sofa.”

“It’s a very comfortable sofa,” says Tober, nodding emphatically. “I can barely sit on that sofa and not fall asleep.”

“Me, too,” says Augie, nodding in solidarity with his brother.

“Well then that’s decided,” says Alex, walking with the boys back to the house. “And lucky me, the party’s still going.”

        fin

Karen at the Bookstore

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

titles

Karen Constantine is fifty-four and has worked at Studio Books for eighteen years. Studio Books is the only bookstore in the coastal town of Deep River, California, a five-hour drive north of San Francisco. Of the two thousand people who call Deep River home, at least five hundred of them know Karen as the Karen at the bookstore.

A week ago, when Karen was more than a little drunk at the bar in the Deep River Hotel, she declared to her good buddies Richard and Kathy, “And I’m speaking from forty-two years of life experience.”

To which Liza the bartender said, “I think you mean fifty-four.”

“Shit,” said Karen, closing her eyes. “Yeah. Fifty-four.”

Ever since then, Karen has been thinking about how she thought she was forty-two and not fifty-four. This age-perception gap would have been no big deal had she said fifty-three, or even fifty, but to be operating with the self-idea that she is forty-two when she is fifty-four seems to Karen to be worthy of a serious investigation; and to that end she has made an appointment with her psychotherapist who she hasn’t seen in a professional capacity in eons.

But that appointment isn’t for another three weeks, and in the meantime Karen has her life to live and a job to go to and copious time to ponder the how and why of that twelve-year oops.

Most people who meet Karen for the first time guess she is in her forties. She has a lovely figure, a mostly wrinkle-free face, and shoulder-length dark brown hair without a trace of gray. She is comfortable in her body, goes to a ninety-minute yoga class every other day, runs two miles on the beach every morning before coming to work, and she has a radiant smile.

When Karen smiles, she is a most attractive human being, and Karen smiles many times every day because so many things make her smile: babies, kids, teenagers, adults, dogs, cats, birds, ocean, clouds, music, laughter, book titles, overheard conversations, and so much more. She finds life amusing and tragic and pointless and deeply meaningful and heartbreaking and complicated and absurd and delightful and confusing.

She was in two long-term relationships for swaths of her twenties and thirties, several short-term relationships when she was in her forties, and none in her fifties. Until she turned forty, she assumed she would have two children and be part of a family constellation. Now she is fifty-four, single, has no children, has never been married, and is part of a constellation composed of herself and her three cats: Ursula, Jeeves, and Kipling.

Studio Books is not a large store and shelf space is precious. Half the store is given to calendars, notebooks, notecards, pens, jigsaw puzzles, and a growing number of gift items, including candles, incense, earrings, and T-shirts featuring clever slogans; and half the store is given to books, most of those children’s books, works of non-fiction, and murder mysteries.

Karen and the seven other full and part-time employees who take turns manning the store from nine in the morning until nine at night, seven days a week, are painfully aware of the irony of Studio Books being called an independent bookstore, yet only allotting shelf-space for the most popular mainstream titles. There is one little shelf at the back of the store on which self-published books by local authors can be found, but few customers ever venture to that far-flung corner of the store, and fewer still get down on their knees to peruse those dusty tomes.

This was not the way of things at Studio Books forty years ago when the Internet and e-books and Amazon were still the stuff of Science Fiction. The original owner, Caleb Browner, an idealistic socialist, carried only books, many classics, and many by little known authors and poets. For seventeen tumultuous years, Caleb somehow made ends meet, during which time the Internet was born and spawned Amazon, after which Studio Books became a reliquary and Caleb went broke. Fortunately he found a buyer for his business and was able to pay off his debts and escape with a few hundred dollars.

The second owner, Mimi Weintraub, was an extremely wealthy woman from San Francisco who thought selling big glossy coffee table books and coffee tables and reading lamps was the way to go with Studio Books. After five years of losing gobs of money, Mimi sold the bookstore to the current owner Ginny Carpenter, who got rid of the coffee tables and reading lamps and big glossy books, stocked the shelves in imitation of a successful bookstore in Santa Rosa, and then began transforming Studio Books into the bestseller depot and gift shop it is today.

Even so, for locals who still revere three-dimensional books, Studio Books is an important part of the cultural fabric of Deep River, though few of those reverent people buy books there anymore because they can get used copies of the same bestsellers off the Internet for a few dollars or download e-copies onto their pads and not have to schlep cumbersome volumes around and then find places to store the unwieldy things.

And for eighteen years from her place behind the counter at Studio Books, Karen has presided over this local version of the sea change in the world of books, an experience that has profoundly saddened her.

On a glorious Tuesday in February, the sun shining brightly on Deep River, Karen is manning the counter in Studio Books and gazing out the front windows at Deep River Bay sparkling in the near distance. She works six days a week at the bookstore, two eight-hour shifts and four six-hour shifts, Tuesdays and Thursdays her long days, all her shifts ending at five.

A man approaches the counter and says cheerfully, “Good morning. Do you sell tide charts?”

“We do,” says Karen, turning to him and liking what she sees—fortyish, graying brown hair, blue eyes, relaxed, appealing. “Look two feet to your left.”

“Ah,” he says, smiling as he takes one of the little booklets from the metal carousel featuring postcards and key chains and small blank notebooks. “Great.”

He hands the tide chart to Karen and she rings up the sale. “That will be two dollars and twenty-five cents. Would you like a bag?”

“No, thank you,” he says, handing her three ones. “But I’d love to take you out for coffee some time.”

She holds up her left hand to display the gold band she wears on her wedding finger to dissuade men from making such overtures.

“I will take that to mean you are married.” The man shrugs pleasantly. “I assumed so, but I know single women who wear rings on that finger, so I thought…”

“You assumed correctly,” she says, handing him three quarters, the tide chart, and a receipt.

“Thank you,” he says, nodding graciously and departing.

She watches him walk out the door into the sunny day and she realizes he is the first man in several years to woo her in that way in the bookstore. Men frequently offer to buy her drinks when she’s in the hotel bar where she goes every day after work for a drink or two, and where she returns after supper a few nights a week to hang out with friends, but this was her first such bookstore encounter since…

“Karen,” says Bernard, the portly bookstore manager emerging from the Religion, Spirituality, Poetry, Humor, Crossword Puzzles, Gardening and Economics section. “Would you finish re-stocking the fiction, please? I’ll run the register.”

Karen nods and vacates her place at the counter, wishing Bernard’s recent promotion to manager hadn’t resulted in the loss of his sense of humor. He used to be so wonderfully droll. Now he’s a prissy snob.

Only a few people are in the store, which makes this the perfect time to replenish the shelves, though Karen no longer enjoys what was once a favorite part of her job. Gone are the days of filling the shelves with books she loves. Now the few remaining shelves of so-called literary fiction are fast being taken over by excess from the ever-growing Murder Mystery section, along with crappy suspense thrillers and historical bodice rippers no one considered literature until the sea change began.

Karen looks into the box of books destined for the shelves and sees they are all murder mysteries, and she balks at reaching into the box.

“Excuse me?” says the man who bought the tide chart. “I’m looking for anything by Russell Hoban.” The man is standing ten feet away from Karen, politely keeping his distance. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m not quite sure how the bookstore is laid out.”

Karen fixes him with a steely gaze. “We don’t have any Hoban. We can order any book you want, but Hoban could take weeks to get here. If I remember correctly, most of his titles are out-of-print. There is a used bookstore at the east end of town. You might try them.”

“I did,” says the man, nodding, “but the fellow there said Hoban doesn’t move fast enough so he won’t take his books when people bring them in. How about William Trevor?”

Karen shakes her head. “What we have in the way of fiction is what you see on these four shelves. Alphabetical. No Trevor, no Hoban, no Wharton, no Singer, no Hemmingway, no Welty, no Faulkner, no Greenstreet, no Steinbeck, no Nabokov. We have the top ten current bestsellers, lots of Stephen King and John Grisham and murder mysteries and, of course, Harry Potter wizard books and Anne Rice mummy and vampire books.”

“I’m sorry,” says the man, nodding sympathetically. “I would order some books from you, but I’m just here for a few days and…”

“Would you please stop bothering me?” says Karen, losing her temper. “I don’t want to have coffee with you or hear about your life. I’m trying to get some work done.”

The man backs away and disappears, and as he disappears, Karen closes her eyes and prays he won’t complain to Bernard, who in his new capacity as prissy store manager might feel the need to report the incident to the owner.

At 5:03, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel, five doors down from Studio Books, and makes a beeline to the bar where Liza the bartender pours a shot of whiskey that Karen downs in a single gulp before she settles onto a bar stool and says, “Scotch on the rocks, please. I’m a mess.”

“Not you,” says Liza, in a sweetly sarcastic way.

“Terrible rotten horrible day,” says Karen, handing her purse to Liza. “I’ll be right back. Haven’t gone to the bathroom since lunch.”

On her way through the Fireside Lounge to the Ladies Room, Karen sees the man she was so rude to in the bookstore. He is sitting alone at a window table, sipping a half-pint of beer and reading an actual book.

In the white-tile bathroom, Karen studies herself in the mirror, likes how she looks in her long black skirt and billowy white blouse, and decides that after she has her drink, she will apologize to the man.

Back at the bar, she takes her time with the cold scotch and asks Liza what she thinks of the man in the Fireside Lounge sipping beer and reading an actual book, and Liza, who is tall and lanky with long black hair in a bun says, “If I were not moderately happy in my marriage, I would be all over that guy. He’s charming and he has beautiful eyes and he’s gracious, which is so rare anymore I wanted to kiss him when he ordered his beer, and then he tipped me more than the beer cost and I wanted to have sex with him.”

“I was a total bitch to him in the bookstore today,” says Karen, sighing. “I’m gonna go apologize.”

She saunters into the Fireside Lounge and smiles radiantly at the man reading an actual book. “I came to say I’m sorry for how I spoke to you in the bookstore today. Totally uncalled for. Please forgive me.”

“No need to apologize,” he says, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have bothered you a second time. You were right to rebuke me. Can’t be easy having men constantly… well… no hard feelings.”

“Okay,” says Karen, hoping he’ll ask her to join him, though she senses he won’t because he’s a decent person who believed her when she said she was married, so…

Home to her cottage a mile inland on the edge of a vast forest, Karen feeds her cats Ursula, Kipling, and Jeeves, gets a fire going in the woodstove, heats up a can of minestrone soup, and sprawls on the sofa watching Mostly Martha on her laptop until she falls asleep and wakes two hours later with a painful crick in her neck.

Getting ready for bed, Karen thinks about the man she was rude to and how kind he was in accepting her apology; and feeling lonely, she calls her friend Kathy, who is sixty-seven, single, a retired social worker, and sings with Karen in the choir at the Presbyterian.

“Hello?” says Kathy, who doesn’t have the kind of phone that tells her who’s calling.

“Hi,” says Karen, relieved to hear Kathy’s voice. “I’m not calling too late, am I?”

“No, no,” says Kathy, music blaring in the background. “Let me turn my radio down. Great jazz tonight.”

Kathy goes to turn the music down and Karen sighs, wishing she could be with Kathy in-person.

“Here I am,” says Kathy, warmly. “What’s going on?”

“Oh I’m just mad at myself. I just… I hate working at the bookstore now, and I stupidly took it out on a customer today, and I feel just… I don’t know… hopeless.”

“You know what it always is?” says Kathy, sounding as if she’s just realized what she’s about to say.

“What?” asks Karen, who was hoping for sympathy and not some theory about the universal cause of emotional distress.

“It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. You know what I mean? The narratives we use to define ourselves. And we can change them. I don’t have to keep telling the story about me being too old to learn to play the guitar. I can change the story to one about me learning to play well enough to go to open mike at the Silver Spur and sing a slow version of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face,’ and the crowd goes wild.”

“I want to be there,” says Karen, excitedly. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“See?” says Kathy, laughing. “Change one story and all the nearby stories change, too.”

The next morning at ten, Karen goes running on Deep River Beach, the tide way out, the beach enormous and void of people save for someone far in the distance who appears to be dancing in the shallows.

Feeling mighty blue as she begins her run, she is nevertheless hopeful the two-mile jog on the glorious beach will lift her spirits and give her the pizzazz to put in another six hours at the bookstore.

The beach and forest and quiet and beauty are what I’ll miss most if I sell my place and move to Portland and get a job in a real bookstore. And my friends. I’ll miss my friends. And my house. And my land. But I won’t miss working at Studio Books and pretending I work in a real bookstore.

Who should the lone person far down the beach be but the man she was rude to yesterday in the bookstore. And the man is dancing, because what he’s doing is standing at the water’s edge, flinging a white Frisbee high and far out over the incoming waves to a place in the air where the spinning disk meets the offshore breeze and is propelled back to the man as if he is a powerful Frisbee magnet.

Karen stops a hundred feet from the man and watches him fling the disk out over the incoming waves again and again, his mastery breathtaking. And the way he dances on the balls of his feet, moving forward and back and side-to-side to catch the returning disk, is so pleasing to her, she breaks into applause.

He glances at her, makes an instantaneous calculation, and flings the disk out over the waves once more; only this time the Frisbee does not come back to him, but flies to Karen and stalls just a few feet in front of her about six feet off the ground, so all she has to do is reach out and pluck the thing from the air.

They meet for lunch at the Deep River Deli. The man’s name is Allen Brodeur. He is an English professor at Merritt College in Oakland and lives in an apartment in Berkeley with his cats Chucho and Esme. Allen and Karen sit across from each other at one of the four small tables in the warm and noisy deli, Karen having a hot pastrami sandwich and root beer, Allen an open-faced turkey and avocado on rye with melted Swiss, his drink ginger ale.

Karen changes her guess about his age to early fifties, but she doesn’t broach the subject of their ages, nor does he. They like each other immediately and immensely, and they make each other laugh, so much so that at one point they cannot stop laughing and Allen has to go outside an walk around to quell his mirth.

They trade bites of their sandwiches. They discover they both love the music of Samuel Barber, Mendelssohn, and Michel Petrucciani. Allen tells of recently reading all two thousand pages of the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant for the second time in his life and being astounded over and over again by Maupassant’s genius. Karen says she is currently hooked on V.S. Pritchett and A.S. Byatt, but woke this morning thinking she’d like to read Steinbeck again after a twenty-year hiatus.

As they walk back to the bookstore, Allen invites Karen out to dinner tonight and she says, “How about I make us dinner at my place and you can meet my cats.”

Allen arrives at Karen’s cottage at dusk, and before complete darkness falls, Karen gives him a quick tour of her two-acre property on Everson Lane where a dozen other houses on multi-acre parcels enjoy the many blessings of being surrounded by thousands of acres of forest.

Along with her three-room cottage, Karen has a pump house for her well, a five-thousand-gallon water tank, a large woodshed, a deer-fenced vegetable garden, and a small studio, electrified but not plumbed, where long ago Karen made collages and paintings, and now uses for a guest room.

Ursula, Jeeves, and especially Kipling are enamored of Allen and take turns sitting on his lap whenever he alights anywhere for more than a moment. Karen opens a bottle of red wine for both cooking and drinking, and while listening to Barber’s Adagio For Strings they create a fabulous tomato, mushroom, green pepper, and zucchini spaghetti sauce, perfectly cooked noodles, and a scrumptious green salad—the experience of cooking together a mutual thrill.

They are in love with each other in the way of smitten strangers who have yet to discover anything about the other they might not love; and Karen imagines they will make love after they finish supper and drink more wine and talk by the fire.

But that doesn’t happen because Karen gets very drunk and several times can’t remember why she’s telling Allen whatever she’s telling him, and this is something Allen does not love, though he doesn’t say so and only becomes wary and less forthcoming.

And though they part ways with a gentle hug and agree to meet on the beach tomorrow morning at eight, Karen doesn’t think Allen will want to pursue a relationship with her because of how loud and strident she got after her fifth glass of wine.

Furious with herself for opening that second bottle of wine, she smokes some pot to calm down, not her usual hit or two, but an entire joint, and she gets so stoned the room starts to spin and she thinks she might be having a heart attack and she very nearly calls 9-1-1 to summon an ambulance, but instead she crawls into bed and rides out the frightening high until finally, blessedly, she falls asleep at two in the morning.

  ∆

She sleeps a sodden dreamless sleep for eight hours until her ringing phone awakens her and Bernard from the bookstore says, “Wherefore art thou Karen? You are now an hour late, which I believe is your new personal best. Or worst.”

“Oh, hey Bernard,” she says, her voice raspy. “Thanks for calling. I’m… I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice full of kindness. “You sound all stuffed up.”

“Oh I’m just…” She clears her throat. “Hey, is your sense of humor coming back? I thought I detected a comic tone in your passing reference to Romeo and Juliet? Or was that just hopeful thinking on my part?”

“No, it started coming back this morning,” says Bernard, chuckling. “I’ve been taking myself much too seriously lately. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course,” she says, getting out of bed. “Twenty minutes. Thanks Bernard.”

She feeds her cats, and as the dried food drums into the three little bowls, she thinks of Allen waiting for her at the beach this morning, and she feels certain that whatever shred of hope there was of embarking on a relationship with him is gone now; and she feels strangely relieved, for she is so habituated to aloneness now, she no longer knows how to share her life in an intimate way with anyone other than her cats.

Karen takes her lunch break at two and meets her friend Richard at the picnic tables on the headlands across the street from Studio Books, Richard providing their meal of pumpkin muffins from the Happy Time Bakery, goat cheese, apples, and a thermos of black tea.

Richard is seventy-four and chubby, a wearer of suits and ties at night, sweatpants and sweatshirts during the day, his longish gray hair tied back in a stubby ponytail. British and gay, Richard was an actor for forty years in Milwaukee and Phoenix before moving to California after he retired from the theatre. He still occasionally takes a small part in a play at DRTC (Deep River Theatre Company) but he finds acting tiresome now and prefers spending his time reading and walking and visiting with friends.

Sitting side by side at their picnic table overlooking Deep River Bay, Karen tells Richard about her time with Allen yesterday and the sad denouement of their date and the terrifying aftermath, and how she thinks the reason she wrecked things with Allen is because she’s afraid to be in a relationship—doesn’t know how to be in one.

Richard sips his tea and says, “I know I’ve told you this story before, or at least I think I have, but I like telling it, and it seems appropriate under the circumstances, so I’ll tell it again.” He clears his throat. “When I was forty-three and despairing of ever finding someone to love for more than a night or two, I kept running into this dreadful man at parties and bars, never just the two of us, always in groups with other men or theatre people. His name was Philip. He was brash and opinionated and full of himself. He was very attractive, big and strong with a fabulous mane of black hair, but I found him unbearable because every time I tried to say anything, and I mean every time, he would interrupt me, contradict me, and never let me get a word in edgewise. Never. And then one day he showed up at the theatre, this was in Milwaukee, as the new assistant to our set designer, and I thought, ‘Oh great. Just what I needed. This guy.’”

Richard pours more tea into Karen’s mug. She nods her thanks and wonders what this story has to do with her failure with Allen.

“So,” says Richard, continuing, “I avoided the man like the plague. If I went into a bar and he was there, I left. If I went to a party and he was there, I stayed far away from him. And at the theatre, I studiously ignored him. We were doing Ah, Wilderness by Eugene O’Neill. I played the part of Nat and was brilliant, and I’m not alone in that assessment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called my performance revelatory. Anyway, it’s a big cast and a very funny play and it was one of our great successes, and when the run was over, Philip asked me to go to lunch with him. And though nothing had happened to change my opinion of the man, I thought for the sake of peace and harmony in the company I would suffer his windy oratory for an hour or two and be done with it.”

“So what happened?” asks Karen, never having heard this story before.

“We went to a very nice restaurant,” says Richard, a dreamy look in his eyes. “And after we placed our orders, he looked at me and said, ‘But enough about me. Tell me everything about you.’ And so I did. And a month later, we got a place together and stayed together for twelve of the happiest years of my life.” He smiles wistfully at Karen. “We eventually went our separate ways, but oh what wonderful years I had with Philip, and how badly I misjudged him in the beginning.”

At five o’clock, Karen is chatting with Tom who is just starting his evening shift at the bookstore, when Allen comes in from the fog and waits for Karen to acknowledge him.

She grabs her purse, says goodnight to Tom, approaches Allen and says, “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the beach this morning. I couldn’t sleep after you left and I stayed up until two and slept until ten, and by then I figured you wouldn’t want to see me again anyway.”

Allen considers this and says, “You want to talk or shall I skidaddle?”

“Well…” she says, smiling shyly, “since you used the magic word skidaddle, I want to talk to you.”

“The Fireside Lounge at the hotel?” he asks, nodding.

“No,” she says shaking her head. “There’s a nice place around the corner. Xenon. You hungry? I’m starved.”

“Yeah. Bowl of soup sounds good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” she says, smiling bravely to quell her tears.

“So I’d like to give you a little background information about me,” says Allen, their soup dispensed with, pie and coffee coming. “To help you understand what happened for me last night.” He has a drink of water. “My parents were alcoholics, my two siblings became alcoholics, I did not, and I was married for twelve years to an alcoholic. In fact, all my relationships and friendships were with alcoholics or addicts of one kind or another until I was forty-seven and had two years of life-changing psychotherapy.”

“How old are you, Allen?” asks Karen, smiling as the waitress brings their coffee and dessert.

“I’m sixty-three,” he says, gazing at her.

“You can’t be,” she says, shaking her head. “You mean fifty-three.”

“No,” he says, laughing. “Sixty-three.”

“Wow,” she says, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. “You seem so much younger. Must be all that dancing on the beach with your Frisbee.”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But however old I am, my wife and my other partners before her all needed to be drunk in order to be tender or sexual or emotionally open, and then inevitably they would become mean or depressed, as most drunks will, and so until I understood that I was a classic enabler of addicts, and understood that I chose to be with them because they were versions of my parents, and until I was able to stop choosing them, I was stuck in a hell where I could only have sex with drunks, and not being drunk myself, the sex was not only awful but the opposite of what I wanted, which was to connect deeply with other people.”

“So I triggered those bad memories for you,” says Karen, aching with shame. “I’m so sorry, Allen.”

“But wait,” he says urgently. “It was only at the end of our time together those buttons got pushed in me. Before then…” He looks at her, longing for her to know how much he likes her. “Before then, I haven’t connected with anyone as well as I connected with you… ever. It was a miracle being with you until…”

“I drank too much,” she says, looking down so he won’t see her tears.

“For me,” he says, nodding. “You drank too much for me. Not for somebody else, I’m sure. My God, Karen, you’re lovely and funny and brilliant and great and… I just can’t ever go there again. Even with you.”

“What if I changed?” she says, looking up at him. “What if I stopped drinking?”

“But it isn’t the drinking,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s the great red herring. It’s what you communicate to me when I’m so willing to meet you on a deeper level. You’re telling me I’m not acceptable to you unless you’re drunk. You see what I mean? It wasn’t the wine. It’s how you closed off to me when I wanted so much for us to be open to each other.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she says quietly. “I needed to hear that. And now I’d like to tell you what happened for me.”

“Please,” he says quietly.

“I haven’t connected with anyone, man or woman, as completely and wonderfully as I connected with you since… Second Grade when Donny Dorsett and I would go everywhere together, holding hands and marveling at everything. But my experience since then, for the rest of my fifty-four years, has been otherwise.”

She stops speaking and waits for Allen to react to the number of her years, and he says, “I guessed you were forty-nine, but I love that you’re fifty-four.”

“I’m glad you do,” she says, blushing. “But anyway… my father was a heavy drinker and my mother was not, and the relationship they modeled for me and my sister was where one of the partners needs to be drunk in order to be affectionate, and the other partner longs for the affection but hates being with a drunk. An unsolvable conundrum short of divorce, which they did a few years after my sister and I finished college. But long before their marriage ended, I reacted to how they were with each other by identifying with my mother and never drinking or smoking pot in high school. And I thought I never would until I went to college and I was the only person I knew who didn’t drink or take drugs. And just like my mother, I longed for physical affection and love, so I drank a little, but I didn’t like it. What I liked was pot. Made all my self-doubts go away, and I would get very stoned and have sex with men I barely knew, so I came to associate sex with being high. In fact, I never had sex unless I was high until I was in my thirties and got involved with a man who wanted sex all the time and didn’t care if we were high or not. Problem was, sex with him was gross, quick and uncaring, so I saw no advantage to sex without being stoned.” She smiles in embarrassment. “Too much information?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head.

“Then when I was in my late thirties,” she says, having a sip of her coffee, “I started worrying about running out of time to have children, and I chose to be with men I didn’t really like, but they had good jobs and said they wanted kids, and the only way I could bring myself to sleep with them was to be drunk because getting stoned didn’t do the trick anymore. And that’s where I got stuck, which coincided with my work becoming more and more depressing, so I started having a drink or two after work to relieve the tension of working in a bookstore where you, Allen, couldn’t find a single writer you love.”

They share a bit of silence and Karen says, “I guess I stopped thinking I would ever find a partner, and I’ve grown accustomed to being stuck where I am, a person at a dead end who needs to change or die. And since I don’t want to die yet, and I don’t want to be a bitter old woman, I’m going to quit the bookstore and get a job as a waitress serving good food, and I’m not going to drink so much anymore. I won’t say I’ll stop drinking, but I won’t drink so much, and I won’t get drunk to make love, if I ever make love again.”

Three months later, after a busy Friday night serving customers at Xenon, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel and joins her pals Kathy and Richard at the bar, has a sip of Kathy’s vodka tonic, and orders a ginger ale.

“You lush, you,” says Liza, giving Karen a loving wink as she pours ginger ale into a big glass full of ice cubes.

“I’m cutting back because of you,” says Richard, kissing the air in Karen’s direction. “Only one daiquiri tonight instead of my usual two.” He wrinkles his nose. “Or was it three? How quickly we forget.”

“I’m not so much cutting back,” says Kathy, arching an eyebrow, “as drinking slower.”

Kathy and Richard and Liza all want to hear about Karen’s recent weekend in Berkeley where she stayed with Allen at his place for the first time, and they all want to know if she and Allen finally slept together.

Karen takes a long drink of her ginger ale and smiles radiantly. “We did. And it was good. And in two weeks his school year ends and he’s coming to stay with me for most of the summer.”

“Hallelujah,” says Richard, raising his strawberry daiquiri high. “To love triumphant.”

“To love triumphant,” say Kathy and Liza, Kathy raising her vodka tonic, Liza a glass of water.

“To loving friends,” says Karen, clinking their glasses with hers. “Without whom we could not survive.”

fin

Wade Rises From the Sofa

Monday, October 29th, 2018

fract01

Wade stops walking, looks around the neighborhood he’s lived in for forty-five years, and says, “What am I doing?”

A few minutes ago, he was sitting on the sofa in his living room staring at the big-screen television when his wife Mimi came home from the supermarket and growled, “Oh shit. I forgot the fucking milk.”

“I’ll walk down to Balducci’s and get a quart,” said Wade, rising from the sofa.

Then he walked to the front door, got his old brown leather jacket off the peg on the wall, put the jacket on over his faded blue shirt, tapped the back pocket of his brown corduroy trousers to make sure he had his wallet, jingled his right front pocket to make sure he had his keys, and walked out of the house into the late October afternoon, the pale blue Oregon sky sporting wispy white clouds tinged with pink.

Wade is sixty-eight, six-feet-tall, straight-backed and neither fat nor thin. His hair used to be black and is now mostly gray and turning white, and though he hasn’t had a haircut in over a year, his hair is not very long. Until a few years ago, before he became a recluse, the four words almost everyone used when describing Wade were handsome, friendly, funny, and generous. His father was from Montana, his mother from Brooklyn, and there are hints of his mother’s Brooklyn accent and tonality in Wade’s speech.

Mimi is sixty-five, a bountiful five-foot-four, and she walks with a noticeable limp, hip replacement surgery on the near horizon. Her once reddish brown hair is now silvery gray and cut shorter than Wade’s. Her parents were both from Boston, and though Mimi has lived in Oregon for most of her life, she sounds like a Bostonian.

Why did Wade look around his neighborhood and say, “What am I doing?” when he was a block from his house on his way to Balducci’s to buy a quart of milk?

Because for the last three years, whenever Mimi came home and complained of forgetting to buy something, Wade has never said, “I’ll walk down to Balducci’s,” though prior to three years ago, ever since he was in his twenties, he would walk to Balducci’s almost every afternoon to get an item or two that Mimi forgot to buy at the supermarket.

Or did she forget to buy the milk or a jar of olives or bananas? The regularity of her forgetting, and the inevitability of Wade getting up to walk those five blocks to the little neighborhood grocery store suggests that her forgetting was not forgetting at all, but part of a ritual she and Wade enacted to get him off the sofa and out into the world.

Wade was a high school Physics teacher for forty-one years, and Mimi, a high school administrator, would often find Wade sprawled on the sofa when she got home from work in the late afternoon; and she knew the slightest impetus would send him on his way to Balducci’s, a little trek he much preferred to zoning out in front of the television, and an enjoyable way for him to spend time with their children Diana and Michael who often accompanied him to Balducci’s and back.

And the reason Wade stopped getting up from the sofa and going out into the world when Mimi named the items she forgot to get on her way home from the high school where she is now vice-principal, is that three years ago their son Michael was killed in a car accident. Michael was forty-two when he died, and Wade might have been a crystal goblet dropped from a hundred feet in the air onto concrete, so shattered was he by Michael’s death.

Wade is about to turn around and go back to his house when someone calls, “Wade. How you doing? Haven’t seen you in forever.”

For some reason, being hailed in this way causes Wade to look at the palm of his right hand and focus on the crease in his palm that palm readers call the life line; and he wonders why his life line is so much darker and more clearly delineated than the lines for fate and love and wisdom and marriage. Now he thinks of his mother for the first time in many years, his mother who read palms as a serious hobby.

Wade looks up from inspecting the palm of his hand, and here is Allan Wilder with whom he used to play golf every Saturday until three years ago. Allan is stout and good-natured and entirely bald and ten years younger than Wade. He is standing on the brick walkway leading to his front door, wearing a faded red Stanford sweatshirt and beige trousers and holding a red rake, the head of which is half-buried in a pile of gold and bronze maple leaves.

“Allan,” says Wade, his voice weak from three years of rarely speaking. “You look just like yourself.”

“So do you,” says Allan, dropping the rake and coming to shake Wade’s hand. “I missed you, buddy. I think about you all the time.”

“Still playing golf?” asks Wade, noticing how greatly Allan has aged in three years, some terrible sadness at work on him.

“Twice a week,” says Allan, beaming at Wade. “Remember what a terrible putter I was?”

“You took your eye off the ball,” says Wade, remembering how Allan would always glance at the hole a split second before he struck the ball. “You couldn’t help it.”

“Well I’m much better now,” says Allan, nodding emphatically. “When Joan left me two years ago, I put in a putting green in the backyard and now I make at least two hundred putts every day. I’ve trained myself to keep my eye on the ball until I hit it, and even after I hit it I keep looking at where the ball was. Like you told me to.”

“I told you to do that?” asks Wade, having no memory of ever suggesting anything to Allan about golf. “You put in a putting green? You’re kidding.”

“No, come see,” says Allan, beckoning Wade to follow him. “Astro turf.”

Wade takes the putter from Allan and positions himself over a golf ball fifteen feet from one of several holes in the artificial surface; and everything about this moment feels wholly new yet entirely familiar to him—a dizzying combination of sensations. But what is even more remarkable to Wade is his absolute certainty that he is going to sink this putt, the hole he’s aiming for seeming as big as a manhole to him. And though he is tempted to tell Allan about how sure he is of making the putt, he defers to Allan’s insecurity about putting and says nothing as he strikes the ball and watches it speed across the green and drop into the hole.

“Wow!” exclaims Allan. “You’ve still got it, Wade. You’re a master.”

”One shot does not a master make,” says Wade, his mother coming to mind again, how after his greatest triumph in a high school basketball game she reminded him, “Today you win, tomorrow you lose. The important thing is to do your best.”

“You’ve always been such a great putter,” says Allan, dropping another ball in front of Wade. “Try the hole in the far right corner.”

Wade smiles sadly at Allan and asks, “Why did Joan leave you?”

“She fell in love with a guy she met at a conference on syntactical errors in the translation of Aristotle.” Allan shrugs. “A subject dear to her heart and far from mine.”

“You’re kidding,” says Wade, frowning at Allan. “Where was this conference?”

“At Harvard,” says Allan, nodding. “Maybe it was a symposium and not a conference, but in either case she fell in love with him and… that was that.”

“I’m so sorry, Allan,” says Wade, poised over the golf ball. “I know how much you loved her.”

“Hey…”says Allan, fighting his tears, “you can use this putting green any time you want. House goes on the market in April, but until it sells, come play.”

“I will,” says Wade, striking the ball and watching it roll across the plastic greensward to fall with a satisfying clunk into the farthest hole.

After saying goodbye to Allan, Wade thinks about returning to his house and collapsing on the sofa, but the idea of getting a quart of milk for Mimi gives him a jolt of energy, so he carries on in the direction of Balducci’s.

But after another block, he is overcome with exhaustion and sorrow, so he sits down on the low brick wall in front of the Dorfmans’ house, the front yard bursting with roses—Susan Dorfman famous for her flowers.

Sitting with his back to the rampant blooms, Wade thinks about the last time he saw his son Michael alive. Seven months before Michael died, he came to Portland on a business trip. He lived in North Carolina with his wife Maureen and their two children.

During supper with Wade and Mimi, Michael and Wade got into a huge argument about Michael wanting to get a puppy. Michael and Maureen had just had their second child, and Wade was incensed that Michael would add a dog to Maureen’s life when she was already overwhelmed by the new baby and their four-year-old, while Michael was gone all day at work and forever going on long business trips.

“So what if he wanted a dog?” says Wade, clenching his fists and pounding his legs. “Why shouldn’t he have a dog? He loved dogs. We always had dogs. We got a puppy when he was a little boy. Why did I yell at him like that? What was wrong with me?”

“Wade?” says a familiar voice. “You okay?”

“Oh, hi,” he says, turning around and seeing Susan Dorfman standing a few feet away from him, her roses ablaze behind her.

Susan is tall and willowy, nearly as tall as Wade, her blue eyes reflecting the turquoise of her dangly turquoise earrings and her necklace of turquoise stones and her turquoise blouse and turquoise jeans.

“I heard you shouting,” she says, sitting down beside him and gazing at the houses and trees across the street. “I’ve lived here for forty-two years and never sat here until now. What a lovely view.” She taps his shoulder. “Hey, I just remembered. You helped me build this wall. You taught me how to lay bricks.”

“We were in love with each other,” he says, the long-unspoken truth coming out as easily as if he’d told her it might rain. “But we were both happily married. Or… thoroughly married. So what could we do?”

“Nothing we were willing to do,” she says, putting her arm around him. “I’m so glad you told me, Wade. I’ve always wanted to know. I mean… I knew I loved you, but… and I was pretty sure you were in love with me, especially after our kiss on New Year’s Eve. Remember? The year I turned thirty and you turned thirty-three?”

“A dangerous kiss,” he says, nodding. “A marvelous kiss. Maybe the best kiss I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, Mimi saw us kissing and she was furious about it for years and years, though she was having affairs long before you and I kissed that night.” He sighs. “I never had an affair. Just… never did.”

“We were so young,” says Susan, sighing, too. “Still trying to tame our lusty natures.”

“Did you ever have affairs?” he asks, gazing at her. “Something tells me you didn’t.”

“No,” she says wistfully. “Mel did. But not me.”

“The older I get the more ridiculous it seems that we weren’t lovers, you and I.” He smiles at her. “But even more ridiculous is that we were not better friends, because beyond the sexual attraction, you have always been one of my very favorite people. I could talk to you about so many things Mimi had no interest in. Because you were interested in everything I was interested in. At least I thought you were.”

“Oh, I was,” she says, nodding. “You and I were interested in all the same things. That’s why I always made a beeline for you at parties. Mel didn’t give a hoot about roses or gardening or art or music or… much of anything I cared about.”

“He liked golf,” says Wade, remembering how furious Mel would get when Wade beat him, which was not often.

“And gambling,” says Susan, nodding. “I’d be rich today if not for his gambling.”

A trio of cars go by—various genres of music wafting from their windows.

“So… how are you doing?” asks Susan, switching from having her arm around his shoulders to holding his hand. “About Michael?”

“I’ve been comatose since he died.” Wade closes his eyes. “I died when he died, only I didn’t die. I’m still here.”

“I can’t imagine what I would do if any of my kids or grandkids died before me.” She tightens her grip on his hand. “When Mel died I wasn’t that sad. I mean… I missed him, but… not really. We were never very happy together after the first few years. But if Molly or Jason or any of their children were to die… I can’t imagine going on living.”

“But I did,” says Wade, resting his head on her shoulder. “If you can call it living. I’ve been no good to Mimi or Diana or Maureen or the grandkids or anyone. I’ve been frozen.”

“You want some tea?” she asks, the air growing nippy. “Thaw out a little?”

“No, thank you, Susan,” he says, kissing her cheek. “I think I already am thawing out a little. I’m going to Balducci’s to get a quart of milk. You want anything?”

“Balducci’s isn’t there anymore,” she says, blushing from his kiss. “Come for tea tomorrow. Okay?”

“Okay,” he says, eager to see what has taken the place of Balducci’s.

As Wade nears the corner where Balducci’s used to be, his brain tricks him with a fleeting image of the little grocery store that dissolves into a spanking new café fronted by a red brick terrace on which large blue umbrellas rise from round tables surrounded by green plastic wicker chairs, the sign above the café entrance proclaiming FRACTAL BREW in large white san serif letters on a black background.

Wade approaches the new café feeling sad about the disappearance of the little grocery store that was a foundational component of his life for forty-five years, but also feeling mighty curious about FRACTAL BREW because he was, after all, a Physics teacher who was madly in love with fractals. He had a cat named Fractal. For thirty years he oversaw an after-school club for Math and Physics geeks called Imagining Fractals, the club T-shirt black with Infinitely Self-Similar writ in large white letters on both the front and back of the shirt.

“But why did they have to replace Balducci’s?” he says to no one. “Where will I buy things that Mimi forgets to buy?”

He enters FRACTAL BREW and marvels at the gleaming hardwood floor, the chrome and red-leather booths, the stainless steel table tops, the many and voluble customers, the black marble counter, and the sparkling kitchen beyond.

“I feel like Rip Van Winkle,” he says, stepping up to the counter and smiling at a young Eurasian woman in a fetching white dress, a red rose in her glossy black hair.

“I don’t think we have that,” she says, pointing at the big chalkboard on the wall. “I’m new here, but I’m pretty sure those are the only coffee drinks we serve, and I know we don’t have that kind of beer.”

“I meant the guy who wakes up after sleeping for twenty years and finds everything changed.” Wade studies the young woman and guesses she is twenty-three, the age of his granddaughter Lisa, Diana’s oldest child. “Would it be possible for you to sell me a quart of milk? Whole milk, not skim.”

“I’ll check,” she says, leaving the counter and sauntering into the kitchen.

Wade looks around the room and is struck by how familiar everyone seems, as if forty of his former students are having a reunion.

“Here you are,” says the young woman, returning to the counter with a quart container of milk. “That will be four dollars and twenty-five cents.”

“Thank you so much,” says Wade, handing her a five-dollar bill. “Keep the change. Did you know this used to be a little grocery store? Balducci’s. I must have bought five thousand quarts of milk here. Maybe ten thousand.”

“Awesome,” she says quietly as she puts the quart of milk into a snazzy black bag with FRACTAL BREW printed on both sides. “There’s a photograph of Balducci’s on the wall by the front door. I thought maybe it was an Italian restaurant.”

“No,” says Wade, shaking his head. “Just a little grocery store.”

Instead of going home the way he came, Wade wanders through the commercial district bordering his neighborhood, and he’s glad to see Rick’s Automotive is still here, Hobart’s Used Books is still here, Levant’s Ice Cream Shoppe is still here, and Kim’s Dry Cleaners is still here.

When he arrives at the corner of Delaware and 57th Avenue where he usually crosses Delaware to re-enter his neighborhood, he finds a woman and a boy squatting with their backs against the wall of a shuttered storefront, a flimsy cardboard box on the sidewalk in front of them. The woman is in her thirties and wearing a dirty orange jacket and greasy brown trousers. The boy is seven or eight and wearing a filthy gray sweatshirt and grass-stained blue jeans.

Wade gets out his wallet, intending to give the woman five dollars, when the boy says in a croaky voice, “Puppies for sale. You wanna buy a puppy?”

“Puppies?” says Wade, the word striking deep into his heart.

“Only two left,” says the woman, her voice croaky, too. “The mother is a Black Lab, and we’re pretty sure there was more than one father. We know a Dalmatian got to her, but we’re not sure who else.”

Wade peers down into the cardboard box and sees two little brown blobs of fur, his vision obscured by tears. “How much?” he says, sobbing.

“Ten bucks each?” says the woman, jumping to her feet. “You want one?”

“Two,” says Wade, handing her all the money in his wallet, seventy-eight dollars. “I want both of them.”

Darkness is falling when Wade gets home with the quart of milk from FRACTAL BREW and the cardboard box containing two puppies. He finds a note on the kitchen counter from Mimi saying she’s gone to her yoga class at the YMCA and will be home at nine.

He puts the milk in the refrigerator and picks up the two puppies, one in each hand, and they wiggle and whimper and one of them pees on him.

When Mimi comes home, she finds Wade’s car parked in the driveway instead of in the garage, and when she enters the house, she is startled to see the big-screen television gone from the living room. She hears Wade laughing in the garage, so she hurries through the kitchen and opens the inside door to the garage, and here is Wade sitting on the floor playing with two adorable puppies.

The sight of Wade with the little dogs makes Mimi furious. “Are you insane?” she screams. “Getting puppies at your age? You could drop dead any day now and I’ll be saddled with your fucking dogs.”

Wade looks at her and says calmly, “I picked up a quart of milk for you. And if you don’t want to live with a man with dogs, we’ll get divorced.”

“Divorced?” she yells. “We’re not getting divorced. Just get rid of the dogs.”

“Mimi,” he says, taking a deep breath. “Your yoga class got out at six. And then you went to your lover’s house for three hours and now you’re home. Did you think I didn’t know about your affairs? I’ve always known. Since way back when. You must have known I knew. Yoga classes don’t last four hours. Lunch dates don’t last five. Maybe I should have divorced you the first time you cheated on me, but the kids were so little, and… then later, I don’t know, I came to accept what you were doing and decided to stay with you until the kids went to college. But when they were gone, I felt too old and afraid to start a new life without you, so I just went along with things. But when Michael died…” He holds back his tears. “When Michael died and you didn’t change the pattern of your life even a little to spend more time with me, I thought if I ever recovered from my terrible depression, I would ask you to be my wife again and not someone else’s wife. And if you won’t do that for me, for us, then I and my dogs will go elsewhere and start a new life.”

“And the house?” says Mimi, never having imagined Wade would be the one to suggest divorce. “We would sell the house?”

“Or you can buy me out,” he says, allowing himself to cry.

“I would like to do that,” she says, looking away from him. “I have four more years until I retire and I’d like to stay in this house until then and possibly longer.”

“So be it,” he says, smiling through his tears. “I want you to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”

 The next morning, Wade wakes in the bed in the room that was Michael’s room when Michael was a boy and a teenager, and Wade’s very first thought is of the puppies waiting for him in the garage, how they need to be fed and petted, need to be taken out into the backyard to pee and poop and run and play, need to be loved.

And the thought of being with those marvelous little dogs propels Wade out of bed as he has not been propelled since he was a young man and every day was a glorious adventure.

fin

Carrying On

Monday, January 16th, 2017

And the dog walked, walked… site

And the dog walked, walked… painting by Nolan Winkler

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

We are feeling pampered and special because the power went back on after a two-day outage. We know there will probably be another outage when the next storm hits, but for now we’re on Easy Street. No more cooking on the woodstove. No more boiling water in the old kettle to wash dishes. No more writing by candlelight. Our computers work again. We can take showers. Luxury!

The first article to pop up on my computer when I ignited the machine after the outage was about Professor Guy McPherson who says, “There’s no point trying to fight climate change. We’ll all be dead in the next decade and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

The second article was entitled “Why getting farmers to switch from tobacco crops is a struggle.”

Email brought an announcement from my niece, a yoga teacher, informing us that her Yoga and Art and Cooking retreat in Italy is sold out ten months in advance.

My sister called and told me of her summer plans to go camping in the environs of Mount Rainier. She is a biologist and knows well of the forces threatening the biosphere, but she carries on with her life as if we will all not be dead in the next decade. She catches her rainwater for watering her drought-resistant garden, walks to work most days, and looks forward to her children eventually producing a grandchild or two.

Speaking of grandchildren, since Marcia and I do not have children and grandchildren of our own, we enjoy availing ourselves of the offspring of our friends. For this holiday season we had several fun visits with Nick and Clare Bokulich and their nineteen-month-old son Vito. I was especially pleased to introduce Vito to the music of Ray Charles, Vito and I played some stirring blues on the piano, Vito ate many bananas and apples, and we had nothing but fun.

During the storm and accompanying power outage, a few large branches fell from our surrounding redwoods and narrowly missed the house. Then the pump in our well gave up the ghost, and despite the torrential downpour, the savants at Mendocino Coast Water Works rushed to our aid, removed the old pump and pipes, and installed a new and improved super duper pump and water transport system that will last for many years longer than Professor MacPherson says we have to live.

Marcia and I took advantage of not being connected to the outer world via computers to clean our offices and get a start on this year’s income tax. And I discovered the domain name of my web site Under the Table Books was about to expire. So I called the domain site people and spent a pleasant ten minutes talking to a nice young man who convinced me to re-up for another three years. He was pleased to find my piano tunes available for listening on YouTube and my novels downloadable to his Kindle.

Yes, our phones worked throughout the storm, though we had no electricity. We do not have smart phones or cell phones, and even if we did, there is no service for such here in the redwoods, but we do have good old land lines that for some reason almost never go down in these storms that routinely take out our electricity.

Hearing from friends about the latest sculpting of Big River Beach by high tides and a fantastic outflow of rainwater in the river, we trekked down to Big River to walk along the banks of the huge muddy torrent. Several dogs and their owners were out on the pristine sands, enjoying the sun and all that room to run. The formerly No Dogs Off Leash beach is now a prime destination for dog owners wishing to let their dogs off leash.

Fortunately, the dogs we encountered were all friendly or disinterested in humans, and one dog in particular, a magnificent roseate Malamute, ignited my dog-owning fantasies. But then I recalled the enormous dog I used to take care of in Berkeley when his owners were out of town, and how that delightful mutt ate more in a day than I did in a week, so I let my doggy fantasies go.

Home again, I got the fire going and found myself thinking about life in the context of everyone being dead within ten years—virtually all living things on earth extinguished by super heat and lack of oxygen; and I became immobile with grief.

When I was in my twenties and thirties and forties, I persistently lobbied my friends and politicians and the Sierra Club and local, state, and national government to take action to address the problems of overpopulation and our earth-destroying dependency on cars and gasoline. My proposals were received by nearly everyone in those days as the ravings of a nutcase, and I eventually stopped trying to convince anyone of anything. I came to realize that people, for the most part, believe what they want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary.

Now that my ravings, which were based on the work of many farseeing scientists, are shared by millions of people, and there is still little being done to address the processes that have brought us to this frightening phase of human and planetary life, I realize that whether Guy MacPherson is correct or not in saying we will all be dead in ten years, what is true is that Nature, not humans, will take the lead in saving the biosphere.

Perhaps some humans will survive the coming environmental crises, perhaps not. In the meantime, the sun is shining, the first plum blossoms have appeared in Mendocino, the ebullient teenagers swarm down from the high school to buy lunch at Harvest Market where gigantic pickup trucks crowd the parking lot and a hardworking fellow assiduously cleans the market windows.

Dogs & Cats

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Molly & Dylan sleeping

Molly & Dylan Sleeping photo by Bill Fletcher

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

An Inter-Species Holiday Fable

Myra Eberhardt is a self-avowed cat person—the kind of cat person who finds dogs and most of their people wanting in grace and civility. A stickler for neatness and punctuality, always up-to-date on the latest fashions, and something of a snob, Myra is forty-four, attractive, bright, and successful in all things save marriage. Men are attracted to Myra like bees to maple syrup, but the apparent faults of these fellows inevitably transcend their charms, and Myra despairs of ever finding her match. Thus her three cats, Bingo, Butch, and Groucho are more than pets to Myra, they are her children and Significant Other(s).

As one of the top wedding facilitators in the greater Bay Area, Myra frequently auditions musicians seeking work in that relatively lucrative field, and in mid-November, a slow time for weddings before the usual outburst of Christmas nuptials, Myra has the extreme pleasure of auditioning an accordion player named Michael O’Reilly with whom she falls head over heels in love.

Michael is a loose-limbed easygoing fellow of fifty-four with an uncouth head of wavy brown hair, his parents born in Ireland, he in San Francisco, his brogue slight but charming, and he is an absolute wizard on his squeeze box, his vast repertoire of songs spanning every known genre and then some.

“I used to say I could play anything from Bach to the Beatles,” Michael explains to Myra after wowing her with a medley beginning with Mendelssohn’s wedding march, climaxing with a Piazzolla tango, and finishing with an irresistible hip hop version of The Girl From Ipanema, “but we’ve entered an era when both Bach and the Beatles are considered classical music, so I’ve had to expand my genre base, as it were.”

“I’m sold,” says Myra, struggling to keep her professional persona distinct from that of a deeply smitten woman. “I’m sure I can come up with plenty for you to do. Weddings, I mean.”

“Great,” says Michael, returning his accordion to its case. “To that end, here is my brand new business card.”

With a graceful bow, Michael hands Myra an obviously homemade card featuring the faces of two smiling dogs.

Myra stiffens. “What…why dogs?”

“Oh, that’s Rex and Ziggy,” says Michael, gazing fondly at the likenesses of his beloved pooches. “I have a show for children, too, with Rex and Ziggy as my co-stars.”

“I see,” says Myra, commanding her frontal lobe to terminate infatuation. “I trust that for weddings…”

“I hope you won’t think me impetuous,” says Michael, impetuously interrupting her, “but would you like to go out with me? Food and jazz at Yoshi’s? I’m rather taken with you, and that’s a colossal understatement.”

And the sweet musicality of his voice and the electricity flowing back and forth between them like a sideways Niagara makes Myra blurt, “Yes!”

õ

Two evenings after their initial meeting, Michael arrives at Myra’s impeccable Berkeley bungalow driving an old station wagon outfitted for canine transport, and Myra invites him in for a drink before they zip off to Yoshi’s.

“I have three cats,” says Myra, sitting not too far from Michael on her brown leather sofa and wondering if he’d be open to suggestions regarding his hopelessly outdated wardrobe. “But you won’t see them. They hide whenever anyone comes over.” She laughs. “Your classic scaredy cats.”

“I love cats,” says Michael, sighing in admiration of Myra. “You are one beautiful woman.”

“Thank you.” She blushes. “Wine? I have an excellent pinot.”

“I’d love a beer,” says Michael, nodding hopefully. “I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I love beer. Dark if you have it.”

“Sorry,” says Myra, her hopes of a wine connoisseur dashed. “No beer.”

“Tea?” suggests Michael, grinning at the approach of three big kitty cats, Bingo appropriating Michael’s lap, Butch and Groucho rubbing and snuffling against Michael’s shoes and pants, the doggy scents irresistible to their inquisitive noses.

“This is unprecedented,” says Myra, dazzled by the sight of her cats fawning over Michael. “They always hide when I have guests.”

“Oh, if I had half the way with women I have with animals,” says Michael, petting the adoring felines, “I’d probably, oh God…”

“Yes?” says Myra, laughing in delight as she forgets again that Michael features dogs on his business card. “You’d probably oh God what?”

õ

On Christmas day, Myra goes to Michael’s house for the first time. Having fulfilled their separate obligations to friends and relations that morning, and with their romance now well into the kissing phase, Myra braces herself for a front yard akin to certain unfortunate dog parks, rutted and muddy. But as she nears his house, she is stunned to see a Shangri-la of rose bushes and fruit trees with nary a sign of canine trampling.

“Must have sacrificed the backyard,” she murmurs, hurrying through the rain to the front door and wondering why she doesn’t smell anything particularly gross and doggy about the place.

The front door is ajar, the house resounding to Nat King Cole singing Christmas songs, the scents of freshly baked gingerbread and bubbling spaghetti sauce mingling surprisingly well.

“Hello?” says Myra, stepping into the piano-dominated living room with her big box of gifts for Michael, knowing she’s probably gone overboard on the shirts, but what the hell. “Anybody home?”

In response to her question, an enormous hound of complex origins appears on the threshold of the kitchen, wags his colossal tail, gives Myra a goofy smile, and sits. This is Rex, and he knows very well that his great size gives any human pause, but that he is especially frightening to people with an aversion to his kind.

A moment passes, Myra frozen in fear, and now Ziggy, a Lab Collie Whippet Poodle, joins Rex on the threshold, wags his tail, smiles, and sits, too.

This can’t possibly work thinks Myra, admitting to herself for the first time in her life that what she fears most about dogs is they are so much like people, and people have never been her forte, whereas cats…

At which moment, a third being appears on the threshold, this one a feline of many hues, a gorgeous calico named Miro who does not tarry with the dogs but approaches Myra without a whisker of trepidation, swirls about the woman’s legs, and communicates loud and clear (on the psychic plane) Pick me up, honey. I love women.

And as she cradles the sonorously purring Miro against her bosom, Myra’s heart breaks open, as healthy hearts are made to do, and Rex and Ziggy feel Myra’s heart opening as their cue to cross the room and greet their master’s beloved—Michael recording the sweet miracle with his camera.

American Exceptionalism

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Shakespeare PC Map (todd)

A Shakespearean Map of the U.S.A. courtesy of David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2014)

“There are no exceptions to the rule that everybody likes to be an exception to the rule.” Charles Osgood

Recently listening to fascinating interviews with Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange, I was struck by their repeated use of the expression American Exceptionalism. The expression as they used it had geo-political connotations, but I think American Exceptionalism also captures the essence of the most popular operating system of the individual American psyche.

In geo-political terms, American Exceptionalism refers to the belief of those currently ruling America, that America can and should do things militarily, politically and economically on the world stage that America will not tolerate any other country doing. In terms of the individual American psyche, American Exceptionalism manifests in countless ways. For example:

Arriving at Big River Beach a few days ago, hoping to enjoy a stroll on the sand, I was confronted by a large growling unleashed dog. When the dog’s owner—a woman in her thirties wearing a Sierra Club sweatshirt—came to my rescue, I informed her that dogs are supposed to be leashed on Big River Beach. She bristled and said, “My dog won’t hurt anyone.”

A young man we know who recently received a Master’s degree in Environmental Science because he “wants to educate people about the dire need for humans, en masse, to shift our energy consumption habits,” recently flew to Paris from San Francisco “just for fun” and has trips planned for next year to Chile, Thailand and Australia because, “I have so many frequent flier miles.”

This same wannabe world saver turned down a lovely apartment an easy walk from the private high school where he teaches classes in Environmental Awareness and chose to live “in a hipper part of the Bay Area,” necessitating a ninety-minute car commute to his job. That’s ninety minutes both ways.

Is this intelligent young man unaware of the hypocrisy of his behavior in light of his professed beliefs? I think so. I think he is a quintessential American Exceptionalist. In his mind, everyone else needs to stop driving so much and flying everywhere, but not he. Why not he? He’s an American.

“There are two reasons why a man does anything. There’s a good reason and there’s the real reason.” J.P. Morgan

A few months ago, Marcia and I watched the very good and creepy (to me) movie Her about a bright personable man with intimacy issues—played by Joaquin Phoenix—who falls in love with an incredibly sophisticated computer operating system possessed of clairvoyant artificial intelligence. At a crucial moment in the movie, the operating system, voiced with sweetly sexy allure by Scarlett Johansson, informs our hero that she is simultaneously carrying on “intimate” relationships with hundreds of other users. Crushed to the core by this news, Joaquin nonetheless soldiers on with his relationship with the operating system, though things can never be as wonderful as they once were because She was supposed to be his and his alone. It would have been fine for him to have another relationship while maintaining his relationship with Her, but that was unacceptable for Her.

When Her was made (a couple years ago) the movie was intended to be futuristic. By the time we saw the film, we could discern almost no difference between the reality depicted on the screen and the lives of millions of urban computer peeps of today. Indeed, we just saw an excellent French movie, shot in Manhattan a year ago, Chinese Puzzle, and the constant use of computers and mobile phones as key factors in the lives of the characters in Chinese Puzzle made Her seem like a period piece set in the recent past.

“From the naturalistic point of view, all men are equal. There are only two exceptions to this rule of naturalistic equality: geniuses and idiots.” Mikhail Bakunin

The Ebola epidemic, verging on a pandemic, has clarified (for anyone willing to face the truth) the extreme interconnectedness of the global community. Powerful idiots, led by Ted Cruz and other mega-morons, are urging travel bans to and from afflicted areas, thereby impeding the crucial flow of medical personnel and medical aid to those countries where the epidemic must be fought if there is any hope of containing the disease. Ted Cruz and other People Of Little Brains seem to personify American Exceptionalism to an insane degree. What do they imagine will happen if the airline industry suddenly and dramatically contracts? The major airlines would quickly go bankrupt, the stock market would collapse, and the ensuing global economic disaster would then make the spread of Ebola into all nations a sure thing instead of highly probable.

The Ebola epidemic reveals American Exceptionalism to be what it actually is—a cancerous blood clot in the main artery of what might otherwise be an effective, functional, egalitarian global community. All the nations of the world will have to become highly cooperative with each other in order to defeat Ebola, and the sooner everyone realizes this the better our chances of not only defeating Ebola, but of establishing new modalities for dealing with the many other threats to the biosphere.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” George Bernard Shaw

I came out of the post office yesterday just as a man in a humongous pickup truck pulled into two and a half parking spots—his truck effectively blocking one of the two lanes of the little street—and left his gargantuan engine running as he climbed down from his cab and sauntered into the post office. The sticker on his front bumper said SEVEN FUCKING MILES PER GALLON. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

The sticker on his back bumper said I EAT STEAK EVERY FUCKING MEAL. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

I walked home imagining scenes in which I engaged this fellow in discussions about global warming and fossil fuels and gigantic trucks and American Exceptionalism, and in every scene he got out his gun and mowed me down.

Traveling

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Shoe Tie

Shoe Tie photo by David Jouris

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

“The only alternative to co-existence is co-destruction.” Jawaharlal Nehru

We were down on Big River Beach a few days ago, the weather Hawaiian, naked babies frolicking in the sand, the air scented with barbecued lamb and chicken, the river sparkling, the breezes gentle. And joining us in paradise were a dozen or so unleashed dogs gadding about making everything much less enjoyable by depositing piles of steaming dog poop in our midst and trampling our picnics while chasing each other and vying for scraps of food.

The law is clear: dogs are not allowed on Big River Beach unless they are leashed. Yet for some reason, most people who bring their dogs to that beach seem to think they are above that particular law. And when I ask those dog owners, for obvious reasons, to please obey the leash law, their reactions imply that they think I am at fault, not they.

Or as one woman with two enormous out-of-control poopers said to me, “Oh don’t be so uptight. Look how happy they are.”

“A competitive world has two possibilities for you. You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change.” Lester C. Thurow

I’ve been watching highlights of the NBA (National Basketball Association) playoffs, and as someone who learned to play the game in the 1960’s and played for thirty years thereafter, the game today is, in the words of Groucho Marx, a travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham. Indeed, the professional game today appears to operate under entirely different rules than those I learned. However, having just read the official 2014 NBA rules, I find those rules have barely changed in the last fifty years.

The two most notable violations that constitute normal play these days are fouling and traveling. According to the official rules, except in a few specific situations, players are not supposed to touch each other, let alone punch and shove. To do so is to a commit a foul, and each player is allowed six fouls in the course of a game, after which they must retire to the bench. Yet today’s players pummel each other all game long, with only the most flagrant and dangerous of their unceasing fouls causing referees to blow their whistles.

The rules also clearly state that a player cannot run around with the ball in his possession unless he is dribbling (bouncing) that ball. Running around with the ball when you are not dribbling is called traveling. According to the rules, there are no circumstances in which a player with the ball may take more than one-and-a-half steps after ceasing to dribble, yet most of today’s professional basketball players routinely take two, three, and even four steps after they stop dribbling and before they shoot or pass.

In one highlight from the current playoffs, Indiana Pacer star Paul George received a pass and then hopped from place to place—three distinct hops—before he began to dribble. Then he bounced the ball a few times, cradled the ball in his massive hand, took three gigantic steps and dunked the ball. Did the referee call him for traveling? Nay. Paul received a standing ovation for breaking the rules four times in the span five seconds. And that is professional basketball today, a game in which gigantic young men earning millions of dollars shall not be bothered with silly old rules.

Oh don’t be so uptight, Todd. Look how happy they are.

Now, alas, there is no going back to playing by the rules because most basketball players today have long forgotten the official rules, if they ever knew them, and kids learn to play the game by imitating their idols. Soon, I suppose, the rules will have to be updated to conform to the new reality. Sigh.

“In the main there are two sorts of books; those that no one reads, and those that no one ought to read.” H.L. Mencken

Grammatical rules are passé these days because unnecessary. Yo.

“Three things make up a nation: its land, its people and its laws.” Abraham Lincoln

What would honest Abe think of America’s laws today, those laws created by the few in power to maximize their profits and enhance their control over the many not in power? What would Abe think of our tax laws that favor the wealthy and wreak havoc on the lives of people with little money? What would he think of our entirely legal yet wholly criminal healthcare insurance industry? We know what he’d think of our new banking laws that allow incredibly corrupt financial institutions to steal money from our government at little or no interest and then lend that money at usurious interest rates and invest in pyramid schemes that inevitably end in disaster. Abe would think these were not laws at all, but crimes against humanity.

But I suppose none of that really matters. On the great scale of things, with global temperatures rising to the point of planetary death, what difference does it make if dogs run rampant on Big River Beach and basketball players travel and foul with abandon and most of what gets published these days is unreadable garbage and our government is a criminal oligarchy?

Maybe that woman with the out-of-control poopers was right and I should try to appreciate the trashing of our planet and society and culture by people zooming around in gas guzzling cars for every little thing and flying to Europe, you know, just for fun, and surfing in the radiated ocean while dogs shit on the sand and nip at the feet of readers lost in the latest Young Adult dystopian vampire novels and soft porn pap for disempowered women.

And yet…having experienced Big River Beach sans growling canines, and having developed a taste for excellent prose and superbly played basketball, crappy dog owners and lousy writers and shoddy basketball just, like, totally gross me out.

Complexity

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Are most humans inherently incapable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, or can almost anyone develop such a capability?

Yesterday I heard live coverage of the eviction of campers at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, an occupation that began as a protest against rich people being further enriched by a corrupt financial system. After several weeks of camping in the park, the protestors morphed into an ongoing settlement of people who, judging from interviews I heard with a number of evicted campers, wanted to continue living in Zuccotti Park indefinitely because: “Where else am I supposed to go?” “The one per cent got rich ripping everyone else off.” “There are no good jobs left in America because the rich people sent all the jobs to China.” “It is my constitutional right to camp here as long as I want.” “Private property is a conspiracy of the one per cent.” “This is the beginning of a revolution.” “They can’t make us go.” “It’s time to make a stand.” “The system is totally rigged.” “It’s much better here than in the homeless shelters.” “We are family.”

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

A friend recently said to me, “I guess we should have voted for Hillary, now that we know what a fraud Obama is.”

“Are you serious?” I replied, having previously thought this person to be moderately intelligent.

“Well…just look at what he’s doing.”

“What does that have to do with Hillary? What makes you think she would do anything differently than Obama? She works for the same people he works for. She does whatever her handlers tell her to do.”

“Well…but under Clinton…”

“Don’t go there,” I warned. “Don’t rewrite history, please. Bill was the master deregulator, the champion of NAFTA, the destroyer of the safety net, enemy of our industrial base, servant of the fat cats. Don’t you remember?”

Remembering things is another human capability I wonder about. I am astonished by how little anyone remembers about anything. When I remind people that Al Gore, before his enthronement as an environmental guru, led the campaign against the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the usual reaction is disbelief. “He’s also a proponent of nuclear power,” I add, “and said so to Congress shortly after he made a big splash with his global warming movie.”

“No!”

Yes.

So if we can’t remember anything, and we can’t understand complex situations, where does that leave us?

The novel Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain is a comic tragic story of a well-meaning intelligent person who remembers things and is capable of understanding complex arrangements of interrelated things and actions, living in a society of racist imbeciles and self-serving charlatans. If the title has deterred you, I encourage you to give the book a try.

At the outset of the story we learn how our hero got his nickname, and how the dreadful label dramatically altered the course of his life.

[In that same month of February, Dawson’s Landing gained a new citizen. This was Mr. David Wilson, a young fellow of Scotch parentage. He had wandered to this remote region from his birthplace in the interior of the State of New York, to seek his fortune. He was twenty-five years old, college-bred, and had finished a post-college course in an Eastern law school a couple of years before.

He was a homely, freckled, sandy-haired young fellow, with an intelligent blue eye that had frankness and comradeship in it and a covert twinkle of a pleasant sort. But for an unfortunate remark of his, he would no doubt have entered at once upon a successful career at Dawson’s Landing. But he made his fatal remark the first day he spent in the village, and it ‘gaged’ him. He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:

“I wish I owned half that dog.”

“Why?” somebody asked.

“Because I would kill my half.”

The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:

“’Pears to be a fool.”

“’Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”

“Said he wished he owned half of the dog, the idiot,” said a third. “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?”

“Why he must have thought it, unless he is the downrightest fool in the world; because if he hadn’t thought it, he would have wanted to own the whole dog, knowing that if he killed his half and the other half died, he would be responsible for that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don’t it look that way to you, gents?”

“Yes, it does. If he owned one half of the general dog, it would be so; if he owned one end of the dog and another person owned the other end, it would be so, just the same; particularly in the first case, because if you kill one half of a general dog, there ain’t any man that can tell whose half it was, but if he owned one end of the dog, maybe he could kill his end of it and—”

“No, he couldn’t, either; he couldn’t and not be responsible if the other end died, which it would. In my opinion the man ain’t in his right mind.”

“In my opinion he haint got any mind.”

No. 3 said: “Well, he’s a lummox, anyway.”

“That’s what he is,” said No. 4, “he’s a labrick—just a Simon-pure labrick, if ever there was one.”

“Yes, sir, he’s a dam fool, that’s the way I put him up,” said No. 5. “Anybody can think different that wants to, but those are my sentiments.”

“I’m with you, gentlemen,” said No. 6. “Perfect jackass—yes, and it ain’t going too far to say he is a pudd’nhead. If he ain’t a pudd’nhead, I ain’t no judge, that’s all.”

Mr. Wilson stood elected. The incident was told all over the town, and gravely discussed by everybody. Within a week he had lost his first name; Pudd’nhead took its place. In time he came to be liked, and well liked, too; but by that time the nickname had got well stuck on, and it stayed. That first day’s verdict made him a fool, and he was not able to get it set aside, or even modified. The nickname soon ceased to carry any harsh or unfriendly feeling with it, but it held its place, and was to continue to hold its place for twenty long years.]

Ah, subtlety, another of the lost arts, along with complexity and memory—attributes of an interesting mind, of the sort of intelligence I love engaging with, and just the sort of intelligence that is so painfully lacking in our contemporary fiction and plays and movies and humor. I love subtle irony, subtle sarcasm, subtle innuendo; and because I employ such subtlety in my speech, people are forever falling away from me as from something uncanny, so I feel compelled to say, “I was only kidding. That was a joke. Let me explain. Please.” But by then it is usually too late, as it was too late for Pudd’nhead, and I am taken for a fool, or for someone who likes complexity and subtlety and remembering what happened not so very long ago.

“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that make horse races.” Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

So…while the various Occupy encampments around the country were being raided by police, and the tents and belongings of several hundred campers were being removed, a video game called Modern Warfare 3 was released in America, and within twenty-four hours the game sold 6.5 million copies and grossed 400 million dollars, with the Japanese and German versions of the game soon to be released. “This game’s Survival Mode features one or two players fighting endless waves of enemies, with each wave becoming increasingly difficult. Despite being so frequently compared to the World At War Nazi Zombies Mode, enemies do not spawn at fixed locations like the zombies do; instead, they appear at tactical positions based on the current location of the player.”

This may be a stretch, but can you imagine a video game entitled Occupy Wall Street wherein the player(s) not only have to figure out how to successfully camp at Zuccotti Park and keep the police at bay, but also try to achieve objectives beyond continuous camping? Killing the enemy will not be an option in this game; which means subtlety, complexity, and an excellent knowledge of past protest movements will be extremely important in any game-winning strategy, which means, of course, no one will buy the game.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Goodnight, Gracie.

After Rain

Friday, December 24th, 2010

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser Christmas 2010. I am grateful to Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella for giving me the space to share my fiction and non-fiction with their readers.)


After Rain

1

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

“I think,” says Bob, scratching his scalp through his wiry white hair, “I was writing a poem in that dream.”

A slender man, Bob often thinks of his bowling ball of a beer drinker’s paunch as a tumor, ugly and discomfiting, yet benign. He is also handsome and remarkably graceful, yet wholly unconscious of those traits.

Bob consults his Gauguin calendar on the kitchen wall to confirm the moon will be full tonight, and here is Christmas three days in the future, Christmas reminding him of his son Daniel who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, and of his daughter Alice who calls him on his birthday in June to give him a rundown on how she’s doing, only she never gets very far before she starts taking other calls, and Bob grows weary of being put on hold so he hangs up and she doesn’t call him again until his next birthday.

His children remind him of his house in Sacramento that is no longer his house, and of his wife Andrea who is someone else’s wife now, which makes him think of the thirty-three years he worked for the state because he couldn’t imagine any other way to give Andrea and Daniel and Alice what he thought they wanted. Oh, how he hated that mind-numbing job of incessant phone calls and emails and senseless meetings to organize seminars on traffic abatement when all he ever wanted to be was a poet.

He recalls the bad air, the crowded malls, and the countless things he bought for his wife and children because he felt he had to buy them. He remembers Daniel and Susan tearing open their gifts, both starving for what was never there. He remembers sitting in church feeling cold and tired and bored and false.

All of which brings to mind the annual trip in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Sacramento to San Jose for Christmas eve and Christmas morning with Andrea’s parents, and gobbling breakfast while ripping open presents before jumping back in the car for that hellacious drive to San Luis Obispo for Christmas supper with his mother, the children squirming and miserable in the backseat, Andrea vowing for the millionth time, “Next year we make a choice,” but they never did.

Bob’s dog yips three times in quick succession.

“Sorry, pup,” says Bob, turning away from Gauguin’s portrait of brown-skinned women in paradise.

Boots, a yearling Malamute, huge and black, sits at the front door waiting as patiently as he can for Bob to let him outside to chase the delicious scents of deer and rabbit and coyote.

“Here you go,” says Bob, opening the door for Boots and letting in the sweet mountain air.

Bob has lived on String Creek for two years now, the nearest town Willits—a slow, bumpy, half-hour drive away. When he was a young man living in a garret and striving to write good poems, he dreamt of living in a fertile valley such as this, a valley surrounded by wilderness, but in those youthful dreams he was not yet bitter, nor was he so entirely alone.

He steps out onto the front porch and watches Boots race across the meadow and leap over the little stream that is String Creek, a tender flow not three-feet deep where salmon will soon be arriving at their journey’s end. Bob didn’t believe the realtor when she told him that salmon, big salmon, swam up the mountain every year to spawn in the tiny creek. “They swim hundreds of miles from the ocean,” she said matter-of-factly, “and climb two thousand feet to spawn right here in your own backyard. How’s that for a selling point?”

The idea of enormous fish finding their way to a stream that was no more than a trickle in September seemed so preposterous to Bob that he banished the thought until the week before Christmas last year. And then, after unceasing torrential rain kept him inside for six days, Bob braved the deluge and went out to walk his twenty acres; and there were the salmon, beaten and bloody, crowding the rain-swollen creek to birth their next generation.

And when he saw those salmon in the little creek, the wall around Bob’s heart came tumbling down. He wanted to shout and weep in amazement and grief and triumph, but no shouts or tears escaped him. Still, he wanted to weep, and this was enough to inspire a new poem, the first he’d written since the birth of his daughter thirty years ago.

But a few days later, Bob woke to find the wall around his heart rebuilt, and no more poems came to him. So he cursed himself for failing as a poet and for selling his soul for money and for being a terrible father and a rotten husband and a disgraceful human being, and he burned the new poem.

Boots returns to Bob, laughing in the silent way dogs laugh.

“Smells good out here,” says Bob, scratching the big pup’s head. “I’ll get my boots on Boots and meet you down the road.”

Reassured by Bob’s voice and touch, Boots races away to sniff the myriad traces of animal news.

2

Are we expressions of dreams?

Bob walks north on the valley road, moving slowly until exertion lessens his stiffness. The air is icy, the sky void of clouds, the sun an hour away from cresting the ridge.

“Gonna finally have some blue sky,” he murmurs, smiling in anticipation of meeting Boots along the way, their day officially begun when they return home together, Boots to come and go as he pleases, Bob to spend time in his woodshop making beautiful little boxes, and in his living room sitting by the woodstove reading history and short stories and poetry. And after supper, Bob will play Scrabble and chess with himself at the kitchen table before moving into the living room to practice Bach For Beginners on an old teak upright piano until he’s good and tired and ready for bed.

Afraid the pup would run away and be eaten by coyotes, Bob kept Boots inside all day and on a leash whenever they went out until Boots was five months old. But now that the dog is so huge, Bob’s fear has largely subsided, though he still worries when Boots is gone for more than an hour or so; and he keeps him inside at night.

3

Are we flesh and bone bagpipes

to be filled with air and played?

There are eight homes on String Creek, and everybody knows everybody else, except for Bob, who made it perfectly clear from the outset he wasn’t interested in making friends with anyone. Indeed, to this day he never waves when he drives past other people coming and going in their cars and trucks, nor does he wave to people working in their orchards or out chopping wood or walking their dogs. He is a recluse and his neighbors leave him alone.

As he approaches the house of his nearest neighbor, a modest one-story home watched over by five colossal oaks, Bob is surprised to see a woman in the road. She is wielding an axe and striking ineffectually at a tangle of enormous oak limbs that have fallen across her drive and trapped her car. Small and pretty with gray hair in a ponytail, she’s wearing brown boots, black jeans, and a black Giants sweatshirt—a strong, healthy woman, but no match for the massive branches.

Bob has met this woman twice before. The first time was on his third day in the valley when she came to his house to welcome him with a bottle of red wine and a bouquet of yellow roses. He declined her gifts, saying he didn’t drink wine, which was a lie, and that he was allergic to roses, which was an even greater lie since roses are his favorite flowers. And the second time he met her was a few months ago when she walked Boots home after the pup spent the morning playing with her dog. On that day, she caught Bob out chopping wood and managed to tell him a little bit about herself before he escaped. She is German, a therapist of some sort, lives alone, has children and grandchildren, and is exactly Bob’s age: sixty-six.

“Do you have a chainsaw?” asks Bob, surprising himself by asking. “I can clear a path for you to get your car out.”

“Oh, thank you,” she says, her blue eyes sparkling. “I have one in my tool shed. Would you mind? I’m picking up my friend in town. She came all the way from Switzerland to celebrate the solstice with me.”

“But first I need to get my dog,” he says, hurrying past her. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Oh, I’ll send Lily to get him,” she says, looking toward her house. “She and Boots are good friends.”

Bob is about to decline her offer when a big wolfish white dog appears beside the woman and gazes at Bob with her big brown eyes.

“Go find Boots,” says the woman, touching Lily’s head. “Bring him home for snacks.”

Lily sings a high musical note and runs away.

“Are you sure she knows what you mean?” asks Bob, suddenly aware of the musical burbling of String Creek.

“Oh, yes,” says the woman, beckoning him to follow her. “She knows exactly what I mean. And she knows my feelings, too.”

“I had a cat,” says Bob, recalling his long ago life when his greatest joy was to be writing a poem he thought might be good. “A big orange tabby. And she always knew when I was sad.”

“What would she do when you were sad?” asks the woman, turning to look at him.

“She’d come to me and mew until I picked her up and held her.” He smiles wistfully. “But only when I was sad. Her name was Athena.”

“I had a wonderful cat, too,” says the woman, sighing. “A gray tabby named Omar, after the baseball player. But she killed so many birds and then a coyote killed her so I never got another one.”

Bob blushes. “Forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“Irene,” she says, bowing in a sweetly clownish way. “Irene Weintraub.”

“Bob,” he says, bowing a little, too. “Bob Webster.”

“So how do you like living so far from town?” she asks, her accent beguiling. “We’ve all been wondering about you.”

“Oh, really?” he says, oddly flattered. “What have you been wondering? Whether I grow pot or not? I don’t.”

“No, it’s just that most people who come to live on the creek only keep to themselves for a year or so before joining in or running away, so…”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m here to the bitter end.”

“Why so grim?” she asks, pouting sympathetically. “When the air is so sweet.”

4

hungry animals

Irene’s chainsaw is out of gas and in need of oiling. She finds some oil, but her gas can is empty.

“Do you have a length of hose?” asks Bob, glaring at the funky old chainsaw. “For siphoning gas from your car?”

“My car is electric,” she says, apologetically. “The man who cuts my wood brings his own fuel.”

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” says Bob, turning to go. “I’ve got a much better saw and plenty of gas.”

“Great!” she says, calling after him. “You’re a prince, Bob.”

5

desperate criminals

Bob likes Irene. He admits this as he jogs back to his house. And he likes that she needs his help, which reminds him of how he met Andrea.

He was shooting hoops at McKinley Park in Sacramento when Andrea walked by disconsolately pushing her flat-tired bike. Bob had a pump on his bike and offered to fill Andrea’s tire so she could ride a bit further before having to walk again. He ended up riding with her and pumping up her tire every few blocks until they got to her house.

6

lost children

Bob eats two bananas and three big handfuls of almonds to give him energy for the work ahead. Now he loads his saw and axe and toolbox and gas can into his pickup; and as he is about to get into his truck, he realizes that he is happy. So he stands still for a long moment and enjoys the rare sensation of being eager to help someone.

7

visionary geniuses

Irene comes out of her house as Bob is inserting his earplugs.

“Good news,” she says, smiling warmly. “My friend, her bus is delayed, so we have extra time to clear things.”

“Extra time,” says Bob, daring to return her smile. “What a concept.”

“All the time in the world,” she says, laughing. “In no time at all.”

“I should have this cleared by then, I think,” says Bob, putting on his work gloves. “I hope.”

“You’re an angel,” she says, gazing fondly at him. “My savior.”

He pulls the cord and his saw roars to life.

Irene covers her ears and retreats into her house.

Bob lowers the whirring blades onto the bough and braces himself as the teeth bite into the wood.

8

earthworms

Eleven months ago, on a rainy day in January, Bob was driving into Willits to buy his suicide kit—a gun and bullets. On a hairpin turn halfway to town he came upon a little girl, barefoot and filthy, carrying a cardboard box.

Bob stopped to see if he could help her, and she said, “My dad wants to drown them so I’m going to Safeway in Willits and give them away.”

There were four pups in the box, three dead, Boots barely alive.

Bob steps back as the blade comes through the bottom of the bough, his seventh cut complete. He shuts off the motor and sets the saw down. His heart is pounding, his shirt soaked with sweat, his beard and face and hair covered with sawdust.

Irene brings him a big glass of water. “Boots and Lily are in the kitchen,” she says, speaking loudly so he can hear through his plugs. “I think I will keep them inside so they don’t run off. Lily hates chainsaws.”

“Thanks,” he says, gulping the water. “Big old tree. Too bad so much had to come down.”

“Yes,” says Irene, taking his empty glass. “But I can use the firewood, and now I will have more light in winter.”

“The benefits of tragedy,” he says, laughing self-consciously.

“The opportunities of crisis,” she says, dancing away.

9

indigenous hominids

Bob has been working for three hours and is exhausted, the driveway not yet clear.

“Help me,” he whispers, speaking to God. “Help me do this.”

He tries to lift the saw to start the next cut, but his arms are too tired. So he kills the motor and sits down on the last bough he has yet to clear, the largest of them all, and recalls the last time he saw his son.

Five years ago. Sacramento. Bob arrives at Daniel’s house in River Park to visit Elise, his beloved grandchild. She is four years old, Bob’s only certain joy in those terrible days of his horrid divorce and the nightmarish selling of his house and the humiliation of training his replacement for that insipid job that defined him for thirty years.

After a few beers, Bob begins disparaging Andrea.

Daniel interrupts and asks to speak to Bob outside.

On the front lawn, the Gingko leaves turning yellow, Daniel says, “I don’t want you saying bad things about Mom in front of Elise. It isn’t fair. She wants to love you both. Needs to, Dad. She needs to love you both.”

“Fair?” says Bob, trembling with rage. “Was it fair that bitch used me for thirty years and dumped me like so much garbage?”

“That isn’t true,” says Daniel, shaking his head. “You used her as much as she used you.”

Bob explodes—blasting his son with cruel obscenities.

Daniel goes inside and closes the door.

Bob lifts his head as a big brown United Parcel Service truck comes around the bend and stops a few yards from Bob’s pickup.

Now a beautiful man with creamy brown skin hops down from the truck and says, “Sorry to bother you, but could you move your truck? I have a package for Bob Webster. Last house on the road.”

“I’m Bob Webster,” he says wearily. “Trying to clear this tree so Irene can get out.”

“You want some help? I’m Alfredo Lopez. Brought you a million books from Amazon. I wondered if I’d ever get a look at you.”

“I hide whenever you come,” says Bob, laughing at how silly he has been for so much of his life. “But now I’m too tired to hide.”

“I’ll get my earplugs,” says Alfredo, hopping back into his truck. “You lend me your gloves, I’ll get that last limb for you.”

“You’re a prince,” says Bob, slowly rising to his feet. “Thank you.”

10

goldfinches diving out of the sky

Driving home from Irene’s, Boots beside him in the cab, Bob begins to shiver violently.

Too exhausted to bring in his tools, Bob barely has the strength to open his front door.

His heart beating erratically, Bob somehow manages to take a shower and crawl into bed.

11

angels descending with wings extended

Bob and Alfredo hover in the air over String Creek, the tender flow dammed with logs and debris. Below the dam, hundreds of salmon lay gasping for oxygen in the dry beds.

Bob and Alfredo attack the dam with huge electric carving knives.

The dam gives way and Bob runs down a wooden tunnel into the living room of his old house in Sacramento where Daniel and Alice are hiding behind an unadorned Christmas tree.

Bob sings to his children, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

And here under the tree, presented on a red pillow, is the package Alfredo brought.


12

and golden slippers touching down beside the river

Having slept through the night and most of this next day, Bob wakes to the slow steady beating of his heart.

He gets out of bed, his arms and legs aching from yesterday’s labor—dusk giving way to moonlight. He feeds Boots, starts a fire in his woodstove, and runs a hot bath.

And as he watches the water tumble from the spigot into the tub, he conceives the letter he will write to Daniel and Susan and Andrea.

Greetings from String Creek

I hope you’re sitting down when you read this so you don’t fall over in amazement and hurt yourself. Ahem. As you know, I have been a self-righteous, self-loathing, self-pitying jerk for a very long time, and you have suffered greatly because of my actions toward you. I don’t expect you to forgive me for being so unkind to you, or to believe me when I say I have changed, but I want to invite you back into my life, however that may manifest. Maybe we could write to each other. Or maybe you could come and visit me. And should you invite me to Sacramento, I will come in peace as a friend.

From now on I am going to make a conscious effort to live my life with an open heart and an open mind, and do my best to eschew (gesundheit) blame and shame and judgment. I want to love you, nothing more.


13

we kneel to kiss the lucid flow

Lying in his hot bath, Bob weeps for the first time in three decades, and when he is done weeping, he laughs.

14

and imbibe the divine infusion

Bob goes out naked into the moonlight, his body steaming, and immerses himself in String Creek.

Now he hears splashing downstream—the salmon coming home.

15

clarity after rain

Bob shaves off his beard and dresses warmly for the walk to Irene’s. But before he and Boots leave the house, Bob opens the package delivered by Alfredo, a package from Bob’s granddaughter Elise who is nine-years-old now.

Her gift to Bob is a turquoise T-shirt, turquoise being Bob’s favorite color. Across the chest in purple thread she has carefully embroidered

I  AM

ELISE’S GRANDFATHER


16

After Rain

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

Are we expressions of dreams or

flesh and bone bagpipes to be filled

with air and played or hungry

animals or desperate criminals or

lost children or visionary geniuses

or earthworms or indigenous

hominids or goldfinches diving out

of the sky or angels descending with

wings extended and golden slippers

touching down beside the river

where we kneel to kiss the lucid

flow and imbibe the divine infusion

of clarity after rain?

(Photo by Marcia Sloane)