Posts Tagged ‘Elisha’

We Might Be Friends

Monday, September 16th, 2019

end of something

Volume of Greenstreet photo by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

69. BLACK SNOW

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

who we turned out to be was disappointing.

 

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

bright days you remember from childhood.

 

The past, nothing.

New people, nothing.

 

She sees him but she doesn’t know him.

She’s wearing his coat.

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

He reads the poem again, slower this time.

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

A silence falls between them.

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

fin

Kate Greenstreet reading her poem 69. Black Snow

Todd reading his poem Why Now?

The Movie Biz

Monday, May 27th, 2019

firewood wall

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

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

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

Alexandra: Did you know Marilyn Monroe?

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

Alexandra: What’s a femme fatale?

Delia: A dangerously attractive woman.

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

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

Conor: Who was Jerome Purcell?

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

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

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

Sylvia: Do you ever watch YouTube videos?

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

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

Delia: Did you like it?

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

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

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

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

Conor: Who was she?

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

Alexandra: And I remind you of her?

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

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

Delia: Like what kind of weird things?

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

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

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

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

Delia: Speaking of Kafka.

Alexandra: Who was Kafka?

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

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

Delia: Why do we care about this man?

Alexandra: What do you mean?

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

Conor: To identify with them.

Delia: (touches her nose) Exactly.

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

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

Sylvia: Who was Boris?

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

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

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

Conor: What makes a story good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conor: Yes. Please.

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

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

Conor: A tragic comedy.

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

Alexandra: Of course! Who else?

Conor: So… the history lesson.

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

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

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

Delia: What happens at the end?

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

Delia: No transformation?

Conor: We don’t know.

Delia: I don’t see the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Alberto Puerto Vallarta

Monday, May 13th, 2019

balancing

My son Conor, who is seventeen, is intrigued by systems. In an earlier draft of this story, I wrote, “My stepson Conor is passionate about the interconnectedness of the myriad parts composing complex processes.” When I showed Conor that draft, he said, “I’d rather be your son who is intrigued by systems.”

A few weeks ago, Conor made an exquisite pen and ink drawing, eighteen-inches-wide and fourteen-inches-tall, of me sitting at my customary table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek. With enviable self-confidence and a knack for making money from his art, Conor framed the drawing, displayed the work on the wall at Mona’s, and sold the blessed thing for three hundred dollars to an art collector from San Francisco.

In the drawing, I am wearing a gray dress shirt tucked into darker gray pants, my gray hair short and multi-directional, my reading glasses round-framed, and I seem to be smiling ever-so-slightly as I write in one of my five notebooks.

My four other notebooks are stacked beside my old leather briefcase, and next to the stack of notebooks is a half-eaten muffin on a white plate. Adjacent to the muffin is a large white mug, the contents of which are indiscernible. The pen I’m writing with is long and skinny and has an extremely fine point.

In a white space two-inches tall and eighteen-inches-wide at the bottom of the drawing, in Conor’s small-but-easy-to-read print are the following two paragraphs.

May 7, 10:43 AM. Carmeline Creek, California. Paul Windsor sitting at southwest window table in Mona’s bakery. Briefcase: brown leather, handmade in Oaxaca, circa 1976. Pen: Staedtler triplus fineliner, black ink. Five notebooks. Paul is writing in Notebook #1: Poetry (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #2: Prose (Strathmore Sketch, recycled paper, 100 sheets, 5.5 in. x 8.5 in 60 lb.) Notebook #3: Song Lyrics (Aquabee Super Deluxe Sketch, Excellent Tooth, 60 sheets, 6 in. x 6 in. 93 lb.) Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #5: Ideas & Miscellaneous. (National Brand, Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease Paper, 80 sheets, 7.75”. x 5”)

Paul arrives at Mona’s every day circa 10 AM, greets his wife Elisha (counterperson) with jaunty wave, claims customary table, unpacks briefcase, goes to counter, effects British, French, German, or Serbian accent, pretends not to know Elisha, flirts with her. Elisha mimics Paul’s accent and responds to his flirtation with humorous non sequiturs. Paul returns to customary table with muffin and tea, writes, socializes, writes, departs Mona’s circa 1 PM (kisses Elisha goodbye if she’s not too busy.)

couple

Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue also contains snippets of conversations I have with friends, and I thought you might enjoy one of my exchanges with a fellow denizen of Mona’s, Alberto Puerto Vallarta.

Alberto, a renowned performance artist, is seventy-four, his wavy black hair turning gray. He is handsome and fit and reminds older people of the actor Omar Sharif. His performances include poetry, monologues, improvised scenes, dance, and songs. He speaks English with a pleasing Spanish accent, and his voice is so resonant, he often sounds as if he is singing when he is merely speaking.

Paul: Were you born with the last name Puerto Vallarta?

Alberto: No, I was born Alberto Gomez. In El Paso, Texas. My mother and father came across the border from Ciudad Juárez to have me in an American hospital so I would be born an American citizen. My mother was very clever. She waited until just a few minutes before she was about to give birth before entering the emergency room so they couldn’t turn in good conscience her away.

Paul: So…

Alberto: So you’ve heard of the artist Judy Chicago. When I was in my twenties, I was working as a bricklayer in Fresno. We were at the university there for a couple weeks putting in a big brick terrace surrounded by a low brick wall. One day on my lunch break I wandered over to the art department and came to a big studio where Judy Chicago was teaching a painting class. I was mesmerized. She was strong and funny and everything she said interested me. I secretly fancied myself an artist who had yet to make art because I didn’t have the time or the money or some excuse like that. I watched her for twenty minutes and then went back to my bricklaying. A little later one of the art students walked by and I asked her who the teacher was and she said, ‘Judy Chicago. She’s famous.’ And in that very moment, I heard the name Alberto Puerto Vallarta, which is where my mother was born, so I decided that would be my name from then on.

Paul: How did you go from bricklaying to performance art?

Alberto: I went from bricklaying to being a sculptor. A couple years after my encounter with Judy Chicago, I moved to Los Angeles and we were building a brick wall around a big estate in Beverly Hills, me and Diego Ruiz. Great guy. One day these three guys show up with a big metal sculpture in the back of a flatbed truck, a blatant Calder knockoff, and then the artist shows up. Delmore Rexroth. The three guys do something to piss him off, he throws a fit, and the three guys leave. Delmore sees me and Diego and asks us to help him install the piece. When we finish, he asks me if I want to work for him.

Paul: What did you do for Delmore?

Alberto: (laughs) I made Calder knockoffs and he put his name on them and sold them to rich people. He was in Europe and New York a lot of the time, you know, schmoozing with rich people who thought he was a great artist, and while he was gone I’d spend a few hours every day working on my own art, smaller pieces, about the size of chairs. Fanciful things. Copper and bronze tubing. Strange creatures and surreal furniture. When I had seven pieces I liked, I showed pictures of them to the curator of a gallery that showed sculptures and she put me in a group show. All seven pieces sold the first night and she offered me a solo show. I quit working for Delmore, used the garage of the house I was renting with two other guys as my studio, and at the opening of my solo show, my friend Ricardo played guitar and I improvised a speech and danced with my sculptures. They were all somewhat kinetic and the people went crazy and Alberto Puerto Vallarta became a star.

Paul: Fast-forward fifty years. Your last show was about parenting. What was the genesis of that?

Alberto: I had three children, one with my first wife, two with Carmen (Alberto’s second and current wife). My first wife felt oppressed by motherhood, whereas Carmen loved being a mother, and our children profoundly reflected their mothers’ attitudes. My kids with Carmen were happy and got along very well with other people, but Lola, you know, she was so dependent on me for approval and love that until she had some good therapy when she was in her forties, she had a difficult time relating to women, and all her close friends were men.

Paul: How did you learn to parent?

Alberto: Oh from my parents. Also from taking care of my younger brother and cousins. My parents were very calm people, so I was calm, too. And once I was walking and talking, they treated me as their emotional and intellectual equal, even if I didn’t yet know everything they wanted me to know. They taught me to love and respect my elders, to do my chores, to do what was necessary for the good of the family, and they were very patient with me. My mother was excellent at explaining things to me, and both my parents celebrated my uniqueness. And they allowed me to try on all sorts of identities so long as I met my obligations to la familia. And that’s how I raised my kids. So, to answer your original question about my show, I wanted to talk about the damage being done to our children and families and communities by the way many children are being raised in America today.

Paul: What would you say is the hardest thing about parenting?

Alberto: I don’t think in terms of hard or easy. I think a parent has to take care of the child with love and consistency so when the child begins to develop the skills and confidence for self-care, love and consistency are ingrained in them. And then comes the transition phase where the child needs to be given more and more responsibility for taking care of herself and taking care of other people. That’s a big thing missing today. Taking care of other people. Taking care of the old ones who need help, the younger ones who need help, the sick and the hurt. Whoever needs care. And at the same time, the child’s uniqueness needs to be celebrated, along with everyone else’s uniqueness. Equality. You know. In this society, the media and the social system ingrain in people the idea that life is a hierarchy. We’re told we’re better than some people, not as good as other people, and we’re told winning is a virtue and losing is a shame, that some people are stupid, some are smart, some good, some bad. My children grew up knowing everyone has value and no one is less than anyone else. It’s not hard to teach that if you start right away, if you build that truth into the learning of language and in the development of social skills, but most parents don’t do that now. Everything is about superficially aggrandizing the individual while actually compressing their individuality into little boxes.

Paul: How did you handle your kids’ teenage years?

Alberto: What do you mean?

Paul: Well… their need to rebel, to break away from you… all that.

Alberto: There’s no need to rebel if you haven’t been enslaved.

Paul: But surely you disciplined them.

Alberto: Discipline, sure. But never punishment. You can’t accomplish very much without discipline, but punishment is never helpful, never productive. You can shower a child with love without spoiling him, and you can deny a kid something, some crap food or a smart phone or staying up too late without it being a punishment.

Paul: How do you do that?

Alberto: You honor their intelligence and present everything in the larger context of family and community and what’s good for them. The worst thing a parent can do is impose rules and limitations without thoroughly discussing the complicated reasons for those rules. Language! Look at Conor and Alexandra. They are far more sophisticated than most adults. Why? Because their mother raised them as her intellectual and emotional peers. She did not infantilize them, which is what is happening now more than ever because our culture, our books and movies and everything is aimed at the infant mind, or at best the adolescent.

Paul: You mentioned smart phones. What…

Alberto: Listen, there is so much proof that these things are poison for the developing brain, there shouldn’t even be a discussion. Do you let your three-year-old smoke cigarettes? But this is what the parents are doing now. Handing these phones to babies. I see it all the time. The little child in the stroller fusses, the mother or father hands the child the phone. Silence. Brain captured and it can’t form properly. This has been proven in countless rigorous studies. It should be a serious crime to give a child a portable computer before their brain is fully formed. It’s insanity on a massive scale, and it creates people who don’t know how to relate to each other, people detached from reality and separated from the miracle of life. I feel so sad about it.

Paul: Do you have a smart phone?

Alberto: Yes, I do. They took away all the pay phones and the camera on my phone is very good.

Paul: Yet you think these phones are poison.

Alberto: For the developing mind, yes. My mind is well developed and I mostly use my phone as a phone and camera.

Paul: And you make videos that people watch on their phones.

Alberto: Yes, I am entwined with the cultural matrix as it is currently manifesting. Before there was an internet and videos, I was only known to people who saw my shows or read about me in reviews. And now millions of people watch my performances on their phones and pads and computers. I want to connect with other people, and this is one of the ways I connect.

Paul: You don’t feel you’re part of the poison?

Alberto: I feel I am part of everything.

fin

The Sleep Doctor

Monday, May 6th, 2019

pacifico

Elisha and I have been married for two years now and I learn something new about her every day. Yesterday, for instance, I overheard her say to her daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, and her son Conor, who is seventeen, “When my mother was a girl in Barcelona, she and her mother would make bouquets from flowers they stole from other people’s gardens. And the one time I went to Spain with my mother, when I was twelve, she took me to the street corner where she used to stand with her basket of bouquets and call to the men and women going home from work, “Flowers for your wife. Flowers for your husband. Flowers for your sweetheart.”

Today in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, our small town on the far north coast of California, I learned… well, first I’ll set the scene.

Elisha, who is forty-eight, works at Mona’s from six-thirty in the morning until two in the afternoon. She walks to work from our house a few blocks to the west of Mona’s, arriving in time to help Mona and Jose finish emptying the ovens of the first round of baked goods. Then she fills the display-case trays with muffins and pastries and cookies, brews the coffee, opens the front door promptly at seven, and greets the early birds with her cheerful Good Morning.

Elisha was born and raised in Ireland, her father Irish, her mother Spanish, her accent revealing both lineages. Easy in her body, with long reddish brown hair, her work attire consists of a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, a long skirt, tights, colorful socks, and comfortable walking shoes. She is the morning and early afternoon counterperson at Mona’s and would win in a landslide if she ran for mayor, no matter who she ran against.

I am Paul, fifty-seven, a fifth-generation Californian, my father descended from English Irish Scots, my mother from Ashkenazi Jews. I arrive at Mona’s every morning circa ten and spend a few hours at a window table writing letters and poems and short stories, sipping tea and nibbling muffins, and occasionally engaging in conversations with friends.

I sit as far from the counter as one can without going outside, but even so, if I choose to, I can hear Elisha’s exchanges with her customers, though most of the time her conversations with people ordering bread and coffee and pastries blend with other conversations and the clattering of cups and the clinking of silverware and cars driving by and piano jazz playing on the café stereo—a pleasant ambient soundscape to accompany my scribbling.

But this morning I am riveted by the exchanges Elisha has with her customers; and from these exchanges I learn something new and wonderful about my wife.

Allison Hardy, twenty-eight, formidably strong, works at Carmeline Creek Nursery, steps to the counter.

Elisha: Good morning Allison. You look marvelous. Sleeping better?

Allison: (exuberant) I am. I’ve been following your advice and it really works.

Elisha: Oh I’m so happy to hear that. What can I get for you?

Allison: Well, per your suggestion, I’ll have a small decaf and two bran muffins. To go.

Elisha hands Allison a white paper cup for the self-serve coffee, a white bag containing two muffins, rings up the sale, and as Allison moves away, Thomas Enders, fifty-seven, owner of Enders Hardware, burly, avuncular, steps to the counter.

Elisha: Morning Thomas. The usual?

Thomas: Well I was going to say the usual, but I couldn’t help overhearing Allison say you helped her sleep better. I’ve been having a terrible time getting to sleep and staying asleep for the last… I don’t know… years and years, and I wonder if what you told her might help me, too.

Elisha: It might, but I have the feeling your sleep issues are not quite the same as Allison’s. May I ask you a question or two?

Thomas: (reddens) Sure.

Elisha: Do you stay up late? Past ten?

Thomas: Yes. We watch television every night until eleven and then I let the dog out for a few minutes, and when the dog comes back in, we go to bed.

Elisha: What do you watch on television after supper?

Thomas: Oh we usually watch a murder mystery and then the news.

Elisha: Does your wife have difficulty sleeping?

Thomas: She falls right asleep, but then she wakes up. Bad dreams. And if I’ve managed to fall asleep, I wake up when she wakes up, and then I have a terrible time getting back to sleep and we’re both wrecks in the morning, though she’s usually less wrecked than I am.

Elisha: (after musing or a moment) Well I would suggest that instead of watching the news after your murder mystery, you take a walk in the night air, have a cup of chamomile tea, and listen to some music before you go to bed.

Thomas: Oh but we’re addicted to the news. It’s the grand finale of our day.

As Thomas and Elisha converse, Margaret Johannsen, sixty-three, graphic artist, deep-voiced, gets in line and listens avidly to Elisha and Thomas’s conversation.

Elisha: But Thomas, that’s the pattern you need to break. The murder mystery and the news engage your intellect and ignite a subtle fear response, so when you go to bed you’re in a state of mental agitation.

Thomas: Hmm. So do you think I should switch to decaf?

Elisha: (laughs) I don’t think caffeine is your problem. I think it is your inquiring mind being too excited to sleep. Our left brain, the analytical brain, is meant to run the show during our waking hours, but the right brain is what we want overseeing our sleep.

Thomas: Well, I’ll give it a try. Sure would love to have a good night’s sleep. So… no news, walk outside, chamomile tea, music. What kind of music?

Elisha: Piano.

Thomas: Piano. Okay. And… yes, I’ll have the usual.

Margaret Johannsen: Forgive me for barging in, Thomas, but I urge you to do whatever she tells you. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a decade, and three nights after I started following her prescription, I slept for nine hours and felt reborn, and now I sleep like a baby every night.

Thomas: What did she tell you to do?

Margaret: Before bed, I do twenty minutes of gentle yoga, then I take a warm bath, and while I’m in the bath, I sing. Then I eat a banana, brush my teeth, get in bed, and envision in real time preparing the ground for planting carrot seeds, planting the seeds, watering the bed, and… I rarely get past planting the seeds before I’m asleep.

Thomas: Were you watching the news, too?

Margaret: No, I was surfing the internet and dreading another night without good sleep.

Thomas: A banana? (turns to Elisha) Should I try eating a banana?

Elisha: If you’re hungry. Most people don’t realize it takes energy, calories, to sleep. So if you wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, try eating a banana or a piece of bread with almond butter on it, and when you get back in bed, imagine your body being ready now to do the slow and gentle and steady work of sleep.

When Elisha gets home from work mid-afternoon, we take our four dogs for a walk to the beach, and while I’m flinging tennis balls for the dogs, I say to Elisha, “I had no idea you knew so much about sleep.”

She smiles and says, “I wouldn’t say I know much about sleep. But for some reason when I look at a person who is not sleeping well, a solution occurs to me, and sometimes that solution works. But I think the most important thing, no matter what I suggest, is that the person breaks the old pattern with an intention to sleep better, and this intention combined with the new way of getting ready for bed is what does the trick.”

     fin

Willing To Pretend

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

blossoming cherry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t you say he liked poetry?”

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

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

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

“Or I could make us something.”

“Or we could make something together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you call the police?”

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

“Did he come out in a few days?”

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

“What did the sheriff do?”

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

“And now he’s found you again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she whispers.

“Ah,” I say, nodding.

“Ah what?” she says, frowning at me.

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

“Yes, it did,” she says, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

“We?” I say, arching an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   fin

Promise of Joy

Monday, April 1st, 2019

joy bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       fin