Posts Tagged ‘friends’

Raymond’s Band

Monday, December 10th, 2018

Raymond's Band

Raymond’s partner Tina will sometimes tease Raymond by saying he loves his guitar Susie more than he loves her, which Raymond doesn’t think is true, though he does love his guitar. He’s been playing since he was ten, and now he’s thirty-three, a superb guitarist, and he can’t imagine life without a guitar. He also can’t imagine life without Tina, and he knows she only teases him about loving Susie more than he loves her when she wants him to pay more attention to her, which is something he’s always happy to do.

A wearer of brown khaki pants, red high-top tennies, and colorful T-shirts, Raymond Chance is a sturdy five-foot-nine with short brown hair and brilliant green eyes, the brilliance somewhat muted by his wire-framed glasses, the lenses tinted light gray. The youngest of two children, his sister five years older than he, Raymond was born in Burlingame, California, his mother a first-generation Irish American, his father descended from pioneers who reached California in wagon trains a decade before the Gold Rush of 1849. From his mother, a high school music teacher, Raymond got his love of music and storytelling, and from his father, a plumber, he learned basic carpentry skills, an appreciation for baseball, and how to barbecue chicken.

A wearer of skirts, sandals, and embroidered Mexican blouses, Tina Ramirez is thirty-two, five-foot-three, with big brown eyes and long brown hair. The middle child of five siblings, Tina was born in San Jose, California, her mother Cuban, her father Mexican. A gymnast from the age of six until she was sixteen, Tina was an excellent student and received a full scholarship to San Jose State. From her mother, a seamstress, Tina learned to cook and make clothes and dance the Rumba and Mambo. From her father, a construction worker, Tina learned to work hard, how to grow tomatoes and chili peppers, and how to make killer guacamole.

Tina and Raymond have been friends for eleven years, lovers for nine, housemates for eight, and they both say they want to get married, but they haven’t set a date, nor do they talk much about marriage. They are both ambivalent about having children, not because they don’t love children, they do, but because they barely make enough money to cover their expenses, despite having an old car and sharing the three-bedroom house they rent in Oakland with four other people.

Raymond is a teacher’s aide in a private pre-school in Berkeley, his hours seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, though he often stays an extra hour until the last child has gone home. He loves his job, though it pays poorly, and he frequently searches the Want Ads for another job. He plays the guitar for at least two hours every day and has written hundreds of songs, seventy-four of which he thinks are really good.

Tina is a substitute teacher, mostly middle school, and makes twice what Raymond makes per hour, but she hates subbing and is taking online courses to improve her computer skills and enhance her chances of landing an Internet Technology job. Both she and Raymond have degrees in English from San Jose State where they met in a Creative Writing class. Tina hasn’t written anything since graduating from college, and Raymond mostly writes songs these days, though occasionally he’ll write a short story and share it with the household.

Raymond and Tina have a band called Pepperoni. Raymond is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist and writer of all the songs, Tina plays electric bass and sings harmony, and Derek, Raymond’s friend since childhood, plays lead guitar. They’ve had one regular gig for the last five months, every Sunday late morning to early afternoon at Calm Coffee, a popular café in Emeryville. Raymond has tried to get more gigs for the band, but the three songs on the Pepperoni demo CD they made in their living room reveal more of the group’s flaws than virtues. Raymond is a masterful guitarist with a pleasing voice, but Tina is frequently out of synch with Raymond when singing harmony and playing bass, and Derek is a sloppy player who uses the same seven-note blues riff over and over again.

Now and then, usually when he hasn’t had enough sleep, Raymond admits to himself that Tina and Derek are musical liabilities, but Tina loves playing bass and singing with Raymond, and Derek and Raymond started playing guitars together in Fifth Grade and Raymond thinks Derek would be devastated if he couldn’t be in the band.

Raymond landed the Calm Coffee gig by playing and singing solo for the manager of the café, Fiona Marconi, in her office adjacent to the café kitchen. Fiona, a professional dancer with expressive hands and short black hair, loved Raymond’s singing and playing, and she was more than a little peeved when he showed up with Tina and Derek for the gig; but she has such an enormous crush on Raymond, she can’t bring herself to fire Pepperoni.

One rainy Sunday in April, Tina wakes with a debilitating headache and Derek calls from Burlingame where he still lives with his parents to say he has the flu, so Raymond goes to play the Calm Coffee gig by himself.

When Raymond tells Fiona he’ll be playing solo today, Fiona wants to throw her arms around him and kiss him, but she resists those impulses and effuses, “Truth be told, you’re so good by yourself, I really don’t think you need those other two.”

Raymond nods his thanks to Fiona for her compliment, tunes Susie, plugs into the café sound system, and sits on a high stool rather than standing as he usually does when he performs with Tina and Derek.

He starts his first set with a swinging love song full of delightful chord changes and enchanting lyrics, and many of the customers stop talking to listen. At song’s end, the applause is boisterous, something that never happens when Tina and Derek play with Raymond.

The interesting thing to Raymond is, though he knows he sounds much better playing and singing alone, he misses Tina and Derek playing with him. And on this Sunday, for the first time in his life, he realizes he has chosen mediocrity over excellence because he is uncomfortable playing in public by himself. But why do I have to play with such lousy musicians?

By the end of Raymond’s third set, Calm Coffee is jammed with people listening to him; and when he finishes his last tune, the applause goes on for so long he is moved to play an encore, after which dozens of people put money in his tip jar and thank him for playing.

Fiona pays Raymond twenty dollars more than the usual fifty, gives him a big bag of muffins and cookies, and goes on and on about what a wonderful solo performer he is, but she stops short of asking him to henceforth play the Calm Coffee gig solo.

In his car, before heading home, Raymond counts his tips and can’t believe the total. So he counts the money again, looks around to confirm he is still on planet Earth, and whispers, “Two hundred and forty-seven dollars? Impossible.”

The following Sunday morning at ten, Fiona is gravely disappointed when Derek, a heavyset guy with long dank blond hair, and Tina arrive at Calm Coffee with Raymond. But despite her disappointment, Fiona decides not to tell Raymond about the dozens of phone calls she received during the week from people asking if Raymond would be playing by himself again this week.

The truth is, Fiona has only kept Pepperoni on the bill for as long as she has because she keeps hoping Raymond will either break up with Tina or wake up to his genius and start gigging solo, or both. But because Fiona did not call Raymond in the days leading up to this Sunday’s gig and tell him about those phone calls from people who love him but can’t stand the full ensemble, she decides to let today’s drama unfold however it will and hope her customers won’t boo the band, though if they do boo, she won’t be surprised.

As it happens, the customers don’t boo, either because they don’t stay to listen or they stay and don’t listen, the café din all but drowning out the music; and Raymond feels terrible as Tina keeps losing the beat and playing the wrong notes and coming in late with her harmonies, and Derek keeps bending the same handful of notes exactly as he’s been bending them since he was thirteen.

Only a few people put change in the tip jar, and when the last song is sung, Fiona asks Raymond to come to her office where she pays him and says, “I’m sorry, Raymond, but we’re going to go with somebody else on Sundays from now on. It was great getting to know you. I love your songs. Good luck.”

“I appreciate you keeping us on here for as long as you did,” says Raymond, smiling at her. “Meant a lot to us. Thanks.”

Fiona takes a deep breath and says, “If you ever want to play solo, let me know. Okay? I’d love to have you gig here and I know I could get you gigs other places, too. But not with Tina and Derek. They’re just not in your league, Raymond. You know that, don’t you?”

“I hear you,” he says, waving goodbye. “Thanks again, Fiona.”

At the table in Calm Coffee where Derek and Tina and Raymond are having their customary after-gig coffee and bagels, Raymond is trying to work up the courage to tell Tina and Derek about the termination of their run at Calm Coffee, when a man approaches their table. He’s tall and good-looking with longish gray hair, wearing a black corduroy jacket over a green T-shirt tucked into black corduroy trousers.

He nods politely to Tina and Derek, smiles at Raymond and says, “Sorry to barge in, but I heard you playing solo last week and came back to hear you again today.” He hands Raymond a business card. “I’m very interested in your music. I have a recording studio just around the corner here, and I’m working with a couple of artists who would love to record some of your songs. If that’s of any interest to you, please give me a call and we’ll set something up.”

“Okay,” says Raymond, pocketing the card without looking at it. “Thanks.”

The man walks away, and now Raymond doesn’t have the heart to tell Tina and Derek about the end of their Calm Coffee gig, just as he didn’t have the heart to tell them about the two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips and the extra twenty he made last week.

That night, as they are settling down to sleep, Tina says to Raymond, “I felt pretty good about my playing today. I think I’m finally getting the knack of playing bass and singing at the same time. Don’t you think?”

Raymond clears his throat. “Yeah. You were fine.”

“Fine?” she says, with a touch of anger. “What do you mean fine?”

“I mean you were good,” says Raymond, unconvincingly.

“That guy who gave you his card certainly thought we were good,” she says, petulantly. “Why else would he be interested in our songs?”

“Honey, they’re not our songs, they’re my songs.”

“What?” she says, sitting up and turning on the light. “Your songs? Since when are they your songs and not Pepperoni’s songs?”

“Are you serious?” says Raymond, frowning at her. “I wrote them. I play them. I sing them and you guys play along. You didn’t write them. I did.”

Tina gets out of bed and glares at Raymond. “So does this mean you’re gonna go see that guy without me and Derek? Your songs are… they’re skeletal without us.”

“Skeletal?” says Raymond, sitting up and laughing. “Are you out of your mind?”

Tina folds her arms. “So this is what I get for playing with you for five years? This is how you treat Derek after he played with you for twenty years? You dump us the minute some guy with a recording studio gives you his card?”

“The guy is interested in my songs,” says Raymond, flabbergasted. “Not in our band. He wants the songs, maybe, for some people he’s recording. I’m a songwriter. You’re not, and neither is Derek. Can we please discuss this rationally? I am not dumping you. If I go see this guy, and I may not, I will play him my songs and if he wants some of them, we’ll figure something out. Do you hear what I’m saying? This is not about the band. It’s about the songs.”

“Yeah, but he liked the songs because of the way we played them,” she says, angrily. “Will you at least admit that?”

“No,” says Raymond, shaking his head. “What I’ll admit is last Sunday I played at Calm Coffee without you and Derek, and I made two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips, and Fiona paid me an extra twenty dollars over the usual fifty. And today she told me she doesn’t want Pepperoni playing there anymore.”

Tina glares at Raymond. “I know why you’re doing this. Because you resent that I make more money than you, and you resent that I’m going to get a tech job and make serious money while you barely make minimum wage.”

“Tina,” he says quietly. “I’m happy you make good money subbing, and I’ll be happy when you get a job you like and make even more money. I work at the pre-school because I love the job and I love the kids, but my real job, the job I care most about, is my music. And I really don’t understand why you would begrudge me a little success with what I’ve dedicated my whole life to. I don’t get it.”

She sits on the edge of the bed and says, “I begrudge you because I’m jealous of you. As if you didn’t know. I was gonna be a writer. Remember? And you were gonna be a writer. But we ended up being what we are, and I don’t do anything creative except play bass and sing with you, and I know I’m not very good, but I love it because it’s something creative, something not just about getting money and surviving. It’s what we wanted to be. Artists. And you work at being an artist and I don’t. I could write. I could write stories and post them online. But I don’t because I’m not passionate about writing anymore. I don’t see the point. And I’m tired of just scraping by. You don’t seem to care that you don’t make very much money because you’ve got your music. But I don’t have music except when I play along with you. And now I can’t even do that.”

Raymond crawls across the bed and puts his arms around her. “Maybe we should move somewhere where it doesn’t cost so much to live. We don’t have to live in the most expensive place in the world. Do we?”

“No,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “I’m sorry I got mad at you. I’m glad that guy likes your songs. They’re great songs.” She kisses him. “Did you really make two hundred and forty-seven dollars, plus the fifty, plus twenty more?”

“I did,” says Raymond, excitedly. “Wanna see?”

Suite Chariot is the name of Zack Mathias’s recording company, Zack Mathias the man who gave Raymond his card at Calm Coffee. Raymond researched Zack Mathias on the Internet and learned that Zack, who hails from New York, has produced several albums for well-known singers and played bass on dozens of albums, some of them hugely successful.

Which is why, on the Saturday after Pepperoni performed at Calm Coffee for the last time, Raymond hesitates to press the brass doorbell button on the wall next to the large red door on the ground floor of a two-story white stucco warehouse, the sign above the door—magenta letters on a field of turquoise—identifying this as the entrance to Suite Chariot.

Indeed, Raymond is so intimidated by the thought of meeting Zack, he is on the verge of not pressing the doorbell, and returning home and sending an apologetic email to Zack retracting his offer to meet with him, when a woman runs by with a large menacing dog on a leash, and Raymond is startled into pressing the button.

And before his fear of meeting Zack can take over again, the red door opens and here is a striking African American woman with black hair captured in dozens of long slender braids. She is wearing a turquoise sweatshirt, purple sweatpants, and gold basketball shoes, her lips painted cherry red.

“Welcome Raymond,” she says, giving Raymond a wide-eyed smile, her voice deep and warm. “I’m Maru. Zack’s running a little late. Come in. We’ll get you set up in the studio. He’ll be here soon.”

Raymond follows Maru down a long narrow hallway to a small waiting room appointed with a plush sofa and armchair, one wall of the little room dominated by a large oil painting of Jimi Hendrix wearing the long curly brown-haired wig and sumptuous clothing of Louis XIV while holding an electric lute plugged into a classic Fender Reverb amp.

From the waiting room, they enter a large performance room with a big window in one of the walls looking into a control room where an African American man with short gray hair is sitting in a comfortable-looking chair at the recording console. He is wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt, a red bowtie, and black slacks. He waves to Raymond, and Raymond waves back.

“Um,” says Raymond, looking around the performance room and seeing five microphones on stands, a trap set, and a large reddish-brown standup bass in a beautiful wooden box stand, “I didn’t think I was going to be recording anything today. I thought we were just going to… I was just gonna play some tunes for Zack and…”

“That’s right,” says Maru, moving one of the microphones, “but Zack likes to record everything because we never know when lightning might strike.”

“That’s true,” says Raymond, taking of his jacket. “We never know, do we?”

“Nope,” says Maru, taking Raymond’s jacket from him. “People call you Raymond or Ray?”

“Raymond,” he says, laughing nervously. “But that’s only because nobody’s ever called me Ray. I don’t know why, but no one ever has.”

“Raymond feels a little formal to me,” she says, pursing her lips. “Be okay if I call you Ray?”

“Yeah, I like it when you say Ray,” he says, blushing.

“How about when I say Ray?” says the fellow in the control room, his gravelly voice coming through a speaker on the wall above the window.

“Yeah, I like that, too,” says Raymond, smiling at the man. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Jerry,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “But everybody calls me Tap.”

“Tap’s a most excellent drummer,” says Maru, coming close to Raymond. “You like to stand or sit when you play?”

“Either,” says Raymond, feeling like he’s about to fall off a cliff. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Your choice,” says Maru, nodding.

“Well, I play a little better sitting down,” says Raymond, looking around for something to sit on, “but I sing better standing.” He shrugs. “I guess I’ll sit.”

“Chair, stool, or piano bench?” asks Tap, getting up from his chair in the control room. “I’m thinkin’ piano bench.”

“Yeah, that would be perfect,” says Raymond, getting Susie out of her case. “I’ve never been in a recording studio before.”

“Seriously?” says Maru, frowning at him. “You play like you were born in one, Ray.”

“Where… “ Raymond clears his throat. “Where did you hear me play?”

“At Calm Coffee,” she says, nodding. “Two weeks ago. Zack called and told us to get over there as soon as we could. And I’m so glad we did.” She looks into the control room. “Here’s Zack.”

“Hey Raymond,” says Zack, standing at the control console. “Sorry I’m late. Got stuck in traffic on the bridge. Madhouse out there.”

“You live in San Francisco?” asks Raymond, watching Tap wheel in a big brown piano bench on a yellow dolly.

“No, I live here when I’m in town,” says Zack, taking off his jacket, his T-shirt red today. “Upstairs. Couple bedrooms, kitchen, dance floor. I stayed in a hotel in the city last night. Stayed up way too late listening to a couple singer songwriters.” He sits down at the console. “And the whole time I was listening to them, I kept thinking about your songs, especially that one about the guy who goes next door to complain about the loud music and ends up falling in love. That’s a hit, Raymond.”

“Oh, thanks,” says Raymond, unconsciously fingering the first few chords of the song. “Glad you like it. That one’s called ‘Too Much Noise.’”

“Great song,” says Zack, nodding. “Would you play that one first?”

“Sure,” says Raymond, sitting on the piano bench and tuning Susie as Maru positions three microphones around him, one for his voice, one aimed at Susie’s sound hole, one aimed at Susie’s neck.

“You want headphones?” asks Maru, smiling sweetly at Raymond.

“For what?” he asks, innocently.

“To hear yourself playing and singing.” She laughs in delight. “You really are a studio virgin, aren’t you?”

“Let’s go without headphones,” says Zack, with quiet authority. “They can take some getting used to.”

Maru and Tap join Zack in the control room, and Zack says, “Any time you’re ready, Mr. Chance.”

Raymond closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and improvises a lovely opening for his sweet little rocker “Too Much Noise”.

In the unsullied quiet of the performance room, Raymond hears his voice and guitar more clearly than he has ever heard them, and he loves how he sounds.

When he finishes the tune, he opens his eyes and sees Maru and Tap and Zack applauding in the control room; and in the next moment they are with him—Tap sitting down at the trap set, Zack standing with his big bass, and Maru sitting on a high stool.

“Play that one again, Raymond,” says Zack, nodding. “That was fantastic.”

So Raymond starts the song again, this time with a different opening, and Zack adds a few quiet bass notes right on the beat, and Tap swirls his brushes on the snare drum; and Zack’s subtle playing and Tap’s tender drumming carry Raymond into the body of his song.

And as he plays and sings, Raymond knows he has never heard anything as beautiful as Zack and Tap playing with him, supporting him; and when Maru joins him on the chorus, her astounding voice locked in perfect harmony with his, Raymond is changed forever.

Too much noise, the walls were shaking

Too much noise, my heart was breaking

Too much noise, I just couldn’t take it,

So I went next door and fell in love.

 

Raymond plays three more of his songs, Zack and Tap and Maru join him on reiterations of each, and after an hour of musical bliss, Maru whips out her phone and orders Chinese food, and the four of them go upstairs to await delivery of lunch.

Zack gives Raymond a tour of his digs, and during the tour tells Raymond he has two other set-ups like this, one in Austin, one in London.

“The only actual house I own is in Hawaii, on Kauai,” he says, leading Raymond back to the kitchen. “I like to be warm in the winter.”

Tap comes up the stairs with the Chinese food, and when everyone has a full plate, Zack raises his cup of green tea and says, “To our great good fortune in finding you, Raymond. May this be the beginning of a marvelous collaboration.”

Glasses are clinked, tea is drunk, food is enjoyed, and Zack says, “So… Raymond. If you haven’t guessed already, I want to produce your first album. And your second and third and fourth, God willing.”

My album?” says Raymond, freezing. “I thought you were just interested in my songs for other people to record.”

“Oh other people are definitely gonna record your songs,” says Tap, nodding emphatically. “But you have to make a record, Ray. You have to.”

“I… I… well, of course I want to, but…”

A silence falls, Zack and Tap and Maru waiting for Raymond to explain his reticence.

“As I told you, Zack,” says Raymond, clearing his throat, “I have a fulltime job at a pre-school. I’m a teacher’s aide. And… I suppose I could do some recording at night and on weekends, but…”

“You keep saying but,” says Maru, frowning at him. “What’s up with that, Ray?”

“I’m… well…” He laughs anxiously. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before so I’m just… I’m not sure how to do this.”

“May I propose something?” says Zack, smiling hopefully at Raymond.

“Please,” says Raymond, nodding humbly.

“I will sign you to a six-month recording deal with me as the producer of your album, and I’ll pay you a monthly salary equal to or greater than what you make in your current job. We’ll make an album, the four of us along with some other people we’ll bring in, and then I’ll try to make a deal with a label. I think Blue Note will go crazy over you.”

“Crazy,” says Maru, nodding in agreement.

“And if they don’t go crazy, somebody else will,” says Tap, pointing at Raymond. “I’d bet serious dollars on that.”

Raymond takes Tina out for supper that night to an Indian restaurant, and after they place their order, Tina says, “The suspense is killing me. How did it go today with Zack Mathias the famous bass player?”

“Went well,” says Raymond, nodding. “Went… um… really well. He wants to produce an album with me.”

“He wants some of your songs?” she asks hopefully.

“All the songs on the album would be mine,” says Raymond, finding it hard to breathe. “And I would be playing them and singing them with Zack playing bass and a guy named Tap playing drums and a woman named Maru singing with me, and other people, too, would play and sing on the album.”

Tina frowns. “I thought he just wanted some of your songs. Isn’t that what he said at Calm Coffee?”

“Yes, that’s what he said at the café, but after I played him a few songs, he got this other idea.” Raymond smiles, trying not to cry. “He’s a very nice guy, Tina, and he’s a fantastic musician and… and he really likes my music. So…”

“Wow,” says Tina, her eyes filling with tears. “So are you gonna do it?”

“Yes,” says Raymond, looking at her. “I think so. I want to go over the contract with you and…”

“You’re signing a contract?” says Tina, frowning. “Is he paying you?”

“Well… if I sign the contract, yes. He’ll pay me four thousand dollars a month for six months and cover all the costs of the recording and the other musicians and… I’ll be taking a break from working at the pre-school to just focus on the music.”

“Oh my God, Raymond,” she says, getting up and going to him. “It’s incredible. Hurray for you.”

“Hurray for us,” he says, rising to embrace her—their outburst inspiring several diners to clap because they think Raymond just proposed to Tina and she’s saying Yes.

They hold each other, crying and laughing, and Raymond says, “Thank you, honey. Thank you for loving me.”

“I love you so much,” she says, looking into his eyes. “But how are you ever gonna tell Derek?”

Raymond signs the contract with Zack the next day, and the day after that he gives two-weeks notice at the pre-school, and the following Saturday he takes BART from Oakland to Burlingame to have lunch with Derek.

For the entire hour-long train journey, Raymond is consumed with guilt, not about pursuing his musical career without Derek, but for allowing Derek to believe he was Raymond’s musical peer for the last twenty years, when in fact Derek reached his musical zenith in junior high.

For many years, Raymond assumed Derek was aware of the difference in their guitar-playing abilities, but one weekend during Raymond’s third year at San Jose State, Derek visited Raymond at the house Raymond was renting with four other college guys, and something happened during Derek’s visit that made Raymond rethink his assumption about how Derek perceived things.

One of Raymond’s housemates, Gino, was a good guitarist, and Raymond and Gino had worked out some fairly complicated duets of three Django Reinhardt tunes. The Saturday night when Derek was visiting, Gino and Raymond performed the duets at their house party attended by about forty young men and women, and the response to their playing was so enthusiastic they were compelled to perform their duets a second time.

Afterwards, Derek, who was very stoned, joined a group of people heaping praise on Gino and Raymond, and proclaimed loudly, “Yeah, they were good, but you should hear me and Raymond play. We’re amazing together.”

Several people responded to Derek’s boast by asking to hear Raymond and Derek play. Gino handed his guitar to Derek, Raymond took up his guitar, and Derek said, “Play that blues thing we always do.”

So Raymond improvised a pleasing progression of jazzy blues chords and Derek played the same seven-note riff over and over again, not quite in synch with Raymond, and when Raymond ended the song, a few people clapped, and that was that.

The next morning, before Derek headed back to Burlingame, he said to Raymond, “We should start a band. We were incredible last night. People were blown away.”

Ten minutes from Burlingame, recalling that moment in San Jose twelve years ago, Raymond thinks That’s when I should have told him. But I couldn’t because he didn’t have anything else in his life and I thought he would kill himself if I told him the truth.

After Raymond graduated from college and moved to Oakland, Derek would come visit for a day and a night every week, and in the evenings during those visits, Raymond and Derek would play guitars and Derek would play the same blues riff over and over again.

Raymond thought of these sessions as his gift to Derek for being such a loyal friend and because he didn’t have the will to tell Derek not to come visit, though he and Tina came to dread Derek coming because he seemed so lost and sad and he still lived at home with his parents and had never had a girlfriend and didn’t seem to have anything in his life except television and video games and his job delivering newspapers.

Derek and Raymond have lunch in a pizza parlor where Derek goes every day, his home away from home, where everyone who works there knows him by name.

“I think I could get us a gig here,” says Derek, looking around the pizza parlor. “They don’t have live music here, but I’ll bet I could talk them into it.” He nods confidently. “They love me here.”

“This is good pizza,” says Raymond, lying; and his lie irks him, and he blurts, “You know that guy who gave me his card at Calm Coffee?”

“Yeah,” says Derek, nodding enthusiastically. “He had a great belt. Did you notice his belt? It was like this amazing shiny dark burgundy leather. And very thin. And the belt buckle was silver and like a piece of modern art. I went online looking for a belt like that, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll bet it’s Italian. Looked very expensive. What about him?”

“His name is Zack Mathias and he turns out to be quite a well-known record producer and bass player.” Raymond looks away from Derek. “I’m gonna be making an album with him.”

“Really?” says Derek, amazed. “When?”

“Starting now and working for the next few months and then… he’s gonna try to sell the album to a record company.” Raymond forces himself to look at Derek. “He really likes my songs and my singing and… my playing.”

“Well he should,” says Derek, grinning at Raymond. “So will you be like… touring?”

“I don’t know,” says Raymond, his heart breaking. “Maybe.”

“Wow,” says Derek, beckoning to a passing waitress. “Hey Leslie, this is my best friend Raymond. He’s making an album with a big time record producer.”

“Congratulations,” says Leslie, with little enthusiasm.

“Thank you,” says Raymond, his eyes full of tears.

“So you gonna be his roadie, Derek?” asks Leslie, arching her eyebrow.

“No, he won’t need a roadie,” says Derek, gazing fondly at Raymond. “He’s great all by himself.”

         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

My Big Trip, Part Two

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” Tim Cahill

Staying with friends was the only way I could afford to make my trip to New York in 1976 last more than a week or so, and I wanted to stay in or near Manhattan for at least three weeks. When I left for New York, I thought I had two places to stay, one in Newark, New Jersey with Dan and Janka, and one on West 83rd Street in Manhattan with Scott and Richard, but when Janka’s mother learned I was planning to stay in the area for several weeks, she invited me to use the guest room in her apartment on West 94th Street, three blocks from Central Park.

When I tell longtime New Yorkers where I stayed in 1976, the usual reaction to West 83rd Street is, “A bit edgy in those days, but not terrible,” while the take on West 94th is, “I hope you didn’t walk around alone at night.” By 1983, the last year I visited New York, West 83rd had become a chichi high rent neighborhood and West 94th was considered relatively safe, but in 1976 Richard and Scott’s old apartment building on West 83rd was guarded by a big Puerto Rican guy armed with a baseball bat and West 94th…

Imagine dusk descending in early October as young Todd enters Central Park at West 96th with the intention of walking across the park to meet a friend on the Upper East Side. A few hundred yards into the park, Todd notices two things: the back of his neck is tingling and the park is completely deserted. He walks a bit farther, but stops when his heart begins to pound and he has the distinct feeling he is being watched. At which moment, a police car comes rolling toward him on the wide asphalt path. Todd steps to one side, the squad car stops beside him, and the driver’s window sinks down a few inches so the officers might converse with our quaking traveler.

“Where you goin’?” asks the officer behind the wheel, a portly middle-aged guy.

“I’m meeting a friend on East 85th,” Todd replies, smiling wanly. “Is this not a good idea, walking across the park here?”

“Indeed,” says the officer, nodding. “Not good.”

“Not good at all,” says the other officer, shaking his head. “Where you from, champ?”

“Oregon,” says Todd, hoping the officers will transport him to safety.

“Well,” says the officer behind the wheel, “we’ve had some muggings around here recently. Exactly right here, in fact. Yesterday. So we encourage you to exit the park and take the subway or a cab to meet your friend.”

“Can you guard me until I get out?” Todd asks, nodding hopefully.

The officers exchange smiles and the guy behind the wheel says, “Sure. We’ll follow you out. How about that?”

 “One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” Edith Wharton

Janka’s mother (I will call her M) was a most serious person, her pretty face carved by worry and suffering. She was a medical doctor working in a hospital in a part of Harlem so dangerous she had to be escorted to and from her taxi by armed guards; and how she came to be a doctor was a most incredible story. When she was a teenager living in a small town in Poland, the German army invaded her country, and as the German soldiers approached her town she fled on foot in the direction of Russia, following the railroad tracks. As she ran, a slow moving Russian-bound train overtook her, the cars full of wounded Russian soldiers. A nurse on the train, a young Polish woman, knew M and urged her to jump onboard, which M did.

“Now,” said M’s friend, “you must pretend you are a nurse or they will throw you off. I will show you what to do.”

“And,” said M, telling me her story thirty-seven years after jumping on that train, “by the time we got to Russia, I was a nurse, learning what to do as we went along.”

M was given more formal medical training in Russia and sent to work in a Leningrad hospital, arriving shortly before the German and Finnish armies laid siege to the city, a terrible siege that lasted nine hundred days and resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 people.

“Many days,” said M, heaping my plate with food, “we had nothing to eat. We would make soup of hot water and anything we could find to put in, sometimes a potato, sometimes nothing but onion peel. We all expected to die. We were living skeletons. To this day I don’t know how I survived.”

When the war ended, M attended medical school in the Soviet Union and then returned to Poland to find that the Germans had killed every member of her family—grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. She practiced medicine and married a man who became a well-known economist. They had two children, Janka and Helena, and during a brief political thaw, so-called, in the 1960’s, M divorced her husband and immigrated to the United States with her teenaged daughters.

My first evening with M, she cooked enough food for ten. “I know, I know,” she said apologetically, “I have problem with food. I buy more than I need, I cook more than I need, but…when you starve for so many months and years, well…”

I liked M very much and I liked hearing her stories of life in Poland and Russia and America, and I liked her guest room and the fabulous food she served me, but I had to leave after three nights with her because she was miserable when I didn’t have supper with her, and she would wait up for me because she was worried about my safety.

On the second night I stayed with M, I came home after midnight and found her cooking up a storm. “I made nice roast and mashed potatoes and green beans and chocolate cake. You are hungry, yes?”

“Actually, I’m stuffed,” I said, hating to disappoint her. “And I’m exhausted, so…”

“Oh, stay up a little while, please? Talk to me. Have something to eat. I want to hear about your day. Did you go to Museum of Modern Art?”

So we stayed up until two, and before she left for work early the next morning, she wrote me a long note describing what she was cooking for supper, though I had told her I was dining with friends. And when I came home that night, she was waiting for me with mountains of food and insisting I eat and stay up with her; and if I hadn’t already made other plans, I might have stayed with her for weeks and months and grown tremendously fat, but that was not why I thought I had come to New York.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber

I thought I had come to New York to immerse myself in what I imagined would be a scintillating literary scene, and to make friends with other people passionate about writing. So when my agent Dorothy Pittman invited me to a party at her Greenwich Village pad and said she had invited writers and editors and theater people, I felt certain I was about to walk through some magic portal into a world I had long dreamed of inhabiting.

This would also be my first meeting with Dorothy in the flesh, though we had spoken on the phone and exchanged many letters. I had no idea what she looked like, this being long before the advent of computers and Google and sending photos in emails; and I’m fairly certain Dorothy didn’t know what I looked like either, so there was excitement about that, too—finally laying eyes on the great advocate of my writing.

Dorothy’s husband John—a handsome man recently transplanted from California—answered the door and ushered me into their crowded little flat, the air dense with cigarette smoke. “How you holding up?” he asked, giving me a knowing smile. “This city can knock the shit out of you.”

Which was true. I’d only been there five days and I was totally worn out and longing to do nothing but sleep for a day or two.

And here was Dorothy, tall and slender with short silvery hair and shining eyes—a radiant being illumined from within—beaming with pleasure. “Well there you are,” she said with her marvelous Georgia drawl. “I am so happy to see you.”

She took my hand and led me into their little living room and introduced me to the dozen or so men and women gathered there—every last one of them smoking a cigarette—and I was sure I was going to pass out from lack of air. But worse than the smoke was how deeply uninteresting I found these people—save for Dorothy—and how obviously disinterested they were in me, so that when the party was over, I rode the subway back to M’s place feeling downright sad.

Nearly all the talk had been about money and who had gotten how much of an advance and how much someone else hoped to get for an advance and how big a paperback sale someone else had made; and when they weren’t talking about advances and sales they were talking about, I kid you not, cigarettes and where they bought them and how they were going to quit smoking or how they had given up trying to quit smoking—and nary a word about the books and plays I hoped they were writing or reading, works of divine imagination that had conquered their psyches and taken over their lives.

“A wise traveler never despises his own country.” William Hazlitt

The next day I had lunch with my editor from Seventeen magazine in a swank restaurant a few blocks from the towering office building wherein Seventeen shared a floor with TV Guide, both magazines owned by the same massive media conglomerate—our lunch costing that conglomerate more than I spent on groceries in a month. My editor was an attractive, fast-talking woman with short blond hair who surprised me with a beautiful color proof of the delightful illustration for my upcoming Christmas story.

“Everyone loves your story,” she gushed. “Isn’t this picture a knockout?”

“I love it,” I said, glad I didn’t have to lie. “Perfect.”

“So, listen,” she said, taking a deep breath, “there was a problem with space. Some big last minute ads came in so…I had to do a little cutting. On your story.”

“Oh, well I’m sure…”

“Just eighty lines,” she said, smiling and wincing simultaneously. “I don’t think the cuts really hurt the story, maybe rushed things a little here and there, but…”

“Eighty lines? How many words in a line?”

“Six to eight,” she said, giggling nervously. “I took out about, oh…six hundred words, but it’s still great. You’ll see.”

“Out of three thousand?” I was incredulous. “How could…” And then I caught myself, remembering how lucky I was to be published at all. “I’m sure you did a fine job. Can’t wait to see it.”

After lunch we returned to Seventeen and a young intern took me on a tour of the editorial offices. The intern turned out to be Howard Cosell’s daughter (you remember Howard Cosell, the famous sports journalist); and she did, indeed, look very much like her father. We peeked into the mail room where two young women were rifling through the several hundred unsolicited manuscripts they received each week, and then we came to a big room where the magazine was laid out (remember these were pre-computer days) and I was amazed to see the walls adorned with dozens of lascivious photos of scantily clad young women in highly suggestive poses—outtakes from Seventeen fashion shoots—worthy of the most risqué Playboy spreads. Now there was a bestseller waiting to happen: Nasty Seventeen.

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” Danny Kaye

On my sixth day in Manhattan, I went to stay with Scott and Richard in their commodious rent controlled apartment on West 83rd Street, Scott being one of my very best friends since Fourth Grade, Richard his longtime partner. In 1976 Scott had yet to come out as a gay man to any of his old friends or to his parents and siblings who lived on the West Coast, though I had known he was gay since we were teenagers, and I am fairly certain he knew I knew. Even so, this was a big deal, my staying with them and being shown that they shared a bed and the physical intimacies of a sexual couple.

When I set my suitcase down in their living room and Scott dashed to his grand piano and started playing Willkommen from Cabaret and belting out those welcoming words in his best imitation of Ethel Merman, I felt I had finally and truly arrived in the Big Apple.

Sources of Wonder

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

Marcia and I watched the movie Source Code last night and I loved it. I very rarely watch American movies and almost never watch films containing more than a suggestion of violence, and this movie was made by Americans and is full of violence; yet I did not feel I was watching a violent movie, nor did the film seem remotely American. I will not spoil the show by telling you the plot, but I will say that for me Source Code beautifully and skillfully explicates the Buddhist notion of karma and how through our actions and intentions we create our future.

I was thinking about Source Code this morning while walking on Big River Beach, amazed by how vivid everything looked and felt to me, as if the movie had somehow altered my perceptions. And then I realized I was in a state of wonder, that my personal cares and woes were no longer holding sway as they so often do these days, and I was inseparable from the wind and the roaring of the waves and the ravens gliding through the air and the sand underfoot. I was only there, it seemed, because all these other things were enlivening me, and in their absence I would disappear.

When I got home from the beach, I sat down at the piano and played with such ease and fluidity I was in heaven, and I knew the movie was working in me, though I couldn’t say how. I played and played, riding the waves of sound and marveling at the multitudes of harmonies—the entire escapade improvised yet sounding entirely composed—my hands and fingers guided by muscle memory and forty years of learning to be open to what wants to come through.

 “One never knows how one’s gifts to the world may brighten it for others and contribute to the ever-changing mystery.” Taylor Stoehr

I correspond regularly with three men, and each is a source of wonder to me. Max is about ten years younger than I, Bob is exactly my age, and Taylor is eighteen years my senior. Max is an artist and musician, Bob a former video producer turned Special Ed teacher, and Taylor is a retired English professor, poet, and translator. I am very interested in these guys and what they think and do, and they are interested in me. I have never met Taylor in-person, only met Max in-person a couple times thirty years ago, and only see Bob once a year, though for fifteen years we lived a few blocks apart and we saw each other every day.

These three men are my best friends, other than Marcia, and when I think about the truth of that I am both amazed and grateful—amazed that we have such rich connections through the words we write, and grateful that these sweet souls care enough about me to stay in touch over so much time and space. Their letters always induce in me a state of wonder in which I become for a time inseparable from their thoughts and feelings—a holiday from inhabiting this separate solitary self.

“‘I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit, sometimes, or sometimes an evil imp,’” said the lama, smiling slowly.” Rudyard Kipling

When I was in my early forties, I met a British fellow at a party and we got talking about our favorite authors, and he was wildly effusive about Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the novels of Russell Hoban. I had never heard of Hoban and had only read a short story or two of Kipling’s in my childhood. Because I was ever in search of great writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore in Sacramento, Time Tested Books, and got Hoban’s first three novels, The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz, Turtle Diary, and Kleinzeit, along with a beat up paperback of Kim.

You may have heard of Turtle Diary, which was made into a charming movie in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Each of Hoban’s first three novels is quite short, with chapters only a page or two in length. I gobbled those books and liked them pretty well, though the greatest gift I got from them was to be on the lookout for Hoban’s next novel, Riddley Walker, which is Hoban’s masterpiece, though not an easy read. Written in the imagined vernacular of a twelve-year old boy two thousand years after nuclear war has laid waste to the earth and the English language, I needed three determined tries at the book before my brain was able to translate Hoban’s disintegrated English into something I could understand—but I was glad I made the effort.

Reading Kim, on the other hand, was a complete life changer for me. I have now read Kim ten times in the last twenty years, having consumed it most recently a year ago. When I read Kim, I lose myself entirely in the language and the story, and always emerge from the experience deeply inspired to continue my creative pursuits, to amplify my spiritual investigations, and to relish every moment of life I am given.

For some years I urged everyone I knew (and even people I barely knew) to read Kim, but few of those who read the book on my recommendation found it to be the holy book it is to me. And more than a few women said the book was a male fantasy and not for them, and more than a few people said they thought the story dated and the writing florid, and some said Kipling was a racist and a sexist; and so I have ceased to recommend the book to anyone without massive disclaimers. Still, I read Kim every two years and the grand saga never fails to be a fabulous source of wonder and rejuvenation for me.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

In 1979 I was living in Santa Cruz and frequently attended concerts at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a small joint in those days where jazz people with weekend gigs in the Bay Area would come down to give Monday night performances. One Monday evening I got to the venue early so I could sit close and watch Roland Hanna play. I had seen Roland when he was the pianist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I loved his playing on Jim Hall’s Concierto album, but I had never heard him play solo.

Roland Hanna was sometimes called Sir Elf because he was short and because he’d been given an honorary knighthood by the king of Liberia. But he became a giant to me that night, playing so melodically, so thoughtfully, so spontaneously, and with such groovy swing, that I walked out of Kuumbwa feeling blessed and more determined than ever to keep pursuing my own piano explorations.

My favorite Roland Hanna album was Swing Me No Waltzes, solo piano recorded in Sweden in 1979 on a Bösendorfer grand piano. I wore that record out; my favorite tune Roses Not Mums. Fast-forward several years to a jazz joint in San Francisco, Roland Hanna to play solo piano. Once again, I was there early so I could sit close, except there was some snafu with the club manager who didn’t know anything about anything and was insisting Hanna get a trio together because that’s what had been advertised. So Hanna’s manager got on the phone, and while the maestro sat in a booth sipping wine and waiting for a bass player and drummer to show up, I got up my nerve and went over to tell him how much I loved his music.

To my amazement, Hanna gestured for me to sit opposite him in the booth, which I did, and after I blurted something about seeing him at Kuumbwa and loving Swing Me No Waltzes, he smiled and said, “You play?”

“Um…well…yeah, though…”

He shook his head. “No though, man. You play. Own it.”

“Okay,” I said, sudden tears in my eyes. “Okay. Yes, I play.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.” He sipped his wine. “I like to play for players. You know? Because you guys get what I’m doing in a deeper way, you know?”

He was talking to me as a fellow musician, miracle of miracles, though he knew nothing about me. And then I realized he did know something about me. He knew I loved his music, especially Swing Me No Waltzes, which was an esoteric and wholly original creation, and my naming that album must have told him many things about me, about my taste and my personality. Or so I decided to believe.

“What’s your favorite tune on that record?” he asked, reaching up to shake the hand of one of three bass players who’d showed up in hopes of gigging with him.

Roses Not Mums,” I said, nodding. “Such a great tune, such an amazing journey.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said, nodding in time with me, “but I don’t play that tune anymore. Wrote it for my favorite bass player, and since he died I don’t play it now. But I will play something you’ll dig, I promise.”

I dug everything he played that night, and when he died ten years ago at the age of seventy, I played his music day and night for three days, thinking of him, loving him, hearing him say again and again, “No though, man. You play. Own it.”