Posts Tagged ‘guitar’

Colleen’s Guitar

Monday, January 21st, 2019

Colleen's Guitar

On a rainy Saturday morning in April in Mountain Home Idaho, Gig Antonelli, fifty-four, his graying brown hair in a short ponytail, sits on a small burgundy sofa in the center of the vast high-ceilinged space shared equally by Gig Music and Galleria Cruzero. He is playing a guitar, a small pecan-brown Martin 0-17 made in 1936 and worth seven thousand dollars.

Gig only plays guitar when he doesn’t think anyone is listening. He gets anxious in front of an audience and muffs chords and feels like a fool. But when he is unaware of anyone paying attention to him, his playing is unique and virtuosic. He started playing guitar when he was twelve, shortly after his father died, yet it was only a few years ago that he began composing songs for the guitar, some with words, some without. And now several of his songs have been recorded by the local violin-guitar duo Jasmy & Beckman, and two of Gig’s songs, “You Don’t Say” and “Not Too Shabby” are getting lots of airplay on radio stations in Idaho and Washington and beyond.

Julian Beckman and his wife Portia Cruzero own Gig Music and Galleria Cruzero, though Gig was the original owner of Gig Music. He sold the business and building to Beckman, his longtime employee, nine years ago and moved to Tacoma where he owned a gigantic music store that went out of business four years after Gig bought the huge store.

Now Gig works for Beckman buying and selling guitars and giving lessons, and he has no aspirations to open another guitar shop of his own. Beckman works in the shop and gives lessons, too, though he is not here every day because he spends three days a week working as a sound engineer and backing guitarist in his recording studio—Beckman Sound—located in his refurbished garage.

Beckman and Gig are good friends, though until recently they rarely socialized outside of work because from the outset of their friendship Beckman lived with his mother and had a child to raise and was not a user of marijuana, whereas Gig was childless, lived alone, and smoked pot from the moment he locked up the shop in the early evening until he went to bed at midnight.

But nowadays Gig lives with his mother and no longer smokes pot, Beckman’s daughter is grown and living in Portland, and Beckman’s relatively new wife Portia adores Gig, so the Beckmans and Antonellis have supper together every week or so. And Beckman and Gig write songs together now, too, which is a joy for both of them.

The official entrance to Galleria Cruzero is a large glass door fifty feet down the street from the solid oak door that is the official entrance to Gig Music, though visitors to the gallery sometimes use the guitar shop door, and guitar shop customers sometimes use the gallery door.

This morning, Colleen McGrath, tall and trim with sky blue eyes and generous lips and shoulder-length reddish brown hair, enters the joint establishment through the gallery door—the sight and sound of Gig playing the guitar bringing a smile to her lovely face.

Lauren Tinsley, an enthusiastic middle-aged woman with curly gray hair and perpetually rosy cheeks, is tending the gallery today, sitting in an armchair and knitting a sweater, which is why she waits until she finishes a row before looking up to greet Colleen.

“Well hey Colleen,” she says, putting down the half-finished sweater. “How the heck are you?”

“Don’t get up,” says Colleen, an extremely confident person. “I’m here to buy a guitar, though every time I see Portia’s exquisite photograph of Shoshone Falls, I’m more and more tempted to buy it.”

Hearing Colleen say the word guitar, Gig gets up from the sofa, returns the little Martin to its place on the wall of guitars, and awaits Colleen. He has known her his entire life, being four years younger than she and both of them lifelong residents of Mountain Home.

Gig gave guitar lessons to Colleen’s eldest child, Cindy, when Cindy was a teenager, and Beckman gave guitar lessons to Colleen’s next eldest, Brian, when Brian was a teen; and Beckman also gave lessons to Colleen’s third and youngest child Aurora, who is now eighteen and a freshman at the University of Washington. Cindy is now forty, a journalist and the mother of three, living in Boston. Brian is thirty-nine, a geologist and the father of two, living in Tucson.

Colleen and Gig have always especially liked each other, and when Gig was thirty-seven and Colleen was forty-one, a year after the demise of her brief second marriage that produced Aurora, Gig asked her to go out with him and Colleen declined in a way he took to mean she didn’t consider him boyfriend material; whereas he found her ideal in every way he could imagine.

The truth was, Colleen found Gig excellent boyfriend material in every way except one: he was a habitual user of marijuana. Her first husband was a heavy pot smoker and never to be trusted, and her second husband was a pot smoker, alcoholic, and pathological liar, so she vowed never again to get involved with a man dependent on pot, no matter how much she liked him.

Nevertheless, Gig and Colleen were always glad to see each other when Colleen came into the guitar shop to drop off her children for a lesson or to pick them up after. And it has always been the case that whenever Colleen and Gig happen to be at the same party or gathering, they make beelines for each other.

“Did I hear you say guitar?” asks Gig, who always sounds a little stoned, though he hasn’t had a puff of pot in seven years.

“Yes, you did,” says Colleen, frowning at him. “You seem different, Gig. What’s changed?”

“Since you saw me last week?” he asks, laughing. “During the intermission of that god awful play?”

“Yeah, since then,” she says, nodding. “I’m so glad to know you thought the play was awful. I just hated it, but everyone else kept saying how brilliant it was, so I kept having to bite my tongue.” She squints at him. “Have you gotten taller? Has your voice changed?”

“As far as I know,” says Gig, finding her even more attractive than he usually does, “I am no taller than I was last week. Nor am I aware of any changes in my voice.” He shrugs pleasantly. “Maybe you’ve changed, Colleen, and you perceive the world differently now.”

“Well that could be,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I’m only seeing clients three days a week now, so I have vast amounts of free time. Just what I always wanted, but now the question is… how to fill the void?”

“A guitar,” says Gig, gesturing to the wall of guitars.

“Yes,” she says, gazing at the elegant display of instruments. “Something good but not too expensive, in case this turns out to be another false start. I spent a small fortune on paints and canvases hoping to unleash my inner Georgia O’Keefe, but it turns out that making really good erotic paintings of flowers and cow skulls is not as easy as you might think.”

“I wouldn’t think it would be,” says Gig, shaking his head. “Which might explain why I’ve never tried. Not that I don’t admire Georgia O’Keefe. I do. I’m just more interested in playing the guitar.”

“As am I,” says Colleen, unaware that Gig no longer smokes pot and wishing he didn’t because then she’d probably pursue him, not that she’s ever pursued anyone; she’s never had to because she’s always being pursued.

“Are you looking for a full-sized guitar or a parlor guitar?” asks Gig, recalling that both Colleen’s daughters played small guitars. “Steel string or nylon?”

“A small steel string,” says Colleen, clearing her throat. “I used to play. And I was quite good. Started when I was eleven and played every day until right before I turned eighteen and got pregnant with Cindy. And then I never played again.” She frowns. “Did I already tell you that? One of those times I came to pick up Cindy or Brian or Aurora?”

“Not that I recall,” says Gig, beckoning her to follow him. “Let me show you a sweet little Yamaha that might be just the thing.”

At which moment two young men enter the shop, Jay and Tom, both twenty-two, both wearing wet down jackets and bulky pants; and Gig wants to scream but restrains himself.

“Are you okay?” asks Colleen, noticing Gig’s sudden loss of composure.

“Hold that thought,” says Gig, forcing a smile. “I’ll be right back.”

“Take your time,” says Colleen, wondering what it could possibly be that makes Gig seem so different to her now.

“Hola guys,” says Gig, intercepting Jay and Tom before they get to the wall of guitars. “I’m with a customer who may actually buy a guitar, so I don’t want you noodling around on the merchandise right. Come back in a half-hour. Okay?”

“Aw come on, Gig,“ says Tom, his long brown hair in desperate need of washing. “We might buy one. It’s a big decision, man. You have to try lots of guitars before you decide on one. And you have to try each one for a long time before you know if it’s the one.”

“Really?” says Gig, feigning amazement. “And to think I’ve been selling guitars for thirty years and never knew that.”

“I just want to try that Gibson again really quick,” says Jay, his long blond hair falling across his eyes. “I’m honing in, you know, on either the Gibson or the Martin I played last time. Can I try those two again?”

Gig folds his arms lest he be tempted to take a swing at them. “What is it you don’t understand about come back in a half-hour?”

“Can’t we just hang?” asks Jay, whining. “It’s freezing out there, man.”

“You can hang,” says Gig, no nonsense in his voice, “but no playing right now.”

“Can’t we just like hold them and look at them and not play them?” asks Tom, giving Gig a surly look. “They let you play anything all the time at Guitar Center in Boise.”

“So go there,” says Gig, losing his patience. “Now.”

“No, we’ll wait,” says Jay, sitting on the sofa. “It’s cool. I’m seriously interested in that Gibson. Seriously.”

Tom sits down beside Jay, their wet jackets dripping on the sofa and the floor; and they both take out their phones and stare at the screens.

Gig returns to Colleen. “Sorry about that.”

“Do they come in every day?” she asks quietly.

Gig nods. “So here’s the Yamaha I was talking about.”

He takes a small guitar from a long line of guitars standing on a wide shelf. He plays a G chord, tunes a couple sour notes, and hands her the little beauty. “A hundred and forty-five. A colorful strap and a cardboard case will set you back another forty bucks and you’re in business. Come sit and play.”

Colleen sits on a cushioned armless chair and takes a moment to get comfortable holding the guitar. Now she deftly plays a G chord, a D chord, and a C chord, every note ringing true.

“Ouch,” she says, laughing. “I forgot how much it hurts without callouses. But I like the sound. Sweet. And the neck is nice and slender.”

“It’s a nice fit,” says Gig, enjoying the sight of her holding the guitar. “Now just so you know, we have a used one of these, not quite as good, but not bad, for a hundred dollars.”

“No, I’ll take this one,” she says, her eyes sparkling. “And if I get serious about playing, I’ll get something better.”

Colleen is a psychotherapist and president of the Idaho chapter of Acolytes of Jung. She has an older brother Dean who is a Drama teacher at a high school in Spokane and a lifelong bachelor. Their mother Margot served in the Air Force for six years until she got pregnant with Dean, and when Colleen and Dean were teenagers, Margot became a state legislator and won re-election five times. Their father Scott served in the Air Force for fifty years and retired with the rank of colonel. Scott is now eighty-seven, Margot is eighty-five, and they live in a retirement community in Hawaii and still play tennis every day.

Until Colleen learned she was pregnant, three weeks before she turned eighteen, she was planning to move to California and live in a commune in Santa Cruz and create a life for herself very different from the lives of her conservative Republican patriotic parents. She was going to be a citizen of the earth and dedicate herself to saving the biosphere from the rapacious machinations of the military-industrial complex.

Instead, she married Jake, a handsome troubadour who plied her with pot and seduced her after she performed two songs at an open mike in a pub in Boise, one of those songs the folk classic ‘Silver Dagger’, the other a plaintive love song Colleen wrote called ‘When Will I Ever’.

Colleen’s marriage to Jake, who worked sporadically at Speedy Oil Change in Boise, lasted just long enough to produce Cindy and Brian, after which Colleen moved back to Mountain Home with her babies and lived with her parents for nine years while getting her college degree at Boise State and completing her initial training in clinical psychology.

And though she loves her children and grandchildren, and she feels fortunate to have had the life she’s had, some part of her still believes that if that damn condom hadn’t broken during that fateful night with Jake, she would have moved to California and become a soldier in the battle to save the earth—a songwriting eco-warrior.

Which is why, as she sits in her kitchen playing her new guitar, she weeps as she plays, her fingers screaming with pain as she presses down on the steel strings; yet she loves the pain and the music she’s making.

On Monday morning, Beckman is sitting at his worktable in Gig Music putting new tuners on a gorgeous 1983 Alvarez-Yairi twelve-string he recently got in trade for a new Fender that will never be as good as the Alvarez-Yairi.

Beckman is very tall and slender, soft-spoken and unflappable except when he’s talking about global warming and the incredible obstinacy of humans. He has an uncanny knack for acquiring wounded but otherwise excellent guitars for little money, curing what ails them, and selling them for great profits. Gig, who has no such knack, has come to believe that Beckman’s intuition is so comprehensive, he might as well be clairvoyant. This talent, combined with his genuine interest in the people he does business with and his encyclopedic knowledge of guitars, make Gig Music far more profitable than it ever was when Gig owned the business and considered breaking even a success.

Gig is about to go on his morning coffee and pastry run to Crazy’s, a coffee house next door to Galleria Cruzero, when the shop phone rings, Beckman answers, listens for a moment, holds up a hand to forestall Gig, and says into the phone, “I am currently booked solid, Colleen, but let me inquire of Gig.” He holds the phone to his chest. “Colleen McGrath. Wants a few lessons. Any openings?”

“Yeah, I think so,” says Gig, his heart pounding as he fumbles for his cell phone. “Let me just check my schedule.”

“He thinks so,” says Beckman, speaking to Colleen. “Let me put him on with you.”

Beckman winks as he hands the landline phone to Gig, and Gig interprets the wink to mean Beckman knows my heart is pounding.

“Hey Colleen,” says Gig, squinting at his lesson schedule displayed on the tiny screen of his phone. “How you liking that Yamaha?”

“I love her,” says Colleen, tenderly. “I’ve named her Rosie. My fingers hurt so much, but I’m loving playing anyway.”

“You might be playing too much too soon,” says Gig, sympathetically rubbing his calloused fingertips with his thumb. “Several short practice sessions every day might be better than a couple long ones. Try putting arnica cream on your fingertips a couple times a day and before you go to bed. You’ll get there, Colleen, but you don’t want your fingers to hurt so much you stop playing.”

“Thank you,” she says sweetly. “Have you got any time for me this week? Tuesdays and Thursdays are best for me.”

“Tuesday,” says Gig, clearing his throat. “Tomorrow. Morning okay? Eleven? Forty-five minutes or an hour. You choose.”

“An hour,” she says eagerly. “See you then.”

Gig hands the phone back to Beckman. “She’s a zealot. Played when she was a teenager, but not since.”

“Funny,” says Beckman, musing about Colleen. “She was always so much more enthusiastic about her kids’ lessons than they were. I think they practiced for her more than for themselves, which may explain why none of them continued to play after they left home.”

“You certainly didn’t have that problem with Jasmy,” says Gig, laughing. “She was playing ukulele before she could walk.”

“Inadvertent Suzuki method,” says Beckman, nodding. “I was playing guitar and loving it, so she wanted to play, too. No great mystery there.”

“Helps that she’s a musical genius,” says Gig, heading for the door. “Speaking of which, when I get back with the java, if we’re not besieged, I’ll play you that new tune that came to me Saturday night. Kind of a melancholy samba.”

“Love song?” asks Beckman, resuming his work on the twelve-string.

“Aren’t they all?” says Gig, opening the door and stepping out into the blustery day.

When Gig returns from Crazy’s with two big lattes, he is dismayed to find Tom and Jay ensconced on the sofa, Tom noodling aimlessly on a fine old Guild while Jay is doing the same on a precious Gibson. Beckman is at his worktable, focused on his work and not seeming to mind the arrhythmic cacophony emanating from Tom and Jay, so Gig decides to let the boys noodle away until he can’t stand it anymore.

Ten minutes later—the aimless riffing continuing full force—two customers arrive in quick succession, Beckman attending to one of them, Gig assisting the other; and after a few minutes of trying to communicate with his customer over Jay and Tom’s disharmonious noise, Gig reaches the limits of his patience, leaves his customer pondering a handsome Taylor, and crosses the room to confront Jay and Tom.

“That’s enough for today, fellas,” says Gig, trying valiantly to sound friendly. “Our other customers need to hear themselves play, so…”

“Beckman said we could play for as long as we wanted to,” says Tom, sneering at Gig.

“I’m honing in on a decision,” says Jay, smirking at Gig. “Beckman said we could play as much as we wanted.”

“That’s not quite true,” says Beckman, having excused himself from his customer to join forces with Gig. “I said as long we didn’t have other customers, but now we do. So let us relieve you of those guitars and you can come back another time.”

“This place sucks,” says Tom, standing up and nearly dropping the guitar as Beckman takes it from him.

“I don’t think so,” says Jay, carefully handing the Gibson to Gig. “I don’t think you suck. I… I totally get it. You have other customers. Totally.”

“Good,” says Beckman, nodding to Jay. “Then you can come back in a few days, but not you, Tom. You can find some other place to fuck around.”

“Well fuck you,” says Tom, grabbing his coat off the floor and glaring at Jay. “When you’re done kissing their ass, I’ll be in the car.”

“I’m coming,” says Jay, giving Gig a furtive look as he picks up his coat and follows Tom out the door.

“I think that may be the first time I’ve ever heard you say fuck, Beckman.” Gig grins at Beckman. “And I gotta tell you, it was music to my ears.”

“I should have booted those guys years ago,” says Beckman, watching Jay and Tom disappear.

“But we couldn’t,” says Gig, feeling sorry for Jay.

“Why couldn’t we?” asks Beckman, looking at Gig. “Why didn’t we?”

“Because we saw ourselves in them,” says Gig, recalling the many hours he spent in guitar stores dreaming of owning a fine guitar. “Until we couldn’t anymore.”

Twenty minutes into Colleen’s first lesson, she stops playing and says to Gig, “This is hopeless. I’ll never get it back. What was I thinking? That I would suddenly be seventeen again?”

Gig ponders her question and says, “I’m no psychologist, but you are. So what would you say to me if I said, ‘This is hopeless. I’ll never get it back. What was I thinking? That I would suddenly be thirty-five again?’”

“Why did you say thirty-five instead of seventeen?” asks Colleen, arching her eyebrow.

“What difference does it make?” says Gig, shrugging. “I’ll never get it back. What was I thinking? That I would suddenly be young again and never have made all the mistakes I made?”

Colleen smiles gratefully and says, “There are no mistakes, Gig. Only experience. And everything we’ve ever done in our lives has made us what we are today. This is not about becoming someone else. This is about carrying on with curiosity and openness and love and acceptance.”

“Exactly,” says Gig, nodding. “And remember, you’ve only been playing for a few days after a forty-year layoff. If you practice for fifteen minutes, four times a day, I guarantee you that in less than a month you’ll be playing that song with ease.”

“Now I’m embarrassed,” she says, looking away.

You’re embarrassed? Think how I feel,” says Gig, pointing to himself. “Giving advice to a renowned psychotherapist. A Jungian, no less.”

“Do you know anything about Jung?” she asks, suggesting by her tone that she doubts he does. “Besides the expression the collective unconscious?”

“Was that one of Carl’s?” says Gig, feigning surprise. “And here all this time I thought Beckman coined that expression.”

“But seriously folks,” says Colleen, bouncing her eyebrows in the manner of Groucho Marx, “do you know anything about Jung?”

“A little,” says Gig, nodding. “I read a biography of him a few years ago. I don’t remember who wrote it, but I couldn’t put it down. My favorite part was when he got stuck during his psychoanalysis, emotionally stuck, and then he remembered how when he was a boy he loved to make these little villages out of stones. So he decided to build a stone house on the shores of Lake Zürich, and while he was building the house he had these powerful dreams, and he started making drawings and paintings of his dreams and this helped him interpret his dreams, which enabled him to complete his psychoanalysis. Pretty cool, huh?”

“I can’t believe you just said that,” says Colleen gaping at Gig. “That’s why I decided to play the guitar again. Because playing the guitar for me was what building those stone villages was for Jung, the thing I used to do when I was young that made me forget about everything else and made me blissfully happy.”

“Right,” says Gig, nodding excitedly. “Only Jung didn’t start building little stone villages again. He built a big house to live in, and it took him years and years to finish building that house.”

Three weeks later, having just had her fifth lesson with Gig, her playing improving by leaps and bounds, Colleen leaves Gig Music via Galleria Cruzero and stops in the gallery to visit with Portia and look at the new installation of photographs and paintings.

“How was your lesson today?” asks Portia, a beautiful woman in her late forties from Barcelona, her long brown hair in a braid, her Spanish accent pleasingly strong.

“Fantastic,” says Colleen, who always feels a little dreamy after her time with Gig. “He’s such a wonderful teacher. So patient and calm and such a good guitarist.”

“He is one of my most favorite people in the world,” says Portia, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Colleen in front of the largest piece in the show, a photorealist painting of a magnificent white stallion galloping across a moonlit desert. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Maybe because he is still hurt from his divorce and from losing everything he had he doesn’t ask anyone.”

“Maybe so,” says Colleen, wishing there was another horse in the painting to mitigate the overwhelming feeling of aloneness. “If he didn’t smoke pot I’d love to be his girlfriend.” She sighs resignedly. “But he does, and pot is not my thing, so…”

Portia purses her lips and shakes her head. “Gig doesn’t smoke pot anymore. He quit six or seven years ago, before he came back from Tacoma.”

“Are you sure?” asks Colleen, giving Portia a doubtful look.

“Yes, I’m very sure,” says Portia, nodding. “And he doesn’t drink alcohol except for a taste of beer to make a toast. We always put one sip for him in a tiny glass when he comes for supper with his mother, a tiny glass for liqueur, you know, but we put his beer in there.”

At the end of her seventh lesson, Colleen says to Gig, “I wonder if you’d like to go on an adventure with me.”

Having no reason to believe Colleen has changed her assessment of him as non-boyfriend material, Gig smiles curiously and says, “What sort of adventure? Paragliding? No thanks. River rafting? Depends on the river.”

“This would mostly be an indoor adventure,” she says, taking a deep breath. “I want to perform at an open mike at a pub in Boise, but I don’t want to go alone and my guitar playing is still iffy, so I thought if you would come with me and play along while I sing, I could do it.”

“Open mike?” says Gig, the back of his neck tingling. “How brave of you.”

“Facing my demons,” she says, gazing hopefully at him. “This Friday. I’ll buy you dinner and then we’ll go play for a roomful of drunks and aspiring musicians at the Bloody Ox.”

“Friday?” says Gig, dubiously. “Day after tomorrow? Were we going to rehearse a little first or just wing it?”

“Oh, right,” says Colleen, pretending she hadn’t thought of that. “Are you free tomorrow night, too? I’ll take you out for Mexican after work and then we’ll practice at my place. Yeah?”

“You don’t want to wait a week?” asks Gig, feeling a bit dizzy.

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I’ve waited long enough.”

Gig has lived with his mother Sophia for four years now, ever since he came home from Tacoma. Sophia is eighty-six, short and sturdy, her white hair cut very short, her big glasses making her appear somewhat owlish. Until quite recently she was on the board of the Mountain Home Theatre Company, the Mountain Home Chamber Music Society, and the Mountain Home Folk Dancing Society, but she quit them all two years ago and stays home most of the time now, reading and napping and puttering in her rose garden and entertaining friends and cooking supper.

When Gig tells Sophia about his impending adventure with Colleen, and that he won’t be home for supper the next two nights, Sophia says, “We were going to your sister’s on Friday for supper. I’ll have Sharon come get me.”

“I can take you over there before we go to Boise,” says Gig, enjoying the carrot soup. “The open mike thing doesn’t start until eight. Sharon can give you a ride home.”

“I can’t remember the last time you went out two nights in a row since you came back,” says Sophia, taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes. “She’s very nice. Colleen. And so smart. Did I tell you Phyllis went to her for insomnia and sleeps like a baby now? I guess Colleen really knows what she’s doing when it comes to psychology. Are you two maybe…?”

“No, Mom. She’s just my friend. This is not a romantic thing. I’m giving her guitar lessons. This is a big deal for her, performing for an audience, so I’m helping her. As her teacher. That’s all.”

“But it must be a big deal for you, too,” says Sophia, putting on her glasses. “You haven’t played for an audience since you were in that trio when you were twenty-three, right after you opened your store. Remember how nervous you got before a show?”

“I’ll never forget,” says Gig, recalling the tortuous nights leading up to playing in the mellowest of little cafés.

“I wonder why you got so nervous,” says Sophia, frowning quizzically. “You’re such a good guitar player. I wonder if it had something to do with your father not wanting you to play the guitar.”

“Couldn’t be that,” says Gig, shaking his head. “I didn’t start playing until after he died.”

“Yes, but you wanted to before he died,” says Sophia, grimacing. “I’ll never forget how he raged at you when you said you wanted a guitar.”

“When was this?” asks Gig, having no memory of ever telling his father he wanted a guitar.

“When you were nine and ten,” says Sophia, getting up to serve the main course—chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans. “The first item on your Christmas list both those years was a guitar. I still have the lists if you want to see. And when you wrote a guitar again the next year, the year before he died, he crumpled up the paper and threw it in your face and then… he raged at you until… until I stopped him. Which wasn’t easy, but I did. I’m amazed you don’t remember. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

“Wow,” says Gig, having no memory of that particular outburst from his often-angry father. “I vaguely remember writing guitar on my Christmas list, but I don’t remember him getting mad about it.”

“Well… just in case it is why you get nervous,” says Sophia, having a sip of her wine, “the reason he didn’t want you to play the guitar was because he was afraid you might become some kind of artist and not be able to make a living and he didn’t want you to go hungry. He came from such hardship, Gig. He went without food for many nights as a child, and he wanted to protect you from that.”

Gig meets Colleen at Mi Casa after work the next day and is pleasantly perplexed by how dolled up she is, looking darling in a scoop-necked silky green dress instead of her usual trousers and dress shirt; and he assumes she came to dinner directly from some classy to-do.

From Mi Casa, Gig follows Colleen’s new Prius in his old pickup to her lovely home on three acres at the east end of town, and they play guitars in her living room, Gig accompanying Colleen’s less-sure playing with the same chords she’s playing, her voice reminiscent of Joan Baez.

“Sounds fine,” says Gig, after they’ve played through the two songs she wants to perform three times each. “I love your voice.”

“Thanks,” she says, setting down her guitar. “You want something to drink?”

“Tea?” he asks hopefully. “Something herbal?”

“Mint? Ginger? Rooibos?” She gets up and saunters into the kitchen. “Chamomile? Nettle?”

“Nettle,” says Gig, wondering how Colleen would feel if he told her what his mother told him last night about his father raging at him for wanting a guitar. But he decides not to tell her because he doesn’t want her to think he’s trying to get free therapy.

“So… is your mother a musician?” asks Colleen, filling a big copper kettle with water.

“No, but she loves music,” he says, setting his guitar down on the sofa beside him. “After my father died, she took up folk dancing. Went three nights a week for fifty years.”

“I know,” says Colleen, getting out the tea. “I was a folk dancer, too, for a while. Had a couple of folk dancing boyfriends. Saw your mother every time I went. She was a ball of fire.”

“Yeah, she loved it,” says Gig, remembering again the moment Colleen declined his invitation to go out with him, how she stood in her doorway, the door half-open so she was halfway behind it, and she said, ‘I’m flattered you would ask me, Gig, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Sorry.’

“How about your father?” she asks, trying to work up the courage to tell Gig how much she likes him. “Did he play an instrument?”

Before Gig can stop himself, he tells Colleen everything his mother told him at supper last night about his father raging at him for wanting a guitar.

And as he says, “Then he crumpled up my wish list and threw it in my face,” his father is strangling him and he can’t breathe and he claws at his father’s hands trying to loosen them but he can’t and he starts to black out—and Colleen pulls Gig’s hands away from his throat and Gig breathes the blessed air and comes back to life.

The next night, on the stage at the Bloody Ox, as the audience of drunks and aspiring musicians applaud Colleen’s first song, Colleen whispers to Gig, “How you doing?”

“Fine,” he says, winking at her. “You sound great.”

On the Monday morning following his open mike adventure with Colleen, Gig is sitting at the worktable in Gig Music, putting new strings on a handsome old Washburn that Beckman got for a song and will sell for a fortune, when the shop door swings open and Jay comes in.

“Hey,” says Jay, glancing at Gig. “Okay I hang?”

“Sure,” says Gig, smiling at him. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Yeah,” says Jay, pushing the hair out of his eyes. “Sorry about, you know, what happened with Tom. That was bad, man. We were totally out of line. Totally.”

“Apology accepted,” says Gig, getting up from the worktable and going to the wall of guitars and getting down the Gibson he knows Jay loves to play. “This is the one, right?”

Jay nods and looks at the floor.

“Take off your coat, buddy,” says Gig, setting the guitar on the sofa. “We’ll jam a little. Yeah?”

Jay takes off his coat and gives Gig a frightened look. “Where should I put my coat?”

“Hooks by the door,” says Gig, getting down the little old Martin he loves. “Who knew, huh?”

“I don’t know,” says Jay, laughing nervously as he crosses the room to hang up his coat.

They settle down together on the sofa and Gig waits for Jay to begin.

“I don’t really know how to play very well,” says Jay, afraid to make eye contact with Gig. “I just, you know… know a few riffs. Maybe if you play something, I could maybe like play along or something.”

“You want a lesson?” asks Gig, speaking quietly in the manner of Beckman.

“I can’t really afford lessons,” says Jay, shaking his head.

“This would be pro bono,” says Gig, playing a G chord.

“What’s pro bono?” asks Jay, frowning at the floor.

“Free,” says Gig, playing the G chord again. “You know this one? This is a G major chord.”

“Oh, yeah, I know that one,” says Jay, looking at how Gig is making the chord, and fumbling as he tries to imitate Gig.

“Almost,” says Gig, playing the chord again. “Get your bottom finger good and solid on your high E string. “There you go.”

Jay plays the chord, adjusts his fingers, plays the chord again and says, “Okay, I got that. Show me another one.”

        fin

Dane’s Uncle

Monday, December 31st, 2018

rosy cocoa

On a cold clear evening in late April in Mountain Home, Idaho, Dane Langley, seventeen, attractive and easy going, with his mother’s dark brown hair and olive skin, stands with his back to the fireplace, the fire burning brightly, and he feels the living room tilt slightly, as if the house has been unsettled by an earthquake.

“Wait a minute,” says Dane, frowning at his father. “You have a brother?”

Dane’s father Michael, forty-two, big and round-shouldered, with freckly white skin and short red hair turning gray, shifts in his armchair and says, “Half-brother. And I didn’t tell you about him until now because I never thought I’d see him again.” He makes a sour face. “And I never liked him.”

Dane glances at his sister Camille sitting on the sofa with their mother Doris, both women knitting. Camille is nineteen, her long brown hair in a bun, her considerable beauty mitigated by persistent sorrow. Doris is thirty-seven and might be mistaken for Camille’s older sister, though Doris is more stoical than sorrowful.

“Did you know he had a brother?” asks Dane, speaking to both Camille and Doris.

“No,” says Camille, looking up from her knitting, her face expressionless. “Younger or older?”

“Younger,” says Doris, continuing to knit. “Five years.”

Dane looks at Michael. “So why are you telling us now?”

Michael gives Doris a long look and finishes his bottle of beer. “Because he’s coming to town next week.”

“Why?” asks Dane, shrugging defiantly. “If you hate him so much?”

“Who said I hated him?” says Michael, shifting in his chair again. “Besides, he’s not coming to visit us, he’s coming to see your grandmother. Bring me another beer, would you?”

Doris shoots Michael the warning look she always shoots him when he has a second beer after supper. They have a hard and fast rule governing their marriage now: if Michael gets even mildly drunk, he has to sleep on the living room sofa until he calls his psychotherapist and makes an appointment, and if he doesn’t make that call within three days, Doris will divorce him.

“Because if you didn’t hate him, you would have told us about him,” says Dane, going into the kitchen, getting a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator, twisting off the cap, and bringing the bottle to his father. “Jesus, Dad, he’s your brother. Why wouldn’t you tell us? Does he have leprosy?”

“Don’t Jesus me,” says Michael, glowering at Dane. “You don’t know anything about it.”

“Obviously,” says Dane, handing the bottle to Michael. “Why don’t you like him?”

Michael takes a long drink before answering the question. “I don’t like him because my mother pampered him from the minute he was born and told him everything he did was wonderful, including shitting his pants, so he grew up thinking he was better than me and everybody else.”

“I can’t imagine Grandma Sue pampering anybody,” says Camille, keeping her eyes on her knitting. “She never pampered us, even when we were little and cute. Grandma Annie pampered us. Still does.”

“Oh my mother pampered him,” says Michael, bitterly. “He could do no wrong in her eyes, and then he ran away and broke her heart.”

Dane looks at his mother who is also focused on her knitting, and he surmises she knew Michael’s brother and probably went to school with him.

“Why is he coming?” asks Dane, aiming the question at his mother.

She flinches, but says nothing.

“He’s coming because he found out Grandma Sue is gonna die soon,” says Michael, squinting angrily at the fire. “And he wants to kiss her butt one last time so she’ll stop hating him before she dies.”

“That’s enough,” says Doris, silencing Michael with a stern glance. “He’s coming home because he loves his mother and wants to be with her when she dies.” She looks at Dane. “Grandma Sue doesn’t hate him, and neither do I. Only your father hates Theo.”

“Bullshit,” says Michael, sneering. “Lots of people hate him.”

The next day after school, a sunny Friday, Dane rides his bike to the Mountain Home Music School for his weekly piano lesson with Jerry Kauffman.

Jerry, sixty-seven, a portly fellow with a pompadour of wavy gray hair, opened the Mountain Home Music School forty years ago with a violin teacher and another piano teacher.

Ten minutes into the lesson, listening to Dane butcher one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words he played flawlessly a week ago, Jerry asks, “You okay? You nailed this thing last week.”

“Actually I’m not okay,” says Dane, feeling like crying. “Camille and I just found out my father has a brother, and nobody will tell us why they never told us before. I feel like they’ve been lying to us our whole lives.”

Jerry frowns. “They just now told you about Theo?”

“Yeah, last night,” says Dane, looking at Jerry. “Did you know him?”

“Very well,” says Jerry, his frown giving way to a smile. “I gave him piano lessons every week from when he was seven until he was nine and took up the guitar, and then he came for a piano lesson every month or so until he was twelve and started taking music theory and jazz at the community college.”

“When he was twelve?” says Dane, bewildered. “Was he some kind of genius?”

“Yeah,” says Jerry, laughing. “He was several kinds of genius.”

“Like what other kinds?” asks Dane, wanting to scream.

Jerry’s frown returns. “They didn’t tell you who he is?”

“No,” says Dane, more mystified than ever. “They just said his name is Theo and he’s the same age as my mom, only my mom wouldn’t explain why she never told us about him or why Grandma Sue never told us about him. And my dad said he didn’t tell us because he didn’t like him. That’s all the information they gave us.”

“Well…” says Jerry, looking away from Dane. “He changed his name. He’s not Theodore Langley anymore.”

“What’s his name?” asks Dane, urgently.

“I don’t think I should be the one to tell you,” says Jerry, glancing furtively at Dane. “They must have had a good reason for not telling you.”

Dane stares at Jerry in disbelief. “You won’t tell me his name?”

“I want to, but… no, I think it would be better if your mother or your grandmother told you?”

“How could I live in this town for seventeen years and never hear anything about my father having a brother? This is not a very big town. If he was such a musical wizard, how come you never mentioned him?”

“Because your mother asked me not to,” says Jerry, folding his arms. “So I never did. And then I stopped thinking about it, and… I’m sorry, Dane. I would love to tell you, but they need to tell you, not me. Okay?”

“So everybody in town knows who Theo is but me and my sister?” Dane gets up from the piano. “This is insane. It’s like a conspiracy. Why wouldn’t anybody tell us?”

“I don’t think anybody in town knows who Theo is now,” says Jerry, shaking his head. “Besides me and your folks and Sue.”

“Come on, Jerry,” says Dane, shouting. “Who is he?”

“Talk to your mother,” says Jerry, on the verge of tears. “After she tells you, I’ll tell you everything I know about him.”

Doris has been the sole legal secretary in the two-lawyer office of Marjorie Secomb and Philip Bradley for fourteen years now. Marjorie and Philip are married and have been Doris’s pals since childhood, and though they are serious lawyers, their suite of three offices is more like the set of a sit-com, Doris the straight woman to Marjorie and Philip’s endless anecdotes, quips, puns, and plays-on-words as they entertain a never-ending parade of colorful clients.

Dane rides his bike the mile from the Mountain Home Music School to the offices of Secomb and Bradley, and when Doris sees how upset Dane is, she informs Marjorie and Philip she’ll need a few minutes alone with her son, and closes her office door.

“Who is my uncle?” asks Dane, feeling like he’s about to explode. “Jerry said you told him not to tell me. Why would you do that? This is making me crazy, Mom. Why didn’t you ever tell us about him? Is he a mass murderer? Is he a rapist? Is he in prison?”

“Sit down,” says Doris, gesturing to the chair across the desk from her. “I’ll tell you.”

Dane sits and looks at his mother and wonders why such a generous and loving person would have married such an angry humorless man like Michael.

“Your uncle,” says Doris, closing her eyes, “is Carson Kincaid.”

The first thing that comes into Dane’s mind when he hears Carson Kincaid is the iconic poster of Carson’s album I, Vanessa, an ethereal vision of an exotic woman with long brown hair wearing a white gown and kneeling before an enormous statue of Buddha—the exotic woman and Buddha exchanging mysterious smiles.

“I, Vanessa?” says Dane, gaping at his mother. “That Carson Kincaid?”

“Yes,” says Doris, nodding solemnly. “That Carson Kincaid.”

“Is Dad’s brother?” says Dane, shaking his head. “Impossible.”

“Half-brother,” says Doris, opening her eyes. “Very different fathers.”

“Carson Kincaid?” says Dane, grimacing in disbelief. “Grew up here? In Mountain Home? He’s Grandma Sue’s son?”

“Yes, he grew up here,” says Doris gazing at Dane. “And yes, he is your grandmother’s son. And I’m so glad you’re going to meet him because he’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever known.”

“But why didn’t you tell us?” asks Dane, more confused than ever. “Because he’s gay?”

“First of all, he’s not gay,” says Doris, shaking her head. “And I’ve wanted to tell you forever. But when your sister was four and you were two, and Theo… when Carson’s first album came out, Michael was adamant that we never tell you and Camille about him. And because your grandmother and I were doing everything we could to help your father with his anger issues and his drinking and all the things you know he struggles with, we agreed not to tell you. And then it became our habit, and then Carson became so incredibly famous and…” She bows her head. “I’m sorry, dear. I wanted to tell you. A thousand times.”

“Did you go to school with him?” asks Dane, trying to think if there is anyone he knows, other than Jerry, who would believe that Carson Kincaid is his uncle.

“We were best friends from kindergarten until he left,” says Doris, smiling as she thinks of Theo. “And we wrote to each other for many years after.”

“How old was he when he left?” asks Dane, who daily dreams of leaving Idaho and moving to Portland or Seattle.

“Sixteen,” says Doris, her eyes full of tears. “And just between you and me, he asked me to come with him, but I was afraid to go.”

“So were you like boyfriend and girlfriend?” Dane blushes. “He wasn’t gay yet?”

“We were best friends,” says Doris, not wanting to complicate things with details of her love affair with Theo. “And he’s not gay. He sometimes impersonates a woman when he performs, but he’s not gay.”

“How can you say that?” says Dane, slapping his forehead. “He’s like the most famous gay guy in the world and he’s married to a famous lesbian, and everybody knows they adopted their kids and then pretended to have them. Come on, Mom. Have you seen his videos? How can you say he’s not gay?”

“Because he likes women,” says Doris, nodding confidently. “Sexually. He just likes to express his feminine side as Vanessa.”

“No,” says Dane, adamantly shaking his head. “He’s gay. I’m sorry, Mom, but he’s totally gay.”

“Well whatever you think he is,” says Doris, relieved to be speaking about Theo with her son, “he’s a sweetheart and he’ll be in town for a few weeks and you’ll get to know him.”

“I can’t believe this,” says Dane, still shaking his head. “Carson Kincaid? His videos get like ten billion views. He’s one of the most famous musicians in the world. He’s my uncle?”

“Everyone starts somewhere, honey.” Doris gets up and comes around her desk to Dane. “Now gimme a hug and get outta here. I have piles of things to get through before I can come home and make supper.”

Dane rides his bike from the offices of Secomb and Bradley to the Mountain Home Public Library, gets on a computer, goes to Wikipedia, and looks up Carson Kincaid.

Carson Xavier Kincaid (5 October 1982) is an American singer, songwriter, and performance artist. A virtuoso guitarist and pianist and composer, he is a leading figure in the music industry and is considered one of the most influential musicians and performers of the last fifty years. His most famous performance personas are Vanessa, a British chanteuse, Xavier Pierre, a French fop, and Jason Kingley, a manly man from the Canadian northwest. Kincaid’s music videos and movies featuring his various personas are enormously popular throughout the world.

Born in Lyon, France, Carson moved to Los Angeles with his parents, Mimi and Felipe Bordeaux, both chefs, when he was seven. Possessed of perfect pitch and a photographic memory, he taught himself to play the piano when he was five and took up the guitar at nine.

From the library, Dane rides to Gig Music where he takes twice-a-month guitar lessons from Gig Antonelli who went to high school with Doris. This isn’t the day for Dane’s lesson, but he knows Gig will be there, and he knows Gig had to have known Theo.

Gig, a beefy guy with brown hair falling to his shoulders, is standing behind the counter, selling electric guitar strings to Champ Harper, lead guitarist for The Bone Crushers, a local metal band.

“Hey Dane,” says Gig, who always sounds stoned even when he isn’t. “What’s happening, amigo?”

“I need to talk to you,” says Dane, smiling at Champ, who is huge and scary-looking, his head shaved, his nose, ears, eyebrows, and chin sporting all manner of brass and gold hardware.

“Uno momento,” says Gig, handing Champ a wad of change. “Gracias Champ. When’s your next gig?”

“This weekend in Boise,” says Champ, his voice high and sweet. “The Swamp. You should come.”

“I would,” says Gig, though he never would, “But mi esposa-in-law is coming to visit and I’m fully obligated. Break a leg, amigo.”

“Why do people say that?” asks Champ, frowning. “Break a leg? Seems stupid.”

“I think it’s like laughing in the face of death,” says Gig, smiling about his guess. “It’s like what bullfighters say before they go out to face a bull that might kill them.”

“What do they say?” asks Champ, who is often perplexed by Gig.

“Me cago en las botas de la virgen,” says Gig, his Spanish accent dreadful. “Which means, ‘I shit in the boots of the virgin.’ And the virgin they’re talking about is the Virgin Mary.”

“The Virgin Mary wore boots?” says Champ, scrunching up his face in doubt. “Since when do they have boots in the Bible?”

“Excellent question,” says Gig, scratching his head. “It’s been a while since I read the good book, but, you’re right, I don’t remember any boots in there. But that’s the expression. I shit in the boots of the virgin. Blaspheming in the face of death.”

“That would make a good song,” says Champ, heading for the door. “A bunch of expressions in a whole bunch of languages saying fuck you to death.”

“I can’t wait to hear it,” says Gig, winking at Dane.

“Yeah, me, too,” says Dane, waving goodbye to Champ.

“So what’s up?” asks Gig, grinning at Dane.

“Can I talk to you in private?” asks Dane, glancing at Beckman, Gig’s sole employee, a tall soft-spoken guy sitting on a dilapidated sofa putting new strings on a guitar.

“Sure,” says Gig, beckoning Dane to follow him to one of the little rooms where Gig and Beckman give lessons. “What’s going on?”

When the door is closed and Dane and Gig are sitting on the chairs they sit on for lessons, Dane asks, “Did you know my father’s brother Theo?”

“Of course,” says Gig, his smile disappearing. “Everybody knew Theo.”

“How come you never mentioned him to me?” Dane watches Gig’s face. “I mean… he played guitar, right?”

“Yeah,” says Gig, clearly uncomfortable. “But why would I have mentioned him? He left town before you were born and never came back.”

“And became Carson Kincaid?” asks Dane, doubtfully.

“What?” says Gig, grimacing. “You sniffing crack? Who told you that?”

“My mother,” says Dane, wondering why she would concoct such an outlandish lie. “She just told me.”

“Listen, I don’t know what Doris is smoking these days, but I grew up with Theo. We played guitars together and he was flat out awesome, okay? But he was a foot shorter than me and not gay. Not even a little bit. Carson Kincaid is six-three and he’s so queer it makes my teeth hurt. I love his music, but I can’t stand looking at him when he’s Vanessa. There couldn’t be two more different people than Theo and Carson Kincaid.”

“My mom says he’s coming to visit my grandmother,” says Dane, his head throbbing. “Grandma Sue. Before she dies.”

“Theo?” says Gig, dubiously. “Coming back here? I doubt it, but if he does, you’ll see he’s definitely not Carson Kincaid.”

“I didn’t think he was,” says Dane, shaking his head. “Wikipedia says he was born in France and grew up in LA, but my mom said he was born here and… I don’t why she would tell me that, but she did.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this,” says Gig, rubbing his eyes, “but I will because maybe it explains why she would invent something like that.” He ruminates for a moment, recalling scenes from long ago. “She was madly in love with Theo and he was pretty crazy in love with her, too. And when he left town, she was devastated. So was your grandmother. So was everybody who knew him. It was like… he betrayed us. You know what I mean? The way he left was insulting. Cruel. You know what I mean?”

“No,” says Dane, his heart aching. “How was he cruel?”

“He was our golden boy,” says Gig, rubbing his eyes again. “You know what I mean? Everybody loved him. And then one day, out of the blue, he’s gone. No goodbyes, no thank yous, no nice-knowing-you, no I’ll-be-in-touch. Just gone. I mean… it was such a shock most people in town thought he was dead. Killed himself or got murdered. Some people thought your dad killed him. Seriously. No offense, but Michael didn’t love Theo. Everybody else did, but not Michael. I don’t know why, but…” He shrugs. “Then a few months later your grandmother got a letter from Theo. From LA. So at least we knew he was alive, but that’s all we knew. And after a few years we forgot about him. I haven’t thought about him in fifteen years. I don’t know anything about him now. I didn’t even know he was still alive. But I do know he’s not Carson Kincaid. No way.”

Camille is just getting home from work—she’s a checker at Albertson’s—when Dane gets home from Gig Music and helps her carry in the groceries.

“You look terrible, D,” says Camille, putting the groceries away. “You okay?”

“No, I’m not okay,” he says, angrily. “Are you okay knowing we have an uncle they never told us about?”

Camille gazes forlornly at him. “What difference does it make? Our dear mother has stayed with that monster for nineteen years. That’s what I’m not okay about. Who cares if he has a half-brother he didn’t tell us about? Not me. The only thing I care about is saving a few thousand dollars more and then I’m getting out of this house and out of this town and never coming back. And I will keep praying every day for Michael to die and for Mom to leave him.”

“What about me?” asks Dane, feeling as desperate as he has ever felt. “Do you pray for me?”

“Every day,” she says, putting her arms around him. “I pray for you to get into a college far away from here. I’m happy you got accepted at Boise State, but that’s only an hour away, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed you get into a college in Oregon or California, or better yet the other side of the country.”

After supper, Camille goes dancing with her girlfriends and Michael falls asleep in his armchair after a few minutes of watching a basketball game on television. Michael drives a big collection truck for Waste Management and gets up every weekday at four in the morning, so he is usually asleep by eight at night, even on Friday and Saturday nights, though he doesn’t work Saturdays or Sundays.

Doris turns off the television, covers Michael with a down comforter, and she and Dane go out into the clear cold night to drive across town in Doris’s little electric car. Doris and Dane, and often Camille, too, visit Grandma Sue every Friday night, Dane bringing his guitar along to play folk songs Sue loves to sing with him and Doris and Camille.

Dane drives, and as they pull away from the house, he says to his mother, “I looked up Carson Kincaid on Wikipedia and it said he was born in France and grew up in Los Angeles. And then I asked Gig about Theo and he says there’s no way he could be Carson Kincaid.”

“So who are you gonna believe?’ asks Doris, arching an eyebrow. “Gig and Wikipedia or your mother who never lies to you?”

“Is it okay if I ask Grandma about him?” asks Dane, ignoring her question. “Because I won’t if you think it will upset her.”

“She won’t be upset,” says Doris, shaking her head. “I called her after I told you today and she wants to tell you about Theo.”

“What about Camille? Did you tell her?”

“Not yet,” says Doris, rolling her eyes. “She won’t believe me either, or if she does, she’ll be furious with me for not telling her sooner. So… all in good time.”

“It’s just so preposterous,” says Dane, stopping at a red light. “It would be like if Denny Cartwright told me he was the result of a one-night stand his mother had with Justin Timberlake when she was nineteen.”

“Now that’s preposterous,” says Doris, laughing. “Though I’ll bet Sara was a cutie pie at nineteen.”

The light turns green and Dane says, “Come on, Mom. Tell me the truth. He can’t be Carson Kincaid.”

“I told you the truth, honey,” says Doris, smiling out into the night. “The preposterous truth.”

Grandma Sue, sturdy and robust for eighty of her eighty-one years, is slender and frail now, but still able to get around on her own, though she no longer drives. She has a housemate, Lana, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Sue’s beautiful old house rent-free in exchange for housekeeping and cooking and grocery shopping.

Sue has lung cancer and her doctors have given her one more painful year to live, but she’s planning to stop eating and drinking all liquids, including water, starting a week from now, so she will die within a few weeks of beginning her fast.

“Here you are,” says Sue, greeting Dane and Doris at the front door, her long white hair loose from the daily bun. “Come and get warm by the fire.”

They sit in the living room, Dane commandeering his favorite armchair, Sue and Doris sharing the big sofa, and they have cocoa with a splash of Kahlua and just-baked oatmeal cookies.

After a few sips of cocoa, Sue says in her husky voice, “I’ve got pictures to show you, Dane. Of Theo and your father.”

“Theo who is Carson Kincaid?” says Dane, raising his eyebrows. “Your son is Carson Kincaid?”

“My little Theo,” says Sue, nodding as she sets her cocoa on the coffee table. “Come sit between us.”

Dane moves to the sofa, Sue to his right, Doris to his left, and Sue places a large blue photo album on his lap.

The first several photographs are of a scrawny baby with lots of hair, a baby who might be anybody; and in every photo the baby is smiling.

The next several photos are of two boys, the bigger boy is Michael at seven and eight, the littler boy is Theo at two and three. In every picture, Theo is looking up at Michael as if he is a god.

Dane turns the page and here are photos of Theo at six and seven, playing the piano, playing a ukulele, playing a banjo, and playing the guitar; and in every photo he is smiling rapturously.

The next two pages are photos of a camping trip in the Sawtooth Mountains when Theo was ten, Michael fifteen—Theo always smiling, Michael always looking glum. The last picture from the camping trip is of Sue and Theo and Michael standing by a beautiful lake. Sue and Theo are smiling at the camera, while Michael is looking down at the ground, glowering.

“Was my dad always unhappy?” asks Dane, never having understood his father’s persistent anger.

“Not when he was little,” says Sue, gazing at the fire. “He was a happy baby until he was two and his father and I went through a year of hell before we split up. And for a year after that he was very needy. I wouldn’t say he was unhappy, but he was clingy and never wanted to be apart from me. Then when he was four, I married Jeff and had Theo, and Michael was happy again for a few years. He loved Jeff and he liked having a baby brother who adored him until…”

She takes her time deciding what to say next. “…until Jeff died when Michael was twelve and Theo was seven, and Theo… eclipsed him.” She nods. “I think that’s an appropriate word. Theo started reading at four and doing all the problems in Michael’s Fifth Grade math books. Reading and writing and Algebra and Geometry and History and Science came so easily to Theo. He skipped Second and Third Grade and they wanted to skip him two more, but I didn’t want him to be separated from his age peers.” She frowns. “Michael always had such a hard time in school, while little Theo was composing eight-part choral works and playing the piano and was such a charmer, you know, and Michael felt… eclipsed. That’s the word that keeps coming up. Eclipsed. So Michael resented Theo, and when he was fifteen…” She clears her throat. “He… he started hitting Theo and… hurting him.”

“My dad hurt Theo?” asks Dane, whispering. “Badly?”

“Yes,” says Sue, turning the pages of the photo album until she comes to a photo of Theo at sixteen, a beautiful slender young man holding a guitar and gazing solemnly at the camera. “This is the last picture I have of Theo from before he moved away. Looks a lot like you, doesn’t he?”

“Sort of,” says Dane, nodding. “Though I’ve got my father’s nose and big cheeks. But, yeah, he looks a little like me, or I look a little like him.”

“I think you look a lot like him,” says Sue, turning to the last page in the photo album. “And this is me with Theo and his twins two years ago when I visited them in Los Angeles.”

“Oh my God,” says Dane, gasping at the picture of Sue holding a little brown baby and standing next to Carson Kincaid who is holding another little brown baby. “He is Carson Kincaid.”

“Yes, he is,” says Sue, putting her arm around Dane. “When he’s not in one of his disguises, he’s just a bigger version of who he always was. Those are your cousins Marcus and Fatouma. Their mother Mariama took the picture.”

“Where was this taken?” asks Dane, barely able to breathe.

“On the deck of their house in La Jolla,” says Sue, wrinkling her nose at the cute babies. “That’s the deep blue sea behind us. I’m sure you’ll visit him there someday.”

“Is he going to be here when you stop eating?” asks Dane, crying.

“That’s the plan,” says Sue, smiling brightly. “That’s what we agreed on a long time ago.”

“Did he leave Mountain Home because my dad was hurting him?” asks Dane, understanding so much about his father now that he never understood before.

“Yes and no,” says Sue, getting up. “I have something else to show you. Be right back.”

Dane turns to his mother and she hugs him.

“Theo left me this note when he went away,” says Sue, sitting beside Dane again. “Would you read it out loud, please?”

Dane takes the single sheet of handwriting from his grandmother and reads, “Dear Mama, Mama dear, do not worry, have no fear. I’m on my way, I cannot stay, I cannot wait another day. I’m in the way of Michael’s joy and though I’m still less man than boy, it’s time for me to find another place to be. But no matter where I go, you’re with me, you and Dor are in my bones and heart and mind, and every song I write is for both of you, and every accolade and brick of gold I earn belongs to you two, for I am made of your love. I am made of my mother and my soulmate Dor. We will never be apart in spirit, and we will be together again, our bodies and voices will be, you’ll see. I’ll call you soon. Love, Theo.”

Two days after Grandma Sue stops eating and drinking, she is sitting between Michael and Carson on the sofa in her living room, with Dane sitting in an armchair facing them.

Doris and Camille are in the kitchen with Lana making supper.

“I’ve been thinking back over my life,” says Sue, holding hands with her sons, “and I wonder if you can guess the scene I keep seeing over and over again.”

“You’re in the kitchen,” says Michael, gruffly. “It’s winter. Bitter cold outside. Theo is six. I’m eleven. Blizzard’s coming.”

“But the house is toasty,” says Carson, smiling over Sue’s head at Michael. “Mikey and I are out front making a snow man.”

“We get shivery cold and come running inside,” says Michael, looking at Carson and trying not to cry.

“We take off our wet coats and sit on the floor by the front door, helping each other pull off our boots,” says Carson, closing his eyes.

“The house smells so good,” says Michael, closing his eyes, too, “because Mom is baking cinnamon swirls and making cocoa.”

“We run into the kitchen, “says Carson, nodding as he remembers, “and Jeff is sitting at the table working a crossword puzzle.”

“We sit at the table with him,” says Michael, nodding, too, “waiting for Mom to serve us.”

“Now here I come with the cinnamon swirls and cocoa, and coffee for Jeff,” says Sue, smiling sublimely. “And we sit there, the four of us, cozy and happy, eating the swirls and drinking cocoa and coffee, and you both say at the very same time…”

“I hope it snows so much,” say Michael and Carson, their eyes still closed, “we won’t have to go to school tomorrow.”

“And it does,” says Sue, humming in delight. “So the next day we play inside all morning, and I decide to make an apple pie with the last apples in the cellar.”

“I’m afraid to go down there by myself to get the apples Mama wants,” says Carson, opening his eyes and gazing intently at Dane. “But Mikey comes with me, so I’m not afraid, not even a little.”

      fin

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

Marvin and the Cat

Monday, November 12th, 2018

guitar pegs

At dusk in late October in the far north of California, Marvin Rees, forty-two, gazes fixedly out one of the three south-facing windows in the living room of his spacious three-bedroom house, the golden brown grass of his two-acre meadow cropped low by hungry deer.

An only child raised in the suburbs of San Francisco, Marvin is a sturdy five-foot-eleven, bespectacled and clean-shaven, his wavy brown hair just beginning to turn gray. His mother was an optometrist born in Los Angeles, her parents Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, his father an accountant born in Massachusetts, a descendant of early English colonists.

Marvin’s ten-acre parcel is located on Big Salmon Road, three miles inland from the coastal town of Wakanachi. The narrow, pot-holed, asphalt road climbs steeply eastward from the small town, the first mile twisting and turning through a dense redwood forest before leveling out at five-hundred-feet elevation for a few miles and eventually becoming a dirt road that climbs ten miles further inland and vanishes near the high point of a ridge, 2374 feet above sea level, this high point called Goose Mountain by the locals, though Goose Mountain does not appear on any official map of the area.

Wild huckleberry bushes grow profusely on the fringes of Marvin’s meadow, and beyond the huckleberries is a vast forest of pines and tan oaks and spruce and firs and redwoods, only a few of these trees more than a hundred-years old, this section of the coast range clear-cut a century ago.

Marvin moved here three years ago from Mountain View where he worked for a gigantic Internet company. He lived in the same small apartment in Mountain View for sixteen years, since shortly after he graduated from college with a master’s degree in Computer Science, and for the last three of those sixteen years, he shared his apartment with his partner Irene who worked for a different gigantic Internet company. They were planning to get married, buy a house, and have a child.

Then one day, during a high-level meeting at the company he worked for, Marvin referred to the idea under discussion as shortsighted. This idea turned out to be the brainchild of the head of Marvin’s division, and two days later Marvin was fired. When Marvin refused to see a therapist about what his dismissal notice termed anger issues, Irene ended their relationship.

With the money Marvin had saved for his part of the down payment on a tiny tract house he and Irene were planning to buy on the fringes of San Jose, he bought his house and ten acres near Wakanachi outright and had several hundred thousand dollars left over. He chose Wakanachi because of his fond memories of camping at Wakanachi State Park with his mother and father when he was a boy. He loved the wild beaches of the Wakanachi coast, and he loved the forests of the Wakanachi Wilderness with their sparkling creeks and rivers.

For the first few months of living in this remote part of California, Marvin made an effort to get to know his neighbors on Big Salmon Road and to become part of the Wakanachi community. But his neighbors did not respond kindly to his overtures, and the choir he joined, the only one in town, was affiliated with a fundamentalist Christian church. Feeling uncomfortable singing songs about being a helpless sinner and needing Jesus to save him, Marvin quit the choir after three practices.

In those same first few months, he went to one or another of the two pubs in Wakanachi several times a week, played pool and darts with various men, and introduced himself to women he surmised were single, but he felt shunned in those places, so he eventually stopped going and reverted to what he had been in Mountain View, a social isolate who spent lots of time in the evenings playing his guitar, listening to music, reading books, and watching sports on his computer—the difference being that now he no longer has a partner and is often lonely at night.

During the day, though, Marvin is not lonely.

He heats his well-insulated house with two woodstoves, a large one in the living room and a smaller one in his bedroom, and the wood he burns in those stoves comes from dead and dying trees he harvests in the forest on his ten acres and on the national forest land adjoining his property.

There are thousands of dead and dying trees in the forest because after a hundred years of recovering from the clear-cut a century ago, the redwoods have regained their height supremacy over the other tree species and created a dense canopy that limits the sunlight reaching the shorter trees, thus quickly ending the lives of nascent trees and slowly killing the larger ones.

So every day, unless the rain is falling too hard or the air is too cold, Marvin goes into the woods with his log saw, axe, and sturdy two-wheeled hauling cart, cuts down dead or nearly-dead trees, saws them into sixteen-inch-long rounds, fills his cart with these rounds, and hauls them back to his woodshed where he uses a maul to split the rounds into pieces that will fit nicely into his woodstoves. He does this work without a chainsaw because he dislikes that snarly roaring sound and the danger in using such a tool, and he loves wielding a crosscut saw and axe.

When he first began his labors in the forest, he was incapable of cutting down any tree with a trunk thicker than four-inches-in-diameter, he could barely pull a load exceeding fifty pounds, and he was exhausted after fifteen minutes of work. Now, after three years of such labor, he works ceaselessly for four hours most mornings, fells tall trees with trunks up to sixteen-inches-in-diameter, and pulls loads exceeding two hundreds pounds up steep inclines.

He has also taken to riding his bike to and from Wakanachi every other day to get his mail at the post office, walk two miles on the beach south of town, shop at the food co-op, have a bowl of soup in the bakery café, and then ride the steep road home. He is now on a first-name basis with two postal clerks, three clerks at the food co-op, and several employees at the bakery café. Once in a great while he will have a brief conversation with someone in the post office or café or co-op, but he rarely says more than Hi. I’d like to send this package and Yes, I’ll have the soup, please.

The result of his new lifestyle is that for the first time since he was a soccer player in high school, he is in marvelous physical condition and his days are enjoyable and often delightful. Only at night is he lonely, sometimes achingly so.

Judging from the people he sees shopping at the food co-op and patronizing the bakery café, he is certain there are kindred spirits out there with whom he might commune if only he could meet them. He has always been shy, and since failing in his initial attempts to make friends in Wakanachi, he is shier than ever. Indeed, he has yet to strike up a conversation with anyone in town since those first few months, though he rehearses such conversations every night while watching the flames in one or another of his woodstoves.

Which explains some of why he is gazing so intently out his window as dusk settles over the land—his longing for contact with others having heightened his senses regarding any movement he sees out his windows. And he thinks he may have just seen someone or something, not a deer, moving through the huckleberry bushes on the edge of his meadow.

He is about to turn away from the window when a beautiful orange and white cat steps out of the bushes and walks daintily into the golden brown meadow. This cat is definitely not a bobcat or baby puma, but a house cat in the prime of her life. For some ineffable reason, Marvin feels certain the cat is female. She stops walking and looks at Marvin’s house, makes eye contact with Marvin, and after looking at him for a long moment, turns away and disappears into the bushes.

“A cat,” says Marvin, who often talks aloud to himself. “I wonder where she came from?”

His nearest neighbors are a quarter-mile away, and in his three years of living on Big Salmon Road, Marvin has never seen a house cat on his land, save for the two cats he used to have.

After supper, Marvin calls Ravi, his friend who started an app-development company the year before Marvin was fired from the gigantic Internet company where he and Ravi were colleagues and friends. Ravi tried to convince Marvin to move to Portland, Oregon and work for him there, but Marvin longed to live far from the madding crowd. So now Ravi pays Marvin a hundred-dollars-an-hour for two or three hours of work every day, work Marvin usually does in the afternoon before making his supper.

When they finish discussing the latest app Marvin is troubleshooting for Ravi, Marvin says, “A very interesting thing happened today. I saw a magnificent cat on the edge of my meadow. Orange and white. Shorthaired. Can’t imagine where she came from. Didn’t seem to be lost, but she didn’t strike me as feral.”

Ravi says, “I am not fond of cats. Lisa wants one, but I’ve convinced her to wait until Sasha is at least three and won’t poke the cat in the eye and get scratched. I was once badly bitten by a cat. Do you have a gun? Maybe you could shoot it.”

“I don’t want to shoot her,” says Marvin, laughing. “I love cats. I’ve had two since I’ve lived here, only they didn’t last long. Sushi was taken by a hawk. I know because I saw the hawk flying away with her in his talons. I don’t know what happened to Felix. Fox, coyote. Who knows? I decided not to try again. But here was this beautiful cat today, so… I don’t know.”

“You need a girlfriend, Marvin, not a cat.” Ravi sighs sympathetically. “Portland is swarming with lovely women. We’ll set you up with one of Lisa’s friends, we’ll find you a great place to live, and you can work for me thirty hours a week. I could really use you here. Things are exploding. I’ll pay you a hundred and sixty an hour if you’ll move here. Please?”

“I like it here, Ravi. I really do. I just… I’m just… isolated. You know?”

“From the pictures you’ve sent me, you’re more than isolated. You’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“This is definitely not nowhere,” says Marvin, his eyes filling with tears. “The place is not the problem. The problem is me. I’m not good at meeting people. I just… I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”

“You’re a brilliant problem solver,” says Ravi, his voice full of sympathy. “I have faith in you, Marvin.”

The next morning after breakfast, Marvin is about to head off into the woods when he sees the orange and white cat again, this time much closer to his house. She is sitting perfectly still in the meadow, watching something on the ground a few feet in front of her.

Marvin gets his binoculars, and with a close-up view discovers the cat is watching a gopher who occasionally pokes his little head up out of his hole. After several minutes of watching the cat sitting absolutely still, Marvin puts down his binoculars, and just as he does, the cat pounces, snags the gopher with the claws of her right paw, yanks him out of his hole, grabs him in her mouth, and carries him off into the bushes.

“Well done,” says Marvin, his heart pounding from witnessing the deathly display.

And for the rest of the morning, as he dismembers a dead bull pine he felled a half-mile from his house, he thinks about the cat and what a fantastic huntress she is.

That night, as he is falling asleep, Marvin thinks he hears a cat mewing plaintively outside his bedroom window. He holds very still and listens intently until he realizes that what he thought was a cat mewing is the wind whistling through the trees.

The next day, riding his bike down his driveway on his way to town, he sees the orange and white cat just twenty feet to the east of the driveway, curled up at the base of large fir tree, napping in a pool of sunlight; and it occurs to Marvin she might be homeless, which gets him thinking about ways to entice her to become his cat.

On the steep climb back from town in the afternoon, Marvin decides that before he leaves a bowl of milk on his porch for the cat, he should check with his nearest neighbors to make sure the cat does not belong to them.

So he showers and shaves and puts on clean pants and his favorite teal blue long-sleeved shirt with a yellow sunflower embroidered on the pocket, this embroidery done by his mother a few weeks before she died five years ago. He brushes his hair, finds two bottles of red wine to bring as gifts, and drives his little white pickup a quarter-mile west to the adjoining property, the driveway marked with a small wooden sign saying WALKER.

When Marvin visited the Walkers three years ago, a woman in her fifties he assumed was Mrs. Walker answered the door, and when he said he was her new neighbor, she replied tersely, “Not mine,” and then walked away, leaving the door open and shouting to someone in the house, “There’s a man here to see you.”

Regretting his impulse to introduce himself to the Walkers, Marvin nevertheless waited a moment, and a big man in his sixties with a bushy gray beard came to the door, a man Marvin assumed was Mr. Walker. And this big bearded man growled, “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”

“I’m not selling anything,” said Marvin, flushing with embarrassment. “I’m your new neighbor and wanted to introduce myself. I’m Marvin Rees.”

The man gave Marvin a doleful look and said, “Your timing couldn’t be worse.”

“Sorry,” said Marvin, turning to go. “Very sorry. I would have called first, but I found no Walker in the phone book.”

“I’m not in the book,” said the man, shouting after him. “Once you’re listed, every jackass in the world calls you.”

So it is with some trepidation that Marvin turns into the driveway marked WALKER and drives through pines and huckleberry bushes to a large stone and redwood house on a knoll overlooking several acres of wetlands, beyond which rises the forest.

As Marvin pulls up to the house, the front door opens and the big man, who used to have a bushy beard and now only has a bushy mustache, comes out onto the porch and waves to Marvin; and Marvin assumes the man thinks he, Marvin, is someone else. So he gets out of his truck prepared for the man to be disappointed when he realizes Marvin is not the person he was expecting, but the man does not seem the least disappointed as he comes down the four stairs, a big smile on his face.

“I’m so glad you came back,” says the man, his voice pleasantly gruff. “I’ve been meaning to come see you, but… well, here you are. Welcome to the watershed. A belated welcome. My wife was leaving me the day you came to visit and I was pretty wrecked for a couple years and… I’m sorry, man. Tell me your name again.”

“Marvin,” says Marvin, shaking the man’s hand. “Marvin Rees.”

“Miles Walker,” says the man. “But everybody calls me Silk.”

“How come?” asks Marvin, smiling curiously.

“Oh, God,” says Silk, shrugging self-consciously. “Buddy Bosford gave me that name forty years ago and it stuck.”

“Buddy Bosford?” says Marvin, startled by the name. “The guitarist?”

“Yeah,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin. “You know Buddy?”

“Well I know of him,” says Marvin, laughing. “I’ve got all his albums and I’ve watched lots of his videos and I play Freight Train exactly the way he does.”

“You play guitar,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin.

“I’m not great, but I love to play,” says Marvin, blushing as he hands Silk one of the bottles of wine he brought along. “This is for you.”

“Thank you,” says Silk, smiling at the bottle. “I love red wine. This is a very good winery.” He looks at Marvin. “Hey, come in, come in. I’ll make coffee.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “I just…”

“Not at all,” says Silk, clapping Marvin on the back. “I’ve got two dogs. They’ll growl, but they’re just talking. They’ll be your best friends in five minutes.”

After two cups of coffee and pumpkin pie, Marvin and Silk sit by the fire in Silk’s living room playing two of Silk’s many guitars, Silk playing tasty licks to a song Marvin wrote in college, a blues with several surprising chord changes called Mimi Won’t Go There.

When they finish the song, Marvin says, “I see why Buddy Bosford named you Silk. You’re fantastic.”

“I used to be,” says Silk, gazing intently at Marvin. “You’re very good. What are you doing Wednesday night? Buddy comes over most Wednesdays and we drink wine and noodle around. He’ll love your song. You got more?”

“Buddy Bosford comes here on Wednesday nights?” says Marvin, gaping incredulously at Silk. “Here? In your living room? The Buddy Bosford?”

“I know,” says Silk, nodding. “Most people think he lives in Nashville, but he’s lived here for forty years. He bought that beautiful farm just north of town forty years ago with the money he made from Green Cadillac.”

“Wow,” says Marvin, smiling in wonder. “Who knew? I came over to ask you about a cat, and now…”

“We’re guitar buddies,” says Silk, nodding. “And I promise to be a better neighbor. You go by Marvin or Marv?”

“Either is fine,” says Marvin, hoping Silk will call him Marv—almost no one ever has. “Whichever rolls off your tongue easier.”

“Marv,” says Silk, smiling and nodding. “I like Marv. And what were you saying about a cat? I don’t have a cat. I’m a dog person.”

The ten-acre parcel adjoining Marvin’s land to the east is meadowland, four acres of which are a defunct apple orchard, only a few of the old trees still alive. The main residence is a rambling old white farmhouse with a wide front porch, and there is also a large new cottage fifty yards north of  the farmhouse, brown adobe with solar panels and a satellite dish on the roof.

When Marvin came here three years ago, the cottage was not yet built and there were two ferocious dogs who kept him trapped in his truck until a grizzled old man hobbled out of the farmhouse onto the front porch and yelled at him to get off the property or he’d call the sheriff.

The large wooden sign at the mouth of the driveway says DuPrau, and for some reason Marvin has never associated that name with the grizzled old man who told him to get off the property.

Two dogs come out to greet Marvin this time, too, but they are both smiling old Golden Retrievers with tales wagging, and when Marvin gets out of his truck, both dogs crowd close to be petted, so he gives them plenty of pets.

Now the front door opens and a white-haired woman wearing a purple paisley muumuu comes out on the porch and shields her eyes from the lowering sun. “Hey, it’s the bicycle guy,” she says with an accent born in Brooklyn. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi,” says Marvin, approaching the bottom of the stairs, bottle of wine in hand. “I’m your neighbor to the west. Marvin Rees.”

“I know,” says the woman, squinting at him. “I’m Sally DuPrau. I’ve seen you at the co-op and at the cafe and riding your bike.”

“I’ve seen you, too,” he says, nodding. “Um… I came to ask you about a cat.”

“A cat?” she says, coming down the stairs to him. “We have three. Are you trying to get rid of a cat or do you want a cat?”

“Well, no,” says Marvin, laughing, “I wanted to find out if the cat that has been visiting me lately is yours, or if she’s a stray and I might entice her to be mine.”

“You said that so well,” says Sally, grinning at him. “You want some coffee? Tea?”

Sitting at the dining table in Sally’s sunny kitchen, Marvin learns that the beautiful orange and white cat is, indeed, one of the three DuPrau cats. Her name is Cleo, she is five-years-old, and from a very early age she has been the most wide-ranging cat Sally has ever known, and Sally has known many cats.

“Somehow she avoids being eaten by hawks or foxes or coyotes or pumas,” says Marvin, sipping his tea and looking westward, his house not visible from Sally’s place, a finger of the forest delineating the border of the two properties.

“Until she doesn’t,” says Sally, nodding sagely. “They get older and lose a step and death is there to snag them.” She smiles sweetly. “Snags us all eventually.”

“Yeah,” says Marvin, thinking of his mother who died five years ago, his father who died when he was twelve.

“So you fix computers?” says Sally, nodding hopefully. “I’m a techno idiot, but I’d sure love my pad thing to work better than it does.”

“I wouldn’t say I fix them, though I can,” says Marvin, nodding. “I do know quite a bit about computers. What kind of trouble are you having?”

“It’s just so slow,” says Sally, grimacing. “And it keeps freezing up. Not that I use it very much. I just do a little email every once in a while. But Meredith, my daughter, is going insane trying to get her web site to do whatever it is she wants it to do. She moved back here from New York just a couple months after you moved in, and she’s been pretty happy here except for the slow Internet and whatever’s going wrong with her web site.”

“I might be able to help you,” says Marvin, imagining Sally has an out-of-date device and an ancient operating system. “And possibly Meredith, too. I’d be happy to take a look.”

“How much do you charge?” asks Sally, matter-of-factly. “You open to doing trades? I do Reiki massage.”

“Oh I wouldn’t charge you anything,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “Glad to help.”

“Hold that thought,” says Sally, jumping up. “I’m gonna go get Meredith.”

Marvin looks around the sunny kitchen, marveling at how completely his life has changed in the last few hours.

Now Sally returns in the company of her daughter Meredith, fortyish, attractive, with shoulder-length brown hair wearing blue jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt with the words vee shall see written in red lower-case letters just below the V.

Marvin rises to meet her and says, “Hello. I’ve seen you in town.”

“Hi,” says Meredith, shaking Marvin’s hand. “I’ve seen you, too. Welcome to the neighborhood. Three years after you got here.”

“Thanks,” he says, blushing at her touch. “Very nice to meet you. I… I love your shirt.”

“Oh,” she says, looking down to see which shirt she’s wearing. “Do you go by Marvin or Marv or…?”

“Either is fine,” he says, shrugging pleasantly.

“I like Marv,” she says, blushing a little, too.

“When Marv came to say hello three years ago,” says Sally, sitting down, “I was in New York helping you get disentangled and Fritz was here with his pit bulls and scared Marv away.”

“As he was supposed to,” says Meredith, sitting opposite Marvin.

“True,” says Sally, nodding. “I told him to protect the place, and if Fritz is anything, he’s a literalist.”

Meredith smiles shyly at Marvin and says, “You’re kind of my hero, you know.”

I’m kind of your hero?” says Marvin, pointing at himself. “How so?”

“Well,” says Meredith, glancing at Sally, “when I got back from New York I was…” She takes a deep breath to allay her tears. “I’ll just say it. I was extremely depressed and feeling like… what’s the point? I had a very successful first novel and then three terrible flops, all of which coincided with a disastrous marriage and an even more disastrous divorce so… I didn’t have much hope of things getting any better.”

Marvin nods, knowing very well about the low tide of hope.

“And every day,” says Meredith, looking at Sally again, “my dear mother would take me into town for coffee and a muffin at the bakery, and a walk on the beach. And then we’d visit her friends, just so I’d be in life, you know, and many times on our way home we would see you coming back from town on your bicycle. Except in the beginning, you weren’t on your bicycle, you were pushing it up the hill and going so slowly I imagined it took you hours to get home.”

“In the beginning it did,” says Marvin, remembering those first months of pitting himself against that steep and curvy mile, how on several occasions he wept as he trudged up the seemingly endless road through the dark forest.

“But then one day we passed you and you were jogging up the hill with your bike.” Meredith’s eyes sparkle as she remembers. “And when we got a little bit ahead of you, I looked in the side-view mirror and saw you smiling, and I smiled, too.”

“And then,” says Sally, getting up to put a kettle on for more tea, “you were riding most of the way, going not much faster than you could walk, but you were riding.”

“I remember the first time I rode all the way home,” says Marvin, delighting in the memory. “I was high as a kite for days.”

“So was I,” says Meredith, nodding. “The day we saw you reach the top of the climb and you were standing up on the pedals, pumping hard, I felt exultant. A contact high.”

“I’m glad to know this,” says Marvin, feeling shy about making eye contact with Meredith. “I thought only the nature spirits had witnessed my transformation.”

“Oh, no,” says Sally, coming back to the table. “I’m sure lots of people on this road have been inspired by you.”

At which moment, Cleo comes through the cat door into the kitchen and freezes at the sight of Marvin sitting at the table with Sally and Meredith.

“There she is,” says Marvin, smiling at the magnificent orange and white cat. “Hello Cleo.”

And Cleo, intuiting that Marvin is a friend of the people who feed her, leaps up onto Marvin’s lap and allows him to scratch the top of her head and run his hand down her spine, eliciting a most eloquent purr from her.

“That’s a first,” says Meredith, arching her eyebrow. “Cool Cleo so quickly wooed.”

“I think they must have known each other in a former life,” says Sally, winking at Marvin.

“I’m sure of it,” says Marvin, entranced by Cleo’s purring.

“And by the way,” says Sally, bouncing her eyebrows at Meredith, “Marv is a wizard with computers, too.”

fin

Zelman’s Van

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Zelman's Van

Zelman was born and raised in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. His given name is Zachariah Elman, though as far back as he can remember, which is thirty years to when he was three, his mother and father and older sister and younger brother called him Z.

At Cornell, where he majored in Music, his name appeared on the dorm roster as Z. Elman, and during a mixer on his first night of college, his inebriated roommate called him Zelman, and forever after he has been known as Zelman.

His senior year at Cornell, Zelman fell in love with the beautiful Mimi Osterwald, a Drama major, also a senior, and the summer after they graduated, they got married and moved to Queens, Mimi to pursue her acting career, Zelman to play guitar and piano and write songs.

Eleven years later, living in an apartment in Burlington, New Jersey, barely making ends meet, Mimi told Zelman she was involved with Albert Rosenstein, a television producer, and was moving to Albert’s apartment in Manhattan.

Unable to afford the apartment in Burlington on his own, Zelman gave two-weeks notice at the hotel where he played piano in the cocktail lounge, and two-weeks notice at the pizza parlor where he worked thirty hours a week. When his obligations to his employers were fulfilled, he loaded his clothes and books and two guitars and two ukuleles and a conga drum and bongos and maracas into his forest green 1972 Volkswagen van named Miles, and headed west, his destination Los Angeles where he had a college chum who was a recording engineer and had space in his living room where Zelman could crash for a while.

Zelman at thirty-three has longish brown hair, wears wire-framed glasses, and is slender for the first time in twenty years. He was never obese, but from puberty until recently he was more than a little chubby. Starting a year ago, he began swimming fifty laps every morning at the Burlington Aquatic Center, lifting weights for an hour every afternoon at the YMCA, and gave up beer, potato chips, and ice cream, all of which led to the disappearance of thirty pounds and the appearance of muscles.

As Mimi said several times in the weeks leading up to the end of their relationship, “Suddenly you’re all svelte and handsome. What happened to the sweet soft guy I married?”

“The sweet soft guy you married stopped feeling sorry for himself,” says Zelman, cruising along in the slow lane on Interstate 64 somewhere in Kentucky in late September, his van averse to going over fifty-miles-per-hour. “The sweet soft guy you married decided to stop partaking of your sob fest every night, which was apparently just a cover for your affair with that slimy putz Rosenstein who is old enough to be your father. Well, not quite.”

Zelman sighs as he does after every outburst concerning Mimi, his sigh an acknowledgement that he misses her, though he knows their relationship was founded on the expectation that whether they succeeded in their chosen careers or not, they would always live as comfortably as they had as middle class children and teenagers and young adults attending an Ivy League college; and when they could no longer afford to live so comfortably, their relationship began to founder.

“Which means she never really loved me,” says Zelman, exiting the interstate to get gas. “So did I ever really love her? Or was I just obsessed with trying to win her love because she was beautiful and vivacious and I was chunky and wimpy and thought if by some miracle she would love me, I would be transformed into…what? Not me?”

“What town is this?” asks Zelman, handing a twenty-dollar bill to the middle-aged Pakistani man sitting on a high stool behind the counter in the gas station quick-stop store.

“Which pump?” asks the Pakistani man, taking the bill from Zelman.

“Witch Pump?” says Zelman, wrinkling his nose. “Why would anyone name a town Witch Pump?”

The Pakistani man gazes stoically at Zelman. “Which pump do you want gas from?”

“Oh,” says Zelman, laughing. “Number Four. And can you tell me the name of this town?”

“Frankfort,” says the man, tapping the requisite keys on his computer to activate Pump Number Four.

Zelman is cleaning his windshield when a shiny black Porsche pulls up behind his van, and a man wearing black cowboy boots and black jeans and a red silk shirt and a black cowboy hat and dark glasses jumps out and says with a southern drawl, “Hello there. You want to make a quick hundred bucks?”

“Are you speaking to me?” asks Zelman, smiling quizzically at the man.

“I am,” says the man, taking off his dark glasses and blinking in the bright sunlight. “We’re shooting a music video just up the road here and if you’ll drive your van back and forth real slow behind the action, I’ll give you a hundred bucks cash. Take a couple hours.” He grins. “That’s a helluva van you got there, buddy. Iconic. 1973? 74?”

“72,” says Zelman, gazing fondly at his van. “My father bought it new when he graduated from college, and then he gave it to me when I went off to Cornell.”

“That’s not the original paint job, is it?” asks the man, frowning.

“No,” says Zelman, wistfully. “I did this by hand the summer after my junior year of college. Seven coats. Hence the profound shellac effect. Did you notice the thousands of tiny gold stars on the dark green? An homage to Seurat.”

“I did not notice the stars,” says the man, taking a closer look at the paint job. “Beautiful. You want the gig?”

“I do,” says Zelman, both curious and low on cash.

The action behind which Zelman slowly drives his van is performed by a troupe of nine amazingly limber female dancers ranging in age from seven to thirty, dancing with shopping carts in the big empty parking lot of a defunct mall. The dancers are wearing artfully ripped T-shirts of various colors tucked into white jeans, their feet shod in pink tennis shoes.

Burt Carlton, the man who hired Zelman and his van, is the producer of the music video. Vivienne Bartok, the director of the shoot, is small and slender and Russian, her black hair cut very short. She is wearing a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded blue jeans and red sandals. Zelman guesses Vivienne is about his age, though he also thinks she could be as young as twenty-five and as old as forty.

When Vivienne sees Zelman’s van, she gets very excited and says to Zelman with her charming Russian accent, “Here is what I want you to do. Drive by very slowly about ten feet behind the dancers, go out-of-frame, turn around, and then slowly return and stop right behind the dancers and stay there until they finish their routine. When the music stops, you will drive away and the dancers will chase after you with their shopping carts.”

The song for the video is five-minutes-long and features drum machines playing a syncopated rhythm over a great din of synthesized sound, the words of the three-note melody sung by a woman with a high screechy voice. For each of the takes, the song is blasted from a large speaker sitting atop the equipment truck. The first time Zelman drives by behind the dancers, he thinks the singer is saying, “You my slave.” When he drives back the other way and comes to a stop behind the dancers, he thinks the woman might be saying, “Glue my cave.”

In any case, Zelman loathes the song and hopes Burt and Vivienne won’t ask him to drive back and forth more than a few times.

After the third take, while the dancers take a break for water and to catch their breaths, Zelman gets out of his van and watches Vivienne direct her cameraperson to shoot close-ups of the golden flowers on the dark green.

“Is Zelman your first name or your last name?” asks Vivienne, pronouncing first fierce and last lest, which Zelman finds ironic and sexy.

“Both,” he says, looking around the parking lot at the dancers and the film crew and his old green van, and he is amazed to realize that just a little while ago he was driving along the interstate feeling as lost as he has ever felt, almost out of gas, and now he’s in Frankfort, Kentucky on a warm afternoon in early autumn, starring with his van in a music video and making a hundred dollars.

“What do you do, Zelman?” asks Vivienne, smiling curiously at him.

“I’m a musician,” he says, nodding to affirm this. “Piano and guitar and all manner of percussion. And I write songs. But I’ve had many other jobs to support my musical habit.”

“Have you got a demo I can listen to?” she asks, arching her eyebrow in a beguiling way. “Maybe this is why God brought you to me? I’m always looking for good songs.”

“No demo,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but if we can find a piano, I’d be happy to give you a concert.”

“We can find a piano,” she says, nodding. “But first, a few more takes of this dance with your van.”

Eleven more takes consume three hours, and dusk is descending when the assistant director finally says, “That’s a wrap,” and the film crew starts loading their cameras and lights and booms into the equipment truck; and the dancers get in their cars and drive away.

Burt hands Zelman a hundred dollars, ruminates for a moment, and gives him another hundred. “Woulda cost me at least three hundred to rent something like your van for the day. Thanks again.”

“Thank you,” says Zelman, shaking Burt’s hand. “Much appreciated.”

“Gotta run,” says Burt, winking at Zelman.

“Of course,” says Zelman, watching Vivienne talking to a crewmember, a handsome guy with a baseball cap on backwards; and as he watches her, he decides she was only making small talk when she said they would find a piano. Even so, he lingers a while longer in case she really does want to hear his music—and the longer he lingers, the more invisible he feels.

Now Burt pulls up beside Vivienne in his shiny black Porsche, she gets in, and they zoom away.

Zelman sighs, takes a moment to let go of his disappointment, climbs into his van, and starts his engine. And as he depresses the clutch and puts his hand on the 8-ball-knob of the stick shift, he sees a small peach-colored envelope affixed to the door of his glove compartment with a piece of pink duct tape.

So he kills his engine, opens the envelope, and finds Vivienne’s elegant gray business card with a note written on the back in the smallest neatest hand he has ever seen.

Z. Sorry for subterfuge. I’ll explain later. I’m at Brown Hotel in Louisville. Supper? My treat. Call me. V.

They partake of a delicious room-service supper in Vivienne’s plush suite on the third floor of the beautiful old hotel in downtown Louisville, the windows open, the evening warm and sultry. Vivienne is wearing a red T-shirt and pink sweat pants, Zelman a black T-shirt and baggy brown corduroy trousers, both of them barefoot. Vivienne has spicy prawns and mashed potatoes and a beet salad and two beers, while Zelman has fried chicken and mashed potatoes and string beans and a half-bottle of red wine.

They interview each other. Vivienne gets a quick overview of Zelman’s life, and Zelman learns that Vivienne is twenty-nine and emigrated to Los Angeles from Russia with her mother and father and younger sister when she was fifteen. While her father drove a taxi and her mother worked in a bakery, Vivienne suffered through a brief stint in high school before she landed a job as a gofer on the set of a movie produced by the father of a young man she met at a dance club. The gofer job led to more film production jobs, and she’s been in the movie biz ever since.

“I’m very ambitious,” she says, loading a small brass pipe with a glistening bud of marijuana. “I aspire to make feature films. But I actually have scruples, believe it or not.” She holds a match over the bud and takes a hit. “I don’t use sex to get what I want. I use my talent.”

She hands the pipe to Zelman, he takes a little hit, and hands the pipe back to her.

“You don’t smoke much pot, Zelman?” She arches a quizzical eyebrow. “Afraid you might say something you’ll regret?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I just…a little goes a long way for me.”

“Me, too,” she says, taking another hit and handing him the pipe again. “This is very mellow stuff. Good for talking and music.”

Zelman has another hit. “Your note said you would explain later. Explain what?”

“Oh Burt is in love with me,” she says, shrugging. “I give him no hope, but he has big crush, so…I have three more days working here and he would be jealous if he knew I invited you, so it’s better he doesn’t know. It will make the next three days less hassle for me if he doesn’t know. Unrequited love is one thing, but jealousy wrecks everything.”

“Whereas unrequited love inspires love songs,” says Zelman, finding her surpassingly lovely.

“Exactly,” she says, laughing. “He’s not a bad producer. Look how he found you and your van.”

“I can see why he’s in love with you,” says Zelman, gesturing as if presenting her to the world. “You’re a darling.”

“This is famous Chekhov story,” says Vivienne, nodding slowly. “The Darling. I am opposite of this character. Do you know the story?”

“I don’t,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “How are you the opposite?”

“She takes on ambitions of the men she marries. She cannot exist except as an assistant to powerful men, one after another. I have my own ambitions and I like being the boss. I like to collaborate, but not give up my power.”

“That’s why I love music,” says Zelman, itching to play a song for her. “I can play alone or share the magic.”

“There’s a piano in the ballroom they are not using tonight,” says Vivienne, having a last puff. “They said we could use the piano.”

Zelman is awestruck by the Steinway in the ballroom, a superb seven-foot grand in perfect tune, and being blissfully stoned, he launches into a jazzy bluesy improvisation full of longing and mystery that leads seamlessly into his song Nothing Anybody Says, his smoky tenor riding on glorious waves of notes and chords.

Now he looks up from the keys and sees Vivienne swaying to the music, her hands clasped, her eyes closed, a sublime smile on her face, and seeing her so enthralled by his music inspires Zelman to sing the last verse especially for her.

“What just happened?” she asks, opening her eyes and gazing wide-eyed at him. “You hypnotized me.”

“I played for you,” he says—a boy again, delighted by this enchanting girl who loves his music.

“Was amazing,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Come back to my room. We have much to discuss.”

In Vivienne’s room again, Zelman gets out his guitar and plays a rollicking samba-like tune with lyrics about the blurry line between love and lust, while Vivienne dances around the room with joyful abandon.

“Okay,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “here is my idea, Zelman. Yes, we are high and I must hear you again when I’m not stoned, but I know we can have big success together. First we will create videos that get hundreds of millions of views and then we make a feature film.”

“Videos of my songs?” he asks, sensing that isn’t quite what she means.

“Yes and no,” she says, picking up the hotel phone. “Hello. This is room 321. Can we please have coffee and cookies and French bread and butter? Yes, chocolate chip is fine. Thank you.”

“How yes and how no?” asks Zelman, trying and failing to imagine being married to Vivienne.

“The songs are important, of course,” she says, growing serious. “And your songs are wonderful, but without imagery they cannot prevail. Not today. The movies, the totalities of imagery and music, these are the songs now. Do you know what I mean, Zelman? If the Beatles came today and not sixty years ago their songs would be presented as soundtracks to little movies, otherwise we would not know of them. But more to the point, their songs would be designed to support the images. Songs now are subservient to imagery. Whether this is good or bad, I don’t know, but this is how things are. And this is what we can do together. Design music for movies and make those movies together.”

As he listens to Vivienne speak, Zelman realizes two things: he would love to be in a relationship with someone as straightforward and optimistic as Vivienne, though not necessarily with Vivienne, and he has absolutely no interest in designing music for movies.

The cookies and coffee and French bread and butter arrive, and after Zelman has two cups of coffee and a big piece of bread slathered with butter, he declares, “I’m going now, Vivienne. Take advantage of the caffeine high and eat up some miles on the empty interstate. I loved spending time with you. You’re wonderful. Thanks for everything.”

“Zelman?” she says, walking with him to the door. “I really like you. And I love your music. You will call me when you get to LA. Please? I really want to see you again, and I’m not just saying that.”

“I will call you when I get to LA,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I predict great success for you, Vivienne.”

“What about you?” she asks, taking his hand. “What do you predict for you?”

“A dog,” he says, embracing her. “I’d like to get a dog.”

“I like dogs, too,” she says, holding him tight. “Someday when I have a house with a yard, I will have a dog and our dogs will play together.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” he says, letting her go. “See you in LA.”

The next afternoon, Zelman stops at the FourWay Café in Cuba, Missouri, and as he peruses the menu, a woman wearing a billowy white blouse and a long rainbow-colored skirt enters the café, looks around at the twenty or so customers, sees Zelman, and crosses the room to him.

“Excuse me,” she says, her voice deep and warm, “is that your Volkswagen van out there? The green one with the gold stars?”

“Yes,” says Zelman, smiling at her. “Don’t tell me. You’re making a music video and want the iconic vehicle as a prop in your homage to the halcyon days of yore.”

The woman laughs and Zelman is struck by several things about her: how beautiful she becomes when she smiles, the jingling of her multi-faceted dangly silver earrings, the pleasant clacking of her three necklaces made of small chunks of turquoise, the sparkle in her blue eyes, the reddish hue in her long brown hair, the subtle Asiatic quality of her facial features, and the music in her laughter.

“I’m certainly dressed for such an homage,” she says, looking down at her billowy white blouse and rainbow-colored skirt and old leather sandals, “but I’m not making a music video, though I am a musician. No, I’m wondering about getting a ride with you to Arizona.” She pauses to see how Zelman reacts to that idea, and when he continues to gaze at her not unkindly, she adds, “For me and my daughter and our dog and our stuff. Our car blew up yesterday and I can’t currently afford the bus or the train or even to rent a car, but I can pay you three hundred dollars when we get to Arizona, assuming you’re heading west, which you might not be, but I thought I’d ask.”

“Are you and your daughter hungry?” asks Zelman, looking into the woman’s eyes and liking what he sees. “I would be happy to buy you lunch and we can see how we all get along. Or don’t.”

“We could use a meal,” says the woman, nodding thoughtfully. “But somebody’s gotta stay with the dog, so…”

They get their sandwiches and smoothies to go and dine on the tailgate of Zelman’s van.

The woman, Grace, is forty, a massage therapist, herbalist, and musician. Her daughter Teresa is fourteen, tall and slender with dark blonde hair in a ponytail that falls to her waist. She, too, is a musician. With them are two guitars, two violins, and two dulcimers.

The dog, Maurice, is a large seven-year-old Golden Retriever-Chocolate Lab mix, friendly, and keenly interested in food scraps.

They banter about this and that, enjoy each other, and Zelman is on the verge of agreeing to take Grace and Teresa and Maurice to Arizona, when Grace says, “We’re kind of in a hurry. I could trade off driving with you and we could go day and night without stopping.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to do that. For one thing, Miles, my van, can’t go over fifty and has to have a good long rest every seven or eight hours. With two more humans and a big dog on board, and all your stuff, forty-five would be the best we could hope for. Miles-per-hour. And then there’s me. I don’t like hurrying. Makes me anxious. I need to not be driving every other day or so. And also, though I’m headed for Los Angeles, I’m not keen on getting there any time soon, so hurrying is the exact opposite of what I want to do.”

Grace looks at Teresa, looks at the van, looks at Zelman, and says, “But if we go as slow as you want to, you’ll take us with you?”

“I will,” says Zelman, looking at Teresa and Maurice and Grace and their pile of instruments and suitcases and knapsacks and sleeping bags. “Assuming everything fits.”

 ∆

On the evening of his fifth day of traveling with Grace and Teresa and Maurice, Zelman sits by the campfire in their camping spot in Lake Scott State Park in western Kansas, listening to Teresa play her dulcimer and sing a song about a girl with hair of spun gold. Grace is walking Maurice on the path that goes around the little lake, hoping the dog will poop before bedtime.

The fire makes a loud crackling sound as Teresa sings the last note of her song, and Zelman hears the crackling as God applauding, and he applauds, too.

“Get out your guitar, Zelman,” says Teresa, her voice half a girl’s and half a woman’s, for she is still a girl though fast becoming a woman. “Let’s do that one you wrote about the guy going to the party.”

“You get out your fiddle, I’ll get out my guitar,” says Zelman, turning at the sound of Grace returning with Maurice and unhooking the leash from his collar so he can rush to Zelman and rest his snout on Zelman’s lap.

“Hey you,” says Zelman, petting the love-hungry dog and watching Grace and Teresa fetch their instruments from the van; and he knows he has never been happier than he is now.

fin

 

Critters

Monday, July 9th, 2018

Ganesh's Bowl

Ganesh’s Bowl photo by Todd

Two years ago our big gray cat Django got hit by a car and died, and we were sad for a time and thought about getting a couple of kittens, but we didn’t. Then some months after Django died, I was having a cup of tea in the dining room and looked out the window and saw a gang of chickadees foraging in the ferns and flowers just fifteen feet away from me, and I realized that when Django was alive, those birds would never have foraged there.

Fast forward to a few mornings ago: I was sitting on the deck watching a mob of chickadees and finches and tits rampaging in the nearby shrubbery, when along came an alligator lizard, a beautiful being Django would have toyed with and killed. But instead of dying a terrible death, the lizard paused to look at me and show me his shiny new skin before he moved off into the ferns to hunt for insects.

The next day I saw a gorgeous garter snake slither through the vegetable patch, and I knew Django would have killed him, too.

Then yesterday I stepped out of my office to play guitar in the morning sun and our resident chipmunk scampered along the deck to have a drink of water from the white bowl in front of the statue of Ganesh, a bowl we keep filled with water for the many birds and critters who share this land with us. Having slaked his thirst, the chipmunk found a lovely old weed going to seed, and while I strummed and sang, the chipmunk dined—a most enjoyable tête-à-tête that never would have happened were Django still with us.

If we had a cat or a dog, the mother skunk and her adorable baby would not come to drink from Ganesh’s bowl as they do at dusk every day, and a dog would keep the deer away, too, the deer we love to watch from our office windows—fawns appearing with their mothers throughout the summer.

And though I’d like to have a cat and a dog, for now I will forego that pleasure because I so enjoy having all these wild critters close at hand.

I recently caught a glimpse of a fox trotting through the woods on his way to our orchard, and I was thrilled to see the splendid fellow. We named our place Fox Hollow after the mother fox and her kits who entertained us so grandly for the first two years we lived here.

We might have called our place Ravenswood for the many ravens who live hereabouts. I recently had a long conversation with a raven. He cawed three times; I cawed three times. He cawed twice; I cawed twice. He cawed four times; I cawed four times. Then there was a pause, so I cawed twice, and he cawed twice. Then I cawed four times, and he cawed four times. Then I cawed but once, and he cawed but once. I fell silent and he cawed three times, so I cawed three times. This might have gone on indefinitely, but I was getting hoarse, so I quit. I’m not sure what we were talking about, but we certainly agreed on how many times to caw, which I consider a great achievement in inter-species communication.

We are also situated directly below the flight path of a robust population of wild pigeons and a pair of regal Red-tailed hawks. And we have vultures and possums and a big silver gray squirrel and gophers and…

In Django’s absence our neighbor’s big tabby has commandeered the orchard at the far southwest corner of our property, the gophers of special interest to her. I dissuade her from coming any nearer to our house because I don’t want her assuming Django’s role visa-à-vis the chipmunk and lizards and snakes and birds and the big silver gray squirrel. However, a dent in the orchard gopher population would not be a bad thing.

Speaking of critters, here at the start of July, the local population of mosquitoes is exploding, so much so that working outside of late has been a continuous swat fest, but that should change as summer progresses and the ground becomes perilously dry. Meanwhile, the swallows and bats are thrilled with the abundance of the little biting buggers.

female trio

And then there are human critters, a fascinating species, especially the colorful and emotive females. The music festival is underway, so Abi and Marion, both British female human musicians, have joined Marcia, the resident American female human musician, in our little neck of the woods, and the three of them are great fun to observe and interact with.

Human females, for my taste, are much more interesting than human males, at least the human males abounding in America; but then I’ve always been keen on humans who share their feelings and laugh easily and like to talk about food and dreams and what they just realized about themselves and life and so forth. Then, too, I spent the first several years of my life enthralled with my two older sisters until they grew weary of me and became less enthralling. But by then my admiration for more than the physical potentialities of female humans was well established and continues to this day.

Maybe human males in other cultures are not as stiff and stoic and emotionally guarded and narrow-minded as most American male humans are. I don’t know. What I do know is that emotional openness and generosity and curiosity about other people has everything to do with nurture and not much to do with nature. I say this because I am fortunate to know a handful of American male humans who enjoy sharing their feelings and laugh easily and like to talk about food and dreams and what they just realized about themselves and life and so forth.

Unfortunately, most of these unusual male humans don’t live around here; but at least we know each other, so we do not feel as bereft as we might otherwise.

Ah, I see our chipmunk is ensconced in the big flowerpot on the deck and has some sort of snack in hand. Maybe he’d like to hear a song while he eats.

Rebirth

Monday, June 25th, 2018

lunch break

Outside My Office Window

A few weeks ago, the large four-year-old doe with a nest in a remote corner of our property sauntered by the house followed by her two fawns—our first glimpse of her babies. Nature makes baby mammals extra cute for some reason, or humans think baby mammals are cute for some reason. In any case, the baby deer struck me as ultra-cute. And small. I marveled at their smallness.

Then at dusk a few days later, I looked up from my desk and saw two fawns running by, only they seemed much smaller and cuter than I remembered them being. These were micro fawns. Or was I mistaken? Were these the same fawns appearing smaller in the last light of day, or different fawns? And were they cuter or just smaller? Is cuteness a function of smallness?

Another day passed, the young doe paraded by, and coming along behind her were two enormous fawns, enormous compared to those micro fawns I thought I’d seen. And then that afternoon, the mystery was solved. The oldest doe hereabouts, a deer at least nine-years-old with a badly deformed mouth, trudged by followed by those two micro fawns, and I realized that their smallness and ultra-cuteness were probably due to the old doe not being as viable a mother as the big healthy young doe, which means these tiny fawns might not make it through the summer for lack of nourishment and being easy prey for predators.

But maybe the micro fawns will survive the summer and winter and mature into small deer who live for ten or twelve years until the natural ends of their lives, just as there are small humans and small banana slugs and small heads of lettuce and small carrots. Sometimes things come out smaller than the same kinds of things that come out larger.

In any case, we currently have four super cute fawns gamboling around the property these days, and every time I see them, I marvel at their cuteness and their obvious delight in being alive.

getting the drop

Speaking of rebirth, we recently had a visit from the piano technician Michael Hagen. He came all the way from Rohnert Park to Mendocino and spent thirteen hours over two days regulating and voicing the fifty-year-old grand piano we bought from our friend Carolyn. I spent most of those thirteen hours watching Michael work on the piano, and I marveled at his mastery of the complex process. The result of his mastery, which I am tempted to call wizardry, is the rebirth of our piano.

When I first sat down to play our newly regulated and expertly voiced beauty, I was wholly unprepared for how easy she was to play and how gorgeous she sounded. The keys no longer impinged on each other, the overly bright jangly tones were gone, and gone was the resistance to my light touch. I stopped playing after just a few minutes because my brain was having a hard time reconciling this mellow nuanced instrument with the obstreperous old cranky thing I’d been trying to get used to.

earth is round

In other rebirth news, to celebrate the Summer Solstice, I walked to town via Big River Beach and found the beach completely different than it was just a few days before the solstice. Well, not completely. The far inland reaches of the sand will remain unchanged until next winter’s storm surfs reach those inland expanses and shift the many massive logs around, carry some logs away, and add new ones to the collection.

But the bulk of the beach was transformed. This is the glorious nature of our beach—a swiftly flowing tidal river conspiring with the high and low tides to reshape millions of tons of sand every twenty-four hours—a creative fun fest for the forces of nature. As of today, the river has carved two distinct routes to the sea, this split of the outflow and inflow causing all sorts of new shifts in the sand mass—a brand new landscape every day.

Speaking of brand new, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I find myself playing several seriously groovy songs I wrote long ago and never recorded, and I’m so curious about why I didn’t record these groovalicious tunes when I was so zealously recording songs ten years ago.

My current theory is that I didn’t record these catchy tunes because the time was not right. Is the time right now? Or has the window of viability closed for my songs composed in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s? Isn’t a great song or book or movie or play timeless? Maybe not. Maybe there is Art of the Moment and Art For A Generation and Art To Last Three Generations and Art To Last A Thousand Years.

What if artists are merely pawns of the unseen creative forces of universe? What if these groovy songs were given to me to record, but only when the universe wants them recorded? What if the universe is waiting for me to be whoever I am at the moment of the recording, if that recording ever happens? Why do we do the things we do when we do them?

Speaking of when we do things, we recently watched the movie Big Night again, one of my all-time favorite movies, and not having seen Big Night since 2006, I worried the opus might have fallen into the Art of the Moment category and would fail to pass the test of time.

But I’m happy to report that for my taste Big Night is better and more pertinent today than it was when it came out in 1996. To say they don’t make movies like Big Night in America anymore is a humongous understatement. This is a classic European film made by Americans in America—the pace, the dialogue, and the unfolding of the story and relationships languid and lovely and astute and complex—a rare dramatic comedy.

When I lived in Berkeley circa 2001, I was introduced to a woman at a party, we liked each other immediately, and when a fellow came by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres—scallops in mint sauce—we each took one. Delighted by the delicious comestible, I couldn’t help referencing a scene from Big Night by saying with my best Italian accent, “That was so good, I have to kill myself.”

“My favorite movie,” said the woman, gasping in delight. “I’ve watched Big Night dozens of times with my kids. We know every line by heart. We act out the scenes when we cook dinner and breakfast. And next year we’re going to Italy on our Big Night tour.”

“A Big Night tour? What’s the itinerary?”

“Bologna, of course,” she said, her eyes aglow. “Where the food is so good you have to kill yourself, Rome, and…”

I don’t remember what else she said, but I will never forget her wild joy.

Guitar Porn

Monday, June 18th, 2018

musicsexlove

music sex love drawing by Todd

“The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” Lou Reed

I recently started playing the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, and after some weeks of aching fingers and sore wrists, I have regained enough of my former chops so playing is pleasurable and fascinating again.

The guitar I’m playing is not a very good instrument. I gave away my excellent guitar a few years ago when I was jettisoning things freighted with bad mojo. Now, as I practice on a lesser instrument, I don’t long for the guitar I gave away, but for a guitar of equal excellence. However, I have decided not to purchase a better guitar until I have gotten as good as I can on this little axe I bought to determine if the magic is still there. For some reason, I want to earn the right to own and play a fine guitar again.

That’s kind of silly, actually, because the better the instrument, the more pleasurable the experience of playing, which would be added incentive to practice and explore, but I am often kind of silly. This earning process feels right to me at this point in my physical and spiritual and emotional evolution.

Meanwhile, I occasionally receive musical instrument catalogues filled with photographs and descriptions of awesome guitars, and I find myself staring at these pictures as I might stare at photos of attractive women. I imagine holding those guitars and playing them and thrilling to the feel of them against my body as I strum them and their bodies resonate with mine. Hence the title of this essay: guitar porn.

Perhaps you know someone, most likely a man, who owns multiple guitars, and I don’t mean two or three guitars, but seven or nine or seventeen or possibly thirty-seven guitars—and perhaps he rarely or never plays these guitars. Nevertheless, having these guitars defines who he is—to himself and to others. Searching for guitars gives him purpose. Maybe he only allows himself to own a total of twelve guitars and he must sell one before he can acquire a new one. Or maybe there is no limit to how many he can have, and he recently built an addition on his house where he keeps his forty-nine rare and frighteningly expensive guitars in a dust-free humidity-controlled environment.

Once in my life, for about two months, I owned two guitars simultaneously. I might as well have brought a third wife into my house, my first two wives being my other guitar and my piano. There was no way I could give any of my wives the attention they wanted if I was trying to please three of them. Two I could please, but three was one too many. In my case, I was not collecting guitars just to have them, but to play them every day. I would guess that most people who own more than a few guitars do not relate to guitars as spirit beings incarnate as musical instruments, but I could be wrong.

At the moment, I have two pianos. I’m waiting to find out if the new grand piano in my life can be regulated and repaired so it becomes as fine an instrument as the upright piano I’ve had for forty years. They are very different instruments, so I might keep them both, though I think I will feel I am neglecting the upright if I choose to make the grand piano the main focus of my piano playing.

How do my pianos feel about my taking up the guitar again? I suppose if I played them less than I did before I resumed guitar playing they would be unhappy, but actually, playing the guitar seems to have increased my appetite for playing the piano. So they don’t seem to mind. They are more concerned about each other than they are about my guitar.

As it happens, I took up the guitar when I became a vagabond and could not carry a piano with me. After a few months on the road without a piano, in 1970, I bought a not-very-good nylon-string guitar in the famous gigantic Mercado de Guadalajara, and I played that guitar every day for three years until I bought my first steel-string guitar, a slinky little Ovation with which I became a professional guitar-playing singer songwriter.

Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, I sold the Ovation for a hundred dollars to prove to my crazy angry girlfriend that I did not need a guitar to feel okay about myself. However, the only thing I proved by not having a guitar was that I missed having a guitar or a piano or both. Some people are just happier with musical instruments than without them. I am one of those people.

Perhaps those people, mostly men, who collect multiple guitars would not be happy without their guitars even if they don’t play them. After all, some people collect pottery and don’t eat out of the pottery, and some people collect jewelry and don’t wear their jewels, but enjoy looking at them and fondling them. Some people collect porcelain figurines of cherubs and repulsively cute children that are easy to break and take up shelf space and collect dust. Some people have five dogs. Some people have seven cats. I have a neighbor with four vintage Toyotas. I’ve known women with hundreds of pairs of shoes. When George Harrison of The Beatles died, he left behind hundreds of ukuleles.

Life is mysterious, but one thing is certain: the day I walk into a guitar shop intending to buy an excellent guitar, I will activate those neurological sectors of my being that evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of looking for and finding love, and by love I mean powerful emotional and physical resonance.

Cambridge

Monday, June 11th, 2018

i must go into the sea again tw

I Must Go Into the Sea Again painting by Nolan Winkler

Christine, the most excellent gluten-free baker of Mendocino, delivered some bread recently and mentioned she’d just returned from Boston where she attended her niece’s graduation from Harvard. And that reminded me of my Harvard adventure of 1972.

I dropped out of college in 1969 after two years of majoring in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, though Frisbee, basketball, piano, and writing were my main pursuits whilst enduring academia. For the next two years I lived as a hitchhiking vagabond, and in the late spring of 1971 I found myself in Boston with little money and wondering where I would sleep that night.

Schlepping my guitar and backpack into a café to get some tea, I fell into conversation with a guy who was keen to see my guitar. So I got out the handmade beauty I’d bought for fifteen dollars in the gigantic mercado in Guadalajara, and while the guy noodled on my guitar, I asked if he knew of any communes or hostels where I might stay for a few days.

“Go out to Cambridge,” he said, nodding. “Lots going on out there.”

“You mean Harvard?” I said stupidly.

“Yeah, Harvard,” he said, nodding. “Lots of communes out there. Hippies. College girls. Bookstores. Music. You’ll dig it.”

And then I remembered that two guys I’d gone to high school with had gone to Harvard, Dan and Joe, and if they were still there this would be their senior year. I caught a train over the river to Cambridge, found a phone booth, called Harvard, and sure enough they had a phone number for Dan. So I called him and he invited me to come crash in his dorm.

Now this dorm where I ended up living for a few weeks was not a typical dorm, but a huge brand new co-ed dorm built with millions of dollars given to Harvard and Radcliffe by the parents of a woman who had attended Radcliffe and died young. Everyone in the dorm had a large room outfitted with a comfy bed and a big desk, and on every floor of the massive four-story building there was a luxurious lounge and kitchen, some of these lounges outfitted with pianos.

On the ground floor there was a swank commissary providing excellent food, if one happened to be a resident. On my second day there, Dan presented me with the meal card of a Harvard student who was studying elsewhere for the semester, and the young gal who sat at the entrance to the commissary checking meal cards happily waved me in whenever I went there to dine, so…

The best part was that I was given my own room with a view out over the tennis courts where I played almost every day. Yes, overnight I went from homeless pauper to faux Harvard student living in a luxurious dorm, going to movies and pizza parlors and parties, attending lectures and playing tennis and romancing a young woman whose name I can’t remember.

One night, I and six peeps from the dorm piled into a big old car and went to a double bill of Five Easy Pieces and I Never Sang For My Father, and after the movies, because everyone except Todd was stoned or sans driver’s license, I was entrusted to drive the mob home.

Upon our arrival in the vicinity of the dorm, there were no available parking places, but after much driving around we chanced upon a small car pulling out of a spot just a half-block from the dorm. The consensus was that there was no way our big car would fit into the spot vacated by the small car. And I’m sure if I were confronted by such a challenge today, I would not do what I did then, which was to deftly and in one neat move parallel park our big car in that space with about six inches to spare on either end.

My feat was greeted with applause and huzzahs, and the next morning my parking job was the talk of breakfast and prompted a pilgrimage by several of us to view the miracle in the light of day.

I went to lectures given by famous anthropologists whose books I had read while at UC Santa Cruz, and while I enjoyed listening to these fellows pontificate, I was troubled that they, as had my professors at Santa Cruz, insisted on speaking about defunct and vanished societies in the Present Tense, as if these long-gone cultures were still intact.

At the conclusion of one lecture, having nothing to lose, I raised my hand and asked the esteemed professor if the childrearing practices and coming-of-age rituals he spoke of were still practiced by the Lakota today, given the genocidal demolition of their culture.

He squinted at me and said with obvious irritation, “No, of course not.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding. “I see. Thanks.”

After the lecture, a young man and young woman approached me and said how much they appreciated my asking that question. They, too, had grown disenchanted with the pretenses of academic anthropology.

“I just wish they’d call it historical anthropology,” said the young woman. “Why not tell the truth?”

“It’s curious,” said the young man. “They seem uneasy with the idea that the societies they speak of are no more.”

As the school year drew to a close, Jerry, one of my new friends from the dorm, landed a summer job on Nantucket Island attending to a wealthy Harvard alum who had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Jerry would be living in a converted windmill on the island, and he invited me to come visit him. So that’s where I headed after my free digs at Harvard were no longer available.

I hitchhiked to Wood’s Hole and caught the ferry to Nantucket, and after a fine week with Jerry, I took the ferry back to the mainland and hitched up into Maine en route to Canada. But how did I pay for all that before I ran out of money in Maine?

Well, I had a three-day gardening job in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, so that would account for thirty dollars or so, but in thinking back I remember a gathering of people in one of the dorm lounges, and Dan’s father Hugo was there. He must have come out from California for Dan’s graduation. He was concerned about me heading off into the unknown with just a backpack and a funky guitar. I remember assuring him I would be okay, but he was still concerned.

“I know you may not need this,” he said, getting out his wallet, “but I want to give you a little something. Okay?”

I think he gave me fifty dollars, which was a lot of money for the likes of me in those days, and proves the old maxim: if you want to get ahead in this society, go to Harvard.

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

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

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.