Posts Tagged ‘Hey Jude’

Tober Finds His Way Part 2

Monday, March 4th, 2019

rainy web

On the third day of their new life in the farmhouse at the end of Snake Creek Road, Amelia and Consuela wake in their bed to the sounds of Sharon and Tober talking quietly and moving about in the kitchen.

“Tober is going away today,” says Amelia, speaking softly in Spanish and pronouncing Tober Toe-Bare. “I like him. Do you like him?”

“Yes,” says Consuela, embracing the cat-sized teddy bear she brought with her from the facility where she and Amelia lived before coming to live with Sharon and Tober. “He told me he was coming back soon. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Not tomorrow,” says Amelia, shaking her head. “He told me, too. But not tomorrow. Maybe the next day.”

“I’m hungry,” says Consuela, sitting up. “Can we eat now?”

“Sharon will give us food,” says Amelia, speaking just above a whisper. “They have so much food here. Did you see? In the refrigerator? Milk and eggs and tortillas and bread and cheese. Sharon will give us food.”

“Why don’t you call her Mama?” asks Consuela, getting out of bed. “I do. She’s our mother now.”

“I don’t know,” says Amelia, shrugging. “If she doesn’t take us back to that place today, maybe I’ll call her Mama.”

“She won’t take us back,” says Consuela, shaking her head. “She said we can live with her forever.”

“She told me, too,” says Amelia, climbing out of bed and opening one of the drawers under the bed to find her clothes for the day. “But… I don’t know if it’s true.”

Tober’s little electric pickup has a range of three hundred and fifty miles on a single charge of the battery, so he plans to spend the night in a motel in Yachats Oregon, which is three hundred miles from Fortuna, and then drive the rest of the way to Portland the next day, another two hundred miles.

He loves Amelia and Consuela, and he’s sorry to be leaving them just as they are becoming accustomed to him, but he is eager to leave the gravitational pull of Annie and Maybe, and he hopes to find some extraordinary stones on the beaches in Oregon.

The day of his leaving dawns sunny and cold, and he is deeply touched by the girls following him to and fro as he loads the cab of his truck with his violin, a knapsack carrying various necessities, a small suitcase of clothes, four big jugs of spring water, and a bag of food: nuts and raisins and apples and bananas and bread and goat cheese.

“Take good care of our mother,” he says in Spanish to Amelia and Consuela, the girls wearing coats that Tober and Augie wore when they were little boys. “I’ll be back in a few days with Augie, your other new brother.”

“Goodbye Tober,” says Amelia, speaking English.

“Adios hermano,” says Consuela, speaking Spanish. “I hope you find many pretty rocks.”

“I hope so, too,” he says, waving goodbye to Sharon who is standing on the porch watching her little daughters say goodbye to her big son.

 ∆

When Tober reaches Fortuna where the two-lane country road merges onto the four-lane interstate, he has a pang of sorrow about Annie, but resists his impulse to drive by her place; and seemingly in the next moment he arrives in Eureka, population 25,000, the largest town he’d ever been to until a few months ago when he and Sharon accompanied Augie to Portland.

He enjoyed that gigantic city for the first two days they were there, and then his nerves began to fray. The incessant noise became physically painful to him, and the countless people, most of whom seemed oblivious to him and to each other, ceased to fascinate him. But the most upsetting thing for him about the city was what he perceived as the violent subjugation of nature, which he felt as a threat to his own life.

When he told Titus about feeling so threatened in Portland, Titus said, “Well… that kind of place is a threat to life. Because you grew up here, October, surrounded by wilderness and not many people living here, you learned to relate to the earth as your mother, and that’s why you feel her anguish when you go to places where people are hurting her, though that’s not their intention. They are unaware of what they’re doing to her. Each of those millions of people in Portland is just like you. They were born and need food and places to live. The problem is we humans got out of balance with nature when we killed off all the competing species that kept our population at a reasonable number. Just as the pumas keep the deer from being too many, there used to be things that kept humans from being too many, like poisonous bacteria and tigers and famine. But then we got antibiotics and guns and refrigerators and grocery stores, and now there are too many of us. That’s what you were feeling in Portland. Not just that you were threatened, but all those people you saw, they were threatened, too, and you felt that.”

“What do you feel when you go to a big city?” asked Tober, hoping to overcome his fear of Portland so he can enjoy himself when he visits Augie there.

“I haven’t been to a big city since I was thirty,” said Titus, chuckling. “That’s more than fifty years ago now, the last time I went to San Francisco. My good friend Moses Armstead, we were in the Army together, he became an actor and was in a play in a big theatre down there. So I took the Greyhound bus from Eureka to San Francisco and went to that play four nights in a row. I didn’t like the play very much, but I loved seeing Moses up on that stage. He was so happy to be in that play, making his living as an actor. I slept on the sofa in his apartment and every day we walked around the city together. There were lots of beautiful women, and I was happy to see them. There were lots of beggars, too, and that made me sad. But what I remember most vividly about San Francisco was a woman playing her guitar and singing in this tunnel you went through to get to the subway. She was wearing a black and white shirt like the black and white of those dairy cows, Holsteins, with long sleeves and cufflinks made of silver dollars. And the shirt was tucked into a dark brown leather skirt that came down just enough to cover her knees, and she was wearing a red cowboy hat and shiny black cowboy boots. Her nose was small and straight and she had dark green eyes like Augie’s, and her lips formed a heart she’d painted glossy red. She was a really good guitar player, as good as Augie, but it was her voice that astonished me, like there was a hawk keening inside her and the keening came out as the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. That’s what I think about whenever I think of San Francisco. I think of that woman dancing as she played her guitar, her skirt swinging as she played, and her beautiful voice echoing in that tunnel.”

Twenty miles south of Gold Beach, Tober turns off the coast highway and follows a dirt track a hundred yards to a bluff overlooking a white sand beach stretching as far as Tober can see to the north and south. He locks his truck, takes his violin and a bag of walnuts with him, and follows a slender trail down through a lush stand of dune grass to the beach.

He has no intention of playing his violin on the beach, but he would never leave the valuable instrument where it might be stolen, however remote that possibility. Olaf Bokulich, the principal First Violin of the Eureka Symphony, sold Tober the forty-thousand-dollar violin and seven-thousand-dollar bow two years ago for just twenty thousand dollars because he, Olaf, is profoundly enamored of Sharon, who also plays violin in the Eureka Symphony, and she had mentioned to him that Tober was ready for a better instrument than the very good violin he’d had since he was thirteen.

A widower in his late sixties, Olaf makes no secret of his adoration of Sharon, and to every rehearsal and performance of the orchestra he brings her a gift: a bottle of wine or a basket of fruit or a book or a CD of classical music or a gift certificate to a fine women’s clothing store in Arcata. Having made it abundantly clear that she has no interest in being in a relationship with him beyond cordial friendship, Sharon graciously accepts Olaf’s gifts and occasionally goes out with him for an early supper before a rehearsal.

A few years ago, Tober and Augie asked Sharon why, if she didn’t want to encourage Olaf’s romantic pursuit of her, she accepted his gifts.

“I know him very well now from playing in the symphony with him for all these years,” she explained, “and I know if I don’t accept his gifts, his feelings will be terribly hurt and he will cease to be our happy section leader. It gives him great pleasure to give me things, and so long as he understands that I consider him a generous uncle, and not relationship material, I enjoy our friendship. Should he ever become more aggressive in pursuing me, I will put a stop to it, believe me.”

Tober has been playing the violin since he was five, Sharon his primary teacher, and he was an accomplished violinist when he bought the hundred-year-old French violin and the seventy-year old German bow from Olaf; but his two years of practicing with the exquisite instrument has lifted his playing into a whole other realm, and he can’t imagine going back to a lesser violin.

He stands twenty feet back from where the waves are exhausting themselves on the porous sand, and he sees no obvious fields of stones to the south. However, when he looks northward, something tells him to go that way, so he does, and he’s pleased to see no signs of humans ever having done anything on this stretch of coast except walk here.

A mile along the wild shore, he comes to a rain-swollen stream transecting the beach, and he is delighted to see troves of small stones exposed on either side of the stream.

Leaving his violin and bow atop his jacket on the dry sand out of reach of the waves, Tober begins a careful search for the two kinds of stones he’s interested in. One kind are stones possessed of energies he can feel when he holds them in his hand; and for the purpose of selling stones to Germaine who owns Eclectica, a most unusual gift shop in Arcata, or to Maybe for resale at Good Used Stuff, he is on the lookout for beautifully-shaped stones.

Sometimes beauty and special energy reside in the same stone, and these are the ones Tober sells for prices that strike most people as absurdly high, since these are not crystals or rare gems, but merely stones. Yet there are people willing to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for some of Tober’s stones, for these people believe his stones are rarer than gold; and that is how Tober earned most of the money he used to buy Olaf’s violin and bow.

He searches for an hour, his time limited by his desire to reach Yachats before dark, and finds eleven stones he knows he’ll be able to sell for good prices, and one stone brimming with vibrant energy—a perfect equilateral triangle, each side about two-inches long, coal black, with rounded edges, a third-of-an-inch thick, and smooth as silk. He knows Germaine will give him at least five hundred dollars for this stone, though he intends to carry it in his pocket for some weeks before parting ways with such a splendid companion.

  ∆

On the road again, enjoying the passing scenery—the ocean and beaches and spectacular rock formations to his left, the green hills to his right—Tober holds the triangular stone in his right hand and thinks about the singing cowgirl Titus remembers from San Francisco.

“That’s what I want to do,” he says to the road ahead. “I want to touch people with my music the way she touched Titus.”

Having said this, he imagines finding a place in a park in Portland where he can play his violin for the people who are just like him, people who need food and places to live and other people to love.

  ∆

In the late afternoon, after one more stop to search for stones, Tober arrives in Yachats, checks into his room at the Fireside Motel on the northern edge of town, starts recharging his truck battery, and lies down to rest a little before supper and watch movies on what Titus calls the mind screen: Maybe handing him a thousand dollars and saying No hard feelings, Sharon watching Consuela carefully fill Igor’s bowl with kibble, Annie awaiting him naked in her bed, Titus saying, “Just think, October. The next time you make love with a woman, you’ll be able to please her because of all the wildly good things you learned from Annie.”

  ∆

When the first stars of the evening appear in the cloudless sky, Tober walks into the little town to have fish & chips at a place called Lunasea where he and Augie and Sharon stopped on their way to Portland in August.

The waitress reminds him of Annie, though she looks nothing like her. Something in the way she saunters as she makes her rounds of the few tables, never in a hurry, reminds him of the day he and Titus were in the Double D Steakhouse in Fortuna and Annie waited on them, and as she sauntered away with their order, Titus said, “She seems very interested in you, October, in case you’re looking for a girlfriend.”

He’d forgotten Titus encouraged him to pursue Annie, perhaps because he never again associated Titus with Annie, for she never wanted to accompany him when he went to be with Titus and Tina.

That should have told me all I needed to know he thinks as he watches the waitress blabbing with the elderly couple at the adjoining table except I was obsessed with making love with her.

The waitress smiles warmly at Tober and says, “I forgot to ask you if you wanted anything to drink. We’ve got a delicious Pilsner on tap, if you like Pilsner.”

“I’m only nineteen,” says Tober, shrugging pleasantly. “I’ll have a lemonade if it’s not too sweet.”

“Nineteen?” she says, skeptically. “I thought you were twenty-five.”

“How old are you?” he asks innocently.

“How old do you think?” she asks, arching her eyebrow.

Tober waits for a number to pop into his head. “Twenty-seven.”

She laughs. “Add ten, sweetheart. I’ve got a daughter two years younger than you. And the lemonade comes in a bottle. You won’t like it. Way too much sugar.”

“Water’s fine,” says Tober, gazing at her. “You give new meaning to the word ageless.”

“And you give new meaning to the word charming,” she says, sauntering away.

  ∆

In the morning, his battery fully charged, Tober goes to Green Salmon, one of the two coffee houses in Yachats, to have breakfast and write down the dream he woke from, a dream in which he was fleeing from unseen pursuers, carrying his violin in one hand, a tiny yellow bird in the other.

He takes his violin and his notebook into the busy café, and while standing in line to place his order, he looks around for a likely place to sit—all the tables occupied and no one in any apparent hurry to leave. There is an empty seat at a table for four, the three occupants intriguing to Tober: an elderly man with frizzy white hair and a pointy white goatee, a solemn middle-aged woman wearing a forest green serape, her black hair in a long braid, and a jittery girl with black hair in pigtails and brilliant blue eyes wearing a tan Boy Scout uniform and a purple tie.

Having placed his order, he makes his way through the voluble coffee drinkers to the table of the intriguing trio, and having judged the middle-aged woman to be the alpha, he makes eye contact with her before nodding to the older fellow with the goatee and smiling at the jittery girl.

“May I share your table with you?” he asks, bowing ever so slightly to the woman.

“Please,” she says, gesturing regally to the empty chair.

“Thank you,” says Tober, sitting down and setting his violin case on the floor beside him.

The elderly man purses his lips and asks, “Where are you from? We know all the local musicians, so you must be from somewhere else.”

Tober smiles at the man’s New Jersey accent and says, “I live near Fortuna, south of Eureka. I recognize your accent because it’s identical to my mother’s.”

“Would you play your violin for us?” asks the girl, wiggling in her chair. “Please?”

“I’d love to,” says Tober, nodding, “but I don’t want to bother the other diners.”

“How civilized of you,” says the woman, her New Jersey accent mild compared to the old man’s. “We know virtually everyone here at the moment and I’m sure none of them would object to hearing a tune.”

“I’ll go ask Glenna,” says the girl, jumping up and running to the counter.

“Welcome to Yachats,” says the man, his eyes twinkling. “I’m Phil Vogel. This is my daughter Ruth Livingston. The restless scout is Sylvia, Ruth’s daughter.”

“I’m Tober,” says Tober, delighted with Phil and Ruth and Sylvia. “Are you musicians?”

“I play the piano a little,” says Phil, miming playing a keyboard, “but I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I was a recording engineer for forty years. Ruth, on the other hand, is a very fine musician, and Sylvia will be once she starts practicing a little more diligently.”

“What do you play?” asks Tober, looking at Ruth and sensing she is deeply sad about something.

“Piano,” she says quietly. “And violin.”

Now Sylvia comes rushing back to the table with permission from Glenna, the café manager, for Tober to play a tune or two.

“On that note,” says Tober, putting his violin case on the table, “what would you like to hear, Sylvia?”

“Whatever you’d like to play,” she says, holding perfectly still as Tober brings forth his lovely old violin and bow.

“Well…” says Tober, quietly tuning his violin, “I’ve been working on a new sonata that sprang from a few bars in a Second Violin part in Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, his revised version. Third movement. Shall I play a little of that?”

“Yes, do,” says Ruth, nodding enthusiastically. “We dote on Mendelssohn at our house.”

Tober sets bow to strings, closes his eyes, and plays a single long eloquent note that silences the fifty people in the place and leads into a brief melancholic song inspired by Tober’s recent heartbreak—his playing eloquent, his tone breathtaking.

When he finishes the song, everyone in the place applauds, he bows, and several people call for him to play something more. So he blazes through a few fanciful variations on “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, and sits down to more applause and Bravos.

As he’s putting his violin away, Ruth says, “That was fantastic. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that.”

“I loved what you played,” says Sylvia, gaping at Tober. “Oh my God, I just loved it.”

“Thank you,” says Tober, smiling brightly. “Thank you for asking me to play.”

“Are you in town for long?” asks Ruth, her eyes sparkling. “I’d love to play with you.”

“I’ve got to be in Portland by this afternoon,” says Tober, shrugging apologetically. “But I’ll be coming back this way with my brother in a couple days, and I could play with you then. Yachats is where we recharge our electric truck.”

“Stay with us,” says Phil, nodding emphatically. “We’ve got a guest house nobody’s in right now.”

“I’ll try to get the piano tuned before you come back,” says Ruth, getting her phone out of her purse to find the piano tuner’s number. “So… today’s Saturday. Think you’ll be back here Tuesday?”

“That’s the plan,” says Tober, figuring backwards from the coming Thursday. “We want to get home by Wednesday night so we’ll be there all day for Thanksgiving.”

“Great,” says Phil, clinking his mug with Sylvia’s. “Tuesday it is.”

“Where do you perform, Tober?” asks Ruth, enchanted with him.

“At home,” he says innocently. “We had a quartet, my mother and brother and I and a friend, the Snake Creek Quartet. We played in Arcata a bunch of times, and played for weddings and benefits and things like that, but Augie’s in graduate school now so I just play on my own or with my mother.”

“You should play at Carnegie Hall,” says Sylvia, matter-of-factly. “Or on America’s Got Talent. You’d win easily.”

“Hold that thought,” says Tober, going to get his omelet.

On his way to the pickup counter, several people tell him how much they enjoyed his playing; and when the young woman behind the counter hands him his plate of food, she says, “We want to comp you breakfast. Hold on a sec, I’ll give you your money back.”

“Oh gosh, no,” says Tober, blushing. “Please keep it as a tip, and thanks so much for letting me play.”

“Any time,” she says, nodding hopefully. “You made everybody happy.”

  ∆

On the road again, Tober ponders his good fortune and realizes that playing in the Green Salmon café was the first time in his life he has ever performed in public without Augie or Sharon or both of them playing with him, and though he enjoyed playing solo, he would much rather have played with Augie or Sharon or… maybe someone else.

He wishes Titus or Augie were with him so he could tell them how different he felt performing alone—being the sole focus of attention making him feel so much more vulnerable than when he performs with others.

“Yet it may have been that very vulnerability,” says Tober, speaking to Titus, “that created such a powerful intimacy with the audience.”

“Not to mention,” he imagines Titus saying, “you’re a different person than you were before you had a lover and then lost your lover. Those experiences are in your music now, October, so the people resonate with you now as never before.”

When Tober reaches the town of Reedsport, he leaves the coast highway and heads inland on Highway 38, a two-lane road that closely follows the mighty Umqua River to Interstate 5.

At the east end of Reedsport, Tober stops for a hitchhiker, a not very tall but enormous woman with short gray hair wearing a ratty brown coat and gray sweat pants and black rubber boots. A bulging bag of groceries stands on the ground beside her and she’s holding a raggedy little white poodle under her left arm; and Tober almost doesn’t stop for her because he senses something sinister about her, though she appears to be harmless.

Tober leans across the seat, rolls down the passenger side window, and says to the woman, “I’ll need to rearrange a few things before you get in.”

“Thank you,” she says wearily, her voice raspy. “I’m only going twelve miles. Gonna start raining any minute now.”

Tober gets out of his truck, stows his violin and knapsack behind the seat, and comes around the nose of the truck to open the passenger door for the woman.

She hands him her dog and climbs in with much grunting and groaning, and when she’s all the way in, Tober hands her the dog and her bag of groceries, goes back around the nose of the truck, and resumes his place behind the wheel.

“I’m Tober,” he says, smiling at the woman.

“Lauren,” she says, struggling to get the seatbelt across her body, but it is too small for her girth. “Not Laura. Not Lorna. Not Laurie. Lauren. This is Gully. She rolled in something dead. That’s what you’re smelling.”

“Don’t worry about the seatbelt,” says Tober, easing his truck back onto the road. “I’ll drive carefully.”

Now the clouds burst and heavy rain begins to fall.

“That was close,” says Lauren, her breath rancid. “I thought somebody I knew would come by, but nobody did.”

“Do you not own a car?” asks Tober, noting how the truck is listing starboard with so much weight on that side.

“I own one,” she says, nodding slowly, “but it doesn’t run right now. Needs a new radiator and brakes and stuff. I don’t really need it except for going to town, and people give me rides, so…” She nods. “Where you from?”

“Eureka,” he says, repulsed by Gully’s sickly scent.

“I went to college at Humboldt State,” she says, nodding. “For a year. Very polluted around there. You might not think so, but it is. I know because I spent a long time trying to find a place where I could afford to live that wasn’t toxic for me. I’m sensitive to chemicals and carbon monoxide and microwaves, so I did a lot of research before I moved here.”

“Fortunately, I live a long way from Eureka near the mouth of the Eel River,” says Tober, wondering how Amelia and Consuela are getting along in their new home. “Not very polluted there.”

“That’s what you think,” she says, sneering. “They spray chemicals everywhere now. You can be in a forest fifty miles from the nearest town and the place will be soaked with chemicals and pesticides. And if there’s a cell tower anywhere nearby, you’re being fried with microwaves twenty-four seven.”

“What do you do, Lauren?” asks Tober, changing the subject as his truck labors up a steep stretch of the road. “With your time?”

“Well, I’m ill,” she says, glaring at him, “so I have to rest a lot. And I do a lot of research on my computer about my illness and various healing modalities. I cook and try to keep my place clean, but it isn’t easy because I get tired so quickly. I have a boyfriend who comes by a couple times a week, so… I’m on disability, so… what do you do?”

“I’m a violinist,” says Tober, thinking about this morning and how when he played the last note of his variations on “Norwegian Wood”, everyone in the café beamed at him—what a lovely moment that was. “And a carpenter and…”

“I play the guitar,” says Lauren, cutting him off. “Needs new strings. Won’t stay in tune. I used to be pretty good before my fingers got so swollen.” She shrugs. “That’s part of my illness. My thyroid is damaged from chemicals and my hormones are all fucked up from toxins and microwaves, so… it’s just another few miles. I’d appreciate it if you could drive me to my house. I’m about a half-mile off the highway so I’m out of range of fumes from diesel trucks and car exhaust.”

“I’ll be happy to drive you to your house,” says Tober, feeling woozy and sick to his stomach.

And guessing the cause of his malady might be Lauren, Tober rolls down his window, despite the rain and the cold, and breathes deeply of the untainted air, and his physical distress diminishes somewhat.

When they reach Lauren’s ramshackle mobile home in a sparse forest of young fir trees, Lauren invites Tober to come in, but he declines, saying he’s in a hurry to get to Portland to see his brother.

“Portland’s a toxic death trap,” she says, squinting at him. “Would you help me get out? I think I might fall if you don’t help me.”

So Tober comes around to the passenger door, takes Gully from Lauren, sets her on the ground, and gives Lauren a hand climbing out of the truck.

And Lauren does almost fall, several times, as Tober helps her to her front door, which he opens for her

“Could you help me sit down before you go?” she says, breathing hard. “And get me some water?”

“Certainly,” he says, sickened by the stench of rot permeating her home.

When Tober has put ten miles between him and Lauren’s house—the rain abating and the sun peeking out from behind tattered clouds—he pulls off the highway into a county park on the banks of the mighty Umqua and finds no other cars or people here in what is essentially a parking lot with a boat ramp for launching small boats into the river.

He parks near the boat ramp, gets out of his truck, takes off all his clothes, save for his underwear, walks down the boat ramp, and immerses himself in the icy flow, hoping to wash away the poisons he absorbed from Lauren.

Garbed in clean clothes and feeling much revived, Tober resumes his journey along the Umqua, clasping his newly-found triangular stone in his left hand.

“I wonder if she has that effect on everyone,” he says, desperate to talk to Titus, “or if she’s only poisonous to me because I don’t know how to shield myself from her kind of energy.”

Another thirty miles on the winding road brings Tober to the small town of Drain, where after cruising slowly through the town in search of a pay phone and finding none, he pulls into a gas station and asks the attendant, a young woman with bleached blonde hair and heavy makeup, if she knows of any nearby payphones.

“There used to be one at the post office,” she says, shaking her head, “but they got rid of it a couple years ago. I’ve got an unlimited plan. You can use my phone.”

“That would be wonderful,” says Tober, getting out his wallet. “Would ten dollars be enough? I’m calling someone near Eureka.”

“Oh you don’t have to pay me,” she says, handing him her phone. “I’ve got unlimited.”

“Um…” he says, taking the phone from her, “I don’t know how to use these. Could you dial for me?”

“You mean like… enter the number you want to call?” she says, frowning quizzically.

“Yes,” says Tober, handing the phone back to her.

He slowly recites Titus’s number, she enters the digits, and hands the phone back to him.

“I gotta go pump some gas,” she says, hurrying away. “Don’t steal my phone, okay?”

“Okay,” says Tober, hoping Titus will answer.

And when Titus does answer, Tober speaks at length about how he felt his spirit being crushed by something emanating from her and how opening the window and breathing the unsullied air revived him somewhat, but when he escorted her into her house, he grew incredibly weak again, as if gripped by some terrible flu, only worse, as if he was dying, and would have died had he stayed with her much longer.

“Is that just me, Titus?” he asks urgently. “Because I’m too open or…”

“No, my son,” says Titus, his voice shaking. “You met a psychic vampire, and I don’t mean she isn’t human. I mean she is so damaged, so emotionally deformed she has become a psychic leech. I have known several people like this woman, and not all of them were physically ill, but all of them very dangerous. They suck the life out of other people, not just you, October. Everyone who comes into contact with them. It’s a terrible thing. I know of no cure for what is wrong with them, and the best thing you can do if you ever meet another one of these people is get away as fast as you can.”

Tober arrives in Portland at two in the afternoon with three hours to spare before Augie gets home from his Saturday job. So he drives into the heart of the city and leaves his truck in a parking garage under Director’s Park, a big plaza with a large fountain at one end, and goes forth with his violin to find a likely place to play for people.

Downtown Portland on a Saturday is very different than downtown Portland Monday through Friday, for though most of the nine-to-fivers are absent, thousands of people swarm in from the suburbs to enjoy the commercial and cultural amenities of downtown Portland, and thousands of teenagers free from school for the weekend roam around and hang out in the downtown parks and squares and cafés—the wonderfully sunny day making the urban center especially appealing after weeks of rain and cold.

And everywhere Tober looks there are homeless people, men and women and children, some of them begging from passersby, but most of them just enjoying the sun until the cold and darkness will send them to wherever they’ve found to sleep.

Director’s Park strikes Tober as good as any place to play his music, so he walks to the center of the square, gets out his violin, and begins to play a slow dreamy version of “Molly Malone”; and he is immediately surrounded by a dozen people, seven of them filming him with their phones.

By the time Tober finishes playing the old Irish ballad, there are forty-some people around him, many of them filming him with their phones.

Now a smartly dressed woman approaches him and says, “You need to open your case so we can give you money.”

So Tober opens his violin case, the woman places a five-dollar bill therein, and he is inspired to reprise his improvisational rendering of “Norwegian Wood”, exploring the melodic possibilities of the tune for much longer than he did at the Green Salmon café.

At song’s end, the fast-growing audience cheers, and money rains down into Tober’s violin case.

Now a middle-aged man wearing a gorgeous purple shirt and stylish black slacks, calls out with a thick Brazilian accent, “Do you play any Joao Gilberto?”

Tober nods and begins a tender rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema,” climaxing the iconic tune with a long improvised referencing of several other Gilberto songs before returning to the original “Ipanema” melody that brings a roar of approval from the now hundreds of people listening to him and filming him—his violin case overflowing with money; some of the bills blowing away in a sudden breeze.

Two children, a boy and a girl, break away from two different sets of parents and chase the fluttering bills and catch them and bring them back to the violin case where they carefully weight the bills down with coins.

Tober thanks the children and asks, “Any song you’d like to hear?”

“Another Beatles song?” says the boy, his accent British. “‘Hey Jude’ is my mother’s favorite.”

“And you?” says Tober, looking at the girl. “Is there a song you’d like to hear?”

“Um… ‘Are you going to the Scarborough Fair’” she says, gazing in awe at him.

“Two marvelous choices,” says Tober, smiling around at the vast audience waiting to hear what he’s going to play next.

He closes his eyes for a long moment, sets bow to strings, and plays “Scarborough Fair” using double stops, so it sounds as if two violins are playing a close harmony; and when the famous song is well-established, he begins sneaking in lines from ‘Hey Jude’ until of a sudden ‘Hey Jude’ takes over and “Scarborough Fair” nearly disappears until the very end of the song when he plays a fantastically conjoined melody that causes the audience to roar with delight.

When his audience has dispersed, Tober goes down on his knees to transfer the small fortune in his violin case to his knapsack, and to put his violin and bow in their case; and while he’s on his knees, a woman comes near.

She is nearly as tall as Tober, broad-shouldered and beautifully proportioned, her skin dark brown, her long black hair in a ponytail, her face exquisite.

“I regret to say I only heard the last few things you played,” she says in a deep clear voice, “and I would very much like to talk to you. I, too, am a violinist. Do you have a moment?”

He stands up and gazes in wonder at her. “I have more than a moment. Where shall we go?”

“Café,” she says, pointing west.

“Do you know what time it is?” he asks, profoundly smitten. “I have to be somewhere shortly after five.”

“It’s a little after three,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I have to be somewhere at four. That gives us nearly an hour.”

“Lucky me,” says Tober, sighing happily. “And I’m not just saying that.”

“I know you’re not,” she says, smiling shyly. “Lucky me, too.”

So they traverse the plaza together and Tober marvels at how strong and graceful she is, so graceful he guesses she’s a dancer as well as a violinist.

“By the way,” he says, clearing his throat, “my name is Tober. Short for October. But everyone calls me Tober. Except Titus, but… anyway… what’s your name?”

“Jasmy,” she says, her cheeks dimpling. “Not short for anything. A common name in Cameroon where my mother lives.”

“What a beautiful name,” he says, nodding. “Especially for a musician who might also be a dancer.”

They sit across from each other at a little table in a crowded café. She has a double espresso and a chocolate biscotti; he has chicken salad and French fries.

When Jasmy finally stops effusing about Tober’s playing, she asks him for a thumbnail sketch of his life and he gives her a humorous five-minute version that makes her laugh again and again—and the more she laughs, the more he wants to make her laugh because her laughter is so beautiful to him.

When he asks her for a thumbnail sketch of her life, she says, “You’re a hard act to follow, October, but I’ll try,” and proceeds to astound him with her story.

Raised by her white father and his German mother in their tri-lingual home in Mountain Home Idaho, she started playing the violin when she was six, was volleyball superstar in high school and offered athletic scholarships to both Stanford and UCLA while simultaneously winning acceptance to the Eastman School of Music in New York, and ultimately eschewed both college and music school to move to Portland and start a band and work as a studio musician, her band called Ordering Chaos.

“In fact,” she says, giving him a wide-eyed inviting look, “we’re playing tonight at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom and I really want you to come. My father is visiting from Idaho and he’s gonna sit it in with us. He’s a stellar guitarist and…” She takes a deep breath. “Would you play with us?”

“Tonight?” says Tober, laughing. “You mean… improvise on a couple tunes?”

“Yeah,” she says, overwhelmed by how much she likes him. “Or on three or four. And maybe do a solo or two. Whatever you like.”

“Sounds wonderful, but… is it a club where you have to be twenty-one? Because I’m only nineteen and Augie’s only eighteen, so…”

“You’re only nineteen?” she says, gaping at him. “I thought you were at least twenty-seven.”

“How old are you?” he asks, holding his breath.

“Guess,” she says, giving him a comically expectant look.

“Twenty-six?” he says, biting his lower lip.

“Minus six,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “We’re almost the same age. May I ask how tall are you?”

“Guess,” he says, giving her a goofy smile.

“Six-three,” she says, nodding assuredly. “Two and a half inches taller than I am.”

“Good guess,” says Tober, impressed. “I’m actually an eighth-of-an-inch shy of six-three. Shall we guess our weights next?”

“No,” she says, wanting to kiss him, “I don’t think that’s something we should talk about on our first date.”

“Is this a date?” he asks breathlessly. “Surely you have a boyfriend. Plays in the band with you? Or he’s a brilliant jazz pianist saxophone player with a combo of the coolest guys in the world. No?”

“Well you must have a girlfriend,” she rejoins, also breathless. “Some stunning astrophysicist opera singer tantric master? Yes?”

“Actually,” says Tober, growing serious, “I only just had my first real girlfriend. We were involved for six months, and just five days ago, or maybe it was four, she dumped me. I’m actually quite relieved now that I’m mostly over the shock of it. We had almost nothing in common except…” He clears his throat. “Now I’ve undoubtedly told you more than you wanted to know, but that’s how I am.”

“Wow,” she says, her eyes sparkling with tears. “Quel coincidence. I just got dumped, too. Three months and two weeks and three days ago. But who’s counting?”

“Not me,” he says, his imagination running wild with scenes from his fabulous love affair with Jasmy. “So… what time should my brother and I get to Mc-whatever the palace is?”

“We’re playing two sets,” she says, her imagination every bit as active as his. “We go on at eight, and I was thinking you’d play the second set with us. But come at seven-thirty and I’ll introduce you to everybody and you can watch the first set and see what we’re all about. I’ll put you on the guest list. The show’s sold out.”

“Augie, too, please,” says Tober, wanting very much to kiss her. “That’s my brother. Augie. Um… so… seven-thirty. Do we… how do we…”

“Go in the front, give them your name, and I will arrange for someone to bring you backstage.” She looks at him, memorizing his face. “I can’t tell you how glad I am I didn’t do what I usually do on Saturday afternoon before a gig, which is practice and then do some yoga and then take a nap. I was too antsy today, so I just started walking and ended up walking all the way downtown, which I almost never do. And when I was about a block away from Director’s Park, I heard you playing those fantastical variations on “Norwegian Wood”, and I started running because I’ve never heard anybody play like you except, in a way… me. Not exactly, of course, but…” She struggles to find the words. “With the same kind of knowing abandon.”

“That’s exactly it,” he says, amazed by her. “Knowing abandon. Trusting the skill we’ve developed from thousands of hours of playing and exploring and trusting that there are no wrong notes, just infinite new beginnings.”

“Yeah,” she says, getting out her phone. “I have to go now, but… can we trade numbers? In case I need to call you or you want to call me?”

“I don’t have a phone like that,” he says, smiling helplessly at her. “I just have the one on the wall in the kitchen. In our house. In California. Near Fortuna. Which is near Eureka. Oh, but I do have this.” He gets out his wallet and extracts one of his business cards. “This has my phone number and post office box number.”

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome

She smiles at his card and says, “I love this October ‘Tober’ Quincy. But what if I want to call you in an hour? Or tomorrow?”

“Oh right,” he says, slapping his forehead. “Augie’s got a local phone number and an answering machine. I’ll give you that number and you give me yours, and I’ll see you tonight at seven-thirty.”

“Okay,” she says, handing him a pale gray card, the print burgundy.

Jasmy Beckman

ORDERING CHAOS

Violin and Vocals

Studio Work & Special Events

“Jasmy Beckman,” says Tober, looking up from the card and losing himself in her beauty. “I’ll keep this forever.”

 fin

Mrs. Espy and the Hippy

Monday, November 26th, 2018

persimmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear M,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott arches his eyebrow. “Do tell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the whole traumatic scene comes back to her.

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

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

“Scott?” she says urgently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh Mrs. Espy, you flatter me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

The Machine Stops

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

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The Roar of Time pen and ink by Todd

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

“In this world there are only two ways of getting on—either by one’s own industry or by the stupidity of others.” Jean De La Bruyère

E.M. Forster, best known for his novels Room With A View, Passage To India and Howard’s End, published a great short story in 1909 entitled The Machine Stops, an extremely prescient imagining of a future we may soon inhabit. Forty years before the advent of television, Forster foresaw computers and the worldwide internet, the demolition of the global environment, and the total collapse of technological society.

I thought of Forster’s story this week for three reasons. First, we are in the midst of The Government Stops, second the climate news is more dire than ever with rising global temperatures on pace to make human life on earth untenable within a decade or so, and third, my trusty iMac, a senile seven-year-old, has finally become so obstreperous and the screen so degenerate that I have ordered a new iMac and trust the universe will employ the precessional repercussions of my action to her advantage. Buckminster Fuller described precessional repercussions as those right-angled unintentional effects of an intended action; for instance, the honeybee goes to the flower with the intention of getting nectar, and one of the marvelous unintended repercussions of the bee’s action is pollination. Mazel tov!

Little did I realize how much time I spend using (and being used by) my computer until going mostly without the blessed device for these last two weeks. Yikes. Not only do I several times a day type my longhand output into on-screen documents, but I carry on most of my correspondence by email now, read several articles a day online, watch sports highlights and movie previews, and pursue several lines of research, all as a matter of barely conscious course.

I am happy to report that I don’t feel I have missed much these last two weeks and know I have gained valuable time to do important work to prepare this old (new) house for winter, work I never seemed to have quite enough time for because, well, you know, there were links to click and leads to follow and Truthdig and Bill Moyers and Rhett & Link and and and…

As of this writing, our government has been “shut down” for eleven days, with polls showing a slight majority of people blaming Republicans for the impasse and a frighteningly large minority blaming Obama. That anyone could blame Obama for this blatant sabotage of our system is silly, but that tens of millions of registered voters blame him for the actions of a bunch of cruel racist lunatics is, in the words of Grouch Marx, “A travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham of a mockery.”

The central bank of China owns a large chunk of our national debt and is highly displeased with America’s governmental constipation, as are the various global financial markets. “Please get your money business in order pronto,” they chorus with growing vitriol. “We don’t care if you want to starve your own citizens and deprive them of healthcare and decent education, just don’t jeopardize our investments in your big bubble economy or we’ll stop buying and holding your stinking debt!”

The Japanese are pissed off, too, but they don’t have a leg to stand on with their (our) Fukushima nuclear disaster so close to global endgame catastrophe I wonder how anyone can sleep at night, let alone eat fish.

“There are two worlds: the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.” Leigh Hunt

Today Marcia and I walk to town to buy groceries, run a few errands, and split a salad at Goodlife Café and Bakery, the day cool and windy, a large coalition of vagabonds and their dogs conferencing in front of Harvest Market, their mood upbeat, many cups of coffee in evidence.

While Marcia copies things at Zo and returns a DVD to our miniature library, I go to the post office where marvelous Robin sells me four sheets of the fabuloso new Ray Charles stamps and I send one of my books and two of my piano CDs to a lucky customer in New Zealand, the postage twice what my creations cost her. What a woild!

Marcia catches up to me in the cozy confines of Corners of the Mouth where I note that the sunflower seeds are from North Dakota, the pumpkin seeds are from Oregon, the peanuts are from Georgia, the coconut oil is pressed and jarred in Oregon, and the bananas are definitely not from the Anderson Valley. If the vast petroleum-powered food transportation machine were to suddenly stop, much of what we eat these days would not be here to eat. We grow vegetables and potatoes, and we buy more of the same from local growers, ditto berries and apples and eggs, but rice and beans and avocados and and and…

We trudge up the hill with our laden packs and arrive home to a Fedex note stuck to our door saying the delivery person came two hours in the future with my new computer but needs a signature before he or she can leave the package. The note says, “Go to Fedex.com and enter the Door Tag tracking number to learn what your options are.”

So I dutifully go to Fedex.com on my barely functional computer, enter the tracking number, and there in large print is confirmation that my package was delivered on September 6, five weeks ago and four weeks before I ordered my new computer. Zounds! Talk about efficient.

Feeling miffed and disoriented, I call the Fedex 800 number and get a sexy woman’s voice that turns out to be a voice-recognition system that sounds confident she/it can understand why I’m calling if I will clearly explain my situation using telltale words and expressions such as delivery and wherefore art thou, Romeo.

“Did you say package?” says the sexy voice, her tone endowing the word package with suggestive connotations. “Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number and she responds enthusiastically with, “Okay. Your package was delivered on September 6.”

“No!” I scream. “No! No! No!”

“Okay,” says the robot lady who never needs to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom or see a doctor or complain about low wages and lousy working conditions. “I’ll connect you to a service representative. Please tell me your Door Tag tracking number.”

I tell her the number again and she rewards me with a hideous synthesized instrumental version of Hey Jude. After thirty seconds of this sonic blasphemy, a different sexy sounding female voice announces that my call may be monitored for quality assurance and to determine if I am naughty or nice.

When I make a silent vow to listen to the original version of Hey Jude so I might like the song again, the universe rewards me with a real live person who says his name is Mark, pronouncing his name Mar-ek. “How can I help you today?” he asks, sounding as if he is in a large room with hundreds of other people all talking at the same time.

I recite my name and address and explain my situation and Mark says, “The driver made an error and used an expired tracking number. He attempted to deliver your package at 3:48 today, but no one was there.”

“Mark,” I say, “it is not yet 3:48 here. Is this perhaps another driver error?”

“Yes,” says Mark, giggling. “Yes, it is.”

“Will the driver come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark. “He will.”

“Why did he not just say that on his door tag, Mark?”

“He did say that,” says Mark, “but he used an expired door tag tracking number so the correct information was not available to you online.”

“But he will come again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” says Mark, sounding a wee bit impatient with me and possibly in need of a coffee break. “I am almost a hundred per cent sure he will bring your package tomorrow.”

“I’ll be waiting with baited breath.”

“Oh, just sign the door tag,” says Mark. “And then you don’t have to be there when it comes.”

“Thank you, Mark. You have been very kind to me.”

“No problem. Have a nice day.”