Posts Tagged ‘love’

Augie and Tober’s Quest

Monday, February 4th, 2019

morning show

On April seventeenth, just a few days ago, Sharon Quincy asked her sons Augie, twelve, and Tober, thirteen, if they will approve whole-heartedly of her marrying Alex, a dear friend of the family.

“And,” she added, “if either of you has any reservations about my marrying him, I won’t.”

Sharon and Tober and Augie live at the end of Snake Creek Road, a mile-long dirt road in the coastal mountains of far northern California, four miles from the mouth of the Eel River, the nearest town Fortuna, ten miles away. Their ten-acre homestead is energy self-sufficient and they grow and raise and catch most of their food. Augie and Tober were born in the old farmhouse, and they were home-schooled by several excellent teachers who live nearby. Both young men passed their high school equivalency exams last year and are now pursuing independent studies, separately and together, with the guidance of their mother and other mentors.

Tober is nearly six-feet-tall and appears to be much older than thirteen. His dark brown hair was never cut, not once in his life, and reached nearly to the ground until last year when he decided to shave his head after being initiated into manhood by Titus Troutcatcher, an elderly Wailaki man who lives two miles west of where Snake Creek Road meets Highway 211. Tober’s hair is now four-inches-long and he looks forward to having it long enough again to wear in a ponytail.

Augie is stockier and a few inches shorter than Tober and keeps his auburn hair cut short. He, too, was initiated into manhood last year along with Tober and two Wailaki boys, Jacob Morningstar and Leon Kingfisher. Titus thought it would be wise to initiate Augie with the older boys because, as he explained to Sharon, “Augie is an old soul and he’ll be happier becoming a man with his brother and Jacob and Leon rather than waiting a year to be initiated alone. We want him to be happy about becoming a man so he will enjoy his manhood.”

Tober and Augie are both skilled carpenters and gardeners and fisherman and hunters with bows and arrows, both play violin and guitar—Tober favoring the violin, Augie the guitar—and both are thoroughly knowledgeable about the abundant edible and medicinal plants growing in the Eel River watershed.

Sharon Quincy is thirty-six, five-foot-three, and strikingly pretty with shoulder-length brown hair and dark blue eyes. She works twenty hours a week as a checker at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, plays violin in the Eureka Symphony, gives violin and guitar lessons, and is nearly as fluent in French and Spanish as she is in English.

Alex Redfield is forty-five and met the Quincys four years ago. A professor of European History at Humboldt State in Arcata, Alex is Scottish, Oxford-educated, witty and charming. For the first two years of his involvement with the Quincy family, neither he nor Sharon wished to become romantically entangled with the other. But they enjoyed each other so much and shared so many marvelous experiences that they eventually fell in love.

And because Alex was such an important friend to Tober and Augie, Sharon and Alex strove to create a relationship that did not much alter Alex’s friendship with Sharon’s sons; and they were successful in this regard until two months ago when Alex returned from a month in England and Scotland with news that he has been offered a professorship at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and now he has asked Sharon to marry him.

In order to assume this professorship, Alex must make a four-year commitment to Stirling. He badly wants this job because it will greatly enhance his academic credentials and assure the publication of his second major work about Queen Elizabeth I, a book he’s been working on for several years. However, he does not want to leave Sharon. He wants to marry her, and for her and her sons to live with him in Scotland for the next four years, and possibly longer, after which the family will return to California. However, if Sharon does not agree to move to Scotland with him, Alex says there will be no marriage and he will move back to Scotland without her.

To Alex, who is flabbergasted that Sharon would ask her young sons to make this decision for her, Sharon explained, “I was never allowed to make my own decisions about what I did with my life until I quit the ballet company when I was twenty and finally escaped from my mother who used me from the day I was born as an expression of her own ambitions. And I have made it a guiding principle of my life to relate to my children, within reason and according to their capabilities, as my equals. You and I may think it would be a marvelous experience for them to leave this place they love and to leave all their dear friends to go live on a college campus in Scotland for four years, but they may not think so. They are men now, though they are still in the throes of transitioning into being adults in this society, and I believe uprooting them at this time, if it is against their wills, would be a great disservice to them. And that is why I have asked them to make this decision.”

To ponder their mother’s question, Tober and Augie decide it would be best to absent themselves from their mother and Alex by backpacking through the forest to the coast where they will spend the night and fast for a day before heading home. They have made many such treks with their mother, two with Alex, four with Jacob Morningstar and Leon Kingfisher, and seven just the two of them.

Per their mother’s request, they will carry a cell phone to call her in case of an emergency, though cell phones rarely work in this remote wilderness.

They leave their house on Snake Creek Road on a cool cloudy morning, each carrying a backpack containing a sleeping bag, tarp, water bottle, water filter, matches, cooking pot, food, fishing pole, a pair of shoes, a knife, and a bow and arrows. Their hooded down jackets are waterproof, their shirts and trousers are made of sturdy cotton, and their feet, tough as leather, are bare.

Before entering the forest, they stop by their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road, the Bernsteins, to say goodbye to Cecily, who is fourteen, and Felix, who is twelve.

Cecily, her curly brown hair sporting subtle red highlights, announced six months ago that she intends to become a movie star, which will necessitate her moving to Los Angeles as soon as possible, though her parents are so far not cooperating with her plans.

Felix, who rarely brushes his mop of frizzy brown hair, is not much of an outdoors person and recently declared his intention to become a theoretical physicist. He did not participate in the labors and ceremonies of the Wailaki initiation into manhood because he is preparing for his bar mitzvah and dislikes sleeping outside and killing things.

Cecily is adamant that Tober and Augie should go to Scotland and experience life away from Snake Creek Road, which, now that she wants to be a movie star instead of a wildlife biologist, she decries as creatively limiting, whereas Felix doesn’t want Augie and Tober to go anywhere before he leaves for college some years hence because Augie and Tober are his only friends, not counting his parents.

“We’ll be back in three days,” says Tober, standing beside Augie on the Bernstein’s deck watching Cecily and Felix eat pastries and drink coffee at a small round table overhung by a big yellow umbrella.

“Have a mahvelous time,” says Cecily, winking at Tober in the manner of her movie star persona, a latter day Claudette Colbert. She’s wearing dark glasses and high-waisted beige pants and a peach dress shirt with cuffs unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up. “No offense, dahling, but I’m hoping to be long gone by the time you get back. I’m very close to convincing Ma-Ma to drive me to LA. Tremendous career momentum manifesting even as we speak. Wink, wink.”

“To visit your Aunt Lydia?” asks Tober, who keeps hoping Cecily’s movie star fantasies will fade away and she’ll become his tomboy girlfriend again.

“To live with dear Lydia, dahling,” says Cecily, taking off her dark glasses to show him the fire in her eyes. “So I can finally get my show on the road. Time’s a wasting. Fingers crossed.”

“But I’ll be here when you get back,” says Felix, who is dressed as per usual—black-framed glasses, gray MIT sweatshirt, brown Bermuda shorts, turquoise high-top tennis shoes, plaid socks. “We might go to the movies in Arcata tomorrow, but otherwise I’ll be here. Don’t get hurt out there.”

Tober and Augie head west through a forest of hundred-year-old redwoods and Douglas firs, and a half-mile along they come to where little Newt Creek merges into Wild Turkey Creek. They know the woods within a half-mile of both sides of Snake Creek Road as well as they know their bedroom, every fern and tree and stone familiar to them; and they have countless times followed Wild Turkey Creek westward to where it joins the mighty Eel two miles from the sea.

But today they head south away from the confluence of creeks, climb a steep slope populated with big trees, surmount a rocky ridge, and descend into a fern-clogged gulley they know little about.

The nameless creek at the bottom of this gulley is barely a trickle, and after a few hundred yards of slogging westward through thick stands of ferns arising from the mucky ground, they are about to change direction and head south again to see what they can see from the next ridge top, when they arrive at a large pool of crystal clear water set in a wide vein of gray granite, the pool about thirty-feet-long and ten-feet-wide; and they decide to shed their packs here and share an orange.

“I guess I’m kind of mad at Alex,” says Tober, taking off his clothes to have a dip in the pool.

“How come?” asks Augie, rummaging in his pack for an orange.

Tober thinks for a moment. “I mean… why did he have to tangle up marrying Mom with moving to Scotland? Feels so… extortive.”

“It is extortive,” says Augie, peeling the orange. “He seems so desperate now, and his sense of humor is completely gone. I mean… he was never desperate before he came back from England. I wonder what happened to him over there.”

“Mid-life crisis?” says Tober, wading into the pool. “Oh my God, Aug, this water’s warm. Incredibly warm.”

“A hot spring?” says Augie, leaving the half-peeled orange on his pack and stripping off his clothes.

“Getting warmer as I move downstream,” says Tober, the water up to his waist. “There’s almost no flow at all. I wonder if this is even part of the creek.”

They explore the pool, wading and swimming, until they locate a strong upwelling of extremely hot water erupting from a fissure at a depth of about four feet.

“Wow,” says Tober, floating on his back above the upwelling. “A hot spring of epic proportions, and not a whiff of sulfur.”

“Titus and Tina,” says Augie, grinning at Tober. “We have to bring them here.”

“And Mom,” says Tober, yawning. “It’s so relaxing. She’ll love this.”

“What about Alex?” Augie arches an eyebrow.

“He’d love it, too,” says Tober, sadly. “Don’t you think?”

“I guess so,” says Augie, getting out of the pool and resuming his peeling of the orange. “Only I don’t really want to bring anybody here who doesn’t want to live here. I know that’s selfish, but that’s how I’m feeling right now.”

“What about Cecily?” asks Tober, emerging from the pool and perching on a large rock at the water’s edge. “Shall we bring her?”

“She’ll hate it,” says Augie, handing Tober half the orange. “Or she’ll say she does. I wonder what happened to her. She changed even more than Alex. She used to love it here. She used to love going on adventures with us. Now suddenly she feels creatively stifled and wants to go live in a giant city.”

“She got hooked on movies and television shows.” Tober shrugs. “The minute they let her start watching them on the computer. The day she turned twelve. And now she hates it here.”

“She got unconnected from nature,” says Augie, knowing his brother is heartbroken about Cecily wanting to live somewhere else.

“Maybe that’s what happened to Alex, too,” says Tober, fighting his tears. “He used to love being here. But ever since he got back from England he hardly goes outside anymore. And now he wants to go back there and take us with him.”

“Mom,” says Augie, nodding. “He wants to take Mom with him. He’d love to leave us here, but Mom never would until we’re older, which is why he resorted to extortion.”

“He’s like a totally different person now,” says Tober, shaking his head. “He used to be so interested in what we were doing, our music and our hunting and fishing and gardening, in what we were studying. And he used to love going on adventures with us.”

“And now he doesn’t,” says Augie, finishing his orange. “And there’s nothing we can do about it except wonder why.”

They dress and put on their packs and take a few minutes to memorize the location of the hot spring before they follow the stream westward.

They reach the ocean in the late afternoon and walk south on a remote beach for a mile until they come to a large stream flowing into the sea; and they follow this stream inland for a few hundred yards to a copse of pine trees where they make camp.

While Tober gathers firewood, Augie assembles his fly rod, casts his line into the stream, and immediately hooks a fat brook trout.

By the time Tober has constructed a ring of large rocks and has a fire going therein, Augie has caught and cleaned two trout and skewered them on long sticks for roasting over the fire.

“I’d be surprised if anybody has fished here in a very long time,” says Augie, as he and Tober cook their fish. “They rose to my fly before it touched the water.”

“Wailaki people probably camped here,” says Tober, thinking of their mother working at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, chatting with customers as she rings up their groceries, and how after work she’ll either drive home or go to Arcata and spend the night with Alex. “These fish you caught probably hatched here and got this big without a human being ever trying to catch them.”

“I don’t want to move to Scotland,” says Augie, slowly rotating his fish over the coals. “Be fun to visit there some day, but I don’t want to live there. I want to live here.”

“Me, too,” says Tober, his thoughts turning to Cecily. “We might live other places when we’re older. Travel. But we’ll always come back here. This is home.”

“The thing is,” says Augie, frowning thoughtfully, “Mom was so happy having Alex as her boyfriend, and if he goes away she’ll be sad. I hate to make her sad.”

“Then she should go with him,” says Tober, inspecting his trout to see if the flesh is cooked how he likes it. “We’ll be fine on our own. Everybody on the road will check up on us, and Titus and Tina could come stay with us a few nights a week. They love our house.”

“Except Mom won’t go without us,” says Augie shaking his head. “You know she won’t.”

“That wasn’t even the question,” says Tober, angrily. “Of course we approve of her marrying Alex if she wants to, but not if it means we have to live in Scotland for four years. Why would he make that a condition for marrying her? It doesn’t make any sense. What does moving to Scotland have to do with loving someone and wanting to be with them for the rest of your life?”

“Nothing,” says Augie, sitting cross-legged on the ground. “Shall we eat?”

“Yes,” says Tober, sitting on a large rock and closing his eyes as Augie makes the prayer of thanks.

“Great Spirit,” says Augie, looking up at the white clouds tinged with pink. “Thank you so much for these good trout who gave their lives so we may live. Thank you for guiding us to the hot spring this morning and for helping us find this good place to camp. Thank you for our mother and for Alex and Titus and Tina, for all our friends and relations. Thank you for everything you give us.”

Waking in the morning to the sky dappled with row upon row of small fleecy clouds, no scent of rain in the air, they stow their gear under tarps and go out to the beach where the extremely low tide has exposed thousands of stones.

“Holy moly,” says Tober, as they walk among the stones. “Some of these are near-agates, and the shapes are exquisite.”

“You’re the stone man,” says Augie, bending down to pick up an egg-shaped blood red stone the size of a walnut. “Think we can sell some of these to Maybe?”

“No doubt,” says Tober, picking up a perfectly round blue green stone as big as a billiard ball. “He’ll give us at least five dollars for that red one you found. Maybe more. And this one…” He contemplates the stone in his hand. “Ten. At least.”

They spend the morning filling tote bags with stones and carrying them back to their camp. They make a dozen trips to and fro, finding hundreds of stones from which they will cull a few dozen to take with them.

Seized by hunger after their morning’s labor, they discuss whether to break their fasts or not, now that they have agreed they don’t want to go to Scotland; and they decide to desist from eating a while longer until they come up with a well-stated response to their mother’s question and codicil: will they approve whole-heartedly of her marrying Alex, and if they have any reservations about her marrying him, she won’t.

Now the myriad clouds scurry away, and Tober and Augie shed their clothes and wade out to a big flat rock in the middle of the creek to sunbathe.

“Okay, so we don’t approve whole-heartedly of Mom marrying Alex,” says Augie, feeling drowsy on the warm rock in the sun, “because we don’t approve of his extortive tactics. Right? Because if he really loved her, he wouldn’t put conditions on their love.”

“You know what just occurred to me,” says Tober, sitting up. “Maybe Mom asked us to decide because she knew we’d say we didn’t want to leave, and that would give her an excuse not to go because she really doesn’t want to go, but she doesn’t want to say that to him and hurt his feelings, so this way she’ll be able to say she’s staying because of us, not because she doesn’t love him.”

“Or maybe she doesn’t love him anymore,” says Augie, shielding his eyes from the sun to look at Tober. “Now that he’s so gloomy and weird.”

“I think she still loves him,” says Tober, hugging his knees to his chest. “But maybe she doesn’t want to marry him now because he’s more like…”

“A visitor,” says Augie, lowering his hand and closing his eyes. “Scotland is his Eel River watershed. He likes it here, but this isn’t his element. Remember how he said he liked going to those islands off the coast of Scotland and staying for a few days? But he never wanted to live there.”

“He’s a town person,” says Tober, thinking of how most of Alex’s stories are about Edinburgh and London and Oxford and Paris. “He loves cities. Maybe he finds life boring here. Like Cecily does now.”

“And the other thing,” says Augie, growing angry, “is how condescending he was about our initiation. The fasting and the days of aloneness and learning the songs and prayers and dances, making our new bows and arrows, killing our deer. He dismissed it all as…”

“Silly good fun,” says Tober, using one of Alex’s favorite expressions.

“Exactly,” says Augie, sitting up. “We don’t want to make him into a villain, but I don’t think he really believes we’re men now. Like Titus said, Great Spirit knows we’re men now, but most people think we’re still children.”

“You think Mom still thinks we’re children?” asks Tober, sliding off the rock into the cold stream.

“No, she knows we’re men,” says Augie, joining his brother in the stream. “That’s why she asked us to make this decision.”

“Might be good to talk to Titus,” says Tober, sitting down in cold current, the water coming up to his mouth.

“If you want to,” says Augie, shrugging. “But I think we’ve got this figured out.”

“So how do we say it?” asks Tober, spluttering the water with his mouth. “‘We don’t approve wholeheartedly of you marrying Alex because he’s using the threat of ending your relationship to get you to marry him and force us to move to Scotland, which is emotional extortion and he should be ashamed of himself?’”

“That’s pretty good, Tobe,” says Augie, climbing back up on the rock. “Only maybe we don’t need to be quite so accusatory. We could say we feel he’s threatening her with ending their relationship to force her to go to Scotland, and that gives us reservations about her marrying him.”

“Right,” says Tober, starting to shiver. “All we need is one reservation.”

In the mid-afternoon they get ready to go; and to erase any obvious proof of their having spent the night here, they disperse the ashes from their campfire and fluff the ground where they slept.

Now they take a last look around to make sure they haven’t left anything behind, walk out to the beach, and hike north on the yielding sand for a half-mile until Tober stops and takes off his pack.

“We either have to leave some of these stones behind,” says Tober, sweating profusely, “or I need to eat something. I’m running out of gas, Aug.”

“Me, too,” says Augie, taking off his pack and kneeling in the sand. “I vote for eating.”

“Handful of nuts and raisins and a chocolate bar sounds pretty good to me right about now,” says Tober, smiling hopefully at his brother.

“Quel coincidence,” says Augie, feigning surprise. “I just happen to have a bag of nuts and raisins and two chocolate bars.”

“No,” says Tober, feigning amazement. “Really?”

“Yep,” says Augie, unzipping a pocket on his backpack. “End of fast coming right up.”

Titus and his wife Tina live in the deep forest a quarter-mile off Highway 211, about two miles from the mouth of the Eel. Titus is a big craggy Wailaki man, seventy-nine, with a large nose shaped like an eagle’s beak, deep-set black eyes, huge hands, and long gray hair he wears in a ponytail except when he’s communing with Great Spirit.

An herbalist and healer, Titus was apprenticed to a Wailaki medicine woman when he was nine and stayed with her until she died when he was nineteen. He then joined the Army and served as a medic for four years, after which he returned to Fortuna and worked for his brother as a house painter off and on for thirty years until he’d had his fill of town life and retired to his little house in the woods.

Tina is seventy, Latina, small and pretty with long white hair. Tina and Titus have been married for twenty years. Tina was married once before, Titus twice. Tina retired from the postal service seven years ago and now spends her time cooking and sewing and keeping house, gathering herbs and wild mushrooms with Titus, and helping her daughters and granddaughters with their kids.

At dusk, having stopped at Good Used Stuff to sell some of the stones they found this morning, Augie and Tober arrive at the gravel driveway leading to Titus and Tina’s place. Maybe, the proprietor of GUS, as the second-hand store is known to locals, gave them fifty dollars for seven of their stones, and they intend to give Titus and Tina forty of those dollars for a consultation with Titus and the privilege of camping on Titus and Tina’s land for the night, though Titus would gladly give them a consultation for free, and Tina loves having them around because they always do lots of chores Titus is slow to get to.

As Tober and Augie come in sight of the red one-story house, Titus’s two scruffy longhaired Chihuahuas, Spider and Feather, come trotting down the driveway to greet the young men.

Titus is chopping wood for kindling on the west side of his house, and when he sees the young men approaching, he leaves his axe sunk in the chopping round and goes to welcome them.

“I was hoping I’d see you today,” he says, his voice deep and quiet. “Been a long time. Eight days. Or is it nine?”

“Nine,” says Augie, shaking Titus’s hand. “But we think of you every day.”

“I’m glad,” says Titus, turning to Tober. “I see you’ve been to the beach. Sand in your hair.”

“We spent the night three miles south of the mouth,” says Tober, gripping Titus’s enormous hand. “Camped by a good trout stream and found some beautiful stones. We brought you some.”

“I’m grateful,” says Titus, beckoning them to follow him into the house. “Tina’s picking up pizza for supper. She’s in Fortuna at Teresa’s. I’ll call her and tell her to get plenty.”

Augie and Tober follow Titus from the house to his small studio where he helps people seek guidance and healing from Great Spirit.

They sit in a circle around a low round table in the middle of the room, a big brown ceramic bowl in the center of the table. Titus sits on a low stool, while Tober and Augie sit cross-legged on small hand-woven rugs.

Titus undoes his ponytail, strikes a match, and lights a wand of ceremonial sage. Now he counts seven of his slow heartbeats, shakes out the flames, and drops the smoking sage into the bowl.

Holding his hands over the dense white smoke, Titus calls, “Oh Great Spirit. Come to us. Be with us. Listen to these young men and lend them your wisdom. They are good men, generous and kind. I vouch for them. Please help them.”

A silence falls as the room grows hazy with smoke.

“You speak first, October,” says Titus, pointing at Tober. “Great Spirit is listening.”

“Thank you, Titus,” says Tober, holding his hands over the rising smoke. “My brother and I are seeking clarity about a question our mother asked us.”

Titus nods. “Say the question as you remember your mother saying those words to you.”

Tober thinks for a moment before speaking. “Will you approve whole-heartedly of my marrying Alex? If you have any reservations about me marrying him, I won’t.”

Titus turns to Augie. “Now you, August. Say the question as you remember your mother asking it.”

Augie holds his hands over the rising smoke and says, “I want to know if you will approve whole-heartedly of my marrying Alex. If for any reason you don’t approve, I won’t marry him.”

Titus gazes intently at Augie. “How did you answer her?”

“We said we would go to the ocean, and fast to seek clarity,” says Augie, looking into Titus’s eyes. “And we did. We were quiet for many of those hours and we talked about the question for some of those hours, and we decided we could not approve of her marrying Alex because he wasn’t acting in a loving way, so we didn’t trust him anymore. And then Tober suggested we consult with you.”

Titus turns to Tober. “Have you more to say about this?”

“Yes,” says Tober, nodding solemnly. “We loved and admired Alex for three years until we became men and he kept treating us like children, as if our initiation was meaningless to him. And then he went back to England and Scotland for a month at the beginning of this year, and when he returned he wasn’t interested in us anymore. He only wanted to be with our mother. So we honored this until he asked her to marry him on the condition that we move to Scotland with him, and if we won’t go with him, he says he won’t marry her.”

Titus looks at Augie. “What else?”

“He used to be so happy about being part of our family, part of our community. You could see how happy he was, how excited he would get when we’d go into the forest or to the beach to hunt for stones. But now his eyes have no light in them. He’s so different now, if he didn’t look like Alex, I would think he was someone else.”

“An unhappy someone else,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “An angry someone else.”

Titus waits to see if either of them has anything more to say.

When they both remain silent, Titus says, “His soul got caught in Scotland when he went there for those two months, and he returned without his soul.”

Augie nods. “That seems right to me.”

“To me, too,” says Tober, nodding.

Titus clears his throat. “A person disconnected from his soul is always afraid. Why is this? Because our soul is the source of our courage. Without our soul, we can only act out of fear. He wants to reclaim his soul, but he doesn’t know he left it in Scotland, not consciously. We always want to be united with our souls, but sometimes we can’t be, and when we have no soul we are pathetic and frightened and weak. Greed and hatred and violence take over when we lose our souls. Sadly, many people lose their souls and never get them back in this life.”

“So he needs to go back to Scotland and find his soul,” says Augie, urgently.

“Yes,” says Titus, nodding slowly. “But he must go without you, and without your mother, or he will never find his soul.”

“Why must he go alone?” asks Tober, frowning gravely. “Maybe we could help him.”

“You have a generous heart, October,” says Titus, smiling, “but he must go alone because if he is living off your souls, his soul will find no place inside him to live.”

“He has been living off our mother’s soul,” says Augie, giving Titus a wide-eyed look. “I know this is true.”

“This is the most important moment in his life,” says Titus, holding his hands over the smoke again. “But this is no business of yours, and it’s not your mother’s business either. Alex brought this crisis with him four years ago when he came here from England, though he thought he was escaping his crisis by traveling to the other side of the world. But when he returned to England and Scotland for those two months at the beginning of this year, his soul stayed there so he would have to confront what he has been avoiding his whole life.”

“What has he been avoiding?” asks Tober, holding his breath.

Titus takes a long slow breath. “He has been doing the bidding of his father and mother his whole life, though it was never his soul’s desire to be what they wanted him to be. He was never initiated into manhood, so he never severed the ties that bind us to our parents in childhood. It was only when he joined your family that his parents’ hold on him began to weaken, and that’s when he became confused because he had never felt so free before. And his freedom frightened him. He was afraid to feel so powerful and so different than he had ever felt before, so he went back to Scotland and found a way to end his freedom, though he didn’t know that’s what he was doing.”

“What should we do?” asks Augie, holding his hands over the rising smoke. “Shall we tell him what you just told us?”

“No, my son,” says Titus, chuckling. “He must awaken to this truth on his own, with his own power and the power Great Spirit will lend him if he asks for help.”

“But what if he doesn’t?” asks Tober, fighting his tears.

“Then he doesn’t,” says Titus, nodding. “Many people don’t, my son. The world is full of people separated from their souls. That’s what makes so many humans cruel and selfish. That’s why people do such terrible things to each other and to our mother earth. They have lost their souls.”

The next morning after breakfast, Tina drives Augie and Tober home on her way to Fortuna to babysit her grandson.

Sharon isn’t home when they arrive, but they find a note from her on the kitchen table.

Dear Tobe and Aug,

I hope you had a good journey. I want to apologize for asking you to answer a question I never should have asked you. The first night you were gone, I went to Arcata to be with Alex and we got into a ferocious argument about my leaving the decision up to you, and in the course of the argument I realized I don’t want to marry him even if he stays here and we never go to Scotland. I realized how deeply troubled he is about something that has nothing to do with me or you, something about his self-identity, about not liking who he is, though he adamantly denies this.

When I told him I won’t consider marrying him until he reclaims his joy, he called me a New Age idiot, so I left and came home.

Yesterday he came here to apologize and tell me he was going to take the job at Stirling. He said he wants to see you before he leaves in a few weeks. He said he’ll call you.

I’ll be home around five-thirty. Lasagna and a big salad for supper.

Love you,

Mom

That afternoon, Tober wanders down the hill and finds Felix pacing back and forth on the sunny south-facing deck of the Bernstein’s house, reciting some of the Hebrew text for his bar mitzvah.

“Cecily home?” asks Tober, hoping to entice her to come to the hot spring he and Augie discovered on their way to the ocean.

Felix shrugs. “They left for LA this morning. My dad’s driving her.”

“Your dad?” says Tober, collapsing in one of the two deck chairs. “I thought he said she was too young to go.”

“You want some lemonade?” asks Felix, heading for the sliding glass door. “I’m parched.”

“Okay,” says Tober, stunned by the news of Cecily’s departure.

Felix brings Tober a big glass filled with ice cubes and sour lemonade and sits in the other deck chair.

“She just kept after them,” says Felix, gulping his lemonade. “You know how she can be. All day every day, week after week, month after month, until finally they relented.”

“So… what will she do when she gets there?” asks Tober, who has never been to a city larger than Eureka, which seems like a huge metropolis to him, though only 25,000 people live there.

“She’s going to live with Aunt Lydia in Brentwood and go to auditions and get parts and be a movie star.” Felix shrugs. “That’s the plan anyway.”

“She can just go to auditions?” asks Tober, knowing nothing about show business. “Anybody can just go? I could just go? Just walk into wherever they make movies and they’ll give me an audition?”

“Well, no,” says Felix, shaking his head. “She got invited to audition because we made a video. An audition reel. With Dad’s Nikon. Cecily and I edited it on Mom’s computer. She did a scene with Lisa and one with you. Remember?”

“You mean when she pretended to be lost and I was chopping wood?” Tober frowns. “You put that on the video?”

“Yeah. And three monologues and a song.” Felix finishes his lemonade and sucks on an ice cube. “Then she mailed the video to Aunt Lydia and she showed it to a friend of hers who’s a talent agent in Beverly Hills, and the agent got Cecily three auditions. One for a television commercial, one for a sit-com, and one for an indie.”

“What exactly is a sit-com?” asks Tober, who has never watched television and has only been to the movies twice in his life, each time a mind-boggling experience.

Sit-com stands for Situation Comedy,” says Felix, pursing his lips as he does when making a guess. “They… you know… a bunch of actors act out scenes in a humorous situation.”

“And what’s an indie?” asks Tober, his heart aching from the loss of Cecily.

“It’s a type of movie,” says Felix, taking off his glasses and cleaning them with a pale blue handkerchief, something he often does when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Where most of the action takes place indoors.”

Meanwhile, Augie is in the vegetable garden picking lettuce for tonight’s salad and humming a tune that came to him this morning.

Now he sings, “Searching for the magic stone, searching together, searching alone, we dream of love and think of home.”

     fin

Gig’s Baby

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Todd's Elk Breakfast

Lucinda, a breakfast waitress at the Backwoods Cafe in Yakima Washington, a roly-poly brunette in her forties, her hair in a bun, her nametag pinned to her black vest, saunters over to the window table where Gig Antonelli is having a muffin and coffee, refills his coffee cup, gives him a sparkly smile, and says in a friendly way, “Would you mind telling me how old you are?”

“I’m fifty,” says Gig, smiling sleepily at Lucinda because he is sleepy, having spent the night dozing fitfully in the driver’s seat of his faded bronze 2000 Camry parked on the side of a dirt road thirty miles north of Yakima. “May I ask why you want to know my age?”

Gig’s nose is slightly aquiline, his eyes are greenish brown, his voice is pleasantly gruff, and he always sounds a little stoned, though he hasn’t had a puff of pot in three years. For most of his life he was a beefy stoner with lots of extra beef and long hair, and now he is trim and muscular, his graying brown hair cut short for the first time since he was on the high school football team in Mountain Home Idaho.

Lucinda gives Gig a wrinkled-nose smile and says, “Sara and I… Sara’s the other waitress here… we had a little bet. She said you were one of those guys in his sixties who takes really good care of himself, and I bet you were fifty-three.” She shrugs. “Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” says Gig, sipping his coffee. “How much did you win?”

“A dollar,” says Lucinda, deciding to flirt with Gig. “You in town for long?”

“No, I’m on my way to Idaho,” says Gig, and just saying Idaho brings him close to tears.

Gig rarely picks up male hitchhikers, but he always gives female hitchhikers rides because he worries about them being picked up by dangerous men. However, on this rainy day in March, he really wants to talk to somebody, needs to talk to somebody, so he stops for the scruffy blond guy with a wispy goatee standing at the south end of Yakima with a cardboard sign saying Boise.

“Thank you so much,” says the guy, getting in the car and holding his bulky black knapsack on his lap, his orange jacket badly frayed, his blue jeans about to tear at the knees. “Stood there all day yesterday and slept in a ditch last night.” He shrugs philosophically. “Not a bad ditch, but not one of your better ditches, and then just as I was falling asleep a couple coyotes came sniffing around so I hardly slept thinking they might come back with their pals and have a feast, not that there’s much on these bones to eat.”

“I’m Gig,” says Gig, offering the fellow his hand. “What’s your name?”

“Biz,” says the fellow, allowing Gig to grip his hand, but offering no resistance, no matching grip.

Gig releases Biz’s hand feeling mildly disappointed—the quality of a handshake important to him.

“You spell that B-I-Z?” asks Gig, looking at Biz’s knapsack. “You can throw that in the backseat if you want to. Long way to Boise.”

“Didn’t see much room back there,” says Biz, glancing back at the sum total of Gig’s earthly possessions, not counting the five guitars in the trunk.

“Oh it can ride on top of that stuff,” says Gig, waiting for Biz to get the knapsack situated before pulling back onto the highway. “Nothing breakable.”

“Thanks,” says Biz, settling into his seat and sighing with relief to be moving again. “So yeah, I spell it B-I-Z. Just one Z.”

“Short for business?” asks Gig, smiling curiously at Biz. “Which business would that be?”

“Show business,” says Biz, looking out the window at the passing scenery. “I was a regular on two TV shows and I was in nine movies. Long time ago.”

“Couldn’t have been that long,” says Gig, not believing him. “You’re what… twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?”

“Guess again,” says Biz, closing his eyes. “Man, this is a comfortable car.”

“Thirty?” says Gig, thinking Biz might be as young as twenty-seven and as old as thirty-five.

“I wish,” says Biz, keeping his eyes closed. “Try forty-seven.”

“No,” says Gig, making a disparaging face.

Biz opens his eyes and looks at Gig. “I played high school kids until I was thirty-five, and when I couldn’t play high school kids anymore, nobody wanted me.” He closes his eyes again. “Cut to twelve years later. Biz, a former actor now a homeless recovering crack addict, waits two days at the south end of Yakima freezing his ass off until a guy named Gig mercifully gives him a ride.”

“I’m homeless, too,” says Gig, deciding to believe everything Biz tells him from now on. “Though I do have a mother with a nice house who says I can come live with her.” He nods to confirm this. “So now the only question is, can I get over my shame about being such a humongous failure and go back home with nothing.”

“I know of what you speak,” says Biz, nodding. “I have a sister in Ogden. That’s where I’m going. Hoping she’ll let me stay with her for a while.”

“In the meantime,” says Gig, rolling down his window and breathing deeply of the rain-washed air, “here we are.”

“Yeah,” whispers Biz. “Okay with you if I sleep for a while?”

“Sure,” says Gig, yawning. “I’m pretty tired, too, so don’t be surprised if I pull off the road for a snooze.”

“No worries,” murmurs Biz. “I trust you.”

They stop for gas in Kennewick and Gig treats Biz to a couple hot dogs from the little grocery attached to the gas station; and because Biz hasn’t eaten anything in two days, the hot dogs and buns are gone before Gig can pay.

“You were hungry,” says Gig, unwrapping his granola bar when they get back to the car. “Guy in there told me about a good organic grocery store just up the road here. We’ll get foodstuffs for the rest of the day.”

“I don’t have any money,” says Biz, smiling painfully. “So you just get what you need for you.”

“No, no,” says Gig, shaking his head. “We’ll get food for both of us. I got enough for that.”

“Thank you,” says Biz, bowing his head. “Thank you so much.”

Speeding along the interstate, a bulging bag of groceries onboard, Biz says, “So where you coming from Gig?”

“Tacoma,” says Gig, eager to talk, but not wanting to seem too eager. “My wife and I moved there from Idaho five years ago, moved into a beautiful house on Puget Sound, right on the water. I owned a big music store. Power House Music.” He glances at Biz. “You mind if I tell kind of a long story?”

“No, I don’t mind,” says Biz, gobbling fig bars. “Happy to listen.”

“I appreciate that,” says Gig, on the verge of tears. “So before I met my wife seven years ago, I had a three-bedroom house and a guitar shop in Mountain Home, and I owned a duplex I rented out, too. That’s where I grew up. Mountain Home. About an hour from Boise. You know it?”

“No,” says Biz, shaking his head, “but I’ll bet it’s beautiful with all those mountains. I assume there’s mountains if they call it Mountain Home.”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful, if you like small towns, which I do. Mountains all around. Some people say it’s too windy there, but I don’t mind the wind, so… I had a good life there. Lots of friends, my sister and her family and my mom nearby. My dad died when I was thirteen.” He clears his throat. “Anyway… I liked buying and selling guitars and giving lessons, but I was missing something. You know what I mean? I thought it was a woman, only I couldn’t find anybody who fit me. I went out with some nice gals, but they didn’t get me. You know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Biz, nodding. “Somebody who understands how you see things, and likes how you see things, and you understand them and like how they see things.”

“Yeah, exactly,” says Gig, near tears again. “So there I was, forty-three and thinking I’d never find anybody, and one day I’m picking out a watermelon at the farmers market, and this gorgeous Mexican gal wants to buy one, too, and she smiles at me and I nearly faint because nobody that beautiful has ever smiled at me like that, and she says, ‘You know how to pick a good one?’ And I say, ‘Yeah. You thump’em. And if they sound like a bass drum they’re probably pretty good.’ So she asks me to pick one out for her and I carry it to her car and get her number, and four months later we were married.”

“What was her name?” asks Biz, thinking of his first wife Alicia who was half-Mexican and half-Swiss.

“Celia,” says Gig, taking a deep breath. “Celia Luisa Alvarez. Most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Hard to believe she would ever marry somebody like me. But she did.”

“Did she get you?” asks Biz, guessing she probably didn’t.

“Not even a little bit,” says Gig, laughing and shaking his head. “But I didn’t care because she was so beautiful and she let me love her, and we were madly in love. Or I was anyway.”

“Strong drug,” says Biz, speaking from experience. “Sex with a beautiful woman.” He forces a smile. “So were you happy?”

“For those four months before we got married I was happier than I’ve ever been,” says Gig, nodding. “Non-stop love. But then just a couple weeks after the wedding she got real moody and said she’d made a mistake and shouldn’t have married me, and I was just crushed. I mean… I loved her so much, and I thought she loved me, but she kept saying I wasn’t who she thought I was.”

“Who did she think you were?” asks Biz, frowning at Gig. “And who did you turn out to be?”

“She said she thought I was rich.” Gig frowns gravely. “But she knew what I had. We went over it a hundred times before we got married. I owned the guitar shop and the building it was in, and that was worth about three hundred thousand, though I sold the business and the building to Beckman for one-seventy-five. Beckman was a guy who worked for me. And I rented the other store in the building for eight hundred a month. I made about five hundred bucks a week selling guitars. My house was worth about three hundred thou, my duplex about two-fifty. Had about ten thousand in the bank. But Celia said she thought I was so rich she could quit her job. She was a cocktail waitress. Made huge tips. She was movie star stuff, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Biz, wistfully. “Married two of that species myself.”

“They really are another species, aren’t they?” says Gig, thinking of Celia and how every time they made love he could hardly believe she was letting him inside her. “And I told her, ‘Well, you don’t have to work, honey, not if you don’t want to. We won’t live in luxury, but you don’t have to work,’ and we were planning to have kids anyway, so…”

“How old was she?” asks Biz, guessing twenty-something.

“Thirty-six. Seven years younger than me. But she looked about twenty-five.” Gig sighs. “And then she tells me she doesn’t want kids, which was totally bonkers because before we got married that’s all she talked about, how desperate she was to have kids, and I said I wanted them, too. Which was true.”

“No offense,” says Biz, scrunching up his cheeks, “but she sounds a little psycho.”

“Oh she was more than a little psycho,” says Gig, giving Biz a frightened look. “Turned out to be mega-psycho.”

“So you sold everything you owned,” says Biz, guessing the general plot of Gig’s story, “and you moved to Tacoma and gave her everything she said she wanted. But it wasn’t enough.”

“Seemed to be at first,” says Gig, wishing he could pinpoint the exact moment when everything fell apart, though he knows there was no exact moment, only a vast chasm between them from the beginning, a chasm bridged by his enormous desire to love her and be loved by her. “We had kind of a second honeymoon for a few months after we got there, and then…”

Biz looks out the window at a dense forest blurred by the speed of the car, and he thinks of his second wife Leslie, and how she tried to save their unsaveable marriage by booking the same honeymoon suite in the Las Vegas hotel where they honeymooned after their wedding and conceived their first child, and how he got tired of waiting for her to get dressed for dinner—she kept changing her outfit—so he snorted a few lines of coke and went down to the casino and had a few drinks and succumbed to a young woman who recognized him from Meet Ya After School, the sit-com in which Biz played Riley Caruthers, a likable idiot; and when he got back to the honeymoon suite the next morning, his wife was long gone.

“…she said the real problem was I was fat,” says Gig, going on with his story. “She said the problem had never been about money or where we lived, but about her not being attracted to me physically because I was fat and she’d been afraid to say anything about it.”

“But you’re not fat,” says Biz, looking at Gig. “You’re in great shape.”

“Yeah, but I was fat,” says Gig, nodding. “So I gave up sweets and fatty foods and started working out every day, and voila… I became the Adonis you see before you. But then she said the problem was that I smoked dope. So I stopped smoking dope. And then it was beer. So I stopped drinking beer.”

“When did it finally dawn on you that it didn’t matter what you did?” asks Biz, remembering his favorite rehab counselor, an ex-con who would proclaim Catch-22 whenever Biz elucidated one of his many dilemmas from which there was no escape because every escape route brought him back to the cause of the dilemma. “When did you realize she was the problem, and not you?”

“Nine months ago,” says Gig, recalling that critical moment as if watching a crystal-clear movie. “We go out to dinner and I try to pay with a credit card and the waitress comes back with the bill and the card and says, ‘Sorry but your card was rejected.’ So I give her another card, and that one’s no good either. So I give her a third card, and that’s kaput, too. Luckily, I have enough cash to pay the bill, and on the way home, Celia says, ‘You need to get us another card or get us more credit. It’s embarrassing when the cards get rejected.’ And I say, ‘Honey, these cards have twenty-five thousand dollar limits. Are you telling me you knew they were full? We don’t have seventy-five thousand dollars in play money. What’s going on?’ And she says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it right now. I’m too upset. I hate it when you yell at me.’ And I say, ‘But we have to talk about it right now. We’re in a very delicate financial position. The business is finally starting to make some real money and I can’t default on my loans or…’ and she shouts, ‘I don’t care about your fucking business. I want a divorce.’ And when we get home she jumps in her car and goes to her sister’s house and when I get home from work the next day the house is empty. She came with movers and took everything. And then I find out she got three more credit cards in my name without telling me and maxed them out getting cash, and she’s been getting cash from our cards ever since we moved to Tacoma. And then I find out she bought a fuckin’ condo with her sister. And before I can stop the bleeding I default on the big loan carrying my business and I lose everything. Everything!”

“You should pull over,” says Biz, speaking quietly. “You’re pretty upset, Gig. Pull over for a little while until you calm down.”

When they get to Pendleton Oregon mid-afternoon, Gig says to Biz, “I can’t drive any more today. I need to sleep. I’m gonna get a motel room. If you want to share it with me, I’ll get a room with two beds. But if you’re not comfortable with that, you’re welcome to sleep in the car and I’ll take you to Boise tomorrow.”

“A motel room sounds great,” says Biz, looking out at the rain. “Be nice to take a shower and get some sleep. Sounds great.”

“If I had a cell phone I could find the cheapest place,” says Gig, pulling into a gas station. “But in lieu of that, I’ll ask a human being.”

They are directed to a Motel 6 where Gig pays cash for a room with two single beds, and while Biz takes a shower, Gig sits cross-legged on the bed furthest from the bathroom, his back against the headboard, and calls the front desk.

“Hi, this is Gig Antonelli in Room 26. I don’t have a cell phone and I want to call Mountain Home Idaho. That’s not a local call, and since I didn’t put this room on a card I can’t make that call from this phone, so what do I have to do to make a long distance call from here?”

“You can come to the office and use my phone,” says the desk clerk. “Five bucks?”

“Okay,” says Gig, embarrassed not to have his own phone. “What’s your name?”

“Greg,” says the man. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s it,” says Gig, clearing his throat. “I might see you down there.”

Gig hangs up and closes his eyes, and he is so weary he falls asleep sitting up and doesn’t wake when Biz comes out of the shower and gets into the other bed and falls asleep the moment his head hits the pillow.

After an hour of sleeping sitting up, Gig wakes with a crick in his neck, takes off his clothes, and crawls under the covers.

He dreams he still owns Gig Music, the guitar shop he used to own in Mountain Home. He is standing behind the counter of the cluttered shop, unable to get the cash register open. His sole employee, Beckman, a very tall slender man, is sitting on one of the two ratty sofas playing The Beatles’ song ‘Blackbird’ on a small Martin guitar while Gig’s mother Sophia, wearing her red party dress and her faux diamond necklace, her long gray hair in a braid, sings the words. Her voice, usually high and quavering, sounds exactly like Paul McCartney.

Gig comes out from behind the counter and sings harmony with his mother, and as they sing together, his mother becomes a young African American woman and the song turns into ‘Moon River’ and Gig takes the young woman in his arms and they dance to the old love song until they begin to sink into the floor that turns into a deep pool of water and Gig begins to drown and wakes with a shout, gasping for breath.

At midnight, Biz and Gig dine on avocadoes and goat cheese and olives and seed bread and green protein drinks.

“So where were you coming from when I picked you up?” asks Gig, enjoying Biz’s company and appreciating his candor.

“Seattle,” says Biz, relieved to be gone from that crazy city. “Lived there for nine months. I was staying with a guy I went through rehab with, but I couldn’t find a job and he needed a roommate who could help with the rent so… here I am.”

“Where were you before Seattle?” asks Gig, never having given much thought to how homeless people survive until he became homeless a few months ago.

“Portland for a year,” says Biz, loving the food. “Worked in a pizza parlor. Slept in a little trailer behind the place. Me and two other guys. Juan from El Salvador and Diego from Mexico. They were both sending money home to their wives and parents, but I couldn’t save a dime. I like to go to movies and out for coffee and pastries and Mexican food and Chinese food and… Portland is food heaven if you’ve got money. But Juan and Diego made do with crappy pizza and never went anywhere, except Diego went to a massage parlor for sex every couple weeks.”

“And before Portland?” asks Gig, wondering what Biz does for sex, wondering if he’s ambidextrous, as Gig’s mother likes to call bisexuals.

“Santa Fe,” says Biz, sighing. “Lived with a woman I met in rehab. Diana.” He nods, remembering. “For two years. She lived in a little cottage behind her daughter’s mansion. Her daughter was a socialite married to a hedge fund guy.” Biz grins. “Diana’s in her sixties, but man, talk about a sexual dynamo. Fucked me silly.”

“Why’d you leave?” asks Gig, never having had sex with a woman older than he.

“What’s that expression?” says Biz, yawning. “Smothered with love?” He nods. “That’s how I felt with Diana. Couldn’t hardly breathe after a while.”

“Did you have a job?” asks Gig, thinking about looking for work in Mountain Home if he can get up the nerve to go back.

“Kind of,” says Biz, smiling wistfully. “I was writing screenplays. Hoping for a big break.” He raises his green protein drink. “Here’s to the gods of Hollywood. You never know what might happen.”

After their midnight feast, Biz falls asleep again, but Gig is wide awake, so he goes for a long walk, the night cold and clear.

When he gets back to the motel, he sees the motel office brightly-lit, a woman standing behind the counter, so he goes into the office, identifies himself, and says he wants to make a phone call in the morning and wonders if he can make an arrangement with her similar to the one he had with Paul.

“I’m here until eight and I have unlimited calling on my phone,” says the woman. She has a small nose and gray blue eyes and short blonde hair. She’s wearing a blue down jacket over a black Portland Trailblazers T-shirt, and Gig guesses she’s thirty-seven and descended from Scandinavians. “But you don’t have to pay me anything. And then Justin comes on after me and I’m sure he’ll let you use his phone for free.” She shakes her head. “That Greg. Never misses a chance to make a little extra. Can’t blame him, but… yeah, you get here before eight, no problem.”

“May I know your name?” asks Gig, liking her.

“Florence,” she says, reddening at the intimacy of telling him her name. “But everybody calls me Flo.” She arches an eyebrow. “What’s Gig short for?”

“Not really short for anything,” says Gig, remembering when he was next in line to cross the stage of the Mountain Home High School multi-purpose room to receive his diploma, and how when Mr. Frederickson leaned close to the microphone and said Lawrence Antonelli, Gig didn’t recognize his given name and just stood there waiting to hear Gig until Glenna Barnes shoved him from behind and hissed, ‘That’s you, Gig. Go!’

“Where you traveling to?” asks Flo, something in her voice suggesting to Gig that she would rather not be having this conversation.

“Mountain Home,” says Gig, stepping back from the counter. “I appreciate the future use of your phone. I’ll try to get down here before eight.”

“You want some tea?” she asks, nodding hopefully. “I was just about to make some black tea for me, but I could make you some chamomile. Help you sleep.”

“That’s very kind of you,” says Gig, smiling at the inaccuracy of his intuition. “I would love a cup of chamomile tea.”

So Flo makes their tea and Gig sits on a not-very-comfortable armchair, and Flo rolls her office chair out from behind the counter and sits a few feet away from him.

“The hardest thing about this job,” says Flo, glad to have someone to talk to, “is I’m so not a night person. As soon as Justin or Greg quits, I’ll get an earlier shift and get my life back.”

“How long have you been working graveyard?” asks Gig, noting her wedding ring.

“Almost two years,” she says, nodding wearily. “I keep thinking I’m gonna get used to it, but I never do. I get home at eight-fifteen and go to bed and sleep for a few hours. If I’m lucky. Then I get up around noon, my kids come home from school at three-thirty, we have dinner at six, I do the dishes and watch television and go to bed about eight, get up three hours later, leave the house at eleven-forty, and I’m here from midnight to eight. My days off I just drag around and try to catch up on shopping and housework and… I can’t wait for somebody to quit or get fired, but Justin’s not going anywhere and Greg keeps saying he’s moving to Portland, but he never does, so I don’t know.” She shrugs. “It’s a job. Better than no job, that’s for sure.”

“What does your husband do?” asks Gig, starting to feel the relaxing effects of the chamomile. “Assuming that’s a wedding ring on the official finger.”

“He works in a hardware store,” says Flo, her voice full of sadness. “We’ve been separated for two years. He says he wants to get back together, but I don’t. He’s a horrible pessimist. The world is out to get him. Everybody’s a crook except him. Everybody’s out to get him. I can’t live like that.”

“How old are your kids?” asks Gig, feeling a kinship with her.

“Fourteen and twelve,” she says, smiling at the thought of her children. “Boy and a girl. Aaron and Sheila.”

“Fourteen and twelve,” says Gig, feeling something shift inside him, something being released, a recalcitrant knot unfurling. “That can’t be easy. Puberty times two.”

She laughs. “They’re good kids. Thank goodness they’re smart and healthy and… but, yeah, it’s one thing after another at that age. Never a dull moment. That’s why I wish I could get on a day shift and be there for them more.”

“I believe in you, Flo,” says Gig, looking into her eyes. “And I thank you for this tea and your company. I’ll be back around seven-thirty.”

“Okay,” she says, getting up with him. “Thanks for helping me pass the time.”

“My pleasure,” he says, handing her his mug.

“Mine, too,” she says, blushing. “You’re a good person, Gig.”

Biz is sleeping soundly when Gig gets back to their room and undresses and crawls into bed.

And though Gig fears he won’t be able to sleep, he drifts into a dream of playing frisbee with Beckman in an orchard of newly planted apple trees, their exuberant game a celebration of the planting. Beckman throws the frisbee way over Gig’s head, and as Gig turns to chase the whirling disk, he realizes the frisbee is destined to slow as it meets the oncoming breeze and return to exactly where Gig is standing. With this in mind, he relaxes and waits for the disk to come to him, and as he waits, he hears his mother calling from afar, “Gee-ig. Gee-ig. Time for supper.”

At seven-thirty that morning, Gig goes to the office and Flo lends him her phone. He steps outside the office, the day dawning sunny, and after hesitating for a moment, he enters his mother’s phone number and listens to the dial tone until Sophia answers in her usual way. “Antonelli’s. Who’s calling, please?”

“It’s your erstwhile son,” says Gig, his eyes filling with tears. “Wondering if…” He can’t continue, his urge to cry too strong.

“I had a dream about you last night,” says Sophia, knowing Gig is crying. “When will you be here?”

“Mid-afternoon,” says Gig, struggling to speak. “You… you sure it’s still okay?”

“Don’t be silly, Gig,” she says, trying not to cry, too. “I’m making chicken and potatoes and salad.”

“Might bring a friend,” says Gig, thinking of Biz. “Nice guy I met. Maybe not, but…”

“That’s fine, honey. Drive safely. See you when you get here.”

Gig tries to say I love you, Mom, but he can’t stop sobbing.

He takes Biz out to breakfast at the Main Street Diner and Biz has a mushroom omelet, a stack of buttermilk pancakes, and a fruit smoothie. Gig has two eggs over easy with sausage and hash browns, and gives his toast to Biz.

“So this guy Beckman was in both your dreams,” says Biz, sipping his coffee and feeling pretty damn good. “Must be an important person in your life.”

“Yeah, he was,” says Gig, nodding. “We worked together six days a week for sixteen years, and we liked each other. He was quiet and friendly and a great guitar player. I can’t remember him ever missing a day of work. I used to get sick three or four times a year, but he never did. And you know what I just realized? Along with my mother and my sister, he was the only constant person in my life. The only constant man for sure.”

“And you’ll be seeing him soon,” says Biz, never having had a constant man in his life.

“I guess I will,” says Gig, imagining going into Gig Music again for the first time in five years. “Unless he’s not there anymore. We didn’t stay in touch so… we’ll see.”

“I think your first dream was about the past,” says Biz, nodding to the waitress as she comes to refill his coffee cup. “And I think your second dream was a prophecy of the future. A new beginning that’s coming to you.”

They reach the northern outskirts of Boise in the early afternoon, and Gig says, “So Biz, would you like to meet my mom? Hang out in Mountain Home for a few days? I asked her if that would be okay and she said it was fine with her.”

Biz forces a smile. “That’s really kind of you to offer, Gig, but my sister is expecting me, and with good luck I’ll get to Ogden tonight, and with bad luck I’ll get there tomorrow or the next day. I appreciate everything you did for me.”

“I’d like to stay in touch,” says Gig, nodding hopefully. “If you want to.”

“Yeah, I do,” says Biz, with little force. “I’ll see how things go in Ogden and then… I’ll give you a call. Your mother in the phone book?”

“Only Antonelli in town,” says Gig, feeling pretty sure he’ll never hear from Biz again. “Well, listen, now that I know I’ve got a place to live and I don’t have to worry so much about running out of money, how about I give you a little something? Get you to Ogden without starving to death.”

“That would be wonderful,” says Biz, sighing with relief. “You may not know it, Gig, but you’re some kind of angel.”

Gig drives by Gig Music on his way to his mother’s house and is startled to see the old Gig Music sign, big blocky black capital letters on a dirty white background, replaced by a much classier Gig Music sign, burgundy cursive, all lower case letters on a peach background, the new sign half the size of the old, yet much more eye-catching and intriguing.

Indeed, Gig finds the new sign so eye-catching and intriguing, he can’t resist parking in front of the shop, getting one of his guitars out of the trunk to sell for some quick cash, and hurrying to see what other changes have been made.

The front door is new, the funky glass door now solid wood painted the same burgundy as the cursive letters in the sign. And before Gig can reach out to turn the doorknob, the door opens inward automatically, a most convenient innovation for people who might be carrying guitars.

But these exterior changes are nothing compared to what awaits within. The old dark wood floor, treacherously warped, has been replaced by sunny bamboo flooring, the darkness of the high-ceilinged room no longer dispelled by fluorescent lights, but by seven large skylights and tasteful track lighting.

And the wall between Gig Music and what used to be Sylvia’s Hair Salon is now gone, the guitar shop merging seamlessly with an elegant art gallery with large paintings and photographs, landscapes and portraits, adorning the walls.

“Wow,” says Gig, awestruck. “Incredible.”

The two dilapidated sofas have been replaced by three handsome armless chairs with cushioned seats, and the wall where Gig used to display banjos and mandolins and fiddles is now a wall of guitars, each guitar spot-lit, suggesting These are works of art, too. And the big ever-cluttered counter has been replaced by a beautiful oak worktable, the cash register out of sight.

“May I help you?” asks someone calling from the art gallery; and Gig turns to behold an attractive woman wearing delicate red-framed glasses and blue jeans and sandals and a scarlet dress shirt, her long brown hair in a ponytail.

“Hello,” says Gig, waving to her. “Does Beckman still own this place?”

“Yes, he does,” she says, crossing the room to him, her accent thickly Spanish. “I recognize you. You are Gig. I’ve seen pictures of you with Julian.”

“Julian?” says Gig, half-smiling and half-frowning. “Oh, yeah. Julian. Sure. Beckman. Who are you?”

“I’m Portia,” she says, studying his face. “Julian’s wife.” She laughs. “Beckman’s wife. We invited you to our wedding three years ago, but we never heard from you, so then we sent you pictures of the wedding and our honeymoon in Spain. You didn’t get them?”

“No,” says Gig, knowing with absolute certainty that of all the things he might have forgotten in the last five years, he never would have forgotten an invitation to Beckman’s wedding and photos of the ceremony he missed. “I would have had to be in a hospital on life support not to come to Beckman’s wedding if I’d known about it.”

“You didn’t get the letters Julian wrote to you?”

“No,” says Gig, grimacing. “I don’t know why, but I didn’t.”

“I’m so sorry,” says Portia, placing a hand on her heart. “But you are here now, so we can celebrate. I’ll go get Julian. He’s just finishing up a lesson. Please, have a seat.”

So Gig sits down on one of the comfortable armless chairs and gazes around the big room at the many guitars, and he is filled with joy by the splendid transformation of this place he gave birth to.

        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

Karen at the Bookstore

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Bowl of soup sounds good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” he says quietly.

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

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

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

“No,” he says, shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Sid Writes A Song

Monday, November 19th, 2018

inspiration

Sid Lawry is sixty-two and has been a waiter at Falcon, a most excellent restaurant in Lambertville, New Jersey for the last fourteen years. He has lived in Lambertville since he was twelve, having moved here from Queens with his mother Ruth and younger sister Lynette shortly after his parents divorced.

That same year, Sid’s father Ben moved to Los Angeles with Francesca, the woman he’d been having an affair with for several years, to pursue a career as a writer in the movie and television business. Ben sent birthday cards to Sid and Lynette for the first five years he was in Los Angeles, and then stopped sending birthday cards and did not communicate with them again for thirty-seven years, until a few months before he died. He called each of them to beg their forgiveness for being such a bad father, and they both forgave him.

Sid is five-foot-eight with a wiry build, his wavy brown hair going gray, his default expression a sleepy smile. Charming and eloquent, he is a superb waiter and was so from the moment he switched to that line of work at the age of forty-seven. Sid’s emergence as a star waiter at Falcon came as a huge surprise to his wife Elaine, who for several years prior to Sid’s success, believed he would forever be a person who boasted of unproven talent, never kept a job for long, and was often severely depressed.

Elaine is five-foot-two, petite, with long brown hair she wears in a bun from the time she gets up in morning until the supper dishes are done, after which she lets her hair down. She has been an archivist at the Princeton University Art Museum for nearly forty years, Princeton just up the road from Lambertville.

Her doctoral thesis The Inevitable Arrival of Impressionism was published as a sumptuously-illustrated coffee table book by a university press, and Elaine surely would have become a professor of Art had she not suffered from debilitating migraine headaches and ferocious anxiety whenever she agreed to give lectures to large groups of students and make presentations to her fellow academics. And so shortly after gaining her PhD, she found her niche far from the public eye in the quiet backrooms of the art museum and has worked there ever since.

Sid and Elaine have been married for thirty-five years and have two children, Jeffrey, thirty-four, who resembles his father to a striking degree, and Katy, thirty-two, who is seven inches taller than her mother and wears her auburn hair in a long braid.

When Jeffrey turned twelve, he stopped talking to Sid; and they did not reconcile until Jeffrey was twenty-three. Now they are good buddies and go to several basketball games together every year at Madison Square Garden, Jeffrey a commercial artist and set designer living in Manhattan.

Katy is a community college English teacher in nearby Bucks County. She has unceasingly adored Sid since the day she was born, and has never stopped believing her father is the great writer he claimed to be when she was a girl, despite his never having written anything in her lifetime.

Save for those trips into New York City to attend basketball games with Jeffrey, and to go to plays with Elaine, comp tickets courtesy of Jeffrey, Sid rarely leaves Lambertville, though he and Elaine have recently begun planning a trip to Europe for when Elaine retires three years from now. Elaine wants to visit museums and places where some of her favorite paintings were made, and Sid wants to go to plays and bookstores and wander around looking for appealing cafés.

On a Saturday in early November, Jeffrey and his fiancé Nina make the trek by bus from Manhattan to Lambertville, and Katy and her husband Phil drive over from Bucks County to celebrate Sid and Elaine’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Jeffrey and Nina will spend the night with Sid and Elaine in the house where Jeffrey and Katy grew up, and Phil and Katy will drive back to their apartment in Bucks County after supper and dessert.

They dine at Falcon where the staff fawns over them, Sid beloved by everyone who works at the restaurant, the glorious feast a gift from the owners. For dessert, however, they return to Sid and Elaine’s house to enjoy Elaine’s renowned pumpkin pie and sit by the fire in the living room and talk without having to shout over the clatter and din of the restaurant.

Nina, who is thirty-two and Portuguese, is new to the family constellation, she and Jeffrey having met a year ago, a spring wedding in the works, and she is most curious to learn how Sid and Elaine met.

“You go first, honey,” says Elaine, calling from the kitchen that adjoins the living room. “And then I’ll correct your errors.”

“Let us not call the details of my version errors,” says Sid, standing in front of the fireplace with his back to the fire and smiling at his children and their partners. “Let us call them variations on a theme, the original theme lost to the vagaries of time.”

“Can you agree about where you met?” asks Nina, vivacious and pretty with long black hair, a talent agent at United Creativity, her Portuguese accent catnip to Jeffrey.

Where is not in doubt,” says Sid, looking at Elaine. “But when is. She says we met in Ninth Grade at Hunterdon High, I say Eighth. In either case, we liked each other from the get go, and though we each had multiple sweethearts in high school, we were an item for the whole of our Senior year before she cruelly dumped me to clear her calendar as prelude to matriculating at Yale.”

“I would argue that he had the multiple sweethearts in high school,” says Elaine, looking up from making coffee to smile at Nina. “Sid was a notorious playboy in high school, whereas I was faithful to Ron Durant for the two years before Sid and I became the aforementioned item. But all in all, he has the gist of our getting together right.”

“So you did the dumping,” says Phil, a big gregarious Systems Analyst, thirty-nine, with carrot-red hair and many freckles. “Not Sid.”

“Amazing but true,” says Elaine, smiling sweetly at Sid. “He was staying in Lambertville and not looking very hard for a job, while I was an ambitious academic who thought I would probably marry another of my kind.”

“Which she almost did,” says Sid, nodding. “And she probably would have had not our tenth high school reunion intervened.”

“Also true,” says Elaine, coming into the living room and standing beside Sid. “I arrived at the reunion after many weeks of ambivalence, and there he was in all his twenty-eight-year-old glory. And I was a goner.”

“Love,” says Sid, putting his arm around Elaine. “The unsolvable mystery.”

“Were you a waiter in those days, Sid?” asks Nina, who can’t quite recall the specifics of Jeffrey’s synopsis of his parents’ lives.

“No. At the time of our tenth reunion I was a shoe salesman,” says Sid, chuckling at memories of those two years in the trenches at Landmark Shoes. “After that, before I became a waiter, I had many other jobs. Bartender, UPS delivery person, grocery store clerk, landscaper, and Elaine’s favorite, night watchman at the municipal dump. To name but a few.”

A silence falls, which often happens after Sid reels off some of the jobs he had before he hit rock bottom the year Katy left for college and he got fired for the umpteenth time and Elaine moved out and got an apartment in Princeton. With his job resume a guarantee no one would hire him, Sid begged an old high school friend for a job bussing tables in the ritzy café Mon Cher, and when a flu epidemic knocked out most of the wait staff, Sid was pressed into service and proved to be such an outstanding waiter, the café manager could not imagine demoting Sid when the epidemic ended.

A year later, the owner of Falcon offered Sid a job, Sid jumped at the chance, and six months later Elaine came home to stay.

“Jeffrey tells me you write poetry, Sid,” says Nina, feeling the need to break the silence.

“I didn’t say he wrote poetry,” says Jeffrey, shaking his head. “I said he wanted to write poetry.”

Elaine returns to the kitchen to cut the pie and pour the coffee.

“Both things are true,” says Sid, smiling wistfully at Nina. “Before Jeffrey and Katy were born, I wrote poems and plays and screenplays and two novels. But after the kids were born, all I did was talk about writing and how great I could be if only… something. That was before I found my way and got well. And now that I am well, I claim only to be a waiter at Falcon, husband to my marvelous wife, and devoted father to my glorious children.”

“But if you ever do write anything, I know it will be great,” says Katy, nodding assuredly.

“Why do you say that?” asks Elaine, pained by her daughter’s blind allegiance to Sid’s old unfounded boasts.

“Because it’s what I believe,” says Katy, gazing steadfastly at her mother. “I think he’s a genius with words. I think the stories he told us when we were kids are the best stories never written down, and I think the spontaneous poems he makes up for us on our birthdays and at Christmas are the best poems I’ve ever heard. And I know it bothers you I believe in him the way I do, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking Pop is brilliant.” She shrugs defiantly. “So there.”

When Katy and Phil have gone home to Bucks County, and Sid and Elaine have gone to bed, Nina and Jeffrey sit on either side of the queen-sized bed in the guest room that used to be Katy’s bedroom, responding to business-related emails on their laptop computers.

“Done,” says Jeffrey, closing his laptop. “No more hysterical clients until we get back to the city.”

“I just have one more little bit to write,” says Nina, typing fast. “Kulu is coming to New York with his wife next week and they want to take us to dinner. You up for that?”

“Yeah, that could be fun,” says Jeffrey, undressing. “What’s his wife like?”

“She’s… oh what’s the word when a woman has very large breasts?”

“Buxom,” says Jeffrey, yawning.

“Yes. She’s buxom and loud and bossy. You and I won’t be saying much.” Nina sends off the email and closes her laptop. “I’m touched Kulu wants to celebrate our engagement with us.”

“He’s quite the upcoming star, isn’t he?” says Jeffrey, crawling under the covers.

“Everything depends on his next album,” says Nina, taking off her dress and hanging it in the closet. “He’s got the most beautiful voice and his melodies are wonderful, but his lyrics… well, he’s so young.” She climbs into bed. “You’re not mad at me, are you? For asking your father if he wrote poetry?”

“No, no,” says Jeffrey, opening his arms to her. “I’m not mad. Pop didn’t mind. It’s Mom who doesn’t like talking about the hard times before Pop found his way.”

“I think Katy is right,” says Nina, settling into Jeffrey’s embrace. “There’s something remarkable about your father. I love his energy. And his talk is full of poetry. I have a very strong feeling about his talent, even if he doesn’t use it.”

“Well you certainly have a knack for discovering talent,” says Jeffrey, no longer angered by the subject of his father’s unrealized potential. “But it’s kind of a moot point. He hasn’t written anything in thirty-five years.”

“Would you mind if I asked him if he’d like to write some lyrics for Kulu?”

Jeffrey ponders her question for a moment and says, “I would bet all the money I have that he’s never heard of Kulu.”

“Probably not, but I would give him Kulu’s album,” says Nina, excited by the prospect of Sid writing something for Kulu to consider. “Or do you think asking him would awaken old demons?”

“I think he would politely decline,” says Jeffrey, smiling sadly. “But Mom would be upset. She… yeah, that’s a real hot button for her.”

“Then I won’t,” says Nina, letting go of the idea. “The last thing I want to do is upset your mother.”

A week later, in her swank office on the twenty-seventh floor of a seventy-story building a few blocks from Times Square, Nina is meeting with Kulu and his wife Sara. Kulu is twenty-one, his black hair in a ponytail, his mother Turkish, his father British. Sara is twenty-five, a blonde from Brooklyn, brash, and ferociously possessive of her talented husband.

“We were talking to Jason Royal,” says Sara, who likes Nina but wishes she wasn’t quite so attractive, “and he said he knows for a fact that movie people are interested in Kulu. Not just for his music, but as an actor. You heard anything about that?”

“As you know, we’ve gotten several inquiries from people who may want to use his music in their movies,” says Nina, nodding. “But as far as Kulu being in a movie, we haven’t had any solid offers. We could produce an acting demo if that’s a direction you want to go, but I really think focusing on making his second album fantastic should be our number one priority.”

“Definitely,” says Kulu, his accent a mix of British and Turkish. “I’m all about the music, you know, but the words just aren’t coming to me these days. I’m too crazy busy making videos. I’ve got endless music in my head, but… yeah, the words. I need some time away from all the noise. You know? I mean… those first twelve songs took me years to write. I wrote Cats In the Alley when I was sixteen.”

“Would you consider collaborating with a lyricist?” asks Nina, thinking of several songwriters she knows who would love to work with Kulu—and now Sid, her future father-in-law, comes to mind.

“Sure, if I like the lyrics,” says Kulu, nodding. “Love to.”

“Who are you thinking of?” asks Sara, frowning at Nina.

“A few people,” says Nina, directing her words at Kulu. “I’ll ask around. There’s no shortage of poets. The trick is finding the right one for you.”

With Jeffrey’s permission, and per Jeffrey’s suggestion, Nina sends a copy of Kulu’s first album to Sid at Falcon rather than to Sid and Elaine’s house.

Dear Sid,

Kulu is one of my favorite clients. I enclose his first album, Singing Dictionary, which was quite successful. He is currently looking for lyrics for his second album of songs. If his music inspires you to write something, I would love to show your words to him. I understand you may not be interested in pursuing this, but I wanted to see if my feeling about you might bear fruit. Looking forward to seeing you at Thanksgiving.

Love, Nina

Driving home after a busy Friday night at Falcon, Sid slips Singing Dictionary into the CD player of his twenty-year old Camry, notes the time is 10:37, and is pleasantly surprised when a solo guitar begins to play and a man with a sweet high tenor sings a lovely melancholy song about growing up in London, the child of an Englishman and a Turkish woman, his childhood friends British, Turkish, African, and Indian—never imagining that the colors of their skin would figure so largely in how their lives unfolded.

Sid is enchanted by three of the five songs he listens to on his way home and as he sits in the car in front of his house. The two songs he doesn’t care for are rap songs that sound like ten thousand other such songs, none of which appeal to him, but even Kulu’s rap has touches of melody he finds appealing; and as he climbs the stairs to his front door, he thinks I would like to try to write something for Kulu, but I don’t know if I can.

Elaine is wearing her old-fashioned blue flannel nightgown, her hair down, as she sits on the living room sofa reading a murder mystery, her nightly habit, their calico cat Cezanne curled up in her lap, the fire in the hearth spluttering.

When Sid comes in she closes her book and asks, “You okay? You don’t usually sit in your car for so long. Listening to a basketball game?”

“No,” he says, sitting beside her. “I was listening to this.” He hands her Kulu’s Singing Dictionary. “Nina sent it. Here’s her note.”

Having turned these things over to Elaine, Sid gets up and goes into the kitchen to make cocoa as he always does on Friday and Saturday nights, their two late nights together because Elaine doesn’t have to get up early for the next two mornings to make the drive to Princeton.

Elaine reads the note from Nina and says, “Why would she do this?”

“I guess she thinks I can write,” says Sid, mixing milk and cocoa powder and a dollop of honey in a pot on the stove.

Elaine frowns at the cover of Singing Dictionary—Kulu dressed as a fairy-tale prince dancing with a human-sized dictionary (with a face and arms and legs) in a fairy-tale ballroom full of people of all ages and sizes and colors wearing fantastic costumes.

“Why would she think that?” asks Elaine, irate. “Because Katy persists in her fantasies about you being a great writer?”

Sid stirs the cocoa and says, “I can’t think why else.”

“How awkward,” says Elaine, grimacing. “Do you think Jeffrey knows she sent this?”

“He does,” says Sid, pouring the cocoa into two big white mugs. “I called him on my break tonight. He said Nina asked him if it would be okay, and he suggested she send the album to the restaurant rather than here so I would have the option of telling you or not, in case I wanted to spare you the…”

“The what?” she says angrily.

“Displeasure,” he says, bringing the cocoa into the living room, handing her a mug, and sitting beside her again.

“Jesus,” says Elaine, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth. “Now we’ll have all this hanging over us at Thanksgiving. Just what we didn’t need.”

“Sweetheart,” he says, gently. “It’s not a big deal. She’s a talent agent. This is what they do. They hunt for talent. They follow their hunches. They take chances. There’s nothing wrong with her asking. She’s just doing her job.”

“What are you going to say to her?” asks Elaine, distraught. “When you send it back?”

“That depends,” he says, sipping his cocoa.

“On what?” she says, glaring at him.

“On you,” he says, meeting her angry gaze.

“What are you talking about?” she says, startled by his reply.

“If you will give me permission to try to write some lyrics for this singer, I will.” Sid waits a moment before saying more. “But if you don’t want me to try, I won’t.”

“You want to?” asks Elaine, mortified.

“I do,” he says, nodding solemnly. “I think it would be good for me. To try. With no expectations of getting anything I like. Just a bit of trying.”

“I can’t stop you if that’s what you want to do,” she says tersely.

“Yes, you can,” he says kindly. “I will never again knowingly do anything that makes you unhappy. And if my doodling in a notebook, searching for words, makes you angry because of everything we went through for all those difficult years, I won’t do it. But if you can happily let me try, I will.”

“Happily?” she says, laughing despite her distress. “I have to be happy about it?”

“Yes,” he says, laughing with her. “You have to be happy about it. Not necessarily gleeful, but at least a little happy.”

“Why do I have to be happy?” she says, pouting. “Can’t I just be grudgingly accepting?”

“No, you have to be happy,” he says, taking a deep breath. “So I’ll know we’re free of the old shit.”

Now he sets his mug on the coffee table, takes her mug from her and sets it beside his, puts his arms around her and holds her close.

“Okay,” she says, relenting. “I’ll be happy. Probably not gleeful. But happy you want to try.”

“You know what I’ve discovered?” says Sid, talking to Frieda, his friend and fellow waiter at Falcon, Frieda tall with curly brown hair, the two of them checking the tables to make sure everything is in order for the first seating of the evening. “My father is with me when I’m writing. Or it would be truer to say, when I’m trying to write.”

“What do you mean ‘with you’?” asks Frieda, rolling her shoulders in anticipation of five hours of ceaseless labor.

“He’s sitting beside me, watching me,” says Sid, fascinated by the workings of his mind. “He’s young, the way I remember him from before he left us. When I was twelve. And I hear my mother saying, ‘I hope nobody wants anything that bastard writes… the way he treated me, the way he treated you and your sister.’”

“Was he abusive to you?” asks Frieda, giving Sid a worried look.

“No, he was always nice to me. When he was around. Which wasn’t often. And then he abandoned us. So I suppose if you consider abandonment abuse, then, yes, he was abusive. But when he was with us, I liked him. He was funny. Witty. Liked to wrestle with me on the living room rug. Always let me win in the end. I loved that. Took me to ball games and plays. And he knew everything about everybody in show biz, told the greatest stories about movie stars and Broadway stars and… a treasure trove of juicy gossip. My sister was crazy about him. She really took it hard when he ran off to Los Angeles. Cried for weeks. Months.”

“So do you think he’s getting in the way of your writing?” asks Frieda, continuing her warm-ups by twisting her torso to the right and left several times.

“Yeah, I think he is,” says Sid, folding his arms. “I think maybe he’s always been in the way, along with my mother’s bitterness about him leaving… and my unresolved sorrow.”

“Maybe you should see somebody about that,” says Frieda, smiling bravely at the first four patrons of the evening being led to a table in her section.

“You mean a therapist?” says Sid, frowning at the idea.

“No, an auto mechanic,” says Frieda, rolling he eyes. “Yes, a therapist. I go to a great guy. I’ll give you his number.”

“Sid,” says Olaf, fiftyish and a few inches taller than Sid, his head shaved, his red T-shirt and gray sweat pants and bare feet more suggestive of a yoga teacher than a psychotherapist. He is standing in the doorway of his office, looking out at Sid sitting in one of the two chairs in the small waiting room.

“I know you,” says Sid, rising from his chair. “I’ve seen you at Falcon, but I’ve never waited on you because Frieda always does.”

“She says you taught her everything she knows,” says Olaf, shaking Sid’s hand. “Welcome.”

Sid is surprised to see a massage table in the center of the room, no sofa, no desk, and two armless chairs facing each other by the one window.

“Now I’m confused,” says Sid, laughing nervously. “I thought you were a psychotherapist not a massage therapist.”

“I am a psychotherapist,” says Olaf, gesturing to the two chairs. “Have a seat and I’ll explain.”

Sid sits in one of the chairs, Olaf in the other.

“I am a licensed psychotherapist,” says Olaf, having made this speech many times, “and a licensed massage therapist, but I don’t give massages. I got the massage license so there would be no legal issues arising from my touching my clients. What I do is apply very light pressure to places on your body to facilitate the flow of your memories and feelings. The first session is complimentary. Some people don’t choose to come back after the first time, some people only come a few times, and some come many times. My goal is to help you get unstuck from whatever you’re stuck on. Sometimes that happens in the course of a session or two, sometimes it takes much longer. Any questions?”

“Do you think you’re psychic?” asks Sid, liking Olaf but feeling wary of him.

“I think we’re all psychic,” says Olaf, nodding. “And it seems the more emotionally unstuck we get, the more access we have to our intuitive power, which is what I think being psychic is. Uninhibited intuition.”

“Did you love your parents?” asks Sid, wanting to see how much Olaf will reveal about himself.

“Yes,” says Olaf, without hesitation. “My mother was very warm and available and easy to love, while my father related to me intellectually, but I knew he loved me, so I loved him, too.”

“Have you ever had a panic attack?” asks Sid, thinking of the many he had in the months after Elaine left him. “I’m talking about the sure-you’re-gonna-die-any-minute kind of panic attack.”

“No,” says Olaf, shaking his head. “Not yet.”

Sid laughs. “May you never have one.”

“Thank you,” says Olaf, smiling warmly at Sid. “So what brings you here today? What’s on your mind?”

“It’s a long story,” says Sid, feeling he might cry, not because he’s sad, but because he is already experiencing relief in knowing he will finally be able to tell his story, the whole story, to someone who will listen and understand and be sympathetic.

“We’ve got ninety minutes,” says Olaf, gesturing gallantly to the table. “Shall we?”

“The whole thing was amazing,” says Sid, describing his first session with Olaf to Elaine as they make supper together, this being one of his two nights off. “But the most amazing thing was when he took hold of my ankles, one in each hand, and applied a little bit of traction, and I felt myself come into my body so completely, I don’t think I’ve ever been all the way in my body until that moment.”

“What do you mean ‘in your body?’ You mean grounded or centered or…”

“I mean in,” says Sid, excitedly. “Not hovering outside of myself. My consciousness, my self-awareness, has always been barely connected to my body, connected by… I don’t know, tiny threads of floating neurons? But when I came into my body, oh my God, I felt so good, so clearheaded, so strong.”

“I want to go,” says Elaine, nodding emphatically. “Would you mind if I went to him, too?”

“Why would I mind?” says Sid, embracing her. “Imagine if we were both all the way in our bodies, and we were together.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Think of the sex, Elaine.”

“I was thinking of not being afraid of everything,” she says, laughing. “But I will think of the sex, too.”

Sid is lying on his back on Olaf’s table, his eyes closed, as Olaf stands at Sid’s head, using both of his hands to cradle Sid’s skull.

“I realize now,” says Sid, speaking quietly, “that when my father went away, my mother lost her desire to… I don’t know how to say this.”

“When your father went away,” says Olaf, slowly repeating Sid’s words, “your mother…”

“Stopped being tender,” says Sid, seeing his mother sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space, her supper untouched. “Stopped being interested in us. Stopped asking us about school, about our friends, about what we were thinking.”

“So what did you do?”

“I think I made an unconscious decision to try to take my father’s place, to become my father, so she wouldn’t miss him anymore, wouldn’t feel so alone. So she’d love us again. That’s when I started writing stories and one-act plays and poems, taking Drama classes and being in plays and singing in the choir, all in imitation of my father. But no matter what I did, she didn’t change back into the sweet woman she’d been before he left. She did soften over the years, and when I became a waiter, she would come to Falcon and I would wait on her, and she… she loved that. Loved the care I took with her.”

“When did she die?”

“Seven years ago,” says Sid, opening his eyes. “The year after my father died.”

“Were you with her when she died?” asks Olaf, moving to Sid’s right side and holding Sid’s hand while gently touching Sid’s sternum.

“No,” says Sid, tears welling up from deep inside him. “I got there an hour after she died. Late again.”

“What do you mean? Late again.”

“I mean… I was never good enough. Just like my father was never good enough.”

“But you were good enough, Sid. You were absolutely good enough. And so was your father. So was your mother. You and your father and your mother and your sister, and I, too, we all traveled through this world of sorrow and delight to the last moments of our lives, which for you and me is right now. And right now, as we’ve said again and again, we can stop telling ourselves those stories about not being good enough, about always being late, about always failing. We can tell new stories. True stories. About how skillful we are at what we do, how creative and inventive and loving we are. You help me so much, Sid, as I help you. That’s the story I like telling and hearing right now. That we are beacons of love for each other and for the world.”

“It’s very tender where you’re touching,” says Sid, his tears flowing as never before. “But I love how it hurts. Fills me with hope.”

“Wow,” says Sid, standing at the window in Nina’s office on the twenty-seventh floor of the skyscraper rising from the ordered chaos of Manhattan. “What a view. Who would want to be any higher than this?”

“Not I,” says Nina, sitting at her desk typing fast, answering an email. “I’d like to have my office in a beach house in Santa Barbara, and maybe someday I will.”

Sid sits down on the plush sofa. “You’re sure I’m dressed okay for where we’re going to lunch?”

“You’re perfect,” says Nina, glancing at him.

“You said I didn’t need to wear a tie, but everyone at Falcon says the place we’re going is off-the-charts fancy, so…”

“Sid,” says Nina, getting up and showing off her slinky red dress, her black hair piled on her head, huge gold hoop earrings dangling from her ears. “I’m dressed up. Okay? Kulu’s wife will be dressed up. But Kulu will be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or a basketball jersey or… who knows? Men can wear anything they want these days. That’s the new thing for men in show biz. Anything goes. I saw Greta Gerwig having lunch with a guy the other day in a super snazzy restaurant. She was wearing a five-thousand-dollar dress and looked like she was about to accept an Oscar, and the guy she was with was wearing dirty jeans and a faded old pajama top. Trust me. If anything, you’re overdressed.”

“I wish I’d known,” says Sid, glancing anxiously at the doorway. “I have a fabulous selection of faded old pajama tops.”

“Next time, darling,” says Nina, winking at him. “Ah, here they are.”

Sara and Kulu enter Nina’s office, both of them smiling rapturously. Sid jumps up, and Kulu takes Sid’s hand and says, “Sid, Sid, Sid, at last we meet in-person.”

“Kulu,” says Sid, the name catching in his throat. “I love those two songs you sent me. My wife and I listened to them again and again and again, and we danced to them, and then I wrote two more songs for you.” He blushes. “I brought them with me.”

“You’re amazing,” says Kulu, looking into Sid’s eyes. “I can’t wait to see them. You know what happens when I read your lyrics?”

“What?” asks Sid, breathlessly.

“The melodies are already there, flowing out of your words. This morning I wrote the tune for Heart Song. It’s so beautiful. You’re gonna love it.”

Heart Song

 

Here we are, you and I, growing older, standing by.

I propose a daring quest. You go east. I’ll go west.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

What we’re seeking is what we’ll find

when we overcome the secret mind

they put inside us long ago

so we don’t remember what we really know.

 

There’s the crossroad. Here’s the dawn.

Say goodbye. We’ll both be gone.

Leap the boundaries. Break the rules.

Take no prisoners, don’t be cruel.

Sing your heart song. Sing your heart song.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

Find the entrance. Run the course.

Change your heart song at its source.

Change the grammar. Change the text.

Change your thoughts of what comes next.

I tell you, my love, we will find a way to end

the reign of sorrow and fear and misunderstanding.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

But we will always hear our heart songs.

 

Lila’s Crisis

Monday, November 5th, 2018

Lila's Crisis

On a warm September day in Los Angeles, Lila and Desiree are having salads and smoothies for lunch at Boffo, a hip eatery on Sunset Boulevard. Lila is thirty-three, Desiree twenty-nine. Lila’s mother is descended from Wisconsin Swedes, her father a Chicagoan descended from Greeks. Desiree’s father is an African American from Atlanta, her mother a Latina from Dallas. Both Lila and Desiree are waiters at Elusive, a restaurant in Beverly Hills known for super-elegant ambience, fabulous food, exquisite waiters, and a clientele from the high end of show biz.

“Wait, wait, wait,” says Desiree, her accent southern. “Who’s Lorenzo?”

“Our new sous chef,” says Lila, surprised Desiree doesn’t know. “Lorenzo Balotelli. Don’t you just love that name? Balotelli. And don’t you just love his voice? That deep baritone with a subtle British accent, yet he’s so obviously Italian. And he’s so cheerful. The kitchen has been so happy since he started.” She sighs. “Two weeks and three days ago. But who’s counting?”

Desiree squints at Lila. “You have a crush on him? The fat guy?”

“You think he’s fat?” says Lila, mimicking Desiree’s squint. “Not just husky?”

Desiree gapes at Lila. “You crazy, girl? That man is carrying twenty pounds he most definitely does not need.” Her squint returns. “What about Cameron? I thought you were engaged. He was swarming all over you three weeks ago, and you were lovin’ it, yeah?”

“Well… I did give him a tentative Yes,” says Lila, wincing. “But he’s not exactly… intellectually…”

“What?” says Desiree, aghast at this heretofore hidden side of Lila. “He’s handsome and rich and he’s got two big movies about to open and another three coming fast behind. No offense, honey, but you’re not gettin’ any younger. You don’t want to blow this. Trust me.”

“I know, but…” Lila pauses portentously. “The more I get to know Cameron, the less I find we have in common.”

Desiree grimaces. “That’s not what you said when you got back from Puerto Vallarta. You said you were wild about him. You said the sex was stupendous. Didn’t you?”

“That was three months ago,” says Lila, looking at Desiree and thinking I wonder if she would still be my friend if she thought I was carrying twenty extra pounds. “We were so stoned the whole time, I’m not even sure we left LA. And he gave me that incredible diamond bracelet and swamped me in luxury.”

“I’m not seein’ the problem here.” Desiree frowns gravely. “A life of luxury with a hot movie producer, plenty of good weed and good sex? What’s not to like?”

“It’s just that… there isn’t much there, if you know what I mean.” Lila shrugs. “He’s not… deep. Not even a little bit.”

“Let me ask you this,” says Desiree, swirling her wine. “You ever known a really rich guy who was deep?”

Lila reviews the rich guys she’s been involved with over the last seven years and shakes her head. “No.”

“I rest my case,” says Desiree, smiling smugly. “This is the game, baby. And you’re about to win. So I suggest you stick with the program, close the deal with Cameron, and get that deep stuff with your girlfriends. You know? That’s my plan once I land somebody like Cameron.”

Home to her sweet little apartment in Hollywood, Lila is tempted to call her mother in Sunnyvale and tell her about Lorenzo, but instead of calling, she sits down with pen and paper and starts writing a letter. During her first three years in college, Lila wrote hundreds of letters to her mother and sister and best friend Carlotta, and dozens of letters to her father, too, but none since college.

Dear Mom,

I know. A letter. What’s gotten into me?

That’s all she writes because she knows what’s gotten into her. She wants to date Lorenzo, though she knows if Cameron finds out, he’ll be furious and break up with her and…

“Unless,” says Lila, speaking to her cat Witti, short for Wittgenstein, “we call the first date with Lorenzo a business meeting since I am aiming to be a restaurant manager and he’s worked in several famous restaurants.”

The large gray cat drowsing on the sunny windowsill blinks at Lila as if to say Sounds like a plausible fib.

A few days later, Cameron goes to New York for a week of high-level hob-knobbing, and Lila has her first date with Lorenzo, lunch at Gunga, a Brazilian Indian restaurant in Santa Monica owned by Lorenzo’s friends Kabir and Eloa.

Midway through their scrumptious meal, in answer to Lila’s question about how he became a chef, Lorenzo says, “So there I was in Paris, twenty-five-years-old, doing research at the Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne for my doctoral thesis on the influence of Neostoicism on the philosophy of Montesquieu, specifically regarding the necessity of separation of powers in government, when it occurred to me, after several embarrassing and frustrating experiences in cafés and restaurants, that I did not know enough practical French to order a nourishing meal, which realization had the effect of a timely slap from a Zen master. So I gave up my academic pursuits, went to England and took lodgings in the garret of a friend studying Anthropology at Oxford, got a job busing tables in a pub, the cook there was something of a genius with fish, and I was thereafter, forgive me, hooked on cooking.”

“What a bizarre coincidence,” says Lila, clearing her throat. “I have a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. My senior thesis was… now don’t laugh… Kafka and the Existentialists.”

Lorenzo laughs uproariously. “I’m sorry,” he says, red-faced with mirth. “My senior thesis was… wait for it… The Trouble With Sartre.”

Lila laughs harder than she’s laughed in ages and says, “There should be a law against twenty-two-year-olds writing about Existentialism.”

“Yes,” says Lorenzo, still laughing. “Speaking of the necessity of separation of powers.”

And now, quite unexpectedly, Lila bursts into tears and cries for a long time, her unbridled sorrow causing Lorenzo to cry, too.

That night at Elusive, the last diners served, Lorenzo intercepts Lila in the kitchen and hands her an envelope. “I had a wonderful time with you at lunch today. Wrote a little something for you.”

Lila looks at the envelope and nearly gives it back for fear that further intimacy with Lorenzo will either create an uncomfortable situation for her at the restaurant or make it impossible for her to continue her involvement with Cameron; and though she doesn’t love Cameron, he is a rising star, handsome and wealthy, and he brings her into contact with other such men and women, and this is the game Lila has been playing in earnest for seven years now, so…

“Thank you,” she says, putting the envelope in her pocket. “Gotta run.”

Dear Lila,

I am fairly certain your tears today were not the result of my laughing at the title of your senior treatise, mine being equally youthful; and I comfort myself with the knowledge that crying is good for us, especially if we haven’t had a good cry in a long time.

I know you have a fellow, as my mum calls boyfriends, but I hope that won’t preclude our socializing in the future. I appreciate so many things about you and I am keen to know more. How about a picnic lunch at the beach tomorrow, a stone’s throw from my hovel in Venice?

Warmly,

            Lorenzo

The next morning at nine, in a large windowless room with hardwood floors and gigantic mirrors covering the walls, Lila and twelve other women are sweating profusely as they perform a grueling dance and exercise routine accompanied by a relentless hip hop rhythm track, the routine featuring dozens of squats and kicks and leg lifts and all manner of jazzy moves—the name of the hour-long class A-List Booty.

“You’re dragging, Mary,” shouts Chita, the draconian instructor who is simultaneously executing the punishing routine and haranguing her disciples. “You call that a kick, Leslie? Hit the fuckin’ roof, girl. Move it, ladies. That window of perfection started closing when you were eighteen, and the only way to keep it open is to work your butts off. Those men don’t want you for your brains, girls, they want your booty. Now kick it, Angela. Faster Lila. Faster, girl. Stay on the beat.”

Driving home from the gym, Lila gets a call from Cameron in New York, his somewhat nasal voice coming through a speaker in the ceiling of her Audi. “What’s happening, cute stuff?”

“I just finished working out,” she says, never comfortable talking on the phone while driving. “Now I’m on my way home.”

“Miss me?” he asks, his tone implying she must.

And though she knows she is expected to say, “You know I do, babe. Can’t wait to see you again,” she cannot bear to answer him, and so she touches her phone and terminates their connection; and when he calls back, she doesn’t answer.

An hour later, as she is about to leave for Lorenzo’s place in Venice, Lila calls Cameron on her landline phone and says, “Sorry about that. My phone just suddenly died, and there I was yacking away in a traffic jam when I realized you weren’t there. Sorry.”

“Why didn’t you call me immediately when you got home?” he asks, sounding deeply aggrieved.

“I did. I am. I went to Trader Joe’s and the farmers market, and now I’m home.”

“You should always have a second phone with you,” he says sternly. “I don’t appreciate being cut off like that.”

“Well I don’t appreciate your tone of voice,” she says, trembling with indignation. “I didn’t do anything terribly wrong and I don’t deserve to be chastised. It’s not a big deal. Just let it go. Okay?”

“No, I won’t let it go, because it’s not okay. What’s the matter with you? How dare you talk to me like that?”

“Jesus, Cameron,” she says, fighting her impulse to hang up. “You think I’m ten-years-old? You should hear yourself. You sound like a pompous idiot.”

“Take that back,” he growls. “Or it’s over between us.”

“Are you serious?” she says, shivering at the thought of how close she came to marrying this man.

“Apologize, Lila! Now!”

“Not a chance,” she says, hanging up.

Now she waits a moment before leaving her apartment, hoping Cameron won’t call back, but he does; and to her horror, he leaves a message apologizing for being so insensitive, and blaming his behavior on the terrible stress of vying for the movie rights to the red hot Young Adult novel Teen Vampire Zombie Detective—his apology ending with a tearful marriage proposal.

On the Venice beach, sitting side-by-side on a large green towel, Lila and Lorenzo dine on goat cheese and avocados and tomatoes and black olives and sour dough French bread, their beverage a delicious cabernet they drink from flat-bottomed coffee mugs unlikely to topple over on the sand.

“I love this parade,” says Lorenzo, gesturing at the ceaseless passersby on the beach, some fully clothed, some wearing next to nothing. “Aren’t we a most amazing species?”

“We are,” says Lila, grateful for the soothing effect of the wine—Cameron’s tearful proposal still ringing in her ears.

“So how did you make the leap from Philosophy to waiting tables at Elusive?” Lorenzo smiles admiringly at her. “You are, you know, one of the very finest waiters I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. You are never in a hurry, you are gracious and strong, never fawning, never diffident, and always beautifully poised, like a jujutsu master calmly prepared for any possibility.”

“How kind of you to say so,” says Lila, ripping off a chunk of French bread and handing it to him. “If only I could live my life that way.”

“Well, that is the trick, isn’t it?” he says, taking the bread from her and dipping it into his wine. “We meditate, if we do, so we can eventually carry that calm state into our everyday lives.”

“Do you meditate?” asks Lila, who goes on binges of meditating and then inevitably falls off the wagon, so to speak, only to climb back on when the world becomes too much for her.

“I do,” says Lorenzo, sucking the wine from the bread. “Most days. I try to sit for fifteen or twenty minutes in the hour before I go to work, and on Sundays I like to start my day with a cup of green tea and a good long sit. But enough about me. There you were, Philosophy degree in hand, twenty-two, and…” He arches an expectant eyebrow.

“There’s a back story,” she says, sinking her bare feet into the sand. “Lila at twenty-two was very different than Lila at twenty-one and all the years before.”

“I love back stories,” he says, shifting his position to face her and not be distracted by the parade. “And I love your voice. You would make a splendid narrator of books.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “So would you.”

“Sorry,” he says, blushing at her blushing. “I keep interrupting. Go on.”

“Well you may not believe this, but…” She frowns, searching for the right words. “I’m having something of a… I wouldn’t call this a breakdown, but a cataclysmic shift. Right now. This minute. Even as we speak.” She looks into his eyes. “Meeting you has precipitated a crisis in my life, and by crisis I mean a moment of decision, only the decision is less about what I’m going to do than who I choose to be.”

“I understand,” he says quietly.

She has a drink of wine and says, “So the back story begins when I was a little girl. A little… “ She pauses for a long moment, her eyes drawn to the waves breaking on the shore. “Chubby girl.”

“Cute as the devil, I’ll bet,” says Lorenzo, nodding encouragingly.

“So said my mom and dad and grandparents, but the key word here is chubby, which I took to mean ugly.”

“Who said that word to you?”

“People. Kids at school. Just… everybody.”

“But not your parents.”

“No, never. But everybody else.”

Lorenzo nods. “Go on.”

“So I grew from chubby little girl to chubby big girl, and being chubby after Sixth Grade, my non-chubby girlfriends dumped me, the beautiful ones, so I buried myself in books and writing and studying and hanging out with other chubby not-beautiful girls. And boys didn’t like us or even see us, and it didn’t matter that I got good grades and played tennis and acted in plays, nor did it matter that I dieted until I thought I’d die. The best I could do was stocky. And then I went to Stanford and majored in Philosophy and Psychology, and I assumed I’d remain in academia forever, where being chubby is not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Lorenzo nods again, listening intently.

“And then a very strange thing happened to me at the end of my junior year.” She smiles wistfully at her memory of that incredible moment. “I had just turned twenty-one and I was taking a very demanding jazz hip hop dance class, and at the end of one of those classes, Sara, this gorgeous woman with a perfect body, approached me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna go clubbing with me on Saturday?’ And I thought she was joking or talking to someone else, but she was talking to me. So I looked at my body in the mirror on the wall, something I studiously avoided because I hated the sight of my chubby self, only my chubby self wasn’t there anymore, and in her place was a woman with my face and a body not unlike Sara’s, and I could see why she wanted to go clubbing with me.”

“You had no inkling of this change until that moment?” asks Lorenzo, frowning. “No whistles or catcalls as you strolled across the campus?”

“There might have been,” she says, shrugging, “but I never would have thought they were whistling at me. I was blind to my body, thinking only that I was ugly. An ugly virgin.”

“When all the while you were beautifully you,” he says, holding up the bottle of wine. “Another splash?”

“Yes, please,” she says, proffering her mug.

“So you went clubbing and…”

“The men liked me,” she says, nodding. “Even the handsome ones who had always been oblivious to me, and I could hardly believe what was happening because nothing in my life had prepared me to be attractive to anyone other than my mother and father and sister and my best friend Carlotta who was always telling me I was beautiful, though I never believed her.”

Lorenzo waits for Lila to continue, and when she doesn’t, he asks, “So how long did it take you to accept your new identity?”

“That’s a very interesting question,” she says, looking up at the sky and laughing a little. “Because for quite a long time, at least two years, I didn’t really have a new identity to accept. I only knew myself as chubby, regardless of the woman who appeared before me when I looked in the mirror, so for the rest of my time at Stanford I just fumbled around in the dark, so to speak, having awful sex with clumsy young men and trying to finish my youthful dissertations in Philosophy and Psychology, after which I decided not to go to graduate school, but to move to Los Angeles, the apex of the cultural obsession with so-called beauty. To see what would happen to me here.”

“So what happened?” asks Lorenzo, transfixed by Lila’s story.

“I entered the Great Game,” she says, smiling painfully. “Not the one Kipling writes about in Kim, but the game in which women gain social and economic power by aligning themselves with wealthy ambitious men until they reach the utmost heights they can before their youthful beauty fades, at which point a woman must marry the ultimate man she has conquered with her physical appeal and sexual prowess.”

A silence falls between them—waves lapping the shore and people talking and boom boxes sounding in the near distance.

Lorenzo wants to say something, but decides not to.

“And just three weeks ago,” she says, taking a deep breath, “I was literally moments away from agreeing to marry a very successful movie producer with buckets of money and a mansion in Beverly Hills, when you came into the kitchen for the first time, wandered around in a trance of delight and said, ‘Has there ever been a more Hegelian kitchen than this? Absolutely ideal.’ And I couldn’t resist answering, ‘I suppose if you need a non-personal substitute for the concept of God, this kitchen will do as well as anything.’ And you rushed over to me and cried, ‘Schopenhauer,’ and I said ‘Gesundheit,’ and you clapped your hands and said, ‘Heaven.’ After which, my crisis began.”

“You woke up,” says Lorenzo, his eyes wide with delight.

“Aroused by a rebel prince,” she says, smiling shyly. “And with her dormant intellect awakened after years of slumber, she finds herself on the edge of a precipice.”

“Or is it a precipice?” he asks, taking up the tale. “No. As the fog clears, she sees there is no cliff, but rather a fork in the road of her personal evolution, one fork continuing as the broad highway known as the Great Game.”

“And the other fork?” she asks, holding her breath.

“The other fork is a dirt track disappearing into a wilderness of uncertainty, the faded sign nailed to a tree saying Spirit Path; and her challenge, should she take that less-traveled path, is to fall in love with uncertainty and trust she will find everything she needs along her way.”

“Is that the path you’ve taken?” she asks, holding out her hand to him. “Falling in love with uncertainty?”

“I’m trying,” he says, taking her hand. “Sometimes I step off the path without knowing I have, but as I get older, I’m thirty-seven now, I seem to be getting better at finding the path again and getting back on.”

“Will you teach me?” she asks, playfully.

“No, Lila,” he says, laughing. “But I’ll learn with you. What else are friends for?”

On their fourth lunch date, Lorenzo’s first time at Lila’s apartment, they have delectable take-out Chinese and Lorenzo asks about the people in the photographs affixed to Lila’s refrigerator.

“That’s my dad in his vegetable garden in Sunnyvale,” says Lila, pointing to a slender fellow in his sixties, holding a basket of red and yellow tomatoes. “And this is my mom in the kitchen making salsa from those very tomatoes.”

“I like your mom and dad,” says Lorenzo, pointing to a photo next to the one of Lila’s mother. “And this must be your sister.”

“Yep, that’s dear Gina,” says Lila, nodding. “She’s two years older than I am, but I think she looks much younger than me.”

“I wouldn’t say so,” says Lorenzo, shaking his head.

“No?” she says, feeling she might cry.

“No,” he says, moving the picture of Gina a little to reveal the photo mostly hidden behind her. “Who are these two beautiful young ladies?”

The somewhat faded photo is of two teenaged women in summery dresses, their arms around each other as they smile at the camera.

“Oh my God,” says Lila, tears springing to her eyes. “I didn’t think I still had that one. That’s me with my best friend Carlotta our senior year in high school.” She shrugs painfully. “Used to be my best friend.”

Lorenzo looks at Lila and says, “But I thought you said you were chubby in high school. You’re a svelte goddess in this picture.”

“Am I?” says Lila, frowning at the photo and seeing a teenaged Lila who isn’t chubby at all, nor is Carlotta, though in those days they both believed they were fat.

“Have you got a photo album with pictures of you when you were a baby and a girl?” asks Lorenzo, putting his arm around her. “I love seeing childhood pictures of my friends. Next time you come to my place, I’ll show you me as a cowboy when we lived in Texas when I was five. I was impossibly cute but had no idea I was until twenty years later.”

Lila finds two big photo albums on a high shelf in her closet, the volumes so dusty she has to clean them before they look at the pictures.

She and Lorenzo sit close together on the sofa, the first of the albums open on their conjoined laps, and she steels herself for the ordeal of seeing her roly-poly self next to her skinny sister and skinny father and trim and sturdy mother—the first several pictures of her as a baby and a little girl confirming her memory of being chubby.

But the picture of her blowing out eight candles on her birthday cake is of someone neither fat nor thin, but very much like the other girls arrayed around the dining table helping her blow out the candles.

On the next page is a marvelous picture of Lila and her sister Gina standing on a boulder beside a sparkling river. Gina is twelve, Lila ten. They are wearing shorts and T-shirts and baseball caps, and they might be twins—skinny twins.

Lorenzo hums approvingly and turns the page, and here is a photo of twelve-year old Lila on Halloween dressed as a hideous witch; and Lila is about to blurt, “See how fat I am?” when she catches herself, looks closely at the picture and says, “I got boobs before most of the other girls in my class and I was so embarrassed I started wearing baggy clothes so people wouldn’t notice.”

“I wonder why?” says Lorenzo, turning the page. “I thought girls longed to have boobs.”

The last few pages of Volume One are full of pictures of cats and dogs and grandparents, and when Lorenzo reaches for Volume Two, Lila says, “Oh God, this is gonna be yucky junior high and high school pictures. I don’t think I can handle this.”

“Do you mind if I look?” asks Lorenzo, waiting for her approval.

“You can if you want to,” she says, getting up. “Coffee?”

“Love some,” he says, opening the album.

Lila starts the coffee brewing and goes out onto her little balcony with a view of the narrow street crowded with cars parked in front of old apartment buildings, the air warm, the sky hazy; and she thinks of Carlotta and how a large part of her happiness until she was twenty-one came from her bond with Carlotta. And now I only know she’s alive because I know my mother would tell me if Carlotta died.

She goes back inside and finds Lorenzo pouring their coffee. He looks at her and says, “Sometimes you take cream, sometimes you don’t, whereas I never do. But today I’m having a spot of the white stuff, as my mum likes to say, just because. How about you?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a spot of the white stuff,” she says, watching his face. “What did you think of the pictures?”

“I loved them,” he says, adding cream to their coffees. “Every single one of them.”

“Did you think I was fat?” she asks, clenching her teeth.

“No, I thought you were lovely.” He hands her a mug. “And I loved seeing you with Carlotta, seeing how much you loved each other.”

“It was us against the world,” says Lila, her eyes filling with tears.

“Yeah,” says Lorenzo, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I could see that, though your parents were there, too, and your sister, loving you.”

Three weeks later, on their ninth date, the first time they’ve gotten together at night, their physical intimacy having progressed to long embraces and sweet kisses, Lorenzo and Lila are having supper in Lila’s apartment: minestrone soup and rye bread and salad and red wine.

“This soup is fabulous,” says Lorenzo, frowning at his bowl. “She’s brilliant, lovely, learned and witty, and she can cook?”

“My mother’s recipe,” says Lila, happier than she’s been in a long long time. “Those Wisconsin Swedes, you know. Masters of Italian cuisine.”

“You got the oregano just right,” he says, beaming at her. “I’m madly in love with you, Lila. That did it. Getting the oregano right.”

She sits down opposite him at her little table, gathers her courage, and says, “What shall we do about it? Being in love with each other?”

“Well… I suppose we could go on being in love and see what happens. Yes?”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” she says, nodding. “But I’m wondering about…” She gives him a long look. “Sex.”

“I love sex,” says Lorenzo, nodding with her. “One of my most favorite things. But…”

“But what?” she asks quietly.

“Well… as insanely attracted as I am to you, and I don’t use the word insanely lightly, I would like us to know each other better before we… lose our minds together that way.”

“Why?” she asks, never having known a man to resist her sexually when she is so obviously desirous of sex with him. “You know me better than any man ever has, except maybe my dad.”

“I feel like I’m just getting to know you,” he says, setting down his spoon. “And you’re just getting to know me. Not that I don’t want to make love with you. I do, but… I am so enthralled by how we’re both opening and changing, as if our relationship has set in motion a kind of dual metamorphosis, and something tells me it would be wise to let this continue until…”

“We emerge from our chrysalises?” she says, trying not to laugh. “And see what kind of butterflies we’ve become?”

“Something like that,” he says, giggling.

“Okay, my love,” she says, laughing with him. “I’ll wait as long as I can, but just so you know, I’m ready whenever you are.”

fin

Wade Rises From the Sofa

Monday, October 29th, 2018

fract01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Centered Gull

Monday, July 16th, 2018

gull capture

Gull Capture photo by Todd

In the novel I’m writing, one of my characters says, “I don’t believe in luck.” She doesn’t explain why she doesn’t believe in luck, but by the time I wrote those words down, I was several hundred hours into writing the novel and I understood why she didn’t believe in luck. Or why she didn’t think she believed in luck.

But the thing about luck is similar to the thing about love. Is there an indisputable definition of luck? By that I mean, what exactly is luck? Are we talking about fate? Karma? Random chance? My character doesn’t believe in luck, but she does believe in karma, or her definition of karma, which may be different than your definition of karma or the Dalai Lama’s definition of karma.

The difference between karma and luck is tricky because the two ideas can be easily conflated, as in “we make our own luck,” which might be a definition of karma.

Maybe what my character meant by luck was dumb luck, which would be luck we haven’t made ourselves, but luck that simply befalls us. Pure chance. But if there is no such thing as luck, then what seems to simply befall us may actually be the result of karma or something else.

I had an experience recently that was captured in the photo I posted at the beginning of this article. If the photo of which I speak is not attached to the version of this article you’re reading, I will tell you it is a photo of a rock outcropping on the coast a couple miles south of Mendocino, an outcropping that becomes a little island at high tide. The day is sunny, the water deeply blue, and in the sky above the iconic outcropping, perfectly centered, is a sea gull winging swiftly by.

Now here’s the thing. When I stopped to photograph the outcropping and the ocean and the sky, I was in no hurry. Yet something made me hurriedly fumble my little camera out of my pocket. And I distinctly remember thinking, “Why am I hurriedly fumbling my camera out of my pocket? This is weird. What’s going on?” I remember not having a solid grip on the camera as my hand swung up and framed the outcropping and my finger grazed the shutter button before I was consciously ready to take the picture, which is something I never do because I prefer sharply-focused pictures to blurry pictures and I like being conscious of what I’m aiming at when I depress the shutter button.

But this time, everything I never do was done, seemingly involuntarily, as if I was being used by the unseen forces of the universe as a kind of robot Mars Rover to take the picture, only I wasn’t on Mars; I was on earth a couple miles south of Mendocino.

When I got home and downloaded the day’s photos from my camera onto my computer, here was the picture of the outcropping and the ocean and the sky, the only photo of the outcropping I took that day, and in the center of the photo was a gull winging swiftly by. I did not crop the photo. The gull centered himself at the moment the shutter clicked, and he was going mighty fast, the gull. I know he was going mighty fast because when he winged by during that spastic picture-taking moment, I was barely aware of something flying by. Only when I saw the picture on my computer screen did I learn of the perfectly centered gull.

Was that luck? Karma? Fate? The hand of God? The tentacle of a minor deity? And why me? Why that picture?

One answer might be that this frantic fumbling picture-taking resulted in this portrait of a gull and the outcropping and the ocean and the sky so I would be sufficiently moved by both the photo and the experience of taking the photo that I would write about what happened and share my writing so that you or someone else would read about this unusual moment and be moved to do something that causes ripples in the time space continuum and accomplishes something or many things the Universe wants accomplished.

Another answer might be: life is a series of random experiences signifying nothing but what some humans (me) egoistically want to imbue with a deeper meaning that isn’t really there.

Buckminster Fuller wrote extensively about precession, which he defined as the right-angled unintentional effects of a direct action. He has two favorite examples of precession, one involving dropping a stone into a still pond, the other a bee probing a flower to get nectar.

The direct action of dropping the stone into a still pond results in the expected result of a concussive splash. The precessional unintentional effects of dropping the stone into a pond are ripples caused by the initial impact of the stone. Bucky assumed the dropper of the stone was after the splash and not the ripples, or maybe Bucky wasn’t concerned about the dropper’s intentions because this is such a neato illustration of the right-angled effects of an intended action.

The direct action of the bee probing the flower to get nectar results in the bee getting nectar, and the precessional effect of the bee probing the flower is that the flower gets pollinated. Bucky assumed the bee didn’t know or care about pollination and just wanted that nectar. Not being a bee, I don’t know if that’s true. In any case, the action of going after nectar does result in pollination, which ultimately results in more flowers, fruit, and life as we know it on earth.

Precession, however, doesn’t obviously explain why I acted so uncharacteristically when I snapped the picture of the centered gull, but it might explain the effects of my sharing this article, though I will never know what most of those effects are, if there are any.

Even if you, for instance, were moved by this article to take a picture of the view out your window and snapped the shutter just as a rabbit hopped by, a species of rabbit thought to be extinct, and you not only became famous for the picture and thus your life was changed forever, but proof of the existence of this incredibly rare rabbit resulted in a huge swath of land being saved from rapacious developers, and you told me about this, I still would never know about the thousands of other events that might spring, directly or indirectly, from people reading this article and seeing the photo of the centered gull.

Or maybe there won’t be any precessional effects from this article. Maybe this is but fleeting evidence of one human’s attempt to communicate thoughts and feelings that sprang from his experience of taking a picture of a gull centered in the sky above a coastal outcropping.

Only time will tell; and when time does tell, who knows if anyone will be listening; and if someone is listening, will they understand what time is saying?

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.

Thinking

Monday, February 5th, 2018

jennysletter

Perception pen and ink by Todd

Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Which is the English translation of the French “Je pense, donc je suis.” Which is Descarte’s translation of the Latin, Cogito ergo sum.

I remember the first time I thought about my existence being a matter of thinking I existed, and feeling a bit confused. I was twelve. What if I stopped thinking I existed, would I stop existing?

Lately I’ve become convinced by reading books about neurobiology and being in therapy again after eons of not being in therapy that: I sometimes feel how I think I feel, and sometimes I feel fine because I’m not thinking; but I’m not sure I exist because I think I exist.

Several times in my life I’ve been rushed to hospital emergency rooms in cars and ambulances, and whilst en route and feeling my life force ebbing, I felt I existed because my body was alive and if my body stopped being alive I wouldn’t exist. I’m alive, therefore I’m alive.

About two years ago, due to a nasty run-in with some incompetent medical doctors, I began to experience panic attacks for the first time in my life. If you’ve never had a full-blown panic attack, trust me, you don’t want to have one, not even just to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had one of those.” I would describe a panic attack to you, but such a thing is beyond the power of words to describe. I might say: Imagine you are hurtling on a plank down a steep hill toward jagged rocks and your body is vibrating so tremendously you feel you may explode before you hit the jagged rocks, and that would not be the half of it.

The idea that: I think I’m having a panic attack, therefore I am having a panic attack, might be true, but doesn’t help much in the midst of a panic attack. Or maybe it does help. Or could help. Maybe if one could convince one’s self that the panic attack is merely a figment of thinking, and one could stop thinking in that way, then the panic would subside. That is how drugs made to quell panic attacks work. They interfere with the brain thinking we’re panicking, so we stop panicking.

Anyway, I’ve been having all sorts of helpful feelings and experiences and shifts in self-perception as a result of therapy, and I’ve actually gone some months without too much anxiety impinging on my life. So when visitations from the old anxiety tendrils began anew recently, I was not thrilled.

I wrote to my therapist: Last night, first time in a long time, my anxiety returned. Dreadful feeling, like the return of someone I really don’t like and hoped never to see again suddenly walking into my house. I was physically exhausted, so I knew that had something to do with my vulnerability to feelings of anxiety. At one point, I felt so angry about my ongoing anxiety, I shouted, “Get out of my life. Let me be happy. Just get out of my life.” And I was greatly relieved, a kind of mini-rage release. I couldn’t bring to mind parents or abusive people from my past. It was more a feeling of being victimized by the idea that for some reason it is not okay for me to have a happy healthy life.

My therapist wrote back, and I paraphrase: “This actually sounds very ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) to me and I want to say, “So, what’s the problem?” Yes, you have a habit or a propensity for anxiety.

“Stop narrating your mood. Feelings come and go like the tide. Let them move through you without judgment. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! Perhaps you want the narrator to get out of your life?

“I understand it is not a pleasant feeling. Stop fighting with it, though, because that just gives it more power over you. Do you check the weather as much as you check your mood and feelings? Do you try to control the weather? Do you judge it? Your feelings are your own atmospheric experience. Let them be what they are and keep on living and Being!

“Who are you? What are you without the narrative? Who is aware of the anxiety? What is the experience of the experiencer? Put your awareness on itself and let everything else take care of itself. Make sense?”

I was reminded by those words from my therapist of a time twenty years ago when I was going through great physical difficulties, and I went to a body worker and she would be working on my shoulder or my hip, and the pain would be tremendous, and I would inform her of my pain, and she would say, “Stay with the pain. Go into it. Really try to experience everything that composes the pain. Really stay focused on that pain.”

And if I put my awareness on the pain, by golly, the pain would either go away or jump to another part of my body, which amazed me and made me wonder: what is pain?

Twenty years later, I regularly go to a superb acupressurist who invariably discovers blockages in my meridians and unblocks them so that for a few days at least I feel vastly improved compared to how I felt before she manipulated those points of interest.

The truth is, I would benefit greatly from a thorough massage every few days, weekly acupressure, weekly psychotherapy, and a sauna every day during the winter and twice weekly during the summer. Who wouldn’t benefit from that regimen of healing help? Who has that kind of money?

I remember during an anti-war demonstration long ago, a speaker reported calculations made by smart people at a renowned university that for the same amount of money the United States spent every year building weapons and waging needless wars, every person in America could afford a full-body massage every few days, weekly acupuncture treatments, weekly psychotherapy, free healthcare, free education from nursery school through graduate school, free food, and so much more. Every American. And if you don’t think creating a system providing such goodies for everyone would cure our social and economic and emotional ills, you and I would not be in agreement.

How’s this for a variation on the basic Descartes? I receive vast amounts of physical and emotional tenderness and approval and love, therefore I am happy and not at all anxious, and I want the same for everyone else.