Posts Tagged ‘love’

Mean Mister Leo

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Django

Leo had become, as it were, the telephone through which the humans spoke to one another. He was a large, lazy cat with yellow eyes and a dull gray coat. Save for a few funny tumbles as a kitten, Leo had done very little with any of his nine lives. He had never mated with anything and never killed anything larger than a moth. Yet to Alan and Elizabeth Warrington, he was the most important person in the world.

Alan was seventy. He was tall, and like a bean too long on the vine, had developed a curve in his posture so he loomed over whatever or whomever he happened to be standing near. His face was surprisingly chubby for a man so thin, and he had short white hair, though not in abundance.

Elizabeth, Alan’s junior by three years, was tall, too, with narrow shoulders, wide hips, and large breasts. She kept her gray hair short and refused to put on a dress. She wore slacks, baggy sweaters, and loafers the year round, except in July when she wore sandals; and for someone who sneered as much as she did she was remarkably pretty.

Indeed, her dreadful sneer only subsided when she was sleeping and when she spoke to Leo. Yes, when she spoke to the cat, her sneer would vanish and a melancholic smile would claim her face, staying until she turned away from her pet.

Alan called the cat You, and spoke to him like a gangster. “So it’s You, is it? We’ll see about that, wise guy,” he would say, giving Leo a quick rough massage that would send the little beast into ecstasies of purring and drooling.

Elizabeth called the cat Silly Boy or Mean Mister Leo. She usually spoke baby talk to him, but would occasionally resort to a deep rumbling voice full of mock horror at some impropriety the old cat couldn’t possibly have committed. “Oh you Mean Mister Leo,” she would say, holding the cat in her arms like a baby. “Did you rob that bank? You silliest of silly boys!” And then she would bury her face in his chest.

Then she would put the cat down and Alan would take Leo in his arms and say, “I have to go to the bank today, You. And if I find a list on the counter, I’ll go to the grocery store, too.”

And this was how the Warringtons communicated with each other for eleven years. No one else knew; and it was amazing how easily this was accomplished. Thousands of games of Bridge were played with friends, dozens of guests were entertained, and the Warrington children and grandchildren came to visit week after week, year after year, yet no one ever suspected that Elizabeth and Alan no longer spoke to each other.

Elizabeth couldn’t remember her last direct conversation with her husband. But for Alan, that long ago verbal exchange was so vivid, so charged with emotion, it might have happened yesterday.

They had just gotten home from a lingerie fashion show at a local seafood restaurant. Alan had enjoyed the show, Elizabeth had not. She had, however, enjoyed quantities of champagne and was quite drunk and amorous. Alan, aroused by the lingerie models said, “Those gals were sure cute, weren’t they, Liza?”

To which Elizabeth replied, “A lot you could do about it.”

She tossed the comment off without thinking, but her words hit Alan with the force of a train, their implication stunning him. Elizabeth moved into the kitchen to look for something sweet in the freezer. Alan collapsed on the sofa, choking with rage. Elizabeth returned with a bowl of ice cream and found Alan petting Leo. She approached her husband, put a hand on his knee and said, “Wanna have some fun, sweetie?”

To which Alan replied, “I will never speak to you again.”

“Aw come on, honey,” she cooed. She thought he was teasing. She thought he wanted her to seduce him. “Don’t be mean to mama.”

But Alan wouldn’t look at her. Instead, he glared at the cat and said, “What are you looking at, You?”

And so for eleven years they talked through Leo, transmuting messages meant for each other into things they said to their cat.

Elizabeth’s saying, “A lot you could do about it” may have precipitated the end of their speaking to each other, but those words were not the deeper cause of their rift. Something else had happened a few years before in the midst of a mutual emotional decline. Elizabeth had taken a lover for a few months, her affair barely disrupting the routine of their life. There were a few extra meetings of one auxiliary or another and Alan had never known; and he had always known.

So when Elizabeth said, “A lot you could do about it,” years after her last act of adultery, Alan felt himself being compared, the crime exposed, a punishment necessary.

And what better way to punish a person who loves to talk, lives to talk, than to take away her sounding board, her echo of forty years? What better way to punish infidelity in such a person than to become verbally unfaithful to them, and to remain so, year after year, which is what Alan chose to do, except the gun fired both ways and he was as wounded as she.

Then one morning Leo died. They came upon the body simultaneously, Alan entering the living room from the kitchen, Elizabeth coming from the bedroom. Leo lay on the orange plaid sofa, taut with death, his eyes crossed, his tongue protruding slightly.

Alan grimaced and went to the corpse. Elizabeth clutched her throat, closed her eyes and turned away. Alan confirmed the obvious by placing his hand on the cat’s chest. Elizabeth crossed the room and sat in her blue plaid armchair. Alan remained looming over the corpse, unsure of what to do. His impulse was to put Leo’s body in a plastic bag and put the bag in the garbage can. But maybe Elizabeth would prefer a backyard burial?

“Oh you Mean Mister Leo,” said Elizabeth, pouting. “What a silly thing to do, you silly boy. Now we’ll have to put you in a plastic bag and send you off to the sanitary landfill.”

And so the body was disposed of, but so, as it were, was the telephone. The Warringtons sat in silent terror, overwhelmed by the desperate loneliness their hapless cat had kept at bay for so many years.

Then the actual telephone rang.

Elizabeth snatched it off the table beside her, grimaced at Alan, and cried, “Oh Sandra, oh you dear, you must be psychic. The worst, the very worst thing has happened. Dear Leo just died. Yes, just now. Oh, I know. He was so precious, so good, so… yes, yes, Alan is very sad, too. We just don’t know what to do.”

The phone call over, Elizabeth did battle with her sneer while Alan crossed and uncrossed his legs and picked at his cuticles. Elizabeth cleared her throat several times. Alan coughed. And then, inspired by the same impulse, they began to speak.

“You…” said Alan, but that was all he could manage. The word hung in the air, a questionable thing. Was he speaking to Elizabeth or intoning the dead animal’s nickname?

“I…” said Elizabeth, gripping her knees. “I… I don’t…”

“You…” he said again.

“We have been…” she began.

“A long time,” he said wistfully.

“Yes,” she said, relaxing a little.

“I think you should be sorry,” he said, fighting his tears.

“I am,” she replied, unable to overcome her sneer. “I am. I am. But a man should…”

“Should what?” asked Alan, squinting fiercely at his wife.

“Well… I waited for you to touch me,” she said, her eyes wide with fright. “You were the one who stopped everything.”

Alan smiled demonically and lurched to his feet. “So you did mean it,” he growled. “All these years, you meant it.”

“Meant what?” she cried, shrinking into her chair.

“We’ll see about that, you,” he said, turning away from her.

And then he was gone, the house reverberating with his slam.

“Oh God,” said Elizabeth, covering her mouth with both hands. “Oh God.”

She sat completely still for several minutes, caught in the grip of a memory of when she was a teenager and caught the curtains in the living room on fire while she was smoking pot with a friend, and how her mother would never forgive her. Never.

Finally she roused herself and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. Then she called her daughter and told her the news of Leo’s death.

“Your father is very upset,” she said, clutching the phone with both hands. “Maybe you could come over. It would be wonderful if you could.”

Her daughter said she couldn’t possibly get over there until tomorrow.

Elizabeth tried to think of who else to call, and while flipping through the address book, she imagined Alan at a pawn shop, buying a gun. Then she imagined her daughter arriving the next day and finding their bodies—Alan having killed himself after he killed her.

But after she played this double death scenario in her mind a few times, she began to think he might not kill himself after he killed her, and that made her furious. To think that he would murder her and then go on living!

“What a self-righteous bastard,” she said, turning off the flame under the whistling kettle and going in search of a weapon.

Three hours passed. Elizabeth waited in the living room. She played a record she hadn’t listened to in twenty years. Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. A butcher knife lay on the arm of her chair. In the middle of ’S Wonderful, she heard the familiar jangling of Alan’s keys in the lock. She grasped the knife and prepared to lunge.

The door swung open, and there, toddling over the threshold, was a tiny tabby kitten with piercingly blue eyes. Then Alan came in holding another kitten, a luxurious brown.

“I couldn’t decide which,” he said quietly. “So I got both.”

Elizabeth dropped the knife and swooped down on the tabby. “Oh you silliest of silly little kittens,” she said, nuzzling the baby cat.

“You,” said Alan, nuzzling the brown.

Then he set the kitten down and embraced Elizabeth; and she initiated the first kiss.

            ∆

The kittens explored the house, searching for the cat whose scent was everywhere.

     fin

The Fox

Monday, April 15th, 2019

baby fox

Rex Abernathy died six months ago. When news got around that he had left his four-bedroom house on three-acres and a large amount of money to Elisha Montoya, more than a few people in our small town were outraged. I was not among the disapproving, nor can I imagine anyone else to whom Rex would or should have left his house and money, but I do understand why some folks were upset and why the local legal system took an inordinate amount of time investigating and finally validating Rex’s will.

When Rex died he was eighty-one and had known Elisha, who is forty-five, for three years. Their relationship was platonic, though platonic doesn’t capture the intensity of Rex’s love for Elisha and her children, Conor, fourteen, and Alexandra, eleven, nor does platonic encompass how important Rex was to Elisha and her children—a father for Elisha, a grandfather for Conor and Alexandra.

Having observed several hundred Elisha and Rex interactions in Mona’s, the bakery/café where Elisha has worked for the last three and a half years, I am certain Rex would have pursued Elisha romantically had he not been thirty-six years older than she.

However, from what I know of Elisha, I am equally certain she would not have been interested in Rex romantically even had they been closer in age. However, as a father figure in the guise of a grim loner waiting to be rescued from his aloneness, Rex was tailor-made for Elisha, her actual father a ferocious alcoholic who abandoned Elisha and her mother when Elisha was six.

A renowned sourpuss, isolate, and curmudgeon, Rex was so quickly and completely transformed by his friendship with Elisha and her children, it was as if he’d had a personality transplant—the donor a gregarious saint.

And, yes, to some degree, Elisha and Alexandra and Conor have had the same heart-opening effect on many of those who patronize Mona’s, the one and only bakery in Carmeline Creek, a coastal town on the far north coast of California. I, for instance, a middle-aged musician and poet, was terribly lonely and uninspired for seven years prior to Elisha and her children moving into the apartment above Mona’s; and since their arrival, I wake every day to poem and songs arising in me.

However, now that Elisha and her children have, as of ten days ago, moved from their little apartment above Mona’s to Rex’s spacious house on Carmeline Creek Road, my daily involvement with them has been severely disrupted and I’m beginning to wonder if my dogs Zerc and Raj (Xerxes and Mirage) and I were only of use to them so long as they didn’t have their own dogs (they inherited two from Rex) or a place to grow vegetables or a living room with a fireplace in which to while away many an evening.

What I mean is: now that they no longer need what I have to offer, I’m struggling not to conflate their no longer needing me with their no longer wanting me, if you know what I mean. For the truth is, I was reborn with the advent of those three in my life, and now I fear…

The phone rang as I was writing the words and now I fear—Alexandra inviting me to come for supper this evening at their new place and would I bring Delia Krantz because she no longer drives at night.

“Is this a large gathering?” I ask, hoping they aren’t throwing a party disguised as supper.

“Hold on,” says Alexandra, her Irish Spanish accent a faint replica of her mother’s.

She sets the phone down and I hear her say, “Mama? Paul wants to know if this is a large gathering.”

A moment passes and Elisha comes on the line.

“Hey Paul,” she says, her voice warm and poem-inspiring. “Don’t bring anything. This is a Mona’s leftovers affair.”

“Who all is coming?” I ask, trying to sound nonchalant. “Besides me and Delia and the blessed trio?”

“If I told you Grady and Flo, would you not come?”

I wince. “Who else?”

“That’s it. You and Delia and Grady and Flo.” She sighs appealingly. “We’ve been missing our evenings by the fire with you, and we want to get back to that soon. Okay? The kids insist.”

“Okay. Yes,” I say, smiling into the phone. “The dogs wonder where you went.”

Delia Krantz is ninety-three, sharp as a tack, and very funny. Born in Chicago, she worked as the personal assistant to movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, after which she moved with her third and much younger husband Vince to Carmeline Creek, bought the old Dekker Mansion in the center of town, Vince absconded with Delia’s life savings, Delia sold the Dekker Mansion and bought a cottage at the north end of town a block from the beach and has lived there with a series of dachshunds for the last twenty-five years. She works part-time at the library and every summer directs a musical for the Carmeline Creek Lamplighters.

Grady Wickersham is from New Jersey. He is seventy-three, exceedingly wealthy, owns a large modern home overlooking Philomena’s Bay, and as far as I know, he never stops talking. Estranged from his two grown children born of a short-lived marriage, he owns seven mint-condition American automobiles from the 1960s, one for each day of the week. In the seventeen years I’ve known him, I have never seen him show the slightest interest in anyone but himself.

Florence Chevalier, Grady’s partner for the past five years, is Grady’s polar opposite. A yoga teacher and massage therapist, Florence is fifty-two, half-French and half-British, friendly, warm, brilliant, and Elisha’s best friend. She has a son, Braxton, a photographer who lives in San Francisco. Most people in Carmeline Creek believe Florence is with Grady for his money, but I believe she sees something in him no one else can see, something she loves, though what that something is I can’t imagine.

I am fifty-four, a native Californian, musician, poet, and owner of a small house on a quarter-acre I purchased seventeen years ago with money I made as a ghost writer. I would tell you the names of the seven books I ghostwrote, except I am legally bound never to tell anyone. The official authors of my books are household names in America today, and though I earned the tiniest fraction of what those official authors made from my creations, that fraction was enough to buy my house and keep me in groceries and guitar strings for twenty years and counting.

Twice married and twice divorced, no children, I have not been romantically entangled with anyone for ten years, three months, two weeks, and five days; but who’s counting? When it comes to companionship and just about anything else, I prefer women to men. I am profoundly heterosexual, distinctly feminine, and not in the least effeminate. When I go to parties and the women gather en masse in the kitchen and the men hang out in little knots elsewhere, I will be found in the kitchen.

“So there are these two old ladies,” says Delia, telling me a joke as we’re driving up Carmeline Creek Road to have supper at Elisha’s place. “Naomi and Ethel. They get together for lunch every couple weeks. One day over Chinese, Ethel says to Naomi, ‘So… anything interesting happen since last time?’ And Naomi says, ‘Oh not much, though I did get married.’ ‘Married?’ says Ethel, shocked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone?’ ‘Who said I was seeing someone?’ says Naomi. ‘I met him last week and decided to marry him.’ ‘Swept you off your feet, huh?’ ‘Hardly,’ says Naomi, shrugging. ‘But he meets my needs.’ ‘I see,’ says Ethel, blushing. ‘He’s good looking and good in bed?’ ‘No he’s ugly as a toad and I wouldn’t sleep with him for all the money in Miami if he was capable of such a thing, which he’s not.’ ‘So is he a good conversationalist with lots of money?’ ‘Nope. He’s a pauper and deaf as a post. I’ll be supporting him until he drops dead.’ ‘But Naomi, if he’s ugly and impotent and deaf and poor, why did you marry him?’ Naomi shrugs. ‘He can still drive at night.’”

During supper, much to my surprise, Grady speaks not a word and actually seems to be listening to what other people are saying. His behavior is so out of character for him, I grow more and more uneasy with every minute he doesn’t say something. Nor am I alone in my unease—Delia and Elisha and Conor and Alexandra keep looking at Grady as if he’s about to explode.

Finally the suspense becomes too much and Delia says, “I give up. What’s going on with you, Grady?”

He thinks for a moment and says, “You mean why am I not talking constantly so no one else can say anything?”

“Yes,” says Delia, nodding. “I’ve known you for twenty years and you have never once, until just now, asked me a question. And every time I have ever tried to say anything when you were in the same room, you interrupted me. Did you have a stroke?”

Grady laughs, and as he laughs, I realize I have never heard him laugh until now.

“You tell them Flo,” says Grady, looking across the table at Florence. “You’re a much better story teller than I am.”

Florence smiles at Grady and says, “Thank you for the compliment, but I think you should tell them.”

“Well, okay,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but please stop me if I go on too long.”

“Your voice is softer now,” I say, gazing in wonder at him. “If I closed my eyes I wouldn’t know it was you.”

“This is my real voice,” he says, smiling at me for the very first time in all the years I’ve known him. “I’m sorry you had to put up with that other voice for all these years.”

“Why did your voice change?” asks Alexandra, fascinated by this new version of Grady.

“Well,” he says, measuring his words, “to make a very long story short, I went to a healer, and he helped me so much that now I don’t have to talk all the time to mask my fear because I’m no longer afraid.”

“Who is this healer?” asks Conor, who is currently obsessed with the books of Herman Hesse.

“His name is August Quincy,” says Grady, smiling at Conor. “He lives near Fortuna. Flo heard about him from a friend and… the two days I spent with him were the most incredible days of my life.”

“What did he do?” asks Delia, mystified. “Hypnotize you?”

“In a way,” says Grady, nodding. “He helped me relax and then we… I know this may sound improbable, but he guided me back to the beginning of my life, to my birth, and from there we relived my life, resolving the many things that needed resolving.” He laughs self-consciously. “I think I’ll stop there for now because I really want to hear about all of you, since I never got to know you because I was always talking.”

After supper, over pumpkin pie and tea in the living room, Conor and Alexandra tell us about the fox who trots through the backyard every evening after they bring the dogs in for the night.

“Rex told us about the fox before he died,” says Conor, sitting on the floor between the two friendly mutts Larry and Mo. “He said in the fifty-six years he lived here, every evening, exactly seven minutes after he brought his dogs inside, a fox would come out of the forest to the west, cross the yard, and disappear into the forest to the east. He said the fox only crossed the yard after the dogs were inside for the night. Sometimes two or three foxes would go by, but always at least one. Every evening for fifty-six years. And sure enough, every evening since we’ve been here, a fox has gone through the yard.”

“Foxes don’t live very long,” says Alexandra, sitting between Elisha and me on one of the two sofas. “We got a book about foxes from the library and it said they only usually live for two or three years, though sometimes they live for ten years, but that’s very rare.”

“So let’s say the average life span of the foxes around here is two years,” says Conor, taking up the story. “If you divide fifty-six by two you get twenty-eight. Which means approximately twenty-eight different foxes were the fox that went by every evening when Rex lived here, give or take a fox or two.”

“But even though they were different foxes,” says Alexandra, nodding assuredly, “they always knew they should wait for the dogs to be inside before they went by, which means the older foxes must have taught the younger foxes to wait for the dogs to be inside before crossing the yard.”

“We’ve been experimenting since we moved here,” says Conor, looking at Grady, who is sitting with Florence and Delia on the other sofa. “One night we left the dogs out for an extra hour, and another night we brought them in a half-hour earlier than usual, but no matter when we bring them in, seven minutes later the fox goes by.”

“So he must be waiting in the woods with a view of the house,” says Grady, delighted. “And when you bring the dogs inside, he knows the coast is clear. Or she knows.”

I look at Elisha and say, “I can imagine two young foxes sitting with their mother in the forest watching the house at dusk. And now the back door opens and a human being comes out and calls to the dogs, and they go inside with the human, and the door closes.”

“But the foxes don’t immediately leave the forest,” says Elisha, returning my gaze. “The mother waits for seven minutes, until she’s certain the dogs are in for the night before she emerges from the trees, her children following her.”

“Or maybe they’re with a father fox,” says Alexandra, getting up to put another log on the fire. “The book we read said foxes are very good parents and their children stay with them until they’re seven or eight months old, which is almost full grown.”

“I wonder why their lives are so short?” says Delia, sighing. “They’re such beautiful animals.”

“Dangerous world,” says Florence, holding Delia’s hand. “A lovely world, but full of danger.”

“I wonder if foxes are born good parents,” I say, staring into the fire. “Or if they learn how to parent from their parents.”

“I think they learn from their parents,” says Conor, looking at his mother. “Rex told us the best way to raise a pup is to have an older dog for the pup to learn from. That’s why he always had one dog a few years older than the other, so when the older one died and he got a new one, the pup could learn from the older one how to be.”

Delia looks at Elisha and says, “Whenever I think of Rex before you came to town, you know what I remember?”

“Tell me,” says Elisha, who especially loves Delia.

“I remember the times when I would be behind him in line at the post office or at the bakery,” says Delia, laughing, “how I would always try to be extra friendly and extra generous to the clerks to compensate for how unfriendly and miserly Rex was. And then you three came to town and he turned into a whole other person, a sweet and generous man.”

“He learned from Elisha and Conor and Alexandra how to be sweet and generous,” says Florence, her eyes full of tears.

“I think he always knew how to be sweet and generous,” says Grady, remembering how terrified he was of Rex before the transformation. “I think he just needed to be awakened by their kindness, and once he was awake, there was no going back.”

fin

Tober Finds His Way Part 4

Monday, March 18th, 2019

subtle

Early on Tuesday morning, two days before Thanksgiving, a light rain falling, Tober and Augie load the last of Augie’s things into their pickup, cover everything with a brown waterproof tarp, secure the tarp with neon-yellow rope, and make their getaway from Portland—Augie driving, Tober navigating.

They are both glad to be leaving the city and heading home, though Tober is sad about parting ways with Jasmy, and Augie is upset about how things ended with Sandy; and this is what they both want to talk about as soon as they gain the open road.

“In three blocks,” says Tober, scrutinizing the road map, “you will make a left turn and go five blocks to the onramp for 26 West.”

Neither of them speaks again until the last vestiges of urban sprawl give way to farmland.

“Titus warned me before I left,” says Augie, his eyes full of tears. “He said I wasn’t just going to live in a big city, I was going to live in an entirely different society than the one I was used to, a society I might not be comfortable in, and he was right.”

“We’re comfortable in Snake Creek society,” says Tober, gazing at the road ahead. “We’re comfortable in the wilds and on the farm and in little coastal towns. We learned about the world from our mother who abandoned city life to live far from the madding crowd, and from a Wailaki mystic who dwells deep in the forest. And the big question for me is, do I want to learn how to live in a city and become adept at interfacing with the so-called modern world? And if not, then what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Stay on Snake Creek Road and grow vegetables and apples and raise chickens and play music with you and Mom? Search for stones, work as a carpenter, and maybe one day marry a local gal and have kids and raise our children as we were raised and carry on like that until the world burns up?”

“Or we could think of our farm as a base camp,” says Augie, smiling through his tears. “From where we sally forth on journeys of exploration, one of those journeys taking me to Mountain Home Idaho where I take guitar lessons from Beckman.”

“And I come with you and we make music with Beckman and Jasmy in their recording studio,” says Tober, warming to the Beckman scenario. “And we make an album that some aspiring musician hears and she is inspired by our music to write a song she performs in a park, and someone walking by hears the song and his heart breaks open and he’s set free from some deep sorrow that has tormented him his whole life.”

“Ambition,” says Augie, imitating Titus’s voice. “You, October, have ambitions to make music that goes beyond Snake Creek Road and the Arcata Playhouse. You have ambitions to add your fire to the greater cultural tumult. But are you willing to pay the psychic toll to do so?”

“That is a good question,” says Tober, nodding solemnly. “Another good question is… want me to drive?”

“I would love you to drive,” says Augie, pulling over onto the wide shoulder. “That way I can sob uncontrollably without endangering our lives.”

“When I was sitting in those lectures,” says Augie, speaking of his brief time as a graduate student in Clinical Psychology, “and the seemingly disinterested professors were professing theories now abandoned by those aware of the latest discoveries in neurobiology, I kept thinking how there is nothing these people could teach Titus and everything he could teach them, which is when I realized I should be studying with Titus, not them, and that the best way for me to become an effective psychotherapist would be to learn as much as I can from Titus before he dies, and for him to supervise me as I confer with various guinea pigs such as yourself.”

“I’m ready,” says Tober, his stomach growling. “Let us begin my psychoanalysis right after we’ve had some breakfast. Surely Cannon Beach will have eateries galore, and if not galore then some.”

In the little tourist town of Cannon Beach, they find a lovely breakfast joint, the Lazy Susan Café, and sit at a table from where they can look out a window and see their truck while they feast on spicy mushroom omelets and fried potatoes and English muffins and orange marmalade.

Sipping lattes to complete their morning feast, Augie says, “I assume we inherited our mother’s ambition, which she inherited from her mother. Which is to say, despite our mother modeling contentment with being a homesteader and a small town musician, we nevertheless came to believe we were meant to perform on larger stages. In my case, ambition manifested as a desire to become a star in the fields of psychotherapy and neurobiology, and in your case ambition manifested as a desire to become a world famous musician.”

“Hold on,” says Tober, waving away his brother’s assertion. “I had no such ambition until I played ‘Manha de Carnaval’ with Beckman for a thousand people who went bonkers when we finished playing. It was during that tempest of adulation that my larger ambition took hold. Prior to playing with Beckman and Jasmy, I was content to be an Eel River fiddler, and I hope to regain that contentment after a few days of breathing our native air.”

“You may not have been consciously aware of your grandiose desire until you performed with Beckman,” says Augie, looking out the window at their little white truck basking in sudden sunlight, “but I contend the inherited seed was already well-sprouted.”

“Maybe so,” says Tober, wondering if Jasmy could be content to live with him on Snake Creek Road and be an Eel River musician rather than an international superstar. “It did feel strangely familiar trading licks with Jasmy in front of all those jubilant people.”

“Oh so now we’re gonna talk about sex?” says Augie, arching his eyebrow. “Trading licks, indeed.”

“For the record,” says Tober, feigning grave seriousness, “Jasmy and I did not have sex. We kissed multiple times and embraced with passionate tenderness, but stopped short of the wild sex you had with Sandy, and I base the adjective wild on the ecstatic cries emanating from the bedroom all the way at the other end of the very large house where you and Sandy were… how shall we put it? Tripping the light fantastic?”

“She dragged me to her bed,” says Augie, blushing. “I was helpless to resist. She was fearless and luscious and knowing, and she played me as she plays her drums, I her willing trap set.”

“Methinks you take this drumming analogy too far,” says Tober, grimacing. “But we will allow it because she dumped you the next day and broke your heart, and you have yet to tell me why.”

“I wouldn’t say she dumped me,” says Augie, sighing. “I’d say she gave me an ultimatum, and when I refused, she said I was a fool and told me to leave. So I did.”

“What was her ultimatum?” ask Tober, wondering why Sandy would do that when she’d only known Augie for two days.

“She said if I wouldn’t come back to Portland immediately after Thanksgiving and move in with her, she wasn’t interested in having a relationship with me. She said this was the chance of a lifetime and if I didn’t seize the chance, I was a fool, and she was done consorting with fools.”

“You know,” says Tober, waving to their waitress, “though I found Sandy beautiful and charming and funny and delightfully Irish, I think she’s got way more than a few screws loose, and despite your formidable charm, my dear brother, I doubt very much that you were the cause of the loosening of those screws.”

“She’s twenty-two,” says Augie, smiling at the approach of their waitress, a middle-aged woman with gray hair in a bun, glasses perched on the tip of her nose. “I suppose if I were twenty-two instead of eighteen, I might have jumped at the chance to live with her.” He frowns. “But I don’t think so. As much as I liked her, I mistrusted her haste… our sexual collision a drum solo taken way too soon in the unfolding of our song.”

“Hold that metaphor,” says Tober, nodding graciously to their waitress. “Breakfast was divine and we would love to take our delicious lattes on the road with us.”

“I’ll bring you paper cups with lids,” she says, her accent born in the deep Midwest. “You boys want anything else?”

“We are content,” says Tober, wondering how this likable woman from Kansas or Missouri ended up in Cannon Beach.

“Okay then, here you go,” she says, setting the receipt on the table between them. “Looks like the sun’s out to stay. Should be a beautiful rest of the day.”

Rolling south on the coast highway, Tober driving, the two-lane road curving up and down through dense evergreen forests, Augie asks Tober how he left things with Jasmy.

“Well,” says Tober, pulling over to let a mob of cars zoom by, “we gave each other no ultimatums. We affirmed our mutual desire to see each other again, sooner than later, and we agreed to call each other whenever we are so inclined. I told her I will write to her, and she said she would like to come visit us on Snake Creek Road, and I said I would return to Portland in the next month or so to visit her. And regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen between us romantically, we’re going to be friends and play music together and… like that.”

“How comprehensively sensible of you,” says Augie, recalling for the umpteenth time the blissful look on Sandy’s face as he made love to her. “The thing is… I really really really liked Sandy, but the undeniable truth is that she and I dance to very different drummers, no pun intended.”

“Not really a pun,” says Tober, shaking his head. “Well, sort of. She is a very fine drummer. Solid as a rock, yet subtle and musical and incredibly sensitive to the moods of her fellow players. I’d even go so far as to say she’s a rhythmic genius.”

“It’s gonna take me a long time to process everything that happened in these last three months,” says Augie, feeling like crying again. “Especially the last three days.”

“And we’re not home yet,” says Tober, thinking of what awaits them in Yachats.

They arrive in that picturesque little town in the early afternoon, the day still sunny, and follow the directions Ruth and Phil and Sylvia gave Tober four days ago when he dined with them in the Green Salmon café.

About a quarter-mile south of town, Tober still driving, they arrive at a gorgeous old house just a stone’s throw away from incessant waves crashing on the rocky shore.

“Nice place,” says Augie as they pull into the wide driveway and park next to a sleek red electric sedan. “Redwood and rock and windows all around.”

“With a guest house, too,” says Tober, getting out of the truck and stretching his arms. “I wonder if the constant roaring ever bothers them.”

“How could it not?” says Augie, looking out to sea—storm clouds massing on the horizon. “Or maybe they’ve stopped hearing it. The brain will do that to protect us from going mad.”

Now the front door opens and Sylvia comes out to greet them. She looks older than she did when Tober last saw her dressed as a Boy Scout with pigtails in the Green Salmon café. She seems more womanly in blue jeans and a purple cardigan over a peach-colored dress shirt, her hair down; so Tober revises his guess about her age from eleven to thirteen.

“Hi Tober,” she says, gazing adoringly at him. “I’m Sylvia in case you forgot my name.”

“How could I ever forget your name?” says Tober, bowing gallantly to her. “Sylvia, this is my brother Augie. Augie, Sylvia.”

“Nice to meet you,” says Augie, enchanted by Sylvia. “Fabulous place you have here.”

“I guess so,” she says, looking around as if seeing the house and grounds and ocean for the first time. “I’d rather live in a city, but if you can’t live in a city, I suppose this is pretty nice.”

“Which city would you like to live in?” asks Augie, having no desire to live in any city ever again.

“New York,” she says, clasping her hands behind her back. “That’s where we lived until I was six before we moved here. I’m going to be an actress, and New York is where you want to be if that’s what you want to do, which I do.”

Tober gets his violin and Augie’s guitar out of the truck and he and Augie follow Sylvia to the open front door where Ruth in gray slacks and a black turtleneck, her long black hair in a ponytail, is holding an exuberant Golden Retriever by the collar, and Phil in a blue New York Knicks sweatshirt and orange Bermuda shorts, his frizzy white hair going every which way, is restraining a similarly exuberant Black Lab.

“Hello Tober,” says Ruth, releasing the ecstatic dog. “I hope you haven’t already eaten lunch. We just put out tons of food.”

“Welcome,” says Phil, letting go of the Black Lab to shake hands with Tober. “Good to see you again.”

“This is Augie,” says Tober, proudly presenting his brother. “Augie this is Ruth and her father Phil.”

“Pleased to meet you, Augie,” says Phil, shaking Augie’s hand. “I see the resemblance to your brother in your face, though not in your hair.”

“See what I mean?” says Tober, grinning at Augie. “Sounds just like Mom.”

“Ah, yes,” says Phil, laughing. “The unmistakable whatever-it-is that says I grew up in New Jersey.”

With the dogs Philomena and Doogan dancing around them, Tober and Augie follow Ruth and Sylvia and Phil into the enormous living room that looks out on the ocean, a fire crackling in the stone hearth, two large sofas facing each other across a large coffee table, the dark oak floor adorned with Persian rugs, and a grand piano, an immaculate Steinway, dominating one corner of the room.

“What a fantastic space,” says Tober, gazing around in wonder. “And you can’t hear the ocean.”

“Triple-paned windows,” says Phil, proudly. “The middle pane is two-inches-thick. We’d go crazy otherwise.”

“I’m happy to report I was able to get the piano tuned yesterday, so…” Ruth reddens. “But lets eat before we play. Shall we?”

“We so appreciate you putting us up,” says Tober, as he and Augie follow Ruth and Phil and Sylvia into the gigantic modern kitchen. “We’d love to take you out for supper at Lunasea. We crave their fish & chips, and we made quite a bundle busking in Portland.”

“You didn’t,” says Ruth, frowning at Tober. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” says Tober, winking at Sylvia. “The money rained down and we brought it with us.”

“You should be playing in concert halls,” says Ruth, turning to Augie. “Don’t you think so, Augie? He’s phenomenal.”

“He did play in big hall on Saturday night,” says Augie, heaping his plate high with smoked salmon and chicken and potato salad and olives and bread. “For a thousand people.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” says Sylvia, pouting. “We might have come. Probably not, but we might have.”

“It all happened rather spontaneously,” says Tober, filling his plate. “I met a woman in the park where I played and she invited me to play with her band, so I did.”

“What kind of music?” asks Phil, leading the way into the elegant dining room.

“All kinds,” says Tober, thinking of Jasmy and how much she would enjoy being here. “Two guitars, bass, violin, drums, and I was second fiddle, so to speak. Great band. Lots of people dancing.”

“Anybody record you?” asks Phil, having recorded thousands of live performances.

“I don’t know,” says Tober, shaking his head. “There was a very good sound technician on hand, so maybe. I’ll ask Jasmy. It’s her band. Ordering Chaos.”

“I wish I could have seen you,” says Sylvia, sitting across the table from Tober. “When you’re famous, I’ll go to as many of your concerts as I can.”

“Who says I’m going to be famous?” says Tober, smiling quizzically at her.

“I do,” says Sylvia, gazing at him steadfastly. “There’s no way you won’t be.”

Phil looks at Sylvia and says, “Wouldn’t you rather he was happy instead of famous?”

“Why can’t he be both?” she says, petulantly. “Not all famous people are unhappy.”

“Name one happy famous person,” says Phil, raising his index finger.

“Can we not have this discussion right now?” says Ruth, squinting angrily at her father and daughter. “It’s pointless.”

“Sorry,” says Sylvia, returning her gaze to Tober. “Even if you aren’t famous, though you should be, I think it would be wonderful if lots of people could hear you.”

After lunch, Ruth and Tober play Jules Massenet’s Meditation from Thais for Violin and Piano, Ruth an excellent pianist—Tober sight reading the romantic piece and making only a few flubs.

When they finish the Massenet, Ruth smiles hopefully and says, “Piazzolla? Milonga del Angel?”

Tober nods and thinks of Jasmy.

Ruth places the Piazzolla sheet music on Tober’s stand, resettles at the piano, and they take the piece slowly, listening carefully to each other, time standing still as they play—Augie lost in thoughts of being home again, Sylvia dreaming of marrying Tober and living in New York City, Phil remembering the night he recorded Stéphane Grappelli playing with Oscar Peterson at Carnegie Hall, what a night that was.

Tober and Augie depart Yachats early the next morning, Ruth and Sylvia and Phil having gotten up to say goodbye—Tober promising to return and play with Ruth again, Sylvia vowing to write to Tober, and Phil saying he hopes the brothers will make the Vogel-Livingston home their regular stopping place en route to and from Portland.

A few miles south of Yachats, Augie driving, Tober says, “What amazing lives they had before they landed in Yachats. Ruth a professional pianist and violinist married to a famous playwright, Phil a legendary sound engineer who knew most of the famous musicians we grew up listening to.”

“Phil seems to love living in Yachats,” says Augie, pulling over to let a lumber truck pass them, “but I think Ruth misses the city, and we know Sylvia does.”

“Ruth longs for a music partner,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “And probably a partner partner, too. She’s only forty-nine. I think she’s fabulous.”

“And weren’t you stunned when Sylvia told us she was fifteen?” says Augie, gazing at the horizon for a moment before pulling back onto the road. “I thought she was twelve.”

“She’s gonna be stunning in a few years,” says Tober, imagining Sylvia at eighteen. “Living in New York. I hope she’s not disappointed.”

“I liked her song,” says Augie, who has a little crush on Sylvia. “She’s a pretty good guitarist for only a year of playing.”

“Teen angst,” says Tober, smiling wistfully. “I feel so not like a teenager anymore. You?”

“I don’t think I ever felt like a teenager,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I was a child, then an older child, and then Titus initiated us into manhood and I was an adult. When did you feel like a teenager? And what did it feel like?”

“When I was thirteen and Cecily broke my heart.” Tober remembers the last time he saw Cecily, a few days before she moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie star. “Felt like I was half-adult and half-child, yearning to be coupled with a girl who was almost but not quite grown up. A terrible antsy yearning to be something other than I was.”

“Eager to emerge from the chrysalis?” asks Augie, pulling back onto the road.

“Yeah,” says Tober, wondering what Cecily is doing now, “while at the same time wanting to stay in the chrysalis until my wings were more fully formed.”

At two that afternoon, Tober driving, they leave the familiar two-lane road that runs from Fortuna to the mouth of the Eel River, and drive at walking speed along the dirt and gravel track known as Snake Creek Road, every house and tree and driveway and truck and car and field and woodpile and water tank and goat and hawk and raven divinely familiar and beloved.

The front door of the farmhouse opens as they park beside the woodshed where they always park, Igor barking happily as he rushes to greet them, Sharon emerging with Amelia and Consuela close behind—the little girls peeking around their mother as their big brothers get out of the truck.

Sharon gives Tober a longer-than-usual hug before embracing Augie and clinging to him for so long, it is Augie who ends the embrace, being unused to such prolonged affection from his mother.

At supper, Consuela, who has barely said a word since Tober and Augie came home, asks quietly in English, “Tober? You find any pretty rocks?”

“Yes, I did,” says Tober, smiling at her. “I’ll show them to you after supper.”

“Can I see them, too?” asks Amelia, speaking Spanish.

“Of course,” says Tober, nodding assuredly. “Por supuesto.”

“What have you been doing since you got here?” asks Augie, speaking to the girls in his pretty good Spanish.

“We go with Mama to the market in Fortuna,” says Consuela, answering in Spanish and smiling furtively at Sharon. “And we get eggs from the chickens in their house, but not so many eggs until more sunny days. And we sing songs and go to the neighbors and we have breakfast and lunch and supper and brush our teeth and go to bed.”

“And we play with Igor,” says Amelia, nodding brightly. “And we play the piano and we help Mama with the fire and we help her cook breakfast and lunch and supper, and we go feed Bernstein cat, and we read books, and we draw pictures, and we play with our toys, and Mama tells us stories and we listen to the music and we dance.” She looks at Sharon. “What else?”

“I think that pretty much covers everything,” says Sharon, smiling wryly at her sons. “Either of you available to watch over your sisters while I give lessons and so forth?”

“I am,” says Augie, raising his hand.

“I am, too,” says Tober, nodding. “Nothing I’d rather do more.”

When the girls are asleep, Sharon and Augie and Tober sit by the fire and talk for hours until at last Sharon says, “I must go to bed, though I’d rather stay up talking. But the girls wake up at six raring to go, so I need to get some sleep or I’ll be useless tomorrow.”

“We’ll see you in the morning,” says Tober, getting up to give her a hug. “What time is everyone getting here?”

“Twoish,” says Sharon, speaking of the people coming for Thanksgiving. “We’ll eat at five or thereabouts.”

“I’ll sleep on the sofa here tonight,” says Augie, yawning. “I’m not quite ready to make the move to the Bernstein mansion.”

“I’ll sleep down there tonight,” says Tober, eager to call Jasmy. “See you at breakfast.”

Tober takes a long luxurious shower in one of the three large bathrooms in the spacious home where he and Augie will be living until further notice—George and Lisa Bernstein gone for a couple months visiting their children Cecily and Felix in Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo—and for his bedroom, he chooses the guestroom that used to be Cecily’s bedroom.

Wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts, he climbs into the comfy queen-sized bed and calls Jasmy on the Bernsteins’ landline phone.

She answers on the third ring and says, “Hello?”

“Hi. It’s Tober,” he says, thrilled to hear her voice.

“Hey,” she says softly.

“Is this a good time to talk?”

“Can I call you back in fifteen minutes?” she says, sounding distracted.

“Yeah, let me give you this number. I’m not at the one I gave you.”

“I got it. My phone knows what numbers are calling me.”

“No wonder they call them smart phones.”

“Fifteen,” she whispers—a click terminating their connection.

Tober gets out of bed, puts on his pants and jacket, and wanders down the hall to the spacious living room where he spent many happy hours as a child and a young teen before Cecily went off to Hollywood. He and Augie and Felix and Cecily used to have chess tournaments here; and they played Monopoly and wrote plays together; and when they wrote a play they especially liked, they memorized their parts and performed the play for their parents and other residents of the road.

And every day they played music. He and Augie played guitars and the four of them sang the songs and harmonies they memorized from the albums of The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, James Taylor, the Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Theodore Bikel.

And Tober and Cecily played piano and violin duets; and from the age of eight until he was thirteen, Tober imagined he and Cecily would get married and play duets together for the rest of their lives—and now he hasn’t seen her or spoken to her in six years.

This living room was also the meeting place for the Snake Creek Drama Game Society, which met every Thursday evening for several years. Lisa Bernstein, who had a degree in Drama from Cal State Long Beach, was the leader of the games, which after the first year or so evolved from serious dramatic practice into a few fun warm-up exercises as prelude to a rousing game of Charades, the teams picked by drawing straws. When Cecily moved to Los Angeles and Lisa began spending more and more time there, too, the drama game society dissolved.

Tober sits at the grand piano, sad about how out-of-tune the fine instrument is, and makes a mental note to bring his tuner down to set things as right as he can. Now he plays a little something he’s been hearing ever since he met Jasmy—a slow downward progression of chords played with his left hand accompanying a slow upward progression of notes played with his right, a ceremonial procession for his dear new friend.

Now the phone rings and he leaps up, his heart pounding.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” says Jasmy, no longer sounding distracted, her voice full of love. “I was having a very heavy conversation with Sandy, one of many since you and Augie left.”

“Does she want you to give me an ultimatum?” asks Tober, half-jesting and half-serious.

“That’s exactly what she wants me to do,” says Jasmy, surprised by Tober’s surmise. “How did you know?”

“Just a guess,” he says somberly.

“Well I’m not going to,” she says definitively. “I don’t ever want to stop knowing you.”

“Ditto,” says Tober, softly. “Speaking of which, pardon my cliché, but I wish you were here. I’m so looking forward to you meeting my mother and Amelia and Consuela and Titus and Tina, and… showing you around.”

“When would you like me to come?”

“Any time,” he says, surprised by her question. “I thought you said you couldn’t possibly get away for the next six months.”

“Which was true,” she says, taking a deep breath, “before Sandy quit the band. But now that she has, Pedro and Marie and I have decided not to gig anymore until we figure out what we want to do next, whether to find another drummer or work as a trio or add a keyboard player or make a studio album or… we don’t know. So suddenly I’ve got lots of free time and I’d love to come for a visit.”

“Fantastic!” says Tober, walking to the window and looking out into the night. “I mean… I’m sorry Sandy quit, but… why did she quit?”

“Oh God, Tobe, it’s such a long story. Maybe I’ll try to write it to you in a letter. But the short version is, she’s ferociously ambitious and very moody and… she’s always kept her lovers at a great emotional distance, but when she wasn’t able to do that with Augie, and he wouldn’t commit to living with her, she flipped out. And she not only quit the band, she’s moving out, so I have to find a new housemate. And as soon as I find someone, I’ll come visit you.”

“Whenever you come,” says Tober, closing his eyes and seeing her so clearly, “will be perfect.”

Seventeen people join Sharon and Augie and Tober and Amelia and Consuela for Thanksgiving, and when the twenty-two are seated around a long table made of three tables, Sharon asks Titus to give a prayer of thanks.

“Oh Great Spirit,” he says in his deep husky voice. “We call on you to be with us now.” He smiles around the table at his friends and relatives. “When I was a young man, I thought this holiday called Thanksgiving was a silly thing people did because they didn’t know how to be thankful the rest of the year. And also lots of indigenous people think of this day as celebrating when the Europeans first came to North America and the Indians out there in Massachusetts helped them survive a hard winter, and then those Europeans stole the land from those Indians. But since I’ve been coming to this feast at Sharon and Tober and Augie’s place for the last seven years, I look forward to this day because we all get to be together and eat good food and talk and laugh and sing and, speaking for myself, probably cry. This is a day we spend remembering what a precious gift life is, this journey that begins when we’re born and eventually carries us all the way back to where we came from, back to the source of everything, back to Great Spirit who gave us life. What do I mean by Great Spirit? I mean all there has ever been, all there is now, and all there will ever be.”

Every night since Consuela and Amelia came to live with Sharon in the farmhouse, after Sharon told them a bedtime story, she reminded them they were welcome to sleep in her bed with her. And every time she told them this, they both looked away, as if to say, “No thank you.”

But tonight, on Thanksgiving, when the last guest has gone home and Sharon is supervising the girls as they brush their teeth and wash their hands and faces, Consuela looks at Sharon and asks, “Can we sleep in your bed tonight, Mama?”

“Yes,” says Sharon, trying not to cry.

When the girls enter Sharon’s bedroom, Sharon says in Spanish, “When Tober and Augie were your age, they sometimes slept in my bed with me, sometimes one of them, sometimes both of them, and when it was both of them, they slept on either side of me. But you can sleep with me however you want.”

“We will sleep together beside you,” says Consuela, nodding assuredly. “We like to sleep beside each other.”

“Yes,” says Amelia, nodding in agreement. “We want to sleep beside each other beside you.”

At midnight, when Sharon goes to join her slumbering daughters in her bed, Tober and Augie walk down the hill to the Bernsteins’ house, stopping on their way to gaze at the scimitar moon in the starry sky.

“You know what I was thinking about all day today?” says Augie, loving the deep quiet of this place.

“Sandy,” says Tober, putting his arm around his brother. “About how much she would enjoy everybody who came today.”

“That’s eerie, Tobe,” says Augie, looking at his brother. “That’s exactly what I was thinking about.”

“I think she would love it here,” says Tober, breathing deeply of the pristine air. “I think she would fall madly in love with Tina and Titus and Mom and the girls. What do you think?”

“I think so, too. But only if she was open to falling in love with them, only if she wasn’t stuck in some fixed idea about how things should be.”

“Yeah,” says Tober, smiling at the moon. “Good advice. Let’s not get stuck in fixed ideas about how things should be.”

      fin

Tober Finds His Way Part 3

Monday, March 11th, 2019

four candles

At four-thirty in the afternoon, rain falling, Tober drives slowly through a maze of streets to a quiet neighborhood in southeast Portland where Augie lives in an old house with three other people—the front yard featuring four large Japanese maples, their fall foliage every hue of burgundy and magenta.

One of Augie’s housemates, Allison, shares a pot of nettle tea with Tober in the living room and waits with him for Augie to get home from his weekend job as a clerk at Wet Spot Tropical Fish store.

Allison is thirty-two, Chinese American, with light brown hair and a persistently wrinkled brow, a wearer of frameless pince-nez. She works for a high tech company called Integer Farm, and when Tober asks what her job entails she says, “Oh about half the time I’m filing incoming data composites, and half the time I’m mapping info gaggles looking for nascent renegade trends.”

“You’re analyzing data?” Tober guesses.

“Sort of,” says Allison, frowning. “Our logarithms do most of the macro-analysis, but… yeah, what I do sometimes ends up in analyses, but mostly I’m creating amalgam veins for later mining.”

“To what end?” asks Tober, wondering why the tea tastes so bitter and surmising it must be the water.

“For our clients,” says Allison, nodding. “To facilitate ultra-specific targeting.”

“Sounds very sophisticated,” he says sincerely. “Who are your clients?”

“Oh, you know, any large company trying to sell something,” she says, matter-of-factly. “We specialize in centrifuging data our analysts use to design super-fast modalities for optimal penetration and saturation.”

“Wow,” says Tober, nodding. “What a thing.”

“It’s a job,” she says, shrugging. “Gotta pay off those student loans. We can’t all get full scholarships like Augie.”

“No,” says Tober, the words “full scholarships” making him think of Jasmy and the volleyball scholarships she turned down. “He’s very lucky.”

“He’s brilliant,” she says, morosely. “We can’t all be brilliant.”

“Well,” says Tober, wanting to cheer her up, “I’m sure it’s no small feat to create amalgam veins. I couldn’t do that in a million years.”

“Yes, you could,” says Allison, scrunching up her cheeks. “Once you know the key strokes, they pretty much create themselves.”

“Oh,” says Tober, delighted by the idea of things creating themselves. “Like melodies create themselves.”

“No,” says Allison, shaking her head. “It has nothing to do with music.”

A silence falls and Tober decides not to say anything more unless Allison asks him a question—the silence lasting for several more sips of the bitter tea before Augie comes in the front door and Tober jumps up to give him a hug.

Augie is six-foot-one, his red hair cut quite short. Before moving to Portland three months ago, he outweighed Tober by twenty pounds, but he has lost those twenty pounds and then some, and there is a gray cast to his usually rosy skin—the sparkle in his emerald green eyes much diminished.

After visiting with Allison for a few minutes more, the brothers retire to Augie’s bedroom and Augie closes the door.

“Gads Aug,” says Tober, staring at his brother, “you’ve lost so much weight. Are you okay?”

“I will be,” he says, speaking slowly. “Took me a while to gets things straightened out, but now that I have, I’ll be fine.” He smiles wanly. “I’m so glad you’re here. How was the trip?”

“Great,” says Tober, wondering what things Augie got straightened out. “I met all sorts of fascinating people along the way, the last one being an amazing woman I met in Director’s Park where I did a little busking this afternoon. Her name is Jasmy and she’s a violinist, too. Her band is playing tonight at McSomebody’s Crystal Palace and she wants me to play with them on a tune or two, so she’s putting us on the guest list. Do you want to go?”

“Yeah,” says Augie, sitting down on his queen-sized bed. “Sounds fun.”

“You don’t look well, Aug,” says Tober, sitting beside him. “You’re so pale. I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I’m just tired. Might have a little lie down before we go out.”

“So what did you get straightened out?” asks Tober, putting his arm around Augie.

“Well,” says Augie, taking a deep breath, “I figured out what was killing me, and I put a stop to it.”

“Oh my God, Aug. You didn’t mention anything in your letters about something killing you. What was it?”

“The program,” says Augie, his jaw trembling. “I’m coming home, Tobe, not just for Thanksgiving, but to stay. I went down the wrong path. And as Titus taught us, the sooner we recognize we’re going the wrong way, the sooner we can change direction and avoid big trouble. So that’s what I did. I quit the program yesterday and quit my job at the fish store today.”

“Does Mom know?” asks Tober, trying not to sound too happy about Augie coming home to stay.

“Yeah, I called her last night,” says Augie, starting to cry.

“Oh Aug,” says Tober, holding his brother tight. “You’re the greatest.”

After Augie takes a shower and puts on a lovely gray shirt and brown trousers for going out, he lies down on his bed to rest.

“Talk to me Tobe,” he says, closing his eyes. “Tell me about your trip.”

Dressed all in black save for the red ribbon tied in a bow at the end of his ponytail, Tober stands at the window, rain pattering on the glass, and describes Amelia and Consuela following him from the farmhouse to the truck and back to the farmhouse and back to the truck again as he was getting ready to leave, how Sharon loves being with the girls, what a good mother she is, how both girls are very reserved and fearful of doing anything to upset Sharon, how every day they get a little more comfortable in their new surroundings, a little more trusting that Sharon isn’t just another temporary caretaker, but their mother from now on, a mother who never yells at them and gives them plenty of food and explains things to them over and over again until they understand.

“I guess I wasn’t ready to leave home,” says Augie, opening his eyes. “Although if the program had been what I thought it was going to be, I would have stayed despite the challenges of living in a city. But the program wasn’t even remotely like they told me it would be.”

“You wrote to us about the classes covering information you already knew,” says Tober, coming to sit on the bed. “But you said you liked Weibel, the neuroscience guy, and you were going to focus on that.”

“I wanted to,” says Augie, sighing. “But they wouldn’t let me, and that was when I realized there was a much bigger underlying problem.”

“Which was?”

“Well… when I met with the professors who read my papers, the four who were so eager for me to come here, I assumed I’d be working with them. But when I realized after a couple weeks that the first two years of required classes were only going to cover research and theories and historical stuff I’ve already thoroughly studied, I went to talk to those four professors about testing out of those classes, and they all told me I had to take them. And when I told Dr. Weibel I didn’t want to waste two years of my life before I could start doing what I came here to do, he got very upset with me and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. And that pretty much did it, because I do know what I’m talking about, and working with him was the main reason I wanted to come here. And when I told him that, he said, ‘Get in line, buddy. Lots of people want to work with me, people much more qualified than you.’”

“What a jerk,” says Tober, angrily. “They asked you to come here. They gave you a scholarship. What’s his problem?”

“As you can imagine,” says Augie, smiling wryly, “I’ve given that question a great deal of thought, and what I now know is that Weibel and everyone here is a functionary of an extremely hierarchic system that purports to be cutting edge, but is actually mired in out-of-date dogma and very slow to integrate the newest information and practices.”

“Dogma never keeps up with the new information,” says Tober, going to the window again. “As opposed to wisdom, which is a deciphering tool.”

“Exactly,” says Augie, relieved to finally be talking about this with someone who understands him. “I’ll give you a most telling For Instance of how their dogma lags far behind current knowledge.”

“Oh good,” says Tober, returning to the bed. “I love telling For Instances.”

“So…” says Aguie, sitting up. “Three weeks ago, Weibel gave a public lecture attended by all the Psych grad students, most of the faculty, and anybody else who wanted to come. And the subject of his lecture was a thorough review of the most recent and comprehensive studies proving conclusively that the habitual use of cell phones not only seriously interferes with healthy brain development in children and young adults, but also exacerbates and even creates emotional disorders in people of all ages. And as he spoke, every single person in attendance, about two hundred people, save for one August Quincy, was clutching his or her phone and futzing with it as Weibel enumerated the serious damage their behavior was doing to their brains and nervous systems.”

“Did no one else appreciate the irony of the situation?” asks Tober, remembering Annie staring into her phone, hour after hour, filling her time with whatever she was seeing or doing on the little screen until it was time to go to work or eat or have sex.

“I doubt it,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I hope so, but I doubt it. They are all so deeply enmeshed with their phones.”

Dining at a quiet Thai restaurant, Tober describes to Augie his sojourn in Yachats, his impromptu concert in the Green Salmon café, his delightful breakfast with Ruth and Phil and Sylvia, his frightening encounter with Lauren the psychic leech, his icy dip in the mighty Umqua to exorcise Lauren’s poison, his phone conversation with Titus, and his triumphant performance in Director’s Park that culminated in meeting Jasmy.

“Wow,” says Augie, gazing in wonder at his brother. “What a day.”

“And while you were snoozing,” says Tober, smiling at the approach of their Kang Dang chicken, potatoes in yellow curry, and brown rice, “I counted up the money I made from busking for that one glorious hour today. Guess how much?”

“From the tone of your voice and the self-satisfied look on your face,” says Augie, grinning at his brother, “I will say… fifty dollars.”

“Three hundred and thirty-seven dollars,” says Tober, lowering his voice. “And that’s just the paper money. There are hundreds of quarters and piles of nickels and dimes ye to be counted.”

“Good God,” says Augie, gaping at his brother. “You’ve always had a knack for making money, but this verges on the miraculous.”

“It was miraculous,” says Tober, thinking of Jasmy. “I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

Arriving at 7:20 at the giant old building that houses McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, they find no place to park anywhere near the ballroom—several hundred people in line waiting for the doors to open—so they have to drive around for fifteen minutes before they finally find a parking place seven blocks away.

They hurry through the rain to the ballroom, and not knowing that being on the guest list entitles them to go to the front of the line, they take their places at the end of the long line of people slowly entering the building, and they don’t get inside until ten minutes before show time.

A very large man named Ezra wearing a purple sequin evening gown, his long black hair and black beard wild and frizzy, his skin pale white, his lips painted fire-engine red, leads Tober and Augie backstage where Jasmy and her four band mates are waiting to go on.

Jasmy is wearing red moccasins and a gorgeous burgundy blouse tucked into pleated black slacks, her long black hair in a three-strand braid. She hesitates to hug Tober, but when he opens his arms to her, she steps right in.

“You made it,” she says, thrilled by his strong embrace. “I was starting to worry. I called you and left a message on Augie’s machine.” She turns to Augie. “You must be Augie. I’m Jasmy.”

“Hi,” says Augie, shaking her hand. “I can see why Tobe used the word miraculous when describing you. Thanks so much for putting me on the guest list.”

“Of course,” she says, turning to her four cohorts—two men and two women.

“This is Sandy,” says Jasmy, gesturing to a muscular young woman in her early twenties with short brown hair wearing a sleeveless green T-shirt, shimmering black boxer shorts, green socks, and red running shoes.

Sandy shakes Tober’s hand and says with a beguiling Irish accent, “You didn’t exaggerate, did you Jasmy? Tall, dark, and ravishing with a violin. I’m the drummer in case you couldn’t tell from my biceps.”

“Tober,” says Tober, enjoying her formidable grip. “This is my brother Augie.”

Sandra looks at Augie, Augie looks at Sandra, and they both feel a sharp jolt of recognition followed immediately by a profound attraction to each other.

“Hello,” says Augie, his heart pounding as he shakes Sandy’s hand. “Why do I think I already know you?”

“You got me,” she says, keeping hold of him and looking into his eyes. “What do you play?”

“Guitar,” says Augie, breathlessly. “And I sing.”

“No,” says Sandra, feigning incredulity. “I sing, too.”

“This my father,” says Jasmy, introducing them next to a handsome man in his early forties, two inches taller than Tober and wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and black pants and black shoes, his blond hair cut short. “Julian Beckman. Otherwise known as Beckman. Sweet Papa this is October, otherwise known as Tober.”

“A pleasure,” says Tober, shaking Beckman’s hand.

“Likewise,” says Beckman, matching Tober’s grip. “Looking forward to hearing you play. Jasmy rarely raves about anyone the way she raved about you.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing you, too,” says Tober, laughing nervously. “This is my brother Augie. He’s as good a guitarist as I am a violinist.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” says Augie, shaking Beckman’s hand. “Not even close. Pleased to meet you.”

“And speaking of guitarists,” says Jasmy, gesturing regally to a handsome burly Mexican fellow with a shaved head wearing a red T-shirt and white pants. “This is Pedro Martinez.”

“Hola,” says Pedro, nodding to Tober and Augie.

“And Marie,” says Jasmy, putting her arm around a striking woman in her thirties with long auburn hair wearing a red sequin blouse, short black skirt, pink tights, and red high heels. “Our bass player.”

Marie gives Augie and Tober a little bow and says with her strong French accent, “I hope you like the show.”

“I’m sure we will,” says Tober, dizzy with excitement.

Now Jasmy presses close to Tober and says, “Come back at the break and we’ll figure things out for the second set. I’m so glad you came.”

“Me, too,” says Tober, kissing her cheek. “Break a leg.”

Ezra escorts Tober and Augie into the huge ballroom where legions of people of all ages and colors are waiting for the show to begin.

The vast area in front of the stage, about half the room, is filled with four hundred cushioned folding chairs, all the chairs taken save for two in the front row where Ezra deposits Tober and Augie—the back half of the room open for milling around and dancing.

“Look at all these people,” says Augie, agog at the colorful assembly. “There must be a thousand people here.”

“That would be five times more than can fit in the Arcata Playhouse,” says Tober, referencing the largest venue he and Augie have ever played in. “The energy in here is beyond anything I’ve ever felt before, yet I don’t feel menaced by it.”

“Nor do I,” says Augie, relaxing. “This is by far the best I’ve felt since coming to Portland.”

“It’s happiness,” says Tober, turning in his seat to look at the expectant audience. “That’s what it is, Aug. They’re all happy. A thousand happy people.”

“Waiting to see the miraculous Jasmy,” says Augie, playfully punching Tober’s arm. “And she’s crazy about you. Your timing is impeccable. Imagine how confused you’d be if you hadn’t broken up with Annie.”

“Jasmy does seem to like me,” says Tober, finding it difficult to get a deep breath. “I hope I don’t disappoint her.”

“Oh you’ll be great,” says Augie, smiling sublimely. “Just close your eyes and pretend you’re at home jamming along with the stereo.”

Tober and Augie grew up without television, and in the absence of that media, they both became excellent guitarists and violinists, both learned to play the piano fairly well, and they spent many thousands of hours listening to music and playing and singing along.

By the time Tober was twelve and Augie was eleven, they could play the entire Beatles repertoire in several keys on violin and guitar, as well as all the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, B.B. King, James Taylor, Fats Waller, Stephen Sondheim, Hank Williams, and hundreds of jazz and folk and rock and pop and soul standards. Tober’s favorite singers are Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Iris DeMent; Augie’s favorites are Eva Cassidy, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, and Leon Bibb.

Having attended hundreds of rehearsals of the Eureka Symphony orchestra, and having played the classical string quartet repertoire with their mother and her musical colleagues for their entire lives, and having been obsessed with Brazilian choros, Argentinian tangos, and Irish fiddle tunes, Tober and Augie’s knowledge and appreciation of music is both deep and wide.

But they have never seen or heard anything quite like Ordering Chaos: the first number a jazzy Latin Afro salsa, the second number incredibly harmonic jazz fusion, the third number a fabulous rendition of a Django Reinhardt tune.

At the end of the Django Reinhardt, Augie says to Tober, “I know the expression lacks specificity and doesn’t really do justice to the full extent of what I’m experiencing, but I’ll use it anyway. This is blowing my mind.”

“Mine, too,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “Blown to smithereens.”

“They’re such good players,” says Augie, transfixed by Sandy and the entrancing way she dances on her seat as she drums. “Can you believe Beckman? He’s impeccable. He’s… I’d give anything to take lessons from him.”

“You can!” says Tober, excitedly. “You’re free now. You can do anything you want.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Drum lessons from Sandy?”

“That would be fun,” says Augie, as the band kicks into rollicking folk rock, Marie singing the verses, Jasmy and Sandy joining Marie on the chorus, and Pedro playing a searing guitar solo that brings the house down.

Backstage during intermission, Joseph, a short bespectacled sound technician wearing a neon-blue jumpsuit, suggests attaching a small microphone to the sound hole of Tober’s violin, and Tober says, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t want to attach anything to my violin. I’m quite good at playing into a microphone, if that’s an option.”

“Yeah, that’ll work,” says Joseph, winking at Tober. “We’ll set you up with a big silver potato. Come on out with me and we’ll get the height right.”

So Tober goes out in front of the audience with Joseph and stands at ease with his violin as Joseph attaches a silver potato-shaped microphone to a mike stand and adjusts the height of the stand so the microphone is about ten inches away from where Tober holds his violin to play.

“I’ll be riding the sound,” says Joseph, looking up at Tober. “But keep in mind roughly ten to fifteen inches away. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” says Tober, following Joseph backstage.

Jasmy takes Tober’s free hand and says, “How about you and my father opening the second act with a duet?”

“Fine,” says Tober, as she leads him to Beckman who is sitting with Marie on a sofa—Beckman drinking water, Marie sipping a glass of red wine.

“Do you know ‘Manhã de Carnaval’?” asks Beckman, giving Tober a hopeful smile.

“I love that song,” says Tober, nodding. “Luiz Bonfá. Black Orpheus.”

“Excellent,” says Beckman, picking up his guitar. “Key of A Minor?”

“Yep,” says Tober, glad to know they’ll be doing a song he’s played hundreds of times. “How about you play first, give me a nod, and off we’ll go.”

“Shall we run through the changes?” asks Beckman, arching an eyebrow. “Make sure we’re on the same page?”

“If you’d like,” says Tober, nodding. “Or we can surprise each other.”

“You and Jasmy,” says Beckman, laughing. “Peas in a pod.”

As the lights dim to announce the start of the second set, Jasmy strides to center stage and waits for the applause to die down before saying to the expectant audience, “It is my great pleasure now to introduce you to October Quincy, who will join us for the second set and open the proceedings with my father.”

Beckman emerges to loud applause, followed by Tober who seems totally at ease, which he is, having performed for audiences countless times since he was seven, and never having had anything but fun when performing.

Standing comfortably at the potato-shaped microphone, Tober nods to Beckman who is seated and holding an electrified acoustic guitar; and Beckman begins to play the lovely Brazilian tune very slowly, his playing flawless and heartfelt; and when he concludes his tender opening, he strums the chords in a slow samba tempo, nods in time to his strumming, and Tober begins to play.

And though Beckman expected Tober to be an accomplished player, he is so astounded by Tober’s exquisite tone and facility and the eloquence of his variations on that iconic melody, that when they finish, and the audience is cheering wildly, he embraces Tober and says, “That was by far the greatest musical experience of my life.”

After the show, Tober and Augie meet Jasmy and Beckman and Sandy and Pedro and Pedro’s wife Chita at Toro Bravo, a commodious tapas restaurant, an ideal place to eat and drink and unwind.

Tober is exhilarated and exhausted—his vision of returning home with Augie and building a couple of houses on the land and living there for the rest of his life is rapidly dissolving into visions of living in Portland with Jasmy and playing music with great musicians and…

“I just gotta say,” says Pedro, looking across the table at Tober, “I’ve never heard anybody say so much with so few notes as you. You know what I mean? It’s like you don’t have to play lots of notes because the ones you play are so right. Not that you can’t play fast, you can, you’re fantastic, but… sometimes you remind me of like a shakuhachi player, only with a violin. You’re just great, man. You blew my mind.”

“Thank you,” says Tober, touching his heart. “I think you’re an amazing guitar player.” He looks around the table. “I think you’re all amazing, and what’s even more amazing is you found each other.”

“Jasmy found us,” says Sandy, who is sitting beside Augie and holding his hand under the table. “She’s the great bringer together.”

“Was she always that way?” asks Augie, looking at Beckman.

“Always,” he says, smiling at his daughter. “She started a neighborhood club when she was six, and not just for other kids. It was for people of all ages.”

“What was the name of the club?” asks Sandy, who is fervently hoping to pry Augie away from his brother for the night.

“The Interesting Story Club,” says Jasmy, her dimples triumphant. “We met every Wednesday afternoon after I got home from school in our living room, and Alta, my grandmother, served cookies and tea.”

“And some Wednesdays,” says Beckman, looking at Tober, “as many as twenty people would show up to tell their interesting stories.”

“How long did the club last?” asks Augie, smiling in wonder at Jasmy.

“It’s still going,” says Beckman, laughing. “Though of late it’s usually just my mother who is eighty-seven, Louise Arbanas who is ninety, Allan Forsyth who is seventy-nine, sometimes me, sometimes my wife, and the Portman twins come for the cookies, but rarely stay for the stories. They are nine-years-old and not known for sitting still.”

On the way home from Toro Bravo, Tober driving, Augie says, “So I guess we won’t be heading home until Monday now, having said Yes to lunch with Jasmy and Beckman and supper with Jasmy and Sandy.”

“Brilliant deduction, Holmes,” says Tober, yawning.

“Sandy asked me to spend the night with her,” says Augie, who has only had one girlfriend in his life—Helen Morningstar, who broke up with him after two years when they were both seventeen.

“Did you want to?” asks Tober, who wouldn’t have minded having Augie’s bed all to himself.

“Yes and no,” says Augie, gazing at the passing scene, lights blurring in the rain. “Yes because she’s a beautiful woman with a great sense of rhythm and I’m deeply smitten with her, and no because I hardly know her and I’m so tired and I’d rather wake up and talk to you before I talk to anybody else.”

“Ditto,” says Tober, turning onto the quiet street where Augie lives. “Wake up and try to figure out who we are now and what we might do next.”

At eleven o’clock the next morning, a sunny Sunday, with two hours to spare before they meet Jasmy and Beckman for lunch, Tober and Augie go to Director’s Park, place Augie’s open guitar case on the ground in front of them, and begin busking with a medley of Beatles songs, some instrumentals, some they sing together in close harmony—many of the people in their swiftly growing audience singing along.

They follow their half-hour of Beatles tunes with instrumental versions of Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love”, Van Heusen and Burke’s “But Beautiful”, the Gershwin brothers’ “I Loves You, Porgy”, and finish with a zesty version of “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams, their hundreds of listeners applauding wildly at the blazing denouement and showering the guitar case with money.

As they gather up their loot and make ready to leave Director’s Park, several people inquire of them if they have CDs for sale, several people ask to be on their mailing list, and lastly a darling four-year-old boy runs over to them, hands Augie a five-dollar bill and says, “Do you want to come over to our house for lunch?”

“Thank you so much,” says Augie, taking the money from the little boy. “We’d love to have lunch with you, but we already have a lunch date.”

“Oh,” says the boy, frowning sadly. “Okay.”

At which moment, a woman in her early thirties with long brown hair accompanied by a middle-aged woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair, both women elegantly dressed, join the darling little boy, and the younger woman smiles ravishingly and says, “Hi. He loves your music and so do we. We are wedding and special events planners and we’re wondering if you’re available to play at weddings and bar mitzvahs and anniversary parties and events like that.”

“We have done some weddings,” says Tober, taking her proffered card. “But we don’t actually live around here. We’re visiting from California. But we’ve been talking about possibly living here for part of the year, so…”

“Well should you relocate,” says the older woman, her accent inherited from Yiddish-speaking parents, “please give us a call. We’d love to use you. You’re not only fantastic musicians, you’re both very good looking which is a selling point, believe me. And by the way, we pay very well. Do you have a card?”

“I do,” says Tober, fishing one out of his wallet.

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer X Violinist X Carpenter X Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner X Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates X Inquiries Welcome

“Oh I love this,” says the woman, looking from the card to Tober. “I collect special stones, too. You must come for lunch next time you’re in town. I’m Naomi. This is my daughter Teresa and my grandson Jacob.”

Awaiting their lunch in a vibrant upscale Mexican restaurant called Nuestra Cocina, Beckman raises his glass of horchata and says, “I’d like to propose a toast.”

Tober raises his glass of not-too-sweet lemonade, Augie his horchata, and Jasmy her root beer.

“To our good fortune in meeting each other,” says Beckman, gazing at Tober and Augie. “May we have many meals together.”

They clink glasses and drink, and Augie says, “And may I one day take guitar lessons from you.”

“Any time,” says Beckman, clinking glasses with Augie again. “All you have to do is come to Mountain Home Idaho, a grueling eight-hour drive from here, or a pleasant two-day trip.”

“That’s about how long it takes to get from here to Fortuna,” says Tober, gazing amorously at Jasmy. “That’s the nearest town to our place. We’re just a few miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River.”

Jasmy pouts adorably. “We all live too far away from each other.”

“That’s one way of thinking of it,” says Beckman, winking at his daughter. “Or you could say we now have three marvelous places where we can meet and play music and go on adventures together.”

     fin

Tober Finds His Way Part 2

Monday, March 4th, 2019

rainy web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goodbye Tober,” says Amelia, speaking English.

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

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

 ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

  ∆

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old are you?” he asks innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the clouds burst and heavy rain begins to fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Café,” she says, pointing west.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome

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

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

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

Jasmy Beckman

ORDERING CHAOS

Violin and Vocals

Studio Work & Special Events

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

 fin

Tober Finds His Way Part 1

Monday, February 25th, 2019

 

Finding the Way

On a cold morning, nine days before Thanksgiving, on the far northern coast of California, nineteen-year-old Tober Quincy stands behind the checkout counter in a big store known as Good Used Stuff, two miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River.

Tall and handsome, with long brown hair in a ponytail, Tober is friendly and thoughtful with a wry sense of humor inherited from his mother and an endearing curiosity about everyone he meets. He has been employed at Good Used Stuff for three years and works thirty hours a week as both a clerk in the store and as a maker of tables and chairs in the Good Used Stuff woodshop. He likes his job, though more and more lately he’s been thinking about shifting entirely to freelance work as explicated on his most recent business card.

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome

Until three months ago, Tober lived with his brother Augie, who is younger than Tober by a year, and their mother Sharon, who is forty-two, in a farmhouse at the end of Snake Creek Road, the nearest town Fortuna, ten miles away. Then in August, Augie moved to Portland, Oregon to attend graduate school in Clinical Psychology at Oregon Health and Science University; and when Tober and Sharon returned from helping Augie get settled in Portland, Sharon decided to begin the process of adopting two young sisters, Amelia, five, and Consuela, four, something she’d been considering since attending adoption workshops in June.

Tober is excited about Amelia and Consuela joining the family and he’s looking forward to helping them adjust to their new lives on Snake Creek Road, though the addition of two little girls to the household means he will be vacating his bedroom—the only bedroom he’s ever known—and moving into the low-ceilinged attic, which is not an ideal bedroom for a person six-foot-three.

Thus he is planning to build another house on their ten acres, though he isn’t sure how big a house to build. What if Augie decides to come home after his three or four years in Portland, or sooner if he changes his mind about becoming a psychotherapist? What if he, Tober, wants to get married and have children? Should he build a cottage that can be expanded into a larger house, or two separate expandable cottages, one for him and one for Augie?

As if this weren’t enough upheaval for one brief stretch of a person’s life, Tober is now six months into his first relationship involving sex. His girlfriend Annie is twenty-three and lives in Fortuna where she is a waitress at Double D Steakhouse and shares an apartment with a hairdresser named Tiffany. In his six months as Annie’s official boyfriend, Tober’s mad love for her has inspired him to write fourteen love songs, two sonatas for piano and violin, one sonata for violin and guitar, and dozens of love sonnets.

Annie, who is always hip to the very latest celebrity gossip and spends hours every day perusing Fashion magazines and Fashion web sites, is forever telling Tober how much she loves him and wants to marry him and have at least two children with him. When she’s not working at Double D, Annie likes to smoke pot, watch television, text and talk on her phone, go barhopping with Tiffany, and have sex with Tober.

When Tober is with Annie, he can’t take his eyes off her, and when they’re apart he can’t stop thinking about her.

But wait, there’s more. Not only has Sharon decided to adopt two children, but six weeks ago she abruptly ended her two-year relationship with Maybe, the owner of Good Used Stuff, which has made the last several weeks at work for Tober quite the emotional challenge.

And so…

On this cold November morning, nine days before Thanksgiving, Tober is standing behind the checkout counter near the front door of Good Used Stuff, re-reading a long handwritten letter he got yesterday from Augie asking him to come to Portland and visit for a few days, after which they will return home together for Thanksgiving.

Now a familiar engine sound of a car in need of a new muffler causes Tober to look up from Augie’s letter and gaze expectantly at the front door until it opens and Annie hurries in accompanied by a blast of frigid air.

Tall and buxom with golden blonde hair, her mother Swedish, her father a big guy from Montana, Annie is wearing blood-red cowboy boots, hip-hugging blue jeans, and a red jacket over a tightly-fitting pink T-shirt with the words EUREKA writ in large red caps on the gossamer fabric directly over Annie’s breasts.

“Hey darlin’” says Tober, coming out from behind the counter to embrace his beloved.

“Hey,” says Annie, holding up her hand to stop him from coming any closer.

“What’s going on?” asks Tober, obeying her signal.

“I’m…” She looks away from him. “I can’t do this anymore. You and me.”

“Can’t do what?” he asks, bewildered.

“Be with you anymore,” she says, still looking away. “I’ve been sleeping with other guys for the last couple months.” She shrugs. “Maybe a few months. I didn’t want to. I mean… I wanted to, but I didn’t want to want to.” She sighs. “I tried not to, but I couldn’t stop myself.” Now she looks at him. “I really wanted to make it work with you, but we’re just too different.” She grimaces. “You’re like from another planet, Tober. Where they don’t have phones or televisions or modern anything. I mean… no offense, but most of the time I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about. It’s like you’re from King Arthur or something.” She looks away again. “But I’m really gonna miss fucking you. Sex with you was like way the best I’ve ever had.” She looks at him again. “I’m not just saying that. You’re amazing. But what I’m not gonna miss is feeling like an idiot for not knowing what a sonnet is or a sonata or physics or history or… whatever.” She glares at him. “I need to feel good about myself. Good about who I am and what I like to do. Which is not what you like to do. Except the sex. But it just wasn’t enough anymore, you know, to like… bridge the gap. So now I’m gonna go. Have a good life.”

Never in his nineteen years has Tober gone into shock, but now he does; and the next thing he knows, he finds himself sitting in an armchair by the woodstove in the northwest corner of the enormous store, having no memory of traversing the forty feet from the checkout counter to the stove through a maze of furniture and tools and statuary. Nor does he remember sitting down or how much time has passed since Annie came and went.

He is roused from his torpor by Maybe coming in the back door and tromping to the stove to get warm. Maybe is fifty-years-old, not quite six-feet-tall, with longish brown hair and a lopsided mustache. He is wearing a purple wool cap pulled down over his ears, a puffy orange jacket, baggy brown trousers, and black boots, his face creased with worry.

Tober very much wants to tell Maybe how strange he feels and how Annie’s coming and going was so much like a dream he wonders if it was a dream, but before he can say anything, he realizes Maybe is speaking to him.

“…so I think it would be better if you didn’t work here anymore until I get over what your mother did to me, if I ever can. I hate to do this, Tober, but every time I see you all I can think about is her saying she doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“Wait,” says Tober, frowning at Maybe. “Are you firing me?”

“I wouldn’t call it that,” says Maybe, shrugging. “I’m asking you to quit so I won’t have to fire you. I mean… you know I like you. You’re one of the finest people I know. And you’re a wizard at selling things and making things and finding stones and… but I thought your mother and I were gonna get married, and now she won’t even talk to me. And I need to stop thinking about her. It’s killing me.” He grimaces. “I’m sorry, Tober. I just… I need to recover.”

“Do you still want to buy stones from me?” asks Tober, sadly amused that he would ask Maybe about stones at a time like this.

“Oh definitely,” says Maybe, nodding. “But have Titus bring them in, okay? So I don’t have to see you and remember how one day we were planning the wedding and the next day she wouldn’t talk to me. Like I was nothing to her.”

“That isn’t how it was, Maybe.” Tober gets up from the chair. “You guys talked for days and days after she told you. And you called her every night for two weeks, and you came over when she was giving lessons and refused to leave, refused to let her do her work. You need to be honest with yourself about this, Maybe, or you’re never gonna get over her.”

“But she’d never tell me why,” says Maybe, crying. “She just kept saying it wasn’t what she wanted, but she wouldn’t say what she did want, so there was nothing I could do, nothing I could change so she would want me again.”

Titus Troutcatcher, Tober’s mentor and friend and chosen grandfather, is a Wailaki healer and counselor. Titus is eighty-five and lives with his wife Tina in a little house in the forest about a mile inland from Good Used Stuff. He doesn’t charge for his services as a healer and counselor, yet he makes a decent living because the people who come to him show their gratitude with money and gifts.

Tober drives his white electric pickup truck through a light rain to Titus’s place and finds Titus standing at the bottom of the front stairs, looking gigantic in his long gray coat as he throws a tennis ball for Spider and Feather, his longhaired Chihuahuas.

“I thought I might see you today,” says Titus, greeting Tober with a strong embrace, his voice pleasantly gruff. “Thought I heard you calling me about an hour ago. What was going on?”

“Well,” says Tober, already feeling better now that he’s with Titus, “Annie came to the store and told me she’d been sleeping with other men and didn’t want to be with me anymore, and then Maybe asked me to quit because every time he sees me, he thinks of my mom. Then he gave me a thousand dollars severance pay. And now I’m here.”

“Want some chili?” asks Titus, nodding encouragingly. “Made with fresh venison. Horace Waterfall shot that young doe couple days ago. You know the one. She kept jumping his deer fence and eating those late yellow apples. Horace gave us a rear haunch. Tender. I think all those apples she ate made her extra sweet. Tina made her chili yesterday. Pretty spicy, but delicious. Come on in. Get warm.”

They climb the four steps to the front porch of the little pink house and go inside, the dogs rushing in ahead of them. They take off their coats and Titus puts a log of pine and a log of oak on the spluttering fire, and the flames grow large.

While Titus heats the chili and makes toast and coffee, Tober squats by the fire and gazes at the glowing embers and wonders why today of all days he lost both his lover and his job.

“Tina’s in Fortuna,” says Titus, stirring the pot of chili. “At Teresa’s. Might spend the night over there. Her night vision isn’t so good anymore. She shouldn’t drive after dusk. Her great grandson Lawrence, you remember him. He’s six now. Has that big gap between his two front teeth. Red hair. He’s in a school play today about vegetables. He’s a carrot. Type casting. I was gonna go but I woke up this morning feeling like I should stick around here.”

“I’m glad you did,” says Tober, smiling.

“So… Maybe let you go,” says Titus, nodding. “You were ready to stop working there anyway, weren’t you? That was a good first job away from home for you, but now you can go freelance like you’ve been wanting to. It’s a sad situation, him pining for your mother, but now you’re free. Sometimes we need a push to leave the nest, and he gave you one.”

“True,” says Tober, adding another log to the fire. “It was time for me to go.”

A silence falls, both of them thinking about Annie and what they might say.

“So…” says Titus, tasting the chili. “Annie. Beautiful woman. Every time I see her I think of Vikings. You know? A Viking princess. Only without the helmet with the horns. Did you want to marry her?”

“I thought I did,” says Tober, nodding. “But I think that was only because she kept saying how much she wanted to marry me and have children and… I wanted to make her happy. But the truth is, I never really could imagine being married to her, sharing a house and doing chores together and taking care of kids and animals and… never could imagine that.”

“What did you do together when you weren’t having sex?” Titus fills two big bowls with chili and carries the bowls to the kitchen table. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I don’t mind,” says Tober, who has never had any secrets from Titus in the twelve years they’ve known each other. “We’d go to the beach when it was sunny and she’d sunbathe and use her phone while I searched for stones and… she liked to go out for breakfast, and sometimes we’d go to pubs and… but I guess we mostly just hung out and… you know… enjoyed being with each other.”

“What did you do when you just hung out?” Titus takes the toast out of the toaster oven. “When you weren’t having sex?”

“Well… she would watch television and send messages to her friends on her phone and read Fashion magazines and smoke pot. She smoked pot pretty much all the time when she wasn’t working. Said it relaxed her.”

“Did you smoke with her?” asks Titus, carrying the toast and butter to the table.

“A few times,” says Tober, nodding. “But it’s too powerful for me. Even just one little puff and I can barely move because I’m so overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of even the smallest thing.”

“Yeah, marijuana is a powerful teacher,” says Titus, nodding. “I don’t recommend it for recreational use.”

“I wouldn’t either,” says Tober, shaking his head. “But she smokes all the time and it hardly seems to effect her.”

“The more a person uses,” says Titus, filling the dogs’ bowl with kibble, “the more they need to use to get what they’re after. Euphoria.” He gets two big mugs out of the cupboard. “So what did you do while she was smoking pot and watching television?”

“I’d read and write letters and compose and draw and… like that.” Tober frowns. “Are you implying we weren’t a good match?”

“No, I was just asking,” says Titus, filling the mugs with coffee and bringing them to the table. “Let’s eat.”

They sit opposite each other and share a moment of silence.

“Did Annie teach you how to please her?” Titus sips his coffee. “Sexually?”

“Yes,” says Tober, blushing. “And though I have no one else to compare her to, I dare say she was a very good teacher.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Titus chews thoughtfully on a chunk of venison and thinks of the two women who taught him the ways of love when he was Tober’s age. “Did she show you more than one way to please her?”

“More ways than I ever imagined.” says Tober, laughing.

“Did you like pleasing her?” asks Titus, nodding hopefully.

“More than anything,” says Tober, his heart aching.

“That’s how it was for me, too, when I was nineteen.” Titus smiles. “Nothing else could quite compare.”

“And that changed when you got older?” asks Tober, his eyes full of tears.

“Yeah,” says Titus, nodding. “When I was in my thirties, thirty-three or thereabouts, after my first child was born, that’s when singing and dancing and healing people and teaching the children about the natural world became as satisfying as sex, but in a different way. A spiritual way.”

“I guess I sometimes feel just as satisfied when I’m playing my violin or singing or walking in the woods.” Tober smiles through his tears. “But I’ve never felt so wildly good, crazy good, as when I made love with Annie.”

“Yeah, crazy good,” says Titus, laughing. “That’s a perfect thing to call it. Wildly good. Crazy good. So… was it ever wildly good for both of you at the same time?”

“Yes,” says Tober, his tears flowing.

“Which means her body and her physical energy were good matches for your body and your physical energy.” Titus smiles reassuringly. “And just think, October. The next time you make love with a woman, you’ll be able to please her because of all the wildly good things you learned from Annie.”

“Yeah,” says Tober, using a napkin to daub his tears. “Though I’d rather keep pleasing her.”

“Of course you would,” says Titus, nodding. “I didn’t mean it isn’t sad she doesn’t want to be with you anymore. I just wanted to remind you that you learned valuable things from her, things most men never learn. And in my experience, men who don’t know how to please women sexually don’t make very good husbands.”

“But why did she have to sleep with other men?” asks Tober, closing his eyes. “Why would she say I was her one and only and she didn’t want anybody else but me, and she wanted to marry me and have children with me if it wasn’t true? Why would she lie to me?”

“She slept with other men because it excited her to deceive you.” Titus looks out the window as the rain turns to hail. “Some people need to feel they’re doing something forbidden to get excited. And there are many men and women who find it thrilling to deceive their wives and husbands. I’ve known men who can only get aroused when they have two women in their bed, and I’ve known women who only get excited when they have two men.”

“At the same time?” asks Tober, making a horrified face.

“Oh yeah,” says Titus, nodding. “Some people only get excited when their partner ties them up, so they’re helpless. Can you imagine? Being excited by feeling helpless? Excited that someone has that kind of power over you and might hurt you? It’s true, October. Some people only get aroused when their partner says nasty things to them, and some people only get aroused if the person they’re with is a stranger.”

“Why?” asks Tober, gaping at Titus.

“Because everyone is different,” says Titus, tapping the table four times. “You and I might think everyone should want what we want, and behave as we like to behave, but they don’t. Each person is unique and became who they are through the particular experiences of their lives and the things they learned from others.”

“But why did she keep saying I was her one and only?” asks Tober, his heart aching. “Why did she keep saying she only wanted me?”

“I think she kept saying that so her deception would be even more of a betrayal.” Titus has another sip of coffee. “Betraying you was exciting for her. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s how some people are.”

“But why? Why would she want to betray me when all I ever did was love her?”

“Perhaps she was jealous of you. Jealous of your talent and your confidence and happiness, jealous that you were a man and have power and freedom she doesn’t feel she has.” Titus crosses his hands over his heart. “But she loved you, October. As best she could. Only her love wasn’t strong enough to overcome her addictions and the ways of behaving she learned from her mother. But never forget that when you made love with her, she was giving you a gift and you were giving her a gift. And you are both stronger now for the gifts you gave each other.”

Tober gets home at three that afternoon, a hard rain falling, and finds his mother carrying things out of his bedroom and piling them in the living room.

“You’re home early,” she says, surprised to see him. “Everything okay?”

Sharon is five-foot-three and slender with high cheekbones and brilliant blue eyes and lustrous brown hair that falls to her shoulders. She is reflexively friendly, but reticent about being physically affectionate, even with her close friends and her sons, which is something she would like to change about herself.

“Maybe asked me to quit today, so I did,” says Tober, looking over the things his mother has brought out of his bedroom—clothes and books and blankets and a guitar case and two wooden boxes full of ocean-polished stones. “And right before that, Annie told me she doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“I’m sorry, Tobe,” says Sharon, going to him. “I thought this might happen.”

“Which?” asks Tober, laughing. “That he’d fire me or she’d break up with me?”

“Both,” she says, giving him the briefest of hugs. “I’m surprised he kept you on as long as he did.”

“Why did you think Annie would break up with me?” He gazes at her expectantly. “Irreconcilable differences?”

“Oh Jean said she saw Annie with some guy in a pub in Eureka a couple weeks ago.” Sharon winces. “I was going to tell you, but then I thought it wasn’t any of my business, so I didn’t.”

“I wonder why you didn’t think it was any of your business,” says Tober, looking at the piles of his things again. “And why are you moving everything out of my room? I thought we weren’t getting the girls until January. Isn’t that what you said you wanted to do? Wait until Augie went back to Portland after Christmas?”

“I did say that,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “but I changed my mind. The place they’re staying is so crowded and understaffed and… I want them here now.” She starts to cry. “They need to be here, Tobe.”

“Let’s go get them right now,” he says, sitting beside her. “I’ll finish emptying the room when we get back.”

“We can’t get them until tomorrow morning,” she says, weeping. “At ten.”

He wraps his arms around her and holds her as she cries, and when she tries to pull away as she always does after a few seconds, he holds her a while longer and she finally relaxes and enjoys his embrace.

When Sharon and Tober finish dusting and vacuuming and mopping the now empty bedroom, they have supper and make their plans for tomorrow.

“We’ll buy two new single mattresses on the way there,” says Sharon, having a glass of red wine with her spaghetti. “And we can put their beds side-by-side if they want to sleep together, or apart if they don’t.”

“We should take both trucks,” says Tober, visualizing the trek to Eureka. “That way I can stop and get lumber on the way back and the girls can both sit with you without one of them having to sit on my lap. Since they don’t know me very well, we don’t want to freak them out.”

“Good idea,” says Sharon, starting to cry again. “Thank you so much for helping me with this, Tobe.”

“I’m not just helping you,” he says, shaking his head. “They’re joining the family. They’re not replacing me and Augie. Are they?”

“No, of course not,” say Sharon, sniffling back her tears. “They’re joining us.”

“And in a few days, when the dust settles, I’ll zoom up to Portland and get Augie.” Tober smiles at the thought of seeing his brother. “Bring him home for Turkey Day.”

“He’s dying to come home,” she says, relieved to have cried. “I’m sorry about your job, Tobe. I just couldn’t pretend anymore that Maybe was going to turn into someone else.”

“I hope you didn’t stay involved with him just so I wouldn’t lose my job.” Tober considers this possibility. “Did you?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I stayed involved with him because I wanted to see if I could outlast my tendency to end relationships after a couple years, because that’s what I do, or whether he and I really were incompatible in too many important ways.”

“I wonder if a musician can ever be compatible with a non-musician,” says Tober, thinking of Annie who played no instrument and seemed ambivalent about the songs and music he wrote for her.

“I don’t know,” says Sharon, swirling her wine. “I’ve never been involved with a musician, but now that you mention it, that was a big disconnect with Maybe, though certainly not the biggest.”

“What was the biggest?” asks Tober, wondering if it had something to do with sex. “If you don’t mind telling me.”

“No, I don’t mind,” she says, finishing her wine. “Would you pour me a little more, please?”

“But of course Madame,” he says, filling her glass

“I’m not sure I can put this into words, but…” She muses for a moment. “Well the girls, for instance. When I told him I was thinking of adopting a child or two, he gave me this skeptical look and said, ‘Why would you want to do something like that?’ The implication being that there was something suspect about my wanting more children, that they would somehow be a negation of him, a diminishing of his importance in my life. And I realized that his notion of a relationship was one in which your mate should always be the primary focus, not the family, not the community, but only your mate. Whereas my notion of a relationship is an alliance within a larger family and community.”

After supper, Tober carries the vacuum cleaner up the narrow stairway to the attic to get the space ready for his things; and when he bumps his head on the low ceiling four times in the first five minutes he’s up there, he turns off the vacuum cleaner and comes down the stairs into the kitchen where Sharon is sitting at the counter having a cup of tea and making a shopping list for tomorrow.

“I’m not gonna live up there, Mom,” he says, taking a sip of her tea. “I can’t stand up straight without bashing my head. I’m gonna call the Bernsteins and see if I can sleep down there until I figure out where next to lay my head.”

“Take my bedroom,” says Sharon, anguished about dislocating Tober, especially with everything else he’s going through. “I’ll sleep in the attic.”

“No, you need to be near the girls,” he says, picking up the phone. “And as you may recall, the first time you floated the idea of adopting a child or two, George and Lisa both said I could stay at their place if it got too crazy up here. Besides, they’re hardly ever there now that Cecily and Felix have moved to LA and San Luis Obispo.”

He punches the number of their closest neighbors—the Bernsteins having built their house on Snake Creek Road twenty-two years ago, three years before Sharon moved into the farmhouse when she was seven months pregnant with Tober.

Cecily, George and Lisa’s daughter, is a year older than Tober and was his childhood pal and first crush. She lives in Los Angeles now, pursuing a career as an actress. Felix, George and Lisa’s son, is Augie’s age and matriculated at Cal Poly a year ago.

George, fifty-seven, an investment broker turned artisan furniture maker, answers his phone on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hey, George, it’s Tober. Got a minute?”

“Yeah, yeah. What’s going on?” George grew up in Los Angeles, the child of Chicago Jews.

“The big news up here is we’re picking up Amelia and Consuela tomorrow morning and they’ll be taking over my bedroom, so I was wondering if…”

“Yes,” says George, excitedly. “Move down here. We’d love it. We’ve got three empty bedrooms and Lisa’s gone half the time now at the beck and call of her royal highness, who, as you know, has been on the verge of stardom for six years. And counting. Be that as it may, I’d love for you to live here. Come on down.”

“Thank you, George,” says Tober, gratefully. “I’m gonna sleep in our living room for the next couple nights until the girls get settled, and then I’m driving to Portland to get Augie for Thanksgiving, and he and I may both crash at your place, if that’s okay.”

“Absolutely,” says George, ecstatically. “Can you hear Lisa shouting hurray? We’re leaving for San Luis and LA next week and we’ll be gone all through December and into New Year’s, so… you know how to get here.”

Sharon gets home with Amelia and Consuela at noon the next day, and Tober arrives an hour later with the new mattresses and lumber for building platforms for the mattresses, the platforms to have drawers underneath for the girls’ clothes and toys and extra blankets and whatnot.

Amelia, five, the older of the two sisters, is shorter and stockier than four-year-old Consuela, who is quite tall for her age and very slender. They both have shoulder-length black hair and big brown eyes. The people at the adoption agency believe the girls’ mother, a prostitute who went by the name of Candy, was part Latina, part Anglo. Amelia’s father was Mexican and Consuela’s father was African American. The girls have been in foster care since their mother died when Amelia was four and Consuela was three. The whereabouts of the fathers is unknown.

Tober enters the house and finds Consuela and Amelia and Sharon sitting at the kitchen table having blackberry smoothies and bowls of rice and vegetables. Both girls are wearing dark blue sweatshirts and gray pants and brown shoes, and both are chattering away in Spanish with Sharon, who is fluent in that language.

When the girls see Tober, they fall silent and look down, wary of making eye contact with him.

Sharon gets up from the table, takes Tober’s hand, looks at the girls and says in Spanish, “Amelia? Consuela? You’ve met my son Tober. He’s your brother now. He’s a very nice person and he speaks some Spanish, but you must help him learn more Spanish words and he will help you learn more English words.”

“Hola Amelia,” says Tober, smiling at the little girls. “Hola Consuela. Welcome home.”

“Gracias,” says Amelia, taking a peek at Tober.

“Hola,” whispers Consuela, still not looking at him. “Hermano.”

The girls take an immediate liking to the big farm dog Igor, a sixty-pound Black Lab Australian Shepherd mix, and Igor seems delighted with them. Consuela especially loves the dog and asks Sharon if she may give him some food. Sharon explains that they feed Igor in the morning and late afternoon, but not in between, and they never feed him from the table during breakfast or lunch or dinner.

Consuela ponders this information and looks into Igor’s eyes. “When it is time for you to eat,” she says, petting him, “I will feed you.”

Having located a cache of Augie and Tober’s childhood jackets, and confident Amelia and Consuela are dressed warmly enough for the bitter cold, Sharon and Tober and Igor give the girls a tour of the immediate vicinity of the farmhouse—the dormant vegetable garden, the orchard, the old barn, the woodshed, and the chicken coop wherein Amelia finds one egg and Consuela finds two.

In the late afternoon, after Amelia and Consuela have had a nap on their new mattresses, George and Lisa come up the hill to meet the newest members of the Quincy family. Lisa presents the girls with two big bags full of clothing—dresses and shirts and coats and pants that Cecily wore when she was four and five and six.

When Sharon explains to the girls that these clothes are theirs to keep, they take turns choosing an article of clothing and solemnly carrying it into their bedroom where Consuela puts her choices on one of the mattresses and Amelia puts hers on the other. The first thing Amelia chose was a shimmery red skirt, Consuela’s first choice a black long-sleeved T-shirt.

When Tober tells George about his plan to build platforms for the beds with drawers under the platforms, George insists Tober avail himself of George’s state-of-the-art woodshop.

And when Tober shows George his design for the platforms, George says, “Hey why don’t I help you with this? I’m in between projects. We could knock this off before I leave for LA. Be fun working together, don’t you think?”

   fin

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