Posts Tagged ‘mother’

Colleen’s Guitar

Monday, January 21st, 2019

Colleen's Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gig returns to Colleen. “Sorry about that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay nods and looks at the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        fin

Beckman’s Daughter

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Beckman's Daughter

Julian Beckman, thirty-nine, is known only as Beckman to everyone except his mother and daughter. Beckman’s mother Alta, who is eighty-three, calls him Jewel, and Beckman’s sixteen-year-old daughter Jasmy calls him Sweet Papa. Beckman lives with Alta and Jasmy in the house where he was born, a big two-story place on a half-acre at the west end of Mountain Home Idaho.

Alta is German and was stunned when she got pregnant at forty-three, having been told by doctors when she was a teenager in Germany, and again by doctors in America when she was in her thirties, that she would never be able to get pregnant.

Adam McKay was Beckman’s father. He was seventy-two and fifteen years a widower at the time of his fruitful tryst with Alta, his housekeeper, and he was just as surprised as she when they produced a child together because he and Mavis, his wife of forty years, had never been able to make a baby. Adam was a retired backhoe operator who spent forty-five years building roads in Idaho and Washington and Montana.

Beckman was four when Adam died and left his house, two pickup trucks, a gigantic turquoise Cadillac, a barely-used backhoe, and 150,000 dollars to Alta.

Alta was not fond of Adam. They barely spoke to each other during their six years together, and they never touched each other again after they learned Alta was pregnant, so Alta was more relieved than sad when Adam died. And four-year-old Julian, who believed Adam was his grandfather, was relieved, too, because Alta and Jewel were inseparable, so her relief was his.

Thirty years later, when Jasmy was twelve and had a school assignment to write about her grandparents, she asked Beckman what he remembered about Adam.

Beckman thought for a long moment and said, “His skin was gray and he was bald except for a little patch of white hair just above his left ear. His face was quite lopsided, his teeth were crooked and gray, he smoked a stinky pipe, smelled of whiskey, and his voice rumbled like distant thunder. He watched television from early morning until late at night and often slept through the night in his armchair in front of the television. When he was a young man he built roads, but as an old man, when I knew him, he just sat in his ratty old armchair waiting for your grandmother to serve him. I never heard him laugh, but once I saw him crying at a movie on television in which a man was standing at a grave, weeping.”

Gig Antonelli, forty-five, a beefy fellow with longish brown hair, a wearer of colorful Hawaiian shirts and gray sweatpants and broken-down moccasins, is the owner of Gig Music, a high-ceilinged store jammed with old and new guitars, amplifiers, two dilapidated sofas, and a wall of banjos and mandolins and fiddles.

Gig, who always sounds stoned even when he isn’t, is standing behind the cluttered counter trying to tell the man on the other side of the counter that the guitar he wants to buy costs five hundred dollars, not fifty; but the man is French and understands very little English.

“Uno momento,” says Gig, who sort of speaks Spanish, his wife Mexican. “Yo tengo un hombre que parlez-vous Francais. Stay right there.”

Gig hurries to the back of the store and knocks on the door of one of the two rooms where he and Beckman give guitar lessons.

“Entré,” says Beckman; and Gig opens the door and looks in.

Beckman, very tall and slim with short blond hair, has worked at Gig Music for seventeen years, ever since he came home from college. He is sitting on an armless chair facing twelve-year-old Cal Crosby, a chubby kid sitting cross-legged on the floor playing a progression of three easy chords on a two-thirds-sized Yamaha guitar, his black hair falling over his eyes.

“Sorry to interrupt,” says Gig, rolling his eyes at Cal sitting on the floor instead of in a chair, “but we’ve got a French hombre up front who thinks the black Ovation is fifty dollars and I can’t make him understand it’s five hundred. Can you talk to him?”

“Sure,” says Beckman, speaking quietly as he always does unless he’s talking to someone hard of hearing. “I’ll be right back Cal. Just keep playing those chords until they start to feel automatic.”

At the counter, Beckman speaks fluent French to the man who wants the Ovation, the sale is made, and the man asks Beckman where he learned to speak such excellent French.

“My mother,” Beckman explains, “grew up in Strasbourg speaking French and German and she taught me both when I was growing up. And we still speak French and German at home, along with English.”

Beckman returns to the lesson room and finds Cal texting someone on his smart phone. So Beckman picks up Cal’s guitar and plays a sweet run of chords, a jazzy samba, and as he plays he thinks of Jasmy’s mother Krystel who last visited from Cameroon when Jasmy was thirteen, how Krystel and her husband Patrice were baffled by Beckman not allowing Jasmy to have a smart phone.

Cal looks up from his phone and listens to Beckman playing the samba, and when Beckman finishes, Cal says, “Will you teach me how to play that?”

“I will try,” says Beckman, handing Cal the guitar. “If you will try to practice for an hour every day.”

“An hour?” says Cal, giving Beckman a horrified look. “Every day?”

“Yeah,” says Beckman, nodding. “In my experience, the only way to get really good at anything is to practice our butts off.”

Jasmy, who seems much older than sixteen, is tall and graceful, her skin dark brown, her raven black hair long and curly, her lovely face made of equal parts Krystel and Beckman. And because Jasmy practices her violin for two hours every evening and often cooks supper with her father and grandmother, and because her friends let her use their phones at school and she’s allowed to use her father’s computer in the evening when she’s done with her homework, she doesn’t mind not having a smart phone.

Her greater concerns at the moment are that she doesn’t want to leave Mountain Home to go to college, even to attend nearby Boise State, the young man she’s been dating is threatening to break up with her if she won’t have sex with him, but she wants to wait until she’s eighteen, her friends want her to smoke marijuana with them, but she promised her father she would wait until she’s older, and she is afraid her breasts might grow too large and interfere with her volleyball playing.

Jasmy is six-feet-tall and may yet grow another inch or two. She is the superstar of the Mountain Home High varsity volleyball squad, and several colleges have offered her full scholarships to play volleyball for them. She is also a superb violinist, and her violin teacher hopes she will attend either Julliard or the Eastman School of Music, and the sooner the better.

Beckman is six-foot-five and was playing on the Boise State basketball team when he met Krystel at the beginning of his senior year. Krystel, who is from Cameroon and six-foot-two, was a junior, new to Boise State, and playing on the women’s basketball team. She spoke little English and was instantly enamored of Beckman, who not only spoke French, but was good-looking and taller than she and gentle and kind and took her on marvelous hikes in the mountains.

They were both virgins when they became lovers, and when Krystel discovered she was pregnant after five months of intimacy with Beckman, she went home to Cameroon, gave birth to Jasmy, and four months later returned with her baby to Idaho to complete her engineering degree and play for another year on the Boise State basketball team.

Her first day back, Krystel brought baby Jasmy to Beckman’s house in Mountain Home and explained to Beckman and Alta, “After I get my engineering degree, I’m going to marry a man named Patrice in Cameroon and we are going to have two children. I will keep Jasmy if you don’t want her, but I hope you will take her so I can finish my studies here and start my new life in Cameroon without such a difficult complication.”

Beckman, who had just graduated from Boise State with a degree in Anthropology, was instantly and ferociously in love with Jasmy, as was Alta, so they gladly agreed to take the beautiful baby girl. Krystel moved in with them for two months before her classes resumed, and while Jasmy grew attached to Beckman and Alta, Krystel breastfed her less and less until quite seamlessly Alta became Mama and Beckman became Papa.

When Jasmy was three-years-old, she became enamored of the word sweet and attached the adjective to Papa.

When Beckman was four-years-old, shortly after Alta inherited what to her was a vast fortune from Adam, Alta sold the trucks and backhoe and Cadillac, locked up the house, took a train from Boise to Portland, and flew with four-year-old Jewel to Germany to see if she wanted to live in Strasbourg again rather than stay in America. But after two weeks in her mother’s house, Alta became severely depressed and Jewel became depressed with her, so they flew back to Portland where Alta bought a brand new Volkswagen van and drove them home to Mountain Home.

The first thing Alta did upon their return was get rid of the television. Then she tore up the old carpeting in every room of the house to reveal the beautiful hardwood floors, and she replaced every stick of furniture with fine new furniture. She then spent a year overseeing extensive repairs on the house, including a complete kitchen remodel and repainting the house inside and out.

When Beckman was five and started kindergarten, Alta took a job as a breakfast and lunch waitress at the Manhattan Cafe, a job she kept for eighteen years until she was sixty-seven and baby Jasmy joined the family.

Alta liked being home when Jewel came home from school, and she spent her afternoons gardening and cooking and being available to her son if he needed help with anything or wanted to go anywhere. Beckman loved gardening and cooking with Alta, and in the evenings they would sit by the fire reading aloud to each other in German or French or English; and when Alta was sewing or knitting, Beckman practiced his guitar; and they never again had a television.

A gregarious person, Alta made many friends while working at the café, and she regularly invited two or three of her friends to join her and her son for supper. She had a handful of men friends, and there were men who courted her until she was in her seventies, but she was largely indifferent to romance and preferred the company of women and Jewel.

One night when Jasmy was four and Beckman was reading her a bedtime story, she interrupted him to ask in German why everyone besides Alta called him Beckman and not Julian or Jewel.

“Julian is a nice name,” she said in English. And then she added in French, “A beautiful name.”

“Well,” said Beckman, closing the book and replying in English, “it all began in First Grade on my first day at West Elementary School. Our teacher, Mrs. Bushnell, called roll and…”

“What is called roll?” asked Jasmy, who was not yet in kindergarten.

“The roll is a list of all the kids in the class. The teacher calls out the names in alphabetical order, and when your name is called, you say Present, which means ‘I’m here.’ The teacher does this to make sure everyone has gotten to school safely.”

“What is alkabektical odor?” asked Jasmy, her frown deepening.

“Al-pha-beti-cal or-der,” said Beckman, slowly pronouncing the two words. “That’s when you read last names that start with the letter A first, and then you read the last names that start with the letter B, and so forth all the way through the alphabet to the last names starting with the letter Z. That’s alphabetical order. In the order of the alphabet.” He gave her a wide-eyed smile. “You know your alphabet, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said Jasmy, nodding seriously.

She then recited the English alphabet, the French alphabet, and the German alphabet.

“Exactly,” said Beckman, applauding his daughter for her excellent recital. “You just said the letters in alphabetical order, and when the teacher called my name, Julian Beckman, one of the other boys in the class, I think it was Jay Worsley, though it might have been Johnny Wickett, loudly repeated my last name—Beckman—as if he thought there was something remarkable about the name, and all the children in the class laughed.”

“Why did they laugh?” asked Jasmy, outraged that anyone would laugh at someone else’s name. “Beckman is your last name. And Beckman is my last name, too. But nobody calls me Beckman. They only call you Beckman.”

“I know,” said Beckman, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “So listen to what happened next. At recess, when I went out on the playground—recess is when all the kids go outside and swing on swings or kick balls or run around shouting—I was playing catch with Colin Vogel who was my best friend at the time, when a boy called to me, ‘Hey Beckman,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Yes?’ and for some reason this made a whole bunch of kids laugh. So I laughed, too, and Colin asked me, ‘Do you like being called Beckman instead of Julian?’ And I said, ‘Beckman is fine with me if that’s what people want to call me,’ and from that day on, everyone called me Beckman, and they still do, everyone except you and Grandma.” He rubbed his chin again and frowned up at the ceiling as if trying to remember something. “What’s the name you like to call me? I forgot.”

“No you didn’t forget,” said Jasmy, giving him a playfully annoyed look. “You know I call you Sweet Papa.”

Many people who know Beckman wonder why such a pleasant person doesn’t have a girlfriend or a wife and never has, not since his love affair with Krystel. Several women over the last sixteen years have tried to win Beckman’s heart, but he remains resolutely single. The town cynics suggest Beckman is married to his mother, but this is not true, for the closest thing to a relationship Beckman has had since his love affair with Krystel resulted from Alta playing matchmaker.

The woman in question, an attractive German tourist named Elise, was sitting on a bench in Railroad Park in downtown Mountain Home in June of the year Beckman turned thirty. Alta and Jasmy were walking their two dogs, Schultzee, a Dachshund, and Canine, a gray shorthaired mongrel (both deceased now) when Canine took an interest in Elise. She spoke lovingly to the dog in German, Alta responded in German, and Elise came to stay with the Beckmans for the next two months.

Elise fell madly in love with Beckman, and he with her, but when Beckman didn’t pursue things with Elise beyond lovemaking, she traveled on.

The following winter, when Alta had a terrible flu and was feeling particularly mortal, she asked her son, “I wonder why you didn’t want to marry Elise. She was such a gem and you seemed so well-matched.”

To which Beckman replied, “She is a gem, Mama. But I was no match for her. She loves to travel, loves big cities, loves expensive restaurants, reads the latest bestsellers, measures herself against the latest fashion magazines, and measures her life against the snootiest of cultural arbiters, none of which I care about.”

“Do you think you will ever find someone to love and marry?” asked Alta, who very much wanted her son to marry a good woman.

“You know, Mama,” said Beckman, placing his cool hand on Alta’s hot forehead, “I don’t think much about that sort of thing. You taught me to live in the present, to be generous and kind and helpful, and not to dwell on the past or the future. And for the most part, that’s how I live. If love finds me, so be it, but I’m not going looking.”

“When did I teach you that?” asked Alta, soothed by Beckman’s touch. “I don’t remember.”

“You taught me every day,” said Beckman, speaking in his quiet way. “You still do. You show me by how you live, how you invite your friends for supper, how you work so happily in the garden, how you sing when you cook, how you love Jasmy, how you love our dogs and cats and chickens, and how you love me.”

Beckman and Jasmy play guitar and violin together, and sometimes they sing together, too. The name of their group is Jasmy & Beckman. They perform one Sunday morning a month as part of the service at the Unitarian Church and as background music for Visiting Time after the service. They also play for an hour every Saturday morning from April through October at the Mountain Home Farmers Market, and for an hour every Saturday afternoon, if they’re not playing a wedding, at Crazy’s, a coffee house and comic book store two doors down from Gig Music.

But mostly they play together at dozens of weddings throughout the year in and around Mountain Home and Boise, for which they make a hundred and fifty dollars per hour for the two of them. They have a two-hour minimum for weddings, and they charge for travel time if the wedding is more than a half-hour away from Mountain Home.

They usually play for thirty minutes before the wedding ceremonies while the guests assemble, they frequently play the processionals and recessionals, and they play post-wedding receptions. Thus during the peak months of the wedding season, spring through fall, they make nearly as much money from weddings as Beckman makes working full-time at Gig Music buying and selling guitars and giving lessons.

Beckman is a fine guitarist, his chord making pleasing and sophisticated, and he can play any kind of music: classical, jazz, hip-hop, rock, folk, reggae, and the very latest pop hits. Jasmy, however, is the overt star of the duo, her tone exquisite, her improvised solos exciting and soulful. She started playing the violin when she was six, took weekly lessons from a woman in Mountain Home until she was nine, and since then has taken lessons from the principal violinist of the Boise Philharmonic.

On a glorious Sunday afternoon in May, Beckman and Jasmy, dressed in the black clothes they always wear for weddings—Beckman in suit and tie, Jasmy in a long skirt and elegant black blouse, her hair in a ponytail—are playing Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” at a reception in a banquet hall in a hotel in Boise following a big wedding in a park on the Boise River. They are sitting on a small stage in one corner of the hall, having a hard time hearing each other over the din of two hundred raucous wedding guests. This is their last tune of the gig, and they are both eager to be heading home.

When Jasmy finishes a long solo and she and Beckman reiterate the opening phrases of the tune, a striking woman with long brown hair and olive skin emerges from the melee with an expensive camera and takes several pictures of Beckman and Jasmy playing; and when they finish, the woman introduces herself.

“I’m Portia Cruzero, the wedding photographer,” she says, her accent thickly Spanish. “I’m just new in Boise from Los Angeles, and before I was there I live in Barcelona, and I hope I can see you again at many more weddings. If you would like some photographs of you for your web site or concert posters, I hope you will call me.” She hands Jasmy her business card. “You have a card for me?”

“We’ve run out,” says Jasmy, enchanted by Portia. “But you can reach us through Meg, the wedding planner.”

“I will take pictures of you for no charge,” says Portia, beaming at Beckman and Jasmy. “For my portfolio and my web site. I would like to pose you in the mountains by granite. You know? I think it would be so dramatic.”

“Wasn’t Portia wonderful?” says Jasmy, as they drive home from Boise. “I just love her.”

“Yeah, I liked her,” says Beckman, smiling at his daughter. “Shall we take her up on her offer? To take pictures of us?”

“Definitely,” says Jasmy, nodding emphatically. “We could frame one and give it to Grandma for her birthday.”

“So… do you want to call her or should I?” asks Beckman, coloring slightly as he thinks of the beautiful Spaniard. “Maybe you should. You’re so much better at that sort of thing than I am.”

“Are you blushing Sweet Papa?” asks Jasmy, arching an eyebrow.

“Am I?” says Beckman, coloring a bit more. “She’s probably married. Don’t you think?”

“I don’t think so,” says Jasmy, never having seen her father so enamored of anyone. “But I think you’d better call her right away. She just moved here and I’m sure lots of men are already chasing her.”

“Not if she’s married,” says Beckman, shrugging. “How could she not be? She’s lovely and smart and charming and… she must be married.”

“Why?” asks Jasmy, enjoying her father’s disquiet. “You’re lovely and smart and charming, and you’re not married.”

“Oh but I’m a strange cat,” he says, frowning at the road ahead. “She’s not strange at all. She’s… wonderful.”

At school the next day, Jasmy borrows her friend Celia’s phone and calls Portia, and they have a long conversation full of laughter. Portia speaks French better than she speaks English, so she and Jasmy blab in French, and at the end of the conversation Jasmy invites Portia to come for supper on Friday, and Portia accepts the invitation.

When Beckman gets home from work and is sitting at the kitchen counter having a beer and watching Jasmy and Alta make supper, Jasmy says casually, “Oh… I called Portia today.”

“Did you?” says Beckman, taking a long swig of his beer.

“She’s coming for supper on Friday,” says Jasmy, making a goofy face at her father. “She’s bringing bread and wine.”

This Friday?” says Beckman, startled by the news. “Is she… is she bringing her husband?”

“She doesn’t have a husband,” says Jasmy, shaking her head. “But she does have a daughter. Cynthia, who is nine and loves spaghetti, so that’s what we’re having.”

“With a big salad,” says Alta, chopping an onion.

Beckman takes a deep breath and says, “Shall I ask her to marry me when she gets here, or should I wait until after supper?”

Alta and Jasmy exchange looks and Alta says, “Why wait?”

“I was joking,” says Beckman, blushing profoundly.

To which Jasmy and Alta say nothing as they carry on making supper.

So Beckman goes out into the backyard with his beer and sits at the picnic table on the edge of the vegetable garden where he is joined by the large mutt Eileen and the little mutt Colossus, and he thinks about Portia and how the moment he saw her, he felt he knew her, that they had been best friends long ago and thought they would never see each other again, not because they stopped loving each other, but because they lost sight of each other in the hubbub of life.

Now Beckman thinks of Krystel, Jasmy’s mother, and he admits to himself, really for the first time in a conscious way, that he has remained loyal to her for seventeen years, though Krystel and Patrice have been married for fifteen years and have two children.

“But I wasn’t really being loyal to her,” he says, speaking quietly to the dogs who are both looking at him. “I was punishing myself for failing as a mate.”

Having said this, he further realizes that his experience of conceiving a child with the first woman he slept with made subsequent sexual entanglements seem far more dangerous to him than they might otherwise have seemed had his first sexual experience not produced a child the mother didn’t want.

Now he hears the back door open, a moment passes, and Alta sits beside him with a second beer for him and a beer for herself.

“I’m happy you met someone you like, Jewel.” She bumps her shoulder against his. “I know you were joking about asking her to marry you, but sometimes joking tells us secrets we need to hear out loud.”

“I think I’ve been afraid to be in another relationship,” says Beckman, hearing how true that sounds. “But I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

“Good,” says Alta, nodding. “I never told you, but when I was twenty-five, I met a man, Friedrich, and we fell in love, and for two years we were inseparable and very happy. But when he asked me to marry him, I told him I could not have children and he was devastated and stopped seeing me. I was so sad, so depressed, I wanted to kill myself. But my mother encouraged me to come to America and see if I could be happy here. And you know the rest.”

“Tell me again,” says Beckman, clinking her bottle with his. “I like hearing how you came to Mountain Home.”

“Well,” she says, gazing at the setting sun, “first I went to my cousin in Chicago and lived there for some years and had some nice boyfriends, but I always broke up with them when I thought they were going to ask me to marry them. But then I wanted to get married, so I went to a clinic and they did lots of tests, and once again they told me I would never be able to get pregnant. And though hearing this didn’t make me want to kill myself, it did make me want to leave Chicago, so when my girlfriend said she was moving to Boise to work in a hotel, I asked if I could come with her. And when I saw the mountains and the lakes and the forests, I was so happy I decided to stay. I was a maid in the hotel where my friend worked for seven years, and then one day while I was cleaning a room, I tripped over a vacuum cleaner and hurt my back so badly I could hardly move for two months. The pain was the worst I have ever known. When I finally got better, I decided to look for an easier job, and that’s when I answered the ad for a housekeeper and came to Mountain Home and met your father.”

“Lucky for me,” says Beckman, giving her a gentle squeeze.

“Lucky for you I tripped over that vacuum cleaner,” says Alta, sighing as the sun vanishes beneath the horizon, “because that’s when something shifted inside me and I was able to make you.”

On Friday afternoon of the day Portia and her daughter Cynthia are coming for supper, Beckman is standing at the epicenter of Gig Music prying open a wooden crate containing four Epiphone guitars, when Gig says, “I’m thinking of selling the business, Beckman. You want to buy me out?”

Beckman sets down his hammer and pry bar. “How seriously are you thinking about this?”

“Mucho seriously,” says Gig, nodding. “I would have told you sooner, but this other opportunity just came up and I have to act on it pronto or it won’t happen.”

“May I ask what the other opportunity is?” asks Beckman, feeling a little wobbly—he’s worked at Gig Music for nearly half his life.

“A big music store in Tacoma,” says Gig, rubbing his eyes. “Five times bigger than this place. Huge inventory. Not just guitars. Everything. Been there fifty years. Super duper web sales. ”

“The fast lane,” says Beckman, who prefers the pace in a guitar shop in Mountain Home. “How much are you asking for the business?”

“Quarter mil,” says Gig, nodding hopefully. “But if you can come up with two hundred thousand, it’s yours.”

“There’s only about fifty thousand dollars of inventory in the store,” says Beckman, frowning at Gig. “Are you selling the building, too?”

“Building, inventory, name, reputation, everything,” says Gig, scrunching up his cheeks to quell his tears. “Selling my house and my duplex, too. Carmelita wants to get out of here. Her sister lives in Tacoma. Things have not been good at home lately, just between you and me, and I’m trying to save my marriage and make some serious money for a change. I can’t lose her, Beckman. It would kill me if she left me. So if you can pay cash, I’ll go down to one-seventy-five, but that’s rock bottom.”

“Can I think about it for a few days?” asks Beckman, looking around the chaotic store and thinking the first thing I’d do if I owned this place is get rid of those two hideous old sofas and replace them with sturdy chairs and one small attractive sofa.

“Monday at the latest, mi amigo,” says Gig, smiling sadly at Beckman. “But mañana would be ideal.”

Riding his bicycle home after work, Beckman imagines various scenarios without Gig Music in his life, and he keeps seeing himself converting the garage into a suitable place for giving lessons, which vision morphs into enlarging the garage and creating a recording studio.

“Though I do like getting away from the house,” he says, turning onto the quiet street where he lives. “And I like buying and selling guitars. I really do.”

As he walks his bike up his driveway, Colossus and Eileen come to greet him, and as he puts his bicycle in the garage, he has a grandiose fantasy of buying Gig Music and converting the garage into a recording studio—the audacity of his imagination making him laugh.

Only when Beckman enters the kitchen and finds Alta and Jasmy cooking up a storm does he remembers that Portia and her daughter Cynthia will be arriving any minute now; and he gives silent thanks to Gig for offering to sell him Gig Music and thus quelling the worrisome thoughts that have besieged him ever since Jasmy told him that Portia and Cynthia were coming for supper.

Jasmy is wearing a beautiful dress Alta made for her, yellow cotton painted with big red roses; and Alta, who rarely wears anything other than trousers and a sweater over a shirt, is wearing a lovely blue dress she last wore when Beckman graduated from college seventeen years ago.

“Does this mean I am to wear a dress, too?” asks Beckman, arching an eyebrow.

Alta and Jasmy ignore his jest and Alta says, “Go take a shower. They’ll be here soon.”

“I’ve laid out some clothes for you,” says Jasmy, stirring the soup. “Your teal dress shirt and black corduroy pants and your purple leather belt. You don’t have to wear them, but I hope you will.”

“I will,” says Beckman, clearing his throat, “but I want to say two things to both of you before I bathe and embark on my dressing ceremony.”

“Yes?” says Jasmy, gazing expectantly at her father.

“We’re listening,” says Alta, pausing in the act of opening a bottle of wine.

“I would caution you to temper your expectations vis-à-vis Beckman and Portia becoming an item.” He pauses portentously. “After all, we only spoke to her for five minutes and…”

“Fifteen,” says Jasmy, quietly correcting him. “And?”

“You both look gorgeous,” says Beckman, deciding not to tell them about the Gig Music situation until Portia and Cynthia have come and gone. “And I love you.”

“That’s three things,” says Jasmy, her dimples eloquent.

After supper, Beckman and Jasmy and Alta and Portia and Cynthia retire to the living room, and before any of them sit down, the adorable nine-year-old Cynthia whispers something to Portia, and Portia, who did not wear a dress, but looks fabulous in black jeans and a burgundy tunic, smiles at everyone and says, “I told her about your music and she wants to know if you would play for us.”

“We thought you’d never ask,” says Beckman, taking his guitar from its stand by the piano. “Do you have a favorite song, Cynthia?”

“Thank you next,” she says, nodding hopefully.

“You’re welcome next,” says Beckman, winking at her.

“No, Sweet Papa,” says Jasmy, getting her violin out of its case. “That’s the name of a song. Just get a nice groove going with a couple closely related augmented seventh chords and I’ll play the melody. It’s five or six notes repeated over and over again. And that’s the song.”

“Ah,” says Beckman, sitting down on the one armless chair in the living room and playing a lush jazzy sounding chord. “Who wrote this song?”

“Ariana Grande,” says Cynthia, nodding. “She’s my favorite singer.”

“Do you like her, too?” asks Beckman, looking at Portia and wondering if she really likes him or just seems to like me because she’s so incredibly charming.

“She’s not my favorite,” says Portia, looking at Beckman in a way that means she really likes him. “But I’m forty, so I think maybe I’m a little too old for Ariana.”

Jasmy plays an E on the piano, and she and Beckman tune together.

“Mama loves The Beatles and jazz and Spanish music,” says Cynthia, sitting on the sofa beside Alta. “But I love Ariana.”

“Everyone likes different kinds of music,” says Alta, smiling at Cynthia. “I like The Beatles, too, but when I was young I was crazy about Charles Aznavour. Have you ever heard of him, Cynthia?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I mostly listen to Ariana, but I like Justin Bieber, too.”

Beckman plays the lush jazzy chord again and Jasmy says, “More minor and not so complex.”

Beckman obliges, Jasmy nods, Beckman finds a second chord kin to the first, and Jasmy says, “Now back and forth in a kind of Girl-From-Ipanema groove.”

He finds the groove and Jasmy plays the brief plaintive melody over and over again; and Cynthia gets up and does a little dance while whisper-singing the words of the song.

At high noon on a Thursday, seven days after Portia and Cynthia came for supper, Beckman is standing behind the counter at Gig Music stringing a guitar, the building and the business now belonging to him, the decrepit sofas gone, but nothing else yet changed.

The bell above the front door jingles and Beckman looks up, surprised to see Portia entering the store.

She crosses the room to him and smiles flirtatiously. “Did you forget we were going to lunch today?”

“I didn’t so much forget,” he says, gazing in wonder at her, “as cease to believe you would come.”

“Oh Julian,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I barely slept waiting for this moment.”

       fin

Ophelia’s Journey

Monday, September 17th, 2018

Winter Woods tw

Winter Woods painting by Nolan Winkler

Born in Visalia, California, the fifth of seven children in a tempestuous Italian family, Ophelia Martinelli is fifty-seven and has been a legal secretary in Martinez, California for the last twenty-five years. Small and pretty with shoulder-length brown hair not yet touched with gray, friendly and kind and interested in other people, her voice soft and songful, Ophelia attracts men as clover in full bloom attracts bees, yet she has never married.

She has one child, a daughter, Jean, who is forty-one. Jean has two children, Miguel, twenty-one, and Sara, nineteen; and now Sara has a son, Orion, who is ten-months-old.

“Which makes me a great grandmother,” says Ophelia to the man she is playing cards with at the table between them on the train.

Ophelia is traveling from Martinez to Eugene, Oregon, while the man, Harold Boatman, has been on the train since Santa Barbara and is headed for Portland.

Harold looks up from his cards and says, “That’s impossible. You don’t look a day over forty.”

Harold is fifty-two, the eldest of two children, his parents New Yorkers. He has been married and divorced three times, and is about to marry again. Portly and good-looking with a reassuringly rumbly voice, his close-cropped gray hair turning white, Harold is a longtime insurance salesman. He has no children, though his fiancé, Angela, wants kids, and Harold wants to please Angela, though he thinks he would be happier without children.

“My mother was the same,” says Ophelia, discarding the Ace of Diamonds. “She looked sixty when she was eighty.”

“Good for her,” says Harold, drawing the Jack of Spades. “My fiancé is thirty-seven and doesn’t look much younger than you.” He discards the Ace of Clubs. “And I’m fifty-two and most people think I’m over sixty.”

“What’s taking you to Portland?” asks Ophelia, drawing the Seven of Hearts and discarding the Four of Spades.

“My niece’s wedding,” says Harold, picking up the Four of Spades and declaring, “Gin.”

“Your fiancé isn’t going to the wedding?” asks Ophelia, relieved the game is over.

“Oh she’s going,” says Harold, nodding. “But she’s flying and I don’t fly if I can help it. She hates the train. I hate to fly.”

“I won’t fly,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I flew once. Never again.”

Harold takes a deep breath. “Buy you dinner?”

“No thank you,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I brought a picnic. I have plenty if you want to join me. French bread, goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, pears, oatmeal cookies, and a thermos of coffee.” She gazes out at the passing fields. “I must have good coffee.”

The next morning, a few minutes before the train arrives in Eugene, Harold gushes to Ophelia, “This has been the best train ride I’ve ever had, thanks to you. Even sleeping sitting up wasn’t so bad.”

“I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip,” says Ophelia, eager to get away from him.

“Can I have your email and phone number?” he asks, nodding hopefully. “Love to see you again.”

“No,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “Sorry.”

“Oh,” says Harold, disappointed. “Because…Angela?”

“Yeah,” says Ophelia, forcing a smile. “Angela.”

Ophelia is sitting on the sofa with Sara and Sara’s baby Orion in Sara’s depressing little apartment a few blocks from the University of Oregon where Sara was majoring in Psychology when she got pregnant and decided to have the baby.

Sara is short and buxom with long black hair streaked with magenta highlights. She is quarter-Italian, quarter-Irish, half-Mexican, extremely bright, terribly self-critical, and currently estranged from her mother and stepfather. She never knew her father. Having lost her scholarship, she is entirely dependent on Ophelia for money.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Grandma,” says Sara, handing Orion to Ophelia. “I’ve been so stressed out and I haven’t been sleeping and I’ve been eating junk food and…I just want to die.”

“Taking care of a baby is hard work,” says Ophelia, smiling at Orion smiling at her. “Did you ever figure out who the father is?”

“Yeah,” says Sara, plaintively. “There were only two possibilities. I wasn’t sure at first, but now Ori looks just like him. He’s half-Japanese, half-white. The father.”

“Have you told him?” asks Ophelia, making a silly face that makes the baby boy gurgle in delight.

“He transferred to Stanford,” says Sara, fighting her tears. “I texted him and he sent a hundred dollars to my PayPal account, so…maybe he’ll send more. I don’t know. He didn’t actually write me back. Just sent the money.” She shrugs hopelessly. “I don’t know what to do.”

“I thought you were going to arrange for childcare and go back to school part-time.” Ophelia kisses Orion’s forehead. “Do you need more money?”

“I’m just so tired,” says Sara, sadly shaking her head. “Things were working out okay when Carol and Rachel were helping me, but then…” She yawns. “I guess the novelty wore off and they had to study and now they almost never come over. They just…you know…finals and stuff.”

“When the novelty wears off, the baby is still here.” Ophelia holds Orion in a standing position, his little feet dancing on Ophelia’s knees. “I can stay for two weeks, honey. Help you get going again.”

“What if…um…” Sara’s eyes fill with tears. “Do you think we could come live with you until he’s ready for pre-school?”

“You mean move to Martinez?” asks Olivia, thinking Why does this keep happening to me? What is the point of all this?

“Until he’s old enough for pre-school,” says Sara, sobbing. “Or First Grade? I can’t handle this, Grandma. I’m falling apart.”

While Sara sleeps, Ophelia dresses Orion in a cute blue jumpsuit and pushes him in the stroller to the university, the day sunny, a nip of fall in the air.

They stop at a big fountain in the center of a plaza, Orion delighted by the geyser of water splashing down into the pool. Ophelia looks around at the impressive buildings and beautiful old trees and hundreds of students walking and running and biking and skateboarding, and her eyes are drawn to a young man and young woman with their arms around each other, the young woman gazing into the young man’s eyes, a dreamy smile on her face, and Ophelia wants to shout, “Don’t have sex until you graduate.”

She remembers gazing up into Zack O’Reilly’s eyes, Zack the quarterback of the Visalia High football team, Zack saying, “Don’t deny me, baby. I love you. We’ll be together forever. I swear to God. I don’t want anybody but you.”

Her reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a man hanging onto the leash of a large brown dog who bumps Orion’s stroller in eagerness to drink from the fountain.

“Sorry,” says the man, sturdy and good-looking with longish brown hair, his accent British, his blue eyes twinkling as he reins in his dog and smiles at Ophelia. “He’s a sweetheart, though something of an oaf. Answers to Bingo.”

Orion shrieks with glee and reaches out to touch Bingo.

Olivia reflexively moves between baby and dog.

“Fear not,” says the man, grinning at Orion. “Bingo loves children and he’s been well-tested on my grandchildren. Is this your grandson?”

“Great grandson,” says Ophelia, squatting down to officiate as Bingo brings his snout close to allow the baby boy to touch him.

“What a darling little boy,” says the man, looking down at Ophelia. “I saw you from across the plaza and thought, ‘Who is she?’ and had to come see. I hope you’ll forgive my curiosity.” He bows to her. “I’m Jon Richardson. Literature. May I know your name?”

“Ophelia,” she says, standing up and looking into his eyes. “Ophelia Martinelli.”

“Coffee?” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “Café just around the corner. Excellent coffee. Not quite as good as I make at home, but eminently drinkable.”

“I’m sixty-two,” says Jon in answer to Ophelia’s question. “A widower, as they used to say. Five years now.” He laughs self-consciously. “And again, I hope you will forgive me, but my long-shuttered heart opened for the first time in eons when I saw you from afar, so I came closer to find out who you were.”

“And now that you’ve seen me up close?” She gazes steadily at him, having no expectation he will say anything to distinguish himself from her previous suitors, though she likes the tone of his voice, a smoky baritone, and how easily he expresses his feelings.

“Now that I’m near you,” he says, taking a deep breath, “I wonder all the more who you are.”

“I’m fifty-seven,” she says, glancing at Orion slumbering in the stroller. “Not married. I live in Martinez, California. I’m a legal secretary. I sing in the choir at the Presbyterian, though I’m not religious. I came here to help my granddaughter with her baby. She had to drop out of college when she had Orion. Now she wants to come live with me in Martinez until he’s old enough to go to school, which is what her mother did. My daughter. Only she stayed until her children were thirteen and fifteen. So who I am is a mother and grandmother and great grandmother and legal secretary.” She smiles wistfully. “Who are you?”

“A professor,” says Jon, nodding. “A poet, too, but a more successful professor than poet. Father of two, grandfather of three. Owner of large mutt and two cats. Sing in the shower. Not religious, but I do believe in karma, and…I’m thinking I’d like to make a life with you.”

Ophelia laughs in surprise. “How would we do that?”

“You and your granddaughter and this little chap would move into my house that is plenty big for all of us, and we would carry on together.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I know it sounds ridiculous, given we’ve just met and know nothing about each other except what we feel, but…what if there’s a chance we’d do well together? Shouldn’t we try to find out?”

“We should,” she says, nodding. “But slowly.”

“Does this mean I’ll get to see you again?” he asks, surprised and delighted by her acquiescence.

“We could have supper tonight,” she says, offering him her hand. If he says Thai food, I may marry him. “The four of us.”

“Do you like Thai food?” he asks, gently taking her hand.

“Love Thai food,” she says breathlessly. “How did you guess?”

“I don’t know,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Just came to me.”

fin

In the Beginning

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Toddy

Calvin: Dad where do babies come from?

Dad: Well Calvin, you simply go to Sears, buy the kit and follow the assembly instructions.

Calvin: I came from Sears?

Dad: No you were a blue-light special at K-Mart—almost as good and a lot cheaper!”

Bill Watterson

Not long after we are born, before we know we know anything else, we know we are alive. We don’t know this intellectually. We simply know because knowing we’re alive is inseparable from being alive. And you’re thinking: so what else is new?

On assignment from my therapist, I’ve been hanging out with my baby self via photographs of me taken shortly after I was born and going up to about age five. I was ten months in utero and born with a full head of black hair. According to my mother, the black hair quickly gave way to blondish brown hair, and for a few years I might have been Danish. Then my hair grew dark brown again and I went through my Navajo/Magyar phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have two memories vying for Earliest Experience I Remember Not Based On A Photograph, both experiences occurring when I was three-years-old. One of these experiences was pleasurable, the other terrifying. I’ll start with the good news.

So…we were living in the house my parents built in Mill Valley, a little town fourteen miles north of San Francisco. When my parents built that house in 1949, the year I was born, the hillside lot and three-bedroom house, beautifully made by artisan craftsmen, cost seven thousand dollars. Today, 2018, that house, which is still standing, would go for multiple millions.

I woke up and padded down the hall in my pajamas to my parents’ bedroom where, to my chagrin, they were not in their bed. Where were they? My pajamas, I must tell you, were white, of one piece, and covered me from neck to toes, the sock-like endings to the legs having thin leather soles. I tell you this because those leather soles figure prominently in this memory.

Not finding my parents in their bed, I went in search of them, and as I emerged from the hallway into the living room, I saw our front door was open. I know this experience took place on a Saturday or Sunday because my father was home. Monday through Friday he was not home because he left the house at dawn and came home at night long after my two older sisters and I were asleep.

I stood in the front doorway and looked out on the cement walkway leading from the door to our lawn. On the right side of the cement walk was a bed of succulents—bluish plants surrounded by white sand. My mother, her black hair in a ponytail, a sunhat on her head, was on her knees, pulling little weeds growing among the succulents. I remember she was wearing a sleeveless top and shorts, and I remember thinking she was incredibly beautiful. This is my only memory of my mother ever doing anything in a garden other than strolling around. My father was further down the walkway—a blur.

I was keenly aware that my mother was calm and happy, and I was also aware that her calmness and happiness were unusual and mysterious, and this felt wonderful to me. The other mystery was: why were my parents up before me, which, apparently, was an unusual circumstance on weekends.

As I stood on the walkway beside my mother, I very slowly shuffled my feet back and forth so the leather soles of my pajamas rubbed grains of sand against the cement and made scratching sounds I really enjoyed making; and I just kept sliding my feet back and forth as I gazed at my calm and happy mother.

The second memory involves our mangy gray cat—Casey Cat.

We kept our metal garbage can on a cement patio on the backside of the house. One morning I stepped out of the kitchen onto the patio and found Casey Cat crouched atop the garbage can devouring a big rat, the rat’s dark red blood running down the side of the can—Casey Cat’s snarling face half-buried in the eviscerated body of the rat.

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” Mary Roberts Rinehart

I’m tempted to make a big deal out of these two memories because they are my earliest, but as I’ve been hanging out with these pictures of little me and enjoying the child I imagine—a kid wanting to be outside as much as possible, wanting to run and dig and shout and play with other children—I doubt these two remembered experiences are bigger deals than thousands of other experiences I don’t remember.

Still, as Sherlock Holmes liked to say, there are several points of interest that may explain why these experiences are so deeply etched in my memory.

1. My mother was calm and happy, which amounted to something extremely rare in my memories of her: she was content. I have many subsequent memories of my mother smiling and laughing, but very few memories of her being calm, and no other memory of her seeming content. To be content is to feel we have enough, to feel we are safe, to feel we are loved.

2. Casey Cat, sweet purring fun-to-pet Casey Cat, turned out to be a ferocious snarling murderer. How confusing! And that torn-apart rat atop the blood-drenched garbage can was my first glimpse of mammalian death, my first inkling that my own life might have such an end.

I admire this young Todd for his openness, his curiosity, his remarkable physical energy, and his great joy at being alive. He seems sad sometimes, and worried about something, but he doesn’t let sorrow and worry keep him from dancing and singing and exploring the world.

toddy older

Her Children

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Photo by Ginger Malisos

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No, but rather, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.