Posts Tagged ‘Oregon’

Tober Finds His Way Part 2

Monday, March 4th, 2019

rainy web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goodbye Tober,” says Amelia, speaking English.

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

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

 ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

  ∆

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old are you?” he asks innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the clouds burst and heavy rain begins to fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Café,” she says, pointing west.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome

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

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

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

Jasmy Beckman

ORDERING CHAOS

Violin and Vocals

Studio Work & Special Events

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

 fin

The Screw

Monday, September 24th, 2018

elk cloud

Elk Cloud photo by Todd

in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer

In the large coastal town of Croft’s Landing, Oregon, there are three hardware stores: Anderson’s, Pirelli’s, and Lowenstein’s. Each of the owners of these stores has a twenty-seven-year-old son who has been in love with Josie Parsons since at least high school, and in the case of Noah Lowenstein, since kindergarten.

Josie, who is also twenty-seven, was queen of the Senior Ball and valedictorian at Croft’s Landing High, attended Yale on a full scholarship, graduated summa cum laude in Drama, and moved to New York to take the theatre world by storm, only her storm never gathered much strength because she was forever falling in love with charming louts instead of pursuing her career and she eventually ran out of money and maxed out her credit cards and came back to Croft’s Landing to live at home, get a job, and pay off the staggering debt she accrued while living in Manhattan for five years.

Josie’s mother Constance is fifty-four and nobody’s fool. Born and raised in Croft’s Landing, the oldest of five farm kids, Constance turned down a full scholarship to Harvard and chose instead to attend nearby Oregon State. Upon graduating summa cum laude in Business, Constance returned to Croft’s Landing, married Jerry Parsons, had two children, Everett and Josie, and when Everett was in Third Grade and Josie was in First, Constance started helping people with their computers and now she has more work than she and her three employees can handle, the name of her business: Computer Help.

Josie’s father Jerry is fifty-seven, kind and generous and forever forgetting who he loaned money to. Born in Astoria, Oregon, Jerry was a commercial fisherman until he was forty-five, quit fishing when the catch became too iffy, and thereafter drove a school bus for six years before buying Zebra, a failing copy shop and stationery store. When Zebra continued to flounder after four years of pouring Constance’s hard earned money into the business, Jerry gave Zebra to Everett who was at loose ends after graduating summa cum laude in Studio Art from Evergreen College.

Everett added art supplies and a café component to Zebra, business boomed, and today there are seven Zebras in towns throughout Oregon and Washington, with three more Zebras opening soon. Jerry now works part-time in the original Zebra as a barista and recently began propagating cacti he plans to sell via his web site Gorgeous Glochids.

Josie works for Everett now, too, scouting locations for future Zebras, overseeing inventory in the seven shops, helping with in-store design and lighting, and producing radio and television spots. She has her eye on the vacant and decrepit Avalon Theatre in downtown Croft’s Landing and dreams of starting a collective of actors and dancers and artisans who will renovate the Avalon and perform original cutting-edge drama and dance there to be broadcast globally via the Internet.

However, pursuing theatrical glory pales next to her burning desire to get married and have children.

Everett, tall and lanky and red-haired like his father, sharp-witted and no-nonsense like his mother, his hair a few inches shorter than his sister’s shoulder-length auburn locks, gazes across the kitchen dining table at Josie and says, “You never finish one thing before you start another. That’s your lifelong pattern. Why not get out of debt and then buy the Avalon? Pay off the Avalon and then have kids?”

“And live at home until I’m fifty?” Josie glares at her brother. “Men can make babies until they’re eighty. Women have much smaller windows of optimal opportunity.”

“A baby at eighty,” says Jerry, contemplating his spaghetti. “Can you imagine?”

“Who do you want to marry?” asks Constance, renowned for cutting to the chase. “Are you in love with someone?”

“I fell in love three times in New York,” says Josie, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “I wouldn’t want to marry any of those guys, let alone have kids with them.” She opens her eyes. “No, I think the Chinese and Indians and Africans and Jews and just about everybody else in the olden days had it right. Let the wise elders find the best man for the job.”

Jerry, who is never immediately certain when his wife and kids are being facetious, looks first at Everett who is gazing in horror at Josie, next at Constance, whose mouth is open in disbelief, and lastly at Josie, who seems as forlorn as Jerry has ever seen her.

“I nominate your mother,” says Jerry, raising his right hand. “She’s never wrong about people.”

“I second the nomination,” says Everett, his horror changing to delight. “This could be good. We should film this.”

“I accept the nomination,” says Constance, gazing in wonder at her daughter.

“All in favor say aye,” says Josie, her eyes full of tears.

“Aye,” say Jerry and Constance and Everett.

“I have narrowed the field to three candidates,” says Constance, sitting down across the table from Josie at Chish & Fips, their favorite seafood joint, renowned for stupendous food and a maddening menu. “What are you having?”

“The cham clowder,” says Josie, despondently stirring her soup. “Let me guess. Brett Anderson, David Pirelli, and Noah Lowenstein.”

“They were on your approved list,” says Constance, opening her notebook. “Nobody else I’m aware of comes close to those three.”

“Hi Constance,” says Susie Kwong, the one and only lunchtime waitress at Chish & Fips. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” says Constance, perusing the menu. “What’s your Datch of the Kay?”

“Sned Rapper,” says Susie, serving Constance a cup of piping hot coffee. “On a bed of Rasmati Bice.”

“I’ll have that and a small Cesar salad,” says Constance, adding cream to her coffee. “Thanks.”

“Be just a few,” says Susie, sauntering away.

“I can’t marry Brett Anderson,” says Josie, shaking her head. “He’s like a second older brother. I would feel incestuous every time we had sex.”

“Then I’ll take him off the list,” says Constance, her pen poised above Brett’s name.

“No, leave him on,” says Josie, anguished. “I’m still holding out hope I’ll meet some guy in a bar. I’m going to Portland next week. Who knows what might happen.”

“Wait a minute,” says Constance, closing her notebook. “I’m taking time off from work to do this, Josie. If you’re not serious about me finding you a husband, I’ll stop right now.”

“Don’t stop, Mama,” says Josie, shaking her head. “I want you to choose my husband. I really do.”

“Okay,” says Constance, opening her notebook again. “So…Brett, David, and Noah are all healthy, smart, personable men with good jobs, and they’re all madly in love with you, so much so they’ve all stayed single despite numerous opportunities to get married. Also, I get along well with their mothers, which is no small thing since we’ll be sharing grandmother duties.”

“Are you saying Brett and David and Noah are still single because of me?” says Josie, outraged. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“How else can you explain it?” says Constance, looking at her notes. “Brett could have married Allison Cromwell or Tina Martinez in a heartbeat. And David? Half the women in town shop at Pirelli’s just to be with him for a few minutes.”

“What about Noah?” says Josie, remembering how much she loved playing guitars with him in high school.

“Who knows about Noah,” says Constance, shrugging. “But this is what some people do, Josie. Not just men. Women, too. They wait as long as they can, sometimes forever, for the loves of their lives to choose them. And you, so far, are the love of these three men’s lives. Has a day gone by since you came home from New York that they haven’t called you or come by the house or dropped by Zebra to see you?”

“Brett and David, yeah,” says Josie, sighing. “Not Noah. He’s too proud to chase me, or too shy, though he did ask me to go to the play with him on Friday. That should be fun. A Thousand Clowns.”

“My point is they are all viable options.” Constance closes her notebook. “The question is if you had to choose one of them, who would it be?”

“I don’t know,” says Josie, despondently. “That’s always been the problem. I never wanted to hurt any of their feelings, so I never chose any of them. They’re pals. They meet for beer and darts at The Raven every Thursday night. They play basketball together every Saturday morning. We should take them off the list.”

“Okay,” says Constance, nodding her thanks as Susie serves the snapper. “That leaves Mike Soper and Tom Rafferty.”

“Oh God,” says Josie, gnawing on her thumbnail. “Put Brett and David and Noah back on. And you choose. Okay?”

“Okay,” says Constance, her heart pounding. “Give me a few days.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “Honey? You awake?”

“Huh?” says Jerry, waking up.

“You awake?”

“I am now.”

“Do you have a preference?”

“For what?”

“Brett or David or Noah. For Josie.”

“Honey…you know me. I like them all. I’ve known them since they were little boys. How could I choose? What does Everett say?”

“He says Josie needs therapy.”

“Wasn’t she crazy about Brett in high school?” asks Jerry, yawning. “Senior year?”

“Yes. After he made that interception and won the homecoming game she was crazy about him for a few weeks and they did some heavy petting and then she was in The Taming of the Shrew with David and was crazy about him and they almost but not quite went all the way, and then in the summer before she went to Yale she and Noah were together every day writing songs and going on long walks and who knows how far they went and then she left for college and Brett and David were devastated.”

“What about Noah? Wasn’t he devastated?”

“No, because…I don’t think he ever thought Josie would choose him, so he had no hopes to be dashed.”

“That’s very poetic, honey.”

“What’s poetic?”

“He had no hopes to be dashed. That’s beautiful.”

“You’re so sweet,” she says, snuggling with him. “I never wanted anybody but you.”

Constance visits her mother Erma, a spry eighty-seven, at Pine Cone Valley Senior Community on the northern outskirts of Croft’s Landing. They have lunch in the cheerful dining hall and Constance updates Erma on the search for Josie’s husband.

“The three finalists are Brett and David and Noah. But I’m having a terrible time picking a winner. Any suggestions?”

“Well,” says Erma, cocking her head to one side as if straining to hear something, “if this was a fairy tale they would have to prove themselves with feats of strength and intelligence and…like that.” She returns her head to an upright position. “Some sort of test that two fail and one passes. Right?”

“Some sort of test,” says Constance, the back of her neck tingling. “Like what?”

“Maybe they have to solve some sort of riddle,” says Erma, looking out the window at wisps of fog blowing by. “And the one who solves the riddle is noble and good. Right? That’s how he knows the answer.”

“Because he’s noble and good?”

“In fairy tales,” says Erma, nodding. “Yeah. Something in his character allows him to solve the riddle.”

Brett Anderson, tall and broad-shouldered with a heroic chin, his blond hair in a ponytail, is standing behind the checkout counter in his father’s hardware store watching football highlights on his phone when Constance gets his attention by knocking on the counter.

“Oh, hey, Mrs. Parsons,” he says, freezing the highlights and pocketing his phone. “What do you need?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, holding up a wood screw, three-and-a-quarter-inches-long and a bit less than a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“Um,” says Brett, wrinkling his nose, “those would be in the screw section. Aisle Eight.”

“Can you show me?” asks Constance, nodding hopefully.

“I would,” says Brett, grimacing, “but I’m totally swamped right now. Hold on a sec, I’ll get somebody to help you.” He picks up the in-store walkie-talkie. “Yeah, customer needs help finding a screw. Thanks.” He sets down the walkie-talkie. “They’ll meet you in Aisle Eight.”

“Who will meet me, Brett?” asks Constance, sounding disappointed.

“Um…” he says, shrugging. “Gomez probably? I’m not sure. Why? Did you want somebody in particular to help you?”

“Yes, I wanted you.”

“Why?” he asks, scrunching up his cheeks. “What difference does it make?”

“I know you,” she says, turning away. “Makes the experience more enjoyable for me.”

“Next time,” he says, fishing his phone out of his pocket and unfreezing the highlights. “When I’m not so swamped.”

David Pirelli, olive-skinned and rakishly handsome, his black hair long on top, the sides shaved, a small diamond embedded in his right earlobe, his forearms tattooed with Chinese dragons, is loading cans of paint into the trunk of a car when Constance pulls into the adjacent parking spot.

After shutting the trunk of the paint buyer’s car, David opens Constance’s door for her and says, “Welcome to Pirelli’s, Mrs. P.”

“Thank you, David,” she says, beaming at him as she gets out. “How gallant of you. Do you open doors for everyone or just for Josie’s mother?”

“You get special treatment,” he says, winking at her. “What brings you here today?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, proffering the slender screw. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

David takes the screw from her, studies the old thing and says, “I’m pretty sure they don’t make these anymore, but come with me and we’ll see if we can find a close facsimile.”

In the screw section, after a quick search in a few of the many little drawers, David declares, “As I suspected, we don’t have anything this small in diameter that’s also this long. I doubt they make them anymore. Does it have to be this skinny?”

“I would prefer it to be that skinny,” says Constance, opening a drawer of long thin screws. “It’s not one of these?”

“No, those are eighth-of-an-inch in diameter,” he says, handing the screw back to her. “I told you they don’t make long screws that thin anymore.”

“So what should I do?” she asks, feigning helplessness.

“You could use a larger-diameter screw. Pre-drill the hole to make it bigger so you don’t split the wood when you put the screw in. That should do it.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Mrs. P.”

“You did the best you could,” says Constance, nodding. “Thank you, David.”

“My pleasure,” he says, accompanying her to the exit. “Sorry we couldn’t find the exact same one.” He stops abruptly. “Hey you know what I just thought of? Antique furniture stores. They might have boxes of old screws you could look through. Worth a try.”

“Good idea,” says Constance, going out the door. “Thanks so much.”

Noah Lowenstein, a soccer player in high school and now an avid playground basketball player, his brown hair longish and curly, is in the lumberyard behind the big hardware store helping Chico Alvarez select the very best twelve-feet-long redwood planks for a deck Chico is building.

Constance stands twenty feet away from Noah and Chico and watches the two strong young men search through several stacks of planks until they find fifteen beauties, which they load onto the lumber rack of Chico’s pickup.

“Muchas Gracias, Noah,” says Chico, shaking Noah’s hand before turning to Constance and saying, “Hola Señora Parsons. This is the best place to buy wood. They don’t let you hunt for the good ones at those other places.”

“As my grandfather used to say,” says Noah, greeting Constance with a little wave, “picky customers are better than no customers.”

“Did he really say that?” asks Constance, impulsively taking Noah’s hand.

“He really did,” says Noah, walking into the store with her. “He also said, ‘Customers who hold your hand get a ten per cent discount.’”

“He didn’t say that.”

“No, I made that up. But it’s not a bad idea for a promotional gimmick. Come into Lowenstein’s, hold our hands, and we’ll give you a ten percent discount.”

“Needs work,” says Constance, surprised that Noah seems in no hurry to let go of her hand, so she is the one to let go.

“Let me guess,” says Noah, striking a thoughtful pose. “You’re picking up more potting mix for Jerry’s cacti.”

“No,” says Constance, bringing forth the ancient screw. “I need to get another one of these. I’m restoring an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“This one fell out?” asks Noah, taking the screw from her and placing it in the palm of his hand.

“No, “says Constance, watching Noah’s face to see if he believes her. “One was missing, so I took this one out to show you what I need.”

“I see,” says Noah, carefully scrutinizing the screw. “Well…these are not mass produced anymore as far as I know, and maybe they never were. Are you in a hurry, Constance?”

“No,” she says, wondering if he senses something more than buying a screw is going on. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to do a little sleuthing,” he says, bouncing his eyebrows. “You’re welcome to come with me, but if you’ve got other things to do, you could come back in an hour and I’ll have something for you.”

“Another screw like this screw?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding confidently.

“You think you have one? Here in the store?”

“We will either have one,” says Noah, beckoning her to follow him. “Or we will be getting one. About this I am confident.”

Constance follows Noah through the store to a double metal door that swings open into a large storage area beyond which are three offices, one the domain of store manager Guillermo Macias, one the den of Noah’s sister Brenda Lowenstein-Adebayo, assistant manager, and one Noah’s.

“So,” says Noah, ushering Constance into his cluttered office, “I will make a quick phone call and then we’ll go from there. Have a seat.”

“Noah?” says Constance, sitting down. “This seems like an awful lot of trouble for one little screw.”

“On the contrary,” he says, picking up his old landline phone. “This is my favorite part of the job.” He taps in a number and waits a moment. “Sven. Hi, it’s Noah. Got a minute? Great. So here’s what’s happening. I’ve got an old steel wood screw. A little longer than three inches and not even a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. Almost a fat needle with threads. From an old handmade table.” He listens. “At least a hundred years old.” He looks at the screw. “Yeah. Could be. You have anything like that?” He listens. “Sure. I understand. Thanks so much.”

“No luck?” says Constance, enjoying Noah’s performance.

“Sven suggests…Sven is in Portland and knows absolutely everything about screws and nails and bolts and nuts and hinges and so forth…he suggests that this screw was probably not manufactured in the United States, but more likely was made in England or Germany or Switzerland.”

“How interesting,” says Constance, frowning. “My great grandfather was German.”

“That is interesting,” says Noah, raising a knowing finger, “but it doesn’t alter the fact that these kinds of screws are probably not made in Germany anymore, unless somebody is making them by hand.”

“So what do we do?” she asks, holding her breath.

“We make one by hand,” he says, winking at her. “Follow me.”

On their way to the machine shop at the west end of the hardware store, Constance says, “May I ask you something, Noah?”

“Of course,” he says, turning to her.

“Are you going to all this trouble for me because I’m Josie’s mother?”

“No,” he says, reddening and laughing. “I would do this for anyone, though it is more enjoyable doing this for you because I’m…I’m comfortable with you because…I know you like me, so…but I’d do this for anyone because that’s how we do things here. That’s the mission, as my father likes to say.”

“What is the mission?” asks Constance, gazing in wonder at him.

“I imagine it’s the same one you have at Computer Help. Helping people achieve their goals.”

“Yeah,” says Constance, trying not to cry. “You’ve certainly done that for me today.”

Late Friday night, Josie comes home from her theatre date with Noah, and finds Constance and Jerry sitting together on the sofa in the living room, a fire blazing in the woodstove, the house toasty.

“Hey,” says Josie, quietly. “I didn’t expect you guys would still be up.”

“We have something to tell you,” says Constance, taking hold of Jerry’s hand to give her courage.

“You made your choice,” says Josie, placing both hands on her heart. “Oh, Mama, I’m sorry, but Noah just asked me to marry him and I said Yes before he could even finish asking me and I realized he’s always been the one. I just needed some time to grow up, and so did he.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “You awake?”

“What?” he says, waking from a dream. “What happened?”

“Are you awake?”

“I think so. Talk to me.”

“Do you think Noah asked Josie to marry him because I went to see him and he intuited what was going on and…”

“Yes. It’s all because of you.”

“Not all,” she says, snuggling with him. “But partly?”

“All,” he says, drifting back to sleep. “Everything.”

fin

Oregon

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Rita

Rita photo by Todd

“He walked joyously, triumphantly, through the peace and beauty of springtime in California.” Katharine Grey

My great grandmother Katharine Grey wrote a pair of novels Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold, published by Little Brown in the 1930s. Based loosely on the experiences of my paternal ancestors, Rolling Wheels is about a family coming to California from Indiana via wagon train in the years before the Gold Rush of 1849, and Hills of Gold is about that same family living in California during the Gold Rush.

Throughout my childhood, my father impressed upon me that we were real native Californians, being descended on my father’s side from people who came here before California was even a state—never mind the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before my Anglo ancestors arrived, or the Mexicans who settled here hundreds of years before the first Anglos came to California.

I was also repeatedly told that my ancestors came to California in the same large wagon train that included the ill-fated Donner party, except my ancestors made it over the Sierras before the onset of winter and founded the town of Fremont while the Donners starved and ate each other.

And this is some of why when I travel to Oregon, I think of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and the Oregon Trail and pioneers and the wilderness that was Oregon and California before cars and freeways and computers and everything that has transpired in the last little while of human history.

Marcia and I just returned from an eight-day drive-about in Oregon, and the trip was a Big Deal for the likes of me, one who rarely leaves our watershed here on the Mendocino coast and rarely rides in a motorized vehicle for more than a few minutes at a time every few days. We spent two nights on the Oregon coast, four nights in Portland, a night in Bend, a night in Eugene, and another night on the Oregon coast before returning to California. We took many hikes, ate many good meals, communed with good friends, and saw many sights, some marvelous, some not so marvelous—a fine trip all in all.

The biggest motivating factor for making the trip was to visit our friends Bob and Rita who recently moved to Portland from our neck of the woods. They have both become adept at navigating the byways of Portland and were marvelous guides and hosts as we explored that sprawling metropolis full of trees and roses and bridges and breweries and cafés.

On our last full day in Portland, we took the light rail from a station near Rita and Bob’s house to the center of downtown. A few decades ago, Portland became the first large metropolitan area in America to begin using most of the monies returned to them by the federal government (from the federal tax on gasoline) to create an urban transportation system that would make a good life possible for city people who don’t drive cars. Thus Portland has an excellent and ever-expanding light rail and trolley system second to none west of the Atlantic seaboard.

While riding the light rail into downtown Portland, I became aware that everyone in the crowded car, save for Marcia, Todd, Bob, and Rita, was staring into some sort of portable computer and occasionally diddling the keyboard: small and large smart phones, pads, and laptops. Everyone. No one was looking out a window or at another person. The young woman sitting in front of me was scrolling through photographs of tattooed naked women posed provocatively; and the man sitting beside her was playing a violent video game and snorting every time he killed something.

When we detrained downtown, I noticed that many of the people walking around and sitting in cafés and on benches were also staring into portable computer screens and jabbing them with their thumbs. In fact, save for the legions of homeless people occupying downtown Portland, almost everyone who was not walking fast or riding a bike was staring into a screen and diddling. For some years now I have been aware of the entrainment-to-screens phenomenon in America, but I had never before seen this mass entrancement on such a huge urban scale; and I was both astonished and weirded out, if you know what I mean.

A few days later in Eugene, we were eating good Indian food with our friends David and Joan and Eileen. David is an elementary and middle school music teacher who combines song, dance, comedy, marimbas, ukuleles, drumming, improvisation—you name it—to create exciting and engaging musical experiences for his students culminating in fabulous group performances.

“But,” he said, while telling me about various aspects of his work, “I now feel the most important thing I can do for my students is give them time to engage with me and each other and their own creative impulses without interfacing with their diddle boxes. Because interfacing with their diddle boxes is the main thing most of them do all the time now.”

“If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.” Alan Watts

There is a square in downtown Portland, one of the main squares, that has lots of places to sit and gawk at passersby, and in one part of this square there is a small parabolic amphitheater made of bricks. If one stands in the center of the parabola facing the ascending tiers of brick half-circles, and one speaks aloud at a normal volume, one’s voice sounds incredibly loud and clear in one’s ears—a totally neato auditory experience.

So I’m standing in the center of the parabola facing a young woman who is sitting slightly above me in the amphitheater and facing in my direction, though not seeing me. She is hooked up to her smart phone with wires connected to tiny earphones plugged into her ears, and she is diddling her screen.

I say, “Hello there,” and the words sound loud and clear in my ears. And then I say to the young woman, “You’re doing this aren’t you? You’re making this happen.”

She frowns quizzically at me and takes the earphone out of her right ear. “Are you talking to me?” she asks, her voice remarkably sonorous.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “You’re doing something to make my voice sound loud and clear in my ears, aren’t you?”

After a moment of silence between us, a sweet smile claims her face and she nods in agreement.

Fin Again—Wake!

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

todd at Crater lake

Todd At Crater Lake photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“…that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes…” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

We just returned, Marcia and I, from a nine-day journey to Oregon, our motive operandi a visit to my brother and his wife in their new digs in Portland, they among the wave of humanity crashing onto Portland, which is now the fastest growing urban area in these United States. We stayed in Gold Beach and Yachats on the Oregon coast on the way up, two nights in the Portland manse with mein brudder und his wife, a night in Eugene with friends on the banks of the Willamette, two nights at the lodge at Crater Lake, a night with friends in Arcata and…

This morning I woke in our familiar king-sized bed here in the kingdom of Mendocino, and before clarity conquered the last wisps of dream imagery, I wondered: did I dream the entire journey? And then I remembered Norman O. Brown from whom I took a course at UC Santa Cruz in 1969, Myth and History, and saw him standing perfectly still on the stage of the lecture hall, this the umpteenth pregnant pause of his lecture. He was about to speak the last words of the day’s thought ramble, and he liked to give plenty of air to his final pronouncements.

“Fin. Again,” he said softly. And then louder, with an urgency bordering on ecstasy, “Wake!” Then soft again, almost under his breath, “Finnegan’s Wake.” And once more, “Fin. Again. Wake!”

“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

I have not traveled away from Mendocino in seven years, save for the occasional visit to Santa Rosa to visit Marcia’s mom and a few trips to San Mateo for Thanksgiving with the brother now in Portland. Thus for a stay-at-home, this Oregon jaunt was what my long-ago friend Leo used to call a Large Pattern Change.

I met Leo when I lived in a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972. My room was on the second floor of the big house I shared with eight other people, a long narrow room with a view of Monterey Bay. Leo would come to visit me twice a week and sprawl on my bed while I sat at my desk. He would speak of his difficulties with his mother, with his depression, and with women. As he spoke, I would jot down things he said that seemed pertinent or interesting to me.

How did I meet Leo? I was having coffee with a friend at the Catalyst—I am speaking of the original Catalyst housed on the ground floor of the St. Charles Hotel destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Leo approached our table to speak to our mutual friend, joined us, and asked me politely if I would buy him a cup of coffee and baklava.

Having barely enough money to pay for my own coffee, and not knowing Leo from Adam, I hesitated and Leo said, “You, too, currently short of funds? Then a small coffee and I’ll get yours next time.”

When I think of Leo, I think of Winnie-the-Pooh. I cannot imagine Leo running, only trudging. He was large, overweight, and had a beautifully sad old man’s face, though he was only in his late twenties when I knew him. He had long light brown hair and wore a beaten brown derby, a long scarf, and enormous shoes with holes in the toes. He was unemployed, lived in a boarding house, survived on a stipend from his mother, thought he might like to write something, but couldn’t get down to business.

I was little enamored of Leo after our initial meeting, so when he showed up at my house one afternoon a few days later, I hesitated to invite him in, but he seemed not to notice my hesitation. Shortly thereafter, he was sprawled on my bed recounting his latest disaster with a woman who waited tables at the Catalyst, “She obviously liked me until that Fulcrum Moment when we sat down in the Acapulco and I explained I only had sufficient funds for guacamole and one beer we could share, and it was Leo Becomes A Demon Time. Now when I come into the Catalyst she won’t even look at me and I want to shout, ‘What does money have to do with love?’ And now she asks He Of the Large Mustache to wait on me. I’ve seen her asking him and nodding furtively in my direction without looking at me.”

Thus I became Leo’s psychotherapist, and that was the extent of our relationship. He visited me twice weekly, unburdened himself for an hour or so, and then wandered away. He was fond of saying things like, “I’m on yet another plateau without a view,” and “My mother has entered another Stretch of Minimal Funding,” and “Yes, I lack purpose, but not for lack of desire.”

Leo believed all his troubles would be over if he could only convince one of the many beautiful young women he was madly in love with to become his lover. “I suffer from a lack of Reciprocal Passion. When I’m with Carla (the woman Leo spent most of his money on paying for sex) she won’t even open her eyes when…you know.”

 “The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity.” James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

Today Mendocino is sunny and cool. Marcia is about to give a cello lesson and I am girding my loins to move two cords of summer-seasoned firewood into the woodshed in anticipation of what we hope will be a very wet winter—my batteries recharged by the splendors of our Oregon odyssey.

Chosen

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Mendocino Coastline, Todd

Mendocino Coast photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“The best is the enemy of good.” Voltaire

You have probably heard the provocative news that the New York Times recently declared the village of Mendocino and the surrounding scenic coastline to be the Third Best Travel Destination in the World. Not the best place to visit in America or in the Western Hemisphere, but in the entire world.

When I heard this startling pronouncement I went into a trance and heard someone say, “It was a tossup between Bali or Venice, but then we got the idea of cruising the fjords of Norway and we were about to book our flight to Oslo when we read the article in the New York Times about Mendocino being the third best place on the planet to visit! We rushed to make reservations at one of the inns there and soon we’ll be ogling the rugged coastline and buying T-shirts and sampling seaweed and drinking local wine and beer and eating lots of California Cuisine and, you know, reveling in the magnificence.”

Emerging from my trance, I read the article in question and was surprised to find nary a mention of the current devastating drought that puts Mendocino near the bottom of a number of other Best lists, including Best Places in the World To Take Long Showers and Best Places In the World To Grow Rice In Flooded Paddies. Nor did the article mention Mendocino being dead last on the list of Best Places With Decent Public Restrooms and Best Places With Good Chinese and/or Mexican and/or any sort of ethnic food.

Indeed, the upshot of the article seems to be that the rugged coast and gorgeous crashing waves and redwood forests are what make Mendocino the third most wonderful place in the whole world, not the amenities for humans, which I think does a great disservice to my favorite places in the village: Zo (copy shop extraordinaire), post office (world class), Mendocino Market (superb deli), Corners of the Mouth (stupendous avocados), Goodlife Bakery & Café (yummy combo salads), Harvest Market (olive bar heaven), Gallery Books (be still my heart, they carry my books), Rubaiyat (beads meet Buddha), Frankie’s Pizza (and ice cream), our lone bank (sympathetic tellers), and last but not least, the little hardware store that could.

“Avoid popularity; it has many snares, and no real benefit.” William Penn

In the mid-1970’s I moved to Ashland Oregon, having lived there briefly and happily in the early 1970’s. To my dismay, the place had changed dramatically in just the few years I’d been gone. Real estate prices had skyrocketed, Southern Oregon College had been absorbed into the state college system and doubled in size, the airport in nearby Medford had been greatly enlarged, and people from all over America, not just from California, were flocking to what was fast becoming a kind of Carmel-Not-By-The-Sea with year-round Shakespeare.

Most of the artists and eccentrics and free thinkers I’d found so appealing during my brief sojourn there in the 60’s had fled the burgeoning hamlet in search of less expensive pastures and been replaced by…well, people like Gerald, a big blustery overweight middle-aged real estate developer from New Jersey. He had only been in Ashland for two years, yet had already built two hideous, crappy, environmentally disastrous four-unit apartment buildings and was in the process of building two more such monstrosities.

I rented a room in Gerald’s house—Gerald being one of those extremely wealthy people who leave no income-producing stone unturned—and he was a nice guy, albeit reflexively combative, a reflex that quickened in direct proportion to his alcohol intake. Gerald was also extremely pragmatic, and because he liked to get smashed several nights a week but didn’t want to drive drunk, he would go to bars, meet people, buy them drinks and invite them home with him to continue their drinking in our living room. Thus on many nights for those few challenging months I shared a house with Gerald, the living room was full of strangers drinking and talking over the din of Gerald’s always-on television.

While attending my first such impromptu party, I asked Gerald what had brought him to Ashland from far-away New Jersey.

He glared at me and said, “Same thing brought everybody else here.”

“Shakespeare?” I said dumbly. “No sales tax? Pretty women pumping your gas? Rafting the Rogue River? What?”

“The thing on CBS News,” he said, his glare intensifying. “You know, the list. Come on. Don’t say you didn’t see it. Everybody saw it. The Ten Best Places To Live In America Nobody Knows About Yet. Ashland was number two. They made it look like heaven.”

“I missed that show,” I said, apologetically. “So you came here because you saw something about Ashland on television?”

“Me, too,” said a cute gal with impossibly red impossibly curly hair. “I was living in Cleveland because my husband got transferred there from Chicago, otherwise I never would have gone there. Who would? And then we got divorced and…anyway I saw the same news thing, only I think it was NBC. Anyway…they did make it look so good here, and John Denver was singing and everything was so green and the swans swimming on the pond by the Shakespeare theatre so I thought…”

“No, it was an orchestra thing,” said a guy on the sofa, holding his glass aloft. “You know…with violins? Not John Denver.”

“Yeah,” said Gerald, pointing at the guy on the sofa. “That’s the one I saw, too, the one with violins. Not John Denver.”

“I was living in Riverside,” said the guy on the sofa. “And my eyes were watering all the time, and I had this horrible cough that I could not get rid of because the air was so bad, and the traffic…ridiculous, so when I saw that show about the best places nobody knew about yet I hopped in my car and drove up here and…”

“They must have shown it more than once,” said the cute gal from Cleveland, “because the one I saw definitely had John Denver singing.”

“Avoid popularity if you would have peace.” Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday, sitting on the headlands overlooking Mendocino Bay, enjoying the spectacular coastline and listening to the crashing waves and marveling that I actually live in the third best place in the entire world to visit, I was approached by a man and a woman, their eyes shielded by dark glasses reflecting four little funhouse Todds.

“Hi,” said the woman, exhibiting brilliant white teeth. “You live around here?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

“Told you,” said the man, looking away as if embarrassed by the success of his guess.

“We were wondering if you could recommend any interesting things to do around here,” said the woman, glancing at her partner. “You know…besides the scenery.” She gestured toward Japan. “We went to the bakery for coffee and scones. That was nice. And we had a beer at the hotel. And now…” She shrugged pleasantly. “Any suggestions?”

“Gosh, that’s a tough one,” I said, gazing out to sea. “We have three excellent chocolate shops in the village and a number of curio stores, but the cultural hub of the area is Fort Bragg, ten miles north of here.”

“We went there,” said the man, his voice devoid of enthusiasm.

“The Botanical Gardens? Cabrillo Lighthouse? Headlands Café?”

The woman nodded. Waves crashed on the rocky shore. Gulls flew north, ravens south. Seven vultures circled in the sky above us, patrolling paradise for dead things to eat.

“Hey, thanks,” said the man, turning to go.

“Yeah, thanks,” said the woman, turning to go, too. But then she looked back at me and asked, “Which one is your favorite chocolate shop?”

“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers

I asked my neighbor what he thought about Mendocino being touted by the New York Times as the third best place in the whole world to visit, and this is what he had to say about that.

“I’ve lived here sixty-seven of my seventy-four years and things were real good around here until about fifty years ago when certain types of people started moving in and growing you know what and then those crooks got hold of the lumber companies and started cutting the trees way too fast and selling all the wood to Japan and that ruined everything. No, if I were younger, I’d move to Idaho. You can still live the way you want up there, step out your door and shoot a deer. Used to be like that around here, but not anymore.”

My Big Trip, Part One

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

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

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France

In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.

Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King

I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.

I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.

And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.

We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.

“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”

To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.

“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner

About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.

Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.

My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.

“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”

“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”

“Nega-gravity? How…”

“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”

To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”

“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.

“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”

“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”

“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”

“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin

My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”

“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”

O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.

Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.

So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.

Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.

And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.

Apes

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2012)

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Sometimes it helps me to remember we are apes. Before the advent of clothing and tools and weapons and religion and cars and nuclear power and nations and money and vast social and economic inequities, we were naked apes looking for sustenance, shelter, safety, and love. We foraged for food, made nests for sleeping, and hung out in groups large enough to dissuade leopards. We had mates and children, we changed locations when our favorite foods grew scarce, and we socialized with family and friends every day. We did not, I think, have long terms goals. We lived wholly in the moment because we didn’t have anything other than the moment to live in. We had nothing to carry, nothing to hide, nothing besides each other.

Okay, so that is a gross oversimplification of ape reality, which is not without violence and danger and sorrow and death; but thinking of myself as an ape in a group of excellent and sympathetic apes living in a jungle full of tasty leafs and fruit helps me grok why so many people are unhappy today and why our so-called advanced society is so incredibly stressful and dysfunctional and stupid and wrong. We have not only lost our collective connection to the earth, we have lost touch with what really made us happy when we were apes—each other.

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” James Thurber

I remember a moment in July of 1976 when I suddenly thought, “This is the happiest day of my life.” I was not thinking about happiness at the time, nor was I aware, until that moment, of being particularly happy. I looked around, wondering what could possibly have inspired such a thought, and what I saw unseated all my previous notions of what great happiness would look like: a dozen males and females and children (in Medford, Oregon on a very hot afternoon) sitting and standing around a picnic table on a scraggly lawn in the dappled shade of a towering elm, eating watermelon and spitting seeds.

I was a landscaper and had given up writing for a time. I didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have much money, and I was living in a funky bunkhouse next to the house of my boss and his wife and their kids. Oh, yes, now I remember it was the birthday of one of my boss’s kids, and we were drinking beer along with eating watermelon and spitting seeds, I and a couple other landscapers and their wives and my boss and his wife and a couple of their kids, including the birthday boy who was turning fourteen.

Why was I so happy? Looking back on that unexpectedly magical moment on that very hot day, I think my happiness came from our just being apes, eating fruit and spitting seeds and hanging out and talking and laughing and enjoying the moment without much thought or care for what might happen next.

I’ve had other happy days since that hot day in July in Medford in 1976, but I’ve never again been struck so forcefully by the thought, “This is the happiest day of my life,” which brings me to that unanswerable question: what is happiness?

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Kurt Vonnegut

Long ago I read the transcript of a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut about the happiest day of his life. In the tradition of apes, I will relate to you what I remember Kurt told us in his speech rather than locate the transcript on the interweb and copy his words verbatim. What I remember is that Kurt began speaking about the happiest day of his life by first telling us about the happiest day of his grandfather’s life and then about the happiest day of his father’s life.

The happiest day of Kurt’s grandfather’s life was when Kurt’s grandfather was a young man. He and his best friend were walking through an Indiana cornfield on a hot summer day when a freight train came chugging along and stopped in the middle of the cornfield for no apparent reason. Seeing the train idling there, Kurt’s grandfather and his friend were filled with desire to climb onto the cowcatcher and have a ride, the cowcatcher being a big V-shaped steel bumper mounted on the front of the train’s engine. So Kurt’s grandfather and his friend ran through the corn and hopped onto the cowcatcher, the train started moving and picked up speed, and for many miles Kurt’s grandfather and his best friend sailed along through the corn, happier than they had ever been.

The happiest day of Kurt’s father’s life, if I’m remembering correctly, was his wedding day when he was in his early twenties. Kurt’s father had a friend who worked at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the gigantic track where they hold the famous Indianapolis 500) and as a wedding gift to Kurt’s father and mother, this friend let them onto the speedway in their regular car to zoom around and around the track, which zooming filled the newlyweds with joy.

And the happiest day of Kurt’s life was the day he was discharged from the Army.

“If you want to be happy, be.” Leo Tolstoy


Happiness (a short story from Buddha In A Teacup)

Gerald is turning the soil in the narrow bed of earth that runs the length of the south-facing side of the old house he rents—October more than half over. He intends to plant snow peas where the sun and white walls conspire to keep the ground relatively warm throughout the winter months.

He is not conscious that it has been seven years to the day since he learned of his wife’s unfaithfulness to him for all of their eighteen years of marriage. He is divorced now and has grown accustomed to living alone. The discovery of his wife’s secret life shattered his confidence in himself and in his closest friends—two of them being his wife’s lovers. He sold his law practice after finalizing the divorce and has been unemployed ever since.

His days are spent reading, taking long walks, listening to music, writing letters to friends, and sitting still. His money is nearly gone. He has no intention of practicing law again, though he has yet to decide how he will earn his living.

His shovel sinks into the dry ground, and as he turns the soil it crumbles into tiny fragments, leaving only the smallest of clods. Six years ago the soil here was dense clay, but hundred of buckets of kitchen compost and the labor of ten thousand worms have made the soil rich and pliable.

Recalling how difficult this task was a few years ago, Gerald smiles at the ease with which he now readies the bed. He rakes the ground until it is essentially level, and creates a little dam at the slightly downhill end of the bed. Now he kneels, and using his index finger, draws an inch-deep channel in the dirt some ten inches out from the wall of the house.

He reaches into his pocket and brings forth a packet of snow pea seeds. The planting instructions promise bushes thirty inches tall—self-supporting. But Gerald knows the vines will be much taller than thirty inches and will require support to keep from sprawling. He wonders why the seed sellers boast that the bushes will stand on their own when they never do, and he smiles again, happy to know the gangly plants will need his bamboo poles and string.

He drops the pale green pearls into the rough channel—one pearl every three or four inches along the way—and covers them with the rich soil. Now he stands and treads on the row, pressing the dirt down upon the seeds.

The bright blue hose is nearby, the water running noiselessly onto rust red chrysanthemums—wild children of a housewarming gift from a thoughtful friend.

As he takes up the hose from the mums—survivors of a dry summer and his occasional neglect—he remembers his wife and the sorrow of their parting. Now he presses his thumb into the mouth of the hose and sprays the water onto the new bed of peas—the grayish soil turning black—and he remembers his wife’s ecstatic face as they mated on sun-dappled sheets.

The bed becomes a pool with spray dappling the surface—a rainbow appearing in the mist near Gerald’s hand.

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.

Outer World

Friday, June 5th, 2009

 

Marcia and I just returned from three weeks in the outer world. We gave nine house concerts, two bookstore performances, and visited a couple dozen bookstores from Mendocino all the way to Lummi Island, Washington and back, with layovers in Arcata, Coos Bay, Astoria, Seattle, Bellingham, Port Townsend, Portland, Medford, Ashland, and Sacramento. Our concerts were a mix of guitar/cello duets, cello solos, songs, and short stories. We had audiences as large as fifty, as small as five. Since I rarely go anywhere outside of the Big River watershed, this was a monumental and highly stressful journey for me. For Marcia it was pure fun.

Here are some of the things I discovered en route.

1. Nearly all the independent bookstores that don’t have some sort of café component are going out of business. Astoria’s most popular bookstore is a commodious joint called Godfather’s, a kind of coffee saloon with books surrounding an enormous bar, and Village Books in Bellingham has a great café above the store that keeps the cash flowing when book sales falter.

2. Bookstore owners tend to be highly suspicious of authors hawking their own books, especially books not published by multi-national corporations i.e. the New York houses. This preference for mainstream guck strikes me as ironic, but then again bookstores have to carry what they think people want to buy, and people usually want to buy what the multi-national corporations promote through their strictly controlled mass media.

3. The New York Times Bestseller List is owned by Barnes & Noble, and Barnes & Noble decides which books go on the list.

4. The economic meltdown is happening in a big way in Oregon and Washington. We drove through many neighborhoods in small towns and large towns where half the houses had For Sale signs out front, often with the asking price affixed to the sign.

5. As you drive through Oregon and Washington, whether on the coast highway or the interstate freeway, clear cuts are everywhere to be seen. Whole mountains are scraped clean of their forests, then sprayed with horrible poisons to kill all life save for the kind of tree the lumber companies want to grow back on the scraped land. These poisons are then washed by the copious rains into the soil and rivers, rendering most of Oregon and Washington highly toxic, however green and bucolic the countryside appears.

6. One wonders what all the talk of the Greening of America means in the real world. Seattle and Portland are both obscenely oversized and dysfunctional urban areas with no thoughtful planning evident, and the outlying areas of these overpopulated cities are wastelands of auto-centric sameness. We looked for but found little evidence of green or solar anything except in extremely affluent neighborhoods.

7. Many towns throughout Oregon, Washington, and California only have chain stores. Talk about ugly and depressing. In some towns there are official Historic Districts, and therein one might find a few non-chain stores, an actual bookstore (as opposed to a mirage), and possibly a non-Starbucks coffee house. Historic means Before the Chains destroyed America.

8. In small towns everywhere, often in the absence of any other sort of food-getting place, stand little buildings offering drive-thru coffee and stale cookies and/or biscotti. These diminutive buildings are called variously: Drive-Thru Espresso, Espresso Depot, Espresso Express, Espresso Stop, Espresso Unlimited, Espresso Extreme, etc. Time and again we would see these boxcar-like structures and realize they were very possibly the cultural apexes of the towns we were driving through.

9. Cell phones make of the world a surreal place. We do not have a cell phone, and so in order to make phone calls to friends we had to find pay phones. The surest bet to find a pay phone is at an official rest area on the interstate. Otherwise, pay phones are a vanishing breed. On a number of occasions I asked people where we might find a pay phone, and it was as if I had asked them to succinctly elucidate the meaning of life.

10. At these official rest areas along the interstate in Washington, free coffee is provided to weary travelers. The coffee we sampled at two of these rest areas had to be the worst coffee I have ever tasted. I would not have known it was coffee if they hadn’t said it was coffee. Perhaps this is intentional so people will be inclined to patronize Espresso boxcars.

11. You cannot pump your own gas in Oregon. This provides thousands of jobs for surly men and women who would otherwise be fired for surliness from some other job.

12. No one seemed to notice that we were gone for three weeks. It seemed to me we were gone for several months, but not a single person said, “Where have you been?” or “Haven’t seen you in a while.” This, perhaps, is the most important thing I learned from our odyssey. That no matter how profound my personal experiences, no matter how enormous the changes wrought on my psyche and spirit by all the incredible things that happened to us, no one really cares.

13. And why should they? The world is large. Humans are everywhere, and it is the rare human who doesn’t make a mess of things upon this fragile earth. Cars and television and cell phones and computers have separated us from the earth, and the evidence of that separation was everywhere as we traveled from here to Canada and back.

14. Is there hope for the future? Sure. Why not?

Todd’s book Buddha In A Teacup just won the 2009 National Indie Award for Excellence in Short Story Fiction.