Posts Tagged ‘piano’

Tober Finds His Way Part 4

Monday, March 18th, 2019

subtle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tober nods and thinks of Jasmy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am,” says Augie, raising his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” she says softly.

“Is this a good time to talk?”

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

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

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

“No wonder they call them smart phones.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a guess,” he says somberly.

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

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

“When would you like me to come?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      fin

Dane’s Uncle

Monday, December 31st, 2018

rosy cocoa

On a cold clear evening in late April in Mountain Home, Idaho, Dane Langley, seventeen, attractive and easy going, with his mother’s dark brown hair and olive skin, stands with his back to the fireplace, the fire burning brightly, and he feels the living room tilt slightly, as if the house has been unsettled by an earthquake.

“Wait a minute,” says Dane, frowning at his father. “You have a brother?”

Dane’s father Michael, forty-two, big and round-shouldered, with freckly white skin and short red hair turning gray, shifts in his armchair and says, “Half-brother. And I didn’t tell you about him until now because I never thought I’d see him again.” He makes a sour face. “And I never liked him.”

Dane glances at his sister Camille sitting on the sofa with their mother Doris, both women knitting. Camille is nineteen, her long brown hair in a bun, her considerable beauty mitigated by persistent sorrow. Doris is thirty-seven and might be mistaken for Camille’s older sister, though Doris is more stoical than sorrowful.

“Did you know he had a brother?” asks Dane, speaking to both Camille and Doris.

“No,” says Camille, looking up from her knitting, her face expressionless. “Younger or older?”

“Younger,” says Doris, continuing to knit. “Five years.”

Dane looks at Michael. “So why are you telling us now?”

Michael gives Doris a long look and finishes his bottle of beer. “Because he’s coming to town next week.”

“Why?” asks Dane, shrugging defiantly. “If you hate him so much?”

“Who said I hated him?” says Michael, shifting in his chair again. “Besides, he’s not coming to visit us, he’s coming to see your grandmother. Bring me another beer, would you?”

Doris shoots Michael the warning look she always shoots him when he has a second beer after supper. They have a hard and fast rule governing their marriage now: if Michael gets even mildly drunk, he has to sleep on the living room sofa until he calls his psychotherapist and makes an appointment, and if he doesn’t make that call within three days, Doris will divorce him.

“Because if you didn’t hate him, you would have told us about him,” says Dane, going into the kitchen, getting a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator, twisting off the cap, and bringing the bottle to his father. “Jesus, Dad, he’s your brother. Why wouldn’t you tell us? Does he have leprosy?”

“Don’t Jesus me,” says Michael, glowering at Dane. “You don’t know anything about it.”

“Obviously,” says Dane, handing the bottle to Michael. “Why don’t you like him?”

Michael takes a long drink before answering the question. “I don’t like him because my mother pampered him from the minute he was born and told him everything he did was wonderful, including shitting his pants, so he grew up thinking he was better than me and everybody else.”

“I can’t imagine Grandma Sue pampering anybody,” says Camille, keeping her eyes on her knitting. “She never pampered us, even when we were little and cute. Grandma Annie pampered us. Still does.”

“Oh my mother pampered him,” says Michael, bitterly. “He could do no wrong in her eyes, and then he ran away and broke her heart.”

Dane looks at his mother who is also focused on her knitting, and he surmises she knew Michael’s brother and probably went to school with him.

“Why is he coming?” asks Dane, aiming the question at his mother.

She flinches, but says nothing.

“He’s coming because he found out Grandma Sue is gonna die soon,” says Michael, squinting angrily at the fire. “And he wants to kiss her butt one last time so she’ll stop hating him before she dies.”

“That’s enough,” says Doris, silencing Michael with a stern glance. “He’s coming home because he loves his mother and wants to be with her when she dies.” She looks at Dane. “Grandma Sue doesn’t hate him, and neither do I. Only your father hates Theo.”

“Bullshit,” says Michael, sneering. “Lots of people hate him.”

The next day after school, a sunny Friday, Dane rides his bike to the Mountain Home Music School for his weekly piano lesson with Jerry Kauffman.

Jerry, sixty-seven, a portly fellow with a pompadour of wavy gray hair, opened the Mountain Home Music School forty years ago with a violin teacher and another piano teacher.

Ten minutes into the lesson, listening to Dane butcher one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words he played flawlessly a week ago, Jerry asks, “You okay? You nailed this thing last week.”

“Actually I’m not okay,” says Dane, feeling like crying. “Camille and I just found out my father has a brother, and nobody will tell us why they never told us before. I feel like they’ve been lying to us our whole lives.”

Jerry frowns. “They just now told you about Theo?”

“Yeah, last night,” says Dane, looking at Jerry. “Did you know him?”

“Very well,” says Jerry, his frown giving way to a smile. “I gave him piano lessons every week from when he was seven until he was nine and took up the guitar, and then he came for a piano lesson every month or so until he was twelve and started taking music theory and jazz at the community college.”

“When he was twelve?” says Dane, bewildered. “Was he some kind of genius?”

“Yeah,” says Jerry, laughing. “He was several kinds of genius.”

“Like what other kinds?” asks Dane, wanting to scream.

Jerry’s frown returns. “They didn’t tell you who he is?”

“No,” says Dane, more mystified than ever. “They just said his name is Theo and he’s the same age as my mom, only my mom wouldn’t explain why she never told us about him or why Grandma Sue never told us about him. And my dad said he didn’t tell us because he didn’t like him. That’s all the information they gave us.”

“Well…” says Jerry, looking away from Dane. “He changed his name. He’s not Theodore Langley anymore.”

“What’s his name?” asks Dane, urgently.

“I don’t think I should be the one to tell you,” says Jerry, glancing furtively at Dane. “They must have had a good reason for not telling you.”

Dane stares at Jerry in disbelief. “You won’t tell me his name?”

“I want to, but… no, I think it would be better if your mother or your grandmother told you?”

“How could I live in this town for seventeen years and never hear anything about my father having a brother? This is not a very big town. If he was such a musical wizard, how come you never mentioned him?”

“Because your mother asked me not to,” says Jerry, folding his arms. “So I never did. And then I stopped thinking about it, and… I’m sorry, Dane. I would love to tell you, but they need to tell you, not me. Okay?”

“So everybody in town knows who Theo is but me and my sister?” Dane gets up from the piano. “This is insane. It’s like a conspiracy. Why wouldn’t anybody tell us?”

“I don’t think anybody in town knows who Theo is now,” says Jerry, shaking his head. “Besides me and your folks and Sue.”

“Come on, Jerry,” says Dane, shouting. “Who is he?”

“Talk to your mother,” says Jerry, on the verge of tears. “After she tells you, I’ll tell you everything I know about him.”

Doris has been the sole legal secretary in the two-lawyer office of Marjorie Secomb and Philip Bradley for fourteen years now. Marjorie and Philip are married and have been Doris’s pals since childhood, and though they are serious lawyers, their suite of three offices is more like the set of a sit-com, Doris the straight woman to Marjorie and Philip’s endless anecdotes, quips, puns, and plays-on-words as they entertain a never-ending parade of colorful clients.

Dane rides his bike the mile from the Mountain Home Music School to the offices of Secomb and Bradley, and when Doris sees how upset Dane is, she informs Marjorie and Philip she’ll need a few minutes alone with her son, and closes her office door.

“Who is my uncle?” asks Dane, feeling like he’s about to explode. “Jerry said you told him not to tell me. Why would you do that? This is making me crazy, Mom. Why didn’t you ever tell us about him? Is he a mass murderer? Is he a rapist? Is he in prison?”

“Sit down,” says Doris, gesturing to the chair across the desk from her. “I’ll tell you.”

Dane sits and looks at his mother and wonders why such a generous and loving person would have married such an angry humorless man like Michael.

“Your uncle,” says Doris, closing her eyes, “is Carson Kincaid.”

The first thing that comes into Dane’s mind when he hears Carson Kincaid is the iconic poster of Carson’s album I, Vanessa, an ethereal vision of an exotic woman with long brown hair wearing a white gown and kneeling before an enormous statue of Buddha—the exotic woman and Buddha exchanging mysterious smiles.

“I, Vanessa?” says Dane, gaping at his mother. “That Carson Kincaid?”

“Yes,” says Doris, nodding solemnly. “That Carson Kincaid.”

“Is Dad’s brother?” says Dane, shaking his head. “Impossible.”

“Half-brother,” says Doris, opening her eyes. “Very different fathers.”

“Carson Kincaid?” says Dane, grimacing in disbelief. “Grew up here? In Mountain Home? He’s Grandma Sue’s son?”

“Yes, he grew up here,” says Doris gazing at Dane. “And yes, he is your grandmother’s son. And I’m so glad you’re going to meet him because he’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever known.”

“But why didn’t you tell us?” asks Dane, more confused than ever. “Because he’s gay?”

“First of all, he’s not gay,” says Doris, shaking her head. “And I’ve wanted to tell you forever. But when your sister was four and you were two, and Theo… when Carson’s first album came out, Michael was adamant that we never tell you and Camille about him. And because your grandmother and I were doing everything we could to help your father with his anger issues and his drinking and all the things you know he struggles with, we agreed not to tell you. And then it became our habit, and then Carson became so incredibly famous and…” She bows her head. “I’m sorry, dear. I wanted to tell you. A thousand times.”

“Did you go to school with him?” asks Dane, trying to think if there is anyone he knows, other than Jerry, who would believe that Carson Kincaid is his uncle.

“We were best friends from kindergarten until he left,” says Doris, smiling as she thinks of Theo. “And we wrote to each other for many years after.”

“How old was he when he left?” asks Dane, who daily dreams of leaving Idaho and moving to Portland or Seattle.

“Sixteen,” says Doris, her eyes full of tears. “And just between you and me, he asked me to come with him, but I was afraid to go.”

“So were you like boyfriend and girlfriend?” Dane blushes. “He wasn’t gay yet?”

“We were best friends,” says Doris, not wanting to complicate things with details of her love affair with Theo. “And he’s not gay. He sometimes impersonates a woman when he performs, but he’s not gay.”

“How can you say that?” says Dane, slapping his forehead. “He’s like the most famous gay guy in the world and he’s married to a famous lesbian, and everybody knows they adopted their kids and then pretended to have them. Come on, Mom. Have you seen his videos? How can you say he’s not gay?”

“Because he likes women,” says Doris, nodding confidently. “Sexually. He just likes to express his feminine side as Vanessa.”

“No,” says Dane, adamantly shaking his head. “He’s gay. I’m sorry, Mom, but he’s totally gay.”

“Well whatever you think he is,” says Doris, relieved to be speaking about Theo with her son, “he’s a sweetheart and he’ll be in town for a few weeks and you’ll get to know him.”

“I can’t believe this,” says Dane, still shaking his head. “Carson Kincaid? His videos get like ten billion views. He’s one of the most famous musicians in the world. He’s my uncle?”

“Everyone starts somewhere, honey.” Doris gets up and comes around her desk to Dane. “Now gimme a hug and get outta here. I have piles of things to get through before I can come home and make supper.”

Dane rides his bike from the offices of Secomb and Bradley to the Mountain Home Public Library, gets on a computer, goes to Wikipedia, and looks up Carson Kincaid.

Carson Xavier Kincaid (5 October 1982) is an American singer, songwriter, and performance artist. A virtuoso guitarist and pianist and composer, he is a leading figure in the music industry and is considered one of the most influential musicians and performers of the last fifty years. His most famous performance personas are Vanessa, a British chanteuse, Xavier Pierre, a French fop, and Jason Kingley, a manly man from the Canadian northwest. Kincaid’s music videos and movies featuring his various personas are enormously popular throughout the world.

Born in Lyon, France, Carson moved to Los Angeles with his parents, Mimi and Felipe Bordeaux, both chefs, when he was seven. Possessed of perfect pitch and a photographic memory, he taught himself to play the piano when he was five and took up the guitar at nine.

From the library, Dane rides to Gig Music where he takes twice-a-month guitar lessons from Gig Antonelli who went to high school with Doris. This isn’t the day for Dane’s lesson, but he knows Gig will be there, and he knows Gig had to have known Theo.

Gig, a beefy guy with brown hair falling to his shoulders, is standing behind the counter, selling electric guitar strings to Champ Harper, lead guitarist for The Bone Crushers, a local metal band.

“Hey Dane,” says Gig, who always sounds stoned even when he isn’t. “What’s happening, amigo?”

“I need to talk to you,” says Dane, smiling at Champ, who is huge and scary-looking, his head shaved, his nose, ears, eyebrows, and chin sporting all manner of brass and gold hardware.

“Uno momento,” says Gig, handing Champ a wad of change. “Gracias Champ. When’s your next gig?”

“This weekend in Boise,” says Champ, his voice high and sweet. “The Swamp. You should come.”

“I would,” says Gig, though he never would, “But mi esposa-in-law is coming to visit and I’m fully obligated. Break a leg, amigo.”

“Why do people say that?” asks Champ, frowning. “Break a leg? Seems stupid.”

“I think it’s like laughing in the face of death,” says Gig, smiling about his guess. “It’s like what bullfighters say before they go out to face a bull that might kill them.”

“What do they say?” asks Champ, who is often perplexed by Gig.

“Me cago en las botas de la virgen,” says Gig, his Spanish accent dreadful. “Which means, ‘I shit in the boots of the virgin.’ And the virgin they’re talking about is the Virgin Mary.”

“The Virgin Mary wore boots?” says Champ, scrunching up his face in doubt. “Since when do they have boots in the Bible?”

“Excellent question,” says Gig, scratching his head. “It’s been a while since I read the good book, but, you’re right, I don’t remember any boots in there. But that’s the expression. I shit in the boots of the virgin. Blaspheming in the face of death.”

“That would make a good song,” says Champ, heading for the door. “A bunch of expressions in a whole bunch of languages saying fuck you to death.”

“I can’t wait to hear it,” says Gig, winking at Dane.

“Yeah, me, too,” says Dane, waving goodbye to Champ.

“So what’s up?” asks Gig, grinning at Dane.

“Can I talk to you in private?” asks Dane, glancing at Beckman, Gig’s sole employee, a tall soft-spoken guy sitting on a dilapidated sofa putting new strings on a guitar.

“Sure,” says Gig, beckoning Dane to follow him to one of the little rooms where Gig and Beckman give lessons. “What’s going on?”

When the door is closed and Dane and Gig are sitting on the chairs they sit on for lessons, Dane asks, “Did you know my father’s brother Theo?”

“Of course,” says Gig, his smile disappearing. “Everybody knew Theo.”

“How come you never mentioned him to me?” Dane watches Gig’s face. “I mean… he played guitar, right?”

“Yeah,” says Gig, clearly uncomfortable. “But why would I have mentioned him? He left town before you were born and never came back.”

“And became Carson Kincaid?” asks Dane, doubtfully.

“What?” says Gig, grimacing. “You sniffing crack? Who told you that?”

“My mother,” says Dane, wondering why she would concoct such an outlandish lie. “She just told me.”

“Listen, I don’t know what Doris is smoking these days, but I grew up with Theo. We played guitars together and he was flat out awesome, okay? But he was a foot shorter than me and not gay. Not even a little bit. Carson Kincaid is six-three and he’s so queer it makes my teeth hurt. I love his music, but I can’t stand looking at him when he’s Vanessa. There couldn’t be two more different people than Theo and Carson Kincaid.”

“My mom says he’s coming to visit my grandmother,” says Dane, his head throbbing. “Grandma Sue. Before she dies.”

“Theo?” says Gig, dubiously. “Coming back here? I doubt it, but if he does, you’ll see he’s definitely not Carson Kincaid.”

“I didn’t think he was,” says Dane, shaking his head. “Wikipedia says he was born in France and grew up in LA, but my mom said he was born here and… I don’t why she would tell me that, but she did.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this,” says Gig, rubbing his eyes, “but I will because maybe it explains why she would invent something like that.” He ruminates for a moment, recalling scenes from long ago. “She was madly in love with Theo and he was pretty crazy in love with her, too. And when he left town, she was devastated. So was your grandmother. So was everybody who knew him. It was like… he betrayed us. You know what I mean? The way he left was insulting. Cruel. You know what I mean?”

“No,” says Dane, his heart aching. “How was he cruel?”

“He was our golden boy,” says Gig, rubbing his eyes again. “You know what I mean? Everybody loved him. And then one day, out of the blue, he’s gone. No goodbyes, no thank yous, no nice-knowing-you, no I’ll-be-in-touch. Just gone. I mean… it was such a shock most people in town thought he was dead. Killed himself or got murdered. Some people thought your dad killed him. Seriously. No offense, but Michael didn’t love Theo. Everybody else did, but not Michael. I don’t know why, but…” He shrugs. “Then a few months later your grandmother got a letter from Theo. From LA. So at least we knew he was alive, but that’s all we knew. And after a few years we forgot about him. I haven’t thought about him in fifteen years. I don’t know anything about him now. I didn’t even know he was still alive. But I do know he’s not Carson Kincaid. No way.”

Camille is just getting home from work—she’s a checker at Albertson’s—when Dane gets home from Gig Music and helps her carry in the groceries.

“You look terrible, D,” says Camille, putting the groceries away. “You okay?”

“No, I’m not okay,” he says, angrily. “Are you okay knowing we have an uncle they never told us about?”

Camille gazes forlornly at him. “What difference does it make? Our dear mother has stayed with that monster for nineteen years. That’s what I’m not okay about. Who cares if he has a half-brother he didn’t tell us about? Not me. The only thing I care about is saving a few thousand dollars more and then I’m getting out of this house and out of this town and never coming back. And I will keep praying every day for Michael to die and for Mom to leave him.”

“What about me?” asks Dane, feeling as desperate as he has ever felt. “Do you pray for me?”

“Every day,” she says, putting her arms around him. “I pray for you to get into a college far away from here. I’m happy you got accepted at Boise State, but that’s only an hour away, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed you get into a college in Oregon or California, or better yet the other side of the country.”

After supper, Camille goes dancing with her girlfriends and Michael falls asleep in his armchair after a few minutes of watching a basketball game on television. Michael drives a big collection truck for Waste Management and gets up every weekday at four in the morning, so he is usually asleep by eight at night, even on Friday and Saturday nights, though he doesn’t work Saturdays or Sundays.

Doris turns off the television, covers Michael with a down comforter, and she and Dane go out into the clear cold night to drive across town in Doris’s little electric car. Doris and Dane, and often Camille, too, visit Grandma Sue every Friday night, Dane bringing his guitar along to play folk songs Sue loves to sing with him and Doris and Camille.

Dane drives, and as they pull away from the house, he says to his mother, “I looked up Carson Kincaid on Wikipedia and it said he was born in France and grew up in Los Angeles. And then I asked Gig about Theo and he says there’s no way he could be Carson Kincaid.”

“So who are you gonna believe?’ asks Doris, arching an eyebrow. “Gig and Wikipedia or your mother who never lies to you?”

“Is it okay if I ask Grandma about him?” asks Dane, ignoring her question. “Because I won’t if you think it will upset her.”

“She won’t be upset,” says Doris, shaking her head. “I called her after I told you today and she wants to tell you about Theo.”

“What about Camille? Did you tell her?”

“Not yet,” says Doris, rolling her eyes. “She won’t believe me either, or if she does, she’ll be furious with me for not telling her sooner. So… all in good time.”

“It’s just so preposterous,” says Dane, stopping at a red light. “It would be like if Denny Cartwright told me he was the result of a one-night stand his mother had with Justin Timberlake when she was nineteen.”

“Now that’s preposterous,” says Doris, laughing. “Though I’ll bet Sara was a cutie pie at nineteen.”

The light turns green and Dane says, “Come on, Mom. Tell me the truth. He can’t be Carson Kincaid.”

“I told you the truth, honey,” says Doris, smiling out into the night. “The preposterous truth.”

Grandma Sue, sturdy and robust for eighty of her eighty-one years, is slender and frail now, but still able to get around on her own, though she no longer drives. She has a housemate, Lana, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Sue’s beautiful old house rent-free in exchange for housekeeping and cooking and grocery shopping.

Sue has lung cancer and her doctors have given her one more painful year to live, but she’s planning to stop eating and drinking all liquids, including water, starting a week from now, so she will die within a few weeks of beginning her fast.

“Here you are,” says Sue, greeting Dane and Doris at the front door, her long white hair loose from the daily bun. “Come and get warm by the fire.”

They sit in the living room, Dane commandeering his favorite armchair, Sue and Doris sharing the big sofa, and they have cocoa with a splash of Kahlua and just-baked oatmeal cookies.

After a few sips of cocoa, Sue says in her husky voice, “I’ve got pictures to show you, Dane. Of Theo and your father.”

“Theo who is Carson Kincaid?” says Dane, raising his eyebrows. “Your son is Carson Kincaid?”

“My little Theo,” says Sue, nodding as she sets her cocoa on the coffee table. “Come sit between us.”

Dane moves to the sofa, Sue to his right, Doris to his left, and Sue places a large blue photo album on his lap.

The first several photographs are of a scrawny baby with lots of hair, a baby who might be anybody; and in every photo the baby is smiling.

The next several photos are of two boys, the bigger boy is Michael at seven and eight, the littler boy is Theo at two and three. In every picture, Theo is looking up at Michael as if he is a god.

Dane turns the page and here are photos of Theo at six and seven, playing the piano, playing a ukulele, playing a banjo, and playing the guitar; and in every photo he is smiling rapturously.

The next two pages are photos of a camping trip in the Sawtooth Mountains when Theo was ten, Michael fifteen—Theo always smiling, Michael always looking glum. The last picture from the camping trip is of Sue and Theo and Michael standing by a beautiful lake. Sue and Theo are smiling at the camera, while Michael is looking down at the ground, glowering.

“Was my dad always unhappy?” asks Dane, never having understood his father’s persistent anger.

“Not when he was little,” says Sue, gazing at the fire. “He was a happy baby until he was two and his father and I went through a year of hell before we split up. And for a year after that he was very needy. I wouldn’t say he was unhappy, but he was clingy and never wanted to be apart from me. Then when he was four, I married Jeff and had Theo, and Michael was happy again for a few years. He loved Jeff and he liked having a baby brother who adored him until…”

She takes her time deciding what to say next. “…until Jeff died when Michael was twelve and Theo was seven, and Theo… eclipsed him.” She nods. “I think that’s an appropriate word. Theo started reading at four and doing all the problems in Michael’s Fifth Grade math books. Reading and writing and Algebra and Geometry and History and Science came so easily to Theo. He skipped Second and Third Grade and they wanted to skip him two more, but I didn’t want him to be separated from his age peers.” She frowns. “Michael always had such a hard time in school, while little Theo was composing eight-part choral works and playing the piano and was such a charmer, you know, and Michael felt… eclipsed. That’s the word that keeps coming up. Eclipsed. So Michael resented Theo, and when he was fifteen…” She clears her throat. “He… he started hitting Theo and… hurting him.”

“My dad hurt Theo?” asks Dane, whispering. “Badly?”

“Yes,” says Sue, turning the pages of the photo album until she comes to a photo of Theo at sixteen, a beautiful slender young man holding a guitar and gazing solemnly at the camera. “This is the last picture I have of Theo from before he moved away. Looks a lot like you, doesn’t he?”

“Sort of,” says Dane, nodding. “Though I’ve got my father’s nose and big cheeks. But, yeah, he looks a little like me, or I look a little like him.”

“I think you look a lot like him,” says Sue, turning to the last page in the photo album. “And this is me with Theo and his twins two years ago when I visited them in Los Angeles.”

“Oh my God,” says Dane, gasping at the picture of Sue holding a little brown baby and standing next to Carson Kincaid who is holding another little brown baby. “He is Carson Kincaid.”

“Yes, he is,” says Sue, putting her arm around Dane. “When he’s not in one of his disguises, he’s just a bigger version of who he always was. Those are your cousins Marcus and Fatouma. Their mother Mariama took the picture.”

“Where was this taken?” asks Dane, barely able to breathe.

“On the deck of their house in La Jolla,” says Sue, wrinkling her nose at the cute babies. “That’s the deep blue sea behind us. I’m sure you’ll visit him there someday.”

“Is he going to be here when you stop eating?” asks Dane, crying.

“That’s the plan,” says Sue, smiling brightly. “That’s what we agreed on a long time ago.”

“Did he leave Mountain Home because my dad was hurting him?” asks Dane, understanding so much about his father now that he never understood before.

“Yes and no,” says Sue, getting up. “I have something else to show you. Be right back.”

Dane turns to his mother and she hugs him.

“Theo left me this note when he went away,” says Sue, sitting beside Dane again. “Would you read it out loud, please?”

Dane takes the single sheet of handwriting from his grandmother and reads, “Dear Mama, Mama dear, do not worry, have no fear. I’m on my way, I cannot stay, I cannot wait another day. I’m in the way of Michael’s joy and though I’m still less man than boy, it’s time for me to find another place to be. But no matter where I go, you’re with me, you and Dor are in my bones and heart and mind, and every song I write is for both of you, and every accolade and brick of gold I earn belongs to you two, for I am made of your love. I am made of my mother and my soulmate Dor. We will never be apart in spirit, and we will be together again, our bodies and voices will be, you’ll see. I’ll call you soon. Love, Theo.”

Two days after Grandma Sue stops eating and drinking, she is sitting between Michael and Carson on the sofa in her living room, with Dane sitting in an armchair facing them.

Doris and Camille are in the kitchen with Lana making supper.

“I’ve been thinking back over my life,” says Sue, holding hands with her sons, “and I wonder if you can guess the scene I keep seeing over and over again.”

“You’re in the kitchen,” says Michael, gruffly. “It’s winter. Bitter cold outside. Theo is six. I’m eleven. Blizzard’s coming.”

“But the house is toasty,” says Carson, smiling over Sue’s head at Michael. “Mikey and I are out front making a snow man.”

“We get shivery cold and come running inside,” says Michael, looking at Carson and trying not to cry.

“We take off our wet coats and sit on the floor by the front door, helping each other pull off our boots,” says Carson, closing his eyes.

“The house smells so good,” says Michael, closing his eyes, too, “because Mom is baking cinnamon swirls and making cocoa.”

“We run into the kitchen, “says Carson, nodding as he remembers, “and Jeff is sitting at the table working a crossword puzzle.”

“We sit at the table with him,” says Michael, nodding, too, “waiting for Mom to serve us.”

“Now here I come with the cinnamon swirls and cocoa, and coffee for Jeff,” says Sue, smiling sublimely. “And we sit there, the four of us, cozy and happy, eating the swirls and drinking cocoa and coffee, and you both say at the very same time…”

“I hope it snows so much,” say Michael and Carson, their eyes still closed, “we won’t have to go to school tomorrow.”

“And it does,” says Sue, humming in delight. “So the next day we play inside all morning, and I decide to make an apple pie with the last apples in the cellar.”

“I’m afraid to go down there by myself to get the apples Mama wants,” says Carson, opening his eyes and gazing intently at Dane. “But Mikey comes with me, so I’m not afraid, not even a little.”

      fin

Mrs. Espy and the Hippy

Monday, November 26th, 2018

persimmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear M,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott arches his eyebrow. “Do tell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the whole traumatic scene comes back to her.

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

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

“Scott?” she says urgently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh Mrs. Espy, you flatter me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Zelman’s Van

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Zelman's Van

Zelman was born and raised in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. His given name is Zachariah Elman, though as far back as he can remember, which is thirty years to when he was three, his mother and father and older sister and younger brother called him Z.

At Cornell, where he majored in Music, his name appeared on the dorm roster as Z. Elman, and during a mixer on his first night of college, his inebriated roommate called him Zelman, and forever after he has been known as Zelman.

His senior year at Cornell, Zelman fell in love with the beautiful Mimi Osterwald, a Drama major, also a senior, and the summer after they graduated, they got married and moved to Queens, Mimi to pursue her acting career, Zelman to play guitar and piano and write songs.

Eleven years later, living in an apartment in Burlington, New Jersey, barely making ends meet, Mimi told Zelman she was involved with Albert Rosenstein, a television producer, and was moving to Albert’s apartment in Manhattan.

Unable to afford the apartment in Burlington on his own, Zelman gave two-weeks notice at the hotel where he played piano in the cocktail lounge, and two-weeks notice at the pizza parlor where he worked thirty hours a week. When his obligations to his employers were fulfilled, he loaded his clothes and books and two guitars and two ukuleles and a conga drum and bongos and maracas into his forest green 1972 Volkswagen van named Miles, and headed west, his destination Los Angeles where he had a college chum who was a recording engineer and had space in his living room where Zelman could crash for a while.

Zelman at thirty-three has longish brown hair, wears wire-framed glasses, and is slender for the first time in twenty years. He was never obese, but from puberty until recently he was more than a little chubby. Starting a year ago, he began swimming fifty laps every morning at the Burlington Aquatic Center, lifting weights for an hour every afternoon at the YMCA, and gave up beer, potato chips, and ice cream, all of which led to the disappearance of thirty pounds and the appearance of muscles.

As Mimi said several times in the weeks leading up to the end of their relationship, “Suddenly you’re all svelte and handsome. What happened to the sweet soft guy I married?”

“The sweet soft guy you married stopped feeling sorry for himself,” says Zelman, cruising along in the slow lane on Interstate 64 somewhere in Kentucky in late September, his van averse to going over fifty-miles-per-hour. “The sweet soft guy you married decided to stop partaking of your sob fest every night, which was apparently just a cover for your affair with that slimy putz Rosenstein who is old enough to be your father. Well, not quite.”

Zelman sighs as he does after every outburst concerning Mimi, his sigh an acknowledgement that he misses her, though he knows their relationship was founded on the expectation that whether they succeeded in their chosen careers or not, they would always live as comfortably as they had as middle class children and teenagers and young adults attending an Ivy League college; and when they could no longer afford to live so comfortably, their relationship began to founder.

“Which means she never really loved me,” says Zelman, exiting the interstate to get gas. “So did I ever really love her? Or was I just obsessed with trying to win her love because she was beautiful and vivacious and I was chunky and wimpy and thought if by some miracle she would love me, I would be transformed into…what? Not me?”

“What town is this?” asks Zelman, handing a twenty-dollar bill to the middle-aged Pakistani man sitting on a high stool behind the counter in the gas station quick-stop store.

“Which pump?” asks the Pakistani man, taking the bill from Zelman.

“Witch Pump?” says Zelman, wrinkling his nose. “Why would anyone name a town Witch Pump?”

The Pakistani man gazes stoically at Zelman. “Which pump do you want gas from?”

“Oh,” says Zelman, laughing. “Number Four. And can you tell me the name of this town?”

“Frankfort,” says the man, tapping the requisite keys on his computer to activate Pump Number Four.

Zelman is cleaning his windshield when a shiny black Porsche pulls up behind his van, and a man wearing black cowboy boots and black jeans and a red silk shirt and a black cowboy hat and dark glasses jumps out and says with a southern drawl, “Hello there. You want to make a quick hundred bucks?”

“Are you speaking to me?” asks Zelman, smiling quizzically at the man.

“I am,” says the man, taking off his dark glasses and blinking in the bright sunlight. “We’re shooting a music video just up the road here and if you’ll drive your van back and forth real slow behind the action, I’ll give you a hundred bucks cash. Take a couple hours.” He grins. “That’s a helluva van you got there, buddy. Iconic. 1973? 74?”

“72,” says Zelman, gazing fondly at his van. “My father bought it new when he graduated from college, and then he gave it to me when I went off to Cornell.”

“That’s not the original paint job, is it?” asks the man, frowning.

“No,” says Zelman, wistfully. “I did this by hand the summer after my junior year of college. Seven coats. Hence the profound shellac effect. Did you notice the thousands of tiny gold stars on the dark green? An homage to Seurat.”

“I did not notice the stars,” says the man, taking a closer look at the paint job. “Beautiful. You want the gig?”

“I do,” says Zelman, both curious and low on cash.

The action behind which Zelman slowly drives his van is performed by a troupe of nine amazingly limber female dancers ranging in age from seven to thirty, dancing with shopping carts in the big empty parking lot of a defunct mall. The dancers are wearing artfully ripped T-shirts of various colors tucked into white jeans, their feet shod in pink tennis shoes.

Burt Carlton, the man who hired Zelman and his van, is the producer of the music video. Vivienne Bartok, the director of the shoot, is small and slender and Russian, her black hair cut very short. She is wearing a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded blue jeans and red sandals. Zelman guesses Vivienne is about his age, though he also thinks she could be as young as twenty-five and as old as forty.

When Vivienne sees Zelman’s van, she gets very excited and says to Zelman with her charming Russian accent, “Here is what I want you to do. Drive by very slowly about ten feet behind the dancers, go out-of-frame, turn around, and then slowly return and stop right behind the dancers and stay there until they finish their routine. When the music stops, you will drive away and the dancers will chase after you with their shopping carts.”

The song for the video is five-minutes-long and features drum machines playing a syncopated rhythm over a great din of synthesized sound, the words of the three-note melody sung by a woman with a high screechy voice. For each of the takes, the song is blasted from a large speaker sitting atop the equipment truck. The first time Zelman drives by behind the dancers, he thinks the singer is saying, “You my slave.” When he drives back the other way and comes to a stop behind the dancers, he thinks the woman might be saying, “Glue my cave.”

In any case, Zelman loathes the song and hopes Burt and Vivienne won’t ask him to drive back and forth more than a few times.

After the third take, while the dancers take a break for water and to catch their breaths, Zelman gets out of his van and watches Vivienne direct her cameraperson to shoot close-ups of the golden flowers on the dark green.

“Is Zelman your first name or your last name?” asks Vivienne, pronouncing first fierce and last lest, which Zelman finds ironic and sexy.

“Both,” he says, looking around the parking lot at the dancers and the film crew and his old green van, and he is amazed to realize that just a little while ago he was driving along the interstate feeling as lost as he has ever felt, almost out of gas, and now he’s in Frankfort, Kentucky on a warm afternoon in early autumn, starring with his van in a music video and making a hundred dollars.

“What do you do, Zelman?” asks Vivienne, smiling curiously at him.

“I’m a musician,” he says, nodding to affirm this. “Piano and guitar and all manner of percussion. And I write songs. But I’ve had many other jobs to support my musical habit.”

“Have you got a demo I can listen to?” she asks, arching her eyebrow in a beguiling way. “Maybe this is why God brought you to me? I’m always looking for good songs.”

“No demo,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but if we can find a piano, I’d be happy to give you a concert.”

“We can find a piano,” she says, nodding. “But first, a few more takes of this dance with your van.”

Eleven more takes consume three hours, and dusk is descending when the assistant director finally says, “That’s a wrap,” and the film crew starts loading their cameras and lights and booms into the equipment truck; and the dancers get in their cars and drive away.

Burt hands Zelman a hundred dollars, ruminates for a moment, and gives him another hundred. “Woulda cost me at least three hundred to rent something like your van for the day. Thanks again.”

“Thank you,” says Zelman, shaking Burt’s hand. “Much appreciated.”

“Gotta run,” says Burt, winking at Zelman.

“Of course,” says Zelman, watching Vivienne talking to a crewmember, a handsome guy with a baseball cap on backwards; and as he watches her, he decides she was only making small talk when she said they would find a piano. Even so, he lingers a while longer in case she really does want to hear his music—and the longer he lingers, the more invisible he feels.

Now Burt pulls up beside Vivienne in his shiny black Porsche, she gets in, and they zoom away.

Zelman sighs, takes a moment to let go of his disappointment, climbs into his van, and starts his engine. And as he depresses the clutch and puts his hand on the 8-ball-knob of the stick shift, he sees a small peach-colored envelope affixed to the door of his glove compartment with a piece of pink duct tape.

So he kills his engine, opens the envelope, and finds Vivienne’s elegant gray business card with a note written on the back in the smallest neatest hand he has ever seen.

Z. Sorry for subterfuge. I’ll explain later. I’m at Brown Hotel in Louisville. Supper? My treat. Call me. V.

They partake of a delicious room-service supper in Vivienne’s plush suite on the third floor of the beautiful old hotel in downtown Louisville, the windows open, the evening warm and sultry. Vivienne is wearing a red T-shirt and pink sweat pants, Zelman a black T-shirt and baggy brown corduroy trousers, both of them barefoot. Vivienne has spicy prawns and mashed potatoes and a beet salad and two beers, while Zelman has fried chicken and mashed potatoes and string beans and a half-bottle of red wine.

They interview each other. Vivienne gets a quick overview of Zelman’s life, and Zelman learns that Vivienne is twenty-nine and emigrated to Los Angeles from Russia with her mother and father and younger sister when she was fifteen. While her father drove a taxi and her mother worked in a bakery, Vivienne suffered through a brief stint in high school before she landed a job as a gofer on the set of a movie produced by the father of a young man she met at a dance club. The gofer job led to more film production jobs, and she’s been in the movie biz ever since.

“I’m very ambitious,” she says, loading a small brass pipe with a glistening bud of marijuana. “I aspire to make feature films. But I actually have scruples, believe it or not.” She holds a match over the bud and takes a hit. “I don’t use sex to get what I want. I use my talent.”

She hands the pipe to Zelman, he takes a little hit, and hands the pipe back to her.

“You don’t smoke much pot, Zelman?” She arches a quizzical eyebrow. “Afraid you might say something you’ll regret?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I just…a little goes a long way for me.”

“Me, too,” she says, taking another hit and handing him the pipe again. “This is very mellow stuff. Good for talking and music.”

Zelman has another hit. “Your note said you would explain later. Explain what?”

“Oh Burt is in love with me,” she says, shrugging. “I give him no hope, but he has big crush, so…I have three more days working here and he would be jealous if he knew I invited you, so it’s better he doesn’t know. It will make the next three days less hassle for me if he doesn’t know. Unrequited love is one thing, but jealousy wrecks everything.”

“Whereas unrequited love inspires love songs,” says Zelman, finding her surpassingly lovely.

“Exactly,” she says, laughing. “He’s not a bad producer. Look how he found you and your van.”

“I can see why he’s in love with you,” says Zelman, gesturing as if presenting her to the world. “You’re a darling.”

“This is famous Chekhov story,” says Vivienne, nodding slowly. “The Darling. I am opposite of this character. Do you know the story?”

“I don’t,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “How are you the opposite?”

“She takes on ambitions of the men she marries. She cannot exist except as an assistant to powerful men, one after another. I have my own ambitions and I like being the boss. I like to collaborate, but not give up my power.”

“That’s why I love music,” says Zelman, itching to play a song for her. “I can play alone or share the magic.”

“There’s a piano in the ballroom they are not using tonight,” says Vivienne, having a last puff. “They said we could use the piano.”

Zelman is awestruck by the Steinway in the ballroom, a superb seven-foot grand in perfect tune, and being blissfully stoned, he launches into a jazzy bluesy improvisation full of longing and mystery that leads seamlessly into his song Nothing Anybody Says, his smoky tenor riding on glorious waves of notes and chords.

Now he looks up from the keys and sees Vivienne swaying to the music, her hands clasped, her eyes closed, a sublime smile on her face, and seeing her so enthralled by his music inspires Zelman to sing the last verse especially for her.

“What just happened?” she asks, opening her eyes and gazing wide-eyed at him. “You hypnotized me.”

“I played for you,” he says—a boy again, delighted by this enchanting girl who loves his music.

“Was amazing,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Come back to my room. We have much to discuss.”

In Vivienne’s room again, Zelman gets out his guitar and plays a rollicking samba-like tune with lyrics about the blurry line between love and lust, while Vivienne dances around the room with joyful abandon.

“Okay,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “here is my idea, Zelman. Yes, we are high and I must hear you again when I’m not stoned, but I know we can have big success together. First we will create videos that get hundreds of millions of views and then we make a feature film.”

“Videos of my songs?” he asks, sensing that isn’t quite what she means.

“Yes and no,” she says, picking up the hotel phone. “Hello. This is room 321. Can we please have coffee and cookies and French bread and butter? Yes, chocolate chip is fine. Thank you.”

“How yes and how no?” asks Zelman, trying and failing to imagine being married to Vivienne.

“The songs are important, of course,” she says, growing serious. “And your songs are wonderful, but without imagery they cannot prevail. Not today. The movies, the totalities of imagery and music, these are the songs now. Do you know what I mean, Zelman? If the Beatles came today and not sixty years ago their songs would be presented as soundtracks to little movies, otherwise we would not know of them. But more to the point, their songs would be designed to support the images. Songs now are subservient to imagery. Whether this is good or bad, I don’t know, but this is how things are. And this is what we can do together. Design music for movies and make those movies together.”

As he listens to Vivienne speak, Zelman realizes two things: he would love to be in a relationship with someone as straightforward and optimistic as Vivienne, though not necessarily with Vivienne, and he has absolutely no interest in designing music for movies.

The cookies and coffee and French bread and butter arrive, and after Zelman has two cups of coffee and a big piece of bread slathered with butter, he declares, “I’m going now, Vivienne. Take advantage of the caffeine high and eat up some miles on the empty interstate. I loved spending time with you. You’re wonderful. Thanks for everything.”

“Zelman?” she says, walking with him to the door. “I really like you. And I love your music. You will call me when you get to LA. Please? I really want to see you again, and I’m not just saying that.”

“I will call you when I get to LA,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I predict great success for you, Vivienne.”

“What about you?” she asks, taking his hand. “What do you predict for you?”

“A dog,” he says, embracing her. “I’d like to get a dog.”

“I like dogs, too,” she says, holding him tight. “Someday when I have a house with a yard, I will have a dog and our dogs will play together.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” he says, letting her go. “See you in LA.”

The next afternoon, Zelman stops at the FourWay Café in Cuba, Missouri, and as he peruses the menu, a woman wearing a billowy white blouse and a long rainbow-colored skirt enters the café, looks around at the twenty or so customers, sees Zelman, and crosses the room to him.

“Excuse me,” she says, her voice deep and warm, “is that your Volkswagen van out there? The green one with the gold stars?”

“Yes,” says Zelman, smiling at her. “Don’t tell me. You’re making a music video and want the iconic vehicle as a prop in your homage to the halcyon days of yore.”

The woman laughs and Zelman is struck by several things about her: how beautiful she becomes when she smiles, the jingling of her multi-faceted dangly silver earrings, the pleasant clacking of her three necklaces made of small chunks of turquoise, the sparkle in her blue eyes, the reddish hue in her long brown hair, the subtle Asiatic quality of her facial features, and the music in her laughter.

“I’m certainly dressed for such an homage,” she says, looking down at her billowy white blouse and rainbow-colored skirt and old leather sandals, “but I’m not making a music video, though I am a musician. No, I’m wondering about getting a ride with you to Arizona.” She pauses to see how Zelman reacts to that idea, and when he continues to gaze at her not unkindly, she adds, “For me and my daughter and our dog and our stuff. Our car blew up yesterday and I can’t currently afford the bus or the train or even to rent a car, but I can pay you three hundred dollars when we get to Arizona, assuming you’re heading west, which you might not be, but I thought I’d ask.”

“Are you and your daughter hungry?” asks Zelman, looking into the woman’s eyes and liking what he sees. “I would be happy to buy you lunch and we can see how we all get along. Or don’t.”

“We could use a meal,” says the woman, nodding thoughtfully. “But somebody’s gotta stay with the dog, so…”

They get their sandwiches and smoothies to go and dine on the tailgate of Zelman’s van.

The woman, Grace, is forty, a massage therapist, herbalist, and musician. Her daughter Teresa is fourteen, tall and slender with dark blonde hair in a ponytail that falls to her waist. She, too, is a musician. With them are two guitars, two violins, and two dulcimers.

The dog, Maurice, is a large seven-year-old Golden Retriever-Chocolate Lab mix, friendly, and keenly interested in food scraps.

They banter about this and that, enjoy each other, and Zelman is on the verge of agreeing to take Grace and Teresa and Maurice to Arizona, when Grace says, “We’re kind of in a hurry. I could trade off driving with you and we could go day and night without stopping.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to do that. For one thing, Miles, my van, can’t go over fifty and has to have a good long rest every seven or eight hours. With two more humans and a big dog on board, and all your stuff, forty-five would be the best we could hope for. Miles-per-hour. And then there’s me. I don’t like hurrying. Makes me anxious. I need to not be driving every other day or so. And also, though I’m headed for Los Angeles, I’m not keen on getting there any time soon, so hurrying is the exact opposite of what I want to do.”

Grace looks at Teresa, looks at the van, looks at Zelman, and says, “But if we go as slow as you want to, you’ll take us with you?”

“I will,” says Zelman, looking at Teresa and Maurice and Grace and their pile of instruments and suitcases and knapsacks and sleeping bags. “Assuming everything fits.”

 ∆

On the evening of his fifth day of traveling with Grace and Teresa and Maurice, Zelman sits by the campfire in their camping spot in Lake Scott State Park in western Kansas, listening to Teresa play her dulcimer and sing a song about a girl with hair of spun gold. Grace is walking Maurice on the path that goes around the little lake, hoping the dog will poop before bedtime.

The fire makes a loud crackling sound as Teresa sings the last note of her song, and Zelman hears the crackling as God applauding, and he applauds, too.

“Get out your guitar, Zelman,” says Teresa, her voice half a girl’s and half a woman’s, for she is still a girl though fast becoming a woman. “Let’s do that one you wrote about the guy going to the party.”

“You get out your fiddle, I’ll get out my guitar,” says Zelman, turning at the sound of Grace returning with Maurice and unhooking the leash from his collar so he can rush to Zelman and rest his snout on Zelman’s lap.

“Hey you,” says Zelman, petting the love-hungry dog and watching Grace and Teresa fetch their instruments from the van; and he knows he has never been happier than he is now.

fin

 

Guitar Porn

Monday, June 18th, 2018

musicsexlove

music sex love drawing by Todd

“The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” Lou Reed

I recently started playing the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, and after some weeks of aching fingers and sore wrists, I have regained enough of my former chops so playing is pleasurable and fascinating again.

The guitar I’m playing is not a very good instrument. I gave away my excellent guitar a few years ago when I was jettisoning things freighted with bad mojo. Now, as I practice on a lesser instrument, I don’t long for the guitar I gave away, but for a guitar of equal excellence. However, I have decided not to purchase a better guitar until I have gotten as good as I can on this little axe I bought to determine if the magic is still there. For some reason, I want to earn the right to own and play a fine guitar again.

That’s kind of silly, actually, because the better the instrument, the more pleasurable the experience of playing, which would be added incentive to practice and explore, but I am often kind of silly. This earning process feels right to me at this point in my physical and spiritual and emotional evolution.

Meanwhile, I occasionally receive musical instrument catalogues filled with photographs and descriptions of awesome guitars, and I find myself staring at these pictures as I might stare at photos of attractive women. I imagine holding those guitars and playing them and thrilling to the feel of them against my body as I strum them and their bodies resonate with mine. Hence the title of this essay: guitar porn.

Perhaps you know someone, most likely a man, who owns multiple guitars, and I don’t mean two or three guitars, but seven or nine or seventeen or possibly thirty-seven guitars—and perhaps he rarely or never plays these guitars. Nevertheless, having these guitars defines who he is—to himself and to others. Searching for guitars gives him purpose. Maybe he only allows himself to own a total of twelve guitars and he must sell one before he can acquire a new one. Or maybe there is no limit to how many he can have, and he recently built an addition on his house where he keeps his forty-nine rare and frighteningly expensive guitars in a dust-free humidity-controlled environment.

Once in my life, for about two months, I owned two guitars simultaneously. I might as well have brought a third wife into my house, my first two wives being my other guitar and my piano. There was no way I could give any of my wives the attention they wanted if I was trying to please three of them. Two I could please, but three was one too many. In my case, I was not collecting guitars just to have them, but to play them every day. I would guess that most people who own more than a few guitars do not relate to guitars as spirit beings incarnate as musical instruments, but I could be wrong.

At the moment, I have two pianos. I’m waiting to find out if the new grand piano in my life can be regulated and repaired so it becomes as fine an instrument as the upright piano I’ve had for forty years. They are very different instruments, so I might keep them both, though I think I will feel I am neglecting the upright if I choose to make the grand piano the main focus of my piano playing.

How do my pianos feel about my taking up the guitar again? I suppose if I played them less than I did before I resumed guitar playing they would be unhappy, but actually, playing the guitar seems to have increased my appetite for playing the piano. So they don’t seem to mind. They are more concerned about each other than they are about my guitar.

As it happens, I took up the guitar when I became a vagabond and could not carry a piano with me. After a few months on the road without a piano, in 1970, I bought a not-very-good nylon-string guitar in the famous gigantic Mercado de Guadalajara, and I played that guitar every day for three years until I bought my first steel-string guitar, a slinky little Ovation with which I became a professional guitar-playing singer songwriter.

Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, I sold the Ovation for a hundred dollars to prove to my crazy angry girlfriend that I did not need a guitar to feel okay about myself. However, the only thing I proved by not having a guitar was that I missed having a guitar or a piano or both. Some people are just happier with musical instruments than without them. I am one of those people.

Perhaps those people, mostly men, who collect multiple guitars would not be happy without their guitars even if they don’t play them. After all, some people collect pottery and don’t eat out of the pottery, and some people collect jewelry and don’t wear their jewels, but enjoy looking at them and fondling them. Some people collect porcelain figurines of cherubs and repulsively cute children that are easy to break and take up shelf space and collect dust. Some people have five dogs. Some people have seven cats. I have a neighbor with four vintage Toyotas. I’ve known women with hundreds of pairs of shoes. When George Harrison of The Beatles died, he left behind hundreds of ukuleles.

Life is mysterious, but one thing is certain: the day I walk into a guitar shop intending to buy an excellent guitar, I will activate those neurological sectors of my being that evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of looking for and finding love, and by love I mean powerful emotional and physical resonance.

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.

Hungry Deer

Monday, August 8th, 2016

birdbath and friends tw

Birdbath & Friends charcoal and acrylic by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

With that in mind this morning, I go out to water our apple trees.

When we bought our house and surrounding two acres four years ago, the place was a deer park, the seven dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees badly mangled by the deer and dying from lack of water. Our first large expenditure was to have a sturdy deer fence installed around the southern three-quarters of an acre with the house as part of that barrier.

We pruned and watered and fed the apple trees, and today four of the original seven are now robust and productive, one gave up the ghost, and the remaining two are still quite distressed and would like new basins free of redwood roots, more food, and more water.

This year the crop on four of the trees is spectacular and we attribute some of this to our monthly deep watering throughout the dry summer months. To that end, we installed a second water tank two years ago so we would be assured of a goodly supply for the orchard and our vegetable garden. The deer are as plentiful as ever hereabouts, and groups of them can often be found standing at the fence gazing longingly at the bounty they once had access to.

This morning, I open one of the sturdy gates leading into the orchard and leave it ajar a mere three feet. I set a hose at the base of one of the apple trees, head back to the gate, and here is a doe twenty feet on the wrong side of the fence making a beeline for the dwarf Red Delicious.

Fortunately, I opened the big gate outward, so the doe is easily cajoled into going out the way she came in. She must have entered mere seconds after I did—the entire incident lasting less than two minutes. I check to make sure no other deer have entered the protected zone, close the gate, and return to the house to set a timer lest I forget the hose is running.

Sitting at the piano, improvising on the theme of apples and deer, I look out the window with a view of the land we’ve left unfenced and see two does and two adorable fawns nibbling on anything digestible they can get their mouths on. Anything. They seem scrawny to me, the fawns especially so, and I recall our neighbor who feeds the local deer and goes to Idaho to hunt elk, telling me the forage hereabouts is not so good this year and the deer are not just hungry but stupid hungry and therefore more likely to get hit by cars.

The timer rings and I return to the orchard and decide to leave the hose running on that first tree for another half-hour. While I’m here I do yet another thinning of the apples lest various boughs break under the weight of the abundant fruit. I fill a big bucket of half-sized apples—reds, greens, goldens, yellows—and dump them on the north side of our house where the deer visit daily.

In my office, working on a poem, it occurs to me that I gave those apples to the deer today, rather than saving them for our neighbor’s horse who produces manure for our garden, because the doe that entered the orchard this morning communicated her hunger to me. Seeing the scrawny fawns was further impetus to feed the deer, not that a few apples will make much of a difference to their longevity, but I’m a sucker for fawns, so…

An email from Max in New Hampshire arrives, a missive jiving splendidly with my musings about deer and apples and music and poetry and Alan Watts writing about the universe being indistinguishable from how we act upon it.

“This evening I made an unexpected store run to pick up a couple of items, the prolonged dusk thrillingly muggy (unusually heavy humidity for our spot in New Hampshire) and inviting in the big thunderstorm I’d seen predicted for tonight. I had a most pleasant time zipping to the store and back, accumulating little moments—like in the grocery store produce section when I asked the young man wearing a white hairnet who was putting out produce if they had any ears of corn, and he looked at me with such gentle wonder and asked, “Ears?” and I made an ear-of-corn shape with each of my hands and he smiled and said, “Do you mean corn-on-the-cob?” And I said yes! He led me to the ears of corn and I thought maybe nobody calls them ears of corn anymore. But somehow this was delightful. Just the intrigued way he asked the question, “Ears?” like this was a whole new idea about corn, foreign to him, yet charming somehow. Anyway, the quick shopping done, I drove home with the windows down, feeling the excitement of the storm about to break, listening all the way home to the inspiring piano stylings of Mr. Todd Walton and boy did you sound fantastic! Everything seemed so right. And just as I was about to walk in the front door of our building, huge drops of rain started plunking down. By the time I arrived on the 5th floor, the rain was drumming down on the skylights above the hallway to our apartment, a great percussion accompaniment to my approach to the door. Perfect timing.”

 

Palmer Alaska

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

palmer alaska max

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Henry David Thoreau

When Marcia and I got together eight years ago, we embarked on a fascinating process of making a studio album with the help of Peter Temple, the recording savant of Albion. I played guitar and piano and sang, Marcia wrote and arranged and played gorgeous cello parts for our original tunes, and the late great Amunka Davila supplied tasty percussion. The project took several months longer than I thought it would and used up most of the money I’d set aside for such creative endeavors.

We were happy with the results, the CD entitled When Light Is Your Garden, and when the manufacture of the album coincided with the birth of my books Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books, we decided to go on a tour of the Northwest and see if we could sell some product and have fun while we were at it.

We gave concerts in bookstores, libraries, restaurants, and private homes from Mendocino to Lummi Island, our enthusiastic audiences ranging in size from three to sixty people. By the time we returned to Mendocino, our songs had changed dramatically, we had added some jazzy instrumentals to our repertoire, and we decided to make a second album entitled So Not Jazz. When that CD—more of a live affair—was finished, we gave one final concert together at Preston Hall in Mendocino, took our bows, and settled down to life without the stress of performing together.

Marcia returned to her classical music pursuits, and I embarked on a piano journey that has resulted in five CDs—43 short piano improvisations, Ceremonies, Incongroovity, nature of love, and Mystery Inventions (bass and piano duets)—with a sixth piano album in the works. That is the back-story, as they say in Hollywood.

So here I am with boxes of seven different CDs. No longer a giver of concerts, I nonetheless want to share my creations with the world. The contemporary course of action is to make little videos with the songs as soundtracks and post those videos on YouTube with links to download and streaming sites. I don’t know how to do any of that (I’m the president of the Advanced Techno Doofus Society) and I don’t have the money to pay someone to make little movies for me, though I have lots of good ideas. Our tunes are downloadable from iTunes and Amazon and CD Baby and other sites, but the challenge is convincing people to take a listen and possibly purchase the albums or individual songs.

My main course of action has been to try to get radio airplay. Not Internet airplay. Old-fashioned radio airplay. To that end, I have used the Interweb to search out the playlists of DJs all over America, and when I find one of those extremely rare people open to playing music by someone other than the hyper-famous, and that person spins music kin to ours, I send them a letter and a likely CD, wait a few weeks, follow up with a query, and monitor their playlists for a few months to see if he or she plays us.

In the past seven years I have sent my/our music to approximately three hundred DJs and music directors at dozens of itsy bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot public radio stations. I have discovered that if a station runs Democracy Now! for their national news, they might possibly be home to DJs open to our music. If they play National Public Radio, forget about it. As for the larger commercial stations, only corporate product need apply.

So far, my hundreds of hours of research and courtship have garnered a handful of DJs across America who play our albums on a semi-regular basis, including Tom Cairns KHSU Arcata California, Jim Roettger WMRW Warren Vermont, Cindy Beaulé WFHB Bloomington Indiana, Peter Poses KRFC Fort Collins Colorado, and Carol Newman KMUN Astoria Oregon. Alas, our own KZYX grants us a spin only once every seven blue moons, which makes me sad, in a local sort of way, but such is life.

The recent good news is that in my ongoing quest for likely DJs, I found the playlists of a fellow in Palmer Alaska, population 5,900, home of the Alaska State Fair, and his musical choices gave me hope. I sent him my piano CD Incongroovity. Months went by. He fell off my list of playlists to check. Then last month I did my annual visitation of the last fifty DJs I’ve sent music to, and lo, Mike Chmielewski KVRF Palmer Alaska had played several cuts from Incongroovity! I sent him a thank you email and shipped him our other CDs. And verily he has been playing our music like crazy, and by that I mean two or three songs a day.

True, we are not being heard by a great many people, but our tunes are wafting out into the pristine Alaskan air, night and day, and for the likes of me this is mightily inspiring. Every artist wants to be seen and heard and appreciated by someone else. The thought that Marcia’s gorgeous cello solo floating atop my rhythm guitar on “Samba For Mooli” might cause someone doing the dishes to stop scrubbing for a moment and allow those dulcet tones to tickle their fancy is gigantically pleasing to me.

So I shout to Marcia when I discover we’ve had another play in Palmer, “Honey, we’re still going strong in Alaska.”

Todd and Marcia’s CDs are available from UnderTheTableBooks.com and are widely downloadable, too.

Sources of Wonder

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

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

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

Marcia and I watched the movie Source Code last night and I loved it. I very rarely watch American movies and almost never watch films containing more than a suggestion of violence, and this movie was made by Americans and is full of violence; yet I did not feel I was watching a violent movie, nor did the film seem remotely American. I will not spoil the show by telling you the plot, but I will say that for me Source Code beautifully and skillfully explicates the Buddhist notion of karma and how through our actions and intentions we create our future.

I was thinking about Source Code this morning while walking on Big River Beach, amazed by how vivid everything looked and felt to me, as if the movie had somehow altered my perceptions. And then I realized I was in a state of wonder, that my personal cares and woes were no longer holding sway as they so often do these days, and I was inseparable from the wind and the roaring of the waves and the ravens gliding through the air and the sand underfoot. I was only there, it seemed, because all these other things were enlivening me, and in their absence I would disappear.

When I got home from the beach, I sat down at the piano and played with such ease and fluidity I was in heaven, and I knew the movie was working in me, though I couldn’t say how. I played and played, riding the waves of sound and marveling at the multitudes of harmonies—the entire escapade improvised yet sounding entirely composed—my hands and fingers guided by muscle memory and forty years of learning to be open to what wants to come through.

 “One never knows how one’s gifts to the world may brighten it for others and contribute to the ever-changing mystery.” Taylor Stoehr

I correspond regularly with three men, and each is a source of wonder to me. Max is about ten years younger than I, Bob is exactly my age, and Taylor is eighteen years my senior. Max is an artist and musician, Bob a former video producer turned Special Ed teacher, and Taylor is a retired English professor, poet, and translator. I am very interested in these guys and what they think and do, and they are interested in me. I have never met Taylor in-person, only met Max in-person a couple times thirty years ago, and only see Bob once a year, though for fifteen years we lived a few blocks apart and we saw each other every day.

These three men are my best friends, other than Marcia, and when I think about the truth of that I am both amazed and grateful—amazed that we have such rich connections through the words we write, and grateful that these sweet souls care enough about me to stay in touch over so much time and space. Their letters always induce in me a state of wonder in which I become for a time inseparable from their thoughts and feelings—a holiday from inhabiting this separate solitary self.

“‘I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit, sometimes, or sometimes an evil imp,’” said the lama, smiling slowly.” Rudyard Kipling

When I was in my early forties, I met a British fellow at a party and we got talking about our favorite authors, and he was wildly effusive about Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the novels of Russell Hoban. I had never heard of Hoban and had only read a short story or two of Kipling’s in my childhood. Because I was ever in search of great writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore in Sacramento, Time Tested Books, and got Hoban’s first three novels, The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz, Turtle Diary, and Kleinzeit, along with a beat up paperback of Kim.

You may have heard of Turtle Diary, which was made into a charming movie in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Each of Hoban’s first three novels is quite short, with chapters only a page or two in length. I gobbled those books and liked them pretty well, though the greatest gift I got from them was to be on the lookout for Hoban’s next novel, Riddley Walker, which is Hoban’s masterpiece, though not an easy read. Written in the imagined vernacular of a twelve-year old boy two thousand years after nuclear war has laid waste to the earth and the English language, I needed three determined tries at the book before my brain was able to translate Hoban’s disintegrated English into something I could understand—but I was glad I made the effort.

Reading Kim, on the other hand, was a complete life changer for me. I have now read Kim ten times in the last twenty years, having consumed it most recently a year ago. When I read Kim, I lose myself entirely in the language and the story, and always emerge from the experience deeply inspired to continue my creative pursuits, to amplify my spiritual investigations, and to relish every moment of life I am given.

For some years I urged everyone I knew (and even people I barely knew) to read Kim, but few of those who read the book on my recommendation found it to be the holy book it is to me. And more than a few women said the book was a male fantasy and not for them, and more than a few people said they thought the story dated and the writing florid, and some said Kipling was a racist and a sexist; and so I have ceased to recommend the book to anyone without massive disclaimers. Still, I read Kim every two years and the grand saga never fails to be a fabulous source of wonder and rejuvenation for me.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

In 1979 I was living in Santa Cruz and frequently attended concerts at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a small joint in those days where jazz people with weekend gigs in the Bay Area would come down to give Monday night performances. One Monday evening I got to the venue early so I could sit close and watch Roland Hanna play. I had seen Roland when he was the pianist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I loved his playing on Jim Hall’s Concierto album, but I had never heard him play solo.

Roland Hanna was sometimes called Sir Elf because he was short and because he’d been given an honorary knighthood by the king of Liberia. But he became a giant to me that night, playing so melodically, so thoughtfully, so spontaneously, and with such groovy swing, that I walked out of Kuumbwa feeling blessed and more determined than ever to keep pursuing my own piano explorations.

My favorite Roland Hanna album was Swing Me No Waltzes, solo piano recorded in Sweden in 1979 on a Bösendorfer grand piano. I wore that record out; my favorite tune Roses Not Mums. Fast-forward several years to a jazz joint in San Francisco, Roland Hanna to play solo piano. Once again, I was there early so I could sit close, except there was some snafu with the club manager who didn’t know anything about anything and was insisting Hanna get a trio together because that’s what had been advertised. So Hanna’s manager got on the phone, and while the maestro sat in a booth sipping wine and waiting for a bass player and drummer to show up, I got up my nerve and went over to tell him how much I loved his music.

To my amazement, Hanna gestured for me to sit opposite him in the booth, which I did, and after I blurted something about seeing him at Kuumbwa and loving Swing Me No Waltzes, he smiled and said, “You play?”

“Um…well…yeah, though…”

He shook his head. “No though, man. You play. Own it.”

“Okay,” I said, sudden tears in my eyes. “Okay. Yes, I play.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.” He sipped his wine. “I like to play for players. You know? Because you guys get what I’m doing in a deeper way, you know?”

He was talking to me as a fellow musician, miracle of miracles, though he knew nothing about me. And then I realized he did know something about me. He knew I loved his music, especially Swing Me No Waltzes, which was an esoteric and wholly original creation, and my naming that album must have told him many things about me, about my taste and my personality. Or so I decided to believe.

“What’s your favorite tune on that record?” he asked, reaching up to shake the hand of one of three bass players who’d showed up in hopes of gigging with him.

Roses Not Mums,” I said, nodding. “Such a great tune, such an amazing journey.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said, nodding in time with me, “but I don’t play that tune anymore. Wrote it for my favorite bass player, and since he died I don’t play it now. But I will play something you’ll dig, I promise.”

I dug everything he played that night, and when he died ten years ago at the age of seventy, I played his music day and night for three days, thinking of him, loving him, hearing him say again and again, “No though, man. You play. Own it.”                        

Practice(ing)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

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

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.