Posts Tagged ‘rain’

Tober Finds His Way Part 2

Monday, March 4th, 2019

rainy web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goodbye Tober,” says Amelia, speaking English.

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

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

 ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

  ∆

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old are you?” he asks innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ∆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the clouds burst and heavy rain begins to fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Café,” she says, pointing west.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome

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

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

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

Jasmy Beckman

ORDERING CHAOS

Violin and Vocals

Studio Work & Special Events

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

 fin

Gig’s Baby

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Todd's Elk Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        fin

Play Ball

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

 play ball

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

“When they start the game, they don’t yell, ‘Work ball.’ They say, ‘Play ball.’” Willie Stargell

The day before Opening Day of Baseball Season 2015, Lon Simmons died at the age of ninety-one. Lon and his broadcasting partner Russ Hodges were the San Francisco Giants radio announcers when I was a boy and a teenager, and Lon’s voice and laconic style are etched in my memory as deeply as the voice of any close relative.

Opening Day 2015 was five days ago as I write this, and in the first game of the new season the Giants eked out a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in our usual nail-biting fashion. Our super hero starter Madison Bumgarner pitched seven dominant innings and left the game with a four-run lead courtesy of our boys hitting singles and doubles in bunches. Our bullpen promptly gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth and we went to the bottom of the ninth clinging to a one-run lead.

Then our closer, Santiago Casilla, struck out slugger Paul Goldschmidt to end the game and we were undefeated in 2015. Until the next night when Bruce Bochy revealed his biggest flaw as a manager—leaving pitchers in games when those pitchers clearly have nothing left in the tank.

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Yogi Berra

From 1979 until 1996, with a two-year break from 87-89, Hank Greenwald was the incomparable radio play-by-play guy for the Giants. He was laid back and funny and a wonderful storyteller, and when his long stint as the Voice of the Giants ended, I seriously doubted there would ever be anyone good enough to fill Hank’s shoes.

But a year later the magnificent Jon Miller took the radio reins along with former Giants infielder Duane Kuiper, and five years after Jon took over, David B. Flemming, a young upstart, now approaching middle age, joined the team. Excellent game-callers all, Miller is the top bard and comedian of the bunch and a brilliant imitator of other famous baseball announcers. When the Giants play the hated Dodgers, Jon always does an ear-perfect Vin Scully and makes me glad we have Jon and Duane and Dave announcing our games and not the venerable and uninteresting Scully. That’s a Giants fan talking. In Los Angeles, Vin is God.

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” Leo Durocher

I listen to games on a little silver Sony transistor radio. I take it to the garden, set it on the counter while I’m doing dishes, stand it in the cup holder in our ancient pickup, and frequently take the little thing to bed when games run past my bedtime.

To celebrate the season opener, I empowered my trusty radio with two new batteries and listened to the game under the influence of a miserable cold. As bad as I felt, I was happy listening to the game, and even happier when we won.

With the world going up in flames, the state suffering from catastrophic drought, lunatics and criminals running our government, and over-population synergizing with global warming to spawn more and bigger disasters, why do I care if a man on the radio describes how one team of baseball players prevails over another team of baseball players? I care because I am hard-wired to care, and I did the wiring myself.

I was nine when the Giants came to San Francisco in 1958. Having teethed on Seals games, I was a rabid Giants fan from Day One. I memorized batting averages and earned run averages and home run numbers, and I listened to every single game. Indeed, the ongoing challenge of my childhood was how to listen to night games broadcast after my bedtime.

Transistor radios were not widely available until the 1960’s, and the radio I listened to in the 1950’s was the size of a shoebox, made of steel, and full of tubes that got so hot when activated by electricity that the radio was too hot to touch. Many a night I fell asleep listening to Lon Simmons preaching on that hot box hidden under my covers, the volume so low it was only audible to my ear resting an inch from the hot metal, and therefore inaudible to my mother and father who believed sports were stupid and bad and would keep me out of medical school should I live so long. And on a few occasions, as I drifted off to dreamland, my ear would touch the hot metal and I’d wake with a start, yelping in pain.

“Now there’s three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win or you can lose or it can rain.” Casey Stengel

The Giants, as you probably know, have won the World Series three times in the last five years after not winning a World Series since the Pleistocene. Now that we have won again and again and again, my fellow tribe members and I expect to go to the World Series and win the trophy every year. How could we so quickly forget more than half a century of losing? Must be genetic.

I listen to Jon and Dave and Duane describing nine men playing a game against nine other men and I see the game vividly in my mind’s eye. In fact, the game I imagine while listening to Jon Miller paint word pictures is far more complicated and beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than games I see on television.

Marcia and I don’t have a television. If we had one, I would watch baseball, football, basketball, tennis, volleyball, golf, bowling, and documentaries about tree sloths, though not hockey or car racing. I wired myself to listen to baseball games on the radio, but humans are born wired to watch television. Having figured this out a long time ago, I realized if I wanted to do anything with my life other than watch television, it would behoove me not to have one in my house. Fortunately, Marcia is of the same mind, and she digs listening to baseball games on the radio, too.

Last Beans

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

last beans

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

Step out onto the Planet.

Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

 Inside the circle are

300 things nobody understands, and, maybe

nobody’s ever really seen.

How many can you find?

                                                                                    Lew Welch

Rained almost an inch today in Mendocino, October 23, 2014. Will we look back from drier times and say, “Remember when it rained almost a whole inch in one day?” Or are we in for years of deluge? Most weather scientists think we’re in for a multi-decade drought, but the globe has so many feedback loops, known and unknown, currently looping and feeding back in ways we barely understand that five years from now California could be getting a hundred inches of rain a year. Or no rain at all. Or a hundred inches one year and none the next.

In the meantime, some things have carried on as per usual. The redwood roots have swarmed into our vegetable beds and made of them non-beds until I dig all those roots out in the spring and give us seven months to grow things before the redwood roots conquer our garden again. Veteran vegetable growers in my watershed shake their heads at my annual root digging and suggest we get big boxes with impenetrable bottoms and sides and admit defeat. Now that I have attained the ripe old age of sixty-five, we’ll see how I do next year battling the roots, and then I’ll decide whether to surrender to boxes or keep fighting.

Our vegetable plants are giving us their last tomatoes, string beans, carrots, basil, and lettuce, while the kale and parsley soldier on, redwood roots be damned. There is something especially poignant about these last few suppers made with our garden-grown goodies, these last days before we start buying vegetables shipped from warmer sunnier climes and inland greenhouses.

The apple trees have been prolific hereabouts this year, our kitchen table covered with bowls brimming with apples crying to be made into applesauce, apple juice, apple crisp. And we grew some nice sweet pumpkins, a victory given our proximity to the coast and the cool foggy summer. Just outside my south-facing office is a patch of ground twenty-feet-long and seven-feet-wide in which I planted tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, and beans, nowhere else on our property hot enough and sunny enough to grow such vegetables so well.

And the last potatoes are yet to be harvested. I’m waiting until Thanksgiving, barring an early frost, before I dig up the gangly plants and see how many pink red orbs the earth gods give us. The mid-summer harvest was spectacular, but this end-of-the-year patch has had almost no warm days and very little sun. I love growing potatoes. The plants are fantastical when they burst from the ground and grow by leaps and bounds in their first few weeks in open air. I love not knowing what each plant might produce, the size of a potato plant no proof of how many or how large the tubers she might produce.

I once grew a spectacular potato bush in Sacramento that was five-feet-tall and five-feet in diameter and green as Ireland. Visitors to my garden stood before the mighty thing as if they were in the presence of a god, which they were. I was sure that massive green thing would produce a bushel of spuds, but the gorgeous giant only birthed two golf-ball-sized potatoes, while seven feet away a wimpy little scraggly thing produced a dozen two-pounders. Mysterious, humbling, fun.

The blessed rain falling, darkness coming earlier and earlier every day, the fire in the woodstove a necessity as much as a pleasure now, the woodshed reassuringly full, the last beans clinging to the wilting vines—winter coming, such as winter comes in California. My friends who live in New England scoff when I speak of our seasons. I think they have northern California confused with southern California, but I don’t argue with them because I know how proud they are of their long icy winters that make our winters, rainy or not, seem mild by comparison.

Buddhism warns us not to compare ourselves to others. Buddha declared such comparing a form of jealousy and a mental trap, an obstacle to clarity of mind. Maybe so, but when I see somebody growing better bean plants than mine, I can’t help but compare. And through comparison, minus jealousy, we may learn how to grow better bean plants.

These are also the last days of baseball season. As I write this the Giants have split the two opening games of the World Series with the Kansas City Royals, and by the time you read this, one of those two teams will have won the World Series. If the Giants win the series, happiness will reign in our town and at our post office and all over northern California for many days. Millions of World Series T-shirts and hats and sweatshirts and jackets will be sold throughout the Giants’ kingdom and around the world. If Kansas City wins, the people of Kansas City will feel special and good and buy many baseball-related products.

The last beans, the last baseball games, the last days of October, the setting back of the clocks, the early darkness, the cold mornings, the match igniting the paper to ignite the kindling to ignite the logs. Thank you Frank’s Firewood for your foresight and full cords. Thank you forest earth gods (trees) for giving of yourself so we may be warm. The last days of the American empire, the last pickle in the barrel, the last bit of mayonnaise at the bottom of the jar. Is there another jar in the cupboard or will mayonnaise go on the list? Is it time to give up mayonnaise? No.

The last post-it of the pad of post-its on the kitchen counter. Is there another post-it pad in the top drawer of my desk or will post-it pads go on the list? We make our shopping lists on post-its, so if there are no post-its, on what will we make our lists? I remember life before post-its. I remember life before answering machines and cell phones and computers and email and big screen televisions and e-books and digital everything. I grew beans then and I grow beans now. Beans and baseball and the dark coming earlier and earlier until the Winter Solstice dawns.

 

After Rain

Friday, December 24th, 2010

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser Christmas 2010. I am grateful to Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella for giving me the space to share my fiction and non-fiction with their readers.)


After Rain

1

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

“I think,” says Bob, scratching his scalp through his wiry white hair, “I was writing a poem in that dream.”

A slender man, Bob often thinks of his bowling ball of a beer drinker’s paunch as a tumor, ugly and discomfiting, yet benign. He is also handsome and remarkably graceful, yet wholly unconscious of those traits.

Bob consults his Gauguin calendar on the kitchen wall to confirm the moon will be full tonight, and here is Christmas three days in the future, Christmas reminding him of his son Daniel who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, and of his daughter Alice who calls him on his birthday in June to give him a rundown on how she’s doing, only she never gets very far before she starts taking other calls, and Bob grows weary of being put on hold so he hangs up and she doesn’t call him again until his next birthday.

His children remind him of his house in Sacramento that is no longer his house, and of his wife Andrea who is someone else’s wife now, which makes him think of the thirty-three years he worked for the state because he couldn’t imagine any other way to give Andrea and Daniel and Alice what he thought they wanted. Oh, how he hated that mind-numbing job of incessant phone calls and emails and senseless meetings to organize seminars on traffic abatement when all he ever wanted to be was a poet.

He recalls the bad air, the crowded malls, and the countless things he bought for his wife and children because he felt he had to buy them. He remembers Daniel and Susan tearing open their gifts, both starving for what was never there. He remembers sitting in church feeling cold and tired and bored and false.

All of which brings to mind the annual trip in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Sacramento to San Jose for Christmas eve and Christmas morning with Andrea’s parents, and gobbling breakfast while ripping open presents before jumping back in the car for that hellacious drive to San Luis Obispo for Christmas supper with his mother, the children squirming and miserable in the backseat, Andrea vowing for the millionth time, “Next year we make a choice,” but they never did.

Bob’s dog yips three times in quick succession.

“Sorry, pup,” says Bob, turning away from Gauguin’s portrait of brown-skinned women in paradise.

Boots, a yearling Malamute, huge and black, sits at the front door waiting as patiently as he can for Bob to let him outside to chase the delicious scents of deer and rabbit and coyote.

“Here you go,” says Bob, opening the door for Boots and letting in the sweet mountain air.

Bob has lived on String Creek for two years now, the nearest town Willits—a slow, bumpy, half-hour drive away. When he was a young man living in a garret and striving to write good poems, he dreamt of living in a fertile valley such as this, a valley surrounded by wilderness, but in those youthful dreams he was not yet bitter, nor was he so entirely alone.

He steps out onto the front porch and watches Boots race across the meadow and leap over the little stream that is String Creek, a tender flow not three-feet deep where salmon will soon be arriving at their journey’s end. Bob didn’t believe the realtor when she told him that salmon, big salmon, swam up the mountain every year to spawn in the tiny creek. “They swim hundreds of miles from the ocean,” she said matter-of-factly, “and climb two thousand feet to spawn right here in your own backyard. How’s that for a selling point?”

The idea of enormous fish finding their way to a stream that was no more than a trickle in September seemed so preposterous to Bob that he banished the thought until the week before Christmas last year. And then, after unceasing torrential rain kept him inside for six days, Bob braved the deluge and went out to walk his twenty acres; and there were the salmon, beaten and bloody, crowding the rain-swollen creek to birth their next generation.

And when he saw those salmon in the little creek, the wall around Bob’s heart came tumbling down. He wanted to shout and weep in amazement and grief and triumph, but no shouts or tears escaped him. Still, he wanted to weep, and this was enough to inspire a new poem, the first he’d written since the birth of his daughter thirty years ago.

But a few days later, Bob woke to find the wall around his heart rebuilt, and no more poems came to him. So he cursed himself for failing as a poet and for selling his soul for money and for being a terrible father and a rotten husband and a disgraceful human being, and he burned the new poem.

Boots returns to Bob, laughing in the silent way dogs laugh.

“Smells good out here,” says Bob, scratching the big pup’s head. “I’ll get my boots on Boots and meet you down the road.”

Reassured by Bob’s voice and touch, Boots races away to sniff the myriad traces of animal news.

2

Are we expressions of dreams?

Bob walks north on the valley road, moving slowly until exertion lessens his stiffness. The air is icy, the sky void of clouds, the sun an hour away from cresting the ridge.

“Gonna finally have some blue sky,” he murmurs, smiling in anticipation of meeting Boots along the way, their day officially begun when they return home together, Boots to come and go as he pleases, Bob to spend time in his woodshop making beautiful little boxes, and in his living room sitting by the woodstove reading history and short stories and poetry. And after supper, Bob will play Scrabble and chess with himself at the kitchen table before moving into the living room to practice Bach For Beginners on an old teak upright piano until he’s good and tired and ready for bed.

Afraid the pup would run away and be eaten by coyotes, Bob kept Boots inside all day and on a leash whenever they went out until Boots was five months old. But now that the dog is so huge, Bob’s fear has largely subsided, though he still worries when Boots is gone for more than an hour or so; and he keeps him inside at night.

3

Are we flesh and bone bagpipes

to be filled with air and played?

There are eight homes on String Creek, and everybody knows everybody else, except for Bob, who made it perfectly clear from the outset he wasn’t interested in making friends with anyone. Indeed, to this day he never waves when he drives past other people coming and going in their cars and trucks, nor does he wave to people working in their orchards or out chopping wood or walking their dogs. He is a recluse and his neighbors leave him alone.

As he approaches the house of his nearest neighbor, a modest one-story home watched over by five colossal oaks, Bob is surprised to see a woman in the road. She is wielding an axe and striking ineffectually at a tangle of enormous oak limbs that have fallen across her drive and trapped her car. Small and pretty with gray hair in a ponytail, she’s wearing brown boots, black jeans, and a black Giants sweatshirt—a strong, healthy woman, but no match for the massive branches.

Bob has met this woman twice before. The first time was on his third day in the valley when she came to his house to welcome him with a bottle of red wine and a bouquet of yellow roses. He declined her gifts, saying he didn’t drink wine, which was a lie, and that he was allergic to roses, which was an even greater lie since roses are his favorite flowers. And the second time he met her was a few months ago when she walked Boots home after the pup spent the morning playing with her dog. On that day, she caught Bob out chopping wood and managed to tell him a little bit about herself before he escaped. She is German, a therapist of some sort, lives alone, has children and grandchildren, and is exactly Bob’s age: sixty-six.

“Do you have a chainsaw?” asks Bob, surprising himself by asking. “I can clear a path for you to get your car out.”

“Oh, thank you,” she says, her blue eyes sparkling. “I have one in my tool shed. Would you mind? I’m picking up my friend in town. She came all the way from Switzerland to celebrate the solstice with me.”

“But first I need to get my dog,” he says, hurrying past her. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Oh, I’ll send Lily to get him,” she says, looking toward her house. “She and Boots are good friends.”

Bob is about to decline her offer when a big wolfish white dog appears beside the woman and gazes at Bob with her big brown eyes.

“Go find Boots,” says the woman, touching Lily’s head. “Bring him home for snacks.”

Lily sings a high musical note and runs away.

“Are you sure she knows what you mean?” asks Bob, suddenly aware of the musical burbling of String Creek.

“Oh, yes,” says the woman, beckoning him to follow her. “She knows exactly what I mean. And she knows my feelings, too.”

“I had a cat,” says Bob, recalling his long ago life when his greatest joy was to be writing a poem he thought might be good. “A big orange tabby. And she always knew when I was sad.”

“What would she do when you were sad?” asks the woman, turning to look at him.

“She’d come to me and mew until I picked her up and held her.” He smiles wistfully. “But only when I was sad. Her name was Athena.”

“I had a wonderful cat, too,” says the woman, sighing. “A gray tabby named Omar, after the baseball player. But she killed so many birds and then a coyote killed her so I never got another one.”

Bob blushes. “Forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“Irene,” she says, bowing in a sweetly clownish way. “Irene Weintraub.”

“Bob,” he says, bowing a little, too. “Bob Webster.”

“So how do you like living so far from town?” she asks, her accent beguiling. “We’ve all been wondering about you.”

“Oh, really?” he says, oddly flattered. “What have you been wondering? Whether I grow pot or not? I don’t.”

“No, it’s just that most people who come to live on the creek only keep to themselves for a year or so before joining in or running away, so…”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m here to the bitter end.”

“Why so grim?” she asks, pouting sympathetically. “When the air is so sweet.”

4

hungry animals

Irene’s chainsaw is out of gas and in need of oiling. She finds some oil, but her gas can is empty.

“Do you have a length of hose?” asks Bob, glaring at the funky old chainsaw. “For siphoning gas from your car?”

“My car is electric,” she says, apologetically. “The man who cuts my wood brings his own fuel.”

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” says Bob, turning to go. “I’ve got a much better saw and plenty of gas.”

“Great!” she says, calling after him. “You’re a prince, Bob.”

5

desperate criminals

Bob likes Irene. He admits this as he jogs back to his house. And he likes that she needs his help, which reminds him of how he met Andrea.

He was shooting hoops at McKinley Park in Sacramento when Andrea walked by disconsolately pushing her flat-tired bike. Bob had a pump on his bike and offered to fill Andrea’s tire so she could ride a bit further before having to walk again. He ended up riding with her and pumping up her tire every few blocks until they got to her house.

6

lost children

Bob eats two bananas and three big handfuls of almonds to give him energy for the work ahead. Now he loads his saw and axe and toolbox and gas can into his pickup; and as he is about to get into his truck, he realizes that he is happy. So he stands still for a long moment and enjoys the rare sensation of being eager to help someone.

7

visionary geniuses

Irene comes out of her house as Bob is inserting his earplugs.

“Good news,” she says, smiling warmly. “My friend, her bus is delayed, so we have extra time to clear things.”

“Extra time,” says Bob, daring to return her smile. “What a concept.”

“All the time in the world,” she says, laughing. “In no time at all.”

“I should have this cleared by then, I think,” says Bob, putting on his work gloves. “I hope.”

“You’re an angel,” she says, gazing fondly at him. “My savior.”

He pulls the cord and his saw roars to life.

Irene covers her ears and retreats into her house.

Bob lowers the whirring blades onto the bough and braces himself as the teeth bite into the wood.

8

earthworms

Eleven months ago, on a rainy day in January, Bob was driving into Willits to buy his suicide kit—a gun and bullets. On a hairpin turn halfway to town he came upon a little girl, barefoot and filthy, carrying a cardboard box.

Bob stopped to see if he could help her, and she said, “My dad wants to drown them so I’m going to Safeway in Willits and give them away.”

There were four pups in the box, three dead, Boots barely alive.

Bob steps back as the blade comes through the bottom of the bough, his seventh cut complete. He shuts off the motor and sets the saw down. His heart is pounding, his shirt soaked with sweat, his beard and face and hair covered with sawdust.

Irene brings him a big glass of water. “Boots and Lily are in the kitchen,” she says, speaking loudly so he can hear through his plugs. “I think I will keep them inside so they don’t run off. Lily hates chainsaws.”

“Thanks,” he says, gulping the water. “Big old tree. Too bad so much had to come down.”

“Yes,” says Irene, taking his empty glass. “But I can use the firewood, and now I will have more light in winter.”

“The benefits of tragedy,” he says, laughing self-consciously.

“The opportunities of crisis,” she says, dancing away.

9

indigenous hominids

Bob has been working for three hours and is exhausted, the driveway not yet clear.

“Help me,” he whispers, speaking to God. “Help me do this.”

He tries to lift the saw to start the next cut, but his arms are too tired. So he kills the motor and sits down on the last bough he has yet to clear, the largest of them all, and recalls the last time he saw his son.

Five years ago. Sacramento. Bob arrives at Daniel’s house in River Park to visit Elise, his beloved grandchild. She is four years old, Bob’s only certain joy in those terrible days of his horrid divorce and the nightmarish selling of his house and the humiliation of training his replacement for that insipid job that defined him for thirty years.

After a few beers, Bob begins disparaging Andrea.

Daniel interrupts and asks to speak to Bob outside.

On the front lawn, the Gingko leaves turning yellow, Daniel says, “I don’t want you saying bad things about Mom in front of Elise. It isn’t fair. She wants to love you both. Needs to, Dad. She needs to love you both.”

“Fair?” says Bob, trembling with rage. “Was it fair that bitch used me for thirty years and dumped me like so much garbage?”

“That isn’t true,” says Daniel, shaking his head. “You used her as much as she used you.”

Bob explodes—blasting his son with cruel obscenities.

Daniel goes inside and closes the door.

Bob lifts his head as a big brown United Parcel Service truck comes around the bend and stops a few yards from Bob’s pickup.

Now a beautiful man with creamy brown skin hops down from the truck and says, “Sorry to bother you, but could you move your truck? I have a package for Bob Webster. Last house on the road.”

“I’m Bob Webster,” he says wearily. “Trying to clear this tree so Irene can get out.”

“You want some help? I’m Alfredo Lopez. Brought you a million books from Amazon. I wondered if I’d ever get a look at you.”

“I hide whenever you come,” says Bob, laughing at how silly he has been for so much of his life. “But now I’m too tired to hide.”

“I’ll get my earplugs,” says Alfredo, hopping back into his truck. “You lend me your gloves, I’ll get that last limb for you.”

“You’re a prince,” says Bob, slowly rising to his feet. “Thank you.”

10

goldfinches diving out of the sky

Driving home from Irene’s, Boots beside him in the cab, Bob begins to shiver violently.

Too exhausted to bring in his tools, Bob barely has the strength to open his front door.

His heart beating erratically, Bob somehow manages to take a shower and crawl into bed.

11

angels descending with wings extended

Bob and Alfredo hover in the air over String Creek, the tender flow dammed with logs and debris. Below the dam, hundreds of salmon lay gasping for oxygen in the dry beds.

Bob and Alfredo attack the dam with huge electric carving knives.

The dam gives way and Bob runs down a wooden tunnel into the living room of his old house in Sacramento where Daniel and Alice are hiding behind an unadorned Christmas tree.

Bob sings to his children, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

And here under the tree, presented on a red pillow, is the package Alfredo brought.


12

and golden slippers touching down beside the river

Having slept through the night and most of this next day, Bob wakes to the slow steady beating of his heart.

He gets out of bed, his arms and legs aching from yesterday’s labor—dusk giving way to moonlight. He feeds Boots, starts a fire in his woodstove, and runs a hot bath.

And as he watches the water tumble from the spigot into the tub, he conceives the letter he will write to Daniel and Susan and Andrea.

Greetings from String Creek

I hope you’re sitting down when you read this so you don’t fall over in amazement and hurt yourself. Ahem. As you know, I have been a self-righteous, self-loathing, self-pitying jerk for a very long time, and you have suffered greatly because of my actions toward you. I don’t expect you to forgive me for being so unkind to you, or to believe me when I say I have changed, but I want to invite you back into my life, however that may manifest. Maybe we could write to each other. Or maybe you could come and visit me. And should you invite me to Sacramento, I will come in peace as a friend.

From now on I am going to make a conscious effort to live my life with an open heart and an open mind, and do my best to eschew (gesundheit) blame and shame and judgment. I want to love you, nothing more.


13

we kneel to kiss the lucid flow

Lying in his hot bath, Bob weeps for the first time in three decades, and when he is done weeping, he laughs.

14

and imbibe the divine infusion

Bob goes out naked into the moonlight, his body steaming, and immerses himself in String Creek.

Now he hears splashing downstream—the salmon coming home.

15

clarity after rain

Bob shaves off his beard and dresses warmly for the walk to Irene’s. But before he and Boots leave the house, Bob opens the package delivered by Alfredo, a package from Bob’s granddaughter Elise who is nine-years-old now.

Her gift to Bob is a turquoise T-shirt, turquoise being Bob’s favorite color. Across the chest in purple thread she has carefully embroidered

I  AM

ELISE’S GRANDFATHER


16

After Rain

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

Are we expressions of dreams or

flesh and bone bagpipes to be filled

with air and played or hungry

animals or desperate criminals or

lost children or visionary geniuses

or earthworms or indigenous

hominids or goldfinches diving out

of the sky or angels descending with

wings extended and golden slippers

touching down beside the river

where we kneel to kiss the lucid

flow and imbibe the divine infusion

of clarity after rain?

(Photo by Marcia Sloane)