Posts Tagged ‘short story’

Maybe’s Good Used Stuff

Monday, February 11th, 2019

Maybe's Fire

Dylan Russell, forty-seven, widely known as Maybe, owns a store called Good Used Stuff on Highway 211, two miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River on the far north coast of California. Quite a few locals call the store Gus, and more than a few of those locals think Maybe’s name is Gus.

Maybe started telling people his name was Maybe when he was three-years-old. He was born in a small town in British Columbia, the middle child of his mother’s five kids. His mother’s name was Sylvia Bresson. She had her first two children with a man named Alvin Stillwater. Then she married a man named Clement Russell, and almost exactly nine months after she married Clement, Maybe was born.

So one day when Maybe was three and trailing after Clement in the hardware store, the clerk asked, “That your boy, Clem?”

And Clement shrugged and said, “Maybe.”

Titus Troutcatcher, Maybe’s neighbor, calls Maybe Raven; and Leona Chan, a bartender at Gypsy’s, calls Maybe Turq because most of Maybe’s shirts are turquoise and the exterior of Maybe’s house and the wooden floor of Good Used Stuff are both painted a soothing pale turquoise.

Unbeknownst to the public—and even Maybe sometimes forgets about this until tax time—the official name of Good Used Stuff is Found Treasure. That’s the name that appears on Maybe’s business license and on his business checks, which he rarely uses. And the reason no one knows Found Treasure is the official name of the business is that the first sign Maybe put up on the south side of the building, the side facing Highway 211, on the very first day of business nineteen years ago, was GOOD USED STUFF, the words hastily scrawled with a fat black felt pen on an eight-foot-length of butcher paper.

Two days later, business booming, Maybe put up a second somewhat smaller butcher-paper sign that said Buy Sell Trade. The next day, he put up a third sign that said Local Produce & Art, his fourth sign said Exquisite Driftwood & Rocks, his fifth Chairs & Tables, his sixth Potted Plants & Wood Carvings, his seventh Tools & Furniture & Whatnot.

Six months after opening shop, when Maybe finally finished carving the letters of the large wooden sign he had intended to affix above the front door of the storea massive plank of white cedar with ornate Gothic letters spelling Found Treasure—everybody in the county was calling his store Good Used Stuff; and Maybe had come to prefer that name, though the store carried as much new stuff as used stuff.

So he placed the finished Found Treasure sign on the biggest table in the store along with several other one-of-a-kind signs, and a wealthy couple from New York City bought the Found Treasure sign to mark the driveway of their beach house in Amagansett; and they were gleeful to get the sign for a mere three thousand dollars plus exorbitant shipping costs.

The aforementioned seven butcher-paper signs have since been replicated as handsome wooden signs that are affixed to the outside wall facing Highway 211. The largest of these wooden signs is a fourteen-foot-long, two-foot-tall rendering of GOOD USED STUFF securely bolted to the wall above the very wide red front door.

Good Used Stuff occupies a high-ceilinged room seventy-feet-long and fifty-feet-wide, essentially a barn with lots of windows and no loft. Three large fans hang above the airy space, their swirling rattan blades circulating the heat rising from an enormous black woodstove that dominates the northwest corner of the vast interior.

One of the many interesting things about Good Used Stuff is that a surprisingly large percentage of tourists who stop here do the following: they get out of their cars, gaze in wonder at the surrounding giant redwoods, climb the four steps to the long front porch, enter the store through the very wide red door, give the contents of the enormous room a cursory glance, and immediately skedaddle because they perceive the store to be nothing more than a repository of useless junk. Maybe calls these people Superficialists and makes no effort to override their first impressions.

Maybe’s house is not visible from the road or from Good Used Stuff unless one is standing on the roof of the store; and then one can see his house over a little rise a hundred yards to the north, a two-story turquoise building centered on a massive wooden platform suspended twenty feet off the ground in a ring of seven gargantuan redwoods.

The extra-wide front door of Maybe’s house, painted a fanciful magenta, opens onto a first floor featuring a large living room, kitchen, and bathroom, while the second floor has two small bedrooms, a large study, and a small bathroom. A wide metal stairway rises from the forest floor to the spacious deck surrounding the house, the wideness of the stairs and the extra-wide front door intended to enhance the schlepping of furniture up and down the stairs and in and out of the house—one of Maybe’s passions being the frequent changing of his home decor.

Maybe is five-foot-ten, fit as a fiddle, with longish brown hair, pale blue eyes, a slender nose, kindly lips, and a broad chin. He shaves every three or four days, and now and then grows a mustache, though he never keeps his mustaches for long. A wearer of khaki trousers and the aforementioned turquoise shirts, Maybe wears brown suede loafers when working in Good Used Stuff, sturdy boots when moving heavy things or operating a chainsaw or using an axe, and otherwise goes barefoot.

Friendly and thoughtful and a preternatural money maker, Maybe has not had a steady girlfriend since he moved to the Eel River watershed from Canada twenty years ago when he was twenty-seven. His reputation among local gals is that he is relationship averse. However, when the aforementioned Leona Chan, she who calls Maybe Turq, spent the night with Maybe for the first time four years ago, she asked him if the rumors of his relationship aversion were true.

Maybe pondered Leona’s question and replied with his slight western Canadian accent, “No, I love being in relationships. I just no longer have any preconceived notions about how long they should last or what form they should take. I used to aspire to lifelong monogamy. But after being married for seven disastrous years to a woman I should have spent two happy days with and not a minute more, I find it much more satisfying to let relationships be whatever they really want to be.”

And thereby hangs this tale.

A few miles inland from Good Used Stuff, at the end of a dirt track that goes unnamed on official maps of the area and is known to locals as Snake Creek Road, there stands an old farmhouse lovingly renovated by the current owners, Sharon Quincy and her sons Tober and Augie, both young men born in that farmhouse.

Sharon is thirty-nine, a New Jersey transplant, five-foot-three, strong and pretty with short brown hair and dark blue eyes. A former ballerina and grocery store clerk, Sharon is currently a violinist in the Eureka Symphony, a teacher of violin and guitar, a gardener and beekeeper, and plays guitar and violin and sings in the Snake Creek Quartet.

Tober is sixteen, six-foot-two, broad-shouldered, with long brown hair and his mother’s dark blue eyes. A home-schooled high school graduate, Tober is a gardener, carpenter, collector of stones, plays violin and sings in the Snake Creek Quartet, and recently started working at Good Used Stuff four days a week from eleven in the morning until closing time around five.

Augie is fifteen, a muscular five-eleven, with short red hair and emerald green eyes. He, too, is a gardener and carpenter, plays guitar and sings in the Snake Creek Quartet, and is attending classes two days a week at College of the Redwoods in Eureka with thoughts of becoming a chiropractor or a psychotherapist or both. Or neither.

Every Thursday afternoon for the last fifteen years, Sharon has delivered several dozen eggs and several jars of honey to Good Used Stuff, for which Maybe pays considerably less than Sharon sells her eggs and honey to the many people who buy directly from her. Maybe displays the large blue and brown and speckled eggs prominently on the Local Produce table, doubles the price he pays Sharon, and never fails to sell all the eggs by Friday afternoon and all the honey by Sunday.

He would gladly buy more eggs and honey from her every week, but because she can make so much more selling her produce to customers happy to pay twelve dollars for a dozen of her delicious eggs and twenty-two dollars for a big jar of her ambrosial honey, she does not sell Maybe more than she does.

Why, you may ask, does Sharon sell any eggs and honey to Maybe if she can make so much more money selling them otherwise? Because fifteen years ago when she was new to the area, had two babies to take care of, didn’t yet know many people, and was desperate for money, Maybe bought her eggs and honey and gave her cash she desperately needed. And until eleven years ago, when she started working as a checker at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, the money Maybe gave her was her only steady income.

Moreover, several times during her first few years of living on Snake Creek Road, Sharon borrowed money from Maybe to help her get through particularly difficult times, and when she would try to pay him back, he would say, “Oh just bring me cookies next time you make a batch for the boys,” or “How about a bag of veggies when your garden’s going good?”

Which is why she continues to sell eggs and honey to Maybe at a discount and will do so for as long as her chickens keep laying and her bees keep making honey.

So… 52 times 15 is 780, which is the number of times Sharon has brought eggs and honey to Maybe, give or take a few times.

And every single one of those times, Maybe has looked at Sharon and thought, “God what a lovely woman, what a splendid person.”

And every single one of those times, Sharon has looked at Maybe and thought, “What a charming man, what a generous soul.”

Which is to say, they have admired each other and liked each other from the moment they met, and the thirty-three times in those fifteen years when Maybe attended parties on Snake Creek Road, fifteen of those parties at Sharon’s house, they always had a fine time talking to each other and singing together and a few times dancing.

Yet though they have both been single for all but two of the fifteen years they’ve known and admired each other, neither has ever initiated any sort of anything the other might construe as the other wanting to even see about the possibility of possibly embarking on some sort of relationship beyond the friendship they’ve had from the outset of knowing each other.

It isn’t that Maybe hasn’t fantasized about making love with Sharon—he has, many times—nor is it that Sharon hasn’t daydreamed about being lovers with Maybe—she has, many times; but something has kept them from tampering with the undeniably sweet and satisfying connection they have with each other.

Furthermore, neither of them has ever told anyone, even their closest friends, about their imaginings of a relationship with the other, and so their separate secrets are a bond they feel when they are with each other, though neither is conscious of the other’s dreaming of a deeper intimacy between them.

On a warm day in early September when Tober was six and Augie was five, Sharon took them to a beach near the mouth of the Eel River, and while Sharon and Augie built a sand castle and flew a kite and threw a ball for their two dogs to chase, Tober searched for what he called special stones, his favorite thing to do whenever they visited the ocean.

Augie sometimes searched for stones, too, but he was more interested in flying kites and watching shorebirds and trying to understand why some waves were small and other were large, things like that. He appreciated the stones Tober found, but hunting for them was not his bliss as it was Tober’s.

And on that warm summer day, after several hours of culling the deposits of small stones exposed by the extremely low tide, Tober found four special stones, one jade stone as big and perfectly round as a golf ball, one radiantly blue stone the exact size and shape of a large chicken egg, one brilliant reddish orange stone the exact size and shape of a silver dollar, and one emerald green stone as big as an almond shaped like a teardrop.

At Tober’s request, Sharon made him a small black velvet pouch for these stones, and he carried the pouch of stones in his pocket whenever they went anywhere away from home. When Sharon asked him why he always took the stones with him when they’d go away from Snake Creek Road, he said the stones were protection against anything bad befalling them. When she asked him how he knew this, he said he didn’t know how he knew, but he was sure it was true.

Then six months after Tober found those four special stones, on a cold Thursday afternoon in March, Tober, now seven, and Augie, now six, went with Sharon to deliver eggs and honey to Maybe at Good Used Stuff.

The boys loved going to the gigantic store and seeing what Maybe had acquired and gotten rid of since their last visit. If Sharon wasn’t in a hurry, they might get to visit the woodshop where Diego Fernandez built tables and bookshelves and chairs, and Thomas Morningstar carved statues of animals and masks. And Diego might let them use the lathe or help them make something out of wood scraps, and Thomas might give them a carving lesson.

But on that day six months after Tober found those four special stones, after Sharon earned a brand new hundred-dollar bill for her eggs and honey, Maybe said, “Hey come see the amazing thing I got in trade for an antique sofa.”

Sharon and the boys followed Maybe to an area of the store where objects too large or too heavy to display on tables stood on the floor with enough space around them so customers could easily circumnavigate each of the objects; and here was a massive quartz crystal boulder weighing several hundred pounds, half the crystal pink quartz, half white quartz.

“Wow,” said Sharon, dazzled by the crystal boulder. “Wouldn’t that go good in my garden? How much are you asking for that Maybe?”

“Hard to say.” He shrugged. “The worth of things, you know. A mystical conundrum. What is the price of something beyond compare? Two thousand dollars?”

Augie looked up at Maybe and asked, “May we touch it?”

“Sure,” said Maybe, winking at Augie. “Thanks for asking.”

The boys placed their hands on the crystal, and after a long moment of silence Tober said, “It’s very beautiful, but it doesn’t have a lot of energy. Maybe it wants to be outside.”

“What do you mean by energy?” asked Maybe, frowning curiously at Tober.

“I mean like this one,” said Tober, getting his pouch of stones out of his pocket and handing Maybe the radiant blue stone that looked exactly like a chicken egg if a chicken egg turned to stone.

“That is one beautiful rock,” said Maybe, feeling nothing from the stone except coolness and smoothness.

“Can you feel the energy?” asked Tober, watching Maybe expectantly.

“No, but it feels good,” said Maybe, handing the stone back to Tober. “And it’s very beautiful. Where did you find it?”

“About a half-mile north of the mouth of the Eel,” said Tober, returning the stone to his pouch and wondering why Maybe couldn’t feel the energy coming from the stone.

“You have others like that?” asked Maybe, smiling hopefully at Tober.

“Not like that one,” said Tober, shaking his head. “But they all have energy.”

“Do you know Titus Troutcatcher?” asked Maybe, looking at Sharon. “He lives about a mile from here with his wife Tina.”

“We’ve heard of him,” said Sharon, wishing they could stay longer but needing to get home to herd their forty chickens into the coop and milk their two goats before dark. “He helped Fiona Marsh with her migraines. She hasn’t had one in two years since she went to see him.”

“Titus would be very interested in those stones,” said Maybe, wishing they could stay longer but sensing they needed to go. “He could tell Tober a lot about them. I’ll invite him to come by next Thursday to meet you.”

“That would be great,” said Sharon, telling her sons with a nod in the direction of the door that it was time to go. “I’ll set aside an extra hour for next Thursday.”

“In the meantime,” said Maybe, escorting them out to their truck, “if you ever want to sell me any stones you find, Tober, please keep me in mind.”

“I will,” said Tober, knowing his mother was always in need of money.

Then the following Thursday, Titus Troutcatcher, an elderly Wailaki man, was there to meet them when Tober and Augie and Sharon arrived at Good Used Stuff.

Big and thick chested, with long gray hair in a ponytail, his nose reminiscent of the beak of an eagle, Titus felt an immediate affinity for Tober and Augie and Sharon, and they felt similarly about him.

“You have the biggest hands I’ve ever seen,” said Augie, after shaking Titus’s hand.

“I’m seventy-three,” said Titus, chuckling. “You’re six, August. When you’re seventy-three, you’ll have big hands, too.”

“How did you know my name is August?” asked Augie, looking at Sharon. “Did you tell him, Mom?”

“No,” she said, smiling at Titus. “But what else would Augie be short for?”

“My whole name is October,” said Tober, who thought Titus was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen. “I was born in October and so was Augie, but there couldn’t be two of us named October.”

“Well there could have been,” said Titus, nodding, “but it’s better you have different names. Less confusing.” He nods graciously at Sharon. “These are fine boys. You’re a good mother to them.”

“Thank you,” said Sharon, her eyes filling with tears, for she had never before felt so strongly acknowledged for her devotion to her children.

“If they want to learn the ways of the animals and the plants and the nature spirits around here, I’d be happy to teach them.” Titus looked down at the boys. “You like the forest and the creeks and the rivers and the ocean and the tide pools, don’t you? I’ll teach you how to catch trout, too. That’s my name, after all. Troutcatcher.”

“Okay,” said Tober, nodding eagerly.

“When?” asked Augie, nodding eagerly, too.

“We’ll start one of these days,” said Titus, turning to Sharon. “With your permission.”

“Yes, fine,” said Sharon, wanting to hug him, but restraining herself. “I’ll give you our phone number.”

“And I’ll give you mine,” said Titus, looking at Tober again. “Now what about these stone people you found?”

“They’re not people,” said Tober, giggling. “They’re just ocean rocks.”

“Hmm,” said Titus, considering this. “When my people talk about trees, we call them standing people, and when we talk about trout and salmon, we call them fish people. My people are the Wailaki. We’ve been around here for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Since long before Christopher Columbus and anybody from Europe got over here. We call those stones you picked up stone people because we think all things are related to us and to each other and are part of our community. But you’re right, October, stones are not human beings. But they aren’t just stones. We think they’re alive, just like you and me and your brother and your mother and Raven are alive. That’s how those stones you found could call to you, because they have power. And they have power because they’re alive.”

Tober nodded humbly and offered Titus his pouch of stones.

Titus gently placed his enormous hand on Tober’s shoulder. “Let’s bring those stone people to the table over there by the stove and we’ll see what they have to say to us.”

So they sat down at a low round table near the crackling woodstove, Titus with his back to the stove, Augie to Titus’s right, Tober to Titus’s left, Maybe and Sharon across the table from Titus; and Tober gave Titus his pouch of stones.

Titus set the pouch on the table in front of him and undid his ponytail. “So…” he said, scratching his head, “what I like to do is invite Great Spirit to be with us, if that’s okay with everybody, because Great Spirit knows everything and we want to know what he knows about these stones.”

“Who is Great Spirit?” asked Augie, wrinkling his nose. “Is he the same as God?”

“We don’t use the word God,” said Titus, shaking his head. “We say Great Spirit.”

“Who is he?” asked Tober, imagining a giant gray cloud in the sky.

“You guys ask good questions,” said Titus, grinning at Tober and Augie. “Great Spirit is all there has ever been, all that is, and all that will ever be.” He shrugs. “My grandson calls Great Spirit the Great All Everything.”

“Is he a man?” asks Tober, doubting that everything there has ever been could be contained in a single person.

“No,” said Titus, chuckling. “We just say He because that’s how we were taught, but you can call him she if you want. Great Spirit doesn’t care.”

Tober nods. “So how do you call on Great Spirit’s power?”

“In many ways,” said Titus, holding out his hands palms up. “For now we’ll just say, ‘Oh Great Spirit. Come to us. Be with us. Please tell us what you know about these stone people October found near the mouth of the Eel.’”

Then Titus opened the pouch and poured the four stones onto the table.

The radiantly blue stone the shape and size of a large chicken egg stopped nearest to Maybe.

The brilliant reddish orange stone the shape and size of a silver dollar stopped nearest to Sharon.

The emerald green stone shaped like a teardrop landed near Augie.

And the jade stone as big and perfectly round as a golf ball rolled over to Tober and bumped his hand.

Titus took a deep breath, looked at each of the stones, and said, “These are powerful stones, October. You’ve been given the gift of seeing their power. Tell us how you found them.”

“I was just walking along, looking down,” said Tober, remembering that sunny day of the very low tide, “and when I saw one I liked the shape of or the color, I picked it up.”

Titus nods. “But why did you keep these four and not a hundred others?”

“Because these have lots more energy,” said Tober, nodding. “Lots.”

Titus picked up the stone nearest to Maybe and asked Tober, “Do you feel a strong vibration in your hand when you hold the stone?”

“Yes,” said Tober, pleased that Titus understands. “Stronger than from just a regular stone.”

“That’s wonderful, October,” said Titus, closing his fingers around the radiant blue stone. “What you’re calling energy, we call power.” He opens his fingers and gazes at the stone. “For instance, this stone has the power to quell fevers and anger and is good for sleep.” He looked at Maybe. “You need this stone, Raven.” He handed the stone to Maybe. “You should trade October something very valuable for this stone.”

“Okay,” said Maybe, clasping the stone. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Titus picked up the stone nearest Sharon. “This red stone is a heart healer. Heals old wounds and recent wounds, too. Makes your heart stronger. I don’t just mean the heart muscle, but your heart’s spirit. You might want to borrow this stone from your son, Sharon, and hold it on your heart before you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning.”

“Okay,” said Sharon, her tears flowing again. “I will.”

Then Titus took up the emerald green stone. “You see how this one is the color of your eyes, August? This stone is very powerful and will help you be brave, not that you aren’t already brave, you are, but this will give you even more courage and strength if you carry it with you.”

“Can I?” asked Augie, whispering to Tober.

“Yes,” whispered Tober, nodding emphatically.

Lastly, Titus picked up the perfectly round jade stone and turned it over and over in his hand. “This stone is a most powerful healer. Heals everything.” He gazed intently at Tober. “I could use this stone to help people who come to me for guidance and healing. May I keep this stone for three years from this day? I promise to take good care of her.”

“Of course,” said Tober, smiling brightly at Titus.

“Why of course?” asked Titus, touched by Tober’s generosity.

“Because you’re going to teach us the ways of the animals and plants and nature spirits of this place,” said Tober, his eyes wide with delight.

“And how to catch trout,” said Augie, picking up the emerald green stone and kissing it before he puts it in his pocket.

Nine years have gone by since Augie and Tober and Sharon first met Titus, and now they can’t imagine life without Titus and his wife Tina.

Titus taught them 10,000 things, at least, and then he initiated them into manhood when Tober was twelve and Augie was eleven. He taught them how to make fires without flint or matches, how to make spears and bows and arrows and snares, how to fish, how to hunt, and which mushrooms and wild plants are safe to eat, which are poisonous. He taught them many songs, told them hundreds of stories about animals and people and nature spirits, taught them how to predict the weather, and then he taught them ten thousand more things, at least.

In those nine years, Tober found hundreds of powerful stones and gave some of them to Titus, gave some to his friends, and sold many more to Maybe who sold them for great profit at Good Used Stuff.

Tober has been working for Maybe for six months, ever since he got his driver’s license and he and Augie bought a good used electric pickup truck. So now it is Tober who brings the weekly allotment of eggs and honey to Good Used Stuff, which means…

“How’s your mother doing these days?” asks Maybe, a few minutes before closing time on a Friday evening in April. “Been a couple months of Thursdays since I last saw her. She okay?”

Tober looks up from tallying the cash in the till, one of the many jobs Maybe prefers someone else do. “She’s well,” he says, his voice a deep baritone now. “And quel coincidence, she asked about you this morning.”

“She did?” says Maybe, trying not to sound too happy about that. “Well… say hi for me.”

“I’m glad you reminded me,” says Tober, putting a rubber band around thirty-seven twenty-dollar bills. “Because I was supposed to invite you to the potluck tonight. We’ve got a gig in Arcata tomorrow night and we want to rehearse in front of an audience. There’s gonna be tons of food, so you don’t have to bring anything.”

“What time?” asks Maybe, hoping to sound nonchalant.

“Six,” says Tober, putting the cash and coins in a metal box and handing the box to Maybe to put in his safe in the tree house. “You don’t have to let us know if you’re coming. Just come if you want to.”

Maybe locks up the store, locks up the woodshop, and hurries home to feed his cats before he showers and shaves and gets ready to go.

As he’s shaving, he laughs at himself for being nervous about going to a potluck at Sharon’s house where there will be lots of other people and…

“I’m not nervous about going to the potluck,” he says to his reflection. “I’m nervous about seeing Sharon after two months of not seeing her and she’ll know how much I missed her.”

He almost doesn’t go to the potluck. He almost stops at Gypsy’s and has a few beers and plays darts and asks Leona to sleep with him, though he doesn’t love Leona and she doesn’t love him, but they like each other and they’re both lonely and…

He speeds past Gypsy’s, and a mile further along makes the turn onto Snake Creek Road.

Ellen Nakamoto, twenty-eight, a bassist in the Eureka Symphony and the bassist of the Snake Creek Quartet, a statuesque redhead, her father half-Swedish and half-Japanese, her mother entirely Irish, is in the kitchen with Sharon when Maybe arrives bearing two bottles of good red wine.

“I’m so glad you came,” says Sharon, blushing a little as she takes the bottles of wine from Maybe and sets them on the counter. “I’ve missed you.”

“Me, too,” says Maybe, laughing nervously. “Missed you. Too.”

They both move to hug each other, both stop themselves, shake hands instead, and when their handshaking would usually end, Sharon changes her grip so she’s holding hands with Maybe and leads him into the dining room where a mob of people are serving themselves from a great many dishes of food on the big rectangular table.

Sharon gives Maybe’s hand a squeeze and says, “Help yourself. Shall I bring you a glass of that red you brought?”

“Yeah,” he says, nodding eagerly. “That would be great.”

After supper and before dessert, the quartet assembles at one end of the living room—Augie and Sharon with their guitars, Tober with his violin, and Ellen with her big reddish brown string bass.

“Thanks so much for coming,” says Tober, gazing at the thirty or so people crammed into the living room. “This is an excellent simulation of the electric atmosphere of a gig. As you know, we’re opening for Eliot Williams and the Skydivers at the Arcata Playhouse tomorrow night, the show is sold out, and we’re all very nervous except for Ellen who never gets nervous.”

“Not true,” says Ellen, shaking her head and laughing. “I just hide it better.”

“Anyway,” says Tober, continuing, “they want us to play for forty-five minutes, and our plan is to open with a tune you’ll want to dance to, and finish with a quartet Sharon composed called After the Rain. So… with no further ado, here we go.”

Augie begins by strumming a series of catchy chords with a fast samba rhythm, his playing excellent, and Sharon plays jazzy accompanying chords on the second iteration, her playing superb. Now Ellen adds a groovacious bass line for the third iteration, and lastly Tober plays a lovely violin solo atop the rollicking rhythm as preface to Sharon and Augie singing a tight harmony on the first verse, their conjoined voices a rare delight.

Pie and ice cream follow the rehearsal, everyone high from the fabulous music, and Maybe finds himself sitting at the kitchen counter with Titus and Tina.

“Seems like just the other day they were little boys just starting to play their instruments,” says Tina, her long white hair in a braid plaited with little yellow flowers, “and now they’re big men playing and singing like angels.”

“Remember the day, Raven, when I came to meet Sharon and October and August for the first time?” says Titus, sipping his coffee. “You wanted October to show me those four stones, and he gave me that round jade stone I used for seven years until I gave it back to him, and then he returned it to the ocean.”

“They’re gonna steal the show tomorrow night,” says Tina, enjoying her pie. “I know they are.”

“Hard act to follow,” says Maybe, no longer nervous about being around Sharon, their former comfort with each other restored. “Wish I’d bought a ticket.”

At which moment, Sharon comes in from outside, having escorted Ellen to her car; and though neither she nor Maybe has ever done anything like this before, he holds out his arms to her and she walks into his embrace and they hold each other for a long sweet moment, and Maybe says, “I was just saying I wish I had a ticket for tomorrow night.”

“I’ll put you on the guest list,” says Sharon, kissing his cheek. “We had one seat left.”

Now she gently pulls away and saunters into the dining room.

“That was nice to see,” says Tina, bouncing her eyebrows at Maybe. “Are you two…”

“No, no, no,” says Maybe, ardently shaking his head. “We’re just good friends.”

“A good friend makes the best wife,” says Titus, gazing fondly at Maybe. “Be brave, Raven. Trust your heart.”

       fin

Augie and Tober’s Quest

Monday, February 4th, 2019

morning show

On April seventeenth, just a few days ago, Sharon Quincy asked her sons Augie, twelve, and Tober, thirteen, if they will approve whole-heartedly of her marrying Alex, a dear friend of the family.

“And,” she added, “if either of you has any reservations about my marrying him, I won’t.”

Sharon and Tober and Augie live at the end of Snake Creek Road, a mile-long dirt road in the coastal mountains of far northern California, four miles from the mouth of the Eel River, the nearest town Fortuna, ten miles away. Their ten-acre homestead is energy self-sufficient and they grow and raise and catch most of their food. Augie and Tober were born in the old farmhouse, and they were home-schooled by several excellent teachers who live nearby. Both young men passed their high school equivalency exams last year and are now pursuing independent studies, separately and together, with the guidance of their mother and other mentors.

Tober is nearly six-feet-tall and appears to be much older than thirteen. His dark brown hair was never cut, not once in his life, and reached nearly to the ground until last year when he decided to shave his head after being initiated into manhood by Titus Troutcatcher, an elderly Wailaki man who lives two miles west of where Snake Creek Road meets Highway 211. Tober’s hair is now four-inches-long and he looks forward to having it long enough again to wear in a ponytail.

Augie is stockier and a few inches shorter than Tober and keeps his auburn hair cut short. He, too, was initiated into manhood last year along with Tober and two Wailaki boys, Jacob Morningstar and Leon Kingfisher. Titus thought it would be wise to initiate Augie with the older boys because, as he explained to Sharon, “Augie is an old soul and he’ll be happier becoming a man with his brother and Jacob and Leon rather than waiting a year to be initiated alone. We want him to be happy about becoming a man so he will enjoy his manhood.”

Tober and Augie are both skilled carpenters and gardeners and fisherman and hunters with bows and arrows, both play violin and guitar—Tober favoring the violin, Augie the guitar—and both are thoroughly knowledgeable about the abundant edible and medicinal plants growing in the Eel River watershed.

Sharon Quincy is thirty-six, five-foot-three, and strikingly pretty with shoulder-length brown hair and dark blue eyes. She works twenty hours a week as a checker at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, plays violin in the Eureka Symphony, gives violin and guitar lessons, and is nearly as fluent in French and Spanish as she is in English.

Alex Redfield is forty-five and met the Quincys four years ago. A professor of European History at Humboldt State in Arcata, Alex is Scottish, Oxford-educated, witty and charming. For the first two years of his involvement with the Quincy family, neither he nor Sharon wished to become romantically entangled with the other. But they enjoyed each other so much and shared so many marvelous experiences that they eventually fell in love.

And because Alex was such an important friend to Tober and Augie, Sharon and Alex strove to create a relationship that did not much alter Alex’s friendship with Sharon’s sons; and they were successful in this regard until two months ago when Alex returned from a month in England and Scotland with news that he has been offered a professorship at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and now he has asked Sharon to marry him.

In order to assume this professorship, Alex must make a four-year commitment to Stirling. He badly wants this job because it will greatly enhance his academic credentials and assure the publication of his second major work about Queen Elizabeth I, a book he’s been working on for several years. However, he does not want to leave Sharon. He wants to marry her, and for her and her sons to live with him in Scotland for the next four years, and possibly longer, after which the family will return to California. However, if Sharon does not agree to move to Scotland with him, Alex says there will be no marriage and he will move back to Scotland without her.

To Alex, who is flabbergasted that Sharon would ask her young sons to make this decision for her, Sharon explained, “I was never allowed to make my own decisions about what I did with my life until I quit the ballet company when I was twenty and finally escaped from my mother who used me from the day I was born as an expression of her own ambitions. And I have made it a guiding principle of my life to relate to my children, within reason and according to their capabilities, as my equals. You and I may think it would be a marvelous experience for them to leave this place they love and to leave all their dear friends to go live on a college campus in Scotland for four years, but they may not think so. They are men now, though they are still in the throes of transitioning into being adults in this society, and I believe uprooting them at this time, if it is against their wills, would be a great disservice to them. And that is why I have asked them to make this decision.”

To ponder their mother’s question, Tober and Augie decide it would be best to absent themselves from their mother and Alex by backpacking through the forest to the coast where they will spend the night and fast for a day before heading home. They have made many such treks with their mother, two with Alex, four with Jacob Morningstar and Leon Kingfisher, and seven just the two of them.

Per their mother’s request, they will carry a cell phone to call her in case of an emergency, though cell phones rarely work in this remote wilderness.

They leave their house on Snake Creek Road on a cool cloudy morning, each carrying a backpack containing a sleeping bag, tarp, water bottle, water filter, matches, cooking pot, food, fishing pole, a pair of shoes, a knife, and a bow and arrows. Their hooded down jackets are waterproof, their shirts and trousers are made of sturdy cotton, and their feet, tough as leather, are bare.

Before entering the forest, they stop by their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road, the Bernsteins, to say goodbye to Cecily, who is fourteen, and Felix, who is twelve.

Cecily, her curly brown hair sporting subtle red highlights, announced six months ago that she intends to become a movie star, which will necessitate her moving to Los Angeles as soon as possible, though her parents are so far not cooperating with her plans.

Felix, who rarely brushes his mop of frizzy brown hair, is not much of an outdoors person and recently declared his intention to become a theoretical physicist. He did not participate in the labors and ceremonies of the Wailaki initiation into manhood because he is preparing for his bar mitzvah and dislikes sleeping outside and killing things.

Cecily is adamant that Tober and Augie should go to Scotland and experience life away from Snake Creek Road, which, now that she wants to be a movie star instead of a wildlife biologist, she decries as creatively limiting, whereas Felix doesn’t want Augie and Tober to go anywhere before he leaves for college some years hence because Augie and Tober are his only friends, not counting his parents.

“We’ll be back in three days,” says Tober, standing beside Augie on the Bernstein’s deck watching Cecily and Felix eat pastries and drink coffee at a small round table overhung by a big yellow umbrella.

“Have a mahvelous time,” says Cecily, winking at Tober in the manner of her movie star persona, a latter day Claudette Colbert. She’s wearing dark glasses and high-waisted beige pants and a peach dress shirt with cuffs unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up. “No offense, dahling, but I’m hoping to be long gone by the time you get back. I’m very close to convincing Ma-Ma to drive me to LA. Tremendous career momentum manifesting even as we speak. Wink, wink.”

“To visit your Aunt Lydia?” asks Tober, who keeps hoping Cecily’s movie star fantasies will fade away and she’ll become his tomboy girlfriend again.

“To live with dear Lydia, dahling,” says Cecily, taking off her dark glasses to show him the fire in her eyes. “So I can finally get my show on the road. Time’s a wasting. Fingers crossed.”

“But I’ll be here when you get back,” says Felix, who is dressed as per usual—black-framed glasses, gray MIT sweatshirt, brown Bermuda shorts, turquoise high-top tennis shoes, plaid socks. “We might go to the movies in Arcata tomorrow, but otherwise I’ll be here. Don’t get hurt out there.”

Tober and Augie head west through a forest of hundred-year-old redwoods and Douglas firs, and a half-mile along they come to where little Newt Creek merges into Wild Turkey Creek. They know the woods within a half-mile of both sides of Snake Creek Road as well as they know their bedroom, every fern and tree and stone familiar to them; and they have countless times followed Wild Turkey Creek westward to where it joins the mighty Eel two miles from the sea.

But today they head south away from the confluence of creeks, climb a steep slope populated with big trees, surmount a rocky ridge, and descend into a fern-clogged gulley they know little about.

The nameless creek at the bottom of this gulley is barely a trickle, and after a few hundred yards of slogging westward through thick stands of ferns arising from the mucky ground, they are about to change direction and head south again to see what they can see from the next ridge top, when they arrive at a large pool of crystal clear water set in a wide vein of gray granite, the pool about thirty-feet-long and ten-feet-wide; and they decide to shed their packs here and share an orange.

“I guess I’m kind of mad at Alex,” says Tober, taking off his clothes to have a dip in the pool.

“How come?” asks Augie, rummaging in his pack for an orange.

Tober thinks for a moment. “I mean… why did he have to tangle up marrying Mom with moving to Scotland? Feels so… extortive.”

“It is extortive,” says Augie, peeling the orange. “He seems so desperate now, and his sense of humor is completely gone. I mean… he was never desperate before he came back from England. I wonder what happened to him over there.”

“Mid-life crisis?” says Tober, wading into the pool. “Oh my God, Aug, this water’s warm. Incredibly warm.”

“A hot spring?” says Augie, leaving the half-peeled orange on his pack and stripping off his clothes.

“Getting warmer as I move downstream,” says Tober, the water up to his waist. “There’s almost no flow at all. I wonder if this is even part of the creek.”

They explore the pool, wading and swimming, until they locate a strong upwelling of extremely hot water erupting from a fissure at a depth of about four feet.

“Wow,” says Tober, floating on his back above the upwelling. “A hot spring of epic proportions, and not a whiff of sulfur.”

“Titus and Tina,” says Augie, grinning at Tober. “We have to bring them here.”

“And Mom,” says Tober, yawning. “It’s so relaxing. She’ll love this.”

“What about Alex?” Augie arches an eyebrow.

“He’d love it, too,” says Tober, sadly. “Don’t you think?”

“I guess so,” says Augie, getting out of the pool and resuming his peeling of the orange. “Only I don’t really want to bring anybody here who doesn’t want to live here. I know that’s selfish, but that’s how I’m feeling right now.”

“What about Cecily?” asks Tober, emerging from the pool and perching on a large rock at the water’s edge. “Shall we bring her?”

“She’ll hate it,” says Augie, handing Tober half the orange. “Or she’ll say she does. I wonder what happened to her. She changed even more than Alex. She used to love it here. She used to love going on adventures with us. Now suddenly she feels creatively stifled and wants to go live in a giant city.”

“She got hooked on movies and television shows.” Tober shrugs. “The minute they let her start watching them on the computer. The day she turned twelve. And now she hates it here.”

“She got unconnected from nature,” says Augie, knowing his brother is heartbroken about Cecily wanting to live somewhere else.

“Maybe that’s what happened to Alex, too,” says Tober, fighting his tears. “He used to love being here. But ever since he got back from England he hardly goes outside anymore. And now he wants to go back there and take us with him.”

“Mom,” says Augie, nodding. “He wants to take Mom with him. He’d love to leave us here, but Mom never would until we’re older, which is why he resorted to extortion.”

“He’s like a totally different person now,” says Tober, shaking his head. “He used to be so interested in what we were doing, our music and our hunting and fishing and gardening, in what we were studying. And he used to love going on adventures with us.”

“And now he doesn’t,” says Augie, finishing his orange. “And there’s nothing we can do about it except wonder why.”

They dress and put on their packs and take a few minutes to memorize the location of the hot spring before they follow the stream westward.

They reach the ocean in the late afternoon and walk south on a remote beach for a mile until they come to a large stream flowing into the sea; and they follow this stream inland for a few hundred yards to a copse of pine trees where they make camp.

While Tober gathers firewood, Augie assembles his fly rod, casts his line into the stream, and immediately hooks a fat brook trout.

By the time Tober has constructed a ring of large rocks and has a fire going therein, Augie has caught and cleaned two trout and skewered them on long sticks for roasting over the fire.

“I’d be surprised if anybody has fished here in a very long time,” says Augie, as he and Tober cook their fish. “They rose to my fly before it touched the water.”

“Wailaki people probably camped here,” says Tober, thinking of their mother working at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna, chatting with customers as she rings up their groceries, and how after work she’ll either drive home or go to Arcata and spend the night with Alex. “These fish you caught probably hatched here and got this big without a human being ever trying to catch them.”

“I don’t want to move to Scotland,” says Augie, slowly rotating his fish over the coals. “Be fun to visit there some day, but I don’t want to live there. I want to live here.”

“Me, too,” says Tober, his thoughts turning to Cecily. “We might live other places when we’re older. Travel. But we’ll always come back here. This is home.”

“The thing is,” says Augie, frowning thoughtfully, “Mom was so happy having Alex as her boyfriend, and if he goes away she’ll be sad. I hate to make her sad.”

“Then she should go with him,” says Tober, inspecting his trout to see if the flesh is cooked how he likes it. “We’ll be fine on our own. Everybody on the road will check up on us, and Titus and Tina could come stay with us a few nights a week. They love our house.”

“Except Mom won’t go without us,” says Augie shaking his head. “You know she won’t.”

“That wasn’t even the question,” says Tober, angrily. “Of course we approve of her marrying Alex if she wants to, but not if it means we have to live in Scotland for four years. Why would he make that a condition for marrying her? It doesn’t make any sense. What does moving to Scotland have to do with loving someone and wanting to be with them for the rest of your life?”

“Nothing,” says Augie, sitting cross-legged on the ground. “Shall we eat?”

“Yes,” says Tober, sitting on a large rock and closing his eyes as Augie makes the prayer of thanks.

“Great Spirit,” says Augie, looking up at the white clouds tinged with pink. “Thank you so much for these good trout who gave their lives so we may live. Thank you for guiding us to the hot spring this morning and for helping us find this good place to camp. Thank you for our mother and for Alex and Titus and Tina, for all our friends and relations. Thank you for everything you give us.”

Waking in the morning to the sky dappled with row upon row of small fleecy clouds, no scent of rain in the air, they stow their gear under tarps and go out to the beach where the extremely low tide has exposed thousands of stones.

“Holy moly,” says Tober, as they walk among the stones. “Some of these are near-agates, and the shapes are exquisite.”

“You’re the stone man,” says Augie, bending down to pick up an egg-shaped blood red stone the size of a walnut. “Think we can sell some of these to Maybe?”

“No doubt,” says Tober, picking up a perfectly round blue green stone as big as a billiard ball. “He’ll give us at least five dollars for that red one you found. Maybe more. And this one…” He contemplates the stone in his hand. “Ten. At least.”

They spend the morning filling tote bags with stones and carrying them back to their camp. They make a dozen trips to and fro, finding hundreds of stones from which they will cull a few dozen to take with them.

Seized by hunger after their morning’s labor, they discuss whether to break their fasts or not, now that they have agreed they don’t want to go to Scotland; and they decide to desist from eating a while longer until they come up with a well-stated response to their mother’s question and codicil: will they approve whole-heartedly of her marrying Alex, and if they have any reservations about her marrying him, she won’t.

Now the myriad clouds scurry away, and Tober and Augie shed their clothes and wade out to a big flat rock in the middle of the creek to sunbathe.

“Okay, so we don’t approve whole-heartedly of Mom marrying Alex,” says Augie, feeling drowsy on the warm rock in the sun, “because we don’t approve of his extortive tactics. Right? Because if he really loved her, he wouldn’t put conditions on their love.”

“You know what just occurred to me,” says Tober, sitting up. “Maybe Mom asked us to decide because she knew we’d say we didn’t want to leave, and that would give her an excuse not to go because she really doesn’t want to go, but she doesn’t want to say that to him and hurt his feelings, so this way she’ll be able to say she’s staying because of us, not because she doesn’t love him.”

“Or maybe she doesn’t love him anymore,” says Augie, shielding his eyes from the sun to look at Tober. “Now that he’s so gloomy and weird.”

“I think she still loves him,” says Tober, hugging his knees to his chest. “But maybe she doesn’t want to marry him now because he’s more like…”

“A visitor,” says Augie, lowering his hand and closing his eyes. “Scotland is his Eel River watershed. He likes it here, but this isn’t his element. Remember how he said he liked going to those islands off the coast of Scotland and staying for a few days? But he never wanted to live there.”

“He’s a town person,” says Tober, thinking of how most of Alex’s stories are about Edinburgh and London and Oxford and Paris. “He loves cities. Maybe he finds life boring here. Like Cecily does now.”

“And the other thing,” says Augie, growing angry, “is how condescending he was about our initiation. The fasting and the days of aloneness and learning the songs and prayers and dances, making our new bows and arrows, killing our deer. He dismissed it all as…”

“Silly good fun,” says Tober, using one of Alex’s favorite expressions.

“Exactly,” says Augie, sitting up. “We don’t want to make him into a villain, but I don’t think he really believes we’re men now. Like Titus said, Great Spirit knows we’re men now, but most people think we’re still children.”

“You think Mom still thinks we’re children?” asks Tober, sliding off the rock into the cold stream.

“No, she knows we’re men,” says Augie, joining his brother in the stream. “That’s why she asked us to make this decision.”

“Might be good to talk to Titus,” says Tober, sitting down in cold current, the water coming up to his mouth.

“If you want to,” says Augie, shrugging. “But I think we’ve got this figured out.”

“So how do we say it?” asks Tober, spluttering the water with his mouth. “‘We don’t approve wholeheartedly of you marrying Alex because he’s using the threat of ending your relationship to get you to marry him and force us to move to Scotland, which is emotional extortion and he should be ashamed of himself?’”

“That’s pretty good, Tobe,” says Augie, climbing back up on the rock. “Only maybe we don’t need to be quite so accusatory. We could say we feel he’s threatening her with ending their relationship to force her to go to Scotland, and that gives us reservations about her marrying him.”

“Right,” says Tober, starting to shiver. “All we need is one reservation.”

In the mid-afternoon they get ready to go; and to erase any obvious proof of their having spent the night here, they disperse the ashes from their campfire and fluff the ground where they slept.

Now they take a last look around to make sure they haven’t left anything behind, walk out to the beach, and hike north on the yielding sand for a half-mile until Tober stops and takes off his pack.

“We either have to leave some of these stones behind,” says Tober, sweating profusely, “or I need to eat something. I’m running out of gas, Aug.”

“Me, too,” says Augie, taking off his pack and kneeling in the sand. “I vote for eating.”

“Handful of nuts and raisins and a chocolate bar sounds pretty good to me right about now,” says Tober, smiling hopefully at his brother.

“Quel coincidence,” says Augie, feigning surprise. “I just happen to have a bag of nuts and raisins and two chocolate bars.”

“No,” says Tober, feigning amazement. “Really?”

“Yep,” says Augie, unzipping a pocket on his backpack. “End of fast coming right up.”

Titus and his wife Tina live in the deep forest a quarter-mile off Highway 211, about two miles from the mouth of the Eel. Titus is a big craggy Wailaki man, seventy-nine, with a large nose shaped like an eagle’s beak, deep-set black eyes, huge hands, and long gray hair he wears in a ponytail except when he’s communing with Great Spirit.

An herbalist and healer, Titus was apprenticed to a Wailaki medicine woman when he was nine and stayed with her until she died when he was nineteen. He then joined the Army and served as a medic for four years, after which he returned to Fortuna and worked for his brother as a house painter off and on for thirty years until he’d had his fill of town life and retired to his little house in the woods.

Tina is seventy, Latina, small and pretty with long white hair. Tina and Titus have been married for twenty years. Tina was married once before, Titus twice. Tina retired from the postal service seven years ago and now spends her time cooking and sewing and keeping house, gathering herbs and wild mushrooms with Titus, and helping her daughters and granddaughters with their kids.

At dusk, having stopped at Good Used Stuff to sell some of the stones they found this morning, Augie and Tober arrive at the gravel driveway leading to Titus and Tina’s place. Maybe, the proprietor of GUS, as the second-hand store is known to locals, gave them fifty dollars for seven of their stones, and they intend to give Titus and Tina forty of those dollars for a consultation with Titus and the privilege of camping on Titus and Tina’s land for the night, though Titus would gladly give them a consultation for free, and Tina loves having them around because they always do lots of chores Titus is slow to get to.

As Tober and Augie come in sight of the red one-story house, Titus’s two scruffy longhaired Chihuahuas, Spider and Feather, come trotting down the driveway to greet the young men.

Titus is chopping wood for kindling on the west side of his house, and when he sees the young men approaching, he leaves his axe sunk in the chopping round and goes to welcome them.

“I was hoping I’d see you today,” he says, his voice deep and quiet. “Been a long time. Eight days. Or is it nine?”

“Nine,” says Augie, shaking Titus’s hand. “But we think of you every day.”

“I’m glad,” says Titus, turning to Tober. “I see you’ve been to the beach. Sand in your hair.”

“We spent the night three miles south of the mouth,” says Tober, gripping Titus’s enormous hand. “Camped by a good trout stream and found some beautiful stones. We brought you some.”

“I’m grateful,” says Titus, beckoning them to follow him into the house. “Tina’s picking up pizza for supper. She’s in Fortuna at Teresa’s. I’ll call her and tell her to get plenty.”

Augie and Tober follow Titus from the house to his small studio where he helps people seek guidance and healing from Great Spirit.

They sit in a circle around a low round table in the middle of the room, a big brown ceramic bowl in the center of the table. Titus sits on a low stool, while Tober and Augie sit cross-legged on small hand-woven rugs.

Titus undoes his ponytail, strikes a match, and lights a wand of ceremonial sage. Now he counts seven of his slow heartbeats, shakes out the flames, and drops the smoking sage into the bowl.

Holding his hands over the dense white smoke, Titus calls, “Oh Great Spirit. Come to us. Be with us. Listen to these young men and lend them your wisdom. They are good men, generous and kind. I vouch for them. Please help them.”

A silence falls as the room grows hazy with smoke.

“You speak first, October,” says Titus, pointing at Tober. “Great Spirit is listening.”

“Thank you, Titus,” says Tober, holding his hands over the rising smoke. “My brother and I are seeking clarity about a question our mother asked us.”

Titus nods. “Say the question as you remember your mother saying those words to you.”

Tober thinks for a moment before speaking. “Will you approve whole-heartedly of my marrying Alex? If you have any reservations about me marrying him, I won’t.”

Titus turns to Augie. “Now you, August. Say the question as you remember your mother asking it.”

Augie holds his hands over the rising smoke and says, “I want to know if you will approve whole-heartedly of my marrying Alex. If for any reason you don’t approve, I won’t marry him.”

Titus gazes intently at Augie. “How did you answer her?”

“We said we would go to the ocean, and fast to seek clarity,” says Augie, looking into Titus’s eyes. “And we did. We were quiet for many of those hours and we talked about the question for some of those hours, and we decided we could not approve of her marrying Alex because he wasn’t acting in a loving way, so we didn’t trust him anymore. And then Tober suggested we consult with you.”

Titus turns to Tober. “Have you more to say about this?”

“Yes,” says Tober, nodding solemnly. “We loved and admired Alex for three years until we became men and he kept treating us like children, as if our initiation was meaningless to him. And then he went back to England and Scotland for a month at the beginning of this year, and when he returned he wasn’t interested in us anymore. He only wanted to be with our mother. So we honored this until he asked her to marry him on the condition that we move to Scotland with him, and if we won’t go with him, he says he won’t marry her.”

Titus looks at Augie. “What else?”

“He used to be so happy about being part of our family, part of our community. You could see how happy he was, how excited he would get when we’d go into the forest or to the beach to hunt for stones. But now his eyes have no light in them. He’s so different now, if he didn’t look like Alex, I would think he was someone else.”

“An unhappy someone else,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “An angry someone else.”

Titus waits to see if either of them has anything more to say.

When they both remain silent, Titus says, “His soul got caught in Scotland when he went there for those two months, and he returned without his soul.”

Augie nods. “That seems right to me.”

“To me, too,” says Tober, nodding.

Titus clears his throat. “A person disconnected from his soul is always afraid. Why is this? Because our soul is the source of our courage. Without our soul, we can only act out of fear. He wants to reclaim his soul, but he doesn’t know he left it in Scotland, not consciously. We always want to be united with our souls, but sometimes we can’t be, and when we have no soul we are pathetic and frightened and weak. Greed and hatred and violence take over when we lose our souls. Sadly, many people lose their souls and never get them back in this life.”

“So he needs to go back to Scotland and find his soul,” says Augie, urgently.

“Yes,” says Titus, nodding slowly. “But he must go without you, and without your mother, or he will never find his soul.”

“Why must he go alone?” asks Tober, frowning gravely. “Maybe we could help him.”

“You have a generous heart, October,” says Titus, smiling, “but he must go alone because if he is living off your souls, his soul will find no place inside him to live.”

“He has been living off our mother’s soul,” says Augie, giving Titus a wide-eyed look. “I know this is true.”

“This is the most important moment in his life,” says Titus, holding his hands over the smoke again. “But this is no business of yours, and it’s not your mother’s business either. Alex brought this crisis with him four years ago when he came here from England, though he thought he was escaping his crisis by traveling to the other side of the world. But when he returned to England and Scotland for those two months at the beginning of this year, his soul stayed there so he would have to confront what he has been avoiding his whole life.”

“What has he been avoiding?” asks Tober, holding his breath.

Titus takes a long slow breath. “He has been doing the bidding of his father and mother his whole life, though it was never his soul’s desire to be what they wanted him to be. He was never initiated into manhood, so he never severed the ties that bind us to our parents in childhood. It was only when he joined your family that his parents’ hold on him began to weaken, and that’s when he became confused because he had never felt so free before. And his freedom frightened him. He was afraid to feel so powerful and so different than he had ever felt before, so he went back to Scotland and found a way to end his freedom, though he didn’t know that’s what he was doing.”

“What should we do?” asks Augie, holding his hands over the rising smoke. “Shall we tell him what you just told us?”

“No, my son,” says Titus, chuckling. “He must awaken to this truth on his own, with his own power and the power Great Spirit will lend him if he asks for help.”

“But what if he doesn’t?” asks Tober, fighting his tears.

“Then he doesn’t,” says Titus, nodding. “Many people don’t, my son. The world is full of people separated from their souls. That’s what makes so many humans cruel and selfish. That’s why people do such terrible things to each other and to our mother earth. They have lost their souls.”

The next morning after breakfast, Tina drives Augie and Tober home on her way to Fortuna to babysit her grandson.

Sharon isn’t home when they arrive, but they find a note from her on the kitchen table.

Dear Tobe and Aug,

I hope you had a good journey. I want to apologize for asking you to answer a question I never should have asked you. The first night you were gone, I went to Arcata to be with Alex and we got into a ferocious argument about my leaving the decision up to you, and in the course of the argument I realized I don’t want to marry him even if he stays here and we never go to Scotland. I realized how deeply troubled he is about something that has nothing to do with me or you, something about his self-identity, about not liking who he is, though he adamantly denies this.

When I told him I won’t consider marrying him until he reclaims his joy, he called me a New Age idiot, so I left and came home.

Yesterday he came here to apologize and tell me he was going to take the job at Stirling. He said he wants to see you before he leaves in a few weeks. He said he’ll call you.

I’ll be home around five-thirty. Lasagna and a big salad for supper.

Love you,

Mom

That afternoon, Tober wanders down the hill and finds Felix pacing back and forth on the sunny south-facing deck of the Bernstein’s house, reciting some of the Hebrew text for his bar mitzvah.

“Cecily home?” asks Tober, hoping to entice her to come to the hot spring he and Augie discovered on their way to the ocean.

Felix shrugs. “They left for LA this morning. My dad’s driving her.”

“Your dad?” says Tober, collapsing in one of the two deck chairs. “I thought he said she was too young to go.”

“You want some lemonade?” asks Felix, heading for the sliding glass door. “I’m parched.”

“Okay,” says Tober, stunned by the news of Cecily’s departure.

Felix brings Tober a big glass filled with ice cubes and sour lemonade and sits in the other deck chair.

“She just kept after them,” says Felix, gulping his lemonade. “You know how she can be. All day every day, week after week, month after month, until finally they relented.”

“So… what will she do when she gets there?” asks Tober, who has never been to a city larger than Eureka, which seems like a huge metropolis to him, though only 25,000 people live there.

“She’s going to live with Aunt Lydia in Brentwood and go to auditions and get parts and be a movie star.” Felix shrugs. “That’s the plan anyway.”

“She can just go to auditions?” asks Tober, knowing nothing about show business. “Anybody can just go? I could just go? Just walk into wherever they make movies and they’ll give me an audition?”

“Well, no,” says Felix, shaking his head. “She got invited to audition because we made a video. An audition reel. With Dad’s Nikon. Cecily and I edited it on Mom’s computer. She did a scene with Lisa and one with you. Remember?”

“You mean when she pretended to be lost and I was chopping wood?” Tober frowns. “You put that on the video?”

“Yeah. And three monologues and a song.” Felix finishes his lemonade and sucks on an ice cube. “Then she mailed the video to Aunt Lydia and she showed it to a friend of hers who’s a talent agent in Beverly Hills, and the agent got Cecily three auditions. One for a television commercial, one for a sit-com, and one for an indie.”

“What exactly is a sit-com?” asks Tober, who has never watched television and has only been to the movies twice in his life, each time a mind-boggling experience.

Sit-com stands for Situation Comedy,” says Felix, pursing his lips as he does when making a guess. “They… you know… a bunch of actors act out scenes in a humorous situation.”

“And what’s an indie?” asks Tober, his heart aching from the loss of Cecily.

“It’s a type of movie,” says Felix, taking off his glasses and cleaning them with a pale blue handkerchief, something he often does when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Where most of the action takes place indoors.”

Meanwhile, Augie is in the vegetable garden picking lettuce for tonight’s salad and humming a tune that came to him this morning.

Now he sings, “Searching for the magic stone, searching together, searching alone, we dream of love and think of home.”

     fin

Colleen’s Guitar

Monday, January 21st, 2019

Colleen's Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gig returns to Colleen. “Sorry about that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay nods and looks at the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        fin

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

Beckman’s Daughter

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Beckman's Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” said Jasmy, nodding seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       fin

Dane’s Uncle

Monday, December 31st, 2018

rosy cocoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She flinches, but says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Camille? Did you tell her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dane turns to his mother and she hugs him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      fin

Bernard Comes Of Age

Monday, December 24th, 2018

Age BW

Bernard Borenstein is seventy-years-old, a wiry five-foot-nine, with short frizzy gray hair growing whiter by the day. A charming person with a pleasingly deep voice and an infectious sense of humor, Bernard was born in Burbank, spent his childhood and teenage years there, and in 1972, at the age of twenty-two, bought the house in Santa Monica where he still lives today. He paid 23,000 dollars for the lovely two-bedroom home on an oversized lot three blocks from the beach, and the place is now worth at least four million dollars. Bernard paid cash for the house, the cash resulting from royalties from a song he wrote the lyrics to.

The song, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was one of ten songs Bernard wrote the lyrics for on the only album of a short-lived Hollywood rock band called Still At Large. Their self-titled album came out in 1970 and may have sold two hundred copies, but certainly no more than that.

However, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was subsequently covered by Roy McClintock of country music fame on one of his platinum albums, became a staple of country music radio stations, was covered by several other country music artists, and can still be heard today on hundreds of country oldie radio stations. Ironically, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was originally a blues ballad, and all the members of Still At Large detested country music.

Then in 1982 an instrumental jazz version of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ debuted on national television as the theme song for Brad Raymond’s comedy detective show Snoop For Hire, a show that ran for nine enormously successful seasons and was then re-run for another twenty years; and every time the show aired, Bernard made money, though his lyrics were never sung on Snoop For Hire.

Had Bernard invested his royalties wisely, he would be a very rich man today, but because thirty years ago he spent his considerable savings, and then some, launching a talent agency that floundered for ten years before dying a miserable death, he is not rich.

At seventy, Bernard, twice-divorced and single for thirty years now, is a self-proclaimed Chekhov character, and by that he means he has a valuable house, no car, and enough money from Social Security and the occasional royalty check to eat well, pay his property tax, cover his gas and electric and water bills, and not much more.

He is still hoping for another big hit, and to that end he is forever collaborating with an array of acquaintances on television scripts, screenplays, and songs. Some of his co-writers are roughly his age, some are younger than he, and one guy is in his nineties and has a great grandson who is an up-and-coming agent at a major talent agency.

On a hazy morning in late August, Bernard is sitting across the table from his old pal Lou in a booth at Jean’s, a Santa Monica café and bakery that has been in business for nearly a hundred years.

“Lately when I walk by that long wall of windows next to the sidewalk at Bob’s Market,” says Bernard, sipping his coffee, “I’ll look to my right and here’s this skinny old Jewish guy with gray hair, at least twenty years older than I am. We’ll walk along together, smile at each other, maybe bounce our eyebrows, but we don’t talk. And then he goes into the store and I lose sight of him. I wonder why I keep running into this guy? Who could he be?”

“A succinct summation of your powers of denial,” says Lou, a chronically under-employed actor in his seventies who wears colorful scarves and a burgundy beret.

“Are you suggesting…” Bernard feigns a look of horror. “…the old guy is my reflection?”

“I’m suggesting you did this shtick three days ago,” says Lou, raising his hand to beckon a waitress. “It wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now.”

“Who said it was supposed to be funny?” says Bernard, frowning at Lou.

“I’d love to continue this scintillating conversation,” says Lou, slapping a ten-dollar bill on the table, “but I have to go spend the rest of the morning deepening my already considerable debt to a dentist. At least he claims to be a dentist. It seems my one remaining tooth has yet another cavity.”

“I’ll call you,” says Bernard, wincing sympathetically as Lou grimaces when he stands up, his sciatica ferocious this morning. “Take it easy.”

“Famous last words,” says Lou, shuffling away.

The waitress, Darlene, a curvaceous gal in her thirties with curly brown hair and darting green eyes, arrives at the table. “More coffee, Bernie?”

“Yeah, why not?” he says, smiling at her. “You want to go out with me some time, Darlene?”

“Where would we go?” she asks, filling his cup.

“Take a walk on the beach,” he says, nodding hopefully. “Ethnic cuisine of your choice. Go back to my place. Watch a movie.”

“Sounds divine,” she says in a monotone. “But then my husband would kill us and I’m not ready to die.”

“Nor am I,” says Bernard, nodding his thanks for the refill. “I guess we’ll just have to make do with vivid fantasies.”

Julia Sapperstein, a big smiley woman in her fifties with shoulder-length hair dyed auburn, is sitting at Bernard’s seven-foot Mason & Hamblin grand piano in Bernard’s high-ceilinged living room, banging out chords and singing a song she and Bernard are writing together, a love ballad with the working title ‘So Why Did You Stop Calling Me?’. Julia’s voice is a pleasant tenor in the middle register, but when she strains to reach the higher notes, Bernard—making coffee and toasting bagels in the big airy kitchen adjoining the living room—cringes as if someone is scraping a chalkboard with her fingernails.

“Sorry about that,” says Julia seeing Bernard cringing. “Mary said she could maybe come sing this for us on Thursday. You free at two on Thursday?”

“I’ll move my appointment with George Clooney to four,” says Bernard, shrugging. “Let him wait. What else has he got to do?”

“You have an appointment with George Clooney?” says Julia, frowning at Bernard. “The George Clooney?”

“No, a George Clooney,” says Bernard, laughing.

“Have you ever met the George Clooney?” asks Julia, innocently.

“No,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “I’ve seen him in a number of movies and I once saw him walking a dog on the beach right here in Santa Monica. At least I think it was George. He had George’s face and demeanor and gait and charisma, so I assumed it was he.”

“Why would he have been walking a dog on the beach here and not in Malibu?” asks Julia, having a hard time imagining George Clooney on the Santa Monica beach. “What kind of dog?”

“You know, come to think of it,” says Bernard, pouring two mugs of coffee, “it wasn’t a dog. It was a lion.”

“You’re kidding,” says Julia, getting up from the piano and joining Bernard in the dining nook.

“Now she thinks I’m kidding,” says Bernard, glancing at an imaginary audience. “No wonder she’ll sleep with me.”

“Yes, I will,” says Julia, smiling sweetly at Bernard. “And that’s no joke.”

Julia leaves Bernard snoozing in his king-sized bed and writes him a note on a large blue post-it she affixes to his thirty-year-old answering machine on the kitchen counter.

Dear Bernie,

Thank you for a most wonderful time today. I think our song is turning out gangbusters. I can’t wait to hear somebody with a good voice sing it. You’re the best.

Julia

A half-hour after Julia leaves, Bernard wakes from a dream of arm-wrestling with Scarlet Johansson while pitching her an idea for a movie about the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. He takes a moment to enjoy what he remembers most vividly about the dream, the lovely glow in Scarlet’s cheeks, and reminds himself he just had sex with Julia, not Heather with whom he also writes songs and occasionally has sex.

He listens for any sounds indicating Julia is still in the house, and hearing none, he gets out of bed, puts on his blue terrycloth bathrobe, and wanders down the hall to the kitchen where he finds the note from Julia and sees the red light on his answering machine blinking.

The first message is from his only progeny, his son Mason, calling from Oregon. “Hey Dad. Got the check. Thank you so much. We’re doing fine, but every little bit helps. So… can you come visit sometime in the next couple months? We’ve been here five years and you haven’t seen the place yet. Gorgeous here in the fall. The kids would love to see you, and so would Nina. I know it’s a long drive, but I really want to see you and show you all the work we’ve done on this amazing place you helped us get. Love you.”

The second message is from Les Cutler, Bernard’s co-writer of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ and the former bass player of Still At Large. “Bernie. Les. When the fuck are you gonna get a cell phone? I never can get you when I want you. Call me as soon as you get this. And get a fucking cell phone.”

The third message is from David Chapman, one of Bernard’s younger collaborators, a college friend of Mason’s with great expectations of becoming a successful screenwriter. “Hi Bernie. It’s David. I’m slightly desperate to read you these new scenes. I incorporated all our new ideas and I think we’re really onto something here. Call me. Bye.”

“What a life I have,” says Bernard, looking around his comfortable little house. “If only one of my projects would pop and I could make some serious money again. But nothing ever pops. Nothing has popped since I was a kid and got lucky with a song. Yet I still believe something is gonna pop any day now because once upon a time something did.”

Bernard dons his mustard yellow Los Angeles Lakers sweat suit, loads his blue Dodgers tote bag with towel and sunblock and notebook and pen, steps into his beach sandals, walks the three blocks to the beach, buys a fish taco from his favorite mobile taqueria, and dines on the sand just north of the Santa Monica pier, the afternoon balmy, beauties in bikinis abounding.

“How can I be seventy?” he asks the roaring waves as he watches two young women wearing the equivalent of nothing playing Frisbee on the edge of the surf. “I’m old enough to be their grandfather, yet I have no trouble imagining being married to either of them, especially the brunette, and carrying on as if I am twenty-five.”

Having said this, Bernard has a revelation. If I had not been obsessed with having another success equal to or greater than ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ I could have stayed married to either of my wives and created a shared life instead of a life all about me striving for another hit.

“But what can I do about that now?” he asks, following the flight of the Frisbee back and forth between the two young women. “Knowing is not the same as changing, and I am, after all, seventy. Furthermore, what’s wrong with striving for another hit? Certainly better than just waiting to die.”

Home again, Bernard calls David and invites him to come over at four and read the new scenes. And because David’s parting words are, “Say hi to Mason for me next time you talk to him,” Bernard calls Mason.

“Dad?” says Mason, sounding like a boy to Bernard, though Mason is forty-four. “A daytime call? This is unprecedented. What’s going on?”

“Not much,” says Bernard, thinking of Maureen, Mason’s mother, and how she begged him to sell the house and move with her to Seattle, but Bernard wouldn’t leave Santa Monica, so Maureen divorced him and took twelve-year-old Mason with her. “Just returning your call.”

“You gonna come visit?” asks Mason, his voice full of hope.

“I’d love to,” says Bernard, realizing his brain is stuck on a picture of Mason at twelve. “How does October sound? I’ll juggle some things and zip up there for a few days.”

“Oh you gotta stay for at least a week,” says Mason, decisively. “Takes two days to get here. And thanks again for the check. We really appreciate it. And just so you know, that amount gets you an engraved tile in the bathroom in the guest house, which is almost done.”

“The bathroom or the guest house?” says Bernard, fighting his tears.

“Both,” says Mason, laughing. “Hey, can I call you back tonight after I talk to Nina and we’ll get something on the calendar?”

“Yeah, call me tonight,” says Bernard, starting to cry. “Be great to see you.”

After he hangs up, Bernard cries so hard for so long, he soaks his clothes and has to change before he calls Les.

“Your daughter?” says Bernard, frowning into the phone. “Which daughter? You have three, don’t you? Or is it four?”

“It’s four,” says Les, who also has five sons. “And I’m speaking of Grace, my oldest. Jenny is thirty-eight, a successful interior designer, Serena is twenty-nine and having a ball as an international flight attendant, and Crystal is six. Why would I want any of them to live with you?”

“So why do you want Grace to come live with me?” asks Bernard, sitting down at his kitchen counter. “How old is she now? Forty?”

“She’s fifty-two,” says Les, shouting. “You’ve known her since she was a baby. You used to give her piggyback rides. She adored you until you stopped coming to visit.”

“As I recall,” says Bernard, resisting his impulse to join Les in shouting, “I stopped coming to visit because your second and third wife couldn’t stand me. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” says Les, lowering his voice. “They couldn’t stand me either.”

“So if Grace needs a place to stay,” asks Bernard, having a hard time imagining sharing his house with anyone unless he’s married to them or he’s their father, “why can’t she stay with you?”

“Because she’s been living with us for six weeks now, and Carol says if Grace stays another week, she’s leaving me.”

“Why?” asks Bernard, perplexed by Les’s request. “If Carol can’t stand her, what makes you think I’ll be able to?”

“Because she’s a sweetheart and I’ll pay you. Two thousand dollars a month. And I know you’re gonna ask why I don’t just get her an apartment? Because she needs to live with someone, Bernie. She survived two horrendous marriages, raised two kids all by herself and did a damn good job. They’re both in college now, and she’s alone and lonely and… she’s out of gas. Lost. You know? But she’s a great gal, Bernie. She remembers you. She loved you. Please?”

“So suddenly I’m a babysitter?” says Bernard, wincing. “Jesus, Les. How would you feel if I asked you to take in my middle-aged son?”

“It’s not the same thing. You don’t have anybody there. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Will you at least talk to her? As a favor to your old friend?”

And only because Bernard feels beholden to Les for ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ he says, “Sure, I’ll talk to her. Come for breakfast tomorrow.”

The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe?” says David, a tall round-shouldered guy with short blond hair and huge back-framed glasses. “Starring Scarlet Johansson?”

“Thus spake my dream,” says Bernard, bringing two bottles of beer into the living room where David is about to read some new scenes to Bernard from the two screenplays they’re writing together, one a comedy romance set in the 1960s, the other a noir murder mystery set in the 1930s.

“Bernie, that’s genius,” says David, gaping at Bernard. “Scarlet would kill to play the part of Marilyn. They have the same mouth, the same cheekbones, the same body. Scarlet was made to play that part. Immediately. Before she gets any older.”

“What part?” asks Bernie, handing David a beer. “It’s an idea. What’s the plot? Is Marilyn doomed to relive her tragic life? Does she grow up happy and become a veterinarian and have three delightful children? Is she born poor and black in Mississippi? Or rich and Jewish in Beverly Hills? Is she perhaps a man this time? Does she run for President and win, only to be assassinated? What part?”

“All of the above,” says David, getting up from the sofa and pacing around the room. “She is born again and again, always essentially Marilyn, yet living different lives. My God, if we could pitch this to Scarlet, she’d option it before we finished pitching!”

“You think?” says Bernard, accustomed to David’s enthusiasm for outlandish ideas. “I don’t have her current phone number. Do you?”

“I’m this close to getting a good agent,” says David, showing Bernard a tiny space between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. “And when I get her, she’ll set up the pitch.”

“Oh, it’s a her this week,” says Bernard, dubiously. “Last week wasn’t it Larry Somebody at ICM?”

“Shirley Daytona,” says David, nodding assuredly. “At CTA.”

“David, listen to the voice of experience,” says Bernard, pretending his beer bottle is a microphone. “Beware women agents and actresses and artists who take the names of cities for their last names. If you dig just below the surface, you’ll find someone who is ashamed of being Jewish, and an agent who is ashamed of being Jewish is… well… silly. And who wants a silly agent?”

“If she can sell one of our scripts, she can be Bozo the Clown,” says David, taking a long swig of beer. “Shall I read you our new scenes?”

“I’m dying to hear them,” says Bernard, who enjoys working with David more than with any of his other collaborators. Why is that? Because he remains undaunted in the face of my relentless cynicism, and because he genuinely likes me, and he thinks I have talent. I should be nicer to him. From now on, I will be.

When David is done reading the new scenes, Bernard has another revelation, which he elucidates to David.

“It occurs to me that we set these movies in the idealized past because we find contemporary life dreary and hopeless and uninteresting. But why not set these stories in the present and reveal the humor and mystery of today? Maybe the reason we’re having so much trouble getting these scripts right is because we’re avoiding our field of expertise, which is being alive now.”

“I hear you,” says David, giving Bernard a pained look. “But I hate contemporary movies. Everybody’s on cell phones, everybody’s either fucked up or an idiot or a snide asshole or a clueless bimbo or an ideal person married to a rotten person and somebody’s always dying of cancer and everybody’s having an affair or they’re gorgeous but all alone and there’s always someone contemplating suicide and someone addicted to drugs or porno, and even when there’s a somewhat happy ending, the world is still rotten.”

“Right, but that’s not how it will be in our movies.” Bernard smiles warmly at David. “Our movies will reveal the divine in the every day.”

“And no one will buy them,” says David, despondently.

“Maybe not,” says Bernard, nodding in agreement. “Probably not. So shall we write a movie about a wizard who is also a vampire who is also a corrupt politician having an affair with a teenager addicted to porno?”

“Yes!” says David, excitedly. “And only one person can stop the vampire wizard politician. A woman with super powers from another planet.”

“I’ve got just the title,” says Bernard, pausing momentously. “The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”

“Now this we can sell,” says David, pointing at Bernie. “You laugh, but this we could sell. Tomorrow.”

After supper, Bernard gets a call from Mason, and when they have agreed on an October date for Bernard’s trip to Oregon, Bernard realizes he is afraid to leave Los Angeles, afraid to venture into the unknown.

Getting ready for bed, Bernard takes a long look at himself in the bathroom mirror and decides he likes his face, likes his smile, likes the spirit animating him; and he says to his reflection, “Yes, I am seventy, and yes I’m afraid to leave Los Angeles, but there is an undeniable youthful vibrancy to my je nes sais quoi, and so long as I feel this way, I shall not despair.”

Bernard is making hash browns and scrambled eggs and coffee and toast when Les and his daughter Grace arrive.

Les, his red hair lost to baldness, was an avid surfer and skier until he was thirty-five and broke his leg in six places in a skiing accident. When his leg healed, he took up bicycle riding and was a maniacal biker until he turned fifty and his fourth marriage collapsed. Now he is seventy-two, married to a woman in her thirties, and he is uncomfortably overweight. And though he never wrote another song after his band Still At Large broke up in 1972, he parlayed the money he earned from ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ into a huge fortune in real estate.

Grace is a pleasant surprise to Bernard. He hasn’t seen her since she was a sultry beauty in her twenties, an aspiring actress and singer. She is a mature beauty now, with short brown hair and a lovely figure, though she no longer affects sultriness.

She stopped acting and singing when she married at twenty-seven and threw herself into raising her two children, Timothy and Kathy, and being a devoted wife to a show biz scoundrel who left her when the kids were two and six months. She remarried a year later; her second husband a narrow-minded misogynist with inherited millions. She had two miscarriages with him, after which he divorced her.

Single again at thirty-three, her kids five and three, Grace got a job as a secretary at a Mercedes dealership, rented a small apartment in Studio City, and raised her kids on her own with no help from her mother who had moved back to France after leaving Les when Grace was seven, and with little help from Les who was busy supporting his series of wives and the children he fathered with them.

Grace’s children are now twenty-two and twenty, and both are attending college courtesy of Les. Grace works thirty-hours-a-week in a bookstore in Culver City and Les gives her five hundred dollars a month. And though her life has not been easy, she is an inherently positive person, empathetic and thoughtful and warm.

Ten minutes into breakfast, Les looks at his cell phone and says, “Shit. I have to be in Century City yesterday.”

And in the next moment, he’s out the door.

Grace smiles shyly at Bernard and says, “That was unconvincing.”

“I dislike cell phones,” says Bernard, glad Les is gone. “So many people use them to tinker with the truth. Have you noticed? More coffee?”

“I’m fine,” says Grace, who is also glad her father is gone. “At least regarding coffee.”

“What about regarding everything else?” asks Bernard, sad to think of such a delightful person being alone in the world.

“I’m actually pretty okay regarding everything else, too,” she says, liking Bernard’s directness. “It’s true I’m not very good at making money, but I’m happy most of the time, glad to be alive.”

“Les says you’re lonely,” says Bernard, sighing in sympathy.

“I’ve never not been lonely,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Maybe before my mother left I wasn’t lonely, but I can’t remember that far back.”

“You were lonely living with your kids?” asks Bernard, frowning. “Lonely for what, do you think?”

“A soul mate,” she says simply. “I’ve never had one. Or even a soul friend.”

“I’ve heard of soul mates,” says Bernard, getting up to make more coffee. “I think they’re found in the same eco-systems as unicorns.”

“You’ve never had one either?” says Grace, gazing in wonder at him. “That surprises me. You’re such a sweet person.”

“Me?” says Bernard, pointing at himself. “Sweet? I’m a caustic old narcissist.”

“Oh honey,” says Grace, her eyes sparkling. “I’ve known a hundred world-class best-in-show narcissists, and not one of them would ever admit to being a narcissist.”

“I was quoting my two ex-wives and several former friends,” says Bernard, filling the coffee maker with water. “But maybe I’m not a narcissist. Maybe I’m just a selfish egotist.”

“Why do you say you’re selfish?” asks Grace, smiling curiously. “A selfish person wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sharing his house with the middle-aged daughter of his annoying old friend. Just because you take care of yourself doesn’t mean you’re selfish. Why conflate self-love with selfishness?”

Pondering this, Bernard realizes he loves looking at Grace, loves her voice, loves her mind, loves the cadence of her speech, and loves her desire to go below the surface of things. Yes, he is attracted to her sexually, but far transcendent of this attraction, he wants to be her friend.

Four days after Grace moves into Bernard’s second bedroom, formerly his office, Bernard and Julia Sapperstein are in Bernard’s living room, Julia playing the piano and slaughtering the high notes of their song, working title ‘So Why Don’t You Call Me Anymore?’ while Bernard sits on the sofa cringing.

At which moment, Grace comes home from working at the bookstore, looking smart in a long gray skirt and billowy turquoise blouse. Bernard introduces Grace to Julia, Grace heads for her bedroom, and Bernard forestalls her exit by saying, “Grace? Would you be up for singing the song Julia and I are working on? The high notes elude us.”

“Sure,” says Grace, smiling at Julia. “Just let me change out of my bookstore uniform into something less constricting.”

When Grace is out of earshot, Julia glares at Bernard and whisper-shouts, “You didn’t say she was gorgeous. And why did you ask her to sing our song?”

“Because she has a great voice,” says Bernard, speaking quietly. “She was a pro before she had kids. Wouldn’t you like to hear a pro sing our song?”

“Are you fucking her?” asks Julie, squinting angrily at Bernard.

“No,” says Bernard, admitting to himself that the only thing he really likes about Julia is having sex with her.

Grace returns in jeans and a sweatshirt, goes to the piano, stands beside Julia and sings the words from the sheet music as Julia plays—Grace’s voice so fine, she makes the not-very-original song sound fabulous.

“Wow,” says Julia, smiling red-faced at Grace. “That was great. Will you sing on our demo?”

“Sure,” says Grace, sauntering into the kitchen and putting a kettle on for tea. “Would you like a little feedback about your song?”

“Please,” says Bernard, nodding eagerly. “You made it sound positively Bacharachian.”

“What are you, a mind reader?” says Grace, frowning at Bernard. “Because what I was thinking was… the melody is pretty close to ‘The Look of Love’ and you might want to modify…”

“Not true,” says Julia, defiantly folding her arms. “Just because it reminds you of that song doesn’t mean it sounds like that song.”

“You’re right,” says Grace, regretting saying anything about the song. “Lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“The melody isn’t even close to ‘The Look of Love’” says Julia, glaring hatefully at Grace. “That’s just how you sang it. The actual notes are not what you sang.”

“I’m sorry,” says Grace, looking away. “I’m out of practice. Sorry.”

“I have to go,” says Julia, snatching the music off the piano and grabbing her purse and stalking to the door.

“Julia, wait,” says Bernard, following her out the now open front door.

He catches up to her at her car where she turns on him and growls, “Why didn’t you say something when she accused me of plagiarism?”

“Us,” says Bernard, never having seen or imagined this side of Julia. “You and I both wrote the song.”

I wrote the melody!” shouts Julia. “You wrote the words. She didn’t say you stole the words from Hal David. She said I stole the melody from Burt Bacharach.”

“She didn’t say that,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “She said the melodies were similar, which they are. So what? As you said, lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“I didn’t say that, she did,” says Julia, opening her car door. “And I will never come here again as long as she lives here. You’re a shit, Bernie. A total shit.”

“I beg to differ,” says Bernard, pained by this sad demise of his relationship with Julia. “I just wanted to hear someone with a good voice sing our song. And I thought it was beautiful. And on that note, I think we should end our collaboration.”

“You used me,” says Julia, getting into her car. “You used me until you could ensnare somebody younger.”

“First of all, she’s not younger than you,” says Bernard, his sorrow changing to anger. “Second of all, I have not ensnared her. Third of all, you and I used each other as good lovers will, and you know it. And finally of all, I wish you well, Julia. I really do.”

Two weeks into Grace’s residency in the House of Bernard, after sharing Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine, Grace and Bernard retire to the living room and Grace accompanies herself on Bernard’s grand piano and sings for him—Bernard sitting on the sofa and thinking I’ve died and gone to heaven.

When Grace finishes her song, Bernard gapes at her. “You wrote that?”

“Yeah,” she says, nodding and laughing and blushing.

“When?” he asks, astounded by her voice and her tender love song.

“Just… in the last few days. Whenever you weren’t here.”

“God, Grace, it’s fantastic. There were a few lines that could use a little syllabic massaging, but otherwise it’s stunning.”

“I was hoping you’d help me with the lyrics,” she says, smiling shyly. “I mean… I think it would be fun to write songs with you.”

“I think so, too,” says Bernard, the back of his neck tingling. “There’s only one small problem. You’re about fifty thousand times more talented than I am.”

“That’s not true,” she says, playing a series of eloquent chords. “You’re a wizard with words.”

Three weeks into Grace’s residency, Bernard and Grace throw a little party on a Saturday night, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, for about twenty people, mostly Bernard’s friends, but a few of Grace’s bookstore pals, too, the highlight of the evening Grace performing the two songs she’s written with Bernard since coming to live with him.

Bernard introduces Grace’s performance by standing at the piano and saying to the assembled guests, “You’ll all be relieved to know I will not be singing tonight, not audibly. I contributed a little bit in the way of lyric tampering on the first song Grace will sing while accompanying herself on piano, and I wrote a good many of the lyrics of the second song Grace will sing accompanying herself on guitar. As you know, I made a good deal of money from a song I wrote shortly after emerging from puberty, but I can say without a doubt that the musical high point of my life has been collaborating with Grace on these songs.”

While Grace enthralls the guests, Bernard stands in the kitchen, singing along in a whisper and deciding to continue his collaboration with David, and possibly with Alida Schultz on their sitcom The Chess Club, and with Grace, of course, but to end his other collaborations and henceforth focus on quality not quantity.

Karl Sharansky is ninety-one and lives with Maureen, his attendant and cook, in an elegant apartment on the eleventh floor of a twenty-two story apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Maureen is seventy-four, Irish, and loves working for Karl. He naps prodigiously, eats two meals a day, and is a funny affable person with no end of money from the chain of do-it-yourself car washes he started in the 1960s.

Not owning a car, Bernard takes a cab from Santa Monica to Karl’s apartment on Wilshire, and over a delicious shrimp salad in Karl’s dining room, Bernard has to shout to be heard because Karl forgot to put in his hearing aids and keeps squinting at Bernard and saying, “Come again, Bernie?”

Hearing Bernard shouting, Maureen hurries into the dining room with Karl’s hearing aids, pops them into Karl’s ears, and disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.

“Say again,” says Karl, smiling at Bernard. “You’ve taken up mouse skating and smoking cigars? Never heard of mouse skating. Is that a thing you do with a computer mouse? So many new things all the time now. Who can keep track? Of course I know all about smoking cigars, but what is mouse skating?”

“No, I have a housemate now,” says Bernard, laughing. “And she plays the guitar and sings like an angel. She’s the daughter of an old friend.”

Karls sighs. “All my old friends are dead now. Well, not Maury Klein, but he might as well be dead. Stares into space all day. God only knows what he’s thinking about. If I ever get like that, shoot me. Please.”

“So…” says Bernard, relieved to be able to speak at a normal volume, “I brought the latest draft of our movie. I think you’ll like it, Karl.”

“You already made the changes I suggested?” says Karl, frowning gravely. “So fast?”

“Two weeks is not so fast,” says Bernard, deciding now is the time to end his collaboration with Karl and just be his friend. “My new housemate happens to be a blazing fast typist full of good ideas, and she helped me with this final draft. Oh, and I decided to set the story in present-day Los Angeles instead of in the 1950s.”

“Present-day?” says Karl, wrinkling his nose. “With talking computers and smart phones and cars that drive themselves? Why?”

“It works better this way,” says Bernard, nodding assuredly. “After lunch I’ll read it to you.”

“I have a better idea,” says Karl, winking at Bernard. “Sonny’s coming over to meet you and we’ll hand him the script together. You put in the deli scene? When Ruth tells Maurice she’s leaving him?”

“I put it in,” says Bernard, laughing. “It’s a scream.”

“Of course it’s a scream,” says Karl, laughing with him. “We’re comic geniuses.”

Bernard and Karl are having coffee and cookies in the living room with Richard Sharansky AKA Sonny, when Karl has to go to the bathroom and leaves Bernard alone with Richard.

“Karl pay you to write this script?” asks Richard, fixing Bernard with a steely gaze. “How much?”

“He paid me in lunches and coffee and cookies,” says Bernard, smiling at Richard. “I understand why you would think I might be taking advantage, but I’m not. I’ve known Karl for thirty-five years. I had a small talent agency long ago and represented his granddaughter Sophie, who would be, I think, your aunt.”

Richard taps the script on the coffee table and says, “Three things. This any good? Can you send me a PDF? What’s your arrangement with Karl?”

“The script is better than good,” says Bernard, appreciating Richard’s candor. “Yes, I can send you a PDF. Our deal is fifty-fifty. Shall I send you a copy of our contract?”

“Yes, please,” says Richard, handing Bernard a business card. “What’s the pitch?”

“A charming but shy young woman and her delightfully droll gay friend decide to open a bakery. To do so, they enlist the help and money of their grandparents, a snobby British guy and an ironic French lesbian. Chaos ensues, genders are bent, love conquers all.”

“I like it,” says Richard, whipping out his cell phone. “Repeat that.”

Bernard recites the pitch again for Richard to record, and this time Richard laughs.

“When the agent laughs, good things follow,” says Bernard, knowing very well he may never see or hear from Richard again, but relishing the moment.

“Who said that?” asks Richard, liking Bernard despite his tendency not to like anyone.

“I did,” says Bernard, getting up to go. “I’ll send you that PDF as soon as I get back to command headquarters in Santa Monica, and then I’ll alert the sentries to be on the lookout for the Brinks truck.”

“It’s all he talks about,” says Richard, laughing as he shakes Bernard’s hand. “The movie he’s writing with Bernie.”

On the one-month anniversary of Grace living with Bernard, two days before Bernard is scheduled to leave for Oregon, Bernard and Grace go out for Thai food, and Bernard invites Grace to continue living with him. She accepts with tears in her eyes and asks if she can count on staying for at least another few months and would it be okay for her kids to come stay with her now and then.

“Yes, of course,” says Bernard, clinking his glass of beer with her glass of wine. “Mi casa es su casa.”

“Tu,” she says, smiling at him. “We’ve lived together for a month now, Bernie. You can use the familiar. Not that you couldn’t have from the get go.”

“Is that what that is?” says Bernard, clinking his glass to her glass once more. “Tu es familiar. Mi casa es tu casa.”

“Gracias,” she says, smiling brightly. “I’m so grateful to you, Bernie. I feel like… I feel like I’m standing on solid ground for the first time in… forever.”

“I’m glad,” he says, taking a deep breath. “While I’m shaking in my shoes about going to Oregon. Every five minutes I think about calling Mason and cancelling, but… I don’t know. I want to go, but I’m afraid to go.” He looks away, ashamed of himself. “Last night I woke up in such a panic, I thought I was having a heart attack. It’s stupid, I know, but… I haven’t left LA in thirty years, and only a few times before that. I feel like an idiot, but… well, I’ll figure it out.”

“What are you afraid of?” she asks gently. “Or what do you think you’re afraid of?”

“Oh… dying,” he says, looking at her and laughing anxiously. “What else is there to be afraid of?”

She thinks for a moment. “Would you like me to come with you?”

Startled by her suggestion, Bernard says, “Would you like to come with me?”

“Yeah,” she says, eagerly. “I haven’t been out of LA since… forever.”

“And here the one thing I was not feeling anxious about was leaving my house unattended because you were gonna be there,” says Bernard, giddy with happiness. “And now you’re coming with me.”

“Is that an invitation?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Sort of sounded like one.”

“Yes,” he says, nodding humbly. “I would very much like you to come with me.”

They leave Santa Monica in their zippy blue rental car at five in the morning to beat the craziness on the freeways, and when they are an hour north of Paso Robles on Highway 101, Bernard driving and Grace gazing out the window at the passing beauty, they feel themselves leaving the gravitational pull of Los Angeles; and they turn to each other and exchange looks of excitement and wonder.

During a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Redding, Grace studies maps of California and Oregon and suggests they take Highway 299 from Redding to Arcata and make the rest of the trip to Yachats, Oregon via the coast.

“I love the idea of getting off the freeway,” says Bernard, taking a deep breath to quell his anxiety. “But what if the car breaks down? How will we survive out there in the middle of nowhere?”

“Maybe we won’t,” says Grace, slowly shaking her head. “But at least we’ll die together.”

“And believe it or not,” says Bernie, gesturing for the waiter to bring the check, “that’s a great comfort to me.”

“To me, too,” says Grace, gazing lovingly at him. “How about I drive for a while?”

Moments after they head west on Highway 299, where the four-lane road becomes two lanes, they feel they have entered a whole new world.

“This is fantastic,” says Bernard, gazing ahead in wonder as the road carries them up through the foothills into the mountains. “I love this. So much.”

“Me, too,” says Grace, her heart pounding. “And we’ve barely started.”

 ∆

Elated from their long drive from Redding through the spectacular mountain range to the coast, they have supper at a Mexican restaurant in Crescent City, after which they go to the Ocean View Inn to get rooms for the night, another seven hours of driving awaiting them on the morrow.

At the check-in desk, a friendly young woman wearing granny glasses says, “Just the two of you? No pets? Non-smoking? I’ve got one room left with a view of the beach, but there’s only a queen in that one. If you want a king and don’t need a view, I’ve got three of those available.”

“We’re getting two rooms,” says Bernard, smiling at the young woman.

She looks from Bernard to Grace and back to Bernard. “I’ve got a room with two queens. Eighty dollars less than getting two rooms.”

“What do you think?” says Bernie, turning to Grace.

“Up to you,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder.

“No,” he says, blushing at her touch. “I want you to decide.”

     fin

Tober’s Stones

Monday, December 17th, 2018

Tober's Stones

Tober Quincy is nine-years-old and quite tall for his age. Highly intelligent and intuitive and talkative, his dark brown hair has yet to be cut since he was born and nearly reaches his waist. Some mornings he captures his hair in a ponytail, and some mornings his mother braids his hair in a three-strand braid she ties at the end with a red shoelace.

Augie Quincy, Tober’s eight-year-old brother, is also very bright and intuitive and talkative, but not particularly tall for his age. Augie’s red hair has been cut many times since he was four, per his request, and much to his mother’s chagrin he insists on wearing baseball caps most of the time, his current favorite a neon-orange Houston Astros cap that really bugs her.

Sharon Quincy is Tober and Augie’s thirty-two-year-old mother. She is five-foot-three, weighs a hundred and five pounds, and is remarkably strong and agile for a person of any size. Blazingly smart with a wry sense of humor, Sharon speaks English with a strong New Jersey accent and is also fluent in French and Spanish, languages she learned from her fellow dancers when she was in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet Company from the age of fifteen until she was twenty. She has shoulder-length brown hair, dark blue eyes, a simply beautiful face, and at a distance is often taken for a teenager.

An excellent violinist and guitarist and a voracious reader, Sharon homeschools Tober and Augie on their remote farm three miles from the Pacific Ocean in the far north of California. Sharon and Tober and Augie grow nearly all the food they need in their quarter-acre vegetable garden and large greenhouse, and what food they don’t grow, they buy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna where Sharon works twenty hours a week as a checker.

Sharon has many friends, but she hasn’t been in a relationship since Tober and Augie’s father vamoosed when Tober was five-months-old and Augie was in utero.

Lance is Tober and Augie’s father. He told Sharon his last name was Vogelsang, but Sharon doubts this is true; and she wouldn’t be surprised if Lance is a pseudonym, too. Tober and Augie don’t know much about their father except the little Sharon has told them and what they deduce from photos he sends in a Christmas card every January along with a fifty-dollar bill, the amount unvarying since Lance made his getaway nine years ago.

The postmarks on the envelopes are usually from Arizona, the town name changing from year to year; and one year the card came from Bangor, Maine. Because Lance doesn’t write anything in the card or on the backs of the photos, Tober and Augie and Sharon have no idea where the photos were taken, though they guess Lance lives somewhere in Arizona.

Three photos came with last year’s Christmas card, and Tober and Augie have looked at these three images dozens of times in the eleven months since they arrived, not because they miss Lance—they don’t know him to miss him—but because they enjoy how the photos fuel their imaginings and supply details for the stories they make up about their father.

In the first of the photos in this most recent batch, Lance, a broad-shouldered man with muscular arms and a big paunch, is sitting sideways on the rump of a large brown horse standing in front of what looks like the wall of an old barn. Lance is shirtless, his blue jeans tattered, his feet bare. His head is shaved, he has a gold ring in his left nostril, and he has a tattoo of a cobra coiled around his left arm, the head of the cobra on the back of his hand. A tattoo of a Chinese dragon covers Lance’s right arm from his wrist to his shoulder, the dragon’s nose touching Lance’s collarbone; and a tattoo of the head of a roaring male lion covers Lance’s heart. Lance is smiling, but despite the smile, Tober and Augie agree he looks sad.

The second of these three recent photos shows Lance wearing a lime green tank top, blue plaid Bermuda shorts, and red flip-flops. He is standing on a scraggly lawn at dusk, holding a can of beer in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other as he gazes up at a cloudless sky, the camera’s flash reflecting off his shaved head.

In the third photo, Lance is wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie. His hair has started to grow back, revealing much of the top of his head is bald. He is standing beside a woman with unnaturally blonde hair wearing a scoop-necked yellow dress that shows off the tops of her breasts. She and Lance are smiling, but again, despite those smiles, Tober and Augie think Lance and the woman look sad.

Sharon makes a point of not speaking ill of Lance in front of the boys, though when Tober was six and Augie was five, and Sharon was feeling particularly upset about something, she referred to Lance as a charismatic jerk; and when the boys were eight and seven, while Sharon was talking on the phone to her mother in New Jersey and thought the boys were asleep, she characterized Lance as a narcissistic schmuck.

In both instances, Tober and Augie looked the words up in the dictionary, and the definitions they found for charismatic, jerk, narcissistic, and schmuck sparked long discussions with Sharon about who Lance was, why she partnered with him, how they ended up far from the nearest town at the end of a dirt road, why Lance went away, and why he never comes to visit.

Sharon decided to make a life with Lance and have children with him because she loved who she thought he was, only she didn’t know who he really was and didn’t love the person he turned out to be. But before she realized Lance was not who she thought he was, she was pregnant with Tober, and while pregnant, Lance convinced her to empty her savings and buy an old farmhouse on ten acres of land at the end of a dirt track known to locals as Snake Creek Road, and to firefighters and law enforcement officials as the nameless dirt road just past the three-mile marker on Highway 211.

When Lance, who claimed to be ten years older than Sharon, was wooing her in San Francisco, he boasted of a degree in Design from the University of Oregon and claimed to be a master organic gardener. He said he knew all about raising chickens and rabbits, could build virtually anything, and was an old hat at living off the grid with solar panels. He also claimed to be an expert woodsman and auto mechanic.

None of this turned out to be even remotely true.

By the time Lance left Sharon after two tumultuous years of involvement with her, she was well established on Snake Creek Road. She had a bountiful vegetable garden surrounded by a sturdy deer fence, a new roof on the old farmhouse, the old glass greenhouse was repaired and producing lettuce, kale, green onions, and chard year-round, she had thirty hens laying copious eggs to eat and trade, and she was the master of seven robust beehives. A large solar array was producing ample electricity to power her lights and freezer and refrigerator and the pump for her well; and she had a great store of firewood for her two super-efficient woodstoves.

Sharon accomplished all this and much more with the generous assistance of her knowledgeable neighbors and without a lick of help from Lance. There are twenty-two people in six households, counting Sharon and her boys, living on Snake Creek Road, and these hearty homesteaders know all about living off the grid far from the nearest town; and they were happy to help such a likeable and hardworking young woman with a delightful baby and another on the way.

For most of those two years that Lance figured so largely in Sharon’s life, he was not with her on Snake Creek Road. He said he was doing design work in Portland, and he would, every few weeks, return to the homestead and give Sharon some cash. On a few occasions, he gave her several hundred dollars, but usually he gave her a pittance, stayed for a few days, and then left again.

The day Lance departed for good, he waited for pregnant Sharon to drive off in her little pickup truck with baby Tober to go grocery shopping in Fortuna, and then he ransacked the house looking for cash and Sharon’s valuable musical instruments. However, he found no money or instruments because Sharon had anticipated his search for cash and valuables and had removed her money and instruments to a neighbor’s house the previous day while Lance was sleeping.

Fortunately, Lance was not a vindictive person, merely desperate, so he broke no windows and killed no chickens. Instead, he took most of the food in the refrigerator, several bottles of wine, a large ceramic salad bowl, a down comforter, and a lovely porcelain statuette of Kuan Yin.

Tober and Augie have only watched television twice in their lives, both times for just a few moments. The first time was two years ago in a house in Fortuna where they went with Sharon to procure a couple kittens. The middle-aged man and woman who lived in the house had large flat-screen televisions in nearly every room, and all the televisions were tuned to the same football game, so as Tober and Augie followed Sharon through the living room and family room and kitchen to reach the door that opened into the garage where the kittens were, they saw fragments of what to them was a fantastically colorful and otherworldly spectacle of dozens of armored men, some wearing red uniforms, some black, doing battle on a brilliant green lawn surrounded by thousands of cheering people wearing red sweatshirts.

The second time they saw television was just a few months ago in a Japanese restaurant in Eureka where they’d gone with the Bernstein’s, their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road. Sharon was in New Jersey visiting her parents, and Tober and Augie were staying with the Bernstein’s for the two weeks Sharon was gone. George and Lisa are the adult Bernsteins, Cecily, ten, and Felix, eight, their children.

Cecily is Tober’s best friend besides Augie, and Felix is Augie’s best friend besides Tober, and Cecily and Felix are being homeschooled and growing up without television, too. There are seven kids on Snake Creek Road being homeschooled, and George and Lisa and Sharon and four other adults on the road are the faculty.

The television in question was mounted on the wall above the sushi bar. On the large screen, a man with receding brown hair and a sunburned face was being interviewed about a movie he had made. The woman interviewing the man was small with short blonde hair and a voice that reminded Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix of the duck Camille who quacks long dissertations when the children come to feed her and the chickens.

When George and Lisa realized the kids were riveted by what was showing on the television, they changed tables so the kids could no longer see the screen.

Cecily summed up the children’s feelings about not getting to watch more of the show by saying, “We know television interferes with the proper development of our brains, but surely a tiny bit won’t hurt us.”

Hunting rabbits with their bows and arrows, fishing in the Eel River, and making blackberry sorbet from fresh-picked berries are near the top of Tober and Augie’s list of favorite activities, but going to the libraries in Fortuna and Eureka to check out books is at the very top of their list. And today they have come to the big library in Eureka with Sharon to return seventeen books and check out more.

While Augie scours the shelves for books about animals he and Tober haven’t read multiple times, Tober goes to use the bathroom, and on his way passes the open door of a conference room in which twenty people are listening to a handsome man with reddish brown hair speaking about Queen Elizabeth of England and the mysteries surrounding her life. The man, according to the name written on the blackboard, is Alex Redfield. He’s wearing a black jacket, a purple shirt, and black corduroy trousers; and he has an enchanting Scottish brogue that makes Tober grin.

Tober and Augie have learned a little about Queen Elizabeth, not the current queen of England but the long-ago queen of England, from Lisa Bernstein who co-teaches the homeschoolers History and Geography with Hank Carpenter who used to be a professor of History at Cal State Sacramento before fleeing academia to build a rammed-earth solar home on Snake Creek Road where he lives with his wife Ivy, an herbalist and astrologer.

Alex Redfield, however, is much more interesting to Tober than Lisa or Hank because he speaks so beautifully, almost as if he is singing his words in his deep Scottish-accented voice; and his sentences are the most beautiful sentences Tober has ever heard.

Tober stands in the doorway of the conference room for ten minutes, mesmerized by Alex, and when the presentation is over and the twenty people applaud, Tober writes Alex Redfield in his little notebook, goes to use the bathroom, and on his way back from the bathroom looks into the conference room and sees Alex is still there talking to a woman who attended the lecture. So Tober decides to ask Alex if he can recommend a book about the long-ago Queen Elizabeth suitable for a nine-year-old.

When the woman departs, Tober approaches Alex and says with his characteristic confidence, “Excuse me Mr. Redfield. I only heard the end of your speech about Queen Elizabeth, but you made me want to read a book about her. I’m nine, but according to the results of the last test we took to measure our reading and comprehension levels, I’m in Tenth Grade, though I’m not really in any grade because we’re being homeschooled and don’t have grades.”

Alex, who Tober guesses to be about the same age as George Bernstein who is forty-two, smiles at Tober and says, “Well, I suppose you could read my book about Elizabeth. There are a few racy passages, but nothing R-rated. The copy they have here is checked out to someone who attended my lecture today, but I know copies can be had on the Internet for mere pennies plus the shipping.”

“We don’t have a computer,” says Tober, handing his little notebook and pencil to Alex. “Would you please write the name of your book in my notebook and I’ll put my name on the waiting list here, and if the wait is much too long, I’ll ask my neighbor George to get a copy for me. He has a computer and buys lots of books that way.”

Alex takes the notebook from Tober, smiles at how neatly he printed ALEX REDFIELD in all caps, and says, “You know what? I’ll just give you my copy. How about that?”

“That would be wonderful,” says Tober, beaming at Alex. “I will trade you something for it. We have honey and eggs in the truck, and I have some beautiful stones I found at the beach two weeks ago at a minus tide. Do you like stones?”

“I do,” says Alex, enchanted with Tober. “Where are these stones you speak of?”

“Here,” says Tober, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a little pouch he made from the skin of a rabbit he killed with his bow and arrow. “Hold out your hands.”

Alex cups his hands together and Tober pours ten exquisite stones into Alex’s hands.

“They’re gorgeous,” says Alex, his eyes wide with delight. “Where is the beach where you found these stones?”

“Mouth of the Eel,” says Tober, picking out the red one that resembles carnelian. “North side. This is the one you want, isn’t it?”

“It is,” says Alex, nodding. “Though truth be told, I want them all. But you should certainly get more than one measly book for these.”

“I’m sure your book is not measly,” says Tober, gazing sternly at Alex. “I’m sure it’s very good. And you can have all these stones, and the pouch, too, and owe me two books. How about that?”

“Agreed,” says Alex, nodding graciously. “And how will I get those two books to you?”

“We have a post office box in Fortuna,” says Tober, putting the stones back into the rabbit-skin pouch. “ Box 347. My name is Tober Quincy. Tober is short for October, but everyone calls me Tober except my brother and mother who call me Tobe. Would you please sign your book for me?”

“I will,” says Alex, taking the pouch of stones from Tober.

At which moment, Sharon and Augie come into the room, and Sharon says, “Ah here you are, Tobe. Sorry to drag you away, but I’ve got to be at work in forty minutes.” She smiles at Alex. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“No problem,” he says, returning her smile. “We’re just exchanging addresses to facilitate our future correspondence.”

Dear Alex Redfield,

My name is Tober Quincy. We met at the Eureka library three weeks ago and you traded me your book Queen Elizabeth I: A Brief Introduction To A Most Complicated Life for ten stones and you owe me two more books. I have finally finished reading your book with the help of my mother and Hank Carpenter who was a history professor. I love your book even though some parts are confusing for me because I don’t know enough about the history of England. I love how you write sentences and I want to learn to write sentences the way you do.

The most interesting part for me is about who Elizabeth’s father was if he wasn’t Henry the VIII. You thought her father might be Mark Smeaton who was a musician who was friends with Elizabeth’s mother, and if Elizabeth looked like him that seems like a good clue. Probably because I’m only nine, I don’t understand why people wanted to kill Elizabeth when she was just a girl and not doing anything wrong and why Henry the VIII cut off Elizabeth’s mother’s head and Mark Smeaton’s head, too. Henry the VIII sounds like a very sad person with a terrible temper.

Hank tried to explain to me and my brother Augie, short for August, why people were so violent in those days and why everyone kept killing other people, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t agree on things without killing each other all the time. The book made me like Elizabeth, but she must have been afraid all the time about people trying to kill her and attack England.

Even Elizabeth who was very smart and spoke so many languages killed people when she didn’t like them. This is very primitive and not a good way to do things, but Hank says England in the olden days was very violent and history is complicated.

We are having a potluck party at our house for everyone on the road and other people, too, starting at noon on the seventh day of Hanukkah. Would you like to come? It would be great if you could come. If you want to come, call my mother Sharon Quincy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna and she will give you directions. I hope you can come.

Thanks again for your wonderful book.

Your Friend,

Tober Quincy

At 11:30 in the morning on the seventh day of Hanukkah, the day sunny and clear and very cold, Tober and Augie and their two big mutts Bozo and Nina arrive at the unmarked junction of Snake Creek Road and Highway 211 to await the arrival of Alex Redfield. Sharon told Alex to be on the lookout for the boys and Augie’s neon-orange baseball cap, and though Alex said he would aim to arrive at noon, Tober and Augie wanted to be at the junction a half-hour early to make absolutely sure Alex doesn’t miss the turn.

To pass the time, they play Frisbee for a while, both boys expert at flinging the disc, and when they tire of Frisbee, they sit side-by-side on a gray boulder and take turns reading aloud from a book about pumas the Bernsteins gave them for Hanukkah Christmas Solstice; and in the middle of a fascinating passage describing how pumas hunt by surprising their victims rather than chasing them, Alex arrives in an old forest green Volvo station wagon.

He makes the turn, comes to a stop, and rolls down his window. “Hello Tober. Hello Augie,” he says, grinning at the boys. “Thanks for coming to guide me. Jump in. I’ll drive you up to the house.”

“The dogs won’t get in your car,” says Augie, shaking his head. “And we can’t be sure they’ll follow us home and we can’t leave them here.”

“You go ahead,” says Tober, pointing up the road. “We’ll run after you. It’s one-point-four miles to our house at the very end of the road. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

By the time Tober and Augie get to the house, Alex is inside being introduced to everyone by Sharon; and Augie and Tober agree, without saying anything aloud to each other, that they will probably have to be quite aggressive about prying Alex away from the adults if they want to show him all the things they intend to show him.

However, this turns out not to be the case because after an hour of chatting with people and sampling scrumptious hors d’oeuvres, Alex finds Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix in the kitchen cutting up apples for the two big pans of apple crisp Sharon is making to go with homemade ice cream, and Alex asks the children if they’d like to give him a tour of the house and the farm.

“We’re eating in an hour,” says Sharon, making eye contact with each of the children, “so don’t take him too faraway, please.” Now she looks at Alex. “Have you got a watch?”

“I do,” he says, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a beautiful silver pocket watch. “I shall sound the alarm in forty-five minutes, if necessary.”

“Good man,” says Sharon, mimicking his Scottish accent. “And good luck to you.”

The tour takes the children and Alex around the house and up the hill to the grand old oak where Tober and Augie and Abe Peoples, an excellent carpenter who lives on the road, built a tree house with three walls on a sturdy platform about fifteen feet off the ground. After climbing the rope ladder to the platform and exclaiming about the spectacular view, Alex climbs down the rope ladder and follows the kids from the grand old oak to an outcropping of red rock the children call Lizard Point, and from Lizard Point they follow a slender trail down a steep hill through a copse of pines to the Bernstein’s house, a two-story beauty made of oak and river rock.

In the Bernstein’s house, after introducing Alex to their three cats, Cecily performs part of a Bach partita on the grand piano, Felix holds forth on the contents of two of the eleven cigar boxes comprising his insect collection, and they show Alex the large woodshop where George makes exquisite furniture sold in art galleries.

From the Bernstein’s house, the quintet climbs back up the hill to the Quincy place where Alex is shown the verdant young cover crops in the vegetable garden before being led to the chicken coop wherein forty hens are roosting and where Alex is encouraged to gather eggs to take home with him. And for the final outdoor part of the tour, Tober and Augie each demonstrate their considerable skill with an axe in the splitting of rounds and the creation of kindling.

Returning to the farmhouse, the boys show Alex their bedroom, their collection of animal skulls and feathers, their hundreds of books, and their guitars and violins, which they play a little to prove they are both quite good musicians.

They leave Alex alone while he uses the bathroom, and after giving him a peek into their mother’s bedroom, they lead him to the dining room just as the midday meal is about to be served.

A half-hour before dusk, Alex says his goodbyes to everyone, and Tober and Augie accompany him to his car.

“I had a wonderful time with you today,” says Alex, opening the car door. “And I brought you two books, Tober, to complete our trade. One is a book of stories I read countless times when I was your age. Tales of a Knight Errant. And the other is Island Reveries, essays by a very good writer about the islands and birds off the west coast of Scotland where I spent many a happy summer. I think you and Augie will both love these books.”

“I know we will,” says Tober, taking the books from Alex. “And…” He wants to say more, but words won’t come out.

“And what?” asks Alex, smiling warmly at Tober.

“Will you come visit us again?” asks Augie, nodding hopefully.

“I will,” says Alex, giving each of the boys a gentle hug. “I’ve been at the university in Arcata for a year now, and I was despairing of ever making any good friends, and now I’ve met you and your mother and your wonderful neighbors, and they’ve all asked me to come again, so I will.”

“When?” asks Tober, cradling the precious books.

“When would you like me to come again?” asks Alex, touched by Tober’s interest in him.

“Tomorrow,” says Tober, nodding assuredly. “It’s not supposed to rain and there’s a negative tide at eleven in the morning, and we could go to the beach on the north side of the mouth of the Eel and have a picnic. I know we’ll find some good stones. I’m sure we will.”

“Come for breakfast,” says Augie, taking Alex’s hand. “We’ll make pancakes and then we’ll go to the beach.”

“Don’t you think we should see if this fits into your mother’s plans for tomorrow?” asks Alex, looking toward the house where Sharon is coming out the door to see what’s keeping her boys.

“Hey Mom,” says Tober, calling to Sharon. “Can Alex come for breakfast tomorrow and then we’ll go to the beach for low tide and hunt for stones?”

“Fine with me,” she says softly. “If that’s something he’d like to do.”

“I’d love to,” says Alex, letting go of Augie’s hand. “And now I must be on my way before it gets too dark. Long drive home and I’m not a great driver in America. Everything about driving here is the opposite of England, and I’m especially not a good American driver in the dark.”

“Spend the night,” says Sharon, matter-of-factly. “If you don’t mind sleeping on the sofa.”

“It’s a very comfortable sofa,” says Tober, nodding emphatically. “I can barely sit on that sofa and not fall asleep.”

“Me, too,” says Augie, nodding in solidarity with his brother.

“Well then that’s decided,” says Alex, walking with the boys back to the house. “And lucky me, the party’s still going.”

        fin

Raymond’s Band

Monday, December 10th, 2018

Raymond's Band

Raymond’s partner Tina will sometimes tease Raymond by saying he loves his guitar Susie more than he loves her, which Raymond doesn’t think is true, though he does love his guitar. He’s been playing since he was ten, and now he’s thirty-three, a superb guitarist, and he can’t imagine life without a guitar. He also can’t imagine life without Tina, and he knows she only teases him about loving Susie more than he loves her when she wants him to pay more attention to her, which is something he’s always happy to do.

A wearer of brown khaki pants, red high-top tennies, and colorful T-shirts, Raymond Chance is a sturdy five-foot-nine with short brown hair and brilliant green eyes, the brilliance somewhat muted by his wire-framed glasses, the lenses tinted light gray. The youngest of two children, his sister five years older than he, Raymond was born in Burlingame, California, his mother a first-generation Irish American, his father descended from pioneers who reached California in wagon trains a decade before the Gold Rush of 1849. From his mother, a high school music teacher, Raymond got his love of music and storytelling, and from his father, a plumber, he learned basic carpentry skills, an appreciation for baseball, and how to barbecue chicken.

A wearer of skirts, sandals, and embroidered Mexican blouses, Tina Ramirez is thirty-two, five-foot-three, with big brown eyes and long brown hair. The middle child of five siblings, Tina was born in San Jose, California, her mother Cuban, her father Mexican. A gymnast from the age of six until she was sixteen, Tina was an excellent student and received a full scholarship to San Jose State. From her mother, a seamstress, Tina learned to cook and make clothes and dance the Rumba and Mambo. From her father, a construction worker, Tina learned to work hard, how to grow tomatoes and chili peppers, and how to make killer guacamole.

Tina and Raymond have been friends for eleven years, lovers for nine, housemates for eight, and they both say they want to get married, but they haven’t set a date, nor do they talk much about marriage. They are both ambivalent about having children, not because they don’t love children, they do, but because they barely make enough money to cover their expenses, despite having an old car and sharing the three-bedroom house they rent in Oakland with four other people.

Raymond is a teacher’s aide in a private pre-school in Berkeley, his hours seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, though he often stays an extra hour until the last child has gone home. He loves his job, though it pays poorly, and he frequently searches the Want Ads for another job. He plays the guitar for at least two hours every day and has written hundreds of songs, seventy-four of which he thinks are really good.

Tina is a substitute teacher, mostly middle school, and makes twice what Raymond makes per hour, but she hates subbing and is taking online courses to improve her computer skills and enhance her chances of landing an Internet Technology job. Both she and Raymond have degrees in English from San Jose State where they met in a Creative Writing class. Tina hasn’t written anything since graduating from college, and Raymond mostly writes songs these days, though occasionally he’ll write a short story and share it with the household.

Raymond and Tina have a band called Pepperoni. Raymond is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist and writer of all the songs, Tina plays electric bass and sings harmony, and Derek, Raymond’s friend since childhood, plays lead guitar. They’ve had one regular gig for the last five months, every Sunday late morning to early afternoon at Calm Coffee, a popular café in Emeryville. Raymond has tried to get more gigs for the band, but the three songs on the Pepperoni demo CD they made in their living room reveal more of the group’s flaws than virtues. Raymond is a masterful guitarist with a pleasing voice, but Tina is frequently out of synch with Raymond when singing harmony and playing bass, and Derek is a sloppy player who uses the same seven-note blues riff over and over again.

Now and then, usually when he hasn’t had enough sleep, Raymond admits to himself that Tina and Derek are musical liabilities, but Tina loves playing bass and singing with Raymond, and Derek and Raymond started playing guitars together in Fifth Grade and Raymond thinks Derek would be devastated if he couldn’t be in the band.

Raymond landed the Calm Coffee gig by playing and singing solo for the manager of the café, Fiona Marconi, in her office adjacent to the café kitchen. Fiona, a professional dancer with expressive hands and short black hair, loved Raymond’s singing and playing, and she was more than a little peeved when he showed up with Tina and Derek for the gig; but she has such an enormous crush on Raymond, she can’t bring herself to fire Pepperoni.

One rainy Sunday in April, Tina wakes with a debilitating headache and Derek calls from Burlingame where he still lives with his parents to say he has the flu, so Raymond goes to play the Calm Coffee gig by himself.

When Raymond tells Fiona he’ll be playing solo today, Fiona wants to throw her arms around him and kiss him, but she resists those impulses and effuses, “Truth be told, you’re so good by yourself, I really don’t think you need those other two.”

Raymond nods his thanks to Fiona for her compliment, tunes Susie, plugs into the café sound system, and sits on a high stool rather than standing as he usually does when he performs with Tina and Derek.

He starts his first set with a swinging love song full of delightful chord changes and enchanting lyrics, and many of the customers stop talking to listen. At song’s end, the applause is boisterous, something that never happens when Tina and Derek play with Raymond.

The interesting thing to Raymond is, though he knows he sounds much better playing and singing alone, he misses Tina and Derek playing with him. And on this Sunday, for the first time in his life, he realizes he has chosen mediocrity over excellence because he is uncomfortable playing in public by himself. But why do I have to play with such lousy musicians?

By the end of Raymond’s third set, Calm Coffee is jammed with people listening to him; and when he finishes his last tune, the applause goes on for so long he is moved to play an encore, after which dozens of people put money in his tip jar and thank him for playing.

Fiona pays Raymond twenty dollars more than the usual fifty, gives him a big bag of muffins and cookies, and goes on and on about what a wonderful solo performer he is, but she stops short of asking him to henceforth play the Calm Coffee gig solo.

In his car, before heading home, Raymond counts his tips and can’t believe the total. So he counts the money again, looks around to confirm he is still on planet Earth, and whispers, “Two hundred and forty-seven dollars? Impossible.”

The following Sunday morning at ten, Fiona is gravely disappointed when Derek, a heavyset guy with long dank blond hair, and Tina arrive at Calm Coffee with Raymond. But despite her disappointment, Fiona decides not to tell Raymond about the dozens of phone calls she received during the week from people asking if Raymond would be playing by himself again this week.

The truth is, Fiona has only kept Pepperoni on the bill for as long as she has because she keeps hoping Raymond will either break up with Tina or wake up to his genius and start gigging solo, or both. But because Fiona did not call Raymond in the days leading up to this Sunday’s gig and tell him about those phone calls from people who love him but can’t stand the full ensemble, she decides to let today’s drama unfold however it will and hope her customers won’t boo the band, though if they do boo, she won’t be surprised.

As it happens, the customers don’t boo, either because they don’t stay to listen or they stay and don’t listen, the café din all but drowning out the music; and Raymond feels terrible as Tina keeps losing the beat and playing the wrong notes and coming in late with her harmonies, and Derek keeps bending the same handful of notes exactly as he’s been bending them since he was thirteen.

Only a few people put change in the tip jar, and when the last song is sung, Fiona asks Raymond to come to her office where she pays him and says, “I’m sorry, Raymond, but we’re going to go with somebody else on Sundays from now on. It was great getting to know you. I love your songs. Good luck.”

“I appreciate you keeping us on here for as long as you did,” says Raymond, smiling at her. “Meant a lot to us. Thanks.”

Fiona takes a deep breath and says, “If you ever want to play solo, let me know. Okay? I’d love to have you gig here and I know I could get you gigs other places, too. But not with Tina and Derek. They’re just not in your league, Raymond. You know that, don’t you?”

“I hear you,” he says, waving goodbye. “Thanks again, Fiona.”

At the table in Calm Coffee where Derek and Tina and Raymond are having their customary after-gig coffee and bagels, Raymond is trying to work up the courage to tell Tina and Derek about the termination of their run at Calm Coffee, when a man approaches their table. He’s tall and good-looking with longish gray hair, wearing a black corduroy jacket over a green T-shirt tucked into black corduroy trousers.

He nods politely to Tina and Derek, smiles at Raymond and says, “Sorry to barge in, but I heard you playing solo last week and came back to hear you again today.” He hands Raymond a business card. “I’m very interested in your music. I have a recording studio just around the corner here, and I’m working with a couple of artists who would love to record some of your songs. If that’s of any interest to you, please give me a call and we’ll set something up.”

“Okay,” says Raymond, pocketing the card without looking at it. “Thanks.”

The man walks away, and now Raymond doesn’t have the heart to tell Tina and Derek about the end of their Calm Coffee gig, just as he didn’t have the heart to tell them about the two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips and the extra twenty he made last week.

That night, as they are settling down to sleep, Tina says to Raymond, “I felt pretty good about my playing today. I think I’m finally getting the knack of playing bass and singing at the same time. Don’t you think?”

Raymond clears his throat. “Yeah. You were fine.”

“Fine?” she says, with a touch of anger. “What do you mean fine?”

“I mean you were good,” says Raymond, unconvincingly.

“That guy who gave you his card certainly thought we were good,” she says, petulantly. “Why else would he be interested in our songs?”

“Honey, they’re not our songs, they’re my songs.”

“What?” she says, sitting up and turning on the light. “Your songs? Since when are they your songs and not Pepperoni’s songs?”

“Are you serious?” says Raymond, frowning at her. “I wrote them. I play them. I sing them and you guys play along. You didn’t write them. I did.”

Tina gets out of bed and glares at Raymond. “So does this mean you’re gonna go see that guy without me and Derek? Your songs are… they’re skeletal without us.”

“Skeletal?” says Raymond, sitting up and laughing. “Are you out of your mind?”

Tina folds her arms. “So this is what I get for playing with you for five years? This is how you treat Derek after he played with you for twenty years? You dump us the minute some guy with a recording studio gives you his card?”

“The guy is interested in my songs,” says Raymond, flabbergasted. “Not in our band. He wants the songs, maybe, for some people he’s recording. I’m a songwriter. You’re not, and neither is Derek. Can we please discuss this rationally? I am not dumping you. If I go see this guy, and I may not, I will play him my songs and if he wants some of them, we’ll figure something out. Do you hear what I’m saying? This is not about the band. It’s about the songs.”

“Yeah, but he liked the songs because of the way we played them,” she says, angrily. “Will you at least admit that?”

“No,” says Raymond, shaking his head. “What I’ll admit is last Sunday I played at Calm Coffee without you and Derek, and I made two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips, and Fiona paid me an extra twenty dollars over the usual fifty. And today she told me she doesn’t want Pepperoni playing there anymore.”

Tina glares at Raymond. “I know why you’re doing this. Because you resent that I make more money than you, and you resent that I’m going to get a tech job and make serious money while you barely make minimum wage.”

“Tina,” he says quietly. “I’m happy you make good money subbing, and I’ll be happy when you get a job you like and make even more money. I work at the pre-school because I love the job and I love the kids, but my real job, the job I care most about, is my music. And I really don’t understand why you would begrudge me a little success with what I’ve dedicated my whole life to. I don’t get it.”

She sits on the edge of the bed and says, “I begrudge you because I’m jealous of you. As if you didn’t know. I was gonna be a writer. Remember? And you were gonna be a writer. But we ended up being what we are, and I don’t do anything creative except play bass and sing with you, and I know I’m not very good, but I love it because it’s something creative, something not just about getting money and surviving. It’s what we wanted to be. Artists. And you work at being an artist and I don’t. I could write. I could write stories and post them online. But I don’t because I’m not passionate about writing anymore. I don’t see the point. And I’m tired of just scraping by. You don’t seem to care that you don’t make very much money because you’ve got your music. But I don’t have music except when I play along with you. And now I can’t even do that.”

Raymond crawls across the bed and puts his arms around her. “Maybe we should move somewhere where it doesn’t cost so much to live. We don’t have to live in the most expensive place in the world. Do we?”

“No,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “I’m sorry I got mad at you. I’m glad that guy likes your songs. They’re great songs.” She kisses him. “Did you really make two hundred and forty-seven dollars, plus the fifty, plus twenty more?”

“I did,” says Raymond, excitedly. “Wanna see?”

Suite Chariot is the name of Zack Mathias’s recording company, Zack Mathias the man who gave Raymond his card at Calm Coffee. Raymond researched Zack Mathias on the Internet and learned that Zack, who hails from New York, has produced several albums for well-known singers and played bass on dozens of albums, some of them hugely successful.

Which is why, on the Saturday after Pepperoni performed at Calm Coffee for the last time, Raymond hesitates to press the brass doorbell button on the wall next to the large red door on the ground floor of a two-story white stucco warehouse, the sign above the door—magenta letters on a field of turquoise—identifying this as the entrance to Suite Chariot.

Indeed, Raymond is so intimidated by the thought of meeting Zack, he is on the verge of not pressing the doorbell, and returning home and sending an apologetic email to Zack retracting his offer to meet with him, when a woman runs by with a large menacing dog on a leash, and Raymond is startled into pressing the button.

And before his fear of meeting Zack can take over again, the red door opens and here is a striking African American woman with black hair captured in dozens of long slender braids. She is wearing a turquoise sweatshirt, purple sweatpants, and gold basketball shoes, her lips painted cherry red.

“Welcome Raymond,” she says, giving Raymond a wide-eyed smile, her voice deep and warm. “I’m Maru. Zack’s running a little late. Come in. We’ll get you set up in the studio. He’ll be here soon.”

Raymond follows Maru down a long narrow hallway to a small waiting room appointed with a plush sofa and armchair, one wall of the little room dominated by a large oil painting of Jimi Hendrix wearing the long curly brown-haired wig and sumptuous clothing of Louis XIV while holding an electric lute plugged into a classic Fender Reverb amp.

From the waiting room, they enter a large performance room with a big window in one of the walls looking into a control room where an African American man with short gray hair is sitting in a comfortable-looking chair at the recording console. He is wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt, a red bowtie, and black slacks. He waves to Raymond, and Raymond waves back.

“Um,” says Raymond, looking around the performance room and seeing five microphones on stands, a trap set, and a large reddish-brown standup bass in a beautiful wooden box stand, “I didn’t think I was going to be recording anything today. I thought we were just going to… I was just gonna play some tunes for Zack and…”

“That’s right,” says Maru, moving one of the microphones, “but Zack likes to record everything because we never know when lightning might strike.”

“That’s true,” says Raymond, taking of his jacket. “We never know, do we?”

“Nope,” says Maru, taking Raymond’s jacket from him. “People call you Raymond or Ray?”

“Raymond,” he says, laughing nervously. “But that’s only because nobody’s ever called me Ray. I don’t know why, but no one ever has.”

“Raymond feels a little formal to me,” she says, pursing her lips. “Be okay if I call you Ray?”

“Yeah, I like it when you say Ray,” he says, blushing.

“How about when I say Ray?” says the fellow in the control room, his gravelly voice coming through a speaker on the wall above the window.

“Yeah, I like that, too,” says Raymond, smiling at the man. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Jerry,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “But everybody calls me Tap.”

“Tap’s a most excellent drummer,” says Maru, coming close to Raymond. “You like to stand or sit when you play?”

“Either,” says Raymond, feeling like he’s about to fall off a cliff. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Your choice,” says Maru, nodding.

“Well, I play a little better sitting down,” says Raymond, looking around for something to sit on, “but I sing better standing.” He shrugs. “I guess I’ll sit.”

“Chair, stool, or piano bench?” asks Tap, getting up from his chair in the control room. “I’m thinkin’ piano bench.”

“Yeah, that would be perfect,” says Raymond, getting Susie out of her case. “I’ve never been in a recording studio before.”

“Seriously?” says Maru, frowning at him. “You play like you were born in one, Ray.”

“Where… “ Raymond clears his throat. “Where did you hear me play?”

“At Calm Coffee,” she says, nodding. “Two weeks ago. Zack called and told us to get over there as soon as we could. And I’m so glad we did.” She looks into the control room. “Here’s Zack.”

“Hey Raymond,” says Zack, standing at the control console. “Sorry I’m late. Got stuck in traffic on the bridge. Madhouse out there.”

“You live in San Francisco?” asks Raymond, watching Tap wheel in a big brown piano bench on a yellow dolly.

“No, I live here when I’m in town,” says Zack, taking off his jacket, his T-shirt red today. “Upstairs. Couple bedrooms, kitchen, dance floor. I stayed in a hotel in the city last night. Stayed up way too late listening to a couple singer songwriters.” He sits down at the console. “And the whole time I was listening to them, I kept thinking about your songs, especially that one about the guy who goes next door to complain about the loud music and ends up falling in love. That’s a hit, Raymond.”

“Oh, thanks,” says Raymond, unconsciously fingering the first few chords of the song. “Glad you like it. That one’s called ‘Too Much Noise.’”

“Great song,” says Zack, nodding. “Would you play that one first?”

“Sure,” says Raymond, sitting on the piano bench and tuning Susie as Maru positions three microphones around him, one for his voice, one aimed at Susie’s sound hole, one aimed at Susie’s neck.

“You want headphones?” asks Maru, smiling sweetly at Raymond.

“For what?” he asks, innocently.

“To hear yourself playing and singing.” She laughs in delight. “You really are a studio virgin, aren’t you?”

“Let’s go without headphones,” says Zack, with quiet authority. “They can take some getting used to.”

Maru and Tap join Zack in the control room, and Zack says, “Any time you’re ready, Mr. Chance.”

Raymond closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and improvises a lovely opening for his sweet little rocker “Too Much Noise”.

In the unsullied quiet of the performance room, Raymond hears his voice and guitar more clearly than he has ever heard them, and he loves how he sounds.

When he finishes the tune, he opens his eyes and sees Maru and Tap and Zack applauding in the control room; and in the next moment they are with him—Tap sitting down at the trap set, Zack standing with his big bass, and Maru sitting on a high stool.

“Play that one again, Raymond,” says Zack, nodding. “That was fantastic.”

So Raymond starts the song again, this time with a different opening, and Zack adds a few quiet bass notes right on the beat, and Tap swirls his brushes on the snare drum; and Zack’s subtle playing and Tap’s tender drumming carry Raymond into the body of his song.

And as he plays and sings, Raymond knows he has never heard anything as beautiful as Zack and Tap playing with him, supporting him; and when Maru joins him on the chorus, her astounding voice locked in perfect harmony with his, Raymond is changed forever.

Too much noise, the walls were shaking

Too much noise, my heart was breaking

Too much noise, I just couldn’t take it,

So I went next door and fell in love.

 

Raymond plays three more of his songs, Zack and Tap and Maru join him on reiterations of each, and after an hour of musical bliss, Maru whips out her phone and orders Chinese food, and the four of them go upstairs to await delivery of lunch.

Zack gives Raymond a tour of his digs, and during the tour tells Raymond he has two other set-ups like this, one in Austin, one in London.

“The only actual house I own is in Hawaii, on Kauai,” he says, leading Raymond back to the kitchen. “I like to be warm in the winter.”

Tap comes up the stairs with the Chinese food, and when everyone has a full plate, Zack raises his cup of green tea and says, “To our great good fortune in finding you, Raymond. May this be the beginning of a marvelous collaboration.”

Glasses are clinked, tea is drunk, food is enjoyed, and Zack says, “So… Raymond. If you haven’t guessed already, I want to produce your first album. And your second and third and fourth, God willing.”

My album?” says Raymond, freezing. “I thought you were just interested in my songs for other people to record.”

“Oh other people are definitely gonna record your songs,” says Tap, nodding emphatically. “But you have to make a record, Ray. You have to.”

“I… I… well, of course I want to, but…”

A silence falls, Zack and Tap and Maru waiting for Raymond to explain his reticence.

“As I told you, Zack,” says Raymond, clearing his throat, “I have a fulltime job at a pre-school. I’m a teacher’s aide. And… I suppose I could do some recording at night and on weekends, but…”

“You keep saying but,” says Maru, frowning at him. “What’s up with that, Ray?”

“I’m… well…” He laughs anxiously. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before so I’m just… I’m not sure how to do this.”

“May I propose something?” says Zack, smiling hopefully at Raymond.

“Please,” says Raymond, nodding humbly.

“I will sign you to a six-month recording deal with me as the producer of your album, and I’ll pay you a monthly salary equal to or greater than what you make in your current job. We’ll make an album, the four of us along with some other people we’ll bring in, and then I’ll try to make a deal with a label. I think Blue Note will go crazy over you.”

“Crazy,” says Maru, nodding in agreement.

“And if they don’t go crazy, somebody else will,” says Tap, pointing at Raymond. “I’d bet serious dollars on that.”

Raymond takes Tina out for supper that night to an Indian restaurant, and after they place their order, Tina says, “The suspense is killing me. How did it go today with Zack Mathias the famous bass player?”

“Went well,” says Raymond, nodding. “Went… um… really well. He wants to produce an album with me.”

“He wants some of your songs?” she asks hopefully.

“All the songs on the album would be mine,” says Raymond, finding it hard to breathe. “And I would be playing them and singing them with Zack playing bass and a guy named Tap playing drums and a woman named Maru singing with me, and other people, too, would play and sing on the album.”

Tina frowns. “I thought he just wanted some of your songs. Isn’t that what he said at Calm Coffee?”

“Yes, that’s what he said at the café, but after I played him a few songs, he got this other idea.” Raymond smiles, trying not to cry. “He’s a very nice guy, Tina, and he’s a fantastic musician and… and he really likes my music. So…”

“Wow,” says Tina, her eyes filling with tears. “So are you gonna do it?”

“Yes,” says Raymond, looking at her. “I think so. I want to go over the contract with you and…”

“You’re signing a contract?” says Tina, frowning. “Is he paying you?”

“Well… if I sign the contract, yes. He’ll pay me four thousand dollars a month for six months and cover all the costs of the recording and the other musicians and… I’ll be taking a break from working at the pre-school to just focus on the music.”

“Oh my God, Raymond,” she says, getting up and going to him. “It’s incredible. Hurray for you.”

“Hurray for us,” he says, rising to embrace her—their outburst inspiring several diners to clap because they think Raymond just proposed to Tina and she’s saying Yes.

They hold each other, crying and laughing, and Raymond says, “Thank you, honey. Thank you for loving me.”

“I love you so much,” she says, looking into his eyes. “But how are you ever gonna tell Derek?”

Raymond signs the contract with Zack the next day, and the day after that he gives two-weeks notice at the pre-school, and the following Saturday he takes BART from Oakland to Burlingame to have lunch with Derek.

For the entire hour-long train journey, Raymond is consumed with guilt, not about pursuing his musical career without Derek, but for allowing Derek to believe he was Raymond’s musical peer for the last twenty years, when in fact Derek reached his musical zenith in junior high.

For many years, Raymond assumed Derek was aware of the difference in their guitar-playing abilities, but one weekend during Raymond’s third year at San Jose State, Derek visited Raymond at the house Raymond was renting with four other college guys, and something happened during Derek’s visit that made Raymond rethink his assumption about how Derek perceived things.

One of Raymond’s housemates, Gino, was a good guitarist, and Raymond and Gino had worked out some fairly complicated duets of three Django Reinhardt tunes. The Saturday night when Derek was visiting, Gino and Raymond performed the duets at their house party attended by about forty young men and women, and the response to their playing was so enthusiastic they were compelled to perform their duets a second time.

Afterwards, Derek, who was very stoned, joined a group of people heaping praise on Gino and Raymond, and proclaimed loudly, “Yeah, they were good, but you should hear me and Raymond play. We’re amazing together.”

Several people responded to Derek’s boast by asking to hear Raymond and Derek play. Gino handed his guitar to Derek, Raymond took up his guitar, and Derek said, “Play that blues thing we always do.”

So Raymond improvised a pleasing progression of jazzy blues chords and Derek played the same seven-note riff over and over again, not quite in synch with Raymond, and when Raymond ended the song, a few people clapped, and that was that.

The next morning, before Derek headed back to Burlingame, he said to Raymond, “We should start a band. We were incredible last night. People were blown away.”

Ten minutes from Burlingame, recalling that moment in San Jose twelve years ago, Raymond thinks That’s when I should have told him. But I couldn’t because he didn’t have anything else in his life and I thought he would kill himself if I told him the truth.

After Raymond graduated from college and moved to Oakland, Derek would come visit for a day and a night every week, and in the evenings during those visits, Raymond and Derek would play guitars and Derek would play the same blues riff over and over again.

Raymond thought of these sessions as his gift to Derek for being such a loyal friend and because he didn’t have the will to tell Derek not to come visit, though he and Tina came to dread Derek coming because he seemed so lost and sad and he still lived at home with his parents and had never had a girlfriend and didn’t seem to have anything in his life except television and video games and his job delivering newspapers.

Derek and Raymond have lunch in a pizza parlor where Derek goes every day, his home away from home, where everyone who works there knows him by name.

“I think I could get us a gig here,” says Derek, looking around the pizza parlor. “They don’t have live music here, but I’ll bet I could talk them into it.” He nods confidently. “They love me here.”

“This is good pizza,” says Raymond, lying; and his lie irks him, and he blurts, “You know that guy who gave me his card at Calm Coffee?”

“Yeah,” says Derek, nodding enthusiastically. “He had a great belt. Did you notice his belt? It was like this amazing shiny dark burgundy leather. And very thin. And the belt buckle was silver and like a piece of modern art. I went online looking for a belt like that, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll bet it’s Italian. Looked very expensive. What about him?”

“His name is Zack Mathias and he turns out to be quite a well-known record producer and bass player.” Raymond looks away from Derek. “I’m gonna be making an album with him.”

“Really?” says Derek, amazed. “When?”

“Starting now and working for the next few months and then… he’s gonna try to sell the album to a record company.” Raymond forces himself to look at Derek. “He really likes my songs and my singing and… my playing.”

“Well he should,” says Derek, grinning at Raymond. “So will you be like… touring?”

“I don’t know,” says Raymond, his heart breaking. “Maybe.”

“Wow,” says Derek, beckoning to a passing waitress. “Hey Leslie, this is my best friend Raymond. He’s making an album with a big time record producer.”

“Congratulations,” says Leslie, with little enthusiasm.

“Thank you,” says Raymond, his eyes full of tears.

“So you gonna be his roadie, Derek?” asks Leslie, arching her eyebrow.

“No, he won’t need a roadie,” says Derek, gazing fondly at Raymond. “He’s great all by himself.”

         fin

Karen at the Bookstore

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

titles

Karen Constantine is fifty-four and has worked at Studio Books for eighteen years. Studio Books is the only bookstore in the coastal town of Deep River, California, a five-hour drive north of San Francisco. Of the two thousand people who call Deep River home, at least five hundred of them know Karen as the Karen at the bookstore.

A week ago, when Karen was more than a little drunk at the bar in the Deep River Hotel, she declared to her good buddies Richard and Kathy, “And I’m speaking from forty-two years of life experience.”

To which Liza the bartender said, “I think you mean fifty-four.”

“Shit,” said Karen, closing her eyes. “Yeah. Fifty-four.”

Ever since then, Karen has been thinking about how she thought she was forty-two and not fifty-four. This age-perception gap would have been no big deal had she said fifty-three, or even fifty, but to be operating with the self-idea that she is forty-two when she is fifty-four seems to Karen to be worthy of a serious investigation; and to that end she has made an appointment with her psychotherapist who she hasn’t seen in a professional capacity in eons.

But that appointment isn’t for another three weeks, and in the meantime Karen has her life to live and a job to go to and copious time to ponder the how and why of that twelve-year oops.

Most people who meet Karen for the first time guess she is in her forties. She has a lovely figure, a mostly wrinkle-free face, and shoulder-length dark brown hair without a trace of gray. She is comfortable in her body, goes to a ninety-minute yoga class every other day, runs two miles on the beach every morning before coming to work, and she has a radiant smile.

When Karen smiles, she is a most attractive human being, and Karen smiles many times every day because so many things make her smile: babies, kids, teenagers, adults, dogs, cats, birds, ocean, clouds, music, laughter, book titles, overheard conversations, and so much more. She finds life amusing and tragic and pointless and deeply meaningful and heartbreaking and complicated and absurd and delightful and confusing.

She was in two long-term relationships for swaths of her twenties and thirties, several short-term relationships when she was in her forties, and none in her fifties. Until she turned forty, she assumed she would have two children and be part of a family constellation. Now she is fifty-four, single, has no children, has never been married, and is part of a constellation composed of herself and her three cats: Ursula, Jeeves, and Kipling.

Studio Books is not a large store and shelf space is precious. Half the store is given to calendars, notebooks, notecards, pens, jigsaw puzzles, and a growing number of gift items, including candles, incense, earrings, and T-shirts featuring clever slogans; and half the store is given to books, most of those children’s books, works of non-fiction, and murder mysteries.

Karen and the seven other full and part-time employees who take turns manning the store from nine in the morning until nine at night, seven days a week, are painfully aware of the irony of Studio Books being called an independent bookstore, yet only allotting shelf-space for the most popular mainstream titles. There is one little shelf at the back of the store on which self-published books by local authors can be found, but few customers ever venture to that far-flung corner of the store, and fewer still get down on their knees to peruse those dusty tomes.

This was not the way of things at Studio Books forty years ago when the Internet and e-books and Amazon were still the stuff of Science Fiction. The original owner, Caleb Browner, an idealistic socialist, carried only books, many classics, and many by little known authors and poets. For seventeen tumultuous years, Caleb somehow made ends meet, during which time the Internet was born and spawned Amazon, after which Studio Books became a reliquary and Caleb went broke. Fortunately he found a buyer for his business and was able to pay off his debts and escape with a few hundred dollars.

The second owner, Mimi Weintraub, was an extremely wealthy woman from San Francisco who thought selling big glossy coffee table books and coffee tables and reading lamps was the way to go with Studio Books. After five years of losing gobs of money, Mimi sold the bookstore to the current owner Ginny Carpenter, who got rid of the coffee tables and reading lamps and big glossy books, stocked the shelves in imitation of a successful bookstore in Santa Rosa, and then began transforming Studio Books into the bestseller depot and gift shop it is today.

Even so, for locals who still revere three-dimensional books, Studio Books is an important part of the cultural fabric of Deep River, though few of those reverent people buy books there anymore because they can get used copies of the same bestsellers off the Internet for a few dollars or download e-copies onto their pads and not have to schlep cumbersome volumes around and then find places to store the unwieldy things.

And for eighteen years from her place behind the counter at Studio Books, Karen has presided over this local version of the sea change in the world of books, an experience that has profoundly saddened her.

On a glorious Tuesday in February, the sun shining brightly on Deep River, Karen is manning the counter in Studio Books and gazing out the front windows at Deep River Bay sparkling in the near distance. She works six days a week at the bookstore, two eight-hour shifts and four six-hour shifts, Tuesdays and Thursdays her long days, all her shifts ending at five.

A man approaches the counter and says cheerfully, “Good morning. Do you sell tide charts?”

“We do,” says Karen, turning to him and liking what she sees—fortyish, graying brown hair, blue eyes, relaxed, appealing. “Look two feet to your left.”

“Ah,” he says, smiling as he takes one of the little booklets from the metal carousel featuring postcards and key chains and small blank notebooks. “Great.”

He hands the tide chart to Karen and she rings up the sale. “That will be two dollars and twenty-five cents. Would you like a bag?”

“No, thank you,” he says, handing her three ones. “But I’d love to take you out for coffee some time.”

She holds up her left hand to display the gold band she wears on her wedding finger to dissuade men from making such overtures.

“I will take that to mean you are married.” The man shrugs pleasantly. “I assumed so, but I know single women who wear rings on that finger, so I thought…”

“You assumed correctly,” she says, handing him three quarters, the tide chart, and a receipt.

“Thank you,” he says, nodding graciously and departing.

She watches him walk out the door into the sunny day and she realizes he is the first man in several years to woo her in that way in the bookstore. Men frequently offer to buy her drinks when she’s in the hotel bar where she goes every day after work for a drink or two, and where she returns after supper a few nights a week to hang out with friends, but this was her first such bookstore encounter since…

“Karen,” says Bernard, the portly bookstore manager emerging from the Religion, Spirituality, Poetry, Humor, Crossword Puzzles, Gardening and Economics section. “Would you finish re-stocking the fiction, please? I’ll run the register.”

Karen nods and vacates her place at the counter, wishing Bernard’s recent promotion to manager hadn’t resulted in the loss of his sense of humor. He used to be so wonderfully droll. Now he’s a prissy snob.

Only a few people are in the store, which makes this the perfect time to replenish the shelves, though Karen no longer enjoys what was once a favorite part of her job. Gone are the days of filling the shelves with books she loves. Now the few remaining shelves of so-called literary fiction are fast being taken over by excess from the ever-growing Murder Mystery section, along with crappy suspense thrillers and historical bodice rippers no one considered literature until the sea change began.

Karen looks into the box of books destined for the shelves and sees they are all murder mysteries, and she balks at reaching into the box.

“Excuse me?” says the man who bought the tide chart. “I’m looking for anything by Russell Hoban.” The man is standing ten feet away from Karen, politely keeping his distance. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m not quite sure how the bookstore is laid out.”

Karen fixes him with a steely gaze. “We don’t have any Hoban. We can order any book you want, but Hoban could take weeks to get here. If I remember correctly, most of his titles are out-of-print. There is a used bookstore at the east end of town. You might try them.”

“I did,” says the man, nodding, “but the fellow there said Hoban doesn’t move fast enough so he won’t take his books when people bring them in. How about William Trevor?”

Karen shakes her head. “What we have in the way of fiction is what you see on these four shelves. Alphabetical. No Trevor, no Hoban, no Wharton, no Singer, no Hemmingway, no Welty, no Faulkner, no Greenstreet, no Steinbeck, no Nabokov. We have the top ten current bestsellers, lots of Stephen King and John Grisham and murder mysteries and, of course, Harry Potter wizard books and Anne Rice mummy and vampire books.”

“I’m sorry,” says the man, nodding sympathetically. “I would order some books from you, but I’m just here for a few days and…”

“Would you please stop bothering me?” says Karen, losing her temper. “I don’t want to have coffee with you or hear about your life. I’m trying to get some work done.”

The man backs away and disappears, and as he disappears, Karen closes her eyes and prays he won’t complain to Bernard, who in his new capacity as prissy store manager might feel the need to report the incident to the owner.

At 5:03, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel, five doors down from Studio Books, and makes a beeline to the bar where Liza the bartender pours a shot of whiskey that Karen downs in a single gulp before she settles onto a bar stool and says, “Scotch on the rocks, please. I’m a mess.”

“Not you,” says Liza, in a sweetly sarcastic way.

“Terrible rotten horrible day,” says Karen, handing her purse to Liza. “I’ll be right back. Haven’t gone to the bathroom since lunch.”

On her way through the Fireside Lounge to the Ladies Room, Karen sees the man she was so rude to in the bookstore. He is sitting alone at a window table, sipping a half-pint of beer and reading an actual book.

In the white-tile bathroom, Karen studies herself in the mirror, likes how she looks in her long black skirt and billowy white blouse, and decides that after she has her drink, she will apologize to the man.

Back at the bar, she takes her time with the cold scotch and asks Liza what she thinks of the man in the Fireside Lounge sipping beer and reading an actual book, and Liza, who is tall and lanky with long black hair in a bun says, “If I were not moderately happy in my marriage, I would be all over that guy. He’s charming and he has beautiful eyes and he’s gracious, which is so rare anymore I wanted to kiss him when he ordered his beer, and then he tipped me more than the beer cost and I wanted to have sex with him.”

“I was a total bitch to him in the bookstore today,” says Karen, sighing. “I’m gonna go apologize.”

She saunters into the Fireside Lounge and smiles radiantly at the man reading an actual book. “I came to say I’m sorry for how I spoke to you in the bookstore today. Totally uncalled for. Please forgive me.”

“No need to apologize,” he says, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have bothered you a second time. You were right to rebuke me. Can’t be easy having men constantly… well… no hard feelings.”

“Okay,” says Karen, hoping he’ll ask her to join him, though she senses he won’t because he’s a decent person who believed her when she said she was married, so…

Home to her cottage a mile inland on the edge of a vast forest, Karen feeds her cats Ursula, Kipling, and Jeeves, gets a fire going in the woodstove, heats up a can of minestrone soup, and sprawls on the sofa watching Mostly Martha on her laptop until she falls asleep and wakes two hours later with a painful crick in her neck.

Getting ready for bed, Karen thinks about the man she was rude to and how kind he was in accepting her apology; and feeling lonely, she calls her friend Kathy, who is sixty-seven, single, a retired social worker, and sings with Karen in the choir at the Presbyterian.

“Hello?” says Kathy, who doesn’t have the kind of phone that tells her who’s calling.

“Hi,” says Karen, relieved to hear Kathy’s voice. “I’m not calling too late, am I?”

“No, no,” says Kathy, music blaring in the background. “Let me turn my radio down. Great jazz tonight.”

Kathy goes to turn the music down and Karen sighs, wishing she could be with Kathy in-person.

“Here I am,” says Kathy, warmly. “What’s going on?”

“Oh I’m just mad at myself. I just… I hate working at the bookstore now, and I stupidly took it out on a customer today, and I feel just… I don’t know… hopeless.”

“You know what it always is?” says Kathy, sounding as if she’s just realized what she’s about to say.

“What?” asks Karen, who was hoping for sympathy and not some theory about the universal cause of emotional distress.

“It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. You know what I mean? The narratives we use to define ourselves. And we can change them. I don’t have to keep telling the story about me being too old to learn to play the guitar. I can change the story to one about me learning to play well enough to go to open mike at the Silver Spur and sing a slow version of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face,’ and the crowd goes wild.”

“I want to be there,” says Karen, excitedly. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“See?” says Kathy, laughing. “Change one story and all the nearby stories change, too.”

The next morning at ten, Karen goes running on Deep River Beach, the tide way out, the beach enormous and void of people save for someone far in the distance who appears to be dancing in the shallows.

Feeling mighty blue as she begins her run, she is nevertheless hopeful the two-mile jog on the glorious beach will lift her spirits and give her the pizzazz to put in another six hours at the bookstore.

The beach and forest and quiet and beauty are what I’ll miss most if I sell my place and move to Portland and get a job in a real bookstore. And my friends. I’ll miss my friends. And my house. And my land. But I won’t miss working at Studio Books and pretending I work in a real bookstore.

Who should the lone person far down the beach be but the man she was rude to yesterday in the bookstore. And the man is dancing, because what he’s doing is standing at the water’s edge, flinging a white Frisbee high and far out over the incoming waves to a place in the air where the spinning disk meets the offshore breeze and is propelled back to the man as if he is a powerful Frisbee magnet.

Karen stops a hundred feet from the man and watches him fling the disk out over the incoming waves again and again, his mastery breathtaking. And the way he dances on the balls of his feet, moving forward and back and side-to-side to catch the returning disk, is so pleasing to her, she breaks into applause.

He glances at her, makes an instantaneous calculation, and flings the disk out over the waves once more; only this time the Frisbee does not come back to him, but flies to Karen and stalls just a few feet in front of her about six feet off the ground, so all she has to do is reach out and pluck the thing from the air.

They meet for lunch at the Deep River Deli. The man’s name is Allen Brodeur. He is an English professor at Merritt College in Oakland and lives in an apartment in Berkeley with his cats Chucho and Esme. Allen and Karen sit across from each other at one of the four small tables in the warm and noisy deli, Karen having a hot pastrami sandwich and root beer, Allen an open-faced turkey and avocado on rye with melted Swiss, his drink ginger ale.

Karen changes her guess about his age to early fifties, but she doesn’t broach the subject of their ages, nor does he. They like each other immediately and immensely, and they make each other laugh, so much so that at one point they cannot stop laughing and Allen has to go outside an walk around to quell his mirth.

They trade bites of their sandwiches. They discover they both love the music of Samuel Barber, Mendelssohn, and Michel Petrucciani. Allen tells of recently reading all two thousand pages of the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant for the second time in his life and being astounded over and over again by Maupassant’s genius. Karen says she is currently hooked on V.S. Pritchett and A.S. Byatt, but woke this morning thinking she’d like to read Steinbeck again after a twenty-year hiatus.

As they walk back to the bookstore, Allen invites Karen out to dinner tonight and she says, “How about I make us dinner at my place and you can meet my cats.”

Allen arrives at Karen’s cottage at dusk, and before complete darkness falls, Karen gives him a quick tour of her two-acre property on Everson Lane where a dozen other houses on multi-acre parcels enjoy the many blessings of being surrounded by thousands of acres of forest.

Along with her three-room cottage, Karen has a pump house for her well, a five-thousand-gallon water tank, a large woodshed, a deer-fenced vegetable garden, and a small studio, electrified but not plumbed, where long ago Karen made collages and paintings, and now uses for a guest room.

Ursula, Jeeves, and especially Kipling are enamored of Allen and take turns sitting on his lap whenever he alights anywhere for more than a moment. Karen opens a bottle of red wine for both cooking and drinking, and while listening to Barber’s Adagio For Strings they create a fabulous tomato, mushroom, green pepper, and zucchini spaghetti sauce, perfectly cooked noodles, and a scrumptious green salad—the experience of cooking together a mutual thrill.

They are in love with each other in the way of smitten strangers who have yet to discover anything about the other they might not love; and Karen imagines they will make love after they finish supper and drink more wine and talk by the fire.

But that doesn’t happen because Karen gets very drunk and several times can’t remember why she’s telling Allen whatever she’s telling him, and this is something Allen does not love, though he doesn’t say so and only becomes wary and less forthcoming.

And though they part ways with a gentle hug and agree to meet on the beach tomorrow morning at eight, Karen doesn’t think Allen will want to pursue a relationship with her because of how loud and strident she got after her fifth glass of wine.

Furious with herself for opening that second bottle of wine, she smokes some pot to calm down, not her usual hit or two, but an entire joint, and she gets so stoned the room starts to spin and she thinks she might be having a heart attack and she very nearly calls 9-1-1 to summon an ambulance, but instead she crawls into bed and rides out the frightening high until finally, blessedly, she falls asleep at two in the morning.

  ∆

She sleeps a sodden dreamless sleep for eight hours until her ringing phone awakens her and Bernard from the bookstore says, “Wherefore art thou Karen? You are now an hour late, which I believe is your new personal best. Or worst.”

“Oh, hey Bernard,” she says, her voice raspy. “Thanks for calling. I’m… I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice full of kindness. “You sound all stuffed up.”

“Oh I’m just…” She clears her throat. “Hey, is your sense of humor coming back? I thought I detected a comic tone in your passing reference to Romeo and Juliet? Or was that just hopeful thinking on my part?”

“No, it started coming back this morning,” says Bernard, chuckling. “I’ve been taking myself much too seriously lately. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course,” she says, getting out of bed. “Twenty minutes. Thanks Bernard.”

She feeds her cats, and as the dried food drums into the three little bowls, she thinks of Allen waiting for her at the beach this morning, and she feels certain that whatever shred of hope there was of embarking on a relationship with him is gone now; and she feels strangely relieved, for she is so habituated to aloneness now, she no longer knows how to share her life in an intimate way with anyone other than her cats.

Karen takes her lunch break at two and meets her friend Richard at the picnic tables on the headlands across the street from Studio Books, Richard providing their meal of pumpkin muffins from the Happy Time Bakery, goat cheese, apples, and a thermos of black tea.

Richard is seventy-four and chubby, a wearer of suits and ties at night, sweatpants and sweatshirts during the day, his longish gray hair tied back in a stubby ponytail. British and gay, Richard was an actor for forty years in Milwaukee and Phoenix before moving to California after he retired from the theatre. He still occasionally takes a small part in a play at DRTC (Deep River Theatre Company) but he finds acting tiresome now and prefers spending his time reading and walking and visiting with friends.

Sitting side by side at their picnic table overlooking Deep River Bay, Karen tells Richard about her time with Allen yesterday and the sad denouement of their date and the terrifying aftermath, and how she thinks the reason she wrecked things with Allen is because she’s afraid to be in a relationship—doesn’t know how to be in one.

Richard sips his tea and says, “I know I’ve told you this story before, or at least I think I have, but I like telling it, and it seems appropriate under the circumstances, so I’ll tell it again.” He clears his throat. “When I was forty-three and despairing of ever finding someone to love for more than a night or two, I kept running into this dreadful man at parties and bars, never just the two of us, always in groups with other men or theatre people. His name was Philip. He was brash and opinionated and full of himself. He was very attractive, big and strong with a fabulous mane of black hair, but I found him unbearable because every time I tried to say anything, and I mean every time, he would interrupt me, contradict me, and never let me get a word in edgewise. Never. And then one day he showed up at the theatre, this was in Milwaukee, as the new assistant to our set designer, and I thought, ‘Oh great. Just what I needed. This guy.’”

Richard pours more tea into Karen’s mug. She nods her thanks and wonders what this story has to do with her failure with Allen.

“So,” says Richard, continuing, “I avoided the man like the plague. If I went into a bar and he was there, I left. If I went to a party and he was there, I stayed far away from him. And at the theatre, I studiously ignored him. We were doing Ah, Wilderness by Eugene O’Neill. I played the part of Nat and was brilliant, and I’m not alone in that assessment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called my performance revelatory. Anyway, it’s a big cast and a very funny play and it was one of our great successes, and when the run was over, Philip asked me to go to lunch with him. And though nothing had happened to change my opinion of the man, I thought for the sake of peace and harmony in the company I would suffer his windy oratory for an hour or two and be done with it.”

“So what happened?” asks Karen, never having heard this story before.

“We went to a very nice restaurant,” says Richard, a dreamy look in his eyes. “And after we placed our orders, he looked at me and said, ‘But enough about me. Tell me everything about you.’ And so I did. And a month later, we got a place together and stayed together for twelve of the happiest years of my life.” He smiles wistfully at Karen. “We eventually went our separate ways, but oh what wonderful years I had with Philip, and how badly I misjudged him in the beginning.”

At five o’clock, Karen is chatting with Tom who is just starting his evening shift at the bookstore, when Allen comes in from the fog and waits for Karen to acknowledge him.

She grabs her purse, says goodnight to Tom, approaches Allen and says, “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the beach this morning. I couldn’t sleep after you left and I stayed up until two and slept until ten, and by then I figured you wouldn’t want to see me again anyway.”

Allen considers this and says, “You want to talk or shall I skidaddle?”

“Well…” she says, smiling shyly, “since you used the magic word skidaddle, I want to talk to you.”

“The Fireside Lounge at the hotel?” he asks, nodding.

“No,” she says shaking her head. “There’s a nice place around the corner. Xenon. You hungry? I’m starved.”

“Yeah. Bowl of soup sounds good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” she says, smiling bravely to quell her tears.

“So I’d like to give you a little background information about me,” says Allen, their soup dispensed with, pie and coffee coming. “To help you understand what happened for me last night.” He has a drink of water. “My parents were alcoholics, my two siblings became alcoholics, I did not, and I was married for twelve years to an alcoholic. In fact, all my relationships and friendships were with alcoholics or addicts of one kind or another until I was forty-seven and had two years of life-changing psychotherapy.”

“How old are you, Allen?” asks Karen, smiling as the waitress brings their coffee and dessert.

“I’m sixty-three,” he says, gazing at her.

“You can’t be,” she says, shaking her head. “You mean fifty-three.”

“No,” he says, laughing. “Sixty-three.”

“Wow,” she says, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. “You seem so much younger. Must be all that dancing on the beach with your Frisbee.”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But however old I am, my wife and my other partners before her all needed to be drunk in order to be tender or sexual or emotionally open, and then inevitably they would become mean or depressed, as most drunks will, and so until I understood that I was a classic enabler of addicts, and understood that I chose to be with them because they were versions of my parents, and until I was able to stop choosing them, I was stuck in a hell where I could only have sex with drunks, and not being drunk myself, the sex was not only awful but the opposite of what I wanted, which was to connect deeply with other people.”

“So I triggered those bad memories for you,” says Karen, aching with shame. “I’m so sorry, Allen.”

“But wait,” he says urgently. “It was only at the end of our time together those buttons got pushed in me. Before then…” He looks at her, longing for her to know how much he likes her. “Before then, I haven’t connected with anyone as well as I connected with you… ever. It was a miracle being with you until…”

“I drank too much,” she says, looking down so he won’t see her tears.

“For me,” he says, nodding. “You drank too much for me. Not for somebody else, I’m sure. My God, Karen, you’re lovely and funny and brilliant and great and… I just can’t ever go there again. Even with you.”

“What if I changed?” she says, looking up at him. “What if I stopped drinking?”

“But it isn’t the drinking,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s the great red herring. It’s what you communicate to me when I’m so willing to meet you on a deeper level. You’re telling me I’m not acceptable to you unless you’re drunk. You see what I mean? It wasn’t the wine. It’s how you closed off to me when I wanted so much for us to be open to each other.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she says quietly. “I needed to hear that. And now I’d like to tell you what happened for me.”

“Please,” he says quietly.

“I haven’t connected with anyone, man or woman, as completely and wonderfully as I connected with you since… Second Grade when Donny Dorsett and I would go everywhere together, holding hands and marveling at everything. But my experience since then, for the rest of my fifty-four years, has been otherwise.”

She stops speaking and waits for Allen to react to the number of her years, and he says, “I guessed you were forty-nine, but I love that you’re fifty-four.”

“I’m glad you do,” she says, blushing. “But anyway… my father was a heavy drinker and my mother was not, and the relationship they modeled for me and my sister was where one of the partners needs to be drunk in order to be affectionate, and the other partner longs for the affection but hates being with a drunk. An unsolvable conundrum short of divorce, which they did a few years after my sister and I finished college. But long before their marriage ended, I reacted to how they were with each other by identifying with my mother and never drinking or smoking pot in high school. And I thought I never would until I went to college and I was the only person I knew who didn’t drink or take drugs. And just like my mother, I longed for physical affection and love, so I drank a little, but I didn’t like it. What I liked was pot. Made all my self-doubts go away, and I would get very stoned and have sex with men I barely knew, so I came to associate sex with being high. In fact, I never had sex unless I was high until I was in my thirties and got involved with a man who wanted sex all the time and didn’t care if we were high or not. Problem was, sex with him was gross, quick and uncaring, so I saw no advantage to sex without being stoned.” She smiles in embarrassment. “Too much information?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head.

“Then when I was in my late thirties,” she says, having a sip of her coffee, “I started worrying about running out of time to have children, and I chose to be with men I didn’t really like, but they had good jobs and said they wanted kids, and the only way I could bring myself to sleep with them was to be drunk because getting stoned didn’t do the trick anymore. And that’s where I got stuck, which coincided with my work becoming more and more depressing, so I started having a drink or two after work to relieve the tension of working in a bookstore where you, Allen, couldn’t find a single writer you love.”

They share a bit of silence and Karen says, “I guess I stopped thinking I would ever find a partner, and I’ve grown accustomed to being stuck where I am, a person at a dead end who needs to change or die. And since I don’t want to die yet, and I don’t want to be a bitter old woman, I’m going to quit the bookstore and get a job as a waitress serving good food, and I’m not going to drink so much anymore. I won’t say I’ll stop drinking, but I won’t drink so much, and I won’t get drunk to make love, if I ever make love again.”

Three months later, after a busy Friday night serving customers at Xenon, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel and joins her pals Kathy and Richard at the bar, has a sip of Kathy’s vodka tonic, and orders a ginger ale.

“You lush, you,” says Liza, giving Karen a loving wink as she pours ginger ale into a big glass full of ice cubes.

“I’m cutting back because of you,” says Richard, kissing the air in Karen’s direction. “Only one daiquiri tonight instead of my usual two.” He wrinkles his nose. “Or was it three? How quickly we forget.”

“I’m not so much cutting back,” says Kathy, arching an eyebrow, “as drinking slower.”

Kathy and Richard and Liza all want to hear about Karen’s recent weekend in Berkeley where she stayed with Allen at his place for the first time, and they all want to know if she and Allen finally slept together.

Karen takes a long drink of her ginger ale and smiles radiantly. “We did. And it was good. And in two weeks his school year ends and he’s coming to stay with me for most of the summer.”

“Hallelujah,” says Richard, raising his strawberry daiquiri high. “To love triumphant.”

“To love triumphant,” say Kathy and Liza, Kathy raising her vodka tonic, Liza a glass of water.

“To loving friends,” says Karen, clinking their glasses with hers. “Without whom we could not survive.”

fin