Posts Tagged ‘short story’

Zelman’s Van

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Zelman's Van

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ∆

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

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

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

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

“Hey you,” says Zelman, petting the love-hungry dog and watching the women fetch their instruments from the van and knowing he has never been as happy as he is now.

fin

 

Juneau’s Farm

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Waiting For the Moment

Waiting For the Moment painting by Nolan Winkler

Two years ago, at the age of forty, Frederick Scott divorced his wife of seventeen years, gave up his life as an electrician in San Jose, California, and moved to Sedona, Arizona to become a follower of Sri Bihar, formerly known as Joshua Steinberg from Brooklyn.

When he arrived in Sedona, Frederick was pudgy and wan and suffering from indigestion and insomnia and depression. Now, after seventeen months of working twelve hours every day in Sri Bihar’s garden and kitchen in exchange for room and board and the honor of serving the guru and his seven anointed disciples, Frederick is lean and strong and healthy, no longer depressed, and sleeps well every night.

And Frederick might still be serving Sri Bihar in Sedona had he not, just a few weeks ago, and purely by accident, overheard his guru speaking on the phone to someone.

Having risen an hour before dawn to work for three hours in the ashram kitchen preparing breakfast for fifty sojourners—as those who make the pilgrimage to Sri Bihar are called—and weary from a subsequent two hours of washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, Frederick decided to spend his twenty minutes before reporting for lunch duty by taking a nap in the bamboo grove on the banks of Madan Creek.

The day warm, the creek in late summer little more than a melodious trickle, Frederick unfurled his prayer rug, set the alarm on his wristwatch for fifteen minutes, and lay down for a snooze. However, immediately upon lying down he heard footsteps on the dry bamboo leaves, and before he could reveal himself, he heard the unmistakable Brooklyn-accented voice of Sri Bihar saying, “So while I’m banging these beautiful women who come to worship me, I’ve convinced the men here to remain celibate so…wait for it…their inner feminine can blossom.” Then he cackled, did Sri Bihar. “I kid you not, Murray. These schmucks would put their heads up their butts if I told them to.”

Ten minutes later, Fredrick packed his knapsack with his few possessions, and hitchhiked from Sedona to Boulder, Colorado, where, in a state of shock, he stayed with his friend Rico and Rico’s wife Carla for three weeks before announcing to them one morning, “Yes, Sri Bihar is a charlatan, but I don’t regret my time with him. Those seventeen months got me over the mess of my previous life and now I’m prepared to carry on. I’m so grateful to you for letting me stay with you. I’ve decided to hitchhike to Nova Scotia and take a boat from there to England. I’ll send you postcards along the way.”

One hundred and thirty miles east of Boulder, in the town of Sterling, Fredrick has breakfast in a café called Paladin’s. On the café bulletin board, he sees a handwritten notice: Fulltime farmhand needed. Room and board and $600 a month. Call Juneau. 777-2297

In need of money, Frederick borrows the café phone and calls Juneau.

A woman with a husky voice answers on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Hi,” says Frederick, guessing from her hello that she is sad. “Is this Juneau?”

“Yeah,” she says softly. “Who’s this?”

“My name is Frederick Scott. I’m calling regarding your notice here in Paladin’s. Are you still looking for a farmhand?”

“Yes, I am,” she says, her manner becoming more business-like. “How old are you?”

“Forty-two,” he says, smiling at the waitress who allowed him to use the phone. “I’m accustomed to long hours of gardening and kitchen work. I’m in good health, I don’t smoke, and I’m quiet.”

“You local?” she asks, her tone implying she doesn’t think he is. “You sound a little British.”

“I am a little British,” he says, laughing. “And I’m not local. I was just in Boulder for a few weeks, and before that Sedona for seventeen months, and before that San Jose, California for eighteen years, and long before that I was born in England where I lived until I was eleven.”

“Can I meet you at Paladin’s?” she asks, sounding intrigued. “I’ve got some errands to run in town. I can be there in about forty minutes.”

“I’ll be here,” he says, cheerfully. “I’ll make a sign that says Frederick.”

“Can’t wait to see that,” she says with a touch of sarcasm.

Frederick is sitting at a table in Paladin’s enjoying a latte while he writes a postcard to Rico and Carla. On the table in front of him, a sheet of paper stands upright against a glass of water, the name FREDERICK written on the paper in large capital letters and aimed at the front door.

A woman enters the café, her eyes hidden by dark glasses. Sturdy and broad-shouldered, her brown hair in a ponytail, she moves with the strength and surety of an athlete. Frederick guesses she is in her mid-thirties until she takes off her dark glasses and his guess changes to mid-forties. She sees his FREDERICK sign and smiles, and he revises his guess to late thirties.

He gets up from the table as she approaches, they shake hands, and her grip informs him of her formidable strength.

“I like your sign,” she says, sitting down and looking away from him. “Just so we don’t waste each other’s time, I’ll tell you right now I need somebody for at least six months. So if you’re just passing through, this won’t work for me.”

“I understand,” says Frederick, nodding amiably. “And to be quite honest with you, Juneau, I do hope to eventually get to Nova Scotia, but I’m in no hurry, and if I like the job and the accommodations, I will gladly stay for six months.”

“I grow greenhouse vegetables year-round,” she says, opening a small notebook to consult a list she’s made. “In three really big greenhouses. I sell to local restaurants and the college and high school cafeterias. I grow about an acre of outdoor vegetables spring to fall, and two acres of potatoes. I have a hundred chickens for their eggs and raise twelve pigs a year, eleven for other people and one for me. There’s other stuff, too, but those are the main things I need help with. I also have two big dogs and two horses, and I usually board a few more horses over the winter. Oh, and I raise rabbits for their meat and pelts. I lease thirty acres to a farmer who grows alfalfa and I get a third of the bales.”

“And you and one farmhand do all the work?” asks Frederick, enjoying Juneau’s growly voice.

“Most of it. I hire high school kids when we get crazy busy in the summer, but I wouldn’t make any money if I had more than one person working full-time for me.” Now she glances at him and quickly looks away. “You interested?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding. “So far.”

“You go by Fred or Frederick?”

“Whatever you like.” He smiles. “Where does your one farmhand sleep?”

“You have your own cottage,” she says, waving to the waitress for coffee. “Has a bedroom and a little living room with a woodstove. Cozy. You take your meals with me. My last employee left three weeks ago. She was with me for two years, but she needed to make more money. It’s hard work and winters here aren’t easy, so…”

“Days off?” asks Frederick, warming to the idea of working for her.

“I try for easy Saturdays and Sundays,” she says, nodding her thanks as the waitress serves her coffee. “But chickens and horses and rabbits and pigs and vegetables don’t take days off. That’s why I pay the big bucks.” She laughs drily. “That was a joke in case you didn’t get it.”

“I got it,” he says, liking her more and more. “May I visit your farm to see what I think?”

She sips her coffee and muses for a moment. “Yeah. I have to go to the feed store and make a delivery to the college, and then you can follow me out.”

“I don’t have a car,” he says simply. “Or a truck. Or even a bicycle, though I intend to get one. A bicycle.”

“That’s a shocker,” she says, taken aback. “I’m ten minutes out going sixty. You’ll need a car.”

“For what?” he asks, sensing the job slipping away.

“You think I’m gonna lend you my car?” she says, incredulously. “Take the pickup any time you want?”

“I misunderstood,” he says, his tone apologetic. “I thought I’d be living where the job was and wouldn’t need a car. I do have a driver’s license if you needed me to drive, but…”

“I’m sorry,” she says, softening. “I guess it could work. I just…I’ve never known anybody over eighteen who didn’t have a car, so…but, yeah, I’ll take you out there.”

Juneau’s farm is spectacular, seventy acres of mostly level ground transected by a year-round stream flanked by aspens and alders—the old farmhouse and barn in excellent condition, the farmhand’s cottage delightful, the big farm dogs friendly. After a quick tour of the greenhouses and garden and barn, Juneau goes to make some phone calls while Frederick wields a hoe and weeds rows of broccoli and kale and chard.

He works steadily for two hours, stopping briefly a few times to drink water, and as he works he thinks about a woman he was smitten with in Sedona, Esther, a woman he would have courted had not Sri Bihar commanded him to remain celibate.

“Hey Frederick,” says Juneau, calling from the farmhouse porch. “Come have lunch.”

In the cheerful kitchen, enjoying their meal of sautéed vegetables and brown rice and spicy black beans, Juneau says, “My sister Janet and her husband Joe live in the other house on the property. The one we passed coming in from the highway. She teaches Biology at the college in town and he works at the lumberyard. I have a son in college in New Mexico. Kyle. He’s twenty. He comes home for Christmas and part of summer. I coach the Girls basketball team at the high school. I went to Western Washington University on a basketball scholarship. Got my degree in Horticulture. I go out with my girlfriends on Friday or Saturday night. I’m divorced and I’m not involved with anybody right now.” She takes a deep breath. “So that’s me. What about you?”

“Well…” says Frederick, sitting back in his chair, “first let me say you’re a wonderful cook.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “Glad you liked it because I make this sort of thing a lot.”

“Good,” he says, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. “So…there I was in San Jose, a successful electrician, living with my real estate agent wife in our three-bedroom house in an upscale neighborhood, two new cars, my big electrician’s van, no children, and feeling mostly okay about my life, but also a bit…disconnected from…I didn’t know what.”

“Why’d you stop being an electrician?” she asks, frowning. “They make real good money.”

“Yes, they do, but…” He smiles to keep from crying. “I found out my wife was involved with somebody else, and in the course of our rather contentious divorce proceedings, it was revealed that she had borrowed a great deal of money on our house, and so when all was said and done I had almost nothing. And concurrent with finding myself penniless, I found it impossible to concentrate as one must concentrate in order to be a good electrician, so I quit. And then after a few months of floundering around, I went to Sedona and worked in the garden and kitchen of the ashram of a man called Sri Bihar, a guy from Brooklyn masquerading as a holy man.” He chuckles at this brief summation of his life. “And now I’m here with you.”

“Wow,” says Juneau, nodding thoughtfully. “You want the job?”

“Well…” He frowns at his water glass. “How would you feel about me working for you for a few weeks before I make my decision?”

“Not great, but…” She looks out the window. “Are you leaning toward taking the job?”

“Juneau?” he says, waiting for her to look at him before saying what he wants to say. “I like you and your farm and the cottage and the work, but I need to see how this feels from day to day for a while. So if you need a firm commitment right away, I’ll have to forego the job. But I very much appreciate your considering me.”

“I watched you work,” she says, looking out the window again. “You have a good pace, and you’re careful. You seem like a good person. So…is two weeks long enough to decide? I really need to get somebody before winter sets in.”

“Yes,” he says, relieved. “Two weeks is enough.”

At the end of supper on Frederick’s ninth day on Juneau’s farm, a Friday, Juneau glances at him and says, “I was driving back from town today and realized…you never asked me how old I am.”

“My grandfather taught me never to ask a woman her age,” says Frederick, setting down his fork, his huge helping of mashed potatoes and chicken and salad devoured. “And I did ask you to tell me the story of your life, twice, and you didn’t seem to want to, so I thought I’d better not pry.”

“Takes me a while to trust people,” she says, clearing her throat. “My mother…” She shrugs. “You want to have a little wine? Sit by the fire?”

“Sure,” he says, exhausted from the long day of work. “I must warn you, though. I might fall asleep. Almost my bedtime.”

“We won’t work so hard tomorrow,” she says, getting up from the table. “You like red or white?”

“Red,” he says, loving how strong and supple she is. “But either is fine.”

She opens a bottle of red, fills two big goblets, and carries them into the living room where she sets them on a small table between two armchairs. Now she tosses a log on the faltering fire and says, “We can do the dishes later. Come on now, Frederick. I want to talk to you.”

“I’ll only drink a little,” he says, sitting in one of the armchairs. “I’m a cheap date. Half a glass and I’ll be drunk.”

“I can drink,” she says, sitting in the other chair. “I don’t like how I feel the next day, but now and again I’ll get so drunk I can’t remember ever being sad.” She takes a long luxurious drink. “I like this wine. Not too sweet, but not even a little bit sour. I don’t like that vinegar sour.”

“I like this wine, too,” he says, having a sip. “My grandfather was a wine snob and spent a fortune on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.”

They drink for a while and watch the fire grow large again.

Her goblet empty, Juneau gets up and goes into the kitchen for a refill, and while she’s there she opens the back door and in come the two big dogs, Poobah and Cocoa.

“My grandmother wanted to be an actress,” says Juneau, sitting cross-legged in her armchair, swirling the wine in her goblet. “She grew up in Spokane and was in high school plays and went to the University of Washington and majored in Drama. And then she went to Hollywood to try to make it in the movies, and after a couple hard years in LA she met my grandfather. He was just getting out of the Army and fell madly in love with her and they got married and came back to Sterling where Grandpa was born. They rented a little house in town and she taught Drama at the high school and he worked on a big ranch west of town, and then they bought this place and had my mother.”

“Did they have any other kids?” asks Frederick, smiling as Poobah lies down near the fire and rolls onto his back.

“No, just my mom.” Juneau closes her eyes. “She was so beautiful, at least how I remember her. She wanted to be an actress, too, only she didn’t go to college. She didn’t even finish high school. Ran away when she was sixteen and somehow got to LA. She was in a few commercials and was an extra in one of those Superman movies, and when she was nineteen she had Janet and two years later she had me, and when she was twenty-six she brought us back here and left us with Grandma and Grandpa and we never saw her again, though she called a few times to ask for money. She died when I was eleven. Not sure how, but Grandma thought it was something to do with drugs.”

“So you were raised by your grandparents,” says Frederick, reverently. “So was I.”

“Seriously?” says Juneau, opening her eyes and gazing at him.

“Yeah, my grandfather was a professor of History at Stanford, his specialty the English Renaissance, and after my parents were killed in a car accident in Tottenham when I was eleven, I moved from England to California to live with my grandfather, my mother’s father, and his second wife. I lived with them until I graduated from college. San Jose State. Physics.”

“So is that why you want to go back to England?” she asks, her eyes full of tears. “Get in touch with your roots?”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But I interrupted your story. Sorry. Go on.”

“It’s okay,” she says, setting down her empty glass. “We’re just talking.”

“Right,” he says, relaxing. “So you were only five when your mother brought you here.”

“Yeah,” she says, feeling nicely drunk. “I hardly remember anything from before then. Just little bits. But I remember everything after we got here, taking care of the animals, working in the kitchen with Grandma, sitting on Grandpa’s lap driving the tractor, going to school in town and playing basketball and volleyball and getting scholarships. Janet played volleyball at Oregon State and I played basketball at Western Washington. And then Janet got a high school teaching job in Portland, and when I graduated I moved in with her and got a job at a bio-tech company and we were having a good time living in the city, so different than here, so much to do, but then my grandfather died and we came home to be with Grandma and never left. We just couldn’t leave her. She died seven years ago. We both married local guys. Janet got a good one and I got a wife beater.”

“Oh Juneau, I’m sorry,” he says, bowing his head. “So sorry.”

“My fault,” she says, nodding. “I was a stupid party girl and got pregnant, and even that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t made him marry me. I should have just let him go. He went soon enough, but not before he beat me senseless a few times.”

Not your fault,” says Frederick, filled with anger at Juneau’s assailant. “It was his fault. His crime. For which he should be punished.”

“Oh he’s been punished,” she says, nodding. “And of course he’d been punished before he ever did that to me. People don’t hurt other people like that unless they’ve been hurt like that, too.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s dead. Died when Kyle was four. Crashed his car going a hundred miles an hour. We were divorced by then and I never really knew him, so when he died it was…it didn’t mean much to me except I wouldn’t ever see him around town again.”

“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” says Frederick, putting his hand on his heart. “I’m sure your insights about him are correct, but still…you didn’t deserve to suffer like that.”

A silence falls and their eyes meet, and she sees his sorrow and his innocence and his kindness, and he sees the same in her.

The fire flickers and Poobah snorts at something in a dream.

“You know,” says Frederick, gazing at the dwindling fire, “sometimes I’ll think of something Sri Bihar said in one of his talks, something that stuck in my mind because it seemed important at the time, though I didn’t really understand what he meant. And lately, just in these last few days, I’ll hear those words again and they make perfect sense.”

“Like what?” asks Juneau, feeling closer to him than she’s ever felt to any man except her grandfather. “I thought you said he was a fake.”

“He is a fake,” says Frederick, laughing at the absurdity of a chubby middle-aged Jewish guy from Brooklyn pretending to be a Buddhist sage and convincing thousands of people to give him lots of money to support his charade. “But he helped me. He gave me refuge and work and got me through a difficult time.”

“Like what did he say that you understand now?” she asks, frightened and excited to feel so aroused by him.

Frederick gets up from his armchair and puts another log on the fire, and another, and another. Now he turns to Juneau and says, “Only when we cease to be afraid, do we experience the mundane as miraculous. And only when we experience the mundane as miraculous, do we cease to be afraid.”

“What does that mean to you?” she asks, inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. “That you didn’t understand before?”

“It means if I am fully involved while weeding the chard, I am involved in a miracle, and being so involved, I am no longer afraid. When I feed the pigs and scratch their backs and they smile in their sublimely innocent way, I am involved in a miracle and I am no longer afraid.”

“What were you afraid of?” she asks, loving the sound of his voice.

“Of making a mistake,” he says, smiling sadly. “Of making someone angry. Of losing what I thought I had. Of dying before I was ready to die.”

“Are you afraid of me?” she asks, getting up and going to him. “Afraid of making a mistake by staying or leaving? Afraid of making me angry? Of losing me? Of dying before you get to England?”

“Yes,” he says, taking her hand. “I’m afraid of all those things when I forget I am involved in the miracle of standing with you by a fire in a house on the high plains of Colorado under a three-quarters moon, winter soon to follow the brief and glorious flurry of fall.”

“I’m afraid to love you,” she says, relieved to have said so. “Afraid you won’t love me in the same way.”

“What way is that?” he asks, smiling shyly.

“Tenderly,” she says, looking into his eyes. “Wanting me to be happy so I’ll want to make you happy.”

“You have a lovely way with words, Juneau,” he says, kissing her lips.

“So do you, Freddie,” she says, returning his kiss. “And you still haven’t asked me how old I am.”

“How old are you?” he asks, transfixed by the sudden revelation of her beauty.

“Forty-seven,” she says, leading him away from the fire and down the hall to her bedroom. “Going on twenty-five.”

fin

The Screw

Monday, September 24th, 2018

elk cloud

Elk Cloud photo by Todd

in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye,” say Jerry and Constance and Everett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” says Jerry, waking up.

“You awake?”

“I am now.”

“Do you have a preference?”

“For what?”

“Brett or David or Noah. For Josie.”

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

“He says Josie needs therapy.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s very poetic, honey.”

“What’s poetic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because he’s noble and good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I wanted you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He didn’t say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another screw like this screw?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding confidently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” he says, turning to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you awake?”

“I think so. Talk to me.”

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

“Yes. It’s all because of you.”

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

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

fin

Ophelia’s Journey

Monday, September 17th, 2018

Winter Woods tw

Winter Woods painting by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orion shrieks with glee and reaches out to touch Bingo.

Olivia reflexively moves between baby and dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Frank’s Muse

Monday, September 10th, 2018

heart of muse

Heart of Muse photo by Todd

Frank was thirty and lived on a monthly check from the state: four hundred and sixty-eight dollars. His rent for a small room in a three-story boarding house in a scary neighborhood in Sacramento was three hundred and forty dollars. That left him one hundred and twenty-eight dollars a month for food and drink and not much else.

A strong athletic man with a diagnosis of clinical depression, Frank was in love with Maria Escobido but didn’t think she would ever be interested in going out with him. He assumed she wanted a partner with a good job, and Frank didn’t have any job, so he barely spoke to Maria except to say hello and thanks.

He would go into Maria’s little grocery store every day, sometimes twice a day, and buy lemonade or beer or anything just to be close to her. He wanted to ask her to have coffee with him, but he never asked because he was afraid she might say Yes and then he would have to tell her about his life, which he was ashamed of.

Frank’s recurring fantasy was that he would save a man’s life and the man would turn out to be wealthy and hire Frank to be his chauffer. Frank would move into an elegant apartment in the carriage house adjacent to the Rolls Royce and Lamborghini and Jaguar. With his ample pay, Frank would buy new clothes and go into Maria’s little grocery store and say, “Hola Maria. Would you like to go out with me?” And Maria would say Yes and they would become lovers and live happily ever after.

That was how Frank began every day, lying alone in his little bed dreaming about Maria inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. And having imagined their kiss, Frank would get out of bed, grab his towel and soap and razor, and hurry down the hall to the bathroom.

Frank and the other tenants on the second floor of the boarding house had a system for the morning use of the bathroom they shared. Frank went first because he woke first. When he was done with his ablutions, he would rap on Larry’s door, and when Larry was done he would knock on Shirley’s door, and when Shirley was finished, she would tap on Sheldon’s door.

One morning Frank was too sick to get out of bed, so Larry didn’t get up until eleven because he was waiting for Frank to knock, and Sheldon and Shirley slept in, too.

Sheldon was a cartoonist, Shirley was the resident computer wizard at the Lesbian Crisis Center, and Larry collected kitsch pottery and books about astrology and the Tarot. Sheldon and Shirley and Larry were as poor as Frank, but they were happy, or so Frank believed, whereas Frank was miserable because he considered himself a failure and didn’t believe Maria Escobido would want to be with him unless he could get a decent a job or save somebody’s life and be rewarded with a decent job. And, of course, he would have to stop smoking pot because Maria was definitely not a pot smoker. But whenever Frank stopped smoking pot for more than a few days he wanted to die.

Frank always bought something in Maria’s grocery store before he would speak to her. He did this so she wouldn’t think he was a dead beat. She was always nice to him, sometimes effusively so, and one day they had a long talk about their favorite movies and she laughed at Frank’s jokes and smiled in a way Frank took to mean I like you. I like the way you think.

He came out of her store after that movie conversation feeling elated and confident she would say Yes if he asked her to go for coffee with him. But when he got back to his little room and looked in the mirror he thought No. She only spoke to me because I bought something. Why would such a marvelous full-of-life woman want to have anything to do with a loser like me?

Frank will never forget a broiling hot day in August when he decided to splurge on a beer and went into Maria’s little store and she was on her tiptoes reaching up to get a case of Heineken from a high shelf. She was wearing a sleeveless red T-shirt and the case of Heineken started to fall and the next thing Frank knew he was beside Maria bringing down the case and Maria’s breasts brushed his arm and she blushed and said Thank you in the sweetest way, and for weeks after Frank lived in a frenzy of love for her.

Monday through Friday at seven in the morning, Frank showered and shaved, dressed in clean shirt, sports jacket, jeans, and running shoes, wrote in his notebook for an hour or so, ate a couple bananas, and jogged five blocks to Plaza Park to see if anybody wanted him to deliver drugs. Frank was trim and presentable, and he would deliver drugs in exchange for marijuana, so dealers liked using him.

One spring morning, Marcus, a colossus with a deep rumbling voice, asked Frank to deliver a large bag of cocaine to someone in the capitol building.

“Marcus,” said Frank, smiling cautiously at the enormous drug dealer. “You know I appreciate the above-average quality of your cannabis, but this amount of cocaine is a large felony. How about I make multiple deliveries of smaller amounts? Then it will not be so terribly terrible if I get caught.”

“Talkin’ hazard pay,” said Marcus, his eyes invisible behind the darkest of dark glasses. “You deliver the whole enchilada in one run, I’ll give you two hundred dollars and all the weed you need for a month. Sound good?”

“Two hundred bucks and copious weed?” said Frank, his heart pounding at the thought of Marcus keeping him in fat joints for an entire month—no need to run drugs to get dope.

So he combed his hair, secreted a Ziploc baggy of blow in a hollowed-out law book, and joined a crowd of state workers swarming into the capitol building. Nobody thought he was anything but a casually-dressed servant of the state as he strode past the Governor’s office and caught an elevator to the third floor where dozens of ambitious men and women hurried to and fro with steaming cups of coffee and armloads of documents—the perfect moment to deliver cocaine.

Frank located the appointed suite, told the receptionist he had something for her boss, and a moment later her boss emerged from his office, a boyishly handsome man with thinning gray hair, his outfit not dissimilar to Frank’s, though he happened to be one of the most powerful politicos in California.

Coming close to Frank, the handsome politico said, “Hey. How are you?”

“Fine,” said Frank, wondering how this man could be so calm with his career in the hands of some stranger off the street who might be a narc. “Here’s that volume you requested. Hope this does the trick.”

“Just in the nick of time,” said the politico, sighing with relief as he took the book from Frank.

Riding down in the elevator, Frank thought What a joke. The ultimate loser bringing blow to a guy who rules the world, both of us wanting to get high, him in his mansion and me in my hole, him with snort, me with weed.

Marcus gave Frank sixty bucks and a bag of shake for delivering the coke to a major player in state politics, and Frank did not complain about the less-than-promised pay.

Life went on. He continued to buy food and drink at Maria’s little grocery store, go to movies on half-price Wednesdays, and score his weed by running drugs to bureaucrats and lobbyists and people living in high-rise luxury condos. He bought a case of beer every month when his benefit check arrived and shared his bounty with Larry and Sheldon and Shirley.

He lived this way for another five years and saw no way out but suicide.

For Frank’s thirty-fifth birthday, Sheldon and Larry and Shirley give Frank a gift certificate for a Tarot reading from Larry’s friend Amanda. Frank thanks them profusely, and as he studies the gift certificate that resembles a diploma he decides he’ll have the reading and then kill himself.

Three days after his birthday, Frank catches a bus from his scary part of town to a neighborhood of beautiful old houses, the streets lined with majestic elms and sycamores. Amanda is waiting for Frank on the front porch of a lovely yellow house, a big gray cat in her arms, her front yard ablaze with roses. Amanda’s skin is white alabaster, her eyes are emerald green, her lustrous red hair falls to her waist, her blue silk blouse is embroidered with dozens of tiny shimmering silver fish, and her voice is deep and songful and free of doubt.

Frank and Amanda sit across from each other at a small round table in Amanda’s living room, late afternoon sunlight slanting through the windows. Amanda asks Frank to shuffle the well-worn deck of Tarot cards and to hold the cards and think about his life.

So he shuffles the deck seven times and holds the cards against his heart and closes his eyes and has a vision of Maria Escobido gazing longingly at him. And he realizes he doesn’t have to buy something from her before he can talk to her. I invented that lie to defeat myself. Maria likes me whether I buy something from her or not.

“Thank you already,” he says, handing the cards to Amanda. “Revelations coming fast and furious.”

“Yes,” she says, turning over the top card. “This is you.”

“Always wondered who I was,” says Frank, reading the words on the card—The Magician. “Nice robe. Is he a chemist?”

“Alchemist,” says Amanda, searching Frank’s face with her brilliant green eyes. “You possess great power, but your power is unavailable to you because you don’t realize who you are.”

She turns over the next card—The Lovers—starts to say something, stops herself and turns over the next card—The Tower. She frowns at the image of a burning castle, touches The Magician, touches The Lovers, and lastly touches The Tower.

“You need to take immediate action or you will lose everything,” she says urgently. “This is definite. You can’t wait another day. You must act.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” says Frank, wondering if she knows he is planning to commit suicide. “Take action. How?”

“Live your dreams,” she says, tapping The Magician. “Take a chance.”

Frank returns to his scary part of town at dusk, heavy fog cloaking the streets. Benefit checks are late this month and people are angry and desperate. He walks past a shiny new black Cadillac parked in front of a vacant lot, nothing unusual about such a car being in his neighborhood—a drug dealer’s car.

And though he knows never to look into parked cars because men with guns do bad things in cars in his neighborhood, something makes him look into the car and he sees a man in the backseat sticking a needle into the arm of a girl with her mouth taped shut, her arms tied behind her back.

“No!” shouts Frank, yanking open the car door. “Let her go!”

The man lets go of the girl and reaches for a gun. But before the man can get hold of his gun, Frank kicks him hard in the face just as the driver’s door swings open and somebody huge starts to get out to kill Frank, but Frank slams the door on the killer and runs away screaming bloody murder as dozens of people rush out of their houses and swarm the car and rescue the girl who turns out to be Maria Escobido’s sister.

That was thirty years ago. Frank lives far away from Sacramento now in a little blue house in a coastal town in British Columbia. He owns a bookstore and his wife Sierra is a chef in a vegetarian restaurant. Together they grow a hundred kinds of flowers.

Frank sometimes dreams that he and Maria Escobido became lovers after he saved her sister, but that didn’t happen.

What happened was he ran back to his room, stuffed a few precious things into his knapsack and left a note for Sheldon and Larry and Shirley thanking them for being his friends and explaining that he would surely be killed if he stayed in Sacramento. Then he caught a bus to the edge of the city and from there hitchhiked north for a thousand miles and got a job as a dishwasher in a café. The owners liked him, and when he proved reliable they gave him a job as a waiter.

One day Frank charmed a customer, a woman who turned out to be a renowned restaurateur. She asked Frank to come work in her restaurant, which Frank did, and a year later he was promoted to maître d’ and kept that job for many years until he saved enough money to open his bookstore and buy his house.

Sometimes when Frank is standing at the bookstore counter reading or writing and the bell over the door jingles, he looks up expecting to see Maria Escobido.

Maria does a double take, smiles her radiant smile and says, “Oh my God, Frank, it’s you.”

And Frank replies with the words Maria always used when he would come into her store after a long absence. “Where have you been hiding, mi amigo? I missed you.”

Only Frank says mi amiga.

Old Perry

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

Forty years ago, I wrote a short story called Old Perry. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, made a valiant effort to sell the story to various magazines, and three interested editors could not convince three disinterested publishers to run the story, so the fable was never published. A few years later, I showed the story to Richard Marks and he thought Old Perry would make a fine movie.

Richard was, and still is, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. I first met Richard those same forty years ago when he was working at the late great Ziegler, Diskant, and Roth Agency, an agency specializing in representing novels to the movie industry. Following the demise of that agency, Richard and I remained friends and he endeavored to interest a movie producer or two in Old Perry, to no avail.

Somewhere along the winding path of my life, I lost track of Richard and also lost my few copies of Old Perry, and until a few weeks ago I never thought I would see that story again. Every once in a while something would remind me of Old Perry—the running of the Kentucky Derby or a visit with a friend’s horse—but I remembered little more than the gist of the tale.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I was in need of a little advice from an entertainment lawyer. Richard is the only entertainment lawyer who has ever befriended me, so I looked him up via Google, sent him an email, and we restarted our friendship after thirty-some years. He inquired about Old Perry and I told him I lost the story long ago. Then a few weeks ago, Richard wrote to say he found a copy of the story while cleaning out his garage. He scanned the story and sent me a copy of the scan and I had the fascinating experience of reading a story I penned forty years ago—fascinating because I can’t imagine present-day Todd writing such a story, yet I enjoyed the energy and spirit of the tale.

Here for your reading pleasure is Old Perry.

Old Perry

It hurt me because he was too good for that and I always said we could make more money if we just let him win his races, but Jackie said he was too good not to use him as our bread and butter horse and he also said Old Perry didn’t mind losing. But I never believed that, or that Jackie believed it.

Okay, now what a bread-and-butter horse was to Jackie was a horse that could win almost all the time in low stakes races, but you didn’t let him win. You held him back in five or six races in a row, or maybe even ten races if your other horses were makin’ money, and you built up the odds against that horse until he was a real long shot, say twenty-five to one, and then you’d bet four or five hundred on him, win, and there was your money for keeping seven horses in good shape for a couple months anyway.

Course you had four or five people bet a hundred each so the big take wasn’t so obvious, and you had to move your horse around to different tracks all the time, which we did anyway, and you had to talk down his workouts if they were too good, and maybe once in a while you let him Place in a couple races or Show a couple times, so people didn’t get suspicious, when actually Old Perry could have won every race he ran at those second-rate tracks, and I always thought he could win at the best tracks, but Jackie said he couldn’t and was just a damn good bill payer.

But it still hurt me. I couldn’t ever look Old Perry in the eye after a race, even if he won, because I’d ridden him some mornings when he felt so strong and smooth and powerful and came in way under his fastest official time, close to the track record, and I would tell Jackie, though I didn’t have to because he was there most of the time watching it happen. But he would say, “No, we can’t ever let him race like that or we’ll be in big trouble.”

And that’s also why Jackie named him Old Perry (he’s only three now) because when people saw that Old they backed off, because old means slow, right? Most people are so damn stupid and superstitious, including horse people, you can scare’em off easy. They don’t take the time to really look at a horse. If they’d ever really looked at Old Perry they would have seen he was good, because sometimes people who really knew horses would watch him work and say to me, “Man, that’s some animal. Wonder why he doesn’t win? No guts, huh?” Which would hurt me.

But Jackie had a point because you had to have a really good horse, a winner, if you were gonna put down a big chunk of cash so you could keep your operation going. And Old Perry was perfect for that. He’s a real big horse and bettors don’t like real big horses in low stakes races. They like peppy little horses that come out snorting. And Old Perry walks with his head hung low, which bettors hate. And he always had a geek for a jockey because Jackie wouldn’t put anybody good on him or word would have spread fast how good he really was.

He ran thirty-two races as a two-year-old, which was crazy for an animal that fine, but he did, and we bet him to win in seven races and he won all of’em easy. I know because I was that geek jockey and I was holding him back even when he won.

But it got to hurt me so much I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I’d keep Floss up late, talking to her, whining actually, and she’d try to calm me down by making love to me, but I couldn’t even do that after a while because Old Perry and Jackie were screwing me up so bad.

So I decided to let him go in his first three-year-old race, even though Jackie told me to hold him. That was in May at Golden Gate fields, last race of the day. I’ll never forget that race. Triple Jump, a big black monster from New Zealand was the heavy favorite and Jackie thought this would be a good race to bring Old Perry in second and maybe we’d win a little cash that way without wrecking the long-shot buildup. But I told Floss to bet a hundred on Old Perry to Win since I knew Jackie was betting a hundred on him to Place and the damn odds were thirty to one before the race and jumped to forty-five to one at post time because nobody there had seen him run, so nobody bet on him at all.

I swear to God I just let him do whatever he wanted. Didn’t whip him, didn’t push him, but I didn’t hold him back and he won by twenty-five lengths and came within a half-second of breaking the track record, which we coulda massacred if I’d even touched him a little.

Naturally Jackie was pissed. He was pissed when he got the purse check for five thousand and even more pissed when I gave him four thousand more and he was really pissed when the reporters came around and asked him how it felt to have a turkey like Old Perry win at forty-five to one odds. He tried, oh God he tried to smile for them, but he couldn’t, and if he’d killed me that night I would have been surprised.

Next day he calls me in and says, “Listen you little shit, if you ever do that again I’m gonna kick your butt so hard you’ll never sit on a horse again.” Then he scrunched up his ugly face like he does so you don’t know if he’s in pain or just pissed and says, “Jimmy, I wish I could make you understand about that horse. He’s gonna keep us in chips for a long time, and we can’t screw that up. He can’t ever make us rich, but he can keep us going.” Then he stalked around the stall (his office was always a stall he fixed up) and he says, “Cause if he wins too much down here, I gotta move him up, right? If I move him up, I gotta pay more to enter him, keep him, insure him, everything…and he ain’t gonna win up there. He’s a good horse, Jimmy, but he’s not a great horse, and we can’t take any chances because I might never find such a sure thing again in my life.”

And that’s when I saw for the first time that Jackie actually thought Old Perry might be a great horse, but he was afraid to admit it because he was scared shitless of winning big. Which is true of lots of little time trainers. And Jackie was definitely in the little time habit. He was a sweet guy, but he just never saw himself as quite good enough for anything. That’s why he got divorced three times, because his women got sick of him not liking himself. That was pretty obvious.

And so here was this horse that was really something, that Jackie and I had made into whatever he was, that even a two-bit, too tall, scaredy-cat jock like me could win with, and Jackie didn’t have the balls to try with him.

So I said it wouldn’t happen again and then I went out and ran a couple of our nags and tried to figure out how I was gonna convince Jackie to let that horse really run. And then as I was going by Witherspoon’s fancy pants part of the facility, I realized maybe Jackie was right. You get a champion or a near champion and you’re suddenly talkin’ huge operating fees. Which I knew we could win by betting on Old Perry, except it’s crazy to bet much on your own horses. Nobody stays in business for long betting heavy on their own horses. I mean you bet a little, naturally, because that’s what it’s all about in a way, but you’re not supposed to bet big, whatever big means to you, except we were betting our own horses, Old Perry in particular, which is why, I guess, we were considered scum by the class trainers. They looked down on us so much they didn’t even think about trying to buy Old Perry, either outright or in a claiming race.

So then I figured, who cares, I’d let him win again the next race and see what Jackie did then. Except two days later, Jackie told me he wanted me to win, that he’d entered Old Perry in a big purse race and we were gonna load the windows, too.

I was high as a kite for the rest of the week, and the night before the race I took Floss out to dinner and to a show and the next morning early I went to see my horse, to work him light before the race that evening, and he was sick. I checked him over and could see he’d been doped, and I just wanted to kill Jackie.

But I didn’t say anything because we still had thirteen hours until the race, so I got Floss to stay with him so Jackie couldn’t give him anything else, and I got Pike over. Pike wouldn’t tell on a doped horse but sure knew how to undope a horse if anybody could. He gave Old Perry something to make him piss extra and something else that made him shit extra, and then I gave him a long walk and chanced a little more water than usual, and by race time he wasn’t perfect but he was okay, pissing steadily, all the way out into the paddock.

And Jackie was there acting like nothing had happened. I tried to ignore him while he saddled Old Perry, but I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to be there. He was whistling, making wisecracks, pretending not to see the horse wasn’t lookin’ so good. I coulda killed him.

Then I got on and we got out on the track and I wondered if we’d cleaned out most of the dope. And then I thought to myself What kind of a man would poison his own horse just to keep a dumb jock from letting him win? I mean I knew I was important to Jackie. I’d been with him for six years. He liked me and he needed me because I was a jockey/trainer/stable boy/everything sorta guy, and me and Floss were just about all the family he had. But still, what was he trying to prove? That he was boss? Was he trying to put me down so I wouldn’t buck him anymore? He must have known I knew he’d doped my horse. I couldn’t figure him out.

But anyway, there we were out on the track, and I was thinking as I headed Old Perry down to the starting gate, Holy shit, I’m in a serious horse race. It hadn’t even occurred to me how big a race this was. I hadn’t ever ridden against horses like those. Blue Light, Queen’s Four, Cat’s Eye. A damn fast field. Fact is, I shouldn’t have been out there at all because I was a hack. I knew horses and I could feel their moods, but my body was all wrong and I couldn’t move with the horse the way the real artists do, the real pros.

And then I had to swallow to keep from crying, thinking about how if Old Perry hadn’t been doped I mighta had a chance against those bastards. Might, but now I didn’t because he’d been doped, and I hated Jackie and cursed him and cursed his rotten soul that he would do that to a good animal like Old Perry and to me and to Floss. I hated him and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do well, how much I wanted Old Perry to run a proud race and not to fall. Please God, I prayed, don’t let my horse fall, and for a minute I thought about pulling him out of the race, because I’d seen horses fall and later on found out they’d been doped.

So I did something I’d never done before and something that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble if I didn’t have a good reason for doing it. I reined him in and got off out there on the backstretch and I looked him over. I looked him in the eyes and in the mouth and patted him and checked for shivers or anything that might have told me he was too sick to run. But he looked okay. He usually looked great, but at least he looked okay and I knew he wouldn’t fall.

And even though he hesitated a little as we came into the gate, something he’d never done before, I knew he’d make a good run, maybe not a great run, but he’d get around okay and then I’d go into Jackie’s office and I’d say, “Go to hell you rotten bastard. Go to hell and goodbye.” Because Floss and I could get work somewhere else, and I might even report him and try to get Old Perry taken away from him so the horse would have the chance to be the horse I thought he might be.

But then for the few seconds before the race I tried to clear my brain of all my bad thoughts. That’s something Floss and I learned from this book on meditation. I got really calm and relaxed and I looked up at the stands full of people and colors and looked down the row at the other jocks, all so flashy and colorful, and I looked for beauty, like the book said to, and I saw it everywhere, and then I looked down at Old Perry, at his beautiful brown skin, and I patted him and squeezed him with my legs and felt the miracle of life rush through me, and then the bell sounded and we flew out of the gate and we didn’t touch ground for a long time.

The whole first half of the race was like that—floating, flying, and I felt stoned, like all the energy of the lights shining down was being concentrated into me and into Old Perry and the race seemed like a fantastic dream, at least the first half of it.

But then I came out of the dream and saw where I was, a tight third, right on Cat’s Eye’s tail, and Lobato was holding the Cat back a length behind Blue Light, just waiting for the home stretch to take it. And I could feel Old Perry working, struggling to get into his rhythm, but not really being able to because he just didn’t feel fine to himself. Which is when I got mad again, thinking how we hadn’t let this horse be himself, and I wasn’t allowed to be myself and Floss wasn’t herself and Jackie wasn’t himself and almost nobody was themselves because we’re all playing these shitty games to win, to pay bills, to not be ourselves because for some stupid reason we’re afraid. And I got so mad, I just went crazy and laid the crop on harder than I ever have and I could feel Old Perry brace against the blows because he didn’t like that, didn’t ever need it, but I needed it and I couldn’t hit myself, not then anyway.

But then we started to move and we seemed to lock into Cat’s Eye’s pace as we slid by Blue Light together, like a matched pair, and it wasn’t like we were trading the lead, we were sharing it, moving step for step perfectly down the run and I didn’t whip Old Perry anymore because I could feel he was locked into that other horse and all we had to do was run that last two hundred yards—no, not run, fly, because we were flying and it was like a dream again and I didn’t even feel it when we touched down. So I guess I didn’t really have to, but right at the end I touched him a little and he moved ahead by a length at the wire, just so there wouldn’t be any question.

And as I stood up in the stirrups as we slowed on the turn, I thought Holy shit, we won. Old Perry and I won. And all the bastards in the world couldn’t undo that.

But you want to talk about a surprise. When I rode Old Perry into that winner’s circle and Jackie was there crying his eyes out and hugged that horse and looked up at me and said, “Jimmy, we did it! You were right!” I about fell off. Because he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t bullshitting. He didn’t know about the dope.

Later on we put it together that somebody from one of the class acts must have doped Old Perry so we’d yank him. It figured because since he almost broke the track record a few days before, they knew he had a chance to win and that must have screwed up somebody’s big plans.

So I worried for a while they’d try to poison him, and me and Floss slept down there with Old Perry for a few weeks after. But we stopped doing that after a while, after he won three more races. And he hasn’t lost since. He’s too well known now for somebody to poison him.

Sure sometimes I wish I was racing him still, but I know if he’s gonna be as great as he can be then we’ve got to have a great jock riding him. I still run him in the morning and walk him and groom him and talk to him, cause he likes me and I can look him right in the eye now and say, “We really are what we are Old Perry. We might lose tomorrow, but not on purpose.”

Hey Baby

Monday, March 26th, 2018

th_nighttrain-768

Petit point for Night Train cover by D.R. Wagner

“Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her and listen to me, listen to your heart and listen to your brain, listen to the sweet song of the rain. Oh my darling, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” from Todd’s song You Are the One.

My recent article about singing to the seals at Big River Beach and remembering my first paying gigs as a musician elicited several fascinating comments, so I thought I’d write a little more about my music. By the way, we’ve disarmed the Comments feature on my blog, so if you’d like to communicate with me about my articles, please send me an email.

So…having supported myself in minimal style for a couple years as a singer/songwriter in my early twenties in Santa Cruz circa 1973, I moved to Menlo Park and got a job as a janitor and teacher’s aid at a day care center in Palo Alto for children of single working mothers. My girlfriend G and I had broken up in Santa Cruz, but G rejoined me in Menlo Park, and after a year of saving our pennies, we moved to Eugene, Oregon where we lived in a converted garage while G attended the university as a music major studying piano and composition. Shortly after we arrived in Eugene, I sold my first short story for what was a fortune to me in those days, nine hundred dollars, and that allowed me to focus entirely for some months on writing short stories and a novel.

My relationship with my girlfriend was not mutually supportive. Which is to say, until I had some effective psychotherapy when I was forty, I routinely partnered with women who disapproved of me and my life choices, yet depended on me to encourage and support them. Why did I do this? To summarize volumes of emotional history, I was programmed by my disapproving and punitive parents to partner with disapproving others, and I didn’t know how else to go about life.

Lest you think I exaggerate my malady, check this out. For the entirety of our three-year relationship, G was adamant, and frequently shouted adamantly at me, that I was using my singing and songwriting and the adulation they brought me as emotional crutches to feel okay about myself and if I really wanted to face the truth about who I was, I would get rid of my guitar. So after we’d been in Eugene a month, I sold my guitar.

Now as it happened, we also had a piano in that garage because G was studying music theory and composition and wanted a piano handy for theorizing and composing. Because I make music as reflexively as ducks swim, I frequently played her piano. I don’t read music, but I had been improvising on pianos since I was sixteen, so in the absence of a guitar, I played her piano several times a day. This drove G bonkers because she struggled to compose anything she liked, while I reeled off hours of groovy-sounding music with no conscious knowledge of music theory.

Nine months into our Eugene sojourn, G and I broke up for good and I moved to Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper for two years. While living in Medford, I was contacted by my old high school chum Dan Nadaner who was a fan of my guitar playing and singing. He had written some rhyming verses for the soundtrack to a little film he made called Stripes and asked me to sing his verses in the manner of a country tune while accompanying myself on guitar. (Watch Stripes on my web site.)

To make that recording for Dan, I borrowed a small steel-string guitar and a little cassette recorder from my friend David Adee. Dan was pleased with how I sang his verses, and after making the recording I bought that guitar from David. Having gone two years without a guitar, songs began pouring out of me and I wrote several new tunes in the next few months. A year later, in 1977, I moved from Medford to Seattle, and while living a lonely life there, I wrote a nostalgic bluesy love song called Hey Baby.

In 1980, having had a large success with my first novel Inside Moves, I was attending a party in Sacramento, songs were being shared, and when the guitar came to me, I sang Hey Baby. When I finished the song there was much hooting and applause and a woman asked, “Who wrote that? Wasn’t that in a movie?”

I said, “No. It’s one of my songs.”

“Sounds famous,” she went on. “That’s like a song you hear in grocery stores, you know, the instrumental version of a classic.”

As of this writing, Hey Baby is not famous, but I never forgot what that woman said about the song, and her praise emboldened me to play Hey Baby when I gave readings at bookstores and cafés, and the song eventually became a mainstay of the one-man shows I performed for some years.

Fast forward to the first year of my first marriage, 1984. My wife introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, which I enjoyed, but there was one song on that album I absolutely with every cell in my corpus loved—Night Train (not the blues standard, but Rickie’s song with that title.) After listening to her Night Train countless times, I wrote a novel entitled Night Train that sprang from dreams inspired by Rickie’s song.

In the novel, the down-and-nearly-out narrator Charlie is haunted by the one success he ever had, a hit song he wrote called Hey Baby upon which hinges everything that happens in that wild crazy chase love story.

I eventually published Night Train with Mercury House, a San Francisco publisher, and they took the book out-of-print shortly after publication. Thus few people ever heard of my Night Train, though the following review by Tom Nolan ran in the LA Times in 1986.

“In his fourth novel, Todd Walton, author of the critically praised Inside Moves and Louie & Women, delivers an unusual and gripping tale that begins like a hard-boiled crime story and becomes something resembling science fiction. Walton evokes a paranoid romanticism reminiscent of Craig Nova, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon as he tracks the fate of Lily and Charlie, two down-and-out musicians on the run from an army of ‘very well-connected’ thugs out not just for blood but for spirit. Fleeing by car, foot, air, bicycle, train, covered wagon and dirigible, the two make their way with Lily’s baby from Sunset Boulevard to a mountain retreat in Oregon. Eluding all manner of physical and mental danger, Lily and Charlie take their final stand with a commune of utopian artists.

“Their odyssey is seedily realistic, wildly surrealistic, often erotic and only occasionally a bit precious. What seemed like a simple pursuit story has become an engaging parable of the responsibilities of creativity, the nature of self-worth, the redemptive power of love—perhaps the Meaning of Life itself. And the message, as Charlie reads it? ‘No matter how far down you get, you got to get up.’”

And now, thirty-three years gone by since Night Train was briefly available in a handful of bookstores, I love recalling the myriad threads that came together to make that book—Hey Baby a tune I wrote for my favorite singer in those days: Bonnie Raitt. And though I never got the tune to Bonnie, in my imaginings, her version of Hey Baby makes the song an instant classic, thereby fulfilling the long-ago prophecy of Hey Baby becoming a soundtrack for grocery shopping.

Night Train is available as a Kindle and iBook, and used copies of the hardback abound online.

The News

Monday, March 27th, 2017

metaphors

(a story from Todd’s novel of stories Under the Table Books)

I don’t have much, but there’s one thing I treat myself to every Wednesday, and that’s a newspaper, fresh from the rack. No one else has touched it. The news is absolutely fresh. You can smell its freshness. The folds of the pages are sharp and clean. This is my greatest luxury, my last strong link to civilization. It may not seem like much to you, but for me buying the Wednesday news is absolutely, without question, the zenith of my week.

Furthermore, it is absolutely essential that I pay for it. If someone gave the newspaper to me, it would have no importance whatsoever. I must get my news through ritual.

Every Wednesday I wake up early, wherever I happen to be, and I take a bath. Sometimes I bathe in the river. Sometimes I use a garden hose, if there’s no one around to tell me not to. Sometimes I am somewhere with a shower, and now and then I find myself in a house with a bathtub. That, of course, is the ultimate luxury, to soak for a while in a tub full of truly hot water.

Then, once my body is washed, I put on my cleanest clothes and set forth to find a newspaper rack. I do not buy my papers from vendors or in stores. I want my news direct, no middlemen. When I have located a rack I like the look of, I approach it slowly, with solemnity. I do not allow myself to read the headlines. To know anything at this point would destroy the purity of the experience.

I take three quarters from my pocket. Seventy-five cents still buys the news in this town, thank God. I will have had these quarters since the day before, at least. I will not beg on Wednesdays. No, the day I buy my paper is a day of dignity for me. On this day I am as good as any other man, even the President, even the Pope.

I hold the quarters, heads side up, between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. I read aloud the dates on each coin. Lately, I’ve been getting lots of those bicentennial ones. 1776-1976. George Washington on one side, a Revolutionary War drummer on the other. On the George side it says LIBERTY up above his head, and then in smaller print under George’s chin it says IN GOD WE TRUST. If we didn’t know better, we might think George was a mannish-looking woman, hawk-nosed and severe, with silly curls and sillier ponytail, with a ribbon in it yet. There is no mention anywhere on the coin that this person is George Washington. Somehow we know. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say, somehow we have not yet forgotten.

I put the quarters in the slot, give the handle a pull, and listen carefully as the quarters roll, then fall into the change box. Sometimes the chamber is empty and the quarters clonk against the bottom in a sad hollow way. Other times the coins settle gently onto a good pile of fellow coins, making a beautiful clinking sound. I sometimes think the sound my quarters make going in is more important than getting the paper itself. If I am sad, that beautiful soft musical sound can cheer me up. And if I’m happy, that hollow clonking can leave me doubting everything.

There are times when the paper on top of the stack is damaged, dog-eared or torn. I take the next one down, or the next. I want perfection of form if I can’t get it from the contents. And sometimes only one paper remains, the paper held against the glass by the metal frame. I do not like these papers as well. They have been looked at by countless passersby and handled roughly by the person stocking the rack. I take them, but those Wednesdays are never quite as good as the Wednesdays when the quarters fall just right, and the papers are many and fresh, smelling strongly of ink, hot off the presses, still warm from the ovens of thought.

I tuck the paper under my arm and go in search of a place to read. I need a table, sunlight and good coffee. I will not drink cheap coffee on Wednesday. Fortunately, there are many good places to go in this town, many good cups of coffee to be had. I am known in these places. On Wednesday I am not a bum, a freak, a shopping cart person. My shopping cart is hidden somewhere safe. I am free of my few things on Wednesday. I have a dollar to spend, a morning to dedicate to my god, the news. If all my days could be like Wednesday there is nothing I couldn’t accomplish.

I read the paper in order, front page to back. I read every word, save for the Classifieds section, and on a rainy day I will read that, too. I study the advertisements. I ponder the editorials. I read every comic strip, every statistic in the sports section, every letter to the editor, every shred of gossip. I meditate on my horoscope. I scrutinize the photographs and wonder at the movie reviews. I fall in love with the fashion models, devour the food section, second guess the business experts and check my stocks, the ones I would have bought a year ago when the market was way down and the time was right.

All in all it takes about four hours. Then I carefully reassemble the paper and carry it to my friend Leopold who meets me in front of the library, downtown, every Wednesday at one o’clock. Sometimes I get there before him. Sometimes he is waiting for me, leaning against the old stone building, holding it up with his strong little back.

I give him the paper. He always asks, “Anything good?”  I usually say, “A few things.”  Though once I remember the paper was as empty of anything good as I have ever seen it, and I said, “No, Leo, not a god damn thing.”  To which he responded by putting it directly in the recycling bin without so much as a glance at the sordid headlines. And once, yes, once I said, “Oh Leo, it’s incredible. You won’t believe all the good news.”  To which he responded by hugging the paper to him like long lost best friend.

And then, with or without Leo, depending on his mood, I walk to the Post Office where I purchase a postcard on which I write a brief note to the President, which I then send. Now and then I’ll include a poem, if a good rhyme comes to me. Sometimes I’ll quote an editorial or a news item. Whatever I write, it is inspired by the news I have just read.

One time I wrote him a postcard that said, “Dear Mr. President, it is clear from the news that you have lost touch with the will of the people. As they grow more and more desirous of a peaceful world, you grow more and more vituperative, angry and irrational. I urge you to take some time off to search your soul, to listen to the inner voice, lest you drift too far from your purpose.”

And the very next week the headline read PRESIDENT IN SECLUSION. Had he heard me? Did he read my note? I don’t know. I only know that he cancelled all appointments for three days and went into seclusion. To think. To ponder. Perhaps to study the news.

I like to think that he reads all my notes, and that he looks forward to my postcards as I look forward to the Wednesday news. He listens to me. He didn’t at first, but now he does. Now his aides sort through the avalanche of mail to find my cards. They know my handwriting now. And I mark my notes in another way, too. I take a quarter, with the bust of George face up, and I press the postcard down onto the coin and then I take a pencil and I color in over the quarter, so that George and LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST and the date come through, like a temple rubbing.

I’m not insane. I don’t believe the President listens to me. I am a man who lives for Wednesdays. I once owned fleets of cars, now I push a shopping cart, which I did not steal. I found it by the river where the shopping carts grow. I will return it someday. Perhaps the day before I die. I have never stolen anything. I fathered three children. I had tens of hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars. I lived with a woman, my wife, and could not love her.

What am I saying? Why have I told you this story? Because though the news itself may be a mass of lies and half-truths, rising above it, every Wednesday, is a tone, a feeling, a universal hum. And it helps me. It allows me to go on, to hope.

Some find salvation in prayer, some in music. I am not saved yet, but if I am ever to be saved, if I am ever to find the peace I seek, I know where I’ll read all about it.

 

Beautiful hardback copies of Under the Table Books illustrated by the author are available from Todd’s web site for just seven dollars plus shipping.

A thirteen-hour reading of the novel by Todd is available from Audible and other audio book sites.

The Beggar

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Beggar

Buddha Statue photo by Todd

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.

Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.

The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age—forty-nine—and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone’s throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl’s workweek, except Wednesday evenings.

His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.

As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn’t know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o’clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.

When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks further from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.

For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him—that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.

Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.

She takes a week off from work, though she doesn’t tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.

At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.

Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away—a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.

A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.

A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.

A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.

And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o’clock—seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.

A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.

She looks up at him, speechless with love.

To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, “Hello my dear friend.”

Mr. Bosman

Monday, September 5th, 2016

twin falls winkler and nolan tw

Twin Falls painting by Winkler and Nolan

Tim Bosman, forty-seven, boyish and playful and a superb acting coach, has been the Drama teacher at Carlyle High in Rincon, Idaho, for the last fifteen years. And though he has been happily married to Sarah for twelve years and they have produced two lovely children together, many people in Rincon still think Mr. Bosman is gay.

When he was twenty-one and freshly out of college, Tim moved to New York City and spent four years striving to succeed as a stage actor before moving to Los Angeles and spending six years laboring in the lower echelons of the movie business. And though he came close on several occasions to landing juicy roles, he never did get a big break and finally gave up his quest for stardom and became a high school Drama teacher.

His bitterness about not succeeding as a professional actor eventually evaporated and nowadays Tim loves his job, loves his wife, loves his children, loves his students, and could care less that some people think he is gay. He directs three plays a year at the high school and one play every summer at the Rincon Community Center, last year’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum a huge success.

Many of Tim’s students are so inspired by working with him that they major in Drama in college, and one of Tim’s students, Rip Morgan, is now a regular cast member of the mega-popular sit-com Get Outta My Face. Thus for aspiring thespians at Carlyle High, Tim is a god, his approval sought by dozens of insecure teenagers, mostly girls, who make casting the school plays a hellish ordeal for Tim and his wife Sarah who lives through the anguished hours with him as he decides who among his charges to make deliriously happy and who to reduce to emotional rubble.

Today is the last day of school before the blessed summer break; and the tradition at Carlyle High for as long as anyone can remember is for the five hundred students, forty-three teachers, nineteen administrators, and seven maintenance people to convene at day’s end on the football field for a mammoth barbecue. Staff and students and parents and former students gather to eat hamburgers and hot dogs and wish each other well until next year, or to say goodbye to those going to college or entering the work force or leaving town.

And it has become Tim’s tradition to use this finale on the football field as the time for speaking privately with each of his Drama students and thanking them and encouraging them and wishing them well. The graduating seniors who have taken Drama from Tim especially look forward to this day, for they have been told by those who have gone before them that Mr. Bosman becomes uncharacteristically emotional with his seniors at the end-of-the-year barbecue and says things he would never say in class or while directing a play. Mr. Bosman, as one former student declared, becomes a fountain of loving wisdom at the barbecue, and loving wisdom is what his students crave.

This year’s barbecue is an especially poignant affair for Tim because the two finest actors he has ever had the pleasure of working with are graduating. Consuela Valdez—tall, curvaceous, loquacious, and drop-dead funny—is going to UCLA, while Aaron Goldberg—short, stocky, and screamingly droll—is going to Reed. Consuela and Aaron have been in thirteen plays together since their freshman year and are inseparable pals, though they have never been sweethearts.

So after Daisy Alexander, a ditzy junior, is surfeited with Tim’s praise, Tim decides to bestow his fond farewells on Consuela and Aaron together.

Now as it happens, the moment Tim raises his hand to summon Aaron and Consuela for their grand denouement, Aaron is at the apogee of a seminal conversation with Didi Schlesinger, a lovable squeaky-voiced ingénue who has the regrettable habit of forgetting her lines at crucial moments in front of large audiences. Aaron and Didi are finalizing their plan to meet tonight to climax three years of relentless flirting by going all the way with each other.

Also as it happens, in this same moment of Tim’s beckoning, Consuela is reveling in an erotic tête-à-tête with Larry Spangler, the blue-eyed bad boy Tim cast in Rebel With A Toothache—Larry brilliant in rehearsals but so drunk on opening night he ruined the play. Consuela and Larry’s conversation is also about going all the way together tonight, an experience Consuela has imagined several hundred times since Larry kissed her during the dress rehearsal of the ill-fated Rebel With A Toothache and she nearly passed out from the pleasure of their lips coalescing.

And so when Aaron and Didi and Consuela and Larry converge on Tim—his two finest conjoined with his two most disappointing—Tim is more than a little chagrined. But before he can settle on an appropriately kind way to ask Larry and Didi to leave him alone with Aaron and Consuela, the unexpected occurs.

“I’m honored, Mr. Bosman” says Larry, speaking in his marvelous smoky tenor, “truly honored you would call me over here with Connie and Aaron and Didi. I seriously screwed up. I let you down. And I let myself down, too. Yet you still include me with these two who never failed you.”

Tim is about to reply to Larry when Didi proclaims with nary a trace of squeakiness, “Me, too, Mr. Bosman. I’m honored, too. But more than honored, I’m determined to prove you right for believing in me despite my screw-ups. You make me want to keep going, keep trying, keep working to bring my unafraid self to life on the stage. And I will.”

“Ditto moi,” says Larry, putting his arm around Consuela. “I’m not going to UCLA, but I am going to LA, and make it or not, I’m gonna try. That’s what you gave me, Mr. Bosman. For which I can never thank you enough.”

“Nor can I thank you enough,” says Didi, winking at Tim. “And now we’ll leave you alone with your stars.”

“Oh don’t go,” says Tim, seeing himself getting off the bus in New York City twenty-five years ago. “Everything I say to them is meant for you, too.”