Posts Tagged ‘short story’

The Tuner

Monday, May 20th, 2019

the tuner

My daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, recently announced she is launching a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and would like me to work for her. She has already hired her mother Elisha, her brother Conor, and Sylvia Espinosa, her best friend. Pay will be deferred until our movies become popular on YouTube and someone gives us the money to make a big-budget movie. I do not question her visions of the future, but before I make my decision about joining the movie company, I have asked her to clarify what she imagines my role in her movie-making process will be, and she is currently composing my job description.

In the meantime, I continue to arrive at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek—every day circa 10 AM, greet my wife Elisha (she who works at the counter) with a suggestive wink, claim my customary window table, go to the counter and flirt with Elisha, return to my table with muffin and tea, write, socialize, and depart Mona’s for home and walking the dogs circa 1 PM.

Today in Mona’s, while awaiting Alexandra’s elucidation of her vision of my niche in her movie company, I am joined by my good friend Zorro Blackbird, who also happens to be our piano tuner and the accordion player in the jazzy folk trio Romantic Twaddle. I am the guitarist in that trio, Elisha our ukulele player, and we all sing. We play every Friday evening at Mona’s from eight to ten when Zorro is in town. Alexandra says she intends to use Romantic Twaddle’s music in some of her movies and may even make a few movies about Romantic Twaddle.

Zorro, fifty-three, is a burly five-foot-eight with olive skin and long black hair. He has been out of town for the last two months touring with Bailey Jones, and because I’m on a kick these days of interviewing my favorite people, I take this opportunity to interview Zorro and record our conversation in my Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue.

Paul: Were you born with the name Zorro Blackbird?

Zorro: I was. My mother is Wailaki, my father Pomo. My father loved the Zorro television show from the 1950s, so they named me Zorro. My three sisters are named after the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Venus.

Paul: What inspired you to become an accordion player?

Zorro: I started playing ukulele when I was five and took up the guitar when I was seven. When I was ten, I heard a man playing the accordion at the county fair and thought it was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. On the way home from the fair, my mother told me she played the accordion before she had kids and she still had her accordion. When we got home, she got the beautiful old thing out of her closet and said if I promised to practice every day, she would give me lessons.

Paul: Do you play accordion with Bailey when you tour with her?

Zorro: No. She’s a solo act all the way. She doesn’t even have other people play on her albums. My job is to keep her two guitars perfectly tuned throughout her performances.

Paul: Are you onstage with her?

Zorro: I’m on and off. After her first song, I come on and she gives me her guitar and I give her the second one. Then while she’s playing her second tune, I’m offstage tuning the first guitar, and so on. I wear black clothes and come and go like a shadow.

Paul: Why doesn’t she tune her own guitars?

Zorro: She’s not good at tuning when she’s performing and she gets extremely frustrated when she can’t get the tuning exactly right. So rather than drive herself and her audiences crazy, she has me tune for her.

Paul: How did she find you?

Zorro: Her previous tuner is an old friend of mine, Rufus Strunk, the fiddle player, and he recommended me. I went down to Berkeley and met with her, she tried me out at a gig in San Francisco, and I’ve been tuning for her ever since. Five years now. She tours twice a year and each tour lasts two months. I’ve been to England and Europe with her three times and all over America and Canada many times.

Paul: Any end in sight?

Zorro: Well… the guy she’s currently involved with thinks he can do the tuning, so she might give him a try. We’ll see.

Paul: You sound doubtful.

Zorro: I don’t think he can do it. But love is blind and time will tell.

Paul: What will she do if he hands her a guitar that’s not perfectly tuned?

Zorro: She’ll fire him and then call me and beg me to come finish the tour. (laughs) Probably offer me a big raise.

Paul: Will you go?

Zorro: Oh yeah, if she asks me. Her next tour starts in four months, and unless I find a gig I like better, you bet I’ll go. She pays me two thousand dollars per show, and we do about forty-five shows each tour.

Paul: Will it ruin her relationship with this guy if he can’t tune her guitars properly?

Zorro: I’ll be very surprised if she hasn’t dumped him before the next tour. But if not, she’ll dump him the first show he screws up, which will very likely be the first show. I know it seems like tuning guitars should be easy, but to tune those guitars exactly as she wants them, twenty times each concert, you have to have an impeccable ear and a delicate touch and not be intimidated by the magnitude of the situation. 2800 people in Carnegie Hall? That kinda thing. Every night.

Paul: Is she difficult to work with?

Zorro: Not for me. But she’s a perfectionist, and when people don’t give her what she needs, she can be… difficult.

Paul: Does Ellen [Zorro’s wife] go on tour with you?

Zorro: No. She’s happy to stay home making her art and taking care of the grandkids, and… it’s good for us to be apart now and then. We’ve been married for thirty years and we have a tendency to get very ingrown. And we’re always happy to see each other when I get home, so…

Paul: What do you do during all the hours between shows on a tour?

Zorro: We’re travelling, we’re checking into hotels, we’re setting up, we’re doing sound checks, eating, sleeping, and I accompany Bailey when she does television and radio interviews, which she does a lot. There’s not much down time. It’s a very intense two months. She’s not just famous. She’s a cultural icon.

Paul: I hope you won’t be offended, but I’ve never really understood her appeal. What do you think it is about her that makes so many people love her?

Zorro: I’m not offended. Taste is subjective. I’ve actually thought quite a lot about why so many people love her.

Paul: What have you come up with?

Zorro: Well… her voice is not powerful, but it’s warm and appealing and nobody else sounds like her. She’s very down to earth, and I think lots of people prefer singers they can identify with, you know, singers with voices that aren’t spectacular. She doesn’t intimidate anyone, yet she sings beautifully. And when she performs she seems vulnerable and very honest and very funny, too. People laugh their heads off at her shows. She’s a wisp of a woman singing songs full of longing. A sweet voice and a well-played guitar. One reviewer called her the queen of quiet angst, but I don’t think angst is the right word. I think the word is melancholy, the good kind. She makes people cry, and people like to cry.

Paul: So what are you gonna do between now and the next tour?

Zorro: Tune pianos. Play music with you and Elisha. Work in the garden, babysit the grandkids, go on some adventures with Ellen, come here for coffee, talk to you, go to the beach. See what comes my way.

Paul: Have you written any new songs of late?

Zorro: Not for a long time, and that’s an interesting thing about touring with Bailey. My songwriting stops, though I take along notebooks and a guitar and I think I’ll write poems and new songs, but nothing ever comes when I’m on tour with her. And then I get home and after a couple months the melodies start to come again and then I’m on tour again and the flow stops.

Paul: Why do you think that happens?

Zorro: I know why it happens.

Paul: Why?

Zorro: Because being her tuner uses the same creative energy that would otherwise go into my own work. I know that sounds crazy. After all, I’m just tuning her guitars during her concerts. But when I’m on tour with her, my entire focus is on facilitating her creative expression. And to do my job well, I have to give her everything I’ve got or the guitars won’t sound right. They just won’t. I can’t tell you why, but it’s true.

Paul: And you’re okay with all your creative energy going to help her? At the expense of your own creativity?

Zorro: You know, Paul, helping her is creative, and I love helping her. I love hearing her play those guitars for thousands of enraptured people. I love coming and going on the stage like a shadow. I love bringing those strings into perfect tune with each other. I love hearing how well they sound with her voice, and I love knowing she is empowered by what I do for her.

 fin

Alberto Puerto Vallarta

Monday, May 13th, 2019

balancing

My son Conor, who is seventeen, is intrigued by systems. In an earlier draft of this story, I wrote, “My stepson Conor is passionate about the interconnectedness of the myriad parts composing complex processes.” When I showed Conor that draft, he said, “I’d rather be your son who is intrigued by systems.”

A few weeks ago, Conor made an exquisite pen and ink drawing, eighteen-inches-wide and fourteen-inches-tall, of me sitting at my customary table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek. With enviable self-confidence and a knack for making money from his art, Conor framed the drawing, displayed the work on the wall at Mona’s, and sold the blessed thing for three hundred dollars to an art collector from San Francisco.

In the drawing, I am wearing a gray dress shirt tucked into darker gray pants, my gray hair short and multi-directional, my reading glasses round-framed, and I seem to be smiling ever-so-slightly as I write in one of my five notebooks.

My four other notebooks are stacked beside my old leather briefcase, and next to the stack of notebooks is a half-eaten muffin on a white plate. Adjacent to the muffin is a large white mug, the contents of which are indiscernible. The pen I’m writing with is long and skinny and has an extremely fine point.

In a white space two-inches tall and eighteen-inches-wide at the bottom of the drawing, in Conor’s small-but-easy-to-read print are the following two paragraphs.

May 7, 10:43 AM. Carmeline Creek, California. Paul Windsor sitting at southwest window table in Mona’s bakery. Briefcase: brown leather, handmade in Oaxaca, circa 1976. Pen: Staedtler triplus fineliner, black ink. Five notebooks. Paul is writing in Notebook #1: Poetry (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #2: Prose (Strathmore Sketch, recycled paper, 100 sheets, 5.5 in. x 8.5 in 60 lb.) Notebook #3: Song Lyrics (Aquabee Super Deluxe Sketch, Excellent Tooth, 60 sheets, 6 in. x 6 in. 93 lb.) Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #5: Ideas & Miscellaneous. (National Brand, Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease Paper, 80 sheets, 7.75”. x 5”)

Paul arrives at Mona’s every day circa 10 AM, greets his wife Elisha (counterperson) with jaunty wave, claims customary table, unpacks briefcase, goes to counter, effects British, French, German, or Serbian accent, pretends not to know Elisha, flirts with her. Elisha mimics Paul’s accent and responds to his flirtation with humorous non sequiturs. Paul returns to customary table with muffin and tea, writes, socializes, writes, departs Mona’s circa 1 PM (kisses Elisha goodbye if she’s not too busy.)

couple

Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue also contains snippets of conversations I have with friends, and I thought you might enjoy one of my exchanges with a fellow denizen of Mona’s, Alberto Puerto Vallarta.

Alberto, a renowned performance artist, is seventy-four, his wavy black hair turning gray. He is handsome and fit and reminds older people of the actor Omar Sharif. His performances include poetry, monologues, improvised scenes, dance, and songs. He speaks English with a pleasing Spanish accent, and his voice is so resonant, he often sounds as if he is singing when he is merely speaking.

Paul: Were you born with the last name Puerto Vallarta?

Alberto: No, I was born Alberto Gomez. In El Paso, Texas. My mother and father came across the border from Ciudad Juárez to have me in an American hospital so I would be born an American citizen. My mother was very clever. She waited until just a few minutes before she was about to give birth before entering the emergency room so they couldn’t turn in good conscience her away.

Paul: So…

Alberto: So you’ve heard of the artist Judy Chicago. When I was in my twenties, I was working as a bricklayer in Fresno. We were at the university there for a couple weeks putting in a big brick terrace surrounded by a low brick wall. One day on my lunch break I wandered over to the art department and came to a big studio where Judy Chicago was teaching a painting class. I was mesmerized. She was strong and funny and everything she said interested me. I secretly fancied myself an artist who had yet to make art because I didn’t have the time or the money or some excuse like that. I watched her for twenty minutes and then went back to my bricklaying. A little later one of the art students walked by and I asked her who the teacher was and she said, ‘Judy Chicago. She’s famous.’ And in that very moment, I heard the name Alberto Puerto Vallarta, which is where my mother was born, so I decided that would be my name from then on.

Paul: How did you go from bricklaying to performance art?

Alberto: I went from bricklaying to being a sculptor. A couple years after my encounter with Judy Chicago, I moved to Los Angeles and we were building a brick wall around a big estate in Beverly Hills, me and Diego Ruiz. Great guy. One day these three guys show up with a big metal sculpture in the back of a flatbed truck, a blatant Calder knockoff, and then the artist shows up. Delmore Rexroth. The three guys do something to piss him off, he throws a fit, and the three guys leave. Delmore sees me and Diego and asks us to help him install the piece. When we finish, he asks me if I want to work for him.

Paul: What did you do for Delmore?

Alberto: (laughs) I made Calder knockoffs and he put his name on them and sold them to rich people. He was in Europe and New York a lot of the time, you know, schmoozing with rich people who thought he was a great artist, and while he was gone I’d spend a few hours every day working on my own art, smaller pieces, about the size of chairs. Fanciful things. Copper and bronze tubing. Strange creatures and surreal furniture. When I had seven pieces I liked, I showed pictures of them to the curator of a gallery that showed sculptures and she put me in a group show. All seven pieces sold the first night and she offered me a solo show. I quit working for Delmore, used the garage of the house I was renting with two other guys as my studio, and at the opening of my solo show, my friend Ricardo played guitar and I improvised a speech and danced with my sculptures. They were all somewhat kinetic and the people went crazy and Alberto Puerto Vallarta became a star.

Paul: Fast-forward fifty years. Your last show was about parenting. What was the genesis of that?

Alberto: I had three children, one with my first wife, two with Carmen (Alberto’s second and current wife). My first wife felt oppressed by motherhood, whereas Carmen loved being a mother, and our children profoundly reflected their mothers’ attitudes. My kids with Carmen were happy and got along very well with other people, but Lola, you know, she was so dependent on me for approval and love that until she had some good therapy when she was in her forties, she had a difficult time relating to women, and all her close friends were men.

Paul: How did you learn to parent?

Alberto: Oh from my parents. Also from taking care of my younger brother and cousins. My parents were very calm people, so I was calm, too. And once I was walking and talking, they treated me as their emotional and intellectual equal, even if I didn’t yet know everything they wanted me to know. They taught me to love and respect my elders, to do my chores, to do what was necessary for the good of the family, and they were very patient with me. My mother was excellent at explaining things to me, and both my parents celebrated my uniqueness. And they allowed me to try on all sorts of identities so long as I met my obligations to la familia. And that’s how I raised my kids. So, to answer your original question about my show, I wanted to talk about the damage being done to our children and families and communities by the way many children are being raised in America today.

Paul: What would you say is the hardest thing about parenting?

Alberto: I don’t think in terms of hard or easy. I think a parent has to take care of the child with love and consistency so when the child begins to develop the skills and confidence for self-care, love and consistency are ingrained in them. And then comes the transition phase where the child needs to be given more and more responsibility for taking care of herself and taking care of other people. That’s a big thing missing today. Taking care of other people. Taking care of the old ones who need help, the younger ones who need help, the sick and the hurt. Whoever needs care. And at the same time, the child’s uniqueness needs to be celebrated, along with everyone else’s uniqueness. Equality. You know. In this society, the media and the social system ingrain in people the idea that life is a hierarchy. We’re told we’re better than some people, not as good as other people, and we’re told winning is a virtue and losing is a shame, that some people are stupid, some are smart, some good, some bad. My children grew up knowing everyone has value and no one is less than anyone else. It’s not hard to teach that if you start right away, if you build that truth into the learning of language and in the development of social skills, but most parents don’t do that now. Everything is about superficially aggrandizing the individual while actually compressing their individuality into little boxes.

Paul: How did you handle your kids’ teenage years?

Alberto: What do you mean?

Paul: Well… their need to rebel, to break away from you… all that.

Alberto: There’s no need to rebel if you haven’t been enslaved.

Paul: But surely you disciplined them.

Alberto: Discipline, sure. But never punishment. You can’t accomplish very much without discipline, but punishment is never helpful, never productive. You can shower a child with love without spoiling him, and you can deny a kid something, some crap food or a smart phone or staying up too late without it being a punishment.

Paul: How do you do that?

Alberto: You honor their intelligence and present everything in the larger context of family and community and what’s good for them. The worst thing a parent can do is impose rules and limitations without thoroughly discussing the complicated reasons for those rules. Language! Look at Conor and Alexandra. They are far more sophisticated than most adults. Why? Because their mother raised them as her intellectual and emotional peers. She did not infantilize them, which is what is happening now more than ever because our culture, our books and movies and everything is aimed at the infant mind, or at best the adolescent.

Paul: You mentioned smart phones. What…

Alberto: Listen, there is so much proof that these things are poison for the developing brain, there shouldn’t even be a discussion. Do you let your three-year-old smoke cigarettes? But this is what the parents are doing now. Handing these phones to babies. I see it all the time. The little child in the stroller fusses, the mother or father hands the child the phone. Silence. Brain captured and it can’t form properly. This has been proven in countless rigorous studies. It should be a serious crime to give a child a portable computer before their brain is fully formed. It’s insanity on a massive scale, and it creates people who don’t know how to relate to each other, people detached from reality and separated from the miracle of life. I feel so sad about it.

Paul: Do you have a smart phone?

Alberto: Yes, I do. They took away all the pay phones and the camera on my phone is very good.

Paul: Yet you think these phones are poison.

Alberto: For the developing mind, yes. My mind is well developed and I mostly use my phone as a phone and camera.

Paul: And you make videos that people watch on their phones.

Alberto: Yes, I am entwined with the cultural matrix as it is currently manifesting. Before there was an internet and videos, I was only known to people who saw my shows or read about me in reviews. And now millions of people watch my performances on their phones and pads and computers. I want to connect with other people, and this is one of the ways I connect.

Paul: You don’t feel you’re part of the poison?

Alberto: I feel I am part of everything.

fin

The Sleep Doctor

Monday, May 6th, 2019

pacifico

Elisha and I have been married for two years now and I learn something new about her every day. Yesterday, for instance, I overheard her say to her daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, and her son Conor, who is seventeen, “When my mother was a girl in Barcelona, she and her mother would make bouquets from flowers they stole from other people’s gardens. And the one time I went to Spain with my mother, when I was twelve, she took me to the street corner where she used to stand with her basket of bouquets and call to the men and women going home from work, “Flowers for your wife. Flowers for your husband. Flowers for your sweetheart.”

Today in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, our small town on the far north coast of California, I learned… well, first I’ll set the scene.

Elisha, who is forty-eight, works at Mona’s from six-thirty in the morning until two in the afternoon. She walks to work from our house a few blocks to the west of Mona’s, arriving in time to help Mona and Jose finish emptying the ovens of the first round of baked goods. Then she fills the display-case trays with muffins and pastries and cookies, brews the coffee, opens the front door promptly at seven, and greets the early birds with her cheerful Good Morning.

Elisha was born and raised in Ireland, her father Irish, her mother Spanish, her accent revealing both lineages. Easy in her body, with long reddish brown hair, her work attire consists of a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, a long skirt, tights, colorful socks, and comfortable walking shoes. She is the morning and early afternoon counterperson at Mona’s and would win in a landslide if she ran for mayor, no matter who she ran against.

I am Paul, fifty-seven, a fifth-generation Californian, my father descended from English Irish Scots, my mother from Ashkenazi Jews. I arrive at Mona’s every morning circa ten and spend a few hours at a window table writing letters and poems and short stories, sipping tea and nibbling muffins, and occasionally engaging in conversations with friends.

I sit as far from the counter as one can without going outside, but even so, if I choose to, I can hear Elisha’s exchanges with her customers, though most of the time her conversations with people ordering bread and coffee and pastries blend with other conversations and the clattering of cups and the clinking of silverware and cars driving by and piano jazz playing on the café stereo—a pleasant ambient soundscape to accompany my scribbling.

But this morning I am riveted by the exchanges Elisha has with her customers; and from these exchanges I learn something new and wonderful about my wife.

Allison Hardy, twenty-eight, formidably strong, works at Carmeline Creek Nursery, steps to the counter.

Elisha: Good morning Allison. You look marvelous. Sleeping better?

Allison: (exuberant) I am. I’ve been following your advice and it really works.

Elisha: Oh I’m so happy to hear that. What can I get for you?

Allison: Well, per your suggestion, I’ll have a small decaf and two bran muffins. To go.

Elisha hands Allison a white paper cup for the self-serve coffee, a white bag containing two muffins, rings up the sale, and as Allison moves away, Thomas Enders, fifty-seven, owner of Enders Hardware, burly, avuncular, steps to the counter.

Elisha: Morning Thomas. The usual?

Thomas: Well I was going to say the usual, but I couldn’t help overhearing Allison say you helped her sleep better. I’ve been having a terrible time getting to sleep and staying asleep for the last… I don’t know… years and years, and I wonder if what you told her might help me, too.

Elisha: It might, but I have the feeling your sleep issues are not quite the same as Allison’s. May I ask you a question or two?

Thomas: (reddens) Sure.

Elisha: Do you stay up late? Past ten?

Thomas: Yes. We watch television every night until eleven and then I let the dog out for a few minutes, and when the dog comes back in, we go to bed.

Elisha: What do you watch on television after supper?

Thomas: Oh we usually watch a murder mystery and then the news.

Elisha: Does your wife have difficulty sleeping?

Thomas: She falls right asleep, but then she wakes up. Bad dreams. And if I’ve managed to fall asleep, I wake up when she wakes up, and then I have a terrible time getting back to sleep and we’re both wrecks in the morning, though she’s usually less wrecked than I am.

Elisha: (after musing or a moment) Well I would suggest that instead of watching the news after your murder mystery, you take a walk in the night air, have a cup of chamomile tea, and listen to some music before you go to bed.

Thomas: Oh but we’re addicted to the news. It’s the grand finale of our day.

As Thomas and Elisha converse, Margaret Johannsen, sixty-three, graphic artist, deep-voiced, gets in line and listens avidly to Elisha and Thomas’s conversation.

Elisha: But Thomas, that’s the pattern you need to break. The murder mystery and the news engage your intellect and ignite a subtle fear response, so when you go to bed you’re in a state of mental agitation.

Thomas: Hmm. So do you think I should switch to decaf?

Elisha: (laughs) I don’t think caffeine is your problem. I think it is your inquiring mind being too excited to sleep. Our left brain, the analytical brain, is meant to run the show during our waking hours, but the right brain is what we want overseeing our sleep.

Thomas: Well, I’ll give it a try. Sure would love to have a good night’s sleep. So… no news, walk outside, chamomile tea, music. What kind of music?

Elisha: Piano.

Thomas: Piano. Okay. And… yes, I’ll have the usual.

Margaret Johannsen: Forgive me for barging in, Thomas, but I urge you to do whatever she tells you. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a decade, and three nights after I started following her prescription, I slept for nine hours and felt reborn, and now I sleep like a baby every night.

Thomas: What did she tell you to do?

Margaret: Before bed, I do twenty minutes of gentle yoga, then I take a warm bath, and while I’m in the bath, I sing. Then I eat a banana, brush my teeth, get in bed, and envision in real time preparing the ground for planting carrot seeds, planting the seeds, watering the bed, and… I rarely get past planting the seeds before I’m asleep.

Thomas: Were you watching the news, too?

Margaret: No, I was surfing the internet and dreading another night without good sleep.

Thomas: A banana? (turns to Elisha) Should I try eating a banana?

Elisha: If you’re hungry. Most people don’t realize it takes energy, calories, to sleep. So if you wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, try eating a banana or a piece of bread with almond butter on it, and when you get back in bed, imagine your body being ready now to do the slow and gentle and steady work of sleep.

When Elisha gets home from work mid-afternoon, we take our four dogs for a walk to the beach, and while I’m flinging tennis balls for the dogs, I say to Elisha, “I had no idea you knew so much about sleep.”

She smiles and says, “I wouldn’t say I know much about sleep. But for some reason when I look at a person who is not sleeping well, a solution occurs to me, and sometimes that solution works. But I think the most important thing, no matter what I suggest, is that the person breaks the old pattern with an intention to sleep better, and this intention combined with the new way of getting ready for bed is what does the trick.”

     fin

Willing To Pretend

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

blossoming cherry

Okay, so I’ve been in love with Elisha Montoya for four years, three months, two weeks and five days. I know with such exactitude because in my desk calendar for that year, on the day she and her children arrived in our midst, I wrote in purple ink: Elisha Montoya appeared in Mona’s today. Spanish Irish? Reddish brown hair. Quietly regal. Simply beautiful. Two sweet kids, Conor and Alexandra. Love at first sight.

So, yes, I am a romantic, though I’d stopped thinking of myself as such until Elisha came to town and became the leading light at Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, our small town on the far north coast of California. Schmaltz alert: Elisha became my muse, poems and songs gushed forth, and now she and her children are the emotional epicenter of my life. I haunt Mona’s most mornings, give Conor and Alexandra guitar lessons, the four of us have supper together two or three and sometimes four nights a week, and in every way except the conjugal bed, we are a family.

The few times I attempted to shift my friendship with Elisha, who is forty-six, into a romantic entanglement, she rebuffed me, not unkindly, but firmly, and so I let such hopes go the way of Dodo; and if that reference means nothing to you, how about the word extinct?

My name is Paul Windsor. I am fifty-five, five-foot-eleven, graying brunette, musician, poet, and gardener. I share my small house with two large dogs, Zerc and Raj (Xerxes and Mirage), good-natured Golden Retriever Blue Heeler siblings who require, at minimum, two long walks every day else they drive me mad with their restlessness.

Following two disastrous marriages and three angst-ridden relationships, I have lived alone for nine years, though in the privacy of my thoughts I am married to Elisha, minus tender kisses and passionate embraces and sex, a minus that makes me sigh every time I see her. Oh well.

So here I am on a sunny afternoon in May, in need of a haircut and about to leave for a three-mile jaunt across the headlands with Zerc and Raj, when Elisha shows up sans children and looking lovely in a long skirt and crimson shirt, a small red rose in her hair. She accompanies me and the dogs on our walk to the beach at the mouth of Carmeline Creek where I throw tennis balls for the water-loving mutts for twenty minutes before we return to my house with an hour of daylight left.

“What fun going on a walk with you,” I say, standing with Elisha in my rose-infested front yard, the dogs having run around to the back porch to drink from their water bowls. “Though you did seem mightily distracted and, dare I say, anxious about something, not that it’s any of my business except… did you want to tell me something?”

She forces a smile and makes an adorable spluttering sound. “Can we go inside?”

“Of course,” I say, smiling curiously at her.

We have tea at my kitchen table, the late afternoon sunlight making of Elisha a modern Ver Meer, and after a few minutes of idle chit chat, and with absolutely no forewarning, Elisha asks, “Would you be willing to pretend to be married to me?”

Now here’s a funny thing, not funny ha-ha, but funny strange. For a moment, maybe four seconds, I think Elisha asked me to marry her, and apparently four seconds is enough time for the neuro-hormonal consortium to flood my system with joy before my rational mind takes over and the joy is obliterated by bitter disappointment.

Pretend to be married to you?” I say, feeling stabbed in the heart. “Why would I do such a thing?”

“Oh, Paul, I’m sorry.” She winces sympathetically. “I just… I don’t know what else to do except run away again, and I don’t want to run away again. We’re happy here, happy for the first time in our lives and…” She makes another spluttering sound very much like the earlier one, but I don’t find it adorable this time. “I should have explained first before I asked you, but I’m just so…”

“Fucked up,” I say, realizing this is the first time I’ve ever been angry with her. “I know the feeling.”

“You never use that word,” she says, frowning at me. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“You’ve never insulted me before,” I say, shrugging. “But there’s always a first time.”

She bows her head. “I’m so sorry. I never want to insult you. And I’m sorry I haven’t been…” She looks up at me, her blue green eyes full of tears. “I’m sorry I’ve been afraid to… and it isn’t because I don’t find you attractive, I do. It’s just…”

“Stop,” I say, holding up my hand to add emphasis to my request. “Just tell me why you asked if I would be willing to pretend to be married to you, and we’ll be done with it. I have long been resolved to the twin roles of brother and uncle vis-à-vis you and your marvelous children. Please say no more about attraction, but do enlighten me.”

She fights her tears, and I wonder if she seems ultra-beautiful to me because I’m in love with her or if I’m in love with her because she is so beautiful to me, not that it matters, but that’s what I’m wondering as I memorize the way she looks, her long reddish brown hair alluringly windblown, her cheeks ruddy with emotion, her eyes sparkling.

“I lived with my mother in Dublin until I was twenty-six,” she says, getting up from the table and going to the window. “She was the manager of a restaurant and I worked there as a waitress. She was only seventeen years older than I, but we were not sisterly. She had survived my alcoholic father and rarely had more than a sip of wine or beer until she turned forty-three. But then she started drinking heavily and using cocaine and bringing strange men home to our little apartment, and life became intolerable there for me, so when I was offered a job as a waitress in Boston, I jumped at the chance.”

She comes back to the table, starts to sit down, changes her mind and returns to the window.

“I’ve always loved poetry and music, as you know,” she says, turning to look at me, “and on my nights off, I’d go to cafés to hear poetry and folk music and jazz, and I fell in with a gang of poets and musicians and their friends, and after three years in Boston, I moved with Kevin—I’ve told you a little about him—to a big farm on the outskirts of Montpelier in Vermont, a commune with three couples with kids and three couples without kids. And a month after we got there I was pregnant.”

She comes back to the table and sits down, but doesn’t speak for several minutes.

And I’m just about to ask what her getting pregnant sixteen years ago has to do with my being willing to pretend to be married to her when she says, “I don’t know how to explain except to tell you from the beginning. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” I say, my anger having morphed into a retroactive jealousy that I am not the father of Conor and Alexandra.

“Thank you,” she says, gratefully. “So… the saddest thing about my four years with Kevin was that I didn’t love him, and if I hadn’t gotten pregnant when I was too stoned to be careful, we wouldn’t have stayed together more than a few months. But once I was pregnant, I resigned myself to making a life with him. I’m what Flo calls a deep monogamist and… well, anyway…”

“Why did you move there with him?” I ask, ever curious about who we love or don’t love and why. “If you didn’t love him?”

“We went as friends,” she says, nodding to affirm this. “We both wanted to get out of the city and we were both intrigued by the idea of living in a commune, and when he was invited to join, he invited me to come with him. But I never imagined I’d have a child with him.” She laughs a little and shakes her head. “And then we had two, though he left me when I was four months pregnant with Alexandra.”

“What a cad,” I say, wishing I’d been there to help her. “So what did you do?”

“We stayed on the farm, my babies and I, until the wife of the man who owned the farm ran off with the husband of another of the couples, and then the man who owned the farm told everyone to leave and I went back to Boston with four-year-old Conor and one-year-old Alexandra and got a job as a waitress in a ritzy restaurant.”

“Was Kevin… did he help you in any way? Send you money or…”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “We never saw him again. He and I never got married, so…”

“But how… was he good to Conor before he left?”

“He was okay.” She shrugs. “He wasn’t comfortable with children. He liked fixing things and building things, but he was helpful with Conor, and Conor adored him.”

“Didn’t you say he liked poetry?”

“He did. He loved going to poetry readings. Something about being read to in that way fed him.”

“Speaking of feeding,” I say, trying for a little levity, “we’re approaching suppertime. Do you need to contact the dynamic duo?”

“They’re having supper with Flo and Grady tonight,” she says, gazing at me. “You hungry? I could make us something.”

“Or I could make us something.”

“Or we could make something together.”

We make spaghetti with a mushroom and zucchini and tomato sauce, I crack open a bottle of decent red wine, and as we cook…

“There you were,” I say, chopping tomatoes, “in Boston with two little kids, working in a ritzy restaurant, and…”

“After two years of doing nothing but working and taking care of my children, I met a man named Arthur Chance.” She drops the noodles into the boiling water. “And because I was starved for love, I made the mistake of sleeping with him.”

“Oh,” I say, feeling another upwelling of retroactive jealousy. “Why was it a mistake?”

“Because he took it to mean I loved him and wanted to be with him, neither of which was true.” She stirs the noodles. “And nothing I said would change his mind.”

“How many times did you sleep with him?” I ask, hoping she’ll say only once.

“Only once,” she says, nodding her thanks as I refill her glass. “One dreadful time. And then I told him I was very sorry but I didn’t want to see him again, and he said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ And for the next few months he called me every day, came to our apartment unannounced, came to the restaurant, and every time I asked him to leave me alone he said, ‘You need me, Elisha. You’re just afraid to love someone again because your husband abandoned you. But I will never abandon you, and eventually you will learn to trust me, and then we will be lovers again and husband and wife.’”

“Did you call the police?”

“I did,” she says, starting to make the salad. “They sent two officers to corroborate my story, and when they saw what Arthur was doing, they warned him that if he persisted they would arrest him. So he stopped coming to the apartment and the restaurant, and stopped calling me, but I saw him many times after that, never so I could claim he was following me, but I know he was. And eventually I stopped being able to sleep and my children were more and more upset by me being so disturbed, so we ran all the way across the country to a little town in Arizona, Caldwell, and lived there for three years until one day I got a phone call from Arthur at the bakery where I worked, and when he heard my voice, he said, ‘Ah, I’ve found you. It’s Arthur. How are you?’ And because he didn’t sound crazy, I said I was fine. Then he asked if I was married, and I said No, and he said, ‘I knew you were waiting for me. I’ll be out there in a few days.’ And I shouted, ‘Don’t you dare come here. Don’t you dare ruin my life again.’ And then I hung up.”

“Did he come out in a few days?”

“Yes. And when he came to the house, I told him I would call the sheriff if he didn’t leave, and he said, ‘But I just came to say hi. There’s no crime in that.’ Then he just sat in his car in front of our house, so I called the sheriff, and when the sheriff came, Arthur explained that he and I had been lovers in Boston and then split up, and when he decided to move to Caldwell, he discovered I lived there and came to say hi with no intention of bothering me if I didn’t want to associate with him. I remember distinctly his use of the word associate and how it made me want to kill him.”

“What did the sheriff do?”

“He asked me if Arthur’s story was true and I said it was a lie, but since I couldn’t prove that, and Arthur hadn’t done anything illegal, there was nothing the sheriff could do. And everywhere we went for the next few weeks, there was Arthur. So we ran away again. And after a year of camping and staying in motels in Idaho and Washington and Oregon, leaving no traces, we came here.”

“And now he’s found you again.”

“Yes,” she says, stirring the sauce, “only this time he didn’t call me. He sent me a letter care of the post office. He said he read an article on the internet about my inheriting Rex’s house and how the will was contested. He said he’s coming here to make sure I’m doing okay in the face of such hostility from the community.”

“And you are hoping that an apparent husband will finally convince this lunatic to leave you alone?” I ask, draining the noodles.

“Yes,” she says, carrying the salad to the table. “An apparent husband who does not take kindly to another man harassing his wife.”

“Do you think this lunatic might resort to violence? Should he find you with an apparent husband?”

“I doubt it,” she says, shaking her head. “But I don’t know.”

“Please forgive me for prying, but… have you had other lovers since you slept with Arthur?”

“No,” she whispers.

“Ah,” I say, nodding.

“Ah what?” she says, frowning at me.

“Your fear of him kept you from loving another.”

“Yes, it did,” she says, nodding.

After supper we sit on the sofa in my living room enjoying the crackling fire, my dogs sprawled at our feet.

“I see a number of problems with your plan,” I say, loving this time alone with Elisha despite the gravity of the situation. “May I enumerate?”

“Please,” she says, sitting much closer to me than she ever has.

“First of all, should this fellow come to our town, he will encounter no one here who knows of our supposed marriage. Second, your children will have to be enlisted in this pretense of our being married, and brilliant as your children are, they are not trained actors. Third, we would have to concoct a believable living-together charade involving all of us sleeping under one roof, this roof or your roof, and…” I pause portentously. “…you and I ostensibly sleeping in the same bed.”

“Seems crazy,” she says, nodding in agreement. “So what do you think we should do?”

“We?” I say, arching an eyebrow.

“You and I?” she says, looking into my eyes.

And though my rational mind is shouting at me not to succumb to impulse, I say, “I don’t think we should pretend. I think we should be lovers and get married and live together for the rest of our lives.”

“Okay,” she says softly. “That’s what I want, too.”

I freeze in quasi-disbelief, deduce from the available data that she wants me to kiss her, so I do, and our kiss turns out to be one of those doozies that propels us to my bed where, as the old saying goes, we know each other and the knowing is good.

We wake early the next morning with a renewed thirst for knowledge, and when our thirst is quenched for the nonce we make an omelet and look at each other as if seeing a miracle unfolding, which I guess one is.

Tummies full, Elisha calls Florence, strategizing ensues, and ere long we are a party of seven in Grady’s turquoise 1967 Lincoln Continental heading over the hill to the county seat to get married.

Grady, seventy-four, is driving, Florence, fifty-three, sits beside him, and next to Florence is Delia Krantz, ninety-four, honorary mother and grandmother to all of us, while in the backseat, Elisha and I bookend Conor, fifteen, and Alexandra, twelve—the mood jubilant.

I keep expecting to wake up and find myself alone in my bed as per usual, but Elisha keeps being there giving me alluring looks, and Conor and Alexandra keep being between us, both of them grinning.

Now we are getting out of the car and going into a big old brick building and standing in line to get our marriage license as prelude to gathering in a little room where a smiling woman with short gray hair reads a brief speech about marriage and Elisha and I vow to stick together through thick and thin unto death and Grady hands me a ring I slip onto Elisha’s finger and Florence hands Elisha a ring she slips onto my finger and we kiss and everyone cheers and cries.

Two days later at ten in the morning, I am sitting in Mona’s finishing a letter to my friend Cole who lives in Connecticut, updating him on my marital status. Elisha is behind the counter filling a bag with muffins for Jennifer Smits who works at the one and only bank in Carmeline Creek and is purchasing the muffins to share with her co-workers.

The door bursts open and Conor and Alexandra rush in with several copies of the Carmeline Creek Crier fresh off the press. Alexandra runs to Elisha, Conor runs to me, and my bride and I simultaneously admire the big color picture of us on the front page. We are standing on the steps of the county building, holding hands, Elisha looking gorgeous, I not gorgeous, but very happy. The caption reads Congratulations Elisha and Paul.

And the very next minute, and I mean the minute right after the kids brought us the Criers, the bakery door opens and Arthur Chance walks in. I know he is Arthur Chance because Elisha showed me a picture of him, though he is much older than he was in the picture—a few inches shorter than I, burly, his thinning black hair turning gray, his brown eyes magnified by thick-lensed glasses in black frames. He is wearing brown slacks and a wrinkled gray shirt and a garish yellow tie decorated with black squiggles. He reminds me of a harried businessman arriving home after a long commute, looking forward to a refreshing drink and a hug from his wife. And despite what I know about him, I don’t dislike him, nor do I sense he is prone to physical violence.

I stand up to face him—Conor and Alexandra beside me.

Arthur approaches the counter and says to Elisha in a surprisingly boyish voice, “There you are.”

“Please go away,” says Elisha, fighting her urge to scream. “You’re not welcome here.”

“You need me, Elisha,” he says, plaintively. “You need to not be alone.”

“She’s not alone,” I say, approaching him—Conor and Alexandra following close behind. “She’s with us. I’m her husband and these are our children. I appreciate your concern for my wife, but you are not wanted here.”

He sneers at me. “Mind your own business. This is between me and her.”

“No,” I say, shaking my head. “My wife’s business is my business, and if you don’t leave immediately, we will call the sheriff who is a very good friend of ours and no friend of stalkers.”

“She doesn’t have a husband,” he says, snarling at me. “You think I’m an idiot? Just stay out of this if you don’t want to get hurt.”

“Hey,” says Conor, stepping in front of me. “Don’t threaten my father. And stop bothering my mother. We don’t want you here. Just go away.”

“You need to see a psychologist,” says Alexandra, speaking quietly to Arthur. “You shouldn’t be following us. You need to leave our family alone.”

“What?” says Arthur, squinting at Alexandra and Conor.

“You need to leave our family alone,” says Alexandra, raising her voice. “We don’t want you here.”

Arthur blinks a few times as if waking from a trance and his snarl gives way to a look of bewilderment. Now he looks at Elisha who has been joined behind the counter by Mona, looks at Conor and Alexandra again, looks at the dozen other people in the café, all of whom are watching him, their fear palpable; and lastly he looks at me and I can see he realizes his psychic grip on Elisha is gone and there is no niche for him here, no place to hide, no victim to torture.

Now he hurries out the door—Conor and Alexandra and I following him out and watching him grow small in the distance and getting in a car and driving away, the car growing smaller and smaller until it disappears.

We’ve decided to sell the house Elisha inherited from Rex Abernathy and expand my house to better accommodate the four of us. Living in town, we won’t need to drive except to go on long trips, so we’ll only need one car instead of two. The kids can walk to school, Elisha can walk to work, and I can walk the dogs on the headlands mid-morning—four dogs now, a happy pack.

In bed this morning, Elisha and I were enjoying the sounds of the kids in the kitchen feeding the dogs and starting the water boiling for coffee and tea, when Elisha wrapped her arms around me and said, “You were so wise to suggest we not pretend.”

   fin

The Fox

Monday, April 15th, 2019

baby fox

Rex Abernathy died six months ago. When news got around that he had left his four-bedroom house on three-acres and a large amount of money to Elisha Montoya, more than a few people in our small town were outraged. I was not among the disapproving, nor can I imagine anyone else to whom Rex would or should have left his house and money, but I do understand why some folks were upset and why the local legal system took an inordinate amount of time investigating and finally validating Rex’s will.

When Rex died he was eighty-one and had known Elisha, who is forty-five, for three years. Their relationship was platonic, though platonic doesn’t capture the intensity of Rex’s love for Elisha and her children, Conor, fourteen, and Alexandra, eleven, nor does platonic encompass how important Rex was to Elisha and her children—a father for Elisha, a grandfather for Conor and Alexandra.

Having observed several hundred Elisha and Rex interactions in Mona’s, the bakery/café where Elisha has worked for the last three and a half years, I am certain Rex would have pursued Elisha romantically had he not been thirty-six years older than she.

However, from what I know of Elisha, I am equally certain she would not have been interested in Rex romantically even had they been closer in age. However, as a father figure in the guise of a grim loner waiting to be rescued from his aloneness, Rex was tailor-made for Elisha, her actual father a ferocious alcoholic who abandoned Elisha and her mother when Elisha was six.

A renowned sourpuss, isolate, and curmudgeon, Rex was so quickly and completely transformed by his friendship with Elisha and her children, it was as if he’d had a personality transplant—the donor a gregarious saint.

And, yes, to some degree, Elisha and Alexandra and Conor have had the same heart-opening effect on many of those who patronize Mona’s, the one and only bakery in Carmeline Creek, a coastal town on the far north coast of California. I, for instance, a middle-aged musician and poet, was terribly lonely and uninspired for seven years prior to Elisha and her children moving into the apartment above Mona’s; and since their arrival, I wake every day to poem and songs arising in me.

However, now that Elisha and her children have, as of ten days ago, moved from their little apartment above Mona’s to Rex’s spacious house on Carmeline Creek Road, my daily involvement with them has been severely disrupted and I’m beginning to wonder if my dogs Zerc and Raj (Xerxes and Mirage) and I were only of use to them so long as they didn’t have their own dogs (they inherited two from Rex) or a place to grow vegetables or a living room with a fireplace in which to while away many an evening.

What I mean is: now that they no longer need what I have to offer, I’m struggling not to conflate their no longer needing me with their no longer wanting me, if you know what I mean. For the truth is, I was reborn with the advent of those three in my life, and now I fear…

The phone rang as I was writing the words and now I fear—Alexandra inviting me to come for supper this evening at their new place and would I bring Delia Krantz because she no longer drives at night.

“Is this a large gathering?” I ask, hoping they aren’t throwing a party disguised as supper.

“Hold on,” says Alexandra, her Irish Spanish accent a faint replica of her mother’s.

She sets the phone down and I hear her say, “Mama? Paul wants to know if this is a large gathering.”

A moment passes and Elisha comes on the line.

“Hey Paul,” she says, her voice warm and poem-inspiring. “Don’t bring anything. This is a Mona’s leftovers affair.”

“Who all is coming?” I ask, trying to sound nonchalant. “Besides me and Delia and the blessed trio?”

“If I told you Grady and Flo, would you not come?”

I wince. “Who else?”

“That’s it. You and Delia and Grady and Flo.” She sighs appealingly. “We’ve been missing our evenings by the fire with you, and we want to get back to that soon. Okay? The kids insist.”

“Okay. Yes,” I say, smiling into the phone. “The dogs wonder where you went.”

Delia Krantz is ninety-three, sharp as a tack, and very funny. Born in Chicago, she worked as the personal assistant to movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, after which she moved with her third and much younger husband Vince to Carmeline Creek, bought the old Dekker Mansion in the center of town, Vince absconded with Delia’s life savings, Delia sold the Dekker Mansion and bought a cottage at the north end of town a block from the beach and has lived there with a series of dachshunds for the last twenty-five years. She works part-time at the library and every summer directs a musical for the Carmeline Creek Lamplighters.

Grady Wickersham is from New Jersey. He is seventy-three, exceedingly wealthy, owns a large modern home overlooking Philomena’s Bay, and as far as I know, he never stops talking. Estranged from his two grown children born of a short-lived marriage, he owns seven mint-condition American automobiles from the 1960s, one for each day of the week. In the seventeen years I’ve known him, I have never seen him show the slightest interest in anyone but himself.

Florence Chevalier, Grady’s partner for the past five years, is Grady’s polar opposite. A yoga teacher and massage therapist, Florence is fifty-two, half-French and half-British, friendly, warm, brilliant, and Elisha’s best friend. She has a son, Braxton, a photographer who lives in San Francisco. Most people in Carmeline Creek believe Florence is with Grady for his money, but I believe she sees something in him no one else can see, something she loves, though what that something is I can’t imagine.

I am fifty-four, a native Californian, musician, poet, and owner of a small house on a quarter-acre I purchased seventeen years ago with money I made as a ghost writer. I would tell you the names of the seven books I ghostwrote, except I am legally bound never to tell anyone. The official authors of my books are household names in America today, and though I earned the tiniest fraction of what those official authors made from my creations, that fraction was enough to buy my house and keep me in groceries and guitar strings for twenty years and counting.

Twice married and twice divorced, no children, I have not been romantically entangled with anyone for ten years, three months, two weeks, and five days; but who’s counting? When it comes to companionship and just about anything else, I prefer women to men. I am profoundly heterosexual, distinctly feminine, and not in the least effeminate. When I go to parties and the women gather en masse in the kitchen and the men hang out in little knots elsewhere, I will be found in the kitchen.

“So there are these two old ladies,” says Delia, telling me a joke as we’re driving up Carmeline Creek Road to have supper at Elisha’s place. “Naomi and Ethel. They get together for lunch every couple weeks. One day over Chinese, Ethel says to Naomi, ‘So… anything interesting happen since last time?’ And Naomi says, ‘Oh not much, though I did get married.’ ‘Married?’ says Ethel, shocked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone?’ ‘Who said I was seeing someone?’ says Naomi. ‘I met him last week and decided to marry him.’ ‘Swept you off your feet, huh?’ ‘Hardly,’ says Naomi, shrugging. ‘But he meets my needs.’ ‘I see,’ says Ethel, blushing. ‘He’s good looking and good in bed?’ ‘No he’s ugly as a toad and I wouldn’t sleep with him for all the money in Miami if he was capable of such a thing, which he’s not.’ ‘So is he a good conversationalist with lots of money?’ ‘Nope. He’s a pauper and deaf as a post. I’ll be supporting him until he drops dead.’ ‘But Naomi, if he’s ugly and impotent and deaf and poor, why did you marry him?’ Naomi shrugs. ‘He can still drive at night.’”

During supper, much to my surprise, Grady speaks not a word and actually seems to be listening to what other people are saying. His behavior is so out of character for him, I grow more and more uneasy with every minute he doesn’t say something. Nor am I alone in my unease—Delia and Elisha and Conor and Alexandra keep looking at Grady as if he’s about to explode.

Finally the suspense becomes too much and Delia says, “I give up. What’s going on with you, Grady?”

He thinks for a moment and says, “You mean why am I not talking constantly so no one else can say anything?”

“Yes,” says Delia, nodding. “I’ve known you for twenty years and you have never once, until just now, asked me a question. And every time I have ever tried to say anything when you were in the same room, you interrupted me. Did you have a stroke?”

Grady laughs, and as he laughs, I realize I have never heard him laugh until now.

“You tell them Flo,” says Grady, looking across the table at Florence. “You’re a much better story teller than I am.”

Florence smiles at Grady and says, “Thank you for the compliment, but I think you should tell them.”

“Well, okay,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but please stop me if I go on too long.”

“Your voice is softer now,” I say, gazing in wonder at him. “If I closed my eyes I wouldn’t know it was you.”

“This is my real voice,” he says, smiling at me for the very first time in all the years I’ve known him. “I’m sorry you had to put up with that other voice for all these years.”

“Why did your voice change?” asks Alexandra, fascinated by this new version of Grady.

“Well,” he says, measuring his words, “to make a very long story short, I went to a healer, and he helped me so much that now I don’t have to talk all the time to mask my fear because I’m no longer afraid.”

“Who is this healer?” asks Conor, who is currently obsessed with the books of Herman Hesse.

“His name is August Quincy,” says Grady, smiling at Conor. “He lives near Fortuna. Flo heard about him from a friend and… the two days I spent with him were the most incredible days of my life.”

“What did he do?” asks Delia, mystified. “Hypnotize you?”

“In a way,” says Grady, nodding. “He helped me relax and then we… I know this may sound improbable, but he guided me back to the beginning of my life, to my birth, and from there we relived my life, resolving the many things that needed resolving.” He laughs self-consciously. “I think I’ll stop there for now because I really want to hear about all of you, since I never got to know you because I was always talking.”

After supper, over pumpkin pie and tea in the living room, Conor and Alexandra tell us about the fox who trots through the backyard every evening after they bring the dogs in for the night.

“Rex told us about the fox before he died,” says Conor, sitting on the floor between the two friendly mutts Larry and Mo. “He said in the fifty-six years he lived here, every evening, exactly seven minutes after he brought his dogs inside, a fox would come out of the forest to the west, cross the yard, and disappear into the forest to the east. He said the fox only crossed the yard after the dogs were inside for the night. Sometimes two or three foxes would go by, but always at least one. Every evening for fifty-six years. And sure enough, every evening since we’ve been here, a fox has gone through the yard.”

“Foxes don’t live very long,” says Alexandra, sitting between Elisha and me on one of the two sofas. “We got a book about foxes from the library and it said they only usually live for two or three years, though sometimes they live for ten years, but that’s very rare.”

“So let’s say the average life span of the foxes around here is two years,” says Conor, taking up the story. “If you divide fifty-six by two you get twenty-eight. Which means approximately twenty-eight different foxes were the fox that went by every evening when Rex lived here, give or take a fox or two.”

“But even though they were different foxes,” says Alexandra, nodding assuredly, “they always knew they should wait for the dogs to be inside before they went by, which means the older foxes must have taught the younger foxes to wait for the dogs to be inside before crossing the yard.”

“We’ve been experimenting since we moved here,” says Conor, looking at Grady, who is sitting with Florence and Delia on the other sofa. “One night we left the dogs out for an extra hour, and another night we brought them in a half-hour earlier than usual, but no matter when we bring them in, seven minutes later the fox goes by.”

“So he must be waiting in the woods with a view of the house,” says Grady, delighted. “And when you bring the dogs inside, he knows the coast is clear. Or she knows.”

I look at Elisha and say, “I can imagine two young foxes sitting with their mother in the forest watching the house at dusk. And now the back door opens and a human being comes out and calls to the dogs, and they go inside with the human, and the door closes.”

“But the foxes don’t immediately leave the forest,” says Elisha, returning my gaze. “The mother waits for seven minutes, until she’s certain the dogs are in for the night before she emerges from the trees, her children following her.”

“Or maybe they’re with a father fox,” says Alexandra, getting up to put another log on the fire. “The book we read said foxes are very good parents and their children stay with them until they’re seven or eight months old, which is almost full grown.”

“I wonder why their lives are so short?” says Delia, sighing. “They’re such beautiful animals.”

“Dangerous world,” says Florence, holding Delia’s hand. “A lovely world, but full of danger.”

“I wonder if foxes are born good parents,” I say, staring into the fire. “Or if they learn how to parent from their parents.”

“I think they learn from their parents,” says Conor, looking at his mother. “Rex told us the best way to raise a pup is to have an older dog for the pup to learn from. That’s why he always had one dog a few years older than the other, so when the older one died and he got a new one, the pup could learn from the older one how to be.”

Delia looks at Elisha and says, “Whenever I think of Rex before you came to town, you know what I remember?”

“Tell me,” says Elisha, who especially loves Delia.

“I remember the times when I would be behind him in line at the post office or at the bakery,” says Delia, laughing, “how I would always try to be extra friendly and extra generous to the clerks to compensate for how unfriendly and miserly Rex was. And then you three came to town and he turned into a whole other person, a sweet and generous man.”

“He learned from Elisha and Conor and Alexandra how to be sweet and generous,” says Florence, her eyes full of tears.

“I think he always knew how to be sweet and generous,” says Grady, remembering how terrified he was of Rex before the transformation. “I think he just needed to be awakened by their kindness, and once he was awake, there was no going back.”

fin

Promise of Joy

Monday, April 1st, 2019

joy bread

I live in a small town. I won’t tell you the name of the town because I don’t want swarms of people descending upon us to get a look at me. I’m kidding, of course. Why would anyone, let alone swarms of people, want to get a look at me after reading this story? And how would they know what I look like? Am I a woman or a man? Old or young? Unless I tell you, you’ll never know.

On the other hand, there is only one bakery in our town, and this is a story about that bakery, so if I were to mention the name of this town and someone reads this story and wants to get a look at me, he or she could go to the bakery where I almost always sit at the same table every day for approximately the same three hours. Thus if I were to tell you which table and what time of day, you would know where to find me, unless you’re reading this story a hundred years from now when I’m no longer alive, barring incredible advances in medical science.

You may wonder why I don’t always sit at the same table in the bakery if I’m such a creature of habit. I can explain in two words. These two words are not verbs or adjectives, but a person’s name. Pedro Steinberg. Are names words? Of course they are. They are proper nouns. As it happens, I would never use the word proper to describe Pedro Steinberg, yet his two names are unquestionably proper nouns. How ironic. Indeed, everything about Pedro Steinberg strikes me as ironic. What were his parents thinking? Pedro is a middle-aged Jewish man born to Jewish parents named Ira and Ruth, descendants of Polish Jews. Why did Ira and Ruth name him Pedro? Why not Peter or Ira or Fritz? Perhaps they were being ironic. Or perhaps, for reasons we can only guess at, they fell in love with the name Pedro and decided there could be no better moniker for their son.

In any case, Pedro sometimes commandeers my usual table before I get to the bakery at ten every morning, but only sometimes because most mornings he stays in bed or lolls around in his pajamas until well past ten, so he and I rarely compete for the table in question, a corner table adjacent to a window. Given there are only two corner tables adjacent to windows in the bakery, someone trying to guess my identity from this story could now narrow my identity down to at most four people.

But I’ll go you one better. My table is in the southeast corner. Therefore, should you come looking for me between ten and one at the bakery, and you know north from south and east from west, you will be able to narrow your search down to me or Pedro Steinberg or the people with whom we are sharing the table. I, however, am not chubby, the person I usually share my table with is chubby, and Pedro is mucho chubby and rarely shares the table with anyone, so there I’ll be if I tell you the name of our town.

By now you may be wondering: where is this story going? Or maybe you’re merely enjoying the way I’m easing into the tale and you aren’t greatly attached to where the story is going so long as the telling continues to please you. Or maybe you stopped reading after the second or third paragraph, rendering these words mere symbols waiting to be deciphered. Imagine a woman standing on a sidewalk watching a man walking away and no longer listening to what she is trying to tell him. She calls after him, but her voice falters and she falls silent.

The bakery of which I write is called Mona’s. This commercial footprint, to use a bit of architectural lingo, has had seven different tenants in the last fourteen years, and for five of those fourteen years, the footprint was vacant. The reason for this track record, so to speak, is that none of the tenants prior to the current tenant, Mona Castelli, were able turn a profit here, and Mona was on the verge of closing up shop, too, until something quite remarkable happened.

The footprint’s décor changed with each new bakery, the menu changed, business hours fluctuated from proprietor to proprietor, staff turned over countless times, prices went up and up, booths came and went and came again, chairs were comfortable, uncomfortable, sort of comfortable, too comfortable, wobbly, not wobbly. Cats were allowed, then disallowed, then allowed, then disallowed, and are now allowed again.

The name of the bakery has changed seven times. My favorite name was Il Trogolo, which is Italian for The Trough. Unfortunately, the owner of Il Trogolo and the baker she hired routinely overused cinnamon, and whoever made their coffee had a penchant for bitterness, so…

There are currently twelve tables and two booths in the large and not-quite-square rectangular footprint that is Mona’s, with a maximum occupancy of fifty-four. The walls are white and decorated with a constantly changing show of photographs and paintings by local artists. The unisex bathroom is large and clean, the pale blue bathroom walls adorned with three movie posters for goofy French comedies made in the 1990s. Hours of business are 7 AM to 5:30 PM, Sunday through Thursday, and 7 AM to 10 PM Friday and Saturday.

Mona’s baked goods are yummy, not too cinnamony, the coffee is excellent, there are numerous gluten-free and vegan comestibles available along with many gluten-rich and non-vegan edibles, the lighting is good, the chairs are comfortable but not too comfortable, and on the face of it, one wouldn’t have thought Mona’s needed a remarkable happenstance to survive and thrive, except…

From April through October our coastal town is a thriving tourist destination. And though it is also true that virtually all of the 977 year-round residents of Carmeline Creek enjoy patronizing Mona’s, when the rainy cold winter settles in on the far north coast of California, tourists rarely venture here; and the 977, few of whom possess trogolos of cash, were not buying enough baked goods and coffee to keep Mona’s afloat.

Yes, things looked dire, and we locals were girding our loins, so to speak, for yet another incarnation of our beloved bakery to close when…

I was just settling down at my usual table in the nearly empty cafe, a hard December rain pelting the windows and obscuring my view of Philomena’s Bay where huge breakers were crashing onto the beach at the mouth of Carmeline Creek. A steaming latte in a handsome green bowl awaited my lips, and a raisin and walnut muffin awaited my mandibles, when the tubular chimes hanging on the front door sounded with the entrance of a woman in her mid-forties with reddish brown hair accompanied by a boy verging on teenagery with similarly reddish brown hair and a girl a few years younger than the boy with light brown hair verging on blonde.

The moment I saw this woman and boy and girl, I thought Danish Irish Spanish Morocco Algeria.

The woman, solemnly lovely, approached the counter where Mona was lost in a trance of despondency about the impending closure of her bakery.

“Hello,” said the woman to Mona, with an accent both Irish and Spanish. “My name is Elisha Montoya. This is my son Conor and my daughter Alexandra. I see you have an apartment for rent upstairs. May we take a look? Also, should you be hiring, I’m looking for a job and have lots of experience as a cook and baker and waitress. I’d be happy to work for you for a week without pay to give you an idea of what I might do for you.”

Mona, who has long curly brown hair and wears large red-framed glasses and always appears to be perplexed, though she isn’t, gazed at Elisha for a long moment and said, “I can show you the apartment, though I’m not the landlord. And as it happens, my baker and counterperson both just found other jobs because, barring a miracle, I’ll be closing this place in two weeks, but… sure, I’ll give you a try.”

Which is how Elisha and Conor and Alexandra came to live above the bakery, and Elisha came to work in the bakery, and how two weeks later Mona did not close the bakery because business had picked up considerably since the coming of Elisha and the addition to menu of Elisha’s creamy potato and turnip soup, hearty Irish stew, spicy chai, delectable basil and cheese bread sticks, falafels, and hummus made with just the right amount of garlic.

Curiosity about Elisha and her children certainly played a part in the sizeable increase in patronage at Mona’s for the first week, and the new food items were undeniably a big hit with locals who have few affordable dining choices outside of cooking at home; but as a daily denizen of the bakery, I can assure you that the decisive factor in Mona’s turnaround was the change in the atmosphere, the new vibe that took hold here with the advent of Elisha and her children.

How to describe this new vibe? I’m currently at work on a quartet of poems inspired by my desire to elucidate this new tonality, and I’m also composing an upbeat dance tune fueled by the transformation of Mona’s geist, but until those poems are finished and the dance tune is second nature to my guitar-playing fingers, I think what happened when Rex Abernathy came into Mona’s a few mornings ago captures the Elisha Effect better than anything.

Rex Abernathy is seventy-eight-years-old, a former lumberjack. Rex, as my mother used to say about nearly everyone, is a piece of work. My mother used that expression to characterize people she thought were unusual and/or challenging in one way or another; and that’s how I’m using the expression for Rex, with an emphasis on challenging.

I’ve known Rex for seventeen years, and even before his wife Effie died seven years ago, Rex was a grim person who maintained a steadfast disinterest in other people, whereas Effie was a reflexively friendly person and genuinely interested in the lives of others. After Effie died, Rex ceased speaking to anyone other than his two dogs—he always has two. When one of his dogs dies, he immediately gets another from the animal shelter; and for all his grimness, Rex treats his dogs well and they adore him.

Eventually people in town stopped saying hello to Rex because when they did say hello, Rex would either ignore them or glare at them as if to say, “Don’t ever do that again.”

Every day for those seven years after Effie died, Rex drove to town with his dogs in his old pickup from his place a few miles up Carmeline Creek Road to get his mail at the post office, buy groceries, and pick up a loaf of bread at the bakery. He never uttered a word to anyone in the post office, even if he had a package to pick up. He would wait stone-faced for either Robin or Joe to bring him the package; and not once did he say thanks. Nor would he speak to anyone in the grocery store.

In the bakery, rather than speak, he would point; and because he always only got a loaf of bread, his pointing sufficed; and not once did he leave a tip.

That’s how things were with Rex for seven years, and I thought that’s how things would be with Rex until the day he died—the lonely man grim and silent and keeping everyone at bay with his palpable sorrow and simmering rage.

A few days ago—one year and four months after Elisha and Conor and Alexandra moved into the apartment above Mona’s and Elisha became the cook and baker and sometimes counterperson at Mona’s, and Elisha’s children started working at Mona’s, too—I’m sitting at the table where I almost always sit, enjoying a cup of potato and turnip soup accompanied by three still-warm-from-the-oven basil and cheese breadsticks, having earlier in my sojourn at Mona’s enjoyed a latte and a delicious pumpkin muffin, when Rex Abernathy comes in from the blustery day, the last day of March.

And I notice Rex is not wearing the filthy tattered orange coat over a frayed plaid shirt tucked into greasy trousers he wore religiously for the last seven years. No, he is wearing a clean teal dress shirt tucked into brown corduroy trousers. Nor is he wearing the beat-up Giants baseball hat that is synonymous in our town with Rex Abernathy. Instead, he is hatless and has combed his thinning white hair, trimmed his mustache, and shaved his usually stubbly cheeks and chin.

He does not glare around the room as if looking for a fight, but rather gazes around the sunny bakery and smiles at a large black and white photograph of Elisha’s daughter Alexandra standing in the open doorway of the bakery holding a contented tabby cat in her arms—the photograph taken by Elisha’s son Conor.

Rex steps up to the counter and smiles at Mona, who seems nearly as surprised as I am by the dramatic changes in Rex’s dress and demeanor.

Mona smiles tentatively and asks, “What can I get you today, Rex?”

At which moment, Elisha looks up from peeling potatoes with Alexandra at the big table in the kitchen and says, “Oh hey, Rex. We saved you some stew. Come sit with us.”

Rex bows politely to Mona and ambles into the kitchen where he sits on a stool next to Alexandra, who looks at Rex and says, “I wanted the last of that stew, but Mama said she was saving it for you.”

Now Elisha sets a big bowl of yesterday’s Irish stew on the table in front of Rex, along with a blue cloth napkin, a large silver spoon, and a big white mug full of hot black coffee, and Rex says as tenderly as I’ve ever heard anyone say anything, “Oh gosh, Elisha, there’s plenty here for Alexandra to have some, too.”

       fin

Tober Finds His Way Part 4

Monday, March 18th, 2019

subtle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tober nods and thinks of Jasmy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am,” says Augie, raising his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” she says softly.

“Is this a good time to talk?”

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

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

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

“No wonder they call them smart phones.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a guess,” he says somberly.

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

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

“When would you like me to come?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      fin

Tober Finds His Way Part 3

Monday, March 11th, 2019

four candles

At four-thirty in the afternoon, rain falling, Tober drives slowly through a maze of streets to a quiet neighborhood in southeast Portland where Augie lives in an old house with three other people—the front yard featuring four large Japanese maples, their fall foliage every hue of burgundy and magenta.

One of Augie’s housemates, Allison, shares a pot of nettle tea with Tober in the living room and waits with him for Augie to get home from his weekend job as a clerk at Wet Spot Tropical Fish store.

Allison is thirty-two, Chinese American, with light brown hair and a persistently wrinkled brow, a wearer of frameless pince-nez. She works for a high tech company called Integer Farm, and when Tober asks what her job entails she says, “Oh about half the time I’m filing incoming data composites, and half the time I’m mapping info gaggles looking for nascent renegade trends.”

“You’re analyzing data?” Tober guesses.

“Sort of,” says Allison, frowning. “Our logarithms do most of the macro-analysis, but… yeah, what I do sometimes ends up in analyses, but mostly I’m creating amalgam veins for later mining.”

“To what end?” asks Tober, wondering why the tea tastes so bitter and surmising it must be the water.

“For our clients,” says Allison, nodding. “To facilitate ultra-specific targeting.”

“Sounds very sophisticated,” he says sincerely. “Who are your clients?”

“Oh, you know, any large company trying to sell something,” she says, matter-of-factly. “We specialize in centrifuging data our analysts use to design super-fast modalities for optimal penetration and saturation.”

“Wow,” says Tober, nodding. “What a thing.”

“It’s a job,” she says, shrugging. “Gotta pay off those student loans. We can’t all get full scholarships like Augie.”

“No,” says Tober, the words “full scholarships” making him think of Jasmy and the volleyball scholarships she turned down. “He’s very lucky.”

“He’s brilliant,” she says, morosely. “We can’t all be brilliant.”

“Well,” says Tober, wanting to cheer her up, “I’m sure it’s no small feat to create amalgam veins. I couldn’t do that in a million years.”

“Yes, you could,” says Allison, scrunching up her cheeks. “Once you know the key strokes, they pretty much create themselves.”

“Oh,” says Tober, delighted by the idea of things creating themselves. “Like melodies create themselves.”

“No,” says Allison, shaking her head. “It has nothing to do with music.”

A silence falls and Tober decides not to say anything more unless Allison asks him a question—the silence lasting for several more sips of the bitter tea before Augie comes in the front door and Tober jumps up to give him a hug.

Augie is six-foot-one, his red hair cut quite short. Before moving to Portland three months ago, he outweighed Tober by twenty pounds, but he has lost those twenty pounds and then some, and there is a gray cast to his usually rosy skin—the sparkle in his emerald green eyes much diminished.

After visiting with Allison for a few minutes more, the brothers retire to Augie’s bedroom and Augie closes the door.

“Gads Aug,” says Tober, staring at his brother, “you’ve lost so much weight. Are you okay?”

“I will be,” he says, speaking slowly. “Took me a while to gets things straightened out, but now that I have, I’ll be fine.” He smiles wanly. “I’m so glad you’re here. How was the trip?”

“Great,” says Tober, wondering what things Augie got straightened out. “I met all sorts of fascinating people along the way, the last one being an amazing woman I met in Director’s Park where I did a little busking this afternoon. Her name is Jasmy and she’s a violinist, too. Her band is playing tonight at McSomebody’s Crystal Palace and she wants me to play with them on a tune or two, so she’s putting us on the guest list. Do you want to go?”

“Yeah,” says Augie, sitting down on his queen-sized bed. “Sounds fun.”

“You don’t look well, Aug,” says Tober, sitting beside him. “You’re so pale. I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I’m just tired. Might have a little lie down before we go out.”

“So what did you get straightened out?” asks Tober, putting his arm around Augie.

“Well,” says Augie, taking a deep breath, “I figured out what was killing me, and I put a stop to it.”

“Oh my God, Aug. You didn’t mention anything in your letters about something killing you. What was it?”

“The program,” says Augie, his jaw trembling. “I’m coming home, Tobe, not just for Thanksgiving, but to stay. I went down the wrong path. And as Titus taught us, the sooner we recognize we’re going the wrong way, the sooner we can change direction and avoid big trouble. So that’s what I did. I quit the program yesterday and quit my job at the fish store today.”

“Does Mom know?” asks Tober, trying not to sound too happy about Augie coming home to stay.

“Yeah, I called her last night,” says Augie, starting to cry.

“Oh Aug,” says Tober, holding his brother tight. “You’re the greatest.”

After Augie takes a shower and puts on a lovely gray shirt and brown trousers for going out, he lies down on his bed to rest.

“Talk to me Tobe,” he says, closing his eyes. “Tell me about your trip.”

Dressed all in black save for the red ribbon tied in a bow at the end of his ponytail, Tober stands at the window, rain pattering on the glass, and describes Amelia and Consuela following him from the farmhouse to the truck and back to the farmhouse and back to the truck again as he was getting ready to leave, how Sharon loves being with the girls, what a good mother she is, how both girls are very reserved and fearful of doing anything to upset Sharon, how every day they get a little more comfortable in their new surroundings, a little more trusting that Sharon isn’t just another temporary caretaker, but their mother from now on, a mother who never yells at them and gives them plenty of food and explains things to them over and over again until they understand.

“I guess I wasn’t ready to leave home,” says Augie, opening his eyes. “Although if the program had been what I thought it was going to be, I would have stayed despite the challenges of living in a city. But the program wasn’t even remotely like they told me it would be.”

“You wrote to us about the classes covering information you already knew,” says Tober, coming to sit on the bed. “But you said you liked Weibel, the neuroscience guy, and you were going to focus on that.”

“I wanted to,” says Augie, sighing. “But they wouldn’t let me, and that was when I realized there was a much bigger underlying problem.”

“Which was?”

“Well… when I met with the professors who read my papers, the four who were so eager for me to come here, I assumed I’d be working with them. But when I realized after a couple weeks that the first two years of required classes were only going to cover research and theories and historical stuff I’ve already thoroughly studied, I went to talk to those four professors about testing out of those classes, and they all told me I had to take them. And when I told Dr. Weibel I didn’t want to waste two years of my life before I could start doing what I came here to do, he got very upset with me and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. And that pretty much did it, because I do know what I’m talking about, and working with him was the main reason I wanted to come here. And when I told him that, he said, ‘Get in line, buddy. Lots of people want to work with me, people much more qualified than you.’”

“What a jerk,” says Tober, angrily. “They asked you to come here. They gave you a scholarship. What’s his problem?”

“As you can imagine,” says Augie, smiling wryly, “I’ve given that question a great deal of thought, and what I now know is that Weibel and everyone here is a functionary of an extremely hierarchic system that purports to be cutting edge, but is actually mired in out-of-date dogma and very slow to integrate the newest information and practices.”

“Dogma never keeps up with the new information,” says Tober, going to the window again. “As opposed to wisdom, which is a deciphering tool.”

“Exactly,” says Augie, relieved to finally be talking about this with someone who understands him. “I’ll give you a most telling For Instance of how their dogma lags far behind current knowledge.”

“Oh good,” says Tober, returning to the bed. “I love telling For Instances.”

“So…” says Aguie, sitting up. “Three weeks ago, Weibel gave a public lecture attended by all the Psych grad students, most of the faculty, and anybody else who wanted to come. And the subject of his lecture was a thorough review of the most recent and comprehensive studies proving conclusively that the habitual use of cell phones not only seriously interferes with healthy brain development in children and young adults, but also exacerbates and even creates emotional disorders in people of all ages. And as he spoke, every single person in attendance, about two hundred people, save for one August Quincy, was clutching his or her phone and futzing with it as Weibel enumerated the serious damage their behavior was doing to their brains and nervous systems.”

“Did no one else appreciate the irony of the situation?” asks Tober, remembering Annie staring into her phone, hour after hour, filling her time with whatever she was seeing or doing on the little screen until it was time to go to work or eat or have sex.

“I doubt it,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I hope so, but I doubt it. They are all so deeply enmeshed with their phones.”

Dining at a quiet Thai restaurant, Tober describes to Augie his sojourn in Yachats, his impromptu concert in the Green Salmon café, his delightful breakfast with Ruth and Phil and Sylvia, his frightening encounter with Lauren the psychic leech, his icy dip in the mighty Umqua to exorcise Lauren’s poison, his phone conversation with Titus, and his triumphant performance in Director’s Park that culminated in meeting Jasmy.

“Wow,” says Augie, gazing in wonder at his brother. “What a day.”

“And while you were snoozing,” says Tober, smiling at the approach of their Kang Dang chicken, potatoes in yellow curry, and brown rice, “I counted up the money I made from busking for that one glorious hour today. Guess how much?”

“From the tone of your voice and the self-satisfied look on your face,” says Augie, grinning at his brother, “I will say… fifty dollars.”

“Three hundred and thirty-seven dollars,” says Tober, lowering his voice. “And that’s just the paper money. There are hundreds of quarters and piles of nickels and dimes ye to be counted.”

“Good God,” says Augie, gaping at his brother. “You’ve always had a knack for making money, but this verges on the miraculous.”

“It was miraculous,” says Tober, thinking of Jasmy. “I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

Arriving at 7:20 at the giant old building that houses McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, they find no place to park anywhere near the ballroom—several hundred people in line waiting for the doors to open—so they have to drive around for fifteen minutes before they finally find a parking place seven blocks away.

They hurry through the rain to the ballroom, and not knowing that being on the guest list entitles them to go to the front of the line, they take their places at the end of the long line of people slowly entering the building, and they don’t get inside until ten minutes before show time.

A very large man named Ezra wearing a purple sequin evening gown, his long black hair and black beard wild and frizzy, his skin pale white, his lips painted fire-engine red, leads Tober and Augie backstage where Jasmy and her four band mates are waiting to go on.

Jasmy is wearing red moccasins and a gorgeous burgundy blouse tucked into pleated black slacks, her long black hair in a three-strand braid. She hesitates to hug Tober, but when he opens his arms to her, she steps right in.

“You made it,” she says, thrilled by his strong embrace. “I was starting to worry. I called you and left a message on Augie’s machine.” She turns to Augie. “You must be Augie. I’m Jasmy.”

“Hi,” says Augie, shaking her hand. “I can see why Tobe used the word miraculous when describing you. Thanks so much for putting me on the guest list.”

“Of course,” she says, turning to her four cohorts—two men and two women.

“This is Sandy,” says Jasmy, gesturing to a muscular young woman in her early twenties with short brown hair wearing a sleeveless green T-shirt, shimmering black boxer shorts, green socks, and red running shoes.

Sandy shakes Tober’s hand and says with a beguiling Irish accent, “You didn’t exaggerate, did you Jasmy? Tall, dark, and ravishing with a violin. I’m the drummer in case you couldn’t tell from my biceps.”

“Tober,” says Tober, enjoying her formidable grip. “This is my brother Augie.”

Sandra looks at Augie, Augie looks at Sandra, and they both feel a sharp jolt of recognition followed immediately by a profound attraction to each other.

“Hello,” says Augie, his heart pounding as he shakes Sandy’s hand. “Why do I think I already know you?”

“You got me,” she says, keeping hold of him and looking into his eyes. “What do you play?”

“Guitar,” says Augie, breathlessly. “And I sing.”

“No,” says Sandra, feigning incredulity. “I sing, too.”

“This my father,” says Jasmy, introducing them next to a handsome man in his early forties, two inches taller than Tober and wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and black pants and black shoes, his blond hair cut short. “Julian Beckman. Otherwise known as Beckman. Sweet Papa this is October, otherwise known as Tober.”

“A pleasure,” says Tober, shaking Beckman’s hand.

“Likewise,” says Beckman, matching Tober’s grip. “Looking forward to hearing you play. Jasmy rarely raves about anyone the way she raved about you.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing you, too,” says Tober, laughing nervously. “This is my brother Augie. He’s as good a guitarist as I am a violinist.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” says Augie, shaking Beckman’s hand. “Not even close. Pleased to meet you.”

“And speaking of guitarists,” says Jasmy, gesturing regally to a handsome burly Mexican fellow with a shaved head wearing a red T-shirt and white pants. “This is Pedro Martinez.”

“Hola,” says Pedro, nodding to Tober and Augie.

“And Marie,” says Jasmy, putting her arm around a striking woman in her thirties with long auburn hair wearing a red sequin blouse, short black skirt, pink tights, and red high heels. “Our bass player.”

Marie gives Augie and Tober a little bow and says with her strong French accent, “I hope you like the show.”

“I’m sure we will,” says Tober, dizzy with excitement.

Now Jasmy presses close to Tober and says, “Come back at the break and we’ll figure things out for the second set. I’m so glad you came.”

“Me, too,” says Tober, kissing her cheek. “Break a leg.”

Ezra escorts Tober and Augie into the huge ballroom where legions of people of all ages and colors are waiting for the show to begin.

The vast area in front of the stage, about half the room, is filled with four hundred cushioned folding chairs, all the chairs taken save for two in the front row where Ezra deposits Tober and Augie—the back half of the room open for milling around and dancing.

“Look at all these people,” says Augie, agog at the colorful assembly. “There must be a thousand people here.”

“That would be five times more than can fit in the Arcata Playhouse,” says Tober, referencing the largest venue he and Augie have ever played in. “The energy in here is beyond anything I’ve ever felt before, yet I don’t feel menaced by it.”

“Nor do I,” says Augie, relaxing. “This is by far the best I’ve felt since coming to Portland.”

“It’s happiness,” says Tober, turning in his seat to look at the expectant audience. “That’s what it is, Aug. They’re all happy. A thousand happy people.”

“Waiting to see the miraculous Jasmy,” says Augie, playfully punching Tober’s arm. “And she’s crazy about you. Your timing is impeccable. Imagine how confused you’d be if you hadn’t broken up with Annie.”

“Jasmy does seem to like me,” says Tober, finding it difficult to get a deep breath. “I hope I don’t disappoint her.”

“Oh you’ll be great,” says Augie, smiling sublimely. “Just close your eyes and pretend you’re at home jamming along with the stereo.”

Tober and Augie grew up without television, and in the absence of that media, they both became excellent guitarists and violinists, both learned to play the piano fairly well, and they spent many thousands of hours listening to music and playing and singing along.

By the time Tober was twelve and Augie was eleven, they could play the entire Beatles repertoire in several keys on violin and guitar, as well as all the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, B.B. King, James Taylor, Fats Waller, Stephen Sondheim, Hank Williams, and hundreds of jazz and folk and rock and pop and soul standards. Tober’s favorite singers are Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Iris DeMent; Augie’s favorites are Eva Cassidy, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, and Leon Bibb.

Having attended hundreds of rehearsals of the Eureka Symphony orchestra, and having played the classical string quartet repertoire with their mother and her musical colleagues for their entire lives, and having been obsessed with Brazilian choros, Argentinian tangos, and Irish fiddle tunes, Tober and Augie’s knowledge and appreciation of music is both deep and wide.

But they have never seen or heard anything quite like Ordering Chaos: the first number a jazzy Latin Afro salsa, the second number incredibly harmonic jazz fusion, the third number a fabulous rendition of a Django Reinhardt tune.

At the end of the Django Reinhardt, Augie says to Tober, “I know the expression lacks specificity and doesn’t really do justice to the full extent of what I’m experiencing, but I’ll use it anyway. This is blowing my mind.”

“Mine, too,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “Blown to smithereens.”

“They’re such good players,” says Augie, transfixed by Sandy and the entrancing way she dances on her seat as she drums. “Can you believe Beckman? He’s impeccable. He’s… I’d give anything to take lessons from him.”

“You can!” says Tober, excitedly. “You’re free now. You can do anything you want.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Drum lessons from Sandy?”

“That would be fun,” says Augie, as the band kicks into rollicking folk rock, Marie singing the verses, Jasmy and Sandy joining Marie on the chorus, and Pedro playing a searing guitar solo that brings the house down.

Backstage during intermission, Joseph, a short bespectacled sound technician wearing a neon-blue jumpsuit, suggests attaching a small microphone to the sound hole of Tober’s violin, and Tober says, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t want to attach anything to my violin. I’m quite good at playing into a microphone, if that’s an option.”

“Yeah, that’ll work,” says Joseph, winking at Tober. “We’ll set you up with a big silver potato. Come on out with me and we’ll get the height right.”

So Tober goes out in front of the audience with Joseph and stands at ease with his violin as Joseph attaches a silver potato-shaped microphone to a mike stand and adjusts the height of the stand so the microphone is about ten inches away from where Tober holds his violin to play.

“I’ll be riding the sound,” says Joseph, looking up at Tober. “But keep in mind roughly ten to fifteen inches away. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” says Tober, following Joseph backstage.

Jasmy takes Tober’s free hand and says, “How about you and my father opening the second act with a duet?”

“Fine,” says Tober, as she leads him to Beckman who is sitting with Marie on a sofa—Beckman drinking water, Marie sipping a glass of red wine.

“Do you know ‘Manhã de Carnaval’?” asks Beckman, giving Tober a hopeful smile.

“I love that song,” says Tober, nodding. “Luiz Bonfá. Black Orpheus.”

“Excellent,” says Beckman, picking up his guitar. “Key of A Minor?”

“Yep,” says Tober, glad to know they’ll be doing a song he’s played hundreds of times. “How about you play first, give me a nod, and off we’ll go.”

“Shall we run through the changes?” asks Beckman, arching an eyebrow. “Make sure we’re on the same page?”

“If you’d like,” says Tober, nodding. “Or we can surprise each other.”

“You and Jasmy,” says Beckman, laughing. “Peas in a pod.”

As the lights dim to announce the start of the second set, Jasmy strides to center stage and waits for the applause to die down before saying to the expectant audience, “It is my great pleasure now to introduce you to October Quincy, who will join us for the second set and open the proceedings with my father.”

Beckman emerges to loud applause, followed by Tober who seems totally at ease, which he is, having performed for audiences countless times since he was seven, and never having had anything but fun when performing.

Standing comfortably at the potato-shaped microphone, Tober nods to Beckman who is seated and holding an electrified acoustic guitar; and Beckman begins to play the lovely Brazilian tune very slowly, his playing flawless and heartfelt; and when he concludes his tender opening, he strums the chords in a slow samba tempo, nods in time to his strumming, and Tober begins to play.

And though Beckman expected Tober to be an accomplished player, he is so astounded by Tober’s exquisite tone and facility and the eloquence of his variations on that iconic melody, that when they finish, and the audience is cheering wildly, he embraces Tober and says, “That was by far the greatest musical experience of my life.”

After the show, Tober and Augie meet Jasmy and Beckman and Sandy and Pedro and Pedro’s wife Chita at Toro Bravo, a commodious tapas restaurant, an ideal place to eat and drink and unwind.

Tober is exhilarated and exhausted—his vision of returning home with Augie and building a couple of houses on the land and living there for the rest of his life is rapidly dissolving into visions of living in Portland with Jasmy and playing music with great musicians and…

“I just gotta say,” says Pedro, looking across the table at Tober, “I’ve never heard anybody say so much with so few notes as you. You know what I mean? It’s like you don’t have to play lots of notes because the ones you play are so right. Not that you can’t play fast, you can, you’re fantastic, but… sometimes you remind me of like a shakuhachi player, only with a violin. You’re just great, man. You blew my mind.”

“Thank you,” says Tober, touching his heart. “I think you’re an amazing guitar player.” He looks around the table. “I think you’re all amazing, and what’s even more amazing is you found each other.”

“Jasmy found us,” says Sandy, who is sitting beside Augie and holding his hand under the table. “She’s the great bringer together.”

“Was she always that way?” asks Augie, looking at Beckman.

“Always,” he says, smiling at his daughter. “She started a neighborhood club when she was six, and not just for other kids. It was for people of all ages.”

“What was the name of the club?” asks Sandy, who is fervently hoping to pry Augie away from his brother for the night.

“The Interesting Story Club,” says Jasmy, her dimples triumphant. “We met every Wednesday afternoon after I got home from school in our living room, and Alta, my grandmother, served cookies and tea.”

“And some Wednesdays,” says Beckman, looking at Tober, “as many as twenty people would show up to tell their interesting stories.”

“How long did the club last?” asks Augie, smiling in wonder at Jasmy.

“It’s still going,” says Beckman, laughing. “Though of late it’s usually just my mother who is eighty-seven, Louise Arbanas who is ninety, Allan Forsyth who is seventy-nine, sometimes me, sometimes my wife, and the Portman twins come for the cookies, but rarely stay for the stories. They are nine-years-old and not known for sitting still.”

On the way home from Toro Bravo, Tober driving, Augie says, “So I guess we won’t be heading home until Monday now, having said Yes to lunch with Jasmy and Beckman and supper with Jasmy and Sandy.”

“Brilliant deduction, Holmes,” says Tober, yawning.

“Sandy asked me to spend the night with her,” says Augie, who has only had one girlfriend in his life—Helen Morningstar, who broke up with him after two years when they were both seventeen.

“Did you want to?” asks Tober, who wouldn’t have minded having Augie’s bed all to himself.

“Yes and no,” says Augie, gazing at the passing scene, lights blurring in the rain. “Yes because she’s a beautiful woman with a great sense of rhythm and I’m deeply smitten with her, and no because I hardly know her and I’m so tired and I’d rather wake up and talk to you before I talk to anybody else.”

“Ditto,” says Tober, turning onto the quiet street where Augie lives. “Wake up and try to figure out who we are now and what we might do next.”

At eleven o’clock the next morning, a sunny Sunday, with two hours to spare before they meet Jasmy and Beckman for lunch, Tober and Augie go to Director’s Park, place Augie’s open guitar case on the ground in front of them, and begin busking with a medley of Beatles songs, some instrumentals, some they sing together in close harmony—many of the people in their swiftly growing audience singing along.

They follow their half-hour of Beatles tunes with instrumental versions of Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love”, Van Heusen and Burke’s “But Beautiful”, the Gershwin brothers’ “I Loves You, Porgy”, and finish with a zesty version of “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams, their hundreds of listeners applauding wildly at the blazing denouement and showering the guitar case with money.

As they gather up their loot and make ready to leave Director’s Park, several people inquire of them if they have CDs for sale, several people ask to be on their mailing list, and lastly a darling four-year-old boy runs over to them, hands Augie a five-dollar bill and says, “Do you want to come over to our house for lunch?”

“Thank you so much,” says Augie, taking the money from the little boy. “We’d love to have lunch with you, but we already have a lunch date.”

“Oh,” says the boy, frowning sadly. “Okay.”

At which moment, a woman in her early thirties with long brown hair accompanied by a middle-aged woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair, both women elegantly dressed, join the darling little boy, and the younger woman smiles ravishingly and says, “Hi. He loves your music and so do we. We are wedding and special events planners and we’re wondering if you’re available to play at weddings and bar mitzvahs and anniversary parties and events like that.”

“We have done some weddings,” says Tober, taking her proffered card. “But we don’t actually live around here. We’re visiting from California. But we’ve been talking about possibly living here for part of the year, so…”

“Well should you relocate,” says the older woman, her accent inherited from Yiddish-speaking parents, “please give us a call. We’d love to use you. You’re not only fantastic musicians, you’re both very good looking which is a selling point, believe me. And by the way, we pay very well. Do you have a card?”

“I do,” says Tober, fishing one out of his wallet.

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer X Violinist X Carpenter X Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner X Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates X Inquiries Welcome

“Oh I love this,” says the woman, looking from the card to Tober. “I collect special stones, too. You must come for lunch next time you’re in town. I’m Naomi. This is my daughter Teresa and my grandson Jacob.”

Awaiting their lunch in a vibrant upscale Mexican restaurant called Nuestra Cocina, Beckman raises his glass of horchata and says, “I’d like to propose a toast.”

Tober raises his glass of not-too-sweet lemonade, Augie his horchata, and Jasmy her root beer.

“To our good fortune in meeting each other,” says Beckman, gazing at Tober and Augie. “May we have many meals together.”

They clink glasses and drink, and Augie says, “And may I one day take guitar lessons from you.”

“Any time,” says Beckman, clinking glasses with Augie again. “All you have to do is come to Mountain Home Idaho, a grueling eight-hour drive from here, or a pleasant two-day trip.”

“That’s about how long it takes to get from here to Fortuna,” says Tober, gazing amorously at Jasmy. “That’s the nearest town to our place. We’re just a few miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River.”

Jasmy pouts adorably. “We all live too far away from each other.”

“That’s one way of thinking of it,” says Beckman, winking at his daughter. “Or you could say we now have three marvelous places where we can meet and play music and go on adventures together.”

     fin

Tober Finds His Way Part 1

Monday, February 25th, 2019

 

Finding the Way

On a cold morning, nine days before Thanksgiving, on the far northern coast of California, nineteen-year-old Tober Quincy stands behind the checkout counter in a big store known as Good Used Stuff, two miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River.

Tall and handsome, with long brown hair in a ponytail, Tober is friendly and thoughtful with a wry sense of humor inherited from his mother and an endearing curiosity about everyone he meets. He has been employed at Good Used Stuff for three years and works thirty hours a week as both a clerk in the store and as a maker of tables and chairs in the Good Used Stuff woodshop. He likes his job, though more and more lately he’s been thinking about shifting entirely to freelance work as explicated on his most recent business card.

October “Tober” Quincy

Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener

Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones

Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome

Until three months ago, Tober lived with his brother Augie, who is younger than Tober by a year, and their mother Sharon, who is forty-two, in a farmhouse at the end of Snake Creek Road, the nearest town Fortuna, ten miles away. Then in August, Augie moved to Portland, Oregon to attend graduate school in Clinical Psychology at Oregon Health and Science University; and when Tober and Sharon returned from helping Augie get settled in Portland, Sharon decided to begin the process of adopting two young sisters, Amelia, five, and Consuela, four, something she’d been considering since attending adoption workshops in June.

Tober is excited about Amelia and Consuela joining the family and he’s looking forward to helping them adjust to their new lives on Snake Creek Road, though the addition of two little girls to the household means he will be vacating his bedroom—the only bedroom he’s ever known—and moving into the low-ceilinged attic, which is not an ideal bedroom for a person six-foot-three.

Thus he is planning to build another house on their ten acres, though he isn’t sure how big a house to build. What if Augie decides to come home after his three or four years in Portland, or sooner if he changes his mind about becoming a psychotherapist? What if he, Tober, wants to get married and have children? Should he build a cottage that can be expanded into a larger house, or two separate expandable cottages, one for him and one for Augie?

As if this weren’t enough upheaval for one brief stretch of a person’s life, Tober is now six months into his first relationship involving sex. His girlfriend Annie is twenty-three and lives in Fortuna where she is a waitress at Double D Steakhouse and shares an apartment with a hairdresser named Tiffany. In his six months as Annie’s official boyfriend, Tober’s mad love for her has inspired him to write fourteen love songs, two sonatas for piano and violin, one sonata for violin and guitar, and dozens of love sonnets.

Annie, who is always hip to the very latest celebrity gossip and spends hours every day perusing Fashion magazines and Fashion web sites, is forever telling Tober how much she loves him and wants to marry him and have at least two children with him. When she’s not working at Double D, Annie likes to smoke pot, watch television, text and talk on her phone, go barhopping with Tiffany, and have sex with Tober.

When Tober is with Annie, he can’t take his eyes off her, and when they’re apart he can’t stop thinking about her.

But wait, there’s more. Not only has Sharon decided to adopt two children, but six weeks ago she abruptly ended her two-year relationship with Maybe, the owner of Good Used Stuff, which has made the last several weeks at work for Tober quite the emotional challenge.

And so…

On this cold November morning, nine days before Thanksgiving, Tober is standing behind the checkout counter near the front door of Good Used Stuff, re-reading a long handwritten letter he got yesterday from Augie asking him to come to Portland and visit for a few days, after which they will return home together for Thanksgiving.

Now a familiar engine sound of a car in need of a new muffler causes Tober to look up from Augie’s letter and gaze expectantly at the front door until it opens and Annie hurries in accompanied by a blast of frigid air.

Tall and buxom with golden blonde hair, her mother Swedish, her father a big guy from Montana, Annie is wearing blood-red cowboy boots, hip-hugging blue jeans, and a red jacket over a tightly-fitting pink T-shirt with the words EUREKA writ in large red caps on the gossamer fabric directly over Annie’s breasts.

“Hey darlin’” says Tober, coming out from behind the counter to embrace his beloved.

“Hey,” says Annie, holding up her hand to stop him from coming any closer.

“What’s going on?” asks Tober, obeying her signal.

“I’m…” She looks away from him. “I can’t do this anymore. You and me.”

“Can’t do what?” he asks, bewildered.

“Be with you anymore,” she says, still looking away. “I’ve been sleeping with other guys for the last couple months.” She shrugs. “Maybe a few months. I didn’t want to. I mean… I wanted to, but I didn’t want to want to.” She sighs. “I tried not to, but I couldn’t stop myself.” Now she looks at him. “I really wanted to make it work with you, but we’re just too different.” She grimaces. “You’re like from another planet, Tober. Where they don’t have phones or televisions or modern anything. I mean… no offense, but most of the time I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about. It’s like you’re from King Arthur or something.” She looks away again. “But I’m really gonna miss fucking you. Sex with you was like way the best I’ve ever had.” She looks at him again. “I’m not just saying that. You’re amazing. But what I’m not gonna miss is feeling like an idiot for not knowing what a sonnet is or a sonata or physics or history or… whatever.” She glares at him. “I need to feel good about myself. Good about who I am and what I like to do. Which is not what you like to do. Except the sex. But it just wasn’t enough anymore, you know, to like… bridge the gap. So now I’m gonna go. Have a good life.”

Never in his nineteen years has Tober gone into shock, but now he does; and the next thing he knows, he finds himself sitting in an armchair by the woodstove in the northwest corner of the enormous store, having no memory of traversing the forty feet from the checkout counter to the stove through a maze of furniture and tools and statuary. Nor does he remember sitting down or how much time has passed since Annie came and went.

He is roused from his torpor by Maybe coming in the back door and tromping to the stove to get warm. Maybe is fifty-years-old, not quite six-feet-tall, with longish brown hair and a lopsided mustache. He is wearing a purple wool cap pulled down over his ears, a puffy orange jacket, baggy brown trousers, and black boots, his face creased with worry.

Tober very much wants to tell Maybe how strange he feels and how Annie’s coming and going was so much like a dream he wonders if it was a dream, but before he can say anything, he realizes Maybe is speaking to him.

“…so I think it would be better if you didn’t work here anymore until I get over what your mother did to me, if I ever can. I hate to do this, Tober, but every time I see you all I can think about is her saying she doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“Wait,” says Tober, frowning at Maybe. “Are you firing me?”

“I wouldn’t call it that,” says Maybe, shrugging. “I’m asking you to quit so I won’t have to fire you. I mean… you know I like you. You’re one of the finest people I know. And you’re a wizard at selling things and making things and finding stones and… but I thought your mother and I were gonna get married, and now she won’t even talk to me. And I need to stop thinking about her. It’s killing me.” He grimaces. “I’m sorry, Tober. I just… I need to recover.”

“Do you still want to buy stones from me?” asks Tober, sadly amused that he would ask Maybe about stones at a time like this.

“Oh definitely,” says Maybe, nodding. “But have Titus bring them in, okay? So I don’t have to see you and remember how one day we were planning the wedding and the next day she wouldn’t talk to me. Like I was nothing to her.”

“That isn’t how it was, Maybe.” Tober gets up from the chair. “You guys talked for days and days after she told you. And you called her every night for two weeks, and you came over when she was giving lessons and refused to leave, refused to let her do her work. You need to be honest with yourself about this, Maybe, or you’re never gonna get over her.”

“But she’d never tell me why,” says Maybe, crying. “She just kept saying it wasn’t what she wanted, but she wouldn’t say what she did want, so there was nothing I could do, nothing I could change so she would want me again.”

Titus Troutcatcher, Tober’s mentor and friend and chosen grandfather, is a Wailaki healer and counselor. Titus is eighty-five and lives with his wife Tina in a little house in the forest about a mile inland from Good Used Stuff. He doesn’t charge for his services as a healer and counselor, yet he makes a decent living because the people who come to him show their gratitude with money and gifts.

Tober drives his white electric pickup truck through a light rain to Titus’s place and finds Titus standing at the bottom of the front stairs, looking gigantic in his long gray coat as he throws a tennis ball for Spider and Feather, his longhaired Chihuahuas.

“I thought I might see you today,” says Titus, greeting Tober with a strong embrace, his voice pleasantly gruff. “Thought I heard you calling me about an hour ago. What was going on?”

“Well,” says Tober, already feeling better now that he’s with Titus, “Annie came to the store and told me she’d been sleeping with other men and didn’t want to be with me anymore, and then Maybe asked me to quit because every time he sees me, he thinks of my mom. Then he gave me a thousand dollars severance pay. And now I’m here.”

“Want some chili?” asks Titus, nodding encouragingly. “Made with fresh venison. Horace Waterfall shot that young doe couple days ago. You know the one. She kept jumping his deer fence and eating those late yellow apples. Horace gave us a rear haunch. Tender. I think all those apples she ate made her extra sweet. Tina made her chili yesterday. Pretty spicy, but delicious. Come on in. Get warm.”

They climb the four steps to the front porch of the little pink house and go inside, the dogs rushing in ahead of them. They take off their coats and Titus puts a log of pine and a log of oak on the spluttering fire, and the flames grow large.

While Titus heats the chili and makes toast and coffee, Tober squats by the fire and gazes at the glowing embers and wonders why today of all days he lost both his lover and his job.

“Tina’s in Fortuna,” says Titus, stirring the pot of chili. “At Teresa’s. Might spend the night over there. Her night vision isn’t so good anymore. She shouldn’t drive after dusk. Her great grandson Lawrence, you remember him. He’s six now. Has that big gap between his two front teeth. Red hair. He’s in a school play today about vegetables. He’s a carrot. Type casting. I was gonna go but I woke up this morning feeling like I should stick around here.”

“I’m glad you did,” says Tober, smiling.

“So… Maybe let you go,” says Titus, nodding. “You were ready to stop working there anyway, weren’t you? That was a good first job away from home for you, but now you can go freelance like you’ve been wanting to. It’s a sad situation, him pining for your mother, but now you’re free. Sometimes we need a push to leave the nest, and he gave you one.”

“True,” says Tober, adding another log to the fire. “It was time for me to go.”

A silence falls, both of them thinking about Annie and what they might say.

“So…” says Titus, tasting the chili. “Annie. Beautiful woman. Every time I see her I think of Vikings. You know? A Viking princess. Only without the helmet with the horns. Did you want to marry her?”

“I thought I did,” says Tober, nodding. “But I think that was only because she kept saying how much she wanted to marry me and have children and… I wanted to make her happy. But the truth is, I never really could imagine being married to her, sharing a house and doing chores together and taking care of kids and animals and… never could imagine that.”

“What did you do together when you weren’t having sex?” Titus fills two big bowls with chili and carries the bowls to the kitchen table. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I don’t mind,” says Tober, who has never had any secrets from Titus in the twelve years they’ve known each other. “We’d go to the beach when it was sunny and she’d sunbathe and use her phone while I searched for stones and… she liked to go out for breakfast, and sometimes we’d go to pubs and… but I guess we mostly just hung out and… you know… enjoyed being with each other.”

“What did you do when you just hung out?” Titus takes the toast out of the toaster oven. “When you weren’t having sex?”

“Well… she would watch television and send messages to her friends on her phone and read Fashion magazines and smoke pot. She smoked pot pretty much all the time when she wasn’t working. Said it relaxed her.”

“Did you smoke with her?” asks Titus, carrying the toast and butter to the table.

“A few times,” says Tober, nodding. “But it’s too powerful for me. Even just one little puff and I can barely move because I’m so overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of even the smallest thing.”

“Yeah, marijuana is a powerful teacher,” says Titus, nodding. “I don’t recommend it for recreational use.”

“I wouldn’t either,” says Tober, shaking his head. “But she smokes all the time and it hardly seems to effect her.”

“The more a person uses,” says Titus, filling the dogs’ bowl with kibble, “the more they need to use to get what they’re after. Euphoria.” He gets two big mugs out of the cupboard. “So what did you do while she was smoking pot and watching television?”

“I’d read and write letters and compose and draw and… like that.” Tober frowns. “Are you implying we weren’t a good match?”

“No, I was just asking,” says Titus, filling the mugs with coffee and bringing them to the table. “Let’s eat.”

They sit opposite each other and share a moment of silence.

“Did Annie teach you how to please her?” Titus sips his coffee. “Sexually?”

“Yes,” says Tober, blushing. “And though I have no one else to compare her to, I dare say she was a very good teacher.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Titus chews thoughtfully on a chunk of venison and thinks of the two women who taught him the ways of love when he was Tober’s age. “Did she show you more than one way to please her?”

“More ways than I ever imagined.” says Tober, laughing.

“Did you like pleasing her?” asks Titus, nodding hopefully.

“More than anything,” says Tober, his heart aching.

“That’s how it was for me, too, when I was nineteen.” Titus smiles. “Nothing else could quite compare.”

“And that changed when you got older?” asks Tober, his eyes full of tears.

“Yeah,” says Titus, nodding. “When I was in my thirties, thirty-three or thereabouts, after my first child was born, that’s when singing and dancing and healing people and teaching the children about the natural world became as satisfying as sex, but in a different way. A spiritual way.”

“I guess I sometimes feel just as satisfied when I’m playing my violin or singing or walking in the woods.” Tober smiles through his tears. “But I’ve never felt so wildly good, crazy good, as when I made love with Annie.”

“Yeah, crazy good,” says Titus, laughing. “That’s a perfect thing to call it. Wildly good. Crazy good. So… was it ever wildly good for both of you at the same time?”

“Yes,” says Tober, his tears flowing.

“Which means her body and her physical energy were good matches for your body and your physical energy.” Titus smiles reassuringly. “And just think, October. The next time you make love with a woman, you’ll be able to please her because of all the wildly good things you learned from Annie.”

“Yeah,” says Tober, using a napkin to daub his tears. “Though I’d rather keep pleasing her.”

“Of course you would,” says Titus, nodding. “I didn’t mean it isn’t sad she doesn’t want to be with you anymore. I just wanted to remind you that you learned valuable things from her, things most men never learn. And in my experience, men who don’t know how to please women sexually don’t make very good husbands.”

“But why did she have to sleep with other men?” asks Tober, closing his eyes. “Why would she say I was her one and only and she didn’t want anybody else but me, and she wanted to marry me and have children with me if it wasn’t true? Why would she lie to me?”

“She slept with other men because it excited her to deceive you.” Titus looks out the window as the rain turns to hail. “Some people need to feel they’re doing something forbidden to get excited. And there are many men and women who find it thrilling to deceive their wives and husbands. I’ve known men who can only get aroused when they have two women in their bed, and I’ve known women who only get excited when they have two men.”

“At the same time?” asks Tober, making a horrified face.

“Oh yeah,” says Titus, nodding. “Some people only get excited when their partner ties them up, so they’re helpless. Can you imagine? Being excited by feeling helpless? Excited that someone has that kind of power over you and might hurt you? It’s true, October. Some people only get aroused when their partner says nasty things to them, and some people only get aroused if the person they’re with is a stranger.”

“Why?” asks Tober, gaping at Titus.

“Because everyone is different,” says Titus, tapping the table four times. “You and I might think everyone should want what we want, and behave as we like to behave, but they don’t. Each person is unique and became who they are through the particular experiences of their lives and the things they learned from others.”

“But why did she keep saying I was her one and only?” asks Tober, his heart aching. “Why did she keep saying she only wanted me?”

“I think she kept saying that so her deception would be even more of a betrayal.” Titus has another sip of coffee. “Betraying you was exciting for her. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s how some people are.”

“But why? Why would she want to betray me when all I ever did was love her?”

“Perhaps she was jealous of you. Jealous of your talent and your confidence and happiness, jealous that you were a man and have power and freedom she doesn’t feel she has.” Titus crosses his hands over his heart. “But she loved you, October. As best she could. Only her love wasn’t strong enough to overcome her addictions and the ways of behaving she learned from her mother. But never forget that when you made love with her, she was giving you a gift and you were giving her a gift. And you are both stronger now for the gifts you gave each other.”

Tober gets home at three that afternoon, a hard rain falling, and finds his mother carrying things out of his bedroom and piling them in the living room.

“You’re home early,” she says, surprised to see him. “Everything okay?”

Sharon is five-foot-three and slender with high cheekbones and brilliant blue eyes and lustrous brown hair that falls to her shoulders. She is reflexively friendly, but reticent about being physically affectionate, even with her close friends and her sons, which is something she would like to change about herself.

“Maybe asked me to quit today, so I did,” says Tober, looking over the things his mother has brought out of his bedroom—clothes and books and blankets and a guitar case and two wooden boxes full of ocean-polished stones. “And right before that, Annie told me she doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”

“I’m sorry, Tobe,” says Sharon, going to him. “I thought this might happen.”

“Which?” asks Tober, laughing. “That he’d fire me or she’d break up with me?”

“Both,” she says, giving him the briefest of hugs. “I’m surprised he kept you on as long as he did.”

“Why did you think Annie would break up with me?” He gazes at her expectantly. “Irreconcilable differences?”

“Oh Jean said she saw Annie with some guy in a pub in Eureka a couple weeks ago.” Sharon winces. “I was going to tell you, but then I thought it wasn’t any of my business, so I didn’t.”

“I wonder why you didn’t think it was any of your business,” says Tober, looking at the piles of his things again. “And why are you moving everything out of my room? I thought we weren’t getting the girls until January. Isn’t that what you said you wanted to do? Wait until Augie went back to Portland after Christmas?”

“I did say that,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “but I changed my mind. The place they’re staying is so crowded and understaffed and… I want them here now.” She starts to cry. “They need to be here, Tobe.”

“Let’s go get them right now,” he says, sitting beside her. “I’ll finish emptying the room when we get back.”

“We can’t get them until tomorrow morning,” she says, weeping. “At ten.”

He wraps his arms around her and holds her as she cries, and when she tries to pull away as she always does after a few seconds, he holds her a while longer and she finally relaxes and enjoys his embrace.

When Sharon and Tober finish dusting and vacuuming and mopping the now empty bedroom, they have supper and make their plans for tomorrow.

“We’ll buy two new single mattresses on the way there,” says Sharon, having a glass of red wine with her spaghetti. “And we can put their beds side-by-side if they want to sleep together, or apart if they don’t.”

“We should take both trucks,” says Tober, visualizing the trek to Eureka. “That way I can stop and get lumber on the way back and the girls can both sit with you without one of them having to sit on my lap. Since they don’t know me very well, we don’t want to freak them out.”

“Good idea,” says Sharon, starting to cry again. “Thank you so much for helping me with this, Tobe.”

“I’m not just helping you,” he says, shaking his head. “They’re joining the family. They’re not replacing me and Augie. Are they?”

“No, of course not,” say Sharon, sniffling back her tears. “They’re joining us.”

“And in a few days, when the dust settles, I’ll zoom up to Portland and get Augie.” Tober smiles at the thought of seeing his brother. “Bring him home for Turkey Day.”

“He’s dying to come home,” she says, relieved to have cried. “I’m sorry about your job, Tobe. I just couldn’t pretend anymore that Maybe was going to turn into someone else.”

“I hope you didn’t stay involved with him just so I wouldn’t lose my job.” Tober considers this possibility. “Did you?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I stayed involved with him because I wanted to see if I could outlast my tendency to end relationships after a couple years, because that’s what I do, or whether he and I really were incompatible in too many important ways.”

“I wonder if a musician can ever be compatible with a non-musician,” says Tober, thinking of Annie who played no instrument and seemed ambivalent about the songs and music he wrote for her.

“I don’t know,” says Sharon, swirling her wine. “I’ve never been involved with a musician, but now that you mention it, that was a big disconnect with Maybe, though certainly not the biggest.”

“What was the biggest?” asks Tober, wondering if it had something to do with sex. “If you don’t mind telling me.”

“No, I don’t mind,” she says, finishing her wine. “Would you pour me a little more, please?”

“But of course Madame,” he says, filling her glass

“I’m not sure I can put this into words, but…” She muses for a moment. “Well the girls, for instance. When I told him I was thinking of adopting a child or two, he gave me this skeptical look and said, ‘Why would you want to do something like that?’ The implication being that there was something suspect about my wanting more children, that they would somehow be a negation of him, a diminishing of his importance in my life. And I realized that his notion of a relationship was one in which your mate should always be the primary focus, not the family, not the community, but only your mate. Whereas my notion of a relationship is an alliance within a larger family and community.”

After supper, Tober carries the vacuum cleaner up the narrow stairway to the attic to get the space ready for his things; and when he bumps his head on the low ceiling four times in the first five minutes he’s up there, he turns off the vacuum cleaner and comes down the stairs into the kitchen where Sharon is sitting at the counter having a cup of tea and making a shopping list for tomorrow.

“I’m not gonna live up there, Mom,” he says, taking a sip of her tea. “I can’t stand up straight without bashing my head. I’m gonna call the Bernsteins and see if I can sleep down there until I figure out where next to lay my head.”

“Take my bedroom,” says Sharon, anguished about dislocating Tober, especially with everything else he’s going through. “I’ll sleep in the attic.”

“No, you need to be near the girls,” he says, picking up the phone. “And as you may recall, the first time you floated the idea of adopting a child or two, George and Lisa both said I could stay at their place if it got too crazy up here. Besides, they’re hardly ever there now that Cecily and Felix have moved to LA and San Luis Obispo.”

He punches the number of their closest neighbors—the Bernsteins having built their house on Snake Creek Road twenty-two years ago, three years before Sharon moved into the farmhouse when she was seven months pregnant with Tober.

Cecily, George and Lisa’s daughter, is a year older than Tober and was his childhood pal and first crush. She lives in Los Angeles now, pursuing a career as an actress. Felix, George and Lisa’s son, is Augie’s age and matriculated at Cal Poly a year ago.

George, fifty-seven, an investment broker turned artisan furniture maker, answers his phone on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hey, George, it’s Tober. Got a minute?”

“Yeah, yeah. What’s going on?” George grew up in Los Angeles, the child of Chicago Jews.

“The big news up here is we’re picking up Amelia and Consuela tomorrow morning and they’ll be taking over my bedroom, so I was wondering if…”

“Yes,” says George, excitedly. “Move down here. We’d love it. We’ve got three empty bedrooms and Lisa’s gone half the time now at the beck and call of her royal highness, who, as you know, has been on the verge of stardom for six years. And counting. Be that as it may, I’d love for you to live here. Come on down.”

“Thank you, George,” says Tober, gratefully. “I’m gonna sleep in our living room for the next couple nights until the girls get settled, and then I’m driving to Portland to get Augie for Thanksgiving, and he and I may both crash at your place, if that’s okay.”

“Absolutely,” says George, ecstatically. “Can you hear Lisa shouting hurray? We’re leaving for San Luis and LA next week and we’ll be gone all through December and into New Year’s, so… you know how to get here.”

Sharon gets home with Amelia and Consuela at noon the next day, and Tober arrives an hour later with the new mattresses and lumber for building platforms for the mattresses, the platforms to have drawers underneath for the girls’ clothes and toys and extra blankets and whatnot.

Amelia, five, the older of the two sisters, is shorter and stockier than four-year-old Consuela, who is quite tall for her age and very slender. They both have shoulder-length black hair and big brown eyes. The people at the adoption agency believe the girls’ mother, a prostitute who went by the name of Candy, was part Latina, part Anglo. Amelia’s father was Mexican and Consuela’s father was African American. The girls have been in foster care since their mother died when Amelia was four and Consuela was three. The whereabouts of the fathers is unknown.

Tober enters the house and finds Consuela and Amelia and Sharon sitting at the kitchen table having blackberry smoothies and bowls of rice and vegetables. Both girls are wearing dark blue sweatshirts and gray pants and brown shoes, and both are chattering away in Spanish with Sharon, who is fluent in that language.

When the girls see Tober, they fall silent and look down, wary of making eye contact with him.

Sharon gets up from the table, takes Tober’s hand, looks at the girls and says in Spanish, “Amelia? Consuela? You’ve met my son Tober. He’s your brother now. He’s a very nice person and he speaks some Spanish, but you must help him learn more Spanish words and he will help you learn more English words.”

“Hola Amelia,” says Tober, smiling at the little girls. “Hola Consuela. Welcome home.”

“Gracias,” says Amelia, taking a peek at Tober.

“Hola,” whispers Consuela, still not looking at him. “Hermano.”

The girls take an immediate liking to the big farm dog Igor, a sixty-pound Black Lab Australian Shepherd mix, and Igor seems delighted with them. Consuela especially loves the dog and asks Sharon if she may give him some food. Sharon explains that they feed Igor in the morning and late afternoon, but not in between, and they never feed him from the table during breakfast or lunch or dinner.

Consuela ponders this information and looks into Igor’s eyes. “When it is time for you to eat,” she says, petting him, “I will feed you.”

Having located a cache of Augie and Tober’s childhood jackets, and confident Amelia and Consuela are dressed warmly enough for the bitter cold, Sharon and Tober and Igor give the girls a tour of the immediate vicinity of the farmhouse—the dormant vegetable garden, the orchard, the old barn, the woodshed, and the chicken coop wherein Amelia finds one egg and Consuela finds two.

In the late afternoon, after Amelia and Consuela have had a nap on their new mattresses, George and Lisa come up the hill to meet the newest members of the Quincy family. Lisa presents the girls with two big bags full of clothing—dresses and shirts and coats and pants that Cecily wore when she was four and five and six.

When Sharon explains to the girls that these clothes are theirs to keep, they take turns choosing an article of clothing and solemnly carrying it into their bedroom where Consuela puts her choices on one of the mattresses and Amelia puts hers on the other. The first thing Amelia chose was a shimmery red skirt, Consuela’s first choice a black long-sleeved T-shirt.

When Tober tells George about his plan to build platforms for the beds with drawers under the platforms, George insists Tober avail himself of George’s state-of-the-art woodshop.

And when Tober shows George his design for the platforms, George says, “Hey why don’t I help you with this? I’m in between projects. We could knock this off before I leave for LA. Be fun working together, don’t you think?”

   fin

Maybe’s Good Used Stuff

Monday, February 11th, 2019

Maybe's Fire

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

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

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

And Clement shrugged and said, “Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thereby hangs this tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” said Tober, nodding eagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tober nodded humbly and offered Titus his pouch of stones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” whispered Tober, nodding emphatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       fin