Posts Tagged ‘short story’

Raymond’s Band

Monday, December 10th, 2018

Raymond's Band

Raymond’s partner Tina will sometimes tease Raymond by saying he loves his guitar Susie more than he loves her, which Raymond doesn’t think is true, though he does love his guitar. He’s been playing since he was ten, and now he’s thirty-three, a superb guitarist, and he can’t imagine life without a guitar. He also can’t imagine life without Tina, and he knows she only teases him about loving Susie more than he loves her when she wants him to pay more attention to her, which is something he’s always happy to do.

A wearer of brown khaki pants, red high-top tennies, and colorful T-shirts, Raymond Chance is a sturdy five-foot-nine with short brown hair and brilliant green eyes, the brilliance somewhat muted by his wire-framed glasses, the lenses tinted light gray. The youngest of two children, his sister five years older than he, Raymond was born in Burlingame, California, his mother a first-generation Irish American, his father descended from pioneers who reached California in wagon trains a decade before the Gold Rush of 1849. From his mother, a high school music teacher, Raymond got his love of music and storytelling, and from his father, a plumber, he learned basic carpentry skills, an appreciation for baseball, and how to barbecue chicken.

A wearer of skirts, sandals, and embroidered Mexican blouses, Tina Ramirez is thirty-two, five-foot-three, with big brown eyes and long brown hair. The middle child of five siblings, Tina was born in San Jose, California, her mother Cuban, her father Mexican. A gymnast from the age of six until she was sixteen, Tina was an excellent student and received a full scholarship to San Jose State. From her mother, a seamstress, Tina learned to cook and make clothes and dance the Rumba and Mambo. From her father, a construction worker, Tina learned to work hard, how to grow tomatoes and chili peppers, and how to make killer guacamole.

Tina and Raymond have been friends for eleven years, lovers for nine, housemates for eight, and they both say they want to get married, but they haven’t set a date, nor do they talk much about marriage. They are both ambivalent about having children, not because they don’t love children, they do, but because they barely make enough money to cover their expenses, despite having an old car and sharing the three-bedroom house they rent in Oakland with four other people.

Raymond is a teacher’s aide in a private pre-school in Berkeley, his hours seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, though he often stays an extra hour until the last child has gone home. He loves his job, though it pays poorly, and he frequently searches the Want Ads for another job. He plays the guitar for at least two hours every day and has written hundreds of songs, seventy-four of which he thinks are really good.

Tina is a substitute teacher, mostly middle school, and makes twice what Raymond makes per hour, but she hates subbing and is taking online courses to improve her computer skills and enhance her chances of landing an Internet Technology job. Both she and Raymond have degrees in English from San Jose State where they met in a Creative Writing class. Tina hasn’t written anything since graduating from college, and Raymond mostly writes songs these days, though occasionally he’ll write a short story and share it with the household.

Raymond and Tina have a band called Pepperoni. Raymond is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist and writer of all the songs, Tina plays electric bass and sings harmony, and Derek, Raymond’s friend since childhood, plays lead guitar. They’ve had one regular gig for the last five months, every Sunday late morning to early afternoon at Calm Coffee, a popular café in Emeryville. Raymond has tried to get more gigs for the band, but the three songs on the Pepperoni demo CD they made in their living room reveals more of the group’s flaws than virtues. Raymond is a masterful guitarist with a pleasing voice, but Tina is frequently out of synch with Raymond when singing harmony and playing bass, and Derek is a sloppy player who uses the same seven-note blues riff over and over again.

Now and then, usually when he hasn’t had enough sleep, Raymond admits to himself that Tina and Derek are musical liabilities, but Tina loves playing bass and singing with Raymond, and Derek and Raymond started playing guitars together in Fifth Grade and Raymond thinks Derek would be devastated if he couldn’t be in the band.

Raymond landed the Calm Coffee gig by playing and singing solo for the manager of the café, Fiona Marconi, in her office adjacent to the café kitchen. Fiona, a professional dancer with expressive hands and short black hair, loved Raymond’s singing and playing, and she was more than a little peeved when he showed up with Tina and Derek for the gig; but she has such an enormous crush on Raymond, she can’t bring herself to fire Pepperoni.

One rainy Sunday in April, Tina wakes with a debilitating headache and Derek calls from Burlingame where he still lives with his parents to say he has the flu, so Raymond goes to play the Calm Coffee gig by himself.

When Raymond tells Fiona he’ll be playing solo today, Fiona wants to throw her arms around him and kiss him, but she resists those impulses and effuses, “Truth be told, you’re so good by yourself, I really don’t think you need those other two.”

Raymond nods his thanks to Fiona for her compliment, tunes Susie, plugs into the café sound system, and sits on a high stool rather than standing as he usually does when he performs with Tina and Derek.

He starts his first set with a swinging love song full of delightful chord changes and enchanting lyrics, and many of the customers stop talking to listen. At song’s end, the applause is boisterous, something that never happens when Tina and Derek play with Raymond.

The interesting thing to Raymond is, though he knows he sounds much better playing and singing alone, he misses Tina and Derek playing with him. And on this Sunday, for the first time in his life, he realizes he has chosen mediocrity over excellence because he is uncomfortable playing in public by himself. But why do I have to play with such lousy musicians?

By the end of Raymond’s third set, Calm Coffee is jammed with people listening to him; and when he finishes his last tune, the applause goes on for so long he is moved to play an encore, after which dozens of people put money in his tip jar and thank him for playing.

Fiona pays Raymond twenty dollars more than the usual fifty, gives him a big bag of muffins and cookies, and goes on and on about what a wonderful solo performer he is, but she stops short of asking him to henceforth play the Calm Coffee gig solo.

In his car, before heading home, Raymond counts his tips and can’t believe the total. So he counts the money again, looks around to confirm he is still on planet Earth, and whispers, “Two hundred and forty-seven dollars? Impossible.”

The following Sunday morning at ten, Fiona is gravely disappointed when Derek, a heavyset guy with long dank blond hair, and Tina arrive at Calm Coffee with Raymond. But despite her disappointment, Fiona decides not to tell Raymond about the dozens of phone calls she received during the week from people asking if Raymond would be playing by himself again this week.

The truth is, Fiona has only kept Pepperoni on the bill for as long as she has because she keeps hoping Raymond will either break up with Tina or wake up to his genius and start gigging solo, or both. But because Fiona did not call Raymond in the days leading up to this Sunday’s gig and tell him about those phone calls from people who love him but can’t stand the full ensemble, she decides to let today’s drama unfold however it will and hope her customers won’t boo the band, though if they do boo, she won’t be surprised.

As it happens, the customers don’t boo, either because they don’t stay to listen or they stay and don’t listen, the café din all but drowning out the music; and Raymond feels terrible as Tina keeps losing the beat and playing the wrong notes and coming in late with her harmonies, and Derek keeps bending the same handful of notes exactly as he’s been bending them since he was thirteen.

Only a few people put change in the tip jar, and when the last song is sung, Fiona asks Raymond to come to her office where she pays him and says, “I’m sorry, Raymond, but we’re going to go with somebody else on Sundays from now on. It was great getting to know you. I love your songs. Good luck.”

“I appreciate you keeping us on here for as long as you did,” says Raymond, smiling at her. “Meant a lot to us. Thanks.”

Fiona takes a deep breath and says, “If you ever want to play solo, let me know. Okay? I’d love to have you gig here and I know I could get you gigs other places, too. But not with Tina and Derek. They’re just not in your league, Raymond. You know that, don’t you?”

“I hear you,” he says, waving goodbye. “Thanks again, Fiona.”

At the table in Calm Coffee where Derek and Tina and Raymond are having their customary after-gig coffee and bagels, Raymond is trying to work up the courage to tell Tina and Derek about the termination of their run at Calm Coffee, when a man approaches their table. He’s tall and good-looking with longish gray hair, wearing a black corduroy jacket over a green T-shirt tucked into black corduroy trousers.

He nods politely to Tina and Derek, smiles at Raymond and says, “Sorry to barge in, but I heard you playing solo last week and came back to hear you again today.” He hands Raymond a business card. “I’m very interested in your music. I have a recording studio just around the corner here, and I’m working with a couple of artists who would love to record some of your songs. If that’s of any interest to you, please give me a call and we’ll set something up.”

“Okay,” says Raymond, pocketing the card without looking at it. “Thanks.”

The man walks away, and now Raymond doesn’t have the heart to tell Tina and Derek about the end of their Calm Coffee gig, just as he didn’t have the heart to tell them about the two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips and the extra twenty he made last week.

That night, as they are settling down to sleep, Tina says to Raymond, “I felt pretty good about my playing today. I think I’m finally getting the knack of playing bass and singing at the same time. Don’t you think?”

Raymond clears his throat. “Yeah. You were fine.”

“Fine?” she says, with a touch of anger. “What do you mean fine?”

“I mean you were good,” says Raymond, unconvincingly.

“That guy who gave you his card certainly thought we were good,” she says, petulantly. “Why else would he be interested in our songs?”

“Honey, they’re not our songs, they’re my songs.”

“What?” she says, sitting up and turning on the light. “Your songs? Since when are they your songs and not Pepperoni’s songs?”

“Are you serious?” says Raymond, frowning at her. “I wrote them. I play them. I sing them and you guys play along. You didn’t write them. I did.”

Tina gets out of bed and glares at Raymond. “So does this mean you’re gonna go see that guy without me and Derek? Your songs are… they’re skeletal without us.”

“Skeletal?” says Raymond, sitting up and laughing. “Are you out of your mind?”

Tina folds her arms. “So this is what I get for playing with you for five years? This is how you treat Derek after he played with you for twenty years? You dump us the minute some guy with a recording studio gives you his card?”

“The guy is interested in my songs,” says Raymond, flabbergasted. “Not in our band. He wants the songs, maybe, for some people he’s recording. I’m a songwriter. You’re not, and neither is Derek. Can we please discuss this rationally? I am not dumping you. If I go see this guy, and I may not, I will play him my songs and if he wants some of them, we’ll figure something out. Do you hear what I’m saying? This is not about the band. It’s about the songs.”

“Yeah, but he liked the songs because of the way we played them,” she says, angrily. “Will you at least admit that?”

“No,” says Raymond, shaking his head. “What I’ll admit is last Sunday I played at Calm Coffee without you and Derek, and I made two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips, and Fiona paid me an extra twenty dollars over the usual fifty. And today she told me she doesn’t want Pepperoni playing there anymore.”

Tina glares at Raymond. “I know why you’re doing this. Because you resent that I make more money than you, and you resent that I’m going to get a tech job and make serious money while you barely make minimum wage.”

“Tina,” he says quietly. “I’m happy you make good money subbing, and I’ll be happy when you get a job you like and make even more money. I work at the pre-school because I love the job and I love the kids, but my real job, the job I care most about, is my music. And I really don’t understand why you would begrudge me a little success with what I’ve dedicated my whole life to. I don’t get it.”

She sits on the edge of the bed and says, “I begrudge you because I’m jealous of you. As if you didn’t know. I was gonna be a writer. Remember? And you were gonna be a writer. But we ended up being what we are, and I don’t do anything creative except play bass and sing with you, and I know I’m not very good, but I love it because it’s something creative, something not just about getting money and surviving. It’s what we wanted to be. Artists. And you work at being an artist and I don’t. I could write. I could write stories and post them online. But I don’t because I’m not passionate about writing anymore. I don’t see the point. And I’m tired of just scraping by. You don’t seem to care that you don’t make very much money because you’ve got your music. But I don’t have music except when I play along with you. And now I can’t even do that.”

Raymond crawls across the bed and puts his arms around her. “Maybe we should move somewhere where it doesn’t cost so much to live. We don’t have to live in the most expensive place in the world. Do we?”

“No,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “I’m sorry I got mad at you. I’m glad that guy likes your songs. They’re great songs.” She kisses him. “Did you really make two hundred and forty-seven dollars, plus the fifty, plus twenty more?”

“I did,” says Raymond, excitedly. “Wanna see?”

Suite Chariot is the name of Zack Mathias’s recording company, Zack Mathias the man who gave Raymond his card at Calm Coffee. Raymond researched Zack Mathias on the Internet and learned that Zack, who hails from New York, has produced several albums for well-known singers and played bass on dozens of albums, some of them hugely successful.

Which is why, on the Saturday after Pepperoni performed at Calm Coffee for the last time, Raymond hesitates to press the brass doorbell button on the wall next to the large red door on the ground floor of a two-story white stucco warehouse, the sign above the door—magenta letters on a field of turquoise—identifying this as the entrance to Suite Chariot.

Indeed, Raymond is so intimidated by the thought of meeting Zack, he is on the verge of not pressing the doorbell, and returning home and sending an apologetic email to Zack retracting his offer to meet with him, when a woman runs by with a large menacing dog on a leash, and Raymond is startled into pressing the button.

And before his fear of meeting Zack can take over again, the red door opens and here is a striking African American woman with black hair captured in dozens of long slender braids. She is wearing a turquoise sweatshirt, purple sweatpants, and gold basketball shoes, her lips painted cherry red.

“Welcome Raymond,” she says, giving Raymond a wide-eyed smile, her voice deep and warm. “I’m Maru. Zack’s running a little late. Come in. We’ll get you set up in the studio. He’ll be here soon.”

Raymond follows Maru down a long narrow hallway to a small waiting room appointed with a plush sofa and armchair, one wall of the little room dominated by a large oil painting of Jimi Hendrix wearing the long curly brown-haired wig and sumptuous clothing of Louis XIV while holding an electric lute plugged into a classic Fender Reverb amp.

From the waiting room, they enter a large performance room with a big window in one of the walls looking into a control room where an African American man with short gray hair is sitting in a comfortable-looking chair at the recording console. He is wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt, a red bowtie, and black slacks. He waves to Raymond, and Raymond waves back.

“Um,” says Raymond, looking around the performance room and seeing five microphones on stands, a trap set, and a large reddish-brown standup bass in a beautiful wooden box stand, “I didn’t think I was going to be recording anything today. I thought we were just going to… I was just gonna play some tunes for Zack and…”

“That’s right,” says Maru, moving one of the microphones, “but Zack likes to record everything because we never know when lightning might strike.”

“That’s true,” says Raymond, taking of his jacket. “We never know, do we?”

“Nope,” says Maru, taking Raymond’s jacket from him. “People call you Raymond or Ray?”

“Raymond,” he says, laughing nervously. “But that’s only because nobody’s ever called me Ray. I don’t know why, but no one ever has.”

“Raymond feels a little formal to me,” she says, pursing her lips. “Be okay if I call you Ray?”

“Yeah, I like it when you say Ray,” he says, blushing.

“How about when I say Ray?” says the fellow in the control room, his gravelly voice coming through a speaker on the wall above the window.

“Yeah, I like that, too,” says Raymond, smiling at the man. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Jerry,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “But everybody calls me Tap.”

“Tap’s a most excellent drummer,” says Maru, coming close to Raymond. “You like to stand or sit when you play?”

“Either,” says Raymond, feeling like he’s about to fall off a cliff. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Your choice,” says Maru, nodding.

“Well, I play a little better sitting down,” says Raymond, looking around for something to sit on, “but I sing better standing.” He shrugs. “I guess I’ll sit.”

“Chair, stool, or piano bench?” asks Tap, getting up from his chair in the control room. “I’m thinkin’ piano bench.”

“Yeah, that would be perfect,” says Raymond, getting Susie out of her case. “I’ve never been in a recording studio before.”

“Seriously?” says Maru, frowning at him. “You play like you were born in one, Ray.”

“Where… “ Raymond clears his throat. “Where did you hear me play?”

“At Calm Coffee,” she says, nodding. “Two weeks ago. Zack called and told us to get over there as soon as we could. And I’m so glad we did.” She looks into the control room. “Here’s Zack.”

“Hey Raymond,” says Zack, standing at the control console. “Sorry I’m late. Got stuck in traffic on the bridge. Madhouse out there.”

“You live in San Francisco?” asks Raymond, watching Tap wheel in a big brown piano bench on a yellow dolly.

“No, I live here when I’m in town,” says Zack, taking off his jacket, his T-shirt red today. “Upstairs. Couple bedrooms, kitchen, dance floor. I stayed in a hotel in the city last night. Stayed up way too late listening to a couple singer songwriters.” He sits down at the console. “And the whole time I was listening to them, I kept thinking about your songs, especially that one about the guy who goes next door to complain about the loud music and ends up falling in love. That’s a hit, Raymond.”

“Oh, thanks,” says Raymond, unconsciously fingering the first few chords of the song. “Glad you like it. That one’s called ‘Too Much Noise.’”

“Great song,” says Zack, nodding. “Would you play that one first?”

“Sure,” says Raymond, sitting on the piano bench and tuning Susie as Maru positions three microphones around him, one for his voice, one aimed at Susie’s sound hole, one aimed at Susie’s neck.

“You want headphones?” asks Maru, smiling sweetly at Raymond.

“For what?” he asks, innocently.

“To hear yourself playing and singing.” She laughs in delight. “You really are a studio virgin, aren’t you?”

“Let’s go without headphones,” says Zack, with quiet authority. “They can take some getting used to.”

Maru and Tap join Zack in the control room, and Zack says, “Any time you’re ready, Mr. Chance.”

Raymond closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and improvises a lovely opening for his sweet little rocker “Too Much Noise”.

In the unsullied quiet of the performance room, Raymond hears his voice and guitar more clearly than he has ever heard them, and he loves how he sounds.

When he finishes the tune, he opens his eyes and sees Maru and Tap and Zack applauding in the control room; and in the next moment they are with him—Tap sitting down at the trap set, Zack standing with his big bass, and Maru sitting on a high stool.

“Play that one again, Raymond,” says Zack, nodding. “That was fantastic.”

So Raymond starts the song again, this time with a different opening, and Zack adds a few quiet bass notes right on the beat, and Tap swirls his brushes on the snare drum; and Zack’s subtle playing and Tap’s tender drumming carry Raymond into the body of his song.

And as he plays and sings, Raymond knows he has never heard anything as beautiful as Zack and Tap playing with him, supporting him; and when Maru joins him on the chorus, her astounding voice locked in perfect harmony with his, Raymond is changed forever.

Too much noise, the walls were shaking

Too much noise, my heart was breaking

Too much noise, I just couldn’t take it,

So I went next door and fell in love.

 

Raymond plays three more of his songs, Zack and Tap and Maru join him on reiterations of each, and after an hour of musical bliss, Maru whips out her phone and orders Chinese food, and the four of them go upstairs to await delivery of lunch.

Zack gives Raymond a tour of his digs, and during the tour tells Raymond he has two other set-ups like this, one in Austin, one in London.

“The only actual house I own is in Hawaii, on Kauai,” he says, leading Raymond back to the kitchen. “I like to be warm in the winter.”

Tap comes up the stairs with the Chinese food, and when everyone has a full plate, Zack raises his cup of green tea and says, “To our great good fortune in finding you, Raymond. May this be the beginning of a marvelous collaboration.”

Glasses are clinked, tea is drunk, food is enjoyed, and Zack says, “So… Raymond. If you haven’t guessed already, I want to produce your first album. And your second and third and fourth, God willing.”

My album?” says Raymond, freezing. “I thought you were just interested in my songs for other people to record.”

“Oh other people are definitely gonna record your songs,” says Tap, nodding emphatically. “But you have to make a record, Ray. You have to.”

“I… I… well, of course I want to, but…”

A silence falls, Zack and Tap and Maru waiting for Raymond to explain his reticence.

“As I told you, Zack,” says Raymond, clearing his throat, “I have a fulltime job at a pre-school. I’m a teacher’s aide. And… I suppose I could do some recording at night and on weekends, but…”

“You keep saying but,” says Maru, frowning at him. “What’s up with that, Ray?”

“I’m… well…” He laughs anxiously. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before so I’m just… I’m not sure how to do this.”

“May I propose something?” says Zack, smiling hopefully at Raymond.

“Please,” says Raymond, nodding humbly.

“I will sign you to a six-month recording deal with me as the producer of your album, and I’ll pay you a monthly salary equal to or greater than what you make in your current job. We’ll make an album, the four of us along with some other people we’ll bring in, and then I’ll try to make a deal with a label. I think Blue Note will go crazy over you.”

“Crazy,” says Maru, nodding in agreement.

“And if they don’t go crazy, somebody else will,” says Tap, pointing at Raymond. “I’d bet serious dollars on that.”

Raymond takes Tina out for supper that night to an Indian restaurant, and after they place their order, Tina says, “The suspense is killing me. How did it go today with Zack Mathias the famous bass player?”

“Went well,” says Raymond, nodding. “Went… um… really well. He wants to produce an album with me.”

“He wants some of your songs?” she asks hopefully.

“All the songs on the album would be mine,” says Raymond, finding it hard to breathe. “And I would be playing them and singing them with Zack playing bass and a guy named Tap playing drums and a woman named Maru singing with me, and other people, too, would play and sing on the album.”

Tina frowns. “I thought he just wanted some of your songs. Isn’t that what he said at Calm Coffee?”

“Yes, that’s what he said at the café, but after I played him a few songs, he got this other idea.” Raymond smiles, trying not to cry. “He’s a very nice guy, Tina, and he’s a fantastic musician and… and he really likes my music. So…”

“Wow,” says Tina, her eyes filling with tears. “So are you gonna do it?”

“Yes,” says Raymond, looking at her. “I think so. I want to go over the contract with you and…”

“You’re signing a contract?” says Tina, frowning. “Is he paying you?”

“Well… if I sign the contract, yes. He’ll pay me four thousand dollars a month for six months and cover all the costs of the recording and the other musicians and… I’ll be taking a break from working at the pre-school to just focus on the music.”

“Oh my God, Raymond,” she says, getting up and going to him. “It’s incredible. Hurray for you.”

“Hurray for us,” he says, rising to embrace her—their outburst inspiring several diners to clap because they think Raymond just proposed to Tina and she’s saying Yes.

They hold each other, crying and laughing, and Raymond says, “Thank you, honey. Thank you for loving me.”

“I love you so much,” she says, looking into his eyes. “But how are you ever gonna tell Derek?”

Raymond signs the contract with Zack the next day, and the day after that he gives two-weeks notice at the pre-school, and the following Saturday he takes BART from Oakland to Burlingame to have lunch with Derek.

For the entire hour-long train journey, Raymond is consumed with guilt, not about pursuing his musical career without Derek, but for allowing Derek to believe he was Raymond’s musical peer for the last twenty years, when in fact Derek reached his musical zenith in junior high.

For many years, Raymond assumed Derek was aware of the difference in their guitar-playing abilities, but one weekend during Raymond’s third year at San Jose State, Derek visited Raymond at the house Raymond was renting with four other college guys, and something happened during Derek’s visit that made Raymond rethink his assumption about how Derek perceived things.

One of Raymond’s housemates, Gino, was a good guitarist, and Raymond and Gino had worked out some fairly complicated duets of three Django Reinhardt tunes. The Saturday night when Derek was visiting, Gino and Raymond performed the duets at their house party attended by about forty young men and women, and the response to their playing was so enthusiastic they were compelled to perform their duets a second time.

Afterwards, Derek, who was very stoned, joined a group of people heaping praise on Gino and Raymond, and proclaimed loudly, “Yeah, they were good, but you should hear me and Raymond play. We’re amazing together.”

Several people responded to Derek’s boast by asking to hear Raymond and Derek play. Gino handed his guitar to Derek, Raymond took up his guitar, and Derek said, “Play that blues thing we always do.”

So Raymond improvised a pleasing progression of jazzy blues chords and Derek played the same seven-note riff over and over again, not quite in synch with Raymond, and when Raymond ended the song, a few people clapped, and that was that.

The next morning, before Derek headed back to Burlingame, he said to Raymond, “We should start a band. We were incredible last night. People were blown away.”

Ten minutes from Burlingame, recalling that moment in San Jose twelve years ago, Raymond thinks That’s when I should have told him. But I couldn’t because he didn’t have anything else in his life and I thought he would kill himself if I told him the truth.

After Raymond graduated from college and moved to Oakland, Derek would come visit for a day and a night every week, and in the evenings during those visits, Raymond and Derek would play guitars and Derek would play the same blues riff over and over again.

Raymond thought of these sessions as his gift to Derek for being such a loyal friend and because he didn’t have the will to tell Derek not to come visit, though he and Tina came to dread Derek coming because he seemed so lost and sad and he still lived at home with his parents and had never had a girlfriend and didn’t seem to have anything in his life except television and video games and his job delivering newspapers.

Derek and Raymond have lunch in a pizza parlor where Derek goes every day, his home away from home, where everyone who works there knows him by name.

“I think I could get us a gig here,” says Derek, looking around the pizza parlor. “They don’t have live music here, but I’ll bet I could talk them into it.” He nods confidently. “They love me here.”

“This is good pizza,” says Raymond, lying; and his lie irks him, and he blurts, “You know that guy who gave me his card at Calm Coffee?”

“Yeah,” says Derek, nodding enthusiastically. “He had a great belt. Did you notice his belt? It was like this amazing shiny dark burgundy leather. And very thin. And the belt buckle was silver and like a piece of modern art. I went online looking for a belt like that, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll bet it’s Italian. Looked very expensive. What about him?”

“His name is Zack Mathias and he turns out to be quite a well-known record producer and bass player.” Raymond looks away from Derek. “I’m gonna be making an album with him.”

“Really?” says Derek, amazed. “When?”

“Starting now and working for the next few months and then… he’s gonna try to sell the album to a record company.” Raymond forces himself to look at Derek. “He really likes my songs and my singing and… my playing.”

“Well he should,” says Derek, grinning at Raymond. “So will you be like… touring?”

“I don’t know,” says Raymond, his heart breaking. “Maybe.”

“Wow,” says Derek, beckoning to a passing waitress. “Hey Leslie, this is my best friend Raymond. He’s making an album with a big time record producer.”

“Congratulations,” says Leslie, with little enthusiasm.

“Thank you,” says Raymond, his eyes full of tears.

“So you gonna be his roadie, Derek?” asks Leslie, arching her eyebrow.

“No, he won’t need a roadie,” says Derek, gazing fondly at Raymond. “He’s great all by himself.”

         fin

Karen at the Bookstore

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

titles

Karen Constantine is fifty-four and has worked at Studio Books for eighteen years. Studio Books is the only bookstore in the coastal town of Deep River, California, a five-hour drive north of San Francisco. Of the two thousand people who call Deep River home, at least five hundred of them know Karen as the Karen at the bookstore.

A week ago, when Karen was more than a little drunk at the bar in the Deep River Hotel, she declared to her good buddies Richard and Kathy, “And I’m speaking from forty-two years of life experience.”

To which Liza the bartender said, “I think you mean fifty-four.”

“Shit,” said Karen, closing her eyes. “Yeah. Fifty-four.”

Ever since then, Karen has been thinking about how she thought she was forty-two and not fifty-four. This age-perception gap would have been no big deal had she said fifty-three, or even fifty, but to be operating with the self-idea that she is forty-two when she is fifty-four seems to Karen to be worthy of a serious investigation; and to that end she has made an appointment with her psychotherapist who she hasn’t seen in a professional capacity in eons.

But that appointment isn’t for another three weeks, and in the meantime Karen has her life to live and a job to go to and copious time to ponder the how and why of that twelve-year oops.

Most people who meet Karen for the first time guess she is in her forties. She has a lovely figure, a mostly wrinkle-free face, and shoulder-length dark brown hair without a trace of gray. She is comfortable in her body, goes to a ninety-minute yoga class every other day, runs two miles on the beach every morning before coming to work, and she has a radiant smile.

When Karen smiles, she is a most attractive human being, and Karen smiles many times every day because so many things make her smile: babies, kids, teenagers, adults, dogs, cats, birds, ocean, clouds, music, laughter, book titles, overheard conversations, and so much more. She finds life amusing and tragic and pointless and deeply meaningful and heartbreaking and complicated and absurd and delightful and confusing.

She was in two long-term relationships for swaths of her twenties and thirties, several short-term relationships when she was in her forties, and none in her fifties. Until she turned forty, she assumed she would have two children and be part of a family constellation. Now she is fifty-four, single, has no children, has never been married, and is part of a constellation composed of herself and her three cats: Ursula, Jeeves, and Kipling.

Studio Books is not a large store and shelf space is precious. Half the store is given to calendars, notebooks, notecards, pens, jigsaw puzzles, and a growing number of gift items, including candles, incense, earrings, and T-shirts featuring clever slogans; and half the store is given to books, most of those children’s books, works of non-fiction, and murder mysteries.

Karen and the seven other full and part-time employees who take turns manning the store from nine in the morning until nine at night, seven days a week, are painfully aware of the irony of Studio Books being called an independent bookstore, yet only allotting shelf-space for the most popular mainstream titles. There is one little shelf at the back of the store on which self-published books by local authors can be found, but few customers ever venture to that far-flung corner of the store, and fewer still get down on their knees to peruse those dusty tomes.

This was not the way of things at Studio Books forty years ago when the Internet and e-books and Amazon were still the stuff of Science Fiction. The original owner, Caleb Browner, an idealistic socialist, carried only books, many classics, and many by little known authors and poets. For seventeen tumultuous years, Caleb somehow made ends meet, during which time the Internet was born and spawned Amazon, after which Studio Books became a reliquary and Caleb went broke. Fortunately he found a buyer for his business and was able to pay off his debts and escape with a few hundred dollars.

The second owner, Mimi Weintraub, was an extremely wealthy woman from San Francisco who thought selling big glossy coffee table books and coffee tables and reading lamps was the way to go with Studio Books. After five years of losing gobs of money, Mimi sold the bookstore to the current owner Ginny Carpenter, who got rid of the coffee tables and reading lamps and big glossy books, stocked the shelves in imitation of a successful bookstore in Santa Rosa, and then began transforming Studio Books into the bestseller depot and gift shop it is today.

Even so, for locals who still revere three-dimensional books, Studio Books is an important part of the cultural fabric of Deep River, though few of those reverent people buy books there anymore because they can get used copies of the same bestsellers off the Internet for a few dollars or download e-copies onto their pads and not have to schlep cumbersome volumes around and then find places to store the unwieldy things.

And for eighteen years from her place behind the counter at Studio Books, Karen has presided over this local version of the sea change in the world of books, an experience that has profoundly saddened her.

On a glorious Tuesday in February, the sun shining brightly on Deep River, Karen is manning the counter in Studio Books and gazing out the front windows at Deep River Bay sparkling in the near distance. She works six days a week at the bookstore, two eight-hour shifts and four six-hour shifts, Tuesdays and Thursdays her long days, all her shifts ending at five.

A man approaches the counter and says cheerfully, “Good morning. Do you sell tide charts?”

“We do,” says Karen, turning to him and liking what she sees—fortyish, graying brown hair, blue eyes, relaxed, appealing. “Look two feet to your left.”

“Ah,” he says, smiling as he takes one of the little booklets from the metal carousel featuring postcards and key chains and small blank notebooks. “Great.”

He hands the tide chart to Karen and she rings up the sale. “That will be two dollars and twenty-five cents. Would you like a bag?”

“No, thank you,” he says, handing her three ones. “But I’d love to take you out for coffee some time.”

She holds up her left hand to display the gold band she wears on her wedding finger to dissuade men from making such overtures.

“I will take that to mean you are married.” The man shrugs pleasantly. “I assumed so, but I know single women who wear rings on that finger, so I thought…”

“You assumed correctly,” she says, handing him three quarters, the tide chart, and a receipt.

“Thank you,” he says, nodding graciously and departing.

She watches him walk out the door into the sunny day and she realizes he is the first man in several years to woo her in that way in the bookstore. Men frequently offer to buy her drinks when she’s in the hotel bar where she goes every day after work for a drink or two, and where she returns after supper a few nights a week to hang out with friends, but this was her first such bookstore encounter since…

“Karen,” says Bernard, the portly bookstore manager emerging from the Religion, Spirituality, Poetry, Humor, Crossword Puzzles, Gardening and Economics section. “Would you finish re-stocking the fiction, please? I’ll run the register.”

Karen nods and vacates her place at the counter, wishing Bernard’s recent promotion to manager hadn’t resulted in the loss of his sense of humor. He used to be so wonderfully droll. Now he’s a prissy snob.

Only a few people are in the store, which makes this the perfect time to replenish the shelves, though Karen no longer enjoys what was once a favorite part of her job. Gone are the days of filling the shelves with books she loves. Now the few remaining shelves of so-called literary fiction are fast being taken over by excess from the ever-growing Murder Mystery section, along with crappy suspense thrillers and historical bodice rippers no one considered literature until the sea change began.

Karen looks into the box of books destined for the shelves and sees they are all murder mysteries, and she balks at reaching into the box.

“Excuse me?” says the man who bought the tide chart. “I’m looking for anything by Russell Hoban.” The man is standing ten feet away from Karen, politely keeping his distance. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m not quite sure how the bookstore is laid out.”

Karen fixes him with a steely gaze. “We don’t have any Hoban. We can order any book you want, but Hoban could take weeks to get here. If I remember correctly, most of his titles are out-of-print. There is a used bookstore at the east end of town. You might try them.”

“I did,” says the man, nodding, “but the fellow there said Hoban doesn’t move fast enough so he won’t take his books when people bring them in. How about William Trevor?”

Karen shakes her head. “What we have in the way of fiction is what you see on these four shelves. Alphabetical. No Trevor, no Hoban, no Wharton, no Singer, no Hemmingway, no Welty, no Faulkner, no Greenstreet, no Steinbeck, no Nabokov. We have the top ten current bestsellers, lots of Stephen King and John Grisham and murder mysteries and, of course, Harry Potter wizard books and Anne Rice mummy and vampire books.”

“I’m sorry,” says the man, nodding sympathetically. “I would order some books from you, but I’m just here for a few days and…”

“Would you please stop bothering me?” says Karen, losing her temper. “I don’t want to have coffee with you or hear about your life. I’m trying to get some work done.”

The man backs away and disappears, and as he disappears, Karen closes her eyes and prays he won’t complain to Bernard, who in his new capacity as prissy store manager might feel the need to report the incident to the owner.

At 5:03, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel, five doors down from Studio Books, and makes a beeline to the bar where Liza the bartender pours a shot of whiskey that Karen downs in a single gulp before she settles onto a bar stool and says, “Scotch on the rocks, please. I’m a mess.”

“Not you,” says Liza, in a sweetly sarcastic way.

“Terrible rotten horrible day,” says Karen, handing her purse to Liza. “I’ll be right back. Haven’t gone to the bathroom since lunch.”

On her way through the Fireside Lounge to the Ladies Room, Karen sees the man she was so rude to in the bookstore. He is sitting alone at a window table, sipping a half-pint of beer and reading an actual book.

In the white-tile bathroom, Karen studies herself in the mirror, likes how she looks in her long black skirt and billowy white blouse, and decides that after she has her drink, she will apologize to the man.

Back at the bar, she takes her time with the cold scotch and asks Liza what she thinks of the man in the Fireside Lounge sipping beer and reading an actual book, and Liza, who is tall and lanky with long black hair in a bun says, “If I were not moderately happy in my marriage, I would be all over that guy. He’s charming and he has beautiful eyes and he’s gracious, which is so rare anymore I wanted to kiss him when he ordered his beer, and then he tipped me more than the beer cost and I wanted to have sex with him.”

“I was a total bitch to him in the bookstore today,” says Karen, sighing. “I’m gonna go apologize.”

She saunters into the Fireside Lounge and smiles radiantly at the man reading an actual book. “I came to say I’m sorry for how I spoke to you in the bookstore today. Totally uncalled for. Please forgive me.”

“No need to apologize,” he says, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have bothered you a second time. You were right to rebuke me. Can’t be easy having men constantly… well… no hard feelings.”

“Okay,” says Karen, hoping he’ll ask her to join him, though she senses he won’t because he’s a decent person who believed her when she said she was married, so…

Home to her cottage a mile inland on the edge of a vast forest, Karen feeds her cats Ursula, Kipling, and Jeeves, gets a fire going in the woodstove, heats up a can of minestrone soup, and sprawls on the sofa watching Mostly Martha on her laptop until she falls asleep and wakes two hours later with a painful crick in her neck.

Getting ready for bed, Karen thinks about the man she was rude to and how kind he was in accepting her apology; and feeling lonely, she calls her friend Kathy, who is sixty-seven, single, a retired social worker, and sings with Karen in the choir at the Presbyterian.

“Hello?” says Kathy, who doesn’t have the kind of phone that tells her who’s calling.

“Hi,” says Karen, relieved to hear Kathy’s voice. “I’m not calling too late, am I?”

“No, no,” says Kathy, music blaring in the background. “Let me turn my radio down. Great jazz tonight.”

Kathy goes to turn the music down and Karen sighs, wishing she could be with Kathy in-person.

“Here I am,” says Kathy, warmly. “What’s going on?”

“Oh I’m just mad at myself. I just… I hate working at the bookstore now, and I stupidly took it out on a customer today, and I feel just… I don’t know… hopeless.”

“You know what it always is?” says Kathy, sounding as if she’s just realized what she’s about to say.

“What?” asks Karen, who was hoping for sympathy and not some theory about the universal cause of emotional distress.

“It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. You know what I mean? The narratives we use to define ourselves. And we can change them. I don’t have to keep telling the story about me being too old to learn to play the guitar. I can change the story to one about me learning to play well enough to go to open mike at the Silver Spur and sing a slow version of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face,’ and the crowd goes wild.”

“I want to be there,” says Karen, excitedly. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“See?” says Kathy, laughing. “Change one story and all the nearby stories change, too.”

The next morning at ten, Karen goes running on Deep River Beach, the tide way out, the beach enormous and void of people save for someone far in the distance who appears to be dancing in the shallows.

Feeling mighty blue as she begins her run, she is nevertheless hopeful the two-mile jog on the glorious beach will lift her spirits and give her the pizzazz to put in another six hours at the bookstore.

The beach and forest and quiet and beauty are what I’ll miss most if I sell my place and move to Portland and get a job in a real bookstore. And my friends. I’ll miss my friends. And my house. And my land. But I won’t miss working at Studio Books and pretending I work in a real bookstore.

Who should the lone person far down the beach be but the man she was rude to yesterday in the bookstore. And the man is dancing, because what he’s doing is standing at the water’s edge, flinging a white Frisbee high and far out over the incoming waves to a place in the air where the spinning disk meets the offshore breeze and is propelled back to the man as if he is a powerful Frisbee magnet.

Karen stops a hundred feet from the man and watches him fling the disk out over the incoming waves again and again, his mastery breathtaking. And the way he dances on the balls of his feet, moving forward and back and side-to-side to catch the returning disk, is so pleasing to her, she breaks into applause.

He glances at her, makes an instantaneous calculation, and flings the disk out over the waves once more; only this time the Frisbee does not come back to him, but flies to Karen and stalls just a few feet in front of her about six feet off the ground, so all she has to do is reach out and pluck the thing from the air.

They meet for lunch at the Deep River Deli. The man’s name is Allen Brodeur. He is an English professor at Merritt College in Oakland and lives in an apartment in Berkeley with his cats Chucho and Esme. Allen and Karen sit across from each other at one of the four small tables in the warm and noisy deli, Karen having a hot pastrami sandwich and root beer, Allen an open-faced turkey and avocado on rye with melted Swiss, his drink ginger ale.

Karen changes her guess about his age to early fifties, but she doesn’t broach the subject of their ages, nor does he. They like each other immediately and immensely, and they make each other laugh, so much so that at one point they cannot stop laughing and Allen has to go outside an walk around to quell his mirth.

They trade bites of their sandwiches. They discover they both love the music of Samuel Barber, Mendelssohn, and Michel Petrucciani. Allen tells of recently reading all two thousand pages of the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant for the second time in his life and being astounded over and over again by Maupassant’s genius. Karen says she is currently hooked on V.S. Pritchett and A.S. Byatt, but woke this morning thinking she’d like to read Steinbeck again after a twenty-year hiatus.

As they walk back to the bookstore, Allen invites Karen out to dinner tonight and she says, “How about I make us dinner at my place and you can meet my cats.”

Allen arrives at Karen’s cottage at dusk, and before complete darkness falls, Karen gives him a quick tour of her two-acre property on Everson Lane where a dozen other houses on multi-acre parcels enjoy the many blessings of being surrounded by thousands of acres of forest.

Along with her three-room cottage, Karen has a pump house for her well, a five-thousand-gallon water tank, a large woodshed, a deer-fenced vegetable garden, and a small studio, electrified but not plumbed, where long ago Karen made collages and paintings, and now uses for a guest room.

Ursula, Jeeves, and especially Kipling are enamored of Allen and take turns sitting on his lap whenever he alights anywhere for more than a moment. Karen opens a bottle of red wine for both cooking and drinking, and while listening to Barber’s Adagio For Strings they create a fabulous tomato, mushroom, green pepper, and zucchini spaghetti sauce, perfectly cooked noodles, and a scrumptious green salad—the experience of cooking together a mutual thrill.

They are in love with each other in the way of smitten strangers who have yet to discover anything about the other they might not love; and Karen imagines they will make love after they finish supper and drink more wine and talk by the fire.

But that doesn’t happen because Karen gets very drunk and several times can’t remember why she’s telling Allen whatever she’s telling him, and this is something Allen does not love, though he doesn’t say so and only becomes wary and less forthcoming.

And though they part ways with a gentle hug and agree to meet on the beach tomorrow morning at eight, Karen doesn’t think Allen will want to pursue a relationship with her because of how loud and strident she got after her fifth glass of wine.

Furious with herself for opening that second bottle of wine, she smokes some pot to calm down, not her usual hit or two, but an entire joint, and she gets so stoned the room starts to spin and she thinks she might be having a heart attack and she very nearly calls 9-1-1 to summon an ambulance, but instead she crawls into bed and rides out the frightening high until finally, blessedly, she falls asleep at two in the morning.

  ∆

She sleeps a sodden dreamless sleep for eight hours until her ringing phone awakens her and Bernard from the bookstore says, “Wherefore art thou Karen? You are now an hour late, which I believe is your new personal best. Or worst.”

“Oh, hey Bernard,” she says, her voice raspy. “Thanks for calling. I’m… I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice full of kindness. “You sound all stuffed up.”

“Oh I’m just…” She clears her throat. “Hey, is your sense of humor coming back? I thought I detected a comic tone in your passing reference to Romeo and Juliet? Or was that just hopeful thinking on my part?”

“No, it started coming back this morning,” says Bernard, chuckling. “I’ve been taking myself much too seriously lately. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course,” she says, getting out of bed. “Twenty minutes. Thanks Bernard.”

She feeds her cats, and as the dried food drums into the three little bowls, she thinks of Allen waiting for her at the beach this morning, and she feels certain that whatever shred of hope there was of embarking on a relationship with him is gone now; and she feels strangely relieved, for she is so habituated to aloneness now, she no longer knows how to share her life in an intimate way with anyone other than her cats.

Karen takes her lunch break at two and meets her friend Richard at the picnic tables on the headlands across the street from Studio Books, Richard providing their meal of pumpkin muffins from the Happy Time Bakery, goat cheese, apples, and a thermos of black tea.

Richard is seventy-four and chubby, a wearer of suits and ties at night, sweatpants and sweatshirts during the day, his longish gray hair tied back in a stubby ponytail. British and gay, Richard was an actor for forty years in Milwaukee and Phoenix before moving to California after he retired from the theatre. He still occasionally takes a small part in a play at DRTC (Deep River Theatre Company) but he finds acting tiresome now and prefers spending his time reading and walking and visiting with friends.

Sitting side by side at their picnic table overlooking Deep River Bay, Karen tells Richard about her time with Allen yesterday and the sad denouement of their date and the terrifying aftermath, and how she thinks the reason she wrecked things with Allen is because she’s afraid to be in a relationship—doesn’t know how to be in one.

Richard sips his tea and says, “I know I’ve told you this story before, or at least I think I have, but I like telling it, and it seems appropriate under the circumstances, so I’ll tell it again.” He clears his throat. “When I was forty-three and despairing of ever finding someone to love for more than a night or two, I kept running into this dreadful man at parties and bars, never just the two of us, always in groups with other men or theatre people. His name was Philip. He was brash and opinionated and full of himself. He was very attractive, big and strong with a fabulous mane of black hair, but I found him unbearable because every time I tried to say anything, and I mean every time, he would interrupt me, contradict me, and never let me get a word in edgewise. Never. And then one day he showed up at the theatre, this was in Milwaukee, as the new assistant to our set designer, and I thought, ‘Oh great. Just what I needed. This guy.’”

Richard pours more tea into Karen’s mug. She nods her thanks and wonders what this story has to do with her failure with Allen.

“So,” says Richard, continuing, “I avoided the man like the plague. If I went into a bar and he was there, I left. If I went to a party and he was there, I stayed far away from him. And at the theatre, I studiously ignored him. We were doing Ah, Wilderness by Eugene O’Neill. I played the part of Nat and was brilliant, and I’m not alone in that assessment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called my performance revelatory. Anyway, it’s a big cast and a very funny play and it was one of our great successes, and when the run was over, Philip asked me to go to lunch with him. And though nothing had happened to change my opinion of the man, I thought for the sake of peace and harmony in the company I would suffer his windy oratory for an hour or two and be done with it.”

“So what happened?” asks Karen, never having heard this story before.

“We went to a very nice restaurant,” says Richard, a dreamy look in his eyes. “And after we placed our orders, he looked at me and said, ‘But enough about me. Tell me everything about you.’ And so I did. And a month later, we got a place together and stayed together for twelve of the happiest years of my life.” He smiles wistfully at Karen. “We eventually went our separate ways, but oh what wonderful years I had with Philip, and how badly I misjudged him in the beginning.”

At five o’clock, Karen is chatting with Tom who is just starting his evening shift at the bookstore, when Allen comes in from the fog and waits for Karen to acknowledge him.

She grabs her purse, says goodnight to Tom, approaches Allen and says, “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the beach this morning. I couldn’t sleep after you left and I stayed up until two and slept until ten, and by then I figured you wouldn’t want to see me again anyway.”

Allen considers this and says, “You want to talk or shall I skidaddle?”

“Well…” she says, smiling shyly, “since you used the magic word skidaddle, I want to talk to you.”

“The Fireside Lounge at the hotel?” he asks, nodding.

“No,” she says shaking her head. “There’s a nice place around the corner. Xenon. You hungry? I’m starved.”

“Yeah. Bowl of soup sounds good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” she says, smiling bravely to quell her tears.

“So I’d like to give you a little background information about me,” says Allen, their soup dispensed with, pie and coffee coming. “To help you understand what happened for me last night.” He has a drink of water. “My parents were alcoholics, my two siblings became alcoholics, I did not, and I was married for twelve years to an alcoholic. In fact, all my relationships and friendships were with alcoholics or addicts of one kind or another until I was forty-seven and had two years of life-changing psychotherapy.”

“How old are you, Allen?” asks Karen, smiling as the waitress brings their coffee and dessert.

“I’m sixty-three,” he says, gazing at her.

“You can’t be,” she says, shaking her head. “You mean fifty-three.”

“No,” he says, laughing. “Sixty-three.”

“Wow,” she says, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. “You seem so much younger. Must be all that dancing on the beach with your Frisbee.”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But however old I am, my wife and my other partners before her all needed to be drunk in order to be tender or sexual or emotionally open, and then inevitably they would become mean or depressed, as most drunks will, and so until I understood that I was a classic enabler of addicts, and understood that I chose to be with them because they were versions of my parents, and until I was able to stop choosing them, I was stuck in a hell where I could only have sex with drunks, and not being drunk myself, the sex was not only awful but the opposite of what I wanted, which was to connect deeply with other people.”

“So I triggered those bad memories for you,” says Karen, aching with shame. “I’m so sorry, Allen.”

“But wait,” he says urgently. “It was only at the end of our time together those buttons got pushed in me. Before then…” He looks at her, longing for her to know how much he likes her. “Before then, I haven’t connected with anyone as well as I connected with you… ever. It was a miracle being with you until…”

“I drank too much,” she says, looking down so he won’t see her tears.

“For me,” he says, nodding. “You drank too much for me. Not for somebody else, I’m sure. My God, Karen, you’re lovely and funny and brilliant and great and… I just can’t ever go there again. Even with you.”

“What if I changed?” she says, looking up at him. “What if I stopped drinking?”

“But it isn’t the drinking,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s the great red herring. It’s what you communicate to me when I’m so willing to meet you on a deeper level. You’re telling me I’m not acceptable to you unless you’re drunk. You see what I mean? It wasn’t the wine. It’s how you closed off to me when I wanted so much for us to be open to each other.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she says quietly. “I needed to hear that. And now I’d like to tell you what happened for me.”

“Please,” he says quietly.

“I haven’t connected with anyone, man or woman, as completely and wonderfully as I connected with you since… Second Grade when Donny Dorsett and I would go everywhere together, holding hands and marveling at everything. But my experience since then, for the rest of my fifty-four years, has been otherwise.”

She stops speaking and waits for Allen to react to the number of her years, and he says, “I guessed you were forty-nine, but I love that you’re fifty-four.”

“I’m glad you do,” she says, blushing. “But anyway… my father was a heavy drinker and my mother was not, and the relationship they modeled for me and my sister was where one of the partners needs to be drunk in order to be affectionate, and the other partner longs for the affection but hates being with a drunk. An unsolvable conundrum short of divorce, which they did a few years after my sister and I finished college. But long before their marriage ended, I reacted to how they were with each other by identifying with my mother and never drinking or smoking pot in high school. And I thought I never would until I went to college and I was the only person I knew who didn’t drink or take drugs. And just like my mother, I longed for physical affection and love, so I drank a little, but I didn’t like it. What I liked was pot. Made all my self-doubts go away, and I would get very stoned and have sex with men I barely knew, so I came to associate sex with being high. In fact, I never had sex unless I was high until I was in my thirties and got involved with a man who wanted sex all the time and didn’t care if we were high or not. Problem was, sex with him was gross, quick and uncaring, so I saw no advantage to sex without being stoned.” She smiles in embarrassment. “Too much information?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head.

“Then when I was in my late thirties,” she says, having a sip of her coffee, “I started worrying about running out of time to have children, and I chose to be with men I didn’t really like, but they had good jobs and said they wanted kids, and the only way I could bring myself to sleep with them was to be drunk because getting stoned didn’t do the trick anymore. And that’s where I got stuck, which coincided with my work becoming more and more depressing, so I started having a drink or two after work to relieve the tension of working in a bookstore where you, Allen, couldn’t find a single writer you love.”

They share a bit of silence and Karen says, “I guess I stopped thinking I would ever find a partner, and I’ve grown accustomed to being stuck where I am, a person at a dead end who needs to change or die. And since I don’t want to die yet, and I don’t want to be a bitter old woman, I’m going to quit the bookstore and get a job as a waitress serving good food, and I’m not going to drink so much anymore. I won’t say I’ll stop drinking, but I won’t drink so much, and I won’t get drunk to make love, if I ever make love again.”

Three months later, after a busy Friday night serving customers at Xenon, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel and joins her pals Kathy and Richard at the bar, has a sip of Kathy’s vodka tonic, and orders a ginger ale.

“You lush, you,” says Liza, giving Karen a loving wink as she pours ginger ale into a big glass full of ice cubes.

“I’m cutting back because of you,” says Richard, kissing the air in Karen’s direction. “Only one daiquiri tonight instead of my usual two.” He wrinkles his nose. “Or was it three? How quickly we forget.”

“I’m not so much cutting back,” says Kathy, arching an eyebrow, “as drinking slower.”

Kathy and Richard and Liza all want to hear about Karen’s recent weekend in Berkeley where she stayed with Allen at his place for the first time, and they all want to know if she and Allen finally slept together.

Karen takes a long drink of her ginger ale and smiles radiantly. “We did. And it was good. And in two weeks his school year ends and he’s coming to stay with me for most of the summer.”

“Hallelujah,” says Richard, raising his strawberry daiquiri high. “To love triumphant.”

“To love triumphant,” say Kathy and Liza, Kathy raising her vodka tonic, Liza a glass of water.

“To loving friends,” says Karen, clinking their glasses with hers. “Without whom we could not survive.”

fin

Mrs. Espy and the Hippy

Monday, November 26th, 2018

persimmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear M,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott arches his eyebrow. “Do tell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the whole traumatic scene comes back to her.

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

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

“Scott?” she says urgently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh Mrs. Espy, you flatter me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Sid Writes A Song

Monday, November 19th, 2018

inspiration

Sid Lawry is sixty-two and has been a waiter at Falcon, a most excellent restaurant in Lambertville, New Jersey for the last fourteen years. He has lived in Lambertville since he was twelve, having moved here from Queens with his mother Ruth and younger sister Lynette shortly after his parents divorced.

That same year, Sid’s father Ben moved to Los Angeles with Francesca, the woman he’d been having an affair with for several years, to pursue a career as a writer in the movie and television business. Ben sent birthday cards to Sid and Lynette for the first five years he was in Los Angeles, and then stopped sending birthday cards and did not communicate with them again for thirty-seven years, until a few months before he died. He called each of them to beg their forgiveness for being such a bad father, and they both forgave him.

Sid is five-foot-eight with a wiry build, his wavy brown hair going gray, his default expression a sleepy smile. Charming and eloquent, he is a superb waiter and was so from the moment he switched to that line of work at the age of forty-seven. Sid’s emergence as a star waiter at Falcon came as a huge surprise to his wife Elaine, who for several years prior to Sid’s success, believed he would forever be a person who boasted of unproven talent, never kept a job for long, and was often severely depressed.

Elaine is five-foot-two, petite, with long brown hair she wears in a bun from the time she gets up in morning until the supper dishes are done, after which she lets her hair down. She has been an archivist at the Princeton University Art Museum for nearly forty years, Princeton just up the road from Lambertville.

Her doctoral thesis The Inevitable Arrival of Impressionism was published as a sumptuously-illustrated coffee table book by a university press, and Elaine surely would have become a professor of Art had she not suffered from debilitating migraine headaches and ferocious anxiety whenever she agreed to give lectures to large groups of students and make presentations to her fellow academics. And so shortly after gaining her PhD, she found her niche far from the public eye in the quiet backrooms of the art museum and has worked there ever since.

Sid and Elaine have been married for thirty-five years and have two children, Jeffrey, thirty-four, who resembles his father to a striking degree, and Katy, thirty-two, who is seven inches taller than her mother and wears her auburn hair in a long braid.

When Jeffrey turned twelve, he stopped talking to Sid; and they did not reconcile until Jeffrey was twenty-three. Now they are good buddies and go to several basketball games together every year at Madison Square Garden, Jeffrey a commercial artist and set designer living in Manhattan.

Katy is a community college English teacher in nearby Bucks County. She has unceasingly adored Sid since the day she was born, and has never stopped believing her father is the great writer he claimed to be when she was a girl, despite his never having written anything in her lifetime.

Save for those trips into New York City to attend basketball games with Jeffrey, and to go to plays with Elaine, comp tickets courtesy of Jeffrey, Sid rarely leaves Lambertville, though he and Elaine have recently begun planning a trip to Europe for when Elaine retires three years from now. Elaine wants to visit museums and places where some of her favorite paintings were made, and Sid wants to go to plays and bookstores and wander around looking for appealing cafés.

On a Saturday in early November, Jeffrey and his fiancé Nina make the trek by bus from Manhattan to Lambertville, and Katy and her husband Phil drive over from Bucks County to celebrate Sid and Elaine’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Jeffrey and Nina will spend the night with Sid and Elaine in the house where Jeffrey and Katy grew up, and Phil and Katy will drive back to their apartment in Bucks County after supper and dessert.

They dine at Falcon where the staff fawns over them, Sid beloved by everyone who works at the restaurant, the glorious feast a gift from the owners. For dessert, however, they return to Sid and Elaine’s house to enjoy Elaine’s renowned pumpkin pie and sit by the fire in the living room and talk without having to shout over the clatter and din of the restaurant.

Nina, who is thirty-two and Portuguese, is new to the family constellation, she and Jeffrey having met a year ago, a spring wedding in the works, and she is most curious to learn how Sid and Elaine met.

“You go first, honey,” says Elaine, calling from the kitchen that adjoins the living room. “And then I’ll correct your errors.”

“Let us not call the details of my version errors,” says Sid, standing in front of the fireplace with his back to the fire and smiling at his children and their partners. “Let us call them variations on a theme, the original theme lost to the vagaries of time.”

“Can you agree about where you met?” asks Nina, vivacious and pretty with long black hair, a talent agent at United Creativity, her Portuguese accent catnip to Jeffrey.

Where is not in doubt,” says Sid, looking at Elaine. “But when is. She says we met in Ninth Grade at Hunterdon High, I say Eighth. In either case, we liked each other from the get go, and though we each had multiple sweethearts in high school, we were an item for the whole of our Senior year before she cruelly dumped me to clear her calendar as prelude to matriculating at Yale.”

“I would argue that he had the multiple sweethearts in high school,” says Elaine, looking up from making coffee to smile at Nina. “Sid was a notorious playboy in high school, whereas I was faithful to Ron Durant for the two years before Sid and I became the aforementioned item. But all in all, he has the gist of our getting together right.”

“So you did the dumping,” says Phil, a big gregarious Systems Analyst, thirty-nine, with carrot-red hair and many freckles. “Not Sid.”

“Amazing but true,” says Elaine, smiling sweetly at Sid. “He was staying in Lambertville and not looking very hard for a job, while I was an ambitious academic who thought I would probably marry another of my kind.”

“Which she almost did,” says Sid, nodding. “And she probably would have had not our tenth high school reunion intervened.”

“Also true,” says Elaine, coming into the living room and standing beside Sid. “I arrived at the reunion after many weeks of ambivalence, and there he was in all his twenty-eight-year-old glory. And I was a goner.”

“Love,” says Sid, putting his arm around Elaine. “The unsolvable mystery.”

“Were you a waiter in those days, Sid?” asks Nina, who can’t quite recall the specifics of Jeffrey’s synopsis of his parents’ lives.

“No. At the time of our tenth reunion I was a shoe salesman,” says Sid, chuckling at memories of those two years in the trenches at Landmark Shoes. “After that, before I became a waiter, I had many other jobs. Bartender, UPS delivery person, grocery store clerk, landscaper, and Elaine’s favorite, night watchman at the municipal dump. To name but a few.”

A silence falls, which often happens after Sid reels off some of the jobs he had before he hit rock bottom the year Katy left for college and he got fired for the umpteenth time and Elaine moved out and got an apartment in Princeton. With his job resume a guarantee no one would hire him, Sid begged an old high school friend for a job bussing tables in the ritzy café Mon Cher, and when a flu epidemic knocked out most of the wait staff, Sid was pressed into service and proved to be such an outstanding waiter, the café manager could not imagine demoting Sid when the epidemic ended.

A year later, the owner of Falcon offered Sid a job, Sid jumped at the chance, and six months later Elaine came home to stay.

“Jeffrey tells me you write poetry, Sid,” says Nina, feeling the need to break the silence.

“I didn’t say he wrote poetry,” says Jeffrey, shaking his head. “I said he wanted to write poetry.”

Elaine returns to the kitchen to cut the pie and pour the coffee.

“Both things are true,” says Sid, smiling wistfully at Nina. “Before Jeffrey and Katy were born, I wrote poems and plays and screenplays and two novels. But after the kids were born, all I did was talk about writing and how great I could be if only… something. That was before I found my way and got well. And now that I am well, I claim only to be a waiter at Falcon, husband to my marvelous wife, and devoted father to my glorious children.”

“But if you ever do write anything, I know it will be great,” says Katy, nodding assuredly.

“Why do you say that?” asks Elaine, pained by her daughter’s blind allegiance to Sid’s old unfounded boasts.

“Because it’s what I believe,” says Katy, gazing steadfastly at her mother. “I think he’s a genius with words. I think the stories he told us when we were kids are the best stories never written down, and I think the spontaneous poems he makes up for us on our birthdays and at Christmas are the best poems I’ve ever heard. And I know it bothers you I believe in him the way I do, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking Pop is brilliant.” She shrugs defiantly. “So there.”

When Katy and Phil have gone home to Bucks County, and Sid and Elaine have gone to bed, Nina and Jeffrey sit on either side of the queen-sized bed in the guest room that used to be Katy’s bedroom, responding to business-related emails on their laptop computers.

“Done,” says Jeffrey, closing his laptop. “No more hysterical clients until we get back to the city.”

“I just have one more little bit to write,” says Nina, typing fast. “Kulu is coming to New York with his wife next week and they want to take us to dinner. You up for that?”

“Yeah, that could be fun,” says Jeffrey, undressing. “What’s his wife like?”

“She’s… oh what’s the word when a woman has very large breasts?”

“Buxom,” says Jeffrey, yawning.

“Yes. She’s buxom and loud and bossy. You and I won’t be saying much.” Nina sends off the email and closes her laptop. “I’m touched Kulu wants to celebrate our engagement with us.”

“He’s quite the upcoming star, isn’t he?” says Jeffrey, crawling under the covers.

“Everything depends on his next album,” says Nina, taking off her dress and hanging it in the closet. “He’s got the most beautiful voice and his melodies are wonderful, but his lyrics… well, he’s so young.” She climbs into bed. “You’re not mad at me, are you? For asking your father if he wrote poetry?”

“No, no,” says Jeffrey, opening his arms to her. “I’m not mad. Pop didn’t mind. It’s Mom who doesn’t like talking about the hard times before Pop found his way.”

“I think Katy is right,” says Nina, settling into Jeffrey’s embrace. “There’s something remarkable about your father. I love his energy. And his talk is full of poetry. I have a very strong feeling about his talent, even if he doesn’t use it.”

“Well you certainly have a knack for discovering talent,” says Jeffrey, no longer angered by the subject of his father’s unrealized potential. “But it’s kind of a moot point. He hasn’t written anything in thirty-five years.”

“Would you mind if I asked him if he’d like to write some lyrics for Kulu?”

Jeffrey ponders her question for a moment and says, “I would bet all the money I have that he’s never heard of Kulu.”

“Probably not, but I would give him Kulu’s album,” says Nina, excited by the prospect of Sid writing something for Kulu to consider. “Or do you think asking him would awaken old demons?”

“I think he would politely decline,” says Jeffrey, smiling sadly. “But Mom would be upset. She… yeah, that’s a real hot button for her.”

“Then I won’t,” says Nina, letting go of the idea. “The last thing I want to do is upset your mother.”

A week later, in her swank office on the twenty-seventh floor of a seventy-story building a few blocks from Times Square, Nina is meeting with Kulu and his wife Sara. Kulu is twenty-one, his black hair in a ponytail, his mother Turkish, his father British. Sara is twenty-five, a blonde from Brooklyn, brash, and ferociously possessive of her talented husband.

“We were talking to Jason Royal,” says Sara, who likes Nina but wishes she wasn’t quite so attractive, “and he said he knows for a fact that movie people are interested in Kulu. Not just for his music, but as an actor. You heard anything about that?”

“As you know, we’ve gotten several inquiries from people who may want to use his music in their movies,” says Nina, nodding. “But as far as Kulu being in a movie, we haven’t had any solid offers. We could produce an acting demo if that’s a direction you want to go, but I really think focusing on making his second album fantastic should be our number one priority.”

“Definitely,” says Kulu, his accent a mix of British and Turkish. “I’m all about the music, you know, but the words just aren’t coming to me these days. I’m too crazy busy making videos. I’ve got endless music in my head, but… yeah, the words. I need some time away from all the noise. You know? I mean… those first twelve songs took me years to write. I wrote Cats In the Alley when I was sixteen.”

“Would you consider collaborating with a lyricist?” asks Nina, thinking of several songwriters she knows who would love to work with Kulu—and now Sid, her future father-in-law, comes to mind.

“Sure, if I like the lyrics,” says Kulu, nodding. “Love to.”

“Who are you thinking of?” asks Sara, frowning at Nina.

“A few people,” says Nina, directing her words at Kulu. “I’ll ask around. There’s no shortage of poets. The trick is finding the right one for you.”

With Jeffrey’s permission, and per Jeffrey’s suggestion, Nina sends a copy of Kulu’s first album to Sid at Falcon rather than to Sid and Elaine’s house.

Dear Sid,

Kulu is one of my favorite clients. I enclose his first album, Singing Dictionary, which was quite successful. He is currently looking for lyrics for his second album of songs. If his music inspires you to write something, I would love to show your words to him. I understand you may not be interested in pursuing this, but I wanted to see if my feeling about you might bear fruit. Looking forward to seeing you at Thanksgiving.

Love, Nina

Driving home after a busy Friday night at Falcon, Sid slips Singing Dictionary into the CD player of his twenty-year old Camry, notes the time is 10:37, and is pleasantly surprised when a solo guitar begins to play and a man with a sweet high tenor sings a lovely melancholy song about growing up in London, the child of an Englishman and a Turkish woman, his childhood friends British, Turkish, African, and Indian—never imagining that the colors of their skin would figure so largely in how their lives unfolded.

Sid is enchanted by three of the five songs he listens to on his way home and as he sits in the car in front of his house. The two songs he doesn’t care for are rap songs that sound like ten thousand other such songs, none of which appeal to him, but even Kulu’s rap has touches of melody he finds appealing; and as he climbs the stairs to his front door, he thinks I would like to try to write something for Kulu, but I don’t know if I can.

Elaine is wearing her old-fashioned blue flannel nightgown, her hair down, as she sits on the living room sofa reading a murder mystery, her nightly habit, their calico cat Cezanne curled up in her lap, the fire in the hearth spluttering.

When Sid comes in she closes her book and asks, “You okay? You don’t usually sit in your car for so long. Listening to a basketball game?”

“No,” he says, sitting beside her. “I was listening to this.” He hands her Kulu’s Singing Dictionary. “Nina sent it. Here’s her note.”

Having turned these things over to Elaine, Sid gets up and goes into the kitchen to make cocoa as he always does on Friday and Saturday nights, their two late nights together because Elaine doesn’t have to get up early for the next two mornings to make the drive to Princeton.

Elaine reads the note from Nina and says, “Why would she do this?”

“I guess she thinks I can write,” says Sid, mixing milk and cocoa powder and a dollop of honey in a pot on the stove.

Elaine frowns at the cover of Singing Dictionary—Kulu dressed as a fairy-tale prince dancing with a human-sized dictionary (with a face and arms and legs) in a fairy-tale ballroom full of people of all ages and sizes and colors wearing fantastic costumes.

“Why would she think that?” asks Elaine, irate. “Because Katy persists in her fantasies about you being a great writer?”

Sid stirs the cocoa and says, “I can’t think why else.”

“How awkward,” says Elaine, grimacing. “Do you think Jeffrey knows she sent this?”

“He does,” says Sid, pouring the cocoa into two big white mugs. “I called him on my break tonight. He said Nina asked him if it would be okay, and he suggested she send the album to the restaurant rather than here so I would have the option of telling you or not, in case I wanted to spare you the…”

“The what?” she says angrily.

“Displeasure,” he says, bringing the cocoa into the living room, handing her a mug, and sitting beside her again.

“Jesus,” says Elaine, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth. “Now we’ll have all this hanging over us at Thanksgiving. Just what we didn’t need.”

“Sweetheart,” he says, gently. “It’s not a big deal. She’s a talent agent. This is what they do. They hunt for talent. They follow their hunches. They take chances. There’s nothing wrong with her asking. She’s just doing her job.”

“What are you going to say to her?” asks Elaine, distraught. “When you send it back?”

“That depends,” he says, sipping his cocoa.

“On what?” she says, glaring at him.

“On you,” he says, meeting her angry gaze.

“What are you talking about?” she says, startled by his reply.

“If you will give me permission to try to write some lyrics for this singer, I will.” Sid waits a moment before saying more. “But if you don’t want me to try, I won’t.”

“You want to?” asks Elaine, mortified.

“I do,” he says, nodding solemnly. “I think it would be good for me. To try. With no expectations of getting anything I like. Just a bit of trying.”

“I can’t stop you if that’s what you want to do,” she says tersely.

“Yes, you can,” he says kindly. “I will never again knowingly do anything that makes you unhappy. And if my doodling in a notebook, searching for words, makes you angry because of everything we went through for all those difficult years, I won’t do it. But if you can happily let me try, I will.”

“Happily?” she says, laughing despite her distress. “I have to be happy about it?”

“Yes,” he says, laughing with her. “You have to be happy about it. Not necessarily gleeful, but at least a little happy.”

“Why do I have to be happy?” she says, pouting. “Can’t I just be grudgingly accepting?”

“No, you have to be happy,” he says, taking a deep breath. “So I’ll know we’re free of the old shit.”

Now he sets his mug on the coffee table, takes her mug from her and sets it beside his, puts his arms around her and holds her close.

“Okay,” she says, relenting. “I’ll be happy. Probably not gleeful. But happy you want to try.”

“You know what I’ve discovered?” says Sid, talking to Frieda, his friend and fellow waiter at Falcon, Frieda tall with curly brown hair, the two of them checking the tables to make sure everything is in order for the first seating of the evening. “My father is with me when I’m writing. Or it would be truer to say, when I’m trying to write.”

“What do you mean ‘with you’?” asks Frieda, rolling her shoulders in anticipation of five hours of ceaseless labor.

“He’s sitting beside me, watching me,” says Sid, fascinated by the workings of his mind. “He’s young, the way I remember him from before he left us. When I was twelve. And I hear my mother saying, ‘I hope nobody wants anything that bastard writes… the way he treated me, the way he treated you and your sister.’”

“Was he abusive to you?” asks Frieda, giving Sid a worried look.

“No, he was always nice to me. When he was around. Which wasn’t often. And then he abandoned us. So I suppose if you consider abandonment abuse, then, yes, he was abusive. But when he was with us, I liked him. He was funny. Witty. Liked to wrestle with me on the living room rug. Always let me win in the end. I loved that. Took me to ball games and plays. And he knew everything about everybody in show biz, told the greatest stories about movie stars and Broadway stars and… a treasure trove of juicy gossip. My sister was crazy about him. She really took it hard when he ran off to Los Angeles. Cried for weeks. Months.”

“So do you think he’s getting in the way of your writing?” asks Frieda, continuing her warm-ups by twisting her torso to the right and left several times.

“Yeah, I think he is,” says Sid, folding his arms. “I think maybe he’s always been in the way, along with my mother’s bitterness about him leaving… and my unresolved sorrow.”

“Maybe you should see somebody about that,” says Frieda, smiling bravely at the first four patrons of the evening being led to a table in her section.

“You mean a therapist?” says Sid, frowning at the idea.

“No, an auto mechanic,” says Frieda, rolling he eyes. “Yes, a therapist. I go to a great guy. I’ll give you his number.”

“Sid,” says Olaf, fiftyish and a few inches taller than Sid, his head shaved, his red T-shirt and gray sweat pants and bare feet more suggestive of a yoga teacher than a psychotherapist. He is standing in the doorway of his office, looking out at Sid sitting in one of the two chairs in the small waiting room.

“I know you,” says Sid, rising from his chair. “I’ve seen you at Falcon, but I’ve never waited on you because Frieda always does.”

“She says you taught her everything she knows,” says Olaf, shaking Sid’s hand. “Welcome.”

Sid is surprised to see a massage table in the center of the room, no sofa, no desk, and two armless chairs facing each other by the one window.

“Now I’m confused,” says Sid, laughing nervously. “I thought you were a psychotherapist not a massage therapist.”

“I am a psychotherapist,” says Olaf, gesturing to the two chairs. “Have a seat and I’ll explain.”

Sid sits in one of the chairs, Olaf in the other.

“I am a licensed psychotherapist,” says Olaf, having made this speech many times, “and a licensed massage therapist, but I don’t give massages. I got the massage license so there would be no legal issues arising from my touching my clients. What I do is apply very light pressure to places on your body to facilitate the flow of your memories and feelings. The first session is complimentary. Some people don’t choose to come back after the first time, some people only come a few times, and some come many times. My goal is to help you get unstuck from whatever you’re stuck on. Sometimes that happens in the course of a session or two, sometimes it takes much longer. Any questions?”

“Do you think you’re psychic?” asks Sid, liking Olaf but feeling wary of him.

“I think we’re all psychic,” says Olaf, nodding. “And it seems the more emotionally unstuck we get, the more access we have to our intuitive power, which is what I think being psychic is. Uninhibited intuition.”

“Did you love your parents?” asks Sid, wanting to see how much Olaf will reveal about himself.

“Yes,” says Olaf, without hesitation. “My mother was very warm and available and easy to love, while my father related to me intellectually, but I knew he loved me, so I loved him, too.”

“Have you ever had a panic attack?” asks Sid, thinking of the many he had in the months after Elaine left him. “I’m talking about the sure-you’re-gonna-die-any-minute kind of panic attack.”

“No,” says Olaf, shaking his head. “Not yet.”

Sid laughs. “May you never have one.”

“Thank you,” says Olaf, smiling warmly at Sid. “So what brings you here today? What’s on your mind?”

“It’s a long story,” says Sid, feeling he might cry, not because he’s sad, but because he is already experiencing relief in knowing he will finally be able to tell his story, the whole story, to someone who will listen and understand and be sympathetic.

“We’ve got ninety minutes,” says Olaf, gesturing gallantly to the table. “Shall we?”

“The whole thing was amazing,” says Sid, describing his first session with Olaf to Elaine as they make supper together, this being one of his two nights off. “But the most amazing thing was when he took hold of my ankles, one in each hand, and applied a little bit of traction, and I felt myself come into my body so completely, I don’t think I’ve ever been all the way in my body until that moment.”

“What do you mean ‘in your body?’ You mean grounded or centered or…”

“I mean in,” says Sid, excitedly. “Not hovering outside of myself. My consciousness, my self-awareness, has always been barely connected to my body, connected by… I don’t know, tiny threads of floating neurons? But when I came into my body, oh my God, I felt so good, so clearheaded, so strong.”

“I want to go,” says Elaine, nodding emphatically. “Would you mind if I went to him, too?”

“Why would I mind?” says Sid, embracing her. “Imagine if we were both all the way in our bodies, and we were together.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Think of the sex, Elaine.”

“I was thinking of not being afraid of everything,” she says, laughing. “But I will think of the sex, too.”

Sid is lying on his back on Olaf’s table, his eyes closed, as Olaf stands at Sid’s head, using both of his hands to cradle Sid’s skull.

“I realize now,” says Sid, speaking quietly, “that when my father went away, my mother lost her desire to… I don’t know how to say this.”

“When your father went away,” says Olaf, slowly repeating Sid’s words, “your mother…”

“Stopped being tender,” says Sid, seeing his mother sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space, her supper untouched. “Stopped being interested in us. Stopped asking us about school, about our friends, about what we were thinking.”

“So what did you do?”

“I think I made an unconscious decision to try to take my father’s place, to become my father, so she wouldn’t miss him anymore, wouldn’t feel so alone. So she’d love us again. That’s when I started writing stories and one-act plays and poems, taking Drama classes and being in plays and singing in the choir, all in imitation of my father. But no matter what I did, she didn’t change back into the sweet woman she’d been before he left. She did soften over the years, and when I became a waiter, she would come to Falcon and I would wait on her, and she… she loved that. Loved the care I took with her.”

“When did she die?”

“Seven years ago,” says Sid, opening his eyes. “The year after my father died.”

“Were you with her when she died?” asks Olaf, moving to Sid’s right side and holding Sid’s hand while gently touching Sid’s sternum.

“No,” says Sid, tears welling up from deep inside him. “I got there an hour after she died. Late again.”

“What do you mean? Late again.”

“I mean… I was never good enough. Just like my father was never good enough.”

“But you were good enough, Sid. You were absolutely good enough. And so was your father. So was your mother. You and your father and your mother and your sister, and I, too, we all traveled through this world of sorrow and delight to the last moments of our lives, which for you and me is right now. And right now, as we’ve said again and again, we can stop telling ourselves those stories about not being good enough, about always being late, about always failing. We can tell new stories. True stories. About how skillful we are at what we do, how creative and inventive and loving we are. You help me so much, Sid, as I help you. That’s the story I like telling and hearing right now. That we are beacons of love for each other and for the world.”

“It’s very tender where you’re touching,” says Sid, his tears flowing as never before. “But I love how it hurts. Fills me with hope.”

“Wow,” says Sid, standing at the window in Nina’s office on the twenty-seventh floor of the skyscraper rising from the ordered chaos of Manhattan. “What a view. Who would want to be any higher than this?”

“Not I,” says Nina, sitting at her desk typing fast, answering an email. “I’d like to have my office in a beach house in Santa Barbara, and maybe someday I will.”

Sid sits down on the plush sofa. “You’re sure I’m dressed okay for where we’re going to lunch?”

“You’re perfect,” says Nina, glancing at him.

“You said I didn’t need to wear a tie, but everyone at Falcon says the place we’re going is off-the-charts fancy, so…”

“Sid,” says Nina, getting up and showing off her slinky red dress, her black hair piled on her head, huge gold hoop earrings dangling from her ears. “I’m dressed up. Okay? Kulu’s wife will be dressed up. But Kulu will be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or a basketball jersey or… who knows? Men can wear anything they want these days. That’s the new thing for men in show biz. Anything goes. I saw Greta Gerwig having lunch with a guy the other day in a super snazzy restaurant. She was wearing a five-thousand-dollar dress and looked like she was about to accept an Oscar, and the guy she was with was wearing dirty jeans and a faded old pajama top. Trust me. If anything, you’re overdressed.”

“I wish I’d known,” says Sid, glancing anxiously at the doorway. “I have a fabulous selection of faded old pajama tops.”

“Next time, darling,” says Nina, winking at him. “Ah, here they are.”

Sara and Kulu enter Nina’s office, both of them smiling rapturously. Sid jumps up, and Kulu takes Sid’s hand and says, “Sid, Sid, Sid, at last we meet in-person.”

“Kulu,” says Sid, the name catching in his throat. “I love those two songs you sent me. My wife and I listened to them again and again and again, and we danced to them, and then I wrote two more songs for you.” He blushes. “I brought them with me.”

“You’re amazing,” says Kulu, looking into Sid’s eyes. “I can’t wait to see them. You know what happens when I read your lyrics?”

“What?” asks Sid, breathlessly.

“The melodies are already there, flowing out of your words. This morning I wrote the tune for Heart Song. It’s so beautiful. You’re gonna love it.”

Heart Song

 

Here we are, you and I, growing older, standing by.

I propose a daring quest. You go east. I’ll go west.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

What we’re seeking is what we’ll find

when we overcome the secret mind

they put inside us long ago

so we don’t remember what we really know.

 

There’s the crossroad. Here’s the dawn.

Say goodbye. We’ll both be gone.

Leap the boundaries. Break the rules.

Take no prisoners, don’t be cruel.

Sing your heart song. Sing your heart song.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

Find the entrance. Run the course.

Change your heart song at its source.

Change the grammar. Change the text.

Change your thoughts of what comes next.

I tell you, my love, we will find a way to end

the reign of sorrow and fear and misunderstanding.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

But we will always hear our heart songs.

 

Marvin and the Cat

Monday, November 12th, 2018

guitar pegs

At dusk in late October in the far north of California, Marvin Rees, forty-two, gazes fixedly out one of the three south-facing windows in the living room of his spacious three-bedroom house, the golden brown grass of his two-acre meadow cropped low by hungry deer.

An only child raised in the suburbs of San Francisco, Marvin is a sturdy five-foot-eleven, bespectacled and clean-shaven, his wavy brown hair just beginning to turn gray. His mother was an optometrist born in Los Angeles, her parents Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, his father an accountant born in Massachusetts, a descendant of early English colonists.

Marvin’s ten-acre parcel is located on Big Salmon Road, three miles inland from the coastal town of Wakanachi. The narrow, pot-holed, asphalt road climbs steeply eastward from the small town, the first mile twisting and turning through a dense redwood forest before leveling out at five-hundred-feet elevation for a few miles and eventually becoming a dirt road that climbs ten miles further inland and vanishes near the high point of a ridge, 2374 feet above sea level, this high point called Goose Mountain by the locals, though Goose Mountain does not appear on any official map of the area.

Wild huckleberry bushes grow profusely on the fringes of Marvin’s meadow, and beyond the huckleberries is a vast forest of pines and tan oaks and spruce and firs and redwoods, only a few of these trees more than a hundred-years old, this section of the coast range clear-cut a century ago.

Marvin moved here three years ago from Mountain View where he worked for a gigantic Internet company. He lived in the same small apartment in Mountain View for sixteen years, since shortly after he graduated from college with a master’s degree in Computer Science, and for the last three of those sixteen years, he shared his apartment with his partner Irene who worked for a different gigantic Internet company. They were planning to get married, buy a house, and have a child.

Then one day, during a high-level meeting at the company he worked for, Marvin referred to the idea under discussion as shortsighted. This idea turned out to be the brainchild of the head of Marvin’s division, and two days later Marvin was fired. When Marvin refused to see a therapist about what his dismissal notice termed anger issues, Irene ended their relationship.

With the money Marvin had saved for his part of the down payment on a tiny tract house he and Irene were planning to buy on the fringes of San Jose, he bought his house and ten acres near Wakanachi outright and had several hundred thousand dollars left over. He chose Wakanachi because of his fond memories of camping at Wakanachi State Park with his mother and father when he was a boy. He loved the wild beaches of the Wakanachi coast, and he loved the forests of the Wakanachi Wilderness with their sparkling creeks and rivers.

For the first few months of living in this remote part of California, Marvin made an effort to get to know his neighbors on Big Salmon Road and to become part of the Wakanachi community. But his neighbors did not respond kindly to his overtures, and the choir he joined, the only one in town, was affiliated with a fundamentalist Christian church. Feeling uncomfortable singing songs about being a helpless sinner and needing Jesus to save him, Marvin quit the choir after three practices.

In those same first few months, he went to one or another of the two pubs in Wakanachi several times a week, played pool and darts with various men, and introduced himself to women he surmised were single, but he felt shunned in those places, so he eventually stopped going and reverted to what he had been in Mountain View, a social isolate who spent lots of time in the evenings playing his guitar, listening to music, reading books, and watching sports on his computer—the difference being that now he no longer has a partner and is often lonely at night.

During the day, though, Marvin is not lonely.

He heats his well-insulated house with two woodstoves, a large one in the living room and a smaller one in his bedroom, and the wood he burns in those stoves comes from dead and dying trees he harvests in the forest on his ten acres and on the national forest land adjoining his property.

There are thousands of dead and dying trees in the forest because after a hundred years of recovering from the clear-cut a century ago, the redwoods have regained their height supremacy over the other tree species and created a dense canopy that limits the sunlight reaching the shorter trees, thus quickly ending the lives of nascent trees and slowly killing the larger ones.

So every day, unless the rain is falling too hard or the air is too cold, Marvin goes into the woods with his log saw, axe, and sturdy two-wheeled hauling cart, cuts down dead or nearly-dead trees, saws them into sixteen-inch-long rounds, fills his cart with these rounds, and hauls them back to his woodshed where he uses a maul to split the rounds into pieces that will fit nicely into his woodstoves. He does this work without a chainsaw because he dislikes that snarly roaring sound and the danger in using such a tool, and he loves wielding a crosscut saw and axe.

When he first began his labors in the forest, he was incapable of cutting down any tree with a trunk thicker than four-inches-in-diameter, he could barely pull a load exceeding fifty pounds, and he was exhausted after fifteen minutes of work. Now, after three years of such labor, he works ceaselessly for four hours most mornings, fells tall trees with trunks up to sixteen-inches-in-diameter, and pulls loads exceeding two hundreds pounds up steep inclines.

He has also taken to riding his bike to and from Wakanachi every other day to get his mail at the post office, walk two miles on the beach south of town, shop at the food co-op, have a bowl of soup in the bakery café, and then ride the steep road home. He is now on a first-name basis with two postal clerks, three clerks at the food co-op, and several employees at the bakery café. Once in a great while he will have a brief conversation with someone in the post office or café or co-op, but he rarely says more than Hi. I’d like to send this package and Yes, I’ll have the soup, please.

The result of his new lifestyle is that for the first time since he was a soccer player in high school, he is in marvelous physical condition and his days are enjoyable and often delightful. Only at night is he lonely, sometimes achingly so.

Judging from the people he sees shopping at the food co-op and patronizing the bakery café, he is certain there are kindred spirits out there with whom he might commune if only he could meet them. He has always been shy, and since failing in his initial attempts to make friends in Wakanachi, he is shier than ever. Indeed, he has yet to strike up a conversation with anyone in town since those first few months, though he rehearses such conversations every night while watching the flames in one or another of his woodstoves.

Which explains some of why he is gazing so intently out his window as dusk settles over the land—his longing for contact with others having heightened his senses regarding any movement he sees out his windows. And he thinks he may have just seen someone or something, not a deer, moving through the huckleberry bushes on the edge of his meadow.

He is about to turn away from the window when a beautiful orange and white cat steps out of the bushes and walks daintily into the golden brown meadow. This cat is definitely not a bobcat or baby puma, but a house cat in the prime of her life. For some ineffable reason, Marvin feels certain the cat is female. She stops walking and looks at Marvin’s house, makes eye contact with Marvin, and after looking at him for a long moment, turns away and disappears into the bushes.

“A cat,” says Marvin, who often talks aloud to himself. “I wonder where she came from?”

His nearest neighbors are a quarter-mile away, and in his three years of living on Big Salmon Road, Marvin has never seen a house cat on his land, save for the two cats he used to have.

After supper, Marvin calls Ravi, his friend who started an app-development company the year before Marvin was fired from the gigantic Internet company where he and Ravi were colleagues and friends. Ravi tried to convince Marvin to move to Portland, Oregon and work for him there, but Marvin longed to live far from the madding crowd. So now Ravi pays Marvin a hundred-dollars-an-hour for two or three hours of work every day, work Marvin usually does in the afternoon before making his supper.

When they finish discussing the latest app Marvin is troubleshooting for Ravi, Marvin says, “A very interesting thing happened today. I saw a magnificent cat on the edge of my meadow. Orange and white. Shorthaired. Can’t imagine where she came from. Didn’t seem to be lost, but she didn’t strike me as feral.”

Ravi says, “I am not fond of cats. Lisa wants one, but I’ve convinced her to wait until Sasha is at least three and won’t poke the cat in the eye and get scratched. I was once badly bitten by a cat. Do you have a gun? Maybe you could shoot it.”

“I don’t want to shoot her,” says Marvin, laughing. “I love cats. I’ve had two since I’ve lived here, only they didn’t last long. Sushi was taken by a hawk. I know because I saw the hawk flying away with her in his talons. I don’t know what happened to Felix. Fox, coyote. Who knows? I decided not to try again. But here was this beautiful cat today, so… I don’t know.”

“You need a girlfriend, Marvin, not a cat.” Ravi sighs sympathetically. “Portland is swarming with lovely women. We’ll set you up with one of Lisa’s friends, we’ll find you a great place to live, and you can work for me thirty hours a week. I could really use you here. Things are exploding. I’ll pay you a hundred and sixty an hour if you’ll move here. Please?”

“I like it here, Ravi. I really do. I just… I’m just… isolated. You know?”

“From the pictures you’ve sent me, you’re more than isolated. You’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“This is definitely not nowhere,” says Marvin, his eyes filling with tears. “The place is not the problem. The problem is me. I’m not good at meeting people. I just… I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”

“You’re a brilliant problem solver,” says Ravi, his voice full of sympathy. “I have faith in you, Marvin.”

The next morning after breakfast, Marvin is about to head off into the woods when he sees the orange and white cat again, this time much closer to his house. She is sitting perfectly still in the meadow, watching something on the ground a few feet in front of her.

Marvin gets his binoculars, and with a close-up view discovers the cat is watching a gopher who occasionally pokes his little head up out of his hole. After several minutes of watching the cat sitting absolutely still, Marvin puts down his binoculars, and just as he does, the cat pounces, snags the gopher with the claws of her right paw, yanks him out of his hole, grabs him in her mouth, and carries him off into the bushes.

“Well done,” says Marvin, his heart pounding from witnessing the deathly display.

And for the rest of the morning, as he dismembers a dead bull pine he felled a half-mile from his house, he thinks about the cat and what a fantastic huntress she is.

That night, as he is falling asleep, Marvin thinks he hears a cat mewing plaintively outside his bedroom window. He holds very still and listens intently until he realizes that what he thought was a cat mewing is the wind whistling through the trees.

The next day, riding his bike down his driveway on his way to town, he sees the orange and white cat just twenty feet to the east of the driveway, curled up at the base of large fir tree, napping in a pool of sunlight; and it occurs to Marvin she might be homeless, which gets him thinking about ways to entice her to become his cat.

On the steep climb back from town in the afternoon, Marvin decides that before he leaves a bowl of milk on his porch for the cat, he should check with his nearest neighbors to make sure the cat does not belong to them.

So he showers and shaves and puts on clean pants and his favorite teal blue long-sleeved shirt with a yellow sunflower embroidered on the pocket, this embroidery done by his mother a few weeks before she died five years ago. He brushes his hair, finds two bottles of red wine to bring as gifts, and drives his little white pickup a quarter-mile west to the adjoining property, the driveway marked with a small wooden sign saying WALKER.

When Marvin visited the Walkers three years ago, a woman in her fifties he assumed was Mrs. Walker answered the door, and when he said he was her new neighbor, she replied tersely, “Not mine,” and then walked away, leaving the door open and shouting to someone in the house, “There’s a man here to see you.”

Regretting his impulse to introduce himself to the Walkers, Marvin nevertheless waited a moment, and a big man in his sixties with a bushy gray beard came to the door, a man Marvin assumed was Mr. Walker. And this big bearded man growled, “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”

“I’m not selling anything,” said Marvin, flushing with embarrassment. “I’m your new neighbor and wanted to introduce myself. I’m Marvin Rees.”

The man gave Marvin a doleful look and said, “Your timing couldn’t be worse.”

“Sorry,” said Marvin, turning to go. “Very sorry. I would have called first, but I found no Walker in the phone book.”

“I’m not in the book,” said the man, shouting after him. “Once you’re listed, every jackass in the world calls you.”

So it is with some trepidation that Marvin turns into the driveway marked WALKER and drives through pines and huckleberry bushes to a large stone and redwood house on a knoll overlooking several acres of wetlands, beyond which rises the forest.

As Marvin pulls up to the house, the front door opens and the big man, who used to have a bushy beard and now only has a bushy mustache, comes out onto the porch and waves to Marvin; and Marvin assumes the man thinks he, Marvin, is someone else. So he gets out of his truck prepared for the man to be disappointed when he realizes Marvin is not the person he was expecting, but the man does not seem the least disappointed as he comes down the four stairs, a big smile on his face.

“I’m so glad you came back,” says the man, his voice pleasantly gruff. “I’ve been meaning to come see you, but… well, here you are. Welcome to the watershed. A belated welcome. My wife was leaving me the day you came to visit and I was pretty wrecked for a couple years and… I’m sorry, man. Tell me your name again.”

“Marvin,” says Marvin, shaking the man’s hand. “Marvin Rees.”

“Miles Walker,” says the man. “But everybody calls me Silk.”

“How come?” asks Marvin, smiling curiously.

“Oh, God,” says Silk, shrugging self-consciously. “Buddy Bosford gave me that name forty years ago and it stuck.”

“Buddy Bosford?” says Marvin, startled by the name. “The guitarist?”

“Yeah,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin. “You know Buddy?”

“Well I know of him,” says Marvin, laughing. “I’ve got all his albums and I’ve watched lots of his videos and I play Freight Train exactly the way he does.”

“You play guitar,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin.

“I’m not great, but I love to play,” says Marvin, blushing as he hands Silk one of the bottles of wine he brought along. “This is for you.”

“Thank you,” says Silk, smiling at the bottle. “I love red wine. This is a very good winery.” He looks at Marvin. “Hey, come in, come in. I’ll make coffee.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “I just…”

“Not at all,” says Silk, clapping Marvin on the back. “I’ve got two dogs. They’ll growl, but they’re just talking. They’ll be your best friends in five minutes.”

After two cups of coffee and pumpkin pie, Marvin and Silk sit by the fire in Silk’s living room playing two of Silk’s many guitars, Silk playing tasty licks to a song Marvin wrote in college, a blues with several surprising chord changes called Mimi Won’t Go There.

When they finish the song, Marvin says, “I see why Buddy Bosford named you Silk. You’re fantastic.”

“I used to be,” says Silk, gazing intently at Marvin. “You’re very good. What are you doing Wednesday night? Buddy comes over most Wednesdays and we drink wine and noodle around. He’ll love your song. You got more?”

“Buddy Bosford comes here on Wednesday nights?” says Marvin, gaping incredulously at Silk. “Here? In your living room? The Buddy Bosford?”

“I know,” says Silk, nodding. “Most people think he lives in Nashville, but he’s lived here for forty years. He bought that beautiful farm just north of town forty years ago with the money he made from Green Cadillac.”

“Wow,” says Marvin, smiling in wonder. “Who knew? I came over to ask you about a cat, and now…”

“We’re guitar buddies,” says Silk, nodding. “And I promise to be a better neighbor. You go by Marvin or Marv?”

“Either is fine,” says Marvin, hoping Silk will call him Marv—almost no one ever has. “Whichever rolls off your tongue easier.”

“Marv,” says Silk, smiling and nodding. “I like Marv. And what were you saying about a cat? I don’t have a cat. I’m a dog person.”

The ten-acre parcel adjoining Marvin’s land to the east is meadowland, four acres of which are a defunct apple orchard, only a few of the old trees still alive. The main residence is a rambling old white farmhouse with a wide front porch, and there is also a large new cottage fifty yards north of  the farmhouse, brown adobe with solar panels and a satellite dish on the roof.

When Marvin came here three years ago, the cottage was not yet built and there were two ferocious dogs who kept him trapped in his truck until a grizzled old man hobbled out of the farmhouse onto the front porch and yelled at him to get off the property or he’d call the sheriff.

The large wooden sign at the mouth of the driveway says DuPrau, and for some reason Marvin has never associated that name with the grizzled old man who told him to get off the property.

Two dogs come out to greet Marvin this time, too, but they are both smiling old Golden Retrievers with tales wagging, and when Marvin gets out of his truck, both dogs crowd close to be petted, so he gives them plenty of pets.

Now the front door opens and a white-haired woman wearing a purple paisley muumuu comes out on the porch and shields her eyes from the lowering sun. “Hey, it’s the bicycle guy,” she says with an accent born in Brooklyn. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi,” says Marvin, approaching the bottom of the stairs, bottle of wine in hand. “I’m your neighbor to the west. Marvin Rees.”

“I know,” says the woman, squinting at him. “I’m Sally DuPrau. I’ve seen you at the co-op and at the cafe and riding your bike.”

“I’ve seen you, too,” he says, nodding. “Um… I came to ask you about a cat.”

“A cat?” she says, coming down the stairs to him. “We have three. Are you trying to get rid of a cat or do you want a cat?”

“Well, no,” says Marvin, laughing, “I wanted to find out if the cat that has been visiting me lately is yours, or if she’s a stray and I might entice her to be mine.”

“You said that so well,” says Sally, grinning at him. “You want some coffee? Tea?”

Sitting at the dining table in Sally’s sunny kitchen, Marvin learns that the beautiful orange and white cat is, indeed, one of the three DuPrau cats. Her name is Cleo, she is five-years-old, and from a very early age she has been the most wide-ranging cat Sally has ever known, and Sally has known many cats.

“Somehow she avoids being eaten by hawks or foxes or coyotes or pumas,” says Marvin, sipping his tea and looking westward, his house not visible from Sally’s place, a finger of the forest delineating the border of the two properties.

“Until she doesn’t,” says Sally, nodding sagely. “They get older and lose a step and death is there to snag them.” She smiles sweetly. “Snags us all eventually.”

“Yeah,” says Marvin, thinking of his mother who died five years ago, his father who died when he was twelve.

“So you fix computers?” says Sally, nodding hopefully. “I’m a techno idiot, but I’d sure love my pad thing to work better than it does.”

“I wouldn’t say I fix them, though I can,” says Marvin, nodding. “I do know quite a bit about computers. What kind of trouble are you having?”

“It’s just so slow,” says Sally, grimacing. “And it keeps freezing up. Not that I use it very much. I just do a little email every once in a while. But Meredith, my daughter, is going insane trying to get her web site to do whatever it is she wants it to do. She moved back here from New York just a couple months after you moved in, and she’s been pretty happy here except for the slow Internet and whatever’s going wrong with her web site.”

“I might be able to help you,” says Marvin, imagining Sally has an out-of-date device and an ancient operating system. “And possibly Meredith, too. I’d be happy to take a look.”

“How much do you charge?” asks Sally, matter-of-factly. “You open to doing trades? I do Reiki massage.”

“Oh I wouldn’t charge you anything,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “Glad to help.”

“Hold that thought,” says Sally, jumping up. “I’m gonna go get Meredith.”

Marvin looks around the sunny kitchen, marveling at how completely his life has changed in the last few hours.

Now Sally returns in the company of her daughter Meredith, fortyish, attractive, with shoulder-length brown hair wearing blue jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt with the words vee shall see written in red lower-case letters just below the V.

Marvin rises to meet her and says, “Hello. I’ve seen you in town.”

“Hi,” says Meredith, shaking Marvin’s hand. “I’ve seen you, too. Welcome to the neighborhood. Three years after you got here.”

“Thanks,” he says, blushing at her touch. “Very nice to meet you. I… I love your shirt.”

“Oh,” she says, looking down to see which shirt she’s wearing. “Do you go by Marvin or Marv or…?”

“Either is fine,” he says, shrugging pleasantly.

“I like Marv,” she says, blushing a little, too.

“When Marv came to say hello three years ago,” says Sally, sitting down, “I was in New York helping you get disentangled and Fritz was here with his pit bulls and scared Marv away.”

“As he was supposed to,” says Meredith, sitting opposite Marvin.

“True,” says Sally, nodding. “I told him to protect the place, and if Fritz is anything, he’s a literalist.”

Meredith smiles shyly at Marvin and says, “You’re kind of my hero, you know.”

I’m kind of your hero?” says Marvin, pointing at himself. “How so?”

“Well,” says Meredith, glancing at Sally, “when I got back from New York I was…” She takes a deep breath to allay her tears. “I’ll just say it. I was extremely depressed and feeling like… what’s the point? I had a very successful first novel and then three terrible flops, all of which coincided with a disastrous marriage and an even more disastrous divorce so… I didn’t have much hope of things getting any better.”

Marvin nods, knowing very well about the low tide of hope.

“And every day,” says Meredith, looking at Sally again, “my dear mother would take me into town for coffee and a muffin at the bakery, and a walk on the beach. And then we’d visit her friends, just so I’d be in life, you know, and many times on our way home we would see you coming back from town on your bicycle. Except in the beginning, you weren’t on your bicycle, you were pushing it up the hill and going so slowly I imagined it took you hours to get home.”

“In the beginning it did,” says Marvin, remembering those first months of pitting himself against that steep and curvy mile, how on several occasions he wept as he trudged up the seemingly endless road through the dark forest.

“But then one day we passed you and you were jogging up the hill with your bike.” Meredith’s eyes sparkle as she remembers. “And when we got a little bit ahead of you, I looked in the side-view mirror and saw you smiling, and I smiled, too.”

“And then,” says Sally, getting up to put a kettle on for more tea, “you were riding most of the way, going not much faster than you could walk, but you were riding.”

“I remember the first time I rode all the way home,” says Marvin, delighting in the memory. “I was high as a kite for days.”

“So was I,” says Meredith, nodding. “The day we saw you reach the top of the climb and you were standing up on the pedals, pumping hard, I felt exultant. A contact high.”

“I’m glad to know this,” says Marvin, feeling shy about making eye contact with Meredith. “I thought only the nature spirits had witnessed my transformation.”

“Oh, no,” says Sally, coming back to the table. “I’m sure lots of people on this road have been inspired by you.”

At which moment, Cleo comes through the cat door into the kitchen and freezes at the sight of Marvin sitting at the table with Sally and Meredith.

“There she is,” says Marvin, smiling at the magnificent orange and white cat. “Hello Cleo.”

And Cleo, intuiting that Marvin is a friend of the people who feed her, leaps up onto Marvin’s lap and allows him to scratch the top of her head and run his hand down her spine, eliciting a most eloquent purr from her.

“That’s a first,” says Meredith, arching her eyebrow. “Cool Cleo so quickly wooed.”

“I think they must have known each other in a former life,” says Sally, winking at Marvin.

“I’m sure of it,” says Marvin, entranced by Cleo’s purring.

“And by the way,” says Sally, bouncing her eyebrows at Meredith, “Marv is a wizard with computers, too.”

fin

Lila’s Crisis

Monday, November 5th, 2018

Lila's Crisis

On a warm September day in Los Angeles, Lila and Desiree are having salads and smoothies for lunch at Boffo, a hip eatery on Sunset Boulevard. Lila is thirty-three, Desiree twenty-nine. Lila’s mother is descended from Wisconsin Swedes, her father a Chicagoan descended from Greeks. Desiree’s father is an African American from Atlanta, her mother a Latina from Dallas. Both Lila and Desiree are waiters at Elusive, a restaurant in Beverly Hills known for super-elegant ambience, fabulous food, exquisite waiters, and a clientele from the high end of show biz.

“Wait, wait, wait,” says Desiree, her accent southern. “Who’s Lorenzo?”

“Our new sous chef,” says Lila, surprised Desiree doesn’t know. “Lorenzo Balotelli. Don’t you just love that name? Balotelli. And don’t you just love his voice? That deep baritone with a subtle British accent, yet he’s so obviously Italian. And he’s so cheerful. The kitchen has been so happy since he started.” She sighs. “Two weeks and three days ago. But who’s counting?”

Desiree squints at Lila. “You have a crush on him? The fat guy?”

“You think he’s fat?” says Lila, mimicking Desiree’s squint. “Not just husky?”

Desiree gapes at Lila. “You crazy, girl? That man is carrying twenty pounds he most definitely does not need.” Her squint returns. “What about Cameron? I thought you were engaged. He was swarming all over you three weeks ago, and you were lovin’ it, yeah?”

“Well… I did give him a tentative Yes,” says Lila, wincing. “But he’s not exactly… intellectually…”

“What?” says Desiree, aghast at this heretofore hidden side of Lila. “He’s handsome and rich and he’s got two big movies about to open and another three coming fast behind. No offense, honey, but you’re not gettin’ any younger. You don’t want to blow this. Trust me.”

“I know, but…” Lila pauses portentously. “The more I get to know Cameron, the less I find we have in common.”

Desiree grimaces. “That’s not what you said when you got back from Puerto Vallarta. You said you were wild about him. You said the sex was stupendous. Didn’t you?”

“That was three months ago,” says Lila, looking at Desiree and thinking I wonder if she would still be my friend if she thought I was carrying twenty extra pounds. “We were so stoned the whole time, I’m not even sure we left LA. And he gave me that incredible diamond bracelet and swamped me in luxury.”

“I’m not seein’ the problem here.” Desiree frowns gravely. “A life of luxury with a hot movie producer, plenty of good weed and good sex? What’s not to like?”

“It’s just that… there isn’t much there, if you know what I mean.” Lila shrugs. “He’s not… deep. Not even a little bit.”

“Let me ask you this,” says Desiree, swirling her wine. “You ever known a really rich guy who was deep?”

Lila reviews the rich guys she’s been involved with over the last seven years and shakes her head. “No.”

“I rest my case,” says Desiree, smiling smugly. “This is the game, baby. And you’re about to win. So I suggest you stick with the program, close the deal with Cameron, and get that deep stuff with your girlfriends. You know? That’s my plan once I land somebody like Cameron.”

Home to her sweet little apartment in Hollywood, Lila is tempted to call her mother in Sunnyvale and tell her about Lorenzo, but instead of calling, she sits down with pen and paper and starts writing a letter. During her first three years in college, Lila wrote hundreds of letters to her mother and sister and best friend Carlotta, and dozens of letters to her father, too, but none since college.

Dear Mom,

I know. A letter. What’s gotten into me?

That’s all she writes because she knows what’s gotten into her. She wants to date Lorenzo, though she knows if Cameron finds out, he’ll be furious and break up with her and…

“Unless,” says Lila, speaking to her cat Witti, short for Wittgenstein, “we call the first date with Lorenzo a business meeting since I am aiming to be a restaurant manager and he’s worked in several famous restaurants.”

The large gray cat drowsing on the sunny windowsill blinks at Lila as if to say Sounds like a plausible fib.

A few days later, Cameron goes to New York for a week of high-level hob-knobbing, and Lila has her first date with Lorenzo, lunch at Gunga, a Brazilian Indian restaurant in Santa Monica owned by Lorenzo’s friends Kabir and Eloa.

Midway through their scrumptious meal, in answer to Lila’s question about how he became a chef, Lorenzo says, “So there I was in Paris, twenty-five-years-old, doing research at the Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne for my doctoral thesis on the influence of Neostoicism on the philosophy of Montesquieu, specifically regarding the necessity of separation of powers in government, when it occurred to me, after several embarrassing and frustrating experiences in cafés and restaurants, that I did not know enough practical French to order a nourishing meal, which realization had the effect of a timely slap from a Zen master. So I gave up my academic pursuits, went to England and took lodgings in the garret of a friend studying Anthropology at Oxford, got a job busing tables in a pub, the cook there was something of a genius with fish, and I was thereafter, forgive me, hooked on cooking.”

“What a bizarre coincidence,” says Lila, clearing her throat. “I have a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. My senior thesis was… now don’t laugh… Kafka and the Existentialists.”

Lorenzo laughs uproariously. “I’m sorry,” he says, red-faced with mirth. “My senior thesis was… wait for it… The Trouble With Sartre.”

Lila laughs harder than she’s laughed in ages and says, “There should be a law against twenty-two-year-olds writing about Existentialism.”

“Yes,” says Lorenzo, still laughing. “Speaking of the necessity of separation of powers.”

And now, quite unexpectedly, Lila bursts into tears and cries for a long time, her unbridled sorrow causing Lorenzo to cry, too.

That night at Elusive, the last diners served, Lorenzo intercepts Lila in the kitchen and hands her an envelope. “I had a wonderful time with you at lunch today. Wrote a little something for you.”

Lila looks at the envelope and nearly gives it back for fear that further intimacy with Lorenzo will either create an uncomfortable situation for her at the restaurant or make it impossible for her to continue her involvement with Cameron; and though she doesn’t love Cameron, he is a rising star, handsome and wealthy, and he brings her into contact with other such men and women, and this is the game Lila has been playing in earnest for seven years now, so…

“Thank you,” she says, putting the envelope in her pocket. “Gotta run.”

Dear Lila,

I am fairly certain your tears today were not the result of my laughing at the title of your senior treatise, mine being equally youthful; and I comfort myself with the knowledge that crying is good for us, especially if we haven’t had a good cry in a long time.

I know you have a fellow, as my mum calls boyfriends, but I hope that won’t preclude our socializing in the future. I appreciate so many things about you and I am keen to know more. How about a picnic lunch at the beach tomorrow, a stone’s throw from my hovel in Venice?

Warmly,

            Lorenzo

The next morning at nine, in a large windowless room with hardwood floors and gigantic mirrors covering the walls, Lila and twelve other women are sweating profusely as they perform a grueling dance and exercise routine accompanied by a relentless hip hop rhythm track, the routine featuring dozens of squats and kicks and leg lifts and all manner of jazzy moves—the name of the hour-long class A-List Booty.

“You’re dragging, Mary,” shouts Chita, the draconian instructor who is simultaneously executing the punishing routine and haranguing her disciples. “You call that a kick, Leslie? Hit the fuckin’ roof, girl. Move it, ladies. That window of perfection started closing when you were eighteen, and the only way to keep it open is to work your butts off. Those men don’t want you for your brains, girls, they want your booty. Now kick it, Angela. Faster Lila. Faster, girl. Stay on the beat.”

Driving home from the gym, Lila gets a call from Cameron in New York, his somewhat nasal voice coming through a speaker in the ceiling of her Audi. “What’s happening, cute stuff?”

“I just finished working out,” she says, never comfortable talking on the phone while driving. “Now I’m on my way home.”

“Miss me?” he asks, his tone implying she must.

And though she knows she is expected to say, “You know I do, babe. Can’t wait to see you again,” she cannot bear to answer him, and so she touches her phone and terminates their connection; and when he calls back, she doesn’t answer.

An hour later, as she is about to leave for Lorenzo’s place in Venice, Lila calls Cameron on her landline phone and says, “Sorry about that. My phone just suddenly died, and there I was yacking away in a traffic jam when I realized you weren’t there. Sorry.”

“Why didn’t you call me immediately when you got home?” he asks, sounding deeply aggrieved.

“I did. I am. I went to Trader Joe’s and the farmers market, and now I’m home.”

“You should always have a second phone with you,” he says sternly. “I don’t appreciate being cut off like that.”

“Well I don’t appreciate your tone of voice,” she says, trembling with indignation. “I didn’t do anything terribly wrong and I don’t deserve to be chastised. It’s not a big deal. Just let it go. Okay?”

“No, I won’t let it go, because it’s not okay. What’s the matter with you? How dare you talk to me like that?”

“Jesus, Cameron,” she says, fighting her impulse to hang up. “You think I’m ten-years-old? You should hear yourself. You sound like a pompous idiot.”

“Take that back,” he growls. “Or it’s over between us.”

“Are you serious?” she says, shivering at the thought of how close she came to marrying this man.

“Apologize, Lila! Now!”

“Not a chance,” she says, hanging up.

Now she waits a moment before leaving her apartment, hoping Cameron won’t call back, but he does; and to her horror, he leaves a message apologizing for being so insensitive, and blaming his behavior on the terrible stress of vying for the movie rights to the red hot Young Adult novel Teen Vampire Zombie Detective—his apology ending with a tearful marriage proposal.

On the Venice beach, sitting side-by-side on a large green towel, Lila and Lorenzo dine on goat cheese and avocados and tomatoes and black olives and sour dough French bread, their beverage a delicious cabernet they drink from flat-bottomed coffee mugs unlikely to topple over on the sand.

“I love this parade,” says Lorenzo, gesturing at the ceaseless passersby on the beach, some fully clothed, some wearing next to nothing. “Aren’t we a most amazing species?”

“We are,” says Lila, grateful for the soothing effect of the wine—Cameron’s tearful proposal still ringing in her ears.

“So how did you make the leap from Philosophy to waiting tables at Elusive?” Lorenzo smiles admiringly at her. “You are, you know, one of the very finest waiters I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. You are never in a hurry, you are gracious and strong, never fawning, never diffident, and always beautifully poised, like a jujutsu master calmly prepared for any possibility.”

“How kind of you to say so,” says Lila, ripping off a chunk of French bread and handing it to him. “If only I could live my life that way.”

“Well, that is the trick, isn’t it?” he says, taking the bread from her and dipping it into his wine. “We meditate, if we do, so we can eventually carry that calm state into our everyday lives.”

“Do you meditate?” asks Lila, who goes on binges of meditating and then inevitably falls off the wagon, so to speak, only to climb back on when the world becomes too much for her.

“I do,” says Lorenzo, sucking the wine from the bread. “Most days. I try to sit for fifteen or twenty minutes in the hour before I go to work, and on Sundays I like to start my day with a cup of green tea and a good long sit. But enough about me. There you were, Philosophy degree in hand, twenty-two, and…” He arches an expectant eyebrow.

“There’s a back story,” she says, sinking her bare feet into the sand. “Lila at twenty-two was very different than Lila at twenty-one and all the years before.”

“I love back stories,” he says, shifting his position to face her and not be distracted by the parade. “And I love your voice. You would make a splendid narrator of books.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “So would you.”

“Sorry,” he says, blushing at her blushing. “I keep interrupting. Go on.”

“Well you may not believe this, but…” She frowns, searching for the right words. “I’m having something of a… I wouldn’t call this a breakdown, but a cataclysmic shift. Right now. This minute. Even as we speak.” She looks into his eyes. “Meeting you has precipitated a crisis in my life, and by crisis I mean a moment of decision, only the decision is less about what I’m going to do than who I choose to be.”

“I understand,” he says quietly.

She has a drink of wine and says, “So the back story begins when I was a little girl. A little… “ She pauses for a long moment, her eyes drawn to the waves breaking on the shore. “Chubby girl.”

“Cute as the devil, I’ll bet,” says Lorenzo, nodding encouragingly.

“So said my mom and dad and grandparents, but the key word here is chubby, which I took to mean ugly.”

“Who said that word to you?”

“People. Kids at school. Just… everybody.”

“But not your parents.”

“No, never. But everybody else.”

Lorenzo nods. “Go on.”

“So I grew from chubby little girl to chubby big girl, and being chubby after Sixth Grade, my non-chubby girlfriends dumped me, the beautiful ones, so I buried myself in books and writing and studying and hanging out with other chubby not-beautiful girls. And boys didn’t like us or even see us, and it didn’t matter that I got good grades and played tennis and acted in plays, nor did it matter that I dieted until I thought I’d die. The best I could do was stocky. And then I went to Stanford and majored in Philosophy and Psychology, and I assumed I’d remain in academia forever, where being chubby is not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Lorenzo nods again, listening intently.

“And then a very strange thing happened to me at the end of my junior year.” She smiles wistfully at her memory of that incredible moment. “I had just turned twenty-one and I was taking a very demanding jazz hip hop dance class, and at the end of one of those classes, Sara, this gorgeous woman with a perfect body, approached me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna go clubbing with me on Saturday?’ And I thought she was joking or talking to someone else, but she was talking to me. So I looked at my body in the mirror on the wall, something I studiously avoided because I hated the sight of my chubby self, only my chubby self wasn’t there anymore, and in her place was a woman with my face and a body not unlike Sara’s, and I could see why she wanted to go clubbing with me.”

“You had no inkling of this change until that moment?” asks Lorenzo, frowning. “No whistles or catcalls as you strolled across the campus?”

“There might have been,” she says, shrugging, “but I never would have thought they were whistling at me. I was blind to my body, thinking only that I was ugly. An ugly virgin.”

“When all the while you were beautifully you,” he says, holding up the bottle of wine. “Another splash?”

“Yes, please,” she says, proffering her mug.

“So you went clubbing and…”

“The men liked me,” she says, nodding. “Even the handsome ones who had always been oblivious to me, and I could hardly believe what was happening because nothing in my life had prepared me to be attractive to anyone other than my mother and father and sister and my best friend Carlotta who was always telling me I was beautiful, though I never believed her.”

Lorenzo waits for Lila to continue, and when she doesn’t, he asks, “So how long did it take you to accept your new identity?”

“That’s a very interesting question,” she says, looking up at the sky and laughing a little. “Because for quite a long time, at least two years, I didn’t really have a new identity to accept. I only knew myself as chubby, regardless of the woman who appeared before me when I looked in the mirror, so for the rest of my time at Stanford I just fumbled around in the dark, so to speak, having awful sex with clumsy young men and trying to finish my youthful dissertations in Philosophy and Psychology, after which I decided not to go to graduate school, but to move to Los Angeles, the apex of the cultural obsession with so-called beauty. To see what would happen to me here.”

“So what happened?” asks Lorenzo, transfixed by Lila’s story.

“I entered the Great Game,” she says, smiling painfully. “Not the one Kipling writes about in Kim, but the game in which women gain social and economic power by aligning themselves with wealthy ambitious men until they reach the utmost heights they can before their youthful beauty fades, at which point a woman must marry the ultimate man she has conquered with her physical appeal and sexual prowess.”

A silence falls between them—waves lapping the shore and people talking and boom boxes sounding in the near distance.

Lorenzo wants to say something, but decides not to.

“And just three weeks ago,” she says, taking a deep breath, “I was literally moments away from agreeing to marry a very successful movie producer with buckets of money and a mansion in Beverly Hills, when you came into the kitchen for the first time, wandered around in a trance of delight and said, ‘Has there ever been a more Hegelian kitchen than this? Absolutely ideal.’ And I couldn’t resist answering, ‘I suppose if you need a non-personal substitute for the concept of God, this kitchen will do as well as anything.’ And you rushed over to me and cried, ‘Schopenhauer,’ and I said ‘Gesundheit,’ and you clapped your hands and said, ‘Heaven.’ After which, my crisis began.”

“You woke up,” says Lorenzo, his eyes wide with delight.

“Aroused by a rebel prince,” she says, smiling shyly. “And with her dormant intellect awakened after years of slumber, she finds herself on the edge of a precipice.”

“Or is it a precipice?” he asks, taking up the tale. “No. As the fog clears, she sees there is no cliff, but rather a fork in the road of her personal evolution, one fork continuing as the broad highway known as the Great Game.”

“And the other fork?” she asks, holding her breath.

“The other fork is a dirt track disappearing into a wilderness of uncertainty, the faded sign nailed to a tree saying Spirit Path; and her challenge, should she take that less-traveled path, is to fall in love with uncertainty and trust she will find everything she needs along her way.”

“Is that the path you’ve taken?” she asks, holding out her hand to him. “Falling in love with uncertainty?”

“I’m trying,” he says, taking her hand. “Sometimes I step off the path without knowing I have, but as I get older, I’m thirty-seven now, I seem to be getting better at finding the path again and getting back on.”

“Will you teach me?” she asks, playfully.

“No, Lila,” he says, laughing. “But I’ll learn with you. What else are friends for?”

On their fourth lunch date, Lorenzo’s first time at Lila’s apartment, they have delectable take-out Chinese and Lorenzo asks about the people in the photographs affixed to Lila’s refrigerator.

“That’s my dad in his vegetable garden in Sunnyvale,” says Lila, pointing to a slender fellow in his sixties, holding a basket of red and yellow tomatoes. “And this is my mom in the kitchen making salsa from those very tomatoes.”

“I like your mom and dad,” says Lorenzo, pointing to a photo next to the one of Lila’s mother. “And this must be your sister.”

“Yep, that’s dear Gina,” says Lila, nodding. “She’s two years older than I am, but I think she looks much younger than me.”

“I wouldn’t say so,” says Lorenzo, shaking his head.

“No?” she says, feeling she might cry.

“No,” he says, moving the picture of Gina a little to reveal the photo mostly hidden behind her. “Who are these two beautiful young ladies?”

The somewhat faded photo is of two teenaged women in summery dresses, their arms around each other as they smile at the camera.

“Oh my God,” says Lila, tears springing to her eyes. “I didn’t think I still had that one. That’s me with my best friend Carlotta our senior year in high school.” She shrugs painfully. “Used to be my best friend.”

Lorenzo looks at Lila and says, “But I thought you said you were chubby in high school. You’re a svelte goddess in this picture.”

“Am I?” says Lila, frowning at the photo and seeing a teenaged Lila who isn’t chubby at all, nor is Carlotta, though in those days they both believed they were fat.

“Have you got a photo album with pictures of you when you were a baby and a girl?” asks Lorenzo, putting his arm around her. “I love seeing childhood pictures of my friends. Next time you come to my place, I’ll show you me as a cowboy when we lived in Texas when I was five. I was impossibly cute but had no idea I was until twenty years later.”

Lila finds two big photo albums on a high shelf in her closet, the volumes so dusty she has to clean them before they look at the pictures.

She and Lorenzo sit close together on the sofa, the first of the albums open on their conjoined laps, and she steels herself for the ordeal of seeing her roly-poly self next to her skinny sister and skinny father and trim and sturdy mother—the first several pictures of her as a baby and a little girl confirming her memory of being chubby.

But the picture of her blowing out eight candles on her birthday cake is of someone neither fat nor thin, but very much like the other girls arrayed around the dining table helping her blow out the candles.

On the next page is a marvelous picture of Lila and her sister Gina standing on a boulder beside a sparkling river. Gina is twelve, Lila ten. They are wearing shorts and T-shirts and baseball caps, and they might be twins—skinny twins.

Lorenzo hums approvingly and turns the page, and here is a photo of twelve-year old Lila on Halloween dressed as a hideous witch; and Lila is about to blurt, “See how fat I am?” when she catches herself, looks closely at the picture and says, “I got boobs before most of the other girls in my class and I was so embarrassed I started wearing baggy clothes so people wouldn’t notice.”

“I wonder why?” says Lorenzo, turning the page. “I thought girls longed to have boobs.”

The last few pages of Volume One are full of pictures of cats and dogs and grandparents, and when Lorenzo reaches for Volume Two, Lila says, “Oh God, this is gonna be yucky junior high and high school pictures. I don’t think I can handle this.”

“Do you mind if I look?” asks Lorenzo, waiting for her approval.

“You can if you want to,” she says, getting up. “Coffee?”

“Love some,” he says, opening the album.

Lila starts the coffee brewing and goes out onto her little balcony with a view of the narrow street crowded with cars parked in front of old apartment buildings, the air warm, the sky hazy; and she thinks of Carlotta and how a large part of her happiness until she was twenty-one came from her bond with Carlotta. And now I only know she’s alive because I know my mother would tell me if Carlotta died.

She goes back inside and finds Lorenzo pouring their coffee. He looks at her and says, “Sometimes you take cream, sometimes you don’t, whereas I never do. But today I’m having a spot of the white stuff, as my mum likes to say, just because. How about you?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a spot of the white stuff,” she says, watching his face. “What did you think of the pictures?”

“I loved them,” he says, adding cream to their coffees. “Every single one of them.”

“Did you think I was fat?” she asks, clenching her teeth.

“No, I thought you were lovely.” He hands her a mug. “And I loved seeing you with Carlotta, seeing how much you loved each other.”

“It was us against the world,” says Lila, her eyes filling with tears.

“Yeah,” says Lorenzo, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I could see that, though your parents were there, too, and your sister, loving you.”

Three weeks later, on their ninth date, the first time they’ve gotten together at night, their physical intimacy having progressed to long embraces and sweet kisses, Lorenzo and Lila are having supper in Lila’s apartment: minestrone soup and rye bread and salad and red wine.

“This soup is fabulous,” says Lorenzo, frowning at his bowl. “She’s brilliant, lovely, learned and witty, and she can cook?”

“My mother’s recipe,” says Lila, happier than she’s been in a long long time. “Those Wisconsin Swedes, you know. Masters of Italian cuisine.”

“You got the oregano just right,” he says, beaming at her. “I’m madly in love with you, Lila. That did it. Getting the oregano right.”

She sits down opposite him at her little table, gathers her courage, and says, “What shall we do about it? Being in love with each other?”

“Well… I suppose we could go on being in love and see what happens. Yes?”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” she says, nodding. “But I’m wondering about…” She gives him a long look. “Sex.”

“I love sex,” says Lorenzo, nodding with her. “One of my most favorite things. But…”

“But what?” she asks quietly.

“Well… as insanely attracted as I am to you, and I don’t use the word insanely lightly, I would like us to know each other better before we… lose our minds together that way.”

“Why?” she asks, never having known a man to resist her sexually when she is so obviously desirous of sex with him. “You know me better than any man ever has, except maybe my dad.”

“I feel like I’m just getting to know you,” he says, setting down his spoon. “And you’re just getting to know me. Not that I don’t want to make love with you. I do, but… I am so enthralled by how we’re both opening and changing, as if our relationship has set in motion a kind of dual metamorphosis, and something tells me it would be wise to let this continue until…”

“We emerge from our chrysalises?” she says, trying not to laugh. “And see what kind of butterflies we’ve become?”

“Something like that,” he says, giggling.

“Okay, my love,” she says, laughing with him. “I’ll wait as long as I can, but just so you know, I’m ready whenever you are.”

fin

Wade Rises From the Sofa

Monday, October 29th, 2018

fract01

Wade stops walking, looks around the neighborhood he’s lived in for forty-five years, and says, “What am I doing?”

A few minutes ago, he was sitting on the sofa in his living room staring at the big-screen television when his wife Mimi came home from the supermarket and growled, “Oh shit. I forgot the fucking milk.”

“I’ll walk down to Balducci’s and get a quart,” said Wade, rising from the sofa.

Then he walked to the front door, got his old brown leather jacket off the peg on the wall, put the jacket on over his faded blue shirt, tapped the back pocket of his brown corduroy trousers to make sure he had his wallet, jingled his right front pocket to make sure he had his keys, and walked out of the house into the late October afternoon, the pale blue Oregon sky sporting wispy white clouds tinged with pink.

Wade is sixty-eight, six-feet-tall, straight-backed and neither fat nor thin. His hair used to be black and is now mostly gray and turning white, and though he hasn’t had a haircut in over a year, his hair is not very long. Until a few years ago, before he became a recluse, the four words almost everyone used when describing Wade were handsome, friendly, funny, and generous. His father was from Montana, his mother from Brooklyn, and there are hints of his mother’s Brooklyn accent and tonality in Wade’s speech.

Mimi is sixty-five, a bountiful five-foot-four, and she walks with a noticeable limp, hip replacement surgery on the near horizon. Her once reddish brown hair is now silvery gray and cut shorter than Wade’s. Her parents were both from Boston, and though Mimi has lived in Oregon for most of her life, she sounds like a Bostonian.

Why did Wade look around his neighborhood and say, “What am I doing?” when he was a block from his house on his way to Balducci’s to buy a quart of milk?

Because for the last three years, whenever Mimi came home and complained of forgetting to buy something, Wade has never said, “I’ll walk down to Balducci’s,” though prior to three years ago, ever since he was in his twenties, he would walk to Balducci’s almost every afternoon to get an item or two that Mimi forgot to buy at the supermarket.

Or did she forget to buy the milk or a jar of olives or bananas? The regularity of her forgetting, and the inevitability of Wade getting up to walk those five blocks to the little neighborhood grocery store suggests that her forgetting was not forgetting at all, but part of a ritual she and Wade enacted to get him off the sofa and out into the world.

Wade was a high school Physics teacher for forty-one years, and Mimi, a high school administrator, would often find Wade sprawled on the sofa when she got home from work in the late afternoon; and she knew the slightest impetus would send him on his way to Balducci’s, a little trek he much preferred to zoning out in front of the television, and an enjoyable way for him to spend time with their children Diana and Michael who often accompanied him to Balducci’s and back.

And the reason Wade stopped getting up from the sofa and going out into the world when Mimi named the items she forgot to get on her way home from the high school where she is now vice-principal, is that three years ago their son Michael was killed in a car accident. Michael was forty-two when he died, and Wade might have been a crystal goblet dropped from a hundred feet in the air onto concrete, so shattered was he by Michael’s death.

Wade is about to turn around and go back to his house when someone calls, “Wade. How you doing? Haven’t seen you in forever.”

For some reason, being hailed in this way causes Wade to look at the palm of his right hand and focus on the crease in his palm that palm readers call the life line; and he wonders why his life line is so much darker and more clearly delineated than the lines for fate and love and wisdom and marriage. Now he thinks of his mother for the first time in many years, his mother who read palms as a serious hobby.

Wade looks up from inspecting the palm of his hand, and here is Allan Wilder with whom he used to play golf every Saturday until three years ago. Allan is stout and good-natured and entirely bald and ten years younger than Wade. He is standing on the brick walkway leading to his front door, wearing a faded red Stanford sweatshirt and beige trousers and holding a red rake, the head of which is half-buried in a pile of gold and bronze maple leaves.

“Allan,” says Wade, his voice weak from three years of rarely speaking. “You look just like yourself.”

“So do you,” says Allan, dropping the rake and coming to shake Wade’s hand. “I missed you, buddy. I think about you all the time.”

“Still playing golf?” asks Wade, noticing how greatly Allan has aged in three years, some terrible sadness at work on him.

“Twice a week,” says Allan, beaming at Wade. “Remember what a terrible putter I was?”

“You took your eye off the ball,” says Wade, remembering how Allan would always glance at the hole a split second before he struck the ball. “You couldn’t help it.”

“Well I’m much better now,” says Allan, nodding emphatically. “When Joan left me two years ago, I put in a putting green in the backyard and now I make at least two hundred putts every day. I’ve trained myself to keep my eye on the ball until I hit it, and even after I hit it I keep looking at where the ball was. Like you told me to.”

“I told you to do that?” asks Wade, having no memory of ever suggesting anything to Allan about golf. “You put in a putting green? You’re kidding.”

“No, come see,” says Allan, beckoning Wade to follow him. “Astro turf.”

Wade takes the putter from Allan and positions himself over a golf ball fifteen feet from one of several holes in the artificial surface; and everything about this moment feels wholly new yet entirely familiar to him—a dizzying combination of sensations. But what is even more remarkable to Wade is his absolute certainty that he is going to sink this putt, the hole he’s aiming for seeming as big as a manhole to him. And though he is tempted to tell Allan about how sure he is of making the putt, he defers to Allan’s insecurity about putting and says nothing as he strikes the ball and watches it speed across the green and drop into the hole.

“Wow!” exclaims Allan. “You’ve still got it, Wade. You’re a master.”

”One shot does not a master make,” says Wade, his mother coming to mind again, how after his greatest triumph in a high school basketball game she reminded him, “Today you win, tomorrow you lose. The important thing is to do your best.”

“You’ve always been such a great putter,” says Allan, dropping another ball in front of Wade. “Try the hole in the far right corner.”

Wade smiles sadly at Allan and asks, “Why did Joan leave you?”

“She fell in love with a guy she met at a conference on syntactical errors in the translation of Aristotle.” Allan shrugs. “A subject dear to her heart and far from mine.”

“You’re kidding,” says Wade, frowning at Allan. “Where was this conference?”

“At Harvard,” says Allan, nodding. “Maybe it was a symposium and not a conference, but in either case she fell in love with him and… that was that.”

“I’m so sorry, Allan,” says Wade, poised over the golf ball. “I know how much you loved her.”

“Hey…”says Allan, fighting his tears, “you can use this putting green any time you want. House goes on the market in April, but until it sells, come play.”

“I will,” says Wade, striking the ball and watching it roll across the plastic greensward to fall with a satisfying clunk into the farthest hole.

After saying goodbye to Allan, Wade thinks about returning to his house and collapsing on the sofa, but the idea of getting a quart of milk for Mimi gives him a jolt of energy, so he carries on in the direction of Balducci’s.

But after another block, he is overcome with exhaustion and sorrow, so he sits down on the low brick wall in front of the Dorfmans’ house, the front yard bursting with roses—Susan Dorfman famous for her flowers.

Sitting with his back to the rampant blooms, Wade thinks about the last time he saw his son Michael alive. Seven months before Michael died, he came to Portland on a business trip. He lived in North Carolina with his wife Maureen and their two children.

During supper with Wade and Mimi, Michael and Wade got into a huge argument about Michael wanting to get a puppy. Michael and Maureen had just had their second child, and Wade was incensed that Michael would add a dog to Maureen’s life when she was already overwhelmed by the new baby and their four-year-old, while Michael was gone all day at work and forever going on long business trips.

“So what if he wanted a dog?” says Wade, clenching his fists and pounding his legs. “Why shouldn’t he have a dog? He loved dogs. We always had dogs. We got a puppy when he was a little boy. Why did I yell at him like that? What was wrong with me?”

“Wade?” says a familiar voice. “You okay?”

“Oh, hi,” he says, turning around and seeing Susan Dorfman standing a few feet away from him, her roses ablaze behind her.

Susan is tall and willowy, nearly as tall as Wade, her blue eyes reflecting the turquoise of her dangly turquoise earrings and her necklace of turquoise stones and her turquoise blouse and turquoise jeans.

“I heard you shouting,” she says, sitting down beside him and gazing at the houses and trees across the street. “I’ve lived here for forty-two years and never sat here until now. What a lovely view.” She taps his shoulder. “Hey, I just remembered. You helped me build this wall. You taught me how to lay bricks.”

“We were in love with each other,” he says, the long-unspoken truth coming out as easily as if he’d told her it might rain. “But we were both happily married. Or… thoroughly married. So what could we do?”

“Nothing we were willing to do,” she says, putting her arm around him. “I’m so glad you told me, Wade. I’ve always wanted to know. I mean… I knew I loved you, but… and I was pretty sure you were in love with me, especially after our kiss on New Year’s Eve. Remember? The year I turned thirty and you turned thirty-three?”

“A dangerous kiss,” he says, nodding. “A marvelous kiss. Maybe the best kiss I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, Mimi saw us kissing and she was furious about it for years and years, though she was having affairs long before you and I kissed that night.” He sighs. “I never had an affair. Just… never did.”

“We were so young,” says Susan, sighing, too. “Still trying to tame our lusty natures.”

“Did you ever have affairs?” he asks, gazing at her. “Something tells me you didn’t.”

“No,” she says wistfully. “Mel did. But not me.”

“The older I get the more ridiculous it seems that we weren’t lovers, you and I.” He smiles at her. “But even more ridiculous is that we were not better friends, because beyond the sexual attraction, you have always been one of my very favorite people. I could talk to you about so many things Mimi had no interest in. Because you were interested in everything I was interested in. At least I thought you were.”

“Oh, I was,” she says, nodding. “You and I were interested in all the same things. That’s why I always made a beeline for you at parties. Mel didn’t give a hoot about roses or gardening or art or music or… much of anything I cared about.”

“He liked golf,” says Wade, remembering how furious Mel would get when Wade beat him, which was not often.

“And gambling,” says Susan, nodding. “I’d be rich today if not for his gambling.”

A trio of cars go by—various genres of music wafting from their windows.

“So… how are you doing?” asks Susan, switching from having her arm around his shoulders to holding his hand. “About Michael?”

“I’ve been comatose since he died.” Wade closes his eyes. “I died when he died, only I didn’t die. I’m still here.”

“I can’t imagine what I would do if any of my kids or grandkids died before me.” She tightens her grip on his hand. “When Mel died I wasn’t that sad. I mean… I missed him, but… not really. We were never very happy together after the first few years. But if Molly or Jason or any of their children were to die… I can’t imagine going on living.”

“But I did,” says Wade, resting his head on her shoulder. “If you can call it living. I’ve been no good to Mimi or Diana or Maureen or the grandkids or anyone. I’ve been frozen.”

“You want some tea?” she asks, the air growing nippy. “Thaw out a little?”

“No, thank you, Susan,” he says, kissing her cheek. “I think I already am thawing out a little. I’m going to Balducci’s to get a quart of milk. You want anything?”

“Balducci’s isn’t there anymore,” she says, blushing from his kiss. “Come for tea tomorrow. Okay?”

“Okay,” he says, eager to see what has taken the place of Balducci’s.

As Wade nears the corner where Balducci’s used to be, his brain tricks him with a fleeting image of the little grocery store that dissolves into a spanking new café fronted by a red brick terrace on which large blue umbrellas rise from round tables surrounded by green plastic wicker chairs, the sign above the café entrance proclaiming FRACTAL BREW in large white san serif letters on a black background.

Wade approaches the new café feeling sad about the disappearance of the little grocery store that was a foundational component of his life for forty-five years, but also feeling mighty curious about FRACTAL BREW because he was, after all, a Physics teacher who was madly in love with fractals. He had a cat named Fractal. For thirty years he oversaw an after-school club for Math and Physics geeks called Imagining Fractals, the club T-shirt black with Infinitely Self-Similar writ in large white letters on both the front and back of the shirt.

“But why did they have to replace Balducci’s?” he says to no one. “Where will I buy things that Mimi forgets to buy?”

He enters FRACTAL BREW and marvels at the gleaming hardwood floor, the chrome and red-leather booths, the stainless steel table tops, the many and voluble customers, the black marble counter, and the sparkling kitchen beyond.

“I feel like Rip Van Winkle,” he says, stepping up to the counter and smiling at a young Eurasian woman in a fetching white dress, a red rose in her glossy black hair.

“I don’t think we have that,” she says, pointing at the big chalkboard on the wall. “I’m new here, but I’m pretty sure those are the only coffee drinks we serve, and I know we don’t have that kind of beer.”

“I meant the guy who wakes up after sleeping for twenty years and finds everything changed.” Wade studies the young woman and guesses she is twenty-three, the age of his granddaughter Lisa, Diana’s oldest child. “Would it be possible for you to sell me a quart of milk? Whole milk, not skim.”

“I’ll check,” she says, leaving the counter and sauntering into the kitchen.

Wade looks around the room and is struck by how familiar everyone seems, as if forty of his former students are having a reunion.

“Here you are,” says the young woman, returning to the counter with a quart container of milk. “That will be four dollars and twenty-five cents.”

“Thank you so much,” says Wade, handing her a five-dollar bill. “Keep the change. Did you know this used to be a little grocery store? Balducci’s. I must have bought five thousand quarts of milk here. Maybe ten thousand.”

“Awesome,” she says quietly as she puts the quart of milk into a snazzy black bag with FRACTAL BREW printed on both sides. “There’s a photograph of Balducci’s on the wall by the front door. I thought maybe it was an Italian restaurant.”

“No,” says Wade, shaking his head. “Just a little grocery store.”

Instead of going home the way he came, Wade wanders through the commercial district bordering his neighborhood, and he’s glad to see Rick’s Automotive is still here, Hobart’s Used Books is still here, Levant’s Ice Cream Shoppe is still here, and Kim’s Dry Cleaners is still here.

When he arrives at the corner of Delaware and 57th Avenue where he usually crosses Delaware to re-enter his neighborhood, he finds a woman and a boy squatting with their backs against the wall of a shuttered storefront, a flimsy cardboard box on the sidewalk in front of them. The woman is in her thirties and wearing a dirty orange jacket and greasy brown trousers. The boy is seven or eight and wearing a filthy gray sweatshirt and grass-stained blue jeans.

Wade gets out his wallet, intending to give the woman five dollars, when the boy says in a croaky voice, “Puppies for sale. You wanna buy a puppy?”

“Puppies?” says Wade, the word striking deep into his heart.

“Only two left,” says the woman, her voice croaky, too. “The mother is a Black Lab, and we’re pretty sure there was more than one father. We know a Dalmatian got to her, but we’re not sure who else.”

Wade peers down into the cardboard box and sees two little brown blobs of fur, his vision obscured by tears. “How much?” he says, sobbing.

“Ten bucks each?” says the woman, jumping to her feet. “You want one?”

“Two,” says Wade, handing her all the money in his wallet, seventy-eight dollars. “I want both of them.”

Darkness is falling when Wade gets home with the quart of milk from FRACTAL BREW and the cardboard box containing two puppies. He finds a note on the kitchen counter from Mimi saying she’s gone to her yoga class at the YMCA and will be home at nine.

He puts the milk in the refrigerator and picks up the two puppies, one in each hand, and they wiggle and whimper and one of them pees on him.

When Mimi comes home, she finds Wade’s car parked in the driveway instead of in the garage, and when she enters the house, she is startled to see the big-screen television gone from the living room. She hears Wade laughing in the garage, so she hurries through the kitchen and opens the inside door to the garage, and here is Wade sitting on the floor playing with two adorable puppies.

The sight of Wade with the little dogs makes Mimi furious. “Are you insane?” she screams. “Getting puppies at your age? You could drop dead any day now and I’ll be saddled with your fucking dogs.”

Wade looks at her and says calmly, “I picked up a quart of milk for you. And if you don’t want to live with a man with dogs, we’ll get divorced.”

“Divorced?” she yells. “We’re not getting divorced. Just get rid of the dogs.”

“Mimi,” he says, taking a deep breath. “Your yoga class got out at six. And then you went to your lover’s house for three hours and now you’re home. Did you think I didn’t know about your affairs? I’ve always known. Since way back when. You must have known I knew. Yoga classes don’t last four hours. Lunch dates don’t last five. Maybe I should have divorced you the first time you cheated on me, but the kids were so little, and… then later, I don’t know, I came to accept what you were doing and decided to stay with you until the kids went to college. But when they were gone, I felt too old and afraid to start a new life without you, so I just went along with things. But when Michael died…” He holds back his tears. “When Michael died and you didn’t change the pattern of your life even a little to spend more time with me, I thought if I ever recovered from my terrible depression, I would ask you to be my wife again and not someone else’s wife. And if you won’t do that for me, for us, then I and my dogs will go elsewhere and start a new life.”

“And the house?” says Mimi, never having imagined Wade would be the one to suggest divorce. “We would sell the house?”

“Or you can buy me out,” he says, allowing himself to cry.

“I would like to do that,” she says, looking away from him. “I have four more years until I retire and I’d like to stay in this house until then and possibly longer.”

“So be it,” he says, smiling through his tears. “I want you to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”

 The next morning, Wade wakes in the bed in the room that was Michael’s room when Michael was a boy and a teenager, and Wade’s very first thought is of the puppies waiting for him in the garage, how they need to be fed and petted, need to be taken out into the backyard to pee and poop and run and play, need to be loved.

And the thought of being with those marvelous little dogs propels Wade out of bed as he has not been propelled since he was a young man and every day was a glorious adventure.

fin

Naomi Drives To Portland

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

Naomi Drives To Portland

Naomi can count on one hand the number of times she’s left the greater Los Angeles area since she was born in North Hollywood sixty-two years ago. When she was twenty, Naomi married Simon Welch, a real estate agent, and expected to have children soon thereafter. When she didn’t get pregnant after two years of trying, she went to three doctors, each of whom declared her plenty fertile, while Simon refused to see a doctor to determine the viability of his half of the bargain.

Having planned her entire life around having kids, Naomi waited another year and then gave Simon an ultimatum. “Consult a doctor about your potency or I’m filing for divorce.”

Simon steadfastly refused to see a doctor, they divorced, and Naomi went to work as the secretary for a small-time movie producer named Sheldon Reznick. While working for Sheldon, Naomi, who reminded more than a few men of Marilyn Monroe if Marilyn had been short and brunette, caught the eye of a young director named Horace Fielding and he wooed Naomi zealously.

They were married when Naomi was twenty-six and Horace was thirty-three. Naomi got pregnant on their honeymoon in Palm Springs, and when she was eight months pregnant, Horace directed the tiny-budget comedy Your Name Again Was? that eventually grossed over fifty million dollars.

Seven years later, when their son David was seven and their daughter Rachel was five, Horace left Naomi for a nineteen-year-old fashion model from Sweden. By then, Horace had directed seven big-budget movies and he and Naomi were extremely wealthy. In the divorce settlement, Naomi got the five-bedroom house on the beach in Malibu, the condo in Century City, sole custody of the children, and twenty million dollars.

Three years later, when Naomi was thirty-six, she married Myron Lowenstein, a venture capitalist seventeen years her senior, with whom she had her third child, Frieda. Naomi and Myron were married for twenty-six years until Myron’s death three years ago when he was eighty-two.

“What’s so good about Portland?” asks Naomi, talking on the phone to her eighty-seven-year-old mother Golda. “First David moved there, then Frieda, and now Rachel. Finally they’re all about to have children and they want me to move there, too. How can I move? I’ve lived here my whole life. You’re here. I know where everything is. All my friends are here. I offered to buy them houses here, but they had to go to Portland. Why? David can work anywhere on his computer, Rachel can write television shows anywhere, and Frieda could have gone to law school at UCLA or USC. Why Lewis & Clark? Whoever they are. David goes on and on about how beautiful it is there, how fabulous the restaurants. What? We don’t have restaurants here?”

“It rains for hours and hours every day in Portland,” says Golda, angrily. “Those people there get so depressed they kill themselves. In droves. What’s wrong with sunshine?”

“Exactly,” says Naomi, despondently. “Frieda says it doesn’t rain so much there anymore and sometimes they have snow. Since when is snow a good thing?”

“Since never,” says Golda, making a spluttering sound. “Twenty-two winters I lived through in Detroit. If I never see snow again, I’ll be happy. We kissed the ground when we got to Los Angeles.”

“I’ll kiss the ground when I get back,” says Naomi, starting to cry. “But Rachel is due in three weeks. I have to be with her. I’m driving to Portland day after tomorrow. I’ll be gone for the rest of September and most of October, maybe longer. I’ll call you every day at the usual time. At least they’re in the same time zone.”

“You’re driving?” says Golda, aghast. “That will take forever. Why not fly?”

“I don’t fly, Mama. Remember? I flew to New York that one time with Horace? It was the worst experience of my life. How I lived to tell the tale I’ll never know.”

“His last movie was a bomb,” says Golda, snorting. “Serves him right, the schmuck.”

“Actually that was three movies ago,” says Naomi, who keeps close tabs on Horace’s career. “His last two films have been huge. Horror movies.”

“He should be ashamed.”

“He makes money,” says Naomi, looking around her immaculate home. “That’s all he ever cared about.” She clears her throat. “Money and young women. So I’m leaving Monday. I’ll spend the night with Lisa in San Mateo and then…”

“Lisa? Lisa who?”

“Lisa Leibowitz. You remember Lisa. We went to high school together.”

“I thought she lived in Glendale.”

“She moved to San Mateo twenty years ago.”

“Who knew?”

“I told you hundreds of times.” Naomi rolls her eyes. “Anyway, from San Mateo I drive eight hours to a place called Gold Beach. In Oregon. I’m staying in a motel there that Rachel and David both love. Right on the beach. As if I’m not already right on the beach. And I’ll get to Portland the next day if I don’t get killed first.”

“Why would you get killed?”

“I’m not planning on it,” says Naomi, sighing heavily, “but you never know.”

Naomi makes the drive in her big new silver Mercedes. From Malibu to San Mateo the trip is a piece of cake, and she has a nice visit with Lisa. The traffic she encounters the next morning between San Mateo and Cloverdale reminds her of driving in Los Angeles, but when she gets twenty miles north of Willits on Highway 101, she begins to feel uneasy about the absence of towns and houses; and the disquieting lack of traffic makes her wonder if something terrible has happened in the greater world, something that has made people afraid to go anywhere.

Now quite abruptly the highway shrinks from four lanes to two, with huge trees crowding the road on either side, and she feels she has entered a cold and alien place of endless forests void of people. So to quell her growing panic, she calls her daughter Rachel in Portland, and to her horror, her brand new phone won’t work.

“Why can’t I use my phone?” she asks the onboard computer. “My phone doesn’t work. Why not?”

“No coverage here,” says the robotic voice.

“How far to coverage?” asks Naomi, breathing hard.

“Garberville,” says the voice.

“How far to Garberville?” asks Naomi, her heart pounding.

“Forty-two miles,” says the voice. “At your current speed you will arrive in fifty-seven minutes.”

“Why no coverage until Garberville?” asks Naomi, her voice trembling.

“No coverage until Garberville,” says the voice.

Naomi’s heart is beating so fast, she thinks she might be about to have a heart attack; and just as she has this thought, a pullout appears on her right, so she eases off the road, and there at the far end of the pullout is a young woman holding a baby—a cardboard sign propped up against her backpack saying EUREKA.

And because Naomi is terribly frightened and desperate for help, she pulls up beside the young woman, lowers the passenger window, and says haltingly, “Can you… can you help me? I’m… I’m having trouble breathing.”

“I can help you,” says the young woman, speaking calmly.

“Thank you,” says Naomi, turning off her engine and closing her eyes.

The young woman opens the passenger side door, sets her baby on the passenger seat, hurries around the nose of the car to the driver’s side, opens the door, and places her right hand on Naomi’s shoulder, her left hand on Naomi’s forehead. “You’ll be fine,” she says softly. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

“Thank you,” says Naomi, keeping her eyes closed. “You’re very kind.”

“Had a scare, huh?” says the young woman, smiling at her baby who smiles back at her. “Where you from?”

“LA,” says Naomi, relaxing a little. “I’ve never been anywhere so far away from anything else, and there were no towns or houses and hardly any traffic, so I started to feel anxious and tried to call my daughter but my phone wouldn’t work, and that threw me into a panic and my heart was racing and I couldn’t get a deep breath and…” She starts to cry. “I thought I was gonna have a heart attack, so…”

“You’ll be fine,” says the young woman, her voice warm and tender. “Everybody gets scared sometimes. You’ll be fine.”

Naomi opens her eyes and smiles at the young woman. “What’s your name? Where are you going?”

“Teresa,” says the young woman, taking her hand away from Naomi’s forehead but keeping her other hand on Naomi’s shoulder. “That’s my boy Jacob. We’re on our way to Portland.”

“Why are you here?” asks Naomi, her panic subsiding. “In the middle of nowhere.”

“I guess so I could help you,” says Teresa, nodding. “I wondered why they dropped us off here instead of in a town. Just out of the blue they pulled over and told me to get out.”

“Who?” asks Naomi, grimacing. “Who would leave you here?”

“It was a couple,” says Teresa, shrugging. “Man and a woman. Picked us up at the north end of Willits. I don’t think she wanted to stop for us, but he did. She wouldn’t talk to me and he wouldn’t stop talking to me and she was not happy about that, so I think she gave him an ultimatum.”

“Are you… are you homeless?” asks Naomi, smiling sadly at Teresa.

“Kind of,” says Teresa, nodding. “At least until we get to Portland. Can you hand me my boy? I think he’s about to throw a fit.”

“Oh don’t do that, Jacob,” says Naomi, talking baby talk to the little boy as she picks him up. “Oh you are such a sweetie pie. Here’s your mother. Don’t worry.”

She hands Jacob to Teresa and gazes at the two of them, and they seem incredibly familiar to her, as if she’s known and loved them forever.

“I know you didn’t stop to give us a ride,” says Teresa, smiling hopefully, “but I sure would appreciate a lift to Garberville. Much better chance of getting a ride from there.”

“Garberville Schmarberville,” says Naomi, beaming at the young mother and child. “I’m taking you to Portland.”

They stop for lunch at a food truck selling Mexican food in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store on the southern outskirts of Eureka—a dozen pickups parked around the food truck, the clientele mostly laborers, most of them Latinos.

“Is it safe here?” asks Naomi, gazing out her window at the burly men sitting at tables near the food truck.

“Oh, yeah,” says Teresa, nodding assuredly. “And the food is really good. You said you liked Mexican. There’s a fantastic Mexican place in Gold Beach, too, but we won’t get there until dinnertime, so…”

“Maybe I could wait in the car with Jacob,” says Naomi, panicking. “And you get the food.” She rummages in her purse and comes up with a fifty-dollar bill. “How about that?”

“I think I better take him with me,” says Teresa, opening her door. “He’s kind of needy right now.”

“Okay,” says Naomi, taking a deep breath. “I’ll come with you.”

So they get out of the car and the men at the tables and the men in line at the food truck all turn to watch Naomi and Teresa and Jacob approach—Teresa a beautiful young woman with long brown hair dressed in blue jeans and a black sweatshirt, Naomi an attractive woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair wearing a long gray skirt and an elegant magenta blouse.

The closer they get to the men, the more terrified Naomi becomes, and she is just about to turn around and run back to her car when a big Mexican man at one of the tables smiles at her and says in English with a thick Spanish accent, “That’s a beautiful car you got there. Es un hybrid, sí?”

“Yes, a hybrid,” says Naomi, laughing nervously. “It’s so quiet you can hardly tell when the engine is running.”

“Es big, too,” says the man, nodding. “I don’t like those little Mercedes, you know? Want that leg room.”

“Yes, leg room is good,” says Naomi, grinning at the man. “You can’t ever have enough leg room.”

The man and his three companions nod in agreement, and Naomi’s fear vanishes.

Teresa hands Jacob to Naomi before stepping up to the window of the food truck to place their order, and as Naomi nuzzles Jacob and makes him chuckle, she is startled to hear Teresa speaking rapid-fire Spanish to the woman in the truck. Until this moment, it never occurred to Naomi that Teresa might be Mexican because Teresa speaks English without an accent and, judging by her appearance, she could easily not be Mexican.

They share a table with three Mexican men and an African American man, the conversation mostly about fishing until the African American man asks Teresa how old Jacob is.

“Ten months,” says Teresa, feeding Jacob a spoonful of rice. “Almost eleven.”

“Big boy,” says the African American man, grinning at Jacob. “Daddy big?”

“Tall,” says Teresa, nodding. “But skinny.”

“You never can tell how big they gonna end up,” says the African American man. “I got three kids and the one who was the littlest baby turned out to be the biggest. He bigger than me, and I’m big.”

“I have three kids, too,” says Naomi, eager to join the conversation. “And come to think of it, David was the smallest of the three and the shortest kid in his class until Fourth Grade, and then he shot up like a weed and ended up six-foot-two. His father was only five-seven. I don’t know how David got so tall. There’s no tall people on either side going way back.”

“My wife,” says one of the Mexican men, “in school, you know, she learn if they get lots of sleep then they grow more.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” says Naomi, liking everyone at the table. “And come to think of it, David was always a great sleeper. He could sleep through anything. I think you’re absolutely right. Sleep is so important. If I don’t get enough sleep, you don’t want be around me. Believe me.”

“I believe you,” says the African American man, nodding. “I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not getting up on a roof.”

“Sí,” says another of the Mexican men. “Remember when Juan came to work so sleepy. That’s when he fell.”

“Got to have sleep,” says the African American man, winking at Naomi. “Sleep is how we charge up those batteries.”

“What a nice bunch of guys we had lunch with,” says Naomi, walking with Teresa and Jacob down an aisle in a Target store in Eureka, a saleswoman wearing a red vest leading the way. “I’m so glad you took us there.”

“I lived here a couple years ago,” says Teresa, nodding. “That was my favorite place to eat. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for treating us.”

“Here we are,” says the red-vested woman. “These three car seats are all good for infants. You’ll need a bigger one in a couple years when he’s a toddler.”

“Which is the best one?” asks Naomi, gazing at the selection of car seats.

“This one,” says the woman, touching the biggest one. “You don’t want to skimp on your car seat.”

“Never,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “We’ll take that one. Could someone to show us how to hook it up in my car?”

“Um…” says the woman, frowning. “We don’t usually do that sort of thing.”

“I know how they work,” says Teresa, nodding confidently. “Not a problem.”

Jacob fusses a little when he is strapped into the car seat for the first time, so Teresa sits beside him on the backseat, caressing him and singing to him until at last he falls asleep; and the moment his eyes close, Teresa falls asleep, too.

And though Naomi is once again driving through a wild land of endless forests, she is no longer afraid.

Darkness is falling when they get to the Pacific Reef Motel in Gold Beach. Naomi gets a room for Teresa and Jacob adjacent to her room, and while Teresa takes a shower, Naomi plays with Jacob and talks on the phone with her daughter Rachel.

“Everything is going just fine,” says Naomi, sitting on the floor and holding Jacob’s hand as he stands next to her, trying to stay upright. “I had a fabulous lunch in Eureka and I’m looking forward to supper here in Gold Beach.”

“Go to the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, her words a command not a suggestion. “It’s just right next door to you. It’s the only nice restaurant around there.”

“I may try a little Mexican place a few blocks from here,” says Naomi, laughing as Jacob falls on his butt in slow motion. “I’ve heard it’s terrific.”

“Mom, just go the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, sounding annoyed. “It’s clean and the food is good. Okay?”

“I’m kind of craving Mexican food,” says Naomi, helping Jacob stand up again.

The little boy gives Naomi an enormous smile and squeals in delight.

“What was that?” asks Rachel, startled by Jacob’s squeal. “Sounded like a baby.”

“There’s a baby next door,” says Naomi, laughing again as Jacob performs another slow motion sit down. “Warm night. The windows are open.”

“Just go to the Schooner, okay? The last thing I want to do is worry about you. Okay?”

“I’m fine, honey. Don’t worry.”

Sated with delicious Mexican food from a little hole in the wall Naomi would never have gone to on her own, Teresa and Naomi and Jacob return to the motel, Teresa changes Jacob’s diaper, nurses him, and he falls fast asleep in the middle of the bed.

Sitting on the floor with their backs against the bed, Naomi and Teresa drink chamomile tea and Teresa says, “So… guess how old I am?”

“Twenty-two,” says Naomi, exhausted and wide-awake at the same time. “Twenty-three?”

“I’m twenty-seven,” says Teresa, shaking her head as if she disbelieves the number. “I had a whole other life until five years ago.”

“Tell me,” says Naomi, nodding encouragingly. “I’d love to hear.”

“I was born in LA,” says Teresa, closing her eyes. “My mother was from New Jersey, my father from Mexico. They met in a restaurant where they both worked. She was the pastry chef and he was a cook. They fell in love, got married, had my brother and me, and we were pretty happy until they got divorced when I was six. My mom got custody of us, but we saw my father on the weekends. He’d take us to the movies or to the beach and we’d get pizza or Mexican food. He was… he was a sweet guy.” She stops talking and sips her tea.

“Where is he now?” asks Naomi, having seen her own father every day of her life until he died ten years ago.

“I don’t know,” says Teresa, wistfully. “We didn’t see him much after I was eleven. He had some other kids with his second wife, but I never got to know them.” She shrugs. “I lost contact with him when we moved to Phoenix when I was sixteen. That’s where I finished high school and went to college at Arizona State.”

“What did you study?” asks Naomi, who never went to college.

“Drama and music.” Teresa makes a self-deprecating face. “I was gonna be a movie star. Silly me.”

“You could be,” says Naomi, knowingly. “You’re beautiful and you move beautifully, and you have a marvelous voice.”

“Thank you,” says Teresa, blushing.

“So then what happened?” asks Naomi, intrigued by Teresa’s story. “After college.”

“I never finished,” says Teresa, shaking her head. “I got really depressed halfway through my junior year.”

“How come?”

“Oh… my mother had this horrible boyfriend who was always hitting on me, you know, and I was afraid to tell her because she really liked him and…” She winces. “You sure you want to hear this?”

“More than anything,” says Naomi, her eyes full of tears.

“Why?” asks Teresa, her heart aching.

“Because I care about you, and because… it’s good to tell our stories to each other.” She touches Teresa’s hand. “That’s what we’re here for. To listen to each other. Don’t you think so?”

“Yeah,” says Teresa, whispering. “Maybe so.”

“No maybe about it,” says Naomi, tapping Teresa’s hand. “So your mother’s boyfriend was hitting on you and you didn’t tell her and…”

“I got into alcohol,” she says, looking away. “And drugs and… then I dropped out and I’ve been on the road ever since.” She looks into Naomi’s eyes. “But I’ve been off all booze and drugs, even pot, since before I got pregnant with Jacob. A little more than two years now.”

“That’s fantastic,” says Naomi, taking hold of Teresa’s hand. “Good for you, Teresa. That takes a very strong will. I’m proud of you. And who is Jacob’s father?”

“He was a graduate student at the University of Washington,” she says, allowing herself to cry. “I thought I’d finally found a really good guy to be with.  He said he wanted to marry me, but when I got pregnant he told me to get an abortion, and when I wouldn’t, he wouldn’t see me anymore. So… here I am.” She shrugs. “That’s the short version. I’ll spare you the gritty details.”

“So tell me this,” says Naomi, giving Teresa’s hand a tender squeeze. “If you had plenty of money, what would you do?”

“I’d get a room in a house in a good school district,” she says, nodding assuredly. “For Jacob. And I’d get a job and go to night school and get a degree in Psychology and become a counselor or a therapist.”

“That sounds wonderful,” says Naomi, excitedly. “That sounds like something I should do.”

 The next morning, after they take a long walk on a vast wild beach, they have breakfast in a café attached to a bookstore, and when their food arrives, Teresa bursts into tears.

“What’s wrong, dear?” asks Naomi, putting a hand on Teresa’s shoulder.

“I’m just… I’m just so grateful,” she says, weeping. “Last night… that was the first really good night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time, and all this good food… my milk is coming good again for Jacob.” She looks at Naomi. “You’re an angel.”

“You’re the angel,” says Naomi, putting her arms around Teresa. “I’m just a rich person who was afraid of the world until now.”

Inching along the freeway ten miles south of Portland, Naomi turns to Teresa and says, “Where am I taking you?”

“Downtown,” says Teresa, smiling brightly. “Anywhere downtown.”

“You have a place to stay?” asks Naomi, frowning.

“There’s a woman who let me sleep on her porch last year,” says Teresa, nodding. “She was real nice. I’m pretty sure she’ll let me stay there again.”

“No,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “You need a place to live. We’ll get you a motel room, and tomorrow we’ll start looking for a house.”

“A house?” says Teresa, staring at Naomi as if she’s insane. “What are you talking about?”

“You need a place to live and I need a house in Portland,” says Naomi, glaring at the stuck traffic. “What’s going on here? This is just like LA. Is this why my kids moved here? Because it reminds them of home?” She smiles at Teresa. “After all these years they’re finally having children and they want me to move here. And though I’m not ready to move here permanently, I will be spending lots of time here. So… I’ll buy a house and you can live there and take care of the place when I’m not here, and help me with the place when I am here. You can go back to school, and you and Jacob will have a home and I’ll be his grandmother.”

Teresa looks out the window at a homeless encampment next to the freeway and sees a man in filthy clothes crawl out of a battered tent, his face etched with lines of worry.

Now she takes a deep breath and closes her eyes and sees a beautiful old house on a tree-lined street, the sidewalk covered with snow, Naomi coming out the front door wearing a fur hat and a long black coat; and she’s holding the hand of a little boy bundled up in a snowsuit—Jacob three years from now.

“Okay,” says Teresa, opening her eyes and looking at Naomi. “I guess that’s what God wants for us.”

“I don’t know about God,” says Naomi, smiling through her tears, “but I know about me and I know about you and I know about Jacob, and if there were ever three people who were meant to be together, we are those people.”

fin

Zelman’s Van

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Zelman's Van

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ∆

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

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

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

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

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

fin

 

Juneau’s Farm

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Waiting For the Moment

Waiting For the Moment painting by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he says, nodding. “So far.”

“You go by Fred or Frederick?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is he now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin