That’s All Right, I’m Okay

September 9th, 2019

1980 Todd

Author’s Note: I wrote the short story That’s All Right, I’m Okay in 1980 when I was thirty-one and performing my stories and songs in cafés and small theatres. The title is a takeoff on the book I’m Okay, You’re Okay a layman’s guide to transactional analysis published in 1967 and wildly popular in the 1970s.

On my way to a bistro to perform That’s All Right, I’m Okay for the first time, I expected the story would get a few laughs, but nothing prepared me for the continuous and mounting hilarity the story ignited in that first audience and in many audiences thereafter. Holding for laughs, the ten-minute story became a fifteen-minute giggle fest and elicited countless suggestions that I memorize the story and perform it as a stand-up routine—something I was not inclined to do.

A few days ago, while undertaking a radical cleaning of my office/studio, I came upon an old yellowed copy of That’s All Right, I’m Okay and read the opus for the first time in nearly forty years. Filled with hope that you will enjoy this fictional time capsule of American pop psychology in the 1970s and early 1980s, I present That’s All Right, I’m Okay in all its original naiveté.

That’s All Right, I’m Okay

A friend called this morning and said, “I’m just so confused. Could you recommend a therapy?”

“What am I?” I snapped, surprised at my anger, “a crisis prevention unit?”

“Well, no,” she said, abashed, “it’s just that you’ve done so much more than anyone I know and I thought…”

Which, when I looked at it quasi-objectively an hour or so later, was true. Not recently, but over the years starting in 1968, I had tried dozens of group, individual, pop, hip, self-realization, self-realignment, self-hypnosis, self-congratulatory, etc. ad nauseam therapies. They all, save for good old “talkin’ to the shrink”, made me mad, frustrated, and ultimately depressed. Talkin’ to the shrink just made me depressed, which wasn’t the shrink’s fault. I was just a very depressed person.

I am not, as of this writing, depressed anymore. When I tell you how I got un-depressed, you’ll probably roll your eyes, shift uncomfortably in your seat and think, “Oh God, how trite.”

But here’s the story.

I was just beginning eight weeks of Anger Actualization Therapy with Angela Brustein. “I’m studying with” was how we phrased it in 1978, not “I’m groping for anything and this Jewish gal has a big living room and studied for a few months with some Hungarian cuckoo and might know something, maybe.”

Angela was forty-seven and recently divorced from her stockbroker husband. She was a leotard-wearing beanpole with a wonderful crinkly smile. She was the slowest moving skinny person I’ve ever known. She was, she told us at our first session, “removed totally from the sexual rat race.” When I asked her what she meant by this, she said something about non-specific orgasms—a perpetual energy release that made sleep unnecessary and sex meaningless. However, she said erotic asexuality was her own trip and only related to Anger Actualization in that it freed her from any sexual bias. This seemed a contradiction to me, but the other members of the group were glaring at me, so I shut up.

We did some standard touchy-feely-get-to-know-each-other exercises and then we did some straightforward Encounter Group razzmatazz to find out what our problems were, or as Angela put it, ‘what they seem to be.” Once we actualized our anger we would know what they were.

Then after we discovered that most of us were cowardly, spoiled, overeducated, under-experienced babies, frustrated and depressed about our inability to be “really great individuals” (read Creative Geniuses), we set out to actualize our anger about ourselves. We would see our anger, be with our anger, understand our anger, and then either be free of our anger or not free of our anger. The choice, Angela said, was ours.

I eventually wound up in the middle of the “containment circle” lying on my back feeling my anger (or my imagination) crushing me. I couldn’t breath. Angela had to break in, and with the help of three other people, lift me into a standing position before I suffocated. Angela was shook up. She’d never seen such a high level choke-off. She’d heard of them, but had never seen one until mine. She claimed that if she hadn’t intervened, my repressed anger might have killed me.

So I was in a state of panic when I left Angela’s house and stumbled to my Toyota station wagon where a woman from my class awaited me. I had only gotten to know a few people from my groups outside, and I was always surprised when someone took the initiative to get to know me socially.

Her name was Sharon, and if you can believe it, her middle name was Rose. She was a few years younger than I, early thirties, and she had that way about her that suggested she’d teethed on encounter techniques and knew every trick in the transactional book. Her piercing blue eyes suggested a background in Destiny Control and her posture was pure Ida Rolf, enhanced by a couple years of Tai Chi. Her deep tan spoke of weekends at Esalen and her smile was unmistakably the result of long sessions on a biofeedback machine.

She was also, to me, incredibly threatening. I had nearly killed myself with unreleased anger, and she had witnessed my near-death. I was shaky, frightened, recently divorced, and just coming off three months of Silva, having utterly failed to control anything resembling a mind. I was bereft, a therapy junky, while she was full to bursting, a super-absorbent being, who, like the Blob, grew larger and stronger with everything she consumed.

However, she did not resemble a blob. No, she had a figure that men, actualized or not, went crazy over. And she was moving that body toward me like the best dancer in my African Movement class. I was both nauseated and mesmerized. I felt I might have a Primal at any moment or at least a mini-regress. I was certainly not prepared for what transpired.

We went to the beach and shared two six-packs of Budweiser, she gave me the best backrub I’ve ever had and then she told me she really liked me. She actually said, “I really like you.” And I said, trying to be totally honest, that I didn’t really know her or trust her, but that I enjoyed what I had experienced with her so far.

She laughed at me. She sneered at me, too, but the main thing was, she laughed at me. Then she handed me a card and left without giving me a hug, which in those days was very uncool.

In my car, I read her card.

Sharon Rose Moore

Working Person

442 Cottage Place

478-8711

‘So’ I thought, ‘she’s a Work Advocate.’

I’d taken a Work Motivation seminar a couple years before in conjunction with a Life Involvement workshop, and I’d heard people using the phrases, “I’m a working person. My person is working.” This, I assumed was Sharon’s current attack posture and I was disappointed. The beer and the beach, especially the beer (and so much of it) had really thrown me for a loop. I hadn’t run into anything like that in my thirteen years on the circuit. Beaches, yes, but six twelve-ounce beers? Each? So I’d gotten excited and then had my hopes dashed because her card (Self-Definition cards were all the rage) seemed so behind the times. I was reminded of going to Seattle in 1976 and finding EST was just catching on there—how sad that made me.

But even so, I called Sharon the minute I got home. I was still drunker than I’d ever been after a good Rebirthing, and despite her not hugging me, and her clunky Working Person card, I felt drawn to her. I wanted to find out what she thought she knew about me.

She was terse with me on the phone. She said, “I’ve gotta get up at six tomorrow, so I can’t get together with you tonight. Maybe tomorrow after work we could go for a pizza or something.”

I agreed to this, hung up, put on some whale music, did some Feldenkreis, and then put two and two together. Beer and pizza. She must be into Social Programming. Emulation of the working class! Why hadn’t I seen it before? This really depressed me. My god, Social Programmings (Soprogs) had been all the rage in 1971 and painfully passé by 1973. I’d heard a few splinter groups had survived, but in California? It was hard to believe, but I couldn’t come up with any other explanation.

I drove to her house the next night with a heavy heart. She lived in a little bungalow (eerily cute) not far from the beach. A large rosebush grew beside the front door and was covered with spectacular red blooms.

She was wearing a San Francisco Giants sweatshirt, black with orange lettering, blue jeans and sandals. Her long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail and she looked terrific. She said, “Lemme get my purse,” and I flinched as visions of working class blah-blah filled my head. How could I have been so stupid?

We went to a pizza parlor and drank beer, ate too much pepperoni, and then went bowling. My Polarity masseuse would have just died to see me flinging the ball so violently down the alley. My yoga teacher would have made me roll the balls first with my right hand, then with my left. But I said to myself, “Hey! Life is for living!” So I just bowled and drank beer and let Sharon sit on my lap whenever she got a strike. And I sat on her lap, too, the one time I got a strike.

Then I took her home and at her door she kissed me tenderly and I had to ask her, I just had to, what exactly she was into. She stiffened, looked hurt, and slapped me across the face. I was stunned. I hadn’t been hit like that since a Psychodrama intensive in 1969.

“What’d I do?” I asked, excited by her boldness.

“You keep not seeing me!” she cried, hopelessly. “You only see yourself.”

Now I’d heard that maybe a thousand times over the past thirteen years, but it had never been said so passionately by a person with such believable tears in her eyes.

“I… I hear your anger,” I said.

She slugged me.

“I feel your anger,” I said.

“Bullshit,” she said, shaking her head. “You don’t feel anything.”

“That’s not true,” I said, though my Achilles Heel had always been my deep-seated fear that I was really an insensitive creep, and she had my hit Achilles right through my Birkenstocks.

“Why don’t you just say you’re sorry?” she said, pleading with me.

But that went against everything I’d learned at the Getting Free of Guilt retreats I’d gone to every year from 1973 to 1978. To say I was sorry would be to admit to my own sorriness, which had almost killed me at Angela’s. I began to tremble. I felt so tired and ineffective, as if I’d just gone through a weekend Encounter Group marathon. I wanted more than anything to say what I really felt, but I wasn’t sure I could because I’d had my feelings described to me (for me) so many times I no longer knew how to describe them in my own words. With words I thought up.

“Well?” she said, her eyes bright with anger.

“Well… I’d like to go to bed with you,” I said, hardly believing I was speaking those words. I braced myself for another slap across the face or a fist in my stomach. But none came.

“Okay,” she said, unlocking her door, “but don’t you dare try to analyze any of this.”

So I tried not to try, but it was no good. The effort involved in not trying was just too much. I collapsed on her sofa and blubbered.

“What’s wrong,” she asked, sitting beside me and putting her arms around me.

“You’re a Sensualist, aren’t you?” I said.

“Please don’t,” she said, tensing again.

“There’s a reason for this,” I said.

“Yeah, I like you,” she said, urgently. “Especially when you touch me and make me laugh and don’t act so icky delicate like you’re some kind of sensitivity barometer.”

“But we’re all sensitivity barometers,” I said. “Why the Rogerians believe…”

“Fuck the Rogerians,” she said, grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. “We’ve got too much real work to do!”

“You’re really into work, aren’t you?” I said suspiciously. “Don’t you know that women feel the need to overwork because of the incessant guilt trips laid on them for centuries by the Patriarchy and…”

She took off her clothes. All of them. And then she began to undress me. I was speechless, and then I, too, was naked.

“I like it when you say what you want,” she said, embracing me. “The rest is just mental masturbation.”

“Nothing wrong with masturbation,” I retorted. “Loving yourself is the first step toward…”

And then I saw what a fool I was and had been for most of my life. Yes, right then, with a wonderful woman offering to make love with me, I was still talking instead of loving. I thought of Thumper in Bambi saying, “If you don’t have something nice to say…”

So I shut up and we made love. And afterward, before we made love again, we talked about the dumbest things we’d come across in our twenty-five combined years of therapizing. Our all time favorites were: the Santa Cruz Dip where you were lowered up to your nostrils in a tub full of olive oil for twenty minutes before taking a sauna, Henry Boller’s Taxi Talk where you have a psychiatric session in a taxi cab and the cab driver interrupts and makes comments, and Michael Smertz’s Meditation Counseling where you and your partner meditate in the presence of a mediating meditator who analyzes the quality of your auras and makes suggestions on how to improve your relationship.

Which brings me to the present. Sharon and I lived together for two years and then we split up. We are not still good friends. I was very sad for a long time after we broke up, but eventually I came out of my sorrow and I’m feeling pretty good these days.

So what am I trying to say? That all I needed was beer, pizza, and sex to feel good? No. What I’m saying is that I needed to be honest, to work hard at whatever I was doing, and to really care about other people. Along with plenty of beer, pizza, and sex.

Oh God, how trite! Squirm, squirm.

But that’s what I told my lovely friend who called this morning and asked me to recommend a therapy. If my kitchen clock is accurate, she should be here any minute. The pizza has been ordered, the fridge is full of beer, and my heart, as someone once said, is full of hope.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6nE-AZYqvE&list=PL7A2gJzg9TABWCexjtnwCuCksuLuxI6ma

 

Alexandra’s Dream

September 2nd, 2019

inevitability

A few days before Christmas, Alexandra Windsor, a lovely young woman about to turn seventeen, comes to visit Herschel Steinberg in his old white house at the end of Climbing Rose Lane in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.

Herschel is seventy-two, a dream interpreter with spiky gray hair, his accent that of a person raised in Los Angeles by Yiddish-speaking parents. He shares his house with a scruffy Golden Retriever named Lorenzo, a sleek gray cat named Zorba, and several dozen potted cacti.

Alexandra and her few-years-older brother Conor have a movie company specializing in short fictional dramas and music videos, with seven thousand subscribers to their Windsor Montoya Productions YouTube channel.

Herschel recently starred in one of Alexandra and Conor’s movies, an eleven-minute film called The Dream Interpreter, in which he played a character indistinguishable from the actual Herschel. The movie is by far the most successful Windsor Montoya movie to date (over 10,000 views) and Alexandra and Conor are eager to make another movie with Herschel.

Alexandra and Herschel sit in high-backed armchairs in Herschel’s cozy den, facing each other across a coffee table, a fire crackling in the hearth, scruffy Lorenzo sprawled on the floor at Alexandra’s feet and sleek Humphrey curled up in Herschel’s lap.

Sipping lemon verbena tea and brainstorming about possible plots for the next movie featuring Herschel, Alexandra says, “What if I play the part of someone who tells you her dream, which we dramatize, and then you interpret the dream.”

“I like that idea,” says Herschel, sipping his tea. “Now we just have to invent a compelling dream and an equally compelling interpretation.”

“Actually I had a dream last night that might work,” says Alexandra, frowning. “It was kind of a nightmare, but… shall I tell it to you?”

“Yes, please,” says Herschel, closing his eyes to listen.

I’m in a car on a highway with a bunch of people who are much older than I am, and we’re stuck in a traffic jam. We’re really crammed into the car, and I can barely breathe, so I decide to get out, which means I have to climb over a man and a woman to get to the door, and as I climb over them, the woman says, “We’re so sorry. By the time we realized what was happening, it was too late to change the way we did things.”

I get out of the car and see the traffic jam stretches out of sight in either direction. The trees on either side of the highway are dying and the air is full of smoke.

I wander away from the highway into a deserted city and come to an intersection where a few people are sitting around a small campfire. A young man looks at me and says, “It’s not safe here. We won’t be able to protect you. Sorry.”

“Where is it safe?” I ask, wondering what I need protection from.

“I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. “Everything’s been destroyed.”

Now darkness is falling and I’m running through a neighborhood of old houses. I see a faint light in the window of one of the houses, and though I’m afraid of what might be in the house, I knock on the front door. The door opens and a woman gestures for me to come in.

I follow her down a hallway to a dimly lit room where a dozen women are packing backpacks with food and clothing and books. Two of the women are teenagers like me, the rest are in their twenties and thirties, except one woman who might be sixty and seems to be the leader.

She looks at me and asks, “Are you strong?”

“I am,” I say, meeting her gaze.

“Can you fight?” she asks, putting her hand on my shoulder.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “If I have to.”

“The packs are heavy,” she says, pointing to the one she wants me to carry, “but we’ll need everything we’re bringing with us.”

Now we’re walking fast through the city with the packs on our backs.

The woman walking beside me says, “God I hope the boat’s there.”

We come around a corner and encounter four men blocking our way. One of them has a gun, but rather than run away, we overwhelm them and kill them. I don’t do the killing, but I’m standing beside a woman when she stabs one of the men in the heart.

We arrive at a pier guarded by two men and two women with guns. They recognize our leader and allow us onto the pier where we board a large sailing ship. When we are safely aboard, the two men and two women who were guarding the pier come onto the boat, too, and we sail away into the darkness.

A young woman approaches me and says, “Come with me. I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.”

I ask her, “Do you know where we’re going?”

“To northeastern Greenland,” she says, nodding solemnly. “God willing.”

Herschel opens his eyes and says, “I’m sorry, too, Alexandra, that I didn’t do more to try to change things before it was too late.”

“Do you think it is too late?” she asks, frowning. “To save the earth.”

“Oh the earth will be fine,” says Herschel, wistfully. “But human society may soon come crashing down as the climate wobbles further and further out of balance. And the saddest thing is that we knew better, yet refused to change. We opted for convenience and ruined everything. And I really am sorry, my dear.”

“So you think my dream is literal. Not symbolic?”

“I think you saw the possible future,” says Herschel, his eyes full of tears. “And if you did, I hope with all my heart there is a place for you on that boat.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtldtL7PJXY&list=PL7A2gJzg9TABWCexjtnwCuCksuLuxI6ma

What Are Dreams?

August 26th, 2019

what are dreams?

On a rainy morning in November, Alberto Puerto Vallarta, Paul Windsor, and Herschel Steinberg share a table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.

Alberto is seventy-four, a performance artist with wavy black hair turning gray, Paul Windsor is fifty-nine, a writer and musician with short wiry gray hair, and Herschel Steinberg is seventy-two, a dream interpreter with spiky gray hair.

Alberto: I was walking the dogs on the beach yesterday and it came to me that maybe the purpose of dreams is to balance the mundane with the fantastic, the fantastic with the mundane.

Paul: Not sure what you mean.

Alberto: If you have a boring life, your dreams will be exciting. If you have an exciting life, your dreams will be about feeding your cat or doing the dishes. Maybe the psyche needs to maintain an equilibrium of…

Herschel: Excitement and mundanity?

Paul: I would think just the opposite, that an exciting life would give rise to exciting dreams, a dull life to dull dreams.

Herschel: It’s an interesting idea. Psychic equilibrium. After all, we need the right amount of salt to function properly. Not too much, not too little. The same is true of sugar, exercise, affection. Maybe dreams provide psychic sustenance, and different kinds of dreams provide different kinds of stimulation for proper neural functioning.

Paul: I think dreaming is the way our subconscious tells our conscious mind the truth, tells us things we’re unwilling to accept when we’re awake.

Herschel: Are we unwilling to accept them or simply unaware of them?

Paul: Might seem like we’re unaware, but we’re really unwilling.

Alberto: Which might be another way the mind is attempting to reach psychic equilibrium.

Herschel: I think dreams are the way we tell stories to ourselves, stories with messages that can help us if only we can decipher what those messages are.

Alberto: Are all dreams symbolic?

Herschel: Not necessarily. I have one client who has dreams he says are indistinguishable from his waking life.

Paul: Maybe he’s attained a perfect equilibrium between the fantastic and the mundane.

Alberto: I wonder if his waking life is both fantastic and mundane.

Herschel: Well… in a way everyone’s life is both fantastic and mundane, and depending on our state of mind, the mundane can be fantastic.

Alberto: So true.

Paul: I often dream I’m trying to get somewhere, but I never quite reach my goal. And by often, I mean almost all my dreams are about being diverted or obstructed from some destination, and yet I don’t feel I’m being obstructed in my waking life.

Alberto: Are people obstructing you in your dreams or is it things getting in your way?

Paul: Usually people. I’m often trying to reach a stage so I can perform. Tell a story or play the piano. But I don’t ever reach the stage because there’s always someone in the way who wants to talk to me or show me something, or there’s a huge mob blocking my way.

Alberto: I used to have those kinds of dreams before I began performing regularly. When did you last perform?

Paul: Three years ago.

Alberto: Aha.

Herschel: Aha what?

Alberto: Perhaps these dreams spring from his subconscious desire to perform, and his conscious self is the obstruction. As long as he doesn’t perform, his dreams will be about not being able to.

Paul: But I have no desire to perform again.

Alberto: Or so you think when you’re awake.

Herschel: A client once recounted to me an incredible dream that she had over the course of several consecutive nights, a saga of epic proportions involving huge battles and complicated love affairs and long journeys and countless brushes with death, all of which she remembered in fantastic detail. And at the end of this monumental odyssey, she arrived at an animal shelter where she chose two kittens and took them home.

Alberto: So did she go in her waking life to an animal shelter and get two kittens?

Herschel: Two kittens and a puppy.

Paul: And was that the end of her epic dreams?

Herschel: No, but ever after in her dreams, she was accompanied by two lions and a wolf.

Alberto: She found spirit allies to accompany her in both the dream world and the waking world.

Herschel: I think so.

Paul: Last night I dreamt I was at a party trying to get to a table laden with guacamole and chips and shrimp on skewers, but I could never get to the table because I was waylaid by one person after another.

Alberto: What finally happened?

Paul: I woke up, went to the kitchen, ate a banana, and went back to bed.

Alberto: I would have made guacamole.

Paul: We had no avocados.

Herschel: Dreams are often full of things we want and things we don’t want. Things we have and things we don’t have. Much like life.

Alberto: I think dreams are every bit as real as so-called waking reality.

Herschel: Yes, and isn’t it wonderful how often we dream of being in this lovely café together?

Paul: Shall I order us some guacamole and chips and a plate of spicy prawns?

Alberto: So sayeth your dream. And should anyone obstruct you on your way to place the order, I will come to your aid.

Herschel: I will too, Paul. In this dream no one will stop you from attaining your heart’s desire.

fin

 

The Dream Interpreter

August 19th, 2019

dream wine

Leona Mozart, forty-nine, wearing a baggy gray dress and clunky brown shoes, her long brown hair gathered and compressed into a tight bun, her face masked by large black-framed glasses, the lenses tinted gray, hesitates to knock on the door of the little white house, the voices in her head chorusing, “You stupid desperate fool.”

But misery prevails, she knocks, a dog barks from within, and a moment later she is settling into a high-backed armchair facing another high-backed armchair across a coffee table in a cozy den, a fire crackling in the hearth, a scruffy Golden Retriever sprawled on the floor at her feet, a sleek gray cat sharing the windowsill with seven potted cacti.

“Tea or coffee or water or wine?” asks Leona’s host, Herschel Steinberg, a stocky fellow in his early seventies: spiky gray hair, round-framed red glasses, brown corduroy trousers, purple sweater, green T-shirt, bare feet. “I’m having black tea.”

“I guess I won’t have anything,” says Leona, though she’d love some tea.

“Shout if you change your mind,” says Herschel, heading for the kitchen. “I won’t be long.”

Leona puts her head back, closes her eyes, and grows drowsy in the delicious warmth—the windy winter day having chilled her to the bone.

Herschel takes his own sweet time in the kitchen and returns to the cozy den with a tray bearing a blue teapot and two white mugs. He sets the tray on the coffee table and Leona opens her eyes, embarrassed to have fallen asleep.

“Sorry,” she says, blushing. “I haven’t slept very well for the last few weeks and I got cold on the walk over and your house is so toasty I… sorry.”

“Who doesn’t like a good cat nap?” says Herschel, sitting opposite her. “I brought an extra mug in case my delight in the Darjeeling makes you want some.”

“I actually would like some tea,” she says, smiling shyly at him. “Thanks.”

He meets her gaze and she looks away.

“Needs another minute or so,” he says, lifting the lid of the teapot to inspect the brew. “So… Elisha referred you. I’ve never seen you at Mona’s. How do you know Elisha?”

“Her daughter and my daughter are friends. They’re both being home-schooled and…”

“Is your daughter the marvelous Sylvia?” asks Herschel, beaming at Leona. “Now I see the resemblance. As you probably know, she and Alexandra are making a movie in which I play… wait for it… a dream interpreter.”

“You’re in one of their movies?” says Leona, frowning. “Would you please not mention to them that I came to see you?”

“I will not mention it to anyone,” says Herschel, pouring the tea. “I keep everything about my dreamers strictly confidential.”

“It’s just… I wouldn’t mind if Sylvia knew, but if she told her father…” She clears her throat. “He… it would be better if he didn’t know.”

“I understand,” says Herschel, sipping his tea. “So… you had a dream or dreams you’d like help making sense of.”

“Yes,” she says, taking a deep breath. “Dreams.”

“Well I’d love to hear them, but first I want to give you my brief disclaimer.” He arches his eyebrow. “Ready?”

“Ready,” she says, laughing at his comic expression.

“I am not a psychotherapist and I do not charge for this work. What I think a particular dream means may not be what somebody else thinks the dream means. Or put another way, what you will get from me is my personal response to what you give me. I hope I help you, but I make no promises.”

“Do you need my personal history?” asks Leona, her voice trembling. “To give you a context for the dreams?”

“No,” says Herschel, wishing she’d take off her glasses. “But I’d like to know anything you want to tell me.”

Leona squints at Herschel. “You don’t want to know about my childhood or my marriage or my… sexual history?”

“Only if you want to tell me. Your voice and how you tell your dream and the dream itself will give me plenty of information to work with.”

Leona looks at her hands. “I’m afraid to tell you my dreams.”

“So maybe this isn’t something you want to do,” says Herschel, nodding. “Or maybe we need to have a few more visits before you decide whether you want to tell me your dreams or not.”

“You mean just… visit?” She looks at him, fighting her tears. “Just… have tea and talk?”

“Yeah,” says Herschel, nodding. “Tea and talk.”

So that’s what they do. They drink tea and talk about the weather and gardening and Leona’s daughter Sylvia and cats and Leona’s job editing doctoral theses and what brought Leona and her parents to Carmeline Creek thirty-five years ago when Leona was fourteen.

And after a pleasant hour of such talk, Leona takes off her glasses and curls up in her armchair and asks, “How did you become a dream interpreter?”

“Long story,” says Herschel, getting up to put a log on the fire. “Shall I start at the beginning or cut to the chase?”

“The beginning,” she whispers, liking him more and more.

Herschel resumes his chair. “I was born in Los Angeles in 1948, Herschel Moses Steinberg, the middle of three children. My mother Naomi was a seamstress, my father David a bookkeeper. My younger brother Larry and my older sister Ruth were both excellent students and both became successful academics. I might have been an excellent student, too, except I was obsessed with playing baseball and basketball, so that’s where I put most of my energy.”

He pours himself a bit more tea. “However, despite my thousands of hours of playing those games, I did not make the basketball or baseball teams in high school, which was a source of great sorrow to me because I didn’t care about much else. Then a week before my senior year, I fell in love with Myra Liebowitz, a gorgeous brainy gal who aspired to be an actress, and my infatuation with her was so strong, I signed up for a Drama class just to be near her, and lo and behold I turned out to be a pretty good actor. I was in two plays with Myra, and miracle of miracles she fell in love with me. We got married two years after high school, had two kids, and lived unhappily together for nineteen years. We divorced when we were both thirty-eight. She remarried a year later, I remarried seven years later, divorced again after three years, married one more time after I moved here, that lasted four years, and I have been single with occasional girlfriends for seventeen years now.”

“Are you still in touch with Myra?” asks Leona, her eyes full of tears.

“Oh yes,” says Herschel, wistfully. “The children and grandchildren keep us connected. Otherwise I’m fairly certain Myra wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

“Did she become an actress?”

“No,” says Herschel, shaking his head. “She became a legal secretary.”

“And what did you become?”

“I became many things,” he says, thinking of the dozens of jobs he’s had over the course of his life. “All preparation for becoming an interpreter of dreams.”

Leona smiles bravely and says, “Speaking of which, I’d like to tell you my dream now.”

“Please,” he says, closing his eyes to listen.

I am standing beside a fast-flowing river. I’m wearing a luxurious brown fur coat that nearly touches the ground, and my hair is down. I am neither sad nor afraid, yet I’m about to jump in the river and drown.

Now a raven wings by and makes a sound I hear as Sylvia, so I turn away from the river and go in search of her.

I enter a palace and stand at the entrance to a large ballroom where couples are waltzing to a live orchestra, the women wearing ball gowns, the men fancy suits. Now someone touches my left shoulder and I turn in that direction and behold a handsome man wearing an elegant white suit.

He bows to me and says, “May I have this dance?”

And I reply, “I cannot dance with you because I’m wearing nothing under this coat, and I cannot dance in this coat.”

“Then let’s dance naked,” he says, offering me his hand.

Now I am standing by the river again, my beautiful robe turned to rags, and I am about to throw myself into the torrent when I hear laughter and turn to see a man and woman sitting at a table under a flowering cherry tree. The woman has short brown hair and is dressed as a toreador. The man has long brown hair and is wearing a scarlet evening gown. They are drinking wine and eating grapes and talking and laughing.

The man gives me a quizzical smiles and says, “You realize, don’t you, that nothing they’ve ever told you is true.”

The woman nods in agreement and says, “Took me the longest time, but once I stopped believing them, I was free.”

“But what made you stop believing they would kill you if you tried to leave?” I ask, falling to my knees.

“Oh that’s not what I stopped believing,” says the woman, helping me to my feet. “I stopped believing I was weak and helpless and stupid, and discovered I was strong and resourceful and brilliant, and everything followed from that.”

Now I’m wading across the river, determined to reach the other side.

Herschel opens his eyes and gazes at Leona.

“I know what my dream means,” she says, unknotting her bun and giving her head a shake to loose her long brown hair. “Pretty obvious, huh? I guess I just needed to tell someone.”

“How quickly you found me out,” says Herschel, his eyes twinkling.

“May I have a glass of wine?” she asks, meeting his gaze.

“Of course,” he says, delighted she no longer fears him. “Red or white?”

“Red, please,” she says, seeing herself on the other side of the river, raising her arms to the sky.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09Egsdp9DXw&list=PL7A2gJzg9TABWCexjtnwCuCksuLuxI6ma

fin

The Brick Wall

August 12th, 2019

the brick wall

An avowed atheist, James is sixty-seven and has lived in Seattle for fifty years. A fastidious dresser and vain of his appearance, James bristles whenever he hears the words spiritual, astrology, mystical, God, karma or anything suggesting life might be more than a purely mechanistic crapshoot.

James’s first marriage produced Andrew, forty two, a massage therapist. Andrew’s mother Claire divorced James when Andrew was five, and James didn’t see much of Andrew after the divorce until Andrew moved to nearby Vashon Island fifteen years ago. Thereafter James visited Andrew and his wife Cecily and their children Zeke and Maru several times a year until three years ago when James called Andrew the worst sort of idiot.

James was visiting Andrew and Cecily and Zeke and Maru at their house on Vashon Island, and Andrew was showing James the large labyrinth they created at the heart of their two-acre orchard and garden—the labyrinth’s path, based on the famous labyrinth at Chartres, delineated by large rocks and perennial herbs.

Andrew told James that since he began walking the winding path to the center of the labyrinth every day, he no longer suffered from the excruciating headaches that had plagued him since childhood. That was when James called Andrew the worst sort of idiot, after which Andrew decided to stop making an effort to connect with his father.

Three months into his second marriage, when James’s wife Rose was pregnant with Electra, who is now thirty-six, Rose told James she’d dreamt their child was a girl and believed the dream prophetic.

To which James responded, “You can’t be serious.”

“Of course I’m serious,” said Rose, frowning at him. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because,” said James, snarling at her, “anyone who believes a dream is prophetic is dangerously delusional. Prophecies are wishful-thinking nonsense.”

From that moment on, Rose no longer trusted James and they divorced when Electra was two. James has only seen Electra twice since then, both times for lunch when Electra came to Seattle for conferences having to do with dance therapy, a field in which she is well-known. Electra sends James a Christmas card every year, which prompts James to send her a check for five hundred dollars, which inevitably brings an effusive letter from Electra; and that is where James always ends the back-and-forth because he knows Electra is a Buddhist, which he considers a form of organized idiocy, and he doesn’t want to put himself in a position where he will feel compelled to tell Electra what he thinks of her religious affiliation.

After divorcing Rose, James did not marry again for thirty years, though he did have several short-lived entanglements, none of which produced children. He has been married to his current wife, Leslie, for eleven months. Leslie is fifty-eight and an ardent atheist. She delights in finding articles and videos that she and James categorize as spiritual balderdash; and until recently she would seek James out several times a day to share the latest proof she’d found of how incredibly ignorant and misguided most other people are.

Leslie and James married shortly after they both retired—Leslie an accountant, James a lawyer—and they are quite wealthy. They live in a large old house they bought in an upscale neighborhood in Seattle and have spent much of their brief marriage travelling around Europe celebrating the ends of the careers they never enjoyed. And everywhere they went in Europe, they visited cathedrals and temples and holy places they contemptuously referred to as relics of mass ignorance.

Sadly, since returning from Europe a month ago, James and Leslie have entered a new phase of their relationship, one in which they do not enjoy each other’s company and spend most of their time in separate rooms—Leslie smoking pot and drinking bourbon and playing online Scrabble, James drinking wine and watching brainy British games shows on YouTube.

At the height of their marital discord, James has a lucid dream in which an old man with long white hair and wearing a sackcloth robe tells James that there is an ancient doorway in the basement leading to a mystical labyrinth.

The morning after, James finds Leslie in the kitchen and says to her, “I had a vivid blast of brain gibberish last night. This old man, a kind of Socrates, said there’s a doorway in the basement leading to a labyrinth and…”

“Oh that’s just mental garbage,” says Leslie, making strong coffee to combat her hangover. “About your stupid son dumping you because you exposed the idiocy of his fantasy that his hippie dippy labyrinth was curing his headaches.”

James winces. “I wish you wouldn’t call Andrew stupid. You’ve never even met him.”

“You call him stupid all the time,” says Leslie, glaring at James. “And I haven’t met him because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with you because you called him an idiot for thinking his stupid labyrinth cured his headaches. I’m only quoting you, so if you don’t want me calling him stupid, you stop calling him stupid, though why you suddenly feel the need to defend a magical-thinking moron, I can’t imagine?”

“No, no, you’re right,” says James, nodding emphatically. “Delusional dreamer raised by his delusional mother.”

Which might have been the end of James thinking about his dream except he can’t resist doing what the old man in the dream told him to do, which is go down into the basement and examine the brick wall adjacent to the furnace, where, according to the old man, he will discern a continuous crack in the mortar of the bricks, a crack delineating the shape of a large door.

How the old man in James’s dream knew about this crack is an irritating mystery to James because he, James, knew nothing about a crack delineating a door. So how, James wonders, did that knowledge get into his brain to be translated into brain gibberish?

James had only been in the basement two times prior to having the dream, once when he and Leslie were considering buying the place, and once when he peeked in while a plumber was installing a new hot water heater. Neither time did he notice there was a brick wall adjacent to the furnace, but when he went down to see if the dream information might be true, he found there is a brick wall and there is a continuous crack in the mortar outlining what may or may not be a hidden door.

So now what? The old man in the dream said, “Remove the bricks and reveal the ancient door needing no key to open. Upon passing through this portal you will enter a mystical labyrinth guiding you to what you’ve been seeking your whole life.”

James wishes he could talk to someone about his dream, someone who could explain the meaning of the dream and why the dream was so incredibly vivid and real seeming. He doesn’t believe the dream could possibly be prophetic, though the door-delineating crack in the mortar is definitely there.

The truth is, James has no friends; and Leslie, he is certain, will think he’s a complete idiot for giving the dream a second thought, so…

James barely sleeps for the next two days, after which he and Leslie have a horrific screaming fight and she decides to go visit her mother in Palm Springs for a couple weeks. She packs four suitcases, which seems excessive to James, says she’ll be in touch, and takes a cab to the airport.

That night James falls into a sodden sleep that lasts until late morning when he has another dream in which the old white-haired man appears and says, “The labyrinth awaits you, James. The time is now. Remove the bricks and reveal the door.”

James wakes from the dream shaking with fright.

“What is this shit?” he growls, flinging back the covers and getting out of bed. “I don’t believe in this shit.”

He’s in the kitchen making a pot of coffee when the phone rings.

Thinking this must be Leslie calling to apologize for accusing him of being a heartless misanthrope, James picks up the phone and says gruffly, “Hello.”

“Hey Dad, it’s Andrew. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says, derisively. “Why do you ask? After three years of not talking to me.”

“I had a dream about you this morning,” says Andrew, speaking softly. “You were stuck somewhere. In a basement or a cave and I thought… maybe you needed help with something or…”

“You think your dream was real?” says James, gritting his teeth to keep from shouting.

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, pausing. “Maybe it was just my subconscious prodding me to call you. I’ve been thinking about you lately and…”

“About what a rotten asshole I am?”

“No, I was thinking about how I wish you could spend some time with the kids. Zeke is fourteen and Maru is twelve going on seventeen and… they ask about you all the time.”

“You still have that stupid labyrinth?” says James, unable to quell his vitriol.

“Yes, we still have the labyrinth,” says Andrew, sighing. “I won’t keep you any longer, Dad.”

“Wait, wait.” James clears his throat. “Um… there actually is something you could help me with.”

“What’s that?” asks Andrew, his voice full of kindness.

“Well… it’s funny you should mention a basement because I’ve got kind of a mystery going on in mine, and… maybe you could help me solve it.”

“Is it plumbing or…”

“No, it’s, uh… I think there might be a door behind the brick wall down there, and I’m… I… I’d like to find out.”

“Sounds fun,” says Andrew, laughing. “Can I bring the kids?”

“If you want,” says James, shrugging painfully. “Um… when would you like to come?”

“How about this afternoon? We’ll catch the next ferry and… maybe we could spend the night if you have room or…”

“Yeah, fine. We’ll get pizza or something.”

They stand before the brick wall in the basement—James, Andrew, Zeke, and Maru.

“What makes you think there’s a door behind there?” asks Zeke, his deep voice revealing traces of his mother’s British accent.

Zeke’s reddish brown hair falls to his broad shoulders and he is dressed similarly to his father and sister—a denim shirt and jeans and sneakers.

“The crack in the mortar,” says James, squinting at the bricks. “See it? Delineates the shape of a door.”

“Wow,” says Maru, nearly as tall as her brother, her blonde hair in a long braid. “How did you even see it?” She practically puts her nose on the bricks to study the crack. “You have great eyes, Grandpa.”

“I had a dream,” says James, his throat constricting, “in which an old man told me it was there. So I came and looked and there it was.”

“Really?” says Zeke, beaming at his grandfather. “That’s like Maru dreaming about going to visit the Andersons, which we never used to do, and they…” He looks at his sister. “You tell.”

“So in my dream,” says Maru, smiling rapturously at James, “I rode my bike over to Mrs. Anderson’s farm, though in real life Mrs. Anderson used to yell at us not to pick the blackberries on the road in front of her farm. But in my dream she invited me in for pie and said she wanted to give me a present, and when I told Mom the dream she said I should go over there in case the dream was prophetic even though I’ve always been afraid of Mrs. Anderson and they have this huge Black Lab who barks ferociously, but Zeke said he’d come with me, so we rode our bikes over there and their dog was totally friendly and Mrs. Anderson invited us in only she didn’t give us pie but tea and cookies and then she asked if we were looking for a puppy, which we were, and her dog had just had a litter and we got two of them. Tillie and Molly. Half-Labs, half-Golden Retrievers, and they’re the best dogs ever.”

“What a fortunate coincidence,” says James, forcing a smile.

“Just like the crack in the mortar,” says Zeke, tapping the brick wall. “A fortunate coincidence.”

“Why is the crack fortunate?” asks James, glowering at Zeke.

“Because it got you to invite us to come visit,” says Zeke, smiling at his grandfather. “Right?”

“I suggest,” says Andrew, winking at Zeke, “that we remove a few of these bricks, see if we find anything resembling a door, and if not, we put the bricks back. But if there is a door, we’ll remove the rest of the bricks. To that end, I’ve brought a ceramic-cutting blade for my saw, so if you will all now don your earplugs I’ll have a go at this.”

Earplugs inserted, James and Zeke and Maru stand back and watch Andrew expertly cut around a block of eight bricks that may or may not be concealing an ancient door.

The cut completed, Zeke and Maru wield chisels and hammers and pry bars, and a section of an old wooden door is revealed.

“That’s definitely a door,” says Andrew, nodding. “Shall we continue?”

“Wait,” says James, his heart aching. “How could it lead anywhere? The outer basement wall is only four feet away. Even if the door opens, there would just be a little gap and then we’d come to the wall. Right?”

“Unless there’s a stairway,” says Maru, nodding eagerly. “Leading down to a room full of treasure.”

“Did the old man in your dream say anything else?” asks Andrew, smiling quizzically at his father.

“Yes,” says James, feeling more vulnerable than he can ever remember feeling. “He said this was a doorway to a labyrinth.”

“Really?” says Andrew, arching his eyebrow. “Did he say if it was a stupid labyrinth or a smart labyrinth?”

“I’m sorry I said that to you,” says James, gazing earnestly at his son. “Will you forgive me?”

“I have,” says Andrew, nodding. “That’s why we’re here.”

“So shall we take away the rest of the bricks?” asks Maru, looking from her father to her grandfather. “See if we find a labyrinth?”

“He said it was a mystical labyrinth,” says James, smiling through his tears at his grandchildren. “Whatever that is.”

They remove the rest of the bricks and open the ancient door that needs no key, and sure enough there is a stairway descending into darkness.

So down they go, flashlights blazing.

fin

The Angel

August 5th, 2019

angels

On an early morning in August, Derek drives to the beach at the mouth of Big River for the very low tide. He wades across the wide shallow river to the sandbar and crosses the vast expanse of sand to the edge of the sea; and as he’s watching the breakers crash onto the sand, a man appears beside him. The man is about Derek’s age, late sixties, dressed as Derek is in shorts and a T-shirt, stubbly beard, shining eyes, sweet smile.

“Hey,” says the man, speaking quietly. “How you doing?”

“Hanging in there,” says Derek, which is how he’s been feeling for a long time now, hanging by a thread.

“I hear you,” says the man, nodding. “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” says Derek, wondering if the man is going to talk about Jesus or ask for money.

The man takes a deep breath and says, “You’re a healer. Maybe you already knew that, but I thought it might help you if I said it to you. You’re a healer. You heal yourself and you heal others.”

Derek laughs in surprise and says, “Oh I’ll bet you say that to everybody.”

“I don’t, actually,” says the man, laughing, too. “I think that about everybody, but I rarely say it out loud. But when I saw you…” He shrugs. “I just had to. It’s true, you know.”

“I believe you,” says Derek, looking way. “I mean… I want to believe you.”

“But why not believe me? What’s in the way of believing you’re a healer?”

“Well… I’ve been feeling pretty fucked up for a long time now, and by fucked up I mean… not much good to anybody including myself.”

“I know how you feel,” says the man, nodding sympathetically. “I felt that way for years. Decades. But when I realized I was a healer, and I mean when I really accepted that I was a healer and not just hoping to be one, I saw that feeling fucked up was something I could work with, something I could dig down into and find what I needed to heal myself.”

“This is my quest,” says Derek, starting to cry.

The man puts his hand on Derek’s shoulder and keeps it there until Derek stops crying.

You’re the healer,” says Derek, looking at him.

“You and me both, buddy.”

Time passes and they part ways and Derek gets lost in his thoughts and when he finally comes back to the present, the sand bar is shrinking fast and he has to swim across the river to reach the shore.

Back at his truck, Derek is wiping the sand off his feet when a woman and her young son walk by and the boy looks at Derek and asks, “Did you see any whales out there?”

“No whales,” says Derek, smiling at the boy. “But the clouds are spectacular today.”

And the boy looks up at the sky, and his eyes grow wide, and he says, “Oh wow. They are.”

fin

Release

July 29th, 2019

release

They are fly fishing in the Applegate River together, standing in waist-deep water, facing downstream, their lines parallel in the fast-moving flow.

Fred has fished for steelhead in this river for thirty years—the ripples on the water’s surface giving him a detailed picture of the submerged topography, each ripple a syllable in the talk of the torrent.

Tom is visiting from a city far to the south in California. He fishes with some bitterness, mourning the shortness of his stay in Oregon. Maybe I’ll have another big success one day and buy some land up here. Build a little house. Write poetry. Stand in the river whenever I want.

Now a massive steelhead takes Tom’s fly, her voracious hunger overriding her sense of what is real and what is fake.

“Yes!” shouts Fred, grinning at his old friend. “I knew you’d get the first one.”

“Wow! He’s big,” say Tom, playing the fish a bit too zealously.

“She,” says Fred, knowing this to be the female’s dance, a frantic darting mixed with desperate leaps—anything to save her eggs. “You can let her run. No snags all the way to the bend.”

Tom begins to weep.

“You okay?” asks Fred, surprised by his friend’s tears.

“Take my pole,” says Tom, wading through the torrent to Fred. “I can’t do this.”

“No,” says Fred, recoiling. “You hooked her, you play her.”

“But I don’t want to kill her,” he sobs seven years old, playing on a creek, hopping from stone to stone, lost in a fantasy of being an Indian, going around a bend and coming upon a man drowning kittens.

“You don’t have to kill her,” says Fred, touching his friend’s hand. “Just play her and then let her go.”

“Just play her,” says Tom, excited by the ferocity of the steelhead’s will to live. “And then let her go.”

“Yep,” says Fred, nodding. “And while you’re doing that, I’ll make coffee.” He studies Tom’s line for a moment. “I give you a good fifteen minutes to get her close.”

“A good fifteen minutes,” says Tom, watching his friend clamber up the bank. To play a big fish on a lovely river on a lovely planet. Not a bad incarnation.

So he plays her and the scent of coffee fills the air and the river sings her song.

At last the beautiful silver fish rises to the surface and allows Tom to draw her near.

“Oh my friend,” he whispers, unhooking the barb from the fish’s mouth. “Please don’t die.”

She hesitates to leave, not understanding she is free until he touches her and says, “Go on now. Go.”

fin

Mean Mister Leo

July 22nd, 2019

Django

Leo had become, as it were, the telephone through which the humans spoke to one another. He was a large, lazy cat with yellow eyes and a dull gray coat. Save for a few funny tumbles as a kitten, Leo had done very little with any of his nine lives. He had never mated with anything and never killed anything larger than a moth. Yet to Alan and Elizabeth Warrington, he was the most important person in the world.

Alan was seventy. He was tall, and like a bean too long on the vine, had developed a curve in his posture so he loomed over whatever or whomever he happened to be standing near. His face was surprisingly chubby for a man so thin, and he had short white hair, though not in abundance.

Elizabeth, Alan’s junior by three years, was tall, too, with narrow shoulders, wide hips, and large breasts. She kept her gray hair short and refused to put on a dress. She wore slacks, baggy sweaters, and loafers the year round, except in July when she wore sandals; and for someone who sneered as much as she did she was remarkably pretty.

Indeed, her dreadful sneer only subsided when she was sleeping and when she spoke to Leo. Yes, when she spoke to the cat, her sneer would vanish and a melancholic smile would claim her face, staying until she turned away from her pet.

Alan called the cat You, and spoke to him like a gangster. “So it’s You, is it? We’ll see about that, wise guy,” he would say, giving Leo a quick rough massage that would send the little beast into ecstasies of purring and drooling.

Elizabeth called the cat Silly Boy or Mean Mister Leo. She usually spoke baby talk to him, but would occasionally resort to a deep rumbling voice full of mock horror at some impropriety the old cat couldn’t possibly have committed. “Oh you Mean Mister Leo,” she would say, holding the cat in her arms like a baby. “Did you rob that bank? You silliest of silly boys!” And then she would bury her face in his chest.

Then she would put the cat down and Alan would take Leo in his arms and say, “I have to go to the bank today, You. And if I find a list on the counter, I’ll go to the grocery store, too.”

And this was how the Warringtons communicated with each other for eleven years. No one else knew; and it was amazing how easily this was accomplished. Thousands of games of Bridge were played with friends, dozens of guests were entertained, and the Warrington children and grandchildren came to visit week after week, year after year, yet no one ever suspected that Elizabeth and Alan no longer spoke to each other.

Elizabeth couldn’t remember her last direct conversation with her husband. But for Alan, that long ago verbal exchange was so vivid, so charged with emotion, it might have happened yesterday.

They had just gotten home from a lingerie fashion show at a local seafood restaurant. Alan had enjoyed the show, Elizabeth had not. She had, however, enjoyed quantities of champagne and was quite drunk and amorous. Alan, aroused by the lingerie models said, “Those gals were sure cute, weren’t they, Liza?”

To which Elizabeth replied, “A lot you could do about it.”

She tossed the comment off without thinking, but her words hit Alan with the force of a train, their implication stunning him. Elizabeth moved into the kitchen to look for something sweet in the freezer. Alan collapsed on the sofa, choking with rage. Elizabeth returned with a bowl of ice cream and found Alan petting Leo. She approached her husband, put a hand on his knee and said, “Wanna have some fun, sweetie?”

To which Alan replied, “I will never speak to you again.”

“Aw come on, honey,” she cooed. She thought he was teasing. She thought he wanted her to seduce him. “Don’t be mean to mama.”

But Alan wouldn’t look at her. Instead, he glared at the cat and said, “What are you looking at, You?”

And so for eleven years they talked through Leo, transmuting messages meant for each other into things they said to their cat.

Elizabeth’s saying, “A lot you could do about it” may have precipitated the end of their speaking to each other, but those words were not the deeper cause of their rift. Something else had happened a few years before in the midst of a mutual emotional decline. Elizabeth had taken a lover for a few months, her affair barely disrupting the routine of their life. There were a few extra meetings of one auxiliary or another and Alan had never known; and he had always known.

So when Elizabeth said, “A lot you could do about it,” years after her last act of adultery, Alan felt himself being compared, the crime exposed, a punishment necessary.

And what better way to punish a person who loves to talk, lives to talk, than to take away her sounding board, her echo of forty years? What better way to punish infidelity in such a person than to become verbally unfaithful to them, and to remain so, year after year, which is what Alan chose to do, except the gun fired both ways and he was as wounded as she.

Then one morning Leo died. They came upon the body simultaneously, Alan entering the living room from the kitchen, Elizabeth coming from the bedroom. Leo lay on the orange plaid sofa, taut with death, his eyes crossed, his tongue protruding slightly.

Alan grimaced and went to the corpse. Elizabeth clutched her throat, closed her eyes and turned away. Alan confirmed the obvious by placing his hand on the cat’s chest. Elizabeth crossed the room and sat in her blue plaid armchair. Alan remained looming over the corpse, unsure of what to do. His impulse was to put Leo’s body in a plastic bag and put the bag in the garbage can. But maybe Elizabeth would prefer a backyard burial?

“Oh you Mean Mister Leo,” said Elizabeth, pouting. “What a silly thing to do, you silly boy. Now we’ll have to put you in a plastic bag and send you off to the sanitary landfill.”

And so the body was disposed of, but so, as it were, was the telephone. The Warringtons sat in silent terror, overwhelmed by the desperate loneliness their hapless cat had kept at bay for so many years.

Then the actual telephone rang.

Elizabeth snatched it off the table beside her, grimaced at Alan, and cried, “Oh Sandra, oh you dear, you must be psychic. The worst, the very worst thing has happened. Dear Leo just died. Yes, just now. Oh, I know. He was so precious, so good, so… yes, yes, Alan is very sad, too. We just don’t know what to do.”

The phone call over, Elizabeth did battle with her sneer while Alan crossed and uncrossed his legs and picked at his cuticles. Elizabeth cleared her throat several times. Alan coughed. And then, inspired by the same impulse, they began to speak.

“You…” said Alan, but that was all he could manage. The word hung in the air, a questionable thing. Was he speaking to Elizabeth or intoning the dead animal’s nickname?

“I…” said Elizabeth, gripping her knees. “I… I don’t…”

“You…” he said again.

“We have been…” she began.

“A long time,” he said wistfully.

“Yes,” she said, relaxing a little.

“I think you should be sorry,” he said, fighting his tears.

“I am,” she replied, unable to overcome her sneer. “I am. I am. But a man should…”

“Should what?” asked Alan, squinting fiercely at his wife.

“Well… I waited for you to touch me,” she said, her eyes wide with fright. “You were the one who stopped everything.”

Alan smiled demonically and lurched to his feet. “So you did mean it,” he growled. “All these years, you meant it.”

“Meant what?” she cried, shrinking into her chair.

“We’ll see about that, you,” he said, turning away from her.

And then he was gone, the house reverberating with his slam.

“Oh God,” said Elizabeth, covering her mouth with both hands. “Oh God.”

She sat completely still for several minutes, caught in the grip of a memory of when she was a teenager and caught the curtains in the living room on fire while she was smoking pot with a friend, and how her mother would never forgive her. Never.

Finally she roused herself and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. Then she called her daughter and told her the news of Leo’s death.

“Your father is very upset,” she said, clutching the phone with both hands. “Maybe you could come over. It would be wonderful if you could.”

Her daughter said she couldn’t possibly get over there until tomorrow.

Elizabeth tried to think of who else to call, and while flipping through the address book, she imagined Alan at a pawn shop, buying a gun. Then she imagined her daughter arriving the next day and finding their bodies—Alan having killed himself after he killed her.

But after she played this double death scenario in her mind a few times, she began to think he might not kill himself after he killed her, and that made her furious. To think that he would murder her and then go on living!

“What a self-righteous bastard,” she said, turning off the flame under the whistling kettle and going in search of a weapon.

Three hours passed. Elizabeth waited in the living room. She played a record she hadn’t listened to in twenty years. Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. A butcher knife lay on the arm of her chair. In the middle of ’S Wonderful, she heard the familiar jangling of Alan’s keys in the lock. She grasped the knife and prepared to lunge.

The door swung open, and there, toddling over the threshold, was a tiny tabby kitten with piercingly blue eyes. Then Alan came in holding another kitten, a luxurious brown.

“I couldn’t decide which,” he said quietly. “So I got both.”

Elizabeth dropped the knife and swooped down on the tabby. “Oh you silliest of silly little kittens,” she said, nuzzling the baby cat.

“You,” said Alan, nuzzling the brown.

Then he set the kitten down and embraced Elizabeth; and she initiated the first kiss.

            ∆

The kittens explored the house, searching for the cat whose scent was everywhere.

     fin

Meet the Musicians

July 15th, 2019

sunflower center

Mrs. Musician, Irish through and through, her short silvery gray hair adorned with a just-picked pink rose, espies Mr. Musician at the far end of their bountiful garden—a quarter acre of vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit trees, and berry bushes surrounding a deep pond—an urban Eden they share with tortoises, frogs, fish, and a robust population of songbirds and lizards.

A handsome man with brilliant green eyes, his wiry hair mostly gray now, Mr. Musician is on his knees, thinning baby carrots. He and Mrs. Musician have become excellent gardeners since they retired from performing seven years ago—carrots, garlic, potatoes, apples, and raspberries their especial specialties.

“Darling,” calls Mrs. Musician, wishing her husband wouldn’t wear his good black corduroy slacks when he mucks about in the dirt, “there’s someone named Murdoch here to see us. Says we know him. He looks familiar, though not pleasantly so, if you catch my drift.”

“Of course we know him,” says Mr. Musician, his accent vaguely Latvian on this fine sunny morning. “And though we are unanimous in declaring him a wonderful person, we wish he would go away.”

“Shall we tell him we’re unavailable?” she asks, her Irish accent shifting in the direction of Mr. Musician’s vaguely Latvian. “He seems harried though entirely bald.” She giggles. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist.”

“Bald? Murdoch is bald? Gads. The red-haired giant sans locks. Time flies. Or he shaved his head. In any case… Murdoch.”

“Oh that Murdoch,” sys Mrs. Musician, who knew all along who Murdoch was. Is. “Of course. If we imagine red locks on the hairless dome, the Murdoch we used to know comes clear to us now.”

Mr. Musician sighs. He was so enjoying mucking about in the dirt, and now he can only think of Murdoch. “Tell him we’ll be in shortly. We’ll have coffee in the study. He drinks his black. I’ll take a splash of something white in mine.”

“We thought we were off coffee,” she says, frowning at her husband. “Didn’t we agree it makes us jittery and impatient?”

“That was before we had coffee with Murdoch,” says Mr. Musician, rising nimbly. “Thereafter we’re back on.”

“But we haven’t had coffee with Murdoch yet,” says Mrs. Musician, half-annoyed and half-amused by Mr. Musician’s tendency to comingle the present with the future. “And why should we go back on when we were so glad to be off?”

“Dear,” he says, suddenly beside her, though how he traversed twenty yards in a twinkling is beyond her, “we need the bitters.”

She thinks about this. No. She feels about this, and her feelings agree with Mr. Musician. “I’m not sure we have fresh beans. We haven’t had coffee in years.”

“Your prescient son Maxwell brought fresh beans yesterday,” says Mr. Musician, embracing his pleasantly plump wife. “We smell divine. What is that scent?”

“Mint,” she says, blushing attractively. “With a touch of cloves. We washed our hair this morning with mint-with-a-touch-of-cloves shampoo.”

“Poo, indeed,” says Mr. Musician, nibbling on Mrs. Musician’s delectable earlobe. “When we’re done with Murdoch, we’ll to bed. Yes?”

“Rogue,” she says, her voice dropping an octave. “We thought we’d never ask.”

Mr. Musician is a head taller than Mrs. Musician and most people would say he is slender rather than skinny. Size is tricky, though. For instance, Murdoch is a huge fellow, twice as big as Mr. Musician, yet were you to come upon Mr. Musician and Murdoch in Mr. Musician’s study you would feel certain that Mr. Musician was several times larger than Murdoch, which is also true, and that’s what we mean about size being tricky.

The Musicians have been married for thirty-eight years. Mrs. Musician was twenty-nine when they wed and she is soon to be sixty-eight. Mr. Musician is older than his wife, though how much older no one knows, not even Mr. Musician. Age can be as tricky as size. Nine out of nine people would surmise that Mr. and Mrs. Musician are the same age, which they are, though in strictly chronological geologic time they are years apart.

Mr. Musician’s spacious study sports a pale turquoise ceiling suspended fourteen-feet above a dark pecan floor. A gargantuan window looks out on a terra cotta terrazzo overhung by a massive oak tree, the silver-gray trunk of which resembles an abstract sculpture of a life-sized elephant.

Preceded by the scent of mint-with-a-touch-of-cloves shampoo, Mrs. Musician carries a large wooden tray into the study, the tray bearing three enormous white mugs brimming with coffee. She finds Mr. Musician in his black tuxedo, white shirt, burgundy bowtie, and green flip-flops, standing at the gargantuan window gazing out at the massive trunk of the overhanging oak. Is her husband, Mrs. Musician wonders, gazing at the oak or at the puffy white clouds in the cerulean sky? Or has the question posed to him just now by Murdoch thrown him into such a dense thicket of thought that he is seeing nothing?

What an attractive man thinks Mrs. Musician, smiling as she imagines gamboling with Mr. Musician as soon as they dispense with Murdoch. Mrs. Musician is wearing a billowy white blouse, a floor-length black skirt, red sandals, and a rhinestone tiara.

Murdoch, huge and round and bald with a huge round face and a huge round nose and huge brown eyes, is wearing a burgundy turtleneck tucked into baggy brown trousers, his high-top tennis shoes red, his wonderfully round cheeks beaded with sweat. He sits sideways in a wooden throne of an armchair, tapping his right knee with the fingers of his right hand while chewing earnestly on the fingernails of his left hand. He does seem harried, though his face is blank.

“Coffee,” says Mrs. Musician, stating the obvious.

Murdoch takes one of the mugs in his huge round hands and gulps the scalding brew as a man dying of thirst would gulp a cup of cold water. “Delicious,” he says, returning the empty mug to the tray. “May I have another?”

“Please,” says Mrs. Musician, smiling perfunctorily. “I brought two for you and one for Mr. Musician.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” says Murdoch, chuckling as he takes hold of a second brimming mug. “Delicious. Italian? French? Hawaiian? Colombian?”

“The bag was labeled Etruscan Gold,” says Mrs. Musician, frowning in alarm as Murdoch downs the second mug in one prodigious gulp. “A gift from our son.”

“Maurice or Maxwell?” asks Murdoch, eyeing the last loaded mug. “May I?”

“Maxwell,” says Mrs. Musician, nodding acquiescence. “I’ll make another pot.”

“Did you say coffee?” says Mr. Musician, turning away from the window, a bewildered look on his angular face, his accent distinctly Cockney.

“Be just a minute, darling,” says Mrs. Musician, arching a telling eyebrow as Murdoch returns the third empty mug to the once-promising tray. “Demand got the better of supply.”

“Allow me to assist you,” says Mr. Musician, following his wife to the kitchen. “We’ll be right back, Murdoch. View of the oak especially elephantine this morning.”

“Is it?” says Murdoch, moving to the window. “I’d love some coffee. If it’s not too much of a bother.”

“Do you know what he just asked me?” whispers Mr. Musician, catching up to his wife as they cross the threshold into their lovely kitchen—late morning sunlight slanting through seven south-facing windows imparting a poignant ambience to the room of many blues.

“What is the secret of life?” she guesses, filling the grinder with golden brown coffee beans. “Were the three wise men really kings or wandering minstrels?”

“Guess again,” says Mr. Musician, popping one of the golden beans into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully.

“Why are the rich so greedy?” She spoons the grind into the steel filter and ignites a flame beneath the rotund little boiler, their coffee-making machine an ancient Italian contraption designed for making espresso over an open fire. “Is there life after death, the soul imperishable?”

“You’re getting warmer,” says Mr. Musician, popping a few more beans into his mouth. “Hints of chocolate.”

Mrs. Musician sighs, for she knows very well what Murdoch asked of them—Murdoch’s coming foretold in a vivid dream. “Can anyone be truly free if another is enslaved?”

Mr. Musician nods. “And?”

“Will we return to the fray?” says Mrs. Musician, kissing her husband’s cheek.

“That is the question,” says Mr. Musician, nodding solemnly. “Exactement.”

sunflower tendrils

Election

July 8th, 2019

election

The evidence against them was overwhelming.

We explained their crimes in simple terms.

Our facts were unassailable. We exposed

their villainy to the bright light of day

on hundreds of community radio stations

and dozens of progressive web sites.

We proposed innovative programs to

restore the environment, reverse global warming,

create millions and millions of new and meaningful jobs,

provide free education and healthcare for all,

and bring about a cultural renaissance.

 

They countered with a mesmerizing music video

featuring a catchy song about freedom and hope

and the dawning of a new tomorrow.

The song was performed by a gorgeous woman

wearing a diaphanous red, white, and blue gown

clinging to the curves of her exquisite body

as she and a rainbow coalition of beautiful young women

danced to the irresistible rhythm of the song,

their eyes sparkling with tears.

This music video was shown

to everyone everywhere

through every form of media

seventy-seven billion times.

 

The vote was not close.