Beckman’s Daughter

January 7th, 2019

Beckman's Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” said Jasmy, nodding seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       fin

Dane’s Uncle

December 31st, 2018

rosy cocoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She flinches, but says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Camille? Did you tell her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dane turns to his mother and she hugs him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      fin

Bernard Comes Of Age

December 24th, 2018

Age BW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lately when I walk by that long wall of windows next to the sidewalk at Bob’s Market,” says Bernard, sipping his coffee, “I’ll look to my right and here’s this skinny old Jewish guy with gray hair, at least twenty years older than I am. We’ll walk along together, smile at each other, maybe bounce our eyebrows, but we don’t talk. And then he goes into the store and I lose sight of him. I wonder why I keep running into this guy? Who could he be?”

“A succinct summation of your powers of denial,” says Lou, a chronically under-employed actor in his seventies who wears colorful scarves and a burgundy beret.

“Are you suggesting…” Bernard feigns a look of horror. “…the old guy is my reflection?”

“I’m suggesting you did this shtick three days ago,” says Lou, raising his hand to beckon a waitress. “It wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now.”

“Who said it was supposed to be funny?” says Bernard, frowning at Lou.

“I’d love to continue this scintillating conversation,” says Lou, slapping a ten-dollar bill on the table, “but I have to go spend the rest of the morning deepening my already considerable debt to a dentist. At least he claims to be a dentist. It seems my one remaining tooth has yet another cavity.”

“I’ll call you,” says Bernard, wincing sympathetically as Lou grimaces when he stands up, his sciatica ferocious this morning. “Take it easy.”

“Famous last words,” says Lou, shuffling away.

The waitress, Darlene, a curvaceous gal in her thirties with curly brown hair and darting green eyes, arrives at the table. “More coffee, Bernie?”

“Yeah, why not?” he says, smiling at her. “You want to go out with me some time, Darlene?”

“Where would we go?” she asks, filling his cup.

“Take a walk on the beach,” he says, nodding hopefully. “Ethnic cuisine of your choice. Go back to my place. Watch a movie.”

“Sounds divine,” she says in a monotone. “But then my husband would kill us and I’m not ready to die.”

“Nor am I,” says Bernard, nodding his thanks for the refill. “I guess we’ll just have to make do with vivid fantasies.”

Julia Sapperstein, a big smiley woman in her fifties with shoulder-length hair dyed auburn, is sitting at Bernard’s seven-foot Mason & Hamblin grand piano in Bernard’s high-ceilinged living room, banging out chords and singing a song she and Bernard are writing together, a love ballad with the working title ‘So Why Did You Stop Calling Me?’. Julia’s voice is a pleasant tenor in the middle register, but when she strains to reach the higher notes, Bernard—making coffee and toasting bagels in the big airy kitchen adjoining the living room—cringes as if someone is scraping a chalkboard with her fingernails.

“Sorry about that,” says Julia seeing Bernard cringing. “Mary said she could maybe come sing this for us on Thursday. You free at two on Thursday?”

“I’ll move my appointment with George Clooney to four,” says Bernard, shrugging. “Let him wait. What else has he got to do?”

“You have an appointment with George Clooney?” says Julia, frowning at Bernard. “The George Clooney?”

“No, a George Clooney,” says Bernard, laughing.

“Have you ever met the George Clooney?” asks Julia, innocently.

“No,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “I’ve seen him in a number of movies and I once saw him walking a dog on the beach right here in Santa Monica. At least I think it was George. He had George’s face and demeanor and gait and charisma, so I assumed it was he.”

“Why would he have been walking a dog on the beach here and not in Malibu?” asks Julia, having a hard time imagining George Clooney on the Santa Monica beach. “What kind of dog?”

“You know, come to think of it,” says Bernard, pouring two mugs of coffee, “it wasn’t a dog. It was a lion.”

“You’re kidding,” says Julia, getting up from the piano and joining Bernard in the dining nook.

“Now she thinks I’m kidding,” says Bernard, glancing at an imaginary audience. “No wonder she’ll sleep with me.”

“Yes, I will,” says Julia, smiling sweetly at Bernard. “And that’s no joke.”

Julia leaves Bernard snoozing in his king-sized bed and writes him a note on a large blue post-it she affixes to his thirty-year-old answering machine on the kitchen counter.

Dear Bernie,

Thank you for a most wonderful time today. I think our song is turning out gangbusters. I can’t wait to hear somebody with a good voice sing it. You’re the best.

Julia

A half-hour after Julia leaves, Bernard wakes from a dream of arm-wrestling with Scarlet Johansson while pitching her an idea for a movie about the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. He takes a moment to enjoy what he remembers most vividly about the dream, the lovely glow in Scarlet’s cheeks, and reminds himself he just had sex with Julia, not Heather with whom he also writes songs and occasionally has sex.

He listens for any sounds indicating Julia is still in the house, and hearing none, he gets out of bed, puts on his blue terrycloth bathrobe, and wanders down the hall to the kitchen where he finds the note from Julia and sees the red light on his answering machine blinking.

The first message is from his only progeny, his son Mason, calling from Oregon. “Hey Dad. Got the check. Thank you so much. We’re doing fine, but every little bit helps. So… can you come visit sometime in the next couple months? We’ve been here five years and you haven’t seen the place yet. Gorgeous here in the fall. The kids would love to see you, and so would Nina. I know it’s a long drive, but I really want to see you and show you all the work we’ve done on this amazing place you helped us get. Love you.”

The second message is from Les Cutler, Bernard’s co-writer of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ and the former bass player of Still At Large. “Bernie. Les. When the fuck are you gonna get a cell phone? I never can get you when I want you. Call me as soon as you get this. And get a fucking cell phone.”

The third message is from David Chapman, one of Bernard’s younger collaborators, a college friend of Mason’s with great expectations of becoming a successful screenwriter. “Hi Bernie. It’s David. I’m slightly desperate to read you these new scenes. I incorporated all our new ideas and I think we’re really onto something here. Call me. Bye.”

“What a life I have,” says Bernard, looking around his comfortable little house. “If only one of my projects would pop and I could make some serious money again. But nothing ever pops. Nothing has popped since I was a kid and got lucky with a song. Yet I still believe something is gonna pop any day now because once upon a time something did.”

Bernard dons his mustard yellow Los Angeles Lakers sweat suit, loads his blue Dodgers tote bag with towel and sunblock and notebook and pen, steps into his beach sandals, walks the three blocks to the beach, buys a fish taco from his favorite mobile taqueria, and dines on the sand just north of the Santa Monica pier, the afternoon balmy, beauties in bikinis abounding.

“How can I be seventy?” he asks the roaring waves as he watches two young women wearing the equivalent of nothing playing Frisbee on the edge of the surf. “I’m old enough to be their grandfather, yet I have no trouble imagining being married to either of them, especially the brunette, and carrying on as if I am twenty-five.”

Having said this, Bernard has a revelation. If I had not been obsessed with having another success equal to or greater than ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ I could have stayed married to either of my wives and created a shared life instead of a life all about me striving for another hit.

“But what can I do about that now?” he asks, following the flight of the Frisbee back and forth between the two young women. “Knowing is not the same as changing, and I am, after all, seventy. Furthermore, what’s wrong with striving for another hit? Certainly better than just waiting to die.”

Home again, Bernard calls David and invites him to come over at four and read the new scenes. And because David’s parting words are, “Say hi to Mason for me next time you talk to him,” Bernard calls Mason.

“Dad?” says Mason, sounding like a boy to Bernard, though Mason is forty-four. “A daytime call? This is unprecedented. What’s going on?”

“Not much,” says Bernard, thinking of Maureen, Mason’s mother, and how she begged him to sell the house and move with her to Seattle, but Bernard wouldn’t leave Santa Monica, so Maureen divorced him and took twelve-year-old Mason with her. “Just returning your call.”

“You gonna come visit?” asks Mason, his voice full of hope.

“I’d love to,” says Bernard, realizing his brain is stuck on a picture of Mason at twelve. “How does October sound? I’ll juggle some things and zip up there for a few days.”

“Oh you gotta stay for at least a week,” says Mason, decisively. “Takes two days to get here. And thanks again for the check. We really appreciate it. And just so you know, that amount gets you an engraved tile in the bathroom in the guest house, which is almost done.”

“The bathroom or the guest house?” says Bernard, fighting his tears.

“Both,” says Mason, laughing. “Hey, can I call you back tonight after I talk to Nina and we’ll get something on the calendar?”

“Yeah, call me tonight,” says Bernard, starting to cry. “Be great to see you.”

After he hangs up, Bernard cries so hard for so long, he soaks his clothes and has to change before he calls Les.

“Your daughter?” says Bernard, frowning into the phone. “Which daughter? You have three, don’t you? Or is it four?”

“It’s four,” says Les, who also has five sons. “And I’m speaking of Grace, my oldest. Jenny is thirty-eight, a successful interior designer, Serena is twenty-nine and having a ball as an international flight attendant, and Crystal is six. Why would I want any of them to live with you?”

“So why do you want Grace to come live with me?” asks Bernard, sitting down at his kitchen counter. “How old is she now? Forty?”

“She’s fifty-two,” says Les, shouting. “You’ve known her since she was a baby. You used to give her piggyback rides. She adored you until you stopped coming to visit.”

“As I recall,” says Bernard, resisting his impulse to join Les in shouting, “I stopped coming to visit because your second and third wife couldn’t stand me. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” says Les, lowering his voice. “They couldn’t stand me either.”

“So if Grace needs a place to stay,” asks Bernard, having a hard time imagining sharing his house with anyone unless he’s married to them or he’s their father, “why can’t she stay with you?”

“Because she’s been living with us for six weeks now, and Carol says if Grace stays another week, she’s leaving me.”

“Why?” asks Bernard, perplexed by Les’s request. “If Carol can’t stand her, what makes you think I’ll be able to?”

“Because she’s a sweetheart and I’ll pay you. Two thousand dollars a month. And I know you’re gonna ask why I don’t just get her an apartment? Because she needs to live with someone, Bernie. She survived two horrendous marriages, raised two kids all by herself and did a damn good job. They’re both in college now, and she’s alone and lonely and… she’s out of gas. Lost. You know? But she’s a great gal, Bernie. She remembers you. She loved you. Please?”

“So suddenly I’m a babysitter?” says Bernard, wincing. “Jesus, Les. How would you feel if I asked you to take in my middle-aged son?”

“It’s not the same thing. You don’t have anybody there. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Will you at least talk to her? As a favor to your old friend?”

And only because Bernard feels beholden to Les for ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ he says, “Sure, I’ll talk to her. Come for breakfast tomorrow.”

The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe?” says David, a tall round-shouldered guy with short blond hair and huge back-framed glasses. “Starring Scarlet Johansson?”

“Thus spake my dream,” says Bernard, bringing two bottles of beer into the living room where David is about to read some new scenes to Bernard from the two screenplays they’re writing together, one a comedy romance set in the 1960s, the other a noir murder mystery set in the 1930s.

“Bernie, that’s genius,” says David, gaping at Bernard. “Scarlet would kill to play the part of Marilyn. They have the same mouth, the same cheekbones, the same body. Scarlet was made to play that part. Immediately. Before she gets any older.”

“What part?” asks Bernie, handing David a beer. “It’s an idea. What’s the plot? Is Marilyn doomed to relive her tragic life? Does she grow up happy and become a veterinarian and have three delightful children? Is she born poor and black in Mississippi? Or rich and Jewish in Beverly Hills? Is she perhaps a man this time? Does she run for President and win, only to be assassinated? What part?”

“All of the above,” says David, getting up from the sofa and pacing around the room. “She is born again and again, always essentially Marilyn, yet living different lives. My God, if we could pitch this to Scarlet, she’d option it before we finished pitching!”

“You think?” says Bernard, accustomed to David’s enthusiasm for outlandish ideas. “I don’t have her current phone number. Do you?”

“I’m this close to getting a good agent,” says David, showing Bernard a tiny space between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. “And when I get her, she’ll set up the pitch.”

“Oh, it’s a her this week,” says Bernard, dubiously. “Last week wasn’t it Larry Somebody at ICM?”

“Shirley Daytona,” says David, nodding assuredly. “At CTA.”

“David, listen to the voice of experience,” says Bernard, pretending his beer bottle is a microphone. “Beware women agents and actresses and artists who take the names of cities for their last names. If you dig just below the surface, you’ll find someone who is ashamed of being Jewish, and an agent who is ashamed of being Jewish is… well… silly. And who wants a silly agent?”

“If she can sell one of our scripts, she can be Bozo the Clown,” says David, taking a long swig of beer. “Shall I read you our new scenes?”

“I’m dying to hear them,” says Bernard, who enjoys working with David more than with any of his other collaborators. Why is that? Because he remains undaunted in the face of my relentless cynicism, and because he genuinely likes me, and he thinks I have talent. I should be nicer to him. From now on, I will be.

When David is done reading the new scenes, Bernard has another revelation, which he elucidates to David.

“It occurs to me that we set these movies in the idealized past because we find contemporary life dreary and hopeless and uninteresting. But why not set these stories in the present and reveal the humor and mystery of today? Maybe the reason we’re having so much trouble getting these scripts right is because we’re avoiding our field of expertise, which is being alive now.”

“I hear you,” says David, giving Bernard a pained look. “But I hate contemporary movies. Everybody’s on cell phones, everybody’s either fucked up or an idiot or a snide asshole or a clueless bimbo or an ideal person married to a rotten person and somebody’s always dying of cancer and everybody’s having an affair or they’re gorgeous but all alone and there’s always someone contemplating suicide and someone addicted to drugs or porno, and even when there’s a somewhat happy ending, the world is still rotten.”

“Right, but that’s not how it will be in our movies.” Bernard smiles warmly at David. “Our movies will reveal the divine in the every day.”

“And no one will buy them,” says David, despondently.

“Maybe not,” says Bernard, nodding in agreement. “Probably not. So shall we write a movie about a wizard who is also a vampire who is also a corrupt politician having an affair with a teenager addicted to porno?”

“Yes!” says David, excitedly. “And only one person can stop the vampire wizard politician. A woman with super powers from another planet.”

“I’ve got just the title,” says Bernard, pausing momentously. “The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”

“Now this we can sell,” says David, pointing at Bernie. “You laugh, but this we could sell. Tomorrow.”

After supper, Bernard gets a call from Mason, and when they have agreed on an October date for Bernard’s trip to Oregon, Bernard realizes he is afraid to leave Los Angeles, afraid to venture into the unknown.

Getting ready for bed, Bernard takes a long look at himself in the bathroom mirror and decides he likes his face, likes his smile, likes the spirit animating him; and he says to his reflection, “Yes, I am seventy, and yes I’m afraid to leave Los Angeles, but there is an undeniable youthful vibrancy to my je nes sais quoi, and so long as I feel this way, I shall not despair.”

Bernard is making hash browns and scrambled eggs and coffee and toast when Les and his daughter Grace arrive.

Les, his red hair lost to baldness, was an avid surfer and skier until he was thirty-five and broke his leg in six places in a skiing accident. When his leg healed, he took up bicycle riding and was a maniacal biker until he turned fifty and his fourth marriage collapsed. Now he is seventy-two, married to a woman in her thirties, and he is uncomfortably overweight. And though he never wrote another song after his band Still At Large broke up in 1972, he parlayed the money he earned from ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ into a huge fortune in real estate.

Grace is a pleasant surprise to Bernard. He hasn’t seen her since she was a sultry beauty in her twenties, an aspiring actress and singer. She is a mature beauty now, with short brown hair and a lovely figure, though she no longer affects sultriness.

She stopped acting and singing when she married at twenty-seven and threw herself into raising her two children, Timothy and Kathy, and being a devoted wife to a show biz scoundrel who left her when the kids were two and six months. She remarried a year later; her second husband a narrow-minded misogynist with inherited millions. She had two miscarriages with him, after which he divorced her.

Single again at thirty-three, her kids five and three, Grace got a job as a secretary at a Mercedes dealership, rented a small apartment in Studio City, and raised her kids on her own with no help from her mother who had moved back to France after leaving Les when Grace was seven, and with little help from Les who was busy supporting his series of wives and the children he fathered with them.

Grace’s children are now twenty-two and twenty, and both are attending college courtesy of Les. Grace works thirty-hours-a-week in a bookstore in Culver City and Les gives her five hundred dollars a month. And though her life has not been easy, she is an inherently positive person, empathetic and thoughtful and warm.

Ten minutes into breakfast, Les looks at his cell phone and says, “Shit. I have to be in Century City yesterday.”

And in the next moment, he’s out the door.

Grace smiles shyly at Bernard and says, “That was unconvincing.”

“I dislike cell phones,” says Bernard, glad Les is gone. “So many people use them to tinker with the truth. Have you noticed? More coffee?”

“I’m fine,” says Grace, who is also glad her father is gone. “At least regarding coffee.”

“What about regarding everything else?” asks Bernard, sad to think of such a delightful person being alone in the world.

“I’m actually pretty okay regarding everything else, too,” she says, liking Bernard’s directness. “It’s true I’m not very good at making money, but I’m happy most of the time, glad to be alive.”

“Les says you’re lonely,” says Bernard, sighing in sympathy.

“I’ve never not been lonely,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Maybe before my mother left I wasn’t lonely, but I can’t remember that far back.”

“You were lonely living with your kids?” asks Bernard, frowning. “Lonely for what, do you think?”

“A soul mate,” she says simply. “I’ve never had one. Or even a soul friend.”

“I’ve heard of soul mates,” says Bernard, getting up to make more coffee. “I think they’re found in the same eco-systems as unicorns.”

“You’ve never had one either?” says Grace, gazing in wonder at him. “That surprises me. You’re such a sweet person.”

“Me?” says Bernard, pointing at himself. “Sweet? I’m a caustic old narcissist.”

“Oh honey,” says Grace, her eyes sparkling. “I’ve known a hundred world-class best-in-show narcissists, and not one of them would ever admit to being a narcissist.”

“I was quoting my two ex-wives and several former friends,” says Bernard, filling the coffee maker with water. “But maybe I’m not a narcissist. Maybe I’m just a selfish egotist.”

“Why do you say you’re selfish?” asks Grace, smiling curiously. “A selfish person wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sharing his house with the middle-aged daughter of his annoying old friend. Just because you take care of yourself doesn’t mean you’re selfish. Why conflate self-love with selfishness?”

Pondering this, Bernard realizes he loves looking at Grace, loves her voice, loves her mind, loves the cadence of her speech, and loves her desire to go below the surface of things. Yes, he is attracted to her sexually, but far transcendent of this attraction, he wants to be her friend.

Four days after Grace moves into Bernard’s second bedroom, formerly his office, Bernard and Julia Sapperstein are in Bernard’s living room, Julia playing the piano and slaughtering the high notes of their song, working title ‘So Why Don’t You Call Me Anymore?’ while Bernard sits on the sofa cringing.

At which moment, Grace comes home from working at the bookstore, looking smart in a long gray skirt and billowy turquoise blouse. Bernard introduces Grace to Julia, Grace heads for her bedroom, and Bernard forestalls her exit by saying, “Grace? Would you be up for singing the song Julia and I are working on? The high notes elude us.”

“Sure,” says Grace, smiling at Julia. “Just let me change out of my bookstore uniform into something less constricting.”

When Grace is out of earshot, Julia glares at Bernard and whisper-shouts, “You didn’t say she was gorgeous. And why did you ask her to sing our song?”

“Because she has a great voice,” says Bernard, speaking quietly. “She was a pro before she had kids. Wouldn’t you like to hear a pro sing our song?”

“Are you fucking her?” asks Julie, squinting angrily at Bernard.

“No,” says Bernard, admitting to himself that the only thing he really likes about Julia is having sex with her.

Grace returns in jeans and a sweatshirt, goes to the piano, stands beside Julia and sings the words from the sheet music as Julia plays—Grace’s voice so fine, she makes the not-very-original song sound fabulous.

“Wow,” says Julia, smiling red-faced at Grace. “That was great. Will you sing on our demo?”

“Sure,” says Grace, sauntering into the kitchen and putting a kettle on for tea. “Would you like a little feedback about your song?”

“Please,” says Bernard, nodding eagerly. “You made it sound positively Bacharachian.”

“What are you, a mind reader?” says Grace, frowning at Bernard. “Because what I was thinking was… the melody is pretty close to ‘The Look of Love’ and you might want to modify…”

“Not true,” says Julia, defiantly folding her arms. “Just because it reminds you of that song doesn’t mean it sounds like that song.”

“You’re right,” says Grace, regretting saying anything about the song. “Lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“The melody isn’t even close to ‘The Look of Love’” says Julia, glaring hatefully at Grace. “That’s just how you sang it. The actual notes are not what you sang.”

“I’m sorry,” says Grace, looking away. “I’m out of practice. Sorry.”

“I have to go,” says Julia, snatching the music off the piano and grabbing her purse and stalking to the door.

“Julia, wait,” says Bernard, following her out the now open front door.

He catches up to her at her car where she turns on him and growls, “Why didn’t you say something when she accused me of plagiarism?”

“Us,” says Bernard, never having seen or imagined this side of Julia. “You and I both wrote the song.”

I wrote the melody!” shouts Julia. “You wrote the words. She didn’t say you stole the words from Hal David. She said I stole the melody from Burt Bacharach.”

“She didn’t say that,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “She said the melodies were similar, which they are. So what? As you said, lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“I didn’t say that, she did,” says Julia, opening her car door. “And I will never come here again as long as she lives here. You’re a shit, Bernie. A total shit.”

“I beg to differ,” says Bernard, pained by this sad demise of his relationship with Julia. “I just wanted to hear someone with a good voice sing our song. And I thought it was beautiful. And on that note, I think we should end our collaboration.”

“You used me,” says Julia, getting into her car. “You used me until you could ensnare somebody younger.”

“First of all, she’s not younger than you,” says Bernard, his sorrow changing to anger. “Second of all, I have not ensnared her. Third of all, you and I used each other as good lovers will, and you know it. And finally of all, I wish you well, Julia. I really do.”

Two weeks into Grace’s residency in the House of Bernard, after sharing Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine, Grace and Bernard retire to the living room and Grace accompanies herself on Bernard’s grand piano and sings for him—Bernard sitting on the sofa and thinking I’ve died and gone to heaven.

When Grace finishes her song, Bernard gapes at her. “You wrote that?”

“Yeah,” she says, nodding and laughing and blushing.

“When?” he asks, astounded by her voice and her tender love song.

“Just… in the last few days. Whenever you weren’t here.”

“God, Grace, it’s fantastic. There were a few lines that could use a little syllabic massaging, but otherwise it’s stunning.”

“I was hoping you’d help me with the lyrics,” she says, smiling shyly. “I mean… I think it would be fun to write songs with you.”

“I think so, too,” says Bernard, the back of his neck tingling. “There’s only one small problem. You’re about fifty thousand times more talented than I am.”

“That’s not true,” she says, playing a series of eloquent chords. “You’re a wizard with words.”

Three weeks into Grace’s residency, Bernard and Grace throw a little party on a Saturday night, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, for about twenty people, mostly Bernard’s friends, but a few of Grace’s bookstore pals, too, the highlight of the evening Grace performing the two songs she’s written with Bernard since coming to live with him.

Bernard introduces Grace’s performance by standing at the piano and saying to the assembled guests, “You’ll all be relieved to know I will not be singing tonight, not audibly. I contributed a little bit in the way of lyric tampering on the first song Grace will sing while accompanying herself on piano, and I wrote a good many of the lyrics of the second song Grace will sing accompanying herself on guitar. As you know, I made a good deal of money from a song I wrote shortly after emerging from puberty, but I can say without a doubt that the musical high point of my life has been collaborating with Grace on these songs.”

While Grace enthralls the guests, Bernard stands in the kitchen, singing along in a whisper and deciding to continue his collaboration with David, and possibly with Alida Schultz on their sitcom The Chess Club, and with Grace, of course, but to end his other collaborations and henceforth focus on quality not quantity.

Karl Sharansky is ninety-one and lives with Maureen, his attendant and cook, in an elegant apartment on the eleventh floor of a twenty-two story apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Maureen is seventy-four, Irish, and loves working for Karl. He naps prodigiously, eats two meals a day, and is a funny affable person with no end of money from the chain of do-it-yourself car washes he started in the 1960s.

Not owning a car, Bernard takes a cab from Santa Monica to Karl’s apartment on Wilshire, and over a delicious shrimp salad in Karl’s dining room, Bernard has to shout to be heard because Karl forgot to put in his hearing aids and keeps squinting at Bernard and saying, “Come again, Bernie?”

Hearing Bernard shouting, Maureen hurries into the dining room with Karl’s hearing aids, pops them into Karl’s ears, and disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.

“Say again,” says Karl, smiling at Bernard. “You’ve taken up mouse skating and smoking cigars? Never heard of mouse skating. Is that a thing you do with a computer mouse? So many new things all the time now. Who can keep track? Of course I know all about smoking cigars, but what is mouse skating?”

“No, I have a housemate now,” says Bernard, laughing. “And she plays the guitar and sings like an angel. She’s the daughter of an old friend.”

Karls sighs. “All my old friends are dead now. Well, not Maury Klein, but he might as well be dead. Stares into space all day. God only knows what he’s thinking about. If I ever get like that, shoot me. Please.”

“So…” says Bernard, relieved to be able to speak at a normal volume, “I brought the latest draft of our movie. I think you’ll like it, Karl.”

“You already made the changes I suggested?” says Karl, frowning gravely. “So fast?”

“Two weeks is not so fast,” says Bernard, deciding now is the time to end his collaboration with Karl and just be his friend. “My new housemate happens to be a blazing fast typist full of good ideas, and she helped me with this final draft. Oh, and I decided to set the story in present-day Los Angeles instead of in the 1950s.”

“Present-day?” says Karl, wrinkling his nose. “With talking computers and smart phones and cars that drive themselves? Why?”

“It works better this way,” says Bernard, nodding assuredly. “After lunch I’ll read it to you.”

“I have a better idea,” says Karl, winking at Bernard. “Sonny’s coming over to meet you and we’ll hand him the script together. You put in the deli scene? When Ruth tells Maurice she’s leaving him?”

“I put it in,” says Bernard, laughing. “It’s a scream.”

“Of course it’s a scream,” says Karl, laughing with him. “We’re comic geniuses.”

Bernard and Karl are having coffee and cookies in the living room with Richard Sharansky AKA Sonny, when Karl has to go to the bathroom and leaves Bernard alone with Richard.

“Karl pay you to write this script?” asks Richard, fixing Bernard with a steely gaze. “How much?”

“He paid me in lunches and coffee and cookies,” says Bernard, smiling at Richard. “I understand why you would think I might be taking advantage, but I’m not. I’ve known Karl for thirty-five years. I had a small talent agency long ago and represented his granddaughter Sophie, who would be, I think, your aunt.”

Richard taps the script on the coffee table and says, “Three things. This any good? Can you send me a PDF? What’s your arrangement with Karl?”

“The script is better than good,” says Bernard, appreciating Richard’s candor. “Yes, I can send you a PDF. Our deal is fifty-fifty. Shall I send you a copy of our contract?”

“Yes, please,” says Richard, handing Bernard a business card. “What’s the pitch?”

“A charming but shy young woman and her delightfully droll gay friend decide to open a bakery. To do so, they enlist the help and money of their grandparents, a snobby British guy and an ironic French lesbian. Chaos ensues, genders are bent, love conquers all.”

“I like it,” says Richard, whipping out his cell phone. “Repeat that.”

Bernard recites the pitch again for Richard to record, and this time Richard laughs.

“When the agent laughs, good things follow,” says Bernard, knowing very well he may never see or hear from Richard again, but relishing the moment.

“Who said that?” asks Richard, liking Bernard despite his tendency not to like anyone.

“I did,” says Bernard, getting up to go. “I’ll send you that PDF as soon as I get back to command headquarters in Santa Monica, and then I’ll alert the sentries to be on the lookout for the Brinks truck.”

“It’s all he talks about,” says Richard, laughing as he shakes Bernard’s hand. “The movie he’s writing with Bernie.”

On the one-month anniversary of Grace living with Bernard, two days before Bernard is scheduled to leave for Oregon, Bernard and Grace go out for Thai food, and Bernard invites Grace to continue living with him. She accepts with tears in her eyes and asks if she can count on staying for at least another few months and would it be okay for her kids to come stay with her now and then.

“Yes, of course,” says Bernard, clinking his glass of beer with her glass of wine. “Mi casa es su casa.”

“Tu,” she says, smiling at him. “We’ve lived together for a month now, Bernie. You can use the familiar. Not that you couldn’t have from the get go.”

“Is that what that is?” says Bernard, clinking his glass to her glass once more. “Tu es familiar. Mi casa es tu casa.”

“Gracias,” she says, smiling brightly. “I’m so grateful to you, Bernie. I feel like… I feel like I’m standing on solid ground for the first time in… forever.”

“I’m glad,” he says, taking a deep breath. “While I’m shaking in my shoes about going to Oregon. Every five minutes I think about calling Mason and cancelling, but… I don’t know. I want to go, but I’m afraid to go.” He looks away, ashamed of himself. “Last night I woke up in such a panic, I thought I was having a heart attack. It’s stupid, I know, but… I haven’t left LA in thirty years, and only a few times before that. I feel like an idiot, but… well, I’ll figure it out.”

“What are you afraid of?” she asks gently. “Or what do you think you’re afraid of?”

“Oh… dying,” he says, looking at her and laughing anxiously. “What else is there to be afraid of?”

She thinks for a moment. “Would you like me to come with you?”

Startled by her suggestion, Bernard says, “Would you like to come with me?”

“Yeah,” she says, eagerly. “I haven’t been out of LA since… forever.”

“And here the one thing I was not feeling anxious about was leaving my house unattended because you were gonna be there,” says Bernard, giddy with happiness. “And now you’re coming with me.”

“Is that an invitation?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Sort of sounded like one.”

“Yes,” he says, nodding humbly. “I would very much like you to come with me.”

They leave Santa Monica in their zippy blue rental car at five in the morning to beat the craziness on the freeways, and when they are an hour north of Paso Robles on Highway 101, Bernard driving and Grace gazing out the window at the passing beauty, they feel themselves leaving the gravitational pull of Los Angeles; and they turn to each other and exchange looks of excitement and wonder.

During a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Redding, Grace studies maps of California and Oregon and suggests they take Highway 299 from Redding to Arcata and make the rest of the trip to Yachats, Oregon via the coast.

“I love the idea of getting off the freeway,” says Bernard, taking a deep breath to quell his anxiety. “But what if the car breaks down? How will we survive out there in the middle of nowhere?”

“Maybe we won’t,” says Grace, slowly shaking her head. “But at least we’ll die together.”

“And believe it or not,” says Bernie, gesturing for the waiter to bring the check, “that’s a great comfort to me.”

“To me, too,” says Grace, gazing lovingly at him. “How about I drive for a while?”

Moments after they head west on Highway 299, where the four-lane road becomes two lanes, they feel they have entered a whole new world.

“This is fantastic,” says Bernard, gazing ahead in wonder as the road carries them up through the foothills into the mountains. “I love this. So much.”

“Me, too,” says Grace, her heart pounding. “And we’ve barely started.”

 ∆

Elated from their long drive from Redding through the spectacular mountain range to the coast, they have supper at a Mexican restaurant in Crescent City, after which they go to the Ocean View Inn to get rooms for the night, another seven hours of driving awaiting them on the morrow.

At the check-in desk, a friendly young woman wearing granny glasses says, “Just the two of you? No pets? Non-smoking? I’ve got one room left with a view of the beach, but there’s only a queen in that one. If you want a king and don’t need a view, I’ve got three of those available.”

“We’re getting two rooms,” says Bernard, smiling at the young woman.

She looks from Bernard to Grace and back to Bernard. “I’ve got a room with two queens. Eighty dollars less than getting two rooms.”

“What do you think?” says Bernie, turning to Grace.

“Up to you,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder.

“No,” he says, blushing at her touch. “I want you to decide.”

     fin

Tober’s Stones

December 17th, 2018

Tober's Stones

Tober Quincy is nine-years-old and quite tall for his age. Highly intelligent and intuitive and talkative, his dark brown hair has yet to be cut since he was born and nearly reaches his waist. Some mornings he captures his hair in a ponytail, and some mornings his mother braids his hair in a three-strand braid she ties at the end with a red shoelace.

Augie Quincy, Tober’s eight-year-old brother, is also very bright and intuitive and talkative, but not particularly tall for his age. Augie’s red hair has been cut many times since he was four, per his request, and much to his mother’s chagrin he insists on wearing baseball caps most of the time, his current favorite a neon-orange Houston Astros cap that really bugs her.

Sharon Quincy is Tober and Augie’s thirty-two-year-old mother. She is five-foot-three, weighs a hundred and five pounds, and is remarkably strong and agile for a person of any size. Blazingly smart with a wry sense of humor, Sharon speaks English with a strong New Jersey accent and is also fluent in French and Spanish, languages she learned from her fellow dancers when she was in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet Company from the age of fifteen until she was twenty. She has shoulder-length brown hair, dark blue eyes, a simply beautiful face, and at a distance is often taken for a teenager.

An excellent violinist and guitarist and a voracious reader, Sharon homeschools Tober and Augie on their remote farm three miles from the Pacific Ocean in the far north of California. Sharon and Tober and Augie grow nearly all the food they need in their quarter-acre vegetable garden and large greenhouse, and what food they don’t grow, they buy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna where Sharon works twenty hours a week as a checker.

Sharon has many friends, but she hasn’t been in a relationship since Tober and Augie’s father vamoosed when Tober was five-months-old and Augie was in utero.

Lance is Tober and Augie’s father. He told Sharon his last name was Vogelsang, but Sharon doubts this is true; and she wouldn’t be surprised if Lance is a pseudonym, too. Tober and Augie don’t know much about their father except the little Sharon has told them and what they deduce from photos he sends in a Christmas card every January along with a fifty-dollar bill, the amount unvarying since Lance made his getaway nine years ago.

The postmarks on the envelopes are usually from Arizona, the town name changing from year to year; and one year the card came from Bangor, Maine. Because Lance doesn’t write anything in the card or on the backs of the photos, Tober and Augie and Sharon have no idea where the photos were taken, though they guess Lance lives somewhere in Arizona.

Three photos came with last year’s Christmas card, and Tober and Augie have looked at these three images dozens of times in the eleven months since they arrived, not because they miss Lance—they don’t know him to miss him—but because they enjoy how the photos fuel their imaginings and supply details for the stories they make up about their father.

In the first of the photos in this most recent batch, Lance, a broad-shouldered man with muscular arms and a big paunch, is sitting sideways on the rump of a large brown horse standing in front of what looks like the wall of an old barn. Lance is shirtless, his blue jeans tattered, his feet bare. His head is shaved, he has a gold ring in his left nostril, and he has a tattoo of a cobra coiled around his left arm, the head of the cobra on the back of his hand. A tattoo of a Chinese dragon covers Lance’s right arm from his wrist to his shoulder, the dragon’s nose touching Lance’s collarbone; and a tattoo of the head of a roaring male lion covers Lance’s heart. Lance is smiling, but despite the smile, Tober and Augie agree he looks sad.

The second of these three recent photos shows Lance wearing a lime green tank top, blue plaid Bermuda shorts, and red flip-flops. He is standing on a scraggly lawn at dusk, holding a can of beer in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other as he gazes up at a cloudless sky, the camera’s flash reflecting off his shaved head.

In the third photo, Lance is wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie. His hair has started to grow back, revealing much of the top of his head is bald. He is standing beside a woman with unnaturally blonde hair wearing a scoop-necked yellow dress that shows off the tops of her breasts. She and Lance are smiling, but again, despite those smiles, Tober and Augie think Lance and the woman look sad.

Sharon makes a point of not speaking ill of Lance in front of the boys, though when Tober was six and Augie was five, and Sharon was feeling particularly upset about something, she referred to Lance as a charismatic jerk; and when the boys were eight and seven, while Sharon was talking on the phone to her mother in New Jersey and thought the boys were asleep, she characterized Lance as a narcissistic schmuck.

In both instances, Tober and Augie looked the words up in the dictionary, and the definitions they found for charismatic, jerk, narcissistic, and schmuck sparked long discussions with Sharon about who Lance was, why she partnered with him, how they ended up far from the nearest town at the end of a dirt road, why Lance went away, and why he never comes to visit.

Sharon decided to make a life with Lance and have children with him because she loved who she thought he was, only she didn’t know who he really was and didn’t love the person he turned out to be. But before she realized Lance was not who she thought he was, she was pregnant with Tober, and while pregnant, Lance convinced her to empty her savings and buy an old farmhouse on ten acres of land at the end of a dirt track known to locals as Snake Creek Road, and to firefighters and law enforcement officials as the nameless dirt road just past the three-mile marker on Highway 211.

When Lance, who claimed to be ten years older than Sharon, was wooing her in San Francisco, he boasted of a degree in Design from the University of Oregon and claimed to be a master organic gardener. He said he knew all about raising chickens and rabbits, could build virtually anything, and was an old hat at living off the grid with solar panels. He also claimed to be an expert woodsman and auto mechanic.

None of this turned out to be even remotely true.

By the time Lance left Sharon after two tumultuous years of involvement with her, she was well established on Snake Creek Road. She had a bountiful vegetable garden surrounded by a sturdy deer fence, a new roof on the old farmhouse, the old glass greenhouse was repaired and producing lettuce, kale, green onions, and chard year-round, she had thirty hens laying copious eggs to eat and trade, and she was the master of seven robust beehives. A large solar array was producing ample electricity to power her lights and freezer and refrigerator and the pump for her well; and she had a great store of firewood for her two super-efficient woodstoves.

Sharon accomplished all this and much more with the generous assistance of her knowledgeable neighbors and without a lick of help from Lance. There are twenty-two people in six households, counting Sharon and her boys, living on Snake Creek Road, and these hearty homesteaders know all about living off the grid far from the nearest town; and they were happy to help such a likeable and hardworking young woman with a delightful baby and another on the way.

For most of those two years that Lance figured so largely in Sharon’s life, he was not with her on Snake Creek Road. He said he was doing design work in Portland, and he would, every few weeks, return to the homestead and give Sharon some cash. On a few occasions, he gave her several hundred dollars, but usually he gave her a pittance, stayed for a few days, and then left again.

The day Lance departed for good, he waited for pregnant Sharon to drive off in her little pickup truck with baby Tober to go grocery shopping in Fortuna, and then he ransacked the house looking for cash and Sharon’s valuable musical instruments. However, he found no money or instruments because Sharon had anticipated his search for cash and valuables and had removed her money and instruments to a neighbor’s house the previous day while Lance was sleeping.

Fortunately, Lance was not a vindictive person, merely desperate, so he broke no windows and killed no chickens. Instead, he took most of the food in the refrigerator, several bottles of wine, a large ceramic salad bowl, a down comforter, and a lovely porcelain statuette of Kuan Yin.

Tober and Augie have only watched television twice in their lives, both times for just a few moments. The first time was two years ago in a house in Fortuna where they went with Sharon to procure a couple kittens. The middle-aged man and woman who lived in the house had large flat-screen televisions in nearly every room, and all the televisions were tuned to the same football game, so as Tober and Augie followed Sharon through the living room and family room and kitchen to reach the door that opened into the garage where the kittens were, they saw fragments of what to them was a fantastically colorful and otherworldly spectacle of dozens of armored men, some wearing red uniforms, some black, doing battle on a brilliant green lawn surrounded by thousands of cheering people wearing red sweatshirts.

The second time they saw television was just a few months ago in a Japanese restaurant in Eureka where they’d gone with the Bernstein’s, their closest neighbors on Snake Creek Road. Sharon was in New Jersey visiting her parents, and Tober and Augie were staying with the Bernstein’s for the two weeks Sharon was gone. George and Lisa are the adult Bernsteins, Cecily, ten, and Felix, eight, their children.

Cecily is Tober’s best friend besides Augie, and Felix is Augie’s best friend besides Tober, and Cecily and Felix are being homeschooled and growing up without television, too. There are seven kids on Snake Creek Road being homeschooled, and George and Lisa and Sharon and four other adults on the road are the faculty.

The television in question was mounted on the wall above the sushi bar. On the large screen, a man with receding brown hair and a sunburned face was being interviewed about a movie he had made. The woman interviewing the man was small with short blonde hair and a voice that reminded Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix of the duck Camille who quacks long dissertations when the children come to feed her and the chickens.

When George and Lisa realized the kids were riveted by what was showing on the television, they changed tables so the kids could no longer see the screen.

Cecily summed up the children’s feelings about not getting to watch more of the show by saying, “We know television interferes with the proper development of our brains, but surely a tiny bit won’t hurt us.”

Hunting rabbits with their bows and arrows, fishing in the Eel River, and making blackberry sorbet from fresh-picked berries are near the top of Tober and Augie’s list of favorite activities, but going to the libraries in Fortuna and Eureka to check out books is at the very top of their list. And today they have come to the big library in Eureka with Sharon to return seventeen books and check out more.

While Augie scours the shelves for books about animals he and Tober haven’t read multiple times, Tober goes to use the bathroom, and on his way passes the open door of a conference room in which twenty people are listening to a handsome man with reddish brown hair speaking about Queen Elizabeth of England and the mysteries surrounding her life. The man, according to the name written on the blackboard, is Alex Redfield. He’s wearing a black jacket, a purple shirt, and black corduroy trousers; and he has an enchanting Scottish brogue that makes Tober grin.

Tober and Augie have learned a little about Queen Elizabeth, not the current queen of England but the long-ago queen of England, from Lisa Bernstein who co-teaches the homeschoolers History and Geography with Hank Carpenter who used to be a professor of History at Cal State Sacramento before fleeing academia to build a rammed-earth solar home on Snake Creek Road where he lives with his wife Ivy, an herbalist and astrologer.

Alex Redfield, however, is much more interesting to Tober than Lisa or Hank because he speaks so beautifully, almost as if he is singing his words in his deep Scottish-accented voice; and his sentences are the most beautiful sentences Tober has ever heard.

Tober stands in the doorway of the conference room for ten minutes, mesmerized by Alex, and when the presentation is over and the twenty people applaud, Tober writes Alex Redfield in his little notebook, goes to use the bathroom, and on his way back from the bathroom looks into the conference room and sees Alex is still there talking to a woman who attended the lecture. So Tober decides to ask Alex if he can recommend a book about the long-ago Queen Elizabeth suitable for a nine-year-old.

When the woman departs, Tober approaches Alex and says with his characteristic confidence, “Excuse me Mr. Redfield. I only heard the end of your speech about Queen Elizabeth, but you made me want to read a book about her. I’m nine, but according to the results of the last test we took to measure our reading and comprehension levels, I’m in Tenth Grade, though I’m not really in any grade because we’re being homeschooled and don’t have grades.”

Alex, who Tober guesses to be about the same age as George Bernstein who is forty-two, smiles at Tober and says, “Well, I suppose you could read my book about Elizabeth. There are a few racy passages, but nothing R-rated. The copy they have here is checked out to someone who attended my lecture today, but I know copies can be had on the Internet for mere pennies plus the shipping.”

“We don’t have a computer,” says Tober, handing his little notebook and pencil to Alex. “Would you please write the name of your book in my notebook and I’ll put my name on the waiting list here, and if the wait is much too long, I’ll ask my neighbor George to get a copy for me. He has a computer and buys lots of books that way.”

Alex takes the notebook from Tober, smiles at how neatly he printed ALEX REDFIELD in all caps, and says, “You know what? I’ll just give you my copy. How about that?”

“That would be wonderful,” says Tober, beaming at Alex. “I will trade you something for it. We have honey and eggs in the truck, and I have some beautiful stones I found at the beach two weeks ago at a minus tide. Do you like stones?”

“I do,” says Alex, enchanted with Tober. “Where are these stones you speak of?”

“Here,” says Tober, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a little pouch he made from the skin of a rabbit he killed with his bow and arrow. “Hold out your hands.”

Alex cups his hands together and Tober pours ten exquisite stones into Alex’s hands.

“They’re gorgeous,” says Alex, his eyes wide with delight. “Where is the beach where you found these stones?”

“Mouth of the Eel,” says Tober, picking out the red one that resembles carnelian. “North side. This is the one you want, isn’t it?”

“It is,” says Alex, nodding. “Though truth be told, I want them all. But you should certainly get more than one measly book for these.”

“I’m sure your book is not measly,” says Tober, gazing sternly at Alex. “I’m sure it’s very good. And you can have all these stones, and the pouch, too, and owe me two books. How about that?”

“Agreed,” says Alex, nodding graciously. “And how will I get those two books to you?”

“We have a post office box in Fortuna,” says Tober, putting the stones back into the rabbit-skin pouch. “ Box 347. My name is Tober Quincy. Tober is short for October, but everyone calls me Tober except my brother and mother who call me Tobe. Would you please sign your book for me?”

“I will,” says Alex, taking the pouch of stones from Tober.

At which moment, Sharon and Augie come into the room, and Sharon says, “Ah here you are, Tobe. Sorry to drag you away, but I’ve got to be at work in forty minutes.” She smiles at Alex. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“No problem,” he says, returning her smile. “We’re just exchanging addresses to facilitate our future correspondence.”

Dear Alex Redfield,

My name is Tober Quincy. We met at the Eureka library three weeks ago and you traded me your book Queen Elizabeth I: A Brief Introduction To A Most Complicated Life for ten stones and you owe me two more books. I have finally finished reading your book with the help of my mother and Hank Carpenter who was a history professor. I love your book even though some parts are confusing for me because I don’t know enough about the history of England. I love how you write sentences and I want to learn to write sentences the way you do.

The most interesting part for me is about who Elizabeth’s father was if he wasn’t Henry the VIII. You thought her father might be Mark Smeaton who was a musician who was friends with Elizabeth’s mother, and if Elizabeth looked like him that seems like a good clue. Probably because I’m only nine, I don’t understand why people wanted to kill Elizabeth when she was just a girl and not doing anything wrong and why Henry the VIII cut off Elizabeth’s mother’s head and Mark Smeaton’s head, too. Henry the VIII sounds like a very sad person with a terrible temper.

Hank tried to explain to me and my brother Augie, short for August, why people were so violent in those days and why everyone kept killing other people, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t agree on things without killing each other all the time. The book made me like Elizabeth, but she must have been afraid all the time about people trying to kill her and attack England.

Even Elizabeth who was very smart and spoke so many languages killed people when she didn’t like them. This is very primitive and not a good way to do things, but Hank says England in the olden days was very violent and history is complicated.

We are having a potluck party at our house for everyone on the road and other people, too, starting at noon on the seventh day of Hanukkah. Would you like to come? It would be great if you could come. If you want to come, call my mother Sharon Quincy at Ray’s Food Place in Fortuna and she will give you directions. I hope you can come.

Thanks again for your wonderful book.

Your Friend,

Tober Quincy

At 11:30 in the morning on the seventh day of Hanukkah, the day sunny and clear and very cold, Tober and Augie and their two big mutts Bozo and Nina arrive at the unmarked junction of Snake Creek Road and Highway 211 to await the arrival of Alex Redfield. Sharon told Alex to be on the lookout for the boys and Augie’s neon-orange baseball cap, and though Alex said he would aim to arrive at noon, Tober and Augie wanted to be at the junction a half-hour early to make absolutely sure Alex doesn’t miss the turn.

To pass the time, they play Frisbee for a while, both boys expert at flinging the disc, and when they tire of Frisbee, they sit side-by-side on a gray boulder and take turns reading aloud from a book about pumas the Bernsteins gave them for Hanukkah Christmas Solstice; and in the middle of a fascinating passage describing how pumas hunt by surprising their victims rather than chasing them, Alex arrives in an old forest green Volvo station wagon.

He makes the turn, comes to a stop, and rolls down his window. “Hello Tober. Hello Augie,” he says, grinning at the boys. “Thanks for coming to guide me. Jump in. I’ll drive you up to the house.”

“The dogs won’t get in your car,” says Augie, shaking his head. “And we can’t be sure they’ll follow us home and we can’t leave them here.”

“You go ahead,” says Tober, pointing up the road. “We’ll run after you. It’s one-point-four miles to our house at the very end of the road. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

By the time Tober and Augie get to the house, Alex is inside being introduced to everyone by Sharon; and Augie and Tober agree, without saying anything aloud to each other, that they will probably have to be quite aggressive about prying Alex away from the adults if they want to show him all the things they intend to show him.

However, this turns out not to be the case because after an hour of chatting with people and sampling scrumptious hors d’oeuvres, Alex finds Tober and Augie and Cecily and Felix in the kitchen cutting up apples for the two big pans of apple crisp Sharon is making to go with homemade ice cream, and Alex asks the children if they’d like to give him a tour of the house and the farm.

“We’re eating in an hour,” says Sharon, making eye contact with each of the children, “so don’t take him too faraway, please.” Now she looks at Alex. “Have you got a watch?”

“I do,” he says, reaching into his pocket and bringing forth a beautiful silver pocket watch. “I shall sound the alarm in forty-five minutes, if necessary.”

“Good man,” says Sharon, mimicking his Scottish accent. “And good luck to you.”

The tour takes the children and Alex around the house and up the hill to the grand old oak where Tober and Augie and Abe Peoples, an excellent carpenter who lives on the road, built a tree house with three walls on a sturdy platform about fifteen feet off the ground. After climbing the rope ladder to the platform and exclaiming about the spectacular view, Alex climbs down the rope ladder and follows the kids from the grand old oak to an outcropping of red rock the children call Lizard Point, and from Lizard Point they follow a slender trail down a steep hill through a copse of pines to the Bernstein’s house, a two-story beauty made of oak and river rock.

In the Bernstein’s house, after introducing Alex to their three cats, Cecily performs part of a Bach partita on the grand piano, Felix holds forth on the contents of two of the eleven cigar boxes comprising his insect collection, and they show Alex the large woodshop where George makes exquisite furniture sold in art galleries.

From the Bernstein’s house, the quintet climbs back up the hill to the Quincy place where Alex is shown the verdant young cover crops in the vegetable garden before being led to the chicken coop wherein forty hens are roosting and where Alex is encouraged to gather eggs to take home with him. And for the final outdoor part of the tour, Tober and Augie each demonstrate their considerable skill with an axe in the splitting of rounds and the creation of kindling.

Returning to the farmhouse, the boys show Alex their bedroom, their collection of animal skulls and feathers, their hundreds of books, and their guitars and violins, which they play a little to prove they are both quite good musicians.

They leave Alex alone while he uses the bathroom, and after giving him a peek into their mother’s bedroom, they lead him to the dining room just as the midday meal is about to be served.

A half-hour before dusk, Alex says his goodbyes to everyone, and Tober and Augie accompany him to his car.

“I had a wonderful time with you today,” says Alex, opening the car door. “And I brought you two books, Tober, to complete our trade. One is a book of stories I read countless times when I was your age. Tales of a Knight Errant. And the other is Island Reveries, essays by a very good writer about the islands and birds off the west coast of Scotland where I spent many a happy summer. I think you and Augie will both love these books.”

“I know we will,” says Tober, taking the books from Alex. “And…” He wants to say more, but words won’t come out.

“And what?” asks Alex, smiling warmly at Tober.

“Will you come visit us again?” asks Augie, nodding hopefully.

“I will,” says Alex, giving each of the boys a gentle hug. “I’ve been at the university in Arcata for a year now, and I was despairing of ever making any good friends, and now I’ve met you and your mother and your wonderful neighbors, and they’ve all asked me to come again, so I will.”

“When?” asks Tober, cradling the precious books.

“When would you like me to come again?” asks Alex, touched by Tober’s interest in him.

“Tomorrow,” says Tober, nodding assuredly. “It’s not supposed to rain and there’s a negative tide at eleven in the morning, and we could go to the beach on the north side of the mouth of the Eel and have a picnic. I know we’ll find some good stones. I’m sure we will.”

“Come for breakfast,” says Augie, taking Alex’s hand. “We’ll make pancakes and then we’ll go to the beach.”

“Don’t you think we should see if this fits into your mother’s plans for tomorrow?” asks Alex, looking toward the house where Sharon is coming out the door to see what’s keeping her boys.

“Hey Mom,” says Tober, calling to Sharon. “Can Alex come for breakfast tomorrow and then we’ll go to the beach for low tide and hunt for stones?”

“Fine with me,” she says softly. “If that’s something he’d like to do.”

“I’d love to,” says Alex, letting go of Augie’s hand. “And now I must be on my way before it gets too dark. Long drive home and I’m not a great driver in America. Everything about driving here is the opposite of England, and I’m especially not a good American driver in the dark.”

“Spend the night,” says Sharon, matter-of-factly. “If you don’t mind sleeping on the sofa.”

“It’s a very comfortable sofa,” says Tober, nodding emphatically. “I can barely sit on that sofa and not fall asleep.”

“Me, too,” says Augie, nodding in solidarity with his brother.

“Well then that’s decided,” says Alex, walking with the boys back to the house. “And lucky me, the party’s still going.”

        fin

Raymond’s Band

December 10th, 2018

Raymond's Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your choice,” says Maru, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For what?” he asks, innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too much noise, the walls were shaking

Too much noise, my heart was breaking

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

So I went next door and fell in love.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” says Raymond, nodding humbly.

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

“Crazy,” says Maru, nodding in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” says Derek, amazed. “When?”

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

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

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

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

“Congratulations,” says Leslie, with little enthusiasm.

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

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

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

         fin

Karen at the Bookstore

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

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

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

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

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