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What We Become

On a cold rainy Friday morning in November in busy Café Brava, a bakery café in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, the poets Phyllis Omega and Helen Morningstar share a small table. Phyllis is having the El Grande Breakfast #2 and a latte, Helen a breakfast burrito and coffee.

Phyllis is sixty-four, buxom and pretty, her dimples impressive, her silvery gray hair in a short ponytail, her legal name Phyllis Goldberg. Single and childless, Phyllis works at Crow’s Nest Books and makes up for her insufficient salary with discrete sex-for-money with four older local guys.

Helen is half-Pomo and half-Mexican, thirty-seven, slender and solemnly beautiful, her long black hair in a braid. Never married, Helen is a secretary for an insurance salesman, has a twenty-one-year-old daughter named Carol who lives in Florida, and Helen’s longtime boyfriend is Justin Oglethorpe, a bartender and bouncer at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in Mercy.

Phyllis and Helen are reading together tonight at Crow’s Nest Books, their meeting this morning a planning session for tonight’s performance. They are not close friends, though they see each other frequently at poetry readings and at Big Goose wherePhyllis is a regular and Helen goes on Thursday nights to listen to Ricardo Alvarez play piano.  

Lancaster Books just published Helen’s second volume of poems Inevitable Impossible, and several of her poems are in current issues of literary magazines. Phyllis hasn’t published anything in twenty years, but she has a loyal local following and Ramona France, the bookstore owner/manager, is determined to get a good turnout for tonight’s reading after several months of terrible turnouts, even for well-known poets.

“Of course I’ll read first,” says Phyllis, who is intensely jealous of Helen’s recent success. “You’re the star.”

“Hardly,” says Helen, who wishes Phyllis would write something new – Phyllis’s repertoire unchanged in twenty years. “I was thinking for the first half we could each read for fifteen minutes, and then do ten minutes each for the second half.”

“How about I do ten and you do twenty for the first half?” says Phyllis, sipping her latte. “And I’ll do seven and you do fourteen for the second half? You’re the one with a new book and poems in jillions of magazines.” She shrugs dismissively. “I don’t write anymore. Nothing new to say.”

Helen can’t imagine not writing – she lives to write.

“I watch too much television,” says Phyllis, shrugging again. “The antidote for poetry.”

“The antidote for poetry,” says Helen, nodding. “That’s a poem.”

“A title anyway,” says Phyllis, who regrets agreeing to read with Helen. “Titles aren’t my problem. It’s what comes after that eludes me.”

“How about we each write a list of titles?” says Helen, eagerly. “And we can go back and forth reading our titles. People will love that.”

“You think so?” says Phyllis, seeing one of the men she has sex with enter the café and pretend not to see her. “If I have time. Crazy busy today.”

*

That afternoon in the bookstore, shelving the latest batch of murder mysteries – murder mysteries keeping the bookstore solvent – Phyllis thinks of two titles she wants to write down for the back-and-forth with Helen, but by the time she helps a nearsighted man find the latest Murray Splatz murder fest Bloody Bloody Money and sells a Sierra Club engagement calendar to a tourist from Dallas, she can’t remember the titles she was going to write down.

*

Standing at the counter, the bookstore momentarily empty of customers, Phyllis writes in her notebook Nothing. Something. Everything. Self-hatred, self-love, self-denial, tired of self.

“Excuse me,” says a man with a British accent.

Phyllis closes her notebook and smiles at the handsome man with brown hair going gray. “How may I help you?”

“We’ve come up from the city to hear Helen Morningstar read tonight.” He glances around the store. “Wanted to make sure we’ve come to the right place. Can’t imagine where the poets will perform.”

“Bookshelves on wheels,” says Phyllis, amazed someone would drive five hours to hear Helen read for a half-hour. “We make space for thirty chairs. If more than thirty people come it will be a new world’s record.”

“Ah,” says the man, laughing. “Thank you. And can you recommend a good place to eat?”

“Money no object?” asks Phyllis, guessing it isn’t for him.

“Seafood?” says the man, dodging her question. “Mexican?”

Phyllis recommends Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, watches the man depart, and writes Money No Object. Bookshelves on Wheels. Nobody Ever Drove Five Hours To Hear Me Read.

*

Helen is sitting at her desk in the one-room office of Levinson Insurance talking on the phone to an outraged customer. Her work day ends at four-thirty, fifty minutes to go, then home to read through her poems, make an early supper, get dolled up, read through the poems one more time, and walk to the bookstore with Justin, assuming he remembers she’s reading tonight.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Carlyle,” says Helen, closing her eyes. “That’s what happens when you have a big claim like this. Your rates go up.”

Mrs. Carlyle shouts angrily about insurance companies being a bunch of crooks, and Helen holds the phone at arm’s length waiting for Mrs. Carlyle to stop shouting.

“I’ll have Pete call you,” says Helen, referring to her boss. “He can explain this better than I can.”

Mrs. Carlyle starts shouting again and Helen holds the phone at arm’s length again. Pete looks up from his desk across the room from Helen and says quietly, “I’m not here until Tuesday.”

When Mrs. Carlyle stops shouting, Helen says, “Pete will be out of the office until Tuesday. I’ll put you at the top of his list. We’ll do everything we can to keep your rates as low as possible, but the truth is, replacement costs have gone through the roof, so there will be an increase in your rates.”

Helen hangs up the phone and says to Pete, “You want her file?”

“No,” says Pete, who prizes Helen far more than she realizes, though her salary is an insult. “Go home now. Your big night tonight.”

“Thank you,” she says, greatly relieved to be done for the day. “Much appreciated.”

“We’d come to your reading,” says Pete, lying, “but things with Andrea’s mother are just nuts right now, so…” He picks up his phone. “Gotta take this.”

*

As dusk descends, Phyllis sits at her kitchen table in the little house she bought thirty-five years ago for next to nothing when half the houses in Mercy were vacant and the current real estate madness was unimaginable.

She is leafing through the same little pile of poems she’s leafed through for the last twenty years and wishing she hadn’t agreed to do this reading – thinking of calling Ramona and bailing.

Her phone rings and the little screen tells her the caller is Albert, one of the men she has sex with – Saturday at ten his usual time.

“Hey Albert,” says Helen before Albert can speak. “We on for tomorrow?”

“Yes,” he says urgently. “Can I come over now, too?”

“Sorry, honey, I’m busy. I’m reading at the bookstore tonight.”

“Please?” he says desperately. “I won’t take long. Pay you two hundred. Please?”

“I can’t Albert. I’m…”

“Three hundred? Please, Phyllis?”

She looks at the clock. She needs the money. He will be quick. He always is.

“Okay, come on,” she says, terminating the call and going to get lubed up.

*

Albert arrives five minutes later – a portly fellow with a lopsided mustache – and with barely a hello he is astride her on her bed and finishes quickly.

“Thank God,” he says, climbing off and putting on his clothes. “My wife out of the blue decided to go to the city for the weekend and the minute she drove away I got so horny I thought I was gonna explode.”

“You couldn’t just do yourself?” says Phyllis, hating the sight of him.

“Why would I do that?” he asks, grimacing. “When I can have you?”

*

Phyllis takes a shower, puts on her bathrobe, sits on the sofa in the living room, and leafs through Helen’s new book Inevitable Impossible, stopping at a poem entitled What We Become.

What We Become

When I was two my seventeen-year-old mother left me

with her grandparents and disappeared. My great Grandpa

Morningstar was eighty-one, great Gram seventy-nine.

We lived in the woods north of Mercy and they loved me

 until they died when I was sixteen. I was a good student

but crazy desperate to be connected to someone so I got

pregnant quit school went to work as live-in help for Janet,

middle-aged blind woman. She loved my baby Carol so much.

Loved her and loved her and I went to community college

where a poet came and read poems to us and I was

born again and started writing poems and never stopped.

When Carol was six she got hooked watching tennis on

television, begged for a racket, and I got two to play with her

and we played together every day for three thousand days.

When Carol was twelve she said, “I’m gonna be a pro,

Mama. Wear all white and play at Wimbledon.” She

won a tennis scholarship to Stanford, played college

for two years, turned pro at nineteen and now she’s

twenty-one and makes her living playing tennis!

We become what we tell ourselves we are.

We can’t determine the future, but we can choose

our direction and devote ourselves to the journey and

become who we keep telling ourselves we are.

*

Looking up from her writing, Phyllis is shocked by how late it is, the reading to begin in twenty minutes. She gathers the pages she’s written and puts them in her satchel along with a few of her old poems, dresses quickly in her traditional poetry-reading outfit – a cherry red Poetry Kicks Ass sweatshirt, long black skirt, abalone earrings, red cowboy boots – jumps in her ancient Volkswagen bug, and zips across town to the bookstore.

*

“Holy shit,” says Phyllis, amazed by the line out the bookstore door.

Ramona, tall and stately and wearing a sleeveless blue calico dress, stands in the doorway and says to the twenty people waiting to get in, “I’m so sorry, but there are no more seats and no place left to stand. Sorry. You’re welcome to listen from out here. We’ll keep the windows open should you choose to stay.”

Phyllis squeezes through the crush and makes her way to the microphone where Helen is dazzling in a black sheath dress and dangly turquoise earrings, her long braid tied with a turquoise ribbon. She is chatting with the attractive British fellow who came into the bookstore this afternoon and a striking African American gal with blonde dreadlocks wearing a brown leather jacket over a slinky silver dress.

“You’re here,” says Helen, giving Phyllis a big hug. “You look wonderful. I should have worn a sweatshirt. I feel naked. This is Arthur Lancaster, my publisher, and Edie Jackson, my editor.”

“A pleasure,” says Phyllis, her heart pounding.

“We will let you kibitz,” says Arthur, shaking Phyllis’s hand.

“Break a leg,” says Edie, winking at Phyllis.

Arthur and Edie take their seats in the front row next to Justin who bounces his eyebrows at Phyllis to say hello, and Helen says to Phyllis, “Can you believe this? Who are all these people?”

“These people,” says Phyllis, turning to look at the vivacious throng, “have come to feast on your words.”

*

Ramona, usually unflappable, has a quiver in her voice as she stands at the microphone. “Thank you for coming tonight. This is by far the biggest audience we’ve ever had for a poetry reading here, and possibly even bigger than the crowd we had when Murray Splatz came to promote his murder mystery The Bloody Bloody Summer House.” She waits for the laughter to subside. “Phyllis Omega and Helen Morningstar are both longtime Mercy residents. Phyllis works here at the bookstore when not writing her marvelous poetry, and it is my great pleasure to give you Phyllis Omega.”

Light applause greets Phyllis as she steps to the microphone – most of the audience here for Helen.

Phyllis sets her little stack of just-written pages on the podium, surveys the crowd, sees a few familiar faces, and begins.

Like Young Men

Poems used to come to me unbidden.

They’d come and come and come

like young men with willing lovers

and I thought the flow would never end.

Why would it? And when it did, oh what bitterness.

No more multiple orgasms of pen on page, only long

confusing bouts leading to nothing to marvel at.

That was always the test: did I marvel? But young

 men cannot be forced to make love. They must

want to come, just as poems must want to come,

 cannot be forced. Aye there’s the rub.

Phyllis nods in thanks for the applause and reads her next page.

What If I Told You

What if I told you I know nothing, have no insight, no words

of wisdom except if you can hook up with someone with money

do that because money is everything when your cute stuff fades

and your boobs start to sag and all the things you used to do

with ease are hard labor now and that’s just to break even.

What if I told you I don’t make enough money working in

a bookstore to cover my minimal needs so I supplement my

income sleeping with creeps for a hundred bucks a pop,

and more and more these days I think about swimming

out into the ocean and being done with my shitty life?

What if I told you I became a poet to be Cinderella

in front of an audience thinking Maybe he’s out there,

you know, Prince Charming. A nice guy with money

and a lovely house with an ocean view who adores

me and brings me coffee in the morning to my beautiful

desk we moved out onto the veranda in the gentle sun

and doves flutter down to me, not pigeons, white doves,

each with a scroll in her beak, and on each scroll

a priceless poem?

Following loud sustained applause, Phyllis uncovers the next poem.

For Helen

Today because of you I wrote the first new poems

I’ve written in twenty years and writing them lifted

a curse that has lain heavily upon me since I was a

young woman, the witch who cursed me resembling

me to an uncanny degree. Because of you I wrote

new poems showing me how I will live my life

from now on, how I will end the tyranny of self-abuse,

how I will surrender to what is, and stop yearning

for what isn’t. Yes because of you and your brave

poems, after years of forgetting, I remembered

I, too, am a poet.

*

When the reading is over and Helen is done signing copies of her books for excited buyers, and Phyllis has been hugged by old friends and thanked profusely by people moved by her poems, Helen and Justin and Phyllis and Arthur and Edie and Ramona and Ramona’s partner Vera walk to nearby Mercy Hotel for drinks, and when they enter the hotel, dozens of people who attended the reading applaud and shout Bravo!

They sit around a big table, Arthur orders champagne, and Edie leans close to Phyllis and says, “Your poems just knocked me out. Arthur, too. Have enough for a book?”

“Not yet,” says Phyllis looking into Edie’s loving eyes. “But one day I will.”

fin

Todd reads his short story Poetry.

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New Blades

Bertram Hawley is a woodcarver. He is seventy-two and lives with his wife Alison, who is also seventy-two, in a small house in a clearing in the forest a mile inland from the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. Both Bertram and Alison have lovely airy studios adjacent to their old redwood home, Bertram’s studio to the south of the house, Alison’s to the north. They have a sweet Golden Retriever named Donna and two lazy cats Maurice and Beatrice.

Slender and agile, Bertram is neither tall nor short – his gray hair once brown now turning white. Born to British parents in Los Angeles, his British accent mild until he was seventeen, he then moved to London to study Drama and his accent became more profound. Staying in England after completing his studies, he got his first professional part in a London production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties when he was twenty and made his film debut at twenty-three in the unexpected hit You Can’t Be Serious.

Modestly successful in plays and movies, Bertram married Alison when they were twenty-eight. Alison, British and slender and neither tall nor short, has frizzy brown hair mostly gray now. A year after their wedding they bought a tiny house in Chelsea, and Alison, having tried acting without success, became a psychologist and worked at a mental health clinic.

At the age of forty, Bertram’s acting career came to an abrupt end when he was involved in a terrible car accident from which he miraculously escaped physically unscathed, though the driver of the car Bertram was in died in the crash and the person driving the other car was seriously injured. Shortly after the accident, Bertram developed such severe anxiety he could no longer be in plays or movies. As part of his therapy for anxiety, he took up woodcarving and proved to be an excellent wood sculptor.

When Bertram and Alison were forty-five, they moved to Los Angeles to live with Bertram’s parents who were in their eighties ­– Bertram’s father a cinematographer, Bertram’s mother a movie makeup artist. Five years later, when Bertram’s parents died, Bertram and Alison inherited Bertram’s parent’s beautiful house in Topanga Canyon. They then sold that house and moved to Mercy where they’ve lived for twenty-two years – Bertram a wood sculptor, Alison a psychotherapist.

Bertram’s anxiety has not been much of an issue since they moved to Mercy, largely because he rarely goes anywhere except into town every few days to get the mail at the post office, to shop at Walker’s Groceries, and to visit Found Wood in search of likely hunks of wood to carve.

Once a year Bertram has a show of his sculptures at the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy. His large and incredibly lifelike sculptures of naked women sell quickly and for tens of thousands of dollars to collectors from around the world. One of his sculptures, two life-sized conjoined women carved from a magnificent redwood burl, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Because Bertram never attends the openings of his shows and studiously avoids being photographed or interviewed, few people in Mercy know that the shy British fellow who drives the old rusting white Toyota pickup is the sculptor they’ve all heard about.

*

Every few years, like it or not, Bertram needs to replace his windshield wiper blades. Knowing nothing about cars, Bertram goes to Rocky’s Auto Parts in Mercy and asks one of the men there to assist him. Of all the things that can trigger Bertram’s anxiety, going to Rocky’s for windshield wiper blades is second only to his annual checkup with his very nice doctor.

After the first real rainstorm in late September, Bertram’s wiper blades are kaput, the rubber in tatters. With the winter expected to be especially wet, Bertram can’t put off going to Rocky’s any longer.

The night before he goes to the auto parts store, Bertram dreams three men driving gigantic motorcycles are pursuing him. He wakes from the dream feeling so afraid he almost wakes Alison to ask if she will go to Rocky’s for him, but then he remembers she can’t drive a stick shift, so he doesn’t wake her.

He barely sleeps a wink the rest of the night, gets up at first light, and goes out to his studio in his pajamas to do some carving before the dreaded trip to Rocky’s. Alison wishes Bertram would take anti-anxiety meds, but he hated how they made him feel when he tried them – he lost all interest in carving or doing much of anything except sitting around not feeling anxious – so he lives without them.

A friend suggested he try smoking pot for his anxiety, but pot makes him more anxious. He would happily drink wine to calm himself, except he’s allergic to alcohol. Taking long walks in the forest, carving, memorizing passages from favorite plays, gardening, cooking, and avoiding doctors and auto parts stores keeps his anxiety at bay most of the time.

His current sculpture is a life-sized woman he’s carving out of a six-foot length of a massive pine trunk. She stands in the center of Bertram’s studio under the largest of the four skylights, roughly complete and awaiting hundreds of hours of refinement. She has enormous hips, huge breasts, wild hair, and she is dancing, her arms held high, an ecstatic smile beginning to manifest on her face.

This morning Bertram works on her right arm, and after a half-hour of careful carving he feels much less fearful and goes back into the house. He finds Alison in the kitchen making coffee and they share a sweet embrace. He wishes he could have coffee with her, but more than a tiny sip will fire up his adrenals, which in turn will send dire warnings to his amygdala, and panic will arise. So he simply inhales the divine scent and goes to get dressed for his trip to town.

*

He parks his little white truck in the parking lot between Rocky’s Auto Parts and A & R Auto Repair, and turns off the engine. Now he sits back, closes his eyes, and thinks about the hummingbirds who have been visiting the lemon trees growing on the south side of the house, the three small lemon trees blooming madly these days. This vision of the tiny iridescent birds probing the flowers eases Bertram’s anxiety, and he is able to get out of his truck and enter the auto parts store.

Waiting in the short line, Bertram studies the three men behind the counter. Two of them have beards, one is clean-shaven, and all are wearing black T-shirts revealing muscular tattooed arms. He recognizes the man in the middle, the clean-shaven one, as the man who helped him a few years ago and was cordial and efficient. He hopes to get him again and not either of the other two.

However, the first man to be free is the one on the right, a veritable giant. He looks at Bertram and says in a gravelly voice, “What can I help you with today?”

“I need new blades for my windshield wipers,” says Bertram, stepping up to the counter and trembling at the enormity of the man. “I’m wondering if someone might assist me with that.”

“That someone would be me,” says the giant. “Let’s go take a look.”

So Bertram and the giant go out to the parking lot and the giant smiles at the little pickup. “The engines in these little old Toyotas last forever. How many miles you got on this one?”

“A hundred and fifty-seven thousand,” says Bertram, thinking to himself that’s more than six times around the world at the equator. “I bought it used. I only drive about five hundred miles a year.”

“I knew a guy had one of these with four hundred and thirty thousand miles on it. Ran like a top,” says the giant, removing the old wiper blades. “Your body’s gonna rust out before the engine dies.”

“I fear so,” says Bertram, enjoying the giant’s turn of phrase.

Heading back inside, they are joined by another giant wearing a greasy blue mechanic’s jumpsuit – one of the guys from A & R Auto Repair.

The giant from Rocky’s says to the giant from A & R, “Hey Tiny.”

 “What’s going on over here, Johnny?” says Tiny, winking at Bertram. “Line out the door all morning.”

“Winter coming,” says Johnny, holding the door open for Bertram and Tiny. “Everybody getting ready for the cold and wet.”

Johnny finds replacement blades for Bertram’s windshield wipers and Tiny says, “I’ll put those on while you ring him up.” And he takes the blades from Johnny and winks again at Bertram.

“Appreciate it, Tine,” says Johnny, ringing up the purchase. “That will be twenty-seven twenty seven, please.”

“Thank you so much,” says Bertram writing a check for the amount and handing the check to Johnny. “A wonderful service you provide for the technically challenged.”

“Appreciate your business,” says Johnny, looking at the check. “Hey. You’re the sculptor. The naked women.”

“I am,” says Bertram, surprised Johnny knows of him. “You’ve seen my work?”

“Religiously attend your shows at the Fletcher,” says Johnny, turning to the man in the middle. “Hey Jose, this is Bertram Hawley. Guy who carves the nudes. In the flesh.”

“My wife loves you,” says Jose, beaming at Bertram. “Our son Diego is an artist. Got interested in art in high school when his teacher took the class to one of your shows at the Fletcher Gallery. Maybe fifteen years ago? Lit a fire, man. He lives in LA now. Doing good down there. Makes paintings of street scenes, you know, and sculptures from… oh what do they call that?”

“Found objects,” says Johnny, nodding.

“Eso,” says Jose, pointing at Johnny. “Found objects. Comes home every year to see your show. If you didn’t have shows, he might never come home. My wife blesses you every time you gonna have a show because it means Diego coming home with his wife and kids. My wife don’t like going to LA. Freaks her out.”

“You use live models?” asks the third auto parts guy, frowning at Bertram. “Or do you work from photos? My wife paints. Takes pictures and makes her sketches from those.”

“Actually,” says Bertram, marveling at the sudden and total disappearance of his anxiety, “I find the bodies as the wood yields them.” He considers this. “Or so it seems.”

Silence falls as the auto parts guys ponder Bertram’s surmise.

“I’ll tell Diego,” says Jose, nodding. “He’ll love to hear that. And maybe next time he comes up he could meet you.”

“That would be lovely,” says Bertram, amazed to have said such a thing, and glad he did. “He can contact me through the gallery.”

*

Going out to his truck, happy to see the new blades installed, Bertram waves his thanks to Tiny in the A & R garage, and Tiny leaves the car he’s working on and strides across the lot to Bertram.

“I hope you’re gonna get new tires soon,” says Tiny, sounding concerned. “Yours are dangerously worn. Wouldn’t want you blowing out on a curve.”

“Oh dear,” says Bertram, looking at his tires and gasping at their extreme baldness. “Is that something you could do for me? Put on a new set of tires?”

“Sure,” says Tiny, looking toward the garage. “Little lull right now. Slap four new ones on there. You might need new brake pads, too. How long has it been since you had a brake job?”

“Eons,” says Bertram, looking at Tiny and thinking I’m not afraid of you. Incredible. “I’m sure it needs servicing, too. May I leave the truck with you and have you do whatever it needs? I’ll walk home and wait for your call.”

“Yeah, no problem,” says Tiny, nodding. “Be a few hours. I’ll need your key.”

Bertram hands the truck key to Tiny. “I very much appreciate this. I’ll write my phone number down for you.”

“Same number as your wife?” asks Tiny, getting into the truck and starting the engine. “We service her Prius every June.”

“Oh,” says Bertram, laughing. “Yes. Same number as my wife.”

*

On his way home, Bertram goes to Found Wood and wanders around the warehouse looking for likely wood to carve.

Hal, the owner, a big guy with wild gray hair, comes out of his office and says, “Bertram. I just called you and left a message.”

“How nice,” says Bertram, laughing. “I just left my truck at A & R for servicing. Desperately needed new tires.”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that,” says Hal, sighing in relief. “I was worried about you driving around on those old things.”

Hearing this, Bertram recalls Hal saying something about the tires when they were loading blocks of wood into the truck a few months ago, only I didn’t take it in because when I come to town I’m always anxious, always on the edge of panic, so I’m not really here. But now I am really here because for some mysterious reason I am no longer afraid.

“What did your message say?” asks Bertram, realizing he’s never really seen Hal except as a kind of blur. What a beautiful person, such marvelous eyes.

“The minute I heard about this tree coming down,” says Hal, beckoning to Bertram, “I thought ‘Bertram will want the trunk.’ So I drove out to the vineyard where the tree fell, and when I saw how gorgeous she was, I bought the whole tree. Big as a house. Barely any rot. Came down because she was just too gigantic to hold herself up any longer.”

And here on the loading dock at the back of the warehouse, casting long shadows in the morning sun, stand two seven-feet-tall sections from the trunk of the colossal live oak – each section nearly three feet in diameter.

“I want them,” says Bertram, thrilled by the magnificent pillars of wood. “Delivered to my studio, please.”

“I’m asking a thousand each,” says Hal, his tone implying he’s willing to bargain, “but if you take both…”

“Shall we say three thousand for the pair?” says Bertram, winking at Hal and thinking I’ve never winked at anyone in my life. Felt good. “Delivered and some help standing them up in my studio?”

“I’ll bring a couple guys with me,” says Hal, nodding to Bertram. “And you get first look at the rest of the pieces when they come in. Some massive branches nearly as big around as the trunk.”

“You’re such a great help to me,” says Bertram, shaking Hal’s hand. “I can’t thank you enough.”

“And I can’t wait to see what you make of them,” says Hal, turning to look at the pillars of oak.

Bertram looks at the pillars, too, and sees in one a man waiting to be given form.

fin

Mystery Sweet

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Fear of Funny

“What if you knew you were supposed to be something,” says the boy to the psychologist, “but you also knew if you were that you would get punished?”

“That would be a difficult situation to be in,” says the psychologist, a specialist in troubled adolescents.

“You can say that again,” says the boy, who is eleven and often makes the psychologist laugh, though the psychologist tries not to.

*

“He’s just so funny,” says the psychologist to his psychologist. “And he catches me off guard and I laugh before I can stop myself.”

“Why not laugh?” asks the psychologist’s psychologist. “He probably wants you to laugh.”

“Yes, he does, but that’s the problem,” says the psychologist, laughing just thinking about the boy. “That’s what made his parents send him to me.”

“I don’t understand,” says the psychologist’s psychologist. “They don’t want him to have a sense of humor?”

“Not at school. You see, the other kids love him because he’s so funny and that infuriates his teachers.”

“Oh he’s disruptive and talks out of turn?”

“No. He only speaks when he’s called on or to give a report in front of the class, and then he’s apparently hysterically funny.”

“I don’t see why this is a problem.”

“As I understand the situation, this wasn’t a big problem until he got to Eighth Grade. Now his teachers feel his humor eclipses their power to such an extent his classmates defer to him instead of to their teachers, so the teachers refuse to have him in their classes. He’s been kicked out of three schools.”

“I’ve never heard of anything so preposterous,” says the psychologist’s psychologist. “If he’s not doing anything wrong, why shouldn’t he be funny? Is he a good student?”

“Brilliant. He’s skipped two grades and could easily skip another.”

“Are we talking about private schools or public schools?”

“Both.”

“And what do his parents want you to do?”

“Help him not be so funny.”

“Are you serious?”

“This is not uncommon, someone using humor as an emotional crutch.”

“Is that what you think he’s doing?”

“Not really, but his parents are desperate. His father wants to send him to a military academy, and his mother… would you see him and give me your opinion about how I might proceed?”

“Yes, I’d love to see him.”

*

The boy enters the office of the psychologist’s psychologist, gazes around the room, sits in the armchair opposite the psychologist’s psychologist and says, “Don’t tell me. You’re a psychologist.”

The psychologist’s psychologist laughs, not only because it’s a funny opening line, but because the boy’s timing and delivery are flawless.

“I love to laugh,” says the psychologist’s psychologist. “Thank you for that. By the way, please call me Joe.”

“You’re welcome, Joe” says the boy, smiling. “I’m Zack. What brings you here today?”

“Your other psychologist asked me to meet with you,” says Joe, laughing at how convincing Zack is as a psychologist. “He thought if I spoke to you, I might be able to see how to help him help you.”

“Help me do what?” asks Zack, frowning. “Not be funny?”

“No,” says Joe, shaking his head. “Help you navigate the strange society we find ourselves in, schools with teachers who are threatened by your sense of humor, a father who wants to send you to a military academy. That kind of thing.”

“I can’t help being funny,” says Zack, shrugging. “It’s my delivery. I say hello to people and they laugh. And when I don’t say anything, people find that funny, too.” He arches an eyebrow. “You doubt me? Watch.”

He falls silent and Joe bursts out laughing.

*

Zack’s parents sit in two armchairs in Joe’s office facing Joe in his armchair, and Joe knows before either of them speaks that Zack’s mom Gloria is the funny one, Zack’s father Frank not so much.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” says Joe, smiling at Zack’s parents. “This session, by the way, is gratis. I’m intrigued by your son’s situation and want to help you without bankrupting you.”

Gloria laughs and Frank says, “Nonsense. We’re happy to pay you. We want to get to the bottom of this.”

“Well,” says Joe, noting the relational dynamics between Gloria and Frank, “I’ve met with Zack twice and I think he’s marvelous. Yes, we had some good laughs, but we also had serious discussions about his situation.”

“He really likes you,” says Zack’s mother, smiling gratefully at Joe.

“Good to hear,” says Joe, nodding. “So… what I want to discuss with you is what you want for your son. What kind of life you’d like him to have.”

“We want him to be happy,” says Gloria, her eyes filling with tears.

“To succeed,” says Frank, nodding.

“By succeed you mean…”

“Not be a problem at school,” says Frank, grimly. “Go to a good college, have a good career, wife, kids. The whole nine yards.”

“Do you see him as the problem at school, or do you see his teachers as the problem?” asks Joe, trying to deliver this line as neutrally as possible.

“Him,” says Frank, without a moment’s hesitation.

“His teachers,” says Gloria, sighing. “And they’re not going to change.”

“Why do you think Zack is the problem, Frank?”

“He does this on purpose,” says Frank, clenching his fists. “He does it to make them feel stupid because they don’t understand why everyone thinks he’s so funny, and it pisses them off.”

“Your son doesn’t strike me as someone who would intentionally want to piss people off,” says Joe, mildly. “He strikes me as inherently kind.”

“He is,” says Gloria, nodding in agreement with Joe’s assessment of Zack. “He’s just a natural comedian, like my father.”

“Your father who barely makes a living,” says Frank, disdainfully. “He may make everybody laugh, but he sells shoes.”

“He makes a fine living,” says Gloria, glaring at Frank. “And he doesn’t just sell shoes, he sells lots of shoes. And my mother is a legal secretary. They do just fine.”

“Would you say Zack identifies with your father, Gloria?” asks Joe, not surprised by the emotional chasm between Gloria and Frank, having been forewarned of this by Zack.

“Not really,” says Gloria, shaking her head. “Everyone in my family is funny. Zack just happens to be very funny.”

“Getting kicked out of school is not very funny,” says Frank, subsiding. “I’m worried about him. What kind of future will he have if he can’t make it in school?”

“I hear you, Frank,” says Joe, nodding sympathetically. “I would be worried, too, if Zack were my child.”

Frank looks at Joe as if seeing him for the first time. “Thank you,” he says quietly. “I can hardly sleep worrying about him.”

“The challenge,” says Joe, looking into Frank’s anxious eyes, “is to make your son feel you’ve got his back. That you’re on his side, which, of course, you are, while at the same time helping him make whatever changes he needs to make to surmount these difficulties.”

Frank frowns. “You mean… tell him it’s okay to be funny? But…”

“I mean letting him know you love him for who he really is and not for what other people think about him.” Joe looks from Frank to Gloria and back to Frank. “When we’re kids, we figure out how to survive as best we can. And the most important thing a parent can do for his or her child during that difficult time is to thoroughly love them and let them know you love them.”

*

Zack comes to the microphone and waits for the thunderous applause to die down, the theatre packed to the rafters with his fans. He is twenty-seven, recently married for the first time, his stand-up career having propelled him into a successful movie career. He takes the microphone from the stand and brings the shiny silver thing to within a few inches of his lips.

“So when I was eleven my parents sent me to a shrink because I got kicked out of school for being funny.”

The audience howls with laughter. They know this story backwards and forwards, but no matter how many times Zack does this routine, he brings the house down.

“Yeah, no kidding. The teacher would call on me and ask, ‘Zack, who wrote the Declaration of Independence?’ And I would say, ‘The comedy team of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams,’ and the class would laugh and when the laughter died down the teacher would say, ‘Why did you call them a comedy team? Was that necessary?’ And I would say, ‘Maybe not necessary, but it got the laugh.’ And the class would laugh again.”

The audience laughs about the class laughing at Zack for being funny. They love Zack. He can say almost anything and they’ll laugh, though the favorite parts of his routines for most people are when he gets serious, really serious, and talks about painful things that need to be talked about but most of the time are not.

“So my shrink was baffled by me, and after a couple sessions sent me to his shrink,” says Zack, holding for another laugh. “Kind of like Obi Wan Kenobi sending Luke Skywalker to Yoda and telling Yoda, ‘The force is not with this kid. Maybe you can help him get with it.’

Big laughs.

“Though I can assure you my shrink’s shrink was much more than a therapist. You know what he was?”

Hundreds of people in the audience reply, “A compassionate human being!”

Zack nods in agreement and walks across the stage to sit in a big comfy armchair. “And after he and I had some good laughs together, he arranged to meet with my parents, otherwise known as Mother Teresa and Attila the Hun.”

Huge laughs.

“My father, you see, was siding with my outraged teachers, and my mother was on my side. My father wanted to send me to a military academy to break me of my terrible habit of being funny, and my mother wanted me to skip high school and go directly to Harvard, though Harvard had yet to be informed of her wishes and I had yet to develop pubic hair.”

Big laughs.

“So you can imagine what I imagined would go on in that first session with Yoda, Mother Teresa, and Attila.”

Laughter.

“But by golly, the force must have been with them,” says Zack, getting up from his chair and returning the microphone to the mike stand, “because when my parents came home from that session, my father asked me to go on a walk with him, which stunned me because he and I were not close.” He pauses. “Not yet.”

The audience falls so silent you can hear a pin drop.

“We walked down to the river, my father and I, to the place where we used to go fishing together when I was little and wasn’t so funny yet. And my father cleared his throat and made a series of faces so hilarious I had a very hard time not laughing, but I didn’t laugh because I could sense this was maybe the hardest thing my father had ever done in his life. Then he said, ‘Zack, I’m worried about you. I’m worried about how your life might turn out if you don’t make it through high school and go to college. And I think maybe you’re worried, too. But here’s what I want you to know. We’ll get through this together. I’ll help you any way I can. I want you to be happy.’ And then he took the deepest breath he ever took in his life, I’m sure, and said, ‘I love you.’”

Long pause.

“And that, as my shrink’s shrink knew it would, did the trick. I went back to school and was still the funniest kid in every class I ever had, except for Trigonometry. The funniest kid in Trigonometry was Angus Dorfmeyer who always, and I mean always, farted audibly during tests, and we all lived for those moments, I assure you. And for some reason my being funny no longer infuriated my teachers, and lo and behold I made it through high school and eventually got a degree in Psychology, and now I’m here with you. And believe you me, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Now the audience rises to applaud him and he hears in their applause his father saying I want you to be happy. I love you.

fin    

Just Love

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Seed Puffs

Green Salad Bowl lettuce

This year I grew a kind of lettuce I’ve never grown before. Green Salad Bowl. I got the seeds from Territorial Seed Company. For growing in our tubs a mile inland from the coast in Mendocino, Green Salad Bowl lettuce is a wonderful lettuce for both taste and prolificacy.

We harvest our lettuce by cutting the leaves when they get big enough for salad greens rather than waiting to harvest whole heads. In this way, the plants continue to produce new leaves for several weeks, and a small patch of lettuce plants will produce dozens of salads, the leaves constantly tender.

lettuce flowering

One of my pleasures is letting varieties of vegetables we like go to seed so I can harvest those seeds and sow them next season. If the vegetable is not a hybrid, the seeds will breed true and we’ll get the same vegetables unless during the growing season the plants happened to cross with another related variety growing nearby. Then we might get nothing or something quite different than the original.

This season I let one patch of the Green Salad Bowl lettuce go to seed. I’m now in the process of harvesting seeds from those plants. We had two unusually early rains in September, which we’re glad about, except the rains came right as the lettuce flowers were in the latter stages of making seeds.

Thus most of the lettuce flower blooms succumbed to mildew before they could produce fully developed seeds.

Fortunately, every day in early October I’ve been finding white puffs amidst the mildewed growth that are the end stages of flowers successfully gone to seed.

I pick these puffs and carefully extract the seeds.

Will they germinate next spring?

We shall see.

fin

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Maria’s Suitors

On a cold foggy Thursday morning in March, in cheerful Café Brava, a bakery café in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Maria Viera pays for her latte and pumpkin muffin and carries the skinny chrome number holder to the table where she sits every morning for forty-five minutes before going to work at Brindisi, a snazzy clothing store, her number today 17.  

The men usually wait to approach her after one of the servers has brought her coffee and pastry, but this morning a man approaches her the moment she sits down and asks if he might share her table. In a glance she appraises him with a thoroughness that would stun him were he aware of how much she knows about him now; and judging him harmless she nods without smiling. 

Men have been approaching Maria avidly and ceaselessly since she was twelve. Now twenty-eight, lovely though not remarkably beautiful, easy in her body, her black hair worn in a short ponytail, she has no idea why she has this power over so many men. She does not dress provocatively, nor does she look at the men before they approach her. Having experimented endlessly with her clothing, her hair, her ways of sitting and standing and moving, she knows her power is transcendent of anything obvious, but knows not the source. She accepts her power as a fact of life and often makes use of it.

“I’m David,” says the man, sitting across the table from her. Good-looking, mid-thirties, longish brown hair, he beams at her and says, “I see you’ve already ordered. I should get something.”

“Excellent food here,” she says, knowing he lives in a big city, works for an internet technology company, smokes dope every day, plays video games, says he wants to be a writer but rarely writes, and none of his relationships last long.

“Oh, I see,” he says, looking around the busy café. “You order at the counter and they bring it to you.”

She opens her notebook and starts writing a letter to a friend. She knows David isn’t sure he can trust her to save the seat for him, and she also knows he won’t ask her to save the seat because he doesn’t want to appear desperate.

“I’ll be right back,” he says, giving her a hopeful look as he goes to order something.

She watches him take his place at the end of the long line and calculates he will be gone for at least ten minutes.

Now Bernardo, one of the café servers, brings Maria her latte and muffin, picks up her number, and quietly sings a line from ‘Eleanor Rigby’. All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

She shrugs and smiles sadly in answer to Bernardo’s question.

“Hey Maria,” says a burly fellow with curly black hair, the odor of his uncleanliness preceding him. “You got company?”

“Yes,” she says, knowing him from the pub where she sometimes goes for a beer after work.

“Can I sit here until they show up?” he asks, hoping to prolong his contact with her.

Knowing the best response to this guy is no response, she resumes the letter she’s writing and he leaves.

March 14

Dear Anna,

Foggy morning, latte and muffin at my table in Café Brava. The first man who approached me today is the perfect foil to keep the others at bay while I write to you my big news. I got a raise to twenty-five dollars an hour, plus an increase to five per cent commission! With tourists mobbing the town a month earlier than usual, I will be able to spend a week in LA with you this summer, not sure when yet, but I’ll let you know. The other news is Tony Macklin, the Tony Macklin, is shooting a big-budget movie here and the town is crawling with…”

“Pardon me,” says a smirking fellow with tousled brown hair and a French accent, his clothes expensive and poorly cared for. “May I share your table?”

Maria shakes her head and says, “Friend in line.”

“Alas,” says the Frenchman, bowing to her. “Perhaps another time.”

She doesn’t respond and he wanders away.

Now David returns, sets his Number 29 on the table, breathes a big sigh of relief to be sitting with Maria again, and resists his urge to interrupt her writing.

She continues her letter to Anna for several minutes, occasionally sipping her latte and nibbling on her muffin.

When David’s pancakes arrive he can’t restrain himself any longer and says loudly, “Ah here we are. Now you don’t have to eat alone.”

She sets her pen down and takes a long drink of her latte. “Where are you from, David?”

“Oh, here,” he says eagerly. “Well… I haven’t moved here yet, but I want to. Can’t wait to get out of the city. Portland. You live around here?”

“I do,” she says, nodding. “I was born here.”

“Amazing,” he says, gawking at her and wondering if she has big breasts.

“Why amazing?” she asks, curious to hear his answer.

“Just… I don’t know, I mean… you so rarely meet people who were born where you meet them.” He manufactures a little laugh. “I mean… I was born in New Jersey and moved to Florida and then Nevada and then Los Angeles and then New York and then San Francisco, and now Portland, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actually lives where they were born.”

“We are a very mobile society,” she says, nodding.

“Are you…” he begins anxiously. “I’m just here for a few days, you know, checking things out, and… would you like to go out with me?”

“I’m busy for the next couple weeks,” she says, picking up her pen.

“Of course you are,” he says, rolling his eyes derisively. “But it never hurts to ask.”

“Never hurts you,” she says, looking for signs of empathy in him and seeing none. “You didn’t even ask me my name.”

“Sorry,” he says, sounding more annoyed than sorry. “In my experience, asking you out before you vanished forever seemed my best bet.” He shrugs dismissively. “Oh well. What’s done is done and I am who I am, and believe it or not, I’m okay with that.”

“I believe you,” she says, knowing exactly how old he was when he ceased to develop emotionally – twelve.

Now she gathers her things and walks out into the foggy day feeling slightly miffed to be leaving the warm café ten minutes before she had to, but not wanting to stay with David there.

*

In Brindisi, a few minutes before the shop opens, Maria hangs new shirts on the racks – slinky long-sleeved shirts all the rage these days – and chats with Leslie, the owner of the high-end clothing store, thanking her again for the recent raise.

“Well-deserved,” says Leslie, who is from New Jersey, short and slender and fifty-nine. “You’re the best salesperson I’ve ever known, and I’ve known some very good salespeople. Don’t ever leave me.”

“You choose such good clothes, it’s easy,” says Maria, this her second year at Brindisi after five years as a checker at Walker’s Groceries, the one big grocery store in town, her income now four times what she made as a checker.

“You help me choose, honey,” says Leslie, noticing people peering in the front windows. “You have a great eye. I’m gonna call UPS and see if the Wild Side shipment came in and then we’ll open.”

Maria continues hanging up the slinky shirts and recalls the day eighteen months ago when she came into Brindisi on her lunch break, her back aching from ringing up groceries for five hours. A middle-aged man approached her and asked if she’d model a blouse for him. “You’re about the same size as my wife,” he said, mesmerized by her. “Would you mind?”

Curious to see herself in the exquisite clothes, she tried on two blouses and a skirt and a pair of pants for him, all of which he purchased. When she came out of the changing room in a hurry to get back to work, Leslie said, “Thank you so much, Maria. You just made me nine hundred dollars. I’m looking for somebody part-time on the weekends if you’re interested.”

Two months later, Maria quit her job at the grocery store and became Leslie’s full-time employee.

*

Leslie unlocks the front door and greets the first customers of the day – two middle-aged couples, the wives making beelines for the clothing, the husbands at loose ends, one leaving after telling his wife he’ll be at the bookstore, the other drawn to Maria as if by a powerful magnet.

“Hello,” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “Beautiful store.”

“Thank you,” she says, feeling safe in her role as salesperson. “May I help you find something?”

“Yeah,” he says, looking around. “You have jewelry?”

“Earrings,” she says, gesturing to the large glass display counter.

“Show me some?” he asks, lowering his voice. “For the wife.”

“If you see any you want to take a closer look at,” she says, sidestepping his request, “we’ll be happy to get them out for you.”

Now she turns to the man’s wife who is holding one of the slinky shirts up to her and frowning at her reflection in a mirror.

“We just got those in,” says Maria, smiling approvingly at the woman. “That one would look great on you. And the red one would be perfect for you, too. Want to try them on?”

“Oh God, I love them,” says the woman, grimacing. “But they’re three-twenty. Jesus. I know I’ll want both of them.” She gives her husband a hopeless look.

Maria gives the man a look, too, challenging him to prove how generous he can be – and the man feels Maria’s gaze as a strong caress.

“Oh try them on, honey,” he blurts. “If you love them, we’ll get them for you.”

Really?” says the woman, sounding young and amazed.

“Yeah and some earrings, too,” says the man, grinning at Maria. “We only live once. Right?”

*

 In the late morning, a heavyset man in his forties enters the store and finds Maria adding new pairs of earrings to the display counter.

“Oh good,” says the man. “I thought you had earrings.”

She looks at him without smiling, knowing from his two previous visits he doesn’t buy anything and only comes into the shop to be near her.

“Turquoise?” he says, approaching the counter. “You have any turquoise earrings?”

“Yes,” she says, indicating the turquoise earrings in the case. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m helping someone right now. If you find anything you want to take a closer look at, let us know.”

She goes to greet a middle-aged woman emerging from a changing room wearing one of the slinky long-sleeved shirts and elegant black pants two sizes too small for her.

“You look very nice,” says Maria, sincerely.

The woman looks at herself in a full-length mirror and grimaces because she obviously needs larger pants and sees no cleavage at the generously open neck.

“I need to lose twenty pounds and wear a push-up bra with a shirt like this,” says the woman, despondently.

“No, no,” says Maria, shaking her head. “You’re fine. You’re a beautiful woman and that’s a great color on you. How about we find you a more comfy pair of those pants?”

“Okay,” says the woman, soothed by Maria’s praise.

While the woman is changing into larger-sized pants, Maria returns to the earring display and says to the man who has been watching her avidly and has yet to look at the earrings, “Find anything you like?”

“Yeah, these uh…” He glances at the blur of earrings. “The dangly ones look interesting. Try them on for me?”

“Can’t right now,” she says, waving to Leslie for help. “My colleague will help you.”

“Never mind,” says the man, fleeing the store.

Maria returns to the woman who is now wearing the right-sized pants and they share a good laugh about how much better life is when one’s pants aren’t too tight.

*

After supper in the little house she shares with her mother and younger brother – her mother a checker at Walker’s Groceries, her brother an orderly at Mercy Hospital – Maria walks across town to the rec center for a jazzercise class.

*

Feeling fantastic from their workout, Maria and her friend Felicia go to Big Goose to have a beer and listen to their friend Ricardo play piano with his pal Ray accompanying him on standup bass.

*

Sitting at their customary table close to the little stage, Maria sips her beer and closes her eyes – the sweet jazz soothing her.

*

When Ricardo and Ray take a break, a handsome guy with shiny black hair wearing a mostly unbuttoned black shirt tucked into too-tight blue jeans approaches Maria and Felicia’s table and makes big eyes at Maria. “Mind if I join you? Buy you a drink?”

“No gracias,” says Maria, wanting to be left alone with Felicia.

“Place is full,” the man persists. “Empty chair at your table. Come on. You’ll like me.”

Felicia, a gorgeous woman who does not possess Maria’s power over men, looks around the room and says, “I see lots of empty chairs.”

The guy winces, goes away, and a bespectacled fellow with wild red hair approaches. “That seat taken? I like sitting close.”

“Taken,” says Felicia, nodding slowly.

Reluctantly the man goes away.

“You want to stay or go?” asks Felicia, who is rarely approached by men when she’s not with Maria.

“I’d love to hear more music,” says Maria, finishing her beer, “but Ricardo takes such long breaks and I have to get up early tomorrow.”

*

Making their way through the Big Goose throng, Maria and Felicia wave goodbye to Ricardo and Ray, and are almost out the door when two jovial young men intercept them.

“Don’t go,” says the taller of the two. “Stay and let us beguile you.”

“Too late,” says Felicia, smiling at the guy and liking his vibe. “We have to go to work in the morning.”

“Oh marry us,” says the shorter of the two, “and you’ll never have to work again. Assuming one of us wins the lottery.”

“What if we like to work?” asks Maria, sensing how wonderfully different these two are from most of the others.

“He’s a hyperbolist,” says the taller, addressing both Maria and Felicia. “Surely you’d like to date a couple absurdist romantics.”

“Speak for yourself,” says the shorter, feigning offense at the label and winking at Felicia. “I’m more of a hopeless optimist.”

Maria and Felicia exchange looks.

“We’ll be here next Thursday,” says Maria, smiling at the lovely young men. “We’re Ricardo’s groupies. Come early and sit with us.”

“How will I sleep until then?” asks the taller, placing his hand on his heart.

“I don’t know,” she says sweetly. “I know many things, but not that.”

*

The next morning in Café Brava, Maria shares her table with two middle-aged women, tourists from England, both busy writing postcards. Thus Maria’s forty-five minutes of writing letters and enjoying her latte are pure pleasure.

When she rises to go, two men jump up from their tables intent on reaching her and they collide.

*

A few moments after Leslie opens for business, a fellow with short gray hair and red-framed glasses enters the shop.

“Good morning,” he says, approaching Maria. “I’m Tony Macklin. I’m shooting a movie here as you probably know. I saw you at the café yesterday morning and at the pub last night fending off the Romeos and I would love for you to play the part of a waitress in a couple scenes in my movie. A few juicy lines, you’ll get your SAG card, and I’ll pay you a small fortune for a couple days’ work.” He appraises her with a knowing eye. “I’m not just saying this, sweetheart, but you’ve got It, the It everybody wants and so few have. You could be a very big star.”

Maria smiles at him and says with utmost sincerity, “I appreciate your offer, Tony, but the last thing in the world I want to be… the very last thing, is a movie star.”

fin

Darling

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Change

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

What was her name? She modeled for him twice. The four paintings he made of her sold before the paint was dry. Something about her angularity – a hunger in her bones. Or was it the sorrow in her eyes – the first glimmering of old age?

A gigantic face looms before him, startling him. “Hello Boo Boo,” says a voice coming from enormous lips on their way to press a kiss against his cheek. “You poopy? Need a change?”

Huge hands close around his middle, lifting him from the cushioned chair. He moans softly, a sound his mother hears as the beginning of language.

 I’m Walter Casey he tries to say. The artist.

But only the most primitive sounds escape him, his brand new larynx yet untrained.

Helpless on the changing table, his mother frees him from his itchy pajamas and lifts away his soiled diapers. He sighs with relief to have his bum free in the open air. She wipes him clean, cooing as she pulls the string on the musical bear – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star playing for the thousandth time.

Mendelssohn he tries to say. Mozart. Anything but this ice cream truck twaddle.

She sits with him in dappled shade, chuckling at how ravenously he feeds on her.

Maria. That was her name. She wanted to make love with me. All I had to do was ask. But I was too arrogant. No. Afraid.

His mother pulls him off her nipple. He begins to shriek in despair.

“Hold on, Boo Boo. Switching breasts, that’s all.”

He falls asleep and drifts through layers of time to

a snarling dog lunging at him

his father saying You Are No Son Of Mine

forms appearing on his canvas as if by magic

mother clutching his hand as death takes her

his lover kissing his throat

*

The man who comes to visit every day is not the baby’s father. The baby’s father is bearded and stays in the house throughout the night. This other man has no beard. He only stays for an hour or so, speaking out loud to the baby, but conversing silently with Walter Casey.

How are you feeling? asks the man.

I forget more than I remember now.

Yes says the man. Soon you will forget almost everything that came before this life.

But I don’t want to forget.

What do you wish to remember?

Everything.

Choose one thing.

The baby laughs. The man laughs, too.

*

The creek tumbles down through the wooded gorge – a sensual chill in the air. Yellow leaves drift through slanting rays of sunlight and settle on the forest floor. Walter stands at the water’s edge, the tip of his fishing rod pointing toward the sun, his line disappearing into a deep pool. Tomorrow is his seventeenth birthday.         

His mother appears on the ridge above him. She is small in the distance, lovely and strong. She waves to let him know it is time to come home for supper.

Walter waves back to her and reels in his line. Now he looks up at the falling leaves, at the branches of the aspens, at the billowy white clouds in the gray blue sky, and he begins to weep.

“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says his father, lifting him from his crib. “Here we are. Don’t be afraid.”

I am not afraid. I was remembering the happiest moment of my other life.

“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says the gentle bearded man. “Mama will feed you. Everything is okay.”

fin

What Comes Around

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Historical Musicals

One of my hobbies is randomly reading bits from the massive one-volume Columbia Encyclopedia. Lately I’ve been finding entries I think would make successful Broadway musicals now that Hamilton has made historical musicals popular again.

*

Entry #1: Salomon, Haym 1740-85 American Revolutionary financier. A Jewish emigrant from Poland, he was imprisoned in 1778 by the British in New York City for aiding the Revolutionaries and was condemned to death, but he escaped to Philadelphia. There he started a successful brokerage business. He aided Robert Morris in obtaining loans from France and pledged his own fortune to the new government to maintain its credit. Salomon was never recompensed and he died impoverished.

*

That little blurb verges on untruth given how much it understates Salomon’s role in financing the American war effort against the British, and how in the last two decisive battles of the Revolutionary War, Salomon provided huge sums of money to compensate the French troops who fought on the American side, and pay for the supplies needed by the American fighters. Throughout the Revolutionary War he was the go-to guy for funding the war effort.

And then he was not recompensed and died in poverty.

One wonders (not really) why Haym’s story isn’t widely taught in American schools, though my brother tells me his Fifth Grade teacher imparted some information about Salomon to my brother’s class. My brother also suggested Salomon’s story would make a musical a la Hamilton, and the first title that came to me was Fiddler on the Roof of the American Revolution. (Needs work) Oh the pathos!

Songs from the musical include: Escape to Philadelphia, The Go-To Guy, the heartbreaking Never Recompensed, and the mega-hit Revolutionary Financier.

I’m a revolutionary financier

I lend money to the rebels without fear

With my money they buy ammo and beer

I’m a revolutionary financier

*

Entry #2: McAllister, Ward 1827-95, American society leader, b. Savannah, Georgia. He was a wealthy San Francisco lawyer who moved (1852) to New York City and married (1853) a millionaire’s daughter. He established a second residence at Newport, Rhode Island and soon became arbiter of the New York and Newport social set. McAllister chose (1872) the “patriarchs”, a group of leaders from prominent New York families, and sifted out (1892) the Four Hundred – people whom he deemed members of “true” New York society. It was McAllister who groomed the famous Mrs. William Astor for her role as queen of New York society. He wrote Society As I Have Found It (1890).

*

Further research into McAllister reveals he was the undisputed king of the elite set in New York until he published his book Society As I Have Found It, and the revelations therein so displeased the Four Hundred he died in disgrace.

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One wonders how McAllister became the arbiter of anything, and why so many people cared so much about his opinions. In the Broadway musical The Four Hundred, the songs will be in the talking/singing style of later Stephen Sondheim tunes, and the plot will hang on a series of creepy kinky scenes showing how McAllister gained his power over so many rich people. The play will climax with a gala ball at the Vanderbilt mansion, after which McAllister brings out his book and becomes a pariah. Oh the pathos!

Song include: A Millionaire’s Daughter, Arbiter of the Social Set, The Patriarchs, Queen of New York, Died in Disgrace, and the show’s big hit Who Gets In.

You’re in, you’re out, you’re a Yes, you’re a No.

Why? Because I say so.

And why you may ask do I get to decide?

Oh wouldn’t you like to know?

*

Entry #3: Noyes, John Humphrey, 1811-86 American reformer, founder of the ONEIDA COMMUNITY b. Brattleboro, Vermont. He studied theology at Yale but lost his license to preach because of his “perfectionist” doctrine. This took its name from Mat. 5.48 and was based on the belief that man’s innate sinlessness could be regained through communion with Christ. At Putney, Vermont, he formed (1839) a society of Bible communists, later called Perfectionists. In 1846 they began the practice of complex marriage, a form of polygamy, but this so aroused their neighbors that Noyes was forced to flee. In 1848 he established another community at Oneida, N.Y. (and later a branch at Wallingford, Conn.) where he developed his religious and social experiments in communal living. By 1879 internal dissension had arisen and outside hostility became so strong that Noyes went to Canada where he spent the rest of his life.

Oneida Community: a religious society of Perfectionists established (1848) by John Humphrey NOYES. Members of the sect held all property in common and practiced complex marriage and common care of the children. The community prospered by making steel traps and silverware. In 1881 it was reorganized as a joint stock company, and the social experiments were abandoned.

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Okay. This has got everything successful musicals require. Religion, idealism, polygamy, raising children in common, and the manufacture of steel traps, climaxing with our hero and a few of his complex marriage partners fleeing to Canada. The music for The Perfectionists will feature a mix of heavy metal ballads and tantric sitar solos with sexy choreography featuring scantily clad polygamists. Oh the bathos!

Songs include: Bible Commies, Perfectionism, Children In Common, Complex Marriage, Escape to Canada, and the mega-hit Neighbors Aroused.

We got the neighbors aroused

yes we did now

With our complex foolin’ around

Yes we did now

Now we gotta get outta here

Yes we do now

Before big trouble come down

Oh yeah, before big trouble come down

fin

The Way Things Go

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Mrs. Davenport

In a blog entry from 2010, I wrote: Mrs. Davenport, my Third Grade teacher at Las Lomitas Elementary School, was from Oklahoma and proudly one-eighth Cherokee. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in all my eight mortal years. She was astute, funny, musical, athletic, and she enjoyed using words somewhat beyond the official Third Grade vocabulary. We loved Mrs. Davenport because she loved us and had great empathy for our collective predicament: being eight-year-olds.

Today I will add to that description and say she was tall and slender with raven black hair usually worn in a bun, her lipstick ruby red. She was the first teacher I ever had a crush on, despite her being married, if we were to believe the Mrs., which of course we did. She wore glasses, and when she took them off to clean them she was beyond beautiful to me. And every once in great while, she would let her black hair down to redo her bun, and in those moments she was a full-blooded Cherokee goddess.

Mrs. Davenport liked me, and in contrast to my First and Second Grade teachers did not often punish me for speaking out of turn or talking to other kids during class. She understood the phenomenal energy of little kids, and when I and others would become restless from too much confinement and the mental strain of sitting quietly and listening, she would say, “Todd, Jody, Wendy, Diana, and anybody else with ants in your pants, run to the oak tree and back. Right now. Go.”

We would walk out into the day knowing not to run until we were beyond the wing of classrooms, and then we would dash across the concrete playground and the grassy playing field to the largest oak tree in the world, as far as eight-year-old Todd was concerned, the round trip a good quarter-of-a-mile. One lap usually sufficed to calm us down for another half-hour of confinement and study, unless Mrs. Davenport discerned any lingering restlessness in us, in which case she would send those of us in need on another run to the oak and back.

As far as I know, Mrs. Davenport was the only teacher at our school to employ this most effective therapeutic technique, which rendered Attention Deficit Disorder a non-issue for those of us under her care, though I know had I been born twenty years later I would have been the poster child for that popular psychological disorder of today and made to take the requisite drugs.

I never had homework until Third Grade and it seemed to me that confinement from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon was enough to ask of us. Why should we sacrifice more hours of our precious lives working math problems and writing definitions of words? Thus I did not do homework except sometimes a little right before school in the morning, which usually sufficed.

Mrs. Davenport did not give us much homework, but the one assignment she was adamant we work on at home every day was undeniably worthwhile, yet abhorrent to me. Every day she would write five words on the blackboard and we were to copy these words into special binders full of lined paper she’d given us, each word to be printed, then written in cursive, then looked up in the dictionary, the definition written down, and the word used properly in a sentence. As Mrs. Davenport told us time and again with her mild Oklahoma accent, “If you do five words a night, you’ll have three hundred words done in three months and be very glad you did.”

A week after our class began this massive vocabulary-building undertaking, Mrs. Davenport checked our special binders to see how we were doing. The pages in my special binder were still pristine. Mrs. Davenport looked me in the eye and said, “You should have twenty-five words done by now, Todd. I want to see forty-five words done by the end of next week when I check your binder again.”

In spurts on the bus to school in the morning, I managed to get about thirty words done by her next check, and I had not done them well. She wagged her finger at me and said, “Come on, Todd, buckle down here.”

But I did not buckle down, and my not buckling down coincided with her ceasing to check our progress for many subsequent weeks, though every day she would write five new words on the chalkboard and remind us, “Now be sure to do your five words after school today.”

Then suddenly there came a Friday when she informed us our vocabulary binders were due the following Monday. Three hundred words were supposed to have been looked up, their definitions written down, and each word used properly in a sentence. I had done a total of forty words. Maybe. So did I buckle down and sacrifice the weekend in a valiant attempt to do three months of work in two days? No. I waited until Sunday afternoon and managed to do about thirty more words by the next day, and I did them poorly.

What I remember most vividly about Mrs. Davenport’s reaction to my disgraceful vocabulary binder was the pained look on her face, her genuine anguish at my betrayal of her trust in me.

My dismal performance prompted Mrs. Davenport to have a meeting with my mother, after which I was chastised by my parents and for a few weeks made to sit at the dining table before supper every night to do my homework, except I rarely had any homework after the vocabulary binder debacle, which binder, for some reason, I was not made to complete.

Mrs. Davenport soon forgave me and life went on. I continued to adore her and she continued to be her charming self and send me running to the oak tree and back a couple times most every day. She continued to smoke cigarettes on her breaks, I soon forgot about my vocabulary binder failure, and my mother stopped making me sit at the table before supper to do homework I rarely had.

I remember one especially exciting day that year when Mrs. Davenport and another woman teacher intervened in a fight between two big Eighth Graders, the two toughest scariest guys at our school. I was not an eyewitness to the fight, but I heard many stirring accounts of the fight from those who claimed to have seen the bloody drama unfold.

The two big guys were having a slugfest and Mrs. Davenport waded in between them to break up the fight. One of the boys, swinging wildly, struck Mrs. Davenport on the cheek under her eye. She tackled him and threw him to the ground before more teachers arrived to help contain the brawlers. For a couple weeks after she broke up that fight, she sported a big bruise under her eye, and I thought she was the bravest person in the world.

Those were the days, the 1950s in northern California, when school was not pre-formatted. Every teacher had his or her own way of doing things and covering the subjects they were supposed to cover in that year. Mrs. Davenport had a way of teaching that was ideal for eight-year-olds. I liken her methods to kindergarten for older kids.

That is to say, along with sometimes sitting at our desks learning arithmetic together and listening to her read stories and collective things like that, we were very often not all doing the same thing, the classroom more like a big artists’ workshop. A group of kids might be working on a mural about California Indians, some kids might be drawing pictures, some writing stories, and some reading.

And at recess a couple times a week, for those kids who didn’t want to go out on the playground, Mrs. Davenport would sit with the Fireside Book of Folk Songs open in front of her, singing in her gorgeous voice, and four or seven or ten of us stood around her singing with her.

She understood that more than facts of dubious value, kids need experiences that challenge the mind and inspire creative thinking. Or at least that’s how I choose to remember how I learned and grew under her guidance sixty-three years ago when she was my teacher and I had a big crush on her.

fin

Alone and Lonely

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Miss Imbach

I was one of the “smart” kids in my Las Lomitas elementary school classes, learned the minimal info we had to learn with ease, and when in Third Grade we started having homework, I always did mine at the last minute, often sloppily, and my teachers, until Eighth Grade, didn’t require more from me because I was still “ahead” of most of my classmates.

My main teacher in Eighth Grade at La Entrada junior high was Miss Imbach. She was in her early twenties, educated at Stanford and Harvard, and she was brilliant. Within minutes of sitting down in her classroom, I was keenly aware she was a different species than my previous teachers. She spoke to us as if we were intelligent adults and she didn’t seem to care if we immediately liked her or not.

She taught us the art of outlining, and not in a cursory way. In learning to outline, we diligently practiced distinguishing layers of specificity, which taught us critical thinking, among other things. We outlined everything, and constantly. No one-week course in outlining with Miss Imbach. We practiced outlining for the entire year. This was also true for diagramming sentences and rewriting sentences and paragraphs.

But a couple weeks into that school year, before we learned to outline and rewrite, I turned in my first essay, most of which I’d written on the twenty-minute bus ride to school. Miss Imbach glanced at my hastily scrawled pages, handed them back to me and said, “See me after class.”

As I stood before her in the empty classroom, the other kids having rushed out for recess, she said, “Explain, please.”

“Explain…?”

She gazed at me steadfastly.

“It’s what I wrote,” I said stupidly.

“I’ll give you another day to write it again. We both know you can do better than this. I want to see your rough draft and second draft and third draft.”

I was in shock. I’d never rewritten anything. I had no concept of second drafts, let alone third drafts. In fact, I had no concept of taking time to write anything. I always just quickly wrote something related to what we were supposed to write about, turned in what I’d written, and gotten an A or a B.

Thus at the age of twelve, for the first time in my life, I sat down to thoughtfully write a few pages about something, I don’t remember what, and when I’d written those pages, I read them, which was another first for me. I was horrified. And the fact was, I didn’t know how to rewrite. I had no experience of rewriting, nor had any teacher ever taught me how to even begin to do that.

I didn’t dare ask my father for help. He would, I knew, use this as an opportunity to prove how smart he was and how stupid I was, and it never occurred to me to ask my mother. So I resorted to my older sister Kathy, a fastidious straight-A scholar, by then a sophomore in high school.

She read my rough draft and said, “Gag me with a spoon,” a popular expression of distaste in those days. She showed me a few tricks, which I applied to my essay in making a second draft. I read this second draft and thought it better than the first draft, but still dreadful. My sister agreed, showed me how to eliminate a few obvious redundancies and how to say a few things more clearly, and I created a third draft.

This all took me hours! I’d never spent even one hour on homework. Ever.

When I turned in my three drafts to Miss Imbach the next day, she nodded and resumed her conversation with another student. What? No ticker tape parade? No trophy? No effusive thank you and congratulations and an A+? Nothing. And two days later when we got our essays back, my grade was a C-.

To make a long story short, I became devoted to Miss Imbach, so much so I attended her wedding mid-year when she became Mrs. McConnell. I loved her as I have never loved another teacher. She taught me to write, to think, to argue cogently, and to tear sentences and paragraphs apart and put them back together so they became clear and pleasing; and we had many fabulous laughing sessions as a class, our senses of humor lifted by her teaching out of the potty into realms of relative sophistication.

Indeed, high school for me, after having Mrs. McConnell for my teacher, was a colossal bore and a waste of four golden years. I learned nothing new in four years of Advanced English, and backslid because I could turn in crap again and get A’s and B’s.

Yet perhaps the most miraculous thing Mrs. McConnell did for me in that life-changing year was to pair me with Cyd Jasmin as editors of each other’s writing. That is, Mrs. McConnell created dyads in our English class, and when we wrote essays and stories we would exchange drafts with our partners who would then make editing suggestions prior to our writing our final drafts.

When the dyads were announced in class a couple months into the school year, I froze in disbelief when Miss Imbach said, “Cyd and Todd.” Why disbelief? Because ever since Third Grade, Cyd had been the king bully of our school along with a couple other brutes. I’d never before been in a class with Cyd, and he had never spoken to me except to threaten me with bodily harm. And on a few occasions he had inflicted that harm. Hence, I was terrified of him. Besides, I was one of the “smart” kids and he couldn’t be smart, right?

Wrong. The first time we traded papers, our autobiographies, Cyd gave me a typed twelve-page opus that was so good, so sophisticated and nuanced, I felt like an idiot for giving him my childish five-page summation of my comparatively silly life.

I could find no flaw in Cyd’s writing, and his autobiography revealed so much about him and his life, I understood why he’d become the school bully and chose to consort with the local toughs.

When I gave him back his autobiography the next day and effused about how good I thought it was, he beamed at me and responded in a most un-Cyd-like way, saying he’d really enjoyed my autobiography, too, and had only made a few suggestions which he’d written on the last page.

And for the rest of Eighth Grade and through high school, Cyd and I liked each other. We didn’t become good friends, but we were always glad to see each other, having for several months vetted each other’s essays before we rewrote them for our beloved Miss Imbach-McConnell.

fin

Mystery Memory

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The Psychic

Twenty-five years ago, when I was forty-seven and living in Berkeley, I had a three-month relationship with a woman who lived in Los Angeles. In the course of our brief liaison, I made two trips to LA and she made a few trips to Berkeley, and at some point I asked her, “Have you ever been in therapy?”

“I have three good friends who are therapists who talk to me about their problems,” she replied, “so I’m not drawn to therapy. But I do go to a psychic and he’s incredibly helpful in that way.”

“In the way of therapy?” I asked, doubtfully.

“Yes,” she said. “He’s great. In fact, you should have a session with him.”

Never having gone to a psychic, the next time I was in Los Angeles I went to see the guy. I was expecting a smooth operator, either a shyster or a wannabe shaman. His house was in a woodsy neighborhood in the middle of the LA sprawl. When I arrived at his place there was a hawk circling above his beautiful adobe house, keening. What was the raptor trying to tell me? Get the hell outta here? Welcome to the mystic?

I’d been instructed to go into the adjoining studio and wait for the guy, so I did. The place was gorgeous, white walls, an old table center room, a well-used Rider-Waite tarot deck on the table, two chairs, arch-topped windows built into the adobe, and several shelves of fantastic crystals. Seeing all this, I expected the guy to have long brown hair and a deep voice and a hawk feather in a psychedelic headband.

Instead, in comes a wiry guy in an old sweatshirt and baggy trousers, short gray hair, barefoot, brusque, Brooklyn accent.

“Hey,” he says, shaking my hand. “Todd, right?”

“Yes.”

“Larry. Sit down.”

“I’m a friend of Renee’s.”

He nods. “So… you here about anything in particular?”

“No. I’ve never been to a psychic and Renee said you were great, so…”

“Good,” he says, nodding.

We sit across from each other at the table and he gives me a long look, and while he’s looking I say, “Gorgeous crystals.”

He glances at the shelves. “Yeah, people gave me those. I was never into rocks, but one client brought me that big amethyst chunk and another client saw it and brought me that giant quartz crystal and the rest followed.”

“I carry rocks,” I say, liking him despite his tough guy persona. “Have since I was a little kid.”

“Oh yeah?” he says, his eyes twinkling. “You got one on you?”

“Always,” I say, taking the two rocks out of my pockets.

I hand him the rocks and he looks them over, hands one back to me and keeps the round one, white quartz in gray stone.

“I can do the reading from this one,” he says, studying the rock. “Or we can use the cards. They’ll both get us to the same place.”

“Oh then from the rock,” I say, amused and curious.

He holds the rock for a moment, sets it on top of the tarot deck and closes his eyes. “When you were five? Four? Five. Your mother placed you as a shield between her and your father. She wanted you to protect her from him, and she kept you there… “ He opens his eyes. “A long time.”

I gasped, not because he had reiterated something I’d learned in therapy, but because he’d given me a hugely important missing puzzle piece in the story of my entanglement with my mother and my father’s extreme antipathy toward me.

“Of course that was way too much to ask of a little kid, to protect his mother from his father, but that’s what she asked you to do. And you did the best you could, but of course it was impossible, and the impossibility shaped your life.”

I ceased to doubt him and listened in amazement to his remarkably accurate description of me in the world, though he never asked for any information about me. Near the end of the hour-long reading, he handed me my rock and spread the tarot deck face down in a fan on the table. “Pick a card.”

I picked The Magician.

“So this is you,” he says, looking at the card and nodding, “which is not surprising. I knew when I walked in here you were psychic. Are you aware of this?”

“No. I’m aware of being intuitive, but…”

“This is not guessing, this is knowing,” he says simply. “You’ll be with people and without knowing how you know, you’ll know things about them they aren’t aware of or are keeping secret. Ring a bell?”

“Kind of,” I say, thinking of times when this might have been true. “And I’m a writer. The stories come to me unbidden. I don’t make them up. Not consciously.”

“That’s different, though it’s probably related. I don’t know. And now our time is almost up. Anything you want to ask me?”

“Yeah, this tarot card. The Magician. How is he me? Or how am I him?”

“You’re a powerful person. You have unlimited potential, and your work in this lifetime could be some kind of connecting the physical world, so-called reality, with the spiritual world. And my guess is you’re mostly unaware of this unless…” He squints at me. “You a musician?”

“Yes.”

“So maybe you know a little about it from that.”

“And how does one… how do I access my power and potential?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’m not a therapist. I just tell you what I see.”

fin

The Magician