The eight acres and two houses and the big redwood barn and several other outbuildings owned by Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel are exactly two miles inland as the crow flies from the northern California coastal burg of Mercy; and because of that distance from the ocean and their elevation of five hundred feet, those eight acres enjoy more sun most days than Mercy.
In early August, a letter from Grandma Hilda confirms that she and Auntie Tamara and Auntie Celine are going to rent a beach house in Mercy for October and November, which means they’ll be here for Vivienne’s fifth birthday on October 22 and for Thanksgiving. By the time they arrive, Arturo will have begun Second Grade and both Henri and Vivienne will be in First Grade because the wise ones at Mercy Montessori have agreed it would be silly for Vivienne to undergo kindergarten given how she learns everything from Henri and Arturo moments after either of them learn anything.
This past February, when the large sum of money bequeathed to Lisa by her paternal grandmother became a reality in their account at Mercy Savings, Philip and Marcel, both in their mid-fifties, took leave of their jobs as waiters at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, and Marcel became a four-days-a-week carpenter assisting the Ramirez brothers, general contractors, who are building a spacious five-room cottage and bath house a stone’s throw from Philip and Lisa’s farmhouse, and beginning next spring they will add a third bedroom and a second bathroom to the farmhouse while expanding and remodeling the kitchen, dining room, and living room.
Philip sometimes works with the builders, too, but most summer days he collaborates with the children in the morning while Andrea, who just turned fifty, and Lisa, forty-nine, are otherwise engaged. When school is in session, Philip oversees the kids in the afternoons until five, after which he combines preparing supper with working on the yet-to-be-named sequel to his first cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook, with frequent assistance from Andrea.
In April, Dunwood Roofers removed the five idiotically juxtaposed roofs from Marcel and Andrea’s house and replaced the leaky conglomeration with a single modestly slanting and well-insulated roof featuring seven large skylights that admit copious sunlight into the house and not a drop of water when it rains.
Andrea is steadily expanding the deer-fenced vegetable and flower garden from a half-acre to three-quarters-of-an-acre with help from Lisa and Philip and the children—raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, asparagus, and greatly expanded garlic beds the latest additions to the garden.
A new and spacious predator-proof chicken coop, home to twenty-seven prolific hens, is now attached to the south end of the recently refurbished barn, and inside the cavernous barn resides a handsome array of twenty 25-gallon oak wine barrels soon to be filled with juice of wine grapes brought to the coast from an inland vineyard, those grapes to be stomped into juice by members of the collective and friends, Marcel to oversee the fermentation process and eventual bottling.
Discussions abound regarding what to call the winery and eight-acre farm. Marcel and Philip have lately campaigned for Andrea Lisa, while Andrea thinks having Mercy in the name would enhance sales of the hypothetical wine to tourists who buy her produce at the Mercy Farmers Market, and Lisa has several times touted the word she learned from Auntie Tamara, anagnorisis, which means the moment in a drama when the protagonist discovers the true state of affairs to which he or she has been blind, though Lisa admits the word does not roll trippingly off the tongue, nor does anagnorisis harmonize well with winery or farm.
Henri and Arturo are zealous advocates of Three Dog Farm, and Vivienne likes that name, too, but worries they might one day have more or fewer than three dogs and then the name won’t be true.
Grandma Hilda is not biologically the children’s grandmother, but in emotional and spiritual terms she most certainly is. Eighty-two, Swiss, tall and sturdy with long silvery gray hair worn in a braid, Hilda is a retired Jungian psychoanalyst and has lived in Berkeley, California for fifty years, and is now considering a move to Mercy. Her only child, Tamara, Auntie Tamara to the children, is forty-seven, a very successful playwright and professor of Drama at Reed College in Portland, and Tamara’s partner Auntie Celine is fifty-two, a professor of African-American History at Reed, Celine herself African-American.
Philip met Hilda when he was a waiter at the famed Le Scélérat in Berkeley and served her every Wednesday evening for nine years before she joined his small circle of friends away from the restaurant. Hilda adores Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel, and in the absence of biological grandchildren of her own, she has enthusiastically assumed the role of grandmother vis-à-vis Arturo, Vivienne, and Henri. Much to everyone’s delight, Hilda has come to stay at the farm several times a year since the collective moved here seven years ago.
On a balmy afternoon in late August, the kids are playing outside before supper, Lisa watching them while reclining in the hammock on the kitchen deck and falling asleep reading a collection of Edith Wharton short stories. Philip and Andrea are in the kitchen making the latest iterations of three of Philip’s recipes for his new cookbook—tonight’s main course cod fillets slow-simmered in a sauce of lemon juice, white wine, minced garlic, coconut milk, and various herbs and spices. And Marcel is sitting at the kitchen table with an old landline phone, tapping in the number for Oak Leaf Vineyards, a forty-five-minute drive inland from Mercy.
“Hello Marie? It’s Marcel Léandre calling from Mercy. I spoke to you a few weeks ago and you said I should call you today to find out when the picking will begin.” He listens. “I see. Yes. We intend to buy enough pinot noir grapes to make two hundred and fifty gallons, and enough cabernet also for two hundred and fifty gallons. Yes. Two tons of the pinot and two tons of the cab.” He nods. “Yes, we will have you deliver the grapes to our farm near Mercy. And we would love to come watch some of the harvesting and perhaps pick a few bunches ourselves.” He reacts in surprise. “The first of September? And how long will the harvest continue?” He laughs. “Yes, I made wine with my father in France for many years, so I know a little bit.” He smiles. “Marvelous. We will come to you on September seven at nine o’clock and pick some grapes and then lead the truck back here.” He listens. “Yes, of course we will pay you before we come. We are told your grapes are the finest and we don’t want to lose our chance.” He listens. “Perfect. We will send you a check tomorrow. Merci.”
“The seventh of September?” says Andrea, looking up from chopping garlic.
“Yes,” says Marcel, laughing to keep from crying. “Two weeks from today.”
“Fantastic,” says Philip, tending three pans on the stove, each concoction timed by a separate timer. “Let’s open a bottle of something to celebrate.”
“Something white,” says Andrea, giving Marcel a kiss when he comes into the kitchen.
“I can’t believe it,” says Marcel, crying despite his best efforts not to.
Andrea hands him a bottle of a dry chardonnay, Marcel opens the bottle with the ease of one who has opened thousands of bottles in front of countless customers, and when they each have a glass in hand, Philip proposes a toast. “To the harvest.”
“To the harvest,” says Marcel, raising his glass.
“To the harvest,” says Andrea, clinking her glass with both of theirs.
Now the door flies open and Vivienne runs in, declaiming, “Will someone please give me a glass of water before I perish?”
Philip obliges her and a moment later Henri appears with Arturo right behind him followed by the little dog Goliath and the giant dog Jung.
“We’re very hungry,” says Arturo, remembering not to use the word starving that makes his mother cross. “And Mama said to ask for something to eat that won’t ruin our appetites for supper.”
“Apples,” says Andrea, choosing two big red Fujis. “Please wash your hands in the bathroom. No room in the kitchen right now.”
The boys rush down the hall to the bathroom, Vivienne following, and Philip bows his head and says, “A moment of prayer. Lisa cleaned the bathroom today. May they not entirely destroy her good work.”
Marcel laughs. “Henri has no difficulty turning the water on, but he has an aversion to turning it off, and his drying technique is more mime than actual.”
“Oui,” says Philip, nodding. “Arturo believes towels belong on the floor and someone must have made a mistake by draping them over the bar, and he feels compelled to make things right.”
The children return and Arturo says, “You may be surprised to know we turned off the water, dried our hands very well, and hung up the towel.”
“I beg your pardon,” says Philip, bowing to his son. “When you’ve eaten your snack, would one of you please inform Lisa the adults are having wine, and salad will be served shortly.”
“I’ll tell her,” says Henri, taking a few apple slices with him. “She’s asleep in the hammock.”
“I’ll come, too,” says Vivienne, following Henri.
Arturo stays at the table, gobbling his pieces of apple, and Marcel says to him, “We’re going to the vineyard in two weeks to get four tons of grapes. Can you believe it?”
“For Three Dog Farm wine?” says Arturo, nodding in agreement with the name he and Henri have chosen.
“Yes, for the wine,” says Marcel, ruffling Arturo’s hair. “Whatever we end up calling it.”
“Well we are a farm,” says Arturo, still very hungry and wondering if he should eat a banana. “And we do have three dogs. And people love dogs and farms, so it’s a very good name.”
Lisa comes in with Henri and Vivienne, Andrea hands Lisa a glass of wine, and Marcel says to Lisa, “I just ordered the grapes. We go to the vineyard in two weeks. Can you believe it?”
“I can,” she says, clinking her glass with his. “To the harvest.”
That night Philip dreams he and Vivienne enter a bookstore and Vivienne runs to a table displaying new books and says, “Your new book is here! Can you believe it?”
In the dream, Philip approaches the table and sees his cookbook, the title Three Dog Farm Cookbook, the cover illustration a beautiful drawing of their three dogs, Goliath the little mutt, Mimi the Golden Retriever, and Jung the giant hound, sitting at a table laden with food, each dog believably holding a glass of wine.
The grape-crushing party takes place on September 9, a Saturday, and of the forty people present for the barbecue and barefoot stomping of the grapes, twenty-five are members of the Ramirez clan, the Ramirez brothers building the cottage and bath house, which means there are several Latino kids playing soccer with Arturo and Henri and Vivienne, and a half-dozen beautiful black-haired women with babies and husbands.
Among the neighbors in attendance are Nathan, a white-haired elder with whom Andrea consults about growing vegetables and fruit, Celia, Nathan’s charming Latina wife, Delilah, Nathan and Celia’s lovely nineteen-year-old housemate, Joseph Richardson, a sixty-something British landscape painter who has made three gorgeous paintings of Andrea’s terraced garden with members of the collective posed therein, a fourth such painting underway starring Andrea and Vivienne amidst the sunflowers, and Constance Richardson, Joseph’s sixty-something wife and the author of dozens of popular murder mysteries written under the pen name Margaret Orland.
As frequently happens these days, the discussion turns to names for the farm and winery, and Oscar, the eldest Ramirez brother, suggests Locura Divina, which translates to Divine Madness.
Joseph, happily drunk, responds to Oscar’s suggestion by standing up and applauding.
“I love that name,” says Philip, smiling at Oscar, “except we are hoping the name of the winery will also be the name of the farm.
“Ah no,” says Oscar, shaking his head. “A good name for wine, but not for a farm.”
“The kids want to call it Three Dog Farm,” says Marcel, going from table to table to see if anyone needs more wine or beer or root beer. “And though I didn’t like that name at first, I’m growing fond of it.”
“Well it is true,” says beautiful Delilah, returning from a stint in the soccer game and sitting beside Celia. “You have three darling dogs, and I could draw you an enchanting picture of them sitting at a table drinking wine, should you want a label for your bottles.”
“What did you just say?” asks Philip, having been distracted by Vivienne angrily whispering to him that Arturo was making fun of her minimal soccer skills in front of the Ramirez children.
“I said I could draw you a lifelike picture of your three dogs sitting at a table,” she says, gesturing to the table laden with food, “drinking wine from sparkling goblets.”
“I dreamt about that very picture two weeks ago,” says Philip, astonished. “And I’m sure I didn’t tell anyone because I only just now remembered.” He turns to Lisa. “Or did I tell you that dream?”
“No. You only tell me your sex dreams,” she says, and everybody laughs.
When the laughter dies down, Philip says to Delilah, “I would like to commission you to make that drawing for me, whatever your fee.”
“My fee for you is absolutely nothing,” says Delilah, making room for Vivienne beside her on the bench.
Vivienne whispers something to Delilah, which causes Constance to ask, “What did the little darling say?”
“She’s concerned they might not always have three dogs,” says Delilah, speaking for Vivienne, “and then the name Three Dog Farm would not be true.”
“Names of farms and titles of books need not be literally true,” says Constance, giving Vivienne a wrinkled-nose smile, “but should evoke pleasing images in our minds, which Three Farm Dogs does.”
“Not Three Farm Dogs,” says Vivienne, laughing. “Three Dog Farm.”
“Yes, but I like Three Farm Dogs,” says Marcel, excitedly. “Three Farm Dogs Wine has a nice earthy ring to it. No?”
“Locura divina,” says Oscar, pointing at Marcel.
And everybody laughs.
On Saturday, October 22, her fifth birthday, Vivienne wakes at dawn, which is her habit, Arturo still fast asleep in his bed on the other side of their bedroom. She gets up quietly, takes off her pajamas and puts on the clean T-shirt, underpants, and socks her mother set on the chair at the foot of her bed last night, dons her green sweatshirt and blue jeans, and tiptoes out of the bedroom and down the hall to the kitchen where she always finds either her father or mother or both of them making coffee.
But today no one is in the kitchen, which is curious, because she was sure she heard one or both of them pass by the kids’ bedroom, which means they’ve gone outside, perhaps to check on the chickens to make sure no varmint got into the coop during the night. Or could they still be in bed?
She tiptoes down the hallway, peers into her parents’ bedroom, sees the bed is made, and returns to the kitchen where she usually has cocoa while her parents have coffee, but they are still not here. So she goes to the kitchen door, puts on her shoes, and steps out onto the deck, the morning cold and cloudy.
Fearing to wake her brother who can be terribly cranky if woken before seven, she does not call out to her parents. However, seeing the barn door ajar and thinking they might be visiting the barrels of wine as they sometimes do, she heads for the barn.
But now it occurs to her that the dogs have not appeared to say good morning and go with her wherever she might be going, and this makes her stop and frown and wonder where the dogs and her parents could possibly be.
And now it occurs to her that her parents might have gone to the beach and taken the dogs with them and not taken me!
Furious to think they might have gone to the beach without her, she breaks into a run, arrives at the barn, and peers into the dark cavernous room, her eyes needing a moment to adjust to the dim light before she sees her mother and father and Marcel and Andrea and Henri at the far end of the barn beyond the wine barrels, the three dogs with them.
“What’s going on around here?” asks Vivienne with a touch of anger in her voice.
At which moment, breaking away from the gathering of humans and dogs, is an excessively cute Golden Retriever puppy who toddles toward Vivienne barking a happy puppy bark as Vivienne swoops down upon the only thing she wanted for her birthday.
“The name we give to the place where we live can be as revealing as any dream,” says Hilda, a few evenings after Vivienne’s birthday, the children reluctantly gone to bed, the adults gathered in the farmhouse living room, a fire blazing in the hearth.
Nathan and Celia and Delilah came for supper along with Hilda and Tamara and Celine, and the living room is just big enough to comfortably fit the ten adult humans, three dogs, three cats, and the snoozing puppy who Vivienne immediately and inexplicably named Alexandra.
“The children have now decided our farm is not a dog farm,” says Marcel, adding a log to the fire and looking to see if anyone needs more tea or wine. “But a cat and dog farm, because we have more cats than dogs.”
“The children will be fine with whatever you call the farm,” says Tamara, who has a habit of stating her opinions as facts, a habit that annoys Lisa, amuses Andrea, has no effect on Marcel, and always makes Philip think how to refute her until he realizes he agrees with her.
“I think of Wittgenstein,” says Delilah, who is currently enthralled with linguistics and philosophy. “What is the meaning of the meaning of a word?”
“The last time I bought wine,” says Nathan, who doesn’t drink alcohol but buys wine for Celia and friends, “I found myself hunting for intriguing names and I almost spent forty bucks on a bottle of cabernet called, I kid you not, Spiritual Intrigue, but Miguel the wine guy said, ‘Basura. Try this instead,’ and handed me a bottle called Decent Red, and Celia said it was.”
“So what did you mean, Delilah?” asks Hilda, who finds Delilah a continuous source of delight. “By evoking Wittgenstein?”
“Well for instance, he asks us to consider what we think when we hear the word chair,” says Delilah, pausing briefly to allow anyone who wants to follow her train of thought to get on board. “And he suggests we don’t think of a specific chair when we hear chair, but rather of chairness.”
“Wittgenstein,” says Nathan, recalling the numbing effect of the fellow’s philosophizing, “is one of the reasons I dropped out of college.”
“I once screamed at a page of his words trying to understand him,” says Celine, nodding in sympathy with Nathan. “Come out from behind those tangled thoughts, you coward.”
“He can be rather abstruse,” says Delilah, shrugging. “Yet he amuses me.”
“So is he saying that by using the word dog,” asks Philip, who knows nothing about Wittgenstein, “we are asking people to think of an archetypal shape of a dog? A symbol of a dog?”
“Yes,” says Delilah, who only just a few days ago was kissed by someone, really kissed, for the first time. “He says our brains translate words into schemata. And it seems to me, your opinions of Wittgenstein notwithstanding, that a person hearing the word dog, either thinks of a generalized concept of dog or of their most well-remembered dog.”
“The problem I have with putting dog in the name of our farm,” says Andrea, who would love to talk about anything else, “is when many people hear the word dog, they think of dog shit.”
Everyone laughs and the subject blessedly changes.
As the gathering draws to a close, Celia nudges Nathan. “Recite your new poem, marido.”
“Please,” says Tamara, she and Celine seriously considering leaving academia and moving to Mercy to live among these wonderful people in this wildly beautiful place.
“Okay,” says Nathan, clearing his throat. “But only because it’s short.” He closes his eyes. “I remember playing Capture the Flag in our neighborhood as a boy, how in the daylight, the game and strategies were clear. At dusk, who was who began to be in doubt, shirtless boys in shorts and girls who might be each other, and that’s when stealth and luck could bring victory as darkness fell and the mothers called for us to come home for supper.”
A few days before Thanksgiving, the lowering clouds about to loose their gift of rain upon the thirsty earth, Tamara is working with Andrea in the vegetable garden, mulching the garlic beds.
Tamara stops slinging compost and says, “I just love how you terraced this garden, the wide gradual steps. From a distance, the climb up the hillside was almost imperceptible before you began to clear the beds.” She smiles at Andrea who she is secretly in love with. “Reminds me of my play Ziggurat in which Philip appears as a waiter.”
“I love that play,” says Andrea, taking a moment to contemplate her garden ascending the gently sloping hill. “We made a special trip to see it last year at Berkeley Rep and stayed with Hilda.”
“She told me,” says Tamara, beaming at Andrea. “She’s madly in love with your children.”
“And they are madly in love with her,” says Andrea, who still occasionally expects to wake and find herself childless and trapped with Marcel in a little apartment on a fog-bound avenue in San Francisco.
“I should give Philip a percentage of my residuals,” says Tamara, she and Celine now certain they want to move to Mercy. “His notes on the restaurant scenes made all the difference.”
“Oh my God,” says Andrea, looking wide-eyed at Tamara as the rain begins to fall. “Ziggurat. What a perfect name for our farm and winery.”