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Practice

At last atop the mountain

we catch our breaths and look back

at the sound of avalanche as

the path of our ascent vanishes

beneath a great collapse.

When the fury settles

only cliff remains

the path no more

our only hope of return

along a razor’s edge

traversing the abyss

to another peak,

the further side

invisible.

Or we may remain here.


a link for all the downloading/streaming/listening options for Through the Fire.

 https://throughthefiretoddwalton.hearnow.com/

and a link to where one can buy the actual CD of Through the Fire

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BRSNHR6H/ref=dm_rwp_pur_lnd_albm_unrg

Blessings and Thanks


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On We Go

What a wonderful terrible fabulous frightening exciting perilous hopeful disastrous promising time we live in.

Our friend Abi came to visit. We spoke of aches and pains and aging and death and calamity and the ascendancy of cruelty and selfishness, and then Abi said, “Oh let’s dance.”

So we put on Ray Charles and boogied around the living room for ten minutes and the world was made new and glorious again.

Speaking of new and glorious, my friend Diane Pool recently posted a video entitled Being Alive on YouTube featuring her beautiful photographs accompanied by lovely words from Maria Popova, with my piano improvisation La Entrada as soundtrack.

We are starting to hear from people who have been listening to our new CD Through the Fire. The early reviews are heartening and inspiring. If you’d like to hear our album of music and stories, here are links to

a site that will give you all the downloading/streaming/listening options for Through the Fire.

a link to where you can buy the actual CD of Through the Fire

Happy New Year!

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Through the Fire!

Dear Readers (and Listeners)

Through the Fire, our new album (CD), has just arrived! Nine gorgeous musical numbers featuring Todd playing piano and Marcia playing cello, with Todd singing on a few tunes, along with Todd reading two funny stories. Here is the mother of all links to facilitate your sampling, downloading, streaming, and getting some or all of our new audio sensation. We hope you’ll share this link with your music and story-loving pals and post the news hither and yon.

You can buy the actual gorgeous CDs from Amazon as well as from your favorite source (s) for actual CDs.

Actual CD getting link.

As we carry on from one power outage to the next here in Mendocino, we’re wishing you a Happy New Year!

Todd & Marcia

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Healing Adventures

Dear Reader

If perchance you have been following the adventures of Healing Weintraub, we are pleased to tell you the saga has reached a turning point. Which is to say, there WILL be more Healing Weintraub stories following a hiatus of unknown duration.

In the meantime, we are VERY EXCITED to report that the first twenty-some adventures have been assembled into a single manuscript and the process of revising the collection into a novel of stories, rather than a collection of freestanding stories, has begun.

Inspired rewriting is underway and myriad redundancies are being eliminated while new details and unexpected twists and turns join the fun. When the Healing manuscript is reconstructed and polished and thoroughly vetted, we hope to publish the opus as an actual book and downloadable e-book AND bring forth an audio version of yours truly narrating the tales.

Please stay tuned for a birth announcement regarding Through the Fire, our new CD of tunes and stories soon to debut physically and digitally.

Wishing you a happy new year.

Todd

The News a short story written and read by Todd

From the CD of stories I Remember You by Todd & Marcia

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Healing

On a cool foggy evening in early June, Healing gets in bed and lies on his back and gazes up at the knotholes in the planks of the redwood ceiling, the same knotholes he has looked up at since he was a boy and shared this bedroom with his sister Jean.

Jahera comes to bed a few minutes later and sits up reading a novel that takes place thirty thousand years ago somewhere in the northern hemisphere where humans hunted mammoths and reindeer and were themselves the prey of big cats.

At the end of a chapter she closes the book and says to Healing, “What are you thinking about, Shafi?”

“I am thinking about Raaziyah and Ozan, and about getting the backyard ready for Tova and Lucien’s wedding, and about Jean and Albert arriving in a week. And I’m thinking about Diego and Teresa roaming around England and soon to take the train under the English Channel to France, and about your mother and Lucien and Tova buying the house across the street, and Darby’s cataract surgery tomorrow, and my mother soon to turn ninety, and both the parrots saying Maahiah for the first time today and how it made your mother cry.” He looks up at Jahera and smiles. “What are you thinking about, my love?”

“I’m thinking about these people thirty thousand years ago who barely survived from day to day, and about your birthday in three days and wondering if you’d like me to make a Mexican supper with Luisa for however many people you’d like to invite. Would you like that?”

“That would be divine,” he says, yawning majestically. “I’ll ponder the question of however many.”

“I’ll call her tomorrow,” says Jahera, turning off her light and lying down.

“I was also thinking I’d like to go on a walking trip with you,” says Healing, taking her in his arms. “Just the two of us walking north along the coast for a hundred miles, staying in little inns and doing nothing every day except walking and eating and looking at the world and sleeping and talking and singing.”

“But there is no coastal path here, Shafi. We will have to go to Europe for that.”

“I don’t want to go to Europe,” he says, closing his eyes and imagining their journey. “We’ll leave here with small packs on our backs, small because we won’t need to carry a tent or sleeping bags or even much food because we’ll be staying in cozy inns every night. And then in a week or so we’ll turn around and walk home those same hundred miles and stay in those same lovely inns, and when we get home we’ll be amazed at how much the twins have grown while we were gone.”

“Will we take the dogs?” asks Jahera, drifting off to sleep.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” says Healing, falling asleep, too. “Maybe so.”

*

At dawn the next day, Healing slips into his old corduroy trousers and a gray T-shirt with life going along writ in small white letters across the chest, and tiptoes barefoot down the hall past Maahiah’s room to let the six dogs out the kitchen door – their many toenails clattering on the deck as they go to pee and see if anything noteworthy took place in the yard during the night.

Healing follows with a basket for the eggs he expects to find, and on his way to the coop he notices someone came in the night and visited the vegetable garden where Maahiah recently sewed lettuce seeds, most likely a skunk digging for earthworms.

He releases the twelve hens into their scratch yard and discovers they laid fourteen eggs since yesterday’s gathering, which prompts him to throw an extra handful of feed into their yard and praise them profusely.

Now he hears the dogs barking at the pond, and by the tenor of their voices he knows something is amiss, so he sets his basket down and hurries through the garden and into the copse of Japanese maples where sixty years ago, when he was eight and Jean was ten, they helped their father and Rodrigo Hernandez and Julio Sanchez dig a pond.

And here in the center of the pond is a large Canada Goose with a broken wing, beating the water with her good wing to ward off the barking dogs.

“Quiet now,” says Healing, and the dogs fall silent. “She has a broken wing. And though I know there are those among you who would like to tear her limb from limb, and I won’t name names, we’re going to call the wildlife rescue people instead. Come away now and leave her alone.”

*

By the time Healing and the dogs get back to the house, Maahiah is busy making toast and coffee, Naomi is sipping black tea and is five words into the New York Times crossword puzzle, while Jahera is standing in the living room talking on her mobile phone to Tova.

“Of course you can stay with us while he’s in Los Angeles,” says Jahera, winking at Healing. “Yes. My mother and I will come over right now and help you transport the babies. Don’t be silly. We’ll love having you here.”

“They can stay in the cottage with me,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Jahera. “Just like she used to.”

“I think it would be better if I stay with you and we give them my room,” says Maahiah, nodding to Naomi. “Everything is already set up in this house for the babies.”

“What’s going on?” says Healing, pouring himself a cup of black tea.

“Lucien just rushed off to Los Angeles to help Daniel with some last minute fixes to the movie,” says Jahera, leaving her phone on the kitchen counter next to the old landline phone. “He’ll be gone for at least three days and Tova wants to stay here with Raaz and Oz while he’s gone.”

“Fabulous,” says Healing, lifting his teacup to make a toast. “May he be gone a week. And now I must call the wildlife rescue people about a wounded Canada Goose who somehow managed to land in our pond.”

“Never a dull moment,” says Naomi, getting up to go see the goose. “Do you think she was shot?”

“That would be my guess,” says Healing, sadly. “We know she didn’t walk here.”

So while Maahiah and Jahera and Naomi and the dogs go to see how the goose is faring, Healing calls Evelyn at the rescue center and she promises that Tioga and Mary will be there within the hour.

*

Which means Jahera and Maahiah and Tova and the two-month-old twins arrive at the little old house on Nasturtium Road simultaneously with the wildlife rescue folks – Tioga tall and middle-aged, Mary short and early thirties – and with Jahera carrying Raaziyah, and Tova carrying Ozan, everyone accompanies Tioga and Mary to the pond where the goose is floating at the deep end, her head bowed.

Tioga and Mary deploy their binoculars, and after a few minutes of observing the goose, Tioga explains with his Georgia drawl, “That poor bird will never fly again. Her wing is way too mangled, and from the way she’s drooping, I’d say she most likely has other wounds and probably won’t live much longer.”

“Somebody shot her,” says Mary, nodding. “Looks like with a shotgun.”

“I think it would be best if we put her down,” says Tioga, looking at Healing. “If y’all don’t want to watch, we’ll shoot her with a tranquilizer dart and then net her and end her suffering.”

“Okay,” says Healing, crying. “But we’d like to bury her here, if it’s all right with you. Since she chose this place to die.”

“Fine with me,” says Mary, who has known Healing and Tova since she was a little girl and they brought their dogs to Mary’s elementary school to teach the kids about dogs.

“Yeah, no problem,” says Tioga, going to get the dart gun and a long pole with a net on the end.

Everyone except Healing and Mary returns to the house, and Healing fetches a shovel from the toolshed and finds a place on the edge of the little forest of Japanese maples where he digs a deep hole for the body of the beautiful bird.

*

When the goose is buried and the twins go down for a nap, Maahiah and Jahera stand guard over the babies while Tova and Healing and the six dogs walk to the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River where despite the gorgeous summer day the beach is empty of other people and dogs.

So the six hounds are unleashed and race away to the north, running for no other reason but the joy of running as fast as they can – the waves roaring and the cerulean sky dotted with puffy white clouds and snowy white gulls and terns.

“I’m thrilled you’re staying with us,” says Healing, putting his arm around Tova. “I know you miss Lucien, but I’m always sad when you two leave with the babies, and now you’ll be staying overnight and when I get up in the morning there they’ll be.”

“And guess what, Pa-pa?” says Tova, stepping away from him and giving him a mysterious smile.

“You’re getting a dog?” he says excitedly. “For the new place?”

“No, we’ll have Kadan and Puccini,” she says, bursting to tell him.

“Tell me,” he says, holding his breath.

“Daniel wants me to be in his next movie. In October.”

“But that’s only four months away,” says Healing, frowning. “The babies will only be six months old. Where… where is he making the movie?”

“Here!” she says, raising her arms to the sky. “In Mercy.”

“Are you serious?” says Healing, laughing in amazement.

“When Daniel said he was writing a movie with a big part for me,” she says, taking her father’s hand, “I said I was flattered, of course, but that I had no intention of going anywhere without the babies until they’re at least four-years-old, and I didn’t want to bring them to Los Angeles with us or fly with them to Europe unless I could bring you and Jahera with me, and he said, ‘Not to worry, Tova. The movie takes place in a seaside town and we will make the movie in Mercy and your babies will not miss a feeding.’ So I won’t have to go anywhere and I can still be in his movie.”

“Have they finally settled on a title for the one you’re already in?” asks Healing, who always wanted to be in a movie.

“That’s why Lucien went to Los Angeles, to help Daniel make the case for Her Eloquent Refusal. The American distributor wants to call it Big Happy or Second Time’s A Charm, and Daniel says he won’t release the movie here with either of those titles.” 

“A principled artist. A rarity in the movie business,” says Healing, seeing people and dogs approaching from the south, so he whistles for his dogs to return. “I love Her Eloquent Refusal. It’s beautiful and intriguing.”

“The distributors in England and Europe love it, too,” says Tova, opening her arms to the onrushing dogs. “So it might only get released over there. And in Australia and Japan and maybe India. In any case, we’ll soon have a copy you can watch on Jahera’s big computer screen.”

“While I will continue to visualize Her Eloquent Refusal coming to the Surf and seeing you on the vast silver screen,” says Healing, giving each of the pooches a chewy treat for being so good.

*

In the afternoon, Healing avails himself of Tova and Lucien’s new car – what Naomi calls the electric baby van – and drives to Mercy Hospital where Marjorie and Darby are waiting in the lobby, Darby still a bit groggy from cataract surgery, his right eye covered with gauze and a protective plastic cap.

Healing helps Darby to the car and gets him settled in the front seat while Marjorie sits in the backseat and starts to cry.

“Don’t cry, Margy,” says Darby, turning around to look at her. “It’s over now and I’m fine.”

“That’s what I’m crying about,” she says, looking up at him. “I’m just relieved.”

Healing gets behind the wheel and says with a thick Irish brogue, “And where is it now I’m taking you two lovely people?”

“I’d say to the pub,” says Darby, grinning at Healing. “But I think I’d better go home and lie down.”

“Home it is,” says Healing, driving slowly as he always does. “Anything needed at the store, Marjorie?”

“No, we’re fine,” she says, still crying. “The doctor said the surgery was a success. Even better than the first eye.”

“Soon I’ll be able to see the craters on the moon with my naked eye,” says Darby, relaxing in the comfortable seat. “As I could when I was a boy. Could you ever, Healing?”

“I could,” says Healing, remembering the summer nights when he and Jean and the dogs would sleep out by the pond and fall asleep waiting for a shooting star to streak across the sky.

*

An hour before supper, Healing gets the fire going and sits on the sofa holding Raaziyah on his knee so she’s facing the fire, and Socrates comes to touch Raaziyah’s foot with his nose, to which the baby girl responds with a gurgling sound.

“This is Socrates, Raaz,” says Healing, caressing Socrates. “Look how much he wants to be your friend.”

Now Healing takes Raaziyah’s tiny hand and touches her fingers to the top of Socrates’s snout, and Socrates smiles, and Raaziyah gurgles again, louder this time, and Healing never wants the moment to end.

*

The next morning when Healing rises at dawn to let the dogs out, he finds Tova sitting at the kitchen table nursing Raaziyah, with Ozan in his Moses basket on the floor at her feet and Mendelssohn sitting beside the basket watching the baby boy.

“The boy’s been fed,” says Tova, yawning. “If you want to take him out with you.”

“I will,” says Healing, bringing the basket up onto the table before lifting his grandson out. “He can help me gather eggs.”

“The dogs have already been out and in and out again,” says Tova, smiling at Jahera coming down the hallway in her nightgown. “I’d love some tea.”

“What kind?” asks Jahera, putting the kettle on.

“Black?” says Tova, pleadingly. “Okay. Not black. Mint from the garden, please.”

So Healing and Jahera and Ozan and Mendelssohn go out into the day together, and while Jahera clips a dozen fat leaves from a burgeoning mint plant growing in a terra cotta pot set amidst the sage and thyme, Healing carries Ozan to the chicken coop and opens the hatch connecting the coop to the scratch yard – the hens emerging in a grand procession.

“Now my boy let’s see if they gave us any eggs,” says Healing, opening the door to the coop. “Oh look they have.”

Jahera arrives with a big blue bowl, and while she and Healing gather eggs, Ozan makes a sweet humming sound that is music to their ears.

*

While Tova sings in the shower, Healing flips pancakes and Maahiah cuts up nectarines to top the cakes, both of them smiling at Tova’s glorious song – Jahera and Naomi sitting at the dining table with Raaziyah happy on Naomi’s lap and Ozan fussing in Jahera’s arms.

Mendelssohn hears Ozan whimpering and comes to see what’s causing the baby to cry, and when Jahera allows Mendelssohn to ever-so-gently touch Ozan’s cheek with his nose, Ozan gazes into the dog’s loving eyes and ceases to fuss.

fin

Ceremony of the Child from Todd’s album Ceremonies

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Puccini

On the second day of February, six weeks before Tova is due to give birth to her twins, Caspar lies down for his afternoon nap on the sofa in the sun room of the big house where he and Maahiah have lived for the past four years. He falls into a deep sleep and dreams he is a boy again in Norway playing in the snow with his friend Oskar, and he never wakes again.

At dusk, Maahiah comes to rouse Caspar for the glass of wine they always share before supper, and finding her husband no longer alive, she lies down beside him, rests her head on his chest where heretofore she has always felt his heart beating, and waits to die, too.

After a long while of feeling suspended between this life and whatever might come next, Maahiah sits up and gazes down at Caspar’s face so peaceful in death.

“Oh my dear husband,” she says in French, “I’m not ready to die yet. This is what can happen when you marry someone ten years younger than you, someone whose mother lived to a hundred. I want to help Lucien and Tova with their children and grow more flowers with Diego and cook more meals with Jahera and Healing for our friends and family. I will join you one day, my love, but not today.”

She stands up, waits for her dizziness to pass, and calls to Kadan, her handsome Lab Shepherd, brother of Tabinda.

Kadan trots into the sunroom with a leash in his mouth, knowing by the tone of Maahiah’s voice they will be walking to the house where Tabinda lives with Mendelssohn and Socrates and Harriet and Healing and his people.

*

Dressed for the bitter cold, Maahiah sets off with Kadan to walk the five blocks to the little old house on Nasturtium Road, and she falls into musing about giving her big house to Lucien and Tova.

“Then I could move into Lucien’s apartment on the other side of town,” she says to Kadan. “Except there is no yard for you there and I’m not going anywhere without you.”

Kadan looks at her to say Why not invite them to come live with us?

“Do you think they would want to?” she asks, looking to her right expecting to find Caspar walking beside her – the emptiness startling and terrifying.

*

Seven days after Caspar died, the freezing weather ongoing, Healing and Lucien walk with Mendelssohn and Tabinda and Kadan from Nasturtium Road on the east side of Mercy to Lisbon Avenue on the west side where Lucien and Tova live in a two-bedroom apartment above an art gallery in a beautifully restored old building owned by Lucien and Jahera.

“He assumed the role of my father when my real father left when I was a baby,” says Lucien, needing to talk about Caspar with Healing. “And until I was twelve he was very strict with me and extremely critical, until one day, seemingly out of the blue, he became my grandfather who loved everything I did.” Lucien smiles wistfully. “But I never could take him completely seriously as a doting grandparent after he was such a stern and dogmatic father, though I loved him even so.”

“What do you think caused him to change?” asks Healing, having been told by Jahera that Caspar was extremely critical of her when she was a child, sometimes viciously so, until Maahiah threatened to divorce him if he didn’t cease his abuse of their daughter, and with a great force of will he did become less critical and more supportive.

“I didn’t know why he changed until I was seventeen and my mother told me she had given him an ultimatum that if he didn’t stop attacking me she would move away and have nothing more to do with him. So he did change, though as I said, his enthusiastic approval of me after all those years of harsh criticism felt implausible, though I know he was trying to make amends for his cruelty.”

“It certainly gave him good practice for praising Diego,” says Healing, who was never criticized by his parents and was always treated as their friend and equal. “Which praise gave wings to Diego’s creativity.”

You gave wings to Diego’s life,” says Lucien, marveling at Healing’s humility.

“We’ve helped him,” says Healing, nodding. “But Caspar was a famous writer who acknowledged Diego as a fellow artist, and that acknowledgement lifted Diego out of doubt into certainty.”

“My grandfather saw himself in Diego,” says Lucien, crying. “A young man no one expected to amount to anything, scorned and abused by his parents, yet brave enough to embark on the artist’s path against all odds.”

“I was never so courageous,” says Healing, feeling a twinge of regret for not doing more with his talent as an actor.

“Nonsense,” says Lucien, shaking his head. “You’re one of the bravest people I know, and I’ve known a good many brave people.”

Healing bows in thanks to Lucien. “Now tell us about Maahiah inviting you and Tova to come live with her so you’ll have more room for Raaziyah and Ozan, with Maahiah as your built-in babysitter.”

“She did invite us, but we don’t want to live there,” says Lucien, as they arrive at the end of the little stub of a street called Lisbon Avenue. “Not because Caspar died there, but because we want a place like yours with an acre or two for a garden and an orchard. We’ve proposed to my grandmother that we sell her place and this building, too, and buy a house near yours with room for her to live with us.”

“What a splendid idea,” says Healing, stopping with Lucien outside the gallery – the walls within covered with gigantic paintings of naked people playing volleyball. “I’m sure Conchita will be thrilled to make that happen for you.”

“We’re going to meet with her in May,” says Lucien, unlocking the door to the stairway leading up to their apartment where Tova has tea and cookies waiting for them. “After the babies are born and they’ve gotten to live here for a while where they were conceived, then we’ll find our new home.”

“Another splendid idea,” says Healing, who almost every night now dreams of introducing Raaziyah and Ozan to the dogs and cats they will come to love.

When Healing and Mendelssohn and Tabinda and Kadan get home from having tea with Tova and Lucien, they find Maahiah in the kitchen with Jahera making lamb stew, Naomi and Darby and Marjorie at the dining table playing Scrabble, and Harriet and Socrates by the fire, both miffed they didn’t get to go on the walk.

Healing sheds his rain gear, takes off his shoes, and goes to wrestle with Harriet and Socrates, after which they are both happy again and hurry to the back door where Jahera lets them and the other dogs out to run around before dark.

“What news?” asks Healing, coming into the kitchen to hug the chefs. “And what must one do to get a taste of the divine before supper?”

“One must give us an update on the pregnant person,” says Jahera, kissing him. “Tell us she drank ginger tea and not black.”

“She drank mint tea,” says Healing, putting his arm around Maahiah. “How are you, Mother?”

She relaxes in his arms and says, “I’m okay, Shafi. I spoke to Caspar’s literary agent today and begged her to handle the obituaries. The calls are coming in from all over the world and I haven’t the strength to answer them.”

“Why not have a little lie down before supper?” says Healing, feeling how tired she is. “The sofa awaits you and the fire is blazing.”

“Good idea,” she says, allowing him to shepherd her into the living room where he shoos the kitties Dickens and Grace off the sofa, and when Maahiah is lying down he covers her with a quilt, after which Dickens and Grace settle atop her.

Now Healing comes to peer over the shoulders of the Scrabble players at their racks of letters and Naomi says to him, “There was a call for you, dear. I left the number on the counter. Man with an unfortunate nasality to his voice. Dog problem. I pried and he was not forthcoming even when I suggested I was one of your aide de camps.”

“Is nasality a bona fide word?” asks Darby, frowning at Naomi. “Here I am eighty-years-old, a supposed speaker and reader of English since Sister Judith gave me my letters when I was five, and this is the first I’ve heard of nasality.”

Nasality is most definitely a real word,” says Naomi, smiling smugly. “So is nasalness, but I prefer nasality. Feels more specific, doesn’t it? Even if it isn’t.”

*

Healing carries the old landline phone down the hall to the guest room, which is as far as the cord will allow him to go, and dials the number of someone named Ansel Dinkel – the guest room currently occupied by Maahiah who will be staying with Jahera and Healing for the foreseeable future.

“Dinkels,” says a man with a high nasal voice that makes Healing cringe. “Ansel speaking.”

“Hello Ansel. My name is Healing Weintraub. I have a note here from my aide de camp that you called about a dog problem.”

“Oh Mr. Weintraub, yes. Marilyn Constable said you worked wonders with their dog Gigi. Something to do with lizards?”

“Yes. Gigi liked to bring lizards into the house to watch them skitter around on the tile floor,” says Healing, recalling how gentle, relatively speaking, the poodle was with the lizards. “And we convinced her to stop doing that.”

Fascinating,” says Ansel, his fascination unconvincing. “We have a somewhat different and possibly intractable situation with our dog Puccini.”

“And what is that problem?” asks Healing, holding the phone as far from his ear as he can – Ansel’s nasality making Healing’s head hurt.

“Well,” says Ansel, pausing momentously, “my wife June and I are both opera singers.”

Healing coughs to disguise his guffaw.

“June is a magnificent contralto and I am a soprano tenor. June sang professionally for many years and I could have but chose to be our breadwinner so June could devote herself entirely to singing. I was in computers and did exceedingly well, and though June was unquestionably the greater talent, a large part of me still wishes I’d taken the leap when my voice had ripened to its apex when I was in my thirties.” He laughs a high staccato laugh. “Oh well.”

“And the dog problem?”

“So… June retired from the stage three years ago and we made the move from Bakersfield to Mercy seventeen months ago. We live in the Southport community and we just love it, though the winters are cold, and oh my God are we in the thick of the opera scene here. Some retirement. June has a recital in May and we’re doing an abbreviated La Traviata in July. In the clubhouse. Practically sold out already. If you love opera, you don’t want to miss this. World class.”

“May I assume the problem with Puccini has something to do with your singing?” asks Healing, trembling with the effort of suppressing his laughter.

“Oh my God you are psychic!” gushes Ansel. “Hold on. June wants to speak to you.”

“Mr. Weintraub?” says a woman with a booming voice an octave lower than Ansel’s. “The dog howls when we sing, and we sing for hours every day, and though she’s otherwise a dear sweet pooch, she simply won’t stop howling when we sing and we are positively at our wit’s end.”

“Puccini is a female? Silly me. I assumed she was male.”

“We didn’t think Giacomo would mind,” says June, laughing thunderously. “Puccini is, after all, a last name and perfect for a pooch. Get it?”

“Got it,” says Healing, taking the opportunity to laugh out loud. “And what kind of a dog is Puccini?”

“Oh let me give you Ansel,” bellows June. “He has all the technical details at his fingertips.”

Ansel comes on the line again and says, “She’s a one-year-old cross between a small, thank God, Siberian Husky and an Australian sheep dog. Gorgeous. Grays and silvers and blacks and whites and browns. A tapestry of earth tones. She was Pet of the Week in the Mercy Messenger and we had to get her. Such a cute puppy. Sweet as can be and easy to train, except for the howling, and we don’t want to lose her, but the howling is just insufferable. Do you think you can cure her?”

“Hard to say until I meet her,” says Healing, no longer finding the situation funny. “I usually have people bring their dogs to me, but in this case I think it makes more sense for me to come to you and watch Puccini in action, so to speak, if you and June wouldn’t mind singing for me.”

Mind singing for you?” says Ansel, incredulously. “We’d love to sing for you.”

*

“Oh dear,” says Naomi, when Healing returns to the living room and describes the case of Ansel, June, and Puccini. “The poor dog.”

“Do they make such things as earplugs for dogs?” asks Darby, having moved from the dining table to the rocking chair in the living room.

“Not that I’m aware of,” says Healing, sitting on the sofa where four cats settle on and around him.

“Have you ever encountered anything like this before?” asks Maahiah, stirring the stew. “A pitch-sensitive dog?”

“Lots of dogs are pitch sensitive,” says Healing, half-amused and half-aghast at the thought of Ansel singing opera. “We’ll hope they have a big backyard or a room they can sound proof where Puccini can hang out while they’re singing.”

“My heart goes out to this dog,” says Maahiah, making a sad face. “May I come with you when you go to see them?”

“We’d love the company,” says Healing, smiling at her. “Mendelssohn and I.”

“Why are you taking Mendelssohn?” asks Darby, sipping his beer. “Is he pitch sensitive, too?”

“Very,” says Healing, exchanging looks with Mendelssohn who is sprawled near the fire with Harriet. “And I always like to see how the dog in question relates to other dogs.”

“I’ve never heard Mendelssohn howl,” says Maahiah, laughing. “And we sing all the time here.”

“Yes but we don’t sound as if we’re howling,” says Healing, petting Dickens. “And I’m guessing that’s why Puccini howls when June and Ansel sing. She thinks they’re howling, and the wolf in her can’t help but howl with them.”

*

The next morning, the sky full of dark gray clouds, Healing and Maahiah, with Mendelssohn sitting between them in Healing’s little old pickup, drive three miles south of Mercy to Southport, a development of opulent houses and condominiums surrounding a golf course with a recently enlarged and upgraded clubhouse featuring an expensive eatery called El Fuego that features steak, pasta, and Mexican cuisine.

“When we first came to Mercy and were looking for a place to buy,” says Maahiah, as they cruise down a street of enormous new homes, “our realtor brought us here and Caspar said to him, ‘But this is a hellscape. Get us out of here.’ And I’ve never been here again until now.”

“I understand why Caspar said that,” says Healing, slowing down to read the house numbers. “Coming from Chambéry, a gorgeous thousand-year-old city, this must have seemed hellish to him, though I can assure you there are many marvelous people and dogs living here.”

“I’m sure there are,” says Maahiah, wishing Caspar could be with them to meet the opera singers and their dog. “His book gave him the reputation of someone who saw the good in everyone, though in truth he was ever on the lookout for people’s flaws, and as a consequence had few friends.”

“I never knew him in that way,” says Healing, parking in front of Ansel and June’s house. “He was always kind to me and to my friends and family, and genuinely so.”

“He changed when we got here,” says Maahiah, closing her eyes to visualize Caspar. “He softened and mostly let go of his grief about the lack of interest in the books he wrote after Décollé.” She opens her eyes and looks at Healing. “The failure of The Letter Writer project pained him, but his joy about you and Jahera being together dissolved the last of his regret, and he often said these last few years were the happiest years of his life.”

“Mine, too,” says Healing, turning off the engine. “And now we are about to meet Ansel and June and Puccini.”

“But how can you be honest with them without wounding them?” asks Maahiah, gazing out the window at the enormous house. “If what you suspect is true?”

“‘The truth,’” says Healing, scratching Mendelssohn’s head, “as your husband so famously wrote in Décollé, ‘is a multi-faceted gem, each facet giving a unique view into the heart of the matter.’ So we shall endeavor to reveal only those facets that will help and not wound.”

*

June is a tall bountiful woman with a spectacular frizz of dyed blonde hair. Wearing pleated beige slacks, a short-sleeved white dress shirt, and large dangly diamond earrings, she towers over Ansel, a round-shouldered man with a deeply wrinkled face and dyed brown hair, dressed very much like June minus the dangly earrings – both Ansel and June in their sixties.

Assured by Healing that Mendelssohn is a prince among dogs, June and Ansel usher Healing and Maahiah and Mendelssohn into the cavernous living room where Ansel opens the sliding glass door to the tiny backyard and in rushes the gorgeous Puccini to greet Mendelssohn, after which she gives Healing an approving smile and gazes at Maahiah as if she’s just found the love of her life.

“How marvelous that you, too, named your dog after a composer,” booms June. “Great minds think alike.”

“Shall we sing now?” asks Ansel, eagerly. “We could do O Soave fanciulla from La Boheme.”

“Oh I’m not warmed up enough for that,” says June, giving Ansel a horrified look. “Better to do Sulla tomba che rinserra.” She turns to Healing. “What would you suggest?”

“First I’d like to open the door to the backyard,” says Healing, smiling wanly at the thought of Ansel and June attempting either of those famous duets, “to see if Puccini’s response to your singing stems from aversion or her desire to sing with you. And second, if you, June, would sing a scale of ascending notes, Do-re-mi etcetera, we will then have Ansel do the same.”

The sliding glass door is opened to give the dogs the option of escape, and June positions herself in the center of the room where she clasps her hands in front of her and sings a scale – her voice fantastically deep and profoundly flat.

Puccini gives June a wild-eyed look and begins to howl, which greatly interests Mendelssohn who looks at Healing for permission to join Puccini. Healing nods and Mendelssohn howls, too, on the last four notes of June’s disastrous scale.

“As I thought,” says Healing, trying and failing to smile.

“My God!” says Ansel, gaping at Healing. “Your dog howls at singing, too.”

“Apparently so,” says Healing, feigning surprise. “Now you sing, Ansel.”

Ansel strikes a pose similar to June’s and sings a scale of notes so painful to Healing and Maahiah it is all they can do not to wince at his every note, while Puccini and Mendelssohn raise their snouts to the heavens and howl for all they’re worth.

“Wow,” says Healing, when Ansel and the dogs cease their cacophony. “You both have such voices.”

“Such,” says Maahiah, breathlessly.

“Too kind,” says June, smiling and bowing.

“We live to sing,” says Ansel, pounding his chest with his fist. “But the howling just ruins everything.”

“Dreadful,” says Healing, nodding in agreement. “And I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Puccini’s breed, especially the Husky part, is very close kin to wolf. Which is to say, she might as well be a wolf. Thus when you sing as you do, it is literally her genetic imperative to join you.”

“Oh no,” says June, folding her arms and pouting. “We so love having a dog, but we simply can’t go on like this. Can’t you discipline her or something?”

“I’m afraid not,” says Healing, contritely. “However, I can take Puccini off your hands and give her a good home where no one sings as you do. And then, if I were you, I’d get a poodle or a cockapoo, two breeds far removed from wolf and therefore much less likely to howl when you sing. And if he or she does howl when you sing, I would suggest soundproofing a room where he or she can wait while you practice.”

*

That is how Puccini came to live with Maahiah and Kadan and become the newest member of the Weintraub pack.

And Puccini brings such great happiness to Maahiah that in harmony with Raaziyah and Ozan her grief is leavened with joy beyond description.

fin

Love’s Body piano solo by Todd

Solstice New Year Shopping Suggestion: Order Todd’s books of short stories from your favorite booksellers. Here are some links to finding them online: Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.

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Raaziyah and Ozan

On a chilly morning in mid-July, Naomi steps out of her cottage into dense fog, her long white hair in a four-strand braid, her mood euphoric because of the fabulous dream she just had and the delightful absence of various aches and pains that have plagued her for the last several months.

Dressed in her usual attire of wool sweater over a long-sleeved shirt tucked into corduroy trousers, her feet shod in leather walking shoes, Naomi smiles as the golden dog Mendelssohn comes to wish her good morning.

Now Jahera in a pale blue nightgown emerges from the chicken coop with a big red bowl full of eggs, her graying black hair in a ponytail, and Naomi calls to her, “I dreamt Tova had twins,” and bursts into tears.

Jahera sets the bowl of eggs on the ground and goes to hug Naomi just as Healing comes out the kitchen door en route to the garden to pick zucchinis for the breakfast omelet, Socrates at his heels.

“What’s going on, Mum?” he asks, seeing his mother weeping in Jahera’s arms.

“Oh Healing,” she says, smiling through her tears. “You and Jahera are soon to be grandparents, and I a great grandmother.”

*

After a splendid omelet, Naomi resumes her daily conquest of the New York Times crossword puzzle, Jean clears the table, Jahera goes to get her camera – the kitchen made ethereal by fog-muted sunlight – and Jean says apropos of Naomi’s dream, “They’ve only just become lovers, Mum. Doesn’t mean they’re having a baby any time soon. If ever.”

“May help relieve nausea,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Jean. “Seven letters starting with B.”

“Burping,” says Healing, doing the dishes.

“Excuse me?” says Naomi, wrinkling her nose at him.

“May help relieve nausea,” he says, nodding. “Burping.”

“Goodness,” says Naomi, frowning at the puzzle. “Which means 47 Down, Discreet, would be prudent, and 52 Across is almost surely niacin.” She shakes her head. “I never in a million years would have guessed burping. Seems rather de clássé for the New York Times, don’t you think?”

“All the world is de clássé now,” says Jean, putting a kettle on for tea. “Except here in the little old house on Nasturtium Road and at our house in Devon where Albert enforces strict anti-de clássé laws.”

“If I may briefly revive the subject of Tova and Lucien,” says Healing, smiling at his mother, “I would hope…”

“Fear not, my son,” says Naomi, having regained control of her emotions. “I shall make no mention of my dream to Tova or to Lucien, nor will I make any sort of fuss about their impending parenthood, though just between the four of us, I know my dream was prophetic. Literally.”

“How do you know?” asks Jahera, who is photographing the parrots Bogart and Bacall through the open door of their big cage in the far corner of the kitchen.

“The dream was so real,” says Naomi, taking off her glasses to gaze at Jahera. “Indistinguishable from this reality. Perhaps even more real. Which is how my dreams were about Healing before he was born.”

“Did you see them?” asks Jahera, taking picture after picture of Naomi. “The twins?”

“I did,” says Naomi, smiling sublimely. “A girl and a boy.”

*

Later that morning, home from spending the night at Lucien’s, Tova accompanies Healing and the four dogs on a walk across town to Darby and Marjorie’s house at the end of Huckleberry Lane where Darby’s dog Dagwood and Marjorie’s dog Fritz join the pack for a ramble across the headlands to land’s end and back, after which Darby and Marjorie give Healing and Tova tea.

“How’s the romance progressing?” asks Darby, winking at Tova. “By the bloom in your cheeks, I’d say things are going well.”

“I suppose so,” says Tova, frowning. “Though we keep discovering we don’t really know how to be in a relationship. Do you know what I mean? We’re both so used to being solo artists, we really don’t know what to do with each other besides carry on as friends and sleep together.”

“Well that is how to be in a relationship,” says Darby, nodding encouragingly. “A friendship with physical intimacy.” He looks at Marjorie and Healing. “No?”

“Yes,” says Healing, nodding in agreement, “though I think she’s talking about the learning curve, if you will, on which two people evolve into a dyad that is ineffably greater than the sum of its parts.”

“Sounds right,” says Tova, feeling she might cry. “Something like that.”

“Takes time,” says Marjorie, putting her hand on Tova’s shoulder. “And it requires a shift in your priorities, I think. The relationship has to take precedence over your solo tendencies. Not always, but certainly more than in a friendship.”

“It’s very interesting you should say that,” says Tova, clearing her throat, “because Lucien is going to Los Angeles to be the art director of a movie for the last week of July and most of August, and he wants me to come with him, except the last thing I want to do is go hang out in a city that makes Portland look like a small town when I’m still recovering from eighteen years of living in Portland, which was by far too huge for me. Yet there’s a part of me that wants to go with him because I love being with him and we’re just starting our relationship and it seems I should go because this is such a big deal in his life and he really wants me to come along except I’m in the middle of all sorts of wonderful things here and I’d rather not put everything on hold while he’s having the time of his life and I’m stuck in some hotel room waiting for him to come home with takeout Chinese.”

“Is that the plan?” asks Darby, giving her a dubious look. “You wait in the hotel room all day and he brings you takeout Chinese? Wouldn’t he take you to a swank café?”

“Oh I don’t know,” says Tova, sadly shaking her head. “If it was only for a week I’d be happy to go. But it’s six weeks.”

“Will you drive to Los Angeles?” asks Marjorie, who is seventy-eight and recently returned to Mercy after living in Idaho for twelve years, and never wants to leave Mercy ever again.

“No. We would take the train from Oakland,” says Tova, gazing out the window. “That would be fun. A train trip with Lucien.”

“Go for a week, darling,” says Healing, gently. “And if you’ve had enough by then, take the train home and we’ll pick you up in Oakland.”

“You think so?” says Tova, brightening. “We hadn’t thought of me just going for part of the time.” She laughs. “You see? We really don’t how to be in a relationship.”

*

And so Tova and Lucien sally forth to the city of angels, the days go by, July becomes August, and the habitués of the little house on Nasturtium Road hear not a peep from Tova or Lucien until the morning of the seventh of August.

“Weintraub consortium,” says Naomi, answering the old landline on the kitchen counter. “To whom may I direct your call?”

“Grandma-ma, it’s Tova.”

“Tova?” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Healing and Jahera and Jean who are at the dining table, all of them gazing raptly at Naomi as if they can see Tova embodied in the ancient yellow phone. “The name is vaguely familiar. Are you inquiring about a dog problem or a cat problem?”

“Don’t be mean,” says Tova, sounding exactly as she did when she was five and Naomi would tease her with sarcasm. “We’ve been crazy busy since the moment we got here and this is literally the first chance I’ve had to call, and by chance I mean barely a moment because we’re leaving for the set in just a few minutes.”

“Do tell,” says Naomi, beckoning Healing to come and listen with her.

“Oh God,” Tova effuses. “So much has happened. First of all, Lucien asked me to come to the set with him on our first day here and the person they’d hired to assist him was a no show, so Lucien said he wanted me to assist him in the meantime, and the director approved, and by the end of the day I’d been officially hired as the assistant art director and they’re paying me union scale, so I’m making a fortune. By my standards. And I’m learning so much about art directing from Lucien who’s just a genius at this sort of thing, like how certain colors look just awful on film and others look marvelous, and the placement of symbolic artifacts around the set, like paintings subtly echoing the gist of the scene, and Lucien says I’m a natural, though I think he’s just being nice, and then three days ago we were having supper with Daniel, the director, who is so good with actors it’s a thrill to watch him work. He and Lucien were pals in France. Oh and you must tell Darby the name of the swank restaurant where Daniel took us. It is so swank it verges on satire.”

“It being?” ask Naomi, exchanging quiet chuckles with Healing.

No Jive,” says Tova, laughing. “Oh Beck is here. He’s our driver. He’s an absolute wizard at navigating the insane traffic. Oh and now Lucien is holding up three fingers, which means I have three more minutes. So… also tell Darby we’re not in a hotel but in a lovely condominium right on the beach in Santa Monica. Not that we have time to go to the beach.”

“You were about to tell us something that happened at supper with Daniel,” says Healing, taking the phone from his mother.

“I was,” says Tova, starting to cry. “Hi Pa-pa. So Isadora the French actress who was supposed to play the part of Gretchen who has a brief fling with Jonah, the male lead, as a kind of a bittersweet prelude to Jonah’s falling in love with Jessica, the female lead… anyway Isadora broke her ankle and can’t play the part because she’s a waitress in the movie and she has to walk around carrying things, so I said with my French accent which I’ve modeled after Jahera’s, ‘Oh what a disaster. What will you do, Daniel?” and Daniel gaped at me and said, ‘We’ll test you for the part tomorrow,’ and so he did and he says the camera loves me so now I’m in three juicy little scenes as Gretchen starting tomorrow and… oh we’ve got to go. Beck’s at the door. Love you. Bye.”

*

As if Tova’s call wasn’t enough excitement for one morning, when the breakfast dishes are done and Jahera and Healing and Jean are getting ready to take the dogs for a beach walk, the phone rings again.

Healing answers and his heart sinks when he hears the voice of Max Benoit calling from Geneva – Max and his wife Miranda the owners of Mendelssohn who they left with Healing to care for while they’ve been in Geneva for two years, those two years now drawing to a close.

“Healing,” says Max with his strong French accent. “How are you?”

“I’m well,” says Healing, dreading the loss of Mendelssohn. “And you and Miranda?”

“We are very well and have made a great success in Geneva and I have agreed to conduct here for one more year, and then we are moving to England for three years and we hope to find a place there with a yard for Mendelssohn. So we are wondering if you would mind keeping him for another year, for which we insist on paying you, and then once we are settled in England we will bring Mendelssohn over here.”

Jahera watches Healing falter in his reply, and knowing the call is from Max, she takes the phone from Healing and shifts the language of the conversation to French.

Healing listens numbly to Jahera and Max exchanging niceties before he wanders out the back door – the dogs following him.

He walks to the pond and sits on the bench while Harriet and Tabinda and Socrates chase a squirrel, and Mendelssohn hops up on the bench beside him.

“I know you’d love to be with Max and Miranda again,” says Healing, petting Mendelssohn. “But I want you to stay with us. I’ve grown accustomed to your face. You almost make the day begin. Like breathing out and breathing in.” He laughs. “And you get me, Moosh. As so few ever have. Dogs or humans. You really get me.”

Mendelssohn looks into Healing’s eyes and gives a little nod to say The feeling is mutual, Shafi.

*

After a good long sit by the pond, the last of the morning fog finally abating, Healing and the dogs return to the house to collect Jean and Jahera for a walk to the beach, and as Jahera is leashing Socrates she says matter-of-factly, “So I settled things with Max and we’re keeping Mendelssohn.”

“For one more glorious year,” says Healing, leashing Tabinda and Harriet. “And we’ll make the best of it.”

“No,” says Jahera, unable to conceal her joy. “Moosh is going to live with us for the rest of his life.”

*

The next morning Diego arrives at the Weintraub estate at eight on the dot, and after he and Healing work for three hours, Diego has a photography lesson with Jahera, followed by lunch on the deck with Healing and Jahera and Naomi and Jean and Maahiah and Caspar – quesadillas, guacamole, arroz y frijoles, courtesy of Diego’s grandmother Luisa – to celebrate Mendelssohn’s becoming a permanent member of the family.

“What were your labors here today, Diego?” asks Maahiah, who is very fond of the young man.

“Healing and I put up twenty feet of new fence where the old fence rotted away,” says Diego, setting his fork down to answer her. “And we cleaned the chicken coop and planted carrots and peas and lettuce. Then Jahera and I took pictures with her cameras using different shutter speeds and different F-stops. She told me you are a very good photographer. I would like to see some of your pictures. It’s very interesting, you know, these cameras on our phones. They make all those adjustments by themselves, but sometimes we might want something different than what they want, so if I’m going to be a photographer I must know how to tell the camera what I want.”

“Is that what you’d like to be?” asks Caspar, surprised by Diego’s interest in taking pictures. “A photographer? Why did I think you were an actor?”

“Perhaps because he’s so handsome and charming,” says Maahiah, smiling at Diego.

“No,” says Diego, waving the compliment away. “I’m not an actor. I would like to make books like Jahera’s books, you know. Photographs of interesting things with words to go along with the pictures.” Diego smiles at Healing. “And I’d like to interview people for the newspaper and take their pictures. I just sent my first interview and pictures to the Mercy Messenger. I don’t know if they’ll take it, but I hope so.”

“Whom did you interview?” asks Caspar, intrigued by Diego’s ambition.

“My friend Jaime,” says Diego, nodding. “He just got back from two years in the Army, so I asked him about that and his life now. It was very interesting to hear what happened to him.” Diego nods thoughtfully. “He’s not going to re-up. He was in a combat zone for seven months and got wounded twice. Once in the leg and once in the hand. He says he’s lucky to be alive and I believe him.”

“How horrible for him,” says Jean, grimacing. “What is he doing now that he’s home?”

“He’s going to community college and, you know, just trying to feel okay again. He got PTSD. Do you know about this? Trauma from the war. But you can get it from other things, too. I think I have some. He gets very anxious, you know, and sometimes he’s so afraid he can’t go to school.”

“Is that in the interview?” asks Caspar, fascinated.

“Oh yes,” says Diego, nodding. “It’s all about that, you know. How when something terrible happens to someone it can change their life forever.”

“I’d love to read it,” says Caspar, earnestly. “Whether they put it in the newspaper or not.”

“You really want to?” asks Diego, blushing. “I mean… I’m just learning to write, you know, at the community college and from Healing and Naomi so it might not be good enough for you.”

“I’m sure it will be more than good enough,” says Caspar, remembering when he was eighteen and just starting to write poems and stories, how reluctant he was to show anyone his work for fear they would crush his illusion of greatness.

“Okay,” says Diego, glancing at Healing for approval. “I’ll give you a copy and some pictures I took of Jaime.”

“We know you’re very busy, Diego,” says Maahiah, nodding graciously to him, “but I could use your help in my garden one or two days a week for a few hours. If you’re looking for more work and could fit us into your schedule.”

“I can work for you,” says Diego, nodding. “I work here three mornings a week, and I work for Darby and Marjorie one afternoon a week, and I work for the Millers across the street right over here on Saturdays for five hours. So I could give you a couple hours in the afternoon on the days I work here.”

“Be sure to leave enough time for school and study and photography,” says Healing, with concern in his voice. “And for Teresa.”

“Don’t worry, Pa-pa,” says Diego, grinning at Healing. “My goal is twenty-five hours of work a week and I’m almost there. Then I can save some money, you know, and still have time for my girlfriend and studying with you and Naomi and Jahera. And time for my art, of course.”

*

In the backyard on a warm afternoon in early October, Healing is helping a young woman named Leslie train her spunky six-month-old mongrel Diva, while Lucien films the proceedings, his video camera mounted on a tripod on the deck.

Diva performs admirably whenever Healing handles her, and is mostly uncooperative when Leslie takes the leash from Healing.

“What am I doing wrong?” asks Leslie, exasperated by Diva ignoring her commands.

“Tell her to sit,” says Healing, standing several feet away from Leslie and her big sturdy brown pup.

“Sit?” says Leslie, looking down at Diva who, instead of sitting, tugs at the leash.

“Leslie,” says Healing, waiting for her to look at him before saying more. “Tell her to sit. Don’t ask her if she wants to sit. To master your dog, you must be the master. This doesn’t mean you need be cruel or loud or angry. Be firm and kind and entirely sure of yourself. You are the master, she is not.”

Leslie considers this, smiles down at her dog, and with no nonsense in her voice says, “Sit Diva. Now. Sit.”

And Diva sits.

“Now walk her in a big figure eight,” says Healing, tracing a figure eight in the air. “Keep her on a short leash, and if she pulls away, firmly hold her close, not violently, but with steady strength, and say, ‘Heel.’ Don’t ask her to heel. Tell her in the same way you told her to sit.”

Leslie walks away with Diva, and when the pup tries to pull Leslie in another direction, Leslie keeps her close and says, “Heel.” And Diva heels.

“Wonderful!” says Healing, calling to Leslie. “The next time she obeys you, reward her and tell her she’s a genius.”

*

When Leslie and Diva depart, Lucien and Healing have tea on the deck, and with the camera still recording, Lucien asks, “Was it my imagination or did Diva enjoy learning to do what Leslie wanted her to do? She seemed to like the discipline.”

“It was not your imagination,” says Healing, pouring their tea. “Dogs want to be loved and to love, just as humans do. They want to feel safe and to know they have food and water, and they want to belong to a family. And when they identify you as the primary source of these things, they very much want to please you. So, yes, Diva enjoyed learning to do what Leslie wanted her to do, in part because learning in itself is satisfying, and on a deeper level she enjoyed herself because Leslie’s happiness is the source of everything Diva wants.”

“I love how training a dog is as much about training the person who owns the dog as it is about training the dog. Once Leslie became more definitive, everything fell into place. I found it both amazing and immensely satisfying.”

“I’m glad,” says Healing, looking at the camera. “Might we turn this off? I’m feeling a bit over-recorded now.”

“Oh of course,” says Lucien, jumping up to stop the recording. “Thank you for humoring me. I want to send Daniel something of you because Tova and I talked so much about you to him, about your way with dogs and cats, and he was intrigued, so this will delight him.”

“When will his movie come out?” asks Healing, relieved to have the camera off.

“About a year from now if all goes well,” says Lucien, sipping his tea. “Daniel is editing now and hopes to have something to show distributors by March. He’s still not settled on the music. He wants something acoustic and intimate, not orchestral or electronic. It’s a very intimate movie, which means it probably won’t be seen by many people, though it deserves to be. It’s a lovely story and your daughter is remarkable in her role. She acts as she sings, with truth in every word. Daniel can’t wait to put her in his next film.”

“She was born a brilliant clown,” says Healing, remembering Tova’s uncanny imitations of Naomi and Ezra when she was only four. “A preternatural mime.”

“She says she got all her talent from you,” says Lucien, smiling rapturously as he thinks of Tova.

“She will never know as I do,” says Healing, gripped by nostalgia, “how very much like her mother she is, her mother who left us when Tova was not yet a year old, but left behind in Tova her magnificent genetics.”

*

On Thanksgiving morning, Tova and Lucien arrive at the little old house on Nasturtium Road to help with the preparations for a mid-day feast for twenty-five – Diego’s grandmother Luisa, Diego’s girlfriend Teresa, Maahiah, Jahera, and Tova collaborating on an Algerian Mexican extravaganza – Marjorie having baked pumpkin and quince pies – rain expected to fall throughout the day.

Healing and Diego and Darby and Naomi are sitting around the coffee table in the living room playing Scrabble, a fire blazing in the hearth, while Caspar snoozes in the rocking chair and the dogs wait with varying degrees of impatience for the Scrabble game to be over so Healing will take them for a walk, rain be damned.

“We have news,” says Tova, her baby bump quite large now.

“About the movie?” asks Diego, who is very excited about Tova being in a film that might one day play at the Surf Theatre in Mercy.

“No,” says Tova, as she and Lucien stand on the threshold between the kitchen and the living room. “About the baby.”

The collective breath is held as Tova gives Lucien a look to say You tell.

“We had our first ultrasound yesterday,” says Lucien, placing his hand on Tova’s belly. “And we learned we are four months along and there are two babies in here. A girl and a boy.”

“And you waited all this time to tell us?” says Naomi, pretending to be outraged as she winks at Healing.

“We wanted to be alone with the news for a little while,” says Lucien, smiling at Naomi. “Just the four of us.”

“Then last night,” says Tova, with tears running down her cheeks, “as we were falling asleep, Lucien told me about a winter he spent in Algeria with Jahera and Maahiah when he was a boy, and the wonderful friend he had there named Ozan, and I loved the name Ozan so much we decided that will be the name of our son.”

“Ozan means poet,” says Maahiah, placing her hand on her heart.

“Then Tova said she’s always loved the name Rosalind,” says Lucien, putting his arm around Tova, “and I said, ‘I love Rosalind, too, or we could call her Raaziyah so both our children will have Arabic names.’”

“What does Raaziyah mean?” asks Diego, captivated by the magic of this moment.

“Joyful and grateful,” says Maahiah, coming to embrace Tova. “A gift from God.”

fin

A Wedding Song by Todd (with Gwyneth)

Holiday Shopping Reminder: Why not give Todd’s books as gifts this year? Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.

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Ridley

The day before Healing Weintraub’s sixty-sixth birthday, on a cold clear morning in June, Healing and his sister Jean walk with their four dogs to the vast beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, and seeing other dogs and people on the beach, they do not unleash their dogs.

Walking northward along the shore for a half-mile or so, they come upon a big burly fellow with white hair named Phil Wiggins, shouting at a strikingly beautiful gal with graying brown hair named Amy Frobisher. The cause of their dispute is that Amy’s dog Ridley has stolen the ball Phil flung into the icy water for his dog Special to retrieve – Special a sixty-pound eight-year-old Golden Retriever, Ridley a massive five-year-old mix of Greyhound, Great Dane, and Golden Retriever, one of the most powerful dogs Healing has ever known.

“Your stupid dog ruins the beach for my dog and all the other dogs who like to play ball,” shouts Phil, glaring at Amy. “You should keep him on leash if you can’t keep him from stealing balls.”

“Oh grow up,” says Amy, petulantly. “He’s just a dog being a dog.”

“Ridley,” calls Healing, who has known the mighty ball thief since he was a pup. “Bring me the ball.”

To Phil’s amazement and Amy’s chagrin, Ridley sprints to Healing and drops the ball at his feet, and Healing hands the ball to Phil.

“Thanks,” says Phil, taking a deep breath to calm down. “That dog is a menace. You’re the only person in the world who can get him to bring the ball to you. I don’t know how you do it, but if you hadn’t come along just now, I guarantee he never would have given it back.”

“Amy,” says Healing, waving to her. “Would you mind leashing Ridley so Phil and Special can play ball without interference from Ridley?”

“You can’t be serious,” she says, scoffing at him. “Come on Ridley.”

Ridley remains with Healing despite Amy’s repeated calls until Healing taps the top of Ridley’s head and says, “Go on now Ridley. Go with Amy,” and away Ridley goes.

“Too bad about that,” says Healing, watching Amy and Ridley walk away – Ridley looking back to see if Phil might throw the ball again for Special. “I’ve offered to train him not to do that, but Amy refuses, so…” He shrugs. “I’m sorry, Phil.”

“You’d think,” says Jean, annoyed by Amy’s recalcitrance, “she’d bring Ridley his own ball if he’s so keen on that sort of thing.”

“Oh we gave her a flinger and six balls,” says Phil, exasperated. “Meryl Horner, Bob Davidson, Craig Ross, Daphne Dorsett, and I. And she called us idiots and made a big show of throwing the flinger and balls into the garbage can.” He sighs. “Sadly, this is the high point of her life. Ruining the beach for us and our dogs.”

“I wonder why she’s so combative,” says Jean, who sensed great sorrow in Amy.

“It would be one thing if she happened to be here when we came to the beach,” says Phil, still not throwing the ball for Special, “but she’s here every morning and stays for hours and hours, and that maniacal dog will go miles out of his way to steal balls from our dogs. Miles.”

“Have you tried bringing two balls?” asks Healing, knowing he could train Ridley not to steal balls if only Amy would allow him to. “One for Special and one for Ridley?”

“Countless times,” says Phil, sighing again. “He just takes whichever ball Special is chasing, and when I throw the other ball, he gets that one, too, and then Special gets confused and upset and I’m screaming at Ridley, and…” He shrugs helplessly. “We just give up.”

*

Another quarter-mile along, Healing and Jean and their dogs come upon willowy Daphne Dorsett complaining to Amy about Ridley taking not one but two of Baryshnikov’s balls – Baryshnikov a sweet old Black Lab.

“This beach is for everyone, Daphne,” says Amy, glowering at her. “Not just you.”

Once again, Healing has Ridley bring him the purloined balls, and after Amy and Ridley amble away, Daphne says to Healing in her quavering voice, “Thank you so much, Healing. I’ve been meaning to tell you that a friend of mine sent me an article about soaking a tennis ball in hot sauce, which dogs supposedly hate. Do you think such a ball would deter Ridley?”

“Not likely,” says Healing, laughing at the thought of Daphne flinging tennis balls drenched in hot sauce for Ridley to retrieve. “And Baryshnikov might never retrieve a ball again if he got hold of a spicy one.”

“She gets some sort of strange satisfaction from ruining our fun,” says Daphne, a retired teacher. “Just like the bullies at school. Poor dear. No one is a bully if they haven’t been bullied.” She shrugs. “We would all happily go to another beach, but this is the only beach near town where dogs are allowed. The other beaches are wild life refuges, as well they should be.”

“I wonder what she hopes to gain from this,” muses Jean, ever perplexed by people who are consciously cruel to others.

“Well we know it isn’t money,” says Daphne, shaking her head, “because we offered to pay her not to bring Ridley here from eight until ten in the morning on Mondays Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

“How much did you offer her?” asks Jean, aghast.

“Fifty-six dollars a day,” says Daphne, sadly shaking her head. “That would have been eight of us putting in seven dollars each. To which Amy replied that she had never been so insulted. So we upped the sum to sixty-four dollars and she resorted to obscenities. And that was that.”

*

For Healing’s birthday, Jahera and Maahiah serve a sumptuous Algerian supper on the deck for seventeen people – the June weather continuing mild and mostly sunny.

At feast’s end, when everyone has a piece of pumpkin pie and coffee or tea, Healing says, “I have been preoccupied with a little mystery for the last twenty-four hours, and I’d love to present the case to you and ask for your thoughts on the matter.”

“Do tell,” says Darby, sipping his coffee flavored with a splash of rum. “Who doesn’t love a good mystery?”

“A new case?” effuses Healing’s daughter Tova. “We love new cases.”

Healing eloquently describes the problem of Ridley the ball-thieving dog and his uncooperative owner Amy, and the ongoing sorrow and frustration this brings to several Mercy dog owners and their dogs.

Caspar, Healing’s father-in-law, frowns at the conclusion of Healing’s presentation and says, “May I ask if Ridley is the only such ball-thieving dog who visits our beach?”

“There are many dogs who visit our beach who will chase balls thrown for other dogs,” says Healing, smiling at Caspar. “But their owners cooperate in retrieving any wrongly appropriated balls, and thereafter will leash their dogs or move out of range to avoid a recurrence. Amy is the only dog owner availing herself of the town beach who steadfastly refuses to cooperate in this regard, and Ridley is the only resident dog who will never bring a ball back to anyone, except to me.”

“Why will he bring the ball to you and to no one else?” asks Lucien, Jahera’s son who is currently courting Tova.

“The short answer,” says Healing, who holds free weekly dog training sessions in the backyard for those with young dogs or with older dogs in need of tune-ups, “is that Ridley perceives me as his alpha and so very much wants to please me.”

“But doesn’t he see the woman who owns him as his alpha?” asks Lucien, frowning. “I thought all dogs saw their owners as their alphas.”

“Not so,” says Healing, finding the question especially illuminating regarding Amy and Ridley. “For a dog to recognize another dog or person as his or her alpha, the alpha must possess certain capabilities and…” He struggles to find the word. “…behaviors that inform the dog of the alpha’s… alpha-ness, if you will.”

“I don’t understand,” says Lucien, shaking his head. “I believe you, of course, because I see proof of your alpha-ness every time I come to visit, but I can’t imagine what those capabilities and behaviors are.”

“There may not be human words for what I’m trying to describe,” says Healing, none coming to mind.

“So is that why Amy can’t control Ridley?” asks Maahiah, who often knows what Healing is thinking. “Because she is not his alpha? Then how does she get him to and from the beach?”

“She has no trouble getting him to the beach,” says Healing, laughing. “Because Ridley loves going to the beach. Lives for going to the beach. But when it’s time to leave the beach, Amy will shout herself hoarse trying to get him to come near enough so she can leash him and drag him to her car. I know this because on several occasions, though she absolutely loathed doing so, she asked for my help, which I gave her.”

“The dog needs to be trained or banned,” says Darby, angered by the situation. “This woman shouldn’t be allowed to ruin the beach for everyone else.”

“He does need to be trained,” says Healing, nodding in agreement, “though he’s almost six now and it would take some doing. He’s incredibly willful and formidably strong. I have offered to train him but Amy won’t hear of it.”

“So this really isn’t about the dog at all,” says Jean, who has raised many dogs in her life. “It’s about the person.” She looks at her mother. “Don’t you think so, Mum?”

“Reluctantly, I must recuse myself from this discussion,” says Naomi with a wry smile, “because Amy has consulted with me and my Tarot deck on occasion, and my insights about her, though they very well might prove helpful, must remain unspoken. Client confidentiality and all that.”

“I have another question,” says Caspar, who loves discussing Healing’s dog cases. “Does Amy throw a ball for Ridley to fetch?”

“No,” says Healing, shaking his head. “She brings him to the beach expressly, it seems, to steal balls belonging to other dogs.”

“Doesn’t this strike you as odd?” says Caspar, squinting thoughtfully. “It does me. I think it might be a crucial fact to be examined more closely.”

“I think he’s right,” says Darby, wagging a finger at Healing. “Find out why she won’t fling a ball for her own dog who loves nothing so much as chasing a ball, and you’ll find yourself at the heart of the mystery.”

“Of course,” says Healing, awareness dawning. “She can’t control him, yet she has found a way to give him what he wants.”

*

Over tea the next morning, Healing says to his mother, “Speaking hypothetically, and not about any person in particular, why do you imagine anyone would behave as Amy is behaving toward the people who bring their dogs to the beach to chase balls?”

Naomi, who turned eighty-eight in April, looks up from the Thursday New York Times crossword puzzle, today’s theme Broadway musicals of the 1950s and therefore easy as pie for Naomi. “I would suggest that such a person is bitterly jealous of those other people because she perceives them, rightly or wrongly, as happier than she, and they have dogs who obey them. Whereas she is deeply unhappy and has a dog she can barely control.”

“Such a person is deeply unhappy because…?” asks Healing, cocking his head to one side as his dog Socrates will cock his head when pondering a bafflement.

“A loveless childhood,” says Naomi, sadly. “Boarding schools from six to eighteen. Failed friendships and terrible marriages, and now living alone without deep purpose for many years.”

“How does she earn her living?” asks Jahera, bringing her coffee to the table.

“She is the sole heir of an enormous fortune handed down from her great grandfather,” says Naomi, sipping her tea. “Frobisher Sugar. At one time they owned large swaths of Hawaii and their sugar was ubiquitous throughout the northern hemisphere.”

*

The next morning, after a lengthy discussion and rehearsal, Naomi and Healing and Jean walk with their four dogs to the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, a half-mile from the little old house on Nasturtium Road – Healing armed with a flinger and three sturdy rubber balls the size of tennis balls.

Socrates is half Lab and half Catahoula and weighs fifty pounds. Tabinda is half Lab and half German Shepherd and weighs seventy pounds. Mendelssohn is half Border Collie and half Golden Retriever and weighs fifty-seven pounds. And Harriet is entirely Golden Lab and a muscular sixty pounds. All the dogs will retrieve balls flung for them, though only Harriet will gladly charge into the frigid surf to retrieve a ball. And though all the dogs are good swimmers, only Harriet will without hesitation swim great distances in the wide calm stretches of the river in pursuit of a ball.

As for chasing balls on land, Tabinda and Harriet are indefatigable, whereas Socrates loses interest after a few throws and Mendelssohn will only retrieve a ball if Healing asks him to.

*

The three humans and four dogs arrive at the beach and find the tide high and the surf raucous and no one else about, so the dogs are unleashed and Healing begins the proceedings by flinging the ball so it rolls fast along the sand parallel to the incoming waves – Tabinda, Harriet, and Socrates racing after the rolling orb whiles Mendelssohn stays close to the humans.

Tabinda, being the fastest of those three, is the first to reach the ball, which she happily brings back to Healing.

“Moosh?” says Healing, using one of several nicknames for Mendelssohn. “Would you please show your friends how it’s done?”

Mendelssohn smiles, and when Healing flings the ball again, Mendelssohn joins the chase and beats Tabinda to the ball by twenty feet.

Returning with the ball and dropping it at Healing’s feet, Mendelssohn gives Healing a look to say Something along those lines?

“Righto,” says Healing, scooping up the ball. “Otra vez, por favor.”

This time he flings the ball high and far so it lands where the incoming waves are at just finishing spending themselves on the shore, and once again Mendelssohn outruns the others and picks up the ball before the outgoing waves might carry it away.

*

And now Ridley appears a quarter-mile to the south, running Greyhound fast toward Healing, with Amy trailing far behind.

“Here they come,” says Healing, alerting Jean and Naomi. “Remember your lines?”

“We will improvise if necessary,” says Naomi, chuckling. “But we will certainly stick to the gist of our script.”

“More than this I cannot ask for,” says Healing, waiting until Ridley is about fifty yards away before flinging the ball into the shallows of the surf.

Tabinda, Harriet, and Socrates give chase – Mendelssohn does not – and Ridley outraces them all, snatches the ball from the water, and starts to run away.

“Bring the ball to me, Ridley,” calls Healing, with a touch of anger in his voice.

Ridley abruptly turns around and brings the ball to Healing.

“Thank you, my friend,” says Healing, turning to Jean and Naomi. “Would you leash Socrates and Tabinda, please? Mendelssohn needs no leash.”

When Tabinda and Socrates are leashed and sitting obediently beside Jean and Naomi, Healing flings the ball into the surf again, and Harriet and Ridley race off in hot pursuit.

And though Harriet reaches the ball first, Ridley, who outweighs Harriet by fifty pounds and possesses ten times her strength, wrests the ball from her and runs away with his prize.

Again Healing commands Ridley to bring him the ball, and again Ridley obeys.

Now Amy finally arrives and is about to tell Healing to stop playing with her dog, when Naomi calls to her, “Well hello Amy. How nice to see you again. How are you?”

“Oh,” says Amy, taken aback to see Naomi away from her cozy cottage where she gives Tarot readings. “Hi Naomi. I… I’m okay, I guess. How are you?

“I’m well,” says Naomi, approaching her and taking her hand. “I’m only seeing a few clients a week these days. Slowing down. But I can always squeeze you in should you care to have a session. And I’m loving having Jean here from England for the next few months. You’ve met my daughter Jean, haven’t you?”

“Not formally,” says Amy, turning to Jean. “Hello.”

“Hello,” says Jean, shaking Amy’s hand. “What a gorgeous dog you have. Such a powerful fellow.”

“More than I can handle,” says Amy, softening as the conversation continues. “He’s a sweetheart at home, but out in the world…” She lowers her voice. “He tends to be wild.”

Healing takes this as his cue to fling the ball over the smaller waves into deeper water – Harriet and Ridley racing after the prize.

The surf is a mad jumble of undertows and cross currents today, and Harriet can barely get past the first line of waves before she begins her struggle to regain the shore, while Ridley easily surmounts the lesser waves and swims out into the trough of a large incoming breaker where the ball awaits him twenty yards away.

Now all eyes – human and canine – are on Ridley as he swiftly swims through the water and clamps his jaws around the ball just as the wave breaks over him and tumbles him shoreward.

“I hate this,” says Amy, pressing her clenched fists to her mouth. “He could drown.”

“He’ll be fine,” says Naomi, calmly. “He’s a magnificent swimmer. Don’t worry, dear.”

“I hate this so much,” says Amy, gritting her teeth. “There’s nothing I can do to help him.”

“Look, he’s almost out of the water,” says Jean, cheerfully. “Not to worry.”

When at last Ridley is back on terra firma, he shakes himself and runs away with the ball – Healing following Ridley with his eyes and thinking Where are you going, my friend? That’s my ball. Bring it to me, please.

And Ridley turns around and brings the ball to Healing.

“Thank you, my champion,” says Healing, gazing into Ridley’s eyes. “Ready for another swim?”

“Oh please don’t throw it in the water again,” says Amy, hurrying over to Healing. “I’m afraid he might drown.”

“I have never thrown the ball for your dog,” says Healing, gravely. “I threw the ball for my dog, and your dog stole it, though we have all repeatedly asked you to leash him so he won’t do that. To no avail.”

“I’m sorry,” says Amy, the act of apologizing obviously distasteful for her. “Please don’t throw it into the water again.”

“You can’t be serious,” says Healing, flinging the ball far out into the tumult of waves – Harriet and Ridley giving chase again.

“No!” cries Amy, rushing after the dogs. “Come back, Ridley.”

But Ridley ignores her, charges through the shallows, lunges over the lesser waves, and swims further from shore than he has ever gone before, while Harriet fights her way out of the treacherous surf and comes to sit with the other dogs, all of them watching Ridley with fear in their hearts.

After a long arduous swim, Ridley reaches the ball and clamps his teeth around it just as a mammoth crashes over him and submerges him for several seconds before he comes up for air still clenching the ball as another behemoth wave bears down on him.

“Oh God!” screams Amy, turning to Healing. “Can you save him?”

“If you will let me train him,” says Healing, glancing out at Ridley small in the distance struggling to keep his head above water, “and let me teach you how to control him, I will do my very best to save him.”

“Sounds like fun,” says Naomi, speaking the lines she rehearsed on their way to the beach. “And after the lessons we can have tea and…” She gasps as the humungous wave crashes over Ridley. “…talk about life.”

“I should like to attend those lessons, too,” says Jean, hoping to sound cheerful, though she knows Ridley is in mortal danger. “And then tea. Nothing better than tea and talk after a good lesson.”

“Fine. Okay. Yes,” says Amy, bursting into tears. “Please save him. Please.”

Healing strides to the water’s edge and gestures emphatically for Ridley to swim north and parallel to the incoming waves. “That way, Ridley!” he shouts, pointing with the flinger. “Go that way!”

And hearing Healing’s voice and seeing Healing gesturing and feeling Healing believing in him, Ridley summons the last of his strength and swims northward into somewhat calmer waters, where after several more minutes of desperate swimming he comes to within a hundred feet of shore where Healing, naked as a newborn, is up to his chest in the frigid water waiting for him.

“Good dog,” cries Healing, wrapping his arms around Ridley and half-carrying and half-dragging him to shore where they both collapse on the sand.

*

Four days later, Amy and Ridley arrive at the Weintraub compound for their first training session with Healing assisted by Jean and Harriet and Mendelssohn – the session a resounding success.

After their lesson, while Ridley explores the property with his fellow pooches, Amy joins Jean and Naomi and Jahera and Healing for tea and cookies on the deck – the first of many such tea parties that entangle Amy in the constellation of friends who orbit the little old house on Nasturtium Road – the results of her entanglement proving miraculous for everyone involved.

fin

Boody Boody Ba solo piano by Todd

Solstice Gifts! Have friends and loved ones who enjoy good short fiction? You can order Todd’s books of short stories from your favorite bookstores or buy and download them online: Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.

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Siena and Jose

On a cold rainy morning a few days before the Winter Solstice, her cottage toasty from the fire blazing in her woodstove, Naomi is giving her granddaughter Tova a Tarot reading.

“So,” says Naomi, watching Tova place the seventy-eight Tarot cards face down on the table between them, “you want a child though you’re not in a relationship. And what is your question?”

“What does the universe think about that?” asks Tova, moving the cards around to mix them up.

“Ah,” says Naomi, getting up to put a kettle on for tea. “What do you think about that, dear?”

“I want to have a child,” says Tova, continuing to move the cards around. “I’m thirty-seven. I occasionally get a part in a play and sing in pubs a few times a month and work at the veterinarian clinic three days a week, and that’s been my life for eighteen years now. I’m sick to death of living in Portland, which was supposed to be my first stop on the way to greater glory that never quite manifested. I’m sad about my few and far between failed relationships. I feel like an idiot for throwing myself at Lucien every time I came home the first few months he was living here, and though he was very nice about rejecting me, his being here makes moving back to Mercy less of an option, though now he’s talking about moving back to Switzerland, in which case it would be easier for me to live here if that’s what I decide to do, which I might if Kelsey’s roommate in Manhattan decides not to move out of Kelsey’s tiny apartment, and even if she does move out, I’m not really sure I want to move to New York and start all over again at the bottom of the heap at my advanced age and… it’s all a terribly depressing muddle.”

“Your greatest challenge as I see it,” says Naomi, returning to the table with two cups and a pot of black tea, “is that you have created a life in which your happiness depends entirely on the largesse of others. Someone else must give you a part in a play. Someone else must give you a place to sing. Someone else must provide you with an apartment in a place where someone else may or may not allow you to attain what you imagine to be greater glory. Lucien must leave Mercy before you will feel okay about moving back here. And someone else must agree to be in a relationship with you before you have a child. Perhaps the depressing muddle is the result of waiting for others to provide you with whatever you believe is missing from your life.”

Tova frowns. “Have you always thought this about me?”

“Goodness no,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “When your grandfather and I moved back to England eighteen years ago, you were nineteen and taking action right and left just as you always had from the moment you could walk. And we fully expected you to go on taking action like that for the rest of your life.”

“I did go on taking action for my first few years in Portland until…” Tova ceases to stir the cards. “… I started trying to be what other people wanted me to be so I could get parts in plays and get singing gigs. And I did get parts in plays and I did get singing gigs by being what other people wanted me to be until one day I realized I’d become a fake. A phony. So I tried not to be fake and discovered I’d forgotten how to be anything but what I thought other people wanted me to be because I’d so thoroughly trained myself not to be who I really am. And now I’m old and soon I won’t be able to have a baby, and people won’t want to give me parts no matter who I pretend to be.”

“If that’s how you think of yourself,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Tova, “then that’s what you’ll be. You may gather up the cards now and we’ll see if any light may be shed on your dilemma.”

“I meant old in terms of having a baby,” says Tova, crying as she gathers the cards and hands them to Naomi. “I didn’t mean to insult you, Gram.”

“Darling,” says Naomi, who is eighty-seven, “I know what you meant and I am not insulted. However, I will caution you that the words we choose to describe ourselves can wreak havoc on our psyches with their power of suggestion. Neurologists have now proven this with their brain-watching devices, not that we needed more proof, but now we can actually see the brain maps we create with our words, and these brain maps literally dictate the course of our lives and who we are.”

“I shall endeavor to use more skillful speech,” says Tova, sitting up straight and ceasing to cry.

“Let us begin,” says Naomi, turning over the first card. “Aha. The Seven of Wands reversed.

“Who is he?” asks Tova, perusing the painting on the card. “Or she? Doing battle on a precipice.”

“This is a depiction of the depressing muddle you just described, and the person in the painting is you, fighting to preserve yourself as you pursue your goals, though you grow weary of the battle as you are pushed to the edge of your resilience.” Naomi gazes at Tova, who for her first nineteen years was the embodiment of unbridled creative energy and is now forlorn and exhausted. “The card presented itself reversed, which suggests you are on the cusp of changing course.”

“Or falling off the cliff?” says Tova, laughing to forestall her tears.

“Possibly,” says Naomi, turning over the next card – the Five of Cups.

“Oh how sad,” says Tova, pained by the picture of a person cloaked in a black robe gazing at the distant ruins of a castle.

 “This painting depicts your despair and your longing for a relationship, though I must tell you that beyond these obvious indications, this card, in my sixty-five years of employing this deck, always speaks of unexpressed rage.”

“About what?” asks Tova, angrily. “Being a fucking failure?”

“That would not be my surmise,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “Nor my choice of words. Because you are not a failure, except in your imaginings.”

“What would be your surmise then?” asks Tova, seething with anger.

 “I would surmise that you are enraged by what humans have done and are doing to this precious earth you love so much. And I am sure you are enraged that the worlds of professional theatre and professional music in America are not meritocracies, nor are they societies of loving friends, but quite the opposite. And I would surmise you are enraged that you have spent half your life hoping the place and society you have chosen to inhabit would change into something more like the place and society you were born into here in Mercy, this place and community that nurtured you as you grew into the marvelous person you are. Sadly, the society you now inhabit cannot change for the better because it is founded on the aggrandizement of individuals at the expense of the greater good, which is the death knell of every human society there has ever been.”

“Pa-pa was right not to take the path I took,” says Tova, her tears overflowing. “And I wouldn’t listen to him because I didn’t want the world to be the way it is.”

“Your father has always been too psychically porous for city life and for careers requiring one to outdo others. And you are very much like your father, who is very much like me and very much like your grandfather. We do much better living simply and sharing what we have with others and being creative without thought of recompense. More than this is beyond our natures.”

Naomi turns over the next card – the Nine of Pentacles.

“Doesn’t she look happy and rich,” says Tova, recognizing her former self in the regal woman standing in a bountiful garden.

“She is happy and rich,” says Naomi, tapping the card, “because she is living a life of her own choosing. She is not waiting for someone to save her, nor is she waiting for someone else to give her permission to be who she is.”

*

For supper that evening, Tova and Jahera make a spicy vegetable stir-fry to go with potatoes they harvested from the garden at dusk. They drink wine while they cook and sing favorite songs, trying out various harmonies, some gorgeous, some hilarious.

Joining Tova and Jahera and Healing and Naomi for the splendid repast are Darby Riley and his housemate Marjorie Kleinsasser.

“Always love having you with us, Tova,” says Darby, raising his glass of beer to her. “The whole town seems more as it should be when you’re home.”

“I’ll drink to that,” says Healing, raising his glass.

“Well,” says Tova, raising her glass of wine, “as it happens, I’ve decided to move back to Mercy as soon as I can gracefully phase myself out at the clinic in Portland. Shouldn’t take long. Lots of people want my job.”

“Tova,” says Healing, gasping at the news and jumping up to give his daughter a hug. “This is the best news I’ve had in forever.”

Now everyone takes a turn hugging Tova, and when all are seated again, Naomi says, “And she’ll be living with me in the cottage until further notice.”

“Why not take the spare bedroom in the house?” asks Jahera, nodding encouragingly.

“The collective needs a guest room,” says Tova, beaming at Jahera. “And I will no longer be a guest.”

“Come live with us,” says Darby, glancing at Marjorie to make sure that’s okay with her. “We’ve got the third bedroom and the place is vast. We hardly know what to do with all the space.”

“We’d love you to live with us,” says Marjorie, having recently returned to Mercy after twelve years away. “We could cook together and sing together and garden together.”

“Thank you, Marjorie. Thank you, Darby,” says Tova, nodding graciously. “I’ll definitely keep you in mind.”

“I’m so happy,” says Healing, his eyes brimming with tears. “I can’t tell you how happy.”

*

And so on a stormy Monday morning in late January, Tova leaves Portland in her jam-packed little electric car towing a small trailer containing a table, desk, nightstand, and bookshelf made for her by her grandfather Ezra.

Twelve hours later, Tova arrives in Mercy expecting to have supper with her father and Jahera and Naomi, only to find a hundred people crammed into the little old house waiting to greet her with huzzahs and warm embraces.

*

In early February, the day sunny and cold, Healing walks with Tabinda, Harriet, Socrates, and Mendelssohn across town to Darby’s beautiful house on the headlands, and while the dogs explore the backyard with Marjorie’s dog Fritz and Darby’s dog Dagwood, Darby and Marjorie serve Healing strong coffee and just-baked almond butter cookies – the kitchen a glory of sunlight.

“How’s the daughter doing?” asks Darby, who has known Tova since she was born. “We haven’t seen a shred of the girl since she got home.”

“That’s because she’s been sleeping twelve hours a night and two or three more during the day,” says Healing, relieved beyond telling to have Tova home again. “For twelve days now. It’s incredible. I had no idea she was so depleted.”

“I did the same thing when I first got back here,” says Marjorie, smiling at Darby. “For close to a month. Didn’t I, Dar?”

“Yes, you did, dear,” he says, returning her smile. “You were recovering from a great ordeal. And you know I’ve read that the survivors of the death camps slept like that for weeks and weeks after they were free and safe. It’s how the body and the spirit heal after a terrible trial.”

“Tova walked around the neighborhood yesterday with Mendelssohn and Tabinda,” says Healing, half-laughing and half-crying. “She didn’t go more than a quarter of a mile, and when she got home she collapsed on the sofa and said she felt like she’d just climbed Mount Everest.”

“Is she ill or just tired?” asks Darby, frowning. “Maybe she needs to see a doctor.”

“She has my mother and Jahera and Maahiah,” says Healing, gratefully. “Mum is babying her as I’ve never seen her baby anyone. She says Tova is in a psychic chrysalis and will soon emerge as her new self. Meanwhile, Jahera has turned the kitchen into a restorative soup factory, and Maahiah, who comes from a long line of masseuses, gives Tova a long massage every afternoon, and I swear Tova looks younger and rosier every day, so I think for now we can do without a doctor.”

*

Ten days later, a light rain falling, Healing is making the morning fire with help from Socrates who likes to bring Healing sticks of kindling. Jahera is in the kitchen preparing the four bowls of cat food, which she will serve to the kitties on the high table in the pantry out of reach of the dogs – the cats purring as they rub against Jahera’s legs. And Naomi is sitting at the kitchen table doing the New York Times crossword puzzle and sipping black tea, when who should come through the kitchen door but Tova wearing a pretty blue dress, her hair longer than it’s been in fifteen years and soon to reach her shoulders.

“A seven-letter word starting with L,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Tova. “That means glorify.”

Lionize,” says Tova without missing a beat. “Is there more tea in the pot or shall I make a fresh one?”

Healing comes into the kitchen and watches Tova fill the kettle with water. “What’s going on? It’s not yet eight, let alone noon when you usually make your first appearance of the day. Some prince kiss you?”

“I’m better now,” says Tova, setting the kettle on the stove. “I may require the occasional after-lunch nap until I fully regain my sea legs, so to speak, but I am otherwise revived.”

“You look fabulous,” says Jahera, smiling at Tova. “You should see the bloom in your cheeks.”

“I can feel the bloom,” says Tova, pressing her fingers to her cheeks. “Full of blood again.”

*

“Pa-pa?” asks Tova, looking up from turning the soil in the vegetable garden on a sunny morning in the middle of March. “Naomi and I would like to have a party on the second of April. A barbecue at which your band will play. Please? That’s in two weeks on a Sunday. Would that be okay with you?”

Healing looks up from raking the ground that he and Diego are preparing for cabbage starts – Diego a handsome young man who works for Healing and Jahera and Naomi three mornings a week.

“We love April parties,” says Healing, smiling at Tova. “Might we cajole you into singing a song or two with the band?”

“You might,” says Tova, who imagined the very thing while singing in the shower this morning. “We’re calling the party An Exaltation of Larks, though there aren’t any larks in California, but there are lots of larks in England, and we Weintraubs are deeply English. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? An exaltation of larks.”

“I don’t know what it means,” says Diego, getting a small notebook and pencil out of his back pocket. “Would you spell it, por favor?”

Tova spells exaltation and says, “It means a feeling of great happiness.”

“To exalt someone is to praise them,” says Healing, resuming his raking. “I shall inquire of the band members and see who is available on the blessed day.”

“Can I come?” asks Diego, speaking quietly to Healing.

“Of course you can,” says Tova, nodding emphatically. “You’re always invited to our parties.”

“I didn’t know,” says Diego, glancing shyly at her. “Gracias.”

“Please invite your grandmother,” says Healing to Diego. “And any friends you’d like to bring.”

“I’ll definitely bring my grandmother,” says Diego, wheeling the wheelbarrow away to get more compost. “I’m sure she would love to come and bring her famous antojitos.

When Diego is out of earshot, Tova whispers to her father, “He’s a whole other person now. He was so grim and angry, and now he’s such a sweetheart.”

“Yes, he is,” says Healing, remembering the evening a little over a year ago when he and Jahera and Naomi decided the best way to help Luisa with Diego was to hire the troubled young man to work for them – and thus began his transformation.  

Diego returns with the wheelbarrow heaped high with rich black compost, and begins shoveling the fabulous rot onto the freshly turned soil.

“Can I ask you something?” says Diego, frowning at Tova. “About the party?”

“Of course,” she says, taking a break from turning the soil.

“So… what should I wear? Do we get dressed up or is it more casual? My grandmother will want to know.”

“Dress however you like,” says Tova, resuming her digging. “I’m going to get all dolled up, but that’s just me.”

“I might buy a new shirt,” says Diego, smiling at the thought of finding something beautiful to wear to the party. “I know my grandmother will want to get dressed up if you are going to. She has a special red dress she wears for Christmas and Thanksgiving.” He grins at Healing. “The word you taught me. Crimson. More like the red of blood.” Now he shrugs. “I might ask Teresa Nuñez to come. I don’t know if she will, but she might.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of Ms. Nuñez,” says Healing, feigning only mild interest. “Someone new in your social constellation?”

“She’s in my English class at the community college,” says Diego, nodding. “And she’s so beautiful you can’t believe it. When she came up to me after class I thought maybe somebody was playing a joke on me, you know, because I’m not kidding, man, you can’t believe how beautiful she is, so I never thought she would ever want to talk to me.”

“Why not?” asks Tova, looking up from her digging. “You’re very handsome and charming, Diego.”

“Gracias,” he says, embarrassed by her praise. “But girls don’t usually come up to me, you know. I usually go up to them if I think I have a chance with them. But I never thought I would have a chance with Teresa so I would never go up to her. And then the teacher read my essay out loud to the class, you know, the one Healing and Naomi helped me with about my grandmother, and that’s when Teresa came up to me after class and asked me to help her with her essay. So I said I would try, but…” He shakes his head. “She’s already a better writer than I am. I think she needs you, Healing, and Naomi to help her. But even so, I took a chance and asked her to go for coffee with me and when she said Yes I almost fell over you know. Then we went to the café and got some coffee and a scone my grandmother made there, and my grandmother came out from the kitchen to say hello and… now I think maybe Teresa likes me, you know, and maybe she would like to come to the party.”

*

The weather gods deem An Exaltation of Larks a fine idea, and after several days of rain, the blessed day dawns sunny.

Diego arrives looking like a movie star in his gorgeous new magenta shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, the shirt tucked into stylish black trousers, his glossy black hair swept back from his handsome face. Teresa is as advertised, a gorgeous gal with a songful voice and long black hair wearing a short black dress and a necklace of huge faux pearls. And Diego’s grandmother Luisa is thrilled to have been invited and looks like the Queen of Spain in her crimson gown.

Healing and Jahera and Tova and Naomi fawn over Diego and Teresa and Luisa, and when Naomi offers to help Teresa with her writing, Teresa throws her arms around Diego and says in Spanish, “I’m in heaven.”

*

At the party’s apex, Healing’s quartet Mercy Me assembles on the deck and delights the throng of guests with a jazzy tango, after which Tova joins the band and wows the crowd with a gorgeous rendition of Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free followed by a deeply moving version of her father’s song Never Ever Thought You’d Love Me, after which she bows to thunderous applause and leaves the deck to the quartet.

“Wow,” says Justin Oglethorpe, and “Wow,” says Justin’s wife Helen Morningstar as they approach Tova at the barbecue where she is tending chicken thighs and vegetable shish kebabs.

“We knew you could sing,” says Helen, gazing wide-eyed at Tova, “but that was way beyond anything we’ve ever heard from you before. Have you been studying with someone, or…”

“No,” says Tova, laughing. “Just got lucky I guess.”

“Tell us you’ll be singing with Mercy Me next time they play The Goose,” says Helen, nodding emphatically. “Please? We’ll pay you on top of what we pay the band.”

“I’ll ask Pa-pa,” says Tova, dizzied by their praise. “Might be fun.”

“Wow,” says Justin again, gazing at Tova as if she just sprouted wings.

When Helen and Justin drift away to get some of Luisa’s fabulous antojitos before they all disappear, Lucien, Jahera’s beautiful son, approaches Tova and says breathlessly, “You’re a diva. I had no idea.”

“Oh thanks,” says Tova, blushing as she flips the thighs.

“You look different now,” he says, as if seeing her for the first time. “You seem so much more… something. Appropriate descriptors elude me.”

“Maybe because I’m all here now,” she suggests. “No more to roam.”

“Maybe so,” he says, frowning. “What will you do here? Now that you’re all here? Work at the vet clinic? Try out for plays? And where will you be singing? I’ll come every time you do.”

“I don’t know,” she says, enjoying his inadvertent double entendre.

Lucien looks away, troubled. “I’m thinking of getting a cat. If I’m going to stay in Mercy, which I’d like to except… I’m not sure.”

“Not sure about getting a cat or staying in Mercy?” asks Tova, arching an eyebrow.

“You just encapsulated my conundrum in a nutshell,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I keep wanting a cat and then thinking, ‘Oh but what if I leave?’ And when I finally told my mother of my ambivalence after months of wanting a cat and not getting one, she said she and Healing would take the cat if I decide to move back to Switzerland, so… would you help me choose one? From the shelter?”

“Of course,” says Tova, dumbfounded to realize that brilliant beautiful Lucien is as lost as she was before she found her way back to Mercy.

*

At the animal shelter the next day, Emilia Martinez leads them into the cat room where the many cages are chock full of kittens.

“Just let me know which ones you want to hold,” says Emilia, who has worked here for twenty years, “and I’ll get them out for you.”

“Oh dear,” says Lucien, overwhelmed by the multitude of cats. “How can I possibly decide?”

“Stop thinking,” says Tova, opening her arms to the legions of kittens, “and you will see them.”

“Them?” says Lucien, laughing. “I thought I was only getting one.”

“Them. Him. Her,” says Tova, laughing, too. “But if I were you I’d get two.”

“I like that idea,” he says, seeing a tiny black tabby sitting apart from the others in one of the cages, and a dark gray kitten in another cage looking right at him with a sweet little frown.

*

In Lucien’s apartment, after Tova helps Lucien set up the litter box in the laundry room, they sit on the living room sofa and play with the kittens.

“These are the two best kittens in the history of the world,” proclaims Tova. “You have excellent taste in cats, Lucien.”

“A girl and a boy,” he says, feeling giddy. “What shall I name them?”

“Whatever you like,” says Tova, holding the dark gray female.

“Would you name them for me?” he asks innocently. “I know I’ll like whatever names you choose.”

“How do you know that?” she asks, giving him a questioning look.

“I just do,” he says, picking up the tiny tabby. “Aren’t they divine?”

“Yes they are,” she says, closing her eyes. “I would name the female Siena and the male Jose.”

“Of course,” says Lucien, delighted. “They couldn’t be anyone else.”

“And you know, Lucien,” says Tova, opening her eyes, “if you decide to move back to Switzerland, you can take them with you.”

“True,” he says, nodding. “Though one of the reasons I wanted a cat was the hope that having one would make me want to stay in Mercy because I love it here, except…” He falls silent.

“I wonder why you don’t want to stay,” says Tova, marveling that Lucien is so unlike the person she imagined him to be.

“Because I don’t really know how to be here,” he says, gently stroking the kitten named Jose. “Do you know what I mean?”

“How do you know how to be anywhere?” asks Tova, picking up the gray kitten named Siena.

“Well… starting when I was thirteen, I began to invent a persona that works quite well in big cities. Socially charming, pleasantly seductive, witty, lots of acquaintances, no end of work suited to my creative skills, successfully functional within the vast collective anonymity. But here in Mercy my urban persona is revealed to be a concoction of externalities with not very much going on inside except survival calculations and profound emotional confusion. So now I’m floundering around like a fish out of water while my dear grandfather is soon to die and I’m soon to turn thirty-three. And on those rare occasions when I do manage to shake free of my masquerade, I feel so insubstantial I think I might just float away and disappear.”

“I suggest you get a dog, too,” says Tova, handing Lucien the kitten named Siena and rising to go. “Come for supper tonight. We have loads of leftovers from the party.”

“How would you feel if rather than actually getting a dog, I borrowed one of yours now and then?” asks Lucien, accompanying Tova to the door with a kitten clutched in each of his hands. “I have no yard here for a dog.”

“Good plan,” says Tova, giving him a peck on the cheek. “Come for supper.”

“Will you sing tonight?” he asks hopefully.

“If you’d like me to,” she says humbly.

“I would,” he says, holding the kittens up to his cheeks. “Your singing yesterday filled me with a feeling of… being okay. Do you know what I mean? Listening to your glorious voice I felt free of my compulsion to always be doing something or going somewhere or creating something or striving to achieve something. I was just there, outside of time, listening to you and allowing the universe to flow into me and out of me with no desire to cling to anything, and I felt okay. I felt just fine. This is what your singing did for me.”

*

Walking home from Lucien’s place, Tova has a vivid memory of her grandfather Ezra in his woodshop – now Naomi’s living room – making a table for Tova to take to Portland where she would embark on her quest to make it big in show biz.

“What I love about tables,” said Ezra, looking up from his careful sanding of the tabletop and smiling at Tova, “is how these flat empty planes empower us to explore the complexities of life by giving us somewhere off the ground to put things.”

fin

Grandfather piano solo by Todd

Holiday Shopping Reminder: Have friends who like short fiction? Why not give them one or two of Todd’s books of short stories? Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.

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Arturo

“I took my first photograph when I was five,” says Jahera, sitting on the sofa in the living room with Cindy, a writer from the Los Angeles Times – the September morning foggy and cool.

“Digital camera?” asks Cindy, a slender woman in her twenties with long red hair and sparkling green eyes shielded by enormous red-framed glasses.

“No,” says Jahera, tickled by the question. “This was long before digital anything. My mother had a small Leica she used for taking snapshots from which she made pen and ink drawings, and she had those photos developed at the camera shop.”

“The mind boggles,” says Cindy, for whom life before smart phones is unimaginable. “So what was the picture? Your first one?”

“Well…” says Jahera, laughing, “most of the pictures on that first roll were very blurry because I had yet to learn to hold the camera still, but one of the photos came out remarkably well, a sharply-focused picture of my father sitting at the kitchen table smoking his pipe and communing with our black and white dog Arturo who liked to sit on my father’s lap facing in the same direction my father was facing. My father has his hands resting on Arturo’s head, and Arturo’s eyes are closed, a blissful smile on his face. I loved that photo so much I included it in my first gallery show when I was twenty-two, and it was the first picture in the show to sell.”

“Where was this?” asks Cindy, breathlessly.

“In Chambéry,” says Jahera, smiling at memories of her first solo exhibition. “In France.”

“Oh wow,” says Cindy, looking around the living room of the little old house, a fire blazing in the hearth, a calico cat sitting on the windowsill, an orange tabby on Jahera’s lap. “So your first photo ever was of a dog. And now all these years later you’ve come out with a whole book of dog pictures?”

“Not just dog pictures,” says Jahera, wondering why Cindy keeps suggesting the book is about dogs. “There are people in all the photographs, sometimes with dogs, sometimes with cats, sometimes with parrots, sometimes with chickens, sometimes alone, sometimes with other people. Not just dogs.”

“Oh for sure,” says Cindy, studying a list of questions on the screen of her phone. “So what’s really amazing to me is that you knew what you wanted to be when you were only five. That’s phenomenal.”

“I wouldn’t say I knew what I wanted to be, but I was enchanted with taking pictures,” says Jahera, accustomed to interviewers striving to confirm their preconceptions. “So I kept taking pictures, and after high school I studied photography at an art academy in Switzerland.”

“And you did all that before digital cameras,” says Cindy, shaking her head in wonder.

“Before computers or smart phones,” says Jahera, nodding. “I had my film processed in a lab and made my prints in a dark room. That’s just how things were done in those days.”

“But you don’t seem that old,” says Cindy, frowning at the screen of her phone. “May I ask how old you are?”

“Fifty-seven,” says Jahera, who is frequently thought to be Spanish, though she is half-Norwegian and half-Algerian.

“Incredible,” says Cindy, gazing at Jahera as if she’s from another planet. “I would have guessed forty-eight. Tops.”

Now the kitchen door opens and Healing and Diego and four dogs come in from the backyard – Socrates gray and brown, Harriet golden, Tabinda brown and black, and Mendelssohn golden brown with black markings.

“Hello,” says Healing, waving to Cindy. “I’m Healing, Jahera’s adjuvant, and this is Diego, a local Hercules, and these are the resident canines.”

“I’m Cindy,” she says, smiling rapturously. “I recognize you from the book.”

“Ah good,” says Healing, exchanging smiles with Jahera. “Pay no attention to us. We’re just refueling after our ramble on the beach and before Diego and I do a bit of gardening.”

“I like your car,” says Diego smiling at Cindy. “Does that one drive itself?”

“Pretty much,” says Cindy, nodding. “But I still keep my hands on the wheel most of the time. I’m kind of a Luddite that way.”

“That’s okay,” says Diego, who is seventeen with wavy black hair and a deep voice. “I’d like to get one of those Teslas. Only I want a black one and maybe a little bigger than yours.”

“Would you like to meet the dogs, Cindy?” asks Jahera, knowing the pooches won’t enter the living room until Healing gives them the Okay.

“I’d love to,” says Cindy, gazing at the four dogs gazing at her. “Do I recognize them from the book? I think I do.”

“Go on,” says Healing to the dogs, and they trot into the living room – Socrates in the lead, Harriet and Tabinda following side-by-side, and Mendelssohn waiting for the others to say their Hellos before politely presenting himself to Cindy.

“Aren’t they wonderful,” effuses Cindy, petting Mendelssohn. “I can’t have dogs where I live, but someday I’ll have a place with a yard, and then I’m getting at least one.”

“Where do you live?” asks Diego, intrigued by what Healing told him about Cindy, that she writes articles about writers and artists for a newspaper.

“LA,” says Cindy, with little enthusiasm.

“I got cousins in LA,” says Diego, nodding enthusiastically. “I love it there. It’s always warm there, you know. And so much happening. Not like here. It’s cold here even in the summer and there’s nothing to do. I love LA. I might move there.”

“Before you do, let us fortify ourselves,” says Healing, carrying a bowl of nuts and two bananas out the kitchen door. “So we shall have the wherewithal to prepare the beds for planting.”

Socrates and Mendelssohn go out with Healing and Diego, while Harriet and Tabinda lie down near the fire.

“So,” says Cindy, scanning the screen of her phone, “this is your first book, right?”

“My first to be released simultaneously in America and Europe,” says Jahera, who has now given eleven interviews for her new book. “I previously published two books with a French publisher, and three with the Swiss publisher bringing out the new book.”

“I love the title,” says Cindy, picking up the large-format book from the coffee table. “Beings In Their Favorite Places. I love plays on words. And I love how it made me want to see the places the dogs love as much as the dogs.”

“The beings in these pictures are not only dogs. They are people and cats and parrots and chickens and ravens, too.”

“Oh for sure,” says Cindy, nodding. “It’s just… I know my editor will want to push the dog angle because dogs are very hot right now. Which is why I can’t get too nuanced with this. You know what I mean? His motto is Keep It Simple even if simple isn’t completely accurate. Maybe someday I’ll write for the New Yorker and go wild with nuance. Until then, not so much.”

*

“She got that car from writing things for a newspaper?” says Diego, frowning as he prepares the soil for sowing lettuce seeds. “How do you get a job like that? I never knew you could make so much money writing for a newspaper. Did you?”

“I never did,” says Healing, watching Diego work. “Would you try sinking your shovel a few inches deeper before you turn the soil over?”

“Of course,” says Diego, doing as Healing asked. “You want me to do the first part again? I didn’t go so deep there. Lo siento. I’m sorry.”

“My fault,” says Healing, smiling at Diego. “I should have told you sooner. I’d love you to do the first part again. And when you get that section done, you can fetch a few wheelbarrow loads of the aged compost I showed you.”

“No problem,” says Diego, working steadily. “In school you know, they didn’t teach us how to get a job like Cindy got. My mother went two years to community college and she’s only a secretary at the lumberyard and she’ll never go higher than that. My sister has one more year at school in San Jose and then she’s gonna be a nurse. And my grandmother, you know, is a baker. They all work really hard, you know, but they can’t buy a car like that. Only people I know who can buy a car like that sell drugs, and I’m not going that way anymore.”

“What would you like to do in your life, Diego?” asks Healing, gazing at his young friend. “If you could do anything you want?”

“Oh I would get a Tesla like that one Cindy has,” says Diego, continuing to turn the soil. “Only black. Or maybe gray. And then I’d drive down to LA and… you know… party. You know? Get a really nice girlfriend and a nice apartment near the beach and… hang out. Go to shows. Go to ball games. Get a big dog like that big dog you used to have. Get some really nice clothes and some fine shoes and… you know. Live the life.”

“What would you do to earn money?” asks Healing, resuming his work.

“You didn’t ask me about money,” says Diego, grinning. “You said if I could do anything I wanted, so I would already have lots of money.”

“Let me rephrase the question,” says Healing, laughing. “If you could have any job you wanted, what would it be?”

“I’ll think about that while I get the compost,” says Diego, laughing, too. “And you didn’t just rephrase the question, Healing. You asked me a whole new one.”

*

When Cindy drives away to Oakland to interview a formerly obscure poet who just became famous for writing a hit play about a bunch of obscure poets, Diego and Healing join Jahera on the deck for guacamole and salsa and chips and lemonade.

“We got a lot done out there in just three hours,” says Diego proudly. “We planted lettuce and chard and kale and snow peas and arugula and a big potato patch.”

“And for Thanksgiving we’ll harvest those potatoes and make a big salad from that lettuce,” says Healing, pleased with Diego’s work. “You did well today.”

“Gracias,” says Diego, humbly. “You’re a good teacher. I never had good teachers at school, you know. So I didn’t learn very much.”

“What made them not good?” asks Jahera, greatly relieved to have the interview behind her.

“Oh they just talked, you know,” says Diego, shrugging. “Talked and talked every day, all day long, about nothing we cared about, and then they gave us tests and expected us to remember everything they said. But who cares what happened five hundred years ago? Or two hundred years ago in such and such a place on such and such a year? I don’t care about that stuff. Nobody does. How is that gonna help me get a job? You know? What does any of that have to do with my life? Nothing.”

“What they spoke about was irrelevant to you,” says Healing, nodding in understanding. “It was much the same when I was in school, though I enjoyed reading novels for English class and writing about them, and I loved my Drama classes.”

“I didn’t take Drama,” says Diego, shaking his head. “That’s only for girls and gay guys now, you know. Not when you went to school, Healing, but now it is.”

“So now that you’ve graduated from Mercy High,” says Jahera, smiling at Diego, “will you attend community college?”

“I might go there,” says Diego, nodding. “Healing says if I can learn to write good essays maybe I could get a job like Cindy. I would like to drive around in a car like that talking to famous people.” He grins at Jahera. “I never knew you were famous before. Que bueno. Congratulations.”

“I’m not famous,” says Jahera, blushing. “For some reason lots of people are buying my new book of photographs, so now the newspapers want to interview me.”

“I would like to make a book of photographs,” says Diego, pondering the idea. “I like to take pictures with my phone, you know. I got a really good one the other day of my friend Ramon leaning against his car with this look on his face that says you don’t ever wanna mess with me. It’s funny you know because he’s not very tall and he’s so skinny and his car is just an old wreck.”

“What would your book be about?” asks Healing, delighted by Diego’s transformation from emotionally inaccessible boy to talkative and optimistic young man.

“Oh my life, you know,” says Diego, imagining himself as a photographer with a sleek black electric car. “My friends. The things I see. Just the world, you know.”

*

That afternoon, Jahera’s parents Caspar and Maahiah come over for supper, and while Maahiah and Healing are picking lettuce and carrots and cucumbers for a salad, Caspar sits at the kitchen table having a cup of tea and perusing Beings In Their Favorite Places, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose – the afternoon light exquisite – so Jahera goes to fetch a camera.

“How did the interview go today?” asks Caspar, studying a picture of Healing walking on the beach with five dogs on leashes – the ocean a tumult of huge waves.

“I think okay,” says Jahera, returning with a camera. “She wants to emphasize the dogs. She says dogs sell.”

Caspar laughs. “I suppose they do. The first picture you ever sold was of me with Arturo.”

“Yes, but it is the connection between you and Arturo that makes the picture so good, not just that he’s an adorable dog sitting on the lap of a big handsome man.”

“And now all I lack is a dog on my lap to recreate that magic moment,” says Caspar, looking into the living room where Tabinda, Harriet, and Socrates are sprawled by the fire – Mendelssohn having gone to the garden with Maahiah and Healing.

“I think maybe all our dogs are too big for your lap,” says Jahera, raising the camera to her eye. “Even Socrates is too big now to be a lap dog.”

At which moment, Mendelssohn enters the kitchen, has a drink of water from his bowl near the parrots’ cage, and comes to say Hello to Caspar.

“What do you think, Mendelssohn?” says Caspar, petting him. “Might we have a picture with you on my lap?”

Mendelssohn glances at Jahera, and when she nods, he gracefully hops up onto Caspar’s lap, all fifty pounds of him, and sits facing in the direction Caspar is facing – and Caspar gently lays his hands atop Mendelssohn’s head.

“I’m eighty-seven,” says Caspar, a quaver in his voice. “I was thirty-five when you took that picture of me with Arturo. And you were only five.” He gazes into the camera’s lens. “How astonishing it is to be alive, to change from young to old.”

Mendelssohn closes his eyes and smiles at Caspar’s loving touch.

“I didn’t know how to hold the camera still,” says Jahera, taking picture after picture of the young dog on the old man’s lap. “Yet that photograph of you with Arturo came out as well as any photo I have ever taken.”

“Maybe now you’ve taken another masterpiece,” says Caspar, closing his eyes and pretending Mendelssohn is Arturo.

fin

What Comes Around piano solo by Todd

Holiday Shopping Reminder: Enjoy short stories? Have friends who like short fiction? Don’t forget Todd’s books of short stories: Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.