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Anastasia

On a sunny morning in late June, Healing Weintraub and his partner Jahera Dahl sit at the kitchen table in their little old house on Nasturtium Road in Mercy, laughing uproariously as Healing’s sister Jean describes her husband Albert’s latest enactment of his annual birthday performance of Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy.

Jean explains in her deadpan way, her English accent colored with Scottish inflections absorbed from Albert, that Albert always performs the monologue on May 13 at 7:42 AM, the date and time of his birth, his only attire a crown of ivy fashioned from the ubiquitous ivy in their backyard in Devon, England – Jean’s recounting of Albert’s performance punctuated by droll comments from Naomi, Healing and Jean’s mother.

Naomi, who is eighty-five and has long white hair she wears in a ponytail, and Jean, sixty-five and short curly gray hair, arrived in Mercy from England just two days ago, three months after the death of Naomi’s husband Ezra and a week after Healing’s sixty-third birthday. Naomi is intending to live with Healing and Jaher for her remaining years, while Jean plans to stay in Mercy until, as she puts it, “the time feels right for me to go.”

Jean’s hubby Albert, an archaeologist, calls Jean every day to see how things are going and to inquire about when she’s thinking of returning to England. Jean’s daughter Constance calls every other day to inquire about these same things.

“We’ve been married for forty-five years,” says Jean, pausing to contemplate the magnitude of that number, “and in all those years, even when the children were little and I was overwhelmed, Albert has only attempted to cook something twice. Forty years ago he tried to broil salmon, and ten years ago he tried to make spaghetti, and both times he nearly burned the house down.”

“Surely he can boil a potato,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her wire-frame glasses at Jean. “Fry an egg?”

“He would forget the water was boiling,” says Jean, her glasses similar to her mother’s. “And the question of when to flip the egg might very well precipitate a panic attack, so I shall not suggest either of those entrees to him. Better he dine out and have things delivered when Constance doesn’t cook for him.”

“I wish he had come with you,” says Jahera, still laughing about the portly bald Scotsman standing naked in the rain reciting Shakespeare, his audience Jean and five soggy Schnauzers. “He sounds delightful.”

“He would be smitten with you,” says Jean, smiling at Jahera. “He adores women with French Norwegian accents, especially beautiful charming women. I do hope you and Healing will come visit us sooner than later. We’re none of us getting any younger. My grandchildren on the verge of producing great grandchildren.” She gazes around the house where she was born. “The days go by so fast now, don’t they?”

*

After breakfast, Healing and Jahera leash their five dogs and walk across town to The Letter Writer, the shop owned by Jahera and her parents Caspar and Maahiah.

“I’ll be home at three,” says Jahera, giving Healing a kiss.

“I know we’re dining with your folks tonight, but I can’t remember if we’re going out or eating at their place,” says Healing, who used to work at The Letter Writer until a year ago when he retired at the earliest possible age to qualify for Social Security.

“My mother is making an Algerian feast,” says Jahera, wrapping her arms around Healing. “This is a welcoming for your mother.”

“Now I remember,” says Healing, reveling in his lover’s embrace. “Methinks my mother’s arrival blew a few fuses in the old psyche.”

“Methinks so, too,” says Jahera, kissing him again. “See you a little after three.”

*

Walking home, the dogs pulling him along their preferred byways, Healing realizes the main blown fuse in his psyche has to do with sharing the little old house on Nasturtium Road with his mother again after fifteen years of not sharing the house with her – Naomi and Ezra having gone back to Oxford where they were both born, Ezra wishing to spend his last years in England.

“Which is to say,” Healing proclaims to his dogs, “I have thoroughly enjoyed being the only human on the premises except when Tova visits from Portland, and now with Jahera who seems to create more space when she’s with me, whereas my mother, as you all know, casts a rather large psychic shadow.”

*

Arriving home, Healing and the dogs find Naomi and Jean in the backyard inspecting the small building that once housed Naomi’s studio and Ezra’s woodshop wherein he made his exquisite tables.

“We just returned from a glorious walk on the beach,” says Jean, beaming at Healing. “I am revived.”

“We lacked only a dog,” says Naomi, arching an eyebrow. “You took them all. Leave us one next time, would you?”

“Will do,” says Healing, giving his mother a quizzical look. “Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”

“That we make this my abode henceforth,” says Naomi, nodding to confirm her son’s clairvoyance. “Annex the workshop to make a living room. Insulate the walls. New insulated roof. Skylights. Woodstove. A bathroom with a shower and a separate large tub. Now that we’ve sold the house in Oxford I’m awash in cash.” She unfurls her tape measure. “I assume you know the requisite craftsmen.” She titters. “Though now that I’m back in the land of the politically correct I should say craftspeople. A crew of Amazons perhaps.”

“Someone named Alicia called for you,” says Jean, squinting at Healing. “Something about her cat. You still doing that? Solving animal problems?”

“Still am,” says Healing, enormously relieved to know his mother will eventually be living out here some of the time. “I’ll go call Pablo and ask him to come consult with you, and then I’ll see what Alicia wants of me.”

“Should you need any help with the cat conundrum,” says Naomi, pursing her lips as she contemplates a wall in need of a window, “I am ever ready to be your Watson.”

*

During the feast of Algerian food at the home of Caspar and Maahiah Dahl, the talk turns to the Sixties when Caspar and Naomi were both in their teens and twenties.

Maahiah, who is seventy-four and was a teen in Marseilles in the 1970s, asks Naomi what years she feels constitute the Sixties.

“The awakening began with the Beatniks of the Fifties,” says Naomi, swirling the wine in her goblet, “and peaked in the early Seventies – our doomed renaissance as Ezra liked to call that particular cultural ferment.”

“Why doomed?” asks Jahera, gazing intently at Naomi.

“He felt there was never any hope for a continuance of the awakening,” says Naomi, who often aches for her husband. “Seeds were planted, he said, that might one day sprout again, but not so long as the emotionally stunted old boys held the reigns of power.”

“He was right,” says Caspar, nodding in agreement. “I think every renaissance is a blooming that leaves seeds, some of which may one day take root again. Thus culture slowly evolves.”

“Unless everything is erased by catastrophe,” says Jahera, who feels such erasure is underway.

“The Sixties for me,” says Healing, who was born in 1959, “were all about sharing. No one having much more or much less than anyone else. A collective awareness that wealth disparity was the root of all conflict.”

“I think that’s true,” says Caspar, who was a hydrologist before becoming a successful author when he was in his late fifties. “Though I also think those who embraced the ethos of sharing comprised a tiny fraction of the population.”

“Our house and land, and to some degree all of Mercy, was a mecca for those exploring such communality,” says Naomi, smiling at her son. “And then one day everything changed.” She sips her wine. “I know it was not literally one day, but I remember being in the garden with you, Healing. You were sixteen and we were planting sunflower seeds along the northern border of the garden, so it would have been in April, and you said, ‘We haven’t had many visitors lately. I wonder where everyone is.’ And I looked around and felt in my bones the renaissance was ending.”

*

The next morning, following a brief phone conversation with Alicia, a native of Barcelona, Healing and Naomi set out to walk five blocks from their little old house on Nasturtium Road to a big old house on Estuary Lane where Mark and Sophia Ingersoll lived for fifty years until Sophia died a year ago and Mark moved to Maui.

“Sophia was one of the most marvelous people I’ve ever known,” says Naomi, wearing her usual daytime attire: long-sleeved shirt, corduroy trousers, walking shoes, and one of her many sunhats. “Mark was one of the least marvelous.” She shakes her head. “Heaven help the women of Maui.”

“He was over there when Sophia died,” says Healing, who had a crush on Sophia when he was ten and eleven and took accordion lessons from her. “She came for lunch a few weeks before she died. We played duets and had a splendid time.”

“Was it determined to be suicide?” Naomi frowns. “Must have been. She was only seventy-seven and in good health. Wasn’t she?”

Healing nods and they walk on in silence.

*

“Anastasia is in the kitchen,” says Alicia, a lovely woman in her forties with shoulder-length brown hair and a songful voice.

Healing and Naomi follow her through the high-ceilinged living room to a splendid kitchen where a large brown cat is sitting on a windowsill drowsing in the morning sun.

“What a gorgeous cat,” says Healing, meeting the cat’s interested gaze. “I thought she might be older.”

Alicia smiles quizzically. “How old do you think she is?”

Healing studies the cat a moment more. “Not quite five.”

Alicia frowns. “How could you know this? I did not tell you.”

“He’s had the knack since he was…” Naomi indicates with her hand the height of a little boy. “I tend to guess cats are younger than they are, dogs older. Not so Healing.”

“So…” says Healing, gazing around the kitchen and wishing his kitchen was big like this. “What seems to be the problem?”

Before Alicia can reply, the kitchen door flies open and a short stocky man with a tangle of curly white hair wearing a purple paint-spattered jumpsuit comes in, stops abruptly when he sees Healing and Naomi, glares at Alicia and says, “Who are they?”

“This is Healing Weintraub and his mother Naomi,” says Alicia, returning the glare. “They’ve come to help with Anastasia. Recommended by the vet.” She turns to Healing and Naomi. “This is my husband Earl.”

Pollard,” says Earl, as if his last name will make a significant difference to them.

“A painter of large abstracts,” says Naomi, already knowing more about Earl than he knows about himself.

“You’ve heard of me,” says Earl, giving Naomi a jaunty smile.

“Sorry, no,” says Naomi, her analysis of him complete. “But the clues are rampant.”

*

They sit at the large kitchen table – the cat immediately taking possession of Healing’s lap – and Alicia serves excellent coffee and scrumptious almond butter cookies.

“We made the move to Mercy,” explains Earl in his imperious way, “because my fame was getting in the way of making my art, and nothing matters to me more than making my art.”

And though Alicia says nothing to contradict Earl, both Healing and Naomi intuit celebrity was not the reason Earl and Alicia relocated from Santa Barbara to a small town on the far north coast of California.

When Earl finally pauses in his exhaustive recounting of celebrities and wealthy people and art museums clambering for his paintings and sculptures, Healing interjects, “The cat. Tell us what’s going on with this marvelous cat.”

“I’m not a cat person,” says Earl, gulping the last of his coffee and abruptly getting up. “I’m on a roll. Nice to meet you.”

When Earl is gone, Alicia explains, “Our house in Santa Barbara was in the hills above the city. The land is quite wild there. Deer and coyotes and rattlesnakes. Anastasia loved to be outside and was very savvy about the hawks and coyotes and snakes, but here she won’t go into the backyard, though she does like to be in the front yard. And she’s fine in the kitchen and in my studio where she sleeps, but she will not enter the living room or go into our bedroom.”

“You carry her through the living room to the kitchen?” asks Healing, petting the loudly purring cat.

“Yes,” says Alicia, loving the sight of her cat so happy on Healing’s lap. “And she’s frightened all the way through.”

“You’ve done wonders with this kitchen,” says Naomi, beaming at Alicia. “Used to be so dingy in here, and now it is a sunny Shangri-La. We should do something like this with our little ship’s galley of a kitchen. Don’t you think, Healing? And I love how you left the magnificent living room as it was. I applaud your taste.” She frowns thoughtfully. “Is your studio one of the rooms you remodeled?”

“Yes,” says Alicia, delighted by Naomi. “We remodeled the entire house except for the living room, and we remodeled the barn where Earl paints and does his welding. I’m also a painter. We combined two of the bedrooms and a bathroom in the house to make my studio. My paintings are not so large as his, nor are they abstract.”

“The landscaping in front hasn’t changed since Sophia and Mark lived here,” says Healing, getting up with the cat in his arms and slowly approaching the living room. “Any changes to the backyard?”

“Oh, yes,” says Alicia, nodding grimly. “Earl had all the beautiful Japanese maples cut down and the pond and flower garden removed, and then he had the ground covered with gravel for displaying his sculptures.”

Healing stops on the threshold of the living room and watches the cat peering wide-eyed into the big room, rigid with fear.

“Let me see if I have this right,” says Naomi, holding out her arms for the cat as Healing returns to the table. “Every room in the house, save for the living room, has been extensively remodeled, and Anastasia will not go in the living room or into your bedroom. But she will go out into the front garden, though not into the much-changed backyard.”

“That’s right,” says Alicia, fighting her tears.

“Any other changes in Anastasia’s behavior?” asks Healing, handing the cat to Naomi and going to the window overlooking the refurbished barn and the expanse of gravel populated with large tangles of black pipe.  

“None that I’m aware of,” says Alicia, shaking her head.

“Your husband said he is not a cat person,” says Naomi, petting the happy cat. “Does she avoid him?”

“Yes. And he avoids her.”

“Was his studio adjacent to your house in Santa Barbara?” asks Healing, reminding himself they are here to solve a cat problem, not marital disharmony.

“No. Earl’s studio took up the entire bottom floor of our two-story house, and she never went down there.”

“So her not going out into the backyard here might be a continuation of her avoiding Earl’s work space,” says Healing, sitting down to enjoy another cookie. “Whereas the living room I will guess is a separate issue.”

“And the bedroom?” asks Naomi, hoping to sound only mildly interested in the bedroom. “Did she avoid your bedroom in Santa Barbara?”

“No,” says Alicia, shrugging. “It was not one of her favorite rooms, but she didn’t entirely avoid it.”

“Sorry to pepper you with so many questions,” says Healing, wondering why Alicia stays with Earl when she so obviously despises him. “I’m guessing there were other pets before Anastasia. Cats? Dogs?”

“I always have a cat or two,” she says, a few tears escaping from the corners of her eyes. “I had a dog for a year, but Earl could not tolerate him, so I’ve only had cats since then.” She takes a deep breath. “We’ve been married for twenty-two years.”

“May we poke around in the living room?” asks Healing, who likes Alicia and finds Earl repulsive. “Take a peek at the backyard?”

“Please,” says Alicia, smiling bravely.

*

After supper that evening, Naomi having recounted the details of the Anastasia case to Jahera and Jean in great detail, Jean opines, “Must be Earl, don’t you think?”

“Regarding the cat’s avoidance of bedroom and backyard,” says Healing, making a pot of mint tea to accompany the impending Scrabble game, “that is my surmise. The living room, however, is a more…”

“Metaphysical situation,” says Naomi, nodding assuredly. “We both definitely felt a presence there when we sat in silence on the sofa.”

“A ghost?” says Jean, melodramatically. “Sophia?”

“A lingering spirit,” says Healing, pouring boiling water over the mint leaves.

“Did they keep any of Sophia’s furniture?” asks Jahera, who neither believes nor disbelieves a person’s spirit may linger for a time after the body dies.

“A splendid coffee table,” says Healing, smiling at Jahera. “Made by Ezra. All the other furniture is new, the oak floor refinished, new light fixtures, new windows, new paint on the walls, the redwood rafters newly sanded.”

“Do you think Sophia is living inside Papa’s table?” asks Jean, who does believe the spirit may linger after the body dies.

“I think not,” says Healing, enjoying his sister’s awe and wonderment. “What we felt was all around us.”

“Does Alicia feel it, too?” asks Jahera, who would love to experience such a feeling.

“She is cloaked in such heavy sorrow,” says Naomi, placing the Scrabble board on the coffee table, “I’m not sure the dear woman can feel much else.”

“The cat definitely feels what we felt,” says Healing, bringing the tea tray to the coffee table.

“What is the solution?” asks Jahera, sitting on a cushion on the floor where two of the dogs and one of the cats settle around her.

“A ceremony,” says Healing, sitting on a cushion next to Jahera. “To release Sophia’s confused spirit, if that is the case.”

“Will Alicia and Earl allow you to do that there?” asks Jean, sitting on the sofa next to her mother.

“As it happens,” says Healing, pouring the tea, “they are leaving for Los Angeles in a few days and I will be feeding Anastasia in their absence.”

“Thus,” says Naomi, the first to draw letter squares, “we shall have the run of the place, so to speak.”

Healing, Naomi, Jahera and her parents Caspar and Maahiah, Jean, and Darby Riley, an elderly Irishman who was good friends with Sophia, gather in the living room of Alicia and Earl’s house on a balmy evening to enact what Naomi calls a soul release ceremony.

When everyone is seated, Naomi stands beside the coffee table on which sits a large purple ceramic bowl full of sand.

“This ceremony borrows from a number of traditions,” says Naomi in her quietly masterful way. “Mostly Tibetan Buddhism. The idea is that Sophia’s soul may not have set out on the journey to her next life because her soul is afraid or confused or stuck here for some reason.”

Now Naomi takes a photograph of Sophia taped to a chopstick and inserts the slender end of the chopstick into the sand so the photo is upright.

“We will look at this picture of Sophia and take turns saying anything we wish to say to her to allay her fear and confusion. Then we will chant the following words one hundred and eight times. ‘Please go on your journey now, Sophia. There is nothing to fear. We love you and wish you well.’ Jean will keep track of how many times we’ve chanted the prayer and ring a gong at one hundred and seven. When we have completed the chanting, I will light the picture on fire and we will envision Sophia’s spirit departing into the wild blue yonder.”

*

When Alicia and Earl return from Los Angeles, they find the cat napping on the living room sofa.

A short time later, Earl goes out the kitchen door to visit his studio and the cat follows him out the door onto the deck and down the stairs into the backyard.

However, Anastasia does not follow Earl across the expanse of gravel to the barn. Instead she takes a path skirting the gravel, the slender trail leading to a massive redwood plank twelve-feet long, four-inches-thick, and two-feet-wide bridging a small creek that meanders across the southeastern corner of the property.

Standing next to the end of the mighty plank is a small wooden sign with beautifully carved letters spelling Anastasia’s Bridge.

Alicia follows her cat across the bridge to a level clearing Healing carved out of the brambles, and here, in the center of the clearing, the big brown cat rolls onto her back to bask in the gentle sun.

fin

Light Song a song by Todd and Marcia and Gwyneth

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Dagwood

On a cold morning in March, Healing Weintraub wakes in his bed in the house he has lived in for all his sixty-two years on the planet. And because it is nine in the morning and he hasn’t slept past seven more than a few times in his life, he’s not sure where he is for a moment.

He reaches to his right to touch Jahera, but she is not there. And though he knows these six months of living with her were not a dream, he nevertheless gets out of bed and opens the closet door to gaze at Jahera’s shirts and pants and skirts and scarves to confirm their shared life.

And now he remembers the dream he had just before he woke.

He and his father Ezra are walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, his father middle-aged, not the old man he is now.

They watch the waves breaking on the shore and Ezra says with his strong British accent, “A few weeks before you were born, I met you in a dream and you told me your name was healing. When I told your mother my dream she said, ‘I would love for our child to be named Healing.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think he meant Healing was his name. I think he meant his name is healing for those who hear it.’ And she said, ‘Then what was his name?’ and I said, ‘He didn’t say.’ And your mother said, “Even so I want to name our child Healing.’”

“I’m glad you did,” says Healing, putting his arm around his father.

“I am, too,” says his father, his eyes sparkling. “It’s just the right name for you.”

*

A note from Jahera awaits Healing on the kitchen table, her handwriting exquisite, for she is a calligrapher and forty years of such practice has made her handwriting calligraphic, each letter and word beautifully shaped.

Shafi,

In all our time together I have never woken before you until today. How beautiful you are sleeping. I must wake before you again and draw a picture of your face in slumber.

I’m taking Carla and Tabinda and Harriet with me to walk to my parents’ house for a Zoom meeting with Lucien to work on the new graphics for the shop. After lunch my mother will walk back with us and we’ll bring Kadan for a beach walk with the whole pack. Maybe you will be awake by then and want to walk with us.

your Jahera

Beneath her name is a sketch of the rose in the vase on the kitchen table, and Healing marvels at how deftly Jahera has captured the flower in the vase with just a few deft strokes of her pen.

He gazes around at the people sharing the house with him, people how Jahera refers to animals and birds. Three cats are sitting sphinx-like on the living room sofa, the parrots Bogart and Bacall are watching Healing from their big cage in the far corner of the kitchen, and Toulouse, an orange and white cat, is sitting on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, looking out on the garden as fog gives way to sunlight.

Now the kitchen door – always left slightly ajar during the day – swings open and Tarzan, an eight-year-old Malamute Golden Lab, and Benito, an eleven-year-old mongrel Chihuahua, enter the kitchen and come directly to Healing who they are concerned about because he didn’t get up early this morning and let them out to pee – Jahera did – which never happens unless Healing has gone out of town, which he almost never does.

“I’m fine,” says Healing, petting the dogs. “I have no idea why I slept so long. But I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

The dogs stay close to him until he gives each of them a chewy treat and tells them again he’s okay and not to worry. The treat mollifies Benito who trots out the door onto the deck to sit in the sun, while Tarzan stays in the kitchen and watches Healing make coffee.

Now the old landline phone on the kitchen counter rings and Healing has a feeling this is his mother Naomi calling from England, though she rarely calls except on Healing’s birthday on June seventeenth, just as he rarely calls her and his father except in October and November on their birthdays. Otherwise they communicate by sending letters, ten days the usual transit time for mail going from Mercy to Oxford and vice-versa.

“Healing,” says his mother, speaking more quietly than usual. “Your father died two hours ago. He hadn’t been feeling well for the last few days. He lay down for his nap before supper and I saw his body relax and I knew.”

“Oh Mum,” says Healing, crying. “I dreamt about him this morning. Shall I come to you?”

“No, dear. Your sister is here and she’s leapt into action as you can imagine and has everything well in hand. And after his body is cremated…” She hesitates.

“You’ll come here,” he says, knowing she wants to spend the last years of her life in Mercy.

“I will,” she says simply. “If that’s still okay with you.”

“Of course, Mum.”

“Your sister will make the trip with me and stay a while until I’m settled,” says Naomi, clearing his throat. “We’ll come in June if you’re sure you want me.”

“You know I do.”

“Jahera won’t mind?”

“She’ll love having you here.”

“Let’s not go overboard, dear. We’ll hope she likes me and proceed from there.”

“Is Sis with you?”

“She is.” Naomi partially muffles her phone and Healing hears her say, “Jean. Come speak to your brother. He’s terribly upset.”

*

A few hours later, Jahera and her mother Maahiah arrive at the little old house with the dogs and they find Healing in the vegetable garden, turning the soil to prepare a bed for the first lettuce seeds of the new growing season.

“My father died this morning,” he says to Jaher and Maahiah as they approach him. “Well… morning here, afternoon there. He loved turning the soil to make it ready for the seeds.”

Now he falls to his knees and touches his forehead to the ground and weeps.

*

Five days later, Jahera wakes a little after dawn, which is their usual waking time, and asks quietly with her lovely French Norwegian accent, “Shafi? Are you awake?”

“I am,” says Healing, who loves Jahera’s name for him, which means healer in Arabic.

“Shall we have Pablo and Esteban to put in new windows in the guest room before your mother comes?”

“Yes,” says Healing, part of him still in another dimension communing with his father’s spirit. “Those are the last two single-pane windows in the house. From when my folks rebuilt this place sixty-five years ago. We’ll ask Pablo to make wider sills for the new windows, for the cats to sit on.”

“Good idea,” says Jahera, snuggling with Healing. “I can’t wait to meet your mother and your sister.”

“They’ll love you,” he says, sighing. “Might not be obvious at first, but they will. They both can be a bit dry. The opposite of you and your mother. And Jean often sounds irritated when she’s not. From growing up in chaos and turning into someone who wants everything just so.” He chuckles. “She has five dogs, Schnauzers, and a husband who leaves clothing and books and plates and mugs wherever he goes, so she really doesn’t have a leg to stand on when she complains of the clutter here.”

“Our house is not cluttered,” says Jahera, trying not to laugh. “You keep it neat as a pin.”

This sends Healing into gales of laughter, which feels wonderful to him after five days of mourning.

*

That afternoon Healing walks into town with Tabinda on a leash, the beautiful one-year-old Lab Shepherd still learning there is nothing to be gained from tugging on her leash and much to be gained from not tugging – treats and pets and loving sounds from Healing.

They stop on the sidewalk in front of Darby’s Antiques and Healing looks through the window and waves to attract the attention of the proprietor Darby Riley, seventy-eight and Irish, an old friend of Healing’s parents and Healing’s dear friend.

“I’m glad you came by,” says Darby, full of his usual exuberance. “I’ve a dog situation underway and I’m at a loss.” He frowns. “But I don’t want to bother you with my problems right now. Maybe when your sorrow abates a bit you can give me counsel. I’m so sorry about your father, though eighty-nine is a fine run, and the man had a good deal of fun along the way now, didn’t he?”

“He certainly did,” says Healing, giving Tabinda’s leash a light tug to ask her to sit, which she does. “Please bother me. Dog situations are my elixir.”

“The situation is in here,” says Riley, beckoning Healing to enter the shop. “You can bring Tabinda. She’s better behaved than most of my customers, I can assure you.”

Healing and Tabinda enter the incredibly jam-packed shop and Tabinda goes a little wild at the exotic smells emanating from the many old books, vinyl record albums, pottery, lamps, racks of vintage clothing, old picture frames, and all manner of furniture – a narrow aisle relatively free of stuff leading to a counter behind which, on Darby’s high stool, sits a handsome young Jack-a-bee, a white and black and brown mix of a Jack Russell terrier and a Beagle, who upon seeing the beautiful Tabinda hops down from the stool and comes around the counter to greet her.

Healing gives Darby a big smile. “You trickster. I thought you weren’t going to get a dog or cat because you were afraid you’d die before them.”

“I didn’t get one,” says Darby, blushing like a boy whose mother discovers he’s got a sweetheart. “He’s not my dog. That is… I don’t think he’s my dog, and even if he is possibly, temporarily, my dog, I don’t want him.”

The Jack-a-bee gives Darby a look to say Now why wouldn’t you want me? I’m friendly and cute and smart as a whip and I fit you and your stinky old shop like a glove.

“Explain, please,” says Healing, who always starts to feel slightly insane after he’s been in Darby’s shop for more than a few minutes, each of the ten thousand things possessed of a soul wanting to share a story with Healing.

“So a woman came in five days ago,” says Darby, sighing heavily and giving Healing a look to say You know how certain women befuddle me. “On the day your dear father died.”

“I had a feeling a woman might be involved in this situation,” says Healing, arching an eyebrow. “She bewitched you?”

“In so many words,” says Darby, nodding. “She was fifty-something I’d say. One of those delicious fiftyish women with the joie de vivre of an exuberant teen, with one of those bodies,” – he describes with his hands an hourglass – “by which I am rendered incapable of rational thought. She wanted two of my very best antique evening gowns and two immaculate velour Parisian negligees from the Golden Age of Paris, meaning the 1920s, and she gave me a hundred dollars cash right then and said she would come back with another thousand dollars the next day, though the negligees alone are… were… worth at least five hundred each.”

“And the evening gowns? How much were they worth?”

“Oh… Mary Coleman offered me six hundred for the one and three hundred for the other, and I stupidly said that was a bit low.” Darby closes his eyes and slowly shakes his head. “I’m an idiot.”

“Not at all,” says Healing, leaning down to scratch the friendly little dog’s head. “You’re just generous. So. The befuddling woman left with the dresses and negligees promising to return on the morrow, and now five days have gone by and she has yet to return or call you or send you some money or in any way indicate she plans to return. And where does this delightful dog come into the story?”

“The woman who swindled me swore this dog is worth five thousand dollars,” says Darby, smiling as the little dog stands on his hind legs and dances around in a circle. “And she would leave him as security.”

“Well he is worth five thousand dollars,” says Healing, rewarding the dancing dog with a treat. “At least.”

“Is he?” says Darby, giving Healing a wild look of hope. “Are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” says Healing, looking at the little dog and thinking Lie down, which the dog does. Now Healing thinks Speak, and the dog barks twice. “He’s worth millions. He’s clairvoyant and might very well be the reincarnation of some great genius.”

“Ah you’re joking,” says Darby, gloomy again. “And I’m stuck with him until I can foist him on somebody else. I can’t have a dog, Healing. I’m seventy-eight. I could die at any minute, though I’m feeling fine. But no one in my line has ever lived much past eighty-five. Who’ll take care of him when I’m decrepit? Or if I suddenly drop dead?”

“We will,” says Healing, matter-of-factly. “Jahera and I. Benito is almost twelve and Carla’s nine. We’ll be wanting a new dog a few years from now. So if by some fluke of fate this chap outlives you, we’ll be happy to take him.”

“You will?” says Darby, scrunching up his cheeks to quell his tears.

“We’ll take him now if you don’t want him,” says Healing, growing serious. “Though he loves it here and he loves you.”

“How do you know he loves me?” asks Darby, who has been alone for many years.

“Call him,” says Healing, quietly. “Do you know his name?”

“The tag on his collar says Dagwood,” says Darby, looking at the dog, who upon hearing his name trots around behind the counter, jumps up onto the stool, stands on his hind legs, and rests his paws on Darby’s chest.

“Any other info on the collar?” asks Healing, smiling at the little dog gazing adoringly at Darby.

“Not a thing,” says Darby, rubbing noses with the little guy. “Only Dagwood.”  

*

Two mornings later, Darby and Dagwood come for pancakes at Healing and Jahera’s house, and Dagwood joins Carla and Benito and Tarzan and Tabinda for a tour of the acreage, after which Dagwood stands at the chicken-wire fence transfixed by the hens in the little yard adjacent to their coop.

 “Those are chickens, Dagwood,” says Healing, standing nearby. “We don’t bark at them or chase them, and they give us eggs, which we put in our pancakes, one of which has your name on it.”

Thus informed, Dagwood follows the other dogs into the house and waits patiently for Healing to fulfill his promise.

fin

The Goodly Fool a piano solo by Todd

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Kadan & Tabinda

On a cold Thursday morning in early October, Healing Weintraub is sitting in a comfortable armchair behind the counter of The Letter Writer, a spacious shop on the bottom floor of a recently restored old two-story building at the end of Lisbon Avenue in the small town of Mercy – the word shop a somewhat misleading descriptor for The Letter Writer.

Sixty-one-years-old and not quite six-feet-tall, sturdy and agile with longish brown hair going gray, a mild English accent coloring his speech, Healing is writing a letter to a friend describing The Letter Writer in great detail, which is the favorite kind of letter this particular friend likes to get.

Here is an excerpt from that letter.

*

The counter behind which I sit and stand from 10 AM to 2 PM on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays is two-feet-wide and twelve-feet long, the varnished redwood top crowning a beautifully lit glass display case showing off an extensive collection of pens, colored pencils, and other tools of the letter-writing craft. This display case is the first thing to meet the eyes of those who enter the shop.

Arrayed on the shelves to my left are quantities of paper of various sizes and weights and colors and textures, along with notebooks, sketchpads, and an excellent selection of envelopes. We also sell scissors, tape, glue and many other things one might use for decorating envelopes.

For those who like wearable mementos, we sell organic cotton T-shirts and sweatshirts (black, red, and turquoise) with The Letter Writer writ in elegant cursive across their fronts. For collectors of unique teapots and mugs, we have several of each made by local ceramic artists. All of these items are only touchable by customers with the assistance of The Letter Writer employees, and we are happy to fetch anything a customer would like to scrutinize up close.

At one end of the counter sits a sleek computerized cash register with which my fellow employees and I ring up sales, and at the other end of the counter stands the machinery for boiling water and making coffee and tea and cocoa, along with teapots and mugs for holding hot beverages, and plates for holding cookies – refreshments for those who grow thirsty and esurient whilst penning missives.

Penning missives is what people are invited to do at any of the twelve medium-sized tables, each table partnered with two chairs and situated near one of several windows looking out onto the headlands and the ocean beyond. There is no fee for occupying a table, nor are patrons required to write a letter while enjoying the commodious space.

We also sell postage stamps, have an extremely accurate electronic scale for weighing letters, and just inside our front door stands an authentic replica of a red British pillar box where letters may be deposited, these letters taken to the post office by shop employees at least three times a day.

Our black and herbal teas are excellent, our coffee decent, our cocoa superb, and our lemonade not too sugary, all our beverages reasonably priced. The cookies, however, are expensive, coming as they do from Café Brava, and some of our regulars prefer to bring comestibles from elsewhere, which is fine with us. Some folks bring their own beverages, too, though I would say most of our patrons purchase their drinks from us to show support for the mission of The Letter Writer.

Though we do not offer to gift wrap items purchased here, our The Letter Writer bags, illustrated with beguiling drawings of cats, dogs, birds, flowers, and teapots, are themselves gift wrapping. Several of our craftier customers enjoy fashioning the bags into handsome envelopes at the assembly table located in the northwest corner of the shop, this large table sporting an excellent paper cutter, hole punch, staplers, tape, glue sticks, etcetera, all of which may be used gratis. I will mail this letter in such an envelope I made yesterday while demonstrating my envelope-making technique to an interested customer.

What is the mission of The Letter Writer? This is most easily explained by telling you a little about the creators of The Letter Writer, Caspar Dahl, his wife Maahiah, their daughter Jahera, and Jahera’s son Lucien.

Caspar is eighty-two, gregarious, Norwegian, tall, and mustachioed, his snow-white hair falling to his shoulders. He was a hydrologist before becoming a successful writer of essays and parables. He speaks excellent English, which is his third language after Norwegian and French, and he is an avid reader of Latin.

Maahiah is seventy-two, Algerian, petite with shoulder-length black hair mostly gray now. She is a translator – French and Norwegian into Arabic and sometimes the other way around. Trained as a scientific illustrator, she has illustrated ten of Caspar’s books as well as several children’s books. She loves to sing and joined the Mercy Community Choir two days after they moved to Mercy a year and a half ago.

Jahera is fifty-three, a beautiful amalgamation of her parents, her long black hair just starting to gray. She is a calligrapher, illustrator, and photographer, and she, too, loves to sing, though she has yet to join a choir. As I have told you in a previous missive, I am deeply infatuated with her, though I have no hope she will ever feel similarly about me.

Lucien is twenty-six, a computer whiz, graphic designer, and social activist. I have yet to meet him because he lives in Switzerland. However, I have seen pictures of him and he is strikingly beautiful. His father, who is no longer alive, was a handsome Catalonian.

Caspar and Maahiah and Jahera live most of the year in Mercy, and Caspar and Maahiah still maintain a home in France. They are wealthy as the result of Caspar publishing a phenomenally successful book twenty-five years ago when he was fifty-seven. Though not widely known in America, Caspar’s hundred-page book, illustrated with Maahiah’s exquisite pen and ink drawings, has been translated into virtually every language on earth and is a perennial international bestseller.

The book was originally published in French and is entitled Décollé, which translates as unstuck in English. The American edition is entitled Getting Unstuck, though the book is not about getting unstuck or getting anything. Caspar told me when he was discussing the title with the several American publishers bidding to bring out the American edition, all of them insisted the title had to have the word Getting in front of Unstuck, which Caspar thought was idiotic until he realized getting was a foundational American mania, so he surrendered to the cultural imperative and allowed Getting to appear in front of Unstuck, though he did not allow the internal text to be altered.

I have read the book twice, slowly, each reading taking about an hour, and both times I felt as if I were reading a good long letter from a friend full of intriguing anecdotes encouraging me to follow my heart, be kind and generous, and open myself to new ideas and new experiences. His style is poetic without being the least poetic, and I know you know what I mean.

With their riches, Caspar and Maahiah have done many wonderful things for people and communities around the world, and now as Caspar nears the end of his life, he wants to create some sort of institutional manifestation of the message of his little book, and that is how The Letter Writer came to be.

The upstairs of this building is a spacious apartment in which a person or related persons, as many as three, is/are granted a fellowship to live here for two or three months, and the small ground floor apartment behind the shop houses a person or couple, also for two or three months, all expenses paid, including the cost of traveling to and from Mercy.

In exchange for this largesse, fellowship winners are asked to tend the shop for two hours a day while they are living here. These residencies are awarded by Caspar and Maahiah and Jahera to people they select based on their feelings about the letters of introduction people send to The Letter Writer. At our most recent staff meeting, Jahera reported The Letter Writer is currently receiving about two dozen letters every day.

Caspar has endowed The Letter Writer foundation with several million dollars along with all residuals arising from the sale of the many editions of Décollé. We are the first The Letter Writer shop in the world, and are definitely a work in progress. The plan is to tweak the ways and means of this shop for a couple years to create a model that can be replicated in other out-of-the-way places where letter writers would like to sojourn for a time.

As Caspar said to me yesterday when he stopped by to see how things were going, “I like knowing this will live beyond me, should the world last longer than I. But given the way things are going, it might not, eh?”

*

“What is this place?” asks a woman wearing a Dallas Cowboys baseball cap and a black down jacket over a light brown T-shirt with WORD spelled across the front in large Scrabble letters, her companion a man dressed similarly.

Healing closes his notebook and rises to greet them.

“Welcome to The Letter Writer,” he says warmly. “We are a shop selling everything one might need for writing letters. The tables you see” – he gestures to the tables standing along the outside walls of the public space, half the tables currently occupied – “are for people to sit at and write if they want to, or you may sit and gaze out the window and talk quietly. Anything you like, so long as it is not excessively rowdy. This is not a library, but neither are we a café, though we seem to be a café. I apologize for the confusion, which is amplified by the fact that we purvey coffee and tea and cocoa and lemonade, as well as a few tasty comestibles. That, in a nutshell, is what this place is. If you’d like to know more about the shop and The Letter Writer, we have a few sheets of information about our history and mission, which is essentially to encourage people to write and send letters.”

“You British?” asks the man, squinting at Healing. “Or Australian?”

“My parents are British,” says Healing, smiling at the thought of his folks in England. “And their accents do sometimes come through.”

“We were in London a couple years ago,” says the woman, wrinkling her nose. “What a zoo.”

“Crowded?” asks Healing, guessing they’re from Texas.

“Crazy crowded,” says the man, frowning at the pens in the display case. “Couldn’t understand anything anybody said, even the white people. We thought they spoke English over there. Mother tongue, my ass.”

“Herb,” says the woman, glowering at her husband. “Keep it down. People are writing.

“It’s not a library, Deb,” says Herb, rolling his eyes. “He said we can be here and not write a letter.”

“You certainly may,” says Healing, gesturing toward the tables. “Sit anywhere you’d like. And do let me know if you want something to eat or drink. We’ve only been open for five months, so we’re still figuring things out. Any suggestions you have for improving the goings on here would be greatly appreciated.”

“I’ll have a coffee,” says Deb, perusing the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. “You make lattes?”

“We do not,” says Healing, bowing to her. “But we do have cream and half-and-half, and the coffee is decent, the tea excellent.”

Herb glowers at the display case. “Am I reading that right? That black pen there is seven hundred dollars?”

“If you are you speaking of the Meisterstück Rose Gold-Coated Classique fountain pen,” says Healing, nodding pleasantly, “then yes. To the right of the Meisterstück you will see the Montegrappa Debonair Simplicity, the green resin, for four hundred. And we also have Pilots for four dollars and change, as well as all manner of pens ranging in price from the Pilots to the Meisterstück and beyond.”

“People pay that kind of money for a pen?” says Herb, incredulously. “Seven hundred dollars?”

“Yes, they do,” says Healing, giving Herb a look to say Isn’t it amazing? “I myself use a pencil or an extra-fine-tip Pilot, depending on my mood. Though I will say, having tried all the pens you see there, I now understand the appeal of a fine fountain pen. The flow of ink is…” He muses for a moment. “Really something special.”

“I’ll have a coffee and two of these chocolate chip cookies,” says Deb, frowning at Healing. “We wait for’em or you bring’em to us?”

“I will bring them to you,” says Healing, turning to Herb. “And you, sir?”

“Yeah, the same,” says Herb, grinning at Healing. “Nobody’s called me sir since I was in the Army and the guys below me had to.”

“We also want to get six of your turquoise sweatshirts and six of your red T-shirts,” says Deb, pointing at the display of The Letter Writer apparel. “Two extra-large, three larges, one small. For our Scrabble team. Those’ll be perfect to wear to the state championship in Austin, assuming we go again this year.”

“Oh we’ll go again this year,” says Herb, nodding confidently. “We’re pretty much unbeatable in our county.”

“You should sell white ones, too,” says Deb, winking at Healing. “And baseball caps. There’s a suggestion for you.”

*

Home at three to his little old house across town from The Letter Writer, Healing changes out of his dress shirt and sports jacket and slacks and walking shoes into work clothes and boots, and goes out into his fall garden, his dogs tagging along to help him harvest zucchinis and carrots and string beans for a big pot of minestrone soup he’s making for tonight’s potluck, several old friends coming over along with Caspar and Maahiah and Jahera and Jahera’s dog Harriet, a one-year-old Golden Lab who adores Healing’s three dogs – Carla an enormous Dane Lab, Tarzan a Golden Lab Malamute, and Benito a mongrel Chihuahua.

Healing has been in love with Jahera since the day he met her eight months ago, though not for a minute does he believe she could possibly be in love with him, when in truth she is profoundly in love with him.

Why doesn’t Healing believe Jahera is in love with him when it is so obvious to everyone else, including Healing’s daughter Tova, who recently visited from Portland and was flummoxed that her otherwise keenly observant father was blind to how Jahera feels about him?

The answer is complicated and has to do with Healing’s prior experiences with women, beginning when he was in his early thirties and Tova’s mother ended their three-year marriage by abruptly leaving Healing and Tova when Tova was eleven-months-old. This was a shattering experience for Healing, and in order to survive emotionally and continue being a good parent to Tova, he armored himself against future romantic entanglements and kept himself armored for years.

When he did enter into another relationship, he did so with his dear friend Magdalena who he loved with all his heart and soul, only to have Magdalena abruptly end their relationship after nine months, which further enforced Healing’s sense of being unworthy to be loved in this deeper way. Fifteen years later, he tried again with Magdalena, and again she ended their intimacy after nine months, and again Healing was shattered.

Most recently, two years ago, he embarked on a relationship with a marvelous woman named Vivienne, who seemed to love him every bit as much as he loved her. And this time – Healing’s first relationship in over a decade – as they were entering their ninth month together, Vivienne became bitter and vituperative toward Healing, and the relationship ended shortly thereafter.

Thus because his experiences with sexual romantic partnering have all ultimately been destructive of his self-esteem, Healing is now essentially unconscious of anyone being interested in him as a potential partner in the ways of love.

Jahera knows all this about Healing and is content to be his friend and colleague if that is how he is comfortable being with her. She hopes he will eventually awaken to her love and respond in a more intimate way, and in the meantime she is not closed to creating a relationship with someone else should an appealing someone else come along. She has many suitors, being a charming person, though for the last several years no one, until Healing, has appealed to her sufficiently to make her want to sleep with them, let alone embark on a relationship with them.

So you may well imagine their mutual surprise when Jahera arrives at Healing’s house a few hours before the potluck with her dog Harriet to go with Healing and his dogs for a beach walk, and Jahera comes out into the garden where Healing is pulling carrots, and Healing gets up from his knees to greet her, and their friendly Hello hug turns amorous and Healing allows passion to prevail and they go to Healing’s bed and become lovers in the way of loving friends long overdo for such.

*

As the potluck reaches its zenith – Healing battling his relationship demons ­– Maahiah, Jahera’s mother, says to Healing, “I would like to get a dog and I’m hoping you will help me find one.”

“Dog?” says Healing, returning from the battlefield unsure of what Maahiah just said. “You’re getting a dog? From the pound or…”

“I don’t know,” says Maahiah, who is thrilled Healing and her daughter are lovers now, though no one told her they are – it is simply obvious to her. “I would like a dog you might choose to be your dog. Caspar is not interested in having a dog, but I want one. We had a wonderful dog in Norway, Haady, and I loved him very much.”

“I love dogs,” says Caspar, smiling at his wife from across the table. “I love Jahera’s dog. But I don’t have to take care of her because she’s Jahera’s dog, and I’m not so keen on taking care of a dog anymore.”

“This will be my dog,” says Maahiah, looking at Healing. “I dreamt you brought me one. I think my dream was prophetic.”

“A puppy?” asks Healing, this talk of dogs so soothing to his psyche, he takes Jahera’s hand for all to see.

 “A young dog,” says Maahiah, smiling at Healing’s show of affection for Jahera. “Maybe he was a puppy. I’m not sure. You handed him to me and he gave me a kiss and made me laugh.”

*

Jahera stays after the party to help Healing do the dishes, and when they are alone they embrace and Healing says, “I’m terrified of wrecking our friendship.”

“Not possible,” she says, shaking her head. “If becoming lovers wrecks a friendship, I don’t think the friendship is real. You are still friends with Magdalena and she was your lover.”

“True,” says Healing, his fear dissolving. “Would you like to stay the night with me?”

“Yes,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I was hoping you’d ask me.”

*

A week later, mid-morning, Healing is shopping at Good Groceries, the organic food co-op where he used to work, when Harold Silverstein approaches him and says, “Healing. Got a minute?”

Harold is seventy-four, a small wiry fellow, a stockbroker and commodities trader married to Shirley, both Harold and Shirley from Chicago and both mainstays of the local Jewish community. When their son David was twelve, he took accordion lessons from Healing because Shirley wanted him to. After seven months of never practicing, David told Healing he had no interest in music and that taking accordion lessons was agony for him but he was afraid to tell his parents he wanted to quit. So Healing spoke to Harold and Shirley on David’s behalf, the lessons ended, and thirty years later Shirley and David and Harold still refer to Healing as the wonderful Healing.

“I have hours, days, weeks,” says Healing, who likes Harold despite Harold ending every one of their many brief interactions over the years with We should go for a beer, yet they never have gone for a beer because Harold always adds But not now. I’m up to my eyeballs with work.

“We have a dog problem,” says Harold, who knows Healing is good with dogs. “And before we call Animal Control, Shirley thought maybe you’d like to check out what she thinks is a wild dog den in the woods behind our house. A few days ago she thought she heard whimpering. She thinks there might be pups or cubs or something.” He frowns. “Could it be wolves?”

“Not impossible, but highly unlikely,” says Healing, his heart pounding at the prospect of finding a nest of feral pups. “The last time a wolf was seen in this watershed was over a hundred years ago, in the early 1900s, and that one might have been a coyote. Might this be a coyote den?”

“I have no idea,” says Harold, shrugging. “I know nothing about dogs or coyotes or anything that isn’t a person or a grain future, though we still have the poodles you helped us with when they were shredding the curtains. Thank God, and you, they no longer shred things. As you know, Shirley handles all the dog operations. If it was up to me we would only have humans at our house. Two of them. And every two weeks the cleaning lady. But the dogs make Shirley happy, so what am I gonna do? She’s afraid Animal Control will just shoot whatever these wild things turn out to be, which would be fine with me. Wild animals I don’t need. But Shirley loves animals.” He shrugs. “She’s like you. Searches the woods with binoculars. Watches videos about orangutans. She thinks the mother might be a German Shepherd. She didn’t mention a father. Anyway… want to come take a look?”

“I would love to,” says Healing, nodding eagerly. “In an hour?”

“I’m at the office until five,” says Harold, itching to get back to business. “Which means six. I’ll call Shirley and tell her you’re coming.”

*

An hour later, Healing and Jahera in Healing’s little old pickup truck, with Healing’s enormous dog Carla sitting between them, arrive at Harold and Shirley’s house five miles north of Mercy on the edge of a vast redwood forest.

Healing and Jahera are verging on inseparable these days, and Healing’s trepidation about embarking on a relationship with Jahera is fading fast. For her part, Jahera has no doubt she’s found her life partner in Healing.

*

“I wanted to bring Carla along because she’s female and loves pups,” explains Healing to Shirley, her frizzy white hair sporting magenta highlights. “And also because other female dogs are less intimidated by her than by male dogs.”

“This is as far as I’m comfortable going,” says Shirley, stopping with them on the edge of the forest where Carla sniffs the air and tugs gently at her leash. “The dog I saw through my binoculars looked like a giant wolf, though I did my research and there aren’t supposed to be any wolves around here.”

“Almost certainly not a wolf,” says Healing, reassuringly. “Where do you think the den is?”

Shirley points into the forest. “Right through there. You can just see the boulders at the bottom of a big granite outcropping. That’s where David used to go with his friends to play when they were little, and to smoke pot when they were in high school.”

“Carla and I will go explore the boulders,” says Healing, the back of his neck tingling. “You want to come Jahera?”

“Yes,” she says, following him without hesitation.

“You’re both braver than I am,” says Shirley, hurrying back to the house. “I haven’t let the poodles out for two weeks since this whole wolf thing began, though I know it’s not a wolf. I’ll be in the house if you need anything. Be careful.”

So Jahera and Healing and Carla proceed through the trees on the faint path David walked on long ago – David now in his forties and living in San Diego.

Fifty yards into the forest they come to a large granite outcropping fronted by a jumble of boulders.

“Feels so lifeless here,” says Jahera, gazing around. “Even the trees seem… I don’t have words for it. They’re alive but they seem empty of spirit.”

“That’s very astute of you,” says Healing, noticing Carla frowning. “The forest here has been clear-cut at least three times in the last hundred and fifty years, and then logged hard a time or two since the last clear-cutting. Not easy for the earth to revive after such relentless harvesting.”

Carla whines and gives Healing a look to say Let me off my leash. I want to explore those rocks.

“Okay,” says Healing, unleashing her.

Free of constraint, Carla does not hurry to the boulders, but approaches them with caution, stopping every few steps to listen and smell. Finally she makes her way through the boulders, surmounts the outcropping, and disappears behind a huge stone.

“Wouldn’t we hear the pups?” asks Jahera, taking Healing’s hand. “It’s so quiet.”

“Hard to say,” says Healing, listening intently for any sounds from Carla. “Their mother may have moved them or…”

Now Carla comes bounding out from behind the huge stone and gives Healing a wild-eyed look before disappearing again behind the stone.

“She wants us to come,” says Healing, hurrying with Jahera to see what Carla has found.

And what she has found are two barely alive pups in an abandoned den.

Jahera carries one of the pups, Healing the other, and they run back to the house where Shirley awaits them.

“Oh my God,” says Shirley, putting her hands over her mouth when she sees the tiny pups. “Are they dead?”

 “No,” says Healing, as he and Jahera and Carla run to the truck. “Call the vet, Shirley, and tell them we’re coming.”

*

On the way to town, Jahera holds the comatose pups in her lap and Carla gently licks them as she would have licked her own babies had she ever had a litter.

*

When the pups are three-months-old, their smooth brown and black fur and narrow snouts tell Healing they are a mix of Lab and German Shepherd.

Maahiah takes the male pup and names him Kadan, which means friend in Arabic, and Jahera and Healing take the female and name her Tabinda, which means bright and shining in Arabic – the pups to be raised with Healing and Jahera’s dogs until they are six-months-old, after which Maahiah will keep Kadan with her most of the time.

But among the dogs, the pups belong to Carla who loves them beyond telling.

fin

Hey Baby a song by Todd

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Harriet

At 10:15 on a clear cold Tuesday morning in February, the light exquisite, Healing Weintraub is walking his three dogs through the small town of Mercy – Carla enormous and black, Tarzan large and silvery gold, Benito small and brown. As they pass Mercy Savings, the only bank in town, Healing realizes that for the last fifteen years he never once walked his dogs on a Tuesday at this time because he was always working at Good Groceries at 10:15 on Tuesdays.

“But not anymore,” he says, smiling at his dogs. “Now we are free to walk around town any time on any day.”

“Who you talking to, Healing?” asks Arnold Bickerstaff coming out of the bank, Arnold one of Mercy’s most public and voluble eccentrics. “You know what they say about talking to yourself. It’s one of the early warning signs of probable dementia.”

“Thank you, Arnold, for this unfounded piece of nonsense,” says Healing, noting Arnold’s stiff gray hair going every which way, the fly of Arnold’s filthy trousers unzipped, socks comically mismatched, one old shoe without laces, a newer shoe laced with copper wire, one lens of his dark glasses missing, and a red plastic squirt gun in a little leather holster on the belt Arnold made by tying three shoelaces together.

“I miss seeing you at Gude Grockeries,” says Arnold, snickering as he always does when he refers to Good Groceries as Gude Grockeries, which he does multiple times whenever he encounters Healing. “Not the same without you. They’ve lost their collective sense of humor since you quit.”

“I’d love to chat,” says Healing, hurrying on to avoid an extended conversation with Arnold, “but I’m currently on a No Chatting diet. Supposed to do wonderful things for the adrenals.”

“You’re weird now,” says Arnold, calling after Healing. “You were never weird when you worked at Gude Grockeries.”

“Now he will snicker,” whispers Healing.

And Arnold snickers.

*

“I’ve been blissfully unemployed for three months now,” says Healing, talking to his dogs as they leave busy Gauntlet Avenue to amble down less-busy Berkshire Street. “True, I’m running out of money, but I’m not worried. I just have to survive another two years until I’m sixty-two, and then every month, assuming there’s still a functioning government, vast amounts of filthy lucre will flow into my checking account.”

Compelled by enormous Carla pulling in that direction, the quartet turns right off Berkshire Street onto Lisbon Avenue, which hardly deserves to be called an avenue – the narrow tar and gravel street just sixty yards long and home to three old buildings on the north side of the gravel, with fields of wild cabbage and coastal grasses on the south side stretching south and west to land’s end overlooking Mercy Bay and the mighty Pacific.

The last of the three buildings on Lisbon Avenue is a derelict two-story edifice known to locals as The Wreck. Long ago The Wreck housed a shop of one kind or another on the ground floor, while tenants wiling to live without a kitchen occupied the two small upstairs apartments. Few of those shops stayed in business for long, and few of those upstairs tenants stayed long either, and for the last twenty years The Wreck has been vacant, save for the occasional homeless person taking shelter there and teenagers meeting in the empty rooms to drink booze and smoke pot.

This morning, to Healing’s great surprise, a gang of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians are busy remaking the old building, and in the front window of the ground floor shop is a postcard-sized handwritten sign, elegant cursive announcing:

Coming Soon: The Letter Writer

Below this little sign is a square of pale blue paper not much larger than a postage stamp on which tiny block letters declare Help Wanted. Send Inquiries to Mercy P.O. Box 123.

“Hola Pablo,” says Healing, hailing one of the carpenters coming out of the shop.

“Hola Healing,” says Pablo Fernandez, a burly fellow with graying black hair. “Que paso?”

“Nada mucho,” says Healing, marveling at the beehive of activity. “I’m into my third month of not working at Good Groceries and having loads of fun. I see you’re resurrecting The Wreck before it crumbles to dust.”

Pablo nods. “Yeah. Total rebuild. New siding, new floors, new windows, new plumbing, new wiring, new roof. Making the upstairs one big apartment with a nice kitchen.” He lowers his voice. “They got endless money.”

“Who is they?”

“Big guy with a mustache,” says Pablo, petting Carla. “And his wife. We don’t know their names. I think maybe he’s from Germany or somewhere over there and his wife might be from India. Or maybe she’s part-Chinese. Esteban thinks she’s Malaysian. I don’t know. They’re in Europe now. A woman named Jahera is in charge until they get back. Miguel thinks she might be their daughter. I don’t know. Esteban thinks she’s French or something. We don’t know. Mike’s the contractor.”

“Mike around?” asks Healing, curious to find out more about The Letter Writer.

Pablo laughs. “Before noon? Not since I been working for him.”

*

Healing and the dogs walk home via the post office where in his box, speaking of letter writers, Healing finds two letters from faithful correspondents and a yellow card announcing the arrival of a much-anticipated packet of books: a history of the Magyars, a collection of humorous mysteries entitled Boo! I Scared You, and the Autobiography of William Carlos Williams.

When his turn comes to do business at the counter with Robin Songbird, a Mae Westian blonde and Healing’s favorite postal person, Robin reaches over the counter and gives each of Healing’s well-behaved dogs a treat.

“Still not used to seeing you guys here in the morning,” says Robin, taking the yellow package notice from Healing and pressing it against her forehead. “Don’t tell me. Books.”

“Peaceful here in the morning,” says Healing, sighing contentedly. “What do we know about The Letter Writer? Box 123.”

Robin arches an eyebrow. “What do you know about them?”

“Absolutamente nada,” says Healing, smiling. “Merely intrigued by the miniature signs in the window of The Wreck, soon to be known as The Former Wreck.”

“We know they get a ton of mail,” says Robin, lowering her voice. “And we know a charming woman named Jahera Dahl comes to the counter every day around two to pick up their mail because their little box is always overfilled. They’re on a waiting list for a larger box. Jahera has a darling Golden Lab pup, not as darling as your dogs, of course, but darling, nonetheless. The first time I saw her I thought she might be Hungarian, and then I heard her speak and she sounded sort of French, so I asked her, of course, and she said her father is Norwegian and her mother is Algerian and she grew up in Norway and France. We know she’s tall with long black hair just starting to show some gray, she wears stylish short-sleeved shirts and mid-thigh skirts and has gorgeous gams. You haven’t seen her? She’s hard to miss.”

“We must walk disparate paths,” says Healing, shrugging in surrender to the exigencies of fate. “Name of dog?” 

“Harriet,” says Robin, smiling at the thought of the little cutie pie.

“Has the fair Jahera revealed anything about what kind of shop The Letter Writer will be?”

“I asked,” says Robin, nodding. “Twice. The first time she said she’s not at liberty to say. The second time I said something like, ‘Will you sell things for writing letters? Stationery? Pens? Things like that?’ and she smiled and said, ‘One would think.’”

*

Two mornings later, home from a beach ramble with the dogs, his hens having provided seven eggs on this clear cold morning, Healing makes brunch for himself and his friend Darby Riley who is seventy-six and Irish and owns the longest running antique shop in town – going on fifty years.

Darby arrives at 10:30 with peach scones fresh from the ovens of Café Brava, and while Healing puts the finishing touches on their mushroom omelet, Darby stands at the parrot cage with a cup of coffee and tries to get one or both of Healing’s African Greys, a male and female named Bogart and Bacall, to say top of the morning to you, with little success – Bacall fixing Darby with an icy stare and saying nothing, Bogart occasionally trilling Tova, the name of Healing’s daughter who lives in Portland.

“I don’t know why I never got a parrot,” says Darby, sitting down at the kitchen table and smiling approvingly as Healing sets the splendid meal before him. “Any self-respecting elderly Irish antique shop owner would have one, don’t you think?”

“Or at least a small highly intelligent dog,” says Healing, sitting down across from Darby.

“I’ve had cats,” says Darby, wistfully. “As you know. But every time one dies I’m so traumatized, I don’t get another for years. Besides, any pet I got now would probably outlive me, so I’m reluctant, as I’ve told you way too many times now.” He gazes into the living room where Healing’s dogs are sprawled by the fire, various cats perched here and there. “Fortunately I get to come here and commune with your animals. Blessings upon you for inviting me.”

“You don’t ever need an invitation to come here,” says Healing, gazing fondly at Darby. “You’ve been coming here since I was a boy. My folks adored you and so do I.”

“Your father liked me,” says Darby, sipping his coffee. “I’m never sure about your mother.” He frowns. “Do you think they’ll ever make the trek across the pond again?”

“My mother wants to,” says Healing, who last saw his parents six years ago when he visited them in Oxford. “But my father says he’s too old now. Eighty-seven. I doubt Mum would come without him, so I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“They’re happy in England,” says Darby, nodding. “I’ll never go back to Ireland. I was miserable there. Didn’t know what happiness was till I came to Mercy.”

They eat in silence until Bacall says, “Carla,” which prompts Carla to leave her place by the fire and come into the kitchen to have her head scratched by Darby.

“So I’m working on my inquiry to The Letter Writer,” says Healing, getting up to fetch more coffee. “May I read you my rough draft?”

“Certainly,” says Darby, scratching behind Carla’s ears, which elicits looks of love from her.

Healing refills their mugs, resumes his seat, and opens his notebook. “To Whom It May Concern. As we eagerly await the unveiling of whatever The Letter Writer turns out to be, I am inquiring about the possibility of a part-time position with you. My name is Healing Weintraub. I am sixty and recently concluded my tenure as the manager of Good Groceries here in Mercy. I have extensive experience as a gardener, write lots of letters on unlined paper with an extra-fine-tip black-ink pen, and enjoy helping people overcome difficulties with their dogs and/or cats. I am guessing your shop will have much to do with the art of writing and sending letters. I can imagine working in such a shop for twenty hours a week, though two to three hours every other day would be ideal.”

“Seems good,” says Darby, thoughtfully. “Doesn’t convey the full majesty of your being, but should suffice to get you an interview. I wonder why they don’t just come out and say what the shop is going to sell and say what they’re looking for in the way of employees.”

“Maybe they don’t know yet,” says Healing, closing his notebook, “and they’re hoping to pick the brains of those who inquire.”

“Tova,” says Bogart.

“Carla,” says Bacall.

*

At noon, Darby bids Healing adieu and goes to open his shop while Healing and the dogs take a leisurely stroll around their two-acre property. After their stroll, Healing rakes the old hay out of the chicken coop, throws it on the compost heap, and spreads fresh hay on the shelves and floor of the coop.

Having gratified the hens, Healing visits his large vegetable garden where most of the beds are dormant save for a few hearty stands of chard and parsley. Envisioning a verdant spring, he makes a list of vegetable and flower seeds to order from his favorite seed catalogues.

In from the cold, Healing does the dishes and makes a pot of tea to accompany writing letters, but only gets as far as Dear Mum and Dad, when the phone rings.

“Good morning,” he says, speaking into the old plastic yellow landline phone he’s had since those simpler times before the advent of mobile phones and digital everything.

“Is this Healing Weintraub?” asks a woman with an accent Healing can’t immediately identify.

“Tis I,” replies Healing, guessing the woman might be Swiss.

“Hi. My name is Jahera Dahl. I’m calling on Robin’s phone, Robin at the post office. I lost my dog and I’m just now putting up posters about her. Robin said you might be able to help me find her. She’s a Golden Lab. Five-months-old. Her name is Harriet and I’m desperate to find her.”

“Where and when did you lose her?”

“At the end of Lisbon Avenue. About eight o’clock this morning. She ran out of the building we’re renovating while I was upstairs, and when I came down and saw she’d gotten out, I ran out the door and called to her but…” She begins to cry. “If there’s anything you can do to help me, I would be happy to pay you whatever you charge.”

“Payment is not necessary,” says Healing, looking at his dogs, all of whom are gazing intently at him as they always do when he talks on the phone about dogs. “My bloodhounds and I can meet you at the end of Lisbon Avenue in twenty minutes.”

“Oh thank you. I’ll see you there.”

“One more thing. Have you contacted the sheriff?”

“Yes. Sheriff Higuera. He said he would look for her as he patrols the town.”

*

Before heading out, Healing calls Sheriff Higuera.

“Ruben. Healing. How’s the crime scene developing today in Mercy?”

“Slowly,” says Ruben, unflappable as ever. “Moon three days from full. The pubs will get wild. What’s up?”

“I may be letting my dogs off leash today to search for the missing pup. Wanted to forewarn you.”

“Not a problem. I shall ignore the many calls about unleashed dogs terrorizing the populous until I get the all clear from you.”

*

Fifteen minutes later, Healing and Carla and Tarzan and Benito arrive at the dead end of Lisbon Avenue just as Pablo and Esteban return from an unsuccessful search of the headlands.

“I think maybe she ran into town, not out there,” says Pablo, out of breath. “She likes people, you know. We didn’t see any people out there.”

“Somebody took her,” says Esteban, Pablo’s handsome nephew. “She’s a beautiful dog and she loves everybody. Too bad. But that’s life, you know.”

Now a little blue electric car pulls up and Jahera jumps out – tall and attractive, her long black hair in a ponytail, her skin olive brown.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she says, earnestly shaking Healing’s hand.

“Of course,” he says, impressed by the firmness of her grip.

Now she turns to Carla and Tarzan and Benito and says, “Who are these people?” – her use of the word people for his dogs causing Healing to instantly like her.

“Carla is the gorgeous Dane Lab. Tarzan is the handsome wolfish fellow. And Benito es el guapo pequeño.”

“We don’t think Harriet is out there,” says Pablo to Jahera as he points to the south and west. “We went on all the trails calling her name, but we found nothing.”

“Somebody probably picked her up, you know,” says Esteban, nodding. “That’s a very nice dog. People love golden dogs like that.”

“I can’t believe she’s gone,” says Jahera, her eyes full of tears.

“Do you have any of her toys in your car?” asks Healing, resisting his impulse to put his arm around Jahera and give her a reassuring squeeze. “A blanket or something she chews on?”

“I have her car blanket,” says Jahera, hurrying to her car. “And her squeaky ball.”

“The blanket should suffice,” says Healing, something telling him the pup ran out onto the headlands, not into town. As for Esteban’s surmise that someone nabbed her, this seems highly unlikely to Healing, especially in February when Mercy is largely free of out-of-towners.

“Good luck,” says Pablo, waving to Jahera as he and Esteban go back to work on The Wreck.

“Gracias, Pablo. Gracias Esteban,” says Jahera, bringing Healing a small gray blanket.

Healing takes the blanket from her and is pleased to see it has not been recently laundered, golden hairs abounding.

“I’m inclined to search the headlands first,” says Healing to Jahera. “You’re welcome to join us.”

“I’ve been up and down all those trails two times today,” says Jahera, shaking her head. “I called her and called her and heard nothing. She always comes when I call her.”

“Loud out there,” says Healing, nodding in sympathy with her despair. “The wind blowing and the ocean roaring. She might not have heard you, and you might not have heard her. If you’d rather not come with us, I understand. If we don’t find her out there, we’ll do a town search.”

“Thank you,” she says, smiling bravely. “I’m going to go put up more posters and keep looking around town.”

“She might be trying to get home,” says Healing, frowning at Carla who is uncharacteristically straining at her leash. “Are you living in town?”

“No,” says Jahera, shaking her head. “We are two miles inland on Road Seventeen.”

“Ah. So do you always drive Harriet into town?”

“No. We walk sometimes,” says Jahera, crying again. “And she gets tired on the uphill going home, so I carry her.”

*

With blanket in hand, Healing and his dogs take the trail that begins at the end of Lisbon Avenue, a wide path heading due west, and once they are clear of the town vapors, Healing presents Carla and Tarzan and Benito with the little blanket on which Harriet has lain for the last several weeks. Carla and Tarzan avidly sniff the fabric, while Benito snorts at the puppy smell and looks away.

“This is a Golden Lab pup about five-months old,” says Healing, believing his dogs understand him. “You’re part Golden Lab, Tarzan, and you’ve got Lab in you, Carla, so I’m going to let you off your leashes to go find her. I will not let you off your leash, Benito, because you are indifferent that breed, and I need your superior ears and nose to guide us.”

Now Healing releases the two big dogs and they race away to the west.

“And we follow,” says Healing, as he and Benito trot after them.

*

About a quarter-mile along this wide westerly path – Tarzan and Carla no longer in sight – Benito tugs Healing down a lesser trail heading north through high brown grass, and Healing does not dispute Benito’s change of direction.

A hundred yards further along, they come to a fork in the trail and Benito stops to sniff the air and listen for a moment before choosing the fork heading west, their path now barely discernible.

*

A few minutes later, Healing and Benito come to a stop where the faint trail ends at the edge of a cliff overlooking a small rocky beach sandwiched between huge gray rock formations – the rocky shore seventy feet straight down from the cliff top – the roar of crashing waves obliterating all other sounds.

“Did we make a wrong turn?” asks Healing, speaking loudly to Benito.

Benito gazes out to sea, looks to the south, and moves that way into the high grass through which there is no trail. And though Healing’s intellect is shouting This can’t be right! he does not dispute Benito’s decision.

“Tick country,” says Healing, as he and the little dog make their way through the brittle waist-high grass, a strong wind blowing from north to south.

Some fifty yards along, they come upon recently trampled grass, and Healing guesses Carla and Tarzan came this way.

Again they arrive at the top of a cliff, and Benito cautiously approaches the edge and barks sharply, while Healing stands back a few feet, his fear of heights profound.

And on this precipice, over the ocean’s roar, Healing hears the faint sounds of Carla and Tarzan baying from the rocky shore below.

“How in the world did they get down there?” asks Healing of Benito.

The little dog moves away from the edge and exhales audibly to say I don’t know and I’m not going any further.

Keeping a tight hold on Benito’s leash, Healing cups his hands together and shouts down at the rocky shore, “Car-la! Tar-zan!”

To which those two reply, their barking barely audible over the crashing waves.

“So…” says Healing, sighing with relief, “now that we know where they are, several questions arise. How did they get down there? Can they get back up? Did they find Harriet or did they just fall over the cliff and are now stuck down there?”

Benito responds by gazing expectantly at Healing to say Don’t you think I deserve a treat for bringing you here?

“Of course you do,” says Healing, getting a little bag of delicious chewies out of his pocket and giving one to Benito.

Now Tarzan emerges from the high grass festooned with burs and panting from the exertion of climbing up from the shore.

“Good dog,” says Healing, falling to his knees and unclipping the canteen from his belt to fill the palm of his hand with water for Tarzan.

When Tarzan finishes lapping the water, he looks into Healing’s eyes, and Healing asks, “Can you show me the way down?”

Tarzan makes a little sound in his throat to ask for a bit more water, drinks again from Healing’s hand, and leads Healing and Benito through the high grass for about twenty yards to the edge of yet another drop of a seventy feet to the rocky shore below.

Healing studies what he perceives to be a sheer cliff and says to Tarzan, “Methinks it would be wiser to enlist a person with a rope. Not so much because I’m afraid, though truth be told I’m terrified, but because without some sort of rope-like assistance I think if I tried to go down this way, I would fall and die.”

*

While Tarzan waits on the cliff’s edge for them to return, Healing and Benito jog back to The Wreck where Healing borrows Pablo’s phone to call Lance Reddish of the Mercy Volunteer Fire Department, Lance a legendary surfer and rock climber who has several times scaled El Capitan.

*

A half-hour later, Lance, slender and muscular, and Curly Feldman, another climber and surfer who is marvelously strong, stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the very edge of the cliff as casually as they would stand in the middle of a room, discussing how best to lower Healing down to the rocky shore where he hopes to find Carla and Harriet. Lance will go down, too, to help Healing bring the dog or dogs back up.

“Carla doesn’t know you very well,” explains Healing as Lance secures a bright red climbing rope around Healing’s waist. “And though she would probably be fine with you appearing on the beach, she might be feeling protective of the pup, so that’s why I want to go down with you.”

“You’re a wise man, Healing,” says Lance, looking down the face off the cliff. “I don’t need ropes for this, but you’re good to go now and I’ll scoot down beside you.”

“And we’ve got the rescue sled for the dogs if we need it,” says Curly, sitting several feet back from the edge with his legs out in front of him and his heels dug into the ground as he prepares to lower Healing down to the rocky shore.

“Okay,” says Healing, breathing slowly and deeply to calm himself. “Here goes nothing.”

*

Carla is thrilled when Healing and Lance arrive on the rocky shore, and Harriet, her back left leg broken, is thrilled, too, the wounded pup frantically licking Healing’s face when he picks her up and carries her to the rescue sled to which Lance expertly secures her before climbing along beside her as Curly pulls the sled up the cliff face.

“That leaves you and me, Carla,” says Healing, gazing fondly at his dog. “Can you get back up there by yourself?”

To which Carla responds by sitting down to wait for Lance to return with the sled.

*

Later that afternoon, Jahera arrives at Mercy’s one and only veterinary clinic where she is ushered into the room where Healing is watching the good vet Isabella Cisneros and her able assistant Gwyneth Cumberland put the finishing touches on the cast on Harriet’s broken leg.

In her joy at seeing her beloved Harriet alive and well, Jahera throws her arms around Healing and hugs him as if she never wants to let him go.

*

The next morning, Healing is sitting at his kitchen table writing to his parents about the rescue of Harriet, when Jahera and Harriet arrive with edible gifts for the dogs.

After much celebratory tail wagging and treat eating, Juliette sits on the sofa in the living room having a cup of tea while Harriet lies on the rug by the fire with Carla and Tarzan having a wonderful time hanging out with the two big dogs who rescued her, and Healing sits in his rocking chair with Benito on his lap.

“I can never thank you enough for rescuing Harriet,” says Jahera with her lovely Norwegian French accent. “If there’s ever anything I can do to repay you, anything, I hope you’ll tell me.”

To which Healing replies, “Oh there is something you can do, Jahera.”

“What?” she asks urgently.

“Tell me everything you know about The Letter Writer. What kind of shop it will be, what you’ll sell there… everything.”

So Jahera tells him, and when she can think of nothing more to say, Healing hands her his letter of inquiry, feeling quite confident he has a leg up now on the competition.

fin

How Perfect Is Life a poem by Todd

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Scooter

At dawn on a gloomy Friday in early October, Healing Weintraub wakes in his bed in his little old house on Nasturtium Road, and for the first time in fourteen years really really really doesn’t want to go to work today. He has woken on many other days, hundreds of them, and really really didn’t want to go work, but this is his first triple really, with the third really italicized.

The work in question is managing Good Groceries, a small worker-owned cooperative offering the best organic produce and bulk foods on the north coast of California. Healing loves his co-workers and loves providing excellent food to those who depend on Good Groceries for most of their comestibles. However, he is nearing sixty and feeling more mortal than usual these days, and he would really like to spend the rest of his life not working forty hours a week stocking shelves with bananas and cabbage and soup and mustard, and manning a cash register, and engaging in small talk with dozens of customers throughout the day, and so forth.

“The problem is money,” he says, getting out of bed and shedding his nightshirt and underwear as he walks down the hallway to his little living room where his three dogs await him – Carla, an enormous Black Lab Dane, Tarzan, a Siberian Husky Lab, and Benito, a Chihuahua Poodle.

Healing and his dogs go out into the backyard to pee, the cold rain causing the naked man to shiver in a pleasantly invigorating way, and while he shivers, Healing realizes that the recent end to his nine-month relationship with Vivienne and the resultant freedom from many things that were weighing heavily and painfully upon him, has cleared the boards of his consciousness to such a degree, his unhappiness with his Good Groceries gig can no longer be ignored.

“The problem is money,” he says again as he returns to his house and leaves the kitchen door ajar for his dogs to come inside whenever they wish to.

*

On his lunch break – the morning at Good Groceries featuring a heated exchange with a supplier trying to foist shoddy goods on them and a customer haranguing him for not carrying a particular brand of coconut oil – Healing meets Helen Tremblay at Café Brava to commiserate about the various ups and downs in their lives, mostly the downs.

Helen is fifty-eight with short silver gray hair, a massage therapist and saxophone player, and one of Healing’s best friends since high school. Helen’s mother Charlene is French and was between partners when Helen was born in Brooklyn. Helen spent the first nine years of her life in various boroughs of New York City, the next three years in Miami, the next four in Los Angeles, and at sixteen settled with her mother in Mercy where they both have lived ever since, save for the two years Helen spent at San Francisco State from nineteen to twenty. Helen has been married to Sheila Castro, an electrician and conga player, for seventeen years.

“Charge people for helping them with their dog and cat problems,” says Helen in response to Healing’s claim he would quit his job tomorrow if he could figure out how to replace the income. “And charge a good hourly wage for all the accordion playing you do on people’s recording projects. And write a book about dogs and cats. Then you’ll easily make as much money as you make running Good Groceries.”

“I won’t charge for helping dogs and cats,” says Healing, musing on Helen’s suggestions, “because when I was ten I made an agreement with the gods I never would. And I won’t take money for playing accordion on recording projects because if I did I would be tense and anxious and worried about playing badly, so I would play badly and hate myself for ruining things. As for writing a book about dogs and cats, I’m not against the idea except I’m not a writer, though I do enjoy writing letters, and most of what I know about dogs and cats defies description, except to say I’m good at noticing things and when I apply my noticing skills to problems having to do with dogs and cats, I’m often able to notice the cause of the problem, so then the problem at least has a chance of being resolved.”

“Could you get by on your social security?” asks Helen, who can relate to Healing’s dilemma, having grown weary of giving massages, though she does charge two hundred dollars an hour for playing saxophone on recording projects and is writing a book about holistic body nourishing.

“That has been my plan for many years,” says Healing, sipping his blackberry smoothie. “Work at Good Groceries until I’m sixty-two, take early social security despite the dramatic diminution in the government largesse for going in early, and somehow make do. But the prospect of working for two more years at Good Groceries…” He closes his eyes. “I’ll go mad.”

“You need a massage,” says Helen, pouting sympathetically. “I know someone really good.”

“I can’t afford you,” says Healing, laughing. “Unless you’ll trade for vegetables and flowers and can wait until next summer to get paid.”

“How about I trade you seven massages for solving a dog problem?”

Seven massages? Must be something serious. What’s the problem?”

“And you agree to make the trade?” asks Helen, arching an eyebrow.

“If I solve the problem, yes.”

“Okay. Good. So over the course of the last five months, my mother’s dog Scooter has gone from being an ideal pet to being a royal pain in the ass, and my mother and her new beau are distraught to the point of wanting to end dear Scooter’s life. This emotional upheaval resounds into my life because, as you know, I am entwined and enmeshed and ensnarled with my mother, otherwise known as The Queen of the World.”

“New beau?” says Healing, frowning. “What happened to Jack?”

“He moved to Cabo with a woman named Dusty. My mother’s new man is Victor Montrose. A venture capitalist. Drives a car worth more than my house.”

“Well maybe Victor’s the problem,” says Healing, who already has an odd feeling about the case. “Scooter is a prince among dogs and Jack was his primary human, so…”

“I don’t think Victor is the problem. He’s not the most pleasant person, and after four in the afternoon he drinks like a fish and becomes a most unpleasant person, but he seems to genuinely like Scooter and vice-versa.” Helen sighs heavily. “My mother is desperate to wed Victor. She’s eighty-three, feeling fragile of late, and Victor is rich as Croesus and adores her.” Helen frowns. “Who was Croesus anyway?”

“King of Lydia,” says Healing, who reads books about such things. “In Greece. Five hundred something B.C. Famously and incredibly wealthy until his army was defeated by the Persians. Something of a watershed in Greek history, and not a good moment for the Greeks or Croesus.”

“Victor is Italian on his father’s side, German on his mother’s,” says Helen, sipping her latte. “Which he frequently proclaims after his third gin and tonic.” She sighs again. “In any case, Scooter was very sad when Jack went away, not only because, as you say, Jack was his primary human, but he was also the only human who took Scooter for runs every day, and now poor Scooter is lucky to get a few not-very-long walks a week, and most of those are when Sheila and I go over there expressly to take him for a walk, which is highly inconvenient for us, but we hate to see him suffer so.”

“Not much of a gap between Jack leaving for Cabo and the coming of Victor,” says Healing, trying to think of when he last saw Jack. “Didn’t Jack preside over a barbecue there in April? It’s only just starting to be October.”

“Oh there’s never much of a gap,” says Helen, drolly. “I’m fairly certain Victor was waiting in the wings for the last year or so, and maybe not waiting all that much.” She gives Healing a look to say You know how my mother is and adds, “The Queen of the World cannot bear to be alone for a moment, and she’s still catnip to many of the older ones of your kind. Even still.”

*

Charlene, Helen’s mother, has lived in America for sixty-five years, forty-two of those in Mercy, yet if anything her French accent is stronger than it was when she fled from France to America all those decades ago.

A waitress turned paramour to a series of moneyed men, Charlene lives in a spacious home a few blocks from the Southport Tennis and Golf Club, three miles south of downtown Mercy. Charlene is the empress of the clubhouse lounge and a frequent diner at the clubhouse restaurant, currently a steakhouse called Flambé.

Healing will never ever forget the first time he met Charlene. He was a senior in high school with a leading role in the Mercy High production of Life With Father, and Helen, a junior newly arrived in Mercy, had a part in the play, too. Charlene and her partner at the time, Rex Cartwright who smoked cigars and drove a Bentley, attended opening night and stole the show by simply walking into the high school multi-purpose room and taking their seats in the front row.

Few people in Mercy, and certainly not Healing, had ever seen a woman so attractive and so well endowed and dressed so provocatively, except in the movies – think Hedy Lamarr wearing a glittering strapless red dress and sparkling red stiletto heels, her dark brown hair tumbling over glorious bare shoulders.

After the play, Charlene rushed backstage, proclaimed for all to hear that Healing was destined to be the next Olivier, and then kissed young Healing as if he was the love of her life. And Healing was so aroused by Charlene’s rapturous embrace he had to race away to the bathroom lest anyone see the undeniable evidence of his arousal.

At eighty-three, with the help of girdle and torso harness, Charlene still presents to the world a statuesque figure, her shoulder-length hair currently auburn and wavy, her complexion rosy – the result of what she calls “my special cream from Paris.”

*

The next afternoon, Saturday, the fog unrelenting, Healing and his dog Tarzan arrive at Charlene’s house in Southport, formerly sand dunes and coastal pines and a few humble redwood homes, now a development of large houses built around the one and only golf course in the Mercy watershed.

Charlene, wearing a peach butterfly-print blouse and high-waisted beige slacks in the style of Claudette Colbert, and Victor, a thickset man in his seventies with a pompadour of white hair dyed black, wearing a loud blue Hawaiian shirt and white pants, come out the front door of Charlene’s house just as Healing with Tarzan on a leash come up the front walk.

“Ealing! Come quickly,” cries Charlene, beckoning urgently. “Scoo-tare has gone mad again and is digging up the backyard. Come see.” And as an afterthought, “Oh I’m so sorry. This is Victor Montrose. My fiancé. Victor, Ealing Weintraub, a grocer who was a gifted actor and gave up the stage for reasons I will never understand and now plays accordion in a band with Helen.”

“Pleased to meet you,” says Victor, gripping Healing’s hand as if trying to break all of Healing’s fingers. “The dog is psychotic.”

“Speaking of dogs,” says Healing, touching the top of Tarzan’s head. “This is Tarzan. I’m curious to see how Scooter relates to him now. They’ve met a few times before and always liked each other.”

*

Scooter, an eight-year-old medium-sized Chocolate Lab Border Collie, stops his frantic digging and comes to greet Tarzan, the dogs remembering each other and still feeling kindly toward one another.

 “Just look what he’s done,” says Charlene, gesturing dramatically to the large backyard – a formerly manicured garden of small trees and decorative shrubs and granite boulders surrounding three large patches of lawn connected by wide pathways of lawn, much of it now destroyed by the dog.

“Stunning,” says Healing, awestruck by the scale of the destruction.

“Oh it was so beautiful,” says Charlene, giving Victor a sad smile. “Victor himself designed this putting-green garden, and Madame Wildflower directed her people to put in the trees and rocks and putting greens, and they were just making the koi pond where two bridges would arch across in the Japanese style when Victor took me to Santa Barbara to visit his daughter Gloria in her fabulous home in Montecito, and while we were gone Scoo-tare destroyed everything.”

“I’ve been here several times over the twenty years you’ve lived here,” says Healing, walking out into the wrecked garden. “The first time was right after you moved here. There were native coastal pines and wild grasses and a few remnants of the original sand dunes with some of the original dune grass. Am I remembering correctly?”

“Oui,” says Charlene, nodding. “I liked it very much. I’m not a gardener and it only required a man to come a few times a year to do a little trimming and raking. There was a brick patio and a barbecue. Nothing elegant, but a good place to entertain so… I liked it.”

“So did I,” says Healing, sharing a smile with her. “And so did your dogs Gaston and Philippe. Gaston a big shaggy brown mutt, Philippe some sort of poodle chow?”

“Oh yes. Dear Gaston and sweet Philippe. They loved it here,” says Charlene, gesturing toward the east. “Gaston liked to sit under a pine tree and smell what was on the wind. So we buried him, Helen and I, under that pine tree when he died. He was fourteen. The pine tree is gone now, but Gaston is still out there somewhere.”

“Then,” says Healing, bending down and picking up a clump of the wrecked putting-green grass, “the trees were cut down and the yard was terraced for Jack’s vegetable garden. Or am I misremembering?”

“No, no. Your memory is good. Eight years ago,” says Charlene, smiling contritely at Victor. “Forgive me for speaking of him, but Jack was crazy for growing vegetables and flowers, everything organic, and so the yard was his little farm, you know.” She rolls her eyes. “Such a mess. The dirt in the house. Oh my God. But the vegetables and flowers were very good, so…”

“How did Scoo-tare like the yard that way?” asks Healing, thinking of all the dirt he and his dogs track into their little old house on Nasturtium Road.

“He liked it,” says Charlene, shrugging complacently. “There was not much room for him to run, but at least he didn’t dig everything up. He was never a digger until they put in Victor’s magnificent garden.”

“Listen,” says Victor, pointing at Healing. “I don’t want you getting the wrong idea here. I love the dog. We get along great. I sit on the sofa and he puts his head on my leg. We’re good buddies when he’s not in one of his manic phases. He’ll go for days without digging and be just as sweet as can be. And then… bam, he’s back to this maniacal digging and destroying everything. It’s untenable. A living nightmare. And the digging isn’t the only thing he does when he’s in one of his psycho phases. When we take him for walks…” He glances at Charlene. “You want to tell him or should I?”

“He shits on the sidewalk,” says Charlene, shrugging hopelessly. “He always used to go on the dirt beside. But now… plop. Right on the cement. And when we try to pick it up because we are responsible dog owners, the shit smears on the pavement. And then what can we do?” She looks away. “Disgusting.”

“He does it on purpose, too,” says Victor, glaring at Scooter who is happily romping around in the wreckage with Tarzan. “No doubt about it.”

“Any other out-of-the-ordinary behavior?” asks Healing, watching Tarzan chase Scooter to a far corner of the yard where an old wooden shed is festooned with red passionflower vines.

“You see where the dogs are going?” says Charlene, pointing toward the shed. “Scoo-tare dug a hole under the fence there into the Winthrops’ backyard, which is completely overgrown with weeds and dead trees and snakes and ticks and God knows what else. So he goes through his tunnel over there and the Winthrops call me and say, ‘Your dog is here. We don’t mind, but we thought you would like to know.’” She rolls her eyes. “They are nice people, I suppose, but they are hippies and don’t care how they look, you know, so… they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them. We have the Wildflower people fill in the tunnel with rocks and cement, but then some days later Scoo-tare has dug another tunnel and is going into the Winthrops’ weeds again.”

“So we’re gonna get that whole section of the yard cemented and build a high stone wall there,” says Victor, pointing in the direction of the shed. “Want a drink?”

“I’d love some tea,” says Healing, nodding politely. “But first I’ll look around a bit more and see if I can find anything that might be inciting dear Scooter to riot. Or do you prefer Scoo-tare?”

“Scooter,” says Victor, going inside. “Char’s French, you know.”

“Aha,” says Healing, winking at Charlene. “Helen coming over? She said she would.”

“Yes, soon,” says Charlene, whispering to Healing, “Victor wants to have the dog put to sleep, but I love my Scoo-tare. I can’t bear to have him put down. Maybe you can find for him a home if we can’t solve the problem. But Victor must have his putting-green garden. He’s been so very good to me.”

*

Healing wanders though the ruined garden to the old shed in the northeast corner of the yard and examines the ground where Scooter has three times now tunneled under the wooden fence – no easy feat in soil as hard as rock.

Going up on his toes to look over the fence, Healing smiles at the Winthrops’ yard, a gently sloping half-acre of wild grasses and blackberry brambles and nasturtiums and calla lilies and coastal pines, the wild land home to many birds and insects and lizards and snakes and rodents and a skunk or two.

He admires the big deck on the south-facing side of the Winthrop’s old redwood house where hundreds of ceramic pots of various sizes surround an old wooden picnic table, some of the pots growing succulents, some mint, some flowers, some weeds.

Healing turns at the sound of Scooter starting to dig a new hole a few feet from the last one the Wildflower people filled in with gravel and then capped with cement – Tarzan joining Scooter in digging.

“You know,” says Healing, speaking to the dogs, “one of my first jobs after I graduated from high school was working for Zella Wildflower, and I can assure you the last thing she would want to do is fill in your tunnel, unless a client asks her to, and then she will.”

Now Sue Winthrop, her long white hair in a ponytail, her blouse a faded paisley relic from the previous century, comes out onto her deck to snip some mint leaves for tea, and she sees Healing and recognizes him from Good Groceries.

She waves to him, and he waves to her, and his waving becomes a beckoning, so Sue takes the little trail through dry brown grass to meet Healing at the fence.

*

A half-hour later, Healing and Tarzan and Scooter are sitting in Charlene’s living room with Victor and Charlene and Helen – Healing and Helen drinking tea, Victor and Charlene drinking gin and tonics.

“I have thoroughly examined Scooter,” says Healing, looking around at everyone, “and I’m happy to report he’s in fine fettle. I’m also happy to say I can explain why he’s been tunneling into the Winthrops’ yard, and why he so frantically digs up your garden and poops on the cement when he’s in one of his crazy phases. And I also have a solution to this situation that has become, as Victor said, untenable.”

“If you can do all that,” says Victor, who has already had three large gin and tonics and is nearly done with his fourth, “I will give you…” He pauses dramatically. “Ten thousand dollars.”

Helen shoots Healing a look to say Take it. The guy has millions.

“I will do so,” says Healing, looking from Helen to Charlene to Victor, “by telling you the story of Scooter’s life from puppyhood to now.”

“But how do you know his story?” asks Charlene, pursing her lips and frowning at Healing. “You’ve only met him a handful of times.”

“He told me his story just now,” says Healing, looking at Scooter and Tarzan sprawled on the floor together, “as we wandered around the yard following our noses.”

“This I gotta hear,” says Victor, laughing a grunting kind of laugh. “I don’t gotta believe it, but I gotta hear it.”

 *

“When Scooter was a puppy eight years ago,” begins Healing, “Charlene and Jack brought him home to a yard that was being transformed from a fragment of the original coastal vegetation to a terraced vegetable and flower garden. Thus as Scooter was first learning to live on the earth, he briefly experienced a bit of the wild world, if you will, as it was being transformed into a small organic farm, and the word organic is an important word in this narrative.”

“Why is organic important?” asks Victor, giving Healing a disparaging look as he makes himself a fifth gin and tonic. “What does organic even mean anymore? Organic this, organic that. You put the word organic in front of something we’re supposed to what? Get a hard on?”

“Victor,” says Charlene, coquettishly. “Don’t be nasty. Let Ealing tell his story.”

“The word organic is key,” says Healing, enjoying Victor and Charlene’s repartee, “because until five months ago, Scooter was never subjected to the smell or taste of chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any such toxic substances. Jack was a purist and would use no chemicals in his garden. Scooter was also taken for daily walks and runs, sometimes by Helen and Sheila when they came to visit, sometimes by Jack who had an electric bicycle on which he rode with Scooter running along beside him, and often by Charlene who has long been a champion of walking for an hour or so every day.”

“You got that right,” says Victor, sitting down beside Charlene and putting his hand on her knee. “She walks my butt off.”

“Not so much anymore,” says Charlene, batting her eyelashes at Victor. “Only sometimes.”

“Then some months ago,” continues Healing, “the backyard underwent a radical transformation as it was being me into a Japanese garden with bonsai pines and boulders and a koi pond and lawns, the totality of which was to be a fanciful putting green.”

“And at first Scooter didn’t mind at all,” says Victor, frowning at the dog. “But then he just flipped out and became a digging fiend.”

“He did,” says Healing, nodding in agreement. “Only we’ve left out a few important steps that precede Scooter flipping out, and those steps are the precipitous events.”

“Now how would you know that?” asks Victor, squinting suspiciously at Healing. “You weren’t here for any of this.”

“I know because I suspected these parts of the plot and subsequently confirmed them,” says Healing, gazing steadfastly at Victor.

“I’m listening,” says Victor, scrunching up his cheeks. “I’m not liking this, but I’m listening.”

“So…” says Healing, exchanging looks with Helen to gain courage, “when the transformation of the yard began, a number of chemicals heretofore not present in the yard were introduced. The sod used for putting greens is highly dependent on chemical fertilizers and insecticides to maintain the carpet-like nature of such greens, and Scooter, gifted with a sense of smell many times more sensitive than ours, found these chemicals highly unpleasant to inhale. So what did he do?”

“He attacked the garden?” says Helen, making a Yikes face.

“Not at first,” says Healing, shaking his head. “No, the first thing he did after they installed the putting-green sod was to resist ever going in the backyard.”

“That’s true,” says Charlene, nodding. “But we thought it was just because he didn’t like the people putting in the garden.”

“That was not the reason,” says Healing, continuing quickly before Victor can interrupt him. “When you shooed him out into the transformed backyard, he got as far away from the source of his suffering as he could by going to the northeast corner of the yard that was left somewhat wild around the old tool shed, and he made a nest in the grass behind the shed, the remnants of which are still there. And he was somewhat content there until the putting-green garden came closer and closer to his nest, and that is when he first tunneled under the fence into the yard belonging to Sue and Phil Winthrop, where, next to the trunk of a fallen pine tree, he made another nest.”

“You’re making all this up,” says Victor, shaking his head. “This is bullshit.”

“I’m not making any of this up,” says Healing, looking out the sliding glass door at the ruined garden. “And I just now confirmed everything I’ve told you with Sue Winthrop. She remembers very well the day when Scooter first appeared in their yard, and she and Phil went to investigate how he’d gotten in, thinking they’d find a hole in the fence. When they looked over the fence and saw your putting-green garden, they understood why Scooter had sought refuge in their more dog-friendly backyard.”

“That must have been when she first called me,” says Charlene, eagerly supplying the next part of the story. “To tell me Scoo-tare was in their yard. So then we had the Wildflower people fill in the tunnel.”

“Yes, you did,” says Healing, taking a deep breath. “So Scooter dug another tunnel. And as long as he could escape into the Winthrops’ yard, he did not try to dig up your putting-green garden, and remained, as you described him, Victor, as sweet as could be. But when his second tunnel was filled in, this time with gravel and cement, he flipped out. And that is when he began digging up your garden because he was, as far as he was concerned, fighting for his life.”

“You’re sure an alien didn’t come from outer space and make him do it?” says Victor, leering at Healing. “You can’t be serious.”

“You see, Victor,” says Healing, with great sincerity, “when Charlene fell madly in love with you, and when going on long walks became a rarity for Scooter, long walks he depended on for his sanity, and when he no longer had access to any place outside where he could feel safe and comfortable, he had no choice but to take action. Having owned many dogs over the course of my life, I can assure you that the difference between a well-exercised dog and an unexercised dog is the difference between a demon and an angel. And so Scooter became a lawn destroyer, a sidewalk pooper, and a frantic tunnel digger, his toenails warn away to nothing in his desperate labors to escape the fumes of death, and I do not consider the expression fumes of death hyperbole.”

“Let’s say some of this is true,” says Victor, getting up to make himself another drink. “I still want my putting-green garden and I’m not gonna let some over-sensitive dog stop me from getting it. Now you said you had a solution, and as a solution-oriented venture capitalist, solutions are what I’m interested in, not some sob story about a dog fighting for his life to get away from a putting green. That’s ridiculous.”

“I hear you, Victor,” says Healing, nodding earnestly. “You’re passionate about putting. And assuming one of the solutions is not ending Scooter’s life, and another solution is not abandoning your plan to make the yard into a miniature golf course, then the most obvious solution is to create a way for Scooter to move with ease to and from the Winthrops’ backyard. Sue assured me that she and Phil would be happy to have Scooter as a regular visitor. However, if you are uncomfortable with a tunnel under, or a gate through, the fence or wall separating your property from theirs – and I imagine you would be – another solution is to give Scooter to the Winthrops, and I have also confirmed they would love to have him.”

*

On the Monday following his solving of The Case of the Frantically Digging Dog, Healing announces to the executive board of Good Groceries that he is hereby giving one month’s notice as prelude to embarking on the next phase of his life, whatever that turns out to be.

*

The day before Thanksgiving, with several of his colleagues looking on, Healing performs his final act as a professional grocer by filling the banana bin with unblemished medium-sized bananas still a few days away from optimal ripeness.

fin

La Entrada piano solo by Todd

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Mitzi

On a warm Thursday night in September on the far north coast of California, in a splendid two-story house off Kingston Road in the redwood forest three miles from the town of Mercy, Healing Weintraub and Vivienne Malone lie entangled in Vivienne’s bed, while Vivienne’s nine-year-old daughter Meera slumbers peacefully in her bedroom down the hall.

Healing and Vivienne have been lovers for nine months now. They spend two or three nights a week together, sometimes at Healing’s little old house in Mercy, sometimes in Vivienne’s gigantic newer home in the forest. Healing loves being Vivienne’s lover and friend, and Vivienne seemed to be happily in love with Healing until a month ago when she started expressing dissatisfaction with their relationship.

*

“What are we doing, Healing?” asks Vivienne, her Irish accent aphrodisiac to Healing, especially when she speaks quietly.

“I am floating down a river of bliss,” Healing murmurs. “Otherwise known as a post-coital haze. How about you?”

“I was not asking about the present moment. I meant where are we going with our relationship?”

“We are going where our relationship takes us,” he says, sighing at the too-soon cessation of his blissful floating feeling. “And though I know you may think I’m being flippant and avoidant, I honestly mean our relationship will go where it goes. As for a concrete vision of what our relationship will be a few months from now, I have no idea.”

“So you’ve said before,” says Vivienne, disentangling her body from his. “And I do think you’re being flippant and avoidant because you’re afraid of the deeper intimacy a real marriage would require of you.”

“What do you base your thinking on?” asks Healing, marveling at how quickly his state of rapture has changed to feeling verbally assaulted for no good reason.

“You’re fifty-nine,” says Vivienne, getting out of bed. “Soon to be sixty, and you’ve never been in a lasting relationship.”

“And you’re fifty-two,” says Healing, telling himself not to trade accusations with her yet finding himself doing just that. “Married twice, three years each time. Does this mean you’re afraid of the deeper intimacy of a real marriage? I don’t think so. I think you and I are both capable of fantastically deep intimacy as the last hour just proved.”

“Do you want to marry me and make a life with me?” she says angrily. “Or do you just want to fuck me a few times a week?”

“Those are my choices?” says Healing, laughing as he kicks off the sheets. “And by the way, you’re incredibly sexy in nothing but a T-shirt being angry and defiant.”

“You should go,” says Vivienne, stepping into her pajama bottoms. “I have a seven o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“As you wish, my darling,” says Healing, getting out of bed and putting on his underwear.

“I don’t think we’ll come to your potluck tomorrow night,” says Vivienne, loving the sight of Healing naked despite being furious with him. “I’ll call you.”

“Shall we kiss goodbye?” asks Healing, approaching her. “Or is that not where you see our relationship going right now?”

They kiss and hold each other and Vivienne softens and says, “Lust clouds my thinking. We need some time apart. Two weeks would be good, I think.”

*

Fifteen minutes later, a little after nine-thirty, Healing arrives at his little old house on Nasturtium Road, his three dogs glad he’s home.

Feeling restless and angry, Healing takes the pooches for a walk around the property – two acres at the south end of Mercy – after which he strolls into town and cajoles Darby Riley into leaving the comfort of his cozy apartment to join him at Big Goose for a beer or two.

 They sit at a small table on the periphery of the general hubbub in this largest of Mercy’s three pubs, and Darby, seventy-five and Irish asks, “Don’t you have to go to work tomorrow morning?”

“I do,” says Healing, finding all the women in the pub, waitresses and bartenders and customers alike, enchanting. “And though I’ll be a bit sleep-deprived on the morrow, I crave the largesse of your wisdom more than I crave sleep.”

“You know, since you’ve been sleeping with the goddess Vivienne,” says Darby, grinning at Healing, “your subtle British accent has morphed into a not so subtle Irish brogue, and authentic sounding, too. Takes me back, as they say, though Vivienne is upper crust Killarney and I’m middle class Dublin. Still, I love hearing the lilt.”

“Speaking of Vivienne,” says Healing, smiling at the approach of Gladys Weatherstone, one of the lovely sirens tending tables at Big Goose, her red hair in pigtails, her round cheeks ablaze. “To be continued.”

 “Be still my heart,” says Gladys, putting her hand on Healing’s shoulder. “Haven’t seen you in eons.” She winks at Darby. “Unless I’m shopping at Good Groceries and then the rogue can’t keep his hands off me.” She laughs a high happy laugh. “I wish. What can I get you guys?”

“A half-pint of something dark and bitter,” says Healing, who rarely drinks alcohol.

“I’ll have the same,” says Darby, smiling sweetly at Gladys. “How’s the vase working out for you, dear?”

“Magnificent,” says Gladys, sauntering away. “Star of my kitchen table.”

“She bought a big round cobalt blue vase from me a few days ago. She said it was especially for sunflowers. ‘I’m deep into another van Gogh phase’ she said. I was asking forty dollars, though the thing is a bona fide antique from England and worth seventy at least, and I let her talk me down to twenty. I’m defenseless against women of her stature.” He sighs. “So… troubles with Vivienne? Don’t tell me. She wants you to sell your place and move in with her. Wedding bells and so forth.”

Healing gapes at Darby. “How in God’s name did you know that?”

“I’ve dined with her several times now at your little house,” says Darby, nodding knowingly. “And I’ve attended a few parties at her palace. When she’s at your humble abode she’s a fish out of water, the funk quotient way above her comfort zone, whereas at her mansion she’s a diva. You see, Healing, your Vivienne, and I love her dearly, is what those who study wolves call an alpha, and alphas want to be in control. Of everything.”

Gladys returns with two half-pints of Guinness, flirts a moment more, and departs.

“Here’s to the inevitable demise of your relationship with Vivienne,” says Darby, raising his glass. “I gave it five months when it began, and you’ve nearly doubled that, no doubt because the sex is so good. Am I right?”

Healing sips his beer and says, “We’ve nearly doubled it because we love each other and because Meera loves me and I love her, and Meera loves my place and my dogs and cats and the dirt and all the fun she’s not allowed to have at home.”

“You know there’s nothing wrong with a good nine-month relationship,” says Darby, thoughtfully sipping his beer. “What’s wrong is keeping things around much past their due dates.”

*

The next morning at Good Groceries, Healing is stacking ears of corn on the produce shelf a few feet away from Brenda Ontiveros who is replenishing the Cremini mushroom tray.

A beauty in her twenties wearing a battered black San Francisco Giants baseball cap, a purple T-shirt, baggy brown corduroy trousers, and orange running shoes, her curly black hair in a ponytail, Brenda says to Healing in the delightful way she has of melding English and Spanish, “I think mi tia Luisa could use your help. She got a new dog, a Chihuahua who kinda looks like a miniature Australian shepherd? Gets suddenly afraid and hides under the sofa or the bed and won’t come out for hours. Tia can’t figure out what the dog is afraid of. There’s nothing obvious. It’s a mystery.”

“Puppy?” asks Healing, his curiosity piqued.

“Two-years-old. Tia got her at the pound. Sweet. Smart. Happy most of the time. Then for no reason she starts shivering and runs to hide. Maybe you can go see about her after work.”

“Better tomorrow,” says Healing, tired and hung over. “I’m free all day.”

“I’ll call you,” says Brenda, getting out her phone and sending herself a reminder to set things up with her aunt and then call Healing.

“What’s the dog’s name?”

“Mitzi,” says Brenda, smiling at the thought of the little dog. “Tia tried to change her name to Chica, but she only comes to Mitzi.”

*

The potluck that night at Healing’s, minus Vivienne and Meera, is a fun affair composed of Buster Gomez, a parole officer and bass player, Buster’s wife Carmen, a high school Spanish teacher and singer, Helen Tremblay, a massage therapist and saxophonist, Helen’s partner Sheila Castro, an electrician and conga player, and Healing, manager of Good Groceries and an accordion player.

When Healing confides in his pals that he and Vivienne are taking a two-week hiatus from each other, the subject turns to relationships. Much is said about relationships in general, much is recounted about specific relationships, and the final word on the subject comes from Carmen who declares, “What you can never do is force the other person to be someone they’re not. You can maybe get them to fake being someone they’re not for a while, but that’s a living death for everyone involved.”

*

Early the next morning, Healing takes his three dogs to the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, the vast expanse of sand void of other dogs and people, so Healing lets the pooches off their leashes to race around and gambol in the waves – Tarzan, a Siberian Husky Lab who loves to swim, Carla, an enormous Black Lab Dane who enjoys going in up to her chest, and Benito, a Chihuahua Poodle, who will venture onto wet sand but never into actual water.

*

After a hearty breakfast, Healing leashes Benito and walks with the little dog across town to a neighborhood where nearly everyone is Hispanic.

Luisa, Brenda’s aunt, a baker at Café Brava, lives in a small pink house she shares with her daughter and her daughter’s two teenaged children. A short pretty woman with shoulder-length black hair going gray, Luisa is pruning rose bushes in her front yard when Healing and Benito arrive.

“Hola Healing,” she says, waving when she sees him. “Oh you bring your little dog.” She turns to her open front door and calls, “Mitzi. Come see your compadre.”

Now a Chihuahua mix somewhat resembling a miniature Australian shepherd with very short legs comes to the doorway and wags her tail but does not venture out onto the front porch.

“She shy,” says Luisa, smiling shyly at Healing. “Gracias mucho for coming. Es misterioso. I don’t know. Everything is fine and then she look up like she hear fireworks or someone shooting a gun, you know, and she start to shiver and then she run and hide under the bed. But we never hear no sound.”

“May I bring my dog into your yard?” asks Healing, standing at the gate of the low picket fence.

“Por supuesto,” says Luisa, hurrying to open the gate. “Is very nice you come over. Quiero café?”

“Por supuesto,” says Healing, leading Benito into the yard, the little dog eager to make the acquaintance of the doggy in the doorway. “I brought you a jar of spicy plum jam we made last week when Tova was down from Portland.”

“Oh Tova,” says Luisa, smiling sweetly as she takes the jar from him. “Gracias mucho. Maybe you bring Tova next time she visit you. Veronica would love to see her. They were on the volleyball team together in high school. Te acuerdas?”

“I’ll never forget,” says Healing, remembering that valiant team of young women who almost never won a game and celebrated every rare point they scored as if they had just won the league championship.

*

Sitting at the kitchen table, Healing gazes around the neat little house and tries to imagine what could be triggering such a reaction in Mitzi who seems perfectly healthy, alert and affectionate and highly intelligent.

Luisa remains standing until Healing beseeches her to sit, and when she finally does sit down, she laughs and says, “When I was a girl, mi madre and my sisters and me, you know, we serve the men and don’t sit down.” She laughs again. “And when my husband was here, you know, I stand all the time and serve him, and now I stand and serve my daughter and my grandchildren. I think they would be very surprised if I sat down with them.”

“We are such creatures of habit,” says Healing, gazing at the refrigerator crowded with photos of Luisa’s family and friends. “How old are your grandchildren now?”

“Cynthia es fourteen, Diego es twelve.” She lowers her voice. “Diego es muy difícil ahora. Still a boy but want to be a man. You know? He get in lot of fights. He need a father, but… Veronica’s boyfriend es no father for Diego.”

“How do the kids get along with Mitzi?”

“Good,” says Luisa, nodding. “Mitzi sit on the sofa with Cynthia when she doing her homework. Yeah. They get along good.”

“With Diego, too?”

“Yeah okay,” says Luisa, nodding. “He gone at school all day or on his bike with his friends, and at night he close the door to his room and has his phone and listen to music. Is very difficult right now. I worry he might get in trouble. He just so angry.”

“Is he home now?”

“He still in bed,” says Luisa, shrugging. “He stay up late when he don’t have school the next day, so… Cynthia has a job now at the café. She doing good, y Veronica, you know, cashier at the lumberyard. So…”

“When Mitzi starts to shiver and runs to hide, is that usually in the daytime or at night?”

Luisa thinks for a moment. “All different times. In the day. In the night. Es like she hear something, you know? Her ears go up and she look around, and then she run and hide like she hearing thunder. You know how some dogs don’t like thunder?”

“I do,” says Healing, turning at the sound of Diego coming out of his room – the short burly young man stopping abruptly when he sees Healing.

“Hola,” says Healing, greeting Diego who is wearing a ripped black T-shirt and black jeans, his head shaved on the sides, a tassel of raven black hair on top, expensive headphones covering his ears.

“Tengo hambre,” says Diego, his voice very deep for a twelve-year-old. “Hay comida?”

“Sí,” says Luisa, getting up and gesturing for Diego to remove his headphones, which he does. “This is Healing. He work with Brenda at Good Groceries and know all about dogs.”

“I remember you,” says Diego, sitting down at the table to wait for his breakfast. “You brought your dogs to our school every year. I remember one was muy grande y negro. Beautiful. I’d like to get a dog like that some day.”

“That would be Carla,” says Healing, smiling at Diego. “A mix of Great Dane and Black Lab.”

“Quiero huevos?” asks Luisa, standing at the stove.

Diego nods and is about to put his headphones back on when Healing says, “Those are very nice headphones. I’ve seen ads for them. Not cheap.”

“These are the best,” says Diego, with a proud little sneer. “I saved a long time and my grandmother gave me the rest for Christmas so I could get them.”

“Well we connoisseurs want to hear the music we love sounding as good as it can, don’t we?” says Healing, giving Diego a thumbs up.

Now Benito and Mitzi come into the kitchen and Diego says of Benito, “I remember this one. You brought him to our class, too. But I like the big one better. These little ones…” He shrugs. “They’re okay. But I like a big dog who can fight.”

“Have you ever been here when Mitzi gets scared and goes to hide?” asks Healing, watching Diego lean down and pick up the little dog and hold her on his lap.

“Oh yeah,” he says, scratching behind Mitzi’s ears. “Lots of times. She’ll be just normal, you know, and then something freaks her out, man, and she shivers all over, you know, and cries like a baby and runs to hide. It’s very sad. I try to calm her down, but she stays freaked out for a long time and we don’t know what it is.”

“May I ask what kind of music you like to listen to?” asks Healing, looking at the headphones around Diego’s neck and their extreme proximity to Mitzi’s ears.

“All kinds,” says Diego, nodding. “I like hip hop and rap and metal and… you know. Loud.” He turns and smiles at his grandmother. “Even some mariachi and canciones de Mexico.”

“Do you listen to anything with really heavy bass?” asks Healing, clenching his fist when he says the word bass.

“Claro,” says Diego, nodding and grinning. “Lotsa shit with heavy bass.”

“Hijo, por favor,” says Luisa, frowning and shaking her head at his obscenity.

“Lo siento,” he says glancing at Healing. “Sorry.”

“Anything with insanely deep powerful bass that shakes your whole body?” asks Healing, curling both hands into fists and gritting his teeth.

“Oh I got something,” says Diego, his eyes widening as he gets out his phone to choose a song. “This one called Cañón del infierno. The bass and drums on this one will blow your mind, man.”

“Don’t play it just yet,” says Healing, holding up his hand to stay Diego. “May I listen on your fantastic headphones? Only please turn it way down, would you? I’m an old fart with sensitive ears.”

Diego hands Healing his headphones, and Healing puts them on with great care.

“These feel fantastic,” he says to Diego. “Amazing. Okay now, start the song. Cañón del infierno. The canyon of hell. Sí?”

Diego nods and presses Play, and though the volume is not a quarter as loud as when Diego listens to this music, Mitzi goes mad with fear.

*

When Healing and Benito get home from solving the mystery of Mitzi’s terror, Healing finds a message on his answering machine from Vivienne saying she’s changed her mind and doesn’t want to wait two weeks to see him again, or even two days.

“But maybe I want to wait two weeks now,” says Healing, walking out the kitchen door onto his deck, his dogs snuffling around in the garden, the world a cornucopia of wonders.

fin

One Fell Swoop piano solo by Todd

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Frizzle and Bandit

Every year in early December, on four consecutive days, Healing Weintraub and his daughter Tova bring one or more of their dogs to Mercy Elementary to visit the Kindergartners, First Graders, Second Graders, and Third Graders. The purpose of these visits is to acquaint the children with dogs and to answer the many questions they have about dogs.

The next week, on four consecutive days, Healing and Tova go to Mercy Montessori, their alma mater, with their dog or dogs, and visit Kindergartners and First Graders on one day, Second and Third Graders the next, Fourth and Fifth Graders the next, and Sixth Graders on the last day of these visits.

Healing currently has three dogs: Benito, an eight-year-old Chihuahua Poodle with pointy ears and light brown fur, Tarzan, a big five-year-old silver gray Siberian Husky Lab, and Carla, a six-year-old Black Lab Dane with floppy ears and glossy black fur, by far the largest of the three.

Tova, an actress and veterinarian’s assistant who likes to escape Portland by spending December in Mercy, has been doing these presentations with her father since she was herself a kindergartner at Mercy Montessori twenty-five years ago, and though Healing chimes in now and then during the presentations, Tova does most of the talking, while the dogs are the stars of the show.

Because Benito does not respond well to little children putting their fingers in his eyes, he does not attend the sessions for Kindergartners and First Graders. Tarzan, by contrast, is especially good with the smallest children and somewhat wary of the older boys, and so attends all the Mercy Elementary shows, but not the shows for Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Graders at the Montessori. Carla attends all the shows at both schools and remains stoical throughout, though Healing and Tova know she enjoys the proceedings because she is always eager to go again the next day, and when the children crowd around to pet her, she smiles, which she only does when she’s very happy.

*

On a cold rainy Saturday morning a few days after their final appearance at the Montessori, the northern California winter blessedly wet this year, Healing and Tova and Tova’s lifelong friend Clement Bradley, an actor currently residing in Minneapolis, are having breakfast when the phone rings.

“Excuse me,” says Healing, getting up from the dining table to answer the phone on the kitchen counter. “This is probably Buster calling about our gig this evening.”

“I can’t wait,” says Clement, doing a little shimmy of excitement. “I love your music.”

“Healing here,” says Healing, expecting the gruff voice of Buster Gomez, the bass player in Healing’s quartet Mercy Me, featuring Healing on accordion, Helen Tremblay on clarinet and saxophone, and Rico Silveira on guitar.

“Hello,” says a woman with a resonant voice and an Irish accent. “My name is Vivienne Malone. My daughter Meera is in Third Grade at Mercy Montessori. She very much enjoyed meeting you and your dogs last week.”

“I’m glad,” says Healing, gazing out the window at the rain. “What can I do for you, Vivienne?”

“We have a dog problem,” she says, clearing her throat, “though we don’t have a dog. It’s two dogs that aggress my daughter when she walks to school, so she’s not walking to school anymore, which means I have to drive her, which I’d rather not do, and she would rather walk, but these dogs won’t allow her to pass. I’ve spoken to the owner and he was not cooperative, and I’ve spoken to the sheriff, and he said there’s nothing he can do so long as the dogs stay on their property, which technically they do because the footpath crosses their driveway. The sheriff, Sheriff Higuera, suggested I call you because… you solve problems with dogs?”

“I do,” says Healing, enamored of her voice. “Who is the owner of these obstructive dogs?”

“Mitchell Green,” says Vivienne, with a little growl in her voice.

“Are we speaking of Frizzle and Bandit?” asks Healing, suppressing a laugh. “Little mutt and big mutt?”

“We don’t know their names,” says Vivienne, sounding annoyed by the levity she hears in Healing’s voice. “But one is small and I suppose the word Frizzle might apply, and the other is large and does have a masklike darkness around his eyes.”

“Are you and Meera free any time today before dark?” asks Healing, guessing the problem has less to do with the dogs and more with the people.

“I’m done seeing clients at three. Any time after that would be fine.”

“We’ll come to you at three-thirty, my daughter and I. She’s in the dog helping business, too.”

*

“Curious,” says Healing, returning to the table to resume eating his omelet. “Vivienne Malone and her daughter Meera. New in town. Live up Kingston Road beyond Mitchell Green.”

“Shall I make a fresh pot of tea?” asks Tova, looking from Healing to Clement.

“I’d love some coffee,” says Clement in his dramatic way. “I perish for the evil bean.”

“Me, too,” says Healing, winking at Tova to say Would you make it, please?

“Coming right up,” says Tova, sauntering into the kitchen. “So what’s the case, Sherlock? Frizzle and Bandit? Those sweetie pies? Can’t be them.”

“Apparently they are involved,” says Healing, hearing Vivienne’s melodious voice saying I suppose the word Frizzle might apply, and the other is large and does have a masklike darkness around his eyes. “Charming woman with an Irish accent and a poetical bent. Her daughter Meera is in Third Grade at the Montessori and says Frizzle and Bandit frighten her so much she’s afraid to walk by them to get to school.”

“Shall we Google Vivienne Malone?” asks Clement, picking up his phone and swiping and tapping.

“Oh don’t,” says Healing, shaking his head. “I’m imagining her as an Irish Kate Winslet and would rather leave her Kate until we meet her this afternoon.”

“Okay,” says Clement, putting down his phone. “And speaking of resolving family conflicts, which is one of Vivienne’s specialties, may I stay here for a few days? My father had one his homophobic tantrums last night and I’d rather not be around him. And might my mother come here for a daytime visit or two while I’m in town?”

“Of course,” says Healing, who housed Clement on many a night when Tova and Clement were in high school together. “Guest facilities abound.”

*

In the afternoon, the rain having abated for the time being, Tova and Healing toodle across town in Healing’s little old pickup with Benito sitting between them. They make their way a half-mile up Kingston Road beyond the Montessori School to a gravel driveway that winds through through a forest of hemlock and redwood to a splendid two-story home in a large clearing, a vast deck surrounding the second floor.

“Nice digs,” says Tova, opening her door. “We bringing Benito?”

“Yes, but clip a leash on him,” says Healing, pretending to be terrified of the little dog. “No telling what the little monster might do.”

To which Benito responds by wagging his tail and gazing adoringly at Healing.

Now Vivienne and Meera come out their front door, both dressed for rain in black pants and blue parkas – Vivienne a striking redhead, tall and broad-shouldered, her hair cut in a short boyish bob, Meera a small slender girl with long black hair and much darker skin than her mother.

“Oh it’s Benito,” says Meera, hurrying to greet the little dog. “I was hoping you’d bring your dogs. Where are Carla and Tarzan?”

“We left them at home doing the dishes,” says Healing, shaking Vivienne’s hand. “I’m Healing and this is my daughter Tova.”

“Pleased to meet you,” says Vivienne, obviously distraught. “I assume you’d like to take the walk Meera takes to school if only those dogs would let her pass.”

“Right you are,” says Healing, looking at Meera. “And on our way, you can tell us what happens when you get to Frizzle and Bandit’s house.”

“Is that their names?” asks Meera, delighted to know.

“Are those their names,” corrects Vivienne, giving Meera a no-nonsense look. “Plural.”

“Are those their names?” asks Meera, not the least bothered by her mother’s correction. “Frizzle and Bandit? You know them?”

“We do,” says Healing, giving Tova a look to say Let Meera hold Benito’s leash.

And so the four humans and one dog walk out to Kingston Road, alongside of which, on the same side of the road as Vivienne and Meera’s house, is a footpath which allows people to walk to and from town without having to fear the traffic on Kingston Road.

“Vivienne?” asks Healing as they make their way down the trail through the forest. “Have you experienced Mitchell’s dogs being so aggressive?”

“I have,” says Vivienne, who is in the lead followed by Meera and Benito, followed by Tova, with Healing taking up the rear. “They came charging out from the house, growling and snarling, and when their charming master came to keep them from mauling us, I suggested he build a fence around his property to keep his dogs from attacking passersby, and he called me an idiot.”

“With a not-very-nice adjective attached,” says Meera, giving Healing a meaningful look.  

“Ah yes,” says Healing, laughing. “I can well imagine the adjective he attached.”

“You think it’s funny?” says Vivienne, angered by Healing’s laughter. “My daughter’s been traumatized by this experience.”

“I don’t think it’s funny that she’s been traumatized,” says Healing, sensing Vivienne’s frustration with much more than this particular situation. “But I do think Mitchell is funny, and I am confident we can solve this problem fairly easily.”

Vivienne stops and turns around to confront Healing. “May I ask why you are so confident?”

“Because I know the dogs in question,” says Healing, finding Vivienne fantastically attractive – her bristling anger marvelous to behold. “And I know your daughter is not inherently afraid of dogs, having seen her interact fearlessly with our giant dog Carla when we visited the Montessori. And I know Mitchell, who, if you’ll pardon my quasi-pun, is all bark and no bite.”

“Are you suggesting we’re making this up?” asks Vivienne, refusing to acquiesce to Healing’s mastery of the situation. “That his dogs didn’t attack us?”

“I’m suggesting we can solve the problem,” says Healing, speaking quietly. “I don’t for a moment doubt that Frizzle and Bandit rushed out and barked at you and your daughter. Nor do I doubt they were menacing and frightening to you. But I doubt very much they meant you any harm.”

“Well I think you’re wrong,” says Vivienne, her nostrils flaring. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like you to take the lead as we approach your friend’s house?”

“Good idea,” says Healing, moving to the front of the quintet.

They continue on in silence for another few minutes until Tova says to Meera, “So how long have you been living here now?”

“We moved here seven months ago,” says Meera, who was greatly embarrassed by her mother confronting Healing as she did. “From San Rafael.”

“Do you like it here?”

“Oh I love it here,” says Meera, smiling brightly. “I love our house and I love walking in the forest, and I love going to the beach, and I love my new friends, and I love my school, too.”

“Did you know we were students at your school?” asks Tova, proudly. “My father and I? We are both graduates of Mercy Montessori.”

“You were born here?” asks Vivienne, regretting venting her anger on Healing.

“I was,” says Tova, nodding. “And so was Pa-pa. And we still live in the same house where we were both born, though I spend most of my time in Portland nowadays.”

“You were born at your house?” asks Meera, astounded. “Not in a hospital?”

“Both of us were born at home,” says Tova, hoping to some day have a baby there herself. “In the little old house on Nasturtium Road.”

*

A quarter-mile along the trail from Vivienne and Meera’s house, and a quarter-mile still to go to reach the Montessori school, they come to where the trail crosses the mouth of Mitchell Green’s driveway, his old redwood cabin fifty yards down a slight incline from the road and overshadowed by seven massive redwood trees.

Now two brown dogs, one small and shaggy, one large and shorthaired, burst out of the house and come racing up the drive, barking loudly, hackles raised.

Meera reflexively moves behind Vivienne, and Vivienne reflexively moves behind Healing.

When the dogs are twenty feet from the humans, they slow and stop, but continue to bark furiously until Healing says to them, “What’s this all about, Bandit? We’re just walking by. Going to the school. No need to make such a fuss.”

The dogs subside, and the little one, Frizzle, trots up to Benito and they sniff each other. The larger dog, Bandit, keeps his distance, but ceases to show any aggression or even much interest in the visitors.

Now Mitchell Green, a stout fellow with little hair and wearing a tattered plaid wool shirt and suspenders to hold up his faded jeans, comes limping up the drive, waving his arms and shouting, “What the fuck do you want?”

“Mitchell. It’s Healing. We’re just trying to acclimate your dogs to Meera, and Meera to your dogs so she can walk to school and not be afraid.”

Mitchell comes closer, squinting because his vision is bad and he couldn’t find his glasses. “Healing? Would you tell that woman my dogs wouldn’t hurt a flea? And it’s too bad they won’t because if they would maybe they wouldn’t have so many fleas.”

“Mitchell, this is Vivienne. Vivienne, Mitchell. And this is Vivienne’s daughter Meera. Meera this is Mitchell.”

“Hi,” says Vivienne, smiling at Mitchell who is, as Healing suggested, funny.

“Hi,” says Meera, offering Frizzle the back of her hand to sniff and lick.

“Vivienne and Meera are your new neighbors a quarter mile to the east,” says Healing, speaking loudly because Mitchell is rather deaf. “Meera walks to the Montessori in the morning and home in the afternoon, and she was afraid of your dogs because they can be scary to those who don’t know what sweetie pies they are.”

“Sweetie pies?” says Mitchell, wrinkling his nose. “Maybe after I give’em a bath every year or two, but not lately.”

“I could give them baths,” says Meera, eagerly. “If you’d like me to.”

“Who are you again?” says Mitchell, squinting at her.

“Meera,” she says, offering Mitchell her hand.

“How old are you?” asks Mitchell, delicately shaking her hand.

“I’m eight,” says Meera, peering up at him. “How old are you?”

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to ask old people how old they are?” asks Mitchell, glancing at Vivienne.

“She never did,” says Meera, shrugging.

“Well then I’ll tell you,” says Mitchell, grinning at the little girl. “I’m seventy-nine. And I’m sorry my dogs barked at you, but if you give them baths I guarantee they’ll never bark at you again. And if you don’t want to give them baths – why would you? – just let them sniff you a few times and then they’ll know you and won’t give a hoot when you walk by.”

“Oh I’d love to give them baths,” she says, turning to her mother. “May I, Mom? Give Frizzle and Bandit baths?”

Vivienne gazes in amazement at her daughter standing beside the old man, and though she tries to speak, no words will come, so she simply smiles and nods.

fin

Simple Song (Sweet) piano solo by Todd

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California

When the last of their seventeen Thanksgiving guests goes home, the rain-washed sky over Mercy full of stars, Healing Weintraub and his daughter Tova tackle the mountain of dishes and debrief about the annual soiree – Tova home for the holidays.

This year’s guests included four single men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, four single women in their sixties, seventies and eighties, three of Tova’s young women pals, two of whom brought partners and babies, one of whom is pregnant without a partner.

And lastly, Magdalena Cortez, Healing’s close friend and co-manager with him of Good Groceries – having hosted a Thanksgiving feast of her own for two dozen relatives – arrived just in time for dessert featuring Ellen Carpenter’s famous pumpkin pie, Lisa Bernstein’s incomparable mince pie, Darby Riley’s notorious rum-infused whipped cream, and Buster Gomez’s magnifico decaf espresso.

*

“Pa-pa?” says Tova, scrubbing the large wooden platter on which Healing carved the mighty turkey. “Don’t you think Magdalena gets more beautiful every year?”

“I do,” says Healing, drying dishes and putting them away.

“I wonder if I’ll age well,” says Tova, thoughtfully pursing her lips. “I’m almost thirty-one and still kind of cute, aren’t I? And in certain light I’m even kind of beautiful. Don’t you think?”

“Not kind of,” says Healing, smiling at his daughter. “Very.”

“You’re prejudiced, of course,” says Tova, rinsing the platter. “I know it doesn’t matter, but… seeing my friends all paired up and having babies gets me pondering the whole relationship question, and I wonder if I’ve inherited your tendency not to be in a relationship.”

“Could be,” says Healing, drying the platter. “We do emulate our parents, though mine have been happily married for sixty years, and my sister Jean married at nineteen and is still with Albert forty-one years along, while I have failed to create a marriage lasting more than a couple years, though I am a most faithful friend.”

“Magdalena’s crazy about you,” says Tova, glancing at her father. “You must know that. I wonder why you never… you know…”

“To be continued after we finish the dishes and I am ensconced in my rocking chair with a cup of mint tea.”

*

“I first met Magdalena when you were four and I was thirty-three,” says Healing, settling into his rocking chair, his three dogs and five cats sprawled here and there around the living room, the fire crackling. “Which means Magdalena was twenty-four.”

“Where did you meet her?” asks Tova, sitting on the sofa with a cat on her lap.

“I’m coming to that,” says Healing, remembering back twenty-five years. “But first I’ll set the home scene.”

“When I was four?” says Tova, remembering very little about her life before she started school at five.

“Yes,” he says, smiling at his recollections of little Tova. “You were a prodigious crayon-on-butcher-paper artist, had a splendid vocabulary, and were my invaluable helper in the vegetable garden, along with being an excellent feeder of the chickens and gatherer of their eggs. Your grandfather and I had just finished adding a bedroom to the house so you would have your own room when you eventually transitioned away from sharing a bedroom with me, and we had finally made the attic habitable for our frequent visitors, thus ending the living room’s long tenure as a guest room. Desmond James and Marta Mladenovic were living in a yurt next to the pond, Desmond teaching himself to play the sitar, Marta making abalone earrings. Your grandmother was doing Tarot and Past Life readings in her studio attached to the woodshop where your grandfather made exquisite tables from scavenged wood, using only hand tools, while I was working twenty hours a week as a landscaper and parenting you with lots of help from your grandparents. And we were down to one old dog at the time, Gypsy the Golden Retriever.”

 “I have no memory of Desmond or Marta,” says Tova, sipping her chamomile tea, “though you’ve told me lots about them.”

“Which is why you don’t remember my first romantic interlude with Magdalena,” says Healing, feeling he might cry. “Which ended nine months after it began.”

“When I was four? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“I didn’t think it would do you any good to know,” says Healing, gazing into the flames.

“Did she end it, or did you?” asks Tova, who has yet to experience a love relationship lasting more than a few months. “I can’t imagine you would.”

“First let me tell you how we met, because it involves you,” says Healing, getting up to put another log on the fire. “And it’s the best part of the story.”

“I’m sad it didn’t work out,” says Tova, with a big sigh. “I love Magdalena. She’s perfect for you.”

“So I once thought,” says Healing, returning to his rocking chair. “But before I ever met her, when you were four, on Tuesdays and Thursdays around ten in the morning, you and I would set off for the library, you riding in the big red wagon, I pulling the wagon, with Gypsy walking beside us or riding in the wagon with you, depending on her mood.”

“I kind of remember Gypsy. Grandma-ma told me I called her Pooh because she reminded me of Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“She was most definitely a slow poke by the time you came along,” says Healing, remembering lifting the old dog into the wagon, how heavy she was. “At the library, you and I would look at pictures in old National Geographic magazines and peruse the children’s books, and then we’d go visit Mrs. Leipelt who lived near the library and had a collection of rag dolls, one of whom was your good friend Greta. Mrs. Leipelt, who was in her eighties, would give voice to Greta in German, and you would sit with the doll and whisper to her while Mrs. Leipelt spoke of many things we could not understand.”

“How did you know Mrs. Leipelt?”

“I helped her solve the problem of Schultze, her urgently barking dachshund. The little dog had been a paragon of quietude for seven years and then out of the blue became a frantic barker, the cause of which turned out to be a rattlesnake nest under the backyard tool shed. Once the snake nest and resident snakes were eradicated by professional snake eradicators, Schultze ceased to bark. A simple case, one of my first, and you accompanied me on that day. Mrs. Leipelt entertained you with her rag dolls while Schultze was showing me the snake nest, and you became enamored of Greta.”

“Then where did we go? After visiting Mrs. Leipelt?”

“Most days we went to the rec center playground to meet up with other kids and their parents, mostly mothers, and you would play on the swings and slide, and then we’d go to Café Brava and have lemonade if the day was warm, and cocoa if the day was cold. Magdalena worked there, and one day she brought us our cocoa and said to you, ‘Que tal, Chiquita?’ and you replied, ‘Bueno. Y tu?’ and she was delighted with you, and thereafter always came to see us when we came in, and one thing led to another and we fell madly in love, crazy madly insanely, and after nine months of happiness, for me anyway, she ended things, and I was as wrecked as I’d been when your mother left us.”

“But why?” asks Tova, frowning at her father. “Why would she do that to you?”

“I don’t think of her doing anything to me,” he says, remembering Magdalena weeping as she tried to explain why she was ending the relationship part of their friendship. “She did what she felt was best for her. She was overwhelmed with caring for her ailing father and helping raise her three younger siblings and living in a crowded house and working fulltime. And I wanted her to marry me and come share my little bedroom in this little house with you and my parents and a constant parade of visitors and Desmond and Marta and dogs and cats and parrots. Chaos.”

“Long time ago, Pa-pa. No such crowd here now.”

“True, but that was not the only time we embarked on a relationship.”

“You were involved with Magdalena again?” asks Tova, gaping at him.

“The year you moved to Portland and your grandparents returned to England. Eleven years ago, almost twelve now. The house was empty save for me and a dog and three cats and two parrots, and Magdalena and I were both working at Good Groceries, and one thing led to another and…”

“You became lovers again,” says Tova, wishing the story ended there.

“We did,” he says, hardly believing it now. “For another nine months.”

“And she ended it again?” says Tova, horrified.

“I would say we ended it together.”

“But you didn’t want it to end. Did you?”

“No, but I insisted on doing something she asked me not to do, begged me not to do, and when I went ahead and did it, she withdrew from the relationship.”

“What didn’t she want you to do?”

“I’m sure you remember my dog California.”

“Of course I do,” says Tova, further mystified. “The most wonderful dog in the world. What does California have to do with Magdalena?”

“She begged me not to save him, but I had to.”

“But Magdalena loves your dogs,” says Tova, none of this making any sense to her. “Why didn’t she want you to save him?”

*

“Remember now, this was when Magdalena’s daughter Paloma was ten,” says Healing, going into the kitchen with the dogs following him.

“Are you going out with them?” asks Tova, getting up, too. “I’ll come with you.”

“Oh stay by the fire,” says Healing, putting on his coat. “It’s freezing cold outside. We won’t be long.”

“I want to come,” says Tova, getting her coat, and following her father out into the clear cold night.

The dogs are pleased to have Healing and Tova come out with them because it means they’re allowed to roam a little further from the house before they have to go back inside.

“I don’t know if you remember how wild California was when he lived in the hills with Malcolm Dodge,” says Healing, looking up at the stars, “but he was very wild and incredibly strong, and more wolf than dog by the time he was three. And then when Malcolm died and his son came to clean up the house to sell it, California ran away and nobody knew where he was for several weeks until he started sneaking into town at night and knocking over garbage cans in search of food. Then Animal Control caught him, and when they were going to euthanize him because no one was willing to take such a wild beast, I took him.”

“And Magdalena didn’t want you to because she didn’t want to live with a wild beast and endanger her daughter.”

“That’s exactly what she said to me,” says Healing, his heart aching. “We finally had lots of space, and Paloma would have her own bedroom for the first time in her life.” Healing makes a soft whistling sound to summon the dogs. “But I had to save a wild dog, which Magdalena saw as a betrayal of her and our future together, and I saw as something I had to do.”

*

Settled in the living room again, the fire renewed, Tova asks, “Why did you choose California over Magdalena and Paloma? Thousands of dogs and cats get euthanized every day. You don’t save them.”

“Yes, but as you said,” says Healing, thinking of the big beautiful dog, a mix of Rhodesian Ridgeback, Malamute, and Great Dane, “California was the most wonderful dog in the world, and I knew he was when I first saw him in the back of Malcolm’s truck, a big gangly pup, and I knew it every time I saw him over the years, and I knew it deep in my heart when I visited him at the pound the day before he was to die. And the two years I spent teaching him how to live with humans will forever be two of the most satisfying years of my life. Then I gave him to Sally Morgan and he became her boon companion and the fearless protector of her goats until he died just a few months ago at the age of fourteen. I snatched him from the jaws of death eleven years ago, and in saving him ended my love affair with Magdalena.”

“But Pa-Pa, don’t you think now if you were in a relationship with Magdalena, she would join you in saving another California if you wanted to?”

“She might,” says Healing, closing his eyes. “But she might not. And it is the might not that keeps me from trying again with her. Because I know that as her friend she accepts me unconditionally. As her partner, she never could. And though I do love her dearly, I don’t have the heart to try again.”

fin

Dream of You song by Todd

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Otto

On a stormy Saturday night in their little old house on Nasturtium Road, a week before Thanksgiving, Healing Weintraub and his daughter Tova, an actress and singer and veterinarian’s assistant, are entertaining Darby Riley, proprietor of Darby’s Antiques, a Mercy landmark for the last forty years, and Monica Hernandez, Tova’s chum since childhood and now a YouTube celebrity living in Barcelona.

Healing is fifty-eight, Darby seventy-four, Tova and Monica both thirty.

“Do you mean to tell me, Monica,” says Darby, a portly Irishmen with spiky gray hair, his Dublin accent barely subdued after fifty years in California, “you pay your bills making videos of yourself eating and cooking and cavorting on the beaches of Spain? How?”

“I have four million subscribers to my YouTube channel,” says Monica, a striking beauty with long black hair. “And at this very moment…” She swipes and taps at the screen of her phone. “…seventy-seven thousand people are watching my videos, which is pretty good considering I haven’t posted anything new in six days.”

“Astonishing,” says Darby, shaking his head in disbelief. “You must be rich.”

“She’s an Internet star,” says Tova, bouncing her eyebrows at Monica.

 “I’m doing okay,” says Monica, shrugging. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s a grind making four videos a week and pimping merch and negotiating with advertisers and lining up special guests. I have seven employees and could use at least five more, but then there goes my profit.” She sighs melodramatically. “A conundrum of digital capitalism.”

“You’re a mogul,” says Healing, getting up from the sofa to answer the ringing phone on the kitchen counter.

“I made ninety-seven dollars today,” says Darby, gazing in wonder at Monica. “Sold a wobbly table, a First Edition Winnie-the-Pooh, 204th printing, in good condition, and a Bill Evans LP. Pretty good day for me. You probably make that in a minute.”

Monica nods. “Yeah. It’s insane, but hey, it’s there, so why not get some?”

While the conversation continues in the background, Healing picks up the phone and says, “Good evening. Healing here.”

“Hello,” says a man with a rumbly voice. “I’m calling for Hillary Weinberg?”

“My name is Healing Weintraub. If you’re selling something, I’m not…”

“No, no. I’m not selling anything. So sorry. Can’t read my own writing. I got your name and number from Angus Whipple. He said you solved his dog problem and might be able to help me with my dog problem.”

“May I call you back in a few?” asks Healing, picking up a pen. “I’m just saying goodnight to guests.”

“Yes, please call me back.”

“Your name?”

“Winston Lewiston.”

“And your phone number?”

“Not there on your phone?”

“Nowhere that I can see,” says Healing, smiling at his ancient landline phone. “But I’m ready with pen and paper.”

*

Darby declines Tova’s offer of a ride home and sets forth in his bright yellow rain gear to walk seven blocks through the tempest to his little apartment above his antique shop in the center of town, while Monica gladly accepts Tova’s offer of a lift to Monica’s folks’ house at the north end of Mercy.

When the two old chums depart in Tova’s little electric car, Healing avails himself of a sturdy umbrella and escorts his dogs out into the downpour where they quickly pee before scampering back into the house to get warm and dry by the fire.

*

“So,” says Healing, sitting at his kitchen table and speaking on the phone with Winston, “what’s going on with your dog?”

“Kind of a long story. Do you have a minute?”

“I do.”

“Well… my dog Otto is seven-years-old, a handsome mix of Dalmatian and Black Lab, remarkably intelligent and wonderfully good-natured. Or he was. But… I guess I should tell you a little about me first.”

“Please.”

“I’m sixty-four and moved from Palo Alto to Mercy three years ago. I live in Southport just around the corner from Angus Whipple. He and I met while walking our dogs. Anyway… I’ve been a bachelor since my thirties when my marriage ended disastrously and my wife got sole custody of our two small children, which meant I saw very little of them until they were eighteen and no longer under the control of their mother. Now, I’m happy to say, I’m on good terms with both of them. But I digress.”

“Not a problem,” says Healing, drawing a fanciful flower and writing BACHELOR in block letters.

“And though I’ve had numerous relationships since the demise of my marriage,” continues Winston, “none of them lasted very long and I have been largely alone, my solace over the years being my dog or dogs. I like to get a puppy when the older dog is eight or nine so I am never without a dog.”

“I can relate,” says Healing, writing in cursive solace over the years.

“You are single?”

“I am. And I always have a dog.”

“May I ask your age?”

“Fifty-eight.”

“Ah. We are age peers.” Winston clears his throat. “In any case, Otto was my best friend and boon companion for six years, and good-natured all the while until a year ago when I met Clarice and fell madly in love with her and she with me, and we’ve been deliriously happy ever since except… Otto can’t stand her and things have come to such a pass that when she comes to stay with me, I have to exile Otto to the garage because otherwise he won’t stop barking at her. And though I loathe doing so, I board him in a kennel when I go to stay with Clarice at her house in Tiburon. I’d love to take him with me, but he can’t abide Clarice, and she has now lost all patience with him. It’s just awful. And heartbreaking.”

“Does Otto growl at Clarice?” asks Healing, writing the word GROWL.

“Growl? No. Not that I’m aware of. When Clarice approaches him to give him a treat, he runs away and barks at her from a distance. But he never growls at her.”

 “Why do you think he barks at her?”

“I have no idea. Clarice thinks he doesn’t like women. He does occasionally bark at the woman who comes to clean my house, though not always, and actually he quite likes her. She eats her lunch in the backyard and gives him little nibbles. He’s very well-trained, but a shameless beggar.”

“I have known several dogs who don’t like men in general, usually due to past abuse at the hands of a man or men, and I’ve known one dog who did not favor women, so it’s possible Otto doesn’t like women, though I doubt that’s what’s going on here.”

“Be that as it may,” says Winston, sighing heavily, “if I can’t overcome his antipathy toward Clarice, I will have to find him another home because Clarice is the love of my life. She, too, was single for most of her life, and we fit together so well it’s truly miraculous. We’re getting married in April, and though I love Otto dearly, the choice is clear.”

“I usually have people bring their dogs to me,” says Healing, writing the name CLARICE in the center of the page, “but in this case, I’d like to meet Otto at your house and bring my daughter with me. She’s a veterinarian’s assistant and may notice things I overlook. Any chance of arranging a time to visit you and Otto when Clarice is also there?”

“Clarice is here now,” says Winston, excitedly. “And poor Otto is marooned in the garage. A most unhappy pooch.”

“Tomorrow morning? Ten o’clock?”

“Clarice has yoga at the rec center at nine-thirty. Shall we say eleven?”

“If you will allow us to come a little after ten,” says Healing, underlining Clarice, “we can meet you and Otto and get the lay of the land before we add Clarice to the equation, which should help clarify the situation.”

“Fine. Excellent. I’ll expect you shortly after ten.”

“One more thing. If you don’t mind my asking, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a psychotherapist. And so is Clarice. Which reminds me… what do you charge for your services? I don’t recall what Angus said about that.”

“I don’t charge anything,” says Healing, writing THERAPIST. “My pleasure.”

*

The next morning after a ramble in the rain with the dogs, Healing and Tova make the three-mile drive to Southport, a satellite community of Mercy where half the houses are owned by out-of-towners and left vacant most of the time.

“Maybe Otto is jealous of Clarice,” says Tova, looking out the window at the huge storm-driven waves rolling into Mercy Bay.

“He would sulk if he was jealous,” says Healing, piloting his old pickup through the deluge. “Or he would beg for Winston’s attention, neither of which he does.”

“Maybe Clarice is afraid of dogs,” suggests Tova, “and Otto senses that.”

“That’s possible,” says Healing, pulling up in front of Winston’s large modern home overlooking the ocean. “We’ll soon find out.”

“I love going on cases with you, Pa-pa,” says Tova, opening her door.

“And I love you coming along,” says Healing, zipping up his parka and stepping out into the rain.

*

Winston, a burly fellow with rambunctious gray hair and red-framed glasses, leads Healing and Tova through the vast kitchen to the garage where Otto, with nary a bark, approaches Healing and Tova with his tail wagging and a big smile on his face.

“Aren’t you a beautiful boy,” says Tova, scratching behind Otto’s ears.

“Might we bring him inside?” asks Healing, looking at Winston. “Until Clarice comes home?”

“Um…” Winston frowns. “May I ask why you want to do that?”

“To see if there’s anything in the house he’s averse to,” says Healing, sensing Winston is afraid to let the dog into the house. “Unless you’d rather not.”

“No, no, I understand,” says Winston, leading them back into the kitchen.

Otto hesitates to follow, which prompts Healing to say to Winston, “Would you invite him in, please?”

“Oh come on then,” says Winston, patting his legs, which brings Otto bounding into the house. “Your nemesis isn’t here right now.”

“How about a quick tour?” asks Healing, laughing at how pleased Otto is to be inside.

“Of course,” says Winston, leading the way. “So this is the kitchen where I spend an inordinate amount of time, cooking my lifelong passion. And this is the grand living room with a view of our backyard and the dunes beyond.”

“Marvelous,” says Healing, watching Otto trot happily after Winston.

“Down the hall are two bedrooms,” says Winston, stopping where the living room merges with the wide hallway, “and my study/slash consulting room, and two bathrooms.”

“May we see?” asks Tova, nodding hopefully.

“If we must,” says Winston, leading the way, “though I fail to see what you hope to find here.”

Otto does not follow them down the hallway, but sits and watches the humans with obvious concern.

“Come on Otto,” says Healing, beckoning to the dog.

Otto stays where he is.

“Come on, big boy,” says Tova, patting her legs as Winston did.

But Otto remains sitting and gazing worriedly at the humans.

“Is he not supposed to come down the hall?” asks Healing, scanning the walls and floor and ceiling for anything that might deter a dog.

“No, he’s allowed to,” says Winston, sadly. “He used to love hanging out with me in my study/slash consulting room when I would see clients either in-person or via Zoom. He was much loved by several of my clients. However, since the advent of Clarice he won’t come down the hall even when she’s not here.”

“Curious,” says Healing, looking into one of the bedrooms. “Does Clarice maintain a bedroom here when she’s not here? This one?”

“Yes,” says Winston, frowning. “Is this line of inquiry really necessary?”

“I think so,” says Healing, giving Tova a look to say Stick your head in here.

“We like to imagine we’re the dog or cat in question,” says Tova, peering into Clarice’s bedroom. “May we see your study/slash consulting room?”

“Yes, right down here,” says Winston, leading them to a spacious room with windows all around, the light exquisite, two sofas facing each other over a large coffee table. “As I told you, Otto used to love being in here with me. I think I must have traumatized him by chastising him for barking at Clarice.”

“Speaking of whom,” says Healing, raising a finger, “I hear a car arriving on the driveway.”

“Oh God,” says Winston, hurrying back to the living room. “Come on Otto. Into the garage you go. Come on now. I’ll give you a treat.”

And just as Winston gets Otto into the garage and shuts the door, Clarice enters through the front door, an attractive woman in her fifties wearing a long gray skirt and black sweatshirt over a pink leotard, her shoulder-length red hair free of gray courtesy of her beautician, her facial wrinkles rendered invisible by tastefully applied makeup, her lavender-heavy perfume preceding her.

“You must be the dog whisperer,” says Clarice, tittering as she extends her hand to Healing.

“So I am sometimes called,” says Healing, shaking her hand, “though what we do with dogs has little to do with whispering and everything to do with discovering the source of the conflict.”

“Well I think Winston’s dog is a misogynist,” says Clarice, offering her hand to Tova. “Are you the assistant whisperer?”

“Yes,” says Tova, whispering as she shakes Clarice’s hand. “Otto seems to like me, and I’m a woman.”

“Then maybe he just hates me,” says Clarice, charmed by Tova and Healing, despite her skepticism about what she imagines they do. “Shall we have coffee and scones? I’m starving.”

*

“Before we go,” says Healing, after a twenty-minute visit with Clarice and Winston in the glorious living room, the rain continuing to fall, their conversation having focused on the upcoming nuptials and honeymoon in Tuscany, “I wonder if we might stage an interaction with Clarice and Otto.”

“Whatever for?” says Clarice, scowling. “He’ll just bark at me. That’s all he ever does. Or run away if I get too close to him.”

“It would help us to hear the way he barks at you,” says Healing, matter-of-factly. “His tone of voice, if you will.”

“Oh please,” says Clarice, making a disparaging face. “You might be able to foist this nonsense on Winston, but not on me, and if he’s going to pay you for this charade, that’s his business, but I want nothing to do with this.”

“Dear, they don’t charge anything for helping people with their dogs,” says Winston in a low voice. “I should have told you, but… they don’t.”

“Okay, fine,” says Clarice, rolling her eyes to mask her embarrassment. “Stage your little interaction so you can hear the woman-hating dog bark at me and then we’ll be done with this. Yes?”

“Yes,” says Healing, getting up from the sofa. “So… Clarice, I would like you to stay in the living room with Tova while Winston and I go get a leash on Otto. And if you wouldn’t mind, please sit in the armchair at the far northwest corner of the living room and remain silent.”

“Why there?” asks Clarice, squinting suspiciously at Healing. “And why must I remain silent? You’re just making this up.”

“No, he’s not,” says Tova, gazing earnestly at Clarice. “He wants you out of sight from the kitchen when he brings Otto in, and he doesn’t want your voice to activate any association Otto may have with whatever it is that alarms him about you.”

“Ridiculous,” says Clarice, reluctantly moving to the armchair at the far northwest corner of the living room.

*

In the garage, the door to the kitchen closed, Healing says quietly to Otto, “Now I’m going to leash you and we’ll go back in the house and have a look around. Shall we?”

“I apologize for what Clarice said to you,” says Winston, placing a hand on his heart. “This whole situation with Otto has been incredibly stressful for her. For all of us. It’s a testament to our love that we’ve been able to withstand this for as long as we have. But I do apologize.”

“I understand her bewilderment,” says Healing, clipping a short leash onto Otto’s collar. “What I do with dogs must seem like voodoo to some people.”

Winston opens the door and Healing walks with Otto into the kitchen and stops with him just a few feet into the room.

Otto looks up at Healing with a questioning look on his face.

“We’ll just go a little further now,” says Healing, his voice barely above a whisper.

After a few more starts and stops, they come to where the kitchen merges into the living room – Tova now visible to the dog, Clarice still out of sight. Otto wags his tail when he sees Tova and again looks up at Healing.

Healing takes a few more steps with Otto and stops again when Clarice comes into view in the far corner of the living room some thirty feet away.

And Otto does not bark.

Healing nods to Tova, and Tova whispers to Clarice, “Would you say something quietly to me?”

“Something quietly to me,” says Clarice, quietly.

And Otto does not bark.

Healing moves a few more feet toward Clarice, stops again, and says to Otto, “There’s Clarice, Otto. What do you say?”

Otto looks at Clarice and looks at Healing, and Healing says to Otto, “Good boy,” and leads him back through the kitchen and into the garage.

“He didn’t bark at me,” says Clarice, gazing in amazement at Tova.

“No, but he would have if he’d gotten any closer,” says Tova, smiling as her father returns to the living room without Otto.

“That was remarkable,” says Clarice, smiling at Healing. “I apologize for what I said earlier. What do you think is going on?”

“I know what’s going on,” says Healing, nodding. “However, I’m afraid you will dismiss what I say as nonsense or worse, and so I think it might be better for us to take our leave and wish you well in your future together.”

“Oh please,” says Winston, beseeching Healing. “I love Otto and don’t want to lose him, but I will lose him if I have to because I value Clarice more than anything in the world.”

“I am very sorry for demeaning you,” says Clarice, closing her eyes. “Please forgive me. I would very much like to hear why you think Otto barks at me.”

Healing looks at Tova and says, “I need some help here, Tove.”

Tova nods in understanding and says to Clarice, “Some dogs are extremely sensitive to certain odors, especially very strong perfume and air fresheners. And though this may be hard for you to believe, the perfume you wear is actually painful for Otto to inhale, and so he barks at you to keep you at a distance. Failing there, he runs away from you. He knows very well you are the love of Winston’s life and he would never harm you, though he cannot bear your perfume.”

*

A few days later on the morning of the day before Thanksgiving, the sun shining brightly, Healing and Tova return to Winston’s house in Southport for a celebratory brunch with Winston and Clarice.

They find Clarice and Otto sharing a loveseat in the living room, Clarice no longer wearing perfume and having thoroughly cleansed her body of any lingering scent of perfume by taking saunas twice a day, showering with scentless soap, and washing her hair with scentless shampoo.

“I have rid the house of every last scrap of my perfume-saturated clothing,” says Clarice, petting Otto who obviously enjoys her loving touch. “And that includes sheets and towels. We’ve had the windows open despite the cold for three days now, and we’ll be moving the air purifier from one room to another until Otto gives us the all clear.”

Healing places his hands together and bows to Clarice.

“When I was a young teenager,” says Clarice, her eyes sparkling, “I came to believe that people would think I stank if I didn’t wear perfume. But Winston loves me just as well without. Don’t you dear?”

“Oh my darling,” says Winston, emerging from the kitchen, spatula in hand, “I love you even more with nothing on.”

 fin

A Wedding Song by Todd

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Rimbaud

On a cold clear afternoon in early November, Healing Weintraub, manager of Good Groceries, an organic food co-op in Mercy, is replenishing the banana bin when his co-manager Magdalena Cortez, looking especially lovely today with a red rose in her long black hair, hands Healing a note written on a scrap of yellow paper folded in half, and walks away.

For a fleeting moment, Healing imagines the note says Let us be lovers and live together for the rest of our lives.

He unfolds the note and reads Sheriff Higuera is at the loading dock and wants to talk to you.

“Ah well,” says Healing, placing the last bunch of bananas in the bin. “One can dream.”

*

Ruben Higuera has been a sheriff in Mercy for twenty-two of his forty-nine years. A graduate of Mercy High, Ruben served in the Army for seven years, three of those years in Afghanistan where he was twice wounded. Rakishly handsome and a former bodybuilder, Ruben is married and has two small children.

Healing finds Ruben standing at the loading dock at the back of the store, his hat off, his belt weighted down with various tools of his trade, notably an enormous gun and a long flashlight that doubles as a bludgeon.

“Sorry to bother you at work,” says Ruben, the child of Spanish speaking parents, “but I’ve got a quasi-emergency and I’m hoping you can help me defuse things until we solve the underlying problem.”

“You intrigue me, Ruben,” says Healing, doing his best imitation of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. “May I assume this is about a dog?”

“Yes,” says Ruben, who is one of the most unflappable people Healing has ever known. “A dog and the people the dog is driving crazy.”

“Who might those people be?” asks Healing, who knows just about every person and dog in Mercy.

“Marcus Pontiac and Sara Steinberg,” says Ruben, gesturing with his thumb toward the west end of town. “Will you come talk to them now? I’ll drive you over there.”

“I’ll meet you there in ten minutes,” says Healing, starting back into the store. “I have to clock out and get my things.”

“I’ll wait for you,” says Ruben, pointing to his squad car. “So I can brief you on the way over.”

*

Cruising slowly down the quiet streets of Mercy, Ruben says to Healing, “You know Marcus. Great guy. Poet. Retired from the post office a few years ago. Sara’s great, too. Also a poet. Retired social worker. They’ve been together forever, but only started living together at Marcus’s house seven years ago. He’s been in that place for thirty years. Maybe longer.”

“Longer,” says Healing, nodding. “I remember when he bought that house. I went to the housewarming party with my parents a few years before my daughter was born. So that would have been when I was… twenty-six? And I’m fifty-eight now, so…”

“Right. And Marcus’s next door neighbor the whole time was Maeve Franconi until Maeve died two years ago and her son left the place empty for a year and then sold it to a woman named Anne Pritchard. Remember that name.”

“Got it,” says Healing, enjoying his role as Ruben’s sidekick.

“Okay so Anne Pritchard moved in six months ago after having the place extensively remodeled,” says Ruben, pulling up in front of Marcus Pontiac’s small redwood house at the end of Thimbleberry Lane, a short stub of asphalt intruding onto the headlands, all the Thimbleberry houses situated on the north side of the street, the south side a field of wild grasses and coastal shrubs merging into Mercy Headlands State Park.

“Let me guess,” says Healing, smiling wryly at Ruben. “Anne Pritchard has a dog.”

 “She does,” says Ruben, nodding wearily. “Half Pekinese, quarter poodle, and quarter Chihuahua. His name is something like Rahmbó. Named after a French poet I never heard of. She spells it R-i-m-b-a-u-d. Only she doesn’t say Rim-bowed. She says Rahmbó, with a little accent on the o.”

“Oui,” says Healing, who knows of Rimbaud because Ezra, Healing’s father, used to recite parts of a poem by Rimbaud entitled The Drunken Boat. “Rahm-bó.”

“Almost Rambo, but not quite,” says Ruben, laughing. “Anyway, Anne Pritchard is fifty-two, no criminal record, and she has an excellent credit rating. She’s super smart, a systems analyst, whatever that means, and she mostly works online from home, but occasionally goes to San Francisco to meet with clients. And thank God she takes the dog with her, although if she didn’t take the dog we might be able to grab him for neglect, but she doesn’t neglect him. And the last thing I’ll tell you about her, so you won’t be startled when you meet her, is that she’s very beautiful. Very. Okay?”

“I would think Marcus and Sara would be thrilled to have a lovely woman with a dog named Rimbaud living next door to them.” Healing frowns at Ruben. “Though that wouldn’t constitute a quasi-emergency, would it?”

“No,” says Ruben, shaking his head. “The quasi-emergency is… and I’m cutting to the chase here, okay, because the situation is more nuanced than I have time to explain.”

“Understood.”

“I have reason to believe Marcus is going to try to kill Anne Pritchard’s little dog, because according to Marcus and Sara, the dog never stops yapping. From morning until night and often into the night. And this has been going on now for six months.”

“Have you confirmed the dog yaps constantly?” asks Healing, guessing Ruben has.

“Yes I have,” says Ruben, closing his eyes. “I’ve come by in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Several times. And he’s always yapping.”

“What does the super smart and very beautiful Anne Pritchard have to say about all this?”

“I will let you hear what she has to say.” Ruben brings forth his phone, taps a few buttons, and a woman’s voice fills the car – husky and warm and appealing.

“He’s a dog,” she says, stretching out the word dog. “He barks occasionally, but not all the time. He’s just being a dog. And he’s a sweetie pie. And you know as well as I do, Ruben, there are no laws against a dog barking now and then. And the way Marcus is behaving, calling me several times a day and late at night to complain about my dog is, as I’m sure you also know, a form of harassment. And I will not put up with this much longer before I seek a restraining order against him. So deal with Marcus, not me. I have broken no laws and I will not be intimidated by someone who thinks he owns the entire street because he’s been here since the Pleistocene.” 

“You know,” says Healing, looking at Ruben, “when I first heard her voice I liked her very much. But by the end of her speech I didn’t like her anymore. Does she have a partner?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” says Ruben as they get out of the squad car – a cold wind blowing in from Mercy Bay.

“Why am I not surprised?” says Healing, following Ruben to Marcus’s door.

“Oh you’ll be surprised when you meet her,” says Ruben, turning to Healing. “Because even if you don’t like her, I’ll bet you would put up with her, if only she would let you.”

*

Marcus Pontiac, stocky and somewhat stooped at seventy-two, his white hair short and spiky, opens the door and takes off his sound-blocking headphones.

“Healing,” says Marcus, his Chicago accent muted after fifty years in California. “I should have called you five months ago. What was I thinking? Well… I wasn’t thinking because I couldn’t think. Because that fucking dog never…”

Marcus stops talking and holds up an index finger to draw their attention to the high-pitched yapping of a little dog, a yapping Healing recognizes as a cry of alarm.

“Come in,” says Marcus, beckoning Healing and Ruben to enter. “Sara just made cookies. We’ll have coffee and I’ll regale you with the latest about my demonic neighbor and her putrescent little dog.”

“I have to go,” says Ruben, checking his phone. “School is about to get out and I must make an appearance at the high school parking lot to impede would-be speeders and so forth. Let me know what you think, Healing.”

“I shall give you a full report,” says Healing, bowing to Ruben.

“So shall I,” says Marcus, holding up his index finger again to bring their attention to more yapping.

“Most annoying,” says Healing, nodding in sympathy with Marcus.

“Incessant,” says Marcus, leading Healing to the kitchen where Sara Steinberg, her white hair in a long braid, is transferring oatmeal cookies from a cookie sheet onto a large blue dish, her ears covered by sound-blocking headphones identical to Marcus’s.

Sara removes her headphones and says with her New York Jewish accent, “Hi Healing. Welcome to hell. I never should have sold my place, but we needed the money.” She shrugs. “And life was good here until the horror descended upon us.”

“Do you happen to know if the dog’s owner is home right now?” asks Healing, looking out the window at the neighboring house some fifty feet away.

“Oh she’s home,” says Marcus, going to the window and glaring at Anne Pritchard’s house. “With those little white speaker turds in her ears listening to music, loud, so she won’t hear the little monster yapping.”

“Coffee, Healing?” asks Sara, bringing the cookies to the kitchen table. “I just made a fresh pot.”

“Love some,” says Healing, going to the door that opens onto a small deck. “May I?”

“Sure,” says Marcus, putting his headphones on. “Forgive me for not accompanying you.”

“Be back in a few,” says Healing, going out onto the deck from where he has a partial view of the neighboring backyard, though not of the yapping dog behind the seven-feet-tall redwood fence that separates Marcus’s property from Anne Pritchard’s property – the fence around the rest of Marcus’s property only four-feet-tall, while the rest of Anne’s property is enclosed by a fence eight-feet-tall.

The yapping continues unabated, sharp and piercing, until Healing gets to within a few feet of the fence and says in a low gentle voice, “Hello Bo. What’s wrong? What do you need?”

The yapping stops for a moment, and now resumes with slightly less gusto.

“Oh Bo,” says Healing, speaking gently. “There’s no need to bark. Are you lonely? Tell me what’s going on.”

The yapping stops again, and Healing steps up onto the bottom rail of the fence, which allows him to look over at a small brown and gray dog standing about ten feet from the fence.

Seeing Healing, the dog begins to yap furiously.

“Hey Bo,” says Healing in a low quiet voice. “Aren’t you a good dog. I’m Healing. You don’t have to bark at me. I like you. And I think you’ll like me.”

Rimbaud stops barking and walks a little closer to the fence.

“Look how smart you are,” says Healing, smiling down at the dog. “You just wanted someone to talk to, didn’t you? Someone to listen to you so you could tell them what you need.”

Now Rimbaud comes so close to the fence, Healing loses sight of him, and a moment later Rimbaud starts scratching at a plank in the fence.

Healing steps down from the bottom rail and sees the dog is pawing at a knothole the size of a silver dollar.

“There you are,” says Healing, going down on his knees and putting his face close to the knothole. “How nice to meet you. Oh my goodness. We need to trim that hair away from your eyes, don’t we? Must be an awful bother.”

Now Healing reaches two of his fingers through the knothole and Rimbaud sniffs them before giving them a lick.

“If you’ll stop barking, I’ll talk to Anne,” says Healing, handing a tasty treat through the knothole and smiling as Rimbaud gently takes the treat from his fingers. “We’ll get things straightened out. Don’t you worry, Bo. This is all just a misunderstanding. Nothing to worry about.”

*

Returning to the kitchen, Healing is greeted by Marcus and Sara as if he just slew Goliath.

“What did you do?” asks Marcus, incredulously. “He stopped barking.”

“A temporary fix,” says Healing, sitting down to have coffee and a cookie. “And I must to talk to Anne. Do you think it would be okay if I just went over and knocked on her door?”

“Not a good idea,” says Marcus, grimacing and shaking his head. “Damnit. I should have called you way back at the beginning. Now she hates me and I hate her, though she’s not a horrible person. She’s just… she’s got this fucking dog who won’t stop yapping.”

“It would really be helpful,” says Healing, gazing intently at Marcus, “if you would think more kindly of the dog. He’s essentially blind because he’s got hair in his eyes all the time. The curse of his genetics. And because his eyes are not properly cared for, they are chronically inflamed. And because he hasn’t had a chance to explore the area and learn it by smell, as these partially blind dogs need to do, he doesn’t really know where he is. And he can feel your enmity, Marcus. I know that may sound farfetched to you, but it’s true. And now I will go introduce myself to your neighbor.”

“I’ll come with you,” says Sara, leaving her headphones on the table. “I’ve acted as intermediary a couple times before and she’s at least civil to me, so…”

*

A few minutes later, Anne Pritchard, barefoot in a flimsy green dress, her auburn hair in a ponytail, a quizzical look on her exquisite face, opens her front door and beholds Sara accompanied by a handsome man with brown hair going gray.

“Hello Sara,” says Anne, her eyes fixed on Healing. “What’s up?”

“Sorry to bother you,” says Sara, smiling obsequiously, “but I wanted to introduce you to Healing Weintraub, who is something of a savant with dogs. Ruben… Sheriff Higuera… thought Healing might be able to help us with the dog situation.”

Anne takes a deep breath to quell her anger and asks, “What makes you a dog expert, Mr. Weintraub?”

“A lifetime of consorting with dogs,” says Healing, dazzled by Anne despite her barely concealed contempt for him. “I’ve already made the acquaintance of your charming dog through the fence. We had a lovely conversation, and if I might spend another few minutes with him in-person, I think I could… help.”

“Are you British?” asks Anne, squinting at Healing. “Or are you affecting an accent to try to impress me?”

“My parents are British and sometimes the accent comes through.”

“I apologize,” she says tersely. “This whole dog thing has put me on edge. To say the least. Please come in.”

Healing and Sara follow Anne into her spacious living room where Anne opens a sliding glass door and she and Healing step out onto a spacious redwood deck where Rimbaud, his tail wagging furiously, rushes up to Healing and shimmies in ecstasy as Healing bends down to scratch the little dog’s head.

“Okay, I’m impressed,” says Anne, dumbfounded by Rimbaud’s show of affection for Healing. “That’s never happened before.”

“I’m blown away by your remodel,” says Sara, lingering in the living room. “This is so beautiful. It was always so cramped in here before. Did you design this?”

“With the help of an architect, yes,” says Anne, flustered by Sara’s praise. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Like it?” says Sara, joining them on the deck. “It’s genius.”

Healing kneels on the deck to give Rimbaud a thorough massage. “He seems very healthy and strong,” says Healing to Anne. “Is he about four?”

“Yes, four,” says Anne, wringing her hands. “And he’s in excellent health except for the eye thing. I’m terrible about keeping up with trimming the hair away from his eyes. My hands shake and I’m afraid I’ll stab him, so… I think the infection these kinds of dogs get has come back. I need to take him to a vet, but I’ve just been swamped.”

Healing pushes the hair away from Rimbaud’s eyes. “If you have the requisite scissors, I’d be happy to do this for you now.”

“Oh fantastic,” says Anne, hurrying away. “I’ll go get them.”

“You’re amazing,” whispers Sara, grinning down at Healing.

Anne returns with special scissors with which Healing carefully snips away the invasive hair that has been wreaking havoc on Rimbaud’s eyes.

“And now,” says Healing, standing up, “with your permission I will go with Rimbaud on an exploratory stroll around your yard.”

“May we come with you?” asks Anne, contritely. “I don’t want to intrude on your process, but I’d love to watch.”

“Please,” says Healing, crossing the deck and stepping down onto a scraggly lawn, Rimbaud at his heels.

“I’m going to have all this landscaped,” says Anne, gesturing expansively to her yard as she and Sara follow Healing and Rimbaud. “Drought resistant grasses and herbs and the kinds of plants that attract butterflies.”

“We have a butterfly garden,” says Sara, smiling at Anne. “Brings the hummingbirds, too. And you know what they say about hummingbirds.”

“No,” says Anne, frowning at Sara. “What do they say about hummingbirds?”

“They are bringers of joy,” says Sara, thinking of Marcus’s poem about hummingbirds called Bringers of Joy.

Now they come to the place where Rimbaud has been standing and yapping for the last six months, and because it has become his habit to do so, the little dog faces the fence and begins to yap as if confronting a menacing stranger.

“Oh Bo why are you barking?” asks Healing in his gentle way. “What do you think is over there? That’s just Marcus and Sara’s yard. They’ve got a vegetable garden and a pond with big rocks around it, and a low fence between the rest of their yard and the headlands.”

Rimbaud stops barking and comes to Healing,

“You see? There’s no need to bark,” says Healing, scratching behind Rimbaud’s ears and slipping him a tasty treat. “Nothing to fear over there.”

Now Healing turns to Anne and says, “You probably know this, but sight-challenged dogs like Rimbaud learn the lay of the land by smell, and unless they can explore their surroundings and make sense of what their acute sense of smell is telling them, they will be perpetually uneasy. And there’s something about this particular spot that Rimbaud can’t figure out, and it distresses him no end. Now if it was up to me, I’d make an opening in the fence here and allow him to wander to and from Sara and Marcus’s yard so he’ll know what’s going on over there, and I’d also take him for walks on the headlands trails so he can get a deeper sense of where he is and what’s going on in his world.”

“Is that something you could help me with?” asks Anne, moved by Healing’s speech. “I’d be happy to pay you whatever you charge.”

“No need to pay me. I go walking with my dogs twice a day and we’ll come by here every few days and Rimbaud can come with us, and you can join us, too, if you like. In the meantime, I will be happy, with everyone’s permission, to remove a plank or two from this old fence and make an attractive gap here for Rimbaud’s transits between your properties.”

“Fine with us,” says Sara, knowing Marcus will be thrilled with Healing’s solution. “We always had a dog until Auden died two years ago, so it will be nice to have Rimbaud come visit.”

“Wonderful,” says Anne, impulsively taking Sara’s hand. “And we can be friends now.”

“I’m sure you know,” says Healing, smiling at Anne, “that Sara and Marcus are both fine poets and always name their cats and dogs after poets, just as you named your dog after one.”

“I didn’t know you were poets,” says Anne, gazing in wonder at Sara. “So am I.”

fin

The Monster Part Two a very short movie