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Inexhaustible Transformations

“Diana returns,” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender of Big Goose, standing behind the bar of that most popular pub in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, his ability to remember names and the people attached to those names legendary.

“And you are… Justin?” says Diana, tall and pretty with long auburn hair going gray, everything about her suggesting she once was a dancer.

“Well-remembered,” says Justin, who is fifty-two, a muscular six-feet-six, with curly carrot red hair. “Chef and her accomplices are even as we speak making a new batch of the clam chowder you so enjoyed. How about a half-pint of something while you wait for the soup to be ready?”

“I don’t drink,” says Diana, her voice deep, her accent hinting of Texas. “I did love the soup, but today I’m here about the Help Wanted sign on the front door.”

“We just put that up a minute ago,” says Justin, who has a good feeling about Diana but wonders if she might be a bit somber for the job. “We need a wait person, as waiters are called these days, and from your manner I deduce you have experience in the field.”

“You got that right,” she says, nodding. “But before we go through the rigmarole, what’s the pay?”

“Twenty an hour to start and we pool tips,” says Justin, sensing her keen desperation. “You’ll make about twenty-five an hour and if you stay with us for more than three months you’ll get good medical and the hourly goes up a bit. We want somebody from three to eleven weekdays, four to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and the occasional morning shift. We yearn for flexibility in our employees.”

“Are you the manager?” she asks, deadpan.

“Co,” he says, nodding. “With my wife. We’re the new co-owners, too. And just between you and me and anybody else who wants to know, we’re a bit overwhelmed right now. Can you come in tomorrow when my wife is here? ”

Diana nods. “What time?”

“9:30 in the morning,” he says, turning to Angelica Rodriguez as she emerges from the kitchen, the diminutive chef bearing a bowl of clam chowder.

“Dígame,” she says, handing the bowl and a spoon to Justin.

He has a taste and says “Me gusta mucho.” Now he hands the bowl and a clean spoon to Diana.

She tastes the soup and her eyelids flutter with pleasure. “That is one delicious soup,” she says to Angelica in fluent Spanish. “I might add a little salt, but that’s just me liking things salty.”

Angelica replies in Spanish, “I agree with you, but because some people don’t like any salt we make it this way and have saltshakers on the tables.”

Diana has another spoonful of the soup, now another, hands the bowl back to Justin and says, “I’ll be here at 9:30 tomorrow morning.”

*

Walking away from Big Goose, the December afternoon drizzly and cold, Diana wonders how she’s going to survive until tomorrow morning without begging, and she really doesn’t want to beg in Mercy because she hopes to live here and doesn’t want people to know she’s homeless.

She’s been living in her van for three years now – her old dark green Volkswagen van currently parked near the post office and almost out of gas. She’ll have to park somewhere away from town when darkness falls because at night a sheriff patrols the streets of Mercy looking for vagabond vehicles such as hers. Until she had those three spoonsful of Angelica’s clam chowder, she hadn’t eaten in two days. Her quest for a job here has proved fruitless until now and she’s down to twenty-two cents and her great grandmother’s wedding ring, which she is loath to part with.

“But maybe I finally have to,” she says, stopping in front of Darby’s Antiques, the windows fogged up, someone clanking around inside the dimly lit shop. “I want to live here. I’m tired of running.”

She closes her eyes hoping for inspiration, and when she opens her eyes sees a poster in the window advertising a poetry reading at the bookstore tonight featuring Helen Morningstar and Tommy Matsukado.

“Helen Morningstar?” she says, wrinkling her nose at the poster. “Can’t be the same Helen Morningstar I read like a nun reads her Bible. Not here in the middle of nowhere.”

Curious to see if the Helen Morningstar named on the poster could possibly be the same Helen Morningstar she’s long admired, Diana opens the door of the old shop and steps inside – the place pleasantly warm, the air redolent with the smell of coffee brewing.

A portly fellow with spiky gray hair wearing blue jeans and a red plaid shirt is bending down to add a log to the fire in a little woodstove on a brick hearth abutting the south-facing wall – the store crammed to the rafters with antique furniture and lamps and ceramics and racks of vintage clothing and shelves of old books, everything stacked so close together there’s hardly any open space except a narrow aisle leading from the front door to the counter at the back of the store, and from the counter to the woodstove.

The portly fellow stands up straight, gazes raptly at Diana, and says with a mild Irish accent, “I was only just now hoping someone would come in and keep me company. Welcome.”

“Hello,” she says, mustering a tired smile. “I saw the poster in your window for the poetry reading and I’m wondering… do you know if the Helen Morningstar reading at the bookstore tonight is the same Helen Morningstar who wrote Inevitable Impossible and Dog-Eared Love?”

“She is, indeed,” says the fellow, smiling warmly. “One of our local brilliants. Come from afar, have you?”

“Yes,” she says, looking around for a place to sit down before she keels over. “Hoping to move here if I can find a job.”

“Not many jobs right now,” says the fellow, shaking his head. “We go into quasi-hibernation here until the tourists come back in the spring, though we sometimes have a little outburst around Christmas, depending on the weather. I’m Darby, by the way. Would you care for some coffee and a cookie? Oatmeal raisin fresh from the ovens of Café Brava. My coffee is fine Columbian. I brew it strong, but I’ve got cream for the faint of heart.”

“I’d love some,” says Diana, looking again for a place to sit.

“Stupid man,” mutters Darby, moving a pile of ancient children’s books off an old embroidered chair. “Please. Have a seat. Take your coat off. The coffee is just now attaining fruition.”

*

Saved by the oatmeal cookie and two cups of coffee, mostly cream, and having made a date to sit with Darby at the poetry reading this evening, Diana gets back to her van just as darkness and heavy rain begin to fall. She sets her alarm for 6:30, the poetry reading to begin at 7:30, sheds her heavy wool coat, lies down on her old foam pad, pulls the down comforter over her, and falls asleep to rain drumming on the roof.

*

As she often does, she dreams of her life before she became homeless – her sister Karen and she born a year apart and raised by their single mom in a small town in Texas, volleyball stars in high school, dance majors at Kansas State, Karen killed in a car accident mid-twenties and Diana went to New York and became a chorus girl, moved to Las Vegas and danced in big shows, married a handsome wannabe who stayed with her for a year until she broke her ankle in a bad fall and lost her place in the show biz hierarchy, and when she finally got back to full strength at thirty-four she was too old to land a dancing gig so she waitressed for years and years in Vegas Reno New Orleans Miami Tampa Bay Austin Santa Fe Phoenix LA until she was felled by a mysterious illness and spiraled into homelessness.

*

Waking to her alarm, she peers out her windows into the night – the spotlights on the outside walls of the post office illuminating empty parking places.

She changes out of her jeans and T-shirt and sweater and puts on her one good blouse, a purple beauty, and a long gray skirt. She only has her beat up running shoes, and her heavy wool coat is her only coat, so that is her ensemble.

She brushes her hair, applies a coat of faint pink lipstick, and is about to start her engine when someone raps on her window and shines a flashlight in at her – the sheriff’s deputy on his early evening rounds.

“Hello,” she says, rolling down her window.

“May I see your driver’s license, please?” says the deputy, an affable middle-aged guy, his hat not quite big enough for his large round head.

Diana gets her license out of her purse and hands it to him.

“Los Angeles,” he says, pronouncing Angeles angle-ease. “Long way from home. We moved up here from Fresno seven years ago, my sister and I. Where you staying, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I’m hoping to relocate here,” she says, dodging the question. “Going to the poetry reading at the bookstore with Darby tonight and interviewing for a job at Big Goose tomorrow morning.”

He hands her back her license and says, “One-one-four-two Comfrey Lane. You good at remembering numbers?”

“Yes,” she says, praying he doesn’t proposition her. “Why do you ask?”

“Because if you go two blocks that way to one-one-four-two Comfrey Lane,” he says, pointing to the west, “you can park in our driveway. Turk and Emily. I’m Turk. Emily’s my sister. Otherwise Mario might give you a ticket or bust you. He’s on duty midnight to eight. Probably won’t bother you, but he might. One-one-four-two. Have a good evening.”

Diana holds absolutely still until Turk drives away, and when her heart stops pounding she starts her engine and says, “Either my luck is finally changing or this is another mirage.”

*

Raining hard, the town seemingly deserted save for action at the three pubs, Diana has her pick of parking places close to the bookstore and barely gets wet hurrying into Crow’s Nest Books at 7:15, the cheerful store decorated for Christmas.

Ramona the owner/manager in a red dress embroidered with big white snow flakes is presiding over a table laden with glasses of wine and sparkling cider and enormous platters of cheeses, crackers, prawns, celery sticks, cookies, and mini-pumpkin pies.

“Welcome,” says Ramona, greeting Diana with an open-armed gesture. “Thank you so much for braving the storm.”

“Beautiful store,” says Diana, telling herself to wait a moment before attacking the prawns, her body desperate for protein. “And look at this spread. I’ve been to lots of poetry readings and never saw a feast like this one.”

“Hungry?” asks Ramona, nodding hopefully. “Please. Help yourself and take lots. We were expecting a big crowd, Tommy being so famous, but with weather like this… well, you’re here so maybe others will come.”

“And I’m here,” says Darby, coming in from the downpour. “Let’s eat.”

*

Well-fed for the first time in eons, Diana sits with Darby in the third row of five, eight folding chairs in each row – she and Darby the only people here besides Ramona standing at the door gazing forlornly into the night and the two poets sitting in the front row.

By 7:45 another dozen people have arrived, and by 7:55 there are seventeen folks on hand.

At 8:00 on the nose, Ramona steps up to the microphone and says in her easygoing way, “The poets have decided Tommy Matsukado will read first, though Helen said it has long been her dream to open for Tommy, who, as I’m sure you all know, is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and just published his fifth volume of poetry Dog Saves Man, but Tommy said it has long been his dream to open for Helen, so without further ado, here is Tommy Matsukado.”

Tommy, a short sturdy man wearing black-framed glasses and a beautiful burgundy shirt, his long black hair in a ponytail, steps up to the microphone and says, “You probably wouldn’t guess by looking at me that my mother is French and a statuesque redhead. You probably thought I was pure Japanese, right? Imagine me with short gray hair and you’ve got my father. So no wonder I became a comedian.” He holds for laughs.

“Unfortunately, I got mired in routines about ethnicity. Seriously. Sadly. Truly. We humans make such a big deal about ethnicity. And I did, too. For years I’d only date white women, and then for years I would only date Japanese women, and then for years only half-Japanese, half-white women.” He holds for more laughter.

“I was making pretty good money, but my life sucked. Truly. Then one night when I was living in LA and hoping to get cast as ‘the Asian guy’ in a sit-com, I was in a bookstore desperate for something good to read. When I hit on the half-Japanese half-white woman who worked there, she convinced sold me Helen’s book Inevitable Impossible and I took it back to my apartment and read it cover-to-cover three times and had a revelation. I’m talking about a spiritual awakening. Truly. You think I’m being funny, but this is no joke. I loved Helen’s poems more than anything I’d ever read. And besides the gorgeous flow of words and her ruthless honesty, the thing I loved most about her poems was how they transcended race and gender and went deep into the heart of being human. She could have been an old white guy or a young lesbian or… me. Yeah. She could have been half-Japanese and half-French. So here is my revelation. It doesn’t matter who the poet is. What matters is the poetry. And that’s when I decided to become Helen. Only I’m a Japanese Frenchman and she’s a Pomo Mexican woman, but you get what I mean. And that’s why I’m opening for her and not the other way around.”

He opens Dog Saves Man and reads the title poem.

Stray dog saves man by grabbing man’s pants leg before man

steps off unseen cliff in fog. Grateful man takes dog home,

feeds dog, gives dog warm place to sleep, dog feels trapped

and escapes first chance he gets. Man falls madly in love with

woman who loves him madly, too, so long as she can have

affairs with men she doesn’t love. Man finds out about her

affairs and confronts her and she promises not to sleep with

other men, but she can’t help herself. Eventually the man

ends the relationship and is in therapy for years before he

gets up the nerve to try again, this time with a woman so

fiercely possessive of him he feels suffocated by her but does

not end the relationship because he is terrified of being alone.

*

During the intermission, Ramona announces that anyone wishing to read a poem at the end of the show should sign up now, and two people sign up, one of them Diana.

*

When the long intermission is over, Helen steps to the microphone and says, “Before I read, I need to gush a little about Tommy. We’re a long way from anywhere as you know, yet Tommy made the long trek from San Francisco at his own expense to read with me, which makes me feel like I won the Pulitzer.” She waits for the applause for Tommy to die down before she opens her newest collection Inexhaustible Transformations and reads the title poem.

First a reminder: the sun has never risen. The sun

is just there and the earth spins us into daylight and

spins us into darkness and has done so for billions of

years. Why do you (and I, it’s true) persist in saying

the sun rises and sets? Sets where? On a table we

can’t see below the horizon? Rises out of the mouth

of a giant frog hiding in the darkness?  

Next: Please refrain from saying, ‘I know how you feel.’

You do not know how I feel. I think what’s happening

Is you feel something about what I have attempted to

explain to you in words and you mistake what you

feel about those words for my feelings. I do the same

thing. I’m not criticizing you, just making a request.

Finally: we can change. We do change. We are change.

Much of the dust in our house is our former skin. For

years I avoided going down a particular street in our

neighborhood because the one time I ever walked down

that street a big terrifying dog came rushing out of his

yard with teeth bared and murder in his eyes, I thought,

and he only didn’t bite me, I thought, because his owner,

a horrid man with a big stomach wearing no shirt and

drunk, I thought, yelled at the dog, “Get back here, Coffee,”

and yesterday I was on my knees in my front yard pulling

weeds when someone gently nuzzled my arm and I gasped

when I saw it was Coffee wanting me to pet her and she

was not terrifying and very possibly the sweetest dog in

the universe and the horrid man was standing on the

sidewalk wearing a shirt and smiling like a sunrise and

being the opposite of horrid when he said, “She’s all

love,” right before Coffee took a huge dump just a few

feet away from me and I waited to see if the man would

pick up her shit and I’m happy to tell you he did and

now I walk down their street almost every day and

on those rare days when Coffee doesn’t come out to

get some love from me and vice-versa, I’m disappointed

because I want love. Need love. And she’s all love.

*

“Hi,” says Diana, shaking like a leaf as she steps up to the microphone and opens her notebook. “This is called Easy.”

I had a lover for a while, sweet guy I picked up

in Tucson we were both starving for a warm body

to hold, someone who wouldn’t hurt us and we were

good that way for each other, wouldn’t say I loved him

or he loved me, but we were kind to each other which

is really just as good as love and might even be what

love is and I wanted to go to Sedona and hide on a farm

and he wanted to go to LA and try to sell a song, so we

went to that giant crazy place – ever been there? – and

he wanted to stay and I couldn’t because I lived there

before and my enemies never forgot me. Sweet guy said

‘Once I sell my song we’ll be on Easy Street.’ We were

camping in a garage in Studio City and I drove away

when sweet guy walked down the street to get Chinese

takeout and three hours later a hundred and fifty miles

north just breaking free of the gravity of that giant

crazy place I forgot all about him easy as pie.

*

After the reading, Tommy and Helen sign copies of their books, and Diana asks Helen to sign her dog-eared copies of Inevitable Impossible and Dog-Eared Love.

“I’m gonna get your other books,” says Diana, holding her breath as she watches Helen sign the books, “only I’m currently a little short on cash. I read your books like a nun reads her Bible. Over and over again and I always find something to inspire me. As if you couldn’t tell from my poem.”

Helen hands Diana the signed books and says, “I loved your poem. I wish I’d written it. And you read so beautifully. Gave me the chills. I want to give you a copy of my new book.”

“Oh no. I’ll buy it when I can,” says Diana, starting to cry.

“Please,” says Helen, smiling at Diana. “There’s nothing in the world I want more than for you to have my poems.”

“Now I’m too happy,” says Diana, tears running down her cheeks. “Joy before disaster.”

“Don’t say that,” says Helen, signing a brand new copy of Inexhaustible Transformations. “You’re on a roll, Diana. A really good roll.”

*

Imagine Diana’s surprise the next morning when she goes for her job interview at Big Goose and Justin’s wife and co-manager turns out to be Helen Morningstar.

*

Six months later on a warm Saturday night in May, Diana in a turquoise Big Goose sweatshirt and black jeans, her hair in two braids, leaves a tray of empty glasses at the kitchen end of the bar for the dishwasher and sings to Justin, “Two pints of Guinness. Two pints of Scrimshaw. And two pints of Mercy Porter, por favor.”

“Shall I have a word with that grab-ass playing darts?” asks Justin, swiftly filling the order.

“No need,” says Diana, surveying the busy pub and feeling as good as she has ever felt. “He’s just another lost soul crying out for love the only way he knows how.”

“You sure?” asks Justin, who is very protective of his employees, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when things tend to get rowdy.

“I’m sure,” she says, winking at him and lifting the heavy tray with ease.

fin

Why Now? (a poem with piano music)

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Hello Again

Dear Readers,

This is a note to my subscribers and is about my most recent post (the one before this one). For technological reasons beyond my understanding, notice of my posting yesterday of my short story Ricardo and Blair did not go out to the wonderful folks who subscribe to my blog. I enlisted the assistance of my web wizard Garth Hagerman to solve the problem and we thought we had but apparently not entirely.

Here’s hoping you get this Hello and enjoy the new story.

Todd

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Hello Out There

Dear Readers,

This is a note to my subscribers and is about my most recent post (the one before this one). For technological reasons beyond my understanding, notice of my posting today of my short story End of the World did not go out to the wonderful peeps who subscribe to my blog. I therefore enlisted the assistance of my intrepid web wizard Garth Hagerman to solve the problem and he thinks he has done so.

To test whether or not Garth has solved the problem, I am posting this note, and if I get an email alert after I post this (I’m a subscriber, too!) we’ll know we’re back in business.

So… here’s hoping this works and you enjoy the new story.

Todd

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Seed Puffs

Green Salad Bowl lettuce

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

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

lettuce flowering

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

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

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

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

I pick these puffs and carefully extract the seeds.

Will they germinate next spring?

We shall see.

fin

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Historical Musicals

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

*

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

*

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

And then he was not recompensed and died in poverty.

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

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

I’m a revolutionary financier

I lend money to the rebels without fear

With my money they buy ammo and beer

I’m a revolutionary financier

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

Why? Because I say so.

And why you may ask do I get to decide?

Oh wouldn’t you like to know?

*

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

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

*

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

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

We got the neighbors aroused

yes we did now

With our complex foolin’ around

Yes we did now

Now we gotta get outta here

Yes we do now

Before big trouble come down

Oh yeah, before big trouble come down

fin

The Way Things Go

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Mrs. Davenport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Alone and Lonely

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Miss Imbach

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain…?”

She gazed at me steadfastly.

“It’s what I wrote,” I said stupidly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Mystery Memory

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The Psychic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Larry. Sit down.”

“I’m a friend of Renee’s.”

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

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

“Good,” he says, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I picked The Magician.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

fin

The Magician

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Mama

a story from Buddha in a Teacup

“Can you tell me,” asks Sweeney, handing the teapot to McDougall, “what this is worth?”

McDougall, a portly man with a gray handlebar moustache, takes the little pearly white teapot in his big fleshy hands and nods slowly. “Baleek,” he says quietly. “Irish porcelain. Late eighteen hundreds. Extremely rare. I’ll have to examine her with a magnifying glass, but if this is the original glaze, and she’s flawless, I’d say she’s worth ten thousand dollars. Possibly more. And I’ll tell you right now, I want her.”

Sweeney, a slender man with brown hair turning gray, had hoped to get thirty or forty dollars for the old thing. Desperate for money, he had finally done what he’d been avoiding for three years. He’d gone through the two boxes of stuff left to him by his mother. In the first of the boxes he found only memorabilia—pictures and letters. But the second box contained the teapot, six matching cups and saucers, and a matching sugar bowl and creamer.

“That much?” he says, trying not to show too much astonishment at McDougall’s estimate of the teapot’s worth. “And what if I had the matching cups and saucers and things?”

McDougall gazes thoughtfully at Sweeney, his right eyebrow rising dramatically. “Six cups and saucers?”

“Yes,” says Sweeney, holding his breath. “And a sugar bowl and creamer.”

McDougall carefully sets the teapot down on the table between them. “A complete set of this Baleek, circa 1870, in excellent condition, would be worth at least fifty thousand dollars, and possibly a great deal more.”

“Why so much?” asks Sweeney, staggered by the sum.

“Well, first of all we’re talking about extremely rare and fragile ceramics that are nearly a hundred and fifty years old. A complete, original set outside of a museum is virtually unheard of in this day and age.” He pauses. “Handles intact?”

“Yes,” says Sweeney, turning to go. “I’ll be back with them in twenty minutes.”

“No, no, no!” cries McDougall, emphatically shaking his head. “I will bring my padded carrying case and come with you.”

*

“Excuse the mess,” says Sweeney, unlocking the door to his apartment.         

“I’m used to messes,” says McDougall, following Sweeney into the cramped little room. “In the mud lie the nuggets.”

The place smells sour, the sink full of dirty dishes, clothes strewn about the floor, the squalid bed unmade. On a rickety table by the only window, six cups on six saucers surround a sugar bowl and creamer, each piece the same pearly white as the teapot. McDougall reverently approaches this still life, his eyes wide with wonder. When he is satisfied that the pieces are immaculate, he turns to Sweeney and says, “I will be happy to write you a check for fifty thousand dollars.”

“And I will be happy to accept it,” says Sweeney, his tired eyes filling with tears.

When the rare and delicate tea set is safely packed away, the padded case closed and locked, McDougall says, “Now, if you don’t mind, could you tell me what you know about the set and where your mother got it?”

“I don’t know anything about it except that my mother’s mother was British, so maybe it was hers.”

“You don’t remember your mother using it?”

“No,” says Sweeney, his voice full of disdain, “but then I don’t remember much of anything about her.”

“When did she die?”

“Three years ago.”

“You were her only heir?”

He nods. “She didn’t leave me anything except a box of photographs and the tea things.”

“Would it be a terrible imposition if I looked through those photographs?”

“No, not at all.” Sweeney hands him a well-worn cardboard box. “In fact, you can have them if you want.”

McDougall takes the box from him. “Have you looked at these?”

“No,” says Sweeney, shaking his head. “My mother hated me. She used to call me her big mistake. These wouldn’t mean anything to me. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to get to the bank before it closes.”

*

With the Baleek safely installed in his vault, McDougall makes a strong pot of black tea and sits down to examine the photographic legacy of Sweeney’s mother. There are hundreds of photos, and on the back of each is a note to Sweeney. The largest picture is of Sweeney as a boy of seven or eight having a tea party with his mother. They are using the Baleek set. On the back of the photograph Sweeney’s mother has written

Here we are acting out the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland. That’s my mother’s old Baleek tea set, which she got from her mother who got it as a wedding gift in 1872. Amazing none of the pieces ever broke or even chipped a little. In fact, you and I had many tea parties with this set, remember? You even had tea parties with your friends Raymond and Cecily, but nothing ever broke. Proof of angels, if you ask me.

You know, Dearie, I wish I could have left you buckets of money, but all I have is this tea set. I hope it brings you joy. Perhaps someday you’ll pass it along to someone who will appreciate it as much as we did.

I love you very much.     

Mama

fin

Broke My Heart

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The Rug

Marcia and I are thinking of getting a new rug for the living room, our ten-year-old, four-hundred-dollar Cost Plus rug from India badly frayed from constant heavy use. Marcia has begun shopping around online and I am reminded of my last search for a rug twenty-six years ago.

*

I moved to Berkeley from Sacramento in 1995. Recently divorced and hoping to revive my writing career and my emotional life, too, I was off to a good start with the sale of my novel Ruby & Spear and a movie option on my novel Forgotten Impulses.

Having a little jingle in my pocket for the first time in many years, I thought I’d buy a beautiful rug for the living room of the house I was renting on Evelyn Avenue. To that end, I enlisted my friend Mindy to accompany me to a Persian Rug store on Solano Avenue, a store I’d walked by countless times, the rugs displayed in the window ever-changing and always enticing.

A handsome Persian fellow sitting at a desk at the back of the shop looked up as we entered. “May I help you?” he asked, and I said Yes. When he joined us, I informed him I was looking for a six-foot by eight-foot rug in the thousand-dollar range.

He smiled faintly and led us to a stack of rugs. With the help of an assistant he removed the top rug to show us the next one down and so forth until he came to a rug that elicited an interested Hmm from me.

“How much for this one?” I asked hopefully.

“Nineteen hundred dollars,” he said, smiling politely.

Ah,” I said, the sum petrifying. “I was thinking of something closer to a thousand.”

“I’m very sorry to tell you this, sir,” he said, no longer smiling, “but our store is not for you unless you are looking for a much smaller rug.”

This piqued me and I decided I could spend as much as fifteen hundred if he showed me something I really loved. I told him so and he sighed. “I have a few flawed rugs I can show you, but they are only four by six or three by five. I don’t think you’ll like them.”

At which moment another handsome Persian fellow emerged from the back of the store, he and the first fellow had a brief conversation in Farsi, the second fellow gave me a penetrating look and asked, “Are you an artist?”

I said I was a writer and a musician.

He nodded graciously and beckoned us to follow him to another stack of rugs, much finer rugs than those in the first stack. He and the assistant slowly removed the top rug, allowed us a few moments to contemplate the newly exposed rug, and so on until four rugs down they uncovered the most beautiful rug I’d ever seen. Or I should say they uncovered a rug that sang to me, “I’m the one, baby. You know I am.”

“You were meant to have this rug,” said the salesman, gazing at me knowingly. “This rug was made for you.”

“How much?” I asked breathlessly.

“Because I very much want you to have this rug,” he said, pausing momentously, “I will give it to you for 3400 dollars.”

“That’s way beyond what I can spare,” I said, which was true in one sense, but in another sense – the spiritual truth – I could have spared that much.

“You need to buy this rug,” he said, gazing intently at me. “It will change your life. This rug has been waiting for you.”

*

I did not buy the rug and my fortunes quickly waned. A year later my savings were gone and I was barely making enough to cover my rent and pay for groceries. And every time I walked by that rug shop on Solano Avenue I would think about my beautiful rug and regret I hadn’t been brave enough to take the beauty home with me.

fin

Risking Delight