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The Waiter Contemplates Fatherhood

Sandra Messer, sixty-seven, a native of Chicago, her short gray hair colored dirty blonde, is the legendary owner/chef of Le Scélérat in Berkeley, California. While shopping at Monterey Market on a foggy morning in August, Sandra runs into Philip, headwaiter at Le Scélérat.

In the ten years Philip has worked for Sandra, they have only met away from the restaurant a few other times, and each of those times Sandra was in a terrible hurry and barely said Hello.

But today Sandra is uncharacteristically not in a hurry, nor is Philip, so they have a long chat while moving around together among the outdoor fruit and vegetable stands.

Philip is forty-seven, attractive with dark brown eyes and curly black hair. Born in Connecticut to a French mother and an Italian-American father, he grew up speaking French at home, English otherwise, and he still often dreams in French.

When speaking to fellow restaurateurs, Sandra refers to Philip as my Philip, indicating her special fondness for him lest they entertain any thoughts of trying to woo him away from her. She entrusts Philip with her most important guests, and though he is not the least gregarious, his intuition regarding the needs of his customers is so remarkable and his service so full of grace, those he serves at Le Scélérat feel they have been cared for by an otherworldly savant.

“Diego,” says Sandra, referring to her second-in-command in the kitchen, “tells me you’re writing a cookbook.”

“Yes,” says Philip, shyly. “For over a decade now. Endlessly adding and tinkering with recipes, so I may never finish, but the process is endlessly fascinating to me.”

“I hope you’ll show me the manuscript,” says Sandra, who is a millionaire many times over from her cookbooks.

“I wouldn’t think to impose on you,” says Philip, sincerely.

“Don’t be silly, Philip,” says Sandra, selecting a few dozen bell peppers to stuff with sole. “I’m genuinely interested.”

“Thank you, Sandra,” he says, nodding graciously. “I’ll put you at the top of my list.”

“Speaking of tops of lists and recipes,” she says, moving to the eggplant, “I spoke with Emile Costas yesterday. He’s coming out to steal some of my recipes, and someone told me you worked for Emile at Le Bouffon. Did you?”

“Yes,” says Philip, taking a deep breath. “But in his kitchen, not at his tables.”

Sandra frowns. “You cooked for him?”

“I did,” says Philip, clearing his throat. “Twenty years ago he asked me to be head chef at Le Bouffon, I declined, and thereafter became a waiter.”

“I had no idea,” says Sandra, shocked by this revelation.

“Long time ago,” says Philip, laughing and crying a little and feeling very glad not to be head chef of Le Bouffon or anywhere, and to have finally told Sandra. “I much prefer waiting tables for you.”

“His loss is my gain,” she says, looking at Philip as if seeing him for the first time. “Now I really want to read your cookbook, and I’ll spare you the ordeal of working on the nights Emile comes to dine.”

“No, no. I enjoy waiting on him,” says Philip, his eyes sparkling. “He and I made our peace a few years after I fled his kitchen. I waited on him twice in New York and once at Le Vagabond before I moved across the bay to work for you. He was a father to me, and like a good father he forgave me for going my own way.”

*

Philip and Lisa have been friends for six years, lovers for the last three. For Lisa’s fortieth birthday, Philip throws a dinner party in the cottage he rents in the Berkeley hills and invites the five people he cooks for every few weeks, his guinea pigs as he calls them, who give him their reactions to the latest versions of recipes he’s perfecting for his cookbook.

The five are: Marcel a waiter at Le Vagabond in San Francisco, Marcel’s wife Andrea, a sous-chef at Le Vagabond, Joan, a professor of European History at Mills College, Joan’s husband Fred, a landscape architect, and Hilda, a psychotherapist who dines regularly at Le Scélérat.

Andrea and Marcel arrive an hour before the other guests so Andrea can assist Philip in the kitchen while Marcel sets the table, decants the wine, and plays his accordion to accompany the cooks.

“Mon dieu, Philip,” says Andrea, a girlish forty-one with short black hair and small tattoos of flowers on her arms, her accent faintly German, “for a chef of your caliber you need a bigger kitchen. Much bigger.”

“Ah but I want these recipes to work in any sized kitchen,” he says, checking the soufflé. “This is a cookbook for everyone.”

“Of course,” says Andrea, who adores Philip, “but everyone doesn’t make a five-course dinner in a kitchen the size of a…” She looks around the tiny kitchen. “Small bathroom

“When the cookbook becomes a bestseller,” says Marcel, who also has short black hair, no tattoos, his accent loudly French, “Philip will buy a chateau in a vineyard with a vast kitchen and enormous bathrooms and we will go there and live with him and make wine and help him write his next cookbook.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” says Philip, enjoying Marcel’s fantasy. “And we’ll raise chickens and peacocks.”

“Oh if only we could,” says Andrea, sighing. “I’m weary of living in our three little rooms in the foggy avenues.”

“Our friends Pierre and Charlene want us to move to Portland,” says Marcel, sipping his wine. “There are many jobs for us there and we could rent a house with a yard. Have a garden. Grow roses. Much less expensive than here. It’s tempting.”

“Lisa and I talk about getting out of here, too,” says Philip, looking from Andrea to Marcel. “A small town somewhere. In Oregon perhaps. We would miss you so much.”

“I don’t want to think about it right now,” says Andrea, shaking her head. “Tonight we celebrate Lisa.”

*

Ere long, Philip’s neighbors Joan and Fred Birchfield arrive, Fred fifty-eight, big and lumbering, Joan fifty-seven, petite and nimble, both born in South Dakota. Married since they were twenty, Joan and Fred routinely finish each other’s sentences, disagree about almost everything, and love each other madly. Their one child, Aurora, is thirty-four, a professor of Linguistics at Stanford.

Marcel serves Fred and Joan wine, Fred white, Joan red, and Hilda Rubenstein arrives resplendent in a dress of her own design made of purple Guatemalan fabric, her long silvery gray hair in a braid. A Jungian psychoanalyst, Hilda is seventy-five and has lived in Berkeley for forty years. Widowed ten years ago, Hilda’s one child, Tamara, is a playwright, no grandchildren in sight.

Moments after Hilda arrives, Lisa appears in a billowy red blouse and a long gray skirt, a red rose in her dark brown hair. Lisa’s mother Bianca was a mix of African and Indio, Lisa’s father Herschel an Ashkenazi Jew from Los Angeles. Bianca and Herschel had a love affair in Buenos Aires when Herschel was there on business for his father’s jewelry company and Bianca became pregnant with Lisa. Herschel fled back to California and assuaged his guilt by sending money to Bianca, though not often or very much. When Lisa was ten, Bianca died, and a few months later Lisa flew from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles to live with Herschel’s parents.

Herschel, who Lisa had never met before arriving in Los Angeles, was by then married and had two small children with his unhappy wife. Had it been up to him, he would have ignored the pleas of Lisa’s beleaguered aunt to take responsibility for Lisa, but Herschel’s mother insisted they bring the child to America. And so Lisa went from living in dangerous poverty in Brazil to being the pampered granddaughter of Myron and Shirley Goldstein in Beverly Hills.

When everyone is seated around Philip’s dining table, the salad served, Joan asks Lisa how her birthday is going so far and Lisa says, “I took the day off, had a long bath here before Philip made me blackberry crepes for breakfast, then I went home to feed my cat, did a little shopping with some money my grandmother sent me, bought this blouse, and then I met three friends for lunch at Nakapan and we blabbed and blabbed, and then I went home and talked on the phone with my grandmother, got dressed, and here I am.”

“I would never guess you were forty,” says Fred, who finds Lisa surpassingly lovely. “Thirty at most.”

“I feel forty,” says Lisa, looking at Hilda who has become something of a mother to her since they became friends a year ago. “Feels very different than thirty-nine.”

“How so?” asks Joan, squinting at Lisa. “Not that I don’t agree, it’s just I’ve never been able to elucidate why my entry into the fifth decade was such a profound change.”

“I think it’s that we’re coming to the end of being able to make babies,” says Lisa, looking at Andrea. “Approaching a time when that’s no longer possible.”

“Turning forty has brought more people to me for therapy than anything else,” says Hilda, smiling fondly at Lisa. “Both women and men. It is a huge turning point in this culture, this youth-worshiping culture. We begin to more consciously question why we are here if not to procreate or at least be able to, which is, in a way, the definition of youth, especially for a woman.”

“I’m forty-two,” says Andrea, sighing. “We talk about having a child, but the years go by and we don’t, so…” She looks at Marcel. “We are too busy making money to pay the rent and we can’t see how we would fit a child into our lives.”

“Oh you don’t see how they’ll fit until they arrive,” says Fred, who doubts their daughter Aurora will ever give them a grandchild. “And then you do whatever you can to make them feel at home. That’s how we all got here, with parents who couldn’t see how we’d fit, and then we did. Somehow.”

“Now why would you say that, dear?” says Joan, frowning at Fred. “We assiduously prepared for Aurora’s arrival. You added a room to the house in anticipation of her birth and I got a two-year extension on my doctoral thesis.”

“I still couldn’t see how she’d fit until she got here,” he says, laughing. “And when she did, the room we added became your study and we ended up converting half the living room into her bedroom because that’s where she wanted to be. Remember?”

Hilda laughs. “I will never forget the first night I put my daughter Tamara into her very own bed, rather than have her go on sleeping with us in our bed as she had for her first two years, and she looked up at me and said, “Mama, you can’t be serious.”

*

The guests gone—Joan and Fred having helped with the dishes—Philip and Lisa go to bed and make love, and in the aftermath Lisa says, “I want to have a child with you. But if I have to choose between having a child and being with you, I choose you.”

“Well then lets at least get married,” he says, taking her in his arms. “We’ve lived apart long enough.”

*

Philip comes to the table where the roguishly handsome Emile Costa, sixty-four, is dining with his stunning young Swedish assistant Olga, Emile one of the most famous chef/restaurateurs in the world with renowned restaurants in New York, London, Paris, and Las Vegas.

“Perfect timing as always, Philip,” says Emile, born in the Bronx to Sicilian parents. “What is the mystery spice in her rice? Not cardamom, is it?”

“No cardamom,” says Philip, replenishing their wine glasses. “Perhaps you are tasting her subtle use of smoked paprika.”

 “Of course,” says Emile, winking at Olga to make note of that. “So… you are happy here?”

“Yes,” says Philip, knowing Emile would love to employ him. “Eventually I want to move to a small town, but for now working here is ideal for me.”

“So mellow,” says Olga, loving how quiet Le Scélérat is compared to Emile’s enormous cacophonous restaurants.

“Too mellow for me,” says Emile, shaking his head. “Feels dead. Even the young people who come here seem dead.”

“Did you want to sample anything else tonight?” asks Philip, smiling fondly at Emile. “Another glass of wine?”

“No, we’re done,” says Emile, shaking his head. “I always come away from Sandra’s food feeling she missed the high notes.” He gives Philip a special smile. “I know you know what I mean. You never missed the high notes when you cooked for me.”

“She is not bombastic,” says Philip, pouring the last drops of wine into Olga’s glass. “But she’s very good.”

“And how are you away from here?” says Emile, shifting from restaurateur to old friend. “Are you in love?”

“I am,” says Philip, touched by Emile wanting to know. “I’m getting married soon.”

“Tell me,” says Emile, surprised. “I thought you might never again after the first two disasters.”

Philip laughs. “I thought the same. But then the gods sent me Lisa, and so… here I go again.”

“I’m happy for you,” says Emile, who considered Philip a culinary Mozart. “I, as you know, love getting married and do so often.”

“Will you have children?” asks Olga, who is next in line to marry Emile.

“We might,” says Philip, taken over by sudden sorrow. “We have yet to decide.”

*

Philip sits on a small sofa in Hilda’s studio and looks across the small red and green Persian rug where Hilda is sitting in a brown leather armchair. This is Philip’s first time availing himself of Hilda’s offer of free psychotherapy, the question of fatherhood inspiring his request for a session with her.

“My father was a brute,” says Philip, seeing his father sitting at the kitchen table drinking whiskey from a bottle. “He was twenty years older than my mother, a salesman, gone most of the time, had other women, smoked constantly, was a terrible drunk, and died of lung cancer when he was fifty-six and I was fourteen.”

“Was he a mean drunk?” asks Hilda, suspecting he was.

“A monster,” says Philip, nodding. “We lived for him to go away and hid from him when he was home.”

“Why did she marry him?”

“He was handsome and charming and a good salesman,” says Philip, thinking of the many times his mother fled with him and his sisters on the train into New York City to stay with his mother’s friend in a little apartment until the terror passed. “When she got pregnant with my older sister, she insisted my father marry her, and he did, though he had at least one other wife concurrently with my mother.”

“And you begin with this because…?”

“I think he must have something to do with why I never wanted children, why the idea of becoming a father is so…” He frowns. “Alien to me. I’ve never imagined being a father.”

“Do you like children?”

“I get along with them, but I wouldn’t say I like them. When Lisa and I go walking, she loves seeing children and talking to them, and they adore her. And when we socialize with friends who have kids, I always have a good time playing with them, though I don’t seek them out.”

“Do they seek you out?” Hilda smiles expectantly. “I imagine they do.”

“Yes,” he says, surprised she knew. “Why did you think so?”

“You have an innocence about you, an openness. Children love that, as do women and some men, but children especially.”

“Yet I have never thought, ‘Oh kids love me. I should be a father.’ It has never occurred to me.”

“Imagine Lisa is pregnant with your child. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”

“I might do something wrong,” he says, anguished. “I might by accident hurt the baby, or the child might die and Lisa would never forgive me and I could never forgive myself.”

“What would you do wrong?”

“Anything. Everything. I know nothing about babies or changing diapers or feeding them or holding them or burping them or anything.”

“Dear Philip,” says Hilda, loving his honesty, “it’s just like being a waiter. The customer has certain needs requiring certain actions on your part, and once you learn those necessary actions, they become automatic, a dance with constant variations, just as your service is a dance. And remember, much of caring for a child is feeding them, and you are a master at feeding people.”

“When you put it that way,” says Philip, laughing with relief, “I feel less afraid.”

 *

Joan and Fred have Philip and Lisa over for a summertime barbecue in their big backyard, but cold fog sends them indoors to dine.

“We feel confident about cooking shish kebobs and corn on the cob for you,” says Fred, a few moments into the feast. “And beer is beer.”

“Your food is every bit as good as mine,” says Philip, loving the barbecued chicken. “We’re thrilled every time you invite us.”

“I love your salads,” says Lisa, happier than she’s ever been, knowing she and Philip will soon to be married. “And your rice is always delicious.”

“We were not good cooks until Aurora became interested in cooking,” says Joan, speaking of their daughter. “In fact, she became so interested, we thought she was going to culinary school until one night she called from college to tell us she’d fallen in love with linguistics.”

“How old was she when she got interested in cooking?” asks Lisa, hoping Philip won’t mind talk of children.

“Six,” says Fred, nodding. “We went out to dinner one night to a Mexican restaurant.”

“We frequently ate out,” says Joan, nodding. “Because we were not good cooks, but loved good food.”

“And when the waitress came to see how everything was going,” Fred continues, “Aurora said to her, ‘How do make your beans so yummy?’”

“And the waitress held out her hand to Aurora,” says Joan, holding out her hand to Fred.

“Aurora took it,” says Fred, taking his wife’s hand.

“And the waitress led her into the kitchen and put her on a stool next to the stove,” says Joan, smiling as she remembers.

“Then the cook stood beside Aurora and explained in great detail how she made her beans so yummy,” says Fred, kissing his wife’s hand.

“And thereafter Aurora was mad for cooking,” says Joan, kissing her husband’s hand in return.

“So of course we had to learn with her,” says Fred, grinning at Philip, “which as you know is an adventure without end.”

*

At the end of a Friday night at Le Scélérat, Sandra beckons Philip to follow her to her office where she tells him she thinks his cookbook is a masterwork, she would be honored to write the Forward, and she can’t wait to show the book to her publisher.

“And,” she says, pausing for effect, “I would very much like to use some of your recipes here.”

*

On a warm day in September, a month before their wedding, Lisa and Philip engage Andrea and Marcel and Fred, and Fred’s large pickup truck, to move Lisa’s things from her apartment in the noisy flats of Berkeley to Philip’s cottage in the quieter hills; and to celebrate Lisa’s move, Joan and Fred host a barbecue on their deck looking out over San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate illuminated by the setting sun.

*

Going to bed that night, the little cottage full of Lisa’s things yet to find their places, Lisa’s cat hiding under the living room sofa, Lisa stands beside the bed in her nighty and says, “My darling fiancé, I was about to put in my diaphragm when I realized two things.”

“What did you realize, my darling fiancé?” asks Philip, already in bed and awaiting his beloved.

“I’m ovulating,” she says, blushing, “and I wonder what you think about us leaving the gate open tonight.”

And having no doubt they will be together for the duration, he holds out his arms to her, seeing no reason to speak.

fin

Wedding Prayer

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The Waiter Considers Psychoanalysis

“Have you ever been attracted to psychoanalysis?” asks Hilda Rubenstein, nodding her thanks to Philip as he sets a goblet of white wine before her.

“Are we speaking of undergoing psychoanalysis?” asks Philip, stepping back from the table where Hilda is dining alone. “Or studying the methodology?”

“Undergoing,” says Hilda, tasting the wine. “Oh you’re right, Philip. I love this. And for so long I thought Riesling would be too sweet for my taste.”

“Wine appellations often confuse more than clarify,” says Philip, pleased she likes the wine.

Hilda is Swiss, seventy-four, tall and sturdy with long silvery gray hair she always wears in a braid. A Jungian psychoanalyst, she has lived in Berkeley, California for forty years. Widowed nine years ago, Hilda’s one child, Tamara, is a playwright and professor of Drama at a university in Oregon, no grandchildren in sight. And though Hilda has many acquaintances, her husband was her best friend and she misses him.

Philip’s mother was French, his father Italian American, and he grew up speaking French at home, English in the outside world. He is forty-seven, childless, and has been a waiter for twenty years, the last nine at the famed Le Scélérat in Berkeley. Graceful and slender, with dark brown eyes and curly black hair, he has been serving Hilda every Wednesday evening for his entire tenure at Le Scélérat, and she is by far his favorite customer.

“To answer your question,” says Philip, speaking French with Hilda as they often do when she dines alone, “no, I have never considered undergoing psychoanalysis. Both the cost, which I cannot easily afford, and a preference for more body-oriented therapies led me elsewhere.”

“I would like to offer you free sessions,” says Hilda, replying in French. “Twice a week for an hour and a half each time. If this appeals to you, let me know.”

*

On a warm day in September, Philip and his sweetheart Lisa are picnicking on Baker Beach in San Francisco with their friends Marcel and Andrea. Lisa is thirty-nine, a massage therapist, Marcel is forty-four, a waiter at Le Vagabond in San Francisco, and Andrea, Marcel’s wife, is forty-one, a sous chef at Le Vagabond.

When Philip mentions Hilda’s offer of free psychoanalysis, Andrea, girlish with short black hair and tattoos of small flowers scattered sparingly on her arms and legs, says with a faint German accent, “Oh you must, Philip. What an opportunity.”

“Is she in love with you?” asks Marcel, who also has short black hair but no tattoos, his French accent not faint. “Beware, Philip. Transference and so forth.”

“She’s fond of me,” says Philip, smiling at Marcel’s characteristic skepticism. “She’s semi-retired and doesn’t need the money. This would be a gift to me and a fascination for her.”

“So much for the vaunted neutrality of the therapist,” says Marcel, staying in character. “The process is already compromised by your friendship.”

“She’s a Jungian,” says Lisa, her brown hair shoulder-length, her accent purely Californian, though she was born in Brazil and spoke only Brazilian Portuguese until she was ten. “They are not so enthralled by the Freudian insistence on the therapist remaining emotionally detached.” 

“Psychoanalysis,” says Andrea, who in the privacy of her thoughts is in love with Philip. “You’ll be analyzing your dreams with a dream expert. How fantastic.”

“And delving into why you chose to be a waiter,” says Marcel, arching an eyebrow, “rather than continuing your stellar career as a chef.”

“Oh I know why I fled the kitchen for the tables,” says Philip, enjoying the passing parade, many of the beachgoers naked.

“Why did you?” asks Andrea, sounding surprised. “I didn’t know you knew.”

“Nor did I,” says Marcel, looking at Lisa. “Did you know he knew?”

“Of course,” she says, smiling at Philip. “He has no secrets from me.”

“I became a waiter,” says Philip, with a meaningful shrug, “because I knew I’d be a good one and I’d still be in the restaurant business without the killing pressure of having to make three hundred perfect entrees every night.”

“But why not an actor?” asks Andrea, who thinks of Philip as a movie star who has yet to make a movie.

“I’m too shy,” says Philip, comically covering his face with both hands. “And I’m not much interested in acting.”

“But why are you so shy?” asks Marcel, affecting an exaggerated German accent. “Zis vee vill uncover in zychoanalysis.”

*

Stuck in a traffic jam on the Bay Bridge going back to Berkeley after their day at the beach, Lisa driving, Philip says, “I’ve decided not to accept Hilda’s gift of psychoanalysis.”

“Because?” asks Lisa, taking her foot off the brake to let her little car roll forward a few inches before she applies the brake again.

“Because,” he says, searching for the right words, “I think I may have become too important to her.”

“You’ve waited on her every week for nine years,” says Lisa, whose clients frequently fall in love with her. “And you enjoy each other.”

“Yes, and our enjoyment is enhanced by her not knowing all the details of my past,” he says, looking to his right as a turquoise Mustang convertible draws even with them, the driver a striking Latina wearing a sleeveless white scoop-necked T-shirt, her mop of curls bubble-gum pink, her companion in the passenger seat an enormous black and white hound.

Lisa gawks at the pink-haired gal and the giant dog and says, “Imagine being in a relationship with her.”

“If only her hair wasn’t pink,” says Philip, relieved not to be entering psychoanalysis with Hilda. “I have no problem with the rest of her.”

“Humor me,” says Lisa, playfully. “We’ll be stuck on the bridge for at least another half-hour. Imagine this bombshell is your wife.”

“I can’t imagine she’s anyone’s wife,” he says, smiling at the woman, which causes the woman to wave coquettishly.

“How old do you think she is?” asks Lisa, intrigued by the bombshell. “And what does she do for a living?”

“Twenty-five,” he guesses. “An exotic dancer, otherwise known as a stripper.”

“I think she’s thirty-two,” says Lisa, smiling at the woman. “Cuts hair in a hip salon.”

“Her muscular arms,” says Philip, admiring the woman’s physique, “speak of pole dancing.”

“Ask her?” says Lisa, hitting a button so Philip’s window goes down.

“Hi,” says the woman, just a few feet away from Philip. “Does this suck or what?”

“Yes,” says Philip, trying not to stare at the woman’s beautiful breasts. “We’re trying to guess your profession and how old you are.”

“What’s your guess?” she asks, pursing her lips as if expecting a kiss.

“Exotic dancer, cuts hair in a hip salon,” he says, wishing he could see her without pink hair and makeup. “Twenty-five and thirty-two.”

“I’m thirty-seven,” she says, giving him a sexy smile. “I make people happy. You want my card?”

“Sure,” he says, reddening.

“You two look like fun,” she says, handing him a bubble-gum pink card.

Now drivers behind them sound their horns.

“Thank you,” says Philip, glancing at the card and seeing the name Desea writ in vermillion.

“Call me,” says Desea, winking at him as she pulls ahead. “I love doing couples.”

*

The next time Philip serves Hilda at Le Scélérat she is dining with her daughter Tamara, who is forty, and Tamara’s partner Celine who is forty-five.

“How nice to see you again,” says Philip, bowing to Tamara who resembles Hilda to a remarkable degree, her dark blonde hair in a braid identical to her mother’s.

“Philip,” says Tamara, in a businesslike way, “this is Celine.”

Philip bows to Celine, a regal African American woman with glossy black hair in four intricate braids threaded with yellow wooden beads.

“A man of few words,” says Celine, making a comical face. “What’s not to like?”

After a bit more chitchat, supper is ordered, and Philip goes to the wait station to enter their order into the computer.

Now he stops by the table of another of his regulars, Miles Levinson, a blustery fellow in his sixties who Philip serves three times weekly, Miles fabulously wealthy and possessed of an apparently inexhaustible supply of younger women to dine with.

Philip arrives in time to replenish the wine glasses, Miles’s companion tonight a striking Serbian named Sophie. She’s wearing a red skirt and a black tuxedo jacket barely buttoned over her otherwise uncaged breasts, her red hair in a long braid coiled atop her head.

“This Marcassin Pinot is everything you promised,” says Miles, watching Philip divide the last of the bottle equally between the two glasses. “Shall we have another bottle, Sophie?”

Philip turns to Sophie.

I certainly don’t need more wine,” she says, yawning majestically. “I could go to sleep on this table right now.”

“Then no more wine,” says Miles, waving the thought away. “We’ll have cheesecake and chocolate mousse and I’ll have a large glass of sherry. You know the kind I like.”

“Of course,” says Philip, turning to Sophie. “Coffee for you?”

“You are a genius,” she says, kissing the air in his direction. “Why didn’t I think of this?”

*

Philip checks on Hilda and Tamara and Celine mid-meal, and Hilda says to Tamara, “Tell Philip about his part in your play.”

“Please,” says Philip, glancing around his section and calculating he has a long moment to tarry with them.

“Comedy of manners,” says Tamara, nodding approvingly as Philip refills her wine glass. “Barely masking the tragic, of course. Several key scenes take place in a restaurant, and I’ve modeled the waiter after you, though the only person who could ever do the waiter justice as I imagine him, is you.”

“I look forward to seeing the play,” says Philip, who often feels he is an actor playing the part of a waiter. “My friends and I very much enjoyed your play Jumbo Shrimp at Berkeley Rep last year.”

“Well actually,” says Tamara, clearing her throat, “I would love for you to vet the restaurant scenes. It’s crucial they be authentic. I’ll pay you for your time, of course.”

“Does the waiter appear in any scenes other than those at table?” asks Philip, gazing intently at Tamara.

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “He’s purely a functionary. But an important device.”

“Except at the end,” says Celine, nodding knowingly. “He’s not at the table at the end.”

“Oh of course,” says Tamara, chagrined. “The dream sequence. But he’s still a waiter. Only in a different context.”

“I’d be happy to vet your scenes,” says Philip, refilling Hilda’s glass with the last of the Reisling.

“Shall we have another bottle?” asks Hilda, looking from Tamara to Celine.

“Oh why not?” says Tamara, happily drunk. “It’s so good. And to think I always thought Reisling would be too sweet.”

*

A few days later, on one of his days off, Philip reads Tamara’s play Ziggurat and makes notes on the pages of the several scenes involving a waiter serving the main characters. He marvels at the way Tamara weaves the waiter’s minimal lines into the lengthy dialogues that occur in his absence.

“She uses his coming and going to create suspense again and again within the scenes,” says Philip, describing Tamara’s play to Lisa over supper at a Chinese restaurant. “Sometimes to set up punch lines, sometimes to give the audience a moment to wonder what the characters will say when the waiter departs. It’s a brilliant device, and she’s absolutely right, the more believable the waiter, the more thrilling the dialogue surrounding his coming and going will be.”

*

The next time Philip serves Hilda at Le Scélérat she is dining alone and he takes the opportunity to inform her of his decision not to enter psychoanalysis with her.

“I’m disappointed,” she says with obvious sorrow. “I was looking forward to getting to know you away from this setting where our conversations are so brief and we only seem to scratch the surface of things.”

“I, too, wish to connect with you away from here,” he says, replying in French. “Only not through psychoanalysis. And it occurred to me you might like to join me and a few of my good friends for supper at my house when I unveil the latest versions of recipes I’m working on for a cookbook I hope to publish one day.”

“Oh Philip,” she says, tears springing to her eyes, “I would be delighted.”

fin

Four of Wands

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The Waiter

Philip is forty-seven and has been a waiter in fine restaurants for twenty years. Handsome with dark brown eyes and curly black hair kept short, he is innately graceful and surprisingly strong for one so slender. Born in Connecticut, the middle child between two sisters, Philip’s father was second-generation Italian and twenty years older than Philip’s mother who hailed from Lyon, France and raised her children to speak French at home, English in the outside world.

At seventeen Philip got a job in the kitchen of an excellent restaurant in Manhattan, and three restaurants later, at the age of twenty-seven, having risen steadily through the ranks, he was offered the job of head chef at a restaurant of exceeding fame. The attainment of his lifelong goal caused a riot in his psyche and he abruptly left the kitchen for the tables.

*

“Help me, Philip,” says Miles Levinson, a hefty fellow of sixty-three with thinning gray hair and a deep gravelly voice who dines with his guests at Le Scélérat in Berkeley, California three evenings a week and will only have Philip as his waiter. “I’m torn between the escalope of salmon with Gigondas and the filets mignons of veal with lemon.”

“The salmon was caught this morning,” says Philip, who prefers not to make choices for his customers. “The veal is as tender as veal can be. Whether you would enjoy one more than the other I cannot say.”

“How politic of you, Philip,” says Amy Cavanaugh, a sharply pretty redhead who dines with Miles most Thursday evenings. “But if you had to choose one or the other, which would it be?”  

“The salmon,” says Philip, gazing at her and thinking This is my job. I play the part of a waiter who seems fond of the people he serves, when in fact I neither like nor dislike most of them.

“Aha!” says Miles, grinning at Philip. “I was leaning toward the salmon.”

Philip nods and returns his gaze to Amy.

“The veal for me.” She smiles archly. “If you will assure me the mignons are fabulous.”

“I assure you,” says Philip, taking their menus. “Your usual Caesar salads?”

“Yes, and a bottle of the Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux,” says Miles, choosing the most expensive white wine in the extensive wine list. “Divinely dry for the divine fish and calf.”

“Oh and a bowl of olives,” says Amy, bouncing her eyebrows. “Some of those naughty Nyons.”

“Coming soon to a table near you,” says Philip, bowing graciously as they laugh at his tired old quip.

*

When Philip was thirty-four, seven years into his career as a waiter, he moved from New York to Los Angeles where he soon became the star waiter at a restaurant with no name hidden in a windowless warehouse in North Hollywood, the clientele movie people and the very wealthy.

Tips were pooled at this elegant nameless restaurant, but the clientele got around this by secreting cash and checks in envelopes and slipping those envelopes to Philip at opportune times during their meals. In this way Philip made more money most weeks at the nameless restaurant than he made in a month as a waiter in New York.

After three years in Los Angeles, recently divorced and weary of the drab winters and hot summers and never-clean air, he moved to San Francisco, and two years later moved across the bay to Berkeley where he has worked at Le Scélérat for nine years.

*

“Philip,” says Miles, slurring his words after downing three large bourbons at the bar before being seated, “this my friend Marie.”

Philip nods to the comely brunette, her steel-rimmed glasses comically large on her exquisite face. “Welcome to Le Scélérat.”

“Miles says you’re the finest waiter he’s ever known,” says Marie, perusing her menu rather than looking at Philip.

“How kind of you,” says Philip, nodding to Miles.

“Allan was raving about the loin of lamb à la bonne femme when he finally seated us,” says Miles, waving to someone he thinks he knows. “Horrid long wait tonight.”

“Saturday nights are often problematic,” says Philip, repeating what he’s said to Miles a hundred times before. “I apologize.”

“Shall we just skip the menu and get the bonne femme?” asks Miles, fumbling with his reading glasses.

“If you wish,” says Philip, turning to Marie to see what she thinks of Miles’s impulse.

“Fine,” she says, sounding hurt, and Philip intuits she was hoping for more of a show from him before settling into dining.

“Miles always has the Caesar salad,” says Philip, thinking Don’t be hurt, Marie. There’s still wine and appetizers to discuss.

“Fine,” she says again, glaring at Miles. “Whatever his royal highness wants.”

“For the wine…” says Miles, leafing through the large wine list. “Oh shit. You’re out of the Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac? How did that happen?”

“So sorry,” says Philip, mildly. “The case went quickly. And though the Pauillac would have been ideal with the lamb, may I suggest the Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin? I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

“I am disappointed,” says Miles, glowering at Philip. “Terribly. You’re absolutely certain you don’t have a bottle of the Pauillac stashed away somewhere for your special guests?”

“We have no guests more special than you,” says Philip, smiling warmly. “Except the queen of England, and she has yet to make an appearance.”

“Not funny,” says Miles, snarling. “I wanted the Rothschild Chafite Lateau.”

“My apologies,” says Philip, bowing. “How may we appease you?”

“I want to talk to Sandra,” says Miles, intoning the name of the famous owner/chef of Le Scélérat. “I’ve been coming here three nights a week seventeen years, since long before you were here and I resent being treated this way.”

“She will not come to the dining room,” says Philip, accustomed to Miles throwing the occasional tantrum, copious hard liquor the usual cause. “If you will accompany me, I will ask her to step out of the kitchen to speak to you.”

“Oh never mind,” says Miles, waving him away. “Just bring the fucking lamb and the crappy Chambertin. And bring us some kind of prawn something for appetizer. I’ll call Sandra tomorrow.”

“As you wish,” says Philip, nodding graciously and departing.

*

Married twice, Philip’s first marriage lasted two years and ended when he gave up his cooking career to become a waiter—his wife unwilling to forgive him for abandoning the dream she helped him attain. His second marriage lasted three years and ended a year after he and his actress wife arrived in Los Angeles from New York and she was cast in a successful sit-com and thereafter left Philip for a television producer.

*

Before heading home after a long Saturday night at Le Scélérat, and only because Sandra asks her staff to do so, Philip reports Miles’s displeasure to Sandra.

“Thank you, Philip,” she says, small and stout in her late sixties, her short gray hair colored to resemble dirty blonde. “He probably won’t call, but I appreciate knowing.”

Now they exchange looks of mutual admiration and Sandra adds, “He’s such an ass, but so very rich. You’re a saint to put up with him.”

“He doesn’t bother me,” says Philip, truthfully. “At his worst he is the faintest echo of my father.”

*

Philip rents a small cottage in the Berkeley hills behind the house of a longtime patron of Le Scélérat, and spends his free time taking long walks, playing the piano, gardening, browsing in bookstores, going to farmers’ markets, and refining recipes for a cookbook he’s been assembling for a decade, working title: Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook.

He has two old friends living elsewhere with whom he corresponds by mail, and five good friends in his life now: Marcel in San Francisco, also a waiter, Marcel’s wife Andrea, a sous-chef, Fred, a landscape architect, Fred’s wife Joan, a professor of European History at Mills College, and Lisa, a massage therapist.

For the last two years, Philip and Lisa have been sleeping with each other two nights a week, neither wanting to ruin their friendship by embarking on a full-time relationship.

And every three weeks, Philip hosts a dinner for his five friends at which he unveils the latest iterations of his culinary creations.

*

“I want you to have this,” says Miles, offering Philip a pale blue envelope. “I feel terrible about how I treated you on Saturday night. Marie and I were scuffling and I drank too much at the bar, and… please. Take it.”

“Not necessary,” says Philip, shaking his head. “You were upset. I understand.”

Please,” says Miles, urgently. “It’s the least I can do.”

“Thank you,” says Philip, taking the envelope and turning to Miles’s companion, a voluptuous blonde falling out of a diminutive dress resembling a gossamer undergarment.

“Ah,” says Miles, grinning gigantically, “this is Beverly. Beverly, the aforementioned Philip.”

“He says you’re the best, Phil,” says Beverly with a thick southern drawl, her lips voluptuous, too. “You go by Phil or Philip?”

“Whichever you prefer,” says Philip, enjoying Beverly’s near nudity, a rarity at Le Scélérat. “Your first time here?

“First time in the good seats,” she says, smiling lasciviously at Miles.

“Tell us about the sole à la meunière,” says Miles, relieved to have everything right again with Philip.

Sole à la meunière is one of Sandra’s signature dishes,” says Philip, wishing Sandra didn’t use quite so much butter in the sauce. “And as you know, Miles, she only makes this dish when the sole is extremely fresh. She is serving it tonight with shitake mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, and butter-boiled baby potatoes. Delicious and going fast.”

“Ooo yummy,” says Beverly, doing a little shimmy of excitement. “Lets get a couple of those, Milesy. Okay?”

“Yes,” says Miles, leafing through the wine menu. “Oh goody! You’ve got the Chateau d’Yquem 2015 Sauternes. Excellent. A chilly bottle of that, please.”

“Two Caesar salads?” says Philip, speaking to Beverly’s breasts.

“Ooo yummy,” she says again, and Philip is tickled by her lack of pretense.

“And we’ll want the perfect appetizer to accompany Sandra’s masterwork,” says Miles, handing his menu to Philip. “Surprise us. Will you?”

“As you wish,” says Philip, knowing perfectly well what Miles wants—broiled scallops swimming in white wine and butter.

*

Lolling in his bed with Lisa, neither of them working today, Philip suggests they have coffee on the terrazzo before wandering down to Solano Avenue for lunch, Chinese or Mexican.

“Mexican, por favor,” says Lisa, thirty-nine, a lanky brunette who was born in Brazil and came to California when she was ten.

“You know,” says Philip, sighing contentedly, “I think I’d like to move with you to a small town where we’d live in an old farmhouse and have a big vegetable garden and a dog and cats and you’d have your studio next to the house and I’d work a few nights a week at the best restaurant in town, even if that restaurant is only a steak house.”

“I’m getting there,” says Lisa, her hand on his heart. “Slowly but surely.”

Now she gets out of bed and pulls back the curtain on the sunny day.

“Nothing left to prove,” he says, admiring her naked at the window.

“Nothing fancy anyway,” she says, giving him a dreamy look. “Just love.”

fin

Just Love

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Fifteen

This story is a continuation of Almost Fifteen, which is the fifth story in the Nathan and Del series. Almost Fifteen and Fifteen may be enjoyed together without resort to the first four parts of the saga, although reading the previous episodes will enhance your enjoyment of these later chapters of the saga.

On the morning of the opening of her show of drawings at the Fletcher Gallery, Delilah wakes to her pillow and sheets soaked with sweat. She tries to get out of bed, but can barely lift her head or arms.

She calls, “Celia?” and when no one responds to her call, she tries again to get up, and again she can barely move.

“What’s wrong with me?” she murmurs, and feeling frightened she makes a greater effort and manages to sit up and swing her legs off the bed.

 “Nate? Celia?” she calls, struggling to her feet only to wobble and fall back onto her soggy sheets.

Now the bedroom door opens and here is Celia who was working in the garden with Nathan and thought she heard Delilah call. A nurse for forty-five years, Celia quickly assesses the situation, feels Delilah’s forehead, and helps her stand up.

“Come lie down in the living room and I’ll change your sheets,” says Celia, helping Delilah walk down the hall. “You have a pretty high fever.”

“I’m so weak,” says Delilah, clinging to Celia. “I went to bed feeling fine.”

Celia has Delilah drink two big glasses of water before helping her lie down on the living room sofa and covering her with a blanket, whereupon Grace the calico cat settles on Delilah’s chest and begins to purr thunderously.

Done changing the sheets, Celia returns to the living room and places her hand on Delilah’s forehead.

“Better,” says Celia, tenderly. “You hungry?”

“No,” says Delilah, mournfully. “I’d just throw up. And now I won’t be able to go to the opening. I’m way too sick.”

“We’ll see,” says Celia, moving into the kitchen and putting a kettle on. “I’ll make you some bouillon.”

“We already see,” says Delilah, plaintively. “I’m too sick to go. I can barely move.”

Nathan comes in from the back deck followed by Tennyson.

The little dog gives Delilah a quizzical look, sees the cat has taken possession of her, and trots back outside.

Nathan looks down at Delilah. “What’s going on, D?”

“I’m ill,” she says peevishly. “I drenched my sheets and pillow with sweat. I have a raging fever and I’m dizzy and weak and nauseated, and now I can’t go to the opening after all the trouble Joseph and Constance went to having their piano moved to the gallery. I feel terrible.”

Nathan nods. “I thought this might happen.”

“What do you mean?” says Delilah, glaring at him. “You thought I’d get sick? Why would you think that? You don’t think I’m pretending, do you? I’m really ill, Nate. Feel my forehead.”

He places his big cool hand on her forehead and looks into her eyes. “I don’t think you’re pretending. But I’ll bet you five bucks there’s nothing wrong with you except a little thing called fear.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “I’m not afraid. I’m ill.”

“Sun’s coming out,” he says, going to the door. “Let’s have our tea on the deck.”

“I can’t move,” she says angrily. “Celia had to practically carry me in here from my bedroom and I almost passed out on the way.”

“Methinks you exaggerate,” he says, looking at Celia bustling around in the kitchen. “She gonna die, doctor?”

“Not today,” says Celia, shaking her head. “But you’re not being very nice to her.”

“Yeah, Nate,” says Delilah, pouting. “I feel so guilty about letting Constance and Joseph and William and Guillermo down, and all the people we invited.”

“Come out in the sun,” he says, lifting the cat off her. “I’ll cure you.”

“How?” she says, believing him for a moment.

“I’ll show you,” he says, giving her a hand up.

*

Delilah lies on a chaise longue with a big pillow behind her head, sipping bouillon while Nathan and Celia sit close by, Nathan having nettle tea and Celia coffee.

“Long ago when I was a poet of some renown,” says Nathan, gazing at the verdant garden, “I’d routinely get sick a few days before I was going to perform. I’d start coughing and running a fever, soaking my sheets with sweat, and it never occurred to me I was afraid because I loved reading for people, the more the merrier.”

“But I’m not afraid of performing,” says Delilah, frowning. “I wanted to go to my opening.”  

“I wasn’t afraid of performing either,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Performing wasn’t what I feared. Reading for an audience was my bliss, as Jung would say.”

“Then what were you afraid of?” she asks, bewildered.

“I was afraid to do what I was not supposed to do, what I was punished for a thousand times when I was a boy and a young man. I was not allowed to be a poet.”

He thinks of his mother and father and how his love of plays and poetry, his desire to be a poet, caused them to constantly abuse him, physically and emotionally, and this abuse planted in his subconscious the belief that to be a poet, and more especially to present himself to the world as a poet, was verboten, a mortal sin.

“But I’m allowed to make art and compose music,” says Delilah, defiantly. “My mother loves my drawings and my piano playing. And so do you and Celia, and so do Constance and Joseph. I’ve always been allowed to do those things.”

“Right,” he says, nodding. “So that’s not what you’re afraid of.”

“Why do I have to be afraid of something?” she asks, petulantly. “Why can’t you just let me be sick, which I obviously am?”

“I can and I will,” he says, smiling at her. “Though I’ll bet you anything the cause isn’t physical.”

“Then what’s the cause?” she says, feeling like screaming at him. “If you’re so sure you know.”

“You can scream at me if you want,” he says, knowing exactly how she feels. “Only I’m not the person you really want to scream at.”

“Who do I really want to scream at?”

“Who do you think?” he asks, expectantly.

Not my mother!” she shouts, bowing her head and sobbing. “This is not her fault. She did everything for me. Why are you torturing me like this?”

“That’s enough, marido,” says Celia, touching Nathan’s hand.

“Not quite,” he says, getting out of his chair and kneeling beside Delilah. “Look at me, kiddo.”

She squints at him. “I hate you.”

“No you don’t,” he says, shaking his head. “You love me. And I love you. And because I love you I’m going to tell you something you already know with every cell in your body because you were taught it from the moment you were born until you moved in with us eighteen months ago.”

“What?” she says, crying. “And I don’t hate you. I’m sorry I said that, but you made me so mad.”

“I know you don’t hate me, D,” he says softly. “But you hate something, and that something is what you know with every cell in your body, every synapse in your brain. That something is why you soaked your bed with sweat, and why you’re weak and exhausted.” He waits a moment. “You want to say it?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t know what it is.”

“You want to guess?” he asks, nodding to encourage her.

She gazes into his kindly eyes and whispers, “I have to stay inside. It’s not safe to go out.”

“That’s right,” he says quietly. “You’re supposed to stay hidden from the world. You can do anything you want, anything money can buy, but you must stay inside so no one can see you. You must stay hidden. That’s the rule that was killing you. And your mother knew it. That’s why she brought you here and set you free. But she only brought you here a little while ago, right?”

“Yes,” says Delilah, sobbing. “Just… just… just a little while ago.”

“And the part of you that takes over when you go to sleep,” he says, crying with her, “is the old automatic program saying ten thousand times a night, ‘You must stay inside. You must stay hidden. It’s not safe to go out. If you go out there you’ll die. If you go to the opening you’ll die.’ But you fought that old programming, D. You fought it with all your might, and that’s why you soaked your sheets with your valiant sweat. You were fighting the old rules that you and all your nannies lived by since the day you were born.”

She looks up at him, suddenly aware. “But I didn’t die. And I don’t have to hide anymore. And…” She hesitates. “I can go to my opening.”

“Yes, you can,” he says, getting to his feet. “Now lets have some breakfast and get you fueled up so you can keep fighting.”

*

After breakfast, Delilah lies down on the living room sofa and sleeps without stirring for five hours.

She wakes to the smell of fish frying—Celia making fish tacos for supper.

*

At the opening, the three rooms of the Fletcher Gallery are jammed with people, and there are many more people outside listening through the open doors and windows.

Delilah plays her nocturne with a depth of feeling she has never known before, and when she finishes, the roar that goes up is the universe saying, “Now you know what makes art divine.”

*

Later that night, Joseph and Constance join Nathan and Celia and Delilah at Nathan and Celia’s house to celebrate with champagne and Celia’s incomparable cheesecake.

Joseph is high as a kite, having sold three of his paintings; his Mouth of the Mercy to the Mercy Hotel to adorn the hotel lobby, his Delilah On a Ladder in the Winter Orchard to an anonymous collector, and Nathan and Celia in Their Garden purchased online by Joseph’s mother in Devon, an avid gardener in her late eighties.

“To your triumphant performance,” says Constance, holding aloft her glass of champagne, she and Joseph and Celia drinking the real thing, Nathan and Delilah having sparkling apple cider. “And you sold all your drawings, Delilah. Incredible.”

“And both paintings,” says Celia, clinking her glass with Delilah’s.

“William is ecstatic,” says Delilah, barely able to keep her eyes open.

“I’m amazed,” says Joseph, gazing around the table at his wife and friends illuminated by candlelight. “Astounded. The last thing I expected when we came here was that I would have a show in a local gallery, let alone sell three paintings on opening night, and at my usual prices, which are not exorbitant, but certainly aren’t low.” He guffaws. “We didn’t even know there were galleries here until we got here.”

“We imagined a spartan existence of work and little socializing,” says Constance, her eyes sparkling. “We would make our simple food and love our dogs, and at the end of their lives we would go back to England and live in quiet retirement with two lapdogs of a breed yet to be determined. And now we eat with you Michelin-star chefs three times a week and have friends galore, and I must force myself to sit down and write or I would never make my deadlines.” She looks at each of them. “We just love it here, and mostly because of you three.”

“And what I realized tonight,” says Joseph, moved by the sight of Delilah falling asleep in her chair, “while talking to your charming brother, Celia, was that art should never be considered the exclusive purview of the highly educated or the culturally sophisticated, but the birthright of every human being.”

“You got that from talking to Juan?” asks Celia, glancing at Nathan. “Tell us more.”

“We were standing at my painting Mouth of the Mercy,” says Joseph, remembering the moment, “and Juan said, ‘That was in May. I remember when the river was cutting through the beach like that. You got those breakers on the sand bar just right. A good day for surfing, but you left out the surfers.’ And then we moved to my painting of the deep pool off the rocks south of town where you took me to paint in July, and Juan said, ‘I once caught a rock cod from that pool almost three feet long. Biggest rock cod I ever caught. You got those greens and blues just right, how the color changes with the depth.’ And then he smiled at me and said, ‘You paint things how they really are, Joseph, only not exactly. You make them… what’s the word? Romantic maybe?’ And I was so touched I gave him a hug and thanked him, and he laughed and said, ‘No, man. I’m thanking you for making such beautiful art.’”

“Our darling girl is asleep,” says Constance, gazing fondly at Delilah leaning against Nathan.

“No,” says Delilah, opening her eyes. “I’m here.”

“Come on,” says Celia, getting up from the table and holding out her hand to Delilah. “Time for bed.”

“Oh but I don’t want to miss anything,” she says, yawning.

“We’ll tell you all about it tomorrow,” says Celia, pulling Delilah to her feet and guiding her down the hallway to her bedroom.

“I’ve known a handful of geniuses in my life,” says Joseph, speaking quietly. “All crazy as loons, except for our Delilah.”

“What I found out after I’d lived here for thirty years,” says Nathan, remembering the day he arrived in Mercy, brokenhearted over his ruined career, his few possessions in the back of an old pickup, “is that everyone is a genius. We just have to open our hearts and minds to the truth of that.”

“Do you really think so?” says Joseph, wrinkling his nose. “That everyone is a genius?”

“I know so,” says Nathan, nodding. “And we do them a great disservice when we don’t acknowledge their genius.”

“I think our definitions diverge,” says Constance, who has always felt she is not a genius, but still rather good at writing mysteries. “If by genius you mean uniqueness, I agree. But I think Joseph and I are speaking of super extraordinary talent. Incomparable talent.”

Celia returns from putting Delilah to bed, sits in the chair next to Nathan, drinks the last of her champagne, and nods her thanks as Joseph fills her glass again.

“Your dear husband believes everyone is a genius,” says Joseph, smiling at Celia. “And now we are dickering over the definition.”

“My grandmother,” says Celia, thinking of her grandmother Rosa kneading dough for her tortillas, “never went to school and didn’t know how to read, but she was the best cook I’ve ever known, and I’ve known some very good cooks. Was she a genius? I think so. And tonight at the gallery I was talking to Philip. You’ve probably seen him sitting with his dog Diana in front of the market with the little sign that says Money For Me and My Dog?”

“Of course,” says Joseph, nodding. “The homeless fellow. We’ve given him money several times, after which he always has his dog hold out her paw in thanks, and then he sings a song in a pleasing tenor, usually a Beatles song, though I must admit we don’t often stay to listen after Constance shakes the dog’s paw.”

“Takes wonderful care of his pooch,” says Constance, nodding. “Samoyed Lab mix he told us.”

“Well,” says Celia, holding Nathan’s hand, “would you like to know what Philip said about your painting of Delilah on the ladder in the orchard?”

“Yes, please,” says Joseph, curious to know. “Unless it’s something dreadful.”

“It’s not dreadful,” says Nathan, laughing.

Celia closes her eyes to remember. “He said, ‘She is the untarnished soul reborn amidst the seeming dead, only those branches aren’t dead. They are in the bardo of slumber, soon to be reborn, as everything is reborn and dies and is reborn again.”

“How ever did you remember that?” asks Constance, doubting the scraggly homeless fellow said such a beautiful thing about Joseph’s painting.

“She wrote it down,” says Nathan, giving Celia’s hand a loving squeeze. “Had him say it again and again until she got every word in the right order.”

“You heard him, too?” says Joseph, also doubting.

“I was there,” says Nathan, smiling sublimely. “We were standing in front of your magnificent painting of Delilah in the embrace of those seemingly barren branches, and I knew just what he meant.”

“Me, too,” says Celia, her eyes shining with tears. “And that’s when we decided to buy your painting of Delilah, so we can look at it every day.”

fin

Lounge Act In Heaven

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Almost Fifteen

This story springs from the previously posted Nathan and Del stories, and might also be titled Nathan and Del Part Five. Almost Fifteen may be enjoyed without resort to the first four parts of the saga, though reading the previous episode Constance and Joseph will likely enhance your enjoyment of Almost Fifteen.

Delilah was born on October 5, 2010 to the movie star Margot Cunningham. About to turn fifteen, Delilah has lived in the remote California coastal town of Mercy with Nathan, seventy-five, and Nathan’s wife Celia, sixty-nine, for a year and a half.

A musical prodigy and an excellent artist, her favorite medium pen and ink, Delilah is not only madly in love with Nathan and Celia, she loves living in Mercy where she takes Jazz and Afro Cuban dance at the rec center, goes on long walks in the forest and on the beach with Nathan and Celia and their dog Tennyson, practices the piano, composes music, has painting lessons from Joseph Richardson, their neighbor, learns French and Greek Mythology from Constance Richardson, Joseph’s wife, helps Nathan with his occasional pruning jobs, grows vegetables and cooks meals with Celia and Nathan, babysits Carlos, Celia and Nathan’s four-year-old grandson, studies poetry with Nathan, and has two delightful friends about her age, Beverly and Josh.

Margot is forty-six now and has not returned to Mercy since she handed Delilah over to Nathan and Celia, a miraculous happening Margot did not foresee when she and Delilah fled their townhouse in Manhattan to escape the prying eyes of millions and make a life for Delilah in this remote part of the world.

Since Delilah’s infancy, Margot has never lived with her daughter for more than a few weeks at a time, a few times a year, and she has depended entirely on nannies to raise her only child. And though Margot is devoted to Delilah, she prefers to live alone, being entirely consumed by her work and her addiction to sex.

But every year, Margot makes it a priority to be with Delilah in-person for Delilah’s birthday, which is why in the midst of work on a billion-dollar sci-fi epic Margot flies from London to San Francisco, and on October 2, Delilah and Nathan and Celia make the long drive from Mercy to San Francisco to join Margot in her suite at the Fairmont Hotel—a lavish lunch to be the centerpiece of their visit.

 *

Our trio leaves Mercy at six in the morning in Celia’s little blue twenty-two-year-old Toyota station wagon, Celia driving for the first two hours, Nathan taking over when they arrive on the edge of the urban sprawl. Two more hours of navigating heavy traffic in the megalopolis brings them to the Fairmont in the heart of San Francisco where they leave the little car in the care of a valet, and a punctilious hotel manager guides them to Margot’s suite on the twenty-ninth floor.

Margot, stunning in a silky burgundy shirt and black trousers, her dark blonde hair in a ponytail, greets her daughter with a long hug, and surprises herself by bursting into tears when Celia gently embraces her.

“What’s wrong with me?” says Margot, pulling away from Celia. “So emotional today. Sorry. Excuse me while I go wash my face.”

Nathan and Celia and Delilah enter the large sitting room and Delilah plays a desultory run of notes on the Steinway grand Margot had brought in for the occasion.

“To think I lived in this crazy place for ten years,” says Nathan, standing at the big picture window and looking down on the maze of streets and buildings. “Wouldn’t last a week here now.”

“Here we are,” says Margot, rejoining them, her makeup made new. “Quite a view, isn’t it?”

“Breathtaking,” says Celia, finding the city overwhelming.

“I was hoping you’d play something for us, Del,” says Margot, putting her arm around Delilah. “You mentioned in your letter you were writing a nocturne.”

“I finished it,” says Delilah, wondering why she feels so oppressed being here when always before she was so happy reuniting with her mother. “In fact, I’m going to perform it at the opening of Joseph’s show of his new paintings at the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy.”

“Who else has art in the show?” asks Celia, looking at Delilah and arching an eyebrow.

“I do,” says Delilah, sheepishly. “Some drawings and two small paintings.”

“Oh, darling, that’s wonderful,” says Margot, giving Delilah a little squeeze. “Send me pics, okay? I’d love to see your new drawings. Maybe I’ll buy some and give them as Christmas gifts.”

“Okay,” says Delilah, realizing for the first time in her life how deeply sad her mother is. “It’s so good to see you.”

“So good to see you, too,” says Margot, though in truth she hardly recognizes Delilah—the cute girl she knew become a beautiful young woman now.

*

Following a sumptuous luncheon, Delilah performs her nocturne, a jazzy moody piece influenced by the Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderly records she found in Nathan’s collection and listened to dozens of times.

“Oh we must record you,” says Margot, applauding at the end. “You’re incredible, darling. Next time I’m in Malibu, we’ll fly you down and get you into the studio with Larry and Karl and that nine-foot Steinway you love.”

“Actually,” says Delilah, getting up from the piano, “Constance and Joseph have a magnificent piano and we know a recording engineer in Mercy who’s going to set up microphones in their living room and I’ll record bunches of things.”

“A fabulous room of resonant redwood,” says Nathan, nodding to affirm the excellent recording facilities in Mercy.

“Fine,” says Margot, sounding a bit deflated. “But if that doesn’t work out, we’ll get you in with Larry and Karl.”

“Okay Mom,” says Delilah, forcing a smile. “Sounds good.”

*

Saying their goodbyes in the early afternoon, Margot hands Delilah an envelope and kisses her on the cheek. “Happy birthday, darling. A little fun money for you.”

“Thanks Mom,” says Delilah, hugging Margot and hanging on for a good long time. “I love you.”

“Love you, too,” says Margot, smiling brightly at Nathan and Celia. “So glad to know things are going so well. Speaking of which…” She pulls away from Delilah and hands Nathan an envelope. “A little extra thank you.”

“Not necessary,” says Nathan, uneasy about accepting her gift. “The monthly stipend you provide is more than adequate.”

“Oh take it,” says Margot, offering the envelope to Celia. “It’s not much and I’m so grateful to you.”

Celia takes the envelope and says, “Thank you, Margot. You’re very generous.”

She shrugs. “No one should have as much money as I do.”

*

On the homeward leg of their journey, our trio stops for supper at the famous Bouffe in Sonoma, their meal gratis because Nathan’s ode to Celia her fingers are geniuses is the frontispiece of the restaurant’s permanent menu.

her fingers are geniuses just look at them go making

guacamole and salsa and refried beans and tomato

rice and juicy chicken enchiladas you can’t tell me

her digits aren’t possessed of formidable brains

and unique personalities as she simultaneously

talks to her daughter and flirts with me saying,

“Put another log on the fire, marido,” just

look at those fingers go with such fearless grace

wielding knives and spoons amidst the blazing

casserole and red hot pans and steaming pots and

I the lucky recipient of their divine ministrations.

“This food,” says Delilah, her gloom abating as they dine center table in the big airy restaurant, “comes close to how we cook at home, whereas lunch at the hotel today was way too creamy and buttery and overcooked, don’t you think?”

“Ultra-rich food for the ultra-rich,” says Nathan, though Bouffe is full of people willing to pay three hundred dollars for supper for two.

“I love this parsley pesto,” says Celia, her eyelids fluttering as she takes a bite of spaghetti doused in the glorious green goo. “Perfect balance of garlic and olive oil and parsley.”

Delilah dips her fork in the pesto on Celia’s plate, tastes, ruminates, and declares, “Might want a tiny bit more lemon juice. But it is excellent.”

They are joined by Michael Devine, the handsome owner/chef of Bouffe, his emergence from the kitchen bringing applause from those who recognize him from his books and his cooking show on YouTube.

“With your permission,” Michael says to Nathan, “I would love to introduce you as the author of your now famous poem. Did you notice we made a poster version? Selling like hotcakes. I’ll have you sign some, if you don’t mind. I’m keeping track of sales, of course, and we’ll send you your share every quarter.”

“Not necessary,” says Nathan, laughing at himself for turning down money for the second time today. “But we’ll take it. And, yes, you may introduce me.”

Michael picks up an empty wine glass, taps the crystal four times with a spoon, and the audience of seventy falls mostly silent.

“Good evening, my friends,” says Michael, his voice pleasantly booming. “It gives me great pleasure to introduce you to the poet Nathan Grayson, author of the poem we are privileged to use as the preface to our menu.”

Loud applause greets Nathan as he stands and bows, his hand seeking Celia’s shoulder lest he fall.

*

“I haven’t been this tired since I worked for a living,” says Nathan climbing into bed at midnight.

“I looked at the check,” says Celia, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Let me guess,” he says, sighing. “Ten thousand dollars.”

“Fifty thousand,” she says, giving him an anguished look. “It doesn’t feel right.”

“It’s how she expresses love,” he says, closing his eyes. “Snuggle with me.”

“I want to give it away,” she says, turning off the bedside lamp and getting in with him. “She pays us so much to take care of Delilah when we would take care of her for nothing.”

“Yes,” he says drifting to the edge of sleep. “We’ll think of a good way to share it.”

“Calypso and Paul need a new car,” she says, speaking of their daughter and son-in-law, parents of four-year-old Carlos.

“There you go,” he murmurs. “Money gone.”

“Not all of it,” she says, remembering how Margot burst into tears when she held her. “We’ll give the rest to friends.”

*

The next day, a Friday, Delilah and Nathan walk with Tennyson on leash to Mercy Savings, the one and only bank in town, and while Nathan deposits the check for fifty thousand dollars into his and Celia’s account, Delilah waits for Lisa, her favorite teller, to be free.

Lisa, a young Latina who makes fifteen dollars an hour and is pregnant with her second child, her husband Ricardo a dishwasher at the Mercy Hotel, facilitates Delilah’s deposit of ten thousand dollars without batting an eye, and when Delilah reminds Lisa of the opening of her show with Joseph at the Fletcher Gallery, Lisa says, “We wouldn’t miss it for anything. Ricardo says they’re bringing in a piano for you to play.”

“Yes the dear Richardsons are loaning me their magnificent Steinway for the opening,” says Delilah, excitedly. “I’m going to play my new nocturne and maybe a scherzo that might turn into a sonata some day.”

“I’ll tell Ricardo,” says Lisa, her eyes wide with excitement. “He can’t wait to hear you.”

“He likes piano music?” asks Delilah, delighted to know Lisa and her husband will be coming.

“Ricardo plays piano,” says Lisa, smiling as she thinks of her husband. “Been playing since he was six. He writes the most beautiful songs. Of course I’m prejudiced, but… someday he’s gonna make a record.”

“I’d love to hear him,” says Delilah, earnestly. “We’ll arrange something, okay?”

“Okay,” says Lisa, nodding. “You call me.”

“Oh. And this is for you,” says Delilah, handing Lisa an envelope decorated with Delilah’s swift rendering of a fanciful flower in a vase. “A gift from Nate and Celia and me because we adore you.”

“Oh gosh,” says Lisa, opening the envelope and startling at the check for a thousand dollars. “Wait. Are you sure this is right?” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “A thousand dollars?”

Delilah nods happily. “See you Saturday night.”

*

From the bank, Nathan and Delilah traverse the town to the Fletcher Gallery, three large rooms full of natural light arriving through skylights and several big south-facing windows. William Fletcher, a fastidious framer of art and a lighting savant, just yesterday handed the works from the previous show back to the disappointed artists who sold but one painting each, and those to their mothers.

As they enter the largest room of Mercy’s preeminent gallery, Delilah and Nathan find William, an agile fellow in his seventies, on a twelve-foot ladder in the process of lighting Joseph’s five large oil paintings and Delilah’s two smaller paintings and fourteen pen and ink drawings. He is assisted by Guillermo Torres, an unabashedly effeminate young man with curly black hair and a pencil-thin mustache who wears colorful scarves and is forever talking about his revolutionary ideas for staging Broadway musicals.

Guillermo greets Delilah and Nathan with an effusion of hugs and says to Delilah, “We’ve already sold one of your drawings, sweetie. To me! I had to have the one of that gorgeous man in line at the bakery. For three hundred dollars I couldn’t afford not to buy it.”

“Greetings,” says William from on high where he is directing three mellow spotlights at Joseph’s spectacular painting of the mouth of the Mercy River as seen from the headlands—the dark blue river transecting a vast grayish white beach to meet the incoming waves, the cerulean sky filled with thunderheads. “You’ve actually already sold two, Delilah. The missus insisted we get the one of Tennyson touching noses with that enormous husky.”

At which moment, the very British Constance and Joseph Richardson arrive with their two gorgeous Siberian Huskies, Io and Odysseus, and Tennyson enacts the just-described drawing with each of the much larger dogs.

Both Joseph and Constance are wearing puffy blue parkas, though the day is warm—Joseph tall and thick-chested with longish black hair going gray, Constance short and plump, a wearer of old-fashioned dresses, her shoulder-length auburn hair kept natural-seeming by her clever hairdresser.

“We’ve come in advance of the piano,” says Constance, excitedly. “They’ll be here any minute, those heroic lifters.” Now she kisses Delilah hello. “Where shall we put it, dearie?”

“I’m thinking by the windows,” says William, pointing to the south. “Leave more room for people. We’re expecting half the town.”

“Oh I love what you’re doing with the lights,” says Joseph, standing before his Mouth of the Mercy. “Love this. You must come fix the lights in my studio, William. I need this.”

“Happy to,” says William, descending the ladder. “I see the piano has arrived.”

“Oh my God,” gasps Delilah, as two strong men roll the legless body of the shiny black grand into the gallery on a large cushioned dolly, a third man following with the three mighty legs. “This is really happening.”

Trouble

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Constance and Joseph

This story springs from the previously posted Nathan and Del stories, and might also be entitled Nathan and Del Part Four, though Constance and Joseph may be enjoyed without resort to the first three parts of the saga.

The very British Richardsons, Joseph and Constance, have lived on the outskirts of the California coastal town of Mercy for seven months now, their house a rambling seventy-year-old redwood-and-river-rock beauty on ten acres of meadowland ringed by a vast forest of evergreens.

Joseph is fifty-nine, tall and heavyset with longish black hair gone mostly gray. Born and raised in Devon, he studied at the Royal College of Art in Battersea before embarking on a career as a painter specializing in landscapes and portraiture.

Constance is fifty-six, short and plump, her auburn hair still auburn with help from her hairdresser, most of her many pairs of glasses encrusted with rhinestones. She was born in York, grew up in Chelsea, and studied Greek Mythology and French Literature at Oxford before embarking on her career as a writer of murder mysteries, her pen name Margaret Orland.

For the ten years prior to moving to Mercy, the Richardson’s lived in a splendid villa amidst grape vines in Tuscany, and before Tuscany they lived for twelve years in a fabulous villa amidst olive trees in Provence. And before their move to Provence, they lived in a small house in Bristol.

They met on the opening night of Joseph’s show at the Crombie Gallery in Bristol when Constance was twenty-seven and Joseph was thirty. Constance happened by on her evening constitutional with her two mini-Australian Shepherds, Agathon and Hera, and was attracted by a painting she saw through the front window of the gallery, a portrait of a woman with blonde hair playing a cello in her nightgown—the woman, not the cello, wearing the nightgown.

Constance told her dogs to sit and stay, which they did, and then she went into the gallery, gazed at the painting of the cellist for several minutes, and beckoned to the gallery owner.

“I should like to buy this one,” she said, noting the price of two hundred pounds and hoping she had that much in the bank. “It will make a splendid cover for the book I’m writing.”

“And your name is…?” asked the gallery owner, Thomas Crombie, a handsome fellow with sparkling brown eyes and a subtle mustache.

“Constance Higby,” she said, curtsying to Thomas in the old-fashioned way. “I’ve walked by your gallery hundreds of times only never came in until I saw the cellist. Isn’t she fabulous?”

“Indeed,” said Thomas, his heart pounding at the prospect of a sale. “Would you like to meet the artist?”

“I would,” said Constance, looking around the room to see if she could discern which of the dozen or so people in attendance painted the intriguing portrait. “Very much.”

Thomas then wrangled Joseph away from a woman who was quite drunk on the complimentary wine and besieging Joseph with questions such as, “Why landscapes and portraits? Seems so retro, don’t you think? Abstraction’s all the rage now, isn’t it? And why oils and not acrylics? Oils take so long to dry, don’t they?”

“Joseph,” said Thomas, guiding the artist away from the drunk to Constance. “May I present Constance Higby, the author. She wants to buy Cellist.”

“Heavens,” said Joseph, beaming at Constance and finding her darling. “Truly?”

“Truly,” said Constance, offering him her hand to kiss in the old-fashioned way. “I want her for my bedroom and for the cover of the book I’m writing, assuming this is the one that finally wins me a publisher and gives me the wherewithal to move to Provence where all great mystery writers live for a time. Or so I’m told.”

“May it be so,” said Joseph, gallantly kissing her hand.

Then they looked into each other’s eyes for a short infinity and decided to get married.

*

“As it happened,” says Joseph, speaking to the man on the ladder pruning an apple tree in Joseph and Constance’s orchard adjacent to their house in Mercy, “the book Connie was writing at the time of our initial collision was the book that finally won her a publisher, though not until I read the manuscript and took copious notes and made several suggestions that so infuriated her she called off our wedding, which nearly killed our mothers, poor dears. They both had long despaired of ever seeing their more difficult progeny wed, and here, on the brink of salvation, their prize was snatched away by the vicissitudes of ego.”

“What did you suggest that made your wife so angry?” asks the man on the ladder, Nathan Grayson, a spry seventy-four and Constance and Joseph’s nearest neighbor.

“Myriad things,” says Joseph, who is bundled up in a black fur-lined parka with a fur-lined hood that makes him look like Nanook of the North—the February morning clear and very cold.

“Such as?” asks Nathan, who finds everything Joseph says amusing, not so much because of what Joseph says but how he says it with a thick Devonshire accent and seeming mildly astonished by everything he says.

“Well to begin with I said the title was way too long,” says Joseph, watching Nathan descend from the ladder. “As were many of the paragraphs. Constance is one of those writers who pours out great masses of words onto the page and then prunes those masses.” He laughs. “Speaking of pruning.”

“What was the overly long title?” asks Nathan, moving his ladder to the next apple tree, a large Fuji he is particularly fond of. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

Ode To the Moodiest of Cellists,” says Joseph, following Nathan. “Tell me. What are we to do with all these clippings from the trees?”

“We’ll lop them into kindling for you and stack them in your woodshed,” says Nathan, circumnavigating the Fuji to study the branches before ascending the ladder. “A year from now they’ll start your fires easy as pie.”

“Oh you must repeat that for Connie,” says Joseph, delighted by Nathan’s turn of phrase. “She’ll want to use it in a book, I guarantee you.”

“I may not remember,” says Nathan, who has pruned these apple trees every winter for the last thirty years. “Words tumble out, you know, unbidden and soon forgotten.”

“Oh God, that, too,” says Joseph, looking toward the house wherein he knows Constance is sipping brandy and listening to Nathan’s granddaughter Delilah play their Steinway. “She carries a little notebook to capture those sorts of lines.”

“So…” says Nathan, climbing to the fourth rung and beginning his pruning. “Eventually she forgave you.”

“Eventually, yes,” says Joseph, thinking he’d like to paint a picture of the orchard in winter with Nathan on his ladder pruning. “But first she raged at me for a few days, and then she toiled from morning to night for several weeks doing everything I suggested, and then she had me critique the new draft and the final draft, and then she sent the manuscript to her agent. And then we waited seven agonizing months until the book sold, after which the wedding was back on, and our mothers were cautiously delirious.”

“What else had you suggested?” asks Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Besides shortening the title and the paragraphs?”

“Oh her dialogue was a bit on the nose,” says Joseph, sighing because her dialogue still so often is. “Unlike actual dialogue, which is more roundabout, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Nathan, deciding to lop a large branch he’s spared for the last three years. “I suppose the trick is making dialogue sound natural without sounding idiotic.”

“Precisely,” says Joseph, turning at the sound of Delilah and three dogs emerging from the house. “And she also had the habit of giving every character a thorough back story, and I mean every character, including the most insignificant, which tangle of back stories strangled the plot.”

“So you were the editor she’d always needed,” says Nathan, coming down from the ladder.

“Still am,” says Joseph, proud of his role in his wife’s success.

The two magnificent Siberian Huskies, one white, one silver, and a small brown floppy-eared mutt, race around the orchard, sniffing and pissing.

“Freezing out here,” says Delilah, fourteen and outrageously cute, her brown hair in two long braids crowned by a burgundy beret. “Deliciously toasty in the house and I just love playing your grand piano. Such magnificent bass notes and I sound eons better on your piano than on mine, though mine is a fine piano as uprights go.”

“Work will warm you,” says Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Want to have a go at finishing this Fuji while I gather the cuttings?”

“Love to,” says Del, taking the loppers from him and ascending the ladder. “Only don’t go too faraway should I need to consult you.”

“I would love to paint you on that ladder in that tree,” says Joseph, flummoxed by Delilah’s beauty. “Perhaps on a warmer day in the spring.”

“The tree will have leafed out by then,” says Delilah, stymied by the puzzle of the branches. “Won’t be so starkly dramatic.” She looks down at Nathan. “I’m baffled, Nate. Help me.”

“Give it a minute,” he says, looking up at her. “Gaze at the field of branches until the ones that need to go present themselves.”

“There,” says Joseph, pointing at Nathan. “Connie would die for a line like that.”

*

A few evenings after Nathan and Delilah prune the Richardson’s apple trees, and for the first time since they arrived in Mercy, Constance and Joseph have supper with Delilah and Nathan and Nathan’s wife Celia.

They dine at Nathan and Celia’s house a two-minute walk from their much larger house, the meal co-created by Delilah and Celia—petrale sole cooked in white wine and olive oil and lemon juice and minced garlic, baked potatoes, and green beans à la provençal.

“We’re curious to know why you chose Mercy,” says Celia, a beautiful Latina, sixty-eight, with black hair laced with strands of white. “Must be so much colder here than in Tuscany.”

Dogs is part of the answer,” says Constance, squinting at her plate as if disbelieving what she’s eating. “This is the best fish I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some very good fish. Joseph may remember its equal, but I cannot unless he reminds me.”

“In Paris a time or two perhaps,” says Joseph, frowning at his fish. “I speak for both of us when I say we never expected to eat such superb food here in these American hinterlands. Where on earth did you learn to cook, Celia? This sole is worthy of multiple Michelin stars.”

“From my mother and grandmother,” she says, pleased by their praise. “And the fish is very fresh. We bought it off the boat this afternoon.”

“Plus we’ve been pillaging Larousse Gastronomique for tips on sauces,” says Delilah, who can’t help imitating Constance and Joseph’s accents.

Constance and Joseph exchange meaningful looks and Constance says, “We’d like to explain why we’ve been so standoffish and apologize for that, and not merely because we hope to be invited to supper again, though we will hope for that, I assure you.”

“We assumed you were getting settled and enjoying your privacy,” says Nathan, smiling warmly at Constance. “These hills are full of people who want to be left alone.”

“Well that’s a relief,” says Constance, smiling brightly. “Because we really do like you and we’re so glad to have you as our neighbors. And not just because Delilah plays the piano like a young Mendelssohn and you prune our trees and your wife is a magus in the kitchen.”

“So why were you so standoffish?” asks Delilah, loving how it feels to speak with a British accent. “And what do dogs have to do with your moving here?”

Constance sighs and looks to Joseph. “Would you mind, dear?”

“Not at all,” he says, clearing his throat. “Prior to our coming here, you may not have heard of the novelist Constance Richardson, but it is highly unlikely you haven’t heard of…” He pauses momentously. “Margaret Orland.”

Nathan and Delilah and Celia exchange glances and Celia says, “I don’t think we know her.”

“Can you give us a hint?” asks Delilah, hopefully.

“Murder mysteries?” says Joseph, arching an eyebrow.

“The only murder mysteries I’m familiar with are ones by Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammet, and Agatha Christie,” says Nathan, frowning thoughtfully. “Never really took to the genre.”

“Are you Margaret Orland?” asks Delilah in her straightforward way.

“I am,” says Constance, brightening. “Have you heard of me?”

“No, but I’ll bet my mother has,” says Delilah, nodding enthusiastically. “She loves murder mysteries.”

“Where is your mother, Delilah?” asks Constance, giving Joseph a look to say I don’t think they know who I am.

“She’s in New York at the moment,” says Delilah, growing somber as she thinks of her famous movie star mother. “Soon to leave for Tokyo.”

“A traveler, is she?” says Joseph, wishing someone would offer him more wine.

“More wine, Joseph?” says Celia, nodding encouragingly.

“Love some,” he says, laughing. “Delicious. I must get the vintage details from you. Fabulous. Sprightly. Hint of pear. Room to grow, yet for such a young white already speaking of future greatness. Goes so well with the sole.”

“Is your mother by any chance a stewardess?” guesses Constance, who enjoys sleuthing in real life, too. “Specializing in long distance flights?”

“No,” says Delilah, shaking her head. “She travels on business. But lets get back to why dogs is part of why you moved to Mercy.”

“Ah yes,” says Constance, smiling her thanks as Celia refills her wine glass. “Good to keep me on point, Delilah. I do tend to wander. But I won’t leave tonight until you tell us how you got to be such a superb pianist.”

“I practice two hours a day,” says Delilah, glancing at Nathan and Celia. “Most days.”

“Let’s see,” says Nathan, assuming a thoughtful pose. “Your Siberian Huskies were mere pups when you arrived. What may we deduce from this?”

“Huskies like the cold,” says Celia, pouring herself a bit more wine. “I don’t think Tuscany is cold.”

“Nor is Provence,” says Delilah, raising a finger to denote Aha. “Where they lived before Tuscany. Methinks you’re on to something, Watson.” She turns to Constance. “Is she?”

“In a way, yes,” says Constance, frowning. “But before I tell you more about the dogs…” She hesitates. “Have we conclusively determined that you’ve never heard of Margaret Orland?”

“I think we have,” says Nathan, nodding. “Determined that.”

“Are you very famous?” asks Celia, innocently.

“I thought I was,” says Constance, looking askance. “But maybe I’m not anymore. At least not around here.”

“Oh I doubt that,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “Our town library has several thousand volumes, and virtually all of them are murder mysteries, so I would wager you have many fans hereabouts, many being a relative term since there are only a few thousand people in the greater Mercy watershed and many of them don’t read.”

“The BBC has dramatized several of her books,” says Joseph, clearing his throat authoritatively. “Ubiquitous on the telly.”

“We don’t have a television,” says Delilah, delighted by the fact. “When I first came to live with Nate and Celia, I searched the whole house twice but couldn’t find one. And then I ran into the kitchen…” She looks at Celia. “Remember?”

“Yes,” says Celia, gazing fondly at Delilah. “You said, ‘Where’s the television?’ and when I said we didn’t have one, you hugged yourself and said, ‘Heaven.’”

“So the dogs,” says Nathan, looking into the living room where Tennyson the floppy-eared mutt and the two big Huskies, Odysseus and Io, are sprawled by the fire. “You choose the breed to go with where you choose to live?”

“Other way round,” says Constance, happily tipsy. “I fall in love with a breed and then we consider where they—because we always get two—would be happy to live and where we would be happy living, too.”

“And you get the new dogs after the old dogs die,” says Delilah, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t ever want Tennyson to die. He’s my best friend.”

“I know, dear,” says Constance, touching Delilah’s hand. “It’s the hardest thing about having dogs, but it’s worth it. And the more dogs you have, the more you’ll be convinced, as we are, they sometimes reincarnate in your new dogs so they can go on living with you, and you with them.”

“The fact is,” says Joseph, finishing his fifth glass of wine and giving Celia a hopeful glance to ask for more, “though you may not have heard of Margaret Orland, tens of millions have, and thus our home in Tuscany, as with our home in Provence, were irresistible to her worshipers, if I may use that word, and we became, in essence, prisoners of her fame.”

“And when Paris and Helen, our Bazenjis, the dogs we had in Tuscany, were very old, we fell in love with Siberian Huskies,” says Constance, gazing into the living room at Odysseus and Io. “We were cruising the fjords of Norway when we met the most darling Siberian Husky and her obscenely cute pups in the town of Bodo where the fish was excellent, though not remotely as good as yours. And then when our friend Porter Ainsworth regaled us with tales of how gorgeous it was here, the rugged coast, the redwood forests etcetera, remote yet not too remote, we made inquiries, and here we are.” She eats the last of her sole. “Do you know Porter?”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell,” says Nathan, looking at Celia.

“I don’t think he ever lived here,” says Celia, getting up to start the water for tea. “But lots of people vacation here.”

“Photographer,” says Joseph, more than a little drunk. “Dresses like an Australian bushwhacker, though he’s entirely Canadian. Claims to be the protégé of Ansel Adams, but we have our doubts. Dates and locations don’t line up. Inherited a fortune. Copper, I think it was. Or sugar. Blighter’s been in love with Connie for decades.”

“Not true,” says Constance, blushing in delight. “Porter’s just a dear friend. We’re hopeful he’ll visit this summer.”

“Of course he’s in love with you,” says Joseph, gazing at his wife and seeing her as she was thirty years ago in the Crombie Gallery in Bristol, buying his painting that would become the cover of her first great success, the murder mystery Cello. “Who wouldn’t be?”

Sevensong by Marcia Sloane

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Our Run To Starved Rock

Todd and Dick 1969

The summer after my second year of college, 1969, as I was deciding whether to go back for another year of academe or take my chances in the outside world, my great pal Dick Mead hired me to help him install sprinkler systems in Hope Ranch, a suburb of Santa Barbara where Dick grew up. Dick paid me well for being his ditch digger, and at the end of several weeks of work, we embarked on a cross-country adventure in Dick’s school-bus-yellow GMC panel truck.

The eastern seaboard of Canada and the farthest eastern point of Long Island were our ultimate destinations, but we began our odyssey by heading north through Oregon and into southeastern Washington, and then we veered east through Idaho and Montana and north into Canada. After crossing the great plains of western Canada, we pulled into Winnipeg, Manitoba on a muggy day in August, and wondered where all the people were.

Winnipeg is a big town, and as we drove along the downtown streets and saw virtually no one on the sidewalks, we wondered if a nuclear war had started and we hadn’t gotten the news while crossing Alberta, Saskatchewan, and half of Manitoba, a land of few towns and no radio stations we’d wanted to listen to.

Our map indicated that in the middle of Winnipeg was a big park, so we decided to go there and throw the Frisbee, which had been our daily habit at UC Santa Cruz where we lived in the same dorm when Frisbees were a brand new thing in the world and we were early pioneers of the new athletic art form.

We pulled into a completely empty parking lot fronting a vast greensward. I jumped out of the truck and ran out onto the soft springy grass as Dick flung the Frisbee high and long for me to chase and catch. I thrilled to be running after long days of driving, and I laughed for joy as I snagged the disk out of the air and flung it back to Dick, and then…

I looked up into the blue sky and saw a small dark cloud forming in the air above us. A cloud? On a cloudless day? Then I watched in horror as the cloud darkened and descended toward us, and a moment later the first of the mosquitoes struck. They were huge and their bites stung like wasp stings, and there were literally millions of them!

The world’s record for the fifty-yard dash was unofficially shattered twice that day as Dick and I sprinted back to the truck. Dick leapt into our mobile fortress seconds before I jumped in, but not before several hundred of the ravenous mosquitoes flew into the van with us and continued their attacks as we hysterically slapped the starving females (male mosquitoes don’t bite) on ourselves and each other, our t-shirts bloody, and nasty red welts rising on our skin, while all around the truck a cloud of their sistren (really a word) droned their horrid whining drones and beat their wings against the windows, hungering for our blood.

Exhausted and terrified and sweating profusely in the stuffy van, we didn’t dare open the windows until we were driving, and we didn’t start driving until we’d killed the last of the buggers that had gotten inside with us. And as we drove way from that scene of insect horror, we knew only one thing: nothing could make us stay another minute in Winnipeg.

*

Our mobile fortress

So we headed south, aiming for Minnesota. We drank the last of our water, and then… the next day or so is a blur, as the snout of our school-bus-yellow truck turned a sickly green from the countless bugs we smashed en route to someplace where, we hoped, we might rest for a time without being besieged by mosquitoes.

One of our first stops was a hardware store where we bought material for fashioning window screens so we might sleep in the van with the windows open on the hot muggy nights prevalent in summer in that part of the continent. And then we found a dirt road leading we knew not where, parked a half-mile off the highway, and slept for some hours before continuing our journey.

Very early the next morning in a small town in Minnesota, and here my memories grow clear again, we stopped at a little diner for breakfast. The proprietress, a tall Swedish woman with blonde hair worn in two short braids, welcomed us as her first customers of the day. When we told her our story of encountering incredible hordes of vicious mosquitoes in Winnipeg, she smiled and said, “Maybe they are worse here.”

We asked if this was a particularly bad year for mosquitoes.

“No,” she said, shrugging. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Then she made us a splendid breakfast of eggs and hash browns and toast, and asked us about California, where she had never been. In fact, many of the people we met on our odyssey had never been to California but longed to go.

*

From northern Minnesota, we made our way to Black River Falls, Wisconsin, but not before we passed through Hibbing, Minnesota, hometown of Bobby Zimmerman AKA Bob Dylan, and we understood why Bob moved to Malibu. My name it is nothing, it means even less. I come from the country known as the Midwest.

We also came to realize that Minnesota’s state descriptor Land of Ten Thousand Lakes was actually a poetic euphemism for An Enormous Swamp, as most of those “lakes” blended one into the other and spilled into every gully and depression to insure mosquitoes would never lack the necessary aquatic environs to breed without end.

Why Black River Falls? Because at the outset of our expedition we had chosen a few places along our way, unknowing of the insect terrors of the Midwest, where people could send letters to us care of General Delivery.

On the day we arrived in Black River Falls, the heat and humidity were both around ninety-five and we did not wish to stay there. However, we got to the post office moments after they closed for the day, and so we consulted our map and saw there was a state park nearby where we would spend the rest of that day and night.

We had taken to sleeping in the truck to save ourselves from being drained of blood during the long humid nights, and we were glad for the screens on our windows. We slathered on great quantities of insect repellant and strolled around the park where our fellow campers were sequestered in their trailers or hanging out in large tents made of mosquito netting. Some of the people we saw were watching portable televisions, some were playing cards, and some were comatose from the heat.

The Wisconsin mosquitoes, gnats, and several kinds of biting flies were not the least repelled by our repellant, which made our stroll unpleasant. As we passed a camp featuring one of the aforementioned mosquito-netting tents, a denizen of that tent, a corpulent fellow drinking beer and watching television, saw us swatting at the persistent bugs and said, “Ain’t no flies on me.” Then he snorted derisively and we thought we would like to bludgeon him to death and thereby vent our rage at the bugs that were making our summer journey so unpleasant. But we did not want to go to prison, especially not in Wisconsin or Minnesota, so we did not murder him, though his sniggering stung.

With hours to kill before dark, we inquired of the park ranger through the screen door of his cottage if there was a swimmable body of water nearby where we might find relief from the heat and humidity. He scrunched up his cheeks and pursed his lips and made a variety of odd faces as he pondered our question. And then he said, “Well there’s Red Lake about two miles up the road here.” He gestured at the road that ran by the park. “People go there to swim, I guess.”

“You guess?” I frowned. “You aren’t sure?”

“No, they do,” he said, chuckling. “Way we talk around here, I guess.”

“Oh I see,” I said, smiling. “Red Lake here we come.”

“Water’s a little red ‘cause it used to be an iron mine,” he said, calling after us. “I wouldn’t drink it, but you can swim in it for sure.”

So we donned our swimming trunks and drove the two miles to Red Lake, which may or may not be the real name of the lake, but the water was certainly red, and not merely reddish. Dark blood red. And there were no other people at Red Lake, and we were not surprised.

We stepped out of the truck and waited to be descended upon by things that bite, but nothing out of the ordinary came to get us, so we crossed a little muddy expanse and stepped into what we hoped would be cool water, only to find the liquid tepid, though possibly a few degrees cooler than the air, and that was good enough for us. So out we waded and then swam, and we agreed, all in all, this was a step up from where we’d been, emotionally speaking, for the last several days. And then…

Something flew down out of the sky and smacked the top of my head and started burrowing through my hair to my scalp. In a panic, I grabbed whatever it was and flung it away from me. And lo it was a black fly the size of a chicken egg, and he or she was not alone. We swam madly for shore, diving under the water every couple of strokes as scores of enormous flies dive-bombed us all the way to our truck. And just as I was about to get in, one of those dive bombers sunk her fangs into the back of my thigh and her bite felt like a strong electric shock, followed by searing pain as I smacked her and she fell away, though I have no idea if I killed her or merely stunned her.

The welt that quickly developed on my leg was the size of a quail egg and itched and ached for days. Disheartened and sweaty and grumpy, we returned to our campsite and decided to splurge and go out for burgers and shakes. This was Wisconsin, after all, America’s Dairyland, so we had visions of ice-cold milkshakes to go with big juicy burgers and fries.

We went to a little take-out joint with the promising name Rick’s Super Shakes, but when the sad sweaty young woman opened the bug screen and handed us our shakes through the little window, the drinks were little more than sweetened chocolate milk, and they were not cold.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to remain calm. “We ordered milk shakes. You know, milk blended with lots of yummy ice cream and so thick our straws stand up in the ice-cold mix.”

“Never heard of those,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “What you got is what we call a milk shake around here.”

“Could you add some ice cream to our shakes?” I asked, wondering if perhaps this whole fiasco was being filmed for Candid Camera, the gimmick being that several people are served these travesties of shams of mockeries of milk shakes, and the camera records all the hilarious outrage and disappointment, and then the real milkshakes are brought out and everyone laughs and rejoices.

“I can sell you scoops of ice cream,” she said, turning away to listen to somebody inside say something to her before she turned back to us. “The ice cream is a little runny right now. Freezer broke down at lunch and isn’t back up to real cold yet, I guess.”

“We’ll have two runny scoops of chocolate ice cream,” I said, and these we added to our warm chocolate milk to go along with our pathetic little burgers and soggy tasteless fries.

*

After an itchy night in the truck, we picked up our mail at the post office and motored south into Illinois where at the end of a long drive we arrived at Starved Rock State Park on the banks of the Illinois River. Were the bugs less horrible there? A little, yes. And we were glad. There were few people availing themselves of the big park and we got a camping space right beside the river. The temperature and humidity were both stuck on ninety-five, so you can imagine how inviting that big moving body of water looked to us.

We donned our swimming trunks and made our way down the embankment to the river and were just about to dive in when a loud siren pierced the air and a park ranger’s truck with red light flashing skidded to a halt above us. The ranger jumped out of his truck waving his arms and shouting, “Don’t go in there! Didn’t you see the signs?”

Shaken, we made our way up the embankment where the red-faced ranger glared at us as if we’d just stolen an apple pie cooling on his windowsill.

“We saw no signs,” we said, abashed. “Where were they and what did they say?”

“When you checked in,” he said, wide-eyed. “On the bulletin board.”

We admitted to skipping the news on the bulletin board.

“You go in there,” he said, pointing at the mighty Illinois, “and you’re dead. Not maybe dead. For sure dead.”

At which moment a large boat went by with men dragging the river for bodies.

“Eleven people drowned here so far this summer,” he said, grimly. “Looks nice, but that undertow grabs you, your body won’t come up for a long time.”

Dick and I exchanged glances and silently agreed not to suggest to the good fellow that they might want to post large warning signs at the river and in the campground. Instead, we thanked him for saving our lives and asked if there was a good safe place to swim, and he guessed something about creeks, which did not appeal. So then we inquired about showers, and he said we would find showers in the rest rooms.

And so in the late afternoon we went to the big old restroom a quarter-mile from our camp and took showers in warm sulfurous water that was as refreshing as a wrapping your head in a hot towel on a hot day. Then we dressed and took a walk around the park, and as dusk approached we saw lightning bugs flitting about a meadow, and it was a magical experience, every time we wiped the sweat out of our eyes.

On our way back to the truck, we stopped at a playground where, feeling truly happy about Nature evolving a non-biting bug with a little light bulb for a butt, I commandeered a swing and started swinging. Dick went off somewhere, and a moment later a cute girl of ten took the swing next to me and said, “I can go higher than you.”

I allowed her to have her glory, though I could have gone higher, and then she said, “Ooh wanna do the spider?”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Stop swinging and I’ll show you,” she said eagerly.

So I stopped swinging and in a twinkling she was astride me, facing me, her legs wrapped around my waist.

“Okay now,” she said breathlessly, “get pumping.”

I pushed off, got us swinging, and realized how inappropriate my doing the spider with this cute young lass might appear to anyone unaware of my inherent goodness—a twenty-year-old guy with a beard hooked up in such an intimate way with a cute young girl not the guy’s sister or daughter. I had visions of her Baptist or Methodist or Unitarian parents coming upon us doing the spider and having me arrested, I, the California pervert forcing himself on a sweet innocent young girl for which this court sentences you to seventeen years in a hot humid Illinois prison cell!

So I stopped swinging, lifted her off of me, and said, “Gotta go now.”

“Aw,” she said, pouting. “We were just getting to the good part.”

Back at the truck, darkness falling, we prepared supper over a little campfire, and as we were dining, a big pickup pulled into the camp site adjacent to ours, though there were plenty of other empty sites nearby, and a big muscular guy and his petite girlfriend got out of the truck and hurriedly set up a little Army surplus pup tent a mere thirty feet from our truck.

Then they got inside the tent, zipped up the flap, and Dick and I grimaced in dismay as we imagined the veritable sauna inside that little tent where the big guy and his much smaller cohort were, we assumed, having sex.

However, we didn’t have long to contemplate what was going on in that canvas cocoon because the clouds burst and torrential rain began to fall. We adjourned to the truck and thrilled to the air growing cooler for the first time since that fateful muggy day when we rolled into Winnipeg and were attacked by legions of ravening mosquitoes.

The rain pounded on our truck for a good long hour, and pounded on that pup tent, too, and then came thunder and lightning that got closer and closer until a mighty flash illuminated our campsite and a crash of thunder shook our truck.

We held our breaths as two more lightning bolts struck near enough to shake the ground, and then the lightning and thunder moved on, and the air was heavenly cool, and the only the sound we could hear was the mighty murderous Illinois rolling by.

In the morning the pup tent was gone and we continued on our way to the east, fully rested for the first time in many days and hopeful of better times coming our way.

fin

Risking Delight

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Cecil B. My Father

The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. Cecil B. DeMille

From the time I was a wee lad, and no doubt before I was born, my father insisted there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something. I have no idea where he got this cockamamie idea, but it shaped his life in many ways.

He bought a series of the absolute cheapest gas-powered lawn mowers to use on the high grass in our orchard, and all these mowers were not only ineffective against the grass, but broke irreparably within a year or two, their carcasses piled in an enclosure near the house intended for firewood and eventually leaving no room for anything but the carcasses. When I cleaned out this enclosure shortly before my father died, I found nineteen of these dead cruddy mowers.

When my father was in his forties, he decided it would be fun and good exercise to commute to his office by bicycle a few times a week, a distance of three miles. He bought the absolute cheapest bicycle he could find, made the round trip once, and found the going so difficult and unpleasant, he never rode the bike again.

When his trusty Karmann Ghia needed replacing, he read about Fiats in Consumer Reports, which recommended only one model of Fiat, and that one with reservations. But when my father went to the dealership, he bought the cheapest model available, one that Consumer Reports declared a disaster, and lo Consumer Reports was right on. That automotive mess cost thousands a year in repairs and fixes that could never overcome the inherent flaws of the poorly designed machine.

Creation is a drug I can’t do without. Cecil B. DeMille

When I was sixteen, my father took my mother, my younger brother, my older sister, and me to Europe—the only time I’ve ever been. My father wanted to attend a psychiatric convention in Edinburgh in August and my mother insisted he take her and three of the four kids along, my eldest sister refusing to go.

In anticipation of our grand expedition, my father purchased a Super-8 movie camera, by far the cheapest one he could find (despite the grave warnings in Consumer Reports) because “they’re all the same.” And because he waited, as was his habit, until the very last minute to buy the camera, he did not shoot a test roll of film before we embarked. He also bought a chintzy little editing system with the intention of putting together a masterwork commemorating our European adventure.

We flew from San Francisco to New York and from there to Shannon Airport in Ireland. We then spent two days crammed inside a miniscule rental car driving across Ireland to Dublin, during which journey we were almost killed several times because my father kept driving on the wrong side of the road. We then spent two lovely days in Dublin before flying to Glasgow from where we drove across the Scottish Highlands, crammed into another tiny rental car, to Edinburgh where we spent a happy week.

And all along our way, every chance he had, my father zealously deployed his new camera, often going to dangerous lengths to get just the right angle for his shots of us gawking at castles and lochs and statues and fountains, as well as scenes of Irish and Scottish people and their adorable houses and farms and photogenic ruins—each roll of film giving my father three minutes of footage.

In Edinburgh we were encamped at Mrs. Covey’s Boarding House, and while my father attended his convention, we roamed about without him and his movie camera, and we were glad. Mrs. Covey took a liking to me and every day spoke to me at length, though I understood nothing of what she said, except one time I caught the name Kennedy in the waterfall of her Scottish English, though I knew not whether she was speaking of the deceased president or her neighbor.

From Edinburgh we took the train to London, a mode of travel I found vastly preferable to flying or driving with my father who was forever slamming on the brakes and jumping out of our itsy bitsy rental cars to film something he thought would go well in his impending opus.

Then we spent ten glorious days in London and I went to fabulous plays every night, sometimes with my family, sometimes with my sister, sometimes all by myself because I was sixteen and practically a grownup. In 1966 excellent plays abounded in London, and all British actors were fantastic compared to any American actors I’d ever seen. And you could get tickets at the door a few minutes before curtain and sit in great seats close to the stage for just a few dollars.

1966 was also the year the Beatles came out with Revolver, and I purchased two copies of the British edition of the album (that had more songs than the American edition) to take home and wow my music-loving friends.

And every day my father shot many rolls of film—our suitcases overflowing with the little round plastic canisters.

Then we flew from London across the channel to muggy, filthy, glorious Paris for ten days, and I had lots of time away from my folks, thank God. We stayed in an old hotel called the Hotel Moliere, and many mornings I would bid my family adieu and head out into the unknown with my French vocabulary of twenty words. My sister, fluent in French, sometimes consented to go adventuring with me, and she would speak for us at cafes where the food was inexpensive and delicious and our taciturn French hosts would become sweet and friendly when the American girl spoke such beautiful French.

At Versailles my father shot many rolls of film, and at Chartres he shot two rolls just of the stained-glass windows. And everywhere we went he risked life and limb to get the dramatic shots he wanted for his impending masterwork.

Our last stop in Europe was Amsterdam and way too much Van Gogh. The highlight of Amsterdam for me was wandering around in the red light district at dusk and seeing the prostitutes sitting in their windows, knitting or playing cards in their scanty outfits, waiting for horny customers to ring their bells.

There was an airline strike at the time of our European sojourn, and only American Airlines was flying from Europe to America. As we were about to board our homeward flight, my father was nowhere to be found. My hysterical mother sent me into the vast duty-free market to find him, and after a frantic search I found him far from the boarding area standing at a magazine stall flipping through Popular Mechanics. We then ran to the jet where my mother was throwing a crying fit to hold the plane for my unapologetic father. The stewardesses and captain were furious with us, but we made it aboard and took off.

Lastly we flew from New York to San Francisco, but not before my father shot roll after roll from atop the Empire State building and in the colorful hubbub of Times Square.

Home at last, my father had those hundred-some three-minute rolls of film developed, set the first roll on the viewer of his chintzy editing machine, cranked the film through the little viewer, and thrilled to see his opening shot. And then there was nothing more on the roll until the last few seconds when images appeared again.

This was true of all the rolls of film he’d hung from bell towers, so to speak, to shoot. A few seconds of imagery at the start, a second or two of imagery at the end. Did he throw the film away and admit that perhaps there was a difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something? Nay. He edited all those tiny fragments together and created a title shot (after he got the camera repaired, sort of) of a piece of paper on which he wrote in sloppy cursive Our Trip To Europe—his movie a five-minute fever dream of tiny fragments he projected on the living room wall one time and never again.

A year later, he made another movie while on a Sierra Club base camp trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. And this time the thrice-repaired camera actually captured images on the film. However, being a profoundly crummy camera, the colors were wonky. Everything green came out turquoise, lakes and rivers were pinkish, and human skin was a hideous orange.

Yet from this nauseating color blend he pieced together a movie and showed it to a gathering of people who had been at the base camp. The movie was ostensibly about a girl who doesn’t want to go on a trip into the mountains, but she eventually falls in love with the majesty of the oddly colored wilderness. The film starred my sister for the first half, but then she quit the production and my father found another girl at the base camp to star in the second half, which was confusing since this other girl looked nothing like my sister.

The best part of the film was the beginning. My sister runs across an expanse of sand and trips and falls, and as the camera tracks beyond her, we see scratched in the wet sand The Trip.

My father never used the movie camera again, and for the rest of his life continued to buy the cheapest one of everything he ever bought because he knew, as a person who knew everything, there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and a more expensive version of that something.

fin

Not So Sure

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Nathan and Del Part Three

On a brilliantly sunny day in March, Nathan and Margot sit on the deck of Nathan and Celia’s house waiting to be called to the dining table for a lunch of fish tacos and guacamole and horchata being prepared by Celia and Del.

Today is day twenty-four of Nathan’s tenure as the helper of Del and Margot and Wanda, and Del has been taking cooking lessons from Celia every other day for the last two weeks. This is the tenth time Margot has joined them for a meal—seven times for lunch and three times for supper.

Wanda is always invited, too, but refuses to partake of these meals, wanting nothing to do with Nathan or Celia or anyone else in what she calls ‘this horrid little backwater.” She believes Margot will eventually acquiesce to her demands that they leave Mercy because in a month Margot must fly to England to begin filming parts Two and Three of the sci-fi epic Planet Babylon Reborn, which will consume a year of her life, after which she will make the fifth installment of Crusaders of Galaxy Nine. And then she is contracted to star in the first of another multi-billion-dollar sci-fi franchise Destructo Nirvana. If Wanda quits, Margot will have little time to find a new caretaker for Del.

Thus Wanda is lobbying relentlessly for a return to their previous lives as pampered prisoners in Margot’s castles in Malibu and Manhattan, both asylums under constant siege by paparazzi and hordes of people obsessed with the lives of celebrities.

In the meantime, no one other than Margot’s business manager Joan knows that Del and Margot and Wanda are not currently residing in Malibu and Manhattan, so stealthily did they make their escape and come to Mercy.

“I realize it’s only a matter of time before the world finds out we’re here,” says Margot, who of late has been confiding more and more in Nathan and Celia, in large part because Del has so zealously adopted them. “But I won’t lock Del away again. I’d rather end my career.”

“You’re a good mother,” says Nathan, who no longer thinks of Margot as Margot Cunningham, movie goddess, but simply as Margot, one of the most bottled-up people he has ever known. “Took great courage to come here.”

“Great desperation,” she says, shielding her eyes from the sun. “It was killing me to see her so unhappy, having no one to relate to except sycophants and the fucked up children of my peers, if you’ll pardon my French, and no one even remotely her intellectual equal. I would take her with me, but…” She frowns. “No. It never works to have her with me on a film.”

“She’s a great kid,” he says, guessing there is more to Margot living apart from Del so much of the time than she is willing to divulge.

“I suppose in some ways it’s a blessing she can’t use a cell phone,” says Margot, referring to her daughter’s severe allergy to microwaves—debilitating headaches and nausea and brain fog. “Though I do wish I could reach her when she’s out and about with you and Celia. I’m such a worry wart when it comes to her.”

“She needs to be out in the world,” says Nathan, rising at the sound of Del tapping a glass on the dining table to summon them. “We all do.”

 *

At lunch Celia says, “This is our first really warm day of the year. Time to plant out the lettuce starts and get those sugar snap seeds in the ground.”

“They have the most magnificent chard and parsley in their garden,” says Del, who rarely stutters now. “And their rosemary is a veritable tree. Did you see them, Mom?”

“I did,” says Margot, enjoying her lunch. “They’re amazing, as are these fish tacos. And the guacamole is as good as any I’ve ever had.”

“Delilah was the chef today,” says Celia, smiling at Del. “I was her assistant.”

“We were more like co-chefs,” says Del, shivering with delight at her mother’s praise. “I’m still quite tentative with my spices, and gauging how much lemon juice to use in the guacamole continues to mystify me. It’s such a fine line between too little and too much.”

“Well you nailed it today,” says Nathan, looking out on the day. “Big minus tide this afternoon. The beach will be vast. I know Tennyson is eager to go.”

“I’m eager, too,” says Del, looking at Margot. “Can we, Mom?”

“Sounds marvelous,” says Margot, feigning enthusiasm. “I’ll call Wanda and tell her we’ll be another hour or so.”

*

As they’re preparing to leave for the beach, Margot calls Wanda, and after their brief conversation announces to everyone, “I’m so sorry. Bit of a crisis with Wanda. Gotta go put out the fire. You go on, dear, and I’ll walk on the beach with all of you another time soon.”

*

On the great expanse of sand at the mouth of the Mercy River, Tennyson runs toward a distant flock of gulls standing in the shallows, and Del races after the swift little dog, her speed and grace astonishing to Nathan and Celia.

When Del and Tennyson race back to Nathan and Celia, and Del is barely winded, Celia says, “You run so fast, Delilah. You could be a track star.”

“I train with my mother when she lives with us,” says Del, exulting in her freedom on this glorious day. “She does most of her own stunts, you know, except the real dangerous ones. She’s in awesome shape.”

“So are you,” says Nathan, making an I-can’t-believe-it face. “I could never run that fast, not even in my fabled youth.”

“I miss my dance classes,” says Del, twirling around. “I love to dance.”

“You can take dance classes here,” says Celia, doing a little shimmy. “My daughter takes Afro Cuban dance at the rec center, and they have Jazz dance there, too.”

“I love Afro Cuban and Jazz dance,” says Del, ripping off a series of sexy moves, little knowing she’s being sexy. “I must sign up immediately.”

“And so you shall,” says Nathan, overcome by a premonition he dares not speak aloud for fear of jinxing fate.

*

When they get back to Nathan and Celia’s house from the beach, they find Margot waiting for them with news that Wanda is quitting and leaving tomorrow if Margot won’t give up on Mercy and return to Malibu.

“I won’t go back,” says Del, defiantly. “I love it here. Please, Mom. Don’t make me go back.”

“I will try to find a replacement for her,” says Margot, clearly overwhelmed. “But I must make these next four movies, after which I promise…”

“No,” says Del, interrupting her. “You always say that. One more movie and then we’ll be together and I won’t need a nanny. But that never happens. You have a whole other life without me. You’re a movie star. This is what you do, what you love to do. So do it! But if you make me go back I’ll run away. Don’t think I won’t.”

“I’ll call Joan,” says Margot, anguished. “And see if she can…

“If I may intervene here,” says Nathan, glancing at Celia and receiving her approving nod, “we would be happy to become, as it were, the new Wanda and look after Del in your absence.”

“You would live with her in the Caldwell House?” says Margot, stunned by the possibility.

“No,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “She would live with us. We have a guest room and Celia is now a mere month away from retiring. Del can come on pruning jobs with me, cook with Celia, work in the garden, keep us in kindling, and take Afro Cuban dance at the rec center. And you can sell the Caldwell place and erase all evidence you were ever here.”

*

On an evening a few days before she is to leave for England, Margot sits in an armchair in Nathan and Celia’s living room, a fire crackling in the hearth, the fire built by Del. Nathan and Celia are sitting together on the sofa and Del is sitting in the other armchair with Grace the calico cat on her lap and Tennyson next to her in his bed by the kindling box, which has heretofore never been so consistently full. They have just dined on a scrumptious vegetable tajine made by Nathan and Del from a recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, Margot and Celia are drinking wine, Nathan and Del are having nettle tea.

They are sharing life stories, something Del requested they do before her mother leaves for the next several months.

“I came to Mercy when I was thirteen,” says Celia, smiling and sighing simultaneously. “Same age as you, Delilah. I was born in Mexico, in Mazatlan, but we came to California when I was a baby so I don’t remember Mexico. We lived in Salinas until I was nine and my brother Juan was seven. My father and mother and grandmother worked in the fields, mostly lettuce, and then we moved to Sonoma where my father worked at a winery and my mother and grandmother were cooks in a Mexican restaurant. And then we moved to Mercy and my father was a house painter and my mother was a cook at the Mercy Café and my grandmother stayed home and had a big garden and raised chickens and I went to Mercy High where, believe it or not, I was homecoming queen.”

“We believe it,” says Del, beaming at Celia. “You’re magnificent.”

“Then I went to college in San Jose,” says Celia, remembering how hard it was to leave home, “and I became a nurse and came back here and met Nathan and got married and had Calypso and worked in the hospital for thirty-five years.”

“You will notice how she studiously avoided recounting the trail of broken hearts she left along the way,” says Nathan, holding Celia’s hand. “As far as I’m concerned, Celia staying unmarried until I came along is proof of miracles. I have written to the Vatican, but have yet to hear back.”

“I didn’t break any hearts,” says Celia, shaking her head. “Well… maybe one or two.”

“Now you Mom,” says Del, looking at her mother and nodding expectantly.

“Oh God,” says Margot, closing her eyes. “Another glass of wine might help. You go before me, Nathan, while I get a little drunker.”

“I will fetch the pinot for you,” he says, getting the bottle from the kitchen and setting it on the table next to Margot’s chair. “And I apologize in advance for my verbosity. Try as I may I can never manage to be as succinct as Celia.”

“Who said anything about succinctness?” says Del, who is in heaven listening to her favorite people talking. “I want to know every little detail.”

“Well in that case,” says Nathan, settling beside Celia again, “I was born seventy-three years ago on a farm in the Rogue River Valley in Oregon on the outskirts of Medford, which is fourteen miles north of Ashland, famed for it’s never-ending Shakespeare festival and a magnificent replica of the Globe Theatre. I was born at home because my mother’s water broke while she was picking chard and green beans for supper, no kidding, and my father delivered me in the living room, having delivered countless calves and lambs and horses before me.”

“Oh my God,” says Del, shocked. “How could you not have told me this?”

“Didn’t come up until now,” he says, and everybody laughs.

“It’s incredible,” says Del, giving her mother an I’m-shocked look. “He was born in the living room.”

“With my two older sisters watching,” he says, imagining the little girls gawking as he emerged from their mother. “And then I grew up a farm kid with two older sisters and two younger brothers, hoeing weeds, pruning fruit trees, driving a tractor, bailing alfalfa, slopping pigs, and going to church. My parents were Methodists and our preacher was forever threatening us with eternal damnation and roasting on hot coals in hell for all eternity if we deviated from a path nobody I knew followed, and I found his threats offensive and bridled at going to church.”

“How terrible,” says Del, frowning. “Why would your parents subject you to that kind of thing?”

“I guess because they’d been subjected to it, too, and didn’t know any better.” He shrugs. “Most religions tend to be fantastically self-contradictory. Love thy neighbor but burn in hell if you love them the wrong way.”

“Right,” says Margot, laughing. “So then what happened?”

 “Well… when I was eleven, in the Sixth Grade,” he says, smiling as he remembers, “my class went to a Shakespeare play at the outdoor theatre in Ashland, Much Ado About Nothing, and I was changed forever. Loved it more that anything I’d ever seen or heard. Asked my teacher for the play and he gave me a copy that I read like some kids read comic books, over and over again.”

“You understood the language?” asks Margot, who has been in two plays on Broadway and won a Tony both times.

“The gist anyway,” says Nathan, remembering his favorite lines from Much Ado as if they were his phone number. “‘There was a star danced, and under that I was born.’ I loved the flow of the language, loved the rhymes, obvious and internal, and then I found his sonnets, and by the time I got to high school and the Sixties took hold, I declared my self a poet and grew my hair long and pissed off my father so much I had to move out and finish high school living at my friend Colin’s house until I got into San Francisco State.”

“Did the same fate befall any of your siblings?” asks Margot, the wine softening her.

“My oldest sister ran off and became a hippy before she became a biologist, but my other sister married a farmer and my brothers carried on the business of the farm until my father died and the land became so valuable they sold it to a developer for tract homes and a shopping center, after which one of my brothers moved to Idaho and switched from pears to potatoes, and my other brother became a loan shark, good Methodist he.”

“What did you do after college?” asks Del, entranced by Nathan’s story.

“Never finished college,” he says, recalling his mother’s distress. “Dropped out after two years and became a groupie of the Beat poets and worshiped them for a few giddy months until it dawned on me they weren’t very good poets. So I decided to go to England, and having no money I hitchhiked across the country to Boston and then up to Halifax and worked my way across the Atlantic on a freighter full of lumber. Got a room in a commune in Oxford, had a cynical British girlfriend named Nancy, and started over with Shakespeare and Tennyson and moved on to Auden and Spender, and after two years among the Brits came back to San Francisco and eventually found my own voice and started sending out poems and reading at open mikes. And then when I was twenty-four I published my first poem, at twenty-six my first book, at twenty-seven my second book, at twenty-eight my third, and then…” He stops, overwhelmed by sorrow.

“And then?” asks Del in a whisper.

“Then two writers, famous among the literati of New York, writers I didn’t know and had never read, accused me of stealing lines from their poems and prose, and they made such a big fuss about it, my days as a publishing poet were ended. They never backed up their claims because they couldn’t, and I never found out why they chose me as the object of their wrath, but they did. So after a few years of painful disbelief, I came to Mercy, set up shop as a pruner of trees, married the lovely Celia, and here we are.”

“It’s sickening,” says Del, furiously. “Those people should be put in jail.”

“Too late, my dear,” he says, his cheeks streaked with tears. “They’re both dead now, neither of them amounting to much in the great scheme of things, but then few ever do.”

“I would be shocked by your story,” says Margot, setting her wine glass down, “except I’ve known so many people ruined in the same way, for no apparent reason except somebody powerful thought they were in the way.”

“The trick is not to conflate the self with the career,” he says, gesturing for Del to put another log on the fire. “But to see these seeming catastrophes as the universe telling us to change or suffer the consequences of not changing.”

Silence falls. The cat yawns majestically. The fire crackles eloquently.

“My father is unknown,” says Margot, gazing at the flames. “My biological mother was a young woman who gave birth to me in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona and immediately put me up for adoption. But no one adopted me, and so began my career as a foster child. I lived in seven different foster homes in Phoenix and Scottsdale and finally Los Angeles until I was fifteen and ran away. I was a wily survivor by then, looked eighteen, got a job bussing tables at a café in Burbank, and soon thereafter was promoted to waitress. And then when I was seventeen I lied my way into an audition for a television commercial and got the gig.”

“What was the commercial for?” asks Celia, who understands now why Margot is so emotionally inaccessible.

“Shampoo,” says Margot, remembering sordid details she will not share. “They loved my lustrous hair and how I looked in the shower, and so did a casting director who saw the ad. He hooked me up with an agent and within a month I was cast in a teen flick as an easy pompom girl, and the rest is history.”

“And thirteen years ago Del was born,” says Nathan, not wanting to pry but wanting to know. “Can you tell us about that?”

Margot looks down at her hands and tries to think of how to talk about Del’s birth without telling the truth she’s never told Del, but she cannot think of anything but the truth, and because she doesn’t want Del to know the truth, she says nothing.

“I’ll tell the story,” says Del, knowing her mother has never told her the truth about her beginnings, but having heard the untrue story several times. “Shall I, Mom?”

“Yes,” says Margot, continuing to gaze at her hands and remember how three times she was about to end her pregnancy, yet each time her desire to have a child won out.

“So sixteen years ago,” says Del, clearing her throat and having a sip of her tea, “when Mom was twenty-eight, she fell in love with Larry Bernstein when she was in a movie with him called Cruel Weather, which I haven’t seen yet because Mom doesn’t want me to see movies with sex in them until I’m eighteen. And I’ll try not to, though I’m very curious to see my parents together. Then after a long romance, Mom and Larry got married during the Cannes Film Festival, and a year later I was conceived. But before I was born they got divorced. Larry said I was not his child so he didn’t want custody of me. Mom says he is my father but she didn’t want to go through the terrible legal hassle and the awful negative publicity to prove he is my father, and since she didn’t want be involved with him anymore anyway, she didn’t press the matter.”

“When did you discover your musical talent?” asks Nathan, intuiting that none of what Del said is true.

“When I was three,” says Del, gently stroking the kitty cat. “My nanny Portia was singing to me, and at first I sang along with her and then I sang harmony with her and she got very excited and told my mom and not long after that I started music lessons with Leopold Schirmer, and when I was five I started taking piano lessons from Ginger Harte.”

“What was the song Portia sang to you?” asks Celia, delighted to know the history of Del’s musical life.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” says Del, half-speaking and half-singing the title. “Stevie Wonder.”

“Tell them about your first composition,” says Margot, looking up and smiling at her daughter.

“You tell,” says Del, wishing her mother would tell the truth about Larry Bernstein, but understanding that for some reason she won’t.

“I was in Paris,” says Margot, relaxing noticeably as she settles into telling the truth, “shooting The Musketeer’s Lover. Del was about to turn eight, so for her birthday I flew her over to Paris with her nanny Denise…”

“And our bodyguard,” says Del, interjecting. “Remember Rufus?” She looks at Nathan and Celia. “He was from Nigeria, and he was so big he had to duck and go sideways through most doorways.” She looks at her mother. “Sorry. Go on.”

“So you walked into my suite at the Four Seasons,” says Margot, who doesn’t remember Rufus, “and said, ‘I want you to hear something I made for you.’ And you gave me a CD, which I still have, and you’d written on it 8 Voices For Mom. Then we put it on the stereo and out came the most beautiful choral piece. Three minutes and eleven seconds long. Eight voices singing eight-part harmony. And I loved it so much I insisted they use it in the movie, and that was the music under the closing credits.”

“Eight-part harmony,” says Nathan, beaming at Del. “We’d love to hear it someday.”

“Oh it’s on the movie soundtrack and it’s on YouTube, too,” says Del, matter-of-factly. “And though it is a bit simplistic compared to what I’m composing now, the performance is quite good. Denise and I hired eight really good singers to make the recording. Two men and six women.”

“And like Mendelssohn,” says Nathan, gazing fondly at Del, “did you hear all eight parts before you wrote them down?”

“I did,” says Del, gazing in wonder at him. “How do you know about Mendelssohn?”

“Oh he loves Mendelssohn,” says Celia, kissing Nathan’s cheek. “We had a string quartet for our wedding and the processional and recessional were Mendelssohn, and at the reception all the music was Mendelssohn until the mariachi band played for the dancing.”

*

The day Margot leaves for England is also the day the Caldwell place sells to a couple from England, Joseph and Constance Richardson, Joseph a painter of landscapes, Constance a writer of murder mysteries.

Margot, who has been staying in a vacation rental, comes for breakfast at Nathan and Celia’s before leaving for San Francisco from where she will fly to New York and then to London.

While Del and Celia are in the kitchen preparing huevos rancheros and corn tortillas from scratch, Margot finds Nathan on his knees in the vegetable garden planting broccoli seedlings into a bed he and Del prepared together.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all you’ve done for Del and me,” says Margot, speaking to Nathan across the bed of freshly turned soil. “And for all you’re going to do.”

“And we’re grateful to you,” he says, looking up at her. “We were wondering how we’d get by on our minimalist social security should I cease to prune, and now, as we used to say long ago, we’re in fat city and we get to live with Del.”

“I’ll be calling every day,” she says, looking up at the sky. “At least at first, and…” She hesitates.

He resumes planting the spindly plants into the pliable ground.

“I want to tell you something before I go,” she says, speaking quietly.

He gets to his feet and brushes off the soil from the knees of his pants.

“Del’s father is not Larry Bernstein,” she says, looking toward the house to make sure Del is not coming out.

“I gathered as much,” he says, nodding. “You needn’t tell me who her father is.”

She looks toward the house again and steps across the bed to stand close to him.

“I have no idea who Del’s father is,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper. “I only know he is not Larry Bernstein. I’ll tell Del when she’s older, but not yet. You understand, don’t you?”

“I do,” says Nathan, feeling a little dizzy standing so near to her. “When my mother was dying I went to stay with her for the last few weeks of her life. And the day before she died, she beckoned me to come close so she could whisper and my sisters wouldn’t hear her say, ‘Your father was not your father. Your father was Lucius Carter.’”

“Who was Lucius Carter?” asks Margot, placing her hand on her heart.

“My Sixth Grade teacher,” he says, his eyes brimming with tears. “The man who gave me Shakespeare.”

fin

The Way Things Go

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Nathan and Del Part Two

Celia is still in her bathrobe as she sits at the dining table having a second cup of coffee while Nathan does the breakfast dishes, the morning cold and rainy. Sixty-five and soon to retire as a nurse at the local hospital, Celia is a beautiful woman, short and buxom with shoulder-length black hair just now turning gray, English her second language, though after being married to Nathan for thirty-five years she speaks English better than most people born to the language.

“I’m glad I’m not working today,” says Celia, who is down to three day shifts a week as she transitions to retirement. “I don’t like driving when it’s so wet and windy. Will you build me a fire before you go?”

“Of course,” says Nathan, thinking about his impending trip to Margot’s house and wondering if he might be wiser to go to the hardware store without Margot and/or Wanda tagging along with Del.

“Will you be home for lunch?” asks Celia, looking out at the rain.

“That’s my plan,” says Nathan, rinsing the last plate. “Two hours should be plenty of time to go to the hardware store and clean their water filter and check their generator and teach Del how to chop kindling.”

“I can’t believe they’ll stay,” says Celia, shaking her head. “I wonder why they chose Mercy. So far from anything.”

“Maybe when you’re that famous you have to go this far from a city to get some privacy.” Nathan carries his mug of nettle tea to the table. “You shopping today?”

She nods. “I’ll go before lunch because Paul is bringing Carlos over at one.” She gives Nathan a wide-eyed look. “I’m not taking that little monster to the grocery store again without you. If I take my eyes off him for ten seconds he’s knocking things off shelves and playing hide and seek. He’s too wild for me.”

“Funny,” says Nathan, musing about his rambunctious grandson, “Calypso was never so wild.”

“No,” says Celia, shaking her head, “because I didn’t go back to work until she started school and she didn’t watch television until she was twelve. Carlos is only three and he’s already playing video games and watching TV all day. No wonder he gets so wound up.” She shrugs. “It’s a different world now.”

“And Paul and Calypso have very different ideas about parenting than we do.” He shrugs in sympathy with her shrug. “But what can we do but love him and not let him watch TV when he’s here. He doesn’t seem to miss it.”

“He likes your stories better than TV,” she says lovingly. “And he plays with Tennyson and digs in the garden and you build block towers with him and take him to the beach. You’re a very good grandpa.”

The phone rings and Nathan goes to answer the phone in the kitchen.

“Mr. Grayson?” says Del, breathlessly. “Hi. It’s Del.”

“Hello Del,” he says, pleasantly surprised. “How are you today?”

“I’m… I’m fine,” she says, her voice shaking with emotion. “My… my mother said you… you want to take me to the hardware store to buy our axe and hatchet, and I… I would like to go with you, just you and not… not… not my mother and Wanda.”

“Is that okay with them?” he asks quietly. “Because it’s okay with me.”

“It’s okay with them,” she says urgently.

“Tennyson and I will be there in about an hour,” he says, smiling into the phone. “Wear your raincoat.”

He hangs up and returns to the dining table, shaking his head in wonder.

“What did she say?” asks Celia, eager to know.

“She wants to go to the hardware store without her mother or Wanda, which I gather is a big deal since Margot said Del never goes anywhere without her or Wanda.”

“Maybe they moved here because it wasn’t safe for her to do things on her own where they lived before. Beautiful girl who looks like her movie star mother. Always being chased by photographers and people looking for gossip. Maybe they were afraid someone would kidnap her.” Celia frowns. “It must be so hard to have such a famous mother.”

“And so hard to be a famous mother,” says Nathan, carrying his tea into the living room to start the fire for the day.

*

Tennyson, a cute little floppy-eared mutt, sits between Nathan and Del in the cab of Nathan’s old white pickup truck, the rain pounding on the roof as they roll down the hill into the little town of Mercy.

Del has her long brown hair in two braids and is wearing a blue raincoat over a black sweatshirt and black jeans. Thirteen-years-old, she is fast becoming a woman, though Nathan still doesn’t know if she wants people to think of her as she or he.

“If you’re up for it,” says Nathan, glancing at Del, “I’d love to get a gander at the waves, which will be huge from the storm surge and these big winds.”

“I’m… I’m up for it,” says Del, exhilarated and terrified to be away from her mother and Wanda and traveling with an old man and his dog in an old truck through a tempest in the wilderness. “Is… is it safe?”

“Oh yeah,” he says, turning onto the road leading to an outlook with a view of the river mouth and the mighty breakers rolling into Mercy Bay. “We’ll be gazing upon the tumult from afar and won’t get out of the truck.”

“Gazing upon the tumult from afar,” says Del, smiling. “I… I love the way you talk, Nathan. It’s… it’s magnificent.”

“I’m happy you like my use of the lingo,” he says, laughing. “What are words for if not to use them in artful ways?”

“I think so, too,” says Del, looking out at the storm. “I… I found your blog last night and printed out a hundred of your poems and made… made them into a book. I… I love them.”

“Only a hundred?” says Nathan, frowning quizzically. “Got bored, did you?”

“No,” she says, laughing. “Never.”

*

They look down on an endless parade of enormous waves crashing against the cliffs, the ground trembling with each fantastic collision of ocean and earth.

“The rain is letting up,” says Nathan, smiling wryly. “We could get out for a minute or two if you’re game. Take in the whole fantabulous panorama without the frame of the windshield.”

“I’m game,” says Del, nearly shouting. “Can Tennyson come?”

“No, we’ll leave his highness in the truck,” says Nathan, scratching Tennyson’s head. “He might get blown away.”

“We’ll be back soon, your highness,” says Del, petting Tennyson. “And we’ll tell you all about it.”

They get out into the ferocious wind and gaze in awe upon the stormy scene, and Nathan shows Del how to lean way into the wind and be kept from falling by the fantastic force.

Back in the truck, Nathan and Del look at each other wide-eyed and Del says, “That was beyond magnificent!”

“That’s only because you haven’t been to the hardware store yet,” says Nathan, starting the engine.

*

“Did… did my mother tell you about me?” asks Del, as they head into town.

“Not a thing,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “Except that you never went anywhere without her or Wanda, which apparently isn’t true.”

“It was true,” says Del, resting her hand on Tennyson’s back, “but it isn’t true anymore.”

“You’ve had a conversion?” says Nathan, immediately regretting his choice of words.

“That’s exactly what I’ve had,” says Del, delighted by his choice of words. “I have shed my old skin and watched it blow away into the fantabulous tumult.”

*

In Mercy Hardware, Juan Gomez, Nathan’s brother-in-law and former pruning partner, waits on Nathan and Del. They purchase an axe, a hatchet, a shovel, a rake, four bungee cords of various lengths, and three pairs of work gloves.

“How long you been living here?” Juan asks Del as he rings up the purchases.

“Four days,” says Del, smiling shyly at Juan.

“No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend yet,” says Juan, winking at Nathan. “I got a nephew. Pedro. Sixteen. Handsome. Looks just like Bruno Mars. He’ll be happy to see you walking down the street, I know that.”

“I’m… I’m not actually looking for a boyfriend,” says Del, blushing. “I’m… I’m only thirteen and we’re just… just getting acclimated.”

“Where you coming from?” asks Juan, looking at Nathan and getting the message not to probe too deeply.

“New York,” says Del, looking around the store. “It just occurs to me… do you sell art supplies?”

“Not really,” says Juan, shaking his head. “Car paint and paint for your house. Brushes, you know. They got some at the stationery store, but I think you do better online. Or next time you go to the city. You an artist?”

Del nods.

“Like Picasso?” says Juan, making an I’m-impressed face.

“More like Toulouse-Latrec,” says Del, thoughtfully. “Though I like Picasso, especially his pen and ink drawings. Have you seen those?”

“No, I only see the ones where he got the nose and eyes in the wrong place,” says Juan, laughing as he puts the gloves and bungee cords in a bag. “Maybe sometime you bring in one of your pictures to show me.”

“I will,” says Del, smiling brightly. “I’ll draw a still life of the tools we bought.”

“Good,” says Juan, nodding enthusiastically. “Maybe we put it on the wall and increase sales.”

*

Driving homeward, Del says, “This is the best day of my life.”

“I’m glad,” says Nathan, fighting his tears. “Really glad.”

*

When they arrive at Del’s house, the front door flies open and Margot rushes out with an umbrella.

“You were gone forever,” she says, opening the passenger door and looking in at Del and Tennyson and Nathan. “Everything okay?”

“Everything is fine, Mom,” says Del, nodding. “I must take you to the outlook to see the storm surf. And then we must go to the hardware store and I’ll introduce you to Juan, Nathan’s brother-in-law.”

“Fine, but first come into the house and get warm,” says Margot, looking at Nathan. “Will you stay for lunch?”

“I have a lunch date,” says Nathan, giving her a reassuring smile. “Thought I’d give you a wood chopping lesson, check your generator, clean your water filter, and come back for more tomorrow.”

Going up the stairs to the front porch, Margot says to Del, “You look flushed, honey. Do you need to lie down?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” says Del, taking her mother’s hand. “Truly I am.”

*

Margot and Wanda accompany Del and Nathan and Tennyson to the woodshed and Nathan presents them each with a new pair of work gloves.

“These will reduce the chances of serious injury when you’re wielding the axe or hatchet,” he says, standing at the chopping round to begin the lesson. “I assume you all want to know how to make kindling.”

“Just make us some,” says Wanda, obviously peeved. “I didn’t come here to be a lumberjack.”

“But I want to learn, Wanda,” says Del, frowning at her caretaker. “I’ll keep us well-supplied.”

“Why should you be chopping wood?” says Wanda, dropping her gloves on the floor and stalking away to the house. “That’s what we’re paying him for. This is ridiculous.”

“I apologize,” says Margot to Nathan. “This has been quite upsetting for Wanda, our coming here. She’s never lived anywhere but in a city and we’ve always just hired the help we need, so this is a big change for her.”

“For all of you,” says Nathan, nodding. “So… shall we begin?”

“Yes,” says Margot, putting on her gloves. “I’m ready.”

*

Nathan gets home a little after twelve and has avocado quesadillas by the fire with Celia and tells her about his two hours with Del and Margot.

“Did they say why they came here?” asks Celia, mystified that Margot would move to such a remote place with her daughter.

“No,” says Nathan, shaking his head, “but I have an inkling.”

“Tell me,” says Celia, urgently. “I can’t imagine.”

“I think Margot realized that in shielding Del from the spotlight of her celebrity, she made her a prisoner, and this is her attempt to set her daughter free before she becomes too strange and damaged by being so isolated and removed from the outside world. And they needed to get far from the madding crowd because everybody in the whole fucking world wants to know everything about them.”

“What about Wanda?” asks Celia, frowning. “She sounds a little crazy.”

“Del told me Wanda has been her nanny and caretaker for five years now. They lived in a townhouse in Manhattan and a mansion in Malibu with servants and bodyguards in both places while Margot was mostly gone making movies all over the world.”

“So Del was a princess in a castle,” says Celia, nodding. “And now she lives here.”

“Now she lives here,” says Nathan, thinking of Del leaning into the wind and spreading her arms as if flying. “For as long as she does. Wanda is lobbying for them to move some place more civilized and hinting she’ll quit if Margot won’t accommodate her.”

“What brought this on, I wonder?” says Celia, reacting to the sound of a familiar car in the driveway—Paul bringing Carlos over for the afternoon. “Why now?”

“I’m guessing the identity crisis of the over-protected child,” says Nathan, going to the door.

“Did Del tell you if she wants to be he or she?”

“In so many words,” says Nathan, smiling as he remembers. “I was showing her how to clean the water filter, when apropos of nothing she said, ‘Hey Nate, you did know Del is short for Delilah, didn’t you?’ And I said, ‘Delilah’s a beautiful name. Which do you prefer?’ And she said, “Whichever you like.’ And that’s where we left it for now.”

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