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
Philip nods and returns his gaze to
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.”
“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
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
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
“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.”
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.
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.”
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
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
“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
The little dog gives Delilah a
quizzical look, sees the cat has taken possession of her, and trots back
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
“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
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “I’m not afraid.
“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
“Come out in the sun,” he says,
lifting the cat off her. “I’ll cure you.”
“How?” she says, believing him for a
“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
“Then what were you afraid of?” she asks,
“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
“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,
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?”
“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
“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
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.
“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
“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.
“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
“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
“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?”
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,
“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.”
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 Josephwill 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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
fingers are geniuses just look at them go making
and salsa and refried beans and tomato
and juicy chicken enchiladas you can’t tell me
digits aren’t possessed of formidable brains
unique personalities as she simultaneously
to her daughter and flirts with me saying,
another log on the fire, marido,” just
at those fingers go with such fearless grace
knives and spoons amidst the blazing
and red hot pans and steaming pots and
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
“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
“There you go,” he murmurs. “Money
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.”
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
“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
“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.”
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.
Nathan and Delilah and Celia
exchange glances and Celia says, “I don’t think we know her.”
“Can you give us a hint?” asks
“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.
“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
“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
“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
“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?”
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
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.
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
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,
“You guess?” I frowned. “You aren’t sure?”
“No, they do,” he said, chuckling. “Way we talk around here, I
“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
“When you checked in,” he said, wide-eyed. “On the bulletin
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
“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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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
“So are you,” says Nathan, making an
I-can’t-believe-it face. “I could never run that fast, not even in my fabled
“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
They are sharing life stories,
something Del requested they do before her mother leaves for the next several
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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.
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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.”
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“I’m happy you like my use of the
lingo,” he says, laughing. “What are words for if not to use them in artful
“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
“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
“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?”
“Like Picasso?” says Juan, making an
“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 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
“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
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
“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
“No,” says Nathan, shaking his head,
“but I have an inkling.”
“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.”
Nathan Grayson, his once brown hair mostly white now, is seventy-three, sturdy and healthy and still pruning fruit trees, Japanese maples, roses, and lemon trees fifteen hours a week from February through November.
A poet of some renown when he was in
his late twenties, Nathan’s third volume of poems Fickle Muse, was considered by many to be a frontrunner to win the
Pulitzer that year when out of the blue two influential writers accused Nathan
of plagiarism, after which Nathan’s publisher took Fickle Muse and his previous volumes Impossible Rose and Indigo
Blues out-of-print, recalled all copies yet to be sold, and thereafter no
publisher or literary magazine, even tiny ones, would ever again publish
Nathan’s poems, though the supposed plagiarism was never proven, nor did any of
Nathan’s poems even remotely resemble the works of his accusers, save they were
written in English.
Astonished by these accusations,
Nathan was certain the hideous nonsense would soon blow over and he would publish
again, but that was not to be. So he moved from San Francisco to the little
town of Mercy on the north coast of California and became a pruner of fruit
trees, a skill he’d acquired growing up on a fruit farm in southern Oregon.
After two years of pruning fruit
trees in Mercy, his services much in demand, Nathan hired the admirable Juan
Gomez as his assistant, and a few years later Nathan married Juan’s sister
Celia to whom he has been married for thirty-five years. They have a thirty-two-year-old
daughter named Calypso who, like her mother, is a nurse.
Despite his fall from literary
grace, Nathan never stopped writing because writing is second nature to him,
nearly first, and he writes for a couple hours every day, mostly poems and the
occasional humorous story.
What does he do with his poems and
stories when, even now, no publisher or magazine will consider his work? He
posts them on the blog Calypso made for him and receives emails and letters
from people around the world who enjoy his writing.
On a cold February evening, Nathan
is standing beside Celia in the kitchen of their cozy redwood house, watching
Celia make their favorite supper—chicken enchiladas, tomato rice, refried beans,
guacamole, and a big green salad. Their little floppy-eared mutt Tennyson is at
their feet hoping for what Nathan calls droppage,
while their calico cat Grace snoozes on the sofa by the fire in the living
A few weeks ago Nathan posted a poem
about Celia cooking this very meal entitled her
fingers are geniuses for which he garnered several lovely responses from
readers and a request from a restaurant in Sonoma to use the poem as the
frontispiece of their permanent menu, for which they paid Nathan a hundred
dollars and free meals whenever Nathan and Celia come to Sonoma, which is
“That’s the first money I’ve made
from my writing in forty-five years,” says Nathan, tickled to think of people
sitting down to dine in a snazzy restaurant and reading his poem about Celia.
fingers are geniuses just look at them go making
and salsa and refried beans and tomato
and juicy chicken enchiladas you can’t tell me
digits aren’t possessed of formidable brains
unique personalities as she simultaneously
to her daughter and flirts with me saying,
another log on the fire, marido,” just
look at those fingers go with such fearless grace
knives and spoons amidst the blazing
and red hot pans and steaming pots and
the lucky recipient of their divine ministrations.
“I’m glad you didn’t keep being
famous when you were young,” says Celia, who had no idea Nathan was a poet
until he started sending her love poems as prelude to asking her to marry him.
“If you had stayed famous you never would have moved here and met me and we never
would have had Calypso and she wouldn’t have had Carlos who you love more than
you love me.”
“Not true,” says Nathan, putting his
arm around her. “I love Carlito as an extension of you.”
“You would have married some other
famous person and lived in New York,” says Celia, pouting adorably, “and spent
your winters in a mansion in the south of France.”
“Mansions are a pain in the ass,”
says Nathan, tasting the guacamole and smiling sublimely. “I prefer small
houses. Much easier to heat and keep clean.”
“I know you,” she says, nodding.
“You’re lucky not to be famous. All those women would have drained the life out
“But what a way to go,” he says,
kissing her. “And now I can be famous, yeah? Now that we’re together and
Calypso is incarnate, my poems can be in menus and I’ll get money in the mail.”
“Just don’t be too famous, okay? I love our life, don’t you?”
“Por su puesto,” he says, kissing
her again before he and Tennyson go to answer the door expecting Calypso and
her husband Paul and their darling three-year-old Carlos.
Opening the door Nathan startles to see a strikingly beautiful woman he knows from somewhere—fortyish, dark blonde hair falling to broad shoulders, kiss-me lips and glorious cheeks—but where?—and her teenaged son, his long brown hair covering most of his face. Or is this her daughter?
“Good evening,” says Nathan, turning
on the porch light to clarify the scene. “What can we do for you?”
The daughter or son squats down to
pet Tennyson, and her face becomes dreamy beautiful and Nathan decides she’s
“Mr. Grayson?” says the woman, her
voice overwhelmingly familiar to Nathan, though he can’t think where he’s heard
her voice before. “I hope we’re not interrupting your dinner.”
“Not yet,” says Nathan, smiling down
at the child gently stroking the happy mutt.
“My name is Sharon Duval,” she says,
her voice deep and sonorous. “We just bought the Caldwell place and our realtor
Ward McKenzie said I should speak to you for advice about…” She laughs a
sparkling laugh. “Country living, I guess. Ward didn’t have your phone number
and you’re not listed, and since we’re so close…”
“Yeah, no problem,” says Nathan, fishing
his wallet out of his work pants hanging on a hook by the door. “I’ll give you
my card. Call me tomorrow.”
“Perfect,” says Sharon, smiling at
the approach of Celia. “Hello. I’m Sharon Duval. Your new neighbor.”
“Celia,” says Celia, shaking
Sharon’s hand. “And who is this?”
“This is Del,” says Sharon, touching
the top of Del’s head as she continues to squat and pet Tennyson.
“Hello Del,” says Nathan, handing
Sharon his card. “You gonna go to Peach Tree Elementary or are you in high
school? Forgive me. I’m terrible at guessing ages, including my own.”
Del stands with notable grace and
tosses her head to fling the hair out of her eyes. “Home school. I… I… I love
“His name is Tennyson,” says Nathan,
meeting Del’s eyes and sensing her confusion and sorrow.
“I… I love him,” she repeats. “He’s
“Takes one to know one,” says
Nathan, winking at her.
Now Calypso and Paul and Carlos
arrive in their lemon-yellow Volkswagen van and Sharon says, “We should go. I’ll
call you tomorrow, Mr. Grayson.”
“Nathan, Nate, or Nat will do,” says
Nathan, smiling at Del. “See you round the hood.”
After a fleeting hello to Calypso and
Paul, Sharon and Del depart in a gold Mercedes.
When everyone is seated at the
dining table, Carlos enthroned on Nathan’s lap, Calypso says, “That woman
looked exactly like Margot Cunningham. Don’t you think?”
“I think she is Margot Cunningham,” says Celia, speaking of the movie star. “She
said her name was Sharon Duval, but she must be Margot Cunningham. Who else
could she be?”
“Margot Cunningham,” says Nathan, nodding
in agreement. “Of course. My brain couldn’t compass the possibility of her
living here, so I couldn’t imagine how I knew her. But why here? Why not some
palatial estate in the south of France?” He bounces his eyebrows at Celia.
“Isn’t that where all the famous people go?”
Calypso and Paul both get out their
phones and hunt for news of Margot Cunningham.
“She’s forty-four now and has a thirteen-year-old
daughter Delilah,” says Calypso, studying her screen. “That fits. From her
brief marriage to Larry Bernstein. She’s currently rumored to be dating the
actor Ivan Brubeck and/or the director Jerry Fields. And she’s soon to start
filming the next two Planet Babylon
Reborn movies for which they are paying her a paltry seventy million
“Well-deserved, I’m sure,” says
Nathan, feigning seriousness. “Though I prefer her in those movies where she’s
an impossibly beautiful regular person, a housewife or secretary or waitress or
high school teacher.” He shakes his head. “Can you imagine being in high school
and having Margot Cunningham for your teacher? The mind boggles.”
“Sci-fi franchises are where the big
money is today,” says Paul, who knows everything about contemporary popular
culture. “She was big before Crusaders of
Galaxy Nine and Planet Babylon Reborn,
but now she’s arguably the biggest star in the world.”
“Anything more about Delilah?” asks
Celia, who can’t stand super hero movies.
“Delilah goes by Del now and is trans,”
says Paul, reading from his screen. “That’s not for sure, but possibly. We take
all internet gossip with large grains of salt.”
“What does that mean exactly?” says
Nathan, frowning. “Trans?”
“Transgender,” says Calypso, gazing at her screen. “She’s biologically female but feels she’s male. Yeah. According to Screen Gospel the trans thing is not for sure, but likely. And she/he is also a Music or Math prodigy.”
“Star Struck says both,” says Paul,
putting his phone away because he knows cell phones bug Nathan. “How about
that. Margot Cunningham living in Mercy.”
“They want you to prune for them,
Papa?” asks Calypso, putting her phone away, too.
“Hope so,” says Nathan, sipping his
lemonade. “I love those Caldwell apples. Especially the Fuji.”
The woman claiming to be named
Sharon who sounds exactly like Margot Cunningham calls the next morning and
Nathan agrees to come by her place on his way to prune a few apple trees.
He loads his tools into the back of
his old white pickup and opens the passenger door for Tennyson who comes
running from the vegetable garden where he was sticking his nose down a gopher
hole and now has a muddy muzzle.
“Please leave those gophers to Grace,”
says Nathan, wiping Tennyson’s snout with a towel before starting the engine.
“She actually catches them whereas you just dig up the garden and do more
damage than the gophers.”
A two-minute drive brings them to
the house formerly owned by Archie and Clare Caldwell, a lovely old place built
of river rock and redwood on ten acres of meadowland ringed by forest. Nathan has
pruned the Caldwell fruit trees for thirty years and hopes to prune them for
another ten. Archie and Clare were good friends with Celia and Nathan despite
the political chasm between them, and Nathan was sad to see them go.
He leaves Tennyson in the truck,
which Tennyson does not appreciate, climbs the seven stairs to the front porch,
and knocks on the door. He waits a minute, knocks again, the door opens a
crack, and a woman, not Sharon or Del, peers out and says, “Mr. Grayson?”
“I am he,” says Nathan, smiling.
“Nathan or Nate or Nat will do.”
“Just a minute,” says the woman,
closing the door.
Nathan studies the sky and guesses
it will rain in the early afternoon and possibly hail, which doesn’t bode well
for plum trees in bloom.
Now the door opens and here is
Sharon looking spectacular in a red Pendleton shirt and blue jeans, her glossy
blonde hair in a ponytail. Standing beside Sharon is a shorter woman with
graying brown hair wearing a blue sweater over a white dress shirt and brown
“Hello Nathan,” says Sharon, shaking
his hand, her grip formidable. “This is my housekeeper Wanda.”
“Hello Wanda,” says Nathan, shaking
Wanda’s hand. “So… besides pruning your fruit trees, which I did for the
Caldwells, what can I do for you?”
The women step outside and close the
door behind them.
“We are new to country living,” says
Sharon, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Nathan down the stairs, Wanda
following, “and we would like to hire you to help us learn the ropes.”
“How to start a fire, for one thing,”
says Wanda, her manner gruff, her accent New Jersey. “We have no idea.”
“Mind if I let my dog out?” asks
Nathan, marveling at the exigencies of fate. “He’s a sweetie and loves to tag
“Yes, fine,” says Sharon, laughing
gaily. “I imagine we might eventually get a dog.”
“If we stay,” says Wanda, sounding
Now the front door opens and Del comes
out onto the front porch wearing a puffy black jacket, black ski pants, blue
rain boots, and a black beret, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face
reminiscent of her mother’s, though her eyes are brown not blue.
“I thought you weren’t coming with
us,” says Sharon, obviously taken aback.
“I changed my mind,” says Del, coming
down the stairs. “Did… did… did you bring Tennyson?”
“I did,” says Nathan, beaming at Del.
“I was just about to let the beast out.”
“Can… can I let him out?” asks Del, looking at
the truck where Tennyson is gazing forlornly out the window.
“Be my guest,” says Nathan,
Del runs to the truck and opens the
door and Tennyson leaps out and races around her twice before going up on his
hind legs and offering his front paws to her, which she takes in her hands and
dances with him, laughing.
They proceed to explore the place,
Tennyson in the lead, Del close behind, Nathan and Sharon and Wanda following.
Nathan shows them the large chicken
coop that recently housed a dozen hens, the small greenhouse good for cacti and
starting vegetables from seed, and the fourteen fruit trees in the deer-fenced
orchard—ten apples, two plums, two pears. He opens the door to the pump house
and tells them about their well and water storage tanks, and the need to have
the water filter cleaned every few months. Then he shows them their big propane
tank and explains that their house is heated with propane and their stove runs
on propane, too, and the propane has to be delivered by a propane truck.
“So after you choose a company,”
says Nathan, slapping the tank to gauge how full it is, “they’ll come out
whenever you’re running low.”
Wanda frowns. “We’re not hooked up
to the whatchamacallit?”
“Energy grid?” says Sharon, nodding hopefully.
“For electricity, you are,” says
Nathan, feeling himself being inexorably drawn into the lives of these three.
“For gas, no. And you’ll probably want your septic tank pumped out. Been at
least ten years if I’m remembering correctly, and you don’t want your sewage
“We’re not hooked up to the city
sewer?” says Wanda, aghast.
“What city?” says Nathan, laughing.
“No, save for electric you’re entirely self-sufficient. There’s not much to do.
You’ll see. And you’ve got a backup generator that kicks on when we have power
outages, which we do a few times every winter. Your generator runs on propane,
In the woodshed, the big room low on
firewood, Nathan finds an old axe and expertly chops a pile of kindling.
Del watches Nathan create the
kindling and asks politely, “May I try? I’d like to learn.”
“I will bring my sharper axe and
hatchet tomorrow and give you a lesson,” says Nathan, leaning the axe against
the wall of the shed. “I don’t have time today, Del. But here’s the thing. If
you don’t know what you’re doing, you can cut yourself really badly doing this,
so you’ll need a lesson.”
“When tomorrow?” asks Del, thrilled to
know Nathan is planning to return. “In the morning?”
“Say ten?” says Nathan, looking at
“Fine,” says Sharon, eagerly. “We
should… could you buy us an axe and hatchet? We wouldn’t know which to get.
I’ll reimburse you, of course, and pay you for your time. And if you’ll
recommend someone for firewood, we’ll call them today.”
“Sure,” says Nathan, gathering the
kindling. “Now if you’ll each burden yourselves with a log or two, I’ll start a
fire for you before I go.”
In the spacious living room of the beautiful
old house, Nathan and Del kneel together on the hearth and he shows her how to
build a lattice of kindling over a pile of crumpled paper.
“I love this,” she whispers. “Can I
“Sure,” he says, handing her a big
wooden match. “That’s a strike-anywhere match. You can see the scrapes here on
the brick Archie always used.”
The match ignites on Del’s third try
and she coos with delight as she touches flame to paper and the fire crackles
“Now when you’re sure the kindling has
caught,” says Nathan, handing Del a piece of wood slightly larger than the
kindling, “you lay progressively larger pieces on, but not too fast or you’ll
put the fire out. Fire needs oxygen. Get it?”
“Got it,” says Del, carefully placing
the larger piece atop the pyre.
“Good,” says Nathan, getting to his
feet. “And now I must prune some apple trees before the rain comes.”
“When is that?” asks Wanda, anxiously.
“This afternoon, I’m guessing,” says
Nathan, smiling at Wanda. “Might hail, too. A pleasure meeting you. I’ll see
you all tomorrow at ten.”
“I’ll walk you to your truck,” says
Sharon, following Nathan to the door.
“Will you bring Tennyson tomorrow?”
asks Del, adding another piece of wood to the fire.
“Oh yeah,” says Nathan, smiling at
the sight of her taking such care with the fire. “He goes everywhere with me.”
At the truck, Sharon stands close to
Nathan and says, “I would very much like to hire you to come every day to help
us with all the things we need help with. What is your hourly fee?”
“I get forty an hour for pruning,” he
says, feeling a little dizzy being so close to her.
“Shall we say fifty,” she says,
looking into his eyes. “I’m amazed by Del’s response to you. Really likes you.”
“So…” he says, wanting to ask which
pronoun to use for Del, but deciding not to. “Tomorrow at ten.”
“Yes,” she says, frowning. “I
suppose you know who I am.”
“I think I do,” he says, opening the
door of his truck and waiting for Tennyson to jump in, “but if you’d rather be
Sharon, I’m fine with that.”
“I guess it doesn’t really matter here,
does it?” she says, her eyes filling with tears.
“No, you won’t get mobbed,” he says,
resisting his impulse to hug her, “though people will gawk until they get used to you being here. You planning to
live here year round?”
“I won’t be here all the time,” she
says, shaking her head. “But Del and Wanda will. For a few years anyway.”
“Okay then,” he says, climbing into
his truck and rolling down his window before closing the door. “See you
tomorrow at ten. I can take Del axe shopping with me, if that’s okay with you.”
“Oh Del won’t go anywhere without me
or Wanda,” says Sharon, shaking her head. “She… no.”
“Well then maybe we can all go,” he
says, pulling away. “I think she’ll dig the hardware store.”
And so begins Nathan’s career as the
helper of Wanda and Del and the movie star Margot Cunningham.