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Ziggurat Farm School

On August 27, after their third day of Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8, Arturo, a handsome lad of twelve, and Irenia, a lovely lass of thirteen, walk along Jousting Street in the northern California coastal town of Mercy on their way to Nathan and Celia’s house to have piano lessons from Delilah and after-school snacks with Vivienne and Henri who just started Sixth Grade at Mercy Montessori, Sixth Grade being the highest class at the school many locals call the hippy school.

Arturo and Irenia have the same homeroom teacher for Seventh Grade, Mr. Delbonis, a surly middle-aged man who has been teaching Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8 for twenty-eight years, and both Arturo and Irenia are distraught about what they’ve experienced so far from Mr. Delbonis and their other teachers at the public school.

“I shudder to think we’re in for six more years of this,” says Arturo, who has made a long list of Mr. Delbonis’s factual errors in his lectures on the history of England and Europe and colonial America, subjects Arturo and Vivienne and Henri and their parents have read several books about. Arturo has also compiled a list of Mr. Delbonis’s many grammatical errors as well as several examples of his undisguised contempt for the intelligence of his students.

“I feel like we’re in prison,” says Irenia, her Russian accent always stronger when she’s upset.

“I feel the same way,” says Arturo, who finds Irenia exceedingly beautiful. “That’s why I’m documenting everything. To convince our parents to get us out of there.”

*

Irenia and Arturo arrive at Nathan and Celia’s little house on the outskirts of town and find Vivienne, Arturo’s soon to be ten-years-old sister, at the kitchen table having guacamole and chips and talking to Celia, seventy-nine, and Nathan, eighty-five, while Henri is having his piano lesson with Delilah in the piano room, otherwise known as Delilah’s bedroom.

Celia brings more guacamole and chips for Arturo and Irenia, and Vivienne opines, “You both appear to be in mourning.”

“We are,” says Arturo, sighing heavily. “Mourning the end of happiness.”

“Public school is a catastrophe for us,” says Irenia, her eyes full of tears. “For everyone else, too, but especially for us.”

“Today,” says Arturo, angrily, “Mr. Delbonis had the gall to say the Battle of Hastings in 1066 drove the Vikings out of England, which couldn’t be further from the truth and ignores the fact that most of the British Isles at the time had been inhabited by the Danish, which he conflates with men in horned battle helmets, for three hundred years!”

“Did you alert him to his error?” asks Nathan, who knew that public school, and in particular Ralph Delbonis, would be disastrous for the Ziggurat Farm kids.

“Heavens no,” says Arturo, aghast at the thought of confronting their large and humorless teacher. “When Larry Jurgens said, ‘You mean 1776,” when Mr. Delbonis said 1876 in reference to the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Delbonis practically ripped Larry’s head off. He’d kill me if I dared question the veracity of his erroneous twaddle.”

“So what are you going to do?” asks Nathan, glancing at Celia. “We’re too old to start a school for you.”

“That may be true,” says Vivienne, who can’t imagine life without Nathan and Celia, “but you’re not too old to help us convince our parents to home school us.”

“We’ll try,” says Celia, recalling how their daughter Calypso languished in public school for a decade, having learned far more from her parents by the time she was eight than she would learn in the ensuing ten years at Mercy K-8 and Mercy High. “But it won’t be easy because they’re all so busy.”

“At the Montessori school we had art and music and field trips,” says Irenia, recalling the good old days of last year. “At public school they give us piles of meaningless data to memorize and at recess the kids all stare at their phones. I feel like a lab rat.”

“An apt analogy,” says Arturo, giving Nathan a pained look. “And we have zero interest in being lab rats.”

*

Thus it comes to pass that Vivienne and Arturo’s parents Philip and Lisa, Henri’s parents Marcel and Andrea, and Irenia’s parents Boris and Marie, agree to home school their progeny rather than subject them to the well-meaning but essentially destructive public education system as it manifests in Mercy.

Philip and Lisa and Andrea take it upon themselves to assemble a faculty and create a curriculum to educate their children and prepare them for the future and so they can pass the high school equivalency exam, a test they will take a few years hence; and a week later Ziggurat Farm School opens for business.

When Alma Goldstein, eleven, and Larry Jurgens, twelve, hear about the farm school from Arturo and Vivienne, they and their parents beg to join the new enterprise. After brief negotiations, Alma and Larry’s parents agree to pay tuition sufficient to cover the salaries of Nathan and Delilah, the only salaried faculty members, and Alma and Larry become the fifth and sixth members of the student body.

The Ziggurat Farm School (ZFS) faculty members and the subjects they teach are as follows:

Andrea—Gardening, Farm Management, History

Lisa—Physiology, Yoga, Drama

Philip—History, Conversational French, Cooking

Marcel—Conversational French, Carpentry, Soccer, Fermentation

Michael—Ornithology, Wildlife Biology

Caroline—Botany, Marine Biology

Delilah—Mathematics, Music, Drawing

Marie—Sewing, Knitting

Boris—Engine Repair, Wrestling

Nathan—Writing, Poetry

Daisy—Literature, Typing, Cinema

Celia—Spanish, First Aid, Healthcare 

Arthur Jurgens (Larry’s father)—Physics, Beachcombing

Raul—Restaurant Economics

 *

On a spectacular warm and sunny morning in mid-September, Caroline, forty, a lovely long-limbed professor of Botany at the University of New Hampshire on sabbatical for a year, lies naked in the king-sized bed in Raul’s house in Mercy and thinks I’ve got to nip this romance in the bud. He’s sixteen years older than I am, I have a great job at UNH, and I’m falling in love with him. No. I am in love with him. What the fuck am I doing?

*

Raul, big and handsome and Portuguese, a most famous chef and renowned Lothario, is the godfather of Caroline’s six-month-old niece Jenna who lives on Ziggurat Farm with her mother Daisy and father Michael, Caroline’s brother. Raul and Caroline have been romantically involved for two weeks now, and unlike his experiences with his previous lovers, Raul is not growing weary of Caroline, which is an entirely new experience for him.

“I think I am falling in love with you,” says Raul to Caroline as they eat breakfast on the deck of Raul’s modern one-story house at the end of a quiet lane on a headland meadow in Mercy. “I’ve never been in love before, so I’m not sure. But I think this must be how people feel when they fall in love.”

“What do you mean you’ve never been in love?” says Caroline, looking up from the delicious omelet Raul made for her. “I’ve read your memoir. You’re famous for being in love.”

“I’m famous for my food and sleeping with movie actresses,” he says with a shrug. “But I was never in love with any of them. I enjoyed sleeping with some of them, some not so much. Before the actresses, my liaisons were also brief. I have no experience of being in a relationship. Until you.”

“Are we in a relationship?” asks Caroline, who has only been in a few, none lasting more than a year. “I thought we were just having a fling.”

“Maybe we are,” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “But I admire so many things about you, besides your genius in bed. This is new for me and I like it very much.”

“I feel the same about you,” she says, keenly aware of her resistance to being in love. With anybody. “Though we’re terribly mismatched, you know.”

“Why?” he asks, smiling. “Because I’m older than you?”

“And I’m a college professor in New Hampshire,” she says, feeling she might cry, “and you live here.”

“Aha,” he says, gazing up at the blue blue sky. “Yet here we are and at least for the moment you don’t seem to mind our age difference, so perhaps we could spend the day together.”

“I’d love to, Raul” she says, softening, “but I’m the after-lunch teacher at the farm school today. I’m taking the kids on a walk in the woods to study the ecosystem.”

“I would love to go with you,” he says, nodding hopefully. “If I wouldn’t be in the way.”

“You would?” she says, surprised. “That would be… fine. You wouldn’t be in the way at all.”

“Good,” he says, happily. “I will be your student, too. What do I need to bring?”

“A sketch book and a couple pencils,” she says, delighted. “We’ll be sketching trees and landscapes. The kids are amazing artists. They studied with a wonderful painter and now they take drawing from Delilah.”

“I know the painter who taught them,” he says, recalling Joseph Richardson recently gone back to England. “We have two of his paintings in Ocelot, one of the mouth of the Mercy, and a huge amazing portrait of the farm people in fancy clothes with their dogs, playing croquet in the orchard. You’ll see them if you ever come to my restaurant. Joseph and his wife Constance dined there every Thursday evening before they returned to England. They adored Delilah.”

“She’s amazing,” says Caroline, who has a not-so-secret crush on Delilah. “Can you imagine having her as your Math, Music, and Art teacher when you were in school?”

“I quit school when I was twelve,” says Raul, recalling the cold drudgery of Catholic school, “and escaped to the kitchen of my stepfather’s restaurant. But if Delilah had been my teacher, I would not have wanted to escape.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Do you know who her mother was?”

“Margot Cunningham. Daisy told me.” She squints at him. “One of your conquests?”

“I was one of hers,” he says quietly. “Long ago one night in San Francisco.”

“How was it?” she asks, surprised to feel jealous.

“I remember very little about the experience,” he says, recalling Margot dining at estuaire, the restaurant he created that made him world famous—Margot regal and exquisitely beautiful, but sad, deeply sad. “Only that she wanted me to call her Susie, which I later learned was the name she was born with.”

“Does Delilah know?”

“No one in the world knows except you and I.” He takes her hand. “Shall we keep it our secret?”

“Yes,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I will tell no one.”

*

Delilah resembles her famous mother in both face and body, though she is not blonde and fair, but brunette with olive skin. Tall and strong, her hair cut very short, she was a musical and mathematical prodigy as a child, and an accomplished artist by the age of ten, her talents undiminished now that she is twenty-five.

She is wearing her usual outfit of sweatshirt and brown trousers as she stands between two large chalkboards in the farmhouse living room, watching Larry and Henri each attempting to solve the same Algebra problem.

Twelve-year-old Larry is very skinny, one might even say scrawny. He wears wire-framed glasses, his nose long and thin, his lips quite large, his chin barely evident, his red hair frizzy, his father a retired Physics professor now a zealous collector of driftwood, his mother a Marriage and Family Counselor who does most of her work via video telephony.

Eleven-year-old Henri possesses his German mother’s beauty and his French father’s heroic chin. Born and raised on the farm, he is muscular and agile with short brown hair and a stellar sense of humor.

When the boys complete their figuring, Henri concluding with X=32, Larry with X=16, Delilah says, “Very well done, Henri. And Larry, take another look at the third line of your otherwise excellent work.”

“Oh shoot,” says Larry, slapping his forehead and knocking his glasses askew. “Duh.”

“I think we’ve done quite enough math for one morning,” says Delilah, sensing the kids need a break on this glorious sunshiny day. “Go amble around and when you feel sufficiently revived, we’ll finish the morning session with some music.”

Irenia, Arturo, and Henri play Frisbee on the expanse of open ground in front of the barn while Vivienne, Alma, and Larry walk to the vegetable garden, pull a few carrots, and saunter back to the farmhouse happily munching.

“Just think,” says Larry, his voice high and nasal, “if we were at Mercy K-8 right now, I’d be doodling in my binder and praying no one beats me up at recess while Mr. Delbonis spews questionable facts to memorize.”

“And I’d be praying Miss Hansen didn’t call on me,” says Alma, who is plump and cute and has frizzy light brown hair and wears glasses, her father an optometrist, her mother a dietician, “because I wouldn’t have heard anything she said for the last ten minutes, which is when she always called on me.”

“I’d probably be bored at the Montessori school, too,” says Vivienne, who recently had her long brown hair cut shoulder length and sometimes wishes she’d been able to finish Sixth Grade at the Montessori. “But not at recess. I loved recess at the Montessori. The soccer games especially. So I do miss that.”

When the kids return to the farmhouse after their short break, they find Philip and Lisa in the kitchen preparing lunch, the kids to eat first, the adults after—lunch and the mid-day recess lasting from roughly 11:30 to 1.

Delilah is sitting at the piano thinking about what to do with the kids for the next half-hour when Vivienne says, “I hope we’re going to sing now. We loved learning to sing harmonies last week.”

*

Raul and Caroline arrive at the farmhouse in time to hear the children singing a three-part harmony rendition of a verse from ‘Up A Lazy River’—Delilah and five of the children singing in tune, while Alma, singing loudest of all, is way off key, which obviously irks the other children.

Up a lazy river where the robin’s song

Wakes up in the mornin’ as we roll along

Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love

Up a lazy river, how happy we will be

Up a lazy river with me

Standing at the open front door listening to Alma wreak havoc on the otherwise excellent rendition, Caroline and Raul exchanges glances wondering what Delilah will say to Alma when they finish the verse.

“Okay,” says Delilah, before any of the kids can complain about Alma’s singing, “we’re getting there, but I’d like to work on our pitch before we try again. Gather round the piano.”

So the kids gather round the piano and Delilah plays middle C and says, “Let’s match this note.”

Five of the kids match the C perfectly while Alma belts out a D.

“Now one at a time,” says Delilah, playing the C again. “Arturo begin, please.”

Arturo matches the note. Henri matches the note. Vivienne matches the note. Irenia matches the note, her voice extraordinarily beautiful. Larry matches the note. Alma sings a D.

“Alma?” says Delilah, gently. “Can you hear how your note is not exactly the same as the C?”

“No,” says Alma, frowning. “Sounds the same to me.”

“I want you to try again.” Delilah plays the C again and holds down the sustain pedal. “Now listen very carefully as you sing and try to match this note.”

Alma steadfastly sings a D.

“How about this?” says Delilah, winking at Arturo to quell his urge to say No! “Irenia? Would you sing the C and hold the note for as long as you can.”

Irenia sings the C.

“Now Alma, I want you to sing with Irenia so your note sounds just like her note.”

Alma sings D again, but as Irenia continues to hold the C, Alma begins to hear how she is not quite singing the same note as Irenia. So she stops singing, clears her throat, starts again, and gets a little closer to the Irenia’s C.

And now, as if this moment has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time, Alma’s note becomes Irenia’s and they hold the note together for a long time, after which everyone in the farmhouse cheers.

*

In the forest a few hundred yards north of the terraced vegetable and flower garden, the children and Raul and Caroline sit in a circle on the ground a few feet apart, their backs to the center of the circle, making sketches of what they see before them.

An unseen raven makes a sound uncannily like someone playing castanets.

Raul looks up from his sketching and waits for the sound of castanets to come again, but the raven has nothing more to say. Raul looks at his sketch of three large trunks of trees in the foreground, shrubbery in the middle ground, myriad trunks and foliage in the background.

“So this is the world,” he says quietly.

Henri, sitting to Raul’s right, nods and quotes his father Marcel, complete with Marcel’s French accent. “So we are told.”

“Not the whole world,” says Vivienne, sitting to Raul’s left. “But definitely part of the world. You didn’t mean the whole world, did you?”

“I did,” says Raul, loving being here with the children and Caroline. “This is part of the world and the whole world, too.”

“I kind of see what you mean,” says Vivienne, continuing to sketch the scene before her. “For instance, if you were an ant or even something smaller, this would certainly be the whole world.”

“I don’t know about that,” says Arturo, commenting from the other side of the circle. “Ants can travel pretty far in a relatively short amount of time. I read they can travel more than a mile in a day. But to a bacteria this would be a veritable galaxy.”

“Why do people want to go to Mars?” asks Irenia, unhappy with her rendering of a stump surrounded by ferns. “Why not stay here and make the earth clean again? Why go to a planet with no life when we have this one so full of life?”

“Ecology begets philosophy,” says Caroline, remembering making love with Raul this morning, how never before had she experienced such perfect harmony.

fin

Sweet

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Who Is Your Audience?

Nathan is eighty-five, spry, in full command of his senses, and very much enjoying his less strenuous life after fifty years of pruning fruit trees for a living. He lives with his wife Celia, seventy-nine, a retired nurse, in a little house on the outskirts of the small northern California coastal town of Mercy. They’ve lived in their comfy two-bedroom home since they married fifty-three years ago, and for the last twelve years they’ve shared their house with Delilah, who is now twenty-five. Their one child, Calypso, fifty-two, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, lives nearby with her computer-savvy husband Paul and their teenaged son Carlos.

A poet of some renown in his late twenties, Nathan writes for an hour or so every day as he has for the last sixty-five years. He posts poems and short stories on his blog whenever he finishes one he especially likes. Every now and then he hears from someone who enjoyed one of his postings, and he thinks of these communiqués from afar as the universe kissing him. He teaches writing twice a week to the Ziggurat Farm kids Arturo, Vivienne, Henri, and Irenia, and occasionally lends his editing skills to local writers who appreciate his way with words.

*

On a foggy morning in mid-July, Nathan sits at his kitchen table with Daisy, who is forty and moved with her husband Michael into the house and property adjoining Ziggurat Farm nine months ago, just five months before their baby girl Jenna was born. Daisy has come to see Nathan today to find out what he thinks of her novel she gave him to read two weeks ago.

While Celia carries four-month-old Jenna around in the living room, singing softly to her in Spanish, Nathan asks Daisy, “So who is this book for?”

“What do you mean?” asks Daisy, confused by the question. “I wrote it to try to get published.”

“I understand, but… who did you have in mind while you were writing it?”

“Oh,” says Daisy, frowning. “I guess my agent.”

“Your agent,” says Nathan, surprised by her answer. “Is she a friend of yours?”

“No, I don’t really know her,” says Daisy, realizing she knows nothing about her agent except she’s a literary agent in New York and represents several published writers. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.” He sips his tea. “What did your agent say about this book?”

“Well…” Daisy clears her throat. “She sent me a list of things I need to change before she’ll show it to anyone. You know… things like… I need to beef up the romance between Arno and Miranda and make the characters of Harmon and Cid more overtly evil and the characters of Miranda and Jessica more obviously good. But she likes the writing and thinks the plot is strong for the first two-thirds, and then she says things kind of fizzle out and I need to wrap things up much sooner and with more of a bang. To make it more saleable.”

“I see,” says Nathan, looking at the title page of the manuscript: Racing Through Darkness by Daisy Darling. “May I ask who your writing role models are?”

“My favorite authors?”

“Yeah, writers you learned from.”

“Well I decided to be a writer after I went on an Edith Wharton binge my last two years of college. I read everything she ever published over and over again, including her most obscure short stories. And then I had a fling with Thomas Hardy and Dickens, and then I was obsessed with Irish short story writers, and then Bashevis Singer and somewhere in there Steinbeck and Faulkner and Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, and then I read lots of contemporary women writers, and when I finally got an agent—took me seven years to convince someone to represent me—she said I should religiously read the books on the New York Times bestseller list, so I’ve been trying to do that for the last three years.”

“How has that gone?” asks Nathan, sounding concerned.

“Well…” Daisy laughs uneasily. “Interesting.”

“Mostly murder mysteries and thrillers and horror books. Yeah?”

“Not all of them. Every once in while there’s one about a person… you know, overcoming incredible odds and… to be totally honest, I don’t actually read most of them. I skim them. The writing is…” She hesitates. “Not great. Usually.”

Nathan thinks for a moment. “Daisy, I don’t think I can help you. I don’t know anything about commercial writing.”

“Did you hate my book?” she asks, her jaw trembling.

“I wouldn’t say I hated it,” he says, shaking his head. “When you gave me the manuscript you said you felt there was something missing and you couldn’t figure out what it was. And for me what was missing… was you.”

“Me?” she says, horrified. “What do you mean?”

“I mean your voice, your feelings, your take on reality.” He taps the manuscript. “I think this was an attempt to write something you thought your agent would want to try to sell. But I couldn’t find you in here. And I don’t know anything about these kinds of books except I’m not the audience for them. I’m an audience for the radiance of your soul. And though that may sound grandiose, it isn’t. I listen to you talking and telling stories and you flood the world with the radiance of who you are. That’s what I’m an audience for. That’s what makes a good poem or a good story for me. Not the plot. Not the genre. Not imitations of tired old formulas, but the miraculous nature of life expressed in words.”

“But they won’t publish the radiance of who I am,” she says, crying.

“Aye, there’s the rub,” he says, nodding. “They used to, when all those writers you named got published. They used to hunt for books and authors full of the radiance, and that’s when all sorts of weirdo geniuses got published. But now the radiance has got to get through in other ways, which I’m sure it does, just not very often through conventional channels.”

She stops crying and looks at him. “You’re saying I wasted twenty years of my life.”

“Not at all,” he says, shaking his head. “You know how to build a house now and you can build another one if you want. And I’ll bet you if you build it for someone you know and love, they’ll want to live there. And I probably will, too.”

She takes a deep breath to dispel her tears. “Sometimes I’ll be writing and go into a kind of trance, and I’ll write pages and pages that have nothing to do with the book I’m trying to write. And I’ll read those pages and be amazed, though I never think they’re anything but transcriptions of waking dreams.”

“That’s the boss stuff, Daisy.”

“You think so?” she says, turning to watch Celia standing at the window with baby Jenna in her arms, the fog giving way to sunshine.

*

After graduating from college with a degree in English, and until she inherited a fortune from her mother two years ago, Daisy worked as a secretary in the Biology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where her husband Michael was a graduate student, then a lecturer, and most recently a professor of Ornithology and Wildlife Biology. Daisy worked on her short stories and novels in the evenings and on weekends, and belonged to a group of writers that met every two weeks to share their writing and encourage each other to keep going.

Daisy and Michael were saving money to buy a house and have a baby and give Daisy two years as a stay-at-home mom when Daisy’s mother unexpectedly died and left them a huge pile of money.

Now they own a beautiful house on three acres adjacent to Ziggurat Farm on the edge of a vast forest of redwoods and firs and spruce and hemlocks. Michael is completing his third book about owls and beginning research on Ospreys, their baby Jenna is happy and healthy, and Daisy, until a few minutes ago, thought she would soon be starting another rewrite of her novel following the directives of her literary agent.

But now, as she sits in Nathan and Celia’s living room nursing Jenna and waiting for Michael to come drive her home, she knows she will not be revising her novel and may never write another one. And though she feels sad about this ending to a very long chapter of her life, she also feels profoundly relieved, as if some part of her always knew she wasn’t meant to be an imitator.

She closes her eyes and surrenders to the lovely sensation of her daughter suckling, the fire crackling in the fireplace, and when she hears Nathan open the door and greet Michael and invite them for lunch, she doesn’t open her eyes until Michael kisses her forehead and whispers, “Shall we stay for lunch, darling?”

“We shall,” she says, seeing how tired he looks from the months of getting up three times a night to bring the crying baby to her. “Guess what?”

“You had a good time with Nathan,” he says, relieved to see her happy again after weeks of anguish.

“Yes,” she says, nodding, “and I’ve decided to let my novel go and start anew. Only from now on I’ll write what I want to write and not what anyone else tells me to write.”

*

A few days later, Daisy puts Jenna in what Michael calls the all-terrain stroller, the most heavy duty stroller they could find, leashes their Golden Retriever pup Figaro, and takes baby human and baby dog on the path to the one-acre terraced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Irenia and Vivienne are working, all of them wearing long-sleeved shirts and shorts and sunhats.

Irenia and Vivienne ask Andrea if they can take a break from weeding to visit with Daisy and Jenna, and Andrea says, “Of course.”

Vivienne, who is a few months away from turning ten, lifts four-month-old Jenna out of the stroller—Jenna chuckling with delight because she especially loves Vivienne.

“Hello my darling precious new person,” says Vivienne, kissing Jenna’s cheek. “You who are possessed of the softest skin in the entire universe.”

Irenia, who is twelve and a foot taller than Vivienne, stands nearby waiting her turn to hold the baby.

“She’s growing so fast,” says Irenia, making no attempt, as she sometimes will, to hide her Russian accent. “Every time I see her she is a different person, and I just saw her two days ago.”

“I wonder if she would like a strawberry?” asks Vivienne, kissing Jenna again before handing her to Irenia. “Not to eat, of course, but to suck on. We’ll be very careful.”

“That’s fine,” says Daisy, sitting on a small wooden bench next to an expanse of voluptuous scarlet and burgundy gladioli.

Andrea and Lisa are thinning carrots several terraces up the gently sloping incline, and Lisa says something that makes Andrea laugh and Daisy hears They are a farm of women. Not that men don’t come to visit, they do, but the men rarely stay for long because they are not wanted here save for sex and to make the occasional child, male children sent away to the farms of men when they are no longer little boys.

*

When Jenna goes down for a nap in the early afternoon and Michael and his sister Caroline go on a hike, Daisy sits at the kitchen table and writes down the words she heard in the garden. But when she tries to write more than what she heard, nothing comes out.

“This is when I start forcing things,” she says, speaking aloud. “Trying to make up what I think should come next. But I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to worry the words, as Nathan says.”

Thinking of Nathan and his invitation to come write with him, she goes in search of her phone. After looking in the bedroom and kitchen and living room she remembers she left her phone in the all-terrain stroller they store in the foyer where they hang their coats and keep their outdoor shoes.

As she’s fishing her phone out of the pocket on the backside of the stroller, she feels an urgency, almost a panic, to turn those lines she heard into something big and sensational, a book her agent will want to sell to a publisher, and she realizes that as long as she is ruled by this compulsion, she will never hear more of the story.

*

The next day after breakfast, Daisy nurses Jenna, leaves her with Michael, and drives to Nathan and Celia’s for tea and talk by the fire, the town of Mercy cloaked in dense fog.

Daisy tells Nathan and Celia and Delilah about her experience of hearing the beginning of a story, writing the lines down, and then feeling desperate to write more but only being able to think of what she describes as derivative guck.

“So what are you gonna do?” asks Nathan, sipping his tea.

“I guess I’ll have to unlearn my compulsion to force things,” says Daisy, having no idea how to do that.

“I think you’ll have to replace your compulsion with something else,” says Delilah, nodding thoughtfully. “I’ve been reading about brain maps and how we create synaptic patterns, actual maps in our brains, by repeating physical and emotional patterns, and these maps are the drivers of our neurology, our operating system, so to speak. And it seems the more we repeat something, the more deeply etched the brain map for that particular thing and the harder it is to override the commands of that map. But if we create new brain maps by repeating new behaviors hundreds and thousands of times, and we stop repeating the old behaviors, our old brain maps eventually grow fainter and less dominant, though they never go away completely.”

“Which is why we can still ride a bike even if we haven’t ridden one in twenty years,” says Nathan, trying to remember the last time he rode a bike. “The brain map we made when we learned to ride is still there.”

“I think also,” says Celia in her quiet way, “you need to end your connection with your agent.”

Daisy gasps. “Oh no. It took me so long to find someone to represent me. She won’t care if she doesn’t hear from me for a few months.”

“But isn’t she the grand manifestation of your compulsion?” asks Delilah, going to heat more water for a second round of tea. “Isn’t she fueling the urgency that causes you to force things?” She cackles. “The wicked witch of the east.”

“Oh let’s not make her wicked,” says Nathan, laughing. “Let’s just say she may be keeping you anchored somewhere you’d rather sail away from.”

“I really don’t think it’s necessary,” says Daisy, terrified of not having an agent.

“Then stay with her,” says Nathan, simply. “See how things go.”

*

A few nights later, Michael and Daisy and Jenna and Caroline are having supper in the farmhouse with the seven farm residents plus Irenia, the feast prepared by Philip with assistance from Henri and Irenia.

Mid-supper, Arturo, who is about to turn twelve, describes something that happened as he and Vivienne were closing up the chicken coop for the night and gathering eggs.

“There are two hens,” says Arturo, his story-telling style modeled on that of an erudite British fellow who used to be a mainstay of the collective. “One is Marilyn Monroe and the other is either Queen Elizabeth or Marie Antoinette. I never can tell those two apart. In any case, they are always the last hens to go inside to roost for the night, and sometimes we have to shoo them in, which we had to do tonight, which is when we saw the fox.”

“We think the fox was a she,” says Vivienne, taking up the tale, “because she was not very big, but definitely not a kit and certainly big enough to kill a chicken.”

“She was just sitting there in the high grass on the edge of the clearing,” says Arturo, looking at his father Philip. “Calm and unafraid and waiting patiently for the right moment to leap over the fence into the scratch yard and grab one of those hens.”

“Where were the dogs?” ask Marcel, Henri’s French father. “Don’t tell me. They were in here by the fire. Old dogs in retirement.”

“Alexandra was with us,” says Vivienne, speaking of her five-year old Golden Retriever, “and she definitely saw the fox, but she didn’t even bark. It was very strange, as if she and the fox had come to an agreement.”

“So we need to start getting the hens in a half-hour earlier,” says Andrea, who would hate to lose either of her premiere egg producers. “I’ll write the new closing time on your chore sheets.”

“Our brother Thom,” says Caroline, who loves living here and never wants to go back to New Hampshire where she is a professor of Botany, “wrote a book about foxes. He considers them a higher form of life than humans. He wants to come visit soon and meet Jenna and see what we’re all raving about, but he’s teaching summer session and then fall classes start soon after, so it may be a while. He’s in Ithaca. At Cornell.”

“We’d love to read his book,” says Henri, who has a secret crush on Caroline, though she is thirty years his senior. “Can we get it from the library?”

“I doubt it,” says Michael, who is constantly amazed by the sophistication of the farm kids. “I have a copy. It’s rather technical, but you’re welcome to borrow it and I’ll be happy to translate the jargon for you.”

“Thom is working on another book about foxes for the general public,” says Caroline, giving Henri a big-eyed smile, “but that won’t be out for years, assuming he can ever find a publisher.”

“I love the word jargon,” says Arturo, looking at Henri and Vivienne and Irenia. “Lets name our next dog or cat Jargon.”

“I think it would be an excellent name for a male,” says Irenia, holding Jenna on her knee and gently bouncing her. “But it doesn’t sound right for a female.”

“You’re right,” says Henri, raising his voice as he always does before he makes a joke. “The female version would be Jargonella.”

“Excuse me,” says Daisy, getting up from the table. “I’ll be right back.”

While the conversation rages, Daisy hurries to the all-terrain stroller, gets out her notebook, and writes The talk turns to naming the new dog the women got from Old Martha who breeds Malamutes with wolves to make protectors for the farms of women.

When Daisy returns to the table, Michael takes her hand. “You okay?”

“Fine,” she says, smiling at their daughter so happy with Irenia. “Just wanted to write something down before I forgot.”

*

The next day while Jenna is napping, Daisy carries her phone out on the deck, gazes at the fabulous forest descending to the sea, and taps the number of her agent in New York.

“Daisy,” says Gwen, coming on the line. “Call you back in ten.”

“Okay,” says Daisy, knowing the universe is providing these ten minutes to test her resolve.

As she waits, Daisy thinks of her mother Doris who raised Daisy single-handedly and cheerfully while working in a Ford assembly plant, how proud she was of Daisy for being a writer. “Takes courage to do something with no guarantee you’ll succeed,” said Doris a year or so before she died. “But it’s what you love, so go for it.”

Daisy answers her vibrating phone.

“What’s up?” says Gwen who is simultaneously answering emails.

“I’ve decided to stop working with you,” says Daisy, bracing herself for an angry retort.

“No, that’s my line,” says Gwen, laughing a little and ceasing to type. “Too much baby, not enough writing time? I’m happy to wait for the smoke to clear. Hate to lose you when we’re getting so close.”

“I’m going in a different direction now,” says Daisy, smiling at the truth of that. “I really appreciate all the help you gave me.”

“No problem,” says Gwen, curtly. “I’ll email you the quit document to sign and… good luck.”

*

On a warm morning in mid-August, Daisy and Nathan are sitting opposite each other at Nathan’s kitchen table, Celia carrying five-month-old Jenna around the garden visiting flowers with her.

Nathan and Daisy are writing together, each writing two lines of a story on a sheet of typing paper, then exchanging the papers and writing the next two lines of each story, and so on, back and forth until they reach the bottoms of their pages and wrap their stories up with two final lines.

When they finish writing, they each read aloud the story they ended up with. One of the stories doesn’t do much for either of them, but the other story…  

*

Frederick wasn’t sure Amelia wanted to go out

with him, so he didn’t ask her for fear she would

say yes and turn out to be a psychic black hole

and suck all the joy out of his life and make him

want to become a monk, something he often

had nightmares about. You see, Frederick loved

wearing flamboyant colorful clothing and having

sex with women, and Amelia was just exactly

a woman, which was just what Frederick was

looking for. She had two arms, two legs, two

adorable dogs named Gormag and Fitzroy

and her voice was husky and warm and when

she laughed the earth shook and made Frederick

whimper like a dog hearing fireworks exploding on

the eve of the ascension, not to mention

making him wildly amorous and ready to

throw caution to the wind and sleep with

someone he knew had slept with

German aristocrats, rock stars, and women

who enjoyed dressing as men and behaving

like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Yet

he didn’t ask her out, though he wanted to

more than anything he’d ever wanted, except

for one thing: to play boogie-woogie piano

naked on a warm summer night for a

gathering of his favorite writers, most of

them dead, but resurrected especially

for the occasion.

fin

Whoopsie Doopsie

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Beauties

Raul Neves is one of the most famous chefs in the world. Born in the Portuguese coastal city of Aveiro, Raul is the ruggedly handsome son of a fisherman named Goncalo and a waitress named Beatrice. Goncalo was lost at sea when Raul was seven. A year later Beatrice married the owner of the restaurant where she worked, and Raul gravitated to the restaurant kitchen where he proved to be a culinary prodigy.

At fifteen Raul went to work in the kitchen of a fine restaurant in Lisbon, and at seventeen became sous chef in an excellent Paris restaurant. His rise to culinary stardom was only impeded by his uncontrollable temper, and when he was twenty-three his fight with two men in a bar was judged a felonious assault and resulted in Raul serving two years in a French prison.

Upon his release, he returned to Lisbon and underwent a year of intensive psychotherapy, the fruits of which were the cessation of his violent outbursts and a new way of thinking about life. He moved to London, established himself as a premiere chef, and then moved to San Francisco where his spectacular cuisine and his appealing persona made the restaurant estuaire famous and launched Raul’s second career as the paramour of movie actresses.

When Raul was fifty-two his mother died and he became severely depressed. He decided he had to get out of the city, any city, and accepted the offer of a wealthy couple to create a restaurant in the remote northern California coastal town of Mercy, the restaurant to be housed in an exquisitely restored two-story Victorian perched on the headlands overlooking Mercy Bay. That restaurant is the peerless Ocelot, the name coming to Raul in a dream.

*

On a fine spring day in the middle of May, Raul and the movie star Kristen Carlyle cruise two miles inland in Raul’s new red Tesla up a winding road to Ziggurat Farm, home of Philip and Lisa and Marcel and Andrea. Marcel and Philip are both part-time waiters at Ocelot, and Andrea and Lisa are masters of the Ziggurat Farm organic vegetable and flower garden, source of much of the produce and flowers used by Raul at his restaurant.

Raul and Kristen are going to lunch at the farm—Philip a superb cook, Marcel a maker of exquisite wine, Andrea also a fine cook, Lisa a charming hostess—forty people expected for Nathan’s eighty-fifth birthday party, Nathan’s life deeply entangled with the lives of those who live on the farm.

“What a beauty,” says Kristen, as they turn off the highway onto the farm drive. “Must be worth a fortune.”

Kristen, twenty-eight, a busty brunette known for her steamy sex scenes in violent thrillers, has enjoyed her brief affair with Raul but has no illusions about their liaison lasting much longer.

Raul, who is twice Kristen’s age, has never seen any of Kristen’s seventeen movies because he prefers books to movies, particularly the classics, his current endeavor A Tale of Two Cities.

“This is a farm of beauties,” says Raul, parking amidst the other vehicles. “Beautiful women, beautiful men, beautiful children, beautiful dogs, beautiful cats, beautiful flowers, and incomparable vegetables. I would live here if they’d let me, but I’m afraid to ask for fear they might say No.”

“Are you serious?” asks Kristen, wrinkling her famous nose.

“Always,” says Raul, tired of Kristen after their few days together, their intellects and senses of humor severely mismatched.

“I didn’t know that about you,” she says, thinking she’ll end things with Raul tomorrow or the next day so she can get home to Los Angeles and rest for a couple weeks before a long shoot in New York. “You seem so easy going.”

“I am seriously easygoing,” he says, smiling at her. “Come. Let us go consort with the beauties.”

*

Raul and Kristen are greeted at their car by a mellow old hound named Jung and a friendly Golden Retriever named Alexandra, the dogs followed by two girls in summery dresses: Vivienne, a darling nine-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair, and Irenia, twelve, her long black hair in a braid festooned with white carnations, her face so lovely to Raul he has to take a deep breath to calm himself every time he sees her.

“Bon jour Raul,” says Vivienne, avidly studying Kristen. “You remember Irenia, don’t you?”

“Of course,” says Raul, bowing to Irenia. “How are you?”

“Very well, thank you,” says Irenia, who is learning to speak in the manner of the children of Ziggurat Farm, their vocabulary and conversational style influenced by years of tutelage from two verbally flamboyant upper crust Brits. “May we perchance know the name of your most attractive companion?”

“This is Kristen,” says Raul, turning to Kristen. “Kristen this is Vivienne and Irenia.”

“Are you British?” asks Kristen, easily fooled.

“Alas, no,” says Vivienne, sighing dramatically as she thinks of Constance and Joseph who moved back to England several months ago. “We are but pale facsimiles.”

“We have come to inform you that hors d’oeuvres and wine and grape juice are being served in the garden,” says Irenia, admiring Kristen’s dangly diamond earrings. “Lunch to follow in the farmhouse.”

So the quartet of humans and the two dogs make their way along the path bordered by lilacs and lavender and rose bushes to the magnificent terraced vegetable and flower garden where the guests are gathered around two picnic tables in the dappled shade of a live oak, most of the women in dresses, most of the men wearing colorful shirts, Marcel and his ten-year-old son Henri playing accordions at a distance from the gathering to add ambience but not interfere with the myriad conversations.

Raul seeks out Andrea, the boss of the garden, and gives her a hug and a kiss before he gestures expansively to the burgeoning vegetables. “I cannot wait to pilfer from this magnificence. My God how things have grown since just last week.”

“I’ve got employees now,” says Andrea, pleased Raul came to her first. “The children all want to work in the garden now that Irenia works for me on weekends.”

“Raul,” says Philip, approaching with Irenia’s father and mother—Boris tall and big-bellied, Maria plump and a foot shorter than he. “I want you to meet Boris and Maria, Irenia’s parents.”

“A pleasure,” says Raul, shaking Boris’s hand, both men large and strong. “I recognize you from the garage. You revived my dying Mercedes and then I sold it and bought a Tesla.”

“Tesla,” says Boris, with a thick Russian accent. “I am just now learning to fix these electric cars. I am trained mechanic not electrician.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” says Raul, bowing to Maria. “May I present to all of you my dear friend Kristen.”

“Hi,” says Kristen, giving everyone a little wave. “This place is amazing.”

“You are movie star,” says Maria, gazing open-mouthed at Kristen. “We just see you in movie with Dylan James.” She looks at Boris. “What was name of movie?”

Madness?” guesses Kristen, having made three movies with Dylan, Madness their latest.

“Yes,” says Boris, emphatically. “Madness. You were… you were…” He frowns, his English vocabulary failing him.

“A psychotic prostitute,” says Kristen, matter-of-factly. “And it wasn’t the first time.”

“Yes, you are crazy person,” says Boris, growing uncomfortable. “Very crazy.”

“Wine?” says Philip, coming to the rescue. “Grape juice? Yummy nibbles, as we call hors d’oeuvres around here? Follow me.”

At the picnic table, Raul kisses Daisy on her forehead, Daisy a curvaceous gal with reddish brown hair in a summery yellow dress holding her two-month-old baby girl Jenna.

“May I?” asks Raul, miming rocking a baby.

“Of course,” says Daisy, carefully placing her baby girl in Raul’s big hands—Raul the reason Daisy and her husband Michael came to Mercy eight months ago, to dine at Ocelot, and now they own the house and property contiguous with the farm and hope to live here for the rest of their lives.

Raul gazes into the eyes of the infant and feels his life turn upside down.

*

As the fabulous luncheon draws to a close—the revelers seated at four large tables filling the farmhouse dining room and much of the living room—Nathan and Celia’s daughter Calypso stands up and clinks her wine glass with a spoon to ask for silence.

“Now is the time to say whatever you’d like to say to Nathan,” says Calypso, a nurse at Mercy Hospital where she helped deliver the farm children Arturo, Henri, Vivienne, and the new baby Jenna. “I’ll start.”

She turns to Nathan who is sitting at the head of a table with a view of all the guests. “Papa. When I was thinking about what to say today, I remembered when I was sixteen and you got angry with me for taking the car without asking permission. And I realized that was the only time you ever got angry with me. In fifty-two years.” She starts to cry. “You are the kindest person I’ve ever known. Right after Mama.”

When the applause dies down, Celia’s brother Juan, a portly fellow in his seventies, stands up. “Amigo. I want to tell everyone how you hired me to prune trees with you fifty years ago when I really needed a job. We had two little kids and no money and the rent was due. After my first day of work you gave me four hundred dollars and said, ‘This is your signing bonus. I’ll want you to play shortstop and third base.’ So… after you saved us, what could I do? I had to introduce you to my sister.”

When the laughter dies down, Henri stands up.

“Every week,” says Henri, who is ten and not the least flustered by speaking in front of forty people, “the thing Arturo and Vivienne and I look forward to most is going to your house after school to write with you and have piano lessons with Delilah.” He looks at Arturo, who is eleven, and Vivienne, nine. “Now we’d like to recite a poem we wrote for you.”

Vivienne and Arturo join Henri, the trio standing shoulder to shoulder.

Arturo: One day Henri asked you ‘What exactly is a poem?’ and you said exactly is a tricky word, and asked us the question, only without exactly and ending with to you.

Henri: ‘A poem,’ said Arturo, ‘is words telling stories or describing something.’ And you replied, ‘How is that not prose?’

Vivienne: ‘A poem is poetic,’ said Henri. ‘You know. More musical than plain prose and less concerned with punctuation.’

Arturo: Then Vivienne said, ‘Though lines of poems don’t have to rhyme with each other, they usually do inside themselves.’

Vivienne: ‘So maybe,’ you said, smiling your biggest smile, ‘a poem is lines of words sounding sweetly to the poet.’

The children sit down to loud applause, after which Delilah, one of Mercy’s great beauties, her brown hair very short, her green Ziggurat Farm T-shirt tucked into baggy brown trousers, goes to the upright piano at the far end of the living room and says before playing, “Dear Nathan, I could never put into words what you and Celia mean to me, so I thought I’d play the story of meeting you and coming to live with you twelve years ago.”

A virtuoso pianist, Delilah plays three minor chords to begin, expresses the chords again with their separate notes played in quick succession, plays those separate notes again and again until they begin to vary and grow into a rapturous melody supported by an intricate rhythmic pattern of bass notes, the song resolving into single notes and ending with three comically major chords.

Amidst shouts of Bravo, Delilah hurries back to her seat next to Celia who is sitting next to Nathan, and when the applause subsides, Philip stands up and says, “An impossible act to follow, but someone must, so…” He gazes at Nathan and takes a moment to quell his rising tears. “As of today we’ve gotten seventeen good reviews of my cookbook, and nearly all of them use the words poetic and lyrical when speaking of the writing, which is entirely due to your helping me rewrite my original text. You will deny this and say you merely helped me see what was already there, to which I say, ‘No, Nathan, you breathed magic into my words just as you breathe magic into our lives every day.’”

*

After the many accolades for Nathan, the party continues and Raul leaves Kristen speaking to Delilah and sits down beside Nathan at the dining table.

“I would like to give you a birthday gift of supper at Ocelot for you and Celia and Delilah,” says Raul, who had no idea Nathan was so important to so many people in the community.

“I won’t say no to that,” says Nathan, who is greatly relieved to just be one of the partygoers again and no longer the center of attention. “Philip tells us the food is quite good, and he’s no slouch of a cook.”

“He’s brilliant,” says Raul, enjoying Nathan’s jest. “I can assure you I will steal several things I learned from eating his food today.”

“My wife Celia is quite the cook, too,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “We’ll have you over for chicken enchiladas and fish tacos some time.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” says Raul, taking a deep breath. “May I tell you something that happened to me today?”

“Yeah,” says Nathan, who hears the beginning of a poem that goes something changed him today, something he never expected.

“When I took Daisy’s baby in my hands,” says Raul, feeling he might cry, though he hasn’t cried since he was a young man, “and I looked at her face, she wasn’t seeing me at first, you know, but then she focused on me and our eyes met, and I felt certain I was holding the container of a soul who lived before. And whether this is true or not, in that moment I realized the folly of living alone as I do, save for sexual liaisons that never last, and I felt desperate to find a wife and have a child and live with them until I die.” He laughs incredulously. “Or maybe I’m just losing my mind.”

“Or maybe the universe was showing you what love is,” says Nathan, liking the sound of that.

“And what is love?” asks Raul, his heart pounding in anticipation of Nathan’s reply.

“Love is devotion to the miraculous nature of the other, whether the other is a baby or a tree or a woman or a wave breaking on the shore.”

*

Three weeks later, on a sunny day in early June, Raul and his assistant Maurice, a large man with a shaved head, are in the vegetable garden at Ziggurat Farm with Andrea seeing what they might harvest for the restaurant today and what will soon be ready to harvest. As they consider the burgeoning broccoli, a small blue pickup truck pulls up to the barn and a woman jumps out and strides to the garden gate.

“Hello,” she calls, her voice deep and confident. “I’m Caroline Darling, Michael’s sister. Daisy said if I missed their driveway, which I apparently did, I should come here and someone would help me find my way to their house.”

“Oh Caroline. Welcome,” says Andrea, turning to Raul and Maurice. “Excuse me a moment. I’ll be right back.”

Raul guesses Caroline is in her thirties, though she is forty, and he finds her enchanting. Tall and athletic with short brown hair, she’s wearing a sleeveless blue T-shirt showing off muscular arms, khaki shorts revealing long muscular legs, and leather sandals—an amazon with only a spear missing from her ensemble.

*

A few mornings later, Raul comes alone to Ziggurat Farm to get lettuce and eggs and cases of wine for his restaurant. But before he loads his truck with produce, he walks the path to Daisy and Michael’s house to visit baby Jenna as he does every week now in his newly acquired role as Jenna’s godfather.

On the path, he meets Caroline walking with Daisy and Michael’s new Golden Retriever pup on a leash, on their way to the farmhouse where the pup—Figaro—will play with the farm dogs while Caroline has tea with Lisa and Philip.

“Bon jour Caroline,” says Raul, bowing to her before kneeling to receive the puppy’s kisses. “How nice to see you again. Have you joined the collective?”

“At least for the summer,” she says, finding him formidably attractive.

He stands up and looks at her, finding her surpassingly lovely. “And after the summer?”

“Not sure,” she says, wondering if they might have a fling. “Did Daisy tell you I’m on sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire? I’m a botanist. We’re a family of scientists, Michael and I and our brother Thom, our parents entomologists.”

“Insects?” he says, hoping he’s guessing right.

“My mother butterflies,” she says, nodding. “My father beetles.”

“My father was a fisherman, my mother a waitress,” he says, liking everything about her. “Scientists, too, in their own way, and I suppose I am a scientist of food.”

“So I’ve heard,” she says, feeling pleasantly dizzy.

They part ways saying they hope to see each other again, both feeling hopeful of sex with the other.

*

In the many-windowed living room of Daisy and Michael’s house, Raul sits in a rocking chair holding baby Jenna and listening to Daisy talk about her novel she’s planning to rewrite.

“I wrote three novels before this one,” says Daisy, taking yet another picture of Raul with her baby. “I know the first three were practice and nothing anyone would want to publish, but this one… I think the story is so compelling and…” She frowns. “I don’t know. Something’s missing, something I can’t figure out.”

“Have you shown your book to Nathan?” says Raul, making a goofy face at Jenna and waggling his head to make her gurgle in delight.

“What a good idea,” says Daisy, feeling daft she didn’t think of that.

“I would be happy to read your book, but I know nothing about writing,” says Raul, looking up from the baby. “I dictated my memoir to a writer who concocted the book, and I pay people to write my recipes from my scribbles and then I polish them before they go to the publisher. But you’d better hurry. Nathan is eighty-five. Time does not go backwards.”

“I can’t tell you how happy we are that you’re our friend,” says Daisy, gazing in wonder at Raul. “We came here to eat at Ocelot, and now…”

“Now I am your daughter’s doting godfather,” says Raul, feeling he has finally arrived, to paraphrase Stevie Wonder, exactly where God wanted him to be placed.   

fin

Here Somewhere

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Irenia

On the second of February, a Friday, in the thriving northern California coastal town of Mercy, the day dawns icy and clear after three days of rain.

Toby, the tall young UPS driver, arrives on his bicycle at the UPS depot on the south side of Mercy, flirts with Teresa the depot manager over a quick cup of coffee, and gives Domingo a hand loading the big brown UPS truck with packages large and small.

“Hey I’ll bet these are Philip’s cookbooks,” says Domingo, the nephew of Juan, Celia’s brother-in-law, Celia married to Nathan, Nathan and Celia close friends with Philip and the gang at Ziggurat Farm.

“Ten boxes from… Primero Press,” says Toby, reading the label on one of the heavy boxes. “Must be.”

“Veronica can’t wait to get one,” says Domingo, getting out his wallet and handing Toby a couple twenties. “If they open a box when you’re there, could you get me one and have Philip sign it? To Veronica.”

“I’ll try,” says Toby, pocketing the money. “I want one, too.”

Ziggurat Farm is usually one of Toby’s last stops of the day, but because he’s eager to see Philip’s new book, he asks Teresa if he can deliver to the farm first today.

Teresa hands Toby a couple twenties and says, “Get me a copy, too.”

*

Meanwhile, Philip is driving the kids, Arturo, eleven, Henri, ten, and Vivienne, nine, to Mercy Montessori, this being Arturo’s last year there, after which he will enter the public school system for Seventh Grade since there are no other choices in Mercy save for home schooling, an undertaking the farm adults cannot imagine, though even the excellent Montessori School is of questionable educational value to their very bright children.

“I’ll pick you up at Nathan and Celia’s after your piano lessons,” says Philip, pulling up to the school where several other vehicles are disgorging children.

“Don’t forget Irenia is coming for supper and spending the night,” says Vivienne, speaking of the kids’ new pal. “She’s very much looking forward to your cooking, which we’ve told her all about.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” says Philip, resisting the temptation to say How could I possibly forget when you remind me every fifteen minutes?

“Her parents are bringing her at five,” says Arturo, repeating what Philip has now been told at least ten times. “We’re hoping you’ll make something yummy for a before-supper snack.”

“Those stuffed mushrooms you made for Thanksgiving would be ideal,” says Henri, opening his door.

“Stuffed mushrooms would be ideal,” says Vivienne, coming around the car to the driver’s window. “With maybe a little more melted cheese than usual. Irenia especially likes cheese. Perhaps you could get some of that Swiss kind we love. The Emmental.”

“I shall endeavor to get some from my friends at Ocelot,” says Philip, nodding graciously to his daughter. “See you at Nathan’s at 4:30.”

*

Back at the farm, Andrea is in the cottage where she and her husband Marcel and their son Henri live. She is sitting at her desk in what was previously Lisa’s massage studio and is now the headquarters of Ziggurat Farm Productions, Philip’s cookbook the first of those productions.

“We’re expecting copies today,” says Andrea, speaking on the phone with Ramona at Crow’s Nest Books, one of Mercy’s two bookstores and the only one that sells new books. “Did you try ordering through Ingram?”

“I ordered a few copies from them,” says Ramona, who thinks Philip is the most charming man she’s ever met, “but you’ll make so much more per copy if we buy directly from you.”

“I appreciate that,” says Andrea, who was a sous chef for twenty years and has been a farmer for ten, but never a seller of books until now. “I just want to confirm the other way works.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as those copies comes in,” says Ramona, who was thrilled by the advance copy of the cookbook Andrea showed her. “But for now I want to get seventy copies from you to make a big display, and I’m sure we’ll need more for the book signing.”

“I’ll bring you seventy copies as soon as we get them,” says Andrea, a message appearing on her computer screen saying an email just arrived from the New York Times. “Toby usually delivers here at the end of the day so I probably won’t get books to you until tomorrow.”

Ending her call with Ramona, Andrea opens the email from the New York Times where, purely on a whim, she sent one of the three advance copies of the cookbook she got from Primero Press, the outfit handling printing and distribution of the print-on-demand edition of the book.

Andrea…Thanks for sending Philip’s Kitchen. The Raul Neves intro is a real coup. I gave the book to Sara Granderson, one of our cookbook reviewers, and she went bonkers. She showed it to Mark Jacobs, the Sunday supplement food editor, and he loves it, too, and wants to feature Sara’s review and the Neves intro in an upcoming supplement. Can you send pics of the farm and Philip in his kitchen, and if possible a pic of Philip with Raul? Probably run in 3-4 weeks. Congrats.Titus

*

Lisa, Philip’s wife, is in the farmhouse with Marcel, Andrea’s husband, and Michael and Daisy who recently bought the house and three acres contiguous with five-acre Ziggurat Farm. Michael is an ornithologist and Daisy, eight months pregnant with her first child, is a novelist.

They are in the midst of a conversation about Mercy Hospital—Michael wondering if it might be wiser for Daisy to have the baby in a big city hospital instead of in Mercy’s humble country hospital.

“Celia worked at Mercy Hospital for thirty-five years and says it’s a great place to have a baby,” says Daisy, who is much less anxious than Michael about the impending birth of their child. “Just not major surgery.”

“I loved having my babies there,” says Lisa, remembering the sweet and competent Mexican nurses who assisted the Nigerian doctor who delivered Arturo, those same nurses assisting the Australian doctor who delivered Vivienne two years later. “Celia’s daughter Calypso is a nurse there and she helped with the birth of both Arturo and Vivienne.”

“Andrea loved having Henri there,” says Marcel, remembering the moment of Henri’s birth. “They’re very nice about letting the father be in the room for the birth.”

“Then I shouldn’t worry,” says Michael, laughing nervously.

“We’ll be fine,” says Daisy, who has thoroughly enjoyed her pregnancy so far. “I know we will.”

At which moment, Andrea rushes in and says, “The New York Times is going to run a rave review of Philip’s cookbook and do a big spread with pictures in a Sunday supplement.”

Having delivered this momentous news, Andrea bursts into tears and Marcel and Lisa rush to embrace her.

*

At morning recess on the playground at Mercy Montessori, a spirited soccer game is underway with Arturo and Vivienne leading one team, Henri and Irenia leading the other. Arturo and Vivienne and Henri started playing soccer as soon as they learned to walk, Henri’s father Marcel a former professional soccer player, and Irenia, tall and graceful with long raven black hair, grew up playing rough-and-tumble soccer in the Russian community in San Francisco.

The other kids on both teams play with zeal, but are not great ball-handlers. Thus the Ziggurat Farm gang and Irenia dominate the game—Irenia scoring the winning goal by shoving Arturo aside and striking the ball so hard the diminutive goalie dives out of the way to save his life.

“I’m pretty sure knocking me down like that would get you a yellow card in a refereed game,” says Arturo, speaking to Irenia from where he’s lying on the ground.

“I see no referee,” says Irenia, giving Arturo a hand up.

And a moment later the game is forgotten—Arturo and Irenia listening to Mr. Arbanas droning on about the founding of Rome, Vivienne and Henri bored to tears by Mrs. Pembroke reading aloud in her sing-song way about settlers traveling west from St. Louis in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail.

*

Philip has yet to hear the news about the New York Times review because he doesn’t carry a phone and because after dropping the kids at school he went to Ocelot to deliver lettuce and green onions from the Ziggurat greenhouses and had an unusually long conversation with the famous Raul who is usually too busy to talk for long.

From Ocelot, Philip went to the food co-op to buy supplies for tonight’s supper, after which he dropped by Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s for tea and conversation, and then Delilah, the kids’ piano teacher and the illustrator of Philip’s Kitchen, did some sketches of Philip for a drawing she’ll create to go with the review of his cookbook scheduled to run in the weekly Mercy Messenger before his book signing at Crow’s Nest Books a few weeks hence.

At last he arrives home where upon entering the farmhouse he is greeted with hurrahs from Marcel and Andrea and Lisa and Michael and Daisy in honor of his impending New York Times triumph and the arrival of ten boxes of his glorious new cookbook.

“Wonderful,” says Philip, holding a copy of Philip’s Kitchen: exquisite recipes from Ziggurat Farm. “Please forgive me for not getting too excited about the news from New York. After what I went through with my first cookbook, I think I’ll wait to celebrate until the review is a fait accompli and not merely a promise.”

*

Which sentiment turns out to be prescient, for when Andrea returns to her office after lunch she finds the following email.

Andrea…Turns out we never review self-published books. Editorial policy. So I regret to say we won’t be running a review or featuring the book in a supplement. Titus

Crestfallen, Andrea returns to the farmhouse, gives the news to Philip and Lisa, and bursts into tears again.

“Don’t be sad,” says Philip, sitting beside Andrea on the sofa. “It would have been nice, but it’s not how things usually work in the upper stories of the media pyramid, save by accident once every thousand blue moons. But we’ll be fine. We don’t need to sell a million copies. Right? What’s our break-even number?”

“A thousand,” she says, still crying. “But it’s so unfair.”

“I used to think that, too,” says Philip, getting up from the sofa to put a log on the fire. “But now I think it’s just the way of the human world, which has never been a meritocracy, however much we wish it was.”

*

Boris and Maria, Irenia’s parents, bring their beautiful daughter to the farm at five o’clock, and Philip and Lisa insist Boris and Maria stay for the hors d’oeuvres and a drink—Boris gregarious and friendly, Maria quiet and self-conscious about her minimal command of English.

Arturo and Vivienne and Irenia each gobble several of the baked Cremini mushrooms stuffed with Philip’s special sauté of minced onions, chopped Kalamata olives, minced garlic, and finely grated carrots, topped with melted Emmental cheese, after which they race off to Vivienne’s bedroom where Irenia suggests she teach them how to play poker, so that is what they do.

Boris is fifty-six, tall and broad-shouldered with curly gray hair and a big stomach. Maria is fifty-four, short and stout, her once black hair now white. They sit side-by-side on the sofa in the living room, a plate of stuffed mushrooms on the coffee table in front of them, each with a glass of the farm’s excellent cabernet, and Boris eats seven of the stuffed mushrooms in quick succession, while Maria has one.

“I never had such good food before,” says Boris, downing his entire glass of wine in a single gulp. “And this is best wine I ever had.” He says something to Maria in Russian.

“What did you say to her?” asks Lisa, smiling at Boris.

“I said now we know how heaven will be,” says Boris, laughing. “Best food and best wine.”

“I love your food so much, too,” says Maria, smiling and nodding. “I cook pretty good but not so good as you.”

“I’m glad you like the food and wine,” says Philip, refilling Boris’s glass. “I’d love to give you a copy of my new cookbook. We just got copies today and it has the recipe for the stuffed mushrooms.”

“We’ll give you some wine to take home, too,” says Lisa, who finds Maria and Boris delightful.

“We can pay you,” says Maria, nodding anxiously.

“No, no,” says Philip, bringing them the book. “It’s our gift to you. We’re so glad to get to know you. Our kids love your daughter. They’ve been looking forward to having her over for weeks now.”

“She’s a good girl,” says Boris, downing his second glass of wine. “We move here because…”

Maria whispers in Russian to Boris.

“Yah,” he says, nodding. “We are very happy she like your kids, too. In city she was… how do I say this…” He lowers his voice. “The men were coming after her. She was only ten, but tall and beautiful as you see… so now we are here and is better for her and… yah, we are happy she like your kids.”

“Because she’s still a child,” says Lisa, who escaped the slums of Buenos Aires when she was ten and the men were starting to come after her. “She’ll be a woman soon enough. Let her be a child while she can.”

Maria says something in Russian to Boris.

“She is very smart,” says Boris, translating for Maria. “We want her to go to college and go beyond us. We came to America when I was forty-three and Maria was forty-one. I’m mechanic. I fix cars and trucks. At Mercy garage. I think maybe I fix your truck. Bent axel. Yah?”

“Yes, and you did a great job,” says Philip, beaming at Boris.

“Good,” says Boris, nodding in thanks as Philip fills his glass again. “Maria is seamstress. She can sew anything. We lose two children in Russia and did not think we could have another, but when we came to San Francisco we have Irenia. Was miracle.”

He bows his head and weeps. Maria puts her hand on his shoulder and smiles at Lisa and Philip. “Sometimes he cry when he have wine.”

“We’re so glad you’re here,” says Philip, moved to tears. “Would you like to stay for supper?”

Boris looks up and says, “No thank you. We don’t think Irenia want us here for tonight. So is more special for her. But maybe other time.”

“Many other times,” says Philip, handing a copy of his cookbook to Maria.

She looks at the cover, a pen and ink drawing by Delilah of Philip in his kitchen.

“Is beautiful picture,” says Maria, looking at Philip and Lisa. “You are first people to ask us…” She turns to Boris and says something in Russian.

“You are first people to invite us since we come to Mercy two years ago.” He sips his wine. “You make this wine, Philip?”

“Marcel is our wine master,” says Philip, going to get a couple bottles for them. “Henri’s father.”

“Tell him for me,” says Boris, calling after Philip, “he is genius.”

*

Moments after Boris and Maria depart, Marcel and Andrea and Henri arrive, Henri hurrying off to join the poker game while Andrea and Marcel eat the last of the stuffed mushrooms and Andrea gulps down a glass of wine a la Boris and says quietly so the kids won’t hear her, “Fuck the New York Times.”

“I’d forgotten all about that,” says Philip, refilling Andrea’s glass. “Never gave it another thought.”

“Wait until you see the display of your books at the bookstore,” says Marcel, clinking glasses with Philip. “You come in the door and it’s like the pyramids of Egypt. Three pyramids of Philip’s Kitchen.”

*

When supper begins, Irenia proves to be as talkative as the very talkative Arturo and Henri and Vivienne, but she falls silent when she begins to eat. Occasionally she looks up from her meal to gaze around the table, a puzzled expression on her face, and she continues in this way until her plate is empty.

“Would you care for anything more?” asks Philip, speaking to Irenia as he speaks to the customers he waits on at Ocelot. “There’s plenty of everything.”

“I would like to learn to cook like this,” she says quietly. “Will you teach me?”

“Of course he will,” says Vivienne, nodding confidently. “He teaches us. So whenever you come over he’ll teach you, too.”

“I am amazed by this food,” says Irenia, looking from one person to another. “Yet you all seem to think this is just ordinary.”

“It is not ordinary,” says Marcel, looking at Philip. “It is extraordinary and I’m grateful to you for reminding me of what Philip does for us all the time.”

*

Vivienne and Irenia are sharing Vivienne’s bed, both of them fighting sleep because they love being with each other.

Irenia: Have you ever kissed a boy? Not your brother or Henri, but someone else?

Vivienne: Julio Martinez kissed me at a barbecue last summer. Twice.

Irenia: Did you want him to kiss you?

Vivienne: No. We were playing hide and seek and he and I were hiding in the barn together behind the wine barrels and trying not to giggle when Arturo came in looking for us, and he just suddenly kissed me. I was so shocked, I just froze and then he kissed me again.

Irenia: On your lips?

Vivienne: Yes.

Irenia: Did you like it?

Vivienne: No. It was ucky.

Irenia: How old is Julio?

Vivienne: He was eleven when he kissed me and I was eight. Now he’s twelve and I’m nine. But I still don’t want him to kiss me. Have you ever kissed a boy?

Irenia: Yes.

Vivienne: When?

Irenia: In San Francisco. When I was ten.

Vivienne: Who was he?

Irenia: His name was Dimitri. He was eighteen. He would talk to me at the bus stop when I got off the bus when I came home from school. We rode the city bus to school in San Francisco. I didn’t talk to him at first, but he was there every day and he seemed nice, so I talked to him. And then for a few days he walked me home. And then one day he gave me a box of candy. Not a candy bar. A whole box of chocolates. And when I took the box from him, he put his arms around me and kissed me on the lips and pushed his tongue into my mouth.

Vivienne: How dreadful.

Irenia: I tried to get away from him, but he wouldn’t let me go until I screamed and people came running and then he let me go.

Vivienne: What a terrible person.

Irenia: He said he loved me and wanted to marry me. He even came to our apartment and asked my father if he could marry me.

Vivienne: But you were only ten. Was he insane?

Irenia: I don’t think so.

Vivienne: Then why would he do such a terrible thing?

Irenia: Why did Julio kiss you?

Vivienne: I suppose because he likes me.

Irenia: Yes, they like us. Whether we like them or not.  

*

In the morning, Vivienne and Irenia and Arturo make omelets and hash browns with Philip supervising, and Henri and Andrea and Marcel come for breakfast.

At meal’s end, Henri and Irenia do the dishes with Marcel, after which the kids put on their rain gear and go to deliver a pot of soup to Daisy and Michael.

As they walk along the path from the farmhouse through the nascent forest to Michael and Daisy’s house, Irenia says, “I love my mother and father, but I would rather live here with you.”

fin

What You Do In Ireland

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Finding Our Place

Michael Darling is forty-two, strong and wiry with longish brown hair, an ornithologist recently freed from academia by his wife Daisy inheriting a fortune from her mother. He is now in the throes of adjusting to a reality void of office hours, faculty meetings, and giving lectures to hundreds of students looking at their phones instead of listening to him, while also adjusting to the enormous differences between the climate and topography of the northern California coast, where he and Daisy are now, and southern Michigan where they lived for the last seventeen years.

Daisy is thirty-nine, curvaceous and pretty with short reddish brown hair, an aspiring novelist with a degree in Psychology. Four months pregnant—her first pregnancy—she and Michael have been married for fifteen years. As the only child of a single mother who worked in a Ford assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan for thirty years, Daisy expected to inherit her mother’s little house in Dearborn but had no idea that when laid off by Ford at the age of fifty-seven, her mother took up day trading stocks and in the five years before she died amassed a fortune of seven million dollars.

Michael and Daisy have been in Mercy for twelve days now. They came here to fulfill Daisy’s dream of eating at Ocelot, the restaurant created by the famous chef Raul Neves who Daisy has idolized for the last seven years, ever since she read his erotic culinary memoir I Made This For You. Neither Michael nor Daisy expected to be so profoundly captivated by the little town and the surrounding wilderness, but now they want to live here for the rest of their lives. So far they’ve looked at seven houses in or near Mercy, made offers on two, and were outbid both times.

“How nice of him to invite us to his farm,” says Daisy, speaking of Philip who waited on them two nights ago at Ocelot. “I wonder what his story is.”

“We’ll soon find out,” says Michael, piloting their shiny new car up the curving road through the redwood forest, the October afternoon cool and sunny. “We’re exactly two miles inland from Mercy so we should see the sign for the farm any minute now.”

Where the curving road becomes a straightaway, a small wooden sign appears on their right—carved letters painted black saying Ziggurat Farm.

“Oh my God,” says Daisy as they turn off the highway onto the drive leading to the farmhouse. “This is paradise.”

They park near the huge old redwood barn and four dogs come to greet them: two Golden Retrievers, a giant hound, and a little mutt, each wagging his or her tail in greeting and none of them barking.

As the dogs mill around Daisy and Michael, an entirely different-seeming Philip than the Philip who waited on them at Ocelot emerges from the farmhouse with his wife Lisa.

Philip is fifty-nine, slender with short black hair, and Daisy thinks he’s gorgeous. Lisa is fifty-two, her long black hair in a ponytail, her skin dark olive brown, and Michael thinks she’s one of the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.

After hellos and introductions, Philip and Lisa give Michael and Daisy a tour of the barn wherein seventy big barrels of grape juice are fermenting into wine and cases of Ziggurat Farm wine rest in the cool recesses.

From the barn they cross a wide expanse of level ground where the farm kids play soccer and Frisbee and croquet, and Michael and Daisy ooh and ah about the elegant bathhouse made of redwood and river rock and timber bamboo that adjoins the recently vacated five-room cottage.

From the bathhouse they walk on a path lined with lilac trees and rose bushes and lavender to the one-acre deer-fenced vegetable and flower garden wherein Andrea, muscular and pretty with short black hair, is preparing beds for garlic.

And who should be standing in the very center of the garden, but Raul Neves and his assistant Maurice, both of them picking vegetables for Ocelot—the last of the garden’s summer produce.

“Oh my God,” whispers Daisy, clutching Michael’s arm. “Raul. It’s Raul. I can’t believe this.”

“A woman whispered my name,” says Raul, fifty-five, big and handsome and Portuguese with a mop of curly gray hair, his black Ocelot sweatshirt surmounting faded blue jeans.

Maurice, also big and middle-aged, says in French, “When usually they shout.”

“Raul and Maurice,” says Philip, leading Daisy and Michael to the zucchini patch where Maurice and Raul are harvesting the last zucchini, the big leaves of the exhausted plants turning yellow. “May I introduce Daisy and Michael. They dined at Ocelot two nights ago and were not displeased.”

“Oh we loved it,” effuses Daisy, blushing brightly. “I had the quail stuffed with truffles. It was beyond amazing. You’re just… amazing.”

“And you, Monsieur?” asks Raul, smiling at Michael. “What did you have?”

“The cod,” says Michael, blushing, too. “Also amazing.”

“We aim to amaze,” says Raul, moving from the zucchini to a verdant bed of chard and calling to Andrea. “Maestra. Can we take chard from this bed? The leaves are fantastic.”

Andrea looks up from her digging. “The bigger leaves, yes.”

“I would love to visit with you longer,” says Raul, bowing to Daisy, “but we have much to pick and little time. Oh Philip, have you any of your 2020 Pinot left to sell?”

“Andrea?” says Philip, calling to her. “Can we spare a case of the 2020 pinot for Raul?”

“We only have three cases left,” she says, laughing. “So of course they’re priceless.”

“Two thousand for a case?” says Raul, looking expectantly at Andrea.

“But only for you, Raul,” she says, trying not to show how excited she is by the fantastic price.

“We’ll take all three,” says Raul, bending down to cut leaves of chard.

*

After a tour of the garden, Lisa and Philip lead their star-struck guests to the farmhouse and serve them tea and muffins on the south deck and ask them about their lives—Michael eloquent about his research on owls, Daisy effusive about the novel she just finished writing, and both of them quite emotional about the enormous changes in their lives since the death of Daisy’s mother and inheriting what for them is an enormous fortune.

Now Raul and Maurice honk their horn seven times as they depart, and moments later Marcel, a handsome Frenchman, Andrea’s husband, arrives with Arturo, eleven, Henri, ten, and Vivienne nearly nine, the kids overjoyed it’s Friday and no more school until Monday.

Andrea comes in from the garden to join the conversation, and while the kids are finishing their after-school snacks, Marcel says to Michael and Daisy, “So… Philip tells me you are looking for a place to buy in Mercy.”

This place will do,” says Michael, laughing. “If only.”

“It is a very good location,” says Marcel, smiling at Michael. “But this one is not for sale.”

“No, of course not,” says Daisy, in love with the children and the grownups and the house and the land and the dogs and cats. “But if you know anyone who wants to sell anything even remotely like this, please let us know.”

“Do you have any kids?” asks Henri, gazing earnestly at Daisy.

“Not yet,” she says, returning his ardent gaze, “but I’m going to have a baby soon. My due date is March 13th.”

“Do you have a nice dog?” asks Vivienne, speaking to Michael. “Or dogs?”

“No, but we’re going to get one once we get settled,” says Michael, smiling at Vivienne. “And we’ll be very nice to him or her, so she’ll probably turn out okay. Don’t you think?”

“Golden Retrievers are inherently nice,” says Vivienne, a fierce advocate of the breed. “I cannot recommend them highly enough.”

“What do you do, Michael?” asks Arturo, pursing his lips in his thoughtful way. “For a living?”

“I’m an ornithologist,” says Michael, nodding. “Do you know what that is?”

“Of course we do,” says Arturo, frowning in dismay. “You’re a bird scientist.”

“You study ornithols,” says Henri, laughing.

“No, he doesn’t,” says Vivienne, giggling. “He studies birds.”

“Specifically owls and he hopes to be studying ospreys,” says Philip, giving Marcel a meaningful look.

“What about you?” says Henri, addressing Daisy. “What do you do?”

“Well I plan to be a full-time mother for a couple years,” she says seriously. “But then I’ll go back to writing novels and short stories.”

“We love novels and short stories,” says Arturo, nodding emphatically. “We’re avid readers and we write with Nathan after school two times a week. Nathan is a poet and has a blog.”

“We also write when we’re not with Nathan,” says Vivienne, wanting Daisy and Michael to know they don’t just write with Nathan. “Mostly book reports for school, but also poems and stories and song lyrics.”

“Would you like to see our house,” says Henri, looking from Daisy to Michael. “It’s on the other side of the property.”

“We’d love to,” says Michael, suspecting he’s dreaming and any minute will wake up in Michigan.

“Come on we’ll show you,” says Vivienne, going to the door and putting on her shoes. “It’s only a five-minute walk.”

*

 So the seven farm people and their four dogs walk with Michael and Daisy on the wide path connecting the two houses on the eight-acre parcel, and Michael notes the young trees growing on the terraced hillside.

“This has all been recently reforested,” he says, knowing a great deal about forests. “Did you do that?”

“Yes,” says Philip, admiring the thriving young conifers. “When we bought this property twelve years ago, there was a dying vineyard here and we tried to revive it until we finally accepted that grapes won’t grow here.”

“We came here because of the vineyard,” says Marcel, recalling the thousands of hours they spent on their failed experiment, “and we were very stubborn about trying to save the vineyard despite nature telling us No in her loudest voice.”

“The people who lived here before us used to drive trucks on this path,” says Arturo, walking beside Michael, “but now it’s just for walking.”

“We do sometimes ride our bikes here, too” says Vivienne, who is walking next to Daisy. “But mostly we just walk on it. Or run.”

“It’s not quite level,” says Henri, who is in the lead. “And you’ll find it goes slightly downhill in this direction and slightly uphill on the way back to the farmhouse.”

Andrea laughs. “Just as you would expect.”

“There seem to be more little birds on this side of the property,” says Lisa, holding Philip’s hand. “We think that’s because the cats spend most of their time around the barn where they catch mice, and in the garden and orchard where they hunt gophers, but they also occasionally take birds, unfortunately.”

“Yeah, cats love birds,” says Michael, nodding. “But we’ll have a cat or two anyway. We couldn’t have a dog in Ann Arbor because our landlord forbade it, but we always had a cat because… well, we love cats.”

“Our last cat died a year ago,” says Daisy, awestruck by the surrounding beauty. “Her name was Spunky, though she hadn’t been spunky for quite some time.”

Spunky is a very good word,” says Henri, nodding thoughtfully. “It’s not quite onomatopoeia, but almost.”

“You have a marvelous vocabulary, Henri,” says Daisy, smiling at him.

“Thank you,” he says, bowing to her as his father bows to those he waits on. “So does Arturo, and so does Vivienne.”

“So do our parents,” says Vivienne, running ahead to the house so she’ll be the first one there.

*

Standing on the deck on the south side of the large three-bedroom house where Marcel and Andrea and Henri have lived for twelve years, the forest descending gradually to the west—the horizon a slender strip of shining blue sea—Michael and Lisa turn away from the breathtaking view and find the four adults and three children and four dogs perusing them with great interest. 

“Stunning,” says Daisy, beaming at them. “Just stunning. We’d love to find a place like this. We made offers on a house in town with a little yard, and we offered on a falling-down house on an acre just north of town, but we were outbid both times.”

“How much did you bid for the falling-down place with an acre, if I may ask?” says Marcel, smiling warmly at Daisy. “We’re very curious to know what this place might be worth now.”

“We bid 1.2 million on the one with an acre, but this house would go for at least 1.8,” says Michael, with great surety. “Three acres and a gorgeous three-bedroom house? Here? With neighbors like you? In a market this hot? Probably more like 2. But I don’t know. I’m just guessing.”

“Hold that thought,” says Marcel, dashing into the house and returning with binoculars. “There is a snag, the dead top of an old redwood.” He brings the binoculars to his eyes and scans the forest to the west. “Yes. There.” He hands the binoculars to Michael and points. “You see? It is much taller than the other trees around it.”

“Oh, yes,” says Michael, falling silent. “Is that… oh my God, that’s an osprey nest. It’s huge.”

“These woods are full of magic,” says Marcel, stating the simple fact. “And all this forest you see to the west is a state park and will never be built on.”

“Would you like to buy this house?” asks Henri, looking at Daisy. “We’ve decided to sell it because we’re going to live in the cottage near the farmhouse.”

This house is for sale?” says Michael, giving Daisy a wild-eyed look.

“And the three acres,” says Andrea, her eyes full of tears.

“How much are you asking?” Daisy asks, holding her breath.

Andrea looks at Marcel, Marcel looks at Philip, Philip looks at Lisa, and Lisa looks at Andrea.

“For you,” says Andrea, trembling. “1.8.”

*

Over the next few weeks, Marcel and Andrea and Henri relocate to the cottage, and by Thanksgiving Michael and Daisy are living in their new home and about to walk to the farmhouse for the Thanksgiving feast.

Daisy tries on three different dresses, growls in frustration, goes in search of her phone, and finds it on the kitchen counter. She taps the number for the farmhouse and bursts into tears.

“Hi Daisy,” says Lisa, answering on the second ring. “Are you coming soon?”

“Yes, but… are you wearing a dress for the party?” she asks, sniffling back her tears.

“I am,” says Lisa, warmly. “So are Andrea and Vivienne. Delilah almost never wears dresses, but she might. Celia will wear a beautiful blouse and maybe a skirt, maybe pants, and Celia’s daughter Calypso and Juan’s wife Camille will definitely wear dresses. But you should wear whatever you feel most comfortable in.”

“Thank you, Lisa,” says Daisy, greatly relieved. “I’m just… highly neurotic these days. I’m not usually like this, so I assume it has something to do with being pregnant and still in shock about actually being here.”

“Come over soon,” says Lisa, watching the children gobbling the hors d’oeuvres. “Philip and Andrea just set out the stuffed mushrooms and the kids are making short work of them.”

Daisy puts on her turquoise paisley dress and her big round abalone earrings, and goes in search of Michael. She finds him on the deck looking fine in black corduroy slacks and a teal dress shirt and his black winter coat, his telescope aimed at the osprey nest atop the redwood snag.

“We can go over any time,” she says, still learning how softly she can speak and be heard in the marvelous quiet.

“You called them?”

“Yeah I wanted to know if I should wear a dress.” She shrugs. “I’m hopeless.”

“But sweeter than honey,” he says, kissing her.

“In the spring we’ll have a baby,” she says, relaxing in his arms.

“And the ospreys will return from their sojourn to the south.”

“In the meantime…” She looks around in wonder. “…here we are.”

“And to think I didn’t want to go to Ocelot,” he says, looking to the west where the ocean meets the illimitable sky. “Because I thought it was immoral to spend so much money on supper.”

 “Which just shows to go you,” says Daisy, speaking her mother’s favorite rearrangement of the old expression, her dear mother who left them a fortune to fulfill their dreams.

*

In the last light of day, halfway along the path to the farmhouse, Daisy and Michael meet Marcel with the big hound Jung at his side.

“Andrea saw a puma at dusk yesterday,” says Marcel, turning to walk with them the rest of the way, “so she asked me to come escort you.”

“Thank you,” says Michael, putting his hand on Marcel’s shoulder. “I guess we should get a dog sooner than later.”

“We got our pups about the same time the kids were born,” says Marcel, who is very glad to only be waiting tables at Ocelot three nights a week now instead of five. “So they all grew up together and think of each other as kin.”

fin

On the Way Home, piano and cello duet

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People Go Away

Everything happened so quickly, the denizens of Ziggurat Farm, grownups and children alike, are having a hard time adjusting to the new reality.

In mid-September, Hilda, who just turned eighty-five, told Philip and Lisa she was frightened by how forgetful she was becoming and wanted to move back to Berkeley and live in a senior care facility. Hilda’s daughter Tamara and Tamara’s partner Celine then decided not to buy the Richardson’s place in Mercy and instead move to Berkeley and live in Hilda’s house just a few miles from the senior care facility—and by late September the three of them were gone.

Then two weeks later, the very British Richardsons, Constance and Joseph, bid the farm gang adieu and moved back to England, their house in Mercy selling in one day for five times what they paid for it ten years ago.

So now the cottage near the farmhouse is empty save for Lisa’s massage studio, two thousand dollars a month is no longer coming into the farm coffers from Hilda, the children are without a grandmother, the grownups without a mother, Aunt Tamara and Aunt Celine are no longer daily visitors, Joseph will never more recite for the children his favorite lines from Shakespeare as they stroll with him on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, nor will he give them twice-weekly drawing lessons, and there will be no more tea parties with Constance, no more learning to speak in the manner of erudite upper crust Brits, and no more piano concerts from Delilah on the Richardsons’ fabulous Steinway grand.

*

On a Tuesday evening after supper in mid-October, a week or so after Joseph and Constance left for England, Henri, who is nine, asks his parents Marcel and Andrea if he can spend the night with Arturo and Vivienne, something he often does on weekends but rarely does during the week.

“No dear,” says Andrea, knowing her son is distraught about losing five of his favorite people. “It’s a school night.”

“I don’t want to go to our house,” he says, his sleep bothered by nightmares since Hilda and then Joseph moved away. “It’s too far from Arturo and Vivienne. Can’t we stay in the cottage?”

“We have no beds there,” says Marcel, who feels helpless to ease his son’s sorrow about the loss of Hilda and Joseph, both of whom Henri adored.

“Well we should,” says Henri, angrily. “We should live in the cottage. We’re here for most of the day anyway. The garden is here, the orchard is here, the barn and the wine and the chickens are here. The dogs mostly stay here. My best friends are here. Your best friends are here. Why can’t we live here instead of all the way on the other side of the property?” Having said this, he bursts into tears, and Vivienne bursts into tears, too.

And though this may seem like a fairly insignificant moment in the grand scheme of things, as Joseph was fond of saying, quite the opposite is true, for Henri’s plea causes the four adults to simultaneously realize that if Andrea and Marcel and Henri did move into the cottage, the other house, along with three of the farm’s eight acres, could be sold for a million dollars or more, money that would support the farm and the creative efforts of the collective for many years to come.

*

When the children are finally asleep, Henri having prevailed in his wish to stay with Arturo and Vivienne, Marcel opens a bottle of their exquisite Ziggurat Farm pinot noir and he and Andrea and Philip and Lisa gather by the fire in the living room to discuss the possibility of selling the house where Marcel and Andrea have lived since the four of them took possession of the two contiguous properties ten years ago.

“The Richardson’s got 1.9 million for their place,” says Andrea, who can’t believe she hadn’t thought of this until now. “We might get 1.2. Possibly more.”

“I love the cottage,” says Marcel, who is more discombobulated by the thought of selling the house than he was by the loss of five of his closest friends. “But is it big enough? Where would Lisa give massages?”

“If we sell your house,” says Lisa, who is weary of being a masseuse, “I can work here in the living room and only giving one massage a day instead of three.”

“If the cottage is too small for you, we can add another room or two,” says Philip, who worries about Lisa, her hands aching all the time now.

“And we can finally publish Philip’s cookbook,” says Andrea, bowing her head and crying.

“We will do this, my love,” says Marcel, putting his arms around Andrea. “And I’ll only wait tables three nights a week, but I’m not stopping entirely this time. I like the work and I like making money.”

“What are you thinking?” asks Lisa, looking at Philip.

“I think we should let this simmer for a day or two,” he says calmly. “Then we’ll make a careful assessment of our annual expenses and what we might spend on any projects we want to pursue, sell the house, see how much we get, and proceed accordingly.”

“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding in agreement.

“But we will publish your book,” says Andrea, gazing steadfastly at Philip. “That is my number one priority.”

*

“I think it’s a great idea,” says Nathan, sitting at his kitchen table with Philip and Lisa who just dropped the kids at school and came to confer with Nathan and Celia and Delilah about the plan to sell Andrea and Marcel’s house. “But beware your new neighbors.”

“What do you mean?” asks Lisa, smiling curiously at Nathan. “We haven’t sold the place yet. We just got the idea last night.”

“I understand,” says Nathan, sipping his tea. “But if you do sell the place, someone might move in who hates dogs and loves guns and shoots your dogs. Or they might be commercial pot growers and have guns and pit bulls that kill your dogs. Or they might be reactionary Republicans who use pesticides and herbicides that float over and taint your organic garden and kill all the bees for miles around. Ideally you would handpick the people you sell the house to, but who do you know and love who has a million bucks to spend on a house in the middle of nowhere?”

“They know me,” says Delilah, making coffee in the kitchen. “Only I think they want more than a million, and that’s all I have. And once I spend the million I won’t have anything and wouldn’t be able to afford the property taxes etcetera, and I don’t really want to live alone in a great big house.” She smiles lovingly at Nathan and Celia. “I’d much rather stay right where I am.”

“We hadn’t thought of problematic neighbors,” says Philip, laughing. “But then we hadn’t thought of selling the house until Henri opened our eyes to the possibility.”

“You could describe what kind of neighbors you’d like,” suggests Celia, taking a pan of blueberry muffins out of the oven, “and put a notice on the Mercy list serve. Someone local might have friends or relatives who want to move here. We’re becoming a haven for people escaping the inland heat and fires.”

“That’s a very good idea,” says Lisa, looking at Philip. “Make a local search before we put it on the market.”

“A ritual would be good, too,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “Call in the beneficent spirits to bless the house and the land. That always works.”

*

On the following Monday, one of Philip and Marcel’s two days off from their jobs as waiters at Ocelot, a most exclusive restaurant in Mercy, the farm residents gather with Nathan and Celia and Delilah on the deck on the south side of Marcel and Andrea and Henri’s house, and Nathan holds a wand of smoking sage and speaks to the nature spirits.

“Oh mysterious powers of creation,” says Nathan, who isn’t kidding but doesn’t sound overly serious. “We love you. We love the wind and the rain and the sunshine and the fog and the cold and the heat and the dead and the living and everything that goes into making life possible here. We love the animals and trees and stones and grasses and reptiles and amphibians and insects and everything there has ever been and ever will be.”

Nathan makes a few figure eights in the air with his smoking sage.

“So when these good folks offer this house and the surrounding land for sale, and by the way, they reforested those acres after the previous yahoos cut all the trees down, we ask for your help in attracting people who love you as much as we do and will be good stewards of this precious land and good neighbors to those gathered here today.”

He makes a few more figure eights with the sage and says, “Anybody want to say anything more?”

“Maybe they could have kids,” says Arturo, speaking to the surrounding forest. “Kids who would end up being our friends.”

“And nice dogs,” says Vivienne, addressing the meadow descending to the forest. “Not mean ones.”

“They would like us,” says Henri, gazing at a passing cloud, “even if they don’t have kids.”

“Maybe the husband is a wood carver and the wife is a modern dancer,” says Vivienne, imagining a man who looks like Joseph and a woman who looks like Tamara.

“I don’t know if we should be so specific,” says Arturo, looking to Nathan for guidance.

“Specific is fine,” says Nathan, matter-of-factly. “Nature spirits like suggestions.”

“I hope they will be kind,” says Marcel, who finds the ritual deeply moving. “Kind and good to this house and land.”

“Kind and generous,” says Lisa, imagining walking the path from the farmhouse to this house, bringing the new neighbors apples and muffins.

*

On the Wednesday evening following the Monday ritual, Philip is waiting on a couple in the southernmost room of the gorgeous old Victorian that is home to Ocelot, the snazzy restaurant not yet two years old. An immediate sensation, Ocelot has become a popular destination for wealthy people and movie stars and celebrities from around the world, as well as a mecca for culinary thrill seekers enamored of Raul Neves, the handsome chef renowned for his spectacular cuisine and liaisons with famous beauties.

The couple are Daisy, a darling woman in her thirties with short reddish brown hair, and Michael, an equally darling man with longish brown hair and a few years older than his darling wife, both full of questions about the food, the restaurant, Raul, and most of all about Mercy.

“We lived in Ann Arbor for thirteen years,” says Daisy, beaming at Philip. “That’s in Michigan.” She laughs nervously. “You probably knew that. Michael taught at the university. He’s an ornithologist and I’m a wannabe novelist. We’ve fallen madly in love with Mercy. The real estate market here is bonkers as I’m sure you know, but we’re determined to find something.”

“Do you have a particular bird you follow?” asks Philip, nodding politely to Michael.

“I do,” says Michael, pleased by the question. “I’ve written two books about owls and I hope to study ospreys once we get settled here.”

“Lots of those here,” says Philip, needing to attend another table. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I must refresh some goblets and then I’ll return to take your order.”

“Isn’t he stunning?” says Daisy, whispering to Michael. “Of course Raul would have someone like him as his waiter.” She looks around the tastefully appointed restaurant. “Pinch me. I can’t believe we’re here.”

“I feel immoral,” Michael confides quietly. “This meal is going to cost more than we used to spend on food for months. Not weeks. Months. Plural.”

“Yes, but we have enough now for a splurge now and then,” she whispers. “Until we buy our house and the baby’s born and then we’ll go back to being frugal. Sort of. But we don’t really have to because my mother left us so much.”

“I’d rather give our money to the Audubon Society than these folks,” he says, feeling out of place. “And you’re not a wannabe novelist. I wish you’d stop saying that. You’ve written three marvelous books. Just because the publishers are too stupid to see the worth of your writing doesn’t have anything to do with your talent.”

“How about this?” she says, pouting adorably. “However much we spend tonight we’ll give twice that to the Audubon Society? And you’ll relax and enjoy yourself. Say yes.”

“Yes,” he says, still crazy about her after fifteen years of marriage.

Philip returns and nods to indicate he’s ready to take their order.

“Do you recommend the chicken—I’m going to say this wrong—à l’ivoire?” says Daisy, wincing at her mispronunciation of the word.

“If you like a very rich sauce on a tender bird, oui,” says Philip, enjoying her attempt at the French. “But I must tell you the rock cod is spectacular tonight served with baby potatoes and vegetables from the farm where I live. If either of you like fish, the cod is not to be missed.”

“I’ll have the cod,” says Michael, intrigued by Philip. “You mentioned lots of ospreys. We’ve been here for ten days and we’ve yet to see one. Can you give us some leads?”

“Most of the ospreys are gone until spring,” says Philip, nodding to Michael. “But we know a few who spend the winter here.” He looks at Daisy. “The chicken à livoire for you?”

“Oh could you choose something else for me?” she says, pleadingly. “I don’t want to get the same thing as Michael, though I’ll certainly be tasting his fish. And a rich sauce on chicken might be, I don’t know… do you mind recommending something for me?”

Philip, who rarely chooses for a customer, gazes at Daisy for a moment and knows she will love the stuffed quail in a nest of straw potatoes more than anything else on the menu, though the dish costs two hundred and seventy dollars.

“For you, Madame,” he says, understanding this is no ordinary event in their lives, “I recommend the quail stuffed with truffles in a nest of straw potatoes, though it is quite dear.”

“Oh thank you,” she says, sighing with relief. “Yes, I’ll have that. And we want two different salads and if you’ll choose them I’ll be forever grateful.”

“And the wine?” asks Philip, turning to Michael who has the wine list.

“We’re not drinking alcohol at the moment,” says Michael, shrugging self-consciously. “Bubbly water’s fine.”

“Because I’m pregnant,” blurts Daisy. “We love wine, but I’m not drinking until a year after the baby’s born and neither is Michael. In solidarity with me. I told him he doesn’t have to not drink, but he insists.”

“Excellent,” says Philip, going out of character to laugh. “When I return with your bubbly I will tell you what I know about the local ospreys.”

“And your farm?” says Michael, hopefully. “We’d love to pick your brain about growing vegetables around here. We’re zealous gardeners.”

Philip bows and departs.

“The Audubon Society,” says Daisy, taking a deep breath, “will be thrilled with the check we’re sending them tomorrow.”

“They’d be even more thrilled if we had wine,” says Michael, perusing the wine list. “The cheapest glass of wine here is seventy dollars, and the cheapest bottle is a mere four hundred and forty.”

“But we don’t care,” says Daisy, her eyes full of tears. “Not for tonight anyway.”

*

Philip slips into bed a little after midnight, hoping not to wake Lisa, though she almost always wakes to give him a kiss before going back to sleep, tonight no exception.

“How was it?” she whispers.

“Good,” he says, greatly relieved to be home. “I think I may have found buyers for Marcel and Andrea’s house. Kind and generous people who love to garden and love birds and are going to have a baby soon.”

Lisa sits up. “Are you serious?”

“I am,” says Philip, laughing. “They’ll be calling tomorrow. I didn’t say anything about the house being for sale, but I know they’ll want it, and I know they have the money, and best of all… I know you’ll love them.”

“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” she says, growing amorous. “If you found our new neighbors at Ocelot?”

fin

The Hopeless Optimist