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Raven Sky Dance

Raven Sky Dance

each the other’s shadow before they fly apart,

one tracing a figure eight in the blue, the other

swooping in a circle. How distinct they are

until they come close to each other again

yet don’t collide because one is the

other’s shadow and the other’s

shadow is the one.

*

What Happened To Your Voice? a funny movie by Todd

Categories
short story

Edie’s Regulars

On a cold clear Friday afternoon in January at 4:30 on the dot, Jack Ziskin and Norman Randolph walk into Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.

Norman is tall and slender and dressed in a stylish gray suit and burgundy tie. Jack is small and round-shouldered and wearing gray sweatpants, a faded green Big Goose sweatshirt, and red tennis shoes. Norman is descended from Scots and Brits and has a full head of lustrous gray hair. Jack is Ashkenazi, bald, and wearing a ratty blue ski cap. Norman is sixty-three, an electrician possessed of a deep resonant voice, and Jack is sixty-seven, heir to a fortune, and unabashedly effeminate.

Edie, the bartender at Big Goose from four in the afternoon until closing time, checks the wall clock as Norman and Jack come through the wide front door, and marvels anew at their uncanny punctuality, though she’s been tending bar here for two years now and Norman and Jack always enter at 4:30 on the dot, Monday through Friday.

Brown-skinned and beautiful, fifty-years-old, her raven black hair captured in a ponytail, Edie grew up in Los Angeles, her accent a muted version of her mother’s Louisiana drawl.

“Norman and Jack,” she says, smiling at the two comrades. “Are we sitting at the bar this afternoon or taking a table?”

“Because we have arrived before the heathens,” says Jack, climbing onto his usual stool just to the right of the middle of the bar and smirking at Edie though he thinks he’s smiling, “we’ll start here with you because we adore you, and when the heathens arrive we’ll move to our table.”

Norman sits to Jack’s right, gazes fondly at Edie, and hoping to sound like a gentleman from the South says, “I am cravin’ somethin’ dahk and bittah to cut the teh-bul cold. A pahnt of Guinness puh-haps.”

“I swear to God,” says Jack, shaking his head, “every time you do a Southern accent your IQ drops seventy points.”

“Mah wahf loves mah evuh-changing accents and personas,” says Norman, speaking of Agnes to whom he has been married for forty years. “But dee-ah Jack cannot abide my linguistic forays.”

“Spare us your pontifications,” says Jack, rolling his eyes. “Puh-leez.”

Edie places a pint of Guinness before Norman and gives Jack an inquiring look.

“Oh,” says Jack, sighing, “I’ll have a Bud Lite.” He snickers. “Just kidding. A pint of Mercy porter, please.”

“Slow today,” says Norman, looking around the pub. “The bittah cold no doubt keeping people at home, I ‘magine.”

Jack rolls his eyes again. “He’s been doing this ridiculous Southern accent for three days now and driving me batty.”

Now Edie’s boss and the Goose’s other bartender, the very tall redhead Justin Oglethorpe, hurries in from the cold and waves to Edie and Norman and Jack on his way to the stairs leading up to the pub office where Justin’s wife Helen awaits – Justin having run to the bank on an errand for Helen who handles all things financial concerning the pub.

“Which movie star are we delving into of late?” asks Edie, who enjoys hearing about Jack and Norman’s shared obsession with the movies and movie stars of the 1930s and 40s.

Jack jerks his thumb at Norman. “He and Agnes are on a Clark Gable Loretta Young kick, and I’m reading Dorothy Lamour’s marvelous autobiography My Side of the Road, which is a reference to those fabulous road movies she made with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, her revelations gasp worthy. You’d love it. Say the word and I’ll get you a copy.”

“What a woman,” says Norman, smiling at the thought of Dorothy Lamour.

At which moment Margot Winslow and Carmen Rivera come in from the cold.

“Enter heathens,” says Jack, stiffening. “Exit Jack and Norman.”

“Oh don’t go,” says Margot, a busty middle-aged gal in a short skirt and a scoop-necked blouse revealing lots of cleavage, her hair curly blonde. “We won’t bite you.”

Jack rolls his eyes, slaps a twenty on the bar, and picks up his glass of beer. “Keep the change, Edie. Talk more soon.”

Carmen, gorgeous in her forties in a long black skirt and shimmering turquoise blouse, her black hair in a pageboy, blocks Norman’s way and says, “Stay with us, Norman. You know you want to.”

Norman bows gallantly and follows Jack to a table far from the bar.

Margot and Carmen take Norman and Jack’s seats and Margot says to Edie, “Hi honey. How’s tricks?”

“Tricks is good,” says Edie, knowing both Margot and Carmen are high on cannabis as they often are on Friday afternoons when they come into the Goose after work, Margot a manicurist, Carmen a legal secretary. “What can I pour you gals today?”

“Pour me a man,” says Carmen, smiling dreamily at Edie. “Someone who looks like Norman and wants to have sex with me.”

Edie arches an eyebrow. “Closest thing I’ve got to that is some good pinot noir.”

Carmen stretches her arms and shouts, “Yes! Wine. Give me wine.”

“I’ll have my usual,” says Margot, winking at Edie. “I’ve got a man, though I’d like to trade him in for something with a bit more in the tank, if you know what I mean.”

“Supposed to rain hard all weekend, and cold, too,” says Edie, pouring Carmen a glass of local pinot, Margot sweet white wine from Australia. “Hail and lightning. I’ll be hunkering down by the fire with my dog and a good book. What are you two up to this weekend?”

“Not working is what I’m up to,” says Carmen, sighing. “That’s why I need a man. For hunkering down with on weekends like this one. But where have all the good men gone?”

“They’re married or dead or way too old,” says Margot, gulping her wine. “Let’s talk about something else. Have you seen the play, Edie? Seven Rooms and a Piano?”

Margot is speaking of the play currently running at the Mercy Players Company Theatre, an eighty-seat performance venue near the high school and the only place in Mercy where plays are performed.

“No. Have you?” asks Edie, noting Franz Krüger and Julia Lund entering the pub an hour earlier than usual – Franz a handsome German in his fifties, Julia a beautiful Dane in her forties – Julia quietly fiercely berating Franz about something.  

“I left after the first act,” says Margot, making a sour face. “It was like a bad sit-com without the com. And Lisa McGee has gotten so fat. I was shocked.”

“I don’t go to plays,” says Carmen, shaking her head. “Movies, yes. With a movie, even if it’s bad, you have the scenery, the music, the beautiful men, the costumes. In a play it’s just people. And if they aren’t good actors, you’re just stuck with them for hours.” She looks to the heavens. “Torture.”

Franz and Julia sit at the end of the bar as far from Margot and Carmen as they can – seven stools away – and Julia continues berating Franz who is about to explode.

“Excuse me,” says Edie, winking at Margot and Carmen. “Duty calls.”

She moves to Franz and Julia in her easy way, places a couple coasters before them, and gently interrupts Julia to say, “Hello my dears. Something to douse the flames?”

Julia, a photographer with short dark blonde hair, her eyes pale blue, smiles wanly at Edie and says, “We need hard liquor, but you don’t serve any. So I’ll start with a half pint of porter and you can give this idiot whatever he wants.”

Edie turns to Franz, a journalist, his hair sandy brown, his eyes blue gray, and waits for him to speak.

“A pint of your honey ale,” he says softly, his glare giving way to a faint smile. “And fish & chips for me and anything this unpleasant person may desire.”

Edie looks at Julia knowing she’ll say she doesn’t want anything and then she’ll eat most of Franz’s fish and then order guacamole and chips and later clam chowder and they’ll stay at the bar talking to Edie over the din during the worst crush of the evening and Edie will make brief replies and eventually Julia will forgive Franz for whatever she was mad at him about and he will move his stool close to hers and they will share a cappuccino and leave a huge tip that takes Edie’s breath away.

“Nothing for me,” says Julia, shaking her head. “I’m too upset to eat.”

“Un momento,” says Edie, moving to the many spigots center bar to draw the beers for Franz and Julia.

“Edie?” says Carmen, pouting at her. “Can we order food from you? It’s not quite five and Justin lets us order food at the bar until five.”

“Yes you may, Beautiful,” says Edie, who finds Carmen incredibly attractive, “though I’d rather you two got a table and ordered from Diana. Gonna get crazy wild here any minute now.”

“Okay,” says Carmen, giving Margot a look, “we’ll get a table.”

“Shall we pay you for these?” asks Margot, raising her glass of wine.

“We’ll run a tab,” says Edie, winking at Margot. “I appreciate you easing my load, sweetheart.”

When Margot and Carmen depart, Edie sets the beers before Franz and Julia and says, “Every Friday when you two come in here, this old pub becomes the apogee of charm and sophistication, and not just in Mercy, but on the whole west coast. You are that attractive.”

Which compliment softens Julia and she replies, “It is you who are the apogee, Edie.”

“We say so often,” says Franz, softening, too. “You’re the reason we come here, you know. To bask in your charisma.”

“Tell that to Justin and Helen,” says Edie, laughing. “Help me get that raise.”

*

Edie wakes the next morning at eight – Saturday – having gotten home from the pub at half past midnight and tumbled into bed at one. Her good dog Horowitz, an affable brown mutt, is standing beside the bed making melodic sounds in his throat that mean, “Time for our walk, Edie. Come on now. You know it is.”

After a quick shower, Edie dresses for the cold and rain and walks with Horowitz from their little cottage at the north end of Mercy – Horowitz on a short leash – to Justin and Helen’s house on the west end of Mercy, the town still mostly asleep, the temperature near freezing and the sky thick with rain-heavy gray clouds.

When they arrive at the little white house fronted by Justin’s dormant rose garden, Helen, dressed for cold and rain, comes out the front door with Sasha, a fast-growing ten-month-old Golden Lab pulling hard on her leash to get to Edie and Horowitz.

Helen is fifty-two, Pomo Mexicano with olive brown skin, her black hair in two braids hidden under a wool cap and rain poncho. She tells Edie they have forty minutes before it starts to rain – Helen’s unerring accuracy regarding the weather amazing to Edie and everyone who knows Helen, whose last name is Morningstar, her people the Pomo who have inhabited the Mercy watershed for thousands of years.

They walk fast to the town beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, and finding they are the only people and dogs on the vast expanse of sand, they let Sasha and Horowitz off their leashes to race around in wild joy.

“Two days off,” cries Helen, embracing Edie. “Heaven.”

“Heaven,” says Edie, sighing contentedly. “No pub until Monday.”

Friends for eighteen years, best friends for two, Helen and Edie initially connected when the now-defunct Lancaster Books in San Francisco began publishing Helen’s volumes of poetry eighteen years ago – Edie the presiding editor for each of the nine volumes of Helen’s poems Lancaster Books brought out over sixteen years. When Lancaster Books went bankrupt two years ago, Arthur Lancaster, the publisher, moved to England and launched Nick Bottom’s Books, publishers of Helen’s tenth volume of poems and eager to publish her eleventh.

With the demise of Lancaster Books, Edie was out of a job and unable to find another editor gig paying enough to live on, so she moved from San Francisco to Mercy, auditioned for the bartending job at Big Goose, and now has a starring role in the ongoing drama of life at the pub.

When Edie and her one-year-younger sister Charlene were girls they hoped to be actresses and singers, but neither of them could ever get a part in their school plays, and their friends who were strong singers teased them about their “little” voices, so neither pursued acting or singing. Charlene became an interior decorator, Edie a bartender and waitress, then an editor of poetry and fiction, and now she’s a bartender again.

“When I was in therapy,” says Edie, walking arm-in-arm with Helen against the wind, the dogs far ahead chasing gulls, “I realized I was not only seeking emotional fulfillment through my continuous short-lived relationships, I was seeking creative fulfillment, too. Finding a new mate and reveling in that newness was my art, and it kept me from ever being alone with myself long enough to find out who I really am.”

“You haven’t been in a relationship for over a year now,” says Helen, who loves Edie more than any woman she’s ever known.

“My new record since I was twelve,” says Edie, letting go of Helen and executing a comical pirouette. “Seventeen months solo and I love it!”

*

After breakfast with Helen and Justin, the rain lets up and Edie and Horowitz walk home – a day by the fire Edie’s heart’s desire.

But as they come down the driveway of the house in front of Edie’s cottage, Lena Quisenberry, Edie’s landlord, opens her kitchen window and calls to Edie, “Hey gorgeous, we’re about to torch a spliff of some spectacular new weed. Dig the name. Eternal Yes. Want to join us?”

Edie, who rarely smokes dope, surprises herself by replying, “Love to. I’ll get my dog dried off and change out of my wet clothes and be over in a few.”

Lena and Elvis Quisenberry have lived in Mercy for forty-five years, Elvis a lanky mechanic at Mercy Garage, Lena a buxom salesperson at Excellent Blow, one of Mercy’s three cannabis dispensaries. Both Elvis and Lena are hardcore pot smokers, and Edie knows from a few other times partaking with them that whatever Lena and Elvis are smoking, one hit will be more than sufficient to get her plenty stoned.

Yet for some reason Edie has four hits, and by the time she bids Elvis and Lena adieu she is so stoned, the journey across the astoundingly soggy incredibly green lawn seems to take forever, though she traverses the fifty feet from their house to her cottage in less than a minute.

Once inside her phantasmagoric cottage, she spends an eternity building a fire in her woodstove, after which she lies down on her sofa, covers herself with a down comforter, and falls asleep.

*

Five hours later, Horowitz wakes Edie by nudging her cheek with his nose and making throaty vocalizations to say he needs to go out and pee. Edie sits up, sees the fire has died, and deduces from the look and feel of things that she is still very stoned.

When Horowitz comes back in from relieving himself, Edie dries him off with a big towel, gives him a doggy treat, and looks in her refrigerator for something to eat – nothing in there appealing to her.

“Mexican,” she says, thinking of enchiladas and rice and beans.

Following a lengthy and fascinating search, she finds her phone under a falling-apart paperback copy of Christopher Morley’s Parnassus On Wheels and calls Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican and orders guacamole and chips and the chicken enchilada fish taco combo plate with extra beans and rice and corn tortillas to go; and the fantastically fast-talking person with the astounding Spanish accent tells her she can pick up her supper in thirty minutes.

“But can I drive when I’m this stoned?” she asks Horowitz, who makes a face that says I wouldn’t if I were you.

“So we’ll walk,” says Edie, the magic word inspiring Horowitz to spin around two fantastic times before rushing off to fetch his leash.

*

Sunday morning, walking the dogs on the headlands with Helen, a light rain falling, Edie tells Helen about getting high yesterday with Elvis and Lena.

“When I lived in the city,” she says, still groggy from the pot, “smoking dope was my favorite way to escape, though my life was not terrible, just way too stressful. And you know it’s never truly quiet in the city. Never. So my body never deeply slept. But here in Mercy, I don’t want to escape. This is where I’ve always wanted to be only I never knew it until I’d been here a few weeks, and then I knew deep in my bones.”

“When I was a girl, my grandmother and grandfather,” says Helen, speaking of the two who raised her, “smoked pot once a year on the winter solstice. I’d help my grandmother make venison stew and my grandfather would get all his chores done in the morning. Then we’d go out to a clearing in the forest, rain or no rain, and stand together facing north, and my grandfather would call Great Spirit to come be with us. Then we’d face east and my grandmother would call Great Spirit. And then we’d face south and I would call Great Spirit. And then we’d face west and we all would call Great Spirit to come join us. Then we would stand in silence until Great Spirit arrived. Then my grandmother would hold her little pipe up to the sky and ask Great Spirit to come into the herb to bring us wisdom and speak to us of the year ahead. Then my grandfather would light a match and hold it over the bowl filled with bud my grandmother grew in her garden every year, and my grandmother would smoke first and then my grandfather would smoke, and they would blow their smoke at me because I was not to smoke until I became a woman. And they kept smoking until the herb was gone. Then we’d walk back to the cabin and sit by the fire for a few hours, and then we’d have bowls of stew and talk about what Great Spirit told us.”

*

Monday afternoon at 4:30 on the dot, Norman and Jack enter Big Goose and take their customary seats at the bar, Norman having a pint of Guinness, Jack a pint of Scrimshaw – Edie asking which movie stars they are delving into now.

“I’m taking a break from the movies,” says Norman, gazing around the mostly empty pub. “Reading Steinbeck again.”

“Which you always do after you watch The Grapes of Wrath,” says Jack, smirking. “I’m still on my Dorothy Lamour kick, but I’m starting to flirt with Danny Kaye.”

“How was your weekend, Edie?” asks Norman, who loves afternoons like this when Edie is free to talk to them for more than a minute or two.

“Revelatory,” she says, nodding. “Amidst the thunder and lightning.”

“What was revealed?” asks Norman, eager to know.

“Many things,” says Edie, thinking of Horowitz and their epic journey through the tempest to and from the Mexican restaurant, of walking with Helen and the dogs on the vast beach, of the huge storm-driven waves, of her crackling fire, of rain drumming on her roof.

“Can you tell us one of the things?” asks Norman, nodding hopefully.

Edie gazes at Norman and says, “We need not look for love. It’s all around us, always, like gravity. We need only open ourselves to love and we will be filled to overflowing.”

“You really think so?” asks Jack, plaintively. “That’s a bit of a stretch for me.”

“I know so,” says Edie, looking into Jack’s eyes and seeing he wants to believe her and for some reason can’t.

“I know so, too,” says Norman, nodding. “Though I often forget, and I thank you for reminding me.”

fin

Really Really Really a little movie with Todd

Categories
short story

Submerged Dragon

Today, October 22, is the poet Helen Morningstar’s fiftieth birthday. She lives with her husband Justin Oglethorpe in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California where she and Justin are majority owners of Big Goose, the largest and most popular of the town’s three pubs, Justin the very tall bartender and manager, Helen not so tall and handling the bookkeeping, purchasing, payroll, and so forth.

To celebrate her birthday, Helen is taking the day off from work. She wakes at eight to the sounds and scents of Justin making her a mushroom zucchini omelet for breakfast, and luxuriates for a while in the warm bed knowing her day will be free of office work.

Now she makes a silent prayer of thanks to her grandparents who raised her, gets out of bed in her slow graceful way, and traipses to the kitchen still in her night gown, her long black hair tumbling to her waist – a love poem from Justin awaiting her on the kitchen table propped against a turquoise vase overflowing with just-picked red and pink roses.

to my best friend wife

apprentice poet writes birthday poem to master poet

unworried he is not as masterful as master poet

because more than poetry she has taught

him never to be afraid of what he writes

*

After breakfast, Justin goes off to the Goose as their pub is known to locals, and Helen stays at the kitchen table sipping coffee, nibbling on a chocolate birthday truffle, and talking on the phone to her daughter Carol, a tennis pro in Florida, after which Helen works the lines of a new poem for a while, finishes writing a letter to her famous poet pal Tommy Matsukado, and writes a heartfelt response to a fan in Australia who wrote Your poems fill me with strength and determination to overcome the negative forces both inside and outside of me.

Letters ready to mail, Helen takes a shower, dresses warmly for the cool overcast day, and is just about to go out the door to walk to the post office en route to Café Brava to meet with friends, when her phone rings and she sees the caller is Edie Jackson, her editor at Lancaster Books in San Francisco, publishers of Helen’s nine volumes of poems.

Helen recently completed her tenth volume of poems entitled Submerged Dragon and sent the manuscript off to Edie and the publisher Arthur Lancaster, both of whom she knows are eager to publish her new collection.

“Happy Birthday my favorite poet,” says Edie, not sounding her usual upbeat self. “This a good time to blab?”

“Yes,” says Helen, sitting down at the kitchen table. “How are you?”

“Well,” says Edie, hesitating, “not great. And I hate to give you this news on your birthday, but…”

Edie starts to cry and Helen’s first thought is that Arthur is unwell or has died.

“Tell me,” says Helen, holding her breath.

“We’re kaput,” says Edie, sniffling. “Bankrupt in a big way. Arthur left for England this morning. We could say he fled, but we won’t go there. I’m about to start looking for a job, and you, my favorite poet, will have to find another publisher for your magnificent new collection. I’m so sorry. I’ll email you the contact numbers for some other editors I know who may want your book. In the meantime, let me give you my home phone and my personal email because we have to vacate these premises and cease doing business by five tomorrow. I’m in the midst of spiriting away mailing lists and other stuff that could come in handy for you.”

*

Helen is in a state of shock as she walks to the post office. Lancaster Books published her first volume of poetry when she was thirty-four, and for sixteen years tirelessly championed her work – Edie getting Helen’s poems published in dozens of literary magazines, Arthur getting her books in bookstores all over America and around the world – Helen’s experience with Lancaster Books the envy of any poet save for those few poetry superstars, and by superstars we mean people who actually make more than a pittance from their poems.

At Café Brava, a cheerful bakery café in the heart of Mercy, Helen has cookies and coffee with fellow poets Sara Steinberg and Marcus Pontiac, both in their sixties, both excellent poets, and both barely known outside the Mercy watershed. They are disappointed to hear of the demise of Lancaster Books, but not surprised.

“I’m amazed they lasted as long as they did,” says Marcus, shrugging. “There’s never been any money in poetry in America unless the poem happens to be lyrics to a hit song, yet Arthur spared no expense on the books he published, many of which I happen to know sold but a handful of copies, and those copies to the authors. Not your books, of course, but the tomes of less fortunate poets I shall not name. I assumed they kept going all these years because Arthur had a patron with deep pockets, and maybe he did and the patron disappeared. They’ll do that.” Marcus smiles at Helen. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. The poetry gods shall not forsake you.”

“Oh yeah?” says Sara, giving Marcus a dubious look. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the poetry gods are the ones who bankrupted Arthur. You know what I’m saying? In my experience they’re a bunch of tough-love gods who think the poet has to suffer in order to write great poetry.”

“You think maybe I was too happy?” says Helen, laughing as she cries.

“Clearly,” says Marcus, nodding gravely. “Nine acclaimed volumes of poetry. Owner of a fabulous pub. Beautiful. Brilliant. Married to a friendly giant. Beloved in your community. How you wrote anything halfway decent is a mystery to me.”

“I had a rough childhood,” says Helen, laughing merrily now. “Had a baby at sixteen and raised her on my own. Worked as a secretary for a schmuck for fifteen years who paid me almost nothing.”

“That was then,” says Sara, pointing at Helen. “What have you suffered through lately?”

*

Being a supremely pragmatic person, though undeniably eccentric, Helen approaches each of the five editors Edie suggested she show Submerged Dragon to with great care and professionalism, querying them first with beautifully crafted letters that elicit five positive responses, three of the five editors wanting to see a sampling of the new poems as a PDF attached to an email, one wishing to see the entire collection sent as a PDF attached to an email, and one accepting Helen’s offer to send a hard copy of the collection.

And all five of those editors ask Helen to send with her poems a detailed outline of what they refer to as her Author Platform, which should include all the ways she will reach what they assume are her many thousands of followers on various social media platforms, as well as a thorough breakdown of her advertising and touring strategies along with estimates of how much money she intends to spend on each aspect of her Selling Plan, including hiring a publicist and producing video commercials for her book.

When she has pondered the five responses until her head aches, Helen calls Edie in San Francisco and says, “I don’t do social media and I have no touring or advertising plans, nor do I have any money to spend on promotion. Isn’t that what publishers are supposed to do?”

“In the olden days,” says Edie, sighing. “Lancaster Books was a throwback, which is one of the reasons we went bankrupt, though not the only reason. And speaking of bankrupt, I am bankrupt, too. Sadly, my long tenure as Poetry and Short Story editor at Lancaster Books won’t get me a job with any of the few houses that pay their editors a living wage, so… any chance you and Justin might want a gorgeous black gal in her late forties as your new bartender or waitress? Both positions I held before Arthur made me his editor-in-chief in the fairy tale life I lived for the last twenty years.”

“As a matter-of-fact,” says Helen, hardly believing she’s having this conversation, “we are looking for a bartender who would also sometimes wait tables. Hard work, Edie. We do pay a livable wage, but nothing compared to what Arthur paid you.”

“I would love to give it a try,” says Edie, sounding deadly serious. “At the very least I could help you set up all that social media stuff you’ll need for your next publisher. I’m being evicted in six days if I can’t come up with five grand, which I can’t so…”

“Come any time,” says Helen, dizzied by her swiftly shifting reality. “You can stay with us for as long as you want.”

“I’ve got a dog,” says Edie, prepared for Helen to change her mind. “Horowitz. A medium-sized mutt, antecedents unknown. A sweetheart.”

“Not a problem,” says Helen, laughing. “We’re between dogs right now and thinking about getting a new one, so… perfect timing.”

*

Edie, who has lived in cities her entire life, has been to Mercy nine times in the last sixteen years, each time to hear Helen read from her newest collection at Crow’s Nest Books, the only bookstore in Mercy that sells new books. And each of those nine times Edie made the five-hour drive from San Francisco, she stayed in a luxurious suite at the Mercy Hotel.

Not this time. She arrives at Helen and Justin’s little house on a Tuesday afternoon with her very friendly dog Horowitz in a car she borrowed from a friend, the plan being to give life in Mercy and working at the Goose a try for a couple weeks and then see how things shake down.

Edie is forty-eight, a tall striking African American with carob brown skin and stylishly short hair currently blonde. She’s in great shape from walking up and down the San Francisco hills every day with Horowitz and attending daily yoga classes, and she is not currently in a relationship, which is unusual for her.

“I’m a devout serial monogamist,” she confides to Helen and Justin over wine her first evening with them. “And I’m ambidextrous as Arthur likes to call those of us who equally love men and women.”

“Is Arthur ambidextrous?” asks Justin, who doubts Edie will stay for long in Mercy, though he thinks she’s fabulous.

“No,” says Edie, feeling sad about her exiled boss and best friend. “Arthur likes women. Specifically young women, which is why our relationship ended when I was thirty-two and he was hankering for someone younger.”

*

The next day, a rainy Wednesday, Edie shadows Justin behind the bar at Big Goose from four to five-thirty, has their marvelous fish & chips for supper, and shadows Diana, one of the pub’s five wait staff, from six to nine.

Thursday, a sunny day, Edie tends bar from four to seven with Justin supervising, and waits tables with Anna Marie, another of the pub’s wait staff, from eight to ten.

Friday, cloudy and cool, Edie sleeps until noon and wakes aching all over. With great reluctance she gets out of bed, takes a long hot bath, lunches in the kitchen with Helen, and is greatly relieved to learn she need not come to work tonight or Saturday.

After lunch, walking Horowitz around town with Helen, Edie says, “You may be surprised to hear this, but I’m digging the Goose. I like the people, I like the scene, I like the change. Now the only question is, am I physically up to the task? I think the answer is Yes, and we’ll know for sure a week from now.”

“Justin says you’re just what he’s been looking for,” says Helen, still discombobulated by no longer having a publisher. “And I’d love you to live in Mercy.”

“Well that’s good to hear,” says Edie, laughing at how sore her arms are from drawing and lifting and setting down hundreds of pints of beer. “You know what I like most about working at the Goose?”

“Tell me,” says Helen, who feels like crying much of the time these days.

“I like the immediacy of giving people what they want, making people happy. All those years in my office proofing text and working with designers and printers and hustling magazine editors and dealing with unhappy authors and watching most of our books flop because so few people read poetry any more, let alone buy it, I rarely had the sense anybody we were serving was happy with what we were doing for them. But in the Goose, people thank me and thank me and thank me and stuff the tip jar so I feel like Saint Francis feeding the grateful animals, not that your patrons are animals, but you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Helen, her anguish about losing her publisher fading away as she and Edie step off the road onto the headlands trail that leads to land’s end overlooking Mercy Bay. “I hope I thanked you enough for all you did for me.”

“Oh honey,” says Edie, taking Helen’s hand. “You were the shining light that made everything we did worthwhile.”

*

Two months later, Diana comes to the bar in Big Goose on a busy Friday night and says, “Two pints of Guinness, two pints of Mercy porter, a pint of Albion stout, two glasses of Elder Creek pinot, and one glass of Philo Chardonnay.”

“Yes, my dear,” says Edie, who never seems to be in a hurry yet manages to fill orders as swiftly as Justin. “You want that on one tray or two?”

“One is fine,” says Diana, nodding assuredly. “My shoulder’s better now.”

“Now don’t overdue it, hon,” says Edie, who recently moved out of Helen and Justin’s house into a cute little backyard cottage at the north end of town – Horowitz adjusting fairly well to being one of three dogs in the yard after seven years of being the only dog in the mix. “You want to make sure you’re completely healed before you lift too much.”

“You’re right,” says Diana, nodding gratefully. “Make it two trays. I still think I’m twenty-five.”

“I know that one,” says Edie, laughing.

Now Jorge Ontiveros calls drunkenly from the far end of the bar, “Edie. Hola Edie. Uno mas. Por favor.”

“Jorge, mi amigo,” says Edie, moving to him in her easy way. “Might be you’ve had enough booze tonight. Yeah? Be good to your wife, hombre. Let me get you some coffee. We don’t want you driving home drunk. Por favor.”

Jorge, a big man with short black hair, pouts at Edie and says, “I’m not driving tonight. I’m walking home. Come on, Edie. Uno mas.”

“Un momento mi amigo,” she says, waving to Justin who is out among the tables visiting with folks.

Justin sees her wave and comes to help – Edie giving a tilt of her head in Jorge’s direction.

“Jorge,” says Justin who is six-feet-six and built like a linebacker. “Que paso?”

“Quiero uno mas, Justin. Please? Edie won’t give me. I’m not driving tonight. I’m walking. Un poquito mas? Por favor?”

“Half-pint do ya?” asks Justin, resting his hand on Jorge’s shoulder.

“Yeah okay,” says Jorge, nodding sadly.

Justin nods to Edie and she draws the beer and Jorge drinks it down like a man dying of thirst.

Edie waits for Justin to go back out among the customers before she says to Jorge, “Talk to me, amigo. What’s going on?”

Jorge shrugs and looks into his empty glass. “My brother and his family sold their house next to ours and moved away. Too expensive here. They got a place near Portland for half what they sold the house here and now they got money in the bank.” He looks at Edie. “I miss him. He was my best friend, you know.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” says Edie, nodding in sympathy. “There’s nothing harder than losing a good friend. Nothing. And the only cure is making new friends. Right?”

“Claro,” says Jorge, smiling at her. “Gracias Edie. Some coffee might be good now. Por favor.”

*

On a cold morning in early March, Helen and Edie are sitting at Helen’s kitchen table looking into Helen’s laptop computer, and Helen turns to Edie and says, “I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this. I want to write poetry and send my poems to magazines and my manuscripts to publishers, and if they want them, they want them, and if they don’t they don’t. I don’t have the time or the desire to be on social media and promote myself. That’s not my job.”

“I hear you, girlfriend,” says Edie, nodding. “But if you don’t do this, the likelihood of a publisher taking you on is next to nothing. I suppose there’s a chance by some miracle you might run into another Arthur, and please know I’m holding that vision for you. And I have one other proposal, which is we publish you ourselves. I’ll handle everything, you shell out the not-very-much money, and you’ll have books to share with your fans and any bookstores we convince to stock you. A print-on-demand edition and e-books. Cost you about a grand plus my wages, which might come to another grand. Not saying you should, just giving you the option.”

*

And though part of Helen wants to publish Submerged Dragon in the way Edie suggests – Justin enamored of the idea of calling their publishing company Big Goose Books and selling the book in the pub along with Big Goose sweatshirts, T-shirts, mugs, monogrammed pint glasses, and baseball caps – a much bigger part of her wants to stop worrying about publishing her book and give herself to the work of making poems, the work she loves.

*

When October rolls around again, a few days after Helen’s fifty-first birthday and coming up fast on Edie’s one-year anniversary as bartender at Big Goose, Helen receives a handwritten letter from Arthur Lancaster in England.

Dear Helen,

After a rather hellish year of starting anew in every way I can imagine, I have launched a small publishing company here in Bristol – Nick Bottom’s Books, named after Shakespeare’s resilient and mischievous character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edie sent me your manuscript of Submerged Dragon and I was bowled over from first poem to last. I would be honored to publish your opus in the first batch of four books we’re bringing out some six months hence. I promise we will make a gorgeous book for you and do all we can to share your incomparable poems with the world. I trust three thousand pounds will be sufficient as an advance.

I eagerly await your response and hope you will use one of the more modern means of communication to give me your answer, though I knew you would want to receive my offer through the mail. And by the way, I have secured the rights and printing files of your previous books from those who seized the assets of Lancaster Books and have arranged with our distributor to fill any orders for your earlier works inevitably arising in the wake Submerged Dragon will create when she swims into the larger world.

*

 Submerged Dragon

We mistake so many things for what they are not. For years

and years we admired a giant tree on the ridge across the valley

from our house. Then one October, on a day after a good rain,

we crossed the valley in search of chanterelles and climbed up

to the ridge and discovered the giant tree was not one tree but

seven trees growing close together, their totality at a distance

creating the illusion of oneness. On the homeward trek, our

baskets full of golden mushrooms, we looked back and saw

the seven trees appearing to be three trees. Yet we knew the

three were seven. And home again we could only discern one

giant tree, yet we knew the one was seven.

There once was an enormous log submerged in a deep part of

the Mercy River a hundred yards inland from where the

Mercy meets the sea. We assumed the massive log was a

a fragment of a colossus washed downstream in a torrent

some winters ago. The mighty log had lodged over yonder

on the wild side of the river where no one ever goes, and only

two nubs of wood at one end of the gargantuan log rose

above the surface. And we might have lived the rest of our

lives believing the log was a log until one day when the tide

was so low we could walk far out into the bay on sand

exposed but once a decade, you took my hand and

whispered urgently, “The titanic log is still submerged,

though by all the laws of nature should be exposed.”

And that is when we saw the two nubs of wood were

not wood but the nostrils of a submerged dragon who

sensing we had discovered her, loosed herself from

where she’d lain for thousands and thousands of days

and rose full out of the water so we might glimpse

her awesome beauty before she swam

with the river to the sea.

fin

The Truth a short movie by Todd

Categories
short story

Nude Movie

Morris Green teaches Video Production, Film History, and Computer Graphics at Mercy High in Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California. When he started teaching at the high school eighteen years ago, cell phones equipped with video cameras were not yet on the market and Internet platforms for sharing videos were just being established. Nowadays everyone who has a cell phone can shoot videos, and watching videos via the Internet is an integral part of virtually every American’s life.

A soft-spoken bespectacled man of medium height with wispy reddish brown hair, Morris began teaching at Mercy High when he was twenty-five. He is now forty-three and married to his former student Melanie who fell in love with Morris when she took Computer Graphics and Film History from him her senior year at Mercy High, which happened to be Morris’s first year on the job.

Melanie did not attempt to seduce Morris when he was her teacher, though several of her classmates tried without success, nor did she initiate anything with Morris beyond friendly hugs when they would meet, seemingly by accident, around town during the summers between her years of college. But when she graduated from Sacramento State with a degree in Computer Graphics and moved back to Mercy to launch her Graphics business Please Identify Yourself, she immediately initiated seduction procedures which Morris was helpless to resist.

Now Morris and Melanie have a twelve-year-old son named Orson and an eleven-year-old daughter named Escher, both of whom are video-making computer graphics prodigies and zealous Frisbee golfers like their father. Please Identify Yourself has seven employees and does a huge online identity-package business, Melanie’s clients ranging from individuals to large companies. Morris continues working at the high school, though much of what he teaches has become uninteresting to him because most of his students would rather interact with their phones than with him.

Even Film History has lost its luster for Morris, as the films he considers of great importance are of little or no interest to the vast majority of his students for whom anything made more than a few years ago seems irrelevant to what matters to them today – and what that is, besides getting high and getting laid, Morris hasn’t a clue.

*

Enter Tuolumne and Tenaya Larkin.

Tenaya, eighteen, and Tuolumne, sixteen, were born and raised on a remote homestead ten miles inland from Mercy and homeschooled by their parents Donovan and Cass, whose folks were tree huggers who settled in the Mercy watershed in the 1960s. Tenaya and Tuolumne never watched television or used a computer or a cell phone or even went to the movies until just a few months ago when they finally convinced their parents to let them go to Mercy High for a year before they venture forth to seek their fortunes.

As is often the case with bright kids who have read hundreds of excellent books and plays while being homeschooled by smart parents and thoughtful grandparents and wise neighbors, Tenaya and Tuolumne find most of what Mercy High has to offer of little interest, but they both take to Video Production and Film History like ducks to water.

Tenaya, a beguiling redhead, is hugely popular with legions of young men at Mercy High, and Tuolumne, a dashing hunk with long brown hair, is a big hit with myriad young women on campus. However, romance is of little interest to either of them compared to their burning passion for the aforementioned subjects taught by the aforementioned Morris Green.

*

“They’re amazing,” says Morris to Justin Oglethorpe in Big Goose after school one day in late October, Justin the longtime bartender of the Goose as that largest of Mercy’s three pubs is known to locals. “They’re like supernatural versions of some of the kids I had in my classes when I first started teaching here. Intellectually sophisticated, blazingly creative, and they get my jokes, which none of my previous students, even the smart ones, ever got. But Tuolumne and Tenaya do.”

“I know their folks,” says Justin who is fifty-four, six-feet-six, and has carrot red hair recently cut short for the start of the Mercy Rec Center basketball league, the Big Goose team always formidable with Justin, who was on the San Jose State basketball team, playing point guard, and five-foot-seven Pablo ‘Jumping Jack‘ Valdez dominating the paint. “They’ve been bringing Tulo and Tenaya here once a month since they were little kids to hear Ricardo play piano on Thursday evenings. Donovan is stupendously ironical and makes much-sought-after dulcimers, and Cass is the Rock of Gibraltar with a fabulous sense of humor and a singing voice reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. She plays zither.”

“Now if I were to say Rock of Gibraltar or Joni Mitchell or dulcimer or zither in any of my classes, no one would know what I was talking about, except for Tuolumne and Tenaya.” Morris gulps his half-pint of Mercy porter. “When I screened The Maltese Falcon a week ago for my Film History classes and asked my students to write responses to the film, all of them, I’m not kidding, fifty students each wrote a few sentences, the gist of which was they found the film excruciatingly dull, and several of them used the word excruciatingly, which I’m sure their writing software chose for them, except for Tuolumne and Tenaya. They both wrote long gorgeous handwritten elegies to the movie, and I don’t use the words gorgeous or elegies lightly. Can I read you a couple excerpts from their responses?”

“Nothing would please me more,” says Justin, who is also one of the owners of Big Goose, which allows him to have Miguel take over behind the bar while he, Justin, takes a break to hang with Morris and let the good man debrief.

They sit at a small table away from the growing hubbub as five o’clock approaches, and Morris reads first from Tenaya’s response to The Maltese Falcon, that iconic template for a thousand subsequent murder mystery suspense thrillers, minus the horrific violence and moronic dialogue that eventually overwhelmed the genre.

“‘Bogart’s face, oh his face,’ reads Morris, passionately. “The sublime sorrow of a man shaped by his awareness of the falsity of hope. His sorrow is etched in his face from the corners of his eyes to the corners of his mouth, vestiges of tenderness only apparent when he smiles, and even those vestiges are tempered with bitterness. Whatever else the movie is about, Bogart’s angry despair is the engine of this movie.”

“Wow,” says Justin, impressed.

Morris nods. “Wow, indeed. Listen to this from Tuolumne.” He puts down Tenaya’s seventeen-page opus and picks up Tuolumne’s ten-pager. “‘Surely Beckett saw The Maltese Falcon. He must have. And wouldn’t Bogart have made a sublime Vladimir and Lorre an incomparable Estragon in Waiting For Godot? The profound absurdity of people for generations throwing away their lives and the lives of others to possess an illusion left me breathless. Did Hammett know his book was homage to meaninglessness? Did Huston know he was translating Hammett’s allegory into visual shorthand of grief born of greed? Is this a meditation on the fruits of deprivation? The movie is made with such care, such sincerity. Indeed, it is this unfettered sincerity that amplifies the absurdity into a maelstrom of tension – about nothing!’”

“Wow again,” says Justin, smiling at Morris. “You must be thrilled.”

“I’m reborn,” says Morris, gazing wide-eyed at Justin. “I care about teaching again. I have a reason to go to work. I want to share a thousand things with them every day. And glory of glories they seem to be infecting the other kids, challenging them to think beyond the blur of their numbing media to grok the miracles of the classics.”

“Hallelujah,” says Justin, clinking his coffee mug with Morris’s glass of porter. “All is not lost.”

*

In November, Morris takes his two Video Production classes to the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy to see the latest show of local artist Bertram Hawley’s life-sized and uncannily lifelike wooden sculptures of naked women and naked men. Bertram is eighty now. He used to show annually at the Fletcher Gallery, but has slowed down in his old age and this is his first show of seven new works in almost three years.

Virtually everyone in Mercy goes to Bertram’s shows, and most of the kids in Morris’s Video Production classes have not only already seen this year’s show, they grew up going to Bertram’s shows with their parents and friends. Even Tuolumne and Tenaya have gone to these shows since they were little kids, their parents eager to expose them to excellent works of art and music.

But this show of Bertram’s sculptures, five women and two men, has such a powerful impact on both Tenaya and Tuolumne, they decide to contact Bertram and ask if they might film him speaking about his art.

*

A slender agile man with snow white hair neither long nor short, Bertram was born in Los Angeles to British parents, moved to England as a teenager, and stayed in England until he was forty when he returned to America with his British wife Alison who is exactly his age. An actor of some success in England, Bertram gave up stage and screen for sculpting after surviving a terrible car accident that rendered him prone to severe anxiety and panic attacks, his emotional condition much improved since moving to Mercy where he and Alison have lived for thirty years now, Alison a psychotherapist.

*

On a sunny Wednesday after school, armed with an excellent video camera and tripod and audio recorder on loan from Mercy High, Tuolumne and Tenaya arrive at Bertram’s big airy studio adjacent to the house where Bertram and Alison live a mile inland from Mercy. They find Bertram having tea at his work table with Eliana, the lovely seven-year-old daughter of Bertram and Alison’s good friends Zeke and Conchita, Zeke a gardener who works for Bertram and Alison once a week, Conchita a real estate agent.

“Welcome,” says Bertram, coming to greet Tuolumne and Tenaya on the threshold of the studio. “You’re just in time for tea. I am having black, Eliana is having mint. We just made a pot of each.”

“Thank you,” say Tuolumne, bowing graciously. ‘We’re honored to meet you.”

“Truly,” says Tenaya, bowing, too. “We’re in awe of your art.”

“Oh don’t be,” says Bertram, laughing. “They’re just gigantic wood carvings.”

“They’re so real,” says Tenaya, gazing around the studio – an as-yet-untouched pillar of oak, seven-feet-tall and nearly three-feet-wide standing under the central skylight on the carpeted platform where Bertram does his sculpting. “So alive.”

“A friend who owns a few of my pieces says he talks to them,” says Bertram, leading them to the work table, “and believes they listen and sympathize.” He gestures for Tuolumne and Tenaya to sit. “Eliana this is Tenaya and her brother Tuolumne.”

“I know who you are,” says Eliana, who is not British, but being a preternatural mimic has an impeccable British accent whenever she spends time with Bertram and Alison, which is often. “You sometimes come to the Goose with your parents on Thursday evenings to hear Ricardo play, and your father has pints of dark beer and your mother has glasses of red wine and you have lemonade.”

Tenaya sets up the tripod, mounts the camera thereon, frames her shot so the worktable and those around it are the center of attention, and activates the camera before sitting down.

“I thought you looked familiar,” says Tuolumne, smiling at Eliana, her long black hair in a ponytail. “You played a duet with Ricardo the last time we went. You were fantastic.”

“Ricardo is my piano teacher,” says Eliana, returning Tuolumne’s smile. “He sometimes humors me by letting me perform with him. I do little flourishes in the high notes while he does everything else. I’m very lucky. He only has three students because teaching piano interferes with his composing and practicing. He earns his living as a waiter at Campeona and occasionally gets residuals from a movie he played the music for. Isabella Remembers. I’m in the movie, too, and so is Bertram. I was only four-years-old when they made the movie. You really should see it, and I’m not just saying that because we’re in it.”

“We’ll rent it immediately,” says Tenaya, delighted by Eliana.

“No need,” says Bertram, enchanted with Tenaya and Tuolumne. “I’ll loan you my copy.”

“Ricardo,” continues Eliana, looking at the camera and arching her eyebrow, “is composing a quartet for piano, cello, violin, and oboe that is so beautiful I can hardly believe it exists. He’s such a genius, and so is Bertram, though they both say they are merely well-practiced.” She laughs a deep hearty laugh one might expect from an adult, not a seven-year-old. “Aren’t geniuses funny?”

“Yes, aren’t we?” says Bertram, winking at Tuolumne. “So tell me about yourselves.”

“Well,” says Tuolumne, placing the audio recorder in the center of the table, “we hope to interview you and shoot some footage for a school project and…”

“It’s all just a ruse to meet you,” blurts Tenaya, gazing at Bertram as if seeing a miracle. “I feel like I’m in the presence of… I don’t know… Picasso.”

“Oh dear, no,” says Bertram, emphatically shaking his head. “We are told by multiple reliable sources that even at eighty Picasso would have been chasing you around the studio intent on ravishing you, whereas I was never that sort, though you are lovely. Don’t get me wrong.”

“You mean…” says Tenaya, frowning. “Picasso was a womanizer?”

“Famously so,” says Bertram, tickled by Tenaya’s innocent dismay. “Which just goes to prove that one’s art isn’t necessarily a reliable representation of one’s persona. I, for instance, carve statues of naked people, yet I’m terribly shy about letting anyone other than my wife see me naked, and even with Alison I feel more comfortable with at least some clothes on. Most of the time.”

“When we were in the gallery with our class,” says Tuolumne, giving Bertram a mischievous smile, “I couldn’t help imagining all of us spontaneously taking off our clothes to be naked with your sculptures. They seem to want us to be naked. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do know what you mean,” says Bertram, his eyes twinkling. “I think your vision would make a wonderful short film, and you have my permission. I’m sure we could arrange something with the gallery.”

“Oh no,” says Tenaya, solemnly shaking her head. “Our wonderful teacher Mr. Green would get in terrible trouble if we made a movie with naked students.” She sighs. “Though it is a lovely idea.”

“What about this?” says Eliana, holding out her arms to the camera. “We see a bunch of people going into the gallery wearing clothes, grown-up people, so wonderful Mr. Green won’t get in trouble, and then we see them walking around looking at the sculptures, and then a little while later we see them coming out of the gallery naked except they’re still wearing shoes and hats.”

“Or it could be a couple, a man and a woman,” says Bertram with a gleam in his eyes, “who come into the gallery and move silently about, slowly disrobing, one item at a time, until they are both naked and cease to move and become wooden sculptures of themselves.”

“Or,” says Tenaya, her eyes wide with excitement, “a lonely man and a lonely woman enter the gallery separately and are mesmerized by the sculptures, and after some suspenseful wandering around, they meet each other next to those two statues, the man and woman you’ve posed together, and they gaze at the two statues for a long time and then turn to each other and slowly disrobe and assume the poses of the statues and then we dissolve to them leaving the gallery together, wearing their clothes again and holding hands.”

“Or,” says Tuolumne, too excited to stay sitting, “it could be a class of high school kids who come in being loud and joking and making childish sexual comments. But seeing the sculptures quiets them and we only hear occasional snickering until even that stops and they’re all lost in wonder, and then each of them says something self-revealing and when they leave the gallery we can tell by the looks on their faces they’ve been changed.”

Bertram looks at Tenaya and asks, “Did you film us saying all that?”

“Every bit of it,” she says, nodding.

“And I’ve been recording audio since we walked in,” says Tuolumne, beaming at Bertram.

“Brilliant,” says Eliana, raising her teacup as if to make a toast.

“You know what I’d like to do?” says Tuolumne, carrying his cup of tea to the pillar of wood in the center of the studio – Tenaya expertly tracking him with the camera.

“What would you like to do?” asks Bertram, joining Tuolumne at the pillar and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him in a shaft of silver sunlight.

“I’d like to film you carving your next nude from start to finish,” says Tuolumne, reaching out to touch the pillar of wood. “We could stop by on our way home from school and shoot a few minutes every day, and when the sculpture is done we’ll make a time lapse movie of your nude taking form. With comments from you and a soundtrack of Ricardo’s piano music.”

“I like the way you think,” says Bertram, resting a hand on Tuolumne’s shoulder and not telling him the future he has just foreseen – Tuolumne becoming his apprentice and working with him as far into the future as Bertram can see, which is at least another few years.

“Aren’t they exquisite together?” whispers Eliana to Tenaya.

“Exquisite,” says Tenaya, loving her shot of the two men, one young, one old, contemplating their futures together.

fin

How Are You? A 44-second movie starring Todd’s hand

Categories
short story

Turk and Emily

On a cold clear Wednesday morning in February in busy Café Brava, a bakery café in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Turk Arslan, his given name Daniel but everyone knows him as Turk, and his sister Emily Arslan are having breakfast with their good friends Elvis and Lena Quisenberry. Turk and Elvis are both sixty-five, Emily and Lena both sixty-three.

Turk, a lifelong bachelor, big and mostly bald and twenty pounds overweight, is a year away from retiring as a deputy sheriff, and Emily, also never married, small and stout with gray hair in a page boy, was a school teacher in their hometown of Fresno until she had a nervous breakdown eight years ago, a breakdown that precipitated their move to Mercy – Turk quitting the Fresno police force after thirty years of service and becoming a deputy sheriff in Mercy.

Elvis, long and lanky with shoulder-length brown hair going gray, is a mechanic at Mercy Garage and Lena, zaftig with short brown hair currently tinted magenta, used to own a women’s clothing store in Mercy called Perfect Fit and for the last five years has worked three days a week at Excellent Blow, one of Mercy’s three cannabis dispensaries.

Turk and Emily and Elvis and Lena are all cannabis users, Elvis and Lena daily smokers, Emily a daily user of cannabis gummy bears, and Turk an occasional smoker on his days off. The four became friends five years ago when Emily bought cannabis at Excellent Blow from Lena on Lena’s first day of work there and they discovered they were both quilters and knitters and dog and cat lovers, and they’ve been a happy quartet ever since.

“What’s the latest from Jerry?” asks Emily, inquiring about Lena and Elvis’s only child who recently became a high school drama teacher in Boise after living in Los Angeles for twenty years trying to make it as an actor and supporting himself by working in a cannabis dispensary.

“He’s a little depressed,” says Lena, who got very stoned this morning with Elvis before they walked from their house on the northern edge of Mercy to Café Brava in the center of town. “A far cry from Hollywood.”

“No more depressed than he was in LA,” says Elvis, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his El Grande Breakfast Burrito #4. “For twenty years he auditioned for anything and everything in that, pardon my French, fucking town. We’re talking thousands of auditions. Twenty years. A talented handsome guy. And in all those years he was in four commercials, spoke in one of them, was a passerby in a scene in a movie where Gwyneth Paltrow tells… I never can remember his name… she knows he’s cheating on her, and…”

“Colin Firth,” says Lena, sipping her latte.

“What about Colin Firth?” says Elvis, frowning at Lena. “I was talking about Jerry.”

“Jerry was a passerby in a scene where Gwyneth Paltrow tells Colin Firth she knows he’s cheating on her,” says Lena, waving to a woman who used to shop at Perfect Fit and now shops at Excellent Blow. “And then Jerry walks by and Colin Firth tries to deny it.”

“Now I can’t remember where I was going with this,” says Elvis, making a spluttering sound. “What were we talking about?”

“Jerry,” says Emily, who is only mildly high from her first gummy bear of the day. “Four commercials, passerby in the scene with Gwyneth and Colin, and…”

“Right,” says Elvis, pointing at her. “And two lines in a movie with Brad Pitt.”

“When Jerry played the guy working in a Jiffy Burger,” says Turk, who has heard the list of Jerry’s show biz accomplishments dozens of times. “We saw the movie. He was terrific.”

“‘That’ll be seven forty-five,’” says Elvis, nodding. “That was Jerry’s first line. Then Brad Pitt gives him a ten and says, ‘Keep the change,’ as only Brad Pitt can say that, and Jerry says, ‘Too kind.’ He totally improvised that line and the director was miffed and shot the scene again and told Jerry to stick to the script and say, ‘Gosh, thanks,’ but when they saw the dailies the director totally dug Jerry’s improv and they used it. Absolutely makes the scene. Here’s this guy working in a fast food joint saying, ‘Too kind’ like he’s Alec Guinness without a British accent. Brilliant.” Elvis shakes his head. “They missed a bet with Jerry, I’m telling you.”

“I hope he’s adjusting okay,” says Emily, who feels anxious just thinking about teaching high school. “I taught Drama for five years along with English, and Drama was not easy. I don’t care what anybody says. Thirty teenagers with raging hormones undressing in front of each other and putting on costumes and performing emotional monologues?” She closes her eyes. “Madness.”

Breakfast arrives and Turk says, “Speaking of madness, last night we got a slew of calls from people complaining about a campfire on the town beach. Homeless people trying to stay warm. The shelters are full. The beach is theoretically closed after dark, but there’s no way…”

“What do people want you to do?” asks Elvis, devouring his burrito. “Put them in jail? Where are they supposed to go? Better they camp on the beach than in our backyard, and that has happened more than once, and believe me it’s no fun telling starving people to get off your property.”

“So you went down there?” asks Lena, who often sells cannabis to homeless people and always feels a little conflicted knowing they’re getting high instead of buying food.

“I did,” says Turk, sipping his coffee. “Usually two of us go, but Ruben’s ankle is still on the mend and he can’t walk on sand, so I went solo. Checked out the scene with night goggles from the vista point before I went down there, and I saw a couple really young women with the usual mob. They couldn’t have been older than sixteen. But by the time I got down there the girls were gone. And when I asked the guy who begs in front of Walker’s with his one-eyed pit bull if the girls were local, you’ll never guess what he told me.”

“What did he tell you?” asks Elvis, his burrito suspended a few inches from his mouth.

“He told me to fuck off,” says Turk, laughing.

“You didn’t tell me about the girls,” says Emily, grimacing. “Breaks my heart.”

“Crazy world out there,” says Turk, nodding. “And freezing cold. I hope they werelocals and had beds to go home to, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“Did you look for them?” asks Emily, who can’t wait for Turk to retire so she can stop worrying about him every night when he’s working. “Call out to them?”

“No,” says Turk, shaking his head. “Chasing strays on the beach in the dark is not in my job description.”

*

Turk is one of two sheriffs on duty in and around Mercy from four to midnight, and he says his job is a piece of cake compared to his job as a policeman in Fresno – Mercy a small town with little crime, Fresno a big city with all kinds of ethnic and economic divides.

The three pubs in Mercy close at eleven on week days, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, the Coast Cinema is usually dark by eleven, and Walker’s Groceries closes at ten, so after midnight the only place in Mercy open is the Emergency Room at Mercy Hospital. But piece of cake or not, Turk rarely works his 4 PM to Midnight shift without a modicum of drama – car accidents, domestic abuse, pub brawls, fires, burglaries, lost dogs, suicides, and once in a great while murder.

*

At 9 o’clock in the evening of the same Wednesday that Turk and Emily breakfasted with Elvis and Lena, Turk and Ruben Higuera are taking a twenty-minute break at Big Goose, one of Mercy’s three pubs, and briefing each other on what they’ve seen and done since they both started working at four – enjoying a little time out of their squad cars.

“There are three kinds of cops,” says Turk, finishing his piece of pumpkin pie.

“Smart cops, dumb cops, and dumber cops?” guesses Ruben, laughing.

 “There’s that,” says Turk, laughing along with Ruben who is twenty years his junior and a body builder, Ruben’s biceps monumental. “And there are cops who look for trouble, cops who avoid trouble, and cops who trouble finds.”

“Same way in the Army,” says Ruben, who survived two years in Afghanistan. “Guys who volunteer for dangerous missions, guys who volunteer for nothing, and guys who no matter what they do, the fight always finds them.”

Graceful lovely Diana saunters by with a tray laden with pints of ale and says to Turk and Ruben, “Get you guys more coffee?”

“We’re outta here,” says Turk, beaming at her. “Please tell Angelica her pie was fabuloso.”

“She likes you, Turk,” says Ruben, when Diana is out of earshot. “She always gives you that look of love she never gives me. You lucky guy.”

“I’m old enough to be her father,” says Turk, getting up from the table and leaving a twenty to cover their pie and coffee and tip. “She’s only forty-something. We helped her out when she first moved here, Emily and I. Don’t be ridiculous. She’d smile at you that way, too, if you weren’t married.”

“I apologize,” says Ruben, knowing women and romance aren’t part of Turk’s life and wishing he hadn’t said anything. “You want to check the beach? My ankle’s okay. I can do sand. The calls keep coming in.”

“I’d rather not,” says Turk, putting on his hat, “but we probably should.”

*

When Turk gets home a little after midnight, Emily is waiting up for him as always, sitting on the sofa knitting, their old brown mutt Bongo lying at her feet, their calico cat China purring by her side.

Turk takes a shower, put on his pajamas, and sits in his rocking chair by the fire sipping chamomile tea – tomorrow the first of his two days off.

“What are you thinking about?” asks Emily, sensing something amiss with her brother.

“Oh lots of things,” he says, clearing his throat. “We checked out the beach again tonight, Ruben and I, and we didn’t see the girls. Just nine guys and a three old gals. We took them a couple bags of groceries.” He shrugs. “I just wanted to. They’re not doing anything wrong except they’re not supposed to be there. But where can they go? I feel so helpless to help them.” He shakes his head. “System’s broken.”

“Did you ask about the girls?” says Emily, her heart aching as she thinks about the people on the beach trying to stay warm.

“No,” he says quietly, “but I spent the rest of my shift looking for them, and I was thinking… how would you feel about us taking in a foster child after I retire? We’ve got the extra bedroom and… I don’t know. I think about how if Aunt Sarah hadn’t taken us in when Mom died we would have been foster kids and they might have split us up or… who knows what might have happened.”

“A foster child?” says Emily, horrified. “Oh Turk. I can’t do that. I’m barely hanging on as it is.”

“You’re right,” he says, nodding. “It was just a thought. You know. In the moment.”

*

Thursday is Turk’s favorite day of the week, and he often says when he retires every day will be a Thursday.

He rises early as usual, takes Bongo for a walk up and down their two-block-long street, Comfrey Lane, all the houses one-story with small yards, and after having coffee and one of Emily’s delicious pumpkin muffins, he vacuums the house to combat the never-ending onslaught of animal hair before sitting down at the kitchen table to write a few postcards to old friends while he has a second cup of coffee.

Around ten, he and Emily walk into town together, stop at the post office to mail the postcards and check their post office box – mostly junk mail today and one actual letter from Emily’s old chum June who Turk was not-so-secretly in love with and June might have tumbled for him except he never asked her out because he knew Emily would have been devastated.

From the post office they walk to Excellent Blow where Emily buys two boxes of cannabis gummy bears from Lena who cajoles Turk into having two hits of a new strain they recently got in called Inspiration Point, which Lena says she and Elvis have been totally digging lately.

Turk’s high comes on while Lena and Emily are babbling about recent snafus with their current quilts and he wishes he hadn’t gotten high because he was so enjoying how he felt before he toked, and he almost says this to Emily and Lena, but he doesn’t.

*

Home again, his high from Inspiration Point showing no signs of waning, Turk starts a fire and sits in his rocking chair looking through a big book of Modigliani nudes, all of whom make him think of Diana the lovely waitress at Big Goose, and Tina Lombardi, the only woman Turk ever had sex with – for one glorious year and almost every day when Turk was twenty-seven and Tina, a divorcee with two kids, lived next door to Turk and Emily in Fresno and wouldn’t take no for an answer from the handsome young cop.

Then she got transferred to Phoenix and I never saw her again thinks Turk lingering on his favorite Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, which always puts him in mind of several women he might have had love affairs with or even married except I was married to my sister. Without sex or intimacy or passion. I don’t blame Emily. This is just how our life unfolded under the circumstances.

*

After lunch, minestrone soup and French bread and cheese, Turk and Emily walk Bongo up and down Comfrey Lane again before Turk drives Emily with her current quilt to her friend Claudette’s house where Emily and Claudette and two other women sit in Claudette’s big quilting studio and work on their quilts and talk.

While Emily is at Claudette’s, Turk does the week’s shopping at Walker’s Groceries, messes around in Mercy Hardware, and buys postcards and a couple fine-tipped pens at Joan’s, Mercy’s one stationery store.

With an hour left to kill before he picks up Emily, Turk drives to the Mercy Community Library and sits at the big round table in the reference room writing postcards to Tank Wilkins who was his partner on the Fresno force for many years and now raises bees in New Mexico, and Magdalena Cortez who rode with Turk her first two years on the force and was a very good cop until she quit to have a couple kids with her software designer husband Hal who out of the blue hit it big with an app that some huge company bought for a fortune and Magdalena and Hal moved to Malibu where Magdalena is now grooming her two gorgeous daughters to be fashion models and actresses.

*

Though he knows it pains Emily when he doesn’t have supper with her on Thursday evenings before he goes to Big Goose to listen to Ricardo Alvarez play piano, Turk is craving Big Goose’s incomparable fish & chips tonight and leaves the house at six wearing his favorite teal dress shirt and black corduroy trousers and a purple beret.

Emily won’t leave the house after dark, even with Turk accompanying her, so this weekly excursion to hear Ricardo play is one of the rare things Turk does out of uniform without Emily.

“I cannot live my entire life catering to my sister,” says Turk, walking to the pub for a leisurely meal before Ricardo starts playing at seven – dusk giving way to darkness – and he laughs at what he just said because he has lived his entire life catering to his sister, and he knows why.

Their Turkish mother Burcu died when Turk was eleven and Emily was nine, Burcu long estranged from her parents and family and having no community of friends, the identity of her children’s fathers dying with her. And knowing instinctively there was no one they could depend on except each other – the woman who took them in largely indifferent to them – they vowed never to leave each other, a vow Emily has never wished to break and Turk wanted to break every day of his life until he was fifty and came to believe Emily would kill herself or go insane if he left her.

*

When lovely Diana takes Turk’s order, she is not wearing her usual Big Goose sweatshirt and jeans, but a silky green blouse and a black skirt, her long graying auburn hair in a beautiful braid.

And after she places the half-pint of Mercy porter and a big platter of fish & chips before Turk, she sits down opposite him and says, “I’m taking Thursdays off now. I’m a goner for Ricardo’s music.”

“You and me both,” says Turk, blushing to think she served him even though she’s not working tonight.

“I saved two seats close,” she says quietly, “if you want to sit with me.”

“Love to,” he says, his heart pounding.

“Hey I need to thank you again,” she says, gazing intently at him. “For helping me when I first got here, letting me park in your driveway and use your bathroom and kitchen until I had enough money to get a place. Saved my life.”

“Seems like forever ago,” says Turk, realizing she is baring herself to him – intimacy – and he wants more than anything to bare himself to her.

“A year and two months,” she says, smiling as she cries. “Happiest fourteen months of my life thanks to you and Emily.”

“Well,” he says, approaching a precipice and preparing to leap, “when I saw you, you know, when I so rudely shined my flashlight into your van, I just… I don’t know I… I recognized you. You know what I mean? As if I already knew you and cared about you, so of course I wanted you to park in our driveway and not get busted. I’d never done that before and haven’t done it since.”

“I recognized you, too,” she says, nodding.

“You did?” he says, amazed to hear her say this. “What did you recognize about me?”

“I recognized you as my friend. My dear kind friend.”

*

Sitting with Diana close to the stage, listening to Ricardo play a tender ballad, before he can think not to, Turk reaches for Diana and she meets him halfway – the embrace of their hands as sweet as the sweetest lovemaking.

fin

Unrequited

Categories
short story

Inexhaustible Transformations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana nods. “What time?”

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

“Tell me,” she says in Spanish, handing the bowl and a spoon to Justin.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opens Dog Saves Man and reads the title poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

affairs and confronts her and she promises not to sleep with

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

ends the relationship and is in therapy for years before he

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

fiercely possessive of him he feels suffocated by her but does

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

*

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

*

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

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

is just there and the earth spins us into daylight and

spins us into darkness and has done so for billions of

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

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

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

of a giant frog hiding in the darkness?  

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

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

Is you feel something about what I have attempted to

explain to you in words and you mistake what you

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

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

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

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

years I avoided going down a particular street in our

neighborhood because the one time I ever walked down

that street a big terrifying dog came rushing out of his

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

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

a horrid man with a big stomach wearing no shirt and

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

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

weeds when someone gently nuzzled my arm and I gasped

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

was not terrifying and very possibly the sweetest dog in

the universe and the horrid man was standing on the

sidewalk wearing a shirt and smiling like a sunrise and

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

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

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

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

now I walk down their street almost every day and

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

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

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

*

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

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

in Tucson we were both starving for a warm body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

before and my enemies never forgot me. Sweet guy said

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

camping in a garage in Studio City and I drove away

when sweet guy walked down the street to get Chinese

takeout and three hours later a hundred and fifty miles

north just breaking free of the gravity of that giant

crazy place I forgot all about him easy as pie.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Why Now? (a poem with piano music)