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Rimbaud

On a cold clear afternoon in early November, Healing Weintraub, manager of Good Groceries, an organic food co-op in Mercy, is replenishing the banana bin when his co-manager Magdalena Cortez, looking especially lovely today with a red rose in her long black hair, hands Healing a note written on a scrap of yellow paper folded in half, and walks away.

For a fleeting moment, Healing imagines the note says Let us be lovers and live together for the rest of our lives.

He unfolds the note and reads Sheriff Higuera is at the loading dock and wants to talk to you.

“Ah well,” says Healing, placing the last bunch of bananas in the bin. “One can dream.”

*

Ruben Higuera has been a sheriff in Mercy for twenty-two of his forty-nine years. A graduate of Mercy High, Ruben served in the Army for seven years, three of those years in Afghanistan where he was twice wounded. Rakishly handsome and a former bodybuilder, Ruben is married and has two small children.

Healing finds Ruben standing at the loading dock at the back of the store, his hat off, his belt weighted down with various tools of his trade, notably an enormous gun and a long flashlight that doubles as a bludgeon.

“Sorry to bother you at work,” says Ruben, the child of Spanish speaking parents, “but I’ve got a quasi-emergency and I’m hoping you can help me defuse things until we solve the underlying problem.”

“You intrigue me, Ruben,” says Healing, doing his best imitation of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. “May I assume this is about a dog?”

“Yes,” says Ruben, who is one of the most unflappable people Healing has ever known. “A dog and the people the dog is driving crazy.”

“Who might those people be?” asks Healing, who knows just about every person and dog in Mercy.

“Marcus Pontiac and Sara Steinberg,” says Ruben, gesturing with his thumb toward the west end of town. “Will you come talk to them now? I’ll drive you over there.”

“I’ll meet you there in ten minutes,” says Healing, starting back into the store. “I have to clock out and get my things.”

“I’ll wait for you,” says Ruben, pointing to his squad car. “So I can brief you on the way over.”

*

Cruising slowly down the quiet streets of Mercy, Ruben says to Healing, “You know Marcus. Great guy. Poet. Retired from the post office a few years ago. Sara’s great, too. Also a poet. Retired social worker. They’ve been together forever, but only started living together at Marcus’s house seven years ago. He’s been in that place for thirty years. Maybe longer.”

“Longer,” says Healing, nodding. “I remember when he bought that house. I went to the housewarming party with my parents a few years before my daughter was born. So that would have been when I was… twenty-six? And I’m fifty-eight now, so…”

“Right. And Marcus’s next door neighbor the whole time was Maeve Franconi until Maeve died two years ago and her son left the place empty for a year and then sold it to a woman named Anne Pritchard. Remember that name.”

“Got it,” says Healing, enjoying his role as Ruben’s sidekick.

“Okay so Anne Pritchard moved in six months ago after having the place extensively remodeled,” says Ruben, pulling up in front of Marcus Pontiac’s small redwood house at the end of Thimbleberry Lane, a short stub of asphalt intruding onto the headlands, all the Thimbleberry houses situated on the north side of the street, the south side a field of wild grasses and coastal shrubs merging into Mercy Headlands State Park.

“Let me guess,” says Healing, smiling wryly at Ruben. “Anne Pritchard has a dog.”

 “She does,” says Ruben, nodding wearily. “Half Pekinese, quarter poodle, and quarter Chihuahua. His name is something like Rahmbó. Named after a French poet I never heard of. She spells it R-i-m-b-a-u-d. Only she doesn’t say Rim-bowed. She says Rahmbó, with a little accent on the o.”

“Oui,” says Healing, who knows of Rimbaud because Ezra, Healing’s father, used to recite parts of a poem by Rimbaud entitled The Drunken Boat. “Rahm-bó.”

“Almost Rambo, but not quite,” says Ruben, laughing. “Anyway, Anne Pritchard is fifty-two, no criminal record, and she has an excellent credit rating. She’s super smart, a systems analyst, whatever that means, and she mostly works online from home, but occasionally goes to San Francisco to meet with clients. And thank God she takes the dog with her, although if she didn’t take the dog we might be able to grab him for neglect, but she doesn’t neglect him. And the last thing I’ll tell you about her, so you won’t be startled when you meet her, is that she’s very beautiful. Very. Okay?”

“I would think Marcus and Sara would be thrilled to have a lovely woman with a dog named Rimbaud living next door to them.” Healing frowns at Ruben. “Though that wouldn’t constitute a quasi-emergency, would it?”

“No,” says Ruben, shaking his head. “The quasi-emergency is… and I’m cutting to the chase here, okay, because the situation is more nuanced than I have time to explain.”

“Understood.”

“I have reason to believe Marcus is going to try to kill Anne Pritchard’s little dog, because according to Marcus and Sara, the dog never stops yapping. From morning until night and often into the night. And this has been going on now for six months.”

“Have you confirmed the dog yaps constantly?” asks Healing, guessing Ruben has.

“Yes I have,” says Ruben, closing his eyes. “I’ve come by in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Several times. And he’s always yapping.”

“What does the super smart and very beautiful Anne Pritchard have to say about all this?”

“I will let you hear what she has to say.” Ruben brings forth his phone, taps a few buttons, and a woman’s voice fills the car – husky and warm and appealing.

“He’s a dog,” she says, stretching out the word dog. “He barks occasionally, but not all the time. He’s just being a dog. And he’s a sweetie pie. And you know as well as I do, Ruben, there are no laws against a dog barking now and then. And the way Marcus is behaving, calling me several times a day and late at night to complain about my dog is, as I’m sure you also know, a form of harassment. And I will not put up with this much longer before I seek a restraining order against him. So deal with Marcus, not me. I have broken no laws and I will not be intimidated by someone who thinks he owns the entire street because he’s been here since the Pleistocene.” 

“You know,” says Healing, looking at Ruben, “when I first heard her voice I liked her very much. But by the end of her speech I didn’t like her anymore. Does she have a partner?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” says Ruben as they get out of the squad car – a cold wind blowing in from Mercy Bay.

“Why am I not surprised?” says Healing, following Ruben to Marcus’s door.

“Oh you’ll be surprised when you meet her,” says Ruben, turning to Healing. “Because even if you don’t like her, I’ll bet you would put up with her, if only she would let you.”

*

Marcus Pontiac, stocky and somewhat stooped at seventy-two, his white hair short and spiky, opens the door and takes off his sound-blocking headphones.

“Healing,” says Marcus, his Chicago accent muted after fifty years in California. “I should have called you five months ago. What was I thinking? Well… I wasn’t thinking because I couldn’t think. Because that fucking dog never…”

Marcus stops talking and holds up an index finger to draw their attention to the high-pitched yapping of a little dog, a yapping Healing recognizes as a cry of alarm.

“Come in,” says Marcus, beckoning Healing and Ruben to enter. “Sara just made cookies. We’ll have coffee and I’ll regale you with the latest about my demonic neighbor and her putrescent little dog.”

“I have to go,” says Ruben, checking his phone. “School is about to get out and I must make an appearance at the high school parking lot to impede would-be speeders and so forth. Let me know what you think, Healing.”

“I shall give you a full report,” says Healing, bowing to Ruben.

“So shall I,” says Marcus, holding up his index finger again to bring their attention to more yapping.

“Most annoying,” says Healing, nodding in sympathy with Marcus.

“Incessant,” says Marcus, leading Healing to the kitchen where Sara Steinberg, her white hair in a long braid, is transferring oatmeal cookies from a cookie sheet onto a large blue dish, her ears covered by sound-blocking headphones identical to Marcus’s.

Sara removes her headphones and says with her New York Jewish accent, “Hi Healing. Welcome to hell. I never should have sold my place, but we needed the money.” She shrugs. “And life was good here until the horror descended upon us.”

“Do you happen to know if the dog’s owner is home right now?” asks Healing, looking out the window at the neighboring house some fifty feet away.

“Oh she’s home,” says Marcus, going to the window and glaring at Anne Pritchard’s house. “With those little white speaker turds in her ears listening to music, loud, so she won’t hear the little monster yapping.”

“Coffee, Healing?” asks Sara, bringing the cookies to the kitchen table. “I just made a fresh pot.”

“Love some,” says Healing, going to the door that opens onto a small deck. “May I?”

“Sure,” says Marcus, putting his headphones on. “Forgive me for not accompanying you.”

“Be back in a few,” says Healing, going out onto the deck from where he has a partial view of the neighboring backyard, though not of the yapping dog behind the seven-feet-tall redwood fence that separates Marcus’s property from Anne Pritchard’s property – the fence around the rest of Marcus’s property only four-feet-tall, while the rest of Anne’s property is enclosed by a fence eight-feet-tall.

The yapping continues unabated, sharp and piercing, until Healing gets to within a few feet of the fence and says in a low gentle voice, “Hello Bo. What’s wrong? What do you need?”

The yapping stops for a moment, and now resumes with slightly less gusto.

“Oh Bo,” says Healing, speaking gently. “There’s no need to bark. Are you lonely? Tell me what’s going on.”

The yapping stops again, and Healing steps up onto the bottom rail of the fence, which allows him to look over at a small brown and gray dog standing about ten feet from the fence.

Seeing Healing, the dog begins to yap furiously.

“Hey Bo,” says Healing in a low quiet voice. “Aren’t you a good dog. I’m Healing. You don’t have to bark at me. I like you. And I think you’ll like me.”

Rimbaud stops barking and walks a little closer to the fence.

“Look how smart you are,” says Healing, smiling down at the dog. “You just wanted someone to talk to, didn’t you? Someone to listen to you so you could tell them what you need.”

Now Rimbaud comes so close to the fence, Healing loses sight of him, and a moment later Rimbaud starts scratching at a plank in the fence.

Healing steps down from the bottom rail and sees the dog is pawing at a knothole the size of a silver dollar.

“There you are,” says Healing, going down on his knees and putting his face close to the knothole. “How nice to meet you. Oh my goodness. We need to trim that hair away from your eyes, don’t we? Must be an awful bother.”

Now Healing reaches two of his fingers through the knothole and Rimbaud sniffs them before giving them a lick.

“If you’ll stop barking, I’ll talk to Anne,” says Healing, handing a tasty treat through the knothole and smiling as Rimbaud gently takes the treat from his fingers. “We’ll get things straightened out. Don’t you worry, Bo. This is all just a misunderstanding. Nothing to worry about.”

*

Returning to the kitchen, Healing is greeted by Marcus and Sara as if he just slew Goliath.

“What did you do?” asks Marcus, incredulously. “He stopped barking.”

“A temporary fix,” says Healing, sitting down to have coffee and a cookie. “And I must to talk to Anne. Do you think it would be okay if I just went over and knocked on her door?”

“Not a good idea,” says Marcus, grimacing and shaking his head. “Damnit. I should have called you way back at the beginning. Now she hates me and I hate her, though she’s not a horrible person. She’s just… she’s got this fucking dog who won’t stop yapping.”

“It would really be helpful,” says Healing, gazing intently at Marcus, “if you would think more kindly of the dog. He’s essentially blind because he’s got hair in his eyes all the time. The curse of his genetics. And because his eyes are not properly cared for, they are chronically inflamed. And because he hasn’t had a chance to explore the area and learn it by smell, as these partially blind dogs need to do, he doesn’t really know where he is. And he can feel your enmity, Marcus. I know that may sound farfetched to you, but it’s true. And now I will go introduce myself to your neighbor.”

“I’ll come with you,” says Sara, leaving her headphones on the table. “I’ve acted as intermediary a couple times before and she’s at least civil to me, so…”

*

A few minutes later, Anne Pritchard, barefoot in a flimsy green dress, her auburn hair in a ponytail, a quizzical look on her exquisite face, opens her front door and beholds Sara accompanied by a handsome man with brown hair going gray.

“Hello Sara,” says Anne, her eyes fixed on Healing. “What’s up?”

“Sorry to bother you,” says Sara, smiling obsequiously, “but I wanted to introduce you to Healing Weintraub, who is something of a savant with dogs. Ruben… Sheriff Higuera… thought Healing might be able to help us with the dog situation.”

Anne takes a deep breath to quell her anger and asks, “What makes you a dog expert, Mr. Weintraub?”

“A lifetime of consorting with dogs,” says Healing, dazzled by Anne despite her barely concealed contempt for him. “I’ve already made the acquaintance of your charming dog through the fence. We had a lovely conversation, and if I might spend another few minutes with him in-person, I think I could… help.”

“Are you British?” asks Anne, squinting at Healing. “Or are you affecting an accent to try to impress me?”

“My parents are British and sometimes the accent comes through.”

“I apologize,” she says tersely. “This whole dog thing has put me on edge. To say the least. Please come in.”

Healing and Sara follow Anne into her spacious living room where Anne opens a sliding glass door and she and Healing step out onto a spacious redwood deck where Rimbaud, his tail wagging furiously, rushes up to Healing and shimmies in ecstasy as Healing bends down to scratch the little dog’s head.

“Okay, I’m impressed,” says Anne, dumbfounded by Rimbaud’s show of affection for Healing. “That’s never happened before.”

“I’m blown away by your remodel,” says Sara, lingering in the living room. “This is so beautiful. It was always so cramped in here before. Did you design this?”

“With the help of an architect, yes,” says Anne, flustered by Sara’s praise. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Like it?” says Sara, joining them on the deck. “It’s genius.”

Healing kneels on the deck to give Rimbaud a thorough massage. “He seems very healthy and strong,” says Healing to Anne. “Is he about four?”

“Yes, four,” says Anne, wringing her hands. “And he’s in excellent health except for the eye thing. I’m terrible about keeping up with trimming the hair away from his eyes. My hands shake and I’m afraid I’ll stab him, so… I think the infection these kinds of dogs get has come back. I need to take him to a vet, but I’ve just been swamped.”

Healing pushes the hair away from Rimbaud’s eyes. “If you have the requisite scissors, I’d be happy to do this for you now.”

“Oh fantastic,” says Anne, hurrying away. “I’ll go get them.”

“You’re amazing,” whispers Sara, grinning down at Healing.

Anne returns with special scissors with which Healing carefully snips away the invasive hair that has been wreaking havoc on Rimbaud’s eyes.

“And now,” says Healing, standing up, “with your permission I will go with Rimbaud on an exploratory stroll around your yard.”

“May we come with you?” asks Anne, contritely. “I don’t want to intrude on your process, but I’d love to watch.”

“Please,” says Healing, crossing the deck and stepping down onto a scraggly lawn, Rimbaud at his heels.

“I’m going to have all this landscaped,” says Anne, gesturing expansively to her yard as she and Sara follow Healing and Rimbaud. “Drought resistant grasses and herbs and the kinds of plants that attract butterflies.”

“We have a butterfly garden,” says Sara, smiling at Anne. “Brings the hummingbirds, too. And you know what they say about hummingbirds.”

“No,” says Anne, frowning at Sara. “What do they say about hummingbirds?”

“They are bringers of joy,” says Sara, thinking of Marcus’s poem about hummingbirds called Bringers of Joy.

Now they come to the place where Rimbaud has been standing and yapping for the last six months, and because it has become his habit to do so, the little dog faces the fence and begins to yap as if confronting a menacing stranger.

“Oh Bo why are you barking?” asks Healing in his gentle way. “What do you think is over there? That’s just Marcus and Sara’s yard. They’ve got a vegetable garden and a pond with big rocks around it, and a low fence between the rest of their yard and the headlands.”

Rimbaud stops barking and comes to Healing,

“You see? There’s no need to bark,” says Healing, scratching behind Rimbaud’s ears and slipping him a tasty treat. “Nothing to fear over there.”

Now Healing turns to Anne and says, “You probably know this, but sight-challenged dogs like Rimbaud learn the lay of the land by smell, and unless they can explore their surroundings and make sense of what their acute sense of smell is telling them, they will be perpetually uneasy. And there’s something about this particular spot that Rimbaud can’t figure out, and it distresses him no end. Now if it was up to me, I’d make an opening in the fence here and allow him to wander to and from Sara and Marcus’s yard so he’ll know what’s going on over there, and I’d also take him for walks on the headlands trails so he can get a deeper sense of where he is and what’s going on in his world.”

“Is that something you could help me with?” asks Anne, moved by Healing’s speech. “I’d be happy to pay you whatever you charge.”

“No need to pay me. I go walking with my dogs twice a day and we’ll come by here every few days and Rimbaud can come with us, and you can join us, too, if you like. In the meantime, I will be happy, with everyone’s permission, to remove a plank or two from this old fence and make an attractive gap here for Rimbaud’s transits between your properties.”

“Fine with us,” says Sara, knowing Marcus will be thrilled with Healing’s solution. “We always had a dog until Auden died two years ago, so it will be nice to have Rimbaud come visit.”

“Wonderful,” says Anne, impulsively taking Sara’s hand. “And we can be friends now.”

“I’m sure you know,” says Healing, smiling at Anne, “that Sara and Marcus are both fine poets and always name their cats and dogs after poets, just as you named your dog after one.”

“I didn’t know you were poets,” says Anne, gazing in wonder at Sara. “So am I.”

fin

The Monster Part Two a very short movie

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The Chosen Ones

Healing is sitting on the sofa in the living room of his little old house on Nasturtium Road, the red brown cat Sakura purring on his lap, the black cat Victoria on the sofa beside him, his three dogs Benito, Carla, and Tarzan sprawled by the fire, a light rain falling on this cold Sunday morning in late October – the dogs and Healing pleasantly knackered after a four-mile ramble on the beach.

The phone in the kitchen rings and Healing is loathe to dislodge the cat from his lap and himself from the comfy sofa until he hears his daughter Tova leaving a message on the answering machine, her voice sufficient to make him go get the phone.

“Oh good, you’re there,” says Tova, who is thirty and lives a twelve-hour drive away in Portland, Oregon. “Got a minute?”

“Hours, days, weeks,” says Healing, putting a kettle on for tea. “We’ve had our morning walk and I’m about to have a pot of Darjeeling. How’s tricks in Portland?”

“Tricks are not going so well here today,” says Tova, who is sitting on the sofa in the living room of the house she shares with four other people and three cats, one of those cats on her lap.

“How so?” asks Healing, ladling two spoonsful of black tea into a small blue pot. “A mere eight days ago I had the pleasure of watching you steal the show as Jenny in The Aardvark’s Revenge and then celebrated your rave reviews with you and the giddy playwright. I was under the impression the show was going to run for three more sold-out weeks. No?”

“The show is going to run for three more weeks,” says Tova, taking a deep breath, “and then in May it will open at the Parker Playhouse in New York, otherwise known as Off Broadway.”

“That’s fantastic. Mazel tov!”

“Except no one in the current cast will be in the New York production because Brandon optioned the play to producers who want movie stars to play Jenny and Justin, and big-time actors for all the other parts.”

“Oh I’m sorry, Tove,” says Healing, knowing how much the play means to her. “But still… Brandon must be thrilled.”

“He’s over the moon,” says Tova, sadly. “And of course we’re all thrilled for him, but it’s heartbreaking we don’t get to go with the play after we all started with it as a rough idea and improvised the thing into existence through a jillion drafts.”

“This is how things work, isn’t it?” asks Healing, feeling Tova’s pain. “The playwright’s dream come true?”

“I guess so,” says Tova, sighing. “But don’t you think it’s so unfair?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” says Healing, filling the teapot with boiling water. “This is how the system works as I understand it. Those movie stars and established actors worked hard to get where they are so they’d be cast in exciting plays, just as you worked hard to bring the play to life. I think the whole thing has been a resounding success for you.”

“I know but…” She laughs a little. “In the Hollywood version I go with the play and become the toast of Manhattan.”

“Right,” says Healing, laughing with her. “And in the Hollywood version, Derek, the guy who plays guitar and sings in front of the Mercy post office, gets discovered by a record producer on vacation here and becomes the next Bob Dylan instead of going back to his sleeping bag in the forest to survive for another day on whatever he made busking.”

“Things like that do happen,” says Tova, feeling better now. “Just almost never.”

“Well I’m proud of you for being such an adventurous actor and brave musician, and I have no doubt your work on the play will bring you all sorts of marvelous opportunities.”

“That’s why I called you, Pa-pa,” says Tova, her sorrow gone for now. “To hear you say everything you just said.”

*

Healing was born fifty-eight years ago in the little old house on Nasturtium Road at the south end of Mercy, and Tova was born here, too. When Healing was a teenager he starred in plays at Mercy High and had parts in plays put on by the Mercy Players Company, a goodly gang of local amateurs, and everyone who saw Healing in those plays felt certain he would become a professional actor, everyone except his mother Naomi who had a premonition that Healing would live in Mercy his entire life.

When he was nineteen, Healing went to San Francisco, attended several professional productions of plays, and sat in on a friend’s acting class. From San Francisco, he took the train to Los Angeles and stayed with a friend who was trying to make it in Show Biz. She took him to plays and movie screenings and improv theatre performances, and introduced him to her acting coach who asked Healing to perform a monologue for him. Healing did a soliloquy from Halston Thomas’s Fragile Beasts, and the acting coach flipped over Healing and said he would be happy to hook him up with an excellent agent.

Healing declined the acting coach’s offer and took the train to Chicago where he went to plays and took a three-day improv workshop. From Chicago he went by bus to New York and stayed with a friend going to Julliard, saw several Off and Off Off Broadway plays, and partied with theatre people. Then he flew to England and stayed with his Aunt Dorothy in Oxford and went to dozens of plays in London and auditioned for admission to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

After an exciting month in England, Healing returned to Mercy where a letter of acceptance from The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art awaited him. Yet he chose not to return to London and instead got a job as a landscaper in Mercy, and thereafter had occasional parts in Mercy Players Company productions.

Thirteen years later, when he was thirty-two and the single parent of three-year-old Tova, Healing was in the last play he would ever be in, Harold Schultz’s Golden Cupcakes. He played the comically suicidal Stefan, and in her review of the play in the Mercy Messenger, Mavis Stapleton wrote, “Healing Weintraub once again beguiled the audience with his brilliantly nuanced performance and further cemented his reputation as the Alec Guinness of Mercy.”

One evening when Tova was thirteen and determined to become a movie star, Healing’s parents, Naomi and Ezra, who also lived in the little old house on Nasturtium Road, asked Healing to tell Tova why he chose not to attend Drama school in London or to pursue show biz in Los Angeles.

“I did not feel well in those cities,” said Healing, thinking how best to explain his choice to Tova, who at the time was binge watching Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert movies while starring in the Mercy High production of The Pajama Game. “And of the many people I met who were striving to succeed as actors, I found no one I could identify with in any sort of meaningful way. I was, as the saying goes, a fish out of water, and so chose to come back here where I am more in my element.”

“Which element is that?” asked Tova, sounding very much like the young sarcastic Katherine Hepburn. “Manganese?”

*

In a somber mood after speaking on the phone with Tova, Healing adds a log to the fire and plays his accordion to accompany his memories of Tova growing up without her biological mother who ran away when Tova was eleven-months-old.

Why did Tova’s mother run away? Ezra and Naomi and Healing’s friends thought she’d fallen in love with someone else. Healing didn’t think so, and thirty years later he still doesn’t believe that’s why she left.

When Tova was eighteen, the year before she moved to Portland, and shortly after Naomi and Ezra moved back to England after fifty years in America, Tova asked Healing to tell her again everything he knew about her mother. So Healing decided to do this in writing, and here is what he wrote.

Your mother was twenty-two, or so she said, and I was twenty-seven when we met at a Tuesday night Open Mike at Big Goose. She had, as the song goes, hair of spun gold and was delicately beautiful. You got her slender nose and big blue eyes and lovely figure, though not her golden locks.

She told me her name was Ruth Amelia Lazar and that she grew up in upstate New York not far from Woodstock, her parents intellectual escapees from Manhattan. In my attempts to locate her after she left us, none of this information proved to be true. In any case, she told us she was estranged from her parents and had been moving around America with her friend Sara for some years playing folk music and waitressing.

She had a beautiful voice, a high tenor I would call it, and she was an excellent guitar player. When I brought Ruth and Sara home that night after Open Mike, Ezra and Naomi were instantly smitten with Ruth, as was I. They parked their turquoise Volkswagen van in the driveway, and after a few weeks, Ruth and I became lovers and she moved into the house with us. Sara stayed a few more weeks and then left for Portland.

I was working for Zella Wildflower in those days, doing garden maintenance, and Ruth worked with me. We played music together in the evenings and on weekends, and eventually got a regular gig on Wednesday nights at Poughkeepsie, a café that went out of business when you were three or four. Madison Tolliver, father of your school chum Andrea, ran Poughkeepsie and paid us twenty dollars for two sets and we made about that much again in tips. We performed original songs and folk standards and had quite a following. By that I mean we had about ten regulars, including your grandparents.

I was madly in love with your mother and thought she was madly in love with me. After we’d been together for seven glorious months, I asked her to marry me and she said Yes, but said she didn’t want a legal ceremony. So we exchanged vows and rings in the backyard with a few friends in attendance and carried on.

Your mother said she loved being pregnant with you and I know she was crazy in love with you from the moment you were born until the moment she disappeared, and I still have no idea why she went away.

The note she left said: Tova’s good to go now without my milk and you’ll be better off without me. Please don’t try to find me. Thanks for being so good to me. R

Of course I did try to find her, but she left no tracks to follow. I think she met up with Sara again, though I don’t know that. Just a feeling. I was pretty wrecked for a couple years after your mother left us. I did my best not to bring my sorrow into my interactions with you, though I’m sure you must have felt my distress because I often cried when I thought about your mother.

Your grandparents loved you more than anything on earth and took care of you as if they were your parents, as you know.

*

At noon on the day Tova called feeling down about The Aardvark’s Revenge going to New York without her, Healing’s good friend and co-worker Magdalena Cortez arrives with her nephew Raul who is twelve and writing a school paper about Healing and his pets.

Raul and Healing and Magdalena sit at the kitchen table enjoying the lunch Magdalena brought – spicy carnitas, corn tortillas, refried beans, and rice – the rain falling hard.

“How come you have so many pets?” asks Raul, a handsome lad with wavy black hair. “Did you teach your parrots to talk or did they already know how when you got them? Do they have to learn sounds before they can say words? Don’t the cats try to kill them? Tia says you let them go outside and fly around. How do you get them to come back?”

“Raul?” says Magdalena, smiling quizzically at her nephew. “Why don’t you let him answer a question before you ask another?”

“Okay. How come you have so many pets?”

“I was born into a family of dogs and cats and parrots and people, and I love living with animals, so I carried on the tradition.”

“Okay,” says Raul, nodding to acknowledge Healing’s answer. “My next question is: did you teach your parrots to talk or did they already know how when you got them?”

“Excellent question,” says Healing, winking at Raul. “The current residents of the big cage you see there in the far corner of the kitchen are African Greys, a male and female named Bogart and Bacall. I’ve had them since they were a few weeks old. They started imitating sounds they heard when they were very young, and I would guesstimate they started making sounds that might be construed as words when they were about nine-months-old. The first identifiable words they spoke were the names of people and animals they heard most frequently, and the word Hello. Thereafter they became more and more loquacious.”

As if on cue, Bogart says, “Hello,” and Bacall says, “Not again.”

Raul laughs. “What’s loquacious mean?”

“Talkative,” says Healing, laughing. “Voluble, garrulous, verbose.”

“Don’t you want to write his answers down?” asks Magdalena, nodding encouragingly at Raul.

“I’m recording this on my phone,” says Raul, fascinated by Healing. “So… what about the cats? Don’t they want to kill the parrots?”

“I suppose they may have wanted to at some point long ago,” says Healing, trying to recall if any of the current cats in the house ever threatened the parrots. “But they knew not to, and now I don’t think they think about such things anymore.”

Raul laughs. “How did they know not to?”

“I told them not to. Just as I told them not to bother the chickens.”

“And you think they understood you?” says Raul, skeptically.

“I’m sure they understood me,” says Healing, matter-of-factly. “As did the cats who lived here before the cats who live here now. You may be interested to know that Bogart and Bacall are both fifteen-years-old, which is seven years older than my oldest dog and five years older than my oldest cat. And there is a good chance Humphrey and Lauren, the parrots’ first names, will live another fifteen years.”

“And you don’t ever have to hit your cats if they get too close to the parrot’s cage?” asks Raul, still unconvinced the cats don’t want to kill the parrots.

“Never have,” says Healing, shaking his head. “And in answer to another of your questions, yes, I do let the parrots out to fly around, which they love to do. And they always come back because I trained them to come back starting when they were very young. There have been a few close calls over the years, once with a Red-tailed Hawk who tried to catch Bogart, and twice when ravens attacked Bacall. To evade their attackers, the parrots took refuge in the dense foliage of the Japanese maples and thus were inaccessible to the hawk and ravens.”

“I’m amazed,” says Raul, looking at Magdalena. “Have you ever seen them flying?”

“I have,” says Magdalena, smiling at Healing. “It’s a very beautiful sight.”

“Can you show me?” asks Raul, picking up his phone. “I’ll film it and get an A for sure.”

“Not today,” says Healing, shaking his head. “They don’t like to fly on rainy days. But some sunny day you must come back and we’ll let them out and you can film them flying.”

“Okay,” says Raul, turning to Magdalena. “How much more time do we have?”

“Ask Healing. He is your subject.”

“Do you have time to tell me how you got your pets?”

“I have all day and I will be happy to introduce you to each of the dogs and cats and parrots and tortoises, and tell you how each of them came to live here.”

*

That evening, Healing calls Tova to find out how the matinee performance of The Aardvark’s Revenge went and to see how she’s feeling.

“Best performance ever,” she says with a contented sigh. “The audience went wild, standing ovation, etcetera. I’m still a little sad, but not as sad as when I called you this morning. How was your day?”

Healing tells her about Raul and Magdalena’s visit, and Tova asks, “Did you tell them how you got Carla?”

“I did,” says Healing, wondering what made her think of that particular story. “The short version. Raul loved it and said he’s going to use a picture of Carla for the cover of his paper.”

“I love that story so much,” says Tova, passionately. “Would you tell it to me? The long version?”

“Now?”

“Would you? Please?”

*

It was in October of the year when our dogs Merlin and Cassidy died of old age, and the young cat Custer was taken by a hawk, and the old cat China died in the corner of the woodshed. Six years ago.

I was on the front porch just back from a walk around town with Benito, who was only one-year-old and my only dog at the time. I was just sitting down to take off my shoes when Benito gave a little bark at the approach of eight-year-old Timothy Macklin.

Timothy’s father and grandfather and great grandfather and great great grandfather were all loggers. I went to school with several Macklins, as did you, Tova, and you will remember that most of the Macklin boys were big and strong and played football and basketball as if they were fighting for their lives, and many of the Macklin girls were big and strong, too, and married young and had lots of kids.

“I thought this is where you lived,” said eight-year-old Timothy, stopping on the sidewalk in front of our house and waving to me. “You come to our class every year with your dogs.”

“Yes, I do,” I replied, wondering what Timothy had in the paper bag he was carrying. “I’m Healing Weintraub and you’re Timothy Macklin.”

“How’d you know my name?” he asked, incredulously. “Don’t tell my dad I was here, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, seeing he was trembling. “What can I do for you?”

He came to the bottom of the stairs and said so quietly I could barely hear him, “I got a puppy here my dad told me to drown because she’s a runt and her mom won’t nurse her, only I don’t want to kill her and I thought you might want her. I’m not sure she’s a girl, but I think so. You want her? I think she might already be dead. I had her in this bag at school all day and she stopped moving a couple hours ago.”

“Yes, I want her,” I said, coming down the steps and taking the bag from him.

“Okay,” he said, turning to go. “I gotta catch my bus or I’ll be in big trouble.”

“What breed is the mother?” I asked, calling after him.

“She’s a Black Lab,” he shouted, jubilant to be free of his burden. “I know a Dane got to her and maybe a Rottweiler.”

I looked in the bag and here was a pup the size of a small rat, and so motionless I thought she was dead. I cradled her body in my hand, felt she was warm, and ten minutes later we were at the vet and Megan Ramirez was gently forcing some puppy milk replacer into the pup’s mouth and stimulating her throat to get her to swallow, and the little darling revived.

For several weeks I used an animal baby bottle to feed her goat’s milk mixed with raw egg and a tiny bit of sugar until she was ready to eat gruel and lap up water. For the first three months I kept her in a cardboard box next to my bed with a heating pad in there to keep her warm.

I hired Madge Preston and Ruben De Marco to take care of the pup while I was at work, and you came home for two weeks to take care of her, and now Carla is a great big dog, healthy and strong and as sweet as can be, a gorgeous Black Lab Dane.

Timothy Macklin has grown into a charming young man. He’s in high school now and plays basketball and is the drummer in the school jazz band.

Every few weeks in the afternoon after school, Timothy comes to visit Carla. He and I walk around the property with the dogs, or if it’s raining we have tea by the fire and Timothy brings me up to date on his life, and I tell him what Carla and I have been up to.

And many a time when we’re saying our goodbyes, Timothy will feign distress and say, “Now don’t tell my dad where you got Carla or I’ll be in big trouble.” To which I always reply, “Fear not, my friend. Your secret is safe with us.”   

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What Comes Around piano solo by Todd

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Most Difficult Cat

The human and canine and feline and avian members of the Weintraub household are in great spirits because Healing’s daughter Tova is home for a week in the middle of May; and by home we mean the little old house on Nasturtium Road at the south end of Mercy where Tova was born and where Healing was born, too.

Thirty-years-old, slender and strong like her father, with short brown hair and a flair for the dramatic, Tova currently resides in Portland, Oregon where she is pursuing a career as an actor and singer while supporting herself as a three-days-a-week veterinarian’s assistant.

Tova returns to Mercy five times a year: for a week in March, a week in May, a week in July, a week in September, and for seven weeks from late November until early January, unless she has a role in an excellent play, not a Christmas play.

Having grown up in a household composed of her delightful father and his zany British Jewish hippie parents, multiple dogs and cats and birds, and a steady stream of artists and musicians and intellectuals of myriad ages and ethnicities, some of whom stayed for weeks and months at a time, Tova has a world view quite unlike most of her age peers in America. She has seven good friends in Portland, five of them lesbians, two of them gay men, while she is a devout heterosexual and aspires to have a male partner, an aspiration she has yet to fulfill to her satisfaction.

“I’m beginning to think, Pa-pa,” says Tova one blustery Saturday morning over blueberry apple banana pancakes at the kitchen table in the little old house on Nasturtium Road, “that heterosexual males cut from similar cloth as thee are as rare as unicorns in Portland. Grandma-ma says American men are emotionally and intellectually stunted by the culture here and suggests I move to England where she says at least some men are not so underdeveloped.”

“Your grandmother met your grandfather in America and they would be living here still had they not inherited a groovy pad in Oxford and a good deal of money,” says Healing, ladling pancake batter onto the griddle. “She wants you to move to England to have you near, not because she thinks you’ll find Prince Charming there.” Healing chuckles as he thinks of his mother, still indefatigable at eighty-four. “In my view, and forgive me for repeating myself, when our hearts are open, the universe provides us with love aplenty wherever we are.”

“I’m actually quite happy,” says Tova, sipping her tea. “It’s my bloody hormones driving me mad lately to find a mate and have a baby, though I’m quite prepared not to give birth to a child.” She looks down at the cat in her lap, orange and white Toulouse. “Though if I don’t have a baby, I will probably adopt one or two.”

The kitchen phone rings and Healing answers.

“Good morning,” he says, keeping an eye on the pancakes.

“Am I speaking to Healing Weintraub?” asks a woman with an upper crust British accent.

“You are,” says Healing, his own faint British accent becoming more pronounced whenever he speaks to a fellow Brit. “How may I help you?”

“My name is Catherine Falstaff,” she says, clearing her throat. “Marcus Wickersham gave me your number. He says you are a magus with dogs and cats, and I am in difficult straits with my cat Sakura.”

“How so?” asks Healing, enjoying Catherine’s way with words.

“I wish to have a second cat,” she says, pausing momentously. “But Sakura will not allow it.”

*

“You should at least charge for travel time and gas,” says Tova, riding shotgun in Healing’s little pickup with Benito the brown Chihuahua Poodle sitting between Tova and Healing as they head north on the coast highway en route to Catherine’s house.

“My paying gig is running Good Groceries,” says Healing, elated to be going on a case with Tova. “Helping dogs and cats is my art.”

“Nothing wrong with making a little money from your art,” says Tova, thinking of how little she makes from hers.

“I usually have people bring their dogs to me so I can watch them interact with our dogs,” says Healing, cruising at his favorite speed of twenty miles per hour. “But I insist on visiting cats at their houses, though I don’t often work with cats. As for travel time and gas, we’re only going three miles north of town, and when we’re done there we can walk on Bethany Beach where magic stones abound.”

“You made a rhyme I want to use in a song,” says Tova, gazing out the window at the passing beauty. “Town and abound. I miss living with you, Pa-pa, and everybody in Mercy. The problem is there’s not much going on here music-wise or theatre-wise, so…” She shrugs. “Even so, I might move back. Would that be okay with you?”

“Of course,” says Healing, laughing. “I’d love you to live here, though as you say, Mercy is not exactly a hotbed of cutting edge Drama, nor are there many venues for chanteuses playing jazzy ukulele, though I’m sure you could gig for tips at Big Goose, Mercy’s finest pub.”

“My friends in the biz say I should give New York a try,” says Tova, sighing. “Or London. Though I’m beginning to think I’m just not a city person.”

“Your grandmother would be ecstatic if you moved to London,” says Healing, making a left turn into Seascape Villas, a collection of opulent homes scattered around the headlands overlooking the mighty Pacific. “And so would your grandfather.”

“I’d rather live here,” says Tova, scratching Benito’s head. “Would you like that, Benny-oo? For me to live with you?”

Benito wags his tail to say he would love her to live with them.

“Aha,” says Healing, parking next to a pristine old silver Rolls Royce with a mahogany running board. “I’ve seen this rig in town and wondered whose it was.”

“You’d want a car like that,” says Tova, getting out of the little truck, “if you had a house like this.”

She is referring to the spectacular redwood and river rock house fronted by a scrupulously manicured Japanese garden accessed through a magnificent wooden gate, the garden featuring enormous granite boulders surrounding a large koi pond, several gorgeous pines with artfully twisted trunks, and a gently arching wooden bridge bisecting the pond, which visitors must cross to reach the gigantic mahogany front door with a fabulous Japanese dragon carved thereon.

The door opens as Tova and Healing approach, and here is Catherine Falstaff, tall and in her sixties with frizzy silver hair, her blouse green silk, her trousers black, her red sandals open-toed, her toenails painted green to match her blouse.

“You are prompt,” she says, giving Healing a steely smile and shifting her gaze to Tova. “I did not expect you to bring a companion.”

“This is my daughter Tova,” says Healing, bowing to Catherine. “She’s every bit as good with animals as I, and she is a highly-regarded veterinarian’s assistant.”

“In Portland,” says Tova, gesturing to the house and garden. “Astounding.”

“Thank you,” says Catherine, beckoning them to enter. “I am a keen Japanophile, as you can see. The house was designed by Akio Kawabata himself, not one of his disciples, and the garden was laid out by none other than Daichi Mifune. And though it may stretch the bounds of credibility to say so, Daichi san himself actually came here to oversee the finishing touches. I’m hopelessly shinnichi, as the Japanese would say. Come have some rare twig tea from Kamakura and meet her royal highness.” Catherine giggles. “Otherwise known as Sakura.”

*

Sakura is five-years-old, large and reddish brown with short hair, aggressively affectionate, and in excellent health. She takes an especial liking to Healing and insists on sitting on his lap while the humans share a pot of the ballyhooed twig tea in the sun room overlooking a stretch of coastline accessible only from Seascape Villas.

“Because most of the houses here are second or third homes and rarely occupied,” explains Catherine, shielding her eyes as she gazes out at the shining sea, “I am one of the few people who ever visit our beach, and even I only venture down there a few times a year. Thus the sands are remarkably pristine and dozens of seals and legions of shorebirds revel in the absence of humans there.”

“Wonderful,” says Healing, stroking the loudly purring Sakura and hiding his distaste for the bitter tea. “Please tell us how Sakura keeps you from having another cat.”

“She becomes a monster when there’s another cat on the premises,” says Catherine, shrugging hopelessly. “Sprays the walls and the furniture, which she never does when she’s the only cat. Rips the upholstery, which she also never does when she’s the only cat. And stalks the other cat with murder in mind. She nearly killed one of them, drove another out of the house through a momentarily open kitchen door and I found him cowering in the dune grass, and she so terrorized the last one he was afraid to come out from behind the washing machine for three days and I had no choice but to re-home all of them, which I believe is the proper term for finding a cat another place to live.” Catherine looks at Sakura purring on Healing’s lap. “And the minute she has vanquished a rival, she becomes the love cat you are now consorting with.”

“Her behavior is not uncommon,” says Healing, looking at Catherine and noting her reluctance to meet his gaze. “Did you have another cat when you got her?”

“Yes,” says Catherine, nodding. “Miyoshi. A splendid if somewhat imperious Siamese. They shared the house with minimal strife. But after Miyoshi died, Sakura has behaved as I described.”

“Why do you want another cat?” asks Tova, who finds the tea undrinkable. “Not that you shouldn’t have as many cats as you want. Pa-pa has four.”

“I’ve always had two,” says Catherine, raising her hand to beckon her servant Teresa who Healing and Tova know quite well. “Bring the cookies, please, Teresa. And we’ll have coffee. The dark roast.” Now to Healing and Tova. “Are you coffee drinkers?”

“Big time,” says Tova, nodding politely.

“Love a good dark roast,” says Healing, setting Sakura down on the floor from where she immediately jumps onto Tova’s lap.

“Coffee for three,” says Catherine, calling to Teresa.

“I trust you followed the usual protocols for introducing a new cat into the household,” says Healing, hoping the coffee will be better than the tea. “Separate eating and sleeping areas and so forth?”

 “Assiduously,” says Catherine, nodding emphatically. “To no avail.”

“These were adult cats?” asks Healing, guessing they were.

“Oh I wouldn’t dare bring a kitten into the house,” says Catherine, aghast at the idea. “Sakura would kill it instantly.”

“I doubt it,” says Healing, watching Sakura drool with pleasure as Tova caresses her. “Was Sakura a kitten when you introduced her to Miyoshi?”

“She was eleven-weeks-old.” Catherine frowns gravely. “Are you seriously suggesting I try with a kitten? Seems insanely counter-intuitive.”

“No, I’m not suggesting you try with a kitten,” says Healing, shaking his head. “I’m merely gathering clues.”

The coffee and cookies arrive, and Healing and Tova chat for a moment with Teresa whose son Diego went to high school with Tova and now works for Google in Argentina.

“Where does Sakura sleep at night?” asks Tova, adding cream to her coffee.

“On the living room sofa,” says Catherine, drinking her coffee black. “She wants to sleep with me, but I’m an extremely light sleeper and she likes to come and go during the night and would be forever waking me up, which is why I keep my bedroom door shut. Happily, she is perfectly content having the rest of the house to herself.”

“It is possible, Catherine, that Sakura will never tolerate another cat,” says Healing, glancing at Tova. “What do you think?”

“I think the best chance we’d have is with a kitten,” says Tova, handing Sakura to Healing. “She’s a big sweetheart.”

“Does she go outside much?” asks Healing, guessing she doesn’t.

“Oh I never let my cats go outside,” says Catherine, furiously shaking her head. “Not since I lost Toshiro to a coyote.”

“Then that will make things even more difficult,” says Healing, gazing out the window at the breakers crashing on the shore. “There are no coyotes on this stretch of the coast, so I assume you lost Toshiro elsewhere.”

“Yes,” says Catherine, grimacing at her memory of Toshiro shrieking when the coyote got him. “On our estate in Ojai. Fourteen years ago. Worst day of our lives. That’s why we moved here. My husband and I. To start anew after Toshiro died.” She smiles to keep from crying. “My husband passed six years ago.”

“I’m so sorry,” says Healing, bowing his head.

“Me, too,” says Tova with tears in her eyes.

“Thank you,” says Catherine, touched by their condolences. “Jerome had a good long life. He was twenty-nine years my senior, a very successful architect with clients all over the world, his crowning glory a museum of Japanese art in Friedrichshafen.”

*

That night over Mexican Food at Jessica’s Seafood and Mexican, Tova says to Healing, “The more I think about it, the more I think a kitten is the answer.”

“And I keep hearing you ask Catherine, ‘Why do you want another cat?’” says Healing, sipping his beer. “And Catherine replying, ‘I’ve always had two,’ which didn’t strike me as the real answer, however true it might be.”

Tova nods. “She was always one of two with her husband, and they always had two cats, and then he died and now she is one of one. So maybe now she’s only emotionally capable of having one cat and doesn’t realize it.”

“Or maybe she only wants one cat, but feels an allegiance to the patterns of her married life,” says Healing, shaking his head. “No, that’s not it.”

“What then?” asks Tova, yearning to establish patterns of married life.

“There are certainly cats who will never tolerate another cat on their ranch, especially if the ranch is too small,” says Healing, ranch a scientific term for a domestic cat’s territory. “And the interior of a house is not a very big ranch for a healthy cat. I’m beginning to think the solution is to let the cats go outside, and, yes, try with a kitten. Or…” He raises a declarative finger. “Make do with one adorable Sakura.”

*

On their way out of the restaurant they bump into Teresa and her husband Carlos, and Teresa says to Healing, “Did Catherine tell you she goes away for months at a time and the cat is all alone in that big house except for when I come to feed her at the end of the day?”

“No, she did not tell us that,” says Healing, dismayed by this new information. “Where does she go?”

“To Japan and England and Portugal,” says Teresa, nodding. “I don’t think she should have a cat. The poor thing is trapped in the house all by herself for months and months at a time, starving for love.”

*

At nine on the dot the next morning, Healing and Tova return to Catherine’s villa where Catherine awaits them with coffee and cinnamon buns, and when the humans are once again arrayed around the table in the sun room – Sakura blissful on Tova’s lap – Healing says to Catherine, “We neglected to ask you a crucial question.”

“Which is?” says Catherine, perplexed by the urgency in Healing’s voice.

“How often are you here?” asks Healing, gazing intently at Catherine.

“This is my principal residence,” she says, looking away and frowning. “I told you that, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did,” says Healing, quietly. “But we did not determine if you spend much time away from here. Do you?”

“I do,” she says, her frown giving way to a smile. “I spend the last month of summer and the entirety of fall in England, most of the winter in Portugal, and I’m always in Kyoto when the cherry blossoms burst forth in the spring, and then I stay on in Japan until the last cherry blossoms have fallen.”

“Which means you are rarely here,” says Healing, gazing at Sakura on Tova’s lap.

“That is correct,” says Catherine, her frown reappearing. “What does that have to do with Sakura? She is warm and safe and well fed all the year round.”

“Yes,” says Healing, nodding solemnly. “But she is perilously lonely, and so when you are here she would be ferociously jealous of any other cat who might steal even a moment of your time from her. And though I’m sure you arrange for someone to come feed her, unless someone lives here in your absence, she cannot be happy and healthy hiding in this house all alone with no chance to spend time outside where I’m sure she longs to go.”

“But that is precisely why I want a second cat,” says Catherine, plaintively. “So she will not be so alone.”

“The equation is wrong,” says Tova, her heart aching for both Catherine and Sakura. “She won’t accept another cat if she doesn’t feel sufficiently secure, and she cannot feel secure if you are rarely here.”

“I see,” says Catherine with a heavy sigh. “Well I’m not about to change my equation of going to England and Portugal and Japan. Going to those places is the foundation of my happiness. So I suppose, as painful as it will be, I must re-home dear Sakura.”

*

And that is how Sakura came to live at the little old house on Nasturtium Road, and why every year Catherine sends Healing a check for a thousand dollars in gratitude for his wisdom and kindness.

*

In the beginning of her life on Nasturtium Road, Sakura had some difficulty with big brown Mongo, the largest of the resident cats who twice drove her away from his preferred napping spot on the rocking chair in the living room. However, orange and white Toulouse welcomed Sakura as if he had long been expecting her, and black Victoria largely ignored Sakura as she ignores all the other cats until one day Sakura mistakenly ate from Victoria’s bowl and Victoria made an ominous growling sound that sent Sakura scurrying away to hide behind the kindling box next to the fireplace.

And silver gray Justine, feral for two years before coming to live with Healing, recognized in Sakura a fellow former isolate and now sometimes shares the windowsill in Healing’s bedroom with Sakura, something she will never do with any of the other cats.

Sakura loves being outside, though she rarely ventures far from the house. Recently she has taken to sitting on a rafter in the woodshed where she patiently waits for mice to unwittingly cross the ground below her, and those mice rarely live to tell the tale.

But by far the most wonderful and unexpected thing about Sakura is her love of the dogs, especially enormous Carla who was never much interested in cats and was quite bewildered at first when Sakura insisted on curling up beside her when she lay down for a snooze by the fire after supper.

Nowadays Carla is so accustomed to Sakura joining her by the fire in the evening, that when Sakura does not come and curl up beside her, Carla will scan the room with an expression of concern on her face to say What can be keeping that most delightful cat?

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Eva Waltzing piano solo by Todd