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Siena and Jose

On a cold rainy morning a few days before the Winter Solstice, her cottage toasty from the fire blazing in her woodstove, Naomi is giving her granddaughter Tova a Tarot reading.

“So,” says Naomi, watching Tova place the seventy-eight Tarot cards face down on the table between them, “you want a child though you’re not in a relationship. And what is your question?”

“What does the universe think about that?” asks Tova, moving the cards around to mix them up.

“Ah,” says Naomi, getting up to put a kettle on for tea. “What do you think about that, dear?”

“I want to have a child,” says Tova, continuing to move the cards around. “I’m thirty-seven. I occasionally get a part in a play and sing in pubs a few times a month and work at the veterinarian clinic three days a week, and that’s been my life for eighteen years now. I’m sick to death of living in Portland, which was supposed to be my first stop on the way to greater glory that never quite manifested. I’m sad about my few and far between failed relationships. I feel like an idiot for throwing myself at Lucien every time I came home the first few months he was living here, and though he was very nice about rejecting me, his being here makes moving back to Mercy less of an option, though now he’s talking about moving back to Switzerland, in which case it would be easier for me to live here if that’s what I decide to do, which I might if Kelsey’s roommate in Manhattan decides not to move out of Kelsey’s tiny apartment, and even if she does move out, I’m not really sure I want to move to New York and start all over again at the bottom of the heap at my advanced age and… it’s all a terribly depressing muddle.”

“Your greatest challenge as I see it,” says Naomi, returning to the table with two cups and a pot of black tea, “is that you have created a life in which your happiness depends entirely on the largesse of others. Someone else must give you a part in a play. Someone else must give you a place to sing. Someone else must provide you with an apartment in a place where someone else may or may not allow you to attain what you imagine to be greater glory. Lucien must leave Mercy before you will feel okay about moving back here. And someone else must agree to be in a relationship with you before you have a child. Perhaps the depressing muddle is the result of waiting for others to provide you with whatever you believe is missing from your life.”

Tova frowns. “Have you always thought this about me?”

“Goodness no,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “When your grandfather and I moved back to England eighteen years ago, you were nineteen and taking action right and left just as you always had from the moment you could walk. And we fully expected you to go on taking action like that for the rest of your life.”

“I did go on taking action for my first few years in Portland until…” Tova ceases to stir the cards. “… I started trying to be what other people wanted me to be so I could get parts in plays and get singing gigs. And I did get parts in plays and I did get singing gigs by being what other people wanted me to be until one day I realized I’d become a fake. A phony. So I tried not to be fake and discovered I’d forgotten how to be anything but what I thought other people wanted me to be because I’d so thoroughly trained myself not to be who I really am. And now I’m old and soon I won’t be able to have a baby, and people won’t want to give me parts no matter who I pretend to be.”

“If that’s how you think of yourself,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Tova, “then that’s what you’ll be. You may gather up the cards now and we’ll see if any light may be shed on your dilemma.”

“I meant old in terms of having a baby,” says Tova, crying as she gathers the cards and hands them to Naomi. “I didn’t mean to insult you, Gram.”

“Darling,” says Naomi, who is eighty-seven, “I know what you meant and I am not insulted. However, I will caution you that the words we choose to describe ourselves can wreak havoc on our psyches with their power of suggestion. Neurologists have now proven this with their brain-watching devices, not that we needed more proof, but now we can actually see the brain maps we create with our words, and these brain maps literally dictate the course of our lives and who we are.”

“I shall endeavor to use more skillful speech,” says Tova, sitting up straight and ceasing to cry.

“Let us begin,” says Naomi, turning over the first card. “Aha. The Seven of Wands reversed.

“Who is he?” asks Tova, perusing the painting on the card. “Or she? Doing battle on a precipice.”

“This is a depiction of the depressing muddle you just described, and the person in the painting is you, fighting to preserve yourself as you pursue your goals, though you grow weary of the battle as you are pushed to the edge of your resilience.” Naomi gazes at Tova, who for her first nineteen years was the embodiment of unbridled creative energy and is now forlorn and exhausted. “The card presented itself reversed, which suggests you are on the cusp of changing course.”

“Or falling off the cliff?” says Tova, laughing to forestall her tears.

“Possibly,” says Naomi, turning over the next card – the Five of Cups.

“Oh how sad,” says Tova, pained by the picture of a person cloaked in a black robe gazing at the distant ruins of a castle.

 “This painting depicts your despair and your longing for a relationship, though I must tell you that beyond these obvious indications, this card, in my sixty-five years of employing this deck, always speaks of unexpressed rage.”

“About what?” asks Tova, angrily. “Being a fucking failure?”

“That would not be my surmise,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “Nor my choice of words. Because you are not a failure, except in your imaginings.”

“What would be your surmise then?” asks Tova, seething with anger.

 “I would surmise that you are enraged by what humans have done and are doing to this precious earth you love so much. And I am sure you are enraged that the worlds of professional theatre and professional music in America are not meritocracies, nor are they societies of loving friends, but quite the opposite. And I would surmise you are enraged that you have spent half your life hoping the place and society you have chosen to inhabit would change into something more like the place and society you were born into here in Mercy, this place and community that nurtured you as you grew into the marvelous person you are. Sadly, the society you now inhabit cannot change for the better because it is founded on the aggrandizement of individuals at the expense of the greater good, which is the death knell of every human society there has ever been.”

“Pa-pa was right not to take the path I took,” says Tova, her tears overflowing. “And I wouldn’t listen to him because I didn’t want the world to be the way it is.”

“Your father has always been too psychically porous for city life and for careers requiring one to outdo others. And you are very much like your father, who is very much like me and very much like your grandfather. We do much better living simply and sharing what we have with others and being creative without thought of recompense. More than this is beyond our natures.”

Naomi turns over the next card – the Nine of Pentacles.

“Doesn’t she look happy and rich,” says Tova, recognizing her former self in the regal woman standing in a bountiful garden.

“She is happy and rich,” says Naomi, tapping the card, “because she is living a life of her own choosing. She is not waiting for someone to save her, nor is she waiting for someone else to give her permission to be who she is.”

*

For supper that evening, Tova and Jahera make a spicy vegetable stir-fry to go with potatoes they harvested from the garden at dusk. They drink wine while they cook and sing favorite songs, trying out various harmonies, some gorgeous, some hilarious.

Joining Tova and Jahera and Healing and Naomi for the splendid repast are Darby Riley and his housemate Marjorie Kleinsasser.

“Always love having you with us, Tova,” says Darby, raising his glass of beer to her. “The whole town seems more as it should be when you’re home.”

“I’ll drink to that,” says Healing, raising his glass.

“Well,” says Tova, raising her glass of wine, “as it happens, I’ve decided to move back to Mercy as soon as I can gracefully phase myself out at the clinic in Portland. Shouldn’t take long. Lots of people want my job.”

“Tova,” says Healing, gasping at the news and jumping up to give his daughter a hug. “This is the best news I’ve had in forever.”

Now everyone takes a turn hugging Tova, and when all are seated again, Naomi says, “And she’ll be living with me in the cottage until further notice.”

“Why not take the spare bedroom in the house?” asks Jahera, nodding encouragingly.

“The collective needs a guest room,” says Tova, beaming at Jahera. “And I will no longer be a guest.”

“Come live with us,” says Darby, glancing at Marjorie to make sure that’s okay with her. “We’ve got the third bedroom and the place is vast. We hardly know what to do with all the space.”

“We’d love you to live with us,” says Marjorie, having recently returned to Mercy after twelve years away. “We could cook together and sing together and garden together.”

“Thank you, Marjorie. Thank you, Darby,” says Tova, nodding graciously. “I’ll definitely keep you in mind.”

“I’m so happy,” says Healing, his eyes brimming with tears. “I can’t tell you how happy.”

*

And so on a stormy Monday morning in late January, Tova leaves Portland in her jam-packed little electric car towing a small trailer containing a table, desk, nightstand, and bookshelf made for her by her grandfather Ezra.

Twelve hours later, Tova arrives in Mercy expecting to have supper with her father and Jahera and Naomi, only to find a hundred people crammed into the little old house waiting to greet her with huzzahs and warm embraces.

*

In early February, the day sunny and cold, Healing walks with Tabinda, Harriet, Socrates, and Mendelssohn across town to Darby’s beautiful house on the headlands, and while the dogs explore the backyard with Marjorie’s dog Fritz and Darby’s dog Dagwood, Darby and Marjorie serve Healing strong coffee and just-baked almond butter cookies – the kitchen a glory of sunlight.

“How’s the daughter doing?” asks Darby, who has known Tova since she was born. “We haven’t seen a shred of the girl since she got home.”

“That’s because she’s been sleeping twelve hours a night and two or three more during the day,” says Healing, relieved beyond telling to have Tova home again. “For twelve days now. It’s incredible. I had no idea she was so depleted.”

“I did the same thing when I first got back here,” says Marjorie, smiling at Darby. “For close to a month. Didn’t I, Dar?”

“Yes, you did, dear,” he says, returning her smile. “You were recovering from a great ordeal. And you know I’ve read that the survivors of the death camps slept like that for weeks and weeks after they were free and safe. It’s how the body and the spirit heal after a terrible trial.”

“Tova walked around the neighborhood yesterday with Mendelssohn and Tabinda,” says Healing, half-laughing and half-crying. “She didn’t go more than a quarter of a mile, and when she got home she collapsed on the sofa and said she felt like she’d just climbed Mount Everest.”

“Is she ill or just tired?” asks Darby, frowning. “Maybe she needs to see a doctor.”

“She has my mother and Jahera and Maahiah,” says Healing, gratefully. “Mum is babying her as I’ve never seen her baby anyone. She says Tova is in a psychic chrysalis and will soon emerge as her new self. Meanwhile, Jahera has turned the kitchen into a restorative soup factory, and Maahiah, who comes from a long line of masseuses, gives Tova a long massage every afternoon, and I swear Tova looks younger and rosier every day, so I think for now we can do without a doctor.”

*

Ten days later, a light rain falling, Healing is making the morning fire with help from Socrates who likes to bring Healing sticks of kindling. Jahera is in the kitchen preparing the four bowls of cat food, which she will serve to the kitties on the high table in the pantry out of reach of the dogs – the cats purring as they rub against Jahera’s legs. And Naomi is sitting at the kitchen table doing the New York Times crossword puzzle and sipping black tea, when who should come through the kitchen door but Tova wearing a pretty blue dress, her hair longer than it’s been in fifteen years and soon to reach her shoulders.

“A seven-letter word starting with L,” says Naomi, looking over the tops of her glasses at Tova. “That means glorify.”

Lionize,” says Tova without missing a beat. “Is there more tea in the pot or shall I make a fresh one?”

Healing comes into the kitchen and watches Tova fill the kettle with water. “What’s going on? It’s not yet eight, let alone noon when you usually make your first appearance of the day. Some prince kiss you?”

“I’m better now,” says Tova, setting the kettle on the stove. “I may require the occasional after-lunch nap until I fully regain my sea legs, so to speak, but I am otherwise revived.”

“You look fabulous,” says Jahera, smiling at Tova. “You should see the bloom in your cheeks.”

“I can feel the bloom,” says Tova, pressing her fingers to her cheeks. “Full of blood again.”

*

“Pa-pa?” asks Tova, looking up from turning the soil in the vegetable garden on a sunny morning in the middle of March. “Naomi and I would like to have a party on the second of April. A barbecue at which your band will play. Please? That’s in two weeks on a Sunday. Would that be okay with you?”

Healing looks up from raking the ground that he and Diego are preparing for cabbage starts – Diego a handsome young man who works for Healing and Jahera and Naomi three mornings a week.

“We love April parties,” says Healing, smiling at Tova. “Might we cajole you into singing a song or two with the band?”

“You might,” says Tova, who imagined the very thing while singing in the shower this morning. “We’re calling the party An Exaltation of Larks, though there aren’t any larks in California, but there are lots of larks in England, and we Weintraubs are deeply English. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? An exaltation of larks.”

“I don’t know what it means,” says Diego, getting a small notebook and pencil out of his back pocket. “Would you spell it, por favor?”

Tova spells exaltation and says, “It means a feeling of great happiness.”

“To exalt someone is to praise them,” says Healing, resuming his raking. “I shall inquire of the band members and see who is available on the blessed day.”

“Can I come?” asks Diego, speaking quietly to Healing.

“Of course you can,” says Tova, nodding emphatically. “You’re always invited to our parties.”

“I didn’t know,” says Diego, glancing shyly at her. “Gracias.”

“Please invite your grandmother,” says Healing to Diego. “And any friends you’d like to bring.”

“I’ll definitely bring my grandmother,” says Diego, wheeling the wheelbarrow away to get more compost. “I’m sure she would love to come and bring her famous antojitos.

When Diego is out of earshot, Tova whispers to her father, “He’s a whole other person now. He was so grim and angry, and now he’s such a sweetheart.”

“Yes, he is,” says Healing, remembering the evening a little over a year ago when he and Jahera and Naomi decided the best way to help Luisa with Diego was to hire the troubled young man to work for them – and thus began his transformation.  

Diego returns with the wheelbarrow heaped high with rich black compost, and begins shoveling the fabulous rot onto the freshly turned soil.

“Can I ask you something?” says Diego, frowning at Tova. “About the party?”

“Of course,” she says, taking a break from turning the soil.

“So… what should I wear? Do we get dressed up or is it more casual? My grandmother will want to know.”

“Dress however you like,” says Tova, resuming her digging. “I’m going to get all dolled up, but that’s just me.”

“I might buy a new shirt,” says Diego, smiling at the thought of finding something beautiful to wear to the party. “I know my grandmother will want to get dressed up if you are going to. She has a special red dress she wears for Christmas and Thanksgiving.” He grins at Healing. “The word you taught me. Crimson. More like the red of blood.” Now he shrugs. “I might ask Teresa Nuñez to come. I don’t know if she will, but she might.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of Ms. Nuñez,” says Healing, feigning only mild interest. “Someone new in your social constellation?”

“She’s in my English class at the community college,” says Diego, nodding. “And she’s so beautiful you can’t believe it. When she came up to me after class I thought maybe somebody was playing a joke on me, you know, because I’m not kidding, man, you can’t believe how beautiful she is, so I never thought she would ever want to talk to me.”

“Why not?” asks Tova, looking up from her digging. “You’re very handsome and charming, Diego.”

“Gracias,” he says, embarrassed by her praise. “But girls don’t usually come up to me, you know. I usually go up to them if I think I have a chance with them. But I never thought I would have a chance with Teresa so I would never go up to her. And then the teacher read my essay out loud to the class, you know, the one Healing and Naomi helped me with about my grandmother, and that’s when Teresa came up to me after class and asked me to help her with her essay. So I said I would try, but…” He shakes his head. “She’s already a better writer than I am. I think she needs you, Healing, and Naomi to help her. But even so, I took a chance and asked her to go for coffee with me and when she said Yes I almost fell over you know. Then we went to the café and got some coffee and a scone my grandmother made there, and my grandmother came out from the kitchen to say hello and… now I think maybe Teresa likes me, you know, and maybe she would like to come to the party.”

*

The weather gods deem An Exaltation of Larks a fine idea, and after several days of rain, the blessed day dawns sunny.

Diego arrives looking like a movie star in his gorgeous new magenta shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, the shirt tucked into stylish black trousers, his glossy black hair swept back from his handsome face. Teresa is as advertised, a gorgeous gal with a songful voice and long black hair wearing a short black dress and a necklace of huge faux pearls. And Diego’s grandmother Luisa is thrilled to have been invited and looks like the Queen of Spain in her crimson gown.

Healing and Jahera and Tova and Naomi fawn over Diego and Teresa and Luisa, and when Naomi offers to help Teresa with her writing, Teresa throws her arms around Diego and says in Spanish, “I’m in heaven.”

*

At the party’s apex, Healing’s quartet Mercy Me assembles on the deck and delights the throng of guests with a jazzy tango, after which Tova joins the band and wows the crowd with a gorgeous rendition of Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free followed by a deeply moving version of her father’s song Never Ever Thought You’d Love Me, after which she bows to thunderous applause and leaves the deck to the quartet.

“Wow,” says Justin Oglethorpe, and “Wow,” says Justin’s wife Helen Morningstar as they approach Tova at the barbecue where she is tending chicken thighs and vegetable shish kebabs.

“We knew you could sing,” says Helen, gazing wide-eyed at Tova, “but that was way beyond anything we’ve ever heard from you before. Have you been studying with someone, or…”

“No,” says Tova, laughing. “Just got lucky I guess.”

“Tell us you’ll be singing with Mercy Me next time they play The Goose,” says Helen, nodding emphatically. “Please? We’ll pay you on top of what we pay the band.”

“I’ll ask Pa-pa,” says Tova, dizzied by their praise. “Might be fun.”

“Wow,” says Justin again, gazing at Tova as if she just sprouted wings.

When Helen and Justin drift away to get some of Luisa’s fabulous antojitos before they all disappear, Lucien, Jahera’s beautiful son, approaches Tova and says breathlessly, “You’re a diva. I had no idea.”

“Oh thanks,” says Tova, blushing as she flips the thighs.

“You look different now,” he says, as if seeing her for the first time. “You seem so much more… something. Appropriate descriptors elude me.”

“Maybe because I’m all here now,” she suggests. “No more to roam.”

“Maybe so,” he says, frowning. “What will you do here? Now that you’re all here? Work at the vet clinic? Try out for plays? And where will you be singing? I’ll come every time you do.”

“I don’t know,” she says, enjoying his inadvertent double entendre.

Lucien looks away, troubled. “I’m thinking of getting a cat. If I’m going to stay in Mercy, which I’d like to except… I’m not sure.”

“Not sure about getting a cat or staying in Mercy?” asks Tova, arching an eyebrow.

“You just encapsulated my conundrum in a nutshell,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I keep wanting a cat and then thinking, ‘Oh but what if I leave?’ And when I finally told my mother of my ambivalence after months of wanting a cat and not getting one, she said she and Healing would take the cat if I decide to move back to Switzerland, so… would you help me choose one? From the shelter?”

“Of course,” says Tova, dumbfounded to realize that brilliant beautiful Lucien is as lost as she was before she found her way back to Mercy.

*

At the animal shelter the next day, Emilia Martinez leads them into the cat room where the many cages are chock full of kittens.

“Just let me know which ones you want to hold,” says Emilia, who has worked here for twenty years, “and I’ll get them out for you.”

“Oh dear,” says Lucien, overwhelmed by the multitude of cats. “How can I possibly decide?”

“Stop thinking,” says Tova, opening her arms to the legions of kittens, “and you will see them.”

“Them?” says Lucien, laughing. “I thought I was only getting one.”

“Them. Him. Her,” says Tova, laughing, too. “But if I were you I’d get two.”

“I like that idea,” he says, seeing a tiny black tabby sitting apart from the others in one of the cages, and a dark gray kitten in another cage looking right at him with a sweet little frown.

*

In Lucien’s apartment, after Tova helps Lucien set up the litter box in the laundry room, they sit on the living room sofa and play with the kittens.

“These are the two best kittens in the history of the world,” proclaims Tova. “You have excellent taste in cats, Lucien.”

“A girl and a boy,” he says, feeling giddy. “What shall I name them?”

“Whatever you like,” says Tova, holding the dark gray female.

“Would you name them for me?” he asks innocently. “I know I’ll like whatever names you choose.”

“How do you know that?” she asks, giving him a questioning look.

“I just do,” he says, picking up the tiny tabby. “Aren’t they divine?”

“Yes they are,” she says, closing her eyes. “I would name the female Siena and the male Jose.”

“Of course,” says Lucien, delighted. “They couldn’t be anyone else.”

“And you know, Lucien,” says Tova, opening her eyes, “if you decide to move back to Switzerland, you can take them with you.”

“True,” he says, nodding. “Though one of the reasons I wanted a cat was the hope that having one would make me want to stay in Mercy because I love it here, except…” He falls silent.

“I wonder why you don’t want to stay,” says Tova, marveling that Lucien is so unlike the person she imagined him to be.

“Because I don’t really know how to be here,” he says, gently stroking the kitten named Jose. “Do you know what I mean?”

“How do you know how to be anywhere?” asks Tova, picking up the gray kitten named Siena.

“Well… starting when I was thirteen, I began to invent a persona that works quite well in big cities. Socially charming, pleasantly seductive, witty, lots of acquaintances, no end of work suited to my creative skills, successfully functional within the vast collective anonymity. But here in Mercy my urban persona is revealed to be a concoction of externalities with not very much going on inside except survival calculations and profound emotional confusion. So now I’m floundering around like a fish out of water while my dear grandfather is soon to die and I’m soon to turn thirty-three. And on those rare occasions when I do manage to shake free of my masquerade, I feel so insubstantial I think I might just float away and disappear.”

“I suggest you get a dog, too,” says Tova, handing Lucien the kitten named Siena and rising to go. “Come for supper tonight. We have loads of leftovers from the party.”

“How would you feel if rather than actually getting a dog, I borrowed one of yours now and then?” asks Lucien, accompanying Tova to the door with a kitten clutched in each of his hands. “I have no yard here for a dog.”

“Good plan,” says Tova, giving him a peck on the cheek. “Come for supper.”

“Will you sing tonight?” he asks hopefully.

“If you’d like me to,” she says humbly.

“I would,” he says, holding the kittens up to his cheeks. “Your singing yesterday filled me with a feeling of… being okay. Do you know what I mean? Listening to your glorious voice I felt free of my compulsion to always be doing something or going somewhere or creating something or striving to achieve something. I was just there, outside of time, listening to you and allowing the universe to flow into me and out of me with no desire to cling to anything, and I felt okay. I felt just fine. This is what your singing did for me.”

*

Walking home from Lucien’s place, Tova has a vivid memory of her grandfather Ezra in his woodshop – now Naomi’s living room – making a table for Tova to take to Portland where she would embark on her quest to make it big in show biz.

“What I love about tables,” said Ezra, looking up from his careful sanding of the tabletop and smiling at Tova, “is how these flat empty planes empower us to explore the complexities of life by giving us somewhere off the ground to put things.”

fin

Grandfather piano solo by Todd

Holiday Shopping Reminder: Have friends who like short fiction? Why not give them one or two of Todd’s books of short stories? Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.

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Arturo

“I took my first photograph when I was five,” says Jahera, sitting on the sofa in the living room with Cindy, a writer from the Los Angeles Times – the September morning foggy and cool.

“Digital camera?” asks Cindy, a slender woman in her twenties with long red hair and sparkling green eyes shielded by enormous red-framed glasses.

“No,” says Jahera, tickled by the question. “This was long before digital anything. My mother had a small Leica she used for taking snapshots from which she made pen and ink drawings, and she had those photos developed at the camera shop.”

“The mind boggles,” says Cindy, for whom life before smart phones is unimaginable. “So what was the picture? Your first one?”

“Well…” says Jahera, laughing, “most of the pictures on that first roll were very blurry because I had yet to learn to hold the camera still, but one of the photos came out remarkably well, a sharply-focused picture of my father sitting at the kitchen table smoking his pipe and communing with our black and white dog Arturo who liked to sit on my father’s lap facing in the same direction my father was facing. My father has his hands resting on Arturo’s head, and Arturo’s eyes are closed, a blissful smile on his face. I loved that photo so much I included it in my first gallery show when I was twenty-two, and it was the first picture in the show to sell.”

“Where was this?” asks Cindy, breathlessly.

“In Chambéry,” says Jahera, smiling at memories of her first solo exhibition. “In France.”

“Oh wow,” says Cindy, looking around the living room of the little old house, a fire blazing in the hearth, a calico cat sitting on the windowsill, an orange tabby on Jahera’s lap. “So your first photo ever was of a dog. And now all these years later you’ve come out with a whole book of dog pictures?”

“Not just dog pictures,” says Jahera, wondering why Cindy keeps suggesting the book is about dogs. “There are people in all the photographs, sometimes with dogs, sometimes with cats, sometimes with parrots, sometimes with chickens, sometimes alone, sometimes with other people. Not just dogs.”

“Oh for sure,” says Cindy, studying a list of questions on the screen of her phone. “So what’s really amazing to me is that you knew what you wanted to be when you were only five. That’s phenomenal.”

“I wouldn’t say I knew what I wanted to be, but I was enchanted with taking pictures,” says Jahera, accustomed to interviewers striving to confirm their preconceptions. “So I kept taking pictures, and after high school I studied photography at an art academy in Switzerland.”

“And you did all that before digital cameras,” says Cindy, shaking her head in wonder.

“Before computers or smart phones,” says Jahera, nodding. “I had my film processed in a lab and made my prints in a dark room. That’s just how things were done in those days.”

“But you don’t seem that old,” says Cindy, frowning at the screen of her phone. “May I ask how old you are?”

“Fifty-seven,” says Jahera, who is frequently thought to be Spanish, though she is half-Norwegian and half-Algerian.

“Incredible,” says Cindy, gazing at Jahera as if she’s from another planet. “I would have guessed forty-eight. Tops.”

Now the kitchen door opens and Healing and Diego and four dogs come in from the backyard – Socrates gray and brown, Harriet golden, Tabinda brown and black, and Mendelssohn golden brown with black markings.

“Hello,” says Healing, waving to Cindy. “I’m Healing, Jahera’s adjuvant, and this is Diego, a local Hercules, and these are the resident canines.”

“I’m Cindy,” she says, smiling rapturously. “I recognize you from the book.”

“Ah good,” says Healing, exchanging smiles with Jahera. “Pay no attention to us. We’re just refueling after our ramble on the beach and before Diego and I do a bit of gardening.”

“I like your car,” says Diego smiling at Cindy. “Does that one drive itself?”

“Pretty much,” says Cindy, nodding. “But I still keep my hands on the wheel most of the time. I’m kind of a Luddite that way.”

“That’s okay,” says Diego, who is seventeen with wavy black hair and a deep voice. “I’d like to get one of those Teslas. Only I want a black one and maybe a little bigger than yours.”

“Would you like to meet the dogs, Cindy?” asks Jahera, knowing the pooches won’t enter the living room until Healing gives them the Okay.

“I’d love to,” says Cindy, gazing at the four dogs gazing at her. “Do I recognize them from the book? I think I do.”

“Go on,” says Healing to the dogs, and they trot into the living room – Socrates in the lead, Harriet and Tabinda following side-by-side, and Mendelssohn waiting for the others to say their Hellos before politely presenting himself to Cindy.

“Aren’t they wonderful,” effuses Cindy, petting Mendelssohn. “I can’t have dogs where I live, but someday I’ll have a place with a yard, and then I’m getting at least one.”

“Where do you live?” asks Diego, intrigued by what Healing told him about Cindy, that she writes articles about writers and artists for a newspaper.

“LA,” says Cindy, with little enthusiasm.

“I got cousins in LA,” says Diego, nodding enthusiastically. “I love it there. It’s always warm there, you know. And so much happening. Not like here. It’s cold here even in the summer and there’s nothing to do. I love LA. I might move there.”

“Before you do, let us fortify ourselves,” says Healing, carrying a bowl of nuts and two bananas out the kitchen door. “So we shall have the wherewithal to prepare the beds for planting.”

Socrates and Mendelssohn go out with Healing and Diego, while Harriet and Tabinda lie down near the fire.

“So,” says Cindy, scanning the screen of her phone, “this is your first book, right?”

“My first to be released simultaneously in America and Europe,” says Jahera, who has now given eleven interviews for her new book. “I previously published two books with a French publisher, and three with the Swiss publisher bringing out the new book.”

“I love the title,” says Cindy, picking up the large-format book from the coffee table. “Beings In Their Favorite Places. I love plays on words. And I love how it made me want to see the places the dogs love as much as the dogs.”

“The beings in these pictures are not only dogs. They are people and cats and parrots and chickens and ravens, too.”

“Oh for sure,” says Cindy, nodding. “It’s just… I know my editor will want to push the dog angle because dogs are very hot right now. Which is why I can’t get too nuanced with this. You know what I mean? His motto is Keep It Simple even if simple isn’t completely accurate. Maybe someday I’ll write for the New Yorker and go wild with nuance. Until then, not so much.”

*

“She got that car from writing things for a newspaper?” says Diego, frowning as he prepares the soil for sowing lettuce seeds. “How do you get a job like that? I never knew you could make so much money writing for a newspaper. Did you?”

“I never did,” says Healing, watching Diego work. “Would you try sinking your shovel a few inches deeper before you turn the soil over?”

“Of course,” says Diego, doing as Healing asked. “You want me to do the first part again? I didn’t go so deep there. Lo siento. I’m sorry.”

“My fault,” says Healing, smiling at Diego. “I should have told you sooner. I’d love you to do the first part again. And when you get that section done, you can fetch a few wheelbarrow loads of the aged compost I showed you.”

“No problem,” says Diego, working steadily. “In school you know, they didn’t teach us how to get a job like Cindy got. My mother went two years to community college and she’s only a secretary at the lumberyard and she’ll never go higher than that. My sister has one more year at school in San Jose and then she’s gonna be a nurse. And my grandmother, you know, is a baker. They all work really hard, you know, but they can’t buy a car like that. Only people I know who can buy a car like that sell drugs, and I’m not going that way anymore.”

“What would you like to do in your life, Diego?” asks Healing, gazing at his young friend. “If you could do anything you want?”

“Oh I would get a Tesla like that one Cindy has,” says Diego, continuing to turn the soil. “Only black. Or maybe gray. And then I’d drive down to LA and… you know… party. You know? Get a really nice girlfriend and a nice apartment near the beach and… hang out. Go to shows. Go to ball games. Get a big dog like that big dog you used to have. Get some really nice clothes and some fine shoes and… you know. Live the life.”

“What would you do to earn money?” asks Healing, resuming his work.

“You didn’t ask me about money,” says Diego, grinning. “You said if I could do anything I wanted, so I would already have lots of money.”

“Let me rephrase the question,” says Healing, laughing. “If you could have any job you wanted, what would it be?”

“I’ll think about that while I get the compost,” says Diego, laughing, too. “And you didn’t just rephrase the question, Healing. You asked me a whole new one.”

*

When Cindy drives away to Oakland to interview a formerly obscure poet who just became famous for writing a hit play about a bunch of obscure poets, Diego and Healing join Jahera on the deck for guacamole and salsa and chips and lemonade.

“We got a lot done out there in just three hours,” says Diego proudly. “We planted lettuce and chard and kale and snow peas and arugula and a big potato patch.”

“And for Thanksgiving we’ll harvest those potatoes and make a big salad from that lettuce,” says Healing, pleased with Diego’s work. “You did well today.”

“Gracias,” says Diego, humbly. “You’re a good teacher. I never had good teachers at school, you know. So I didn’t learn very much.”

“What made them not good?” asks Jahera, greatly relieved to have the interview behind her.

“Oh they just talked, you know,” says Diego, shrugging. “Talked and talked every day, all day long, about nothing we cared about, and then they gave us tests and expected us to remember everything they said. But who cares what happened five hundred years ago? Or two hundred years ago in such and such a place on such and such a year? I don’t care about that stuff. Nobody does. How is that gonna help me get a job? You know? What does any of that have to do with my life? Nothing.”

“What they spoke about was irrelevant to you,” says Healing, nodding in understanding. “It was much the same when I was in school, though I enjoyed reading novels for English class and writing about them, and I loved my Drama classes.”

“I didn’t take Drama,” says Diego, shaking his head. “That’s only for girls and gay guys now, you know. Not when you went to school, Healing, but now it is.”

“So now that you’ve graduated from Mercy High,” says Jahera, smiling at Diego, “will you attend community college?”

“I might go there,” says Diego, nodding. “Healing says if I can learn to write good essays maybe I could get a job like Cindy. I would like to drive around in a car like that talking to famous people.” He grins at Jahera. “I never knew you were famous before. Que bueno. Congratulations.”

“I’m not famous,” says Jahera, blushing. “For some reason lots of people are buying my new book of photographs, so now the newspapers want to interview me.”

“I would like to make a book of photographs,” says Diego, pondering the idea. “I like to take pictures with my phone, you know. I got a really good one the other day of my friend Ramon leaning against his car with this look on his face that says you don’t ever wanna mess with me. It’s funny you know because he’s not very tall and he’s so skinny and his car is just an old wreck.”

“What would your book be about?” asks Healing, delighted by Diego’s transformation from emotionally inaccessible boy to talkative and optimistic young man.

“Oh my life, you know,” says Diego, imagining himself as a photographer with a sleek black electric car. “My friends. The things I see. Just the world, you know.”

*

That afternoon, Jahera’s parents Caspar and Maahiah come over for supper, and while Maahiah and Healing are picking lettuce and carrots and cucumbers for a salad, Caspar sits at the kitchen table having a cup of tea and perusing Beings In Their Favorite Places, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose – the afternoon light exquisite – so Jahera goes to fetch a camera.

“How did the interview go today?” asks Caspar, studying a picture of Healing walking on the beach with five dogs on leashes – the ocean a tumult of huge waves.

“I think okay,” says Jahera, returning with a camera. “She wants to emphasize the dogs. She says dogs sell.”

Caspar laughs. “I suppose they do. The first picture you ever sold was of me with Arturo.”

“Yes, but it is the connection between you and Arturo that makes the picture so good, not just that he’s an adorable dog sitting on the lap of a big handsome man.”

“And now all I lack is a dog on my lap to recreate that magic moment,” says Caspar, looking into the living room where Tabinda, Harriet, and Socrates are sprawled by the fire – Mendelssohn having gone to the garden with Maahiah and Healing.

“I think maybe all our dogs are too big for your lap,” says Jahera, raising the camera to her eye. “Even Socrates is too big now to be a lap dog.”

At which moment, Mendelssohn enters the kitchen, has a drink of water from his bowl near the parrots’ cage, and comes to say Hello to Caspar.

“What do you think, Mendelssohn?” says Caspar, petting him. “Might we have a picture with you on my lap?”

Mendelssohn glances at Jahera, and when she nods, he gracefully hops up onto Caspar’s lap, all fifty pounds of him, and sits facing in the direction Caspar is facing – and Caspar gently lays his hands atop Mendelssohn’s head.

“I’m eighty-seven,” says Caspar, a quaver in his voice. “I was thirty-five when you took that picture of me with Arturo. And you were only five.” He gazes into the camera’s lens. “How astonishing it is to be alive, to change from young to old.”

Mendelssohn closes his eyes and smiles at Caspar’s loving touch.

“I didn’t know how to hold the camera still,” says Jahera, taking picture after picture of the young dog on the old man’s lap. “Yet that photograph of you with Arturo came out as well as any photo I have ever taken.”

“Maybe now you’ve taken another masterpiece,” says Caspar, closing his eyes and pretending Mendelssohn is Arturo.

fin

What Comes Around piano solo by Todd

Holiday Shopping Reminder: Enjoy short stories? Have friends who like short fiction? Don’t forget Todd’s books of short stories: Why You Are Here, Little Movies, Buddha In A Teacup, Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, and Under the Table Books.

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Mendelssohn

When Healing Weintraub was born sixty-four years ago in the little old house on Nasturtium Road, his sister Jean was two, his mother Naomi was twenty-two, and his father Ezra was twenty-six. There were four other humans living in and around the house with them, along with five dogs of various ages and sizes, four cats, and several feral cats nesting in the jungle of vines beyond the vegetable garden.

One of the dogs, Miriam, a large four-year-old mutt of incalculable antecedents, took a special liking to baby Healing and decided to devote herself to helping take care of him. The other dogs and cats liked Healing, too, because he was more interested in them than he was in humans. He loved sharing his food with them and petting them and making love sounds at them, all of which predisposed them to communicate with him.

Healing began to walk at eleven months, and at fourteen months he started speaking English and Spanish – his parents British and his primary babysitter a Mexican woman named Nina. But long before Healing walked, he was a prodigious crawler in imitation of the dogs and cats, and long before he spoke a human language he understood the meanings of many dog and cat vocalizations and facial expressions.

When Healing was three, he said to his mother, “Mum why do I know what dogs are thinking, but I don’t know what some people are thinking?”

“All the dogs love you and trust you because they have no doubt you love them,” explained his mother. “Whereas only some people love and trust you.”

“Why don’t some people love me?” he asked, disappointed to learn there were people who didn’t love him.

“Well…” his mother mused, “either because they don’t know you very well or they are unaware of you.”

Healing considered this and said, “Maybe when I’m older I’ll understand.”

Now that Healing is sixty-four, he does understand why he can communicate readily with dogs, and why so many people, especially men, are emotionally and intellectually closed to him.

When Healing was four, Chester, one of the resident dogs, disappeared. After two days of looking all over the property and all over town, Healing’s parents gave up the search for Chester. Healing asked Miriam, who was then eight, if she knew where Chester was. She made a face Healing knew meant Yes, and then she guided Healing into the jungle of vines where Chester had died from choking on a chicken bone.

“How did you know to look here?” asked Ezra when Healing brought him to Chester’s body.

“Miriam showed me,” said Healing, gazing curiously at Chester. “Will he ever be alive again?”

“Not in this body,” said Ezra, picking up the corpse and carrying it to a clearing in the middle of their two acres where they were going to have a pond. “But his soul might be reborn in a different dog or in a person or in some other living thing. I don’t know if that’s true, but some people believe that.”

“What’s a soul, Papa?”

“Your soul is what makes you unique.”

“What’s you neek?”

“Unique means you are not like anybody else.”

“Oh,” said Healing, nodding without understanding. “Will Miriam die?”

“Someday,” said Ezra, laying Chester’s body on the ground. “Everything that lives eventually dies.”

“Why?” asked Healing, perplexed. “Why do things die if no one kills them?”

“Because if things didn’t die,” says Ezra, putting his arm around Healing, “there would be no room for new things to be alive.”

“Oh,” says Healing, beginning to understand. “Like in the garden. We have to dig up the potatoes so there will be room for new potatoes.”

‘That’s right,” said Ezra, giving Healing a tender squeeze. “And people who have dogs and cats have to get used to their pets dying because dogs and cats don’t live as long as most humans live. In your life you’ll have many dogs and cats, and nearly all of them will die before you do.”

So Healing grew up knowing that every puppy and kitten and dog and cat he adopted would probably die before him, and he accepted this as part of the life he wanted.

*

“The loss of my pets gets more difficult to bear as I get older,” says Healing, addressing forty people gathered by the pond in the copse of Japanese maples on a warm afternoon in July to commemorate Carla and Tarzan, the two oldest dogs of the Weintraub pack – Carla having died in April, Tarzan in June.

“This was true for me, too, regarding my human friends,” says Caspar, Healing’s father-in-law. “Then something changed for me in my seventies. I began to experience each death as a divine revelation, a glimpse into the timeless nature of reality, and I hope this will be true for you, too.”

“Thank you, Caspar,” says Healing, nodding to him. “I hope so, too.”

“And now,” says Naomi, looking at Tova who made the long drive from Portland to be here for the ceremony, “Tova will tell us about Carla.”

Tova smiles through her tears and says, “Pa-pa got Carla when she was only a few weeks old from a boy who had been told by his parents to drown the pup because the litter was too large for the mother dog to feed. The boy knew of Pa-pa’s love of dogs because we bring our dogs to the elementary schools in Mercy every year so the children can learn about dogs, and this boy was kindhearted and couldn’t bring himself to kill the pup. Pa-pa was working at Good Groceries in those days, and after he took two weeks off from work to take care of baby Carla, he had to go back to work, so I came home for two weeks to help. And I never in a million years thought that tiny helpless pup would grow into one of the biggest dogs Mercy has ever known, though I did know she would be a sweetheart.”

“She was a devoted mother to Tabinda and Kadan when they came to us as newborns,” says Jahera, standing with Healing. “And Socrates always slept against Carla’s belly when he felt poorly after his puppy shots.”

“And wasn’t Tarzan father to them all?” says Darby Riley, pressing his fist against his heart. “And didn’t he love Carla so much he couldn’t go on living without her?”

“Yes,” says Healing, gazing fondly at Darby. “She was mother and friend to Tarzan from the moment he came to us, a sorely abused dog who might easily have turned vicious from the terror he had endured, yet he did not become vicious because he was all love and as brave as the hero he was named after.”

“Tell how he saved Kadan, Pa-pa,” says Tova, her tears overflowing.

“When Tabinda and Kadan were four-months-old,” says Healing, recalling the moment as if it was yesterday, “they followed the older dogs to the northeast corner of the yard where we let the blackberries flourish and leave things to be wild. And just as I was catching up to the dogs, because we weren’t yet letting the pups out of our sight, Kadan scared up a big rattlesnake that was about to strike him. And before I could get there, Tarzan snatched the snake in his jaws and shook him furiously, which broke the serpent’s neck and killed him.”  

*

During the party following the remembrances by the pond, Jahera’s son Lucien introduces Healing to Max and Miranda Benoit, a couple in their forties, Max a composer and orchestra conductor, Miranda a violinist.

“We would like to ask you a question about our dog,” says Max, a slender man with wavy brown hair who speaks English with a strong French accent. “But perhaps this is not an appropriate time.”

“Oh it’s a lovely time,” says Healing, for whom the party is the end of mourning and the beginning of whatever comes next. “Carla and Tarzan always knew when I was talking on the phone with someone about a dog, and they were always keen to hear about the dog in question when I got off the phone.”

“They understood you?” asks Miranda, an alluring woman with short blonde hair who speaks English with a mild German accent,

“Of course they did,” says Healing, laughing. “And you either believe that or you don’t. In any case, I’d love to hear about your dog.”

“His name is Mendelssohn,” says Max, exchanging smiles with Miranda. “He’ll be three in November. His mother is a Border Collie and the father was probably a Golden Retriever mixed with some sort of shorthaired hound. The father part is unclear. In any case, Mendelssohn weighs about fifty pounds and is golden brown and shorthaired with some black markings, and very good-natured.”

“And extremely intelligent,” adds Miranda, laughing. “I know… owner’s pride and all that, but he never ceases to amaze us.”

“He sounds marvelous,” says Healing, fairly certain he knows what they want to ask him. “What is your question?”

“Well…” says Max, hesitantly. “I know this may not be the best time to ask you, but…” He gives Miranda a plaintive look.

“We just bought a house here,” says Miranda, smiling brightly. “A half-mile north of town. We came to visit Lucien and fell in love with Mercy and… but before we can move here we must return to Switzerland for two years where Max will conduct the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva and I will be playing violin in the orchestra.”

“Congratulations,” says Healing, bowing to them. “Returning to Switzerland from where?”

“We’ve been living in Ojai for three years,” says Max, on the verge of tears. “I was given a grant to compose orchestral works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.”

“And I was playing violin in that orchestra,” says Miranda, taking her husband’s hand. “Where Max works, I work.”

“And vice-versa,” says Max, laughing to keep from crying.

“So there you were for three years in Ojai,” says Healing, cutting to the chase, “living in a nice house with a big fenced yard for Mendelssohn, and now you must go live in an apartment in Geneva, and you’re in a quandary about what to do with your dog. Of course you’ll take him with you if you can’t find a good situation for him here, but if you could that would be ideal.”

“Lucien said you were remarkable,” says Max, stunned by Healing’s precise elucidation of their dilemma, “but he did not forewarn us of your clairvoyant powers. You are correct we were planning to take Mendy with us until today when we heard you and your wife and daughter and friends speak of your dogs, and we saw this lovely place. And since we will be living here in two years… we thought we would ask you to consider taking care of our dog in our absence.”

“My wife and I and the resident dogs would love to meet Mendelssohn,” says Healing, holding out a hand to Max and a hand to Miranda. “Assuming we like him and he likes us, we’ll take him.”

*

Mendelssohn and Max and Miranda arrive at Healing’s house the next morning, and as is his custom, Healing greets them in front of the house before introducing Mendelssohn to the backyard and the three resident dogs.

Healing expects Max and Miranda to leash Mendelssohn before bringing him out of the car, but so closely does the happy dog adhere to Miranda, he might as well be on a leash.

“Lovely pooch,” says Healing, touching the top of Mendelssohn’s head. “Shall we introduce him to the others of his kind?”

Mendelssohn looks at Miranda and Max, and seeing them nod, he goes with Healing to the gate – Miranda and Max following.

*

Four-year-old Harriet and three-year-old Tabinda and one-year-old Socrates sniff various points of interest on Mendelssohn, he likewise sniffs them, and after leading the pack on a playful chase around the yard, Mendelssohn joins Healing and Max and Miranda on the deck.

“He’s never cared much for other dogs,” says Max, looking at Mendelssohn. “Have you, Mendy?”

“Though he doesn’t dislike them,” says Miranda, patting Mendelssohn. “He just prefers us, I think.”

“Please have a seat,” says Healing, gesturing to a quartet of chairs around a small wooden table. “Coffee? Tea? Jahera just baked muffins.”

“I’d love some coffee and a muffin,” says Miranda, gazing out on the verdant garden. “I barely slept anguishing about leaving Mendelssohn behind.”

“Yes, coffee,” says Max, waiting for Miranda to sit before he does.

Healing goes into the house and Miranda says quietly to Mendelssohn, “Do you like it here, Moosh? So much room to run and friends to play with.”

Mendelssohn gazes out at the garden and exchanges sniffs with Socrates who has come to say Hello for the seventh time.

“There’s no place like this where we’re going,” says Max, gesturing to the big yard. “No beaches to walk on, no forests to explore, no friends to commune with. You’ll be all alone in the apartment for many hours every day. I know you want to stay with us, but here might be better for you until we come back.”

Mendelssohn gazes at Max for a moment before getting up and going down the two steps into the yard to do some exploring – Harriet and Tabinda and Socrates accompanying him.

Healing returns with a tray bearing mugs of coffee and a pitcher of cream and a bowl of brown sugar, and Jahera follows with a plate of oat bran muffins.

After the requisite Hello and How are you? among Jahera and Miranda and Max, Healing says, “The suspense is killing me. Why did you name him Mendelssohn and not Mahler or Tchaikovsky?”

“We didn’t name him anything at first,” says Miranda, taking her coffee black. “We called him Pup until he was four months old and I began practicing the second violin part for Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and he came into my practice room and sat down and listened, which was very unusual because he had never done anything like that before. Then when I stopped practicing the Mendelssohn and started practicing my part for Brandenburg Two, he got up and left the room.”

“Are you familiar with these compositions?” asks Max, smiling at Healing.

“Oh, yes,” says Healing, a lover of Mendelssohn’s symphonies. “I grew up with a father who had a vast collection of classical music, and Mendelssohn was his favorite composer. And I became an accordion player.” He laughs. “And other than Piazzolla tunes, I don’t play much classical music.”

“This is astonishing,” says Max, giving Miranda a can-you-believe-this-is-happening look. “Because what we discovered was that our dog is only interested in two composers. Mendelssohn and, if you can believe this, Piazzolla.”

“Furthermore,” says Miranda, gazing in wonder at Healing, “the only time Mendelssohn comes to listen to Max when he is at the piano composing is when the music is reminiscent of either Mendelssohn or Piazzolla.”

“Extraordinary,” says Healing, his heart pounding. “I once had a dog named ZuZu who loved Ella Fitzgerald. Any time I’d play one of Ella’s albums, ZuZu would come to listen. And the minute the music was anything but Ella, she would leave.”

“Mendelssohn and Piazzolla are not at all alike,” says Jahera, frowning curiously. “Not overtly anyway.”

“No,” says Max, shaking his head, “yet they share… oh I’ve never found words for it. There is something ineffable that unites them.”

“They are both deeply emotional,” says Miranda, solemnly. “Both keenly aware, I think, of the death in life.”

At which moment, Mendelssohn and the other dogs return, and Mendelssohn lies down at Miranda’s feet while the other dogs go into the house to drink water.

“We will take him,” says Healing, looking from Miranda to Max. “And he will be very sad for some months, and then he will adjust and be a good member of the pack, most likely the alpha, and he will be overjoyed to see you when you return. But for me the larger question is, do you want to live without him for the hundreds and hundreds of days you’ll be gone?”

“No,” says Miranda, sadly, “but we know what our life will be like in Geneva, and it isn’t only that Mendelssohn would be unhappy being so confined, but we would be hard-pressed to walk him enough and spend enough time with him to keep him healthy and happy.”

“Our work is all-consuming,” says Max, with a painful shrug. “Our three years in Ojai were some kind of incredible dream, and our life there showed us how we want to live in the future if we can, which is why we bought a house here. And assuming things go as we plan, in two years we’ll have enough money and possibly another grant so we can live here for many years as we did in Ojai.”

“And if things don’t go as you plan,” says Healing, knowing very well they might not, “we will keep Mendelssohn until you want him again. And if you never do, we’ll count ourselves lucky to have him.”

“We will pay you a monthly stipend,” says Miranda, her eyes full of tears. “And come visit twice a year. That is our plan.”

“No stipend necessary,” says Healing, raising his mug. “Here’s to Mendelssohn.”

*

On a sultry evening a few weeks later, Healing’s quartet Mercy Me gathers on the deck of Healing’s house – a lucrative wedding gig impending along with their monthly appearance at Big Goose, the largest music venue in town.

After jamming around in G to warm up, Healing says to Helen Tremblay who plays clarinet, Buster Gomez who plays standup bass, and Rico Silveira who plays guitar, “I want to show you something amazing.”

“You finally got a tattoo?” says Rico, playing a lightning-fast run of notes.

“No,” says Healing, smiling around at his band mates. “But before I show you, I want you to notice how many of our dogs are listening to us rehearse.”

“Exactly none,” says Helen, looking around.

“Correcto,” says Buster, nodding in agreement. “Not even one.”

“Now let us play Piazzolla’s Vuelvo al Sur,” says Healing, playing the opening chords of the gorgeous tune on his accordion to set the stage for Helen’s clarinet, Buster’s bass, and Rico’s guitar.

And the moment the trio joins Healing – Helen playing the haunting melody – a golden brown dog with black markings emerges from the house and comes to sit among the musicians – a look of resignation and love on his handsome face.

fin

Lounge Act In Heaven Todd and Gwyneth piano/accordion duet

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Suzette

On a rainy morning in early December in the little old house on Nasturtium Road – the dogs sprawled on the living room floor after a long walk on the beach with Healing and Jahera – Healing is encamped at the kitchen table, sipping black tea and writing a letter, when the phone rings.

“Weintraub mansion, Healing speaking.”

“Healing,” says a woman with a slight German accent, “it’s Marjorie Kleinsasser.”

“Oh Marjorie,” says Healing with delight. “How good to hear your voice. Mum was just asking about you. Did you know she moved back from England in June? And Jahera and I tied the knot in October?”

“Yes, Laurie told me,” says Marjorie, who is seventy-six. “Mazel tov! I’m so glad Naomi is back in Mercy. I got a letter from her two years ago saying she longed to live in Mercy again. I’d move back, too, if I could afford it, but I can’t.”

“No longer enjoying Idaho?”

“No,” she says with a sigh. “I moved here to help Bernard with his kids when they were little, and now they’re teenagers and don’t need me or want me. And Bernard’s new wife doesn’t particularly like me, so I don’t go over there much anymore. Most of my friends are in Mercy, the ones who haven’t died or lost their minds or made the mistake of moving away as I did, so I do get pretty lonely.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” says Healing, well aware that Mercy is fast becoming unaffordable to anyone not already established in town or extremely wealthy. “Housing prices have gone insane here.”

“Laurie and Mel say I can live with them,” says Marjorie, sighing again, “but their house is so small and I wouldn’t want to impose on them, especially with my two dogs. Mel isn’t a dog person, though Laurie says he would be okay having my dogs there, but I know he wouldn’t.”

“What are your dogs’ names?”

“Fritz and Suzette. They’re both McNab Labs. I got Suzette when I moved here twelve years ago, and Fritz six years ago. That’s what I’m calling about. My dogs are all I’ve got now in the way of friends, and Suzette has been acting very strange lately and I can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. I took her to the vet because I thought she might be going blind, but her vision is fine. They did some other tests, too, and told me not to worry.” She clears her throat. “Bernard thinks I’m losing my marbles, but I’m not. I’m sad, but not crazy. There’s definitely something going on with Suzette and I thought if anyone could help me figure this out, you could.”

“I wish I could magically appear in Idaho to help you,” says Healing, checking the time on the kitchen clock. “In lieu of that, how about I call you back around five this afternoon and we can talk at length. I’ve got to run some errands now and then give a couple accordion lessons, after which I’ll call you.”

“Thank you, Healing. Please say hi to Naomi for me.”

“I will do so and ask her to call you.”

“Oh I don’t want to bother her.”

“Nonsense. She adores you.”

*

One of Healing’s errands is to drive the pup Socrates, the newest member of the Weintraub dog pack, to the veterinary clinic for his final puppy shot. The two vets and two veterinarian assistants at Mercy’s only veterinarian clinic are great admirers of Healing’s way with dogs and cats, so much so that many people who call Healing for help have been referred by someone at the clinic. In thanks for Healing’s services, for which he charges nothing, the vets treat Healing’s pets gratis.

Socrates especially likes the veterinarian assistant Gwyneth Cumberland, who always sings to Socrates when she handles him, so Healing requests Gwyneth to administer the vaccine to Socrates, and the pup hardly notices the shot as he listens in wonder to Gwyneth singing.

After a bit of chat with Gwyneth about the local music scene, Healing carries Socrates out of the examining room into the reception area where two people are waiting, each with a dog Healing helped overcome a seemingly intractable conundrum. Thus the two people and their dogs shower Healing with praise, hugs, enthusiastic tail wagging, and looks of love.

Knowing Socrates may soon be feeling the effects of the vaccine, Healing drives straight home from the clinic so the pup can be warm by the fire when he begins to feel sleepy or feverish or both. Big old Carla, the eldest of the pack, will take special care of Socrates, and Naomi has agreed to puppy-sit while Healing completes his errands.

“I’m not expecting him to have much of a reaction,” says Healing as he sets Socrates down on the sofa. “After his last shot he conked out for the rest of the day and was otherwise fine. But this shot is his first one inclusive of the rabies vaccine, and that can be a trial for some pups.”

“I shall settle on the sofa and finish my letter to your sister,” says Naomi, petting Socrates. “With the little philosopher by my side.”

*

No longer needing his truck, Healing walks through a light rain to Darby’s Antiques, the proprietor Darby Riley, an elderly Irishman and one of the Healing and Naomi’s closest friends.

Entering the shop – the old place packed to the rafters with vintage clothing and furniture and pottery and LPs and books and picture frames and musical instruments – Healing finds Darby standing behind the counter with his dog Dagwood, a charming Jack Russell Beagle, sitting on a high stool next to Darby, while Lorna Coolidge, a statuesque redhead wearing a cleavage-revealing dress and fire-engine-red lipstick, stands on the customer side of the counter dickering with Darby about the price of a gorgeous red paisley shawl.

“Seven hundred seems a bit steep,” says Lorna, who thirty years ago had a small role in a television sit-com, after which her Hollywood fortunes waned and she embarked on her long career as a high school drama teacher and star of local theatre productions.

“My dear,” says Darby, carefully choosing his words, “this immaculate and spectacular shawl was made in Paisley, Scotland in 1877. I can easily sell it for twice seven hundred if you don’t want it at that price, which I’m only giving you because I have a screw loose when it comes to women such as yourself.”

Lorna sighs audibly, and Healing thinks In life as onstage she suffers from the unfortunate tendency to overact.

“Six hundred?” says Lorna, pursing her lips for a kiss.

“Sorry, dear,” says Darby, bowing his head.

“Oh well,” she says, turning to Healing. “How are you, Healing? Enjoying married life?”

“Quite,” he says, dizzied by her penetrating gaze.

“Lucky you,” she says, giving Darby a last look. “I’ll be back.”

And with that she sashays out of the shop, knowing very well that Darby and Healing are watching her go.

“Thank God you got here when you did,” says Darby, carefully folding the shawl and returning it to the old chest from whence it came. “How she got me down to seven hundred, I’ll never know.” He shrugs helplessly. “Well… we do know, I suppose. Women such as Lorna flummox me into idiocy.”

“She promises things with her eyes and voice and body,” says Healing, nodding in sympathy with Darby. “Things that spark the fires of lust.”

“Well said,” says Darby, nodding. “Thanks for coming by. Coffee? I just got scones from Café Brava. The blueberry. They’ve been nothing short of ambrosia of late.”

“I won’t say No to that,” says Healing, going to the woodstove to warm his hands. “Cold rain. What’s going on?”

“Oh God,” says Darby, spooning fine Columbian into his French Press, “I had an incident yesterday that highlighted my larger dilemma, and you’re the only person I know who understands me beyond the veneer of my personality, so… I need your good counsel.”

“Tell me,” says Healing, hearing the anguish in Darby’s voice.

“Yesterday,” begins Darby, pouring boiling water over the coffee granules, “Maria Valdez and Cecilia Cortez, who have been coming into the shop since they were little girls and I love them dearly – they still call me Tío – and they buy old dresses they transform into beautiful skirts and tops, both of them fine seamstresses… but I digress. Yesterday they brought along two lads, one of whom had his phone blaring music that sounded like a construction site, and I asked him to turn it off and he wouldn’t. Then he disappeared into the clothing racks and came out wearing a beautiful black leather jacket from the 1950s and threw twenty dollars on the counter and said, ‘Keep the change.’ To which I said, ‘Now hold on here, that jacket is worth a thousand dollars. Belonged to a famous San Francisco poet who wore it but a few times. Please take it off.’ And he just walked out the door wearing the jacket. So I started after him, shouting at him, and I felt a twinge in my chest and stopped and sat down, and the girls apologized and said they’d get the jacket back for me, and the other lad apologized, too, though I think he was laughing at me inside, and when they were gone I thought maybe I should take Tom Carter up on his offer.”

Darby serves their coffee in mugs made in England two hundred years ago.

“So,” prompts Healing, nibbling on his scone. “Tom Carter’s offer to what?”

“Ah,” says Darby, closing his eyes. “The crux of the matter.”

“Yes,” says Healing, closing his eyes, too. “The crux.”

“So as you know better than anyone,” says Darby, opening his eyes, “having loaned me a bit of cash now and then over the years…”

“Which you always promptly pay back,” says Healing, opening his eyes, too.

“I think you might be stretching the definition of promptly, but what I’m trying to say is I don’t often have a surplus of cash. Now in the great scale of things I’ve made more money selling than buying. However, the great scale, as you know, sometimes takes a bit of time to swing back to the surplus side, if you get my meaning.”

“I do,” says Healing, who knows not to rush Darby when he’s unburdening himself. “Accumulating surplus cash is not your style.”

“In so many words,” says Darby, taking a deep breath. “Whereas Tom Carter positively oozes money. He once gave me three one-thousand-dollar bills for a 19th Century French chifforobe I wanted twenty-five hundred for. When I said I’d need to go to the bank to make change, he said, ‘Oh don’t bother. Keep it.’ Which I did, though I felt so guilty about it, the next time he came in I sold him a grand mahogany chair for half what I should have gotten.”

“Aren’t we funny animals?” says Healing, gazing fondly at Darby.

“Indeed,” says Darby, sighing. “So I told Tom what I’ve been telling you for years, which is that I’m too old to run this business anymore and I’d like to quit, but I have that aforementioned cash flow difficulty. And Tom said, ‘You know that little house I own at the end of Huckleberry Lane that abuts the headlands? You sell me this building for four million and I’ll sell you the Huckleberry Lane place for a million, and you’ll have a nice house and three million to live like a king until the end.’ To which I said, ‘I’ll take that under advisement,’ and then I put it out of my mind thinking he was blowin’ hot air. But when I felt that twinge in my chest as the lad walked out with the poet’s jacket, I thought, ‘That’s it. Sell the place and get a hovel somewhere and walk my dog and get out of this never ending cavalcade of stuff and the lunatics who buy it from me.’ And the next thought I had was ‘Call Healing,’ and here you are.”

“I know the house of which Tom speaks,” says Healing, excitedly. “Leslie Waller used to live there with her two Border Collies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Three bedrooms. Glorious kitchen. A vast living room. Big backyard. And a two-car garage you can fill with junk. Tom could probably get two million for it and I know you can get at least four million for this building, but let’s consult with Conchita to find out the current worth of things and if you do buy that house, I have just the housemate for you.”

“You’re finding me housemates already?” says Darby, his eyes filling with tears. “I’ve lived in those two little rooms upstairs for fifty years, and done business down here those same fifty.” He sniffles back his tears. “Who is it you’ve picked out to live with me?”

“Marjorie Kleinsasser,” says Healing, picking up Darby’s phone. “She’d love to move back to Mercy from Idaho but can’t find a situation she can afford.”

“Now you’re teasing me,” says Darby, pouting at Healing. “You know I’ve always had a terrible crush on Marjorie. She’s a fabulous cook and has a green thumb as green as the hills of Ireland, and I love her German accent and the way she tilts her head a little to one side when she’s thinking of how to answer a question. She and I used to flirt like mad back in the day, but she was married to Jim for all those years so we never went beyond flirting, and then after Jim died she went off to Idaho to be with her grandkids before I could even think to court her. Are you serious? Do you think she’d be willing to live with me? I don’t mean in a marriage-like way, but as friends? In my new house?”

“Let’s get Conchita on the case,” says Healing, dialing the number of Ontiveros Realty. “And when the deal is in place, we’ll talk to Marjorie.”

“It’s dizzying how fast things are moving,” says Darby to Dagwood, to which the dog responds by holding out a paw to say Might I have a wee taste of your scone, please?

“Of course,” says Darby, feeding Dagwood a tidbit. “Rude of me not to share some with you sooner.”

After a brief and successful conversation with Conchita, Healing says to Darby, “So who took the coat?”

“I don’t want him to get in trouble,” says Darby, shaking his head. “I’m devoted to his grandmother. She made these scones, you know. The boy never had a father, and his mother mostly ignored him and left him to Luisa to raise. I don’t think he’s a bad sort under that macho bravado and loud music, but I tell you, Healing, he’s hovering on the brink of disaster.”

“Disaster is right,” says Healing, nodding. “I’ll go over there this evening and get your coat.”

“Do you really think I can get that house on the headlands and have money left over?” asks Darby, forgetting all about the coat. “I bought this building fifty years ago at an auction of derelict buildings, the town being full of such in those days. And everybody said I was crazy to pay so much for this dump. And now maybe…”

“How much did you pay for it?” asks Healing, looking around the cavernous store that is by all measures the epicenter of Mercy.

“Thirteen,” says Darby, laughing and crying. “Thirteen hundred dollars.”

*

After giving two delightful accordion lessons, Healing calls Marjorie Kleinsasser, and Marjorie tells Healing all about her dog Suzette.

“About two weeks ago, a few days before the full moon,” says Marjorie, sounding more relaxed than when she spoke to Healing this morning, “Suzette started getting up in the middle of the night and going outside. Forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but she’s a Lab McNab and she’ll be twelve in February. I’ve got a doggy door in the sliding glass door that opens onto my backyard, which is fenced to keep the deer out and the dogs in. She sleeps at the bottom of my bed and never used to go out at night. Now she goes out two or three times a night. And I know this because I wake up every time she jumps down from the bed, and then I fall back asleep and wake up and can’t move my feet because she’s lying on top of them.”

“Is she going outside to pee?” asks Healing, thinking of his big hound Carla, who is twelve and needs to relieve herself in the middle of the night now for the first time in her long life.

“That’s what I thought it must be. But every time I got up and followed her, she’d just go out into the yard, sniff around a little, and then stand completely still looking straight ahead as if she was watching someone or something.”

“Did you call her to come back in?”

“I did the first few times I followed her, and she always came, but then a while later she’d go out again. So I don’t follow her now. It’s freezing cold and I worry she’ll get sick, but so far she seems fine and she always comes back in after a little while. She’s slowed down, of course, being twelve, but she still roughhouses with Fritz now and then and she’s still a good walker, though more and more these days she likes to stay on my bed during the day and look out the big window at the forest.”

“Does she ever repeat her nocturnal behavior during the day? Seeming to be watching someone or something?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” says Marjorie, musing for a moment. “Do you have any idea what she could be looking at?”

“You’ve had many dogs, Marjorie,” says Healing, gently. “Does her behavior echo the behavior of any other dogs you’ve had when they were eleven or twelve or older?”

“Oh,” says Marjorie, awareness dawning. “Yes. Junior would often bark at things that weren’t there. Not long before he died. Do you think that’s what it is? She’s going to die?”

“I think she’s old, and some old dogs, like some old people, begin to see things and imagine things that aren’t visible to us. Or they get caught up in their memories, and those memories become their present reality.”

“Of course,” says Marjorie, quietly. “I guess I just wasn’t ready to start thinking of her being so near the end of her life.”

“My dog Carla has entered a similar phase,” says Healing, looking into the living room where Socrates is curled up beside Carla. “Sometimes when we take the dogs for a beach walk, we’ll reach the sand and Carla will sit down and give me a look to say I won’t be going any further today and I’ll wait here for your return.”

“Oh I wish I could afford to move back to Mercy,” says Marjorie, starting to cry. “I think I’ll die from longing to walk with my dogs and my friends on the beach at the mouth of the river there. But this house wouldn’t bring me enough to buy anything in Mercy or give me enough money to rent a place there and support me for ten years or however much longer I live.”

“You can afford to come back. If you wouldn’t mind sharing a lovely home on the headlands with your old friend Darby Riley. He just came into a fortune and is buying a lovely house at the end of Huckleberry Lane and would love a charming housemate who likes to cook and garden. Remind you of anyone?”

Marjorie gasps. “Are you serious?”

“I am. Shall I have Darby call you?”

“Yes,” she says urgently. “Please.”

*

That evening Healing and Jahera walk across town to the home of Luisa Garcia, head baker of Café Brava and Healing’s good friend – she who made Healing and Jahera’s fabulous wedding cake.

“Who is it?” asks Luisa from behind her closed door.

“Healing and Jahera,” says Healing. “Come to see Diego.”

Luisa, a pretty woman in her sixties with short black hair turning gray, opens her door – her little dog Mitzi in her arms.

“Hola Healing. Hola Jahera,” says Luisa, giving them a quizzical look. “Que paso?”

“We’ve come to speak to Diego,” says Healing, solemnly. “Is he home?”

“What did he do?” Luisa whispers.

“Just a misunderstanding,” says Healing, quietly. “Not a big deal.”

“Please come in,” says Luisa, gesturing for them to enter. “Veronica no es here. Es just me and Diego.” She lowers her voice. “Es muy dificil.”

Now Diego emerges from his bedroom, a burly young man of sixteen with wavy black hair, wearing a sleeveless gray T-shirt and black jeans.

“Hola Healing,” he says in a very deep voice. “Que paso?”

“I’ve come for Darby’s jacket,” says Healing, meeting Diego’s stoic gaze. “He said something about there being an unfortunate mix up. He said you’d understand.”

Diego frowns. “Oh. That old leather jacket? He wasn’t selling that?”

“No,” says Healing, shaking his head. “And he’s very sorry you thought he was. So he sent along twenty dollars to compensate you for the inconvenience.”

“Okay,” says Diego, nodding. “I’ll get it.”

“Did he steal it?” whispers Luisa, clenching her fists. “If he stealing again, he can’t live here no more.”

“No,” says Healing, shaking his head. “That old shop, you know. It’s quite the confusing jumble in there.”

“I only wore it a little,” says Diego, returning with the beautiful leather jacket and handing it to Healing. “I didn’t scratch it or nothing.”

“You’re a good man,” says Healing, offering his hand to Diego.

“That’s a very nice jacket, you know,” says Diego, shaking Healing’s hand. “You tell him for me if he ever wants to sell it, you know, I might want to buy it.”

“I’ll tell him,” says Healing, smiling. “And come visit us soon, will you? We just got a new pup you’ll like.”

“Bueno,” says Diego, nodding. “I like your dogs.”

*

On their way home, Jahera says, “You’d look good in that jacket, Shafi. Try it on.”

So Healing puts on the jacket and it fits him like a glove and makes him feel like a million bucks.

fin    

Questions piano solo by Todd