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All Of Me

Her antecedents Italian-American and French, Sophie Vacarro is thirty-six and has lived in Japan for three years as apprentice to master potter Arata Inaba. Sophie’s return to Mercy where she was born was prompted by her mother dying and leaving her house to Sophie, who otherwise would not have left Japan for even these few days she plans to be away.

*

“I love your hair long and pulled back like that,” says Grace, Sophie’s best friend since kindergarten. “You’re so slender now. You’re just exquisite. You must drive those Japanese men wild.”

“I work eleven hours a day, six days a week,” says Sophie, gazing out the window as they drive north on the coast highway, the fields full of wild mustard as they always are in the summers here. “I wear my hair under a bonnet at the studio, ride my bike home to my little apartment, make supper, read for a while, do some yoga, and go to bed. So I don’t have much time to drive the men wild.”

“I wish you’d call me more often,” says Grace, sighing. “I love getting your letters, but I miss hearing your voice.”

“I love you, Gracie,” says Sophie, smiling at her dear old friend. “You know I do. But calling you pulls me back here, and I don’t want to be here.”

“I don’t believe you,” says Grace, her eyes filling with tears. “I think you’ll love Mercy now that your mother’s gone.”

“I always loved Mercy,” says Sophie, glad to be talking about this. “And I love you and Cal and Jeff and all my friends there. It’s not about that. It’s about giving all of me to being my master’s apprentice, so one day I might be a master, too.”

“You already are a master,” says Grace, emphatically. “When I set the table with your plates and bowls and we drink our coffee from your mugs, I can feel your mastery.”

“I’m glad,” says Sophie, not wanting to argue. “I’m glad you love them.”

*

Grace drops Sophie off at Ontiveros Realty in downtown Mercy to sign papers for putting the house on the market.

“As you wished, we gave everything in the house to the Salvation Army,” says Conchita Ontiveros, a vivacious gal in her fifties. “Then we had the place cleaned, the yard made as beautiful as we could, and now we just need your signature on these documents and we can put the house on the market. Should go fast. It’s a tear down but in a very good location, and the market is so hot we’ll list it at eight hundred thousand, get multiple offers, and then have a bidding war. I’m guessing it will go for a million two. Maybe more. So after the mortgage is paid off, you should clear close to a million.”

“I really appreciate this,” says Sophie, who has never had much money. “And you’ll deduct your expenses from what I get?”

“Yes, of course,” says Conchita, gathering up the pages. “Have you been by the house?”

“I might go by later on,” says Sophie, her tone suggesting otherwise. “Thank you for everything, Conchita.”

“Thank you for choosing me to help you,” says Conchita, shaking Sophie’s hand. “How long will you be in town?”

“Just a few days,” says Sophie, fighting her tears. “See some friends. Walk on the beach. Have fish & chips at Big Goose. And then I have to get back to Japan.”

“Do you love it there?” asks Conchita, who can’t imagine living anywhere but Mercy.

“I do,” says Sophie, smiling at the thought of riding her bike to her master’s studio in the cool of morning. “Very much.”

*

That night, Sophie and Grace and Grace’s husband Cal and their seven-year-old son Jeff have scrumptious fish & chips at Mercy’s premier pub Big Goose, and dozens of people come to say hi to Sophie who was a beloved checker at Walker’s Groceries from the age of sixteen until she left for Japan three years ago.

As they are finishing their meal, a big handsome man approaches their table, and Sophie stiffens in fear because when she left for Japan this man was a lunatic living in the forest and scaring the daylights out of everyone when he came into Walker’s to buy food.

“He’s okay now,” whispers Grace, giving Sophie’s hand a squeeze under the table.

“Hey Grace, hey Cal,” says the man, smiling at everyone. “Hey Jeff. Hi Sophie.”

“Hi Galen,” says Sophie, holding her breath.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says, placing his hand on his heart.

“Thank you,” she says, stunned by the change in him.

“You look great,” he says, gazing in wonder at her.

“You look great, too,” she says, laughing nervously. “You look like Hercules.”

“I lift weights now,” he says, laughing self-consciously. “With Carlos Garcia and Sheriff Higuera. Hey I hear you live in Japan now. That’s wonderful. I’m working in the kitchen at the East Cove Hotel. Genevieve is training me to be a sous chef.”

“That’s fantastic,” says Sophie, astounded by how charming he is.

“You should come for lunch while you’re here,” he says, nodding excitedly. “My treat. Bring Grace. The food is… I just learned this new word. Nonpareil.” He laughs self-consciously again. “I’m probably saying it wrong, but…” He takes a deep breath. “I wanted to tell you that when I was a boy and you first started working at Walker’s and I’d come in with my mom, I always made her go through your line because I thought you were so pretty and you were always nice to me. And then when I got out of the Army and was so sick for all those years, I still would only go through your line because you were still nice to me and…” He struggles to find the words. “I could feel the sane part of me wanting to talk to you even though I couldn’t, and your kindness really helped me. So…” He shrugs. “I just wanted to thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she says, overwhelmed. “We’d love to come to lunch. Tomorrow?”

“Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” says Grace, pretending to swoon. “Lunch at the East Cove Hotel?”

“Without taking out a second mortgage?” says Cal, pretending to swoon, too.

“Yeah tomorrow would be perfect,” says Galen, laughing for joy. “Just not Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. And last I heard, tomorrow is Thursday.”

*

The next morning after breakfast, Sophie goes to Walker’s and says hello to all the people she used to work with; and while she’s there, more of her former customers come to greet her and express their condolences and ask about her life in Japan, and she is brought to tears again and again by all the love coming her way.

*

In the elegant dining room of the East Cove Hotel, Sophie and Grace whisper to each other about how incredible it is to be here. And to crown their incredulity, Genevieve Moreau, the world-renowned chef and owner of the hotel, comes to their table to tell them how happy Galen is that they’re here.

Genevieve, tall with graying brown hair in a bun, smiles at Sophie and says with her French accent, “After all those thousands of times you served me so well at Walker’s, it is my pleasure to have you and your friend dine with us. And of course you know I bought many vases from you at the farmers market and there is at least one in every room in the hotel. People are always asking where we got them, so if you ever return to Mercy and open a studio here, I would be glad to sell your pottery in our gift shop.”

“I’m honored,” says Sophie, blushing. “And… we can’t decide what to get.”

“Shall I choose for you?” says Genevieve, nodding to imply the wisdom of doing so.

“We’d love that,” says Sophie, turning to Grace. “Wouldn’t we?”

Grace nods, unable to speak.

“Excellent,” says Genevieve, bowing to them. “I will bring you appetizers to start.”

*

At meal’s end, Genevieve presents them with a plate of four handmade chocolate truffles to have with their coffee.

“Would you like to join us?” asks Sophie, sensing Genevieve wants to tell them something.

“I would love to,” says Genevieve, signaling for a bus person to bring her coffee.

“My master loves chocolate,” says Sophie, her eyelids fluttering as she tastes the incomparable truffle. “I’ll take one of these back to Japan for him. He’ll be thrilled.”

“I would like to commission a large vase from your master,” says Genevieve, nodding graciously to the young woman who serves her coffee and replenishes Grace and Sophie’s cups. “For the entrance to the dining room.”

“I’ll tell him,” says Sophie, taking another bite of the fabulous chocolate. “Right after he tastes your truffle.”

They laugh and Genevieve says, “I cannot tell you how happy you’ve made Galen by coming to lunch. He’s been singing all morning, and he has a lovely voice, and we’re all amazed because he’s never sung for us before.”

*

Her second night in Mercy, Sophie goes to the Mercy Players Theatre to watch a spirited production of the comedy classic Ellen Is The Problem; and in the foyer after the play Sophie heaps praise on her friend Maureen McGillicutty who played the part of Ellen.

“Look at you,” says Maureen, hugging Sophie. “You’re so svelte, and with cheekbones to die for. You could be in Vogue. Say something in Japanese.”

Sophie says something in fluent Japanese.

“What does that mean?” asks Maureen, giggling.

“It means you were a flame on the stage tonight,” says Sophie, remembering being in a play in this theatre ten years ago, and how she loved acting more than anything she’d ever done. “And you stole our hearts.”

“Oh God,” says Maureen, hugging Sophie again. “How long are you here for?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning,” she says with no regret. “I’ll come for longer next time.”

*

After breakfast the next morning, the town cloaked in fog, Sophie carries her suitcase out to the car just as Galen arrives on his bicycle and presents her with a little wooden box containing four chocolate truffles.

“Thank you, Galen,” she says, marveling at how beautiful he is to her. “My master will be very pleased.”

“Some people just love chocolate,” says Galen, wanting to say something else but not knowing how. “Me? I never was big on chocolate. I mean… I like chocolate, but… I really love fruit. There’s nothing so good to me as blackberries right off the vine. You know what I mean?”

“I do know what you mean,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I love blackberries, too, with chocolate.”

*

On the jet flying back to Japan, for the first time since leaving Mercy three years ago, Sophie opens her heart, just a little, to the possibility of one day living in Mercy again. 

fin

Ahora Entras Tu from Todd and Marcia’s album Ahora Entras Tu.

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Pequeño and Cha-Cha

Carlos Garcia and Ophelia Viera were both born in Mercy fifty-one years ago, Ophelia in April, Carlos in October. They have been happily married for twenty-four years and have two children: Tito, twenty-two, and Julia, twenty.

Tito is a senior majoring in Horticulture at the University of California Santa Cruz with a minor in French History. After completing his university studies, he wants to work on farms in France for a few years before returning to Mercy to grow fruit, vegetables, and flowers.

Julia lives in a camper van with her husband Jazz Zagorski who is three years older than Julia. They got married in the summer after Julia graduated from high school. Jazz plays stand-up bass and designs web sites for musicians. Julia plays guitar, sings, does the cooking, and paints watercolors Jazz uses on the web sites he designs.

Together with Kate Pinot Noir, a violinist and singer, and Kate’s percussionist husband Max Pinot Noir (the Pinot Noirs live in another camper van), Julia, Jazz, Kate, and Max are the perpetually touring folk moderne band Zagorski Pinot Noir.

*

Carlos, who works for the postal service, and Ophelia, a nurse, also have two dogs: Cha-Cha, a brown pointy-eared Chihuahua mutt, and Pequeño, a big gray and white Malamute.

Cha-Cha, who is eight now, was four-months old when Julia rescued her from the animal shelter and gave her to Carlos for Christmas because Carlos liked having a dog with him as he drove hither and yon delivering mail, and his previous canine companion had recently died.

As fate would have it, Cha-Cha hated riding in the postal jeep, and after a few miserable days of accompanying Carlos on his rounds she was allowed to stay home where she established herself as queen of the household, her throne the living room sofa.

Pequeño, seven-years-old now, was a tiny puppy when Tito found him abandoned at the beach parking lot. Tito begged Carlos and Ophelia to let him keep the puppy, they said he could, and being a busy teenager he bequeathed the care of Pequeño to Ophelia and Carlos who loved the pup so much they didn’t mind.

Cha-Cha, however, was greatly displeased by the arrival of the darling puppy and expressed her displeasure by yapping shrilly whenever people paid attention to Pequeño and not to her. She also growled and snapped at the puppy whenever he came near her.

Thus when Ophelia left in the morning to work at the hospital and Tito and Julia left for Mercy High, Carlos felt he had no choice but to take tiny Pequeño with him in the jeep as he delivered mail to the far reaches of the Mercy zip code.

Much to Carlos’s delight, Pequeño loved riding in the jeep with Carlos, and especially loved all the marvelous people and dogs they met along their way.

*

When Carlos stopped being a rural mail carrier two years ago and started working in the Mercy post office, Pequeño went to work with Carlos a few times but found hanging out in the warehouse a dreadful bore because he was not allowed out front to visit with the customers and their dogs.

So now Pequeño stays home with Cha Cha, and though they are not great pals, they get along okay.

Ophelia works three twelve-hour shifts at Mercy Hospital every week and takes Pequeño for walks on those days when she’s not at the hospital. And every weekend, barring inclement weather, Carlos and Ophelia take Pequeño for a long beach walk or a hike in the forest.

*

Their favorite forest hike is a four-mile loop that begins at a parking area a mile inland from the mouth of the Mercy River. The trail follows the north side of the river inland for another half-mile to the Convent of the Redwoods where the trail veers away from the river and climbs north through a forest of hundred-year-old redwoods to a confluence of trails, one of which they take to lovely Crayfish Falls.

At the falls they have lunch and soak their feet in the soothing water before continuing up the trail to the top of a ridge with a view overlooking the Mercy River, and from here they descend through the redwoods to where they began.

*

Every month or so Ophelia calls the Convent of the Redwoods and invites her dear friend Sister Orla to join them on their hike to Crayfish Falls.

Sister Orla, formerly Orla Jane Gallagher, Irish through and through, was Ophelia’s best friend when they attended Mercy Elementary and Mercy High together, after which Orla went away to college, dropped out after two years, and lived a bohemian life in Berkeley until she became a nun at the age of twenty-six. Then three years ago, at the age of forty-eight, Sister Orla returned to Mercy for the first time in forty years to care for her dying mother.

When Sister Orla’s mother died, the Mother Superior of the Convent of the Redwoods invited Sister Orla to join the twelve other nuns in the convent, and Sister Orla accepted the invitation.

The thirteen nuns who live at the Convent of the Redwoods, a former hunting lodge, are not strictly cloistered, though most of them rarely leave the convent grounds except to walk to the beach and back.

The convent has an apple orchard and a large vegetable garden in which the nuns grow much of the convent’s food from April through October, and they also have a big hoop-house wherein they grow lettuce, chard, kale, potatoes, and green onions year round.

Sister Orla spends most of her daylight hours praying, working in the garden, taking long walks with Sister Jean, helping prepare breakfast and supper, playing the piano during recreation time, and writing poems and drawing pictures she never shows anyone.

*

On a warm day in July, Sister Orla is waiting in front of the convent gate when Ophelia, Carlos, and Pequeño arrive in their little car. Rather than hike in full nun regalia, and with permission from Mother Superior, Orla is wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, long gray skirt, straw sunhat, and walking shoes – her eyes emerald green, her auburn hair showing the first signs of turning gray.

Sister Orla exchanges smiles with Carlos, gives Ophelia’s hand a squeeze, and falls to her knees to embrace Pequeño who she loves dearly and vice-versa.

“I feel positively naked,” she says, with her charming Irish brogue. “What a terrible sinner I am shedding my habit for the carnal pleasure of climbing to the falls with you.”

“If you’re a sinner, Sister Orla,” says Carlos, laughing, “what does that make us?”

“Angels,” she says, kissing Pequeño’s snout and reveling in the caress of his tongue.

*

“I’ve been thinking of little else but going up to the falls with you ever since you called,” says Sister Orla as they begin their ascent through the redwoods. “Such a blessing to go into the forest with you. Sister Jean loves to walk on the beach, but her knees don’t do well on a steep slope, going up or down, and none of the others love the forest as I do, and I’m not permitted to leave the convent alone, so… I’m more than grateful to you.”

“You can always call me,” says Ophelia, smiling at her old friend. “You don’t have to wait for me to call you.”

“That’s a tricky one,” says Sister Orla, sighing. “Desire, you know, is a manifestation of selfishness, and in the convent we’re all about subsuming the self for the good of others, so… it’s a tricky one, asking for things you want.”

*

After their good long climb, they find Crayfish Falls reduced to three slender streams trickling over a smooth granite face and pattering on the surface of a little pool – the paucity of water the result of three years of drought.

They dine on French bread and cheese and olives and Ophelia’s scrumptious mushroom pâté, and Sister Orla opines, “Now wouldn’t a bit of red wine be just the thing with this?” She laughs. “In the secular world, of course, and in my sinful fantasies.”

“Good with water, too,” says Carlos, chuckling. “Or beer.”

“Oh please don’t mention beer,” says Sister Orla, groaning dramatically. “End of the day yesterday, after four hours of sweating in the garden, I could think of nothing but ice cold beer.”

*

When they get back to the convent in the late afternoon, Sister Orla lingers at the gate with them, petting Pequeño.

“I’m having a hard time,” she says, looking at Ophelia and crying. “I want to hug you both but I’m not permitted to hug you, and I’d love to have a dog like Pequeño, but we can’t have dogs here.” She sniffles. “Anyway… thanks so much for asking me to walk with you. You’re always in my prayers, and you’re often in my dreams, too. I hope you don’t mind.”

*

Driving home, Carlos says, “Maybe she’s done being a nun. How long has it been?”

“Twenty-five years,” says Ophelia, remembering when Orla called her from Berkeley to tell her she was taking the vows. “A year longer than we’ve been married.”

“When we were in high school I always thought she was gonna be a movie star,” says Carlos, parking in the driveway of their little house on a street of little houses at the north end of Mercy. “I remember watching her in plays and thinking she was a genius. Remember?”

“I remember,” says Ophelia, getting out of the car and waving to Cha-Cha who is at the living room window watching them intently. “And I always thought she was going to be a writer and a movie director because that’s what she said she was going to be, and there was nothing she couldn’t do, so… but then she went to college and everything changed.”

“You can sniff around for ten minutes, Pequeño,” says Carlos, letting the big dog out of the car. “And then you come in. Okay?”

Pequeño grins at Carlos and trots away to visit his favorite pissing spots.

*

That night Carlos and Ophelia both dream about Sister Orla.

In Ophelia’s dream, she and Sister Orla are trying to escape from a room jam-packed with junk.

“Up there,” says Sister Orla, pointing urgently to a window high above them.

They stack a tall bookshelf on top of a rickety table and climb up the shelves only to find there’s no way to open the window.

“Break it,” says Ophelia, handing Sister Orla a hammer.

“I can’t,” says Sister Orla, bowing her head. “Tis a sin.”

“But they’re going to kill us,” says Ophelia, wresting the hammer from Sister Orla and smashing the window.

*

In Carlos’s dream, he poles a gondola up the river to the convent in the dead of night and finds Sister Orla waiting on the shore wearing her black frock crowned by a huge white headpiece resembling a manta ray.

“I can’t get any closer,” says Carlos, calling to her. “You’ll have to swim out to me.”

“I’ll drown in all this,” she says, shaking her head.

“Then take it off,” says Carlos, laughing.

So Sister Orla throws off her headpiece and sheds her frock and dives naked into the water.

*

The next morning at breakfast Carlos and Ophelia share their dreams, and while doing the dishes Carlos says, “If she decides to leave the convent and needs a place to stay, she could live with us for a while. We’ve got the room and I know you’d like her to be here.”

“Gracias mi amor,” says Ophelia, embracing him. “She might not leave, but if she does…”

Now the phone rings and they both know it’s Orla calling, no longer Sister Orla.

fin

La Entrada piano solo from Todd’s album Nature of Love

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Pooches and Kiddies

Rejoice! My new book Pooches and Kiddies: the further adventures of Healing Weintraub is now all here. By that I mean the handsome paperback, the various e-book editions, and the audio edition narrated by yours truly are all available now.

Yes Pooches and Kiddies is the sequel to Good With Dogs and Cats: the adventures of Healing Weintraub, and also a fine stand-alone novel that begins four years after the conclusion of Good With Dogs and Cats and spans one momentous year in the life of Healing Weintraub and his family and friends: human, canine, and feline.

Introducing Raaz and Oz, Healing’s marvelous four-year-old twin grandchildren – Raaz a girl, Oz a boy – Pooches and Kiddies finds our hero helping dogs and cats solve their problems with humans while he and his loved ones navigate the mysteries and challenges of being alive.

Making the audio edition of Pooches and Kiddies with the help of Peter Temple was one of the most challenging and enjoyable creative adventures of my life – so many accents and timbres and personalities to assume – and I’m pleased with the result. You can hear a five-minute sample at Audible and Apple Books. Note: Should you be inclined to get the audio version but don’t wish to join Audible to do so, you can purchase the audio version from Apple Books for a reasonable one-time fee.

If perchance you imbibed earlier iterations of the stories contained in Pooches and Kiddies and Good With Dogs and Cats when they appeared on my blog, please know those story/chapters have been deeply rewritten and vastly improved. Many new parts have been added to the books, and I can say with confidence these are wholly new works.

Should you read either or both volumes of Healing Weintraub adventures and enjoy them, it would be a great favor to me and to the books if you would write brief reviews and post them on Goodreads or Amazon or Apple Books or wherever you like to purchase books. Word-of-mouth, friend-to-friend, is my entire sales strategy.

You may order the beautiful paperback (s) from any good bookstore or get copies from many online book sources. Here are links for the various manifestations of the book.

Thank You! Please share the joyful news with your friends.

Audio version Apple

Audio version Audible

Audio version Amazon

Paperback Barnes & Noble

Paperback Amazon

Paperback Bookshop

Paperback Alibris

E-book Apple

Kindle Amazon

Barnes & Noble Nook

GooglePlay E-book

Kobo E-Book

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Gloria’s Play

After twenty-three years of delivering mail to the far reaches of the Mercy zip code, Carlos Garcia now works in the Mercy post office where his fluency in Spanish and formidable strength are greatly appreciated. 

Despite the cold and rain, business is brisk at the post office this morning with just five weeks to go before Christmas. Carlos, his wavy black hair turning gray, and his longtime colleague Robin Songbird, a Mae-Westian blonde, are manning the service counter when gravelly-voiced Jacob Colfax leans into the room and says, “Galen is doing his karate thing out front again and scaring everybody away.”

“I’ll call Ruben,” says Robin, handing Lisa Hernandez a receipt and going to call the sheriff.

“Now I’m afraid to leave,” says Lisa, looking at Carlos. “Can’t they lock him up? This is getting out of hand.”

“I’ll walk you out,” says Carlos, who has a black belt in karate.

“Can we go out the back way?” asks Lisa, plaintively. “He scares me to death.”

So Carlos escorts Lisa through the labyrinth of mail carts and packages to the loading dock and makes sure she doesn’t fall on the wet stairs.

When Lisa is safe in her car, Carlos walks around to the front of the post office where big Galen Turner is standing in front of the two glass entry doors kicking and punching and shouting at invisible foes.

Shirtless and barefoot with long brown hair and a wild beard, Galen was born in Mercy twenty-nine years ago, starred in football at Mercy High, and went to San Jose State on a football scholarship. When he failed to make the starting team after three years of trying, he quit college and joined the Army.

“Galen my friend,” says Carlos, calling to him. “You’re scaring everybody. Christmas is coming. People need to get their mail and send packages.”

Galen seems not to hear Carlos and continues to kick and punch at the air and shout unintelligibly.

“Galen,” says Carlos, moving closer and speaking louder. “Come on now, my friend. Let the people get their mail and send their packages. They won’t hurt you. Nobody will hurt you. You’re home now. You’re safe here.”

Galen stops kicking and punching, and looks around as if waking from a dream.

“You’re in Mercy,” says Carlos, speaking gently. “You’re safe now. And guess what? Ophelia made tamales for my lunch today and one of them has your name on it. What do you say?”

“I like tamales,” says Galen, speaking in a deep monotone.

“I know you do,” says Carlos, holding out his hand. “Come around back with me and we’ll get out of the rain and you can have a tamale.”

“With salsa?” asks Galen, taking Carlos’s hand.

“Sí,” says Carlos, feeling Galen trembling. “Con salsa.”

*

Two hours later, Carlos has lunch with Ruben Higuera, the Sheriff of Mercy, in Ruben’s squad car in the post office parking lot, the two of them longtime friends and weight-lifting buddies.

“He needs society,” says Carlos, speaking of Galen. “He’s all alone with his thoughts, living in the forest, and his memories take over and he’s back in Somalia fighting for his life. But when I talk to him and he calms down and realizes he’s here and not there, he’s just sad and lonely and needs some friends.”

“We don’t have a society for him,” says Ruben, stating the simple truth. “We put him on meds that make him a zombie and he doesn’t want to be a zombie so he stops taking them and next thing you know he’s defending the post office and nobody can get their mail.”

“I used to deliver mail to his mother up Silver Creek Road,” says Carlos, looking out at the rain. “She has a room for him, but he won’t stay there. She’s on disability now and smokes and watches television all day. I wouldn’t stay there either.”

“Well we have to do something,” says Ruben, sighing. “If he won’t take his meds and he keeps acting out like this they’ll send him to the VA hospital in Oregon. They have a big psych ward up there. I don’t know what else we can do. I can’t keep arresting him. They don’t want him in the county jail anymore.”

“I was thinking I could bring him to lift weights with us some time,” says Carlos, smiling at Ruben. “Might be good for him.”

“To the high school weight room?” says Ruben, frowning and shaking his head. “No. We can’t do that.”

“What if I made a weight room in my garage?” says Carlos, who has a few barbells out there already. “And we did our lifting there? Would you come if I set it up?”

“Yes, I’ll come,” says Ruben, who survived seventeen months of combat in Afghanistan long ago.

*

In the afternoon when the rain stops and customers are few, Carlos is alone at the service counter when Gloria Martinez, still strikingly beautiful at fifty, comes in with a basket full of packages.

“Hola Carlos,” she says, her voice deep and warm. “Que paso?”

“Nada mucho,” says Carlos, who has known Gloria since they were in First Grade together, and in every grade after that, too, until she went to college and he joined the Army. “Those look like manuscripts. Sí?”

“My plays,” she says, nodding. “Hope springs eternal. I want to send these Priority Mail.”

“Something new?” he asks, giving her a hopeful look.

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I haven’t written a new play in four years, but these will be new to the people I’m sending to.”

“We loved your last play at Mercy Players,” he says, putting one of her packages on the scale. “We laughed so hard we couldn’t hear all the lines and had to go again, and it was even funnier the second time.”

“Ophelia told me,” she says, tickled by his praise. “I’m glad you liked it.”

Liked it?” he says, grinning. “That play should be on Broadway and then they should make it into a movie.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” she says, blushing.

“Hey you know, Gloria,” says Carlos, printing out a postage label and affixing it to the package, “it just occurred to me that maybe you could help me with something.”

“Wait a minute,” she says, laughing. “I ask you to help me. To move my piano and my sofa and my refrigerator. Not the other way around.”

“You won’t have to lift anything heavy,” he says, laughing with her. “I want to turn my garage into a little weight-lifting gym, but also like the set for a café, like in a play, with a few tables and people having coffee, and maybe there’s a waiter bringing them things. Everybody talking to each other. Like in a real café.”

“What is this for?” she asks, eager to know.

“For Galen,” he says quietly. “I think if he could be in society and feel safe with other people around while he’s lifting weights with Ruben and me, maybe he will get better.”

*

That night Carlos asks his wife Ophelia how she would feel if he turned the garage into a weight-lifting café to help Galen.

Ophelia muses for a moment and asks, “Would we also put a bed out there for him to spend the night after weight-lifting?”

“We could,” says Carlos, who likes that idea better than Galen sleeping in the forest on cold winter nights.

“You’ve been wanting to help him ever since he came home,” says Ophelia, who has unbounded faith in her husband. “Why not give it a try?”

*

A week later, Carlos brings Galen into the two-car garage where he and Ruben and Gloria and her set-designer friend Arno Peabody have turned the place into a weight-lifting café.

For this first session, Ophelia and Gloria sit at one of the three tables having decaf coffee and sesame cookies while Ruben and Carlos and Galen lift weights. Gloria is wearing the outfit she wears at her job as a waiter at the restaurant in the East Cove Hotel – black pants and white dress shirt – and Ophelia is wearing jeans and a beautiful burgundy sweater.

When the men take a break from lifting, Ruben and Carlos sit at a different table than Gloria and Ophelia, and Gloria comes to take their order – coffee and cookies.

“Come join us,” says Carlos, beckoning to Galen.

But Galen shakes his head and stays in the weight-lifting area waiting for them to return.

*

Two nights later, Carlos brings Galen to the weight-lifting café for Session #2, and again he refuses to join Ruben and Carlos at a table when they take a break.

But four nights after that, when they gather for Session #3, Galen does join them at a table, he eats several cookies, and whispers to Gloria, “Could I have more coffee, please?”

*

During Session #4, which takes place two nights after Session #3, Ophelia joins Ruben and Carlos and Galen at their table and tells them about what she did today at Mercy Hospital where she is a nurse.

“Care for a refill, Galen?” asks Gloria, bringing a pitcher of coffee to the table.

“Oh yes, please,” he says, shyly. “I love coffee.”

*

That night, after the weight lifting and socializing, Galen spends the night in the garage for the first time rather than go back to his camp in the forest.

In the morning, Carlos comes to the garage and invites Galen to take a shower in the house.

“I don’t want to scare your wife,” says Galen, shaking his head.

“She’s at work,” says Carlos, matter-of-factly. “She’s on a twelve-hour shift at the hospital. Remember she told you she’s a nurse?”

“I remember,” says Galen, nodding. “I could take a shower.”

“Then we’ll have breakfast,” says Carlos, leading him to the house. “And then I gotta go to work.”

“I would like to go to work,” says Galen, bowing his head. “If I had a job.”

*

A few sessions later, three of Gloria’s actor friends join the enactment of café life going on around the trio of weight lifters.

During a break from lifting, Ruben tells a story about going to a café in Kabul when he was deployed there, and how they served him coffee so strong he was jittery for two days.

 When Ruben finishes telling the story, Galen says, “I was in Somalia.”

“I didn’t know we had troops there,” says Gloria, standing next to Galen. “More coffee, hon?”

Galen nods and says nothing more.

*

In early February, during Session #17 of the weight-lifting café, with only Carlos and Ruben and Gloria on hand, Galen tells them about the horrifying ambush in Somalia that killed two men in his platoon and wounded seven others, including Galen, and how when he regained consciousness in the hospital after surgery and tried to convince the nurses that the insurgents were besieging the hospital, the nurses wouldn’t believe him because the hospital was in Qatar, far from Somalia.

When Galen finishes telling about the ambush, Ruben says, “Tell us again. Everything you can remember.”

“Yes,” says Carlo, nodding. “Please tell us again.”

So Galen tells the story again and remembers many things he had forgotten.

*

During Session #18, with Ophelia joining Gloria and the weight lifters, Galen tells the story of the ambush two more times, and with each telling he remembers more and more.

*

Eight months later on a sunny afternoon in September, Gloria stands at the service counter in the post office watching Carlos affix a shipping label to a package containing her new play.

“I love this play,” says Carlos, carrying the package to the Priority Mail cart.

“I do, too,” says Gloria, making a silent prayer to bless her play.

“I haven’t seen Galen in a couple weeks,” says Carlos, carefully placing the package in the cart. “Is he doing okay?”

“Oh he’s doing fine,” says Gloria, handing Carlos a second package. “Genevieve and her cooks love having such a strong man in the kitchen. And Genevieve loves how eager he is to learn. Have you seen him since he cut his hair and shaved off his beard?”

“No,” says Carlo, surprised. “How does he look?”

“Handsome,” says Gloria, smiling. “And so young.”

fin 

Through the Fire from Todd and Marcia’s album Through the Fire