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Beauties

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

When the laughter dies down, Henri stands up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Here Somewhere

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Irenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria whispers in Russian to Boris.

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

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

Maria says something in Russian to Boris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Irenia: Did you want him to kiss you?

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

Irenia: On your lips?

Vivienne: Yes.

Irenia: Did you like it?

Vivienne: No. It was ucky.

Irenia: How old is Julio?

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

Irenia: Yes.

Vivienne: When?

Irenia: In San Francisco. When I was ten.

Vivienne: Who was he?

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

Vivienne: How dreadful.

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

Vivienne: What a terrible person.

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

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

Irenia: I don’t think so.

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

Irenia: Why did Julio kiss you?

Vivienne: I suppose because he likes me.

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

*

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

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

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

fin

What You Do In Ireland

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Finding Our Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You study ornithols,” says Henri, laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrea laughs. “Just as you would expect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You called them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

fin

On the Way Home, piano and cello duet

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People Go Away

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding in agreement.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip bows and departs.

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

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

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

*

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

“How was it?” she whispers.

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

Lisa sits up. “Are you serious?”

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

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

fin

The Hopeless Optimist

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Life in the Country

On a cold morning in March, Lisa is giving Tamara a massage in Hilda’s cottage, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.

A dense fog hangs over the farm, the massage room toasty. Lisa, fifty-one, lives in the farmhouse with her husband Philip, fifty-eight, and their two young children, Arturo and Vivienne. Their farm mates, Marcel and Andrea and their young son Henri live in the other house on the property, and Hilda, Tamara’s eighty-four-year-old mother, lives in the cottage. Tamara and her longtime partner Celine are renting a beach house in Mercy in anticipation of buying a house hereabouts in the next year or so.

“Only now we’re having second thoughts,” says Tamara, who lies on her back for the second half of the massage, Lisa’s tender ministrations never failing to loosen Tamara’s tongue as well as the muscles in her shoulders and neck. “Not because we don’t love it here, we do, but because we seem to have lost all ambition since coming here. We didn’t come here to retire, but to be near my mother and to just write rather than squeezing our writing in between fusillades of bureaucratic nonsense and the well-meaning efforts of college children, as Celine calls them, and they are incredibly infantile these days, raised by phones instead of humans, poor dears.”

“You’ve only been here six months,” says Lisa, gently manipulating the now familiar knots in Tamara’s neck. “Takes time to adjust to country living.”

“Was that true for you?” asks Tamara, about to fall sleep as she always does as the end of her massage approaches.

“For all of us, yes,” says Lisa, remembering their first few years on the farm, refugees from city living. “Andrea and I were both pregnant and then we had our babies, so that was a huge adjustment, too, but we knew we didn’t want to go back to the city, so we forged ahead.”

“You were brave to have babies so late,” says Tamara, falling asleep.

Lisa covers Tamara with a light blanket and leaves her snoozing on the table.

*

In the living room of the cottage, Lisa does some stretching to loosen up from the two long massages she gave this morning, her thoughts turning to Philip and Marcel who have both recently gone back to being full-time waiters after a three-year hiatus, their place of work Ocelot, a new restaurant in Mercy, the plaything of a fabulously wealthy couple and the world-class chef they’ve bankrolled to run the restaurant for them.

Tamara emerges from the massage room rosy-cheeked and languid. “You’re a magician,” she says, handing Lisa six fifty-dollar bills. “I feel thirty-five, no longer fifty.”

“Oh Tamara,” says Lisa, frowning at the money. “This is three hundred. Did you mean…”

“Well-deserved,” says Tamara, giving Lisa a hug. “I don’t think I’ll do a soak today. I’m already so relaxed. But I’m staying for lunch, so you’re not rid of me yet.”

*

Over lentil and mushroom soup and freshly made bread, Tamara and Hilda and Lisa and Philip and Andrea talk about this and that, and Tamara asks Philip how he’s feeling about being a waiter again.

“I feel my age,” says Philip, who looks considerably younger than fifty-eight. “And I have yet to find a rhythm in the work. We haven’t been terribly busy except on weekends, though they recently got raves in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, so we’re expecting an onslaught soon. It certainly helps to have Marcel there with me, and Raul’s food is extraordinary. So… I can’t complain.”

“Raul must be thrilled to have you and Marcel,” says Tamara, who first met Philip when he was the star waiter at Le Scélérat in Berkeley.

“Raul is certainly glad to have us,” says Philip, nodding. “He was not happy with the first several waiters he engaged.”

“This is only temporary,” says Andrea, hating that Philip and Marcel have to wait tables again—the cost of running the farm and supporting seven people and four dogs demanding more income than vegetables and apples and wine and Lisa’s massages bring in. “We almost have enough to publish Philip’s cookbook, and when that starts to sell we will re-publish the first one. Nathan’s son-in-law says he’ll make us a web site for half his usual fee, and this year we’re going to buy eight tons of grapes. So two years from now, at the latest, Philip and Marcel can leave the tables for good.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” says Philip, ever amazed by Andrea’s faith in him and his recipes.

“In the meantime,” says Lisa, smiling at Hilda, “thank goodness for the generous rent you pay and Delilah helping with the children.”

“I wish I could contribute more,” says Hilda, sighing. “But my future is uncertain, so…” She shrugs. “Life is long.”

“And life is good,” says Philip, getting up to put another log on the fire. “We are luckier than most of humanity.”

“I think your cookbooks will take the culinary world by storm,” says Tamara, watching Philip place the log atop the pyre. “The world awaits you.”

*

Philip, the handsome son of a French mother and an Italian-American father, and Marcel, the handsome son of a couple from Lyon, first worked together twenty-two years ago at Le Vagabond in San Francisco and became fast friends before Philip moved across the bay to Berkeley to work at Le Scélérat. Then for their first seven years in Mercy, they both worked part-time as waiters at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican. But this is the first time since moving away from the big city either of them has worked in a supremely exclusive restaurant, and Marcel, unlike Philip, is enjoying his return to the tables.

At 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, Philip at the wheel of the farm pickup truck, the two waiters roll down the curving road through the forest to Mercy.

“Week number five begins,” says Marcel, wearing a blue down jacket over his brown suit, his peach-colored shirt crowned by a burgundy tie. “I miss supper with the kids and being in bed by ten and not having to shave every day, but otherwise this is not a bad gig, the money is good, and soon it could be very good.”

“Oui,” says Philip, though he finds waiting tables arduous. “I do miss the less affluent folks we served at Jessica’s, the locals, the families, the children.”

“Yes, but we make five times as much in tips at Ocelot,” says Marcel, who found Jessica’s a painful comedown from his days at the esteemed Le Vagabond. “And the imperative now is to make as much money as we can. Imagine when business picks up. We’ll make good money, Philip. Big city money.”

“May it be so,” says Philip, nodding.

“Our suits are loose on us,” says Marcel, laughing. “We’ve grown skinny being farmhands.”

*

Philip and Marcel park a block away from the restaurant and stroll in the dusk to the stately two-story Victorian in which Ocelot occupies the ground floor.

Two well-dressed women and two men in suits are standing at the small sidewalk kiosk in front of the pale blue Victorian, studying the evening’s menu.

“Excuse me?” says one of the men to Philip and Marcel. “Do you work here?”

“We do,” says Marcel, bowing politely to the man. “How may we help you?”

“Are these the real prices?” asks the man, frowning at the menu.

“I believe so,” says Marcel, going to the kiosk and glancing at the menu. “Oui.”

“A hundred and sixty dollars for steak and potatoes with a fancy name?” says the man, grimacing. “You have got to be kidding.”

“The chef is world-famous,” says Marcel, matter-of-factly. “People come from all over the world to dine here. We don’t set the prices. We are merely servers.”

“You might enjoy Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican,” says Philip, gesturing to the east. “Excellent food for a tenth the price. Just a couple blocks from here.”

“These prices are insane,” says one of the women, clearly distressed.

“The world is insane,” says Marcel, nodding. “I cannot argue with you.”

*

Entering the back door of the beautifully restored old house, Marcel and Philip take off their coats in the changing room, check their hair and faces in the mirror, straighten each other’s ties, gaze at each other and intone in French, “For our family and farm.”

They emerge from the changing room, greet the sous chef and cooks, traverse the kitchen, and go through the swinging doors to the dining room where Raul, a large man from Portugal with a great tangle of graying brown hair dressed in chef whites is in conversation with the hostess Miranda, a stunningly beautiful woman wearing a form-fitting purple gown with spaghetti straps, her black hair piled high on her head, large diamond earrings belonging to the owner of Ocelot dangling from her ears.

“Ah Philip, Marcel,” says Raul, who knew them both when he was making his name in San Francisco at estuaire and would dine at Le Scélérat and Le Vagabond on his nights off, more often at Le Scélérat where Philip attended him. “Jennifer Morris is shooting some exteriors around here and she and her entourage will be coming for the first seating. They may be as many as ten and I’ll want you both attending her. What do you think? One large table or a six and a four? In the south room.”

“We can serve more gracefully there with a six and a four,” says Marcel, winking at Miranda. “But of course it depends on what Jennifer prefers, if she wants all her people at her table.”

“I agree with Marcel,” says Philip, nodding. “Start with a six and a four, and connect them if she wishes to.”

“Yes, yes,” says Raul, nodding to Miranda. “And Frank and Darlene are coming at eight and requested you, Philip.”

“Of course,” says Philip, bowing to Raul.

“Other than that,” says Raul, smiling at Philip and Marcel, both of whom came from humble beginnings, as did Raul, “we have lots of sole tonight, not so much veal, the shrimp is good, not great, and the steak is excellent but not superb. I am told those reviews are already paying dividends. Be strong.”

With that, Raul returns to the kitchen and Philip and Marcel go with Miranda to arrange the tables in the south room, the view of Mercy Bay at twilight as stunning as Miranda.

When Miranda leaves them, Philip says in French to Marcel, “Remind me who Jennifer Morris is?”

Big movie star,” says Marcel, putting his hands out in front of him, palms facing his chest to indicate large breasts. “Sex bomb.”

“Don’t know her,” says Philip, shaking his head. “What was she in?”

“I don’t know,” says Marcel, shrugging. “But I see her picture all the time on the tabloids at the grocery store, her hair style changing with her boyfriends, her beautiful breasts always leading the charge.”

“Shall we check the tables,” says Philip, knowing the time is near for Miranda to open the front door and greet the first diners of the evening.

“Oui,” says Marcel, putting his arm around Philip. “And you know I’m not offended the owners request you.”

“I know,” says Philip, smiling at Marcel. “What’s mine is yours.”

*

As Jennifer Morris and her entourage of thirteen depart after three hours of revelry, Jennifer declares for all to hear, “Heaven on earth. We’ll be back tomorrow night.”

“Bravo,” says Frank, as Philip approaches the owners’ table where Frank and his wife Darlene applaud him—Frank a burly fellow in his sixties with wispy gray hair, Darlene a buxom strawberry blonde in her forties. “I think Jennifer likes you, buddy. Play your cards right, you never know what might happen.”

Frank is a billionaire real estate developer, Darlene a former model for whom Ocelot is proof of her sophistication and savvy. They live most of the time in their palace in Montecito and have a mansion on a private beach south of Mercy where they come several times a year to partake of Ocelot and entertain guests.

“How are we this evening?” says Philip, bowing to them.

 “Stellar,” says Frank, grinning at Philip. “What’s good tonight?”

“The sole,” says Philip, looking at Darlene to see if she wants to add anything to Frank’s stellar.

“Did Raul tell you about the party Saturday night?” says Darlene, making big eyes at Philip. “My birthday.”

“He did not,” says Philip, smiling to mask his sorrow.

Twelve of us,” she says, her tone conveying how special she feels those twelve are. “Just us. Restaurant closed otherwise.”

“What time will you want us here?” asks Philip, his neck aching.

“Six-thirty,” she says, arching her eyebrow. “Fun starts at seven and we’ll go to ten. I’ll be forty-four. Can you believe it?”

Philip politely shakes his head. “And for tonight? Will you be having a bottle of wine or would you like to sample the current offerings by glass?”

“Get me a vodka tonic,” says Frank, watching Miranda go by. “God is she gorgeous, or what?”

“And for you, Madame?” says Philip, looking at Darlene but not seeing her.

“Something white and just a little sweet,” she says, looking at him in a way he knows is another of her invitations to pursue an involvement with her. “You know what I like, Philip.”

He bows and moves away, signaling Teresa, one of the pretty young bussers, to bring bread and butter to the owners’ table.

Now he goes to check on a table of six gregarious millionaires from St. Louis, and as he approaches the table of corpulent men and their slender wives, something awakens in him that has been dormant since his last night at Le Scélérat a decade ago—his impeccable waiter persona.

I can do this if I have to for another few years. But after that I will never wait tables again.

*

The next morning, Philip wakes early to make sandwiches for Vivienne and Arturo and Henri’s lunches, after which he cooks an omelet for Arturo and Vivienne’s breakfast.

While the kids are eating, Lisa, still in her nightgown, makes coffee and reminds the kids they have piano lessons at Delilah’s after school.

When breakfast is over, Henri arrives with his school things and his accordion, and before Philip drives the kids to school, Henri gets out his accordion, Arturo gets his guitar, Vivienne gets her violin and they perform the song they’ve been practicing for several days, Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life, their rendition awful, and Philip and Lisa love it.

*

On his way home from dropping the kids at Mercy Montessori, Philip stops at the food co-op to buy groceries, and from there goes to Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s as he often does these days, something about spending time with the elderly couple and their young housemate soothing to Philip as he struggles with returning to the tables.

He arrives at the little house just as Celia and Delilah are leaving on a walk with the young mutts Chico and Gypsy, so Philip is alone with Nathan for a time, a fire crackling in the hearth.

“I found my groove again last night,” says Philip, sitting at the kitchen table with Nathan. “Which is to say, my alter ego returned.”

“Does your alter ego have a name?” asks Nathan, who loves talking to Philip.

“Philip,” says Philip, pronouncing his name with a distinct emphasis on the first syllable.

“Were you glad to see him again?”

“In a way,” says Philip, shrugging. “He makes the work easier.”

“Because?”

“Because he does the work and I can save my real self for the life I love.”

“You’re an actor coming out of retirement,” says Nathan, nodding in understanding. “Resuming your role in a long-running play on a new stage.”

“I know I’m not a failure,” says Philip, his eyes brimming with tears. “But sometimes I succumb to doubt.”

“You’re not a failure, my friend,” says Nathan, remembering when his writing career came crashing down and he became a pruner of fruit trees again. “Quite the opposite. Everything we do, everything that happens to us, is the path. And the path, it turns out, is the destination. So now you’re an actor again, and I’ll bet you’re a great one.”

“I wish the people I serve were not so… I don’t know,” says Philip, allowing himself to really cry for the first time since returning to the tables. “Selfish and greedy.”

“Yeah, but they’re on the path, too,” says Nathan, nodding. “No matter how different their gaudy costumes make them seem.”

fin

Return To Go

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Philip’s Kitchen

Philip’s first cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook sold twenty thousand copies and was not reprinted after the third printing sold out. The tome has since become a hot commodity and used copies are hard to find.

And now, ten years after Tantamount Press published Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook, Philip is a few months away from publishing his second cookbook with Tantamount, the promotional budget the same as for the first cookbook: nothing.

*

On a sunny Friday morning in May at Ziggurat Farm on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy, Philip, fifty-eight, having just ferried Arturo, nine, Henri, eight, and Vivienne, seven, to Mercy Montessori, is gathering his wits and gazing around his glorious new kitchen when his editor at Tantamount calls.

“Hey Philip,” says Tiffany, who is twenty-seven and sounds fourteen to Philip. “Yucky news. Sales is not happy with your title and subtitle. Me, personally, I like Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, and Ziggy actually really likes it, and the cover drawing your friend did of the dogs drinking wine is so cute. But Sales says the whole package is a retro yawner and they want something punchier, sexier, and they need it yesterday? Tomorrow morning at the latest? If not, they might delay publication for like six months? Possibly a year? Can you get me something sexier and punchier by tomorrow morning? Ooh I have to take this call. Talk soon.”

Before leaving for the vegetable garden to share this weighty news with his wife Lisa and comrades Andrea and Marcel who are hard at work planting out seedlings from the greenhouse, Philip calls Sandra Messer, the chef and owner of the legendary restaurant Le Scélérat in Berkeley where Philip was a waiter for ten years before moving with Lisa and Marcel and Andrea to Mercy. Sandra, who was entirely responsible for Tantamount publishing Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, wrote the praise-filled Introduction and has now written a rave blurb for the new cookbook.

“Titles are a bitch,” says Sandra, who is from Chicago and in her seventies. “Everybody calls your first one Delicious Ambitious, why not call this one Delicious Ambitious Two, with the Two spelled T-O-O? And use Ziggurat Farm in the sub?”

Philip thanks Sandra for her suggestion and is about to call Tiffany back when he thinks I hate Delicious Ambitious Too, and goes out to join his wife and friends in the garden.

*

Taking a break from sowing chard seeds, Philip watches Marcel, who is a few years younger than Philip and very French, digging well-aged chicken manure into a nearby bed soon to be filled with broccoli seedlings.

“These are the same geniuses who wouldn’t reprint your first book?” says Marcel, resting for a moment. “After you sold twenty thousand copies with no promotion?”

“Same geniuses,” says Philip, who hopes the new book succeeds well enough so he and Marcel don’t have to go back to being waiters any time soon. “But geniuses or no, if they aren’t enthusiastic about the package, as they call it, they may only do one small printing, which defeats the purpose of making the book in the first place.”

“Why would they publish a book if they’re just going to kill it before it can develop a following?” asks Marcel, frowning and shaking his head. “Makes no sense.”

“I don’t know,” says Philip, resuming his seeding of the bed. “I’m not a publisher.”

“Sexier and punchier?” says Andrea on her way to the upper beds of the terraced garden with a flat of seedlings. “How about Fucking Food? That’s punchier and sexier.”

“Much,” says Philip, who knows Sales delaying publication is often prelude to a publisher dropping a book and demanding the return of the author’s advance.

“I’m kidding,” says Andrea, aching in sympathy with Philip.

“I know you are,” says Philip, smiling at her, “but I’m afraid they would prefer Fucking Food to Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm.”

“If this year’s wine is as good as last year’s,” says Marcel, speaking of the wine they make on the farm, “and we have another good year with the garden, we can publish your book ourselves.”

“Two very big ifs,” says Andrea, who is boss of the garden and keeps the books and knows better than anyone how precarious the farm’s finances.

*

Over lunch at the picnic table near the farmhouse, Lisa says, “Why not ask Nathan? He’s such a wonderful poet.”

“They don’t want poetry,” says Philip, despondently. “They want punchier and sexier.”

“You don’t need them,” says Andrea, who has enormous faith in Philip. “Marcel is right. We can publish your book ourselves and sell it at farmers markets and in local bookstores and online. If they won’t use your title, tell them to go to hell.”

“Are you serious?” asks Philip, who has never imagined self-publishing his cookbook. “I’d have to return the advance. Ten thousand dollars. We can’t really spare that, can we?”

“It’s fine,” says Andrea, on the verge of tears. “We don’t need them.”

“You and Andrea worked on those recipes for seven years,” says Lisa, nodding in agreement with Andrea. “It’s a magnificent book. You can’t allow them to debase your creation.”

“I’ll talk to Nathan,” says Philip, buoyed by their support. “On my way home with the kids.”

*

Nathan Grayson, a poet of some renown in his youth, is eighty-two and has a blog on which he posts his poems and stories when he has new ones to share. He has no idea how many people read his blog. Seven? Three hundred? He doesn’t care. The act of sharing is what he loves.

Philip and Nathan sit at a small table on the south-facing deck of Nathan’s little house on the edge of Mercy drinking nettle tea. Henri and Arturo are in the kitchen helping Celia, Nathan’s wife, prepare avocado and cheese quesadillas for their after-school snacks, and Vivienne is in the garden with the resident mongrel puppies Chico and Gypsy, picking flowers for a table bouquet.

“Way back when,” says Nathan, loving the sight of Vivienne with the pups, “I knew a poet named Larry Henderson who was hot stuff for a couple years and then vanished as most poets do. His poems were stacks of very short same-sounding sentences. ‘The man went to the store. The man bought some bread. The man went home. The man made a sandwich. The man watched television.’ Listening to him was torture. He spoke in a monotone tenor with a long pause after each sentence. Every time I heard him read I wanted to strangle him. But he sold lots of books because his covers were photographs of near-naked women with half-open mouths apparently wanting sex, with titles like Her Outrageous Orgasm and His Mighty Erection.” Nathan laughs. “People snapped them up, for gag gifts maybe. And that’s all I know about sexier and punchier.”

“I can’t think of anything but the title I have,” says Philip, watching Vivienne confer with the pups about which flowers to pick. “Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm: more recipes for the somewhat ambitious cook, which is a reference to my first cookbook.”

“To be honest, Philip,” says Nathan, clearing his throat, “for my taste that’s not a very good title or subtitle. Not because they aren’t true, but because they came from your intellect and not from the divine source.”

“What do you mean?” asks Philip, taken aback Nathan doesn’t like the title.

“I mean there are two kinds of creating, whether it’s writing or composing music or painting or creating a recipe or anything.” Nathan waits a moment for Philip to consider what those two kinds of creating might be. “One kind is the intellectual organizing of things we already know. That’s 99.9 percent of what gets published and performed and presented to the world, and that’s why everything the mainstream gives us is stuff we’ve seen thousands of times before.”

“The intellectual organizing of things we already know,” says Philip, nodding in understanding of Nathan’s idea.

“The other kind of creating,” says Nathan, gesturing to the sky, “is unconscious spontaneous outpouring that comes from nobody-knows-where. And that, as we used to say in the Sixties, is the boss stuff.”

“I’m reaching for the paprika,” says Philip, laughing, “before I think paprika.”

“Exactly,” says Nathan, smiling at the approach of Vivienne with her bouquet. “Delilah sitting down at the piano and ripping off ten minutes of sheer genius and then shouting, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that?’ And Celia and I high as kites because we did hear it. Lucky us.”

“But words are not my art,” says Philip, humbly.

“Sure they are. You write eloquent recipes. With different line breaks they’d make great poems.”

Henri comes out on the deck and bows to Nathan and Philip. “Celia’s quesadillas await you.”

“Speaking of Celia,” says Nathan, as he and Philip go inside, “she informs me we’re having supper at your place tonight with the usual suspects. Perhaps the gang will come up with something you like.”

*

The usual suspects are:

Those Who Live At Ziggurat Farm: Philip, Lisa, Andrea, Marcel, Arturo, Henri, Vivienne, and Hilda who is eighty-four and lives in the cottage next to the bathhouse a stone’s throw from the farmhouse.

The Very British Richardsons: Constance and Joseph, both in their seventies, Constance a successful murder mystery writer nearly done with her twenty-seventh thriller, Joseph a painter of landscapes and portraits working on the last big painting he’ll make in Mercy before he and Constance move back to England for the remainder of their lives.

Tamara and Celine: A successful playwright in her fifties, Tamara is Hilda’s only child, and Celine is Tamara’s partner of thirty years and the author of Remembering Black, an acclaimed book about her experiences as an African American woman in American academia.    

Nathan, Celia, and Delilah: Nathan eighty-two, Celia seventy-six, both longtime residents of Mercy and married for more than fifty years, Delilah their delightful twenty-two-year-old housemate, a musician, artist, and frequent visitor to Ziggurat Farm.

*

Andrea and Philip prepare a sumptuous supper, much wine is drunk, laughter is frequent, and after dessert everyone retires to the spacious living room where a fire is crackling in the hearth and the four farm dogs and Delilah’s two new pups are sprawled about and several cats are snoozing where humans want to sit.

When the humans have situated themselves among the animals and everyone is possessed of wine or tea or cocoa, Nathan says, “Philip needs a new title for his cookbook, and a subtitle, too. His publisher is threatening to delay publication if he can’t come up with something they like by tomorrow morning. I suggested to him the consortium gathered here tonight might be of assistance.”

“And if they don’t like our title,” says Andrea, defiantly, “we will publish his cookbook ourselves.”

“Every time we eat here,” says Tamara, each of her seven plays a resounding success, “Celine and I come away saying exquisite. Every time. Tonight no exception. Something about that word. Exquisite.”

“Marvelous word,” says Constance, who has so far in her life, with Joseph’s help, come up with twenty-seven titles for her murder mysteries. “We used exquisite in the title of my seventeenth book, the ninth in my Grady Pillsbury series. A Most Exquisite Murder.”

“I haven’t read any of your books yet,” says Arturo, who is currently reading Robinson Crusoe for the second time, but your titles intrigue me no end.”

“Shall we write down exquisite?” asks Vivienne, who is very sleepy. “In case we don’t forget?”

“Let’s not write anything down yet,” says Nathan, grinning at Vivienne. “First let’s say whatever pops into our heads.”

“Exquisite exquisiteness,” says Celine, laughing a sparkling laugh.

“The well-cooked ox,” says Joseph, happily drunk. “The bafflement of barbecues.”

“The Magic Kitchen!” shouts Henri, giggling.

“Exquisite comestibles,” says Delilah, shivering with excitement. “For voracious eaters who can’t stop eating.”

“Eyes bigger than my stomach,” says Celia, blushing.  

“The magic cook,” says Vivienne, smiling sleepily at her father.

“The cook of magic,” says Arturo, laughing.

“Melted cheesery,” says Constance, tittering. “Scrumptious foodstuffs for esurient nibblers.”

“Food of the gods,” says Marcel, shaking his head. “No. Too grandiose.”

“Nothing is too grandiose,” says Nathan, grinning at Philip. “Speak chef.”

“Kitchen of love,” says Philip, thinking of his kitchen. “Place of quiet miracles.”

“Of knives and mincing,” says Andrea, recalling her previous life as a sous chef. “Timing the fish.”

“The onion eclipsed,” says Hilda, dramatically. “Garlic triumphant.”

“Philip’s kitchen,” says Lisa, getting up to fetch more wine.

Profound silence.

“I got chills,” says Celine, gazing wide-eyed at Tamara.

“So did I,” says Tamara, nodding. “Philip’s Kitchen.”

“I, too, got chills,” says Constance, looking at Delilah. “Did you?”

Delilah nods. “That must be the title.”

“Must be,” says Joseph, aghast. “Remarkable how deep that went.”

“But why?” asks Philip, who gasped when Lisa said Philip’s Kitchen. “I mean… who is Philip? No one will know who Philip refers to. They’ll hate it at Tantamount.”

“They might not,” says Hilda, gazing fondly at Philip. “It’s lovely.”

“All the recipes did come from your kitchen,” says Arturo, nodding assuredly. “So no wonder Philip’s Kitchen sounds right.”

*

At ten the next morning, Philip calls Tiffany at Tantamount, she puts him on hold, and he doesn’t mind at all.

“Sorry about that,” says Tiffany, coming on the line a few minutes later. “Saturdays are usually pretty mellow around here, but my phone won’t stop ringing. What have you got for me?”

“May I ask you not to take another call while we talk?” says Philip, who has wanted to ask that of Tiffany for the last two years.

“Um… of course. Unless it’s Arno. We’re crashing a couple books and I have to take his calls. Sorry.”

“What does that mean? Crashing a book?”

“Rushing it out because the author or the subject is currently hot, so we crash the book to capitalize on the buzz.”

“I see. Thanks for explaining.”

“No worries. What have you got for me?”

“I’m going to put my daughter Vivienne on the line to tell you,” says Philip, winking at Vivienne who is standing buy.

“Your daughter?” says Tiffany, annoyed. “Oh no, why…”

“Here she is,” says Philip, handing the phone to Vivienne.

“Hi Tiffany,” says Vivienne, her little girl’s voice softening Tiffany. “The title of Papa’s new cookbook is Philip’s Kitchen.” She pauses for a moment before adding, “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm.”

“Would you say that again?” says Tiffany, hitting the Record button on her phone.

Philip’s Kitchen,” says Vivienne, taking care with her pronunciation. “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm. Here’s Papa.”

Philip comes on the line and Tiffany says, “I love it. Made me cry. I’ll run it by Sales and let you know what they say.”

“Regardless of what they say,” Philip replies, his voice full of kindness, “that’s the title and subtitle. If Sales says No, I will return my advance and pursue other options.”

“Okay,” says Tiffany, breathlessly. “I’ll get back to you.”

*

Philip and Vivienne walk from the farmhouse to the one-acre deer-fenced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Delilah and Henri and Hilda are planting out seedlings, and Marcel and Arturo are busy preparing another bed for planting.

“Where is Tiffany?” asks Vivienne, holding her father’s hand. “How old is she?”

“In San Francisco,” says Philip, smiling curiously at his daughter. “She’s twenty-seven. Why do you ask?”

“I want to visualize her,” says Vivienne, letting go of Philip’s hand at the approach of Mimi and Alexandra, the farm’s two Golden Retrievers who are especially fond of Vivienne.

“She’s quite tall,” says Philip, who has only met Tiffany once. “As tall as Delilah. With short reddish brown hair and four small gold rings in one of her eyebrows, I can’t remember which one, and her eyes are dark blue. Her office is on the fourth floor of a modern building looking out on San Francisco Bay. When I met with her she was wearing a blue T-shirt and brown trousers and glossy red lipstick and hoop earrings.”

“Is she nice?” asks Vivienne, petting Alexandra.

“I think so,” says Philip, imagining Tiffany walking down the hall to Arno’s office to tell him the new title—Arno head of Sales. “Though I don’t really know her very well.”

And try as he might, Philip cannot imagine how Arno will respond to what Tiffany tells him.

fin

Tenderly

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Arturo and Vivienne and Henri

Arturo is five, Henri is four, and Vivienne is three. Arturo and Vivienne are siblings by blood, Henri their brother because he’s always been one of the three as soon as there were three of them to be one of.

Arturo and Vivienne’s parents are Philip and Lisa, Philip the author of the good-selling cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook and a two-evenings-a-week waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. Lisa is a massage therapist who will only be giving a few massages a week until Vivienne joins Arturo and Henri at the local Montessori school, Arturo starting kindergarten in the fall, Henri to begin morning pre-school.

Henri’s parents are Andrea and Marcel, Andrea a former sous chef now a fulltime vegetable and flower gardener, Marcel a three-evenings-a-week waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican and otherwise assisting Andrea in her half-acre garden and working tirelessly with Philip to make something of the neglected six-acre vineyard that he and Andrea co-own with Philip and Lisa.

Their two houses are separated by a five-minute saunter through their vineyard. Lisa and Philip’s house is a two-bedroom redwood and stone farmhouse built in 1922 and remodeled twice since, with a third renovation long overdue. Marcel and Andrea’s house is a three-bedroom curiosity with five oddly juxtaposed sections of roof slanting in five different directions, a failed attempt at cutting edge modernity in 1982, failed because of chronic leakage problems caused by the odd juxtapositions that Marcel and Andrea intend to eliminate if they ever can afford a radical roof makeover.

Philip is fifty-four, handsome with dark brown eyes and curly black hair. Born to a French mother and an Italian-American father, he grew up speaking French at home, English otherwise, and still often dreams in French.

Lisa, forty-seven, is a pleasing mix of African, Brazilian Indio, and Ashkenazi Jew, her dark brown hair falling to her waist when not captured in a braid or bun. She spent the first ten years of her life in Buenos Aires, the second ten in Beverly Hills, and the next twenty in Berkeley before their move to the outskirts of Mercy six years ago.

Andrea is forty-eight, lithe and muscular with shoulder-length black hair, her German accent faint now after twenty-five years in America, her first twenty-three years spent in a working-class suburb of Hamburg.

Marcel is fifty-two and has recently taken to shaving his head, his thick French accent more curiosity than problematic when he waits on customers at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican. Born in Lyon, Marcel became a professional soccer player at seventeen and might have been a star had he not torn his Achilles when he was twenty, an injury that ended his athletic career and precipitated his becoming a waiter. He came to America when he was thirty, met Andrea shortly after his arrival, and they have been married for twenty years now.

The four were close friends when they lived in San Francisco and Berkeley, and with Philip’s advance from Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook and a large gift from Lisa’s grandmother, along with Marcel and Andrea’s life savings, they bought the abandoned vineyard and two houses a few miles inland from the town of Mercy and made their move when Lisa was very pregnant with Arturo, and Andrea just pregnant with Henri. To say they are glad they took the leap from city to country would be a vast understatement.

*

Arturo, he who is five, is outrageously cute, but then so is Henri and so is Vivienne, so never mind.

Arturo, he who is five, is a year older than the oldest of the three dogs belonging to the collective. There are cats, too, and we will speak of the cats after we speak of the dogs.

Legally, as in who the dogs are licensed to at the Mercy sheriff’s office, Goliath, the small golden brown Chihuahua poodle mix, belongs to Philip and Lisa, as does Mimi, the very sweet Golden Retriever, while Jung, the enormous Black Lab Malamute mix belongs to Marcel and Andrea, but try telling the children that. They know Jung is Arturo’s dog, Mimi belongs to Vivienne, and Goliath is attached to Henri. What’s more, the dogs know this, too, and behave accordingly.

Indeed, when Jung has not returned from one of his expeditions by nightfall, Marcel and Andrea and Philip and Lisa can shout themselves hoarse calling him, but only when Arturo calls will the mighty dog race home to one or another of the houses, whichever is closer, food and bed awaiting him in both places.

Goliath is the most likely of the dogs to do things that make people laugh, as is Henri of the children, hence their affinity for one another.

And Mimi and Vivienne, who both enjoy life at the houses three miles inland from the ocean, live for their twice-weekly trips to the beach, Mimi to chase tennis balls flung into the surf, Vivienne to build sandcastles with her brothers and play in the icy water which she tells everyone is her favorite thing in the world.

As for the cats, not counting the feral cats who live in the vineyard, the collective owns five neutered and named cats who by day roam freely in and out of the two houses, and by night hunker down in the barn near the farmhouse to be safe from pumas and owls. The five are Cleo, Zapata, Maurice, Lion, and Aurelia. They are all fond of people, and four of them are rodent killers, Lion unwilling to kill anything, though she is nearly twice the size of the other cats and is a champion at catching gophers and mice, but leaves the killing to the other four.

Lion’s unwillingness to kill—Arturo named her Lion when he was three and assumed the enormous cat must be male—is a good place to begin our story.

*

In the late morning on a sunny Saturday in July, Arturo, Vivienne, and Henri, up since six this morning and having been back and forth between the two houses several times already, are sitting at the picnic table with Philip in the semi-shade of a mighty oak a hundred feet from the farmhouse, eating watermelon.

Brown-haired and slender, the kids are shirtless and wearing shorts, and when they are done with the messy business of eating watermelon will go with Philip into the apple orchard and stand under the biggest Fuji and play in the hose to rinse off, the ongoing drought necessitating as much multi-use of water as possible.

Philip is in charge of cutting juicy red triangles for the kids to devour, and as he watches them eat, he is overwhelmed, as he often is, by how much he loves them.

Lion, a pale orange tabby, is sitting in the nearby orchard, waiting patiently for a gopher to emerge from his hole so she can snag him and toss the rodent to Zapata, a slender black male who frequently hunts with Lion and is in love with her. Zapata is crouched ten feet away from Lion, patiently perusing a different gopher hole.

“Why Lion doesn’t kill the gopher when she catches it?” asks Vivienne, her face smeared with watermelon juice.

“I don’t know,” says Philip, cutting another round of melon into six triangles. “Why do you think?”

“Maybe he doesn’t like how gophers taste,” says Arturo, pursing his lips as his mother does when she makes a guess about something.

“Lion is a girl,” says Henri, looking skyward and rolling his eyes as his father does when exasperated. “How many times do we have to tell you?”

“Maybe she’s just generous,” suggests Philip, handing out the next round of watermelon triangles. “Maybe she likes giving gifts to the other cats.”

“Can cats do that?” asks Arturo, frowning in the manner of Philip questioning something someone says. “Give gifts?”

“Of course,” says Henri, laughing. “That’s why they bring mice in the house. To give them to us.”

“Why they give them to us?” asks Vivienne, wrinkling her nose as Andrea does when perplexed. “We don’t eat mice.”

“Maybe they don’t know that,” says Philip, smiling at his daughter. “Maybe because we give them food, they want to give us food.”

“They can’t go to the store,” shouts Henri. “How could they?”

“Lion likes fish,” says Arturo, nodding in agreement with himself as Marcel will nod when he agrees with himself. “But fish meat is different than gopher meat.”

“How do you know?” says Henri, laughing again. “Have you ever eaten a gopher?”

“You can see fish meat is different than gopher meat,” says Arturo, sighing in exasperation exactly as his mother does. “Fish is soft and white, gopher is hard and red.”

Weary of the debate, Vivienne asks, “Why watermelon has so many seeds?”

“Some watermelons don’t have any seeds,” says Arturo, nodding authoritatively in imitation of Philip being authoritative.

“Why this watermelon have so many seeds?” persists Vivienne.

“This kind always has lots of seeds,” says Henri, matter-of-factly. “My papa eats the seeds, but my mama spits them out. When I’m older I might eat them, but now I spit them out.”

“I think this kind of watermelon has lots of seeds,” says Philip, cutting up the last of the melon, “so there will be plenty for starting more watermelon plants.”

“How do they grow watermelons with no seeds?” asks Arturo, squinting at his father in the way Lisa squints when perplexed. “If the watermelon doesn’t have seeds?”

“Ah,” says Philip, vaguely recalling something about diploids and tetraploids. “A question we will ask Andrea after we have hosed off under the Fuji.”

*

Jung, the giant dog, and Goliath, the small but very brave dog, trot ahead of Philip and the kids into the orchard, and a lucky thing, too, because Jung growls and bristles when he comes upon a large rattlesnake coiled in the high grass a few yards from the Fuji.

Philip herds the children back to the picnic table, arms himself with a shovel, returns to the Fuji, and with a deft thrust decapitates the awakening snake, after which he makes a search of the area with the dogs. Convinced there are no more serpents in the vicinity, he beckons the kids to return to the orchard to hose off the sticky watermelon juice they are covered in.

“I’m afraid,” says Vivienne, standing on the picnic table and shaking her head.

“I am, too,” says Henri, standing on the bench of the table.

“I’m not afraid,” says Arturo, standing on the ground and not sounding very convincing, “but maybe we could play in the hose somewhere else.”

“Good idea,” says Philip, his heart still pounding from killing the big snake.

So they hose off in the herb and lettuce garden near the house, and when Lisa comes out to see why the change of plans, Vivienne says, “Papa killed a big rattlesnake under the Fuji.”

“Oh God,” says Lisa, giving Philip a horrified look. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he says, still vibrating from killing the snake. “Time to mow the orchard again and weed whack the path through the vineyard. He probably wouldn’t have bothered us, but I killed him just in case.”

“Let’s play inside for a while,” says Lisa, her heart pounding. “You’ve all had more than enough sun today.”

So the kids come inside and ten minutes later they are asleep in the living room, Vivienne sprawled on the floor next to her dog Mimi, Henri and Arturo comatose on the sofa.

*

That afternoon, Marcel mows the orchard with the little John Deere tractor, Henri on his lap steering some of the time, and Philip walks the path through the overgrown vineyard wearing headphones to block out the roar of his powerful weed whacker. Meanwhile, Arturo and Vivienne help Lisa and Andrea pick vegetables in the garden and make supper in the farmhouse.

*

After supper, as Andrea and Marcel and Henri are about to head home, Henri says to Philip, “We forgot to ask my mama how they grow watermelon with no seeds.”

“Seedless watermelon is grown with special seeds in a special way,” says Andrea, who is very very tired. “Tomorrow I will draw you a picture to show you how they do it. But now it’s time for bed.”

*

When the children are asleep, the farmhouse cloaked in fog—Jung and Mimi slumbering by the fire, Goliath gone home with Henri—Lisa and Philip sit on the sofa and cling to each other until they feel the danger has passed, at least enough to go to bed.

fin

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