short story

Zeke’s New Gig

In the morning in their bed in their little house at the end of a gravel road two miles inland from the far northern coast of California, Zeke and Conchita wake to their alarm clock radio tuned to an oldies station, Moby Grape singing 8:05, though it’s actually 8:15.

Conchita wants to make love and so does Zeke, but he has to meet his boss at a new client’s place in forty-five minutes, so they promise each other sex tonight when Conchita gets home from the pub where she’s a waitress, and they jump out of bed.

Sturdy and strong, his curly black hair a bit longer than he likes, Zeke, shirtless and barefoot in his underwear, opens the front door of their house and follows their small black mutt Eso out into the clear cold April day, and while Eso races around sniffing and peeing, Zeke circumnavigates the little house and makes sure nothing is amiss on their three-acre farm bordering a vast forest.

Eso poops next to the compost pile where Conchita and Zeke trained him to poop as a puppy, and after shoveling Eso’s shit into the compost, Zeke releases the nine chickens from their coop into the scratch run, gathers seven eggs, and stands for a moment on the edge of the big vegetable patch.

“This weekend I’m planting chard and peas,” he says to the garden. “And another row of spuds. Don’t you worry.”

Zeke and Eso go back inside via the squeaky kitchen door and find Conchita in her bathrobe putting the finishing touches on Zeke’s lunch while simultaneously making coffee and toast and tending six eggs spluttering in coconut oil in a cast iron frying pan.

“I’m gonna start setting the alarm for a half-hour earlier,” says Conchita, watching her nearly naked husband feed the ravenous little dog. “I’ve been so wanting you in the morning lately and we never leave enough time for love.”

“Brilliante mi amor,” says Zeke, going to get dressed. “I’ll come by the pub after work to catch a glimpse of you.”

She flips the eggs and says, “What a good husband you are. How did I get so lucky?”

He returns a moment later wearing a red T-shirt and old black trousers and sits down to put on his socks.

“I’m the lucky one,” he says, gazing in wonder at his wife. “What’s your day before you go to work?”

“Vacuum the house and do some laundry,” she says, bringing their breakfast to the kitchen table and sitting down across from him. “Then I’m having lunch with Lisa at Jessica’s, and if I have time I’ll go see mi madre.”

“Gracias por la comida,” says Zeke, closing his eyes for a moment before eating, his Spanish excellent after seven years with Conchita and spending lots of time with her parents and brothers and sisters and their families.

“Gracias for another day of life,” she says, closing her eyes and thanking God for Zeke.


With Eso beside him in his twenty-year-old pickup, Zeke drives down a winding two-lane road through a redwood forest to the coast highway where he turns left and heads south, skirting the seaside town of Mercy where he was born thirty-two years ago. The cerulean sky is full of billowy white clouds and Zeke is hopeful the new gardening gig will prove to be a good one.

Four years ago, Zeke’s parents, Marjorie and Blake Levine, moved from their big old house in Mercy to a condominium on Maui, Blake having sold his Mercy dental practice and both Blake and Marjorie ready for warm weather year round. Until Zeke was twenty, Marjorie and Blake assumed he would follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother Aaron and become a well-paid professional, a doctor or dentist or lawyer or college professor, and when Zeke declared he was going to be a writer, they assumed his writing, like his guitar playing, would be his hobby while he made good money otherwise.

Then he dropped out of college, became a gardener, fell in love with Conchita, and…

“They were gravely disappointed,” says Zeke, scratching Eso’s head. “But what can we do? We are who we are. Si?”

Eso gives Zeke a look to say I love who you are.


Two miles south of town, at the end of a half-mile lane, Zeke finds his boss Zella waiting for him outside the closed gates of an estate overlooking the ocean.

Zella is Serbian and in her fifties, tall and pretty with long silvery blonde hair. She employs six people and pays them thirty dollars an hour while charging her clients thirty-one dollars an hour for the labor of her employees and doing twenty hours of gardening a week herself.

“You are always so prompt,” she says, getting out of her little white pickup – Wildflower Garden Maintenance painted artfully in green letters on both doors – her brown mutt Zephyr jumping out after her and happily greeting Zeke and Eso. “One of the many things I admire about you, Zeke.

“I know this place,” says Zeke, smiling at the baronial gates. “When we were in high school my friends and I used to sneak in here. Whoever owned the place back then was rarely here and we’d hang out on the big deck looking down at the waves and smoke dope and fantasize about being rich and famous and owning the place some day.”

“How would you get rich and famous?” asks Zella, going to the call box on the fence adjacent to the gates and pressing a button.

“I was going to write novels that got made into movies,” says Zeke, remembering the kids he came here with – Randy Chan, David Zulguri, Mimi Cantor, Cheryl Little, all aspiring writers and musicians – Cheryl Little the first girl he ever had sex with. “Randy was going to write and direct movies. David was gonna be a rock star, Mimi an actress and singer, and Cheryl a novelist, too.”

“That’s amazing,” says Zella, pushing the button again, “because the woman who owns this place writes bestsellers they make into movies. Her assistant called them bodice rippers. I had to look up this expression when I got home. Means historical romances with lots of sex. Oo la la.”

“Conchita loves that stuff,” says Zeke, laughing. “I don’t.”

“Hello?” crackles a voice from the little speaker on the fence.

“Hi. It’s Zella Wildflower,” says Zella, leaning close to the speaker. “Here with your new gardener.”

“Okay,” says the voice, and a moment later the big gates swing slowly inward.

Zella and Zeke drive their trucks into the estate, the dogs chasing after them. The grounds have been neglected for years – flower beds overgrown with weeds, dozens of dead shrubs, a maze of hedges in desperate need of trimming, and two ponds clogged with algae, their naked-goddess fountains encrusted with lichen and mold – many weeks of work needed to return the garden to its former glory.

They park in front of the huge two-story house reminiscent of the plantation mansion in the movie Gone With The Wind, and the grand front door opens. Two women emerge, a pretty white woman with long reddish brown hair wearing a summery blue dress, and a striking black woman wearing red leather pants and a shimmery purple shirt, her hair cut very short.

As the women approach, Zeke does a double take – the white gal none other than the just-remembered Cheryl Little.

“Cheryl?” says Zeke, staring at her in disbelief.

“Zeke?” says Cheryl, gasping. “You’re the gardener?”

“Maybe not,” he says, laughing nervously. “Might be too weird.”

“I had no idea you still lived in Mercy,” she says, turning to the black woman. “This is Zeke Levine. We were in high school together.” She returns her astonished gaze to Zeke. “Zeke, this is my assistant Marz.”

“As in the planet?” asks Zeke, grinning at Marz.

“M-A-R-Z,” says Marz, drawing a Z in the air with her finger. “Short for Marzipan. My mother had a serious sweet tooth.”

“You’ve met my boss Zella,” says Zeke, turning to Zella and half-expecting her not to be there and this whole thing turning out to be a dream.

“Yes,” says Cheryl, heading back inside. “She knows everything that needs to be done. If you have any questions just ring the bell.”

“Is it okay if my dog hangs out with me?” asks Zeke, before the women disappear into the house.

“Fine,” says Cheryl without looking back at him.

“We love dogs,” says Marz, winking at Zeke and giving him thumbs up.


When the front door closes, Zella asks quietly, “Was she your lover?”

“She was,” says Zeke, stunned by seeing Cheryl again, and here of all places. “My first.”

“Did you part as friends?” asks Zella, nodding hopefully.

“What a good question,” says Zeke, trying to remember. “I think so. We weren’t a couple or anything. Just pals who had sex a few times. Her folks moved away when she left for college, so she didn’t come back in the summers and I lost track of her.”

“Do you want this job?” asks Zella, looking around to assess the amount of work to be done. “If this place was mine, I would mostly let it go back to natural. But they wants us to make it fancy again. Manicured lawns, a maze of hedges, roses and tulips, the ponds restored and the fountains scraped clean. Like a set for one of her movies.”

“I could sure use the hours,” says Zeke, nodding. “Is she planning to live here, or…”

“I don’t think so,” says Zella, shaking her head. “She told me she has places in New York and Paris. They wanted a place in California and she loved it here when she was a girl, so…”

“I can do this,” says Zeke, liking the feel of the place. “You could put two people on this job for a couple months to get the place in shape.”

“Good idea,” says Zella, going to her truck. “She says cost is no problem. Emilio wants more hours. You like him?”

“Yeah, Emilio’s great,” says Zeke, following her. “So how about I do three hours here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays?”

“Fine,” says Zella, putting on her work gloves. “Can you do a few hours now? I want to clean up the beds near the house and get the wisteria on the porch under control.”

“Absolutely,” he says, glad she’s staying with him. “Thank you so much, Zella, for all the work you’ve given me.”

“You’re welcome,” she says, getting her rake and shovel from her truck. “It will be good for me to get a feel for the place.”


After working for three hours with Zella at Cheryl’s mansion, Zeke and Eso have lunch on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River. And while Eso chases sea gulls, Zeke remembers a Sunday afternoon during his last year at Mercy High when he and Cheryl and Randy and David and Mimi snuck into the estate and sat on the big deck and Zeke read aloud a short story he’d written, and it was after he read his story that Cheryl jimmied open a door and took him upstairs and they made love on a bed in an otherwise empty room, and she was so sweet and encouraging as she taught him the ways of love.


Conchita comes home from the pub at midnight, takes a quick shower, gets in bed with Zeke, they make love, and in the aftermath of their loving she says, “I don’t want to wait any more to have our child. We keep saying we will as soon as we have enough money saved up, but every time we get ahead, something happens. We need a new roof or the car breaks down. I don’t want to wait anymore. I’m thirty-one. I’m ready to be a mother and you’re ready to be a father.”

“I want what you want,” says Zeke, feeling a pang of guilt for not making more money. “We’ll be fine.”

“I’m gonna get a real estate license. My sister and I are gonna take the course together at El Mar Realty and start our own company. Ontiveros Realty.”

“Who wouldn’t buy a house from you?”

“Are you teasing me?”

“No. You’ll be a great realtor if that’s what you want to do.”

“I want to make more money and not spend the rest of my life serving beer and fish & chips.”

“I got that new gig today,” he says, kissing her. “Nine more hours a week.”

“Oh good,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “That makes thirty-two hours for you. Don’t do more than that, mi amor. You won’t have time for the garden or for me.”

Two mornings later, Zeke arrives at Tara, his name for Cheryl’s place, and starts removing dead plants and preparing beds for rose bushes and flowers.

After he’s been working for a couple hours, Marz comes out the front door and says, “Hey Zeke. Come have some coffee. Rebecca would love to talk to you.”

“Rebecca?” says Zeke, smiling quizzically at Marz and enjoying her get up – pleated gray slacks and a white silk shirt splashed with red parrots. “You mean Cheryl?”

Marz nods. “She’s Rebecca to everybody but you now.”

“Okay,” says Zeke, turning to Eso who is snuffling around in the weeds. “Don’t go anywhere, Okay? I won’t be long.”

Eso gives him a look to say Where would I go? and Zeke follows Marz to the front door and takes off his muddy boots before going inside.

The spectacular house is largely empty of furniture, sunlight slanting through the big windows into the high-ceilinged living room. Marz explains that Rebecca’s interior designer is on the case and they hope to have the place fully furnished by the time they come back in October for a couple weeks.

Rebecca is sitting at a large table in the dining room adjacent to the spectacular kitchen, looking lovely in a loose-fitting green dress and typing at lightning speed on a big-screen laptop.

“Oh good,” she says, closing her laptop and rising to greet Zeke. “Can we have a hug?”

They embrace and Zeke and Cheryl’s bodies remember how well they fit together all those years ago, and Zeke becomes aroused and feels adulterous and ends the embrace.

“I’ve got to make some phone calls,” says Marz, leaving Zeke alone with Rebecca.

Rebecca gives Zeke a look to say Hug me again, but he doesn’t and sits down.

“How wild and mind-boggling that you bought this place, Cher,” he says, shaking his head. “Beyond incredible.”

Rebecca stays standing and says, “You’re the only person who ever called me Cher and I didn’t hate it. Au contraire. I loved it coming from you.”

“And now you’re Rebecca,” he says, trying to see the person he used to know. “Rebecca who? Little?”

“You didn’t immediately look me up on your computer?” she asks, giving him an incredulous look.

“I don’t use the computer much,” he says, shrugging. “Hurts my head.”

 “Oh,” she says, sounding disappointed. “You want some coffee?”

“No, I’m good. So… Rebecca who?”

“Rebecca Montaigne,” she says, sitting in the chair beside him, her eyes saying Kiss me.

“The name is familiar,” says Zeke, sensing how deeply tired she is. “Forgive me for not knowing your books. Zella said they’ve been made into movies.”

“Five of the nine have been made into movies so far,” she says, getting up and going into the kitchen. “You’re sure you don’t want some coffee? I just made some blueberry muffins.”

“Coffee and a blueberry muffin sounds great,” says Zeke, letting go of doing any more work here today. “What are the names of your movies?”

A Royal Disaster,” she says, pouring two mugs of coffee. “The Abduction of Rosella. Ramparts of Love. Broken Diamonds. And coming soon to a theater near you Mirabella’s Revenge.

“My wife loves your movies,” he says, thinking of how thrilled Conchita will be when he tells her he’s the gardener for the author of her favorite movies. “And so do her mother and sister. Whenever your movies come to the Coast Cinema, they get all dolled up for the show and go out for drinks afterwards and talk and talk about the movie and the costumes and how gorgeous everybody is. And they often go a second time before the movie leaves town. And for Christmas they give each other the DVDs.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” says Rebecca, bringing their coffee to the table. “You’d hate them.”

“Maybe not,” he says, shaking his head. “Knowing you wrote them, I might love them. Not knowing you wrote them, and historical romances not being my thing, I didn’t go. But I will next time.”

“Don’t bother,” she says, fetching the plate of muffins. “Big budget junk.”

“Not according to my wife,” he says, thinking of Conchita in all her finery going with her mother and sister to see the latest Rebecca Montaigne bodice ripper. “For Conchita, your movies are high art.”

“So what do you do now besides gardening?” She sits beside him again and he sees the sorrow in her eyes. “Do you have kids? Are you still writing? Still playing the guitar?”

“No kids yet, though we want to have one, maybe two, and I haven’t written anything in…” He thinks for a moment. “Three years. I wrote four novels, the first two just learning how, you know, the third and fourth pretty good, I thought, but I wasn’t able to interest an agent in either one, so… and I still play the guitar and write songs. Mostly I work and spend time with my wife and friends and walk on the beach and… live from day to day.”

“I thought you were a genius,” she says wistfully. “I thought for sure you’d write a novel that would make you as famous as Hemingway.”

“Maybe I will,” he says, gazing fondly at her. “Maybe I’ll be a late bloomer and write something great when I’m thirty-nine or fifty-five or seventy-two. We never know what might happen, do we?”

She thinks for a long moment and asks, “Did you love me?”

“Of course,” he says without hesitation. “Very much.”

A frown and a smile fight for control of her face, the smile triumphing.

“I thought so,” she says, crying a little. “You just didn’t know what to do about it and neither did I. We were too young to know how to preserve it.”

“I’m glad to see you again,” he says sincerely. “And I’m glad for your success. And I’d like to be your gardener. But only if it’s okay with you. You know what I mean? I don’t want to be a pain in your life.”

“You were always the nicest person, Zeke,” she says, standing up and going to the door that opens onto the deck. “You still are. I’d love you to be my gardener. It’s like something out of one of my books.”

“You were always the nicest person, too,” he says, getting up and following her. “How long are you here for this time?”

“Another week,” she says, opening the door to the sweet ocean air. “And we’ll be back in October. Always my favorite month here.”

“By then we should have your garden looking magnificent,” he says, going out onto the deck with her.

They stand side-by-side watching the unceasing waves and remembering those magical times when they and Randy Chan and David Zulguri and Mimi Cantor climbed over the fence and made their way through the maze of hedges to hang out here and dream together about their glorious futures.


Mystery Pastiche


Karen at the Bookstore


Karen Constantine is fifty-four and has worked at Studio Books for eighteen years. Studio Books is the only bookstore in the coastal town of Deep River, California, a five-hour drive north of San Francisco. Of the two thousand people who call Deep River home, at least five hundred of them know Karen as the Karen at the bookstore.

A week ago, when Karen was more than a little drunk at the bar in the Deep River Hotel, she declared to her good buddies Richard and Kathy, “And I’m speaking from forty-two years of life experience.”

To which Liza the bartender said, “I think you mean fifty-four.”

“Shit,” said Karen, closing her eyes. “Yeah. Fifty-four.”

Ever since then, Karen has been thinking about how she thought she was forty-two and not fifty-four. This age-perception gap would have been no big deal had she said fifty-three, or even fifty, but to be operating with the self-idea that she is forty-two when she is fifty-four seems to Karen to be worthy of a serious investigation; and to that end she has made an appointment with her psychotherapist who she hasn’t seen in a professional capacity in eons.

But that appointment isn’t for another three weeks, and in the meantime Karen has her life to live and a job to go to and copious time to ponder the how and why of that twelve-year oops.

Most people who meet Karen for the first time guess she is in her forties. She has a lovely figure, a mostly wrinkle-free face, and shoulder-length dark brown hair without a trace of gray. She is comfortable in her body, goes to a ninety-minute yoga class every other day, runs two miles on the beach every morning before coming to work, and she has a radiant smile.

When Karen smiles, she is a most attractive human being, and Karen smiles many times every day because so many things make her smile: babies, kids, teenagers, adults, dogs, cats, birds, ocean, clouds, music, laughter, book titles, overheard conversations, and so much more. She finds life amusing and tragic and pointless and deeply meaningful and heartbreaking and complicated and absurd and delightful and confusing.

She was in two long-term relationships for swaths of her twenties and thirties, several short-term relationships when she was in her forties, and none in her fifties. Until she turned forty, she assumed she would have two children and be part of a family constellation. Now she is fifty-four, single, has no children, has never been married, and is part of a constellation composed of herself and her three cats: Ursula, Jeeves, and Kipling.

Studio Books is not a large store and shelf space is precious. Half the store is given to calendars, notebooks, notecards, pens, jigsaw puzzles, and a growing number of gift items, including candles, incense, earrings, and T-shirts featuring clever slogans; and half the store is given to books, most of those children’s books, works of non-fiction, and murder mysteries.

Karen and the seven other full and part-time employees who take turns manning the store from nine in the morning until nine at night, seven days a week, are painfully aware of the irony of Studio Books being called an independent bookstore, yet only allotting shelf-space for the most popular mainstream titles. There is one little shelf at the back of the store on which self-published books by local authors can be found, but few customers ever venture to that far-flung corner of the store, and fewer still get down on their knees to peruse those dusty tomes.

This was not the way of things at Studio Books forty years ago when the Internet and e-books and Amazon were still the stuff of Science Fiction. The original owner, Caleb Browner, an idealistic socialist, carried only books, many classics, and many by little known authors and poets. For seventeen tumultuous years, Caleb somehow made ends meet, during which time the Internet was born and spawned Amazon, after which Studio Books became a reliquary and Caleb went broke. Fortunately he found a buyer for his business and was able to pay off his debts and escape with a few hundred dollars.

The second owner, Mimi Weintraub, was an extremely wealthy woman from San Francisco who thought selling big glossy coffee table books and coffee tables and reading lamps was the way to go with Studio Books. After five years of losing gobs of money, Mimi sold the bookstore to the current owner Ginny Carpenter, who got rid of the coffee tables and reading lamps and big glossy books, stocked the shelves in imitation of a successful bookstore in Santa Rosa, and then began transforming Studio Books into the bestseller depot and gift shop it is today.

Even so, for locals who still revere three-dimensional books, Studio Books is an important part of the cultural fabric of Deep River, though few of those reverent people buy books there anymore because they can get used copies of the same bestsellers off the Internet for a few dollars or download e-copies onto their pads and not have to schlep cumbersome volumes around and then find places to store the unwieldy things.

And for eighteen years from her place behind the counter at Studio Books, Karen has presided over this local version of the sea change in the world of books, an experience that has profoundly saddened her.

On a glorious Tuesday in February, the sun shining brightly on Deep River, Karen is manning the counter in Studio Books and gazing out the front windows at Deep River Bay sparkling in the near distance. She works six days a week at the bookstore, two eight-hour shifts and four six-hour shifts, Tuesdays and Thursdays her long days, all her shifts ending at five.

A man approaches the counter and says cheerfully, “Good morning. Do you sell tide charts?”

“We do,” says Karen, turning to him and liking what she sees—fortyish, graying brown hair, blue eyes, relaxed, appealing. “Look two feet to your left.”

“Ah,” he says, smiling as he takes one of the little booklets from the metal carousel featuring postcards and key chains and small blank notebooks. “Great.”

He hands the tide chart to Karen and she rings up the sale. “That will be two dollars and twenty-five cents. Would you like a bag?”

“No, thank you,” he says, handing her three ones. “But I’d love to take you out for coffee some time.”

She holds up her left hand to display the gold band she wears on her wedding finger to dissuade men from making such overtures.

“I will take that to mean you are married.” The man shrugs pleasantly. “I assumed so, but I know single women who wear rings on that finger, so I thought…”

“You assumed correctly,” she says, handing him three quarters, the tide chart, and a receipt.

“Thank you,” he says, nodding graciously and departing.

She watches him walk out the door into the sunny day and she realizes he is the first man in several years to woo her in that way in the bookstore. Men frequently offer to buy her drinks when she’s in the hotel bar where she goes every day after work for a drink or two, and where she returns after supper a few nights a week to hang out with friends, but this was her first such bookstore encounter since…

“Karen,” says Bernard, the portly bookstore manager emerging from the Religion, Spirituality, Poetry, Humor, Crossword Puzzles, Gardening and Economics section. “Would you finish re-stocking the fiction, please? I’ll run the register.”

Karen nods and vacates her place at the counter, wishing Bernard’s recent promotion to manager hadn’t resulted in the loss of his sense of humor. He used to be so wonderfully droll. Now he’s a prissy snob.

Only a few people are in the store, which makes this the perfect time to replenish the shelves, though Karen no longer enjoys what was once a favorite part of her job. Gone are the days of filling the shelves with books she loves. Now the few remaining shelves of so-called literary fiction are fast being taken over by excess from the ever-growing Murder Mystery section, along with crappy suspense thrillers and historical bodice rippers no one considered literature until the sea change began.

Karen looks into the box of books destined for the shelves and sees they are all murder mysteries, and she balks at reaching into the box.

“Excuse me?” says the man who bought the tide chart. “I’m looking for anything by Russell Hoban.” The man is standing ten feet away from Karen, politely keeping his distance. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m not quite sure how the bookstore is laid out.”

Karen fixes him with a steely gaze. “We don’t have any Hoban. We can order any book you want, but Hoban could take weeks to get here. If I remember correctly, most of his titles are out-of-print. There is a used bookstore at the east end of town. You might try them.”

“I did,” says the man, nodding, “but the fellow there said Hoban doesn’t move fast enough so he won’t take his books when people bring them in. How about William Trevor?”

Karen shakes her head. “What we have in the way of fiction is what you see on these four shelves. Alphabetical. No Trevor, no Hoban, no Wharton, no Singer, no Hemmingway, no Welty, no Faulkner, no Greenstreet, no Steinbeck, no Nabokov. We have the top ten current bestsellers, lots of Stephen King and John Grisham and murder mysteries and, of course, Harry Potter wizard books and Anne Rice mummy and vampire books.”

“I’m sorry,” says the man, nodding sympathetically. “I would order some books from you, but I’m just here for a few days and…”

“Would you please stop bothering me?” says Karen, losing her temper. “I don’t want to have coffee with you or hear about your life. I’m trying to get some work done.”

The man backs away and disappears, and as he disappears, Karen closes her eyes and prays he won’t complain to Bernard, who in his new capacity as prissy store manager might feel the need to report the incident to the owner.

At 5:03, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel, five doors down from Studio Books, and makes a beeline to the bar where Liza the bartender pours a shot of whiskey that Karen downs in a single gulp before she settles onto a bar stool and says, “Scotch on the rocks, please. I’m a mess.”

“Not you,” says Liza, in a sweetly sarcastic way.

“Terrible rotten horrible day,” says Karen, handing her purse to Liza. “I’ll be right back. Haven’t gone to the bathroom since lunch.”

On her way through the Fireside Lounge to the Ladies Room, Karen sees the man she was so rude to in the bookstore. He is sitting alone at a window table, sipping a half-pint of beer and reading an actual book.

In the white-tile bathroom, Karen studies herself in the mirror, likes how she looks in her long black skirt and billowy white blouse, and decides that after she has her drink, she will apologize to the man.

Back at the bar, she takes her time with the cold scotch and asks Liza what she thinks of the man in the Fireside Lounge sipping beer and reading an actual book, and Liza, who is tall and lanky with long black hair in a bun says, “If I were not moderately happy in my marriage, I would be all over that guy. He’s charming and he has beautiful eyes and he’s gracious, which is so rare anymore I wanted to kiss him when he ordered his beer, and then he tipped me more than the beer cost and I wanted to have sex with him.”

“I was a total bitch to him in the bookstore today,” says Karen, sighing. “I’m gonna go apologize.”

She saunters into the Fireside Lounge and smiles radiantly at the man reading an actual book. “I came to say I’m sorry for how I spoke to you in the bookstore today. Totally uncalled for. Please forgive me.”

“No need to apologize,” he says, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have bothered you a second time. You were right to rebuke me. Can’t be easy having men constantly… well… no hard feelings.”

“Okay,” says Karen, hoping he’ll ask her to join him, though she senses he won’t because he’s a decent person who believed her when she said she was married, so…

Home to her cottage a mile inland on the edge of a vast forest, Karen feeds her cats Ursula, Kipling, and Jeeves, gets a fire going in the woodstove, heats up a can of minestrone soup, and sprawls on the sofa watching Mostly Martha on her laptop until she falls asleep and wakes two hours later with a painful crick in her neck.

Getting ready for bed, Karen thinks about the man she was rude to and how kind he was in accepting her apology; and feeling lonely, she calls her friend Kathy, who is sixty-seven, single, a retired social worker, and sings with Karen in the choir at the Presbyterian.

“Hello?” says Kathy, who doesn’t have the kind of phone that tells her who’s calling.

“Hi,” says Karen, relieved to hear Kathy’s voice. “I’m not calling too late, am I?”

“No, no,” says Kathy, music blaring in the background. “Let me turn my radio down. Great jazz tonight.”

Kathy goes to turn the music down and Karen sighs, wishing she could be with Kathy in-person.

“Here I am,” says Kathy, warmly. “What’s going on?”

“Oh I’m just mad at myself. I just… I hate working at the bookstore now, and I stupidly took it out on a customer today, and I feel just… I don’t know… hopeless.”

“You know what it always is?” says Kathy, sounding as if she’s just realized what she’s about to say.

“What?” asks Karen, who was hoping for sympathy and not some theory about the universal cause of emotional distress.

“It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. You know what I mean? The narratives we use to define ourselves. And we can change them. I don’t have to keep telling the story about me being too old to learn to play the guitar. I can change the story to one about me learning to play well enough to go to open mike at the Silver Spur and sing a slow version of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face,’ and the crowd goes wild.”

“I want to be there,” says Karen, excitedly. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“See?” says Kathy, laughing. “Change one story and all the nearby stories change, too.”

The next morning at ten, Karen goes running on Deep River Beach, the tide way out, the beach enormous and void of people save for someone far in the distance who appears to be dancing in the shallows.

Feeling mighty blue as she begins her run, she is nevertheless hopeful the two-mile jog on the glorious beach will lift her spirits and give her the pizzazz to put in another six hours at the bookstore.

The beach and forest and quiet and beauty are what I’ll miss most if I sell my place and move to Portland and get a job in a real bookstore. And my friends. I’ll miss my friends. And my house. And my land. But I won’t miss working at Studio Books and pretending I work in a real bookstore.

Who should the lone person far down the beach be but the man she was rude to yesterday in the bookstore. And the man is dancing, because what he’s doing is standing at the water’s edge, flinging a white Frisbee high and far out over the incoming waves to a place in the air where the spinning disk meets the offshore breeze and is propelled back to the man as if he is a powerful Frisbee magnet.

Karen stops a hundred feet from the man and watches him fling the disk out over the incoming waves again and again, his mastery breathtaking. And the way he dances on the balls of his feet, moving forward and back and side-to-side to catch the returning disk, is so pleasing to her, she breaks into applause.

He glances at her, makes an instantaneous calculation, and flings the disk out over the waves once more; only this time the Frisbee does not come back to him, but flies to Karen and stalls just a few feet in front of her about six feet off the ground, so all she has to do is reach out and pluck the thing from the air.

They meet for lunch at the Deep River Deli. The man’s name is Allen Brodeur. He is an English professor at Merritt College in Oakland and lives in an apartment in Berkeley with his cats Chucho and Esme. Allen and Karen sit across from each other at one of the four small tables in the warm and noisy deli, Karen having a hot pastrami sandwich and root beer, Allen an open-faced turkey and avocado on rye with melted Swiss, his drink ginger ale.

Karen changes her guess about his age to early fifties, but she doesn’t broach the subject of their ages, nor does he. They like each other immediately and immensely, and they make each other laugh, so much so that at one point they cannot stop laughing and Allen has to go outside an walk around to quell his mirth.

They trade bites of their sandwiches. They discover they both love the music of Samuel Barber, Mendelssohn, and Michel Petrucciani. Allen tells of recently reading all two thousand pages of the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant for the second time in his life and being astounded over and over again by Maupassant’s genius. Karen says she is currently hooked on V.S. Pritchett and A.S. Byatt, but woke this morning thinking she’d like to read Steinbeck again after a twenty-year hiatus.

As they walk back to the bookstore, Allen invites Karen out to dinner tonight and she says, “How about I make us dinner at my place and you can meet my cats.”

Allen arrives at Karen’s cottage at dusk, and before complete darkness falls, Karen gives him a quick tour of her two-acre property on Everson Lane where a dozen other houses on multi-acre parcels enjoy the many blessings of being surrounded by thousands of acres of forest.

Along with her three-room cottage, Karen has a pump house for her well, a five-thousand-gallon water tank, a large woodshed, a deer-fenced vegetable garden, and a small studio, electrified but not plumbed, where long ago Karen made collages and paintings, and now uses for a guest room.

Ursula, Jeeves, and especially Kipling are enamored of Allen and take turns sitting on his lap whenever he alights anywhere for more than a moment. Karen opens a bottle of red wine for both cooking and drinking, and while listening to Barber’s Adagio For Strings they create a fabulous tomato, mushroom, green pepper, and zucchini spaghetti sauce, perfectly cooked noodles, and a scrumptious green salad—the experience of cooking together a mutual thrill.

They are in love with each other in the way of smitten strangers who have yet to discover anything about the other they might not love; and Karen imagines they will make love after they finish supper and drink more wine and talk by the fire.

But that doesn’t happen because Karen gets very drunk and several times can’t remember why she’s telling Allen whatever she’s telling him, and this is something Allen does not love, though he doesn’t say so and only becomes wary and less forthcoming.

And though they part ways with a gentle hug and agree to meet on the beach tomorrow morning at eight, Karen doesn’t think Allen will want to pursue a relationship with her because of how loud and strident she got after her fifth glass of wine.

Furious with herself for opening that second bottle of wine, she smokes some pot to calm down, not her usual hit or two, but an entire joint, and she gets so stoned the room starts to spin and she thinks she might be having a heart attack and she very nearly calls 9-1-1 to summon an ambulance, but instead she crawls into bed and rides out the frightening high until finally, blessedly, she falls asleep at two in the morning.


She sleeps a sodden dreamless sleep for eight hours until her ringing phone awakens her and Bernard from the bookstore says, “Wherefore art thou Karen? You are now an hour late, which I believe is your new personal best. Or worst.”

“Oh, hey Bernard,” she says, her voice raspy. “Thanks for calling. I’m… I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice full of kindness. “You sound all stuffed up.”

“Oh I’m just…” She clears her throat. “Hey, is your sense of humor coming back? I thought I detected a comic tone in your passing reference to Romeo and Juliet? Or was that just hopeful thinking on my part?”

“No, it started coming back this morning,” says Bernard, chuckling. “I’ve been taking myself much too seriously lately. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course,” she says, getting out of bed. “Twenty minutes. Thanks Bernard.”

She feeds her cats, and as the dried food drums into the three little bowls, she thinks of Allen waiting for her at the beach this morning, and she feels certain that whatever shred of hope there was of embarking on a relationship with him is gone now; and she feels strangely relieved, for she is so habituated to aloneness now, she no longer knows how to share her life in an intimate way with anyone other than her cats.

Karen takes her lunch break at two and meets her friend Richard at the picnic tables on the headlands across the street from Studio Books, Richard providing their meal of pumpkin muffins from the Happy Time Bakery, goat cheese, apples, and a thermos of black tea.

Richard is seventy-four and chubby, a wearer of suits and ties at night, sweatpants and sweatshirts during the day, his longish gray hair tied back in a stubby ponytail. British and gay, Richard was an actor for forty years in Milwaukee and Phoenix before moving to California after he retired from the theatre. He still occasionally takes a small part in a play at DRTC (Deep River Theatre Company) but he finds acting tiresome now and prefers spending his time reading and walking and visiting with friends.

Sitting side by side at their picnic table overlooking Deep River Bay, Karen tells Richard about her time with Allen yesterday and the sad denouement of their date and the terrifying aftermath, and how she thinks the reason she wrecked things with Allen is because she’s afraid to be in a relationship—doesn’t know how to be in one.

Richard sips his tea and says, “I know I’ve told you this story before, or at least I think I have, but I like telling it, and it seems appropriate under the circumstances, so I’ll tell it again.” He clears his throat. “When I was forty-three and despairing of ever finding someone to love for more than a night or two, I kept running into this dreadful man at parties and bars, never just the two of us, always in groups with other men or theatre people. His name was Philip. He was brash and opinionated and full of himself. He was very attractive, big and strong with a fabulous mane of black hair, but I found him unbearable because every time I tried to say anything, and I mean every time, he would interrupt me, contradict me, and never let me get a word in edgewise. Never. And then one day he showed up at the theatre, this was in Milwaukee, as the new assistant to our set designer, and I thought, ‘Oh great. Just what I needed. This guy.’”

Richard pours more tea into Karen’s mug. She nods her thanks and wonders what this story has to do with her failure with Allen.

“So,” says Richard, continuing, “I avoided the man like the plague. If I went into a bar and he was there, I left. If I went to a party and he was there, I stayed far away from him. And at the theatre, I studiously ignored him. We were doing Ah, Wilderness by Eugene O’Neill. I played the part of Nat and was brilliant, and I’m not alone in that assessment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called my performance revelatory. Anyway, it’s a big cast and a very funny play and it was one of our great successes, and when the run was over, Philip asked me to go to lunch with him. And though nothing had happened to change my opinion of the man, I thought for the sake of peace and harmony in the company I would suffer his windy oratory for an hour or two and be done with it.”

“So what happened?” asks Karen, never having heard this story before.

“We went to a very nice restaurant,” says Richard, a dreamy look in his eyes. “And after we placed our orders, he looked at me and said, ‘But enough about me. Tell me everything about you.’ And so I did. And a month later, we got a place together and stayed together for twelve of the happiest years of my life.” He smiles wistfully at Karen. “We eventually went our separate ways, but oh what wonderful years I had with Philip, and how badly I misjudged him in the beginning.”

At five o’clock, Karen is chatting with Tom who is just starting his evening shift at the bookstore, when Allen comes in from the fog and waits for Karen to acknowledge him.

She grabs her purse, says goodnight to Tom, approaches Allen and says, “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the beach this morning. I couldn’t sleep after you left and I stayed up until two and slept until ten, and by then I figured you wouldn’t want to see me again anyway.”

Allen considers this and says, “You want to talk or shall I skidaddle?”

“Well…” she says, smiling shyly, “since you used the magic word skidaddle, I want to talk to you.”

“The Fireside Lounge at the hotel?” he asks, nodding.

“No,” she says shaking her head. “There’s a nice place around the corner. Xenon. You hungry? I’m starved.”

“Yeah. Bowl of soup sounds good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” she says, smiling bravely to quell her tears.

“So I’d like to give you a little background information about me,” says Allen, their soup dispensed with, pie and coffee coming. “To help you understand what happened for me last night.” He has a drink of water. “My parents were alcoholics, my two siblings became alcoholics, I did not, and I was married for twelve years to an alcoholic. In fact, all my relationships and friendships were with alcoholics or addicts of one kind or another until I was forty-seven and had two years of life-changing psychotherapy.”

“How old are you, Allen?” asks Karen, smiling as the waitress brings their coffee and dessert.

“I’m sixty-three,” he says, gazing at her.

“You can’t be,” she says, shaking her head. “You mean fifty-three.”

“No,” he says, laughing. “Sixty-three.”

“Wow,” she says, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. “You seem so much younger. Must be all that dancing on the beach with your Frisbee.”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But however old I am, my wife and my other partners before her all needed to be drunk in order to be tender or sexual or emotionally open, and then inevitably they would become mean or depressed, as most drunks will, and so until I understood that I was a classic enabler of addicts, and understood that I chose to be with them because they were versions of my parents, and until I was able to stop choosing them, I was stuck in a hell where I could only have sex with drunks, and not being drunk myself, the sex was not only awful but the opposite of what I wanted, which was to connect deeply with other people.”

“So I triggered those bad memories for you,” says Karen, aching with shame. “I’m so sorry, Allen.”

“But wait,” he says urgently. “It was only at the end of our time together those buttons got pushed in me. Before then…” He looks at her, longing for her to know how much he likes her. “Before then, I haven’t connected with anyone as well as I connected with you… ever. It was a miracle being with you until…”

“I drank too much,” she says, looking down so he won’t see her tears.

“For me,” he says, nodding. “You drank too much for me. Not for somebody else, I’m sure. My God, Karen, you’re lovely and funny and brilliant and great and… I just can’t ever go there again. Even with you.”

“What if I changed?” she says, looking up at him. “What if I stopped drinking?”

“But it isn’t the drinking,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s the great red herring. It’s what you communicate to me when I’m so willing to meet you on a deeper level. You’re telling me I’m not acceptable to you unless you’re drunk. You see what I mean? It wasn’t the wine. It’s how you closed off to me when I wanted so much for us to be open to each other.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she says quietly. “I needed to hear that. And now I’d like to tell you what happened for me.”

“Please,” he says quietly.

“I haven’t connected with anyone, man or woman, as completely and wonderfully as I connected with you since… Second Grade when Donny Dorsett and I would go everywhere together, holding hands and marveling at everything. But my experience since then, for the rest of my fifty-four years, has been otherwise.”

She stops speaking and waits for Allen to react to the number of her years, and he says, “I guessed you were forty-nine, but I love that you’re fifty-four.”

“I’m glad you do,” she says, blushing. “But anyway… my father was a heavy drinker and my mother was not, and the relationship they modeled for me and my sister was where one of the partners needs to be drunk in order to be affectionate, and the other partner longs for the affection but hates being with a drunk. An unsolvable conundrum short of divorce, which they did a few years after my sister and I finished college. But long before their marriage ended, I reacted to how they were with each other by identifying with my mother and never drinking or smoking pot in high school. And I thought I never would until I went to college and I was the only person I knew who didn’t drink or take drugs. And just like my mother, I longed for physical affection and love, so I drank a little, but I didn’t like it. What I liked was pot. Made all my self-doubts go away, and I would get very stoned and have sex with men I barely knew, so I came to associate sex with being high. In fact, I never had sex unless I was high until I was in my thirties and got involved with a man who wanted sex all the time and didn’t care if we were high or not. Problem was, sex with him was gross, quick and uncaring, so I saw no advantage to sex without being stoned.” She smiles in embarrassment. “Too much information?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head.

“Then when I was in my late thirties,” she says, having a sip of her coffee, “I started worrying about running out of time to have children, and I chose to be with men I didn’t really like, but they had good jobs and said they wanted kids, and the only way I could bring myself to sleep with them was to be drunk because getting stoned didn’t do the trick anymore. And that’s where I got stuck, which coincided with my work becoming more and more depressing, so I started having a drink or two after work to relieve the tension of working in a bookstore where you, Allen, couldn’t find a single writer you love.”

They share a bit of silence and Karen says, “I guess I stopped thinking I would ever find a partner, and I’ve grown accustomed to being stuck where I am, a person at a dead end who needs to change or die. And since I don’t want to die yet, and I don’t want to be a bitter old woman, I’m going to quit the bookstore and get a job as a waitress serving good food, and I’m not going to drink so much anymore. I won’t say I’ll stop drinking, but I won’t drink so much, and I won’t get drunk to make love, if I ever make love again.”

Three months later, after a busy Friday night serving customers at Xenon, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel and joins her pals Kathy and Richard at the bar, has a sip of Kathy’s vodka tonic, and orders a ginger ale.

“You lush, you,” says Liza, giving Karen a loving wink as she pours ginger ale into a big glass full of ice cubes.

“I’m cutting back because of you,” says Richard, kissing the air in Karen’s direction. “Only one daiquiri tonight instead of my usual two.” He wrinkles his nose. “Or was it three? How quickly we forget.”

“I’m not so much cutting back,” says Kathy, arching an eyebrow, “as drinking slower.”

Kathy and Richard and Liza all want to hear about Karen’s recent weekend in Berkeley where she stayed with Allen at his place for the first time, and they all want to know if she and Allen finally slept together.

Karen takes a long drink of her ginger ale and smiles radiantly. “We did. And it was good. And in two weeks his school year ends and he’s coming to stay with me for most of the summer.”

“Hallelujah,” says Richard, raising his strawberry daiquiri high. “To love triumphant.”

“To love triumphant,” say Kathy and Liza, Kathy raising her vodka tonic, Liza a glass of water.

“To loving friends,” says Karen, clinking their glasses with hers. “Without whom we could not survive.”