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The Same Woman (Maru)

Now and then over the course of his life, Andrew encounters a woman he feels he already knows, though he has never met her before. The first time was in 1955 when he was six-years-old, second time 1962, third time 1966, fourth time 1970, fifth time 1978, sixth time 1987, seventh time 1993, eighth time 1998, and the ninth time in 2002.

July 2006. Andrew and his wife Luisa are both fifty-eight, Andrew an attractive man descended from Ashkenazi Jews, his brown hair cut short, Luisa a beautiful woman with long black hair, her mother Quebecois and Chippewa, her father Afro-Cuban.

Writers and musicians, Andrew and Luisa have been married for nineteen years and live in a lovely house Andrew built thirty years ago near Vancouver, British Columbia. Their children Owen and Lily are both twenty-four, Lily an actress living part-time in Los Angeles and part-time in New York, Owen the new Drama teacher at a private high school in Vancouver.

Andrew has published six collections of short stories and written several plays, one of them made into a movie, four of them now staples of the small theatre repertoire. Luisa has published two collections of short stories and a novella that was made into a movie, and together she and Andrew have written two original screenplays that were made into movies. And though they are not wealthy from their writing, they are in good shape financially and continue to be of interest to publishers and theatre companies in Canada and England.

For the last four years, along with their writing, they have been composing songs and occasionally performing as a duo in various Vancouver venues, mostly living rooms and pubs, both of them guitarists and singers.

But the biggest news in their life right now is Owen being home after six years away. He is currently living in the other house on their property, a small two-bedroom place that was originally a dance studio Andrew built for his first wife Kiki with whom he had Owen.

Owen graduated from Julliard in Drama three years ago with great hopes of succeeding as an actor, though not in the way Lily has succeeded with roles in movies and television shows. No, Owen hoped to become a darling of the avant-garde theatre movement, and to that end he moved to Berlin with his girlfriend Sophie who graduated from Julliard with him.

To Owen and Sophie’s dismay, after two years of scouring the theatre scenes in Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, they found nothing remotely kin to the avant-garde theatre they had studied so passionately at Julliard. And when Sophie landed the part of a goofball cutie pie in a German television sit-com imitating an American sit-com, Owen and she parted ways and Owen moved back to New York where he failed to land a part, avant-garde or otherwise.

Tired of working as a bartender sixty hours a week to pay the rent on a sofa in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with three other people, Owen returned to Vancouver where Dessie, his friend since childhood, is the music teacher at New Foundations, a private high school, and touted Owen for the Drama teaching job there.   

A star among his Drama peers while at Julliard, and having lived for three years in Berlin and Amsterdam and London and Manhattan associating with theatre people and playing his clarinet in ensembles with other accomplished musicians, Owen is by turns angry and depressed about living with his parents again and preparing to spend at least the next two years instructing teenagers in the dramatic arts.

Andrew and Luisa have mixed feeling about Owen living with them again. On the one hand, he’s one of their favorite people in the whole world and they missed having him around. On the other hand, they want him to be happy, and he is definitely not happy being home and becoming a high school Drama teacher, something he and many of his fellow actors at Julliard considered the ultimate failure, especially if one fell so low before late middle age.

Hoping to engage Owen in something other than moping around and reluctantly designing his Drama program for the upcoming year, Andrew and Luisa decide to invite him to perform with them at their next gig, a living room concert at the home of Cal and Terry who live a mile away and have known Owen since he was in utero.

So on a sunny morning in July, Andrew cooking an omelet for the three of them, Luisa making toast and hash browns, Owen sitting at the table drinking coffee and perusing the New York Times, Luisa invites Owen to perform with them at their upcoming show at Cal and Terry’s.

“You know what I’d rather do?” says Owen, looking up from his perusal of the Theatre section.

“What?” asks Luisa, bringing the coffee pot to the table and refreshing Owen’s cup.

“Have a wooden stake driven through my heart,” he says, giving her a blank-faced look. “You could take turns wielding the mallet.”

“Was that a No?” asks Luisa, looking at Andrew who is just now pouring the beaten eggs into a sauté of zucchini and mushrooms. “Sounded like a no, didn’t it?”

“Definitely no-ish,” says Andrew, turning his attention to grating the cheese. “Though one never knows for certain when the reply is metaphoric.”

Owen puts down the paper and smiles falsely at his father. “I don’t mean to imply your music isn’t just the thing if one likes earnestly rendered tunes reminiscent of the simplistic folk music of the 1960s and 70s. In fact, I applaud you two for strumming your guitars and singing your cute old-fashioned songs for your friends. But I’m having a hard enough time adjusting to being back here and preparing to do something I vowed I would never do. Thus to stand with you in Cal and Terry’s living room noodling on my clarinet while you play chord progressions that make my teeth ache would be the last straw and I would then swim out into the ocean and drown. Does that clarify the meaning of my stake-through-the-heart metaphor?”

“It does,” says Andrew, abashed. “I’m sorry, O.”

“Well I’m not sorry,” says Luisa, glaring at Owen. “You’ve been home for two months, and a month from now you start your job at New Foundations, which, by the way, you are incredibly fortunate to have. As you are incredibly fortunate to have a house to live in and food to eat.” She takes off her apron, starts to leave the kitchen, stops, turns to Owen and adds, “The young man who left here six years ago was kind and thoughtful and resourceful and a joy to live with. The petulant little boy who came back is a self-centered, elitist, unimaginative, thankless pain in the ass.”

Having spoken her truth, she storms out of the kitchen.

“She’s right,” says Owen, looking at his father. “I’m a thankless shit.”

“You’re nothing of the kind,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “You’re having a tough time. And you’ll get through this with a new understanding of what you want to do with your life, teeth-aching chord progressions notwithstanding.”

“I didn’t mean that,” says Owen, getting up and going out the open door. “I love your music.”

Alone with his omelet, Andrew recalls the day Kiki said she wanted a divorce and was moving to Los Angeles and giving Andrew full custody of Owen, and how four-year-old Owen would shake his head and say No whenever Andrew tried to explain about Kiki leaving, until finally Andrew stopped trying to explain and a year later Owen came to him and said, “I know why Kiki left.”

“Why?” asked Andrew, gazing at his beloved child.

“Because she found out Luisa was actually my mother,” said Owen, nodding solemnly. “So she knew she better go away and never come back.”

Owen brings Luisa a bouquet of roses that afternoon, and while she stands at the kitchen counter arranging the roses in a vase, Owen thanks her for waking him up.

“I don’t remember exactly when it was I turned into the kind of person I’ve always hated,” he says, sitting at the kitchen table. “A closed-minded, self-centered, holier-than-thou cultural snob, but I did, and that’s probably why I failed as an actor. Because directors could see I was a phony.”

“Sweetheart, you haven’t failed,” she says, setting the vase of roses on the table and sitting beside him. “You’re on a journey. I know that’s a cliché and probably makes your teeth ache, but you are. We all are. And sometimes we find ourselves in a situation we can’t see our way out of and we have to make the best of things until we do see a way out or we discover that what we thought was the wrong direction turns out to be the way we needed to go, if I may mix my similes or whatever they are.”

Owen nods. “My favorite teacher at Julliard, Sig Perlman, used to say if we communicate in any way to the audience that we know what the other characters in the scene are going to say, the scene will fail. And he’s right. Good actors play every moment as if they have no idea what might happen next.”  

At supper’s end a week after Owen and Luisa reconcile, Owen asks his parents if they would be up for hosting a small dinner party, the guests to include his friend Dessie, who got him the teaching job at New Foundations, Dessie’s husband Jonah, a bass player and software engineer, and Maru Stein, the founder and executive director of New Foundations.

“Maybe Cal and Terry, too?” says Owen, having done a complete about-face since Luisa deftly smacked him with the bamboo cane of her honesty. “And anyone else you’d like to invite. Maybe a theatre person or two.”

“Salmon on the barbecue,” says Andrew, who is now helping Owen design the Drama program to be unveiled at New Foundations in September. “Corn on the cob.”

“A fabulous garden salad,” says Luisa, who loves to cook. “And for appetizers, mini-falafels with cashew butter lime sauce and hummus and guacamole.”

“I’ll take that as a Yes,” says Owen, getting up to clear the table so they won’t see him crying, but they do.

The afternoon warm and humid, Andrew is out on the big south-facing deck tending the barbecue—salmon steaks and corn-on-the-cob—when Owen emerges from the house with Maru Stein.

Andrew’s first impression of Maru from twenty feet away is that she is a giantess emanating a brilliant golden light, but as she and Owen cross the deck to him, she shrinks to Andrew’s size and appears to be a lovely woman in her fifties with reddish brown hair cut in a boyish bob, her eyes dark blue. She is wearing a sleeveless magenta shirt, blue jeans, and hiking sandals, her arms muscular, a tattoo of a small red rose on her right arm just below her shoulder.

She shakes Andrew’s hand with a pleasingly strong grip and says with a slight German accent, “A great pleasure to meet you. I have been reading your stories since they first appeared in The Blitz those many years ago, and I must tell you my daughter fell in love with the theatre because of your plays.”

“I’m flattered,” he says, wanting to blurt I love you. “Where is your daughter now?”

“She’s in England, in Oxford, the artistic director of a small theatre company. They’ve done all your plays, most of them more than once.” Maru’s eyes widen as she senses Andrew’s attraction to her. “When I told her I was going to meet you she said to tell you she can’t wait to read your next play. Do you have one in the works?”

“No,” says Andrew, suddenly aware of how close the salmon is to perfection. “To be continued. I must tend the salmon lest I overcook.”

“A rare skill,” says Maru, winking at him as she moves away with Owen to meet Luisa. “Cooking salmon just so.”

Mosquitoes ferocious at dusk, the humans move inside for supper, ten of them around the big dining table: Luisa, Andrew, Maru, Owen, Dessie, Jonah, Cal, Terry, Electra Wickersham, and Mark Kane.

Electra is an actress Andrew has known for thirty-four years. Short and buxom with a gravelly voice, she played the droll sister of the main character in the world premiere of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, a play based on two of Andrew’s short stories—Andrew’s first adventure in the theatre world of Vancouver thirty-four years ago.

Mark Kane, a stylish dresser in his sixties with a silvery gray pompadour, wrote Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise and got it produced at the Kleindorf Theatre where he was and still is the stage manager. Following the success of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, Mark adapted two more of Andrew’s stories for the stage, but that play lacked sufficient oomph to get beyond a staged reading and Mark has never written anything else, though he loves to talk about what he might write one day.

At the height of the feast, the salmon cooked to perfection, the corn sweet and tender, much good wine consumed, Cal, a professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser, asks Maru what inspired her to found what has become one of the most prestigious high schools in Canada.

“My children,” she says, nodding. “Public high school was a disaster for both my son and daughter. Before high school they were excellent students and eager to play music and make art and build things, you know, and then they were totally shut down by the idiocy of the public high school system, so I got them out of there and homeschooled them. I would have sent them to the Waldorf High School, but lacked the funds, and when they went off to college I thought why not create an alternative school with excellent teachers and get the corporations to fund it so we could give scholarships to low income people, and those who could afford the tuition would gladly pay to give their children an extraordinary experience rather than put them through a system designed to crush their spirits.”

“Well I can attest to the efficacy of your school,” says Cal, raising his glass to her. “I’ve had several of your former students in my classes and they were head and shoulders above most of the other students.”

“I’m very glad to hear that,” she says, placing a hand on her heart. “Thank you for telling me.”

“And you will be teaching Drama there,” says Electra, looking at Owen who she’s known since he was a baby. “How exciting for you.”

“I’ll do my best,” he says, frowning and scratching his head. “If only I could remember what they taught me at Julliard. It’s all such a vague memory now.”

Mark and Electra and Cal and Terry and Dessie and Jonah and Maru all laugh, while Luisa and Andrew hold their breaths until Maru says, “Don’t worry, Owen. It will all come back to you in the heat of battle.”

“Be careful, Owen,” says Mark, who has been married three times to women much younger than he and is currently dating a woman forty years his junior. “All your students will fall in love with you, the tall, dark, and handsome Drama teacher just a few years older than they.” He looks at Maru. “How daring of you to hire one so young.”

“Young teachers are a vital ingredient in our system,” says Maru, aiming her words at Owen. “Because the kids don’t relate to the younger teachers as versions of their parents, but as slightly older friends who can help them with their struggle to become adults. And it is a great struggle for most of them because the last thing they want is to turn into their parents, and without someone like Owen to emulate they see no alternative but to rebel or withdraw into their shells.”

Crawling into bed at midnight, Luisa says to Andrew, “What a great mentor Maru will be for Owen.”

“Yes,” says Andrew, closing his eyes and seeing Maru gazing at him. “She’s a powerhouse.”

“She’s one of your special women, isn’t she?” says Luisa, embracing him. “Couldn’t keep your eyes off her, could you?”

“Is she one of your special women, too?” he says, growing aroused.

“Of course,” she says, kissing him.

In late August, a few days before Owen will make his debut as a high school Drama teacher, Andrew and Luisa and Owen throw another party, this one a big potluck attended by several New Foundations teachers, lots of actors and musicians and theatre people, and several neighbors.

Maru arrives at the height of the party with her partner Adriana, a stunning Brazilian woman in her thirties who is the Dance and Percussion teacher at New Foundations. Owen was unaware that Maru and Adriana were in a relationship and so did not convey this information to his parents. Andrew and Luisa are both surprised Maru made no mention at their last party of having a partner, and Luisa is not surprised Maru’s partner is a woman.

Andrew is dizzied by the conflicting emotions arising in him—jealousy and relief and sorrow and happiness—when Maru introduces him to Adriana, an exquisite mix of Afro-Brazilian and Latino.

“I am so glad to meet you,” says Adriana with her Brazilian Portuguese accent Andrew could listen to forever. “I devour your stories and we watch your movies and now I feel like I meet a god.”

“As do I,” says Andrew, looking from Adriana to Maru and back to Adriana. “Goddesses.”

Adriana and Maru exchange mysterious smiles, Owen and Dessie come to greet Maru and Adriana, and Andrew turns his attention to the barbecue on which many foodstuffs are approaching doneness.

He is glad for the distraction of the salmon steaks, chicken thighs, slabs of zucchini, potatoes, ears of corn, hamburgers, sausages, and various shish kebabs because they keep him from gawking at Maru and longing to embrace her.

Why am I so ferociously attracted to her? he wonders as he looks down at the various sizzling things. Must have something to do with how open she is to me and how open I am to her. Only it’s more than that. It’s as if we are two parts of one being separated long ago, which is how I felt when I met Luisa, our attraction to each other a desire to be whole again.

“Honey,” says Luisa, putting her arm around Andrew. “I don’t want to tell you how to cook, because you’re a wonderful cook, but I think most of what’s on the grill now is done. Yeah?”

“Yes,” says Andrew, realizing he hasn’t been tending the foodstuffs at all, but standing at the barbecue appearing to be tending the foodstuffs while off in the clouds imagining becoming one with Maru.

Andrew joins Cal and Terry and Electra at one of the many tables arrayed on the deck, his plate heaped high, a cold beer just opened, and as he settles into easy banter with his tablemates, Maru and Adriana arrive and ask if there’s room for them at the table, room is made, Adriana sits between Electra and Cal on one side of the table and Maru sits next to Andrew on the other, her shoulder touching his, and Andrew is filled with a divine sense of completeness, a feeling, to paraphrase Stevie Wonder, of being exactly where God wanted him to be placed.

“Here we are together again,” says Maru, speaking quietly as she gently bumps Andrew’s shoulder with hers. “How are you?”

“Good,” he says, no longer afraid of how he feels about her. “You?”

“A bit preoccupied,” she says in a way he takes to mean she’s been preoccupied with him, “but otherwise excited about school starting next week.” She takes a deep breath. “Owen tells me you’ve been helping him with his course design. I love what you two have cooked up.”

“Well I got my undergraduate degree in Drama,” says Andrew, recalling those long ago days in California, “and I was hoping to get into Yale and leap from there to the professional stage, but instead I moved to Canada and became a carpenter and a writer. And now I’m sitting with you at the zenith of my life.”

“I know what you mean,” she says, watching Adriana listen intently to Electra talk about the current revival of Ah Wilderness. “This is definitely a peak experience for me, being with you.”

Supper is followed by pie and coffee and tea in the living room, and when everyone is settled somewhere, Luisa and Andrew enter with guitars, Owen with clarinet, and they launch into a lively instrumental Owen recently composed called My Teeth Ain’t Aching No More full of surprising chord changes to which Owen blissfully improvises.

They follow the instrumental with Luisa singing a love ballad she and Andrew wrote called The Thing Of It Is, Owen adding tasteful harmonies to Luisa’s fine contralto.

And lastly Andrew and Luisa sing a song they wrote called So Far So Good about a couple who keep being pleasantly surprised that no matter how old they get they don’t lose the knack for loving each other, the song ending with a stirring clarinet solo that brings the house down.

The day after the party, recalling the moment he and Maru sat beside each other and shared the feeling of being exactly where God wanted them to be placed, Andrew puts pen to paper and out flows the first scene of a play he will write over the next few weeks called Time and Again.

The play is about a man and a woman roughly the same age who meet eight times over the course of their lives, and whenever they meet—on a playground, at the beach, at a party, in a park, in the foyer of a theatre, on a bus, on the street—they are entranced with each other, yet always discover one of them is involved with someone else.

Each scene ends with the man and woman parting ways without making arrangements to stay in touch, save for the last scene in which they are elderly and meet at a neighborhood café. Over coffee and biscotti, they discover they live just around the corner from each other and are both free to unite.

When Andrew finishes the first draft, he gives the play to Luisa and she reads it in a single sitting.

She finds him on his knees in the garden thinning baby chard plants.

“It’s fantastic, A. I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written.” She smiles down at him. “Do you… will you want me to work on this with you?”

“Always,” he says, looking up at her.

“I wasn’t sure,” she says shyly. “You… we haven’t written a new play in a long time and I didn’t know if you still wanted to do our usual back and forth.”

“Of course I do,” he says, getting up and embracing her. “I’m always just cruising on the surface until you and I run the lines and find out what really wants to be said.”

“Oh, good,” she says, breathing a sigh of relief. “I think this will make a wonderful movie, too.”

“When we’re further along we’ll show it to Nick,” he says, referring to Nicolas Thorsen, the filmmaker who made their previous movies.

“You amaze me,” she says, looking into his eyes. “Just when I thought we might never write another play, you come out with this heartbreaker.”

“Is it sad?”

“Oh my God, yes,” she says, her eyes full of tears. “The sadness of missing their chance to be together over and over again when they’re so right for each other. It’s hilarious, too, and I’m so glad they get together at the end, but… I couldn’t help wishing they’d taken one of those earlier chances.”

“But maybe they weren’t ready for each other until the last scene,” he says, walking to the house with her. “Maybe the promise was not to be fulfilled until they learned whatever they needed to learn along the way.”

“Maybe so,” she says, taking his hand. “But I’ll bet lots of people who see this play will be emboldened to take a chance if they ever get one again.”

A month after school starts, Owen implores Andrew to help him cast and produce the first play of the year, a sappy television sit-com masquerading as a play he inherited from the previous Drama teacher called Don’t You Wish?

Knowing how overwhelmed Owen is by his daily teaching load, Andrew agrees to lend him a hand with the play and enlists Electra and Luisa to join them for three afternoons of auditions. Once the play is cast, Andrew shows up at the New Foundations multi-purpose room every weekday at 3:30 to assist Owen in managing the cast of fourteen and the especially rowdy crew of twenty-two.

Now and then Maru stops by to watch Owen directing the kids and to sit with Andrew and watch the play take shape.

Don’t You Wish? is such a big hit, the initial two-night run is extended to a second weekend with a Sunday matinee, the four hundred seats sold out for all five performances.

Fortunately for Andrew and Owen, no one blows the whistle on them for their extensive rewriting of the dialogue, the three entirely new scenes they wrote to replace those they found ruinous, and the new and completely different ending they invented—their creative tampering bringing them closer together than they’ve ever been.  

The winter play at New Foundations is A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast of (seemingly) thousands. Electra and Andrew and Luisa help again with the auditions, and this time both Luisa and Andrew assist Owen with the many afternoon rehearsals, which in the beginning resemble riots and eventually, miraculously, result in three acceptable performances.

Andrew and Owen severely edit The Bard to bring the running time down to ninety minutes so they can include three hip hop songs composed and performed by teenagers in togas and accompanied by energetic ensemble dancing choreographed by Adriana.

And finally comes the spring musical, Guys & Dolls, with Dessie conducting the student orchestra and coaching the singers, Adriana choreographing the numerous dance numbers, Andrew and Luisa again assisting Owen.

Dress rehearsal and Performance #1 are epic disasters, Performance #2 begins promisingly but quickly devolves into chaos, Performance #3 has a few startling moments of cohesion but is otherwise another catastrophe, and Performance #4, with only a few dozen people in the audience, is a stirring triumph from start to finish.

Summer cannot come soon enough for Owen and Andrew and Luisa, and when school finally adjourns in early June, Owen does nothing for a week but sleep and mope around while Andrew and Luisa fly to Montreal to attend five staged readings of their play Time and Again. The cast is stellar, several play directors from Canada and England and Australia come to hear the play, the audiences rave, and Nick Thorsen, who sits in the first row for all five of the readings, offers a pittance for the screen rights, which Andrew and Luisa gleefully accept.

As June becomes July, Maru and Adriana invite Andrew and Luisa over for supper at their spectacular new house in one of Vancouver’s ritziest neighborhoods.

After supper they retire to the living room, Maru pours a rare Spanish peach brandy, and Adriana says with her Brazilian Portuguese accent Andrew could listen to forever, “I know this will come as surprise, but we want to have a child and for you, Andrew, to be the father.”

Luisa purses her lips and frowns.

Andrew clears his throat and says, “We are speaking of artificial insemination.”

“If you prefer,” says Adriana, who grew up something of a wild child in Brazil and has few of the scruples common to North Americans. “Or we could make the baby, as we say in Portuguese, naturalmente.”

“Um,” says Luisa, scrunching up her cheeks, “I would have a problem with that.”

“Then artificial,” says Adriana, nodding. “Or you don’t do anything if this seems too…” She looks at Maru. “How do you say it?”

“Much to ask?” guesses Maru. “Too much of an entanglement?”

“Too big a commitment?” says Luisa, looking at Andrew.

“The thing is,” says Andrew, searching for the right words, “I can’t imagine knowing I’m the father of a child and not wanting to be involved with the child in a big way. Do you know what I mean?”

“Oh we want you to be involved,” says Adriana, nodding emphatically. “We love you. That’s why we choose you for the father.”

“Well,” he says, looking from Adriana to Maru, “I’m flattered, of course, but… we weren’t planning to spend our late middle age and elder years raising a child. Spending time with our grandchildren, should that ever come to be, yes. But not… co-parenting.”

“You would not be co-parenting,” says Maru, shaking her head. “We will be the parents and you would be uncle and aunt. Or grandparents.” She shrugs pleasantly. “We don’t expect you to say Yes. But we love you both and we admire you and so we thought we’d ask. If not you, we know a few others we may ask, and if no one wants to do this with us, we will go with the unknown.”

“Have you thought about adopting?” asks Luisa, who certainly understands why they would want Andrew’s genes in the mix.

“I’m only going to have one child,” says Adriana, gazing at Luisa who has become her dear friend. “And then we see. Maybe we adopt, maybe we don’t. But I know I want one child who comes from me.”

“There’s nothing like it,” says Luisa, tears springing to her eyes as she thinks of her daughter Lily. “We’ll let you know soon.”

“Thank you,” says Adriana, taking Luisa’s hand. “We are honored you even consider doing this for us.”

At midnight, neither Andrew nor Luisa able to sleep, Andrew gets out of bed and says, “Chamomile tea?”

On their way to the kitchen, Luisa says, “Who am I to judge them? I made Lily with a man I slept with once, a man who never even knew he made a child with me, a man I didn’t even like.”

“It’s not about judging them,” says Andrew, turning on the kitchen light. “It’s about marrying them without any legal right to the child.”

“What do you mean?” says Luisa, filling the kettle. “Marrying them?”

“I mean what if five years from now Adriana leaves Maru and moves back to Brazil or her next partner turns out to be a psychopath and by then we’re in love with the child and powerless to intervene? I’d be devastated and so would you.”

“Adriana won’t partner with a psychopath,” says Luisa, waving the thought away. “But you’re right, in a way we would be marrying them and I don’t want to be married to anyone but you.”

“The fact is, we don’t want another child. If we’d wanted another child we would have had one or adopted one. But if we had a child with them and fell in love with her or him, which of course we would, then we’d want to be with the little pooper every day, which would mean being deeply involved with Maru and Adriana for the rest of our lives and I don’t think we want that. Do we?”

“Might be wonderful,” says Luisa, anguished. “I love them. And I’d love to see the child you’d make with Adriana. But something doesn’t feel right about this.”

“I agree,” he says, terribly upset. “It’s… emotional extortion.”

“No, it isn’t,” she says, annoyed with him. “They said they don’t expect us to say Yes. How is that extortion? What doesn’t feel right has nothing to do with them. It’s about what we want, and we don’t want this. Right?”

“I’d be seventy-eight when the child is twenty,” says Andrew, smiling at the thought of mixing his genes with Adriana. “I wonder what Owen and Lily would think if we did this.”

“Maybe that’s what doesn’t feel right,” says Luisa, making their tea. “Complicating our already complicated life.”

In the morning, they continue discussing the possibility of joining their lives with Adriana and Maru and the yet-to-be-born child, and the more they think out loud together, the more they warm to the idea.

“But I would only go into the little sperm-catching room,” says Andrew, putting his arms around Luisa, “if you came in with me and inspired my contribution. If you know what I mean.”

“Then it would be our gift and not just yours,” she says, surrendering to the momentum of creation.

A few days later, Andrew and Luisa go to tell Adriana and Maru they are willing, and Adriana and Maru burst into tears.

“We just now check my fluid,” says Adriana, embracing Luisa, “and right now I ovulate. So because it will take some days to arrange things at the clinic for Andrew to give his seed, we wait for my next time to try.”

“Why wait?” says Luisa, surprising herself and all of them, too. “Why not now? Naturalmente.”

“We would love that,” says Maru, looking into Andrew’s eyes. “A sacred tryst.”

And before Andrew’s rational mind can rise above the fervor of the moment, he and Adriana go to the bedroom and Luisa and Maru go out into the garden and sit together on the bench by the lily pond holding hands and praying—this ritual of procreation enacted again the next day and the next.

In December, during the Christmas holiday, Adriana five months pregnant, she and Maru come to Andrew and Luisa’s house to tell them they have just seen the ultra-sound of Adriana’s womb.

“It isn’t what we planned,” says Maru, her eyes sparkling with tears, “but we are happy to tell you we are going to have twins. Fraternal twins. A girl and a boy.”

That night Luisa dreams the boy is named Teo and the girl is named Rosa, and when the babies are born they are given those names.

fin

Wedding Song

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Sid Writes A Song

inspiration

Sid Lawry is sixty-two and has been a waiter at Falcon, a most excellent restaurant in Lambertville, New Jersey for the last fourteen years. He has lived in Lambertville since he was twelve, having moved here from Queens with his mother Ruth and younger sister Lynette shortly after his parents divorced.

That same year, Sid’s father Ben moved to Los Angeles with Francesca, the woman he’d been having an affair with for several years, to pursue a career as a writer in the movie and television business. Ben sent birthday cards to Sid and Lynette for the first five years he was in Los Angeles, and then stopped sending birthday cards and did not communicate with them again for thirty-seven years, until a few months before he died. He called each of them to beg their forgiveness for being such a bad father, and they both forgave him.

Sid is five-foot-eight with a wiry build, his wavy brown hair going gray, his default expression a sleepy smile. Charming and eloquent, he is a superb waiter and was so from the moment he switched to that line of work at the age of forty-seven. Sid’s emergence as a star waiter at Falcon came as a huge surprise to his wife Elaine, who for several years prior to Sid’s success, believed he would forever be a person who boasted of unproven talent, never kept a job for long, and was often severely depressed.

Elaine is five-foot-two, petite, with long brown hair she wears in a bun from the time she gets up in morning until the supper dishes are done, after which she lets her hair down. She has been an archivist at the Princeton University Art Museum for nearly forty years, Princeton just up the road from Lambertville.

Her doctoral thesis The Inevitable Arrival of Impressionism was published as a sumptuously-illustrated coffee table book by a university press, and Elaine surely would have become a professor of Art had she not suffered from debilitating migraine headaches and ferocious anxiety whenever she agreed to give lectures to large groups of students and make presentations to her fellow academics. And so shortly after gaining her PhD, she found her niche far from the public eye in the quiet backrooms of the art museum and has worked there ever since.

Sid and Elaine have been married for thirty-five years and have two children, Jeffrey, thirty-four, who resembles his father to a striking degree, and Katy, thirty-two, who is seven inches taller than her mother and wears her auburn hair in a long braid.

When Jeffrey turned twelve, he stopped talking to Sid; and they did not reconcile until Jeffrey was twenty-three. Now they are good buddies and go to several basketball games together every year at Madison Square Garden, Jeffrey a commercial artist and set designer living in Manhattan.

Katy is a community college English teacher in nearby Bucks County. She has unceasingly adored Sid since the day she was born, and has never stopped believing her father is the great writer he claimed to be when she was a girl, despite his never having written anything in her lifetime.

Save for those trips into New York City to attend basketball games with Jeffrey, and to go to plays with Elaine, comp tickets courtesy of Jeffrey, Sid rarely leaves Lambertville, though he and Elaine have recently begun planning a trip to Europe for when Elaine retires three years from now. Elaine wants to visit museums and places where some of her favorite paintings were made, and Sid wants to go to plays and bookstores and wander around looking for appealing cafés.

On a Saturday in early November, Jeffrey and his fiancé Nina make the trek by bus from Manhattan to Lambertville, and Katy and her husband Phil drive over from Bucks County to celebrate Sid and Elaine’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Jeffrey and Nina will spend the night with Sid and Elaine in the house where Jeffrey and Katy grew up, and Phil and Katy will drive back to their apartment in Bucks County after supper and dessert.

They dine at Falcon where the staff fawns over them, Sid beloved by everyone who works at the restaurant, the glorious feast a gift from the owners. For dessert, however, they return to Sid and Elaine’s house to enjoy Elaine’s renowned pumpkin pie and sit by the fire in the living room and talk without having to shout over the clatter and din of the restaurant.

Nina, who is thirty-two and Portuguese, is new to the family constellation, she and Jeffrey having met a year ago, a spring wedding in the works, and she is most curious to learn how Sid and Elaine met.

“You go first, honey,” says Elaine, calling from the kitchen that adjoins the living room. “And then I’ll correct your errors.”

“Let us not call the details of my version errors,” says Sid, standing in front of the fireplace with his back to the fire and smiling at his children and their partners. “Let us call them variations on a theme, the original theme lost to the vagaries of time.”

“Can you agree about where you met?” asks Nina, vivacious and pretty with long black hair, a talent agent at United Creativity, her Portuguese accent catnip to Jeffrey.

Where is not in doubt,” says Sid, looking at Elaine. “But when is. She says we met in Ninth Grade at Hunterdon High, I say Eighth. In either case, we liked each other from the get go, and though we each had multiple sweethearts in high school, we were an item for the whole of our Senior year before she cruelly dumped me to clear her calendar as prelude to matriculating at Yale.”

“I would argue that he had the multiple sweethearts in high school,” says Elaine, looking up from making coffee to smile at Nina. “Sid was a notorious playboy in high school, whereas I was faithful to Ron Durant for the two years before Sid and I became the aforementioned item. But all in all, he has the gist of our getting together right.”

“So you did the dumping,” says Phil, a big gregarious Systems Analyst, thirty-nine, with carrot-red hair and many freckles. “Not Sid.”

“Amazing but true,” says Elaine, smiling sweetly at Sid. “He was staying in Lambertville and not looking very hard for a job, while I was an ambitious academic who thought I would probably marry another of my kind.”

“Which she almost did,” says Sid, nodding. “And she probably would have had not our tenth high school reunion intervened.”

“Also true,” says Elaine, coming into the living room and standing beside Sid. “I arrived at the reunion after many weeks of ambivalence, and there he was in all his twenty-eight-year-old glory. And I was a goner.”

“Love,” says Sid, putting his arm around Elaine. “The unsolvable mystery.”

“Were you a waiter in those days, Sid?” asks Nina, who can’t quite recall the specifics of Jeffrey’s synopsis of his parents’ lives.

“No. At the time of our tenth reunion I was a shoe salesman,” says Sid, chuckling at memories of those two years in the trenches at Landmark Shoes. “After that, before I became a waiter, I had many other jobs. Bartender, UPS delivery person, grocery store clerk, landscaper, and Elaine’s favorite, night watchman at the municipal dump. To name but a few.”

A silence falls, which often happens after Sid reels off some of the jobs he had before he hit rock bottom the year Katy left for college and he got fired for the umpteenth time and Elaine moved out and got an apartment in Princeton. With his job resume a guarantee no one would hire him, Sid begged an old high school friend for a job bussing tables in the ritzy café Mon Cher, and when a flu epidemic knocked out most of the wait staff, Sid was pressed into service and proved to be such an outstanding waiter, the café manager could not imagine demoting Sid when the epidemic ended.

A year later, the owner of Falcon offered Sid a job, Sid jumped at the chance, and six months later Elaine came home to stay.

“Jeffrey tells me you write poetry, Sid,” says Nina, feeling the need to break the silence.

“I didn’t say he wrote poetry,” says Jeffrey, shaking his head. “I said he wanted to write poetry.”

Elaine returns to the kitchen to cut the pie and pour the coffee.

“Both things are true,” says Sid, smiling wistfully at Nina. “Before Jeffrey and Katy were born, I wrote poems and plays and screenplays and two novels. But after the kids were born, all I did was talk about writing and how great I could be if only… something. That was before I found my way and got well. And now that I am well, I claim only to be a waiter at Falcon, husband to my marvelous wife, and devoted father to my glorious children.”

“But if you ever do write anything, I know it will be great,” says Katy, nodding assuredly.

“Why do you say that?” asks Elaine, pained by her daughter’s blind allegiance to Sid’s old unfounded boasts.

“Because it’s what I believe,” says Katy, gazing steadfastly at her mother. “I think he’s a genius with words. I think the stories he told us when we were kids are the best stories never written down, and I think the spontaneous poems he makes up for us on our birthdays and at Christmas are the best poems I’ve ever heard. And I know it bothers you I believe in him the way I do, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking Pop is brilliant.” She shrugs defiantly. “So there.”

When Katy and Phil have gone home to Bucks County, and Sid and Elaine have gone to bed, Nina and Jeffrey sit on either side of the queen-sized bed in the guest room that used to be Katy’s bedroom, responding to business-related emails on their laptop computers.

“Done,” says Jeffrey, closing his laptop. “No more hysterical clients until we get back to the city.”

“I just have one more little bit to write,” says Nina, typing fast. “Kulu is coming to New York with his wife next week and they want to take us to dinner. You up for that?”

“Yeah, that could be fun,” says Jeffrey, undressing. “What’s his wife like?”

“She’s… oh what’s the word when a woman has very large breasts?”

“Buxom,” says Jeffrey, yawning.

“Yes. She’s buxom and loud and bossy. You and I won’t be saying much.” Nina sends off the email and closes her laptop. “I’m touched Kulu wants to celebrate our engagement with us.”

“He’s quite the upcoming star, isn’t he?” says Jeffrey, crawling under the covers.

“Everything depends on his next album,” says Nina, taking off her dress and hanging it in the closet. “He’s got the most beautiful voice and his melodies are wonderful, but his lyrics… well, he’s so young.” She climbs into bed. “You’re not mad at me, are you? For asking your father if he wrote poetry?”

“No, no,” says Jeffrey, opening his arms to her. “I’m not mad. Pop didn’t mind. It’s Mom who doesn’t like talking about the hard times before Pop found his way.”

“I think Katy is right,” says Nina, settling into Jeffrey’s embrace. “There’s something remarkable about your father. I love his energy. And his talk is full of poetry. I have a very strong feeling about his talent, even if he doesn’t use it.”

“Well you certainly have a knack for discovering talent,” says Jeffrey, no longer angered by the subject of his father’s unrealized potential. “But it’s kind of a moot point. He hasn’t written anything in thirty-five years.”

“Would you mind if I asked him if he’d like to write some lyrics for Kulu?”

Jeffrey ponders her question for a moment and says, “I would bet all the money I have that he’s never heard of Kulu.”

“Probably not, but I would give him Kulu’s album,” says Nina, excited by the prospect of Sid writing something for Kulu to consider. “Or do you think asking him would awaken old demons?”

“I think he would politely decline,” says Jeffrey, smiling sadly. “But Mom would be upset. She… yeah, that’s a real hot button for her.”

“Then I won’t,” says Nina, letting go of the idea. “The last thing I want to do is upset your mother.”

A week later, in her swank office on the twenty-seventh floor of a seventy-story building a few blocks from Times Square, Nina is meeting with Kulu and his wife Sara. Kulu is twenty-one, his black hair in a ponytail, his mother Turkish, his father British. Sara is twenty-five, a blonde from Brooklyn, brash, and ferociously possessive of her talented husband.

“We were talking to Jason Royal,” says Sara, who likes Nina but wishes she wasn’t quite so attractive, “and he said he knows for a fact that movie people are interested in Kulu. Not just for his music, but as an actor. You heard anything about that?”

“As you know, we’ve gotten several inquiries from people who may want to use his music in their movies,” says Nina, nodding. “But as far as Kulu being in a movie, we haven’t had any solid offers. We could produce an acting demo if that’s a direction you want to go, but I really think focusing on making his second album fantastic should be our number one priority.”

“Definitely,” says Kulu, his accent a mix of British and Turkish. “I’m all about the music, you know, but the words just aren’t coming to me these days. I’m too crazy busy making videos. I’ve got endless music in my head, but… yeah, the words. I need some time away from all the noise. You know? I mean… those first twelve songs took me years to write. I wrote Cats In the Alley when I was sixteen.”

“Would you consider collaborating with a lyricist?” asks Nina, thinking of several songwriters she knows who would love to work with Kulu—and now Sid, her future father-in-law, comes to mind.

“Sure, if I like the lyrics,” says Kulu, nodding. “Love to.”

“Who are you thinking of?” asks Sara, frowning at Nina.

“A few people,” says Nina, directing her words at Kulu. “I’ll ask around. There’s no shortage of poets. The trick is finding the right one for you.”

With Jeffrey’s permission, and per Jeffrey’s suggestion, Nina sends a copy of Kulu’s first album to Sid at Falcon rather than to Sid and Elaine’s house.

Dear Sid,

Kulu is one of my favorite clients. I enclose his first album, Singing Dictionary, which was quite successful. He is currently looking for lyrics for his second album of songs. If his music inspires you to write something, I would love to show your words to him. I understand you may not be interested in pursuing this, but I wanted to see if my feeling about you might bear fruit. Looking forward to seeing you at Thanksgiving.

Love, Nina

Driving home after a busy Friday night at Falcon, Sid slips Singing Dictionary into the CD player of his twenty-year old Camry, notes the time is 10:37, and is pleasantly surprised when a solo guitar begins to play and a man with a sweet high tenor sings a lovely melancholy song about growing up in London, the child of an Englishman and a Turkish woman, his childhood friends British, Turkish, African, and Indian—never imagining that the colors of their skin would figure so largely in how their lives unfolded.

Sid is enchanted by three of the five songs he listens to on his way home and as he sits in the car in front of his house. The two songs he doesn’t care for are rap songs that sound like ten thousand other such songs, none of which appeal to him, but even Kulu’s rap has touches of melody he finds appealing; and as he climbs the stairs to his front door, he thinks I would like to try to write something for Kulu, but I don’t know if I can.

Elaine is wearing her old-fashioned blue flannel nightgown, her hair down, as she sits on the living room sofa reading a murder mystery, her nightly habit, their calico cat Cezanne curled up in her lap, the fire in the hearth spluttering.

When Sid comes in she closes her book and asks, “You okay? You don’t usually sit in your car for so long. Listening to a basketball game?”

“No,” he says, sitting beside her. “I was listening to this.” He hands her Kulu’s Singing Dictionary. “Nina sent it. Here’s her note.”

Having turned these things over to Elaine, Sid gets up and goes into the kitchen to make cocoa as he always does on Friday and Saturday nights, their two late nights together because Elaine doesn’t have to get up early for the next two mornings to make the drive to Princeton.

Elaine reads the note from Nina and says, “Why would she do this?”

“I guess she thinks I can write,” says Sid, mixing milk and cocoa powder and a dollop of honey in a pot on the stove.

Elaine frowns at the cover of Singing Dictionary—Kulu dressed as a fairy-tale prince dancing with a human-sized dictionary (with a face and arms and legs) in a fairy-tale ballroom full of people of all ages and sizes and colors wearing fantastic costumes.

“Why would she think that?” asks Elaine, irate. “Because Katy persists in her fantasies about you being a great writer?”

Sid stirs the cocoa and says, “I can’t think why else.”

“How awkward,” says Elaine, grimacing. “Do you think Jeffrey knows she sent this?”

“He does,” says Sid, pouring the cocoa into two big white mugs. “I called him on my break tonight. He said Nina asked him if it would be okay, and he suggested she send the album to the restaurant rather than here so I would have the option of telling you or not, in case I wanted to spare you the…”

“The what?” she says angrily.

“Displeasure,” he says, bringing the cocoa into the living room, handing her a mug, and sitting beside her again.

“Jesus,” says Elaine, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth. “Now we’ll have all this hanging over us at Thanksgiving. Just what we didn’t need.”

“Sweetheart,” he says, gently. “It’s not a big deal. She’s a talent agent. This is what they do. They hunt for talent. They follow their hunches. They take chances. There’s nothing wrong with her asking. She’s just doing her job.”

“What are you going to say to her?” asks Elaine, distraught. “When you send it back?”

“That depends,” he says, sipping his cocoa.

“On what?” she says, glaring at him.

“On you,” he says, meeting her angry gaze.

“What are you talking about?” she says, startled by his reply.

“If you will give me permission to try to write some lyrics for this singer, I will.” Sid waits a moment before saying more. “But if you don’t want me to try, I won’t.”

“You want to?” asks Elaine, mortified.

“I do,” he says, nodding solemnly. “I think it would be good for me. To try. With no expectations of getting anything I like. Just a bit of trying.”

“I can’t stop you if that’s what you want to do,” she says tersely.

“Yes, you can,” he says kindly. “I will never again knowingly do anything that makes you unhappy. And if my doodling in a notebook, searching for words, makes you angry because of everything we went through for all those difficult years, I won’t do it. But if you can happily let me try, I will.”

“Happily?” she says, laughing despite her distress. “I have to be happy about it?”

“Yes,” he says, laughing with her. “You have to be happy about it. Not necessarily gleeful, but at least a little happy.”

“Why do I have to be happy?” she says, pouting. “Can’t I just be grudgingly accepting?”

“No, you have to be happy,” he says, taking a deep breath. “So I’ll know we’re free of the old shit.”

Now he sets his mug on the coffee table, takes her mug from her and sets it beside his, puts his arms around her and holds her close.

“Okay,” she says, relenting. “I’ll be happy. Probably not gleeful. But happy you want to try.”

“You know what I’ve discovered?” says Sid, talking to Frieda, his friend and fellow waiter at Falcon, Frieda tall with curly brown hair, the two of them checking the tables to make sure everything is in order for the first seating of the evening. “My father is with me when I’m writing. Or it would be truer to say, when I’m trying to write.”

“What do you mean ‘with you’?” asks Frieda, rolling her shoulders in anticipation of five hours of ceaseless labor.

“He’s sitting beside me, watching me,” says Sid, fascinated by the workings of his mind. “He’s young, the way I remember him from before he left us. When I was twelve. And I hear my mother saying, ‘I hope nobody wants anything that bastard writes… the way he treated me, the way he treated you and your sister.’”

“Was he abusive to you?” asks Frieda, giving Sid a worried look.

“No, he was always nice to me. When he was around. Which wasn’t often. And then he abandoned us. So I suppose if you consider abandonment abuse, then, yes, he was abusive. But when he was with us, I liked him. He was funny. Witty. Liked to wrestle with me on the living room rug. Always let me win in the end. I loved that. Took me to ball games and plays. And he knew everything about everybody in show biz, told the greatest stories about movie stars and Broadway stars and… a treasure trove of juicy gossip. My sister was crazy about him. She really took it hard when he ran off to Los Angeles. Cried for weeks. Months.”

“So do you think he’s getting in the way of your writing?” asks Frieda, continuing her warm-ups by twisting her torso to the right and left several times.

“Yeah, I think he is,” says Sid, folding his arms. “I think maybe he’s always been in the way, along with my mother’s bitterness about him leaving… and my unresolved sorrow.”

“Maybe you should see somebody about that,” says Frieda, smiling bravely at the first four patrons of the evening being led to a table in her section.

“You mean a therapist?” says Sid, frowning at the idea.

“No, an auto mechanic,” says Frieda, rolling he eyes. “Yes, a therapist. I go to a great guy. I’ll give you his number.”

“Sid,” says Olaf, fiftyish and a few inches taller than Sid, his head shaved, his red T-shirt and gray sweat pants and bare feet more suggestive of a yoga teacher than a psychotherapist. He is standing in the doorway of his office, looking out at Sid sitting in one of the two chairs in the small waiting room.

“I know you,” says Sid, rising from his chair. “I’ve seen you at Falcon, but I’ve never waited on you because Frieda always does.”

“She says you taught her everything she knows,” says Olaf, shaking Sid’s hand. “Welcome.”

Sid is surprised to see a massage table in the center of the room, no sofa, no desk, and two armless chairs facing each other by the one window.

“Now I’m confused,” says Sid, laughing nervously. “I thought you were a psychotherapist not a massage therapist.”

“I am a psychotherapist,” says Olaf, gesturing to the two chairs. “Have a seat and I’ll explain.”

Sid sits in one of the chairs, Olaf in the other.

“I am a licensed psychotherapist,” says Olaf, having made this speech many times, “and a licensed massage therapist, but I don’t give massages. I got the massage license so there would be no legal issues arising from my touching my clients. What I do is apply very light pressure to places on your body to facilitate the flow of your memories and feelings. The first session is complimentary. Some people don’t choose to come back after the first time, some people only come a few times, and some come many times. My goal is to help you get unstuck from whatever you’re stuck on. Sometimes that happens in the course of a session or two, sometimes it takes much longer. Any questions?”

“Do you think you’re psychic?” asks Sid, liking Olaf but feeling wary of him.

“I think we’re all psychic,” says Olaf, nodding. “And it seems the more emotionally unstuck we get, the more access we have to our intuitive power, which is what I think being psychic is. Uninhibited intuition.”

“Did you love your parents?” asks Sid, wanting to see how much Olaf will reveal about himself.

“Yes,” says Olaf, without hesitation. “My mother was very warm and available and easy to love, while my father related to me intellectually, but I knew he loved me, so I loved him, too.”

“Have you ever had a panic attack?” asks Sid, thinking of the many he had in the months after Elaine left him. “I’m talking about the sure-you’re-gonna-die-any-minute kind of panic attack.”

“No,” says Olaf, shaking his head. “Not yet.”

Sid laughs. “May you never have one.”

“Thank you,” says Olaf, smiling warmly at Sid. “So what brings you here today? What’s on your mind?”

“It’s a long story,” says Sid, feeling he might cry, not because he’s sad, but because he is already experiencing relief in knowing he will finally be able to tell his story, the whole story, to someone who will listen and understand and be sympathetic.

“We’ve got ninety minutes,” says Olaf, gesturing gallantly to the table. “Shall we?”

“The whole thing was amazing,” says Sid, describing his first session with Olaf to Elaine as they make supper together, this being one of his two nights off. “But the most amazing thing was when he took hold of my ankles, one in each hand, and applied a little bit of traction, and I felt myself come into my body so completely, I don’t think I’ve ever been all the way in my body until that moment.”

“What do you mean ‘in your body?’ You mean grounded or centered or…”

“I mean in,” says Sid, excitedly. “Not hovering outside of myself. My consciousness, my self-awareness, has always been barely connected to my body, connected by… I don’t know, tiny threads of floating neurons? But when I came into my body, oh my God, I felt so good, so clearheaded, so strong.”

“I want to go,” says Elaine, nodding emphatically. “Would you mind if I went to him, too?”

“Why would I mind?” says Sid, embracing her. “Imagine if we were both all the way in our bodies, and we were together.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Think of the sex, Elaine.”

“I was thinking of not being afraid of everything,” she says, laughing. “But I will think of the sex, too.”

Sid is lying on his back on Olaf’s table, his eyes closed, as Olaf stands at Sid’s head, using both of his hands to cradle Sid’s skull.

“I realize now,” says Sid, speaking quietly, “that when my father went away, my mother lost her desire to… I don’t know how to say this.”

“When your father went away,” says Olaf, slowly repeating Sid’s words, “your mother…”

“Stopped being tender,” says Sid, seeing his mother sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space, her supper untouched. “Stopped being interested in us. Stopped asking us about school, about our friends, about what we were thinking.”

“So what did you do?”

“I think I made an unconscious decision to try to take my father’s place, to become my father, so she wouldn’t miss him anymore, wouldn’t feel so alone. So she’d love us again. That’s when I started writing stories and one-act plays and poems, taking Drama classes and being in plays and singing in the choir, all in imitation of my father. But no matter what I did, she didn’t change back into the sweet woman she’d been before he left. She did soften over the years, and when I became a waiter, she would come to Falcon and I would wait on her, and she… she loved that. Loved the care I took with her.”

“When did she die?”

“Seven years ago,” says Sid, opening his eyes. “The year after my father died.”

“Were you with her when she died?” asks Olaf, moving to Sid’s right side and holding Sid’s hand while gently touching Sid’s sternum.

“No,” says Sid, tears welling up from deep inside him. “I got there an hour after she died. Late again.”

“What do you mean? Late again.”

“I mean… I was never good enough. Just like my father was never good enough.”

“But you were good enough, Sid. You were absolutely good enough. And so was your father. So was your mother. You and your father and your mother and your sister, and I, too, we all traveled through this world of sorrow and delight to the last moments of our lives, which for you and me is right now. And right now, as we’ve said again and again, we can stop telling ourselves those stories about not being good enough, about always being late, about always failing. We can tell new stories. True stories. About how skillful we are at what we do, how creative and inventive and loving we are. You help me so much, Sid, as I help you. That’s the story I like telling and hearing right now. That we are beacons of love for each other and for the world.”

“It’s very tender where you’re touching,” says Sid, his tears flowing as never before. “But I love how it hurts. Fills me with hope.”

“Wow,” says Sid, standing at the window in Nina’s office on the twenty-seventh floor of the skyscraper rising from the ordered chaos of Manhattan. “What a view. Who would want to be any higher than this?”

“Not I,” says Nina, sitting at her desk typing fast, answering an email. “I’d like to have my office in a beach house in Santa Barbara, and maybe someday I will.”

Sid sits down on the plush sofa. “You’re sure I’m dressed okay for where we’re going to lunch?”

“You’re perfect,” says Nina, glancing at him.

“You said I didn’t need to wear a tie, but everyone at Falcon says the place we’re going is off-the-charts fancy, so…”

“Sid,” says Nina, getting up and showing off her slinky red dress, her black hair piled on her head, huge gold hoop earrings dangling from her ears. “I’m dressed up. Okay? Kulu’s wife will be dressed up. But Kulu will be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or a basketball jersey or… who knows? Men can wear anything they want these days. That’s the new thing for men in show biz. Anything goes. I saw Greta Gerwig having lunch with a guy the other day in a super snazzy restaurant. She was wearing a five-thousand-dollar dress and looked like she was about to accept an Oscar, and the guy she was with was wearing dirty jeans and a faded old pajama top. Trust me. If anything, you’re overdressed.”

“I wish I’d known,” says Sid, glancing anxiously at the doorway. “I have a fabulous selection of faded old pajama tops.”

“Next time, darling,” says Nina, winking at him. “Ah, here they are.”

Sara and Kulu enter Nina’s office, both of them smiling rapturously. Sid jumps up, and Kulu takes Sid’s hand and says, “Sid, Sid, Sid, at last we meet in-person.”

“Kulu,” says Sid, the name catching in his throat. “I love those two songs you sent me. My wife and I listened to them again and again and again, and we danced to them, and then I wrote two more songs for you.” He blushes. “I brought them with me.”

“You’re amazing,” says Kulu, looking into Sid’s eyes. “I can’t wait to see them. You know what happens when I read your lyrics?”

“What?” asks Sid, breathlessly.

“The melodies are already there, flowing out of your words. This morning I wrote the tune for Heart Song. It’s so beautiful. You’re gonna love it.”

Heart Song

 

Here we are, you and I, growing older, standing by.

I propose a daring quest. You go east. I’ll go west.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

What we’re seeking is what we’ll find

when we overcome the secret mind

they put inside us long ago

so we don’t remember what we really know.

 

There’s the crossroad. Here’s the dawn.

Say goodbye. We’ll both be gone.

Leap the boundaries. Break the rules.

Take no prisoners, don’t be cruel.

Sing your heart song. Sing your heart song.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

We may never meet again in this dimension.

 

Find the entrance. Run the course.

Change your heart song at its source.

Change the grammar. Change the text.

Change your thoughts of what comes next.

I tell you, my love, we will find a way to end

the reign of sorrow and fear and misunderstanding.

 

We may never meet again in this dimension.

But we will always hear our heart songs.

 

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Naomi Drives To Portland

Naomi Drives To Portland

Naomi can count on one hand the number of times she’s left the greater Los Angeles area since she was born in North Hollywood sixty-two years ago. When she was twenty, Naomi married Simon Welch, a real estate agent, and expected to have children soon thereafter. When she didn’t get pregnant after two years of trying, she went to three doctors, each of whom declared her plenty fertile, while Simon refused to see a doctor to determine the viability of his half of the bargain.

Having planned her entire life around having kids, Naomi waited another year and then gave Simon an ultimatum. “Consult a doctor about your potency or I’m filing for divorce.”

Simon steadfastly refused to see a doctor, they divorced, and Naomi went to work as the secretary for a small-time movie producer named Sheldon Reznick. While working for Sheldon, Naomi, who reminded more than a few men of Marilyn Monroe if Marilyn had been short and brunette, caught the eye of a young director named Horace Fielding and he wooed Naomi zealously.

They were married when Naomi was twenty-six and Horace was thirty-three. Naomi got pregnant on their honeymoon in Palm Springs, and when she was eight months pregnant, Horace directed the tiny-budget comedy Your Name Again Was? that eventually grossed over fifty million dollars.

Seven years later, when their son David was seven and their daughter Rachel was five, Horace left Naomi for a nineteen-year-old fashion model from Sweden. By then, Horace had directed seven big-budget movies and he and Naomi were extremely wealthy. In the divorce settlement, Naomi got the five-bedroom house on the beach in Malibu, the condo in Century City, sole custody of the children, and twenty million dollars.

Three years later, when Naomi was thirty-six, she married Myron Lowenstein, a venture capitalist seventeen years her senior, with whom she had her third child, Frieda. Naomi and Myron were married for twenty-six years until Myron’s death three years ago when he was eighty-two.

“What’s so good about Portland?” asks Naomi, talking on the phone to her eighty-seven-year-old mother Golda. “First David moved there, then Frieda, and now Rachel. Finally they’re all about to have children and they want me to move there, too. How can I move? I’ve lived here my whole life. You’re here. I know where everything is. All my friends are here. I offered to buy them houses here, but they had to go to Portland. Why? David can work anywhere on his computer, Rachel can write television shows anywhere, and Frieda could have gone to law school at UCLA or USC. Why Lewis & Clark? Whoever they are. David goes on and on about how beautiful it is there, how fabulous the restaurants. What? We don’t have restaurants here?”

“It rains for hours and hours every day in Portland,” says Golda, angrily. “Those people there get so depressed they kill themselves. In droves. What’s wrong with sunshine?”

“Exactly,” says Naomi, despondently. “Frieda says it doesn’t rain so much there anymore and sometimes they have snow. Since when is snow a good thing?”

“Since never,” says Golda, making a spluttering sound. “Twenty-two winters I lived through in Detroit. If I never see snow again, I’ll be happy. We kissed the ground when we got to Los Angeles.”

“I’ll kiss the ground when I get back,” says Naomi, starting to cry. “But Rachel is due in three weeks. I have to be with her. I’m driving to Portland day after tomorrow. I’ll be gone for the rest of September and most of October, maybe longer. I’ll call you every day at the usual time. At least they’re in the same time zone.”

“You’re driving?” says Golda, aghast. “That will take forever. Why not fly?”

“I don’t fly, Mama. Remember? I flew to New York that one time with Horace? It was the worst experience of my life. How I lived to tell the tale I’ll never know.”

“His last movie was a bomb,” says Golda, snorting. “Serves him right, the schmuck.”

“Actually that was three movies ago,” says Naomi, who keeps close tabs on Horace’s career. “His last two films have been huge. Horror movies.”

“He should be ashamed.”

“He makes money,” says Naomi, looking around her immaculate home. “That’s all he ever cared about.” She clears her throat. “Money and young women. So I’m leaving Monday. I’ll spend the night with Lisa in San Mateo and then…”

“Lisa? Lisa who?”

“Lisa Leibowitz. You remember Lisa. We went to high school together.”

“I thought she lived in Glendale.”

“She moved to San Mateo twenty years ago.”

“Who knew?”

“I told you hundreds of times.” Naomi rolls her eyes. “Anyway, from San Mateo I drive eight hours to a place called Gold Beach. In Oregon. I’m staying in a motel there that Rachel and David both love. Right on the beach. As if I’m not already right on the beach. And I’ll get to Portland the next day if I don’t get killed first.”

“Why would you get killed?”

“I’m not planning on it,” says Naomi, sighing heavily, “but you never know.”

Naomi makes the drive in her big new silver Mercedes. From Malibu to San Mateo the trip is a piece of cake, and she has a nice visit with Lisa. The traffic she encounters the next morning between San Mateo and Cloverdale reminds her of driving in Los Angeles, but when she gets twenty miles north of Willits on Highway 101, she begins to feel uneasy about the absence of towns and houses; and the disquieting lack of traffic makes her wonder if something terrible has happened in the greater world, something that has made people afraid to go anywhere.

Now quite abruptly the highway shrinks from four lanes to two, with huge trees crowding the road on either side, and she feels she has entered a cold and alien place of endless forests void of people. So to quell her growing panic, she calls her daughter Rachel in Portland, and to her horror, her brand new phone won’t work.

“Why can’t I use my phone?” she asks the onboard computer. “My phone doesn’t work. Why not?”

“No coverage here,” says the robotic voice.

“How far to coverage?” asks Naomi, breathing hard.

“Garberville,” says the voice.

“How far to Garberville?” asks Naomi, her heart pounding.

“Forty-two miles,” says the voice. “At your current speed you will arrive in fifty-seven minutes.”

“Why no coverage until Garberville?” asks Naomi, her voice trembling.

“No coverage until Garberville,” says the voice.

Naomi’s heart is beating so fast, she thinks she might be about to have a heart attack; and just as she has this thought, a pullout appears on her right, so she eases off the road, and there at the far end of the pullout is a young woman holding a baby—a cardboard sign propped up against her backpack saying EUREKA.

And because Naomi is terribly frightened and desperate for help, she pulls up beside the young woman, lowers the passenger window, and says haltingly, “Can you… can you help me? I’m… I’m having trouble breathing.”

“I can help you,” says the young woman, speaking calmly.

“Thank you,” says Naomi, turning off her engine and closing her eyes.

The young woman opens the passenger side door, sets her baby on the passenger seat, hurries around the nose of the car to the driver’s side, opens the door, and places her right hand on Naomi’s shoulder, her left hand on Naomi’s forehead. “You’ll be fine,” she says softly. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

“Thank you,” says Naomi, keeping her eyes closed. “You’re very kind.”

“Had a scare, huh?” says the young woman, smiling at her baby who smiles back at her. “Where you from?”

“LA,” says Naomi, relaxing a little. “I’ve never been anywhere so far away from anything else, and there were no towns or houses and hardly any traffic, so I started to feel anxious and tried to call my daughter but my phone wouldn’t work, and that threw me into a panic and my heart was racing and I couldn’t get a deep breath and…” She starts to cry. “I thought I was gonna have a heart attack, so…”

“You’ll be fine,” says the young woman, her voice warm and tender. “Everybody gets scared sometimes. You’ll be fine.”

Naomi opens her eyes and smiles at the young woman. “What’s your name? Where are you going?”

“Teresa,” says the young woman, taking her hand away from Naomi’s forehead but keeping her other hand on Naomi’s shoulder. “That’s my boy Jacob. We’re on our way to Portland.”

“Why are you here?” asks Naomi, her panic subsiding. “In the middle of nowhere.”

“I guess so I could help you,” says Teresa, nodding. “I wondered why they dropped us off here instead of in a town. Just out of the blue they pulled over and told me to get out.”

“Who?” asks Naomi, grimacing. “Who would leave you here?”

“It was a couple,” says Teresa, shrugging. “Man and a woman. Picked us up at the north end of Willits. I don’t think she wanted to stop for us, but he did. She wouldn’t talk to me and he wouldn’t stop talking to me and she was not happy about that, so I think she gave him an ultimatum.”

“Are you… are you homeless?” asks Naomi, smiling sadly at Teresa.

“Kind of,” says Teresa, nodding. “At least until we get to Portland. Can you hand me my boy? I think he’s about to throw a fit.”

“Oh don’t do that, Jacob,” says Naomi, talking baby talk to the little boy as she picks him up. “Oh you are such a sweetie pie. Here’s your mother. Don’t worry.”

She hands Jacob to Teresa and gazes at the two of them, and they seem incredibly familiar to her, as if she’s known and loved them forever.

“I know you didn’t stop to give us a ride,” says Teresa, smiling hopefully, “but I sure would appreciate a lift to Garberville. Much better chance of getting a ride from there.”

“Garberville Schmarberville,” says Naomi, beaming at the young mother and child. “I’m taking you to Portland.”

They stop for lunch at a food truck selling Mexican food in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store on the southern outskirts of Eureka—a dozen pickups parked around the food truck, the clientele mostly laborers, most of them Latinos.

“Is it safe here?” asks Naomi, gazing out her window at the burly men sitting at tables near the food truck.

“Oh, yeah,” says Teresa, nodding assuredly. “And the food is really good. You said you liked Mexican. There’s a fantastic Mexican place in Gold Beach, too, but we won’t get there until dinnertime, so…”

“Maybe I could wait in the car with Jacob,” says Naomi, panicking. “And you get the food.” She rummages in her purse and comes up with a fifty-dollar bill. “How about that?”

“I think I better take him with me,” says Teresa, opening her door. “He’s kind of needy right now.”

“Okay,” says Naomi, taking a deep breath. “I’ll come with you.”

So they get out of the car and the men at the tables and the men in line at the food truck all turn to watch Naomi and Teresa and Jacob approach—Teresa a beautiful young woman with long brown hair dressed in blue jeans and a black sweatshirt, Naomi an attractive woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair wearing a long gray skirt and an elegant magenta blouse.

The closer they get to the men, the more terrified Naomi becomes, and she is just about to turn around and run back to her car when a big Mexican man at one of the tables smiles at her and says in English with a thick Spanish accent, “That’s a beautiful car you got there. Es un hybrid, sí?”

“Yes, a hybrid,” says Naomi, laughing nervously. “It’s so quiet you can hardly tell when the engine is running.”

“Es big, too,” says the man, nodding. “I don’t like those little Mercedes, you know? Want that leg room.”

“Yes, leg room is good,” says Naomi, grinning at the man. “You can’t ever have enough leg room.”

The man and his three companions nod in agreement, and Naomi’s fear vanishes.

Teresa hands Jacob to Naomi before stepping up to the window of the food truck to place their order, and as Naomi nuzzles Jacob and makes him chuckle, she is startled to hear Teresa speaking rapid-fire Spanish to the woman in the truck. Until this moment, it never occurred to Naomi that Teresa might be Mexican because Teresa speaks English without an accent and, judging by her appearance, she could easily not be Mexican.

They share a table with three Mexican men and an African American man, the conversation mostly about fishing until the African American man asks Teresa how old Jacob is.

“Ten months,” says Teresa, feeding Jacob a spoonful of rice. “Almost eleven.”

“Big boy,” says the African American man, grinning at Jacob. “Daddy big?”

“Tall,” says Teresa, nodding. “But skinny.”

“You never can tell how big they gonna end up,” says the African American man. “I got three kids and the one who was the littlest baby turned out to be the biggest. He bigger than me, and I’m big.”

“I have three kids, too,” says Naomi, eager to join the conversation. “And come to think of it, David was the smallest of the three and the shortest kid in his class until Fourth Grade, and then he shot up like a weed and ended up six-foot-two. His father was only five-seven. I don’t know how David got so tall. There’s no tall people on either side going way back.”

“My wife,” says one of the Mexican men, “in school, you know, she learn if they get lots of sleep then they grow more.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” says Naomi, liking everyone at the table. “And come to think of it, David was always a great sleeper. He could sleep through anything. I think you’re absolutely right. Sleep is so important. If I don’t get enough sleep, you don’t want be around me. Believe me.”

“I believe you,” says the African American man, nodding. “I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not getting up on a roof.”

“Sí,” says another of the Mexican men. “Remember when Juan came to work so sleepy. That’s when he fell.”

“Got to have sleep,” says the African American man, winking at Naomi. “Sleep is how we charge up those batteries.”

“What a nice bunch of guys we had lunch with,” says Naomi, walking with Teresa and Jacob down an aisle in a Target store in Eureka, a saleswoman wearing a red vest leading the way. “I’m so glad you took us there.”

“I lived here a couple years ago,” says Teresa, nodding. “That was my favorite place to eat. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for treating us.”

“Here we are,” says the red-vested woman. “These three car seats are all good for infants. You’ll need a bigger one in a couple years when he’s a toddler.”

“Which is the best one?” asks Naomi, gazing at the selection of car seats.

“This one,” says the woman, touching the biggest one. “You don’t want to skimp on your car seat.”

“Never,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “We’ll take that one. Could someone to show us how to hook it up in my car?”

“Um…” says the woman, frowning. “We don’t usually do that sort of thing.”

“I know how they work,” says Teresa, nodding confidently. “Not a problem.”

Jacob fusses a little when he is strapped into the car seat for the first time, so Teresa sits beside him on the backseat, caressing him and singing to him until at last he falls asleep; and the moment his eyes close, Teresa falls asleep, too.

And though Naomi is once again driving through a wild land of endless forests, she is no longer afraid.

Darkness is falling when they get to the Pacific Reef Motel in Gold Beach. Naomi gets a room for Teresa and Jacob adjacent to her room, and while Teresa takes a shower, Naomi plays with Jacob and talks on the phone with her daughter Rachel.

“Everything is going just fine,” says Naomi, sitting on the floor and holding Jacob’s hand as he stands next to her, trying to stay upright. “I had a fabulous lunch in Eureka and I’m looking forward to supper here in Gold Beach.”

“Go to the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, her words a command not a suggestion. “It’s just right next door to you. It’s the only nice restaurant around there.”

“I may try a little Mexican place a few blocks from here,” says Naomi, laughing as Jacob falls on his butt in slow motion. “I’ve heard it’s terrific.”

“Mom, just go the Schooner Inn,” says Rachel, sounding annoyed. “It’s clean and the food is good. Okay?”

“I’m kind of craving Mexican food,” says Naomi, helping Jacob stand up again.

The little boy gives Naomi an enormous smile and squeals in delight.

“What was that?” asks Rachel, startled by Jacob’s squeal. “Sounded like a baby.”

“There’s a baby next door,” says Naomi, laughing again as Jacob performs another slow motion sit down. “Warm night. The windows are open.”

“Just go to the Schooner, okay? The last thing I want to do is worry about you. Okay?”

“I’m fine, honey. Don’t worry.”

Sated with delicious Mexican food from a little hole in the wall Naomi would never have gone to on her own, Teresa and Naomi and Jacob return to the motel, Teresa changes Jacob’s diaper, nurses him, and he falls fast asleep in the middle of the bed.

Sitting on the floor with their backs against the bed, Naomi and Teresa drink chamomile tea and Teresa says, “So… guess how old I am?”

“Twenty-two,” says Naomi, exhausted and wide-awake at the same time. “Twenty-three?”

“I’m twenty-seven,” says Teresa, shaking her head as if she disbelieves the number. “I had a whole other life until five years ago.”

“Tell me,” says Naomi, nodding encouragingly. “I’d love to hear.”

“I was born in LA,” says Teresa, closing her eyes. “My mother was from New Jersey, my father from Mexico. They met in a restaurant where they both worked. She was the pastry chef and he was a cook. They fell in love, got married, had my brother and me, and we were pretty happy until they got divorced when I was six. My mom got custody of us, but we saw my father on the weekends. He’d take us to the movies or to the beach and we’d get pizza or Mexican food. He was… he was a sweet guy.” She stops talking and sips her tea.

“Where is he now?” asks Naomi, having seen her own father every day of her life until he died ten years ago.

“I don’t know,” says Teresa, wistfully. “We didn’t see him much after I was eleven. He had some other kids with his second wife, but I never got to know them.” She shrugs. “I lost contact with him when we moved to Phoenix when I was sixteen. That’s where I finished high school and went to college at Arizona State.”

“What did you study?” asks Naomi, who never went to college.

“Drama and music.” Teresa makes a self-deprecating face. “I was gonna be a movie star. Silly me.”

“You could be,” says Naomi, knowingly. “You’re beautiful and you move beautifully, and you have a marvelous voice.”

“Thank you,” says Teresa, blushing.

“So then what happened?” asks Naomi, intrigued by Teresa’s story. “After college.”

“I never finished,” says Teresa, shaking her head. “I got really depressed halfway through my junior year.”

“How come?”

“Oh… my mother had this horrible boyfriend who was always hitting on me, you know, and I was afraid to tell her because she really liked him and…” She winces. “You sure you want to hear this?”

“More than anything,” says Naomi, her eyes full of tears.

“Why?” asks Teresa, her heart aching.

“Because I care about you, and because… it’s good to tell our stories to each other.” She touches Teresa’s hand. “That’s what we’re here for. To listen to each other. Don’t you think so?”

“Yeah,” says Teresa, whispering. “Maybe so.”

“No maybe about it,” says Naomi, tapping Teresa’s hand. “So your mother’s boyfriend was hitting on you and you didn’t tell her and…”

“I got into alcohol,” she says, looking away. “And drugs and… then I dropped out and I’ve been on the road ever since.” She looks into Naomi’s eyes. “But I’ve been off all booze and drugs, even pot, since before I got pregnant with Jacob. A little more than two years now.”

“That’s fantastic,” says Naomi, taking hold of Teresa’s hand. “Good for you, Teresa. That takes a very strong will. I’m proud of you. And who is Jacob’s father?”

“He was a graduate student at the University of Washington,” she says, allowing herself to cry. “I thought I’d finally found a really good guy to be with.  He said he wanted to marry me, but when I got pregnant he told me to get an abortion, and when I wouldn’t, he wouldn’t see me anymore. So… here I am.” She shrugs. “That’s the short version. I’ll spare you the gritty details.”

“So tell me this,” says Naomi, giving Teresa’s hand a tender squeeze. “If you had plenty of money, what would you do?”

“I’d get a room in a house in a good school district,” she says, nodding assuredly. “For Jacob. And I’d get a job and go to night school and get a degree in Psychology and become a counselor or a therapist.”

“That sounds wonderful,” says Naomi, excitedly. “That sounds like something I should do.”

 The next morning, after they take a long walk on a vast wild beach, they have breakfast in a café attached to a bookstore, and when their food arrives, Teresa bursts into tears.

“What’s wrong, dear?” asks Naomi, putting a hand on Teresa’s shoulder.

“I’m just… I’m just so grateful,” she says, weeping. “Last night… that was the first really good night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time, and all this good food… my milk is coming good again for Jacob.” She looks at Naomi. “You’re an angel.”

“You’re the angel,” says Naomi, putting her arms around Teresa. “I’m just a rich person who was afraid of the world until now.”

Inching along the freeway ten miles south of Portland, Naomi turns to Teresa and says, “Where am I taking you?”

“Downtown,” says Teresa, smiling brightly. “Anywhere downtown.”

“You have a place to stay?” asks Naomi, frowning.

“There’s a woman who let me sleep on her porch last year,” says Teresa, nodding. “She was real nice. I’m pretty sure she’ll let me stay there again.”

“No,” says Naomi, shaking her head. “You need a place to live. We’ll get you a motel room, and tomorrow we’ll start looking for a house.”

“A house?” says Teresa, staring at Naomi as if she’s insane. “What are you talking about?”

“You need a place to live and I need a house in Portland,” says Naomi, glaring at the stuck traffic. “What’s going on here? This is just like LA. Is this why my kids moved here? Because it reminds them of home?” She smiles at Teresa. “After all these years they’re finally having children and they want me to move here. And though I’m not ready to move here permanently, I will be spending lots of time here. So… I’ll buy a house and you can live there and take care of the place when I’m not here, and help me with the place when I am here. You can go back to school, and you and Jacob will have a home and I’ll be his grandmother.”

Teresa looks out the window at a homeless encampment next to the freeway and sees a man in filthy clothes crawl out of a battered tent, his face etched with lines of worry.

Now she takes a deep breath and closes her eyes and sees a beautiful old house on a tree-lined street, the sidewalk covered with snow, Naomi coming out the front door wearing a fur hat and a long black coat; and she’s holding the hand of a little boy bundled up in a snowsuit—Jacob three years from now.

“Okay,” says Teresa, opening her eyes and looking at Naomi. “I guess that’s what God wants for us.”

“I don’t know about God,” says Naomi, smiling through her tears, “but I know about me and I know about you and I know about Jacob, and if there were ever three people who were meant to be together, we are those people.”

fin

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Funny

groovity-poster

Incongroovity painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“While thou livest, keep a good tongue in thy head.” William Shakespeare

We were having supper with friends recently, and somehow the conversation came around to Shakespeare and the news that a number of American universities have dropped the Bard entirely from their lists of required courses for English majors. And the question was asked, “Why should Shakespeare be required reading for English majors in this age of tweeting and texting and unedited garbage topping the bestseller lists and the English language disintegrating faster than the earth is warming?

Then someone mentioned seeing Denzel Washington as Brutus in a horrendous Broadway production of Julius Caesar, a smash hit because Denzel was in the play, though his delivery of Shakespeare’s lines elicited snickers and giggles from his adoring audience throughout the hilarious (not) play—as if there was something kind of cute about a famous movie star butchering Shakespeare. Tee hee.

And that reminded me of a favorite joke about Hollywood: an enormously successful movie star, famed for his roles in bloody senseless car chase thriller detective sci-fi 3-D blockbusters in which he kills and has sex with ruthless efficiency and speaks his few lines with terse tough guy bravado, grows weary of pundits saying he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. So at the height of his wealth and fame, he spends a large part of his fortune and builds a fabulous state-of-the-art theatre in Los Angeles and announces to the world that he is going to play the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a supporting cast of brilliant British actors and actresses.

The much anticipated opening night finally arrives, the audience composed of celebrities and critics and drooling fans, and our handsome hero takes the stage and surprises everyone by speaking more than ten words without shooting someone. But the surprise soon turns to horror as the Bard’s poetic lines are clearly too much for the superstar’s untrained tongue (not to mention his leaden ear) and when he launches into the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the giggles and snickers turn to booing and hissing, and finally the superstar stops mid-monologue, stalks to the front of the stage, and shouts at the belligerent crowd, “Hey, I didn’t write this shit.”

“Experts always know everything but the fine points. When I took my citizenship exams, no one there knew how the White House came to be called the White House.” Hedy Lamarr

One of my great pleasures is pruning fruit trees that have been properly cared for. Alas, that is not the sort of task I am most frequently asked to undertake. No, most homeowners for whom fruit trees are beautiful adornments to their gardens and the occasional providers of fruit, tend to let their trees grow untamed for years or decades before finally realizing something must be done if those trees are ever to be anything more than gigantic wild shrubs; and those are the jobs I enjoy the least and do the most.

For instance, a neighbor called a few days ago and said, “I’m having a guy come to take care of my old apple tree and my old plum tree, and I’m wondering if you could come over and give him some tips. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s a good worker and he has a chain saw.”

“Did you want me to prune…”

“No, I just want you to tell him how to do it.”

As a pruner of trees and an editor of manuscripts for forty-odd years (emphasis on odd) I have come to think of the two disciplines as closely related sciences, and my neighbor wanting to employ my pruning expertise gratis reminded me of myriad acquaintances who have called me over the years and said, “I’ve got this article (or poem or story or novel or memoir) I think you’ll enjoy and I’m wondering if you’d like to give it a quick look and tell me what you think.”

“Did you want to hire me to…”

“No, I just thought you might enjoy giving it a quick once over and telling me what you think. Shouldn’t take long.”

So, yes, I have grown a bit weary of people thinking the things I do for a living are not really forms of work, but rather semi-skillful kinds of goofing around. Imagine calling your plumber and saying, “Hey, Joe, I’ve got a busted pipe I think you’ll find unique in the annals of plumbing and thought you might enjoy fixing it, you know, for free. Just for the fun and novelty of it. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so.”

Nevertheless…picture a massive apple tree with a trunk three feet in diameter out of which are growing seven massive arms, each arm a foot in diameter and thirty-feet-long, out of which are growing dozens of huge branches out of which are growing hundreds of lesser branches growing so thickly there is almost no space between any of them resulting in many of the branches being dead and dying for lack of sun and air.

Now picture an equally massive plum tree, the central trunk of which stands twenty feet away from the central trunk of the apple tree, and imagine that many branches of both gargantuan trees have grown entangled with each other to such an extent that the two trees appear to be a single organism composed of ten thousand interconnected branches employing every ounce of their energy to strangle each other. And imagine that these two trees are standing in what thirty years ago was a meadow surrounded by fledgling redwoods and fir trees that have grown into towering sun-blocking behemoths causing the plum and apple to send up twenty-foot-long suckers in a desperate attempt to access the ever shrinking supply of sunlight.

My heart went out to those two sorely neglected trees, and though I wasn’t being paid for my labor, I decided to do the job and save the old beauties. So I began directing the good fellow with his dull chain saw to cut here and there as I wielded my razor sharp Japanese pole saw, and after a couple hours of excising masses of mostly dead wood we nearly had the two old giants separated. Then, with but one more massive arm of the apple tree left to remove in order to complete the separating of the trees, my neighbor said to me, “I can see you really are an expert at this.”

As a Buddhist teacher once told me, “Beware how easily the rocket ship of ego may be launched.”

Puffed up by my neighbor’s praise, I signaled for the chain saw man to make that last cut. He did so. And for a moment of brilliant clarity the two trees stood apart, and I saw just how I would sculpt each one into a state of arboreal perfection and…

A loud cracking sound gave us scant warning to Get Out of The Way as the massive apple tree came crashing to earth, the old girl having been held aloft for who knows how many years by the deep-rooted plum. In a state of shock and awe and suppressed hilarity, I went to view the root mass of the apple tree and discovered that this colossus, a tree as big as a house, had virtually no root mass at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to my neighbor.

“Lots of good firewood,” said the guy with the chainsaw. “Most of it already seasoned.”

My neighbor, clearly deranged by the unexpected denouement said, “Let’s just leave things the way they are and see what happens in the spring.”

“The secret to humor is surprise.” Aristotle

Long ago, I was a teacher’s aide at a Palo Alto day care center for children aged two to five. All but three of our thirty children were from single-mother families, thus the three fathers who occasionally came to pick up their kids were looked upon with awe and wonder by the twenty-seven fatherless children, and I was unique among the teachers (pronounced teachoos by most of the kids) for being male.

One of the three children with a father in the familial mix was Damien, an incredibly cute three-year-old who was not yet talking. Our highly analytical director informed us that Damien’s frustration about not being able to speak, and therefore not being understood, might manifest in a tendency to bite other children, and we should be vigilant about averting such outbursts of oral aggression. Damien may have been a child of no words, but he was a fantastic mime, and his imitations of the postures and movements and facial expressions of the teachoos were the source of daily hilarity among the children.

I suspected that Damien could talk but chose not to for whatever advantages he felt that gave him. In any case, he did not speak aloud within earshot of any of the teachers, and so I related to him as a child who, for the time being, did not talk.

Two of the many recurrent tasks of a parent or teacher of wee tykes are the tying of shoes and the connecting and zipping of zippers, skills most children don’t master until they reach their late threes or older. Thus when we would prepare the kids for going outside on cold days, many laces had to be tied and many zippers zipped. One winter morning, as I knelt before the diminutive Damien and struggled to properly engage the recalcitrant zipper of his jacket, Damien looked down at my fumbling fingers, and in pitch perfect imitation of his father said, “Jive ass turkey zippah.”

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Children

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

I was in Corners a few days ago, perusing the bananas, when a little girl, four-years-old, came right up to me and said, “Know what?”

“What?” I replied, never having seen her before.

“I made up a special song.” She nodded to affirm this. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course,” I said, delighted by her. “Who wouldn’t?”

And without a moment’s hesitation she began to sing about how beautiful the day was and how happy she was and how much she loved her mother and having chocolate milk. The melody was something of a hybrid, Mary Had A Little Lamb meets Oh What A Beautiful Morning, and the tune changed key several times throughout her rendition. In short: a masterpiece. Oh, and she danced as she sang, a subtle shimmying hula. Brilliant.

“That was fabulous,” I declared, applauding. “I loved it.”

“Do you want to hear another one?” she asked, frowning quizzically, as if she couldn’t quite believe my reaction.

“Sure,” I said, nodding enthusiastically. “Who wouldn’t?”

So she launched into another song with a melody not unlike the first, this one about her favorite foods: fruit, chocolate, ice cream, pizza, popcorn, and spaghetti, with each verse ending in “minestrone soup.” Another masterwork.

I applauded again and said, “Thank you so much. You made my day.”

“I would sing another one,” she said, shrugging apologetically, “but we have to go.”

“There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.” Bill Evans

“When I was two-years-old,” said my grandmother Goody, her voice ringing with passion, “my mother had another baby, and a few days later the baby died in her crib and my mother screamed at me, ‘Did you touch the baby?’ That’s the very first thing I remember about my life.” She reflected for a moment. “I think that’s why I always feel responsible for anything that ever goes wrong.”

“For anything that goes wrong in your life?” I asked, adjusting the volume on my tape recorder.

“In my life, your life, anybody’s life.” She laughed her musical laugh. “I’m responsible for everything bad that happens to anyone. It’s all my fault.”

Goody was born in 1900 in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit, her father a cantor with a golden voice who made a few pennies preparing boys for bar mitzvah, while Goody’s mother was the primary breadwinner by keeping a little grocery store above which Goody and her two brothers and parents lived. When Goody was six-years-old, her performances at school—singing, dancing, and acting—caught the eye of a wealthy Jewish matron who felt Goody possessed talent worth cultivating, and this matron offered to pay for Goody to have the best singing, dancing, and acting lessons Detroit had to offer. Alas, Goody’s parents, orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, believed the theater world was the Devil’s playground and so they rejected the generous offer.

“I might have been a star,” said Goody, aiming her words at the tape recorder. “I could sing like a bird and dance like Isadora what’s-her-name, but what I loved most was acting, turning myself into people who did all the things I was forbidden to do.”

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung 

When I lived in Berkeley, I earned a small portion of my income as a babysitter. My favorite babysitting job was a three-hour stint, two afternoons a week, overseeing three little boys playing in my neighbor’s backyard. The boys were five-years-old and they had a fort, a small wooden platform four-feet off the ground accessible by a wooden ladder. The railing around the platform was tall and sturdy enough to keep the boys from accidentally falling off, though the boys sometimes climbed over the railing and jumped to the ground.

Because these boys had a fort and were possessed of fine imaginations, I had very little work to do except watch from a distance, intervene on rare occasions when their sword play became too emphatic, and serve them snacks around four o’clock to tide them over until supper. Sometimes they would tire of their games and come ask me to tell them a story, but usually they played happily without me for the entire three hours. Their fort was variously a spaceship, submarine, tree house, castle, armored attack vehicle, clubhouse, and pirate ship. Their bamboo sticks were variously swords, spears, guns, lasers, propulsion devices, magic wands, and fishing poles. The boys were usually united in combat against some imagined foe, though now and then they would war against each other. And what struck me as most interesting was that in all their games they imagined themselves to be men, not boys, but men they hoped to become—strong and daring and resourceful.

Watching those little boys play, I would often recall the large wooden platform in the far corner of my childhood backyard, a makeshift deck ten-feet long and six-feet wide piled with old hand-hewn redwood grape stakes. This platform served as the stage for much of my play with one particular friend, Colin, when we were six and seven and eight-years old, Colin being much more inclined to partake of character-driven dramas than those carnage-driven dramas preferred by my other friends.

Colin and I pretended our platform was a raft floating down a mighty river, and we imagined ourselves to be fugitives, heroic outlaws, with much of our discourse the recounting of harrowing tales of how we came to be fugitives. In this way, we spent many summer hours inventing plots and autobiographies, excellent practice for what would become the main literary focus of my life: writing fiction.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

Here is a very short story, a chapter from my novel of stories Under the Table Books, about children and memory and imagination.

The Big Green

People have always told me I’m weird. But who isn’t a little weird? You know what I mean?

In First Grade, I would stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and I could feel stories coming into my feet and traveling up my legs and through my heart and out my mouth into the air. At first, the other kids laughed at me, but I had to do it. Every recess I would run to the tree and pull off my shoes and start babbling.

I didn’t have a single friend when I started telling the stories, but one day this boy sat down nearby and listened for a few minutes. Then he got up and ran away and came back with four other kids, and pretty soon they got up and ran away and came back with more kids, and I just kept telling about the children lost in a mysterious forest called the Big Green. Pretty soon there were dozens of kids sitting around me and when the bell rang none of them would budge until I said The End.

Well, from then on I had lots of friends and my teacher invited me to tell stories to the class while she took little naps and pretty soon I was going to other classes and telling them stories, too, until finally I was named the official story teller of the school and I was interviewed and photographed for the school paper. And then there was an article about me in the local newspaper, which is when my mother and father found out about what I was doing.

I’ll never forget that night—the day before my seventh birthday. My father came home from his office and my mother showed him the article in the paper about me and he became furious. “What are all these stories about?” he wanted to know.

I told him they were mostly about lost children and he said, “You’ve never been lost. That’s lying.”

“They’re just stories,” I said, trying to defend myself. “They like us to make up stories.”

Who likes you to?”

“The teachers.”

“Why didn’t you tell us about this?” He glared at my mother. “Did you know about this?”

“Heavens no,” she said, cringing. “He doesn’t tell me anything.”

“So now all our friends are gonna see this and…”

“We’ve had five calls already.”

“Sonofabitch,” said my father, clenching his fists. “That does it. No more story telling. You hear me? No more.”

“But…”

“But nothing. You quit telling stories or you’ll be in big trouble.”

So I stopped. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. I lost most of my friends and I got beat up by some older kids who tried to force me to tell them stories, but I’d been in big trouble with my father before and it wasn’t something I would risk again until I was seventeen and left home for good.

Now here’s the amazing part. I didn’t remember any of this until last year when I went to a psychic astrologer to celebrate turning forty-seven. The first thing she said to me was, “Your great gift emerged when you were six, but something happened and you were forced to squelch it.”

“Gift?” I said, remembering only my profound loneliness. “What kind of gift?”

“You were psychic. And judging from your chart, such a gift would have been unacceptable in your family. Even dangerous for you.”

“I don’t remember,” I said, straining for any sort of memory from my early years.

“Then you turned to the physical. Sports?”

“All I did,” I said, remembering the endless baseball—the safe simplicity of bat meeting ball, a boy drifting back in left field to catch another towering drive, never wanting the day to end.

“And now?”

“I work at a preschool. I’m a teacher’s aide.”

Then it hit me, the way I keep the kids entertained between four and six waiting for their mommies to pick them up. I stand barefoot by a tree at the far end of the playground and tell them stories about the children lost in the Big Green. And though the children in my stories are definitely lost, they are not alone. They have each other, and so never lose hope of finding their way home.


 

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He Touched Me

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2012)

“If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.” Pearl S. Buck

Reading Bruce McEwen’s tragic Hug A Kid, Go To Jail, I thought, “My God, there but for the grace of luck and chance and (in my system of belief) the intervention of angels, I, too, might have been arrested for child molestation and been sent to prison and labeled a sex offender for the rest of my life—on several different occasions. What? How?

When I was in my late thirties and living in Sacramento, I played basketball every morning at a neighborhood park. Three days a week I met my friend Bob there for rousing games of one-on-one, and two days a week I shot around by myself. Along with the basketball court, the park featured a big lawn and a swing set and a public bathroom. So one morning I was shooting hoops and these two moms showed up, each with a cute kid in tow, and they wandered to the far end of the park and spread out a big blanket for playtime and snacking and reading and whatnot.

As I continued shooting hoops, one of the kids, a girl, skipped across the lawn to the restroom adjacent to the basketball court and entered the little cinderblock building on the side marked WOMEN. A moment later she let out a blood-curdling scream, and in the next moment I was on my way into the restroom to rescue her. But some unseen power grabbed hold of me, and a loud inner voice said, “Don’t go in there. Whatever you do, don’t go in there!”

The girl screamed again—bloody murder!—and I turned on my heels and sprinted across the lawn toward the moms, waving my arms and shouting, “Your little girl is screaming in the bathroom.”

One of the mothers jumped up and raced to the restroom and found her daughter bruised and bleeding from a head wound sustained when she slipped on the wet floor and smacked into the ceramic sink. The mom carried her daughter out into the sun and said to me, “Thanks so much. We couldn’t hear a thing over the leaf blowers. We’ve got ice. She’ll be fine. You know kids. Always falling down.”

Then the mom and I exchanged long looks, her look saying, “I understand why you didn’t go in there,” and my look saying, “I didn’t go in there because I was afraid I might be accused of trying to harm her.”

But what if I had gone in there and picked up that little girl and…well, I didn’t, though she might have been bleeding to death. Or she might have been in the clutches of a child molester. I was furious for days after, thinking about how if I had tried to help a hurt child I might have…I mean, what if she had said to her mother, “He touched me.”

“I am fond of children—except boys.” Lewis Carroll

In 1969, twenty years before that Sacramento restroom incident, I was traveling around America in an old GMC panel truck with my friend Dick Mead. On a blistering hot August day we pulled into Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, got a camping spot, and went exploring. That was when I saw fireflies for the first time. There was a huge old swing set overlooking a beautiful meadow, and I was swinging on a swing, marveling at the hundreds of little blobs of light floating and flitting over the meadow in the waning light of day, when suddenly a cute little pigtailed girl took the swing next to mine.

“I can go higher than you can,” she said, kicking off and swinging hard.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, being twenty. “We’ll see about that.”

So we swung together, going higher and higher, and she laughed and I laughed, and then we stopped pumping and allowed our swings to go lower and lower until we were barely swinging, and then she started pumping again and going higher, and I pumped, too, and caught up to her. Then we let ourselves swing to a stop and she said, “Hey, you want to do the spider? Me and my dad do it all the time. It’s so fun.”

“What’s the spider?” I asked.

And before I could blink, that cute little pigtailed girl was straddling my legs, facing me, gripping my wrists and shouting, “Okay, go!”

And I was instantaneously consumed with terror. “Uh, no,” I said, standing up and shaking free of her. “I have to go now. Nice meeting you.”

“But it’s so fun,” she said plaintively. “You’ll love it.”

What if I’d gone ahead and done the spider with her and her father had come looking for her and caught us in the act? What if a park ranger had seen the longhaired stranger from California spidering with that little girl? Or what if that little girl had gone back to her family and when her mother asked, “Where were you, honey?” the little girl had replied, “Oh, I was playing with a nice man on the swings.”

And during further questioning the little girl had admitted, “Yes, we were touching there because we were doing the spider.”

“What is a home without children? Quiet.” Henny Youngman

I worked in a Day Care Center when I was in my twenties and again when I was in my fifties. There are many truths about little kids, but one of the largest truths about them is that they are keenly interested in genitals, their own and those of others. They, the children, are particularly interested in the genitals of adult males, which are the most obvious of adult human genitals. Little boys are particularly interested in these larger versions because little boys possess smaller versions and are fascinated by the size discrepancy and the possibility that they, too, might one day have larger equipment.

I remember during my initial indoctrination as an employee of the day care center, how we were told that when a child touched us “there”, it was imperative to instantly put an end to such touching, and to make sure the children knew that such touching was absolutely verboten. Never mind that a large part of my job was helping kids pull their pants down so I could wipe their butts and then help them pull their pants up. Never mind that when the kiddies wet their pants or spilled paint or juice over themselves, it was my job to strip off their sodden poopy pissy clothes, to render them naked and wash them clean and clothe them anew. Never mind that any one of those delightful creatures at any time might have reported to a parent, “He touched me,” which report might have led to my arrest.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Helen Keller

For five years in the 1990’s I ran the Creative Writing department for a summer school for the arts. Ambitious and talented teenagers fifteen to nineteen-years-old were my charges, and among these teens were many sexy young women. I had never taught at any level before then and so had not previously been on the receiving end of the romantic crushes of students.

I will never forget one particular summer evening on the campus of Mills College where our school was being held, a one-month intensive wherein the students lived and breathed their art and the influence of mentor artists. I was walking across the greensward on my way to the music building to find a piano to play, when someone called, “Todd,” and I recognized the voice of Dawn, one of my students.

I stopped, and a moment later Dawn was beside me. I thought her the most beautiful and alluring of my students, and I knew of her crush on me because when I worked with her group of writers she responded to nearly everything I said as if she might at any moment have an orgasm. Then, too, she would linger after class and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me as I tried to concentrate objectively on the excellent erotica she’d written and about which she very much wanted my feedback.

“Hey,” she whispered on that memorable evening, her honeyed breath warm on my cheek. “You and me alone in the dark. Finally.”

“Hey, Dawn,” I said, trying to be cool. “What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is I want you,” she said, pressing close. “And you want me. And you know it. And I know it. And I’m way over eighteen and I’m on the pill so we’ve got nothing to worry about. Please? Please take me somewhere and make love to me? Please? Or we can do it right here and I’ll make you feel so good you won’t believe it.”

“Nope,” I said, breaking away and running for my life.

And had she been crazy or vindictive, she might easily have gone to the school administrators and said, “He followed me last night and touched me.”

Thankfully she was not crazy or vindictive, though she did show up the next morning for our short story section wearing practically nothing, and brazenly handed me a note—crimson ink on lilac-scented stationery—that said, “Any time, any place. I am so ready for you.”

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Practice(ing)

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.

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Occupy Yourself

Photo of Todd by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Quentin Crisp

In 1972, when I was in my early twenties, I founded a commune in Santa Cruz, California, a collective of eight people (with numerous and frequent overnight guests). We were disenchanted with American society, with America’s wars of aggression, with America’s pyramidal scheme of things, and with America’s environmentally disastrous use of the land, so we decided to explore new (to us) and regenerative ways to interface with the world rather than follow in the destructive footsteps of our parents and forefathers.

To that end, the eight of us shared a house built for a family of four, created a large organic garden (some of us having worked with Alan Chadwick in the university gardens), and pooled our minimal resources for the good of the group. Our experimental community lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of selfishness, immaturity, and a profound lack of preparation for such an undertaking. Our intentions were flawless; our skills and execution abysmal.

Nevertheless, I learned many valuable lessons from that adventure, and my next communal experience was vastly more successful, though it, too, died a sorry death for lack of skills, experience, and commitment by the majority of the participants. We were children, after all, though we had attained the age of adults in other societies; and children, with rare exceptions, eventually need guidance from elders to make the transition from play into self-sustaining living.

A few nights ago, after watching a raft of Occupy Wall Street videos sent to me by fascinated friends, I was reminded of a night in that first commune, when several of us were gathered by the fire in the living room, rain pounding the roof of the house owned by an opportunistic university professor with a penchant for young hippy chicks, the owner of several houses he rented to gangs of youthful experimenters, many of whom I have no doubt would have flocked to the Occupy happenings of today—for the fun and adventure if nothing else.

So there we were discussing Marx and Sartre and Steinem and the tyranny of patriarchal theocratic monogamy mingled with visions of interconnected communes and solar organic farms and grassy walkways instead of cement sidewalks; and mass transit and bicycles instead of poisonous factories and cars and freeways—utopia manifesting in clouds of cannabis—when Pam appeared on the threshold connecting the kitchen and living room and said, “Hey, I totally dig where you guys are coming from and where you’re going, too, but who’s on dishes tonight? The kitchen is totally gross.”

“To heal from the inside out is the key.” Wynonna Judd

A psychotherapist once said to me, “The problem with blaming others for our unhappiness is not that those others aren’t important in the history of our sorrow, but that blaming them for everything interferes with our taking responsibility for what we have done and are doing now.” And one of my problems with blaming Wall Street and Washington and the wealthiest people for the woes of the nation (and the world) is that though many Wall Street operators and politicians and excessively wealthy people are unscrupulous jerks and thieves, blaming them for all our social and economic problems seriously interferes with taking responsibility for what we of the so-called 99 per cent have done and are doing now.

I find it maddeningly simplistic to suggest that we of the 99 per cent are not profoundly involved in the socio-economic systems of our towns, counties, states, and nation. As I read history, until the most recent collapse of the gigantic Ponzi schemes that kept our false economy bubbling along at least since Clinton took office in 1992, many of the people (or their parents) now bemoaning the economic imbalance of our society were perfectly happy to reap the rewards of that fakery, including the promises of fat retirements based on their 401 Wall Street retirement plans, and to hell with the rest of the world and those less fortunate than they. And I am certain the so-called one per cent know this about the 99 per cent, which is why they, the one per cent, do not take the 99 as seriously as they should.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” Carl Jung

Shortly before Obama became President of the United States, I wrote that unless Obama moved quickly to institute Single Payer Healthcare and nationalize the banking system, within two years we would see massive social unrest. I was wrong. When the Occupy happenings began I thought they might be the start of that massive unrest, but now I doubt anything immediately massive will be sparked. I hope I’m wrong. But when someone sent me a link to an Occupy Kauai YouTube, and thirty seconds into the silly thing I was guffawing, I had the feeling the Occupy phenomenon might be well on its way to self-parody. Can the Occupy clothing line and Occupy Café chain and Occupy app be far behind?

“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez successfully employed non-violent protest, resistance, and boycott to further their political, social, and economic aims, and we are all beneficiaries of their courage and strategies. I assume some of the Occupy folks have studied the methods of Gandhi and King and Chavez, and I remain hopeful they will eventually decide to emulate those visionaries. Discussing my hope with an avid fan of the Occupy Wall Street folks, I asked, “So would you say the strategy of the occupiers is to not have a strategy?”

“Absolutely,” said my friend, “because to have a strategy is to commit to an ideology, which could quickly become vertical and therefore inherently divisive. This is a horizontal movement so no one is excluded.”

“Excluded from what?”

“From protesting how unfair the system is. That’s the beauty of saying we are the 99 per cent, because that’s totally inclusive except for the few people who have everything.”

“But a few people don’t have everything and the situation is much more complicated than some infantile delusion that one per cent of the population is determining everyone else’s fate. Among many other things, we do elect the charlatans passing the laws favoring the fat cats, don’t we?”

“Of course, but we don’t want to make this too complicated. By keeping things simple no one feels excluded.”

“I feel excluded.”

“That’s because you like things complicated. You want everyone to push for taxing corporations and socialized medicine and free education and shrinking the military. Talk about divisive.”

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” Aldous Huxley

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I wrote the end of this article. In the dream I was madly in love with the Occupy Wall Street people and compared them to the disenchanted rebels and counter culturists of my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I compared Occupy Wall Street to the Be Ins of those mythic times, and I wrote eloquently (as one does in dreams) about how the only agenda anyone had at those Be Ins was to “be there now” for whatever might go down, so to speak. Then, still in my dream, I thought of the television show Laugh In starring the young Goldie Hawn and Lili Tomlin; and in that marvelous way of dreams, Laugh In and Occupy Wall Street merged, and the protests became funny and sexy and good.

I think my dream was partly inspired by a slide show I watched before going to bed. Marcia sent me a link to a Huffington Post slide show of the Wall Street Occupation, a montage of compelling images that might have been shot in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the mythic Summer of Love in 1968, though I’m not saying the Occupy folks are a bunch of latter day hippies, but rather that they are as disenchanted (yet hopeful) as we were forty years ago, and they are passionately seeking alternatives to the earth-killing system that currently holds sway over our country and the world.

The article in my dream ended with lyrics to a beautiful song that made me cry. I wish I could remember the words, but they did not survive the transition to my waking state. What did survive was the feeling that just as we didn’t have an agenda forty years ago when we waved goodbye to the old ways and set out to figure out new ways that made more sense to us, neither do the Occupy people have an agenda other than to take things one day at a time, to be there now, to be good to each other, and to see what might evolve. So hurray for them, and by association, hurray for us.

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Her Children

Photo by Ginger Malisos

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No, but rather, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.