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short story

End of the World

“Miles, right?” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. “What can I get for you today?”

Miles, a slender fellow with short gray hair, today his sixty-third birthday, gives Justin a dazed look and says, “I’ve only been here once before, about three months ago. You and I spoke for less than a minute. Yet you remember my name. I’m amazed.”

“You’re a memorable guy,” says Justin, who is forty-five, six-feet-six, with carrot red hair and a Cheshire Cat smile – his ability to remember faces and the names that go with those faces phenomenal. “Was it beer or wine I served you? This I don’t remember.”

“A local porter,” says Miles, feeling a slight lifting of the gloom that has gripped him for as long as he can remember. “Delicious. And fish & chips, the fish broiled. Also delicious. I’d love a half-pint of that same porter and fish & chips again.”

“For future reference,” says Justin, filling a glass with dark Mercy Porter and placing the brew before Miles, “I take food orders along with booze requests until five. Thereafter our wait staff will take your food order once you’re seated. And by golly, it’s only 4:49, so you’re in luck.”

“Great,” says Miles, getting out his wallet.

“We’ll settle up when you’re all done,” says Justin, waving to the waitress and pointing to Miles as she returns from a foray among the tables. “Conchita will cater to your every whim. Within reason.”

Conchita, a lovely Latina in her early thirties, six months pregnant, steps up to the bar and rattles off orders for beer and wine and mixed drinks before she turns to Miles and says, “Miles, right? Have a seat and I’ll find you.”

*

Miles chooses a small table with a view of the bar, sips the delicious porter, and feels he might cry – the friendliness of Justin and Conchita breaching the dam around his heart.

“Oh well,” he says, allowing himself to shed a few tears. “It is my birthday, after all.”

Somewhat relieved by his little cry, his glass empty, he looks up as Conchita arrives with a big platter of fish & chips and coleslaw and a half-pint of porter.

“Justin thought you might want another to go with your food,” says Conchita, setting the porter down and picking up the empty. “This one’s on the house.”

“Thank you,” says Miles, his tears on the rise again. “When is your baby due?”

“November seventh,” she says, placing a hand on her belly. “Three more months. You have kids?”

“A daughter,” says Miles, unable to quell his tears. “And a grandson. They live in Portugal.”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” asks Conchita, scanning the room to gauge how long she might linger with him. “We’re having a girl and collecting possible names. My mother wants me to name her Luisa after my grandmother, and my grandmother Luisa wants me to name her Felicia after her mother. And my husband’s mother says she’d love it if we named her Doris after her mother.”

“Eliana,” says Miles, his jaw trembling.

“Ooh,” says Conchita, winking at Miles as she moves away. “I love that. Enjoy.”

Now Miles really cries and ceases to care if anyone sees him blubbering, and when his tears abate, he has a long drink of the porter, eats a few of the scrumptious chips, and digs into the tender fish, the deliciousness of everything momentarily easing his sorrow.

*

Walking home from town at dusk on a trail through the woods that allows him to avoid walking on a road save for the last quarter mile – his house a mile inland from Mercy – Miles is pleasantly drunk and lost in thoughts of Justin and Conchita and the gaiety of the pub, when an enormous mountain lion steps onto the trail just twenty feet ahead and gives Miles a searching look before vanishing into the dark forest.

*

His heart still pounding from the encounter with the giant puma, Miles arrives at his house at the dead end of Auden Street, a lane intruding into the vast redwood forest, and he is filled with a longing to not be alone, a longing he has kept at bay for the seven months he’s lived here.

He starts a fire in the woodstove in the living room and clicks on the electric kettle in the kitchen to boil water for tea – his house fully electric, the electricity supplied by a large array of solar panels standing to the south of the house where he also has a big vegetable and flower garden, his two acres deer-fenced to keep out the many ravenous deer.

Squatting by the woodstove to feed the fire, Miles longs to have a friendly dog to go on walks with, a cat or two sprawled on the sofa, and someone making tea in the kitchen, someone he can tell about meeting the mountain lion – none of which he thought he would ever long for again.

Sure of the fire’s continuance, Miles goes into his office, notes the light blinking on his answering machine, a rare occurrence, and taps the space bar on his keyboard to awaken his computer, the screen revealing a dozen emails yet to be opened, most of them with the subject heading Happy Birthday – none of which he cares to read.

He returns to the kitchen and is about to make a cup of tea, when a vehicle pulls into his driveway and headlights penetrate into the house for a moment before the driver turns the headlights off.

“What did I order?” he says, assuming this is a delivery truck, UPS or Fed Ex, and thinking Must be more birthday nonsense.

He turns on the outside lights to illuminate the parking area and the path to the house, and a moment later someone opens the gate. Hearing footsteps on the gravel path, Miles waits for the delivery person to leave the package on the porch and depart, but now someone knocks on the front door and Miles thinks I must have to sign for something.

He turns on the porch light, opens his door, and is startled to see Conchita standing next to a man holding a little black dog.

“Hello,” says Miles, his heart pounding.

“You left your wallet at the pub,” says Conchita, handing Miles his wallet. “We got your address from your driver’s license. My shift just ended and you’re on our way home, so… we just live another mile inland.” She turns to the man, a sturdy fellow with curly black hair. “This is my husband Zeke. Zeke this is Miles.”

“Hey,” says Zeke, lifting one of the little dog’s paws to wave at Miles.

“Thank you so much,” says Miles, blushing. “Must have been the porter. I’m a cheap date. Usually stop at half a pint.”

“Zeke’s the same way,” says Conchita, laughing. “And by the way, happy birthday. I saw your DOB on your license.”

“Oh thanks,” says Miles, on the verge of tears again. “Would you like to come in? Have a cup of tea?”

Conchita and Zeke exchange looks and Conchita says, “We don’t want to bother you.”

“No bother. Please,” says Miles, gesturing for them to enter.

“This is Eso,” says Zeke, nuzzling the little dog. “He’s house trained and his paws are clean.”

“Fine,” says Miles, petting the friendly dog. “I love dogs.”

*

They sit by the woodstove, Eso sprawled on the hearth, and Conchita and Zeke tell Miles a little about themselves – Zeke born in Mercy, does garden maintenance for a living, his parents retired to Hawaii some years ago, Conchita born in Mercy, too, her parents and grandparents and most of their descendants still living in and around Mercy, the baby she’s carrying her first.

“What about you, Miles?” asks Zeke, his voice full of kindness. “How do spend your time?”

“I mostly garden now,” says Miles, not wanting to talk about his past but feeling he must a little. “Take long walks. Eat. Sleep. Read. That’s about it. I was a professor at UC Berkeley for thirty-five years. Ecology.”

Zeke frowns. “Are you Miles Cain?”

“I am,” says Miles, nodding. “Have you… how do you know of me?”

“I read your last three books,” says Zeke, looking at Conchita. “And recounted much of what they say to my patient wife.”

“Oh,” says Conchita, awareness dawning. “You’re the end-of-the-world guy.”

Miles feels her words as a knife in his heart. “Yeah. That’s me.”

“Great books,” says Zeke, looking at Miles with deep respect. “Brave and honest and what everybody needs to know. Thank you for writing them.”

“Fat lot of good they did,” says Miles, wanting more than anything for Conchita to know him as someone other than the end-of-the-world guy. “I often regret writing them.”

“No, no,” says Zeke, shaking his head. “They’re incredibly important. In this world of climate-change deniers and…”

“Too late,” says Miles, shaking his head. “We’ve gone beyond all the crucial tipping points. No way back.”

“Too late for what?” asks Conchita, gazing at Miles and sensing how deeply sad and lonely he is. “We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families. Whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right? I could die in childbirth. Zeke could die tomorrow in a car accident or fall off a ladder. But we’re alive now and we’ll be alive until we die.”

“And as you said in your books,” says Zeke, who often thinks about how life may be when their daughter is ten and much of the world is in chaos from climate disasters and the breakdown of society, “the earth has seen a thousand tipping points that make the current trends seem fairly insignificant.”

“But you will suffer,” says Miles, bowing his head and weeping. “Everyone will suffer so terribly, and it didn’t have to be this way.”

“Maybe it did,” says Conchita, getting up and going to Miles and resting a hand on his shoulder. “In the meantime, welcome to the neighborhood. We’re having a barbecue on Saturday and we’d love for you to come.”

In between sobs, Miles manages to ask, “What can I bring?”

*

Miles hasn’t spoken to his daughter Eliana in two years. She stopped communicating with Miles when he published his last and most successful book If We Don’t Change NOW and refused to express any hope of humanity averting a climate crisis that will render the earth uninhabitable by humans and most other living things. Eliana’s mother Sharon divorced Miles twenty years ago when he refused to add a note of hope to his first bestseller about climate change Avoidable Disasters. And his subsequent marriage to Jane, a fellow ecologist, ended because Jane couldn’t bear his relentless anger and pessimism.

But one of those birthday phone messages Miles got yesterday was from Eliana and her husband Goncalo and their ten-year-old son Hugo calling from Portugal and singing Happy Birthday, so Miles feels emboldened to call Eliana and ask for her apple cake recipe, apple cake to be his contribution to the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s.

“Papa?” says Eliana, surprised to hear her father’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“I will be if you can remind me how to make your fabulous apple cake,” says Miles, thrilled to hear his daughter’s voice. “I never can remember all the ingredients.”

“I’ll email the recipe to you,” she says, doubting the recipe is why he called. “How are you?”

“Sixty-three,” says Miles, laughing.

“Not how old are you,” says Eliana, laughing, too. “How are you?”

“Oh I don’t know,” he says, carrying his old landline phone out onto his deck, the morning sun just now ascendant over the redwoods to the east. “I had a bleak birthday until I went to the pub for an early supper and had a delicious dark beer and glorious fish & chips and met two very nice people, and then on my way home I encountered an enormous mountain lion and…”

“You were walking?” she gasps.

“Yes, at dusk. And when that giant puma decided not to eat me, something changed in me and when I got home I wanted a dog and a cat and friends for the first time in eons. But enough about me. How are you doing? How’s your handsome husband and your splendid son?”

“Hugo…” she begins, and Miles can hear she’s crying, and he thinks of Conchita saying We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families, whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right?

“Hugo said he would never eat again until we called and sang Happy Birthday to you,” says Eliana, crying some more. “He’s incredibly stubborn. I can’t imagine who he got that from.”

 “I’m so glad to hear from you,” says Miles, feeling as if he just escaped from a terrible prison composed of a maze without end, a small break in the wall allowing him to get out right before the break was repaired. “You sound good and strong.”

“I’m okay. Are you… do you have a garden?”

“I do. Just learning how to grow things here. Very different climate than Berkeley. Never gets very warm here even in the summer.” He knows this will change soon and even here life will become untenable. “Lettuce and chard and peas grow wonderfully well here, and potatoes. But my zucchini are pathetic, and tomatoes and eggplants will require a greenhouse, which I have yet to build.”

“Are you writing anything?” she asks tersely.

“No,” he says, looking up as a raven glides by. “How about you? What are you working on these days?”

“Short stories. As always.”

“I loved your last collection,” he says, remembering when Eliana was six and announced she was going to be a writer of stories like the ones in Winnie the Pooh, and that is what she became. “Did you get my letter about that?”

“I don’t read your letters. I need to go.”

“I love you, dear.”

“You do?” she asks, sounding like a little girl.

“Always and forever.”

*

Forty gregarious people attend the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s, and Miles’s apple cake is a big hit.

As the party is winding down, Conchita introduces Miles to her cousin Sylvia, a beautiful woman in her fifties who wants the apple cake recipe.

“I know you,” says Sylvia, giving Miles a dazzling smile. “I’m a checker at Walker’s Groceries. I check you out all the time.”

“Oh, yes,” says Miles, who is hanging out with Justin and his wife Helen. “I didn’t recognize you out of uniform and with your hair down and without your glasses on. You’re a whole other person.”

“That’s a delicious apple cake you made,” says Sylvia, who hasn’t been involved with anyone, and hasn’t wanted to be, since her husband died when she was thirty. “Can I get the recipe from you?”

“Of course,” says Miles, getting lost in Sylvia’s big brown eyes. “I… I’ll… where do you live? I’ll make you a copy and drop it by.”

“In town,” she says, astonished to feel so attracted to him. “Or… you could come for supper tomorrow and bring it then.”

“Oh jump on that one, Miles,” says Justin, nodding emphatically. “Best Mexican food in the world. And that’s not hyperbole.”

“You come, too,” says Sylvia to Justin and Helen, blushing to have been so forward with Miles.

“Que hora?” says Justin, bouncing his eyebrows. “We’ll bring the booze.”

*

A year later, on his sixty-fourth birthday, Miles wakes in his new queen bed to the sweet sounds of Sylvia making coffee in the kitchen, their pups Camino and Flora skittering around on the tile floor at Sylvia’s feet hoping for treats.

Now he hears Sylvia speaking in Spanish on the phone, and though his Spanish is not great yet, Miles recognizes the words for birthday and party and tomorrow afternoon and cake and enchiladas and tamales and watermelon mingling with the names of his friends who will come to sing for him: Pedro and Maria and Carlos and Justin and Helen and Zeke and Conchita and their darling baby girl Eliana.

fin

La Entrada a piano solo

Categories
short story

Zeke’s New Gig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

“Who wouldn’t buy a house from you?”

“Are you teasing me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m good. So… Rebecca who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

Mystery Pastiche