Nathan Grayson, his once brown hair mostly white now, is seventy-three, sturdy and healthy and still pruning fruit trees, Japanese maples, roses, and lemon trees fifteen hours a week from February through November.
A poet of some renown when he was in his late twenties, Nathan’s third volume of poems Fickle Muse, was considered by many to be a frontrunner to win the Pulitzer that year when out of the blue two influential writers accused Nathan of plagiarism, after which Nathan’s publisher took Fickle Muse and his previous volumes Impossible Rose and Indigo Blues out-of-print, recalled all copies yet to be sold, and thereafter no publisher or literary magazine, even tiny ones, would ever again publish Nathan’s poems, though the supposed plagiarism was never proven, nor did any of Nathan’s poems even remotely resemble the works of his accusers, save they were written in English.
Astonished by these accusations, Nathan was certain the hideous nonsense would soon blow over and he would publish again, but that was not to be. So he moved from San Francisco to the little town of Mercy on the north coast of California and became a pruner of fruit trees, a skill he’d acquired growing up on a fruit farm in southern Oregon.
After two years of pruning fruit trees in Mercy, his services much in demand, Nathan hired the admirable Juan Gomez as his assistant, and a few years later Nathan married Juan’s sister Celia to whom he has been married for thirty-five years. They have a thirty-two-year-old daughter named Calypso who, like her mother, is a nurse.
Despite his fall from literary grace, Nathan never stopped writing because writing is second nature to him, nearly first, and he writes for a couple hours every day, mostly poems and the occasional humorous story.
What does he do with his poems and stories when, even now, no publisher or magazine will consider his work? He posts them on the blog Calypso made for him and receives emails and letters from people around the world who enjoy his writing.
On a cold February evening, Nathan is standing beside Celia in the kitchen of their cozy redwood house, watching Celia make their favorite supper—chicken enchiladas, tomato rice, refried beans, guacamole, and a big green salad. Their little floppy-eared mutt Tennyson is at their feet hoping for what Nathan calls droppage, while their calico cat Grace snoozes on the sofa by the fire in the living room.
A few weeks ago Nathan posted a poem about Celia cooking this very meal entitled her fingers are geniuses for which he garnered several lovely responses from readers and a request from a restaurant in Sonoma to use the poem as the frontispiece of their permanent menu, for which they paid Nathan a hundred dollars and free meals whenever Nathan and Celia come to Sonoma, which is never.
“That’s the first money I’ve made from my writing in forty-five years,” says Nathan, tickled to think of people sitting down to dine in a snazzy restaurant and reading his poem about Celia.
her fingers are geniuses just look at them go making
guacamole and salsa and refried beans and tomato
rice and juicy chicken enchiladas you can’t tell me
her digits aren’t possessed of formidable brains
and unique personalities as she simultaneously
talks to her daughter and flirts with me saying,
“Put another log on the fire, marido,” just
look at those fingers go with such fearless grace
wielding knives and spoons amidst the blazing
casserole and red hot pans and steaming pots and
I the lucky recipient of their divine ministrations.
“I’m glad you didn’t keep being famous when you were young,” says Celia, who had no idea Nathan was a poet until he started sending her love poems as prelude to asking her to marry him. “If you had stayed famous you never would have moved here and met me and we never would have had Calypso and she wouldn’t have had Carlos who you love more than you love me.”
“Not true,” says Nathan, putting his arm around her. “I love Carlito as an extension of you.”
“You would have married some other famous person and lived in New York,” says Celia, pouting adorably, “and spent your winters in a mansion in the south of France.”
“Mansions are a pain in the ass,” says Nathan, tasting the guacamole and smiling sublimely. “I prefer small houses. Much easier to heat and keep clean.”
“I know you,” she says, nodding. “You’re lucky not to be famous. All those women would have drained the life out of you.”
“But what a way to go,” he says, kissing her. “And now I can be famous, yeah? Now that we’re together and Calypso is incarnate, my poems can be in menus and I’ll get money in the mail.”
“Just don’t be too famous, okay? I love our life, don’t you?”
“Por su puesto,” he says, kissing her again before he and Tennyson go to answer the door expecting Calypso and her husband Paul and their darling three-year-old Carlos.
Opening the door Nathan startles to see a strikingly beautiful woman he knows from somewhere—fortyish, dark blonde hair falling to broad shoulders, kiss-me lips and glorious cheeks—but where?—and her teenaged son, his long brown hair covering most of his face. Or is this her daughter?
“Good evening,” says Nathan, turning on the porch light to clarify the scene. “What can we do for you?”
The daughter or son squats down to pet Tennyson, and her face becomes dreamy beautiful and Nathan decides she’s female.
“Mr. Grayson?” says the woman, her voice overwhelmingly familiar to Nathan, though he can’t think where he’s heard her voice before. “I hope we’re not interrupting your dinner.”
“Not yet,” says Nathan, smiling down at the child gently stroking the happy mutt.
“My name is Sharon Duval,” she says, her voice deep and sonorous. “We just bought the Caldwell place and our realtor Ward McKenzie said I should speak to you for advice about…” She laughs a sparkling laugh. “Country living, I guess. Ward didn’t have your phone number and you’re not listed, and since we’re so close…”
“Yeah, no problem,” says Nathan, fishing his wallet out of his work pants hanging on a hook by the door. “I’ll give you my card. Call me tomorrow.”
“Perfect,” says Sharon, smiling at the approach of Celia. “Hello. I’m Sharon Duval. Your new neighbor.”
“Celia,” says Celia, shaking Sharon’s hand. “And who is this?”
“This is Del,” says Sharon, touching the top of Del’s head as she continues to squat and pet Tennyson.
“Hello Del,” says Nathan, handing Sharon his card. “You gonna go to Peach Tree Elementary or are you in high school? Forgive me. I’m terrible at guessing ages, including my own.”
Del stands with notable grace and tosses her head to fling the hair out of her eyes. “Home school. I… I… I love your dog.”
“His name is Tennyson,” says Nathan, meeting Del’s eyes and sensing her confusion and sorrow.
“I… I love him,” she repeats. “He’s magnificent.”
“Takes one to know one,” says Nathan, winking at her.
Now Calypso and Paul and Carlos arrive in their lemon-yellow Volkswagen van and Sharon says, “We should go. I’ll call you tomorrow, Mr. Grayson.”
“Nathan, Nate, or Nat will do,” says Nathan, smiling at Del. “See you round the hood.”
After a fleeting hello to Calypso and Paul, Sharon and Del depart in a gold Mercedes.
When everyone is seated at the dining table, Carlos enthroned on Nathan’s lap, Calypso says, “That woman looked exactly like Margot Cunningham. Don’t you think?”
“I think she is Margot Cunningham,” says Celia, speaking of the movie star. “She said her name was Sharon Duval, but she must be Margot Cunningham. Who else could she be?”
“Margot Cunningham,” says Nathan, nodding in agreement. “Of course. My brain couldn’t compass the possibility of her living here, so I couldn’t imagine how I knew her. But why here? Why not some palatial estate in the south of France?” He bounces his eyebrows at Celia. “Isn’t that where all the famous people go?”
Calypso and Paul both get out their phones and hunt for news of Margot Cunningham.
“She’s forty-four now and has a thirteen-year-old daughter Delilah,” says Calypso, studying her screen. “That fits. From her brief marriage to Larry Bernstein. She’s currently rumored to be dating the actor Ivan Brubeck and/or the director Jerry Fields. And she’s soon to start filming the next two Planet Babylon Reborn movies for which they are paying her a paltry seventy million dollars.”
“Well-deserved, I’m sure,” says Nathan, feigning seriousness. “Though I prefer her in those movies where she’s an impossibly beautiful regular person, a housewife or secretary or waitress or high school teacher.” He shakes his head. “Can you imagine being in high school and having Margot Cunningham for your teacher? The mind boggles.”
“Sci-fi franchises are where the big money is today,” says Paul, who knows everything about contemporary popular culture. “She was big before Crusaders of Galaxy Nine and Planet Babylon Reborn, but now she’s arguably the biggest star in the world.”
“Anything more about Delilah?” asks Celia, who can’t stand super hero movies.
“Delilah goes by Del now and is trans,” says Paul, reading from his screen. “That’s not for sure, but possibly. We take all internet gossip with large grains of salt.”
“What does that mean exactly?” says Nathan, frowning. “Trans?”
“Transgender,” says Calypso, gazing at her screen. “She’s biologically female but feels she’s male. Yeah. According to Screen Gospel the trans thing is not for sure, but likely. And she/he is also a Music or Math prodigy.”
“Star Struck says both,” says Paul, putting his phone away because he knows cell phones bug Nathan. “How about that. Margot Cunningham living in Mercy.”
“They want you to prune for them, Papa?” asks Calypso, putting her phone away, too.
“Hope so,” says Nathan, sipping his lemonade. “I love those Caldwell apples. Especially the Fuji.”
The woman claiming to be named Sharon who sounds exactly like Margot Cunningham calls the next morning and Nathan agrees to come by her place on his way to prune a few apple trees.
He loads his tools into the back of his old white pickup and opens the passenger door for Tennyson who comes running from the vegetable garden where he was sticking his nose down a gopher hole and now has a muddy muzzle.
“Please leave those gophers to Grace,” says Nathan, wiping Tennyson’s snout with a towel before starting the engine. “She actually catches them whereas you just dig up the garden and do more damage than the gophers.”
A two-minute drive brings them to the house formerly owned by Archie and Clare Caldwell, a lovely old place built of river rock and redwood on ten acres of meadowland ringed by forest. Nathan has pruned the Caldwell fruit trees for thirty years and hopes to prune them for another ten. Archie and Clare were good friends with Celia and Nathan despite the political chasm between them, and Nathan was sad to see them go.
He leaves Tennyson in the truck, which Tennyson does not appreciate, climbs the seven stairs to the front porch, and knocks on the door. He waits a minute, knocks again, the door opens a crack, and a woman, not Sharon or Del, peers out and says, “Mr. Grayson?”
“I am he,” says Nathan, smiling. “Nathan or Nate or Nat will do.”
“Just a minute,” says the woman, closing the door.
Nathan studies the sky and guesses it will rain in the early afternoon and possibly hail, which doesn’t bode well for plum trees in bloom.
Now the door opens and here is Sharon looking spectacular in a red Pendleton shirt and blue jeans, her glossy blonde hair in a ponytail. Standing beside Sharon is a shorter woman with graying brown hair wearing a blue sweater over a white dress shirt and brown corduroy trousers.
“Hello Nathan,” says Sharon, shaking his hand, her grip formidable. “This is my housekeeper Wanda.”
“Hello Wanda,” says Nathan, shaking Wanda’s hand. “So… besides pruning your fruit trees, which I did for the Caldwells, what can I do for you?”
The women step outside and close the door behind them.
“We are new to country living,” says Sharon, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Nathan down the stairs, Wanda following, “and we would like to hire you to help us learn the ropes.”
“How to start a fire, for one thing,” says Wanda, her manner gruff, her accent New Jersey. “We have no idea.”
“Mind if I let my dog out?” asks Nathan, marveling at the exigencies of fate. “He’s a sweetie and loves to tag along.”
“Yes, fine,” says Sharon, laughing gaily. “I imagine we might eventually get a dog.”
“If we stay,” says Wanda, sounding doubtful.
Now the front door opens and Del comes out onto the front porch wearing a puffy black jacket, black ski pants, blue rain boots, and a black beret, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face reminiscent of her mother’s, though her eyes are brown not blue.
“I thought you weren’t coming with us,” says Sharon, obviously taken aback.
“I changed my mind,” says Del, coming down the stairs. “Did… did… did you bring Tennyson?”
“I did,” says Nathan, beaming at Del. “I was just about to let the beast out.”
“Can… can I let him out?” asks Del, looking at the truck where Tennyson is gazing forlornly out the window.
“Be my guest,” says Nathan, gesturing gallantly.
Del runs to the truck and opens the door and Tennyson leaps out and races around her twice before going up on his hind legs and offering his front paws to her, which she takes in her hands and dances with him, laughing.
They proceed to explore the place, Tennyson in the lead, Del close behind, Nathan and Sharon and Wanda following.
Nathan shows them the large chicken coop that recently housed a dozen hens, the small greenhouse good for cacti and starting vegetables from seed, and the fourteen fruit trees in the deer-fenced orchard—ten apples, two plums, two pears. He opens the door to the pump house and tells them about their well and water storage tanks, and the need to have the water filter cleaned every few months. Then he shows them their big propane tank and explains that their house is heated with propane and their stove runs on propane, too, and the propane has to be delivered by a propane truck.
“So after you choose a company,” says Nathan, slapping the tank to gauge how full it is, “they’ll come out whenever you’re running low.”
Wanda frowns. “We’re not hooked up to the whatchamacallit?”
“Energy grid?” says Sharon, nodding hopefully.
“For electricity, you are,” says Nathan, feeling himself being inexorably drawn into the lives of these three. “For gas, no. And you’ll probably want your septic tank pumped out. Been at least ten years if I’m remembering correctly, and you don’t want your sewage backing up.”
“We’re not hooked up to the city sewer?” says Wanda, aghast.
“What city?” says Nathan, laughing. “No, save for electric you’re entirely self-sufficient. There’s not much to do. You’ll see. And you’ve got a backup generator that kicks on when we have power outages, which we do a few times every winter. Your generator runs on propane, too.”
In the woodshed, the big room low on firewood, Nathan finds an old axe and expertly chops a pile of kindling.
Del watches Nathan create the kindling and asks politely, “May I try? I’d like to learn.”
“I will bring my sharper axe and hatchet tomorrow and give you a lesson,” says Nathan, leaning the axe against the wall of the shed. “I don’t have time today, Del. But here’s the thing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can cut yourself really badly doing this, so you’ll need a lesson.”
“When tomorrow?” asks Del, thrilled to know Nathan is planning to return. “In the morning?”
“Say ten?” says Nathan, looking at Sharon.
“Fine,” says Sharon, eagerly. “We should… could you buy us an axe and hatchet? We wouldn’t know which to get. I’ll reimburse you, of course, and pay you for your time. And if you’ll recommend someone for firewood, we’ll call them today.”
“Sure,” says Nathan, gathering the kindling. “Now if you’ll each burden yourselves with a log or two, I’ll start a fire for you before I go.”
In the spacious living room of the beautiful old house, Nathan and Del kneel together on the hearth and he shows her how to build a lattice of kindling over a pile of crumpled paper.
“I love this,” she whispers. “Can I light it?”
“Sure,” he says, handing her a big wooden match. “That’s a strike-anywhere match. You can see the scrapes here on the brick Archie always used.”
The match ignites on Del’s third try and she coos with delight as she touches flame to paper and the fire crackles to life.
“Now when you’re sure the kindling has caught,” says Nathan, handing Del a piece of wood slightly larger than the kindling, “you lay progressively larger pieces on, but not too fast or you’ll put the fire out. Fire needs oxygen. Get it?”
“Got it,” says Del, carefully placing the larger piece atop the pyre.
“Good,” says Nathan, getting to his feet. “And now I must prune some apple trees before the rain comes.”
“When is that?” asks Wanda, anxiously. “The rain?”
“This afternoon, I’m guessing,” says Nathan, smiling at Wanda. “Might hail, too. A pleasure meeting you. I’ll see you all tomorrow at ten.”
“I’ll walk you to your truck,” says Sharon, following Nathan to the door.
“Will you bring Tennyson tomorrow?” asks Del, adding another piece of wood to the fire.
“Oh yeah,” says Nathan, smiling at the sight of her taking such care with the fire. “He goes everywhere with me.”
At the truck, Sharon stands close to Nathan and says, “I would very much like to hire you to come every day to help us with all the things we need help with. What is your hourly fee?”
“I get forty an hour for pruning,” he says, feeling a little dizzy being so close to her.
“Shall we say fifty,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I’m amazed by Del’s response to you. Really likes you.”
“So…” he says, wanting to ask which pronoun to use for Del, but deciding not to. “Tomorrow at ten.”
“Yes,” she says, frowning. “I suppose you know who I am.”
“I think I do,” he says, opening the door of his truck and waiting for Tennyson to jump in, “but if you’d rather be Sharon, I’m fine with that.”
“I guess it doesn’t really matter here, does it?” she says, her eyes filling with tears.
“No, you won’t get mobbed,” he says, resisting his impulse to hug her, “though people will gawk until they get used to you being here. You planning to live here year round?”
“I won’t be here all the time,” she says, shaking her head. “But Del and Wanda will. For a few years anyway.”
“Okay then,” he says, climbing into his truck and rolling down his window before closing the door. “See you tomorrow at ten. I can take Del axe shopping with me, if that’s okay with you.”
“Oh Del won’t go anywhere without me or Wanda,” says Sharon, shaking her head. “She… no.”
“Well then maybe we can all go,” he says, pulling away. “I think she’ll dig the hardware store.”
And so begins Nathan’s career as the helper of Wanda and Del and the movie star Margot Cunningham.