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Marcia’s Best Ever Blue Hubbard Squash Pie

(This story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

Henry Abbot is not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers, though until eight years ago he very much enjoyed giving rides to strangers and dropping them at the best hitchhiking spots in Fort Orford.

Oh, he still stops for Miles Larsen when he comes upon Miles walking home burdened with groceries, and he still gives the Collison boys rides when he sees them trudging home in the twilight after football or basketball or baseball practice, but they aren’t hitchhikers, they’re his friends and neighbors.

Youthful at fifty-nine, strangers guess Henry is in his late forties. A big sturdy man with sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes, Henry is a former lumberjack, now the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the only hardware store in Fort Orford, a town of three thousand hearty souls on the north coast of California. Henry was born and raised here, and except for five years away when he was in his twenties—two years of military service and three years peddling his songs in Nashville—Henry has never gone away except for the very occasional vacation.

A bachelor until he was forty-two, neither he nor anyone who knew him expected he would ever marry. Friendly, intelligent, and handsome, Henry liked women and women liked him, yet he seemed incapable of more than fleeting intimacy. And then he met Katy, the new veterinarian in town, fifteen years his junior, and they married three months after her arrival. They had two beautiful daughters, Cecily and Diana, and when the girls were seven and five—eight years ago—Katy fell off a ladder, struck her head, and died instantly.

Now Henry’s primary goal in life is to live until his daughters are able to fend for themselves, which is why he doesn’t pick up hitchhikers anymore—to lessen his chances of encountering a crazy killer.

But on this cold November morning—driving to town in his old white pickup—when he comes to where the country road he lives on meets the coast highway into Fort Orford, he sees a woman standing by the road with a backpack, violin case, and a small brown dog, and this woman is so much like Katy, Henry cannot help but stop for her.

Everything about her reminds Henry of his wife—her dark brown hair in a three-strand braid, her white Guatemalan blouse embroidered with red and blue and green thread, her loose-fitting blue jeans, her pointy chin, her light brown eyes, and her radiant smile. That she also has a violin and her dog is the twin of Leo, Katy’s constant companion, makes the similarity uncanny.

She opens the passenger door, looks in at Henry gaping at her, and asks, “Are you okay? You look stunned.”

“Haven’t had my coffee yet,” he says, his voice catching in his throat. “Still a little dreamy.”

“How far you going?” she asks, scanning him with a practiced eye and judging him safe, her accent Midwestern, as was Katy’s.

“Just into town. Fort Orford. Four miles.”

“Mind a dog?” she asks politely. “We can ride in back if you do.”

“Love dogs,” he says, smiling as she makes the same clicking sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth that Katy made—the little pooch jumping up onto the seat and gazing intently at Henry.

The woman lifts her big pack into the bed of the truck with remarkable ease, gets into the cab with her violin case, puts on her seatbelt and says, “Thanks for stopping. I’m Jolene. The mutt is Crawford.”

Henry caresses Crawford’s head, and the little dog hops onto Henry’s lap.

“Now that is truly amazing,” says Jolene, frowning at Crawford. “He’s never done that before.” She turns her gaze on Henry. “What are you? Some sort of dog whisperer?”

“We have a couple dogs,” says Henry, scratching behind Crawford’s ears. “Probably smells them on me.”

“No,” says Jolene, shaking her head. “He doesn’t even do that with people he knows. Only ever does it with me.”

“Maybe I remind him of someone,” says Henry, pulling onto the highway—Crawford leaving him to sit on Jolene’s lap. “I’m Henry. Where you headed?”

“Portland,” she says, embracing her violin case. “Unless something better manifests along the way.”

“Are you a classical musician or a fiddler? My wife…she’s no longer alive…she played the violin, too.”

“This is not a violin,” says Jolene, smiling sweetly at Henry. “Mandolin. I play folk songs and my own tunes, too. Some jazzy Brazilian things.”

“I used to play guitar,” says Henry, remembering his days in Nashville, how so very close he came to selling a song. “A million years ago.”

“So beautiful here,” says Jolene, sighing with pleasure as the dark blue waters of Prescott Bay come into view. “You know a good place to have breakfast in Fort Orford?”

“I know the best place,” says Henry, looking at Jolene and realizing she is quite a bit older than he first took her to be, her eyes pale blue not light brown, her skin dark olive, not white and freckled as was Katy’s, her hair not brown but black with strands of gray, not braided but in a pony tail, her blouse pale yellow and not embroidered, her jeans brown not blue. “Stuyvesant’s. Excellent omelets, strong coffee, brilliant waitresses.”

“Then that’s where I’m going,” says Jolene, tickling Crawford’s chin. “And aren’t you a lucky dog it’s not raining, so you won’t be getting wet while you wait.”

“I just realized,” says Henry, laughing, “you’re not American. You’re…”

“Irish,” says Jolene, nodding. “What a remarkable ear for accents you have.”

“If you’d like, you can leave Crawford with me,” says Henry, feeling perfectly at ease saying so. “I’m two doors down from Stuyvesant’s. The hardware store. I’m the manager. Dogs allowed.”

Jolene considers this offer and says, “Only I was hoping you’d have breakfast with me. My treat. I made a bundle busking in San Francisco.”

“Then we’ll bring Crawford with us,” says Henry, slowing way down as they enter the town, his eyes full of tears. “They won’t mind him if he sits on your lap.”

“Or yours,” says Jolene, gazing at Henry. “He loved you the minute he saw you.”

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Curve Again

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2014)

Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ formidable leftie known as Mad Bum or simply Bum, stands tall atop the mound on a cool Friday night in September—the famous San Francisco fog not yet manifest, a soft breeze blowing in from McCovey Cove, the yard packed with zealous fans, the Dodgers in town battling to keep the Giants from overtaking them in the division race—both teams destined for the playoffs.

Having put down the first nine Dodgers in order, five by strikeouts, Bum walks Dodger leadoff hitter Dee Gordon to start the fourth inning and thereby forfeits his chance to throw a perfect game. Prior to the walk, Bum’s control was superb, scary the word muttered by seven of the first nine Dodgers to face him.

Bum takes a deep breath and glances up at the sky. Why did I walk their leadoff man? Why do I so often walk the leadoff man when everything is going so well? Don’t think about it. Stay out of your head. Relax. Life goes on.

The next batter strides to the plate, makes a big show of settling into the batter’s box, and crowds the plate. This is Yasiel Puig, a big powerful right-handed outfielder with a weakness for sliders away and fastballs up. Puig is hitting .293 for the year and has been an absolute terror against the Giants this season. Bum struck out Puig on three pitches in the first inning and made him look bad—two fastballs and a slider in the dirt.

He’ll be waiting on my fastball.

Buster Posey, the Giants’ catcher, flashes the sign for a curve and sets up low on the outer half of the plate. Bum nods, glances at the speedy Gordon inching away from First, and pitches.

Let it be told throughout the land and the myriad dimensions known and yet to be discovered, that this particular pitch is the most exquisite curve Bum has ever thrown, the ball arcing so high and faraway from the straight line to the plate that Puig gives up on the ball the moment it leaves Bum’s hand. But at the end of its trajectory the ball hooks back over the plate just above Puig’s knees and smacks the very center of Posey’s unmoving glove. Alas, the umpire is as flummoxed as Puig and calls the exquisite strike a ball.

Bum winces as if someone slapped him in the face—the crowd groaning and booing to echo his outrage. Anger and despair rise from the depths of Bum’s being, emotions he knows he must control if he wishes to remain in the good graces of the umpire, though the effort to suppress his feelings makes him shudder.

Sensing Bum’s distress, Posey trots to the mound to have a chat with his pitcher. Posey is a youthful twenty-seven and five years into what many predict will be a Hall of Fame career. Bum is a seasoned veteran at twenty-five, his stuff so good that when he’s on his game he is virtually unhittable. His eternal challenge, however, is that he can fall off his game in a twinkling when something goes awry, something like an umpire calling a brilliant strike a ball.

Posey looks Bum in the eye and says, “That was zenith, man. Best curve ball I’ve ever been privileged to catch. You not only fooled Puig, you fooled the ump.”

“How could he call that a ball?” cries Bum, glowering over Posey’s head at the umpire. “Is he myopic? And if so, how did he get this job?”

“You surprised him,” says Posey, winking at Bum. “Don’t worry about it. Your stuff is stellar tonight. Primo. They’ll be lucky to get one out of the infield if they ever manage to hit one.”

“Okay,” says Bum, reaching his arms high above his head to release the tautness in his back. “Let’s get him.”

Posey trots back to home plate and fiddles with his mask before going into his crouch and flashing the sign for a fastball.

Bum shakes his head, a response that comes as a surprise to Bum for three reasons. First, a fastball seems like an excellent idea coming after a curve ball with the runner on First likely to steal. Second, Bum almost never shakes off Posey because Posey calls excellent games and they almost always agree on the pitch to be thrown. Third, Bum wants to throw a fastball because he is still furious with the umpire for calling his perfect strike a ball.

Yet he rejected Buster’s call for a fastball, which tells Bum that his unconscious mind has taken control of the situation. But did my unconscious mind shake off the fastball as an act of self-sabotage or as an act of intuitive genius? In either case, Bum nods his approval of Posey’s second suggestion: another curve.

Curve again thinks Bum as he checks the speedy Gordon at First Base and intuits he’ll be taking off with the pitch. Of course. Because my first curve was perfect. Who cares if the umpire missed the call? So what if Puig guesses curve and hits the ball out of the park? Buster wants to see that beauty again, and so do I. Yes, I do.

So Bum coils and releases the pitch. The runner goes. The ball arcs so high and faraway from the straight line to the plate that Puig starts to give up on the pitch but now he remembers the perfection of the previous pitch that should have been called a strike and maybe this time the pitch will be called a strike so he swings late and gets just enough of the ball to drive a soft liner to Ishikawa standing a few feet off First Base.

Catching the easy floater, Ishikawa grins like a kid in a candy shop and ambles over to the bag to complete the double play—Gordon hung out to dry between First and Second.

Bum covers the bottom half of his face with his glove to hide his grin as he watches the celebratory slinging of the ball around the infield and takes the congratulatory toss from Crawford, the Giants nonpareil shortstop. Now Bum climbs the backside of the mound, toes the pitching slab, grips the ball, gazes in at Posey and nods Yes to Posey’s signal for a high fastball so I can let off some steam.