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short story

What We Become

On a cold rainy Friday morning in November in busy Café Brava, a bakery café in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, the poets Phyllis Omega and Helen Morningstar share a small table. Phyllis is having the El Grande Breakfast #2 and a latte, Helen a breakfast burrito and coffee.

Phyllis is sixty-four, buxom and pretty, her dimples impressive, her silvery gray hair in a short ponytail, her legal name Phyllis Goldberg. Single and childless, Phyllis works at Crow’s Nest Books and makes up for her insufficient salary with discrete sex-for-money with four older local guys.

Helen is half-Pomo and half-Mexican, thirty-seven, slender and solemnly beautiful, her long black hair in a braid. Never married, Helen is a secretary for an insurance salesman, has a twenty-one-year-old daughter named Carol who lives in Florida, and Helen’s longtime boyfriend is Justin Oglethorpe, a bartender and bouncer at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in Mercy.

Phyllis and Helen are reading together tonight at Crow’s Nest Books, their meeting this morning a planning session for tonight’s performance. They are not close friends, though they see each other frequently at poetry readings and at Big Goose wherePhyllis is a regular and Helen goes on Thursday nights to listen to Ricardo Alvarez play piano.  

Lancaster Books just published Helen’s second volume of poems Inevitable Impossible, and several of her poems are in current issues of literary magazines. Phyllis hasn’t published anything in twenty years, but she has a loyal local following and Ramona France, the bookstore owner/manager, is determined to get a good turnout for tonight’s reading after several months of terrible turnouts, even for well-known poets.

“Of course I’ll read first,” says Phyllis, who is intensely jealous of Helen’s recent success. “You’re the star.”

“Hardly,” says Helen, who wishes Phyllis would write something new – Phyllis’s repertoire unchanged in twenty years. “I was thinking for the first half we could each read for fifteen minutes, and then do ten minutes each for the second half.”

“How about I do ten and you do twenty for the first half?” says Phyllis, sipping her latte. “And I’ll do seven and you do fourteen for the second half? You’re the one with a new book and poems in jillions of magazines.” She shrugs dismissively. “I don’t write anymore. Nothing new to say.”

Helen can’t imagine not writing – she lives to write.

“I watch too much television,” says Phyllis, shrugging again. “The antidote for poetry.”

“The antidote for poetry,” says Helen, nodding. “That’s a poem.”

“A title anyway,” says Phyllis, who regrets agreeing to read with Helen. “Titles aren’t my problem. It’s what comes after that eludes me.”

“How about we each write a list of titles?” says Helen, eagerly. “And we can go back and forth reading our titles. People will love that.”

“You think so?” says Phyllis, seeing one of the men she has sex with enter the café and pretend not to see her. “If I have time. Crazy busy today.”

*

That afternoon in the bookstore, shelving the latest batch of murder mysteries – murder mysteries keeping the bookstore solvent – Phyllis thinks of two titles she wants to write down for the back-and-forth with Helen, but by the time she helps a nearsighted man find the latest Murray Splatz murder fest Bloody Bloody Money and sells a Sierra Club engagement calendar to a tourist from Dallas, she can’t remember the titles she was going to write down.

*

Standing at the counter, the bookstore momentarily empty of customers, Phyllis writes in her notebook Nothing. Something. Everything. Self-hatred, self-love, self-denial, tired of self.

“Excuse me,” says a man with a British accent.

Phyllis closes her notebook and smiles at the handsome man with brown hair going gray. “How may I help you?”

“We’ve come up from the city to hear Helen Morningstar read tonight.” He glances around the store. “Wanted to make sure we’ve come to the right place. Can’t imagine where the poets will perform.”

“Bookshelves on wheels,” says Phyllis, amazed someone would drive five hours to hear Helen read for a half-hour. “We make space for thirty chairs. If more than thirty people come it will be a new world’s record.”

“Ah,” says the man, laughing. “Thank you. And can you recommend a good place to eat?”

“Money no object?” asks Phyllis, guessing it isn’t for him.

“Seafood?” says the man, dodging her question. “Mexican?”

Phyllis recommends Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, watches the man depart, and writes Money No Object. Bookshelves on Wheels. Nobody Ever Drove Five Hours To Hear Me Read.

*

Helen is sitting at her desk in the one-room office of Levinson Insurance talking on the phone to an outraged customer. Her work day ends at four-thirty, fifty minutes to go, then home to read through her poems, make an early supper, get dolled up, read through the poems one more time, and walk to the bookstore with Justin, assuming he remembers she’s reading tonight.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Carlyle,” says Helen, closing her eyes. “That’s what happens when you have a big claim like this. Your rates go up.”

Mrs. Carlyle shouts angrily about insurance companies being a bunch of crooks, and Helen holds the phone at arm’s length waiting for Mrs. Carlyle to stop shouting.

“I’ll have Pete call you,” says Helen, referring to her boss. “He can explain this better than I can.”

Mrs. Carlyle starts shouting again and Helen holds the phone at arm’s length again. Pete looks up from his desk across the room from Helen and says quietly, “I’m not here until Tuesday.”

When Mrs. Carlyle stops shouting, Helen says, “Pete will be out of the office until Tuesday. I’ll put you at the top of his list. We’ll do everything we can to keep your rates as low as possible, but the truth is, replacement costs have gone through the roof, so there will be an increase in your rates.”

Helen hangs up the phone and says to Pete, “You want her file?”

“No,” says Pete, who prizes Helen far more than she realizes, though her salary is an insult. “Go home now. Your big night tonight.”

“Thank you,” she says, greatly relieved to be done for the day. “Much appreciated.”

“We’d come to your reading,” says Pete, lying, “but things with Andrea’s mother are just nuts right now, so…” He picks up his phone. “Gotta take this.”

*

As dusk descends, Phyllis sits at her kitchen table in the little house she bought thirty-five years ago for next to nothing when half the houses in Mercy were vacant and the current real estate madness was unimaginable.

She is leafing through the same little pile of poems she’s leafed through for the last twenty years and wishing she hadn’t agreed to do this reading – thinking of calling Ramona and bailing.

Her phone rings and the little screen tells her the caller is Albert, one of the men she has sex with – Saturday at ten his usual time.

“Hey Albert,” says Helen before Albert can speak. “We on for tomorrow?”

“Yes,” he says urgently. “Can I come over now, too?”

“Sorry, honey, I’m busy. I’m reading at the bookstore tonight.”

“Please?” he says desperately. “I won’t take long. Pay you two hundred. Please?”

“I can’t Albert. I’m…”

“Three hundred? Please, Phyllis?”

She looks at the clock. She needs the money. He will be quick. He always is.

“Okay, come on,” she says, terminating the call and going to get lubed up.

*

Albert arrives five minutes later – a portly fellow with a lopsided mustache – and with barely a hello he is astride her on her bed and finishes quickly.

“Thank God,” he says, climbing off and putting on his clothes. “My wife out of the blue decided to go to the city for the weekend and the minute she drove away I got so horny I thought I was gonna explode.”

“You couldn’t just do yourself?” says Phyllis, hating the sight of him.

“Why would I do that?” he asks, grimacing. “When I can have you?”

*

Phyllis takes a shower, puts on her bathrobe, sits on the sofa in the living room, and leafs through Helen’s new book Inevitable Impossible, stopping at a poem entitled What We Become.

What We Become

When I was two my seventeen-year-old mother left me

with her grandparents and disappeared. My great Grandpa

Morningstar was eighty-one, great Gram seventy-nine.

We lived in the woods north of Mercy and they loved me

 until they died when I was sixteen. I was a good student

but crazy desperate to be connected to someone so I got

pregnant quit school went to work as live-in help for Janet,

middle-aged blind woman. She loved my baby Carol so much.

Loved her and loved her and I went to community college

where a poet came and read poems to us and I was

born again and started writing poems and never stopped.

When Carol was six she got hooked watching tennis on

television, begged for a racket, and I got two to play with her

and we played together every day for three thousand days.

When Carol was twelve she said, “I’m gonna be a pro,

Mama. Wear all white and play at Wimbledon.” She

won a tennis scholarship to Stanford, played college

for two years, turned pro at nineteen and now she’s

twenty-one and makes her living playing tennis!

We become what we tell ourselves we are.

We can’t determine the future, but we can choose

our direction and devote ourselves to the journey and

become who we keep telling ourselves we are.

*

Looking up from her writing, Phyllis is shocked by how late it is, the reading to begin in twenty minutes. She gathers the pages she’s written and puts them in her satchel along with a few of her old poems, dresses quickly in her traditional poetry-reading outfit – a cherry red Poetry Kicks Ass sweatshirt, long black skirt, abalone earrings, red cowboy boots – jumps in her ancient Volkswagen bug, and zips across town to the bookstore.

*

“Holy shit,” says Phyllis, amazed by the line out the bookstore door.

Ramona, tall and stately and wearing a sleeveless blue calico dress, stands in the doorway and says to the twenty people waiting to get in, “I’m so sorry, but there are no more seats and no place left to stand. Sorry. You’re welcome to listen from out here. We’ll keep the windows open should you choose to stay.”

Phyllis squeezes through the crush and makes her way to the microphone where Helen is dazzling in a black sheath dress and dangly turquoise earrings, her long braid tied with a turquoise ribbon. She is chatting with the attractive British fellow who came into the bookstore this afternoon and a striking African American gal with blonde dreadlocks wearing a brown leather jacket over a slinky silver dress.

“You’re here,” says Helen, giving Phyllis a big hug. “You look wonderful. I should have worn a sweatshirt. I feel naked. This is Arthur Lancaster, my publisher, and Edie Jackson, my editor.”

“A pleasure,” says Phyllis, her heart pounding.

“We will let you kibitz,” says Arthur, shaking Phyllis’s hand.

“Break a leg,” says Edie, winking at Phyllis.

Arthur and Edie take their seats in the front row next to Justin who bounces his eyebrows at Phyllis to say hello, and Helen says to Phyllis, “Can you believe this? Who are all these people?”

“These people,” says Phyllis, turning to look at the vivacious throng, “have come to feast on your words.”

*

Ramona, usually unflappable, has a quiver in her voice as she stands at the microphone. “Thank you for coming tonight. This is by far the biggest audience we’ve ever had for a poetry reading here, and possibly even bigger than the crowd we had when Murray Splatz came to promote his murder mystery The Bloody Bloody Summer House.” She waits for the laughter to subside. “Phyllis Omega and Helen Morningstar are both longtime Mercy residents. Phyllis works here at the bookstore when not writing her marvelous poetry, and it is my great pleasure to give you Phyllis Omega.”

Light applause greets Phyllis as she steps to the microphone – most of the audience here for Helen.

Phyllis sets her little stack of just-written pages on the podium, surveys the crowd, sees a few familiar faces, and begins.

Like Young Men

Poems used to come to me unbidden.

They’d come and come and come

like young men with willing lovers

and I thought the flow would never end.

Why would it? And when it did, oh what bitterness.

No more multiple orgasms of pen on page, only long

confusing bouts leading to nothing to marvel at.

That was always the test: did I marvel? But young

 men cannot be forced to make love. They must

want to come, just as poems must want to come,

 cannot be forced. Aye there’s the rub.

Phyllis nods in thanks for the applause and reads her next page.

What If I Told You

What if I told you I know nothing, have no insight, no words

of wisdom except if you can hook up with someone with money

do that because money is everything when your cute stuff fades

and your boobs start to sag and all the things you used to do

with ease are hard labor now and that’s just to break even.

What if I told you I don’t make enough money working in

a bookstore to cover my minimal needs so I supplement my

income sleeping with creeps for a hundred bucks a pop,

and more and more these days I think about swimming

out into the ocean and being done with my shitty life?

What if I told you I became a poet to be Cinderella

in front of an audience thinking Maybe he’s out there,

you know, Prince Charming. A nice guy with money

and a lovely house with an ocean view who adores

me and brings me coffee in the morning to my beautiful

desk we moved out onto the veranda in the gentle sun

and doves flutter down to me, not pigeons, white doves,

each with a scroll in her beak, and on each scroll

a priceless poem?

Following loud sustained applause, Phyllis uncovers the next poem.

For Helen

Today because of you I wrote the first new poems

I’ve written in twenty years and writing them lifted

a curse that has lain heavily upon me since I was a

young woman, the witch who cursed me resembling

me to an uncanny degree. Because of you I wrote

new poems showing me how I will live my life

from now on, how I will end the tyranny of self-abuse,

how I will surrender to what is, and stop yearning

for what isn’t. Yes because of you and your brave

poems, after years of forgetting, I remembered

I, too, am a poet.

*

When the reading is over and Helen is done signing copies of her books for excited buyers, and Phyllis has been hugged by old friends and thanked profusely by people moved by her poems, Helen and Justin and Phyllis and Arthur and Edie and Ramona and Ramona’s partner Vera walk to nearby Mercy Hotel for drinks, and when they enter the hotel, dozens of people who attended the reading applaud and shout Bravo!

They sit around a big table, Arthur orders champagne, and Edie leans close to Phyllis and says, “Your poems just knocked me out. Arthur, too. Have enough for a book?”

“Not yet,” says Phyllis looking into Edie’s loving eyes. “But one day I will.”

fin

Todd reads his short story Poetry.

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Irenia

On the second of February, a Friday, in the thriving northern California coastal town of Mercy, the day dawns icy and clear after three days of rain.

Toby, the tall young UPS driver, arrives on his bicycle at the UPS depot on the south side of Mercy, flirts with Teresa the depot manager over a quick cup of coffee, and gives Domingo a hand loading the big brown UPS truck with packages large and small.

“Hey I’ll bet these are Philip’s cookbooks,” says Domingo, the nephew of Juan, Celia’s brother-in-law, Celia married to Nathan, Nathan and Celia close friends with Philip and the gang at Ziggurat Farm.

“Ten boxes from… Primero Press,” says Toby, reading the label on one of the heavy boxes. “Must be.”

“Veronica can’t wait to get one,” says Domingo, getting out his wallet and handing Toby a couple twenties. “If they open a box when you’re there, could you get me one and have Philip sign it? To Veronica.”

“I’ll try,” says Toby, pocketing the money. “I want one, too.”

Ziggurat Farm is usually one of Toby’s last stops of the day, but because he’s eager to see Philip’s new book, he asks Teresa if he can deliver to the farm first today.

Teresa hands Toby a couple twenties and says, “Get me a copy, too.”

*

Meanwhile, Philip is driving the kids, Arturo, eleven, Henri, ten, and Vivienne, nine, to Mercy Montessori, this being Arturo’s last year there, after which he will enter the public school system for Seventh Grade since there are no other choices in Mercy save for home schooling, an undertaking the farm adults cannot imagine, though even the excellent Montessori School is of questionable educational value to their very bright children.

“I’ll pick you up at Nathan and Celia’s after your piano lessons,” says Philip, pulling up to the school where several other vehicles are disgorging children.

“Don’t forget Irenia is coming for supper and spending the night,” says Vivienne, speaking of the kids’ new pal. “She’s very much looking forward to your cooking, which we’ve told her all about.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” says Philip, resisting the temptation to say How could I possibly forget when you remind me every fifteen minutes?

“Her parents are bringing her at five,” says Arturo, repeating what Philip has now been told at least ten times. “We’re hoping you’ll make something yummy for a before-supper snack.”

“Those stuffed mushrooms you made for Thanksgiving would be ideal,” says Henri, opening his door.

“Stuffed mushrooms would be ideal,” says Vivienne, coming around the car to the driver’s window. “With maybe a little more melted cheese than usual. Irenia especially likes cheese. Perhaps you could get some of that Swiss kind we love. The Emmental.”

“I shall endeavor to get some from my friends at Ocelot,” says Philip, nodding graciously to his daughter. “See you at Nathan’s at 4:30.”

*

Back at the farm, Andrea is in the cottage where she and her husband Marcel and their son Henri live. She is sitting at her desk in what was previously Lisa’s massage studio and is now the headquarters of Ziggurat Farm Productions, Philip’s cookbook the first of those productions.

“We’re expecting copies today,” says Andrea, speaking on the phone with Ramona at Crow’s Nest Books, one of Mercy’s two bookstores and the only one that sells new books. “Did you try ordering through Ingram?”

“I ordered a few copies from them,” says Ramona, who thinks Philip is the most charming man she’s ever met, “but you’ll make so much more per copy if we buy directly from you.”

“I appreciate that,” says Andrea, who was a sous chef for twenty years and has been a farmer for ten, but never a seller of books until now. “I just want to confirm the other way works.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as those copies comes in,” says Ramona, who was thrilled by the advance copy of the cookbook Andrea showed her. “But for now I want to get seventy copies from you to make a big display, and I’m sure we’ll need more for the book signing.”

“I’ll bring you seventy copies as soon as we get them,” says Andrea, a message appearing on her computer screen saying an email just arrived from the New York Times. “Toby usually delivers here at the end of the day so I probably won’t get books to you until tomorrow.”

Ending her call with Ramona, Andrea opens the email from the New York Times where, purely on a whim, she sent one of the three advance copies of the cookbook she got from Primero Press, the outfit handling printing and distribution of the print-on-demand edition of the book.

Andrea…Thanks for sending Philip’s Kitchen. The Raul Neves intro is a real coup. I gave the book to Sara Granderson, one of our cookbook reviewers, and she went bonkers. She showed it to Mark Jacobs, the Sunday supplement food editor, and he loves it, too, and wants to feature Sara’s review and the Neves intro in an upcoming supplement. Can you send pics of the farm and Philip in his kitchen, and if possible a pic of Philip with Raul? Probably run in 3-4 weeks. Congrats.Titus

*

Lisa, Philip’s wife, is in the farmhouse with Marcel, Andrea’s husband, and Michael and Daisy who recently bought the house and three acres contiguous with five-acre Ziggurat Farm. Michael is an ornithologist and Daisy, eight months pregnant with her first child, is a novelist.

They are in the midst of a conversation about Mercy Hospital—Michael wondering if it might be wiser for Daisy to have the baby in a big city hospital instead of in Mercy’s humble country hospital.

“Celia worked at Mercy Hospital for thirty-five years and says it’s a great place to have a baby,” says Daisy, who is much less anxious than Michael about the impending birth of their child. “Just not major surgery.”

“I loved having my babies there,” says Lisa, remembering the sweet and competent Mexican nurses who assisted the Nigerian doctor who delivered Arturo, those same nurses assisting the Australian doctor who delivered Vivienne two years later. “Celia’s daughter Calypso is a nurse there and she helped with the birth of both Arturo and Vivienne.”

“Andrea loved having Henri there,” says Marcel, remembering the moment of Henri’s birth. “They’re very nice about letting the father be in the room for the birth.”

“Then I shouldn’t worry,” says Michael, laughing nervously.

“We’ll be fine,” says Daisy, who has thoroughly enjoyed her pregnancy so far. “I know we will.”

At which moment, Andrea rushes in and says, “The New York Times is going to run a rave review of Philip’s cookbook and do a big spread with pictures in a Sunday supplement.”

Having delivered this momentous news, Andrea bursts into tears and Marcel and Lisa rush to embrace her.

*

At morning recess on the playground at Mercy Montessori, a spirited soccer game is underway with Arturo and Vivienne leading one team, Henri and Irenia leading the other. Arturo and Vivienne and Henri started playing soccer as soon as they learned to walk, Henri’s father Marcel a former professional soccer player, and Irenia, tall and graceful with long raven black hair, grew up playing rough-and-tumble soccer in the Russian community in San Francisco.

The other kids on both teams play with zeal, but are not great ball-handlers. Thus the Ziggurat Farm gang and Irenia dominate the game—Irenia scoring the winning goal by shoving Arturo aside and striking the ball so hard the diminutive goalie dives out of the way to save his life.

“I’m pretty sure knocking me down like that would get you a yellow card in a refereed game,” says Arturo, speaking to Irenia from where he’s lying on the ground.

“I see no referee,” says Irenia, giving Arturo a hand up.

And a moment later the game is forgotten—Arturo and Irenia listening to Mr. Arbanas droning on about the founding of Rome, Vivienne and Henri bored to tears by Mrs. Pembroke reading aloud in her sing-song way about settlers traveling west from St. Louis in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail.

*

Philip has yet to hear the news about the New York Times review because he doesn’t carry a phone and because after dropping the kids at school he went to Ocelot to deliver lettuce and green onions from the Ziggurat greenhouses and had an unusually long conversation with the famous Raul who is usually too busy to talk for long.

From Ocelot, Philip went to the food co-op to buy supplies for tonight’s supper, after which he dropped by Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s for tea and conversation, and then Delilah, the kids’ piano teacher and the illustrator of Philip’s Kitchen, did some sketches of Philip for a drawing she’ll create to go with the review of his cookbook scheduled to run in the weekly Mercy Messenger before his book signing at Crow’s Nest Books a few weeks hence.

At last he arrives home where upon entering the farmhouse he is greeted with hurrahs from Marcel and Andrea and Lisa and Michael and Daisy in honor of his impending New York Times triumph and the arrival of ten boxes of his glorious new cookbook.

“Wonderful,” says Philip, holding a copy of Philip’s Kitchen: exquisite recipes from Ziggurat Farm. “Please forgive me for not getting too excited about the news from New York. After what I went through with my first cookbook, I think I’ll wait to celebrate until the review is a fait accompli and not merely a promise.”

*

Which sentiment turns out to be prescient, for when Andrea returns to her office after lunch she finds the following email.

Andrea…Turns out we never review self-published books. Editorial policy. So I regret to say we won’t be running a review or featuring the book in a supplement. Titus

Crestfallen, Andrea returns to the farmhouse, gives the news to Philip and Lisa, and bursts into tears again.

“Don’t be sad,” says Philip, sitting beside Andrea on the sofa. “It would have been nice, but it’s not how things usually work in the upper stories of the media pyramid, save by accident once every thousand blue moons. But we’ll be fine. We don’t need to sell a million copies. Right? What’s our break-even number?”

“A thousand,” she says, still crying. “But it’s so unfair.”

“I used to think that, too,” says Philip, getting up from the sofa to put a log on the fire. “But now I think it’s just the way of the human world, which has never been a meritocracy, however much we wish it was.”

*

Boris and Maria, Irenia’s parents, bring their beautiful daughter to the farm at five o’clock, and Philip and Lisa insist Boris and Maria stay for the hors d’oeuvres and a drink—Boris gregarious and friendly, Maria quiet and self-conscious about her minimal command of English.

Arturo and Vivienne and Irenia each gobble several of the baked Cremini mushrooms stuffed with Philip’s special sauté of minced onions, chopped Kalamata olives, minced garlic, and finely grated carrots, topped with melted Emmental cheese, after which they race off to Vivienne’s bedroom where Irenia suggests she teach them how to play poker, so that is what they do.

Boris is fifty-six, tall and broad-shouldered with curly gray hair and a big stomach. Maria is fifty-four, short and stout, her once black hair now white. They sit side-by-side on the sofa in the living room, a plate of stuffed mushrooms on the coffee table in front of them, each with a glass of the farm’s excellent cabernet, and Boris eats seven of the stuffed mushrooms in quick succession, while Maria has one.

“I never had such good food before,” says Boris, downing his entire glass of wine in a single gulp. “And this is best wine I ever had.” He says something to Maria in Russian.

“What did you say to her?” asks Lisa, smiling at Boris.

“I said now we know how heaven will be,” says Boris, laughing. “Best food and best wine.”

“I love your food so much, too,” says Maria, smiling and nodding. “I cook pretty good but not so good as you.”

“I’m glad you like the food and wine,” says Philip, refilling Boris’s glass. “I’d love to give you a copy of my new cookbook. We just got copies today and it has the recipe for the stuffed mushrooms.”

“We’ll give you some wine to take home, too,” says Lisa, who finds Maria and Boris delightful.

“We can pay you,” says Maria, nodding anxiously.

“No, no,” says Philip, bringing them the book. “It’s our gift to you. We’re so glad to get to know you. Our kids love your daughter. They’ve been looking forward to having her over for weeks now.”

“She’s a good girl,” says Boris, downing his second glass of wine. “We move here because…”

Maria whispers in Russian to Boris.

“Yah,” he says, nodding. “We are very happy she like your kids, too. In city she was… how do I say this…” He lowers his voice. “The men were coming after her. She was only ten, but tall and beautiful as you see… so now we are here and is better for her and… yah, we are happy she like your kids.”

“Because she’s still a child,” says Lisa, who escaped the slums of Buenos Aires when she was ten and the men were starting to come after her. “She’ll be a woman soon enough. Let her be a child while she can.”

Maria says something in Russian to Boris.

“She is very smart,” says Boris, translating for Maria. “We want her to go to college and go beyond us. We came to America when I was forty-three and Maria was forty-one. I’m mechanic. I fix cars and trucks. At Mercy garage. I think maybe I fix your truck. Bent axel. Yah?”

“Yes, and you did a great job,” says Philip, beaming at Boris.

“Good,” says Boris, nodding in thanks as Philip fills his glass again. “Maria is seamstress. She can sew anything. We lose two children in Russia and did not think we could have another, but when we came to San Francisco we have Irenia. Was miracle.”

He bows his head and weeps. Maria puts her hand on his shoulder and smiles at Lisa and Philip. “Sometimes he cry when he have wine.”

“We’re so glad you’re here,” says Philip, moved to tears. “Would you like to stay for supper?”

Boris looks up and says, “No thank you. We don’t think Irenia want us here for tonight. So is more special for her. But maybe other time.”

“Many other times,” says Philip, handing a copy of his cookbook to Maria.

She looks at the cover, a pen and ink drawing by Delilah of Philip in his kitchen.

“Is beautiful picture,” says Maria, looking at Philip and Lisa. “You are first people to ask us…” She turns to Boris and says something in Russian.

“You are first people to invite us since we come to Mercy two years ago.” He sips his wine. “You make this wine, Philip?”

“Marcel is our wine master,” says Philip, going to get a couple bottles for them. “Henri’s father.”

“Tell him for me,” says Boris, calling after Philip, “he is genius.”

*

Moments after Boris and Maria depart, Marcel and Andrea and Henri arrive, Henri hurrying off to join the poker game while Andrea and Marcel eat the last of the stuffed mushrooms and Andrea gulps down a glass of wine a la Boris and says quietly so the kids won’t hear her, “Fuck the New York Times.”

“I’d forgotten all about that,” says Philip, refilling Andrea’s glass. “Never gave it another thought.”

“Wait until you see the display of your books at the bookstore,” says Marcel, clinking glasses with Philip. “You come in the door and it’s like the pyramids of Egypt. Three pyramids of Philip’s Kitchen.”

*

When supper begins, Irenia proves to be as talkative as the very talkative Arturo and Henri and Vivienne, but she falls silent when she begins to eat. Occasionally she looks up from her meal to gaze around the table, a puzzled expression on her face, and she continues in this way until her plate is empty.

“Would you care for anything more?” asks Philip, speaking to Irenia as he speaks to the customers he waits on at Ocelot. “There’s plenty of everything.”

“I would like to learn to cook like this,” she says quietly. “Will you teach me?”

“Of course he will,” says Vivienne, nodding confidently. “He teaches us. So whenever you come over he’ll teach you, too.”

“I am amazed by this food,” says Irenia, looking from one person to another. “Yet you all seem to think this is just ordinary.”

“It is not ordinary,” says Marcel, looking at Philip. “It is extraordinary and I’m grateful to you for reminding me of what Philip does for us all the time.”

*

Vivienne and Irenia are sharing Vivienne’s bed, both of them fighting sleep because they love being with each other.

Irenia: Have you ever kissed a boy? Not your brother or Henri, but someone else?

Vivienne: Julio Martinez kissed me at a barbecue last summer. Twice.

Irenia: Did you want him to kiss you?

Vivienne: No. We were playing hide and seek and he and I were hiding in the barn together behind the wine barrels and trying not to giggle when Arturo came in looking for us, and he just suddenly kissed me. I was so shocked, I just froze and then he kissed me again.

Irenia: On your lips?

Vivienne: Yes.

Irenia: Did you like it?

Vivienne: No. It was ucky.

Irenia: How old is Julio?

Vivienne: He was eleven when he kissed me and I was eight. Now he’s twelve and I’m nine. But I still don’t want him to kiss me. Have you ever kissed a boy?

Irenia: Yes.

Vivienne: When?

Irenia: In San Francisco. When I was ten.

Vivienne: Who was he?

Irenia: His name was Dimitri. He was eighteen. He would talk to me at the bus stop when I got off the bus when I came home from school. We rode the city bus to school in San Francisco. I didn’t talk to him at first, but he was there every day and he seemed nice, so I talked to him. And then for a few days he walked me home. And then one day he gave me a box of candy. Not a candy bar. A whole box of chocolates. And when I took the box from him, he put his arms around me and kissed me on the lips and pushed his tongue into my mouth.

Vivienne: How dreadful.

Irenia: I tried to get away from him, but he wouldn’t let me go until I screamed and people came running and then he let me go.

Vivienne: What a terrible person.

Irenia: He said he loved me and wanted to marry me. He even came to our apartment and asked my father if he could marry me.

Vivienne: But you were only ten. Was he insane?

Irenia: I don’t think so.

Vivienne: Then why would he do such a terrible thing?

Irenia: Why did Julio kiss you?

Vivienne: I suppose because he likes me.

Irenia: Yes, they like us. Whether we like them or not.  

*

In the morning, Vivienne and Irenia and Arturo make omelets and hash browns with Philip supervising, and Henri and Andrea and Marcel come for breakfast.

At meal’s end, Henri and Irenia do the dishes with Marcel, after which the kids put on their rain gear and go to deliver a pot of soup to Daisy and Michael.

As they walk along the path from the farmhouse through the nascent forest to Michael and Daisy’s house, Irenia says, “I love my mother and father, but I would rather live here with you.”

fin

What You Do In Ireland