In early November, someone from out of town leases the building three doors down from Mona’s, the only bakery and café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California. The prospect of new tenants in the venerable old two-story building is of especial interest to Paul Windsor, a habitué of Mona’s, and his wife Elisha who is the manager of that delightful café, because they were seriously considering leasing that building themselves and opening a stationery store and tea shop on the ground floor while subletting the upstairs apartment.
The stately brick and wood building was built in 1907 and has been vacant for two years, the previous occupant a photographer named Ormsby Carfax who had an art gallery there called Watt. A middle-aged man with several cats, Ormsby exclusively displayed his own work: out-of-focus snapshots of people who came into Watt stuck with red and green thumbtacks on squares of corkboard framed with skinny sticks of driftwood.
Ormsby and his cats and snapshots held sway in the grand space for three years, having supplanted a sculptor named Darling Madison who also used the space as an art gallery: Context. Darling was there for ten years and hung paintings by local artists on her walls while using the floor space to display her sculptures, all of which were of a similar construct.
A giggly woman with graying blonde hair and two sweet mutts named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Darling impaled unpainted wooden spheres ranging in size from grapefruits to basketballs on three to five-foot lengths of rebar arising from heavy blocks of wood, thus creating bouquets of wooden spheres with rebar stems.
Amy Carlyle, the realtor in charge of leasing the building, tells Paul and Elisha that the new tenants are Ephraim Spinoza and Tivona Descartes—Ephraim Spanish, Tivona French—and they are planning to live in the upstairs apartment.
When Amy asked how they intended to use the downstairs space, Ephraim replied, “We are forever refining our concept.”
On a cold morning in mid-November, two weeks after Amy leased the building to Ephraim and Tivona, Paul leaves his house and walks the five blocks to Mona’s for his morning stint of writing and socializing. A California native of Anglo-Ashkenazi origins in his late fifties with a humble coif of gray hair, Paul is in a cheerful mood and looking forward to seeing Elisha, though they only parted two hours ago.
As he comes into view of the storefront formerly known as Watt and Context, Paul sees a large sign affixed to the outside wall above the front door: the word honing in an attractive san serif font centered on a turquoise rectangle.
During her mid-morning break, Elisha goes with Paul to look at the honing sign. A graceful woman in her early fifties with reddish brown hair, her mother Spanish, her father Irish, Elisha has been very sad of late because her children, Conor, twenty-two, and Alexandra, nineteen, recently moved to Ireland—their absence a profound shock to Elisha.
“Another one-word gallery,” she says, gazing at the honing sign. “I wonder what it is about this space that inspires such brevity.”
“Could be a last name I suppose,” says Paul, honing sounding German to him. “And maybe it will be some sort of store and not a gallery.”
Elisha sighs. “Oh I wish Alexandra and Conor were here to make a movie of this.”
“We could make one,” says Paul, putting his arm around her. “I’m getting pretty good at shooting things with my little camera. Send something to the kids for Christmas.”
“Good idea,” says Elisha, the word Christmas bringing tears to her eyes.
When Paul learns that Randy Collins, a local handyman, put the honing sign up, he arranges an interview with Randy for possible inclusion in his possible documentary.
Sitting at a table in Mona’s enjoying a peach scone and a cup of coffee, Randy, red-haired and freckled, tells Paul that the sign and eight enormous black screws were shipped from Zurich to his house via UPS.
“And about ten minutes after the sign was delivered,” says Randy, sipping his coffee, “Ephraim called me and told me exactly where he wanted it to go and how to attach it. He’d had the holes pre-drilled, which was lucky for me because that sign is solid steel a half-inch thick, four-feet-wide, two-feet-high, and incredibly heavy. And here’s the weird part. They wanted me to put it up at midnight on the night of the new moon, so I had to set up two big ladders and flood lights and hire Diego to help me lift the sign up over the door and hold it in place while I sunk the screws.”
At 6:20 in the morning on December 2, a light rain falling, Elisha arrives at Mona’s to get the café ready for the daily seven o’clock opening. Mona, the owner and baker of Mona’s, is bringing forth trays of just-baked scones and cinnamon swirls from one of the ovens, while Carlos, her boyfriend and able assistant, is loading the largest of the five ovens with forty-eight loaves of French bread to be baked in time for the morning rush.
Mona, fifty-five, has curly brown hair and red-framed glasses and speaks with the faintest of Danish accents. “Did you see the honing people are moving in?” she says to Elisha. “They were unloading a little moving van when we got here this morning.”
“I offered to help them,” says Carlos, forty-four, a burly Mexican guy with raven black hair and many tattoos, “but they said they didn’t have much to unload.”
“They seem very nice,” says Mona, smiling as Elisha picks up the phone to call Paul. “And they’re definitely artists.”
“How do you know?” asks Elisha, waiting for Paul to answer.
“Everything about them,” says Mona, nodding. “Sensualists.”
“The way they dress, you know,” says Carlos, closing the oven and checking the temperature. “Casual, you know, but sophisticated. And the way they move, you know. Like they’re dancing.”
“Maybe they’re dancers,” says Elisha, hanging up the phone when she realizes Paul must be walking the dogs.
At 9:53 in the morning on that same December 2, a hard rain falling, Ephraim Spinoza, seventy-one, a handsome man with olive brown skin and dark brown eyes and an impressive mop of curly gray hair, sits at a large table in the center of the otherwise empty room formerly known as Context and Watt. He is making sketches of OPEN and CLOSED signs with a black-ink pen on a six-foot-long piece of white butcher paper. He’s wearing wire-framed glasses, a long-sleeved peach-colored shirt, black corduroy trousers, an emerald-green belt, and beautiful red shoes.
Tivona Descartes, sixty-seven, a striking Moroccan with short black hair and brilliant blue eyes, gets up from her chair next to Ephraim and goes to an east-facing window to look out at the rain. She is wearing a long-sleeved black shirt, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, blue jeans, and black boots.
“I love it here, my darling,” she says softly. “I loved driving across the bridge into town, how huge the waves in the bay.”
Ephraim looks up and smiles at his wife gazing out the window. “I love it here, too.”
“How lucky we are,” she says, her way of saying so a song.
“We were wise to follow our dreams,” he says, his reply a song, too.
Now someone knocks on the front door and Tivona goes to answer—several packages expected in the next few days.
“Hello,” she says, smiling at the man—Paul Windsor—on their doorstep. “I’m sorry but we are not yet open for business.”
“I didn’t think you were,” says Paul, returning her smile. “I’ve brought you a gift, apple yum my wife and I made from this year’s Goldens.” He proffers a small glass jar. “Welcome to Carmeline Creek.”
“Oh come in,” says Tivona, taking a step back to allow Paul to enter. “I am Tivona Descartes and this is my husband Ephraim Spinoza.”
“Paul Windsor,” he says, bowing to her. “My wife is Elisha Montoya, the manager of Mona’s. She can’t wait to meet you.”
“Apple yum, you say,” says Ephraim, coming to join them. “To spread on toast and put in our yogurt?”
“Or eat it right out of the jar,” says Paul, laughing. “Not too sweet, yet wonderfully sweet and gently spicy.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” says Ephraim, shaking Paul’s hand. “Come sit down. We’ll have some tea.”
“Our first visitor,” says Tivona, giving Ephraim a meaningful glance.
“A special moment,” says Ephraim, going to find another chair and put the kettle on.
“So…” says Paul, looking around the big room. “What will honing be?”
“Ah,” says Tivona, taking Paul’s hand as if they are old friends. “That is the question.”