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Philip’s Kitchen

Philip’s first cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook sold twenty thousand copies and was not reprinted after the third printing sold out. The tome has since become a hot commodity and used copies are hard to find.

And now, ten years after Tantamount Press published Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook, Philip is a few months away from publishing his second cookbook with Tantamount, the promotional budget the same as for the first cookbook: nothing.

*

On a sunny Friday morning in May at Ziggurat Farm on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy, Philip, fifty-eight, having just ferried Arturo, nine, Henri, eight, and Vivienne, seven, to Mercy Montessori, is gathering his wits and gazing around his glorious new kitchen when his editor at Tantamount calls.

“Hey Philip,” says Tiffany, who is twenty-seven and sounds fourteen to Philip. “Yucky news. Sales is not happy with your title and subtitle. Me, personally, I like Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, and Ziggy actually really likes it, and the cover drawing your friend did of the dogs drinking wine is so cute. But Sales says the whole package is a retro yawner and they want something punchier, sexier, and they need it yesterday? Tomorrow morning at the latest? If not, they might delay publication for like six months? Possibly a year? Can you get me something sexier and punchier by tomorrow morning? Ooh I have to take this call. Talk soon.”

Before leaving for the vegetable garden to share this weighty news with his wife Lisa and comrades Andrea and Marcel who are hard at work planting out seedlings from the greenhouse, Philip calls Sandra Messer, the chef and owner of the legendary restaurant Le Scélérat in Berkeley where Philip was a waiter for ten years before moving with Lisa and Marcel and Andrea to Mercy. Sandra, who was entirely responsible for Tantamount publishing Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, wrote the praise-filled Introduction and has now written a rave blurb for the new cookbook.

“Titles are a bitch,” says Sandra, who is from Chicago and in her seventies. “Everybody calls your first one Delicious Ambitious, why not call this one Delicious Ambitious Two, with the Two spelled T-O-O? And use Ziggurat Farm in the sub?”

Philip thanks Sandra for her suggestion and is about to call Tiffany back when he thinks I hate Delicious Ambitious Too, and goes out to join his wife and friends in the garden.

*

Taking a break from sowing chard seeds, Philip watches Marcel, who is a few years younger than Philip and very French, digging well-aged chicken manure into a nearby bed soon to be filled with broccoli seedlings.

“These are the same geniuses who wouldn’t reprint your first book?” says Marcel, resting for a moment. “After you sold twenty thousand copies with no promotion?”

“Same geniuses,” says Philip, who hopes the new book succeeds well enough so he and Marcel don’t have to go back to being waiters any time soon. “But geniuses or no, if they aren’t enthusiastic about the package, as they call it, they may only do one small printing, which defeats the purpose of making the book in the first place.”

“Why would they publish a book if they’re just going to kill it before it can develop a following?” asks Marcel, frowning and shaking his head. “Makes no sense.”

“I don’t know,” says Philip, resuming his seeding of the bed. “I’m not a publisher.”

“Sexier and punchier?” says Andrea on her way to the upper beds of the terraced garden with a flat of seedlings. “How about Fucking Food? That’s punchier and sexier.”

“Much,” says Philip, who knows Sales delaying publication is often prelude to a publisher dropping a book and demanding the return of the author’s advance.

“I’m kidding,” says Andrea, aching in sympathy with Philip.

“I know you are,” says Philip, smiling at her, “but I’m afraid they would prefer Fucking Food to Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm.”

“If this year’s wine is as good as last year’s,” says Marcel, speaking of the wine they make on the farm, “and we have another good year with the garden, we can publish your book ourselves.”

“Two very big ifs,” says Andrea, who is boss of the garden and keeps the books and knows better than anyone how precarious the farm’s finances.

*

Over lunch at the picnic table near the farmhouse, Lisa says, “Why not ask Nathan? He’s such a wonderful poet.”

“They don’t want poetry,” says Philip, despondently. “They want punchier and sexier.”

“You don’t need them,” says Andrea, who has enormous faith in Philip. “Marcel is right. We can publish your book ourselves and sell it at farmers markets and in local bookstores and online. If they won’t use your title, tell them to go to hell.”

“Are you serious?” asks Philip, who has never imagined self-publishing his cookbook. “I’d have to return the advance. Ten thousand dollars. We can’t really spare that, can we?”

“It’s fine,” says Andrea, on the verge of tears. “We don’t need them.”

“You and Andrea worked on those recipes for seven years,” says Lisa, nodding in agreement with Andrea. “It’s a magnificent book. You can’t allow them to debase your creation.”

“I’ll talk to Nathan,” says Philip, buoyed by their support. “On my way home with the kids.”

*

Nathan Grayson, a poet of some renown in his youth, is eighty-two and has a blog on which he posts his poems and stories when he has new ones to share. He has no idea how many people read his blog. Seven? Three hundred? He doesn’t care. The act of sharing is what he loves.

Philip and Nathan sit at a small table on the south-facing deck of Nathan’s little house on the edge of Mercy drinking nettle tea. Henri and Arturo are in the kitchen helping Celia, Nathan’s wife, prepare avocado and cheese quesadillas for their after-school snacks, and Vivienne is in the garden with the resident mongrel puppies Chico and Gypsy, picking flowers for a table bouquet.

“Way back when,” says Nathan, loving the sight of Vivienne with the pups, “I knew a poet named Larry Henderson who was hot stuff for a couple years and then vanished as most poets do. His poems were stacks of very short same-sounding sentences. ‘The man went to the store. The man bought some bread. The man went home. The man made a sandwich. The man watched television.’ Listening to him was torture. He spoke in a monotone tenor with a long pause after each sentence. Every time I heard him read I wanted to strangle him. But he sold lots of books because his covers were photographs of near-naked women with half-open mouths apparently wanting sex, with titles like Her Outrageous Orgasm and His Mighty Erection.” Nathan laughs. “People snapped them up, for gag gifts maybe. And that’s all I know about sexier and punchier.”

“I can’t think of anything but the title I have,” says Philip, watching Vivienne confer with the pups about which flowers to pick. “Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm: more recipes for the somewhat ambitious cook, which is a reference to my first cookbook.”

“To be honest, Philip,” says Nathan, clearing his throat, “for my taste that’s not a very good title or subtitle. Not because they aren’t true, but because they came from your intellect and not from the divine source.”

“What do you mean?” asks Philip, taken aback Nathan doesn’t like the title.

“I mean there are two kinds of creating, whether it’s writing or composing music or painting or creating a recipe or anything.” Nathan waits a moment for Philip to consider what those two kinds of creating might be. “One kind is the intellectual organizing of things we already know. That’s 99.9 percent of what gets published and performed and presented to the world, and that’s why everything the mainstream gives us is stuff we’ve seen thousands of times before.”

“The intellectual organizing of things we already know,” says Philip, nodding in understanding of Nathan’s idea.

“The other kind of creating,” says Nathan, gesturing to the sky, “is unconscious spontaneous outpouring that comes from nobody-knows-where. And that, as we used to say in the Sixties, is the boss stuff.”

“I’m reaching for the paprika,” says Philip, laughing, “before I think paprika.”

“Exactly,” says Nathan, smiling at the approach of Vivienne with her bouquet. “Delilah sitting down at the piano and ripping off ten minutes of sheer genius and then shouting, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that?’ And Celia and I high as kites because we did hear it. Lucky us.”

“But words are not my art,” says Philip, humbly.

“Sure they are. You write eloquent recipes. With different line breaks they’d make great poems.”

Henri comes out on the deck and bows to Nathan and Philip. “Celia’s quesadillas await you.”

“Speaking of Celia,” says Nathan, as he and Philip go inside, “she informs me we’re having supper at your place tonight with the usual suspects. Perhaps the gang will come up with something you like.”

*

The usual suspects are:

Those Who Live At Ziggurat Farm: Philip, Lisa, Andrea, Marcel, Arturo, Henri, Vivienne, and Hilda who is eighty-four and lives in the cottage next to the bathhouse a stone’s throw from the farmhouse.

The Very British Richardsons: Constance and Joseph, both in their seventies, Constance a successful murder mystery writer nearly done with her twenty-seventh thriller, Joseph a painter of landscapes and portraits working on the last big painting he’ll make in Mercy before he and Constance move back to England for the remainder of their lives.

Tamara and Celine: A successful playwright in her fifties, Tamara is Hilda’s only child, and Celine is Tamara’s partner of thirty years and the author of Remembering Black, an acclaimed book about her experiences as an African American woman in American academia.    

Nathan, Celia, and Delilah: Nathan eighty-two, Celia seventy-six, both longtime residents of Mercy and married for more than fifty years, Delilah their delightful twenty-two-year-old housemate, a musician, artist, and frequent visitor to Ziggurat Farm.

*

Andrea and Philip prepare a sumptuous supper, much wine is drunk, laughter is frequent, and after dessert everyone retires to the spacious living room where a fire is crackling in the hearth and the four farm dogs and Delilah’s two new pups are sprawled about and several cats are snoozing where humans want to sit.

When the humans have situated themselves among the animals and everyone is possessed of wine or tea or cocoa, Nathan says, “Philip needs a new title for his cookbook, and a subtitle, too. His publisher is threatening to delay publication if he can’t come up with something they like by tomorrow morning. I suggested to him the consortium gathered here tonight might be of assistance.”

“And if they don’t like our title,” says Andrea, defiantly, “we will publish his cookbook ourselves.”

“Every time we eat here,” says Tamara, each of her seven plays a resounding success, “Celine and I come away saying exquisite. Every time. Tonight no exception. Something about that word. Exquisite.”

“Marvelous word,” says Constance, who has so far in her life, with Joseph’s help, come up with twenty-seven titles for her murder mysteries. “We used exquisite in the title of my seventeenth book, the ninth in my Grady Pillsbury series. A Most Exquisite Murder.”

“I haven’t read any of your books yet,” says Arturo, who is currently reading Robinson Crusoe for the second time, but your titles intrigue me no end.”

“Shall we write down exquisite?” asks Vivienne, who is very sleepy. “In case we don’t forget?”

“Let’s not write anything down yet,” says Nathan, grinning at Vivienne. “First let’s say whatever pops into our heads.”

“Exquisite exquisiteness,” says Celine, laughing a sparkling laugh.

“The well-cooked ox,” says Joseph, happily drunk. “The bafflement of barbecues.”

“The Magic Kitchen!” shouts Henri, giggling.

“Exquisite comestibles,” says Delilah, shivering with excitement. “For voracious eaters who can’t stop eating.”

“Eyes bigger than my stomach,” says Celia, blushing.  

“The magic cook,” says Vivienne, smiling sleepily at her father.

“The cook of magic,” says Arturo, laughing.

“Melted cheesery,” says Constance, tittering. “Scrumptious foodstuffs for esurient nibblers.”

“Food of the gods,” says Marcel, shaking his head. “No. Too grandiose.”

“Nothing is too grandiose,” says Nathan, grinning at Philip. “Speak chef.”

“Kitchen of love,” says Philip, thinking of his kitchen. “Place of quiet miracles.”

“Of knives and mincing,” says Andrea, recalling her previous life as a sous chef. “Timing the fish.”

“The onion eclipsed,” says Hilda, dramatically. “Garlic triumphant.”

“Philip’s kitchen,” says Lisa, getting up to fetch more wine.

Profound silence.

“I got chills,” says Celine, gazing wide-eyed at Tamara.

“So did I,” says Tamara, nodding. “Philip’s Kitchen.”

“I, too, got chills,” says Constance, looking at Delilah. “Did you?”

Delilah nods. “That must be the title.”

“Must be,” says Joseph, aghast. “Remarkable how deep that went.”

“But why?” asks Philip, who gasped when Lisa said Philip’s Kitchen. “I mean… who is Philip? No one will know who Philip refers to. They’ll hate it at Tantamount.”

“They might not,” says Hilda, gazing fondly at Philip. “It’s lovely.”

“All the recipes did come from your kitchen,” says Arturo, nodding assuredly. “So no wonder Philip’s Kitchen sounds right.”

*

At ten the next morning, Philip calls Tiffany at Tantamount, she puts him on hold, and he doesn’t mind at all.

“Sorry about that,” says Tiffany, coming on the line a few minutes later. “Saturdays are usually pretty mellow around here, but my phone won’t stop ringing. What have you got for me?”

“May I ask you not to take another call while we talk?” says Philip, who has wanted to ask that of Tiffany for the last two years.

“Um… of course. Unless it’s Arno. We’re crashing a couple books and I have to take his calls. Sorry.”

“What does that mean? Crashing a book?”

“Rushing it out because the author or the subject is currently hot, so we crash the book to capitalize on the buzz.”

“I see. Thanks for explaining.”

“No worries. What have you got for me?”

“I’m going to put my daughter Vivienne on the line to tell you,” says Philip, winking at Vivienne who is standing buy.

“Your daughter?” says Tiffany, annoyed. “Oh no, why…”

“Here she is,” says Philip, handing the phone to Vivienne.

“Hi Tiffany,” says Vivienne, her little girl’s voice softening Tiffany. “The title of Papa’s new cookbook is Philip’s Kitchen.” She pauses for a moment before adding, “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm.”

“Would you say that again?” says Tiffany, hitting the Record button on her phone.

Philip’s Kitchen,” says Vivienne, taking care with her pronunciation. “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm. Here’s Papa.”

Philip comes on the line and Tiffany says, “I love it. Made me cry. I’ll run it by Sales and let you know what they say.”

“Regardless of what they say,” Philip replies, his voice full of kindness, “that’s the title and subtitle. If Sales says No, I will return my advance and pursue other options.”

“Okay,” says Tiffany, breathlessly. “I’ll get back to you.”

*

Philip and Vivienne walk from the farmhouse to the one-acre deer-fenced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Delilah and Henri and Hilda are planting out seedlings, and Marcel and Arturo are busy preparing another bed for planting.

“Where is Tiffany?” asks Vivienne, holding her father’s hand. “How old is she?”

“In San Francisco,” says Philip, smiling curiously at his daughter. “She’s twenty-seven. Why do you ask?”

“I want to visualize her,” says Vivienne, letting go of Philip’s hand at the approach of Mimi and Alexandra, the farm’s two Golden Retrievers who are especially fond of Vivienne.

“She’s quite tall,” says Philip, who has only met Tiffany once. “As tall as Delilah. With short reddish brown hair and four small gold rings in one of her eyebrows, I can’t remember which one, and her eyes are dark blue. Her office is on the fourth floor of a modern building looking out on San Francisco Bay. When I met with her she was wearing a blue T-shirt and brown trousers and glossy red lipstick and hoop earrings.”

“Is she nice?” asks Vivienne, petting Alexandra.

“I think so,” says Philip, imagining Tiffany walking down the hall to Arno’s office to tell him the new title—Arno head of Sales. “Though I don’t really know her very well.”

And try as he might, Philip cannot imagine how Arno will respond to what Tiffany tells him.

fin

Tenderly

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The Vineyard

On a very cold morning in November, on the outskirts of the small northern California coastal town of Mercy, a husky old man named Nathan and his eighteen-year-old accomplice Delilah, arrive in Nathan’s old pickup truck at the eight acres owned by Philip and Lisa and Marcel and Andrea.

Nathan, affable and remarkably agile for seventy-eight, and Delilah, graceful and strong and delightfully intellectual, live two miles down the road from these eight acres and have come to oversee the pruning of the thirty big apple trees in the orchard near the old farmhouse where Philip and Lisa live with their children, Arturo, six, and Vivienne, four. Nathan has pruned or overseen the pruning of these thirty apple trees for most of the last forty years, ever since the trees were newly planted.

All hands are on deck for the pruning, Marcel and Philip and Andrea armed with loppers, and Lisa and the children, including Marcel and Andrea’s five-year-old Henri, gather the lopped branches and carry them to the woodshed to be cut up for kindling.

Nathan and Delilah have brought two ten-foot orchard ladders to go with the resident twelve-foot ladder, and with Nathan directing from the ground and Delilah wielding a telescoping pole lopper, the pruning only takes a few hours, after which Nathan and Delilah join the collective for soup and sandwiches in the farmhouse.

*

Who are these people?

Philip is fifty-five, the author of the good-selling cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook and a three-evenings-a-week waiterat Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican in downtown Mercy. Lisa, forty-eight is a massage therapist who gives one ninety-minute massage or two sixties, four mornings a week in the farmhouse living room when the kids are attending Mercy Montessori: Vivienne in pre-school, Henri in kindergarten, and Arturo in First Grade.

Andrea, forty-nine, grows vegetables and flowers on a half-acre of their land and sells the produce, including thousands of their apples, to local restaurants, grocery stores, and at the Mercy Farmers Market every Thursday, April through October. Marcel, fifty-three, is a four-evenings-a-week waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican and otherwise assists Andrea in her garden when not slaving away with Philip trying to restore the six-acre vineyard that he and Andrea co-own with Philip and Lisa along with the farmhouse on the north side of the vineyard and a three-bedroom house on the south side.

Before moving to Mercy six years ago, Philip, Andrea, and Marcel were in the restaurant business in the San Francisco Bay Area, a four-hour drive to the south, and Philip and Andrea are both superb cooks. Thus the soup and quiche they serve Nathan and Delilah for lunch are, according to Delilah, “Culinary perfection.”

Nathan has lived in Mercy for fifty years, all but the first few of those fifty with his lovely wife Celia, a former nurse. A poet of some renown in his youth, Nathan has been pruning fruit trees for those same fifty years.

Delilah has lived with Celia and Nathan for five years now, Delilah’s mother a movie star who wished to spare her daughter the cloistered life of a celebrity’s child and brought her to these hinterlands to live less encumbered by her mother’s fame. An accomplished artist and musician, Delilah assists Nathan with his occasional pruning jobs, cooks with Celia, takes dance classes at the rec center, composes, draws, hangs out with her friends, and has seven piano students.

Lastly we will mention Nathan’s dog, Tennyson, a small brown floppy-eared mutt who goes everywhere with Nathan and always enjoys visiting Philip and Lisa’s farmhouse to pal around with the three resident dogs: Goliath, a small poodle Chihuahua mix, Mimi, a Golden Retriever, and Jung, an enormous Black Lab and Malamute.

*

When the children have devoured their allotted portions of apple pie for dessert, they go with Delilah into the kids’ bedroom where Delilah swiftly sketches pictures on the big chalkboard and she and the kids make up stories to go with the drawings.

The adults remain at the kitchen table having coffee and tea and pie, and during a rare lull in the conversation Nathan says, “So on our way up here this morning Delilah made a strong case for my telling you what I’m about to tell you, though I wasn’t going to tell you because you’ve worked so hard to make your dream come true, but now I regret not telling you this three years ago when we got to be friends.”

“An intriguing preface,” says Philip, smiling curiously at Nathan.

Marcel frowns. “Should we be worried?”

“No,” says Nathan, having another bite of pie. “This is the best apple pie I’ve ever had, and I say that as a person with a wife who makes what I previously believed to be the best apple pie in the world.”

“So we will assume what you’re going to tell us is not about the apple trees,” says Andrea, who loves winter because there is less to do outside and more time to sit by the fire and read and relax and take her time preparing meals.

“It’s about the vineyard,” says Lisa, her intuition verging on clairvoyance.

“Yes, it is,” says Nathan, sipping his coffee.

“Shall we guess?” says Philip, who hopes this isn’t something too costly, their finances already stretched to the utmost.

“If you want to,” says Nathan, shrugging pleasantly. “Or I can just tell you.”

“Just tell us,” says Andrea, who often consults with Nathan about her vegetable garden, Nathan a master gardener.

“There’s a reason yours is the only vineyard, abandoned or otherwise, around here,” says Nathan, putting down his coffee mug. “And that’s because wine grapes won’t grow here. And if I were you, I would reforest those six acres and put your energy into whatever else you’d rather be doing instead of wasting any more time and money.”

Marcel’s frown deepens. “But we’ve seen pictures of the vineyard when it was spectacular. And the two hundred vines we’ve planted…well, they’re not doing so well yet, but they’re growing, and in another few years we’ll have a harvest.”

“I seriously doubt it, Marcel,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “And if you do manage to get some grapes, they won’t be any good. The only grapes that vineyard ever made were sour as vinegar. It’s just not hot enough here, the summer nights too cold. You can’t imagine how many millions of dollars they spent to make the vineyard look spectacular for those few years, the millions of gallons of water they trucked in every summer, the tons of chemicals they used. And even so the grapes were few and lousy. I was here when they cut down the beautiful forest and terraced the hillside and planted the vines, and I was here when they finally gave up and went away.”

“Were they the same people who built our house with the five idiotic roofs?” asks Andrea, guessing they were.

“Yeah and I told them they’d have leakage problems,” says Nathan, nodding, “but they had endless money and thought they could override the laws of nature if they just spent enough, but they couldn’t. Nature doesn’t care about money.”

“But we bought this place to make wine from our own grapes,” says Marcel, dizzied by the thought of a future without the vineyard gobbling every dollar they make, not to mention endless of hours of labor.

“I just couldn’t in good conscience not tell you,” says Nathan, smiling sadly. “I would have told you three years ago, but you were so in love with the idea of having a vineyard I couldn’t bring myself to. But now… we like you too much to keep watching you throw your money down the drain, money we’re pretty sure you can use for other things.”

“Like a new roof to replace the five stupid ones that leak every winter,” says Andrea, thinking of a dozen projects they might have completed with the money and time they spent trying to revive some rich person’s folly.

“Thank you, Nathan,” says Lisa, nodding to him. “The vineyard brought us here and we’ve never been happier, so… thank you.”

“Hey if you want to make your own wine,” says Nathan, looking at Marcel, “do what lots of people around here do. Buy grapes from the inland vineyards and turn your barn into a winery.”

*

In the afternoon on this dramatic day in the life of the collective, Marcel and Philip bundle up against the cold and walk through the vineyard recalling all the work they put in over the years, five of the six acres mostly clear of brush now, a few of the original vines and all the new ones protected by sturdy cages they fashioned from heavy-gauge wire to protect the nascent plants from ravenous deer.

“How are you feeling?” asks Philip, speaking French with Marcel, Philip’s mother French, Marcel a native of France. “What are you thinking?”

Marcel looks to the west at the shining sea. “I was remembering the day I tore my Achilles in a soccer match in Marseilles. I knew something bad had happened, but I was only twenty and assumed whatever I had done would heal quickly. I was about to be transferred from our club to Barcelona, my dream to play in the big leagues coming true. And then the doctor said it would take at least two years for me to recover and I might never be able to compete at a high level again. And for a year, I worked so hard rehabbing my tendon until I knew I would be okay, but I also knew I would never play professional soccer again.” He looks at Philip. “Then I became a waiter, something I never really loved though I’m good at it. And when we came here and the children were born and we went to work on the vineyard, I felt I was at the beginning again of a chosen career. Something I really loved. And now that dream is over and I feel the same kind of loss. You know? Who are we without a passion to inspire us?”

“I know what you mean,” says Philip, nodding. “Though I was beginning to sense the futility of what we were doing.”

“It’s a blessing he told us now,” says Marcel, laughing to keep from crying, “and not after our wives divorced us.”

“I think we should pull up the vines,” says Philip, standing beside a struggling vine in a sturdy cage. “Rather than wait for them to die.”

Marcel nods. “Yes. Let’s remove the traces of our folly. Maybe that will help us forget and move on to better things.”

“Like finishing my second cookbook,” says Philip, putting his arm around Marcel’s shoulders. “And spending more time with the children.”

Marcel bows his head and weeps, and Philip, not expecting to, weeps with him.

*

Five months later on a warm day in April, the last vine gone from the hillside, the hundreds of cages flattened and handed over to a fellow who recycles metal, the drip irrigation system carefully dug up to be used for an expansion of the vegetable garden, Nathan and Delilah and Celia and Tennyson arrive in Nathan’s old pickup, the truck’s bed full of seedling redwoods, firs, pines, and spruce—the day spent planting these first citizens of the new forest, a feast in the farmhouse to follow.

*

During the feast commemorating the new beginning, as Delilah is playing one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words on Philip’s old spinet with Vivienne on her lap and Henri and Arturo perched on the bench on either side of her, Lisa gets a phone call and goes to the other end of the house to speak to the caller.

When she returns to the living room and the revelers grow quiet to hear her news, she says, “As you know, my grandmother, Gammy as the kids call her, died four months ago. Vivienne and Arturo and Philip and I went to Los Angeles to visit her a few weeks before she died.”

“How old was she?” asks Nathan, the eldest at the party.

“Ninety-seven,” says Lisa, smiling through her tears.

“Who was on the phone?” asks Arturo, who is unused to seeing his mother crying.

“My father,” says Lisa, smiling at her son. “Herschel. Gammy’s son.”

“What did he want?” asks Henri, who knows from Vivienne and Arturo that Gammy was wonderful and Herschel is not.

“He told me they’ve settled Gammy’s estate,” says Lisa, holding Philip’s hand. “As I expected, everything was left to Herschel and his sister Naomi, except for some money Gammy set aside for me. For all of us. For a new roof to replace the five idiotic ones. For wine barrels to make our wine. For the studio we’ll build where I can give massages and guests can stay. For another bedroom on this house and a kitchen remodel or two. And a new piano.”

“How much did she give you?” asks Arturo, who recently made a whole dollar for two very long hours of weeding in the vegetable garden.

“Lots,” says Lisa, thinking of her beloved grandmother smiling her secret I-Love-You smile.

*

Heading home from the feast, Delilah driving the old pickup, Nathan on the passenger side with Tennyson on his lap, Celia in the middle, Nathan says, “That’s how the universe works, you know. Gives us what we need when we do what she wants us to do.”

“I shudder to think what they would have done with that money,” says Delilah, who is smitten with the three little kids, “had they gotten it before they gave up on the vineyard.”

“But the money wouldn’t come until they gave up,” says Celia, remembering the night they met Delilah for the first time—Delilah the light of their lives—literally moments after Nathan finally convinced Celia to retire from nursing, after she had anguished for years and years about how they would survive without her income. “The universe waited to give them the money until they made the change they needed to make.”

fin

One Fell Swoop

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The Waiter

Philip is forty-seven and has been a waiter in fine restaurants for twenty years. Handsome with dark brown eyes and curly black hair kept short, he is innately graceful and surprisingly strong for one so slender. Born in Connecticut, the middle child between two sisters, Philip’s father was second-generation Italian and twenty years older than Philip’s mother who hailed from Lyon, France and raised her children to speak French at home, English in the outside world.

At seventeen Philip got a job in the kitchen of an excellent restaurant in Manhattan, and three restaurants later, at the age of twenty-seven, having risen steadily through the ranks, he was offered the job of head chef at a restaurant of exceeding fame. The attainment of his lifelong goal caused a riot in his psyche and he abruptly left the kitchen for the tables.

*

“Help me, Philip,” says Miles Levinson, a hefty fellow of sixty-three with thinning gray hair and a deep gravelly voice who dines with his guests at Le Scélérat in Berkeley, California three evenings a week and will only have Philip as his waiter. “I’m torn between the escalope of salmon with Gigondas and the filets mignons of veal with lemon.”

“The salmon was caught this morning,” says Philip, who prefers not to make choices for his customers. “The veal is as tender as veal can be. Whether you would enjoy one more than the other I cannot say.”

“How politic of you, Philip,” says Amy Cavanaugh, a sharply pretty redhead who dines with Miles most Thursday evenings. “But if you had to choose one or the other, which would it be?”  

“The salmon,” says Philip, gazing at her and thinking This is my job. I play the part of a waiter who seems fond of the people he serves, when in fact I neither like nor dislike most of them.

“Aha!” says Miles, grinning at Philip. “I was leaning toward the salmon.”

Philip nods and returns his gaze to Amy.

“The veal for me.” She smiles archly. “If you will assure me the mignons are fabulous.”

“I assure you,” says Philip, taking their menus. “Your usual Caesar salads?”

“Yes, and a bottle of the Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux,” says Miles, choosing the most expensive white wine in the extensive wine list. “Divinely dry for the divine fish and calf.”

“Oh and a bowl of olives,” says Amy, bouncing her eyebrows. “Some of those naughty Nyons.”

“Coming soon to a table near you,” says Philip, bowing graciously as they laugh at his tired old quip.

*

When Philip was thirty-four, seven years into his career as a waiter, he moved from New York to Los Angeles where he soon became the star waiter at a restaurant with no name hidden in a windowless warehouse in North Hollywood, the clientele movie people and the very wealthy.

Tips were pooled at this elegant nameless restaurant, but the clientele got around this by secreting cash and checks in envelopes and slipping those envelopes to Philip at opportune times during their meals. In this way Philip made more money most weeks at the nameless restaurant than he made in a month as a waiter in New York.

After three years in Los Angeles, recently divorced and weary of the drab winters and hot summers and never-clean air, he moved to San Francisco, and two years later moved across the bay to Berkeley where he has worked at Le Scélérat for nine years.

*

“Philip,” says Miles, slurring his words after downing three large bourbons at the bar before being seated, “this my friend Marie.”

Philip nods to the comely brunette, her steel-rimmed glasses comically large on her exquisite face. “Welcome to Le Scélérat.”

“Miles says you’re the finest waiter he’s ever known,” says Marie, perusing her menu rather than looking at Philip.

“How kind of you,” says Philip, nodding to Miles.

“Allan was raving about the loin of lamb à la bonne femme when he finally seated us,” says Miles, waving to someone he thinks he knows. “Horrid long wait tonight.”

“Saturday nights are often problematic,” says Philip, repeating what he’s said to Miles a hundred times before. “I apologize.”

“Shall we just skip the menu and get the bonne femme?” asks Miles, fumbling with his reading glasses.

“If you wish,” says Philip, turning to Marie to see what she thinks of Miles’s impulse.

“Fine,” she says, sounding hurt, and Philip intuits she was hoping for more of a show from him before settling into dining.

“Miles always has the Caesar salad,” says Philip, thinking Don’t be hurt, Marie. There’s still wine and appetizers to discuss.

“Fine,” she says again, glaring at Miles. “Whatever his royal highness wants.”

“For the wine…” says Miles, leafing through the large wine list. “Oh shit. You’re out of the Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac? How did that happen?”

“So sorry,” says Philip, mildly. “The case went quickly. And though the Pauillac would have been ideal with the lamb, may I suggest the Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin? I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

“I am disappointed,” says Miles, glowering at Philip. “Terribly. You’re absolutely certain you don’t have a bottle of the Pauillac stashed away somewhere for your special guests?”

“We have no guests more special than you,” says Philip, smiling warmly. “Except the queen of England, and she has yet to make an appearance.”

“Not funny,” says Miles, snarling. “I wanted the Rothschild Chafite Lateau.”

“My apologies,” says Philip, bowing. “How may we appease you?”

“I want to talk to Sandra,” says Miles, intoning the name of the famous owner/chef of Le Scélérat. “I’ve been coming here three nights a week seventeen years, since long before you were here and I resent being treated this way.”

“She will not come to the dining room,” says Philip, accustomed to Miles throwing the occasional tantrum, copious hard liquor the usual cause. “If you will accompany me, I will ask her to step out of the kitchen to speak to you.”

“Oh never mind,” says Miles, waving him away. “Just bring the fucking lamb and the crappy Chambertin. And bring us some kind of prawn something for appetizer. I’ll call Sandra tomorrow.”

“As you wish,” says Philip, nodding graciously and departing.

*

Married twice, Philip’s first marriage lasted two years and ended when he gave up his cooking career to become a waiter—his wife unwilling to forgive him for abandoning the dream she helped him attain. His second marriage lasted three years and ended a year after he and his actress wife arrived in Los Angeles from New York and she was cast in a successful sit-com and thereafter left Philip for a television producer.

*

Before heading home after a long Saturday night at Le Scélérat, and only because Sandra asks her staff to do so, Philip reports Miles’s displeasure to Sandra.

“Thank you, Philip,” she says, small and stout in her late sixties, her short gray hair colored to resemble dirty blonde. “He probably won’t call, but I appreciate knowing.”

Now they exchange looks of mutual admiration and Sandra adds, “He’s such an ass, but so very rich. You’re a saint to put up with him.”

“He doesn’t bother me,” says Philip, truthfully. “At his worst he is the faintest echo of my father.”

*

Philip rents a small cottage in the Berkeley hills behind the house of a longtime patron of Le Scélérat, and spends his free time taking long walks, playing the piano, gardening, browsing in bookstores, going to farmers’ markets, and refining recipes for a cookbook he’s been assembling for a decade, working title: Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook.

He has two old friends living elsewhere with whom he corresponds by mail, and five good friends in his life now: Marcel in San Francisco, also a waiter, Marcel’s wife Andrea, a sous-chef, Fred, a landscape architect, Fred’s wife Joan, a professor of European History at Mills College, and Lisa, a massage therapist.

For the last two years, Philip and Lisa have been sleeping with each other two nights a week, neither wanting to ruin their friendship by embarking on a full-time relationship.

And every three weeks, Philip hosts a dinner for his five friends at which he unveils the latest iterations of his culinary creations.

*

“I want you to have this,” says Miles, offering Philip a pale blue envelope. “I feel terrible about how I treated you on Saturday night. Marie and I were scuffling and I drank too much at the bar, and… please. Take it.”

“Not necessary,” says Philip, shaking his head. “You were upset. I understand.”

Please,” says Miles, urgently. “It’s the least I can do.”

“Thank you,” says Philip, taking the envelope and turning to Miles’s companion, a voluptuous blonde falling out of a diminutive dress resembling a gossamer undergarment.

“Ah,” says Miles, grinning gigantically, “this is Beverly. Beverly, the aforementioned Philip.”

“He says you’re the best, Phil,” says Beverly with a thick southern drawl, her lips voluptuous, too. “You go by Phil or Philip?”

“Whichever you prefer,” says Philip, enjoying Beverly’s near nudity, a rarity at Le Scélérat. “Your first time here?

“First time in the good seats,” she says, smiling lasciviously at Miles.

“Tell us about the sole à la meunière,” says Miles, relieved to have everything right again with Philip.

Sole à la meunière is one of Sandra’s signature dishes,” says Philip, wishing Sandra didn’t use quite so much butter in the sauce. “And as you know, Miles, she only makes this dish when the sole is extremely fresh. She is serving it tonight with shitake mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, and butter-boiled baby potatoes. Delicious and going fast.”

“Ooo yummy,” says Beverly, doing a little shimmy of excitement. “Lets get a couple of those, Milesy. Okay?”

“Yes,” says Miles, leafing through the wine menu. “Oh goody! You’ve got the Chateau d’Yquem 2015 Sauternes. Excellent. A chilly bottle of that, please.”

“Two Caesar salads?” says Philip, speaking to Beverly’s breasts.

“Ooo yummy,” she says again, and Philip is tickled by her lack of pretense.

“And we’ll want the perfect appetizer to accompany Sandra’s masterwork,” says Miles, handing his menu to Philip. “Surprise us. Will you?”

“As you wish,” says Philip, knowing perfectly well what Miles wants—broiled scallops swimming in white wine and butter.

*

Lolling in his bed with Lisa, neither of them working today, Philip suggests they have coffee on the terrazzo before wandering down to Solano Avenue for lunch, Chinese or Mexican.

“Mexican, por favor,” says Lisa, thirty-nine, a lanky brunette who was born in Brazil and came to California when she was ten.

“You know,” says Philip, sighing contentedly, “I think I’d like to move with you to a small town where we’d live in an old farmhouse and have a big vegetable garden and a dog and cats and you’d have your studio next to the house and I’d work a few nights a week at the best restaurant in town, even if that restaurant is only a steak house.”

“I’m getting there,” says Lisa, her hand on his heart. “Slowly but surely.”

Now she gets out of bed and pulls back the curtain on the sunny day.

“Nothing left to prove,” he says, admiring her naked at the window.

“Nothing fancy anyway,” she says, giving him a dreamy look. “Just love.”

fin

Just Love