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Rosalind’s Choice

This is the sequel to After Rosalind.

The only child of a well-known American poet, Rosalind Peoples always thought she would be a poet, too, but at twenty-five has yet to develop the habit of writing poems. An attractive gal with short auburn hair, a yoga practitioner and dutiful twice-daily walker of her cute brown mutt Bianca, Rosalind lives in Seattle, works in a bakery café called Café Bleu, and shares a small apartment near the university with her boyfriend Zorro Bernstein, an aspiring filmmaker ten years her senior who makes frequent schmoozing trips to Los Angeles and directs videos for musicians hoping to go viral on YouTube.

Rosalind’s mother, Dez Peoples, lives in the small town of Ophelia, Washington, a three-hour drive from Seattle. Dez has published fourteen volumes of poetry with American publishers, and all those collections have been published in German-English editions by a Swiss publisher; and her last four volumes have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, yet she still works in a stationery store to make her minimal ends meet. She has been offered teaching positions at several universities but declined the offers because, as she said in a recent interview with a German literary magazine, “All I know about writing poetry is to try to make poems I’m satisfied with, but I have no idea how to teach someone to try.”

Rosalind graduated with a degree in English from the University of Washington, her special interest the comedies of Shakespeare and the stories of Edith Wharton and Isaac Bashevis Singer. “That and three bucks,” her boyfriend Zorro likes to say, “will get you a cup of coffee and no refill.”

*

On a cold Saturday morning in late October, Zorro is smoking dope and watching a college football game on television in the living room of their small apartment when Rosalind comes in with a letter in hand.

“So you have another dupe in Los Angeles,” she says, throwing the letter at him. “I didn’t open it, but the return address is North Hollywood and she wrote on the envelope See you soon, honey pie.”

“Oh God, Roz. I’m…”

“I don’t want to know,” she says, cutting him off. “I’m going to my mother’s for a few days. Please be gone when I get back.”

*

Rosalind arrives at her childhood home in Ophelia in time for supper, after which she and her mother sit together on the sofa in the living room, a fire crackling in the fireplace. They sip peach brandy and enjoy the cats Miranda and Gonzalo and the mutt Bianca nestling around them.

After Rosalind vents about Zorro ending their three-year relationship in such a sneaky cowardly mean-spirited way, Dez, who is sixty-three and hasn’t been in a relationship since Rosalind’s father left when Rosalind was a baby says, “A blessing he’s gone.”

“He loved talking about integrity,” says Rosalind, furious with herself for trusting the wastrel. “Artistic and otherwise. Now watch. He’ll end up making horror movies.”

“Was he born Zorro?” asks Dez, who always wanted to call him Zero.

“Born Malcolm,” says Rosalind, making a spluttering sound. “He said the name Zorro came to him in a dream. That should have set off warning sirens but lust made me stupid.”

“As lust will,” says Dez, gazing fondly at her daughter. “So now what?”

“Oh I’m keeping the apartment,” says Roz, shrugging. “Housing in Seattle is insane. I just have to find a good roommate, someone who won’t mind sleeping in the living room.” She grins at her mother. “Want to come live with me?”

“I would love to live with you,” says Dez, a tremble in her voice. “But not in Seattle.”

“You want me to move back here?” says Rosalind, wrinkling her nose. “I love it here, Mama, but not yet. You stayed away for twenty years. Shouldn’t I stay away for at least ten? Prove I can make it on my own? Find my calling?”

“You’ve made it on your own since you were seventeen,” says Dez, getting up to put another log on the fire. “And your calling will find you when you’re ready to be found.”

“Are you okay, Mama?” asks Rosalind, sensing her mother’s disquiet. “Missing Grandma?”

“No, not at all,” says Dez, shaking her head. “She was a ghost those last two years. A very confused ghost. Exhausting.”

“So what’s bothering you?”

“I have to make a decision about something that involves you,” says Dez, her eyes brimming with tears, “and I’m having a difficult time, which is why I’m so glad you’re here, though I’m sorry Zorro ended things the way he did.”

“If he’d just been honest,” says Rosalind, unused to seeing her mother so emotional. “What do you have to decide?”

“Well…” says Dez, heading for the kitchen. “Tea?”

“Mama, what is it?”

“I’ve won a prize,” says Dez, stopping on the threshold between the living room and kitchen.

“The Pulitzer?” says Rosalind, who thinks all her mother’s books should have won the Pulitzer.

Dez laughs. “No. I don’t think I’ll never win that one. This is from a university in Switzerland that gives writers stipends so they can write without having to work at another job. I would be free to do anything I want.”

“Fantastic,” says Rosalind, ever amazed by what her mother’s poetry brings her. “So what’s to decide?”

“I would have to move to Switzerland, to a beautiful house in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.” She pauses. “For five years.”

“You would live in Switzerland for five years?” says Rosalind, stunned by the thought of being apart from her mother for so long.

“If I accept the prize,” says Dez, nodding. “And I’ll definitely accept if you’ll come with me.”

“I could come with you?” says Rosalind, grimacing in disbelief. “For the whole five years? They’d let me?”

“I told them I might only accept if you came with me, and they said that would be fine and they would increase the stipend to accommodate you. Of course you don’t have to, and I may accept even if you don’t come, but I’m not sure I can be happy living so far away from you for five years. This is my dilemma.”

“What about my dog?” says Rosalind, who is so flummoxed she can hardly think.

“You would bring Bianca,” says Dez, calmly. “And the cats would stay here with whoever I rent the place to. Cat lovers, of course.”

*

Rosalind has been to Europe twice with her mother, once when she was eleven, once when she was thirteen, their trips paid for by Dez’s Swiss publisher. And they certainly would have gone to Europe a few more times except Ernestine, Dez’s mother, began to falter mentally and Dez would neither take her to Europe again nor leave her in the care of others and go without her.

 *

The next morning, Sunday, heavy rain keeps them inside, and after breakfast they play Scrabble by the fire.

“Is this what we’d do in Switzerland?” asks Rosalind, smiling sleepily at her mother, neither of them having slept well. “Play Scrabble and loll around?”

“If we want,” says Dez, using all her letters to spell gigantic and taking a seemingly insurmountable lead.

“But seriously,” says Rosalind, her head throbbing. “In Seattle I have to work six days a week to pay the rent and buy food. If I didn’t have to work… what would I do?”

“You can get a job in Switzerland if you want,” says Dez, grouping and regrouping the letters on her tray. “Or you can travel. Take pictures. Build birdhouses. Raise rabbits. Work in the garden. The house has a lovely garden and a big lily pond. You could write a play. Take piano lessons. There’s a fine piano in the house. You can do anything you want. Or nothing. We just get to live in a wonderful place and not worry about money for five years. What a concept.”

“I feel like such a failure,” says Rosalind, spelling fritz, the z landing on a triple-word-score square, which makes the seemingly insurmountable lead suddenly surmountable. “I’m twenty-five and I haven’t done anything with my life except make lattes and live with a phony jerk and pick up dog poop and ride on your coattails.”

“When have you ever ridden on my coattails?” says Dez, frowning. “You had after-school jobs in high school, got a full scholarship to college, and you’ve supported yourself ever since.”

“You know what I mean,” says Rosalind, disconsolately. “My resume reads BA in English, University of Washington, used to take pretty good pictures, daughter of brilliant poet. I don’t deserve a five-year dream life in Switzerland. I need to make something of my life. Become something.”

“I didn’t publish my first poem until I was thirty-nine and you were two,” says Dez, spelling index, the x on a double-letter-score square. “Until then my resume was BA in Dance, San Francisco State, three years with money-losing dance company, waitress.”

“Yes, but you were always writing poems,” says Rosalind, spelling alarm. “You knew what you were. A poet. What am I?”

“So let’s say you don’t come with me,” says Dez, getting up to answer the loud knocking at the door. “And you stay in Seattle working as a waitress. Why would that be a better way to make something of your life than living with me in Switzerland?”

“I would not be dependent on you,” says Rosalind, closing her eyes and seeing the picture she took of Dez twelve years ago, standing at the prow of a ferryboat plying the waters of Lake Zurich.

Dez opens the door and here is Becky Fletcher and her adorable children, Wade who is four and Jenny who is two. Becky was Rosalind’s best friend in elementary school and high school.

“I should have called first,” says Becky in her booming voice, “but we were driving by and saw Roz’s car, so… hey Roz.”

“Hey Becky,” says Rosalind, coming to give her old pal a hug. “Oh my God. Look at your gigantic children. They’ve doubled in size since August.”

“Tell me about it,” says Becky, laughing uproariously. “Can you believe it?”

“Come in, come in,” says Dez, smiling at the little cuties. “I’ll make some cocoa.”

“Oh don’t go to any trouble,” says Becky, who would clearly love for Dez to go to some trouble. “I should have called first.”

“It’s fine,” says Rosalind, helping Becky out of her sopping raincoat. “Come get warm by the fire.”

“I like cocoa,” says Wade, frowning gravely. “Only not too hot or I burn my mouth.”

“I have to pee,” says Jenny, doing a little jig.

“First we pee,” says Becky, scooping up Jenny and carrying her down the hall to the bathroom, “and then we have not-too-hot cocoa.”

And in this moment of Becky disappearing down the hallway with Jenny, and Bianca coming to sniff Wade as he takes off his raincoat and drops the soggy thing on the floor and follows Dez into the kitchen, Rosalind decides to go to Switzerland with her mother, though she doesn’t realize she’s made her decision until some days later.

*

Only when she gets back to her tiny Zorro-less apartment in Seattle and she’s sitting on her ratty futon and the traffic is roaring by outside her too-thin windows and another long week of making lattes and clearing tables awaits her, does she realize she’s made up her mind.

“Mama,” she says when Dez answers her phone. “I’ve decided to come with you and be your fellow artist in Switzerland, though I have no idea what kind of artist I’ll be.”

“Oh darling,” says Dez, who has only called Rosalind darling a few other times in her life. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Why are you proud of me?” asks Rosalind, mystified by her mother’s choice of words. “I haven’t done anything to be proud of.”

“If you knew you as I know you,” says Dez, vastly relieved that Rosalind is coming with her, “you would know why I’m proud of you.”

“Tell me.”

“I would have to tell you the story of your life,” says Dez, crying for joy.

“Tell me one thing.”

Dez closes her eyes and waits for a memory to emerge.

“A year ago when you took that marvelous picture of me for Ordinary Amazement, you dressed me in a long gray skirt and a white blouse and stuck an overblown yellow rose in my hair and had me stand in the vegetable garden while you went up on the roof of the house and took picture after picture of me looking up at you, my fearless daughter moving around on the steep roof with the sureness of a practiced acrobat, never doubting you’d get something good.”

fin

Darling

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After Rosalind

This is a story about Desdemona Peoples, known to her friends and those who read her poetry as Dez Peoples. She works at Oberon’s, the only stationery store in town, and used to be married to Larry Peoples who is now married to Penny Peoples. Given that they all live in Ophelia, Washington, a small town, you may wonder why Dez doesn’t drop Peoples and go back to using her maiden name Persons to make things less confusing for everyone. And the reason she doesn’t go back to Persons is poetry.

A striking brunette, Dez was born in Ophelia, the youngest of three kids with two older brothers. Her father Skip was a logger, her mother Ernestine a housewife who took in sewing work to supplement the family income, and both Dez’s brothers became loggers, too. By the age of twelve, Dez was determined to get out of Ophelia and never come back. Blazingly smart, she thought everybody in town was an idiot. Now she knows everybody in Ophelia is not an idiot, but when she was twelve that’s what she thought.

Dez graduated from high school at sixteen and went to college at San Francisco State where she majored in Dance. Upon graduating with honors, she moved to Portland and joined a modern dance company called Epiphany, had parts in several plays, and wrote poetry. She worked as a waitress, had a series of musician boyfriends, wrote hundreds of poems, and tried to get them published with little success.

When Dez was thirty-seven her father died and she went back to Ophelia to take care of her grieving mother. After she’d been home for a month, she had a fling with Larry Peoples who had briefly been her boyfriend in high school, and because her birth control implant gave up the ghost six months early, she got pregnant, married Larry, and took his last name to make things less confusing for everyone in Ophelia.

Much to her surprise, Dez enjoyed being married to Larry who was sweet to her during her pregnancy and sweet to their child Rosalind until Lindy, as Larry called Rosalind, was three. Then Larry got together with Penny and had little to do with Dez or Rosalind ever again.

But during Larry’s initial sweetness to her and their child, Dez stopped signing her poems Desdemona Persons and started signing them Dez Peoples, and the minute she made that change, literary magazines started publishing her poems, which led to Seven Painted Elephants Press publishing her first volume of poems Before Rosalind, which was subsequently published in a German-English edition by the Swiss publisher Werner Schaffen. And when Before Rosalind proved successful, Seven Painted Elephants Press published Dez’s second volume of poems Now She Is Two and Werner Schaffen published a German-English edition of that collection, too.

Which is not to say Dez became famous, but as poets in America fare, she was faring quite well, which is why when she and Larry divorced, she kept on being Dez Peoples.

*

On a muggy Saturday in August—Rosalind eight, Dez forty-six, and Dez’s mother Ernestine seventy-two—Dez and Rosalind are working in the vegetable garden in back of the two-story house where Dez grew up, digging horse manure into the soil for planting pole beans and potatoes.

Ernestine comes out on the back porch and says, “Phone for you Dez. Somebody named Lulu.”

Rosalind laughs. “You mean Zulu, Grandma.”

“Lulu, Zulu,” says Ernestine, laughing, too. “Some sort of ulu.”

“Dig on, Roz,” says Dez, hurrying to the house. “I won’t be long.”

Zulu Manhattan is Dez’s editor at Articulate Dinosaur Press in Seattle, publisher of Dez’s last three volumes of poetry. Dez’s latest volume, her seventh, Controversial Recipes, just came out in America and Europe and is getting stellar reviews. Werner Schaffen has published German-English editions of all seven of Dez’s books and she now has a small following in Germany and Switzerland.

“Hey Dez,” says Zulu, her accent southern, “we just got a call from Nathan Grayson. Well… from his people. Do you know him?”

“No,” says Dez, sitting at the kitchen table and using the same wall-mounted telephone she grew up with. “Somebody sent me the book he won the Pulitzer for. Can’t think of the title. Haven’t read it yet.”

“Well you better read it, honey,” says Zulu, emphatically, “because he apparently loves your work and wants you to open for him at a big show in Seattle on October fifth, PBS taping the show for a national Christmas special. Wants you to do about twenty minutes. They’ll pay you two grand and put you up at the Four Seasons and interview you for the special, too. Yes?”

“I’ll need to check with my mother,” says Dez, terrified. “Make sure she’s available to take care of Roz. Can I call you back tomorrow? Or Monday?”

“Monday at the latest, darling,” says Zulu, hearing the fear in Dez’s voice. “Grayson is going to be the next poet laureate, you know. Or the one after that.”

“I probably can do it,” says Dez, breathlessly. “I’ll call you back.”

Dez hangs up the phone and bows her head. This is her dream come true and her worst nightmare. She wants to be successful and wants to be anonymous.

Ernestine comes in from the garden cradling zucchinis and cucumbers in her apron, dumps the produce on the kitchen counter and says, “You okay, Dez?”

“They want me to read with Nathan Grayson in Seattle,” says Dez, anguished. “In October. For a PBS Christmas show.”

“For your new book?” asks Ernestine, getting Dez a glass of water.

Dez smiles at her mother who knows nothing about poetry except that Dez is a poet and Psalms in The Bible are poems.

“Nathan Grayson is very famous,” Dez explains, “and it certainly would help my new book if I read with him and a million people watched the show, but I’m not sure I want to.”

“Why not?” asks Ernestine, frowning at her daughter. “Wouldn’t take long. Three-hour drive to Seattle, read your poems, come on home. We’ll hardly know you were gone.”

“You make it sound so wonderfully simple,” says Dez, giving her mother a hug. “But it isn’t.”

*

As they plant the bean seeds, Dez tells Rosalind about the reading in Seattle.

“Can I come?” asks Rosalind, nodding hopefully. “I love Seattle.”

“I don’t know if I’ll do it,” says Dez, sinking her hands in the soil and closing her eyes.

“Why not?” asks Rosalind, frowning at her mother. “We could go to Pike Street Market and get fish and chips and salt water taffy and go on a ferry boat ride.”

“It’s complicated,” says Dez, thinking Maxine is the only person I know who will understand what I’m up against.

*

When Ernestine and Rosalind take the mutts Portia and Petruchio for a walk, Dez sits at the kitchen table and calls Maxine in Portland. Maxine is an artist ten years older than Dez who makes her living staging houses for real estate agents. She and Dez shared a flat and were waitresses together when Dez lived in Portland.

“Hey baby girl,” says Maxine when she hears Dez’s voice. “I’ve been meaning to call you and tell you how much I love the new poems. The one about the old lady buying whiskey in the Pakistani liquor store? I laughed until I cried. You just get better and better. And who took the picture of you on the jacket? You look like Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“Roz took it,” says Dez, smiling as she recalls standing in the vegetable garden, her hair still wet from her shower, Rosalind snapping pictures with a tiny camera. “You got a minute?”

“For you, baby girl, all day.”

Dez tells Maxine about the gig with Nathan Grayson and her mixed feeling about saying Yes, and Maxine says, “Self-sabotage or self-preservation? That is the question.”

“I’m not unhappy,” says Dez, as if that might be a good enough reason not to read with Nathan Grayson.

“What are you afraid of?” asks Maxine, getting out her notebook.

“I write poetry,” says Dez with anger in her voice. “I don’t want to be mistaken for Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“You’d be sensational,” says Maxine, writing Sensational at the top of a blank page. “And that would open a Pandora’s Box of interest in you. Tell me why that’s bad.”

“I like not being famous,” says Dez, hearing how false she sounds.

“And what will happen if you don’t do it?” asks Maxine, writing Pandora’s Box under Sensational.

“If I don’t do it,” says Dez, knowing how the world works, “my publisher will drop me and I will ever after be known as the uppity bitch who wouldn’t read with Nathan Grayson.”

Maxine laughs. “You are so not an uppity bitch, baby girl.”

Silence.

“I’m stuck,” says Dez, quoting Rosalind who often says I’m stuck when seeking help.

“Let’s go back to the beginning,” says Maxine, writing The Beginning under Pandora’s Box. “Why do you write poems?”

“To capture moments,” says Dez, thinking of Rosalind on her knees in the garden placing big white beans in the little trench snaking through the dark brown soil.

“Why capture moments?” asks Maxine, writing Moments.

“To share them with others.”

“Why do you want to do that?”

“To connect. Maybe help.”

“Help?”

“You know… maybe awaken someone a little.”

“Do it, Dez,” says Maxine, writing Awaken! “Pandora won’t bother you much in Ophelia.”

*

So Dez takes the gig.

*

At the end of Dez’s sound check a few hours before the big show, Nathan Grayson and his entourage enter the vast theatre and Grayson strides down the center aisle to meet Dez coming off the stage.

A movie-star handsome fellow in his fifties, his hair a flawless gray pompadour, Nathan takes Dez’s hand in both of his and says, “Your author photos don’t lie. Why no videos?”

“I’m low tech,” says Dez, who got her hair cut stylishly short for the reading. “Just write.”

“So you’ll do about ten minutes,” says Nathan, winking at Dez. “Sound good?”

“I was told twenty,” says Dez, having memorized six poems that take her seventeen minutes to recite without haste.

“Less is more,” says Nathan, winking at her again. “Aim for ten. They always take fifteen.”

“Will do,” says Dez, wanting to like Nathan but finding him repulsive.

“Perfecto,” says Nathan, winking at her a third time. “Just be yourself.”

*

The first poem Dez recites is called Café Idyll, about a day in her life as a waitress—the seventeen hundred people in the audience entranced from the first line and roaring with laughter throughout.

Aiming to finish under fifteen minutes, Dez skips her second and third poems and performs A Tale of Two Bass Players, a funny poignant imagining of her long-ago bass player boyfriends showing up in Ophelia to take her back to the life she had in Portland before the coming of Rosalind.

The audience goes bonkers when she finishes the poem, cheering and whistling and applauding thunderously.

Now something in the wings catches Dez’s attention and she glances to her right and sees Nathan Grayson gesturing wildly for her to stop, to be done, though she’s only been on for nine minutes.

And when the stage manager and the show’s director fail to calm Grayson down and he’s about to walk onto the stage and do God knows what to get Dez off the stage, Dez leans close to the microphone and says, “I’ll close now with a poem inspired by Nathan Grayson who so graciously asked me to read with him.”

Which simple speech quells the beast.

*

After Rosalind

When I was a child my older brothers would say to boys

questioning the little girl playing ball with them, “She’s tough

as nails. Not afraid of anything.” Which was true for all my

life until at thirty-seven I swelled with child, my Rosalind,

and in a second-trimester dream I drew my sword to fight

a man who would slay me before my babe was born. And

in that bloody duel was born my fear and the prayer

Oh let me live until my babe is born and weaned and strong.

And when my babe was four-years-old my prayer became

Oh let me live until she can make her way without me.

Now Rosalind is eight and as fearless as I

before she came to be, and in a dream

two nights ago that same man came to slay me.

But this time when I drew my sword I felt no fear,

for Rosalind was beside me, her sword drawn, too,

a cunning smile on her soon-to-be-a-woman’s face.

*

A gorgeous day in October—Rosalind thirteen, Dez fifty-one, Ernestine seventy-seven—they are having breakfast in a café in Zurich, Switzerland with Dirk Rosenfeld, Dez’s translator at Werner Schaffen, publisher of all ten volumes of Dez’s poetry in beautiful German-English editions.

“Soon,” says Dirk, watching Rosalind take a sip of coffee from her mother’s cup, “you will be having your own cups of coffee, Roz.”

“I prefer sipping from my mother’s cup,” says Rosalind, smiling at Dez. “I suppose I might move away some day and then I’ll have my own cups of coffee, though I only ever want a few sips.”

“It begins with a few sips,” says Dirk, nodding sagely. “Then one day we want a little more and a little more, and soon one cup is not enough.”

“That’s me,” says Ernestine, never having imagined she would ever go to Europe as she has now twice with Dez and Rosalind. “Two cups every morning and sometimes three, and another two in the afternoon. But not Dez. She finishes the one with breakfast and that’s it for the day. Been that way since she was twelve.”

“Not counting the twenty years I lived away from home,” says Dez, remembering the cozy flat she shared with Maxine in Portland, purple paisley curtains, big pillows on the living room floor, Othello the cat snoozing on the windowsill, the air rich with the scent of coffee brewing.

fin

Morning Coffee