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The Same Woman (Yvonne)

Every few years Andrew meets the same woman and always recognizes her, though she never recognizes him as anyone she’s known before.

The first time they met was in elementary school in 1955. The second time they met was during the summer of 1962 when they were both thirteen. And starting in 1966 they were in a relationship that lasted a year until she—her name was Laura then—left him for someone else.

In December of 1969, shortly after Andrew turns twenty-one, the first draft lottery takes place in America and he draws number 344, which means he no longer has to be in college to avoid being sent to the war in Vietnam. However, one of Andrew’s very best friends, Cal, draws number 3 and is certain to be drafted even if he manages to get into graduate school.

When Cal is denied conscientious objector status, he decides to move to Canada rather than go to prison or Vietnam. Cal has a cousin who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia who agrees to house Cal until he gets settled in Canada. Cal asks Andrew to drive him to Vancouver and they leave California for British Columbia in June of 1970, just a few days after they graduate from UC Santa Cruz, Cal with a degree in Philosophy, Andrew with a degree in Drama.

Funded by Cal’s parents, they rent a big orange van to carry Cal’s books and records and clothing and musical instruments, including two guitars, an electric bass, an amplifier, and a drum kit. They stay in motels, eat in diners, and make the trip to Vancouver in four days.

By 1970 the Canadian government is no longer making it problematic for American draft evaders to move to Canada, so Cal and Andrew have no trouble entering the country.

Cal’s cousin Frank and Frank’s wife Jean live in a small house in a suburb of Vancouver. They are both in their early thirties, Frank a surveyor, Jean a piano teacher, and Jean is pregnant with their first child. They are not thrilled about sharing their house with Cal, but they are thrilled about the thousand dollars a month Cal’s parents are giving them for as long as Cal lives with them.

On the evening of their second day in Vancouver, a few days before Andrew is planning to head back to California, Cal and Andrew go to a pub called Angel Alley in downtown Vancouver to hear a lineup of local musicians. The drinking age was recently lowered to 18 in British Columbia, and the place is mobbed with college kids and hipsters.

Cal, who has been playing guitar and writing songs since he was eleven, is keen to explore the music scene in Vancouver. Andrew took up the guitar after his relationship with Laura ended three and a half years ago, and with Cal as his teacher he has gotten quite good.

So…

After a middle-aged woman does a fair imitation of Judy Collins singing Joni Mitchell songs, and three earnest fellows cover Dylan and The Beatles, a young woman takes the stage with her guitar and stands a few feet away from the microphone as she waits to be introduced.

Andrew looks at the young woman and his jaw drops because as far as he’s concerned she is none other than Laura, the great love of his life who jilted him three and a half years ago and moved to England with her new partner—yet here she is in Angel Alley about to perform.

“That’s Laura,” says Andrew, nudging Cal who is conversing with a gal at the adjoining table. “Has to be.”

Cal turns to Andrew. “Sorry. What did you say?”

“Look,” says Andrew, pointing at the stage. “Tell me that isn’t Laura.”

“Sure looks like her,” says Cal, studying the lovely woman with shoulder-length brown hair wearing a white blouse and black slacks and standing at ease with her guitar. “I thought she was in England.”

“Last I heard she was,” says Andrew, his heart pounding. “Three years five months and two weeks ago. But this is definitely Laura. Who else could she be?”

“I didn’t know Laura played guitar,” says Cal, trying to discern the make of her reddish brown parlor guitar.

“She didn’t,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “But neither did I until she left.”

Now a big burly fellow with spiky gray hair steps up to the microphone and says, “Without further ado, it is my great pleasure to introduce Yvonne Garnier.” 

Loud applause and whistling fill the air as the woman steps to the microphone and begins to play and sing. Her voice to Andrew’s ears is Laura’s voice, a sweet woman’s tenor, and he cannot hold back his tears.

When she finishes her first song, Cal whispers to Andrew, “She’s fantastic, but I don’t think she’s Laura.”

“Why? Because she changed her name?” asks Andrew, certain she is his lost love.

“No,” says Cal, putting his hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Because this woman has been playing guitar since she was a kid. I’ll bet you anything.”

After a scintillating set of original songs and a few folk classics, Yvonne leaves the stage to thunderous applause and many of those in attendance head for home.

The bartender calls “Forty minutes to closing,” and Andrew and Cal shift their chairs to join the two women and a man—Terry, Sheila, and Chas—at the adjoining table, Terry of great interest to Cal and vice-versa.

“So are you moving to Canada, too?” asks Chas, directing his question at Andrew.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” says Andrew, still under the spell of seeing Laura again. “I got a very high draft number and I’m hoping to get into grad school one of these days, but I am loving it here, so you never know.”

“And he’s gonna visit me often,” says Cal, his eyes full of tears. “Aren’t you, A?”

“Much as I can,” he replies. “Much as I can.”

Now the woman Andrew thinks is Laura emerges from backstage and comes to join them because Terry and Sheila are her best friends, and Chas has been her devoted fan for years.

Chas rises to give Yvonne a kiss on the cheek and Terry says, “Fantastic Evie. You just get better and better.”

“Thanks,” says Yvonne, turning to Cal and Andrew. “Who are these hunks?”

“I’m Cal,” says Cal, shaking her hand. “And this is Andrew. I’m just moving to Vancouver and Andrew drove me up from California.”

“Why don’t you move here, too?” says Yvonne, shaking Andrew’s hand.

“No good reason,” says Andrew, barely able to breathe.

“At least come to my birthday party before you go back,” she says, sitting down to have a beer. “My twenty-first. Day after tomorrow. At my mother’s farm. You’ll love it. Say yes.”

“Yes,” says Andrew, laughing to keep from crying. “Of course.”

But he almost doesn’t go to Yvonne’s party because in the half-hour he spends with her in Angel Alley, he falls in love with her again—or discovers he is still in love with her—and he can’t bear the thought of her breaking his heart again.

The night before the party, he and Cal go out for fish and chips at a place Frank and Jean recommend.

“Using linear logic,” says Andrew to Cal, “I know Yvonne is not Laura. But every cell in my body tells me she is the same person.”

Cal ponders this for a moment. “What do you mean by the same person? They could be twins, but twins aren’t the same person. They may resemble each other, but they have different brains and hearts and personalities and experiences. So what do you mean by the same person.”

“I mean that when we were in the pub with her, I knew she was Laura.” Andrew clears his throat. “I know that sounds crazy because she is not Laura, and I know that because Laura’s mother still lives in San Francisco, not on a farm in British Columbia. And I know that because I called her today to confirm she still lives in San Francisco and to ask her if she’d heard from Laura recently and she said she had, that Laura was still in England with what’s his name.”

“Therefore?” says Cal, smiling at the approach of their waitress with two big platters of fish and chips.

“Therefore she cannot be Laura,” says Andrew, nodding his thanks as the waitress sets the feast before him.

“Anything else I can get you?” asks the waitress, making eyes at Andrew.

When Andrew does not reply, Cal says, “We’re good. Thanks so much.”

“And yet,” says Andrew, staring at his food and seeing Laura/Yvonne playing her guitar and singing, “I know she’s Laura.”

“Did you also know that our very attractive waitress was interested in you? No, you didn’t. Because a big part of you isn’t even here.” Cal sighs in sympathy. “I think you never got over Laura. You never broke the spell. So of course you see her in Yvonne who looks very much like her.”

Andrew closes his eyes. “But it’s not just the resemblance, Cal. Yvonne is two or three inches taller than Laura, and her speaking voice is deeper, and she talks much more slowly.”

“With a subtle sexy Quebecois accent,” says Cal, smiling quizzically at his friend. “So why do you say she’s Laura?”

“I think she has Laura’s soul. Or her spirit. Maybe they’re the same thing.”

“What about the Laura in England?” asks Cal, chewing thoughtfully on a delicious French fry. “Does she share her soul with Yvonne or did it somehow leave her and enter Yvonne?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, shrugging. “I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t know how to else to explain it. Yvonne doesn’t just remind me of Laura. She is Laura. And that’s why I’m not going to the party tomorrow. Because the only way to end this madness is to avoid her whenever she manifests in my life. And I hope she never does again.”

“But you love her,” says Cal, frowning. “Maybe this time she’ll want to be with you and not leave you for someone else.”

“Why would she be any different this time?” asks Andrew, still pained by his memory of the moment Laura told him she’d found a new love. “If she has the same spirit, then she’ll act the same way. Right?”

“Maybe she’s changed. Maybe she’s evolving as you’re evolving. Maybe this time she’ll be ready to make a life with you.”

“I doubt it,” says Andrew, sipping his beer. “Though I do love the idea of souls evolving together. And maybe she won’t even be interested in me this time.”

“Oh she seemed pretty interested in you,” says Cal, loving the fish and chips. “That’s why she invited us to her party three seconds after she met you.”

“Maybe I won’t be interested in her this time,” says Andrew, wanting to sound disinterested.

Cal rolls his eyes. “Maybe you’ll grow wings and become a bird.”

“So what if she breaks my heart again?” says Andrew, abruptly changing his tune. “Maybe that’s part of the evolutionary plan.”

“So you are going to the party with me,” says Cal, laughing. “I hope so. And I hope you do fall in love with each other and you stay in Canada and then I won’t feel so alone.”

Yvonne’s mother is named Charlene. Her farm is an idyllic place, ten acres of level ground seven miles north of Vancouver, eight of the acres in permanent pasture, one acre for summer vegetables, the remaining acre occupied by a big old farmhouse and a rundown cottage and a flower garden and outbuildings for chickens and rabbits and pigs.

Charlene is fifty-two with long brown hair going gray. She speaks English with a strong Quebecois accent and has lived on her farm for twenty-one years, having moved here from Montreal when Yvonne was in utero.

“I was a singer, too,” says Charlene to Andrew as she gives him a tour of her farm—the birthday party in full swing at the farmhouse. “But when I got pregnant with Yvonne, I thought, ‘No, I’ve had enough of this struggle. I will go west and live in a quiet place near the ocean. I had some money from my father, so I bought this farm and we have been very happy here.” She smiles as she remembers her first years on the farm. “Of course I sang to my daughter and taught her to play the piano and the guitar, but I never thought she would try to make singing her career as I did. She is more successful than I was, but still she makes her living as a waitress.”

“This is such a beautiful place,” says Andrew, wondering why Charlene singled him out for the tour and not Cal. “How far to the ocean?”

“Two miles,” says Charlene, stopping with him in front of the dilapidated cottage. “Yvonne says you are thinking of moving here. Perhaps you would like to fix up this cottage and make this your first home in Canada.”

“Oh I’m not moving here,” says Andrew, embarrassed by the mix up. “My friend Cal is moving here.”

“Yes, I know,” says Charlene, nodding, “but Yvonne says you are thinking of moving here, too, and if you will do the work on this place, I will give you free rent for two years, and, of course, pay for all the materials. She told me you are handy with tools.”

“I’m a fair carpenter,” says Andrew, intrigued by the cottage. “But I’ve mostly been a landscaper. Built decks and sheds and…”

“Well this is like a big shed, isn’t it?” says Yvonne, beaming at him. “A sophisticated shed with a toilet and shower and kitchen and living room and bedroom.”

“Maybe Cal could live here,” says Andrew, imagining settling down on Charlene’s farm for a while, playing music with Cal and getting to know Yvonne. “Can we have a look inside?”

“It’s falling down,” says Charlene, pushing open the front door of the little house. “You would mostly be building it all over again.”

“I’d need a place to stay while I was doing the rebuilding,” says Andrew, warming to the idea of a Canadian adventure before going to graduate school. “There’s no room for me where Cal is staying.”

“I have an extra bedroom in the farmhouse,” says Charlene, nodding assuredly. “You would be welcome here.”

“But you hardly know me,” he says, taken aback.

“Yvonne says you are wonderful,” says Charlene, matter-of-factly. “That is good enough for me.”

So a few days later, after he drops the van off at a car rental place in Bellingham, Washington, Andrew returns by train to Vancouver and begins a new chapter of his life.

Having brought very few things with him, he moves into Charlene’s farmhouse with a small suitcase of clothing and a knapsack containing notebooks, pens, dark glasses, a few books, a Swiss Army knife, and a camera.

His parents are surprised by his decision to stay in Canada, but understanding, too, and they ship him a box of clothes and shoes. Cal is thrilled with Andrew’s decision to stick around and comes to the farm every day to help with the renovation until a committee assisting American draft evaders gets him a job as a dishwasher and janitor at a college cafeteria, after which he can only help on weekends.

Charlene’s boyfriend Walter, a roofer, outfits Andrew with most of the tools he needs, shows Andrew the best places to buy building materials, and lends his expertise to Andrew when the going gets tricky.

And what of Yvonne? She is delighted to have Andrew living on the farm and staying in her former bedroom. Throughout the summer, she comes for supper a couple times during the week, and every Sunday she spends the day and sometimes the night at the farm.

She is greatly attracted to Andrew, as he is to her, and they spend lots of time talking, playing guitars, going to movies and plays, and walking on the beach. But they rarely touch and never kiss except on the cheeks as French people do when greeting each other and saying goodbye.

As the weeks and months go by and summer turns to fall, the cottage lacks only a new roof to be ready for Andrew to move in. Charlene’s beau Walter does the roofing job with Andrew assisting him, and Walter is sufficiently impressed with Andrew’s skills and strength and amiable nature to tout Andrew to a builder he knows, which results in Andrew being hired for eight weeks of good-paying work that gives him a nest egg for the winter.

Charlene loves having Andrew on the farm and hires him at a decent wage to help around the place a couple hours a day.

Not being in school or working for his father as a landscaper for the first time in his life, Andrew starts writing songs and stories, and he discovers he is much more interested in those art forms than in acting.

On a Sunday evening in early December after the supper dishes are done, Andrew and Yvonne and Charlene and Walter and Cal and his sweetheart Terry gather in the living room to hear Andrew read a short story he’s been working on for some weeks now, The Precipice. This is the first time he has ever shared his writing with anyone other than Cal, and though nervous at first, he grows more confident as he reads.

“That was so moving for me,” says Charlene when Andrew finishes reading. “I was on the verge of tears from the beginning to the end.”

“Really good,” says Walter, nodding in agreement. “Kind of a fable, but it seemed very real, very true. Just great.”

“I loved it,” says Terry, smiling wide-eyed at Andrew. “I know an editor at The Weekly Blitz who might want to publish it. Can I show it to him?”

“I need to polish it,” says Andrew, overwhelmed by the praise. “But yeah, that would be wonderful.”

“You’re amazing,” says Yvonne, gazing at Andrew as if seeing him for the first time. “Will you read it again to us when you finish polishing?”

“I… yeah,” says Andrew, blushing. “It really helped knowing you were listening. I mean… I read my stories out loud to myself, but it’s not the same as reading to an audience.”

“Same with a song,” says Yvonne, wanting to kiss him. “I always think of the audience as the final ingredient.”

The response to his story from his new family of friends ignites Andrew’s writing fire as nothing ever has and he starts waking early every morning to write for a few hours before doing his farm work or going off to a carpentry job. He writes in the evenings, too, if he’s not going somewhere to hear Yvonne sing or visiting with Cal.

Andrew’s parents offer to fly him home for Christmas, and to please them he flies from Vancouver to San Francisco a few days before Christmas, spends seven days in Redwood City with his mom and dad and brother, sees a few old friends, and flies back to Vancouver in time to attend Charlene and Yvonne’s New Year’s Eve party.

The day before the party, Andrew gets a phone call from the editor of The Weekly Blitz, a guy named Joe Ganz. “We would love to publish The Precipice,” says Joe, his voice deep and gravelly. “I can pay you twenty-five dollars. I know it’s not much, but that’s what we pay for feature stories. And I’d love to see anything else you want to show me. We don’t often publish fiction, but this story fits us to a T.”

Which means the New Year’s Eve party is also a celebration of Andrew’s success, and Yvonne asks him to read The Precipice to the fifty or so party goers, many of them artists and musicians and writers.

“Not tonight,” says Andrew, hating to disappoint her. “I’m feeling shy and I’d rather not be the center of attention. If you know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean,” she says, putting her arms around him. “But I really want you to read that story for everyone. It’s just what we need to hear right now. Please?”

So Andrew agrees, a microphone and amplifier are set up, Yvonne plays a beautiful guitar tune to get everybody’s attention, and exactly an hour before 1970 gives way to 1971, Andrew reads his story to the assembled host.

All the usual clichés apply. You could hear a pin drop. They hang on his every word. Again and again he has to hold for laughs. There isn’t a dry eye in the place. And when he reads the last word of The Precipice, there is a collective gasp and the crowd goes wild.

At midnight there is much hurrahing and hugging and kissing, and when Yvonne and Andrew kiss, they cease to hold back from loving each other, though they do not take the physical loving beyond their kiss.

In the days that follow, Andrew gives himself so entirely to his new life, he forgets all about trying to get into graduate school. He works on the farm, takes the occasional carpentry gig, writes for hours every day, plays music in the evenings with Cal, and he and Yvonne start spending big chunks of time together on Saturdays and Sundays, exploring the city and the coast, and reveling in their friendship which continues to deepen in spite of (or maybe because of) their unspoken agreement not to become lovers.

 ∆

One day in early summer, as the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Canada approaches, Andrew and Yvonne sit shoulder-to-shoulder with their backs against a driftwood log on a gorgeous beach a few miles north of the farm.

“The thing is,” says Andrew, smiling out at the sparkling sea, “I feel married to you. Yet we are not lovers. Which means…”

“Soul marriages aren’t about sex,” says Yvonne, taking Andrew’s hand. “They might include sex, of course, but they aren’t founded on sex.”

“Do you think if we had sex we’d lose our soul connection?” He frowns. “I wonder if that’s why we haven’t. Because we’re afraid we might.”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “Our souls will always be connected, even if we never see each other again. But I do think we’re afraid that becoming lovers would complicate things. And it would. Sex always changes everything. Don’t you think?”

“I’ve only been sexually involved with one woman in my life, and we started having sex right from the get go, so there was never any question of changing the relationship with sex.”

“I’ve had a handful of lovers,” she says, sounding somewhat bitter about it, “and in every case, the minute we had sex, even really awful sex, they thought they owned me, as if entering my body gave them dominion over me, and I hate that.”

“I think that’s a primal belief among most humans, don’t you? Claiming each other by having sex. I’m not saying it’s right, but I understand why people feel that way. Not just men. It’s not just cultural, it’s biological.”

“It’s learned,” she says, angrily. “Taught to little boys from the day they’re born.”

“What is taught to little boys?”

“That they are superior to girls and should be able to dominate them.” She frowns at him. “You don’t think so?”

“My darling, Evie,” he says, smiling at her. “I have two brilliant older sisters and learned ten thousand times before I was seven that girls are stronger and smarter and more capable than boys in every way except, eventually, in terms of brute strength. And I’ve never liked brutes.”

“So if we become lovers you won’t think I’m your exclusive property?”

“You mean will I be okay with you sleeping with other people?”

“Would you be okay with that?”

“Well the thing is, I wouldn’t want to be in a sexual relationship with you if you want to sleep with other people. But I’d still want to be your friend.”

“How is that not owning me?” She pouts. “You would own the exclusive rights to me sexually if I wasn’t allowed to sleep with other people. Right?”

“No,” he says, laughing. “I just wouldn’t be in a sexual relationship with you. You can sleep with a different person every night if you want. Or two. I just don’t want to be involved in that kind of sexual dynamic with you or anybody. It’s not who I am.”

“Hmm,” she says, pondering this. “Because I really want to make love with you, A, but I can’t promise sexual fidelity.”

“Are you sleeping with anyone now?” he asks innocently. “I won’t mind if you are.”

“I’m not,” she says, pouting again. “I haven’t in over a year. Since a few months before I met you. And every time I’ve been tempted since then, I always think, ‘But I like Andrew so much better than this guy. Why would I ever sleep with this guy if I can sleep with Andrew?’ And then I don’t because I want you instead.”

“I’m flattered,” he says, holding out his arms to her.

They embrace and feel marvelous.

“So let’s make a pact,” she says, kissing his chin. “If we do sleep together and sleeping-together doesn’t last for some reason, we’ll always be friends.”

“Sounds good,” he says doubtfully, “but we can never know in advance if we’ll always be friends. We only know our souls will always be connected, which is not necessarily the same thing as being friends.”

“So how about this,” she says, moving apart from him so she can see his face. “We commit to sexual exclusivity with each other for one year with an option to renew for another year if we both want to.”

“A one-year marriage?” he says, loving everything about her. “Will we live together?”

“Yes. I’ll move into the cottage with you and save oodles not paying rent.”

“But what if we make love…” he says, pausing portentously. “And it’s really bad? Marriage annulled?”

“No,” she says urgently. “If the first time is bad, we have to try to make it better. We have to help each other in every way. Sexually and creatively and emotionally and spiritually.”

“I’m game,” he says, looking into her eyes. “What are you doing tonight?”

She takes a deep breath. “Being with you.”

The morning after their first night together, entangled in Andrew’s bed, Yvonne says, “Laura may have broken your heart, but in the ways of lovemaking she was a very good teacher.”

A few days after becoming Andrew’s lover, Yvonne gives notice she is vacating her apartment at the end of the month and starts moving her things to the farm a carload at a time. What doesn’t fit nicely in the cottage, she stores in the attic of the farmhouse.

After two months of commuting at night to and from the restaurant where she works, Yvonne shifts from supper to lunches so she can spend her evenings with Andrew. She makes less money, but now she’s paying no rent and can gig during the week, and she’s happier than she’s ever been. Ditto Andrew.

 ∆

In October, they borrow Charlene’s car and drive to California to visit Andrew’s folks, after which they continue on to Los Angeles where Amelia, one of Yvonne’s old friends, now lives and has arranged a couple gigs for her.

Much to Andrew’s surprise, Yvonne loves LA, and on the way back to Canada she says she’d like to live there one day.

“What do you like about it?” he asks, much preferring life on the farm in Canada.

“I love the weather, the people, the energy,” she says, gazing out at the passing scenery. “And if I really want to succeed with my music, that’s the place to be.” She turns to him. “If we got married, we’d essentially have joint citizenship and you’d be free of any hassles about living in Canada and I’d be free of any hassles about living in America. So we could live either place. Or both.”

“Is that a proposal?” he asks, deciding not to tell her he hates Los Angeles, the putrid air, the terrifying traffic, the absence of forests and wilderness, the millions of desperate people.

“Something to think about,” she says, kissing him. “I know you love where we live now, but I’ve lived there my whole life and I’m ready for a change.”

Which is why in the summer of 1973, after two years of living together, Andrew and Yvonne part ways, she to pursue her music career in Los Angeles, he to stay in Vancouver and carry on with his writing.

One evening a few months after Yvonne moves to Los Angeles, Andrew and Cal are in Angel Alley having beer and burgers, and they realize they are sitting at the same table where they first met Yvonne and Terry, who is now Cal’s wife.

And their reminiscence about that fateful evening prompts Andrew to say, “You’re the only person who could even begin to understand what I want to tell you.”

“About Yvonne?” asks Cal, knowing Andrew is hurting terribly from his loss of her. “Tell me.”

“You remember how in the beginning I said she was Laura, not in body but in spirit?”

“I remember.”

“Well I continued to feel that way until about a year ago.”

“What changed?”

“Well… I came home one day and she was on the phone with Amelia, and something was different about her. I couldn’t say exactly what it was, but she was different. Still sweet and funny and loving and wonderful, but different. And I came to realize she no longer reminded me of Laura. A particular kind of energy I have never been able to describe was gone from her.”

“Yet you still loved her.”

“More than ever.”

“So where do you think the Laura energy went?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, his eyes sparkling with tears. “Your guess is as good as mine.”         

fin

the song Just Love

Categories
Uncategorized

The Screw

elk cloud

Elk Cloud photo by Todd

in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer

In the large coastal town of Croft’s Landing, Oregon, there are three hardware stores: Anderson’s, Pirelli’s, and Lowenstein’s. Each of the owners of these stores has a twenty-seven-year-old son who has been in love with Josie Parsons since at least high school, and in the case of Noah Lowenstein, since kindergarten.

Josie, who is also twenty-seven, was queen of the Senior Ball and valedictorian at Croft’s Landing High, attended Yale on a full scholarship, graduated summa cum laude in Drama, and moved to New York to take the theatre world by storm, only her storm never gathered much strength because she was forever falling in love with charming louts instead of pursuing her career and she eventually ran out of money and maxed out her credit cards and came back to Croft’s Landing to live at home, get a job, and pay off the staggering debt she accrued while living in Manhattan for five years.

Josie’s mother Constance is fifty-four and nobody’s fool. Born and raised in Croft’s Landing, the oldest of five farm kids, Constance turned down a full scholarship to Harvard and chose instead to attend nearby Oregon State. Upon graduating summa cum laude in Business, Constance returned to Croft’s Landing, married Jerry Parsons, had two children, Everett and Josie, and when Everett was in Third Grade and Josie was in First, Constance started helping people with their computers and now she has more work than she and her three employees can handle, the name of her business: Computer Help.

Josie’s father Jerry is fifty-seven, kind and generous and forever forgetting who he loaned money to. Born in Astoria, Oregon, Jerry was a commercial fisherman until he was forty-five, quit fishing when the catch became too iffy, and thereafter drove a school bus for six years before buying Zebra, a failing copy shop and stationery store. When Zebra continued to flounder after four years of pouring Constance’s hard earned money into the business, Jerry gave Zebra to Everett who was at loose ends after graduating summa cum laude in Studio Art from Evergreen College.

Everett added art supplies and a café component to Zebra, business boomed, and today there are seven Zebras in towns throughout Oregon and Washington, with three more Zebras opening soon. Jerry now works part-time in the original Zebra as a barista and recently began propagating cacti he plans to sell via his web site Gorgeous Glochids.

Josie works for Everett now, too, scouting locations for future Zebras, overseeing inventory in the seven shops, helping with in-store design and lighting, and producing radio and television spots. She has her eye on the vacant and decrepit Avalon Theatre in downtown Croft’s Landing and dreams of starting a collective of actors and dancers and artisans who will renovate the Avalon and perform original cutting-edge drama and dance there to be broadcast globally via the Internet.

However, pursuing theatrical glory pales next to her burning desire to get married and have children.

Everett, tall and lanky and red-haired like his father, sharp-witted and no-nonsense like his mother, his hair a few inches shorter than his sister’s shoulder-length auburn locks, gazes across the kitchen dining table at Josie and says, “You never finish one thing before you start another. That’s your lifelong pattern. Why not get out of debt and then buy the Avalon? Pay off the Avalon and then have kids?”

“And live at home until I’m fifty?” Josie glares at her brother. “Men can make babies until they’re eighty. Women have much smaller windows of optimal opportunity.”

“A baby at eighty,” says Jerry, contemplating his spaghetti. “Can you imagine?”

“Who do you want to marry?” asks Constance, renowned for cutting to the chase. “Are you in love with someone?”

“I fell in love three times in New York,” says Josie, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “I wouldn’t want to marry any of those guys, let alone have kids with them.” She opens her eyes. “No, I think the Chinese and Indians and Africans and Jews and just about everybody else in the olden days had it right. Let the wise elders find the best man for the job.”

Jerry, who is never immediately certain when his wife and kids are being facetious, looks first at Everett who is gazing in horror at Josie, next at Constance, whose mouth is open in disbelief, and lastly at Josie, who seems as forlorn as Jerry has ever seen her.

“I nominate your mother,” says Jerry, raising his right hand. “She’s never wrong about people.”

“I second the nomination,” says Everett, his horror changing to delight. “This could be good. We should film this.”

“I accept the nomination,” says Constance, gazing in wonder at her daughter.

“All in favor say aye,” says Josie, her eyes full of tears.

“Aye,” say Jerry and Constance and Everett.

“I have narrowed the field to three candidates,” says Constance, sitting down across the table from Josie at Chish & Fips, their favorite seafood joint, renowned for stupendous food and a maddening menu. “What are you having?”

“The cham clowder,” says Josie, despondently stirring her soup. “Let me guess. Brett Anderson, David Pirelli, and Noah Lowenstein.”

“They were on your approved list,” says Constance, opening her notebook. “Nobody else I’m aware of comes close to those three.”

“Hi Constance,” says Susie Kwong, the one and only lunchtime waitress at Chish & Fips. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” says Constance, perusing the menu. “What’s your Datch of the Kay?”

“Sned Rapper,” says Susie, serving Constance a cup of piping hot coffee. “On a bed of Rasmati Bice.”

“I’ll have that and a small Cesar salad,” says Constance, adding cream to her coffee. “Thanks.”

“Be just a few,” says Susie, sauntering away.

“I can’t marry Brett Anderson,” says Josie, shaking her head. “He’s like a second older brother. I would feel incestuous every time we had sex.”

“Then I’ll take him off the list,” says Constance, her pen poised above Brett’s name.

“No, leave him on,” says Josie, anguished. “I’m still holding out hope I’ll meet some guy in a bar. I’m going to Portland next week. Who knows what might happen.”

“Wait a minute,” says Constance, closing her notebook. “I’m taking time off from work to do this, Josie. If you’re not serious about me finding you a husband, I’ll stop right now.”

“Don’t stop, Mama,” says Josie, shaking her head. “I want you to choose my husband. I really do.”

“Okay,” says Constance, opening her notebook again. “So…Brett, David, and Noah are all healthy, smart, personable men with good jobs, and they’re all madly in love with you, so much so they’ve all stayed single despite numerous opportunities to get married. Also, I get along well with their mothers, which is no small thing since we’ll be sharing grandmother duties.”

“Are you saying Brett and David and Noah are still single because of me?” says Josie, outraged. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“How else can you explain it?” says Constance, looking at her notes. “Brett could have married Allison Cromwell or Tina Martinez in a heartbeat. And David? Half the women in town shop at Pirelli’s just to be with him for a few minutes.”

“What about Noah?” says Josie, remembering how much she loved playing guitars with him in high school.

“Who knows about Noah,” says Constance, shrugging. “But this is what some people do, Josie. Not just men. Women, too. They wait as long as they can, sometimes forever, for the loves of their lives to choose them. And you, so far, are the love of these three men’s lives. Has a day gone by since you came home from New York that they haven’t called you or come by the house or dropped by Zebra to see you?”

“Brett and David, yeah,” says Josie, sighing. “Not Noah. He’s too proud to chase me, or too shy, though he did ask me to go to the play with him on Friday. That should be fun. A Thousand Clowns.”

“My point is they are all viable options.” Constance closes her notebook. “The question is if you had to choose one of them, who would it be?”

“I don’t know,” says Josie, despondently. “That’s always been the problem. I never wanted to hurt any of their feelings, so I never chose any of them. They’re pals. They meet for beer and darts at The Raven every Thursday night. They play basketball together every Saturday morning. We should take them off the list.”

“Okay,” says Constance, nodding her thanks as Susie serves the snapper. “That leaves Mike Soper and Tom Rafferty.”

“Oh God,” says Josie, gnawing on her thumbnail. “Put Brett and David and Noah back on. And you choose. Okay?”

“Okay,” says Constance, her heart pounding. “Give me a few days.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “Honey? You awake?”

“Huh?” says Jerry, waking up.

“You awake?”

“I am now.”

“Do you have a preference?”

“For what?”

“Brett or David or Noah. For Josie.”

“Honey…you know me. I like them all. I’ve known them since they were little boys. How could I choose? What does Everett say?”

“He says Josie needs therapy.”

“Wasn’t she crazy about Brett in high school?” asks Jerry, yawning. “Senior year?”

“Yes. After he made that interception and won the homecoming game she was crazy about him for a few weeks and they did some heavy petting and then she was in The Taming of the Shrew with David and was crazy about him and they almost but not quite went all the way, and then in the summer before she went to Yale she and Noah were together every day writing songs and going on long walks and who knows how far they went and then she left for college and Brett and David were devastated.”

“What about Noah? Wasn’t he devastated?”

“No, because…I don’t think he ever thought Josie would choose him, so he had no hopes to be dashed.”

“That’s very poetic, honey.”

“What’s poetic?”

“He had no hopes to be dashed. That’s beautiful.”

“You’re so sweet,” she says, snuggling with him. “I never wanted anybody but you.”

Constance visits her mother Erma, a spry eighty-seven, at Pine Cone Valley Senior Community on the northern outskirts of Croft’s Landing. They have lunch in the cheerful dining hall and Constance updates Erma on the search for Josie’s husband.

“The three finalists are Brett and David and Noah. But I’m having a terrible time picking a winner. Any suggestions?”

“Well,” says Erma, cocking her head to one side as if straining to hear something, “if this was a fairy tale they would have to prove themselves with feats of strength and intelligence and…like that.” She returns her head to an upright position. “Some sort of test that two fail and one passes. Right?”

“Some sort of test,” says Constance, the back of her neck tingling. “Like what?”

“Maybe they have to solve some sort of riddle,” says Erma, looking out the window at wisps of fog blowing by. “And the one who solves the riddle is noble and good. Right? That’s how he knows the answer.”

“Because he’s noble and good?”

“In fairy tales,” says Erma, nodding. “Yeah. Something in his character allows him to solve the riddle.”

Brett Anderson, tall and broad-shouldered with a heroic chin, his blond hair in a ponytail, is standing behind the checkout counter in his father’s hardware store watching football highlights on his phone when Constance gets his attention by knocking on the counter.

“Oh, hey, Mrs. Parsons,” he says, freezing the highlights and pocketing his phone. “What do you need?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, holding up a wood screw, three-and-a-quarter-inches-long and a bit less than a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“Um,” says Brett, wrinkling his nose, “those would be in the screw section. Aisle Eight.”

“Can you show me?” asks Constance, nodding hopefully.

“I would,” says Brett, grimacing, “but I’m totally swamped right now. Hold on a sec, I’ll get somebody to help you.” He picks up the in-store walkie-talkie. “Yeah, customer needs help finding a screw. Thanks.” He sets down the walkie-talkie. “They’ll meet you in Aisle Eight.”

“Who will meet me, Brett?” asks Constance, sounding disappointed.

“Um…” he says, shrugging. “Gomez probably? I’m not sure. Why? Did you want somebody in particular to help you?”

“Yes, I wanted you.”

“Why?” he asks, scrunching up his cheeks. “What difference does it make?”

“I know you,” she says, turning away. “Makes the experience more enjoyable for me.”

“Next time,” he says, fishing his phone out of his pocket and unfreezing the highlights. “When I’m not so swamped.”

David Pirelli, olive-skinned and rakishly handsome, his black hair long on top, the sides shaved, a small diamond embedded in his right earlobe, his forearms tattooed with Chinese dragons, is loading cans of paint into the trunk of a car when Constance pulls into the adjacent parking spot.

After shutting the trunk of the paint buyer’s car, David opens Constance’s door for her and says, “Welcome to Pirelli’s, Mrs. P.”

“Thank you, David,” she says, beaming at him as she gets out. “How gallant of you. Do you open doors for everyone or just for Josie’s mother?”

“You get special treatment,” he says, winking at her. “What brings you here today?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, proffering the slender screw. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

David takes the screw from her, studies the old thing and says, “I’m pretty sure they don’t make these anymore, but come with me and we’ll see if we can find a close facsimile.”

In the screw section, after a quick search in a few of the many little drawers, David declares, “As I suspected, we don’t have anything this small in diameter that’s also this long. I doubt they make them anymore. Does it have to be this skinny?”

“I would prefer it to be that skinny,” says Constance, opening a drawer of long thin screws. “It’s not one of these?”

“No, those are eighth-of-an-inch in diameter,” he says, handing the screw back to her. “I told you they don’t make long screws that thin anymore.”

“So what should I do?” she asks, feigning helplessness.

“You could use a larger-diameter screw. Pre-drill the hole to make it bigger so you don’t split the wood when you put the screw in. That should do it.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Mrs. P.”

“You did the best you could,” says Constance, nodding. “Thank you, David.”

“My pleasure,” he says, accompanying her to the exit. “Sorry we couldn’t find the exact same one.” He stops abruptly. “Hey you know what I just thought of? Antique furniture stores. They might have boxes of old screws you could look through. Worth a try.”

“Good idea,” says Constance, going out the door. “Thanks so much.”

Noah Lowenstein, a soccer player in high school and now an avid playground basketball player, his brown hair longish and curly, is in the lumberyard behind the big hardware store helping Chico Alvarez select the very best twelve-feet-long redwood planks for a deck Chico is building.

Constance stands twenty feet away from Noah and Chico and watches the two strong young men search through several stacks of planks until they find fifteen beauties, which they load onto the lumber rack of Chico’s pickup.

“Muchas Gracias, Noah,” says Chico, shaking Noah’s hand before turning to Constance and saying, “Hola Señora Parsons. This is the best place to buy wood. They don’t let you hunt for the good ones at those other places.”

“As my grandfather used to say,” says Noah, greeting Constance with a little wave, “picky customers are better than no customers.”

“Did he really say that?” asks Constance, impulsively taking Noah’s hand.

“He really did,” says Noah, walking into the store with her. “He also said, ‘Customers who hold your hand get a ten per cent discount.’”

“He didn’t say that.”

“No, I made that up. But it’s not a bad idea for a promotional gimmick. Come into Lowenstein’s, hold our hands, and we’ll give you a ten percent discount.”

“Needs work,” says Constance, surprised that Noah seems in no hurry to let go of her hand, so she is the one to let go.

“Let me guess,” says Noah, striking a thoughtful pose. “You’re picking up more potting mix for Jerry’s cacti.”

“No,” says Constance, bringing forth the ancient screw. “I need to get another one of these. I’m restoring an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“This one fell out?” asks Noah, taking the screw from her and placing it in the palm of his hand.

“No, “says Constance, watching Noah’s face to see if he believes her. “One was missing, so I took this one out to show you what I need.”

“I see,” says Noah, carefully scrutinizing the screw. “Well…these are not mass produced anymore as far as I know, and maybe they never were. Are you in a hurry, Constance?”

“No,” she says, wondering if he senses something more than buying a screw is going on. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to do a little sleuthing,” he says, bouncing his eyebrows. “You’re welcome to come with me, but if you’ve got other things to do, you could come back in an hour and I’ll have something for you.”

“Another screw like this screw?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding confidently.

“You think you have one? Here in the store?”

“We will either have one,” says Noah, beckoning her to follow him. “Or we will be getting one. About this I am confident.”

Constance follows Noah through the store to a double metal door that swings open into a large storage area beyond which are three offices, one the domain of store manager Guillermo Macias, one the den of Noah’s sister Brenda Lowenstein-Adebayo, assistant manager, and one Noah’s.

“So,” says Noah, ushering Constance into his cluttered office, “I will make a quick phone call and then we’ll go from there. Have a seat.”

“Noah?” says Constance, sitting down. “This seems like an awful lot of trouble for one little screw.”

“On the contrary,” he says, picking up his old landline phone. “This is my favorite part of the job.” He taps in a number and waits a moment. “Sven. Hi, it’s Noah. Got a minute? Great. So here’s what’s happening. I’ve got an old steel wood screw. A little longer than three inches and not even a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. Almost a fat needle with threads. From an old handmade table.” He listens. “At least a hundred years old.” He looks at the screw. “Yeah. Could be. You have anything like that?” He listens. “Sure. I understand. Thanks so much.”

“No luck?” says Constance, enjoying Noah’s performance.

“Sven suggests…Sven is in Portland and knows absolutely everything about screws and nails and bolts and nuts and hinges and so forth…he suggests that this screw was probably not manufactured in the United States, but more likely was made in England or Germany or Switzerland.”

“How interesting,” says Constance, frowning. “My great grandfather was German.”

“That is interesting,” says Noah, raising a knowing finger, “but it doesn’t alter the fact that these kinds of screws are probably not made in Germany anymore, unless somebody is making them by hand.”

“So what do we do?” she asks, holding her breath.

“We make one by hand,” he says, winking at her. “Follow me.”

On their way to the machine shop at the west end of the hardware store, Constance says, “May I ask you something, Noah?”

“Of course,” he says, turning to her.

“Are you going to all this trouble for me because I’m Josie’s mother?”

“No,” he says, reddening and laughing. “I would do this for anyone, though it is more enjoyable doing this for you because I’m…I’m comfortable with you because…I know you like me, so…but I’d do this for anyone because that’s how we do things here. That’s the mission, as my father likes to say.”

“What is the mission?” asks Constance, gazing in wonder at him.

“I imagine it’s the same one you have at Computer Help. Helping people achieve their goals.”

“Yeah,” says Constance, trying not to cry. “You’ve certainly done that for me today.”

Late Friday night, Josie comes home from her theatre date with Noah, and finds Constance and Jerry sitting together on the sofa in the living room, a fire blazing in the woodstove, the house toasty.

“Hey,” says Josie, quietly. “I didn’t expect you guys would still be up.”

“We have something to tell you,” says Constance, taking hold of Jerry’s hand to give her courage.

“You made your choice,” says Josie, placing both hands on her heart. “Oh, Mama, I’m sorry, but Noah just asked me to marry him and I said Yes before he could even finish asking me and I realized he’s always been the one. I just needed some time to grow up, and so did he.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “You awake?”

“What?” he says, waking from a dream. “What happened?”

“Are you awake?”

“I think so. Talk to me.”

“Do you think Noah asked Josie to marry him because I went to see him and he intuited what was going on and…”

“Yes. It’s all because of you.”

“Not all,” she says, snuggling with him. “But partly?”

“All,” he says, drifting back to sleep. “Everything.”

fin

Categories
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Sad People

The house with no windows

The house with no windows painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.” Judy Garland

The well-known actor Philip Seymour Hoffman killed himself last week with a heroin overdose. He was forty-six. Hoffman was one of those actors who, with the notable exception of his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie Capote, generally played himself—an intelligent and somewhat cynical depressive. Because Hoffman wasn’t acting, in the sense of pretending to be someone he wasn’t, if the script was good and Hoffman was well cast, he was wholly believable as a real person—a rarity in contemporary American movies. If the writing was bad and the actors miscast, as in A Late Quartet, Hoffman, through no fault of his own, verged on the ridiculous.

As Truman Capote, the role for which he won an Academy Award, Hoffman presented a restrained and studied imitation of the real Truman Capote’s voice and mannerisms, an imitation I found maddeningly unbelievable, perhaps because I have an entirely different idea about who and what Truman Capote was than the character executed by Hoffman.

My opinion aside, Philip Seymour Hoffman was regarded as one of the best American character actors of the last fifteen years. He was wealthy, respected, and the father of three children with his devoted partner. Yet he killed himself with the heroin he habitually injected to find temporary respite from what proved to be terminal self-loathing.

Tens of thousands of people commit suicide in America every year, but we don’t often hear about those deaths unless the manner of dying is sensational. However, the suicide of a famous person is big news in our celebrity-obsessed society, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s suicide resurrects the age-old question: why would someone so successful and adored and in the prime of his life want to stop living? The unstated implication of that question is that we know why unsuccessful and unloved people want to end their lives, but why would a revered star want to die?

One answer to the question of why a successful and well-liked person would commit suicide (while still relatively young) is that self-perception is rarely, if ever, altered by the perceptions others have of us. Indeed, if others perceive us differently from how we perceive ourselves, those contrary perceptions rarely penetrate our consciousness.

If we feel we are useless and pathetic and inadequate, and someone tells us with great sincerity that we are useful and admirable and capable, we might enjoy that praise for a moment, but such praise will not alter the foundational self-assessment implanted in childhood and reinforced by the accompanying continuous loop recording blaring away in our unconscious mind every minute of every day: you are just no good!

As it happens, most people who suffer from extreme self-loathing are also supremely self-involved. This is neither ironic nor surprising when we understand that the maintenance of self-loathing requires self-fixation. Good or bad or mundane, for the narcissist everything must be about the self—all else irrelevant.

“I need the applause.” Jerry Lewis

When I was in high school, much to the dismay of my parents, I stepped off the academic path preparing me for medical school and signed up for Drama. I loved acting, and I especially loved being in the company of so many beautiful emotive girls who wanted to be actresses. I aspired to write plays, too, and had at my disposal many eager young thespians to act out the scenes I wrote for them, which was a fantastic learning experience for me.

I was fifteen when I got my first part in a school play—the minor role of Franklin Roosevelt’s son in Sunrise at Campobello. This was an ideal first role for a young actor because I was onstage for much of the play, pushing the actor playing Franklin Roosevelt around in his wheelchair, but I only had a few lines to memorize and just one slightly meaty scene. Thus I got to bask in the electricity of a live performance in front of an audience without any great dramatic responsibilities.

Nevertheless, I comported myself well enough so that the applause from the audience swelled just a bit when I came out to take my bow at play’s end, and I vividly remember how my body received the applause as if I was being injected with happiness, an injection that made me high as a kite for hours thereafter. I noticed, however, that when I came down from that high, I was anxious and fidgety and desperate to experience that same sort of high again.

By the end of my senior year in high school I had been in seven plays and was addicted to that scalp-tingling rush from being enthusiastically applauded. However, I was also painfully aware that the euphoria I experienced from such mass approbation was becoming shorter and shorter-lived with every performance, and that in the aftermaths of those transitory highs, I experienced debilitating lows, such that I began to dread applause and the ensuing depression, which fear decided me not to pursue an acting career, but to focus instead on mastering writing and music, the pursuit of such mastery insuring a lack of applause for many years to come if not forever.

“The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and work unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.” Gustav Mahler

Easier said than done, Gustav. The advice of this famous composer works better for me if we change the word point to practice, because the world’s opinion—which I take to mean the opinions of others—can make the difference between an artist earning enough money to live on from his or her work, or not earning enough. Therefore, to withstand the slings and arrows of such potent external forces, one’s internal sense of self must be especially strong and positive, and we must fervently believe that what we are endeavoring to create has value regardless of our worldly success or lack thereof.

“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” Pema Chödrön

I don’t think we can rescue anyone. We can momentarily save a drowning person, but there is no way to stop that person from jumping overboard once our backs are turned. Still, I’ve known many marvelous people struggling with some murderous addiction or another, and I have many times fantasized that if I could only spirit them away to an island from which there was no escape and where they had no access to the killing substances they were addicted to, that with the guidance of a wise master they would finally come face to face with those terrible internal threats they were trying to suppress by shooting heroin or getting drunk or eating too much, and they would undergo cataclysmic emotional and spiritual crises and come out the other side into a state of being that is, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, “Not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.”

Which is what happens, more or less, to addicts and depressives who experience life-saving transformations, except not usually because someone kidnaps them and takes them to some mythic isle presided over by a bodhisattva. No, something inside them, something more powerful than the command to self-sabotage leads them through the fiery labyrinth of self-hatred and crippling self-doubt and into meaningful communion with others. But if that divine spark is not in them, or the spark has grown too weak to become a flame, that person will inevitably seek escape from suffering through other means, a needle or a bottle or a flight through space to the unyielding ground.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Albert Camus

Just a few months after I graduated from high school, Henry, one of the boys in my Drama class, committed suicide. Henry was a fantastic actor, though he never got a part in one of the school plays. I knew of his talent because every Friday the Drama students would perform scenes and monologues we were supposed to learn and practice during the week. Our grades for the semester were determined almost entirely by the grades we got for our Friday performances, and Henry never failed to bring us all to our feet cheering and applauding his performance.

Whereas I rarely did more than memorize my lines and practice my scene a few times before the Friday performance, Henry rehearsed his monologues and scenes hundreds of times, spent hours in front of the mirror creating his costume, and before each performance would have a makeup artist make him up to look stunning under the stage lights he would carefully orchestrate to fit the moods of his scenes.

Sometimes Henry did comedy, sometimes tragedy, but underpinning every performance he gave was an almost unbearable sorrow that brought even the most glib and cynical among us to tears.