Life in the Country

On a cold morning in March, Lisa is giving Tamara a massage in Hilda’s cottage, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.

A dense fog hangs over the farm, the massage room toasty. Lisa, fifty-one, lives in the farmhouse with her husband Philip, fifty-eight, and their two young children, Arturo and Vivienne. Their farm mates, Marcel and Andrea and their young son Henri live in the other house on the property, and Hilda, Tamara’s eighty-four-year-old mother, lives in the cottage. Tamara and her longtime partner Celine are renting a beach house in Mercy in anticipation of buying a house hereabouts in the next year or so.

“Only now we’re having second thoughts,” says Tamara, who lies on her back for the second half of the massage, Lisa’s tender ministrations never failing to loosen Tamara’s tongue as well as the muscles in her shoulders and neck. “Not because we don’t love it here, we do, but because we seem to have lost all ambition since coming here. We didn’t come here to retire, but to be near my mother and to just write rather than squeezing our writing in between fusillades of bureaucratic nonsense and the well-meaning efforts of college children, as Celine calls them, and they are incredibly infantile these days, raised by phones instead of humans, poor dears.”

“You’ve only been here six months,” says Lisa, gently manipulating the now familiar knots in Tamara’s neck. “Takes time to adjust to country living.”

“Was that true for you?” asks Tamara, about to fall sleep as she always does as the end of her massage approaches.

“For all of us, yes,” says Lisa, remembering their first few years on the farm, refugees from city living. “Andrea and I were both pregnant and then we had our babies, so that was a huge adjustment, too, but we knew we didn’t want to go back to the city, so we forged ahead.”

“You were brave to have babies so late,” says Tamara, falling asleep.

Lisa covers Tamara with a light blanket and leaves her snoozing on the table.


In the living room of the cottage, Lisa does some stretching to loosen up from the two long massages she gave this morning, her thoughts turning to Philip and Marcel who have both recently gone back to being full-time waiters after a three-year hiatus, their place of work Ocelot, a new restaurant in Mercy, the plaything of a fabulously wealthy couple and the world-class chef they’ve bankrolled to run the restaurant for them.

Tamara emerges from the massage room rosy-cheeked and languid. “You’re a magician,” she says, handing Lisa six fifty-dollar bills. “I feel thirty-five, no longer fifty.”

“Oh Tamara,” says Lisa, frowning at the money. “This is three hundred. Did you mean…”

“Well-deserved,” says Tamara, giving Lisa a hug. “I don’t think I’ll do a soak today. I’m already so relaxed. But I’m staying for lunch, so you’re not rid of me yet.”


Over lentil and mushroom soup and freshly made bread, Tamara and Hilda and Lisa and Philip and Andrea talk about this and that, and Tamara asks Philip how he’s feeling about being a waiter again.

“I feel my age,” says Philip, who looks considerably younger than fifty-eight. “And I have yet to find a rhythm in the work. We haven’t been terribly busy except on weekends, though they recently got raves in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, so we’re expecting an onslaught soon. It certainly helps to have Marcel there with me, and Raul’s food is extraordinary. So… I can’t complain.”

“Raul must be thrilled to have you and Marcel,” says Tamara, who first met Philip when he was the star waiter at Le Scélérat in Berkeley.

“Raul is certainly glad to have us,” says Philip, nodding. “He was not happy with the first several waiters he engaged.”

“This is only temporary,” says Andrea, hating that Philip and Marcel have to wait tables again—the cost of running the farm and supporting seven people and four dogs demanding more income than vegetables and apples and wine and Lisa’s massages bring in. “We almost have enough to publish Philip’s cookbook, and when that starts to sell we will re-publish the first one. Nathan’s son-in-law says he’ll make us a web site for half his usual fee, and this year we’re going to buy eight tons of grapes. So two years from now, at the latest, Philip and Marcel can leave the tables for good.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” says Philip, ever amazed by Andrea’s faith in him and his recipes.

“In the meantime,” says Lisa, smiling at Hilda, “thank goodness for the generous rent you pay and Delilah helping with the children.”

“I wish I could contribute more,” says Hilda, sighing. “But my future is uncertain, so…” She shrugs. “Life is long.”

“And life is good,” says Philip, getting up to put another log on the fire. “We are luckier than most of humanity.”

“I think your cookbooks will take the culinary world by storm,” says Tamara, watching Philip place the log atop the pyre. “The world awaits you.”


Philip, the handsome son of a French mother and an Italian-American father, and Marcel, the handsome son of a couple from Lyon, first worked together twenty-two years ago at Le Vagabond in San Francisco and became fast friends before Philip moved across the bay to Berkeley to work at Le Scélérat. Then for their first seven years in Mercy, they both worked part-time as waiters at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican. But this is the first time since moving away from the big city either of them has worked in a supremely exclusive restaurant, and Marcel, unlike Philip, is enjoying his return to the tables.

At 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, Philip at the wheel of the farm pickup truck, the two waiters roll down the curving road through the forest to Mercy.

“Week number five begins,” says Marcel, wearing a blue down jacket over his brown suit, his peach-colored shirt crowned by a burgundy tie. “I miss supper with the kids and being in bed by ten and not having to shave every day, but otherwise this is not a bad gig, the money is good, and soon it could be very good.”

“Oui,” says Philip, though he finds waiting tables arduous. “I do miss the less affluent folks we served at Jessica’s, the locals, the families, the children.”

“Yes, but we make five times as much in tips at Ocelot,” says Marcel, who found Jessica’s a painful comedown from his days at the esteemed Le Vagabond. “And the imperative now is to make as much money as we can. Imagine when business picks up. We’ll make good money, Philip. Big city money.”

“May it be so,” says Philip, nodding.

“Our suits are loose on us,” says Marcel, laughing. “We’ve grown skinny being farmhands.”


Philip and Marcel park a block away from the restaurant and stroll in the dusk to the stately two-story Victorian in which Ocelot occupies the ground floor.

Two well-dressed women and two men in suits are standing at the small sidewalk kiosk in front of the pale blue Victorian, studying the evening’s menu.

“Excuse me?” says one of the men to Philip and Marcel. “Do you work here?”

“We do,” says Marcel, bowing politely to the man. “How may we help you?”

“Are these the real prices?” asks the man, frowning at the menu.

“I believe so,” says Marcel, going to the kiosk and glancing at the menu. “Oui.”

“A hundred and sixty dollars for steak and potatoes with a fancy name?” says the man, grimacing. “You have got to be kidding.”

“The chef is world-famous,” says Marcel, matter-of-factly. “People come from all over the world to dine here. We don’t set the prices. We are merely servers.”

“You might enjoy Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican,” says Philip, gesturing to the east. “Excellent food for a tenth the price. Just a couple blocks from here.”

“These prices are insane,” says one of the women, clearly distressed.

“The world is insane,” says Marcel, nodding. “I cannot argue with you.”


Entering the back door of the beautifully restored old house, Marcel and Philip take off their coats in the changing room, check their hair and faces in the mirror, straighten each other’s ties, gaze at each other and intone in French, “For our family and farm.”

They emerge from the changing room, greet the sous chef and cooks, traverse the kitchen, and go through the swinging doors to the dining room where Raul, a large man from Portugal with a great tangle of graying brown hair dressed in chef whites is in conversation with the hostess Miranda, a stunningly beautiful woman wearing a form-fitting purple gown with spaghetti straps, her black hair piled high on her head, large diamond earrings belonging to the owner of Ocelot dangling from her ears.

“Ah Philip, Marcel,” says Raul, who knew them both when he was making his name in San Francisco at estuaire and would dine at Le Scélérat and Le Vagabond on his nights off, more often at Le Scélérat where Philip attended him. “Jennifer Morris is shooting some exteriors around here and she and her entourage will be coming for the first seating. They may be as many as ten and I’ll want you both attending her. What do you think? One large table or a six and a four? In the south room.”

“We can serve more gracefully there with a six and a four,” says Marcel, winking at Miranda. “But of course it depends on what Jennifer prefers, if she wants all her people at her table.”

“I agree with Marcel,” says Philip, nodding. “Start with a six and a four, and connect them if she wishes to.”

“Yes, yes,” says Raul, nodding to Miranda. “And Frank and Darlene are coming at eight and requested you, Philip.”

“Of course,” says Philip, bowing to Raul.

“Other than that,” says Raul, smiling at Philip and Marcel, both of whom came from humble beginnings, as did Raul, “we have lots of sole tonight, not so much veal, the shrimp is good, not great, and the steak is excellent but not superb. I am told those reviews are already paying dividends. Be strong.”

With that, Raul returns to the kitchen and Philip and Marcel go with Miranda to arrange the tables in the south room, the view of Mercy Bay at twilight as stunning as Miranda.

When Miranda leaves them, Philip says in French to Marcel, “Remind me who Jennifer Morris is?”

Big movie star,” says Marcel, putting his hands out in front of him, palms facing his chest to indicate large breasts. “Sex bomb.”

“Don’t know her,” says Philip, shaking his head. “What was she in?”

“I don’t know,” says Marcel, shrugging. “But I see her picture all the time on the tabloids at the grocery store, her hair style changing with her boyfriends, her beautiful breasts always leading the charge.”

“Shall we check the tables,” says Philip, knowing the time is near for Miranda to open the front door and greet the first diners of the evening.

“Oui,” says Marcel, putting his arm around Philip. “And you know I’m not offended the owners request you.”

“I know,” says Philip, smiling at Marcel. “What’s mine is yours.”


As Jennifer Morris and her entourage of thirteen depart after three hours of revelry, Jennifer declares for all to hear, “Heaven on earth. We’ll be back tomorrow night.”

“Bravo,” says Frank, as Philip approaches the owners’ table where Frank and his wife Darlene applaud him—Frank a burly fellow in his sixties with wispy gray hair, Darlene a buxom strawberry blonde in her forties. “I think Jennifer likes you, buddy. Play your cards right, you never know what might happen.”

Frank is a billionaire real estate developer, Darlene a former model for whom Ocelot is proof of her sophistication and savvy. They live most of the time in their palace in Montecito and have a mansion on a private beach south of Mercy where they come several times a year to partake of Ocelot and entertain guests.

“How are we this evening?” says Philip, bowing to them.

 “Stellar,” says Frank, grinning at Philip. “What’s good tonight?”

“The sole,” says Philip, looking at Darlene to see if she wants to add anything to Frank’s stellar.

“Did Raul tell you about the party Saturday night?” says Darlene, making big eyes at Philip. “My birthday.”

“He did not,” says Philip, smiling to mask his sorrow.

Twelve of us,” she says, her tone conveying how special she feels those twelve are. “Just us. Restaurant closed otherwise.”

“What time will you want us here?” asks Philip, his neck aching.

“Six-thirty,” she says, arching her eyebrow. “Fun starts at seven and we’ll go to ten. I’ll be forty-four. Can you believe it?”

Philip politely shakes his head. “And for tonight? Will you be having a bottle of wine or would you like to sample the current offerings by glass?”

“Get me a vodka tonic,” says Frank, watching Miranda go by. “God is she gorgeous, or what?”

“And for you, Madame?” says Philip, looking at Darlene but not seeing her.

“Something white and just a little sweet,” she says, looking at him in a way he knows is another of her invitations to pursue an involvement with her. “You know what I like, Philip.”

He bows and moves away, signaling Teresa, one of the pretty young bussers, to bring bread and butter to the owners’ table.

Now he goes to check on a table of six gregarious millionaires from St. Louis, and as he approaches the table of corpulent men and their slender wives, something awakens in him that has been dormant since his last night at Le Scélérat a decade ago—his impeccable waiter persona.

I can do this if I have to for another few years. But after that I will never wait tables again.


The next morning, Philip wakes early to make sandwiches for Vivienne and Arturo and Henri’s lunches, after which he cooks an omelet for Arturo and Vivienne’s breakfast.

While the kids are eating, Lisa, still in her nightgown, makes coffee and reminds the kids they have piano lessons at Delilah’s after school.

When breakfast is over, Henri arrives with his school things and his accordion, and before Philip drives the kids to school, Henri gets out his accordion, Arturo gets his guitar, Vivienne gets her violin and they perform the song they’ve been practicing for several days, Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life, their rendition awful, and Philip and Lisa love it.


On his way home from dropping the kids at Mercy Montessori, Philip stops at the food co-op to buy groceries, and from there goes to Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s as he often does these days, something about spending time with the elderly couple and their young housemate soothing to Philip as he struggles with returning to the tables.

He arrives at the little house just as Celia and Delilah are leaving on a walk with the young mutts Chico and Gypsy, so Philip is alone with Nathan for a time, a fire crackling in the hearth.

“I found my groove again last night,” says Philip, sitting at the kitchen table with Nathan. “Which is to say, my alter ego returned.”

“Does your alter ego have a name?” asks Nathan, who loves talking to Philip.

“Philip,” says Philip, pronouncing his name with a distinct emphasis on the first syllable.

“Were you glad to see him again?”

“In a way,” says Philip, shrugging. “He makes the work easier.”


“Because he does the work and I can save my real self for the life I love.”

“You’re an actor coming out of retirement,” says Nathan, nodding in understanding. “Resuming your role in a long-running play on a new stage.”

“I know I’m not a failure,” says Philip, his eyes brimming with tears. “But sometimes I succumb to doubt.”

“You’re not a failure, my friend,” says Nathan, remembering when his writing career came crashing down and he became a pruner of fruit trees again. “Quite the opposite. Everything we do, everything that happens to us, is the path. And the path, it turns out, is the destination. So now you’re an actor again, and I’ll bet you’re a great one.”

“I wish the people I serve were not so… I don’t know,” says Philip, allowing himself to really cry for the first time since returning to the tables. “Selfish and greedy.”

“Yeah, but they’re on the path, too,” says Nathan, nodding. “No matter how different their gaudy costumes make them seem.”


Return To Go


Three Dog Farm

The eight acres and two houses and the big redwood barn and several other outbuildings owned by Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel are exactly two miles inland as the crow flies from the northern California coastal burg of Mercy; and because of that distance from the ocean and their elevation of five hundred feet, those eight acres enjoy more sun most days than Mercy.

 In early August, a letter from Grandma Hilda confirms that she and Auntie Tamara and Auntie Celine are going to rent a beach house in Mercy for October and November, which means they’ll be here for Vivienne’s fifth birthday on October 22 and for Thanksgiving. By the time they arrive, Arturo will have begun Second Grade and both Henri and Vivienne will be in First Grade because the wise ones at Mercy Montessori have agreed it would be silly for Vivienne to undergo kindergarten given how she learns everything from Henri and Arturo moments after either of them learn anything.

This past February, when the large sum of money bequeathed to Lisa by her paternal grandmother became a reality in their account at Mercy Savings, Philip and Marcel, both in their mid-fifties, took leave of their jobs as waiters at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, and Marcel became a four-days-a-week carpenter assisting the Ramirez brothers, general contractors, who are building a spacious five-room cottage and bath house a stone’s throw from Philip and Lisa’s farmhouse, and beginning next spring they will add a third bedroom and a second bathroom to the farmhouse while expanding and remodeling the kitchen, dining room, and living room.

Philip sometimes works with the builders, too, but most summer days he collaborates with the children in the morning while Andrea, who just turned fifty, and Lisa, forty-nine, are otherwise engaged. When school is in session, Philip oversees the kids in the afternoons until five, after which he combines preparing supper with working on the yet-to-be-named sequel to his first cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook, with frequent assistance from Andrea.

In April, Dunwood Roofers removed the five idiotically juxtaposed roofs from Marcel and Andrea’s house and replaced the leaky conglomeration with a single modestly slanting and well-insulated roof featuring seven large skylights that admit copious sunlight into the house and not a drop of water when it rains.

Andrea is steadily expanding the deer-fenced vegetable and flower garden from a half-acre to three-quarters-of-an-acre with help from Lisa and Philip and the children—raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, asparagus, and greatly expanded garlic beds the latest additions to the garden.

A new and spacious predator-proof chicken coop, home to twenty-seven prolific hens, is now attached to the south end of the recently refurbished barn, and inside the cavernous barn resides a handsome array of twenty 25-gallon oak wine barrels soon to be filled with juice of wine grapes brought to the coast from an inland vineyard, those grapes to be stomped into juice by members of the collective and friends, Marcel to oversee the fermentation process and eventual bottling.

Discussions abound regarding what to call the winery and eight-acre farm. Marcel and Philip have lately campaigned for Andrea Lisa, while Andrea thinks having Mercy in the name would enhance sales of the hypothetical wine to tourists who buy her produce at the Mercy Farmers Market, and Lisa has several times touted the word she learned from Auntie Tamara, anagnorisis, which means the moment in a drama when the protagonist discovers the true state of affairs to which he or she has been blind, though Lisa admits the word does not roll trippingly off the tongue, nor does anagnorisis harmonize well with winery or farm.

Henri and Arturo are zealous advocates of Three Dog Farm, and Vivienne likes that name, too, but worries they might one day have more or fewer than three dogs and then the name won’t be true.


Grandma Hilda is not biologically the children’s grandmother, but in emotional and spiritual terms she most certainly is. Eighty-two, Swiss, tall and sturdy with long silvery gray hair worn in a braid, Hilda is a retired Jungian psychoanalyst and has lived in Berkeley, California for fifty years, and is now considering a move to Mercy. Her only child, Tamara, Auntie Tamara to the children, is forty-seven, a very successful playwright and professor of Drama at Reed College in Portland, and Tamara’s partner Auntie Celine is fifty-two, a professor of African-American History at Reed, Celine herself African-American.

Philip met Hilda when he was a waiter at the famed Le Scélérat in Berkeley and served her every Wednesday evening for nine years before she joined his small circle of friends away from the restaurant. Hilda adores Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel, and in the absence of biological grandchildren of her own, she has enthusiastically assumed the role of grandmother vis-à-vis Arturo, Vivienne, and Henri. Much to everyone’s delight, Hilda has come to stay at the farm several times a year since the collective moved here seven years ago.


On a balmy afternoon in late August, the kids are playing outside before supper, Lisa watching them while reclining in the hammock on the kitchen deck and falling asleep reading a collection of Edith Wharton short stories. Philip and Andrea are in the kitchen making the latest iterations of three of Philip’s recipes for his new cookbook—tonight’s main course cod fillets slow-simmered in a sauce of lemon juice, white wine, minced garlic, coconut milk, and various herbs and spices. And Marcel is sitting at the kitchen table with an old landline phone, tapping in the number for Oak Leaf Vineyards, a forty-five-minute drive inland from Mercy.

“Hello Marie? It’s Marcel Léandre calling from Mercy. I spoke to you a few weeks ago and you said I should call you today to find out when the picking will begin.” He listens. “I see. Yes. We intend to buy enough pinot noir grapes to make two hundred and fifty gallons, and enough cabernet also for two hundred and fifty gallons. Yes. Two tons of the pinot and two tons of the cab.” He nods. “Yes, we will have you deliver the grapes to our farm near Mercy. And we would love to come watch some of the harvesting and perhaps pick a few bunches ourselves.” He reacts in surprise. “The first of September? And how long will the harvest continue?” He laughs. “Yes, I made wine with my father in France for many years, so I know a little bit.” He smiles. “Marvelous. We will come to you on September seven at nine o’clock and pick some grapes and then lead the truck back here.” He listens. “Yes, of course we will pay you before we come. We are told your grapes are the finest and we don’t want to lose our chance.” He listens. “Perfect. We will send you a check tomorrow. Merci.”

“The seventh of September?” says Andrea, looking up from chopping garlic.

“Yes,” says Marcel, laughing to keep from crying. “Two weeks from today.”

“Fantastic,” says Philip, tending three pans on the stove, each concoction timed by a separate timer. “Let’s open a bottle of something to celebrate.”

“Something white,” says Andrea, giving Marcel a kiss when he comes into the kitchen.

“I can’t believe it,” says Marcel, crying despite his best efforts not to.

Andrea hands him a bottle of a dry chardonnay, Marcel opens the bottle with the ease of one who has opened thousands of bottles in front of countless customers, and when they each have a glass in hand, Philip proposes a toast. “To the harvest.”

“To the harvest,” says Marcel, raising his glass.

“To the harvest,” says Andrea, clinking her glass with both of theirs.

Now the door flies open and Vivienne runs in, declaiming, “Will someone please give me a glass of water before I perish?”

Philip obliges her and a moment later Henri appears with Arturo right behind him followed by the little dog Goliath and the giant dog Jung.

“We’re very hungry,” says Arturo, remembering not to use the word starving that makes his mother cross. “And Mama said to ask for something to eat that won’t ruin our appetites for supper.”

“Apples,” says Andrea, choosing two big red Fujis. “Please wash your hands in the bathroom. No room in the kitchen right now.”

The boys rush down the hall to the bathroom, Vivienne following, and Philip bows his head and says, “A moment of prayer. Lisa cleaned the bathroom today. May they not entirely destroy her good work.”

Marcel laughs. “Henri has no difficulty turning the water on, but he has an aversion to turning it off, and his drying technique is more mime than actual.”

“Oui,” says Philip, nodding. “Arturo believes towels belong on the floor and someone must have made a mistake by draping them over the bar, and he feels compelled to make things right.”

The children return and Arturo says, “You may be surprised to know we turned off the water, dried our hands very well, and hung up the towel.”

“I beg your pardon,” says Philip, bowing to his son. “When you’ve eaten your snack, would one of you please inform Lisa the adults are having wine, and salad will be served shortly.”

“I’ll tell her,” says Henri, taking a few apple slices with him. “She’s asleep in the hammock.”

“I’ll come, too,” says Vivienne, following Henri.

Arturo stays at the table, gobbling his pieces of apple, and Marcel says to him, “We’re going to the vineyard in two weeks to get four tons of grapes. Can you believe it?”

“For Three Dog Farm wine?” says Arturo, nodding in agreement with the name he and Henri have chosen.

“Yes, for the wine,” says Marcel, ruffling Arturo’s hair. “Whatever we end up calling it.”

“Well we are a farm,” says Arturo, still very hungry and wondering if he should eat a banana. “And we do have three dogs. And people love dogs and farms, so it’s a very good name.”

Lisa comes in with Henri and Vivienne, Andrea hands Lisa a glass of wine, and Marcel says to Lisa, “I just ordered the grapes. We go to the vineyard in two weeks. Can you believe it?”

“I can,” she says, clinking her glass with his. “To the harvest.”


That night Philip dreams he and Vivienne enter a bookstore and Vivienne runs to a table displaying new books and says, “Your new book is here! Can you believe it?”

In the dream, Philip approaches the table and sees his cookbook, the title Three Dog Farm Cookbook, the cover illustration a beautiful drawing of their three dogs, Goliath the little mutt, Mimi the Golden Retriever, and Jung the giant hound, sitting at a table laden with food, each dog believably holding a glass of wine.


The grape-crushing party takes place on September 9, a Saturday, and of the forty people present for the barbecue and barefoot stomping of the grapes, twenty-five are members of the Ramirez clan, the Ramirez brothers building the cottage and bath house, which means there are several Latino kids playing soccer with Arturo and Henri and Vivienne, and a half-dozen beautiful black-haired women with babies and husbands.

Among the neighbors in attendance are Nathan, a white-haired elder with whom Andrea consults about growing vegetables and fruit, Celia, Nathan’s charming Latina wife, Delilah, Nathan and Celia’s lovely nineteen-year-old housemate, Joseph Richardson, a sixty-something British landscape painter who has made three gorgeous paintings of Andrea’s terraced garden with members of the collective posed therein, a fourth such painting underway starring Andrea and Vivienne amidst the sunflowers, and Constance Richardson, Joseph’s sixty-something wife and the author of dozens of popular murder mysteries written under the pen name Margaret Orland.

As frequently happens these days, the discussion turns to names for the farm and winery, and Oscar, the eldest Ramirez brother, suggests Locura Divina, which translates to Divine Madness.

Joseph, happily drunk, responds to Oscar’s suggestion by standing up and applauding.

“I love that name,” says Philip, smiling at Oscar, “except we are hoping the name of the winery will also be the name of the farm.

“Ah no,” says Oscar, shaking his head. “A good name for wine, but not for a farm.”

“The kids want to call it Three Dog Farm,” says Marcel, going from table to table to see if anyone needs more wine or beer or root beer. “And though I didn’t like that name at first, I’m growing fond of it.”

“Well it is true,” says beautiful Delilah, returning from a stint in the soccer game and sitting beside Celia. “You have three darling dogs, and I could draw you an enchanting picture of them sitting at a table drinking wine, should you want a label for your bottles.”

“What did you just say?” asks Philip, having been distracted by Vivienne angrily whispering to him that Arturo was making fun of her minimal soccer skills in front of the Ramirez children.

“I said I could draw you a lifelike picture of your three dogs sitting at a table,” she says, gesturing to the table laden with food, “drinking wine from sparkling goblets.”

“I dreamt about that very picture two weeks ago,” says Philip, astonished. “And I’m sure I didn’t tell anyone because I only just now remembered.” He turns to Lisa. “Or did I tell you that dream?”

“No. You only tell me your sex dreams,” she says, and everybody laughs.

When the laughter dies down, Philip says to Delilah, “I would like to commission you to make that drawing for me, whatever your fee.”

“My fee for you is absolutely nothing,” says Delilah, making room for Vivienne beside her on the bench.

Vivienne whispers something to Delilah, which causes Constance to ask, “What did the little darling say?”

“She’s concerned they might not always have three dogs,” says Delilah, speaking for Vivienne, “and then the name Three Dog Farm would not be true.”

“Names of farms and titles of books need not be literally true,” says Constance, giving Vivienne a wrinkled-nose smile, “but should evoke pleasing images in our minds, which Three Farm Dogs does.”

“Not Three Farm Dogs,” says Vivienne, laughing. “Three Dog Farm.”

“Yes, but I like Three Farm Dogs,” says Marcel, excitedly. “Three Farm Dogs Wine has a nice earthy ring to it. No?”

“Locura divina,” says Oscar, pointing at Marcel.

And everybody laughs.


On Saturday, October 22, her fifth birthday, Vivienne wakes at dawn, which is her habit, Arturo still fast asleep in his bed on the other side of their bedroom. She gets up quietly, takes off her pajamas and puts on the clean T-shirt, underpants, and socks her mother set on the chair at the foot of her bed last night, dons her green sweatshirt and blue jeans, and tiptoes out of the bedroom and down the hall to the kitchen where she always finds either her father or mother or both of them making coffee.

But today no one is in the kitchen, which is curious, because she was sure she heard one or both of them pass by the kids’ bedroom, which means they’ve gone outside, perhaps to check on the chickens to make sure no varmint got into the coop during the night. Or could they still be in bed?

She tiptoes down the hallway, peers into her parents’ bedroom, sees the bed is made, and returns to the kitchen where she usually has cocoa while her parents have coffee, but they are still not here. So she goes to the kitchen door, puts on her shoes, and steps out onto the deck, the morning cold and cloudy.

Fearing to wake her brother who can be terribly cranky if woken before seven, she does not call out to her parents. However, seeing the barn door ajar and thinking they might be visiting the barrels of wine as they sometimes do, she heads for the barn.

But now it occurs to her that the dogs have not appeared to say good morning and go with her wherever she might be going, and this makes her stop and frown and wonder where the dogs and her parents could possibly be.

And now it occurs to her that her parents might have gone to the beach and taken the dogs with them and not taken me!

Furious to think they might have gone to the beach without her, she breaks into a run, arrives at the barn, and peers into the dark cavernous room, her eyes needing a moment to adjust to the dim light before she sees her mother and father and Marcel and Andrea and Henri at the far end of the barn beyond the wine barrels, the three dogs with them.

“What’s going on around here?” asks Vivienne with a touch of anger in her voice.

At which moment, breaking away from the gathering of humans and dogs, is an excessively cute Golden Retriever puppy who toddles toward Vivienne barking a happy puppy bark as Vivienne swoops down upon the only thing she wanted for her birthday.


“The name we give to the place where we live can be as revealing as any dream,” says Hilda, a few evenings after Vivienne’s birthday, the children reluctantly gone to bed, the adults gathered in the farmhouse living room, a fire blazing in the hearth.

Nathan and Celia and Delilah came for supper along with Hilda and Tamara and Celine, and the living room is just big enough to comfortably fit the ten adult humans, three dogs, three cats, and the snoozing puppy who Vivienne immediately and inexplicably named Alexandra.

“The children have now decided our farm is not a dog farm,” says Marcel, adding a log to the fire and looking to see if anyone needs more tea or wine. “But a cat and dog farm, because we have more cats than dogs.”

“The children will be fine with whatever you call the farm,” says Tamara, who has a habit of stating her opinions as facts, a habit that annoys Lisa, amuses Andrea, has no effect on Marcel, and always makes Philip think how to refute her until he realizes he agrees with her.

“I think of Wittgenstein,” says Delilah, who is currently enthralled with linguistics and philosophy. “What is the meaning of the meaning of a word?”

“The last time I bought wine,” says Nathan, who doesn’t drink alcohol but buys wine for Celia and friends, “I found myself hunting for intriguing names and I almost spent forty bucks on a bottle of cabernet called, I kid you not, Spiritual Intrigue, but Miguel the wine guy said, ‘Basura. Try this instead,’ and handed me a bottle called Decent Red, and Celia said it was.”

“So what did you mean, Delilah?” asks Hilda, who finds Delilah a continuous source of delight. “By evoking Wittgenstein?”

“Well for instance, he asks us to consider what we think when we hear the word chair,” says Delilah, pausing briefly to allow anyone who wants to follow her train of thought to get on board. “And he suggests we don’t think of a specific chair when we hear chair, but rather of chairness.”

“Wittgenstein,” says Nathan, recalling the numbing effect of the fellow’s philosophizing, “is one of the reasons I dropped out of college.”

“I once screamed at a page of his words trying to understand him,” says Celine, nodding in sympathy with Nathan. “Come out from behind those tangled thoughts, you coward.”

“He can be rather abstruse,” says Delilah, shrugging. “Yet he amuses me.”

“So is he saying that by using the word dog,” asks Philip, who knows nothing about Wittgenstein, “we are asking people to think of an archetypal shape of a dog? A symbol of a dog?”

“Yes,” says Delilah, who only just a few days ago was kissed by someone, really kissed, for the first time. “He says our brains translate words into schemata. And it seems to me, your opinions of Wittgenstein notwithstanding, that a person hearing the word dog, either thinks of a generalized concept of dog or of their most well-remembered dog.”

“The problem I have with putting dog in the name of our farm,” says Andrea, who would love to talk about anything else, “is when many people hear the word dog, they think of dog shit.”

Everyone laughs and the subject blessedly changes.


As the gathering draws to a close, Celia nudges Nathan. “Recite your new poem, marido.”

“Please,” says Tamara, she and Celine seriously considering leaving academia and moving to Mercy to live among these wonderful people in this wildly beautiful place.

“Okay,” says Nathan, clearing his throat. “But only because it’s short.” He closes his eyes. “I remember playing Capture the Flag in our neighborhood as a boy, how in the daylight, the game and strategies were clear. At dusk, who was who began to be in doubt, shirtless boys in shorts and girls who might be each other, and that’s when stealth and luck could bring victory as darkness fell and the mothers called for us to come home for supper.”


A few days before Thanksgiving, the lowering clouds about to loose their gift of rain upon the thirsty earth, Tamara is working with Andrea in the vegetable garden, mulching the garlic beds.

Tamara stops slinging compost and says, “I just love how you terraced this garden, the wide gradual steps. From a distance, the climb up the hillside was almost imperceptible before you began to clear the beds.” She smiles at Andrea who she is secretly in love with. “Reminds me of my play Ziggurat in which Philip appears as a waiter.”

“I love that play,” says Andrea, taking a moment to contemplate her garden ascending the gently sloping hill. “We made a special trip to see it last year at Berkeley Rep and stayed with Hilda.”

“She told me,” says Tamara, beaming at Andrea. “She’s madly in love with your children.”

“And they are madly in love with her,” says Andrea, who still occasionally expects to wake and find herself childless and trapped with Marcel in a little apartment on a fog-bound avenue in San Francisco.

“I should give Philip a percentage of my residuals,” says Tamara, she and Celine now certain they want to move to Mercy. “His notes on the restaurant scenes made all the difference.”

“Oh my God,” says Andrea, looking wide-eyed at Tamara as the rain begins to fall. “Ziggurat. What a perfect name for our farm and winery.”


Mystery Jump