Two years ago, at the age of forty, Frederick Scott divorced his wife of seventeen years, gave up his life as an electrician in San Jose, California, and moved to Sedona, Arizona to become a follower of Sri Bihar, formerly known as Joshua Steinberg from Brooklyn.
When he arrived in Sedona, Frederick was pudgy and wan and suffering from indigestion and insomnia and depression. Now, after seventeen months of working twelve hours every day in Sri Bihar’s garden and kitchen in exchange for room and board and the honor of serving the guru and his seven anointed disciples, Frederick is lean and strong and healthy, no longer depressed, and sleeps well every night.
And Frederick might still be serving Sri Bihar in Sedona had he not, just a few weeks ago, and purely by accident, overheard his guru speaking on the phone to someone.
Having risen an hour before dawn to work for three hours in the ashram kitchen preparing breakfast for fifty sojourners—as those who make the pilgrimage to Sri Bihar are called—and weary from a subsequent two hours of washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, Frederick decided to spend his twenty minutes before reporting for lunch duty by taking a nap in the bamboo grove on the banks of Madan Creek.
The day warm, the creek in late summer little more than a melodious trickle, Frederick unfurled his prayer rug, set the alarm on his wristwatch for fifteen minutes, and lay down for a snooze. However, immediately upon lying down he heard footsteps on the dry bamboo leaves, and before he could reveal himself, he heard the unmistakable Brooklyn-accented voice of Sri Bihar saying, “So while I’m banging these beautiful women who come to worship me, I’ve convinced the men here to remain celibate so…wait for it…their inner feminine can blossom.” Then he cackled, did Sri Bihar. “I kid you not, Murray. These schmucks would put their heads up their butts if I told them to.”
Ten minutes later, Fredrick packed his knapsack with his few possessions, and hitchhiked from Sedona to Boulder, Colorado, where, in a state of shock, he stayed with his friend Rico and Rico’s wife Carla for three weeks before announcing to them one morning, “Yes, Sri Bihar is a charlatan, but I don’t regret my time with him. Those seventeen months got me over the mess of my previous life and now I’m prepared to carry on. I’m so grateful to you for letting me stay with you. I’ve decided to hitchhike to Nova Scotia and take a boat from there to England. I’ll send you postcards along the way.”
One hundred and thirty miles east of Boulder, in the town of Sterling, Fredrick has breakfast in a café called Paladin’s. On the café bulletin board, he sees a handwritten notice: Fulltime farmhand needed. Room and board and $600 a month. Call Juneau. 777-2297
In need of money, Frederick borrows the café phone and calls Juneau.
A woman with a husky voice answers on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Hi,” says Frederick, guessing from her hello that she is sad. “Is this Juneau?”
“Yeah,” she says softly. “Who’s this?”
“My name is Frederick Scott. I’m calling regarding your notice here in Paladin’s. Are you still looking for a farmhand?”
“Yes, I am,” she says, her manner becoming more business-like. “How old are you?”
“Forty-two,” he says, smiling at the waitress who allowed him to use the phone. “I’m accustomed to long hours of gardening and kitchen work. I’m in good health, I don’t smoke, and I’m quiet.”
“You local?” she asks, her tone implying she doesn’t think he is. “You sound a little British.”
“I am a little British,” he says, laughing. “And I’m not local. I was just in Boulder for a few weeks, and before that Sedona for seventeen months, and before that San Jose, California for eighteen years, and long before that I was born in England where I lived until I was eleven.”
“Can I meet you at Paladin’s?” she asks, sounding intrigued. “I’ve got some errands to run in town. I can be there in about forty minutes.”
“I’ll be here,” he says, cheerfully. “I’ll make a sign that says Frederick.”
“Can’t wait to see that,” she says with a touch of sarcasm.
Frederick is sitting at a table in Paladin’s enjoying a latte while he writes a postcard to Rico and Carla. On the table in front of him, a sheet of paper stands upright against a glass of water, the name FREDERICK written on the paper in large capital letters and aimed at the front door.
A woman enters the café, her eyes hidden by dark glasses. Sturdy and broad-shouldered, her brown hair in a ponytail, she moves with the strength and surety of an athlete. Frederick guesses she is in her mid-thirties until she takes off her dark glasses and his guess changes to mid-forties. She sees his FREDERICK sign and smiles, and he revises his guess to late thirties.
He gets up from the table as she approaches, they shake hands, and her grip informs him of her formidable strength.
“I like your sign,” she says, sitting down and looking away from him. “Just so we don’t waste each other’s time, I’ll tell you right now I need somebody for at least six months. So if you’re just passing through, this won’t work for me.”
“I understand,” says Frederick, nodding amiably. “And to be quite honest with you, Juneau, I do hope to eventually get to Nova Scotia, but I’m in no hurry, and if I like the job and the accommodations, I will gladly stay for six months.”
“I grow greenhouse vegetables year-round,” she says, opening a small notebook to consult a list she’s made. “In three really big greenhouses. I sell to local restaurants and the college and high school cafeterias. I grow about an acre of outdoor vegetables spring to fall, and two acres of potatoes. I have a hundred chickens for their eggs and raise twelve pigs a year, eleven for other people and one for me. There’s other stuff, too, but those are the main things I need help with. I also have two big dogs and two horses, and I usually board a few more horses over the winter. Oh, and I raise rabbits for their meat and pelts. I lease thirty acres to a farmer who grows alfalfa and I get a third of the bales.”
“And you and one farmhand do all the work?” asks Frederick, enjoying Juneau’s growly voice.
“Most of it. I hire high school kids when we get crazy busy in the summer, but I wouldn’t make any money if I had more than one person working full-time for me.” Now she glances at him and quickly looks away. “You interested?”
“Yes,” he says, nodding. “So far.”
“You go by Fred or Frederick?”
“Whatever you like.” He smiles. “Where does your one farmhand sleep?”
“You have your own cottage,” she says, waving to the waitress for coffee. “Has a bedroom and a little living room with a woodstove. Cozy. You take your meals with me. My last employee left three weeks ago. She was with me for two years, but she needed to make more money. It’s hard work and winters here aren’t easy, so…”
“Days off?” asks Frederick, warming to the idea of working for her.
“I try for easy Saturdays and Sundays,” she says, nodding her thanks as the waitress serves her coffee. “But chickens and horses and rabbits and pigs and vegetables don’t take days off. That’s why I pay the big bucks.” She laughs drily. “That was a joke in case you didn’t get it.”
“I got it,” he says, liking her more and more. “May I visit your farm to see what I think?”
She sips her coffee and muses for a moment. “Yeah. I have to go to the feed store and make a delivery to the college, and then you can follow me out.”
“I don’t have a car,” he says simply. “Or a truck. Or even a bicycle, though I intend to get one. A bicycle.”
“That’s a shocker,” she says, taken aback. “I’m ten minutes out going sixty. You’ll need a car.”
“For what?” he asks, sensing the job slipping away.
“You think I’m gonna lend you my car?” she says, incredulously. “Take the pickup any time you want?”
“I misunderstood,” he says, his tone apologetic. “I thought I’d be living where the job was and wouldn’t need a car. I do have a driver’s license if you needed me to drive, but…”
“I’m sorry,” she says, softening. “I guess it could work. I just…I’ve never known anybody over eighteen who didn’t have a car, so…but, yeah, I’ll take you out there.”
Juneau’s farm is spectacular, seventy acres of mostly level ground transected by a year-round stream flanked by aspens and alders—the old farmhouse and barn in excellent condition, the farmhand’s cottage delightful, the big farm dogs friendly. After a quick tour of the greenhouses and garden and barn, Juneau goes to make some phone calls while Frederick wields a hoe and weeds rows of broccoli and kale and chard.
He works steadily for two hours, stopping briefly a few times to drink water, and as he works he thinks about a woman he was smitten with in Sedona, Esther, a woman he would have courted had not Sri Bihar commanded him to remain celibate.
“Hey Frederick,” says Juneau, calling from the farmhouse porch. “Come have lunch.”
In the cheerful kitchen, enjoying their meal of sautéed vegetables and brown rice and spicy black beans, Juneau says, “My sister Janet and her husband Joe live in the other house on the property. The one we passed coming in from the highway. She teaches Biology at the college in town and he works at the lumberyard. I have a son in college in New Mexico. Kyle. He’s twenty. He comes home for Christmas and part of summer. I coach the Girls basketball team at the high school. I went to Western Washington University on a basketball scholarship. Got my degree in Horticulture. I go out with my girlfriends on Friday or Saturday night. I’m divorced and I’m not involved with anybody right now.” She takes a deep breath. “So that’s me. What about you?”
“Well…” says Frederick, sitting back in his chair, “first let me say you’re a wonderful cook.”
“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “Glad you liked it because I make this sort of thing a lot.”
“Good,” he says, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. “So…there I was in San Jose, a successful electrician, living with my real estate agent wife in our three-bedroom house in an upscale neighborhood, two new cars, my big electrician’s van, no children, and feeling mostly okay about my life, but also a bit…disconnected from…I didn’t know what.”
“Why’d you stop being an electrician?” she asks, frowning. “They make real good money.”
“Yes, they do, but…” He smiles to keep from crying. “I found out my wife was involved with somebody else, and in the course of our rather contentious divorce proceedings, it was revealed that she had borrowed a great deal of money on our house, and so when all was said and done I had almost nothing. And concurrent with finding myself penniless, I found it impossible to concentrate as one must concentrate in order to be a good electrician, so I quit. And then after a few months of floundering around, I went to Sedona and worked in the garden and kitchen of the ashram of a man called Sri Bihar, a guy from Brooklyn masquerading as a holy man.” He chuckles at this brief summation of his life. “And now I’m here with you.”
“Wow,” says Juneau, nodding thoughtfully. “You want the job?”
“Well…” He frowns at his water glass. “How would you feel about me working for you for a few weeks before I make my decision?”
“Not great, but…” She looks out the window. “Are you leaning toward taking the job?”
“Juneau?” he says, waiting for her to look at him before saying what he wants to say. “I like you and your farm and the cottage and the work, but I need to see how this feels from day to day for a while. So if you need a firm commitment right away, I’ll have to forego the job. But I very much appreciate your considering me.”
“I watched you work,” she says, looking out the window again. “You have a good pace, and you’re careful. You seem like a good person. So…is two weeks long enough to decide? I really need to get somebody before winter sets in.”
“Yes,” he says, relieved. “Two weeks is enough.”
At the end of supper on Frederick’s ninth day on Juneau’s farm, a Friday, Juneau glances at him and says, “I was driving back from town today and realized…you never asked me how old I am.”
“My grandfather taught me never to ask a woman her age,” says Frederick, setting down his fork, his huge helping of mashed potatoes and chicken and salad devoured. “And I did ask you to tell me the story of your life, twice, and you didn’t seem to want to, so I thought I’d better not pry.”
“Takes me a while to trust people,” she says, clearing her throat. “My mother…” She shrugs. “You want to have a little wine? Sit by the fire?”
“Sure,” he says, exhausted from the long day of work. “I must warn you, though. I might fall asleep. Almost my bedtime.”
“We won’t work so hard tomorrow,” she says, getting up from the table. “You like red or white?”
“Red,” he says, loving how strong and supple she is. “But either is fine.”
She opens a bottle of red, fills two big goblets, and carries them into the living room where she sets them on a small table between two armchairs. Now she tosses a log on the faltering fire and says, “We can do the dishes later. Come on now, Frederick. I want to talk to you.”
“I’ll only drink a little,” he says, sitting in one of the armchairs. “I’m a cheap date. Half a glass and I’ll be drunk.”
“I can drink,” she says, sitting in the other chair. “I don’t like how I feel the next day, but now and again I’ll get so drunk I can’t remember ever being sad.” She takes a long luxurious drink. “I like this wine. Not too sweet, but not even a little bit sour. I don’t like that vinegar sour.”
“I like this wine, too,” he says, having a sip. “My grandfather was a wine snob and spent a fortune on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.”
They drink for a while and watch the fire grow large again.
Her goblet empty, Juneau gets up and goes into the kitchen for a refill, and while she’s there she opens the back door and in come the two big dogs, Poobah and Cocoa.
“My grandmother wanted to be an actress,” says Juneau, sitting cross-legged in her armchair, swirling the wine in her goblet. “She grew up in Spokane and was in high school plays and went to the University of Washington and majored in Drama. And then she went to Hollywood to try to make it in the movies, and after a couple hard years in LA she met my grandfather. He was just getting out of the Army and fell madly in love with her and they got married and came back to Sterling where Grandpa was born. They rented a little house in town and she taught Drama at the high school and he worked on a big ranch west of town, and then they bought this place and had my mother.”
“Did they have any other kids?” asks Frederick, smiling as Poobah lies down near the fire and rolls onto his back.
“No, just my mom.” Juneau closes her eyes. “She was so beautiful, at least how I remember her. She wanted to be an actress, too, only she didn’t go to college. She didn’t even finish high school. Ran away when she was sixteen and somehow got to LA. She was in a few commercials and was an extra in one of those Superman movies, and when she was nineteen she had Janet and two years later she had me, and when she was twenty-six she brought us back here and left us with Grandma and Grandpa and we never saw her again, though she called a few times to ask for money. She died when I was eleven. Not sure how, but Grandma thought it was something to do with drugs.”
“So you were raised by your grandparents,” says Frederick, reverently. “So was I.”
“Seriously?” says Juneau, opening her eyes and gazing at him.
“Yeah, my grandfather was a professor of History at Stanford, his specialty the English Renaissance, and after my parents were killed in a car accident in Tottenham when I was eleven, I moved from England to California to live with my grandfather, my mother’s father, and his second wife. I lived with them until I graduated from college. San Jose State. Physics.”
“So is that why you want to go back to England?” she asks, her eyes full of tears. “Get in touch with your roots?”
“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But I interrupted your story. Sorry. Go on.”
“It’s okay,” she says, setting down her empty glass. “We’re just talking.”
“Right,” he says, relaxing. “So you were only five when your mother brought you here.”
“Yeah,” she says, feeling nicely drunk. “I hardly remember anything from before then. Just little bits. But I remember everything after we got here, taking care of the animals, working in the kitchen with Grandma, sitting on Grandpa’s lap driving the tractor, going to school in town and playing basketball and volleyball and getting scholarships. Janet played volleyball at Oregon State and I played basketball at Western Washington. And then Janet got a high school teaching job in Portland, and when I graduated I moved in with her and got a job at a bio-tech company and we were having a good time living in the city, so different than here, so much to do, but then my grandfather died and we came home to be with Grandma and never left. We just couldn’t leave her. She died seven years ago. We both married local guys. Janet got a good one and I got a wife beater.”
“Oh Juneau, I’m sorry,” he says, bowing his head. “So sorry.”
“My fault,” she says, nodding. “I was a stupid party girl and got pregnant, and even that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t made him marry me. I should have just let him go. He went soon enough, but not before he beat me senseless a few times.”
“Not your fault,” says Frederick, filled with anger at Juneau’s assailant. “It was his fault. His crime. For which he should be punished.”
“Oh he’s been punished,” she says, nodding. “And of course he’d been punished before he ever did that to me. People don’t hurt other people like that unless they’ve been hurt like that, too.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s dead. Died when Kyle was four. Crashed his car going a hundred miles an hour. We were divorced by then and I never really knew him, so when he died it was…it didn’t mean much to me except I wouldn’t ever see him around town again.”
“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” says Frederick, putting his hand on his heart. “I’m sure your insights about him are correct, but still…you didn’t deserve to suffer like that.”
A silence falls and their eyes meet, and she sees his sorrow and his innocence and his kindness, and he sees the same in her.
The fire flickers and Poobah snorts at something in a dream.
“You know,” says Frederick, gazing at the dwindling fire, “sometimes I’ll think of something Sri Bihar said in one of his talks, something that stuck in my mind because it seemed important at the time, though I didn’t really understand what he meant. And lately, just in these last few days, I’ll hear those words again and they make perfect sense.”
“Like what?” asks Juneau, feeling closer to him than she’s ever felt to any man except her grandfather. “I thought you said he was a fake.”
“He is a fake,” says Frederick, laughing at the absurdity of a chubby middle-aged Jewish guy from Brooklyn pretending to be a Buddhist sage and convincing thousands of people to give him lots of money to support his charade. “But he helped me. He gave me refuge and work and got me through a difficult time.”
“Like what did he say that you understand now?” she asks, frightened and excited to feel so aroused by him.
Frederick gets up from his armchair and puts another log on the fire, and another, and another. Now he turns to Juneau and says, “Only when we cease to be afraid, do we experience the mundane as miraculous. And only when we experience the mundane as miraculous, do we cease to be afraid.”
“What does that mean to you?” she asks, inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. “That you didn’t understand before?”
“It means if I am fully involved while weeding the chard, I am involved in a miracle, and being so involved, I am no longer afraid. When I feed the pigs and scratch their backs and they smile in their sublimely innocent way, I am involved in a miracle and I am no longer afraid.”
“What were you afraid of?” she asks, loving the sound of his voice.
“Of making a mistake,” he says, smiling sadly. “Of making someone angry. Of losing what I thought I had. Of dying before I was ready to die.”
“Are you afraid of me?” she asks, getting up and going to him. “Afraid of making a mistake by staying or leaving? Afraid of making me angry? Of losing me? Of dying before you get to England?”
“Yes,” he says, taking her hand. “I’m afraid of all those things when I forget I am involved in the miracle of standing with you by a fire in a house on the high plains of Colorado under a three-quarters moon, winter soon to follow the brief and glorious flurry of fall.”
“I’m afraid to love you,” she says, relieved to have said so. “Afraid you won’t love me in the same way.”
“What way is that?” he asks, smiling shyly.
“Tenderly,” she says, looking into his eyes. “Wanting me to be happy so I’ll want to make you happy.”
“You have a lovely way with words, Juneau,” he says, kissing her lips.
“So do you, Freddie,” she says, returning his kiss. “And you still haven’t asked me how old I am.”
“How old are you?” he asks, transfixed by the sudden revelation of her beauty.
“Forty-seven,” she says, leading him away from the fire and down the hall to her bedroom. “Going on twenty-five.”