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short story

End of the World

“Miles, right?” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. “What can I get for you today?”

Miles, a slender fellow with short gray hair, today his sixty-third birthday, gives Justin a dazed look and says, “I’ve only been here once before, about three months ago. You and I spoke for less than a minute. Yet you remember my name. I’m amazed.”

“You’re a memorable guy,” says Justin, who is forty-five, six-feet-six, with carrot red hair and a Cheshire Cat smile – his ability to remember faces and the names that go with those faces phenomenal. “Was it beer or wine I served you? This I don’t remember.”

“A local porter,” says Miles, feeling a slight lifting of the gloom that has gripped him for as long as he can remember. “Delicious. And fish & chips, the fish broiled. Also delicious. I’d love a half-pint of that same porter and fish & chips again.”

“For future reference,” says Justin, filling a glass with dark Mercy Porter and placing the brew before Miles, “I take food orders along with booze requests until five. Thereafter our wait staff will take your food order once you’re seated. And by golly, it’s only 4:49, so you’re in luck.”

“Great,” says Miles, getting out his wallet.

“We’ll settle up when you’re all done,” says Justin, waving to the waitress and pointing to Miles as she returns from a foray among the tables. “Conchita will cater to your every whim. Within reason.”

Conchita, a lovely Latina in her early thirties, six months pregnant, steps up to the bar and rattles off orders for beer and wine and mixed drinks before she turns to Miles and says, “Miles, right? Have a seat and I’ll find you.”

*

Miles chooses a small table with a view of the bar, sips the delicious porter, and feels he might cry – the friendliness of Justin and Conchita breaching the dam around his heart.

“Oh well,” he says, allowing himself to shed a few tears. “It is my birthday, after all.”

Somewhat relieved by his little cry, his glass empty, he looks up as Conchita arrives with a big platter of fish & chips and coleslaw and a half-pint of porter.

“Justin thought you might want another to go with your food,” says Conchita, setting the porter down and picking up the empty. “This one’s on the house.”

“Thank you,” says Miles, his tears on the rise again. “When is your baby due?”

“November seventh,” she says, placing a hand on her belly. “Three more months. You have kids?”

“A daughter,” says Miles, unable to quell his tears. “And a grandson. They live in Portugal.”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” asks Conchita, scanning the room to gauge how long she might linger with him. “We’re having a girl and collecting possible names. My mother wants me to name her Luisa after my grandmother, and my grandmother Luisa wants me to name her Felicia after her mother. And my husband’s mother says she’d love it if we named her Doris after her mother.”

“Eliana,” says Miles, his jaw trembling.

“Ooh,” says Conchita, winking at Miles as she moves away. “I love that. Enjoy.”

Now Miles really cries and ceases to care if anyone sees him blubbering, and when his tears abate, he has a long drink of the porter, eats a few of the scrumptious chips, and digs into the tender fish, the deliciousness of everything momentarily easing his sorrow.

*

Walking home from town at dusk on a trail through the woods that allows him to avoid walking on a road save for the last quarter mile – his house a mile inland from Mercy – Miles is pleasantly drunk and lost in thoughts of Justin and Conchita and the gaiety of the pub, when an enormous mountain lion steps onto the trail just twenty feet ahead and gives Miles a searching look before vanishing into the dark forest.

*

His heart still pounding from the encounter with the giant puma, Miles arrives at his house at the dead end of Auden Street, a lane intruding into the vast redwood forest, and he is filled with a longing to not be alone, a longing he has kept at bay for the seven months he’s lived here.

He starts a fire in the woodstove in the living room and clicks on the electric kettle in the kitchen to boil water for tea – his house fully electric, the electricity supplied by a large array of solar panels standing to the south of the house where he also has a big vegetable and flower garden, his two acres deer-fenced to keep out the many ravenous deer.

Squatting by the woodstove to feed the fire, Miles longs to have a friendly dog to go on walks with, a cat or two sprawled on the sofa, and someone making tea in the kitchen, someone he can tell about meeting the mountain lion – none of which he thought he would ever long for again.

Sure of the fire’s continuance, Miles goes into his office, notes the light blinking on his answering machine, a rare occurrence, and taps the space bar on his keyboard to awaken his computer, the screen revealing a dozen emails yet to be opened, most of them with the subject heading Happy Birthday – none of which he cares to read.

He returns to the kitchen and is about to make a cup of tea, when a vehicle pulls into his driveway and headlights penetrate into the house for a moment before the driver turns the headlights off.

“What did I order?” he says, assuming this is a delivery truck, UPS or Fed Ex, and thinking Must be more birthday nonsense.

He turns on the outside lights to illuminate the parking area and the path to the house, and a moment later someone opens the gate. Hearing footsteps on the gravel path, Miles waits for the delivery person to leave the package on the porch and depart, but now someone knocks on the front door and Miles thinks I must have to sign for something.

He turns on the porch light, opens his door, and is startled to see Conchita standing next to a man holding a little black dog.

“Hello,” says Miles, his heart pounding.

“You left your wallet at the pub,” says Conchita, handing Miles his wallet. “We got your address from your driver’s license. My shift just ended and you’re on our way home, so… we just live another mile inland.” She turns to the man, a sturdy fellow with curly black hair. “This is my husband Zeke. Zeke this is Miles.”

“Hey,” says Zeke, lifting one of the little dog’s paws to wave at Miles.

“Thank you so much,” says Miles, blushing. “Must have been the porter. I’m a cheap date. Usually stop at half a pint.”

“Zeke’s the same way,” says Conchita, laughing. “And by the way, happy birthday. I saw your DOB on your license.”

“Oh thanks,” says Miles, on the verge of tears again. “Would you like to come in? Have a cup of tea?”

Conchita and Zeke exchange looks and Conchita says, “We don’t want to bother you.”

“No bother. Please,” says Miles, gesturing for them to enter.

“This is Eso,” says Zeke, nuzzling the little dog. “He’s house trained and his paws are clean.”

“Fine,” says Miles, petting the friendly dog. “I love dogs.”

*

They sit by the woodstove, Eso sprawled on the hearth, and Conchita and Zeke tell Miles a little about themselves – Zeke born in Mercy, does garden maintenance for a living, his parents retired to Hawaii some years ago, Conchita born in Mercy, too, her parents and grandparents and most of their descendants still living in and around Mercy, the baby she’s carrying her first.

“What about you, Miles?” asks Zeke, his voice full of kindness. “How do spend your time?”

“I mostly garden now,” says Miles, not wanting to talk about his past but feeling he must a little. “Take long walks. Eat. Sleep. Read. That’s about it. I was a professor at UC Berkeley for thirty-five years. Ecology.”

Zeke frowns. “Are you Miles Cain?”

“I am,” says Miles, nodding. “Have you… how do you know of me?”

“I read your last three books,” says Zeke, looking at Conchita. “And recounted much of what they say to my patient wife.”

“Oh,” says Conchita, awareness dawning. “You’re the end-of-the-world guy.”

Miles feels her words as a knife in his heart. “Yeah. That’s me.”

“Great books,” says Zeke, looking at Miles with deep respect. “Brave and honest and what everybody needs to know. Thank you for writing them.”

“Fat lot of good they did,” says Miles, wanting more than anything for Conchita to know him as someone other than the end-of-the-world guy. “I often regret writing them.”

“No, no,” says Zeke, shaking his head. “They’re incredibly important. In this world of climate-change deniers and…”

“Too late,” says Miles, shaking his head. “We’ve gone beyond all the crucial tipping points. No way back.”

“Too late for what?” asks Conchita, gazing at Miles and sensing how deeply sad and lonely he is. “We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families. Whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right? I could die in childbirth. Zeke could die tomorrow in a car accident or fall off a ladder. But we’re alive now and we’ll be alive until we die.”

“And as you said in your books,” says Zeke, who often thinks about how life may be when their daughter is ten and much of the world is in chaos from climate disasters and the breakdown of society, “the earth has seen a thousand tipping points that make the current trends seem fairly insignificant.”

“But you will suffer,” says Miles, bowing his head and weeping. “Everyone will suffer so terribly, and it didn’t have to be this way.”

“Maybe it did,” says Conchita, getting up and going to Miles and resting a hand on his shoulder. “In the meantime, welcome to the neighborhood. We’re having a barbecue on Saturday and we’d love for you to come.”

In between sobs, Miles manages to ask, “What can I bring?”

*

Miles hasn’t spoken to his daughter Eliana in two years. She stopped communicating with Miles when he published his last and most successful book If We Don’t Change NOW and refused to express any hope of humanity averting a climate crisis that will render the earth uninhabitable by humans and most other living things. Eliana’s mother Sharon divorced Miles twenty years ago when he refused to add a note of hope to his first bestseller about climate change Avoidable Disasters. And his subsequent marriage to Jane, a fellow ecologist, ended because Jane couldn’t bear his relentless anger and pessimism.

But one of those birthday phone messages Miles got yesterday was from Eliana and her husband Goncalo and their ten-year-old son Hugo calling from Portugal and singing Happy Birthday, so Miles feels emboldened to call Eliana and ask for her apple cake recipe, apple cake to be his contribution to the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s.

“Papa?” says Eliana, surprised to hear her father’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“I will be if you can remind me how to make your fabulous apple cake,” says Miles, thrilled to hear his daughter’s voice. “I never can remember all the ingredients.”

“I’ll email the recipe to you,” she says, doubting the recipe is why he called. “How are you?”

“Sixty-three,” says Miles, laughing.

“Not how old are you,” says Eliana, laughing, too. “How are you?”

“Oh I don’t know,” he says, carrying his old landline phone out onto his deck, the morning sun just now ascendant over the redwoods to the east. “I had a bleak birthday until I went to the pub for an early supper and had a delicious dark beer and glorious fish & chips and met two very nice people, and then on my way home I encountered an enormous mountain lion and…”

“You were walking?” she gasps.

“Yes, at dusk. And when that giant puma decided not to eat me, something changed in me and when I got home I wanted a dog and a cat and friends for the first time in eons. But enough about me. How are you doing? How’s your handsome husband and your splendid son?”

“Hugo…” she begins, and Miles can hear she’s crying, and he thinks of Conchita saying We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families, whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right?

“Hugo said he would never eat again until we called and sang Happy Birthday to you,” says Eliana, crying some more. “He’s incredibly stubborn. I can’t imagine who he got that from.”

 “I’m so glad to hear from you,” says Miles, feeling as if he just escaped from a terrible prison composed of a maze without end, a small break in the wall allowing him to get out right before the break was repaired. “You sound good and strong.”

“I’m okay. Are you… do you have a garden?”

“I do. Just learning how to grow things here. Very different climate than Berkeley. Never gets very warm here even in the summer.” He knows this will change soon and even here life will become untenable. “Lettuce and chard and peas grow wonderfully well here, and potatoes. But my zucchini are pathetic, and tomatoes and eggplants will require a greenhouse, which I have yet to build.”

“Are you writing anything?” she asks tersely.

“No,” he says, looking up as a raven glides by. “How about you? What are you working on these days?”

“Short stories. As always.”

“I loved your last collection,” he says, remembering when Eliana was six and announced she was going to be a writer of stories like the ones in Winnie the Pooh, and that is what she became. “Did you get my letter about that?”

“I don’t read your letters. I need to go.”

“I love you, dear.”

“You do?” she asks, sounding like a little girl.

“Always and forever.”

*

Forty gregarious people attend the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s, and Miles’s apple cake is a big hit.

As the party is winding down, Conchita introduces Miles to her cousin Sylvia, a beautiful woman in her fifties who wants the apple cake recipe.

“I know you,” says Sylvia, giving Miles a dazzling smile. “I’m a checker at Walker’s Groceries. I check you out all the time.”

“Oh, yes,” says Miles, who is hanging out with Justin and his wife Helen. “I didn’t recognize you out of uniform and with your hair down and without your glasses on. You’re a whole other person.”

“That’s a delicious apple cake you made,” says Sylvia, who hasn’t been involved with anyone, and hasn’t wanted to be, since her husband died when she was thirty. “Can I get the recipe from you?”

“Of course,” says Miles, getting lost in Sylvia’s big brown eyes. “I… I’ll… where do you live? I’ll make you a copy and drop it by.”

“In town,” she says, astonished to feel so attracted to him. “Or… you could come for supper tomorrow and bring it then.”

“Oh jump on that one, Miles,” says Justin, nodding emphatically. “Best Mexican food in the world. And that’s not hyperbole.”

“You come, too,” says Sylvia to Justin and Helen, blushing to have been so forward with Miles.

“Que hora?” says Justin, bouncing his eyebrows. “We’ll bring the booze.”

*

A year later, on his sixty-fourth birthday, Miles wakes in his new queen bed to the sweet sounds of Sylvia making coffee in the kitchen, their pups Camino and Flora skittering around on the tile floor at Sylvia’s feet hoping for treats.

Now he hears Sylvia speaking in Spanish on the phone, and though his Spanish is not great yet, Miles recognizes the words for birthday and party and tomorrow afternoon and cake and enchiladas and tamales and watermelon mingling with the names of his friends who will come to sing for him: Pedro and Maria and Carlos and Justin and Helen and Zeke and Conchita and their darling baby girl Eliana.

fin

La Entrada a piano solo

Categories
short story

The Whole Point

In Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, as the warm October afternoon gives way to a foggy dusk, the bartender Justin Oglethorpe, forty-three, a muscular six-feet-six with curly red hair says, “I’ve been a bartender for seventeen years. Fifteen here at Big Goose.” He looks around the spacious pub. “And believe it or not, most of the time I enjoy the heck out of my job.”

Justin is talking to Michael Frosbisher, fifty-one, five-feet-nine, a good-looking guy twenty pounds overweight with brown hair going gray. Born and raised in Mercy and voted Most Fun To Be With his senior year at Mercy High, Michael lives in Los Angeles now and makes seventy grand a month as the co-creator and head writer of the long-running television sit-com Danny and Maureen.

“Well it shows,” says Michael, looking up at Justin. “You’re by far the best bartender I’ve ever known, and I’ve known way too many, believe me.”

“I appreciate the compliment, Michael,” says Justin, who went to San Jose State on a basketball scholarship and sat on the bench for four years before finally getting into the last game of his last season there – and with San Jose State trailing by thirty-six points and only six minutes left to play, Justin took and made nine three-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds, and had the time of his life.

A scout from China approached Justin after the game and asked him if he would be interested in trying out for a Chinese basketball team. Justin said sure, tried out for the team, and was offered a one-year contract with the Jiangsu Dragons, which he turned down because he wanted to go home to Mercy more than he wanted to play basketball in China.

“How is your beautiful wife Cecily?” asks Justin, who has served beer to Michael many times over the years. “She’s the only Cecily I’ve ever met, though the town is rife with Cecilias.”

“My wife,” says Michael, seeing Cecily glaring at him as he got in his car and drove away from their big house in Brentwood to make the long trip to Mercy, “is having a rough time these days. Our daughter Twyla just started her first year at Brandeis, and our son Paul goes off to Yale next year, and dear Cecily, who has spent the last twenty years catering to their every whim, suddenly doesn’t know what to do with herself. I begged her to come with me, but she doesn’t like it here, so…”

“What did she do before you had kids?” asks Justin, pointing to Michael’s empty glass and giving him a quizzical look.

“I would love another,” says Michael, nodding. “She was an agent at a big talent agency.”

“I thought for sure you were gonna say actress,” says Justin, serving Michael another glass of amber ale. “She’s a knockout.”

“Yeah,” says Michael, remembering the first time he saw Cecily and the world disappeared and she became all that mattered to him. “We met at the wedding of a mutual friend and fell madly in love etcetera.”

“Could she go back to being an agent?” asks Justin, who knows next to nothing about show biz.

“She’d rather die,” says Michael, remembering how incredibly relieved Cecily was when he became a staff writer on the sit-com You Can’t Be Serious and was finally making enough money so Cecily could quit the job she hated. “But enough about me. How’s the gorgeous Helen? I assume you’re still together.”

 “Helen es muy fabuloso,” says Justin, waving to Jack and Norman as they walk in the door at 4:30 on the dot as they do every afternoon. “She moved in with me six months ago, which enabled her to quit her horrible fulltime job and get a much better part-time gig. Best six months of my life.”

“For her, too, probably,” says Michael, who finds Helen enchanting and heroic. “She still writing poetry?”

“Helen will write poetry until the day she dies,” says Justin, smiling as he thinks of his beloved. “Hold that thought.” He turns to Jack and Norman as they approach the bar – Norman tall and skinny, Jack small and round-shouldered. “Gentlemen. Pints this afternoon or are we starting slow with the little glasses?”

“Pints,” says Jack, his head void of hair. “To quickly drown our sorrows.”

“Guinness for me,” says Norman, his attempt at a British accent comically awful. “And not too much foam, if you please.”

“Stop, Norman,” says Jack, rolling his eyes. “You sound more German than British.”

“And you, Jack?” says Justin, loving these guys. “What are you having?”

“Something not bitter and not dark,” says Jack, smirking at Norman. “And a muzzle for this guy.”

“Conchita will bring you your drinks,” says Justin, bowing to them.

Jack and Norman head for their usual table and Michael asks quietly, “Are they gay?”

“No idea,” says Justin, filling a pint glass with Guinness. “Nor do I care.”

Michael nods. “You’re a wise man, Justin.”

“Let people be who they want to be,” says Justin, raising a hand to beckon Conchita the barmaid standing at the far end of the bar gazing raptly into her phone. “And to complete my report on Helen, she published her third book of poems a year ago and her publisher called last week to tell her they just did a second printing so they’d have enough copies for the Christmas rampage. That’s a big deal for a poet. Means she sold more than a thousand copies.”

“Fantastic. Can I get a copy at the bookstore?” asks Michael, his heart pounding at the thought of publishing a volume of poems.

“You can get a copy right here,” says Justin, reaching under the counter and bringing forth a briefcase full of copies of Helen’s book Inevitable Impossible. “And if you stick around a little while, the poet herself will be here and sign your copy.”

“Wonderful,” says Michael, holding the volume of poems in his hands and gazing at the cover – a tall slender woman with long black hair walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, a huge wave crashing behind her. “I can’t wait to read these.” He looks at Justin. “I haven’t read a poem in twenty-five years. Not since I stopped writing poems. I guess I was a fake or I wouldn’t have stopped. Right?”

“I’m sure you were not a fake,” says Justin, placing Jack and Norman’s pints on a tray and waving to Conchita again. “You simply learned to disguise your poems as television scripts.”

“I’d much rather write poems, believe me,” says Michael, remembering the glory days of scrambling to make enough money to pay his rent and eat – when the poems came fast and furious.

“Speaking of poetry,” says Justin, pausing portentously, “Helen’s got me writing poems now. I write every day. Never in million years thought I’d write poetry, but I love it.”

“Is she teaching you?” asks Michael, gazing in awe at Justin

“Oh yeah,” says Justin, raising his hand to greet more regulars. “She’s a master of cadence and clarity.”

*

With a signed copy of Helen’s book on the seat beside him, Michael drives from Big Goose to his folks’ place a couple miles north of Mercy, their old falling-down house sitting forty feet from the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. They paid seven thousand dollars for the small redwood house on three acres in 1969, and now those three acres are worth at least four million dollars.

Michael’s older brother Duffy, a large-scale marijuana grower, is there for supper with Tess, his very young wife, his third.

Tess, a cute busty blonde, greets Michael with, “We watched Danny and Maureen last night and I laughed so hard I thought I was gonna pee my pants. You’re a genius.”

“Thanks,” says Michael, wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with someone so much younger than he. “Which episode? We filmed this season last year and we’re nearly done shooting next season.”

“The one where Danny stops to help the woman with the flat tire,” says Michael’s mother Irene, a roly-poly eighty-two, standing at the stove boiling spaghetti noodles, her glasses fogged up. “And they kind of fall in love.”

Kind of?” says Michael’s father Arnold, a wiry eighty-five, calling from the nearby living room where he and Duffy are watching basketball on an enormous television screen with the sound off. “The whole point was if Danny hadn’t been married to Maureen, he and the gal with the flat tire would’ve gotten married in a minute. They were perfect for each other except he’s already got Maureen.”

“Danny would never leave Maureen,” says Irene, beckoning Tess to come drain the noodles. “That’s the whole point of the show. Right, Mikey?”

“The show has a point?” says Michael, giving his mother a dubious look. “Who knew?”

I know,” says Irene, cleaning her glasses. “And you know it, too.”

Tess empties the big pot of boiling water and noodles into the colander in the sink and is engulfed in a cloud of steam. “It’s about meeting your soul mate,” she says, speaking from the cloud. “And the irony of meeting someone perfect for you but not getting to be with them because… whatever. I so get that.”

Duffy, a taller skinnier version of Michael, is enthroned in one of the four armchairs in the living room. “I never care what the episode’s about,” he says, shaking his head. “I just want to look at Maureen. She could just gaze into the camera for twenty minutes and I’d be happy. And she’s like… Do whatever you need to do, Danny, and he’s like terrified of living the life he wants to live. She’s the most fabulous woman on earth and he’s a total putz. You’re a genius, bro.”

“What’s he want somebody else for?” says Arnold, grimacing. “Who could be better than Maureen?”

“Come eat,” says Irene, directing her command at Arnold. “We’re sitting at the table tonight, not in front of the television.”

“The sacrifices I make,” says Arnold, getting up from his armchair to come sit in his customary place at the head of the table.

Duffy sits at the table where he has always sat since he was a little boy. Tess brings him a beer and sits beside him. Michael sits across the table from Duffy where he has always sat since he was old enough to sit up, and he and Duffy exchange looks to say Here we are again.

*

After supper, Michael drives a mile north of his folks’ place to the beach house he’s renting for his two-week stay in Mercy, settles on the living room sofa, and calls his wife.

Michael: Hello darling.

Cecily: Don’t darling me.

Michael: But you are my darling.

Cecily: If I’m your darling, come home.

Michael: You come here. Fly up to Santa Rosa. I’ll pick you up. My folks would love to see you. We’ll have a fifth honeymoon.

Cecily: You wish.

Michael: I do wish.

Cecily: Do you have to stay for two weeks?

Michael: I need to stay for two weeks. My father is eighty-five, Mama’s eighty-two. I only see them twice a year. I need to breathe the good air here and walk on the beach and not be in LA.

Cecily: You’d like to move there, wouldn’t you? Marry some teenager like your dope head brother.

Michael: I would like to move here with you.

Cecily: And you would write and what would I do? There’s nothing there.

Michael: Can we change the subject? Please?

Cecily: To what?

Michael: To I love you and I’ll be home before you know it and you’ll be glad to have a happy rested sane husband instead of a nutcase.

Cecily: If you loved me you’d come home.

Michael: And if you loved me you’d be happy I’m where I want to be for a couple weeks.

Cecily: So you’re saying I don’t love you?

Michael: Do you? Love me?

Cecily: I don’t know anymore, Michael. You used to love it here and now all you want to do is be in Mercy.

Michael: All I want to do? A week in the summer with you and the kids, and two weeks in the fall? What about the forty-nine other weeks of the year when I’m with you in LA every day and night?

Cecily: You’re right. I’m sorry. I just feel like everybody’s going away. Twyla’s overjoyed not to be here. Paul can’t wait to go to Yale and never come home again. And you’re in Alaska finding yourself.

Michael: I’m in Mercy being myself.

Cecily: Fine. Have fun.

Michael: I’ll call you tomorrow.

Cecily: Only if you want to.

*

Michael pours a goblet of red wine and settles again on the sofa in the living room to read Helen Morningstar’s book of poems.

He opens to page fifty-one in honor of his age and finds the title poem Inevitable Impossible.

Many moons ago a woman in a little house in a small town on the

north coast of California sat at her kitchen table in the morning

before going to work trying to write down the dream she just had,

the dream more of a feeling than anything that happened, a feeling

of being lost yet about to be found. Then the timer on the stove

beeped telling her to go to work. She put down her pen and

gathered her things and walked across the small town to the

office where she worked for a man who sold insurance and settled

insurance claims and paid her barely enough to live on. And all

that day and for many weeks and months she continued to work

on the poem about feeling lost yet about to be found until one

morning, a Saturday when she didn’t have to go work and could

stay with the poem, she realized she was attempting to translate

feelings into language. And thinking of herself as a translator,

not the original poet, she was able to complete the poem and

send it to an editor at a literary magazine who bought the poem

for fifty dollars and two free copies of the magazine, and now,

all these moons later, the poem is in a book and you are

reading these words the poet hopes will ignite something

in you that has needed igniting for a long time. All of this

 impossible, yet inevitable.

*

The next evening, a Thursday, Michael goes to Big Goose to have a beer and listen to Ricardo, a piano player, and Ray, a stand-up bass player, make music together. A dozen or so of Ricardo and Ray’s groupies are sitting close to the little stage, and one of those groupies is Helen, tall and slender with long black hair in a braid – a beautiful Latina in her late thirties.

Still very much under the spell of Helen’s poetry, Michael asks Helen if he might join her and Helen says, “I’d be delighted.”

Michael sits down and Helen introduces him to the other person at the table, a Mexican woman named Maria who Michael recognizes as the sales gal at Brindisi, the one and only upscale women’s clothing store in Mercy. Cecily likes to shop at Brindisi when she comes to Mercy with Michael in the summer, and she refers to the store as a little island of civilization in the wilderness.

When Ricardo and Ray take a break after their first set, Michael says to Helen, “I’ve read Inevitable Impossible three times now. Can’t put it down. All the poems, I’m not kidding, seem to have been written specifically for me.”

“I’m glad,” says Helen, blushing.

“‘A feeling of being lost yet about to be found,’” says Michael, quoting her poem. “That’s me every time I come home from Los Angeles, except I never stay here long enough to be found before I return to my whirlpool of confusion in that terrifying megalopolis.”

“Why do you go back?” asks Maria, gazing at Michael and thinking I really like this guy. I love how he talks and how he’s not trying to be anything he isn’t.

“Wife, kids, work,” says Michael, shrugging. “One kid in college, the other starting a year from now.”

Maria nods in understanding, and so does Helen.

“I would love to move back here,” says Michael, never having told anyone of his longing to live in Mercy again. “Though my wife would never move here with me.”

“What do you do in Los Angeles?” asks Maria, mystified by how much she likes Michael – liking any man a rarity for her. “For a living?”

“I write a television show,” says Michael, thinking of how he and Devora do most of the writing, though there are nine other writers on the staff, and when he and Devora don’t do most of the writing, the show stinks. “Danny and Maureen.”

“Oh my God,” says Maria, placing a hand over her heart. “That’s my mother’s favorite show. Maureen is her best friend, I swear to God. For Christmas last year my brother and I got her the boxed set of the first ten seasons. She watches an episode every night and on Tuesday night when the new one’s on, our house becomes the church of Danny and Maureen.”

“How about that, Michael?” says Helen, beaming at him. “Your shows all seem to have been written specifically for Maria’s mother.”

“She’d be in heaven if she could meet you,” says Maria, clasping her hands in prayer. “How long are you here for?”

“Ten more days,” says Michael, sighing with relief. “Ten more days in paradise.”

“Come for supper?” says Maria, nodding hopefully. “I’m a very good cook.”

“I can attest to that,” says Helen, giving Michael an encouraging look. “You won’t be sorry.”

*

“So how was it?” asks Justin, serving Michael a beer a few afternoons after Michael went to Maria’s and dined with Maria and Maria’s mother Sylvia and Maria’s brother Pedro.

“Big fun,” says Michael, taking a long drink of his beer. “Best Mexican food I’ve ever had and the sweetest people I’ve ever met, not counting you and Helen and my mother and Duffy’s wife Tess and Ephraim Espinosa who takes care of our yard in Brentwood and makes the place look like Versailles.”

“Sweet is right,” says Justin, thinking of Sylvia and Pedro and Maria who come to Big Goose for fish & chips every other Wednesday. “When I shop at Walker’s and get Sylvia for my checker, I always feel like I’m buying groceries from a saint. She must have been thrilled to meet you.”

“I guess so,” says Michael, shrugging. “And after supper, dozens of her friends just happened to drop by to meet me. I felt like Mahatma Gandhi.”

“To them you are a mahatma,” says Justin, nodding. “To my mother, too.”

“I want to feel flattered,” says Michael, smiling sadly, “but I feel like such a con man. The show is so much shtick. So predictable. No discernible originality. You know what I mean? Same old same old.”

“What’s original?” says Justin, waving to Jack and Norman as they enter. “It’s not what happens in a story that makes it great, it’s how the pieces fall together, how the story is told. And you do that very well, Michael. You need to own that.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Hold that thought,” says Justin, turning to Norman and Jack. “Gentlemen. What cravest thou as the deep chill of winter inexorably approaches?”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Please Justin, don’t get him started.”

“I live to get him started,” says Justin, winking at Michael.

“Ah winter,” says Norman, hoping to sound Shakespearean. “Such bitter cold spurs my craving for bitter beer. I’ll have a Guinness, foam be damned.”

“Red wine for me tonight,” says Jack, rolling his eyes again. “Your best pinot noir, please. John Gielgud and I will be at our table.”

“The fair Conchita will bring your drinks,” says Justin, bowing to them as they depart.

“I love you, man,” says Michael, looking at Justin. “And I love Helen’s poetry. As far as I’m concerned you’re both angels.”

“Speaking of poetry,” says Justin, pointing at Michael, “I made a little book of my first ten poems I thought were good enough to share. Want a copy?”

“I’d love one,” says Michael, taking out his wallet. “How much you selling them for?”

“Not for sale,” says Justin, reaching under the counter and bringing forth a little spiral-bound book. “Just for friends.”

*

About My Name

When I was twelve, my mother’s father was dying so my mother and

I went to stay with Gramps and Grandma for the last seventeen days

of Gramps’ life. He was only sixty-seven, but he’d smoked all his life

and the smoke got him. He was a professor of Latin and wrote a book

called A Few Good Romans. The day before he died, I sat on the bed

beside him holding his hand and he said, ‘Justin comes from the Latin

 Justus, meaning just and fair. I hope you’ll be that in your life.’ Then

he acted like he was hearing something I couldn’t hear and said,

‘Hold on. This just in. Get it? This. Just. In. Justin.’ Then he laughed

and said, ‘My god you’re big for twelve, kiddo. Don’t ever be a bully.

Promise me.’ I promised him I would never be a bully and would

try to be just and fair. And he said, “Good, but don’t take any shit

from anybody either.’

*

On Michael’s last day in Mercy, a rainy Saturday, he stops by Helen and Justin’s house, having arranged to purchase twenty signed copies of Inevitable Impossible to give to friends as Christmas presents. They insist he stay for coffee and pie, and the three of them sit around the kitchen table talking.

“I don’t want to go back to Los Angeles,” says Michael, taking a deep breath, “but I will. And I’m going to tell my wife I need love and if we can’t love each other then we should call it quits and start anew. And if we can love each other, then let us begin.”

“Good plan,” says Justin, shaking Michael’s hand. “Life is short, my friend. I’m with you.”

“And I’ve started writing poetry again,” says Michael, smiling shyly at Helen. “I want to thank you both for inspiring me to try again.”

“You’re welcome,” says Justin, raising his mug to Michael.

“Welcome,” says Helen, raising her mug, too.

“And I got this great idea,” says Michael, a twinkle in his eyes, “that Danny will start writing poetry, and of course everybody will tease him and call him Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and e.e. whatever, but he won’t stop writing. Could be a running gag for years. They just extended us another two seasons. I can do anything I want with that show so long as it’s funny.”

“Everybody gives Danny a hard time about writing poetry except Maureen,” says Helen, gazing intently at Michael. “Because she loves him and she’s thrilled he found something he feels passionate about. Right?”

“Right,” says Michael, laughing. “That’s the whole point of the show.”

fin 

No One Knows

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