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.”