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Nathan and Del Part Two

Celia is still in her bathrobe as she sits at the dining table having a second cup of coffee while Nathan does the breakfast dishes, the morning cold and rainy. Sixty-five and soon to retire as a nurse at the local hospital, Celia is a beautiful woman, short and buxom with shoulder-length black hair just now turning gray, English her second language, though after being married to Nathan for thirty-five years she speaks English better than most people born to the language.

“I’m glad I’m not working today,” says Celia, who is down to three day shifts a week as she transitions to retirement. “I don’t like driving when it’s so wet and windy. Will you build me a fire before you go?”

“Of course,” says Nathan, thinking about his impending trip to Margot’s house and wondering if he might be wiser to go to the hardware store without Margot and/or Wanda tagging along with Del.

“Will you be home for lunch?” asks Celia, looking out at the rain.

“That’s my plan,” says Nathan, rinsing the last plate. “Two hours should be plenty of time to go to the hardware store and clean their water filter and check their generator and teach Del how to chop kindling.”

“I can’t believe they’ll stay,” says Celia, shaking her head. “I wonder why they chose Mercy. So far from anything.”

“Maybe when you’re that famous you have to go this far from a city to get some privacy.” Nathan carries his mug of nettle tea to the table. “You shopping today?”

She nods. “I’ll go before lunch because Paul is bringing Carlos over at one.” She gives Nathan a wide-eyed look. “I’m not taking that little monster to the grocery store again without you. If I take my eyes off him for ten seconds he’s knocking things off shelves and playing hide and seek. He’s too wild for me.”

“Funny,” says Nathan, musing about his rambunctious grandson, “Calypso was never so wild.”

“No,” says Celia, shaking her head, “because I didn’t go back to work until she started school and she didn’t watch television until she was twelve. Carlos is only three and he’s already playing video games and watching TV all day. No wonder he gets so wound up.” She shrugs. “It’s a different world now.”

“And Paul and Calypso have very different ideas about parenting than we do.” He shrugs in sympathy with her shrug. “But what can we do but love him and not let him watch TV when he’s here. He doesn’t seem to miss it.”

“He likes your stories better than TV,” she says lovingly. “And he plays with Tennyson and digs in the garden and you build block towers with him and take him to the beach. You’re a very good grandpa.”

The phone rings and Nathan goes to answer the phone in the kitchen.

“Mr. Grayson?” says Del, breathlessly. “Hi. It’s Del.”

“Hello Del,” he says, pleasantly surprised. “How are you today?”

“I’m… I’m fine,” she says, her voice shaking with emotion. “My… my mother said you… you want to take me to the hardware store to buy our axe and hatchet, and I… I would like to go with you, just you and not… not… not my mother and Wanda.”

“Is that okay with them?” he asks quietly. “Because it’s okay with me.”

“It’s okay with them,” she says urgently.

“Tennyson and I will be there in about an hour,” he says, smiling into the phone. “Wear your raincoat.”

He hangs up and returns to the dining table, shaking his head in wonder.

“What did she say?” asks Celia, eager to know.

“She wants to go to the hardware store without her mother or Wanda, which I gather is a big deal since Margot said Del never goes anywhere without her or Wanda.”

“Maybe they moved here because it wasn’t safe for her to do things on her own where they lived before. Beautiful girl who looks like her movie star mother. Always being chased by photographers and people looking for gossip. Maybe they were afraid someone would kidnap her.” Celia frowns. “It must be so hard to have such a famous mother.”

“And so hard to be a famous mother,” says Nathan, carrying his tea into the living room to start the fire for the day.

*

Tennyson, a cute little floppy-eared mutt, sits between Nathan and Del in the cab of Nathan’s old white pickup truck, the rain pounding on the roof as they roll down the hill into the little town of Mercy.

Del has her long brown hair in two braids and is wearing a blue raincoat over a black sweatshirt and black jeans. Thirteen-years-old, she is fast becoming a woman, though Nathan still doesn’t know if she wants people to think of her as she or he.

“If you’re up for it,” says Nathan, glancing at Del, “I’d love to get a gander at the waves, which will be huge from the storm surge and these big winds.”

“I’m… I’m up for it,” says Del, exhilarated and terrified to be away from her mother and Wanda and traveling with an old man and his dog in an old truck through a tempest in the wilderness. “Is… is it safe?”

“Oh yeah,” he says, turning onto the road leading to an outlook with a view of the river mouth and the mighty breakers rolling into Mercy Bay. “We’ll be gazing upon the tumult from afar and won’t get out of the truck.”

“Gazing upon the tumult from afar,” says Del, smiling. “I… I love the way you talk, Nathan. It’s… it’s magnificent.”

“I’m happy you like my use of the lingo,” he says, laughing. “What are words for if not to use them in artful ways?”

“I think so, too,” says Del, looking out at the storm. “I… I found your blog last night and printed out a hundred of your poems and made… made them into a book. I… I love them.”

“Only a hundred?” says Nathan, frowning quizzically. “Got bored, did you?”

“No,” she says, laughing. “Never.”

*

They look down on an endless parade of enormous waves crashing against the cliffs, the ground trembling with each fantastic collision of ocean and earth.

“The rain is letting up,” says Nathan, smiling wryly. “We could get out for a minute or two if you’re game. Take in the whole fantabulous panorama without the frame of the windshield.”

“I’m game,” says Del, nearly shouting. “Can Tennyson come?”

“No, we’ll leave his highness in the truck,” says Nathan, scratching Tennyson’s head. “He might get blown away.”

“We’ll be back soon, your highness,” says Del, petting Tennyson. “And we’ll tell you all about it.”

They get out into the ferocious wind and gaze in awe upon the stormy scene, and Nathan shows Del how to lean way into the wind and be kept from falling by the fantastic force.

Back in the truck, Nathan and Del look at each other wide-eyed and Del says, “That was beyond magnificent!”

“That’s only because you haven’t been to the hardware store yet,” says Nathan, starting the engine.

*

“Did… did my mother tell you about me?” asks Del, as they head into town.

“Not a thing,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “Except that you never went anywhere without her or Wanda, which apparently isn’t true.”

“It was true,” says Del, resting her hand on Tennyson’s back, “but it isn’t true anymore.”

“You’ve had a conversion?” says Nathan, immediately regretting his choice of words.

“That’s exactly what I’ve had,” says Del, delighted by his choice of words. “I have shed my old skin and watched it blow away into the fantabulous tumult.”

*

In Mercy Hardware, Juan Gomez, Nathan’s brother-in-law and former pruning partner, waits on Nathan and Del. They purchase an axe, a hatchet, a shovel, a rake, four bungee cords of various lengths, and three pairs of work gloves.

“How long you been living here?” Juan asks Del as he rings up the purchases.

“Four days,” says Del, smiling shyly at Juan.

“No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend yet,” says Juan, winking at Nathan. “I got a nephew. Pedro. Sixteen. Handsome. Looks just like Bruno Mars. He’ll be happy to see you walking down the street, I know that.”

“I’m… I’m not actually looking for a boyfriend,” says Del, blushing. “I’m… I’m only thirteen and we’re just… just getting acclimated.”

“Where you coming from?” asks Juan, looking at Nathan and getting the message not to probe too deeply.

“New York,” says Del, looking around the store. “It just occurs to me… do you sell art supplies?”

“Not really,” says Juan, shaking his head. “Car paint and paint for your house. Brushes, you know. They got some at the stationery store, but I think you do better online. Or next time you go to the city. You an artist?”

Del nods.

“Like Picasso?” says Juan, making an I’m-impressed face.

“More like Toulouse-Latrec,” says Del, thoughtfully. “Though I like Picasso, especially his pen and ink drawings. Have you seen those?”

“No, I only see the ones where he got the nose and eyes in the wrong place,” says Juan, laughing as he puts the gloves and bungee cords in a bag. “Maybe sometime you bring in one of your pictures to show me.”

“I will,” says Del, smiling brightly. “I’ll draw a still life of the tools we bought.”

“Good,” says Juan, nodding enthusiastically. “Maybe we put it on the wall and increase sales.”

*

Driving homeward, Del says, “This is the best day of my life.”

“I’m glad,” says Nathan, fighting his tears. “Really glad.”

*

When they arrive at Del’s house, the front door flies open and Margot rushes out with an umbrella.

“You were gone forever,” she says, opening the passenger door and looking in at Del and Tennyson and Nathan. “Everything okay?”

“Everything is fine, Mom,” says Del, nodding. “I must take you to the outlook to see the storm surf. And then we must go to the hardware store and I’ll introduce you to Juan, Nathan’s brother-in-law.”

“Fine, but first come into the house and get warm,” says Margot, looking at Nathan. “Will you stay for lunch?”

“I have a lunch date,” says Nathan, giving her a reassuring smile. “Thought I’d give you a wood chopping lesson, check your generator, clean your water filter, and come back for more tomorrow.”

Going up the stairs to the front porch, Margot says to Del, “You look flushed, honey. Do you need to lie down?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” says Del, taking her mother’s hand. “Truly I am.”

*

Margot and Wanda accompany Del and Nathan and Tennyson to the woodshed and Nathan presents them each with a new pair of work gloves.

“These will reduce the chances of serious injury when you’re wielding the axe or hatchet,” he says, standing at the chopping round to begin the lesson. “I assume you all want to know how to make kindling.”

“Just make us some,” says Wanda, obviously peeved. “I didn’t come here to be a lumberjack.”

“But I want to learn, Wanda,” says Del, frowning at her caretaker. “I’ll keep us well-supplied.”

“Why should you be chopping wood?” says Wanda, dropping her gloves on the floor and stalking away to the house. “That’s what we’re paying him for. This is ridiculous.”

“I apologize,” says Margot to Nathan. “This has been quite upsetting for Wanda, our coming here. She’s never lived anywhere but in a city and we’ve always just hired the help we need, so this is a big change for her.”

“For all of you,” says Nathan, nodding. “So… shall we begin?”

“Yes,” says Margot, putting on her gloves. “I’m ready.”

*

Nathan gets home a little after twelve and has avocado quesadillas by the fire with Celia and tells her about his two hours with Del and Margot.

“Did they say why they came here?” asks Celia, mystified that Margot would move to such a remote place with her daughter.

“No,” says Nathan, shaking his head, “but I have an inkling.”

“Tell me,” says Celia, urgently. “I can’t imagine.”

“I think Margot realized that in shielding Del from the spotlight of her celebrity, she made her a prisoner, and this is her attempt to set her daughter free before she becomes too strange and damaged by being so isolated and removed from the outside world. And they needed to get far from the madding crowd because everybody in the whole fucking world wants to know everything about them.”

“What about Wanda?” asks Celia, frowning. “She sounds a little crazy.”

“Del told me Wanda has been her nanny and caretaker for five years now. They lived in a townhouse in Manhattan and a mansion in Malibu with servants and bodyguards in both places while Margot was mostly gone making movies all over the world.”

“So Del was a princess in a castle,” says Celia, nodding. “And now she lives here.”

“Now she lives here,” says Nathan, thinking of Del leaning into the wind and spreading her arms as if flying. “For as long as she does. Wanda is lobbying for them to move some place more civilized and hinting she’ll quit if Margot won’t accommodate her.”

“What brought this on, I wonder?” says Celia, reacting to the sound of a familiar car in the driveway—Paul bringing Carlos over for the afternoon. “Why now?”

“I’m guessing the identity crisis of the over-protected child,” says Nathan, going to the door.

“Did Del tell you if she wants to be he or she?”

“In so many words,” says Nathan, smiling as he remembers. “I was showing her how to clean the water filter, when apropos of nothing she said, ‘Hey Nate, you did know Del is short for Delilah, didn’t you?’ And I said, ‘Delilah’s a beautiful name. Which do you prefer?’ And she said, “Whichever you like.’ And that’s where we left it for now.”

La Entrada

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Nathan and Del Part One

Nathan Grayson, his once brown hair mostly white now, is seventy-three, sturdy and healthy and still pruning fruit trees, Japanese maples, roses, and lemon trees fifteen hours a week from February through November.

A poet of some renown when he was in his late twenties, Nathan’s third volume of poems Fickle Muse, was considered by many to be a frontrunner to win the Pulitzer that year when out of the blue two influential writers accused Nathan of plagiarism, after which Nathan’s publisher took Fickle Muse and his previous volumes Impossible Rose and Indigo Blues out-of-print, recalled all copies yet to be sold, and thereafter no publisher or literary magazine, even tiny ones, would ever again publish Nathan’s poems, though the supposed plagiarism was never proven, nor did any of Nathan’s poems even remotely resemble the works of his accusers, save they were written in English.

Astonished by these accusations, Nathan was certain the hideous nonsense would soon blow over and he would publish again, but that was not to be. So he moved from San Francisco to the little town of Mercy on the north coast of California and became a pruner of fruit trees, a skill he’d acquired growing up on a fruit farm in southern Oregon.

After two years of pruning fruit trees in Mercy, his services much in demand, Nathan hired the admirable Juan Gomez as his assistant, and a few years later Nathan married Juan’s sister Celia to whom he has been married for thirty-five years. They have a thirty-two-year-old daughter named Calypso who, like her mother, is a nurse.

*

Despite his fall from literary grace, Nathan never stopped writing because writing is second nature to him, nearly first, and he writes for a couple hours every day, mostly poems and the occasional humorous story.

What does he do with his poems and stories when, even now, no publisher or magazine will consider his work? He posts them on the blog Calypso made for him and receives emails and letters from people around the world who enjoy his writing.

*

On a cold February evening, Nathan is standing beside Celia in the kitchen of their cozy redwood house, watching Celia make their favorite supper—chicken enchiladas, tomato rice, refried beans, guacamole, and a big green salad. Their little floppy-eared mutt Tennyson is at their feet hoping for what Nathan calls droppage, while their calico cat Grace snoozes on the sofa by the fire in the living room.

A few weeks ago Nathan posted a poem about Celia cooking this very meal entitled her fingers are geniuses for which he garnered several lovely responses from readers and a request from a restaurant in Sonoma to use the poem as the frontispiece of their permanent menu, for which they paid Nathan a hundred dollars and free meals whenever Nathan and Celia come to Sonoma, which is never.

“That’s the first money I’ve made from my writing in forty-five years,” says Nathan, tickled to think of people sitting down to dine in a snazzy restaurant and reading his poem about Celia.

her fingers are geniuses just look at them go making

guacamole and salsa and refried beans and tomato

rice and juicy chicken enchiladas you can’t tell me

her digits aren’t possessed of formidable brains

and unique personalities as she simultaneously

talks to her daughter and flirts with me saying,

“Put another log on the fire, marido,” just

look at those fingers go with such fearless grace

wielding knives and spoons amidst the blazing

casserole and red hot pans and steaming pots and

I the lucky recipient of their divine ministrations.

“I’m glad you didn’t keep being famous when you were young,” says Celia, who had no idea Nathan was a poet until he started sending her love poems as prelude to asking her to marry him. “If you had stayed famous you never would have moved here and met me and we never would have had Calypso and she wouldn’t have had Carlos who you love more than you love me.”

“Not true,” says Nathan, putting his arm around her. “I love Carlito as an extension of you.” 

“You would have married some other famous person and lived in New York,” says Celia, pouting adorably, “and spent your winters in a mansion in the south of France.”

“Mansions are a pain in the ass,” says Nathan, tasting the guacamole and smiling sublimely. “I prefer small houses. Much easier to heat and keep clean.”

“I know you,” she says, nodding. “You’re lucky not to be famous. All those women would have drained the life out of you.”

“But what a way to go,” he says, kissing her. “And now I can be famous, yeah? Now that we’re together and Calypso is incarnate, my poems can be in menus and I’ll get money in the mail.”

“Just don’t be too famous, okay? I love our life, don’t you?”

“Por su puesto,” he says, kissing her again before he and Tennyson go to answer the door expecting Calypso and her husband Paul and their darling three-year-old Carlos.

Opening the door Nathan startles to see a strikingly beautiful woman he knows from somewhere—fortyish, dark blonde hair falling to broad shoulders, kiss-me lips and glorious cheeks—but where?—and her teenaged son, his long brown hair covering most of his face. Or is this her daughter?

“Good evening,” says Nathan, turning on the porch light to clarify the scene. “What can we do for you?”

The daughter or son squats down to pet Tennyson, and her face becomes dreamy beautiful and Nathan decides she’s female.

“Mr. Grayson?” says the woman, her voice overwhelmingly familiar to Nathan, though he can’t think where he’s heard her voice before. “I hope we’re not interrupting your dinner.”

“Not yet,” says Nathan, smiling down at the child gently stroking the happy mutt.

“My name is Sharon Duval,” she says, her voice deep and sonorous. “We just bought the Caldwell place and our realtor Ward McKenzie said I should speak to you for advice about…” She laughs a sparkling laugh. “Country living, I guess. Ward didn’t have your phone number and you’re not listed, and since we’re so close…”

“Yeah, no problem,” says Nathan, fishing his wallet out of his work pants hanging on a hook by the door. “I’ll give you my card. Call me tomorrow.”

“Perfect,” says Sharon, smiling at the approach of Celia. “Hello. I’m Sharon Duval. Your new neighbor.”

“Celia,” says Celia, shaking Sharon’s hand. “And who is this?”

“This is Del,” says Sharon, touching the top of Del’s head as she continues to squat and pet Tennyson.

“Hello Del,” says Nathan, handing Sharon his card. “You gonna go to Peach Tree Elementary or are you in high school? Forgive me. I’m terrible at guessing ages, including my own.”

Del stands with notable grace and tosses her head to fling the hair out of her eyes. “Home school. I… I… I love your dog.”

“His name is Tennyson,” says Nathan, meeting Del’s eyes and sensing her confusion and sorrow.

“I… I love him,” she repeats. “He’s magnificent.”

“Takes one to know one,” says Nathan, winking at her.

Now Calypso and Paul and Carlos arrive in their lemon-yellow Volkswagen van and Sharon says, “We should go. I’ll call you tomorrow, Mr. Grayson.”

“Nathan, Nate, or Nat will do,” says Nathan, smiling at Del. “See you round the hood.”

After a fleeting hello to Calypso and Paul, Sharon and Del depart in a gold Mercedes.

*

When everyone is seated at the dining table, Carlos enthroned on Nathan’s lap, Calypso says, “That woman looked exactly like Margot Cunningham. Don’t you think?”

“I think she is Margot Cunningham,” says Celia, speaking of the movie star. “She said her name was Sharon Duval, but she must be Margot Cunningham. Who else could she be?”

“Margot Cunningham,” says Nathan, nodding in agreement. “Of course. My brain couldn’t compass the possibility of her living here, so I couldn’t imagine how I knew her. But why here? Why not some palatial estate in the south of France?” He bounces his eyebrows at Celia. “Isn’t that where all the famous people go?”

Calypso and Paul both get out their phones and hunt for news of Margot Cunningham.

“She’s forty-four now and has a thirteen-year-old daughter Delilah,” says Calypso, studying her screen. “That fits. From her brief marriage to Larry Bernstein. She’s currently rumored to be dating the actor Ivan Brubeck and/or the director Jerry Fields. And she’s soon to start filming the next two Planet Babylon Reborn movies for which they are paying her a paltry seventy million dollars.”

“Well-deserved, I’m sure,” says Nathan, feigning seriousness. “Though I prefer her in those movies where she’s an impossibly beautiful regular person, a housewife or secretary or waitress or high school teacher.” He shakes his head. “Can you imagine being in high school and having Margot Cunningham for your teacher? The mind boggles.”

“Sci-fi franchises are where the big money is today,” says Paul, who knows everything about contemporary popular culture. “She was big before Crusaders of Galaxy Nine and Planet Babylon Reborn, but now she’s arguably the biggest star in the world.”

“Anything more about Delilah?” asks Celia, who can’t stand super hero movies.

“Delilah goes by Del now and is trans,” says Paul, reading from his screen. “That’s not for sure, but possibly. We take all internet gossip with large grains of salt.”

“What does that mean exactly?” says Nathan, frowning. “Trans?”

“Transgender,” says Calypso, gazing at her screen. “She’s biologically female but feels she’s male. Yeah. According to Screen Gospel the trans thing is not for sure, but likely. And she/he is also a Music or Math prodigy.”

“Star Struck says both,” says Paul, putting his phone away because he knows cell phones bug Nathan. “How about that. Margot Cunningham living in Mercy.”

“They want you to prune for them, Papa?” asks Calypso, putting her phone away, too.

“Hope so,” says Nathan, sipping his lemonade. “I love those Caldwell apples. Especially the Fuji.”

*

The woman claiming to be named Sharon who sounds exactly like Margot Cunningham calls the next morning and Nathan agrees to come by her place on his way to prune a few apple trees.

He loads his tools into the back of his old white pickup and opens the passenger door for Tennyson who comes running from the vegetable garden where he was sticking his nose down a gopher hole and now has a muddy muzzle.

“Please leave those gophers to Grace,” says Nathan, wiping Tennyson’s snout with a towel before starting the engine. “She actually catches them whereas you just dig up the garden and do more damage than the gophers.”

A two-minute drive brings them to the house formerly owned by Archie and Clare Caldwell, a lovely old place built of river rock and redwood on ten acres of meadowland ringed by forest. Nathan has pruned the Caldwell fruit trees for thirty years and hopes to prune them for another ten. Archie and Clare were good friends with Celia and Nathan despite the political chasm between them, and Nathan was sad to see them go.

He leaves Tennyson in the truck, which Tennyson does not appreciate, climbs the seven stairs to the front porch, and knocks on the door. He waits a minute, knocks again, the door opens a crack, and a woman, not Sharon or Del, peers out and says, “Mr. Grayson?”

“I am he,” says Nathan, smiling. “Nathan or Nate or Nat will do.”

“Just a minute,” says the woman, closing the door.

Nathan studies the sky and guesses it will rain in the early afternoon and possibly hail, which doesn’t bode well for plum trees in bloom.

Now the door opens and here is Sharon looking spectacular in a red Pendleton shirt and blue jeans, her glossy blonde hair in a ponytail. Standing beside Sharon is a shorter woman with graying brown hair wearing a blue sweater over a white dress shirt and brown corduroy trousers.

“Hello Nathan,” says Sharon, shaking his hand, her grip formidable. “This is my housekeeper Wanda.”

“Hello Wanda,” says Nathan, shaking Wanda’s hand. “So… besides pruning your fruit trees, which I did for the Caldwells, what can I do for you?”

The women step outside and close the door behind them.

“We are new to country living,” says Sharon, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Nathan down the stairs, Wanda following, “and we would like to hire you to help us learn the ropes.”

“How to start a fire, for one thing,” says Wanda, her manner gruff, her accent New Jersey. “We have no idea.”

“Mind if I let my dog out?” asks Nathan, marveling at the exigencies of fate. “He’s a sweetie and loves to tag along.”

“Yes, fine,” says Sharon, laughing gaily. “I imagine we might eventually get a dog.”

“If we stay,” says Wanda, sounding doubtful.

Now the front door opens and Del comes out onto the front porch wearing a puffy black jacket, black ski pants, blue rain boots, and a black beret, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face reminiscent of her mother’s, though her eyes are brown not blue.

“I thought you weren’t coming with us,” says Sharon, obviously taken aback.

“I changed my mind,” says Del, coming down the stairs. “Did… did… did you bring Tennyson?”

“I did,” says Nathan, beaming at Del. “I was just about to let the beast out.”

 “Can… can I let him out?” asks Del, looking at the truck where Tennyson is gazing forlornly out the window.

“Be my guest,” says Nathan, gesturing gallantly.

Del runs to the truck and opens the door and Tennyson leaps out and races around her twice before going up on his hind legs and offering his front paws to her, which she takes in her hands and dances with him, laughing.

*

They proceed to explore the place, Tennyson in the lead, Del close behind, Nathan and Sharon and Wanda following.

Nathan shows them the large chicken coop that recently housed a dozen hens, the small greenhouse good for cacti and starting vegetables from seed, and the fourteen fruit trees in the deer-fenced orchard—ten apples, two plums, two pears. He opens the door to the pump house and tells them about their well and water storage tanks, and the need to have the water filter cleaned every few months. Then he shows them their big propane tank and explains that their house is heated with propane and their stove runs on propane, too, and the propane has to be delivered by a propane truck.

“So after you choose a company,” says Nathan, slapping the tank to gauge how full it is, “they’ll come out whenever you’re running low.”

Wanda frowns. “We’re not hooked up to the whatchamacallit?”

“Energy grid?” says Sharon, nodding hopefully.

“For electricity, you are,” says Nathan, feeling himself being inexorably drawn into the lives of these three. “For gas, no. And you’ll probably want your septic tank pumped out. Been at least ten years if I’m remembering correctly, and you don’t want your sewage backing up.”

“We’re not hooked up to the city sewer?” says Wanda, aghast.

“What city?” says Nathan, laughing. “No, save for electric you’re entirely self-sufficient. There’s not much to do. You’ll see. And you’ve got a backup generator that kicks on when we have power outages, which we do a few times every winter. Your generator runs on propane, too.”

In the woodshed, the big room low on firewood, Nathan finds an old axe and expertly chops a pile of kindling.

Del watches Nathan create the kindling and asks politely, “May I try? I’d like to learn.”

“I will bring my sharper axe and hatchet tomorrow and give you a lesson,” says Nathan, leaning the axe against the wall of the shed. “I don’t have time today, Del. But here’s the thing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can cut yourself really badly doing this, so you’ll need a lesson.”

“When tomorrow?” asks Del, thrilled to know Nathan is planning to return. “In the morning?”

“Say ten?” says Nathan, looking at Sharon.

“Fine,” says Sharon, eagerly. “We should… could you buy us an axe and hatchet? We wouldn’t know which to get. I’ll reimburse you, of course, and pay you for your time. And if you’ll recommend someone for firewood, we’ll call them today.”

“Sure,” says Nathan, gathering the kindling. “Now if you’ll each burden yourselves with a log or two, I’ll start a fire for you before I go.”

In the spacious living room of the beautiful old house, Nathan and Del kneel together on the hearth and he shows her how to build a lattice of kindling over a pile of crumpled paper.

“I love this,” she whispers. “Can I light it?”

“Sure,” he says, handing her a big wooden match. “That’s a strike-anywhere match. You can see the scrapes here on the brick Archie always used.”

The match ignites on Del’s third try and she coos with delight as she touches flame to paper and the fire crackles to life.

“Now when you’re sure the kindling has caught,” says Nathan, handing Del a piece of wood slightly larger than the kindling, “you lay progressively larger pieces on, but not too fast or you’ll put the fire out. Fire needs oxygen. Get it?”

“Got it,” says Del, carefully placing the larger piece atop the pyre.

“Good,” says Nathan, getting to his feet. “And now I must prune some apple trees before the rain comes.”

“When is that?” asks Wanda, anxiously. “The rain?”

“This afternoon, I’m guessing,” says Nathan, smiling at Wanda. “Might hail, too. A pleasure meeting you. I’ll see you all tomorrow at ten.”

“I’ll walk you to your truck,” says Sharon, following Nathan to the door.

“Will you bring Tennyson tomorrow?” asks Del, adding another piece of wood to the fire.

“Oh yeah,” says Nathan, smiling at the sight of her taking such care with the fire. “He goes everywhere with me.”

*

At the truck, Sharon stands close to Nathan and says, “I would very much like to hire you to come every day to help us with all the things we need help with. What is your hourly fee?”

“I get forty an hour for pruning,” he says, feeling a little dizzy being so close to her.

“Shall we say fifty,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I’m amazed by Del’s response to you. Really likes you.”

“So…” he says, wanting to ask which pronoun to use for Del, but deciding not to. “Tomorrow at ten.”

“Yes,” she says, frowning. “I suppose you know who I am.”

“I think I do,” he says, opening the door of his truck and waiting for Tennyson to jump in, “but if you’d rather be Sharon, I’m fine with that.”

“I guess it doesn’t really matter here, does it?” she says, her eyes filling with tears.

“No, you won’t get mobbed,” he says, resisting his impulse to hug her, “though people will gawk until they get used to you being here. You planning to live here year round?”

“I won’t be here all the time,” she says, shaking her head. “But Del and Wanda will. For a few years anyway.”

“Okay then,” he says, climbing into his truck and rolling down his window before closing the door. “See you tomorrow at ten. I can take Del axe shopping with me, if that’s okay with you.”

“Oh Del won’t go anywhere without me or Wanda,” says Sharon, shaking her head. “She… no.”

“Well then maybe we can all go,” he says, pulling away. “I think she’ll dig the hardware store.”

*

And so begins Nathan’s career as the helper of Wanda and Del and the movie star Margot Cunningham.

Hey Baby