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Constance and Joseph

This story springs from the previously posted Nathan and Del stories, and might also be entitled Nathan and Del Part Four, though Constance and Joseph may be enjoyed without resort to the first three parts of the saga.

The very British Richardsons, Joseph and Constance, have lived on the outskirts of the California coastal town of Mercy for seven months now, their house a rambling seventy-year-old redwood-and-river-rock beauty on ten acres of meadowland ringed by a vast forest of evergreens.

Joseph is fifty-nine, tall and heavyset with longish black hair gone mostly gray. Born and raised in Devon, he studied at the Royal College of Art in Battersea before embarking on a career as a painter specializing in landscapes and portraiture.

Constance is fifty-six, short and plump, her auburn hair still auburn with help from her hairdresser, most of her many pairs of glasses encrusted with rhinestones. She was born in York, grew up in Chelsea, and studied Greek Mythology and French Literature at Oxford before embarking on her career as a writer of murder mysteries, her pen name Margaret Orland.

For the ten years prior to moving to Mercy, the Richardson’s lived in a splendid villa amidst grape vines in Tuscany, and before Tuscany they lived for twelve years in a fabulous villa amidst olive trees in Provence. And before their move to Provence, they lived in a small house in Bristol.

They met on the opening night of Joseph’s show at the Crombie Gallery in Bristol when Constance was twenty-seven and Joseph was thirty. Constance happened by on her evening constitutional with her two mini-Australian Shepherds, Agathon and Hera, and was attracted by a painting she saw through the front window of the gallery, a portrait of a woman with blonde hair playing a cello in her nightgown—the woman, not the cello, wearing the nightgown.

Constance told her dogs to sit and stay, which they did, and then she went into the gallery, gazed at the painting of the cellist for several minutes, and beckoned to the gallery owner.

“I should like to buy this one,” she said, noting the price of two hundred pounds and hoping she had that much in the bank. “It will make a splendid cover for the book I’m writing.”

“And your name is…?” asked the gallery owner, Thomas Crombie, a handsome fellow with sparkling brown eyes and a subtle mustache.

“Constance Higby,” she said, curtsying to Thomas in the old-fashioned way. “I’ve walked by your gallery hundreds of times only never came in until I saw the cellist. Isn’t she fabulous?”

“Indeed,” said Thomas, his heart pounding at the prospect of a sale. “Would you like to meet the artist?”

“I would,” said Constance, looking around the room to see if she could discern which of the dozen or so people in attendance painted the intriguing portrait. “Very much.”

Thomas then wrangled Joseph away from a woman who was quite drunk on the complimentary wine and besieging Joseph with questions such as, “Why landscapes and portraits? Seems so retro, don’t you think? Abstraction’s all the rage now, isn’t it? And why oils and not acrylics? Oils take so long to dry, don’t they?”

“Joseph,” said Thomas, guiding the artist away from the drunk to Constance. “May I present Constance Higby, the author. She wants to buy Cellist.”

“Heavens,” said Joseph, beaming at Constance and finding her darling. “Truly?”

“Truly,” said Constance, offering him her hand to kiss in the old-fashioned way. “I want her for my bedroom and for the cover of the book I’m writing, assuming this is the one that finally wins me a publisher and gives me the wherewithal to move to Provence where all great mystery writers live for a time. Or so I’m told.”

“May it be so,” said Joseph, gallantly kissing her hand.

Then they looked into each other’s eyes for a short infinity and decided to get married.

*

“As it happened,” says Joseph, speaking to the man on the ladder pruning an apple tree in Joseph and Constance’s orchard adjacent to their house in Mercy, “the book Connie was writing at the time of our initial collision was the book that finally won her a publisher, though not until I read the manuscript and took copious notes and made several suggestions that so infuriated her she called off our wedding, which nearly killed our mothers, poor dears. They both had long despaired of ever seeing their more difficult progeny wed, and here, on the brink of salvation, their prize was snatched away by the vicissitudes of ego.”

“What did you suggest that made your wife so angry?” asks the man on the ladder, Nathan Grayson, a spry seventy-four and Constance and Joseph’s nearest neighbor.

“Myriad things,” says Joseph, who is bundled up in a black fur-lined parka with a fur-lined hood that makes him look like Nanook of the North—the February morning clear and very cold.

“Such as?” asks Nathan, who finds everything Joseph says amusing, not so much because of what Joseph says but how he says it with a thick Devonshire accent and seeming mildly astonished by everything he says.

“Well to begin with I said the title was way too long,” says Joseph, watching Nathan descend from the ladder. “As were many of the paragraphs. Constance is one of those writers who pours out great masses of words onto the page and then prunes those masses.” He laughs. “Speaking of pruning.”

“What was the overly long title?” asks Nathan, moving his ladder to the next apple tree, a large Fuji he is particularly fond of. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

Ode To the Moodiest of Cellists,” says Joseph, following Nathan. “Tell me. What are we to do with all these clippings from the trees?”

“We’ll lop them into kindling for you and stack them in your woodshed,” says Nathan, circumnavigating the Fuji to study the branches before ascending the ladder. “A year from now they’ll start your fires easy as pie.”

“Oh you must repeat that for Connie,” says Joseph, delighted by Nathan’s turn of phrase. “She’ll want to use it in a book, I guarantee you.”

“I may not remember,” says Nathan, who has pruned these apple trees every winter for the last thirty years. “Words tumble out, you know, unbidden and soon forgotten.”

“Oh God, that, too,” says Joseph, looking toward the house wherein he knows Constance is sipping brandy and listening to Nathan’s granddaughter Delilah play their Steinway. “She carries a little notebook to capture those sorts of lines.”

“So…” says Nathan, climbing to the fourth rung and beginning his pruning. “Eventually she forgave you.”

“Eventually, yes,” says Joseph, thinking he’d like to paint a picture of the orchard in winter with Nathan on his ladder pruning. “But first she raged at me for a few days, and then she toiled from morning to night for several weeks doing everything I suggested, and then she had me critique the new draft and the final draft, and then she sent the manuscript to her agent. And then we waited seven agonizing months until the book sold, after which the wedding was back on, and our mothers were cautiously delirious.”

“What else had you suggested?” asks Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Besides shortening the title and the paragraphs?”

“Oh her dialogue was a bit on the nose,” says Joseph, sighing because her dialogue still so often is. “Unlike actual dialogue, which is more roundabout, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Nathan, deciding to lop a large branch he’s spared for the last three years. “I suppose the trick is making dialogue sound natural without sounding idiotic.”

“Precisely,” says Joseph, turning at the sound of Delilah and three dogs emerging from the house. “And she also had the habit of giving every character a thorough back story, and I mean every character, including the most insignificant, which tangle of back stories strangled the plot.”

“So you were the editor she’d always needed,” says Nathan, coming down from the ladder.

“Still am,” says Joseph, proud of his role in his wife’s success.

The two magnificent Siberian Huskies, one white, one silver, and a small brown floppy-eared mutt, race around the orchard, sniffing and pissing.

“Freezing out here,” says Delilah, fourteen and outrageously cute, her brown hair in two long braids crowned by a burgundy beret. “Deliciously toasty in the house and I just love playing your grand piano. Such magnificent bass notes and I sound eons better on your piano than on mine, though mine is a fine piano as uprights go.”

“Work will warm you,” says Nathan, moving the ladder again. “Want to have a go at finishing this Fuji while I gather the cuttings?”

“Love to,” says Del, taking the loppers from him and ascending the ladder. “Only don’t go too faraway should I need to consult you.”

“I would love to paint you on that ladder in that tree,” says Joseph, flummoxed by Delilah’s beauty. “Perhaps on a warmer day in the spring.”

“The tree will have leafed out by then,” says Delilah, stymied by the puzzle of the branches. “Won’t be so starkly dramatic.” She looks down at Nathan. “I’m baffled, Nate. Help me.”

“Give it a minute,” he says, looking up at her. “Gaze at the field of branches until the ones that need to go present themselves.”

“There,” says Joseph, pointing at Nathan. “Connie would die for a line like that.”

*

A few evenings after Nathan and Delilah prune the Richardson’s apple trees, and for the first time since they arrived in Mercy, Constance and Joseph have supper with Delilah and Nathan and Nathan’s wife Celia.

They dine at Nathan and Celia’s house a two-minute walk from their much larger house, the meal co-created by Delilah and Celia—petrale sole cooked in white wine and olive oil and lemon juice and minced garlic, baked potatoes, and green beans à la provençal.

“We’re curious to know why you chose Mercy,” says Celia, a beautiful Latina, sixty-eight, with black hair laced with strands of white. “Must be so much colder here than in Tuscany.”

Dogs is part of the answer,” says Constance, squinting at her plate as if disbelieving what she’s eating. “This is the best fish I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some very good fish. Joseph may remember its equal, but I cannot unless he reminds me.”

“In Paris a time or two perhaps,” says Joseph, frowning at his fish. “I speak for both of us when I say we never expected to eat such superb food here in these American hinterlands. Where on earth did you learn to cook, Celia? This sole is worthy of multiple Michelin stars.”

“From my mother and grandmother,” she says, pleased by their praise. “And the fish is very fresh. We bought it off the boat this afternoon.”

“Plus we’ve been pillaging Larousse Gastronomique for tips on sauces,” says Delilah, who can’t help imitating Constance and Joseph’s accents.

Constance and Joseph exchange meaningful looks and Constance says, “We’d like to explain why we’ve been so standoffish and apologize for that, and not merely because we hope to be invited to supper again, though we will hope for that, I assure you.”

“We assumed you were getting settled and enjoying your privacy,” says Nathan, smiling warmly at Constance. “These hills are full of people who want to be left alone.”

“Well that’s a relief,” says Constance, smiling brightly. “Because we really do like you and we’re so glad to have you as our neighbors. And not just because Delilah plays the piano like a young Mendelssohn and you prune our trees and your wife is a magus in the kitchen.”

“So why were you so standoffish?” asks Delilah, loving how it feels to speak with a British accent. “And what do dogs have to do with your moving here?”

Constance sighs and looks to Joseph. “Would you mind, dear?”

“Not at all,” he says, clearing his throat. “Prior to our coming here, you may not have heard of the novelist Constance Richardson, but it is highly unlikely you haven’t heard of…” He pauses momentously. “Margaret Orland.”

Nathan and Delilah and Celia exchange glances and Celia says, “I don’t think we know her.”

“Can you give us a hint?” asks Delilah, hopefully.

“Murder mysteries?” says Joseph, arching an eyebrow.

“The only murder mysteries I’m familiar with are ones by Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammet, and Agatha Christie,” says Nathan, frowning thoughtfully. “Never really took to the genre.”

“Are you Margaret Orland?” asks Delilah in her straightforward way.

“I am,” says Constance, brightening. “Have you heard of me?”

“No, but I’ll bet my mother has,” says Delilah, nodding enthusiastically. “She loves murder mysteries.”

“Where is your mother, Delilah?” asks Constance, giving Joseph a look to say I don’t think they know who I am.

“She’s in New York at the moment,” says Delilah, growing somber as she thinks of her famous movie star mother. “Soon to leave for Tokyo.”

“A traveler, is she?” says Joseph, wishing someone would offer him more wine.

“More wine, Joseph?” says Celia, nodding encouragingly.

“Love some,” he says, laughing. “Delicious. I must get the vintage details from you. Fabulous. Sprightly. Hint of pear. Room to grow, yet for such a young white already speaking of future greatness. Goes so well with the sole.”

“Is your mother by any chance a stewardess?” guesses Constance, who enjoys sleuthing in real life, too. “Specializing in long distance flights?”

“No,” says Delilah, shaking her head. “She travels on business. But lets get back to why dogs is part of why you moved to Mercy.”

“Ah yes,” says Constance, smiling her thanks as Celia refills her wine glass. “Good to keep me on point, Delilah. I do tend to wander. But I won’t leave tonight until you tell us how you got to be such a superb pianist.”

“I practice two hours a day,” says Delilah, glancing at Nathan and Celia. “Most days.”

“Let’s see,” says Nathan, assuming a thoughtful pose. “Your Siberian Huskies were mere pups when you arrived. What may we deduce from this?”

“Huskies like the cold,” says Celia, pouring herself a bit more wine. “I don’t think Tuscany is cold.”

“Nor is Provence,” says Delilah, raising a finger to denote Aha. “Where they lived before Tuscany. Methinks you’re on to something, Watson.” She turns to Constance. “Is she?”

“In a way, yes,” says Constance, frowning. “But before I tell you more about the dogs…” She hesitates. “Have we conclusively determined that you’ve never heard of Margaret Orland?”

“I think we have,” says Nathan, nodding. “Determined that.”

“Are you very famous?” asks Celia, innocently.

“I thought I was,” says Constance, looking askance. “But maybe I’m not anymore. At least not around here.”

“Oh I doubt that,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “Our town library has several thousand volumes, and virtually all of them are murder mysteries, so I would wager you have many fans hereabouts, many being a relative term since there are only a few thousand people in the greater Mercy watershed and many of them don’t read.”

“The BBC has dramatized several of her books,” says Joseph, clearing his throat authoritatively. “Ubiquitous on the telly.”

“We don’t have a television,” says Delilah, delighted by the fact. “When I first came to live with Nate and Celia, I searched the whole house twice but couldn’t find one. And then I ran into the kitchen…” She looks at Celia. “Remember?”

“Yes,” says Celia, gazing fondly at Delilah. “You said, ‘Where’s the television?’ and when I said we didn’t have one, you hugged yourself and said, ‘Heaven.’”

“So the dogs,” says Nathan, looking into the living room where Tennyson the floppy-eared mutt and the two big Huskies, Odysseus and Io, are sprawled by the fire. “You choose the breed to go with where you choose to live?”

“Other way round,” says Constance, happily tipsy. “I fall in love with a breed and then we consider where they—because we always get two—would be happy to live and where we would be happy living, too.”

“And you get the new dogs after the old dogs die,” says Delilah, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t ever want Tennyson to die. He’s my best friend.”

“I know, dear,” says Constance, touching Delilah’s hand. “It’s the hardest thing about having dogs, but it’s worth it. And the more dogs you have, the more you’ll be convinced, as we are, they sometimes reincarnate in your new dogs so they can go on living with you, and you with them.”

“The fact is,” says Joseph, finishing his fifth glass of wine and giving Celia a hopeful glance to ask for more, “though you may not have heard of Margaret Orland, tens of millions have, and thus our home in Tuscany, as with our home in Provence, were irresistible to her worshipers, if I may use that word, and we became, in essence, prisoners of her fame.”

“And when Paris and Helen, our Bazenjis, the dogs we had in Tuscany, were very old, we fell in love with Siberian Huskies,” says Constance, gazing into the living room at Odysseus and Io. “We were cruising the fjords of Norway when we met the most darling Siberian Husky and her obscenely cute pups in the town of Bodo where the fish was excellent, though not remotely as good as yours. And then when our friend Porter Ainsworth regaled us with tales of how gorgeous it was here, the rugged coast, the redwood forests etcetera, remote yet not too remote, we made inquiries, and here we are.” She eats the last of her sole. “Do you know Porter?”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell,” says Nathan, looking at Celia.

“I don’t think he ever lived here,” says Celia, getting up to start the water for tea. “But lots of people vacation here.”

“Photographer,” says Joseph, more than a little drunk. “Dresses like an Australian bushwhacker, though he’s entirely Canadian. Claims to be the protégé of Ansel Adams, but we have our doubts. Dates and locations don’t line up. Inherited a fortune. Copper, I think it was. Or sugar. Blighter’s been in love with Connie for decades.”

“Not true,” says Constance, blushing in delight. “Porter’s just a dear friend. We’re hopeful he’ll visit this summer.”

“Of course he’s in love with you,” says Joseph, gazing at his wife and seeing her as she was thirty years ago in the Crombie Gallery in Bristol, buying his painting that would become the cover of her first great success, the murder mystery Cello. “Who wouldn’t be?”

Sevensong by Marcia Sloane

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Friendship Dialogues #1

This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #9.

Mark is sixty-four and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the strictures of the pandemic, he had five dates with Bernice, who is fifty-seven, before the focus of their connection shifted from possibly having a relationship to becoming friends. In the process of making this shift, Mark met Bernice’s closest friends Angela, sixty-three, and Marlene, sixty, and now Mark is becoming friends with Angela and Marlene, too.

*

“As much as we like each other,” Mark explains in a phone conversation with his pal Alex, “it seems highly unlikely that Bernice and I will end up in a relationship, though it seems likely we’ll be friends.”

“How do you feel about that?” asks Alex, who has been married to Denise for thirty-seven years and has no female friends other than Denise’s friends.

“I feel fine,” says Mark, who wasn’t looking for new friends when he started using Find the One, the relationship web site where he met Bernice. “Though part of me must still be hoping for a relationship with her because when I logged in to Find the One yesterday to peruse the latest possibilities, I felt like I was cheating on her.”

Alex laughs. “Spoken like a true monogamist.”

*

Saturday dawns sunny and unusually warm for March, and Mark uses the prospect of lunch at Marlene’s as his carrot for putting in a couple hours editing a whodunit, after which he makes a big batch of guacamole for the upcoming lunch with his three new friends.

Bernice arrives at Mark’s house at 11:30 and she and Mark walk the mile to Marlene’s together. She’s wearing a summery turquoise dress and a dark green mask and schlepps a big round basket containing salad and tortilla chips and Mark’s guacamole as they traverse neighborhoods of mostly older houses, the majority of the inhabitants Internet Technology peeps who supplanted the blue collar families that abided here before the dawn of the digital age.

They are both happy and relaxed, the self-imposed pressure of trying to impress each other mostly gone now.

Mark: You look marvelous as always. Who does your hair?

Bernice: (laughs) Before the pandemic, I would only go to Francois at Tricky Curls, but since the closures I’ve allowed Marlene to make two attempts.

Mark: Looks fine to me.

Bernice: Well she is a great artist. Who cuts your hair?

Mark: Before the pandemic, Denise did. Wife of my pal Alex. She’s French, too. So we both have French haircutters. But since the pandemic began, I go to some guy I meet at my mirror every few months. We communicate telepathically and he hacks the longer stuff back. We aim for symmetry and settle for what we get.

Bernice: You look fine. Short unkempt hair is all the rage now.

Mark: That’s me. Always on the cutting edge of fashion.

Bernice: Yet another thing we have in common.

They walk another block, marveling at how warm the day.

Mark: So… we’re friends now.

Bernice: Yeah. How do you like it so far?

Mark: Very much.  How do you like it?

Bernice: I love it. You’re my very first male friend who isn’t gay.

Mark: Do you have many gay male friends?

Bernice: Honey, I’m in show biz. I’ve managed a theatre company for twenty years, and before that I was a script supervisor on fourteen movies, otherwise known as the continuity person. And before that I was an aspiring actor. So, yes, I have many gay male friends. Do you have any gay male friends?

Mark: I used to. My best friend was gay, but he died and I don’t currently have any gay friends. Well, that’s not true. I correspond with a lesbian and a sometimes lesbian.

Bernice: I’m sorry you lost your friend.

Mark: Harry was a marvel. You would have loved him. Pianist. Composer. Full of fun.

They walk in silence for a time.

Mark: So you were an actor and a continuity person. You didn’t tell me that when we were trying to concoct a relationship.

Bernice: (frowns) I know. Came out easy as pie now that we’re friends.

Mark: And I didn’t tell you that I was an aspiring actor. I must have been embarrassed about that before we were friends.

Bernice: Did you go to LA and try to make it in the movies?

Mark: No. New York. Did the whole bartender by night, acting workshops and auditions by day. For three exhausting humiliating years. Then I came back to California and morphed into a book editor while trying to get parts in plays and indie films. (laughs) I was a colossal failure, but I loved trying.

Bernice: You didn’t fail, Mark. You just didn’t realize that trying was your success. That’s what I realize now when I look back on all the things I’ve done in my life. I never failed. I just didn’t understand that trying was my practice. As the Buddhist teachers say, we practice to practice, not to get somewhere, not to win some prize. When you practice the guitar you’re not failing. You’re practicing.  

Mark: And lately I’ve been failing to practice. But I know what you mean and I thank you for reminding me.

Bernice: I do occasionally have a small part in one of our plays. But acting in plays has never been my bliss. I wanted to be in movies. I’ve never been keen on playing the same part over and over again, but I love becoming someone else in relation to other people. That’s my favorite part about acting.

Mark: So is that where you and Marlene met? In Hollywood?

Bernice: Yes, she was the art director on two films I worked on, and we became instant friends. And then a year after I moved here to take the job managing the theatre company, she moved up here, too, and I eventually enticed her to design some sets for us, and she turned out to be a fabulous actor.

Mark: Was she a success in Hollywood, speaking of success?

Bernice: She art directed some very big movies and made lots of money, and if you ask her about her movie career she’ll say they paid her a fortune to make crap look good.

Mark: And how did you meet Angela?

Bernice: She is the accountant for our company. We met twenty years ago and fell in love as best friends will. Isn’t she just the most brilliant deadpan comedian?

Mark: She’s great. Every spoke of your troika is great.

Bernice: And so are you, my friend. So are you.

*

On Marlene’s terrace, frogs and turtles sunning themselves on lily pads in her big pond, Marlene serves a lunch of chicken enchiladas, spicy tomato rice, refried beans, salad, and guacamole. The women have beer, Mark water with a slice of lemon. Angela and Bernice and Marlene share a big table, Marlene and Angela wearing floppy sunhats and sun dresses, while Mark sits at a smaller table ten feet from them.

Marlene: You don’t drink any alcohol, Mark?

 Mark: I have the occasional sip of wine and the occasional sip of beer. I love the taste, but I’m allergic to alcohol and more than a little makes me ill.

Angela: Do you smoke pot?

Mark: No. I used to, but not anymore.

Angela: Why did you stop?

Mark: Well… I was addicted and it was ruining my life. So I quit.

Marlene: Good choice, Mark.

Angela: The three of us sometimes smoke pot together. We like getting high and watching a movie or dancing or… whatever.

Mark: Sounds wonderful. I loved getting stoned before I became addicted. But then it ceased to be about love and was all about needing to be high so I could feel okay about being here. You know what I mean?

Angela: Oh I do. Believe me, I do.

Mark: I believe you.

Bernice: Fortunately, we’re all cheap dates, so a puff or two usually does the trick.

Marlene: Speaking of getting high, I’m getting high on this guacamole. You must give me your recipe.

Mark: I’ll write it down before I go.

Marlene: Oh you can just email it to me.

Bernice: I’ll send you her email.

Mark: Great. So… what have you all been up to since we breakfasted at my place an eternity ago?

Angela: I’ve been doing other people’s taxes. Crunch time. Eight hours a day. Any more than that and the numbers begin to blur.

Mark: I know what you mean. I can only edit for a few hours at a time and then my brain stops working and I have to stop looking at words and get up and move around.

Marlene: How many hours a day do you work?

Mark: Five or six, and to make my forty hours I work every day.

Marlene: You don’t take weekends off?

Mark: (attempts French accent) What is this thing you call weekend?

Bernice: I can’t remember. The days all blur together now.

Marlene: I still keep my weekends separate from the weekdays, though I haven’t had a job since the pandemic began.

Mark: So what do you do with your time?

Marlene: I exercise for two hours in the morning before breakfast, yoga and Pilates online, and then after breakfast I draw for an hour or so. Then I take my neighbor’s dog for a walk, then I write emails, then I have lunch with tea and read, and then I visit friends in-person or on the computer. Then I might go shopping or do gardening work, and then it’s supper, and after supper I might watch a movie or take a long bath. Often I do something with Bernice or Angela or both of them.

Bernice: You’re so disciplined.

Marlene: Well, I have to be. I’m very prone to melancholy, so without the structure I will become morose and it isn’t good for me.

Mark: Sounds like a good life.

Marlene: It is. I’m very lucky.

Mark: Did you study art in college?

Marlene: Yes. I studied drawing and painting and sculpture in France, and then specifically set design and art direction for films in Switzerland.

Mark: And then you conquered Hollywood.

Marlene: (laughs) Au contraire. Hollywood demolished me. So much work to make crap look good, and one day I woke up and realized I was growing old and all I’d done with my life was help promote stereotypes of women as whores and men as vengeful heroes.

Mark: Do you ever wish you’d stayed in France? Made more complex dramas?

Marlene: Sometimes. Not often. France was quite stifling for me in many ways.

Angela: Not to change the subject, but these enchiladas are to die for.

Bernice: They are so good.

Mark: Fantastic. And I’m a serious enchilada aficionado.

Marlene: I’m glad you like them. (looks at Mark) I’m so sorry you can’t be at our table. But in a few months we will all be vaccinated and then we can sit together.

Mark: In the meantime, I appreciate your wish.

A pleasant silence falls as they enjoy the delicious lunch.

Angela: (to Mark) Bernice says you edit murder mysteries. Anything you’d recommend? I gobble them like candy.

Mark: I’m not the one to ask about that. Having edited hundreds of them, I now loathe the genre, though I do understand their appeal. In fact, a big part of my job is insuring that the books deliver that particular high the reader is reading for.

Marlene: If you hate the genre, why not edit some other kind of books?

Mark: Not to avoid your question, but perhaps the best way to answer you would be to ask why didn’t you art direct movies that weren’t crap?

Marlene: They make very few movies in America that are not crap, and most of the ones that are not crap either don’t pay their art directors very well or those jobs go to the few men at the top of the art director pyramid.

Mark: Well… they publish very few books in America that are not crap. And the relatively small publisher I work for can’t afford to publish books that aren’t moneymakers, which precludes most books that are not crap.

Angela: I think that’s so sad.

Mark:  Depends on what you like to read. I mean… only a very small percentage of our population buys books of any kind, let alone literary works, and that same population is two or three generations removed from the golden age of American literature that ended, for all intents and purposes, in the 1960s. And they probably wouldn’t like fiction of that quality if it were published today because the collective taste has changed, forever altered by television and the subsequent versions of television most people now access on their phones.

Marlene: Which is why I’m reading Dickens again. He holds up well.

Angela: And I read murder mysteries.

Bernice: And twenty years from now they’ll say the golden age was the early 2000s, and on we’ll go.

Mark: Thus it has always been. I was recently reading Twain’s autobiography and he reeled off the names of a dozen or so of his most famous contemporaries circa 1900 and I’d never heard of any of them.

Angela: So maybe it’s not so sad. Things just change.

Marlene: I wish I could look at it that way, but it feels like a death to me. The contemporary plays we do now, they feel so much like television shows.

Mark: They are. Because that’s all the younger writers know about. They’re not going to imitate Eugene O’Neil or Arthur Miller or Samuel Beckett. They’re going to write in ways that feel familiar to them.

Angela: (to Mark) Bernice tells us you write plays.

Mark: I’ve written a few. And I’ve gotten a handful of stellar rejection letters, but I fear I may already be a dead writer, though my body has yet to die. I stopped watching television when I was nineteen and traveled down a long road of reading great dead writers, so I don’t really speak the language of now.

Bernice: Which brings up an interesting question. Why write something or create something for which there is no audience?

Mark: It’s not only an interesting question, it is the fundamental question for artists who make original art. And my answer is that some part of me must still believe there is an audience for what I do if only by some miracle it gets to live on a larger stage than my desk.

Marlene: And my answer is we create what we create regardless of what anyone else thinks. Otherwise it’s not art. It’s commercial art, maybe, but not art.

Bernice: And my answer is a combination of both your answers. I assume the poem has come to me for a reason I’ll discover after I get the thing written down. Then I can decide if it’s something I want to share or just needed to get out. Like a bowel movement.

Marlene: (laughs) I have drawn many pictures of this sort.

Angela: And I don’t write or draw or create anything. I read murder mysteries and watch television, lots of television, especially British stuff. And you’re right, Mark. I’ve tried to read Faulkner and Nabokov and Dickens and Philip Roth and John Updike and I find it all impenetrable and nothing I care about. I couldn’t even read Harry Potter. But I love murder mysteries.

Marlene: What do you love about them, darling?

Angela: I love the suspense and the danger and the needing to know who did it.

Mark: You identify with the detective.

Angela: I do. I feel like I’m there, and I’m in danger, and I’ve got to find out who the killer is before they kill me.

Mark: That’s my job, Angela. Making the writing is good enough so the reader will identify with the detective and feel the detective is not merely solving a crime, but defying death.

Marlene: I’ve always wondered what the appeal was. And now I know. But it’s nothing I want to read. I feel like I’m defying death every day. Isn’t that what life is? Defying death?

Bernice: And eating good food while we’re at it.

*

Masked again and trying to stay six feet apart, Mark and Bernice take their time walking home from Marlene’s.

Bernice: Mark?

Mark: Yes?

Bernice: I watch television. And if we were in a relationship I would still watch television.

Mark: And I would watch it with you sometimes, just to be with you.

Bernice: I also drink beer and wine and sometimes scotch on the rocks and every now and then I smoke pot.

Mark: Would you allow me the occasional sip of your booze?

Bernice: I would. But I also like lots of plays by writers who are not dead.

Mark: You could educate me, and if I didn’t like a play you liked, we could have revealing discussions about why you like the play and I don’t.

Bernice: You say all the right things.

Mark: So do you.

Bernice: Do you think you’re still hoping to be in a relationship with me?

Mark: Probably. But I’m also fine with being your friend and never being in a relationship with you.

Bernice: How about taking ballroom dance lessons? Would you do that for me if we were in a relationship?

Mark: I would do that for you as your friend. And that goes for watching television with you and having sips of your booze and discussing contemporary plays. We don’t have to wait. We can do it all now.

Bernice: But no sex.

Mark: No, I’d even have sex with you as your friend.

Bernice: I don’t think that would work. Not yet anyway.

Mark: I wonder why you brought up being in a relationship when we were having so much fun being friends.

Bernice: Maybe because I can talk about it now without being afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.

Mark: Well that’s good.

Bernice: So now, once again, if not for the pandemic we would probably kiss, wouldn’t we?

Mark: That’s nonsense. If we want to kiss each other, we will. We’re both healthy and strong and neither of us has the virus. And we both know it.

Bernice: So why don’t you try to kiss me?

Mark: Because I love being your friend and I want to see where it takes us.

They stop walking and look at each other.

Bernice: I want to see where it takes us, too. I think the reason I brought up being in a relationship is that the more time I spend with you, the more I like you, and maybe I’m afraid you’ll fall in love with someone else and I’ll miss my chance.

Mark: I’m flattered. But I don’t think the fear of missing your chance is a good reason to start a relationship.

Bernice: No, of course not, but… I saw the way you were looking at Marlene and… she really likes you.

Mark: The mind boggles.

They resume walking.

Bernice: I’m being an idiot, aren’t I?

Mark: Yeah, but you’re very cute when you’re being an idiot.

Bernice: You’re just saying that to make me feel better.

Mark: No, it’s true. You get very open and vulnerable when you talk about your fears, and you become more beautiful than ever, which is an extreme kind of cuteness.

Bernice: (laughs) I like being your friend.

Mark: Ditto.

Bernice: Imagine me holding your hand.

Mark: Imagine me really liking it.

fin

Light Song

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Karen at the Bookstore

titles

Karen Constantine is fifty-four and has worked at Studio Books for eighteen years. Studio Books is the only bookstore in the coastal town of Deep River, California, a five-hour drive north of San Francisco. Of the two thousand people who call Deep River home, at least five hundred of them know Karen as the Karen at the bookstore.

A week ago, when Karen was more than a little drunk at the bar in the Deep River Hotel, she declared to her good buddies Richard and Kathy, “And I’m speaking from forty-two years of life experience.”

To which Liza the bartender said, “I think you mean fifty-four.”

“Shit,” said Karen, closing her eyes. “Yeah. Fifty-four.”

Ever since then, Karen has been thinking about how she thought she was forty-two and not fifty-four. This age-perception gap would have been no big deal had she said fifty-three, or even fifty, but to be operating with the self-idea that she is forty-two when she is fifty-four seems to Karen to be worthy of a serious investigation; and to that end she has made an appointment with her psychotherapist who she hasn’t seen in a professional capacity in eons.

But that appointment isn’t for another three weeks, and in the meantime Karen has her life to live and a job to go to and copious time to ponder the how and why of that twelve-year oops.

Most people who meet Karen for the first time guess she is in her forties. She has a lovely figure, a mostly wrinkle-free face, and shoulder-length dark brown hair without a trace of gray. She is comfortable in her body, goes to a ninety-minute yoga class every other day, runs two miles on the beach every morning before coming to work, and she has a radiant smile.

When Karen smiles, she is a most attractive human being, and Karen smiles many times every day because so many things make her smile: babies, kids, teenagers, adults, dogs, cats, birds, ocean, clouds, music, laughter, book titles, overheard conversations, and so much more. She finds life amusing and tragic and pointless and deeply meaningful and heartbreaking and complicated and absurd and delightful and confusing.

She was in two long-term relationships for swaths of her twenties and thirties, several short-term relationships when she was in her forties, and none in her fifties. Until she turned forty, she assumed she would have two children and be part of a family constellation. Now she is fifty-four, single, has no children, has never been married, and is part of a constellation composed of herself and her three cats: Ursula, Jeeves, and Kipling.

Studio Books is not a large store and shelf space is precious. Half the store is given to calendars, notebooks, notecards, pens, jigsaw puzzles, and a growing number of gift items, including candles, incense, earrings, and T-shirts featuring clever slogans; and half the store is given to books, most of those children’s books, works of non-fiction, and murder mysteries.

Karen and the seven other full and part-time employees who take turns manning the store from nine in the morning until nine at night, seven days a week, are painfully aware of the irony of Studio Books being called an independent bookstore, yet only allotting shelf-space for the most popular mainstream titles. There is one little shelf at the back of the store on which self-published books by local authors can be found, but few customers ever venture to that far-flung corner of the store, and fewer still get down on their knees to peruse those dusty tomes.

This was not the way of things at Studio Books forty years ago when the Internet and e-books and Amazon were still the stuff of Science Fiction. The original owner, Caleb Browner, an idealistic socialist, carried only books, many classics, and many by little known authors and poets. For seventeen tumultuous years, Caleb somehow made ends meet, during which time the Internet was born and spawned Amazon, after which Studio Books became a reliquary and Caleb went broke. Fortunately he found a buyer for his business and was able to pay off his debts and escape with a few hundred dollars.

The second owner, Mimi Weintraub, was an extremely wealthy woman from San Francisco who thought selling big glossy coffee table books and coffee tables and reading lamps was the way to go with Studio Books. After five years of losing gobs of money, Mimi sold the bookstore to the current owner Ginny Carpenter, who got rid of the coffee tables and reading lamps and big glossy books, stocked the shelves in imitation of a successful bookstore in Santa Rosa, and then began transforming Studio Books into the bestseller depot and gift shop it is today.

Even so, for locals who still revere three-dimensional books, Studio Books is an important part of the cultural fabric of Deep River, though few of those reverent people buy books there anymore because they can get used copies of the same bestsellers off the Internet for a few dollars or download e-copies onto their pads and not have to schlep cumbersome volumes around and then find places to store the unwieldy things.

And for eighteen years from her place behind the counter at Studio Books, Karen has presided over this local version of the sea change in the world of books, an experience that has profoundly saddened her.

On a glorious Tuesday in February, the sun shining brightly on Deep River, Karen is manning the counter in Studio Books and gazing out the front windows at Deep River Bay sparkling in the near distance. She works six days a week at the bookstore, two eight-hour shifts and four six-hour shifts, Tuesdays and Thursdays her long days, all her shifts ending at five.

A man approaches the counter and says cheerfully, “Good morning. Do you sell tide charts?”

“We do,” says Karen, turning to him and liking what she sees—fortyish, graying brown hair, blue eyes, relaxed, appealing. “Look two feet to your left.”

“Ah,” he says, smiling as he takes one of the little booklets from the metal carousel featuring postcards and key chains and small blank notebooks. “Great.”

He hands the tide chart to Karen and she rings up the sale. “That will be two dollars and twenty-five cents. Would you like a bag?”

“No, thank you,” he says, handing her three ones. “But I’d love to take you out for coffee some time.”

She holds up her left hand to display the gold band she wears on her wedding finger to dissuade men from making such overtures.

“I will take that to mean you are married.” The man shrugs pleasantly. “I assumed so, but I know single women who wear rings on that finger, so I thought…”

“You assumed correctly,” she says, handing him three quarters, the tide chart, and a receipt.

“Thank you,” he says, nodding graciously and departing.

She watches him walk out the door into the sunny day and she realizes he is the first man in several years to woo her in that way in the bookstore. Men frequently offer to buy her drinks when she’s in the hotel bar where she goes every day after work for a drink or two, and where she returns after supper a few nights a week to hang out with friends, but this was her first such bookstore encounter since…

“Karen,” says Bernard, the portly bookstore manager emerging from the Religion, Spirituality, Poetry, Humor, Crossword Puzzles, Gardening and Economics section. “Would you finish re-stocking the fiction, please? I’ll run the register.”

Karen nods and vacates her place at the counter, wishing Bernard’s recent promotion to manager hadn’t resulted in the loss of his sense of humor. He used to be so wonderfully droll. Now he’s a prissy snob.

Only a few people are in the store, which makes this the perfect time to replenish the shelves, though Karen no longer enjoys what was once a favorite part of her job. Gone are the days of filling the shelves with books she loves. Now the few remaining shelves of so-called literary fiction are fast being taken over by excess from the ever-growing Murder Mystery section, along with crappy suspense thrillers and historical bodice rippers no one considered literature until the sea change began.

Karen looks into the box of books destined for the shelves and sees they are all murder mysteries, and she balks at reaching into the box.

“Excuse me?” says the man who bought the tide chart. “I’m looking for anything by Russell Hoban.” The man is standing ten feet away from Karen, politely keeping his distance. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m not quite sure how the bookstore is laid out.”

Karen fixes him with a steely gaze. “We don’t have any Hoban. We can order any book you want, but Hoban could take weeks to get here. If I remember correctly, most of his titles are out-of-print. There is a used bookstore at the east end of town. You might try them.”

“I did,” says the man, nodding, “but the fellow there said Hoban doesn’t move fast enough so he won’t take his books when people bring them in. How about William Trevor?”

Karen shakes her head. “What we have in the way of fiction is what you see on these four shelves. Alphabetical. No Trevor, no Hoban, no Wharton, no Singer, no Hemmingway, no Welty, no Faulkner, no Greenstreet, no Steinbeck, no Nabokov. We have the top ten current bestsellers, lots of Stephen King and John Grisham and murder mysteries and, of course, Harry Potter wizard books and Anne Rice mummy and vampire books.”

“I’m sorry,” says the man, nodding sympathetically. “I would order some books from you, but I’m just here for a few days and…”

“Would you please stop bothering me?” says Karen, losing her temper. “I don’t want to have coffee with you or hear about your life. I’m trying to get some work done.”

The man backs away and disappears, and as he disappears, Karen closes her eyes and prays he won’t complain to Bernard, who in his new capacity as prissy store manager might feel the need to report the incident to the owner.

At 5:03, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel, five doors down from Studio Books, and makes a beeline to the bar where Liza the bartender pours a shot of whiskey that Karen downs in a single gulp before she settles onto a bar stool and says, “Scotch on the rocks, please. I’m a mess.”

“Not you,” says Liza, in a sweetly sarcastic way.

“Terrible rotten horrible day,” says Karen, handing her purse to Liza. “I’ll be right back. Haven’t gone to the bathroom since lunch.”

On her way through the Fireside Lounge to the Ladies Room, Karen sees the man she was so rude to in the bookstore. He is sitting alone at a window table, sipping a half-pint of beer and reading an actual book.

In the white-tile bathroom, Karen studies herself in the mirror, likes how she looks in her long black skirt and billowy white blouse, and decides that after she has her drink, she will apologize to the man.

Back at the bar, she takes her time with the cold scotch and asks Liza what she thinks of the man in the Fireside Lounge sipping beer and reading an actual book, and Liza, who is tall and lanky with long black hair in a bun says, “If I were not moderately happy in my marriage, I would be all over that guy. He’s charming and he has beautiful eyes and he’s gracious, which is so rare anymore I wanted to kiss him when he ordered his beer, and then he tipped me more than the beer cost and I wanted to have sex with him.”

“I was a total bitch to him in the bookstore today,” says Karen, sighing. “I’m gonna go apologize.”

She saunters into the Fireside Lounge and smiles radiantly at the man reading an actual book. “I came to say I’m sorry for how I spoke to you in the bookstore today. Totally uncalled for. Please forgive me.”

“No need to apologize,” he says, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have bothered you a second time. You were right to rebuke me. Can’t be easy having men constantly… well… no hard feelings.”

“Okay,” says Karen, hoping he’ll ask her to join him, though she senses he won’t because he’s a decent person who believed her when she said she was married, so…

Home to her cottage a mile inland on the edge of a vast forest, Karen feeds her cats Ursula, Kipling, and Jeeves, gets a fire going in the woodstove, heats up a can of minestrone soup, and sprawls on the sofa watching Mostly Martha on her laptop until she falls asleep and wakes two hours later with a painful crick in her neck.

Getting ready for bed, Karen thinks about the man she was rude to and how kind he was in accepting her apology; and feeling lonely, she calls her friend Kathy, who is sixty-seven, single, a retired social worker, and sings with Karen in the choir at the Presbyterian.

“Hello?” says Kathy, who doesn’t have the kind of phone that tells her who’s calling.

“Hi,” says Karen, relieved to hear Kathy’s voice. “I’m not calling too late, am I?”

“No, no,” says Kathy, music blaring in the background. “Let me turn my radio down. Great jazz tonight.”

Kathy goes to turn the music down and Karen sighs, wishing she could be with Kathy in-person.

“Here I am,” says Kathy, warmly. “What’s going on?”

“Oh I’m just mad at myself. I just… I hate working at the bookstore now, and I stupidly took it out on a customer today, and I feel just… I don’t know… hopeless.”

“You know what it always is?” says Kathy, sounding as if she’s just realized what she’s about to say.

“What?” asks Karen, who was hoping for sympathy and not some theory about the universal cause of emotional distress.

“It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. You know what I mean? The narratives we use to define ourselves. And we can change them. I don’t have to keep telling the story about me being too old to learn to play the guitar. I can change the story to one about me learning to play well enough to go to open mike at the Silver Spur and sing a slow version of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face,’ and the crowd goes wild.”

“I want to be there,” says Karen, excitedly. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“See?” says Kathy, laughing. “Change one story and all the nearby stories change, too.”

The next morning at ten, Karen goes running on Deep River Beach, the tide way out, the beach enormous and void of people save for someone far in the distance who appears to be dancing in the shallows.

Feeling mighty blue as she begins her run, she is nevertheless hopeful the two-mile jog on the glorious beach will lift her spirits and give her the pizzazz to put in another six hours at the bookstore.

The beach and forest and quiet and beauty are what I’ll miss most if I sell my place and move to Portland and get a job in a real bookstore. And my friends. I’ll miss my friends. And my house. And my land. But I won’t miss working at Studio Books and pretending I work in a real bookstore.

Who should the lone person far down the beach be but the man she was rude to yesterday in the bookstore. And the man is dancing, because what he’s doing is standing at the water’s edge, flinging a white Frisbee high and far out over the incoming waves to a place in the air where the spinning disk meets the offshore breeze and is propelled back to the man as if he is a powerful Frisbee magnet.

Karen stops a hundred feet from the man and watches him fling the disk out over the incoming waves again and again, his mastery breathtaking. And the way he dances on the balls of his feet, moving forward and back and side-to-side to catch the returning disk, is so pleasing to her, she breaks into applause.

He glances at her, makes an instantaneous calculation, and flings the disk out over the waves once more; only this time the Frisbee does not come back to him, but flies to Karen and stalls just a few feet in front of her about six feet off the ground, so all she has to do is reach out and pluck the thing from the air.

They meet for lunch at the Deep River Deli. The man’s name is Allen Brodeur. He is an English professor at Merritt College in Oakland and lives in an apartment in Berkeley with his cats Chucho and Esme. Allen and Karen sit across from each other at one of the four small tables in the warm and noisy deli, Karen having a hot pastrami sandwich and root beer, Allen an open-faced turkey and avocado on rye with melted Swiss, his drink ginger ale.

Karen changes her guess about his age to early fifties, but she doesn’t broach the subject of their ages, nor does he. They like each other immediately and immensely, and they make each other laugh, so much so that at one point they cannot stop laughing and Allen has to go outside an walk around to quell his mirth.

They trade bites of their sandwiches. They discover they both love the music of Samuel Barber, Mendelssohn, and Michel Petrucciani. Allen tells of recently reading all two thousand pages of the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant for the second time in his life and being astounded over and over again by Maupassant’s genius. Karen says she is currently hooked on V.S. Pritchett and A.S. Byatt, but woke this morning thinking she’d like to read Steinbeck again after a twenty-year hiatus.

As they walk back to the bookstore, Allen invites Karen out to dinner tonight and she says, “How about I make us dinner at my place and you can meet my cats.”

Allen arrives at Karen’s cottage at dusk, and before complete darkness falls, Karen gives him a quick tour of her two-acre property on Everson Lane where a dozen other houses on multi-acre parcels enjoy the many blessings of being surrounded by thousands of acres of forest.

Along with her three-room cottage, Karen has a pump house for her well, a five-thousand-gallon water tank, a large woodshed, a deer-fenced vegetable garden, and a small studio, electrified but not plumbed, where long ago Karen made collages and paintings, and now uses for a guest room.

Ursula, Jeeves, and especially Kipling are enamored of Allen and take turns sitting on his lap whenever he alights anywhere for more than a moment. Karen opens a bottle of red wine for both cooking and drinking, and while listening to Barber’s Adagio For Strings they create a fabulous tomato, mushroom, green pepper, and zucchini spaghetti sauce, perfectly cooked noodles, and a scrumptious green salad—the experience of cooking together a mutual thrill.

They are in love with each other in the way of smitten strangers who have yet to discover anything about the other they might not love; and Karen imagines they will make love after they finish supper and drink more wine and talk by the fire.

But that doesn’t happen because Karen gets very drunk and several times can’t remember why she’s telling Allen whatever she’s telling him, and this is something Allen does not love, though he doesn’t say so and only becomes wary and less forthcoming.

And though they part ways with a gentle hug and agree to meet on the beach tomorrow morning at eight, Karen doesn’t think Allen will want to pursue a relationship with her because of how loud and strident she got after her fifth glass of wine.

Furious with herself for opening that second bottle of wine, she smokes some pot to calm down, not her usual hit or two, but an entire joint, and she gets so stoned the room starts to spin and she thinks she might be having a heart attack and she very nearly calls 9-1-1 to summon an ambulance, but instead she crawls into bed and rides out the frightening high until finally, blessedly, she falls asleep at two in the morning.

  ∆

She sleeps a sodden dreamless sleep for eight hours until her ringing phone awakens her and Bernard from the bookstore says, “Wherefore art thou Karen? You are now an hour late, which I believe is your new personal best. Or worst.”

“Oh, hey Bernard,” she says, her voice raspy. “Thanks for calling. I’m… I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice full of kindness. “You sound all stuffed up.”

“Oh I’m just…” She clears her throat. “Hey, is your sense of humor coming back? I thought I detected a comic tone in your passing reference to Romeo and Juliet? Or was that just hopeful thinking on my part?”

“No, it started coming back this morning,” says Bernard, chuckling. “I’ve been taking myself much too seriously lately. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course,” she says, getting out of bed. “Twenty minutes. Thanks Bernard.”

She feeds her cats, and as the dried food drums into the three little bowls, she thinks of Allen waiting for her at the beach this morning, and she feels certain that whatever shred of hope there was of embarking on a relationship with him is gone now; and she feels strangely relieved, for she is so habituated to aloneness now, she no longer knows how to share her life in an intimate way with anyone other than her cats.

Karen takes her lunch break at two and meets her friend Richard at the picnic tables on the headlands across the street from Studio Books, Richard providing their meal of pumpkin muffins from the Happy Time Bakery, goat cheese, apples, and a thermos of black tea.

Richard is seventy-four and chubby, a wearer of suits and ties at night, sweatpants and sweatshirts during the day, his longish gray hair tied back in a stubby ponytail. British and gay, Richard was an actor for forty years in Milwaukee and Phoenix before moving to California after he retired from the theatre. He still occasionally takes a small part in a play at DRTC (Deep River Theatre Company) but he finds acting tiresome now and prefers spending his time reading and walking and visiting with friends.

Sitting side by side at their picnic table overlooking Deep River Bay, Karen tells Richard about her time with Allen yesterday and the sad denouement of their date and the terrifying aftermath, and how she thinks the reason she wrecked things with Allen is because she’s afraid to be in a relationship—doesn’t know how to be in one.

Richard sips his tea and says, “I know I’ve told you this story before, or at least I think I have, but I like telling it, and it seems appropriate under the circumstances, so I’ll tell it again.” He clears his throat. “When I was forty-three and despairing of ever finding someone to love for more than a night or two, I kept running into this dreadful man at parties and bars, never just the two of us, always in groups with other men or theatre people. His name was Philip. He was brash and opinionated and full of himself. He was very attractive, big and strong with a fabulous mane of black hair, but I found him unbearable because every time I tried to say anything, and I mean every time, he would interrupt me, contradict me, and never let me get a word in edgewise. Never. And then one day he showed up at the theatre, this was in Milwaukee, as the new assistant to our set designer, and I thought, ‘Oh great. Just what I needed. This guy.’”

Richard pours more tea into Karen’s mug. She nods her thanks and wonders what this story has to do with her failure with Allen.

“So,” says Richard, continuing, “I avoided the man like the plague. If I went into a bar and he was there, I left. If I went to a party and he was there, I stayed far away from him. And at the theatre, I studiously ignored him. We were doing Ah, Wilderness by Eugene O’Neill. I played the part of Nat and was brilliant, and I’m not alone in that assessment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called my performance revelatory. Anyway, it’s a big cast and a very funny play and it was one of our great successes, and when the run was over, Philip asked me to go to lunch with him. And though nothing had happened to change my opinion of the man, I thought for the sake of peace and harmony in the company I would suffer his windy oratory for an hour or two and be done with it.”

“So what happened?” asks Karen, never having heard this story before.

“We went to a very nice restaurant,” says Richard, a dreamy look in his eyes. “And after we placed our orders, he looked at me and said, ‘But enough about me. Tell me everything about you.’ And so I did. And a month later, we got a place together and stayed together for twelve of the happiest years of my life.” He smiles wistfully at Karen. “We eventually went our separate ways, but oh what wonderful years I had with Philip, and how badly I misjudged him in the beginning.”

At five o’clock, Karen is chatting with Tom who is just starting his evening shift at the bookstore, when Allen comes in from the fog and waits for Karen to acknowledge him.

She grabs her purse, says goodnight to Tom, approaches Allen and says, “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the beach this morning. I couldn’t sleep after you left and I stayed up until two and slept until ten, and by then I figured you wouldn’t want to see me again anyway.”

Allen considers this and says, “You want to talk or shall I skidaddle?”

“Well…” she says, smiling shyly, “since you used the magic word skidaddle, I want to talk to you.”

“The Fireside Lounge at the hotel?” he asks, nodding.

“No,” she says shaking her head. “There’s a nice place around the corner. Xenon. You hungry? I’m starved.”

“Yeah. Bowl of soup sounds good.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” she says, smiling bravely to quell her tears.

“So I’d like to give you a little background information about me,” says Allen, their soup dispensed with, pie and coffee coming. “To help you understand what happened for me last night.” He has a drink of water. “My parents were alcoholics, my two siblings became alcoholics, I did not, and I was married for twelve years to an alcoholic. In fact, all my relationships and friendships were with alcoholics or addicts of one kind or another until I was forty-seven and had two years of life-changing psychotherapy.”

“How old are you, Allen?” asks Karen, smiling as the waitress brings their coffee and dessert.

“I’m sixty-three,” he says, gazing at her.

“You can’t be,” she says, shaking her head. “You mean fifty-three.”

“No,” he says, laughing. “Sixty-three.”

“Wow,” she says, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. “You seem so much younger. Must be all that dancing on the beach with your Frisbee.”

“Maybe so,” he says, nodding. “But however old I am, my wife and my other partners before her all needed to be drunk in order to be tender or sexual or emotionally open, and then inevitably they would become mean or depressed, as most drunks will, and so until I understood that I was a classic enabler of addicts, and understood that I chose to be with them because they were versions of my parents, and until I was able to stop choosing them, I was stuck in a hell where I could only have sex with drunks, and not being drunk myself, the sex was not only awful but the opposite of what I wanted, which was to connect deeply with other people.”

“So I triggered those bad memories for you,” says Karen, aching with shame. “I’m so sorry, Allen.”

“But wait,” he says urgently. “It was only at the end of our time together those buttons got pushed in me. Before then…” He looks at her, longing for her to know how much he likes her. “Before then, I haven’t connected with anyone as well as I connected with you… ever. It was a miracle being with you until…”

“I drank too much,” she says, looking down so he won’t see her tears.

“For me,” he says, nodding. “You drank too much for me. Not for somebody else, I’m sure. My God, Karen, you’re lovely and funny and brilliant and great and… I just can’t ever go there again. Even with you.”

“What if I changed?” she says, looking up at him. “What if I stopped drinking?”

“But it isn’t the drinking,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s the great red herring. It’s what you communicate to me when I’m so willing to meet you on a deeper level. You’re telling me I’m not acceptable to you unless you’re drunk. You see what I mean? It wasn’t the wine. It’s how you closed off to me when I wanted so much for us to be open to each other.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she says quietly. “I needed to hear that. And now I’d like to tell you what happened for me.”

“Please,” he says quietly.

“I haven’t connected with anyone, man or woman, as completely and wonderfully as I connected with you since… Second Grade when Donny Dorsett and I would go everywhere together, holding hands and marveling at everything. But my experience since then, for the rest of my fifty-four years, has been otherwise.”

She stops speaking and waits for Allen to react to the number of her years, and he says, “I guessed you were forty-nine, but I love that you’re fifty-four.”

“I’m glad you do,” she says, blushing. “But anyway… my father was a heavy drinker and my mother was not, and the relationship they modeled for me and my sister was where one of the partners needs to be drunk in order to be affectionate, and the other partner longs for the affection but hates being with a drunk. An unsolvable conundrum short of divorce, which they did a few years after my sister and I finished college. But long before their marriage ended, I reacted to how they were with each other by identifying with my mother and never drinking or smoking pot in high school. And I thought I never would until I went to college and I was the only person I knew who didn’t drink or take drugs. And just like my mother, I longed for physical affection and love, so I drank a little, but I didn’t like it. What I liked was pot. Made all my self-doubts go away, and I would get very stoned and have sex with men I barely knew, so I came to associate sex with being high. In fact, I never had sex unless I was high until I was in my thirties and got involved with a man who wanted sex all the time and didn’t care if we were high or not. Problem was, sex with him was gross, quick and uncaring, so I saw no advantage to sex without being stoned.” She smiles in embarrassment. “Too much information?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head.

“Then when I was in my late thirties,” she says, having a sip of her coffee, “I started worrying about running out of time to have children, and I chose to be with men I didn’t really like, but they had good jobs and said they wanted kids, and the only way I could bring myself to sleep with them was to be drunk because getting stoned didn’t do the trick anymore. And that’s where I got stuck, which coincided with my work becoming more and more depressing, so I started having a drink or two after work to relieve the tension of working in a bookstore where you, Allen, couldn’t find a single writer you love.”

They share a bit of silence and Karen says, “I guess I stopped thinking I would ever find a partner, and I’ve grown accustomed to being stuck where I am, a person at a dead end who needs to change or die. And since I don’t want to die yet, and I don’t want to be a bitter old woman, I’m going to quit the bookstore and get a job as a waitress serving good food, and I’m not going to drink so much anymore. I won’t say I’ll stop drinking, but I won’t drink so much, and I won’t get drunk to make love, if I ever make love again.”

Three months later, after a busy Friday night serving customers at Xenon, Karen enters the Deep River Hotel and joins her pals Kathy and Richard at the bar, has a sip of Kathy’s vodka tonic, and orders a ginger ale.

“You lush, you,” says Liza, giving Karen a loving wink as she pours ginger ale into a big glass full of ice cubes.

“I’m cutting back because of you,” says Richard, kissing the air in Karen’s direction. “Only one daiquiri tonight instead of my usual two.” He wrinkles his nose. “Or was it three? How quickly we forget.”

“I’m not so much cutting back,” says Kathy, arching an eyebrow, “as drinking slower.”

Kathy and Richard and Liza all want to hear about Karen’s recent weekend in Berkeley where she stayed with Allen at his place for the first time, and they all want to know if she and Allen finally slept together.

Karen takes a long drink of her ginger ale and smiles radiantly. “We did. And it was good. And in two weeks his school year ends and he’s coming to stay with me for most of the summer.”

“Hallelujah,” says Richard, raising his strawberry daiquiri high. “To love triumphant.”

“To love triumphant,” say Kathy and Liza, Kathy raising her vodka tonic, Liza a glass of water.

“To loving friends,” says Karen, clinking their glasses with hers. “Without whom we could not survive.”

fin