who made that blue
so deeply blue?
who made those clouds go sailing by?
who wrote that music in the sky?
maybe she who made the blue
knew our eyes could hear her too
Hello dear readers, I’m pleased to announce the birth of my new album Dream of You, featuring nine of my original songs for guitar, piano, and voice. One of these tunes was written forty-eight years ago, and two were written in the last year. The primary guitar tracks and vocals were recorded simultaneously to give the songs a live feeling, with Marcia’s gorgeous cello and Gwyneth Moreland’s splendid vocal harmonies adding magic to the mix.
You can buy copies of Dream of You from my web site for 5 dollars each, plus a flat rate shipping fee of 6 dollars no matter how much stuff you buy from my web site, or you can download the whole album for 6 dollars from CD Baby, or download individual songs from CD Baby for just 69 cents per song. Such a deal!
The album is also available for downloading and streaming from iTunes and Amazon and Spotify and Apple Music. Or you can listen to the songs on YouTube. If you do take a listen and enjoy what you hear, I hope you’ll share this article and links with your music-loving friends.
I’m now at work on a new batch of songs inspired by the satisfying creative experience of working with Marcia and Gwyneth and Peter Temple in his Albion studio.
Here are some brief notes about the songs on Dream of You.
Wake Up Thinking About You
Written thirty years ago as a slow smoky blues, I never got around to recording this tune until now. When I was learning the song again for this album, I sped up the tempo, added some swing, some piano, some Gwyneth harmony, and I love the joyous feel.
This song is twenty years old. I’ve long imagined harmony parts and was thrilled when we got them all in place. I sang two additional vocal tracks, Gwyneth sang two, too, and I love how groovy the song feels now.
Dream of You
This is the newest tune on the album, composed a few months before we recorded the initial guitar and vocal track. After a ten-year break from playing the guitar to focus on my piano playing, this recounting of a lucid dream was the first new song to come to me as I was regaining my guitar chops.
Alone and Lonely
I wrote this song almost fifty years ago. A vagabond in those days, I spent hundreds of hours standing by the sides of roads hitchhiking. This tune was born in those long hours of playing guitar while waiting for a ride and hoping for happier times.
Nothing Anybody Says
This is my newest piano tune, written within the last year. I imagined singing this love song with a fine female vocalist, and Gwyneth surpassed my imaginings.
Whole Lotta Kissing
I wrote this tune in Berkeley, circa 2000, following a painful dismissal by a woman who clearly (erroneously) thought she was too good for the likes of me.
I was broke and lonely and pining for an old love when I wrote this song in Seattle in 1977. I imagined Bonnie Raitt singing this song, and over the ensuing twenty years I tried to get it to her without success. This song also forms the basis for my novel Night Train.
I wrote the words for this song in 1970 in New York City. A young German composer asked me to write lyrics for operatic lieder, and this was my favorite of the several poems I created for him, none of which he used. I found the lyrics in my guitar case some years later and put them to music. Gwyneth’s beautiful harmonies thrill me every time I listen to this song.
One Last Time
I wrote this song in Sacramento in 1989 and first performed it in an art gallery as part of a two-man show with the fine poet and artist D.R. Wagner. A song of resurrection and the healing power of love.
Early on Tuesday morning, two days before Thanksgiving, a light rain falling, Tober and Augie load the last of Augie’s things into their pickup, cover everything with a brown waterproof tarp, secure the tarp with neon-yellow rope, and make their getaway from Portland—Augie driving, Tober navigating.
They are both glad to be leaving the city and heading home, though Tober is sad about parting ways with Jasmy, and Augie is upset about how things ended with Sandy; and this is what they both want to talk about as soon as they gain the open road.
“In three blocks,” says Tober, scrutinizing the road map, “you will make a left turn and go five blocks to the onramp for 26 West.”
Neither of them speaks again until the last vestiges of urban sprawl give way to farmland.
“Titus warned me before I left,” says Augie, his eyes full of tears. “He said I wasn’t just going to live in a big city, I was going to live in an entirely different society than the one I was used to, a society I might not be comfortable in, and he was right.”
“We’re comfortable in Snake Creek society,” says Tober, gazing at the road ahead. “We’re comfortable in the wilds and on the farm and in little coastal towns. We learned about the world from our mother who abandoned city life to live far from the madding crowd, and from a Wailaki mystic who dwells deep in the forest. And the big question for me is, do I want to learn how to live in a city and become adept at interfacing with the so-called modern world? And if not, then what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Stay on Snake Creek Road and grow vegetables and apples and raise chickens and play music with you and Mom? Search for stones, work as a carpenter, and maybe one day marry a local gal and have kids and raise our children as we were raised and carry on like that until the world burns up?”
“Or we could think of our farm as a base camp,” says Augie, smiling through his tears. “From where we sally forth on journeys of exploration, one of those journeys taking me to Mountain Home Idaho where I take guitar lessons from Beckman.”
“And I come with you and we make music with Beckman and Jasmy in their recording studio,” says Tober, warming to the Beckman scenario. “And we make an album that some aspiring musician hears and she is inspired by our music to write a song she performs in a park, and someone walking by hears the song and his heart breaks open and he’s set free from some deep sorrow that has tormented him his whole life.”
“Ambition,” says Augie, imitating Titus’s voice. “You, October, have ambitions to make music that goes beyond Snake Creek Road and the Arcata Playhouse. You have ambitions to add your fire to the greater cultural tumult. But are you willing to pay the psychic toll to do so?”
“That is a good question,” says Tober, nodding solemnly. “Another good question is… want me to drive?”
“I would love you to drive,” says Augie, pulling over onto the wide shoulder. “That way I can sob uncontrollably without endangering our lives.”
“When I was sitting in those lectures,” says Augie, speaking of his brief time as a graduate student in Clinical Psychology, “and the seemingly disinterested professors were professing theories now abandoned by those aware of the latest discoveries in neurobiology, I kept thinking how there is nothing these people could teach Titus and everything he could teach them, which is when I realized I should be studying with Titus, not them, and that the best way for me to become an effective psychotherapist would be to learn as much as I can from Titus before he dies, and for him to supervise me as I confer with various guinea pigs such as yourself.”
“I’m ready,” says Tober, his stomach growling. “Let us begin my psychoanalysis right after we’ve had some breakfast. Surely Cannon Beach will have eateries galore, and if not galore then some.”
In the little tourist town of Cannon Beach, they find a lovely breakfast joint, the Lazy Susan Café, and sit at a table from where they can look out a window and see their truck while they feast on spicy mushroom omelets and fried potatoes and English muffins and orange marmalade.
Sipping lattes to complete their morning feast, Augie says, “I assume we inherited our mother’s ambition, which she inherited from her mother. Which is to say, despite our mother modeling contentment with being a homesteader and a small town musician, we nevertheless came to believe we were meant to perform on larger stages. In my case, ambition manifested as a desire to become a star in the fields of psychotherapy and neurobiology, and in your case ambition manifested as a desire to become a world famous musician.”
“Hold on,” says Tober, waving away his brother’s assertion. “I had no such ambition until I played ‘Manha de Carnaval’ with Beckman for a thousand people who went bonkers when we finished playing. It was during that tempest of adulation that my larger ambition took hold. Prior to playing with Beckman and Jasmy, I was content to be an Eel River fiddler, and I hope to regain that contentment after a few days of breathing our native air.”
“You may not have been consciously aware of your grandiose desire until you performed with Beckman,” says Augie, looking out the window at their little white truck basking in sudden sunlight, “but I contend the inherited seed was already well-sprouted.”
“Maybe so,” says Tober, wondering if Jasmy could be content to live with him on Snake Creek Road and be an Eel River musician rather than an international superstar. “It did feel strangely familiar trading licks with Jasmy in front of all those jubilant people.”
“Oh so now we’re gonna talk about sex?” says Augie, arching his eyebrow. “Trading licks, indeed.”
“For the record,” says Tober, feigning grave seriousness, “Jasmy and I did not have sex. We kissed multiple times and embraced with passionate tenderness, but stopped short of the wild sex you had with Sandy, and I base the adjective wild on the ecstatic cries emanating from the bedroom all the way at the other end of the very large house where you and Sandy were… how shall we put it? Tripping the light fantastic?”
“She dragged me to her bed,” says Augie, blushing. “I was helpless to resist. She was fearless and luscious and knowing, and she played me as she plays her drums, I her willing trap set.”
“Methinks you take this drumming analogy too far,” says Tober, grimacing. “But we will allow it because she dumped you the next day and broke your heart, and you have yet to tell me why.”
“I wouldn’t say she dumped me,” says Augie, sighing. “I’d say she gave me an ultimatum, and when I refused, she said I was a fool and told me to leave. So I did.”
“What was her ultimatum?” ask Tober, wondering why Sandy would do that when she’d only known Augie for two days.
“She said if I wouldn’t come back to Portland immediately after Thanksgiving and move in with her, she wasn’t interested in having a relationship with me. She said this was the chance of a lifetime and if I didn’t seize the chance, I was a fool, and she was done consorting with fools.”
“You know,” says Tober, waving to their waitress, “though I found Sandy beautiful and charming and funny and delightfully Irish, I think she’s got way more than a few screws loose, and despite your formidable charm, my dear brother, I doubt very much that you were the cause of the loosening of those screws.”
“She’s twenty-two,” says Augie, smiling at the approach of their waitress, a middle-aged woman with gray hair in a bun, glasses perched on the tip of her nose. “I suppose if I were twenty-two instead of eighteen, I might have jumped at the chance to live with her.” He frowns. “But I don’t think so. As much as I liked her, I mistrusted her haste… our sexual collision a drum solo taken way too soon in the unfolding of our song.”
“Hold that metaphor,” says Tober, nodding graciously to their waitress. “Breakfast was divine and we would love to take our delicious lattes on the road with us.”
“I’ll bring you paper cups with lids,” she says, her accent born in the deep Midwest. “You boys want anything else?”
“We are content,” says Tober, wondering how this likable woman from Kansas or Missouri ended up in Cannon Beach.
“Okay then, here you go,” she says, setting the receipt on the table between them. “Looks like the sun’s out to stay. Should be a beautiful rest of the day.”
Rolling south on the coast highway, Tober driving, the two-lane road curving up and down through dense evergreen forests, Augie asks Tober how he left things with Jasmy.
“Well,” says Tober, pulling over to let a mob of cars zoom by, “we gave each other no ultimatums. We affirmed our mutual desire to see each other again, sooner than later, and we agreed to call each other whenever we are so inclined. I told her I will write to her, and she said she would like to come visit us on Snake Creek Road, and I said I would return to Portland in the next month or so to visit her. And regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen between us romantically, we’re going to be friends and play music together and… like that.”
“How comprehensively sensible of you,” says Augie, recalling for the umpteenth time the blissful look on Sandy’s face as he made love to her. “The thing is… I really really really liked Sandy, but the undeniable truth is that she and I dance to very different drummers, no pun intended.”
“Not really a pun,” says Tober, shaking his head. “Well, sort of. She is a very fine drummer. Solid as a rock, yet subtle and musical and incredibly sensitive to the moods of her fellow players. I’d even go so far as to say she’s a rhythmic genius.”
“It’s gonna take me a long time to process everything that happened in these last three months,” says Augie, feeling like crying again. “Especially the last three days.”
“And we’re not home yet,” says Tober, thinking of what awaits them in Yachats.
They arrive in that picturesque little town in the early afternoon, the day still sunny, and follow the directions Ruth and Phil and Sylvia gave Tober four days ago when he dined with them in the Green Salmon café.
About a quarter-mile south of town, Tober still driving, they arrive at a gorgeous old house just a stone’s throw away from incessant waves crashing on the rocky shore.
“Nice place,” says Augie as they pull into the wide driveway and park next to a sleek red electric sedan. “Redwood and rock and windows all around.”
“With a guest house, too,” says Tober, getting out of the truck and stretching his arms. “I wonder if the constant roaring ever bothers them.”
“How could it not?” says Augie, looking out to sea—storm clouds massing on the horizon. “Or maybe they’ve stopped hearing it. The brain will do that to protect us from going mad.”
Now the front door opens and Sylvia comes out to greet them. She looks older than she did when Tober last saw her dressed as a Boy Scout with pigtails in the Green Salmon café. She seems more womanly in blue jeans and a purple cardigan over a peach-colored dress shirt, her hair down; so Tober revises his guess about her age from eleven to thirteen.
“Hi Tober,” she says, gazing adoringly at him. “I’m Sylvia in case you forgot my name.”
“How could I ever forget your name?” says Tober, bowing gallantly to her. “Sylvia, this is my brother Augie. Augie, Sylvia.”
“Nice to meet you,” says Augie, enchanted by Sylvia. “Fabulous place you have here.”
“I guess so,” she says, looking around as if seeing the house and grounds and ocean for the first time. “I’d rather live in a city, but if you can’t live in a city, I suppose this is pretty nice.”
“Which city would you like to live in?” asks Augie, having no desire to live in any city ever again.
“New York,” she says, clasping her hands behind her back. “That’s where we lived until I was six before we moved here. I’m going to be an actress, and New York is where you want to be if that’s what you want to do, which I do.”
Tober gets his violin and Augie’s guitar out of the truck and he and Augie follow Sylvia to the open front door where Ruth in gray slacks and a black turtleneck, her long black hair in a ponytail, is holding an exuberant Golden Retriever by the collar, and Phil in a blue New York Knicks sweatshirt and orange Bermuda shorts, his frizzy white hair going every which way, is restraining a similarly exuberant Black Lab.
“Hello Tober,” says Ruth, releasing the ecstatic dog. “I hope you haven’t already eaten lunch. We just put out tons of food.”
“Welcome,” says Phil, letting go of the Black Lab to shake hands with Tober. “Good to see you again.”
“This is Augie,” says Tober, proudly presenting his brother. “Augie this is Ruth and her father Phil.”
“Pleased to meet you, Augie,” says Phil, shaking Augie’s hand. “I see the resemblance to your brother in your face, though not in your hair.”
“See what I mean?” says Tober, grinning at Augie. “Sounds just like Mom.”
“Ah, yes,” says Phil, laughing. “The unmistakable whatever-it-is that says I grew up in New Jersey.”
With the dogs Philomena and Doogan dancing around them, Tober and Augie follow Ruth and Sylvia and Phil into the enormous living room that looks out on the ocean, a fire crackling in the stone hearth, two large sofas facing each other across a large coffee table, the dark oak floor adorned with Persian rugs, and a grand piano, an immaculate Steinway, dominating one corner of the room.
“What a fantastic space,” says Tober, gazing around in wonder. “And you can’t hear the ocean.”
“Triple-paned windows,” says Phil, proudly. “The middle pane is two-inches-thick. We’d go crazy otherwise.”
“I’m happy to report I was able to get the piano tuned yesterday, so…” Ruth reddens. “But lets eat before we play. Shall we?”
“We so appreciate you putting us up,” says Tober, as he and Augie follow Ruth and Phil and Sylvia into the gigantic modern kitchen. “We’d love to take you out for supper at Lunasea. We crave their fish & chips, and we made quite a bundle busking in Portland.”
“You didn’t,” says Ruth, frowning at Tober. “Seriously?”
“Seriously,” says Tober, winking at Sylvia. “The money rained down and we brought it with us.”
“You should be playing in concert halls,” says Ruth, turning to Augie. “Don’t you think so, Augie? He’s phenomenal.”
“He did play in big hall on Saturday night,” says Augie, heaping his plate high with smoked salmon and chicken and potato salad and olives and bread. “For a thousand people.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” says Sylvia, pouting. “We might have come. Probably not, but we might have.”
“It all happened rather spontaneously,” says Tober, filling his plate. “I met a woman in the park where I played and she invited me to play with her band, so I did.”
“What kind of music?” asks Phil, leading the way into the elegant dining room.
“All kinds,” says Tober, thinking of Jasmy and how much she would enjoy being here. “Two guitars, bass, violin, drums, and I was second fiddle, so to speak. Great band. Lots of people dancing.”
“Anybody record you?” asks Phil, having recorded thousands of live performances.
“I don’t know,” says Tober, shaking his head. “There was a very good sound technician on hand, so maybe. I’ll ask Jasmy. It’s her band. Ordering Chaos.”
“I wish I could have seen you,” says Sylvia, sitting across the table from Tober. “When you’re famous, I’ll go to as many of your concerts as I can.”
“Who says I’m going to be famous?” says Tober, smiling quizzically at her.
“I do,” says Sylvia, gazing at him steadfastly. “There’s no way you won’t be.”
Phil looks at Sylvia and says, “Wouldn’t you rather he was happy instead of famous?”
“Why can’t he be both?” she says, petulantly. “Not all famous people are unhappy.”
“Name one happy famous person,” says Phil, raising his index finger.
“Can we not have this discussion right now?” says Ruth, squinting angrily at her father and daughter. “It’s pointless.”
“Sorry,” says Sylvia, returning her gaze to Tober. “Even if you aren’t famous, though you should be, I think it would be wonderful if lots of people could hear you.”
After lunch, Ruth and Tober play Jules Massenet’s Meditation from Thais for Violin and Piano, Ruth an excellent pianist—Tober sight reading the romantic piece and making only a few flubs.
When they finish the Massenet, Ruth smiles hopefully and says, “Piazzolla? Milonga del Angel?”
Tober nods and thinks of Jasmy.
Ruth places the Piazzolla sheet music on Tober’s stand, resettles at the piano, and they take the piece slowly, listening carefully to each other, time standing still as they play—Augie lost in thoughts of being home again, Sylvia dreaming of marrying Tober and living in New York City, Phil remembering the night he recorded Stéphane Grappelli playing with Oscar Peterson at Carnegie Hall, what a night that was.
Tober and Augie depart Yachats early the next morning, Ruth and Sylvia and Phil having gotten up to say goodbye—Tober promising to return and play with Ruth again, Sylvia vowing to write to Tober, and Phil saying he hopes the brothers will make the Vogel-Livingston home their regular stopping place en route to and from Portland.
A few miles south of Yachats, Augie driving, Tober says, “What amazing lives they had before they landed in Yachats. Ruth a professional pianist and violinist married to a famous playwright, Phil a legendary sound engineer who knew most of the famous musicians we grew up listening to.”
“Phil seems to love living in Yachats,” says Augie, pulling over to let a lumber truck pass them, “but I think Ruth misses the city, and we know Sylvia does.”
“Ruth longs for a music partner,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “And probably a partner partner, too. She’s only forty-nine. I think she’s fabulous.”
“And weren’t you stunned when Sylvia told us she was fifteen?” says Augie, gazing at the horizon for a moment before pulling back onto the road. “I thought she was twelve.”
“She’s gonna be stunning in a few years,” says Tober, imagining Sylvia at eighteen. “Living in New York. I hope she’s not disappointed.”
“I liked her song,” says Augie, who has a little crush on Sylvia. “She’s a pretty good guitarist for only a year of playing.”
“Teen angst,” says Tober, smiling wistfully. “I feel so not like a teenager anymore. You?”
“I don’t think I ever felt like a teenager,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I was a child, then an older child, and then Titus initiated us into manhood and I was an adult. When did you feel like a teenager? And what did it feel like?”
“When I was thirteen and Cecily broke my heart.” Tober remembers the last time he saw Cecily, a few days before she moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie star. “Felt like I was half-adult and half-child, yearning to be coupled with a girl who was almost but not quite grown up. A terrible antsy yearning to be something other than I was.”
“Eager to emerge from the chrysalis?” asks Augie, pulling back onto the road.
“Yeah,” says Tober, wondering what Cecily is doing now, “while at the same time wanting to stay in the chrysalis until my wings were more fully formed.”
At two that afternoon, Tober driving, they leave the familiar two-lane road that runs from Fortuna to the mouth of the Eel River, and drive at walking speed along the dirt and gravel track known as Snake Creek Road, every house and tree and driveway and truck and car and field and woodpile and water tank and goat and hawk and raven divinely familiar and beloved.
The front door of the farmhouse opens as they park beside the woodshed where they always park, Igor barking happily as he rushes to greet them, Sharon emerging with Amelia and Consuela close behind—the little girls peeking around their mother as their big brothers get out of the truck.
Sharon gives Tober a longer-than-usual hug before embracing Augie and clinging to him for so long, it is Augie who ends the embrace, being unused to such prolonged affection from his mother.
At supper, Consuela, who has barely said a word since Tober and Augie came home, asks quietly in English, “Tober? You find any pretty rocks?”
“Yes, I did,” says Tober, smiling at her. “I’ll show them to you after supper.”
“Can I see them, too?” asks Amelia, speaking Spanish.
“Of course,” says Tober, nodding assuredly. “Por supuesto.”
“What have you been doing since you got here?” asks Augie, speaking to the girls in his pretty good Spanish.
“We go with Mama to the market in Fortuna,” says Consuela, answering in Spanish and smiling furtively at Sharon. “And we get eggs from the chickens in their house, but not so many eggs until more sunny days. And we sing songs and go to the neighbors and we have breakfast and lunch and supper and brush our teeth and go to bed.”
“And we play with Igor,” says Amelia, nodding brightly. “And we play the piano and we help Mama with the fire and we help her cook breakfast and lunch and supper, and we go feed Bernstein cat, and we read books, and we draw pictures, and we play with our toys, and Mama tells us stories and we listen to the music and we dance.” She looks at Sharon. “What else?”
“I think that pretty much covers everything,” says Sharon, smiling wryly at her sons. “Either of you available to watch over your sisters while I give lessons and so forth?”
“I am,” says Augie, raising his hand.
“I am, too,” says Tober, nodding. “Nothing I’d rather do more.”
When the girls are asleep, Sharon and Augie and Tober sit by the fire and talk for hours until at last Sharon says, “I must go to bed, though I’d rather stay up talking. But the girls wake up at six raring to go, so I need to get some sleep or I’ll be useless tomorrow.”
“We’ll see you in the morning,” says Tober, getting up to give her a hug. “What time is everyone getting here?”
“Twoish,” says Sharon, speaking of the people coming for Thanksgiving. “We’ll eat at five or thereabouts.”
“I’ll sleep on the sofa here tonight,” says Augie, yawning. “I’m not quite ready to make the move to the Bernstein mansion.”
“I’ll sleep down there tonight,” says Tober, eager to call Jasmy. “See you at breakfast.”
Tober takes a long luxurious shower in one of the three large bathrooms in the spacious home where he and Augie will be living until further notice—George and Lisa Bernstein gone for a couple months visiting their children Cecily and Felix in Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo—and for his bedroom, he chooses the guestroom that used to be Cecily’s bedroom.
Wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts, he climbs into the comfy queen-sized bed and calls Jasmy on the Bernsteins’ landline phone.
She answers on the third ring and says, “Hello?”
“Hi. It’s Tober,” he says, thrilled to hear her voice.
“Hey,” she says softly.
“Is this a good time to talk?”
“Can I call you back in fifteen minutes?” she says, sounding distracted.
“Yeah, let me give you this number. I’m not at the one I gave you.”
“I got it. My phone knows what numbers are calling me.”
“No wonder they call them smart phones.”
“Fifteen,” she whispers—a click terminating their connection.
Tober gets out of bed, puts on his pants and jacket, and wanders down the hall to the spacious living room where he spent many happy hours as a child and a young teen before Cecily went off to Hollywood. He and Augie and Felix and Cecily used to have chess tournaments here; and they played Monopoly and wrote plays together; and when they wrote a play they especially liked, they memorized their parts and performed the play for their parents and other residents of the road.
And every day they played music. He and Augie played guitars and the four of them sang the songs and harmonies they memorized from the albums of The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, James Taylor, the Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Theodore Bikel.
And Tober and Cecily played piano and violin duets; and from the age of eight until he was thirteen, Tober imagined he and Cecily would get married and play duets together for the rest of their lives—and now he hasn’t seen her or spoken to her in six years.
This living room was also the meeting place for the Snake Creek Drama Game Society, which met every Thursday evening for several years. Lisa Bernstein, who had a degree in Drama from Cal State Long Beach, was the leader of the games, which after the first year or so evolved from serious dramatic practice into a few fun warm-up exercises as prelude to a rousing game of Charades, the teams picked by drawing straws. When Cecily moved to Los Angeles and Lisa began spending more and more time there, too, the drama game society dissolved.
Tober sits at the grand piano, sad about how out-of-tune the fine instrument is, and makes a mental note to bring his tuner down to set things as right as he can. Now he plays a little something he’s been hearing ever since he met Jasmy—a slow downward progression of chords played with his left hand accompanying a slow upward progression of notes played with his right, a ceremonial procession for his dear new friend.
Now the phone rings and he leaps up, his heart pounding.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” says Jasmy, no longer sounding distracted, her voice full of love. “I was having a very heavy conversation with Sandy, one of many since you and Augie left.”
“Does she want you to give me an ultimatum?” asks Tober, half-jesting and half-serious.
“That’s exactly what she wants me to do,” says Jasmy, surprised by Tober’s surmise. “How did you know?”
“Just a guess,” he says somberly.
“Well I’m not going to,” she says definitively. “I don’t ever want to stop knowing you.”
“Ditto,” says Tober, softly. “Speaking of which, pardon my cliché, but I wish you were here. I’m so looking forward to you meeting my mother and Amelia and Consuela and Titus and Tina, and… showing you around.”
“When would you like me to come?”
“Any time,” he says, surprised by her question. “I thought you said you couldn’t possibly get away for the next six months.”
“Which was true,” she says, taking a deep breath, “before Sandy quit the band. But now that she has, Pedro and Marie and I have decided not to gig anymore until we figure out what we want to do next, whether to find another drummer or work as a trio or add a keyboard player or make a studio album or… we don’t know. So suddenly I’ve got lots of free time and I’d love to come for a visit.”
“Fantastic!” says Tober, walking to the window and looking out into the night. “I mean… I’m sorry Sandy quit, but… why did she quit?”
“Oh God, Tobe, it’s such a long story. Maybe I’ll try to write it to you in a letter. But the short version is, she’s ferociously ambitious and very moody and… she’s always kept her lovers at a great emotional distance, but when she wasn’t able to do that with Augie, and he wouldn’t commit to living with her, she flipped out. And she not only quit the band, she’s moving out, so I have to find a new housemate. And as soon as I find someone, I’ll come visit you.”
“Whenever you come,” says Tober, closing his eyes and seeing her so clearly, “will be perfect.”
Seventeen people join Sharon and Augie and Tober and Amelia and Consuela for Thanksgiving, and when the twenty-two are seated around a long table made of three tables, Sharon asks Titus to give a prayer of thanks.
“Oh Great Spirit,” he says in his deep husky voice. “We call on you to be with us now.” He smiles around the table at his friends and relatives. “When I was a young man, I thought this holiday called Thanksgiving was a silly thing people did because they didn’t know how to be thankful the rest of the year. And also lots of indigenous people think of this day as celebrating when the Europeans first came to North America and the Indians out there in Massachusetts helped them survive a hard winter, and then those Europeans stole the land from those Indians. But since I’ve been coming to this feast at Sharon and Tober and Augie’s place for the last seven years, I look forward to this day because we all get to be together and eat good food and talk and laugh and sing and, speaking for myself, probably cry. This is a day we spend remembering what a precious gift life is, this journey that begins when we’re born and eventually carries us all the way back to where we came from, back to the source of everything, back to Great Spirit who gave us life. What do I mean by Great Spirit? I mean all there has ever been, all there is now, and all there will ever be.”
Every night since Consuela and Amelia came to live with Sharon in the farmhouse, after Sharon told them a bedtime story, she reminded them they were welcome to sleep in her bed with her. And every time she told them this, they both looked away, as if to say, “No thank you.”
But tonight, on Thanksgiving, when the last guest has gone home and Sharon is supervising the girls as they brush their teeth and wash their hands and faces, Consuela looks at Sharon and asks, “Can we sleep in your bed tonight, Mama?”
“Yes,” says Sharon, trying not to cry.
When the girls enter Sharon’s bedroom, Sharon says in Spanish, “When Tober and Augie were your age, they sometimes slept in my bed with me, sometimes one of them, sometimes both of them, and when it was both of them, they slept on either side of me. But you can sleep with me however you want.”
“We will sleep together beside you,” says Consuela, nodding assuredly. “We like to sleep beside each other.”
“Yes,” says Amelia, nodding in agreement. “We want to sleep beside each other beside you.”
At midnight, when Sharon goes to join her slumbering daughters in her bed, Tober and Augie walk down the hill to the Bernsteins’ house, stopping on their way to gaze at the scimitar moon in the starry sky.
“You know what I was thinking about all day today?” says Augie, loving the deep quiet of this place.
“Sandy,” says Tober, putting his arm around his brother. “About how much she would enjoy everybody who came today.”
“That’s eerie, Tobe,” says Augie, looking at his brother. “That’s exactly what I was thinking about.”
“I think she would love it here,” says Tober, breathing deeply of the pristine air. “I think she would fall madly in love with Tina and Titus and Mom and the girls. What do you think?”
“I think so, too. But only if she was open to falling in love with them, only if she wasn’t stuck in some fixed idea about how things should be.”
“Yeah,” says Tober, smiling at the moon. “Good advice. Let’s not get stuck in fixed ideas about how things should be.”
At four-thirty in the afternoon, rain falling, Tober drives slowly through a maze of streets to a quiet neighborhood in southeast Portland where Augie lives in an old house with three other people—the front yard featuring four large Japanese maples, their fall foliage every hue of burgundy and magenta.
One of Augie’s housemates, Allison, shares a pot of nettle tea with Tober in the living room and waits with him for Augie to get home from his weekend job as a clerk at Wet Spot Tropical Fish store.
Allison is thirty-two, Chinese American, with light brown hair and a persistently wrinkled brow, a wearer of frameless pince-nez. She works for a high tech company called Integer Farm, and when Tober asks what her job entails she says, “Oh about half the time I’m filing incoming data composites, and half the time I’m mapping info gaggles looking for nascent renegade trends.”
“You’re analyzing data?” Tober guesses.
“Sort of,” says Allison, frowning. “Our logarithms do most of the macro-analysis, but… yeah, what I do sometimes ends up in analyses, but mostly I’m creating amalgam veins for later mining.”
“To what end?” asks Tober, wondering why the tea tastes so bitter and surmising it must be the water.
“For our clients,” says Allison, nodding. “To facilitate ultra-specific targeting.”
“Sounds very sophisticated,” he says sincerely. “Who are your clients?”
“Oh, you know, any large company trying to sell something,” she says, matter-of-factly. “We specialize in centrifuging data our analysts use to design super-fast modalities for optimal penetration and saturation.”
“Wow,” says Tober, nodding. “What a thing.”
“It’s a job,” she says, shrugging. “Gotta pay off those student loans. We can’t all get full scholarships like Augie.”
“No,” says Tober, the words “full scholarships” making him think of Jasmy and the volleyball scholarships she turned down. “He’s very lucky.”
“He’s brilliant,” she says, morosely. “We can’t all be brilliant.”
“Well,” says Tober, wanting to cheer her up, “I’m sure it’s no small feat to create amalgam veins. I couldn’t do that in a million years.”
“Yes, you could,” says Allison, scrunching up her cheeks. “Once you know the key strokes, they pretty much create themselves.”
“Oh,” says Tober, delighted by the idea of things creating themselves. “Like melodies create themselves.”
“No,” says Allison, shaking her head. “It has nothing to do with music.”
A silence falls and Tober decides not to say anything more unless Allison asks him a question—the silence lasting for several more sips of the bitter tea before Augie comes in the front door and Tober jumps up to give him a hug.
Augie is six-foot-one, his red hair cut quite short. Before moving to Portland three months ago, he outweighed Tober by twenty pounds, but he has lost those twenty pounds and then some, and there is a gray cast to his usually rosy skin—the sparkle in his emerald green eyes much diminished.
After visiting with Allison for a few minutes more, the brothers retire to Augie’s bedroom and Augie closes the door.
“Gads Aug,” says Tober, staring at his brother, “you’ve lost so much weight. Are you okay?”
“I will be,” he says, speaking slowly. “Took me a while to gets things straightened out, but now that I have, I’ll be fine.” He smiles wanly. “I’m so glad you’re here. How was the trip?”
“Great,” says Tober, wondering what things Augie got straightened out. “I met all sorts of fascinating people along the way, the last one being an amazing woman I met in Director’s Park where I did a little busking this afternoon. Her name is Jasmy and she’s a violinist, too. Her band is playing tonight at McSomebody’s Crystal Palace and she wants me to play with them on a tune or two, so she’s putting us on the guest list. Do you want to go?”
“Yeah,” says Augie, sitting down on his queen-sized bed. “Sounds fun.”
“You don’t look well, Aug,” says Tober, sitting beside him. “You’re so pale. I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I’m just tired. Might have a little lie down before we go out.”
“So what did you get straightened out?” asks Tober, putting his arm around Augie.
“Well,” says Augie, taking a deep breath, “I figured out what was killing me, and I put a stop to it.”
“Oh my God, Aug. You didn’t mention anything in your letters about something killing you. What was it?”
“The program,” says Augie, his jaw trembling. “I’m coming home, Tobe, not just for Thanksgiving, but to stay. I went down the wrong path. And as Titus taught us, the sooner we recognize we’re going the wrong way, the sooner we can change direction and avoid big trouble. So that’s what I did. I quit the program yesterday and quit my job at the fish store today.”
“Does Mom know?” asks Tober, trying not to sound too happy about Augie coming home to stay.
“Yeah, I called her last night,” says Augie, starting to cry.
“Oh Aug,” says Tober, holding his brother tight. “You’re the greatest.”
After Augie takes a shower and puts on a lovely gray shirt and brown trousers for going out, he lies down on his bed to rest.
“Talk to me Tobe,” he says, closing his eyes. “Tell me about your trip.”
Dressed all in black save for the red ribbon tied in a bow at the end of his ponytail, Tober stands at the window, rain pattering on the glass, and describes Amelia and Consuela following him from the farmhouse to the truck and back to the farmhouse and back to the truck again as he was getting ready to leave, how Sharon loves being with the girls, what a good mother she is, how both girls are very reserved and fearful of doing anything to upset Sharon, how every day they get a little more comfortable in their new surroundings, a little more trusting that Sharon isn’t just another temporary caretaker, but their mother from now on, a mother who never yells at them and gives them plenty of food and explains things to them over and over again until they understand.
“I guess I wasn’t ready to leave home,” says Augie, opening his eyes. “Although if the program had been what I thought it was going to be, I would have stayed despite the challenges of living in a city. But the program wasn’t even remotely like they told me it would be.”
“You wrote to us about the classes covering information you already knew,” says Tober, coming to sit on the bed. “But you said you liked Weibel, the neuroscience guy, and you were going to focus on that.”
“I wanted to,” says Augie, sighing. “But they wouldn’t let me, and that was when I realized there was a much bigger underlying problem.”
“Well… when I met with the professors who read my papers, the four who were so eager for me to come here, I assumed I’d be working with them. But when I realized after a couple weeks that the first two years of required classes were only going to cover research and theories and historical stuff I’ve already thoroughly studied, I went to talk to those four professors about testing out of those classes, and they all told me I had to take them. And when I told Dr. Weibel I didn’t want to waste two years of my life before I could start doing what I came here to do, he got very upset with me and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. And that pretty much did it, because I do know what I’m talking about, and working with him was the main reason I wanted to come here. And when I told him that, he said, ‘Get in line, buddy. Lots of people want to work with me, people much more qualified than you.’”
“What a jerk,” says Tober, angrily. “They asked you to come here. They gave you a scholarship. What’s his problem?”
“As you can imagine,” says Augie, smiling wryly, “I’ve given that question a great deal of thought, and what I now know is that Weibel and everyone here is a functionary of an extremely hierarchic system that purports to be cutting edge, but is actually mired in out-of-date dogma and very slow to integrate the newest information and practices.”
“Dogma never keeps up with the new information,” says Tober, going to the window again. “As opposed to wisdom, which is a deciphering tool.”
“Exactly,” says Augie, relieved to finally be talking about this with someone who understands him. “I’ll give you a most telling For Instance of how their dogma lags far behind current knowledge.”
“Oh good,” says Tober, returning to the bed. “I love telling For Instances.”
“So…” says Aguie, sitting up. “Three weeks ago, Weibel gave a public lecture attended by all the Psych grad students, most of the faculty, and anybody else who wanted to come. And the subject of his lecture was a thorough review of the most recent and comprehensive studies proving conclusively that the habitual use of cell phones not only seriously interferes with healthy brain development in children and young adults, but also exacerbates and even creates emotional disorders in people of all ages. And as he spoke, every single person in attendance, about two hundred people, save for one August Quincy, was clutching his or her phone and futzing with it as Weibel enumerated the serious damage their behavior was doing to their brains and nervous systems.”
“Did no one else appreciate the irony of the situation?” asks Tober, remembering Annie staring into her phone, hour after hour, filling her time with whatever she was seeing or doing on the little screen until it was time to go to work or eat or have sex.
“I doubt it,” says Augie, shaking his head. “I hope so, but I doubt it. They are all so deeply enmeshed with their phones.”
Dining at a quiet Thai restaurant, Tober describes to Augie his sojourn in Yachats, his impromptu concert in the Green Salmon café, his delightful breakfast with Ruth and Phil and Sylvia, his frightening encounter with Lauren the psychic leech, his icy dip in the mighty Umqua to exorcise Lauren’s poison, his phone conversation with Titus, and his triumphant performance in Director’s Park that culminated in meeting Jasmy.
“Wow,” says Augie, gazing in wonder at his brother. “What a day.”
“And while you were snoozing,” says Tober, smiling at the approach of their Kang Dang chicken, potatoes in yellow curry, and brown rice, “I counted up the money I made from busking for that one glorious hour today. Guess how much?”
“From the tone of your voice and the self-satisfied look on your face,” says Augie, grinning at his brother, “I will say… fifty dollars.”
“Three hundred and thirty-seven dollars,” says Tober, lowering his voice. “And that’s just the paper money. There are hundreds of quarters and piles of nickels and dimes ye to be counted.”
“Good God,” says Augie, gaping at his brother. “You’ve always had a knack for making money, but this verges on the miraculous.”
“It was miraculous,” says Tober, thinking of Jasmy. “I can’t wait for you to meet her.”
Arriving at 7:20 at the giant old building that houses McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, they find no place to park anywhere near the ballroom—several hundred people in line waiting for the doors to open—so they have to drive around for fifteen minutes before they finally find a parking place seven blocks away.
They hurry through the rain to the ballroom, and not knowing that being on the guest list entitles them to go to the front of the line, they take their places at the end of the long line of people slowly entering the building, and they don’t get inside until ten minutes before show time.
A very large man named Ezra wearing a purple sequin evening gown, his long black hair and black beard wild and frizzy, his skin pale white, his lips painted fire-engine red, leads Tober and Augie backstage where Jasmy and her four band mates are waiting to go on.
Jasmy is wearing red moccasins and a gorgeous burgundy blouse tucked into pleated black slacks, her long black hair in a three-strand braid. She hesitates to hug Tober, but when he opens his arms to her, she steps right in.
“You made it,” she says, thrilled by his strong embrace. “I was starting to worry. I called you and left a message on Augie’s machine.” She turns to Augie. “You must be Augie. I’m Jasmy.”
“Hi,” says Augie, shaking her hand. “I can see why Tobe used the word miraculous when describing you. Thanks so much for putting me on the guest list.”
“Of course,” she says, turning to her four cohorts—two men and two women.
“This is Sandy,” says Jasmy, gesturing to a muscular young woman in her early twenties with short brown hair wearing a sleeveless green T-shirt, shimmering black boxer shorts, green socks, and red running shoes.
Sandy shakes Tober’s hand and says with a beguiling Irish accent, “You didn’t exaggerate, did you Jasmy? Tall, dark, and ravishing with a violin. I’m the drummer in case you couldn’t tell from my biceps.”
“Tober,” says Tober, enjoying her formidable grip. “This is my brother Augie.”
Sandra looks at Augie, Augie looks at Sandra, and they both feel a sharp jolt of recognition followed immediately by a profound attraction to each other.
“Hello,” says Augie, his heart pounding as he shakes Sandy’s hand. “Why do I think I already know you?”
“You got me,” she says, keeping hold of him and looking into his eyes. “What do you play?”
“Guitar,” says Augie, breathlessly. “And I sing.”
“No,” says Sandra, feigning incredulity. “I sing, too.”
“This my father,” says Jasmy, introducing them next to a handsome man in his early forties, two inches taller than Tober and wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and black pants and black shoes, his blond hair cut short. “Julian Beckman. Otherwise known as Beckman. Sweet Papa this is October, otherwise known as Tober.”
“A pleasure,” says Tober, shaking Beckman’s hand.
“Likewise,” says Beckman, matching Tober’s grip. “Looking forward to hearing you play. Jasmy rarely raves about anyone the way she raved about you.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing you, too,” says Tober, laughing nervously. “This is my brother Augie. He’s as good a guitarist as I am a violinist.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” says Augie, shaking Beckman’s hand. “Not even close. Pleased to meet you.”
“And speaking of guitarists,” says Jasmy, gesturing regally to a handsome burly Mexican fellow with a shaved head wearing a red T-shirt and white pants. “This is Pedro Martinez.”
“Hola,” says Pedro, nodding to Tober and Augie.
“And Marie,” says Jasmy, putting her arm around a striking woman in her thirties with long auburn hair wearing a red sequin blouse, short black skirt, pink tights, and red high heels. “Our bass player.”
Marie gives Augie and Tober a little bow and says with her strong French accent, “I hope you like the show.”
“I’m sure we will,” says Tober, dizzy with excitement.
Now Jasmy presses close to Tober and says, “Come back at the break and we’ll figure things out for the second set. I’m so glad you came.”
“Me, too,” says Tober, kissing her cheek. “Break a leg.”
Ezra escorts Tober and Augie into the huge ballroom where legions of people of all ages and colors are waiting for the show to begin.
The vast area in front of the stage, about half the room, is filled with four hundred cushioned folding chairs, all the chairs taken save for two in the front row where Ezra deposits Tober and Augie—the back half of the room open for milling around and dancing.
“Look at all these people,” says Augie, agog at the colorful assembly. “There must be a thousand people here.”
“That would be five times more than can fit in the Arcata Playhouse,” says Tober, referencing the largest venue he and Augie have ever played in. “The energy in here is beyond anything I’ve ever felt before, yet I don’t feel menaced by it.”
“Nor do I,” says Augie, relaxing. “This is by far the best I’ve felt since coming to Portland.”
“It’s happiness,” says Tober, turning in his seat to look at the expectant audience. “That’s what it is, Aug. They’re all happy. A thousand happy people.”
“Waiting to see the miraculous Jasmy,” says Augie, playfully punching Tober’s arm. “And she’s crazy about you. Your timing is impeccable. Imagine how confused you’d be if you hadn’t broken up with Annie.”
“Jasmy does seem to like me,” says Tober, finding it difficult to get a deep breath. “I hope I don’t disappoint her.”
“Oh you’ll be great,” says Augie, smiling sublimely. “Just close your eyes and pretend you’re at home jamming along with the stereo.”
Tober and Augie grew up without television, and in the absence of that media, they both became excellent guitarists and violinists, both learned to play the piano fairly well, and they spent many thousands of hours listening to music and playing and singing along.
By the time Tober was twelve and Augie was eleven, they could play the entire Beatles repertoire in several keys on violin and guitar, as well as all the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, B.B. King, James Taylor, Fats Waller, Stephen Sondheim, Hank Williams, and hundreds of jazz and folk and rock and pop and soul standards. Tober’s favorite singers are Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Iris DeMent; Augie’s favorites are Eva Cassidy, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, and Leon Bibb.
Having attended hundreds of rehearsals of the Eureka Symphony orchestra, and having played the classical string quartet repertoire with their mother and her musical colleagues for their entire lives, and having been obsessed with Brazilian choros, Argentinian tangos, and Irish fiddle tunes, Tober and Augie’s knowledge and appreciation of music is both deep and wide.
But they have never seen or heard anything quite like Ordering Chaos: the first number a jazzy Latin Afro salsa, the second number incredibly harmonic jazz fusion, the third number a fabulous rendition of a Django Reinhardt tune.
At the end of the Django Reinhardt, Augie says to Tober, “I know the expression lacks specificity and doesn’t really do justice to the full extent of what I’m experiencing, but I’ll use it anyway. This is blowing my mind.”
“Mine, too,” says Tober, nodding in agreement. “Blown to smithereens.”
“They’re such good players,” says Augie, transfixed by Sandy and the entrancing way she dances on her seat as she drums. “Can you believe Beckman? He’s impeccable. He’s… I’d give anything to take lessons from him.”
“You can!” says Tober, excitedly. “You’re free now. You can do anything you want.” He bounces his eyebrows. “Drum lessons from Sandy?”
“That would be fun,” says Augie, as the band kicks into rollicking folk rock, Marie singing the verses, Jasmy and Sandy joining Marie on the chorus, and Pedro playing a searing guitar solo that brings the house down.
Backstage during intermission, Joseph, a short bespectacled sound technician wearing a neon-blue jumpsuit, suggests attaching a small microphone to the sound hole of Tober’s violin, and Tober says, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t want to attach anything to my violin. I’m quite good at playing into a microphone, if that’s an option.”
“Yeah, that’ll work,” says Joseph, winking at Tober. “We’ll set you up with a big silver potato. Come on out with me and we’ll get the height right.”
So Tober goes out in front of the audience with Joseph and stands at ease with his violin as Joseph attaches a silver potato-shaped microphone to a mike stand and adjusts the height of the stand so the microphone is about ten inches away from where Tober holds his violin to play.
“I’ll be riding the sound,” says Joseph, looking up at Tober. “But keep in mind roughly ten to fifteen inches away. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” says Tober, following Joseph backstage.
Jasmy takes Tober’s free hand and says, “How about you and my father opening the second act with a duet?”
“Fine,” says Tober, as she leads him to Beckman who is sitting with Marie on a sofa—Beckman drinking water, Marie sipping a glass of red wine.
“Do you know ‘Manhã de Carnaval’?” asks Beckman, giving Tober a hopeful smile.
“I love that song,” says Tober, nodding. “Luiz Bonfá. Black Orpheus.”
“Excellent,” says Beckman, picking up his guitar. “Key of A Minor?”
“Yep,” says Tober, glad to know they’ll be doing a song he’s played hundreds of times. “How about you play first, give me a nod, and off we’ll go.”
“Shall we run through the changes?” asks Beckman, arching an eyebrow. “Make sure we’re on the same page?”
“If you’d like,” says Tober, nodding. “Or we can surprise each other.”
“You and Jasmy,” says Beckman, laughing. “Peas in a pod.”
As the lights dim to announce the start of the second set, Jasmy strides to center stage and waits for the applause to die down before saying to the expectant audience, “It is my great pleasure now to introduce you to October Quincy, who will join us for the second set and open the proceedings with my father.”
Beckman emerges to loud applause, followed by Tober who seems totally at ease, which he is, having performed for audiences countless times since he was seven, and never having had anything but fun when performing.
Standing comfortably at the potato-shaped microphone, Tober nods to Beckman who is seated and holding an electrified acoustic guitar; and Beckman begins to play the lovely Brazilian tune very slowly, his playing flawless and heartfelt; and when he concludes his tender opening, he strums the chords in a slow samba tempo, nods in time to his strumming, and Tober begins to play.
And though Beckman expected Tober to be an accomplished player, he is so astounded by Tober’s exquisite tone and facility and the eloquence of his variations on that iconic melody, that when they finish, and the audience is cheering wildly, he embraces Tober and says, “That was by far the greatest musical experience of my life.”
After the show, Tober and Augie meet Jasmy and Beckman and Sandy and Pedro and Pedro’s wife Chita at Toro Bravo, a commodious tapas restaurant, an ideal place to eat and drink and unwind.
Tober is exhilarated and exhausted—his vision of returning home with Augie and building a couple of houses on the land and living there for the rest of his life is rapidly dissolving into visions of living in Portland with Jasmy and playing music with great musicians and…
“I just gotta say,” says Pedro, looking across the table at Tober, “I’ve never heard anybody say so much with so few notes as you. You know what I mean? It’s like you don’t have to play lots of notes because the ones you play are so right. Not that you can’t play fast, you can, you’re fantastic, but… sometimes you remind me of like a shakuhachi player, only with a violin. You’re just great, man. You blew my mind.”
“Thank you,” says Tober, touching his heart. “I think you’re an amazing guitar player.” He looks around the table. “I think you’re all amazing, and what’s even more amazing is you found each other.”
“Jasmy found us,” says Sandy, who is sitting beside Augie and holding his hand under the table. “She’s the great bringer together.”
“Was she always that way?” asks Augie, looking at Beckman.
“Always,” he says, smiling at his daughter. “She started a neighborhood club when she was six, and not just for other kids. It was for people of all ages.”
“What was the name of the club?” asks Sandy, who is fervently hoping to pry Augie away from his brother for the night.
“The Interesting Story Club,” says Jasmy, her dimples triumphant. “We met every Wednesday afternoon after I got home from school in our living room, and Alta, my grandmother, served cookies and tea.”
“And some Wednesdays,” says Beckman, looking at Tober, “as many as twenty people would show up to tell their interesting stories.”
“How long did the club last?” asks Augie, smiling in wonder at Jasmy.
“It’s still going,” says Beckman, laughing. “Though of late it’s usually just my mother who is eighty-seven, Louise Arbanas who is ninety, Allan Forsyth who is seventy-nine, sometimes me, sometimes my wife, and the Portman twins come for the cookies, but rarely stay for the stories. They are nine-years-old and not known for sitting still.”
On the way home from Toro Bravo, Tober driving, Augie says, “So I guess we won’t be heading home until Monday now, having said Yes to lunch with Jasmy and Beckman and supper with Jasmy and Sandy.”
“Brilliant deduction, Holmes,” says Tober, yawning.
“Sandy asked me to spend the night with her,” says Augie, who has only had one girlfriend in his life—Helen Morningstar, who broke up with him after two years when they were both seventeen.
“Did you want to?” asks Tober, who wouldn’t have minded having Augie’s bed all to himself.
“Yes and no,” says Augie, gazing at the passing scene, lights blurring in the rain. “Yes because she’s a beautiful woman with a great sense of rhythm and I’m deeply smitten with her, and no because I hardly know her and I’m so tired and I’d rather wake up and talk to you before I talk to anybody else.”
“Ditto,” says Tober, turning onto the quiet street where Augie lives. “Wake up and try to figure out who we are now and what we might do next.”
At eleven o’clock the next morning, a sunny Sunday, with two hours to spare before they meet Jasmy and Beckman for lunch, Tober and Augie go to Director’s Park, place Augie’s open guitar case on the ground in front of them, and begin busking with a medley of Beatles songs, some instrumentals, some they sing together in close harmony—many of the people in their swiftly growing audience singing along.
They follow their half-hour of Beatles tunes with instrumental versions of Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love”, Van Heusen and Burke’s “But Beautiful”, the Gershwin brothers’ “I Loves You, Porgy”, and finish with a zesty version of “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams, their hundreds of listeners applauding wildly at the blazing denouement and showering the guitar case with money.
As they gather up their loot and make ready to leave Director’s Park, several people inquire of them if they have CDs for sale, several people ask to be on their mailing list, and lastly a darling four-year-old boy runs over to them, hands Augie a five-dollar bill and says, “Do you want to come over to our house for lunch?”
“Thank you so much,” says Augie, taking the money from the little boy. “We’d love to have lunch with you, but we already have a lunch date.”
“Oh,” says the boy, frowning sadly. “Okay.”
At which moment, a woman in her early thirties with long brown hair accompanied by a middle-aged woman with perfectly-coiffed short gray hair, both women elegantly dressed, join the darling little boy, and the younger woman smiles ravishingly and says, “Hi. He loves your music and so do we. We are wedding and special events planners and we’re wondering if you’re available to play at weddings and bar mitzvahs and anniversary parties and events like that.”
“We have done some weddings,” says Tober, taking her proffered card. “But we don’t actually live around here. We’re visiting from California. But we’ve been talking about possibly living here for part of the year, so…”
“Well should you relocate,” says the older woman, her accent inherited from Yiddish-speaking parents, “please give us a call. We’d love to use you. You’re not only fantastic musicians, you’re both very good looking which is a selling point, believe me. And by the way, we pay very well. Do you have a card?”
“I do,” says Tober, fishing one out of his wallet.
October “Tober” Quincy
Composer X Violinist X Carpenter X Gardener
Fruit Tree Pruner X Collector of Special Stones
Reasonable Rates X Inquiries Welcome
“Oh I love this,” says the woman, looking from the card to Tober. “I collect special stones, too. You must come for lunch next time you’re in town. I’m Naomi. This is my daughter Teresa and my grandson Jacob.”
Awaiting their lunch in a vibrant upscale Mexican restaurant called Nuestra Cocina, Beckman raises his glass of horchata and says, “I’d like to propose a toast.”
Tober raises his glass of not-too-sweet lemonade, Augie his horchata, and Jasmy her root beer.
“To our good fortune in meeting each other,” says Beckman, gazing at Tober and Augie. “May we have many meals together.”
They clink glasses and drink, and Augie says, “And may I one day take guitar lessons from you.”
“Any time,” says Beckman, clinking glasses with Augie again. “All you have to do is come to Mountain Home Idaho, a grueling eight-hour drive from here, or a pleasant two-day trip.”
“That’s about how long it takes to get from here to Fortuna,” says Tober, gazing amorously at Jasmy. “That’s the nearest town to our place. We’re just a few miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River.”
Jasmy pouts adorably. “We all live too far away from each other.”
“That’s one way of thinking of it,” says Beckman, winking at his daughter. “Or you could say we now have three marvelous places where we can meet and play music and go on adventures together.”
On the third day of their new life in the farmhouse at the end of Snake Creek Road, Amelia and Consuela wake in their bed to the sounds of Sharon and Tober talking quietly and moving about in the kitchen.
“Tober is going away today,” says Amelia, speaking softly in Spanish and pronouncing Tober Toe-Bare. “I like him. Do you like him?”
“Yes,” says Consuela, embracing the cat-sized teddy bear she brought with her from the facility where she and Amelia lived before coming to live with Sharon and Tober. “He told me he was coming back soon. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow,” says Amelia, shaking her head. “He told me, too. But not tomorrow. Maybe the next day.”
“I’m hungry,” says Consuela, sitting up. “Can we eat now?”
“Sharon will give us food,” says Amelia, speaking just above a whisper. “They have so much food here. Did you see? In the refrigerator? Milk and eggs and tortillas and bread and cheese. Sharon will give us food.”
“Why don’t you call her Mama?” asks Consuela, getting out of bed. “I do. She’s our mother now.”
“I don’t know,” says Amelia, shrugging. “If she doesn’t take us back to that place today, maybe I’ll call her Mama.”
“She won’t take us back,” says Consuela, shaking her head. “She said we can live with her forever.”
“She told me, too,” says Amelia, climbing out of bed and opening one of the drawers under the bed to find her clothes for the day. “But… I don’t know if it’s true.”
Tober’s little electric pickup has a range of three hundred and fifty miles on a single charge of the battery, so he plans to spend the night in a motel in Yachats Oregon, which is three hundred miles from Fortuna, and then drive the rest of the way to Portland the next day, another two hundred miles.
He loves Amelia and Consuela, and he’s sorry to be leaving them just as they are becoming accustomed to him, but he is eager to leave the gravitational pull of Annie and Maybe, and he hopes to find some extraordinary stones on the beaches in Oregon.
The day of his leaving dawns sunny and cold, and he is deeply touched by the girls following him to and fro as he loads the cab of his truck with his violin, a knapsack carrying various necessities, a small suitcase of clothes, four big jugs of spring water, and a bag of food: nuts and raisins and apples and bananas and bread and goat cheese.
“Take good care of our mother,” he says in Spanish to Amelia and Consuela, the girls wearing coats that Tober and Augie wore when they were little boys. “I’ll be back in a few days with Augie, your other new brother.”
“Goodbye Tober,” says Amelia, speaking English.
“Adios hermano,” says Consuela, speaking Spanish. “I hope you find many pretty rocks.”
“I hope so, too,” he says, waving goodbye to Sharon who is standing on the porch watching her little daughters say goodbye to her big son.
When Tober reaches Fortuna where the two-lane country road merges onto the four-lane interstate, he has a pang of sorrow about Annie, but resists his impulse to drive by her place; and seemingly in the next moment he arrives in Eureka, population 25,000, the largest town he’d ever been to until a few months ago when he and Sharon accompanied Augie to Portland.
He enjoyed that gigantic city for the first two days they were there, and then his nerves began to fray. The incessant noise became physically painful to him, and the countless people, most of whom seemed oblivious to him and to each other, ceased to fascinate him. But the most upsetting thing for him about the city was what he perceived as the violent subjugation of nature, which he felt as a threat to his own life.
When he told Titus about feeling so threatened in Portland, Titus said, “Well… that kind of place is a threat to life. Because you grew up here, October, surrounded by wilderness and not many people living here, you learned to relate to the earth as your mother, and that’s why you feel her anguish when you go to places where people are hurting her, though that’s not their intention. They are unaware of what they’re doing to her. Each of those millions of people in Portland is just like you. They were born and need food and places to live. The problem is we humans got out of balance with nature when we killed off all the competing species that kept our population at a reasonable number. Just as the pumas keep the deer from being too many, there used to be things that kept humans from being too many, like poisonous bacteria and tigers and famine. But then we got antibiotics and guns and refrigerators and grocery stores, and now there are too many of us. That’s what you were feeling in Portland. Not just that you were threatened, but all those people you saw, they were threatened, too, and you felt that.”
“What do you feel when you go to a big city?” asked Tober, hoping to overcome his fear of Portland so he can enjoy himself when he visits Augie there.
“I haven’t been to a big city since I was thirty,” said Titus, chuckling. “That’s more than fifty years ago now, the last time I went to San Francisco. My good friend Moses Armstead, we were in the Army together, he became an actor and was in a play in a big theatre down there. So I took the Greyhound bus from Eureka to San Francisco and went to that play four nights in a row. I didn’t like the play very much, but I loved seeing Moses up on that stage. He was so happy to be in that play, making his living as an actor. I slept on the sofa in his apartment and every day we walked around the city together. There were lots of beautiful women, and I was happy to see them. There were lots of beggars, too, and that made me sad. But what I remember most vividly about San Francisco was a woman playing her guitar and singing in this tunnel you went through to get to the subway. She was wearing a black and white shirt like the black and white of those dairy cows, Holsteins, with long sleeves and cufflinks made of silver dollars. And the shirt was tucked into a dark brown leather skirt that came down just enough to cover her knees, and she was wearing a red cowboy hat and shiny black cowboy boots. Her nose was small and straight and she had dark green eyes like Augie’s, and her lips formed a heart she’d painted glossy red. She was a really good guitar player, as good as Augie, but it was her voice that astonished me, like there was a hawk keening inside her and the keening came out as the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. That’s what I think about whenever I think of San Francisco. I think of that woman dancing as she played her guitar, her skirt swinging as she played, and her beautiful voice echoing in that tunnel.”
Twenty miles south of Gold Beach, Tober turns off the coast highway and follows a dirt track a hundred yards to a bluff overlooking a white sand beach stretching as far as Tober can see to the north and south. He locks his truck, takes his violin and a bag of walnuts with him, and follows a slender trail down through a lush stand of dune grass to the beach.
He has no intention of playing his violin on the beach, but he would never leave the valuable instrument where it might be stolen, however remote that possibility. Olaf Bokulich, the principal First Violin of the Eureka Symphony, sold Tober the forty-thousand-dollar violin and seven-thousand-dollar bow two years ago for just twenty thousand dollars because he, Olaf, is profoundly enamored of Sharon, who also plays violin in the Eureka Symphony, and she had mentioned to him that Tober was ready for a better instrument than the very good violin he’d had since he was thirteen.
A widower in his late sixties, Olaf makes no secret of his adoration of Sharon, and to every rehearsal and performance of the orchestra he brings her a gift: a bottle of wine or a basket of fruit or a book or a CD of classical music or a gift certificate to a fine women’s clothing store in Arcata. Having made it abundantly clear that she has no interest in being in a relationship with him beyond cordial friendship, Sharon graciously accepts Olaf’s gifts and occasionally goes out with him for an early supper before a rehearsal.
A few years ago, Tober and Augie asked Sharon why, if she didn’t want to encourage Olaf’s romantic pursuit of her, she accepted his gifts.
“I know him very well now from playing in the symphony with him for all these years,” she explained, “and I know if I don’t accept his gifts, his feelings will be terribly hurt and he will cease to be our happy section leader. It gives him great pleasure to give me things, and so long as he understands that I consider him a generous uncle, and not relationship material, I enjoy our friendship. Should he ever become more aggressive in pursuing me, I will put a stop to it, believe me.”
Tober has been playing the violin since he was five, Sharon his primary teacher, and he was an accomplished violinist when he bought the hundred-year-old French violin and the seventy-year old German bow from Olaf; but his two years of practicing with the exquisite instrument has lifted his playing into a whole other realm, and he can’t imagine going back to a lesser violin.
He stands twenty feet back from where the waves are exhausting themselves on the porous sand, and he sees no obvious fields of stones to the south. However, when he looks northward, something tells him to go that way, so he does, and he’s pleased to see no signs of humans ever having done anything on this stretch of coast except walk here.
A mile along the wild shore, he comes to a rain-swollen stream transecting the beach, and he is delighted to see troves of small stones exposed on either side of the stream.
Leaving his violin and bow atop his jacket on the dry sand out of reach of the waves, Tober begins a careful search for the two kinds of stones he’s interested in. One kind are stones possessed of energies he can feel when he holds them in his hand; and for the purpose of selling stones to Germaine who owns Eclectica, a most unusual gift shop in Arcata, or to Maybe for resale at Good Used Stuff, he is on the lookout for beautifully-shaped stones.
Sometimes beauty and special energy reside in the same stone, and these are the ones Tober sells for prices that strike most people as absurdly high, since these are not crystals or rare gems, but merely stones. Yet there are people willing to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for some of Tober’s stones, for these people believe his stones are rarer than gold; and that is how Tober earned most of the money he used to buy Olaf’s violin and bow.
He searches for an hour, his time limited by his desire to reach Yachats before dark, and finds eleven stones he knows he’ll be able to sell for good prices, and one stone brimming with vibrant energy—a perfect equilateral triangle, each side about two-inches long, coal black, with rounded edges, a third-of-an-inch thick, and smooth as silk. He knows Germaine will give him at least five hundred dollars for this stone, though he intends to carry it in his pocket for some weeks before parting ways with such a splendid companion.
On the road again, enjoying the passing scenery—the ocean and beaches and spectacular rock formations to his left, the green hills to his right—Tober holds the triangular stone in his right hand and thinks about the singing cowgirl Titus remembers from San Francisco.
“That’s what I want to do,” he says to the road ahead. “I want to touch people with my music the way she touched Titus.”
Having said this, he imagines finding a place in a park in Portland where he can play his violin for the people who are just like him, people who need food and places to live and other people to love.
In the late afternoon, after one more stop to search for stones, Tober arrives in Yachats, checks into his room at the Fireside Motel on the northern edge of town, starts recharging his truck battery, and lies down to rest a little before supper and watch movies on what Titus calls the mind screen: Maybe handing him a thousand dollars and saying No hard feelings, Sharon watching Consuela carefully fill Igor’s bowl with kibble, Annie awaiting him naked in her bed, Titus saying, “Just think, October. The next time you make love with a woman, you’ll be able to please her because of all the wildly good things you learned from Annie.”
When the first stars of the evening appear in the cloudless sky, Tober walks into the little town to have fish & chips at a place called Lunasea where he and Augie and Sharon stopped on their way to Portland in August.
The waitress reminds him of Annie, though she looks nothing like her. Something in the way she saunters as she makes her rounds of the few tables, never in a hurry, reminds him of the day he and Titus were in the Double D Steakhouse in Fortuna and Annie waited on them, and as she sauntered away with their order, Titus said, “She seems very interested in you, October, in case you’re looking for a girlfriend.”
He’d forgotten Titus encouraged him to pursue Annie, perhaps because he never again associated Titus with Annie, for she never wanted to accompany him when he went to be with Titus and Tina.
That should have told me all I needed to know he thinks as he watches the waitress blabbing with the elderly couple at the adjoining table except I was obsessed with making love with her.
The waitress smiles warmly at Tober and says, “I forgot to ask you if you wanted anything to drink. We’ve got a delicious Pilsner on tap, if you like Pilsner.”
“I’m only nineteen,” says Tober, shrugging pleasantly. “I’ll have a lemonade if it’s not too sweet.”
“Nineteen?” she says, skeptically. “I thought you were twenty-five.”
“How old are you?” he asks innocently.
“How old do you think?” she asks, arching her eyebrow.
Tober waits for a number to pop into his head. “Twenty-seven.”
She laughs. “Add ten, sweetheart. I’ve got a daughter two years younger than you. And the lemonade comes in a bottle. You won’t like it. Way too much sugar.”
“Water’s fine,” says Tober, gazing at her. “You give new meaning to the word ageless.”
“And you give new meaning to the word charming,” she says, sauntering away.
In the morning, his battery fully charged, Tober goes to Green Salmon, one of the two coffee houses in Yachats, to have breakfast and write down the dream he woke from, a dream in which he was fleeing from unseen pursuers, carrying his violin in one hand, a tiny yellow bird in the other.
He takes his violin and his notebook into the busy café, and while standing in line to place his order, he looks around for a likely place to sit—all the tables occupied and no one in any apparent hurry to leave. There is an empty seat at a table for four, the three occupants intriguing to Tober: an elderly man with frizzy white hair and a pointy white goatee, a solemn middle-aged woman wearing a forest green serape, her black hair in a long braid, and a jittery girl with black hair in pigtails and brilliant blue eyes wearing a tan Boy Scout uniform and a purple tie.
Having placed his order, he makes his way through the voluble coffee drinkers to the table of the intriguing trio, and having judged the middle-aged woman to be the alpha, he makes eye contact with her before nodding to the older fellow with the goatee and smiling at the jittery girl.
“May I share your table with you?” he asks, bowing ever so slightly to the woman.
“Please,” she says, gesturing regally to the empty chair.
“Thank you,” says Tober, sitting down and setting his violin case on the floor beside him.
The elderly man purses his lips and asks, “Where are you from? We know all the local musicians, so you must be from somewhere else.”
Tober smiles at the man’s New Jersey accent and says, “I live near Fortuna, south of Eureka. I recognize your accent because it’s identical to my mother’s.”
“Would you play your violin for us?” asks the girl, wiggling in her chair. “Please?”
“I’d love to,” says Tober, nodding, “but I don’t want to bother the other diners.”
“How civilized of you,” says the woman, her New Jersey accent mild compared to the old man’s. “We know virtually everyone here at the moment and I’m sure none of them would object to hearing a tune.”
“I’ll go ask Glenna,” says the girl, jumping up and running to the counter.
“Welcome to Yachats,” says the man, his eyes twinkling. “I’m Phil Vogel. This is my daughter Ruth Livingston. The restless scout is Sylvia, Ruth’s daughter.”
“I’m Tober,” says Tober, delighted with Phil and Ruth and Sylvia. “Are you musicians?”
“I play the piano a little,” says Phil, miming playing a keyboard, “but I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I was a recording engineer for forty years. Ruth, on the other hand, is a very fine musician, and Sylvia will be once she starts practicing a little more diligently.”
“What do you play?” asks Tober, looking at Ruth and sensing she is deeply sad about something.
“Piano,” she says quietly. “And violin.”
Now Sylvia comes rushing back to the table with permission from Glenna, the café manager, for Tober to play a tune or two.
“On that note,” says Tober, putting his violin case on the table, “what would you like to hear, Sylvia?”
“Whatever you’d like to play,” she says, holding perfectly still as Tober brings forth his lovely old violin and bow.
“Well…” says Tober, quietly tuning his violin, “I’ve been working on a new sonata that sprang from a few bars in a Second Violin part in Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, his revised version. Third movement. Shall I play a little of that?”
“Yes, do,” says Ruth, nodding enthusiastically. “We dote on Mendelssohn at our house.”
Tober sets bow to strings, closes his eyes, and plays a single long eloquent note that silences the fifty people in the place and leads into a brief melancholic song inspired by Tober’s recent heartbreak—his playing eloquent, his tone breathtaking.
When he finishes the song, everyone in the place applauds, he bows, and several people call for him to play something more. So he blazes through a few fanciful variations on “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, and sits down to more applause and Bravos.
As he’s putting his violin away, Ruth says, “That was fantastic. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that.”
“I loved what you played,” says Sylvia, gaping at Tober. “Oh my God, I just loved it.”
“Thank you,” says Tober, smiling brightly. “Thank you for asking me to play.”
“Are you in town for long?” asks Ruth, her eyes sparkling. “I’d love to play with you.”
“I’ve got to be in Portland by this afternoon,” says Tober, shrugging apologetically. “But I’ll be coming back this way with my brother in a couple days, and I could play with you then. Yachats is where we recharge our electric truck.”
“Stay with us,” says Phil, nodding emphatically. “We’ve got a guest house nobody’s in right now.”
“I’ll try to get the piano tuned before you come back,” says Ruth, getting her phone out of her purse to find the piano tuner’s number. “So… today’s Saturday. Think you’ll be back here Tuesday?”
“That’s the plan,” says Tober, figuring backwards from the coming Thursday. “We want to get home by Wednesday night so we’ll be there all day for Thanksgiving.”
“Great,” says Phil, clinking his mug with Sylvia’s. “Tuesday it is.”
“Where do you perform, Tober?” asks Ruth, enchanted with him.
“At home,” he says innocently. “We had a quartet, my mother and brother and I and a friend, the Snake Creek Quartet. We played in Arcata a bunch of times, and played for weddings and benefits and things like that, but Augie’s in graduate school now so I just play on my own or with my mother.”
“You should play at Carnegie Hall,” says Sylvia, matter-of-factly. “Or on America’s Got Talent. You’d win easily.”
“Hold that thought,” says Tober, going to get his omelet.
On his way to the pickup counter, several people tell him how much they enjoyed his playing; and when the young woman behind the counter hands him his plate of food, she says, “We want to comp you breakfast. Hold on a sec, I’ll give you your money back.”
“Oh gosh, no,” says Tober, blushing. “Please keep it as a tip, and thanks so much for letting me play.”
“Any time,” she says, nodding hopefully. “You made everybody happy.”
On the road again, Tober ponders his good fortune and realizes that playing in the Green Salmon café was the first time in his life he has ever performed in public without Augie or Sharon or both of them playing with him, and though he enjoyed playing solo, he would much rather have played with Augie or Sharon or… maybe someone else.
He wishes Titus or Augie were with him so he could tell them how different he felt performing alone—being the sole focus of attention making him feel so much more vulnerable than when he performs with others.
“Yet it may have been that very vulnerability,” says Tober, speaking to Titus, “that created such a powerful intimacy with the audience.”
“Not to mention,” he imagines Titus saying, “you’re a different person than you were before you had a lover and then lost your lover. Those experiences are in your music now, October, so the people resonate with you now as never before.”
When Tober reaches the town of Reedsport, he leaves the coast highway and heads inland on Highway 38, a two-lane road that closely follows the mighty Umqua River to Interstate 5.
At the east end of Reedsport, Tober stops for a hitchhiker, a not very tall but enormous woman with short gray hair wearing a ratty brown coat and gray sweat pants and black rubber boots. A bulging bag of groceries stands on the ground beside her and she’s holding a raggedy little white poodle under her left arm; and Tober almost doesn’t stop for her because he senses something sinister about her, though she appears to be harmless.
Tober leans across the seat, rolls down the passenger side window, and says to the woman, “I’ll need to rearrange a few things before you get in.”
“Thank you,” she says wearily, her voice raspy. “I’m only going twelve miles. Gonna start raining any minute now.”
Tober gets out of his truck, stows his violin and knapsack behind the seat, and comes around the nose of the truck to open the passenger door for the woman.
She hands him her dog and climbs in with much grunting and groaning, and when she’s all the way in, Tober hands her the dog and her bag of groceries, goes back around the nose of the truck, and resumes his place behind the wheel.
“I’m Tober,” he says, smiling at the woman.
“Lauren,” she says, struggling to get the seatbelt across her body, but it is too small for her girth. “Not Laura. Not Lorna. Not Laurie. Lauren. This is Gully. She rolled in something dead. That’s what you’re smelling.”
“Don’t worry about the seatbelt,” says Tober, easing his truck back onto the road. “I’ll drive carefully.”
Now the clouds burst and heavy rain begins to fall.
“That was close,” says Lauren, her breath rancid. “I thought somebody I knew would come by, but nobody did.”
“Do you not own a car?” asks Tober, noting how the truck is listing starboard with so much weight on that side.
“I own one,” she says, nodding slowly, “but it doesn’t run right now. Needs a new radiator and brakes and stuff. I don’t really need it except for going to town, and people give me rides, so…” She nods. “Where you from?”
“Eureka,” he says, repulsed by Gully’s sickly scent.
“I went to college at Humboldt State,” she says, nodding. “For a year. Very polluted around there. You might not think so, but it is. I know because I spent a long time trying to find a place where I could afford to live that wasn’t toxic for me. I’m sensitive to chemicals and carbon monoxide and microwaves, so I did a lot of research before I moved here.”
“Fortunately, I live a long way from Eureka near the mouth of the Eel River,” says Tober, wondering how Amelia and Consuela are getting along in their new home. “Not very polluted there.”
“That’s what you think,” she says, sneering. “They spray chemicals everywhere now. You can be in a forest fifty miles from the nearest town and the place will be soaked with chemicals and pesticides. And if there’s a cell tower anywhere nearby, you’re being fried with microwaves twenty-four seven.”
“What do you do, Lauren?” asks Tober, changing the subject as his truck labors up a steep stretch of the road. “With your time?”
“Well, I’m ill,” she says, glaring at him, “so I have to rest a lot. And I do a lot of research on my computer about my illness and various healing modalities. I cook and try to keep my place clean, but it isn’t easy because I get tired so quickly. I have a boyfriend who comes by a couple times a week, so… I’m on disability, so… what do you do?”
“I’m a violinist,” says Tober, thinking about this morning and how when he played the last note of his variations on “Norwegian Wood”, everyone in the café beamed at him—what a lovely moment that was. “And a carpenter and…”
“I play the guitar,” says Lauren, cutting him off. “Needs new strings. Won’t stay in tune. I used to be pretty good before my fingers got so swollen.” She shrugs. “That’s part of my illness. My thyroid is damaged from chemicals and my hormones are all fucked up from toxins and microwaves, so… it’s just another few miles. I’d appreciate it if you could drive me to my house. I’m about a half-mile off the highway so I’m out of range of fumes from diesel trucks and car exhaust.”
“I’ll be happy to drive you to your house,” says Tober, feeling woozy and sick to his stomach.
And guessing the cause of his malady might be Lauren, Tober rolls down his window, despite the rain and the cold, and breathes deeply of the untainted air, and his physical distress diminishes somewhat.
When they reach Lauren’s ramshackle mobile home in a sparse forest of young fir trees, Lauren invites Tober to come in, but he declines, saying he’s in a hurry to get to Portland to see his brother.
“Portland’s a toxic death trap,” she says, squinting at him. “Would you help me get out? I think I might fall if you don’t help me.”
So Tober comes around to the passenger door, takes Gully from Lauren, sets her on the ground, and gives Lauren a hand climbing out of the truck.
And Lauren does almost fall, several times, as Tober helps her to her front door, which he opens for her
“Could you help me sit down before you go?” she says, breathing hard. “And get me some water?”
“Certainly,” he says, sickened by the stench of rot permeating her home.
When Tober has put ten miles between him and Lauren’s house—the rain abating and the sun peeking out from behind tattered clouds—he pulls off the highway into a county park on the banks of the mighty Umqua and finds no other cars or people here in what is essentially a parking lot with a boat ramp for launching small boats into the river.
He parks near the boat ramp, gets out of his truck, takes off all his clothes, save for his underwear, walks down the boat ramp, and immerses himself in the icy flow, hoping to wash away the poisons he absorbed from Lauren.
Garbed in clean clothes and feeling much revived, Tober resumes his journey along the Umqua, clasping his newly-found triangular stone in his left hand.
“I wonder if she has that effect on everyone,” he says, desperate to talk to Titus, “or if she’s only poisonous to me because I don’t know how to shield myself from her kind of energy.”
Another thirty miles on the winding road brings Tober to the small town of Drain, where after cruising slowly through the town in search of a pay phone and finding none, he pulls into a gas station and asks the attendant, a young woman with bleached blonde hair and heavy makeup, if she knows of any nearby payphones.
“There used to be one at the post office,” she says, shaking her head, “but they got rid of it a couple years ago. I’ve got an unlimited plan. You can use my phone.”
“That would be wonderful,” says Tober, getting out his wallet. “Would ten dollars be enough? I’m calling someone near Eureka.”
“Oh you don’t have to pay me,” she says, handing him her phone. “I’ve got unlimited.”
“Um…” he says, taking the phone from her, “I don’t know how to use these. Could you dial for me?”
“You mean like… enter the number you want to call?” she says, frowning quizzically.
“Yes,” says Tober, handing the phone back to her.
He slowly recites Titus’s number, she enters the digits, and hands the phone back to him.
“I gotta go pump some gas,” she says, hurrying away. “Don’t steal my phone, okay?”
“Okay,” says Tober, hoping Titus will answer.
And when Titus does answer, Tober speaks at length about how he felt his spirit being crushed by something emanating from her and how opening the window and breathing the unsullied air revived him somewhat, but when he escorted her into her house, he grew incredibly weak again, as if gripped by some terrible flu, only worse, as if he was dying, and would have died had he stayed with her much longer.
“Is that just me, Titus?” he asks urgently. “Because I’m too open or…”
“No, my son,” says Titus, his voice shaking. “You met a psychic vampire, and I don’t mean she isn’t human. I mean she is so damaged, so emotionally deformed she has become a psychic leech. I have known several people like this woman, and not all of them were physically ill, but all of them very dangerous. They suck the life out of other people, not just you, October. Everyone who comes into contact with them. It’s a terrible thing. I know of no cure for what is wrong with them, and the best thing you can do if you ever meet another one of these people is get away as fast as you can.”
Tober arrives in Portland at two in the afternoon with three hours to spare before Augie gets home from his Saturday job. So he drives into the heart of the city and leaves his truck in a parking garage under Director’s Park, a big plaza with a large fountain at one end, and goes forth with his violin to find a likely place to play for people.
Downtown Portland on a Saturday is very different than downtown Portland Monday through Friday, for though most of the nine-to-fivers are absent, thousands of people swarm in from the suburbs to enjoy the commercial and cultural amenities of downtown Portland, and thousands of teenagers free from school for the weekend roam around and hang out in the downtown parks and squares and cafés—the wonderfully sunny day making the urban center especially appealing after weeks of rain and cold.
And everywhere Tober looks there are homeless people, men and women and children, some of them begging from passersby, but most of them just enjoying the sun until the cold and darkness will send them to wherever they’ve found to sleep.
Director’s Park strikes Tober as good as any place to play his music, so he walks to the center of the square, gets out his violin, and begins to play a slow dreamy version of “Molly Malone”; and he is immediately surrounded by a dozen people, seven of them filming him with their phones.
By the time Tober finishes playing the old Irish ballad, there are forty-some people around him, many of them filming him with their phones.
Now a smartly dressed woman approaches him and says, “You need to open your case so we can give you money.”
So Tober opens his violin case, the woman places a five-dollar bill therein, and he is inspired to reprise his improvisational rendering of “Norwegian Wood”, exploring the melodic possibilities of the tune for much longer than he did at the Green Salmon café.
At song’s end, the fast-growing audience cheers, and money rains down into Tober’s violin case.
Now a middle-aged man wearing a gorgeous purple shirt and stylish black slacks, calls out with a thick Brazilian accent, “Do you play any Joao Gilberto?”
Tober nods and begins a tender rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema,” climaxing the iconic tune with a long improvised referencing of several other Gilberto songs before returning to the original “Ipanema” melody that brings a roar of approval from the now hundreds of people listening to him and filming him—his violin case overflowing with money; some of the bills blowing away in a sudden breeze.
Two children, a boy and a girl, break away from two different sets of parents and chase the fluttering bills and catch them and bring them back to the violin case where they carefully weight the bills down with coins.
Tober thanks the children and asks, “Any song you’d like to hear?”
“Another Beatles song?” says the boy, his accent British. “‘Hey Jude’ is my mother’s favorite.”
“And you?” says Tober, looking at the girl. “Is there a song you’d like to hear?”
“Um… ‘Are you going to the Scarborough Fair’” she says, gazing in awe at him.
“Two marvelous choices,” says Tober, smiling around at the vast audience waiting to hear what he’s going to play next.
He closes his eyes for a long moment, sets bow to strings, and plays “Scarborough Fair” using double stops, so it sounds as if two violins are playing a close harmony; and when the famous song is well-established, he begins sneaking in lines from ‘Hey Jude’ until of a sudden ‘Hey Jude’ takes over and “Scarborough Fair” nearly disappears until the very end of the song when he plays a fantastically conjoined melody that causes the audience to roar with delight.
When his audience has dispersed, Tober goes down on his knees to transfer the small fortune in his violin case to his knapsack, and to put his violin and bow in their case; and while he’s on his knees, a woman comes near.
She is nearly as tall as Tober, broad-shouldered and beautifully proportioned, her skin dark brown, her long black hair in a ponytail, her face exquisite.
“I regret to say I only heard the last few things you played,” she says in a deep clear voice, “and I would very much like to talk to you. I, too, am a violinist. Do you have a moment?”
He stands up and gazes in wonder at her. “I have more than a moment. Where shall we go?”
“Café,” she says, pointing west.
“Do you know what time it is?” he asks, profoundly smitten. “I have to be somewhere shortly after five.”
“It’s a little after three,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I have to be somewhere at four. That gives us nearly an hour.”
“Lucky me,” says Tober, sighing happily. “And I’m not just saying that.”
“I know you’re not,” she says, smiling shyly. “Lucky me, too.”
So they traverse the plaza together and Tober marvels at how strong and graceful she is, so graceful he guesses she’s a dancer as well as a violinist.
“By the way,” he says, clearing his throat, “my name is Tober. Short for October. But everyone calls me Tober. Except Titus, but… anyway… what’s your name?”
“Jasmy,” she says, her cheeks dimpling. “Not short for anything. A common name in Cameroon where my mother lives.”
“What a beautiful name,” he says, nodding. “Especially for a musician who might also be a dancer.”
They sit across from each other at a little table in a crowded café. She has a double espresso and a chocolate biscotti; he has chicken salad and French fries.
When Jasmy finally stops effusing about Tober’s playing, she asks him for a thumbnail sketch of his life and he gives her a humorous five-minute version that makes her laugh again and again—and the more she laughs, the more he wants to make her laugh because her laughter is so beautiful to him.
When he asks her for a thumbnail sketch of her life, she says, “You’re a hard act to follow, October, but I’ll try,” and proceeds to astound him with her story.
Raised by her white father and his German mother in their tri-lingual home in Mountain Home Idaho, she started playing the violin when she was six, was volleyball superstar in high school and offered athletic scholarships to both Stanford and UCLA while simultaneously winning acceptance to the Eastman School of Music in New York, and ultimately eschewed both college and music school to move to Portland and start a band and work as a studio musician, her band called Ordering Chaos.
“In fact,” she says, giving him a wide-eyed inviting look, “we’re playing tonight at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom and I really want you to come. My father is visiting from Idaho and he’s gonna sit it in with us. He’s a stellar guitarist and…” She takes a deep breath. “Would you play with us?”
“Tonight?” says Tober, laughing. “You mean… improvise on a couple tunes?”
“Yeah,” she says, overwhelmed by how much she likes him. “Or on three or four. And maybe do a solo or two. Whatever you like.”
“Sounds wonderful, but… is it a club where you have to be twenty-one? Because I’m only nineteen and Augie’s only eighteen, so…”
“You’re only nineteen?” she says, gaping at him. “I thought you were at least twenty-seven.”
“How old are you?” he asks, holding his breath.
“Guess,” she says, giving him a comically expectant look.
“Twenty-six?” he says, biting his lower lip.
“Minus six,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “We’re almost the same age. May I ask how tall are you?”
“Guess,” he says, giving her a goofy smile.
“Six-three,” she says, nodding assuredly. “Two and a half inches taller than I am.”
“Good guess,” says Tober, impressed. “I’m actually an eighth-of-an-inch shy of six-three. Shall we guess our weights next?”
“No,” she says, wanting to kiss him, “I don’t think that’s something we should talk about on our first date.”
“Is this a date?” he asks breathlessly. “Surely you have a boyfriend. Plays in the band with you? Or he’s a brilliant jazz pianist saxophone player with a combo of the coolest guys in the world. No?”
“Well you must have a girlfriend,” she rejoins, also breathless. “Some stunning astrophysicist opera singer tantric master? Yes?”
“Actually,” says Tober, growing serious, “I only just had my first real girlfriend. We were involved for six months, and just five days ago, or maybe it was four, she dumped me. I’m actually quite relieved now that I’m mostly over the shock of it. We had almost nothing in common except…” He clears his throat. “Now I’ve undoubtedly told you more than you wanted to know, but that’s how I am.”
“Wow,” she says, her eyes sparkling with tears. “Quel coincidence. I just got dumped, too. Three months and two weeks and three days ago. But who’s counting?”
“Not me,” he says, his imagination running wild with scenes from his fabulous love affair with Jasmy. “So… what time should my brother and I get to Mc-whatever the palace is?”
“We’re playing two sets,” she says, her imagination every bit as active as his. “We go on at eight, and I was thinking you’d play the second set with us. But come at seven-thirty and I’ll introduce you to everybody and you can watch the first set and see what we’re all about. I’ll put you on the guest list. The show’s sold out.”
“Augie, too, please,” says Tober, wanting very much to kiss her. “That’s my brother. Augie. Um… so… seven-thirty. Do we… how do we…”
“Go in the front, give them your name, and I will arrange for someone to bring you backstage.” She looks at him, memorizing his face. “I can’t tell you how glad I am I didn’t do what I usually do on Saturday afternoon before a gig, which is practice and then do some yoga and then take a nap. I was too antsy today, so I just started walking and ended up walking all the way downtown, which I almost never do. And when I was about a block away from Director’s Park, I heard you playing those fantastical variations on “Norwegian Wood”, and I started running because I’ve never heard anybody play like you except, in a way… me. Not exactly, of course, but…” She struggles to find the words. “With the same kind of knowing abandon.”
“That’s exactly it,” he says, amazed by her. “Knowing abandon. Trusting the skill we’ve developed from thousands of hours of playing and exploring and trusting that there are no wrong notes, just infinite new beginnings.”
“Yeah,” she says, getting out her phone. “I have to go now, but… can we trade numbers? In case I need to call you or you want to call me?”
“I don’t have a phone like that,” he says, smiling helplessly at her. “I just have the one on the wall in the kitchen. In our house. In California. Near Fortuna. Which is near Eureka. Oh, but I do have this.” He gets out his wallet and extracts one of his business cards. “This has my phone number and post office box number.”
October “Tober” Quincy
Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener
Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones
Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome
She smiles at his card and says, “I love this October ‘Tober’ Quincy. But what if I want to call you in an hour? Or tomorrow?”
“Oh right,” he says, slapping his forehead. “Augie’s got a local phone number and an answering machine. I’ll give you that number and you give me yours, and I’ll see you tonight at seven-thirty.”
“Okay,” she says, handing him a pale gray card, the print burgundy.
Violin and Vocals
Studio Work & Special Events
“Jasmy Beckman,” says Tober, looking up from the card and losing himself in her beauty. “I’ll keep this forever.”
On a cold morning, nine days before Thanksgiving, on the far northern coast of California, nineteen-year-old Tober Quincy stands behind the checkout counter in a big store known as Good Used Stuff, two miles inland from the mouth of the Eel River.
Tall and handsome, with long brown hair in a ponytail, Tober is friendly and thoughtful with a wry sense of humor inherited from his mother and an endearing curiosity about everyone he meets. He has been employed at Good Used Stuff for three years and works thirty hours a week as both a clerk in the store and as a maker of tables and chairs in the Good Used Stuff woodshop. He likes his job, though more and more lately he’s been thinking about shifting entirely to freelance work as explicated on his most recent business card.
October “Tober” Quincy
Composer * Violinist * Carpenter * Gardener
Fruit Tree Pruner * Collector of Special Stones
Reasonable Rates * Inquiries Welcome
Until three months ago, Tober lived with his brother Augie, who is younger than Tober by a year, and their mother Sharon, who is forty-two, in a farmhouse at the end of Snake Creek Road, the nearest town Fortuna, ten miles away. Then in August, Augie moved to Portland, Oregon to attend graduate school in Clinical Psychology at Oregon Health and Science University; and when Tober and Sharon returned from helping Augie get settled in Portland, Sharon decided to begin the process of adopting two young sisters, Amelia, five, and Consuela, four, something she’d been considering since attending adoption workshops in June.
Tober is excited about Amelia and Consuela joining the family and he’s looking forward to helping them adjust to their new lives on Snake Creek Road, though the addition of two little girls to the household means he will be vacating his bedroom—the only bedroom he’s ever known—and moving into the low-ceilinged attic, which is not an ideal bedroom for a person six-foot-three.
Thus he is planning to build another house on their ten acres, though he isn’t sure how big a house to build. What if Augie decides to come home after his three or four years in Portland, or sooner if he changes his mind about becoming a psychotherapist? What if he, Tober, wants to get married and have children? Should he build a cottage that can be expanded into a larger house, or two separate expandable cottages, one for him and one for Augie?
As if this weren’t enough upheaval for one brief stretch of a person’s life, Tober is now six months into his first relationship involving sex. His girlfriend Annie is twenty-three and lives in Fortuna where she is a waitress at Double D Steakhouse and shares an apartment with a hairdresser named Tiffany. In his six months as Annie’s official boyfriend, Tober’s mad love for her has inspired him to write fourteen love songs, two sonatas for piano and violin, one sonata for violin and guitar, and dozens of love sonnets.
Annie, who is always hip to the very latest celebrity gossip and spends hours every day perusing Fashion magazines and Fashion web sites, is forever telling Tober how much she loves him and wants to marry him and have at least two children with him. When she’s not working at Double D, Annie likes to smoke pot, watch television, text and talk on her phone, go barhopping with Tiffany, and have sex with Tober.
When Tober is with Annie, he can’t take his eyes off her, and when they’re apart he can’t stop thinking about her.
But wait, there’s more. Not only has Sharon decided to adopt two children, but six weeks ago she abruptly ended her two-year relationship with Maybe, the owner of Good Used Stuff, which has made the last several weeks at work for Tober quite the emotional challenge.
On this cold November morning, nine days before Thanksgiving, Tober is standing behind the checkout counter near the front door of Good Used Stuff, re-reading a long handwritten letter he got yesterday from Augie asking him to come to Portland and visit for a few days, after which they will return home together for Thanksgiving.
Now a familiar engine sound of a car in need of a new muffler causes Tober to look up from Augie’s letter and gaze expectantly at the front door until it opens and Annie hurries in accompanied by a blast of frigid air.
Tall and buxom with golden blonde hair, her mother Swedish, her father a big guy from Montana, Annie is wearing blood-red cowboy boots, hip-hugging blue jeans, and a red jacket over a tightly-fitting pink T-shirt with the words EUREKA writ in large red caps on the gossamer fabric directly over Annie’s breasts.
“Hey darlin’” says Tober, coming out from behind the counter to embrace his beloved.
“Hey,” says Annie, holding up her hand to stop him from coming any closer.
“What’s going on?” asks Tober, obeying her signal.
“I’m…” She looks away from him. “I can’t do this anymore. You and me.”
“Can’t do what?” he asks, bewildered.
“Be with you anymore,” she says, still looking away. “I’ve been sleeping with other guys for the last couple months.” She shrugs. “Maybe a few months. I didn’t want to. I mean… I wanted to, but I didn’t want to want to.” She sighs. “I tried not to, but I couldn’t stop myself.” Now she looks at him. “I really wanted to make it work with you, but we’re just too different.” She grimaces. “You’re like from another planet, Tober. Where they don’t have phones or televisions or modern anything. I mean… no offense, but most of the time I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about. It’s like you’re from King Arthur or something.” She looks away again. “But I’m really gonna miss fucking you. Sex with you was like way the best I’ve ever had.” She looks at him again. “I’m not just saying that. You’re amazing. But what I’m not gonna miss is feeling like an idiot for not knowing what a sonnet is or a sonata or physics or history or… whatever.” She glares at him. “I need to feel good about myself. Good about who I am and what I like to do. Which is not what you like to do. Except the sex. But it just wasn’t enough anymore, you know, to like… bridge the gap. So now I’m gonna go. Have a good life.”
Never in his nineteen years has Tober gone into shock, but now he does; and the next thing he knows, he finds himself sitting in an armchair by the woodstove in the northwest corner of the enormous store, having no memory of traversing the forty feet from the checkout counter to the stove through a maze of furniture and tools and statuary. Nor does he remember sitting down or how much time has passed since Annie came and went.
He is roused from his torpor by Maybe coming in the back door and tromping to the stove to get warm. Maybe is fifty-years-old, not quite six-feet-tall, with longish brown hair and a lopsided mustache. He is wearing a purple wool cap pulled down over his ears, a puffy orange jacket, baggy brown trousers, and black boots, his face creased with worry.
Tober very much wants to tell Maybe how strange he feels and how Annie’s coming and going was so much like a dream he wonders if it was a dream, but before he can say anything, he realizes Maybe is speaking to him.
“…so I think it would be better if you didn’t work here anymore until I get over what your mother did to me, if I ever can. I hate to do this, Tober, but every time I see you all I can think about is her saying she doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”
“Wait,” says Tober, frowning at Maybe. “Are you firing me?”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” says Maybe, shrugging. “I’m asking you to quit so I won’t have to fire you. I mean… you know I like you. You’re one of the finest people I know. And you’re a wizard at selling things and making things and finding stones and… but I thought your mother and I were gonna get married, and now she won’t even talk to me. And I need to stop thinking about her. It’s killing me.” He grimaces. “I’m sorry, Tober. I just… I need to recover.”
“Do you still want to buy stones from me?” asks Tober, sadly amused that he would ask Maybe about stones at a time like this.
“Oh definitely,” says Maybe, nodding. “But have Titus bring them in, okay? So I don’t have to see you and remember how one day we were planning the wedding and the next day she wouldn’t talk to me. Like I was nothing to her.”
“That isn’t how it was, Maybe.” Tober gets up from the chair. “You guys talked for days and days after she told you. And you called her every night for two weeks, and you came over when she was giving lessons and refused to leave, refused to let her do her work. You need to be honest with yourself about this, Maybe, or you’re never gonna get over her.”
“But she’d never tell me why,” says Maybe, crying. “She just kept saying it wasn’t what she wanted, but she wouldn’t say what she did want, so there was nothing I could do, nothing I could change so she would want me again.”
Titus Troutcatcher, Tober’s mentor and friend and chosen grandfather, is a Wailaki healer and counselor. Titus is eighty-five and lives with his wife Tina in a little house in the forest about a mile inland from Good Used Stuff. He doesn’t charge for his services as a healer and counselor, yet he makes a decent living because the people who come to him show their gratitude with money and gifts.
Tober drives his white electric pickup truck through a light rain to Titus’s place and finds Titus standing at the bottom of the front stairs, looking gigantic in his long gray coat as he throws a tennis ball for Spider and Feather, his longhaired Chihuahuas.
“I thought I might see you today,” says Titus, greeting Tober with a strong embrace, his voice pleasantly gruff. “Thought I heard you calling me about an hour ago. What was going on?”
“Well,” says Tober, already feeling better now that he’s with Titus, “Annie came to the store and told me she’d been sleeping with other men and didn’t want to be with me anymore, and then Maybe asked me to quit because every time he sees me, he thinks of my mom. Then he gave me a thousand dollars severance pay. And now I’m here.”
“Want some chili?” asks Titus, nodding encouragingly. “Made with fresh venison. Horace Waterfall shot that young doe couple days ago. You know the one. She kept jumping his deer fence and eating those late yellow apples. Horace gave us a rear haunch. Tender. I think all those apples she ate made her extra sweet. Tina made her chili yesterday. Pretty spicy, but delicious. Come on in. Get warm.”
They climb the four steps to the front porch of the little pink house and go inside, the dogs rushing in ahead of them. They take off their coats and Titus puts a log of pine and a log of oak on the spluttering fire, and the flames grow large.
While Titus heats the chili and makes toast and coffee, Tober squats by the fire and gazes at the glowing embers and wonders why today of all days he lost both his lover and his job.
“Tina’s in Fortuna,” says Titus, stirring the pot of chili. “At Teresa’s. Might spend the night over there. Her night vision isn’t so good anymore. She shouldn’t drive after dusk. Her great grandson Lawrence, you remember him. He’s six now. Has that big gap between his two front teeth. Red hair. He’s in a school play today about vegetables. He’s a carrot. Type casting. I was gonna go but I woke up this morning feeling like I should stick around here.”
“I’m glad you did,” says Tober, smiling.
“So… Maybe let you go,” says Titus, nodding. “You were ready to stop working there anyway, weren’t you? That was a good first job away from home for you, but now you can go freelance like you’ve been wanting to. It’s a sad situation, him pining for your mother, but now you’re free. Sometimes we need a push to leave the nest, and he gave you one.”
“True,” says Tober, adding another log to the fire. “It was time for me to go.”
A silence falls, both of them thinking about Annie and what they might say.
“So…” says Titus, tasting the chili. “Annie. Beautiful woman. Every time I see her I think of Vikings. You know? A Viking princess. Only without the helmet with the horns. Did you want to marry her?”
“I thought I did,” says Tober, nodding. “But I think that was only because she kept saying how much she wanted to marry me and have children and… I wanted to make her happy. But the truth is, I never really could imagine being married to her, sharing a house and doing chores together and taking care of kids and animals and… never could imagine that.”
“What did you do together when you weren’t having sex?” Titus fills two big bowls with chili and carries the bowls to the kitchen table. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I don’t mind,” says Tober, who has never had any secrets from Titus in the twelve years they’ve known each other. “We’d go to the beach when it was sunny and she’d sunbathe and use her phone while I searched for stones and… she liked to go out for breakfast, and sometimes we’d go to pubs and… but I guess we mostly just hung out and… you know… enjoyed being with each other.”
“What did you do when you just hung out?” Titus takes the toast out of the toaster oven. “When you weren’t having sex?”
“Well… she would watch television and send messages to her friends on her phone and read Fashion magazines and smoke pot. She smoked pot pretty much all the time when she wasn’t working. Said it relaxed her.”
“Did you smoke with her?” asks Titus, carrying the toast and butter to the table.
“A few times,” says Tober, nodding. “But it’s too powerful for me. Even just one little puff and I can barely move because I’m so overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of even the smallest thing.”
“Yeah, marijuana is a powerful teacher,” says Titus, nodding. “I don’t recommend it for recreational use.”
“I wouldn’t either,” says Tober, shaking his head. “But she smokes all the time and it hardly seems to effect her.”
“The more a person uses,” says Titus, filling the dogs’ bowl with kibble, “the more they need to use to get what they’re after. Euphoria.” He gets two big mugs out of the cupboard. “So what did you do while she was smoking pot and watching television?”
“I’d read and write letters and compose and draw and… like that.” Tober frowns. “Are you implying we weren’t a good match?”
“No, I was just asking,” says Titus, filling the mugs with coffee and bringing them to the table. “Let’s eat.”
They sit opposite each other and share a moment of silence.
“Did Annie teach you how to please her?” Titus sips his coffee. “Sexually?”
“Yes,” says Tober, blushing. “And though I have no one else to compare her to, I dare say she was a very good teacher.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Titus chews thoughtfully on a chunk of venison and thinks of the two women who taught him the ways of love when he was Tober’s age. “Did she show you more than one way to please her?”
“More ways than I ever imagined.” says Tober, laughing.
“Did you like pleasing her?” asks Titus, nodding hopefully.
“More than anything,” says Tober, his heart aching.
“That’s how it was for me, too, when I was nineteen.” Titus smiles. “Nothing else could quite compare.”
“And that changed when you got older?” asks Tober, his eyes full of tears.
“Yeah,” says Titus, nodding. “When I was in my thirties, thirty-three or thereabouts, after my first child was born, that’s when singing and dancing and healing people and teaching the children about the natural world became as satisfying as sex, but in a different way. A spiritual way.”
“I guess I sometimes feel just as satisfied when I’m playing my violin or singing or walking in the woods.” Tober smiles through his tears. “But I’ve never felt so wildly good, crazy good, as when I made love with Annie.”
“Yeah, crazy good,” says Titus, laughing. “That’s a perfect thing to call it. Wildly good. Crazy good. So… was it ever wildly good for both of you at the same time?”
“Yes,” says Tober, his tears flowing.
“Which means her body and her physical energy were good matches for your body and your physical energy.” Titus smiles reassuringly. “And just think, October. The next time you make love with a woman, you’ll be able to please her because of all the wildly good things you learned from Annie.”
“Yeah,” says Tober, using a napkin to daub his tears. “Though I’d rather keep pleasing her.”
“Of course you would,” says Titus, nodding. “I didn’t mean it isn’t sad she doesn’t want to be with you anymore. I just wanted to remind you that you learned valuable things from her, things most men never learn. And in my experience, men who don’t know how to please women sexually don’t make very good husbands.”
“But why did she have to sleep with other men?” asks Tober, closing his eyes. “Why would she say I was her one and only and she didn’t want anybody else but me, and she wanted to marry me and have children with me if it wasn’t true? Why would she lie to me?”
“She slept with other men because it excited her to deceive you.” Titus looks out the window as the rain turns to hail. “Some people need to feel they’re doing something forbidden to get excited. And there are many men and women who find it thrilling to deceive their wives and husbands. I’ve known men who can only get aroused when they have two women in their bed, and I’ve known women who only get excited when they have two men.”
“At the same time?” asks Tober, making a horrified face.
“Oh yeah,” says Titus, nodding. “Some people only get excited when their partner ties them up, so they’re helpless. Can you imagine? Being excited by feeling helpless? Excited that someone has that kind of power over you and might hurt you? It’s true, October. Some people only get aroused when their partner says nasty things to them, and some people only get aroused if the person they’re with is a stranger.”
“Why?” asks Tober, gaping at Titus.
“Because everyone is different,” says Titus, tapping the table four times. “You and I might think everyone should want what we want, and behave as we like to behave, but they don’t. Each person is unique and became who they are through the particular experiences of their lives and the things they learned from others.”
“But why did she keep saying I was her one and only?” asks Tober, his heart aching. “Why did she keep saying she only wanted me?”
“I think she kept saying that so her deception would be even more of a betrayal.” Titus has another sip of coffee. “Betraying you was exciting for her. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s how some people are.”
“But why? Why would she want to betray me when all I ever did was love her?”
“Perhaps she was jealous of you. Jealous of your talent and your confidence and happiness, jealous that you were a man and have power and freedom she doesn’t feel she has.” Titus crosses his hands over his heart. “But she loved you, October. As best she could. Only her love wasn’t strong enough to overcome her addictions and the ways of behaving she learned from her mother. But never forget that when you made love with her, she was giving you a gift and you were giving her a gift. And you are both stronger now for the gifts you gave each other.”
Tober gets home at three that afternoon, a hard rain falling, and finds his mother carrying things out of his bedroom and piling them in the living room.
“You’re home early,” she says, surprised to see him. “Everything okay?”
Sharon is five-foot-three and slender with high cheekbones and brilliant blue eyes and lustrous brown hair that falls to her shoulders. She is reflexively friendly, but reticent about being physically affectionate, even with her close friends and her sons, which is something she would like to change about herself.
“Maybe asked me to quit today, so I did,” says Tober, looking over the things his mother has brought out of his bedroom—clothes and books and blankets and a guitar case and two wooden boxes full of ocean-polished stones. “And right before that, Annie told me she doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”
“I’m sorry, Tobe,” says Sharon, going to him. “I thought this might happen.”
“Which?” asks Tober, laughing. “That he’d fire me or she’d break up with me?”
“Both,” she says, giving him the briefest of hugs. “I’m surprised he kept you on as long as he did.”
“Why did you think Annie would break up with me?” He gazes at her expectantly. “Irreconcilable differences?”
“Oh Jean said she saw Annie with some guy in a pub in Eureka a couple weeks ago.” Sharon winces. “I was going to tell you, but then I thought it wasn’t any of my business, so I didn’t.”
“I wonder why you didn’t think it was any of your business,” says Tober, looking at the piles of his things again. “And why are you moving everything out of my room? I thought we weren’t getting the girls until January. Isn’t that what you said you wanted to do? Wait until Augie went back to Portland after Christmas?”
“I did say that,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “but I changed my mind. The place they’re staying is so crowded and understaffed and… I want them here now.” She starts to cry. “They need to be here, Tobe.”
“Let’s go get them right now,” he says, sitting beside her. “I’ll finish emptying the room when we get back.”
“We can’t get them until tomorrow morning,” she says, weeping. “At ten.”
He wraps his arms around her and holds her as she cries, and when she tries to pull away as she always does after a few seconds, he holds her a while longer and she finally relaxes and enjoys his embrace.
When Sharon and Tober finish dusting and vacuuming and mopping the now empty bedroom, they have supper and make their plans for tomorrow.
“We’ll buy two new single mattresses on the way there,” says Sharon, having a glass of red wine with her spaghetti. “And we can put their beds side-by-side if they want to sleep together, or apart if they don’t.”
“We should take both trucks,” says Tober, visualizing the trek to Eureka. “That way I can stop and get lumber on the way back and the girls can both sit with you without one of them having to sit on my lap. Since they don’t know me very well, we don’t want to freak them out.”
“Good idea,” says Sharon, starting to cry again. “Thank you so much for helping me with this, Tobe.”
“I’m not just helping you,” he says, shaking his head. “They’re joining the family. They’re not replacing me and Augie. Are they?”
“No, of course not,” say Sharon, sniffling back her tears. “They’re joining us.”
“And in a few days, when the dust settles, I’ll zoom up to Portland and get Augie.” Tober smiles at the thought of seeing his brother. “Bring him home for Turkey Day.”
“He’s dying to come home,” she says, relieved to have cried. “I’m sorry about your job, Tobe. I just couldn’t pretend anymore that Maybe was going to turn into someone else.”
“I hope you didn’t stay involved with him just so I wouldn’t lose my job.” Tober considers this possibility. “Did you?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I stayed involved with him because I wanted to see if I could outlast my tendency to end relationships after a couple years, because that’s what I do, or whether he and I really were incompatible in too many important ways.”
“I wonder if a musician can ever be compatible with a non-musician,” says Tober, thinking of Annie who played no instrument and seemed ambivalent about the songs and music he wrote for her.
“I don’t know,” says Sharon, swirling her wine. “I’ve never been involved with a musician, but now that you mention it, that was a big disconnect with Maybe, though certainly not the biggest.”
“What was the biggest?” asks Tober, wondering if it had something to do with sex. “If you don’t mind telling me.”
“No, I don’t mind,” she says, finishing her wine. “Would you pour me a little more, please?”
“But of course Madame,” he says, filling her glass
“I’m not sure I can put this into words, but…” She muses for a moment. “Well the girls, for instance. When I told him I was thinking of adopting a child or two, he gave me this skeptical look and said, ‘Why would you want to do something like that?’ The implication being that there was something suspect about my wanting more children, that they would somehow be a negation of him, a diminishing of his importance in my life. And I realized that his notion of a relationship was one in which your mate should always be the primary focus, not the family, not the community, but only your mate. Whereas my notion of a relationship is an alliance within a larger family and community.”
After supper, Tober carries the vacuum cleaner up the narrow stairway to the attic to get the space ready for his things; and when he bumps his head on the low ceiling four times in the first five minutes he’s up there, he turns off the vacuum cleaner and comes down the stairs into the kitchen where Sharon is sitting at the counter having a cup of tea and making a shopping list for tomorrow.
“I’m not gonna live up there, Mom,” he says, taking a sip of her tea. “I can’t stand up straight without bashing my head. I’m gonna call the Bernsteins and see if I can sleep down there until I figure out where next to lay my head.”
“Take my bedroom,” says Sharon, anguished about dislocating Tober, especially with everything else he’s going through. “I’ll sleep in the attic.”
“No, you need to be near the girls,” he says, picking up the phone. “And as you may recall, the first time you floated the idea of adopting a child or two, George and Lisa both said I could stay at their place if it got too crazy up here. Besides, they’re hardly ever there now that Cecily and Felix have moved to LA and San Luis Obispo.”
He punches the number of their closest neighbors—the Bernsteins having built their house on Snake Creek Road twenty-two years ago, three years before Sharon moved into the farmhouse when she was seven months pregnant with Tober.
Cecily, George and Lisa’s daughter, is a year older than Tober and was his childhood pal and first crush. She lives in Los Angeles now, pursuing a career as an actress. Felix, George and Lisa’s son, is Augie’s age and matriculated at Cal Poly a year ago.
George, fifty-seven, an investment broker turned artisan furniture maker, answers his phone on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, George, it’s Tober. Got a minute?”
“Yeah, yeah. What’s going on?” George grew up in Los Angeles, the child of Chicago Jews.
“The big news up here is we’re picking up Amelia and Consuela tomorrow morning and they’ll be taking over my bedroom, so I was wondering if…”
“Yes,” says George, excitedly. “Move down here. We’d love it. We’ve got three empty bedrooms and Lisa’s gone half the time now at the beck and call of her royal highness, who, as you know, has been on the verge of stardom for six years. And counting. Be that as it may, I’d love for you to live here. Come on down.”
“Thank you, George,” says Tober, gratefully. “I’m gonna sleep in our living room for the next couple nights until the girls get settled, and then I’m driving to Portland to get Augie for Thanksgiving, and he and I may both crash at your place, if that’s okay.”
“Absolutely,” says George, ecstatically. “Can you hear Lisa shouting hurray? We’re leaving for San Luis and LA next week and we’ll be gone all through December and into New Year’s, so… you know how to get here.”
Sharon gets home with Amelia and Consuela at noon the next day, and Tober arrives an hour later with the new mattresses and lumber for building platforms for the mattresses, the platforms to have drawers underneath for the girls’ clothes and toys and extra blankets and whatnot.
Amelia, five, the older of the two sisters, is shorter and stockier than four-year-old Consuela, who is quite tall for her age and very slender. They both have shoulder-length black hair and big brown eyes. The people at the adoption agency believe the girls’ mother, a prostitute who went by the name of Candy, was part Latina, part Anglo. Amelia’s father was Mexican and Consuela’s father was African American. The girls have been in foster care since their mother died when Amelia was four and Consuela was three. The whereabouts of the fathers is unknown.
Tober enters the house and finds Consuela and Amelia and Sharon sitting at the kitchen table having blackberry smoothies and bowls of rice and vegetables. Both girls are wearing dark blue sweatshirts and gray pants and brown shoes, and both are chattering away in Spanish with Sharon, who is fluent in that language.
When the girls see Tober, they fall silent and look down, wary of making eye contact with him.
Sharon gets up from the table, takes Tober’s hand, looks at the girls and says in Spanish, “Amelia? Consuela? You’ve met my son Tober. He’s your brother now. He’s a very nice person and he speaks some Spanish, but you must help him learn more Spanish words and he will help you learn more English words.”
“Hola Amelia,” says Tober, smiling at the little girls. “Hola Consuela. Welcome home.”
“Gracias,” says Amelia, taking a peek at Tober.
“Hola,” whispers Consuela, still not looking at him. “Hermano.”
The girls take an immediate liking to the big farm dog Igor, a sixty-pound Black Lab Australian Shepherd mix, and Igor seems delighted with them. Consuela especially loves the dog and asks Sharon if she may give him some food. Sharon explains that they feed Igor in the morning and late afternoon, but not in between, and they never feed him from the table during breakfast or lunch or dinner.
Consuela ponders this information and looks into Igor’s eyes. “When it is time for you to eat,” she says, petting him, “I will feed you.”
Having located a cache of Augie and Tober’s childhood jackets, and confident Amelia and Consuela are dressed warmly enough for the bitter cold, Sharon and Tober and Igor give the girls a tour of the immediate vicinity of the farmhouse—the dormant vegetable garden, the orchard, the old barn, the woodshed, and the chicken coop wherein Amelia finds one egg and Consuela finds two.
In the late afternoon, after Amelia and Consuela have had a nap on their new mattresses, George and Lisa come up the hill to meet the newest members of the Quincy family. Lisa presents the girls with two big bags full of clothing—dresses and shirts and coats and pants that Cecily wore when she was four and five and six.
When Sharon explains to the girls that these clothes are theirs to keep, they take turns choosing an article of clothing and solemnly carrying it into their bedroom where Consuela puts her choices on one of the mattresses and Amelia puts hers on the other. The first thing Amelia chose was a shimmery red skirt, Consuela’s first choice a black long-sleeved T-shirt.
When Tober tells George about his plan to build platforms for the beds with drawers under the platforms, George insists Tober avail himself of George’s state-of-the-art woodshop.
And when Tober shows George his design for the platforms, George says, “Hey why don’t I help you with this? I’m in between projects. We could knock this off before I leave for LA. Be fun working together, don’t you think?”
Raymond’s partner Tina will sometimes tease Raymond by saying he loves his guitar Susie more than he loves her, which Raymond doesn’t think is true, though he does love his guitar. He’s been playing since he was ten, and now he’s thirty-three, a superb guitarist, and he can’t imagine life without a guitar. He also can’t imagine life without Tina, and he knows she only teases him about loving Susie more than he loves her when she wants him to pay more attention to her, which is something he’s always happy to do.
A wearer of brown khaki pants, red high-top tennies, and colorful T-shirts, Raymond Chance is a sturdy five-foot-nine with short brown hair and brilliant green eyes, the brilliance somewhat muted by his wire-framed glasses, the lenses tinted light gray. The youngest of two children, his sister five years older than he, Raymond was born in Burlingame, California, his mother a first-generation Irish American, his father descended from pioneers who reached California in wagon trains a decade before the Gold Rush of 1849. From his mother, a high school music teacher, Raymond got his love of music and storytelling, and from his father, a plumber, he learned basic carpentry skills, an appreciation for baseball, and how to barbecue chicken.
A wearer of skirts, sandals, and embroidered Mexican blouses, Tina Ramirez is thirty-two, five-foot-three, with big brown eyes and long brown hair. The middle child of five siblings, Tina was born in San Jose, California, her mother Cuban, her father Mexican. A gymnast from the age of six until she was sixteen, Tina was an excellent student and received a full scholarship to San Jose State. From her mother, a seamstress, Tina learned to cook and make clothes and dance the Rumba and Mambo. From her father, a construction worker, Tina learned to work hard, how to grow tomatoes and chili peppers, and how to make killer guacamole.
Tina and Raymond have been friends for eleven years, lovers for nine, housemates for eight, and they both say they want to get married, but they haven’t set a date, nor do they talk much about marriage. They are both ambivalent about having children, not because they don’t love children, they do, but because they barely make enough money to cover their expenses, despite having an old car and sharing the three-bedroom house they rent in Oakland with four other people.
Raymond is a teacher’s aide in a private pre-school in Berkeley, his hours seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, though he often stays an extra hour until the last child has gone home. He loves his job, though it pays poorly, and he frequently searches the Want Ads for another job. He plays the guitar for at least two hours every day and has written hundreds of songs, seventy-four of which he thinks are really good.
Tina is a substitute teacher, mostly middle school, and makes twice what Raymond makes per hour, but she hates subbing and is taking online courses to improve her computer skills and enhance her chances of landing an Internet Technology job. Both she and Raymond have degrees in English from San Jose State where they met in a Creative Writing class. Tina hasn’t written anything since graduating from college, and Raymond mostly writes songs these days, though occasionally he’ll write a short story and share it with the household.
Raymond and Tina have a band called Pepperoni. Raymond is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist and writer of all the songs, Tina plays electric bass and sings harmony, and Derek, Raymond’s friend since childhood, plays lead guitar. They’ve had one regular gig for the last five months, every Sunday late morning to early afternoon at Calm Coffee, a popular café in Emeryville. Raymond has tried to get more gigs for the band, but the three songs on the Pepperoni demo CD they made in their living room reveal more of the group’s flaws than virtues. Raymond is a masterful guitarist with a pleasing voice, but Tina is frequently out of synch with Raymond when singing harmony and playing bass, and Derek is a sloppy player who uses the same seven-note blues riff over and over again.
Now and then, usually when he hasn’t had enough sleep, Raymond admits to himself that Tina and Derek are musical liabilities, but Tina loves playing bass and singing with Raymond, and Derek and Raymond started playing guitars together in Fifth Grade and Raymond thinks Derek would be devastated if he couldn’t be in the band.
Raymond landed the Calm Coffee gig by playing and singing solo for the manager of the café, Fiona Marconi, in her office adjacent to the café kitchen. Fiona, a professional dancer with expressive hands and short black hair, loved Raymond’s singing and playing, and she was more than a little peeved when he showed up with Tina and Derek for the gig; but she has such an enormous crush on Raymond, she can’t bring herself to fire Pepperoni.
One rainy Sunday in April, Tina wakes with a debilitating headache and Derek calls from Burlingame where he still lives with his parents to say he has the flu, so Raymond goes to play the Calm Coffee gig by himself.
When Raymond tells Fiona he’ll be playing solo today, Fiona wants to throw her arms around him and kiss him, but she resists those impulses and effuses, “Truth be told, you’re so good by yourself, I really don’t think you need those other two.”
Raymond nods his thanks to Fiona for her compliment, tunes Susie, plugs into the café sound system, and sits on a high stool rather than standing as he usually does when he performs with Tina and Derek.
He starts his first set with a swinging love song full of delightful chord changes and enchanting lyrics, and many of the customers stop talking to listen. At song’s end, the applause is boisterous, something that never happens when Tina and Derek play with Raymond.
The interesting thing to Raymond is, though he knows he sounds much better playing and singing alone, he misses Tina and Derek playing with him. And on this Sunday, for the first time in his life, he realizes he has chosen mediocrity over excellence because he is uncomfortable playing in public by himself. But why do I have to play with such lousy musicians?
By the end of Raymond’s third set, Calm Coffee is jammed with people listening to him; and when he finishes his last tune, the applause goes on for so long he is moved to play an encore, after which dozens of people put money in his tip jar and thank him for playing.
Fiona pays Raymond twenty dollars more than the usual fifty, gives him a big bag of muffins and cookies, and goes on and on about what a wonderful solo performer he is, but she stops short of asking him to henceforth play the Calm Coffee gig solo.
In his car, before heading home, Raymond counts his tips and can’t believe the total. So he counts the money again, looks around to confirm he is still on planet Earth, and whispers, “Two hundred and forty-seven dollars? Impossible.”
The following Sunday morning at ten, Fiona is gravely disappointed when Derek, a heavyset guy with long dank blond hair, and Tina arrive at Calm Coffee with Raymond. But despite her disappointment, Fiona decides not to tell Raymond about the dozens of phone calls she received during the week from people asking if Raymond would be playing by himself again this week.
The truth is, Fiona has only kept Pepperoni on the bill for as long as she has because she keeps hoping Raymond will either break up with Tina or wake up to his genius and start gigging solo, or both. But because Fiona did not call Raymond in the days leading up to this Sunday’s gig and tell him about those phone calls from people who love him but can’t stand the full ensemble, she decides to let today’s drama unfold however it will and hope her customers won’t boo the band, though if they do boo, she won’t be surprised.
As it happens, the customers don’t boo, either because they don’t stay to listen or they stay and don’t listen, the café din all but drowning out the music; and Raymond feels terrible as Tina keeps losing the beat and playing the wrong notes and coming in late with her harmonies, and Derek keeps bending the same handful of notes exactly as he’s been bending them since he was thirteen.
Only a few people put change in the tip jar, and when the last song is sung, Fiona asks Raymond to come to her office where she pays him and says, “I’m sorry, Raymond, but we’re going to go with somebody else on Sundays from now on. It was great getting to know you. I love your songs. Good luck.”
“I appreciate you keeping us on here for as long as you did,” says Raymond, smiling at her. “Meant a lot to us. Thanks.”
Fiona takes a deep breath and says, “If you ever want to play solo, let me know. Okay? I’d love to have you gig here and I know I could get you gigs other places, too. But not with Tina and Derek. They’re just not in your league, Raymond. You know that, don’t you?”
“I hear you,” he says, waving goodbye. “Thanks again, Fiona.”
At the table in Calm Coffee where Derek and Tina and Raymond are having their customary after-gig coffee and bagels, Raymond is trying to work up the courage to tell Tina and Derek about the termination of their run at Calm Coffee, when a man approaches their table. He’s tall and good-looking with longish gray hair, wearing a black corduroy jacket over a green T-shirt tucked into black corduroy trousers.
He nods politely to Tina and Derek, smiles at Raymond and says, “Sorry to barge in, but I heard you playing solo last week and came back to hear you again today.” He hands Raymond a business card. “I’m very interested in your music. I have a recording studio just around the corner here, and I’m working with a couple of artists who would love to record some of your songs. If that’s of any interest to you, please give me a call and we’ll set something up.”
“Okay,” says Raymond, pocketing the card without looking at it. “Thanks.”
The man walks away, and now Raymond doesn’t have the heart to tell Tina and Derek about the end of their Calm Coffee gig, just as he didn’t have the heart to tell them about the two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips and the extra twenty he made last week.
That night, as they are settling down to sleep, Tina says to Raymond, “I felt pretty good about my playing today. I think I’m finally getting the knack of playing bass and singing at the same time. Don’t you think?”
Raymond clears his throat. “Yeah. You were fine.”
“Fine?” she says, with a touch of anger. “What do you mean fine?”
“I mean you were good,” says Raymond, unconvincingly.
“That guy who gave you his card certainly thought we were good,” she says, petulantly. “Why else would he be interested in our songs?”
“Honey, they’re not our songs, they’re my songs.”
“What?” she says, sitting up and turning on the light. “Your songs? Since when are they your songs and not Pepperoni’s songs?”
“Are you serious?” says Raymond, frowning at her. “I wrote them. I play them. I sing them and you guys play along. You didn’t write them. I did.”
Tina gets out of bed and glares at Raymond. “So does this mean you’re gonna go see that guy without me and Derek? Your songs are… they’re skeletal without us.”
“Skeletal?” says Raymond, sitting up and laughing. “Are you out of your mind?”
Tina folds her arms. “So this is what I get for playing with you for five years? This is how you treat Derek after he played with you for twenty years? You dump us the minute some guy with a recording studio gives you his card?”
“The guy is interested in my songs,” says Raymond, flabbergasted. “Not in our band. He wants the songs, maybe, for some people he’s recording. I’m a songwriter. You’re not, and neither is Derek. Can we please discuss this rationally? I am not dumping you. If I go see this guy, and I may not, I will play him my songs and if he wants some of them, we’ll figure something out. Do you hear what I’m saying? This is not about the band. It’s about the songs.”
“Yeah, but he liked the songs because of the way we played them,” she says, angrily. “Will you at least admit that?”
“No,” says Raymond, shaking his head. “What I’ll admit is last Sunday I played at Calm Coffee without you and Derek, and I made two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips, and Fiona paid me an extra twenty dollars over the usual fifty. And today she told me she doesn’t want Pepperoni playing there anymore.”
Tina glares at Raymond. “I know why you’re doing this. Because you resent that I make more money than you, and you resent that I’m going to get a tech job and make serious money while you barely make minimum wage.”
“Tina,” he says quietly. “I’m happy you make good money subbing, and I’ll be happy when you get a job you like and make even more money. I work at the pre-school because I love the job and I love the kids, but my real job, the job I care most about, is my music. And I really don’t understand why you would begrudge me a little success with what I’ve dedicated my whole life to. I don’t get it.”
She sits on the edge of the bed and says, “I begrudge you because I’m jealous of you. As if you didn’t know. I was gonna be a writer. Remember? And you were gonna be a writer. But we ended up being what we are, and I don’t do anything creative except play bass and sing with you, and I know I’m not very good, but I love it because it’s something creative, something not just about getting money and surviving. It’s what we wanted to be. Artists. And you work at being an artist and I don’t. I could write. I could write stories and post them online. But I don’t because I’m not passionate about writing anymore. I don’t see the point. And I’m tired of just scraping by. You don’t seem to care that you don’t make very much money because you’ve got your music. But I don’t have music except when I play along with you. And now I can’t even do that.”
Raymond crawls across the bed and puts his arms around her. “Maybe we should move somewhere where it doesn’t cost so much to live. We don’t have to live in the most expensive place in the world. Do we?”
“No,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “I’m sorry I got mad at you. I’m glad that guy likes your songs. They’re great songs.” She kisses him. “Did you really make two hundred and forty-seven dollars, plus the fifty, plus twenty more?”
“I did,” says Raymond, excitedly. “Wanna see?”
Suite Chariot is the name of Zack Mathias’s recording company, Zack Mathias the man who gave Raymond his card at Calm Coffee. Raymond researched Zack Mathias on the Internet and learned that Zack, who hails from New York, has produced several albums for well-known singers and played bass on dozens of albums, some of them hugely successful.
Which is why, on the Saturday after Pepperoni performed at Calm Coffee for the last time, Raymond hesitates to press the brass doorbell button on the wall next to the large red door on the ground floor of a two-story white stucco warehouse, the sign above the door—magenta letters on a field of turquoise—identifying this as the entrance to Suite Chariot.
Indeed, Raymond is so intimidated by the thought of meeting Zack, he is on the verge of not pressing the doorbell, and returning home and sending an apologetic email to Zack retracting his offer to meet with him, when a woman runs by with a large menacing dog on a leash, and Raymond is startled into pressing the button.
And before his fear of meeting Zack can take over again, the red door opens and here is a striking African American woman with black hair captured in dozens of long slender braids. She is wearing a turquoise sweatshirt, purple sweatpants, and gold basketball shoes, her lips painted cherry red.
“Welcome Raymond,” she says, giving Raymond a wide-eyed smile, her voice deep and warm. “I’m Maru. Zack’s running a little late. Come in. We’ll get you set up in the studio. He’ll be here soon.”
Raymond follows Maru down a long narrow hallway to a small waiting room appointed with a plush sofa and armchair, one wall of the little room dominated by a large oil painting of Jimi Hendrix wearing the long curly brown-haired wig and sumptuous clothing of Louis XIV while holding an electric lute plugged into a classic Fender Reverb amp.
From the waiting room, they enter a large performance room with a big window in one of the walls looking into a control room where an African American man with short gray hair is sitting in a comfortable-looking chair at the recording console. He is wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt, a red bowtie, and black slacks. He waves to Raymond, and Raymond waves back.
“Um,” says Raymond, looking around the performance room and seeing five microphones on stands, a trap set, and a large reddish-brown standup bass in a beautiful wooden box stand, “I didn’t think I was going to be recording anything today. I thought we were just going to… I was just gonna play some tunes for Zack and…”
“That’s right,” says Maru, moving one of the microphones, “but Zack likes to record everything because we never know when lightning might strike.”
“That’s true,” says Raymond, taking of his jacket. “We never know, do we?”
“Nope,” says Maru, taking Raymond’s jacket from him. “People call you Raymond or Ray?”
“Raymond,” he says, laughing nervously. “But that’s only because nobody’s ever called me Ray. I don’t know why, but no one ever has.”
“Raymond feels a little formal to me,” she says, pursing her lips. “Be okay if I call you Ray?”
“Yeah, I like it when you say Ray,” he says, blushing.
“How about when I say Ray?” says the fellow in the control room, his gravelly voice coming through a speaker on the wall above the window.
“Yeah, I like that, too,” says Raymond, smiling at the man. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Jerry,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “But everybody calls me Tap.”
“Tap’s a most excellent drummer,” says Maru, coming close to Raymond. “You like to stand or sit when you play?”
“Either,” says Raymond, feeling like he’s about to fall off a cliff. “Whatever you think is best.”
“Your choice,” says Maru, nodding.
“Well, I play a little better sitting down,” says Raymond, looking around for something to sit on, “but I sing better standing.” He shrugs. “I guess I’ll sit.”
“Chair, stool, or piano bench?” asks Tap, getting up from his chair in the control room. “I’m thinkin’ piano bench.”
“Yeah, that would be perfect,” says Raymond, getting Susie out of her case. “I’ve never been in a recording studio before.”
“Seriously?” says Maru, frowning at him. “You play like you were born in one, Ray.”
“Where… “ Raymond clears his throat. “Where did you hear me play?”
“At Calm Coffee,” she says, nodding. “Two weeks ago. Zack called and told us to get over there as soon as we could. And I’m so glad we did.” She looks into the control room. “Here’s Zack.”
“Hey Raymond,” says Zack, standing at the control console. “Sorry I’m late. Got stuck in traffic on the bridge. Madhouse out there.”
“You live in San Francisco?” asks Raymond, watching Tap wheel in a big brown piano bench on a yellow dolly.
“No, I live here when I’m in town,” says Zack, taking off his jacket, his T-shirt red today. “Upstairs. Couple bedrooms, kitchen, dance floor. I stayed in a hotel in the city last night. Stayed up way too late listening to a couple singer songwriters.” He sits down at the console. “And the whole time I was listening to them, I kept thinking about your songs, especially that one about the guy who goes next door to complain about the loud music and ends up falling in love. That’s a hit, Raymond.”
“Oh, thanks,” says Raymond, unconsciously fingering the first few chords of the song. “Glad you like it. That one’s called ‘Too Much Noise.’”
“Great song,” says Zack, nodding. “Would you play that one first?”
“Sure,” says Raymond, sitting on the piano bench and tuning Susie as Maru positions three microphones around him, one for his voice, one aimed at Susie’s sound hole, one aimed at Susie’s neck.
“You want headphones?” asks Maru, smiling sweetly at Raymond.
“For what?” he asks, innocently.
“To hear yourself playing and singing.” She laughs in delight. “You really are a studio virgin, aren’t you?”
“Let’s go without headphones,” says Zack, with quiet authority. “They can take some getting used to.”
Maru and Tap join Zack in the control room, and Zack says, “Any time you’re ready, Mr. Chance.”
Raymond closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and improvises a lovely opening for his sweet little rocker “Too Much Noise”.
In the unsullied quiet of the performance room, Raymond hears his voice and guitar more clearly than he has ever heard them, and he loves how he sounds.
When he finishes the tune, he opens his eyes and sees Maru and Tap and Zack applauding in the control room; and in the next moment they are with him—Tap sitting down at the trap set, Zack standing with his big bass, and Maru sitting on a high stool.
“Play that one again, Raymond,” says Zack, nodding. “That was fantastic.”
So Raymond starts the song again, this time with a different opening, and Zack adds a few quiet bass notes right on the beat, and Tap swirls his brushes on the snare drum; and Zack’s subtle playing and Tap’s tender drumming carry Raymond into the body of his song.
And as he plays and sings, Raymond knows he has never heard anything as beautiful as Zack and Tap playing with him, supporting him; and when Maru joins him on the chorus, her astounding voice locked in perfect harmony with his, Raymond is changed forever.
Too much noise, the walls were shaking
Too much noise, my heart was breaking
Too much noise, I just couldn’t take it,
So I went next door and fell in love.
Raymond plays three more of his songs, Zack and Tap and Maru join him on reiterations of each, and after an hour of musical bliss, Maru whips out her phone and orders Chinese food, and the four of them go upstairs to await delivery of lunch.
Zack gives Raymond a tour of his digs, and during the tour tells Raymond he has two other set-ups like this, one in Austin, one in London.
“The only actual house I own is in Hawaii, on Kauai,” he says, leading Raymond back to the kitchen. “I like to be warm in the winter.”
Tap comes up the stairs with the Chinese food, and when everyone has a full plate, Zack raises his cup of green tea and says, “To our great good fortune in finding you, Raymond. May this be the beginning of a marvelous collaboration.”
Glasses are clinked, tea is drunk, food is enjoyed, and Zack says, “So… Raymond. If you haven’t guessed already, I want to produce your first album. And your second and third and fourth, God willing.”
“My album?” says Raymond, freezing. “I thought you were just interested in my songs for other people to record.”
“Oh other people are definitely gonna record your songs,” says Tap, nodding emphatically. “But you have to make a record, Ray. You have to.”
“I… I… well, of course I want to, but…”
A silence falls, Zack and Tap and Maru waiting for Raymond to explain his reticence.
“As I told you, Zack,” says Raymond, clearing his throat, “I have a fulltime job at a pre-school. I’m a teacher’s aide. And… I suppose I could do some recording at night and on weekends, but…”
“You keep saying but,” says Maru, frowning at him. “What’s up with that, Ray?”
“I’m… well…” He laughs anxiously. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before so I’m just… I’m not sure how to do this.”
“May I propose something?” says Zack, smiling hopefully at Raymond.
“Please,” says Raymond, nodding humbly.
“I will sign you to a six-month recording deal with me as the producer of your album, and I’ll pay you a monthly salary equal to or greater than what you make in your current job. We’ll make an album, the four of us along with some other people we’ll bring in, and then I’ll try to make a deal with a label. I think Blue Note will go crazy over you.”
“Crazy,” says Maru, nodding in agreement.
“And if they don’t go crazy, somebody else will,” says Tap, pointing at Raymond. “I’d bet serious dollars on that.”
Raymond takes Tina out for supper that night to an Indian restaurant, and after they place their order, Tina says, “The suspense is killing me. How did it go today with Zack Mathias the famous bass player?”
“Went well,” says Raymond, nodding. “Went… um… really well. He wants to produce an album with me.”
“He wants some of your songs?” she asks hopefully.
“All the songs on the album would be mine,” says Raymond, finding it hard to breathe. “And I would be playing them and singing them with Zack playing bass and a guy named Tap playing drums and a woman named Maru singing with me, and other people, too, would play and sing on the album.”
Tina frowns. “I thought he just wanted some of your songs. Isn’t that what he said at Calm Coffee?”
“Yes, that’s what he said at the café, but after I played him a few songs, he got this other idea.” Raymond smiles, trying not to cry. “He’s a very nice guy, Tina, and he’s a fantastic musician and… and he really likes my music. So…”
“Wow,” says Tina, her eyes filling with tears. “So are you gonna do it?”
“Yes,” says Raymond, looking at her. “I think so. I want to go over the contract with you and…”
“You’re signing a contract?” says Tina, frowning. “Is he paying you?”
“Well… if I sign the contract, yes. He’ll pay me four thousand dollars a month for six months and cover all the costs of the recording and the other musicians and… I’ll be taking a break from working at the pre-school to just focus on the music.”
“Oh my God, Raymond,” she says, getting up and going to him. “It’s incredible. Hurray for you.”
“Hurray for us,” he says, rising to embrace her—their outburst inspiring several diners to clap because they think Raymond just proposed to Tina and she’s saying Yes.
They hold each other, crying and laughing, and Raymond says, “Thank you, honey. Thank you for loving me.”
“I love you so much,” she says, looking into his eyes. “But how are you ever gonna tell Derek?”
Raymond signs the contract with Zack the next day, and the day after that he gives two-weeks notice at the pre-school, and the following Saturday he takes BART from Oakland to Burlingame to have lunch with Derek.
For the entire hour-long train journey, Raymond is consumed with guilt, not about pursuing his musical career without Derek, but for allowing Derek to believe he was Raymond’s musical peer for the last twenty years, when in fact Derek reached his musical zenith in junior high.
For many years, Raymond assumed Derek was aware of the difference in their guitar-playing abilities, but one weekend during Raymond’s third year at San Jose State, Derek visited Raymond at the house Raymond was renting with four other college guys, and something happened during Derek’s visit that made Raymond rethink his assumption about how Derek perceived things.
One of Raymond’s housemates, Gino, was a good guitarist, and Raymond and Gino had worked out some fairly complicated duets of three Django Reinhardt tunes. The Saturday night when Derek was visiting, Gino and Raymond performed the duets at their house party attended by about forty young men and women, and the response to their playing was so enthusiastic they were compelled to perform their duets a second time.
Afterwards, Derek, who was very stoned, joined a group of people heaping praise on Gino and Raymond, and proclaimed loudly, “Yeah, they were good, but you should hear me and Raymond play. We’re amazing together.”
Several people responded to Derek’s boast by asking to hear Raymond and Derek play. Gino handed his guitar to Derek, Raymond took up his guitar, and Derek said, “Play that blues thing we always do.”
So Raymond improvised a pleasing progression of jazzy blues chords and Derek played the same seven-note riff over and over again, not quite in synch with Raymond, and when Raymond ended the song, a few people clapped, and that was that.
The next morning, before Derek headed back to Burlingame, he said to Raymond, “We should start a band. We were incredible last night. People were blown away.”
Ten minutes from Burlingame, recalling that moment in San Jose twelve years ago, Raymond thinks That’s when I should have told him. But I couldn’t because he didn’t have anything else in his life and I thought he would kill himself if I told him the truth.
After Raymond graduated from college and moved to Oakland, Derek would come visit for a day and a night every week, and in the evenings during those visits, Raymond and Derek would play guitars and Derek would play the same blues riff over and over again.
Raymond thought of these sessions as his gift to Derek for being such a loyal friend and because he didn’t have the will to tell Derek not to come visit, though he and Tina came to dread Derek coming because he seemed so lost and sad and he still lived at home with his parents and had never had a girlfriend and didn’t seem to have anything in his life except television and video games and his job delivering newspapers.
Derek and Raymond have lunch in a pizza parlor where Derek goes every day, his home away from home, where everyone who works there knows him by name.
“I think I could get us a gig here,” says Derek, looking around the pizza parlor. “They don’t have live music here, but I’ll bet I could talk them into it.” He nods confidently. “They love me here.”
“This is good pizza,” says Raymond, lying; and his lie irks him, and he blurts, “You know that guy who gave me his card at Calm Coffee?”
“Yeah,” says Derek, nodding enthusiastically. “He had a great belt. Did you notice his belt? It was like this amazing shiny dark burgundy leather. And very thin. And the belt buckle was silver and like a piece of modern art. I went online looking for a belt like that, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll bet it’s Italian. Looked very expensive. What about him?”
“His name is Zack Mathias and he turns out to be quite a well-known record producer and bass player.” Raymond looks away from Derek. “I’m gonna be making an album with him.”
“Really?” says Derek, amazed. “When?”
“Starting now and working for the next few months and then… he’s gonna try to sell the album to a record company.” Raymond forces himself to look at Derek. “He really likes my songs and my singing and… my playing.”
“Well he should,” says Derek, grinning at Raymond. “So will you be like… touring?”
“I don’t know,” says Raymond, his heart breaking. “Maybe.”
“Wow,” says Derek, beckoning to a passing waitress. “Hey Leslie, this is my best friend Raymond. He’s making an album with a big time record producer.”
“Congratulations,” says Leslie, with little enthusiasm.
“Thank you,” says Raymond, his eyes full of tears.
“So you gonna be his roadie, Derek?” asks Leslie, arching her eyebrow.
“No, he won’t need a roadie,” says Derek, gazing fondly at Raymond. “He’s great all by himself.”
Zelman was born and raised in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. His given name is Zachariah Elman, though as far back as he can remember, which is thirty years to when he was three, his mother and father and older sister and younger brother called him Z.
At Cornell, where he majored in Music, his name appeared on the dorm roster as Z. Elman, and during a mixer on his first night of college, his inebriated roommate called him Zelman, and forever after he has been known as Zelman.
His senior year at Cornell, Zelman fell in love with the beautiful Mimi Osterwald, a Drama major, also a senior, and the summer after they graduated, they got married and moved to Queens, Mimi to pursue her acting career, Zelman to play guitar and piano and write songs.
Eleven years later, living in an apartment in Burlington, New Jersey, barely making ends meet, Mimi told Zelman she was involved with Albert Rosenstein, a television producer, and was moving to Albert’s apartment in Manhattan.
Unable to afford the apartment in Burlington on his own, Zelman gave two-weeks notice at the hotel where he played piano in the cocktail lounge, and two-weeks notice at the pizza parlor where he worked thirty hours a week. When his obligations to his employers were fulfilled, he loaded his clothes and books and two guitars and two ukuleles and a conga drum and bongos and maracas into his forest green 1972 Volkswagen van named Miles, and headed west, his destination Los Angeles where he had a college chum who was a recording engineer and had space in his living room where Zelman could crash for a while.
Zelman at thirty-three has longish brown hair, wears wire-framed glasses, and is slender for the first time in twenty years. He was never obese, but from puberty until recently he was more than a little chubby. Starting a year ago, he began swimming fifty laps every morning at the Burlington Aquatic Center, lifting weights for an hour every afternoon at the YMCA, and gave up beer, potato chips, and ice cream, all of which led to the disappearance of thirty pounds and the appearance of muscles.
As Mimi said several times in the weeks leading up to the end of their relationship, “Suddenly you’re all svelte and handsome. What happened to the sweet soft guy I married?”
“The sweet soft guy you married stopped feeling sorry for himself,” says Zelman, cruising along in the slow lane on Interstate 64 somewhere in Kentucky in late September, his van averse to going over fifty-miles-per-hour. “The sweet soft guy you married decided to stop partaking of your sob fest every night, which was apparently just a cover for your affair with that slimy putz Rosenstein who is old enough to be your father. Well, not quite.”
Zelman sighs as he does after every outburst concerning Mimi, his sigh an acknowledgement that he misses her, though he knows their relationship was founded on the expectation that whether they succeeded in their chosen careers or not, they would always live as comfortably as they had as middle class children and teenagers and young adults attending an Ivy League college; and when they could no longer afford to live so comfortably, their relationship began to founder.
“Which means she never really loved me,” says Zelman, exiting the interstate to get gas. “So did I ever really love her? Or was I just obsessed with trying to win her love because she was beautiful and vivacious and I was chunky and wimpy and thought if by some miracle she would love me, I would be transformed into…what? Not me?”
“What town is this?” asks Zelman, handing a twenty-dollar bill to the middle-aged Pakistani man sitting on a high stool behind the counter in the gas station quick-stop store.
“Which pump?” asks the Pakistani man, taking the bill from Zelman.
“Witch Pump?” says Zelman, wrinkling his nose. “Why would anyone name a town Witch Pump?”
The Pakistani man gazes stoically at Zelman. “Which pump do you want gas from?”
“Oh,” says Zelman, laughing. “Number Four. And can you tell me the name of this town?”
“Frankfort,” says the man, tapping the requisite keys on his computer to activate Pump Number Four.
Zelman is cleaning his windshield when a shiny black Porsche pulls up behind his van, and a man wearing black cowboy boots and black jeans and a red silk shirt and a black cowboy hat and dark glasses jumps out and says with a southern drawl, “Hello there. You want to make a quick hundred bucks?”
“Are you speaking to me?” asks Zelman, smiling quizzically at the man.
“I am,” says the man, taking off his dark glasses and blinking in the bright sunlight. “We’re shooting a music video just up the road here and if you’ll drive your van back and forth real slow behind the action, I’ll give you a hundred bucks cash. Take a couple hours.” He grins. “That’s a helluva van you got there, buddy. Iconic. 1973? 74?”
“72,” says Zelman, gazing fondly at his van. “My father bought it new when he graduated from college, and then he gave it to me when I went off to Cornell.”
“That’s not the original paint job, is it?” asks the man, frowning.
“No,” says Zelman, wistfully. “I did this by hand the summer after my junior year of college. Seven coats. Hence the profound shellac effect. Did you notice the thousands of tiny gold stars on the dark green? An homage to Seurat.”
“I did not notice the stars,” says the man, taking a closer look at the paint job. “Beautiful. You want the gig?”
“I do,” says Zelman, both curious and low on cash.
The action behind which Zelman slowly drives his van is performed by a troupe of nine amazingly limber female dancers ranging in age from seven to thirty, dancing with shopping carts in the big empty parking lot of a defunct mall. The dancers are wearing artfully ripped T-shirts of various colors tucked into white jeans, their feet shod in pink tennis shoes.
Burt Carlton, the man who hired Zelman and his van, is the producer of the music video. Vivienne Bartok, the director of the shoot, is small and slender and Russian, her black hair cut very short. She is wearing a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded blue jeans and red sandals. Zelman guesses Vivienne is about his age, though he also thinks she could be as young as twenty-five and as old as forty.
When Vivienne sees Zelman’s van, she gets very excited and says to Zelman with her charming Russian accent, “Here is what I want you to do. Drive by very slowly about ten feet behind the dancers, go out-of-frame, turn around, and then slowly return and stop right behind the dancers and stay there until they finish their routine. When the music stops, you will drive away and the dancers will chase after you with their shopping carts.”
The song for the video is five-minutes-long and features drum machines playing a syncopated rhythm over a great din of synthesized sound, the words of the three-note melody sung by a woman with a high screechy voice. For each of the takes, the song is blasted from a large speaker sitting atop the equipment truck. The first time Zelman drives by behind the dancers, he thinks the singer is saying, “You my slave.” When he drives back the other way and comes to a stop behind the dancers, he thinks the woman might be saying, “Glue my cave.”
In any case, Zelman loathes the song and hopes Burt and Vivienne won’t ask him to drive back and forth more than a few times.
After the third take, while the dancers take a break for water and to catch their breaths, Zelman gets out of his van and watches Vivienne direct her cameraperson to shoot close-ups of the golden flowers on the dark green.
“Is Zelman your first name or your last name?” asks Vivienne, pronouncing first fierce and last lest, which Zelman finds ironic and sexy.
“Both,” he says, looking around the parking lot at the dancers and the film crew and his old green van, and he is amazed to realize that just a little while ago he was driving along the interstate feeling as lost as he has ever felt, almost out of gas, and now he’s in Frankfort, Kentucky on a warm afternoon in early autumn, starring with his van in a music video and making a hundred dollars.
“What do you do, Zelman?” asks Vivienne, smiling curiously at him.
“I’m a musician,” he says, nodding to affirm this. “Piano and guitar and all manner of percussion. And I write songs. But I’ve had many other jobs to support my musical habit.”
“Have you got a demo I can listen to?” she asks, arching her eyebrow in a beguiling way. “Maybe this is why God brought you to me? I’m always looking for good songs.”
“No demo,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but if we can find a piano, I’d be happy to give you a concert.”
“We can find a piano,” she says, nodding. “But first, a few more takes of this dance with your van.”
Eleven more takes consume three hours, and dusk is descending when the assistant director finally says, “That’s a wrap,” and the film crew starts loading their cameras and lights and booms into the equipment truck; and the dancers get in their cars and drive away.
Burt hands Zelman a hundred dollars, ruminates for a moment, and gives him another hundred. “Woulda cost me at least three hundred to rent something like your van for the day. Thanks again.”
“Thank you,” says Zelman, shaking Burt’s hand. “Much appreciated.”
“Gotta run,” says Burt, winking at Zelman.
“Of course,” says Zelman, watching Vivienne talking to a crewmember, a handsome guy with a baseball cap on backwards; and as he watches her, he decides she was only making small talk when she said they would find a piano. Even so, he lingers a while longer in case she really does want to hear his music—and the longer he lingers, the more invisible he feels.
Now Burt pulls up beside Vivienne in his shiny black Porsche, she gets in, and they zoom away.
Zelman sighs, takes a moment to let go of his disappointment, climbs into his van, and starts his engine. And as he depresses the clutch and puts his hand on the 8-ball-knob of the stick shift, he sees a small peach-colored envelope affixed to the door of his glove compartment with a piece of pink duct tape.
So he kills his engine, opens the envelope, and finds Vivienne’s elegant gray business card with a note written on the back in the smallest neatest hand he has ever seen.
Z. Sorry for subterfuge. I’ll explain later. I’m at Brown Hotel in Louisville. Supper? My treat. Call me. V.
They partake of a delicious room-service supper in Vivienne’s plush suite on the third floor of the beautiful old hotel in downtown Louisville, the windows open, the evening warm and sultry. Vivienne is wearing a red T-shirt and pink sweat pants, Zelman a black T-shirt and baggy brown corduroy trousers, both of them barefoot. Vivienne has spicy prawns and mashed potatoes and a beet salad and two beers, while Zelman has fried chicken and mashed potatoes and string beans and a half-bottle of red wine.
They interview each other. Vivienne gets a quick overview of Zelman’s life, and Zelman learns that Vivienne is twenty-nine and emigrated to Los Angeles from Russia with her mother and father and younger sister when she was fifteen. While her father drove a taxi and her mother worked in a bakery, Vivienne suffered through a brief stint in high school before she landed a job as a gofer on the set of a movie produced by the father of a young man she met at a dance club. The gofer job led to more film production jobs, and she’s been in the movie biz ever since.
“I’m very ambitious,” she says, loading a small brass pipe with a glistening bud of marijuana. “I aspire to make feature films. But I actually have scruples, believe it or not.” She holds a match over the bud and takes a hit. “I don’t use sex to get what I want. I use my talent.”
She hands the pipe to Zelman, he takes a little hit, and hands the pipe back to her.
“You don’t smoke much pot, Zelman?” She arches a quizzical eyebrow. “Afraid you might say something you’ll regret?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I just…a little goes a long way for me.”
“Me, too,” she says, taking another hit and handing him the pipe again. “This is very mellow stuff. Good for talking and music.”
Zelman has another hit. “Your note said you would explain later. Explain what?”
“Oh Burt is in love with me,” she says, shrugging. “I give him no hope, but he has big crush, so…I have three more days working here and he would be jealous if he knew I invited you, so it’s better he doesn’t know. It will make the next three days less hassle for me if he doesn’t know. Unrequited love is one thing, but jealousy wrecks everything.”
“Whereas unrequited love inspires love songs,” says Zelman, finding her surpassingly lovely.
“Exactly,” she says, laughing. “He’s not a bad producer. Look how he found you and your van.”
“I can see why he’s in love with you,” says Zelman, gesturing as if presenting her to the world. “You’re a darling.”
“This is famous Chekhov story,” says Vivienne, nodding slowly. “The Darling. I am opposite of this character. Do you know the story?”
“I don’t,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “How are you the opposite?”
“She takes on ambitions of the men she marries. She cannot exist except as an assistant to powerful men, one after another. I have my own ambitions and I like being the boss. I like to collaborate, but not give up my power.”
“That’s why I love music,” says Zelman, itching to play a song for her. “I can play alone or share the magic.”
“There’s a piano in the ballroom they are not using tonight,” says Vivienne, having a last puff. “They said we could use the piano.”
Zelman is awestruck by the Steinway in the ballroom, a superb seven-foot grand in perfect tune, and being blissfully stoned, he launches into a jazzy bluesy improvisation full of longing and mystery that leads seamlessly into his song Nothing Anybody Says, his smoky tenor riding on glorious waves of notes and chords.
Now he looks up from the keys and sees Vivienne swaying to the music, her hands clasped, her eyes closed, a sublime smile on her face, and seeing her so enthralled by his music inspires Zelman to sing the last verse especially for her.
“What just happened?” she asks, opening her eyes and gazing wide-eyed at him. “You hypnotized me.”
“I played for you,” he says—a boy again, delighted by this enchanting girl who loves his music.
“Was amazing,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Come back to my room. We have much to discuss.”
In Vivienne’s room again, Zelman gets out his guitar and plays a rollicking samba-like tune with lyrics about the blurry line between love and lust, while Vivienne dances around the room with joyful abandon.
“Okay,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “here is my idea, Zelman. Yes, we are high and I must hear you again when I’m not stoned, but I know we can have big success together. First we will create videos that get hundreds of millions of views and then we make a feature film.”
“Videos of my songs?” he asks, sensing that isn’t quite what she means.
“Yes and no,” she says, picking up the hotel phone. “Hello. This is room 321. Can we please have coffee and cookies and French bread and butter? Yes, chocolate chip is fine. Thank you.”
“How yes and how no?” asks Zelman, trying and failing to imagine being married to Vivienne.
“The songs are important, of course,” she says, growing serious. “And your songs are wonderful, but without imagery they cannot prevail. Not today. The movies, the totalities of imagery and music, these are the songs now. Do you know what I mean, Zelman? If the Beatles came today and not sixty years ago their songs would be presented as soundtracks to little movies, otherwise we would not know of them. But more to the point, their songs would be designed to support the images. Songs now are subservient to imagery. Whether this is good or bad, I don’t know, but this is how things are. And this is what we can do together. Design music for movies and make those movies together.”
As he listens to Vivienne speak, Zelman realizes two things: he would love to be in a relationship with someone as straightforward and optimistic as Vivienne, though not necessarily with Vivienne, and he has absolutely no interest in designing music for movies.
The cookies and coffee and French bread and butter arrive, and after Zelman has two cups of coffee and a big piece of bread slathered with butter, he declares, “I’m going now, Vivienne. Take advantage of the caffeine high and eat up some miles on the empty interstate. I loved spending time with you. You’re wonderful. Thanks for everything.”
“Zelman?” she says, walking with him to the door. “I really like you. And I love your music. You will call me when you get to LA. Please? I really want to see you again, and I’m not just saying that.”
“I will call you when I get to LA,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I predict great success for you, Vivienne.”
“What about you?” she asks, taking his hand. “What do you predict for you?”
“A dog,” he says, embracing her. “I’d like to get a dog.”
“I like dogs, too,” she says, holding him tight. “Someday when I have a house with a yard, I will have a dog and our dogs will play together.”
“Nothing would make me happier,” he says, letting her go. “See you in LA.”
The next afternoon, Zelman stops at the FourWay Café in Cuba, Missouri, and as he peruses the menu, a woman wearing a billowy white blouse and a long rainbow-colored skirt enters the café, looks around at the twenty or so customers, sees Zelman, and crosses the room to him.
“Excuse me,” she says, her voice deep and warm, “is that your Volkswagen van out there? The green one with the gold stars?”
“Yes,” says Zelman, smiling at her. “Don’t tell me. You’re making a music video and want the iconic vehicle as a prop in your homage to the halcyon days of yore.”
The woman laughs and Zelman is struck by several things about her: how beautiful she becomes when she smiles, the jingling of her multi-faceted dangly silver earrings, the pleasant clacking of her three necklaces made of small chunks of turquoise, the sparkle in her blue eyes, the reddish hue in her long brown hair, the subtle Asiatic quality of her facial features, and the music in her laughter.
“I’m certainly dressed for such an homage,” she says, looking down at her billowy white blouse and rainbow-colored skirt and old leather sandals, “but I’m not making a music video, though I am a musician. No, I’m wondering about getting a ride with you to Arizona.” She pauses to see how Zelman reacts to that idea, and when he continues to gaze at her not unkindly, she adds, “For me and my daughter and our dog and our stuff. Our car blew up yesterday and I can’t currently afford the bus or the train or even to rent a car, but I can pay you three hundred dollars when we get to Arizona, assuming you’re heading west, which you might not be, but I thought I’d ask.”
“Are you and your daughter hungry?” asks Zelman, looking into the woman’s eyes and liking what he sees. “I would be happy to buy you lunch and we can see how we all get along. Or don’t.”
“We could use a meal,” says the woman, nodding thoughtfully. “But somebody’s gotta stay with the dog, so…”
They get their sandwiches and smoothies to go and dine on the tailgate of Zelman’s van.
The woman, Grace, is forty, a massage therapist, herbalist, and musician. Her daughter Teresa is fourteen, tall and slender with dark blonde hair in a ponytail that falls to her waist. She, too, is a musician. With them are two guitars, two violins, and two dulcimers.
The dog, Maurice, is a large seven-year-old Golden Retriever-Chocolate Lab mix, friendly, and keenly interested in food scraps.
They banter about this and that, enjoy each other, and Zelman is on the verge of agreeing to take Grace and Teresa and Maurice to Arizona, when Grace says, “We’re kind of in a hurry. I could trade off driving with you and we could go day and night without stopping.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to do that. For one thing, Miles, my van, can’t go over fifty and has to have a good long rest every seven or eight hours. With two more humans and a big dog on board, and all your stuff, forty-five would be the best we could hope for. Miles-per-hour. And then there’s me. I don’t like hurrying. Makes me anxious. I need to not be driving every other day or so. And also, though I’m headed for Los Angeles, I’m not keen on getting there any time soon, so hurrying is the exact opposite of what I want to do.”
Grace looks at Teresa, looks at the van, looks at Zelman, and says, “But if we go as slow as you want to, you’ll take us with you?”
“I will,” says Zelman, looking at Teresa and Maurice and Grace and their pile of instruments and suitcases and knapsacks and sleeping bags. “Assuming everything fits.”
On the evening of his fifth day of traveling with Grace and Teresa and Maurice, Zelman sits by the campfire in their camping spot in Lake Scott State Park in western Kansas, listening to Teresa play her dulcimer and sing a song about a girl with hair of spun gold. Grace is walking Maurice on the path that goes around the little lake, hoping the dog will poop before bedtime.
The fire makes a loud crackling sound as Teresa sings the last note of her song, and Zelman hears the crackling as God applauding, and he applauds, too.
“Get out your guitar, Zelman,” says Teresa, her voice half a girl’s and half a woman’s, for she is still a girl though fast becoming a woman. “Let’s do that one you wrote about the guy going to the party.”
“You get out your fiddle, I’ll get out my guitar,” says Zelman, turning at the sound of Grace returning with Maurice and unhooking the leash from his collar so he can rush to Zelman and rest his snout on Zelman’s lap.
“Hey you,” says Zelman, petting the love-hungry dog and watching Grace and Teresa fetch their instruments from the van; and he knows he has never been happier than he is now.
music sex love drawing by Todd
“The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” Lou Reed
I recently started playing the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, and after some weeks of aching fingers and sore wrists, I have regained enough of my former chops so playing is pleasurable and fascinating again.
The guitar I’m playing is not a very good instrument. I gave away my excellent guitar a few years ago when I was jettisoning things freighted with bad mojo. Now, as I practice on a lesser instrument, I don’t long for the guitar I gave away, but for a guitar of equal excellence. However, I have decided not to purchase a better guitar until I have gotten as good as I can on this little axe I bought to determine if the magic is still there. For some reason, I want to earn the right to own and play a fine guitar again.
That’s kind of silly, actually, because the better the instrument, the more pleasurable the experience of playing, which would be added incentive to practice and explore, but I am often kind of silly. This earning process feels right to me at this point in my physical and spiritual and emotional evolution.
Meanwhile, I occasionally receive musical instrument catalogues filled with photographs and descriptions of awesome guitars, and I find myself staring at these pictures as I might stare at photos of attractive women. I imagine holding those guitars and playing them and thrilling to the feel of them against my body as I strum them and their bodies resonate with mine. Hence the title of this essay: guitar porn.
Perhaps you know someone, most likely a man, who owns multiple guitars, and I don’t mean two or three guitars, but seven or nine or seventeen or possibly thirty-seven guitars—and perhaps he rarely or never plays these guitars. Nevertheless, having these guitars defines who he is—to himself and to others. Searching for guitars gives him purpose. Maybe he only allows himself to own a total of twelve guitars and he must sell one before he can acquire a new one. Or maybe there is no limit to how many he can have, and he recently built an addition on his house where he keeps his forty-nine rare and frighteningly expensive guitars in a dust-free humidity-controlled environment.
Once in my life, for about two months, I owned two guitars simultaneously. I might as well have brought a third wife into my house, my first two wives being my other guitar and my piano. There was no way I could give any of my wives the attention they wanted if I was trying to please three of them. Two I could please, but three was one too many. In my case, I was not collecting guitars just to have them, but to play them every day. I would guess that most people who own more than a few guitars do not relate to guitars as spirit beings incarnate as musical instruments, but I could be wrong.
At the moment, I have two pianos. I’m waiting to find out if the new grand piano in my life can be regulated and repaired so it becomes as fine an instrument as the upright piano I’ve had for forty years. They are very different instruments, so I might keep them both, though I think I will feel I am neglecting the upright if I choose to make the grand piano the main focus of my piano playing.
How do my pianos feel about my taking up the guitar again? I suppose if I played them less than I did before I resumed guitar playing they would be unhappy, but actually, playing the guitar seems to have increased my appetite for playing the piano. So they don’t seem to mind. They are more concerned about each other than they are about my guitar.
As it happens, I took up the guitar when I became a vagabond and could not carry a piano with me. After a few months on the road without a piano, in 1970, I bought a not-very-good nylon-string guitar in the famous gigantic Mercado de Guadalajara, and I played that guitar every day for three years until I bought my first steel-string guitar, a slinky little Ovation with which I became a professional guitar-playing singer songwriter.
Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, I sold the Ovation for a hundred dollars to prove to my crazy angry girlfriend that I did not need a guitar to feel okay about myself. However, the only thing I proved by not having a guitar was that I missed having a guitar or a piano or both. Some people are just happier with musical instruments than without them. I am one of those people.
Perhaps those people, mostly men, who collect multiple guitars would not be happy without their guitars even if they don’t play them. After all, some people collect pottery and don’t eat out of the pottery, and some people collect jewelry and don’t wear their jewels, but enjoy looking at them and fondling them. Some people collect porcelain figurines of cherubs and repulsively cute children that are easy to break and take up shelf space and collect dust. Some people have five dogs. Some people have seven cats. I have a neighbor with four vintage Toyotas. I’ve known women with hundreds of pairs of shoes. When George Harrison of The Beatles died, he left behind hundreds of ukuleles.
Life is mysterious, but one thing is certain: the day I walk into a guitar shop intending to buy an excellent guitar, I will activate those neurological sectors of my being that evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of looking for and finding love, and by love I mean powerful emotional and physical resonance.
Petit point for Night Train cover by D.R. Wagner
“Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her and listen to me, listen to your heart and listen to your brain, listen to the sweet song of the rain. Oh my darling, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” from Todd’s song You Are the One.
My recent article about singing to the seals at Big River Beach and remembering my first paying gigs as a musician elicited several fascinating comments, so I thought I’d write a little more about my music. By the way, we’ve disarmed the Comments feature on my blog, so if you’d like to communicate with me about my articles, please send me an email.
So…having supported myself in minimal style for a couple years as a singer/songwriter in my early twenties in Santa Cruz circa 1973, I moved to Menlo Park and got a job as a janitor and teacher’s aid at a day care center in Palo Alto for children of single working mothers. My girlfriend G and I had broken up in Santa Cruz, but G rejoined me in Menlo Park, and after a year of saving our pennies, we moved to Eugene, Oregon where we lived in a converted garage while G attended the university as a music major studying piano and composition. Shortly after we arrived in Eugene, I sold my first short story for what was a fortune to me in those days, nine hundred dollars, and that allowed me to focus entirely for some months on writing short stories and a novel.
My relationship with my girlfriend was not mutually supportive. Which is to say, until I had some effective psychotherapy when I was forty, I routinely partnered with women who disapproved of me and my life choices, yet depended on me to encourage and support them. Why did I do this? To summarize volumes of emotional history, I was programmed by my disapproving and punitive parents to partner with disapproving others, and I didn’t know how else to go about life.
Lest you think I exaggerate my malady, check this out. For the entirety of our three-year relationship, G was adamant, and frequently shouted adamantly at me, that I was using my singing and songwriting and the adulation they brought me as emotional crutches to feel okay about myself and if I really wanted to face the truth about who I was, I would get rid of my guitar. So after we’d been in Eugene a month, I sold my guitar.
Now as it happened, we also had a piano in that garage because G was studying music theory and composition and wanted a piano handy for theorizing and composing. Because I make music as reflexively as ducks swim, I frequently played her piano. I don’t read music, but I had been improvising on pianos since I was sixteen, so in the absence of a guitar, I played her piano several times a day. This drove G bonkers because she struggled to compose anything she liked, while I reeled off hours of groovy-sounding music with no conscious knowledge of music theory.
Nine months into our Eugene sojourn, G and I broke up for good and I moved to Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper for two years. While living in Medford, I was contacted by my old high school chum Dan Nadaner who was a fan of my guitar playing and singing. He had written some rhyming verses for the soundtrack to a little film he made called Stripes and asked me to sing his verses in the manner of a country tune while accompanying myself on guitar. (Watch Stripes on my web site.)
To make that recording for Dan, I borrowed a small steel-string guitar and a little cassette recorder from my friend David Adee. Dan was pleased with how I sang his verses, and after making the recording I bought that guitar from David. Having gone two years without a guitar, songs began pouring out of me and I wrote several new tunes in the next few months. A year later, in 1977, I moved from Medford to Seattle, and while living a lonely life there, I wrote a nostalgic bluesy love song called Hey Baby.
In 1980, having had a large success with my first novel Inside Moves, I was attending a party in Sacramento, songs were being shared, and when the guitar came to me, I sang Hey Baby. When I finished the song there was much hooting and applause and a woman asked, “Who wrote that? Wasn’t that in a movie?”
I said, “No. It’s one of my songs.”
“Sounds famous,” she went on. “That’s like a song you hear in grocery stores, you know, the instrumental version of a classic.”
As of this writing, Hey Baby is not famous, but I never forgot what that woman said about the song, and her praise emboldened me to play Hey Baby when I gave readings at bookstores and cafés, and the song eventually became a mainstay of the one-man shows I performed for some years.
Fast forward to the first year of my first marriage, 1984. My wife introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, which I enjoyed, but there was one song on that album I absolutely with every cell in my corpus loved—Night Train (not the blues standard, but Rickie’s song with that title.) After listening to her Night Train countless times, I wrote a novel entitled Night Train that sprang from dreams inspired by Rickie’s song.
In the novel, the down-and-nearly-out narrator Charlie is haunted by the one success he ever had, a hit song he wrote called Hey Baby upon which hinges everything that happens in that wild crazy chase love story.
I eventually published Night Train with Mercury House, a San Francisco publisher, and they took the book out-of-print shortly after publication. Thus few people ever heard of my Night Train, though the following review by Tom Nolan ran in the LA Times in 1986.
“In his fourth novel, Todd Walton, author of the critically praised Inside Moves and Louie & Women, delivers an unusual and gripping tale that begins like a hard-boiled crime story and becomes something resembling science fiction. Walton evokes a paranoid romanticism reminiscent of Craig Nova, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon as he tracks the fate of Lily and Charlie, two down-and-out musicians on the run from an army of ‘very well-connected’ thugs out not just for blood but for spirit. Fleeing by car, foot, air, bicycle, train, covered wagon and dirigible, the two make their way with Lily’s baby from Sunset Boulevard to a mountain retreat in Oregon. Eluding all manner of physical and mental danger, Lily and Charlie take their final stand with a commune of utopian artists.
“Their odyssey is seedily realistic, wildly surrealistic, often erotic and only occasionally a bit precious. What seemed like a simple pursuit story has become an engaging parable of the responsibilities of creativity, the nature of self-worth, the redemptive power of love—perhaps the Meaning of Life itself. And the message, as Charlie reads it? ‘No matter how far down you get, you got to get up.’”
And now, thirty-three years gone by since Night Train was briefly available in a handful of bookstores, I love recalling the myriad threads that came together to make that book—Hey Baby a tune I wrote for my favorite singer in those days: Bonnie Raitt. And though I never got the tune to Bonnie, in my imaginings, her version of Hey Baby makes the song an instant classic, thereby fulfilling the long-ago prophecy of Hey Baby becoming a soundtrack for grocery shopping.