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Beauties

Raul Neves is one of the most famous chefs in the world. Born in the Portuguese coastal city of Aveiro, Raul is the ruggedly handsome son of a fisherman named Goncalo and a waitress named Beatrice. Goncalo was lost at sea when Raul was seven. A year later Beatrice married the owner of the restaurant where she worked, and Raul gravitated to the restaurant kitchen where he proved to be a culinary prodigy.

At fifteen Raul went to work in the kitchen of a fine restaurant in Lisbon, and at seventeen became sous chef in an excellent Paris restaurant. His rise to culinary stardom was only impeded by his uncontrollable temper, and when he was twenty-three his fight with two men in a bar was judged a felonious assault and resulted in Raul serving two years in a French prison.

Upon his release, he returned to Lisbon and underwent a year of intensive psychotherapy, the fruits of which were the cessation of his violent outbursts and a new way of thinking about life. He moved to London, established himself as a premiere chef, and then moved to San Francisco where his spectacular cuisine and his appealing persona made the restaurant estuaire famous and launched Raul’s second career as the paramour of movie actresses.

When Raul was fifty-two his mother died and he became severely depressed. He decided he had to get out of the city, any city, and accepted the offer of a wealthy couple to create a restaurant in the remote northern California coastal town of Mercy, the restaurant to be housed in an exquisitely restored two-story Victorian perched on the headlands overlooking Mercy Bay. That restaurant is the peerless Ocelot, the name coming to Raul in a dream.

*

On a fine spring day in the middle of May, Raul and the movie star Kristen Carlyle cruise two miles inland in Raul’s new red Tesla up a winding road to Ziggurat Farm, home of Philip and Lisa and Marcel and Andrea. Marcel and Philip are both part-time waiters at Ocelot, and Andrea and Lisa are masters of the Ziggurat Farm organic vegetable and flower garden, source of much of the produce and flowers used by Raul at his restaurant.

Raul and Kristen are going to lunch at the farm—Philip a superb cook, Marcel a maker of exquisite wine, Andrea also a fine cook, Lisa a charming hostess—forty people expected for Nathan’s eighty-fifth birthday party, Nathan’s life deeply entangled with the lives of those who live on the farm.

“What a beauty,” says Kristen, as they turn off the highway onto the farm drive. “Must be worth a fortune.”

Kristen, twenty-eight, a busty brunette known for her steamy sex scenes in violent thrillers, has enjoyed her brief affair with Raul but has no illusions about their liaison lasting much longer.

Raul, who is twice Kristen’s age, has never seen any of Kristen’s seventeen movies because he prefers books to movies, particularly the classics, his current endeavor A Tale of Two Cities.

“This is a farm of beauties,” says Raul, parking amidst the other vehicles. “Beautiful women, beautiful men, beautiful children, beautiful dogs, beautiful cats, beautiful flowers, and incomparable vegetables. I would live here if they’d let me, but I’m afraid to ask for fear they might say No.”

“Are you serious?” asks Kristen, wrinkling her famous nose.

“Always,” says Raul, tired of Kristen after their few days together, their intellects and senses of humor severely mismatched.

“I didn’t know that about you,” she says, thinking she’ll end things with Raul tomorrow or the next day so she can get home to Los Angeles and rest for a couple weeks before a long shoot in New York. “You seem so easy going.”

“I am seriously easygoing,” he says, smiling at her. “Come. Let us go consort with the beauties.”

*

Raul and Kristen are greeted at their car by a mellow old hound named Jung and a friendly Golden Retriever named Alexandra, the dogs followed by two girls in summery dresses: Vivienne, a darling nine-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair, and Irenia, twelve, her long black hair in a braid festooned with white carnations, her face so lovely to Raul he has to take a deep breath to calm himself every time he sees her.

“Bon jour Raul,” says Vivienne, avidly studying Kristen. “You remember Irenia, don’t you?”

“Of course,” says Raul, bowing to Irenia. “How are you?”

“Very well, thank you,” says Irenia, who is learning to speak in the manner of the children of Ziggurat Farm, their vocabulary and conversational style influenced by years of tutelage from two verbally flamboyant upper crust Brits. “May we perchance know the name of your most attractive companion?”

“This is Kristen,” says Raul, turning to Kristen. “Kristen this is Vivienne and Irenia.”

“Are you British?” asks Kristen, easily fooled.

“Alas, no,” says Vivienne, sighing dramatically as she thinks of Constance and Joseph who moved back to England several months ago. “We are but pale facsimiles.”

“We have come to inform you that hors d’oeuvres and wine and grape juice are being served in the garden,” says Irenia, admiring Kristen’s dangly diamond earrings. “Lunch to follow in the farmhouse.”

So the quartet of humans and the two dogs make their way along the path bordered by lilacs and lavender and rose bushes to the magnificent terraced vegetable and flower garden where the guests are gathered around two picnic tables in the dappled shade of a live oak, most of the women in dresses, most of the men wearing colorful shirts, Marcel and his ten-year-old son Henri playing accordions at a distance from the gathering to add ambience but not interfere with the myriad conversations.

Raul seeks out Andrea, the boss of the garden, and gives her a hug and a kiss before he gestures expansively to the burgeoning vegetables. “I cannot wait to pilfer from this magnificence. My God how things have grown since just last week.”

“I’ve got employees now,” says Andrea, pleased Raul came to her first. “The children all want to work in the garden now that Irenia works for me on weekends.”

“Raul,” says Philip, approaching with Irenia’s father and mother—Boris tall and big-bellied, Maria plump and a foot shorter than he. “I want you to meet Boris and Maria, Irenia’s parents.”

“A pleasure,” says Raul, shaking Boris’s hand, both men large and strong. “I recognize you from the garage. You revived my dying Mercedes and then I sold it and bought a Tesla.”

“Tesla,” says Boris, with a thick Russian accent. “I am just now learning to fix these electric cars. I am trained mechanic not electrician.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” says Raul, bowing to Maria. “May I present to all of you my dear friend Kristen.”

“Hi,” says Kristen, giving everyone a little wave. “This place is amazing.”

“You are movie star,” says Maria, gazing open-mouthed at Kristen. “We just see you in movie with Dylan James.” She looks at Boris. “What was name of movie?”

Madness?” guesses Kristen, having made three movies with Dylan, Madness their latest.

“Yes,” says Boris, emphatically. “Madness. You were… you were…” He frowns, his English vocabulary failing him.

“A psychotic prostitute,” says Kristen, matter-of-factly. “And it wasn’t the first time.”

“Yes, you are crazy person,” says Boris, growing uncomfortable. “Very crazy.”

“Wine?” says Philip, coming to the rescue. “Grape juice? Yummy nibbles, as we call hors d’oeuvres around here? Follow me.”

At the picnic table, Raul kisses Daisy on her forehead, Daisy a curvaceous gal with reddish brown hair in a summery yellow dress holding her two-month-old baby girl Jenna.

“May I?” asks Raul, miming rocking a baby.

“Of course,” says Daisy, carefully placing her baby girl in Raul’s big hands—Raul the reason Daisy and her husband Michael came to Mercy eight months ago, to dine at Ocelot, and now they own the house and property contiguous with the farm and hope to live here for the rest of their lives.

Raul gazes into the eyes of the infant and feels his life turn upside down.

*

As the fabulous luncheon draws to a close—the revelers seated at four large tables filling the farmhouse dining room and much of the living room—Nathan and Celia’s daughter Calypso stands up and clinks her wine glass with a spoon to ask for silence.

“Now is the time to say whatever you’d like to say to Nathan,” says Calypso, a nurse at Mercy Hospital where she helped deliver the farm children Arturo, Henri, Vivienne, and the new baby Jenna. “I’ll start.”

She turns to Nathan who is sitting at the head of a table with a view of all the guests. “Papa. When I was thinking about what to say today, I remembered when I was sixteen and you got angry with me for taking the car without asking permission. And I realized that was the only time you ever got angry with me. In fifty-two years.” She starts to cry. “You are the kindest person I’ve ever known. Right after Mama.”

When the applause dies down, Celia’s brother Juan, a portly fellow in his seventies, stands up. “Amigo. I want to tell everyone how you hired me to prune trees with you fifty years ago when I really needed a job. We had two little kids and no money and the rent was due. After my first day of work you gave me four hundred dollars and said, ‘This is your signing bonus. I’ll want you to play shortstop and third base.’ So… after you saved us, what could I do? I had to introduce you to my sister.”

When the laughter dies down, Henri stands up.

“Every week,” says Henri, who is ten and not the least flustered by speaking in front of forty people, “the thing Arturo and Vivienne and I look forward to most is going to your house after school to write with you and have piano lessons with Delilah.” He looks at Arturo, who is eleven, and Vivienne, nine. “Now we’d like to recite a poem we wrote for you.”

Vivienne and Arturo join Henri, the trio standing shoulder to shoulder.

Arturo: One day Henri asked you ‘What exactly is a poem?’ and you said exactly is a tricky word, and asked us the question, only without exactly and ending with to you.

Henri: ‘A poem,’ said Arturo, ‘is words telling stories or describing something.’ And you replied, ‘How is that not prose?’

Vivienne: ‘A poem is poetic,’ said Henri. ‘You know. More musical than plain prose and less concerned with punctuation.’

Arturo: Then Vivienne said, ‘Though lines of poems don’t have to rhyme with each other, they usually do inside themselves.’

Vivienne: ‘So maybe,’ you said, smiling your biggest smile, ‘a poem is lines of words sounding sweetly to the poet.’

The children sit down to loud applause, after which Delilah, one of Mercy’s great beauties, her brown hair very short, her green Ziggurat Farm T-shirt tucked into baggy brown trousers, goes to the upright piano at the far end of the living room and says before playing, “Dear Nathan, I could never put into words what you and Celia mean to me, so I thought I’d play the story of meeting you and coming to live with you twelve years ago.”

A virtuoso pianist, Delilah plays three minor chords to begin, expresses the chords again with their separate notes played in quick succession, plays those separate notes again and again until they begin to vary and grow into a rapturous melody supported by an intricate rhythmic pattern of bass notes, the song resolving into single notes and ending with three comically major chords.

Amidst shouts of Bravo, Delilah hurries back to her seat next to Celia who is sitting next to Nathan, and when the applause subsides, Philip stands up and says, “An impossible act to follow, but someone must, so…” He gazes at Nathan and takes a moment to quell his rising tears. “As of today we’ve gotten seventeen good reviews of my cookbook, and nearly all of them use the words poetic and lyrical when speaking of the writing, which is entirely due to your helping me rewrite my original text. You will deny this and say you merely helped me see what was already there, to which I say, ‘No, Nathan, you breathed magic into my words just as you breathe magic into our lives every day.’”

*

After the many accolades for Nathan, the party continues and Raul leaves Kristen speaking to Delilah and sits down beside Nathan at the dining table.

“I would like to give you a birthday gift of supper at Ocelot for you and Celia and Delilah,” says Raul, who had no idea Nathan was so important to so many people in the community.

“I won’t say no to that,” says Nathan, who is greatly relieved to just be one of the partygoers again and no longer the center of attention. “Philip tells us the food is quite good, and he’s no slouch of a cook.”

“He’s brilliant,” says Raul, enjoying Nathan’s jest. “I can assure you I will steal several things I learned from eating his food today.”

“My wife Celia is quite the cook, too,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “We’ll have you over for chicken enchiladas and fish tacos some time.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” says Raul, taking a deep breath. “May I tell you something that happened to me today?”

“Yeah,” says Nathan, who hears the beginning of a poem that goes something changed him today, something he never expected.

“When I took Daisy’s baby in my hands,” says Raul, feeling he might cry, though he hasn’t cried since he was a young man, “and I looked at her face, she wasn’t seeing me at first, you know, but then she focused on me and our eyes met, and I felt certain I was holding the container of a soul who lived before. And whether this is true or not, in that moment I realized the folly of living alone as I do, save for sexual liaisons that never last, and I felt desperate to find a wife and have a child and live with them until I die.” He laughs incredulously. “Or maybe I’m just losing my mind.”

“Or maybe the universe was showing you what love is,” says Nathan, liking the sound of that.

“And what is love?” asks Raul, his heart pounding in anticipation of Nathan’s reply.

“Love is devotion to the miraculous nature of the other, whether the other is a baby or a tree or a woman or a wave breaking on the shore.”

*

Three weeks later, on a sunny day in early June, Raul and his assistant Maurice, a large man with a shaved head, are in the vegetable garden at Ziggurat Farm with Andrea seeing what they might harvest for the restaurant today and what will soon be ready to harvest. As they consider the burgeoning broccoli, a small blue pickup truck pulls up to the barn and a woman jumps out and strides to the garden gate.

“Hello,” she calls, her voice deep and confident. “I’m Caroline Darling, Michael’s sister. Daisy said if I missed their driveway, which I apparently did, I should come here and someone would help me find my way to their house.”

“Oh Caroline. Welcome,” says Andrea, turning to Raul and Maurice. “Excuse me a moment. I’ll be right back.”

Raul guesses Caroline is in her thirties, though she is forty, and he finds her enchanting. Tall and athletic with short brown hair, she’s wearing a sleeveless blue T-shirt showing off muscular arms, khaki shorts revealing long muscular legs, and leather sandals—an amazon with only a spear missing from her ensemble.

*

A few mornings later, Raul comes alone to Ziggurat Farm to get lettuce and eggs and cases of wine for his restaurant. But before he loads his truck with produce, he walks the path to Daisy and Michael’s house to visit baby Jenna as he does every week now in his newly acquired role as Jenna’s godfather.

On the path, he meets Caroline walking with Daisy and Michael’s new Golden Retriever pup on a leash, on their way to the farmhouse where the pup—Figaro—will play with the farm dogs while Caroline has tea with Lisa and Philip.

“Bon jour Caroline,” says Raul, bowing to her before kneeling to receive the puppy’s kisses. “How nice to see you again. Have you joined the collective?”

“At least for the summer,” she says, finding him formidably attractive.

He stands up and looks at her, finding her surpassingly lovely. “And after the summer?”

“Not sure,” she says, wondering if they might have a fling. “Did Daisy tell you I’m on sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire? I’m a botanist. We’re a family of scientists, Michael and I and our brother Thom, our parents entomologists.”

“Insects?” he says, hoping he’s guessing right.

“My mother butterflies,” she says, nodding. “My father beetles.”

“My father was a fisherman, my mother a waitress,” he says, liking everything about her. “Scientists, too, in their own way, and I suppose I am a scientist of food.”

“So I’ve heard,” she says, feeling pleasantly dizzy.

They part ways saying they hope to see each other again, both feeling hopeful of sex with the other.

*

In the many-windowed living room of Daisy and Michael’s house, Raul sits in a rocking chair holding baby Jenna and listening to Daisy talk about her novel she’s planning to rewrite.

“I wrote three novels before this one,” says Daisy, taking yet another picture of Raul with her baby. “I know the first three were practice and nothing anyone would want to publish, but this one… I think the story is so compelling and…” She frowns. “I don’t know. Something’s missing, something I can’t figure out.”

“Have you shown your book to Nathan?” says Raul, making a goofy face at Jenna and waggling his head to make her gurgle in delight.

“What a good idea,” says Daisy, feeling daft she didn’t think of that.

“I would be happy to read your book, but I know nothing about writing,” says Raul, looking up from the baby. “I dictated my memoir to a writer who concocted the book, and I pay people to write my recipes from my scribbles and then I polish them before they go to the publisher. But you’d better hurry. Nathan is eighty-five. Time does not go backwards.”

“I can’t tell you how happy we are that you’re our friend,” says Daisy, gazing in wonder at Raul. “We came here to eat at Ocelot, and now…”

“Now I am your daughter’s doting godfather,” says Raul, feeling he has finally arrived, to paraphrase Stevie Wonder, exactly where God wanted him to be placed.   

fin

Here Somewhere

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Nathan and Del Part One

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

her fingers are geniuses just look at them go making

guacamole and salsa and refried beans and tomato

rice and juicy chicken enchiladas you can’t tell me

her digits aren’t possessed of formidable brains

and unique personalities as she simultaneously

talks to her daughter and flirts with me saying,

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

look at those fingers go with such fearless grace

wielding knives and spoons amidst the blazing

casserole and red hot pans and steaming pots and

I the lucky recipient of their divine ministrations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The women step outside and close the door behind them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Energy grid?” says Sharon, nodding hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Hey Baby