For their first breakfast since getting back from England to the northern California coastal town of Mercy after a two-year absence, Constance and Joseph Richardson dine in the Ziggurat Farm farmhouse with all the farm folks joining them for pancakes and raspberries.
Quintessential Brits, Constance is a short plump pretty redhead and a hugely successful author of twenty-seven murder mysteries, her pen name Margaret Orland, Joseph a big strong gray-haired painter of landscapes and portraits. Having spent the night at the farm in their enormous Mercedes van, a luxury suite on wheels, Constance and Joseph are having a delightful time bringing everyone up to date on their immediate past and their plans for the future.
“There we were in our lovely house in Devon,” says Joseph in his actorly way, “January especially dreary this year, and as my first cup of coffee, not nearly so good as yours, Philip, brought a modicum of clarity to my clouded senses, it dawned on me that out of obeisance to a way of thinking we’d fostered for thirty years, we had enslaved ourselves to a lie.”
“A misconception,” Constance clarifies. “Un idée fixe.”
“This idea, this obsessive misconception, was this. By now in the arc of our lives we would be old and decrepit. Yet quite the opposite is true. Indeed, I am only seventy-one, Connie still a year shy of seventy, and we are both wonderfully fit and healthy. Nor were we the cause of our twice-daily walks being so brief and in apparent slow motion. It was our short-legged Dachshunds Aristotle and Venus who were responsible for the slow down, and we’d chosen them instead of larger dogs because we’d imagined ourselves to be entering our dotage.”
“And it dawned on me,” says Constance, not to be outdone by Joseph when it comes to dramatics, “that I was not done writing as I, for some bizarre reason, imagined I would be by now, and I was thunderstruck by a stirring vision of my next book about a retired—ha!—detective and his pastry chef wife set in a fictitious version of Mercy, which meant…”
“We might come back here for a time,” says Joseph quietly.
Silence falls, the collective breath held.
Vivienne, who is eleven, ventures, “For how long will you be staying?”
Joseph and Constance exchange long looks
“Some years,” says Constance smiling at Vivienne. “So goes our current thinking.”
“Hurray!” shouts Henri, who is twelve and great pals with Joseph. “My dream come true.”
“Will you rent or buy?” asks Andrea, Henri’s mother and by far the most pragmatic member of the farm collective.
“Dear Andrea,” says Joseph, who has made several paintings of Andrea in her magnificent terraced vegetable garden, “in order to do our story justice we must beg your indulgence for a few moments so we may properly tell the tale.”
“Take as many moments as you wish,” says Philip, head chef of the collective. “We hang on your every word.”
“Thank you, Philip,” says Joseph, clearing his throat. “So there we were in Devon dreaming of Mercy and being with all of you again and getting to know the new members of the consortium we’d heard so much about in Henri’s letters, and we took ourselves to our computers to search for a house to rent hereabouts.”
“As will happen,” says Constance, taking up the narrative, “when one ventures into cyber space, rental listings comingle with houses for sale, and both of us, quite unknowing of the other’s progress, came upon the same property, twelve acres not far inland from town with a driveway cut through the woods from highway to home site, a good well dug, the large foundation poured, and then… did the previous owners run out of money? The listing did not say.”
“The price was good,” Joseph goes on, winking at Henri, “the location ideal, and Connie and I have always wanted to build our own house at least once in our lives.”
“Ere long the land was ours,” says Constance, her eyes wide with excitement. “We hired a clever architect to concretize our vision, and a month ago we called those marvelous carpenter artisans who built your cottage and so gorgeously remade this farmhouse, and now…”
“A week from Monday,” says Joseph, raising his arms to the heavens, “the Ramirez brothers and their crew of crack carpenters will begin work on the house of our dreams, a large bonus awaiting them for swift completion.”
“Where is your land?” asks Michael, he and his wife Daisy and their baby Jenna the newest members of the Ziggurat Farm collective.
Joseph and Constance exchange glances again
“As your land, Michael,” proclaims Joseph, “is contiguous with the farm to the south, our land is contiguous to the east.
“Mon dieu,” says Marcel, Henri’s handsome French father. “Those twelve acres? We wondered who bought them.”
“We’ve just completed a bird and botanical survey of your land,” says Michael, an ornithologist. “My sister Caroline and I and the homeschoolers. We’ve convened on your foundation several times in the last few weeks. Spectacular site.”
“Good God,” says Arturo, who is thirteen and from age six to eleven modeled his way of speaking in large part on Joseph’s. “You mean to tell us we’ll be neighbors?”
“Just up the hill past the vegetable garden,” says Joseph, pointing in that direction.
“It’s a miracle,” says Henri, leaping up from the table and dancing around the living room with Vivienne and Arturo. “We’ll see you every day.”
“We’ll have art lessons with you again,” says Vivienne, twirling around. “And marvelous tea parties with Connie. I must call Irenia and tell her.”
“You’ll dine with us, of course,” says Philip, bowing to Constance. “As often as you like.”
“Which, to be quite honest,” says Constance, giving Philip a blushing smile, “was a large motivating factor in our decision to return, your meals and Celia’s and, of course, our weekly pilgrimage to Ocelot.”
“What about dogs?” asks Lisa, who knows Constance and Joseph always have dogs. “Did you bring your Dachshunds with you?”
“No, we gave the little sweeties to an old friend in Devon who coveted them,” says Joseph, glad to be free of the waddlers. “We intend to find two larger mutts to abide with us here and lead us on many a merry chase.”
“We’re getting two new dogs, too,” says Vivienne, returning to the table. “Jung and Goliath died, you know, and Nathan and Celia’s neighbors have an enormous Black Lab who just had seven puppies with a variety of fathers and we’ve reserved two of those.”
“We shall hope to pick two more of the seven for ours,” says Joseph, overjoyed to be back among people he loves so dearly.
After breakfast, a light rain falling, Joseph and Constance drive their van into town to spend some time with Delilah and Nathan and Celia, their closest friends in Mercy. Nathan is eighty-six, Celia is eighty, and Delilah, Nathan and Celia’s house mate for the last thirteen years, is twenty-six.
Nathan and Celia and Delilah were in the farmhouse yesterday afternoon when Constance and Joseph arrived during the homeschool drama and music performances, but they did not learn of Joseph and Constance coming to live in Mercy again until today, and they are thrilled by the news.
Delilah painted with Joseph for ten of the eleven years the Richardsons previously resided in Mercy, studied French and mythology with Constance, and gave many a stirring concert on the Richardsons’ magnificent Steinway grand, which she is thrilled to learn will be coming back from England as soon as the new house is built. Constance and Joseph partook of countless suppers at Nathan and Celia’s, Nathan pruned their fruit trees, the quintet frequently walked their dogs together on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, and Delilah and Joseph showed together at the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy.
When their rejoicing subsides, Celia calls their neighbors, Elvis and Lena Quisenberry, and arranges for a puppy viewing.
Elvis is fifty-five, a burly auto mechanic at Mercy Garage. Lena is a zaftig fifty-three and owns Perfect Fit, a women’s clothing store in town. Their son Jerry works in a cannabis dispensary in Los Angeles while pursuing an acting career. Elvis and Lena are religious devotees of The Grateful Dead, prodigious pot smokers, and are forever promising to spay and neuter their dogs and cats, though they rarely do.
Sheba, a large Black Lab, is the mother of the litter Constance and Joseph and Nathan and Celia and Delilah come to visit, the Quisenberry kitchen a riot of seven little cuties not yet old enough to leave their mother, but old enough to totter around and tumble adorably for the visiting humans.
There are two black and white pups in the litter, one of them making a beeline for Joseph, the other tottering across the linoleum to Constance, and not three minutes into the visit Constance says, “We’d like to have these two black and whites if they are not yet spoken for.”
“That’s easy to remember,” says Elvis, off for the weekend and profoundly stoned. “They should be ready to leave mama a few weeks from now.”
“We’re asking fifty dollars each,” says Lena, smiling at Constance. “That seem fair to you?”
“More than fair,” says Joseph, picking up one of the black and white pups and nuzzling her.
“We will pay you seven hundred each,” says Constance, picking up the other black and white pup, “if you will keep ours for another three months until our new house is finished.”
“Zounds,” says Elvis, grinning at his wife. “No problema.”
“The Ziggurat Farm kids have dibs on these two,” says Lena, picking up two of the pups. “And Raul… you know Raul? Chef at Ocelot? He’s getting the big black one. And Boris who works at the garage with Elvis? You know Boris? His daughter Irenia homeschools up at Ziggurat. He’s getting the biggest one for Irenia. We’re guessing a Great Dane daddy for that one. So now we’ve got the litter sold but one and I’m guessing the Ziggurat kids will take three if nobody else wants the last one.”
“Any guesses about the progenitor of our two?” asks Constance, standing beside Joseph and holding her pup next to his.
“Far as we know only one black and white dude made the scene,” says Elvis, his grin expanding. “Maggie Fetherston’s cocker spaniel. Came all the way across town to do the deed. Don’t know why Sheba let the little guy get on, but she did.”
“Love is blind,” says Joseph, reluctant to let his pup go. “Would you happen to know the sexes of our two?”
“Boy and a girl,” says Lena, nodding.
“Perfect,” says Constance, setting her pup down. “Given their father’s diminutive size they should not be too enormous. We’ve done enormity and needn’t again.”
Returning to Nathan and Celia’s for a spot of tea, Joseph brings forth one of Henri’s letters sent not long ago to Devon and reads, “‘Delilah is a superlative teacher and we especially appreciate how easy it is to convince her to switch from Math to Music or Drawing, which all of us prefer to Math save for Larry who is most comfortable midst the abstraction of numbers, though he’s a fine baritone and adds a gratifying depth to our harmonizing. Now and then Delilah will drift into a trance and we’ll know she’s thinking of Thomas in faraway Ithaca and counting the hours until June when the handsome authority on foxes makes his way west to be with her again.’”
“Such a marvelous writer is Henri,” says Constance, beaming at Nathan. “Thanks to you.”
“All those kids are good writers,” says Nathan, thinking of the six homeschoolers he writes with a few times a week. “I am ever amazed by them.”
“Do tell us about Thomas,” says Joseph, taking off his reading glasses and gazing fondly at Delilah. “Your first real flame, yes?”
Delilah smiles and the room brightens.
“You’ve met his brother Michael,” she says, sighing. “Thom is a little taller, his features not so chiseled, his voice somewhat higher. I think he’s gorgeous, but then I’m in love with him, so… He’s thoughtful and kind and he does worry a lot about the biosphere and global warming and overpopulation. He’s a wildlife biologist, so he’s steeped in bad news about the environment, and I haven’t seen him in nearly three months so he’s become somewhat surreal to me, and I think I’ll be fine if our relationship doesn’t work out, though I hope it will.”
“Have you slept with him?” asks Constance, cutting to the chase.
Delilah nods. “And it was good.”
“You talk on the phone?” asks Joseph, assuming they do.
“We did for the first few weeks after he went back to Ithaca,” says Delilah, getting up from the dining table to put another log on the fire, “but we found it more frustrating than satisfying, so now we just write. I send him gushy love letters and he answers with emails.” She watches the log catch fire. “He’s insanely busy.”
“What do you think of the lad?” asks Joseph of Nathan and Celia.
“I like him,” says Nathan, seeing Thomas with furrowed brow, the weight of the world upon him. “I don’t really know him yet. But I like him.”
“He’s very nice,” says Celia, nodding. “He was shy around us and mostly wanted to be alone with Delilah, so we didn’t spend much time with him when he was here.”
“He’s a wonderful artist,” says Delilah, wishing she knew Thomas better than she does, some large part of him withheld from her. “Raul bought his drawing of Henri. You’ll see it when you go to dine at Ocelot.”
“Tomorrow,” says Constance, looking forward to Raul’s incomparable cuisine. “We are told that Thomas and Michael’s sister Caroline, of whom we only caught the merest glimpse yesterday at the farmhouse, is now the Ocelot hostess and Raul’s paramour. Quite the conquest of Mercy by these Darlings. Such a marvelous last name.” She laughs. “Who wouldn’t want to be a Darling?”
When the sun scatters the rain clouds, Joseph and Constance bid Nathan and Celia and Delilah adieu, pick up sandwiches at the Happy Day Café & Bakery, and go have a picnic at their new home site.
In the one-acre clearing in a forest of thirty-year-old trees, they walk around on the large square cement foundation and imagine the house they’ll soon be living in here.
Overcome by jet lag, Constance seeks a hug from Joseph.
“Tell me we did the right thing coming back here,” she says, clinging to her mate. “I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
“We did the right thing,” he says, holding her. “If we change our minds a year from now and want to go back to Devon, we will. We’ll have had an adventure and a reunion with our dear friends, built a house, and gotten some good dogs. Nothing will be lost. We followed our hearts and here we are.”
“I worry our Delilah has fallen in love because she was ready to fall in love,” says Constance, sighing. “He sounds dreadfully serious. End of the world and all that. She needs a man with a sense of humor.”
“He knows too much,” says Joseph, who keeps his own doomsday thoughts to himself knowing they upset Constance.
“I think of her as my daughter,” says Constance, who never wanted children and didn’t really like children until she fell in love with fourteen-year-old Delilah and shortly thereafter became a favorite of the Ziggurat Farm kids. “I know that’s silly, but I do.”
“Not silly at all,” says Joseph, his eyes full of tears. “I feel the same.”
On Sunday, as billowy white clouds over Mercy Bay turn golden at dusk, Constance and Joseph dress in their finest—Joseph in a beautiful blue suit with teal shirt and crimson tie, Constance in a pretty peach dress—and take themselves to the incomparable Ocelot, the restaurant of Raul Neves on the headlands in Mercy.
Lovely Caroline Darling, long-limbed and graceful with curly brown hair, greets Constance and Joseph at the entrance of the beautiful old Victorian wherein Ocelot occupies the ground floor—Caroline regally sexy in white dress shirt, black bow tie, dangly turquoise earrings, black pants, and red sandals.
She seats them at a table with a view of Mercy Bay to the south, the largest wall in the room adorned with Joseph’s gorgeous painting of the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River as seen from the headlands, huge waves breaking on the shore.
Settling into her comfortable chair, Constance gives Caroline a wide-eyed look and asks, “How long have you been Raul’s hostess?”
“Two months now,” says Caroline, her deep voice thrilling to Joseph. “Though every night so far feels like the first.”
“Enjoying the job?” asks Joseph, nodding his thanks as she hands him the day’s menu. “You seem to.”
“I do,” she says, laughing. “Very much.”
“And you teach the children science,” says Constance, sounding amazed. “How marvelous.”
“I’m a professor of Botany,” says Caroline, feeling funny saying so. “On sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire, though I am so enthralled with the restaurant I may never go back.”
“We must speak more of everything another time,” says Constance, nodding brightly. “When you’re free of these shackles we’ll have tea.”
“Oh and before you leave us,” says Joseph, who has always wondered what it would be like to be with a tall woman, “can you tell us where the drawing your brother did of Henri is hanging?”
“I’ll show you,” she says, beckoning to them. “No one is seated in that room yet, so now’s the perfect time.”
Joseph startles when he enters the room where Thomas’s large pen and ink sketch framed in gold adorns the wall—Henri wearing a feather headdress and holding his accordion, a tender smile on his face, a few touches of color adding an ineffable potency to the exquisite rendering.
After closely perusing the picture, Joseph turns to Constance and Caroline and says, “This drawing is worthy of Rembrandt. It is that fine and made of the same genius.”
“It is rather good, isn’t it?” says Constance, coming close to inspect the drawing. “I wonder if he’d like to draw me for the author picture of my next book.” She turns to Caroline. “Set in a fictitious version of Mercy. Wife of retired—ha—detective a pastry chef in a fine restaurant. Dining scenes abound. Tall beautiful hostess entangled with handsome Portuguese chef. That sort of thing.”
“I’m sure Thom would love to draw you,” says Caroline, understanding now why Raul said of Constance and Joseph, “They are comic savants who have no idea they are funny.”