Rex Abernathy died six months ago. When news got around that he had left his four-bedroom house on three-acres and a large amount of money to Elisha Montoya, more than a few people in our small town were outraged. I was not among the disapproving, nor can I imagine anyone else to whom Rex would or should have left his house and money, but I do understand why some folks were upset and why the local legal system took an inordinate amount of time investigating and finally validating Rex’s will.
When Rex died he was eighty-one and had known Elisha, who is forty-five, for three years. Their relationship was platonic, though platonic doesn’t capture the intensity of Rex’s love for Elisha and her children, Conor, fourteen, and Alexandra, eleven, nor does platonic encompass how important Rex was to Elisha and her children—a father for Elisha, a grandfather for Conor and Alexandra.
Having observed several hundred Elisha and Rex interactions in Mona’s, the bakery/café where Elisha has worked for the last three and a half years, I am certain Rex would have pursued Elisha romantically had he not been thirty-six years older than she.
However, from what I know of Elisha, I am equally certain she would not have been interested in Rex romantically even had they been closer in age. However, as a father figure in the guise of a grim loner waiting to be rescued from his aloneness, Rex was tailor-made for Elisha, her actual father a ferocious alcoholic who abandoned Elisha and her mother when Elisha was six.
A renowned sourpuss, isolate, and curmudgeon, Rex was so quickly and completely transformed by his friendship with Elisha and her children, it was as if he’d had a personality transplant—the donor a gregarious saint.
And, yes, to some degree, Elisha and Alexandra and Conor have had the same heart-opening effect on many of those who patronize Mona’s, the one and only bakery in Carmeline Creek, a coastal town on the far north coast of California. I, for instance, a middle-aged musician and poet, was terribly lonely and uninspired for seven years prior to Elisha and her children moving into the apartment above Mona’s; and since their arrival, I wake every day to poem and songs arising in me.
However, now that Elisha and her children have, as of ten days ago, moved from their little apartment above Mona’s to Rex’s spacious house on Carmeline Creek Road, my daily involvement with them has been severely disrupted and I’m beginning to wonder if my dogs Zerc and Raj (Xerxes and Mirage) and I were only of use to them so long as they didn’t have their own dogs (they inherited two from Rex) or a place to grow vegetables or a living room with a fireplace in which to while away many an evening.
What I mean is: now that they no longer need what I have to offer, I’m struggling not to conflate their no longer needing me with their no longer wanting me, if you know what I mean. For the truth is, I was reborn with the advent of those three in my life, and now I fear…
The phone rang as I was writing the words and now I fear—Alexandra inviting me to come for supper this evening at their new place and would I bring Delia Krantz because she no longer drives at night.
“Is this a large gathering?” I ask, hoping they aren’t throwing a party disguised as supper.
“Hold on,” says Alexandra, her Irish Spanish accent a faint replica of her mother’s.
She sets the phone down and I hear her say, “Mama? Paul wants to know if this is a large gathering.”
A moment passes and Elisha comes on the line.
“Hey Paul,” she says, her voice warm and poem-inspiring. “Don’t bring anything. This is a Mona’s leftovers affair.”
“Who all is coming?” I ask, trying to sound nonchalant. “Besides me and Delia and the blessed trio?”
“If I told you Grady and Flo, would you not come?”
I wince. “Who else?”
“That’s it. You and Delia and Grady and Flo.” She sighs appealingly. “We’ve been missing our evenings by the fire with you, and we want to get back to that soon. Okay? The kids insist.”
“Okay. Yes,” I say, smiling into the phone. “The dogs wonder where you went.”
Delia Krantz is ninety-three, sharp as a tack, and very funny. Born in Chicago, she worked as the personal assistant to movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, after which she moved with her third and much younger husband Vince to Carmeline Creek, bought the old Dekker Mansion in the center of town, Vince absconded with Delia’s life savings, Delia sold the Dekker Mansion and bought a cottage at the north end of town a block from the beach and has lived there with a series of dachshunds for the last twenty-five years. She works part-time at the library and every summer directs a musical for the Carmeline Creek Lamplighters.
Grady Wickersham is from New Jersey. He is seventy-three, exceedingly wealthy, owns a large modern home overlooking Philomena’s Bay, and as far as I know, he never stops talking. Estranged from his two grown children born of a short-lived marriage, he owns seven mint-condition American automobiles from the 1960s, one for each day of the week. In the seventeen years I’ve known him, I have never seen him show the slightest interest in anyone but himself.
Florence Chevalier, Grady’s partner for the past five years, is Grady’s polar opposite. A yoga teacher and massage therapist, Florence is fifty-two, half-French and half-British, friendly, warm, brilliant, and Elisha’s best friend. She has a son, Braxton, a photographer who lives in San Francisco. Most people in Carmeline Creek believe Florence is with Grady for his money, but I believe she sees something in him no one else can see, something she loves, though what that something is I can’t imagine.
I am fifty-four, a native Californian, musician, poet, and owner of a small house on a quarter-acre I purchased seventeen years ago with money I made as a ghost writer. I would tell you the names of the seven books I ghostwrote, except I am legally bound never to tell anyone. The official authors of my books are household names in America today, and though I earned the tiniest fraction of what those official authors made from my creations, that fraction was enough to buy my house and keep me in groceries and guitar strings for twenty years and counting.
Twice married and twice divorced, no children, I have not been romantically entangled with anyone for ten years, three months, two weeks, and five days; but who’s counting? When it comes to companionship and just about anything else, I prefer women to men. I am profoundly heterosexual, distinctly feminine, and not in the least effeminate. When I go to parties and the women gather en masse in the kitchen and the men hang out in little knots elsewhere, I will be found in the kitchen.
“So there are these two old ladies,” says Delia, telling me a joke as we’re driving up Carmeline Creek Road to have supper at Elisha’s place. “Naomi and Ethel. They get together for lunch every couple weeks. One day over Chinese, Ethel says to Naomi, ‘So… anything interesting happen since last time?’ And Naomi says, ‘Oh not much, though I did get married.’ ‘Married?’ says Ethel, shocked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone?’ ‘Who said I was seeing someone?’ says Naomi. ‘I met him last week and decided to marry him.’ ‘Swept you off your feet, huh?’ ‘Hardly,’ says Naomi, shrugging. ‘But he meets my needs.’ ‘I see,’ says Ethel, blushing. ‘He’s good looking and good in bed?’ ‘No he’s ugly as a toad and I wouldn’t sleep with him for all the money in Miami if he was capable of such a thing, which he’s not.’ ‘So is he a good conversationalist with lots of money?’ ‘Nope. He’s a pauper and deaf as a post. I’ll be supporting him until he drops dead.’ ‘But Naomi, if he’s ugly and impotent and deaf and poor, why did you marry him?’ Naomi shrugs. ‘He can still drive at night.’”
During supper, much to my surprise, Grady speaks not a word and actually seems to be listening to what other people are saying. His behavior is so out of character for him, I grow more and more uneasy with every minute he doesn’t say something. Nor am I alone in my unease—Delia and Elisha and Conor and Alexandra keep looking at Grady as if he’s about to explode.
Finally the suspense becomes too much and Delia says, “I give up. What’s going on with you, Grady?”
He thinks for a moment and says, “You mean why am I not talking constantly so no one else can say anything?”
“Yes,” says Delia, nodding. “I’ve known you for twenty years and you have never once, until just now, asked me a question. And every time I have ever tried to say anything when you were in the same room, you interrupted me. Did you have a stroke?”
Grady laughs, and as he laughs, I realize I have never heard him laugh until now.
“You tell them Flo,” says Grady, looking across the table at Florence. “You’re a much better story teller than I am.”
Florence smiles at Grady and says, “Thank you for the compliment, but I think you should tell them.”
“Well, okay,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but please stop me if I go on too long.”
“Your voice is softer now,” I say, gazing in wonder at him. “If I closed my eyes I wouldn’t know it was you.”
“This is my real voice,” he says, smiling at me for the very first time in all the years I’ve known him. “I’m sorry you had to put up with that other voice for all these years.”
“Why did your voice change?” asks Alexandra, fascinated by this new version of Grady.
“Well,” he says, measuring his words, “to make a very long story short, I went to a healer, and he helped me so much that now I don’t have to talk all the time to mask my fear because I’m no longer afraid.”
“Who is this healer?” asks Conor, who is currently obsessed with the books of Herman Hesse.
“His name is August Quincy,” says Grady, smiling at Conor. “He lives near Fortuna. Flo heard about him from a friend and… the two days I spent with him were the most incredible days of my life.”
“What did he do?” asks Delia, mystified. “Hypnotize you?”
“In a way,” says Grady, nodding. “He helped me relax and then we… I know this may sound improbable, but he guided me back to the beginning of my life, to my birth, and from there we relived my life, resolving the many things that needed resolving.” He laughs self-consciously. “I think I’ll stop there for now because I really want to hear about all of you, since I never got to know you because I was always talking.”
After supper, over pumpkin pie and tea in the living room, Conor and Alexandra tell us about the fox who trots through the backyard every evening after they bring the dogs in for the night.
“Rex told us about the fox before he died,” says Conor, sitting on the floor between the two friendly mutts Larry and Mo. “He said in the fifty-six years he lived here, every evening, exactly seven minutes after he brought his dogs inside, a fox would come out of the forest to the west, cross the yard, and disappear into the forest to the east. He said the fox only crossed the yard after the dogs were inside for the night. Sometimes two or three foxes would go by, but always at least one. Every evening for fifty-six years. And sure enough, every evening since we’ve been here, a fox has gone through the yard.”
“Foxes don’t live very long,” says Alexandra, sitting between Elisha and me on one of the two sofas. “We got a book about foxes from the library and it said they only usually live for two or three years, though sometimes they live for ten years, but that’s very rare.”
“So let’s say the average life span of the foxes around here is two years,” says Conor, taking up the story. “If you divide fifty-six by two you get twenty-eight. Which means approximately twenty-eight different foxes were the fox that went by every evening when Rex lived here, give or take a fox or two.”
“But even though they were different foxes,” says Alexandra, nodding assuredly, “they always knew they should wait for the dogs to be inside before they went by, which means the older foxes must have taught the younger foxes to wait for the dogs to be inside before crossing the yard.”
“We’ve been experimenting since we moved here,” says Conor, looking at Grady, who is sitting with Florence and Delia on the other sofa. “One night we left the dogs out for an extra hour, and another night we brought them in a half-hour earlier than usual, but no matter when we bring them in, seven minutes later the fox goes by.”
“So he must be waiting in the woods with a view of the house,” says Grady, delighted. “And when you bring the dogs inside, he knows the coast is clear. Or she knows.”
I look at Elisha and say, “I can imagine two young foxes sitting with their mother in the forest watching the house at dusk. And now the back door opens and a human being comes out and calls to the dogs, and they go inside with the human, and the door closes.”
“But the foxes don’t immediately leave the forest,” says Elisha, returning my gaze. “The mother waits for seven minutes, until she’s certain the dogs are in for the night before she emerges from the trees, her children following her.”
“Or maybe they’re with a father fox,” says Alexandra, getting up to put another log on the fire. “The book we read said foxes are very good parents and their children stay with them until they’re seven or eight months old, which is almost full grown.”
“I wonder why their lives are so short?” says Delia, sighing. “They’re such beautiful animals.”
“Dangerous world,” says Florence, holding Delia’s hand. “A lovely world, but full of danger.”
“I wonder if foxes are born good parents,” I say, staring into the fire. “Or if they learn how to parent from their parents.”
“I think they learn from their parents,” says Conor, looking at his mother. “Rex told us the best way to raise a pup is to have an older dog for the pup to learn from. That’s why he always had one dog a few years older than the other, so when the older one died and he got a new one, the pup could learn from the older one how to be.”
Delia looks at Elisha and says, “Whenever I think of Rex before you came to town, you know what I remember?”
“Tell me,” says Elisha, who especially loves Delia.
“I remember the times when I would be behind him in line at the post office or at the bakery,” says Delia, laughing, “how I would always try to be extra friendly and extra generous to the clerks to compensate for how unfriendly and miserly Rex was. And then you three came to town and he turned into a whole other person, a sweet and generous man.”
“He learned from Elisha and Conor and Alexandra how to be sweet and generous,” says Florence, her eyes full of tears.
“I think he always knew how to be sweet and generous,” says Grady, remembering how terrified he was of Rex before the transformation. “I think he just needed to be awakened by their kindness, and once he was awake, there was no going back.”