On a cold clear Friday afternoon in January at 4:30 on the dot, Jack Ziskin and Norman Randolph walk into Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.
Norman is tall and slender and dressed in a stylish gray suit and burgundy tie. Jack is small and round-shouldered and wearing gray sweatpants, a faded green Big Goose sweatshirt, and red tennis shoes. Norman is descended from Scots and Brits and has a full head of lustrous gray hair. Jack is Ashkenazi, bald, and wearing a ratty blue ski cap. Norman is sixty-three, an electrician possessed of a deep resonant voice, and Jack is sixty-seven, heir to a fortune, and unabashedly effeminate.
Edie, the bartender at Big Goose from four in the afternoon until closing time, checks the wall clock as Norman and Jack come through the wide front door, and marvels anew at their uncanny punctuality, though she’s been tending bar here for two years now and Norman and Jack always enter at 4:30 on the dot, Monday through Friday.
Brown-skinned and beautiful, fifty-years-old, her raven black hair captured in a ponytail, Edie grew up in Los Angeles, her accent a muted version of her mother’s Louisiana drawl.
“Norman and Jack,” she says, smiling at the two comrades. “Are we sitting at the bar this afternoon or taking a table?”
“Because we have arrived before the heathens,” says Jack, climbing onto his usual stool just to the right of the middle of the bar and smirking at Edie though he thinks he’s smiling, “we’ll start here with you because we adore you, and when the heathens arrive we’ll move to our table.”
Norman sits to Jack’s right, gazes fondly at Edie, and hoping to sound like a gentleman from the South says, “I am cravin’ somethin’ dahk and bittah to cut the teh-bul cold. A pahnt of Guinness puh-haps.”
“I swear to God,” says Jack, shaking his head, “every time you do a Southern accent your IQ drops seventy points.”
“Mah wahf loves mah evuh-changing accents and personas,” says Norman, speaking of Agnes to whom he has been married for forty years. “But dee-ah Jack cannot abide my linguistic forays.”
“Spare us your pontifications,” says Jack, rolling his eyes. “Puh-leez.”
Edie places a pint of Guinness before Norman and gives Jack an inquiring look.
“Oh,” says Jack, sighing, “I’ll have a Bud Lite.” He snickers. “Just kidding. A pint of Mercy porter, please.”
“Slow today,” says Norman, looking around the pub. “The bittah cold no doubt keeping people at home, I ‘magine.”
Jack rolls his eyes again. “He’s been doing this ridiculous Southern accent for three days now and driving me batty.”
Now Edie’s boss and the Goose’s other bartender, the very tall redhead Justin Oglethorpe, hurries in from the cold and waves to Edie and Norman and Jack on his way to the stairs leading up to the pub office where Justin’s wife Helen awaits – Justin having run to the bank on an errand for Helen who handles all things financial concerning the pub.
“Which movie star are we delving into of late?” asks Edie, who enjoys hearing about Jack and Norman’s shared obsession with the movies and movie stars of the 1930s and 40s.
Jack jerks his thumb at Norman. “He and Agnes are on a Clark Gable Loretta Young kick, and I’m reading Dorothy Lamour’s marvelous autobiography My Side of the Road, which is a reference to those fabulous road movies she made with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, her revelations gasp worthy. You’d love it. Say the word and I’ll get you a copy.”
“What a woman,” says Norman, smiling at the thought of Dorothy Lamour.
At which moment Margot Winslow and Carmen Rivera come in from the cold.
“Enter heathens,” says Jack, stiffening. “Exit Jack and Norman.”
“Oh don’t go,” says Margot, a busty middle-aged gal in a short skirt and a scoop-necked blouse revealing lots of cleavage, her hair curly blonde. “We won’t bite you.”
Jack rolls his eyes, slaps a twenty on the bar, and picks up his glass of beer. “Keep the change, Edie. Talk more soon.”
Carmen, gorgeous in her forties in a long black skirt and shimmering turquoise blouse, her black hair in a pageboy, blocks Norman’s way and says, “Stay with us, Norman. You know you want to.”
Norman bows gallantly and follows Jack to a table far from the bar.
Margot and Carmen take Norman and Jack’s seats and Margot says to Edie, “Hi honey. How’s tricks?”
“Tricks is good,” says Edie, knowing both Margot and Carmen are high on cannabis as they often are on Friday afternoons when they come into the Goose after work, Margot a manicurist, Carmen a legal secretary. “What can I pour you gals today?”
“Pour me a man,” says Carmen, smiling dreamily at Edie. “Someone who looks like Norman and wants to have sex with me.”
Edie arches an eyebrow. “Closest thing I’ve got to that is some good pinot noir.”
Carmen stretches her arms and shouts, “Yes! Wine. Give me wine.”
“I’ll have my usual,” says Margot, winking at Edie. “I’ve got a man, though I’d like to trade him in for something with a bit more in the tank, if you know what I mean.”
“Supposed to rain hard all weekend, and cold, too,” says Edie, pouring Carmen a glass of local pinot, Margot sweet white wine from Australia. “Hail and lightning. I’ll be hunkering down by the fire with my dog and a good book. What are you two up to this weekend?”
“Not working is what I’m up to,” says Carmen, sighing. “That’s why I need a man. For hunkering down with on weekends like this one. But where have all the good men gone?”
“They’re married or dead or way too old,” says Margot, gulping her wine. “Let’s talk about something else. Have you seen the play, Edie? Seven Rooms and a Piano?”
Margot is speaking of the play currently running at the Mercy Players Company Theatre, an eighty-seat performance venue near the high school and the only place in Mercy where plays are performed.
“No. Have you?” asks Edie, noting Franz Krüger and Julia Lund entering the pub an hour earlier than usual – Franz a handsome German in his fifties, Julia a beautiful Dane in her forties – Julia quietly fiercely berating Franz about something.
“I left after the first act,” says Margot, making a sour face. “It was like a bad sit-com without the com. And Lisa McGee has gotten so fat. I was shocked.”
“I don’t go to plays,” says Carmen, shaking her head. “Movies, yes. With a movie, even if it’s bad, you have the scenery, the music, the beautiful men, the costumes. In a play it’s just people. And if they aren’t good actors, you’re just stuck with them for hours.” She looks to the heavens. “Torture.”
Franz and Julia sit at the end of the bar as far from Margot and Carmen as they can – seven stools away – and Julia continues berating Franz who is about to explode.
“Excuse me,” says Edie, winking at Margot and Carmen. “Duty calls.”
She moves to Franz and Julia in her easy way, places a couple coasters before them, and gently interrupts Julia to say, “Hello my dears. Something to douse the flames?”
Julia, a photographer with short dark blonde hair, her eyes pale blue, smiles wanly at Edie and says, “We need hard liquor, but you don’t serve any. So I’ll start with a half pint of porter and you can give this idiot whatever he wants.”
Edie turns to Franz, a journalist, his hair sandy brown, his eyes blue gray, and waits for him to speak.
“A pint of your honey ale,” he says softly, his glare giving way to a faint smile. “And fish & chips for me and anything this unpleasant person may desire.”
Edie looks at Julia knowing she’ll say she doesn’t want anything and then she’ll eat most of Franz’s fish and then order guacamole and chips and later clam chowder and they’ll stay at the bar talking to Edie over the din during the worst crush of the evening and Edie will make brief replies and eventually Julia will forgive Franz for whatever she was mad at him about and he will move his stool close to hers and they will share a cappuccino and leave a huge tip that takes Edie’s breath away.
“Nothing for me,” says Julia, shaking her head. “I’m too upset to eat.”
“Un momento,” says Edie, moving to the many spigots center bar to draw the beers for Franz and Julia.
“Edie?” says Carmen, pouting at her. “Can we order food from you? It’s not quite five and Justin lets us order food at the bar until five.”
“Yes you may, Beautiful,” says Edie, who finds Carmen incredibly attractive, “though I’d rather you two got a table and ordered from Diana. Gonna get crazy wild here any minute now.”
“Okay,” says Carmen, giving Margot a look, “we’ll get a table.”
“Shall we pay you for these?” asks Margot, raising her glass of wine.
“We’ll run a tab,” says Edie, winking at Margot. “I appreciate you easing my load, sweetheart.”
When Margot and Carmen depart, Edie sets the beers before Franz and Julia and says, “Every Friday when you two come in here, this old pub becomes the apogee of charm and sophistication, and not just in Mercy, but on the whole west coast. You are that attractive.”
Which compliment softens Julia and she replies, “It is you who are the apogee, Edie.”
“We say so often,” says Franz, softening, too. “You’re the reason we come here, you know. To bask in your charisma.”
“Tell that to Justin and Helen,” says Edie, laughing. “Help me get that raise.”
Edie wakes the next morning at eight – Saturday – having gotten home from the pub at half past midnight and tumbled into bed at one. Her good dog Horowitz, an affable brown mutt, is standing beside the bed making melodic sounds in his throat that mean, “Time for our walk, Edie. Come on now. You know it is.”
After a quick shower, Edie dresses for the cold and rain and walks with Horowitz from their little cottage at the north end of Mercy – Horowitz on a short leash – to Justin and Helen’s house on the west end of Mercy, the town still mostly asleep, the temperature near freezing and the sky thick with rain-heavy gray clouds.
When they arrive at the little white house fronted by Justin’s dormant rose garden, Helen, dressed for cold and rain, comes out the front door with Sasha, a fast-growing ten-month-old Golden Lab pulling hard on her leash to get to Edie and Horowitz.
Helen is fifty-two, Pomo Mexicano with olive brown skin, her black hair in two braids hidden under a wool cap and rain poncho. She tells Edie they have forty minutes before it starts to rain – Helen’s unerring accuracy regarding the weather amazing to Edie and everyone who knows Helen, whose last name is Morningstar, her people the Pomo who have inhabited the Mercy watershed for thousands of years.
They walk fast to the town beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, and finding they are the only people and dogs on the vast expanse of sand, they let Sasha and Horowitz off their leashes to race around in wild joy.
“Two days off,” cries Helen, embracing Edie. “Heaven.”
“Heaven,” says Edie, sighing contentedly. “No pub until Monday.”
Friends for eighteen years, best friends for two, Helen and Edie initially connected when the now-defunct Lancaster Books in San Francisco began publishing Helen’s volumes of poetry eighteen years ago – Edie the presiding editor for each of the nine volumes of Helen’s poems Lancaster Books brought out over sixteen years. When Lancaster Books went bankrupt two years ago, Arthur Lancaster, the publisher, moved to England and launched Nick Bottom’s Books, publishers of Helen’s tenth volume of poems and eager to publish her eleventh.
With the demise of Lancaster Books, Edie was out of a job and unable to find another editor gig paying enough to live on, so she moved from San Francisco to Mercy, auditioned for the bartending job at Big Goose, and now has a starring role in the ongoing drama of life at the pub.
When Edie and her one-year-younger sister Charlene were girls they hoped to be actresses and singers, but neither of them could ever get a part in their school plays, and their friends who were strong singers teased them about their “little” voices, so neither pursued acting or singing. Charlene became an interior decorator, Edie a bartender and waitress, then an editor of poetry and fiction, and now she’s a bartender again.
“When I was in therapy,” says Edie, walking arm-in-arm with Helen against the wind, the dogs far ahead chasing gulls, “I realized I was not only seeking emotional fulfillment through my continuous short-lived relationships, I was seeking creative fulfillment, too. Finding a new mate and reveling in that newness was my art, and it kept me from ever being alone with myself long enough to find out who I really am.”
“You haven’t been in a relationship for over a year now,” says Helen, who loves Edie more than any woman she’s ever known.
“My new record since I was twelve,” says Edie, letting go of Helen and executing a comical pirouette. “Seventeen months solo and I love it!”
After breakfast with Helen and Justin, the rain lets up and Edie and Horowitz walk home – a day by the fire Edie’s heart’s desire.
But as they come down the driveway of the house in front of Edie’s cottage, Lena Quisenberry, Edie’s landlord, opens her kitchen window and calls to Edie, “Hey gorgeous, we’re about to torch a spliff of some spectacular new weed. Dig the name. Eternal Yes. Want to join us?”
Edie, who rarely smokes dope, surprises herself by replying, “Love to. I’ll get my dog dried off and change out of my wet clothes and be over in a few.”
Lena and Elvis Quisenberry have lived in Mercy for forty-five years, Elvis a lanky mechanic at Mercy Garage, Lena a buxom salesperson at Excellent Blow, one of Mercy’s three cannabis dispensaries. Both Elvis and Lena are hardcore pot smokers, and Edie knows from a few other times partaking with them that whatever Lena and Elvis are smoking, one hit will be more than sufficient to get her plenty stoned.
Yet for some reason Edie has four hits, and by the time she bids Elvis and Lena adieu she is so stoned, the journey across the astoundingly soggy incredibly green lawn seems to take forever, though she traverses the fifty feet from their house to her cottage in less than a minute.
Once inside her phantasmagoric cottage, she spends an eternity building a fire in her woodstove, after which she lies down on her sofa, covers herself with a down comforter, and falls asleep.
Five hours later, Horowitz wakes Edie by nudging her cheek with his nose and making throaty vocalizations to say he needs to go out and pee. Edie sits up, sees the fire has died, and deduces from the look and feel of things that she is still very stoned.
When Horowitz comes back in from relieving himself, Edie dries him off with a big towel, gives him a doggy treat, and looks in her refrigerator for something to eat – nothing in there appealing to her.
“Mexican,” she says, thinking of enchiladas and rice and beans.
Following a lengthy and fascinating search, she finds her phone under a falling-apart paperback copy of Christopher Morley’s Parnassus On Wheels and calls Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican and orders guacamole and chips and the chicken enchilada fish taco combo plate with extra beans and rice and corn tortillas to go; and the fantastically fast-talking person with the astounding Spanish accent tells her she can pick up her supper in thirty minutes.
“But can I drive when I’m this stoned?” she asks Horowitz, who makes a face that says I wouldn’t if I were you.
“So we’ll walk,” says Edie, the magic word inspiring Horowitz to spin around two fantastic times before rushing off to fetch his leash.
Sunday morning, walking the dogs on the headlands with Helen, a light rain falling, Edie tells Helen about getting high yesterday with Elvis and Lena.
“When I lived in the city,” she says, still groggy from the pot, “smoking dope was my favorite way to escape, though my life was not terrible, just way too stressful. And you know it’s never truly quiet in the city. Never. So my body never deeply slept. But here in Mercy, I don’t want to escape. This is where I’ve always wanted to be only I never knew it until I’d been here a few weeks, and then I knew deep in my bones.”
“When I was a girl, my grandmother and grandfather,” says Helen, speaking of the two who raised her, “smoked pot once a year on the winter solstice. I’d help my grandmother make venison stew and my grandfather would get all his chores done in the morning. Then we’d go out to a clearing in the forest, rain or no rain, and stand together facing north, and my grandfather would call Great Spirit to come be with us. Then we’d face east and my grandmother would call Great Spirit. And then we’d face south and I would call Great Spirit. And then we’d face west and we all would call Great Spirit to come join us. Then we would stand in silence until Great Spirit arrived. Then my grandmother would hold her little pipe up to the sky and ask Great Spirit to come into the herb to bring us wisdom and speak to us of the year ahead. Then my grandfather would light a match and hold it over the bowl filled with bud my grandmother grew in her garden every year, and my grandmother would smoke first and then my grandfather would smoke, and they would blow their smoke at me because I was not to smoke until I became a woman. And they kept smoking until the herb was gone. Then we’d walk back to the cabin and sit by the fire for a few hours, and then we’d have bowls of stew and talk about what Great Spirit told us.”
Monday afternoon at 4:30 on the dot, Norman and Jack enter Big Goose and take their customary seats at the bar, Norman having a pint of Guinness, Jack a pint of Scrimshaw – Edie asking which movie stars they are delving into now.
“I’m taking a break from the movies,” says Norman, gazing around the mostly empty pub. “Reading Steinbeck again.”
“Which you always do after you watch The Grapes of Wrath,” says Jack, smirking. “I’m still on my Dorothy Lamour kick, but I’m starting to flirt with Danny Kaye.”
“How was your weekend, Edie?” asks Norman, who loves afternoons like this when Edie is free to talk to them for more than a minute or two.
“Revelatory,” she says, nodding. “Amidst the thunder and lightning.”
“What was revealed?” asks Norman, eager to know.
“Many things,” says Edie, thinking of Horowitz and their epic journey through the tempest to and from the Mexican restaurant, of walking with Helen and the dogs on the vast beach, of the huge storm-driven waves, of her crackling fire, of rain drumming on her roof.
“Can you tell us one of the things?” asks Norman, nodding hopefully.
Edie gazes at Norman and says, “We need not look for love. It’s all around us, always, like gravity. We need only open ourselves to love and we will be filled to overflowing.”
“You really think so?” asks Jack, plaintively. “That’s a bit of a stretch for me.”
“I know so,” says Edie, looking into Jack’s eyes and seeing he wants to believe her and for some reason can’t.
“I know so, too,” says Norman, nodding. “Though I often forget, and I thank you for reminding me.”