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We Both Know

Everett and Marlene, both seventy-four, both professors emeritus at the University of Vermont, both undeniably eccentric, have been married for fifty-one years. They are the parents of Michael, an ornithologist, Caroline, a botanist, and Thomas, a wildlife biologist specializing in foxes and other small to medium-sized carnivores.

Marlene, her light brown hair now silvery gray, began her studies of butterflies when she was seven by capturing three Tiger Swallowtails and trying to keep them alive in her bedroom for as long as she could. Everett, a former redhead now bald, began collecting beetles when he was eight, and by the time he was twelve had a dozen large terrariums housing hundreds of beetles, each one known to Everett by the first, middle, and last names he gave them, along with their Latin appellations, of course.

Coincidentally, Marlene’s parents and Everett’s parents were all artists. Everett’s father was a sculptor specializing in statues of famous Americans, his mother a potter. Marlene’s father was a painter of nudes, Marlene’s mother a modern dancer.

Michael and Caroline and Thomas agree that Everett and Marlene could only have married each other because no one else could possibly put up with either of them. They agree about this for many reasons, but most obviously because Marlene sings constantly, not loudly or melodically, but noticeably, except when she’s sleeping or talking. She sings while driving, walking, writing, watching movies, reading, listening to other people, and during meals. And Everett hums and whistles, sometimes both simultaneously, concurrently with Marlene’s singing.

As a consequence of their incessant soundings and their loud and unexpected non sequiturs which are only funny to them, along with their mutual tendency to lecture others by asking questions they themselves never answer, to name but a few of their many idiosyncrasies, neither Everett nor Marlene has ever had a close friend, other than each other. And also as a consequence of their annoying habits, their children reflexively sought to distance themselves from their parents and seek refuge in each other and a series of valiant nannies employed by Everett and Marlene to raise the kids while they continued their obsessive studies of butterflies and beetles.

Which is not to say their children don’t love them, but to say their children don’t care to spend much time with them.

So you may imagine Michael and Caroline’s distress when Everett and Marlene announce they are coming to California for the two weeks surrounding Thanksgiving to meet their first and only grandchild Jenna, daughter of Michael and his wife Daisy, and to stay with Michael and Daisy in their new house contiguous with Ziggurat Farm on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy.

Caroline, who is living with Michael and Daisy and Jenna while on sabbatical from the University of New Hampshire, is so worried about the impending arrival of her parents, she suggests to Michael and Daisy that they forewarn the adults of the Ziggurat Farm collective about Marlene and Everett’s eccentricities before their arrival a week hence.

And because Caroline and Michael and Daisy and baby Jenna dine with the farm collective several times a week, the meeting takes place the next night after the farm kids have gone to bed. Also present at the meeting are Delilah, twenty-five, the main homeschool teacher at Ziggurat Farm, and Nathan and Celia, an elderly couple who share their home in Mercy with Delilah and are frequent visitors to the farm.

“The good news,” says Michael, who is forty-three and somewhat less distressed than Caroline about their folks coming to visit, “is that our younger brother Thom is arriving a few days after Mommer and Popper and has agreed to take them on a couple overnight jaunts away from here to give us some relief.”

“You call your parents Mommer and Popper?” asks Andrea, boss of the farm’s vegetable and flower garden as well as manager of Ziggurat Farm Productions, publisher of Philip’s two cookbooks and a related line of Philip’s Kitchen and Ziggurat Farm T-shirts and sweatshirts featuring Delilah’s beguiling drawings, and a just-released volume of Nathan’s poems with illustrations by Delilah entitled Exactly Is A Tricky Word.

“When I was two and trying to say Mama and Papa,” Caroline explains to Andrea, “out came Mommer and Popper, and the effect on our parents was miraculous. Not only did they both stop their perpetual singing and humming, they both smiled and laughed and gave me and Michael hugs and kisses, something they rarely did, so thereafter we never called them anything else because we loved it when they stopped singing and humming and hugged us. When Thom came along ten years after me, we taught him to call them Mommer and Popper so he might reap the benefits of those inexplicably effective words.”

“Remarkable,” says Philip, who loves listening to Caroline speak. “Shall we call them Mommer and Popper?”

“No,” says Michael, slowly shaking his head. “Daisy tried a few times and Mommer angrily lectured her for several minutes each time with a cascade of questions.”

“How do you mean?” asks Nathan, who finds all this both silly and fascinating. “Can you demonstrate?”

“I will,” says Daisy, who is forty-one and adores Nathan. “Marlene said, ‘Do you think it appropriate for you to call me the pet name given to me by my children? Do you make a habit of that sort of thing? Who suggested you call me by that name? What did you call your mother? What pet name did she have for you? Would you like it if I called you by the pet name given to you by your mother?’ Etcetera.”

“I see,” says Nathan, finding the situation less silly.

“The other good news,” says Caroline, who loves being three thousand miles away from her parents instead of only a hundred and eighty-six miles, which is the distance between the University of New Hampshire where she is a professor and the University of Vermont where her parents still live, “is they are not thinking of retiring here because they both want to move somewhere warm year-round. We are hopeful of Hawaii if not Malaysia.”

“Surely you exaggerate, Caroline,” says Marcel, Andrea’s French husband and the farm’s wine maker. “You and Michael are both so charming and easy to be with. Your parents must be charming, too.”

“We were raised by wolves,” says Michael, matter-of-factly.

“Imagine a small pretty woman with silvery gray hair sitting at this table with us,” says Daisy, relieved to see seven-month-old Jenna snoozing peacefully in Celia’s arms, Jenna extra fussy of late. “And imagine while the rest of us are trying to have a conversation, this woman is singing, not quite under her breath, an endless song with unintelligible but almost intelligible lyrics. Now imagine there is also at the table a bald man humming and occasionally whistling an entirely different tune than the singing woman, his tune obnoxiously repetitive, and sometimes he hums and whistles simultaneously.”

“I didn’t know it was possible to whistle and hum at the same time,” says Marcel, giving Delilah a questioning look.

Michael demonstrates, the sound a cicada-like drone.

Philip tries to imitate Michael, so do Delilah, Marcel, Andrea, Lisa, and Nathan—all of them bursting out laughing at the strange noises they make—the outburst waking the baby who starts to cry.

“Calmate, hija,” says Celia, gently rocking the baby back to sleep.

“You’ve got the touch,” says Daisy, smiling gratefully at Celia. “Thank God.”

“Can’t you ask them to stop their humming and singing?” asks Marcel, who finds the idea of college professors behaving this way rather farfetched.

“Oh you can ask them to stop,” says Caroline, nodding knowingly. “As you might ask the wind to stop blowing. But the wind will not stop because you ask it to, nor will our parents stop singing and humming.”

“I don’t think this is going to be a problem,” says Nathan, looking at Caroline. “I think they’ll stop singing and humming after they’ve been here a few days.”

“Why would you say that?” asks Michael with a touch of anger in his voice. “You don’t know anything about them.”

“That’s true, Michael. And I didn’t mean to imply that I do. But I know you and I know Caroline and… I just have a strong feeling they’ll be changed by being here.”

“I’ll try to imagine that,” says Michael, his anger subsiding. “I really will. And if it comes to pass, I will forevermore believe in magic and that you can see into the future.”

*

When Everett and Marlene arrive at Ziggurat Farm on a cold November afternoon, having missed Daisy and Michael’s driveway as most people do the first time they come to visit, they are greeted at their rental car by three friendly dogs and four children on the cusp of young adulthood: Irenia, thirteen, Arturo, twelve, Henri, eleven, and Vivienne, ten, the kids extremely curious to meet the humming and singing parents of Michael and Caroline.

Everett and Marlene are delighted to meet the kids, and do, indeed, hum and sing throughout the introductions and on their way to the farmhouse.

They continue to hum and sing while meeting Marcel and Andrea and Philip and Lisa, and they keep humming and singing as they shed their raincoats and stand by the fire warming themselves—their combined noises sounding not unlike bees swarming around a hive on a warm day.

“Excuse me,” says Henri, standing before Everett, “but why are you humming?”

“Like to hum,” says Everett, winking at Henri. “She likes to sing and I like to hum.”

“While other people are talking?” asks Henri, ignoring his mother’s urgent gestures and facial expressions asking him to desist from this line of questioning.

“No one usually hears us,” says Marlene, who has a strong Boston accent. “We’re usually alone or just with each other.”

“But we are here now,” Henri persists. “We can hear you and it makes us feel like you don’t want us to talk to you.”

“Oh but we do,” says Marlene, smiling at him. “Just ignore it.”

“I’ll try,” says Henri, shrugging. “But I don’t think it will be easy.”

*

When Michael arrives at the farmhouse a little while later he finds Everett and Marlene sitting on the living room sofa holding hands and listening to Irenia and Arturo and Henri and Vivienne singing a four-part harmony version of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, Arturo accompanying the singing on guitar. ‘Blackbird’ is one of the songs the kids will be performing at the upcoming Ziggurat Farm School Holiday Follies.

When the children finish their enthusiastic performance, Everett and Marlene jump up applauding, Everett exclaiming, “Don’t change a note. Couldn’t be better.”

And Marlene turns to Michael and shouts, “No wonder you became an ornithologist.”

*

 Two mornings later, a light rain falling, Caroline and Marlene walk from Daisy and Michael’s house to the cottage where Andrea and Marcel and Henri live, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse, and where for this morning Lisa has commandeered the living room to give Marlene a massage.

“I’ll be at the farmhouse, Mommer,” says Caroline, handing her mother off to Lisa. “See you after.”

Marlene stops singing to say to Caroline, “See you after,” and immediately resumes her singing.

When Caroline departs, Lisa says, “Would you like me to leave the room while you undress?”

“Undress?” says Marlene, startled. “Oh I don’t think I want to do that.”

“I use body oil that will be very good for you,” says Lisa, noting the stoop in Marlene’s posture and her marked lean to her left. “If you’re not naked, I can’t use the oil. But if you’d rather keep your clothes on, I can massage you without oil, though the massage won’t be as effective.”

“You want me to take off all my clothes?” asks Marlene, who has never had a massage and never been naked in front of anyone except Everett, and even with him she only takes off her nighty when they’re under the covers.

“You’ll be under a sheet,” Lisa explains, gesturing to the massage table made up with blue flannel sheets. “I’ll leave the room while you disrobe and you call me when you’re ready. We’ll start with you face down. The face catcher is at the end of the table. I think I can alleviate some of the pain you spoke of at supper last night.”

Lisa leaves the room and Marlene considers changing her mind and not having a massage, at which moment the pain in her neck and shoulders and back that has persisted for decades expresses itself loudly, and in a little rage of frustration Marlene takes off her clothes, drapes them over the back of the sofa, gets under the sheet on the massage table, and situates herself so she is face-down in the cushioned face catcher.

“Okay,” she murmurs, speaking so quietly she doesn’t think Lisa could possibly hear her, yet Lisa returns.

Lifting the sheet off Marlene’s feet, Lisa says, “I’m going to start with your feet, Marlene. Are you ticklish?”

“Not that I know of,” says Marlene, tensing her entire body in anticipation of Lisa touching her. “I’ve never done this before. But it’s not my feet that hurt, it’s my neck and shoulders and back.”

“I understand,” says Lisa, taking Marlene’s left foot in her warm hands. “But everything is connected. As you will see.”

*

Two hours later, Marlene wakes from a dream of having had an amazing life-changing massage from Lisa, and for a moment she doesn’t know where she is and doesn’t realize she is lying on her back on Lisa’s massage table—the pain that has defined her life for as long as she can remember entirely gone.

“Lisa?” she says, having no idea how long she’s been asleep.

“I’m here,” says Lisa, getting up from the sofa and coming to the massage table. “Need a hand up?”

“Okay,” says Marlene, holding out her hand to Lisa. “I’m… the pain is gone. I can’t believe it.”

“Might come back,” says Lisa, helping her sit up, the sheet falling away and Marlene not caring if Lisa sees her naked. “I’ll massage you a few more times while you’re here. But now… how about a warm bath in the soaking tub with me?”

“Okay,” says Marlene, getting off the table and allowing Lisa to wrap a big towel around her and lead her to the big tub in the bathhouse adjoining the cottage.

*

When Lisa and Marlene enter the farmhouse for lunch, the morning session of homeschooling has just ended and the six students are eating lunch with Delilah at the dining table while Philip and Andrea and Marcel are in the kitchen preparing lunch for the grownups.

“I feel like a little girl,” whispers Marlene, taking Lisa’s hand. “A little girl who has never been anywhere or done anything.”

*

That night as they get ready for bed in the guest room in Michael and Daisy’s house, Everett hums and whistles as he changes out of his clothes into his pajamas.

Now something feels terribly wrong to him, so he stops humming and realizes he can’t hear Marlene singing. In a panic, he turns to where he last saw her, and there she is in her nightgown, standing at the partly open window listening to the rain.

“You okay, Mars?” he asks, wondering why she isn’t singing.

“I’m fine,” she says, her voice calmer than Everett has ever known it to be. “Just enjoying the sound of the rain.”

He joins her at the window in his T-shirt and underpants, and he doesn’t hum and she doesn’t sing, and they listen to the rain together for several minutes, the sound intoxicating.

“We both know you started humming to drown out my singing,” she says, speaking the truth that has gone unsaid for fifty-two years. “I wish I’d stopped singing long ago, but I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. But now I want to stop and I’d like you to help me by calling my attention to it whenever I start.” She takes his hand. “Will you Ev?”

“Are you sure you didn’t start singing to drown out my humming and whistling?” he says, wanting to share some of the blame.

“I’m sure,” she says, bringing his hand to her lips and kissing his fingertips. “You never hummed until we got together, and I’ve been singing like I do, which isn’t really singing but sing-song talking, since I was a little girl. But now I’m going to stop and I hope you’ll stop with me, and we’ll see what happens.”

“Is this because of the massage?” he asks, struggling to contain his tremendous urge to start humming.

“The massage was the key that opened the box with the treasure map inside,” she says, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“The treasure map?” he says, sitting beside her. “What do you mean?”

“The treasure map to the buried treasure that was me as a frightened girl who didn’t want to hear the horrible things her parents were saying to each other and to her brother and sister, and to her. She wanted to mute those words, but then her singing became her habit and also the way she stayed separate from everyone else, which was the only way she could feel even a little bit safe, and I have no doubt I would have ended up in the loony bin if you hadn’t seen through my singing and fallen in love with me so I could fall in love with you.”

*

The next morning, rain intermittent, Thomas Darling, Everett and Marlene’s youngest son, arrives at Ziggurat Farm, having missed the driveway to Michael and Daisy’s house as everyone does the first time they come to visit.

Thirty-one, handsome and broad-shouldered with unruly red hair, Thomas knocks on the farmhouse door and hears four dogs barking in tones he recognizes as friendly.

The door opens and here is Arturo, thirteen, a fast-growing cutie pie with longish brown hair and olive skin wearing a red Ziggurat Farm sweatshirt and black jeans and neon blue running shoes.

“Ah,” says Arturo, offering Thomas his hand. “You must be Thom. I’m Arturo. Please come in. We’re just finishing up the morning lesson and then one of us will escort you to Michael and Daisy’s. The entrance to their driveway is invisible to the uninitiated.”

Thomas enters the large high-ceilinged room that is living room, dining room, and kitchen all in one, only the long counter that separates kitchen from dining room a permanent divider of the spaciousness. A young woman with short brown hair and four kids ranging in age from ten to fourteen are seated in a big circle around a small dais upon which a twelve-year-old boy holding an accordion and wearing a headdress made of a dozen large feathers is posing for the others to sketch him.

“The greatly-anticipated Thom has arrived,” announces Arturo, returning to his seat in the circle.

“Welcome Thom,” says Henri, the artists’ model. “Or do you prefer Thomas?”

“Thom is fine,” says Thomas, delighted by what he’s stumbled into.

“Welcome Thom,” say the other kids as they continue sketching Henri.

Now the young woman stands up and Thomas’s jaw drops—his previous notions about everything blown to smithereens.

“Hello Thom,” she says, coming to greet him. “I’m Delilah. Do you mind hanging out with us until we finish the morning session? Then someone will guide you where you want to go.”

“Don’t mind at all,” he says, shaking her hand. “Might I join your class? I love to draw.”

“Please,” she says, very much enjoying the union of their hands, as is he.

fin

Forgotten Impulses

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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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Irenia

On the second of February, a Friday, in the thriving northern California coastal town of Mercy, the day dawns icy and clear after three days of rain.

Toby, the tall young UPS driver, arrives on his bicycle at the UPS depot on the south side of Mercy, flirts with Teresa the depot manager over a quick cup of coffee, and gives Domingo a hand loading the big brown UPS truck with packages large and small.

“Hey I’ll bet these are Philip’s cookbooks,” says Domingo, the nephew of Juan, Celia’s brother-in-law, Celia married to Nathan, Nathan and Celia close friends with Philip and the gang at Ziggurat Farm.

“Ten boxes from… Primero Press,” says Toby, reading the label on one of the heavy boxes. “Must be.”

“Veronica can’t wait to get one,” says Domingo, getting out his wallet and handing Toby a couple twenties. “If they open a box when you’re there, could you get me one and have Philip sign it? To Veronica.”

“I’ll try,” says Toby, pocketing the money. “I want one, too.”

Ziggurat Farm is usually one of Toby’s last stops of the day, but because he’s eager to see Philip’s new book, he asks Teresa if he can deliver to the farm first today.

Teresa hands Toby a couple twenties and says, “Get me a copy, too.”

*

Meanwhile, Philip is driving the kids, Arturo, eleven, Henri, ten, and Vivienne, nine, to Mercy Montessori, this being Arturo’s last year there, after which he will enter the public school system for Seventh Grade since there are no other choices in Mercy save for home schooling, an undertaking the farm adults cannot imagine, though even the excellent Montessori School is of questionable educational value to their very bright children.

“I’ll pick you up at Nathan and Celia’s after your piano lessons,” says Philip, pulling up to the school where several other vehicles are disgorging children.

“Don’t forget Irenia is coming for supper and spending the night,” says Vivienne, speaking of the kids’ new pal. “She’s very much looking forward to your cooking, which we’ve told her all about.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” says Philip, resisting the temptation to say How could I possibly forget when you remind me every fifteen minutes?

“Her parents are bringing her at five,” says Arturo, repeating what Philip has now been told at least ten times. “We’re hoping you’ll make something yummy for a before-supper snack.”

“Those stuffed mushrooms you made for Thanksgiving would be ideal,” says Henri, opening his door.

“Stuffed mushrooms would be ideal,” says Vivienne, coming around the car to the driver’s window. “With maybe a little more melted cheese than usual. Irenia especially likes cheese. Perhaps you could get some of that Swiss kind we love. The Emmental.”

“I shall endeavor to get some from my friends at Ocelot,” says Philip, nodding graciously to his daughter. “See you at Nathan’s at 4:30.”

*

Back at the farm, Andrea is in the cottage where she and her husband Marcel and their son Henri live. She is sitting at her desk in what was previously Lisa’s massage studio and is now the headquarters of Ziggurat Farm Productions, Philip’s cookbook the first of those productions.

“We’re expecting copies today,” says Andrea, speaking on the phone with Ramona at Crow’s Nest Books, one of Mercy’s two bookstores and the only one that sells new books. “Did you try ordering through Ingram?”

“I ordered a few copies from them,” says Ramona, who thinks Philip is the most charming man she’s ever met, “but you’ll make so much more per copy if we buy directly from you.”

“I appreciate that,” says Andrea, who was a sous chef for twenty years and has been a farmer for ten, but never a seller of books until now. “I just want to confirm the other way works.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as those copies comes in,” says Ramona, who was thrilled by the advance copy of the cookbook Andrea showed her. “But for now I want to get seventy copies from you to make a big display, and I’m sure we’ll need more for the book signing.”

“I’ll bring you seventy copies as soon as we get them,” says Andrea, a message appearing on her computer screen saying an email just arrived from the New York Times. “Toby usually delivers here at the end of the day so I probably won’t get books to you until tomorrow.”

Ending her call with Ramona, Andrea opens the email from the New York Times where, purely on a whim, she sent one of the three advance copies of the cookbook she got from Primero Press, the outfit handling printing and distribution of the print-on-demand edition of the book.

Andrea…Thanks for sending Philip’s Kitchen. The Raul Neves intro is a real coup. I gave the book to Sara Granderson, one of our cookbook reviewers, and she went bonkers. She showed it to Mark Jacobs, the Sunday supplement food editor, and he loves it, too, and wants to feature Sara’s review and the Neves intro in an upcoming supplement. Can you send pics of the farm and Philip in his kitchen, and if possible a pic of Philip with Raul? Probably run in 3-4 weeks. Congrats.Titus

*

Lisa, Philip’s wife, is in the farmhouse with Marcel, Andrea’s husband, and Michael and Daisy who recently bought the house and three acres contiguous with five-acre Ziggurat Farm. Michael is an ornithologist and Daisy, eight months pregnant with her first child, is a novelist.

They are in the midst of a conversation about Mercy Hospital—Michael wondering if it might be wiser for Daisy to have the baby in a big city hospital instead of in Mercy’s humble country hospital.

“Celia worked at Mercy Hospital for thirty-five years and says it’s a great place to have a baby,” says Daisy, who is much less anxious than Michael about the impending birth of their child. “Just not major surgery.”

“I loved having my babies there,” says Lisa, remembering the sweet and competent Mexican nurses who assisted the Nigerian doctor who delivered Arturo, those same nurses assisting the Australian doctor who delivered Vivienne two years later. “Celia’s daughter Calypso is a nurse there and she helped with the birth of both Arturo and Vivienne.”

“Andrea loved having Henri there,” says Marcel, remembering the moment of Henri’s birth. “They’re very nice about letting the father be in the room for the birth.”

“Then I shouldn’t worry,” says Michael, laughing nervously.

“We’ll be fine,” says Daisy, who has thoroughly enjoyed her pregnancy so far. “I know we will.”

At which moment, Andrea rushes in and says, “The New York Times is going to run a rave review of Philip’s cookbook and do a big spread with pictures in a Sunday supplement.”

Having delivered this momentous news, Andrea bursts into tears and Marcel and Lisa rush to embrace her.

*

At morning recess on the playground at Mercy Montessori, a spirited soccer game is underway with Arturo and Vivienne leading one team, Henri and Irenia leading the other. Arturo and Vivienne and Henri started playing soccer as soon as they learned to walk, Henri’s father Marcel a former professional soccer player, and Irenia, tall and graceful with long raven black hair, grew up playing rough-and-tumble soccer in the Russian community in San Francisco.

The other kids on both teams play with zeal, but are not great ball-handlers. Thus the Ziggurat Farm gang and Irenia dominate the game—Irenia scoring the winning goal by shoving Arturo aside and striking the ball so hard the diminutive goalie dives out of the way to save his life.

“I’m pretty sure knocking me down like that would get you a yellow card in a refereed game,” says Arturo, speaking to Irenia from where he’s lying on the ground.

“I see no referee,” says Irenia, giving Arturo a hand up.

And a moment later the game is forgotten—Arturo and Irenia listening to Mr. Arbanas droning on about the founding of Rome, Vivienne and Henri bored to tears by Mrs. Pembroke reading aloud in her sing-song way about settlers traveling west from St. Louis in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail.

*

Philip has yet to hear the news about the New York Times review because he doesn’t carry a phone and because after dropping the kids at school he went to Ocelot to deliver lettuce and green onions from the Ziggurat greenhouses and had an unusually long conversation with the famous Raul who is usually too busy to talk for long.

From Ocelot, Philip went to the food co-op to buy supplies for tonight’s supper, after which he dropped by Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s for tea and conversation, and then Delilah, the kids’ piano teacher and the illustrator of Philip’s Kitchen, did some sketches of Philip for a drawing she’ll create to go with the review of his cookbook scheduled to run in the weekly Mercy Messenger before his book signing at Crow’s Nest Books a few weeks hence.

At last he arrives home where upon entering the farmhouse he is greeted with hurrahs from Marcel and Andrea and Lisa and Michael and Daisy in honor of his impending New York Times triumph and the arrival of ten boxes of his glorious new cookbook.

“Wonderful,” says Philip, holding a copy of Philip’s Kitchen: exquisite recipes from Ziggurat Farm. “Please forgive me for not getting too excited about the news from New York. After what I went through with my first cookbook, I think I’ll wait to celebrate until the review is a fait accompli and not merely a promise.”

*

Which sentiment turns out to be prescient, for when Andrea returns to her office after lunch she finds the following email.

Andrea…Turns out we never review self-published books. Editorial policy. So I regret to say we won’t be running a review or featuring the book in a supplement. Titus

Crestfallen, Andrea returns to the farmhouse, gives the news to Philip and Lisa, and bursts into tears again.

“Don’t be sad,” says Philip, sitting beside Andrea on the sofa. “It would have been nice, but it’s not how things usually work in the upper stories of the media pyramid, save by accident once every thousand blue moons. But we’ll be fine. We don’t need to sell a million copies. Right? What’s our break-even number?”

“A thousand,” she says, still crying. “But it’s so unfair.”

“I used to think that, too,” says Philip, getting up from the sofa to put a log on the fire. “But now I think it’s just the way of the human world, which has never been a meritocracy, however much we wish it was.”

*

Boris and Maria, Irenia’s parents, bring their beautiful daughter to the farm at five o’clock, and Philip and Lisa insist Boris and Maria stay for the hors d’oeuvres and a drink—Boris gregarious and friendly, Maria quiet and self-conscious about her minimal command of English.

Arturo and Vivienne and Irenia each gobble several of the baked Cremini mushrooms stuffed with Philip’s special sauté of minced onions, chopped Kalamata olives, minced garlic, and finely grated carrots, topped with melted Emmental cheese, after which they race off to Vivienne’s bedroom where Irenia suggests she teach them how to play poker, so that is what they do.

Boris is fifty-six, tall and broad-shouldered with curly gray hair and a big stomach. Maria is fifty-four, short and stout, her once black hair now white. They sit side-by-side on the sofa in the living room, a plate of stuffed mushrooms on the coffee table in front of them, each with a glass of the farm’s excellent cabernet, and Boris eats seven of the stuffed mushrooms in quick succession, while Maria has one.

“I never had such good food before,” says Boris, downing his entire glass of wine in a single gulp. “And this is best wine I ever had.” He says something to Maria in Russian.

“What did you say to her?” asks Lisa, smiling at Boris.

“I said now we know how heaven will be,” says Boris, laughing. “Best food and best wine.”

“I love your food so much, too,” says Maria, smiling and nodding. “I cook pretty good but not so good as you.”

“I’m glad you like the food and wine,” says Philip, refilling Boris’s glass. “I’d love to give you a copy of my new cookbook. We just got copies today and it has the recipe for the stuffed mushrooms.”

“We’ll give you some wine to take home, too,” says Lisa, who finds Maria and Boris delightful.

“We can pay you,” says Maria, nodding anxiously.

“No, no,” says Philip, bringing them the book. “It’s our gift to you. We’re so glad to get to know you. Our kids love your daughter. They’ve been looking forward to having her over for weeks now.”

“She’s a good girl,” says Boris, downing his second glass of wine. “We move here because…”

Maria whispers in Russian to Boris.

“Yah,” he says, nodding. “We are very happy she like your kids, too. In city she was… how do I say this…” He lowers his voice. “The men were coming after her. She was only ten, but tall and beautiful as you see… so now we are here and is better for her and… yah, we are happy she like your kids.”

“Because she’s still a child,” says Lisa, who escaped the slums of Buenos Aires when she was ten and the men were starting to come after her. “She’ll be a woman soon enough. Let her be a child while she can.”

Maria says something in Russian to Boris.

“She is very smart,” says Boris, translating for Maria. “We want her to go to college and go beyond us. We came to America when I was forty-three and Maria was forty-one. I’m mechanic. I fix cars and trucks. At Mercy garage. I think maybe I fix your truck. Bent axel. Yah?”

“Yes, and you did a great job,” says Philip, beaming at Boris.

“Good,” says Boris, nodding in thanks as Philip fills his glass again. “Maria is seamstress. She can sew anything. We lose two children in Russia and did not think we could have another, but when we came to San Francisco we have Irenia. Was miracle.”

He bows his head and weeps. Maria puts her hand on his shoulder and smiles at Lisa and Philip. “Sometimes he cry when he have wine.”

“We’re so glad you’re here,” says Philip, moved to tears. “Would you like to stay for supper?”

Boris looks up and says, “No thank you. We don’t think Irenia want us here for tonight. So is more special for her. But maybe other time.”

“Many other times,” says Philip, handing a copy of his cookbook to Maria.

She looks at the cover, a pen and ink drawing by Delilah of Philip in his kitchen.

“Is beautiful picture,” says Maria, looking at Philip and Lisa. “You are first people to ask us…” She turns to Boris and says something in Russian.

“You are first people to invite us since we come to Mercy two years ago.” He sips his wine. “You make this wine, Philip?”

“Marcel is our wine master,” says Philip, going to get a couple bottles for them. “Henri’s father.”

“Tell him for me,” says Boris, calling after Philip, “he is genius.”

*

Moments after Boris and Maria depart, Marcel and Andrea and Henri arrive, Henri hurrying off to join the poker game while Andrea and Marcel eat the last of the stuffed mushrooms and Andrea gulps down a glass of wine a la Boris and says quietly so the kids won’t hear her, “Fuck the New York Times.”

“I’d forgotten all about that,” says Philip, refilling Andrea’s glass. “Never gave it another thought.”

“Wait until you see the display of your books at the bookstore,” says Marcel, clinking glasses with Philip. “You come in the door and it’s like the pyramids of Egypt. Three pyramids of Philip’s Kitchen.”

*

When supper begins, Irenia proves to be as talkative as the very talkative Arturo and Henri and Vivienne, but she falls silent when she begins to eat. Occasionally she looks up from her meal to gaze around the table, a puzzled expression on her face, and she continues in this way until her plate is empty.

“Would you care for anything more?” asks Philip, speaking to Irenia as he speaks to the customers he waits on at Ocelot. “There’s plenty of everything.”

“I would like to learn to cook like this,” she says quietly. “Will you teach me?”

“Of course he will,” says Vivienne, nodding confidently. “He teaches us. So whenever you come over he’ll teach you, too.”

“I am amazed by this food,” says Irenia, looking from one person to another. “Yet you all seem to think this is just ordinary.”

“It is not ordinary,” says Marcel, looking at Philip. “It is extraordinary and I’m grateful to you for reminding me of what Philip does for us all the time.”

*

Vivienne and Irenia are sharing Vivienne’s bed, both of them fighting sleep because they love being with each other.

Irenia: Have you ever kissed a boy? Not your brother or Henri, but someone else?

Vivienne: Julio Martinez kissed me at a barbecue last summer. Twice.

Irenia: Did you want him to kiss you?

Vivienne: No. We were playing hide and seek and he and I were hiding in the barn together behind the wine barrels and trying not to giggle when Arturo came in looking for us, and he just suddenly kissed me. I was so shocked, I just froze and then he kissed me again.

Irenia: On your lips?

Vivienne: Yes.

Irenia: Did you like it?

Vivienne: No. It was ucky.

Irenia: How old is Julio?

Vivienne: He was eleven when he kissed me and I was eight. Now he’s twelve and I’m nine. But I still don’t want him to kiss me. Have you ever kissed a boy?

Irenia: Yes.

Vivienne: When?

Irenia: In San Francisco. When I was ten.

Vivienne: Who was he?

Irenia: His name was Dimitri. He was eighteen. He would talk to me at the bus stop when I got off the bus when I came home from school. We rode the city bus to school in San Francisco. I didn’t talk to him at first, but he was there every day and he seemed nice, so I talked to him. And then for a few days he walked me home. And then one day he gave me a box of candy. Not a candy bar. A whole box of chocolates. And when I took the box from him, he put his arms around me and kissed me on the lips and pushed his tongue into my mouth.

Vivienne: How dreadful.

Irenia: I tried to get away from him, but he wouldn’t let me go until I screamed and people came running and then he let me go.

Vivienne: What a terrible person.

Irenia: He said he loved me and wanted to marry me. He even came to our apartment and asked my father if he could marry me.

Vivienne: But you were only ten. Was he insane?

Irenia: I don’t think so.

Vivienne: Then why would he do such a terrible thing?

Irenia: Why did Julio kiss you?

Vivienne: I suppose because he likes me.

Irenia: Yes, they like us. Whether we like them or not.  

*

In the morning, Vivienne and Irenia and Arturo make omelets and hash browns with Philip supervising, and Henri and Andrea and Marcel come for breakfast.

At meal’s end, Henri and Irenia do the dishes with Marcel, after which the kids put on their rain gear and go to deliver a pot of soup to Daisy and Michael.

As they walk along the path from the farmhouse through the nascent forest to Michael and Daisy’s house, Irenia says, “I love my mother and father, but I would rather live here with you.”

fin

What You Do In Ireland

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Finding Our Place

Michael Darling is forty-two, strong and wiry with longish brown hair, an ornithologist recently freed from academia by his wife Daisy inheriting a fortune from her mother. He is now in the throes of adjusting to a reality void of office hours, faculty meetings, and giving lectures to hundreds of students looking at their phones instead of listening to him, while also adjusting to the enormous differences between the climate and topography of the northern California coast, where he and Daisy are now, and southern Michigan where they lived for the last seventeen years.

Daisy is thirty-nine, curvaceous and pretty with short reddish brown hair, an aspiring novelist with a degree in Psychology. Four months pregnant—her first pregnancy—she and Michael have been married for fifteen years. As the only child of a single mother who worked in a Ford assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan for thirty years, Daisy expected to inherit her mother’s little house in Dearborn but had no idea that when laid off by Ford at the age of fifty-seven, her mother took up day trading stocks and in the five years before she died amassed a fortune of seven million dollars.

Michael and Daisy have been in Mercy for twelve days now. They came here to fulfill Daisy’s dream of eating at Ocelot, the restaurant created by the famous chef Raul Neves who Daisy has idolized for the last seven years, ever since she read his erotic culinary memoir I Made This For You. Neither Michael nor Daisy expected to be so profoundly captivated by the little town and the surrounding wilderness, but now they want to live here for the rest of their lives. So far they’ve looked at seven houses in or near Mercy, made offers on two, and were outbid both times.

“How nice of him to invite us to his farm,” says Daisy, speaking of Philip who waited on them two nights ago at Ocelot. “I wonder what his story is.”

“We’ll soon find out,” says Michael, piloting their shiny new car up the curving road through the redwood forest, the October afternoon cool and sunny. “We’re exactly two miles inland from Mercy so we should see the sign for the farm any minute now.”

Where the curving road becomes a straightaway, a small wooden sign appears on their right—carved letters painted black saying Ziggurat Farm.

“Oh my God,” says Daisy as they turn off the highway onto the drive leading to the farmhouse. “This is paradise.”

They park near the huge old redwood barn and four dogs come to greet them: two Golden Retrievers, a giant hound, and a little mutt, each wagging his or her tail in greeting and none of them barking.

As the dogs mill around Daisy and Michael, an entirely different-seeming Philip than the Philip who waited on them at Ocelot emerges from the farmhouse with his wife Lisa.

Philip is fifty-nine, slender with short black hair, and Daisy thinks he’s gorgeous. Lisa is fifty-two, her long black hair in a ponytail, her skin dark olive brown, and Michael thinks she’s one of the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.

After hellos and introductions, Philip and Lisa give Michael and Daisy a tour of the barn wherein seventy big barrels of grape juice are fermenting into wine and cases of Ziggurat Farm wine rest in the cool recesses.

From the barn they cross a wide expanse of level ground where the farm kids play soccer and Frisbee and croquet, and Michael and Daisy ooh and ah about the elegant bathhouse made of redwood and river rock and timber bamboo that adjoins the recently vacated five-room cottage.

From the bathhouse they walk on a path lined with lilac trees and rose bushes and lavender to the one-acre deer-fenced vegetable and flower garden wherein Andrea, muscular and pretty with short black hair, is preparing beds for garlic.

And who should be standing in the very center of the garden, but Raul Neves and his assistant Maurice, both of them picking vegetables for Ocelot—the last of the garden’s summer produce.

“Oh my God,” whispers Daisy, clutching Michael’s arm. “Raul. It’s Raul. I can’t believe this.”

“A woman whispered my name,” says Raul, fifty-five, big and handsome and Portuguese with a mop of curly gray hair, his black Ocelot sweatshirt surmounting faded blue jeans.

Maurice, also big and middle-aged, says in French, “When usually they shout.”

“Raul and Maurice,” says Philip, leading Daisy and Michael to the zucchini patch where Maurice and Raul are harvesting the last zucchini, the big leaves of the exhausted plants turning yellow. “May I introduce Daisy and Michael. They dined at Ocelot two nights ago and were not displeased.”

“Oh we loved it,” effuses Daisy, blushing brightly. “I had the quail stuffed with truffles. It was beyond amazing. You’re just… amazing.”

“And you, Monsieur?” asks Raul, smiling at Michael. “What did you have?”

“The cod,” says Michael, blushing, too. “Also amazing.”

“We aim to amaze,” says Raul, moving from the zucchini to a verdant bed of chard and calling to Andrea. “Maestra. Can we take chard from this bed? The leaves are fantastic.”

Andrea looks up from her digging. “The bigger leaves, yes.”

“I would love to visit with you longer,” says Raul, bowing to Daisy, “but we have much to pick and little time. Oh Philip, have you any of your 2020 Pinot left to sell?”

“Andrea?” says Philip, calling to her. “Can we spare a case of the 2020 pinot for Raul?”

“We only have three cases left,” she says, laughing. “So of course they’re priceless.”

“Two thousand for a case?” says Raul, looking expectantly at Andrea.

“But only for you, Raul,” she says, trying not to show how excited she is by the fantastic price.

“We’ll take all three,” says Raul, bending down to cut leaves of chard.

*

After a tour of the garden, Lisa and Philip lead their star-struck guests to the farmhouse and serve them tea and muffins on the south deck and ask them about their lives—Michael eloquent about his research on owls, Daisy effusive about the novel she just finished writing, and both of them quite emotional about the enormous changes in their lives since the death of Daisy’s mother and inheriting what for them is an enormous fortune.

Now Raul and Maurice honk their horn seven times as they depart, and moments later Marcel, a handsome Frenchman, Andrea’s husband, arrives with Arturo, eleven, Henri, ten, and Vivienne nearly nine, the kids overjoyed it’s Friday and no more school until Monday.

Andrea comes in from the garden to join the conversation, and while the kids are finishing their after-school snacks, Marcel says to Michael and Daisy, “So… Philip tells me you are looking for a place to buy in Mercy.”

This place will do,” says Michael, laughing. “If only.”

“It is a very good location,” says Marcel, smiling at Michael. “But this one is not for sale.”

“No, of course not,” says Daisy, in love with the children and the grownups and the house and the land and the dogs and cats. “But if you know anyone who wants to sell anything even remotely like this, please let us know.”

“Do you have any kids?” asks Henri, gazing earnestly at Daisy.

“Not yet,” she says, returning his ardent gaze, “but I’m going to have a baby soon. My due date is March 13th.”

“Do you have a nice dog?” asks Vivienne, speaking to Michael. “Or dogs?”

“No, but we’re going to get one once we get settled,” says Michael, smiling at Vivienne. “And we’ll be very nice to him or her, so she’ll probably turn out okay. Don’t you think?”

“Golden Retrievers are inherently nice,” says Vivienne, a fierce advocate of the breed. “I cannot recommend them highly enough.”

“What do you do, Michael?” asks Arturo, pursing his lips in his thoughtful way. “For a living?”

“I’m an ornithologist,” says Michael, nodding. “Do you know what that is?”

“Of course we do,” says Arturo, frowning in dismay. “You’re a bird scientist.”

“You study ornithols,” says Henri, laughing.

“No, he doesn’t,” says Vivienne, giggling. “He studies birds.”

“Specifically owls and he hopes to be studying ospreys,” says Philip, giving Marcel a meaningful look.

“What about you?” says Henri, addressing Daisy. “What do you do?”

“Well I plan to be a full-time mother for a couple years,” she says seriously. “But then I’ll go back to writing novels and short stories.”

“We love novels and short stories,” says Arturo, nodding emphatically. “We’re avid readers and we write with Nathan after school two times a week. Nathan is a poet and has a blog.”

“We also write when we’re not with Nathan,” says Vivienne, wanting Daisy and Michael to know they don’t just write with Nathan. “Mostly book reports for school, but also poems and stories and song lyrics.”

“Would you like to see our house,” says Henri, looking from Daisy to Michael. “It’s on the other side of the property.”

“We’d love to,” says Michael, suspecting he’s dreaming and any minute will wake up in Michigan.

“Come on we’ll show you,” says Vivienne, going to the door and putting on her shoes. “It’s only a five-minute walk.”

*

 So the seven farm people and their four dogs walk with Michael and Daisy on the wide path connecting the two houses on the eight-acre parcel, and Michael notes the young trees growing on the terraced hillside.

“This has all been recently reforested,” he says, knowing a great deal about forests. “Did you do that?”

“Yes,” says Philip, admiring the thriving young conifers. “When we bought this property twelve years ago, there was a dying vineyard here and we tried to revive it until we finally accepted that grapes won’t grow here.”

“We came here because of the vineyard,” says Marcel, recalling the thousands of hours they spent on their failed experiment, “and we were very stubborn about trying to save the vineyard despite nature telling us No in her loudest voice.”

“The people who lived here before us used to drive trucks on this path,” says Arturo, walking beside Michael, “but now it’s just for walking.”

“We do sometimes ride our bikes here, too” says Vivienne, who is walking next to Daisy. “But mostly we just walk on it. Or run.”

“It’s not quite level,” says Henri, who is in the lead. “And you’ll find it goes slightly downhill in this direction and slightly uphill on the way back to the farmhouse.”

Andrea laughs. “Just as you would expect.”

“There seem to be more little birds on this side of the property,” says Lisa, holding Philip’s hand. “We think that’s because the cats spend most of their time around the barn where they catch mice, and in the garden and orchard where they hunt gophers, but they also occasionally take birds, unfortunately.”

“Yeah, cats love birds,” says Michael, nodding. “But we’ll have a cat or two anyway. We couldn’t have a dog in Ann Arbor because our landlord forbade it, but we always had a cat because… well, we love cats.”

“Our last cat died a year ago,” says Daisy, awestruck by the surrounding beauty. “Her name was Spunky, though she hadn’t been spunky for quite some time.”

Spunky is a very good word,” says Henri, nodding thoughtfully. “It’s not quite onomatopoeia, but almost.”

“You have a marvelous vocabulary, Henri,” says Daisy, smiling at him.

“Thank you,” he says, bowing to her as his father bows to those he waits on. “So does Arturo, and so does Vivienne.”

“So do our parents,” says Vivienne, running ahead to the house so she’ll be the first one there.

*

Standing on the deck on the south side of the large three-bedroom house where Marcel and Andrea and Henri have lived for twelve years, the forest descending gradually to the west—the horizon a slender strip of shining blue sea—Michael and Lisa turn away from the breathtaking view and find the four adults and three children and four dogs perusing them with great interest. 

“Stunning,” says Daisy, beaming at them. “Just stunning. We’d love to find a place like this. We made offers on a house in town with a little yard, and we offered on a falling-down house on an acre just north of town, but we were outbid both times.”

“How much did you bid for the falling-down place with an acre, if I may ask?” says Marcel, smiling warmly at Daisy. “We’re very curious to know what this place might be worth now.”

“We bid 1.2 million on the one with an acre, but this house would go for at least 1.8,” says Michael, with great surety. “Three acres and a gorgeous three-bedroom house? Here? With neighbors like you? In a market this hot? Probably more like 2. But I don’t know. I’m just guessing.”

“Hold that thought,” says Marcel, dashing into the house and returning with binoculars. “There is a snag, the dead top of an old redwood.” He brings the binoculars to his eyes and scans the forest to the west. “Yes. There.” He hands the binoculars to Michael and points. “You see? It is much taller than the other trees around it.”

“Oh, yes,” says Michael, falling silent. “Is that… oh my God, that’s an osprey nest. It’s huge.”

“These woods are full of magic,” says Marcel, stating the simple fact. “And all this forest you see to the west is a state park and will never be built on.”

“Would you like to buy this house?” asks Henri, looking at Daisy. “We’ve decided to sell it because we’re going to live in the cottage near the farmhouse.”

This house is for sale?” says Michael, giving Daisy a wild-eyed look.

“And the three acres,” says Andrea, her eyes full of tears.

“How much are you asking?” Daisy asks, holding her breath.

Andrea looks at Marcel, Marcel looks at Philip, Philip looks at Lisa, and Lisa looks at Andrea.

“For you,” says Andrea, trembling. “1.8.”

*

Over the next few weeks, Marcel and Andrea and Henri relocate to the cottage, and by Thanksgiving Michael and Daisy are living in their new home and about to walk to the farmhouse for the Thanksgiving feast.

Daisy tries on three different dresses, growls in frustration, goes in search of her phone, and finds it on the kitchen counter. She taps the number for the farmhouse and bursts into tears.

“Hi Daisy,” says Lisa, answering on the second ring. “Are you coming soon?”

“Yes, but… are you wearing a dress for the party?” she asks, sniffling back her tears.

“I am,” says Lisa, warmly. “So are Andrea and Vivienne. Delilah almost never wears dresses, but she might. Celia will wear a beautiful blouse and maybe a skirt, maybe pants, and Celia’s daughter Calypso and Juan’s wife Camille will definitely wear dresses. But you should wear whatever you feel most comfortable in.”

“Thank you, Lisa,” says Daisy, greatly relieved. “I’m just… highly neurotic these days. I’m not usually like this, so I assume it has something to do with being pregnant and still in shock about actually being here.”

“Come over soon,” says Lisa, watching the children gobbling the hors d’oeuvres. “Philip and Andrea just set out the stuffed mushrooms and the kids are making short work of them.”

Daisy puts on her turquoise paisley dress and her big round abalone earrings, and goes in search of Michael. She finds him on the deck looking fine in black corduroy slacks and a teal dress shirt and his black winter coat, his telescope aimed at the osprey nest atop the redwood snag.

“We can go over any time,” she says, still learning how softly she can speak and be heard in the marvelous quiet.

“You called them?”

“Yeah I wanted to know if I should wear a dress.” She shrugs. “I’m hopeless.”

“But sweeter than honey,” he says, kissing her.

“In the spring we’ll have a baby,” she says, relaxing in his arms.

“And the ospreys will return from their sojourn to the south.”

“In the meantime…” She looks around in wonder. “…here we are.”

“And to think I didn’t want to go to Ocelot,” he says, looking to the west where the ocean meets the illimitable sky. “Because I thought it was immoral to spend so much money on supper.”

 “Which just shows to go you,” says Daisy, speaking her mother’s favorite rearrangement of the old expression, her dear mother who left them a fortune to fulfill their dreams.

*

In the last light of day, halfway along the path to the farmhouse, Daisy and Michael meet Marcel with the big hound Jung at his side.

“Andrea saw a puma at dusk yesterday,” says Marcel, turning to walk with them the rest of the way, “so she asked me to come escort you.”

“Thank you,” says Michael, putting his hand on Marcel’s shoulder. “I guess we should get a dog sooner than later.”

“We got our pups about the same time the kids were born,” says Marcel, who is very glad to only be waiting tables at Ocelot three nights a week now instead of five. “So they all grew up together and think of each other as kin.”

fin

On the Way Home, piano and cello duet

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People Go Away

Everything happened so quickly, the denizens of Ziggurat Farm, grownups and children alike, are having a hard time adjusting to the new reality.

In mid-September, Hilda, who just turned eighty-five, told Philip and Lisa she was frightened by how forgetful she was becoming and wanted to move back to Berkeley and live in a senior care facility. Hilda’s daughter Tamara and Tamara’s partner Celine then decided not to buy the Richardson’s place in Mercy and instead move to Berkeley and live in Hilda’s house just a few miles from the senior care facility—and by late September the three of them were gone.

Then two weeks later, the very British Richardsons, Constance and Joseph, bid the farm gang adieu and moved back to England, their house in Mercy selling in one day for five times what they paid for it ten years ago.

So now the cottage near the farmhouse is empty save for Lisa’s massage studio, two thousand dollars a month is no longer coming into the farm coffers from Hilda, the children are without a grandmother, the grownups without a mother, Aunt Tamara and Aunt Celine are no longer daily visitors, Joseph will never more recite for the children his favorite lines from Shakespeare as they stroll with him on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, nor will he give them twice-weekly drawing lessons, and there will be no more tea parties with Constance, no more learning to speak in the manner of erudite upper crust Brits, and no more piano concerts from Delilah on the Richardsons’ fabulous Steinway grand.

*

On a Tuesday evening after supper in mid-October, a week or so after Joseph and Constance left for England, Henri, who is ten, asks his parents Marcel and Andrea if he can spend the night with Arturo and Vivienne, something he often does on weekends but rarely does during the week.

“No dear,” says Andrea, knowing her son is distraught about losing five of his favorite people. “It’s a school night.”

“I don’t want to go to our house,” he says, his sleep bothered by nightmares since Hilda and then Joseph moved away. “It’s too far from Arturo and Vivienne. Can’t we stay in the cottage?”

“We have no beds there,” says Marcel, who feels helpless to ease his son’s sorrow about the loss of Hilda and Joseph, both of whom Henri adored.

“Well we should,” says Henri, angrily. “We should live in the cottage. We’re here for most of the day anyway. The garden is here, the orchard is here, the barn and the wine and the chickens are here. The dogs mostly stay here. My best friends are here. Your best friends are here. Why can’t we live here instead of all the way on the other side of the property?” Having said this, he bursts into tears, and Vivienne bursts into tears, too.

And though this may seem like a fairly insignificant moment in the grand scheme of things, as Joseph was fond of saying, quite the opposite is true, for Henri’s plea causes the four adults to simultaneously realize that if Andrea and Marcel and Henri did move into the cottage, the other house, along with three of the farm’s eight acres, could be sold for a million dollars or more, money that would support the farm and the creative efforts of the collective for many years to come.

*

When the children are finally asleep, Henri having prevailed in his wish to stay with Arturo and Vivienne, Marcel opens a bottle of their exquisite Ziggurat Farm pinot noir and he and Andrea and Philip and Lisa gather by the fire in the living room to discuss the possibility of selling the house where Marcel and Andrea have lived since the four of them took possession of the two contiguous properties ten years ago.

“The Richardson’s got 1.9 million for their place,” says Andrea, who can’t believe she hadn’t thought of this until now. “We might get 1.2. Possibly more.”

“I love the cottage,” says Marcel, who is more discombobulated by the thought of selling the house than he was by the loss of five of his closest friends. “But is it big enough? Where would Lisa give massages?”

“If we sell your house,” says Lisa, who is weary of being a masseuse, “I can work here in the living room and only giving one massage a day instead of three.”

“If the cottage is too small for you, we can add another room or two,” says Philip, who worries about Lisa, her hands aching all the time now.

“And we can finally publish Philip’s cookbook,” says Andrea, bowing her head and crying.

“We will do this, my love,” says Marcel, putting his arms around Andrea. “And I’ll only wait tables three nights a week, but I’m not stopping entirely this time. I like the work and I like making money.”

“What are you thinking?” asks Lisa, looking at Philip.

“I think we should let this simmer for a day or two,” he says calmly. “Then we’ll make a careful assessment of our annual expenses and what we might spend on any projects we want to pursue, sell the house, see how much we get, and proceed accordingly.”

“Yes,” says Marcel, nodding in agreement.

“But we will publish your book,” says Andrea, gazing steadfastly at Philip. “That is my number one priority.”

*

“I think it’s a great idea,” says Nathan, sitting at his kitchen table with Philip and Lisa who just dropped the kids at school and came to confer with Nathan and Celia and Delilah about the plan to sell Andrea and Marcel’s house. “But beware your new neighbors.”

“What do you mean?” asks Lisa, smiling curiously at Nathan. “We haven’t sold the place yet. We just got the idea last night.”

“I understand,” says Nathan, sipping his tea. “But if you do sell the place, someone might move in who hates dogs and loves guns and shoots your dogs. Or they might be commercial pot growers and have guns and pit bulls that kill your dogs. Or they might be reactionary Republicans who use pesticides and herbicides that float over and taint your organic garden and kill all the bees for miles around. Ideally you would handpick the people you sell the house to, but who do you know and love who has a million bucks to spend on a house in the middle of nowhere?”

“They know me,” says Delilah, making coffee in the kitchen. “Only I think they want more than a million, and that’s all I have. And once I spend the million I won’t have anything and wouldn’t be able to afford the property taxes etcetera, and I don’t really want to live alone in a great big house.” She smiles lovingly at Nathan and Celia. “I’d much rather stay right where I am.”

“We hadn’t thought of problematic neighbors,” says Philip, laughing. “But then we hadn’t thought of selling the house until Henri opened our eyes to the possibility.”

“You could describe what kind of neighbors you’d like,” suggests Celia, taking a pan of blueberry muffins out of the oven, “and put a notice on the Mercy list serve. Someone local might have friends or relatives who want to move here. We’re becoming a haven for people escaping the inland heat and fires.”

“That’s a very good idea,” says Lisa, looking at Philip. “Make a local search before we put it on the market.”

“A ritual would be good, too,” says Nathan, his eyes twinkling. “Call in the beneficent spirits to bless the house and the land. That always works.”

*

On the following Monday, one of Philip and Marcel’s two days off from their jobs as waiters at Ocelot, a most exclusive restaurant in Mercy, the farm residents gather with Nathan and Celia and Delilah on the deck on the south side of Marcel and Andrea and Henri’s house, and Nathan holds a wand of smoking sage and speaks to the nature spirits.

“Oh mysterious powers of creation,” says Nathan, who isn’t kidding but doesn’t sound overly serious. “We love you. We love the wind and the rain and the sunshine and the fog and the cold and the heat and the dead and the living and everything that goes into making life possible here. We love the animals and trees and stones and grasses and reptiles and amphibians and insects and everything there has ever been and ever will be.”

Nathan makes a few figure eights in the air with his smoking sage.

“So when these good folks offer this house and the surrounding land for sale, and by the way, they reforested those acres after the previous yahoos cut all the trees down, we ask for your help in attracting people who love you as much as we do and will be good stewards of this precious land and good neighbors to those gathered here today.”

He makes a few more figure eights with the sage and says, “Anybody want to say anything more?”

“Maybe they could have kids,” says Arturo, speaking to the surrounding forest. “Kids who would end up being our friends.”

“And nice dogs,” says Vivienne, addressing the meadow descending to the forest. “Not mean ones.”

“They would like us,” says Henri, gazing at a passing cloud, “even if they don’t have kids.”

“Maybe the husband is a wood carver and the wife is a modern dancer,” says Vivienne, imagining a man who looks like Joseph and a woman who looks like Tamara.

“I don’t know if we should be so specific,” says Arturo, looking to Nathan for guidance.

“Specific is fine,” says Nathan, matter-of-factly. “Nature spirits like suggestions.”

“I hope they will be kind,” says Marcel, who finds the ritual deeply moving. “Kind and good to this house and land.”

“Kind and generous,” says Lisa, imagining walking the path from the farmhouse to this house, bringing the new neighbors apples and muffins.

*

On the Wednesday evening following the Monday ritual, Philip is waiting on a couple in the southernmost room of the gorgeous old Victorian that is home to Ocelot, the snazzy restaurant not yet two years old. An immediate sensation, Ocelot has become a popular destination for wealthy people and movie stars and celebrities from around the world, as well as a mecca for culinary thrill seekers enamored of Raul Neves, the handsome chef renowned for his spectacular cuisine and liaisons with famous beauties.

The couple are Daisy, a darling woman in her thirties with short reddish brown hair, and Michael, an equally darling man with longish brown hair and a few years older than his darling wife, both full of questions about the food, the restaurant, Raul, and most of all about Mercy.

“We lived in Ann Arbor for thirteen years,” says Daisy, beaming at Philip. “That’s in Michigan.” She laughs nervously. “You probably knew that. Michael taught at the university. He’s an ornithologist and I’m a wannabe novelist. We’ve fallen madly in love with Mercy. The real estate market here is bonkers as I’m sure you know, but we’re determined to find something.”

“Do you have a particular bird you follow?” asks Philip, nodding politely to Michael.

“I do,” says Michael, pleased by the question. “I’ve written two books about owls and I hope to study ospreys once we get settled here.”

“Lots of those here,” says Philip, needing to attend another table. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I must refresh some goblets and then I’ll return to take your order.”

“Isn’t he stunning?” says Daisy, whispering to Michael. “Of course Raul would have someone like him as his waiter.” She looks around the tastefully appointed restaurant. “Pinch me. I can’t believe we’re here.”

“I feel immoral,” Michael confides quietly. “This meal is going to cost more than we used to spend on food for months. Not weeks. Months. Plural.”

“Yes, but we have enough now for a splurge now and then,” she whispers. “Until we buy our house and the baby’s born and then we’ll go back to being frugal. Sort of. But we don’t really have to because my mother left us so much.”

“I’d rather give our money to the Audubon Society than these folks,” he says, feeling out of place. “And you’re not a wannabe novelist. I wish you’d stop saying that. You’ve written three marvelous books. Just because the publishers are too stupid to see the worth of your writing doesn’t have anything to do with your talent.”

“How about this?” she says, pouting adorably. “However much we spend tonight we’ll give twice that to the Audubon Society? And you’ll relax and enjoy yourself. Say yes.”

“Yes,” he says, still crazy about her after fifteen years of marriage.

Philip returns and nods to indicate he’s ready to take their order.

“Do you recommend the chicken—I’m going to say this wrong—à l’ivoire?” says Daisy, wincing at her mispronunciation of the word.

“If you like a very rich sauce on a tender bird, oui,” says Philip, enjoying her attempt at the French. “But I must tell you the rock cod is spectacular tonight served with baby potatoes and vegetables from the farm where I live. If either of you like fish, the cod is not to be missed.”

“I’ll have the cod,” says Michael, intrigued by Philip. “You mentioned lots of ospreys. We’ve been here for ten days and we’ve yet to see one. Can you give us some leads?”

“Most of the ospreys are gone until spring,” says Philip, nodding to Michael. “But we know a few who spend the winter here.” He looks at Daisy. “The chicken à livoire for you?”

“Oh could you choose something else for me?” she says, pleadingly. “I don’t want to get the same thing as Michael, though I’ll certainly be tasting his fish. And a rich sauce on chicken might be, I don’t know… do you mind recommending something for me?”

Philip, who rarely chooses for a customer, gazes at Daisy for a moment and knows she will love the stuffed quail in a nest of straw potatoes more than anything else on the menu, though the dish costs two hundred and seventy dollars.

“For you, Madame,” he says, understanding this is no ordinary event in their lives, “I recommend the quail stuffed with truffles in a nest of straw potatoes, though it is quite dear.”

“Oh thank you,” she says, sighing with relief. “Yes, I’ll have that. And we want two different salads and if you’ll choose them I’ll be forever grateful.”

“And the wine?” asks Philip, turning to Michael who has the wine list.

“We’re not drinking alcohol at the moment,” says Michael, shrugging self-consciously. “Bubbly water’s fine.”

“Because I’m pregnant,” blurts Daisy. “We love wine, but I’m not drinking until a year after the baby’s born and neither is Michael. In solidarity with me. I told him he doesn’t have to not drink, but he insists.”

“Excellent,” says Philip, going out of character to laugh. “When I return with your bubbly I will tell you what I know about the local ospreys.”

“And your farm?” says Michael, hopefully. “We’d love to pick your brain about growing vegetables around here. We’re zealous gardeners.”

Philip bows and departs.

“The Audubon Society,” says Daisy, taking a deep breath, “will be thrilled with the check we’re sending them tomorrow.”

“They’d be even more thrilled if we had wine,” says Michael, perusing the wine list. “The cheapest glass of wine here is seventy dollars, and the cheapest bottle is a mere four hundred and forty.”

“But we don’t care,” says Daisy, her eyes full of tears. “Not for tonight anyway.”

*

Philip slips into bed a little after midnight, hoping not to wake Lisa, though she almost always wakes to give him a kiss before going back to sleep, tonight no exception.

“How was it?” she whispers.

“Good,” he says, greatly relieved to be home. “I think I may have found buyers for Marcel and Andrea’s house. Kind and generous people who love to garden and love birds and are going to have a baby soon.”

Lisa sits up. “Are you serious?”

“I am,” says Philip, laughing. “They’ll be calling tomorrow. I didn’t say anything about the house being for sale, but I know they’ll want it, and I know they have the money, and best of all… I know you’ll love them.”

“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” she says, growing amorous. “If you found our new neighbors at Ocelot?”

fin

The Hopeless Optimist

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Life in the Country

On a cold morning in March, Lisa is giving Tamara a massage in Hilda’s cottage, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse on Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.

A dense fog hangs over the farm, the massage room toasty. Lisa, fifty-one, lives in the farmhouse with her husband Philip, fifty-eight, and their two young children, Arturo and Vivienne. Their farm mates, Marcel and Andrea and their young son Henri live in the other house on the property, and Hilda, Tamara’s eighty-four-year-old mother, lives in the cottage. Tamara and her longtime partner Celine are renting a beach house in Mercy in anticipation of buying a house hereabouts in the next year or so.

“Only now we’re having second thoughts,” says Tamara, who lies on her back for the second half of the massage, Lisa’s tender ministrations never failing to loosen Tamara’s tongue as well as the muscles in her shoulders and neck. “Not because we don’t love it here, we do, but because we seem to have lost all ambition since coming here. We didn’t come here to retire, but to be near my mother and to just write rather than squeezing our writing in between fusillades of bureaucratic nonsense and the well-meaning efforts of college children, as Celine calls them, and they are incredibly infantile these days, raised by phones instead of humans, poor dears.”

“You’ve only been here six months,” says Lisa, gently manipulating the now familiar knots in Tamara’s neck. “Takes time to adjust to country living.”

“Was that true for you?” asks Tamara, about to fall sleep as she always does as the end of her massage approaches.

“For all of us, yes,” says Lisa, remembering their first few years on the farm, refugees from city living. “Andrea and I were both pregnant and then we had our babies, so that was a huge adjustment, too, but we knew we didn’t want to go back to the city, so we forged ahead.”

“You were brave to have babies so late,” says Tamara, falling asleep.

Lisa covers Tamara with a light blanket and leaves her snoozing on the table.

*

In the living room of the cottage, Lisa does some stretching to loosen up from the two long massages she gave this morning, her thoughts turning to Philip and Marcel who have both recently gone back to being full-time waiters after a three-year hiatus, their place of work Ocelot, a new restaurant in Mercy, the plaything of a fabulously wealthy couple and the world-class chef they’ve bankrolled to run the restaurant for them.

Tamara emerges from the massage room rosy-cheeked and languid. “You’re a magician,” she says, handing Lisa six fifty-dollar bills. “I feel thirty-five, no longer fifty.”

“Oh Tamara,” says Lisa, frowning at the money. “This is three hundred. Did you mean…”

“Well-deserved,” says Tamara, giving Lisa a hug. “I don’t think I’ll do a soak today. I’m already so relaxed. But I’m staying for lunch, so you’re not rid of me yet.”

*

Over lentil and mushroom soup and freshly made bread, Tamara and Hilda and Lisa and Philip and Andrea talk about this and that, and Tamara asks Philip how he’s feeling about being a waiter again.

“I feel my age,” says Philip, who looks considerably younger than fifty-eight. “And I have yet to find a rhythm in the work. We haven’t been terribly busy except on weekends, though they recently got raves in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, so we’re expecting an onslaught soon. It certainly helps to have Marcel there with me, and Raul’s food is extraordinary. So… I can’t complain.”

“Raul must be thrilled to have you and Marcel,” says Tamara, who first met Philip when he was the star waiter at Le Scélérat in Berkeley.

“Raul is certainly glad to have us,” says Philip, nodding. “He was not happy with the first several waiters he engaged.”

“This is only temporary,” says Andrea, hating that Philip and Marcel have to wait tables again—the cost of running the farm and supporting seven people and four dogs demanding more income than vegetables and apples and wine and Lisa’s massages bring in. “We almost have enough to publish Philip’s cookbook, and when that starts to sell we will re-publish the first one. Nathan’s son-in-law says he’ll make us a web site for half his usual fee, and this year we’re going to buy eight tons of grapes. So two years from now, at the latest, Philip and Marcel can leave the tables for good.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” says Philip, ever amazed by Andrea’s faith in him and his recipes.

“In the meantime,” says Lisa, smiling at Hilda, “thank goodness for the generous rent you pay and Delilah helping with the children.”

“I wish I could contribute more,” says Hilda, sighing. “But my future is uncertain, so…” She shrugs. “Life is long.”

“And life is good,” says Philip, getting up to put another log on the fire. “We are luckier than most of humanity.”

“I think your cookbooks will take the culinary world by storm,” says Tamara, watching Philip place the log atop the pyre. “The world awaits you.”

*

Philip, the handsome son of a French mother and an Italian-American father, and Marcel, the handsome son of a couple from Lyon, first worked together twenty-two years ago at Le Vagabond in San Francisco and became fast friends before Philip moved across the bay to Berkeley to work at Le Scélérat. Then for their first seven years in Mercy, they both worked part-time as waiters at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican. But this is the first time since moving away from the big city either of them has worked in a supremely exclusive restaurant, and Marcel, unlike Philip, is enjoying his return to the tables.

At 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, Philip at the wheel of the farm pickup truck, the two waiters roll down the curving road through the forest to Mercy.

“Week number five begins,” says Marcel, wearing a blue down jacket over his brown suit, his peach-colored shirt crowned by a burgundy tie. “I miss supper with the kids and being in bed by ten and not having to shave every day, but otherwise this is not a bad gig, the money is good, and soon it could be very good.”

“Oui,” says Philip, though he finds waiting tables arduous. “I do miss the less affluent folks we served at Jessica’s, the locals, the families, the children.”

“Yes, but we make five times as much in tips at Ocelot,” says Marcel, who found Jessica’s a painful comedown from his days at the esteemed Le Vagabond. “And the imperative now is to make as much money as we can. Imagine when business picks up. We’ll make good money, Philip. Big city money.”

“May it be so,” says Philip, nodding.

“Our suits are loose on us,” says Marcel, laughing. “We’ve grown skinny being farmhands.”

*

Philip and Marcel park a block away from the restaurant and stroll in the dusk to the stately two-story Victorian in which Ocelot occupies the ground floor.

Two well-dressed women and two men in suits are standing at the small sidewalk kiosk in front of the pale blue Victorian, studying the evening’s menu.

“Excuse me?” says one of the men to Philip and Marcel. “Do you work here?”

“We do,” says Marcel, bowing politely to the man. “How may we help you?”

“Are these the real prices?” asks the man, frowning at the menu.

“I believe so,” says Marcel, going to the kiosk and glancing at the menu. “Oui.”

“A hundred and sixty dollars for steak and potatoes with a fancy name?” says the man, grimacing. “You have got to be kidding.”

“The chef is world-famous,” says Marcel, matter-of-factly. “People come from all over the world to dine here. We don’t set the prices. We are merely servers.”

“You might enjoy Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican,” says Philip, gesturing to the east. “Excellent food for a tenth the price. Just a couple blocks from here.”

“These prices are insane,” says one of the women, clearly distressed.

“The world is insane,” says Marcel, nodding. “I cannot argue with you.”

*

Entering the back door of the beautifully restored old house, Marcel and Philip take off their coats in the changing room, check their hair and faces in the mirror, straighten each other’s ties, gaze at each other and intone in French, “For our family and farm.”

They emerge from the changing room, greet the sous chef and cooks, traverse the kitchen, and go through the swinging doors to the dining room where Raul, a large man from Portugal with a great tangle of graying brown hair dressed in chef whites is in conversation with the hostess Miranda, a stunningly beautiful woman wearing a form-fitting purple gown with spaghetti straps, her black hair piled high on her head, large diamond earrings belonging to the owner of Ocelot dangling from her ears.

“Ah Philip, Marcel,” says Raul, who knew them both when he was making his name in San Francisco at estuaire and would dine at Le Scélérat and Le Vagabond on his nights off, more often at Le Scélérat where Philip attended him. “Jennifer Morris is shooting some exteriors around here and she and her entourage will be coming for the first seating. They may be as many as ten and I’ll want you both attending her. What do you think? One large table or a six and a four? In the south room.”

“We can serve more gracefully there with a six and a four,” says Marcel, winking at Miranda. “But of course it depends on what Jennifer prefers, if she wants all her people at her table.”

“I agree with Marcel,” says Philip, nodding. “Start with a six and a four, and connect them if she wishes to.”

“Yes, yes,” says Raul, nodding to Miranda. “And Frank and Darlene are coming at eight and requested you, Philip.”

“Of course,” says Philip, bowing to Raul.

“Other than that,” says Raul, smiling at Philip and Marcel, both of whom came from humble beginnings, as did Raul, “we have lots of sole tonight, not so much veal, the shrimp is good, not great, and the steak is excellent but not superb. I am told those reviews are already paying dividends. Be strong.”

With that, Raul returns to the kitchen and Philip and Marcel go with Miranda to arrange the tables in the south room, the view of Mercy Bay at twilight as stunning as Miranda.

When Miranda leaves them, Philip says in French to Marcel, “Remind me who Jennifer Morris is?”

Big movie star,” says Marcel, putting his hands out in front of him, palms facing his chest to indicate large breasts. “Sex bomb.”

“Don’t know her,” says Philip, shaking his head. “What was she in?”

“I don’t know,” says Marcel, shrugging. “But I see her picture all the time on the tabloids at the grocery store, her hair style changing with her boyfriends, her beautiful breasts always leading the charge.”

“Shall we check the tables,” says Philip, knowing the time is near for Miranda to open the front door and greet the first diners of the evening.

“Oui,” says Marcel, putting his arm around Philip. “And you know I’m not offended the owners request you.”

“I know,” says Philip, smiling at Marcel. “What’s mine is yours.”

*

As Jennifer Morris and her entourage of thirteen depart after three hours of revelry, Jennifer declares for all to hear, “Heaven on earth. We’ll be back tomorrow night.”

“Bravo,” says Frank, as Philip approaches the owners’ table where Frank and his wife Darlene applaud him—Frank a burly fellow in his sixties with wispy gray hair, Darlene a buxom strawberry blonde in her forties. “I think Jennifer likes you, buddy. Play your cards right, you never know what might happen.”

Frank is a billionaire real estate developer, Darlene a former model for whom Ocelot is proof of her sophistication and savvy. They live most of the time in their palace in Montecito and have a mansion on a private beach south of Mercy where they come several times a year to partake of Ocelot and entertain guests.

“How are we this evening?” says Philip, bowing to them.

 “Stellar,” says Frank, grinning at Philip. “What’s good tonight?”

“The sole,” says Philip, looking at Darlene to see if she wants to add anything to Frank’s stellar.

“Did Raul tell you about the party Saturday night?” says Darlene, making big eyes at Philip. “My birthday.”

“He did not,” says Philip, smiling to mask his sorrow.

Twelve of us,” she says, her tone conveying how special she feels those twelve are. “Just us. Restaurant closed otherwise.”

“What time will you want us here?” asks Philip, his neck aching.

“Six-thirty,” she says, arching her eyebrow. “Fun starts at seven and we’ll go to ten. I’ll be forty-four. Can you believe it?”

Philip politely shakes his head. “And for tonight? Will you be having a bottle of wine or would you like to sample the current offerings by glass?”

“Get me a vodka tonic,” says Frank, watching Miranda go by. “God is she gorgeous, or what?”

“And for you, Madame?” says Philip, looking at Darlene but not seeing her.

“Something white and just a little sweet,” she says, looking at him in a way he knows is another of her invitations to pursue an involvement with her. “You know what I like, Philip.”

He bows and moves away, signaling Teresa, one of the pretty young bussers, to bring bread and butter to the owners’ table.

Now he goes to check on a table of six gregarious millionaires from St. Louis, and as he approaches the table of corpulent men and their slender wives, something awakens in him that has been dormant since his last night at Le Scélérat a decade ago—his impeccable waiter persona.

I can do this if I have to for another few years. But after that I will never wait tables again.

*

The next morning, Philip wakes early to make sandwiches for Vivienne and Arturo and Henri’s lunches, after which he cooks an omelet for Arturo and Vivienne’s breakfast.

While the kids are eating, Lisa, still in her nightgown, makes coffee and reminds the kids they have piano lessons at Delilah’s after school.

When breakfast is over, Henri arrives with his school things and his accordion, and before Philip drives the kids to school, Henri gets out his accordion, Arturo gets his guitar, Vivienne gets her violin and they perform the song they’ve been practicing for several days, Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life, their rendition awful, and Philip and Lisa love it.

*

On his way home from dropping the kids at Mercy Montessori, Philip stops at the food co-op to buy groceries, and from there goes to Nathan and Celia and Delilah’s as he often does these days, something about spending time with the elderly couple and their young housemate soothing to Philip as he struggles with returning to the tables.

He arrives at the little house just as Celia and Delilah are leaving on a walk with the young mutts Chico and Gypsy, so Philip is alone with Nathan for a time, a fire crackling in the hearth.

“I found my groove again last night,” says Philip, sitting at the kitchen table with Nathan. “Which is to say, my alter ego returned.”

“Does your alter ego have a name?” asks Nathan, who loves talking to Philip.

“Philip,” says Philip, pronouncing his name with a distinct emphasis on the first syllable.

“Were you glad to see him again?”

“In a way,” says Philip, shrugging. “He makes the work easier.”

“Because?”

“Because he does the work and I can save my real self for the life I love.”

“You’re an actor coming out of retirement,” says Nathan, nodding in understanding. “Resuming your role in a long-running play on a new stage.”

“I know I’m not a failure,” says Philip, his eyes brimming with tears. “But sometimes I succumb to doubt.”

“You’re not a failure, my friend,” says Nathan, remembering when his writing career came crashing down and he became a pruner of fruit trees again. “Quite the opposite. Everything we do, everything that happens to us, is the path. And the path, it turns out, is the destination. So now you’re an actor again, and I’ll bet you’re a great one.”

“I wish the people I serve were not so… I don’t know,” says Philip, allowing himself to really cry for the first time since returning to the tables. “Selfish and greedy.”

“Yeah, but they’re on the path, too,” says Nathan, nodding. “No matter how different their gaudy costumes make them seem.”

fin

Return To Go

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Philip’s Kitchen

Philip’s first cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook sold twenty thousand copies and was not reprinted after the third printing sold out. The tome has since become a hot commodity and used copies are hard to find.

And now, ten years after Tantamount Press published Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook, Philip is a few months away from publishing his second cookbook with Tantamount, the promotional budget the same as for the first cookbook: nothing.

*

On a sunny Friday morning in May at Ziggurat Farm on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy, Philip, fifty-eight, having just ferried Arturo, nine, Henri, eight, and Vivienne, seven, to Mercy Montessori, is gathering his wits and gazing around his glorious new kitchen when his editor at Tantamount calls.

“Hey Philip,” says Tiffany, who is twenty-seven and sounds fourteen to Philip. “Yucky news. Sales is not happy with your title and subtitle. Me, personally, I like Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, and Ziggy actually really likes it, and the cover drawing your friend did of the dogs drinking wine is so cute. But Sales says the whole package is a retro yawner and they want something punchier, sexier, and they need it yesterday? Tomorrow morning at the latest? If not, they might delay publication for like six months? Possibly a year? Can you get me something sexier and punchier by tomorrow morning? Ooh I have to take this call. Talk soon.”

Before leaving for the vegetable garden to share this weighty news with his wife Lisa and comrades Andrea and Marcel who are hard at work planting out seedlings from the greenhouse, Philip calls Sandra Messer, the chef and owner of the legendary restaurant Le Scélérat in Berkeley where Philip was a waiter for ten years before moving with Lisa and Marcel and Andrea to Mercy. Sandra, who was entirely responsible for Tantamount publishing Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, wrote the praise-filled Introduction and has now written a rave blurb for the new cookbook.

“Titles are a bitch,” says Sandra, who is from Chicago and in her seventies. “Everybody calls your first one Delicious Ambitious, why not call this one Delicious Ambitious Two, with the Two spelled T-O-O? And use Ziggurat Farm in the sub?”

Philip thanks Sandra for her suggestion and is about to call Tiffany back when he thinks I hate Delicious Ambitious Too, and goes out to join his wife and friends in the garden.

*

Taking a break from sowing chard seeds, Philip watches Marcel, who is a few years younger than Philip and very French, digging well-aged chicken manure into a nearby bed soon to be filled with broccoli seedlings.

“These are the same geniuses who wouldn’t reprint your first book?” says Marcel, resting for a moment. “After you sold twenty thousand copies with no promotion?”

“Same geniuses,” says Philip, who hopes the new book succeeds well enough so he and Marcel don’t have to go back to being waiters any time soon. “But geniuses or no, if they aren’t enthusiastic about the package, as they call it, they may only do one small printing, which defeats the purpose of making the book in the first place.”

“Why would they publish a book if they’re just going to kill it before it can develop a following?” asks Marcel, frowning and shaking his head. “Makes no sense.”

“I don’t know,” says Philip, resuming his seeding of the bed. “I’m not a publisher.”

“Sexier and punchier?” says Andrea on her way to the upper beds of the terraced garden with a flat of seedlings. “How about Fucking Food? That’s punchier and sexier.”

“Much,” says Philip, who knows Sales delaying publication is often prelude to a publisher dropping a book and demanding the return of the author’s advance.

“I’m kidding,” says Andrea, aching in sympathy with Philip.

“I know you are,” says Philip, smiling at her, “but I’m afraid they would prefer Fucking Food to Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm.”

“If this year’s wine is as good as last year’s,” says Marcel, speaking of the wine they make on the farm, “and we have another good year with the garden, we can publish your book ourselves.”

“Two very big ifs,” says Andrea, who is boss of the garden and keeps the books and knows better than anyone how precarious the farm’s finances.

*

Over lunch at the picnic table near the farmhouse, Lisa says, “Why not ask Nathan? He’s such a wonderful poet.”

“They don’t want poetry,” says Philip, despondently. “They want punchier and sexier.”

“You don’t need them,” says Andrea, who has enormous faith in Philip. “Marcel is right. We can publish your book ourselves and sell it at farmers markets and in local bookstores and online. If they won’t use your title, tell them to go to hell.”

“Are you serious?” asks Philip, who has never imagined self-publishing his cookbook. “I’d have to return the advance. Ten thousand dollars. We can’t really spare that, can we?”

“It’s fine,” says Andrea, on the verge of tears. “We don’t need them.”

“You and Andrea worked on those recipes for seven years,” says Lisa, nodding in agreement with Andrea. “It’s a magnificent book. You can’t allow them to debase your creation.”

“I’ll talk to Nathan,” says Philip, buoyed by their support. “On my way home with the kids.”

*

Nathan Grayson, a poet of some renown in his youth, is eighty-two and has a blog on which he posts his poems and stories when he has new ones to share. He has no idea how many people read his blog. Seven? Three hundred? He doesn’t care. The act of sharing is what he loves.

Philip and Nathan sit at a small table on the south-facing deck of Nathan’s little house on the edge of Mercy drinking nettle tea. Henri and Arturo are in the kitchen helping Celia, Nathan’s wife, prepare avocado and cheese quesadillas for their after-school snacks, and Vivienne is in the garden with the resident mongrel puppies Chico and Gypsy, picking flowers for a table bouquet.

“Way back when,” says Nathan, loving the sight of Vivienne with the pups, “I knew a poet named Larry Henderson who was hot stuff for a couple years and then vanished as most poets do. His poems were stacks of very short same-sounding sentences. ‘The man went to the store. The man bought some bread. The man went home. The man made a sandwich. The man watched television.’ Listening to him was torture. He spoke in a monotone tenor with a long pause after each sentence. Every time I heard him read I wanted to strangle him. But he sold lots of books because his covers were photographs of near-naked women with half-open mouths apparently wanting sex, with titles like Her Outrageous Orgasm and His Mighty Erection.” Nathan laughs. “People snapped them up, for gag gifts maybe. And that’s all I know about sexier and punchier.”

“I can’t think of anything but the title I have,” says Philip, watching Vivienne confer with the pups about which flowers to pick. “Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm: more recipes for the somewhat ambitious cook, which is a reference to my first cookbook.”

“To be honest, Philip,” says Nathan, clearing his throat, “for my taste that’s not a very good title or subtitle. Not because they aren’t true, but because they came from your intellect and not from the divine source.”

“What do you mean?” asks Philip, taken aback Nathan doesn’t like the title.

“I mean there are two kinds of creating, whether it’s writing or composing music or painting or creating a recipe or anything.” Nathan waits a moment for Philip to consider what those two kinds of creating might be. “One kind is the intellectual organizing of things we already know. That’s 99.9 percent of what gets published and performed and presented to the world, and that’s why everything the mainstream gives us is stuff we’ve seen thousands of times before.”

“The intellectual organizing of things we already know,” says Philip, nodding in understanding of Nathan’s idea.

“The other kind of creating,” says Nathan, gesturing to the sky, “is unconscious spontaneous outpouring that comes from nobody-knows-where. And that, as we used to say in the Sixties, is the boss stuff.”

“I’m reaching for the paprika,” says Philip, laughing, “before I think paprika.”

“Exactly,” says Nathan, smiling at the approach of Vivienne with her bouquet. “Delilah sitting down at the piano and ripping off ten minutes of sheer genius and then shouting, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that?’ And Celia and I high as kites because we did hear it. Lucky us.”

“But words are not my art,” says Philip, humbly.

“Sure they are. You write eloquent recipes. With different line breaks they’d make great poems.”

Henri comes out on the deck and bows to Nathan and Philip. “Celia’s quesadillas await you.”

“Speaking of Celia,” says Nathan, as he and Philip go inside, “she informs me we’re having supper at your place tonight with the usual suspects. Perhaps the gang will come up with something you like.”

*

The usual suspects are:

Those Who Live At Ziggurat Farm: Philip, Lisa, Andrea, Marcel, Arturo, Henri, Vivienne, and Hilda who is eighty-four and lives in the cottage next to the bathhouse a stone’s throw from the farmhouse.

The Very British Richardsons: Constance and Joseph, both in their seventies, Constance a successful murder mystery writer nearly done with her twenty-seventh thriller, Joseph a painter of landscapes and portraits working on the last big painting he’ll make in Mercy before he and Constance move back to England for the remainder of their lives.

Tamara and Celine: A successful playwright in her fifties, Tamara is Hilda’s only child, and Celine is Tamara’s partner of thirty years and the author of Remembering Black, an acclaimed book about her experiences as an African American woman in American academia.    

Nathan, Celia, and Delilah: Nathan eighty-two, Celia seventy-six, both longtime residents of Mercy and married for more than fifty years, Delilah their delightful twenty-two-year-old housemate, a musician, artist, and frequent visitor to Ziggurat Farm.

*

Andrea and Philip prepare a sumptuous supper, much wine is drunk, laughter is frequent, and after dessert everyone retires to the spacious living room where a fire is crackling in the hearth and the four farm dogs and Delilah’s two new pups are sprawled about and several cats are snoozing where humans want to sit.

When the humans have situated themselves among the animals and everyone is possessed of wine or tea or cocoa, Nathan says, “Philip needs a new title for his cookbook, and a subtitle, too. His publisher is threatening to delay publication if he can’t come up with something they like by tomorrow morning. I suggested to him the consortium gathered here tonight might be of assistance.”

“And if they don’t like our title,” says Andrea, defiantly, “we will publish his cookbook ourselves.”

“Every time we eat here,” says Tamara, each of her seven plays a resounding success, “Celine and I come away saying exquisite. Every time. Tonight no exception. Something about that word. Exquisite.”

“Marvelous word,” says Constance, who has so far in her life, with Joseph’s help, come up with twenty-seven titles for her murder mysteries. “We used exquisite in the title of my seventeenth book, the ninth in my Grady Pillsbury series. A Most Exquisite Murder.”

“I haven’t read any of your books yet,” says Arturo, who is currently reading Robinson Crusoe for the second time, but your titles intrigue me no end.”

“Shall we write down exquisite?” asks Vivienne, who is very sleepy. “In case we don’t forget?”

“Let’s not write anything down yet,” says Nathan, grinning at Vivienne. “First let’s say whatever pops into our heads.”

“Exquisite exquisiteness,” says Celine, laughing a sparkling laugh.

“The well-cooked ox,” says Joseph, happily drunk. “The bafflement of barbecues.”

“The Magic Kitchen!” shouts Henri, giggling.

“Exquisite comestibles,” says Delilah, shivering with excitement. “For voracious eaters who can’t stop eating.”

“Eyes bigger than my stomach,” says Celia, blushing.  

“The magic cook,” says Vivienne, smiling sleepily at her father.

“The cook of magic,” says Arturo, laughing.

“Melted cheesery,” says Constance, tittering. “Scrumptious foodstuffs for esurient nibblers.”

“Food of the gods,” says Marcel, shaking his head. “No. Too grandiose.”

“Nothing is too grandiose,” says Nathan, grinning at Philip. “Speak chef.”

“Kitchen of love,” says Philip, thinking of his kitchen. “Place of quiet miracles.”

“Of knives and mincing,” says Andrea, recalling her previous life as a sous chef. “Timing the fish.”

“The onion eclipsed,” says Hilda, dramatically. “Garlic triumphant.”

“Philip’s kitchen,” says Lisa, getting up to fetch more wine.

Profound silence.

“I got chills,” says Celine, gazing wide-eyed at Tamara.

“So did I,” says Tamara, nodding. “Philip’s Kitchen.”

“I, too, got chills,” says Constance, looking at Delilah. “Did you?”

Delilah nods. “That must be the title.”

“Must be,” says Joseph, aghast. “Remarkable how deep that went.”

“But why?” asks Philip, who gasped when Lisa said Philip’s Kitchen. “I mean… who is Philip? No one will know who Philip refers to. They’ll hate it at Tantamount.”

“They might not,” says Hilda, gazing fondly at Philip. “It’s lovely.”

“All the recipes did come from your kitchen,” says Arturo, nodding assuredly. “So no wonder Philip’s Kitchen sounds right.”

*

At ten the next morning, Philip calls Tiffany at Tantamount, she puts him on hold, and he doesn’t mind at all.

“Sorry about that,” says Tiffany, coming on the line a few minutes later. “Saturdays are usually pretty mellow around here, but my phone won’t stop ringing. What have you got for me?”

“May I ask you not to take another call while we talk?” says Philip, who has wanted to ask that of Tiffany for the last two years.

“Um… of course. Unless it’s Arno. We’re crashing a couple books and I have to take his calls. Sorry.”

“What does that mean? Crashing a book?”

“Rushing it out because the author or the subject is currently hot, so we crash the book to capitalize on the buzz.”

“I see. Thanks for explaining.”

“No worries. What have you got for me?”

“I’m going to put my daughter Vivienne on the line to tell you,” says Philip, winking at Vivienne who is standing buy.

“Your daughter?” says Tiffany, annoyed. “Oh no, why…”

“Here she is,” says Philip, handing the phone to Vivienne.

“Hi Tiffany,” says Vivienne, her little girl’s voice softening Tiffany. “The title of Papa’s new cookbook is Philip’s Kitchen.” She pauses for a moment before adding, “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm.”

“Would you say that again?” says Tiffany, hitting the Record button on her phone.

Philip’s Kitchen,” says Vivienne, taking care with her pronunciation. “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm. Here’s Papa.”

Philip comes on the line and Tiffany says, “I love it. Made me cry. I’ll run it by Sales and let you know what they say.”

“Regardless of what they say,” Philip replies, his voice full of kindness, “that’s the title and subtitle. If Sales says No, I will return my advance and pursue other options.”

“Okay,” says Tiffany, breathlessly. “I’ll get back to you.”

*

Philip and Vivienne walk from the farmhouse to the one-acre deer-fenced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Delilah and Henri and Hilda are planting out seedlings, and Marcel and Arturo are busy preparing another bed for planting.

“Where is Tiffany?” asks Vivienne, holding her father’s hand. “How old is she?”

“In San Francisco,” says Philip, smiling curiously at his daughter. “She’s twenty-seven. Why do you ask?”

“I want to visualize her,” says Vivienne, letting go of Philip’s hand at the approach of Mimi and Alexandra, the farm’s two Golden Retrievers who are especially fond of Vivienne.

“She’s quite tall,” says Philip, who has only met Tiffany once. “As tall as Delilah. With short reddish brown hair and four small gold rings in one of her eyebrows, I can’t remember which one, and her eyes are dark blue. Her office is on the fourth floor of a modern building looking out on San Francisco Bay. When I met with her she was wearing a blue T-shirt and brown trousers and glossy red lipstick and hoop earrings.”

“Is she nice?” asks Vivienne, petting Alexandra.

“I think so,” says Philip, imagining Tiffany walking down the hall to Arno’s office to tell him the new title—Arno head of Sales. “Though I don’t really know her very well.”

And try as he might, Philip cannot imagine how Arno will respond to what Tiffany tells him.

fin

Tenderly

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About Money and Love

In April, the remote northern California coastal town of Mercy is in an uproar because Tom Holsinger died in a car accident before he could finalize the transfer of his spectacular Fall Creek Ranch to the state to be added to contiguous Egret Estuary State Park, just a mile south of Mercy. And now Tom’s heirs, two sons who were notoriously unhappy in Mercy and moved to Los Angeles thirty years ago to make porno films, have given the town and the state thirty days to buy the 2200 acres of pristine coastline and meadowlands and redwood forest or they’ll sell it to a developer who will log the redwoods and put in a golf course and two hundred condominiums.

Half the town’s twelve hundred residents attend the hastily convened meeting at the Mercy Rec Center, and Ralph Bingham, the unofficial mayor of the town that has no government, runs the meeting.

The first thing Ralph says is, “So… the delightful Holsinger boys want fifty-seven million for the ranch. As of right now we, and by we I mean the town and our local nature conservancy, have four million and the state says they’ll match that, but unless we can come up with another forty-nine million by May 15, we can say goodbye to paradise.”

“What about the county?” someone shouts.

“The county is six hundred million in debt,” says Ralph, shaking his head. “They send best wishes.”

As expected, Cal Fleischman gets up and says, “I golf,” and whatever else he says is drowned out by booing.

Now Morgan Sullivan, a retired hydrologist who moved to Mercy from Iowa four years ago, stands up and says, “Where can they possibly get enough water to sustain a golf course and twenty condos, let alone two hundred? Most of us around here barely have enough water by late summer to flush our toilets every couple days.”

“You’re new here,” says Maggie Fetherston, seventy-seven, a Mercy native who’s been fighting rapacious lumber companies and developers her whole life. “Fall Creek Ranch has miles-deep artesian wells and an aquifer that never goes dry. During the worst droughts you could always buy water from Tom.”

After another hour of collective handwringing, a fundraising committee is formed and the meeting adjourns.

The next morning, Delilah, a lovely young woman who has lived with longtime Mercy residents Nathan and Celia Grayson for eight years now, walks through the town to Maggie Fetherston’s little house overlooking Mercy Bay—Maggie head of the fundraising committee—and tells Maggie she has forty-nine million dollars for them to buy Fall Creek Ranch.

“I’d prefer you say the money is from an anonymous donor,” says Delilah, who is twenty-one, the money all but a million of her inheritance from her recently deceased mother.

“Oh my God,” says Maggie, hugging Delilah. “Oh my loving God.”

So Fall Creek Ranch becomes part of Egret Estuary State Park and life goes on.

*

In mid-May, Delilah and Lisa and Hilda and Andrea are luxuriating in the big soaking tub in the new bathhouse at Ziggurat Farm, the sliding glass doors open to the cool afternoon, supper an hour away, Lisa and Hilda and Andrea residents of the farm, Delilah a frequent visitor.

The women are speaking about money, their discussion inspired by Delilah giving away most of her inheritance to buy Fall Creek Ranch and save the wild coast from destruction.

“When I was four-years-old in Buenos Aires,” says Lisa, fifty, her antecedents Brazilian Indio, African, and Ashkenazi Jew, “my mother would send me out to beg, and when someone gave me money, I would calculate as the coins fell into my hands how many more pennies I needed to buy a loaf of bread. Then I would close my eyes and wait for an image of someone to come into my mind, and when I saw who they were, I would go beg from them.”

“I thought you grew up in Beverly Hills,” says Delilah, shocked by Lisa’s story.

“I didn’t come to America until I was ten,” says Lisa, who rarely talks about her past. “I was born in the slums of Buenos Aires. I didn’t have shoes until after my mother died and my grandmother, my father’s mother, sent money from America to my aunt, my mother’s sister, and she bought me a pair of sandals to wear on the jet to Los Angeles where my grandparents picked me up at the airport in a big silver Mercedes and took me to their mansion in Beverly Hills where I lived until I was twenty. And every day my grandmother would put money in my purse, two twenty-dollar bills when I was ten and eleven, three twenties when I was twelve, and more and more as I grew older. But no matter how much money she gave me, I always measured the value of everything by the cost of a loaf of bread in Buenos Aires.” She gazes to the north where she can see part of the big vegetable and flower garden where she works every morning before giving her first massage of the day—two ninety-minute massages or three sixty-minute massages her daily limit. “And even now when I’m in the grocery store I’ll look at the price of something and calculate how many loaves of bread I could buy for that much in Buenos Aires when I was a girl.”

Andrea, fifty-one, waits a moment before saying, “My younger brother and I were raised by my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and when I was four my grandmother said, ‘It’s time you had a job, Andrea. I’ll pay you a penny every day if you feed the cat and sweep the kitchen after breakfast and supper.’ I’m sure I didn’t do a very good job sweeping, not at first, but she was teaching me to work if I wanted money, and I did want money for candy.”

“Did you live in a house or an apartment?” asks Hilda, who was born in Switzerland eighty-three years ago.

“A one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a seven-story building in a working-class suburb of Hamburg,” says Andrea, ever amazed to think of where she spent the first twenty years of her life. “My grandmother slept in the living room and my brother and I shared the bedroom until I was thirteen, and then my brother slept in the living room and I shared the bedroom with my grandmother until we moved to a two-bedroom apartment in the same building when I was seventeen.”

“Tell us more,” says Delilah, who loves hearing the details of her friends’ lives.

“Well…” says Andrea, slightly embarrassed but enjoying the attention, “when I was six my grandmother arranged for me to go to our elderly neighbor Mrs. Schlesinger for two hours after school every day and fetch things for her while she sat in her living room watching television. Mrs. Schlesinger was in a wheelchair and lived on the first floor of the building and had a little patio with potted plants. I would do my homework at her kitchen table and every now and then she would say, ‘Andrea, a glass of water please,” or ‘Dear could you bring my heating pad from the bedroom.’ And every day I would boil four eggs for her and peel them and salt them and bring them to her in a bowl, and she would gobble them and say, ‘What a good cook you are. Just like your grandmother.’ I would make her instant coffee, too. And for those two hours, Mrs. Schlesinger paid my grandmother the equivalent of sixty cents, until one day she asked me to rub her feet, which I knew how to do because my grandmother, who was on her feet ten hours a day in a hotel kitchen, taught me how to rub her feet, and Mrs. Schlesinger would fall asleep while I rubbed her feet, and sometimes I would fall asleep, too. And then the timer would go off and my two hours were up and I could go home. For the foot rub, she gave me another forty cents, which made a dollar for my two hours. I did that every day after school until I was nine and Mrs. Schlesinger died and my grandmother found another invalid, Mrs. Wagner, for me to help. She lived in a house with a garden and paid me two dollars for those two hours and had me water her plants and make her simple food. And I never kept a penny because my grandmother needed what I earned to help pay the rent.”

“By contrast,” says Hilda, who lives in the new cottage adjacent to the bathhouse, “I’ve always had plenty of money. My father was a successful architect, my mother a professor of Economics. I had an older brother, and whenever he or I wanted money for any reason our parents would give us however much we needed. I knew there were many poor people in the world, but my own experience was of endless plenty. I was a good student, went to university, travelled for a year after completing my undergraduate studies, went to graduate school in Psychology, and made a good salary even as an intern. I married when I was twenty-seven, my husband a decade older than I. He was a structural engineer and a wonderful person. We moved to Berkeley when I was thirty, bought our lovely home, converted the garage into my consulting chamber, as my husband called my office, and my practice was full in no time. Not for a day in my life have I worried about money, nor has Tamara. She was a star student from kindergarten through college and graduate school, became a professor and had the first play she ever wrote produced. And now she has seven plays in the contemporary repertoire being produced all the time, so I’ve never worried about her regarding money. I know we are the beneficiaries of good luck, but nevertheless our experience formed our relationship to money, which is that there is always enough for what we need.”

Andrea looks at Delilah. “How are you feeling now that you’ve given away your fortune?”

“I feel fine,” says Delilah, growing serious. “I still have a million dollars in the bank, which I’m saving for anything Nathan and Celia might need before they die. I have twelve piano students now and my drawings are selling quite well at the Fletcher Gallery, and I still get residuals now and then for incidental music I composed for three of my mother’s movies, so I’m not worried, though until I moved in with Nathan and Celia, I worried about money all the time, as did my mother, though she was incredibly wealthy.”

“Don’t you want to buy a house?” asks Andrea, for whom owning a house is most important.

“Not until Nathan and Celia are gone,” says Delilah, shaking her head. “I’m very happy living with them.”

“Why do you think your mother was so insecure about money when she had so much?” asks Andrea, who barely knew her own mother.

“My mother grew up in a series of foster homes and most of her foster families were very poor,” says Delilah, recalling her beautiful mother. “I don’t think she ever recovered from that, and no amount of money could heal her.”

“Money isn’t love,” says Lisa, shaking her head. “Only love heals us.”

“Yes,” says Andrea, nodding solemnly, “but I hope you won’t give all your money away, Delilah, because even though money can’t heal us, it’s very hard to love anyone, including yourself, when you don’t have a place to live and you’re cold and hungry.”

“I know,” says Delilah, smiling at Andrea. “I’ll do my best to save the rest. I promise.”

*

The discussion about money continues in the farmhouse after supper and the dishes are done and the kids have gone to bed.

“My father was a waiter in small restaurant and my mother worked in a bakery,” says Marcel, Andrea’s husband, fifty-four, his French accent still pronounced.

“In Lyon?” asks Hilda, sharing the largest sofa in the living room with Lisa and Delilah.

“Oui,” says Marcel, putting a log on the fire and looking to see if anyone needs more wine or tea. “We lived on the second floor of a five-story apartment building and my older brother and I attended a nearby school that was solid working class kids. Both of us expected to get jobs similar to our parents, but my father had other plans. He was obsessed with soccer and worshiped our home team Olympique Lyonnais, known simply as Lyon, a great team. He decided my brother and I should be professional soccer players and started training us as soon as we started school. He told us many times that playing soccer was our job, and he had no sense of humor about this. None.”

“And you became a great soccer player,” says Andrea, gazing fondly at her husband.

“Well, I did,” says Marcel, going to fetch more wine. “My brother was not fast enough, but I was quick to the ball, you know, and when I was sixteen I signed a contract with Lyon to play for their junior team and did so well Barcelona took me in a trade involving several players, but before I could go to Barcelona I tore my Achilles and that ended my career. So I became a waiter like my father.” He returns with a bottle of wine and refreshes a few glasses. “And the way things are going, I may soon be a waiter again, though I have very much enjoyed my hiatus from the tables.”

“Do you worry about money?” asks Delilah, who often fantasizes about moving to the farm after Nathan and Celia are no longer alive.

“No,” says Marcel, shaking his head. “My parents taught me if you are willing to work hard, enough money can be made, so that is my view of life. My father worked until he was eighty, my mother until she was seventy-two. Life is work. Work is life.”

Philip, fifty-seven, slender and handsome, his black hair just now turning gray, nods in agreement. “Yes, work is life and life is work, and for the last two years I’ve been working in the garden, doing farm chores, cooking, writing the cookbook with Andrea, and taking care of the children. Barring a huge success with the cookbook, I will soon be a waiter again, and I’m okay with that, though I would rather not.” He smiles at Delilah. “My mother used to say, ‘We always find ways to survive or we die,’ and I have always found that helpful when I worry about running out of money, which I never have, though I’ve come close a few times.”

“I think your cookbook will be a great success,” says Lisa, getting up from the sofa. “And now I must go to bed so I can give two massages in the morning so we don’t run out of money.”

“My bedtime, too,” says Andrea, looking at Marcel. “We have a long walk home.”

“An arduous five minutes,” says Marcel, giving Andrea a hand up from the comfortable armchair.

*

In the morning, Philip drives the kids to Mercy Montessori, Arturo in the front seat, Vivienne and Henri in the back seat—Arturo in Third Grade, Vivienne and Henri in Second.

“After school today,” says Philip, driving slowly down the winding road through the forest to the coast, “Nathan will come get you and walk with you to his house for snacks and your piano lessons. I’ll come get you at four.”

“I’d like to start taking guitar lessons, Papa,” says Arturo, pursing his lips as he does when discussing serious matters. “So we can have a band.”

“To play at weddings and birthday parties,” says Henri, who is learning to play the accordion from his father. “Papa says wedding gigs are quite lucrative.”

“I’m torn between violin and guitar,” says Vivienne, her brow knitted. “Too bad pianos weigh so much or I could play piano in the band.”

Philip ponders this new development and says, “Or maybe you could all learn accordion from Marcel and have an accordion band.”

“No,” says Arturo, shaking his head. “One accordion is enough.”

“I love violins,” says Vivienne, plaintively, “but with a guitar I’ll be more free to sing.”

“Have you told Delilah you’re giving up the piano?” asks Philip as they arrive at the school where many other kids are arriving in cars driven by grownups.

“Oh we’re not giving up the piano,” says Arturo, making a don’t-be-ridiculous face and shaking his head. “Piano gives us an excellent musical foundation.”

“I’ll never give up the piano,” says Vivienne, dramatically. “I love taking lessons from Delilah. I live to take lessons from her.”

“And you Henri?” asks Philip, getting out to walk with the kds into the schoolyard. “Will you keep taking piano lessons?”

“Of course,” says Henri, sounding just like his father. “It’s all about the keyboard.”

*

That night, climbing into bed, Philip asks Lisa, “Where did our children learn to speak as they do? They’ve never seen television or gone to the movies, never been on a computer, and we only recently took them to their first play. Nor do they speak as we do. They sound like sophisticated adults.”

“Have you ever listened to Delilah telling them a story?” asks Lisa, laughing. “And acting out all the parts? Or watched them hanging on every word of the very British Richardsons? Or heard them discussing the poems they write with Nathan? Or seen them entranced by Hilda and Tamara and Celine talking about anything?”

“I have,” says Philip, wrapping his arms around her. “You think that’s it? Our verbose and dramatic friends?”

“And you reading them Wind in the Willows and The Prince and the Pauper, and doing all the voices and accents.” Lisa closes her eyes and breathes deeply of his scent. “And lately you’ve been a marvelous Sherlock Holmes.”

“I don’t ever want them to leave us,” he says, the thought of life without the children unbearable to him.

“Don’t worry,” she whispers. “Just love them.”

fin

Always Love

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The Great Transformation

In March, with the completion of the five-room cottage and bathhouse, Lisa and Philip and their children Arturo and Vivienne, move all their furniture and possessions from the farmhouse into the new cottage so the Ramirez brothers and their crew can begin what Philip calls The Great Transformation of the farmhouse

The south-facing walls are removed and the entire house is made sixteen feet wider, thereby doubling the size of the living room and kitchen, with a big bedroom and second bathroom being added to the east end of the house, a big deck to grace the south side, and a new roof for the entirety when the interior work is completed.

*

In April, with The Great Transformation well underway, Grandma Hilda moves from Berkeley to a small house in the village of Mercy where she will live until Philip and Lisa and kids move back into the farmhouse, after which she will move into their cottage.

Hilda’s daughter Tamara and Tamara’s partner Celine are planning a July move to a beach house a mile south of Mercy with the intention of buying the Richardson’s place a year or so from now when Joseph and Constance return to England for what Joseph frequently refers to as Our Final Chapter, to which Constance routinely responds, “Now don’t be morbid, dear.”

*

On a Wednesday afternoon in May, twenty-year-old Delilah, tall and beautiful, her long brown hair in a ponytail, is giving Vivienne, five-and-a-half and cute as a button, a piano lesson on the new upright in the cottage living room, Arturo having had the first piano lesson today, Henri’s lesson to follow.

Henri, six-and-a-half, and Arturo, “not quite eight” as he tells people when asked his age, though he is exactly seven-and-a-half, are kicking the soccer ball around in front of the barn, and inside the barn, Marcel, Henri’s father, is tasting the eight-month-old pinot noir from Barrel #7 and thinking in French This needs at least another six months, but my God it could be excellent.

In the large terraced vegetable and flower garden, Andrea, Henri’s mother, and Lisa, Vivienne and Arturo’s mother, are planting out lettuce starts from the greenhouse, both wearing wide-brimmed sunhats though the day is overcast and cool.

Philip, Vivienne and Arturo’s father, is in the farmhouse consulting with Oscar and Mario Ramirez about the long counter that will separate the kitchen from the dining area and living room, while five carpenters take a break on the half-finished deck and enjoy delicious oat bran and raisin muffins Philip made for them—muffins from one of the recipes in Philip’s nearly completed cookbook, working title Good Eats from Ziggurat Farm, working subtitle, more recipes for the somewhat ambitious cook.

And en route to the farm from their house a couple miles down the road, their old pickup laboring on the grade, are Nathan, who just celebrated his eightieth birthday, and Celia, seventy-four, and their little old dog Tennyson, bringing news they didn’t want to give Delilah on the phone.

“Can you tell her,” says Nathan as he parks near the cottage—the farm dogs coming to greet them. “I don’t think I can.”

“Si,” says Celia, nodding.

They get out of the old truck and Nathan sets Tennyson down on the ground so he can exchange sniffs with Jung the giant hound, Mimi the Golden Retriever, Alexandra the fast-growing Golden Retriever pup, and Goliath, who is not much bigger than Tennyson.

Hearing Henri and Arturo shout Hello to Nathan and Celia, Delilah concludes her duet with Vivienne and goes out on the front porch to greet Nathan and Celia, and seeing them upset, she hurries down the stairs asking, “What happened?”

Celia nods and cannot speak, and Delilah knows her mother is dead.

*

Delilah does not attend the lavish memorial service in Los Angeles for her famous movie star mother Margot Cunningham, and in June, Margot’s longtime personal assistant Joan and two of Margot’s lawyers come to Mercy and meet with Delilah and Nathan and Philip and Constance in a small meeting room at Mercy Savings, the only bank in town.

The lawyers inform Delilah that her mother’s trust leaves ten million dollars to Joan, two hundred million dollars to Planned Parenthood, and fifty million dollars to Delilah, with any remaining monies and future residuals from Margot’s many movies to go to Planned Parenthood.

When Joan and the lawyers offer to invest Delilah’s inheritance for her, Delilah says, “No thank you. I would like the money deposited in my account here at Mercy Savings.”

Delilah then signs a few documents that Constance and Philip first look over to make sure all is well, and Joan says, “I’m so sorry for your loss, Delilah. Your mother was a great person. If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.”

“Should anyone inquire of my whereabouts,” says Delilah, eager to be done with the meeting, “please tell them I’m living abroad.”

*

Delilah is sitting on the floor with her back against the sofa in the living room of the little house Hilda is renting on a quiet street in Mercy, and Hilda, eighty-three, her long silvery hair in a braid, is sitting in a cushioned rocking chair a few feet from Delilah, the town cloaked in fog as is often the case on mornings in July.

“The truth is,” says Delilah, pausing mid-sentence. “Well… who knows what the truth is, but the thing is, I stopped caring about her except in a mythic way after just a few weeks of knowing Nathan and Celia.”

“Can you explain what you mean by mythic?” asks Hilda, who was a psychotherapist for fifty years and still occasionally offers sessions to friends.

“Yes, but first I need to tell you who I was at thirteen when my mother brought me here,” says Delilah, remembering virtually every detail of her life these last seven years. “I was terrified of other people, yet desperate to know other people. I was especially afraid of men, though they fascinated me. I stuttered constantly and thought I might want to be male instead of female. My mother was almost never home and I had no one I could talk to about anything that really mattered to me. And until we escaped from our townhouse in New York, I wanted to kill myself because I was so lonely and miserable.”

“But your mother was not yet mythic to you.”

“I haven’t forgotten your question,” says Delilah, smiling at Hilda. “I just want you to know from whence I came.”

“Of course,” says Hilda, smiling at Delilah’s choice of words. “Take your time.”

“So we flew to San Francisco, my mother and Wanda and I, Wanda my caretaker who didn’t really like me and certainly didn’t understand me, and then we made that crazy long drive here in the dark to the house my mother bought over the phone, the Richardson’s place, and after two cold rainy days of feeling completely lost, my mother and I went to Nathan and Celia’s house because the realtor said Nathan could help us learn how to live in the country, and I’ll never forget their front door opening and Nathan looking out at us with his welcoming smile and the fire going behind him and Celia coming to see who we were, and Tennyson coming to me, and my heart just broke open, and I don’t mean metaphorically broke open, I mean I actually felt the cage of muscles and sinews around my heart give way and I took the deepest breath I had ever taken and looked into Tennyson’s eyes and heard a voice I thought must be God saying Welcome home, Delilah. You found your people. And when I experienced love from Nathan and Celia, real love for the first time in my life, my mother ceased to be important to me except as a mythic figure, or maybe I should say historic, and after that I rarely thought about her because I had real parents now, real love, and not just a bunch of people I hardly knew being paid to be nice to me in my luxurious prisons where my mother came to visit me a few times a year and was wholly incapable of loving me or even liking me.”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“My eighteenth birthday. She always made a point of seeing me in-person on my birthday. Not on Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter, but always on my birthday. When I was still a prisoner, she’d come home to Malibu or Manhattan and spend a few days there and give me piles of presents, and once, when I was eight, she flew me to Paris where she was filming. Then she skipped my fourteenth birthday, and for my fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth she got a suite at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, and Celia and Nathan and I went there for lunch and I’d play the piano for her.”

“But not for your nineteenth or twentieth?”

“No,” says Delilah, feeling some anger about that.

“Why did she stop, I wonder.”

“I think because after I turned eighteen she was no longer legally responsible for me, so why bother? And maybe because I reminded her too much of what she looked like when she was young. She hated not being young anymore.”

“Do you know your father?”

“Don’t even know who he is. Or was. When I was a child, my mother and her people told me he was a certain movie star, but the day she left here and never came back, when I was thirteen, she told Nathan she had no idea who my father was.”

“So Nathan told you. When was that?”

“On my eighteenth birthday when I got back from seeing my mother. I’d gone with my friends Josh and Beverly because they wanted to meet my famous mother, and when I was alone with her I asked her to please tell me who my father was and she said, ‘I told Nathan. I’d rather he tell you.’ So I asked him and he told me.”

“Your mother was closed emotionally.”

“I don’t think she had access to her emotions.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I never saw her express delight or fear or sorrow, never heard emotion in her voice. She was monotone. And when she pretended to be enthusiastic about my music and drawings, it was painfully obvious how little she cared, and not because she didn’t want to care but because she was incapable of caring about anyone but herself.”

“You never saw her angry?”

“Peevish a few times, and always muted. I would have loved to see her angry. I did see her cry one time when I was fifteen and Celia and Nathan came with me to the Mark Hopkins for the first time. Celia hugged her when we got there and she burst into tears and then immediately stifled them and left the room to redo her makeup. And she never let Celia hug her again.”

“Do you know much about her childhood?”

“I know she was put up for adoption at birth, lived in several foster homes, and ran away from the last one when she was fifteen.” Delilah grimaces. “I think she must have been sexually abused.”

Hilda waits a moment and asks, “And your sexual confusion? Would you like to talk about that?”

“Not really. I ceased to be confused when Celia and Nathan became my parents.”

“Immediately?”

“Within a month. And my stuttering vanished, too, after seven years and hundreds of hours working with speech therapists to no avail. I woke one morning in my wonderful bedroom at Nathan and Celia’s, gorgeous purple fuchsias dangling outside my window—this was a month after I’d moved in—and I got up and went into the kitchen where Celia was making coffee and she embraced me as she does every morning, and I said without stuttering, ‘I’m a woman like you. I love how it feels to be a woman.’ In fact, my confusion about everything disappeared once I was living with them. Like waking from a horrible murky dream into spectacular clarity and joy.”

“I believe you, dear. But please say a little more about thinking you might be male. I’m curious how this may relate to your mother.”

“The only males in my life before I moved here,” says Delilah, recalling her strange cloistered life in Manhattan and Malibu, “were bodyguards and chauffeurs. Men in uniforms. And only a few of them were even a little friendly with me. So I lived in a world exclusively populated by women. My nannies, the cooks, the maids, mother’s assistants, most of my tutors and music teachers, and I was never left alone with any of the few male tutors I had. My few acquaintances were other daughters of celebrities, and they were all obsessed with their sexual identities and everybody else’s sexual identities, so when I started to develop breasts and got my period, I didn’t know what I should feel. I felt female, but wasn’t sure I should. And my mother kept saying, ‘Whatever you choose to be,’ wink wink, ‘is fine with me,’ which made things even more confusing because I wanted to be like her, a strong athletic feminine woman, but she didn’t seem to want me to be like her. And then I said something to someone, I don’t remember who, about wondering if I might be trans, and the next day it was all over the media that I was trans, and my mother called from Paris and said ‘Whatever you choose to be is fine with me’ and ‘Do you want to see a therapist?’ And that’s when I told her if she didn’t find another place for me to live faraway from the insanity I would choose to kill myself. And she flew home the next day.”

“And brought you here.”

Delilah nods. “We chose Mercy together with some input from Joan, her personal assistant, and then we came here absolutely desperate, she to find a solution to my unhappiness, I to experience life outside my prisons.”

“She acted out of love for you.”

“I want that to be true, but I think it was more she didn’t want me to kill myself or otherwise embarrass her in the media.”

“I think she acted out of love for you,” says Hilda, gazing at Delilah. “And though her love didn’t look or feel like Celia and Nathan’s love for you, or my love for you, or anyone else’s love for you, she loved you and wanted you to be free of those terrible confines. And I’ll tell you something else. Regardless of how you feel about her, she must have provided you with nannies who gave you ample love, or else you wouldn’t be the healthy happy person you are today.”

“My first nanny,” says Delilah, surprising herself with tears. “Portia. I thought she was my mother until I was three, though she was Nigerian and I was a little white princess. She was sweet and funny and strong and wonderful, and I cried for weeks and weeks after she left when I was six.”

“Your mother chose her for you. Chose for you a good loving mother.”

“Oh I’d like to mourn my mother, Hilda, but she was so cold to me. Dismissive really. I know it sounds crass, but her being gone is more a relief than a loss.”

“Do you believe her death was an accident?”

“An accidental overdose? My meticulous mother?” Delilah shakes her head. “One of the last things she said to me was, ‘I see in you how beautiful I used to be. It’s all done with smoke and mirrors now, and even that won’t help in another year or two.’ And two years later she turned fifty-one and ended things.”

“And you would like some closure.”

“In lieu of mourning, something, yes. We did a farewell ceremony at the beach for her, Nathan and Celia and I, but it felt false to me.”

“Why false?”

“I felt no sorrow, no joy, just the same painful emptiness I always felt with her, even when she would hug me, which she only did in greeting or parting. I never felt any warmth or energy from her. Nothing.”

“Let’s close our eyes and imagine something together,” says Hilda, closing her eyes. “Shall we?”

“Okay,” says Delilah, closing her eyes.

“We are walking, you and I and Lisa and Vivienne, on a path in the forest on a lovely day, the sun shining down through the trees. Are you with me?”

“I am,” says Delilah, relaxing into the vision.

“Now the forest ends and we cross a meadow full of wild iris and our path ends at a wide deep fast-flowing river with no apparent way to get across. But now a boat comes from the far shore, and rowing the boat is your mother, strong and skillful at her task. When she reaches our side of the river, we get in the boat with her, and with her marvelous strength and skill, she rows us across the river. When we reach the other side and get out of the boat, she raises her hand to you and says, “Farewell, my child. Farewell.”

*

In early November, The Great Transformation complete, Philip and Lisa and Vivienne and Arturo move from the cottage back into the farmhouse, and a few days later Hilda moves into the cottage and engages Delilah to help her arrange her furniture and put her things away.

On the evening of Hilda’s second day of living on the farm, no longer a visitor but a resident, she walks with Delilah from the cottage to the farmhouse where Philip and Andrea have prepared a feast in Hilda’s honor, the farmhouse feeling almost too spacious now until the kids and dogs come in from playing outside, and Marcel rushes in and says, “We are close. Very close. Another few days, I think, for the pinot noir, perhaps another month for the cabernet,” and now Nathan and Celia and Tennyson arrive, and Constance and Joseph and Tamara and Celine; and the house and kitchen feel just the right size.

Vivienne, who turned six in October, insists on sitting next to Delilah, and Delilah, who turned twenty-one in October, is in heaven with Vivienne on her right and Lisa on her left.

Mid-feast, Joseph, for whom Ziggurat Farm is a favorite place to make his paintings, announces in his loud British way, “I visited your orchard when we arrived today and had a vision of a very large painting, perhaps my biggest ever, six-feet-high and eight-feet-wide, in which all of you are in the orchard, the branches barren as they are now, and all of you in fancy dress playing croquet.” He raises his glass of good red wine. “What say you?”

“I wondered why we all incarnated together,” says Nathan, raising his glass. “Now I know it was to pose in the orchard for you.”

“There’s only one problem,” says Henri, who is seven and nearly as practical as his very practical mother. “We don’t have even one croquet set, and if all of us are playing in the painting, we will need four sets because each set only has four mallets and four colors of balls. I know because we have a set at school.”

“Another problem is Mimi and Alexandra will chase the balls when we hit them,” says Vivienne, her mouth full of mashed potatoes. “So they’ll have to be on leashes and they’ll make quite a fuss.”

“The dogs could be playing croquet, too,” says Arturo, laughing. “Like the dogs drinking wine in Delilah’s picture for Papa’s cookbook.”

“No,” says Joseph, shaking his head. “In my vision the dogs are not playing croquet, but they are among you, watching the game with great interest.”

fin

Broke My Heart

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Three Dog Farm

The eight acres and two houses and the big redwood barn and several other outbuildings owned by Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel are exactly two miles inland as the crow flies from the northern California coastal burg of Mercy; and because of that distance from the ocean and their elevation of five hundred feet, those eight acres enjoy more sun most days than Mercy.

 In early August, a letter from Grandma Hilda confirms that she and Auntie Tamara and Auntie Celine are going to rent a beach house in Mercy for October and November, which means they’ll be here for Vivienne’s fifth birthday on October 22 and for Thanksgiving. By the time they arrive, Arturo will have begun Second Grade and both Henri and Vivienne will be in First Grade because the wise ones at Mercy Montessori have agreed it would be silly for Vivienne to undergo kindergarten given how she learns everything from Henri and Arturo moments after either of them learn anything.

This past February, when the large sum of money bequeathed to Lisa by her paternal grandmother became a reality in their account at Mercy Savings, Philip and Marcel, both in their mid-fifties, took leave of their jobs as waiters at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, and Marcel became a four-days-a-week carpenter assisting the Ramirez brothers, general contractors, who are building a spacious five-room cottage and bath house a stone’s throw from Philip and Lisa’s farmhouse, and beginning next spring they will add a third bedroom and a second bathroom to the farmhouse while expanding and remodeling the kitchen, dining room, and living room.

Philip sometimes works with the builders, too, but most summer days he collaborates with the children in the morning while Andrea, who just turned fifty, and Lisa, forty-nine, are otherwise engaged. When school is in session, Philip oversees the kids in the afternoons until five, after which he combines preparing supper with working on the yet-to-be-named sequel to his first cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook, with frequent assistance from Andrea.

In April, Dunwood Roofers removed the five idiotically juxtaposed roofs from Marcel and Andrea’s house and replaced the leaky conglomeration with a single modestly slanting and well-insulated roof featuring seven large skylights that admit copious sunlight into the house and not a drop of water when it rains.

Andrea is steadily expanding the deer-fenced vegetable and flower garden from a half-acre to three-quarters-of-an-acre with help from Lisa and Philip and the children—raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, asparagus, and greatly expanded garlic beds the latest additions to the garden.

A new and spacious predator-proof chicken coop, home to twenty-seven prolific hens, is now attached to the south end of the recently refurbished barn, and inside the cavernous barn resides a handsome array of twenty 25-gallon oak wine barrels soon to be filled with juice of wine grapes brought to the coast from an inland vineyard, those grapes to be stomped into juice by members of the collective and friends, Marcel to oversee the fermentation process and eventual bottling.

Discussions abound regarding what to call the winery and eight-acre farm. Marcel and Philip have lately campaigned for Andrea Lisa, while Andrea thinks having Mercy in the name would enhance sales of the hypothetical wine to tourists who buy her produce at the Mercy Farmers Market, and Lisa has several times touted the word she learned from Auntie Tamara, anagnorisis, which means the moment in a drama when the protagonist discovers the true state of affairs to which he or she has been blind, though Lisa admits the word does not roll trippingly off the tongue, nor does anagnorisis harmonize well with winery or farm.

Henri and Arturo are zealous advocates of Three Dog Farm, and Vivienne likes that name, too, but worries they might one day have more or fewer than three dogs and then the name won’t be true.

*

Grandma Hilda is not biologically the children’s grandmother, but in emotional and spiritual terms she most certainly is. Eighty-two, Swiss, tall and sturdy with long silvery gray hair worn in a braid, Hilda is a retired Jungian psychoanalyst and has lived in Berkeley, California for fifty years, and is now considering a move to Mercy. Her only child, Tamara, Auntie Tamara to the children, is forty-seven, a very successful playwright and professor of Drama at Reed College in Portland, and Tamara’s partner Auntie Celine is fifty-two, a professor of African-American History at Reed, Celine herself African-American.

Philip met Hilda when he was a waiter at the famed Le Scélérat in Berkeley and served her every Wednesday evening for nine years before she joined his small circle of friends away from the restaurant. Hilda adores Philip and Lisa and Andrea and Marcel, and in the absence of biological grandchildren of her own, she has enthusiastically assumed the role of grandmother vis-à-vis Arturo, Vivienne, and Henri. Much to everyone’s delight, Hilda has come to stay at the farm several times a year since the collective moved here seven years ago.

*

On a balmy afternoon in late August, the kids are playing outside before supper, Lisa watching them while reclining in the hammock on the kitchen deck and falling asleep reading a collection of Edith Wharton short stories. Philip and Andrea are in the kitchen making the latest iterations of three of Philip’s recipes for his new cookbook—tonight’s main course cod fillets slow-simmered in a sauce of lemon juice, white wine, minced garlic, coconut milk, and various herbs and spices. And Marcel is sitting at the kitchen table with an old landline phone, tapping in the number for Oak Leaf Vineyards, a forty-five-minute drive inland from Mercy.

“Hello Marie? It’s Marcel Léandre calling from Mercy. I spoke to you a few weeks ago and you said I should call you today to find out when the picking will begin.” He listens. “I see. Yes. We intend to buy enough pinot noir grapes to make two hundred and fifty gallons, and enough cabernet also for two hundred and fifty gallons. Yes. Two tons of the pinot and two tons of the cab.” He nods. “Yes, we will have you deliver the grapes to our farm near Mercy. And we would love to come watch some of the harvesting and perhaps pick a few bunches ourselves.” He reacts in surprise. “The first of September? And how long will the harvest continue?” He laughs. “Yes, I made wine with my father in France for many years, so I know a little bit.” He smiles. “Marvelous. We will come to you on September seven at nine o’clock and pick some grapes and then lead the truck back here.” He listens. “Yes, of course we will pay you before we come. We are told your grapes are the finest and we don’t want to lose our chance.” He listens. “Perfect. We will send you a check tomorrow. Merci.”

“The seventh of September?” says Andrea, looking up from chopping garlic.

“Yes,” says Marcel, laughing to keep from crying. “Two weeks from today.”

“Fantastic,” says Philip, tending three pans on the stove, each concoction timed by a separate timer. “Let’s open a bottle of something to celebrate.”

“Something white,” says Andrea, giving Marcel a kiss when he comes into the kitchen.

“I can’t believe it,” says Marcel, crying despite his best efforts not to.

Andrea hands him a bottle of a dry chardonnay, Marcel opens the bottle with the ease of one who has opened thousands of bottles in front of countless customers, and when they each have a glass in hand, Philip proposes a toast. “To the harvest.”

“To the harvest,” says Marcel, raising his glass.

“To the harvest,” says Andrea, clinking her glass with both of theirs.

Now the door flies open and Vivienne runs in, declaiming, “Will someone please give me a glass of water before I perish?”

Philip obliges her and a moment later Henri appears with Arturo right behind him followed by the little dog Goliath and the giant dog Jung.

“We’re very hungry,” says Arturo, remembering not to use the word starving that makes his mother cross. “And Mama said to ask for something to eat that won’t ruin our appetites for supper.”

“Apples,” says Andrea, choosing two big red Fujis. “Please wash your hands in the bathroom. No room in the kitchen right now.”

The boys rush down the hall to the bathroom, Vivienne following, and Philip bows his head and says, “A moment of prayer. Lisa cleaned the bathroom today. May they not entirely destroy her good work.”

Marcel laughs. “Henri has no difficulty turning the water on, but he has an aversion to turning it off, and his drying technique is more mime than actual.”

“Oui,” says Philip, nodding. “Arturo believes towels belong on the floor and someone must have made a mistake by draping them over the bar, and he feels compelled to make things right.”

The children return and Arturo says, “You may be surprised to know we turned off the water, dried our hands very well, and hung up the towel.”

“I beg your pardon,” says Philip, bowing to his son. “When you’ve eaten your snack, would one of you please inform Lisa the adults are having wine, and salad will be served shortly.”

“I’ll tell her,” says Henri, taking a few apple slices with him. “She’s asleep in the hammock.”

“I’ll come, too,” says Vivienne, following Henri.

Arturo stays at the table, gobbling his pieces of apple, and Marcel says to him, “We’re going to the vineyard in two weeks to get four tons of grapes. Can you believe it?”

“For Three Dog Farm wine?” says Arturo, nodding in agreement with the name he and Henri have chosen.

“Yes, for the wine,” says Marcel, ruffling Arturo’s hair. “Whatever we end up calling it.”

“Well we are a farm,” says Arturo, still very hungry and wondering if he should eat a banana. “And we do have three dogs. And people love dogs and farms, so it’s a very good name.”

Lisa comes in with Henri and Vivienne, Andrea hands Lisa a glass of wine, and Marcel says to Lisa, “I just ordered the grapes. We go to the vineyard in two weeks. Can you believe it?”

“I can,” she says, clinking her glass with his. “To the harvest.”

*

That night Philip dreams he and Vivienne enter a bookstore and Vivienne runs to a table displaying new books and says, “Your new book is here! Can you believe it?”

In the dream, Philip approaches the table and sees his cookbook, the title Three Dog Farm Cookbook, the cover illustration a beautiful drawing of their three dogs, Goliath the little mutt, Mimi the Golden Retriever, and Jung the giant hound, sitting at a table laden with food, each dog believably holding a glass of wine.

*

The grape-crushing party takes place on September 9, a Saturday, and of the forty people present for the barbecue and barefoot stomping of the grapes, twenty-five are members of the Ramirez clan, the Ramirez brothers building the cottage and bath house, which means there are several Latino kids playing soccer with Arturo and Henri and Vivienne, and a half-dozen beautiful black-haired women with babies and husbands.

Among the neighbors in attendance are Nathan, a white-haired elder with whom Andrea consults about growing vegetables and fruit, Celia, Nathan’s charming Latina wife, Delilah, Nathan and Celia’s lovely nineteen-year-old housemate, Joseph Richardson, a sixty-something British landscape painter who has made three gorgeous paintings of Andrea’s terraced garden with members of the collective posed therein, a fourth such painting underway starring Andrea and Vivienne amidst the sunflowers, and Constance Richardson, Joseph’s sixty-something wife and the author of dozens of popular murder mysteries written under the pen name Margaret Orland.

As frequently happens these days, the discussion turns to names for the farm and winery, and Oscar, the eldest Ramirez brother, suggests Locura Divina, which translates to Divine Madness.

Joseph, happily drunk, responds to Oscar’s suggestion by standing up and applauding.

“I love that name,” says Philip, smiling at Oscar, “except we are hoping the name of the winery will also be the name of the farm.

“Ah no,” says Oscar, shaking his head. “A good name for wine, but not for a farm.”

“The kids want to call it Three Dog Farm,” says Marcel, going from table to table to see if anyone needs more wine or beer or root beer. “And though I didn’t like that name at first, I’m growing fond of it.”

“Well it is true,” says beautiful Delilah, returning from a stint in the soccer game and sitting beside Celia. “You have three darling dogs, and I could draw you an enchanting picture of them sitting at a table drinking wine, should you want a label for your bottles.”

“What did you just say?” asks Philip, having been distracted by Vivienne angrily whispering to him that Arturo was making fun of her minimal soccer skills in front of the Ramirez children.

“I said I could draw you a lifelike picture of your three dogs sitting at a table,” she says, gesturing to the table laden with food, “drinking wine from sparkling goblets.”

“I dreamt about that very picture two weeks ago,” says Philip, astonished. “And I’m sure I didn’t tell anyone because I only just now remembered.” He turns to Lisa. “Or did I tell you that dream?”

“No. You only tell me your sex dreams,” she says, and everybody laughs.

When the laughter dies down, Philip says to Delilah, “I would like to commission you to make that drawing for me, whatever your fee.”

“My fee for you is absolutely nothing,” says Delilah, making room for Vivienne beside her on the bench.

Vivienne whispers something to Delilah, which causes Constance to ask, “What did the little darling say?”

“She’s concerned they might not always have three dogs,” says Delilah, speaking for Vivienne, “and then the name Three Dog Farm would not be true.”

“Names of farms and titles of books need not be literally true,” says Constance, giving Vivienne a wrinkled-nose smile, “but should evoke pleasing images in our minds, which Three Farm Dogs does.”

“Not Three Farm Dogs,” says Vivienne, laughing. “Three Dog Farm.”

“Yes, but I like Three Farm Dogs,” says Marcel, excitedly. “Three Farm Dogs Wine has a nice earthy ring to it. No?”

“Locura divina,” says Oscar, pointing at Marcel.

And everybody laughs.

*

On Saturday, October 22, her fifth birthday, Vivienne wakes at dawn, which is her habit, Arturo still fast asleep in his bed on the other side of their bedroom. She gets up quietly, takes off her pajamas and puts on the clean T-shirt, underpants, and socks her mother set on the chair at the foot of her bed last night, dons her green sweatshirt and blue jeans, and tiptoes out of the bedroom and down the hall to the kitchen where she always finds either her father or mother or both of them making coffee.

But today no one is in the kitchen, which is curious, because she was sure she heard one or both of them pass by the kids’ bedroom, which means they’ve gone outside, perhaps to check on the chickens to make sure no varmint got into the coop during the night. Or could they still be in bed?

She tiptoes down the hallway, peers into her parents’ bedroom, sees the bed is made, and returns to the kitchen where she usually has cocoa while her parents have coffee, but they are still not here. So she goes to the kitchen door, puts on her shoes, and steps out onto the deck, the morning cold and cloudy.

Fearing to wake her brother who can be terribly cranky if woken before seven, she does not call out to her parents. However, seeing the barn door ajar and thinking they might be visiting the barrels of wine as they sometimes do, she heads for the barn.

But now it occurs to her that the dogs have not appeared to say good morning and go with her wherever she might be going, and this makes her stop and frown and wonder where the dogs and her parents could possibly be.

And now it occurs to her that her parents might have gone to the beach and taken the dogs with them and not taken me!

Furious to think they might have gone to the beach without her, she breaks into a run, arrives at the barn, and peers into the dark cavernous room, her eyes needing a moment to adjust to the dim light before she sees her mother and father and Marcel and Andrea and Henri at the far end of the barn beyond the wine barrels, the three dogs with them.

“What’s going on around here?” asks Vivienne with a touch of anger in her voice.

At which moment, breaking away from the gathering of humans and dogs, is an excessively cute Golden Retriever puppy who toddles toward Vivienne barking a happy puppy bark as Vivienne swoops down upon the only thing she wanted for her birthday.

*

“The name we give to the place where we live can be as revealing as any dream,” says Hilda, a few evenings after Vivienne’s birthday, the children reluctantly gone to bed, the adults gathered in the farmhouse living room, a fire blazing in the hearth.

Nathan and Celia and Delilah came for supper along with Hilda and Tamara and Celine, and the living room is just big enough to comfortably fit the ten adult humans, three dogs, three cats, and the snoozing puppy who Vivienne immediately and inexplicably named Alexandra.

“The children have now decided our farm is not a dog farm,” says Marcel, adding a log to the fire and looking to see if anyone needs more tea or wine. “But a cat and dog farm, because we have more cats than dogs.”

“The children will be fine with whatever you call the farm,” says Tamara, who has a habit of stating her opinions as facts, a habit that annoys Lisa, amuses Andrea, has no effect on Marcel, and always makes Philip think how to refute her until he realizes he agrees with her.

“I think of Wittgenstein,” says Delilah, who is currently enthralled with linguistics and philosophy. “What is the meaning of the meaning of a word?”

“The last time I bought wine,” says Nathan, who doesn’t drink alcohol but buys wine for Celia and friends, “I found myself hunting for intriguing names and I almost spent forty bucks on a bottle of cabernet called, I kid you not, Spiritual Intrigue, but Miguel the wine guy said, ‘Basura. Try this instead,’ and handed me a bottle called Decent Red, and Celia said it was.”

“So what did you mean, Delilah?” asks Hilda, who finds Delilah a continuous source of delight. “By evoking Wittgenstein?”

“Well for instance, he asks us to consider what we think when we hear the word chair,” says Delilah, pausing briefly to allow anyone who wants to follow her train of thought to get on board. “And he suggests we don’t think of a specific chair when we hear chair, but rather of chairness.”

“Wittgenstein,” says Nathan, recalling the numbing effect of the fellow’s philosophizing, “is one of the reasons I dropped out of college.”

“I once screamed at a page of his words trying to understand him,” says Celine, nodding in sympathy with Nathan. “Come out from behind those tangled thoughts, you coward.”

“He can be rather abstruse,” says Delilah, shrugging. “Yet he amuses me.”

“So is he saying that by using the word dog,” asks Philip, who knows nothing about Wittgenstein, “we are asking people to think of an archetypal shape of a dog? A symbol of a dog?”

“Yes,” says Delilah, who only just a few days ago was kissed by someone, really kissed, for the first time. “He says our brains translate words into schemata. And it seems to me, your opinions of Wittgenstein notwithstanding, that a person hearing the word dog, either thinks of a generalized concept of dog or of their most well-remembered dog.”

“The problem I have with putting dog in the name of our farm,” says Andrea, who would love to talk about anything else, “is when many people hear the word dog, they think of dog shit.”

Everyone laughs and the subject blessedly changes.

*

As the gathering draws to a close, Celia nudges Nathan. “Recite your new poem, marido.”

“Please,” says Tamara, she and Celine seriously considering leaving academia and moving to Mercy to live among these wonderful people in this wildly beautiful place.

“Okay,” says Nathan, clearing his throat. “But only because it’s short.” He closes his eyes. “I remember playing Capture the Flag in our neighborhood as a boy, how in the daylight, the game and strategies were clear. At dusk, who was who began to be in doubt, shirtless boys in shorts and girls who might be each other, and that’s when stealth and luck could bring victory as darkness fell and the mothers called for us to come home for supper.”

*

A few days before Thanksgiving, the lowering clouds about to loose their gift of rain upon the thirsty earth, Tamara is working with Andrea in the vegetable garden, mulching the garlic beds.

Tamara stops slinging compost and says, “I just love how you terraced this garden, the wide gradual steps. From a distance, the climb up the hillside was almost imperceptible before you began to clear the beds.” She smiles at Andrea who she is secretly in love with. “Reminds me of my play Ziggurat in which Philip appears as a waiter.”

“I love that play,” says Andrea, taking a moment to contemplate her garden ascending the gently sloping hill. “We made a special trip to see it last year at Berkeley Rep and stayed with Hilda.”

“She told me,” says Tamara, beaming at Andrea. “She’s madly in love with your children.”

“And they are madly in love with her,” says Andrea, who still occasionally expects to wake and find herself childless and trapped with Marcel in a little apartment on a fog-bound avenue in San Francisco.

“I should give Philip a percentage of my residuals,” says Tamara, she and Celine now certain they want to move to Mercy. “His notes on the restaurant scenes made all the difference.”

“Oh my God,” says Andrea, looking wide-eyed at Tamara as the rain begins to fall. “Ziggurat. What a perfect name for our farm and winery.”

fin

Mystery Jump