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The Same Woman (Margot)

Throughout his life, Andrew meets women who are immediately familiar to him, though he has never seen them before. He met the first when he was a little boy in 1955, the second in 1962, the third in 1966, the fourth in 1970, the fifth in 1978, the sixth in 1987, and the seventh in 1993.

In 1998 Andrew and his wife Luisa both turn fifty and celebrate their eleventh wedding anniversary. Their children Owen and Lily both turn sixteen and enter their junior year of high school. Andrew and Luisa are writers and musicians and live with Owen and Lily in a beautiful house ten miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Two years ago, a movie based on Andrew’s play Their Summer Holiday, was a resounding success and prompted a big American publisher to bring out new paperback editions of Andrew’s four collections of short stories. Adding to this good fortune, theatre companies in England and Canada began staging four of Andrew’s previously unproduced plays, and now Luisa is about to publish her first book, a story collection entitled Rainy River and other stories.

At the height of this propitious ferment, Andrew and Luisa’s literary and theatrical agents Penelope Goldstein and Judith Perlman announce their impending retirement. Penelope is seventy-four, Judith seventy-five, and they recently celebrated, as Judith put it, “Our fiftieth year of working together and living together and encouraging each other to keep up the good fight.”

So in April, Andrew and Luisa leave Owen and Lily in the care of friends and fly to Montreal to meet with the three young agents to whom Judith and Penelope are selling their agency, and to meet with two older agents recommended by Judith and Penelope in case Andrew and Luisa are not inclined to go with the younger agents.

Andrew and Luisa arrive in Montreal in the late afternoon, check into their hotel, and have supper with Jason Moreau who directed Andrew’s two most successful plays and is currently directing the first production of Andrew’s newest play, The Carpenter’s Song, which will open six weeks from now, after which Jason will celebrate his eightieth birthday and retire from directing unless, he says with a twinkle in his eyes, “You write another play too good to resist.”

The next morning, Andrew and Luisa take a cab to the Goldstein Perlman Agency, soon to be renamed QBP after the three new principals, Rory Quarterman, Jean Bateau, and Sylvie Pierre, who gather in their elegant conference room to introduce themselves to Andrew and Luisa.

Andrew likes Sylvie, a long-limbed gal with short red hair, and Luisa likes Jean, a petite brunette, but Rory, who handles theatrical works and movie tie-ins, is appalling to both Andrew and Luisa. His smiles are forced, he rolls his eyes at things Sylvie and Jean say, and twice during the half-hour meeting leaves the room to take calls, much to the chagrin of Sylvie and Jean.

Lunching with Judith and Penelope after the QBP presentation, Andrew and Luisa express their misgivings about Rory.

“Welcome to 1998,” says Judith, greatly relieved to be getting out of the business. “Before this era of Young Adult novels, dystopian fantasies, vampires, wizards, and fifty million cookie-cutter murder mysteries, Rory would have sold real estate or cars. He doesn’t read, you know, and I’m sorry to tell you this, but if you weren’t already successful, QBP would have nothing to do with you. You’re both too old, you don’t crank out murder mysteries, and you seem intent on writing things for intelligent adults.” She laughs. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Which is why we thought you might prefer Margot Mounteney and Kelly Vogel,” says Penelope, who is looking forward to puttering in her garden, walking the dogs, and spending winters in Hawaii. “Margot is your age and Kelly’s a little older, she’s brilliant, he’s mad for plays, and they both care about the quality of the writing they represent, which makes them throwbacks to that bygone era when we first came into the business.”

“And they’re barely surviving,” says Judith, with a warning in her voice. “You would change their lives if you signed with them, which is not a reason to do it. But you would.”

The next morning, after breakfasting with Jason and two young directors eager to make Andrew’s acquaintance, Luisa and Andrew take a cab to the offices of Mounteney & Vogel in an old three-story office building in a quiet part of the city.

While Andrew and Luisa wait in the small reception room, they chat with the agency secretary Darla, a charming woman in her early seventies with a British accent, long gray hair in a bun, and pince-nez suspensefully balanced on the tip of her nose.

“I love all your plays,” says Darla, gazing at Andrew and Luisa sitting close together on the small sofa across the room, “and I especially love Their Summer Holiday. I enjoyed the movie, too, but the dialogue in the play just crackles and I’m a huge fan of crackling dialogue. Crave it.” Her eyes widen. “I must say you are a very handsome couple and the light is excellent right now. Would you mind terribly if I took your picture?”

“We don’t mind, do we?” says Andrew, checking with Luisa.

“Not at all,” says Luisa, who is ready to go with Mounteney & Vogel based on their secretary.

Darla gets out a small Leica, takes several pictures and says, “Oh these will be lovely. The light is just perfect. Lovely, lovely.”

“I feel anointed,” says Luisa, beaming at Darla.

“Will you send us your favorite?” says Andrew, hoping he likes Margot and Kelly as much as he likes Darla.

“I will,” says Darla, putting her camera away. “And I will brag and tell you that my photos of authors have appeared alongside many book reviews and have graced several book jackets.”

Now a man and a woman come down the hallway from their offices and stop on the threshold of the reception room—a lanky fellow with short gray hair and a slender woman with shoulder-length black hair, the man wearing wire-framed glasses and a gray tweed suit with a red bowtie, the woman wearing a scoop-necked black dress, her reading glasses attached to a necklace of colored beads hanging around her neck. 

“Welcome, welcome,” says the man, bounding across the room to shake Andrew and Luisa’s hands, his accent the vestigial Scottish of Newfoundland. “I’m Kelly Vogel and this is Margot Mounteney.”

Margot crosses the room to greet them, her beauty more apparent as she draws near, and Andrew feels he has known her and loved her forever.

They gather in Margot’s office, Margot at her desk, Kelly a few feet to her left, Andrew and Luisa in small chairs facing them, the desk largely free of clutter, though every other space in the office is piled high with manuscripts and correspondence.

“I have a computer,” says Margot, her accent mildly British, “though I still mostly write by hand and my mother types everything up.” Her brown eyes sparkle. “Darla is my mother.”

“The heart and soul of the agency,” says Kelly, nodding to affirm this. “She’s currently training her replacement, a great young gal named Vanessa, but we’re not looking forward to Darla retiring.”

“Penelope gave me the galleys of your Rainy River and other stories,” says Margot, smiling at Luisa. “I was enthralled from start to finish.”

“Margot and I both handle books,” says Kelly, laughing nervously, “but plays are my passion. We aren’t a big agency, obviously, and we job out movie stuff to another agency with offices here and in Los Angeles, but we’re very good with foreign rights and we have great relations with editors in Canada and New York who still care about good writing.”

“I’m sure you would do well with QBP,” says Margot, unconvincingly. “They’re very up to date with their methods and sensibilities, whereas we are among the remnants of the old way.” She shrugs pleasantly. “And that’s our high-powered sales pitch.”

“I would just add,” says Kelly, putting his hands together in casual prayer, “that with us you will always be happy.”

“A bold assertion,” says Andrew, liking Kelly very much.

“I don’t mean you will always be happy,” says Kelly, laughing. “I mean you will always be happy with our efforts on your behalf, even should we fail.”

Andrew and Luisa invite Margot and Kelly to lunch, and when Margot hesitates to accept, Luisa intuits the hesitation is about money and adds, “Our treat. We’re feeling flush. Please take us somewhere you love.”

They walk a few blocks in the gentle spring sunlight to an old high-ceilinged restaurant called Leo’s and are greeted by an energetic man with wavy white hair and a thick Italian accent who claps Kelly on the shoulder and kisses Margot on both cheeks.

“You stay away too long,” he says, smiling fondly at Margot. “We wonder where you were. It will just be a moment for Juan to make your table ready. Is so good to see you again. And you bring friends. A celebration perhaps. Right this way, please. The lamb is so fresh I think they play in the meadow this morning.”

He seats them at a large table in the far corner of the mostly empty room, hands them menus and says, “We have a red wine we just get from Bordeaux to make the tears come to your eyes. Pellegrino for your table?”

Margot nods and their host hurries away.

“Was that Leo?” asks Andrew, looking from Kelly to Margot.

“That was Joe,” says Margot, putting on her reading glasses to peruse the menu. “Leo was Joe’s older brother who died when Joe was a little boy in Italy.”

Now a middle-aged woman with reddish brown hair and a lively bounce in her step comes to the table and fills everyone’s glass with bubbly water.

“We missed you,” she says to Kelly and Margot before turning to Andrew and Luisa and gasping, “Oh my God, you’re Andrew Ross.”

“I know you,” says Andrew, smiling curiously at her. “But I can’t quite…”

“Gina DuPrau,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. “I was in the first Montreal production of your play Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise. A million years ago.”

“You were not just in the production,” says Andrew, holding out his hand to her. “You were Ariel and you were brilliant, and you changed my life forever in the best of ways.”

“I’m so glad to see you,” she says, taking his hand. “And while we’re holding hands I’ll tell you I love Their Summer Holiday. The play and the movie.”

“This is my wife Luisa,” says Andrew, transferring Gina’s hand to Luisa’s. “And you know our agents Margot and Kelly.”

“What did you say?” says Margot, startled.

“Our agents,” says Luisa, raising her glass of bubbly water. “We knew the minute we met you.”

“Oh dear,” says Margot, covering her mouth. “I might cry.”

“Me, too,” says Kelly, fighting his tears as he raises his glass.

Now they clink glasses and drink and Andrew says to Gina, “We would love a bottle of the red wine from Bordeaux that Joe spoke so highly of.”

The good wine poured, lunches served, Margot says to Luisa, “Your bio in your story collection says you were a chef before becoming a writer. And though I’m sure you already know this, I will plant the seed that a novel or a novella and stories set amidst the culinary arts would be an easy sell in the wake of Rainy River.”

“Or a play set in a café,” says Kelly, who is pleasantly tipsy and no longer nervous. “The Time of Your Life with espresso. God we need good plays.”

“With a part for our waitress,” says Andrew, who had a crush on Gina when she was starring as Esme twenty-five years ago, but he was too shy to ask her out. “How did she not become famous? Did you see her in the play, Kelly? I’ve never seen another actor so completely own an audience as she did.”

“I went seven times,” says Kelly, loving the wine. “And she would have become a big star had she not married that horrid man and had two kids with him and then he left her with nothing. And she’s been starring here at Leo’s ever since.”

“We never know what’s going to happen, do we?” says Margot, looking at Luisa. “We didn’t think we had a chance against QBP, and now here we are celebrating with you.”

Gina comes by and asks, “How we all doing?”

Everyone raves about their food, another bottle of the same good red is ordered, Gina goes to fetch the wine, and Andrew says, “Speaking of never knowing what’s going to happen, with your permission I would like to tell a rather long story.”

“Permission granted,” says Margot, nodding regally.

Gina returns and shows the bottle to Andrew.

He nods his approval and says, “Have you got a few minutes, Gina? I would love for you to hear the story I’m about to tell.”

She opens the wine, pours a bit in each of their glasses, sets the bottle in the middle of the table, glances around the now full room and says, “I’m good for a few.”

“Excellent,” says Andrew, having a sip of his wine. “So… my two stories that became Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise were two of the very first stories I ever wrote. They were first published in The Weekly Blitz, a Vancouver free weekly, and then a wonderful guy named Mark Kane turned those two stories into a play and got the play produced at the Kleindorf, a small theatre in Vancouver. We got good reviews, the play ran for seven weeks, and I made seven hundred dollars, so I was not about to give up my carpentry gig. Then a few weeks after the play closed at the Kleindorf, Mark called and said someone named Jason Moreau wanted to stage the play in Montreal if we were open to honing the dialogue with him. We said we were open to honing and Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise was a big hit, mainly because of Gina’s extraordinary performance.”

Kelly and Margot and Luisa and Andrew applaud Gina, and she bows comically low and bumps her head on the table, to which she reacts by hopping around on one foot as if she stubbed her toe.

“But then,” says Andrew, when their laughter subsides, “because of the play’s success, Penelope and Judith, who were Jason’s close friends, agreed to represent me and soon thereafter sold my collection of short stories The Draft Dodger and other fables which launched my writing career. And I have no doubt it was your performance, Gina, your revelatory interpretation of Esme that made the play a hit and fueled my launch. And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“You’re very welcome, Andrew,” she says, placing a hand on her heart. “And though I appreciate your praise more than you will ever know, I will modify a line from that long dead British guy and say, ‘The play’s the thing wherein you captured the hearts of your audience, and I was but the lucky mouthpiece for your words.’”

First thing the next morning Luisa goes to the offices of Mounteney & Vogel to sign the contract making her their client, after which she spends the rest of the morning at her publisher’s working on the page proofs of Rainy River and other stories, meeting with Sales, and posing for promotional photos before going to lunch with her editor and the editor-in-chief to celebrate the stellar pre-publication reviews for her book.

While Luisa is thus occupied, Andrew meets with Penelope and Judith and signs various documents pursuant to transferring his contracts to Mounteney & Vogel, after which he goes to see Margot and Kelly to sign the contract making him their client.

However, Kelly is away from the office schmoozing with a theatre director and Margot is on the phone with a hysterical client, so Darla visits with Andrew until Margot is free.

“Do you have a new play in the works?” she asks, sharing a pot of strong black tea with Andrew, her desk their table. “Or a novel?”

“I’ve never written a novel,” he says, doubting he ever will. “And in the two years since the movie of Their Summer Holiday came out I haven’t started anything new, though I did manage to finish the play and the collection of stories I was working on before the movie came out. But nothing new has come to me since.”

“I suppose an enormous success like that can be a shock to the system,” she says, sipping her tea. “Are we the agents now for that play and collection of stories?”

“Yes and no. The book has already been sold, but the contract is now with you. The Carpenter’s Song and other stories. And the play is opening here in Montreal in about seven weeks.”

“Oh The Carpenter’s Song,” she says, beaming at him. “I live three doors down from Jason Moreau and we often walk our dogs together in the morning. He’s absolutely thrilled with your play. Says it’s your best yet. I didn’t realize it was based on a short story. You’ve done that before, haven’t you?”

“A few times, yes,” says Andrew, glad to know Darla and Jason are friends.

“And when you were writing the story, did you sense it would make a good play? Or do you think all your stories would make good plays?”

“I would say everything I write comes to me as scenes I watch and transcribe.”

The phone on her desk rings quietly and she answers, “Mounteney & Vogel. Who’s calling, please?”

Andrew removes to the other side of the reception area so as not to intrude, and a framed photograph on the wall captures his attention—Margot standing between two handsome young men, the younger Margot in the picture closely resembling a woman Andrew was madly in love with when he was in his early twenties.

“That was yet another of our writers calling in distress,” says Darla, beckoning Andrew to return to her. “That’s what Margot’s doing right now, trying to talk one of our writers out of burning the manuscript she worked on for three years before she ran out of ideas and now she can’t figure out how to wrap things up.”

“The literary agent as psychotherapist,” says Andrew, considering this. “I’ll keep that in mind for my next nervous breakdown.”

“I suppose all writers live in fear of running out of ideas,” says Darla, nodding sympathetically. “Do you?”

“No, because I don’t write from ideas. I know many writers do, but the few times I’ve tried to write a story or a play from an idea, nothing would come to me. Not a word.”

“So does that mean when you were writing your book of stories about carpenters you didn’t first have the idea to make such a collection?”

“No,” he says, recalling the thrill of those stories pouring forth. “In fact, I wrote the first four stories without really knowing they were separate stories because I didn’t read those pages until I was nearly done with what turned out to be the fifth story and it dawned on me I might be writing separate stories with recurring characters. So then I read the pages and discovered they were, indeed, five stories, each about a carpenter, and each of those carpenters knew the others. But even then I didn’t think I would write more stories about carpenters because, as I told you, if I write from a preconceived notion, nothing comes.”

“So let me ask you this,” says Darla, lowering her voice. “Can you tell from the writing if the writer has decided ahead of time what to write, or if the writer writes as you do without forethought?”

“Always,” says Andrew, nodding.

“Can you describe the difference?” she asks expectantly.

“Give me moment,” he says, musing for a time. “In one I hear the words being manufactured by a mental machine, and in the other I hear a spontaneous song. Like a child singing as he plays, free of anyone else’s rules about what a song should be.”

“I remember Margot singing those kinds of songs when she was a little girl,” says Darla, writing on her notepad free of anyone else’s rules about what a song should be. “How happy she was.”

Andrew treats Margot and Darla to lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, and over green tea and fortune cookies Darla tells the story of how she came to Canada fifty years ago, pregnant with Margot.

“I was a lonely young woman living at home with my parents in Devon, writing a novel in feeble imitation of Jane Austen, a novel full of the romance I longed for, when along came Paul Westerby, a dashing Canadian vagabond travelling about with knapsack and easel, painting not-very-good landscapes of the English countryside. He romanced me and slept with me for a few glorious wine-drenched months, and when I told him I was pregnant and we should marry, he fled back to Canada and I pursued him.”

“Did you travel by boat?” asks Andrew, especially enjoying Margot’s enjoyment of her mother’s tale.

“No, I flew to Montreal,” says Darla, pouring more tea into each of their cups. “It was 1947 and air travel was very expensive and still quite an adventure, but my mother gave me the money because she was just as eager as I to run the rogue down.” She laughs. “My father, on the other hand, was a severe melancholic and reacted to my pregnancy by staying home from work and moping in the garden. He was a reluctant accountant and preferred a dark corner of the pub to the desk in his office.”

“And where, Mother, did you finally run the rogue down?” asks Margot, gently steering her mother back to the main story.

“In the snooty suburbs of Toronto,” says Darla, disappointed all over again despite the intervening fifty years. “My dashing vagabond turned out to be the pampered son of a wealthy cigarette magnate, his mother a humorless socialite. Paul refused to see me, and his mother took his side, so I appealed to Paul’s father and he said he would arrange for an abortion, except by then I was four months along and wanted to keep my precious child, so he gave me ten thousand dollars, which was a fortune in those days, and I moved to Montreal and we’ve lived here ever since.”

“Did you ever meet your father?” asks Andrew, finding Margot more and more attractive the longer he’s with her.

“A few times,” says Margot, exchanging glances with her mother. “He came to visit when I was seven and took us out for ice cream. Then he came again the summer after I graduated from high school and gave me a check for five hundred dollars, which I immediately spent on clothes.”

“He was running the family business by then,” says Darla, making a sour face. “Rich as Croesus and smelled like an ash tray.”

“And the last time we saw him,” says Margot, pausing for effect, “was just a few years ago when he came to the agency and asked us to find a publisher for his autobiography.”

“Did you?” asks Andrew, amazed by the audacity of the old rogue.

“No,” says Margot, looking at her mother. “But we read the manuscript with great interest.”

“Did he do justice to that momentous summer in Devon?” asks Andrew, feeling sure the rogue must have. “Your love affair and…”

“Not a word about me,” says Darla, shaking her head. “And not a word about Margot.”

“Yet he wanted us to find a publisher for his badly written book of lies,” says Margot, closing her eyes. “An arrogant humorless man with a perpetual sneer on his face.”

“But when I was twenty-one,” says Darla, remembering back to that summer in Devon, “and he came tramping across the field of ox-eye daisies overhung by a blue blue sky full of snowy white clouds, a strapping young man with an easel on his back, smiling like a sunbeam, I could only think to love him.”

They return to the offices of Mounteney & Vogel and Andrew has his first meeting alone with Margot.

“Will you be coming back to Montreal?” asks Margot, sitting down at her desk. “For the opening of your play?”

“Yes,” he says, sitting in a chair on the client side of her desk. “I’ll be back in four weeks.” He raises two fists. “For the final push. Last minute dialogue tweaking and anything else Jason wants me to do. And then we’ll stay for dress rehearsal and the first few performances.”

“Oh so Luisa’s coming with you,” says Margot, sounding relieved. “Wonderful.”

“She’ll be here for dress and opening night and the party after,” he says, nodding. “And I’ll be here for two weeks before she comes. We wanted to bring the kids for the whole shebang, but they refused. Said they didn’t want to miss the last few weeks of school. Can you imagine? When I was sixteen I would have given anything to skip school and hang out in a big theatre watching professional actors bring a play to life. But they love their teachers and their friends and wouldn’t think of missing the last days of school before summer.”

“Will you be staying with Jason?” she asks, reluctant to meet his gaze.

“That’s the plan. Just three houses away from your mom.”

“And me,” she says, looking at him. “I live with her.”

“Oh,” he says, the frisson between them profound. “I… I wouldn’t have guessed that. I had you living with some lucky guy, a professor of… I don’t know… Archaeology.”

“Oh really,” she says, laughing. “A lucky Archaeology professor. Not an unlucky professor of Literature?”

“I really like you, Margot,” he says, laughing with her. “And I have to tell you… the moment I saw you I had the feeling I’ve known you and loved you forever. And when I told Luisa that, do you know what she said?”

“What?” asks Margot, holding her breath.

“She said she felt exactly the same way, that we are a trio of soul mates.”

“Then I won’t be afraid of you anymore,” says Margot, coming around her desk as Andrew rises to meet her—their embrace both a confirmation of their love and proof they need not be lovers to be as one. 

fin

Love’s Body

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The Same Woman (Jennifer)

Every so often throughout his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he knows, though he has never seen her before. He met the first of these women in elementary school in 1955, the second in 1962, the third in 1966, the fourth in 1970, the fifth in 1978, and he married her in 1987.

In 1993, Andrew and his wife Luisa are both forty-five and have been married for six years. Their children Owen and Lily are both eleven and in Fifth Grade. They live in a beautiful house Andrew built not far from the ocean about ten miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Andrew wrote a collection of short stories when he was in his mid-twenties that launched a string of successes for him, and at the height of his good fortune he met and married Kiki, a dancer and choreographer with whom he had Owen. When the exigencies of fate removed his star from the firmament of Canadian culture, Andrew returned to carpentry to pay the bills and ceased to write.

When Owen was four and going to kindergarten, Andrew met Luisa whose daughter Lily was in school with Owen. The marvelous simpatico Andrew experienced with Luisa inspired him to start writing again. A few months later, Kiki got involved with somebody else, divorced Andrew, and gave him full custody of Owen.

The following year, Andrew and Luisa were married. When Andrew’s literary star began to rise again and his income was sufficient to cover the financial needs of their family, he convinced Luisa to give up her cooking gig at a popular restaurant and become his assistant and collaborator.

The business end of publishing books and producing plays holds little interest for Andrew, but for Luisa the commercial aspects of publishing and show biz are endlessly fascinating and she has become quite learned about the interconnected complexities of publishing, theatre, and the movie business. Indeed, her expertise regarding these interconnections has resulted in their most lucrative contract yet.

Two years ago, Andrew’s play Their Summer Holiday ended a long run in Vancouver following a successful premiere run in Montreal, and now the play is being performed in small theatres across Canada, America, England, and France.

Their Summer Holiday is a whimsical romance about a single father and his adolescent son spending a few magical weeks in a coastal village populated with colorful eccentrics and an alluring French woman with whom both father and son become enchanted.

The play was thought too quirky to be made into a movie until Luisa convinced Andrew to create with her a movie synopsis of the play focusing more on the love story and less on the eccentrics. Their elegant four-page synopsis, refined over several months, was pitched by Andrew’s agent to a select group of actors and producers, the movie rights were subsequently optioned by a big Hollywood studio, and Andrew and Luisa were contracted to write the screenplay.

They finish the third draft of their screenplay on a Friday in early April, each new draft written in response to notes from the film’s two LA-based producers, a fast-talking fellow named James Skidmore and a somewhat slower-talking woman named Jennifer Zindel, both of whom will be arriving in Vancouver in mid-April to spend a few days finalizing the script with Andrew and Luisa, filming to begin in September.

Most week days Andrew and Luisa wake to a 6:30 alarm, stay in bed for a while talking, take quick showers, make breakfast for the kids, and then one or both of them bicycles with the kids to the public elementary school three miles from their house, unless it’s raining or snowing or too bloody cold, in which case one of them drives the kids to school.

When Owen and Lily have been safely delivered to the halls of learning, Andrew and Luisa have coffee and breakfast over which they plan their morning and early afternoon. This planning session sometimes leads to a return to bed before the commencement of one or more of the following: writing, gardening, business correspondence, music making, beach combing, shopping, visiting friends, and going into the city for business or pleasure.

The kids get home from school by 3:30, have snacks and debrief with Luisa and/or Andrew, do their chores and homework, help prepare supper, eat supper, practice music for an hour, and gather in the living room with the adults for some sort of group activity, musical or otherwise.

Both Owen and Lily are studying piano with Luisa and both of them love to sing. Lily plays the guitar, Andrew her teacher, and Owen plays the clarinet, his teacher Chas Lowenstein who happens to be Andrew and Luisa’s renter and lives next door with his wife Betty.

Lily and Owen are both avid readers, excellent students, and aspire to be writers and musicians. They are each adept at walking on their hands, juggling three tennis balls, and throwing Frisbees with remarkable power and accuracy.

When the kids have gone to bed, Luisa and Andrew like to sit by the fire with cups of tea and talk about their children and anything else that comes to mind.

One evening after supper, a week before the movie producers are due to arrive, Owen and Lily and Luisa and Andrew gather in the living room for a game of Charades and Owen says, “Today Miss Tucker gave us the choices for our final big project of the year. We can either do a ten-page report on some important event in Canadian history or…”

“A ten-page biography of someone famous,” says Lily, taking up the recitation. “Or five two-page book reports on books from her list of acceptable books or a ten-page family history.”

“We have a week to decide,” says Owen, pursing his lips and gazing thoughtfully at the fire dwindling in the hearth. “Then we have to turn in a detailed proposal and once Miss Tucker approves we have to write a first draft, a second draft, and a final draft.”

“History repeating itself,” murmurs Andrew, thinking of the three drafts they’ve done of their screenplay.

“I’ll probably do a biography of either Mendelssohn or Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald,” says Lily, wrinkling her nose. “I was going to do the book reports, but Owen and I already read all the books on her list two summers ago and she won’t let me do To Kill A Mockingbird because she says we don’t get that until high school even though Owen and I read it last summer.”

“I might do the family history,” says Owen, looking at Andrew, “and if I do you’ll need to remember back as far as you can and then I’ll call Grandma Gloria and Grandpa Zeke and Grandma Kaylia and ask them to remember.”

“I was gonna do a family history,” says Lily, shrugging, “but there’s only you, Mama, and you only remember Grandma Lily so there won’t be ten pages unless I write about Owen’s side and he might already be doing that.”

“Well don’t forget I also remember Grandma Lily’s mother,” says Luisa, smiling at her daughter. “Your great grandmother.”

“You do?” says Lily, excitedly. “I don’t remember you ever telling me about her.”

“I did when you were little,” says Luisa, thinking of her mother and how much she would enjoy Lily and Owen. “But not for a long time.”

“Like what do you remember about her?” asks Owen, who thinks Luisa is the most wonderful person in the world, right after Lily.

“Her name was Ziibi,” says Luisa, closing her eyes and seeing her sturdy grandmother shooing chickens into the coop at dusk. “Ziibi means river in Ojibwe. My mother and I visited her a few times when Ziibi was living in Baudette, a town in Minnesota just across the border. She had an old house on the Rainy River and raised rabbits for meat and pelts, and she rented out a room in the house to an old Chippewa man named Ray who was deaf and smoked a pipe. I stayed with her there without my mother for six weeks the summer I was thirteen. I remember she’d get the barbecue going and I’d pick ears of corn from her big garden and she’d set them on the coals in their husks, and then she’d walk out to the river with her fishing pole and right away catch a big fish, a trout or a pike or a walleye, and clean it in no time and cook it right up. Most delicious fish I ever ate.”

“What did she look like?” asks Lily, eager to know. “Was she as brown as you?”

“No and my mom wasn’t so brown either. I never met my father, but I must have gotten my darker brown from him. He was from Cuba, but I don’t know what he looked like because my mother never showed me a picture of him, though I think she had one.”

“My mom got her brown from Grandma Kaylia who was from Barbados,” says Owen, who hasn’t seen his mother in four years. “My mom’s dad was Chinese, but he died before I was born so I never got to meet him.”

“Ten pages won’t be enough,” says Andrew, knowing Owen longs to see his mother.

Andrew and Luisa meet the movie producers James and Jennifer at Tangelo’s, a trendy restaurant a few blocks from the famous Hotel Vancouver where James and Jennifer have booked a suite on the fifteenth floor.

James is slender and balding and nattily dressed, has a strong Chicago Jewish accent, laughs explosively, and only grows serious when discussing the script for Their Summer Holiday.

Jennifer is short and buxom with shoulder-length bleached blonde hair and pale blue eyes. Raised in New Jersey by Yiddish-speaking grandparents, the first thing she says to Luisa and Andrew is that she hates the name Jennifer and wants them to call her J.

Luisa and Andrew both order fish and chips and beer. James and Jennifer both order gin and tonics, garden salads, and shrimp scampi, and they both give their waiter ultra-specific instructions about how to make their gin and tonics, how to prepare their salad dressings, and how they want their linguini and shrimp cooked.

As Jennifer hands her menu to the waiter she says, “If you overcook my shrimp or serve me a shitty gin and tonic, things will not go well for you.”

To which James adds, “As for my gin and tonic, when in doubt err on the side of gin.” Having said this, he laughs explosively.

When the drinks arrive, Jennifer holds her glass aloft and says, “Here’s to the best script I’ve ever worked on.”

Glasses are clinked, drinks are drunk, the gin and tonics are declared delicious, and Jennifer says, “We are so close to signing Paul Sydney to direct I can’t tell you. The only wrinkle with Paul is he wants to shoot this in Thailand, turn it into a tropical fairy tale with half-naked Asian beauties and sampans. But we really don’t want to go that way.” 

“Thailand?” says Andrew, the back of his neck tingling. “You’re kidding.”

“You know what I just realized,” says James, pointing at Andrew. “This movie is a whodunit. Only nobody gets murdered.” He arches an eyebrow. “But maybe somebody should.”

“This is not a whodunit,” says Jennifer, glaring at James. “This is a brilliant coming of age story meets gorgeous mid-life crisis love story.” She pauses. “We’re thinking a few songs sung by the characters might really work in this film. One song for Leo, one for Jonah, one for Louise. Not a musical really, but quasi.”

Andrew recalls his agent Penelope Goldstein saying Have no illusions, Andrew. By signing this contract you are giving them permission to do anything they want with your story. Yes, you will write a screenplay, but they are not obliged to use it. Do you understand?”

“I’m sure you’re aware there are three wonderful songs in the play sung by those characters,” says Luisa, taking a deep breath. “But after we sent you our first draft you said nix the songs.”

“Not those cutesy folk songs,” says James, shaking his head. “We’re talking Elton John, Randy Newman. Big time movie songs.”

“A quasi-musical?” says Andrew, locking eyes with Jennifer and connecting with something deep inside her. “Is that what you want, J?”

“No,” she says, flustered by this unexpected breaching of her usually impenetrable defenses. “I want to shoot this just the way you wrote it, but my job…” She glances at James. “Our job is to get this movie made, which always means deviating from the source material. It just does. For instance, if we sign Marc Laredo, and pray God we do, he’s gonna play Jonah a bit fay, though Jonah in your script is definitely not fay. He’s a serious romantic, ultra-sensitive, thoughtful and kind, yet wonderfully masculine, too.” She laughs self-consciously. “Somebody stop me. I sound like Pauline Kael on Ecstasy.”

After lunch they move to James and Jennifer’s suite on the fifteenth floor of Hotel Vancouver and array themselves on comfy chairs around a big coffee table.

“Drinks?” says James, bouncing his eyebrows. “Coffee? Brandy? Martinis? Champagne? Cannabis? Cocaine?”

“Coffee would be great,” says Luisa, looking at Andrew and saying with her eyes We’ll get through this, darling. Please don’t tell them to go fuck themselves.

James calls room service and orders coffee and cookies, scripts are gotten out, and pens are poised.

Jennifer, still a little woozy from Andrew’s deep dive into her psyche, clears her throat and says, “I wasn’t kidding when I said this is the best script I’ve ever worked on. However, there are two large problems we need to solve before we can sign the likes of Marc Laredo or Shirley Stone who, as you know, got the ball rolling when they both flipped over your pitch.”

“And what are those problems?” asks Luisa, noting Andrew’s growing disquiet.

“Leo,” says James, throwing up his hands. “He’s got more screen time than Louise. And by the way, we found a brilliant unknown to play Leo. When we tested this kid he practically melted the camera. British. Of course. Gorgeous. The young James Dean meets the young Johnny Depp. Eighteen but plays thirteen no problem, and he’s a far better actor than Marc or Shirley will ever be, but even so we can’t have him upstaging them.”

Andrew is about to say something when the coffee and cookies arrive and Jennifer makes a pretty show of serving everyone.

“And the second problem?” asks Luisa, bracing herself.

“Jonah and Louise,” says Jennifer, adding a huge amount of sugar to her coffee.

“Ah,” says Andrew, pretending to understand. “So the two big problems are the three main characters. Anything else?”

“Andrew?” says Jennifer, looking at him and pursing her lips as if wanting to kiss him. “We love the whole not-liking-each-other-at-first turning into a crazy funny love thing. It’s genius. And I don’t use that word lightly.”

“Academy Award stuff,” says James, winking at Luisa. “You can start writing your acceptance speeches now.”

“But then you leave us hanging,” says Jennifer, clasping her hands. “Do they get together at the end? We never find out.”

“What are you talking about?” says Andrew, looking at her as if she’s insane. “Jonah and Leo pull up in front of Louise’s house in their big old convertible and she comes down the walk wearing a quasi wedding dress and dragging her gigantic suitcase and Leo and Jonah jump out of the car and load her suitcase on top of all their stuff and she gets in beside Jonah, and Leo gets in beside her, and off they go and we track back into an aerial view as they speed along the coast highway and make the turn inland. How is that not getting together? She goes with them at the end.”

“Was there a love scene I missed?” says James, flipping through the script. “I can’t find it? Where is it?”

“The whole movie is a love scene,” says Andrew, horrified by these people.

“Of course it is,” says Jennifer, nodding sympathetically. “And some people…”

“One out of twenty,” says James, chewing on a cookie. “Maybe.”

“Some people will get that the whole movie is a love scene,” says Jennifer, smiling sadly at Andrew. “But most people won’t get that unless we show them Louise and Jonah sealing the deal. Kapish?”

“If this was an arty French film,” says James, smacking his copy of the script with the back of his hand, “or even an arty British film, okay, be subtle. But this is a big budget American movie. Subtle won’t fly. Big budget movies can’t afford to be subtle. At the very least we need passionate kissing and the tearing off of clothing, though much better would be the onset of hot sex and exclamations of ‘You’re the best yet, babe,’ or words to that effect.”

“Who would say that line?” asks Andrew, getting up to go. “Jonah? Who would never in million years say something like that? Or Louise who would never in a million years say something like that? Hey I have an idea. Let’s have a parrot watching them fucking and he can say You’re the best yet, babe. Are you truly not aware after reading three drafts that Jonah and Louise never state the obvious?”

“Hey,” says James, waving his hand to dispel Andrew’s outrage. “We’re on your side. But we didn’t spend all this time and money not to make a movie. Right? And though I totally respect your desire to have a movie made that is a hundred per cent true to your vision, that will never happen unless you write and direct and produce your own movie, and even then it won’t turn out the way you want it. I hate to tell you this, pal, but every movie you have ever loved did not turn out the way the playwright or the novelist or the screenwriter wanted it to. They don’t. They never do.”

“Thank you for enlightening me,” says Andrew, feeling as rotten as he has ever felt. “I think the best thing for us to do right now is go home and discuss all this and meet with you again tomorrow.”

“We’d be happy to come to your place,” says Jennifer, getting up and holding out her hands to both Andrew and Luisa. “We are truly honored to be working with you on this movie and I know we can create something fantastic together. I know we can.”

Andrew is too upset to drive home, so Luisa drives, neither of them saying a word until they are free of the city.

“I wonder why they waited until we’d written three drafts,” says Andrew, wishing he and Luisa had never created the enticing synopsis, “before telling us to shrink Leo’s part, expand Louise’s, and finish the movie with sex. Couldn’t they have told us that after the first draft?”

“Maybe they didn’t know what they wanted until now,” says Luisa, wishing she’d never suggested writing an enticing synopsis. “Or maybe they thought we’d be more likely to agree to those changes if we thought a long delay would jeopardize the chances of the film getting made.”

“I couldn’t make those changes if I wanted to,” says Andrew, looking at her. “Could you?”

“No,” she says wistfully. “It would ruin everything.”

“It’s like one of those dreams where you win the race,” says Andrew, laughing despite his angst, “and then you step in a pile of shit and no matter what you do you can’t get the shit off your shoes.”

At supper, Owen and Lily want to hear all about the movie producers.

Luisa and Andrew exchange looks and Luisa says, “They took us to a snazzy new restaurant called Tangelo’s and they were very particular about the proportions of the ingredients in their gin and tonics and their salad dressings and about how to prepare their scampi, and then we went to their snazzy suite in the Hotel Vancouver and talked about the screenplay, and then we came home.”

“The key word here is snazzy,” says Andrew, who is slightly drunk. “They were both very snazzy people, Jennifer perhaps a bit snazzier than James, and they want us to rewrite the screenplay so Louise has a bigger part than Leo and in the end Jonah and Louise have a big sex scene.”

“Yuck,” says Lily, disappointed with their synopsis of the movie producers. “I thought you were done writing the screenplay.”

“So did we,” says Luisa, making a mental note to check their contract about compensation for any writing they might do beyond the third draft.

“When you say snazzy,” asks Owen, frowning at Andrew, “do you mean he’s handsome and she’s beautiful? Because they sound stupid.”

“I would not say James is handsome,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “But I would say Jennifer is beautiful, though for my taste she wears too much makeup.”

“And if you meet her,” says Luisa, smiling at the children, “call her J because she hates the name Jennifer.”

“We might meet them?” asks Owen, sounding worried. “When?”

“There’s a slight chance they’ll be here when you get home from school tomorrow,” says Luisa, looking at Andrew. “We’re still negotiating the location of our next meeting.”

Andrew barely sleeps that night and rises early to have a cup of tea and think about life before he makes breakfast for the kids and bicycles to school with them, the day sunny and cool.

He gets a flat tire on the way home and has to walk the last mile, and as he pushes his bike along the country road something shifts inside him and he lets go of needing to defend the screenplay.

When he gets home he finds Luisa sitting at the kitchen table, still in her nightgown, writing in her notebook.

“What are you writing?” he asks, sitting beside her.

“My dream from this morning,” she says, writing the last few words. “Want to hear?”

“I do,” he says, closing his eyes to listen.

“I’m walking behind my mother on a slender trail following a fast-flowing river through a forest of tall trees. Now we emerge from the forest and come to a corral in which there is a beautiful brown horse.

“My mother says, ‘This is the horse you wanted when you were a girl, but we lived in the city and had no place for him. He is young and wild. You can tame him or let him go.’

“‘I want to let him go,’ I say. ‘But where is the gate?’

“‘There is no gate,’ she says, handing me a saw. ‘You have to make an opening for him.’

“So I take the saw and start sawing one end of the top plank, and I hear someone else sawing and look up and see you sawing the other end of the plank, and I wake up.”

Jennifer and James arrive at one, the day turning cloudy.

Luisa serves lunch on the deck overlooking the garden: chicken quesadillas with homemade guacamole and a garden salad dressed with olive oil and white wine vinegar and a splash of lime.

James raves about the food and the salad dressing and says to Luisa, “You should open a restaurant. I’ll invest heavily.”

“Luisa was the chef at a restaurant not far from here,” says Andrew, gazing fondly at his wife. “I ate her ambrosia for years before I met her.”

“Do you miss it?” asks Jennifer, wrinkling her nose at Luisa. “Working in a restaurant?”

“I sometimes miss the comradery,” she says, looking at Jennifer. “But I don’t miss the pressure. The relentless pressure to produce.”

“Speaking of pressure to produce,” says James, playing a drum roll on the edge of the table with his index fingers. “How soon can you make those changes?”

“We can’t,” says Andrew, relieved to be saying so. “We understand why you want them, but you will have to find someone else to do that for you.”

James and Jennifer exchange looks of surprise and Jennifer raises her hand and says, “Hold on now. Not so fast. We will be happy to pay you for two more drafts.” She puts her hand on her heart. “We love your characters and we love your dialogue and we want to get this right.”

“The thing is…” says Andrew, looking at Jennifer and connecting again with something deep inside her, “we are too much in love with the story and the characters to betray our love.”

“Makes perfect sense,” says James, pointing with both index fingers at Andrew. “You guys are too close to the material. And fortunately, we know some of the best finishers in the business.”

“Would you at least be willing to vet the final dialogue?” asks Jennifer, clearly upset to be losing them. “We really want the dialogue to be consistent.”

“We’d be happy to,” says Luisa, a moment before Andrew can say No.

“Mahvelous!” says James, raising his glass. “Here’s to wrapping this puppy up and signing some sexy A-list stars.”

Andrew and Luisa accompany James and Jennifer to the big shiny black car they hired for the day—the driver waking from his after-lunch snooze and jumping out to open doors.

“We’ll be in touch,” says James, giving Luisa a kiss on the cheek and shaking Andrew’s hand. “You guys are special.”

“Thank you so much,” says Jennifer, pecking Luisa’s cheek and intending to peck Andrew’s, except he embraces her.

“We are of one mind with you, J,” he says, holding her for a long moment. “And we know you will represent us well in the battles ahead.”

“What a wonderful thing you said to her,” says Luisa, holding Andrew’s hand as they watch the big black car roll away. “I think she probably would make the movie the way we wrote it if only she could.”

“I do, too,” says Andrew, feeling light as air. “I also think we should go to the beach now and take the kids out for pizza tonight.”

The movie based on Their Summer Holiday is not filmed in Thailand or anywhere else in September because in July the American movie studio that optioned the movie rights and paid Andrew and Luisa to write three drafts of the screenplay and then paid two other writers to write three more drafts, drops the project after the overseeing studio exec reads the sixth draft and says, “By page five I wanted to vomit.”

A year and a few months later, in October of 1994, a maverick Danish filmmaker named Nicolas Thorsen options the film rights to Their Summer Holiday from Andrew and Luisa for five thousand dollars, writes a new screenplay based on the original play, has Andrew and Luisa tweak his screenplay, and makes the movie for two million dollars.

A charming thirteen-year-old from Bristol plays Leo as if born to the role of a preternaturally kind and imaginative person.

A beguiling French gal with red hair and emerald eyes plays the part of Louise with an irresistible mix of innocence and savvy.

A droll self-effacing fellow from Oxford who reminds everyone of the young Rex Harrison plays the part of Jonah.

The three songs from the play are performed in the movie by the three main characters accompanying themselves on ukuleles.

And the movie ends exactly as Andrew and Luisa imagined it would, except when Louise gets in the car she gives Jonah a marvelous kiss—an unscripted kiss that turns out to be cinematic genius.

Their Summer Holiday, the movie, is released simultaneously in England and France in October of 1995 and is an instant success. By December the movie is playing all over Europe, and in the spring of 1996 Their Summer Holiday opens in a hundred theatres in North America and becomes an art house sensation.

That same spring, Andrew and Luisa and Owen and Lily are in the throes of mighty change. The kids are now in Eighth Grade, Lily fast becoming a young woman with suitors galore, Owen falling in love every few weeks but too shy to approach the girls he’s smitten with.

Luisa and Andrew are writing a play together, a comedy drama set in a bookstore, Andrew is working on a series of short stories about carpenters, and Luisa is writing a quasi-autobiographical novella about the six weeks she spent with her grandmother on Rainy River.

On Tuesday mornings, just for fun, Andrew and Luisa write screenplays together, acting out the parts and imagining how Nicolas Thorsen, who is now their hero and friend, might film the scenes.

In the fall of 1996, Jennifer calls Andrew to see how he and Luisa are doing. Several times in the course of their conversation she refers to Their Summer Holiday as the one that got away, and though she recently had a big hit with a serial-killer flick and has a prostitute-becomes-a-princess film about to open in thousands of theatres, she insists Their Summer Holiday is the best movie she’s ever seen and would love to work with Andrew and Luisa again some day.

When she’s done dropping the names of all the big stars she’s working with, Andrew asks, “So what’s going on with you apart from the movie biz?”

And after a moment’s hesitation she says, “I wonder if I’ll ever be in a relationship with someone who really understands me, really gets me. Like you get me, Andrew. Someone like you.”

fin

One Fell Swoop

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The Same Woman (Luisa)

Over and over again in the course of his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he has known before. He met her in elementary school in 1955, fell in love with her briefly in 1962, had a relationship with her in 1966, and lived with her in British Columbia from 1970 to 1973. The last time was in 1978 when they became pen pals for six years until she broke off all communication with him.

1986. Andrew is thirty-eight and his wife Kiki is forty. They celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary, their four-year-old son Owen begins attending pre-school, both Kiki and Andrew get their first personal computers, and Andrew becomes Owen’s sole parent for long stretches of days and weeks so Kiki can pursue her burgeoning career as a modern dance choreographer.

Owen and Andrew are unhappy about Kiki spending so much time away from their home on the outskirts of Vancouver, and Andrew wishes Kiki was content to work with dance companies nearer at hand, but she is not and has signed contracts to create dances for companies in Montreal, London, New York, and Los Angeles over the next two years.

They had hoped Andrew’s success with his writing would continue and they could afford for Andrew and Owen to accompany Kiki on her various choreography adventures, but when a giant corporation took over the publishing house that had done so well with Andrew’s first two collections of short stories, his run of good fortune ended. His third collection was taken out-of-print a few days after the book was published, and then the corporation cancelled the publication of his fourth collection, after which his sales figures branded him an author who doesn’t sell.

Having spent the considerable profits from his earlier successes on doubling the size of their kitchen and building a spectacular dance studio for Kiki adjacent to their house, Andrew has taken up carpentry work again to pay the bills.

Kiki is unhappy about the situation, too, but creating dances for the best modern dance companies in the world has long been her dream and she doesn’t want to miss her chance. Knowing how quickly Andrew’s fortunes changed, Kiki is determined to strike while her iron is hot.

Andrew’s best friend Cal and Cal’s wife Terry and their children Felicia and Scott live a mile away from Andrew and Kiki and Owen. Felicia is ten and Scott is five and they are Owen’s best friends and idols. Their daily presence in Owen’s life, along with Terry as a willing mother substitute, makes Kiki’s long absences easier for the little boy to handle.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in April—Kiki in New York after a brief stint at home following seven weeks in Los Angeles—Andrew is sitting at the counter in the magnificent kitchen he built especially for Kiki, overseeing Owen and Scott and Felicia making oatmeal raisin cookies, when the phone rings.

Before he picks up the phone, Andrew prays the caller is his literary agent Penelope Goldstein calling from Montreal with good news, though he hasn’t heard a peep from Penelope in three years.

“Hello,” he says, imagining Penelope sitting at her desk piled high with manuscripts, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose.

“Hi,” says a woman with a musical voice. “May I speak to Andrew Ross, please?”

For a flickering, Andrew thinks the caller is Carol Savard, his great friend and correspondent who two years ago severed all ties with him because, as she wrote in her final letter to him, “The intensity of my desire to be in a relationship with you makes it impossible for me to sustain a relationship with anyone else.”

“This is Andrew.”

“My name is Luisa Morningstar. My daughter Lily is at the Montessori school with your son Owen, and she asked me to make a play date with him. Is that something we might arrange?”

“Probably,” says Andrew, struck by how much she reminds him of Carol Savard, though she sounds nothing like Carol. “Can you hold on a sec?”

“Happy to. Or you can call me back.”

“Good idea,” says Andrew, flustered by the feelings arising in him. “He’s currently baking cookies.”

“So O,” says Andrew, speaking to his son at bedtime, “I got a call from Lily’s mother today wondering if you’d like to have a play date with Lily.”

“I’m playing with Scott and Felicia after school tomorrow,” says Owen, pursing his lips and shaking his head exactly as his mother does. “We already planned it.”

“Right, but there are lots of days when you don’t play with Scott and Felicia. Maybe you’d like to play with Lily on one of those days?”

“Would you be with me?” asks Owen with a touch of worry in his voice.

“If it’s at our house, of course I’ll be with you,” says Andrew, knowing Owen doesn’t like going new places without Mama or Papa or Terry or Cal. “And if it’s at Lily’s house I will definitely be with you the whole time for the first few times you go there.”

“Okay,” says Owen, nodding.

“You don’t have to have a play date with her. Only if you like her.”

“I love her,” says Owen, gazing at his father. “She’s so nice and she’s the best dancer you’ve ever seen.”

“Better than your mother?”

“Maybe a little,” says Owen, pouting. “When’s Mama coming home?”

“In two weeks,” says Andrew, fighting his tears. “And this time she’ll be home for a good long while.”

“How long is a good long while?”

“Lots of days,” says Andrew, his heart breaking. “Lots and lots of days.”

The next morning on his way to the beach house he’s building with two other carpenters, Andrew drives Owen to the Montessori kindergarten that occupies a former Methodist church four miles from their house. Owen puts his knapsack and jacket in his cubbyhole and he and Andrew wave to the head teacher Mrs. Chandler who is on the phone in her office.

A sturdy middle-aged woman with short gray hair and rosy cheeks, Mrs. Chandler waves back to them and mouths the words, “Good morning Owen. Welcome to school.”

“Want to introduce me to Lily?” asks Andrew as he accompanies Owen out the back door of the schoolhouse and through the children’s vegetable garden to the large playground.

“Okay,” says Owen, who is usually among the first children to arrive at school in the morning. “She’s always on the swings when I get here. Unless it’s raining.”

And sure enough, on the middle swing of three, the two other swings not yet taken, is a beautiful four-year-old girl with dark olive skin and big brown eyes, her long black hair done in four intricately woven braids, swinging higher than most children dare to go and singing Frère Jacques.

On the following Saturday at ten in the morning, the sky full of dark gray clouds, Luisa brings Lily to Andrew and Owen’s house for a play date.

Luisa’s exquisite face and her dark olive skin remind Andrew of the famous bust of Nefertiti. She is exactly Andrew’s height, five-eleven, and exactly his age, thirty-eight, and she wears her glossy black hair in a ponytail—her movements and gestures full of grace.

Following a quick tour of the house, during which Owen and Lily stay in Owen’s room to look at his stuffed animals and books, Andrew and Luisa sit at the kitchen counter and share a pot of tea.

“You have my dream kitchen,” she says, gazing around the splendid room. “This is bigger than the kitchen at the restaurant where I cook.”

“Which restaurant?” asks Andrew, mystified by how much she reminds him of his former friend Carol Savard, though she looks nothing like Carol and sounds nothing like Carol, and yet…

The Crossroads,” she says, looking at her watch. “I’ve been the breakfast and lunch chef there for nine years now. I drop Lily off at Montessori at 6:15 and pick her up at 3:30. I have a special arrangement with Mrs. Chandler.”

“I’ve eaten your delicious food many times,” says Andrew, who usually drops Owen at school a few minutes after seven, which is officially the earliest a child is supposed to arrive. “Do you pay Mrs. Chandler?

“Yes,” she says, nodding. “Only way I can manage.” She looks at her watch again. “Speaking of which, would it be okay with you if I left now and came back at two? I know I said I’d stick around for the first date, but I am so far behind on so many things at home, a few hours alone would be a godsend.”

“Sure,” says Andrew, disappointed not to have a longer visit with her. “If Lily’s okay being here without you.”

“Oh she’s used to me leaving her with people she hardly knows,” says Luisa, getting up. “But I’ll check with her to make sure.”

Andrew accompanies Luisa to Owen’s room where they find Lily and Owen sitting side-by-side on Owen’s bed looking through a big picture book of Australian marsupials.

“I’m going now, honey,” says Luisa, smiling at the sight of her daughter with Owen. “I’ll be back at two.”

“Okay,” says Lily, looking up from the picture of a mother koala and her two babies. “See you later.”

“Good luck with your catching up,” says Andrew, escorting Luisa to her little old Toyota station wagon. “We’ll see you at two. Or thereabouts.”

“You’re a prince,” she says, beaming at him as she gets into her car.

At three-thirty, while Owen and Lily are giving each other impromptu concerts on the piano in the living room, Andrew calls Luisa and gets her answering machine. He is more than a little peeved she took thereabouts to mean an hour and a half late, but when he hears her answering machine message, he’s glad he felt the need to call her.

She sings in her gorgeous voice, “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather,” and follows those words by saying, “but I do know I want to talk to you, so please leave a message and I’ll call you back.”

Andrew saunters into the living room, waits for Owen to finish his improvised piano piece, joins Lily in applauding and asks, “Is your mom a singer, Lily?”

“Yeah,” she says, taking Owen’s place at the piano. “I am, too.”

When Luisa finally shows up at 4:15, Andrew is too angry to accept her apology and she bursts into tears as she leaves with Lily.

“Papa?” asks Owen, watching the little station wagon drive away. “Why was Lily’s mother crying?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, still seething.

“Can we go to Cookie’s for pizza?” asks Owen, smiling hopefully at his father. “With Lily and her mother?”

“I think you’ve seen enough of Lily for one day,” says Andrew, fixing himself against the idea of asking Lily and Luisa to join them for pizza.

“What do you mean?” says Owen, frowning. “We weren’t tired of each other.”

Andrew closes his eyes and breathes deeply to calm himself.

“Please Papa?” says Owen, taking Andrew’s hand. “Can we ask them to come with us?”

“Okay,” says Andrew, opening his eyes. “I’ll call and see.”

He leaves a message on Luisa’s machine and she calls back fifteen minutes later. “We’d love to meet you at Cookie’s,” she says breathlessly. “At six?”

“Six,” he says, resisting his impulse to add and don’t be late.

Andrew and Owen arrive at Cookie’s at ten minutes past six, the place jammed as always on a Saturday night, the din fantastic. Luisa and Lily are already there, Lily wearing a pretty white dress with red polka dots, Luisa wearing a beautiful turquoise shirt and a long black skirt and looking fabulous.

“We’re under-dressed,” says Andrew, sitting beside Luisa in the booth—Owen and Lily on booster seats across from them.

“You look fine,” says Luisa, watching his face. “Are you still mad at me?”

“About what?” says Andrew, studying the menu.

“Oh good,” she says, smiling. “I’m dying for a beer. Want to split a pitcher?”

Along with their extra large deluxe vegetable pizza with extra mushrooms, the children have lemonade and the grownups enjoy their beer.

 “So tell me how you came to be the renowned chef of The Crossroads,” says Andrew, enjoying Luisa’s company. “Spare no details.”

“I thought you might ask me something like that,” says Luisa, smiling shyly. “So I rehearsed my answer. The first part of it anyway.”

“How prescient of you,” he says, giving her his full attention after confirming that Owen is happily devouring his third piece of pizza.

“I was born in Toronto,” she says, exchanging smiles with her daughter. “My mother, who died seven years ago, was part-Chippewa, part-French Quebecois, and she was a fantastic cook. She worked in a hotel kitchen and had a brief liaison with a man from Cuba. He was an engineer working on a dam north of the city and was staying in the hotel where my mother worked. He was unaware he had conceived a child with her until she wrote to him in Cuba, and once he knew, he sent her money every few months for as long as I lived at home, which was until I was sixteen.”

“Papa?” says Owen, politely interrupting. “Can we go look at the fish?”

“Can we, Mama?” asks Lily, nodding hopefully.

When the children are safely stationed at the big aquarium and gazing in wonder at the neon tetras and swordtails and goldfish, Luisa continues her story.

“I started working in restaurants when I was thirteen,” she says, nodding in thanks as Andrew pours her a second glass of beer, “and I’d been playing piano and singing since I was a little kid, so… to make a very long story short, my life until I had Lily was always some combination of singing and working in restaurants. And now my life is entirely restaurant work and taking care of Lily, though we do sing together and I’m teaching her to play the piano.”

“And Lily’s father? Where is he?”

“He was a guitarist I used to perform with,” she says softly. “And after a few years of successfully resisting his advances, one night I didn’t resist and Lily was made, though I didn’t want to believe I was pregnant until I was almost three months along, and by then her father had moved to Seattle.”

“Did you tell him you were pregnant?”

“No, because I was planning to get an abortion. But then I had a vivid dream in which my mother came to me and begged me to keep the child, so I did and named her Lily after my mother. And then when Lily was two, I decided to contact her father and tell him, partly because I needed money and partly because I thought he should know, and that’s when I found out he had committed suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression.”

The children return from watching the fish, ice cream is ordered, and Luisa asks Andrew, “So your wife is a choreographer and you are a carpenter. How did you meet?”

“At a party in Montreal,” says Andrew, remembering the moment he met Kiki—love at first sight—at the height of his success.

“Were you living in Montreal?”

“No, but Kiki was. She grew up there.”

“So what were you doing there?”

“Oh… visiting friends,” he says, in no mood to rehash the rise and fall of his writing career.

She arches her eyebrow. “Why don’t I believe you?”

“I don’t know,” he says, caught off guard. “Why don’t you?”

“Because you looked away when you answered. As if you were ashamed to tell me.”

“Ashamed,” says Andrew, considering that as he finishes his third glass of beer. “Yeah maybe I am a little, though not about why I was in Montreal.” He makes a disparaging face. “It’s a long boring story.”

“I’m sure it’s not boring,” she says, splitting the last of the beer with him. “Maybe next time you’ll tell me.”

“Next play date?” he says, liking her very much.

“Yeah,” she says, liking him very much, too. “Next play date.”

That night, after Owen falls asleep during the bedtime story, Andrew sits at the kitchen table with the intention of writing a letter to Jason Moreau, the director of the Montreal production of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, a play based on two of Andrew’s short stories that was a resounding success nine years ago and helped launch Andrew’s writing career.

But instead of a letter to Jason, out comes a story about a man and his young son who spend a week at the beach one summer in an old falling down house, and the fascinating people and animals and birds and curious conundrums they encounter there.

He writes for five hours without stopping, uses up two Bic pens and most of the ink in a third, and finishes the seventy-page opus at one in the morning barely aware of what he has written.

After breakfast the next day, Andrew walks with Owen to Scott and Felicia’s house, and while Owen and Scott build towers of wooden blocks in the living room, Andrew has coffee with Cal and Terry in the kitchen—Cal a strapping fellow with curly black hair who has known Andrew since they were in high school together in California, Terry a pretty redhead who fell in love with Cal the day after he got to Canada seventeen years ago.

“What news of Kiki?” asks Cal, who is a professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University, his specialties Ethics, Skepticism, and Socrates.

“She’ll be home in a couple weeks,” says Andrew, weary from his long night of writing. “We spoke a few days ago and she said everything was going gangbusters and she loves New York and misses us, but she’s glad she’s doing this, and… like that.”

“How long will she be home for?” asks Terry, a fine art photographer who makes most of her money shooting weddings.

“Little less than three weeks,” says Andrew, smiling bravely. “And then she’s off to LA for seven weeks.”

“You gonna take some time off while she’s home?” asks Cal, who dearly loves Andrew and worries about him.

“No. She’ll be working seven days a week on the new dances for LA, so there’s no point in my taking time off.” He bounces his eyebrows. “But guess what?”

“You started writing again,” says Terry, nodding excitedly.

“How did you know?” asks Andrew, laughing.

“I can hear it in your voice,” she says, getting up to make a fresh pot of coffee. “What are you writing? A play?”

“A story,” says Andrew, having yet to read what he wrote last night. “First thing I’ve written in… God… three years.” He frowns at Terry. “What about my voice is so different?”

“You seem calmer,” says Cal, nodding assuredly. “Happier.”

“You sound like you again,” says Terry, smiling fondly at him. “The old sweet you.”

Leaving Owen to play with Scott for the day, Andrew returns home and sits on the living room sofa reading the seventy pages he wrote last night.

When he finishes, he takes a deep breath and reads the whole thing again.

Now he gets up and goes out into the garden and lifts his arms to the sky and says, “Thank you. Thank you for coming back to me.”

That night Andrew writes for another four hours and produces another fifty pages. Again he has only a vague notion of what he’s writing, but he is filled with joy to be the conduit for whatever so urgently wants to come through.

Monday night, after a long day of roofing the beach house, Andrew reads the pages he wrote last night, and is again filled with gratitude for the story he has wrought.

Now he takes up his pen and writes for another three hours.

Tuesday night, pleased with the previous night’s creation, he finds the flow of words has ceased, so he takes up his guitar and plays a lovely pattern of chords he has never played before, and after playing the pattern a dozen times, he sets down his guitar and writes a chorus and four verses as if copying them from a page hanging in the air before him.

Now he plays the pattern of chords and sings the words, and loves the song more than any song he’s ever written.

Wednesday night, no words come, nor music, so he wanders into the kitchen to put a kettle on for tea and thinks I should call Luisa and set up a play date for Saturday or Sunday and the phone rings and it’s Luisa.

“I was just thinking of calling you,” he says, sitting down at the counter.

“Really?” she says, smiling into the phone. “Why were you thinking of calling me?”

“Well… to set up a play date for Owen and Lily.”

“Saturday or Sunday?” she says, her voice a salve for his lonely heart. “Either or both work for us.”

“Then Saturday,” he says, picking up a pen and writing on the notepad he keeps by the phone they called each other simultaneously and each got a busy signal. “You want to come here again or…”

“Yeah we like your place much better than ours. And this time I’ll stick around and we can have a visit.”

“Oh good, and I can tell you what I was doing in Montreal when I met my wife.”

“And I can tell you my Montreal story,” she says, her kettle whistling in the background. “When I was singing with a band from hell. Shall we do ten o’clock again?”

“Perfect,” he says, his kettle whistling, too.

The date made, Andrew brews a cup of chamomile tea, fetches his notebook, takes up his pen, and writes like a madman until well after midnight.

Saturday is a marvelous and scary day for Andrew, his five hours with Luisa confirming what he already knew but dared not admit: she is undoubtedly the inspiration for the best stories he’s ever written and the best song he’s ever composed, and most terrifying of all, he’s in love with her and she with him.

Yet neither of them makes the slightest attempt to seduce the other, and at visit’s end they both honestly express how happy they are to have found a new friend.

By the time Kiki arrives home from New York in early May, Andrew has completed and rewritten eleven long short stories, composed four new songs, and written two drafts of a play based on the longest of the new stories entitled Their Summer Holiday.

After a weekend of family fun, Kiki gets to work on her new dances, Andrew resumes his carpentry gig, Owen goes to preschool for six hours every day, and everything seems to be fine.

A Saturday play date is arranged for Lily and Owen, Luisa brings Lily over for the day, and Kiki and Luisa immediately hit it off, though a few minutes into the play date Kiki has to take a call from her producer in Los Angeles and Luisa has to hurry away to The Crossroads to fill in for the weekend lunch chef, and Andrew is left to supervise the children.

Walking with Owen and Lily in the nearby woods, Andrew thinks about Kiki leaving again in two weeks, and he is overcome with sorrow.

On a Saturday night two days before Kiki departs for Los Angeles, Andrew and Kiki throw a small party. Cal and Terry bring Felicia and Scott, and Luisa comes with Lily. The five dancers Kiki has been employing to help refine her new dances come with their partners, and Andrew’s old pal Joe Ganz and his wife Melinda come—Joe the editor and Melinda the art director of the free weekly The Weekly Blitz in which Andrew first published the seventeen short stories that eventually became his first and most successful book The Draft Dodger and other fables.

After much eating and drinking, the party goers move en masse to Kiki’s studio where Kiki and her five dancers perform several minutes of the two dances destined for the stage in Los Angeles—a thrilling display of strong limber people doing amazing things with their bodies in time to thunderous polyrhythmic music.

Following the dance show, everyone returns to the house where Joe Ganz requests Andrew read one of his new stories. Andrew is reluctant to comply until Kiki nods encouragingly, and Andrew says to the assembled host, “Well… the new stories I’ve been writing are all quite long, but I think the first ten pages of one of them makes a good little story within the larger story, so… I’ll fetch those pages.”

Everyone finds a seat and Andrew stands on the hearth and says, “So this is the first part of a story I’m calling Their Summer Holiday.”

Now for the first time since the collapse of his writing career, he reads to an audience and feels again the thrill of deeply connecting with others through his words, his final sentence eliciting loud applause and shouts of Bravo and Joe Ganz saying, “Oh please let me run that, Andrew. It’s so fucking good.”

Two days later, Kiki flies to Los Angeles, and this time her going barely disturbs Owen, perhaps because he has adjusted to the new reality of her coming and going, and no longer fears she might never return.

But for Andrew this is the hardest time yet because he knows that after seven long weeks without her, she will return for a scant few days before flying to London where she will stay for two months before returning for a few weeks before going to Montreal for seven weeks, and then to Los Angeles again, and New York again… on and on for another year and a half.

With her every success—and Kiki’s dances are most successful—more offers come, and when Kiki returns in mid-September after her two months in London she proposes they expand the two-year plan to a four-year plan.

“Are you serious?” says Andrew, aghast at what she’s suggesting. “What about Owen? What about me? We’re in the prime of our lives. Our child is about to turn five. Is this what you want? To live apart from us for another three years?”

“What I want,” she says, taking a deep breath, “is a divorce. And for you to have custody of Owen.”

They are standing in the kitchen when she says this to him—Owen and Scott in the driveway racing around on scooters.

“Divorce?” he says, stunned. “What are you talking about?”

“I met someone, Andrew,” she says, trying not to cry. “I never in a million years thought something like this would happen. I never ever wanted to hurt you. But it happened. And now I need to go this other way. I’m so sorry.”

“You need to go this other way,” he says, sitting down to keep from falling over. “Is that what you’re gonna say to Owen?”

“I will explain it to him,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Oh good for you, Kiki,” he says bitterly. “And of course he’ll understand because he’s four-years-old and a four-year-old can easily understand why his mother would abandon him because she needs to go this other way.”

Kiki leaves the kitchen.

Andrew bows his head and closes his eyes and hopes to wake from this terrible dream.

At the end of September, two weeks after Kiki asked for a divorce, she oversees the loading of her belongings into a moving truck to be driven to her new partner’s house in Los Angeles while she flies to Montreal. Her new partner, a composer of music for movies and television, is in his early sixties and has five grown children from his three previous marriages.

In the wake of Kiki’s going, Andrew takes a month off from carpentry work to be available to Owen all day every day, and during this break from work he has the idea to convert Kiki’s dance studio into a two-bedroom rental unit.

To pay for the conversion, he takes out a fifty-thousand-dollar loan on his house and hires two excellent carpenters to help him do the work, which involves adding a kitchen, expanding the bathroom, and putting up internal walls to make two bedrooms and a living room out of the big open space.

A month into the transformation of the dance studio, a few days after Thanksgiving, Andrew comes within a tiny fraction of an inch of cutting off his thumb with a circular saw, and this terrifying brush with disaster makes him realize he needs to take time off from carpentry and get some therapy.

In order to afford this, he does something he has never done before. He calls his parents and asks them for a loan of five thousand dollars. They are happy to oblige and do him one better by volunteering to drive up from California and stay with him and Owen for a month or two.

“Makes sense to me,” says his father Zeke, seventy-four and recently retired after fifty years of landscaping. “Why else did I stop working?”

On a rainy afternoon, two days before Christmas, his parents having arrived in early December, Andrew gets home from a revelation-filled three-hour session with his psychotherapist and finds his mother Gloria in the kitchen making supper with Luisa: spaghetti with a seafood sauce, sautéed vegetables, and a big green salad.

“Who knew she was a gourmet cook?” says Gloria, pointing at Luisa. “I invite her to stay for dinner and she turns out to be Julia Child.”

“Did we have a play date today?” says Andrew, sitting down at the counter and gazing at Luisa. “I completely forgot. I’m so sorry.”

“We didn’t have a play date,” says Luisa, filling a glass with cold beer and setting it before Andrew. “But your mother called and said Owen was pining for Lily, so we came over and… is this okay we’re here?”

“Of course,” says Andrew, downing the beer in a single gulp. “I’m delighted to see you. I never get to see you enough. And how did you know I was pining for a beer?”

“Maybe she’s clairvoyant,” says Gloria, stirring the noodles in a big bubbling pot. “And maybe you don’t see her enough because you don’t call her enough. Not that it’s any of my business.”

“I would have called her enough, Mom,” says Andrew, taking on his mother’s New York Jewish accent, “but I’ve been very busy having a nervous breakdown. So sue me.”

After supper, while Gloria and Zeke play Go Fish and Slap Jack with Owen and Lily in the living room, Andrew and Luisa do the dishes together, Andrew washing, Luisa drying.

“So how have you been?” asks Andrew, smiling at Luisa. “You never stay to visit anymore when you bring Lily for a play date, so now I’m hopelessly out of touch with you. Have you fallen in love with someone?”

“Yeah,” she says, drying a dish. “I fell in love with a married man.”

“Oh Luisa, don’t do that,” he says, wincing.

“Don’t do what?” she asks, stopping her drying.

“Have an affair with a married man. You’re fantastic. You’re beautiful and smart and talented and… there are thousands and millions of unmarried men who would love to be…”

“Who said I was having an affair with him? I said I’m in love with him. And until recently I have been studiously avoiding him because he was married and I didn’t want to… you know… be a home wrecker.”

“Oh,” he says, dropping the scrubber into the soapy water. “I see.”

“You do?” she asks, setting the plate down.

“I do,” he says, opening his arms to her. “Now I see.”

They make love for the first time in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1987, hoping not to wake anyone with their ecstatic communion.

But Gloria wakes and rejoices her son has found such a lovely partner.

Luisa and Lily move in with Andrew and Owen at the end of February just as Andrew completes his work on the rental unit and rents it to Chas and Betty Lowenstein, retired schoolteachers who become instant grandparents for Lily and Owen.

On a rainy Friday morning in early April, the kids at kindergarten, Luisa cooking at The Crossroads, Andrew is sitting at the kitchen table writing a new story when the phone rings.

Feeling certain this is Luisa calling to say she loves him, he picks up the phone and says, “I love you.”

“How sweet of you, Andrew,” says a familiar voice he doesn’t immediately recognize. “How did you know it was me?”

“Penelope?” he says, wondering if she still thinks of herself as his agent. “How nice to hear from you. I’ve been meaning to call you and see if you got the stories I sent. And the play.”

“I not only got them,” she says, pausing portentously, “we have an offer from Smith & Harte to publish the collection. And Jason has arranged for a staged reading of your play at the Ovid and possibly a production if the reading goes well.”

“We have an offer to publish my book?” says Andrew, trembling. “What about the data base that says I don’t sell?”

“Oh Smith & Harte don’t care about that,” she says, laughing. “They’re now the play thing of the wife of some incredibly rich computer person, and she’s desperate to publish your stories. They’re offering a ten-thousand-dollar advance, which is less than I’d hoped for, but that horrid database is a problem with most of the other houses so I think we should take their offer and hope for good reviews and a nice fat paperback sale. Yes?”

“Yes,” says Andrew, his tears flowing.

“She wants to fly you out here to meet you and introduce you to your editor, a young woman named Candace Wollitzer who looks like she’s not yet out of high school, but apparently she’s a huge fan of Draft Dodger and says Extremely Silly Ariel changed her life. You can stay with us or with Jason. He’s so looking forward to seeing you. He’s been terribly depressed since Freddie died, and your new play has revived him. Oh Andrew, I’m so glad you’re getting another chance. I think these new stories are your best yet.”

“I’ll be coming with my new partner Luisa and her daughter Lily and my son Owen,” says Andrew, looking out the window as the sun cracks the overlay of gray clouds and sends a heavenly beam to bathe the room in golden light.

fin

song

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The Same Woman (Carol)

Several times in the course of his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he has known before. And though the woman never recognizes Andrew as anyone she knows, she is always drawn to him.

He met her for the first time in elementary school in 1955, and again in the summer of 1962 when they were both thirteen. Then in 1966 he was in a relationship with her until she left him for someone else. And from 1970 to 1973, he lived with her in British Columbia before she moved to Los Angeles.

In 1978, Andrew is twenty-nine and living ten miles north of Vancouver in a spacious two-bedroom house he built on three acres not far from the ocean. He recently became a Canadian citizen and has been in a relationship with a woman named Leslie Revere for seven months.

Leslie is thirty-eight, an aspiring playwright who makes her living as a secretary in the biggest talent agency in Vancouver. She just started dying her brown hair auburn and is determined to get her weight down to 125, though she looks fine at 140. Desperate to get out of the tiny apartment she shares with another woman in a noisy part of the city, she wants to marry Andrew, get pregnant, and quit her job.

Andrew, however, does not want to marry Leslie. They were good friends before they became lovers, but now whenever they spend more than a few hours together, he feels invaded and overwhelmed and creatively squished.

So why doesn’t he end his relationship with her?

Because two years ago she introduced him to the playwright Mark Kane who adapted two of Andrew’s short stories, Ariel Gets Wise and Extremely Silly, into a play that had a critically-acclaimed run at the Kleindorf Theatre in Vancouver and was subsequently staged with great success in Montreal, which success led to Andrew’s first book, a collection of stories entitled The Draft Dodger and other fables being published in Canada and England, and soon to be published in America.

Thus for the first time in his life, he has enough money to devote himself entirely to his writing and music, yet he cannot write or compose anything because he is consumed with the dilemma of how to end his relationship with Leslie without seriously damaging his new connections in the theatre world, a world he greatly enjoys being part of.

Inspired by the success of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, Andrew has started writing plays along with his short stories, Mark Kane is nearly finished with a new play combining two more of Andrew’s short stories, and several eminent Canadian directors are eagerly awaiting anything Andrew writes.

But what makes Andrew’s dilemma even more difficult is that Leslie has written twenty plays over the last fifteen years, none of which have been produced despite her tireless efforts to convince actors and directors and theatre companies to take them on. This makes Andrew’s success both a source of pride for Leslie because she introduced him to Mark, and a thorn in her side because Andrew was so instantly and hugely successful in contrast to her many years of failing to have a play produced.

To get some distance from Leslie, Andrew decides to fly to Montreal to meet his literary and theatrical agent Penelope Goldstein in-person for the first time, and to visit Jason Moreau, the director of the Montreal production of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise.

Despite Andrew arranging his trip on the spur of the moment, Penelope says she’ll throw a party for him at her townhouse in Griffintown, and Jason says he’ll throw a party for Andrew at his beautiful old house in Little Italy.

Penelope and her partner Judith Perlman, also a literary agent, insist Andrew stay in their guest room for the night of the party, and Jason and his partner Frederick Holmes, a choreographer, insist Andrew stay in their guest room for as long as he likes.

Leslie is terribly upset Andrew didn’t invite her to accompany him to Montreal, but she hides her displeasure for fear of slowing the momentum she hopes will carry them into marriage and pregnancy, not necessarily in that order.

Andrew’s best friend Cal drives Andrew to the Vancouver airport on a cloudy morning in May. Cal is about to get his PhD in Philosophy from Simon Fraser University and lives with his wife Terry, a photographer, and their two-year-old daughter Felicia in a house not far from Andrew’s. Cal and Andrew were pals in high school in Redwood City, California, roomies at UC Santa Cruz, and came to Canada together in 1970 so Cal could evade the draft and not go to Vietnam. Andrew then fell in love with a Canadian woman named Yvonne and ended up staying in Canada, too.

“I’m surprised Leslie’s not going with you,” says Cal, glancing at Andrew as they drive through a sudden downpour. “She lives for this kind of thing, doesn’t she?”

“I didn’t invite her,” says Andrew, testily. “I don’t want to be in a relationship with her anymore but I can’t seem to work up the courage to tell her. So I thought I’d run away for a week or two and see if that might empower me to break her heart.”

“You don’t owe her anything,” says Cal, giving Andrew a doleful look. “She didn’t write your stories. She introduced you to Mark who was already a big fan from reading you in The Weekly Blitz. You went to a party with her and she knew Mark because she knows everybody and he took things from there. Right?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Cal,” says Andrew, shrugging painfully. “She was my great advocate and…”

“Oh bullshit,” says Cal, tired of listening to Andrew rationalize staying in a relationship with someone he doesn’t love. “You’re just afraid she’s gonna badmouth you to her theatre friends if you break up with her. So what if she does? Your success comes from what you write, not from who you know.”

“I wish that were true,” says Andrew, wistfully. “But it’s not. My stories helped me get into the castle, but now that I’m in, believe me, it is all about who you know among the chosen few. And if the chosen few don’t like you, it doesn’t matter if you’re the greatest playwright in the world, they won’t have anything to do with you.”

Cal grimaces. “But your own experience disproves that. Your stories won the day, not Leslie.”

“If not for Leslie, I would never have gone to the party where I met Mark.” He gazes out at the rain. “No. They lowered the drawbridge for her and let me in because I was with her.”

“I’ll never believe that,” says Cal, shaking his head. “I will always believe you flew over the ramparts on the magic carpet of your wonderful stories.”

“Which is one of the many reasons I love you,” says Andrew, smiling fondly at his dear friend.

The truth is Penelope and Judith love Andrew’s short stories because they are great stories. And they love the play that sprang from two of those stories because Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise is a great play. They very much hope Andrew’s success continues, but they have no expectations it will.

Penelope and Judith attained their success as agents by working incredibly hard for decades, and though they know as well as anyone about the potency of personal connections in the publishing business and the theatre world, they are of a generation of agents—both of them in their fifties—who represent uniquely talented writers regardless of who those writers know or don’t know.

Forty people come to the party at Penelope and Judith’s townhouse, mostly middle-aged editors and middle-aged writers, a few younger editors and younger writers, and a handful of theatre people. Penelope and Judith take turns introducing people to Andrew, and eventually he meets everyone. He is praised many times for his story collection and for Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, eats his fill of fabulous hors d’oeuvres, and is beginning to long for the end of the party when a couple of latecomers arrive, the man middle-aged and heavyset, the woman Andrew’s age and the doppelgänger of Andrew’s last great love Yvonne, a beautiful woman with olive skin and lustrous brown hair.   

They are Larry and Carol Savard, Larry a successful actor, Carol a novelist.

“I am in awe of your stories,” says Carol, who Andrew immediately recognizes as another manifestation of his soul mate. “I’ve read The Draft Dodger and other fables three times and I’m about to start again.”

“Oh I’m so glad,” says Andrew, looking into her eyes. “I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.”

“There’s talk of a movie being made of your Silly Whosit play,” says Larry, surveying the room. “My agent says most likely made-for-television, but possibly a cute little feature. I’d love to play the silly girl’s father. Keep me in mind.”

“I will,” says Andrew, laughing, “though this is the first I’ve heard…”

“Hate to cut you off,” says Larry, half-snarling and half-smiling, “but I must say hello to Jim and Kathy. Haven’t seen them in ages,” and off he goes leaving Andrew alone with Carol.

“Did I say something wrong?” asks Andrew, looking at Carol.

“No, that’s just Larry,” she says, smiling bravely. “A busy bee visiting many flowers.”

“Ah,” says Andrew, not really understanding what she means.

“So how are you handling your sudden success?” she asks, sounding as if she really wants to know.

“Well…” he says, deciding not to tell her she could be the twin of Yvonne who was the twin of Laura and so on back through the great loves of his life, “I haven’t made tons of money from the play or the book so my life hasn’t really changed much except I get lots more mail and I don’t have to pay my bills with carpentry work for the next year or so.”

“Or maybe never again,” she says, her voice and Quebecois accent identical to Yvonne’s. “I think there are at least three really good movies in your collection and before long you’ll be writing the screenplays.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” says Andrew, bowing to her.

“Are you Jewish?” asks Carol, smiling quizzically.

“I am descended from Jews but not raised in the religion,” he says, returning her quizzical smile. “Why do you ask?”

“My Jewish grandmother says from your lips to God’s ears all the time. And so does my mother who gave your book to everyone she knows for Hanukkah and Christmas.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t read your novels,” he says, amazed by how much she reminds him of Yvonne. “But I will. What are their titles?”

“Oh I’m not published yet,” she says, blushing. “Getting closer, according to Judith, but no takers yet.”

“What are your novels about if I may ask?”

“Love,” she says simply. “And the myriad impossibilities therein and thereof. I think you’d find them kin to your stories only much more convoluted, which is probably the problem.”

“I’ve never written a novel,” he says, sensing her sadness. “Started a few but they either turned into short stories or trailed off into nothingness.”

“Oh yes,” she says, laughing a beautiful hearty laugh. “I know all about things trailing off into nothingness. And now if you’ll excuse me, I better go be with Larry before he becomes apoplectic with jealousy.”

“Of course,” says Andrew, looking across the room to where Larry is loudly telling a man and a woman a story involving lots of gesturing. “A pleasure to meet you.”

When the last guest has gone home, Penelope and Judith and Andrew sit in the living room sipping brandy from crystal snifters and Judith asks Andrew, “Did you get a chance to talk to Carol Savard?”

“Briefly,” he says, relieved the party is over. “She seemed very nice.”

“She’s a doll,” says Judith, the child of Yiddish-speaking parents. “And a very good writer, too. She was a waitress before she married Larry. Shared an apartment with two other women and wrote like mad on her days off. And then… oh never mind.”

“Tell, darling,” says Penelope, pouring more brandy into Judith’s snifter. “Andrew won’t gossip. Will you, dear?”

“Never,” says Andrew, smiling mischievously. “Though I might put this in a story. Well-disguised of course.”

Judith sips her brandy and says, “She’s hasn’t written a word since she married Larry two years ago. And I know I could sell her novel if she’d do one more draft.”

“I wonder why she doesn’t,” says Andrew, in his tiredness confusing Carol with Yvonne who was a prolific songwriter.

“Married the wrong man,” says Penelope, swirling her brandy. “Scared away her muse.”

“I remember the day she told me they were getting married,” says Judith, sighing. “We were having lunch and strategizing about who I should send her novel to next, and she said, ‘After I’m married I’ll have lots of time to write.’ But then the problem of not enough time became the problem of too much Larry.”

“Always tricky when we make a pact with the devil,” says Penelope, wagging her finger at Andrew. “Don’t you do that. Promise me.”

The next day, a Thursday, Penelope and Judith take Andrew to breakfast at an eatery around the corner from their townhouse, and while they wait for their food to arrive, Judith says, “We would ask you to stay on with us, but we have a dear friend coming in from England today. But next time you come to Montreal you must stay with us for at least a week.”

“You’ll love your room at Jason and Freddie’s,” says Penelope, signaling their waitress for more coffee. “We know their house very well because we were each other’s beards for twenty years until we all came out two years ago.”

“Beards,” says Andrew, frowning. “You mean…”

“We posed as heterosexual partners,” says Judith, sipping her coffee. “I with Freddie, Penelope with Jason. But now, thank God, we don’t have to do that anymore.”

“Much to our surprise, coming out didn’t hurt our business at all,” says Penelope, waving to an acquaintance being seated at a nearby table. “Or Freddie’s. Dance, you know. But Jason can’t get television gigs anymore. No one cares in the theatre world, of course, but television and movies are way behind.”

“You can’t be gay and direct television shows and movies?” asks Andrew, finding that hard to believe.

“It’s not about being gay,” says Judith, enjoying Andrew’s innocence. “It’s about being openly gay.”

The party Jason and Freddie throw for Andrew on Saturday night is very different than the party at Judith and Penelope’s. The music is louder, the air is heavily scented with cannabis smoke, and many of the hundred people filling the house and spilling out into the backyard are in their twenties and thirties. There are dancers and actors and musicians and theatre people, many of them making no secret of their homosexuality and only a handful of them interested in meeting Andrew.

Freddie, a handsome fellow in his early sixties, notorious in his youth for supposed liaisons with famous ballerinas, introduces Andrew to a striking young woman named Kiki—long black hair, carob brown skin, wearing a black skirt and red sandals and a green T-shirt with juxtaposition of elements in tension writ in white letters across the chest—a former ballerina now a modern dancer, her mother Afro-Caribbean, her father Chinese.

Kiki and Andrew take to each other instantly and Kiki suggests they gravitate away from the loud music to the backyard where they stand under a lantern suspended from the branch of a maple tree talking about Montreal and Vancouver and finding each other splendid.

And Andrew thinks I would love to have a child with this woman.

He has never had such a thought about any woman he’s ever known, and he wonders why he never wanted children with Yvonne or Laura, both of whom he loved with all his heart.

“Are you free at all in the next few days?” he asks, holding out his hand to Kiki. “I’d love to see you again.”

“Yeah, I’m free,” she says, smiling brightly and giving his hand a squeeze. “We could have lunch tomorrow. Or supper. Or…”

“Let’s start with lunch,” he says, feeling a gush of joy.

“I’ll give you my number,” she says, rummaging in her handbag and bringing forth a notebook and pen. “How long are you here for?”

“Not sure,” he says, imagining moving to Montreal and courting Kiki. “Jason and Freddie said I could stay with them as long as I want to, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”

“Tell me again how you know them,” she says, tearing a page from her notebook and handing it to him. “I was too busy gawking at you when Freddie introduced us. Are you an actor?”

“No, I’m a writer. I wrote a couple stories that were made into a play Jason directed.”

“Oh my God,” says Kiki, putting a hand on her heart. “Did you write Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise?”

“I wrote the two stories it was based on, but I didn’t write the play.”

“I went four times,” says Kiki, putting her other hand atop the hand on her heart. “Gave me the courage to end a very bad relationship I was stuck in. Thank you so much for writing those stories.”

“You’re welcome,” he says, finding her impossibly lovely.

At which moment, Carol Savard emerges from the house and makes a beeline for Andrew and Kiki.

“Andrew,” says Carol, as she comes near. “We met at Penelope and Judith’s party a few nights ago.”

“I remember,” he says, surprised to see her again. “Do you know Kiki?”

“No,” says Carol, shaking Kiki’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” says Kiki, sensing Carol’s urgency to speak to Andrew. “I have to go, Andrew. Call me in the morning?”

“I will,” says Andrew, exchanging quick kisses with her.

Alone with Carol, Andrew asks, “Larry here?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “He’s in England for three weeks. Making a movie.”

“Ah,” says Andrew, nodding. “So you have lots of time to write.”

“Yes,” she says, clearing her throat. “I’m wondering if… I’m wondering if you’d like to spend some time with me. I felt a very strong connection with you at the party and…” She starts to cry. “I’m not talking about having sex. I just need to talk to you.”

“I’d be happy to spend some time with you,” he says, feeling the deep and inexplicable bond he has with her.

At breakfast the next morning with Freddy and Jason in their sunny kitchen, Jason opines, “How could anyone be married to Larry Savard?”

“No one can be,” says Freddie, shaking his head. “He was married four times before Carol and none of them stuck for more than a few years.”

“Let me rephrase that,” says Jason, striking a thoughtful pose. “Why anyone would want to marry him, I can’t imagine. And don’t say for money. No amount of money would be enough to live with that horrible narcissist.”

“We were stunned when Carol told us she was marrying him,” says Freddie, grimacing. “We frequently dine at Baskerville’s, the restaurant where Carol used to be the star waiter. We always requested her and I often said to Jason if I liked sleeping with women I would marry her in a minute if she would have me. So sweet and kind and funny and smart and very sexy. Don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” says Andrew, nodding. “Very.”

“Beware of her,” says Jason, pointing at Andrew. “You’ll fall in love and try to save her and stop writing. And I need you to write a new play for me. The sooner the better.”

“Speaking of narcissists,” says Freddie, laughing.

“I am not a narcissist,” says Jason, indignantly. “The world is dying for good plays and Andrew is one of the few people I know who can write them.” 

Kiki takes Andrew to lunch at a café a few blocks from Jason and Freddie’s house, their attraction to each other growing by leaps and bounds. For dessert they split a piece of pumpkin pie and share a cup of coffee, black, and Andrew presents Kiki with a signed copy of his book The Draft Dodger and other fables, to which Kiki responds by bringing forth a copy of his book she just bought.

“You can make this one to my mother,” she says, handing him the book. “She came to your play twice with me and she’s dying to meet you.”

“Do you ever get out to Vancouver?” he asks, gazing in wonder at her. “To dance?”

“I have gone there to dance,” she says, nodding. “And my sister lives there and we miss each other, so I try to go out there at least once a year.”

“Would you…” he says, but nothing more comes out.

“Visit you when I’m there?” she says, nodding. “Oh yeah. But what about tonight? My friend Juliet is singing with her trio at Honey Martin starting at nine. You’ll love her and probably want to marry her. I can come get you or we can meet there.”

“I have a supper date,” says Andrew, madly in love with her. “But I could meet you there at ten.”

“Perfect,” she says, smiling rapturously. “I’ll save you a seat.”

Before Andrew leaves Jason and Freddie’s to meet Carol for supper, he and Jason have tea in the living room.

“I was not kidding, Andrew,” says Jason, clearly distraught. “Larry Savard is famously violent, and I wish you wouldn’t have anything to do with Carol until she is long free of him. She’s probably afraid to leave him for fear he’ll kill her.”

“I’m just having supper with her,” says Andrew, attributing some of Jason’s upset to his tendency to exaggerate.

“Well make sure that’s all you do,” says Jason, emphatically. “Don’t even kiss her cheek.”

“But how would Larry know? He’s in England.”

“We know two of his ex-wives, and when they were married to him, whenever he went away he had them watched.”

“That’s crazy,” says Andrew, the back of his neck tingling.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” says Jason, throwing up his hands. “He’s crazy.”

In a quaint Italian restaurant, Andrew and Carol sit at a table with a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth and a candle stuck in a round-bottomed wine bottle covered with melted wax.

After a bit of friendly chitchat, Carol says, “I felt such a strong jolt of recognition when I met you. Not that you look like anybody I’ve ever known, but there was something about your voice and the way you listened to me. I can’t explain it except to say I felt I knew you and you knew me, and I thought if anyone could understand what I’m going through right now, you would. And I thought maybe you could… I don’t know, shed some light on my predicament or give me some advice.”

“I recognized you, too,” says Andrew, wondering if they are being watched. “And I feel a similar affinity with you. So please, tell me.”

“I wonder if we could go somewhere more private,” she says quietly.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he says, sipping his wine to moisten his very dry throat. “Jason told me your husband is famously jealous and famously violent and had his previous wives followed whenever he went out of town. And though I’d love to go somewhere more private to hear your story, to be honest with you I’m afraid to do that. I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize, though I can assure you no one followed me here. That happened a few times at the beginning of our marriage and when I found out he was paying people to spy on me, I told him if he ever did it again I would leave him. So he no longer does. And I understand why Jason and Freddie may think I’m afraid of him, but I’m not.”

“So what is your predicament?” asks Andrew, lowering his shoulders and breathing a sigh of relief.

“I haven’t been able to write anything since I married Larry. But if I leave him… he’ll kill himself.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“No,” she says, falling silent as their supper arrives.

When their waiter departs, Andrew asks, “If he didn’t tell you, how do you know?”

“How do we know anything?” she asks, locking eyes with him. “Why did you and I recognize each other?”

“We just do,” he says, nodding.

“Yes. And I have sat with Larry on many a night watching him drink himself into oblivion, knowing that if I leave him he will die.”

“So he does tell you. Maybe not in words, but with his thoughts and actions. And how is that not extortion? Emotional extortion.”

“What if it is?” she says, shrugging. “What would you do? Knowing if you end the relationship you would cause his death? And please don’t say you wouldn’t have gotten into the relationship in the first place. You don’t know that. You might have. And if you did, what would you do if you knew that leaving him would kill him?”

“I would tell him,” says Andrew, jabbing his fork into his spaghetti, “that I would help him find a good therapist and a good rehab clinic, and if he wouldn’t make the effort to heal, I would leave him.”

“Knowing he will kill himself,” she says, her eyes full of tears.

“What are the alternatives, Carol? Going on living in the hell you’re in? Killing your self? Never writing again? Sacrificing your life so he can go on drinking himself into oblivion every night while you watch? Wait for him to die of liver failure?”

“You would leave him,” she says, folding her arms. “And let him die.”

“They are not connected actions,” says Andrew, angrily. “He is choosing to die rather than trying to get well. And by leaving, you are choosing not to be present for his suicide.”

She sits back in her chair and muses for a long time.

Andrew eats his spaghetti, drinks his wine, and thinks Tomorrow I’m calling Yvonne and ending our relationship.

“Andrew?” says Carol, leaning forward in her chair.

“What?” he says, softening.

“Do you like living in Vancouver?”

“I do. I live in a house I built ten miles north of the city. Beautiful place. Good friends. Yeah, I love it.”

“Are you involved with anyone?”

“I’m just ending a relationship and hoping to start another,” he says, seeing no need to hide the truth from her. “Why do you ask?”

“Because if I leave Larry, I’d love to try being in a relationship with you.” She smiles shyly. “If you want to.”

He thinks of Kiki and how he loves her, and he says to Carol, “How about we write to each other and see where that takes us?”

“Okay,” she says, smiling bravely. “I’d love to be your pen pal.”

The next day, after a fabulous night with Kiki in the pub listening to her friend sing, Andrew calls Leslie and ends their relationship. She is most upset with him for breaking up with her by phone and not in-person, but by the end of their conversation she says she understands why he had to get away from her to work up the nerve to tell her.

“I can be terrifying, I know,” she says, laughing a little as she cries. “But I hope we’ll still be friends. I think you’re a great person, Andrew, a rare person, and I’d like to keep knowing you whether we sleep together or not.”

“I love being your friend,” he says sincerely. “I think you’re a rare person, too, and you have helped me in so many ways.”

“As you have helped me,” she says, weeping.

Andrew stays another two weeks in Montreal, a week with Jason and Freddie, a week with Kiki in the house she shares with her mother, her father no longer alive.

He makes the trip back to Vancouver by train rather than fly, which gives him five days of rolling across Canada to write and write and write, stories and poems and letters and dialogue flowing unabated from his liberated pen. 

In the spring of 1980, Andrew and Kiki wed in Montreal in Freddie and Jason’s backyard, Andrew’s parents and brother and sisters having made the long trek from California, Kiki’s mother and grandparents and sister on hand, Andrew’s best man Cal, of course, and Freddie giving the bride away.

Carol comes to the wedding with Judith and Penelope, for she and Andrew have become great friends via the postal service, her first novel Simply Love about to be published, her marriage to Larry a thing of the past, Larry still alive and about to wed again.

In a letter to Carol dated July 14, 1981, Andrew writes from Vancouver that Kiki is three months pregnant, they are adding another bedroom to their house, his second collection of short stories Suicide Notes From My Friends is selling very well, and his play Exactly Random will begin rehearsals next week, to open at the Kleindorf in September.

“I know I have tried to elucidate this to you before, Carol,” he writes, “but I will try to put the ineffable into words again because I am overwhelmed this morning by how deeply connected I feel to you, though deeply and connected are inadequate descriptors.

“I often feel you are here with us. We will be in the garden or making supper or walking on the beach, and I will be aware of you on a cellular level. Especially when I play music.

 “But the awareness of you is never intrusive. Your presence never impedes the flow of my music, never interferes with the flow of words onto the page. In fact, your spirit is a divine impetus. Dare I say you are my muse?

“Yes, Kiki inspires me. I write poems for her and passages in my stories and plays just for her, but she is outside of me, wonderfully so, whereas you are in my bones.

“Which is to say I think our souls were one soul incubating in the womb of God when by some miracle we divided into two halves and became twin souls loosed into the human swirl.”

fin

love song

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Self-Archaeology

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

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Magenta Queen

magenta-coverD1

Magenta cover

“There are two kinds of comedy.  One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

I recently completed my new novel Magenta and brought the book out in handsome coil-bound photocopies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered, available through my web site or by bumping into me in Mendocino and arranging an exchange.

Magenta is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California, the action centered in a bookstore, a luthier shop, and an old house on the headlands. Funny and serious and poetical, Magenta is both a romance and a journey of self-healing.

My web site synopsis of Magenta begins, “On his sixtieth birthday, Leonard Porter discovers that someone has taken his guitar case and left his beautiful old guitar unprotected in a moldy shed. Leonard has not seen his guitar in thirty-two years, and finding her free of her case causes him to react in a way that radically changes his life.”

The novel begins:

Where Have You Been?

During the first few minutes of their phone conversation—Leonard in California, Sam in New Hampshire—Leonard uses the words sudden and unexpected several times, but a little while later Sam says, “So, really, this wasn’t sudden or unexpected. It was inevitable.”

“Yes,” says Leonard, gazing out his living room window at the deer gathering on the meadow as they do at the close of each day—a big battle-scarred stag presiding over a harem of four does and two yearlings, one of those yearlings a promising buck. “How we stayed married for five years is…I don’t know.”

“You must not have been paying attention,” says Sam, who has a knack for cutting to the chase.

“I don’t think I’ve really been here to pay attention.”

“Where have you been?”

“Going through the motions,” says Leonard, his fit of outrage over. “I, robot.”

“I didn’t ask what you’ve been doing,” says Sam, quietly. “I asked where have you been?”

“The only certain knowledge is the inspired guess.” Henry Kitchell Webster

Our San Francisco Giants have recently fallen into a collective slump of epic proportions. As I write this, they are playing the San Diego Padres in San Diego, having just been shellacked by the front-running Dodgers. Alas, this second half of the season, no matter how well our starting pitchers start, no matter how fantastic Brandon Crawford plays shortstop, no matter if we are ahead by a run or two going into the late innings, we tend to lose.

A few blown saves ago, Jon Miller, the rarely hyperbolic Giants announcer, declared, “It defies logic how many games the Giants have blown in the ninth inning this season.” I don’t agree it defies logic so much as it reveals the undeniable truth that great teams have great bullpens, and our pen this year lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Many of us knew at the beginning of the season we needed a new closer, and when management did nothing to address that key inadequacy by the trade deadline, we feared our chances of making the playoffs were fading. That we are still in the hunt with only a handful of games left in the regular season verges on the miraculous.

Fortunately, baseball is just a game, Sergio Romo is now closing instead of Casilla, the apple crop this year is stupendous, and the waves keep rolling into Mendocino Bay.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Having written six novels in the last five years, I decided to change literary gears and write a play. So I went to my PLAY file on my computer to find an already-written play from which to copy the Play format into a new document. While perusing the titles, I saw one that made me do a double take. Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues. The date of the file was 2002, a few years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino.

I vaguely remembered what Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues was about, and also vaguely remembered sending the play to several impregnable theatre companies. But the one clear memory I had of this play was the response from a former actor turned psychoanalyst. “As implausible as your central idea may seem, such a sudden and dramatic healing of a wounded psyche can occur when the primal truth is revealed.”

So I read the play again to see what my psychoanalyst friend was referring to, found the play compelling, and decided to rewrite the opus. Now, after several weeks of work, I am soon to make copies of Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues and send them forth.

“There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.” Robert Byrne

I was recently tempted to end my two-month fast from imbibing news of the outside world. If you haven’t tried such a fast, I highly recommend it. My chronic anxiety disappeared, my sleep improved, and I’m much less cranky.

However, a friend recently dropped by, and before I could inform him of my news fast, he informed me Hillary is only leading Trump by four percentage points in recent national polls, riots have broken out in response to more police killings of unarmed black people, and the Great Barrier Reef is dying fast. And though I somehow already knew these things, I decided to check them out on my computer. However, my first glimpse of Trump’s maniacal visage and Hillary’s hysterical grin inspired me to resume my fast, and I am once more enjoying the disconnect—radio broadcasts of Giants games my one ongoing link to mass media.

Also thankfully, much fascinating news is to be gleaned from talking to Marcia, reading books about neurobiology, walking to town, tending the garden, shooting hoops, communing with friends, hauling firewood, picking apples, playing the piano, blabbing with folks at the post office, and unleashing the imagination onto the unsuspecting page.

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My Big Trip, Part Three

Le Moulin de la Gallete by Pablo Picasso

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare

My friend Scott made a good part of his living as a rehearsal pianist for musicals running on Broadway in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and he had all sorts of theater connections that gave him free admission to virtually any show on or off Broadway, a privilege he invited me to take advantage of multiple times on each of the ten trips I made to New York between 1976 and 1983.

In 1976, the reigning Broadway sensation was the play Equus with Anthony Perkins having just taken over the leading role from Richard Burton who had taken over the role from Anthony Hopkins. Scott knew the stage manager of the theater where the play was running and arranged for me to be among a few dozen audience members who sat on tiered benches onstage as a living backdrop to the play.

We were shown to our seats a few minutes before the curtain went up and told not to fidget, not to pick our noses, and not to make any noise. “You are,” said the man directing us, “a Greek chorus echoing the action with your silence, and you are also a jury listening carefully to the evidence being presented. And please remember that several hundred people can see you, people who have paid good money to watch this play and not to watch you scratching your butt. Have fun.”

I wish I could say that seeing and being in Equus on that Broadway stage was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, but I found the play simplistic and boring and not in the least mysterious, the performances ho hum, and the vaunted nude love scene a brief and ugly tussle. However, I did not share my feelings about Equus with Scott because he was a devout Broadway loyalist, which meant he believed that if a play was a hit, the play was good, and if the play was a flop, the play was bad.

Now in the same week that I sat through Equus, Scott and I attended one of the early preview performances of Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, recently transported from London and directed by Mike Nichols with the young Jonathan Pryce reprising his role from the London production. And seeing that production of Comedians truly was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life and would dramatically influence my plans for the future.

When the third and final act of Comedians came to an end, I leapt out of my seat shouting, “Bravo!” and applauding madly, though the audience reaction was otherwise tepid. Scott stayed sitting during my outburst and was obviously embarrassed by my behavior, but I didn’t care. I had just seen a superlative performance of a remarkable play and I wasn’t about to keep my feelings bottled up. Mediocre Equus had elicited a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for its stars, so why shouldn’t I rave about this brilliant new masterwork?

Well…when we emerged from Comedians, Scott took me to a nearby bar filled with people who had also just seen Comedians and I eagerly asked several of them what they thought of the play; and they were all oddly coy and noncommittal, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked Scott. “That play was sheer genius. The writing, the acting, the direction, the levels of meaning, the…”

“Todd,” said Scott, sighing, “the play hasn’t been reviewed yet so…”

“So what?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You wait until the New York Times says it’s good before you think it’s good?”

“No,” said Scott, gulping his beer. “But…sort of. I mean…it’s subtle and very British. It was a hit in London, but that doesn’t mean it will translate that well over here.”

“Are you insane?” I gaped at him. “We just saw it. What did you think of it?”

“I…I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Jonathan Pryce would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in his role in Comedians, but the critics otherwise damned the production with faint praise and the show closed after 145 performances. I, however, was demolished in the best sort of way by Comedians and decided two things as a result of seeing that incomparable production: I was going to write plays again, and I was going to live in a city so I could get more involved in theater. By then I realized New York was not going to be that city, not yet anyway, for I lacked the psychic stamina to survive there—but I hoped Portland or Seattle might suffice to get me started.

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” Winston Churchill

Two weeks later, having recharged my batteries by taking the train to Boston and spending a few days goofing around with my pal Jerry and attending a few of his scarier classes at Harvard Law School, I returned to Manhattan and immediately went to see Comedians again. To my delight, I thought the play was even better the second time, the cast now well practiced and sure of their characters. I was in seventh heaven watching that play and felt more certain than ever that I wanted to try to write plays that might touch people as Comedians touched me.

I was in love again with mastery, with originality, with courage, with everything that had made me want to be a writer in the first place; and for the remainder of my time in New York I was in a state of enchantment. For though I knew very well I might never succeed as a playwright (or as a writer of fiction), the experience of seeing that masterful production of Comedians filled me with a desire to try. I knew if I lived frugally, I had enough money in the bank to grant me a year of freedom from working at anything besides writing, and I intended to dedicate a good chunk of that year to writing plays.

The sad truth about our culture, and perhaps most cultures, is that for every masterpiece that somehow manages to gain an audience, there are thousands of awful things filling our stages and bookstores and movie screens and galleries. Why this is so I do not know, I only know that it is so. Which is why those rare new masterpieces that somehow manage to sneak past the cultural gatekeepers are so important, for without them we only have the masterworks of the past to deeply nourish us—and we desperately need the blood of brilliant new work to keep our culture alive and vital.

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.

 As your desire is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

I was bored to tears by the new art on display at The Museum of Modern Art, but never mind, they had Picasso’s massive and marvelous Guernica to gaze upon and Van Gogh’s magnificent Starry Starry Night approachable to within a few inches, and Henri Rousseau’s supernatural Lion and the Gypsy lit to perfection, so I visited these and a handful of other favorite paintings in that collection several times and felt wonderfully empowered by them. And I went to the Guggenheim to marvel up close at Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Modigliani’s fabulous Nude, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again to gawk at their five fabulous Vermeers.

I had lunch with my brave and eccentric agent Dorothy Pittman on two occasions and we had a stirring time imagining selling one of my novels and then another and another. She said she would hunt for a play agent for me when I had a play to show around; and dear Scott got me into seven or eight more shows to fuel my drama dreams, though none of those plays could hold a candle to Comedians; and at last I realized I was done with New York for the time being and ready to embark on the next leg of my big trip.

So I took the train to Philadelphia and spent three lazy days visiting friends in Bala Cynwyd and Narberth and sleeping for twelve hours a night, recuperating from the physical and emotional toll of Manhattan. Then I continued south by train to Virginia and stayed with my pal Rico who had recently moved out from California to work for the federal government.

One night Rico and I were reminiscing about high school and wondering about the fate of our fellow inmates, when I was reminded of Mark Russell, my great friend I hadn’t seen since the early days of high school when he and his family moved away to where I wasn’t sure. So I did a little telephone sleuthing and came up with a phone number for Mark’s parents in Connecticut. I called them and they gave me a phone number for Mark in South Carolina. Then I called Mark and a woman with a sultry South Carolina accent answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said, “my name is Todd Walton and I’m an old friend of Mark’s. Is he there?”

“Hold on a minute,” she said softly. “I’ll fetch him.”

A few moments later, Mark came on the line, his voice two octaves deeper than when we’d last spoken thirteen years before. “This is unbelievable,” he said, laughing. “I was just thinking about you. I was throwing the ball for my dog and wondering where Todd is now.”

“I’m in Virginia and I’d love to come see you, if that’s a possibility. I could get a motel room nearby or…”

“No, no, we’ve got lots of room for you,” he said, chuckling. “Come on down.”

So on a dark cold night in early November, I stepped off the train at the little station in Camden, South Carolina and looked around for an older version of the Mark I remembered from 1963—a clean shaven young man much shorter than I. But the only person waiting there was a tall man in a trench coat sporting a bushy brown beard.

“Todd,” he called to me. “I’d know you anywhere.”

“Mark,” I said, shaking his enormous hand. “I would never have guessed you were you.”

fin

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What We Do

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

The first few times I finished writing a novel (each book representing two or three years work), I was gripped by the same terrible fear that I might die before I could make copies of the books and send them out into the world. Before the advent of personal computers and the ability to send massive documents in email attachments, making copies of fat manuscripts meant going to copy shops and leaving the precious documents overnight while copies were made.  Then, exhausted from lack of sleep and worry, I would pick up the copies and mail them to people scattered far and wide, so that in the event of multiple unforeseen disasters a few copies of my masterworks might survive to be discovered by future generations, etc.

In retrospect, yes, the machinations of my deluded ego can be seen as humorous or pathetic or pathetically humorous or plain silly, but I understand now that my fear of dying before my creations had a chance to live was proof of my total immersion in, and identification with, the things I made.

On one such pre-computer occasion in the early 1970’s, I took a play entitled The Last Temptation to one of the first photocopy shops in the Bay Area, a joint in Menlo Park, and handed over my one and only copy to the friendly shop owner. He said he would have my copies ready in two days. The play was loosely based on a brothel scene from Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and on the Pontius Pilate character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I was certain the play (as I had previously been certain about various novels and stories) would lift me from poverty and obscurity, etc.

On the day those ten precious copies of the play were supposed to be ready, I arrived at the copy joint and was greeted by the perturbed proprietor with the news that my play had disappeared. Please imagine a formerly sensible human being, me, with a formerly relatively low voice, turning into a screeching banshee. To make a very long story short, the employee assigned to make photocopies of my opus turned out to be a zealous fundamentalist Christian who thought the play might be blasphemous, and he had therefore taken the play to his minister to determine whether or not the thing should be burned at the stake.

I screeched at the copy shop owner to call the police. The poor man begged me to give him a little more time to retrieve the manuscript before we involved law enforcement. Then he giggled and said, “Please don’t sue me.” Later that day, he called to say my play had been returned unscathed and that he would have copies for me the next day, which he did.

In answer to your questions: Yes, he charged me full price, which I paid without protest because that’s the kind of fool I am, and No, the play was never produced.

“My work is a game, a very serious game.” M.C. Escher

I have been asked many times in my life by well-meaning people as well as by snide creeps why I continue to write books and plays and screenplays when it appears no one wants to publish them or produce them or film them? The short answer is: I don’t know. The longer answer is: I have my theories, but none hold water. The very long answer is that I love what I do and I have never ceased to believe that whatever I’m currently creating will lift me out of poverty and obscurity, etc. In other words, it’s what I do.

There is a curious and wonderful phenomenon that overtakes many a creative person as they work on their books or songs or paintings or essays or equations or you name it. And that is, at critical junctures along the way, these creative persons are convinced they have fashioned or discovered something fabulous and original and unprecedented that will change the course of (name of art form or academic discipline) for all time and lift them, the creator, out of poverty, obscurity, disfavor, etc.

But that’s just the beginning of the phenomenon. Upon completion of that first draft or sketch or version of the thing, there dawns upon the creator the realization that the thing is not quite the masterwork he or she thought it was whilst in the throes of convincement. Indeed, the thing once thought to be marvelous now seems to be quite possibly poop. This is the moment that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. This is the first opportunity for the easily disappointed to decide something is a failure and to give up.

But creative people take deep breaths and sally forth into the next iterations of their works to find themselves once again, we hope, utterly convinced they have made something magnificent that will change the course etc. And this “it’s-genius-oops-it’s not-oh-wait-it-is” pattern continues until the thing is done.

I am now convinced this self-tricking pattern is genetic and responsible for most of our cultural and artistic evolution. Unless creative individuals can be repeatedly self-tricked into thinking they are making things of exquisite value, they aren’t going to spend hundreds of hours, let alone years and decades, working on these creations when they could much more easily and profitably help destroy the earth or watch television.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Thomas Jefferson

One of the things I love about that Thomas Jefferson quote is that it echoes Buckminster Fuller, a primary guru of mine. (Or Bucky echoes Tom if you believe time only goes in one direction.) Bucky’s book Critical Path was a gigantic game-changer for me. I love the idea that through our work we constantly create potential landing pads for cosmic largesse, intervention, collaboration; or what Jefferson called luck, except he was being mildly facetious on one level and absolutely serious on the next level down.

Which puts me in mind of the expression: “I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” which implies you have sent your ship (or ships) out (done your work); otherwise there wouldn’t be any ship out there to return laden with largesse (luck).

Bucky also said: “I assumed that nature would ‘evaluate’ my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained.”

Realizing that I had unconsciously lived my life that way before I read Bucky’s elucidation of the phenomenon, I decided to consciously adopt his assumption of a discerning and collaborative universe as the universal joint, so to speak, of the vehicle on which I would travel through life. And I discovered that Bucky was entirely correct. Nature does evaluate my work and provide or withhold support depending on her evaluations, but nature also evaluates all my life choices, including my choices of people to travel with; and whenever I choose people who think Bucky is a crackpot, nature withdraws her support prontisimo.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite recordings is Joseph Campbell at 80. For his eightieth birthday Joe gave a one-hour talk in which he attempted to sum up the philosophical gist of his lifelong studies. I’ve listened to this talk at least ten times over the years, usually when I’m feeling at low ebb about having followed Bucky’s game plan and fearing I may have made a serious mistake. Joe always cheers me up and assures me I made the correct choice for the kind of person I am.

What I find most cheering about Joe’s eightieth birthday talk is hearing a wise and erudite old person talking about traveling the path he made for himself, and how he found help and happiness along the way despite myriad obstacles and countless people telling him he was a crackpot.

Our journeys, inward and outward, are the water; destinations are mirages.

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The Play’s The Thing

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“More relative than this—the play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” William Shakespeare

Yes, it will only be a staged reading in a tiny theater on the fringes of civilization, but I feel like my play Milo & Angel is about to open on Broadway. And you’re invited! When I was sixteen years old, I decided to try to make my way as a playwright and actor amidst the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, but other scenarios intervened, other roads were taken, and all the plays I wrote remained hidden from public view.

True, the actors will be sitting in chairs and holding scripts as they perform, and they will only have rehearsed a few times under the inspired guidance of Sandra Hawthorne, but they will be on a real stage in a real theater (not a living room or a café) imbuing my lines with character. What an amazing process it has been so far, the blessed night still to come—April 13, a Wednesday evening at 7 PM at the Helen Schoeni Theater at the Mendocino Art Center—mark your calendars.

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” George Bernard Shaw

I wrote the first act of Milo & Angel in 2005, the year before my father died. The moment the play began to speak itself, I knew it would be both homage to my father and an attempt to exorcise his terrible power over me. Thus I was not surprised when my muse fell silent at the conclusion of Act I, for my father was still alive and I was not sufficiently free of his influence to reveal the darker story I knew Act Two must contain.

Then a few months before my father died, when I knew his death was imminent, I concocted a second act. But a poem or a story or a play that I consciously invent, rarely rings true for me; so the truth of this play, the tender truth, remained waiting in the wings, waiting for my father to die before she felt safe enough to emerge and speak her lines.

“Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.” William Shakespeare

In 2007, my second year in Mendocino, I completed a draft of Milo & Angel that I felt was good enough to send out to the tiny number of theater companies in America who at least pretend to consider plays from writers without agents or influential friends; and this I did. I received a few kindly rejections and little else. I also gave copies to people connected to the Mendocino Theater Company, but got no response from any of them. So my ninth play seemed destined to suffer the same fate as my previous eight.

Then I gave a copy to Kathy Mooney, my friend and counselor, and she shared the play with Valerie McMillan who oversees play readings at the Mendocino Theater Company, and Valerie gave the play to Sandra Hawthorne, and after a time it was decided that Milo & Angel would be one of the plays in this year’s reading series. And I tell you honestly, I am as excited about having my play read in front of an audience—I hope you’ll come—than I was when they made a major motion picture out of my first novel.

Sandra took the helm, as it were, and from the pool of available and willing actors hereabouts cast the six parts. As of this writing, we have had three rehearsals, the cast has changed three times, I have rewritten the play with Sandra’s guidance four times (some scenes seven or eight times), and we only have two more rehearsals until the blessed night befalls us.

The cast members, barring further changes, are Alena Guest, Ruby Belle, Garth Hagerman, Todd Walton, David Woolis, and Julie Burns. I am told that such staged readings hereabouts usually only require of the actors two rehearsals, and this one will have five, so I intend to shower these generous volunteers with gifts (when I see who is still standing at the end.)

“The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.” Arthur Miller

The most exciting aspect of this process so far has been conferring with Sandra after each rehearsal, when the flaws in rhythm and flow, and in my choices of words, are still fresh in our minds, and then figuring out how to fix the problems. With each new draft, the play improves and the emotional content deepens; and if the entire cast quits tomorrow and the reading never happens, I will have been the beneficiary of a priceless collaboration.

I have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of creative collaboration, which is why nowadays I mostly work alone. My more successful collaborations have been with women, whereas the old maxim Never Go Into Business With A Friend rings true as a summation for all but a few of my collaborations with male friends. And what is far more interesting to me than why those attempts at collaboration failed is why I continue to try to collaborate after so many dismal failures.

Having recently had a marvelous musical collaboration with my cellist wife Marcia, and now this excellent writing collaboration with Sandra Hawthorne, I am sorely tempted to say that the problem lies with men. However, I am a man, so perhaps it would be truer to say that the problem lies with me in relation to other men, which brings us, inevitably, to my father, my first and foremost male role model with whom collaboration of any kind was out of the question because he despised everything I loved and thought everything anybody else said about anything was stupid and wrong. Hmm.

I think the rehearsals we’ve had of Milo & Angel—actors sitting around Sandra’s commodious dining table—would make a wonderful basis for a play: people shifting out of their public personas into their characters in the play, their play characters changing as the playwright and director give them feedback, which changes in their play characters impact their public personas—characters quitting, switching parts, new actors coming in and interpreting their characters in ways so unlike the previous interpretations that the play (and the play within the play) shift from comedy to tragedy to farce to…it’s just an idea.

“You need three things in the theater—the play, the actors, and the audience—and each must give something.” Kenneth Haigh

I am one who laughs uproariously at things in movies and plays that other people tend not laugh out loud about. (I am thinking of movies such as Young Frankenstein and A Thousand Clowns.) Combine this tendency with the fact that I am my own biggest fan—I just love what I create—and you will understand why I have several times boldly proclaimed to Sandra, “Oh, that will get a big laugh.” To which she has wisely responded, “Audiences for staged readings tend to be small, and small audiences tend not to laugh very much.” Darn. Even so, I feel Milo & Angel, for all the tragedy it contains, is very funny, too. Just like life.

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Art Rant

Books

Rae’s eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor.” from Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott

The silence of the eyes rings true, and the eyes being side-by-side seems plausible, but how in heck did those eyes get onto that couch without Rae?

I was thirteen and had devoured a thousand books before I discovered the first typo of my reading career, an error that struck me as a scandalous affront to the artistry of writing. I was an insatiable reader, and wanting to be a professional writer I did not skim, but read every word. And when I found passages that wowed me, I copied their lines longhand to teach my sinews the feel of great writing.

“The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.” from Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Nowadays I am surprised if I read a book from a corporate press and don’t find grammatical errors galore with typos sprinkled throughout. I was recently told I must read the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, a current darling of the New York literati, a writer with myriad awards to her credit, including a Pulitzer. I dutifully ordered her most revered collection of short stories, and after wading through several introductory pages of praiseful blurbs from influential magazines and newspapers—the word miraculous appearing in several of the blurbs—I entered a grammatical minefield that rendered her half-baked stories unreadable for the likes of me.

I complained of Ms. Lahiri’s failings to Marcia, my wife who is so patient with me when I rant about the decline and fall of our culture. Marcia calmly considered my condemnation of the writer and said, “Maybe you just don’t like her style.”

Indeed. Clunky composition featuring profligate use of the word “it”, pronoun confusion, place confusion, time confusion, inadequate descriptions of people and places, and lame depictions of action do add up to a particular style, but who needs it? And why would reviewers describe such stuff as miraculous? In two words: culture collapse.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Lamott and countless other contemporary authors contracted by the corporate presses should be ashamed to publish books that have not been thoroughly and thoughtfully edited. Why aren’t they ashamed? You tell me.

Radio

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” Marilyn Monroe

In 1966 I was lead singer in a rock band of sixteen-year-old boys. By our third rehearsal we knew we were fantastic and would soon be opening at the Fillmore for our favorite bands Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Joy Ride, though I was never certain if we were The Joy Ride or simply Joy Ride.

This was long before the advent of cassette tape recorders (now obsolete) so we recorded our loud songs on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the one-of-a-kind tapes to Warner Brothers and Columbia Records so we would be discovered and made famous and have beautiful wonderful girlfriends who wanted to have sex with us day and night while maintaining their brilliance and creativity and innocence.

We had one gig before (The) Joy Ride broke up. The gig was a battle of four bands in a cavernous high school gymnasium. We were awesome, yet we lost the battle. The only possible explanation for our defeat was that the airheads didn’t get where we were coming from. Our one stalwart groupie said we reminded her of Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds rolled into one. No wonder we knew we were fantastic.

Embittered by our rejection by the airheads, I joined forces with a guitar player and wrote eleven amazing songs. We recorded our masterworks on that same reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the tape to A&M Records because a friend of ours had a friend who knew someone’s friend’s cousin or uncle who worked there. Maybe the tape got lost in the mail, but more likely the record company airheads just didn’t get where we were coming from. In any case…

Fast-forward forty-five years. Having just produced two new CDs, I have been questing for likely DJs at likely radio stations to send our music to, my goal being to send forth a hundred packets, each containing our CDs and a heartfelt handwritten letter aimed at a specific DJ. So not Jazz is my collaboration with the aforementioned patient wife Marcia, her exquisite cello improvisations elevating our jazzy instrumentals and songs into the sublime, while 43 short Piano Improvisations is my solo adventure in musical haiku.

Whilst pursuing those rare DJs who might be open to music from the likes of us, I have visited over a hundred public radio station web sites and scrutinized several hundred DJ profiles and play lists. As of this writing, I have sent out sixty-seven packets and gained three DJ fans: one in Fort Collins, Colorado, one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Astoria, Oregon. They have each played a tune or two of ours, and promise to play more. We are, in a word, thrilled.

As a result of my copious research, I have learned that if a radio station is an NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate and airs All Things Considered, they will probably be a kind of public radio Clear Channel with canned programming and zero interest in independent artists. But if a station airs Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, there is a fair chance they will harbor one or more zany, curious, eclectic programmers. And then there are the entirely student-run college stations. I do not intend to approach any of these stations until our hip-hop metal reggae album Dread Metal YoYo is ready for release.

Movies and Plays

“Television has raised writing to a new low.” Samuel Goldwyn

John Simon is the author of my favorite one-sentence film review. In response to the movie Tommy, he wrote in Esquire, “Anyone who has anything good to say about this movie has nothing to say to me.” I feel this way about nearly all the American movies I’ve seen in the last thirty years, and that is because I have not been programmed to digest contemporary theatrical offerings.

Contemporary movies and theatre in America are now entirely conflated with television, the essence of which is physical and psychic violence, emotional superficiality, sexism, the deification of morons, verbal abuse disguised as humor, and non-stop brainwashing. Because I ceased watching television in 1969, the programming of my brain has not kept pace with the changing cultural mores. Thus contemporary American plays and movies, even those purported to be brilliant and deep and meaningful, almost always strike me as trivial and/or toxic.

I remember the precise moment I decided to forego television for the rest of my life. I was nineteen and on the verge of dropping out of college—academia antithetical to the likes of me. I was wandering the halls of my dorm looking for someone to accompany me on a late night stroll when I came to a lounge wherein a dozen young men and women were watching television. As I stood in the lounge doorway and watched the watchers, I was struck by the realization that these promising young people, four of them my best friends, were being lobotomized by the rays emanating from the television, their faces fixed in helpless idiocy.

Over the last thirty years, I have attended some two hundred plays in theatres large and small in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco, and most recently Mendocino, and I cannot bring to mind a single contemporary play written by an American that I believed in for more than a moment or two. Of the few hundred American movies I’ve seen since 1980, I can think of a handful I would call good, only a few great. Thank goodness we have access to foreign films (I consider the British foreign) so I do not entirely starve for good movies, though I am frequently hungry.

I am certain (having been privileged to read such manuscripts) that fine plays, books, and screenplays are still being written in America, but they are not, as a rule, produced or published or widely disseminated. And, yes, I have on rare occasions over the last forty years watched television, usually at the request of friends urging me to sample shows they say are fabulous, only to have my sense of the ongoing devolution confirmed.

Renaissance

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

If you so desire, you can overcome the televisionization of your psyche and revitalize your aesthetic taste buds. Having worked with many teenage and adult writers who were initially incapable of writing original stories with non-stereotypical characters and natural-sounding dialogue, and knowing the causes of their dysfunction to be television, corporate fiction, and contemporary American movies, I found that if I could convince my charges to eliminate these influences from their lives, creative rebirth was a virtual certainty. For teenagers, such rebirths may occur within weeks of their ceasing to imbibe the media opiates. For adults, such rejuvenation may take months. And I suppose the modern variants of television, iPads, cell phones, YouTube, etc. should be included in the list of influences to be minimized.

Our brains, in much the same way as ecosystems, will regenerate once persistent toxics and stresses are removed, and once you end your addiction to the opiates of the masses you will be astonished by the dramatic shift in your perceptions. However, there is the strong possibility you will feel left out of the cultural discourse about celebrities and the latest movies and books you can’t remember shortly after you ingest them, and you may feel isolated and lonely and desperate in the absence of all that you have become accustomed to. Fear not. Falling off the wagon is but a click of the On button and a badly written bestseller away.

[Todd reads books written by dead or very old or unknown authors and watches foreign films (and the occasional teen flick) in Mendocino.]

This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010