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Only Be Rosalind

Dez Peoples is sixty-six, an American poet living in Lausanne, Switzerland with her daughter Rosalind, who is twenty-eight, a photographer and writer. They have lived in Lausanne for three years and have two years remaining on a fellowship from the University of Lausanne that provides them with a lovely house and monthly stipends more than sufficient for their needs.

Six months ago, Dez published her fifteenth volume of poems called In Lausanne, the American edition appearing a month before the German, French, and Spanish editions came out in Europe, after which In Lausanne became a cause célèbre.

*

On a glorious afternoon in April, Dez and Rosalind return to their house from a long ramble along Lake Geneva with Rosalind’s cute brown mutt Bianca, and they are just sitting down to a late lunch when someone knocks confidently on the front door.

Genevieve, Dez and Rosalind’s charming housekeeper and cook, answers the door and says in French to the two men waiting there, “May I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Oliver Rochambeau,” one of the men replies, his voice a resonant baritone. “And this is my friend Paul Descartes. We would very much like to speak to Dez Peoples. Is she at home today?”

“Madame sees visitors by appointment on Thursdays,” says Genevieve, who has made this speech many times to those wishing to see Dez. “I will give you a card with the number to call to make an appointment.”

“Oh is there no possibility of seeing her today?” asks the other man with some urgency, his voice a pleasing tenor. “We are only here for the afternoon and then we’re returning to Burgundy. We would only take a moment of her time.”

“I’m very sorry,” says Genevieve, who has the feeling she knows these men, but can’t remember where she’s seen them before. “Many people wish to speak to her.”

Rosalind, who has been listening from the kitchen, appears with appointment book in hand, smiles at the two handsome men—one of whom she guesses is fifty-three, the other thirty-five—and says in her fair French, “Hello. I’m Dez’s secretary. Would you like to make an appointment to meet with her?”

“You can only be Rosalind,” says the younger of the two men in fair English. “You are just as your mother describes you in She Walks Her Dog, only much more beautiful.”

“I am Rosalind,” she says, sticking to French. “Who are you?”

“I am Paul Descartes,” he says, bowing to her. “And this is my colleague Oliver Rochambeau. We are hopeful of securing the film rights to your mother’s book In Lausanne.”

“Ah,” exclaims Genevieve, clapping her hands. “Now I know who you are. The funny detectives. These are my husband’s favorite movies. Please don’t leave. I must go get him.”

“Well,” says Rosalind, pleasantly disarmed, “you may as well come in. We’re just sitting down to lunch. Please join us.”

*

When Genevieve’s husband Henri comes in from the garden, Dez insists Henri and Genevieve join them for lunch, which prompts Genevieve to open an excellent bottle of French chardonnay to go with her fish stew.

Oliver tastes the stew and says, “Mon dieu. I have never tasted better.”

“Incroyable,” says Paul, gazing wide-eyed at Genevieve.

“The fish was caught this morning,” says Genevieve, blushing. “And the onions and potatoes and herbs came from Henri’s garden just this morning.”

“A genius cook for a genius poet,” says Oliver, raising his glass to Dez. “To your extraordinary poetry.”

“To Genevieve,” says Dez, raising her glass.

“We are in the book, you know. Henri and I,” says Genevieve, smiling at her husband. “I am the cook in The Cook and the Mouse and the Cat, and Henri is the gardener in the seven poems about the gardener.”

“I love the gardener poems,” says Paul, grinning at Henri. “You’re immortal now.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” says Henri, shivering with delight to be praised by his favorite movie star. “I’m just a gardener.”

“When I read your poems in French,” says Oliver, gazing at Dez, “they are like little mysteries, you know. Addictive. And they always make me smile at the end. But when I read them in English they are great comedy. I assume you wrote them in English.”

“Yes,” says Dez, who is having a most extraordinary experience sitting across from Oliver, her attraction to him overwhelming. “I only write in English. So far. Though I have begun to dream in French.”

“We are told,” says Rosalind, tickled by her mother’s infatuation with Oliver, “that the German and Spanish translations are funny, too, but the French translation is more nostalgic, or as you say mysterious.”

“French humor is so different than English humor,” says Paul, gazing at Rosalind as if seeing a vision. “Not the physical comedy, of course. But the languages are so different. Did you laugh the first time you read these poems?”

“I did,” says Rosalind, profoundly smitten with Paul. “I had no idea Mama could be so funny in writing. I mean… she’s very funny in… in life, but her poems before In Lausanne were never so funny.”

“The first time I saw your movie The Stolen Jewels,” says Henri, gawking at Oliver, “I laughed until I cried. The scene where you keep handing the food under the table thinking Paul is there and he has long ago crawled away and it is those two big dogs who keep nudging your leg and you keep feeding them? I have watched that scene hundreds of times and I always laugh so hard. This is genius to me.”

“We have a DVD,” says Genevieve, pouring out the last of the wine into Dez and Rosalind’s glasses. “Sometimes we just watch the cooking scenes and laugh.”

“I am so happy to have met you,” says Henri, getting up from the table and bowing to Oliver and Paul. “Please excuse me. I must finish in the garden before dusk.”

“I will go now, too,” says Genevieve, following Henri. “We hope to see you again.”

“What a charming couple,” says Oliver, switching to English. “And what a cook is Genevieve. Be careful some rich movie star doesn’t steal them away from you.”

“Oh they are not ours,” says Dez in English. “They are attached to this house which we’ve been given for five years by the university, after which other writers will take our place.”

“Then take them with you,” says Paul, nodding emphatically.

“That is beyond our means,” says Dez, suddenly weary and wishing these enchanting men would go.

Sensing her weariness, Oliver says, “We will leave you now, but if we could meet tomorrow morning after breakfast to discuss the movie rights to your book, we will find a hotel room and come again tomorrow. If not, we will speed home to Burgundy and I’ll call you if that seems better for you.”

“Tomorrow at ten will be fine,” says Dez, very much wanting to see him again.

“Excellent,” says Oliver, finishing his wine. “Thank you for the marvelous lunch. It was a great pleasure to meet you.”

“A delight,” says Paul, winking at Rosalind.

*

When Paul and Oliver are gone, Dez and Rosalind retire to the living room—Dez lying down on the sofa, Rosalind collapsing in an armchair.

Silence reigns before they both speak at once, Dez saying, “I can’t believe…” and Rosalind saying, “Can you believe…”

“You go first,” says Dez, closing her eyes and seeing Oliver gazing at her.

“Oh my God, Mama, I’m in love,” says Rosalind, hugging herself. “Has there ever been a more beautiful enchanting man than Paul?”

“Only Oliver,” says Dez, imagining his arms around her. “I haven’t felt this way in forty years, if I ever felt this way. I thought I might have an orgasm during lunch just looking at him and hearing his voice. I really did.”

“They’re probably both married,” says Rosalind, pouting. “Though I saw no rings. You don’t think they could be gay, do you?”

“If Oliver is gay, I am gay,” says Dez, who feels she has become someone entirely different than whoever she was before she met Oliver. “Would you borrow the DVD of their movie from Genevieve? I need to see him again or go mad.”

“Oh Mama, you really are in love,” says Rosalind, who has never known her mother to be in love with anyone.

“Is this love?” says Dez, falling asleep. “Being demolished?”

*

When Dez wakes two hours later, she finds a comforter over her and Rosalind sitting at the table by the window writing in her notebook.

“What time is it, darling,” asks Dez, speaking English.

Rosalind looks up and smiles. “Not quite six. And you called me darling. You must still be in love with Oliver.”

Dez sits up. “So it wasn’t a dream. They exist. Oliver and Paul.”

“They exist,” says Rosalind, closing her notebook. “And we both fell in love with them as have thousands of other women before us. I sleuthed around on the Internet. They’re both huge stars in Europe. Oliver’s mother is British, his father French. He’s been in lots of French movies and lots of British television shows. Paul is entirely French, a comedian and acrobat and singer turned movie actor. They’ve made three movies together as the Funny Detectives. Henri loaned us two of their movies. The Stolen Jewels and The Pilfered Recipe.”

“How old is Oliver?” asks Dez, holding her breath.

“Sixty-two,” says Roz, coming to sit with her mother on the sofa.

“Married?”

“He’s been married twice and has two grown daughters. I don’t think he’s married now, but he may be in a relationship with a British actress. Not sure.”

“And Paul?”

“Paul is thirty-four and engaged to a Portuguese actress named Mariana Borba who was in the last two Funny Detective movies. She’s insanely beautiful, so my only hope is that you make it a condition of the movie sale that Paul dump her and marry me. Please Mama?”

“Of course, darling,” says Dez, putting her arms around her daughter. “Shall we watch one of their movies before supper?”

*

They sit side-by-side on the sofa and watch The Stolen Jewels on Rosalind’s big laptop computer. The movie is brilliantly silly, the two detectives going undercover as a chef and a waiter in a gourmet restaurant in Paris where murders of restaurant critics and rival restaurateurs occur at regular intervals throughout the film.

Paul plays the part of Victor, a man of few words, keenly observant and capable of remarkable feats of dexterity and strength except in the presence of attractive women whose mere glances in his direction transform him into a colossal goofball. He masquerades as a waiter and is by turns phenomenally graceful and hilariously clumsy.

Oliver plays James, a man of dubious intelligence who frequently shares with Victor his deductive reasoning reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’s reasoning in those classic mysteries. However, unlike Sherlock, James is invariably wrong. Yet in the end, the two funny guys catch the murderers and save the day.

*

At movie’s end, Rosalind says, “I wish we’d never met them. They’ve set the bar impossibly high. Who could ever compare to Paul?”

“Only Oliver,” says Dez, wistfully. “But I could never live with him. I would be too distracted to ever write again. I’d just follow him around worshipping him.”

“So sayeth the renowned feminist poet,” says Rosalind, nudging her mother.

“Feminism schmeminism,” says Dez, getting up. “Let’s go out for supper.”

*

“You know who Oliver is?” says Dez, as she and Rosalind walk home in the moonlight from Brasserie Saint-Laurent, their favorite restaurant in Lausanne.

“A handsome charming movie star,” says Rosalind, stating the obvious.

“He’s my masculine alter ego.” Dez laughs. “Listen to me. I’ve lost my mind.”

“I think it’s wonderful we both fell in love,” says Rosalind, gazing up at the nearly full moon. “Regardless of outcome, I like knowing I still can. I was beginning to wonder.”

“I assumed I couldn’t,” says Dez, thinking back over her life and finding no evidence of feeling about anyone as she feels about Oliver. “But it turns out I could. I’m speaking of love, not lust. I fell in lust all the time before you were born.”

“But you do you lust after Oliver,” says Rosalind as they arrive home. “Hence the near orgasm at lunch. Lust certainly plays a large part in my attraction to Paul. I felt like we were having telepathic sex at lunch today. I was anyway.”

“Maybe that’s all this is,” says Dez, unlocking the front door. “Lust at sixty-six. I haven’t lusted after anyone in twenty-nine years, not since lust made you, my darling.”

*

They have chamomile tea and oatmeal cookies in the kitchen before going to bed.

“Doesn’t it strike you as a bit far fetched, if not absurd,” says Dez, frowning at Rosalind, “that they want to buy the movie rights to In Lausanne? What movie, I wonder, do they see in that collection of poems?”

“Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was based on a poem,” says Rosalind, tossing a little piece of cookie to her dog Bianca. “When I was sleuthing around about Oliver and Paul, I also asked about movies based on poems, and there are quite a few. The Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s A Wonderful Life. Alice’s Restaurant. Several more. Poems that tell good stories.”

“Yes, but those poems all have plots,” says Dez, chuckling at the thought of her poems becoming scenes in a movie. “Mine are merely moments of the continuum.”

“That’s what stories are,” says Rosalind, thinking of Paul’s amazing strength and grace in The Stolen Jewels. “Maybe they’ll want you to help them write the screenplay and they’ll need to meet with you many times.”

“Yes. And they’ll come to realize they can’t live without us,” says Dez, yawning. “And we’ll have a double wedding and live happily ever after.”

“Where?” asks Rosalind, yawning, too. “Where will we live happily ever after?”

“Here,” says Dez, finishing her tea. “In Lausanne.”

*

After breakfast the next morning, Dez tries on three different dresses in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, and when she is in her last dress, by far the most revealing of the three, she comes out of the trance she’s been in since meeting Oliver and sees she is sixty-six, not fifty-one or forty-three or thirty-four.

So she hangs up her dresses and puts on a favorite turquoise dress shirt, turquoise earrings, and black jeans, captures her graying brown hair in a ponytail, and says to her reflection, “You are a handsome woman in your sixties. Oliver has come for your poems, not for you.”

*

Rosalind puts on her sexiest dress, a summery green opalescent curve-clinging scoop-necked thing, paints her lips burgundy, and impales her short auburn hair with a red rose bud.

*

Oliver and Paul arrive promptly at ten, both wearing white summer suits, and Oliver present Dez with a bouquet of seven spectacular roses, which Genevieve puts in a white porcelain vase and makes the centerpiece of the kitchen table where Dez and Rosalind and Paul and Oliver convene for coffee and Genevieve’s just-baked cinnamon coffee cake.

“So…” says Oliver, looking at Dez, “we would like to offer you 10,000 euros for a one-year option of the movie rights to In Lausanne, against a purchase price of 150,000 euros should the film be made. And you would get two per cent of the net proceeds, should there be any, which is highly unlikely.”

“Hence the movie business maxim,” says Paul, whose gaze keeps returning to Rosalind’s lips, “the money you get is the money you get.”

“Okay,” says Dez, who is greatly relieved to be over her infatuation with Oliver, though she still thinks he’s marvelous.

“Okay?” says Oliver, placing a hand on his heart. “Yes? Fantastic. I will have our agent contact your agent and we will go from there.”

“I don’t have an agent,” says Dez, feeling glad she doesn’t. “My editor at Werner Schaffen is Dirk Rosenfeld. I will ask him to represent me.”

“Whatever you like,” says Oliver, nodding. “We are absolutely thrilled to have the chance to make a movie from your poems.”

“We’ve made lots of money with our silly movies,” says Paul, exchanging glances with Oliver, “and now we want to make something more meaningful. Something deeper. Something that touches the soul, not just the funny bone, but the funny bone, too.”

“We can’t wait to see what you come up with,” says Rosalind, looking at Paul and thinking I would do anything to be with you.

“Which brings up another matter,” says Oliver, placing his hands together as in prayer. “We would love to show you the screenplay as it develops and hear your critique, for which we will pay you.”

“No need to pay us,” says Dez, shaking her head. “We’d love to see the drafts and tell you what we think.”  

“Well then,” says Oliver, looking at Paul and Rosalind and lastly at Dez, “we will take no more of your time.”

“You are welcome to take as much of our time as you want,” says Dez, speaking without forethought. “We are in love with you and hope to see you again.”

“The feeling is mutual,” says Paul, delighted by Dez’s candor. “I’m about to shoot two movies in quick succession, sadly neither with Oliver, after which I plan to turn my full attention to In Lausanne.”

“Whereas I am not so busy,” says Oliver, sounding happy to say so, “and I would love to visit you here and for you to come stay with me in Burgundy where we can work on the screenplay and I will be your tour guide.”

*

When Oliver and Paul drive away—Paul having kissed Rosalind on the lips in parting—Dez and Rosalind walk with Bianca on a footpath tracing the shore of Lake Geneva.

“I may write a hundred love poems now,” says Dez, holding Rosalind’s hand. “What will you do?”

“I will live for as long as I can,” says Rosalind, smiling dreamily, “in the magic of his kiss.”

fin

Here We Go

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Rosalind and Dez In Lausanne

This is the sequel to Rosalind’s Choice.

Dear Katrina

Rosalind here, hoping all is well with you and the gang at Café Bleu. I’ve taken to writing actual letters again as part of my attempt to wean myself from my phone, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. So far the results are good. I’m less anxious, sleeping better, and I have much more energy during the day.

I miss you, but I don’t miss the daily grind, pun intended. Remember when we calculated I made 50,000 lattes a year during my four years there. I wonder how many tens of thousands of tables I cleared? Not that I think what I’m doing now is any more important than working at Café Bleu. I don’t. But I’m grateful for the respite and the change.

We’ve been living in Lausanne for exactly nine months. I still wake up many mornings thinking I’m in Seattle. Then my new reality dawns on me and I jump out of bed and wander through this lovely old house to the kitchen where most mornings I find Mama speaking her quickly improving French with Genevieve, our cook and housekeeper.

Yes, we have a housekeeper and a resident gardener and handyman. Genevieve is fifty-seven and her husband Henri is fifty-four. They live in a large cottage on the other side of our enormous vegetable garden. They have lived here for eleven years, cooking and cleaning and gardening for the writers who come to live here. They insist we are their favorites of the five writers they’ve served, and we believe them because we adore them.

If it were up to Genevieve, she would work for us seven days a week, coming and going throughout the day, cooking all our meals, and cleaning a room or two. However, Mama insists we fend for ourselves two days a week, so Genevieve allows this, though she often comes over on her supposed days off to see if we need anything, stays to chat, and the next thing we know she’s making us lunch or soaking beans for tomorrow’s stew or helping me improve the supper I’m making.

Henri has granted us a patch of ground in the vegetable garden because Mama loves to garden, but then he assumes dominion over what we plant, so now we mostly acquiesce to Henri being the gardener, we the lucky recipients of his bounty.

Both Henri and Genevieve speak very little English, which is a good thing because otherwise we would never learn French, which we are both learning pretty well due to blabbing with Genevieve who was a chef in a fine restaurant before becoming housekeeper and cook of The Writer’s House, which is what our house is called by the locals and our hosts at the university.

What do we do all day?

For the first few months we were zealous tourists exploring Lausanne, which is a beautiful old city. We’ve been to Geneva twice and Zurich for five days in May to visit Mama’s translator Dirk Rosenfeld and be feted by her publisher Werner Schaffen. Then in August we went to Germany for three weeks and Mama read at universities and in small theatres.

In America a few thousand people may know of Dez Peoples, but in Germany and Switzerland and France and Spain her poems are taught in schools and universities, and the German, French, and Spanish translations of her poetry sell thousands of copies every year.

And now that she’s here instead of on the other side of the world, she has visitors. Poets, novelists, philosophers, professors, playwrights, journalists, musicians, all wanting to talk to her and have her sign copies of her books and invite her to read with them or come to their universities. And I am her appointment secretary! Wednesday and Thursday afternoons are reserved for these visitors, and every week or two we have a dinner party. Mama’s sponsor at the university, Karl Fleury, a wonderful man who refers to Mama as my poet, comes to the parties with his Spanish wife Carmen, and we invite three or four other people, and Genevieve and I make a feast.

Et moi? I take long walks with Bianca who has no trouble communicating with Swiss dogs, and I go to market with Genevieve almost every day. I’m learning so much about food and cooking from her. When you come to visit, we’ll go to market every day and cook marvelous things together.

And I’ve started writing stories and poems and scenes for plays. I haven’t finished anything I like very much, but I’m enjoying the practice. I’m also taking lots of pictures, mostly of people who come to visit, and of Genevieve and Henri and Mama. Switzerland is so picturesque, but I’m most interested in taking pictures of people.

I can hear you wondering what about men? Well I am madly in love with living here in what Mama calls The Land Where You Don’t Need A Car Because Trains Go Everywhere, but I haven’t fallen in love with anyone. Yet. I’ve been on a few dates and had a thrilling kiss from a handsome guy who was eager to get married and have kids with me, but I am definitely not ready for that.

We have four years and three more months here. The guest room awaits you.

Love,

Roz

*

On a Thursday in early October, Dez gives an interview to Andrea, a young French journalist. They sit in the living room of The Writer’s House and Andrea records the interview on her phone.

Andrea: (her English quite good) How is it for you living here?

Dez: Unlike anything I’ve ever known or dreamed of.

Andrea: How so?

Dez: I’ve been publishing poems in America for twenty-five years, and by American standards I am a successful poet, though only one of my books sold more than a thousand copies in America. In those twenty-five years, I’ve gotten a handful of letters from American readers and a few other American writers. But here I am something of a literary celebrity because Dirk Rosenfeld translated my poems into German for the Werner Schaffen editions and their success inspired French and Spanish translations. But if not for Dirk’s translations, and his insisting Werner Schaffen publish me in the first place, I would not be here and you would have no interest in me. Furthermore, I might never have published another volume of poetry in America if not for the success of the German English edition of my first volume.

Andrea: You don’t think another publisher would have done for you what Werner Schaffen did?

Dez: They never would have heard of me. The fact is I am the beneficiary of incredibly good luck.

Andrea: Yet your poems are masterpieces. Surely you would have eventually been recognized.

Dez: I appreciate your praise, but I think you are naïve. A far as I’m concerned, culture results from nepotism and the occasional fluke. Many brilliant writers never succeed in publishing anything, and the same is true for musicians and artists.

Andrea: So how did Dirk come to read your first volume of poems? Before Rosalind, yes?

Dez: (nodding) Dirk tells the story better than I. You should ask him.

Andrea: I will. But for now would you mind giving me your version?

Dez: He was in Paris on business for Werner Schaffen. He and I are the same age, so he was thirty-nine. He went to a café for lunch and there were two American women having a difficult time with their waiter. Dirk offered his services as translator for the women, they asked him to join them, and during the meal, when they learned he was a translator of English books into German, one of the women handed him a copy of Before Rosalind and said, “You should translate these poems. They’re fantastic.” Dirk read the book on the train returning to Switzerland and became my champion.

Andrea: Did you ever get a chance to thank the woman who gave him your book?

Dez: I did. Her name is Elaine Cantrell. I sent her a copy of my second book Now She Is Two and thanked her for giving my first book to Dirk. She wrote back and we’ve corresponded ever since. In fact, she and her partner are coming to visit here in the spring. We’ve never met in-person, but we’re old friends now and I’m looking forward to spending time with her. She’s a psychotherapist in Boston.

Andrea: Your daughter Rosalind is here with you in Lausanne?

Dez: I would not have come without her.

Andrea: May I ask why?

Dez: She’s my best friend and I wouldn’t want to spend five years living so far from her. My residency here is for five years.

Andrea: And then you’ll return to America?

Dez: Barring another miracle.

Andrea: What do you mean?

Dez: I mean I would love to live here for the rest of my life. I have no desire to return to America. It’s a punitive society. If you don’t have lots of money, life is hard there. And even if you have lots of money, the culture is ageist and sexist and racist and painfully mediocre. Here you have free healthcare, fantastic public transportation, free education, hundreds of excellent small publishers, marvelous theatres and performance venues, and an ethos of sharing. Most of what people here assume are the basic rights of life don’t exist in America. So why would I want to go back?

Andrea: I’m sure the Swiss would love to make you a citizen of their country. And so would the French and the Germans.

Dez: From your lips to God’s ears.

fin

Missing You

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Rosalind’s Choice

This is the sequel to After Rosalind.

The only child of a well-known American poet, Rosalind Peoples always thought she would be a poet, too, but at twenty-five has yet to develop the habit of writing poems. An attractive gal with short auburn hair, a yoga practitioner and dutiful twice-daily walker of her cute brown mutt Bianca, Rosalind lives in Seattle, works in a bakery café called Café Bleu, and shares a small apartment near the university with her boyfriend Zorro Bernstein, an aspiring filmmaker ten years her senior who makes frequent schmoozing trips to Los Angeles and directs videos for musicians hoping to go viral on YouTube.

Rosalind’s mother, Dez Peoples, lives in the small town of Ophelia, Washington, a three-hour drive from Seattle. Dez has published fourteen volumes of poetry with American publishers, and all those collections have been published in German-English editions by a Swiss publisher; and her last four volumes have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, yet she still works in a stationery store to make her minimal ends meet. She has been offered teaching positions at several universities but declined the offers because, as she said in a recent interview with a German literary magazine, “All I know about writing poetry is to try to make poems I’m satisfied with, but I have no idea how to teach someone to try.”

Rosalind graduated with a degree in English from the University of Washington, her special interest the comedies of Shakespeare and the stories of Edith Wharton and Isaac Bashevis Singer. “That and three bucks,” her boyfriend Zorro likes to say, “will get you a cup of coffee and no refill.”

*

On a cold Saturday morning in late October, Zorro is smoking dope and watching a college football game on television in the living room of their small apartment when Rosalind comes in with a letter in hand.

“So you have another dupe in Los Angeles,” she says, throwing the letter at him. “I didn’t open it, but the return address is North Hollywood and she wrote on the envelope See you soon, honey pie.”

“Oh God, Roz. I’m…”

“I don’t want to know,” she says, cutting him off. “I’m going to my mother’s for a few days. Please be gone when I get back.”

*

Rosalind arrives at her childhood home in Ophelia in time for supper, after which she and her mother sit together on the sofa in the living room, a fire crackling in the fireplace. They sip peach brandy and enjoy the cats Miranda and Gonzalo and the mutt Bianca nestling around them.

After Rosalind vents about Zorro ending their three-year relationship in such a sneaky cowardly mean-spirited way, Dez, who is sixty-three and hasn’t been in a relationship since Rosalind’s father left when Rosalind was a baby says, “A blessing he’s gone.”

“He loved talking about integrity,” says Rosalind, furious with herself for trusting the wastrel. “Artistic and otherwise. Now watch. He’ll end up making horror movies.”

“Was he born Zorro?” asks Dez, who always wanted to call him Zero.

“Born Malcolm,” says Rosalind, making a spluttering sound. “He said the name Zorro came to him in a dream. That should have set off warning sirens but lust made me stupid.”

“As lust will,” says Dez, gazing fondly at her daughter. “So now what?”

“Oh I’m keeping the apartment,” says Roz, shrugging. “Housing in Seattle is insane. I just have to find a good roommate, someone who won’t mind sleeping in the living room.” She grins at her mother. “Want to come live with me?”

“I would love to live with you,” says Dez, a tremble in her voice. “But not in Seattle.”

“You want me to move back here?” says Rosalind, wrinkling her nose. “I love it here, Mama, but not yet. You stayed away for twenty years. Shouldn’t I stay away for at least ten? Prove I can make it on my own? Find my calling?”

“You’ve made it on your own since you were seventeen,” says Dez, getting up to put another log on the fire. “And your calling will find you when you’re ready to be found.”

“Are you okay, Mama?” asks Rosalind, sensing her mother’s disquiet. “Missing Grandma?”

“No, not at all,” says Dez, shaking her head. “She was a ghost those last two years. A very confused ghost. Exhausting.”

“So what’s bothering you?”

“I have to make a decision about something that involves you,” says Dez, her eyes brimming with tears, “and I’m having a difficult time, which is why I’m so glad you’re here, though I’m sorry Zorro ended things the way he did.”

“If he’d just been honest,” says Rosalind, unused to seeing her mother so emotional. “What do you have to decide?”

“Well…” says Dez, heading for the kitchen. “Tea?”

“Mama, what is it?”

“I’ve won a prize,” says Dez, stopping on the threshold between the living room and kitchen.

“The Pulitzer?” says Rosalind, who thinks all her mother’s books should have won the Pulitzer.

Dez laughs. “No. I don’t think I’ll never win that one. This is from a university in Switzerland that gives writers stipends so they can write without having to work at another job. I would be free to do anything I want.”

“Fantastic,” says Rosalind, ever amazed by what her mother’s poetry brings her. “So what’s to decide?”

“I would have to move to Switzerland, to a beautiful house in Lausanne on Lake Geneva.” She pauses. “For five years.”

“You would live in Switzerland for five years?” says Rosalind, stunned by the thought of being apart from her mother for so long.

“If I accept the prize,” says Dez, nodding. “And I’ll definitely accept if you’ll come with me.”

“I could come with you?” says Rosalind, grimacing in disbelief. “For the whole five years? They’d let me?”

“I told them I might only accept if you came with me, and they said that would be fine and they would increase the stipend to accommodate you. Of course you don’t have to, and I may accept even if you don’t come, but I’m not sure I can be happy living so far away from you for five years. This is my dilemma.”

“What about my dog?” says Rosalind, who is so flummoxed she can hardly think.

“You would bring Bianca,” says Dez, calmly. “And the cats would stay here with whoever I rent the place to. Cat lovers, of course.”

*

Rosalind has been to Europe twice with her mother, once when she was eleven, once when she was thirteen, their trips paid for by Dez’s Swiss publisher. And they certainly would have gone to Europe a few more times except Ernestine, Dez’s mother, began to falter mentally and Dez would neither take her to Europe again nor leave her in the care of others and go without her.

 *

The next morning, Sunday, heavy rain keeps them inside, and after breakfast they play Scrabble by the fire.

“Is this what we’d do in Switzerland?” asks Rosalind, smiling sleepily at her mother, neither of them having slept well. “Play Scrabble and loll around?”

“If we want,” says Dez, using all her letters to spell gigantic and taking a seemingly insurmountable lead.

“But seriously,” says Rosalind, her head throbbing. “In Seattle I have to work six days a week to pay the rent and buy food. If I didn’t have to work… what would I do?”

“You can get a job in Switzerland if you want,” says Dez, grouping and regrouping the letters on her tray. “Or you can travel. Take pictures. Build birdhouses. Raise rabbits. Work in the garden. The house has a lovely garden and a big lily pond. You could write a play. Take piano lessons. There’s a fine piano in the house. You can do anything you want. Or nothing. We just get to live in a wonderful place and not worry about money for five years. What a concept.”

“I feel like such a failure,” says Rosalind, spelling fritz, the z landing on a triple-word-score square, which makes the seemingly insurmountable lead suddenly surmountable. “I’m twenty-five and I haven’t done anything with my life except make lattes and live with a phony jerk and pick up dog poop and ride on your coattails.”

“When have you ever ridden on my coattails?” says Dez, frowning. “You had after-school jobs in high school, got a full scholarship to college, and you’ve supported yourself ever since.”

“You know what I mean,” says Rosalind, disconsolately. “My resume reads BA in English, University of Washington, used to take pretty good pictures, daughter of brilliant poet. I don’t deserve a five-year dream life in Switzerland. I need to make something of my life. Become something.”

“I didn’t publish my first poem until I was thirty-nine and you were two,” says Dez, spelling index, the x on a double-letter-score square. “Until then my resume was BA in Dance, San Francisco State, three years with money-losing dance company, waitress.”

“Yes, but you were always writing poems,” says Rosalind, spelling alarm. “You knew what you were. A poet. What am I?”

“So let’s say you don’t come with me,” says Dez, getting up to answer the loud knocking at the door. “And you stay in Seattle working as a waitress. Why would that be a better way to make something of your life than living with me in Switzerland?”

“I would not be dependent on you,” says Rosalind, closing her eyes and seeing the picture she took of Dez twelve years ago, standing at the prow of a ferryboat plying the waters of Lake Zurich.

Dez opens the door and here is Becky Fletcher and her adorable children, Wade who is four and Jenny who is two. Becky was Rosalind’s best friend in elementary school and high school.

“I should have called first,” says Becky in her booming voice, “but we were driving by and saw Roz’s car, so… hey Roz.”

“Hey Becky,” says Rosalind, coming to give her old pal a hug. “Oh my God. Look at your gigantic children. They’ve doubled in size since August.”

“Tell me about it,” says Becky, laughing uproariously. “Can you believe it?”

“Come in, come in,” says Dez, smiling at the little cuties. “I’ll make some cocoa.”

“Oh don’t go to any trouble,” says Becky, who would clearly love for Dez to go to some trouble. “I should have called first.”

“It’s fine,” says Rosalind, helping Becky out of her sopping raincoat. “Come get warm by the fire.”

“I like cocoa,” says Wade, frowning gravely. “Only not too hot or I burn my mouth.”

“I have to pee,” says Jenny, doing a little jig.

“First we pee,” says Becky, scooping up Jenny and carrying her down the hall to the bathroom, “and then we have not-too-hot cocoa.”

And in this moment of Becky disappearing down the hallway with Jenny, and Bianca coming to sniff Wade as he takes off his raincoat and drops the soggy thing on the floor and follows Dez into the kitchen, Rosalind decides to go to Switzerland with her mother, though she doesn’t realize she’s made her decision until some days later.

*

Only when she gets back to her tiny Zorro-less apartment in Seattle and she’s sitting on her ratty futon and the traffic is roaring by outside her too-thin windows and another long week of making lattes and clearing tables awaits her, does she realize she’s made up her mind.

“Mama,” she says when Dez answers her phone. “I’ve decided to come with you and be your fellow artist in Switzerland, though I have no idea what kind of artist I’ll be.”

“Oh darling,” says Dez, who has only called Rosalind darling a few other times in her life. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Why are you proud of me?” asks Rosalind, mystified by her mother’s choice of words. “I haven’t done anything to be proud of.”

“If you knew you as I know you,” says Dez, vastly relieved that Rosalind is coming with her, “you would know why I’m proud of you.”

“Tell me.”

“I would have to tell you the story of your life,” says Dez, crying for joy.

“Tell me one thing.”

Dez closes her eyes and waits for a memory to emerge.

“A year ago when you took that marvelous picture of me for Ordinary Amazement, you dressed me in a long gray skirt and a white blouse and stuck an overblown yellow rose in my hair and had me stand in the vegetable garden while you went up on the roof of the house and took picture after picture of me looking up at you, my fearless daughter moving around on the steep roof with the sureness of a practiced acrobat, never doubting you’d get something good.”

fin

Darling

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After Rosalind

This is a story about Desdemona Peoples, known to her friends and those who read her poetry as Dez Peoples. She works at Oberon’s, the only stationery store in town, and used to be married to Larry Peoples who is now married to Penny Peoples. Given that they all live in Ophelia, Washington, a small town, you may wonder why Dez doesn’t drop Peoples and go back to using her maiden name Persons to make things less confusing for everyone. And the reason she doesn’t go back to Persons is poetry.

A striking brunette, Dez was born in Ophelia, the youngest of three kids with two older brothers. Her father Skip was a logger, her mother Ernestine a housewife who took in sewing work to supplement the family income, and both Dez’s brothers became loggers, too. By the age of twelve, Dez was determined to get out of Ophelia and never come back. Blazingly smart, she thought everybody in town was an idiot. Now she knows everybody in Ophelia is not an idiot, but when she was twelve that’s what she thought.

Dez graduated from high school at sixteen and went to college at San Francisco State where she majored in Dance. Upon graduating with honors, she moved to Portland and joined a modern dance company called Epiphany, had parts in several plays, and wrote poetry. She worked as a waitress, had a series of musician boyfriends, wrote hundreds of poems, and tried to get them published with little success.

When Dez was thirty-seven her father died and she went back to Ophelia to take care of her grieving mother. After she’d been home for a month, she had a fling with Larry Peoples who had briefly been her boyfriend in high school, and because her birth control implant gave up the ghost six months early, she got pregnant, married Larry, and took his last name to make things less confusing for everyone in Ophelia.

Much to her surprise, Dez enjoyed being married to Larry who was sweet to her during her pregnancy and sweet to their child Rosalind until Lindy, as Larry called Rosalind, was three. Then Larry got together with Penny and had little to do with Dez or Rosalind ever again.

But during Larry’s initial sweetness to her and their child, Dez stopped signing her poems Desdemona Persons and started signing them Dez Peoples, and the minute she made that change, literary magazines started publishing her poems, which led to Seven Painted Elephants Press publishing her first volume of poems Before Rosalind, which was subsequently published in a German-English edition by the Swiss publisher Werner Schaffen. And when Before Rosalind proved successful, Seven Painted Elephants Press published Dez’s second volume of poems Now She Is Two and Werner Schaffen published a German-English edition of that collection, too.

Which is not to say Dez became famous, but as poets in America fare, she was faring quite well, which is why when she and Larry divorced, she kept on being Dez Peoples.

*

On a muggy Saturday in August—Rosalind eight, Dez forty-six, and Dez’s mother Ernestine seventy-two—Dez and Rosalind are working in the vegetable garden in back of the two-story house where Dez grew up, digging horse manure into the soil for planting pole beans and potatoes.

Ernestine comes out on the back porch and says, “Phone for you Dez. Somebody named Lulu.”

Rosalind laughs. “You mean Zulu, Grandma.”

“Lulu, Zulu,” says Ernestine, laughing, too. “Some sort of ulu.”

“Dig on, Roz,” says Dez, hurrying to the house. “I won’t be long.”

Zulu Manhattan is Dez’s editor at Articulate Dinosaur Press in Seattle, publisher of Dez’s last three volumes of poetry. Dez’s latest volume, her seventh, Controversial Recipes, just came out in America and Europe and is getting stellar reviews. Werner Schaffen has published German-English editions of all seven of Dez’s books and she now has a small following in Germany and Switzerland.

“Hey Dez,” says Zulu, her accent southern, “we just got a call from Nathan Grayson. Well… from his people. Do you know him?”

“No,” says Dez, sitting at the kitchen table and using the same wall-mounted telephone she grew up with. “Somebody sent me the book he won the Pulitzer for. Can’t think of the title. Haven’t read it yet.”

“Well you better read it, honey,” says Zulu, emphatically, “because he apparently loves your work and wants you to open for him at a big show in Seattle on October fifth, PBS taping the show for a national Christmas special. Wants you to do about twenty minutes. They’ll pay you two grand and put you up at the Four Seasons and interview you for the special, too. Yes?”

“I’ll need to check with my mother,” says Dez, terrified. “Make sure she’s available to take care of Roz. Can I call you back tomorrow? Or Monday?”

“Monday at the latest, darling,” says Zulu, hearing the fear in Dez’s voice. “Grayson is going to be the next poet laureate, you know. Or the one after that.”

“I probably can do it,” says Dez, breathlessly. “I’ll call you back.”

Dez hangs up the phone and bows her head. This is her dream come true and her worst nightmare. She wants to be successful and wants to be anonymous.

Ernestine comes in from the garden cradling zucchinis and cucumbers in her apron, dumps the produce on the kitchen counter and says, “You okay, Dez?”

“They want me to read with Nathan Grayson in Seattle,” says Dez, anguished. “In October. For a PBS Christmas show.”

“For your new book?” asks Ernestine, getting Dez a glass of water.

Dez smiles at her mother who knows nothing about poetry except that Dez is a poet and Psalms in The Bible are poems.

“Nathan Grayson is very famous,” Dez explains, “and it certainly would help my new book if I read with him and a million people watched the show, but I’m not sure I want to.”

“Why not?” asks Ernestine, frowning at her daughter. “Wouldn’t take long. Three-hour drive to Seattle, read your poems, come on home. We’ll hardly know you were gone.”

“You make it sound so wonderfully simple,” says Dez, giving her mother a hug. “But it isn’t.”

*

As they plant the bean seeds, Dez tells Rosalind about the reading in Seattle.

“Can I come?” asks Rosalind, nodding hopefully. “I love Seattle.”

“I don’t know if I’ll do it,” says Dez, sinking her hands in the soil and closing her eyes.

“Why not?” asks Rosalind, frowning at her mother. “We could go to Pike Street Market and get fish and chips and salt water taffy and go on a ferry boat ride.”

“It’s complicated,” says Dez, thinking Maxine is the only person I know who will understand what I’m up against.

*

When Ernestine and Rosalind take the mutts Portia and Petruchio for a walk, Dez sits at the kitchen table and calls Maxine in Portland. Maxine is an artist ten years older than Dez who makes her living staging houses for real estate agents. She and Dez shared a flat and were waitresses together when Dez lived in Portland.

“Hey baby girl,” says Maxine when she hears Dez’s voice. “I’ve been meaning to call you and tell you how much I love the new poems. The one about the old lady buying whiskey in the Pakistani liquor store? I laughed until I cried. You just get better and better. And who took the picture of you on the jacket? You look like Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“Roz took it,” says Dez, smiling as she recalls standing in the vegetable garden, her hair still wet from her shower, Rosalind snapping pictures with a tiny camera. “You got a minute?”

“For you, baby girl, all day.”

Dez tells Maxine about the gig with Nathan Grayson and her mixed feeling about saying Yes, and Maxine says, “Self-sabotage or self-preservation? That is the question.”

“I’m not unhappy,” says Dez, as if that might be a good enough reason not to read with Nathan Grayson.

“What are you afraid of?” asks Maxine, getting out her notebook.

“I write poetry,” says Dez with anger in her voice. “I don’t want to be mistaken for Kate Winslet with dark brown hair.”

“You’d be sensational,” says Maxine, writing Sensational at the top of a blank page. “And that would open a Pandora’s Box of interest in you. Tell me why that’s bad.”

“I like not being famous,” says Dez, hearing how false she sounds.

“And what will happen if you don’t do it?” asks Maxine, writing Pandora’s Box under Sensational.

“If I don’t do it,” says Dez, knowing how the world works, “my publisher will drop me and I will ever after be known as the uppity bitch who wouldn’t read with Nathan Grayson.”

Maxine laughs. “You are so not an uppity bitch, baby girl.”

Silence.

“I’m stuck,” says Dez, quoting Rosalind who often says I’m stuck when seeking help.

“Let’s go back to the beginning,” says Maxine, writing The Beginning under Pandora’s Box. “Why do you write poems?”

“To capture moments,” says Dez, thinking of Rosalind on her knees in the garden placing big white beans in the little trench snaking through the dark brown soil.

“Why capture moments?” asks Maxine, writing Moments.

“To share them with others.”

“Why do you want to do that?”

“To connect. Maybe help.”

“Help?”

“You know… maybe awaken someone a little.”

“Do it, Dez,” says Maxine, writing Awaken! “Pandora won’t bother you much in Ophelia.”

*

So Dez takes the gig.

*

At the end of Dez’s sound check a few hours before the big show, Nathan Grayson and his entourage enter the vast theatre and Grayson strides down the center aisle to meet Dez coming off the stage.

A movie-star handsome fellow in his fifties, his hair a flawless gray pompadour, Nathan takes Dez’s hand in both of his and says, “Your author photos don’t lie. Why no videos?”

“I’m low tech,” says Dez, who got her hair cut stylishly short for the reading. “Just write.”

“So you’ll do about ten minutes,” says Nathan, winking at Dez. “Sound good?”

“I was told twenty,” says Dez, having memorized six poems that take her seventeen minutes to recite without haste.

“Less is more,” says Nathan, winking at her again. “Aim for ten. They always take fifteen.”

“Will do,” says Dez, wanting to like Nathan but finding him repulsive.

“Perfecto,” says Nathan, winking at her a third time. “Just be yourself.”

*

The first poem Dez recites is called Café Idyll, about a day in her life as a waitress—the seventeen hundred people in the audience entranced from the first line and roaring with laughter throughout.

Aiming to finish under fifteen minutes, Dez skips her second and third poems and performs A Tale of Two Bass Players, a funny poignant imagining of her long-ago bass player boyfriends showing up in Ophelia to take her back to the life she had in Portland before the coming of Rosalind.

The audience goes bonkers when she finishes the poem, cheering and whistling and applauding thunderously.

Now something in the wings catches Dez’s attention and she glances to her right and sees Nathan Grayson gesturing wildly for her to stop, to be done, though she’s only been on for nine minutes.

And when the stage manager and the show’s director fail to calm Grayson down and he’s about to walk onto the stage and do God knows what to get Dez off the stage, Dez leans close to the microphone and says, “I’ll close now with a poem inspired by Nathan Grayson who so graciously asked me to read with him.”

Which simple speech quells the beast.

*

After Rosalind

When I was a child my older brothers would say to boys

questioning the little girl playing ball with them, “She’s tough

as nails. Not afraid of anything.” Which was true for all my

life until at thirty-seven I swelled with child, my Rosalind,

and in a second-trimester dream I drew my sword to fight

a man who would slay me before my babe was born. And

in that bloody duel was born my fear and the prayer

Oh let me live until my babe is born and weaned and strong.

And when my babe was four-years-old my prayer became

Oh let me live until she can make her way without me.

Now Rosalind is eight and as fearless as I

before she came to be, and in a dream

two nights ago that same man came to slay me.

But this time when I drew my sword I felt no fear,

for Rosalind was beside me, her sword drawn, too,

a cunning smile on her soon-to-be-a-woman’s face.

*

A gorgeous day in October—Rosalind thirteen, Dez fifty-one, Ernestine seventy-seven—they are having breakfast in a café in Zurich, Switzerland with Dirk Rosenfeld, Dez’s translator at Werner Schaffen, publisher of all ten volumes of Dez’s poetry in beautiful German-English editions.

“Soon,” says Dirk, watching Rosalind take a sip of coffee from her mother’s cup, “you will be having your own cups of coffee, Roz.”

“I prefer sipping from my mother’s cup,” says Rosalind, smiling at Dez. “I suppose I might move away some day and then I’ll have my own cups of coffee, though I only ever want a few sips.”

“It begins with a few sips,” says Dirk, nodding sagely. “Then one day we want a little more and a little more, and soon one cup is not enough.”

“That’s me,” says Ernestine, never having imagined she would ever go to Europe as she has now twice with Dez and Rosalind. “Two cups every morning and sometimes three, and another two in the afternoon. But not Dez. She finishes the one with breakfast and that’s it for the day. Been that way since she was twelve.”

“Not counting the twenty years I lived away from home,” says Dez, remembering the cozy flat she shared with Maxine in Portland, purple paisley curtains, big pillows on the living room floor, Othello the cat snoozing on the windowsill, the air rich with the scent of coffee brewing.

fin

Morning Coffee

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The Same Woman (Helen)

Every so often in his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he has known forever, though he has never seen her before. The first time this happened was in 1955 when Andrew was six-years-old, and it happened again in 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1987, 1993, 1998, 2002, and 2006.

2012. Andrew and his wife Luisa are both sixty-four, Andrew’s short brown hair mostly gray, Luisa’s long black hair showing strands of gray and white.

Writers and musicians, Andrew and Luisa have been married for twenty-five years and live in a four-bedroom house Andrew built thirty-six years ago a couple miles from the beach and ten miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Andrew has published eight collections of short stories and written several plays and screenplays with Luisa, six of them made into movies, with eight of their plays now staples of the worldwide theatre repertoire. Luisa has published two collections of short stories, a novella that was made into a movie, and two popular Children’s books.

Andrew’s son Owen is thirty and lives in Ireland with his wife Miyoshi, both of them employed by the movie producer and director Nicolas Thorsen. Owen is Thorsen’s First Assistant Director and Miyoshi is Thorsen’s cinematographer.

Luisa’s daughter Lily is also thirty. She and her daughter Jalecia, who is two-and-a-half, have lived with Andrew and Luisa since a few months before Jalecia was born, though now it would be truer to say that Jalecia lives with Andrew and Luisa, and Lily comes to visit when she has a free week or two between acting gigs, which is not often these days.

And for the last four years, Andrew and Luisa have been two of the three parents of Teo and Rosa, delightful five-year-old fraternal twins Andrew fathered with Adriana who, when she conceived Teo and Rosa, was partners with a woman named Maru.

When Adriana and Maru asked Andrew to contribute his genes to make a baby with Adriana, the plan was for Andrew and Luisa to be uncle and aunt to the progeny while Maru and Adriana would be the parents. But when the twins were nine-months-old, shockingly, Maru fell in love with another woman and shortly thereafter Adriana moved with her babies from Maru’s house in Vancouver to the other house on Luisa and Andrew’s property.

Now that Teo and Rosa are in kindergarten, and given Andrew and Luisa’s willingness to shoulder much of the parenting duties, Adriana has returned to fulltime work as a jazzercise instructor and percussionist. And for the summer months, Andrew and Luisa are the primary every-day parents of Rosa and Teo.

On a warm and sunny morning in July—Lily in New York playing the part of a psychic policewoman in a big budget thriller, Adriana booked all day at the recording studio, and Luisa needing a morning sans children to catch up on business correspondence—Andrew loads the trusty red Prius with beach supplies, secures the three children in their car seats, and drives them to nearby Lions Bay Beach for a morning of playing in the sand followed by lunch, a nap for Jalecia, and story time for Teo and Rosa until Jalecia wakes up.

There are only a few other people on the beach today as Andrew and Teo and Rosa and Jalecia trek across the sand to set up camp under their big yellow beach umbrella a hundred feet back from the incoming waves.

Umbrella planted deep, Andrew slathers the trio with sunblock and reminds Teo and Rosa not to go into the water over their knees unless he is right there with them. When everyone is sufficiently slathered, Teo and Rosa race to the water with Jalecia in pursuit and Andrew close behind.

After building three mighty sand castles to defend the coast against monsters and pirates, they toss Frisbees for twenty minutes, walk a mile south and back, and hunker down under the umbrella to have lunch.

And at the height of their picnic, an attractive middle-aged woman with shoulder-length gray hair dressed in khaki shorts and blue sweatshirt, expensive camera in hand, approaches their encampment, takes off her dark glasses, and says with a pleasing British accent, “Would you mind if I took some pictures of your children? They are my dream come true.”

“Do you mind having your pictures taken?” asks Andrew, consulting the kids who are engrossed in their almond butter and banana sandwiches.

“I don’t mind,” says Rosa, her recent growth spurt making her a few inches taller than Teo, much to Teo’s chagrin, both of them tall for five.

“I’ll show you my muscles,” says Teo, his mouth full. “After story time.”

“Wonderful,” says the woman, taking pictures of Jalecia who is about to fall asleep as she always does after chasing Teo and Rosa around for a few hours.

“Join us for cookies and lemonade?” asks Andrew, who feels certain he knows this woman from somewhere.

“Love to,” she says, coming under the umbrella and kneeling a few feet from Andrew. “I’ve seen you and your children here many times, often in the company of a beautiful woman with long black hair. We’re renting a house, my daughter and I, just a half-mile north of here and I walk this beach every day.”

“Half-mile north?” says Andrew, looking in that direction. “In the little enclave of houses just back of the dunes? I ask because I helped build three of those forty years ago.”

“Yes, in the enclave,” she says, gazing intently at him. “Ours is the one with the observation tower accessed via the spiral staircase. My daughter and I call it the crow’s nest.”

“That was the last of the three houses we built there,” he says, recalling those difficult years when his initial success as a writer lasted but briefly and he returned to carpentry to support his first wife, Owen’s mother, and Owen. “Best of the three by far.”

“It’s a wonderful house,” she says, raising her camera to capture Teo and Rosa gazing solemnly at their father. “We’ve lived there for five months now, my daughter and I, and every day we marvel at where we are. We’re from London and plan to be here another year and a half.”

“Poppy?” says Teo, continuing to gaze solemnly at his father. “Can we go see the house you built?”

“Yeah, we’ll go by there,” he says, noting the children have finished their sandwiches. “Are we ready for cookies?”

“I want a cookie,” says Jalecia, her face and hands smeared with almond butter.

“First we wash,” says Andrew, extracting a washcloth from one of his bags, dousing it with a splash of water, and deftly wiping Jalecia’s face and hands. He douses a second washcloth and gives it to Teo who cursorily wipes his face before passing the washcloth to Rosa who takes a bit more care washing her face and hands before handing the towel back to Andrew.

Cookies dispensed, Jalecia takes a bite of hers and offers the rest to the woman. “Want my cookie? I tired.”

“Thank you,” says the woman, taking the cookie. “My name is Helen. What is your name?”

“Jalecia,” she says, yawning majestically.

And with that the little girl lies down and promptly falls asleep.

“Just like me every day at three,” says Helen, laughing merrily. “The requisite nap before tea.”

“I’m Andrew, by the way,” says Andrew, certain now he has never met her before, but feeling he knows her. “And this is Rosa and Teo.”

“He’s our father,” says Rosa, pointing at Andrew, “but he’s Jalecia’s grandfather.”

“That means I lose the bet,” says Helen, looking from Rosa to Andrew. “I guessed your were the father of all three, and my daughter guessed correctly.”

“To be explained further when young ears are distracted,” says Andrew, dispensing two more cookies to the twins.

“We know what that means,” says Teo, giving Andrew a disparaging look.

“Can we tell stories now?” asks Rosa, nodding expectantly.

“Such is our tradition,” says Andrew, smiling at Helen. “You’re welcome to stay, but I warn you the stories go on for a good long time.”

“Thank you, but I should go,” she says, handing him her card. “I so appreciate the opportunity to photograph your children, and should you want to show them the inside of the magnificent house you built, please give me a call.”

When the kids are asleep that night—Jalecia in her bedroom in the big house, Teo and Rosa in their bedroom in what the children call the little house, Adriana in the living room of the little house entertaining her current love interest, a Moroccan woman named Hadiya—Luisa googles Helen Lesser photographer and learns she is a photojournalist and fine art photographer, sixty-four, and has a forty-two-year-old daughter, Diana Isaverb, a poet and painter.

“I’d love to meet them,” says Luisa, coming into the living room. “Shall we invite them for supper?”

“I think maybe we should go look at the house first,” says Andrew, sprawled on the sofa, exhausted from his long day of taking care of the kids. “I know you’ll like Helen, but something tells me we might want to meet her daughter on their home turf before we have them over here.”

“Why?” asks Luisa, sitting down to rub Andrew’s feet. “You think Diana might be crazy?”

“No, not crazy,” says Andrew, yawning. “Just… there was something about the way Helen said my daughter that made me think Diana was a child and not an adult, though Google says she’s forty-two. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Luisa, wistfully. “I have a daughter who’s still a child at thirty and gave us Jalecia to raise because she doesn’t want to stop being a child.”

“We could put our foot down,” says Andrew, loving Luisa rubbing his feet. “Demand she spend more time here.”

Luisa laughs at the absurdity of demanding anything from Lily, and Andrew laughs with her.

Two days later, Andrew calls Helen to make a date to bring Luisa and the kids to see the house, Helen invites them for lunch a few days hence, Andrew accepts, and Helen says, “There’s something I need to tell you about my daughter Diana before you come. Is this a good time?”

“Yeah, fine,” says Andrew, going out on the deck overlooking the garden where Luisa and the children are picking snow peas and pulling carrots.

“I was a single mother and Diana my only child. She never knew her father. He was a charming Turk who seduced me when I was on holiday in France and I never saw him again.” She laughs self-consciously. “But that’s not the main thing I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me as much as you like,” says Andrew, loving the cadence of her speech. “I have at least another five minutes before the kids come charging in from the garden.”

“Good,” she says, clearing her throat. “So… Diana and I were extremely close until she was eighteen and took up with a much older man I didn’t approve of. We quarreled and she left and didn’t speak to me again for thirteen years, though I was aware of her because she became a fairly well-known poet and artist, and then we got to be friends again when she was in her early thirties.”

“What prompted the reunion?”

“She came to a show of my photographs,” says Helen, opening a sliding glass door and going outside, the ocean roaring faintly in the background. “Then she called and said she liked the show and wondered if I would take the author photo for her next volume of poetry, and I did, and we got close again. And then six years ago she had a child, a boy named Nathan, and two years ago when Nathan was four…”

Andrew waits for Helen to stop crying.

“Sorry,” she says, clearing her throat again. “He died in a car crash and Diana had a breakdown from which she has largely recovered, but she’s still quite dependent on me. I tell you all this because I know meeting your children will be very emotional for her, in a good way, but if you would rather not come, I completely understand. She’s a lovely person, but still fragile, so…”

“We’d love to come,” says Andrew, wanting more than ever to visit them. “Was your daughter involved in the accident?”

“No. Her ex-husband was bringing Nathan home after having him for his one weekend a month and didn’t put Nathan in the car seat and…”

“Was her ex-husband killed, too?”

“Yes,” says Helen, whispering. “I don’t think Diana would ever have recovered if that horrid man was still alive and Nathan gone.”

Having been warned multiple times by Luisa not to touch anything without first asking permission, Teo and Rosa climb out of the car and gaze in wonder at the spectacular two-story house with a fanciful observation tower rising ten feet above the peak of the roof, the ocean’s roar muted by massive sand dunes to the west of the house.

“It’s like a castle,” says Teo, running ahead of everyone to ring the doorbell—Rosa and Jalecia and Luisa and Andrew catching up to him just as the door opens and here is Helen in a blue paisley dress, and Diana, a strikingly beautiful woman with dark olive skin and black hair in a short ponytail, wearing red pedal pushers and a black T-shirt.

“Welcome,” says Helen, beaming. “You must be Luisa. This is my daughter Diana.”

“Hi,” says Diana, her eyes darting from child to child. “Come in, come in. We just took the bread and cookies out of the oven.”

Teo follows Diana and Helen into the house and stops abruptly to gawk at the immense room with a vaulted ceiling and huge windows looking out on the dunes.

You built this, Poppy?” he says, gaping at his father.

“I did,” says Andrew, entering with Jalecia holding his hand. “With Max and Rico.”

“You built a temple,” says Diana, smiling shyly at Andrew. “For those who worship the dunes.”

They dine on the big deck outside the kitchen, Diana sitting between Rosa and Luisa, Jalecia on Luisa’s lap, Teo across the table from Diana.

Helen serves lunch and explains, “I’m finally taking my sabbatical after twenty years of teaching Photography at Westminster College. We’ve wanted to come back here for thirty years, ever since Diana came with me on an assignment to take pictures of the orcas for a nature magazine and we stayed in a beach house near Nanaimo for a few days.”

“I was twelve,” says Diana, watching Teo happily devour his chicken sandwich. “But I never forgot the wonderful time we had here.”

A moment later, Luisa transfers Jalecia from her lap to Diana’s lap, and the little girl stays with Diana for the rest of the meal, Diana overjoyed to be holding her.

After lunch everyone goes up the spiral staircase to the observation tower where Rosa and Teo take turns looking through the telescope and complaining the other is hogging the telescope, and from there the party moves outside and everyone climbs to the top of the dunes from where Teo and Rosa race down to the seaside bottom and trudge back up to the top three times, Jalecia watching from her perch on Poppy’s shoulders and Helen taking pictures of the kids while Luisa and Diana return to the house to set the table for tea and cookies.

“You’ve made us very happy today,” says Helen, as she and Andrew trail Teo and Rosa and Jalecia to the house. “Thank you so much for coming.”

“Our pleasure,” says Andrew, taking her hand. “Let’s do this again soon.”

“We would love that,” she says, bowing her head and weeping.

“You’ve had a hard go,” says Andrew, resisting his impulse to embrace her. “It’s good to cry.”

“Oh we cry every day,” she says, looking up at him, her face radiant. “We flood the temple with our tears.”

After tea and cookies, Diana takes the kids to see her studio adjacent to the house, a large rectangular room with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the dunes, two large tables in the center of the room, and seven large canvases hanging on the walls, none of them yet touched with paint.

When Andrew and Luisa and Helen arrive in the studio doorway, Rosa rushes over to them and says, “Guess what? We’re going to draw and paint with Diana and make things with clay. Not today, but maybe soon.”

“I’m going to paint a gigantic spaceship,” says Teo, defiantly. “And make rockets out of clay for blowing up aliens.”

“What if the aliens are friendly?” asks Andrew, sounding concerned.

“Then we’ll invite them for lunch,” says Teo, frowning thoughtfully. “Once we find out what they like to eat.”

For the rest of the summer, every Tuesday and Thursday morning after breakfast, Andrew or Luisa drops Teo and Rosa and Jalecia off at Helen and Diana’s house to make art and play on the beach, followed by lunch, and then Andrew or Luisa picks the kids up and brings them home.

When kindergarten resumes in September, Teo and Rosa and Jalecia spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with Diana and Helen and sometimes stay for supper, sometimes not.

For Andrew and Luisa these hours without the children are golden hours of writing and music making and interacting with other adults and lolling around.

For the children, these hours with Diana and Helen are golden hours of drawing and painting and making things out of clay and playing on the beach and eating sugary things forbidden at home and being adored by the wonderful Helen and Diana.

For Helen these hours with the children are golden hours of taking pictures of the kids and reading stories to them and feeding them and being the grandmother she loves to be.

For Diana, these hours with the children are her salvation.

Once or twice a week, Helen and Diana come to Andrew and Luisa’s for supper, and when the kids have gone to bed, the adults gather in the living room to talk.

On a stormy evening in October, the kids fast asleep, Andrew and Luisa and Helen and Diana sit by the fire enjoying tea and pumpkin pie.

“Hard to believe,” says Helen, gazing into the flames, “that a year from now I’ll be in London again, teaching Photography and wishing I was here.”

“But you’ll be staying, won’t you?” asks Luisa, looking at Diana with whom she has grown very close.

“I don’t know,” says Diana, anguished. “I love it here so much, but I can’t imagine staying without Mum, so I might go back, too.”

“Or you could stay here and I’ll be back in the summer,” says Helen, smiling bravely. “But lets not think about it now. We have all winter and spring and summer again before I have to go.”

“You know, of course,” says Andrew, sounding very serious, “that you’ll have to take the kids with you.”

“They much prefer you to us,” says Luisa, sipping her tea. “They tell us every day.”

“At least twice,” says Andrew, nodding.

“Because we spoil them,” says Diana, smiling sublimely. “Because we give them candy and chocolate and aren’t the ones who make them go to bed before they want to. Because we are doting Aunty and Grandma and not Mama and Poppy.”

“We love that you spoil them,” says Luisa, getting up to put another log on the fire. “We are too overwhelmed to spoil them, and their mother… as much as we love Adriana, is like my daughter Lily and prefers her children in small doses and not all day every day.”

The humans fall silent, rain drumming on the roof.

“I’ve started writing again,” says Diana, glancing shyly at Andrew and Luisa. “First time in… three years.”

“That’s exciting,” says Luisa, resuming her place on the sofa beside Diana. “We could have a reading. Andrew just finished the rough of a new story and if we set a date he’ll feel compelled to rewrite it. You could read some poems, I could read a story, and Helen could give a slide show.”

“When you say a reading,” says Diana, anxiously, “you mean…”

“A few friends here in the living room,” says Andrew, reassuringly. “We’re introverts. Quite the opposite of our children, the older ones and the younger ones, but we do like reading for our friends.”

“Speaking of slide shows,” says Helen, pausing momentously, “I showed my publisher some of the pictures I’ve taken of Teo and Rosa and Jalecia, and they absolutely love them. So what we’re thinking, with your permission, is to make a book of photos of the kids accompanied by Diana’s poems.”

“Assuming I haven’t lost the knack,” says Diana, feeling a sudden resurgence of doubt.

“I’m sure you haven’t,” says Luisa, matter-of-factly.

“I’m sure, too,” says Andrew, nodding in agreement.

“Why are you both so sure?” asks Diana, on the verge of tears.

“Everything about you makes us sure,” says Luisa, smiling at her.

“You speak in poems, Diana,” says Andrew, raising his cup to her. “You are the knack.”

As often happens when Andrew and Luisa decide to have a party, a few friends quickly becomes more than a few, and on a cold clear night in December, forty people crowd into the living room for hors d’oeuvres and wine and beer as prelude to the show.

Andrew and Luisa open with a song, Andrew reads a funny story about a sour old man sweetened by the coming of a cat into his life, and Luisa reads a story about fishing with her grandmother when she was a girl and how her grandmother tried to teach her the facts of life by describing how pike procreate.

And lastly Diana reads a lovely narrative poem that begins with the first time she saw Teo and Rosa and Jalecia on the beach with Andrew, and ends with her arriving at Andrew and Luisa’s house to read the poem to those who are here, the body of the poem telling how making art with the children has empowered her to release the spirit of her son from the prison of her grief.

Six months later, in June of 2013, Adriana informs Luisa and Andrew she is moving to Spain with her partner Hadiya and will take Teo and Rosa with her unless Andrew and Luisa want the kids to stay with them.

Andrew and Luisa insist the kids stay with them, and in mid-July, Adriana flies away, after which Teo and Rosa move permanently into the big house.

And while Andrew makes needed repairs to the little house before they have the interior repainted, Luisa informs several friends that she and Andrew are looking for someone wonderful to live in the little house and help with cooking and cleaning and shopping and taking care of the children.

Two weeks after Adriana flies away, Andrew goes to pick up the kids at Helen and Diana’s and finds Diana waiting for him in the driveway.

“Feels like I’ve been out here for hours waiting for you,” she says, laughing anxiously. “The watched pot and all that, only in this case I watched the road.”

“What’s going on?” he asks urgently. “Kids okay?”

“Yeah, there fine. They’re with Mum in the kitchen.” She fights her tears. “I want to live in the little house, Andrew, and help take care of the kids.”

“We thought you were going back to England with Helen,” he says, opening his arms to her. “That’s the only reason we didn’t ask you.”

“If I can live with you and Luisa and the kids,” she says, stepping into his embrace, “then I won’t need to go back. It was living alone I was afraid of.”

Helen stays with Diana in the little house for the last week of August before she flies back to London, and during that week she takes another thousand pictures of the children.

On the beach the day before she is to leave, Helen stands with Andrew watching the kids playing in the shallows.

“I will miss the children,” says Helen, raising her camera to capture Rosa holding Jalecia’s hand as a gentle wave breaks against their bodies—Teo much further out than the girls, the water above his waist. “But I will miss you most of all.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” he says, keeping his eyes on the children. “Very much.”

“I’m glad to know you’ll miss me,” she says, lowering her camera to gaze at him. “Having missed you all my life.”

“You mean someone like me?” he asks, looking at her.

“No,” she says, raising her camera and taking picture after picture of his face. “Specifically you.”

 fin

One Last Time

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We Might Be Friends

end of something

Volume of Greenstreet photo by Todd

Paul Windsor, late fifties, bespectacled, his longish gray hair turning white, is sitting at his customary corner table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.

Something causes him to look up from reading Kate Greenstreet’s The End of Something, and his eyes are drawn to the woman with silvery hair who just took her place at the end of the short line of customers. He wonders what made him look up from the poem he was reading. Was it the words I thought we might be friends or something about this woman at the end of the line? Or both.

Paul’s wife Elisha, her long reddish brown hair in a ponytail, and Alexandra, Paul and Elisha’s seventeen-year-old daughter, her shoulder-length reddish brown hair tinted with purple, are working behind the counter, both of them wearing white dress shirts and black jeans; and this woman at the end of the line is wearing a long gray skirt and a peach-colored sweater.

He can only see the woman’s backside, but her posture and shape are familiar to him, and when she looks to her right and he glimpses her profile, he realizes this is Maureen, his first wife whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in thirty-two years.

His immediate impulse is to sneak out of the café before Maureen can recognize him, but the impulse passes and he closes his eyes and remembers the moment he met her—the opening night of a group show at the Hawkins Gallery in San Jose. His friend George had four paintings in the show and Paul was there out of loyalty to George. Maureen was gallery hopping with her friend Lisa who knew George and came to give George a congratulatory hug. George introduced Lisa to Paul, and Lisa gave Paul a hug, too. Then Lisa said, “This is my amazing friend Maureen,” and Paul and asked, “What’s so amazing about you?” And Maureen said, “Take me home and I’ll show you.”

Paul opens his eyes and sees Maureen at the counter talking to Elisha; and he feels gut punched, which is how he felt every time Maureen confessed her latest infidelity to him. They married a month after they met, separated after a year, divorced a few months after that.

Maureen pays for her bag of pastries and turns to leave; and Paul sees her face clearly for the first time and realizes this is not Maureen.

He puts down The End of Something, opens his notebook, and writes Maureen was constantly unfaithful because deceiving me made life more exciting for her. She never expressed the slightest interest in my writing or music, yet I invited her to live with me, married her, went deep into debt buying her a new car and expensive clothing and taking her out to trendy restaurants. Why did I do that when I knew from the beginning she cared nothing for me? Was it because she was beautiful and I never thought a beautiful woman would ever want to be with me?

The café door opens and the woman who is not Maureen enters again. She buys a cup of coffee and a cinnamon swirl and looks for a place to sit—all the seats taken except one at Paul’s table.

“Would you mind if I sit with you?” she asks, her voice identical to Maureen’s voice.

“No, please,” he says, thinking maybe this is Maureen transformed by thirty more years of life.

“Thank you,” she says, sitting down with a weary sigh. “I tried to get my daughter and her friend to come in, but they have no interest in leaving the car.” She shrugs. “We’re driving to Portland via the coast because it’s so beautiful, right? But they won’t get out of the fucking car. Pardon my French.”

“How old is your daughter?” asks Paul, imagining a surly teenager.

“Thirty,” says the woman, nodding dolefully. “Going on twelve. My fault. Should have kicked her out long ago, but…” She glances at The End of Something. “That any good? Mystery?”

“Poetry,” says Paul, certain now the woman is not Maureen.

“Wow,” says the woman, wistfully. “Poetry. Boy does that take me back.”

“To where and when?” asks Paul, wondering why he thought this woman was Maureen, when she is nothing like Maureen.

“To Santa Cruz a million years ago when I used to get really stoned and read Emily Dickinson.” She smiles, remembering. “Heaven.”

“Would you like me to read you one of these poems?”

“Here?” she says, glancing around the room. “Now?”

“Yeah,” says Paul, laughing. “My wife is the manager and she encourages the out-loud reading of poetry.”

“Okay,” says the woman, blushing. “But tell me your name first.”

“Paul Windsor,” he says, loving that she blushed at the thought of being read to by a stranger in a café. “What’s your name?”

“Victoria,” she says, taking off her sweater and revealing a shimmering sleeveless red shirt and tattooed arms—mermaids and unicorns—and a necklace of turquoise stones.

“I did not expect tattoos,” says Paul, gazing in wonder at her.

“Oh I used to be a super hippy,” she says, remembering those halcyon days. “Before I got pregnant and had to get real.” She winks at him. “You know what I mean.”

“Not sure I do,” he says, imagining her as a young woman smoking a joint and reading Emily Dickinson, the words amazing her.

“Yes, you do,” she says, bitterly. “To pay the bills. When mommy and daddy wouldn’t anymore. Right?”

“Right,” he says, nodding. “I see what you mean.”

“Is the poem sad?” she asks, biting her lower lip. “The one you want to read me?”

“No,” he says, opening the book. “Not sad.”

69. BLACK SNOW

I thought we might be friends. Or we were friends but

who we turned out to be was disappointing.

 

She walks to the corner of the field. One of those cold

bright days you remember from childhood.

 

The past, nothing.

New people, nothing.

 

She sees him but she doesn’t know him.

She’s wearing his coat.

Victoria purses her lips and says, “I like that poem.” She sighs. “A lot. Would you read it again, please?”

He reads the poem again, slower this time.

She nods. “I feel like that all the time now. Like I’m outside what’s going on. Like when I’m driving my daughter and her friend and they’re plugged into their phones and I look out at the hills and the sky and the clouds and the ocean and I think how beautiful it is, and they’re not even aware of it, and I’m just driving through it, driving them through it to some motel on the way to some hotel in Portland where they’ll go to some dance club and take Ecstasy and then we’ll drive back to Palo Alto the fast ugly way. For what? Like the poem says. The past, nothing. New people, nothing. Why do I live like this? It’s like I’m only half-alive. I should sell everything and get a place around here. Near the wild ocean. Have a garden and a cat and volunteer somewhere. Help people. I’ve got enough money. Let my daughter take care of herself, though I don’t think she can.”

A silence falls between them.

Victoria tears off a big chunk of her cinnamon swirl, dips the chunk in her coffee, and puts the drenched chunk in her mouth, her eyelids fluttering with pleasure at the marriage of bitter and sweet.

fin

Kate Greenstreet reading her poem 69. Black Snow

Todd reading his poem Why Now?

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The End of Something

TEOS

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I just got my copy of Kate Greenstreet’s newest book of poems The End of Something. Wow. What a marvelous book. Not only are the poems songful and clear and provocative, as in thought/feeling-provoking, but the book itself is a most pleasing objet d’art with beguiling design touches and a splendiferous presentation of the poems, the line-spacing wonderfully spacious, the fonts exactly right, the book small yet not small—an insightful chronicle writ in a language we know but have never used this way.

As I read Ms. Greenstreet’s opus, images from my past rise from the depths; and the next thing I know I’m returning to the present here by the fire, many minutes having ticked away while I slipped and slid down various memory lanes—proof to me of how excellent her poetry.

 

From  80. WHAT TO DO WITH THE WILL TO BELIEVE

Whatever happened to divine

discontent? Longing

as the basis of self-discipline.

Fifteen years ago. I am fifty-three, walking the labyrinth embedded in the plaza outside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The woman I am involved with is twenty feet ahead of me on the mystic coil. She is often displeased with me and emotionally unavailable: two big obstacles to the continuance of our relationship.

A woman comes out of the cathedral, walks down a short flight of stairs, and approaches the labyrinth. She moves without a hint of fear in her gait and posture, her glossy brown hair falling to her shoulders, her skin olive brown—Spanish comes to mind, though she might be Greek or Ashkenazi.

She is wearing a dress that does not become her, a drab brown tube falling to just below her knees, the short sleeves all wrong, yet she takes my breath away. She reaches the threshold of the labyrinth just as I reach the center, our eyes meet, and we stand unmoving, locked in a powerful psychic embrace that tells me we were born to spend our lives together; and I can hardly keep from shouting “It’s you!”

Now the woman I’m involved with says, “We should get going. They’re expecting us.”

And my soul mate, rather than enter the labyrinth, smiles wistfully and walks away, while I, rather than run after her, turn to my girlfriend and say, “Okee doke.”

 

From  91. I SAW MYSELF NAKED BY MISTAKE

To know the longitude and latitude

with certainty, amidst erasure

of landmarks.

I am twenty-six. I have come to New York from Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper. Having recently sold a few short stories to national magazines—a huge breakthrough for me—I’ve come to New York to meet the editors who bought my stories.

From childhood until this moment in my life, I have always had an excellent sense of direction. On backpack trips in the Sierras, sans compass, I was unerringly correct about which direction was which. And in towns and cities where I lived, my sense of direction was invariably accurate.

I enter the subway in Greenwich Village, go down a flight of stairs, pass through the turnstile, go down another flight of stairs, and catch the A Train to Times Square to purchase half-price tickets to a play. I get a little turned around coming up out of the ground at 42nd Street, but find the ticket booth and head underground again to catch the A Train to West 86th.

I board the train, and one stop along realize I’m going in the opposite direction I want to go, so I get off the train, exit the underground, re-enter the underground, and after some confusion catch the A Train heading for West 86th. When I get to West 86th and emerge from the underground, I set out for what I am sure is West 83rd, only to reach West 87th and have to turn around.

And ever since then, whenever I am in unfamiliar territory, I have difficulty synching up my sense of direction with reality.

 

From  39. WHAT FALLS FROM THE SKY

That the truth means

what is going to happen. Or

what I must do.

I am fifteen. I just informed my parents I don’t want to take any more pre-med advanced science courses at my high school. I want to take Drama and Ceramics. My sisters have gone to college. My younger brother and my mother have gone to bed. I am alone with my father in the living room. He is very drunk, standing ten feet away from me, yelling at me, his face deformed by fury and hatred. He says my decision to drop Science and take Drama and Art proves I am a quitter phony loser fake pathetic useless coward copout. My sensory system begins to shut down. I can hear him shouting and I can feel the energy of his fury, but his words are indistinct.

I will not remember this event until twelve years later when I become so ill I almost die. My illness manifests a few months after selling my first novel for a small advance to a major New York publisher. I am twenty-seven, living in a rat-infested house in a dangerous part of Seattle—a house I cannot afford to keep warm during the winter, so I am always cold.

The symptoms of my illness are limbs so heavy I have difficulty moving, exhaustion, inability to sleep, no appetite, fevers, chills, and a persistent cough.

After a month of suffering, I go to a doctor. He runs a battery of tests and can find nothing wrong with me. Three more weeks pass. I am cadaverous now. My throat aches from coughing. Every time I begin to drift off to sleep, I have a coughing fit and wake up.

I go to the doctor again. More tests. Nothing. He recommends I see a psychotherapist. I go home and sit on my bed and consider calling my parents to ask them for money so I can go to a therapist.

Sitting on my bed, I hallucinate a second Todd sitting a few feet away from me, and we have a conversation.

Todd 2: So you’re sick, but they can’t find anything wrong with you. How strange.

Todd: I’m more than sick. I’m dying.

Todd 2: How come?

Todd: I have no idea.

Todd 2: Well…what’s been going on in your life?

Todd: What do you mean? I’ve been terribly sick for two months. I can barely move, barely get out of bed. Nothing else is going on. Nothing else can go on.

Todd 2: What about your novel? Aren’t you about to publish your first novel?

Todd: I have to finish the rewrite, but I’m too weak. I have to get well first, only it doesn’t look like I’m going to.

Todd 2: But isn’t it amazing? You sold a novel! To Doubleday! You must be thrilled. Dream come true. Right?

Todd: I guess so.

Todd 2: You guess so? You don’t sound very thrilled or proud or happy about selling a novel to major publisher. And I notice when you tell people and they get excited, you say the book probably won’t sell. Why do you do that?

Todd: I don’t. I’m happy about the book.

Todd 2: No, you’re not. You’re ashamed, aren’t you?

Todd: No. I’m…I’m glad.

Todd 2: You don’t sound glad. You sound ashamed.

Now a movie screen appears in the air above me, and on the movie screen is my father, his face deformed by fury and hatred, calling me a quitter phony loser fake pathetic useless coward copout.

I shout at the movie, “Get out of my body! Get out of my mind! I banish you. Be gone.”

Now the scene on the screen dissolves and another scene appears—my father snarling, “We gave you everything and you pissed your life away.”

“Get out of my body! Get out of my mind! I banish you. Be gone.”

And for hours and hours memories of being denigrated by my father and mother and teachers and girlfriends and friends appear on the screen and I keep shouting at those memories to be gone from me.

At last I fall asleep and slumber without waking for nineteen hours. When I open my eyes, though I am weak as a baby, my illness is gone.

 

47. ALL OUR BONES

 

All our bones, and the mountains.

 

Mountains always in the distance.

It’s called completion.

 

I want us to tell people.

                                   

Kate Greenstreet

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Know Your Audience

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

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Paterson Jarmusch

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.

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Pomp & Circumstance

 

sextant

Sextant drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Been one of those weeks where every conversation with all kinds of different kinds of people began with talk of the drought and the state of our personal water supplies, and from there we spun off into discussions of the swiftly changing reality of what it is to be human on this little planet that used to seem so vast.

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

You might have missed the news, or simply not given a hoot, that Stephen Hawking recently announced there are no black holes. Thus thousands of astronomers, physicists, science teachers, and graduate students are in various stages of shock that the foundation of their careers has been decreed by Mr. Black Hole himself to be a misconception, and that their decades of work have been about what isn’t there, and that billions of dollars spent on black hole-related research was essentially a big waste of money, not to mention time and space. Oops.

What made Hawking’s proclamation especially interesting to me was that the widespread foundational scientific belief in the existence of black holes was apparently not scientific at all, but mere conjecture. Hawking and his influential colleagues have abruptly changed their minds, so everyone else (including millions of people who ponied up the cash to buy Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) better change their minds, too, or risk…what? Not agreeing with the emperor who now blithely admits he wasn’t wearing any clothes, though he kind of thought he was, sort of? This is science? You betcha. Remember: medical doctors all over our scientific nation used to prescribe cigarettes to ameliorate symptoms of anxiety. Oops.

I hunted up Hawking’s explanation for why he and the entire scientific community were wrong about black holes, and I present his explanation here for your enjoyment. For extra fun, I suggest you imagine John Cleese and Eric Idle of Monty Python impersonating balding scientists taking turns presenting this blatantly self-contradictory proclamation—also pure conjecture if not outright balderdash.

“The absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes, in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are however apparent horizons that persist for a period of time. This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field. It will also mean that the CFT on the boundary of anti de Sitter space will be dual to the whole anti de Sitter space, and not merely the region outside the horizon.

“The no hair theorems imply that in a gravitational collapse the space outside the event horizon will approach the metric of a Kerr solution. However inside the event horizon, the metric and matter fields will be classically chaotic. It is the approximation of this chaotic metric by a smooth Kerr metric that is responsible for the information loss in gravitational collapse. The chaotic collapsed object will radiate deterministically but chaotically. It will be like weather forecasting on Earth. That is unitary, but chaotic, so there is effective information loss. One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

Songs nowadays are no longer songs as I used to think of songs being songs. That is to say, the things I still call songs can be listened to with my eyes closed. But the popular songs of today, the Grammy winners and the songs on all the charts of today’s music must be seen in order to be properly heard? Songs today, not the ones we oldsters think of as songs, but the new ones the youngsters live by, are inextricably bound to little movies for which music is soundtrack, and most of these soundtracks are composed of many layers of synthesized sonic noise underpinned by mechanically generated rhythm tracks designed to support the visuals comprising the little movies.

“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter: second, telling other people to do so.” Bertrand Russell

I like that definition of work: altering the position of matter. I would add that for some position altering of matter one earns money, and for some position altering of matter one does not earn money; and there are two kinds of money: regular money and gig money.

Gig money is worth much more than regular money. I used to think the added buying power of gig money had something to do with black holes, but now that black holes no longer exist, perhaps the extra buying power is attributable to anti de Sitter space, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think the extraordinary nature of gig money is alchemical. Now before you climb on your scientific high horse and declare alchemy a pile of mystical infantile wishful thinking black hole rabbit poop, feast your eyes on the following from Smithsonian Magazine: “There is growing evidence that alchemists seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the world in interesting ways and reported genuine results. And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note, including Sir Isaac Newton and Lavoisier.”

What do I mean by gig money? The word gig has come to mean job in today’s world. “I have a regular nine-to-five gig for a software company, but my main thing is recording random street sounds and turning them into rhythm tracks,” is common parlance today, but a gig used to mean a performance, usually of jazz or poetry, made with the hope of possibly making some money from the performance, but maybe not making any money. It is this maybe/maybe not making money aspect of a gig that endows gig money with its alchemical mystical extra-potent power. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum or nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum. You choose.

For instance, one night I made forty bucks for reading my short stories and telling jokes in a used bookstore in Sacramento, the audience unexpectedly large, the donations jar overflowing. With that gig money I bought groceries for the entire week, went out for Mexican food twice, bought new guitar strings and three pairs of pants at the Salvation Army, and still had money left over. So I bought a pile of Russell Hoban novels at the used bookstore, gave ten bucks to a friend, bought my sweetheart some flowers, and splurged on three goldfish for the backyard pond, and I still had money left over. And if I hadn’t gone and cultivated negative thoughts about an annoying person who was just doing the best he could, I might still have that gig money because thoughts are actions and the karmic wheel rolls on ceaselessly. Which is why we should always endeavor to be kind and generous even when we’re just sitting still with our eyes closed listening to songs.

 “There are two kinds of fools: one says, ‘This is old, therefore it is good’; the other says, ‘This is new, therefore it is better.’” W.R. Inge

Currently in the throes of rewriting my new novel, I am carving up my printed-out pages with red ink flowing from a pen held in my hand attached to my arm and directed by my brain far from the madding computer and text on a screen. Writing longhand and editing longhand are considered by most writers under the age of fifty, and even by many writers over fifty, to be antiquated practices inferior to doing everything on the screen from start to finish. I beg to differ, but who cares if I can tell by reading a few paragraphs of a novel or short story whether the author composed his or her words longhand or on a computer? That doesn’t mean one way of writing is better than the other, but it does prove (to my satisfaction) that there is a qualitative difference between those two ways of writing, and I find the quality of one of those ways vastly superior to the other. But that’s just me. And speaking of black holes, here is a recently crafted paragraph from my new novel.

In the near distance Donald sees the sign known to every alcoholic and pool player for a hundred miles around, a gigantic square of blinking neon, pink and green and blue, spelling Hotsy Totsy, a misleading moniker if there ever was one. Home to three pool tables, a long bar, seventeen bar stools, six warped plywood booths, two hideous bathrooms, and a juke box full of rock music from the 1960’s and 70’s—nothing after 1975—Hotsy Totsy is a low-ceilinged beer-soaked bunker presided over by the bald and portly Hell’s Angel Calvin Jensen, owner, bartender, bouncer and popcorn maker, popcorn and peanuts the primary foodstuffs available at Hotsy Totsy.