Healing is sitting on the aisle seat in the last row of the Surf Theatre, the exit door a few feet away. This is the final Mercy showing of Marianne Savoy’s movie Essentiel, the title appearing in elegant white letters on a black screen, the English subtitle translating Essentiel as Crux of the Matter.
Marianne’s moviehas been playing at the Surf for three days now, four shows a day, and this is Healing’s last chance to see the movie on the big screen. He was going to attend the first screening but was overcome with anxiety and did not go. Then he was going to attend the seventh showing and developed a persistent cough and stayed home.
This morning Jahera and Tova begged him to see the movie on the big screen, and though he felt feverish and woozy after an early supper, he allowed Jahera and Tova and Steven to take him to the theatre and sit with him in the last row, which is as close as Healing can bear to sit.
The opening credits proclaim the music for the movie was composed by Darvin Shapiro and performed by Darvin Shapiro and Healing Weintraub, and when Healing’s name appears on the screen, the audience erupts in applause.
The penultimate credit reads Produced by Maahiah Dahl, and the final credit is Written and Directed by Marianne Savoy.
As Marianne’s name fades away, the blackness dissolves into an exquisite view of the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, the shore besieged by enormous waves, the vast expanse of sand void of people save for a solitary man in the far distance striding toward the camera, two dogs trotting ahead of him.
Now Healing’s voice fills the theatre.
“Forty years ago it was when I fell in love with Camille. I’ve lived whole lifetimes since then, yet it might have been yesterday when I first saw her on the Rue de Seine, so deeply etched in my mind are my memories of her.”
As man and dogs grow larger on the screen, someone cries “Healing! That’s Healing!” and thunderous applause ensues.
“I can’t manage this,” whispers Healing to Jahera, and he rises to go.
Out in the night, Healing breathes deeply of the cold October air and makes haste to Big Goose to have a beer.
“What a sad old man I’ve turned into,” he says to the starry sky. “And I never knew until now.”
This being a Tuesday evening the pub is only half-full, the mood mellow, and Healing finds a place at the bar between Lisa Moreno who works at the bookstore and Denver Tuttle who owns Tuttle’s Jams and Jellies next door to the Mercy Hotel.
Justin is tending bar tonight. He serves Healing a half-pint of stout and says, “On the house, my friend, in honor of your brilliant performance in Essentiel.”
“Many thanks,” says Healing, gulping the bitter brew.
“Only French movie I ever saw before yours,” says Denver, a burly fellow with sandy blond hair, “was in a film class I took in college thirty years ago. Fell asleep ten minutes in because nothing much was happening and everybody was talking French and they never leave the translation up there long enough, and when I woke up twenty minutes later I couldn’t figure out what was going on so I left. But I liked yours. That gal who played Camille? Jesus God. They should put her in a James Bond movie.” He nods assuredly. “And that Edward guy? Was he lucky or what? Miracle Camille wasn’t already married. They usually are, women like that. And you know what else? Every time I’d start to get confused, here you’d come again with your dogs explaining things, and I was like… Hey I get this.”
“This was my first French movie,” says Lisa, smiling shyly at Healing. “I loved how when you were young everything was so sharp and clear, and when you were old everything was kind of misty like in a dream. I loved how it went back and forth. It was very beautiful.”
“We were blown away,” says Justin, serving Healing another half-pint. “Helen’s been writing non-stop ever since she saw the movie. She’s seen it three times and she’s there again tonight. I saw it twice. Best movie I’ve ever seen. By far.”
“How was it for you, man?” asks Denver, nudging Healing. “Seeing yourself on the big screen?”
“Overwhelming,” says Healing, gulping the beer. “Though I loved seeing my dogs. They’re so beautiful.”
“Your duets with Darvin are incredible,” says Justin, putting a hand on his heart. “Darvin’s gonna make us a couple CDs so we can play the music here and at home. He should win an Oscar. I know he won’t, but he should.”
Walking home, drunker than he’s ever been, Healing stops on the sidewalk in front of the two-story building where Darby’s antique shop used to be, the ground floor now a snazzy gift shop, the upstairs luxury apartments.
Healing remembers the windows of Darby’s shop plastered with posters for poetry readings at Crow’s Nest Books, rock bands playing at Crossroads Bar and Grill, jazz at Big Goose, the latest plays at the Mercy Players Theatre, notices of garage sales, lost dogs, lost cats, firewood for sale, and dozens of business cards for massage therapists, gardeners, babysitters, glass blowers, house cleaners, psychotherapists, carpenters, painters – everything going on in Mercy.
“Now there’s only one such bulletin board in town,” says Healing, heading for the fence adjacent to Good Groceries.
“Does that say puppies?” asks Healing, squinting at a handwritten notice tacked to the old redwood fence, the words barely discernible in the light from a street lamp thirty feet away.
Now a big white squad car slows to a stop near Healing, and Sheriff Higuera smiles out his window at Healing.
“Buenas noches, señor actor,” says Ruben, in his gentle way. “We loved your movie. I swear to God your voice could tame wild beasts.”
“Ruben,” says Healing, coming to the squad car. “You found me. How did you know I was lost?”
“I didn’t,” says Ruben, shaking his head. “Now I do.”
“Might I borrow your flashlight for a moment?” asks Healing, marveling at how handsome Ruben is. “There’s an intriguing notice on the fence I can’t quite make out. I think it might be about puppies. Turq has been talking about getting a little dog and these might be just the thing. Or two. Though it might say parrots, which would be equally intriguing, though we’re no longer entertaining parrots at our house.”
Ruben hands Healing a flashlight to illuminate the message written on a smll square of cardboard.
SHEEPDOG BORDER TERRIER PUPS FOR SALE
TWO LEFT OCT 24 NO SHOTS 50$ TONY 771-1944
“Many thanks,” says Healing, returning the flashlight to Ruben. “You are a true friend, Ruben, not to mention my hero. I’ve told you before, haven’t I? That you’re my hero? Because you are. The world would fall apart in a minute without you. And don’t think it wouldn’t.”
“Get in, hermano,” says Ruben, never having seen Healing so drunk. “I’ll drive you home.”
“I will accept your kind offer,” says Healing, bowing to Ruben, “if you will lend me a piece of paper and a pen so I may write down Tony’s phone number before my memory betrays me.”
“What prompted your drinking binge?” asks Ruben, driving at the speed of walking. “Never seen you like this in all the years I’ve known you.”
“Oh Ruben,” says Healing with a heavy sigh, “I guess I’m feeling old. Missing my mum. Missing Darby’s shop and how things were before everything changed.”
“Everything always changes,” says Ruben, matter-of-factly. “Though people are no different than they were a hundred years ago. A thousand years ago. We just have more gadgets now and there are too many of us.” He smiles. “But it’s a beautiful night and maybe Tony will have a puppy for you.”
They pull up in front of the little old house and Ruben turns off his engine.
“I wake up in the middle of the night,” says Healing, anguished, “worrying about Raaz and Oz and ZuZu and the terrifying future.”
“I feel the same way about my daughters,” says Ruben, nodding. “And now Cecilia’s pregnant and soon we’ll have a grandchild.”
“I guess there’s nothing we can do but go on until we die,” says Healing, crying. “Try to be good to each other.”
“Sí,” says Ruben, closing his eyes and bowing his head. “Be good to each other.”
In the morning, Healing walks Ozan and Raaziyah to Arjun’s house for school, after which he makes haste to the parking lot at Walker’s grocery store where Tony, a skinny fellow with a bushy gray beard, is waiting by an old brown truck.
“Tony I presume,” says Healing, raising his hand in greeting as Tony brings out a small cardboard box from the truck. “I’m Healing. How are you today?”
“Can’t complain,” says Tony, proffering the box wherein two little puppies are scrabbling at the sides trying to get out.
“I’m in love,” says Healing, smiling at the pups. “I can see the Border Terrier in them and those Australian Shepherd colors. How big is the mom?”
“She’s a mini,” says Tony, nodding. “Got knocked up by my sister’s dog before I could get her fixed. There were seven pups, now there’s just these two. Ten-weeks-old. One’s a boy, one’s a girl.”
“Where do you live, Tony?” asks Healing, picking up the male and nuzzling him. “I’ve lived here all my life and you are new to me.”
“We’ve only been here about a month,” says Tony, nodding. “My wife and I. We’re from Ohio. We’re living up Frog Pond Road at the Wilson’s. Ruth is my wife’s aunt. You know Ruth and John?”
“I do,” says Healing, picking up the female pup. “Ruth and I used to take yoga at the rec center together years ago and she was a daily shopper at Good Groceries when I was manager there.”
“Ruth still goes to yoga,” says Tony, grinning. “Still shops at Good Groceries. We’re helping her with John. He’s got dementia now and she can’t handle him by herself anymore.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” says Healing, pained by the news. “It’s good they’ve got you and your wife to help them.”
“We were looking to move anyway.” He fishes a card out of his wallet. “I fix appliances if you know anybody needs work done. Washers, dryers, refrigerators.”
“You’re just the person I’ve been looking for, Tony,” says Healing, taking the card. “We have a recalcitrant refrigerator I’ll be calling you about. As for the puppies, you said fifty each?”
“How about eighty for the two of’em?” says Tony, nodding hopefully.
“You drive a hard bargain,” says Healing, extracting a wad of bills from his pocket. “Two hundred it is. And I keep the box.”
“You serious?” says Tony, frowning at the money.
“I am,” says Healing, handing him the money. “These pups are worth ten times that to me.”
“Well okay,” says Tony, pocketing the money. “You just made my day. Big time.”
“I’m glad,” says Healing, bowing to him. “As you made mine.”
Healing takes the puppies directly to Mercy’s one and only veterinary clinic where Isabella Cisneros declares them in good health and leaves the vaccinating to her assistant Gwyneth Cumberland who sings to the little darlings as she gives them shots.
Home with the puppies, Healing introduces them to the dogs while Jahera makes a puppy bed near the fire.
“Have you named them yet, Shafi?” asks Maahiah, holding Zubina while Eliana chops vegetables for minestrone soup.
“No. I’m hoping Turq will want them,” says Healing, petting the pups. “And he’ll name them.”
Turq arrives a half-hour later wearing a splendid brown and red and gold dashiki, his hair a black tangle peppered with gray. He kneels on the living room floor and gazes down at the pups conked out from their vaccinations.
“I want them,” he says quietly. “Can I take them home now?”
“You can,” says Healing, resting his hand on Turq’s shoulder. “Or you can leave them with us for a few weeks and let them learn a thing or two from the older dogs. Whatever you like.”
“You’ll house train them for me?” says Turq, grinning at Healing. “That’s a no brainer. I’ll leave them here until you give me the all clear.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” says Healing, laughing. “So the kids can play with them for a while. We’ll leave the naming to you.”
“Oh let the kids name them,” says Turq, who loves Raaziyah and Ozan.
“Stay for lunch?” asks Jahera, eager to photograph Turq holding the puppies.
“Thank you, but I’m taking my mother out to lunch for her birthday,” he says, standing up. “May I bring Mama by this afternoon to see the pups?”
“Please,” says Jahera, who loves Turq’s mother. “Come any time.”
At noon, Healing and Tova leash Moshe and Coosi and Flora and set off for Arjun’s house to get Raaziyah and Ozan.
“I have news, Pa-pa,” says Tova, handling the rambunctious Flora. “Multiple headlines.”
“Regarding you and Steven?” asks Healing, arching a quizzical eyebrow.
“One of the headlines is about Steven, but I’m saving that one for last,” says Tova, who is head over heels in love with Steven, and vice-versa.
“Do tell,” says Healing, who has been gripped by sorrow since the moment he saw himself on the big screen and heard his voice fill the cavernous room.
“Daniel called from Paris yesterday to tell me Delphine and the Sorcerer will have its world premiere in May,” says Tova, her eyes wide with excitement. “At Cannes! And Steven and I are going.”
“Fantastic,” says Healing, hugging her.
“And Morris called this morning to let me know Cream Or Black will have a theatrical release a year from now and start streaming two months later, and he’s shooting his next movie this coming May in Tucson, a comedy romance, and he wants me to play the lead.”
“Amazing,” says Healing, wishing he felt more excited about Tova’s success, yet feeling only sorrow. “You’re defying the odds right and left.”
“Morris says everyone he’s shown a rough cut of Cream Or Black to thinks I’m in my thirties. And Daniel says the French find women sexy until they’re seventy. So I guess I really am a movie actor now, only mostly I’ll be here with Steven and the kids and you and Jahera and Maahiah and Eliana and the dogs and cats.”
“And what’s the news about Steven?” asks Healing, pretending not to know that Steven proposed to Tova.
“Well…” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “He asked me to marry him. And I said yes. And we don’t want to wait so…”
“You’ll get married in the little old house on Thanksgiving.”
“How did you know?” she gasps, assuming clairvoyance.
“Might as well,” says Healing with a nonchalant shrug. “All the usual suspects will already be gathered there for the turkey and pies.”
“No, Pa-pa. How did you know Steven asked me?”
“Because after waffles last Sunday he and I had a chat and he asked for your hand in marriage,” says Healing, enjoying Tova’s astonishment. “And I could tell he would be terribly disappointed if I said No, so I said Yes.”
When Healing and Tova have raved sufficiently about the scary papier-mâché masks the kids are making for Halloween, the four humans and three dogs head for home – Tova and Healing saying nothing about the puppies in the living room.
“I suggest we pick up the pace,” says Healing, eyeing the lowering clouds. “A significant downpour is imminent and we foolishly left the house sans umbrellas.”
They almost make it home before the deluge, but not quite, and when Ozan and Raaziyah rush into the living room to take off their wet clothes by the fire, they find the puppies and go wild with joy.
Four days later on a cold drizzly Sunday morning, Raaziyah and Ozan and Moshe accompany Healing to the hen house to gather eggs for the waffle batter, and they find seven eggs, which Healing says is an excellent haul for late October.
“Shafi?” asks Ozan, carrying the basket of eggs to the house. “Why don’t the hens lay very many eggs in the winter?”
“Because there is less daylight now than in spring and summer,” he explains, “and the days are colder, too. So the hens need more energy to stay warm, which leaves them less energy for making eggs.”
“Why not put a heater in the chicken coop?” asks Raaziyah, who didn’t know chickens got cold.
“I do put a heater in there when it gets very cold,” says Healing, following the kids up onto the deck. “However, it’s mostly the amount of light that makes the biggest difference when it comes to egg laying. Some people put bright lights in their hen houses and keep the lights on most of the time, but I don’t do that because if I were a chicken I’d enjoy a break now and then from making eggs. Fortunately for us, Matilda and Eunice and Bess are Golden Comets, and Golden Comets like to lay eggs year round.”
“Why not have all Golden Comets?” asks Ozan, frowning thoughtfully.
“Because I like having different kinds of chickens who make different colored eggs,” says Healing, scanning the yard to make sure all the dogs are well before he follows the children inside.
During the waffle fest, as talk of Halloween and the impending Thanksgiving nuptials reaches a fever pitch, Healing brings a plate of waffles to the table and Zuzu in her high chair raises her arms to him and cries, “Howie. Howie.”
Healing hands the plate of waffles to Jahera and lifts the baby girl out of her chair and carries her into the living room to visit the puppies in their little pen, and Healing’s sorrow abates for a time.
After a long post-waffles visit by the fire, Healing drives Darby and Marjorie home, a hard rain falling.
He walks them to their door where Marjorie takes his hand and says, “We have to grieve, Healing. We must. It is how we make room for joy to return.”