On a brilliantly sunny day in March, Nathan and Margot sit on the deck of Nathan and Celia’s house waiting to be called to the dining table for a lunch of fish tacos and guacamole and horchata being prepared by Celia and Del.
Today is day twenty-four of Nathan’s tenure as the helper of Del and Margot and Wanda, and Del has been taking cooking lessons from Celia every other day for the last two weeks. This is the tenth time Margot has joined them for a meal—seven times for lunch and three times for supper.
Wanda is always invited, too, but refuses to partake of these meals, wanting nothing to do with Nathan or Celia or anyone else in what she calls ‘this horrid little backwater.” She believes Margot will eventually acquiesce to her demands that they leave Mercy because in a month Margot must fly to England to begin filming parts Two and Three of the sci-fi epic Planet Babylon Reborn, which will consume a year of her life, after which she will make the fifth installment of Crusaders of Galaxy Nine. And then she is contracted to star in the first of another multi-billion-dollar sci-fi franchise Destructo Nirvana. If Wanda quits, Margot will have little time to find a new caretaker for Del.
Thus Wanda is lobbying relentlessly for a return to their previous lives as pampered prisoners in Margot’s castles in Malibu and Manhattan, both asylums under constant siege by paparazzi and hordes of people obsessed with the lives of celebrities.
In the meantime, no one other than Margot’s business manager Joan knows that Del and Margot and Wanda are not currently residing in Malibu and Manhattan, so stealthily did they make their escape and come to Mercy.
“I realize it’s only a matter of time before the world finds out we’re here,” says Margot, who of late has been confiding more and more in Nathan and Celia, in large part because Del has so zealously adopted them. “But I won’t lock Del away again. I’d rather end my career.”
“You’re a good mother,” says Nathan, who no longer thinks of Margot as Margot Cunningham, movie goddess, but simply as Margot, one of the most bottled-up people he has ever known. “Took great courage to come here.”
“Great desperation,” she says, shielding her eyes from the sun. “It was killing me to see her so unhappy, having no one to relate to except sycophants and the fucked up children of my peers, if you’ll pardon my French, and no one even remotely her intellectual equal. I would take her with me, but…” She frowns. “No. It never works to have her with me on a film.”
“She’s a great kid,” he says, guessing there is more to Margot living apart from Del so much of the time than she is willing to divulge.
“I suppose in some ways it’s a blessing she can’t use a cell phone,” says Margot, referring to her daughter’s severe allergy to microwaves—debilitating headaches and nausea and brain fog. “Though I do wish I could reach her when she’s out and about with you and Celia. I’m such a worry wart when it comes to her.”
“She needs to be out in the world,” says Nathan, rising at the sound of Del tapping a glass on the dining table to summon them. “We all do.”
At lunch Celia says, “This is our first really warm day of the year. Time to plant out the lettuce starts and get those sugar snap seeds in the ground.”
“They have the most magnificent chard and parsley in their garden,” says Del, who rarely stutters now. “And their rosemary is a veritable tree. Did you see them, Mom?”
“I did,” says Margot, enjoying her lunch. “They’re amazing, as are these fish tacos. And the guacamole is as good as any I’ve ever had.”
“Delilah was the chef today,” says Celia, smiling at Del. “I was her assistant.”
“We were more like co-chefs,” says Del, shivering with delight at her mother’s praise. “I’m still quite tentative with my spices, and gauging how much lemon juice to use in the guacamole continues to mystify me. It’s such a fine line between too little and too much.”
“Well you nailed it today,” says Nathan, looking out on the day. “Big minus tide this afternoon. The beach will be vast. I know Tennyson is eager to go.”
“I’m eager, too,” says Del, looking at Margot. “Can we, Mom?”
“Sounds marvelous,” says Margot, feigning enthusiasm. “I’ll call Wanda and tell her we’ll be another hour or so.”
As they’re preparing to leave for the beach, Margot calls Wanda, and after their brief conversation announces to everyone, “I’m so sorry. Bit of a crisis with Wanda. Gotta go put out the fire. You go on, dear, and I’ll walk on the beach with all of you another time soon.”
On the great expanse of sand at the mouth of the Mercy River, Tennyson runs toward a distant flock of gulls standing in the shallows, and Del races after the swift little dog, her speed and grace astonishing to Nathan and Celia.
When Del and Tennyson race back to Nathan and Celia, and Del is barely winded, Celia says, “You run so fast, Delilah. You could be a track star.”
“I train with my mother when she lives with us,” says Del, exulting in her freedom on this glorious day. “She does most of her own stunts, you know, except the real dangerous ones. She’s in awesome shape.”
“So are you,” says Nathan, making an I-can’t-believe-it face. “I could never run that fast, not even in my fabled youth.”
“I miss my dance classes,” says Del, twirling around. “I love to dance.”
“You can take dance classes here,” says Celia, doing a little shimmy. “My daughter takes Afro Cuban dance at the rec center, and they have Jazz dance there, too.”
“I love Afro Cuban and Jazz dance,” says Del, ripping off a series of sexy moves, little knowing she’s being sexy. “I must sign up immediately.”
“And so you shall,” says Nathan, overcome by a premonition he dares not speak aloud for fear of jinxing fate.
When they get back to Nathan and Celia’s house from the beach, they find Margot waiting for them with news that Wanda is quitting and leaving tomorrow if Margot won’t give up on Mercy and return to Malibu.
“I won’t go back,” says Del, defiantly. “I love it here. Please, Mom. Don’t make me go back.”
“I will try to find a replacement for her,” says Margot, clearly overwhelmed. “But I must make these next four movies, after which I promise…”
“No,” says Del, interrupting her. “You always say that. One more movie and then we’ll be together and I won’t need a nanny. But that never happens. You have a whole other life without me. You’re a movie star. This is what you do, what you love to do. So do it! But if you make me go back I’ll run away. Don’t think I won’t.”
“I’ll call Joan,” says Margot, anguished. “And see if she can…
“If I may intervene here,” says Nathan, glancing at Celia and receiving her approving nod, “we would be happy to become, as it were, the new Wanda and look after Del in your absence.”
“You would live with her in the Caldwell House?” says Margot, stunned by the possibility.
“No,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “She would live with us. We have a guest room and Celia is now a mere month away from retiring. Del can come on pruning jobs with me, cook with Celia, work in the garden, keep us in kindling, and take Afro Cuban dance at the rec center. And you can sell the Caldwell place and erase all evidence you were ever here.”
On an evening a few days before she is to leave for England, Margot sits in an armchair in Nathan and Celia’s living room, a fire crackling in the hearth, the fire built by Del. Nathan and Celia are sitting together on the sofa and Del is sitting in the other armchair with Grace the calico cat on her lap and Tennyson next to her in his bed by the kindling box, which has heretofore never been so consistently full. They have just dined on a scrumptious vegetable tajine made by Nathan and Del from a recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, Margot and Celia are drinking wine, Nathan and Del are having nettle tea.
They are sharing life stories, something Del requested they do before her mother leaves for the next several months.
“I came to Mercy when I was thirteen,” says Celia, smiling and sighing simultaneously. “Same age as you, Delilah. I was born in Mexico, in Mazatlan, but we came to California when I was a baby so I don’t remember Mexico. We lived in Salinas until I was nine and my brother Juan was seven. My father and mother and grandmother worked in the fields, mostly lettuce, and then we moved to Sonoma where my father worked at a winery and my mother and grandmother were cooks in a Mexican restaurant. And then we moved to Mercy and my father was a house painter and my mother was a cook at the Mercy Café and my grandmother stayed home and had a big garden and raised chickens and I went to Mercy High where, believe it or not, I was homecoming queen.”
“We believe it,” says Del, beaming at Celia. “You’re magnificent.”
“Then I went to college in San Jose,” says Celia, remembering how hard it was to leave home, “and I became a nurse and came back here and met Nathan and got married and had Calypso and worked in the hospital for thirty-five years.”
“You will notice how she studiously avoided recounting the trail of broken hearts she left along the way,” says Nathan, holding Celia’s hand. “As far as I’m concerned, Celia staying unmarried until I came along is proof of miracles. I have written to the Vatican, but have yet to hear back.”
“I didn’t break any hearts,” says Celia, shaking her head. “Well… maybe one or two.”
“Now you Mom,” says Del, looking at her mother and nodding expectantly.
“Oh God,” says Margot, closing her eyes. “Another glass of wine might help. You go before me, Nathan, while I get a little drunker.”
“I will fetch the pinot for you,” he says, getting the bottle from the kitchen and setting it on the table next to Margot’s chair. “And I apologize in advance for my verbosity. Try as I may I can never manage to be as succinct as Celia.”
“Who said anything about succinctness?” says Del, who is in heaven listening to her favorite people talking. “I want to know every little detail.”
“Well in that case,” says Nathan, settling beside Celia again, “I was born seventy-three years ago on a farm in the Rogue River Valley in Oregon on the outskirts of Medford, which is fourteen miles north of Ashland, famed for it’s never-ending Shakespeare festival and a magnificent replica of the Globe Theatre. I was born at home because my mother’s water broke while she was picking chard and green beans for supper, no kidding, and my father delivered me in the living room, having delivered countless calves and lambs and horses before me.”
“Oh my God,” says Del, shocked. “How could you not have told me this?”
“Didn’t come up until now,” he says, and everybody laughs.
“It’s incredible,” says Del, giving her mother an I’m-shocked look. “He was born in the living room.”
“With my two older sisters watching,” he says, imagining the little girls gawking as he emerged from their mother. “And then I grew up a farm kid with two older sisters and two younger brothers, hoeing weeds, pruning fruit trees, driving a tractor, bailing alfalfa, slopping pigs, and going to church. My parents were Methodists and our preacher was forever threatening us with eternal damnation and roasting on hot coals in hell for all eternity if we deviated from a path nobody I knew followed, and I found his threats offensive and bridled at going to church.”
“How terrible,” says Del, frowning. “Why would your parents subject you to that kind of thing?”
“I guess because they’d been subjected to it, too, and didn’t know any better.” He shrugs. “Most religions tend to be fantastically self-contradictory. Love thy neighbor but burn in hell if you love them the wrong way.”
“Right,” says Margot, laughing. “So then what happened?”
“Well… when I was eleven, in the Sixth Grade,” he says, smiling as he remembers, “my class went to a Shakespeare play at the outdoor theatre in Ashland, Much Ado About Nothing, and I was changed forever. Loved it more that anything I’d ever seen or heard. Asked my teacher for the play and he gave me a copy that I read like some kids read comic books, over and over again.”
“You understood the language?” asks Margot, who has been in two plays on Broadway and won a Tony both times.
“The gist anyway,” says Nathan, remembering his favorite lines from Much Ado as if they were his phone number. “‘There was a star danced, and under that I was born.’ I loved the flow of the language, loved the rhymes, obvious and internal, and then I found his sonnets, and by the time I got to high school and the Sixties took hold, I declared my self a poet and grew my hair long and pissed off my father so much I had to move out and finish high school living at my friend Colin’s house until I got into San Francisco State.”
“Did the same fate befall any of your siblings?” asks Margot, the wine softening her.
“My oldest sister ran off and became a hippy before she became a biologist, but my other sister married a farmer and my brothers carried on the business of the farm until my father died and the land became so valuable they sold it to a developer for tract homes and a shopping center, after which one of my brothers moved to Idaho and switched from pears to potatoes, and my other brother became a loan shark, good Methodist he.”
“What did you do after college?” asks Del, entranced by Nathan’s story.
“Never finished college,” he says, recalling his mother’s distress. “Dropped out after two years and became a groupie of the Beat poets and worshiped them for a few giddy months until it dawned on me they weren’t very good poets. So I decided to go to England, and having no money I hitchhiked across the country to Boston and then up to Halifax and worked my way across the Atlantic on a freighter full of lumber. Got a room in a commune in Oxford, had a cynical British girlfriend named Nancy, and started over with Shakespeare and Tennyson and moved on to Auden and Spender, and after two years among the Brits came back to San Francisco and eventually found my own voice and started sending out poems and reading at open mikes. And then when I was twenty-four I published my first poem, at twenty-six my first book, at twenty-seven my second book, at twenty-eight my third, and then…” He stops, overwhelmed by sorrow.
“And then?” asks Del in a whisper.
“Then two writers, famous among the literati of New York, writers I didn’t know and had never read, accused me of stealing lines from their poems and prose, and they made such a big fuss about it, my days as a publishing poet were ended. They never backed up their claims because they couldn’t, and I never found out why they chose me as the object of their wrath, but they did. So after a few years of painful disbelief, I came to Mercy, set up shop as a pruner of trees, married the lovely Celia, and here we are.”
“It’s sickening,” says Del, furiously. “Those people should be put in jail.”
“Too late, my dear,” he says, his cheeks streaked with tears. “They’re both dead now, neither of them amounting to much in the great scheme of things, but then few ever do.”
“I would be shocked by your story,” says Margot, setting her wine glass down, “except I’ve known so many people ruined in the same way, for no apparent reason except somebody powerful thought they were in the way.”
“The trick is not to conflate the self with the career,” he says, gesturing for Del to put another log on the fire. “But to see these seeming catastrophes as the universe telling us to change or suffer the consequences of not changing.”
Silence falls. The cat yawns majestically. The fire crackles eloquently.
“My father is unknown,” says Margot, gazing at the flames. “My biological mother was a young woman who gave birth to me in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona and immediately put me up for adoption. But no one adopted me, and so began my career as a foster child. I lived in seven different foster homes in Phoenix and Scottsdale and finally Los Angeles until I was fifteen and ran away. I was a wily survivor by then, looked eighteen, got a job bussing tables at a café in Burbank, and soon thereafter was promoted to waitress. And then when I was seventeen I lied my way into an audition for a television commercial and got the gig.”
“What was the commercial for?” asks Celia, who understands now why Margot is so emotionally inaccessible.
“Shampoo,” says Margot, remembering sordid details she will not share. “They loved my lustrous hair and how I looked in the shower, and so did a casting director who saw the ad. He hooked me up with an agent and within a month I was cast in a teen flick as an easy pompom girl, and the rest is history.”
“And thirteen years ago Del was born,” says Nathan, not wanting to pry but wanting to know. “Can you tell us about that?”
Margot looks down at her hands and tries to think of how to talk about Del’s birth without telling the truth she’s never told Del, but she cannot think of anything but the truth, and because she doesn’t want Del to know the truth, she says nothing.
“I’ll tell the story,” says Del, knowing her mother has never told her the truth about her beginnings, but having heard the untrue story several times. “Shall I, Mom?”
“Yes,” says Margot, continuing to gaze at her hands and remember how three times she was about to end her pregnancy, yet each time her desire to have a child won out.
“So sixteen years ago,” says Del, clearing her throat and having a sip of her tea, “when Mom was twenty-eight, she fell in love with Larry Bernstein when she was in a movie with him called Cruel Weather, which I haven’t seen yet because Mom doesn’t want me to see movies with sex in them until I’m eighteen. And I’ll try not to, though I’m very curious to see my parents together. Then after a long romance, Mom and Larry got married during the Cannes Film Festival, and a year later I was conceived. But before I was born they got divorced. Larry said I was not his child so he didn’t want custody of me. Mom says he is my father but she didn’t want to go through the terrible legal hassle and the awful negative publicity to prove he is my father, and since she didn’t want be involved with him anymore anyway, she didn’t press the matter.”
“When did you discover your musical talent?” asks Nathan, intuiting that none of what Del said is true.
“When I was three,” says Del, gently stroking the kitty cat. “My nanny Portia was singing to me, and at first I sang along with her and then I sang harmony with her and she got very excited and told my mom and not long after that I started music lessons with Leopold Schirmer, and when I was five I started taking piano lessons from Ginger Harte.”
“What was the song Portia sang to you?” asks Celia, delighted to know the history of Del’s musical life.
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” says Del, half-speaking and half-singing the title. “Stevie Wonder.”
“Tell them about your first composition,” says Margot, looking up and smiling at her daughter.
“You tell,” says Del, wishing her mother would tell the truth about Larry Bernstein, but understanding that for some reason she won’t.
“I was in Paris,” says Margot, relaxing noticeably as she settles into telling the truth, “shooting The Musketeer’s Lover. Del was about to turn eight, so for her birthday I flew her over to Paris with her nanny Denise…”
“And our bodyguard,” says Del, interjecting. “Remember Rufus?” She looks at Nathan and Celia. “He was from Nigeria, and he was so big he had to duck and go sideways through most doorways.” She looks at her mother. “Sorry. Go on.”
“So you walked into my suite at the Four Seasons,” says Margot, who doesn’t remember Rufus, “and said, ‘I want you to hear something I made for you.’ And you gave me a CD, which I still have, and you’d written on it 8 Voices For Mom. Then we put it on the stereo and out came the most beautiful choral piece. Three minutes and eleven seconds long. Eight voices singing eight-part harmony. And I loved it so much I insisted they use it in the movie, and that was the music under the closing credits.”
“Eight-part harmony,” says Nathan, beaming at Del. “We’d love to hear it someday.”
“Oh it’s on the movie soundtrack and it’s on YouTube, too,” says Del, matter-of-factly. “And though it is a bit simplistic compared to what I’m composing now, the performance is quite good. Denise and I hired eight really good singers to make the recording. Two men and six women.”
“And like Mendelssohn,” says Nathan, gazing fondly at Del, “did you hear all eight parts before you wrote them down?”
“I did,” says Del, gazing in wonder at him. “How do you know about Mendelssohn?”
“Oh he loves Mendelssohn,” says Celia, kissing Nathan’s cheek. “We had a string quartet for our wedding and the processional and recessional were Mendelssohn, and at the reception all the music was Mendelssohn until the mariachi band played for the dancing.”
The day Margot leaves for England is also the day the Caldwell place sells to a couple from England, Joseph and Constance Richardson, Joseph a painter of landscapes, Constance a writer of murder mysteries.
Margot, who has been staying in a vacation rental, comes for breakfast at Nathan and Celia’s before leaving for San Francisco from where she will fly to New York and then to London.
While Del and Celia are in the kitchen preparing huevos rancheros and corn tortillas from scratch, Margot finds Nathan on his knees in the vegetable garden planting broccoli seedlings into a bed he and Del prepared together.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all you’ve done for Del and me,” says Margot, speaking to Nathan across the bed of freshly turned soil. “And for all you’re going to do.”
“And we’re grateful to you,” he says, looking up at her. “We were wondering how we’d get by on our minimalist social security should I cease to prune, and now, as we used to say long ago, we’re in fat city and we get to live with Del.”
“I’ll be calling every day,” she says, looking up at the sky. “At least at first, and…” She hesitates.
He resumes planting the spindly plants into the pliable ground.
“I want to tell you something before I go,” she says, speaking quietly.
He gets to his feet and brushes off the soil from the knees of his pants.
“Del’s father is not Larry Bernstein,” she says, looking toward the house to make sure Del is not coming out.
“I gathered as much,” he says, nodding. “You needn’t tell me who her father is.”
She looks toward the house again and steps across the bed to stand close to him.
“I have no idea who Del’s father is,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper. “I only know he is not Larry Bernstein. I’ll tell Del when she’s older, but not yet. You understand, don’t you?”
“I do,” says Nathan, feeling a little dizzy standing so near to her. “When my mother was dying I went to stay with her for the last few weeks of her life. And the day before she died, she beckoned me to come close so she could whisper and my sisters wouldn’t hear her say, ‘Your father was not your father. Your father was Lucius Carter.’”
“Who was Lucius Carter?” asks Margot, placing her hand on her heart.
“My Sixth Grade teacher,” he says, his eyes brimming with tears. “The man who gave me Shakespeare.”