This is a story about a woman named Genevieve. She is a cook for two writers who live in a beautiful house in Lausanne, not far from Lake Geneva. Genevieve is fifty-seven and has blonde hair turning silver. She lives with her husband Henri, a gardener, in a cottage next door to the beautiful house where the writers live.
Genevieve’s parents were bakers who had a bakery in Lausanne called Bon Pain. Genevieve began working in the bakery when she was eight. She loved to bake and she became adept at making delicious breads and pies and cookies. Indeed, Genevieve might have inherited the family business except when she was sixteen she fell in love and ran off with a young man to Zurich where she found work in a restaurant and eventually became an excellent chef, though the young man left her for another.
She reconciled with her parents when
she was in her thirties and began spending her holidays in Lausanne. On one of
those holidays she met Henri, a gardener, and they fell in love and she moved
back to Lausanne and married Henri. For the first few years of their marriage,
they lived in a small house on a large estate where Henri was one of three
gardeners, and Genevieve was a chef in a fine restaurant.
When Genevieve was forty-four and
Henri was forty-one, she was hired by the University of Lausanne to be the
housekeeper and cook in the house where writers would come to live for years at
a time, and Henri was hired as the gardener and caretaker of the property. They
have lived in the cottage next to the writers’ house now for thirteen years and
hope to live there for many more years.
The kitchen in the writers’ house is
large and airy, modern but not too modern, and Genevieve would change nothing
except have a bigger oven and an eight-burner stove instead of a six-burner.
But these are small things and she is content to wait until either the stove or
the oven needs replacing, which won’t be for some years yet.
Our story begins one winter morning
when Genevieve arrives in the kitchen to make coffee and breakfast for the
writers and finds evidence that a mouse or mice invaded the kitchen during the
“Mon dieu,” says Genevieve, who
speaks French, a little German, and very little English. “Twelve years without
a sign of a mouse, and now this.”
She has a cup of coffee to sharpen
her senses and makes a careful search of the kitchen cupboards and under the
sink and behind the refrigerator. And at the bottom of the wall adjacent to the
oven she finds a small hole in front of which is a tiny telltale mouse turd.
“Monsieur or Madame mouse?” says
Genevieve, speaking to the hole in the wall. “May I have a word with you? I
promise not to hurt you if you will come out and speak to me.”
The whiskered snout of a small brown
mouse emerges from the hole. “It’s Madame. Madame Fifi.”
“Bonjour Madame Fifi,” says
Genevieve, who loves all animals, even mice. “I see you have found a nice warm
place to live. Are you planning to stay long?”
“As long as I can,” says the mouse,
sticking her head out a little further to have a look at Genevieve.
“Are you alone in there?” asks
Genevieve, smiling at the cute little rodent.
“I am presently alone,” says the
mouse, “though I am pregnant, so soon there will be more of us.”
“Ah,” says Genevieve, pursing her
lips. “This is unfortunate and I must ask you to leave before you give birth.”
“Ask all you want,” says the mouse,
somewhat haughtily, “but I’m staying. It’s dreadfully cold outside, the rats in
the woodshed are merciless, and food is scarce, though not in your marvelous
“If you were the only mouse in my
kitchen and you did not show yourself during the day, I would have no problem
with you living here. But I cannot have mice. A mouse, yes. Mice, no.”
“Alas,” says the mouse, “pregnancy
is never my choice. I am powerless to elude the males of my kind, even my own
progeny. So babies will be born.”
“Could you bear them elsewhere and
return here alone?” asks Genevieve, who has grown fond of the mouse.
“Nay. I’m a good mother,” says the
mouse with a note of pride in her voice. “This is my nature.”
“Then I must get a cat,” says
“If you must, you must,” says the
mouse, stoically. “I can only be a mouse.”
So Genevieve tells Henri and the
writers about the mouse, and everyone agrees a cat would be a welcome addition
to the kitchen, mice or no mice.
Henri makes inquiries and a one-year-old
orange and white cat named Francois is gotten from a fishmonger with too many
cats. Francois, a most affectionate feline, is overjoyed to move from a cold
wet shed into a warm house where people pet him and tell him he is beautiful
and feed him well, though not too
well lest he have no appetite for mice.
One morning, a year after Francois
joined the household, Genevieve is alone with Francois in the kitchen.
“Now tell me Francois,” says Genevieve,
scratching Francois behind his ears, “have you killed all the mice?”
“All but one,” says Francois, loving
Genevieve’s touch. “Her name is Madame Fifi and she told me you declared that if she is the only
mouse in the house I am not to eat her, and so I have not, though I have caught
her twice and would have eaten her had she not been the last.”
“But is it not your nature to kill
and eat her?” says Genevieve, astounded by Francois’s story. “How could you
“It is my nature to kill and eat
mice, yes,” says Francois, purring as Genevieve pets him. “But it is also my
nature to be prudent. And since you do not feed me quite enough to leave me
full at night, I very much appreciate the mouthfuls of meat Madame Fifi
provides me when her babies come of age and venture forth from the hole in
search of food.”
“You are a most ingenious cat,
Francois,” says Genevieve, gazing fondly at her pet, “and since I rarely find a
mouse turd in my kitchen, I will leave the mouse situation to you.”
Some months later, on another
morning when Francois and Genevieve are alone in the kitchen, Francois says,
“Genevieve, I have sad news.”
“Tell me,” says Genevieve, bending
down to stroke Francois’s glossy fur.
“Madame Fifi is dead. I came upon
her corpse last night and put her behind the oven.”
“Does this mean there are no more
mice in the house now?” asks Genevieve, gazing sadly at the little hole in the
“No more just yet,” says Francois, “though
Madame Fifi’s lair waits only for another mouse to discover that commodious
“Shall I have Henri fill up the
hole?” asks Genevieve, gazing at Francois. “And feed you more at night?”
“Yes, please,” says Francois,
rubbing against Genevieve’s legs. “There are plenty of mice to catch in the
garden by day.”
“And do you think Madame Fifi will
be the last mouse to live in my kitchen?” asks Genevieve, putting on a pair of
old gardening gloves to pick up the stiff little body and throw the corpse
outside for the crows to find.
“For a time she will be the last,”
says Francois, purring loudly as Genevieve pours milk into his bowl. “But as
I’m sure you know, there are no end of mice in the world.”
On a warm day in August, Rosalind
Peoples is taking a bath in a huge white claw-foot bathtub with enormous brass
fixtures, the bathroom filled with summer sunlight. Rosalind and her mother Dez
Peoples, a well-known American poet, are the guests of Oliver Rochambeau, a
French movie star, at his spectacular estate in Burgundy, a 19th Century
villa surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
Dez is sixty-eight, Rosalind thirty,
and they are ostensibly visiting Oliver, who is sixty-four, to work on a
screenplay based on Dez’s collection of poems In Lausanne. However, the real purpose of their visit is for Oliver
and Dez to carry on with their love affair—Oliver married, Dez not.
Rosalind wishes Oliver would divorce
his wife and marry Dez, though Dez says she doesn’t want to marry Oliver. For
his part, Oliver loves his wife, the delightful British actress Aurelia Nichols,
and has no plans to divorce her. Aurelia spends most of her time in England
where she is a mainstay on a long-running BBC drama and doesn’t mind Oliver’s
affairs so long as he is a good and loving husband, which he is.
Dez and Rosalind have four months
remaining on a five-year fellowship that has provided them with a lovely house
in Lausanne, Switzerland, along with generous monthly stipends. At year’s end,
barring unforeseen largesse, they must return to America, specifically to the
small town of Ophelia near Seattle, though neither of them wants to go back to
America. They have applied for permanent residency in Switzerland, but have
been told the chances of gaining such status are slim.
Five months ago, Dez published In Love Poems, her sixteenth volume of
poetry. The book of seventy-seven love poems came out in German, French,
Spanish, Italian, Danish, and Portuguese editions simultaneously with the English
edition and is a great success in Europe.
The screenplay of In Lausanne has yet to materialize
because Oliver and his movie sidekick Paul Descartes and the several writers
they hired over the last year and eight months have failed to come up with a
story line uniting the poems into a movie Paul and Oliver want to make.
Rosalind was in love with Paul for several
months after he and Oliver descended upon them in Lausanne to secure the movie rights
to In Lausanne, and Paul was likewise
smitten with Rosalind. But unlike Oliver, Paul is not one to have affairs, and he
remained faithful to his then-fiancé now-wife Mariana Borba rather than succumb
to his attraction to Rosalind.
After recovering from her
infatuation with Paul, Rosalind met a charming Swiss fellow named Leon, and
they have been lovers for seven months now. Leon is a piano tuner and pianist a
few years older than Rosalind. He says he will gladly marry her, which would
allow her to go on living in Switzerland but won’t solve Dez’s citizenship
dilemma; and Rosalind wouldn’t think of staying in Europe if her mother is
exiled to America.
Hunger eventually overcomes the
pleasure of lolling in the warm bath, so Rosalind climbs out of the tub and
stands at the second-story window overlooking Oliver’s vineyards. As she gazes down
at the vines heavy with grapes, she is startled by a vision of how to shape the
forty-two poems of In Lausanne into a
comedy drama she knows Paul and Oliver and Dez will love.
“Oh my God,” she says in English, which
she rarely speaks now that French is her everyday language. “How did we not see
Rosalind finds Dez and Oliver on the
veranda having coffee at a big dining table shaded by an enormous blue umbrella,
both wearing floppy sunhats and short-sleeved shirts and dark glasses.
Dez has the dreamy look of a woman
well loved and appears to Rosalind to have shed ten years since she and Oliver
began their love affair a year ago.
Oliver, his mother British, his
father French, a rakishly handsome fellow with curly black hair going gray, greets
Rosalind in English with a Devonshire accent. “Ah fair Rosalind. Did you tell the
kitchen what you want for breakfast?”
“I did,” says Rosalind, sitting
across from Oliver and Dez. “Merci.”
“I’m taking your mother to see
Cathedrale Saint-Etienne today,” says Oliver, smiling warmly at Rosalind.
“Would you like to join us?”
“No merci,” says Rosalind, glad to see her mother so relaxed and happy. “I’m working on something I hope to dazzle you with when Paul and Mariana come tomorrow.”
“Is this about the screenplay?” says Oliver, excited. “Tell us.”
“Not quite yet,” says Rosalind,
nodding graciously to the young woman who serves her coffee. “I want to make
sure I’m not imagining things before I make my presentation.”
“I know there’s a movie in there,” says Oliver, making a fist and
thumping the table. “But it eludes us.”
“Thank goodness I don’t care,” says
Dez, gazing at her lover. “Though I’d love to see you as the gardener and Paul
as the man who is forever lost.”
Oliver frowns. “I, the gardener? No,
I see Paul in that role.”
“Either way,” says Dez, looking at
Rosalind. “Who do you see as the gardener, darling?”
“I’m less concerned with casting
right now,” says Rosalind, sipping her coffee, “than with narrative flow.”
“Plot,” says Oliver, beseeching the
sky. “The elusive plot.”
“Elusive?” says Rosalind, arching
her eyebrow. “Or too obvious?”
“If you find a viable plot for this
movie,” says Oliver, raising a declarative finger, “we will hire you to write
“Then I’ll finally have a career,”
says Rosalind, making a goofy face at her mother. “Other than attendant to the
“I prefer duchess,” says Dez, making an equally goofy face at her daughter.
“Far too much responsibility being a queen.”
When Oliver and Dez motor off to the
cathedral, Rosalind sequesters herself in her bedroom with a copy of In Lausanne and writes the titles of the
forty-two poems onto pieces of white typing paper, one title writ large per
page. Now she numbers the titles 1 to 42 and lays the pages out on her
queen-sized bed in seven rows, six pages to a row.
After studying the arrangement of
pages for some minutes, she moves Poem #7, The
Gardener Goes Fishing, to where Poem #1 is, and moves Poem #1, The Unlikely Rose, to where Poem #14 is,
and moves Poem #14, The Cook and the
Mouse and the Cat, to where Poem #2 is, and continues reordering the pages
until all the poems have changed places.
Satisfied with the new order of
poems, she renumbers the pages to match their places in the modified sequence,
gathers the pages in their new order, sits down on the bed, and slowly leafs
through the pages to confirm the new sequence does, indeed, make an intriguing
story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Walking in the olive grove in the late
afternoon, Rosalind considers whether she wants to write a screenplay based on
her mother’s poems, and she decides she does.
And the moment she makes her
decision, she feels something shift inside her.
“I know what I am,” she says, looking up at the myriad silver leaves. “I’m a story teller.”
Paul Descartes, a beautiful Frenchman
in his thirties famous for his comedies, and Paul’s Portuguese wife Mariana
Borba, also in her thirties, famous for her beauty, arrive at Oliver’s villa
the next morning to stay for a few days and unwind after six weeks of filming a
big-budget thriller in Miami.
During lunch on the veranda, Mariana
says in French, “This was the last American movie I will ever be in. Paul is
contracted to do another, but I would rather make movies about real people, not
violent cartoons. I did not become an actor to be in cartoons.”
“The Americans are very good at choreographing
car chases and scenes of violence,” says Paul, nodding in agreement, “but their
stories and dialogue are idiotic. For example, in the movie we just made, which
they are calling Secret Killers—original,
no?—the hero played by Lloyd Carter, a rogue government agent fighting a host
of villains, says to me, ‘We go through that door, our chances of surviving are
not good.’ And I reply, ‘What else is new?’ We shoot the scene this way seven
times and it falls flat every time. So I say to the director, ‘What if instead
of What else is new? I say Then why go through the door?’ And when
I suggest this to him, everyone on the set laughs.”
“A big laugh,” says Mariana, laughing at her memory of the film crew
laughing uproariously at Paul’s rejoinder.
“And Lloyd,” says Paul, continuing, “gets very
excited and says, ‘Yes, then I will say You
got a better idea? And I say, ‘We could go for coffee at a nice café.’ And
again, everyone on the set bursts into laughter. And the director glares at me
and says, “This is not a comedy.” And I say ‘Yes, I know, but you do want a
laugh here, don’t you?’ And he says, ‘That’s none of your business. That’s why
we have writers.’ So I shut up because they were paying me more money than I
have ever been paid to be in a movie and we did the scene again with What else is new? And that was that.”
“You could not pay me to go to this
movie,” says Mariana, shaking her head. “Though they paid me a fortune to be in
five scenes with Lloyd. In three scenes I wear bikinis, in one scene a transparent
nightgown, in the last scene… nothing.”
“For that,” says Oliver, nodding
thoughtfully, “I would go to this movie.”
“Speaking of movies,” says Paul, turning
to Rosalind, “Oliver tells me you have a new idea for In Lausanne? I so want to
make this movie, but we have yet to find the story that ties everything
“I found it,” says Rosalind, smiling
at her mother.
“And if you like her story,” says
Dez, looking at Paul, “Oliver promised Rosalind you would hire her to write the
“Yes, of course,” says Paul, nodding
emphatically. “What is the story?”
“I will make my presentation after
lunch,” says Rosalind, sipping her wine. “Lest we be too distracted by this
When everyone is seated in the
living room, Rosalind stands before them and says, “Once upon a time there were
four people. A charming fellow who is forever lost, a woman who is a cook and
speaks to animals, a man who is a gardener and speaks to plants and insects and
birds, and a woman who has a dog and is looking for love. In fact, they are all
looking for love.
“At the beginning of our story we
spend some time with each of the four people and we are fascinated and amused
by their eccentricities and kindness to others. Then each of them sets out on a
journey. The woman with a dog is the only one of the four who knows she is
looking for love, but they all are, and that becomes clear as we watch them on
“Then the woman who is a cook meets
the fellow who is forever lost and they fall in love, and the gardener meets
the woman with a dog and they fall in love, too. However, through a series of
delightful twists and turns, the gardener becomes paired with the woman who is
a cook, and the man who is forever lost becomes lovers with the woman with a
dog, and in the end they are neighbors, all of them good friends. The final
scene is a supper in the home of the woman who is a cook, our foursome very
much who they have always been, only now they are together and content.”
Having told the story, Rosalind presents
Oliver and Paul and Mariana each with a list of the forty-two poems from In Lausanne in the order of the story
she just told.
Paul quickly reads the list and
jumps up to embrace Rosalind. “You found our movie,” he cries. “It was there
all the while.”
“Fantastic,” says Mariana, the next
to embrace Rosalind. “Now this is a
movie I will gladly pay to see.”
“Oh you won’t have to pay,” says
Rosalind, looking into Mariana’s eyes. “Because you will be the woman with a
Upon their return to Lausanne, Dez
gets a call from Karl Fleury, the sponsor of their fellowship from the University
of Lausanne, asking if he might come see her.
Karl comes to lunch the next day and
during dessert Karl announces that because of Dez’s valuable contributions to
Swiss culture, attested to by a petition signed by hundreds of Swiss artists
and writers and academics, Dez and Rosalind have been granted permanent
residency by the Swiss government.
“And,” says Karl, his eyes sparkling,
“the university would like to offer you a three-year extension of your
fellowships and residency at The Writer’s House.”
“Oh Karl, dear Karl, thank you,”
says Dez, rising to embrace Rosalind. “Now I won’t have to kill myself.”
“You’re not serious,” says Karl,
startled into nervous laughter.
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“A delight,” says Paul, winking at
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
“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
“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
“Sixty-two,” says Roz, coming to sit
with her mother on the sofa.
“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.”
“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
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
“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.
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
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
“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
“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
“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.”
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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.
“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
“Well…” says Dez, heading for the
“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
“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,
“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
“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
“First we pee,” says Becky, scooping
up Jenny and carrying her down the hall to the bathroom, “and then we have not-too-hot
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
“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.”
“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.”
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
But during Larry’s initial sweetness
to her and their child, Dez stopped signing her poems Desdemona Persons and started signing them DezPeoples, 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
Ernestine comes out on the back
porch and says, “Phone for you Dez. Somebody named Lulu.”
Rosalind laughs. “You mean Zulu,
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.”
“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
“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.
“Do it, Dez,” says Maxine, writing Awaken! “Pandora won’t bother you much
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
“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.
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
let me live until my babe is born and weaned and strong.
And when my babe was four-years-old
my prayer became
let me live until she can make her way without me.
Now Rosalind is eight and as fearless
before she came to be, and in a
two nights ago that same man came to
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
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
Near the end of Stephen Ornofsky’s performance the audience is laughing so hard, Stephen has to wait several seconds for the laughter to subside before he can say anything else, and as he waits, he is aware he has never before connected so profoundly with an audience, a kind of super joy.
A charming fellow of
thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen’s show of
ever-changing songs and stories has been the Thursday night attraction at McCarthy’s pub in the coastal town of
Melody for seven years now.
“As some of you know,”
says Stephen when the laughter finally dies down, “I was in therapy for a year
when I was a teenager. I was suffering from a crippling psychological disorder known
as Being A Teenager.”
Stephen takes the
microphone off the stand and crosses the little stage to a high stool where he
sits and looks out at the audience, the pub filled to capacity.
“Fortunately I had a
wonderful therapist, and what he loved more than anything was interpreting
dreams. And being the kind of person I am, I very much wanted to please him. And
because I didn’t think my actual
dreams were all that interesting, I started making up dreams, really wild ones,
and my therapist just loved them and
said they were really helping us get to the bottom of my issues.”
The crowd roars with
“But then I started feeling
guilty about misleading my therapist, so I said to him, ‘You know the dreams
I’ve been telling you lately? I didn’t actually have those dreams. I made them up.’ And my therapist said, “It
doesn’t matter. They still give us valuable information.’ And I said, ‘But they
aren’t really about me.’ And he said,
‘Of course they are. Only you can make up those particular dreams, just as only
you can have the dreams you actually have. And just as you made up those
dreams, Stephen, you can make up your future life. You really can.’”
Stephen crosses the
stage, puts the microphone back on the stand, and straps on his guitar.
“So I decided what I
really wanted in my future life was a Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s where I sing songs for my
friends and tell them stories I think they’ll enjoy. And my dream came true,
and this song is for you.
I give to you, you give to me
We plant the seeds to keep the garden growing
You give to him, he gives to her,
she gives to me, I give to you,
we keep the spirit flowing
So now when those night winds blow
I want you to know I will always love you
I want you to know I will always love you
A good many people wait around after the show to give Stephen a hug or shake his hand, and one of those people is a woman in her mid-thirties visiting from Los Angeles named Nina Zubinsky. Stephen met Nina for the first time a few days ago, and when he found out she was a studio musician, a guitarist, Stephen asked her if she’d like to get together with him and play music. Thinking Stephen might be interested in her romantically, Nina made sure to tell him she was a lesbian, something Stephen never would have guessed.
Tall and slender, Nina has short curly brown
hair, dark green eyes, and wears wire-frame glasses. She is dressed identically
to Stephen in a black corduroy sports jacket, pale pink dress shirt, black
corduroy trousers, and red running shoes.
When Nina’s father Abe, who is one of Stephen’s
guitar students, finishes giving Stephen a hug, Nina shakes Stephen’s hand and
says, “I am now officially in awe of you and would very much like to play music
“I’m thrilled,” says Stephen, ferociously
attracted to her despite the aforementioned lesbian information. “Your father
has my number.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says, seeming reluctant
to let go of his hand. “You blew my mind. You really did.”
Stephen gets home around midnight to the lovely
old house he shares with Maya Johansen, an elderly woman confined to a
wheelchair and for whom Stephen is the primary caregiver. To Stephen’s surprise
and delight, he finds Maya’s other caregiver, Celia Flores, a beautiful middle-aged
Mexican woman, reading by the fire in the living room.
Dressed in a dark blue nightgown, Celia has
loosed her long black hair from its workaday bun and removed her copious
makeup, which is how Stephen prefers her. She is usually asleep when Stephen
gets home from his Thursday night gig—Celia lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday
to Sunday every week—and Stephen guesses she stayed up to talk to him about
Stephen’s dogs Hortensio, a large black mutt,
and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are in their beds by the woodstove, and they
both briefly open their eyes to look at Stephen and confirm what their ears and
noses told them. He’s home.
“How was your show, Esteban?” asks Celia, her
Spanish accent quite strong.
“Went well,” says Stephen, flopping down on the
sofa. “How was your evening?”
“Okay,” she says, putting down her book. “One
day I’ll go to your show again. I’ll ask Josephine to come for a few hours so I
can go. I don’t think Maya will ever go again. She so tired at night now. She
wants to go to bed earlier and earlier.”
“She told me yesterday she doesn’t think she’ll
live another year,” says Stephen, who has lived with Maya for nine years now.
“I don’t like to think about her going,” says
Celia, looking at Stephen. “I love my days here with you and Maya.”
Stephen wants to say Then keep coming here after she’s gone, but he knows that’s not
possible. This is Celia’s job and she and her husband depend on the income.
Celia smiles. “Maybe you’ll make a million
dollars from a song you write and I can be your cook and housekeeper.”
“Nothing would make me happier,” says Stephen,
a familiar sorrow taking hold as his performance high fades away and he feels alone
in the world with no partner to share his bed and know his deepest feelings.
“Time for me to sleep,” says Celia, getting up
from her armchair. “Hasta la mañana.”
“Hasta la mañana,” says Stephen, rousing his
dogs and ushering them out to the garden where they pee and Stephen imagines
Celia is his wife waiting for him to come to bed.
Nina calls the next morning while Stephen is
doing the breakfast dishes and they arrange for him to come to Nina’s father’s
house for some guitar playing and lunch.
Abe Zubinsky is sixty-two, a former movie sound
engineer in Los Angeles who worked on dozens of Hollywood blockbusters and is
now the owner of Studio Z, a small recording studio Abe built adjacent to his
house overlooking the Pacific Ocean a couple miles south of Melody.
Abe moved here ten years ago with his second
wife Carol, an interior designer. Six months after they arrived, Carol returned
to Los Angeles and filed for divorce because, as she is fond of telling people,
“I felt like we’d been exiled to Siberia and Abe thought we’d landed in heaven.”
Following a tour of Abe’s spectacular house and
the surrounding meadows filled with purple and white wild iris, Stephen and
Nina get situated in Abe’s state-of-the-art recording studio, and to humor her
father, Nina acquiesces to Abe placing several microphones in the performance
room to record the session.
“Something for me to listen to on long winter
nights,” says Abe, getting his volumes set. “Two of my favorite people playing
“You can stay, Pops,” says Nina, tuning her father’s
fine old guitar.
“I’ve got a bunch of calls to make,” says Abe,
leaving the control room. “Carry on.”
Stephen and Nina are dressed identically again—black
cotton T-shirts and baggy blue trousers—and Stephen says, “I assume you are
aware of our uncanny tendency to dress alike, and not just alike but exactly alike?”
“I am aware and find it mildly unnerving,” she
says, playing a lightning fast melodic run of notes up and down the neck of her
guitar that makes Stephen’s jaw drop. “I’m what’s known in the vernacular as an
L.L. Bean dyke, and you apparently shop there, too.”
“No, I get my clothes at garage sales,” says
Stephen, playing an elegant chord on his small teak guitar, “though Celia
recently knitted me a beautiful wool sweater.”
“Celia being?” asks Nina, searching for the elegant
chord Stephen just played and quickly finding it. “Nice.”
“Celia is Maya’s other caregiver,” says Stephen,
tuning his guitar. “She lives with us from Thursday evening until Sunday
morning. An incarnate angel.”
“I was raised
by an incarnate angel named Celia,” says Nina, figuring out four more equally
elegant chords to go with Stephen’s initial elegant chord. “Celia Maria Gomez. My
parents being otherwise engaged on movie sets around the globe, Pops doing
sound, Moms a cinematographer, and they rarely worked on the same film.”
“Moms was not Carol,” says Stephen, having met the
hyper-perky Carol a couple times before she fled Siberia and returned to Los
“No, thank all the gods of all religions,” says
Nina, playing the five elegant chords again. “Carol didn’t infiltrate my
father’s life until I’d made my escape to the lesbian enclave in Echo Park
where I live to this day.”
“Would you mind teaching me those chords you
just played?” says Stephen, awed by Nina’s facility on the guitar.
She plays the chords again a few times and
Stephen imitates her until he has them memorized.
“Best guitar lesson I’ve ever had,” he says,
playing the chords again and again.
“You’re self-taught,” she observes. “Whereas I
had excellent teachers from the age of eight and graduated champion hot chick
guitarist from the Berklee jazz factory. Yet you’re every bit as good as I am and
easily seventy jillion times more original.”
“Nonsense,’ says Stephen, playing the five
chords again in a steady rhythm and singing in his smoky tenor, “These chords
put me in a melancholy mood, but that don’t mean I’m sad.”
“Hey melancholy is my middle name,” sings Nina
to those same five chords, “but that don’t mean I’m bad.”
“Melancholy’s my name, too,” he sings, changing
the third and fifth chords, “though I’m not always blue.”
“And I am really digging this song,” she sings,
“making it up with you.”
They stop playing and smile shyly at each
“Not what I expected,” she says, shaking her
head. “Thought you’d play a song from your show and I’d noodle along. Studio
work. But no.”
“Speaking of noodling,” says Stephen, thrilled by
her playing, “here’s a little something I came up with you might be inclined to
“Play on, Ornofsky,” she says, feeling a
glimmer of something she hasn’t felt since she was fourteen—sexual attraction
to a male.
Stephen swings into a Gypsy groove with a run
of jazzy chords full of surprising twists and turns, and when Nina has listened
to the run three times through she begins to solo with a few choice notes, playing
more and more notes with each iteration of the chord sequence until her solo
grows complex and majestic and at last she takes over playing the run of chords
and Stephen rips off a dazzling solo that ends on the last chord Nina plays.
Mutually astounded, Nina gawks at Stephen and
says, “I’m not religious but I’m praying fervently my father’s recording
equipment captured that amazing thing we just played.”
“I’ll pray for that, too,” says Stephen, looking
into her eyes. “But it doesn’t matter, Nina.”
“It doesn’t?” she says, terrified to be falling
in love with him. “Then what does?”
“What matters is we made that together,” he
says, grinning at her. “And we’ll always know we did.”
“Celia will be here any minute,” says Maya Johansen, small and slender and seventy-seven, confined to a wheelchair for the last fifteen years. “Go on now, Stephen. You’ll be late.”
“You know my pub show never starts
promptly at eight,” says Stephen Ornofsky, Maya’s live-in caretaker for nine
years now, a handsome fellow of thirty-four with short brown hair and
wire-framed glasses. “You also know I’m incapable of leaving you alone at
night. So just relax and enjoy my company until Celia gets here.”
The month is June, the time ten
minutes after eight in the evening of a sunny day. Maya and Stephen are seated
at a large rectangular wooden table on the deck of Maya’s rambling one-story
redwood house in the northern California coastal town of Melody. With a few
minutes of daylight left to them, they survey the remains of the delicious fish
supper Stephen prepared for them and drink the last of their fine white wine.
Stephen’s two dogs, Hortensio, a big
black mutt, and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are sprawled on the edge of the
deck gazing out over Stephen’s big vegetable garden and down the hill into town,
while Stephen’s enormous orange cat Harpo sits in the chair next to Stephen’s
and gazes expectantly at his favorite human and hopes for one more piece of delicious
Maya, who was born in Sweden and
came to the United States when she was seven, a renowned dancer and
choreographer before her terrible car accident, is wearing a black sweater over
a blue T-shirt and baggy gray cotton trousers, her long white hair in a braid. She
is belted into her old wicker wheelchair so she won’t fall out should she make
any abrupt movements with the upper half of her body, movements she often makes.
Being paralyzed from the waist down, she must be secured with a seatbelt or these
sudden movements might topple her out of her chair.
Stephen, who was born just ten miles
north of Melody in the big town of Mill City, is wearing black corduroy
trousers and a matching sports jacket over a pale pink dress shirt, his usual
attire for his Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s,
a gig he’s had for seven years.
“Will you premiere your new song
tonight?” asks Maya, who loves it when Stephen sings to her. “I hope so and I
hope there’s a marvelous woman in the audience who falls madly in love with
you, and you with her.”
“I may sing that song tonight,” says
Stephen, smiling at Maya’s fantasy. “I was going to last week, but ran out of
“Maybe start with the new song tonight,” says Maya, who every few months
insists on attending Stephen’s show despite the hassle, but of late she’s been
too tired in the evening to go anywhere.
“I am now habituated to opening with
the raven song,” says Stephen, rising at the sound of tires crunching the
gravel driveway—Celia Flores being dropped off by her husband Miguel. “After
which Mabel habitually drops a ten-dollar bill in the tip jar to show the
others how it’s done, dear woman. And then
I’ll sing the new song.” He goes to Maya and kisses her cheek. “See you in the
“Sleep in if you want,” says Maya,
who always cries a little when Stephen leaves her. “Celia can make breakfast,
though lately she’s been overcooking the eggs.”
Stephen meets Celia at the front
door and says, “Here you are, beautiful as ever.”
“Lo siento Esteban,” says Celia, a
Mexican woman in her fifties dressed in white sweater and black slacks, her
long black hair in a bun. “The car wouldn’t start and we had to get a jump from
our neighbor. Forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive,” he says, finding
Celia adorable. “Maya would love a bath tonight. She’ll say don’t bother, but I
know she’d love one and would especially love for you to wash her hair. Every
time you do, she waxes euphoric.”
“Of course,” says Celia, nodding
anxiously. “You better go now. I’m so sorry we make you late for your show.”
“Not to worry,” says Stephen, picking
up his guitar case. “I’ll see you in the morning if you aren’t up when I get
The coastal fog, having withdrawn a
mile offshore for the day, returns to blanket the town for the night as Stephen
walks the long three blocks from Maya’s house to downtown Melody where the
crowd at McCarthy’s awaits him, many
in that crowd having known Stephen since he was a teenager and played his
guitar and sang his songs on the corner in front of the post office.
Stephen loves this three-block walk,
loves the fog filling in the spaces between the houses, loves being alive.
A quiet child and exceedingly bright,
Stephen needed glasses at five, started playing guitar when he was six, and did
well in school until his second year of high school when his home life became
untenable and he took to staying with friends whose parents would allow him to sleep
on their sofas.
When he was sixteen, he bought an
old Volkswagen van, dropped out of school, and for eighteen months lived in his
van on his friend Lisa’s driveway a mile inland from Melody. A few months after
he moved to Lisa’s driveway, Stephen fell into a deep depression and Lisa’s
father Joseph paid for Stephen to go to a therapist. After a year of therapy, no
longer depressed, Stephen moved into the town of Melody, and after another year
of living in his van was able to rent a house with two friends and start giving
guitar lessons to go with his gardening work.
“And here I am,” says Stephen, arriving
at McCarthy’s, Melody’s largest
performance venue not counting the Presbyterian church.
A little pod of his fans who smoke
are standing in front of the pub having a few last puffs before the show.
Malcolm Hawkins, a big hulking
fellow in a long black coat says, “You’re late, Stevie. I’m going into
withdrawals. Quick. Sing something.”
“You are the sunshine of my life,”
sings Stephen, crooning a little Stevie Wonder. “See you inside.”
“Saved,” says Tommy, dropping his
cigarette and snuffing it out with his shoe as he follows Stephen into the pub.
The place is full, standing room
only, and people applaud when they see Stephen come in, which is McCarthy’s cue
to go up on the little stage and give a brief introduction.
McCarthy, sixty-nine, short and
muscular, his bald pate reflecting the stage lights, taps the microphone to
hear the amplified pop and says, “And now embarking on his eighth year of
performing here we give you the one and only Stephen Ornofsky.”
Having shed his jacket and strapped
on his small teak guitar, Stephen takes the stage to loud applause, starts to
strum, and when he’s happy with his sound, moves close to the microphone and sings
Obadiah, Obadiah, Obadiah my love, I
watched you write love poems in the blue sky above. I watched you write words
with your ink black wings, and put them to music for something to sing.
Now he nods to the audience and dozens
of people sing along as he repeats the verse, some people singing harmonies
they’ve figured out over the years of singing along with Stephen, some singing the
melody, the pub transformed into a church of beer-drinking revelers.
At song’s end, Stephen steps back
from the microphone and Mabel Lundquist, who always sits up front with her
partner Suse Malone, makes a pretty show of dropping a ten-dollar bill into the
white shoebox with TIPS writ large on
“Merci Mabel,” says Stephen, bowing
to her. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I want to follow Obadiah with a brand new song that…”
Stephen freezes at the sight of someone in the audience. “Oh my God. Joseph. Haven’t
seen you in forever. And this new song… the one I’m about to sing… I wrote for
you.” He shakes his head in wonder. “What are the odds?”
A hush falls over the room.
“Not to put you on the spot,
Joseph,” says Stephen, playing an eloquent chord, “but how are you?”
“I’m good,” says Joseph, who is
seventy-five and sharing a table with a beautiful young woman. “Only now I’m nervous
about this song you’re gonna sing.”
The audience laughs appreciatively.
“I believe in everything now,” says Stephen,
playing the eloquent chord again and launching into a swingin’ tune, the verses
of which comprise a fantastical version of Stephen’s autobiography, the chorus:
Joe Joseph Joe, he may not know it,
he saved my soul, yes he saved my soul
he saved my life, Joseph fantastico Joe.
Stephen goes to Joseph’s table between sets and
he and Joseph embrace.
“I finally write a song for you
after all these years,” says Stephen, stepping back from Joseph to look at him,
“and you show up the first time I sing it. And they say there’s no such thing
as cosmic synchronicity. Ha!”
“Stephen this is Carmen,” says
Joseph, gesturing to the lovely woman at his table. “Carmen, Stephen.”
“A pleasure,” says Stephen, gazing
at the beautiful brunette. “I’ve never seen you before, so I’m guessing you
either just moved here or you’re
visiting from elsewhere, Hollywood perhaps.”
“Santa Rosa,” says Carmen, giving
Stephen an adoring look. “I love your
music and you’re very funny.”
“What brings you to Melody?” asks
Stephen, enthralled by her. “Permanent residency we hope.”
“Joe and I are making a movie
together,” she says, acknowledging Stephen’s hope with an arching of her
eyebrow, “and we’re planning to shoot it here on the coast, so I’ve been coming
over now and then to work with him. I’d love
to live here, but… all in good time.”
“A movie. How wonderful,” says
Stephen, nodding his thanks to the waitress for bringing him a beer. “If you
need any music, keep me in mind. I play piano, too. Kind of metaphysical
“We will keep you in mind,” says Joseph, winking at Carmen. “You grew
up, Stephen. I had you frozen in time. I’m so glad you’re doing well.”
“Thank you, Joseph,” says Stephen,
nodding gratefully. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Listen,” says Joseph, clearing his
throat. “I want to apologize for…”
“No need,” says Stephen, gently
interrupting. “You were going through a very rough time and I was ready to go.
I have nothing but gratitude for what you did for me.” He looks at Carmen. “He allowed
me to live at his place and paid for me to get some therapy when I really
“He told me,” says Carmen, looking
from Stephen to Joseph and back to Stephen.
“And now I must take the stage
again,” says Stephen, bowing to Joseph. “Wonderful seeing you again.”
The next morning, Stephen wakes
early and takes his dogs for a walk through the foggy town to the post office
where he finds in his box two letters from faraway friends and the latest issue
of Galapagos, a literary quarterly that
published two of Stephen’s poems a few years ago, the only two poems he’s ever had
When he gets back to the house, he
finds Celia making coffee in the kitchen, still in her nightgown, her hair down,
no makeup on yet, which is how Stephen prefers her.
“She wants you to make the eggs
today,” says Celia, giving Stephen a sleepy smile. “You want me to get her out
of bed and you make the eggs?”
“You never overcook the eggs,” says Stephen, feeling marvelous. “How’s
your back this morning?”
“A little sore,” she says, shrugging.
“I put her in the bath last night, wash her hair, get her out of the bath,
dress her, into her chair, then out of her chair into bed. But I can do this
“Why not straight to bed from the
bath?” he asks, which is what Maya always wants when Stephen bathes her at
“She want to wait up for you,” says
Celia, nodding. “But then she gets too tired.”
“I’ll get her out of bed this
morning,” says Stephen, wanting to caress Celia, but not daring to. “And if you
will chop up strawberries and bananas, I’ll make pancakes for breakfast.”
Fridays and Saturdays and Tuesdays
are technically Stephen’s days off from caring for Maya, but because he lives
with her and they eat most of their meals together and they are devoted to each
other, the lines blur on those days. Celia is there from Thursday evening
through Sunday late morning, and Josephine comes on Monday evening and stays
until Tuesday evening, so Stephen feels much freer on those days to do as he
Pancakes devoured, Celia goes to
take a shower and dress for the day, and Stephen does the dishes and tells Maya
about the amazing coincidence of Joseph being in the audience for the unveiling
of Joseph Fantastico Joe.
“I’ve never told you,” says Maya,
gazing out the kitchen window, “that Joe asked me to marry him.”
“When?” asks Stephen, shocked she
withheld this from him until now.
“The year before my accident,” she
says, vividly remembering those last months of being able to walk. “After Irene
left him we kept bumping into each other around town and having wonderful
conversations, and I’d been single for three years, so we went out for supper
and went to a couple movies and plays, and then we took a trip together, motel
hopping up the coast from here to Astoria and back, and when we got home he
asked me to marry him.”
“And?” asks Stephen, expectantly.
“I said ‘Why get married? Why not
just be friends and lovers?’ And he said, ‘No. I need to know we’re committed
to each other.’ And I said, ‘Isn’t loving each other enough?’ And he got very
angry and said, ‘Saying you love
someone isn’t the same as proving you
love them. And marriage is proof.’ I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. I said,
“I’ve been married twice, you’ve been married three times. What did getting
married prove? Nothing as far as I can see.’ And that was that. He didn’t speak
to me again until a couple months after the accident when he called to ask if
he could help, and I said, ‘I’ll let you know,’ but I never wanted anything
Stephen is in the vegetable garden
weeding the broccoli when Celia comes out on the deck with the carry-around
phone. “For you Esteban. Should I take a message?”
“No, I’ll come,” he says, climbing
the five stairs to the deck and taking the phone from her. “Hello?”
“Stephen, it’s Carmen. We met at the
pub last night. I was with Joe.” She waits for him to reply, and when he
doesn’t, she says, “I think you’re the only person in the world who calls him
“Oh Carmen,” he says, remembering her now. “Beautiful name and not easy
“Charmin’?” she suggests. “Alarmin’.
“Of course. Silly me. Hadn’t thought to excise
the g. I’ll get to work on that song
“Oh good,” she says, laughing. “I’m
calling because Joe and I are wondering if you’d be interested in being in our
movie.” Again she waits for Stephen to reply, and again he says nothing. “There
will be an initial two or three days of the cast improvising scenes, after
which Joe and I will write the script, and then there will be two weeks of filming
in and around Melody. September-ish. We can pay you four thousand dollars.”
“Who else is in the cast?” asks
Stephen, who until now has never even thought about being in a movie.
“Joseph and I, a wonderful actress
named Patricia, Murray of Murray’s
Seafood, and you. Would you like to meet for coffee and talk about this?”
“Sure,” says Stephen, more interested in seeing Carmen again than being in a movie. “Where and when?”
“Murray’s Seafood in an hour. We’ll treat you to lunch if you haven’t eaten already.”
Stephen informs Celia and Maya he’s
going to meet Joseph and Carmen for lunch at Murray’s Seafood, which prompts a powwow about supper resulting in the
decision that he bring home three orders of fish & chips.
He shaves, puts on his green Murray’s Seafood sweatshirt over his
black McCarthy’s T-shirt, decides to
wear jeans instead of shorts, and heads downtown. On his way, he imagines being
in a movie with Carmen, and in every scene they tumble into bed.
Joseph and Carmen sit side-by-side
facing Stephen across the table.
Carmen looks darling in a billowy
white blouse, her dark brown hair in a braid coiled on top of her head.
Joseph looks exhausted, his blue
Hawaiian shirt faded and wrinkled.
“So…” says Joseph, smiling a tired
smile, “what more can we tell you?”
“Well,” says Stephen, who is now
vastly more interested in Carmen than being in their movie, “I understand you
have yet to write the script, but the cast you’ve assembled suggests you have
an inkling of what the movie might be about. Yes?”
“The quest for a meaningful life,”
says Carmen, matter-of-factly, “and possibly meeting a soul mate or two along
Stephen considers this and smiles
wistfully. “I think you will find I’m not much of an actor. Maya and I have a
play-reading group and I’m renowned for sounding pretty much the same no matter
what part I’m reading.”
“That’s true of most movie actors,”
says Joseph, who has directed several big-budget movies. “Alec Guinness and
Peter Sellers were the exceptions not the rule.”
“We want you to be you,” says Carmen, nodding in agreement with Joseph.
“Only you won’t be Stephen. You’ll be someone else. Patricia might be your
mother or your lover, or you might be Joseph’s son or his nephew or his neighbor,
or you might be my brother or… but whoever you are, you’ll still be you.”
“Like being in a dream?” says
Stephen, trying to understand. “I’m still me, though the dream is nothing like
my waking reality?”
“Exactly,” says Carmen, crazy about him.
“We will be in a dream together and film the dream.”
Once upon a time there was a dog
named Huleekalabulee. His mom called him Hubu or Hubee, his brother Jurgen
called him Hube, and his sister called him Bulee. Huleekalabulee’s sister was
One morning Huleekalabulee’s mom
served Venus and Jurgen and Huleekalabulee their breakfast and said, “Well
today you are all one-year-old and you will have to find new homes because I am
officially done being your mom. You can come visit me on Dogmas Day and for
Dogster and Doggiving, but for the other days you’re on your own.”
“Fine,” said Venus, who was a very
beautiful dog and looked more like Mom, who was a Golden Retriever, and less
like Dad who was, according to Mom, a big brown mutt. “Jenny Jones who lives
next door adores me. I’ll go live
“Whatever,” said Jurgen, who was
quite handsome and looked like a giant Cocker Spaniel. “Mr. Zimbalist who lives
across the street already built a house for me in his backyard. I’m outta here.”
“What about you Hubee?” asked Mom.
“Where will you go?”
“Well,” said Huleekalabulee, who was
an affable big brown mutt, “I guess I’ll do what the dogs in all my favorite
dog stories do. Go on a quest to find my person.”
“Good luck with that,” said Jurgen, sneering cynically. “Those are just fantasies,
you know. In reality most mutts end up lost and desperate and hungry.”
“Yeah,” said Venus, also sneering
cynically. “That’s why Jurgen and I pretended to like Jenny Jones and Mr.
Zimbalist. So we wouldn’t end up lost and desperate and hungry.”
“It’s true, dear,” said Mom, who
liked Huleekalabulee and found his naiveté charming. “It’s a person-eat-person
world out there. You’d better find a person while you’re still kind of cute.”
And so after breakfast, Huleekalabulee
packed his saddlebags with his favorite squeaky toy and seventy-seven big hunks
of turkey jerky and embarked on his quest.
For starters he walked as far as he
usually went with Mom’s humans, Alex and Monica Kronkite, which was to the top
of Bullwinkle Butte. From there, Huleekalabulee could see the whole town spread
out below him, with mountains to the north and south and east, and the ocean to
“Wow,” said Huleekalabulee. “What a
great big world it is. I guess if I could live anywhere I’d like to live near
the beach. So that’s where I’ll begin my search for a person to call my own.”
He started down a path going west
and only went a little way before he came upon two old mutts blocking the path.
One of the old mutts was black, the other a dirty blond.
“Slow down,” said the old dirty
blond mutt. “Where are you going?”
“The beach,” said Huleekalabulee.
“I’m questing for a person to live with.”
This was so funny to the two old mutts, they laughed for five minutes until
the old black mutt said, “Hey, what’s your name?”
Hearing Huleekalabulee’s name made
the two old mutts laugh for another five minutes until the old dirty blond mutt
said, “What are you… Hawaiian?”
“Not that I know of,” said Huleekalabulee.
“My mom is a Golden Retriever and my father was, according to my mom, a big
“A bit of advice,” said the old
black mutt. “Out here in the rough-and-tumble person-eat-person world, you need
a rough-and-tumble sort of name.”
“Or at least a shorter name,” said the old dirty blond mutt. “Who can remember
“But my name isn’t Hakableebleenoonoopoopee,”
said Huleekalabulee. “My name is…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said the old
black mutt. “Whatever it is, it should be shorter.”
“What are your names?” asked Huleekalabulee, wondering if either or both of
them had a person or people.
“I’m Butch,” said the old dirty
“And I’m Garth,” said the old black
“It was a pleasure meeting you,”
said Huleekalabulee. “And now if you’ll excuse me I want to get to the beach
“Not so fast, kiddo,” said Garth,
growling to add menace to his speech. “Why should we let you go by without
“Why would you want to bite me?”
asked Huleekalabulee. “We just had a lovely interlude full of laughter and potentially
helpful advice. Why spoil such a happy time with conflict?”
“He makes a good point,” said Butch,
nodding. “I haven’t laughed so hard in years. Not since that person, remember?
The jogger? Stepped in my fresh pile of poop and slipped and landed on her face
in your fresh pile of poop?”
“Now that was funny,” said Garth, remembering the glorious moment of their
poop triumphant. “Okay Hukunanazulu. Go on. And good luck. You’ll need it.”
“One more bit of advice,” said
Butch, as he and Garth stepped aside to let Huleekalabulee go by. “If you go to
the beach, people will call the park rangers, and if they catch you…”
“You don’t want to know,” said
“Only dogs belonging to people are
allowed on the beach,” said Butch. “Dogs on leash.”
The path took Huleekalabulee down from
Bullwinkle Butte into a part of town where he’d never been before. The houses here
were much bigger than the houses in the neighborhood where Huleekalabulee grew
up. And around each yard was a tall fence or wall, and the driveways were gated,
and those gates were closed.
“Smells very unfriendly here,” said
Huleekalabulee, wrinkling his nose.
And just as he was about to leave
the street of giant houses, a very large dog with pointy ears and shiny black
fur came rushing through the one gate that wasn’t completely shut, and stood
between Huleekalabulee and a neighborhood of small pretty houses where human
children were playing happily on little lawns and there were no fences or
“Hold it right there,” said the very
large shiny black dog. “Just where do you think you’re going?”
“To the beach,” said Huleekalabulee.
“Dog willing and the creek don’t rise.”
“Not likely,” said the big
pointy-eared dog, his voice full of growls. “I’m a professional attack dog and
it is my job to try to bite you and possibly kill you.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
asked Huleekalabulee, aghast. “I’m just a lost one-year-old who will never ever
ever never ever never ever come back here. And
I will give you ten pieces of delicious turkey jerky.”
“Make it twenty pieces and I’ll put
on a convincing snarling and lunging act but not bite you,” said the big
“Twenty it is,” said Huleekalabulee,
shaking out twenty pieces of turkey jerky from his saddlebags.
“Yum,” said the big black dog as he
chowed down. “By the way, what’s your name?”
“My name is…” And then
Huleekalabulee remembered Butch and Garth’s advice. So instead of saying Hulee
etcetera, he said, “Hercules.”
“Bit of advice,” said the big black
pointy-eared devourer of jerky. “With a name like Hercules you better be one mighty
strong canine or lots of dogs are gonna try to kick your butt.”
“Thanks for the tip,” said
Huleekalabulee, hurrying away. “I’ll definitely consider alternative monikers.”
Andrew is seventy-three and a widower now for two
and a half months. Having eaten little since Luisa’s death, he is thinner than
he has ever been, his gray hair full of white.
He sits on the sofa in the cozy one-room studio
where Donna, tall and buxom with short red hair and also seventy-three, conducts
her business as rabbi and psychotherapist.
“Look at me, sweetheart,” says Donna, sitting in
an armchair facing Andrew, her accent Los Angeles Jewish.
Andrew looks at his friend and counselor of the
last twenty years and for a moment sees Luisa’s face instead of Donna’s.
“Talk to me,” she says softly. “Say anything.”
They have been sitting quietly for twenty minutes.
Did Cal drive
me here? No. Cal lives in Hawaii now. Diana brought me.
“Tell me how you met Luisa,” says Donna, speaking
of Andrew’s wife of thirty-four years, her suicide a terrible shock to everyone
who knew her.
“Kindergarten,” says Andrew, remembering the first
time he saw Luisa’s daughter Lily swinging high on the swings at the
Montessori. “Owen and Lily…” He stops speaking, his language center shutting
“She brought Lily to your house for a play date
with Owen,” says Donna, knowing the story well. “And you liked each other
Andrew nods and begins to cry, which is what Donna
was hoping for, to break the dam holding back his tears.
Donna has been a widow for five years. Her husband
Howard was twelve years older than she. After suffering with increasing
dementia for two years, he blessedly succumbed to pneumonia. Donna is currently
dating a youngster in his sixties named Herschel, and is in the midst of
passing the reins of the shul to another feminist rabbi.
When Andrew stops crying, Donna says, “You need to
tell a part of Luisa’s story every day. That’s how you’ll heal. Trust me.”
“Maybe I don’t want to heal,” he says, glaring at her.
“Maybe I want to die, too.”
“Maybe you do,” says Donna, nodding. “But I don’t
think so. I think you want to be alive for your children and grandchildren, and
for your friends and for yourself.”
“I killed her,” he says, bowing his head. “Taking
on Teo and Rosa was too much to ask of her.”
“That’s not true. You both wanted Teo and Rosa.
And Jalecia. Luisa’s granddaughter. She asked of you what you asked of her. Am
I wrong? I don’t think so. She confided in me for twenty years. She was adamant
the children stay with you and not go with Adrianna.”
“But Teo and Rosa wouldn’t have existed,” he says,
crushed by his grief, “if I hadn’t stupidly mated with Adrianna. Stupid animal
“Beautiful animal you,” says Donna, calmly. “God
gives us life in mysterious ways. You were a vehicle for God’s desire to bring your
children into the world. And you and Luisa did a fabulous job bringing them up,
and you will complete the job.”
“Or die trying,” says Andrew, who always
eventually reverts to his Jewish self when he spends time with Donna.
“Watch out, bubalah,” she says, grinning at him. “We
might start laughing and then how will we grieve?”
“Grieve schmeeve,” he says, laughing through his
tears. “I need some good deli.”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she says, getting up.
“Come on. I’ll drive us to Max’s.”
Donna pilots her electric car through the
lunchtime traffic of Vancouver, the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, many of the
pedestrians masked, though Vancouver and Canada have not been much affected
compared to the catastrophe in the United States.
They sit by an open window in the deli and split an
order of fries and a hot pastrami sandwich on rye with sauerkraut.
“I was starving,” says Andrew, hailing their
masked waitress. “Could I get a cup of coffee, please?”
“Two,” says Donna, raising her hand. “I never
think I want coffee until after, and then midway through the sandwich I crave
“My mother always said, ‘Save the coffee for the
cookies,’” says Andrew, his eyes filing with tears as he thinks of his
long-departed mother, “but I just can’t wait.”
The waitress brings two mugs of black stuff and
says to Andrew, “You probably don’t recognize me with my mask on. Delilah
Bernstein. I was in Moon In Leo. The
deli scene. You are such a good
director. In fact, I got this job because I was in that movie. Max is a huge
fan. He saw the movie seven times in the theatre and watches the video all the
“I see you now,” says Andrew, imagining her face without the mask. “You were great.”
“I hear Character Driven is gearing up to make
another movie,” she says, nodding hopefully. “Can I give you my card?”
“Yeah, sure, but you should call my son,” says Andrew,
starting to cry. “You know Owen. He’ll remember you.”
“Okay, I will,” she says, touched by his tears.
“I’ll tell him you told me to. Thanks.”
Andrew weeps for what seems like a long time to
him, but is only a minute or so.
“Good to cry,” says Donna, crying a little with
him. “Why don’t you come again tomorrow? At eleven. Then we’ll do lunch again.
This is good.”
Chauffeured home by Diana, Andrew gets out of the
trusty red Prius and gazes at the house he built forty-five years ago, the
place feeling lifeless to him with Luisa gone and the kids at school—Teo and
Rosa fourteen, Jalecia eleven.
“I have to make some calls before I go to the
store and get the kids,” says Diana, stretching her arms to the sky. “You need
anything before I go?”
Diana is a beautiful Eurasian, fifty-three, British, with raven black hair, a poet and artist and inveterate wearer of T-shirts and blue jeans. She has lived in the other house on the property for ten years, helping with the kids and housework and cooking.
Andrew gazes at her, having forgotten in these
last few months how much he loves watching her and listening to her speak.
“What?” she asks, blushing at being so intensely observed.
“No, I was just…” He laughs self-consciously. “I
guess I could use a hug before you go.”
“Always,” she says, coming to embrace him.
“I can’t ever thank you enough,” he says, relaxing
in her embrace. “Couldn’t survive without you.”
“Yes you could,” she says, giving him a good squeeze.
“But you don’t have to.”
Waiting for Diana to get home with the kids, Andrew
wanders into the living room and sits down at the piano, an exquisite teak
upright he and Luisa bought twenty years ago to celebrate the success of a
movie they wrote—this his first time at the piano since Luisa died.
He plays the first notes of the tune he was
composing when Luisa died and the music makes him cry, but he goes on playing
until the phone rings and he hurries to the kitchen to answer.
The caller is his son Owen who is thirty-nine now and
lives in Vancouver with his wife Miyoshi and their seven-year-old daughter Mimi.
“Papa?” he says, sounding like a little boy to
“Hey O,” says Andrew, his son’s voice bringing up more
tears—the session with Donna having obliterated his floodgates.
“Just spoke to Diana,” says Owen, who is also still
grieving Luisa. “We were thinking of bringing pizza over there for supper
tonight. Diana said I should check with you and see what you think.”
“Yeah, great,” says Andrew, making a supreme
effort to sound positive. “I may not last long tonight, O. Haven’t slept much lately,
but I’d love to see you and Yosh and Mimi.”
“Good. I’ll call Diana,” says Owen, thrilled by
this first Yes from Andrew since
Andrew hangs up and has a good long cry, and on
his way back to the piano, the phone rings again—Lily, Luisa’s daughter,
calling from Los Angeles.
says Lily, who is the same age as Owen. “How you holding up?”
“Okay,” he says, clearing his throat. “Had a good
session with Donna today.”
“Donna,” says Lily, the name not registering. “Tell
me again who that is?”
“Oh yeah, the rabbi therapist,” says Lily,
sounding hurried. “Good. Great. I’ve been going to my therapist every day.
Can’t believe Mama’s gone. Just can’t believe it. I feel so bad I didn’t get up there more often these last few years, but
I’ve been so crazy busy with the new show and the new house and… still I should
have come before the fucking virus ruined everything. I’m a terrible daughter
and a rotten mother.” She waits a moment. “You still there?”
“I’m here,” says Andrew, startled to realize he has
never fully forgiven Lily for leaving her baby with them eleven years ago so
she could pursue her acting career unencumbered. “Please don’t think of
yourself as a terrible daughter or a rotten mother. If I ever made you feel
that way, I apologize.”
apologize?” says Lily, stunned. “I’m the one who fucked up, not you.”
“Oh Lily, don’t think that,” he says, wishing he
could hold her on his lap as he did when she was little and would come to him seeking
solace. “You’re an adventurer. An artist. You gave us Jalecia who is the great
joy of my life and was your mother’s joy.”
“Oh Papa,” says Lily, crying, “I want to come
visit you and Owen and the kids, but the virus is still out of control here and
if I came to Canada I’d have to quarantine in some hotel for ten days before I
could even start my visit and I’m so busy with…”
“I know,” he says, seeing now that holding the
vision of Lily as a defiant teenager helped her stay stuck in that idea of
herself. “We’ll be together again. All in good time. We will.”
The next morning, Donna settles into her armchair,
studies Andrew for a moment and says, “You look better today. How are you
“I actually slept for a few hours last night,” he says,
giving her a sleepy smile. “Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi brought pizza for supper
and Diana and Rosa made a big salad. Root beer for the kids, wine for the
grownups. Quite the shindig. We rioted until nine.”
“Did you dream?”
“I did, but I only remember a fragment. Owen was
in the living room. He was maybe ten, searching for something. He looked under
the sofa cushions and then he frowned at me. That’s all I remember.”
“Tell it again,” says Donna, knowing what the
dream is about. “Present tense.”
Andrew closes his eyes and sees young Owen moving
around the living room, searching for something. “He’s wearing shorts and a
T-shirt. Must be summer. He looks under the cushions, looks around the room,
and now he sees me and gives me a questioning look.”
“What’s his question, do you think?”
“Where is she?”
Donna considers this. “Why do you think he’s a boy
in the dream and not a man?”
“He seems like a boy to me now,” says Andrew,
fighting his tears. “A boy who lost his mother.”
“So maybe he knows where she is. Maybe that’s not his
“You think he wants to know why she killed
“Of course he does. Wouldn’t you if you didn’t
know,” says Andrew, shaking his head.
“Okay,” she says, nodding slowly. “Tell me about
the last three years of Luisa’s life.”
“I don’t know if I can today,” he says, bowing his
head. “I don’t feel well.”
“What are your symptoms?”
“Anxious. Achy. Dizzy. Miserable.”
“What was going on at your house three years ago?”
“The twins were eleven, Jalecia was eight, Luisa
and I just turned seventy, Cal and Terry just moved to Hawaii, and Owen and
Miyoshi were getting their company going with Moon In Leo and…” He grimaces. “It was all too much for Luisa. Too
much to ask of her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Too much work. Too much going on. She was
“Were you overwhelmed?”
“Yes,” he snaps. “Of course I was.”
“I don’t remember you being overwhelmed. I
remember you loved working on the movie and being energized by the experience.”
“At Luisa’s expense,” he says bitterly. “I was off
playing at being a movie director while she was all alone dealing with the
“Alone? What about Diana?”
“Okay, yes, Diana was there, but I wasn’t. And it
was too much for her.”
“You mean for the few weeks you worked on the
“What are you trying to say?” He feels like he’s
about to break in half. “That it wasn’t
too much for her?”
“I’m not trying to say anything.” She waits a
moment. “I want you to tell me the story of the last three years of Luisa’s
life. Which is your story, too. I want you to tell me what you remember, not
what you think you did wrong. Just the story of those years.”
He sits up straight and rolls his shoulders to
loosen the grip of his demons. “I had an amazing four months working with Sakura.
And directing those scenes in Moon In Leo
was one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of my life. And after
Sakura went back to Japan, the plays and stories and songs just came pouring
out of me and I was in heaven writing them.”
“You were reborn.”
“I was reborn.”
“She was not.”
“Did she resent you?”
“No,” he says, remembering the trip they took
after Sukara went back to Japan, the glorious train ride through the Rockies to
Banff, their elegant suite in the Banff Inn, their long walks in the
“Where did you go just now, Andrew?”
“To Lake Louise,” he says, seeing Luisa reflected
in the ethereal blue of the lake. “Ten days without the kids. Just lolling
around and taking walks and…”
“She said she didn’t want to go home. Said she was
tired of raising children, tired of not having time for anything else. ‘Can’t
we just keep going? Stay in Montreal for a few weeks and then fly to Europe.
“What did you say?”
“I said we’d redesign our lives to travel more and
I’d do more with the kids and she could do less, but I didn’t want to just
“So did you travel more?”
“Before the pandemic I tried, but she wouldn’t
“So from then on you and Diana were the parents.”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Were the kids confused by Luisa withdrawing?”
“Yes. Especially Jalecia. She was so attached to
“So Luisa withdrew. What did she do all day?”
“At first she read and watered the garden and went on long drives and…” He strains to remember. “Then she’d suddenly re-engage with the kids and start cooking again and going to soccer games and say, ‘I’m back. I just needed a break. I’m fine now.’ And that would last a week or two and then she’d withdraw again. And every time she withdrew, she seemed to go further into her aloneness.” He looks at Donna. “Then you referred her to the psychiatrist who prescribed the anti-depressants, which seemed to help at first, but then she started forgetting things. She’d leave something cooking on the stove and wander out into the garden or she’d leave the hose running and flood the garden or she’d come into a room and say, ‘Why did I come in here? I knew a few seconds ago, but now I have no idea.’ So she stopped taking the meds and withdrew again.”
“And you were writing and composing and taking
care of the kids,” says Donna, nodding. “Shouldering on without her.”
“Not without her,” he says, seeing Luisa in the
garden lost in thought. “I spent lots of time with her during the day when the
kids were at school and at night.”
“What did you do together?”
“We talked when she was willing to talk. I played
the piano for her. We went to the beach. We worked in the garden. Or I worked
and she daydreamed. I’d make us lunch.”
“Was she still going on long drives?”
“No, she stopped driving. She said it was too
confusing. And by then we were staying home because of the virus, so…”
“So for a year she mostly kept to herself?”
“Mostly,” he says, nodding. “And she just got more
and more depressed, so I arranged for her to have a thorough medical exam and
they concluded she was clinically depressed and should be on meds. And when the
doctor told us that, Luisa said, ‘Then I might as well be dead.’”
“How long ago was that?”
“Eight months? Seven months? Seems like years ago.”
“Did she ask you to help her die?”
“Yes,” he says, closing his eyes. “But I
“You thought she’d get better.”
“I wanted her to, but I didn’t think she would.”
“Why didn’t you think she would get better?”
“She seemed more ghost than alive.”
“Then what happened?” asks Donna, moving from her
chair to sit with Andrew on the sofa.
“She stayed in bed for a month and then she got up
and made a valiant effort to be part of the family again, though it was
incredibly difficult for her. And then one day she got very upset with the kids
and threw a glass at Teo that shattered all over the kitchen and she said
horrible things to Rosa and screamed at Jalecia, and she felt so terrible about
what she’d done that she went on the meds, and for some weeks she seemed better
and we had some nice suppers, the whole family, and some good days at the beach
“She took the car and drove fifty miles north and
lay down on the sand and cut her wrists and died.”
Andrew weeps and Donna holds him.
When his tears abate, Andrew says, “She left a note that said burn my unfinished stories and tell the children and Diana I love them. You know I love you.”
They have lunch in Donna’s kitchen—chicken soup
and bread and cheese—neither speaking as they eat.
Donna makes coffee to go with their after-lunch
cookies, and as she pushes down the plunger on her French Press she says, “I
may have said this to you before, but it’s worth repeating. Many of us are
prone to feeling we are responsible for the other’s happiness or for their suffering
or both. We know intellectually this isn’t true, but as my great teacher Rabbi
Orenstein used to say, ‘Our mighty unconscious laughs at our pipsqueak
intellect and carries on as per usual.’ Unless we break free of our early
programming, which very few people ever do, then that early programming will always
be our default response.”
“I think the hardest thing for me,” says Andrew,
who feels nearly weightless from shedding so many tears, “is… well, two things.
First, I had thirty years with Luisa without a day of her being anything but
happy to be alive, happy to be engaged in our writing and music and loving our
children, so I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly she changed.”
“What’s the other thing?” asks Donna, pouring him
a cup of coffee.
“I keep thinking I should do something to make
things better for the kids,” he says, smiling sadly. “To ease their pain.”
“This is the illusion, Andrew. You are not responsible for their happiness or
their suffering.” She looks at him for a long moment. “You were responsible when they were babies and little children, but they
are who they are now, and they must suffer the loss of Luisa in their own ways.
Of course you can help them deal with their sorrow. You can love them and
listen to them and let them know you’re there for them. But you can’t keep them
from suffering. And the best thing
you can do for them now is to embrace life and follow your heart and know that Teo
and Rosa and Jalecia and Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi and Lily are all watching
you and learning from you. Because if you
can lovingly embrace life, you who lost the love of your life, so will they. And
so will I.”
Every day Andrew feels a little less numb, a little less hopeless, and better able to hear and respond to what Teo and Rosa and Jalecia and Diana say to him.
On a rainy afternoon in November, Andrew and Diana and Jalecia and Teo stand on the sidelines of a soccer field, cheering wildly as Rosa outruns everyone and brilliantly jukes the goalie and scores the winning goal—Andrew falling to his knees and kissing the muddy earth.
A few weeks before Christmas, the kids at school,
Diana finishes washing the breakfast dishes and carries her tea and notebook
into the living room where she sits and listens to Andrew composing a piano
piece, his search for what comes next inspiring Diana to write her first poem
since Luisa died.
Five months later, in April of 2022, the first
truly effective vaccine against the virus plaguing humanity is deployed around
the world, and Diana and Andrew and Teo and Rosa and Jalecia are among the
first to be inoculated.
On a sunny morning in June, Canada having successfully
vaccinated seventy per cent of her population, the other thirty per cent soon
to follow, Diana finds Andrew in the garden and tells him that Simon, her
boyfriend of six years, has left her for another woman.
“He’s a fool,” says Andrew, giving her a
comforting hug. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’ll be okay,” she says, lingering in his
embrace. “I’m mostly worried about how to tell the kids. They love Simon.”
“Do you want me to tell them?”
“No,” she says, stepping back from him and smiling
radiantly. “Thanks for offering, but I need to do it so they can ask me their
ten thousand questions.”
Andrew laughs. “May it only be ten thousand.”
In July, after a good session in Donna’s studio,
Andrew and Donna go to lunch at Max’s, the wait staff still masked, the virus
not yet entirely eradicated in Canada and still going strong in the United
They split an order of fries and a Reuben sandwich
and Donna talks about how relieved she is to be free of her rabbi duties and
how much fun she’s having creating her book of mini-sermons.
“I’ve been reading through my old sermons,” she
says, her cheeks reddening. “Hundreds of them. And I am both awed and chagrined
at how confidently I spouted such well-meaning nonsense and so often missed the
deeper truth. So this is my chance to not only be more succinct, but to right
the wrongs of my erroneous clichés.”
“I can’t wait to read them,” says Andrew, who has recently
entered a sorrowful phase as the one-year anniversary of Luisa’s death
“If you will be my editor,” says Donna, smiling
hopefully, “you can read them very soon.”
“I would be honored,” he says, immeasurably
grateful to her.
“Speaking of honor,” says Donna, gesturing to
their waitress for the bill, “I would like to have a ceremony for Luisa on the
one-year anniversary of her death. Nothing elaborate. Just lighting a candle
and saying a prayer and asking everyone to share a memory of her. Just you and
I and Diana and Owen and Miyoshi and the kids and any friends you’d like to
“Could be hundreds,” says Andrew, his eyes filling
with tears. “She was greatly loved.”
“Up to you, dear,” she says, crying with him. “You
tell me who to invite.”
In August, twenty people gather in the garden at Andrew’s house to remember Luisa.
Donna lights a candle and says, “We have gathered
here to kiss Luisa’s spirit with our memories of her. I will begin by sharing
my favorite Luisa memory, which is that every time I came here to have a meal,
I would find Luisa in the kitchen and she would give me a smile that meant,
‘Come here and taste this,’ and I would go to her and she would feed me as a
mother feeds her child, something delicious she’d made, and then we would look
into each other’s eyes and be one with each other in our joy.”
In October, the kids gone to bed, Andrew and Diana are saying goodnight when Diana surprises Andrew by saying, “How about we spend the night together? You and me. Just because.”
“You mean… share a bed?” says Andrew, who has lately
been enjoying speaking with a Jewish accent.
“Yeah. Sleep together.”
“My bed or yours?” he says, trying to be funny.
“Either one. They’re both nice beds.”
“I would be afraid to do that,” he says, dearly
loving Diana but considering her taboo.
“We don’t have to have sex,” she says, her tone suggesting
she wouldn’t mind if they did. “I just want to be close to you. I’m tired of
sleeping alone knowing you’re sleeping alone and we could be keeping each other
“If we got in bed together,” says Andrew, his
heart pounding, “despite the fact, or because of the fact I haven’t had sex in forever,
we would probably have sex. Or we would try. Or I would. Because… how could I
not? And if for some reason whatever happened made you unhappy or uneasy or
caused you to leave… I just… I don’t ever want that to happen. Not that I haven’t
thought about making love with you. I have. I do. I’ve always thought you were…
luscious. But I’m seventy-four. You’re fifty-four.
We’re best friends. We raised the kids together. I don’t want to lose you.”
“It is a gamble,” she says, looking into his eyes.
“A big gamble. But I still want to.”
“I’m amazed,” he says, fighting the momentum of
his desire. “And flattered, but…”
“Come on, Andrew,” she says softly, knowing he would
never initiate their first kiss, and therefore the initiation is up to her.
“Gamble with me.”