Categories
Uncategorized

Joan’s

Joan’s is the only stationery store in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, and if sales continue to decline as they have for the last few years, Joan’s won’t be open much longer.

“Why do you call this store Joan’s when you’re Turk?” asks Ramon Castañeda, eighteen, holding his phone out to record Turk’s reply.

“I don’t own Joan’s,” says Turk Arslan, sixty-nine, big and mostly bald, a former Mercy deputy sheriff. “I just work here four days a week. It’s called Joan’s because the woman who started it eighty-seven years ago was named Joan.”

“She dead now?” asks Ramon, a standout on the Mercy High soccer team and devilishly handsome.

“Yes,” says Turk, chuckling. “She died forty years ago. You can find her headstone in the town cemetery. Joan Mirzoyan. Pink granite.”

“Seriously?” says Ramon, half-frowning and half-smiling. “Sick.”

“Rudy Contreras owns Joan’s now,” says Turk, unsure if by sick Ramon means great or horrible. “Rudy bought it from Maggy Spencer who bought it from Jane Minasyan who is also buried in the town cemetery just a few headstones away from Joan Mirzoyan.”

“Awesome,” says Ramon, who has to write a report about Joan’s for his Social Studies class. “I’ll check it out.”

“You may be interested to know,” says Turk, who started working at Joan’s a few months after he retired from law enforcement two years ago, “that Joan Mirzoyan opened the original Joan’s in her house on Manzanita Lane and ran the business out of her living room for ten years before moving to a storefront on Main Street where Joan’s was until twenty years ago when Maggy Spencer bought the business from Jane Minasyan and moved it here to Mill Street.”

“You just wrote my whole report,” says Ramon, turning off the audio recorder on his phone.

“Don’t you want to know why I work here?” asks Turk, giving Ramon an inquisitive look.

“Sure,” says Ramon, reactivating the audio recorder. “Why do you work here?”

“I’ve been shopping here ever since my sister and I moved to Mercy twelve years ago,” says Turk, looking around the spacious store. “I write lots of letters and this was the only place in town with a large selection of note cards and postcards and good pens and excellent paper and envelopes, so I came here all the time. Then when I retired from the sheriff’s department and the job here came open, I thought I’d give it a try, and I love it.”

“Epic,” says Ramon, squinting at Turk. “Hey do you remember when you busted me for speeding on Main Street?”

“I do,” says Turk, vividly recalling the terrifying moment when fifteen-year-old Ramon drove three blocks through the heart of town going seventy.

“I was an idiot,” says Ramon, grimly. “Coulda killed somebody.”

“You almost did,” says Turk, trembling as he remembers. “Helen Morningstar was just stepping into the crosswalk when you went by. You missed her by inches. And if you had hit her… well… thank God you didn’t.”

“If I had killed her,” says Ramon, bowing his head, “I wouldn’t want to be alive.”

“Life is full of close calls,” says Turk, putting a hand on Ramon’s shoulder. “I was a cop in Fresno for thirty years before we moved here, and every day was one close call after another.”

            *

On a sunny Thursday morning in April, Rudy Contreras, the owner of Joan’s, enters the store and wishes for the umpteenth time he’d never bought the business or the old two-story building the store occupies. A short rotund man who wears expensive three-piece suits and goes to his barber once a week to maintain his impressive silver pompadour, Rudy owns several other buildings and businesses in Mercy, all of them vastly more profitable than Joan’s.

When Turk is done selling a customer a birthday card, Rudy approaches the counter and says to Turk, “How’s business?”

“So-so today,” says Turk, who likes Rudy despite disagreeing with him about much of their inventory. “I’ve had two more people ask about custom framing today, and two more people wanting higher quality oil paints than what we carry. So I’m wondering if you’ve given any more thought to…”

“I’m closing the business and selling the building,” says Rudy, interrupting. “Sorry to break it to you so abruptly, Turk, but I just came from my accountant and he says this is unsustainable.”

“Sorry to hear that,” says Turk, stunned by Rudy’s news. “How much are you asking?”

“Nine hundred thousand,” says Rudy, guessing that’s nine hundred thousand more than Turk has. “I’m selling cheap because the place is a fire trap and whoever buys it will have to do a compete rebuild before they can open anything new here. I’m essentially selling the lot.”

“When will you put it on the market?” asks Turk, about to cry.

“Two weeks,” says Rudy, looking around the store. “If you win the lottery before then, I’ll sell it to you for eight hundred thousand.”

“Shall we have a Going Out of Business sale?” asks Turk, unable to quell his tears.

“After the building sells,” says Rudy, turning to go. “We’ll keep things going until then.”

*

That afternoon Turk is standing behind the counter staring into space and wondering what he’ll do with his life after Joan’s closes, when the poet Helen Morningstar, Turk’s great pal, enters the store and it’s all Turk can do not to shout Helen! Rudy’s closing the store and selling the building.

A beautiful woman in her mid-fifties, Pomo on her mother’s side, Latino on her father’s, Helen and Turk are both crazy about fine stationery and both worship Ricardo Alvarez who plays piano every Thursday evening at Big Goose, the pub Helen owns with her husband Justin Oglethorpe.

“Got your call, Turk,” says Helen, breathlessly. “Came as soon as I could.”

“Here they are,” says Turk, bringing forth a box containing four large notebooks of exquisite writing paper from France. “Price went up quite a bit since the last time I ordered these for you. Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” says Helen, opening one of the notebooks to caress a page. “Nothing in the world takes ink like this paper.”

Now she brings the notebook close to her face and inhales the scent of the blessed parchment.

*

Alone again, Turk resumes grieving the death of Joan’s, and he’s just about to close up shop an hour early when two of his favorite customers come in, the siblings Tenaya and Tuolumne Larkin.

Tenaya is twenty-three and gorgeous, her long red hair in a ponytail, and Tuolumne is twenty-one, a dashing hunk, his long brown hair in a ponytail, too. They were raised on a homestead ten miles from Mercy and home-schooled by their parents Donovan and Cass, who themselves are the grandchildren of beatniks and hippies who settled near Mercy in the 1950s and 60s when land around here was practically free and half the houses in town were vacant – a far cry from the real estate madness of today.

Neither Tenaya nor Tuolumne ever watched a movie or used a computer until five years ago when they convinced their parents to let them go to Mercy High for a year, after which Tenaya spent three years in New York City studying art at The Cooper Union before returning to Mercy where she works as a waitress at Big Goose and creates exquisite handmade signs for local businesses. Tuolumne went to UCLA intending to become a filmmaker, found academia and city life stultifying, and after nine months in Los Angeles returned to Mercy and restarted his apprenticeship to Bertram Hawley, a master wood sculptor.

While Tenaya pays for several large sheets of poster board and Tuolumne waits to buy a sketchpad and two fine-tipped black ink pens, Turk smiles sadly at them and says, “You two wouldn’t want to go in with me and buy Joan’s and this old building, would you? We can get it for eight hundred thousand if we come up with the money in the next two weeks. Otherwise… no more Joan’s.”

Tenaya and Tuolumne exchange wide-eyed looks and Tenaya says, “We were just talking about that. Right before we walked in.”

“I told her about how you want to offer custom framing,” says Tuolumne, grinning at Turk, “and that got us fantasizing about what else we’d do if we owned Joan’s. This is amazing.”

Fantasizing is the key word here,” says Turk, wistfully. “I could come up with fifty thousand, but…”

“Oh we’ve got the money,” says Tuolumne, nodding assuredly. “From our grandmother. The question is can we make this business profitable? We don’t want to throw our inheritance down the drain, so to speak.”

“You wouldn’t be,” says Turk, shaking his head. “The building is worth at least a million, and if we bring it up to code it’ll be worth twice that. You know there are two big apartments upstairs we could rent out once they’re made habitable, and there’s a huge storage area up there that could be converted into something. Or two somethings.”

Tenaya and Tuolumne exchange even wider-eyed looks and Tenaya says, “We’ll talk to our parents. My gut feeling, however, is we can do this.”

*

Tuolumne and Tenaya’s father Donovan is fifty-two, a renowned maker of dulcimers. Tall and lanky with long brown hair he habitually wears in three braids of various lengths, Donovan is also renowned for telling stories composed entirely of non-sequiturs. Their mother Cass, forty-five, is a shapely redhead who usually wears her long hair in a single braid. A singer songwriter, her instrument the zither, Cass handles the business of selling Donovan’s dulcimers and also sells honey, beeswax candles, rabbit-pelt berets, and slender leather belts.

Their ten-acre homestead surrounded by a vast redwood forest boasts a spectacular half-acre garden, two big greenhouses, three houses, two barns, three workshops, and a quarter-acre pond teeming with tasty trout. They grow almost all the food they and Tuolumne and Tenaya and Cass’s parents need, and they also have a big flock of chickens for eggs, seventeen beehives, and every year raise a pig to butcher and freeze.

When Donovan was seven, his mother Alice divorced Donovan’s father Kyle and moved to Los Angeles where she married a man who owned a chain of car washes. When Alice died three years ago, she left a million dollars to Donovan and a half-million each to Tuolumne and Tenaya, and this is the money they would use to buy Joan’s and the Joan’s building if that is what they decide to do.

*

So a few days after Turk broached the possibility of buying the Joan’s building with Tuolumne and Tenaya, Cass and Donovan come to town and meet with their kids and Turk in Joan’s to consider the idea.

“I love this store,” says Donovan, who has a profoundly deep voice that carries far even when he speaks quietly. “Where is everybody?”

“Business has not been great lately,” says Turk, apologetically. “Most people nowadays buy what we have to offer online.”

“Tragic,” says Cass, gazing tragically at Turk. “The end of community. The end of the actual. The final fraying of the collective fabric. No wonder things are the way they are now.”

“Yet people long for the actual,” says Donovan, gesturing expansively. “They long for three-dimensional connection. We sell my dulcimers on the Interweb, it’s true, but why not sell them here? Why limit our concept of store to stationery and art supplies? Why not make this a general store in the sense of an eclectic depository for myriad objet d’ soul?”

“A sofa here,” says Cass, moving to a sunny corner at the front of the store adjacent to a rack of notecards. “A place to sit and read poetry with one of the store kitties on your lap.” She beams at Turk. “We’ll sell books of poetry. Songbooks. Scarves and slender leather belts and rabbit-pelt berets. And stationery, of course. The foundation of connection.”

Huge money in poetry and rabbit-pelt berets,” says Tuolumne, winking at Turk. “So you like it, huh Mom?”

“Love,” says Cass, smiling out on the sunny day. “I’m madly in love. We’ll give concerts here and poetry readings and…”

“Oh buy the place,” says Donovan, taking a large sketchpad off a shelf. “And I’ll buy this sketchpad and a box of envelopes. What’s not to love?”

*

So Tenaya and Tuolumne buy Joan’s and the Joan’s building, Turk keeps his four-day-a-week job, and a new and exciting adventure ensues.

*

When Turk joined forces with Tenaya and Tuolumne, he had no idea they were both excellent and indefatigable carpenters. Nor did he expect their parents and grandparents would come to town every day to work on the Joan’s building, which they do, arriving in the wee hours of morning and working until the late afternoon six days a week.

Cass’s father Max, seventy-three, a master carpenter, explains to Turk one Thursday morning, “Yes, technically, Tenaya and Tulo own this place, but in truth we, their extended family, own it, too. They’re fourth generation hippy communists, you see, and this is how we do things.”

“And now we’ll have a pad in town,” says Louise, seventy-two, a massage therapist and beekeeper. “Is this groovy or what?”

“This is groovy,” says Turk, who previously eschewed the word groovy and now finds groovy an entirely appropriate and accurate descriptor for what’s going on here.

A moment after Louise and Max go upstairs to work on the apartments, Diana, Turk’s best friend and soul mate, dances into the store. A comely gal in her fifties, her graying auburn hair in a ponytail, Diana is a waitress at Big Goose and Turk’s main reason for getting up in the morning.

“Hey T,” says Diana, giving Turk a splendiferous hug. “Place is a veritable beehive of activity.”

“Three generations of hippy communists hard at work,” says Turk, never in a hurry to end a hug with Diana. “Rudy came by yesterday and said he must have been crazy to sell this place for so little.”

“Brokered by angels,” says Diana, kissing Turk’s cheek. “We on for tonight?”

“Wild horses etcetera.” says Turk, blushing. “Meet you at the Goose at six.”

“I’ll be there,” says Diana, dancing out the door.

*

Twenty minutes later, Tuolumne enters the store with his mother Cass, both of them wearing tool belts, work gloves, and mauve Donovan’s Dulcimers baseball hats. Tuolumne is carrying a pry bar, Cass a vacuum cleaner.

“Turk,” says Tuolumne, after Turk finishes selling Jack Ziskin a box of purple ink pens and three Fred Astaire notecards. “We’ve reached a major turning point in the renovation.”

“Do tell,” says Turk, giving Tuolumne his full attention.

“We have come to the moment when we must close the store for a few weeks,” says Tuolumne, looking at his mother for a corroborative nod. “We need to bring lumber and sheet rock and all manner of material through the front door, and we have to completely rebuild the inside staircase. And while we’re at it we might as well renovate the ground floor, too, replace the windows with the latest and greatest, install a much grander entrance, rewire, sand the floors, repaint the walls, build new display cases, and so forth.”

“And then the grand re-opening,” says Cass, her eyes sparkling. “The rebirth of stationery.”

*

So Joan’s closes not for three weeks, but eleven weeks, and on a Friday afternoon in September, a party is held in the spectacular new store, a party to which the entire town is invited and to which most of the town comes.

At the height of the festivities, Tenaya rings a big brass bell to quiet the crowd for Donovan to proclaim basso profundo, “Everybody please traipse outside for the unveiling of our fabulous new sign.”

The hundreds of revelers obediently go outside and watch Tuolumne pull on the rope attached to a big white tarp covering the large new sign over the gigantic new glass front door – the crowd gasping and cheering when they see the new sign does not say Joan’s but Turk’s, and Turk gasps loudest of all.

*

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in late November, Turk’s is jammed with Christmas Hanukkah Solstice shoppers buying cards and calendars and scarves and notebooks and beeswax candles and pens and colored pencils and volumes of poetry and rabbit-pelt berets and slender leather belts. Tuolumne and his grandfather Max are manning the busy custom-framing counter while Tenaya and Cass are expertly operating the two new cash registers on either end of the magnificent wide-topped counter.

Turk and Diana are restocking the shelves with fast-selling art supplies, and Diana stops what she’s doing to look at Turk for a moment.

“What?” he says, looking up from a box of tubes of the finest oil paint and blushing as he always does when she gives him a look of love.

“Nothing,” she says, meaning everything. “Just looking at you.”

fin   

Happiness and Unhappiness a very short movie with Todd and Marcia

Categories
Uncategorized

Buddha Birds

You want to talk about Buddha consciousness?

Check out birds. They live entirely in the moment.

Have to. Surviving in the natural world requires

constant vigilance. Get distracted and something

eats you or you fly into a window or a wave

crashes over you. Yet birds take time to meditate.

I see hawks just being here now all the time on

telephone polls and tree branches, and I see fat

little birds like jovial roly-poly Buddha statues

sitting perfectly still amidst anti-hawk anti-cat

branches grooving on the concept of nothingness

or who knows what? I suppose birds have to

deal with mind chatter when they meditate

just like we do. Food food gotta get food! When’s

that gopher gonna come out of his hole so I can swoop

down and tear him to shreds and eat my fill before I

take the bloody remains back to the shrieking hawklets?

When are those grasses gonna flower and when are

those flowers gonna make seeds so me and my gang

can get fat for the winter? And what about lust

and the ever nearness of death?

Oh maybe I’ve glorified birds because they can fly

and go from perfect stillness to blurring speed in

the blink of an eye. Maybe that’s why I think

birds are Buddhas. I do. I think when a person gets

fully hip to the lay of reality and is reflexively

kind to others, when she dies she doesn’t come

back human, not right away. First she is reborn

a bird and gets to fly around and contemplate

the earth from on high for a few lifetimes before

she has another go at being human. Why do

I think this? Because all the kindest people

I’ve ever known have at one time or another

expressed to me their desire to be reborn as

some kind of bird. Pelican, chickadee, grebe,

hummingbird, hawk. Now why would all the

kindest people want to come back as birds?

Gotta be a connection, right? I mean…

What kind of bird would you like to be?

One Fell Swoop piano solo by Todd

Categories
Uncategorized

Raven Sky Dance

Raven Sky Dance

each the other’s shadow before they fly apart,

one tracing a figure eight in the blue, the other

swooping in a circle. How distinct they are

until they come close to each other again

yet don’t collide because one is the

other’s shadow and the other’s

shadow is the one.

*

What Happened To Your Voice? a funny movie by Todd

Categories
short story

Edie’s Regulars

On a cold clear Friday afternoon in January at 4:30 on the dot, Jack Ziskin and Norman Randolph walk into Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California.

Norman is tall and slender and dressed in a stylish gray suit and burgundy tie. Jack is small and round-shouldered and wearing gray sweatpants, a faded green Big Goose sweatshirt, and red tennis shoes. Norman is descended from Scots and Brits and has a full head of lustrous gray hair. Jack is Ashkenazi, bald, and wearing a ratty blue ski cap. Norman is sixty-three, an electrician possessed of a deep resonant voice, and Jack is sixty-seven, heir to a fortune, and unabashedly effeminate.

Edie, the bartender at Big Goose from four in the afternoon until closing time, checks the wall clock as Norman and Jack come through the wide front door, and marvels anew at their uncanny punctuality, though she’s been tending bar here for two years now and Norman and Jack always enter at 4:30 on the dot, Monday through Friday.

Brown-skinned and beautiful, fifty-years-old, her raven black hair captured in a ponytail, Edie grew up in Los Angeles, her accent a muted version of her mother’s Louisiana drawl.

“Norman and Jack,” she says, smiling at the two comrades. “Are we sitting at the bar this afternoon or taking a table?”

“Because we have arrived before the heathens,” says Jack, climbing onto his usual stool just to the right of the middle of the bar and smirking at Edie though he thinks he’s smiling, “we’ll start here with you because we adore you, and when the heathens arrive we’ll move to our table.”

Norman sits to Jack’s right, gazes fondly at Edie, and hoping to sound like a gentleman from the South says, “I am cravin’ somethin’ dahk and bittah to cut the teh-bul cold. A pahnt of Guinness puh-haps.”

“I swear to God,” says Jack, shaking his head, “every time you do a Southern accent your IQ drops seventy points.”

“Mah wahf loves mah evuh-changing accents and personas,” says Norman, speaking of Agnes to whom he has been married for forty years. “But dee-ah Jack cannot abide my linguistic forays.”

“Spare us your pontifications,” says Jack, rolling his eyes. “Puh-leez.”

Edie places a pint of Guinness before Norman and gives Jack an inquiring look.

“Oh,” says Jack, sighing, “I’ll have a Bud Lite.” He snickers. “Just kidding. A pint of Mercy porter, please.”

“Slow today,” says Norman, looking around the pub. “The bittah cold no doubt keeping people at home, I ‘magine.”

Jack rolls his eyes again. “He’s been doing this ridiculous Southern accent for three days now and driving me batty.”

Now Edie’s boss and the Goose’s other bartender, the very tall redhead Justin Oglethorpe, hurries in from the cold and waves to Edie and Norman and Jack on his way to the stairs leading up to the pub office where Justin’s wife Helen awaits – Justin having run to the bank on an errand for Helen who handles all things financial concerning the pub.

“Which movie star are we delving into of late?” asks Edie, who enjoys hearing about Jack and Norman’s shared obsession with the movies and movie stars of the 1930s and 40s.

Jack jerks his thumb at Norman. “He and Agnes are on a Clark Gable Loretta Young kick, and I’m reading Dorothy Lamour’s marvelous autobiography My Side of the Road, which is a reference to those fabulous road movies she made with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, her revelations gasp worthy. You’d love it. Say the word and I’ll get you a copy.”

“What a woman,” says Norman, smiling at the thought of Dorothy Lamour.

At which moment Margot Winslow and Carmen Rivera come in from the cold.

“Enter heathens,” says Jack, stiffening. “Exit Jack and Norman.”

“Oh don’t go,” says Margot, a busty middle-aged gal in a short skirt and a scoop-necked blouse revealing lots of cleavage, her hair curly blonde. “We won’t bite you.”

Jack rolls his eyes, slaps a twenty on the bar, and picks up his glass of beer. “Keep the change, Edie. Talk more soon.”

Carmen, gorgeous in her forties in a long black skirt and shimmering turquoise blouse, her black hair in a pageboy, blocks Norman’s way and says, “Stay with us, Norman. You know you want to.”

Norman bows gallantly and follows Jack to a table far from the bar.

Margot and Carmen take Norman and Jack’s seats and Margot says to Edie, “Hi honey. How’s tricks?”

“Tricks is good,” says Edie, knowing both Margot and Carmen are high on cannabis as they often are on Friday afternoons when they come into the Goose after work, Margot a manicurist, Carmen a legal secretary. “What can I pour you gals today?”

“Pour me a man,” says Carmen, smiling dreamily at Edie. “Someone who looks like Norman and wants to have sex with me.”

Edie arches an eyebrow. “Closest thing I’ve got to that is some good pinot noir.”

Carmen stretches her arms and shouts, “Yes! Wine. Give me wine.”

“I’ll have my usual,” says Margot, winking at Edie. “I’ve got a man, though I’d like to trade him in for something with a bit more in the tank, if you know what I mean.”

“Supposed to rain hard all weekend, and cold, too,” says Edie, pouring Carmen a glass of local pinot, Margot sweet white wine from Australia. “Hail and lightning. I’ll be hunkering down by the fire with my dog and a good book. What are you two up to this weekend?”

“Not working is what I’m up to,” says Carmen, sighing. “That’s why I need a man. For hunkering down with on weekends like this one. But where have all the good men gone?”

“They’re married or dead or way too old,” says Margot, gulping her wine. “Let’s talk about something else. Have you seen the play, Edie? Seven Rooms and a Piano?”

Margot is speaking of the play currently running at the Mercy Players Company Theatre, an eighty-seat performance venue near the high school and the only place in Mercy where plays are performed.

“No. Have you?” asks Edie, noting Franz Krüger and Julia Lund entering the pub an hour earlier than usual – Franz a handsome German in his fifties, Julia a beautiful Dane in her forties – Julia quietly fiercely berating Franz about something.  

“I left after the first act,” says Margot, making a sour face. “It was like a bad sit-com without the com. And Lisa McGee has gotten so fat. I was shocked.”

“I don’t go to plays,” says Carmen, shaking her head. “Movies, yes. With a movie, even if it’s bad, you have the scenery, the music, the beautiful men, the costumes. In a play it’s just people. And if they aren’t good actors, you’re just stuck with them for hours.” She looks to the heavens. “Torture.”

Franz and Julia sit at the end of the bar as far from Margot and Carmen as they can – seven stools away – and Julia continues berating Franz who is about to explode.

“Excuse me,” says Edie, winking at Margot and Carmen. “Duty calls.”

She moves to Franz and Julia in her easy way, places a couple coasters before them, and gently interrupts Julia to say, “Hello my dears. Something to douse the flames?”

Julia, a photographer with short dark blonde hair, her eyes pale blue, smiles wanly at Edie and says, “We need hard liquor, but you don’t serve any. So I’ll start with a half pint of porter and you can give this idiot whatever he wants.”

Edie turns to Franz, a journalist, his hair sandy brown, his eyes blue gray, and waits for him to speak.

“A pint of your honey ale,” he says softly, his glare giving way to a faint smile. “And fish & chips for me and anything this unpleasant person may desire.”

Edie looks at Julia knowing she’ll say she doesn’t want anything and then she’ll eat most of Franz’s fish and then order guacamole and chips and later clam chowder and they’ll stay at the bar talking to Edie over the din during the worst crush of the evening and Edie will make brief replies and eventually Julia will forgive Franz for whatever she was mad at him about and he will move his stool close to hers and they will share a cappuccino and leave a huge tip that takes Edie’s breath away.

“Nothing for me,” says Julia, shaking her head. “I’m too upset to eat.”

“Un momento,” says Edie, moving to the many spigots center bar to draw the beers for Franz and Julia.

“Edie?” says Carmen, pouting at her. “Can we order food from you? It’s not quite five and Justin lets us order food at the bar until five.”

“Yes you may, Beautiful,” says Edie, who finds Carmen incredibly attractive, “though I’d rather you two got a table and ordered from Diana. Gonna get crazy wild here any minute now.”

“Okay,” says Carmen, giving Margot a look, “we’ll get a table.”

“Shall we pay you for these?” asks Margot, raising her glass of wine.

“We’ll run a tab,” says Edie, winking at Margot. “I appreciate you easing my load, sweetheart.”

When Margot and Carmen depart, Edie sets the beers before Franz and Julia and says, “Every Friday when you two come in here, this old pub becomes the apogee of charm and sophistication, and not just in Mercy, but on the whole west coast. You are that attractive.”

Which compliment softens Julia and she replies, “It is you who are the apogee, Edie.”

“We say so often,” says Franz, softening, too. “You’re the reason we come here, you know. To bask in your charisma.”

“Tell that to Justin and Helen,” says Edie, laughing. “Help me get that raise.”

*

Edie wakes the next morning at eight – Saturday – having gotten home from the pub at half past midnight and tumbled into bed at one. Her good dog Horowitz, an affable brown mutt, is standing beside the bed making melodic sounds in his throat that mean, “Time for our walk, Edie. Come on now. You know it is.”

After a quick shower, Edie dresses for the cold and rain and walks with Horowitz from their little cottage at the north end of Mercy – Horowitz on a short leash – to Justin and Helen’s house on the west end of Mercy, the town still mostly asleep, the temperature near freezing and the sky thick with rain-heavy gray clouds.

When they arrive at the little white house fronted by Justin’s dormant rose garden, Helen, dressed for cold and rain, comes out the front door with Sasha, a fast-growing ten-month-old Golden Lab pulling hard on her leash to get to Edie and Horowitz.

Helen is fifty-two, Pomo Mexicano with olive brown skin, her black hair in two braids hidden under a wool cap and rain poncho. She tells Edie they have forty minutes before it starts to rain – Helen’s unerring accuracy regarding the weather amazing to Edie and everyone who knows Helen, whose last name is Morningstar, her people the Pomo who have inhabited the Mercy watershed for thousands of years.

They walk fast to the town beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, and finding they are the only people and dogs on the vast expanse of sand, they let Sasha and Horowitz off their leashes to race around in wild joy.

“Two days off,” cries Helen, embracing Edie. “Heaven.”

“Heaven,” says Edie, sighing contentedly. “No pub until Monday.”

Friends for eighteen years, best friends for two, Helen and Edie initially connected when the now-defunct Lancaster Books in San Francisco began publishing Helen’s volumes of poetry eighteen years ago – Edie the presiding editor for each of the nine volumes of Helen’s poems Lancaster Books brought out over sixteen years. When Lancaster Books went bankrupt two years ago, Arthur Lancaster, the publisher, moved to England and launched Nick Bottom’s Books, publishers of Helen’s tenth volume of poems and eager to publish her eleventh.

With the demise of Lancaster Books, Edie was out of a job and unable to find another editor gig paying enough to live on, so she moved from San Francisco to Mercy, auditioned for the bartending job at Big Goose, and now has a starring role in the ongoing drama of life at the pub.

When Edie and her one-year-younger sister Charlene were girls they hoped to be actresses and singers, but neither of them could ever get a part in their school plays, and their friends who were strong singers teased them about their “little” voices, so neither pursued acting or singing. Charlene became an interior decorator, Edie a bartender and waitress, then an editor of poetry and fiction, and now she’s a bartender again.

“When I was in therapy,” says Edie, walking arm-in-arm with Helen against the wind, the dogs far ahead chasing gulls, “I realized I was not only seeking emotional fulfillment through my continuous short-lived relationships, I was seeking creative fulfillment, too. Finding a new mate and reveling in that newness was my art, and it kept me from ever being alone with myself long enough to find out who I really am.”

“You haven’t been in a relationship for over a year now,” says Helen, who loves Edie more than any woman she’s ever known.

“My new record since I was twelve,” says Edie, letting go of Helen and executing a comical pirouette. “Seventeen months solo and I love it!”

*

After breakfast with Helen and Justin, the rain lets up and Edie and Horowitz walk home – a day by the fire Edie’s heart’s desire.

But as they come down the driveway of the house in front of Edie’s cottage, Lena Quisenberry, Edie’s landlord, opens her kitchen window and calls to Edie, “Hey gorgeous, we’re about to torch a spliff of some spectacular new weed. Dig the name. Eternal Yes. Want to join us?”

Edie, who rarely smokes dope, surprises herself by replying, “Love to. I’ll get my dog dried off and change out of my wet clothes and be over in a few.”

Lena and Elvis Quisenberry have lived in Mercy for forty-five years, Elvis a lanky mechanic at Mercy Garage, Lena a buxom salesperson at Excellent Blow, one of Mercy’s three cannabis dispensaries. Both Elvis and Lena are hardcore pot smokers, and Edie knows from a few other times partaking with them that whatever Lena and Elvis are smoking, one hit will be more than sufficient to get her plenty stoned.

Yet for some reason Edie has four hits, and by the time she bids Elvis and Lena adieu she is so stoned, the journey across the astoundingly soggy incredibly green lawn seems to take forever, though she traverses the fifty feet from their house to her cottage in less than a minute.

Once inside her phantasmagoric cottage, she spends an eternity building a fire in her woodstove, after which she lies down on her sofa, covers herself with a down comforter, and falls asleep.

*

Five hours later, Horowitz wakes Edie by nudging her cheek with his nose and making throaty vocalizations to say he needs to go out and pee. Edie sits up, sees the fire has died, and deduces from the look and feel of things that she is still very stoned.

When Horowitz comes back in from relieving himself, Edie dries him off with a big towel, gives him a doggy treat, and looks in her refrigerator for something to eat – nothing in there appealing to her.

“Mexican,” she says, thinking of enchiladas and rice and beans.

Following a lengthy and fascinating search, she finds her phone under a falling-apart paperback copy of Christopher Morley’s Parnassus On Wheels and calls Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican and orders guacamole and chips and the chicken enchilada fish taco combo plate with extra beans and rice and corn tortillas to go; and the fantastically fast-talking person with the astounding Spanish accent tells her she can pick up her supper in thirty minutes.

“But can I drive when I’m this stoned?” she asks Horowitz, who makes a face that says I wouldn’t if I were you.

“So we’ll walk,” says Edie, the magic word inspiring Horowitz to spin around two fantastic times before rushing off to fetch his leash.

*

Sunday morning, walking the dogs on the headlands with Helen, a light rain falling, Edie tells Helen about getting high yesterday with Elvis and Lena.

“When I lived in the city,” she says, still groggy from the pot, “smoking dope was my favorite way to escape, though my life was not terrible, just way too stressful. And you know it’s never truly quiet in the city. Never. So my body never deeply slept. But here in Mercy, I don’t want to escape. This is where I’ve always wanted to be only I never knew it until I’d been here a few weeks, and then I knew deep in my bones.”

“When I was a girl, my grandmother and grandfather,” says Helen, speaking of the two who raised her, “smoked pot once a year on the winter solstice. I’d help my grandmother make venison stew and my grandfather would get all his chores done in the morning. Then we’d go out to a clearing in the forest, rain or no rain, and stand together facing north, and my grandfather would call Great Spirit to come be with us. Then we’d face east and my grandmother would call Great Spirit. And then we’d face south and I would call Great Spirit. And then we’d face west and we all would call Great Spirit to come join us. Then we would stand in silence until Great Spirit arrived. Then my grandmother would hold her little pipe up to the sky and ask Great Spirit to come into the herb to bring us wisdom and speak to us of the year ahead. Then my grandfather would light a match and hold it over the bowl filled with bud my grandmother grew in her garden every year, and my grandmother would smoke first and then my grandfather would smoke, and they would blow their smoke at me because I was not to smoke until I became a woman. And they kept smoking until the herb was gone. Then we’d walk back to the cabin and sit by the fire for a few hours, and then we’d have bowls of stew and talk about what Great Spirit told us.”

*

Monday afternoon at 4:30 on the dot, Norman and Jack enter Big Goose and take their customary seats at the bar, Norman having a pint of Guinness, Jack a pint of Scrimshaw – Edie asking which movie stars they are delving into now.

“I’m taking a break from the movies,” says Norman, gazing around the mostly empty pub. “Reading Steinbeck again.”

“Which you always do after you watch The Grapes of Wrath,” says Jack, smirking. “I’m still on my Dorothy Lamour kick, but I’m starting to flirt with Danny Kaye.”

“How was your weekend, Edie?” asks Norman, who loves afternoons like this when Edie is free to talk to them for more than a minute or two.

“Revelatory,” she says, nodding. “Amidst the thunder and lightning.”

“What was revealed?” asks Norman, eager to know.

“Many things,” says Edie, thinking of Horowitz and their epic journey through the tempest to and from the Mexican restaurant, of walking with Helen and the dogs on the vast beach, of the huge storm-driven waves, of her crackling fire, of rain drumming on her roof.

“Can you tell us one of the things?” asks Norman, nodding hopefully.

Edie gazes at Norman and says, “We need not look for love. It’s all around us, always, like gravity. We need only open ourselves to love and we will be filled to overflowing.”

“You really think so?” asks Jack, plaintively. “That’s a bit of a stretch for me.”

“I know so,” says Edie, looking into Jack’s eyes and seeing he wants to believe her and for some reason can’t.

“I know so, too,” says Norman, nodding. “Though I often forget, and I thank you for reminding me.”

fin

Really Really Really a little movie with Todd

Categories
short story

Nude Movie

Morris Green teaches Video Production, Film History, and Computer Graphics at Mercy High in Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California. When he started teaching at the high school eighteen years ago, cell phones equipped with video cameras were not yet on the market and Internet platforms for sharing videos were just being established. Nowadays everyone who has a cell phone can shoot videos, and watching videos via the Internet is an integral part of virtually every American’s life.

A soft-spoken bespectacled man of medium height with wispy reddish brown hair, Morris began teaching at Mercy High when he was twenty-five. He is now forty-three and married to his former student Melanie who fell in love with Morris when she took Computer Graphics and Film History from him her senior year at Mercy High, which happened to be Morris’s first year on the job.

Melanie did not attempt to seduce Morris when he was her teacher, though several of her classmates tried without success, nor did she initiate anything with Morris beyond friendly hugs when they would meet, seemingly by accident, around town during the summers between her years of college. But when she graduated from Sacramento State with a degree in Computer Graphics and moved back to Mercy to launch her Graphics business Please Identify Yourself, she immediately initiated seduction procedures which Morris was helpless to resist.

Now Morris and Melanie have a twelve-year-old son named Orson and an eleven-year-old daughter named Escher, both of whom are video-making computer graphics prodigies and zealous Frisbee golfers like their father. Please Identify Yourself has seven employees and does a huge online identity-package business, Melanie’s clients ranging from individuals to large companies. Morris continues working at the high school, though much of what he teaches has become uninteresting to him because most of his students would rather interact with their phones than with him.

Even Film History has lost its luster for Morris, as the films he considers of great importance are of little or no interest to the vast majority of his students for whom anything made more than a few years ago seems irrelevant to what matters to them today – and what that is, besides getting high and getting laid, Morris hasn’t a clue.

*

Enter Tuolumne and Tenaya Larkin.

Tenaya, eighteen, and Tuolumne, sixteen, were born and raised on a remote homestead ten miles inland from Mercy and homeschooled by their parents Donovan and Cass, whose folks were tree huggers who settled in the Mercy watershed in the 1960s. Tenaya and Tuolumne never watched television or used a computer or a cell phone or even went to the movies until just a few months ago when they finally convinced their parents to let them go to Mercy High for a year before they venture forth to seek their fortunes.

As is often the case with bright kids who have read hundreds of excellent books and plays while being homeschooled by smart parents and thoughtful grandparents and wise neighbors, Tenaya and Tuolumne find most of what Mercy High has to offer of little interest, but they both take to Video Production and Film History like ducks to water.

Tenaya, a beguiling redhead, is hugely popular with legions of young men at Mercy High, and Tuolumne, a dashing hunk with long brown hair, is a big hit with myriad young women on campus. However, romance is of little interest to either of them compared to their burning passion for the aforementioned subjects taught by the aforementioned Morris Green.

*

“They’re amazing,” says Morris to Justin Oglethorpe in Big Goose after school one day in late October, Justin the longtime bartender of the Goose as that largest of Mercy’s three pubs is known to locals. “They’re like supernatural versions of some of the kids I had in my classes when I first started teaching here. Intellectually sophisticated, blazingly creative, and they get my jokes, which none of my previous students, even the smart ones, ever got. But Tuolumne and Tenaya do.”

“I know their folks,” says Justin who is fifty-four, six-feet-six, and has carrot red hair recently cut short for the start of the Mercy Rec Center basketball league, the Big Goose team always formidable with Justin, who was on the San Jose State basketball team, playing point guard, and five-foot-seven Pablo ‘Jumping Jack‘ Valdez dominating the paint. “They’ve been bringing Tulo and Tenaya here once a month since they were little kids to hear Ricardo play piano on Thursday evenings. Donovan is stupendously ironical and makes much-sought-after dulcimers, and Cass is the Rock of Gibraltar with a fabulous sense of humor and a singing voice reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. She plays zither.”

“Now if I were to say Rock of Gibraltar or Joni Mitchell or dulcimer or zither in any of my classes, no one would know what I was talking about, except for Tuolumne and Tenaya.” Morris gulps his half-pint of Mercy porter. “When I screened The Maltese Falcon a week ago for my Film History classes and asked my students to write responses to the film, all of them, I’m not kidding, fifty students each wrote a few sentences, the gist of which was they found the film excruciatingly dull, and several of them used the word excruciatingly, which I’m sure their writing software chose for them, except for Tuolumne and Tenaya. They both wrote long gorgeous handwritten elegies to the movie, and I don’t use the words gorgeous or elegies lightly. Can I read you a couple excerpts from their responses?”

“Nothing would please me more,” says Justin, who is also one of the owners of Big Goose, which allows him to have Miguel take over behind the bar while he, Justin, takes a break to hang with Morris and let the good man debrief.

They sit at a small table away from the growing hubbub as five o’clock approaches, and Morris reads first from Tenaya’s response to The Maltese Falcon, that iconic template for a thousand subsequent murder mystery suspense thrillers, minus the horrific violence and moronic dialogue that eventually overwhelmed the genre.

“‘Bogart’s face, oh his face,’ reads Morris, passionately. “The sublime sorrow of a man shaped by his awareness of the falsity of hope. His sorrow is etched in his face from the corners of his eyes to the corners of his mouth, vestiges of tenderness only apparent when he smiles, and even those vestiges are tempered with bitterness. Whatever else the movie is about, Bogart’s angry despair is the engine of this movie.”

“Wow,” says Justin, impressed.

Morris nods. “Wow, indeed. Listen to this from Tuolumne.” He puts down Tenaya’s seventeen-page opus and picks up Tuolumne’s ten-pager. “‘Surely Beckett saw The Maltese Falcon. He must have. And wouldn’t Bogart have made a sublime Vladimir and Lorre an incomparable Estragon in Waiting For Godot? The profound absurdity of people for generations throwing away their lives and the lives of others to possess an illusion left me breathless. Did Hammett know his book was homage to meaninglessness? Did Huston know he was translating Hammett’s allegory into visual shorthand of grief born of greed? Is this a meditation on the fruits of deprivation? The movie is made with such care, such sincerity. Indeed, it is this unfettered sincerity that amplifies the absurdity into a maelstrom of tension – about nothing!’”

“Wow again,” says Justin, smiling at Morris. “You must be thrilled.”

“I’m reborn,” says Morris, gazing wide-eyed at Justin. “I care about teaching again. I have a reason to go to work. I want to share a thousand things with them every day. And glory of glories they seem to be infecting the other kids, challenging them to think beyond the blur of their numbing media to grok the miracles of the classics.”

“Hallelujah,” says Justin, clinking his coffee mug with Morris’s glass of porter. “All is not lost.”

*

In November, Morris takes his two Video Production classes to the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy to see the latest show of local artist Bertram Hawley’s life-sized and uncannily lifelike wooden sculptures of naked women and naked men. Bertram is eighty now. He used to show annually at the Fletcher Gallery, but has slowed down in his old age and this is his first show of seven new works in almost three years.

Virtually everyone in Mercy goes to Bertram’s shows, and most of the kids in Morris’s Video Production classes have not only already seen this year’s show, they grew up going to Bertram’s shows with their parents and friends. Even Tuolumne and Tenaya have gone to these shows since they were little kids, their parents eager to expose them to excellent works of art and music.

But this show of Bertram’s sculptures, five women and two men, has such a powerful impact on both Tenaya and Tuolumne, they decide to contact Bertram and ask if they might film him speaking about his art.

*

A slender agile man with snow white hair neither long nor short, Bertram was born in Los Angeles to British parents, moved to England as a teenager, and stayed in England until he was forty when he returned to America with his British wife Alison who is exactly his age. An actor of some success in England, Bertram gave up stage and screen for sculpting after surviving a terrible car accident that rendered him prone to severe anxiety and panic attacks, his emotional condition much improved since moving to Mercy where he and Alison have lived for thirty years now, Alison a psychotherapist.

*

On a sunny Wednesday after school, armed with an excellent video camera and tripod and audio recorder on loan from Mercy High, Tuolumne and Tenaya arrive at Bertram’s big airy studio adjacent to the house where Bertram and Alison live a mile inland from Mercy. They find Bertram having tea at his work table with Eliana, the lovely seven-year-old daughter of Bertram and Alison’s good friends Zeke and Conchita, Zeke a gardener who works for Bertram and Alison once a week, Conchita a real estate agent.

“Welcome,” says Bertram, coming to greet Tuolumne and Tenaya on the threshold of the studio. “You’re just in time for tea. I am having black, Eliana is having mint. We just made a pot of each.”

“Thank you,” say Tuolumne, bowing graciously. ‘We’re honored to meet you.”

“Truly,” says Tenaya, bowing, too. “We’re in awe of your art.”

“Oh don’t be,” says Bertram, laughing. “They’re just gigantic wood carvings.”

“They’re so real,” says Tenaya, gazing around the studio – an as-yet-untouched pillar of oak, seven-feet-tall and nearly three-feet-wide standing under the central skylight on the carpeted platform where Bertram does his sculpting. “So alive.”

“A friend who owns a few of my pieces says he talks to them,” says Bertram, leading them to the work table, “and believes they listen and sympathize.” He gestures for Tuolumne and Tenaya to sit. “Eliana this is Tenaya and her brother Tuolumne.”

“I know who you are,” says Eliana, who is not British, but being a preternatural mimic has an impeccable British accent whenever she spends time with Bertram and Alison, which is often. “You sometimes come to the Goose with your parents on Thursday evenings to hear Ricardo play, and your father has pints of dark beer and your mother has glasses of red wine and you have lemonade.”

Tenaya sets up the tripod, mounts the camera thereon, frames her shot so the worktable and those around it are the center of attention, and activates the camera before sitting down.

“I thought you looked familiar,” says Tuolumne, smiling at Eliana, her long black hair in a ponytail. “You played a duet with Ricardo the last time we went. You were fantastic.”

“Ricardo is my piano teacher,” says Eliana, returning Tuolumne’s smile. “He sometimes humors me by letting me perform with him. I do little flourishes in the high notes while he does everything else. I’m very lucky. He only has three students because teaching piano interferes with his composing and practicing. He earns his living as a waiter at Campeona and occasionally gets residuals from a movie he played the music for. Isabella Remembers. I’m in the movie, too, and so is Bertram. I was only four-years-old when they made the movie. You really should see it, and I’m not just saying that because we’re in it.”

“We’ll rent it immediately,” says Tenaya, delighted by Eliana.

“No need,” says Bertram, enchanted with Tenaya and Tuolumne. “I’ll loan you my copy.”

“Ricardo,” continues Eliana, looking at the camera and arching her eyebrow, “is composing a quartet for piano, cello, violin, and oboe that is so beautiful I can hardly believe it exists. He’s such a genius, and so is Bertram, though they both say they are merely well-practiced.” She laughs a deep hearty laugh one might expect from an adult, not a seven-year-old. “Aren’t geniuses funny?”

“Yes, aren’t we?” says Bertram, winking at Tuolumne. “So tell me about yourselves.”

“Well,” says Tuolumne, placing the audio recorder in the center of the table, “we hope to interview you and shoot some footage for a school project and…”

“It’s all just a ruse to meet you,” blurts Tenaya, gazing at Bertram as if seeing a miracle. “I feel like I’m in the presence of… I don’t know… Picasso.”

“Oh dear, no,” says Bertram, emphatically shaking his head. “We are told by multiple reliable sources that even at eighty Picasso would have been chasing you around the studio intent on ravishing you, whereas I was never that sort, though you are lovely. Don’t get me wrong.”

“You mean…” says Tenaya, frowning. “Picasso was a womanizer?”

“Famously so,” says Bertram, tickled by Tenaya’s innocent dismay. “Which just goes to prove that one’s art isn’t necessarily a reliable representation of one’s persona. I, for instance, carve statues of naked people, yet I’m terribly shy about letting anyone other than my wife see me naked, and even with Alison I feel more comfortable with at least some clothes on. Most of the time.”

“When we were in the gallery with our class,” says Tuolumne, giving Bertram a mischievous smile, “I couldn’t help imagining all of us spontaneously taking off our clothes to be naked with your sculptures. They seem to want us to be naked. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do know what you mean,” says Bertram, his eyes twinkling. “I think your vision would make a wonderful short film, and you have my permission. I’m sure we could arrange something with the gallery.”

“Oh no,” says Tenaya, solemnly shaking her head. “Our wonderful teacher Mr. Green would get in terrible trouble if we made a movie with naked students.” She sighs. “Though it is a lovely idea.”

“What about this?” says Eliana, holding out her arms to the camera. “We see a bunch of people going into the gallery wearing clothes, grown-up people, so wonderful Mr. Green won’t get in trouble, and then we see them walking around looking at the sculptures, and then a little while later we see them coming out of the gallery naked except they’re still wearing shoes and hats.”

“Or it could be a couple, a man and a woman,” says Bertram with a gleam in his eyes, “who come into the gallery and move silently about, slowly disrobing, one item at a time, until they are both naked and cease to move and become wooden sculptures of themselves.”

“Or,” says Tenaya, her eyes wide with excitement, “a lonely man and a lonely woman enter the gallery separately and are mesmerized by the sculptures, and after some suspenseful wandering around, they meet each other next to those two statues, the man and woman you’ve posed together, and they gaze at the two statues for a long time and then turn to each other and slowly disrobe and assume the poses of the statues and then we dissolve to them leaving the gallery together, wearing their clothes again and holding hands.”

“Or,” says Tuolumne, too excited to stay sitting, “it could be a class of high school kids who come in being loud and joking and making childish sexual comments. But seeing the sculptures quiets them and we only hear occasional snickering until even that stops and they’re all lost in wonder, and then each of them says something self-revealing and when they leave the gallery we can tell by the looks on their faces they’ve been changed.”

Bertram looks at Tenaya and asks, “Did you film us saying all that?”

“Every bit of it,” she says, nodding.

“And I’ve been recording audio since we walked in,” says Tuolumne, beaming at Bertram.

“Brilliant,” says Eliana, raising her teacup as if to make a toast.

“You know what I’d like to do?” says Tuolumne, carrying his cup of tea to the pillar of wood in the center of the studio – Tenaya expertly tracking him with the camera.

“What would you like to do?” asks Bertram, joining Tuolumne at the pillar and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him in a shaft of silver sunlight.

“I’d like to film you carving your next nude from start to finish,” says Tuolumne, reaching out to touch the pillar of wood. “We could stop by on our way home from school and shoot a few minutes every day, and when the sculpture is done we’ll make a time lapse movie of your nude taking form. With comments from you and a soundtrack of Ricardo’s piano music.”

“I like the way you think,” says Bertram, resting a hand on Tuolumne’s shoulder and not telling him the future he has just foreseen – Tuolumne becoming his apprentice and working with him as far into the future as Bertram can see, which is at least another few years.

“Aren’t they exquisite together?” whispers Eliana to Tenaya.

“Exquisite,” says Tenaya, loving her shot of the two men, one young, one old, contemplating their futures together.

fin

How Are You? A 44-second movie starring Todd’s hand

Categories
short story

Turk and Emily

On a cold clear Wednesday morning in February in busy Café Brava, a bakery café in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Turk Arslan, his given name Daniel but everyone knows him as Turk, and his sister Emily Arslan are having breakfast with their good friends Elvis and Lena Quisenberry. Turk and Elvis are both sixty-five, Emily and Lena both sixty-three.

Turk, a lifelong bachelor, big and mostly bald and twenty pounds overweight, is a year away from retiring as a deputy sheriff, and Emily, also never married, small and stout with gray hair in a page boy, was a school teacher in their hometown of Fresno until she had a nervous breakdown eight years ago, a breakdown that precipitated their move to Mercy – Turk quitting the Fresno police force after thirty years of service and becoming a deputy sheriff in Mercy.

Elvis, long and lanky with shoulder-length brown hair going gray, is a mechanic at Mercy Garage and Lena, zaftig with short brown hair currently tinted magenta, used to own a women’s clothing store in Mercy called Perfect Fit and for the last five years has worked three days a week at Excellent Blow, one of Mercy’s three cannabis dispensaries.

Turk and Emily and Elvis and Lena are all cannabis users, Elvis and Lena daily smokers, Emily a daily user of cannabis gummy bears, and Turk an occasional smoker on his days off. The four became friends five years ago when Emily bought cannabis at Excellent Blow from Lena on Lena’s first day of work there and they discovered they were both quilters and knitters and dog and cat lovers, and they’ve been a happy quartet ever since.

“What’s the latest from Jerry?” asks Emily, inquiring about Lena and Elvis’s only child who recently became a high school drama teacher in Boise after living in Los Angeles for twenty years trying to make it as an actor and supporting himself by working in a cannabis dispensary.

“He’s a little depressed,” says Lena, who got very stoned this morning with Elvis before they walked from their house on the northern edge of Mercy to Café Brava in the center of town. “A far cry from Hollywood.”

“No more depressed than he was in LA,” says Elvis, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his El Grande Breakfast Burrito #4. “For twenty years he auditioned for anything and everything in that, pardon my French, fucking town. We’re talking thousands of auditions. Twenty years. A talented handsome guy. And in all those years he was in four commercials, spoke in one of them, was a passerby in a scene in a movie where Gwyneth Paltrow tells… I never can remember his name… she knows he’s cheating on her, and…”

“Colin Firth,” says Lena, sipping her latte.

“What about Colin Firth?” says Elvis, frowning at Lena. “I was talking about Jerry.”

“Jerry was a passerby in a scene where Gwyneth Paltrow tells Colin Firth she knows he’s cheating on her,” says Lena, waving to a woman who used to shop at Perfect Fit and now shops at Excellent Blow. “And then Jerry walks by and Colin Firth tries to deny it.”

“Now I can’t remember where I was going with this,” says Elvis, making a spluttering sound. “What were we talking about?”

“Jerry,” says Emily, who is only mildly high from her first gummy bear of the day. “Four commercials, passerby in the scene with Gwyneth and Colin, and…”

“Right,” says Elvis, pointing at her. “And two lines in a movie with Brad Pitt.”

“When Jerry played the guy working in a Jiffy Burger,” says Turk, who has heard the list of Jerry’s show biz accomplishments dozens of times. “We saw the movie. He was terrific.”

“‘That’ll be seven forty-five,’” says Elvis, nodding. “That was Jerry’s first line. Then Brad Pitt gives him a ten and says, ‘Keep the change,’ as only Brad Pitt can say that, and Jerry says, ‘Too kind.’ He totally improvised that line and the director was miffed and shot the scene again and told Jerry to stick to the script and say, ‘Gosh, thanks,’ but when they saw the dailies the director totally dug Jerry’s improv and they used it. Absolutely makes the scene. Here’s this guy working in a fast food joint saying, ‘Too kind’ like he’s Alec Guinness without a British accent. Brilliant.” Elvis shakes his head. “They missed a bet with Jerry, I’m telling you.”

“I hope he’s adjusting okay,” says Emily, who feels anxious just thinking about teaching high school. “I taught Drama for five years along with English, and Drama was not easy. I don’t care what anybody says. Thirty teenagers with raging hormones undressing in front of each other and putting on costumes and performing emotional monologues?” She closes her eyes. “Madness.”

Breakfast arrives and Turk says, “Speaking of madness, last night we got a slew of calls from people complaining about a campfire on the town beach. Homeless people trying to stay warm. The shelters are full. The beach is theoretically closed after dark, but there’s no way…”

“What do people want you to do?” asks Elvis, devouring his burrito. “Put them in jail? Where are they supposed to go? Better they camp on the beach than in our backyard, and that has happened more than once, and believe me it’s no fun telling starving people to get off your property.”

“So you went down there?” asks Lena, who often sells cannabis to homeless people and always feels a little conflicted knowing they’re getting high instead of buying food.

“I did,” says Turk, sipping his coffee. “Usually two of us go, but Ruben’s ankle is still on the mend and he can’t walk on sand, so I went solo. Checked out the scene with night goggles from the vista point before I went down there, and I saw a couple really young women with the usual mob. They couldn’t have been older than sixteen. But by the time I got down there the girls were gone. And when I asked the guy who begs in front of Walker’s with his one-eyed pit bull if the girls were local, you’ll never guess what he told me.”

“What did he tell you?” asks Elvis, his burrito suspended a few inches from his mouth.

“He told me to fuck off,” says Turk, laughing.

“You didn’t tell me about the girls,” says Emily, grimacing. “Breaks my heart.”

“Crazy world out there,” says Turk, nodding. “And freezing cold. I hope they werelocals and had beds to go home to, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“Did you look for them?” asks Emily, who can’t wait for Turk to retire so she can stop worrying about him every night when he’s working. “Call out to them?”

“No,” says Turk, shaking his head. “Chasing strays on the beach in the dark is not in my job description.”

*

Turk is one of two sheriffs on duty in and around Mercy from four to midnight, and he says his job is a piece of cake compared to his job as a policeman in Fresno – Mercy a small town with little crime, Fresno a big city with all kinds of ethnic and economic divides.

The three pubs in Mercy close at eleven on week days, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, the Coast Cinema is usually dark by eleven, and Walker’s Groceries closes at ten, so after midnight the only place in Mercy open is the Emergency Room at Mercy Hospital. But piece of cake or not, Turk rarely works his 4 PM to Midnight shift without a modicum of drama – car accidents, domestic abuse, pub brawls, fires, burglaries, lost dogs, suicides, and once in a great while murder.

*

At 9 o’clock in the evening of the same Wednesday that Turk and Emily breakfasted with Elvis and Lena, Turk and Ruben Higuera are taking a twenty-minute break at Big Goose, one of Mercy’s three pubs, and briefing each other on what they’ve seen and done since they both started working at four – enjoying a little time out of their squad cars.

“There are three kinds of cops,” says Turk, finishing his piece of pumpkin pie.

“Smart cops, dumb cops, and dumber cops?” guesses Ruben, laughing.

 “There’s that,” says Turk, laughing along with Ruben who is twenty years his junior and a body builder, Ruben’s biceps monumental. “And there are cops who look for trouble, cops who avoid trouble, and cops who trouble finds.”

“Same way in the Army,” says Ruben, who survived two years in Afghanistan. “Guys who volunteer for dangerous missions, guys who volunteer for nothing, and guys who no matter what they do, the fight always finds them.”

Graceful lovely Diana saunters by with a tray laden with pints of ale and says to Turk and Ruben, “Get you guys more coffee?”

“We’re outta here,” says Turk, beaming at her. “Please tell Angelica her pie was fabuloso.”

“She likes you, Turk,” says Ruben, when Diana is out of earshot. “She always gives you that look of love she never gives me. You lucky guy.”

“I’m old enough to be her father,” says Turk, getting up from the table and leaving a twenty to cover their pie and coffee and tip. “She’s only forty-something. We helped her out when she first moved here, Emily and I. Don’t be ridiculous. She’d smile at you that way, too, if you weren’t married.”

“I apologize,” says Ruben, knowing women and romance aren’t part of Turk’s life and wishing he hadn’t said anything. “You want to check the beach? My ankle’s okay. I can do sand. The calls keep coming in.”

“I’d rather not,” says Turk, putting on his hat, “but we probably should.”

*

When Turk gets home a little after midnight, Emily is waiting up for him as always, sitting on the sofa knitting, their old brown mutt Bongo lying at her feet, their calico cat China purring by her side.

Turk takes a shower, put on his pajamas, and sits in his rocking chair by the fire sipping chamomile tea – tomorrow the first of his two days off.

“What are you thinking about?” asks Emily, sensing something amiss with her brother.

“Oh lots of things,” he says, clearing his throat. “We checked out the beach again tonight, Ruben and I, and we didn’t see the girls. Just nine guys and a three old gals. We took them a couple bags of groceries.” He shrugs. “I just wanted to. They’re not doing anything wrong except they’re not supposed to be there. But where can they go? I feel so helpless to help them.” He shakes his head. “System’s broken.”

“Did you ask about the girls?” says Emily, her heart aching as she thinks about the people on the beach trying to stay warm.

“No,” he says quietly, “but I spent the rest of my shift looking for them, and I was thinking… how would you feel about us taking in a foster child after I retire? We’ve got the extra bedroom and… I don’t know. I think about how if Aunt Sarah hadn’t taken us in when Mom died we would have been foster kids and they might have split us up or… who knows what might have happened.”

“A foster child?” says Emily, horrified. “Oh Turk. I can’t do that. I’m barely hanging on as it is.”

“You’re right,” he says, nodding. “It was just a thought. You know. In the moment.”

*

Thursday is Turk’s favorite day of the week, and he often says when he retires every day will be a Thursday.

He rises early as usual, takes Bongo for a walk up and down their two-block-long street, Comfrey Lane, all the houses one-story with small yards, and after having coffee and one of Emily’s delicious pumpkin muffins, he vacuums the house to combat the never-ending onslaught of animal hair before sitting down at the kitchen table to write a few postcards to old friends while he has a second cup of coffee.

Around ten, he and Emily walk into town together, stop at the post office to mail the postcards and check their post office box – mostly junk mail today and one actual letter from Emily’s old chum June who Turk was not-so-secretly in love with and June might have tumbled for him except he never asked her out because he knew Emily would have been devastated.

From the post office they walk to Excellent Blow where Emily buys two boxes of cannabis gummy bears from Lena who cajoles Turk into having two hits of a new strain they recently got in called Inspiration Point, which Lena says she and Elvis have been totally digging lately.

Turk’s high comes on while Lena and Emily are babbling about recent snafus with their current quilts and he wishes he hadn’t gotten high because he was so enjoying how he felt before he toked, and he almost says this to Emily and Lena, but he doesn’t.

*

Home again, his high from Inspiration Point showing no signs of waning, Turk starts a fire and sits in his rocking chair looking through a big book of Modigliani nudes, all of whom make him think of Diana the lovely waitress at Big Goose, and Tina Lombardi, the only woman Turk ever had sex with – for one glorious year and almost every day when Turk was twenty-seven and Tina, a divorcee with two kids, lived next door to Turk and Emily in Fresno and wouldn’t take no for an answer from the handsome young cop.

Then she got transferred to Phoenix and I never saw her again thinks Turk lingering on his favorite Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, which always puts him in mind of several women he might have had love affairs with or even married except I was married to my sister. Without sex or intimacy or passion. I don’t blame Emily. This is just how our life unfolded under the circumstances.

*

After lunch, minestrone soup and French bread and cheese, Turk and Emily walk Bongo up and down Comfrey Lane again before Turk drives Emily with her current quilt to her friend Claudette’s house where Emily and Claudette and two other women sit in Claudette’s big quilting studio and work on their quilts and talk.

While Emily is at Claudette’s, Turk does the week’s shopping at Walker’s Groceries, messes around in Mercy Hardware, and buys postcards and a couple fine-tipped pens at Joan’s, Mercy’s one stationery store.

With an hour left to kill before he picks up Emily, Turk drives to the Mercy Community Library and sits at the big round table in the reference room writing postcards to Tank Wilkins who was his partner on the Fresno force for many years and now raises bees in New Mexico, and Magdalena Cortez who rode with Turk her first two years on the force and was a very good cop until she quit to have a couple kids with her software designer husband Hal who out of the blue hit it big with an app that some huge company bought for a fortune and Magdalena and Hal moved to Malibu where Magdalena is now grooming her two gorgeous daughters to be fashion models and actresses.

*

Though he knows it pains Emily when he doesn’t have supper with her on Thursday evenings before he goes to Big Goose to listen to Ricardo Alvarez play piano, Turk is craving Big Goose’s incomparable fish & chips tonight and leaves the house at six wearing his favorite teal dress shirt and black corduroy trousers and a purple beret.

Emily won’t leave the house after dark, even with Turk accompanying her, so this weekly excursion to hear Ricardo play is one of the rare things Turk does out of uniform without Emily.

“I cannot live my entire life catering to my sister,” says Turk, walking to the pub for a leisurely meal before Ricardo starts playing at seven – dusk giving way to darkness – and he laughs at what he just said because he has lived his entire life catering to his sister, and he knows why.

Their Turkish mother Burcu died when Turk was eleven and Emily was nine, Burcu long estranged from her parents and family and having no community of friends, the identity of her children’s fathers dying with her. And knowing instinctively there was no one they could depend on except each other – the woman who took them in largely indifferent to them – they vowed never to leave each other, a vow Emily has never wished to break and Turk wanted to break every day of his life until he was fifty and came to believe Emily would kill herself or go insane if he left her.

*

When lovely Diana takes Turk’s order, she is not wearing her usual Big Goose sweatshirt and jeans, but a silky green blouse and a black skirt, her long graying auburn hair in a beautiful braid.

And after she places the half-pint of Mercy porter and a big platter of fish & chips before Turk, she sits down opposite him and says, “I’m taking Thursdays off now. I’m a goner for Ricardo’s music.”

“You and me both,” says Turk, blushing to think she served him even though she’s not working tonight.

“I saved two seats close,” she says quietly, “if you want to sit with me.”

“Love to,” he says, his heart pounding.

“Hey I need to thank you again,” she says, gazing intently at him. “For helping me when I first got here, letting me park in your driveway and use your bathroom and kitchen until I had enough money to get a place. Saved my life.”

“Seems like forever ago,” says Turk, realizing she is baring herself to him – intimacy – and he wants more than anything to bare himself to her.

“A year and two months,” she says, smiling as she cries. “Happiest fourteen months of my life thanks to you and Emily.”

“Well,” he says, approaching a precipice and preparing to leap, “when I saw you, you know, when I so rudely shined my flashlight into your van, I just… I don’t know I… I recognized you. You know what I mean? As if I already knew you and cared about you, so of course I wanted you to park in our driveway and not get busted. I’d never done that before and haven’t done it since.”

“I recognized you, too,” she says, nodding.

“You did?” he says, amazed to hear her say this. “What did you recognize about me?”

“I recognized you as my friend. My dear kind friend.”

*

Sitting with Diana close to the stage, listening to Ricardo play a tender ballad, before he can think not to, Turk reaches for Diana and she meets him halfway – the embrace of their hands as sweet as the sweetest lovemaking.

fin

Unrequited

Categories
short story

Inexhaustible Transformations

“Diana returns,” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender of Big Goose, standing behind the bar of that most popular pub in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, his ability to remember names and the people attached to those names legendary.

“And you are… Justin?” says Diana, tall and pretty with long auburn hair going gray, everything about her suggesting she once was a dancer.

“Well-remembered,” says Justin, who is fifty-two, a muscular six-feet-six, with curly carrot red hair. “Chef and her accomplices are even as we speak making a new batch of the clam chowder you so enjoyed. How about a half-pint of something while you wait for the soup to be ready?”

“I don’t drink,” says Diana, her voice deep, her accent hinting of Texas. “I did love the soup, but today I’m here about the Help Wanted sign on the front door.”

“We just put that up a minute ago,” says Justin, who has a good feeling about Diana but wonders if she might be a bit somber for the job. “We need a wait person, as waiters are called these days, and from your manner I deduce you have experience in the field.”

“You got that right,” she says, nodding. “But before we go through the rigmarole, what’s the pay?”

“Twenty an hour to start and we pool tips,” says Justin, sensing her keen desperation. “You’ll make about twenty-five an hour and if you stay with us for more than three months you’ll get good medical and the hourly goes up a bit. We want somebody from three to eleven weekdays, four to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and the occasional morning shift. We yearn for flexibility in our employees.”

“Are you the manager?” she asks, deadpan.

“Co,” he says, nodding. “With my wife. We’re the new co-owners, too. And just between you and me and anybody else who wants to know, we’re a bit overwhelmed right now. Can you come in tomorrow when my wife is here? ”

Diana nods. “What time?”

“9:30 in the morning,” he says, turning to Angelica Rodriguez as she emerges from the kitchen, the diminutive chef bearing a bowl of clam chowder.

“Tell me,” she says in Spanish, handing the bowl and a spoon to Justin.

He has a taste and says “Me gusta mucho.” Now he hands the bowl and a clean spoon to Diana.

She tastes the soup and her eyelids flutter with pleasure. “That is one delicious soup,” she says to Angelica in fluent Spanish. “I might add a little salt, but that’s just me liking things salty.”

Angelica replies in Spanish, “I agree with you, but because some people don’t like any salt we make it this way and have saltshakers on the tables.”

Diana has another spoonful of the soup, now another, hands the bowl back to Justin and says, “I’ll be here at 9:30 tomorrow morning.”

*

Walking away from Big Goose, the December afternoon drizzly and cold, Diana wonders how she’s going to survive until tomorrow morning without begging, and she really doesn’t want to beg in Mercy because she hopes to live here and doesn’t want people to know she’s homeless.

She’s been living in her van for three years now – her old dark green Volkswagen van currently parked near the post office and almost out of gas. She’ll have to park somewhere away from town when darkness falls because at night a sheriff patrols the streets of Mercy looking for vagabond vehicles such as hers. Until she had those three spoonsful of Angelica’s clam chowder, she hadn’t eaten in two days. Her quest for a job here has proved fruitless until now and she’s down to twenty-two cents and her great grandmother’s wedding ring, which she is loath to part with.

“But maybe I finally have to,” she says, stopping in front of Darby’s Antiques, the windows fogged up, someone clanking around inside the dimly lit shop. “I want to live here. I’m tired of running.”

She closes her eyes hoping for inspiration, and when she opens her eyes sees a poster in the window advertising a poetry reading at the bookstore tonight featuring Helen Morningstar and Tommy Matsukado.

“Helen Morningstar?” she says, wrinkling her nose at the poster. “Can’t be the same Helen Morningstar I read like a nun reads her Bible. Not here in the middle of nowhere.”

Curious to see if the Helen Morningstar named on the poster could possibly be the same Helen Morningstar she’s long admired, Diana opens the door of the old shop and steps inside – the place pleasantly warm, the air redolent with the smell of coffee brewing.

A portly fellow with spiky gray hair wearing blue jeans and a red plaid shirt is bending down to add a log to the fire in a little woodstove on a brick hearth abutting the south-facing wall – the store crammed to the rafters with antique furniture and lamps and ceramics and racks of vintage clothing and shelves of old books, everything stacked so close together there’s hardly any open space except a narrow aisle leading from the front door to the counter at the back of the store, and from the counter to the woodstove.

The portly fellow stands up straight, gazes raptly at Diana, and says with a mild Irish accent, “I was only just now hoping someone would come in and keep me company. Welcome.”

“Hello,” she says, mustering a tired smile. “I saw the poster in your window for the poetry reading and I’m wondering… do you know if the Helen Morningstar reading at the bookstore tonight is the same Helen Morningstar who wrote Inevitable Impossible and Dog-Eared Love?”

“She is, indeed,” says the fellow, smiling warmly. “One of our local brilliants. Come from afar, have you?”

“Yes,” she says, looking around for a place to sit down before she keels over. “Hoping to move here if I can find a job.”

“Not many jobs right now,” says the fellow, shaking his head. “We go into quasi-hibernation here until the tourists come back in the spring, though we sometimes have a little outburst around Christmas, depending on the weather. I’m Darby, by the way. Would you care for some coffee and a cookie? Oatmeal raisin fresh from the ovens of Café Brava. My coffee is fine Columbian. I brew it strong, but I’ve got cream for the faint of heart.”

“I’d love some,” says Diana, looking again for a place to sit.

“Stupid man,” mutters Darby, moving a pile of ancient children’s books off an old embroidered chair. “Please. Have a seat. Take your coat off. The coffee is just now attaining fruition.”

*

Saved by the oatmeal cookie and two cups of coffee, mostly cream, and having made a date to sit with Darby at the poetry reading this evening, Diana gets back to her van just as darkness and heavy rain begin to fall. She sets her alarm for 6:30, the poetry reading to begin at 7:30, sheds her heavy wool coat, lies down on her old foam pad, pulls the down comforter over her, and falls asleep to rain drumming on the roof.

*

As she often does, she dreams of her life before she became homeless – her sister Karen and she born a year apart and raised by their single mom in a small town in Texas, volleyball stars in high school, dance majors at Kansas State, Karen killed in a car accident mid-twenties and Diana went to New York and became a chorus girl, moved to Las Vegas and danced in big shows, married a handsome wannabe who stayed with her for a year until she broke her ankle in a bad fall and lost her place in the show biz hierarchy, and when she finally got back to full strength at thirty-four she was too old to land a dancing gig so she waitressed for years and years in Vegas Reno New Orleans Miami Tampa Bay Austin Santa Fe Phoenix LA until she was felled by a mysterious illness and spiraled into homelessness.

*

Waking to her alarm, she peers out her windows into the night – the spotlights on the outside walls of the post office illuminating empty parking places.

She changes out of her jeans and T-shirt and sweater and puts on her one good blouse, a purple beauty, and a long gray skirt. She only has her beat up running shoes, and her heavy wool coat is her only coat, so that is her ensemble.

She brushes her hair, applies a coat of faint pink lipstick, and is about to start her engine when someone raps on her window and shines a flashlight in at her – the sheriff’s deputy on his early evening rounds.

“Hello,” she says, rolling down her window.

“May I see your driver’s license, please?” says the deputy, an affable middle-aged guy, his hat not quite big enough for his large round head.

Diana gets her license out of her purse and hands it to him.

“Los Angeles,” he says, pronouncing Angeles angle-ease. “Long way from home. We moved up here from Fresno seven years ago, my sister and I. Where you staying, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I’m hoping to relocate here,” she says, dodging the question. “Going to the poetry reading at the bookstore with Darby tonight and interviewing for a job at Big Goose tomorrow morning.”

He hands her back her license and says, “One-one-four-two Comfrey Lane. You good at remembering numbers?”

“Yes,” she says, praying he doesn’t proposition her. “Why do you ask?”

“Because if you go two blocks that way to one-one-four-two Comfrey Lane,” he says, pointing to the west, “you can park in our driveway. Turk and Emily. I’m Turk. Emily’s my sister. Otherwise Mario might give you a ticket or bust you. He’s on duty midnight to eight. Probably won’t bother you, but he might. One-one-four-two. Have a good evening.”

Diana holds absolutely still until Turk drives away, and when her heart stops pounding she starts her engine and says, “Either my luck is finally changing or this is another mirage.”

*

Raining hard, the town seemingly deserted save for action at the three pubs, Diana has her pick of parking places close to the bookstore and barely gets wet hurrying into Crow’s Nest Books at 7:15, the cheerful store decorated for Christmas.

Ramona the owner/manager in a red dress embroidered with big white snow flakes is presiding over a table laden with glasses of wine and sparkling cider and enormous platters of cheeses, crackers, prawns, celery sticks, cookies, and mini-pumpkin pies.

“Welcome,” says Ramona, greeting Diana with an open-armed gesture. “Thank you so much for braving the storm.”

“Beautiful store,” says Diana, telling herself to wait a moment before attacking the prawns, her body desperate for protein. “And look at this spread. I’ve been to lots of poetry readings and never saw a feast like this one.”

“Hungry?” asks Ramona, nodding hopefully. “Please. Help yourself and take lots. We were expecting a big crowd, Tommy being so famous, but with weather like this… well, you’re here so maybe others will come.”

“And I’m here,” says Darby, coming in from the downpour. “Let’s eat.”

*

Well-fed for the first time in eons, Diana sits with Darby in the third row of five, eight folding chairs in each row – she and Darby the only people here besides Ramona standing at the door gazing forlornly into the night and the two poets sitting in the front row.

By 7:45 another dozen people have arrived, and by 7:55 there are seventeen folks on hand.

At 8:00 on the nose, Ramona steps up to the microphone and says in her easygoing way, “The poets have decided Tommy Matsukado will read first, though Helen said it has long been her dream to open for Tommy, who, as I’m sure you all know, is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and just published his fifth volume of poetry Dog Saves Man, but Tommy said it has long been his dream to open for Helen, so without further ado, here is Tommy Matsukado.”

Tommy, a short sturdy man wearing black-framed glasses and a beautiful burgundy shirt, his long black hair in a ponytail, steps up to the microphone and says, “You probably wouldn’t guess by looking at me that my mother is French and a statuesque redhead. You probably thought I was pure Japanese, right? Imagine me with short gray hair and you’ve got my father. So no wonder I became a comedian.” He holds for laughs.

“Unfortunately, I got mired in routines about ethnicity. Seriously. Sadly. Truly. We humans make such a big deal about ethnicity. And I did, too. For years I’d only date white women, and then for years I would only date Japanese women, and then for years only half-Japanese, half-white women.” He holds for more laughter.

“I was making pretty good money, but my life sucked. Truly. Then one night when I was living in LA and hoping to get cast as ‘the Asian guy’ in a sit-com, I was in a bookstore desperate for something good to read. When I hit on the half-Japanese half-white woman who worked there, she sold me Helen’s book Inevitable Impossible and I took it back to my apartment and read it cover-to-cover three times and had a revelation. I’m talking about a spiritual awakening. Truly. You think I’m being funny, but this is no joke. I loved Helen’s poems more than anything I’d ever read. And besides the gorgeous flow of words and her ruthless honesty, the thing I loved most about her poems was how they transcended race and gender and went deep into the heart of being human. She could have been an old white guy or a young lesbian or… me. Yeah. She could have been half-Japanese and half-French. So here is my revelation. It doesn’t matter who the poet is. What matters is the poetry. And that’s when I decided to become Helen. Only I’m a Japanese Frenchman and she’s a Pomo Mexican woman, but you get what I mean. And that’s why I’m opening for her and not the other way around.”

He opens Dog Saves Man and reads the title poem.

Stray dog saves man by grabbing man’s pants leg before man

steps off unseen cliff in fog. Grateful man takes dog home,

feeds dog, gives dog warm place to sleep, dog feels trapped

and escapes first chance he gets. Man falls madly in love with

woman who loves him madly, too, so long as she can have

affairs with men she doesn’t love. Man finds out about her

affairs and confronts her and she promises not to sleep with

other men, but she can’t help herself. Eventually the man

ends the relationship and is in therapy for years before he

gets up the nerve to try again, this time with a woman so

fiercely possessive of him he feels suffocated by her but does

not end the relationship because he is terrified of being alone.

*

During the intermission, Ramona announces that anyone wishing to read a poem at the end of the show should sign up now, and two people sign up, one of them Diana.

*

When the long intermission is over, Helen steps to the microphone and says, “Before I read, I need to gush a little about Tommy. We’re a long way from anywhere as you know, yet Tommy made the long trek from San Francisco at his own expense to read with me, which makes me feel like I won the Pulitzer.” She waits for the applause for Tommy to die down before she opens her newest collection Inexhaustible Transformations and reads the title poem.

First a reminder: the sun has never risen. The sun

is just there and the earth spins us into daylight and

spins us into darkness and has done so for billions of

years. Why do you (and I, it’s true) persist in saying

the sun rises and sets? Sets where? On a table we

can’t see below the horizon? Rises out of the mouth

of a giant frog hiding in the darkness?  

Next: Please refrain from saying, ‘I know how you feel.’

You do not know how I feel. I think what’s happening

Is you feel something about what I have attempted to

explain to you in words and you mistake what you

feel about those words for my feelings. I do the same

thing. I’m not criticizing you, just making a request.

Finally: we can change. We do change. We are change.

Much of the dust in our house is our former skin. For

years I avoided going down a particular street in our

neighborhood because the one time I ever walked down

that street a big terrifying dog came rushing out of his

yard with teeth bared and murder in his eyes, I thought,

and he only didn’t bite me, I thought, because his owner,

a horrid man with a big stomach wearing no shirt and

drunk, I thought, yelled at the dog, “Get back here, Coffee,”

and yesterday I was on my knees in my front yard pulling

weeds when someone gently nuzzled my arm and I gasped

when I saw it was Coffee wanting me to pet her and she

was not terrifying and very possibly the sweetest dog in

the universe and the horrid man was standing on the

sidewalk wearing a shirt and smiling like a sunrise and

being the opposite of horrid when he said, “She’s all

love,” right before Coffee took a huge dump just a few

feet away from me and I waited to see if the man would

pick up her shit and I’m happy to tell you he did and

now I walk down their street almost every day and

on those rare days when Coffee doesn’t come out to

get some love from me and vice-versa, I’m disappointed

because I want love. Need love. And she’s all love.

*

“Hi,” says Diana, shaking like a leaf as she steps up to the microphone and opens her notebook. “This is called Easy.”

I had a lover for a while, sweet guy I picked up

in Tucson we were both starving for a warm body

to hold, someone who wouldn’t hurt us and we were

good that way for each other, wouldn’t say I loved him

or he loved me, but we were kind to each other which

is really just as good as love and might even be what

love is and I wanted to go to Sedona and hide on a farm

and he wanted to go to LA and try to sell a song, so we

went to that giant crazy place – ever been there? – and

he wanted to stay and I couldn’t because I lived there

before and my enemies never forgot me. Sweet guy said

‘Once I sell my song we’ll be on Easy Street.’ We were

camping in a garage in Studio City and I drove away

when sweet guy walked down the street to get Chinese

takeout and three hours later a hundred and fifty miles

north just breaking free of the gravity of that giant

crazy place I forgot all about him easy as pie.

*

After the reading, Tommy and Helen sign copies of their books, and Diana asks Helen to sign her dog-eared copies of Inevitable Impossible and Dog-Eared Love.

“I’m gonna get your other books,” says Diana, holding her breath as she watches Helen sign the books, “only I’m currently a little short on cash. I read your books like a nun reads her Bible. Over and over again and I always find something to inspire me. As if you couldn’t tell from my poem.”

Helen hands Diana the signed books and says, “I loved your poem. I wish I’d written it. And you read so beautifully. Gave me the chills. I want to give you a copy of my new book.”

“Oh no. I’ll buy it when I can,” says Diana, starting to cry.

“Please,” says Helen, smiling at Diana. “There’s nothing in the world I want more than for you to have my poems.”

“Now I’m too happy,” says Diana, tears running down her cheeks. “Joy before disaster.”

“Don’t say that,” says Helen, signing a brand new copy of Inexhaustible Transformations. “You’re on a roll, Diana. A really good roll.”

*

Imagine Diana’s surprise the next morning when she goes for her job interview at Big Goose and Justin’s wife and co-manager turns out to be Helen Morningstar.

*

Six months later on a warm Saturday night in May, Diana in a turquoise Big Goose sweatshirt and black jeans, her hair in two braids, leaves a tray of empty glasses at the kitchen end of the bar for the dishwasher and sings to Justin, “Two pints of Guinness. Two pints of Scrimshaw. And two pints of Mercy Porter, por favor.”

“Shall I have a word with that grab-ass playing darts?” asks Justin, swiftly filling the order.

“No need,” says Diana, surveying the busy pub and feeling as good as she has ever felt. “He’s just another lost soul crying out for love the only way he knows how.”

“You sure?” asks Justin, who is very protective of his employees, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when things tend to get rowdy.

“I’m sure,” she says, winking at him and lifting the heavy tray with ease.

fin

Why Now? (a poem with piano music)

Categories
short story

Many Grandfathers

Eliana, who is four-years-old and three months, and lives near the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, is going to be in a movie made by a famous director.

She has never seen a movie, but she has seen television shows at Grandpa Jose and Grandma Rosa’s house, and Uncle Fernando showed her on his laptop some of the video he made of her, the video that got her the part in the movie. Grandpa Bertram, who is going to be in the movie, too, explained to Eliana that a movie is like watching a story book come to life on a gigantic television screen.

Eliana’s mother Conchita, who is Grandpa Jose and Grandma Rosa’s daughter, is very excited about Eliana being in the movie and is taking a week off from selling houses to help Eliana with whatever being in a movie entails. When Eliana asked her father Zeke what he thinks about her being in the movie, he said he will help in any way he can and he is very much looking forward to the filming being over so life can return to normal.

During a Zoom visit on the computer with Grandpa Blake and Grandma Marjorie, Zeke’s parents who live far across the ocean in Hawaii, Grandma Marjorie said she was “tickled pink” Eliana was going to be in a major motion picture, and Grandpa Blake said the director of the movie, Jason Somebody Somebody, made another movie called Tiny Giant Changes that is one of Grandpa Blake’s top ten favorite movies.

Eliana assumes Tiny Giant Changes is about a tiny giant who changes into something else, probably a larger giant. When she told Grandpa Bertram what she thought Tiny Giant Changes was about, Grandpa Bertram laughed until he cried. And when Grandma Alison came to see what Grandpa Bertram was laughing about, Eliana told Grandma Alison what she thought Tiny Giant Changes was about and Grandma Alison laughed until she cried.

*

Uncle Fernando, who is twenty-four, has worked for the famous movie director Jason Randle Jones for five years now and lives in England where JRJ is based. Fernando comes home to Mercy a couple times a year to visit family and friends, and on a recent visit he filmed Eliana doing a variety of things: picking flowers in her family’s vegetable and flower garden, building a sandcastle at the beach, and having a conversation with Grandpa Bertram, who is British. And whenever Fernando filmed Eliana, he asked her to share her thoughts.

Eliana, extremely sophisticated for a four-year-old, is exquisitely beautiful with long raven black hair and huge brown eyes. She speaks both English and Spanish with gorgeous fluency and an impressive vocabulary courtesy of the many adoring elders she spends time with, and her favorite thing in the world is acting out stories with her friends, her mother and father, Grandpa Bertram, Grandma Alison, and Grandma Rosa.

When Jason Randle Jones, a spry seventy-seven, saw the footage Fernando shot of Eliana, he asked Fernando if he thought Eliana’s parents would be willing to bring Eliana to Spain to be in the memory sequences for the movie he and Fernando are making from a script they wrote together – working title Mystery Child.

Fernando shook his head and said, “Not a chance.”

JRJ graciously accepted his protégé’s verdict and declared, “Then you and Carlotta and Olaf and Pearl and Andrini will go to Mercy and film Isabella’s early childhood memories there, which means dear old Bertram can play the part of Tristan, and Alison can play Clarice. They’re perfect for the parts, don’t you think?”

“No one could be better,” says Fernando, who owes his job with JRJ to Bertram and Alison who are both seventy-seven and have known JRJ since they were in their early twenties and were in the first feature-length film JRJ ever directed, the extremely low-budget comedy Crime Wave In Dover.

“I’d love to come with you,” says JRJ, sighing heavily, “but as you know better than anyone, I’m too bloody busy.”

*

So in early September, Fernando arrives in Mercy with JRJ’s renowned film crew: Art Director Carlotta McCray and her two assistants, Cinematographer Olaf Dorfmier and his two assistants, Sound savant Pearl Templeton and her two assistants, and Lighting wizard Andrini and his two assistants, along with Olaf’s precious 70-millimeter movie camera and Pearl’s state-of-the-art recording equipment – lights and reflectors and such to be rented in Oakland and trucked to Mercy for the shoot.

 When the team members are settled in three adjacent vacation homes on the Mercy headlands, Fernando guides them around Mercy to acquaint them with the places and people they’ll be filming.

On the second night of their Mercy sojourn, Fernando takes the crew to Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in Mercy, for what Fernando promises will be superb fish & chips and fine local ale, and they happen to go on a Thursday evening when Ricardo Alvarez is playing piano on the little stage as he has every Thursday for the last twenty-four years. Pearl and Olaf are drawn to Ricardo’s exquisite music as moths to a flame and stay for all three sets after which Pearl asks Ricardo if she might record him so she can share his music with Jason Randle Jones.

To which Ricardo replies, “I know just the piano.”

*  

Given the iffy nature of weather in Mercy, when Day Three dawns sunny and clear, Fernando decides to take advantage of the sunny day to shoot the two memory sequences set in the big vegetable and flower garden at Eliana’s house, the garden in fabulous bloom.

As the crew is setting up in the garden, Bertram and Alison arrive, Bertram to play the role of Tristan, the deceased grandfather of Isabella who is the main character in the movie, a middle-aged woman undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis – Eliana to play Isabella as a young girl.

Eliana and Bertram have rehearsed the seven memory sequences many times over the last few weeks, their rehearsals essentially long sessions of play-acting to prepare them for improvising the scenes in front of the camera.

For the first memory to be filmed today, Memory Sequence Three, Carlotta McCray, the art director, deep-voiced with a mild Scottish brogue, dresses Eliana in the pretty blue pinafore created especially for this memory. After consulting with Fernando and making a quick call to JRJ in London, Carlotta has Conchita capture Eliana’s long black hair in a loose braid.

Carlotta dresses Bertram in gray slacks and a pale green shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, leaves his wispy white hair somewhat unruly, and sends him to the garden so the crew can use him to position their equipment, run sound checks, shoot some trial video, and so forth.

Eliana’s father Zeke is on hand to do any shaping of the garden landscape Fernando and Carlotta may require, and he is in awe of the swift proficiency of JRJ’s famous crew.

When all is ready, Carlotta escorts Eliana to the garden where Grandpa Bertram smiles down at her and says, “So this is the scene when we’re making a bouquet and…”

“I ask you if it hurts the flowers when you cut them,” says Eliana, eager to begin, her speech tinged with the slightest Scottish brogue because she is a preternatural mimic and has just been speaking with Carlotta. “And then we keep playing until Fernando says stop.”

“And you are Isabella,” says Bertram, winking at Fernando to begin filming. “And I am your grandfather Tristan.”

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE THREE

Tristan and Isabella are in the garden. Isabella is choosing flowers for a bouquet and Tristan is cutting the flowers for her. Isabella asks Tristan if it hurts the flowers when he cuts their stems, and their conversation springs from this question.

Isabella touches the petals of an enormous yellow chrysanthemum, and with a charming British accent says, “We’ll definitely want this one, Grandpa.”

Tristan comes close to cut the flower.

Isabella frowns gravely as Tristan snips the stem. “Does it hurt them when you cut them?”

“I doubt it,” says Tristan, handing her the flower. “And besides, I imagine they like being in bouquets.”

Isabella ponders this. “More than they like being in the garden? But the bees can’t visit them when we take them inside, and I know they like it when bees visit them.”

“How do you know?” asks Tristan, smiling warmly at his granddaughter.

“Well you can see how happy they are when the bees land on them and snuggle them,” says Isabella, watching a bee land on a flower. “Just look. They obviously love each other.”

“Yes,” says Tristan, watching the bee on the flower. “It is rather obvious, isn’t it?”

“The problem is,” says Isabella, finding another flower for the bouquet, “if we don’t pick them now they start to turn brown and their petals fall off, and who wants flowers like that for a bouquet?”

“The way I see it,” says Tristan, cutting the flower Isabella has chosen, “flowers have the best of both worlds. They get to be born in the garden and grow into their beauty and be loved by bees and butterflies, and then they get to be in bouquets for everyone to admire.”

“I like bouquets,” says Isabella, sighing as she points at the next flower to be cut, “but I like flowers better growing in the garden.”

“Well… not everyone has a garden,” says Tristan, snipping the flower. “Do you think we have enough flowers now?”

“Enough for me, but not for Grandma,” says Isabella, shaking her head. “She likes big fat bouquets.”

“Yes, she does,” says Tristan, laughing. “She certainly does.”

*

With three excellent takes of Memory Sequence Three in the bag, the sound confirmed to be flawless, the crew takes a break for snacks and coffee, after which Carlotta and Fernando and their assistants set things up in another part of the garden for Memory Sequence Five.

A small wooden table and four wooden chairs are placed next to a patch of spectacular red and gold gladioli, and Bertram in black trousers, white dress shirt, and red bow tie, his hair somewhat tamed, sits at the table with his back to the gladioli. Eliana in a white blouse and red shorts and sandals, her hair in a ponytail, sits opposite Bertram with blossoming snow peas behind her. The small teapot on the table is dark blue, the four mugs the same dark blue, and in the center of the table is a large red plate heaped high with cookies.

In one of the other chairs sits a large white teddy bear wearing a black bow tie, and in the other chair is a small black dog, a real living mutt named Eso, the family dog, sitting on his haunches and waiting patiently for someone to give him a treat.

Olaf beckons Carlotta to look through the camera’s lens at the scene as he has framed it, and after she studies the scene through Olaf’s lens, Carlotta moves the teapot an inch closer to Eliana, makes a bit more space between the mugs, and brushes back a strand of Eliana’s hair.

Fernando studies the monitor mimicking Olaf’s view and says, “Perfecto.”

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE FIVE

Tristan and Isabella are sitting at a small table in the garden having a tea party during which Isabella wonders why her mother has been gone for so long.

Tristan watches Isabella pour his tea, nods his thanks, and waits for her to fill the other three teacups before he takes a sip.

“Delicious,” says Tristan, gazing at Isabella. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such marvelous tea. What kind is this?”

“Chamomile,” says Isabella, sipping her tea. “Not too strong for you?”

“No, just right,” says Tristan, sighing contentedly and gazing around. “Perfect tea on a perfect day.”

Isabella nods. “I only wish Mama would come home. She’s been gone for days and days and days now.”

Tristan grows still and pensive.

“She’s never been away this long before,” says Isabella, pouting a little. “Usually she only goes away for a night or two.”

Tristan points at the little black dog and says, “I think one of our guests is longing for a cookie.”

Isabella smiles lovingly at the little black dog. “How rude of me.” She places a cookie on the plate in front of the little dog. “Here you are, darling.”

With remarkable daintiness, the little black dog takes the cookie into his mouth and jumps down from his chair to eat the cookie on the ground.

“Isn’t he so polite?” says Isabella, delighted by the dog.

“The soul of politeness,” says Tristan, his eyes full of tears.

*

That night the crew convenes in one of the guest houses to watch the video coverage of the day’s shoot, and when the little black dog takes the cookie and jumps down from his chair, Olaf declares, “That scene alone could win JRJ another Oscar.”

“Might win you another one, too,” says Carlotta, raising her bottle of beer to Olaf.

“This child is uncanny,” says Andrini, shaking his head. “As if some Shakespeare is speaking through her. Where do such beings come from?”

“We were all once thus,” says Pearl, sipping her wine. “Before we lost touch with the source.”

“Which she has not,” says Carlotta, exchanging knowing looks with Pearl. “Not yet.”

“How lucky we are to witness what she and Bertram create together,” says Olaf, savoring the moment. “And to capture their magic on film.”

*

The next day’s shoot takes place on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, the sky overcast, which is ideal from Olaf’s perspective, and the sea is calm, which Pearl appreciates for audio purposes. They set up quickly where the incoming waves exhaust themselves, and Andrini and his assistants deploy several powerful lights to make the scene a bit sunnier.

Eliana and two of Fernando’s nephews, Juan, six, and Leo, seven, armed with little shovels and assisted by Zeke with a big shovel, build a large sand castle fronted by a moat, the castle left to be completed by the children while the scene is being filmed.

“Bueno,” says Fernando speaking Spanish to Eliana and Juan and Leo, “I know it’s a little cold, but we must have your shirts off. In the movie this is supposed to be a hot summer day.”

The children take off their T-shirts so they are only wearing shorts. Carlotta musses up the boys’ hair and does away with Eliana’s ponytail to let her hair fall freely where it will.

“Now in this scene,” says Fernando, speaking to the boys, “Isabella, that’s what you call Eliana if you want to say her name – Isabella – is exhorting you to build the sand castle.”

“What’s exhorting?” asks Leo, frowning at Fernando.

“She’s commanding you to build the sand castle,” says Fernando, nodding. “She’s like the queen. This is her castle and you are the workmen.”

“Why does she get to command us?” asks Juan, wrinkling his nose. “She’s just a little girl.”

“I explained all this to you,” says Fernando, giving Juan a warning look. “If you won’t do what I tell you, I’ll get another nephew.”

“Okay,” says Juan, shrugging. “I’ll do it.”

“Remember,” says Fernando, stepping out of the shot. “En Español.”

Now Fernando gestures to Olaf, filming begins, and the children resume their work on the sand castle.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE FOUR

On a beach in Spain, Isabella directs two boys in the building of a sandcastle.

The children work zealously.

Now Isabella surveys the ocean and says urgently, “The waves are coming. We must build the walls higher.”

Leo stops working and says, “Of course the waves are coming, Isabella. That’s what waves do.”

“We can defeat them,” says Isabella, defiantly. “We will build the walls so high the waves will never get through.”

“We could build the walls ten-feet-high and the waves would still knock them down,” says Juan, giggling. “It’s only sand.”

“When the tide comes in,” says Leo, pointing out to sea, “this beach will be at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Then why are we building the castle here?” asks Isabella, looking around. “Why not over there?” She points inland.

“Because it’s fun to try to stop the waves,” says Leo, smiling at her. “Even if we can only stop them for a little while.”

Now a wave rushes in, fills the moat, and touches the front wall of the castle before receding and leaving the castle intact.

“We did it!” shouts Juan, shaking his fist at the retreating wave. “We defeated the ocean!”

“Quick!” says Isabella, leaping into action. “We must build the walls even higher, for now the ocean is angry and will try even harder to defeat us.”

“When the queen tells us to do something,” says Leo, smiling wryly at Juan, “we must obey.”

*

The next day, for Memory Sequence Seven, Carlotta dresses Eliana in a lacy white dress, brushes her long black hair so it tumbles over her shoulders, places a red rose in her hair, situates her on a small sofa in Bertram’s studio where he makes his sculptures, and gives her a small guitar to hold as if she is playing the instrument. Eso the little black dog sits on the sofa beside Eliana and gazes at Bertram who is wearing a paint-spattered smock and standing at an easel bearing a large blank canvas.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE SEVEN

Isabella, holding a small guitar, sits on a small sofa posing for a painting Tristan is making of her. At some point in their conversation she learns from Tristan that her mother is dead.

Isabella gazes at her grandfather. “Do you want me to be happy or sad in your painting?”

“I want you to be thinking about the song you’re playing,” says Tristan, sketching the scene with charcoal.

“What song am I playing?”

“What song would you like to be playing?”

She thinks for a moment. “‘El Cancion de la Luna’.”

“Then imagine you are playing that.”

Isabella closes her eyes and purses her lips.

“I would rather you had your eyes open,” says Tristan, sketching swiftly.

Isabella’s eyes open. “Do you know ‘El Cancion de la Luna’, Grandpa?”

“I do,” he says, nodding. “Your mother sang it to you all the time when you were a baby.”

“And we will sing it together when she comes home,” says Isabella, trying not to cry. “She’ll come home soon, won’t she?”

Tristan bows his head and weeps.

“Is my mama dead?” asks Isabella, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Is she, Grandpa?”

He looks at her and nods.

*

They shoot Memory Sequence One in a room in an inn featuring antique décor, the room appointed with a small Bird’s Eye Maple bed and matching night table. Carlotta makes up the bed with a gorgeous old comforter and has the enormous lamp on the night table replaced with a smaller one.

Eliana in a white flannel nighty is sitting up in bed with the large teddy bear who attended the tea party in Memory Sequence #5. Bertram sits on the edge of the bed reading to Eliana from a large storybook.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE ONE

Tristan, Isabella’s grandfather, is reading a bedtime story to Isabella about a dragon named Malthius. It has only been a few days since Tristan and Clarice brought Isabella to England from Spain to live with them.

“Once upon a time,” begins Tristan, “there was a very friendly dragon named Malthius who lived…”

“Why do they always say once upon a time?” asks Isabella, thoughtfully pursing her lips. “We don’t stand on time, do we? Why not just say Once there was?”

“I suppose they say Once upon a time because it’s an expression left over from a long time ago and people liked it so much they kept using it,” says Tristan, looking at Isabella. “I’m happy to say Once there was if you like that better.”

“I do,” says Isabella, nodding. “And Mateo likes it better, too.” She turns to the teddy bear. “Don’t you, Mateo?”

The bear says nothing.

“He does,” says Isabella, nodding to Tristan. “He whispered to me.”

“Good,” says Tristan, starting to read again. “There once was a very friendly dragon named Malthius who lived…”

“I love the name Malthius,” says Isabella, snuggling down under the covers. “When I go back to Spain, I’m going to get a puppy and name it Malthius.”

“What if the puppy is a girl?” asks Tristan, arching his eyebrow. “Will you still name her Malthius?”

“Don’t be silly,” says Isabella, yawning. “Malthius is a boy’s name.”

“So you’ll be getting a boy puppy,” says Tristan, closing the book.

“Maybe not,” says Isabella, yawning again. “If I get a girl puppy I’ll name her Constanza.”

“Why Constanza?”

“Because,” says Isabella, closing her eyes. “I think Constanza is the most beautiful name.”

“I think so, too,” says Tristan, giving her a kiss on the forehead.

*

For Memory Sequence Two, they use the kitchen in the oldest of the three houses where the crew is staying.

Alison, Bertram’s wife, her silvery gray hair in a bun, a blue paisley apron over her billowy white blouse, stands at one end of the kitchen table overseeing Eliana making balls of cookie dough, while Bertram sits at the other end of the table sipping coffee and leafing through a newspaper.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE TWO

Tristan’s wife Clarice and Isabella are making cookies while Tristan has coffee and reads the newspaper.

“Make them a little smaller, darling,” says Clarice, hovering close to Isabella. “They will flatten out and double in size as they bake in the oven.”

“Show me how big,” says Isabella, looking up at Clarice.

“Please?” says Clarice, expectantly.

“Please show me how big to make them,” says Isabella, who takes her cookie making very seriously.

Clarice makes a small ball of cookie dough and places it on the tray.

“Ah, pequeño,” says Isabella, nodding. “I see.”

“Pequeño means small?” asks Clarice, who speaks no Spanish.

“Sí,” says Isabella, smiling at Clarice. “Pequeño means small.”

“Says here,” says Tristan, reading from the paper, “the price of gold has tripled in the last six months. And you know the world is out of whack when gold does something that. Doesn’t bode well for the future.”

“The world is always out of whack,” says Clarice, watching Isabella work. “That’s wonderful, darling. You’re a fabulous cookie maker.”

“And this is my very first time making cookies,” says Isabella, placing a ball of dough on the tray. “Imagine how good I’ll be the next time we make cookies.”

Clarice and Tristan exchange looks and laugh, and Isabella laughs with them.

*

The beginning of Memory Sequence Six was shot at the same time Memory Sequence One about the dragon named Malthius was filmed, with Eliana sleeping in the same bed and bedroom at the inn. The second half of Memory Sequence Six is filmed in a hallway in the house where Memory Sequence Two, the cookie scene, was filmed.

*

MEMORY SEQUENCE SIX

Isabella wakes in her bed and hears Tristan and Clarice arguing. She gets out of bed and goes to hear what they are saying.

Isabella opens her eyes and listens intently to Tristan and Clarice arguing. She can’t quite make out what they are saying, so she slips out of bed to get closer.

Standing in a dimly lit hallway, Isabella hears Clarice say, “What’s the point of waiting any longer to tell her? The sooner she knows, the sooner she can start adjusting to her new reality.”

“I want her to feel more at home here before we tell her,” says Tristan, passionately. “So she won’t feel cast adrift without any ground to stand on.”

“She’s stronger than you think, dear. You must have faith in her resiliency.”

“Can we please wait another week before we tell her? Please?”

“One more week. And then I’m telling her if you won’t.”

*

A few days before Christmas, Fernando returns to Mercy from England and takes Zeke and Conchita and Eliana and Bertram and Alison and Ricardo and Ricardo’s wife Lisa to supper at Campeona, the most exclusive restaurant in Mercy. Ricardo is a waiter at Campeona, but tonight he dines here as Fernando’s guest.

During the lull between the sumptuous meal and dessert, Fernando announces, “We are calling the movie Isabella Remembers, and it’s fantastic. Better than we ever thought it could be. And the memory sequences we filmed here steal the show. They really do. JRJ calls them pure magic.” He pauses momentously. “And we are going to use Ricardo’s music for most of the soundtrack.” He raises his glass of wine. “We will premiere the film at Cannes in May, and you are all invited. We will pay your expenses if you come, and we very much hope you will.”

*

As it happens, no one from Mercy attends the world premiere of Isabella Remembers, which wins the top prize at Cannes and is hailed by movie reviewers around the world as Jason Randle Jones’s finest film.

Bertram returns to his sculpting, Alison to her psychotherapy practice, Zeke to his gardening, Conchita to selling houses, Ricardo to waiting tables at Campeona and playing piano on Thursday nights at Big Goose, and Eliana to pre-school at the Mercy Montessori.

*

In October, a year and month after the film crew came to Mercy and filmed the memory sequences for Isabella Remembers, the movie plays for three nights at the Coast Cinema. Zeke goes to the movie once, Ricardo and Lisa and Bertram and Alison go twice, and Conchita and her brothers and sister and parents go three times.

*

 A few days after Isabella Remembers shows in Mercy, Conchita picks up Eliana after kindergarten at the Montessori.

Driving home, Conchita asks Eliana in Spanish, “How was school today, Pumpkin?”

Eliana frowns and says, “Holly said her mother saw me in Fernando’s movie and said I’m famous now. What happens to you when you’re famous?”

Famous just means lots of people know about you because you were in Fernando’s movie,” says Conchita, pulling up to their house. “But nothing will happen to you. Don’t worry. Pretty soon people will forget about the movie and you won’t be famous anymore.”

“Is Grandpa Bertram famous now, too?”

“Yes, he’s famous, too,” says Conchita, getting out of the car. “But he was already famous for carving his statues.”

“What about Grandma Alison?”

“Yes, she is famous, too. But not for long.”

“And nothing will happen to me while I’m famous?” asks Eliana, following her mother to the house.

“Nothing,” says Conchita, who hasn’t told Eliana about the hundreds of requests they’ve gotten from newspapers and television stations and journalists wanting to interview and photograph Eliana, or about the several movie offers they’ve received. “You’ll just live here with us and go to school and play with your friends. As always.”

*

After her snack, Eliana goes out into the garden and stands where the tea party sequence was filmed last year when she was only four.

She remembers Olaf sitting behind his enormous camera, and Andrini and his two helpers holding long black poles bearing big squares reflecting sunlight, and a huge man holding a long boom from which a microphone dangled above them – how quiet everyone was as they watched and listened to her and Grandpa Bertram pretending to be Isabella and her grandfather Tristan, how she would forget she was play-acting and forget she was Eliana, and how surprised she always was when Uncle Fernando would say, “Cut” and she would be Eliana again and not Isabella.

fin

Grandfather

Categories
short story

Ricardo and Blair

Most Thursday evenings over the last twenty years in Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Ricardo Alvarez, his long black hair in a ponytail, plays piano for a few hours on the small stage at the south end of the pub.

For the first seven of those twenty years, the poet Helen Morningstar was certain she was the originator of what Ricardo’s twenty-three acolytes say to each other on Thursday evenings when they take their seats close to the stage – Magic Time.

Then one night near the end of Year Seven, Helen, who was twenty-nine at the time, drank more than her usual one glass of good red wine nursed through the entirety of Ricardo’s performance, and she opined to Artie Green, who has been coming with Helen and Monte Riley and Sonia Benítez to hear Ricardo since Evening One, that she invented the groupies’ greeting Magic Time, and Artie replied, “Methinks you misremember, dear, for it was Ricardo who spoke those words when he first sat down to play for us seven years ago.”

And though Helen had no memory of Ricardo saying Magic Time to the Original Four before he played his first tune on the Big Goose upright (now a six-foot grand), she much preferred Artie’s origin story to her own and ever after believed Magic Time first came from the lips of their messiah.

*

Ricardo was born in Mercy, the youngest of three children, his mother Maria a maid at the Mercy Hotel, his father Roberto a logger. The family of five, along with Ricardo’s paternal aunt and maternal grandmother, lived in a little house on Portuguese Street, so named because in the 1800s when Mercy was a logging boomtown, Portuguese Street and Lisbon Lane were where the Portuguese families lived – Portuguese men comprising a large part of the work force that cut down all the old growth redwoods within fifty miles of Mercy. Over time, the Portuguese barrio became a Mexican barrio, and today the neighborhood is a mix of Mexicans, hippies, and retirees, with only a few of the original houses remaining. 

When Ricardo was five, his father Roberto was seriously injured in a logging mishap and was unable to work for three years. To pass the time during his recuperation, Roberto took up the guitar and Ricardo was so keen on learning the instrument, too, Roberto bought Ricardo a small guitar. After just a few months of practice, the little boy could play well enough to accompany the singing of Mexican folk songs, and he eventually became a superb guitarist.

With the insurance settlement from Roberto’s accident, Maria and Roberto were able to buy their little house, and for Ricardo’s seventh birthday they bought him a big old upright piano, which Ricardo took to like a fish to water.

Ten years later at the age of seventeen, a self-taught virtuoso, Ricardo began playing piano on Thursday nights at Big Goose. In those days he was working as a dishwasher at the Mercy Hotel and would go on being a dishwasher at the hotel until he was twenty-one and got a job as a waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, a gig he kept until he was twenty-six and moved with his wife Lisa and their two little kids Vincent and Jessica to Los Angeles where Ricardo hoped to make it big with his music.

Those nine months in Los Angeles were the first stretch of Thursdays when Ricardo didn’t play at Big Goose. The other stretch was for three months when Ricardo was thirty-two and a wealthy couple from New York City with show biz connections heard him play at Big Goose and decided he was the second coming of Bill Evans and George Gershwin rolled into one. They bankrolled Ricardo’s second crusade to make it big with his music, this time in Manhattan.

When his songs fell on deaf ears in New York as they had fallen on deaf ears in Los Angeles, Ricardo returned to Mercy where today he is a waiter at Campeona, one of Mercy’s snazziest restaurants, his wife Lisa is a loan officer at Mercy Savings, and Vincent, sixteen, and Jessica, fourteen, are fine musicians, Vincent a guitarist, Jessica a pianist and singer.

*

This Thursday, the week after Thanksgiving, the night stormy and cold, only a dozen of Ricardo’s regulars brave the bad weather to get to Big Goose to hear their maestro play.

And the minute Ricardo sits down at the piano, a drunk guy named Blair – snarled black hair and wild beard – sitting at a table in the middle of the pub shouts, “Play the blues, Cardo. None of that New Age crap.”

“Blooze!” shouts Blair’s companion, another drunk guy named Phil – scraggly blond hair and lopsided mustache. “Play the blooze.”

Helen Morningstar, for whom listening to Ricardo is a spiritual experience, fixes Blair and Phil with an icy stare and Blair flips her the bird and says, “Back off Morningstar. Free country.”

Which outburst prompts Justin Ogelthorpe, the bartender and bouncer of Big Goose, to come out from behind the bar and approach the two drunk guys – Justin who happens to be Helen Morningstar’s husband and also happens to be six-feet-six and mostly muscle.

“Blair and Phil, my esteemed fellow humans,” says Justin, smiling his Cheshire-Cat smile. “May I remind you that Thursday nights here we feature Ricardo playing his music for people who want to hear him play and not hear you interrupting the show. So get with the program or I must ask you to leave.”

“I’m a paying customer,” says Blair, jutting out his chin. “Freedom of speech.”

“Irrelevant,” says Justin, locking eyes with Blair. “Either keep it down or I will facilitate your exit. Simple.”

“Actually,” says Ricardo, gazing out on the forty or so people in the pub, most of them speaking quietly among themselves – his twelve fans reverently awaiting his music – “I’ve been playing lots of blues lately and thought I’d open with one tonight. So this is for you Blair. No title yet. If something comes to you, let me know.”

He plays a lush opening chord, waits for the notes to decay to near silence, and with his left hand begins a slow bluesy bass line way down low – a train leaving the station and ever so gradually gathering speed until the train is rolling along at a bodacious clip and he adds bluesy flourishes with his right hand, the flourishes coming faster and faster until he’s playing a glorious run of notes – love requited! –  a marvelous melody resolving into flourishes again as the train disappears in the distance.

*

During the break between the first and second sets – Blair and Phil gone – Justin hands Ricardo a napkin on which Blair scrawled Choo Choo Train Blues.

“I like it,” says Ricardo, smiling at Justin. “Only I’ll shorten it to Choo Choo Blues. Too many songs with train in the title.”

“He wrote on a napkin for Helen, too,” says Justin, serving Ricardo the usual between-sets lemonade. “Apologizing.”

“He’s had a rough life,” says Ricardo, who has known Blair since kindergarten. “Considering his horrible father and cuckoo mother, Blair’s a sweetheart.”

*

As she often does, Helen spends the intermission writing in her notebook – Ricardo’s playing unleashing torrents of words.

I wanted to kill that drunk and what does Ricardo do?

Gives him a beautiful song. I wanted to answer hate

with hate and Ricardo answered with love.

He made a train with his music and I rode that train

from the railroad yard of despair to the glorious

heights of acceptance and down into the valley

of forgiveness, wounds healed with love.

I know why I come here every Thursday,

faithful as the moon. To be opened by his music,

opened to the miracle of being alive.

*

Blair pulls up to the decrepit trailer where Phil lives on his mother’s property two miles south of Mercy, the truck’s headlights illuminating broken down cars and piles of junk.

“Got some killer weed,” says Phil as he always does when Blair brings him home. “Come on smoke a bowl.”

And for the first time in years Blair says, “Not tonight, man. Gotta get home.”

“What for?” says Phil, grimacing. “So Sheila can bitch at you?”

“I just want to,” says Blair, shrugging. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Fuck you,” says Phil, getting out of the truck. “Won’t even smoke a bowl with me.”

Blair watches Phil stumble through the mess to his trailer and thinks He’s crazier than my mother was.

When the trailer door slams, Blair backs away and heads north on the coast highway, his truck long overdue for servicing, though he hadn’t noticed the telltale sounds until now.

*

Blair pulls into the driveway of the old two-story house in Mercy he inherited when his mother died six years ago, the house he’s lived in his entire life save for the six years he was in the Army. His father died when Blair, an only child, was twenty-four and stationed in Germany. When Blair’s mother called with the news of his father’s death, Blair tried to feel sad, but instead felt a wild joy that lasted for months and made him decide not to stay in the Army.

He imagined Mercy would be paradise with his father gone, but within a few weeks of getting home he felt lost in the same way he’d felt lost before joining the Army. He wanted to get a job as a car mechanic, having been an excellent car mechanic in the Army, but when he got turned down at a couple garages, he took a job at the lumber mill and was glad to be making money again.

Sheila worked at the mill, too. She and Blair fell crazy in love and got married when they were both twenty-seven, and they were happy for a few years. They went to Europe once and Hawaii twice and had a blast, but they never could save enough money to get their own place, so they went on living with Blair’s mother who was a hoarder and delusional and smoked like a chimney – the house a giant rat’s nest except for Blair and Sheila’s room.

Then the mill closed and Sheila went to work in a bakery and Blair worked for UPS until he hurt his back and went on disability. Then Sheila got fired at the bakery for arguing with her boss, and because of that firing she was out of work for six months until she finally got a job trimming bud for a large-scale marijuana grower.

When Blair’s back was better he got a good-paying job driving a cement truck and they were finally saving money so they decided to get pregnant. But Sheila had a miscarriage and Blair got busted for driving the cement truck without the proper license and his driver’s license was suspended for six months. Sheila got her boss to hire Blair as a trimmer, but he was too slow and mangled the buds and they let him go.

Then Blair’s mother died and left them the house and eighty thousand dollars, which was just enough to get them out of debt. They threw away tons of Blair’s mother’s junk, cleaned the house from top to bottom, tried to get pregnant again, Sheila had two more miscarriages, and the doctors said she couldn’t have kids.

Now they’re thirty-eight. For the last three years Blair has been a clerk in a liquor store and Sheila is still a trimmer. They have separate bedrooms – angry strangers sharing the old house – and lately Sheila has been thinking about divorcing Blair and marrying a wealthy older guy she met a few months ago. She hasn’t slept with the guy yet, but she’s on the verge. He has a beach house south of Mercy and a condo in Maui and millions in the bank, and though she doesn’t really like him, she is so tired of trimming bud from which she’s developed arthritis in her fingers, and she hates living with Blair who she hardly recognizes as the person she loved so much she couldn’t imagine living without him.

*

All that is true when Blair gets home a couple hours after listening to Ricardo play piano in Big Goose.

He finds Sheila sprawled on the living room sofa watching an old movie on their big-screen television and Blair thinks She’s still the most beautiful woman in the world to me even though she hates me now.

“You’re home early,” she says gruffly. “World ending?”

“Just wanted to talk to you, Dove,” says Blair, coming into the living room and sitting in an armchair across the room from her.

“Hold the presses,” says Sheila, turning off the movie. “You haven’t called me Dove in a million years. You need some money? That why you came home early? Ran out of cash?”

“No, I…” He gets a CD out of his pocket. “I wondered if you’d like to listen to some music with me.”

Sheila sits up and squints at him. “You stoned?”

“No,” says Blair, shaking his head. “I was at the Goose and Ricardo was playing and… I thought you might like to hear some of his music. I bought a CD from Justin on my way out. Thought you might like to hear it.”

“I’ve heard Ricardo there a few times,” says Sheila, wondering where this is going. “Sure. Put it on. You hungry? I got takeout Thai tonight. Some left.”

“Maybe later,” says Blair, popping the CD into the stereo.

*

They sit on the sofa a few feet apart, listening to the music, neither of them saying a word during the first two songs.

When the third song begins, a tender ballad, Sheila turns to Blair and says, “Hold me?”

They move close to each other and he puts his arms around her and says, “I want to start over, Dove. I can make good money as a mechanic. I just have to be more aggressive about getting a job and then I’ll make enough so you don’t have to trim anymore and you can make jewelry or whatever you want. I want to do this, Dove. I’m not high.”

“I can tell,” she says, relaxing in his embrace. “You sound like the old you I fell in love with.”

“I really want to try again with you.”

“I want to try with you, too. And maybe…”

“Maybe what? Tell me.”

“Maybe…” She starts to cry. “Maybe we could adopt a baby. I want to be a mother. You know I do.”

“Yes,” he says, holding her tight. “We’ll adopt a baby. And you’ll be a great mother. I know you will.”

“And you’ll be a wonderful father.”

*

Thursday again, the faithful gather close to the stage at Big Goose to hear Ricardo play, and they are joined by Blair and Sheila – Blair with his hair and beard trimmed, looking sharp in a silky green shirt and black corduroys, Sheila looking fine in a sexy red dress and glittering earrings.

Now Ricardo sits down at the piano and Helen turns to Blair and Sheila and whispers, “Magic time.”

fin

Bill Evans

Categories
short story

End of the World

“Miles, right?” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender at Big Goose, one of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. “What can I get for you today?”

Miles, a slender fellow with short gray hair, today his sixty-third birthday, gives Justin a dazed look and says, “I’ve only been here once before, about three months ago. You and I spoke for less than a minute. Yet you remember my name. I’m amazed.”

“You’re a memorable guy,” says Justin, who is forty-five, six-feet-six, with carrot red hair and a Cheshire Cat smile – his ability to remember faces and the names that go with those faces phenomenal. “Was it beer or wine I served you? This I don’t remember.”

“A local porter,” says Miles, feeling a slight lifting of the gloom that has gripped him for as long as he can remember. “Delicious. And fish & chips, the fish broiled. Also delicious. I’d love a half-pint of that same porter and fish & chips again.”

“For future reference,” says Justin, filling a glass with dark Mercy Porter and placing the brew before Miles, “I take food orders along with booze requests until five. Thereafter our wait staff will take your food order once you’re seated. And by golly, it’s only 4:49, so you’re in luck.”

“Great,” says Miles, getting out his wallet.

“We’ll settle up when you’re all done,” says Justin, waving to the waitress and pointing to Miles as she returns from a foray among the tables. “Conchita will cater to your every whim. Within reason.”

Conchita, a lovely Latina in her early thirties, six months pregnant, steps up to the bar and rattles off orders for beer and wine and mixed drinks before she turns to Miles and says, “Miles, right? Have a seat and I’ll find you.”

*

Miles chooses a small table with a view of the bar, sips the delicious porter, and feels he might cry – the friendliness of Justin and Conchita breaching the dam around his heart.

“Oh well,” he says, allowing himself to shed a few tears. “It is my birthday, after all.”

Somewhat relieved by his little cry, his glass empty, he looks up as Conchita arrives with a big platter of fish & chips and coleslaw and a half-pint of porter.

“Justin thought you might want another to go with your food,” says Conchita, setting the porter down and picking up the empty. “This one’s on the house.”

“Thank you,” says Miles, his tears on the rise again. “When is your baby due?”

“November seventh,” she says, placing a hand on her belly. “Three more months. You have kids?”

“A daughter,” says Miles, unable to quell his tears. “And a grandson. They live in Portugal.”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” asks Conchita, scanning the room to gauge how long she might linger with him. “We’re having a girl and collecting possible names. My mother wants me to name her Luisa after my grandmother, and my grandmother Luisa wants me to name her Felicia after her mother. And my husband’s mother says she’d love it if we named her Doris after her mother.”

“Eliana,” says Miles, his jaw trembling.

“Ooh,” says Conchita, winking at Miles as she moves away. “I love that. Enjoy.”

Now Miles really cries and ceases to care if anyone sees him blubbering, and when his tears abate, he has a long drink of the porter, eats a few of the scrumptious chips, and digs into the tender fish, the deliciousness of everything momentarily easing his sorrow.

*

Walking home from town at dusk on a trail through the woods that allows him to avoid walking on a road save for the last quarter mile – his house a mile inland from Mercy – Miles is pleasantly drunk and lost in thoughts of Justin and Conchita and the gaiety of the pub, when an enormous mountain lion steps onto the trail just twenty feet ahead and gives Miles a searching look before vanishing into the dark forest.

*

His heart still pounding from the encounter with the giant puma, Miles arrives at his house at the dead end of Auden Street, a lane intruding into the vast redwood forest, and he is filled with a longing to not be alone, a longing he has kept at bay for the seven months he’s lived here.

He starts a fire in the woodstove in the living room and clicks on the electric kettle in the kitchen to boil water for tea – his house fully electric, the electricity supplied by a large array of solar panels standing to the south of the house where he also has a big vegetable and flower garden, his two acres deer-fenced to keep out the many ravenous deer.

Squatting by the woodstove to feed the fire, Miles longs to have a friendly dog to go on walks with, a cat or two sprawled on the sofa, and someone making tea in the kitchen, someone he can tell about meeting the mountain lion – none of which he thought he would ever long for again.

Sure of the fire’s continuance, Miles goes into his office, notes the light blinking on his answering machine, a rare occurrence, and taps the space bar on his keyboard to awaken his computer, the screen revealing a dozen emails yet to be opened, most of them with the subject heading Happy Birthday – none of which he cares to read.

He returns to the kitchen and is about to make a cup of tea, when a vehicle pulls into his driveway and headlights penetrate into the house for a moment before the driver turns the headlights off.

“What did I order?” he says, assuming this is a delivery truck, UPS or Fed Ex, and thinking Must be more birthday nonsense.

He turns on the outside lights to illuminate the parking area and the path to the house, and a moment later someone opens the gate. Hearing footsteps on the gravel path, Miles waits for the delivery person to leave the package on the porch and depart, but now someone knocks on the front door and Miles thinks I must have to sign for something.

He turns on the porch light, opens his door, and is startled to see Conchita standing next to a man holding a little black dog.

“Hello,” says Miles, his heart pounding.

“You left your wallet at the pub,” says Conchita, handing Miles his wallet. “We got your address from your driver’s license. My shift just ended and you’re on our way home, so… we just live another mile inland.” She turns to the man, a sturdy fellow with curly black hair. “This is my husband Zeke. Zeke this is Miles.”

“Hey,” says Zeke, lifting one of the little dog’s paws to wave at Miles.

“Thank you so much,” says Miles, blushing. “Must have been the porter. I’m a cheap date. Usually stop at half a pint.”

“Zeke’s the same way,” says Conchita, laughing. “And by the way, happy birthday. I saw your DOB on your license.”

“Oh thanks,” says Miles, on the verge of tears again. “Would you like to come in? Have a cup of tea?”

Conchita and Zeke exchange looks and Conchita says, “We don’t want to bother you.”

“No bother. Please,” says Miles, gesturing for them to enter.

“This is Eso,” says Zeke, nuzzling the little dog. “He’s house trained and his paws are clean.”

“Fine,” says Miles, petting the friendly dog. “I love dogs.”

*

They sit by the woodstove, Eso sprawled on the hearth, and Conchita and Zeke tell Miles a little about themselves – Zeke born in Mercy, does garden maintenance for a living, his parents retired to Hawaii some years ago, Conchita born in Mercy, too, her parents and grandparents and most of their descendants still living in and around Mercy, the baby she’s carrying her first.

“What about you, Miles?” asks Zeke, his voice full of kindness. “How do spend your time?”

“I mostly garden now,” says Miles, not wanting to talk about his past but feeling he must a little. “Take long walks. Eat. Sleep. Read. That’s about it. I was a professor at UC Berkeley for thirty-five years. Ecology.”

Zeke frowns. “Are you Miles Cain?”

“I am,” says Miles, nodding. “Have you… how do you know of me?”

“I read your last three books,” says Zeke, looking at Conchita. “And recounted much of what they say to my patient wife.”

“Oh,” says Conchita, awareness dawning. “You’re the end-of-the-world guy.”

Miles feels her words as a knife in his heart. “Yeah. That’s me.”

“Great books,” says Zeke, looking at Miles with deep respect. “Brave and honest and what everybody needs to know. Thank you for writing them.”

“Fat lot of good they did,” says Miles, wanting more than anything for Conchita to know him as someone other than the end-of-the-world guy. “I often regret writing them.”

“No, no,” says Zeke, shaking his head. “They’re incredibly important. In this world of climate-change deniers and…”

“Too late,” says Miles, shaking his head. “We’ve gone beyond all the crucial tipping points. No way back.”

“Too late for what?” asks Conchita, gazing at Miles and sensing how deeply sad and lonely he is. “We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families. Whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right? I could die in childbirth. Zeke could die tomorrow in a car accident or fall off a ladder. But we’re alive now and we’ll be alive until we die.”

“And as you said in your books,” says Zeke, who often thinks about how life may be when their daughter is ten and much of the world is in chaos from climate disasters and the breakdown of society, “the earth has seen a thousand tipping points that make the current trends seem fairly insignificant.”

“But you will suffer,” says Miles, bowing his head and weeping. “Everyone will suffer so terribly, and it didn’t have to be this way.”

“Maybe it did,” says Conchita, getting up and going to Miles and resting a hand on his shoulder. “In the meantime, welcome to the neighborhood. We’re having a barbecue on Saturday and we’d love for you to come.”

In between sobs, Miles manages to ask, “What can I bring?”

*

Miles hasn’t spoken to his daughter Eliana in two years. She stopped communicating with Miles when he published his last and most successful book If We Don’t Change NOW and refused to express any hope of humanity averting a climate crisis that will render the earth uninhabitable by humans and most other living things. Eliana’s mother Sharon divorced Miles twenty years ago when he refused to add a note of hope to his first bestseller about climate change Avoidable Disasters. And his subsequent marriage to Jane, a fellow ecologist, ended because Jane couldn’t bear his relentless anger and pessimism.

But one of those birthday phone messages Miles got yesterday was from Eliana and her husband Goncalo and their ten-year-old son Hugo calling from Portugal and singing Happy Birthday, so Miles feels emboldened to call Eliana and ask for her apple cake recipe, apple cake to be his contribution to the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s.

“Papa?” says Eliana, surprised to hear her father’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“I will be if you can remind me how to make your fabulous apple cake,” says Miles, thrilled to hear his daughter’s voice. “I never can remember all the ingredients.”

“I’ll email the recipe to you,” she says, doubting the recipe is why he called. “How are you?”

“Sixty-three,” says Miles, laughing.

“Not how old are you,” says Eliana, laughing, too. “How are you?”

“Oh I don’t know,” he says, carrying his old landline phone out onto his deck, the morning sun just now ascendant over the redwoods to the east. “I had a bleak birthday until I went to the pub for an early supper and had a delicious dark beer and glorious fish & chips and met two very nice people, and then on my way home I encountered an enormous mountain lion and…”

“You were walking?” she gasps.

“Yes, at dusk. And when that giant puma decided not to eat me, something changed in me and when I got home I wanted a dog and a cat and friends for the first time in eons. But enough about me. How are you doing? How’s your handsome husband and your splendid son?”

“Hugo…” she begins, and Miles can hear she’s crying, and he thinks of Conchita saying We still have to eat and sleep and go to work and love our friends and families, whether the world’s gonna end tomorrow or a year from now. Right?

“Hugo said he would never eat again until we called and sang Happy Birthday to you,” says Eliana, crying some more. “He’s incredibly stubborn. I can’t imagine who he got that from.”

 “I’m so glad to hear from you,” says Miles, feeling as if he just escaped from a terrible prison composed of a maze without end, a small break in the wall allowing him to get out right before the break was repaired. “You sound good and strong.”

“I’m okay. Are you… do you have a garden?”

“I do. Just learning how to grow things here. Very different climate than Berkeley. Never gets very warm here even in the summer.” He knows this will change soon and even here life will become untenable. “Lettuce and chard and peas grow wonderfully well here, and potatoes. But my zucchini are pathetic, and tomatoes and eggplants will require a greenhouse, which I have yet to build.”

“Are you writing anything?” she asks tersely.

“No,” he says, looking up as a raven glides by. “How about you? What are you working on these days?”

“Short stories. As always.”

“I loved your last collection,” he says, remembering when Eliana was six and announced she was going to be a writer of stories like the ones in Winnie the Pooh, and that is what she became. “Did you get my letter about that?”

“I don’t read your letters. I need to go.”

“I love you, dear.”

“You do?” she asks, sounding like a little girl.

“Always and forever.”

*

Forty gregarious people attend the barbecue at Conchita and Zeke’s, and Miles’s apple cake is a big hit.

As the party is winding down, Conchita introduces Miles to her cousin Sylvia, a beautiful woman in her fifties who wants the apple cake recipe.

“I know you,” says Sylvia, giving Miles a dazzling smile. “I’m a checker at Walker’s Groceries. I check you out all the time.”

“Oh, yes,” says Miles, who is hanging out with Justin and his wife Helen. “I didn’t recognize you out of uniform and with your hair down and without your glasses on. You’re a whole other person.”

“That’s a delicious apple cake you made,” says Sylvia, who hasn’t been involved with anyone, and hasn’t wanted to be, since her husband died when she was thirty. “Can I get the recipe from you?”

“Of course,” says Miles, getting lost in Sylvia’s big brown eyes. “I… I’ll… where do you live? I’ll make you a copy and drop it by.”

“In town,” she says, astonished to feel so attracted to him. “Or… you could come for supper tomorrow and bring it then.”

“Oh jump on that one, Miles,” says Justin, nodding emphatically. “Best Mexican food in the world. And that’s not hyperbole.”

“You come, too,” says Sylvia to Justin and Helen, blushing to have been so forward with Miles.

“Que hora?” says Justin, bouncing his eyebrows. “We’ll bring the booze.”

*

A year later, on his sixty-fourth birthday, Miles wakes in his new queen bed to the sweet sounds of Sylvia making coffee in the kitchen, their pups Camino and Flora skittering around on the tile floor at Sylvia’s feet hoping for treats.

Now he hears Sylvia speaking in Spanish on the phone, and though his Spanish is not great yet, Miles recognizes the words for birthday and party and tomorrow afternoon and cake and enchiladas and tamales and watermelon mingling with the names of his friends who will come to sing for him: Pedro and Maria and Carlos and Justin and Helen and Zeke and Conchita and their darling baby girl Eliana.

fin

La Entrada a piano solo