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Our Run To Starved Rock

Todd and Dick 1969

The summer after my second year of college, 1969, as I was deciding whether to go back for another year of academe or take my chances in the outside world, my great pal Dick Mead hired me to help him install sprinkler systems in Hope Ranch, a suburb of Santa Barbara where Dick grew up. Dick paid me well for being his ditch digger, and at the end of several weeks of work, we embarked on a cross-country adventure in Dick’s school-bus-yellow GMC panel truck.

The eastern seaboard of Canada and the farthest eastern point of Long Island were our ultimate destinations, but we began our odyssey by heading north through Oregon and into southeastern Washington, and then we veered east through Idaho and Montana and north into Canada. After crossing the great plains of western Canada, we pulled into Winnipeg, Manitoba on a muggy day in August, and wondered where all the people were.

Winnipeg is a big town, and as we drove along the downtown streets and saw virtually no one on the sidewalks, we wondered if a nuclear war had started and we hadn’t gotten the news while crossing Alberta, Saskatchewan, and half of Manitoba, a land of few towns and no radio stations we’d wanted to listen to.

Our map indicated that in the middle of Winnipeg was a big park, so we decided to go there and throw the Frisbee, which had been our daily habit at UC Santa Cruz where we lived in the same dorm when Frisbees were a brand new thing in the world and we were early pioneers of the new athletic art form.

We pulled into a completely empty parking lot fronting a vast greensward. I jumped out of the truck and ran out onto the soft springy grass as Dick flung the Frisbee high and long for me to chase and catch. I thrilled to be running after long days of driving, and I laughed for joy as I snagged the disk out of the air and flung it back to Dick, and then…

I looked up into the blue sky and saw a small dark cloud forming in the air above us. A cloud? On a cloudless day? Then I watched in horror as the cloud darkened and descended toward us, and a moment later the first of the mosquitoes struck. They were huge and their bites stung like wasp stings, and there were literally millions of them!

The world’s record for the fifty-yard dash was unofficially shattered twice that day as Dick and I sprinted back to the truck. Dick leapt into our mobile fortress seconds before I jumped in, but not before several hundred of the ravenous mosquitoes flew into the van with us and continued their attacks as we hysterically slapped the starving females (male mosquitoes don’t bite) on ourselves and each other, our t-shirts bloody, and nasty red welts rising on our skin, while all around the truck a cloud of their sistren (really a word) droned their horrid whining drones and beat their wings against the windows, hungering for our blood.

Exhausted and terrified and sweating profusely in the stuffy van, we didn’t dare open the windows until we were driving, and we didn’t start driving until we’d killed the last of the buggers that had gotten inside with us. And as we drove way from that scene of insect horror, we knew only one thing: nothing could make us stay another minute in Winnipeg.

*

Our mobile fortress

So we headed south, aiming for Minnesota. We drank the last of our water, and then… the next day or so is a blur, as the snout of our school-bus-yellow truck turned a sickly green from the countless bugs we smashed en route to someplace where, we hoped, we might rest for a time without being besieged by mosquitoes.

One of our first stops was a hardware store where we bought material for fashioning window screens so we might sleep in the van with the windows open on the hot muggy nights prevalent in summer in that part of the continent. And then we found a dirt road leading we knew not where, parked a half-mile off the highway, and slept for some hours before continuing our journey.

Very early the next morning in a small town in Minnesota, and here my memories grow clear again, we stopped at a little diner for breakfast. The proprietress, a tall Swedish woman with blonde hair worn in two short braids, welcomed us as her first customers of the day. When we told her our story of encountering incredible hordes of vicious mosquitoes in Winnipeg, she smiled and said, “Maybe they are worse here.”

We asked if this was a particularly bad year for mosquitoes.

“No,” she said, shrugging. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Then she made us a splendid breakfast of eggs and hash browns and toast, and asked us about California, where she had never been. In fact, many of the people we met on our odyssey had never been to California but longed to go.

*

From northern Minnesota, we made our way to Black River Falls, Wisconsin, but not before we passed through Hibbing, Minnesota, hometown of Bobby Zimmerman AKA Bob Dylan, and we understood why Bob moved to Malibu. My name it is nothing, it means even less. I come from the country known as the Midwest.

We also came to realize that Minnesota’s state descriptor Land of Ten Thousand Lakes was actually a poetic euphemism for An Enormous Swamp, as most of those “lakes” blended one into the other and spilled into every gully and depression to insure mosquitoes would never lack the necessary aquatic environs to breed without end.

Why Black River Falls? Because at the outset of our expedition we had chosen a few places along our way, unknowing of the insect terrors of the Midwest, where people could send letters to us care of General Delivery.

On the day we arrived in Black River Falls, the heat and humidity were both around ninety-five and we did not wish to stay there. However, we got to the post office moments after they closed for the day, and so we consulted our map and saw there was a state park nearby where we would spend the rest of that day and night.

We had taken to sleeping in the truck to save ourselves from being drained of blood during the long humid nights, and we were glad for the screens on our windows. We slathered on great quantities of insect repellant and strolled around the park where our fellow campers were sequestered in their trailers or hanging out in large tents made of mosquito netting. Some of the people we saw were watching portable televisions, some were playing cards, and some were comatose from the heat.

The Wisconsin mosquitoes, gnats, and several kinds of biting flies were not the least repelled by our repellant, which made our stroll unpleasant. As we passed a camp featuring one of the aforementioned mosquito-netting tents, a denizen of that tent, a corpulent fellow drinking beer and watching television, saw us swatting at the persistent bugs and said, “Ain’t no flies on me.” Then he snorted derisively and we thought we would like to bludgeon him to death and thereby vent our rage at the bugs that were making our summer journey so unpleasant. But we did not want to go to prison, especially not in Wisconsin or Minnesota, so we did not murder him, though his sniggering stung.

With hours to kill before dark, we inquired of the park ranger through the screen door of his cottage if there was a swimmable body of water nearby where we might find relief from the heat and humidity. He scrunched up his cheeks and pursed his lips and made a variety of odd faces as he pondered our question. And then he said, “Well there’s Red Lake about two miles up the road here.” He gestured at the road that ran by the park. “People go there to swim, I guess.”

“You guess?” I frowned. “You aren’t sure?”

“No, they do,” he said, chuckling. “Way we talk around here, I guess.”

“Oh I see,” I said, smiling. “Red Lake here we come.”

“Water’s a little red ‘cause it used to be an iron mine,” he said, calling after us. “I wouldn’t drink it, but you can swim in it for sure.”

So we donned our swimming trunks and drove the two miles to Red Lake, which may or may not be the real name of the lake, but the water was certainly red, and not merely reddish. Dark blood red. And there were no other people at Red Lake, and we were not surprised.

We stepped out of the truck and waited to be descended upon by things that bite, but nothing out of the ordinary came to get us, so we crossed a little muddy expanse and stepped into what we hoped would be cool water, only to find the liquid tepid, though possibly a few degrees cooler than the air, and that was good enough for us. So out we waded and then swam, and we agreed, all in all, this was a step up from where we’d been, emotionally speaking, for the last several days. And then…

Something flew down out of the sky and smacked the top of my head and started burrowing through my hair to my scalp. In a panic, I grabbed whatever it was and flung it away from me. And lo it was a black fly the size of a chicken egg, and he or she was not alone. We swam madly for shore, diving under the water every couple of strokes as scores of enormous flies dive-bombed us all the way to our truck. And just as I was about to get in, one of those dive bombers sunk her fangs into the back of my thigh and her bite felt like a strong electric shock, followed by searing pain as I smacked her and she fell away, though I have no idea if I killed her or merely stunned her.

The welt that quickly developed on my leg was the size of a quail egg and itched and ached for days. Disheartened and sweaty and grumpy, we returned to our campsite and decided to splurge and go out for burgers and shakes. This was Wisconsin, after all, America’s Dairyland, so we had visions of ice-cold milkshakes to go with big juicy burgers and fries.

We went to a little take-out joint with the promising name Rick’s Super Shakes, but when the sad sweaty young woman opened the bug screen and handed us our shakes through the little window, the drinks were little more than sweetened chocolate milk, and they were not cold.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to remain calm. “We ordered milk shakes. You know, milk blended with lots of yummy ice cream and so thick our straws stand up in the ice-cold mix.”

“Never heard of those,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “What you got is what we call a milk shake around here.”

“Could you add some ice cream to our shakes?” I asked, wondering if perhaps this whole fiasco was being filmed for Candid Camera, the gimmick being that several people are served these travesties of shams of mockeries of milk shakes, and the camera records all the hilarious outrage and disappointment, and then the real milkshakes are brought out and everyone laughs and rejoices.

“I can sell you scoops of ice cream,” she said, turning away to listen to somebody inside say something to her before she turned back to us. “The ice cream is a little runny right now. Freezer broke down at lunch and isn’t back up to real cold yet, I guess.”

“We’ll have two runny scoops of chocolate ice cream,” I said, and these we added to our warm chocolate milk to go along with our pathetic little burgers and soggy tasteless fries.

*

After an itchy night in the truck, we picked up our mail at the post office and motored south into Illinois where at the end of a long drive we arrived at Starved Rock State Park on the banks of the Illinois River. Were the bugs less horrible there? A little, yes. And we were glad. There were few people availing themselves of the big park and we got a camping space right beside the river. The temperature and humidity were both stuck on ninety-five, so you can imagine how inviting that big moving body of water looked to us.

We donned our swimming trunks and made our way down the embankment to the river and were just about to dive in when a loud siren pierced the air and a park ranger’s truck with red light flashing skidded to a halt above us. The ranger jumped out of his truck waving his arms and shouting, “Don’t go in there! Didn’t you see the signs?”

Shaken, we made our way up the embankment where the red-faced ranger glared at us as if we’d just stolen an apple pie cooling on his windowsill.

“We saw no signs,” we said, abashed. “Where were they and what did they say?”

“When you checked in,” he said, wide-eyed. “On the bulletin board.”

We admitted to skipping the news on the bulletin board.

“You go in there,” he said, pointing at the mighty Illinois, “and you’re dead. Not maybe dead. For sure dead.”

At which moment a large boat went by with men dragging the river for bodies.

“Eleven people drowned here so far this summer,” he said, grimly. “Looks nice, but that undertow grabs you, your body won’t come up for a long time.”

Dick and I exchanged glances and silently agreed not to suggest to the good fellow that they might want to post large warning signs at the river and in the campground. Instead, we thanked him for saving our lives and asked if there was a good safe place to swim, and he guessed something about creeks, which did not appeal. So then we inquired about showers, and he said we would find showers in the rest rooms.

And so in the late afternoon we went to the big old restroom a quarter-mile from our camp and took showers in warm sulfurous water that was as refreshing as a wrapping your head in a hot towel on a hot day. Then we dressed and took a walk around the park, and as dusk approached we saw lightning bugs flitting about a meadow, and it was a magical experience, every time we wiped the sweat out of our eyes.

On our way back to the truck, we stopped at a playground where, feeling truly happy about Nature evolving a non-biting bug with a little light bulb for a butt, I commandeered a swing and started swinging. Dick went off somewhere, and a moment later a cute girl of ten took the swing next to me and said, “I can go higher than you.”

I allowed her to have her glory, though I could have gone higher, and then she said, “Ooh wanna do the spider?”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Stop swinging and I’ll show you,” she said eagerly.

So I stopped swinging and in a twinkling she was astride me, facing me, her legs wrapped around my waist.

“Okay now,” she said breathlessly, “get pumping.”

I pushed off, got us swinging, and realized how inappropriate my doing the spider with this cute young lass might appear to anyone unaware of my inherent goodness—a twenty-year-old guy with a beard hooked up in such an intimate way with a cute young girl not the guy’s sister or daughter. I had visions of her Baptist or Methodist or Unitarian parents coming upon us doing the spider and having me arrested, I, the California pervert forcing himself on a sweet innocent young girl for which this court sentences you to seventeen years in a hot humid Illinois prison cell!

So I stopped swinging, lifted her off of me, and said, “Gotta go now.”

“Aw,” she said, pouting. “We were just getting to the good part.”

Back at the truck, darkness falling, we prepared supper over a little campfire, and as we were dining, a big pickup pulled into the camp site adjacent to ours, though there were plenty of other empty sites nearby, and a big muscular guy and his petite girlfriend got out of the truck and hurriedly set up a little Army surplus pup tent a mere thirty feet from our truck.

Then they got inside the tent, zipped up the flap, and Dick and I grimaced in dismay as we imagined the veritable sauna inside that little tent where the big guy and his much smaller cohort were, we assumed, having sex.

However, we didn’t have long to contemplate what was going on in that canvas cocoon because the clouds burst and torrential rain began to fall. We adjourned to the truck and thrilled to the air growing cooler for the first time since that fateful muggy day when we rolled into Winnipeg and were attacked by legions of ravening mosquitoes.

The rain pounded on our truck for a good long hour, and pounded on that pup tent, too, and then came thunder and lightning that got closer and closer until a mighty flash illuminated our campsite and a crash of thunder shook our truck.

We held our breaths as two more lightning bolts struck near enough to shake the ground, and then the lightning and thunder moved on, and the air was heavenly cool, and the only the sound we could hear was the mighty murderous Illinois rolling by.

In the morning the pup tent was gone and we continued on our way to the east, fully rested for the first time in many days and hopeful of better times coming our way.

fin

Risking Delight

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Cecil B. My Father

The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. Cecil B. DeMille

From the time I was a wee lad, and no doubt before I was born, my father insisted there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something. I have no idea where he got this cockamamie idea, but it shaped his life in many ways.

He bought a series of the absolute cheapest gas-powered lawn mowers to use on the high grass in our orchard, and all these mowers were not only ineffective against the grass, but broke irreparably within a year or two, their carcasses piled in an enclosure near the house intended for firewood and eventually leaving no room for anything but the carcasses. When I cleaned out this enclosure shortly before my father died, I found nineteen of these dead cruddy mowers.

When my father was in his forties, he decided it would be fun and good exercise to commute to his office by bicycle a few times a week, a distance of three miles. He bought the absolute cheapest bicycle he could find, made the round trip once, and found the going so difficult and unpleasant, he never rode the bike again.

When his trusty Karmann Ghia needed replacing, he read about Fiats in Consumer Reports, which recommended only one model of Fiat, and that one with reservations. But when my father went to the dealership, he bought the cheapest model available, one that Consumer Reports declared a disaster, and lo Consumer Reports was right on. That automotive mess cost thousands a year in repairs and fixes that could never overcome the inherent flaws of the poorly designed machine.

Creation is a drug I can’t do without. Cecil B. DeMille

When I was sixteen, my father took my mother, my younger brother, my older sister, and me to Europe—the only time I’ve ever been. My father wanted to attend a psychiatric convention in Edinburgh in August and my mother insisted he take her and three of the four kids along, my eldest sister refusing to go.

In anticipation of our grand expedition, my father purchased a Super-8 movie camera, by far the cheapest one he could find (despite the grave warnings in Consumer Reports) because “they’re all the same.” And because he waited, as was his habit, until the very last minute to buy the camera, he did not shoot a test roll of film before we embarked. He also bought a chintzy little editing system with the intention of putting together a masterwork commemorating our European adventure.

We flew from San Francisco to New York and from there to Shannon Airport in Ireland. We then spent two days crammed inside a miniscule rental car driving across Ireland to Dublin, during which journey we were almost killed several times because my father kept driving on the wrong side of the road. We then spent two lovely days in Dublin before flying to Glasgow from where we drove across the Scottish Highlands, crammed into another tiny rental car, to Edinburgh where we spent a happy week.

And all along our way, every chance he had, my father zealously deployed his new camera, often going to dangerous lengths to get just the right angle for his shots of us gawking at castles and lochs and statues and fountains, as well as scenes of Irish and Scottish people and their adorable houses and farms and photogenic ruins—each roll of film giving my father three minutes of footage.

In Edinburgh we were encamped at Mrs. Covey’s Boarding House, and while my father attended his convention, we roamed about without him and his movie camera, and we were glad. Mrs. Covey took a liking to me and every day spoke to me at length, though I understood nothing of what she said, except one time I caught the name Kennedy in the waterfall of her Scottish English, though I knew not whether she was speaking of the deceased president or her neighbor.

From Edinburgh we took the train to London, a mode of travel I found vastly preferable to flying or driving with my father who was forever slamming on the brakes and jumping out of our itsy bitsy rental cars to film something he thought would go well in his impending opus.

Then we spent ten glorious days in London and I went to fabulous plays every night, sometimes with my family, sometimes with my sister, sometimes all by myself because I was sixteen and practically a grownup. In 1966 excellent plays abounded in London, and all British actors were fantastic compared to any American actors I’d ever seen. And you could get tickets at the door a few minutes before curtain and sit in great seats close to the stage for just a few dollars.

1966 was also the year the Beatles came out with Revolver, and I purchased two copies of the British edition of the album (that had more songs than the American edition) to take home and wow my music-loving friends.

And every day my father shot many rolls of film—our suitcases overflowing with the little round plastic canisters.

Then we flew from London across the channel to muggy, filthy, glorious Paris for ten days, and I had lots of time away from my folks, thank God. We stayed in an old hotel called the Hotel Moliere, and many mornings I would bid my family adieu and head out into the unknown with my French vocabulary of twenty words. My sister, fluent in French, sometimes consented to go adventuring with me, and she would speak for us at cafes where the food was inexpensive and delicious and our taciturn French hosts would become sweet and friendly when the American girl spoke such beautiful French.

At Versailles my father shot many rolls of film, and at Chartres he shot two rolls just of the stained-glass windows. And everywhere we went he risked life and limb to get the dramatic shots he wanted for his impending masterwork.

Our last stop in Europe was Amsterdam and way too much Van Gogh. The highlight of Amsterdam for me was wandering around in the red light district at dusk and seeing the prostitutes sitting in their windows, knitting or playing cards in their scanty outfits, waiting for horny customers to ring their bells.

There was an airline strike at the time of our European sojourn, and only American Airlines was flying from Europe to America. As we were about to board our homeward flight, my father was nowhere to be found. My hysterical mother sent me into the vast duty-free market to find him, and after a frantic search I found him far from the boarding area standing at a magazine stall flipping through Popular Mechanics. We then ran to the jet where my mother was throwing a crying fit to hold the plane for my unapologetic father. The stewardesses and captain were furious with us, but we made it aboard and took off.

Lastly we flew from New York to San Francisco, but not before my father shot roll after roll from atop the Empire State building and in the colorful hubbub of Times Square.

Home at last, my father had those hundred-some three-minute rolls of film developed, set the first roll on the viewer of his chintzy editing machine, cranked the film through the little viewer, and thrilled to see his opening shot. And then there was nothing more on the roll until the last few seconds when images appeared again.

This was true of all the rolls of film he’d hung from bell towers, so to speak, to shoot. A few seconds of imagery at the start, a second or two of imagery at the end. Did he throw the film away and admit that perhaps there was a difference in quality between the cheapest something and the more expensive versions of that something? Nay. He edited all those tiny fragments together and created a title shot (after he got the camera repaired, sort of) of a piece of paper on which he wrote in sloppy cursive Our Trip To Europe—his movie a five-minute fever dream of tiny fragments he projected on the living room wall one time and never again.

A year later, he made another movie while on a Sierra Club base camp trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. And this time the thrice-repaired camera actually captured images on the film. However, being a profoundly crummy camera, the colors were wonky. Everything green came out turquoise, lakes and rivers were pinkish, and human skin was a hideous orange.

Yet from this nauseating color blend he pieced together a movie and showed it to a gathering of people who had been at the base camp. The movie was ostensibly about a girl who doesn’t want to go on a trip into the mountains, but she eventually falls in love with the majesty of the oddly colored wilderness. The film starred my sister for the first half, but then she quit the production and my father found another girl at the base camp to star in the second half, which was confusing since this other girl looked nothing like my sister.

The best part of the film was the beginning. My sister runs across an expanse of sand and trips and falls, and as the camera tracks beyond her, we see scratched in the wet sand The Trip.

My father never used the movie camera again, and for the rest of his life continued to buy the cheapest one of everything he ever bought because he knew, as a person who knew everything, there was no difference in quality between the cheapest something and a more expensive version of that something.

fin

Not So Sure

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Nathan and Del Part Three

On a brilliantly sunny day in March, Nathan and Margot sit on the deck of Nathan and Celia’s house waiting to be called to the dining table for a lunch of fish tacos and guacamole and horchata being prepared by Celia and Del.

Today is day twenty-four of Nathan’s tenure as the helper of Del and Margot and Wanda, and Del has been taking cooking lessons from Celia every other day for the last two weeks. This is the tenth time Margot has joined them for a meal—seven times for lunch and three times for supper.

Wanda is always invited, too, but refuses to partake of these meals, wanting nothing to do with Nathan or Celia or anyone else in what she calls ‘this horrid little backwater.” She believes Margot will eventually acquiesce to her demands that they leave Mercy because in a month Margot must fly to England to begin filming parts Two and Three of the sci-fi epic Planet Babylon Reborn, which will consume a year of her life, after which she will make the fifth installment of Crusaders of Galaxy Nine. And then she is contracted to star in the first of another multi-billion-dollar sci-fi franchise Destructo Nirvana. If Wanda quits, Margot will have little time to find a new caretaker for Del.

Thus Wanda is lobbying relentlessly for a return to their previous lives as pampered prisoners in Margot’s castles in Malibu and Manhattan, both asylums under constant siege by paparazzi and hordes of people obsessed with the lives of celebrities.

In the meantime, no one other than Margot’s business manager Joan knows that Del and Margot and Wanda are not currently residing in Malibu and Manhattan, so stealthily did they make their escape and come to Mercy.

“I realize it’s only a matter of time before the world finds out we’re here,” says Margot, who of late has been confiding more and more in Nathan and Celia, in large part because Del has so zealously adopted them. “But I won’t lock Del away again. I’d rather end my career.”

“You’re a good mother,” says Nathan, who no longer thinks of Margot as Margot Cunningham, movie goddess, but simply as Margot, one of the most bottled-up people he has ever known. “Took great courage to come here.”

“Great desperation,” she says, shielding her eyes from the sun. “It was killing me to see her so unhappy, having no one to relate to except sycophants and the fucked up children of my peers, if you’ll pardon my French, and no one even remotely her intellectual equal. I would take her with me, but…” She frowns. “No. It never works to have her with me on a film.”

“She’s a great kid,” he says, guessing there is more to Margot living apart from Del so much of the time than she is willing to divulge.

“I suppose in some ways it’s a blessing she can’t use a cell phone,” says Margot, referring to her daughter’s severe allergy to microwaves—debilitating headaches and nausea and brain fog. “Though I do wish I could reach her when she’s out and about with you and Celia. I’m such a worry wart when it comes to her.”

“She needs to be out in the world,” says Nathan, rising at the sound of Del tapping a glass on the dining table to summon them. “We all do.”

 *

At lunch Celia says, “This is our first really warm day of the year. Time to plant out the lettuce starts and get those sugar snap seeds in the ground.”

“They have the most magnificent chard and parsley in their garden,” says Del, who rarely stutters now. “And their rosemary is a veritable tree. Did you see them, Mom?”

“I did,” says Margot, enjoying her lunch. “They’re amazing, as are these fish tacos. And the guacamole is as good as any I’ve ever had.”

“Delilah was the chef today,” says Celia, smiling at Del. “I was her assistant.”

“We were more like co-chefs,” says Del, shivering with delight at her mother’s praise. “I’m still quite tentative with my spices, and gauging how much lemon juice to use in the guacamole continues to mystify me. It’s such a fine line between too little and too much.”

“Well you nailed it today,” says Nathan, looking out on the day. “Big minus tide this afternoon. The beach will be vast. I know Tennyson is eager to go.”

“I’m eager, too,” says Del, looking at Margot. “Can we, Mom?”

“Sounds marvelous,” says Margot, feigning enthusiasm. “I’ll call Wanda and tell her we’ll be another hour or so.”

*

As they’re preparing to leave for the beach, Margot calls Wanda, and after their brief conversation announces to everyone, “I’m so sorry. Bit of a crisis with Wanda. Gotta go put out the fire. You go on, dear, and I’ll walk on the beach with all of you another time soon.”

*

On the great expanse of sand at the mouth of the Mercy River, Tennyson runs toward a distant flock of gulls standing in the shallows, and Del races after the swift little dog, her speed and grace astonishing to Nathan and Celia.

When Del and Tennyson race back to Nathan and Celia, and Del is barely winded, Celia says, “You run so fast, Delilah. You could be a track star.”

“I train with my mother when she lives with us,” says Del, exulting in her freedom on this glorious day. “She does most of her own stunts, you know, except the real dangerous ones. She’s in awesome shape.”

“So are you,” says Nathan, making an I-can’t-believe-it face. “I could never run that fast, not even in my fabled youth.”

“I miss my dance classes,” says Del, twirling around. “I love to dance.”

“You can take dance classes here,” says Celia, doing a little shimmy. “My daughter takes Afro Cuban dance at the rec center, and they have Jazz dance there, too.”

“I love Afro Cuban and Jazz dance,” says Del, ripping off a series of sexy moves, little knowing she’s being sexy. “I must sign up immediately.”

“And so you shall,” says Nathan, overcome by a premonition he dares not speak aloud for fear of jinxing fate.

*

When they get back to Nathan and Celia’s house from the beach, they find Margot waiting for them with news that Wanda is quitting and leaving tomorrow if Margot won’t give up on Mercy and return to Malibu.

“I won’t go back,” says Del, defiantly. “I love it here. Please, Mom. Don’t make me go back.”

“I will try to find a replacement for her,” says Margot, clearly overwhelmed. “But I must make these next four movies, after which I promise…”

“No,” says Del, interrupting her. “You always say that. One more movie and then we’ll be together and I won’t need a nanny. But that never happens. You have a whole other life without me. You’re a movie star. This is what you do, what you love to do. So do it! But if you make me go back I’ll run away. Don’t think I won’t.”

“I’ll call Joan,” says Margot, anguished. “And see if she can…

“If I may intervene here,” says Nathan, glancing at Celia and receiving her approving nod, “we would be happy to become, as it were, the new Wanda and look after Del in your absence.”

“You would live with her in the Caldwell House?” says Margot, stunned by the possibility.

“No,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “She would live with us. We have a guest room and Celia is now a mere month away from retiring. Del can come on pruning jobs with me, cook with Celia, work in the garden, keep us in kindling, and take Afro Cuban dance at the rec center. And you can sell the Caldwell place and erase all evidence you were ever here.”

*

On an evening a few days before she is to leave for England, Margot sits in an armchair in Nathan and Celia’s living room, a fire crackling in the hearth, the fire built by Del. Nathan and Celia are sitting together on the sofa and Del is sitting in the other armchair with Grace the calico cat on her lap and Tennyson next to her in his bed by the kindling box, which has heretofore never been so consistently full. They have just dined on a scrumptious vegetable tajine made by Nathan and Del from a recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, Margot and Celia are drinking wine, Nathan and Del are having nettle tea.

They are sharing life stories, something Del requested they do before her mother leaves for the next several months.

“I came to Mercy when I was thirteen,” says Celia, smiling and sighing simultaneously. “Same age as you, Delilah. I was born in Mexico, in Mazatlan, but we came to California when I was a baby so I don’t remember Mexico. We lived in Salinas until I was nine and my brother Juan was seven. My father and mother and grandmother worked in the fields, mostly lettuce, and then we moved to Sonoma where my father worked at a winery and my mother and grandmother were cooks in a Mexican restaurant. And then we moved to Mercy and my father was a house painter and my mother was a cook at the Mercy Café and my grandmother stayed home and had a big garden and raised chickens and I went to Mercy High where, believe it or not, I was homecoming queen.”

“We believe it,” says Del, beaming at Celia. “You’re magnificent.”

“Then I went to college in San Jose,” says Celia, remembering how hard it was to leave home, “and I became a nurse and came back here and met Nathan and got married and had Calypso and worked in the hospital for thirty-five years.”

“You will notice how she studiously avoided recounting the trail of broken hearts she left along the way,” says Nathan, holding Celia’s hand. “As far as I’m concerned, Celia staying unmarried until I came along is proof of miracles. I have written to the Vatican, but have yet to hear back.”

“I didn’t break any hearts,” says Celia, shaking her head. “Well… maybe one or two.”

“Now you Mom,” says Del, looking at her mother and nodding expectantly.

“Oh God,” says Margot, closing her eyes. “Another glass of wine might help. You go before me, Nathan, while I get a little drunker.”

“I will fetch the pinot for you,” he says, getting the bottle from the kitchen and setting it on the table next to Margot’s chair. “And I apologize in advance for my verbosity. Try as I may I can never manage to be as succinct as Celia.”

“Who said anything about succinctness?” says Del, who is in heaven listening to her favorite people talking. “I want to know every little detail.”

“Well in that case,” says Nathan, settling beside Celia again, “I was born seventy-three years ago on a farm in the Rogue River Valley in Oregon on the outskirts of Medford, which is fourteen miles north of Ashland, famed for it’s never-ending Shakespeare festival and a magnificent replica of the Globe Theatre. I was born at home because my mother’s water broke while she was picking chard and green beans for supper, no kidding, and my father delivered me in the living room, having delivered countless calves and lambs and horses before me.”

“Oh my God,” says Del, shocked. “How could you not have told me this?”

“Didn’t come up until now,” he says, and everybody laughs.

“It’s incredible,” says Del, giving her mother an I’m-shocked look. “He was born in the living room.”

“With my two older sisters watching,” he says, imagining the little girls gawking as he emerged from their mother. “And then I grew up a farm kid with two older sisters and two younger brothers, hoeing weeds, pruning fruit trees, driving a tractor, bailing alfalfa, slopping pigs, and going to church. My parents were Methodists and our preacher was forever threatening us with eternal damnation and roasting on hot coals in hell for all eternity if we deviated from a path nobody I knew followed, and I found his threats offensive and bridled at going to church.”

“How terrible,” says Del, frowning. “Why would your parents subject you to that kind of thing?”

“I guess because they’d been subjected to it, too, and didn’t know any better.” He shrugs. “Most religions tend to be fantastically self-contradictory. Love thy neighbor but burn in hell if you love them the wrong way.”

“Right,” says Margot, laughing. “So then what happened?”

 “Well… when I was eleven, in the Sixth Grade,” he says, smiling as he remembers, “my class went to a Shakespeare play at the outdoor theatre in Ashland, Much Ado About Nothing, and I was changed forever. Loved it more that anything I’d ever seen or heard. Asked my teacher for the play and he gave me a copy that I read like some kids read comic books, over and over again.”

“You understood the language?” asks Margot, who has been in two plays on Broadway and won a Tony both times.

“The gist anyway,” says Nathan, remembering his favorite lines from Much Ado as if they were his phone number. “‘There was a star danced, and under that I was born.’ I loved the flow of the language, loved the rhymes, obvious and internal, and then I found his sonnets, and by the time I got to high school and the Sixties took hold, I declared my self a poet and grew my hair long and pissed off my father so much I had to move out and finish high school living at my friend Colin’s house until I got into San Francisco State.”

“Did the same fate befall any of your siblings?” asks Margot, the wine softening her.

“My oldest sister ran off and became a hippy before she became a biologist, but my other sister married a farmer and my brothers carried on the business of the farm until my father died and the land became so valuable they sold it to a developer for tract homes and a shopping center, after which one of my brothers moved to Idaho and switched from pears to potatoes, and my other brother became a loan shark, good Methodist he.”

“What did you do after college?” asks Del, entranced by Nathan’s story.

“Never finished college,” he says, recalling his mother’s distress. “Dropped out after two years and became a groupie of the Beat poets and worshiped them for a few giddy months until it dawned on me they weren’t very good poets. So I decided to go to England, and having no money I hitchhiked across the country to Boston and then up to Halifax and worked my way across the Atlantic on a freighter full of lumber. Got a room in a commune in Oxford, had a cynical British girlfriend named Nancy, and started over with Shakespeare and Tennyson and moved on to Auden and Spender, and after two years among the Brits came back to San Francisco and eventually found my own voice and started sending out poems and reading at open mikes. And then when I was twenty-four I published my first poem, at twenty-six my first book, at twenty-seven my second book, at twenty-eight my third, and then…” He stops, overwhelmed by sorrow.

“And then?” asks Del in a whisper.

“Then two writers, famous among the literati of New York, writers I didn’t know and had never read, accused me of stealing lines from their poems and prose, and they made such a big fuss about it, my days as a publishing poet were ended. They never backed up their claims because they couldn’t, and I never found out why they chose me as the object of their wrath, but they did. So after a few years of painful disbelief, I came to Mercy, set up shop as a pruner of trees, married the lovely Celia, and here we are.”

“It’s sickening,” says Del, furiously. “Those people should be put in jail.”

“Too late, my dear,” he says, his cheeks streaked with tears. “They’re both dead now, neither of them amounting to much in the great scheme of things, but then few ever do.”

“I would be shocked by your story,” says Margot, setting her wine glass down, “except I’ve known so many people ruined in the same way, for no apparent reason except somebody powerful thought they were in the way.”

“The trick is not to conflate the self with the career,” he says, gesturing for Del to put another log on the fire. “But to see these seeming catastrophes as the universe telling us to change or suffer the consequences of not changing.”

Silence falls. The cat yawns majestically. The fire crackles eloquently.

“My father is unknown,” says Margot, gazing at the flames. “My biological mother was a young woman who gave birth to me in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona and immediately put me up for adoption. But no one adopted me, and so began my career as a foster child. I lived in seven different foster homes in Phoenix and Scottsdale and finally Los Angeles until I was fifteen and ran away. I was a wily survivor by then, looked eighteen, got a job bussing tables at a café in Burbank, and soon thereafter was promoted to waitress. And then when I was seventeen I lied my way into an audition for a television commercial and got the gig.”

“What was the commercial for?” asks Celia, who understands now why Margot is so emotionally inaccessible.

“Shampoo,” says Margot, remembering sordid details she will not share. “They loved my lustrous hair and how I looked in the shower, and so did a casting director who saw the ad. He hooked me up with an agent and within a month I was cast in a teen flick as an easy pompom girl, and the rest is history.”

“And thirteen years ago Del was born,” says Nathan, not wanting to pry but wanting to know. “Can you tell us about that?”

Margot looks down at her hands and tries to think of how to talk about Del’s birth without telling the truth she’s never told Del, but she cannot think of anything but the truth, and because she doesn’t want Del to know the truth, she says nothing.

“I’ll tell the story,” says Del, knowing her mother has never told her the truth about her beginnings, but having heard the untrue story several times. “Shall I, Mom?”

“Yes,” says Margot, continuing to gaze at her hands and remember how three times she was about to end her pregnancy, yet each time her desire to have a child won out.

“So sixteen years ago,” says Del, clearing her throat and having a sip of her tea, “when Mom was twenty-eight, she fell in love with Larry Bernstein when she was in a movie with him called Cruel Weather, which I haven’t seen yet because Mom doesn’t want me to see movies with sex in them until I’m eighteen. And I’ll try not to, though I’m very curious to see my parents together. Then after a long romance, Mom and Larry got married during the Cannes Film Festival, and a year later I was conceived. But before I was born they got divorced. Larry said I was not his child so he didn’t want custody of me. Mom says he is my father but she didn’t want to go through the terrible legal hassle and the awful negative publicity to prove he is my father, and since she didn’t want be involved with him anymore anyway, she didn’t press the matter.”

“When did you discover your musical talent?” asks Nathan, intuiting that none of what Del said is true.

“When I was three,” says Del, gently stroking the kitty cat. “My nanny Portia was singing to me, and at first I sang along with her and then I sang harmony with her and she got very excited and told my mom and not long after that I started music lessons with Leopold Schirmer, and when I was five I started taking piano lessons from Ginger Harte.”

“What was the song Portia sang to you?” asks Celia, delighted to know the history of Del’s musical life.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” says Del, half-speaking and half-singing the title. “Stevie Wonder.”

“Tell them about your first composition,” says Margot, looking up and smiling at her daughter.

“You tell,” says Del, wishing her mother would tell the truth about Larry Bernstein, but understanding that for some reason she won’t.

“I was in Paris,” says Margot, relaxing noticeably as she settles into telling the truth, “shooting The Musketeer’s Lover. Del was about to turn eight, so for her birthday I flew her over to Paris with her nanny Denise…”

“And our bodyguard,” says Del, interjecting. “Remember Rufus?” She looks at Nathan and Celia. “He was from Nigeria, and he was so big he had to duck and go sideways through most doorways.” She looks at her mother. “Sorry. Go on.”

“So you walked into my suite at the Four Seasons,” says Margot, who doesn’t remember Rufus, “and said, ‘I want you to hear something I made for you.’ And you gave me a CD, which I still have, and you’d written on it 8 Voices For Mom. Then we put it on the stereo and out came the most beautiful choral piece. Three minutes and eleven seconds long. Eight voices singing eight-part harmony. And I loved it so much I insisted they use it in the movie, and that was the music under the closing credits.”

“Eight-part harmony,” says Nathan, beaming at Del. “We’d love to hear it someday.”

“Oh it’s on the movie soundtrack and it’s on YouTube, too,” says Del, matter-of-factly. “And though it is a bit simplistic compared to what I’m composing now, the performance is quite good. Denise and I hired eight really good singers to make the recording. Two men and six women.”

“And like Mendelssohn,” says Nathan, gazing fondly at Del, “did you hear all eight parts before you wrote them down?”

“I did,” says Del, gazing in wonder at him. “How do you know about Mendelssohn?”

“Oh he loves Mendelssohn,” says Celia, kissing Nathan’s cheek. “We had a string quartet for our wedding and the processional and recessional were Mendelssohn, and at the reception all the music was Mendelssohn until the mariachi band played for the dancing.”

*

The day Margot leaves for England is also the day the Caldwell place sells to a couple from England, Joseph and Constance Richardson, Joseph a painter of landscapes, Constance a writer of murder mysteries.

Margot, who has been staying in a vacation rental, comes for breakfast at Nathan and Celia’s before leaving for San Francisco from where she will fly to New York and then to London.

While Del and Celia are in the kitchen preparing huevos rancheros and corn tortillas from scratch, Margot finds Nathan on his knees in the vegetable garden planting broccoli seedlings into a bed he and Del prepared together.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all you’ve done for Del and me,” says Margot, speaking to Nathan across the bed of freshly turned soil. “And for all you’re going to do.”

“And we’re grateful to you,” he says, looking up at her. “We were wondering how we’d get by on our minimalist social security should I cease to prune, and now, as we used to say long ago, we’re in fat city and we get to live with Del.”

“I’ll be calling every day,” she says, looking up at the sky. “At least at first, and…” She hesitates.

He resumes planting the spindly plants into the pliable ground.

“I want to tell you something before I go,” she says, speaking quietly.

He gets to his feet and brushes off the soil from the knees of his pants.

“Del’s father is not Larry Bernstein,” she says, looking toward the house to make sure Del is not coming out.

“I gathered as much,” he says, nodding. “You needn’t tell me who her father is.”

She looks toward the house again and steps across the bed to stand close to him.

“I have no idea who Del’s father is,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper. “I only know he is not Larry Bernstein. I’ll tell Del when she’s older, but not yet. You understand, don’t you?”

“I do,” says Nathan, feeling a little dizzy standing so near to her. “When my mother was dying I went to stay with her for the last few weeks of her life. And the day before she died, she beckoned me to come close so she could whisper and my sisters wouldn’t hear her say, ‘Your father was not your father. Your father was Lucius Carter.’”

“Who was Lucius Carter?” asks Margot, placing her hand on her heart.

“My Sixth Grade teacher,” he says, his eyes brimming with tears. “The man who gave me Shakespeare.”

fin

The Way Things Go

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Nathan and Del Part Two

Celia is still in her bathrobe as she sits at the dining table having a second cup of coffee while Nathan does the breakfast dishes, the morning cold and rainy. Sixty-five and soon to retire as a nurse at the local hospital, Celia is a beautiful woman, short and buxom with shoulder-length black hair just now turning gray, English her second language, though after being married to Nathan for thirty-five years she speaks English better than most people born to the language.

“I’m glad I’m not working today,” says Celia, who is down to three day shifts a week as she transitions to retirement. “I don’t like driving when it’s so wet and windy. Will you build me a fire before you go?”

“Of course,” says Nathan, thinking about his impending trip to Margot’s house and wondering if he might be wiser to go to the hardware store without Margot and/or Wanda tagging along with Del.

“Will you be home for lunch?” asks Celia, looking out at the rain.

“That’s my plan,” says Nathan, rinsing the last plate. “Two hours should be plenty of time to go to the hardware store and clean their water filter and check their generator and teach Del how to chop kindling.”

“I can’t believe they’ll stay,” says Celia, shaking her head. “I wonder why they chose Mercy. So far from anything.”

“Maybe when you’re that famous you have to go this far from a city to get some privacy.” Nathan carries his mug of nettle tea to the table. “You shopping today?”

She nods. “I’ll go before lunch because Paul is bringing Carlos over at one.” She gives Nathan a wide-eyed look. “I’m not taking that little monster to the grocery store again without you. If I take my eyes off him for ten seconds he’s knocking things off shelves and playing hide and seek. He’s too wild for me.”

“Funny,” says Nathan, musing about his rambunctious grandson, “Calypso was never so wild.”

“No,” says Celia, shaking her head, “because I didn’t go back to work until she started school and she didn’t watch television until she was twelve. Carlos is only three and he’s already playing video games and watching TV all day. No wonder he gets so wound up.” She shrugs. “It’s a different world now.”

“And Paul and Calypso have very different ideas about parenting than we do.” He shrugs in sympathy with her shrug. “But what can we do but love him and not let him watch TV when he’s here. He doesn’t seem to miss it.”

“He likes your stories better than TV,” she says lovingly. “And he plays with Tennyson and digs in the garden and you build block towers with him and take him to the beach. You’re a very good grandpa.”

The phone rings and Nathan goes to answer the phone in the kitchen.

“Mr. Grayson?” says Del, breathlessly. “Hi. It’s Del.”

“Hello Del,” he says, pleasantly surprised. “How are you today?”

“I’m… I’m fine,” she says, her voice shaking with emotion. “My… my mother said you… you want to take me to the hardware store to buy our axe and hatchet, and I… I would like to go with you, just you and not… not… not my mother and Wanda.”

“Is that okay with them?” he asks quietly. “Because it’s okay with me.”

“It’s okay with them,” she says urgently.

“Tennyson and I will be there in about an hour,” he says, smiling into the phone. “Wear your raincoat.”

He hangs up and returns to the dining table, shaking his head in wonder.

“What did she say?” asks Celia, eager to know.

“She wants to go to the hardware store without her mother or Wanda, which I gather is a big deal since Margot said Del never goes anywhere without her or Wanda.”

“Maybe they moved here because it wasn’t safe for her to do things on her own where they lived before. Beautiful girl who looks like her movie star mother. Always being chased by photographers and people looking for gossip. Maybe they were afraid someone would kidnap her.” Celia frowns. “It must be so hard to have such a famous mother.”

“And so hard to be a famous mother,” says Nathan, carrying his tea into the living room to start the fire for the day.

*

Tennyson, a cute little floppy-eared mutt, sits between Nathan and Del in the cab of Nathan’s old white pickup truck, the rain pounding on the roof as they roll down the hill into the little town of Mercy.

Del has her long brown hair in two braids and is wearing a blue raincoat over a black sweatshirt and black jeans. Thirteen-years-old, she is fast becoming a woman, though Nathan still doesn’t know if she wants people to think of her as she or he.

“If you’re up for it,” says Nathan, glancing at Del, “I’d love to get a gander at the waves, which will be huge from the storm surge and these big winds.”

“I’m… I’m up for it,” says Del, exhilarated and terrified to be away from her mother and Wanda and traveling with an old man and his dog in an old truck through a tempest in the wilderness. “Is… is it safe?”

“Oh yeah,” he says, turning onto the road leading to an outlook with a view of the river mouth and the mighty breakers rolling into Mercy Bay. “We’ll be gazing upon the tumult from afar and won’t get out of the truck.”

“Gazing upon the tumult from afar,” says Del, smiling. “I… I love the way you talk, Nathan. It’s… it’s magnificent.”

“I’m happy you like my use of the lingo,” he says, laughing. “What are words for if not to use them in artful ways?”

“I think so, too,” says Del, looking out at the storm. “I… I found your blog last night and printed out a hundred of your poems and made… made them into a book. I… I love them.”

“Only a hundred?” says Nathan, frowning quizzically. “Got bored, did you?”

“No,” she says, laughing. “Never.”

*

They look down on an endless parade of enormous waves crashing against the cliffs, the ground trembling with each fantastic collision of ocean and earth.

“The rain is letting up,” says Nathan, smiling wryly. “We could get out for a minute or two if you’re game. Take in the whole fantabulous panorama without the frame of the windshield.”

“I’m game,” says Del, nearly shouting. “Can Tennyson come?”

“No, we’ll leave his highness in the truck,” says Nathan, scratching Tennyson’s head. “He might get blown away.”

“We’ll be back soon, your highness,” says Del, petting Tennyson. “And we’ll tell you all about it.”

They get out into the ferocious wind and gaze in awe upon the stormy scene, and Nathan shows Del how to lean way into the wind and be kept from falling by the fantastic force.

Back in the truck, Nathan and Del look at each other wide-eyed and Del says, “That was beyond magnificent!”

“That’s only because you haven’t been to the hardware store yet,” says Nathan, starting the engine.

*

“Did… did my mother tell you about me?” asks Del, as they head into town.

“Not a thing,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “Except that you never went anywhere without her or Wanda, which apparently isn’t true.”

“It was true,” says Del, resting her hand on Tennyson’s back, “but it isn’t true anymore.”

“You’ve had a conversion?” says Nathan, immediately regretting his choice of words.

“That’s exactly what I’ve had,” says Del, delighted by his choice of words. “I have shed my old skin and watched it blow away into the fantabulous tumult.”

*

In Mercy Hardware, Juan Gomez, Nathan’s brother-in-law and former pruning partner, waits on Nathan and Del. They purchase an axe, a hatchet, a shovel, a rake, four bungee cords of various lengths, and three pairs of work gloves.

“How long you been living here?” Juan asks Del as he rings up the purchases.

“Four days,” says Del, smiling shyly at Juan.

“No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend yet,” says Juan, winking at Nathan. “I got a nephew. Pedro. Sixteen. Handsome. Looks just like Bruno Mars. He’ll be happy to see you walking down the street, I know that.”

“I’m… I’m not actually looking for a boyfriend,” says Del, blushing. “I’m… I’m only thirteen and we’re just… just getting acclimated.”

“Where you coming from?” asks Juan, looking at Nathan and getting the message not to probe too deeply.

“New York,” says Del, looking around the store. “It just occurs to me… do you sell art supplies?”

“Not really,” says Juan, shaking his head. “Car paint and paint for your house. Brushes, you know. They got some at the stationery store, but I think you do better online. Or next time you go to the city. You an artist?”

Del nods.

“Like Picasso?” says Juan, making an I’m-impressed face.

“More like Toulouse-Latrec,” says Del, thoughtfully. “Though I like Picasso, especially his pen and ink drawings. Have you seen those?”

“No, I only see the ones where he got the nose and eyes in the wrong place,” says Juan, laughing as he puts the gloves and bungee cords in a bag. “Maybe sometime you bring in one of your pictures to show me.”

“I will,” says Del, smiling brightly. “I’ll draw a still life of the tools we bought.”

“Good,” says Juan, nodding enthusiastically. “Maybe we put it on the wall and increase sales.”

*

Driving homeward, Del says, “This is the best day of my life.”

“I’m glad,” says Nathan, fighting his tears. “Really glad.”

*

When they arrive at Del’s house, the front door flies open and Margot rushes out with an umbrella.

“You were gone forever,” she says, opening the passenger door and looking in at Del and Tennyson and Nathan. “Everything okay?”

“Everything is fine, Mom,” says Del, nodding. “I must take you to the outlook to see the storm surf. And then we must go to the hardware store and I’ll introduce you to Juan, Nathan’s brother-in-law.”

“Fine, but first come into the house and get warm,” says Margot, looking at Nathan. “Will you stay for lunch?”

“I have a lunch date,” says Nathan, giving her a reassuring smile. “Thought I’d give you a wood chopping lesson, check your generator, clean your water filter, and come back for more tomorrow.”

Going up the stairs to the front porch, Margot says to Del, “You look flushed, honey. Do you need to lie down?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” says Del, taking her mother’s hand. “Truly I am.”

*

Margot and Wanda accompany Del and Nathan and Tennyson to the woodshed and Nathan presents them each with a new pair of work gloves.

“These will reduce the chances of serious injury when you’re wielding the axe or hatchet,” he says, standing at the chopping round to begin the lesson. “I assume you all want to know how to make kindling.”

“Just make us some,” says Wanda, obviously peeved. “I didn’t come here to be a lumberjack.”

“But I want to learn, Wanda,” says Del, frowning at her caretaker. “I’ll keep us well-supplied.”

“Why should you be chopping wood?” says Wanda, dropping her gloves on the floor and stalking away to the house. “That’s what we’re paying him for. This is ridiculous.”

“I apologize,” says Margot to Nathan. “This has been quite upsetting for Wanda, our coming here. She’s never lived anywhere but in a city and we’ve always just hired the help we need, so this is a big change for her.”

“For all of you,” says Nathan, nodding. “So… shall we begin?”

“Yes,” says Margot, putting on her gloves. “I’m ready.”

*

Nathan gets home a little after twelve and has avocado quesadillas by the fire with Celia and tells her about his two hours with Del and Margot.

“Did they say why they came here?” asks Celia, mystified that Margot would move to such a remote place with her daughter.

“No,” says Nathan, shaking his head, “but I have an inkling.”

“Tell me,” says Celia, urgently. “I can’t imagine.”

“I think Margot realized that in shielding Del from the spotlight of her celebrity, she made her a prisoner, and this is her attempt to set her daughter free before she becomes too strange and damaged by being so isolated and removed from the outside world. And they needed to get far from the madding crowd because everybody in the whole fucking world wants to know everything about them.”

“What about Wanda?” asks Celia, frowning. “She sounds a little crazy.”

“Del told me Wanda has been her nanny and caretaker for five years now. They lived in a townhouse in Manhattan and a mansion in Malibu with servants and bodyguards in both places while Margot was mostly gone making movies all over the world.”

“So Del was a princess in a castle,” says Celia, nodding. “And now she lives here.”

“Now she lives here,” says Nathan, thinking of Del leaning into the wind and spreading her arms as if flying. “For as long as she does. Wanda is lobbying for them to move some place more civilized and hinting she’ll quit if Margot won’t accommodate her.”

“What brought this on, I wonder?” says Celia, reacting to the sound of a familiar car in the driveway—Paul bringing Carlos over for the afternoon. “Why now?”

“I’m guessing the identity crisis of the over-protected child,” says Nathan, going to the door.

“Did Del tell you if she wants to be he or she?”

“In so many words,” says Nathan, smiling as he remembers. “I was showing her how to clean the water filter, when apropos of nothing she said, ‘Hey Nate, you did know Del is short for Delilah, didn’t you?’ And I said, ‘Delilah’s a beautiful name. Which do you prefer?’ And she said, “Whichever you like.’ And that’s where we left it for now.”

La Entrada

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Nathan and Del Part One

Nathan Grayson, his once brown hair mostly white now, is seventy-three, sturdy and healthy and still pruning fruit trees, Japanese maples, roses, and lemon trees fifteen hours a week from February through November.

A poet of some renown when he was in his late twenties, Nathan’s third volume of poems Fickle Muse, was considered by many to be a frontrunner to win the Pulitzer that year when out of the blue two influential writers accused Nathan of plagiarism, after which Nathan’s publisher took Fickle Muse and his previous volumes Impossible Rose and Indigo Blues out-of-print, recalled all copies yet to be sold, and thereafter no publisher or literary magazine, even tiny ones, would ever again publish Nathan’s poems, though the supposed plagiarism was never proven, nor did any of Nathan’s poems even remotely resemble the works of his accusers, save they were written in English.

Astonished by these accusations, Nathan was certain the hideous nonsense would soon blow over and he would publish again, but that was not to be. So he moved from San Francisco to the little town of Mercy on the north coast of California and became a pruner of fruit trees, a skill he’d acquired growing up on a fruit farm in southern Oregon.

After two years of pruning fruit trees in Mercy, his services much in demand, Nathan hired the admirable Juan Gomez as his assistant, and a few years later Nathan married Juan’s sister Celia to whom he has been married for thirty-five years. They have a thirty-two-year-old daughter named Calypso who, like her mother, is a nurse.

*

Despite his fall from literary grace, Nathan never stopped writing because writing is second nature to him, nearly first, and he writes for a couple hours every day, mostly poems and the occasional humorous story.

What does he do with his poems and stories when, even now, no publisher or magazine will consider his work? He posts them on the blog Calypso made for him and receives emails and letters from people around the world who enjoy his writing.

*

On a cold February evening, Nathan is standing beside Celia in the kitchen of their cozy redwood house, watching Celia make their favorite supper—chicken enchiladas, tomato rice, refried beans, guacamole, and a big green salad. Their little floppy-eared mutt Tennyson is at their feet hoping for what Nathan calls droppage, while their calico cat Grace snoozes on the sofa by the fire in the living room.

A few weeks ago Nathan posted a poem about Celia cooking this very meal entitled her fingers are geniuses for which he garnered several lovely responses from readers and a request from a restaurant in Sonoma to use the poem as the frontispiece of their permanent menu, for which they paid Nathan a hundred dollars and free meals whenever Nathan and Celia come to Sonoma, which is never.

“That’s the first money I’ve made from my writing in forty-five years,” says Nathan, tickled to think of people sitting down to dine in a snazzy restaurant and reading his poem about Celia.

her fingers are geniuses just look at them go making

guacamole and salsa and refried beans and tomato

rice and juicy chicken enchiladas you can’t tell me

her digits aren’t possessed of formidable brains

and unique personalities as she simultaneously

talks to her daughter and flirts with me saying,

“Put another log on the fire, marido,” just

look at those fingers go with such fearless grace

wielding knives and spoons amidst the blazing

casserole and red hot pans and steaming pots and

I the lucky recipient of their divine ministrations.

“I’m glad you didn’t keep being famous when you were young,” says Celia, who had no idea Nathan was a poet until he started sending her love poems as prelude to asking her to marry him. “If you had stayed famous you never would have moved here and met me and we never would have had Calypso and she wouldn’t have had Carlos who you love more than you love me.”

“Not true,” says Nathan, putting his arm around her. “I love Carlito as an extension of you.” 

“You would have married some other famous person and lived in New York,” says Celia, pouting adorably, “and spent your winters in a mansion in the south of France.”

“Mansions are a pain in the ass,” says Nathan, tasting the guacamole and smiling sublimely. “I prefer small houses. Much easier to heat and keep clean.”

“I know you,” she says, nodding. “You’re lucky not to be famous. All those women would have drained the life out of you.”

“But what a way to go,” he says, kissing her. “And now I can be famous, yeah? Now that we’re together and Calypso is incarnate, my poems can be in menus and I’ll get money in the mail.”

“Just don’t be too famous, okay? I love our life, don’t you?”

“Por su puesto,” he says, kissing her again before he and Tennyson go to answer the door expecting Calypso and her husband Paul and their darling three-year-old Carlos.

Opening the door Nathan startles to see a strikingly beautiful woman he knows from somewhere—fortyish, dark blonde hair falling to broad shoulders, kiss-me lips and glorious cheeks—but where?—and her teenaged son, his long brown hair covering most of his face. Or is this her daughter?

“Good evening,” says Nathan, turning on the porch light to clarify the scene. “What can we do for you?”

The daughter or son squats down to pet Tennyson, and her face becomes dreamy beautiful and Nathan decides she’s female.

“Mr. Grayson?” says the woman, her voice overwhelmingly familiar to Nathan, though he can’t think where he’s heard her voice before. “I hope we’re not interrupting your dinner.”

“Not yet,” says Nathan, smiling down at the child gently stroking the happy mutt.

“My name is Sharon Duval,” she says, her voice deep and sonorous. “We just bought the Caldwell place and our realtor Ward McKenzie said I should speak to you for advice about…” She laughs a sparkling laugh. “Country living, I guess. Ward didn’t have your phone number and you’re not listed, and since we’re so close…”

“Yeah, no problem,” says Nathan, fishing his wallet out of his work pants hanging on a hook by the door. “I’ll give you my card. Call me tomorrow.”

“Perfect,” says Sharon, smiling at the approach of Celia. “Hello. I’m Sharon Duval. Your new neighbor.”

“Celia,” says Celia, shaking Sharon’s hand. “And who is this?”

“This is Del,” says Sharon, touching the top of Del’s head as she continues to squat and pet Tennyson.

“Hello Del,” says Nathan, handing Sharon his card. “You gonna go to Peach Tree Elementary or are you in high school? Forgive me. I’m terrible at guessing ages, including my own.”

Del stands with notable grace and tosses her head to fling the hair out of her eyes. “Home school. I… I… I love your dog.”

“His name is Tennyson,” says Nathan, meeting Del’s eyes and sensing her confusion and sorrow.

“I… I love him,” she repeats. “He’s magnificent.”

“Takes one to know one,” says Nathan, winking at her.

Now Calypso and Paul and Carlos arrive in their lemon-yellow Volkswagen van and Sharon says, “We should go. I’ll call you tomorrow, Mr. Grayson.”

“Nathan, Nate, or Nat will do,” says Nathan, smiling at Del. “See you round the hood.”

After a fleeting hello to Calypso and Paul, Sharon and Del depart in a gold Mercedes.

*

When everyone is seated at the dining table, Carlos enthroned on Nathan’s lap, Calypso says, “That woman looked exactly like Margot Cunningham. Don’t you think?”

“I think she is Margot Cunningham,” says Celia, speaking of the movie star. “She said her name was Sharon Duval, but she must be Margot Cunningham. Who else could she be?”

“Margot Cunningham,” says Nathan, nodding in agreement. “Of course. My brain couldn’t compass the possibility of her living here, so I couldn’t imagine how I knew her. But why here? Why not some palatial estate in the south of France?” He bounces his eyebrows at Celia. “Isn’t that where all the famous people go?”

Calypso and Paul both get out their phones and hunt for news of Margot Cunningham.

“She’s forty-four now and has a thirteen-year-old daughter Delilah,” says Calypso, studying her screen. “That fits. From her brief marriage to Larry Bernstein. She’s currently rumored to be dating the actor Ivan Brubeck and/or the director Jerry Fields. And she’s soon to start filming the next two Planet Babylon Reborn movies for which they are paying her a paltry seventy million dollars.”

“Well-deserved, I’m sure,” says Nathan, feigning seriousness. “Though I prefer her in those movies where she’s an impossibly beautiful regular person, a housewife or secretary or waitress or high school teacher.” He shakes his head. “Can you imagine being in high school and having Margot Cunningham for your teacher? The mind boggles.”

“Sci-fi franchises are where the big money is today,” says Paul, who knows everything about contemporary popular culture. “She was big before Crusaders of Galaxy Nine and Planet Babylon Reborn, but now she’s arguably the biggest star in the world.”

“Anything more about Delilah?” asks Celia, who can’t stand super hero movies.

“Delilah goes by Del now and is trans,” says Paul, reading from his screen. “That’s not for sure, but possibly. We take all internet gossip with large grains of salt.”

“What does that mean exactly?” says Nathan, frowning. “Trans?”

“Transgender,” says Calypso, gazing at her screen. “She’s biologically female but feels she’s male. Yeah. According to Screen Gospel the trans thing is not for sure, but likely. And she/he is also a Music or Math prodigy.”

“Star Struck says both,” says Paul, putting his phone away because he knows cell phones bug Nathan. “How about that. Margot Cunningham living in Mercy.”

“They want you to prune for them, Papa?” asks Calypso, putting her phone away, too.

“Hope so,” says Nathan, sipping his lemonade. “I love those Caldwell apples. Especially the Fuji.”

*

The woman claiming to be named Sharon who sounds exactly like Margot Cunningham calls the next morning and Nathan agrees to come by her place on his way to prune a few apple trees.

He loads his tools into the back of his old white pickup and opens the passenger door for Tennyson who comes running from the vegetable garden where he was sticking his nose down a gopher hole and now has a muddy muzzle.

“Please leave those gophers to Grace,” says Nathan, wiping Tennyson’s snout with a towel before starting the engine. “She actually catches them whereas you just dig up the garden and do more damage than the gophers.”

A two-minute drive brings them to the house formerly owned by Archie and Clare Caldwell, a lovely old place built of river rock and redwood on ten acres of meadowland ringed by forest. Nathan has pruned the Caldwell fruit trees for thirty years and hopes to prune them for another ten. Archie and Clare were good friends with Celia and Nathan despite the political chasm between them, and Nathan was sad to see them go.

He leaves Tennyson in the truck, which Tennyson does not appreciate, climbs the seven stairs to the front porch, and knocks on the door. He waits a minute, knocks again, the door opens a crack, and a woman, not Sharon or Del, peers out and says, “Mr. Grayson?”

“I am he,” says Nathan, smiling. “Nathan or Nate or Nat will do.”

“Just a minute,” says the woman, closing the door.

Nathan studies the sky and guesses it will rain in the early afternoon and possibly hail, which doesn’t bode well for plum trees in bloom.

Now the door opens and here is Sharon looking spectacular in a red Pendleton shirt and blue jeans, her glossy blonde hair in a ponytail. Standing beside Sharon is a shorter woman with graying brown hair wearing a blue sweater over a white dress shirt and brown corduroy trousers.

“Hello Nathan,” says Sharon, shaking his hand, her grip formidable. “This is my housekeeper Wanda.”

“Hello Wanda,” says Nathan, shaking Wanda’s hand. “So… besides pruning your fruit trees, which I did for the Caldwells, what can I do for you?”

The women step outside and close the door behind them.

“We are new to country living,” says Sharon, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Nathan down the stairs, Wanda following, “and we would like to hire you to help us learn the ropes.”

“How to start a fire, for one thing,” says Wanda, her manner gruff, her accent New Jersey. “We have no idea.”

“Mind if I let my dog out?” asks Nathan, marveling at the exigencies of fate. “He’s a sweetie and loves to tag along.”

“Yes, fine,” says Sharon, laughing gaily. “I imagine we might eventually get a dog.”

“If we stay,” says Wanda, sounding doubtful.

Now the front door opens and Del comes out onto the front porch wearing a puffy black jacket, black ski pants, blue rain boots, and a black beret, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face reminiscent of her mother’s, though her eyes are brown not blue.

“I thought you weren’t coming with us,” says Sharon, obviously taken aback.

“I changed my mind,” says Del, coming down the stairs. “Did… did… did you bring Tennyson?”

“I did,” says Nathan, beaming at Del. “I was just about to let the beast out.”

 “Can… can I let him out?” asks Del, looking at the truck where Tennyson is gazing forlornly out the window.

“Be my guest,” says Nathan, gesturing gallantly.

Del runs to the truck and opens the door and Tennyson leaps out and races around her twice before going up on his hind legs and offering his front paws to her, which she takes in her hands and dances with him, laughing.

*

They proceed to explore the place, Tennyson in the lead, Del close behind, Nathan and Sharon and Wanda following.

Nathan shows them the large chicken coop that recently housed a dozen hens, the small greenhouse good for cacti and starting vegetables from seed, and the fourteen fruit trees in the deer-fenced orchard—ten apples, two plums, two pears. He opens the door to the pump house and tells them about their well and water storage tanks, and the need to have the water filter cleaned every few months. Then he shows them their big propane tank and explains that their house is heated with propane and their stove runs on propane, too, and the propane has to be delivered by a propane truck.

“So after you choose a company,” says Nathan, slapping the tank to gauge how full it is, “they’ll come out whenever you’re running low.”

Wanda frowns. “We’re not hooked up to the whatchamacallit?”

“Energy grid?” says Sharon, nodding hopefully.

“For electricity, you are,” says Nathan, feeling himself being inexorably drawn into the lives of these three. “For gas, no. And you’ll probably want your septic tank pumped out. Been at least ten years if I’m remembering correctly, and you don’t want your sewage backing up.”

“We’re not hooked up to the city sewer?” says Wanda, aghast.

“What city?” says Nathan, laughing. “No, save for electric you’re entirely self-sufficient. There’s not much to do. You’ll see. And you’ve got a backup generator that kicks on when we have power outages, which we do a few times every winter. Your generator runs on propane, too.”

In the woodshed, the big room low on firewood, Nathan finds an old axe and expertly chops a pile of kindling.

Del watches Nathan create the kindling and asks politely, “May I try? I’d like to learn.”

“I will bring my sharper axe and hatchet tomorrow and give you a lesson,” says Nathan, leaning the axe against the wall of the shed. “I don’t have time today, Del. But here’s the thing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can cut yourself really badly doing this, so you’ll need a lesson.”

“When tomorrow?” asks Del, thrilled to know Nathan is planning to return. “In the morning?”

“Say ten?” says Nathan, looking at Sharon.

“Fine,” says Sharon, eagerly. “We should… could you buy us an axe and hatchet? We wouldn’t know which to get. I’ll reimburse you, of course, and pay you for your time. And if you’ll recommend someone for firewood, we’ll call them today.”

“Sure,” says Nathan, gathering the kindling. “Now if you’ll each burden yourselves with a log or two, I’ll start a fire for you before I go.”

In the spacious living room of the beautiful old house, Nathan and Del kneel together on the hearth and he shows her how to build a lattice of kindling over a pile of crumpled paper.

“I love this,” she whispers. “Can I light it?”

“Sure,” he says, handing her a big wooden match. “That’s a strike-anywhere match. You can see the scrapes here on the brick Archie always used.”

The match ignites on Del’s third try and she coos with delight as she touches flame to paper and the fire crackles to life.

“Now when you’re sure the kindling has caught,” says Nathan, handing Del a piece of wood slightly larger than the kindling, “you lay progressively larger pieces on, but not too fast or you’ll put the fire out. Fire needs oxygen. Get it?”

“Got it,” says Del, carefully placing the larger piece atop the pyre.

“Good,” says Nathan, getting to his feet. “And now I must prune some apple trees before the rain comes.”

“When is that?” asks Wanda, anxiously. “The rain?”

“This afternoon, I’m guessing,” says Nathan, smiling at Wanda. “Might hail, too. A pleasure meeting you. I’ll see you all tomorrow at ten.”

“I’ll walk you to your truck,” says Sharon, following Nathan to the door.

“Will you bring Tennyson tomorrow?” asks Del, adding another piece of wood to the fire.

“Oh yeah,” says Nathan, smiling at the sight of her taking such care with the fire. “He goes everywhere with me.”

*

At the truck, Sharon stands close to Nathan and says, “I would very much like to hire you to come every day to help us with all the things we need help with. What is your hourly fee?”

“I get forty an hour for pruning,” he says, feeling a little dizzy being so close to her.

“Shall we say fifty,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I’m amazed by Del’s response to you. Really likes you.”

“So…” he says, wanting to ask which pronoun to use for Del, but deciding not to. “Tomorrow at ten.”

“Yes,” she says, frowning. “I suppose you know who I am.”

“I think I do,” he says, opening the door of his truck and waiting for Tennyson to jump in, “but if you’d rather be Sharon, I’m fine with that.”

“I guess it doesn’t really matter here, does it?” she says, her eyes filling with tears.

“No, you won’t get mobbed,” he says, resisting his impulse to hug her, “though people will gawk until they get used to you being here. You planning to live here year round?”

“I won’t be here all the time,” she says, shaking her head. “But Del and Wanda will. For a few years anyway.”

“Okay then,” he says, climbing into his truck and rolling down his window before closing the door. “See you tomorrow at ten. I can take Del axe shopping with me, if that’s okay with you.”

“Oh Del won’t go anywhere without me or Wanda,” says Sharon, shaking her head. “She… no.”

“Well then maybe we can all go,” he says, pulling away. “I think she’ll dig the hardware store.”

*

And so begins Nathan’s career as the helper of Wanda and Del and the movie star Margot Cunningham.

Hey Baby

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Amidst the Wreckage

Zeke notes the exquisite form of the oncoming wave, turns his surfboard to face the shore, brings his legs up onto the board behind him, executes four powerful butterfly strokes to propel him forward, gracefully rises to his feet as the wave lifts him, shifts his weight to accommodate the vast momentum, and has a splendid ride across the face of the wave into the shallows.

And though that was the first wave he caught on this sunny day in April—the California sky almost too blue to be believed—he feels in every cell of his being that his surfing days are over.

*

Standing at his van in the beach parking lot, stripping off his wetsuit, Zeke thinks I’m becoming someone I’ve never been before. Who, I wonder?

“Mighty Zeke,” comes a familiar voice. “You done already? Just getting fine out there, or so it seemed from the outlook.”

Zeke grins at Toby, a burly guy half Zeke’s age. “Yeah, done already. My last ride too good to follow. Like the Stones couldn’t follow Ike and Tina.”

“The Stones follow who?” asks Toby, who Zeke has known since Toby was a bump on the front of pretty mama Sue. “You high? Thought you weren’t smoking anymore.”

“Haven’t had a puff in twenty-five years,” says Zeke, remembering the moment Universe said You ever smoke again, you’re dead.

“Are we talkin’ the Rolling Stones?” says Toby, eager to get in the water but wanting to honor the living legend of the local surfing scene. “Mick Jagger and those guys?”

“November 1969,” says Zeke, sitting on the tailgate of his van to get out of the legs of his wetsuit. “Rolling Stones’ big American tour. Ike and Tina Turner opened for them at Madison Square Garden and Mick refused to go on for three hours after Ike and Tina finished. Said no way he could top them, which was true. Masters and imitators.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Mighty,” says Toby, who listens exclusively to heavy metal, his favorite band Five Finger Death Punch. “Before my time.”

“Long before,” says Zeke, putting on his T-shirt. “Fifty-two years ago. I was seventeen.”

“You were there, Mighty,” says Toby, moving on. “Always epic talking to you.”

“May the surf be with you,” says Zeke, raising his hand in farewell.

*

Driving home on the coast highway, Zeke thinks Now what?

And simultaneously with that thought the car ahead of him suddenly slows and nearly stops, the passenger door swings open, a big cardboard box drops out onto the road, and the car speeds away.

Zeke comes to a complete stop—something in the cardboard box trying to get out. So Zeke turns on his blinkers, jumps out of his van, hurries to the box, opens the top, sees puppies, closes the top, puts the box in the back of his van, and drives on.

The puppies—Zeke thinks three or four—whine and whimper and scratch the walls of the box all the way to Zeke’s farm two miles inland from the sea.

*

There are three pups in the box, eight-weeks-old. As he lifts them out one-by-one and sets them on the kitchen floor, Zeke guesses they are progeny of a Siberian Husky and a Chocolate Lab.

“Why do have to be so darling?” he says, giving the ravenous pups milk in a big stainless steel bowl.

Now Fiona, Zeke’s partner for the last seven years, comes in from the studio where she gives massages and says, “Tell me you’re not keeping them.”

“I don’t know,” says Zeke, surprised by her uncharacteristic response to the darling pups. “Dropped in my lap from heaven. Well… from a car in front of me on the coast road.”

“Well I know,” says Fiona, nodding emphatically. “Either they go or I go.”

“What’s this about?” he asks quietly. “Fiona I know smooches these little guys whether we keep them or not.”

“I don’t want a dog,” she says, verging on hysteria. “Let alone three.”

“You knew I was getting a dog,” says Zeke, sensing something big about to happen. “Been a year since Tupelo died. I told you I was on the lookout. Thought you were, too.”

Fiona holds still for a long moment and says, “I met someone, Zeke. You and I haven’t been clicking for a while now, so…”

*

Fiona moves out.

*

Zeke keeps the pups and names them Ike and Tina and Mick.

*

Two years later, single as a monk since Fiona split, Zeke is walking his three big beautiful dogs on short leashes on the beach where he rode his last wave. His eyes are fixed on the messy breakers and the few die-hard surfers out there getting bashed around.

The light on the water becomes exquisite, so he drops the dogs’ leashes, raises his camera to his eye, and shoots picture after picture of the gorgeous chaos, remembering times he went out in such chop because being bashed around was better than nothing.

“And once upon a time,” he says, lowering his camera and speaking to the dogs, “a fantastic wave materialized amidst the wreckage, a colossal wall of gray blue glass, and I was in the right place at the right time and had the ride of my life.”

Tina always looks at Zeke when he speaks to them, Ike and Mick not so much.

*

Returning to his van, Zeke and the dogs encounter Toby looking blue.

“Monsieur Toby,” says Zeke, smiling at his former surfing buddy. “What’s up?”

“Not the surf,” says Toby, deeply bummed. “Been wrecked for weeks. If I didn’t have my fucking job, I’d head south. Pronto.”

“I hear you,” says Zeke, opening the back of the van.

The dogs wait for Zeke to nod before they jump in.

“You miss being out there?” asks Toby, sympathetically. “You must.”

“Actually I don’t,” says Zeke, ever amazed at how glad he feels not to be surfing anymore. “I like looking out there now without needing to go out. I see so many things I never saw when all I wanted to do was catch and ride.”

“Like what?” asks Toby, frowning.

“Complex interweavings of simultaneity,” says Zeke, laughing at his choice of words.

“Nothing complex out there today,” says Toby, shaking his head as he walks away. “Just a bunch of barfy crap.”

“I hear you,” says Zeke, raising his hand in farewell.

*

On the way home, Zeke stops at Feed & Grain to buy dog food and chicken feed. Jackie, a gal with short black hair going gray and a silver-dollar-sized yin yang tattoo above her left bicep waits on Zeke. He’s had a crush on Jackie forever and it’s no secret she likes him, too, but they’ve never been simultaneously single in all the years they’ve known each other.

Jackie seems hella sad so Zeke asks, “You okay?”

“None of your fucking business,” she snaps, ringing up his total. “Sixty-three forty.”

“Sorry,” he says, writing a check. “Just popped out. Sorry.”

*

Home, he lets the dogs out of the van and waves to Maria and two-year-old Rosa in the vegetable garden. Maria and Rosa live in the studio with Maria’s husband Carlos, a checker at the grocery store who learned to surf from Zeke, Rosa a bank teller.

Mick and Ike trot to the edge of the apple orchard where they sniff the air and drink from the creek before returning to the house and sprawling on the deck in the sun.

Tina follows Zeke into the house and drinks from her water bowl in the kitchen while Zeke has a glass of water.

When Zeke goes into his study, Tina follows him, and Zeke realizes she wants to be petted. So he sits in his chair and gives her a thorough massage from head to tailbone, and she is one happy dog.

Zeke stands up to listen to the three messages on his answering machine.

The first message is from Clive at the community theatre. “Hey Zeke. No set building this afternoon. Sorry about that. Aaron has to have a root canal and he changed the design yet again. I’ll keep you posted. Ciao.”

The second message is from Lorraine at the Fouquet Gallery saying she sold two more big prints of Zeke’s photo of a humongous wave crashing against an enormous rock bearing an uncanny resemblance to a bust of Beethoven, so she needs a few more of those, and she’s sold out again of Zeke’s photo of a line of seventeen pelicans gliding inches above the ocean’s surface in the trough of a glassy wave glimmering in the sunlight, the wave just starting to curl at the top.

And the third message is from Jackie at Feed & Grain. “Hey Zeke. Sorry I was so rude to you. I just… my husband split a few months ago and I just got served with the divorce papers so… forgive me. See you around.”

Zeke smiles at the complex interweavings of simultaneity, winks at Tina, and calls Feed & Grain.

Jackie picks up midway through the first ring. “Hi Zeke. I was hoping you’d call.”

“And I,” says Zeke, shifting his weight to accommodate the vast momentum of connecting with her, “was hoping you were hoping I would.”

fin

Mystery Pastiche

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Rodin Driftwood

All the photographs in this article are of the same piece of redwood.

On the Spring Equinox the sunlight came down through the skylight at just the right angle to illuminate the large piece of driftwood that has been the centerpiece of my living room life since the spring of my first year in Mendocino fifteen years ago.

When I first moved here, I was wild about collecting rocks and pieces of driftwood, nearly all of which I have subsequently returned to the ocean. My first winter here was incredibly rainy. We got eighty inches of rain. The most we’ve gotten since then is forty inches, and this year we’ve gotten twenty-one. In any case, that year Big River was in constant flood and a whole section of Big River Beach was inaccessible for several months.

Then in early spring there came a big negative tide and I was determined to get to that previously inaccessible stretch of beach before too many other peeps beat me to the driftwood goodies we hoped would be waiting there.

I took my backpack with me, got down to the beach in the early morning, and waded through knee-high surf to get around a point of land jutting out into the bay to reach those happy hunting grounds. And as I came around the point to the unsullied beach, here before me, standing on the sand, was this piece of wood that looked from thirty feet away like a sculpture by Rodin. It was very heavy, and as I was wrestling it into my backpack, three other people with pack frames made it around the point to where I was.

One of the people, a woman wearing all black, her hair tied back in a ponytail, asked politely if she might see what I was stowing in my pack. So I got the Rodin out, and without missing a beat she offered me a hundred dollars for it. I said No thank you, and she said two hundred.

By the time I got the Rodin loaded into my pack again, there were several other prospectors scouring the little caves and inlets that had been receiving driftwood throughout the winter months. But I didn’t do any more hunting and carried my prize the mile back to my car.

And the funny thing is, once I got this piece home and situated on a living room table, I was done collecting driftwood forever. Oh occasionally I’ll see something I’m tempted to bring home, but the pieces I’d like to have are too big to lift, let alone carry.

This piece stands up without any other external support, and each orientation is equally beautiful.

Love’s Body

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Art Installation

dear max,

Today’s Max Portrait is one of my favorites in the series so far, for all sorts of reasons. Your focus in the moment illustrates what I’m aiming for in my daily work, really seeing what you’re doing, where you’re going. Careful strength and concentration. And the form of the photo, the composition is really nice, that side-lit Vermeerish effect, your large amorphous shadow, the calm physical act captured.

And your short-sleeved dress shirt and the task of carrying the large framed painting reminds me of my acquaintances Peter and Evan, guys I knew long ago who had the enviable jobs of hanging and lighting the shows at the local art museum, framing things in need of framing, and doing whatever each new show required. They got paid really well, had lots of time for each task, and they were forever buying new tools and equipment, the museum well endowed and then expanding wildly with the coming of big money to town. 

They always dressed nicely, casually nicely, and went about their business in a careful measured way. They took lots of breaks and were often “working” when I’d run into them at a favorite café. They were both artisans before landing their museum gigs, Evan a jeweler, Peter a woodworker. They were both so hip it sometimes made my teeth ache.

They would occasionally hire me to help with installations requiring an extra hand or when the work was beneath them. One time they hired me and another guy to assemble an installation I may have told you about, but I’ll briefly tell you again. It’s kind of a cool story.

So an artist had come up with this installation and made several kits that were doing the rounds of art museums all over America and the world. The installation was a big art museum hit because it gave museum visitors something neato to experience and talk about.

The kit made a rectangular plywood room sixteen-feet-long, twelve-feet-wide, and eight-feet-tall with a flat ceiling, the pieces of plywood screwed to a simple frame of two-by-fours. There was also a little anteroom, four-feet-long, four-feet-wide, and eight-feet-tall, the larger room accessed from the smaller room by going through a thick lightproof floor-to-ceiling curtain.

Once the room was assembled, we had to apply two layers of gray duct tape over all the seams between the pieces of plywood, inside and out. That was tiring work, and doing the ceiling seams was a killer.

When the box was done and all the seams sealed, a large triangle of plywood was placed in a corner of the room farthest from the entrance creating a small well behind it, and in the bottom of that well was placed a tiny light source so dim you could not see the light at all outside the room or even in the room until you had been in the room for at least fifteen minutes, and then, somehow, our eyes and brains, with just that miniscule light source, could see quite a lot in the otherwise pitch black room.

And that was the point of the box. People went in, experienced total darkness, and though encouraged by museum docents to sit down and stay a while, most people found the total darkness unnerving and got out pretty fast. But if you stayed for twenty minutes or longer, your sensory system adjusted and you could see other people quite clearly, not just their vague forms.

For the first seven to ten minutes you could see absolutely nothing. But if you stayed for a half-hour, you could see incredibly well. And then there was the experience of returning to the outside world, which, for several hours after being in the box, seemed almost too incredible, too full of fantastic parts. A seriously trippy experience.

Your nice shirt and your purposefulness with that framed canvas brought it all back to me.

Train of Thought

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Fifth Conversation With Emily

Emily, thirty-five, a marriage and family therapist, and her son Andre, twelve, live with Emily’s father Neal, sixty-seven, a community college English professor. On a lovely sunny day in May, Emily and Andre arrive home in the late afternoon and find Neal still dressed for work in suit and tie, sitting on the deck with Niko, a big friendly ten-year-old mutt. Andre comes out on the deck to greet his grandfather.

Andre: Hi Poppy. We didn’t think you’d be home yet. (sits in an adjoining deck chair) We got Chinese takeout to celebrate Mom’s big success and cheer me up. We got Kung Pao Chicken and Snow Peas with Black Mushrooms and Shrimp Chao Fun.

Neal: Sounds fabulous. What’s made you so blue?

Andre: We just had my interview at the Waldorf high school and they don’t want me.

Neal: Why not?

Andre: Well, it’s not entirely true to say they don’t want me, but they are adamant I can’t finish high school there unless I first go through Waldorf Eighth Grade and all four years of their high school.  

Neal: Because?

Andre: It’s a different system than public school. A different way of learning, and since I’m only twelve they would want me to become accustomed to the Waldorf ethos and have their entire high school experience which they say has nothing to do with how smart you are. It’s more about psychic and spiritual growth specific to my age, which actually sounds pretty good to me, but… I just want to be done with high school.

Emily: (coming out on the deck) I explained he’d been largely homeschooled and skipped four grades, but they were adamant he should do five years with them.

Andre: So I think I’m going to home school for another year, pass the high school equivalency exam, and then take classes at the community college. I can’t possibly survive another year at Woodbury High. It’s like a prison. The classes are idiotic, and Desmond and Caroline are my only friends, and we’re just a pod of little freaks there.

Neal: I’m sure you’re not just little freaks there. But this is momentous news. And it coincides with my news.

Emily: What’s your news?

Neal: (gets up) Before I tell you, and before you tell me about your great success, I’m going to change my clothes and have a beer. I got home five minutes before you and I’m still in the throes of wonderment.

Emily: I’ll get you a beer. You want anything Andre?

Andre: Yeah. I’ll have a beer, too.

Emily: How about some kombucha?

Andre: With a shot of Kahlua.

Emily: Stop.

Andre: (follows her into the house) In Ireland kids my age drink beer.

Emily: Yes, but we don’t live in Ireland.

Andre: We should move there. Or France. I’d love a glass of wine.

Emily: Fine. I’ll give you a little glass of wine.

Andre: (excited) Really?

Emily: Emphasis on little. As in tiny.

Andre: Oh my God. (shouting) Poppy! Mom is giving me a tiny glass of wine.

Neal: (from his bedroom down the hall) Excellent. Sip don’t gulp.

Andre: (to Emily) This is so exciting.

Emily: And it will not be a regular thing.

Andre: No, no, of course not. Absolutely never more than once a day.

Emily: We are speaking of the occasional ceremonial taste.

Andre: How exotic. Shall we burn some sage?

Neal: (arriving in sweatshirt and loose trousers) Yes. Let’s burn some sage to usher in the new era of our lives.

Emily: (handing Neal a beer) New era? Tell us more.

Neal: Well… Andre home schooling again and… (pauses momentously)

Emily: And?

Neal: Shall we return to the deck? Such a lovely day.

They carry drinks and an old ceramic bowl full of sage out onto the deck and set the bowl on the table. Andre lights the sage and passes his small glass of red wine through the smoke.

Andre: Blessings on the new era.

Emily: Tell us, Papa. The suspense is killing me.

Neal passes his bottle of beer through the sage smoke and takes a drink.

Neal: There is a very good possibility that five weeks from today I will teach my last class as a full-time professor at the community college, and possibly my last class ever.

Emily: (shocked) What? You just told me a few days ago you wanted to teach until you were seventy-two.

Neal: That was before Janet Escobar, the charming new president of the college, assembled the eleven members of the faculty who are over sixty-five and asked us to please retire now rather than later. Generous severance packages were offered, and save for Archie Fitzgerald who called Janet an ageist idiot, we all agreed to consider her offer.

Emily: Well… it is ageist.

Andre: And I was going to take your classes.

Neal: I suspected something like this was in the works when Janet took the helm. Nine of the eleven of us are long past meaningful functioning, and I knew the new administration was keen to youthify the faculty.

Andre: Youthify? Is that even an actual word?

Emily: No. But you know your grandfather loves to verbify nouns.

Neal: A noble calling. Verbification. A field of endeavor you might want to consider, Andre. Not lucrative, but deeply fulfilling.

Andre: So does this mean that someone resembling you will be free to be my homeschool teacher for the next year or so? And teach Desmond and Caroline, too, if they want to homeschool with me?

Neal: If I retire, yes.

Emily: Is Karen retiring?

Neal: Oh yeah. She’s thrilled. So are most of the others. And the more I think about it, the more appealing retirement sounds, though after the meeting, Janet took me aside and whispered, “But not you. Please. Not you.”

Emily: What’s that about? Does she fancy you? She’s a bit young for you, but she is a dish.

Neal: I agree about her dishness, but I seriously doubt she fancies me. No, she had to include me, and Diana, in the cattle call or it would have been a terrible insult to the others, asking them to retire but not me or Diana.

Andre: Who is Diana and what’s a cattle call?

Neal: Diana is the Drama department incarnate in a single ageless wonder, and a cattle call is a show biz term that refers to an audition open to everyone, not just a select few.

Emily: So that means you don’t have to quit if you don’t want to.

Neal: No one has to. But the offer is there and it’s a very good one. And I do grow weary of correcting essays written by people who spent twelve years in school yet still don’t know how to write complete sentences, let alone coherent paragraphs.

Andre: Why don’t they want older people teaching at the college?

Neal: Because they think most of us are out of touch with the nineteen and twenty-year-olds composing eighty per cent of our student body. And if you knew the nine teachers they want to get rid of, you would agree with their assessment.  

Emily: I’m stunned. I don’t know what to say.

Neal: Yeah, I know. It’s a shock. (to Andre) How do you like the wine?

Andre: The taste is dreadful, but I’m enjoying the… the… oh what’s the word? (giggles) I can’t think of it.

Neal: Buzz?

Emily: Are you dizzy?

Andre: No. I’m… everything seems to be kind of flowing together. The various separate things are not so distinct from each other as they were in my sobriety.

Emily: I think you’ve had enough.

Andre: Oh come on, Mom. I’ve only got another sixteenth of an inch to drink. But I see why they say don’t drink and drive. I wouldn’t want to ride my bicycle feeling like this, let alone drive a car. I do see the appeal though. Certainly smooths the rough edges.

Emily: Listen to you. What rough edges do you have?

Andre: What do you mean? I’m a twelve-year-old about to enter my senior year of high school. I’m surrounded by giant goons who push me around whenever the fancy takes them, and gorgeous young women who think I’m adorable or invisible or merely freakish. I hate school and school takes up most of my life. Is that enough rough edges for you?

Emily: I’m sorry, dear. I really am. We should have had you in Waldorf from the get go but we didn’t have the money then. And now we have the money and they want you for five years.

Neal: Well then I’ve decided. I’m retiring from the community college and will henceforth be your teacher until further notice.

Andre: Great! This is the happiest day of my life.

Neal: Mine, too. I was sick of teaching there.

Emily: You weren’t sick of teaching there when you went off to work this morning whistling a happy tune.

Neal: I felt safe teaching there. I was afraid not to be teaching there.

Emily: (going inside) I’m gonna set the table. I’m starving.

Andre: (to Neal) But first we’ll have the summer off. Right? We’ll start our formal studies in the fall.

Neal: The truth is, Andre, you could pass the equivalency exam now. You could have passed it two years ago. So what is it you formally want to study?

Andre: Desmond and Caroline and I are all keen on Music, Literature, and Cuisine. And Frisbee. And Geography. And Cinema. And Biology and Astronomy and Anthropology and Theatre, of course.

Neal: We shall ponder the possibilities and create a curriculum including Mendelssohn, Miles Davis, Dickens, Wharton, Kazantzakis, Shakespeare, and Larousse Gastronomique as cornerstones of your educational edifice.

Andre: Sounds wonderful, Poppy. But for now… I don’t feel very well. Is that the wine?

Neal: Yes. That is your body wanting water. Alcohol dehydrates. Go have a big glass of water and then we’ll take you-know-who for his you-know-what.

Niko perks up, suspecting a walk is in the offing. Andre goes inside to get a drink of water and Neal has a little cry before he joins Emily and Andre in the kitchen.

Emily: (to Andre) Feel better?

Andre: (belching) Now I do.

Emily: Charming. (to Neal) You’re sure you want to quit, Papa?

Neal: I’m sure.

Emily: Well then I’m glad. If anyone deserves a nice severance package, you do.

Neal: Maybe I’ll take us all to England.

Andre: To Ireland where I can legally drink beer! And then drink lots of water.

Emily: Sounds wonderful.

Neal: But first I must gird my loins for another five weeks of labor at the place where I have toiled for thirty-seven years. Astounding but true.

Andre: Three times my age and a year.

Neal: Shall we walk?

Andre: We shall. You coming Mom?

Emily: I want to, but I’m starving.

Andre: Eat a handful of nuts. That’s what you always say to me.

Emily: Good idea.

Emily has a handful of nuts and they go for a walk, Andre holding Niko’s leash as they stroll along.

Neal: And now my darling daughter, tell us of your great success.

Emily: Well two things happened today that made me glad I became a therapist, not that I wasn’t already glad, but there are days and weeks, as you know, when I’m not sure I’m doing anybody much good.

Andre: But not today.

Emily. No, not today because one of my clients told me she has finally ended the abusive relationship she’s been in for eleven years, and she said she could never have done it without me. She was radiant and happier than I’ve ever known her to be.

Neal: Bravo! That outshines my news by a mile.

Andre: And that’s not all.

Neal: There’s more?

Emily: There is. A couple I’ve been counseling for two years who came to me unable to speak to each other and about to be divorced, asked me today if I would come to their remarriage ceremony.

Neal: That’s fantastic. (gives Emily a hug) I’m so proud of you.

Emily: I never thought they’d stay together, let alone fall in love again. But they really have. They just love each other now.

Andre: How did you do it, Mom?

Emily: After our first session, during which they almost killed each other, I saw them separately for several months, then together and separately for several more months, and then together for the last four months. And they both learned to talk about their feelings and really listen to each other, and they stopped comparing themselves to each other and to other couples, and they really got to know each other and like each other, and they fell in love again.

Andre: Wow. Maybe I’ll become a therapist.

Emily: I thought you wanted to be an actor.

Andre: I do. Caroline and Desmond and I are going to have a theatre company and be a famous team of movie stars. We’ll write and direct our own movies and plays, and I’ll be a therapist.

Neal: Good idea. Why limit yourself to just one occupation?

Andre: We also want to have an organic avocado farm and a café featuring entrees from around the world.

Emily: Oh to be so young again.

Neal: Wouldn’t it be just grand.

Emily: To think the world has no limits.

Neal: And start a rock n’ roll band.

Andre: And now that I’m done with high school…

Neal: Who knows what you might do?

Emily: We only know that when we get home…

Andre: We’re having Chinese food.

fin

What You Do In Ireland

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Fourth Conversation With Emily

A warm sunny day at the beach, Neal, sixty-four, a community college English professor, is sitting on a big beach blanket with his daughter Emily, thirty-two, a marriage and family therapist. Emily’s son Andre and Andre’s friend Joshua, both nine, are in the distance, playing Frisbee at the water’s edge.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: No, I don’t think so. They’ve even provided us with puffy white storybook clouds.

Neal: How are you doing in the aftermath?

Emily: I’m okay. A little depressed. Find myself saying less to my clients these days, allowing the silence to speak for me. What do I know about relationships? I know how to start them, but sustaining them is a mystery to me.

Neal: I don’t think sustaining your relationship with Michael had anything to do with you, except that you chose to be in a relationship with someone who had no experience of sustaining any emotional connection to another person until you came along and showed him how.

Emily: Which begs the question: why did I choose to pursue a relationship with someone like Michael?

Neal: Because he’s a wonderful person and you wanted to get close to him. Most of your two years together were fine. Don’t you think?

Emily: Except he was never comfortable with Andre or you, and that always made me uneasy. I kept thinking he’d eventually relax around you, but he never did. He was only comfortable when we were alone, which was wonderful, but I have a son and a father and friends, and he found the inclusion of anyone else overwhelming. He only wanted it to be the two of us.  

Neal: I’m sorry, dear. I hope you don’t think it was all for naught.

Emily: No, I loved being in love and being loved. It was a big healing for me. I’m just sad about not seeing him anymore, though I know it’s for the best.

Neal: I’m sure I’ve told you about Rosalie, but your two years with Michael reminds me of my three years with her, without which I would not have been prepared to sustain a relationship with your mother.

Emily: You’ve mentioned Rosalie, but you never told me you were with her for three years.

Neal: Shall I tell you about her?

Emily: If you want to, I’d love to hear.

Neal: So… other than a high school romance that never went beyond smooching and a brief college fling during which I lost my virginity but learned little about sex, I was at twenty-seven completely inexperienced in the ways of love. I was teaching English at a private high school while slaving away on my doctoral thesis exploring the complete works of Nikos Kazantzakis, and sharing an apartment with an ever-changing cast of male characters, most of them graduate students. And then Will Ciardi moved in, we became fast friends, and I became a regular at the pub where Will was a bartender and Rosalie was a waitress.

Emily: And she took you in hand.

Neal: Indeed she did. Rosalie was the most straightforward person I have ever known. The night Will introduced us, Rosalie looked me up and down and said, “Are you involved with anybody?” And when I said No, she said, “Quelle coïncidence. Nor am I. Why not ask me out?”

Emily: But you didn’t because you were too shy.

Neal: No, I did. Right then. And she smiled and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Emily: Where did you go on your first date?

Neal: An Italian restaurant. We shared a bottle of wine, went to her apartment, and didn’t leave for two days.

Emily: Papa. I’m shocked. You never told me that. And then you were with her for three years.

Neal: Three wonderful years. During which time she helped me complete my thesis, we went to Europe twice for two months each time, and I was blissfully happy and she was happy, too.

Emily: Did you want to marry her?  

Neal: More than anything. And she wanted to marry me.

Emily: So what happened?

Neal: I met your mother. Or I should say… your mother arrived.

Emily: You left Rosalie for Mama?

Neal: Yes.

Emily: Was Rosalie crushed?

Neal: Devastated.

Emily: You never told me this.

Neal: And I’m still ashamed for hurting her as I did.

Emily: But you loved Mama more.

Neal: Yes and no.

Emily: How no?

Neal: Your mother was a beautiful powerful alluring woman. We met on my first day of teaching at the college where I teach to this day, and by the time I woke from my bedazzlement, I had left Rosalie and there was no going back, though I wanted to.

Emily: You mean after you and Mama were married?

Neal: Long before we were married.

Emily: Oh Papa, why didn’t you ever tell me this?

Neal: I never had a reason to.

Emily: What’s your reason now?

Neal: I’m not sure. I just had the feeling it might help you.

Emily: It does. Because I’ll always remember the good lessons of loving Michael and being loved by him.

Neal: There. That’s why I told you about Rosalie. Because I remembered the good lessons of loving her and being loved by her, and those lessons made it possible for me to have a good relationship with your mother for as long as it lasted.

Emily: Life can be so sad.

Neal: Sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. Ever changing.

Emily: Speaking of which, how are things going with Karen?

Neal: Fine.

Emily: Do you think if Andre and I didn’t live with you, you’d ask Karen to marry you?

Neal: I am sure I would not.

Emily: Why not?

Neal: Because save for a fortuitous affinity in the sack, we are different as two people from the same society could be.

Emily: How so?

Neal: She’s a compulsive neatnik. Every object on every surface in her house is arranged just so, as if the rooms are soon be photographed for a spread in Architectural Digest. My surfaces, as you know, are otherwise. Her politics are distinctly right of center, mine are far to the left. She is obsessed with her appearance and spends lots of time and money trying to beat back the hands of time, whereas I have only a vague notion of what I look like from one day to the next and don’t give a hoot about getting old. I love dogs and cats; she finds them annoying. I am a gardener and a cook; she abhors dirt and would rather eat at a swank restaurant than eat anything I cook. I like classical music and jazz, she has her radio ever tuned to easy listening elevator music that makes my teeth ache. And so forth.

Emily: Don’t you ever long for something more in the way of a relationship?

Neal: In the absence of you and Andre, I suppose I might. But in the meantime, Karen is a lovely person to be with now and then, and she seems to feel the same way about me.

Emily: Do you ever wonder what happened to Rosalie?

Neal: Often. But I know the last thing she would want is to hear from me again, so I do not seek her out.

Emily: How do you know she wouldn’t want to hear from you again?

Neal: Because I know how much I hurt her. And the last thing I would ever want to do is remind her of my terrible betrayal of our love.

Andre and Joshua return from the edge of the sea and flop down on the beach blanket.

Andre: Mom? Can we have our dessert now?

Emily: Yes you may.

Emily opens the little ice chest and brings forth two ice cream bars for the boys.

Emily: You want one, Papa?

Neal: No gracias. But might there be a beer in there?

Emily: You know there is.

Emily opens the bottle of beer and hands it to Neal, then gets herself an ice cream bar.

Neal: How went the flinging of the disk?

Andre: Fun. Kind of windy. But fun.

Joshua: I’m not very good at it. Andre is, but I’m not.

Andre: You’re quite good, Josh, especially when you don’t have to throw into the wind. Once we got our positioning right, you were great.

Joshua: I’m not a very good athlete.

Neal: Looked good to me.

Joshua: My dad says I’m a klutz.

Andre: You’re not a klutz. You just need practice. I’ve been playing Frisbee since I was a small child. That’s the only reason I’m so good at it.

Joshua: (to Emily) Is there any more of those ice cream bars?

Emily: One more. You two want to share it?

Andre: That’s okay. I’m pretty full. You can have it, Josh.

Joshua: (taking the ice cream bar from Emily) Thanks.

Silence falls.

Neal: So… any travel plans for the summer, Joshua?

Joshua: I think we might go to Lake Tahoe.

Emily: That sounds fun.

Joshua: Not really. I mostly stay in the motel room while my mom and dad go gambling. But maybe we’ll go water skiing.

Emily: Water skiing sounds exciting.

Joshua: Yeah. Do you have any Coke?

Emily: Lemonade.

Joshua: Never mind.

Joshua gets out his phone and starts playing a video game.

Neal: I think I’ll go for a swim. Anybody want to join me?

Andre: (jumping up) I do. You wanna jump in Josh?

Joshua: No. It’s too cold.

Neal: You coming, Em?

Emily: No, I’m gonna stay here and keep Joshua company.

Joshua: You don’t have to.

Emily: I want to.

Neal and Andre head for the water. Emily gets out a book and starts to read.

Joshua: What are you reading?

Emily: These are case studies of people in therapy and how therapy helps them.

Joshua: What’s therapy?

Emily: Therapy is when someone goes to a counselor or a psychologist for help with an emotional problem they’re having. Did you know I’m a counselor?

Joshua: Yeah, Andre told me. You mean like for depression?

Emily: Yes.

Joshua: My mom takes meds for depression.

Emily: Yes, she told me.

Joshua: Are you on meds?

Emily: No. But I have some clients who are on meds.

Joshua: What is a med anyway? Like a vitamin?

Emily: It’s medicine that helps people with chemical imbalances that make them anxious or depressed.

Joshua: What is depression anyway?

Emily: It’s a kind of persistent sadness that makes a person feel exhausted.

Joshua: What’s persistent?

Emily: Persistent means it won’t go away.

Joshua: Oh.

Emily: You know how sometimes we’ll be sad, but then the sadness goes away and we’re not sad anymore. But if the sadness won’t go away, we say it persists.

Joshua: I’m sad some of the time. But not all the time.

Emily: There’s nothing wrong with being sad some of the time. It’s a natural feeling. Everyone is sad some of the time.

Joshua: I’ll be sad when Andre skips two grades. I don’t really have any other friends.

Emily: Well you’ll still be friends with Andre even though he’s in a different grade.

Joshua: Probably not. He’s too smart for me anyway.

Emily: Oh come on. You’re just as smart as he is. Just in different ways.

Joshua: I’m better at video games, but that’s only because he doesn’t get to do it very much because he doesn’t have a phone.

Emily: Not yet.

Joshua: Hey how come you guys don’t even have a television?

Emily: I never had one when I was growing up because my father didn’t want one. He finds them annoying. So I never got in the habit of watching television and never wanted one.

Joshua: Oh.

Joshua resumes playing a video game on his phone.

Emily: What game are you playing?

Joshua: Fight To the Death. It’s the main one kids play now.

Emily: What happens in the game?

Joshua: Well… you’re going through this multiverse and these aliens and cyborgs and monsters are attacking you and you have to kill them before they kill you. And your powers change when you enter a new universe. Stuff like that.

Emily: You have different kinds of power?

Joshua: Yeah, different ways to kill them and dodge them and get past them.

Emily: Like what kinds of power do you have?

Joshua: You have lasers and lightning bolts and stunners and you can fly at different speeds and make yourself invisible. And you have shields and you can morph into different things. Stuff like that.

Emily: How do you win?

Joshua: You just go as far as you can and try to beat your best score.

Emily: You never come to the end?

Joshua: No. There is no end. You just try to get your highest score.

Emily: I see.

Joshua: Do you think it’s stupid?

Emily: No.

Joshua: Then how come you won’t get Andre a phone?

Emily: I don’t want him to have a phone yet.

Joshua: Why not?

Emily: I want him to learn other things first before he has a phone.

Joshua: Like what other things? He’s already smarter than all the other kids. Even if he skips two grades he’ll be smarter than all the other kids. And if he had a phone, then I could text him and he could text me any time we wanted. What’s wrong with that?

Emily: Nothing is wrong with that. I just want him to experience life without a phone for a few more years.

Joshua: But what if he gets depressed because he doesn’t have a phone and everybody else does? Wouldn’t it be better for him to have a phone than be on meds?

Emily: Yes, it would.

Emily stands up to give the returning swimmers beach towels.

Andre: The water was freezing!

Neal: But it felt fantastic!

They take the towels from Emily and dry themselves.

Andre: And now I’m starving.

Joshua: Me, too.

Neal: Let’s go for pizza.

Joshua: (puts his phone away) Now we’re talkin’.

fin

Broke My Heart