“Diana returns,” says Justin Oglethorpe, the longtime bartender of Big Goose, standing behind the bar of that most popular pub in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, his ability to remember names and the people attached to those names legendary.
“And you are… Justin?” says Diana, tall and pretty with long auburn hair going gray, everything about her suggesting she once was a dancer.
“Well-remembered,” says Justin, who is fifty-two, a muscular six-feet-six, with curly carrot red hair. “Chef and her accomplices are even as we speak making a new batch of the clam chowder you so enjoyed. How about a half-pint of something while you wait for the soup to be ready?”
“I don’t drink,” says Diana, her voice deep, her accent hinting of Texas. “I did love the soup, but today I’m here about the Help Wanted sign on the front door.”
“We just put that up a minute ago,” says Justin, who has a good feeling about Diana but wonders if she might be a bit somber for the job. “We need a wait person, as waiters are called these days, and from your manner I deduce you have experience in the field.”
“You got that right,” she says, nodding. “But before we go through the rigmarole, what’s the pay?”
“Twenty an hour to start and we pool tips,” says Justin, sensing her keen desperation. “You’ll make about twenty-five an hour and if you stay with us for more than three months you’ll get good medical and the hourly goes up a bit. We want somebody from three to eleven weekdays, four to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and the occasional morning shift. We yearn for flexibility in our employees.”
“Are you the manager?” she asks, deadpan.
“Co,” he says, nodding. “With my wife. We’re the new co-owners, too. And just between you and me and anybody else who wants to know, we’re a bit overwhelmed right now. Can you come in tomorrow when my wife is here? ”
Diana nods. “What time?”
“9:30 in the morning,” he says, turning to Angelica Rodriguez as she emerges from the kitchen, the diminutive chef bearing a bowl of clam chowder.
“Tell me,” she says in Spanish, handing the bowl and a spoon to Justin.
He has a taste and says “Me gusta mucho.” Now he hands the bowl and a clean spoon to Diana.
She tastes the soup and her eyelids flutter with pleasure. “That is one delicious soup,” she says to Angelica in fluent Spanish. “I might add a little salt, but that’s just me liking things salty.”
Angelica replies in Spanish, “I agree with you, but because some people don’t like any salt we make it this way and have saltshakers on the tables.”
Diana has another spoonful of the soup, now another, hands the bowl back to Justin and says, “I’ll be here at 9:30 tomorrow morning.”
Walking away from Big Goose, the December afternoon drizzly and cold, Diana wonders how she’s going to survive until tomorrow morning without begging, and she really doesn’t want to beg in Mercy because she hopes to live here and doesn’t want people to know she’s homeless.
She’s been living in her van for three years now – her old dark green Volkswagen van currently parked near the post office and almost out of gas. She’ll have to park somewhere away from town when darkness falls because at night a sheriff patrols the streets of Mercy looking for vagabond vehicles such as hers. Until she had those three spoonsful of Angelica’s clam chowder, she hadn’t eaten in two days. Her quest for a job here has proved fruitless until now and she’s down to twenty-two cents and her great grandmother’s wedding ring, which she is loath to part with.
“But maybe I finally have to,” she says, stopping in front of Darby’s Antiques, the windows fogged up, someone clanking around inside the dimly lit shop. “I want to live here. I’m tired of running.”
She closes her eyes hoping for inspiration, and when she opens her eyes sees a poster in the window advertising a poetry reading at the bookstore tonight featuring Helen Morningstar and Tommy Matsukado.
“Helen Morningstar?” she says, wrinkling her nose at the poster. “Can’t be the same Helen Morningstar I read like a nun reads her Bible. Not here in the middle of nowhere.”
Curious to see if the Helen Morningstar named on the poster could possibly be the same Helen Morningstar she’s long admired, Diana opens the door of the old shop and steps inside – the place pleasantly warm, the air redolent with the smell of coffee brewing.
A portly fellow with spiky gray hair wearing blue jeans and a red plaid shirt is bending down to add a log to the fire in a little woodstove on a brick hearth abutting the south-facing wall – the store crammed to the rafters with antique furniture and lamps and ceramics and racks of vintage clothing and shelves of old books, everything stacked so close together there’s hardly any open space except a narrow aisle leading from the front door to the counter at the back of the store, and from the counter to the woodstove.
The portly fellow stands up straight, gazes raptly at Diana, and says with a mild Irish accent, “I was only just now hoping someone would come in and keep me company. Welcome.”
“Hello,” she says, mustering a tired smile. “I saw the poster in your window for the poetry reading and I’m wondering… do you know if the Helen Morningstar reading at the bookstore tonight is the same Helen Morningstar who wrote Inevitable Impossible and Dog-Eared Love?”
“She is, indeed,” says the fellow, smiling warmly. “One of our local brilliants. Come from afar, have you?”
“Yes,” she says, looking around for a place to sit down before she keels over. “Hoping to move here if I can find a job.”
“Not many jobs right now,” says the fellow, shaking his head. “We go into quasi-hibernation here until the tourists come back in the spring, though we sometimes have a little outburst around Christmas, depending on the weather. I’m Darby, by the way. Would you care for some coffee and a cookie? Oatmeal raisin fresh from the ovens of Café Brava. My coffee is fine Columbian. I brew it strong, but I’ve got cream for the faint of heart.”
“I’d love some,” says Diana, looking again for a place to sit.
“Stupid man,” mutters Darby, moving a pile of ancient children’s books off an old embroidered chair. “Please. Have a seat. Take your coat off. The coffee is just now attaining fruition.”
Saved by the oatmeal cookie and two cups of coffee, mostly cream, and having made a date to sit with Darby at the poetry reading this evening, Diana gets back to her van just as darkness and heavy rain begin to fall. She sets her alarm for 6:30, the poetry reading to begin at 7:30, sheds her heavy wool coat, lies down on her old foam pad, pulls the down comforter over her, and falls asleep to rain drumming on the roof.
As she often does, she dreams of her life before she became homeless – her sister Karen and she born a year apart and raised by their single mom in a small town in Texas, volleyball stars in high school, dance majors at Kansas State, Karen killed in a car accident mid-twenties and Diana went to New York and became a chorus girl, moved to Las Vegas and danced in big shows, married a handsome wannabe who stayed with her for a year until she broke her ankle in a bad fall and lost her place in the show biz hierarchy, and when she finally got back to full strength at thirty-four she was too old to land a dancing gig so she waitressed for years and years in Vegas Reno New Orleans Miami Tampa Bay Austin Santa Fe Phoenix LA until she was felled by a mysterious illness and spiraled into homelessness.
Waking to her alarm, she peers out her windows into the night – the spotlights on the outside walls of the post office illuminating empty parking places.
She changes out of her jeans and T-shirt and sweater and puts on her one good blouse, a purple beauty, and a long gray skirt. She only has her beat up running shoes, and her heavy wool coat is her only coat, so that is her ensemble.
She brushes her hair, applies a coat of faint pink lipstick, and is about to start her engine when someone raps on her window and shines a flashlight in at her – the sheriff’s deputy on his early evening rounds.
“Hello,” she says, rolling down her window.
“May I see your driver’s license, please?” says the deputy, an affable middle-aged guy, his hat not quite big enough for his large round head.
Diana gets her license out of her purse and hands it to him.
“Los Angeles,” he says, pronouncing Angeles angle-ease. “Long way from home. We moved up here from Fresno seven years ago, my sister and I. Where you staying, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m hoping to relocate here,” she says, dodging the question. “Going to the poetry reading at the bookstore with Darby tonight and interviewing for a job at Big Goose tomorrow morning.”
He hands her back her license and says, “One-one-four-two Comfrey Lane. You good at remembering numbers?”
“Yes,” she says, praying he doesn’t proposition her. “Why do you ask?”
“Because if you go two blocks that way to one-one-four-two Comfrey Lane,” he says, pointing to the west, “you can park in our driveway. Turk and Emily. I’m Turk. Emily’s my sister. Otherwise Mario might give you a ticket or bust you. He’s on duty midnight to eight. Probably won’t bother you, but he might. One-one-four-two. Have a good evening.”
Diana holds absolutely still until Turk drives away, and when her heart stops pounding she starts her engine and says, “Either my luck is finally changing or this is another mirage.”
Raining hard, the town seemingly deserted save for action at the three pubs, Diana has her pick of parking places close to the bookstore and barely gets wet hurrying into Crow’s Nest Books at 7:15, the cheerful store decorated for Christmas.
Ramona the owner/manager in a red dress embroidered with big white snow flakes is presiding over a table laden with glasses of wine and sparkling cider and enormous platters of cheeses, crackers, prawns, celery sticks, cookies, and mini-pumpkin pies.
“Welcome,” says Ramona, greeting Diana with an open-armed gesture. “Thank you so much for braving the storm.”
“Beautiful store,” says Diana, telling herself to wait a moment before attacking the prawns, her body desperate for protein. “And look at this spread. I’ve been to lots of poetry readings and never saw a feast like this one.”
“Hungry?” asks Ramona, nodding hopefully. “Please. Help yourself and take lots. We were expecting a big crowd, Tommy being so famous, but with weather like this… well, you’re here so maybe others will come.”
“And I’m here,” says Darby, coming in from the downpour. “Let’s eat.”
Well-fed for the first time in eons, Diana sits with Darby in the third row of five, eight folding chairs in each row – she and Darby the only people here besides Ramona standing at the door gazing forlornly into the night and the two poets sitting in the front row.
By 7:45 another dozen people have arrived, and by 7:55 there are seventeen folks on hand.
At 8:00 on the nose, Ramona steps up to the microphone and says in her easygoing way, “The poets have decided Tommy Matsukado will read first, though Helen said it has long been her dream to open for Tommy, who, as I’m sure you all know, is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and just published his fifth volume of poetry Dog Saves Man, but Tommy said it has long been his dream to open for Helen, so without further ado, here is Tommy Matsukado.”
Tommy, a short sturdy man wearing black-framed glasses and a beautiful burgundy shirt, his long black hair in a ponytail, steps up to the microphone and says, “You probably wouldn’t guess by looking at me that my mother is French and a statuesque redhead. You probably thought I was pure Japanese, right? Imagine me with short gray hair and you’ve got my father. So no wonder I became a comedian.” He holds for laughs.
“Unfortunately, I got mired in routines about ethnicity. Seriously. Sadly. Truly. We humans make such a big deal about ethnicity. And I did, too. For years I’d only date white women, and then for years I would only date Japanese women, and then for years only half-Japanese, half-white women.” He holds for more laughter.
“I was making pretty good money, but my life sucked. Truly. Then one night when I was living in LA and hoping to get cast as ‘the Asian guy’ in a sit-com, I was in a bookstore desperate for something good to read. When I hit on the half-Japanese half-white woman who worked there, she sold me Helen’s book Inevitable Impossible and I took it back to my apartment and read it cover-to-cover three times and had a revelation. I’m talking about a spiritual awakening. Truly. You think I’m being funny, but this is no joke. I loved Helen’s poems more than anything I’d ever read. And besides the gorgeous flow of words and her ruthless honesty, the thing I loved most about her poems was how they transcended race and gender and went deep into the heart of being human. She could have been an old white guy or a young lesbian or… me. Yeah. She could have been half-Japanese and half-French. So here is my revelation. It doesn’t matter who the poet is. What matters is the poetry. And that’s when I decided to become Helen. Only I’m a Japanese Frenchman and she’s a Pomo Mexican woman, but you get what I mean. And that’s why I’m opening for her and not the other way around.”
He opens Dog Saves Man and reads the title poem.
Stray dog saves man by grabbing man’s pants leg before man
steps off unseen cliff in fog. Grateful man takes dog home,
feeds dog, gives dog warm place to sleep, dog feels trapped
and escapes first chance he gets. Man falls madly in love with
woman who loves him madly, too, so long as she can have
affairs with men she doesn’t love. Man finds out about her
affairs and confronts her and she promises not to sleep with
other men, but she can’t help herself. Eventually the man
ends the relationship and is in therapy for years before he
gets up the nerve to try again, this time with a woman so
fiercely possessive of him he feels suffocated by her but does
not end the relationship because he is terrified of being alone.
During the intermission, Ramona announces that anyone wishing to read a poem at the end of the show should sign up now, and two people sign up, one of them Diana.
When the long intermission is over, Helen steps to the microphone and says, “Before I read, I need to gush a little about Tommy. We’re a long way from anywhere as you know, yet Tommy made the long trek from San Francisco at his own expense to read with me, which makes me feel like I won the Pulitzer.” She waits for the applause for Tommy to die down before she opens her newest collection Inexhaustible Transformations and reads the title poem.
First a reminder: the sun has never risen. The sun
is just there and the earth spins us into daylight and
spins us into darkness and has done so for billions of
years. Why do you (and I, it’s true) persist in saying
the sun rises and sets? Sets where? On a table we
can’t see below the horizon? Rises out of the mouth
of a giant frog hiding in the darkness?
Next: Please refrain from saying, ‘I know how you feel.’
You do not know how I feel. I think what’s happening
Is you feel something about what I have attempted to
explain to you in words and you mistake what you
feel about those words for my feelings. I do the same
thing. I’m not criticizing you, just making a request.
Finally: we can change. We do change. We are change.
Much of the dust in our house is our former skin. For
years I avoided going down a particular street in our
neighborhood because the one time I ever walked down
that street a big terrifying dog came rushing out of his
yard with teeth bared and murder in his eyes, I thought,
and he only didn’t bite me, I thought, because his owner,
a horrid man with a big stomach wearing no shirt and
drunk, I thought, yelled at the dog, “Get back here, Coffee,”
and yesterday I was on my knees in my front yard pulling
weeds when someone gently nuzzled my arm and I gasped
when I saw it was Coffee wanting me to pet her and she
was not terrifying and very possibly the sweetest dog in
the universe and the horrid man was standing on the
sidewalk wearing a shirt and smiling like a sunrise and
being the opposite of horrid when he said, “She’s all
love,” right before Coffee took a huge dump just a few
feet away from me and I waited to see if the man would
pick up her shit and I’m happy to tell you he did and
now I walk down their street almost every day and
on those rare days when Coffee doesn’t come out to
get some love from me and vice-versa, I’m disappointed
because I want love. Need love. And she’s all love.
“Hi,” says Diana, shaking like a leaf as she steps up to the microphone and opens her notebook. “This is called Easy.”
I had a lover for a while, sweet guy I picked up
in Tucson we were both starving for a warm body
to hold, someone who wouldn’t hurt us and we were
good that way for each other, wouldn’t say I loved him
or he loved me, but we were kind to each other which
is really just as good as love and might even be what
love is and I wanted to go to Sedona and hide on a farm
and he wanted to go to LA and try to sell a song, so we
went to that giant crazy place – ever been there? – and
he wanted to stay and I couldn’t because I lived there
before and my enemies never forgot me. Sweet guy said
‘Once I sell my song we’ll be on Easy Street.’ We were
camping in a garage in Studio City and I drove away
when sweet guy walked down the street to get Chinese
takeout and three hours later a hundred and fifty miles
north just breaking free of the gravity of that giant
crazy place I forgot all about him easy as pie.
After the reading, Tommy and Helen sign copies of their books, and Diana asks Helen to sign her dog-eared copies of Inevitable Impossible and Dog-Eared Love.
“I’m gonna get your other books,” says Diana, holding her breath as she watches Helen sign the books, “only I’m currently a little short on cash. I read your books like a nun reads her Bible. Over and over again and I always find something to inspire me. As if you couldn’t tell from my poem.”
Helen hands Diana the signed books and says, “I loved your poem. I wish I’d written it. And you read so beautifully. Gave me the chills. I want to give you a copy of my new book.”
“Oh no. I’ll buy it when I can,” says Diana, starting to cry.
“Please,” says Helen, smiling at Diana. “There’s nothing in the world I want more than for you to have my poems.”
“Now I’m too happy,” says Diana, tears running down her cheeks. “Joy before disaster.”
“Don’t say that,” says Helen, signing a brand new copy of Inexhaustible Transformations. “You’re on a roll, Diana. A really good roll.”
Imagine Diana’s surprise the next morning when she goes for her job interview at Big Goose and Justin’s wife and co-manager turns out to be Helen Morningstar.
Six months later on a warm Saturday night in May, Diana in a turquoise Big Goose sweatshirt and black jeans, her hair in two braids, leaves a tray of empty glasses at the kitchen end of the bar for the dishwasher and sings to Justin, “Two pints of Guinness. Two pints of Scrimshaw. And two pints of Mercy Porter, por favor.”
“Shall I have a word with that grab-ass playing darts?” asks Justin, swiftly filling the order.
“No need,” says Diana, surveying the busy pub and feeling as good as she has ever felt. “He’s just another lost soul crying out for love the only way he knows how.”
“You sure?” asks Justin, who is very protective of his employees, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when things tend to get rowdy.
“I’m sure,” she says, winking at him and lifting the heavy tray with ease.
Why Now? (a poem with piano music)