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Frisson

“Something extraordinary happened to me today,” says Delilah, twenty-six and strikingly beautiful with dark brown hair cut very short, housemate of Celia and Nathan for thirteen years now. “Of course being at Ziggurat Farm is inherently extraordinary, but today…”

Nathan, eighty-five, and Celia, seventy-nine, are sitting with Delilah in the living room of their small two-bedroom house on the eastern edge of the northern California coastal town of Mercy. Thanksgiving is four days away, a fire is blazing in the hearth, and their tummies are full of rock cod tacos and garlic potatoes and a big green salad.

“Earth to Delilah,” says Nathan, unused to seeing Delilah drift away in the middle of a sentence. “You were saying? But today?”

“Oh,” says Delilah, blushing upon her return to the present. “Today I met Thomas Darling. He arrived at the end of Drawing class, and the frisson between us was…” She muses for a moment without drifting away again. “The closest thing to what I experienced with him was when I first met you two, the feeling of…” She searches for the right word. “Recognition. Profound recognition. Only this time…” Her blush deepens. “There was a sexual component to the energy mix.”

“Is he handsome like his brother Michael,” asks Celia, referring to Michael who lives with his wife Daisy and their baby Jenna in the house adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from Mercy.

“I’m not sure,” says Delilah, sighing. “Every time I looked at him he was bathed in golden light, so who knows what he actually looks like.”

“Did he recognize you?” asks Celia, hoping Thomas saw more in Delilah than her physical beauty.

“He must have,” says Delilah, nodding, “or I don’t think I would have recognized him. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Celia, looking at Nathan and recalling the first time they met fifty-four years ago. “That’s how it was when I met this guy. I could tell he was really seeing me and not just looking at my breasts, so then I could really see him.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” says Nathan, returning Celia’s gaze, “but wasn’t there a bit of frisson between us, too?”

“Let’s not rush things,” says Delilah, getting up to put a kettle on for tea. “For all I know he’s living with someone back in Ithaca and thought I had nice boobs and didn’t recognize me at all.”

“He’ll have to move out here,” says Nathan, gruffly. “Too cold for us in Ithaca and we insist on helping with the children.”

“Stop,” says Delilah, laughing.

“She thinks I’m kidding,” says Nathan, winking at Celia.

“Bastante marido,” says Celia, pointing at him. “Let her have a crush and see where it goes.”

“I apologize, D,” says Nathan, grinning at Delilah. “You know me.”

*

Delilah is not a virgin. When she was twenty-two, she and her close friend Josh, who was also twenty-two, decided to learn how to have sex before they got any older. They felt their ignorance in this regard was becoming an obstacle to future happiness, so despite Delilah not being sexually attracted to Josh, they endeavored to have sex on three different occasions over the course of two weeks.

For their first try, they consulted a book illustrated with glossy black-and-white photographs of a man and a woman engaging in foreplay and then coupling in a variety of ways. They giggled nervously while looking at the pictures, disrobed, and after brief and wholly unsatisfying foreplay, Josh failed three times to successfully deploy a condom before finally managing to sheath himself. They then awkwardly assumed the missionary position, closed their eyes, Josh was way off target, so to speak, and consequently berated himself with shockingly foul language that put the kibosh on their continuing.

The second time they tried, they got stoned, took things slower, engaged in some satisfactory petting, and managed to couple ever so briefly in the missionary position before Josh orgasmed, withdrew, and fled.

Before they tried again, Delilah had a lengthy and enlightening coaching session with Lisa, Delilah’s dear friend at Ziggurat Farm—Lisa a massage therapist, mother, and sexually savvy.

Thus educated, Delilah took charge of her third session with Josh, expertly deployed the condom, positioned Josh in the proper position, and guided him inside her. And though Josh came a moment after entering her and immediately withdrew and wanted to leave, Delilah convinced him to stay and try again a half-hour later, at which time they were able to have intercourse for a few minutes before he came again and fled; after which Delilah felt she had passed her driving test, so to speak.

*

The day after Delilah told Nathan and Celia about meeting Thomas, Nathan spends the morning at Ziggurat Farm teaching a writing class and having lunch with his students, while Delilah and Celia spend the morning together walking the dogs, grocery shopping, and running errands, Delilah’s afternoon to be full of giving piano lessons.

Celia and Delilah are having lunch in the kitchen when the phone rings.

“Buenos,” says Celia to the caller.

“Hi,” says a man with a pleasing baritone. “My name is Thomas Darling. May I speak to Delilah, please?”

“Uno momento,” says Celia, handing the phone to Delilah and mouthing the name Thomas.

“Hello?” says Delilah, clutching the phone.

“Hi Delilah. Thom Darling. Wondering if you’re free any time this week. To do something. With me.”

“I… I… well… probably,” she says, flabbergasted. “Um… I teach at the farm three mornings a week and I give piano lessons three afternoons a week and on Saturday, and I’m sitting the Fletcher Gallery on Thursday and Sunday, but… can I call you back?”

“That would be great,” he says, sounding nervous. “Got a pen handy?”

“Hold on,” she says, taking pen and paper from Celia. “Okay I’m ready.”

He gives her his number, they hang up, and Delilah says, “I really like his voice.”

“So do I,” says Celia, who makes a prayer every day that Delilah will find a partner before Nathan dies.

“I’m overwhelmed,” says Delilah, going to Celia for a hug.

“Just remember,” says Celia, holding her. “He’s overwhelmed, too.”

“He’s actually quite handsome,” says Delilah, relaxing in Celia’s embrace. “To me anyway.”

*

An associate professor of Wildlife Biology at Cornell, Thomas Darling is, by most measures, a strange cat. Tall and broad-shouldered with unruly red hair, he is an authority on foxes, prefers animals to humans, lives in Ithaca in a commune with six other material minimalist Buddhists, and believes jet travel and the continuing manufacture of internal combustion engines are crimes against the biosphere.

He’s been in two one-year relationships with fellow Buddhist material minimalists, both relationships ending when his partners wanted to get married and have children, something Thomas couldn’t imagine with either of them.

“How did you get here if you don’t believe in flying in jets or driving cars?” asks Delilah, sitting opposite Thomas at a small table in Happy Day Café & Bakery in downtown Mercy, cold and rainy outside, the café toasty.

“I flew in a jet and rented an electric car,” says Thomas, blithely admitting his crime. “It’s not that I don’t believe in flying, I think it’s immoral, and to atone for my immoral behavior I will pay for the planting of five hundred trees to mitigate some of the damage I did to Mother Earth by coming out here in a jet instead of on the train.”

“The earth would be covered with trees if everybody who flew did that,” she says, loving the concept of people planting trees every time they fly or drive anywhere. “Wouldn’t it?”

“Alas, no,” he says, shaking his head. “We’re losing trees by the billions every year. But enough about the death of the biosphere, tell me about you.”

“I’m a musician and a composer and an artist,” she says, trying not to think about the death of the biosphere. “And I dance. For the first thirteen years of my life I was cloistered with a series of nannies in Manhattan or Malibu, depending on the whims of my mother who was a movie star and is now deceased. For the last twelve years I’ve been living in Mercy with Nathan and Celia who I plan to live with, or live very close to, until they both die, and I hope that won’t be any time soon because to say I’m emotionally dependent on them would be the understatement of the century. And I would rather not tell you my mother’s name.”

“Daisy told me,” says Thomas, referring to the wife of his brother Michael— Daisy and Michael part of the Ziggurat Farm collective. “I haven’t seen any of your mother’s movies, but a few winters ago I rented a cabin in New Hampshire and was snowed in for three days. I had nothing else to do but try to stay warm, so I read the few things they had there to read, including a collection of magazines with pictures of your mother along with the usual superficial interviews, so I know what she looked like and know she gave money to Planned Parenthood, which was good of her, but I must say, for my taste, you are far more beautiful than your mother.”

“You never met her when she was twenty-five,” says Delilah, loathing Thomas’s tone of voice and his false surety. “And to be honest, your summation of your knowledge of my mother strikes me as flippant, crass, condescending, and obscenely insensitive. Would you agree?”

“Yes,” he says, his bravado vanishing. “I guess I am crass and insensitive and flippant. I apologize. I don’t intend to be, but I often am. Pompous is another word people use to describe me, the entire expression being pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.” He closes his eyes. “I really don’t want to be this way, but apparently I am.”

“You weren’t the day we met,” she says, liking him a little more than she did a moment ago. “Maybe you think you have to be someone you’re not in order to impress people or not seem too vulnerable. Men, in general, seem to have difficulty being vulnerable and open to intimacy, the prototypical male pretending to know everything lest he seem weak for not knowing. And by the way, when I say open to intimacy I don’t mean sexual intimacy, I mean emotional intimacy.”

“I have that difficulty,” he says, nodding. “Being open to intimacy. Either kind.”

“Do you know why?” she says, heartened by his willingness to be honest with her.

“Emotional intimacy wasn’t modeled for me by anyone when I was growing up,” he says with a plaintive shrug. “Quite the opposite. I was rewarded for being smarter than most of my peers, but never for being open to intimacy. I’m ten years younger than Caroline and twelve years younger than Michael, and by the time I came along they were too busy fending for themselves to teach me about emotional anything, though they were both tolerant of me and occasionally kind. My nannies were competent, and one of them was very sweet to me, though I was dreadful to her. My parents were busy elsewhere most of the time and I didn’t know anything about emotional intimacy or love or tenderness until I started studying animals when I was thirteen and audited a class at the university where my parents were professors. Foxes, for instance, are devoted and loving to their pups in ways that would be considered incredible if they were humans. In fact, foxes were my first role models regarding tenderness and devotion to others.”

“Nathan defines love as devotion to the miraculous nature of the other,” she says, liking Thomas more than ever now. “Whether the other is a fox or a dog or a person or a tree or a place or anything. What do you think about that?”

“I think I’d like to meet Nathan and ask him lots of questions,” says Thomas, in awe of her. “I think he’s right. And I wish somebody had modeled such devotion for me when I was growing up so I could have practiced that my whole life instead of practicing being a pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.”

“It’s not too late to change,” she says, deciding she’d like to try being in a relationship with him. “You’re still quite young, you know.”

“I’m going to try to change,” he says sincerely. “Whether you go out with me again or not.”

“Was that a roundabout way of asking me out again?” she asks, arching her eyebrow. “One might interpret it that way.”

“It wasn’t,” he says, shaking his head. “It was my clumsy way of saying I’m going to try to change, not just to please you and hope you like me, but because you’ve helped me see who I might become.”

“Well then I’ll ask you,” she says, wanting to kiss him. “Would you like to come for supper tomorrow night? Celia and I are making chicken enchiladas. Raul and Caroline are coming, too.”

“I’d love to,” he says, feeling he might cry, though he never cries. “What time?”

“We’ll eat around six, but come at five-thirty for hoovry doovries as we call hors d’oeuvres at our house.”

 *

Raul is fifty-six, a famous chef with a world-renowned restaurant in Mercy. Until three months ago, all his many relationships with women had been purely sexual and none ever lasted more than a couple months. Now he has been involved with Caroline, Michael and Thomas’s sister, for three months and he is happier than he’s ever been, not that he was unhappy before he became involved with Caroline.

“Except for one year of therapy when I was in my twenties, I have lived my entire life on the surface of my feelings,” says Raul, talking with his kitchen manager and sous chef Maurice. “But with Caroline I’m often swimming in my feelings as they mingle with hers, and it feels divine.”

Raul is sitting with Maurice at a counter in the glorious kitchen of Ocelot, Raul’s restaurant housed in a large old Victorian overlooking Mercy Bay, the restaurant closed Mondays and Tuesdays, this a Tuesday afternoon. They have just made a list of food and supplies for Maurice to order, and Raul will soon leave for supper at Nathan and Celia’s.

Maurice is a big Frenchman in his fifties who has worked with Raul for seventeen years and lives in a large apartment above the restaurant with his partner Jerome, a choreographer who spends every other month in San Francisco and teaches ballroom dancing at the Mercy Rec Center when he’s in town.

“I’m glad you’re in love,” says Maurice, who expects Raul to dump Caroline any day now. “Jerome is thrilled, of course, but then he’s a romantic and I, as you know, am a cynic. Even so, it’s nice to see you so happy. The atmosphere in the restaurant has greatly improved because you are. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“I have,” says Raul, who has long known his mood sets the standard for his staff, and this in turn resounds to the patrons. “We are not so somber and serious.”

“Though not yet frivolous,” says Maurice, laughing. “May we stop short of frivolity.”

Silence falls—the ocean roaring faintly in the background, both of them thinking about Raul hoping to buy out the wealthy couple who initially financed Ocelot and brought Raul and Maurice to Mercy four years ago.

“I made my offer yesterday,” says Raul, ending the silence. “No word yet, but Darlene did not sound displeased. I know she’s weary of making the long trek from Santa Barbara, and Frank has lost interest in coming here. The golfing is not good and he is too far from his mistress. And most importantly, their sycophants much prefer the warmer clime of Santa Barbara and the opulence of the palace in Montecito.”

“Fingers crossed,” says Maurice, who loves the Ocelot kitchen and loves living far from the madding crowd, his desire to be in the mix in San Francisco gone now.

*

Caroline and Thomas drive to Nathan and Celia’s together in Caroline’s little blue pickup, both of them staying at Michael and Daisy’s house along with their parents Marlene and Everett who are visiting until a few days after Thanksgiving.

“You seem tense,” says Caroline, uncharacteristically wearing a dress, a slinky one at that. “I’m not used to seeing you tense. Are you?”

“Maybe so,” says Thom, rolling his shoulders and feeling them ache. “I feel like I’m about to meet Gandhi.”

“More like St. Francis,” says Caroline, thinking of Nathan standing in the apple orchard directing the pruning of the trees, “with a sense of humor and a beautiful wife.”

Thomas looks at her. “I’ve never felt this way about anybody.”

“We are speaking of Delilah,” says Caroline, taking the curves slowly, rain falling.

Thomas nods. “Do you like her?”

“Hello?” says Caroline, giving him an are-you-nuts?-of-course-I-do look. “If I wasn’t insanely in love with Raul, and it is insane of me to persist in this doomed relationship, I’d be longing for Delilah, except she doesn’t seem interested in me that way. Even so, when we’re in the soaking tub together I can’t keep my hands off her.”

“I’ve never liked your boyfriends,” says Thomas, very much hoping to one day be in a tub with Delilah, “and I always like your girlfriends. I guess that says more about me than about you.”

“I’ve never liked my boyfriends either,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Until now. And this one is sixteen years older than I am.”

“Is that the main sticking point for you?”

“That and he lives here and not in New Hampshire where I have my career.”

“How funny we both came out here to visit our big brother and fell in love with people who would never in a million years move to where we live.”

“Ha ha,” says Caroline, pulling up in front of Nathan and Celia’s just as Raul arrives on foot, her heart thumping when she sees him—love, real love, not giving a hoot about age or location.

*

During supper Raul gazes intently at Celia and says, “Your enchilada sauce is impeccable. The balance of heat and the many flavors is fantastic. I would be most grateful if you would show me how to make this sauce.” He turns to Delilah who is also uncharacteristically wearing a dress and is too alluring for words. “And your guacamole is just how I like it. Bravo.”

“Gracias,” says Celia, giving Delilah a can-you-believe-it? look. “My grandmother is smiling in heaven.”

“Gracias también,” says Delilah, clinking her wine glass with Celia’s. “Celia taught me, though I tend to use a bit more lemon than she and a bit less onion.”

After more food talk, Nathan says to Thomas, “Delilah tells us you’re an authority on foxes. Seen any at the farm yet?”

“I’ve seen their spore,” says Thomas, tearing his eyes away from Delilah to focus on Nathan, “and paw prints in the mud near the chicken coop, but I have yet to see one.”

“Are the local ones the kind you’ve studied?” asks Nathan, who has a special love for foxes.

“I have studied Gray Foxes, yes,” says Thomas, who all during supper has been thinking he would gladly give up his academic career and be a grocery clerk or a house painter or work in a hardware store if Delilah would consent to be in a relationship with him, “though not to the extent I’ve studied Red Foxes, which are ubiquitous in New England. And you might be interested to know that Red Foxes and your Gray Foxes are only remotely related and cannot interbreed.”

“That is interesting,” says Nathan, seeing why Delilah likes Thomas. “I used to prune a big old plum tree that every few years attracted a mother fox and her pups when the fruit started to ripen, and I was amazed by what monkeys those baby foxes were, scrambling around in the branches, hanging from their paws as they knocked the plums to the ground and then scampered down to eat them. Amazing.”

“I’d love to see that,” says Thomas, beaming at Nathan. “Foxes are considered semi-arboreal, no doubt a saving trait in those times when large predators abounded.”

“Thom is also an excellent artist,” says Delilah, giving Thomas a loving look. “The drawing he did of Henri with his accordion and wearing a feathery headdress is exquisite.”

“Oh I’d love to see it,” says Raul, speaking to Thomas. “I need a drawing for a wall in my restaurant that could use some cheering up.”

“I’ll show it to you tomorrow,” says Thomas, his life as a person devoted to others unfolding before him.

fin

Mystery Love

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Ziggurat Farm School

On August 27, after their third day of Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8, Arturo, a handsome lad of twelve, and Irenia, a lovely lass of thirteen, walk along Jousting Street in the northern California coastal town of Mercy on their way to Nathan and Celia’s house to have piano lessons from Delilah and after-school snacks with Vivienne and Henri who just started Sixth Grade at Mercy Montessori, Sixth Grade being the highest class at the school many locals call the hippy school.

Arturo and Irenia have the same homeroom teacher for Seventh Grade, Mr. Delbonis, a surly middle-aged man who has been teaching Seventh Grade at Mercy K-8 for twenty-eight years, and both Arturo and Irenia are distraught about what they’ve experienced so far from Mr. Delbonis and their other teachers at the public school.

“I shudder to think we’re in for six more years of this,” says Arturo, who has made a long list of Mr. Delbonis’s factual errors in his lectures on the history of England and Europe and colonial America, subjects Arturo and Vivienne and Henri and their parents have read several books about. Arturo has also compiled a list of Mr. Delbonis’s many grammatical errors as well as several examples of his undisguised contempt for the intelligence of his students.

“I feel like we’re in prison,” says Irenia, her Russian accent always stronger when she’s upset.

“I feel the same way,” says Arturo, who finds Irenia exceedingly beautiful. “That’s why I’m documenting everything. To convince our parents to get us out of there.”

*

Irenia and Arturo arrive at Nathan and Celia’s little house on the outskirts of town and find Vivienne, Arturo’s soon to be ten-years-old sister, at the kitchen table having guacamole and chips and talking to Celia, seventy-nine, and Nathan, eighty-five, while Henri is having his piano lesson with Delilah in the piano room, otherwise known as Delilah’s bedroom.

Celia brings more guacamole and chips for Arturo and Irenia, and Vivienne opines, “You both appear to be in mourning.”

“We are,” says Arturo, sighing heavily. “Mourning the end of happiness.”

“Public school is a catastrophe for us,” says Irenia, her eyes full of tears. “For everyone else, too, but especially for us.”

“Today,” says Arturo, angrily, “Mr. Delbonis had the gall to say the Battle of Hastings in 1066 drove the Vikings out of England, which couldn’t be further from the truth and ignores the fact that most of the British Isles at the time had been inhabited by the Danish, which he conflates with men in horned battle helmets, for three hundred years!”

“Did you alert him to his error?” asks Nathan, who knew that public school, and in particular Ralph Delbonis, would be disastrous for the Ziggurat Farm kids.

“Heavens no,” says Arturo, aghast at the thought of confronting their large and humorless teacher. “When Larry Jurgens said, ‘You mean 1776,” when Mr. Delbonis said 1876 in reference to the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Delbonis practically ripped Larry’s head off. He’d kill me if I dared question the veracity of his erroneous twaddle.”

“So what are you going to do?” asks Nathan, glancing at Celia. “We’re too old to start a school for you.”

“That may be true,” says Vivienne, who can’t imagine life without Nathan and Celia, “but you’re not too old to help us convince our parents to home school us.”

“We’ll try,” says Celia, recalling how their daughter Calypso languished in public school for a decade, having learned far more from her parents by the time she was eight than she would learn in the ensuing ten years at Mercy K-8 and Mercy High. “But it won’t be easy because they’re all so busy.”

“At the Montessori school we had art and music and field trips,” says Irenia, recalling the good old days of last year. “At public school they give us piles of meaningless data to memorize and at recess the kids all stare at their phones. I feel like a lab rat.”

“An apt analogy,” says Arturo, giving Nathan a pained look. “And we have zero interest in being lab rats.”

*

Thus it comes to pass that Vivienne and Arturo’s parents Philip and Lisa, Henri’s parents Marcel and Andrea, and Irenia’s parents Boris and Marie, agree to home school their progeny rather than subject them to the well-meaning but essentially destructive public education system as it manifests in Mercy.

Philip and Lisa and Andrea take it upon themselves to assemble a faculty and create a curriculum to educate their children and prepare them for the future and so they can pass the high school equivalency exam, a test they will take a few years hence; and a week later Ziggurat Farm School opens for business.

When Alma Goldstein, eleven, and Larry Jurgens, twelve, hear about the farm school from Arturo and Vivienne, they and their parents beg to join the new enterprise. After brief negotiations, Alma and Larry’s parents agree to pay tuition sufficient to cover the salaries of Nathan and Delilah, the only salaried faculty members, and Alma and Larry become the fifth and sixth members of the student body.

The Ziggurat Farm School (ZFS) faculty members and the subjects they teach are as follows:

Andrea—Gardening, Farm Management, History

Lisa—Physiology, Yoga, Drama

Philip—History, Conversational French, Cooking

Marcel—Conversational French, Carpentry, Soccer, Fermentation

Michael—Ornithology, Wildlife Biology

Caroline—Botany, Marine Biology

Delilah—Mathematics, Music, Drawing

Marie—Sewing, Knitting

Boris—Engine Repair, Wrestling

Nathan—Writing, Poetry

Daisy—Literature, Typing, Cinema

Celia—Spanish, First Aid, Healthcare 

Arthur Jurgens (Larry’s father)—Physics, Beachcombing

Raul—Restaurant Economics

 *

On a spectacular warm and sunny morning in mid-September, Caroline, forty, a lovely long-limbed professor of Botany at the University of New Hampshire on sabbatical for a year, lies naked in the king-sized bed in Raul’s house in Mercy and thinks I’ve got to nip this romance in the bud. He’s sixteen years older than I am, I have a great job at UNH, and I’m falling in love with him. No. I am in love with him. What the fuck am I doing?

*

Raul, big and handsome and Portuguese, a most famous chef and renowned Lothario, is the godfather of Caroline’s six-month-old niece Jenna who lives on Ziggurat Farm with her mother Daisy and father Michael, Caroline’s brother. Raul and Caroline have been romantically involved for two weeks now, and unlike his experiences with his previous lovers, Raul is not growing weary of Caroline, which is an entirely new experience for him.

“I think I am falling in love with you,” says Raul to Caroline as they eat breakfast on the deck of Raul’s modern one-story house at the end of a quiet lane on a headland meadow in Mercy. “I’ve never been in love before, so I’m not sure. But I think this must be how people feel when they fall in love.”

“What do you mean you’ve never been in love?” says Caroline, looking up from the delicious omelet Raul made for her. “I’ve read your memoir. You’re famous for being in love.”

“I’m famous for my food and sleeping with movie actresses,” he says with a shrug. “But I was never in love with any of them. I enjoyed sleeping with some of them, some not so much. Before the actresses, my liaisons were also brief. I have no experience of being in a relationship. Until you.”

“Are we in a relationship?” asks Caroline, who has only been in a few, none lasting more than a year. “I thought we were just having a fling.”

“Maybe we are,” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “But I admire so many things about you, besides your genius in bed. This is new for me and I like it very much.”

“I feel the same about you,” she says, keenly aware of her resistance to being in love. With anybody. “Though we’re terribly mismatched, you know.”

“Why?” he asks, smiling. “Because I’m older than you?”

“And I’m a college professor in New Hampshire,” she says, feeling she might cry, “and you live here.”

“Aha,” he says, gazing up at the blue blue sky. “Yet here we are and at least for the moment you don’t seem to mind our age difference, so perhaps we could spend the day together.”

“I’d love to, Raul” she says, softening, “but I’m the after-lunch teacher at the farm school today. I’m taking the kids on a walk in the woods to study the ecosystem.”

“I would love to go with you,” he says, nodding hopefully. “If I wouldn’t be in the way.”

“You would?” she says, surprised. “That would be… fine. You wouldn’t be in the way at all.”

“Good,” he says, happily. “I will be your student, too. What do I need to bring?”

“A sketch book and a couple pencils,” she says, delighted. “We’ll be sketching trees and landscapes. The kids are amazing artists. They studied with a wonderful painter and now they take drawing from Delilah.”

“I know the painter who taught them,” he says, recalling Joseph Richardson recently gone back to England. “We have two of his paintings in Ocelot, one of the mouth of the Mercy, and a huge amazing portrait of the farm people in fancy clothes with their dogs, playing croquet in the orchard. You’ll see them if you ever come to my restaurant. Joseph and his wife Constance dined there every Thursday evening before they returned to England. They adored Delilah.”

“She’s amazing,” says Caroline, who has a not-so-secret crush on Delilah. “Can you imagine having her as your Math, Music, and Art teacher when you were in school?”

“I quit school when I was twelve,” says Raul, recalling the cold drudgery of Catholic school, “and escaped to the kitchen of my stepfather’s restaurant. But if Delilah had been my teacher, I would not have wanted to escape.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Do you know who her mother was?”

“Margot Cunningham. Daisy told me.” She squints at him. “One of your conquests?”

“I was one of hers,” he says quietly. “Long ago one night in San Francisco.”

“How was it?” she asks, surprised to feel jealous.

“I remember very little about the experience,” he says, recalling Margot dining at estuaire, the restaurant he created that made him world famous—Margot regal and exquisitely beautiful, but sad, deeply sad. “Only that she wanted me to call her Susie, which I later learned was the name she was born with.”

“Does Delilah know?”

“No one in the world knows except you and I.” He takes her hand. “Shall we keep it our secret?”

“Yes,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I will tell no one.”

*

Delilah resembles her famous mother in both face and body, though she is not blonde and fair, but brunette with olive skin. Tall and strong, her hair cut very short, she was a musical and mathematical prodigy as a child, and an accomplished artist by the age of ten, her talents undiminished now that she is twenty-five.

She is wearing her usual outfit of sweatshirt and brown trousers as she stands between two large chalkboards in the farmhouse living room, watching Larry and Henri each attempting to solve the same Algebra problem.

Twelve-year-old Larry is very skinny, one might even say scrawny. He wears wire-framed glasses, his nose long and thin, his lips quite large, his chin barely evident, his red hair frizzy, his father a retired Physics professor now a zealous collector of driftwood, his mother a Marriage and Family Counselor who does most of her work via video telephony.

Eleven-year-old Henri possesses his German mother’s beauty and his French father’s heroic chin. Born and raised on the farm, he is muscular and agile with short brown hair and a stellar sense of humor.

When the boys complete their figuring, Henri concluding with X=32, Larry with X=16, Delilah says, “Very well done, Henri. And Larry, take another look at the third line of your otherwise excellent work.”

“Oh shoot,” says Larry, slapping his forehead and knocking his glasses askew. “Duh.”

“I think we’ve done quite enough math for one morning,” says Delilah, sensing the kids need a break on this glorious sunshiny day. “Go amble around and when you feel sufficiently revived, we’ll finish the morning session with some music.”

Irenia, Arturo, and Henri play Frisbee on the expanse of open ground in front of the barn while Vivienne, Alma, and Larry walk to the vegetable garden, pull a few carrots, and saunter back to the farmhouse happily munching.

“Just think,” says Larry, his voice high and nasal, “if we were at Mercy K-8 right now, I’d be doodling in my binder and praying no one beats me up at recess while Mr. Delbonis spews questionable facts to memorize.”

“And I’d be praying Miss Hansen didn’t call on me,” says Alma, who is plump and cute and has frizzy light brown hair and wears glasses, her father an optometrist, her mother a dietician, “because I wouldn’t have heard anything she said for the last ten minutes, which is when she always called on me.”

“I’d probably be bored at the Montessori school, too,” says Vivienne, who recently had her long brown hair cut shoulder length and sometimes wishes she’d been able to finish Sixth Grade at the Montessori. “But not at recess. I loved recess at the Montessori. The soccer games especially. So I do miss that.”

When the kids return to the farmhouse after their short break, they find Philip and Lisa in the kitchen preparing lunch, the kids to eat first, the adults after—lunch and the mid-day recess lasting from roughly 11:30 to 1.

Delilah is sitting at the piano thinking about what to do with the kids for the next half-hour when Vivienne says, “I hope we’re going to sing now. We loved learning to sing harmonies last week.”

*

Raul and Caroline arrive at the farmhouse in time to hear the children singing a three-part harmony rendition of a verse from ‘Up A Lazy River’—Delilah and five of the children singing in tune, while Alma, singing loudest of all, is way off key, which obviously irks the other children.

Up a lazy river where the robin’s song

Wakes up in the mornin’ as we roll along

Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love

Up a lazy river, how happy we will be

Up a lazy river with me

Standing at the open front door listening to Alma wreak havoc on the otherwise excellent rendition, Caroline and Raul exchanges glances wondering what Delilah will say to Alma when they finish the verse.

“Okay,” says Delilah, before any of the kids can complain about Alma’s singing, “we’re getting there, but I’d like to work on our pitch before we try again. Gather round the piano.”

So the kids gather round the piano and Delilah plays middle C and says, “Let’s match this note.”

Five of the kids match the C perfectly while Alma belts out a D.

“Now one at a time,” says Delilah, playing the C again. “Arturo begin, please.”

Arturo matches the note. Henri matches the note. Vivienne matches the note. Irenia matches the note, her voice extraordinarily beautiful. Larry matches the note. Alma sings a D.

“Alma?” says Delilah, gently. “Can you hear how your note is not exactly the same as the C?”

“No,” says Alma, frowning. “Sounds the same to me.”

“I want you to try again.” Delilah plays the C again and holds down the sustain pedal. “Now listen very carefully as you sing and try to match this note.”

Alma steadfastly sings a D.

“How about this?” says Delilah, winking at Arturo to quell his urge to say No! “Irenia? Would you sing the C and hold the note for as long as you can.”

Irenia sings the C.

“Now Alma, I want you to sing with Irenia so your note sounds just like her note.”

Alma sings D again, but as Irenia continues to hold the C, Alma begins to hear how she is not quite singing the same note as Irenia. So she stops singing, clears her throat, starts again, and gets a little closer to the Irenia’s C.

And now, as if this moment has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time, Alma’s note becomes Irenia’s and they hold the note together for a long time, after which everyone in the farmhouse cheers.

*

In the forest a few hundred yards north of the terraced vegetable and flower garden, the children and Raul and Caroline sit in a circle on the ground a few feet apart, their backs to the center of the circle, making sketches of what they see before them.

An unseen raven makes a sound uncannily like someone playing castanets.

Raul looks up from his sketching and waits for the sound of castanets to come again, but the raven has nothing more to say. Raul looks at his sketch of three large trunks of trees in the foreground, shrubbery in the middle ground, myriad trunks and foliage in the background.

“So this is the world,” he says quietly.

Henri, sitting to Raul’s right, nods and quotes his father Marcel, complete with Marcel’s French accent. “So we are told.”

“Not the whole world,” says Vivienne, sitting to Raul’s left. “But definitely part of the world. You didn’t mean the whole world, did you?”

“I did,” says Raul, loving being here with the children and Caroline. “This is part of the world and the whole world, too.”

“I kind of see what you mean,” says Vivienne, continuing to sketch the scene before her. “For instance, if you were an ant or even something smaller, this would certainly be the whole world.”

“I don’t know about that,” says Arturo, commenting from the other side of the circle. “Ants can travel pretty far in a relatively short amount of time. I read they can travel more than a mile in a day. But to a bacteria this would be a veritable galaxy.”

“Why do people want to go to Mars?” asks Irenia, unhappy with her rendering of a stump surrounded by ferns. “Why not stay here and make the earth clean again? Why go to a planet with no life when we have this one so full of life?”

“Ecology begets philosophy,” says Caroline, remembering making love with Raul this morning, how never before had she experienced such perfect harmony.

fin

Sweet