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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

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Third Conversation With Emily

Neal, sixty-two, arrives home in suit and tie from the community college where he is an English professor, and is greeted by his dog Niko, a big friendly five-year-old mutt. Neal’s daughter Emily, thirty, is in the kitchen making supper. Emily and her son Andre have lived with Neal for five years now. Andre is about to turn seven and Emily is in her final year of training to become a marriage and family therapist.

Emily: Hi Papa. You’re home early today. Just in time to chop vegetables for the chicken soup.

Neal: Oh joy. But first allow me to dispense with my briefcase and change into more appropriate sous-cheffing garb.

Emily: You are allowed.

Neal: (bows to her) I shall return.

Emily continues cooking while Neal deposits his briefcase in his office and goes to his bedroom to change into old trousers and sweatshirt before returning to the kitchen where he gives Niko a good petting before sitting down at the counter.

Neal: Much better. Unharnessed. Where’s the boy?

Emily: (serves Neal a bottle of beer) He went to Joshua’s after school today. Should be home any minute.

Neal: (has a swig of beer) How was your day?

Emily: Good. Got lots done. Saw two clients with Amy supervising, and she said I did very well considering how intractable they both were. Mired in existential dread. She’s always so complimentary, says I’m a natural, as opposed to Ramon who says I either talk too much or don’t talk enough. (hands Neal a cutting board, cleaver, onion, and carrots.) And I got lots of reading done, mostly Winnecott and Klein, and then I went to yoga, which was glorious, and then I spent a fortune on groceries. A good day, all in all. How about your day?

Neal: Not bad. Somewhat bittersweet as many of them are nowadays.

Emily: Why so?

Neal: You know… one of those days when I was frequently aware that the vast majority of my students would rather gaze into their phones than listen to me or to each other. But I did have a rousing discussion about A Tale of Two Cities with the three of my students who are actually reading the book, the other thirty-seven present in body only. And I had lunch with Karen, which was fun. So… like that.

Emily: How about we invite Karen for supper on Saturday. Yeah?

Neal: Well… um… I don’t know. Seems… not sure.

Emily: You’re not sure or she’s not sure?

Neal: Oh I’m sure she’d love to come. I just… I’m… I’m enjoying having lunch with her a couple times a week and that feels like enough for now.

Emily: You know you don’t have to marry her if she comes for supper. I just think it would be fun to meet your new friend. I know Andre would like to meet her.

Neal: Well she’s not really new. I mean… having lunch together, that’s relatively new, but…

Emily: Never mind. I don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable.

Neal: (begins chopping onion) And you’re sure I wouldn’t have to marry her if she came for supper?

Emily: Not right away.

Neal: Well in that case… I’ll think about it.

Emily: I hope you will because I want to invite someone for supper and I think it would be a good idea to have more than a few of us here the first time. 

Neal: (stops chopping) Oh really. Anyone I know?

Emily: You used to know him, and he certainly remembers you.

Neal: Are we speaking of a former student?

Emily: We are.

Neal: Age?

Emily: Thirty-five.

Neal: So let’s see, that would mean he was a student of mine fifteen or sixteen years ago.

Emily: Both.

Neal: I had him for two years? I probably do remember him. What’s his name?

Emily: Before I tell you his name, I want you to remember he is not who he was when he was nineteen and twenty.

Neal: Oh really? He had an identity transplant?

Emily: No he grew up. Unlike my father.

Neal: Sorry. Of course he isn’t the same person. But he has the same name?

Emily: Yes.

Neal: And that name is?

Emily: (hesitates) Michael Bernstein.

Neal: (frowns) I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. You didn’t say Michael Bernstein, did you?

Emily: That’s what I said.

Neal: You’re kidding.

Emily: No.

Neal: (sets down the cleaver) You’ve fallen in love with the most difficult student I’ve ever had?

Emily: I have not fallen in love with him. I just like him. A lot. He’s charming and funny and…

Neal: Hold on. Charming and funny? We can’t possibly be talking about the same Michael Bernstein. The Michael Bernstein I suffered with for two years was in every way the antithesis of charming and funny.

Emily: You saw no glimmerings of promise in him?

Neal: All he ever wanted to do was deride everything I said… when he was good enough to show up for class.

Emily: Until the last semester of his second year with you.

Neal: Is that what he told you?

Emily: No. That’s what I remember.

Neal: What are you talking about? You didn’t know him then. You were only fourteen.

Emily: And fifteen. And you’re right, I didn’t know him, but I will never forget the night you were marking up essays in the living room and you finished reading one and said, “I can hardy believe what just happened.” And I said, “What, Papa?” And you said, “Michael Bernstein, my nemesis for the last two years, has written one of the most beautiful essays I’ve ever read, and appended a note of apology.” I asked if could see and you handed me the essay. And on the last page he’d written Sorry I have been so horrible to you. Rough times. You helped me make it through.

Neal: (amazed) I’d completely blocked that out. I remember now, but… I’d only retained how difficult he was. But you’re right, those last few months he turned things around and wrote a series of brilliant essays and got into Cal. (starts to cry) Yet I only remembered the bad Michael.

Emily: He says he became a writer because of you.

Neal: He’s a writer? (crying) To be continued. I gotta blow my nose.

Neal goes to the bathroom, washes his face, and returns to the kitchen.

Emily: Onions. They always make me cry, too.

Neal: Yeah. So where did you meet Michael?

Emily: In my yoga class.

Neal: A great place to meet women. Or so I’ve heard.

Emily: He’s been in the class for three years and didn’t seem interested in meeting anyone, women or men. I’ve only been going for four months, but I was intrigued by him so I asked the teacher about him and she said he was incredibly shy, always unfurled his mat at the back of the class as far from anyone else as he could, and rarely spoke. So I took it upon myself to break the ice.

Neal: You asked him out?

Emily: I spoke to him one day after class. We had a scintillating ten-second conversation. I said something like, “That felt great.” And he smiled sheepishly and whispered, “Yeah.” And then a few classes after that we had another thrilling exchange. I said, “Do you take yoga every day?” And he nodded. And I asked, “With Beth?” And he nodded again. So you can see how eager he was to get to know me.

Neal: So…

Emily: So finally one day I followed him outside where he was unlocking his bicycle, and I said, “Hi. Would you like to go for coffee with me?” And he turned red as a beet and replied so quietly I only know he said Yes because he was nodding.

Neal: Reminds me of me.

Emily: In so many ways.

Neal: What other ways?

Emily: He’s brilliant and funny and very sweet.

Neal: How did you find out he was my Michael Bernstein?

Emily: When we exchanged names, his name rang a bell, though I didn’t know why, and when I said Emily Ramsay, he did a double take and said, “Daughter of Neal Ramsay?” And I said, “Yes. How do you know my father?” And he said… (hesitates)

Neal: What? What did he say?

Emily: You might cry again, Papa. Those damn onions.

Neal: No, I’m done crying. I’m onto the carrots. What did he say?

Emily: He said, “He saved my life.”

Neal: Wow. You’re right. I might cry again.

Emily: He said you were the first adult who ever treated him as an equal and praised him when he did good work.

Neal: What a crazy society we live in. I’ve been told that same thing by many other students, and every time someone says that to me, I have the hardest time believing it, though I know it’s true.

Emily: He’s really nice. I think you’d like him, assuming either of you could get up the nerve to talk to each other.

Neal: Have you kissed?

Emily: Oh God no. We shook hands for the first time after our last lunch date, which was our fourth lunch date.

Neal: How was it? The handshake?

Emily: It was the most erotic handshake I’ve ever had.

Neal: Say no more.

Emily: Can I tell you one more thing he said about you?

Neal: Oh why not?

Emily: He said you were reflexively kind, and it made him want to be that way.

Neal: I’m astonished. So what does our Michael do for a living?

Emily: He has a show on YouTube.

Neal: A show on YouTube? And he gets paid for that?

Emily: More money than I’ll ever make, and he also makes lots of money from his books and merch.

Neal: Merch?

Emily: Merchandise. T-shirts and mugs with things he’s said printed on them.

Neal: He’s a published writer?

Emily: Yeah. Three books so far.

Neal: What are they about?

Emily: Two of them are short story collections, and one is a novel. They’re contemporary, funny, sweet, sad. Mostly about teenagers. You might not like them. They owe a lot to television, but I think they’re quite good.

Neal: And people buy them?

Emily: Yeah, they sell like hotcakes. He has almost a million subscribers.

Neal: Subscribers to what?

Emily: His YouTube show.

Neal: What does he do on his show?

Emily: He tells stories and reads stories.

Neal: And a million people watch him?

Emily: More or less.

Neal: Incredible. You wouldn’t think someone so successful would be shy.

Emily: Oh I think his shyness is a big part of why he’s successful. Lots of people identify with him.

Neal: So I can just go to YouTube on my computer and watch him?

Emily: He’s been on for five years now. I prefer his more recent shows to his old ones, but they’re all charming. He was almost too shy in the beginning and he has a much better camera now, the audio much improved. Each episode is about ten to fifteen minutes long, six days a week. Hundreds and hundreds of episodes to watch.

Neal: Forgive me, but I don’t think I will.

Emily: It’s okay. He’s definitely not speaking to your generation. Or even to mine. But young people love him.

A car horn sounds announcing the homecoming of Andre. Emily goes and opens the front door and Niko rushes out to greet Andre.

Emily: (calling to Joshua’s mother) Thanks Terry. We’ll have Joshua after school on Thursday.

Andre, almost seven, enters the house, sheds his jacket on the floor and races over to Neal.

Andre: What are you making Poppy?

Neal: I’m chopping vegetables for the soup. But only people who hang up their jackets will be allowed to have any.

Andre retrieves his coat and hangs it on a hook by the door.

Andre: Is there going to be sausage in the soup?

Neal: We must ask the chef.

Andre: (to Emily) Is there, Mom?

Emily: Would you like sausage in the soup? I was going to use chicken.

Andre: Oh that’s fine. Just so long as there’s some meat. We’ve had vegetarian for two nights in a row and I could really use some meat.

Neal: Me, too. Did you have fun with Joshua?

Andre: (wanders into the kitchen) Kind of. Only he doesn’t like to play outside so we just mostly watched television. Mom, can I have a snack?

Emily: Didn’t you have a snack with Joshua?

Andre: We had potato chips but I’m still very hungry.

Emily: How about an apple and some nuts?

Neal: And then we’ll take the beast for his constitutional before supper.

Andre: Good idea. I am feeling pretty antsy.

Emily: How unlike you.

Neal: I wonder why Joshua doesn’t like to play outside.

Andre: He says it’s boring.

Emily: But when he comes here you play outside.

Andre: Well we don’t have a television and I have a fort and we have a dog and we have a pond and we have a rope swing and we sometimes go to the beach.

Andre sits at the counter beside Neal. Emily serves him a bowl of nuts and slices of apple.

Neal: How was school today?

Andre: Good. But I think I might have to skip a grade.

Emily: Why is that?

Andre: I already know all the arithmetic and spelling and science and things she gives us because you and Poppy already taught me those things.

Emily: Would you like to skip a grade?

Andre: No, because then I wouldn’t be with my friends.

Neal: But then you’d make new friends.

Andre: But I’d be the youngest and they’d tease me. The kids in my class already call me Brainiac.

Neal: That’s a compliment.

Andre: I don’t think so, Poppy. They say it kind of mean.

Neal: Why do you think they tease you for being smart?

Andre: I don’t know. Fortunately I’m also a very good athlete, so they can’t tease me about that.

Neal: Speaking of athletics, how about a walk?

Niko hears the word walk and rushes to the door where he spins around in a circle.

Andre: Cool your jets, Niko. We’re coming.

Emily: Wear your jacket, please. It’s getting cold.

Neal: We will wear our jackets.

Andre and Neal go to the door, put on their jackets, and Andre clips the leash onto Niko’s collar.

Andre: Aren’t you coming, Mom?

Emily: No, I’m quite content tending the soup and making the salad. Have fun.

Neal: Á tout de suite.

Emily: Á tout de suite.

Andre: Á tout de suite.

fin

What You Do

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Second Conversation With Emily

Neal, fifty-seven, a community college English professor, is sitting at the kitchen table in his house with his eighteen-month-old grandson Andre drowsing on his lap. Neal’s daughter Emily, twenty-five, is doing the breakfast dishes. Emily and Andre have just moved in with Neal. The day is sunny and warm, the French doors open.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: If you like drought.

Neal: We live in California, a state prone to drought. And this particular day, taken out of any long-term context, is gorgeous. My darling grandson is snoozing on my lap and my darling daughter is doing the dishes after making us a marvelous breakfast. And after the boy has his nap, we’re off to the beach. In short… paradise.

Emily: And your daughter and her baby live with you now because they have nowhere else to go because your daughter married a psychopath who dumped her after she had a baby.

Neal: Shall we talk about this when little ears are not listening?

Emily: (whispering) You warned me not to marry him. You begged me not to, but I wouldn’t listen because I am a supreme idiot.

Neal: Why don’t you put Andre down for his nap and we’ll continue this conversation on the deck with a pot of freshly brewed coffee?

Emily: Okay. Sorry. (takes Andre from Neal) He always fusses a little before he goes to sleep so it might be a while.

Neal: Take your time.

While Emily puts Andre down for his nap, Neal makes a fresh pot of coffee and carries the pot and mugs out to the table on the deck where Emily joins him a few minutes later. 

Emily: He went right to sleep. He’s so much happier here than he ever was living with Hugo or in that horrid little apartment we escaped to.

Neal: Do you think he was afraid of Hugo?

Emily: Of course he was. Big angry man storming around shouting about how everyone in the world is an idiot. Everyone except him.

Neal: Were you afraid of Hugo?

Emily: No. I just hated him.

Neal: Since when?

Emily: I can tell you exactly since when. I was five months pregnant and Hugo was supposed to come with me for my ultrasound, and when he didn’t come home to get me I called him and he didn’t answer. So I left a message and waited until the last minute, and then I went by myself. And when he came home that night and I asked where he’d been, he said, ‘None of your fucking business.’ And I’ve hated him ever since.

Neal: Yet you stayed with him for another nine months.

Emily: I was pregnant and then I had a newborn baby. And I thought things might get better. I didn’t want to believe I was just another in a series of his conquests. He married me, after all. He’d only done that once before me. Or so he said.

Neal: I wonder how he’s managed to keep his position at the university all these years, after all the women he’s abused.

Emily: He’s careful not to sleep with anyone under twenty-one. He’s a very clever psychopath.

Neal: A mesmerist.

Emily: I feel like such a fool, such a loser.

Neal: You’re not a fool or a loser. You’re a human being.

Emily: But how could I have believed him for even a moment? He’s such a phony. It’s laughable what a fraud he is.

Neal: He dazzled you when you were most vulnerable. And sex can numb our rational minds.

Emily: But how could I not see through him? I’m not stupid. You never would have married such a charlatan. Nor would Mama.

Neal: Your mother left me for another man when you were eight and didn’t even want partial custody of you. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t fight to keep you. But she didn’t. And the wonderful woman I thought I would know forever hasn’t spoken to me in seventeen years. But I wasn’t a fool for being happy with her. They were marvelous years, and she gave me the gift of you.

Emily: It’s not the same.

Neal: How is it not the same?

Emily: You were happy for ten years because you had a loving relationship. I was happy for eight months because I was delusional.

Neal: And now you have a wonderful child and the rest of your life to explore the mysteries of being alive.

Emily: I’m a failure. In every way. I’m not even a good mother.

Neal: How are you not a good mother?

Emily: I don’t have a job. I have no money. I’m entirely dependent on you.

Neal: For the time being you don’t need a job or money, and I love having you and Andre here with me.

Emily: I am the quintessential loser. I gave up my career to marry a man twenty years older than me, a renowned lothario, had his baby, he dumped me, and now…

Neal: (interrupting) You must stop telling this story. To yourself or anyone else. You must change the narrative.

Emily: Oh great. You’re gonna lecture me now?

Neal: With your permission, yes.

Emily: (laughs) With my permission? Okay. Fine. I give you permission to lecture me. It’s the least I can do in exchange for a place to live.

Neal: Let me preface my lecture by saying I love you and I have no doubt you are going to emerge from this seeming catastrophe stronger and wiser than ever.

Emily: Seeming catastrophe? You think I’m imagining what happened? I’m not that delusional.

Neal: Happened. Past tense. It happened. It isn’t happening now. What’s happening now is that you are living with me. You and Andre are as safe as human beings can ever hope to be. We have food to eat, money in the bank, and relatively friendly neighbors.

Emily: For which I am grateful.

Neal: Good. Which brings me to my lecture.

Emily: Does your lecture have a title? I love a good lecture title. Hugo baits his hook with his lecture titles.

Neal: Yes. The title of my lecture is How Andre Knows How To Be.

Emily: (subdued) Go on.

Neal: As you know, I am an avid reader of books and articles about neuroscience. I am also keen on all things having to do with child psychology and personality development.

Emily: And you don’t want me talking about Hugo in front of Andre.

Neal: That is not what my lecture is about.

Emily: Sorry.

Neal: Don’t be sorry. You have every right to feel hurt and outraged and angry and sad. You lived with a terrible person for seventeen months and you were traumatized. And you also may be angry with me and your mother for doing whatever we did or didn’t do that predisposed you to fall under the spell of someone like Hugo. But that isn’t what my lecture is about either. My lecture is about how you and I will influence your son from this moment on.

Emily: I’m listening.

Neal: He is a psychic sponge. All young children are. His brain and nervous system and body will learn more in the next three years than he will learn thereafter for the rest of his life. If you and I are morose, he will become morose. If we are angry most of the time, he will be angry, too. If we believe we are failures and life is terrible, he will believe he is a failure and his life is terrible. I am not overstating this. That’s how mirror neurons work. That’s how the brain and psyche develop at his age. And I am so glad he’s a happy, curious, intelligent child, and every bit as good-natured as you were when you were eighteen-months-old. Which means you’ve been a fine mother despite the difficulties you’ve endured. And it means we can continue your good work by being glad and grateful to be alive, glad and grateful to be with each other, happy to get up in the morning, happy doing what we have to do and what we want to do.

Emily: So I should pretend to be someone I’m not?

Neal: No. No pretending. Kids know when we’re not genuine. You need to change your attitude. You need to let go of the ideas that you failed, that your life is ruined, and know you are a good mother to a wonderful child and you live in a lovely place with your doting father who is overjoyed to have his daughter and grandchild living with him. We are going to make the best of every day. We are going to be kind and generous and helpful and funny and good listeners and excellent cooks, and we’re going to provide him with lots of hugs and stories and attention and freedom to find his own way.

Emily: And find him some other kids to play with.

Neal: Yes. And maybe we’ll get a puppy, and the puppy will become a dog.

Emily: But at night sometimes after Andre goes to sleep, I’ll whine and complain and you’ll let me do that for a while before giving me another lecture.

Neal: Yes. But soon you won’t be whining and complaining because it will no longer be your habit. You’ll have made peace with yourself and be concerned with now and the future and only rarely with the past.

Emily: I’ll try, Papa. But I’m prone to self-pity. I don’t know why, but I am. You never were. But I am.

Neal: Your mother left us at a critical time in your life and I was shattered for a long time after, though I put on a brave face. So perhaps something from that era got into you, and I’m sorry. But I know the essential you is not self-pitying. The essential you is strong and confident and loves life and loves a good challenge.

Emily: Then I should be overjoyed, because I have never felt so challenged.

Neal: I’ll help you in any way I can.

Emily: You aren’t disappointed in me?

Neal: On the contrary, you are my hero.

Emily: Why? I feel like such an anti-hero.

Neal: You ran a dangerous gauntlet, Emily, and you did so while pregnant and then with a newborn baby. And you emerged intact and strong and wanting to go on.

Emily: I do want to go on.

Neal: Of course you do. And look who you have to go on with. Your darling Andre.

Emily: And you, Papa.

Neal: And me. And you.

Emily: And me.

They sit quietly for a time.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: (looks up at the sky) A few more clouds would be nice.

Neal: They’ll be along shortly.

Emily: You promise?

Neal: I promise.

fin

Ceremony of the Child

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Conversation With Emily

Neal, a man in his late forties, is walking barefoot on a vast beach with his sixteen-year-old daughter Emily, who is barefoot, too. The day is sunny and warm, the ocean barely audible in the distance.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: A few feathery white clouds in the sky would be nice. Break up the monotony of the blue.

Neal: Ah yes. Celestial art drifting across the cerulean.

Emily: Hey Papa?

Neal: Yes, my darling daughter?

Emily: Do you ever miss Mama?

Neal: I did for a time, and then one day I realized I didn’t miss her anymore. I still think about her, but I don’t miss her. Do you?

Emily: I’m sometimes keenly aware she isn’t here, but I wouldn’t say I still miss her.

Neal: Why did you ask?

Emily: I wonder why you don’t find a new partner. I thought maybe it was because you still felt wedded to Mama.

Neal: I don’t think so. I think I don’t find a new partner because I’ve never looked for a partner. Your mother, as you know, pursued me, and I think something like that would probably have to happen again. Someone else initiating the proceedings. I’m formidably shy.

Emily: I know. (muses) I wish I could marry you and never have to leave when I get older.

Neal: You can live with me as long as you want, and you don’t have to marry me.

Emily: We are kind of married already. We just don’t sleep together.

Neal: We’re best friends.

Emily: True, but just so you know… I have kind of fallen in love with someone at school. Two someones actually. A boy and a girl. Well… he’s really a young man and she’s really a young woman.

Neal: And are they also kind of in love with each other?

Emily: No. They don’t know each other. But they’re both kind of in love with me.

Neal: Well that’s nice.

Emily: You would be okay with me being in a relationship with a woman?

Neal: Sure. I want you to be happy. Just so long as she isn’t a mass murderer or a Republican.

Emily: In some ways it’s much easier being in love with a woman. For one thing, we don’t have to worry about getting pregnant.

Neal: Oh. Are you…

Emily: Not yet. But we’re talking about it.

Neal: You and the young woman?

Emily: And the young man. We’re all sixteen. It’s what sixteen-year-olds obsess about, among other things. It’s what all the songs we listen to are about, all the books we read, movies we see, etcetera. I don’t know if that was true when you were sixteen, but it’s true now.

Neal: And you’re up to speed on the whole getting-pregnant not-getting-pregnant… system?

Emily: Yes, I’m well up to speed on that system.

Neal: Good. So… let me know if you need money for supplies or…

Emily: (laughs) Supplies? You make it sound like I’m going on an expedition.

Neal: You know what I mean. If you want to consult a doctor about birth control. I’m happy to help in any way I can.

Emily: I was thinking of getting an implant. No fuss no muss. No worry about forgetting to take the pill. Etcetera.

Neal: Well okay. Shall I make you an appointment?

Emily: I kind of already did.

Neal: Kind of?

Emily: Did.

Neal: With Dr. Ornstein?

Emily: No, at the women’s health clinic.

Neal: Great. And I really do appreciate you telling me about this.

Emily: Isn’t that why you brought me here today? To talk about this?

Neal: No. Not… specifically.

Emily: Specifically? That’s… perplexing. And by the way, are we going somewhere or just meandering?

Neal: (laughs) One of the great philosophical questions. Along with: What are we doing here? What is our purpose? Is there any meaning to life? And is there meandering after death?

Emily: At my age I’m more interested in being in love and being loved and stuff like that. So if you didn’t bring me here today to review the facts of life, why did you bring me here today?

Neal: What do you mean? We come to the beach all the time. Why does this feel like I brought you here for some special purpose? Maybe we came here because… we came here.

Emily: Papa, you are so transparent to me. I always know when you have something important you want to talk about.

Neal: Well I don’t know if it’s that important, but it is something I’ve wanted to tell you for a very long time.

Emily: (stops walking) What?

Neal: How we chose your name?

Emily: Mama already told me. I’m named after her favorite poet Emily Dickinson.

Neal: Actually that’s not who you’re named after.

Emily: (taken aback) Seriously? You waited until I was sixteen to tell me I wasn’t named after Emily Dickinson, after I’ve told everyone I’ve ever known I’m named after her?

Neal: Your mother asked me not to tell you, but after she was gone I decided I would. And I was just about to tell you when you bought not one but two Emily Dickinson sweatshirts and spent months on that big school project writing fifty poems in the style of Emily Dickinson, and you dressed up as Emily Dickinson, and you did your hair like Emily Dickinson, and you made those videos of you being Emily Dickinson reading her poems, and so… I just let it go.

Emily: This is upsetting, Papa. Why are you telling me now?

Neal: I’m not sure. Maybe I sensed you were becoming a sexual being and… I don’t know. I just wanted to set the record straight before any more time passed. And I might not have said anything about it today if you hadn’t brought up the whole meandering issue.

Emily: (sits down on the sand) So tell me.

Neal takes a piece of paper out of his back pocket.

Emily: You wrote a speech?

Neal: I copied something out of a book to read to you.

Emily: Is this book the source of my name? The true source?

Neal: Yes.

Emily: What’s the book?

Neal: Larousse Gastronomique.

Emily: That big fat cookbook?

Neal: Larousse Gastronomique is far more than a cookbook. It is an encyclopedia of the history of cuisine, specifically French cuisine.

Emily: I’m named after a French Emily?

Neal: Yes.

Emily: Well that’s not so bad. Unless she was some horrible queen or countess, and even that would be kind of cool.

Neal: I don’t actually know what she was.

Emily: Oh great. I’m named after somebody you know nothing about?

Neal: I know you’re named after somebody who happens to have the same first name as Emily Dickinson.

Emily: Read the cookbook excerpt.

Neal: But first I want to set the scene.

Emily: Which scene?

Neal: The moment when we chose your name.

Emily: Fine. Set the scene.

Neal: So your mother and I had been married for five months. She was eight months pregnant with you.

Emily: She got pregnant before you got married? No one ever told me that either. How do you know I’m yours?

Neal: You have my nose.

Emily: (laughs) I certainly do. Go on.

Neal: So we were sitting on the sofa together one evening and your mother was having cocoa and I was reading aloud to her from Larousse Gastronomique.

Emily: How romantic.

Neal: It was, actually. Food is a very sensual subject.

Emily: Did you do this a lot? Read to her from the big fat cookbook?

Neal: We read aloud to each other every item in Larousse from A to Z. It took us three years. We finished when you were two and a half. You liked to sit at your little table and draw with your crayons while we read aloud from the book.

Emily: That’s so sweet. I guess it is kind of romantic. So read the thing you brought.

Neal: Well we had gotten to the Cs on that fateful night, and I came upon the entry for conversation.

Emily: You mean like what we’re having now? People talking to each other?

Neal: Yes and no. So… (reads) conversation a small pastry with an almond filling. According to the Dictionnaire de l’Academie des gastronomes, they were created at the end of the 18th century, taking their name from the title of a popular work, Les Conversations d’Emilie, by Mm d’Epinay (1774) They consist of covered puff pastry tartlets filled with a rum-flavoured frangipane or with almond cream and topped by a layer of royal icing. The tartlets are decorated with thin bands of pastries crisscrossed over the top.

Emily: I’m named after a tartlet?

Neal: You’re named after Emilie from the popular work Les Conversations d’Emilie. Your mother heard that title and said, “Oh honey, if we have a girl, let’s name her Emily. I love that name.”

Emily: (gets up) And she loves that name because she loved Emily Dickinson’s poetry, so really the title of that ancient novel or whatever it was just reminded her of how much she liked the name. So I’m not really named after that particular Emilie but after all Emilys including Emily Dickinson.

Neal: Except not really.

Emily: Why not really?

Neal: Your mother… (hesitates)

Emily: Tell me.

Neal: Didn’t love Emily Dickinson’s poems.

Emily: But she told me she did.

Neal: She told you she loved Emily Dickinson. She identified with her as an unrecognized poet, as Dickinson was unrecognized until after her death. But your mother didn’t like Dickinson’s poems. They were too rhymey for her.

Emily: Rhyming was the style of the time when Emily Dickinson was alive.

Neal: I know.

Emily: So whose poems did Mama love?

Neal: Denise Levertov. Philip Whalen. Sylvia Plath. e.e. Cummings.

Emily: Maybe I’ll change my name to Denise Cummings or e.e. Plath.

Neal: Emily is a lovely name.

Emily: I appreciate your telling me the truth, Papa. I like the truth. And I have no regrets about my Emily Dickinson phase. I was only eleven and it was a way of staying connected to Mama even if Mama found Emily Dickinson too rhymey, which is not even a real word.

Neal: Ryhmish?

Emily: You’re an ass. Make it up to me somehow.

Neal: Shall we go to Chico’s for fish & chips?

Emily: Yes, and then I will forgive you for not telling me sooner.

Neal: I don’t think you were ready until now. Or I wasn’t ready. Or something.

They set off together across the sand.

Emily: I think it was more about you not being ready than me not being ready.

Neal: I think you’re right.

Emily: You don’t have to agree with everything I say. I won’t bite you.

Neal: So tell me about these people you’re in love with.

Emily: I’m not quite ready to tell you about them. I’m waiting to see if the infatuation lasts more than a couple weeks.

Neal: I remember.

Emily: What do you remember?

Neal: The fleeting nature of infatuation when I was sixteen.

Emily: It’s disconcerting how fleeting it can be. One day I’m insanely in love with someone, the next day I find them repulsive.

Neal: Shall we make a rhyming poem about that?

Emily: Good idea. Shall I start or you?

Neal: You start.

Emily: Oh it’s oh so disconcerting…

Neal: How fleeting love can be.

Emily: How fast the tide can rise and fall.

Neal: How changeable the sea.

Emily: Oh it oh so disconcerting…

Neal: When love becomes disgust.

Emily: And dreams of happy smooching

Neal: Are trampled into dust.

Emily: Oh will there ever come a time

Neal: When love is here to stay?

Emily: And dreams of happy smooching

Neal: Never fade away?

Emily: Some questions have no answers

Neal: Until one day they do.

Emily: And dreams of happy smooching…

Neal: Those dreams they all come true.

 fin

Simple Song (Shy)

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Cozy Fart Head Mozart

There once was a dog named Cozy Fart Head who was the reincarnation of Mozart. We realize that may seem implausible, but tell us something that isn’t essentially implausible. We are, after all, each the result of one little nearly invisible spermatozoa out of millions and millions in a single ejaculation that against all odds somehow got admitted into the egg before the fortress wall closed. Had any other spermatozoa been selected, we wouldn’t exist. If we’re not implausible, we’re highly unlikely.

Why, you may ask, would anyone name their dog Cozy Fart Head? Here’s what happened. When Hank Testaverde, known to his acquaintances as Testosterone, was thirty-seven, he hooked up with Sheila Sunrise who was twenty-four, and early on in their six-year cohabitation Sheila got pregnant and gave birth to a boy she named Maurice. Hank thought Maurice was his kid, but actually Sheila conceived Maurice with a guy she met at a Laundromat while Hank was in Reno gambling away his disability check. The guy who impregnated Sheila told her his name was Maurice, and though she didn’t believe him, she named their kid that.

Maurice was sweet and super smart, and Hank was actually an okay parent to him as long as Sheila was around, which was until Maurice was five, at which point Sheila had had enough of life with Hank in his cruddy old trailer in a low-life trailer park called Shangri-La Haven in a town we will not name in California. And because she was an irresponsible promiscuous alcoholic, Sheila did not take Maurice with her, after which Hank was not such a good parent to Maurice and started calling him Bummer.

Even so, for Christmas a few weeks after Sheila split, Hank gave Maurice a puppy to keep him company in the absence of his mother. The pup was a mix of Pit Bull, Chocolate Lab, and Siberian Husky. Maurice called the pup Cozy, but Hank said that was a pussy name and called the dog Fart Head. Hence the dog initially thought his name was Cozy Fart Head.

Then about six months after Sheila split, Hank hooked up with Angela, another promiscuous alcoholic, and when Angela and her three-year-old daughter Tess moved into the cruddy little trailer, Hank called Child Protection Services and said a woman had abandoned her little boy and a dog at his place and they should come get the child and the dog.

As luck would have it, the social worker assigned to Maurice’s case was a woman named Margot Morningstar who loved dogs and had recently lost her beloved old mutt Casey. She also recognized in Maurice an inherently kind and generous soul, so she adopted Cozy Fart Head and placed Maurice in a foster home with a cousin of hers named Rose Black Feather and Rose’s partner Thomas Gray Hawk. On Saturdays Margot would babysit Maurice and he’d get to be with Cozy Fart Head, which is when Margot learned the boy’s name for the dog was Cozy and he never appended those additional two derogatory words.

Margot Morningstar was a Pomo Indian, her cousin Rose was Pomo, too, and Thomas was Maidu. Rose and Thomas had two other foster kids, a nine-year-old girl named China and a seven-year-old boy named Champ. Rose was an RN at the local hospital, Thomas a car mechanic, and life with them for Maurice was in every way a thousand times better than his life had been with Sheila and Hank.

*

So, yeah, Cozy was the reincarnation of Mozart. What a kick. Here was the spirit essence of a genius musician living out yet another life in the body of a seventy-five-pound dog. Since inhabiting the body of Mozart, this particular spirit essence had reincarnated dozens of times, usually in a human body, but four times as a pelican and numerous times as hummingbirds. Cozy was Mozart’s first dog incarnation, and Mozart enjoyed many aspects of being a dog, though now and then longed for fingers with which to tickle the old ivories.

Before this spirit essence was Mozart, it had incarnated in many people, many elephants, dolphins, and countless tigers.  Making music was always a high priority when this spirit essence aimed to be reincarnated, but sometimes the targeted ovum was missed and another ovum became the landing spot.

In the case of Cozy, the spirit essence of Mozart was aiming for the ovum of a moments-before impregnated woman who lived two doors down from the home of Hank’s friend Carl. And the spirit essence of Mozart would have merged with the ovum of Golda Bernstein, a brilliant violinist, except Golda suddenly got out of bed where she’d been snoozing beside her husband Eli, a brilliant pianist, and the spirit essence of Mozart bounced off the Bernstein bed, flew out the window, and as spirit essences once launched will do, merged with the first ovum it encountered, which in this case was Carl’s moments-before impregnated dog Sophie.

That’s the prelude to the story of how the spirit essence of Mozart, incarnate as a large friendly dog, was able to share its musical genius with the world yet again.

*

So when Maurice was seven and his brother Champ was nine and his sister China was eleven, foster parents Rose and Thomas adopted the trio and the kids were no longer foster kids. To celebrate this momentous event, Thomas and Rose said the kids could each have a reasonably priced gift of their choosing. China asked for a basketball hoop and ball, Champ asked for a fishing pole and fishing reel, and Maurice asked if Cozy could come live with them.

“If you will take care of him, feed him, and most importantly pick up his poop,” said Rose. “Okay.”

“What else do you want?” asked Thomas, encouragingly.

“Well,” said Maurice, who thought Thomas and Rose were the most wonderful people on earth, “I’d love to have a guitar.”

We should note here that reincarnated spirit essences remember all their previous lives when they are residing in the spirit realm. And most spirit essences can also remember their previous lives when they inhabit the body of anything other than a human being. Don’t know why this is, but there you have it.

Thus Cozy remembered being Mozart, remembered being Stephen Foster, and remembered being Billie Holiday. And he was one pleased pooch knowing Maurice was learning to play the guitar. Every time Maurice got out his guitar to practice, Cozy would sit nearby listening avidly and wagging his tail in time to the music.

The years passed. When Maurice was fourteen and Cozy was eight, Maurice started writing a song. It was a pretty good song, except the melody lacked nuance and soul. One day when Maurice was singing the song aloud and sang a G note, Cozy made a whining sound that was G flat. Maurice stopped playing, frowned at Cozy, and sang the G note again. And again, Cozy whined G flat.

“Okay,” said Maurice, nodding. “I’ll try that.”

So he sang the line again, flatted the G, and the music sounded gorgeous and original and full of meaning beyond the meaning of the prosaic lyrics.

Cozy made seven more note corrections in the course of Maurice’s singing the song for him, and the song became a magnificent original compelling ballad. When Maurice sang the song for Thomas and Rose and Champ and China, they were enthralled.

You wrote that?” said Thomas, amazed by the song.

“With a little help from Cozy,” said Maurice, who always gave credit where credit was due.

“How did Cozy help you write the song,” asked Champ, who loved Maurice but found him a little odd.

“Suggested several note changes,” said Maurice, matter-of-factly. “Really took it to a whole other level.”

“Be that as it may,” said Thomas, thinking Maurice was joking, “I’d like my cousin Marvin Night Owl to hear that song. He’s a song writer in Nashville and might be able to get a recording artist to record that.”

“Hey maybe you’ll make enough money to pay for me to go to college,” said China, who hoped to be a professional basketball player and a neurosurgeon.

And that’s what ended up happening. Maurice made a recording of the song with Rose’s phone, they sent the recording to Marvin Night Owl, he copyrighted the song in Maurice’s name, played the song for Biff Manly, the Country music star, Biff went bonkers over the song, and ‘I’m Always Someone Else’ was a big hit and made Maurice and his family a nice chunk of change.

Over the next five years, Maurice and Cozy wrote forty more songs together. Some of the songs were collaborations like ‘I’m Always Someone Else’, and some of the songs were whined in their entirety by Cozy, and Maurice transcribed the melodies and created accompanying chords. You’ve undoubtedly heard many of their songs, all of which were recorded by famous singers, perhaps their most famous collaboration being the iconic ‘Here I Am Again’.

When Maurice was nineteen and Cozy was thirteen, Cozy died, and the spirit essence of Mozart returned to the spirit realm. Maurice continued to write songs without his dog, and he composed several more catchy tunes over the ensuing decades, though none were as great as the forty classics he and Cozy created together.

fin

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