The Coffee Cantata (WIP, Pt 1 v1.0)

coffee-cantata-logo

So, about 40 pages here, not quite a week’s work, and I find myself getting pulled deeper and deeper into the story, more and more ideas spring to life, want to be told… What might have been 20 pages is looking more and more like a hundred or so. So, this is a WIP, a penciled in sketch, and I hope to finish by next weekend. Emphasis on word ‘hope’?

Yet I’m at a stopping off point, though nowhere near finished – so I’ll keep working on this one for a while, I think, maybe for some time, even after it’s finished (because, hey, stories are never ever really truly finished…they just take a rest sometime, before the urge for a rewrite becomes overwhelming…). So, a word of warning, this ain’t finished, it hasn’t been proofread, some sentences are roughed-in, not quite where I want them yet, but that’s what this whole blog thing is about. If something pops out as too weird or outlandish, just give me a shout.

Playing in Photoshop this morning, created the little illustration above…splitting the night, I think, comes to mind – but you decide what is, and what might be an illusion.

The Coffee Cantata

Traveling around sure gets me down and lonely
Nothing else to do but close my mind
I sure hope the road don’t come to own me
There’s so many dreams I’ve yet to find
Carole King  So Far Away

+++++

Feet tucked in close, she sighed, picked up the newspaper and looked over the front page, settled on a story and started reading. From time to time she picked up her coffee, took a sip, a little grin crossing her face here, the shadow of a frown there. She found herself in the Employment pages at one point, and her hands shook a little as contrary images flew through her mind, but she ventured inside, started scanning – and daydreaming.

She was a bright girl – too smart, some said – and she was something of an empath, which, she thought sometimes, had doomed her to a life of unwanted insight. Born and raised in West L.A., she had gone to USC, then UCLA, her life ahead always centered on journalism. She graduated, went to work for the Times about the time Bill Clinton took office, and the first waves of cynicism broke over her shores when she watched him lie about Lewinsky and that whole blue-stained thing. She threw away her blinders after that and became a real reporter, or so her friends said, and she won a Pulitzer for her coverage of events at a prison in Iraq a few years later.

She had become an outspoken critic of the rich and powerful when she wrote her first book, and she had made enemies, so many of her friends weren’t too surprised when they heard she’d been summarily fired one Friday morning. She had packed her Pulitzer in a little cardboard box and walked out with a smile on her face, then she sold her house and bought a one-way ticket to China – and started walking. Walking to the west, always.

She walked most of the time, though sometimes passing trucks stopped and she hopped aboard, but she did so with her reporters eyes and ears open. She took notes, wrote sketches of the things she saw – and felt. Sketches of pain, of happy contentment, portraits of farmers in Tibet’s Racaka Pass and herdsmen in Bhutan. She fought a cobra one morning and lived to write about the encounter, and a few days later slipped and tumbled down a rocky slope and hurt her leg.

A passing monk picked her up and helped her along to his monastery, and she lived within that mountainside community for weeks. She lived in this improbable world, an ancient place carved into the side of a sheer face, the waters of a muddy river drifting by thousands of feet below – and she thought about that river for days without end. Where it went, the people who’s lives depended on it, and what would happen when the water stopped flowing.

As all things must, she thought, come to an end.

And one day she realized she had fallen in love with this place, and the men who lived in solitude with the clouds. She wished she was a man – so she could stay – but she wasn’t so the same monk who helped her that broken day walked with her down to the river and helped her board a little boat. She watched him recede into the passing landscape with despair, then hope, before she started walking again, still to the west.

She came to a village in Nepal and fell ill, seriously ill, and delirium came for her. In a fevered dream she saw herself being loaded in a truck, then in a hospital of some sort – brown men in white coats doing things to her she didn’t understand – then one day she woke up and saw the world as it was, again.

A little man, no taller than she, stood by the bed looking at her, and she looked at him.

“You are very ill,” he told her.

“And?”

“I think you must go someplace else. We do not have the resources to care for you here.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“You have a disease I do not understand,” he said, struggling to find the correct words. “I am not sure I can care for you.”

“You can’t care for me?”

“Adequately, I think is the word I seek.”

“Ah. So what must I do?”

“We must take you to Kathmandu. When you are strong enough.”

She drifted away again, and when next she woke she felt a rough road underneath an ancient truck, and through the flapping canvas sides she watched a dusty road pass by, just out of reach, and she wanted to be down there, walking. Walking and listening. Sketching portraits of lives she didn’t understand.

“Do I understand my own life?’ she thought once. ‘The purpose of my life?’

She saw the outskirts of a city pass by the tattered canvas, and she recognized the hospital for what it was. Careful men came for her and carried her inside, and she felt IVs being started, then doctors at the foot of her bed talking in hushed tones. She could feel her sweat-soaked gown when chills came, then as suddenly she would feel she was being baked alive and she would call out for help.

And one morning an American was standing beside her, looking at her carefully.

“Hello.”

“Yes, hello. My name is Carter Freeman, and I’m from the embassy. How are you feeling?”

She shook her head. “Not good.”

“I’m not surprised,” Freeman said. “You’ve picked up a fever, and apparently you broke your leg some time ago. It wasn’t set properly and there’s some sort of infection in the bone, and that’s when they called the embassy.”

“What do they need you for?”

“They think you should try to get home, to a better facility than this. They’re afraid you’ll lose your leg otherwise.”

“Ah.”

“So, you’re Lindsey Hollister. The writer?”

“I’ve heard that rumor too.”

He smiled, tried not to laugh. “Well, I’ve come to get you, to take you home.”

“What if I want to stay here?”

“That’s your call, Miss Hollister, but frankly, I’d want to know why?”

“Because these mountain, and these people feel like home now.”

He nodded his head. “Understandable. There’s magic in the air up here.”

She remembered turning and looking out the window just then, looking to the mountains as if looking for an answer to the question.

The question.

“You feel it too?”

And he had nodded his head. “Impossible not to, I guess. You came through Bhutan, walking?”

“Yup.”

“You landed in Shanghai, eighteen months ago. That’s the last recorded entry on your passport. Have you been walking since.”

“Yes, aside from the two months I rested after I hurt my leg.”

“Where was that?”

“A monastery, I think it was in Bhutan but I’m not sure.”

“I came by yesterday,” he said, suddenly a little nervous. “I went through your things, read through one of your journals, trying to figure out where you’d been.”

She looked at him like she might have a burglar who’d stumbled into her bedroom.

“I found myself weeping at one point,” he continued, “weeping at the beauty you found. I wanted to read more, but I couldn’t. I felt like I was walking where I shouldn’t. Not without your permission, anyway. Do you plan to write about all this?”

She looked away. “I don’t know.”

“You should…I mean, I hope you do. I was lost in your words, in the things you saw. I wanted to know more, too. About those things, and you.”

“Me?”

“I fell in love with you – with your perception, I mean.”

“Nothing so personal as a word, I assume.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“So? What have you planned for me?”

“Lufthansa, tomorrow morning. Frankfurt to Los Angeles.”

“I see. No choice, eh?”

“It’s the recommendation of your government. Mine, too.”

And so early the next morning they moved her to the airport, and Freeman was there, waiting, and he went to the airplane with her, saw her settled in her seat then he asked her to write, to share, and then he was gone. She seemed to sleep and sleep, and never saw Frankfurt come or go. She woke up on a gurney, another IV flowing, and she realized she was in another aircraft – and she thought that strange – then sleep came again.

She woke up one morning and felt wonderful, completely refreshed, and she looked out the window in the room she was in and saw palm trees in the distance, swaying in a Santa Anna, and in an instant she knew she was home. The brown air seemed familiar, even the color of the sky seemed to scream ‘Home’ – and she felt an unexpected surge of happiness.

A mountain of a man came in a little later – he looked like a football player, or a wrestler, but he said he was an infectious disease specialist and he had been treating her for ten days…

“I’ve been here ten days?”

“You have.”

“And just where is here?”

“UCLA.”

“I thought the air smelled familiar. Is that a Santa Anna blowing?”

“Yup. For a few days now.”

“So, what’s blowing through my veins right now.”

“Oh, a cocktail of Vancomycin, prednisone, fluconazole, and acyclovir. Maybe a little Red Bull, too,” he said, grinning.

“Is that why I feel so ‘up’?”

“Your white counts were in the basement, so you got a transfusion last night. That probably accounts for the feeling. What did you do to your leg, by the way?”

“I fell down a mountain.”

“Oh? Where?”

“Bhutan.”

“Bhutan? What on earth were you doing there?”

“Taking a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes.”

“Uh, admissions wanted me to ask. We can’t find a home address for you?”

“I don’t have one?”

“But you have insurance. How’d you work that out?”

“I have friends in low places.”

“Well, they’re going to need an address. Some place to send correspondence.”

“Bills, you mean.”

He chuckled. “Yeah. Probably a few of those, too.”

“Well, as soon as I find a place to live I’ll let you know.”

“Are you looking? For a place, I mean?”

“I suppose I might as well.”

“Well, my parents have an apartment building, over on Gayley. It’s surrounded by frat houses, but has a pool. Kind of nice, and close to the hospital.”

“Sounds nice. Tell ‘em I’ll take it.”

He looked taken aback. “You don’t want to look at it first?”

“No, not really.”

“Do you have any furniture, any stuff?”

“No, I burned all those bridges a while ago.”

“So, you really want me to call them?”

“Yes. How long will I need to stay here?”

“As soon your counts stabilize and the fever abates,” he said. “Maybe in a few days.”

“What’s your name, by the way,” she asked.

“Oh, sorry. Doug Peterson.”

“You grow up around here?”

“Yup. You?”

“Beverly Hills High, class of ‘86.”

“Small world, isn’t it?”

She looked at him and laughed.

And he helped her get over to her new place that weekend, and when she went inside the little apartment she found the place furnished. Clean-lined Scandinavian furniture, bright fabrics on the sofa and chairs, very modern, almost cheery.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “but I didn’t think walking into an empty place would be all that fun. I had the stuff in storage,” he added, wistfully, “and it needs a good home.”

“Oh?”

“When my wife and I got married I, well, she didn’t like the way this stuff looks so I put it in storage. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.”

“You couldn’t part with it?”

“No, I guess not.”

She walked around the little place, found plates and silverware and pots and pans all set up in the cupboards, and the ‘fridge was stocked with a few necessities too. She walked into the bedroom, found the bed made and toiletries on the bathroom counter, then her eyes will with tears and she turned to him.

“Why, Doug? Why did you do all this?”

“I don’t know, really. I think I want you to be happy.”

“Happy?” she said, as she looked from his need into his eyes.

“I have an old Mac set up in here,” he said, leading her back into the living room. “All the software has been upgraded, my old stuff’s been cleaned off so there’s nothing on it. A blank slate, I guess you could say. In case you want to write or get caught up on email.” She went over to the little sofa and sat, a line of perspiration forming on her forehead, and he came to her, felt her with the back of his hand.

“Do you know where my stuff is?” she asked as he went into the kitchen. He came back with his little black bag and sat in the chair next to the sofa.

“Yeah. I put it in the closet, over there,” he said, pointing to the entry, but he had a thermometer out and he rubbed it across her forehead, the looked at the readout.

“Time for bed, Lindsey,” he said as he helped her up. They walked to the little bedroom and he helped her go to the bathroom, then into the bed. He pulled the sheets up around her neck and tucked her in, then he ran his fingers through her hair once before he left.

+++++

She scanned the ads, looking at jobs in the Westwood area, preferably something mindless and uninvolved, and she saw one at a coffee place just a few blocks away. She looked at the time and went to the bathroom to shower, then she dressed and walked down the hill into the old village. She found the place and went inside, ordered an iced coffee and sat, looked out the broad windows at people walking past on the sidewalk.

The place had, she thought, kind of a cook vibe, a mellow hipster thing going on as she watched people come and go, and at one point a girl came out to clean tables and she asked her a question.

“Do you like working here?”

“Yeah,” the girl said. “It’s never the same day, ya know. Something different every morning.”

“It seems laid back.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. Are you here for the job?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Oh. Okay,” she said, then she disappeared into the office behind the counter. A few minutes later an older woman came out, and Lindsey watched her approach through a reflection in the window.

“Excuse me,” the woman said, “but Melody told me you might be here about the job?”

She turned, looked at Sara Whiteman and their reactions were simultaneous, and spontaneous.

“Oh my God!” Whiteman almost screamed. “Lindsey?! Is that you?”

And she stood, hugged her old best friend from high school.

“What in God’s name are you doing here?” Sara whispered. “I read about you in the paper a few months ago…about that walk you took, and about getting sick. What on earth were you thinking?”

“So, does this mean I get the job?”

“What? Lindsay? What’s going on?”

“I need to get out of the house, be around people. I haven’t been in months, and it’s eating away at me.”

Sara sat down by her old friend. “Really? You want to work here? Why? Why don’t you go back downtown, get a real job? Doing what you do best?”

“I want to do what I do best, Sara. I want to talk, and listen, to people.”

Whiteman sighed, shook her head. “It’s counter work, minimum wage, no benefits for three months. Is that what you want?”

“It sounds fun.”

“When can you start?”

“Tomorrow too soon?”

“No. You sure? Sure you want to do this?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Next question. Are you up to this? It’s not manual labor, but it does entail some physical work. Clearing tables, preparing orders. Are you ready for that kind of thing?”

“Yup. My docs think it would be a good thing.”

“Nothing infectious, right? You’re safe?”

Lindsey nodded her head. “Yup. Clean as a whistle.”

“God, I can’t believe this, Lindsey. It’s so good to see you, but this too? Wow…I’m just speechless.”

“Me too. Look, do I need anything weird in the clothing line, anything like that?”

“Nope, not really. Comfortable shoes, only arms and hands visible, per health codes, as you’ll handle food. That means slacks and shirts, but shoes are the big thing.”

“Would these be okay?” she asked, pointing to her jeans and scuffed hiking boots.

“As long as it’s clean, sure.”

“Cool. What time should I be here?”

“Only shift I have right now is five to one, the early morning shift. Are you a morning person?”

“Not a problem.”

“Well, how ‘bout I see you tomorrow morning?”

“Front door?”

“Yup. Bright and early.”

“Okay, I’ll be here.”

They hugged, then Lindsey walked out into the flow of people on the sidewalk, and Sara Whiteman watched as she disappeared. Melody, her assistant, came and stood by her side then.

“She’s so skinny, like she’s been sick or something,” the girl said.

“She has been,” Sara Whiteman sighed. “Since the day I met her.”

+++++

And a week later there’s was a familiar routine. Not quite like school decades ago, but close enough. Friends are just that, after all, and it seemed they started up again where they left off, as best friends often do.

Unlock at five, tidy the place up and get coffees going, set out baked good in the counter and get specials marked-up on the chalk board. Open the doors at six and get to work. Within a few days she’d learned how to use the most complicated brewing machines and the techniques to satisfy even the most hardened caffeine junkies, and she worked the counters efficiently, even gracefully, and soon people came in and said their ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’ on their way through her day, and patterns developed.

In the very early morning, when commutes began and sometimes ended, the shop filled with harried executives dashing off to work, and nurses getting off the night shift. Professors from the university across the street constituted the next onrushing wave, often before lectures – yet usually after, and students came on this riptide, lingering long after their coffee grew cold, lost in lecture notes or lining textbooks in bright highlights.

Lunchtime in the shop was a mad rush. Iced coffees and cold, house-made sandwiches flying over the counter at a breakneck pace, then she was helping to clean up before time was up and it was time to walk up the hill again, and she was grateful for the swimming pool on sunny days and sat out under the sun for hours and hours, notebook in hand, her eyes focused on memories of her day, and one day she was sitting out there, writing, when he came by.

“Doug?”

“Hey, it’s my favorite patient! How’s the sun?” he asked as he came and sat by her.

“It feel like heaven today. The air is almost crisp, you know, yet the sun bakes it all away.”

“Nothin’ like LA on a day like this. It’s the cream in my coffee.”

“So, what brings you to the neighborhood?”

“My dad. He’s got COPD, in CHF, uh, emphysema and heart failure. He’s not doing too well, either.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. How’s your mom taking it?”

“Oh, she’s strong. Old world, know what I mean?”

“No, not really.”

“She was a kid when they came over, refugees, during the war. She had relatives here in LA, made it here in ‘43. I think the journey was something else, Greece to North Africa, then Brazil and finally up to California.”

“How old was she?”

“I think around ten, when she got here, anyway. Took them two years, I think.”

“She met your dad here?”

“Yeah, in college,” he said, pointing at the campus across the street. “He went into business, she went into medicine?”

“Oh?”

“Yup, she taught general medicine for year, supervised residency for internists. She was a bright one, and they’re devoted to each other, always have been.”

“She came from Greece?”

“Yup, her family left when the Italians and Germans moved in. You want to talk to her about all this, I’m sure she’d love to.”

“Yes, maybe when she feels like it?”

“She misses working, so any excuse to get out and shoot the breeze is a welcome distraction. So, what are doing these days?”

“Oh, I’m working at that little coffee shop down on Weyburn.”

“No kidding? I didn’t know that. How long have you been doing that?”

“A couple of weeks?”

He turned professional, his eyes serious. “Any fever, any night sweats?”

“Some night sweats, yes. But not often.”

“Okay, you’re coming with me. Time for some lab-work.”

“Oh, do I have to,” she said, purposefully pouting just like any other five year old.

“You can tuck that lower lip back in now. Now come on,” he said, looking at his watch, “let’s get you dressed.”

He helped her up and walked with her to the little apartment, and he waited for her while she dressed, looking out the window – watching his mother looking at the pool, then at him, standing by the window in their living room. He could see the scowl on her face, the same look she always had on her face – when she knew he about to do something really stupid.

+++++

She felt much better the next morning, and one of her regulars stopped by the register on his way out and smiled at her. “You look really good this morning, Lindsey,” he said.

“Thanks. I feel good, too,” she said – and then, as he walked out the door, she realized she didn’t even know his name – let alone telling him her’s. ‘Oh, well,’ she said to no one but herself, ‘I’ll ask next time he comes in.’ She went to clear off his table, saw he’d left a little note and a large tip, and she went to the window, watched him get into his car – and she noticed he was wearing shorts, and she saw the scar. Pale and waxy, like a long snake standing up the side of his leg, and she thought it looked angry, like a bad memory that just wouldn’t go away.

She finished cleaning his table and went back to the counter, the fifty dollar bill he’d left in her hand. She walked over to Sara, gave her the fifty, and she listened while Lindsey told her about the exchange.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” Sara sighed. “About half the men who come in here every morning come here to see you.”

“What?”

Sara shook her head. “You know, since second grade every boy around seems to look at you just once and decide life would be a whole lot better if you were a part of it.”

“Sara? What are you talking about?”

“God, you are so clueless. Go put on some French roast, would you?”

So she got back to work, getting ready for the mid-morning, professorial rush, but at one point she saw a student come in and sit by the window – and something caught her eye. He pulled a book out of his weatherbeaten rucksack, it’s red slipcover instantly recognizable. Her book, her book about the economic realities of life in working class America, and she turned away from the memory of the time she’d spend ‘undercover’ doing research. He was reading the book, she saw, her photo on the back sleeve standing out like a light house, and she tried to ignore the boy ‘til he left. Perhaps an hour later he did, and he never stopped to say anything to her. She wondered if her appearance had changed all that much and decided she really didn’t care.

And a little after noon, he came in. Doug, her physician.

He came up to the counter and looked around, studiously trying to ignore her.

“I didn’t know y’all did sandwiches. What’s good?”

“I like the chicken salad. It’s got undertones of curry, and pecan.”

“Okay. What should I have with it?”

“Iced coffee and tabouli.”

“Done.”

“I’ll bring it out to you.”

“Gracias.”

“Por nada.”

He took a seat at a table by the windows and pulled out a phone, scanned his email and she made his coffee, fixed his sandwich, then took it out to his table.

“How you feeling today?”

“Good.”

“You look good. Your color’s better, too. You kind of had me spooked yesterday.”

“Did I?”

“Could you sit for a minute? While I eat, anyway?”

She looked at Sara – who motioned “SIT!” – and she laughed, sat in the chair by his side.

“Damn, this is not half bad,” he said after he took a bite.

“I hope not. I made it.”

He looked at her, thought for a moment, then turned away.

“Doug? What on your mind?”

“You, actually.”

“Me?”

“I finally finished your book a couple weeks ago. Wasn’t quite what I expected, either.”

“Oh?”

“Mississippi? You moved to Mississippi for six months? Lived and worked all that time, in a laundromat?”

“That’s one of the epicenters, Doug. Where it’s bad. Real bad.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“Have you ever practiced medicine out in the boondocks? Or overseas?”

He shook his head. “I’ve only been outside of LA on vacation, and only a couple of times, at that.”

“Ever thought of going to the front lines? West Africa maybe, or Southeast Asia?”

“No.”

“Do you want to? Did you ever want to?”

“Once,” he sighed. “Yeah, once upon a time I really wanted to do all that.”

“What happened?”

He snorted, turned away. “I got married, then applied for a mortgage and found I had three kids under the Christmas tree one morning. Should I go on?”

“No,” she smiled, “not unless you want to.”

“Everything changed, I guess, after all that. All my hopes and dreams.”

“Everything changed? I wonder…did you change?”

“You’re not, like, a shrink or something, are you?”

She laughed a little. “No, but I could probably use one.”

“Oh?”

“I could never stand to see injustice, social injustice, and just turn away. I’ve always wanted to understand it. Not just how people endure living in an oppressed state, but how other, more fortunate people can look on – then turn away.”

“And, what have you learned?”

“That I’ll never understand humanity.”

He laughed again, then looked at her. “You’re not joking, are you?”

“No. I’m not.”

“So, what’s next? Are you going to write some more?”

“I am.”

“About your walk?”

“Yes, in part.”

“And after that?”

“I don’t know. Learn something useful. Go back to Bhutan.”

“And do what?”

“Build a hospital, maybe.”

“Something really touched your soul out there, didn’t it?”

“Life finally reached into me and took a look around. I think it found me wanting.”

“And how would you fix that?”

“I think I’d learn to listen better.”

“You’re going to hate me for saying this, but I have to. I’m madly in love with you.”

“You’d have to be a little mad to say that, I guess.”

He nodded his head. “I know.”

“Why?”

“I wish I knew. Something to do with moths and flames, I suspect.”

“Or, perhaps, Icarus?

“Or Icarus.”

“Tell me about your wife.”

“She’s, well, she likes to play cards. She likes to shop on Rodeo Drive. She likes her Jaguar.”

“And she’s sexy as hell, too. Isn’t she?”

He nodded his head. “Of course.”

“Oh, how have the mighty fallen. Is that it?”

“No.”

“Of course. She’s what you always wanted.”

“Until I didn’t. Yes.”

“That’s a helluva place to find yourself in.”

She watched him finish his sandwich, and she liked watching him. There was something innocent, almost boyish in his movements, and she smiled when he finished. “Can I get you some more coffee?”

“No, I’ve got appointments in an hour, then rounds. Will you be home around four?”

She nodded her head.

“How much to get square with the house?”

“I’ll get it – this time,” she said, smiling.

“And I’ll get the next one?”

“Sure. If you like.”

“Well. Gotta go.”

“Yup. Seeya.”

She cleaned the table after he left, then walked back to the counter – only to find Sara and Melody waiting for her. Impatiently, it seemed to her.

“Well?” Sara said, leaning on the counter.

“Well what?”

“Who is he?”

“My doctor.”

“He couldn’t take his eyes off you,” Melody said.

“Yup,” Sara added, “he’s got it bad.”

“Jeez,” Linsey sighed, “he’s married, you guys.”

“And did I hear him say,” Melody said, almost giggling, “that he’s madly in love with you?”

“He said that about my book.”

“Uh-huh, sure,” Sara grinned, “like I believe that, too.”

“Can I help with the dishes?”

Sara turned, looked at the clock. “Nah, I got it. Why don’t you head on home, get some rest.”

“I need to go to the grocery store,” Lindsey said, “if you have time to run me over.”

“Why don’t you buy a car?” Melody asked.

“I don’t need the hassle, or the headache,” she said.

“But you need a ride to the grocery store?”

“Never mind.”

“Oh, come on,” Sara said. “I need a few things too. Melody? Can you hold down the fort ‘til I get back?”

“Sure.”

They went out back, to Sara’s Audi, and rode over to Century City in silence. She got a few necessities and a couple bottles of wine – and a bunch of flowers – then they got in the car to drive back to her apartment.

“I know Doug,” Sara said a few minutes into the drive.

“Oh?”

“I know his wife, too.”

Lindsey looked at her friend, wondered where this was going.

“She’s pretty, but a real mercenary. She was a cheerleader, of all things, and sweet as could be. He never knew what hit him.”

“And she just doesn’t understand him, I guess.”

“Oh, no, she understands him alright. My guess is she’d like nothing more than to catch him having an affair, too. But then again, I think she fucks every twenty year old pool man, every tennis instructor, and every plumber she can get her mouth on.”

“What? How do you know all this?”

“Same country club, sweetie. The jungle telegraph doesn’t lie.”

“What about Doug? I don’t really know him.”

“He played linebacker here, All American, played in two Rose Bowls. Went straight to med school, again, here, then did his internship at Columbia, in New York City. Went to Georgetown for his residency, then came home. He’s been on the front lines of the AIDs epidemic, made his name there. Liz Taylor loved him, thought he walked on water. He fights for his patients, and if he doesn’t know something, he finds the answer. He’s kind of famous around here too, in some circles, anyway.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, he’s not a social animal. He’ll help raise money for charities, but he doesn’t go to the balls, if you know what I mean.”

“His wife doesn’t like that, I guess.”

“Like I said, mercenary. She’s in it for the money, and whatever prestige she can wrangle off him. I’m pretty sure he’s miserable, from the little I’ve heard, anyway. My advice? Be careful, be careful of her.”

Lindsey laughed a little. “No need. I can’t imagine getting involved with anyone at this stage of life?”

“Yeah? Tell me, when was the last time you were involved with anyone?”

Lindsey looked out the window, shrugged her shoulders.

“Yeah,” Sara said. “That’s just about what I thought.”

+++++

She heard the knock on the door a little before five, and she went to the door, let him in.

“Are you cooking,” he asked.

“A little something, in case. I have some wine, if you’d like.”

“I didn’t want you to go out of your way.”

“I was going to fix something for dinner anyway. I made a little extra.”

He went to the sofa and sat, then leaned back and sighed.

“Tough day?”

“Kind of. It’s like the hard cases never end, never stop coming. Like yours. The bugs you had running around in your system were exotic, stuff we never see over here. I was online talking with docs in London ten hours a day, for a week, too, trying to get to the bottom of it. Trouble is, it seems like that’s happening with more frequency now, and with new antibiotic-resistant bugs popping up almost daily, it’s just getting worse.”

“Sara told me you’re like that. Tenacious, I guess.”

“Sara?”

“She owns the Cantata.”

“Oh. Whiteman. Yeah, I’ve seen her at the country club. And what else did Sara have to say?”

“She gave me the rundown. Your wife, what she knows, anyway. And a little about you.”

“Well, hell, you opened the door so it can’t be all that bad.”

She laughed.

“You want to unvarnished version?”

“Sure.”

“She fucked around, a lot. Then she tested positive.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

“You’re treating her?”

“Nope. Ethically impossible. We live on opposite sides of the house, her treatment is supervised by a colleague in my department.”

“Your kids?”

“Two in college, one in high school.”

“I mean, do they know?”

He nodded his head. “Yup. We told ‘em a few years ago.”

“What they must have gone through,” she whispered.

“They’re good kids. Better than good, really.”

She looked him in the eye, and she could his honest love for them, feel his concern. “Well, I’ve made a Caesar salad, sliced some apples and cheese, and broiled a little steak. You want to open the wine?”

“You know, that sounds really good…”

When they had finished the dishes and put away the leftovers, he went to the sofa again and stretched out, and before she knew what had happened he was out for the count – on his side and breathing heavily. She went to the closet and covered him with a blanket, then sat in the chair by the sofa and watched him sleep – until she too fell away.

+++++

He came in early the next morning…the man in shorts with the long, waxy scar on his leg…and she watched him as he came to the counter…

“Good morning, Lindsey,” he said when it was his turn. “Howya doin’ this fine day?”

“Good,” she said, “and I’ll be a whole lot better as soon as you tell me your name!”

Yet he seemed hurt by that, and almost looked away. “John Asher? Ring any bells?”

“John!” she said, then she ran out from behind the counter and into his arms. “My God, it looks like you’ve lost a hundred pounds! I can hardly tell it’s you!” She hugged him for all he was worth, her joy genuine, her surprise complete. “Now…what on earth are you doing here?”

Asher had been in the Overseas Bureau at the Times, and might have been considered a world class journalist if not for his comically ironic anti-intellectualism. His book, unmasking the origins of right wing death squads in El Salvador – and America’s hidden role in the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero – had garnered his first Pulitzer – yet the paper let him go, claiming that his choice of subject matter was dangerously disingenuous, his investigative methods frequently incendiary and not altogether reliable.

Yet while they were at the Times together they had renewed a relationship that had been killed – and they remained friends until she went ‘undercover’ doing research for her own book. By the time she came back he’d been discharged, and then disappeared – to the Middle East, some said, while others claimed he’d gone to ground in Middle Earth – and was tripping out on magic mushrooms. Still, she remembered him now for what he had always been.

A friend. And more than a friend – from the earliest moments of her life. She remembered Asher – Asher the class clown – yet he had also been the agent-provocateur, the saboteur who taped condoms all over blackboards in the religious studies classroom – just before a local evangelical group was due to arrive for a lecture. Who covered all the toilets with clear plastic wrap – in the faculty restroom – causing a mess of near biblical proportions to wash across the floors. Who flushed waterproof blasting caps down toilets, blowing up pipes and sending tidal flows of raw sewage into first floor classrooms. He’d been an anarchist, and to school administrators, the anti-Christ – yet he was brilliant, and had – at times –an endearing, compassionate soul.

And like Lindsey, he had possessed a passion for exposing injustice, for shining a bright light on the dark underbelly of power. When he taped condoms over chalk-borne words, it was because he wanted to the world to know the preacher was a pedophile. When he covered toilets with clear plastic wrap, he wanted teachers to know he could see the shit they were trying to peddle as truth. And when he filled the school with sewage? Well, perhaps, Lindsey thought, Asher was telling it like it was.

He’d gone on to Columbia, to it’s famed Journalism School, then had come home. He covered the downtown beat for the Times, everything from politics to the struggles faced by the homeless, but he stirred up so much trouble the publisher had him promoted to the national desk. That lasted a year, lasted long enough for the White House to send a note to the publisher asking that Asher be sent to the North Pole, or perhaps Antarctica. So he had ended up in El Salvador, ostensibly to cover the simmering conflict in Nicaragua, then he discovered the conflict between the Salvadoran government and Óscar Romero. He photographed bodies of murdered nuns, and teenaged protesters’ savaged bodies when they were discovered in landfills. Then one night he discovered links between the Salvadoran military and US Special Forces, rivers of dark money siphoned from obscure political organizations in Florida and Delaware being used to pay squads of mercenaries operating in Salvadoran villages. Mercenaries who rounded up protesters in the middle of the night, who drove them to fields and gunned them down. When he photographed a series of massacres, and got them published in the United States, assassins tried, and failed, to take him out. The bureau’s office in San Salvador was firebombed, and reporters from all news organizations fled the region until the government issued assurances they wouldn’t be targeted. And assurances were issued, with one notable exception: Asher was now persona non grata, unwelcome in the region.

By the time his chronicle of Romero’s assassination came out, the Times had had enough. He was trouble, a born troublemaker, and his antics had apparently compromised the paper’s integrity, not to mention reporters’ lives. Then the government applied pressure, and that was that.

He had languished as a freelancer after that, but the 90s were not, in general, a good time for investigative journalists of any ilk. Corporate takeovers reduced the moral integrity of editorial offices, and reportorial skills began to slip away as papers began to focus on delivering content suitable to advertisers, and not to the needs of an informed populace.

And yet, the early 2000s were something else entirely.

The internet happened – and as suddenly came of age – at the end of the Clinton era, and then W, or George W Bush, was selected as President – by judicial coup d’état in Asher’s opinion – and with that moral imperative in mind he launched one of the first independent news journals on the web. Called Veritas, Asher and several like-minded journalistic firebombers now had the venue of their dreams, and in Bush, a subject worthy of their impressive, and impulsive, investigative talents.

And Lindsey watched these developments from the sidelines, often content to look on passively when Asher’s exposés tilted to anarchic narcissism, yet a couple of times she reached out to him, wondered what his motives really were.

“At heart,” he told her once, “I’m a Leninist. I want to weaken the foundations of the state, make truth a subjective commodity, weaken the current reality in the minds of the people – until I can replace it with what’s needed to bring the state down.”

“But…why?”

“Because the state is corrupt. Life in this country is corrupt, it’s been corrupted by greed, by an overwhelming lust for money and power. I’m going to use that greed, use that lust and turn it against the establishment. I’m going to get inside, then I’m going to light the match, start the fire and burn the whole fucking thing to the ground. I’m going to do it because that’s the only way we’ll ever change the course we’re on.”

“Fight evil with evil, then?”

“What’s evil?” he said. “I mean, really, what is it? It’s a word, Lindsey, that’s all. And the only thing that’s ever worked is either pure force or subversion from the inside. War is pointless now, so you have to get inside, subvert from within…and that’s all that’s left now. The state is too powerful, the truth is what the state says it is.”

And he had done just that, too. He was no longer an outsider.

And now, here he was, looking into her eyes – and she looked in his, saw fires raging in his soul, and she wondered what he wanted from her now.

+++++

She was sitting on the monastery wall, her legs dangling over the abyss, and she was watching the sun come to the day through amber clouds below and around the stones and trees. She took a deep breath, looked at her leg and wanted the pain to stop – but the pain reminded her of a lesson she had been slow to grasp. Go slow, take care where you put your feet, and understand the next step you take might be your last. She had found peace in the lesson, too. Move slowly through life, the monk said, understand the world around you, understand the consequences of your actions – and act only when you must.

She had looked at the men living in isolation on this cliff as something of an oddity – at first. Then she realized men had developed systems of religious interpretation around the world, independently of each other, and each had arrived at a similar conclusion: the best way to understand the nature of life and the infinite was to isolate oneself, and the more extreme the isolation the better. Work – and think – in silence, consider the nature of the self, and even the nature of reality, in extreme solitude. Existence, in this framework, became the conceptual basis for introspective self analysis – and the interesting thing is all this started happening around two thousand of years ago, it happened in several places around the world, and it happened almost concurrently.

Why? She wanted to know – why?

She had known that one group of desert fathers had wandered off into the Sinai, another into the scorched lands west of the pyramids, a few even before the time of Christ, and in the monastery she learned that the same impulse had enveloped the peoples of Southeast Asia – and at very nearly the same time.

Why?

Why had a few people separated by impossible distance experienced the same desire for cultural dissolution?

Was it in the nature of some men to question these things, or had something happened, something fundamental to man’s understanding of the world?

The first large cities developed during that era, the first systems of laws were implemented, and nomadic man increasingly became domesticated man. And she thought of Asher that morning as she watched the sun rise, and about his desire to burn the system down.

Was he a desert nomad, a wanderer forced into a life of solitude – forced to turn away from teeming hordes of greedy merchants, forced to endure injustice in the name of their all-consuming lust. Was the choice Asher confronted now just as it had been two thousand years ago – and would that choice endure, as man searched for a way out of the mazes human fallibility imposed? If man is condemned to endure endless failures of the human imagination, would the choice always be to endure or flee? Submit or flee into the desert? Run – from the world of the possible into the world of – what? – oblivion? From the world of cages into a hall of mirrors?

The monk who found her, who helped her climb the mountain and who had tried to set her leg, sat beside her in the sunrise, and she remembered the moment as the most sublimely perfect of her life.

+++++

“So, what have you been up to?” Asher asked.

She shook her head. “Not much.”

“I read about your trip, in the Times. About how ill you were when you got home.”

“Touch and go for a while, or so they told me. How do you like D.C.?”

“It’s getting warm, isn’t it?”

“I suppose you’re happy now?”

“Not quite, but we’re getting there.”

“I thought about you once, in a monastery – of all places.”

“You thought about me?”

“Yes, you. And Lenin, and Ayn Rand.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I thought of a passage in Atlas Shrugged, where Reardon and Taggart are looking out over a ruined industrial landscape, and they look down on destitute workers as vermin to be swept aside when their utility is gone.”

“And that made you think of me?”

“Yes. And isn’t that odd? But then again, I’ve always wondered why you gave in to such an easy hate.”

He grinned. “I told you once before. Hate works. Hate is powerful. Hate is readily molded into an easily exploitable energy. And more than anything else, hate is the truth of human existence.”

“Ah. Well, I’ve seen you in here several times the last week or so. Anything I need to know about?”

“Oh, I just wanted to ask you out. To dinner.”

“When?”

“Tonight?”

“Alright. I get home around two.”

“Could you be ready by four?”

“Of course. I would imagine…”

“Yes, of course, and I’ll pick you up then.”

“I assume you know where I live?”

He grinned.

“I see. Well…”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then,” he said as he picked up his coffee, then he stopped and put sugar in his cup then walked out the door.

“My God,” Sara whispered. “Is that who I think it is?”

She watched Asher walk out to his now-ancient Land Rover, yet she turned away before he drove off.

“Why did you agree to go out with him?”

She turned to her friend and saw the shock in her eyes. “Because,” Lindsey said, “I have to.”

“You have to? I wonder…could you, like, tell me why?”

“No. I don’t think there’s any way I could ever explain.”

Sara shook her head, and wondered why Lindsey always seemed to choose the road to ruin. It was so easy for her, and always had been.

+++++

He knocked on her door a few minutes ‘til four, and she went out rapidly, closed the door behind her. “You still have the Rover, I see.”

“I can’t stand the idea of parting with her, for some reason.”

“So, where’d you want to go.”

“I know a guy with a food truck, makes outrageous tacos. He’s supposed to be down in Venice this evening.”

“Okay. That sounds right.”

And because the terrain they inhabited was a scorched land of hard, barren secrets, she knew the choice was anything but random. For once upon a time, in a land just down the road a few miles, they had come into this world together – in a most unusual, and slightly troublesome way.

+++++

And this troublesome world came to be some forty years before they were born.

At a high school, in Hollywood, California.

When a boy and a girl, not yet fifteen years old, fell in love. They had, for all intents and purposes, been in love since second grade – when they were seven years old, but love wasn’t what they called it.

Ben Asher ran into Sophie Marsalis, literally, one morning during recess, when the entire second grade was out on the playground. Ben was being chased by two neighborhood bullies, running in a blind panic; Sophie and a handful of friends were blowing bubbles, looking up at their creations as they drifted away on a mid-morning breeze. The collision was accidental, unanticipated, and both of them claimed to see stars after. Parents were called, trips to doctors hastily arranged, and both were fine. The next day life resumed where it had left off, only Ben began spending more and more time with Sophie.

No one could explain it, but from that moment on their lives seemed intertwined, like shoots of ivy on an old stone wall, and over time the structure of their lives began to revolve around one simple fact. They were together, and as far as either was concerned they always would be.

And this never changed. Not through grade school, not through junior high school, and not even in high school. What did change did so in their fifteenth year, when Ben openly declared, in Mrs Graham’s Social Studies class, the he loved Sophie, and that he always would. And to the astonishment of his classmates, and we’ll not even mention Mrs Graham’s reaction, Ben produced a ring and asked his Sophie to be his wife.

And not to put too simple a spin on things, Sophie said yes.

And then they kissed one another – which earned them both a quick trip to Mr Spradlin’s office. Mr Spradlin was the vice-principal, and though he was in charge of disciplinary actions, he was a kind-hearted old man; when Mrs Graham frog-marched the star-crossed young lovers into his office he listened to the teacher’s explanation and smiled, then asked if he could sleak to the two of them – “and alone, Mrs Graham, if you please?”

When they were alone in the old man’s office, he looked at them and sighed.

“Ben, do you understand the solemn nature of what you’ve just asked of Sophie?”

“Yessir, I do.”

“Sophie? Anything to say?”

“No, not really. I’ve loved Ben all my life, and I’ll love him ‘til the day I die. And there’s not a whole lot more I think needs to be said.”

And old man Spradlin had looked at the girl’s earnest integrity and nodded his head. “Okay,” he said. “Why don’t you two wait around in here, ‘til the bell rings anyway, then head on to your next class.”

Yet by that point word had spread far and wide – even the librarians were all abuzz with the news – and everywhere they went people whispered behind little sidelong glances. Until one day, a few weeks later, a handful of the school’s bullies tried to taunt Ben Asher about his audacity.

And Ben Asher went ballistic.

And bullies being bullies, they fled in terror after two of Ben’s right jabs connected, breaking one nose and splitting one lip.

And oddly enough, no one ever taunted Ben or Sophie ever again.

They went to dances together, and to the Senior Prom together, yet by that point they were considered by one and all a married couple – even if they were seventeen years old. Classmates, particularly girls in their class, looked at them and sighed, seemed to recognize something ‘Serious’ about them both, something in their eyes that just seemed settled, and committed.

They stayed in West LA, and started UCLA in 1962; Sophie studied economics, while Ben majored in aeronautical engineering, and they planned to marry as soon as they graduated.

Then the president was murdered, and Sophie changed her major to Journalism. Ben began to take his studies more seriously, then enrolled in ROTC. On graduation day he told Sophie he was reporting to a Naval Aviation Induction Center in Beeville, Texas, to begin flight training, and she was as proud of him as she had ever been.

And she was still proud of him when, three years later, Ben’s parents received a telegram from the Secretary of the Navy informing them that their son had been killed over North Vietnam.

Yet this was the swinging sixties, and Sophie had begun to change, if only a little, and when she finished graduate school she took a job with the Washington Post. And she moved away, cutting all ties to her previous life. She met a man, an editor a few years older than herself, not a half year after moving to the East Coast. A man named Prentice Hollister. He seemed in a hurry, indeed almost anxious to marry Sophie, and after a brief courtship they did indeed marry.

And a few months later her parents called. It was a bleak December day, a day full of snow and silent remorse, and then her father told her that Ben was home. His jet had been shot down but he had ejected, then had spent eighteen months evading capture on a wild trek that saw him chased through the western mountains of North Vietnam by NVA regulars, and they kept up their pursuit through Laos and Burma – and into Bhutan. The few remaining Vietnamese soldiers turned back then, but they did so reluctantly.

Desperately ill, he was found by herdsmen, then taken to a monastery, where Bhutanese monks cared for his wounds. In time, they carried him to a UN aid station, and almost two years to the day, two long years after his death, he walked off a Medevac aircraft inbound from Hawaii and fell into his mother’s arms.

+++++

Lindsey remembered Venice. A destitute, ramshackle little village forty years ago, barren, polluted and sickly, now the vibe was trendy, almost punchdrunk. Mature trees adorned her tight little streets, the canals no longer gave off a fetid, oil-soaked stench, and hipsters walked her streets now, usually to marijuana dispensaries but occasionally to one of the endless upscale eateries that popped up or passed away with comical regularity. Bikini-clad roller-skaters were as common a sight as transsexuals sunbathing on the beach – because in Venice the current vibe was ‘anything goes’ – and so it was.

John found a parking place for the Land Rover and they took off on foot – down well-established and long forgotten streets and sidewalks – and they found a covey of food trucks and ordered tacos and giros and bottles of ginger beer before they walked over to the beach. They went to a bench they been to a hundred times before and they sat in time to see the sun slip behind clouds far out to sea.

They tipped their bottles, said an ancient toast – ancient to them, anyway – then they ate in silence, savoring memories they’d made here, together, along the way, then he gathered up their wrappers and bottles and took it down to a rubbish bin. She waited for him, waited for this meeting to begin, while the last of the sun’s heat washed over her, and when he got back to her he draped his windbreaker over her shoulders before he sat.

Then he sighed. A long, labored sigh.

“I’d like you to come to work for me. In D.C.,” he began.

And she looked at him, shook her head. “No.”

“I’m not going to take no for an answer.”

“You’ll have to, I’m afraid.”

He snorted. “Let’s see. Your book netted you a million…”

“I wish.”

“You put that into the house, and you held on to the house for fifteen years. You sold it for two point five, put the proceeds into secure, conservative investment portfolios, and your net worth right now is a little south of five mill. Not bad, considering. Now, will you come to work for me in D.C.?”

She looked at him, a blank expression in her eyes, on her face.

“Well, I’ll take that as a no. So, tomorrow morning the IRS will place holds on all your accounts…”

“And I’ll be on an airplane by then.”

“But Lindsey, your Passport has been revoked.”

She laughed. “Then I’ll start up the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ve always wanted to walk it.”

“Ah, well then, I’ll have the US Marshals concentrate their search for you in that area.”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

“I know, but I had to ask.”

“So…why?”

“Why? Because I still need you – I’ll always need you. You’ve always been my conscience, the bedrock my life was built around.”

“Funny how things turn out sometimes.”

“No. It was never funny, not in the slightest. That was the darkest day of my life, and to me it always will be.”

+++++

They were in school together, from the beginning. Hawthorne Elementary, off Alpine in Beverly Hills. They’d walk home together in autumn, their feet kicking through swirls of golden leaves as they danced along the sidewalks – and her mother, Sophie, baked oatmeal cookies with raisons in them every Saturday morning. By that time, John’s parents lived three blocks away, on Foothill Road – and the Ashers and the Hollisters spent a fair amount of time together.

One of John’s enduring memories of those years was of Lindsey’s mother, Sophie, who seemed to become unusually sad anytime she was near his father, and he never understood why. In some ways they were echoes of other children, too. They seemed unusually close for kids so young, like there was a link as yet undiscovered between the two, yet by the time high school came around, and when they first voiced an interest in dating, they were cut off from one another, then there was talk of sending him away to a boarding school.

And so perhaps it was John was thought things through first. Sophie Hollister, always sad around his father. The persistent rumors that Prentice Hollister liked men. The way his father ignored Sophie, and the tender resentment he saw in his mother’s eye whenever Sophie was around.

He was with his father one Saturday morning, driving to the hardware store, when the question came, out of the blue.

“Dad? Is Lindsey my sister?” he asked.

And his father just looked at him, then said, simply, “Yes.”

And that was all that was ever said about the matter. Lives fluttered and drifted on currents of innuendo and embarrassment, but in truth all that remained between the families over time was silent and dark, like a rough beast that lurked outside, just out of sight.

Though he told Lindsey a few nights later, when they snuck out their houses and met up at a little park north of Sunset Boulevard.

“Yes, of course,” Lindsey said, “I think I knew that.”

“I feel terrible,” he said. “I’ve loved you all my life, and now…”

“John, you’ll love me all your life, because that’s what you were born to do.”

And then they laughed. They laughed because for the very first time in their lives they felt uncomfortable around one another, like the cogs and gears turning the universe had slipped and fallen away, and were now forever out of reach, and they drifted apart, too. Gently, at first, but then more insistently.

No one suspected anything, of course. Just two teenagers who came to a crossroads in the night, and made the only choice they could.

+++++

But uncertain gravities pulled at them from time to time over the years. They called each other when confronted by inconsolable problems, and more than once one leaned on the other’s shoulder when grief beckoned.

Yet when Ben Aster died, for instance, theirs was a common grief, and they came together not as friends-in-need but as brother and sister, and their grief was real, overwhelming and real. Her mother held onto them both at the service with a fierce possessiveness that surprised many of those gathered.

And yet, sitting on this bench, this bench of all the places on the world, was their touchstone, the one place that the universe allowed them to be what they truly wanted to be. Intimate, in a way. A month before their graduation from high school John announced he was taking Lindsey to their senior prom, and when parents squirmed under the weight of too much confusion he asked his father to come with him, for a drive.

And he drove that evening, a subtle change of orientation, perhaps. Drove his father down to Venice Beach, then they walked over to the promenade, the sidewalk along the beach. Sophie and Lindsey were there, waiting for them, on the bench, and for the only time in their lives they acknowledged the truth. In fact, they reveled in the truth. They talked for hours, they they got up and walked along in the evening as a family, as, perhaps, the family they should have been.

“I remember the night,” John said a few minutes into a passing sigh, “when we walked. How they held onto each other. How the truth of the universe came to them in those few hours.”

“The only time I ever saw them together when my mother wasn’t terrified, and lonely.”

“I never liked Prentice,” John said. “There was something…”

“Dishonest, John, is the word. He was a pretender, a chameleon. I never knew where I stood with him…”

“No one did. Do you ever miss him?”

“Not really. I miss watching our parents right here, together.”

Asher nodded. “I miss you. I miss us.”

“I know.”

“We could live nearby, at least. See each more more often.”

“No, we couldn’t. That’s the truth, John, and you know it.”

“It’s not a physical thing, you know. I just feel like half my soul has been cut away…”

“It was, John. That’s always been our truth.”

“Is that why you left, the reason why you went on that little walk?”

“Part of it, yes. But I don’t understand the world, this life – not like I think I should, anyway.”

“And you’re still searching, aren’t you?”

She nodded her head. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “For saying those things…”

And she took his hand, kissed his fingers then looked into his eyes with a ferocity that shook him to his core: “John, you never need to apologize to me for a thing – not now, not ever.”

“Life is a cruel joke, isn’t it?” he said.

“No, it’s not. It’s anything but. It’s a gift, John. The most precious gift in the universe.”

He nodded his head slowly. “Can you tell me about him?”

“Who?”

“The doc. Has anything happened yet?”

“No.”

“Do you think it will?”

“Yes. Someday. Not yet.”

“Do you love him?”

She nodded her head, and he smiled.

“I thought so. What are you going to do now?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Bhutan,” he said, his voice lost among his fears. “You’re going back, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Soon?”

“I don’t know. There are a few things I need to finish here, but yes, soon enough.”

“Will you ever come back?”

“No.”

A tremble passed between them, a shaking in the universe, and he squeezed her hand. “I’m not sure I can deal with this.”

“I know I can’t, but that’s…”

“Why you have to go.”

“Yes.”

They walked back to the Rover a few minutes later, and as they approached the old beast he stopped and looked at her weathered lines. He drifted back to that day, in those days after he was let go from the Times. He was almost broke, needed a car, and she’d picked him up and driven him around, looking at cars. Then she saw this one and smiled. “It suits you,” she said, then she bought it for him. He drove her up to Westwood, the little Rover an echo of those days, and when he stopped in front of her apartment on Gayley he looked up at the smoggy dome of the night and shook his head.

“Will you at least call me? Before you leave?”

“No. I can’t do that to you.”

“Why do I think this is our goodbye?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it?”

She shrugged. “Who knows what’s waiting out there?”

He turned cold. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to tear it all down, start all over again.”

She saw him walking down Alpine after school, kicking at swirling leaves – forever – and she smiled, tried not to laugh at the little boy by her side in the Rover.

+++++

She tried not to smile when, in the professorial rush the next morning, she saw the boy with the rucksack come in and sit by the window again. He pulled out her book and put it on the table, then came up and ordered coffee from her, then he went back to his table and sat. Then he picked up the book, looked at the back cover – then at her. He shook his head, but when she called his name and he came up to get his coffee, he looked at her again, slowly this time, carefully now.

“Excuse me,” he said – holding the book up, “but is this you?”

She nodded. “I’m sorry, but yes, it is.”

“Holy crap,” he muttered under his breath.

She sputtered through a happy laugh. “Wow,” she said, still shaking, “I’ve never had such a glowing review.”

“This is one of our textbooks,” he said, “but it’s much more than that.”

“Oh, what’s it like…to you?”

“It’s been, I don’t know, more like a call to arms.”

“Ah.”

“Is that you meant it to be? A manifesto?”

“No,” she sighed, still smiling. “Just a little slice of truth, a voice in the wilderness, perhaps.”

“We have to write a research paper…I was just wondering, could I interview you?”

“Me? Good heavens…why?”

“Why? Are you kidding? You’re called like, I don’t know, the conscience of a generation…”

“Really?” she said, suddenly feeling like she was back in high school – and the principal had caught her reading Lolita behind the gymnasium. “Good God, but that’s silly.”

“So? Could I?”

“I get off at one. Could you come by then?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I sure can.”

“Okay. Now go drink your coffee before it gets cold.”

Sara had ignored her all morning but she came up now. “Seems a little young for you,” she said. “Maybe you should throw this one back.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“So how’d last night go?”

“Gently, quietly into that good night, my dear Sara.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You know, I never understood you. Not back in high school, and certainly not now.”

“Really? You didn’t?”

“You two were so close, then – poof – nothing. Then you show up at the prom together. Now he’s in the White House, he’s mister know it all, then he shows up here all goo-goo eyes – and anyone can tell he’s…”

“No, he’s not, Sara.”

“Yeah, sure – whatever you say. So what happened?”

“We said goodbye.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well, I guess I’m sorry then.”

+++++

He was waiting outside when she got off at one, and he walked beside up the hill to her apartment, but she walked over to the swimming pool and sat.

“You live here?” he asked nervously.

“Yup.”

“Oh.”

“I’m going to go get some lemonade. Want one?”

“Sure.”

She went inside, changed out of her work clothes and poured two glasses, then went back to the pool. “Here you go,” she said as she put his drink down, then she sat in the shade of a dusty umbrella. “So, fire away?”

“You know, I just want to know about you right now. Where you’re from, that kind of thing?”

“Me? I grew up a few miles from here, went to school and worked here.”

“Were your parents poor?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Isn’t that an inherent contradiction?”

“Why would it be?”

“You’re writing about poverty, and inequality, yet those would seem to be foreign to your upbringing?”

“So? I’m a reporter. A researcher. I look for facts to reveal an undefined truth, not the other way around.”

“How so?” I wasn’t looking to to write something to help define a pre-existing agenda. I was hoping to find a few undiscovered truths out there, maybe employ them to help make sense of what I found. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Pete, but my dad calls me Bud. Could you, too?”

“Call you Bud? Sure.”

“Oh, God. Here he comes.”

“Who? Your father?”

She turned, saw Doug coming through the gate, and she watched him coming up the stairs, then saw recognition in his eyes – when he saw her, and his son.

“Bud? What are you doing here?”

“Hey, Dad. Working on a research paper, I guess. Do you know…”

“Yes, I’m her physician. How are you doing today, Lindsey?”

“Not bad,”she said, trying not to smile at his obvious discomfort. “And you?”

“Mom called. Wants me to look at Dad, I was running up now. You going to be long?” he said to his son.

“I don’t know? Maybe.”

“Well, I’ll be down in a minute. Why don’t we go out to dinner. The three of us.”

Bud looked after his father when he walked away. “Am I missing something?” he said to her.

“Such as?”

“I don’t know. I felt some kind of weird energy between you two.”

“Really? Well, he saved me life. We’ve talked a few times.”

“Has he told you about my mother?”

“Very little. Why?”

“I don’t know. It just seems like our lives have been defined by the wars between them?”

“Wars?”

“Yeah. It’s like she decided, somewhere back in time, that the purpose of her existence was to tear him down. I don’t know why he stuck it out with her.”

“Perhaps love had something to do with it?”

“You know, I doubt it.”

“Maybe he needed someone to tear him down.”

“What? Why? Why would you say that?”

“Maybe she kept him focused on what was most important to him. Medicine. Healing.”

Bud seemed to have trouble absorbing that; he sat back and looked up into the sky, shook his head. “You, like, see into people, don’t you? Like empathy, only deeper.”

“Do I?”

“It comes through in here,” he said, holding up her book, “like in every page.”

“Maybe you’re confusing empathy with insight.”

“No, I don’t think so. Do you like my dad. I mean, like him – that way?”

“I think I could.”

“I see. Are you working on a book now? I mean, working at that coffee shop can’t be your idea of…”

“Fun? Work isn’t about fun, Bud. It’s about self-respect.”

“So, it’s not, like, research?”

She shook her head. “Groceries and rent come to mind as good reasons to work.”

He chuckled. “Yeah. Guess so.”

“You’ll know so, soon enough.”

“Are you working on a book right now?”

She sighed, looked at her hands sitting on her lap, then into his eyes. “I’m not sure yet. Maybe.”

“I kind of hope you do.”

“Interesting times, aren’t they? Why don’t you work on a book?”

“Me?”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know squat. I haven’t had any experiences of my own yet.”

“Ah. Well, maybe that ought to be your first priority right about now.”

“It doesn’t feel like the right time…”

“It never feels like the right time.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. I see, said the blind man.”

He nodded, then pinched his brow. “How’d you get sick?”

“I went on a walk.”

“A walk? Where?”

“Started in Shanghai, walked south across China, into Tibet. Then I crossed the eastern Himalaya, walked into Bhutan.”

His eyes went round as saucers. “You did? Why?”

“Oh, in a way I was following in my father’s footsteps. I was trying to escape.”

“Escape? From what?”

“Inevitability.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. Not yet, anyway.”

“So. You’re going back out there? To keep walking?”

“I don’t know. Maybe – someday.”

They turned and looked at Doug when he came out of the building, and watched his eyes as he sat down in the sun.

“I think Mother needed a little pat on the shoulder,” he said. “How are things going here?”

“Good,” his son said.

“You reading that for Portman’s class?” Doug said, pointing at her book.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“What did you think of it?”

“It’s an anthem generator, a call to arms,” the boy said, looking into his father’s eyes.

“And?”

“And it’s confusing, Dad, the why of things?”

“Oh?”

“Yes, sometimes there’s not clarity until you see things with your own eyes.”

“And what do you see, Bud.”

“You two are in love.”

Lindsey put her lemonade on the table – fearing she she might spill it. “Jumping to conclusions, Bud?”

“I don’t think so. Not from where I’m sitting, anyway.”

“Bud, that’s not appropriate. We haven’t even…”

“Dad, I don’t want to hear it. You know, if you haven’t, well then, shame on you. You’ve denied love all your life, and now, here it is, right in front of you, waiting. And still you’re waiting? For what, I wonder? Maybe so mother can come and tear this apart, right in front of your eyes?”

Father looked at son, friend looked at them both, each lost in the moment.

“So, just when did you get so smart?” Doug asked quietly, looking down at his hands.

“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe you just thought we’re blind, but you know something? We’re not.”

“Doug?” Lindsey said, blissfully now. “Need something to drink? Lemonade perhaps. A little hemlock on the side?”

And the three of them just looked at one another, then laughed.

+++++

She fell into their new routine.

She worked in the morning, then Doug came by in the middle of the afternoon and they talked for a while, before he went up to check on his father, and then, with her little red journals open on the desk she would fire up the Mac and start writing. She wrote about herdsmen and farmers, monks and monasteries, and when she wrote about her father’s desperate walk from North Vietnam to Bhutan she compared some of his observations to her own.

But it all came down to mountains and valleys, the sun rising – and setting. Running from your fellow man, then falling into the arms of good people who were willing to help. Highs and lows, good and evil. She had focused on inequality in her first book, and while she didn’t want to revisit those themes in her writing, she found it an inescapable burden to do so, to turn away now.

Some days Bud knocked on the door, wanted to talk – about this or that – his research paper one day, what she found so mesmerizing about Bhutan the next.

“Mesmerizing?” she said when he asked her that. “Do I appear hypnotized?”

“Sometimes,” he said – almost evasively. “You never appear anxious, but when you talk about that monastery it’s like someone has opened the floodgates, and you’re dancing with Prince Valium.”

“Holy cow…Prince Valium?”

“Oh, sorry. That’s my mom’s weapon of choice.”

“Weapon?”

“How she beats back the world.”

“Ah.”

“I’m curious, how do you beat back the world?”

She looked at him, curious now, about what he was trying to get at. “I’m not sure you can. Why?”

“Can you stop with the Zen riddles for a moment?”

Riddles, she thought. Am I a riddle?

“I can try,” she replied. He seemed despondent one moment, curious the next, but she thought something was different today, some little spark was in his eyes that hadn’t been there the last time she saw him. “What is it you want to say?”

He looked away, lost in his thoughts. “You know, you’re like a statue, maybe a lonely goddess in a cool garden, chiseled of pure white marble. You’re this gorgeous thing, like God started in on you and decided to make you his idea of perfection. When I talk to you I feel myself falling in love with you, and I can’t help it,” he said, his lips trembling. “I can’t help looking at you and feeling the way I do.”

“Then why are you hiding?”

“Hiding?”

“Yes. Your feelings.”

“Because I think it’s wrong.”

“To love someone?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” she said, “are you’re confusing love with sex?”

“I – what?”

“You feel love, but you feel conflict with the idea, and is that because the idea of sex is bound to your idea of love?”

“No, I don’t think so. I mean, I see you as one set of things – a writer, say, but I look at you and I pretty much want to crawl in the sack and get it on with you, too.”

“Really? Well, good luck with that.”

“I know, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at, so don’t worry.”

“What are you trying to get at, Bud?” She watched his fingers now, fidgeting a little, his eyes not making contact.

“I’m afraid. Afraid of Bhutan. Afraid you’re going to leave one day, and Dad will go with you.”

“That’s an awful lot of fear, don’t you think?”

“No, it’s not hardly enough. My mother’s sicker than hell, and I wonder what will happen to us – if Dad leaves after she dies.”

“I don’t know, but what makes you think he’d leave? For that matter, why do you think I’m leaving?”

“You’ve as much as told me that before, Lindsey. And Dad sure thinks you are.”

“Really? How strange. I’m not sure what I’m having for dinner, let alone moving half way around the world. But it’s curious.”

“Curious?”

“Yes. So much fear over something that isn’t? But, it’s more than just odd, to me, anyway. Like it’s kind of odd that you’d tell me you’d like to take me to bed. Kind of like there are no boundaries any more. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah. I know I shouldn’t have said that…”

“But you did. Why, I wonder?”

“Sometimes I think there just isn’t time for all that anymore.”

“All that? What do you mean?”

“Civility, maybe, or the remnants of decaying social conventions.”

She looked away from his words, yet she had to consider a potential truth in his idea – consider them a partial truth, anyway, perhaps a universal truth, waiting to be explored. And, she thought, maybe, just maybe, such collapses in norms had precipitated the flight of the desert fathers, perhaps been a force that informed the monastic impulse, and she wanted to turn and write – and then it hit her.

Writing wasn’t the same thing as living, just as living in fear isn’t the same thing as being afraid. One is contemplation, the other – experience – so why was he afraid of something so nebulous? Or was he, really?

“I wonder, Bud, has time become so precious? Civility exists to smooth out the rough edges, to help create a little harmony. Is that such a bad thing? Or have we come to that point again?”

“Again?”

“Oh, nothing. Just a thought.”

“Do you know how beautiful you are? I mean, do you ever think about it?”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, but it’s a simple question? Do you?”

“I’m not sure I can answer that, Bud. Physical beauty is not something I’ve ever given a great deal of thought to, in anyone, and especially not when it concerns me.”

“I think that’s what I’m trying to get at, in a round about way. Yet you seem to write about ugliness all the time. Not physical ugliness, but, well, maybe moral ugliness. Do you ever wonder what the results would be if people were bombarded with tales of ugliness day-in and day-out, so much so that they forgot what beauty was? Real beauty, I mean?”

“That’s a good question, Bud. But what is real beauty?”

“I’m not sure I know. I know it’s not necessarily manufactured beauty, the Hollywood formula of beauty, anyway. That kind of beauty is packaged and sold, but then again, maybe the most beautiful sunset in the world isn’t really beautiful after all. It’s here one minute, gone the next.”

“So, beauty must be permanent?”

He shook his head. “Maybe ethereal is a better word? Or otherworldly?”

She heard a knock on the door, saw Doug come in and she wanted to turn away, sigh in relief.

“So, have you two solved all the world’s problems?”

“We were talking about beauty,” Bud said.

“Oh? What about it?”

“I think,” she interjected, “I’m getting hungry. Anyone ready for dinner?”

And Doug looked at his son, then at her, and he saw the relief in her eyes. “Yeah. You know, I am. Bud? You too? Or do you need to get to work on something for school?”

“I need to go to the library, see if something’s back on the shelf, then do some calculus homework. We have an exam on Friday.”

“Okay, Lindsey, I guess you’re stuck with me.

She felt so uneasy she could hardly eat, and he picked up on it almost immediately. “You know, Borderline Personality Disorder is a spectrum disorder, from mild to severe. I think he’s in the middle somewhere, but I’m not sure. He doesn’t understand boundaries, that much I know.”

“No kidding.”

“He crossed a few, did he?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Jesus. That bad?”

She shook her head. “No, but thanks for telling me. I wasn’t sure what to think.”

“He’s fragile, Lindsey. Always has been. I found out a few years ago there were no boundaries between he and his mother.”

She nodded her head. “I suspected as much. He seems very confused. He also seems afraid you’ll abandon him.”

“Oh? Well, I’m not surprised.”

“Yes. Running off to Bhutan with someone seems high on his list. I would say if you did so after his mother passed, well, he might be in real trouble.”

“I know. But the real trouble, Lindsey, isn’t with Bud.”

“Oh?”

“It’s his sister.”

“She’s the one still in high school?”

He nodded his head. “Yes. Except she’s not. She’s in an in-patient psychiatric hospital, outside of Ojai. Paranoid schizophrenic, and in very bad shape.” He was looking away, trying to keep it together. “Some mistakes we never stop paying for, I guess.”

“Where’s your oldest? Did you say in Boston?”

“Yes. BC. He escaped the worst of it, I think. Madeleine had perfected her technique by the time Sissy came along. Her psychiatrist refers to my wife as ‘that monster’ – if that’s a good indicator of her disposition.”

“I saw a good deal of it in Mississippi. Except there are no mental health facilities when you’re broke.”

“I know.”

“They’re lucky to have you, Doug. Someone to help pick up the pieces.”

“There are no pieces to pick up where Sissy is concerned, Lindsey. She’ll never get better than she is right now, in fact, as she ages she’ll only get worse.”

“Is it that bad?”

“It’s worse.”

“Could I go up with you, when you visit?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure. I’d have to ask. Fragile doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on with her right now.”

“How about you, Doug? How are you coping?”

He snorted a little, tried to keep his irony in-check. “Me? I write the checks, try to keep the fires from spreading out of control.”

“And your mother calls you about your dad how many times a day?”

He shrugged.

“And now I’m just throwing fuel on the fire, aren’t I? With Bud?”

“I knew it was coming. I should have prepared you.”

“You can’t do everything, Doug. If you try, you might just makes things worse.”

“I probably already have.”

“Knock it off. The self-pity thing doesn’t suit you. Keeping it together, keeping focused helps. Keeping me in the loop might help, too. Letting me pick up some of the load when you don’t feel you can might too.”

“I can’t ask that of you.”

“Okay, so don’t ask. I’m telling you this right now: I’m here, and I’m helping.”

He nodded, turned to look at her eyes. “I wish I wasn’t so in love with you?”

“Oh? Why?”

“Because you have no idea how impossible this all is.”

And she laughed. “Oh, is that right? Listen, one day I’ll tell you all about impossible, but for now, please, stop with all the goddamn self-pity, would you? Really, you’re embarrassing me, so stop acting like a two year old.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Good.”

+++++

She began to listen to the people in the coffee shop after that night, to the miseries of affluence, as she began to call it, for she soon understood that the people of West LA were often as miserable as the people in poorest Mississippi, and frequently more so.

But why, she wondered?

She had gone on the assumption, twenty years earlier, that money was the root of inequality, that a certain lack of material affluence was the primary cause of human misery in poorer regions of the country. And clearly it was, in a material sense, anyway, but what she was seeing now was a poverty of the soul, a depreciation of the spirit that had nothing at all to do with material prosperity. So, what she was witnessing was an entirely new, to her, anyway, sort of inequality – and it troubled her.

Clearly, having money helps, she knew. Doug could get high quality mental health care for his daughter, while most people in rural Mississippi didn’t even know what a psychiatrist was. Yet by almost any measure she could think of, Doug, and Doug’s family, was miserable in ways very similar to the desperately poor.

So, she watched and listened, as she had twenty years before. To the customers who came in and out of a coffee shop in West LA, one of the most prosperous enclaves in one of the most prosperous cities in the world. People came into the place and thought nothing of spending five dollars on a cup of coffee – an amount of money that could feed a family in West Africa for a month, or a family in Mississippi for, perhaps, a few days. She began to pay attention to facial expressions and the tone of voice she heard. To expressions of happiness, or anxiety – and even to how people paid for their coffee, and how much they tipped when they left the shop. She took notes in a new journal, and she parsed her observations when she got home, tried to make sense of her day…

She remembered the studies John Calhoun conducted in the late 40s with rats, looking at population pressure and how increasing population affected species survival, and she wondered: could it be as simple as that? Did packing millions of people into cities like LA and New York, or London, Shanghai or Rio de Janeiro cause immense breakdowns in the ability to experience happiness?

And could this be the same as the dissolution that spurred the monastic impulse two thousand years earlier? Was this, instead of being an aberration, more an inevitable component of the human condition? If Hobbesian capitalism lead inexorably to Malthusian population pressures, which seemed to be a common criticism from Descartes to Marx, where was the payoff? Where was the ultimate good? If being poor was bad for the human psyche, where was the payoff if being rich made you equally as miserable, if only in a different way? If the common denominator was money, what was it about modern society that allowed a medium of exchange to exert so much influence over emotional well-being?

She began to read more about experiments in guaranteed minimum incomes being tried in the Netherlands and Sweden, but there just wasn’t enough data yet. She moved on to anthropological studies of almost prehistoric tribes discovered early in the twentieth century, in places like New Guinea and deep within the Amazonian basin, places where mediums of exchange were more primitive than had existed in China and Europe three thousand years ago, but all the data she found was inconclusive at best, more likely too speculative to be of any use.

She began to reread the works of C Wright Mills, particularly his work on the emasculation of the middle class found in White Collar. That book had formed the basis of her early research on inequality, so she turned to it once again, thinking she might find a new way to look at the problem – but no, she was onto something subtly different now.

Maybe the problem was too obvious, she thought, to even be considered a ‘problem’ – maybe the issue she had latched onto was more basic still, simple human nature.

But human nature is far from simple, she chided herself, then she spilled coffee on her hand, dropped a cup to the floor. “Damn!” she muttered as she bent to clean up her mess, and when she stood she saw Bud walking in the door, and an older man who stood by his side across the counter seemed to be with him.

“Hey, Bud,” she said, wiping coffee from her wrist, “haven’t seen you in a while. What can I get you?”

“Oh, the usual,” meaning a two liter high octane jolt. “Lindsey, this is my sociology prof, Dr Portman, and after reading my research paper he wanted to meet you.”

She looked at this man, her friend for so many years, and she tried to gauge his mood. Still, in his bow-tied way, in his round, tortoise shell glasses and chalk-dust-covered jacket, he was even now every bit the harried, ironic academic. “Good to see you,” she smiled slyly – if duplicitously, while holding out her damp hand. “Oh, piffle!” she added, wiping her hand completely before taking his.

“Yes, indeed. So, Peter tells me he interviewed you several times while writing this paper – of his. I wondered if you’d have a moment to talk about some of the issues raised?”

Sara came and took over the counter, told her to go sit and talk for a while, so she took off her apron after she made their coffee, then went out and sat with them at Bud’s favorite table.

And it was funny, because she really wasn’t sure what the thesis of his paper was, only that he’d asked questions and she’d talked with him for hours and hours about her experiences in Mississippi and Bhutan. Beyond that, she was in the dark, and she told Portman just that.

He smiled, told her he understood. “Still, you see, I’ve used your book in class for several years now, and many of my students have, over the years, chosen to focus on that work, but none has ever taken the approach Peter has. He has found his way into the thicket, I think, into an intellectual conundrum, perhaps.”

“Oh? Well, good for him.”

“Yes, precisely. He seems to have stumbled onto something quite unusual, namely that a diffuse cultural dissatisfaction permeates modern life, but this anomie has left breadcrumbs through history, back to the desert fathers in Egypt and the Sinai.”

“Oh, how interesting?” she said, trying to force calm into her voice, yet she noted how intently he peered into her eyes just then.

“Yes, just so, but no need to bother with all that just now. I simply wanted to meet you, and to thank you for your book. It has been like a godsend, in it’s way, over the years, and I wanted to talk with you, later, perhaps, about a few lingering questions I have. So…I wondered if you might have some time?”

“Of course. I get off at one, so if you want drop by then, and if you’d like we can walk up to my place and have tea.”

“Excellent! Would this afternoon work out, by any chance?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Fine,” he said, turning to Bud. “Well, let’s not keep this young lady from her appointed rounds.”

“I’ll see you later,” she said, looking at Portman, then she walked off – livid – and she was still simmering when he came by at the end of her shift. He slipped in and waited for her while she cleaned up and took off her apron again, then they stepped out into the sun and began walking.

“I assume I should have a talk with young Mister Peterson about plagiarism?” he said straight away.

“Perhaps I should first,” she replied.

“No, from the look in your eye I fear you might strangle him, at the very least, or beat him over the head, perhaps, with a baseball bat. Best let me, I suppose, as anyway, it’s my purview.”

“Alright.”

“A pity, still. I can see he’s been quite engaged by this whole thing. I hate to throw cold water on him now.”

“Perhaps he could rewrite his paper,” she suggested.

“Perhaps. Yes, and perhaps you could review his work before he resubmits it? Just a quick run-through, I think.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“You’ve done well, Lindsey. I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

“So many come through my door, yet so few rise to the challenge. And fewer still meet expectations. You’ve exceeded mine, by the way.”

“You always exceeded mine too, Professor.”

“Franklin, my dear. After all these years, perhaps you should call me by my given name.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, what’s all this angst about,” he said, as they came to the gate that led to the swimming pool. “Young Peterson has done nothing but show me the way to some deeper concern of yours. What’s troubling you? Is it John again?”

She sighed, looked at her friend and mentor closely, then shook her head. “Shall I fix tea?” she asked. “And sit out here, in the shade?”

“You know, I feel a chill. Perhaps we could sit inside today.”

“Okay.”

They went to her apartment and he sat on the sofa, looked at her desk, then out the window – and she asked him what he’d have.

“Have you any Port about?” he asked.

“You know? I think I do. One finger?”

“Two, I think.”

She poured two glasses and went to the chair by his side, and he took a sip. “Ah, thank you. It’s been a long day.”

“How are you doing?”

“Tired. And I think this will be my last term.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I do wish you had taken my advice, gone for your degree. I’d like to turn the department over to someone I trust, someone who cares about thought as you do.”

“Other roads beckoned.”

“They still do, I see,” he said, looking at her desk. “Are you writing again, at least?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, finally! Hope springs eternal!”

They laughed.

“So, this impulse Peterson refers to, this monastic impulse of the desert fathers? Where are you going with this?”

“Actually, I’m not sure. I thought I was going down the same path as Mills and Weber, but in the end, I think that will lead to a…”

“A paradox. Yes, it will. What is your basic assumption?”

“That societies experience a kind of collective anomie when certain thresholds are crossed. The dictates of Law, the imposition of endless bureaucracies on the routines of life, and the results are the same across time. That much is obvious to anyone, but these times feel different.”

“Yes. They do.”

“But humanity has been here before.”

“Yes. It has.”

“We’re turning inward again.”

“Yes. We are.”

“Mysticism. Irrationalism.”

“The pendulum swings, Lindsey. There’s nothing we can do to stop that, as you well know.” He sighed, took a sip of his port, then leaned back. “There’s nothing finer, you know, than a smooth port on a cool afternoon.”

“A fireplace might be nice.”

“Ah, well, let’s make it a stone fireplace at my home in the Cotswolds. That would be something to experience again. My father and his dogs, by the fireplace. Listening to Winston on the radio, telling us how the Germans had been turned back over Dover.”

“God, what a life you had. The things you experienced, and shared. You opened so many doors, so many minds.”

He pinched away a tear, rubbed his eye. “Did I, indeed?”

“I wish Mary was still with us.”

“I do to. Not a day passes I don’t think of her.”

“What about the Cotswolds? Will you return now?”

“I’ve thought about it, but this is home now. Even now. The fight is here, waiting to be joined, but I feel the night even so.” He sighed, shook his head. “This all started in Bhutan, did it not? This angst of yours?”

“Yes.”

“Your assumptions. When you find a dead end, so you must challenge all your assumptions. And yet, I fear you are looking for answers in all the wrong places, my friend. You always have, you know.”

“Oh?” The look she saw in his eyes troubled her deeply, but she could not turn away.

“The answers you seek will not be found in the musing of dead academics. The way ahead is over there,” he said, pointing at the campus just across the street, “in Bunche Hall.”

“The Buddhists?” she said – incredulously.

“You have been on that path a long time, Lindsey. Even if you walked unawares. And I think it time you come to terms with your father.”

“My father? But he’s…”

“No, he isn’t. Not in here, Lindsey,” he said, pointing to his heart. “In fact, you’ve been following in his footsteps all your life. Your brother has, too, though he’d be the last to admit such a thing.”

She looked at him, wondered where he was going with this.

“It’s such a pity, too. He’s courted ignorance and fear all his life, exploited the weakness of others all his life – even yours – and I fear he’ll never rest until he’s burned the pillars of our world to the ground. And the sad thing, Lindsey, is that he’ll never understand why he did – yet I feel almost certain that when he walks over the rubble the only thing he’ll have left in his heart is a profound sorrow for all the things he killed.

+++++

She walked between the rough juniper and smooth-skinned eucalyptus, the planters along her way full of ivies and discarded political leaflets, and from time to time she looked at wide-eyed students darting between classes, so serious, still so much like she had been. The campus was the same, too, yet different. Everything had seemed new when she first walked along narrow pathways between buildings, but what had been new felt old this morning. Old and almost worn out – like bread past it’s expiration date – and she wondered why this enclosed world felt that way.

Maybe, she thought, school had been a gateway. A means to an end, yet she felt that now the place had become an end – in and of itself. If it had been, thirty years ago, a place to study the world before she moved out seeking experience of her own, she felt that now it had become a safe harbor, a place to run from experience, to study it from afar – without getting hands dirty.

Had life grown so preternaturally – ugly – since Clinton?

She by-passed the Asian Studies building, shook her head and walked up into the sculpture garden beyond; she looked around, found a bench yet passed it by. She looked for just the right spot then sat on the grass – looking at passing clouds, then she lay back and let the sun fall on her face.

A shadow loomed, remained overhead – and she opened her eyes – saw a field of red fluttering in the breeze. A monk, she saw, standing over her, looking down. Then she saw her book in his hand, and she smiled – if only to herself.

“Lindsey?”

“Guilty.”

“Of what?”

“Original sin.”

He laughed. “And along came concupiscence…”

“No…and then came the Stone Temple Pilots,” and then her eyes brightened when she saw her old friend

The monk laughed harder now. “May I sit with you?” he asked a moment later.

“Of course, Tschering,” she said, swinging around to sit up, keeping the sun on her face as she turned to him. “Interesting choice of books,” she sighed.

“Dr Portman called earlier,” he said, seriously, “and told the director you’d be coming. So of course, he asked me to talk with you.”

“Of course. How have you been?”

“Busy, I suppose, would be the charitable way to describe my life here. And you? I heard about your illness, but nothing after.”

“I’ve been recuperating, and writing a little, too.”

“About time.”

“So, you’re going to jump all over my case too?”

“No, I love you too much to do that.”

She looked at him for a moment, then nodded her head gently. “I know.”

“You found the monastery, I take it?”

“Yes.”

“And how was my father?”

She nodded her head, acknowledged the question, but she looked away.

“Ah,” he said. “I understand. How is his health?”

“Good.”

“Did you tell him…about your father?”

“I did. He disappeared after that, was gone for weeks.”

“There’s was an impossible song.”

“Yes. It was.”

“What about you? Do you still sing?”

She smiled, looked at the memory for a moment, then shook her head. “No, the music left me.”

“The recital? Bach, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, The Coffee Cantata. You still remember that night?”

“I will never forget that night.”

“No. I suppose that night will live forever.”

Her father had come that night, her real father, but so had John – her brother, John – and Tschering had looked on as – like an atom fusing in the night – the universe had turned in on itself – pressure building around the room as the music faded – until worlds ruptured and screamed away, dying like the last words of the music…

WIP © 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

The Coffee Cantata, composed by J S Bach in the 1730s is referenced, but no other persons developed herein are real. ‘The Coffee Cantata’ was also a restaurant located in San Francisco, scenes filmed there show up in the 1968 movie Bullit (Steve McQueen, car chase etc., very cool jazz intro, like a heartbeat that leads into the action), and it is also a coffee shop in SF, not to be missed if you’re in The City – but this story has no relationship to those entities.

Again, this is a work-in-progress.

3 thoughts on “The Coffee Cantata (WIP, Pt 1 v1.0)

    • Well, as mentioned I’d like to keep it around a hundred pages. Much more and the thing will become a novel, and I don’t usually like to go that deep. Still, with twenty more pages done, it’s getting kind of interesting.
      No chanting, no meditation. Hot tea and Pecan Sandies today, waiting for the snow.

      Like

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