Tuesday, January 21, 2014

California Drought

No rain in sight. Brown lawns and dusty cars. The Governor declared a drought. This proclamation hardly made the front page -- because everybody already knows.

It was the heat wave in mid-January that finally pushed public awareness over the edge. We had a string of strong Santa Ana winds and daytime high temperatures of 85 degrees and higher. It just feels like it's never going to rain again.

But I am no native, so I contacted the folks with 50-year memories. Oh yes, they say, it was like this in the 1970s, seems like it went on for years back then, endless blue skies, water rationing, short showers, saving the dish water to pour onto the roses, you just hunker down and hang on -- that's what they said.

Walking on the beach we see a lazy haze over the water. Air pollution is up. Dust lingers in the air and not washed by the rain. Spring flowers are unlikely. The weather people are more accurate than they used to be and the long-range forecast is bleak.
But you never know -- it could rain in February and March. Everybody would be happy if it did.

Yesterday we saw a bobcat just sitting in the corral in the backyard. The bobcat lives in the ravine past the edge of the property. The bobcat just sauntered off when he saw us looking at him. But that got us thinking about how all the critters suffer when there's no rain. Where do the little birdies get their drink of water? Maybe they overcome their fears and drink from the pond in the garden near the house. Maybe the bobcat is waiting for them.
And the trees. You know some of them are dying even if they look fine today. The old ones and the weak ones. Drought culls the forest and the hills.
But the tougher plants have deep roots and they will survive.

Rain washes the mountainside. Sediments and minerals flow into river and into the sea. Plankton feed off the milky stew. Fish eat the plankton. Pelican eat the fish.

But there's no rain, no nutrients falling to the ocean, less plankton, fewer fish and the pelicans are getting hungry.

There are two things you say for certain about a drought:

Droughts always end, and
We never know when.

Civil Rights.
I can't remember the name of the church on the south side of Chicago where I heard Martin Luther King preach in the summer of 1966 but I remember being there a half dozen times. It was a large Baptist church and it was packed to the roof. King gave long and mighty sermons -- what a preacher he was! I never did care to hear a sermon, but I did listen to him. You had to be there -- it was hot, sweaty, crowded, and electric.

King marched with hundreds of people through white neighborhoods, surrounded by even more hundreds of Chicago cops who were there to protect us marchers from thousands of very angry people who were yelling and cursing and throwing rocks and tossing garbage cans at us. You had to be there. King's presence started an argument that raged through every home and church and tavern in the city. The thing is, the man was right in his actions and he had a right to be there, but he wasn't from Chicago. Not a local. Jesus could have walked through some of those neighborhoods and met the same reception -- not a local. You had to be there. The locals weren't right, but it wasn't all about race, it was also about territory. That's the way I see it. Of course, they might have welcomed Rev. King and rented him a house and brought him a tray of cookies and then none of this would have happened.......This was all a long time ago. They made a holiday after him, but I never liked that. It seems to usurp my personal memory of those days. You had to be there.

Long Disheveled Black Hair Tumbling Down Her Back

(a very short story about college years at St Michael's College at the University of Toronto)

I remember being in the second floor lobby of Carr Hall, in September, 1964, just starting college, waiting there to get into Father Waldron’s office. He was the assistant registrar, a grey-haired bespectacled priest who assigned the Freshman students their courses.

Waiting in the line in front of me -- on the second or third day since my parents had delivered me, now emancipated, 18, a baby-man, to St. Mike's -- was Curley Dowling. Boy, was I ready for her. She was a vision in beatnik black. She had a black trench coat and high heels. She had long disheveled black hair tumbling thickly down her back. She was tall. She was not pretty, with a blotchy complexion and a round nose. She chewed her fingernails and smoked Pall Malls.

We struck up a conversation. I had just spent four miserable years with 1,600 snotty, spoiled suburban punks at Loyola Academy in Chicago -- all boys. Here was a woman. I immediately began to see the possibilities. She recognized something in me that I had never dreamed of. We were kindred spirits. Things happened fast. It became too boring to wait in line to register -- all this administration nonsense. We decided to go to Yonge Street for a cup of coffee. I didn’t even drink coffee, but I was game. The conversation became -- what’s a good student word? -- intense. In those years I had a lot of intense conversations, and this was the first one.

Oh, the world was new, and I was just born, the structure fell away and I was free. Curley, it turned out, unlike all the other Freshman women, did not live in the dormitory. She shared an apartment with her older sister Gretchen, a senior. Heaven.

We went to the apartment and someone brought over the beer that night. Curley and I walked around town and made love in the elevator late at night. Or maybe it was just drunken groping, we didn’t know better. It was very passionate.

Curley didn’t stay with me long. She hooked up with David, a “hippie” who lived in Yorkville. This was 1964, so I put the word in quotes, it being the first time I ever heard it.

But I loved her still and we became friends. During our school years it seemed that she was available for me when I was going with someone else, and then I would break up with that someone, but she had a new boyfriend.

Once, several years afterward we met at a bar across from Grand Central Station in New York. We drank the place dry and had our last intense conversation. She caught the milk train back to Greenwich, and I never saw her again.

Five years after that she sent me a postcard: she had married an attorney and was living in Portland, Maine.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Polly Pojante

Polly Pojante

Tom Blethen recently moved from the West Coast to New England. He sent a letter to his friend, Polly Pojante, an artist who lives in a salt-marsh shack on The Skagit River.

The letter gives portraits of three women: Cathy O’Brien, a school teacher, Louise Benton, a poet, and Nora Glass, a corporate wife.

March, 1991

Dear Polly Pojante,

I heard you didn’t marry that guy in Alaska. Well, he sure was a good looking fellow, and he was crazy about you, I could tell. Steady worker too. It must have been a tough call.

Do you want to marry me? I think you’re cute. I better be careful what I’m saying.

I told Don Coyote that if I wrote you guys a long letter, then he would take pictures of everybody and mail them to me. Jim Smith promised to write me a letter and tell me who’s sleeping with who. I want to know.

I have set myself in fancy digs in Cambridge, just down the street from Harvard Square. Nice people live around here, all intellectual snobs. Everybody thinks they’re really smart, and most of them are really smart.

It’s very expensive to live in New England, which is why everybody is leaving and moving out to your neighborhood in Puget Sound. I tell them, “Move to the Skagit Valley. It’s cool, and when you get there, tell them I sent you.”

This is a story I wrote about three women who live in Boston. They don’t know each other. They’re at three different income levels. I’m the connection. That’s what I do. I carry the affection and hostility from one group to another. Here goes --

It’s Wild in Woburn

It’s wild in Woburn -- I used to make a joke about that to Cathy O’Brien because it’s such a quiet suburb. I went to Cathy’s house yesterday. She lives on Mayflower Street.

She said, over the phone, “All the houses on Mayflower Street are Cape Cod. My house is the only one with a brick front.” It’s a nice little house. It looks like a school teacher’s house. I really only saw the kitchen because I went in the back door, and our plan was to go out walking.
She wore a leather jacket and sneakers. She put her ear muffs in her pocket, just in case. It was windy and sunny that afternoon. She got in my car and we drove to the pond. We began to take the path around the pond, walking at a brisk pace, fast enough to stay warm, but slow enough for talking.
I wore my black cloth trenchcoat -- perfect for walking in the city. I like to put my hands in the pockets and turn the collar up. I walk up and down the Charles River everyday. I walk by the Fenway Marsh in Boston, and I walk around the different ponds in Cambridge, usually by myself. Cathy says she prefers company when she walks.

What did we talk about? Her kids, my kids, the high school where she teaches, this and that. She has two children: Hal, a high school senior, and Beth, a sophomore. She said that neither of them were very ambitious in their school work, but they were good kids. She raised them herself all these years. Her former husband has been long gone and no help. She has been a teacher of English as a Second Language in the Boston Public Schools for many years. She explained, “When my children were small I taught adult students. Adults learn more slowly, and I wasn’t sick of children by the end of work. So I could come home and care for my kids. But it was never easy -- doing it by myself. Now, of course, I just teach teenagers. And the immigrant kids are wonderful.”
Cathy doesn’t seem to be beat up by life, or resigned to her fate. Maybe that’s from being a high school teacher, and being motivated by those earnest young faces.

The sky was bright blue. The wind whipped across the frozen pond, but the bare trees gave us a little shelter. We skipped around icy puddles, keeping our stride, and I told her about my life and my kids.

We came back to her house after about an hour of this, and sat in the kitchen. I told her that I admired her kitchen cabinets -- maple, with a lovely grain and a glossy, satin finish. She said, “Thank you, yes, they’re very easy to keep clean too. Do you like decaf or does it matter? My daughter baked the cake.”

I had noticed the cake right away -- two layers with a misshapen lump in the middle and chocolate frosting. We talked and ate the cake. Then we both ate oranges. I said, to be funny, that the oranges were dessert for after the cake.

I brought in my New England road atlas from the car so Cathy could explain about the beach towns on the north shore. She recommended Crain’s Beach and Plum Island. I plan to do some summer beach-walking out there someday soon.

Then I started to tell Cathy about Louise Benton, a woman I know who lives in Cambridge. Louise is the older sister of Mary Agnes Benton who lives in Minneapolis. Mary Agnes is a dear friend of mine from college days. Now it seems that Mary Agnes has not seen or spoken to her sister in more than ten years. Louise will not talk to her mother or her two sisters, or return phone calls or answer letters.

Thinking that Louise might be my friend because she’s a poet, I visited her and I wrote Mary Agnes a letter telling her how Louise is doing:

Benton Girls are Fun

Dear Mary Agnes,

Louise has been living in that apartment for twelve years. It could use a coat of fresh paint. The walls are getting yellowish from the cigarette smoke. In one room golden clouds were painted on the ceiling, painted many years ago. Hundreds of books lined one wall. In another corner is a neat pile of clothes, folded in a pile about three feet high, like a pyramid against the wall. She has a very nice 12-inch Sony TV, on a long term loan from a friend. Next to it is a small desk with an IBM typewriter.

On the wall next to the doorbell outside is a business card that reads “Louise Benton, typing service, manuscripts, etc.” Next to that is a large manila envelope for customers to drop off papers. But there’s no more business, she said. No more writing of poems either, I think. She goes to demonstrations for poor people, and haunts the corridors of the state capitol on Beacon Hill with a group of activists.
There are eight units in the apartment building, which is owned by a retired policeman. He can be a bit of a sleaze ball at times, Louise told me, but she has never had any problem with him herself.

The building is about four blocks from Central Square, the low-rent, bohemian, immigrant center of Cambridge, as opposed to Harvard Square, which is quite a bit uptown. Central Square is more crowded, more urban, poorer, but not a threatening or menacing place. It has Indian restaurants, donut shops, inexpensive stores, taverns, litter, winos, idle youth, and people waiting for the bus.

On Monday nights the Stone Soup poets perform at a tavern on Brookline Street, which is a few blocks from Louise’s apartment. The Stone Soup poets have been doing this every week for twenty years. It is an open mike thing, you sign up and you get five minutes. They have two featured poets who read for about twenty minutes.

I went with Louise one night. It was her idea to go. She said that she hadn’t been there in a long time. Jack Frazer runs the show. He was very glad to see Louise and urged her to come back and be one of the featured poets very soon. Louise said she probably would, although she hasn’t read in public for some time. She said to me, looking at the crowd, “It’s intimidating. Everybody looks so young, and the women poets are so angry.” I told her, “Don’t let that bother you. We’re middle-aged and we can tell these kids to just get the fuck out of the way.”

It cost $3 to get in. I paid for both of us. Then I bought two Rolling Rock beers at the bar and brought them to our little table. Rolling Rock comes in a green bottle; it is brewed in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Louise liked my taste in beer -- it is the proletarian brand.

Louise smokes Salem menthol cigarettes, which is a serious problem for me. Not because she smokes, I mean I used to smoke a lot, but menthols are weird, almost deliberately anti-poetic in my mind and reeking of the psychiatric ward.

Her hair is grey. She had a light brown rinse on it, but she had let it grow out and two inches of grey roots were showing. She has a nice, soft face and warm, friendly eyes. She wore a dark, ribbed sweater and dirty old sneakers. The sneakers bothered me too.

Louise was very interested in all the poets; she had a very kind and supportive attitude towards them. Although some of them were clearly awful, not a discouraging word came from her lips. She just said, “This is great.” She insisted on staying until the very end because, “You never know who’s coming on next -- it could be very good.”

Two days later we met for coffee in a Middle Eastern restaurant in her neighborhood. It was so easy to talk with her, and I could tell that she liked me. I told her that I was living uptown now and busy erasing all traces of poverty in my life. I reminded her, in the kindest way possible, when we talked about your old home, where your mother lives now, that she had not always been so poor, that she grew up in a house like mine. I said simply that I was once again living the way I lived when I was a child -- in a nice house in a nice neighborhood.

Now I’m not trying to get her to move uptown, but I’m trying to stretch her mind a bit to see if she would be willing to be friends with me. Because I said, hey, I’m not into these politics anymore. My own politics used to be intensely radical, the same as hers, which is why we talked so easily.
I’ve just decided to keep my mouth shut, so I can live more comfortably. Louise has been living a little hard herself -- and a little afraid, I think, to have too much contact with people who aren’t poor. There is such a barrier between poor people and middle class people.

Your friend,

That’s what I wrote to Mary Agnes. I can see Louise’s point of view. She’s poor; she lives on her SSI check. She used to write poetry, and she might have been very good. I don’t know, because she never showed me any poems.

I can understand why she hates Mary Agnes, so smug and well-married and comfortable in her brick house underneath the lovely elm trees of Minneapolis. Louise is a poet, but an object of pity and concern in her sister’s eyes.

I’m a little like Louise myself.

I told Cathy that I’m a little like Louise myself. I said, “Louise can’t work at all, I can kind of work, now and then, and you work steady.” when I said “you” I pointed my finger at her. I immediately realized that I had been rude to her, had characterized her. I wanted to apologize but this got Cathy animated for the first time that day, to defend herself, to say, “I’m more than what you see.”

She told me of her plan to take a year’s sabbatical from teaching. “I’m going to live in Haiti and learn to speak Creole.” Many of Cathy’s high school students are from Haiti.

Cathy’s problem is her children. She can’t let them go. “I can make them go with me. After all, I’m their mother. But if I forced them to go, I couldn’t stand their negativity. I’m not strong enough to make them do a lot of things, and they’re very conservative -- they have no sense of adventure. It would be so good for them to live in Haiti.”

I told her it was a great idea. When I drove home I thought to myself -- Is that what poets like Louise Benton do? Wake people up and get them to talk about their plans and dreams?

Several days later I visited Nora.

Corporate Wife

Nora Glass lives in Newton, in a house overlooking a pond. She’s a great fan of Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist. When I arrived in Boston, she and her husband invited me to a performance by Yo-Yo Ma of the Bach Suites for Cello, at the Boston Symphony Hall. We sat in the second row. The music was heavenly. The man is a genius. The people of Boston have always loved classical music, and Yo-Yo Ma is a big star. He lives in a very nice house in Winchester, every bit as big as Nora’s house by the pond in Newton.

Nora’s husband works downtown, as a partner in a big-name law firm. Of course, we can’t talk about such things, but he makes an enormous amount of money. If I hadn’t known Nora for the past 25 years, I’m sure she would never let me in her house on a social footing. I’m really angry at her, I should say that right now. It’s about money and art and Louise Benton and Nora’s brother Billy.

Nora grew up in Pittsburgh, the oldest of five children. Her father is a doctor -- stern, Catholic, and old-fashioned. “Would you believe that I married the first man that I slept with?” she told me once. I forget what I said then, but, yes, I believe it. Her first husband wanted to be an artist. She made him go to law school. He quit law school and they divorced -- no children.
Her next and current husband was willing to go to law school. He quit his teaching job after he married Nora. Nora worked to support them both until he got his degree and until she became pregnant with their first child.

It’s a life. She stays home to care for her three daughters. She drives them to music lessons now. She reads books -- Tolstoy, Dickens, modern novels and poetry. And she believes in Bach, her personal religion. Music -- Bach -- is God, holier than words or written beliefs.

So I can relate to her on this basis. I can go to her house and play Bach pieces on her wonderful grand piano in her spacious living room -- such a piano made possible by her husband’s large salary. Except I have such a contempt for the legal profession. I keep my mouth shut. We are always polite. Politeness is required at Nora’s house.

She talked mournfully of her dear brother Billy, “Poor, poor Billy.” He is the would-be artist of the family. As the son of a doctor he had been required to pursue a profession, and he chose architecture, which is acceptable. But unfortunately, he’s much too interested in designing beautiful buildings and tends to disregard the bottom line. Worse, he took it in his mind once to design furniture, which everyone agreed was wonderful, but which no manufacturer would produce. “Billy doesn’t know how to market his work,” Nora explained. Poor Billy. He drives an old car. He lives by himself in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve tried to help him. I’ve sent him a few hundred dollars. It’s so hard for him. Dad doesn’t understand him at all. They hate each other,” she said.

Then the fight started. I said, “You sent him a few hundred dollars? Your brother? You spent $6,000 last summer to send your children to camp. Why don’t you send Billy $6,000. That’s real money. If you send him $6,000 it’s like saying I love you, you’re my brother. But when you send him $200 it’s like telling Billy he’s a pathetic puppy.”

I trespassed the boundaries of politeness. I was angry because I couldn’t understand -- it was this barrier that she couldn’t cross. She loves music and reads the books. Doesn’t she understand what it takes and what it costs to create the books and music? I had expected her to understand, but she couldn’t, and I was disappointed.

I said, “You see, it’s like a battle.” I was preaching to her now because I was angry. “You love Yo-Yo Ma because he’s a star. He’s a hero. He’s one of the best. He won the battle, and he came home. We all cheered at the parade. We gave him medals and showered him with gifts.

“But Louise Benton didn’t do so well. Louise was in the same battle. She took a bullet in the spine, and now she’s permanently paralyzed from the waist down. There was no parade for her. Her family doesn’t want her to come home. She lost. Her poems are dead.

“And what about Billy? You pity him. You’re stronger than he is. You try to help him -- I understand that -- and I know you love him, but you torment him too.”

End of tirade. Nora was smiling, calm, under control, barely. I left.

I drove home and I thought about you, Polly Pojante. You had to decide whether to marry that guy and change your life, and stop living in a shack by the river. Did you do the right thing?

I love your paintings and your sunny smile. I know you’re not happy all the time -- who is?

When you’re looking out the window, watching the tide come in, will you think about me?

Your friend,


Bookman Old Style CyrBookman Old Style GreekBookman Old Style TurBookman Old Style Baltic @SimSun Western ÿÿÿÿÿÿÿÿ L ‘

Thursday, January 09, 2014


Rebecca -- Sunday, November 27, 1989

A day at the Farm and an evening at Barkley’s Pub, rather ordinary -- as the world turns, and things happening in Eastern Europe are changing our lives in more ways than anything that has happened here lately.

I worked all morning on the farm, cutting and splitting wood, pulling weeds, raking up debris and re-planting daffodil bulbs. Martin had the hardest work, he was crawling underneath the house to put insulation on the plumbing and did not come up for hours. Paul slept until 11:30, by permission. When he got up he stacked all the new wood on the front porch.
I was going to cut the wood with the handsaw when I got up that morning because we do not yet have a chainsaw. But caution and past experience was guiding me and telling me to approach this arduous task very slowly.
As I approached the pile of 6-foot limbs which we had snaked out of the woods, a man drove into the yard with a pickup truck. His name was Kelly; he lives in Avon. He asked me about the old boat in the barn, and he said that a friend of his wanted to buy it, to plant in his front yard, filled with flowers.
The boat had been in the front yard for two years. It was 17-feet long, built of wood, with a stout keel and mounting for an inboard engine. It had been recovered with fiberglass and was painted red. The boat had been stored in a shed at Fishtown for many years. Bo Miller was the nominal owner. During the Fishtown Woods Massacre, we decided to have a fundraising auction, so Bo and Jack Hubbard somehow manhandled the old boat on to a truck and brought it over to the farm.
The auction fizzled out due to a lack of planning and interest and there the boat sat. Six months later I moved off the farm into an office-cum-lodging facility in LaConner -- but I was rudely evicted from that spot when the landlord sold the building to a new owner who simple didn’t want me around. After a three-moth odyssey of temporary quarters, I moved back to the farm, which is at 3325 Martin Road in Mount Vernon, under the auspices of Friendship House. The boat was still there.
And Kelly wanted to buy, but I didn’t really want to sell it -- I like old boats. I was planning to drag it out of the barn someday and turn it upside down on blocks and just let it set there for decades, so I could admire its beautiful lines.
So I said “$50”, hoping to discourage him. Then he said he really didn’t want it, that it was for a friend, it wasn’t really worth much...
Obviously he preferred to pay nothing, and I began to think that he was lying, that he wanted the boat for himself, because he told me he was a fisherman and had three other boats. His little lie did not disturb me because I felt that if he really wanted the boat, he might give it a good home.
I was thinking this as I stood by the woodpile with my handsaw trying to avoid brute labor. Then I got a flash, I asked “Do you have a chainsaw?” Kelly said yes, he was cutting cords of wood for spare money at the time. “How about if you cut up this wood, and help us cut up some more wood in the forest by the road, and we’ll give you the boat?”
And I thought, thanks, Dad, for sending me to college -- so I can use my brain because my back is not that brawny.
The wood was cut, the boat was hauled out of the barn and on to Kelly’s truck, and we have not seen him since.
Later in the day, about 3 o’clock, Paul and I took a walk around the farm. The farm is 40 acres -- about 15 acres of overgrown unfenced pasture, and 25 acres of woods. It lies on top of a hill just to the north of Skagit Valley College. On the south and east sides of the farm, it is abutted by new housing developments, but the north side joins other farmland, and the eastside is just up the hill from Barney Lake, where the trumpeter swans line in the winter. Rainwater from the farm drains into the Nookachamps River. And although our farm is located with the city limits of Mount Vernon, we consider ourselves to be Nookachampions just lie the folks in Big Lake and Clear Lake.
The farm forest is primarily alder interspersed with towering cottonwood trees, vine maple, wild cherry, and here and there a heavenly-scented grove of young cedar trees. A small herd of deer inhabit the woods and have left well-marked trails.
Paul and I call our walks “surveying the property.” We found a lovely fern garden, and I discovered red berries growing on a small tree, of a kind which I have never seen before. We picked small branches of the red berries plus some ferns to put in the cookie jar (we use it as a vase) on the dining room table. Martin got the cookie jar at the Salvation Army thrift store where he works. It looks like a pig sitting up on his hind legs and wearing overalls and a straw hat -- we call him Farmer Pig.
The Friendship House Farm is probably the last low-rent old farmhouse in the valley. The property is owned by a logging company which owns extensive acreage throughout the area. The owners plan to log off the woods and then sell the property to a developer who will build more housing. In the meantime it has been offered for our use free of charge. The house needs a lot of work, especially the plumbing and insulation. So we make improvements in lieu of rent. The farm is ideally suited for additional housing because of its flat hill top location. We don’t object to the plan, but only hope that some of the trees are spared, especially the cedar groves. We also hope that the farmhouse and barn plus a few acres around it could be sold to Friendship House at a reasonable price -- we have plans to do some serious gardening and chicken-raising.
Oh, we also have a cat with two tails.
Oh, we also have a cat with two tails. Her name is Twig, she’s a calico, about five months old. It’s really a split tail, about four inches long; one part has the bone and it doesn’t move, the other part has the muscle and it wiggles around.
At four o’clock I took a bath; I was very tired. I put on nice clothes and went to visit Susan and the kids. The kids were playing upstairs. Susan had laryngitis and was talking in a whisper. She had made a beautiful quilted wall-hanging with warm, rich winter colors. She invited me to dinner and heated up some turkey, gravy and dressing.
At Barkley’s Pub
I left Susan’s house, got into the car and didn’t want to go back to the farm. I tried to think of anyplace to go besides Barkley’s Pub in LaConner. I had not been to Barkley’s for a week because I had drunk too many brandies on the Saturday night previous and felt stupid about that.
But I went there and had only one. I sat with Rebecca and artist Richard Gilkey of Fir Island. I sat with them in the booth and listened mostly because I was too tired to talk. Steve was sitting on a barstool with his back to us. He turned and asked Rebecca if Amy had come back for Thanksgiving. Amy is Rebecca’s daughter. She is a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts.
“No, she’s not,” Rebecca answered, and she said that Amy had been a bit homesick, but she has a boyfriend now. The boyfriend drove Amy down to Baltimore to stay with friends for the holiday and then continued on to South Carolina.
Steve remarked that it had been snowing back East. Steve is from Massachusetts and travels frequently on business, going from one big city to the next, although he rarely has time or energy to look around these distant places -- just the airport and the hotel. He lives with Sue Dental in Bonnie McDade’s old house on Snee Oosh Road.
Steve has a round head and face. A rim of black hair surrounds his evenly bald head and is balanced by a neatly trimmed beard of the same proportions. He is both cheerful and quiet.
He mentioned that he had a frequent flier discount coupon good for a roundtrip to the east coast for only $175 and offered it to Rebecca, who said she was interested.
Then Rebecca began talking about what she calls “mama drama” and she as able to embarrass her 18-year-old daughter at a distance of 3,000 miles. Amy had been calling home more frequently in the past week because she was homesick. So Rebecca wrote a note to the senior student in Amy’s dormitory, telling her that it would soon be Amy’s birthday and asking her to give Amy a birthday hug from Rebecca. Apparently the senior student made a big production of this at dinnertime in front of all the other students.
Rebecca and Amy are a two-person family. They moved here to LaConner from Mukilteo about seven years ago. Rebecca works as a waitress at the Lighthouse Inn and has rented several house and apartments in LaConner since then. She does not like waitress work although she has no complaints about her employers at the Lighthouse, who provide Scandinavian security and stability to their employees, who, in return, do not leave to work elsewhere. Both mother and daughter are gifted with a fine intelligence and a yearning to do and be more than what they are.
Richard Gilkey, the artist, sat across the both from Becky and me. He is over sixty. He has short, grey hair, rugged wrinkles and dark, sparkling eyes. He was wearing a logger’s hickory shirt and drinking Cutty Sark and water. He had a car accident about five year’s ago which messed up his shoulder. It has pained him ever since. Two months ago he had an operation which repaired the rotator cuff and “cleaned up the debris”, as he put it. The operation had been successful and Richard praised the doctors. But he talked about how awful it was for him to be running down to Seattle for treatment. Truck drivers splashed mud on his car as they passed him.
Rebecca agreed that truck drivers drove much too fast, were string out on amphetamines -- how they tail-gated at 65 mph, etc. This was said without any animosity, but more to continue the conversation which seemed to want another topic altogether. I supplied one. I mentioned that Lloyd Trafton commuted down that same freeway everyday to his job in downtown Seattle.
That reminded Richard that he and Lloyd had been high school classmates years ago at Ballard High School. Lloyd is in middle management at IBM and has a 25-year pin. “I don’t know how he does it,” Richard said. Lloyd frequents Barkley’s and provides an interface between the corporate world and the rest of us.
Rebecca sat next to me in the booth with her knees up, relaxed as if she had her shoes off. She told me two times, first when I entered, and second when I left, how much she liked my red shirt. I replied, “Yes, I took a bath”, and she laughed.
What I meant was that I looked good because I felt good, and I felt good because I had done some good outdoor work and got cleaned and got dressed afterwards. But I was tired and I could only manage that short phrase. I would also have said that I bought the shirt one day when I was feeling low. I had driven over to Clear Lake to visit Helen Farias. She was wearing a red dress which I found very cheerful. She and talked about how different colors create different moods. I left Helen’s house and drove directly to J.C. Penney’s where I bought the reddest flannel shirt I could find for $30. It does tend to cheer people up.
No one else was in the bar except Ben, the cook, who fills in as bartender on Sunday night. Ben was wearing his special paisley vest which everyone admires. He has a long and rather interesting story about how he acquired it in exchange for a painting. I have offered to rent the vest from him by the week, but he declines. He lives in Burlington and is devoted to his work at Barkley’s and to his employer, Michael Hood.
Michael came in just then, stood behind me and talked to Richard. Michael and I do not get along well. We ought to get along well, but we don’t.
He talked to Richard about the opening of the Kaleidos Gallery on December 1. Susan, the owner of the gallery, had mailed out over 2,000 invitations to God-knows-who. Michael was wondering how many people would actually show up, since he was catering the event. Richard said, “Put out a lot of peanuts”.
Richard talked about Janet Huston’s gallery. She is Richard’s dear friend and show his paintings. She has been collecting names for her mailing list for 15 years, he said. She is very sharp and professional about this. The artists approve of Janet because she shows many of them and brings in buyers with big bucks.
Michael has been a bit short lately, not his usual gracious, humorous self -- most likely because he lost the election for town council to Jerry Hedbom by only three votes. Ben had turned the radio to KPLU in order to hear the jazz and blues program which starts at 7 p.m. and which everyone likes. The problem is that it was only 6:45, so we were listening to “Car Talk” with Click and Clack from Massachusetts -- two guys bantering about mechanical problems and fielding call from the listeners. Michael wanted the station changed. Ben registered a mildly strained expression on his face and then switched to classical music for the remaining 15 minutes.
During a lull in the conversation between Rebecca and Richard, I decided to talk about recent events in Czechoslovakia. I said that I enjoyed watching the huge crowds on television -- so full of life and hope. They both nodded with approval and looked like they were ready for me to continue on that subject and all the big changes in eastern Europe, but I was too tired to elaborate.
The conversation drifted on, but slowly my mind came into focus, and I said, “Can you imagine the conversations and the people talking about things they never could talk about before, and people talking to complete strangers, pouring their hearts out -- endless exciting talk?”
Again they nodded with genuine sympathy. And I wanted to say more, even loudly something like this, Look, I read the newspapers every day and often watch the TV news. Every little story they cover, they smother, they frame it up tight and interpret it; they make it clear that this little bit of news has been “brought to you by CBS” and Dan Rather is spoonfeeding this little slice of life to you from the network government.
But what is happening in Eastern Europe is so alive and incredible that the media cannot interpret or filter or “present” this torrent of life and awakening. The wall has been torn down, the East Germans are flooding across, real life is cascading through the airwaves and into our newspapers and living rooms -- real life, direct, live, unedited. It’s wonderful.
But I didn’t say it, I was happy just to sit and listen. I left after one brandy and drove back to the farm. I stopped at Safeway to buy cornflakes, milk and sugar, which Paul had earnestly requested. I also bought ten Medjool dates at $2.98 per pound and three golden delicious apples.