11 March 2018

Liner Notes for COUNTRY JAZZ

Modern Harmonic Website

When 17-year-old George Barnes joined the NBC Orchestra in Chicago in 1939 as staff musician and arranger, he had already proven he could play anything. His earliest work, as the 14-year-old leader of his own group, focused on the music of the Swing Era. In 1938, he was the first electric guitarist to record commercially—at the age of 16!—when he began playing with blues greats Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis, Washboard Sam, Jazz Gillum, and Merline Johnson. And when NBC needed a guitarist for their National Barn Dance program, George was their 18-year-old man.

In a 1976 interview, George talked about his early days on radio: “Broader national exposure came [to me] in 1940 and 1941, from weekly radio performances on NBC’s WLS National Barn Dance and Plantation Party, with Louise Massey & The Westerners, Patsy Montana, and The Prairie Ramblers.” Described by The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio as “a country music show with corn pone humor,” Plantation Party was broadcast across the country, and was on the air from 1938 until 1942. George had a featured segment in every show; exuberant host Whitey Ford (“The Duke of Paducah”) gave George a unique introduction at the top of every spot. A perfect example is his intro to George’s performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’: “Y’know folks, that guitar George plays is a right modern contraption. It’s electric—‘course, George still has to do the work—but instead of all those fast notes comin’ out of the guitar, they come out of a little loudspeaker. So, by the time they get to your loudspeaker, as I call it, they’ll be twice as good. C’mon, George, let’s hear a demonstration!”

Even though George only had a minute and a half (at most) in each broadcast, his performances packed a punch: he received over 500 letters a week, collecting fans from all over the country (including a North Carolina girl named Evelyn Triplett who would later become Mrs. George Barnes). It was through his regular appearances on national radio that Chet Atkins—and a host of other guitarists, including Roy Clark and one of George’s future partners, Bucky Pizzarelli—became aware of, and inspired by, the young electric guitarist from Chicago.

George’s work in the studios with Bob Atcher, Homer & Jethro, and The Dinning Sisters further solidified his connection to country music—as did his 1948 appearance on Chet Atkins’ first recording in Chicago. Chet often told the story of his first face-to-face encounter with his idol; the anecdote appears in Chet’s autobiography, as well as in the obituary he wrote for the Country Music Association magazine when George died.

After moving to New York, George recorded again with Chet, and with country music stars Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold, who was a longtime fan. Rockabilly artists Janis Martin, Eddie Fontaine, Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘N’ Roll Trio, and the legendary Buddy Holly, were also among those lucky enough to have George on their sessions. George can be heard on Jimmie Rodgers’ hits, as well as in A Face in the Crowd (Andy Griffith’s hot “Mama Guitar” solo is played by none other than George Barnes . . . the same year he recorded Country Jazz).

George’s connection to country music expanded into his published writings; his professional and personal relationship with Peer-Southern Music began when he and song promoter Roy Horton first became acquainted in New York. Roy’s admiration of George’s work, and their easy friendship, garnered a publishing deal with Peer-Southern. Ralph and Monique Peer became friends with George and Evelyn, and enjoyed many social engagements together. From 1960 on, George’s original compositions—and his “How to Arrange for Solo Guitar”—were published by Peer International. In a memo from a Peer executive prior to a concert tour of Japan by George and his partner, Carl Kress, George is referred to as “one of the top Country Music guitarists in the States”—even though he and Carl would be performing nothing but their customary jazz!

In the mid-1930’s, before George found fame on Plantation Party, Les Paul had been known as country guitarist “Rhubarb Red.” In his diary, 14-year-old George listed 19-year-old “Red” as one of the “Good Guitar Players” of 1935. And in a 1967 letter to George, written when the Barnes family was touring the country (George was developing the first guitar course to be offered on cassette tape), Les urged George to return to New York, signing off as “Rhubarb.”

It was inevitable that George and Les would become comrades and friendly competitors in Chicago. They continued their relationship after George moved to New York in 1951, when Milt Gabler of Decca Records signed George to a comprehensive contract. At the age of 30, George was already a “veteran,” and had experimented with overdubbing several years before Les became famous for it. George’s version for Decca of Clarinet Polka, backed with his original Hot Guitar Polka, were recorded a few months before George left Chicago by Bill Putnam—the engineer referred to as “the father of modern recording”—at Putnam’s studio, Universal Recording. It was ironic that Les developed his multi-track sound because he wanted to set himself apart from George, which he did successfully. There was also an irony in the fact that Decca’s agreement with George was announced in Billboard Magazine as a “‘Les Paul’ deal.”

Over the years, there has been conflicting information about the date Country Jazz was released (even on discographies that George himself compiled!). Because his first album on Decca—Guitars by George!—was produced in 1952, and he used an overdub technique to record himself on multiple tracks (and because it was initially marketed as a Country & Western album), it was assumed by some that Country Jazz was the immediate follow-up to that recording.

But in 1957, George recorded and released Guitar in Velvet, an album of his acclaimed octet arrangements, on his new label, Grand Award. This was the same year he recorded Country Jazz on the Colortone label, a subsidiary of Grand Award. George produced both of these albums under the supervision of record company executive Enoch Light.

George had been in New York less than a year before he joined Raymond Scott’s orchestra on the popular weekly television show, Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade. This is where he, bassist Jack Lesberg, and drummer Cliff Leeman formed a solid rhythm section and began lifelong friendships. Jack and Cliff, both of whom had also built stellar reputations, were mainstays on almost all of George’s solo New York recordings, as was the superb guitarist Allen Hanlon. With those three musicians, and George on guitar, banjo, and bass guitar (on Bass Guitar Blues), his Country Jazz quartet was complete.

By the time George began preparing Country Jazz, he’d worked in every New York City recording studio, and had his pick of rooms and engineers. When George was signed to Decca, he often recorded at Decca’s two studios: one on West 57th Street, the other in Pythian Temple on West 70th Street. But when Enoch Light founded Grand Award Records in 1956, and asked George to join the fledgling label, Guitar in Velvet and Country Jazz were both recorded at Fine Sound on Fifth Avenue in the Columbia Pictures Building. Recording engineer Bob Fine was an innovator in his field and, along with Bill Putnam of Universal Recording in Chicago, and Phil Ramone of A&R Recording in New York, was one of George’s top three favorite engineers. Whether he was working with Putnam, Fine or Ramone, George knew he was collaborating with kindred pioneers.

The description on the back of the original album reads: “A wonderful collection of Western favorites that everyone will love—and played in the traditional Western style.” The front cover features a more accurate explanation: “Great guitar solos in modern country jazz style”—as if “modern country jazz” was an established category—though, if anyone could establish a new species of music, it was George. Country Jazz was not designed to explore a new iteration of country music, rockabilly—but when George added his own twist of jazz, the resulting influence was unmistakable. His arrangements of traditional folk and country songs represent the enjoyment he got out of crossing musical genres. After all, he could, and did, play anything—which made him invaluable in the studios of Chicago and New York City, but also meant he defied categorization, inadvertently denying himself a prestigious place in any one class of musician.

George retitled some of the folk classics to reflect his jazzy charts, and his innate sense of whimsy (“Bluetail Fly” became “Bluetail Buzz”). This is not the “cool jazz” that had found its voice around the time Country Jazz was released (although it’d be interesting to hear what Monk or Miles would have done with “Turkey in the Straw”). George’s arrangements acknowledged both country and swing (and some blues), which were strangely complimentary to each other—at least, to his unique ears.

Country Jazz was fun for George; little did he know it would become one of his most influential recordings. It’s been said that one Barnes fan, the terrific guitarist Danny Gatton, learned it note-for-note—and that it inspired Jimmy Bryant to record his Country Cabin Jazz in 1960. Young guitarists who hadn’t yet been born when George died in 1977 are as enthralled by Country Jazz as rock guitarists are of anything from Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, who referenced George in his autobiography: ” . . . I had always thought of guitar playing as being little more than an accompaniment to the singing, except in one or two rare cases that I had always noticed and wondered where the players were coming from. A good example of this was the Connie Francis number ‘Lipstick on Your Collar,’ which has an incredible guitar solo by George Barnes . . . ”

On Plantation Party, George played three songs he arranged almost two decades later for Country Jazz: “Turkey in the Straw,” “In the Gloaming,” and “Shortnin’ Bread.” NBC saved money by having their artists play songs that were in the public domain, so the selections were limited; but George always made the most of the repertoire he was asked to perform. It was easy for him; he simply took great pleasure in completely exploring a melody wherever he could find it.

In the late 1960’s (just before he and Bucky Pizzarelli formed their extraordinary duo), George was planning a series of concept packages, including “Nashville Hits,” “Western Guitar Favorites,” and a recreation of Country Jazz—but this time, he planned to record in Nashville, with his friends Buddy Emmons on steel guitar, and Jethro Burns on mandolin. George was obviously looking to have a good time—and to let us in on it!

Sadly, we can only imagine what he would have brought to a new incarnation of this legendary recording. Happily, we can enjoy the music he left behind.

-Alexandra Barnes Leh

20 June 2016


Step Back Website

I first met Margit Bernard through a mutual friend, who told me Margit was looking for a writer to help create an heirloom memoir, intended as a gift from her husband to his grandchildren. At our first lunch, we immediately recognized a comfort level between us; she invited me to meet her husband, to see if he and I would find a similar rapport. After we shared a delightful dinner, they decided to move forward with me on the project.

During the months we spent producing the memoir, Margit occasionally spoke to me of a book she’d been working on for a few years, and asked if I’d cast my editorial eye on her notes. I already enjoyed working with Margit. The fact that her book was about stepmotherhood, and she wanted it to be an unvarnished portrayal, captivated me. I had my own perspective on the subject: I’d been a stepmother for 16 years.

It isn’t terribly difficult to find an editor with a command of the language; it’s a bigger challenge to find an editor who hears the writer’s heart. Margit felt she’d found in me more than someone who’d organize her ideas and check her grammar. Because we are like-minded about many aspects of life, our ability to finish each others’ thoughts regarding relationships, spirituality, marriage, and parenting made our work together enjoyable, almost effortless. Although she has a decidedly European voice, I knew Margit’s theories would be familiar to any woman in any part of the world who has married a man with children, and it was my job to make her ideas readily accessible.

While working on Margit’s book, it was inevitable that I’d find myself wandering through memories of my own time as a young stepmother. I remember being in a continual struggle to find a balance between the little joys and the enormous challenges, at a point in my life when informed stepmothering advice was nonexistent. What would I have given to be supported by at least one other person whose own experience could guide me - or, at the very least, comfort me? I wish I’d known a woman like Margit when I was twenty-five.

It is always a pleasure to work with a person whose integrity is intact, whose confidence in her understanding is unqualified. Margit’s candor about her own experiences as a stepmother, with her realistic clarity of hindsight, her search for a balance between heart, mind and soul, and especially her enthusiastic desire to help her fellow stepmothers find each other and support each other, comprise the core of her value. These attributes are precisely what I needed in an advisor when I embarked on my journey as a stepparent. Margit shines a bright light on the road, helps us recognize the pitfalls, suggests course corrections designed to protect the woman first, then the wife, then the stepmother, helping us to be more informed and better prepared stepmothers.
My mother recently referred to Margit as “the godmother of stepmothers” and, after 50 years in the role, she has unquestionably earned that moniker. I needed Margit when I was a stepmother. You may very well need her as much as I did. Fortunately, you now have her wit and her wisdom as your guide.

Alexandra Barnes Leh
Los Angeles, California

17 June 2015


Justin Garcia

There is no way to forecast creative synergy, no way of knowing whether each person’s ideas will mesh or collide, or if opinions can be communicated without clashing too much or too often. All you can do is jump in, and see what happens.
In my first conversation with Justin - a two-hour phone call between Los Angeles and Houston - I quickly recognized what he was about. I had no idea if we’d be a good creative fit, but I knew I wanted to read his manuscript. After we spoke, I returned to my work on another project...but I couldn’t stop thinking about the unexpectedly remarkable conversation we’d had, replete with fresh ideas and noble objectives.

He was talking about creativity - the art that comes of it, and the science within it. He spoke about the “mechanics of creation,” the methodology that he believes sustains humanity. He was speaking a language I love, with sincerity, humor, candor, and accountability.

I’d met a kindred spirit: an artist with purpose.

After I read Justin’s story, I had a deeper understanding of his passion for the work. I wanted to help him craft the message, so others could have easy access to the source of his inspiration and claim it for themselves. A thoughtful, complex, evocative manuscript like his would require intensive work...and I looked forward to digging in.

I must admit, there was another motivation: a delightfully irritating thought that this book has the potential to be an instrument of change. To be part of that movement would be an honor for me.

Everything I initially thought of Justin and his work after our first connection continued to be true for the several months we worked together on his manuscript. 98% of our exchanges were as positive and productive as one could hope. (The remaining 2%? Well, that’s just a little proof that nothing in this world is perfect!)

What force conspired to connect an editor in California with a painter in Texas? At first glance, it seemed an inconvenient pairing - but we should never dismiss the powers of creativity when they call out to be explored. We have only to be amenable to the possibilities. When we are open vessels, with a true desire to make a positive difference in the world, we are more likely to receive extraordinary gifts of wisdom and understanding.

It often comes in unexpected ways from unlikely sources. It appears in the middle of a crowded coffee house, in the midst of freeway traffic, after a random conversation with a stranger about nothing in particular, at the end of a dream. In a flash, or a snap, or a breeze, we receive a thought, completely unrelated to the moment, but inextricably connected to a higher purpose. And we would do well to pay attention.

We live in an era that gives us every opportunity, any device with which to create. Still, the true purpose behind the creation eludes.

Some are born to the breed. Others must escape their origins to seek and find their tribe. I am a member of the former, the daughter of a musician father and a poet mother. I grew up in New York City, surrounded by professional creators of all kinds, masters of their chosen craft whose lives were driven entirely by the creative process. I was one of them from my first lucky breath.

Justin, on the other hand, made his own luck. He had to drop almost everything he’d been given to receive everything he needed. And when he began to explore that experience, using his insatiable curiosity as his compass, he made exceptional discoveries along the way...about his work, about himself, and about the world.

Regardless of background or circumstance, we find each other when the time is right.

I’d seen much of Justin’s collection online; though it’s not the same as standing in front of an original painting, I could see his work was world-class. His Focal Point Series and Creation Series contain pieces I’d love to live with. His paintings are layered and nuanced, suggesting a thought or feeling, allowing the viewer to make his or her own evaluation, never forcing the idea, letting it take form within the individual’s frame of reference, so they can tell their own story.

Like his visual art, Justin’s writing is personal, heartfelt, uncompromising, practical, witty...and his intention is infused with the authentic passion of a true artist. This book contains subject matter for artists and connoisseurs, to be sure - but also for the spiritual and the scientific, the lay person and the scholar. He bridges those seemingly disparate worlds with an intimate comprehension of the creative process, accessing each angle and connecting each point in a manner I’ve yet to see in other analyses. I envision it on bookshelves around the world, in high schools and universities, for sale in museums and music shops, finding its way into the home of anyone who longs to create, and is looking for practical inspiration.

Regardless of where we are on our journey, we’re all eager to be inspired.

Two people occasionally joined us in our process...both of them formidable, accomplished women (I believe Justin’s appreciation of strong women speaks highly of his character!). They fortified our efforts with unwavering encouragement and valuable insight.
Kim Jessup appears throughout this book, and provided a clear, straightforward perspective, especially when a particularly sensitive piece of the puzzle was missing. As she is in Justin’s life, Kim was the critical counterweight in this undertaking; you’ll understand her immeasurable importance the moment you “meet” her.

Whenever I work on a piece of writing - mine, or that of another author - I often consult with my mother, Evelyn Barnes. I’ll read sections of the work to her, and we’ll bounce a few ideas between us. Our brainstorming invariably reaps a reward. In the case of this book, her contributions go beyond language; she came up with the idea of giving the reader an entire page, completely unmarked on both sides. A place to sketch, to make notes, to respond to the previous chapter with their own drawings and thoughts. “It becomes their book, too,” she said. She called them “palette pages” - and Justin embraced her suggestion without hesitation. That term instantly became part of our lexicon.

OneTonGoldfish: In Search of the Tangible Dream is a whimsically intriguing title, perfect for the irresistible expedition of discovery on which Justin takes us. Even if I hadn’t worked on it, I’d love this book, infused as it is with Justin’s creative passion and scientific vision. They belong together. They explain each other. When combined, they make sense of this preposterous life in a way that allows me to identify and pursue my passion with a vibrant understanding of its source.

I trust this book will do at least as much for you.

Alexandra Barnes Leh
Los Angeles, California

10 April 2012



When he’d come home from a long day “slaving over a hot guitar,” George Barnes would cleanse his musical palate with Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Respighi, Ravel, Moussorsky, Tchaikovsky, Wagner — and Bach. It was the Bach Fugue in G Minor, played by organist Virgil Fox under the baton of Eugene Ormandy that inspired him to explore its joy (a hallmark of George’s playing) and complexity (a reflection of his musical genius) in the context of his Jazz Renaissance Quintet.
The six men who participated in this recording — all close friends, masters of their art, and highly-respected in the New York studio scene — were guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, clarinetist Hank D’Amico (who honed his craft with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, among others), bassist Jack Lesberg (well-known for his work with Louis Armstrong, but just as much at home under the baton of Leonard Bernstein), and drummer Cliff Leeman (invaluable to such diverse bandleaders as Glenn Miller and Raymond Scott, and a key member of The World’s Greatest Jazz Band). The original session, which took place on 25 February 1962 at A&R Recording, was recorded and remixed by engineer Phil Ramone, who began as a classically-trained violinist and became the world-renowned producer of such iconic recording artists as Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.
Barnes' early discography is delightfully eclectic: five years after his 1952 Decca release, GUITARS, BY GEORGE!, he recorded GUITAR IN VELVET (in which he revisited his famed Chicago Octet radio performances) and COUNTRY JAZZ, still heralded as an innovation of musical convergence. Two years later, Barnes signed with Mercury Records, where he recorded three albums. In GUITAR GALAXIES and GUITARS GALORE, Barnes wrote sublime arrangements for his 10-guitar “choir”; the third album, MOVIN’ EASY, was a collection of standards and intricate Barnes originals recorded with the Jazz Renaissance Quintet. It was during those sessions that Barnes proposed the idea of recording an album of classical jazz with the quintet. After hearing Barnes’ Bach Fugue demo, Mercury loved the music, but deemed the project too esoteric, and the recording was shelved. The only remaining material from the one-day session were two acetate discs — reference lacquers created in 1962 (the mono edit) and 1972 (the outtakes and full unedited performance in stereo). The discs, intended only for limited use, had been played many times over the years. In this digitally remastered recording, most of the considerable damage to the discs has been removed, while preserving the dynamics of the music and the voices of the participants.
The inclusion of the musicians’ conversations between “takes” affords the listener a rare opportunity to join the players in the unique creative process that occurs in the rarefied environment of a recording studio.

A recording studio is
a laboratory
a cocoon
an incubator
a womb.
Six men in one room in one day.
This is the chemistry of creation.
This is how it sounds in the center of the core.
This is counterpoint in full swing.
These are world-class musicians
with the world on a string.
These are best friends and masters of their craft,
skilled, impassioned, connected, inspired 
and wired for perfection.
From the ears through the brain to the hand to the page to the eyes through the breath and the fingers and out into the air.
This is the essence of collaboration,
amplified, electrified, captured and balanced
on mylar and acetate.
This is classical jazz, rarefied.
This is the state of the art, sanctified.
This is commitment to excellence, nothing less.
This is conception, gestation, birth.
And this is everlasting.
There are no shortcuts to immortality.
This is the shorthand of genius.
If you listen very closely,
you’ll hear Bach smile.

05 April 2012

Excerpt from THE BERZERKLEY BLUES, a short story inspired by actual unconscionable events

(For the full story, buy the ebook here)

No matter what she did, Maime couldn’t stop sewing. If she was cooking a boiled dinner, she’d take up a hem between checking the corned beef and peeling the potatoes. If she was on a phone call with her brother, she was replacing buttons on a blazer. When the mailman came to her door, he’d find her draped in fabrics, flustered by the interruption of her choice between brushed denim and seersucker. The tips of her fingers were always pricked and a little bloody, to the dismay of the friends with whom she played bingo, discomforted by the red stains she left on the cards and markers.
On sunny Berkeley days, she’d set up the card table in her tiny backyard. She’d drag a length of extension cords from her house to the circa-1954 Singer sewing machine that chewed and spat cloth as fast as she could feed it, as if it were starved for corduroy and silk. It whirred and chugged, stopping only when a snag made the machine moan like a child who’d gobbled one too many Snickers.
Surrounded by neighbors on all sides, she’d sometimes hear a slightly off-key aria sung by her operatic northern neighbor across the street; or silly, loving arguments from the 40-something couple behind her to the south; or the constant, unintelligible mumble of television from the single guy to the west. Maime enjoyed the gentle community cacophony; it reminded her she wasn’t entirely alone.
Sewing allowed her to think of other things: of the days when her late husband stopped off at the corner candy store on his way home from work to buy her a sack of peppermint candy stars; of her little niece’s first steps; of the family puppy that used to pee under the piano, leaving chartreuse spots in the navy carpet. She’d drift away to family dinners, weddings and christenings, church socials and weekend trips up the coast, and funerals for friends.
When she wasn’t sewing or mending or appliqueing, she was sleeping. But she wasn’t sleeping all that much, lately, owing to -- well, owing. Prices were high as the proverbial elephant’s eye, and her fixed income of $993 a month couldn’t reach the top of the pachyderm’s hoof, let alone its ocular orb. Bills were scattered like eucalyptus leaves on tables and chairs and the mantel. She’d open one while embroidering a daisy around a hole in her sweater, and it would slip to the floor unnoticed, until she dropped a needle in its approximate location. She’d snatch up needle and envelope in one swoop, pop the thimble back on her finger while clucking at the exorbitant amount of her utility bill.
It wasn’t that she was irresponsible about her finances; Maime had always enjoyed the satisfaction of paying her bills before they were due. It was the right, the adult, thing to do. But the country’s struggling economy was taking her back to her parents’ woes in the Great Depression, never having enough, never quite knowing where the next quart of milk would come from. It always showed up, as an offering from a neighbor’s cow or a gift from a visiting uncle. But now, at her grandmother’s age, she felt less like a self-assured grownup and more like the fretful child in 1935, when a penny was precious, and a dime -- well, a dime bought an entire afternoon with Shirley Temple on the silver screen.
Maime’s second favorite pastime was walking up to the farmers’ market every Thursday morning. It reminded her of her happiest childhood days, the vibrant and luscious colors of squashes and strawberries, row upon neat row of romaine and celery, chard and broccoli, bundles of kale and kohlrabi, bushels of fresh beets with their greens, and yellow wax beans. She’d wander through the crowded aisles and pick from the best of the bunch, judiciously harvesting her meals for the week while kibitzing with the farmers she’d come to know. Some of them were of Mexican or Guatemalan descent, but only a few had crossed the border; the rest were born and raised in the Bay Area. Some were san-sei, Japanese-Americans whose parents and grandparents had been interned during World War II. No matter their origins, they were all in similar straits; every day was an anxious parry with financial conditions, weather conditions, or (very often) both. Maime tried to buy something from each of them every week -- a couple of peaches from Melina, a pound of brown rice from Kimiko, a sack of russets from Jorge. She’d even taken in a couple of dresses for the wife of her organic farmer friend Miguel, in exchange for the week’s carrots and parsnips. One of Miguel’s regular customers admired her work and asked if Maime could mend a hole in her linen jacket, and maybe let out a few pair of her husband’s slacks. “He likes his beer,” the woman muttered as she placed the shopping bag of pants at Maime’s feet.
The next week, Maime drove her card table and the Singer to the market, setting up shop in the back of Miguel’s booth, and stitched to her heart’s -- and her purse’s -- content. She’d earned $97 when the day was through -- and a bartered bushel of nectarines from the woman who owned an orchard in Brentwood! And five more clients for the seamstress with the cotton-white hair and the furrow in her forehead.

Every Farmers’ Market Thursday, she’d collect more customers, who’d pile their needy clothing in a huge wicker basket set out by her table. Each piece was tagged with a safety-pinned name and phone number. She’d lug the heap to her house and sort through the clothing, prioritizing her work in order of time required to complete: hems for pants and skirts, new zippers, button reinforcement or replacement, darning of holes and tears, stitching patches on elbows and/or knees...or just for decoration.
She particularly enjoyed the more decorative requests. “Do you do sequins?” one 16-year-old post-modern hippie grandchild asked as she unfurled a long pink tie-dyed cotton skirt, letting it wave like a flag in the summer breeze. “I want this to sparkle on the beach when we go to Half Moon Bay next Saturday night.” Giving a girl a chance to shimmer in the moonlight made Maime smile, transporting her to the few times in her life when she’d believed in magic. She had no children of her own, so any opportunity to quench that long-held desire was welcome.
When the girl -- named Cinnamon by her mother, a longtime Neil Young fan -- returned from her weekend, she was well-tanned and bubbling with teenaged bliss. Maime couldn’t help but wonder if the sequins had caused a stir on the shore, and in some young man’s heart -- or, more likely, groin. She didn’t wish to be even remotely responsible for a young girl’s deflowering! If her adornments had been a catalyst to potentially life-altering events...
Cinnamon interrupted Maime’s worried reverie. “Maime!  Do you paint?” Instant visions of canvas propped on easel, tubes and tubes of gesso, cerulean and crimson, pallets and brushes, smock and beret, dashed her concern and caused her to drop the spool of thread she was replacing on the Singer. Her brow furrow deepened, and the girl leapt to clarify. “Not like walls or houses,” which hadn’t even crossed Maime’s mind. “You know, like t-shirts and shit, uh, stuff,” as if her mother had poked her from behind in absentia.
Maime knew shit. She wasn’t liberal with the word (the latest utterance came when she’d inadvertently sliced a hole in her apron while cutting slippery satin), but she was well-acquainted with the term and its various applications. After all, she’d become an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley right at the end of World War II, years before the campus would crawl with the anti-Vietnam War crowd. She’d smoked and drank and cursed with the best and brightest, honing her sophistication along with her knowledge. She came out into the world with degrees in art and anthropology, had curated for several galleries and gone on a few digs before life made other demands on her time and intelligence.
Maime had enjoyed painting, but it had been years since she’d been so inspired. She definitely hadn’t considered taking brush to cloth; she liked to sew. But she did have a painterly eye when plying her visions for clothing embellishment. Sometimes, she’d rip a swatch from a tropical print, cut it into the shape of a fish, and stitch it onto the front of the garment. Maybe take some ric-rac and sew a water trail from its mouth. She saw as much movement in the appliqued design as she had in any brushstroke. At an age when most of her peers were unconcerned about style, Maime was reinventing hers, and it kept her awake at night as much as the looming due date for the mortgage.
Other pressing issues kept Maime distracted from the things that made sense to her. Her occasional insomnia was fed by things that had no sense at their core, things that charged Maime with an unproductive energy, things over which she had no control. When sleep eluded, she adjusted her habits to mitigate the effect of outside influences. She stopped watching CNN into the wee hours, believing it bored bad news into her psyche. She eschewed, unlike her fellow octogenarians, the habitual watching of game shows, soap operas and reality television. They only served to remind her of what she didn’t need, who she didn’t know, and what she didn’t respect. She knew what was going on out there, but she maintained a small and manageable world; at her age, only good humor, kindness and simplicity kept her sane.
Two other “things” had freshly cropped up in her little world: two people, to be exact, a man and a woman in their mid-30’s who had recently purchased the house east of Maime’s property.
No one on the street had any intel on them; oddly, there had been no open houses or private showings when the house went on the market. The “For Sale” sign had not been plastered with “Sold” -- one day, it was just gone. The Monday before Memorial Day, the mystery began to unravel.
Hints at the buyers’ collective character were offered the morning they moved into the boxy mid-century post-and-beam Craftsman just up the hill from Maime’s eggnog Victorian gingerbread. It had been vacant for 18 months, left behind by a lovely gay couple, successful furniture designers who decided to take their earnings to Bali for an early retirement. Maime often missed “the boys.” They called her “Miss Maime,” regularly checked in on her needs, and treated her to Dim Sum Sundays in Chinatown.
Not one, not two, but three moving vans lined Maime’s narrow street, one of them blocking the driveway of her media-dependent neighbor, who bounded out of his California ranch, calling to the driver to back up the truck a few feet. New Neighbor Male, whose head was the shape of the boxes he carried in each of his muscled arms, shouted at the driver to ignore the request. “Stay right there! I hired you, you’ll park where I tell you!” Media Geek shouted back, “I gotta get to work, move your damn van!” New Neighbor Female, having just pulled up in her blood-red gas-guzzling tank, shook her fist and screamed out the window, “Money talks!” Media Geek pulled his cellphone from his pants pocket and waved it at the behemoth, “Fuck your money! I’m calling the cops! Move your fucking truck!” Maime filled her coffee mug while peering through her window at the ugly scene with slack-jawed amazement. Impression #1: Uh oh.
Maime decided against baking the blueberry cobbler she’d planned as a welcome, instead laying low and carefully observing the new additions to her peaceful Berkeley enclave. If they are who they seem to be, she mused while exchanging snaps for eye hooks on a vintage organza blouse, now might be a good time to put up that cinderblock wall she’d promised herself. A nice, properly anchored, opaque barrier for an elderly woman living alone. A solid perimeter to protect her while sewing al fresco, weather permitting. Bricks and mortar between Her and Them. Now that Maime was making a little extra cash, and since her brother was a newly-promoted manager at the local Home Depot, she decided it was time to afford herself the security. 
In the interest of eliminating property disputes -- as any good neighbor would want to do -- she enlisted the skills of a local surveyor, who would, at additional expense, install metal stakes at the property lines. Each of the neighbors living on the three adjoining properties were duly contacted, and asked if they’d consider making a financial contribution to the community effort, depending on the proportion of the joint property lines. As any good neighbor might well want to do.
Everyone agreed to kick in a fair share; everyone but New Neighbors Male & Female. Maime’s surveyor was advised via a tersely-written note that they’d spent quite enough on the house and the move. No, they would definitely not be making any contribution to someone else’s home improvements. Maime sighed as she wrote the check.
It was 4:34 on a Monday morning when the earth under Berkeley decided, as it will without warning, to rumble, rattle and roll Maime out of her bed, amidst the crash of breaking milk bottles she’d collected since she was 17. Slipping into her pink bedside Crocs, she tiptoed through the crunchy damage to check on the condition of the rest of the house. This was a sizable quake -- not big enough to crack her home in half, but it prompted her to call her brother, who’d promised to someday build her a small backyard structure, a storage shed-cum-emergency shelter, should her home turn to rubble in a major temblor.
As is common practice in earthquake country, everyone spilled out of their respective homes to survey the damage and check in on their neighbors. The would-be Maria Callas, The Bickersons, and Media Geek met Maime in the street. New Neighbors were nowhere in sight.
“They’re a pair of attorneys,” Maria Callas shared as they shivered in the early-morning mist. “Married attorneys! What could be more odious?” Maime got a kick out of the obvious reference to the unkind stereotype assigned to lawyers. Later, as she swept the glass from her kitchen floor, one of the hundred or so lawyer jokes she’d heard over the years entered her mind:
Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
A: One is a slimy, bottom-dwelling scum sucker.  The other is a fish.
Maime laughed to herself, visualizing the duo in scaly skin, wriggling along the bottom of a muddy pond. Scooping shards into a bucket, she hadn’t heard her brother pull into the driveway, and jumped a foot when his gentle moon-shaped face popped up at her window. “Charlie! You scared the bejeepers out of me!” Charlie, a stocky redhead 18 years younger than his sister, had come straight from work, still wearing his bright orange Home Depot coveralls, pencil tucked behind his ear, lugging a tool chest and waving a drawing. “I’ve got it all planned out, Mames, we’ll put up the shed first, tackle the wall later. Don’t wanna be playing with concrete blocks in aftershocks!” Charlie guffawed at his intended rhyme, grabbed a soda from the fridge, and hopped down the steps to the backyard.
A shipment of lumber arrived the next day in a Home Depot van, as Maime was taking final stitches to the sunburst applique on a turquoise tank dress for one of Cinnamon’s school chums. She slung the dress over her shoulder and waved young delivery men Ollie and Stan around the east side of the house. She could have sworn she saw peek-and-duck activity in her uphill neighbors’ window, but she shrugged it off, knowing that, after hours of close work, her 83-year-old eyes liked to play tricks on her.
Ollie and Stan -- their real names, much to Maime’s delight as, true to their predecessors, Ollie was corpulent and bombastic and Stan was willowy and wimpy -- dragged and clattered pile after pile of 2x4s into the back yard, incessantly whistling in unison a dissonant tune Maime didn’t recognize. It sounded to her like a dirge, and its ghost annoyed her for hours after Ollie and Stan had driven away. Charlie would later identify it as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” “It’s the only song they can whistle,” Charlie chortled as he divided nails from screws. “At first, I wanted to throttle ‘em, but the irony won me over.” Maime didn’t get the joke, and made a mental note to stop by the Amoeba record store on Telegraph to listen to the original, for a little musical education...and a possible aural exorcism.
Before the commencement of sawing and hammering, Maime took it upon herself to compose an apologetic note to her neighbors, assuring them that the bangs and buzzes would only last about 10 days, begin after 11am and end by 3pm, and they’d suffer no construction noise at all on Sundays. She tucked her handwritten cards in the mailboxes of all concerned, and headed off to the farmer’s market for the day, secure in the knowledge she’d done the right thing by her little community.
Several hours later, lugging a healthy armful of new projects from her car, Maime was delighted to find on her porch a milk bottle vase full of fresh-cut circus roses. She recognized the flowers as being from The Bickersons’ yard -- she’d even spotted one of the fuller bi-color blooms that morning while it was still attached to the bush -- and buried her nose in the blossom as she unlocked her front door. An unaddressed envelope had been stuck in the doorjamb, containing a calligraphed note from Maria Callas on fine, cream-colored Crane stationery. “I will enjoy the sounds of your new creation just as you so graciously enjoy mine,” it read. Maime clapped her hand over her mouth to prevent an explosive laugh from being heard across the street, having no desire to hurt artistic feelings. Then Media Geek, plugged with earbuds, ran past Maime’s house and jammed both of his thumbs in the air, a neighborly approval on the fly.
“Three out of four,” Maime shrugged as she dumped her pile of work on the sofa. She could hear Charlie in the back yard, rhythmically tapping away at a nail head, preventing her from hearing the matched rhythm of knocking on her front door. Maime waved at the very focused Charlie as she passed the rear window, on her way to the bathroom for a private moment of solitude and reflection.
Just as Maime took her seat, Charlie stopped tapping -- but the knocking persisted. She paused before pulling up her cotton Fruit-of-the-Looms, and called out to Charlie, who was wired in with an iPod mix of pre-psychedelic Beatles and pre-obese Elvis. Maime got to the front door just as an escalated pounding started, and opened it to find a petite, short-haired blonde woman in riding clothes holding a crop in her tightly-folded arms. Maime recognized her as New Neighbor Female, and braced herself as best she could with a full bladder. It occurred to her that bringing a crop to a neighborly conversation made it anything but.
The icy blonde’s scowl was calibrated to melt flesh, but Maime had not completed her desired bathroom activities, so was armed with a biological defiance. “Yes?” Maime’s tone was urgent for any number of reasons. The blonde’s shrill voice julienned Maime’s ears. “Your workmen are disturbing my nap.” Maime squinted to imagine what napping in skin-tight jodhpurs and leather boots might look like. “I’m sorry,” Maime squirmed, thankful she’d been practicing her kegel exercises, “but I did leave a note of warning in your mailbox.”
The crop wriggled in the woman’s arms, seemingly of its own accord, and Maime took a step back from what could only be the threat of a whipping. She fixed her gaze on the object and followed its every twitch; in this woman’s severe hand, it had a life of its own. “It wasn’t an official notification,” the crop hissed, its leather strap fluttering from the crook in the woman’s elbow and flapping dangerously close to Maime’s nose. “There are noise ordinances, you know. Laws. AND,” the crop hastened to add, “your structure is obviously larger than codes allow. We’ll be filing a complaint with the city tomorrow morning!”
Maime took one more step back from the crop and its owner, reached for the knob, and tucked herself halfway behind the door, blurting, “I’ll check with the city and make sure I comply. Sorry you’re disturbed. Nice to meet you.” Maime shut the door and trotted back to the bathroom. Heavy boot heels clomped on her porch, down her driveway and up the sidewalk. Maime knew in her heart they were Boot Heels from Hell...

Ghostwriting: Sample chapter for novel (Book proposal available upon request)

I haven’t dreamed for 9 months.  Not one little nocturnal image.  It’s disturbing.  I’ve always believed that dreams are a reflection of what’s going on in my life, a way to comb out the tangles, to gain an objective perspective.  But it’s been so long since the last dream, I’ve begun to believe something’s seriously wrong.  Something important is missing in my life.  I can’t imagine what.  I’m 38 years old, and I have it pretty good by anyone’s standards.  Still, I’m exceptionally depressed.  Sometimes, I think I’m completely losing it.  Which would almost be okay, if I could figure out what “it” is.  But I can’t see down the dark hole drilled through the center of my chest to my belly.  
When I’m alone, I get scared.  When I’m with people, I slip into a suitable mask.  I’m miserable, and I know this can’t go on much longer.  What do I have to do to shake off this inexplicable sadness?  What do I have to do to dream again?
I’ve got to stop dwelling in the dungeon, snap out of it, get over it, let it go.  I need to walk this off...
A sharp wind from the Pacific tears at my long auburn hair as I cross the soft dunes to the sea.  My tender soles challenged by the resistance of the deep sand to each step, I begin to run, seeking relief in the hard sand at the water’s edge.  Reaching the cool ocean comfort, I squat to snatch a small, flat, black rock, sculpted smooth by years of battering and caressing.  My father taught me to skip stones 33 years before on Lake Champlain, where I didn’t have to wait for a wave to abate.  There was always smooth skipping on a lake in a Northern Vermont summer; not so in the wintry seas of Southern California.  I patiently watch for the right moment, angle my hand, and let the stone fly.  One, two, three, four, FIVE skips! before the next wave washes over the minor miracle of physics.  The sight does my heart good, and I giggle as I run along the shoreline, alive and in love with the sensation of instant liberty.
I run for half a mile before slowing to watch the sun sink to sea level.  Stopping to face the rich magenta light, shielding my eyes, wriggling my toes in the wet sand, I bask in the glorious moment, wrapped in a smile of singular gratitude.  Letting go of the past, embracing the future, enjoying the moment that lies between the two – these are the simple and profound gifts that have been on my wish list for lifetimes.  And now, they are mine.
The fresh ecstasy makes me feel as though the ground is trembling underneath my feet.  A distinctive rumbling sensation tickles my bare soles.  I suddenly realize it isn’t my etheric joy, but the shifting of tectonic plates, that is making the earth move.  Fear shoots through my stomach like an ice-cold shiv as the shaking intensifies, nearly knocking me off my feet.  I spin away from the now-churning Pacific to run inland, get to my car, drive home, find my husband, call my dad, turn off the gas – my mind swings quickly into earthquake survival mode as I scramble up the dry sand dunes to safety.  But each step sinks me deeper into the liquefying sand, and I feel myself sucked slowly towards the center of the earth, no release from gravity.  The sand is a swirling quagmire, and I am its captive.  Now waist-deep in the lethal bog, I twist slightly, catching the sight of a mile-high wall of ebony water, gaining momentum and poised to crash…
“NO!”  I bolt upright as if the earthquake I just dreamed were real – it may as well have been, for the way it’s made my heart pound.  Great.  I haven’t dreamed forever, and this is what I get.  I can’t quite catch my breath as I feel around in the dark for the bedside lamp switch.
“What the hell…?” Nic growls groggily from his side of our king-size bed, clearly more concerned about his disturbed sleep than my distress.  I hate to wake him; he’s been working around the clock lately.
“Sorry, baby.  It was nothing.  Go back to sleep.”  I stroke Nic’s hair, reach for my journal, turn off the light and slip out of bed.  
Tiptoeing into the living room of the elegant modern condo Nic and I share, I snuggle on the couch and sigh, safely tucked under the 20-year-old violet afghan my grandmother crafted for my college dorm room.  Curling up in its warmth, I write the details of the nightmare.  “Hope it’s not a premonition,” I whisper as I write.  “We still haven’t anchored the new shelf unit to the wall.”
My bathroom mirror offers an unkind reflection as I brush my teeth.  Dark circles and deep lines from a sleepless night are so unflattering; where’s the concealer?  Better yet, a double shot of Botox.  Nic slides past me, reaching for the toothpaste, pinching my rear.  
“Hey, when’s the last time you went to the gym?”  Nic’s mouth spits toothpaste as I return his pinch with a smack on his sculpted butt.  I know that no matter how much time I spend on the glute machine, mine will never be made of steel.  I hate that.  Apparently, he does, too.
“Since I got very little sleep last night, I have no clever comeback for you this morning, Nicolas, so I must resort to physical abuse.  And thanks,” I add another dollop of sarcasm, “for your support last night.”  
“Uh, that’s what your therapist is for, isn’t it?”  Nic runs styling gel through his hair as I squeeze past him.  I decide not to pursue it; escalation will only make us late for work.
Libby Weinman, PhD, the silver-haired 60-something psychologist who has patiently listened to my disjointed angst for several months, leans back in her generous chocolate leather chair and absorbs my overnight adventure with closed eyes.  Her occasional “mmhm” punctuates my impassioned narration.  Then, as I describe the oncoming tsunami, Libby’s eyes ease open.  
“Amanda, can you see what your mind is telling you?  Your anxiety and fears are taking over your life, dear.”  Calmly, in well-modulated tones carefully cultivated to soothe, the doctor offers her interpretation.  “In your dream, you start out perfectly happy – even ecstatic.  But then, in creep your various fears, of success, commitment – fear of happiness itself.  We’ve discussed this before, haven’t we?  What are you afraid of, Amanda?  What are you running from?”
Driving back to my office, I consider the therapy session, which has left me decidedly discomforted.  I find myself talking more freely to the Toyota’s windshield, the steering wheel, the dashboard, than I do to the woman who charges me $125 an hour.  
“Listen,” I say to the odometer, “I’ve survived 38 years of childhood, school, various jobs and relationships.  My mom got killed, and I lived through that.  I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got.  Why can’t Miss Ivy League Smarty Pants tell me what’s making me crazy?  Isn’t that her job?  I’m completely successful in my career, I’ve been happily married to the same man for 8 years, we have a great condo by the beach, great friends, a great life...”  I pull into the garage.  “I mean, I have a parking space with my name on it, for God’s sake!  What the hell’s wrong with me?”
Baines, Hardwick Ltd. has been my bastion of security for 7 years.  Company founder Coleman Baines, a close personal friend of my father’s, hired me at its inception.  “You’ll have to prove yourself, though, Mandy” – he was one of the few who could get away with using my childhood nickname – “but I know you’ll make your father proud.”  Coleman didn’t make it easy for me to work my way up to director.  I quickly became infected with his enthusiastic work ethic – some of my friends call it a workaholic ethic – and he’d promised me a payoff.  Now, just as I’ve been picturing the title of Vice President, Planning on my business card, my respected boss has sold his interest in the successful firm to Lucas Hardwick, the son of Coleman’s late partner.  
“Hey, Amy – how was your lunch at Chang’s?”  I force a cheery greeting.  The young receptionist, and all of my other fellow employees, are unnerved by the palpable vibration of a company in transition, and I want to project a positive attitude – whatever might help to mitigate the overriding apprehension.  Having been here from the beginning, I feel somehow responsible for their comfort.
Hardwick is an arrogant, shallow, 32-year-old Englishman, and has lost no time creating an uneasy environment for us.  Far from exhibiting a collegial spirit, he seems to thrive on keeping his minions off-balance.  I sense his acute scrutiny from his glass-walled office as I enter mine, a few doors down; I feel like a lizard is crawling up my spine and leaving a trail of slime.  I haven’t had more than a couple of minutes to shake it off and settle behind my desk when the intercom buzzes.  
“Amanda, may I see you in my office?”  Lucas’ clipped British accent grates on me – not quite as charming as Hugh Grant.  Something else to which I’ll have to adjust, I guess.  I’ve helped Lucas acclimate to the office; I have no doubt my knowledge and experience are of service to him.  But he has yet to acknowledge my value, and I’ve – generously, I think – chalked that up to a difference in style.  But it still annoys me.
“On my way, Lucas.”  I scoop up a pad containing a list of pending items for discussion and walk several yards down the hall to Lucas’ corner office.
Lucas brusquely waves me into his office; he’s the only person I know who can make a welcome seem like a dismissal.  I take a seat across from his desk and shift uneasily in the cold steel Bertoia chair as he finishes his phone call.  I have yet to experience a comfortable moment in this room since Coleman left.  Where Coleman offered plush seating and displayed photos of his family and his dogs, Lucas’ office accoutrements are a telephone – with headset – and a titanium laptop.
Lucas’ demeanor is cooler than usual, if possible; I don’t waste any time wondering why.  Later, I’ll realize that, if I had made a complete transition from therapy to the office, I might have sensed what was coming.  
“In the month since I took over this company, I have come to appreciate the contribution you have made to the organization,” Lucas says.  Ah...he’s finally giving me my due.  I envision my new VP letterhead and smile.  “I can certainly see why Coleman held you in such high esteem; however...”  What?  Why is there a “however” in that sentence?  My brow furrows as I prepare for the rest of his statement.  “I’m making some changes in company strategy, necessitating changes in company staff.  It’s a hard time and a tough decision, but lean-and-mean downsizing is the only way for this business to survive.  I’m trimming the staff by a third.”  Lucas unceremoniously hands me a blue folder.  “Thank you for your years of service, Amanda.  I believe you will agree your termination package is commensurate with length of service.  I think a day should be sufficient time for you to pack up your office.  And...” Lucas’ eyes level on mine, “I trust you’ll only take with you what is personally yours.”
In the middle of what is one of the more humiliating moments of my life, my brain scrambles for logic and finds none.  I consider standing my ground – but, as in my nightmare, I know I’m treading on quicksand.
I’m so furious I can barely breathe as I sort through the documents and detritus from my desk.  Seven years of professional history – a box of business cards, photos of various staff parties, the Mont Blanc fountain pen my father gave me as a graduation gift – packed into three cartons and two shopping bags.  I take my time clearing out, alternately seething and aching.  I wait until everyone – including Lucas – has left the office.  I don’t want anyone – especially Lucas – to see how he has damaged my spirit.  I know I don’t deserve this.
Jerry, a 60-ish gentle giant of a mailroom supervisor, brings a hand truck to help transport my belongings to my car.  “So, I guess this is the first of many,” Jerry’s somber tone threatens to trigger my tears.  “You think Mr. Baines knew this was gonna happen, Miss Bennett?”  I shake my head, hoping I’m right.  I give Jerry’s shoulders a quick hug and get into my Camry, suddenly aware of exactly how many months are left on the lease.   Only when I leave the parking structure and pull out onto Wilshire Boulevard do I cry, while dialing the cell number of my closest girlfriend.
“Kristin,” I can’t keep my voice from wavering, “you’re not going to believe this.”  Kris experienced her own sudden layoff the year before.  She’s stunned but philosophical, in a party girl sort of way.  
“Oh, sweetie, let’s go out and drink a vat of apple martinis.  Y’know, it only took me 5 months to find a new job – I predict you’ll do it in 2 weeks!”
“Thanks, Krissy, but let me take a rain check.  I really could use a squeeze from my guy right about now.”
Nic’s perfunctory embrace doesn’t exactly provide the consolation I’m looking for when I spill the events of the afternoon.  Another disappointment I don’t need.  “I’m sorry, babe.  I’ve got a deadline, here.  It totally sucks – but you hated that guy.  You know this is one of those blessings in disguise.  You’re totally better off outta there.”  
I drop the shopping bags in the guest bedroom and reach for the phone, dialing my father’s number.  Straight to voicemail.  Kicking off my heels, I change into sweats and sneakers.  Nic doesn’t look up from the computer screen as I snatch my keys from the counter.  Fine.  To hell with him.  I slam out of the condo.  
Jogging the half block to the beach, I dive into the process that customarily clears my head.  I have 30 minutes before the sun disappears into the sea.  The day’s events – the dream, Dr. Weinman’s assessment, the layoff, Nic’s cavalier attitude – bounce around my brain like a mad ping-pong ball.  I decide to dwell in the practical: my termination package is enough to take care of my end of the finances for a few months, but I know the job market in my field is especially tough right now.  Time off is not really an option.
As I run on the beach, I think of my mother, lost in a car accident with a drunk driver just as I turned 23.  I long to be in touch with my first best girlfriend – there was no injury Mama couldn’t heal.
At sunset, I stop to rest at a blue lifeguard shack, closed for the evening, and rest my chin on my hands.  In the distance, I see four generations of women walking in my direction along the shoreline.  The women are clearly related, all flaxen-haired and slender; Scandinavian, maybe.  Their warm laughter is a reflection of the intimacy they share.  The eldest, with pure white cotton hair, is supported by her 20-something granddaughter on one side and a pronged cane on the other.  A little girl, platinum corkscrew curls trailing in the breeze, runs to catch up to her grandmother, gleeful in her discovery of some mysterious sea creature.
The heartwarming image of continuity and familial support only serves to fuel my misery.  But I know what Mama would say, in her balmy Southern drawl: “Mandy mine, you keep on keepin’ on!”  Then she’d take her little girl for coffee and cake.
My favorite barista, Lorne, greets me as I walk through the door.  “Decaf venti latte?  Or are you feeling adventurous?”  
“The usual, Lorne.  Don’t think I could take one more adventure today, thanks.”
I plop myself at a corner table and peruse the want ads.  Not the most fun I’ve ever had in a Starbucks.  But I find reassurance in the atmospheric sounds: the hissing of the espresso machine, the grinding of frappuccino in blender, the barista singing along with Stevie Wonder: “Don’t you worry ‘bout a thiiiiing...!”  This is the soundtrack that allows me to focus on the job search.  I circle a few possibilities.
Nic is still glued to the computer screen when I return. “Where ya been, babe?”  
“Walking.  Starbucks.  You hungry?”  
“Nah,” Nic keeps clicking on the keyboard. “I called out for pizza.  There’s some left in the kitchen.”  I slide a slice onto a plate, grab a bottle of water from the fridge and join my journal in the bedroom.  Between bites, I vent.  
“I know he’s busy, but Nic and I aren’t connecting lately,” I write.  “He’s an emotional, mental, physical MIA, just when I need him the most.  I’m always there for him, I’m always happy to drop everything to support him and hear his worries – well, maybe not always happy – but he really wasn’t there for me today...”
The next day, at the same coffee house, surrounded by other laptop users, I sip my latte – with an added shot of espresso to chase my fatigue after a second sleepless night – and compose my resume.  I find it easy to outline my professional accomplishments, especially with a caffeinated brain.  But I’m distracted by the shifting dynamic between me and my husband. 
Nic’s insensitivity to my immediate needs is appalling to me.  It seems unlike him not to care about my situation; at the very least, my layoff has an impact on our financial status.  We’ve known each other 10 years, been married for 8, have seen each other through great fun, dozens of minor trials, and the major heartache of a miscarriage.  Every now and then, we talk about trying again, but we’re both such workaholics, expanding our family beyond the two of us hasn’t been a priority.  We have a tacit agreement that we’ll get around to it at some point.  
I’m suddenly hit with the thought that now is the perfect time.  Perhaps we’d feel more solidarity if we shared that experience.  The more I turn it over in my mind, the more sense it makes: Nic’s doing well, I can still interview for another job while we’re trying.  It would be an affirmation of our unquestionable love for each other.  An affirmation, yes.  And a positive distraction.
After I e-mail several resumes to the prospective employers I found on the UCLA Alumni job site, I pack up my laptop and bounce out of the coffee shop.  I crank up the sound system and sing along with Patrice Rushen’s funky “Forget-Me-Nots” at the top of my lungs, reliving freshman year in college, on my way to propose parenthood to the man I love.
When I bound through the door, Nic is standing at the living room window that overlooks the ocean.  I ease up behind him, wrap my arms around his waist, stretch up to kiss the back of his neck.  He awkwardly slips out of my embrace; it feels like a bee stung my heart.
“Nic – what is this?  Can’t I even give you a damn hug?”  
“I’m just working out a problem, is all.”  He turns to face me with what I notice is a pained, painted smile.  He cups my small hand in his and kisses my palm.  “You know how I am when I’m in the ‘the cave.’  I’ll be out in a while.  ‘K, babe?”  My intuition tells me this is not the right moment to broach the subject of baby bliss.  I take my hurt feelings to the bedroom and turn on the evening news.  Somebody else out there is bound to have it worse than I do.
I sit in a high-backed leather booth across from my handsome father, Charles, and nibble on a piece of warm buttered bread.  Papa’s one of those older men who gives silver hair and laugh lines a good name.  Although he has recently retired, Papa’s tall, slightly paunchy frame is still decked out in three pin-striped pieces, as befits a successful investment banker.  The waiters at his favorite downtown steak house, Engine Company 23, conscientiously wait on him as if they were still seeing him everyday for lunch.  
“So, darling, we’re both on the dole,” Papa laughs while slicing himself a bite of Porterhouse.  “What do you suppose we two derelicts ought to do with our time?”  He receives my weak smile; I tolerate my father’s sense of humor better when I’m employed.  “Papa, have you talked with Coleman?  Does he know how Lucas is screwing with his company?”  
“It’s not ‘his company’ anymore, Cookie.  And Cole’s been on a sailing junket to Puerto Vallarta for several days, so I’m quite sure he’s out of touch.”  Papa adds another pat of butter to his mashed potatoes.  “But I’m sure he’ll be eager to give you the highest recommendation wherever you interview.  What have you got lined up?  Have you checked in with Kirk McCallum like I suggested?  Paul Myers?  Maryanne Lassen?  These are the people you want to connect with, they’re at the top of the game, and you should be, too.”  He bites the tip from an asparagus spear.  “I’m afraid you underestimate yourself, Cookie.  If you didn’t, you might have been a V.P. when you got fired.”  Papa signals to the waiter for another beer.  That’s three.  But I hold my tongue.
“Yes, Papa, they’ve all got my resumes.  None of them are hiring, now, but...you know the drill.”  I try not to fidget as I listen to my father, but it takes great effort to be patient with his occasionally patronizing tone.  “And I wasn’t ‘fired’ – it’s a layoff.”  I love my dad; I was happy when he moved to Los Angeles after Mama’s death.  I appreciate his informed support, I know his knowledge and connections are valuable, and I truly believe he doesn’t mean to talk down to me.  But he sometimes seems to forget that his only child is an adult woman who actually knows what she’s doing.  I think.
While the waiter clears our plates and leaves a dessert menu, Papa expounds on his vision of my next logical move.  Bless his heart; the lunch that he meant as a strategy session only exacerbates my frustration.  My cell phone mercifully rings as Papa pays the check.  It’s a breathless Kris, talking at her usual mile a minute.
“Amanda, you know my theatre group, The Watermark Company?  They’re looking for volunteers to help with our next production, to raise money for the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  And I was thinking, we need you, you could honor your mom, you know, and use your time off for a good cause...”
“’Time off?’”  Okay, I’ve had about enough of the people in my life not getting it.  “I have to find another job, Kris.  I don’t have time to play in your little theatre, for God’s sake!”  I realize my desperate edge isn’t lost on my friend or my father and take a step back from my anxiety.  “Okay, okay.  Sorry.  If it doesn’t cut into my job search, I’m in.”
And if you don’t have to get onstage,” Papa smiles, a reference to my lifelong fear of public speaking.  
“This would be behind the scenes, Papa,” I sigh.  “I know how to do that.”  
The old firehouse on Ashland Street was converted several years before into a 99-seat theatre with a large platform stage.  Nic and I had attended and enjoyed a few of Kris’ performances, but it never occurred to me to participate – it’s exotic, maybe glamorous, but it’s really not my world.  The first thing that hits me as I walk through the door of the windowless building is the musty odor of sweat and old makeup.  Yikes!  So much for the glamour.
Kris introduces me to a few of her fellow company members before we settle in the audience and get our assignments.  I take a seat in the back row.  This is too strange; everyone knows each other.  And they’re all, as Papa would say, somewhat derisively, “creative types.”  I am the proverbial fish-out-of-water.  What am I doing here?
“I want to thank everyone for showing up, this is a great two-act play by a new playwright...” The producer’s name is Oliver something, but I’m too distracted by my own thoughts to pay close attention to what he’s saying.  While he’s chattering away, I’m wondering exactly how long I’m going to be unemployed.  And that I should have called Nic to see how his meeting went with his new client.  And I really should get back to the gym, my thighs are spreading on this seat like cream cheese...okay, Amanda, the producer’s introducing someone, pay attention.  Uh, who’s this guy...?
“Hi, I’m Scott Winston, I’ll be your director for this flight of fancy.  We’ll be traveling at the speed of sound, at altitudes heretofore unrecorded in theatrical history...”  No, really, who is this guy?  Kind of cute, in an edgy, disheveled sort of way.  Quirky.  Uh, too quirky, some kind of artsy, 21st Century hippie-cyberpunk, with his camouflage pants, safari vest and black t-shirt.  Does this guy even know what he’s doing?  He’s nothing like my smooth, stylish, professional Nic.  Hmm...my Nic.  Maybe he and I can grab some pasta tonight at Il Fornaio, and I can bring up the baby idea...
“Amanda Bennett?  Is there an Amanda Bennett in the house?”  Damn.  The cyberpunk director is calling my name – a second or third time, apparently, given the giggles from the group.  I sheepishly raise my hand.
“Ah, there you are...Amanda, I’m hoping you’ll help out Jean, here.”  Scott had been wandering around the theatre while making assignments, and affectionately touches the head of a petite young Asian woman wearing Juicy Couture yoga pants and a tiny pink t-shirt that reads, “It’s ALL good.”  Jean makes notes in her script, completely ignoring Scott’s introduction.  “Jean’s our insanely ruthless set designer and prop master, and Kris tells me you’re relentlessly organized, so the two of you should hit it off.”  I slowly mouth the word, “relentless” at Kris; Kris responds with a wink.
“Jeez, I’m gonna be tasting garlic for three days,” Nic grunts as we wait for the light to change at Ocean Boulevard.  
“You asked for extra,” I laugh, “and I’m thinking there aren’t enough Altoids in L.A. to make me want to kiss that mouth, now!”  Nic grabs my hand as we run to avoid the oncoming traffic, past a couple walking their Golden Retriever.  “Hey, can we get a dog?”  I ask, feeling a little like an 8-year-old.  “A lab, maybe, or a Weimaraner, like Brian’s.”  
“Uh, we’ve had the dog talk, babe,” Nic reaches into his pocket for the bills to cover ferris wheel tickets.  “Neither one of us has the time to care for it, train it, walk it...it’s like having a kid.”  
“Looks like I have some time, now,” I settle back into the gondola.  “Besides, it’s good training...I mean, there is the ‘pets-before-babies’ theory.”  Our gondola inches up to the top of the wheel, stopping at intervals as others board the ride.  It’s an incremental rise, like my approach to the delicate subject of a trip to babyland.  “’Cause I’ve been thinking...”
“Uh oh,” Nic provides his usual smartass response to that phrase.  I am undeterred by his mockery.
“Yes, that’s right, Nicolas, I’ve been thinking.  About us.  About what ‘us’ means.  About what it could – should – mean, after all this time.”  We near the apex; I reach for Nic’s hand, entwining my fingers in his.  “And this is my proposal...”
“Yes?  What do you propose?”  I know he’s not dense, he’s just playing dense – isn’t he?  I try not to let my impatience with him infect my tone.  
“I’m proposing pregnancy, Nic.  As in, mine.  As in, we try to have a baby.”
Nic takes a long breath and looks past me, counting the lights that line the coast.  Oh, this isn’t good.  This is not the response of my dreams.  “Speak to me, Nic.  It’s a yes-or-no question.”  
“Your timing is incredible,” Nic starts.  As we make one revolution after another, he lets me in on the thoughts that have fed his recent distant behavior.  He says he’s been feeling the need to take a step back for a little while, regroup.  What with all the changes going on in his – in our – professional lives, he wants the space to sort them out.  Maybe some time apart would allow for a clearer picture of our relationship.  I can’t quite fathom what I’m hearing.
“I know I’ve been a little blue, Nic, but I didn’t know our relationship was looking fuzzy.  And we’re married, we’re partners – why can’t we do the sorting out together, the way we always have?”  Hot tears form in my eyes, threatening to spill as we walk back to the car.  I wait until we’re out of the crowd to ask the inevitable question: “Is there someone else?”  
“No, no, babe...I just need a little breathing room.  And I want you to have some, too.  Just for a little while.”  He says he’ll stay at Michael’s while Michael is in San Francisco.  He’ll be only a mile away, in Venice.  
We fall asleep in each other’s arms that night.  When I wake the next morning, Nic is gone.
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