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.
5019 words



I cannot be objective about the music you are listening to; the leader of the quartet is George Barnes, and he is my father. And when it comes to describing Dad’s music, I am naturally given to hyperbole. As of this writing, he’s been gone 25 years – but given the gifts he left behind, which surely include this recording, he couldn’t be more alive.
I was present at hundreds of his performances, onstage and in the studio, in the relatively few years I knew Dad. And, as familiar as I would become with each arrangement, I was always surprised by some fresh improvisational twist, ever impressed by his unlimited enthusiasm. This performance is no exception.
My mother and I did not attend this concert – I was in New York City, and Mom was visiting relatives in North Carolina. But Dad let us know via phone how wonderful it was to play with his new quartet for the people of his new hometown. Now there’s a true artist for you: he was 56 years old, and everything was wonderful and new.
Dad was fearless: can you hear him fly? He had such a solid foundation of skill and soul that he could lift effortlessly off the runway of the chart, soar and sweep, break the song barrier and come down on three points every time. He was the Chuck Yeager of guitarists. Listen to him dance, to his elegant footwork: flawless ballroom, infectious soft-shoe, twirling and tapping and leaping and landing with ineffable grace. He was the Fred Astaire of guitarists. He raises an eyebrow with a gleam in his eye, peeks impishly around a corner, interpolates a laugh to unexpectedly lighten the phrase with innuendo and double entendre. He was the Groucho Marx of guitarists. Unabashedly romantic in his approach to a ballad, he tenderly wears his artist’s heart on his sleeve.  He was the Jimmy Stewart of guitarists.
15-year-old George was greatly influenced by black blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, but he listened avidly to horn players – particularly cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, clarinetist Jimmie Noone, and Ellington’s alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. They were his primary inspirations because they were the soloists no guitarist could be in the 1930’s. Dad would not be relegated to the rhythm section – he had solos to play. And those solos influenced countless guitarists over four decades, from Chet Atkins to John Pizzarelli. His clarity of tone, his definitive attack, his fluid phrasing, were utterly unique. He was the George Barnes of guitarists.
It’s too much fun to listen to him play; but for me, it’s just as enjoyable to be hearing his voice. I miss him. Yet here he is, right in the room with us, joking and expounding. How he relished embellishment! “And, why not?” he’d ask. For him, it made the tale worth telling – and hearing. At one point during this concert, in the wake of warm applause, Dad cracks wise with San Francisco guitarist Duncan James. He teasingly alludes to the fact that they’re playing to an East Bay audience which might not have the same level of sophistication when it comes to jazz: “See, now what’d I tell you, Duncan? These people have terrific taste out here…they know what the good stuff is!” Sure. He made it easy for all of us to recognize “the good stuff.”
In case you’re not familiar with the man behind the guitar, here’s just a slice of his story: George Warren Barnes was the child of Zenas Otto Barnes and Ruth Eliza DeJarnette, born and raised in South Chicago Heights, Illinois on July 17, 1921. Zenas – a decent singer and guitarist – was a piano maker and, with Ruth, sang in the Chicago Light Opera company.  George’s older brother, Reggie, would figure prominently in George’s early development as a pioneer of the electric guitar. Reggie loved to fool around with electronics, and crafted for his sibling one of the first guitar amplifiers in history. Harry, the youngest, loved to play guitar, as well. He idolized George, and later said his brother was born with the most talent – but there are those who say Harry was damn good.
At barely 6 years old, George excelled in his piano studies; two years after the stock market crash, Zenas had to sell the instrument for groceries. Ten-year-old George, rummaging around the attic, found an old Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar belonging to his father, who showed him a few chords. Thus began George’s career as a guitarist.
By the time he was 12, George belonged to the local musicians’ union, supplementing the family income by playing weddings and Kiwanis Club dances. He tracked his finances in a diary he kept at the age of 15; out of the $9.50 he’d earn from three socials, $5.00 went to “Ma for groceries,” $4.00 to “Pa for rent” -- and he’d keep 50 cents for himself. In the same diary, he scribbled original melody lines and listed his favorite movie tunes.  He also wrote about making his first recording (“This experience of hearing myself for the first time makes me all the more enthusiastic about making more and better discs.  I have a feeling it will be a large stepping stone.”) In 1937, George’s remarkable talent was discovered by another South Chicago Heights native, Johnny Mince, a clarinetist with Tommy Dorsey’s band. Johnny was riding past George’s house, perched on the car’s running board, when he heard the 16-year-old playing on his front porch.  Johnny set up an appearance on Dorsey’s Amateur Hour – George won, and was awarded $75 and a week’s gig at the Chicago Theatre.
By 1939, George was the youngest staff arranger at NBC in Chicago -- the money was great, the studios were clean (unlike the nasty nightclubs he’d been playing), and he could write and play whatever he wanted. He soon became a featured performer for three years on the popular radio program, Plantation Party. Then the U.S. Army snapped him up and, in the basement of the newly constructed Pentagon, George fought World War II with his acute hearing, intercepting enemy code.
Discharged in 1946, George returned to Chicago and began to indulge his unique tastes in composition and orchestration, organizing an octet of musicians from the Chicago Symphony. Like Duke Ellington, the jazz George heard in his head often took non-traditional forms. The unusual instrumentation of electric guitar with clarinet, bass saxophone, English horn, oboe, flute, piccolo, piano, vibes, bass and drums allowed him to create pieces that approached symphonic proportions – without the strings. The George Barnes Octet became a weekly feature on the ABC Radio Network.
In 1951, George was offered a recording contract with Decca Records by legendary producer Milt Gabler; the deal was unusual for the time, allowing George to compose, arrange, and produce his own albums. He also immediately became one of the most sought-after freelance studio musicians in New York City. In addition to seven years as an integral member of Raymond Scott’s Your Hit Parade orchestra, George recorded with the most famous artists of the 50’s and 60’s: that’s him on all of Sam Cooke’s hits; he invented the snappy pizzicato riff on Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”; those are his liquid lines on “Blue Velvet.” The flashy guitar accents on the original “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock?” George Barnes. From Sinatra to Como. The Mills Brothers and the McGuire Sisters. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington. Paul Anka, Bobby Darin, Bobby Vinton. Connie Francis, Brenda Lee. Louis Armstrong. Barbra Streisand. Bob Dylan.
Studio work paid the bills. But true satisfaction came, of course, out of playing and recording his own music. In 1961, he formed the first full-time jazz guitar duo with close friend and fine rhythm guitarist Carl Kress. Of their five albums, Barnes & Kress’ highly acclaimed Town Hall Concert is the most famous, hailed as a triumph of live performance. And when Lyndon Johnson heard one of the Barnes & Kress recordings on a campaign train, he requested their presence at the White House Staff Christmas Party in 1964 – the same year First Daughter Luci became famous for dancing the Watusi in New York discos. George composed “Watusi for Luci” in her honor, and George and Carl rocked the East Room with the song’s debut. The record got fair airplay and became the theme for the American Bandstand-style Clay Cole Show. In 1965, after a successful month-long tour of Japan, Barnes & Kress returned to the States to play a week in Reno before heading home to New York. In the middle of their Nevada stint, Kress died of a heart attack, and George lost his most compatible partner and dear comrade.
The guitar duo format still appealed to George, and he teamed with accomplished 7-string guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli in 1968. For four years, this formidable duo toured the college circuit, had a recurring gig at New York’s prestigious St. Regis Room, and were favorites of talk show hosts Johnny Carson, David Frost and Mike Douglas.
George and eloquent cornetist Ruby Braff became aware of their musical empathy during a jam session in 1971. Two years later, each of them was asked by concert promoter George Wein to play in an all-star band at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival. George and Ruby had played these two-chorus-per-player events, and always found them musically dissatisfying. So George called rhythm guitarist Wayne Wright and Ruby tapped bassist John Giuffrida, creating the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet. Wein booked them to open for the classic Benny Goodman Quartet, complete with jazz giants Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. It was big news that Goodman and his original band were reuniting for the event; however, the praise went to the inventive approach of Braff/Barnes, whose debut at Carnegie Hall to rave reviews blew the celebrated Goodman and Company off the stage. The late John Wasserman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “They were not the reason the old hall was standing-room-only; but for sheer musical enjoyment, they cut the Goodman band to ribbons.”  Playboy Magazine called Braff/Barnes “a marriage made in heaven.” George and Ruby recorded five albums under their own name (with bassist Michael Moore replacing Giuffrida after the first Carnegie Hall concert), and an elegant Rodgers & Hart tribute with Tony Bennett. The Braff/Barnes Quartet toured the U.S. and Europe, collecting fans and receiving accolades from the press. But an increasing acrimony between the unmistakably talented, however personally mismatched, co-leaders took its toll on George’s health, and the quartet split up after their 1975 European tour.
Among the events at which George played with the Quartet was a jazz festival in a small Northern California town called Concord. Carl Jefferson, wealthy owner of a successful car dealership, was a jazz fan. In the early 70’s, “Jeff” used his resources to launch a festival in his home town, record the proceedings, and release the recordings on a tiny label he’d founded. Two of the albums George and Ruby recorded were for the Concord Jazz label. Jeff’s generosity with, and respect for, jazz artists was attractive to George, as were the East Bay surroundings. In 1975, George and his wife Evelyn moved to Concord where, for the last two years of his life, he recorded and performed live with this quartet, and taught master classes to a select group of fine Bay Area musicians. One of those students was guitarist and songwriter Greg Hofmann who, after George’s sudden death from a heart attack on September 5, 1977, offered this revealing appreciation:
“...certainly, George was one of America's greatest (and surprisingly unheralded) jazz guitarists -- a guitar player's guitar player, who explored his instrument completely. He could attack a note fifty different ways. He could play like a clarinet, a horn section, and a bebop trumpeter. He had it all; hot chord solos, liquid and intelligent lead lines, and masterful exposition of a melody. He was a complete musician – an arranger, a vocal coach, he played piano and could show a violin player the right fingerings. He knew it all. And at 56, he was in full stride. When I talked to him a few days before his death, he had just finished 50 new masters for his mail catalogue of chord and lead solos. He had just put together his own studio for recording and lessons. He was writing a book of reminiscences about music and musicians, and anyone who knew George was treated to his incredible fund of stories, always a delight to hear. He was composing a cycle of instrumentals...At twice my age, he had three times my energy. George was a natural teacher. Always positive, stressing what you could do. A sensitive and discriminating ear, he knew what you need to learn far better than you yourself did. You learned not just guitar or voice or whatever you were studying with him but musicianship, professionalism, the right way to do things, from preparing lead sheets to conducting recording sessions to handling temperamental sidemen – you name it. George shared himself totally. It was his delight and good pleasure to give you what he knew. He had no secrets; there was no holding back. No guarding certain hot licks that were his alone. He funneled himself into you, explored your strengths, and gave you what you needed most, along with a generous amount of positive encouragement...We will miss him terribly.  And we are all much richer for having known him...”
You didn’t have to know my father to love his music. But if you did know him, you also knew that his music was a direct reflection of the man. You can hear each nuance of his complex character in every note he played. If you never met him, trust me: this recording is a fine introduction.
-Alexandra Barnes Leh
2330 words