Richard Davis was not looking forward to visiting his mother, Anne. The whole Davis crew, Anne, her brother Michael and his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Paula, lived in an area of town with rows of dilapidated houses and no trees or shade. If Richard’s problem was geographic only, he would have visited them more often than four times a year but his family’s lifestyle was not pleasant for him to see. They weighed more than three hundred and fifty pounds each, ate the cheapest canned tamales and raviolis with an occasional splurge on macaroni salad, and drank soda by the liter. Their video movie selection was limited to whatever Uncle Michael or Aunt Elizabeth found for fifty cents at the thrift store. The one actual movie they managed to obtain was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which they would watch two or three times a day. Otherwise, there were instructional videos on how to get government grants, how to properly administer medication for Hepatitis-C and a recording someone made of a home shopping network selling dishware.
When Richard got a job as a general merchandising clerk at a well-known paint store, when he was just out of high school, his goal was to save enough money so he could move out of his mother’s apartment. She had never married and he never knew his father. Richard never smoked but Anne did and the whole place was a stinking mess. His job allowed him to get away from the smoke and see how people who were sane had conducted themselves. He was not thrilled with scrubbing toilets, sealing floor grout and breaking down cardboard boxes, and the pay was not enough for him to achieve his goal of eventually moving, but the job was part time and occasionally a good looking woman customer asked him for a certain color of paint. He was not authorized to suggest a color to anybody but he could direct them to a specific color asked for and he was happy to say anything, regardless of the context, to someone not obese but looked like she put some thought into what she wore that morning.
He was thinking about asking his boss for a full-time position and a promotion to salesman, though when he was originally hired there were no sales positions available or full time slots open. However, an odd sense of circumstances came about that helped him improve his situation and allowed him to quit his job. His grandfather, Martin Davis whom Richard never met, had died and left the family a lot of money. Martin had apparently invested in a stock a long time ago and never touched his earnings except to put one hundred thousand dollars on a bank bond. He continued to live modestly as a barber, though he was technically a millionaire. The money from the stock and the bank bond accumulated since Nineteen Fifty Five and, when Martin made out his will, he left an equal share to Michael, Elizabeth and Anne. Martin figured they could decide how much to give to Paula and Richard. Michael and Anne were afraid of losing their social supplementary incomes if they accepted their inheritances. Elizabeth would have accepted her share if not for caution against someone coming in and robbing them because of karma. Paula did not care one way or the other. She was happy with her soda and the cute guy in the video explaining how to apply for grant money. They gave it all to Richard.
He thought that their lack of understanding about finances was pathetic and he almost felt like insisting he give them some cash but then he realized they had no idea how to improve themselves and the money would only go to extra cans of tamales and raviolis, extra tubs of macaroni salad and a whole truckload full of a year’s supply of soda. They would not even upgrade to better brands. So, he kept the whole amount and spent some on buying a condominium.
That was two years ago and he still had money left over to use on little perks, like eating at a fancy Vietnamese Asian Fusion restaurant a block away from his place and shelling out thirty dollars for an excellent Venison dish, but he also wanted to learn from his grandfather’s example. Martin had purposefully stayed away from his family for many years so the fellow must have had intelligence. If Martin could make a decent living as a barber, Richard could work part-time at a print store that was a half-block away from his place and where he did not have to scrub toilets.
Today was his day off. The weather was on the pleasantly cool side and he would have wanted to sit in the German style café, just across the street, where he could get an apple strudel and a cinnamon cappuccino and do some writing while soaking up the ambience and listening to the electronic music, but his mother asked him to come over for her birthday party. Her birthday was a week ago but she had a doctor’s appointment scheduled on that day so the party was canceled. Richard was hoping he would not hear any more about it but, sure enough, she called him yesterday and told him she was hoping he would see her.
He said, “Can it wait until next week? I worked hard yesterday and I’m due at my job in a half hour. I’ll be exhausted tomorrow.”
She explained, “Tomorrow is the only day I can do it. Michael has to go to the hospital for dialysis and he can’t make it. Elizabeth is not feeling well. She has food poisoning. She might not show up.”
“How about Paula…? She’ll be there.”
“I guess, but she’s not my child. I want to see my son. I’m making a special dinner and I’m sure you’ll like it. I’m making it for you. I’m not asking for any presents. Just let me cook a dinner for you. Let me be a mother. That’s the present I want.”
“What are you making?”
“Tamales and macaroni…”
“How is that special? That’s what you eat every night.”
“It’s special because you’ll be there. I’m also going to show a movie. We can sit down, relax, eat dinner, watch a movie and drink some soda. It’ll be fun.”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
“We see that every time I come over.”
Her voice got louder. “You only come on my birthday, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. You act like you see us every day and we subject you to punishment. The money your grandfather left us and we gave you has made you think you’re better than us. We’re still your family. I expect you to come see me on my birthday. It’s a week later but it’s still my party. You can talk to Paula about getting a writing grant so you can publish your stories. She likes seeing you.”
“That video only talks about housing grants. Paula doesn’t know anything about writing or publishing.”
“I’m not asking you to spend all day. Just make an appearance. A few hours of eating and talking… We don’t have to watch the movie.”
“Will you at least not smoke in the house while I’m there?”
“How about emptying that cat litter box that’s been sitting there for eight months?”
“I can’t promise that.”
“At least can you put some cumin on the tamales so they taste a tiny bit more like home cooking?”
“Cumin…? That’s insane.”
“Well, then how about a few shakes of black pepper?”
“Paula won’t eat it with black pepper.”
He sighed. “I’ll go because I said I would visit on your birthday. I’ll spend a few hours with you and get it over with.”
“Thank you, honey.”
Now, he would have felt more irritated about visiting her if not for the positive change in weather. The last few days were hotter and he was afraid of entering a toaster oven of an apartment but, if it stayed cool all day, there was a possibility that her neighborhood, on Buchanan Road, would not be scorching even without shade. He debated putting on attractive clothes, because her place was a mess and her cats shed hair all over him, but he finally decided to wear a nice blue short-sleeved polo shirt and dark blue jeans. He could have put on a black belt but decided not to look too fancy. He was visiting his mother, not a date. He did tuck in the shirt, though, to distinguish himself from the rest of the family who never wore tucked in shirts, ever. His thinking about that reminded him of how Uncle Michael never wore clean clothes and sometimes his pants had holes where holes should not be. Richard thought about other times when he visited his family, including Michael’s constantly asking for more soda, Paula’s accidentally spilling her plate of food on Richard’s lap when she walked by, Elizabeth’s insisting on watching the Hepatitis-C video because she liked the narrator’s voice, and Anne’s blowing cigarette smoke in Richard’s direction. If he did not stop thinking about those incidents, which happened every time he visited them, he would change his mind about coming over.
Right before he grabbed his keys to leave, his cell phone rang. The number was his co-worker, Henry, at the print store. Richard said, “Hello, Henry. What’s happening?”
Henry answered, “I’m in kind of a bind and I hope you can maybe come down here and help me with something.”
Richard was relieved not to hear his mother’s voice. Henry was a good guy who made a few mixed CDs of obscure psychedelic rock groups from Europe. Richard would not mind doing him a favor. “I’ll be right there. How long will it take? I’m on my way to my mom’s, as much as I really don’t want to be.”
“I just need you to deliver something to someone. Where does your mom live?”
“Oh. Well, the delivery is for a woman on Grant. That’s about a ten minute walk from Buchanan. The whole thing will take about twenty extra minutes out of your time. If you can’t do it, I can ask Gary but I thought of you first.”
“I’ll do it. Grant’s a nice area. I’d live there if I could. This will give me an excuse to see it.”
“See you soon.”
Richard walked to Penfield Printing, a place that usually specialized in personal greeting cards, diplomas and the occasional billboard, but also handled book bindings and photograph scans. His boss, Quentin Penfield, had a few big-name clients who sent a lot of business his way and those clients allowed him to stay open in spite of competition from corporate chain copy centers. Other than Quentin, the other employees besides Richard were Henry Parker and Gary Baker. Quentin spent a lot of time talking to his clients. Richard only met Gary once. Gary worked a different shift. Henry was Richard’s friend. When Richard entered the store, Henry smiled and said, “Thank you so much. This won’t take long.”
Richard said, “Any excuse to avoid seeing my mother is fine with me. What’s the plan?”
Henry handed him an envelope. “Someone Quentin knows left an envelope here by mistake. It was a personal letter to someone. The fellow didn’t have time to come back and give it to her so Quentin asked me to deliver it to her in person but there’s a couple of orders I have to fill out and I’m on a deadline. So, I just need you to go to the woman’s place and let her know whom you work for and you’re just delivering a message. That’s it.”
“Oh, sure… No problem. If she lives on Grant, she’s got to be upscale, at least more than me. Well, off I go.”
“Great. If you want, you can tell your mom I said hi.” Henry laughed.
“Sure.” Richard waved and walked off.
Richard noticed the name on the envelope was Kathryn Ludlow and the address was 260 Grant Avenue. Grant was six blocks away from Buchanan and his family lived on the 20th block of Buchanan. There were twelve blocks separating Kathryn Ludlow’s place and Anne Davis’ apartment. He had walked once or twice on the 30th and 31st blocks of Grant, and the higher the block the higher of quality, according to his observation. Perhaps where he was headed, on 260 Grant, the area was on the border of just getting nice. He could not imagine what Kathryn Ludlow looked like and had no memory of if she even entered the print store but all of the customers at Penfield Printing were mild-mannered and decent.
As he came to the 26th block of Grant Street, he noticed all the buildings were lofts and very good looking. He had a momentary thought that the difference between Kathryn Ludlow’s living quarters and her physical person could be vast. When he used to live with his mother, Anne would send him to the store for cat litter but with the agenda of his meeting the female cashiers who she said were friendly and single. Every cashier was Anne’s size and dressed just as carelessly. He was hoping not to see Kathryn Ludlow and think of his mother as better looking. That would ruin his whole day.
He saw 260 Grant and it was the best looking loft on the block. The color was a warm brown and the vibe he felt standing close to it was like he saw a glimpse of a different reality than any he would ever know on his own. He would never naturally fit in the area aside from an artificial situation like the one presented today.
He rang the doorbell. A voice from inside said, “I’ll be right there.” Her voice sounded like only an attractive woman would have it. Ten seconds later, she opened the door. He was right. She asked, “How may I help you?”
He said, “Hello. My name is Richard Davis. I work at Penfield Printing. My boss, Quentin Penfield, asked me to give this to you.”
She smiled and took the envelope. She pulled out the letter. “Oh. This is from my dad, William Ludlow. He’s a client and personal friend of Quentin’s. I wonder why my dad didn’t drop this off himself.”
Richard looked at her outfit while she read the letter. She wore a dark blue button up blouse, tucked-in, with long sleeves rolled to the elbow, and blue and black checkered plaid pants with a brown belt, and black high heels. Her blonde hair was pinned back. She resembled no one in his social scale. He figured these several minutes spent giving a letter to her was a treat he could cherish and remember when smelling his mother’s cigarette smoke and eating those awful tamales. He said, “I heard that your dad left the letter at the store by mistake so I’m just delivering it as a convenience.” The weather was getting colder and he felt rain.
“That’s probably it. My dad knows Quentin well. It’s really nice of you to bring this. Did it inconvenience you in any way?”
“No. My co-worker, Henry Parker, was supposed to bring it but he’s busy. He asked me if I could. It’s my day off. I’m actually supposed to visit someone not too far from here. Your place was on the way. It gave me a chance to see a nice area.”
“Oh. Who are you visiting, if I may ask?”
“My mother… She lives on 206 Buchanan. Not the best area, and she’s not the best person, but she wants me to see her.” The rain poured harder.
Kathryn frowned. “Hmm… Do you have to go or would you like to come inside for a cup of tea?”
“Tea sounds good. Thank you.” The chance to spend time with a good looking young woman who wore a tucked-in blouse and tightly-belted jeans, as opposed to an obese older chain-smoker who wore only faded loose sweatshirts and running pants and talked mostly about sales on cat food; there was no contest which one he would pick. His mother could wait a while.
They went inside. The walls were partly gray brick and partly silver-colored wood. They walked up a gray metal staircase. The upstairs room was huge, with a giant window on the back wall, and there were two white sofas facing each other in the middle of the room and two small white tables, one by each sofa. She said, “Feel free to sit down. What sort of tea would you like?”
“What kind do you recommend?”
“I’m partial to Darjeeling. It’s good for a rainy morning like this. I’ll be right back. The water’s already heated. I was just making myself a cup when you arrived.”
He looked at the back window. “This is a great view. I could imagine writing stories based on people who live in lofts. I live in a condominium. It’s also nice but it’s become familiar so I need to see other places to influence my writing.”
She returned with two cups, placing them on one table, and sat next to him on the sofa. “I’m glad you’re here. I haven’t had many visitors. I’m originally from Minnesota, a small town named East Gull Lake. My father still owns a home there for when he visits old friends who do business with him. His company is E.G. Advertising. The E.G. stands for East Gull… The original branch is in Minnesota but there are locations in other places; here in California, and Oregon, Arizona and Kentucky. He handles advertising for a lot of small businesses. He and my mom, Isabel, moved to California because she wanted to live somewhere less extreme climate-wise and she heard about the excitement of San Francisco. That’s where they live. I prefer where I am in Oakland. My dad bought this place for me. I used to live on Adams, a block away from Buchanan, on the 2nd block, because it was cheap but my dad wanted me in a better place. So, I’m not rich if that’s what you thought. You live on Shelton, right? That’s pretty nice.”
He nodded. “I finally was able to do so. My grandfather died and left my family some money. They gave it to me because they didn’t want to lose their monthly checks. So, I’m not rich, either. Well, I was before I bought the condo. Now I’m just comfortable but it’s a fluke that it happened. I’m not ordinarily the kind of guy who would live how I do.”
She shrugged. “I used to think that. I thought, ‘This type of stuff doesn’t happen to me.’ But then I realized, ‘Yes, it does happen to me because it happened.’ So, you just need to tell yourself, ‘I am the kind of guy who would live how I do because this is how I live.’”
“Wow! I wouldn’t have thought of that. My family; they all have a lot of problems and I grew up experiencing what they went through and feeling like I would become like them. No one, except for me, is less than three hundred and fifty pounds. I don’t know how I was able to stay at a healthy two hundred at my heaviest because I ate the same things they did until I had a job in my early twenties and spent the money on better foods for myself. The only times I regress are four times a year when I see my mother or my uncle’s family. They live next door to each other and they’re at each other’s houses all the time. Well, now I only see them four times a year so I don’t know if that’s changed. But they eat canned pasta and macaroni salad and drink soda. Not good brands but the cheapest and most unhealthy versions possible. When I visit them, I feel like I’ve sunk down a few notches on life’s elevator and have become what I used to be instead of what I am.”
She sighed. “My father thinks mostly about business but once a year he does go to the accordion festival in Cotati. He loves polka music. That’s his one eccentric indulgence. My mom is a voracious reader but she reads mostly romances. I’m more like her because I like photography and music and I’ve written a few stories. What are your stories about?”
He was surprised to feel as though she could have been a friend of his growing up, as if he could have had a different lifestyle, different living situation and different relatives. She was pulling him into a different consciousness. He said, “I like to write stories about philosophy but with a dark sense of humor. They are usually dialogues between two men who meet and then get in an argument. For instance, in one story, one man says it’s best to know all one can about a person in order to judge him fairly and the other man says it is better to not know anything about a person because information distorts pure observation. They challenge each other’s stance and, at the end, switch opinions. It’s easier to understand if you see it. If I had it with me, I would show it to you.”
“I would like that. It would make me feel more connected to you. I’m glad it’s raining. It’s the perfect scene for the beginning of a movie. If I directed a movie, I could write the score music and the first five minutes could just be the image of rain in the neighborhood. How do you like the tea?”
“It’s great. Maybe I ought to sometime bring Darjeeling tea to my family. I’ll steep it and put it in a soda bottle and tell them to try it.”
She laughed. “They’ll think you poisoned them. You won’t change them. They’re who they are. If they’ve all been overweight their whole lives, they use each other’s obesity as incentive to stay that way. Do they resent you not visiting them often?”
“They haven’t complained much about it but they would if I stopped seeing them altogether.”
“They think you’re the deserter so they won’t look to your example to help themselves. But your reality is different from theirs. Do you like our conversation?”
“Do you like me? What do you think of me? Be honest.”
“I feel like I’ve been transported to a place I’ve never seen before but it feels good. If it weren’t for delivering that letter, I would never have had this conversation. So, it’s like a really awesome diversion.”
“Does that mean you don’t think of me as a real part of your experience?”
He shook his head. “That’s not my point. Of course you are real and this afternoon is a very real thing I will remember. It’s just that, I don’t usually meet women like you. This might sound shallow but you tucked in your blouse and you look really good and no one I know in my everyday world comes close to your way.”
She pointed at him. “You tucked in your shirt. You know yourself.”
He laughed. “What I’m saying is, my mom wears long un-tucked sweatshirts and so do my aunt and my cousin. My uncle wears T-shirts that end right at the waistline and I won’t even get into the condition of his pants.”
She smiled. “Here’s my point. We are having a good time talking. To me, this is the perfect moment. Does it seem that way to you?”
“Like a dream.”
“Okay. Remember what I said. This type of stuff does happen to people like us because it’s happening to us.”
“Since you said it, I now believe it.”
“We’re connected.” She stood up. “Please wait a moment. I want to go upstairs and put away the letter.” She walked up a staircase that was located in the middle of the large living room. Two minutes later, she walked down halfway. “Why don’t you come up here?”
He stood up. “Sure.” As he walked up the steps, he noticed she had her hand extended. He felt like he was entering a new world.
“Hello, I’m Kathryn Ludlow. How do you do…?”
He gave her his hand. “I’m Richard Davis. I do well.”
They shook hands. She said, “It’s as easy as that. It’s done.” She kept holding on.
“So now we’re officially people who are in each other’s social circles.”
He looked at the clock. “Would you like to talk some more later?”
“I’d love to talk more, later.”
“Okay. Well, it’s been great meeting you. I feel like things have changed.”
“They certainly have.”
“Well, I’d better visit my mother and get it over with. I hate to have to go now but I think I should.”
She stood there, not saying anything.
He tried pulling his hand free. She gripped tighter. He said, “I have to be on my way.”
She sighed and shook her head. “You cannot leave.”
He was not sure if she was serious. He tried pulling free again but could not do so. The moment was surreal. He said, “It’s now close to one o’clock. I want to get there early so maybe I’ll miss dinner by telling her I could only stay an hour. Please let me go.”
She shook her head and shrugged. “No. I won’t.”
“I can stay another hour if you really need to talk longer with me but eventually I have to leave.”
She sighed. “You’re staying with me.”
“I can’t let you get away.”
“So, I can’t even walk out of here.”
“You can walk out of here but I’ll be coming with you.”
He felt relieved when she said he could walk out until he realized that what she proposed was even stranger. He remembered her saying she had few visitors so she could be lonely and acting out of desperation for company. Since the rain was pouring heavily and he had no umbrella, he would be soaking wet if he visited his mother now. She would be smoking indoors and her cats would shed hair all over his wet clothes. Though Kathryn was stretching the situation to its utmost bizarre extremes, she had a point. Her place was gorgeous and so was she. Their conversation had been on a high level of intelligence. Maybe they could go from there. He asked, “Do you have any of your musical compositions recorded? What type of music do you write?”
She smiled. “I’ll show you.” She walked down the staircase, back to the living room, pulling him with her, to a shelf with a stack of paper. She picked up a piece and handed it to him. “That’s an avant-garde classical sonata I wrote last year. My main compositional interest is film music but I also like to dabble a little in innovative realms. In this piece, I’m experimenting with the treble clef in the key of G and the bass clef in the key of E. Hindemith sometimes transposed two different keys in his scores. With mine, the purpose is to have a bluesy E7 chord structure without the need to add a lot sharps and naturals. It was really just to see if I could do it. I don’t have any of my music recorded yet but I imagined this piece to sound like Stravinsky.”
“I don’t know about the technical side of music but I guess it would sound good.”
She put the paper back on the shelf. They walked towards her kitchen. “I like to eat healthy. Later, I can fix you some of a soup I’ve made. It has chicken with navy beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, avocadoes, carrots, lemon, garlic, onion, ginger and a certain combination of spices that make everything come together. You won’t be having canned stuff tonight. I don’t drink soda either so you won’t be confusing what I serve with what your family gives you. Would you like to hear some music now?”
They returned to the living room and her stereo system where she pushed the on button and a CD played what sounded, to Richard, like electronic music from the nineteen seventies. Kathryn said, “This is Klaus Schulze. He’s one of my favorites. His soundscapes transport me to another world.” She moved her body in a dancing motion, securing her grip on his hand. He moved with her. He felt like what they were doing was a precursor to sex. The energy from her touch, combined with sounds that were not melodies but not noise either, was not a familiar experience but was exciting. The view of rain in the background made the triptych complete. He was in a movie, perhaps one she wanted to direct. She may have written about it before acting in a real-life version. He did not sense she was dangerous. He sensed she was edgy and an extremist. She was showing him how to rebel. Forget about responsibility and live in the moment.
Suddenly, his cell phone rang. They stopped dancing. The mood was broken. He answered. “Hello?”
Anne said, “Hello, honey. When will you be here? As soon as you arrive, I’ll make dinner.”
“You don’t have to wait for me. You can make dinner now.”
“I’ll wait. If I cook now and you’re not here, Paula will eat everything. She loves my tamale recipe.”
“I know she does. It’s so classic-like… You open a can and heat it. More recipes should be so simple.”
“Your tone concerns me. Are you coming over?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“What the hell is there to think about? You put one foot in front of the other and you walk until you show up at my place. Thinking doesn’t help any.”
“True. Thinking is what chefs do when they make chicken soup instead of tamales. Thinking is what someone does to determine more than soda to drink in the world.”
“You sound like you don’t want to come over and that scares me.”
He laughed. “It’s no big deal if I don’t come over. But don’t worry. I said I would show up. I guess I’m just waiting until dinner is over before I arrive so I can be sure I have a pleasant evening.”
“That’s rude. What’s the music in the background? You didn’t even leave your house yet. Correct?”
“I’ll talk to you later. If I show up, it’ll be in a few hours.”
“If you show up…? You are going to show up!”
“Okay. Goodbye.” He shut the phone.
Kathryn pulled him back to the sofa. They sat down. She said, “The letter my dad gave me was a formal invitation to attend my parents’ renewal of their wedding vows.”
Richard nodded. “Okay. I wasn’t going to ask. That was personal between you two.”
“It wasn’t that personal. Everyone’s getting one. I assume Quentin has an invitation also.”
“Have you ever gone in the print store? I don’t remember seeing you there.”
“I’ve seen it. I haven’t been inside.”
“How well do you know Quentin? He’s always in his office with a customer. I’ve only seen his business side. He’s easy enough to get along with but he never gets personal with me.”
“My dad knows him more than I do. I’ve met him a few times but our conversation lasted only two or three minutes each, if that. But he was nice to me. I think his favorite sport is bowling. That’s all I know.”
“Well, it’s more than I know. Do you like to hang out at cafes?”
“I like drinking Americanos with almond milk. I go to Spicer’s Café two blocks from here to get them. So, I go to cafes but I don’t hang out at them. Why?”
“I was wondering if you think of ideas for writing in cafes.”
“No. I usually write at home.”
“Maybe I could see one of your stories sometime.”
“Sure. I can show you one now.”