Friday, December 26, 2008

Ask Clarissa

I have agreed to read Anna Karenina during my Christmas break. Lauren recommended it. Abigail, too. I am not a huge fan of fiction. I am not a fan at all. But Abigail says Anna Karenina is not what anyone could rightly call fiction. There is nothing of pretense about it.

But it’s a novel, I said.

And she said, it’s a commentary on family dynamics. On relationships. On the human condition. What is imaginary about that??

It’s actually her copy I packed in my suitcase when I drove home to Bakersfield. There are notes in the margins. In different shades of ink. Abigail says she learns something new every time she reads it.

Abigail has asked Lauren and I to rent rooms from her. I hardly know what to think. Her house is enormous. She has a housekeeper who has little jars of capers and shallots and saffron threads in the pantry. And the pantry is a room, did I mention that? She has gardeners and a man she pays to drive her around. Her house is bigger than the three houses I grew up in all put together.

Lauren is warming up to the idea. She says Abigail is waking up after years of reclusivity. She is lonely. She likes our company.

I don’t know. The room I’d have is something out of a magazine photo shoot. And Esperanza is an awesome cook. There’s just something about pretending I fit into that life that irks me. Lauren says it is no different than her having lived in a dorm with a shared bathroom the last year and a half. You don’t stop being who you are just because you change from sleeping on Kmart sheets to Egyptian cotton.

I am not sure she is right about that. And that’s what’s bothering me. Is she right? Who is not changed by their environment? Name someone.

I am not saying I would change for the worse if I lived in a house like that and had imported truffles tossed into my omelets. I am just saying I would change. And that has to be considered. Tell me I am wrong. . . If you can.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Love, Lauren

Hey, Raul:

Wish I could see you before you head home to Mexico for Christmas. Did you get the package I sent you? Check your mailbox before you go. In fact, take it with you on the plane to Guadalajara. A good book on a long plane ride is a must.

Remember when I told you the guy from the publishing house said he would get back to me by Christmas? Well, he called yesterday and said he wants to talk about a contract right after the holidays. I called my dad as soon as we hung up. The first thing he said was that he found a literary agent for me and that I should let “this gal shop the diary around to see who else is interested.” Exact words. I told him I really wasn’t looking for like, the sweetest deal or anything. I am donating all the proceeds anyway. He said it’s not about who pays the most for Mercy’s diary, it’s about who wants to pay the most for it. The company that invests the most into the diary will treat the whole project with the most care and attention. I suppose he is right. The publishing guy isn’t going to like this, though. He asked me if anyone else was looking at the diary and did I have an agent. I said no to both questions just a week ago. Dad told me the guy asked both of those questions because he assumed one or both were probably true.

Guess what? Abigail has asked Clarissa and I to move in with her. Now that the diary is finished I only go over there once a week or so and she misses my company. The last few times I’ve brought Clarissa with me. I knew Abigail and Clarissa would hit it off. Abigail is spectacularly transparent these days and Clarissa always has been. Anyway, she has all these empty bedrooms and she’s only a few miles from campus. She said if it would make us feel better she’d charge us a nominal rent. Clarissa told me she’s not sure she wants to give up eating raw ramen noodles and sharing a sink with people who don’t chase away their toothpaste spit. But then she said, “Seriously, Lars. I need to think about it.” I know what she means. Abigail has a lovely home and employs a phenomenal cook but her house is a sad place. It’s like the walls themselves are in a constant state of mourning. I think Abigail can see that. It is no doubt the reason she has asked us to join her there. What do you think?

Can’t wait to see you at Cole’s New Year’s party. Safe journey, Raul. Merry Christmas!
Love, Lauren

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mercy's Quill

From Mercy's book of poem and stories

16 December, 1691

Icy blast of Winter's breath
Furious, bold, unwelcome Guest

Slips inside despite the shutters
Flecks of ice, her raucous Brothers

Alight on hearth to melt and glisten
Watch them now. Stop and listen

Winter noticed has but one voice
When she whispers we hear no noise

When gentle flakes kiss the ground
No homage is paid; She makes no sound

Only when she wails a greeting
Is interest gained; a desperate meeting.

~ Mercy Hayworth

Friday, December 12, 2008

In the Kitchen with Esperanza

There used to be Christmas parties in this house - back when Miss Abigail's mother was alive. So I have been told, anyway. I wasn't even born when Miss Abigail's mother died. Miss Abigail herself was just a child.

But sometimes when Miss Abigail allows the past to speak to her, she will tell me how it was in this house when her mother walked the rooms.

And at Christmastime, there were parties. There was music and dancing and games and food. Of course food.

Abigail especially liked the spiced cider her mother had simmering on the stove for hours until the guests arrived. She didn't let my mother make it for her, even though my mother was a better cook than even I am. She liked to get it going. On cold nights, her parents added a little rum to the little glass cups before the cider was poured into them.

Here is how she made it.
  • One gallon of apple cider
  • 5 or 6 whole cinnamon sticks
  • a small handful (a dozen maybe) whole cloves
  • half an orange sliced in circles
  • half an orange sliced in circles
Simmer at a very low heat on the back of the stove for several hours before your guests arrive. The aroma will beckon them inside. It smells heavenly.

Next time I will tell how to make the best Mexican wedding cookies. The best.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Abigail on the Classics

Abigail here. I read in the newspaper this morning that Polaroid will discontinue selling its magical film. By this time next year, it will only be found on e-Bay and in museums and in stuffy old houses like mine.

I was just a teenager when the Polaroid camera came out, late 30s, I think. Of course my father had to have one. We got another one in the 1950s and another in the 60s. The Polaroid camera never failed to mesmerize me. Watching life materialize on that little black square was like watching a memory being tattooed onto my brain. It was like something from another time and place, beamed our way by a friendly but highly advanced life form on another planet. There was nothing else like it.

Few things could be so instantaneous back then. Now everything is that way. Lauren takes all her pictures on a camera that looks just like my old 35mm, but there is a little screen on the back that shows her the image the moment she has taken the shot. If she doesn't like it, she can press a button and it disappears.

I wonder how she knows so quickly which pictures aren't worth keeping. Time has a way of redistributing value. But she is young. . .

I've decided to read The Crucible again. It's been awhile. Reading it always makes me a little grumpy, though. There are so many little things that I don't think are quite right but I can't prove any of it. It's just a gut feeling I have. And really, does it matter? The Crucible is less about the Salem Witch Trials and more about McCarthyism anyway.

Still. Makes me wish we had a few Polaroids of what it was really like to live when Mercy lived. To see what she saw.

I will let you know how grumpy I am this time around. In the meantime, I'd buy up Polaroid film if I were you. . .

Friday, December 5, 2008

Ask Clarissa

Okay. So since my last post that song by Pat Benatar, “Love is a Battlefield,” has been tumbling around in my head practically driving me crazy. I don’t even like that song or that kind of music. But a customer came in the coffee shop the other day, ordered a tall minty mocha and told me he’d read my blog post and asked me what I meant when I said love is a solid, not a space to be filled.

He said that’s like saying love is already there. And he told me he’s not in love with anyone right now and when he was it was like a complicated maze that made him feel like he was grappling for a handhold the whole time. A war zone. Now that he’s not in love he says he’d very much like to feel that there is no empty space to be filled. But he does feel like there is a void, even though he doesn’t want to.

I told him I didn’t think love was the war zone. That had to be something else. Desire. Lust. Greed. Control. Jealousy. Need. Those troubadours of conflict show up in the romantic relationship we call ‘being in love.’ Being in a space. Those are the things create the friction, the sense that there is chaos in the space.

The love I am talking about is not in the space. And yeah, it’s already there. When you climb out of that crazy place that empties and fills, thrills you one minute and haunts you the next, you bump right into it.

And then what? he said. You live happily ever after?

You live, I said.

He took his cup, smiled and told me he’d like to come back in five years and ask me how that little declaration still shapes up for me.

I told him I wouldn’t be in this coffee shop in five years.

He laughed. Gave me a big tip.

I don’t think he understood a word I said.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Love, Lauren

Hey Raul:

Glad to hear you didn’t totally choke on your exam. Didn’t think you would. You should celebrate with flan. Esperanza would totally approve. And I know it’s your favorite.

Well, the guy from the publishing house is coming out to see the diary. He arrives on Friday. I can’t believe how nervous I am about him coming. I already feel like I need to get a talking paper ready to defend Mercy’s every thought and action. Stupid. No one’s diary needs a defense. We’re having the meeting at Abigail’s. I told Abigail I thought her lawyer should be here for the meeting and she asked why. I didn’t have an answer. I just thought he should be there. I texted my dad and asked him what he thought and he called me and said of course a lawyer should be there. My lawyer. I reminded him I don’t have one. He said I’ve always had one. (Oh, BTW, this lawyer I’ve always had is drawing up papers so that Abigail’s gifting of the diary to me will be a legal transaction that will stand up in court in case there are problems later. I know what he means. But still. . .) Anyway, my lawyer is coming to the meeting too. His name is Brent. Not sure if that is his first name or last.

Abigail had to be coaxed into being at the meeting. She is so detached from the diary now. I don’t think I will ever be. Not even when I give it to a museum, which I will do. I don’t know how she can be that aloof but perhaps that is her coping mechanism for letting go of all those years of regret. Distance. Graham has no interest in being there, thank God. There’s no reason why he should. But he’s asked more than a couple questions about the diary. I think he can sense it’s a book that forces you to confront your choices. I am not sure what to make of Graham. He seems so sad. Esperanza said he’s said because he hasn’t played a game of cards in a month. I don’t think that’s it.

Gotta run. Class in five.

Miss you so much,
Love, Lauren

p.s. I took your advice and left the newspaper clipping of Tom Kimura’s obituary on the table by Abigail’s favorite armchair in the library. I bought a lavender-hued primrose to set beside it. She said nothing to me about the obit. But she thanked me for the primrose. Which is the same thing, don’t you think?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mercy's Quill

From Mercy Hayworth's book of stories and poems — believed destroyed, recently discovered. . .

July 18, 1691

All my joy, all my sorrow
Meets me now, and will tomorrow
Memories sweet when she was near
Close beside me, always here
My mother’s touch, her voice, her song
Hidden deep now, but all is wrong
She who was the morning sun
Lies asleep with beloved son
Sword that sliced the whole in two
Made half to be old and half now new
Part in one world, whole but torn
Holding back the breaking morn
For every dream where she appears
‘Tis my life awake, no death, no fear

~ Mercy Hayworth

Friday, November 21, 2008

In the Kitchen with Esperanza

You will have to be patient with me. My recipes, they are all in my cabesa, in my head. I have no little cards in little boxes in my kitchen. I don't measure, either. If I say shake in some cinnamon, you are just going to have to trust me and do it. Maybe that means you will have to trust yourself. I don't use measuring spoons. I don't have measuring spoons.

This is okay, yes? If not, you will have to go back to your little boxes and your cookbooks and your magazine clippings.

So, Graham was here for dinner last night. Miss Abigail invited him at the last minute and I had only one lamb chop thawed - for Miss Abigail, of course. So I had to change the menu at the last minute. I made what I call Kingergarten Enchiladas. I call them this because my mother told me Abigail loved them when she was a little girl. She still loves them. I like them too but I don't tell my family because they are not authentic Mexican food. I made them because I happened to have all the ingredients. I made them because Graham at nearly 50 acts like a 5-year-old sometimes. I am trying to be patient with him. Not because I want to but because Miss Abigail asked me to. These are very easy to make. Graham liked them. Figures.

Kindergarten Enchiladas
12 flour tortillas
A carton of cottage cheese - not the tall one
Sometimes I throw in a beaten egg
Shredded cheddar cheese - like, one bag of four-cheese Mexican
Minced garlic - a clove or two or three
Cumin - six shakes?
Salt and pepper
Can of chopped chiles
Can of red enchilada sauce
Sliced black olives

So you mix the cottage cheese, and beaten egg (helps to bind everything), half the bag of cheese, the spices, the drained chiles - half a can for sissies, no can for true kindergartners. Put some of the mixture onto each of the tortillas and roll them up. Place them seam-side down in a baking dish. Pour the red sauce over. Sprinkle with the rest of the shredded cheese and the sliced black olives. Cover with foil and bake for maybe 25 minutes at 350. Don't overbake. Flour tortillas scorch easily. Everything should be nice and bubbly. Service with rice and beans.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Abigail on the Classics

My name is Abigail Josephine Renata Boyles. I am an 83-year-old retired librarian and the former owner of Mercy Hayworth's diary. Mercy was my cousin, eight times removed.

Some might call me eccentric; it is a word widely used to describe old women who aren't afraid to loudly express an opinion. I've seen many a three-year-old loudly express his or her opinion and no one whispers that the pint-sized troublemaker is eccentric. No, we are told they need a nap.

Call me what you will. What is an opinion for if not to be shared? What is an opinion's impact if it is not defended?

I've a library bursting with books, so Lauren tells me, and I've read everyone of them. I've an opinion on every one of them. I've been invited to share them with you. And I shall do it. Let this be my legacy then, since I no longer own the diary. I will share with you my vast wealth of loud opinions on books you should be reading. Now then. Shall we begin?

I've a handful of friends, not many, who prefer movies over reading a book. Slightly less than a handful, actually, and I guess they really aren't bonafide friends. They are people I know and wonder about.

Take Audrey. She loves the movie My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Adores it. A stuffy London professor (eccentric maybe?) transforms a Cockney-voiced seller of flowers into a beautiful woman who speaks like the queen. Surely you've seen it.

Did you know the movie is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion? I mentioned this to Audrey once and she told me I certainly had my facts mixed up. There are no pigs in My Fair Lady. Perhaps I was thinking of Animal Farm, instead?

Dear Audrey, I said, Pygmalion gets its name from Ovid's Metamorphosis. When disenchanted Pygmalion finds himself fed up with real women with real flaws, he sculpts a statue of the perfect woman and falls in love with it. The goddess Venus smiles down on Pygmailion and brings the statue to life.

But tell me what happens when you take something square and make it round to fit in a round hole? All you've done is made transportation possible. When the square thing arrives on the other side of the round hole, and it is lying here on a vast plain of open space, it suddenly has no need of its newly rounded edges. It begins to grow its points again.

What? said Audrey

There is a line from Pygmalion that goes like this. Eliza says it after her outward transformation is complete and inside, she is still the same girl . . .

Eliza! That's the same name! Audrey interrupted.

Yes it is. It goes like this. Eliza says, "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else. I wish you'd left me where you found me."

But she and the professor fall in love at the end.

Do they? I said.

Abigail, you haven't seen the movie, Audrey said.

Oh but I have.

Then you've forgotten. Audrey smiled sweetly.

Audrey is 60-something. Younger than me.
She thinks I am eccentric.

Who can really say that all is well at the end. Who can really say Eliza stayed round. Learned to be round. Inside, where no one can see. Who can say?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ask Clarissa

Let's get one thing straight before we go any further.

I am not here to tell you what you want to hear. If that's what you want, you need to go call your mother or get a fan club or something.

I like to tell it like it is. I have never seen the sense of telling it like it's not. So you can expect a straight answer from me. All the time. That's just how I am.

You might be wondering what qualifies me to give advice. Here's the thing. We're all qualified to give advice, we're just not all qualified to give good advice. And the word 'good,' as you must already know, is a relative term. A book can be good, a child can be good, a day can be good, a pizza can be good. Advice is good if it helps you make a wise decision. Someone can give you really crappy advice but if it helps you make a wise decision, well, you see my point.

I grew up in a lower-middle class home, whatever that means. My parents have blue collar jobs, they own their home but every extra penny goes to make the mortgage payment. I have a brother and sister, both older than me, and I am paying my own way through college just like they did. I also had a younger brother. He died when I was 14. Leukemia.

I've been in love twice. Once in high school and once in college. But now I am out of love. Isn't that dumbest thing you've ever heard? In love one moment and out of it the next. Out of love. That just goes to show you it wasn't the real thing. I don't think the real deal is a space that is filled one day and empty the next. I don't think it's a space at all. I think it's a solid.

So there you go. There's my first conversation starter. True love is a solid. Got a question for me? An observation. A snarky response? Post it here.

~ Ciao,

Friday, November 7, 2008

Love, Lauren

Hey, Raul:

Finished all the corrections to Mercy’s diary. It was weird to press save, knowing I was really finished. Abigail was with me when I wrapped it up, sipping tea as usual. When I turned around and told her I was done, she said, “Well, that’s that.” But she and I both know that just isn’t true. Something is about to begin, not end. Prof Turrell’s editor at his publishing house has already sent me an email. It’s not like it’s a done deal - not by a long shot, but this guy is asking all the right questions. He wants to see the transcript. He wants to see the diary, too. If I am hesitant to travel with it, he told me he would fly out to look at it.

I asked Abigail what I should do and she said the diary was mine to do with as I saw fit. I really don’t think she cares one way or the other. She has fulfilled two life dreams that have been robbing her of peace for decades. She has given the diary to someone she trusts and she has the forgiveness of the one person she loved most and hurt the most. She has moved on. Plus, she is busy working on getting Graham settled here in Santa Barbara. He promised to get help with his gambling addiction and she is at a place where she wants to believe him. Esperanza is not so confident. She rolls her eyes at me every time Abigail mentions Graham’s name.

Anyway, I’m not sure what I should do. I know where the diary belongs. Ultimately it belongs to everyone. I suppose the best place for it is a museum like the Smithsonian. My dad says until I decide I should have it insured and transferred to his safety deposit box. He texts me everyday – I could strangle Cole for teaching my Dad how to text – bugging me about it. He’s right, I guess.

I think for now, for at least a few more days, I just want nothing to change. I want the diary to be mine and Abigail’s and Mercy’s – and no one else’s. For just a little while. I am already sensing loss thinking about how things will change. Makes me feel melancholy. Tell me I’m not being selfish.

I should go. Got a paper due tomorrow. How did your clinicals go?

Miss you,
Love, Lauren

p.s. Tom Kimura’s obituary appeared in The Oregonian yesterday. My dad told me. Texted me actually. I didn’t tell Abigail. Should I?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Beyond the last page

Have you ever wished the characters you've read about in a book lived on after you turned the last page, that you had a backstage pass to their lives beyond the confines of the book's pages?

Here on The Shape of Mercy blog, Lauren, Abigail, Clarissa, and even Mercy, will live on in posts that will appear on Mondays and Fridays. We begin where the book left off. Don't have the book? Buy it here.

Get the inside story on Lauren's budding relationship with Raul, her newfound insights into her own worldview and the echoes of Mercy that resound within her. "Love, Lauren" will feature Lauren's email correspondence with Raul and his back to her.

In "Mercy's Quill," you can take a step back in time and read one of Mercy's poems and stories saved from the journal that, contrary to belief, was not burned after her trial.

Want to discuss life and love with Clarissa? Join her at the coffee shop for a latte and her unique brand of advice on the things that bring us the most joy and cause the most trouble. "Ask Clarissa" is part advice column and part colorful commentary.

In "Abigail on the Classics," octogenarian Abigail Boyles comments on the classics while giving us glimpses of the past she fought so hard to keep a secret. Want to know more about her childhood? The garden parties she and Dorothea attended? Her romance with Tom Kimura? Sure you do . . .

Abigail's devoted housekeeper will share a recipe now and then from her trove of tried and true favorites on "In the Kitchen with Esperanza." She showed you how to make an omelet. Now she will share a whole lot more.

Each Monday and Friday one of these gals will post on this blog. You are welcome and encouraged to post questions to these ladies or to the people they know and care about - except Mercy of course. She's in heaven . . .

Hope you will come by often!