Café Inmediatamente

Tchaikowsky's last home

LET’S REVIVE THE PRACTICE AND ART OF LETTER-WRITING. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy Russian widow, and the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky exchanged more than a thousand letters between 1877 and 1890 without ever meeting. Pictured above is Tchaikowsky’s last home (at Klin, northwest of Moscow). The composer died in 1893

Letters from Henry

Adventures in serendipity and exercises in navigating nonsequiturs

She stopped, just stopped in the middle of the drive. Just to look, and to think, and remember. Inside was warmth, fires burning with the crackle of real wood. Everything in her life had somehow navigated her here. Whatever the horrors had been, the pain and blood, whatever dogged her dreams like a hound, had brought her here. She believed that…. She had this because she’d survived the other. J. D. Robb (pseudonym for Nora Roberts), Memory in Death

"Come In, We're Open" antique sign

A battered old OPEN sign like the one at the farmhouse. Source: http://virtualspace.nclude.us

RECAPPING MY LAST ENTRY, which related my walk into town with Sister Alma Rose to visit Mr. Tim and Mrs. Ana, the toy- and dollmakers: When we arrived at their beautifully restored old farmhouse-workshop-store, the cheery, battered old sign practically sang out COME IN We’re OPEN!

But something was off. It was too quiet… no skritch of sawing or sanding, no sewing machine clattering, no voices conversing about dolls or trains, boats that really sail or  airplanes that really fly. We pulled open the fancy Victorian screen door, wood-framed with an old-fashioned spring that yanked the door shut behind us with a good, solid slam.

Two kids at a pond on a summer day
…boats that really sailed

In the few seconds it took for my eyes to adjust to indoor light, I didn’t see anyone. Then a flash of white caught my eye, and the glint of sun on glass. Mr. Tim was on the floor leaning against the big counter by one of the west windows, paler than I’ve ever seen him, his face as white as the bib apron he wore, his blue-jeaned legs splayed like a broken doll’s. He took a long, greedy swallow from a brown liquor bottle — no label (Was he a bootlegger?) — arranged his face in a parody of a smile, and tried to get up but succeeded only in flipping over and ending up face-down on the pine plank floor.

“Mr. Tim!” I moaned. “You’re snockered!”

I should have mentioned that Mr. Tim has always been a teetotaler. Seeing him blotto on the floor was discomposing, like surprising your second-grade teacher and the church youth pastor in a steamy lip-lock. In my memory Mr. Tim had always been upright, his back straight and strong as a chimney, his eyes scanning my face anxiously to make sure that the doll or dollhouse or kite was precisely what I had requested, which it always was, only better.

Cute blonde toddler with stuffed dog on wheels

Not wanting to watch him grope for his dignity, I skittered around Mr. Tim and into the kitchen hoping to find coffee while Sister Alma Rose looked around for Mrs. Ana. I was scooping coffee into the filter basket when I heard her startled exclamation — “Sweet Jesus” — which, coming from Sister Alma Rose, is a prayer, not an oath. I hurried to pour water into the coffee maker and push the BREW button and ran back into the front room, where Mrs. Ana was out cold by the basement door. 

There was a large lump purpling on her left temple and Sister Alma Rose was telephoning for an ambulance, muttering a prayer and motioning me away from Mrs. Ana. I had poured a cup of coffee, took a restorative sip, put an ice cube in it, and was force-feeding it to Mr. Tim when the ambulance came and whisked both of them away.

A redheaded Cabbage Patch Kid

...too much like a Cabbage Patch Kid (Source: http://www.CabbagePatchKids.com

Dr. Deirdre had followed the ambulance in her VW bug. Holding onto the coffee cup for dear life, I slipped into the back seat. Gracefully for a large woman, Sister Alma Rose squeezed into the front, and five minutes later we were sitting on the cold marble benches in the hospital lobby being grilled by Police Sergeant McCaslin, if the man’s tentative, apologetic, and mostly irrelevant questions could be considered “grilling.” Sergeant McCaslin looks too much like a Cabbage Patch Kid to be scary. Then again, there’s never any crime in Hilltop. Unless today turned out to be an exception.

We sat in the second-floor waiting room, where the morning sun streamed benignly through mullioned windows, the trim painted shiny hospital white. We could hear snippets of Sergeant McCaslin’s questioning of Mr. Tim, who, we supposed, would suffer little more than a nasty hangover for his sins — physically, in any case. As for Mrs. Ana, we had no idea what to expect. We didn’t want to dwell on the bleak possibilities, though the words HEAD INJURY flickered in my mind like a police-car flasher.

Mullioned windows

Mullioned windows. The mullions are the pieces--in this case, of wood, painted white--that divide the larger window into two or more panes

Sister Alma Rose prayed and prayed and prayed. Whether she sat, walked, or looked out the window, she had her praying face on. I prayed for a good five minutes, then reached into my jacket pocket and took out Henry’s last letter — for comfort — already crumpled from numerous rereadings.

Dear One… I miss you… the way I miss fresh, crisp apples in February, with some sadness but even more anticipation [followed by more endearments, which I give you leave to imagine]….

Spanish Word of the Day is fugarse (para casarse) = elope. Fine, but as a casual speaker of Spanish, mostly in situations involving commerce, I seldom have a need to mention elopement or to hear it talked about. Yesterday’s and the previous day’s words were only slightly more basic: (el) formato = formatting and (el) formato = format. When I learned French, it was all la plume de ma tante and je vais bien, merci. Ah, the good old days of vapid conversation in an unfamiliar language….

Hall china antique coffeemaker, an especially elegant one of all porcelain

Mama coveted this spectacular antique coffeemaker -- a Hall porcelain Drip-O-Lator. Mama has a Hall Drip-O-Lator whose "guts" are aluminum, and she loves it, but she salivated over this porcelain one. It was reasonably priced but still too expensive for my blood, and Daddy's as well....

One of the things I miss most when you are gone — something I have never taken for granted, and I never will — is your rapping, tapping, rapping at my door every morning and the sight of your just-scrubbed face in a sort of mist created by the steam from the two cups of coffee you are carrying. I’m almost surprised that some Lowlander with an entrepreneurial bent has not developed a lucrative business around delivering morning coffee on demand. Sure, there are coffeemakers on timers, but I’m definitely not the only person for whom the mood of the first few hours of the day is soured by the early-morning recollection of having forgotten to set the timer or prepare the coffee, filter, water, etc., before going to bed the night before. You might discuss this with Johann, although this sort of enterprise might not be well suited to bicycle delivery….

Your plan to buy a motorscooter is excellent, my love, and I know I don’t need to tell you to be careful and to always wear a helmet, which, of course, I wouldn’t even mention if I weren’t trying to tell you to be careful and to always wear a helmet. Maybe I can figure out a way for you to bring it with you when you come back up. [There are no cars or trucks on the Ridge except for farm vehicles, but a small percentage of the population ride motorbikes, golf-cart-type vehicles, and a few other low-powered varieties of motorized transport.]

Since I am without you on my rambles, I am practicing walking meditation quite a bit, the type that you showed me.* Once I got out of the hyperawareness habit and focused just on the sensation of foot meeting ground, I pronounced a thousand blessings upon you. I love you not only because of the coffee delivery but also because you are such a charming combination of ageless wisdom and age-related naiveté. You will never grow cynical, sweet Fanny….

I folded the letter and put it back into my pocket, meaning to read the rest of it that afternoon when I sat down to answer it. Our letters are exchanged via Sister Alma Rose. I don’t have the faintest idea how mail and other stuff gets transported to and from the Ridge. Maybe by quantum leap á la Harry Potter. It wouldn’t surprise me.

The Ancients’ Waiting Meditation

How to meditate and firm your calves at the same time

People who live on the Mountain — by which I mean the Ancients, of course — rarely stand in lines the way we Lowlanders do, waiting to buy movie tickets or pay for groceries or have a spin on a ferris wheel. If the Ancients are going to queue up it has to be for something really, really worth waiting for —

Alice and Stieg Norlander’s wild-cherry dairy sorbet.  

Friends Eating Ice Cream

Everyone loves the Norlanders' dairy desserts

To think about Alice and Stieg’s delectable wild-cherry sorbet is to find your feet moving in the direction of the dairy without your head being involved in the process. Savoring that sorbet is a religious experience. So, yes, on a warm Saturday evening on the Ridge, people’s minds turn to thoughts of Alice and Stieg Norlander’s wild-cherry dairy sorbet.

Folks generally don’t mind waiting in line at the dairy, because all their friends and neighbors are there, and people even bring guitars and blankets and picnic baskets, like all-nighters camped out to buy Rolling Stones tickets during one of the band’s rare tours.

If the line is only moderately long, you are likely to witness a curious phenomenon: sorbet customers bouncing on their toes as they wait, much as dance students do as a beginning-of-class warmup. Henry explained this to me soon after I arrived on the Ridge, pointing out that it helps you be patient while you’re waiting for something OR it can be a simple way to meditate almost any time and any place.

View from the Empire State Building's 86th-floor observation deck

View from the Empire State Building's 86th-floor observation deck

Ground yourself, standing straight but relaxed, with your feet far enough apart to give stability. Rest your attention on the bottoms of your feet and the supporting ground underneath. Ideally, you’re barefoot and outdoors, but you could do this meditation wearing cowboy boots and standing on the Empire State Building’s observation deck. Well away from the edge, if you don’t mind. I know, they have those fences. Just saying….

Now roll up onto the balls of your feet by lifting your heels just an inch or two off the ground. Repeat, finding a comfortable rhythm. Your knees should be straight but not locked. Don’t rise any higher than is comfortable. Your calves will pay you back the next day if you do. Relax into the rhythm and go for five minutes the first time, gradually working up to ten.

This little meditation helps me feel both courageous and supported. For the second or two that your heels are in the air you are metaphorically flying — risking, adventuring, and “rising above.” The sensation of the heels meeting the earth again is like going home, having a base… having, so to speak, both feet on the ground.

Physically, you’ll tone and strengthen your legs and improve your balance.

* Sister Alma Rose’s Walking Meditation

during which “each footprint is an impression of the peace and love you feel for the universe”

Before she begins a walking meditation, Sister Alma Rose prays fervently for several people she knows who’d gleefully give up all their worldly goods for the ability to walk at all, even to Hilltop and back in the wind and sleet.

The way Sister Alma Rose practices walking meditation is much like the way she does sitting meditation, except that she focuses on the sensation of encountering the edge of the earth with the soles of her feet. (For you chakra balancers, this can be a form of grounding meditation in that one foot or the other is always on the ground, Mother Earth nourishing the root chakra.) It is the repetitive, rhythmic intersection of self and surface that induces the meditative state, rather than the cycle of inhaling and exhaling… with the additional benefit of motion.

Bare feet walking outdoors“Y’all are headed toward a destination,” Sister Alma Rose explains, “though the place is irrelevant and should not be allowed to intrude on the focus of y’all’s meditation.”

Sister Alma Rose offers this caution to walking meditators: “Leave space in y’all’s outer awareness for some of the more aggressive external stimuli — automobiles, rampaging wildebeests, and the like.”

Prayer Works Wonders

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bird_pursuing_prey_istock

The Battle of the Barbers, conclusion

If you need to refresh your memory, please see “The Battle of the Barbers,” part 1 and part 2.

There is, as you know if you have been paying attention, a large meeting room in the library, and that is where half the town gathered on Sunday after church, it seems like, though there were maybe about two hundred people, really, Daddy says I tend to exaggerate so I am trying to see and describe things more accurately —

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

— what Daddy said, actually, is, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, don’t exaggerate! —

… and we were gathered, as you will also recall, to resolve the matter of The Competing Barbers: Henry Hunter, who had set up The Other Barber Shop across the street from the barber shop of his father, Bill the Barber, whom I previously reported as being 150 years old, but I will amend that age estimate, in the interest of accuracy, and, having asked Mrs. Bill, I am forced to report that he is only a little more than half that age, 78, to be precise, though he looks much older, as I tactlessly exclaimed to Mrs. Bill…

Henry Hunter with a customer

Henry Hunter with a customer

… but she sweetly ignored my rudeness and told me that a combination of arthritis, workaholicism, lack of exercise, and a tendency to raid, several times a day, the soda and candy-bar machines he has in his barber shop, have all made him age prematurely, but she is sanguine — a word I learned recently, which means “optimistic and cheerful” — that if she can just get him to their villa on Corfu, all those problems will be solved in one fell swoop — a phrase that originated, we think, with Shakespeare, and that refers to the “fell” (savage, cruel; same root as felon) descent of a hunting bird.

The Revelation at the
Hilltop Library

Synopsis of previous episodes: [Mr. Bill was getting on in years and in any case, no matter what the customer asked for, Mr. Bill always gave him a crew cut.] So as soon as Henry Hunter’s barber shop opened, the customers came in droves, apparently believing, though they would soon discover that they were sadly mistaken, that Mr. Bill wouldn’t mind if his old customers didn’t patronize his shop as long as they were taking their unruly hair to be cut by Henry Hunter. This was doubly unfortunate in that Henry Hunter’s barber shop is right across the street from Mr. Bill’s. It is also a very delicate situation, this rivalry, I mean, because Henry Hunter is Mr. Bill’s only son.

Sister Alma Rose has heard about the entire misbegotten affair from Mrs. Bill, who is very worried about her husband because his heart is “hinky” and she’s afraid he will have a heart attack one of these days, that’s how angry he gets at Henry Hunter, his face turns about as red as Mrs. Bertie’s unbecoming lipstick. And of course she’s concerned about her son. She wonders whether Bill’s vicious campaign might actually drive Henry out of business. Secretly, Mrs. Bill wants Mr. Bill to retire so that they can go live in their villa on Corfu. Who knew?…

little_boy_with_crew_cut_istock

Little boy with crew cut

Several employers have asked the mayor to Do Something, because none of their employees is getting any work done, they are having noisy partisan arguments about Henry Hunter vs. Mr. Bill instead. Mayor Atticus Hines, unable to cool things off through his official status, has appealed to a higher authority: He has asked Sister Alma Rose to restore peace and quiet to Hilltop, one way or another.

Residents of Hilltop are nothing if not creatures of habit, and two of the strongest traditions are Sunday Dinner and Sunday Afternoon Football on Television, and Mr. Bill is the biggest Football on Television fan of them all, which is one of the reasons that Mrs. Bill is so desperate to get him to Corfu — not that Mrs. Bill doesn’t like professional football, in fact she adores football, she grew up in Wisconsin and she is a Cheesehead, big time, but watching football is just another sedentary thing that Mr. Bill does that makes Mrs. Bill fret. Mr. Bill eats his big Sunday dinner, then he sits down to watch the game, and then he takes a nap, and after that it’s nearly bedtime, but first — a snack! Probably another helping of dessert. (Mrs. Bill, to her credit, has tried Not Making Dessert, but if she doesn’t, then Mr. Bill goes to the corner store and buys one of those heavy, lard-laden fruit pies.)

Cheesehead hat, by Allen Wonder

Cheesehead hat, by Allen Wonder

Sister Alma Rose did not just fall off the turnip truck, and so it was no accident that she scheduled this meeting for 1 p.m. on Sunday, because another Hilltop Tradition is that everybody goes to church, Sister Alma Rose’s strategy being that everyone is already Out and About.

Prayer works wonders

So there we all were, the assembled semi-multitude, and of course the mayor had to reiterate what everybody already knew, to wit, why we were there and who the perpetrators were, et cetera, ad infinitum, and after the mayor’s fifteen-minute speech, Sister Alma Rose stepped up onto the podium, looked pointedly at Mr. Bill and his son, Henry Hunter, and then she said in her y’all-better-mind-me-or-else voice,

“Will y’all please join me in silent prayer? Let us pray.”

Now, there is an unwritten, unofficial time limit for silent prayer, after which feet start to shuffle and coughs become more frequent and people even whisper audibly to one another, and as the silent-prayer time in that library stretched from ten to fifteen to twenty minutes, which was my own personal time limit, I looked around the room and I could see that some folks were genuinely absorbed in silent prayer but others were looking anxiously at their wristwatches (or, in a few cases, pocket watches) or toward the rest rooms, and the sound of stomachs grumbling was audible, and I looked up at Sister Alma Rose, her large, brown hands folded tidily upon the lectern, and I could see that she was either oblivious or pretending to be oblivious to the restlessness in the room.

Pocket watch

Pocket watch

The silence, or the approximation thereof, crept on, and a few people had actually slipped out of the room — you could hear cars starting in the parking lot — until 1:45, and there was mutiny in the ambience, until Mrs. Bill cleared her throat, rather loudly, for Mrs. Bill, and heads shot up all over the room, as if there were a giant puppeteer up in the rafters yanking on strings, and the room was suddenly more nearly completely silent than it had ever been during “silent prayer.”

“Bill,” said Mrs. Bill in a low, clear voice — and here she looked apologetically at Henry Hunter — “it was I who set Henry up in  his barber shop.”

There was, of course, the collective gasp, and it occurred to me that the Packers were playing that afternoon and that the kickoff was at 2:00, which explained why Mrs. Bill had been among the most restless individuals in the room.

Henry Hunter looked down at the table and Mr. Bill, along with everyone else in the room, gaped at Mrs. Bill, who was searching among the spectators for Dr. Deirdre Barstow, who stood quickly, apparently in order to get Mrs. Bill off the hook, if only for a moment.

Beach in Acharavi village on the Greek island ...

Corfu; image via Wikipedia

“Mr. Bill,” said Dr. Deirdre Barstow, “I don’t think I’m violating any privacy laws by saying that I have suggested many times to you that it is time for you to retire, because you are ruining your health, and I don’t understand why you have been holding on to that villa in Corfu unless you intend to be an invalid by the time you get there. The sunshine will be salutary for your arthritis,” she went on, “and the Mediterranean diet for your heart, and you can stop working yourself to death and start sailing and hiking and all the other things you used to enjoy before you became a workaholic barber.

“It’s time for Henry to take over, Mr. Bill,” Dr. Deirdre Barstow concluded. “I didn’t suggest this particular strategy to your wife, of setting Henry up across the street, I mean, and creating this rift between the two of you, but I do know that both Mrs. Bill and Henry had your best interest at heart.”

* * *

And so it was that Henry Hunter moved into the house of Mr. and Mrs. Bill, who spent most of the year at their villa in Corfu, and on their visits home Mr. Bill looked tan and sleek and hardy while Mrs. Bill looked as if she had spent most of the winter trying to find a way to view Green Bay Packers football games, and it is rumored that Henry Hunter mailed her videotapes of the games, but as to that, I could not say for sure. As for Henry himself, he retained “The Other Barber Shop” and by the grace of God found a very able barber by the name of Bill, and leased Bill’s old barber shop to the new Bill.

“Do y’all see, Miss Fanny?” Sister Alma Rose said to me as we walked up the hill to Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse after the meeting at the library. “God is good, and prayer works wonders.”

The Greek island of Strongili

The Greek island of Strongili

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