Christie Cochrell

Upping Stakes

 

     Kaya's childhood had been unsettled and vertiginous, and at the end of it she'd sworn she'd never move again.  

     She'd managed to stay true to that for almost thirty years.  But a few weeks before her forty-ninth birthday, when the brash new owner/director of the northern California publishing company where she had worked since college called a meeting to set out his vision for the list, and showed them slides of their new office space, in the cement surrounds of an industrial park at the junction of two freeways, she felt her steady world reeling out of control.  She noticed that her hands were trembling, and she clenched them into fists, tight as could be, as if around the conkers her Irish cousins had taught her how to drill and string when she was ten—the hard, beautifully glossy inner seeds of the horse chestnut that she liked much better to keep nestled in her palms than spend in games.  Safe and contained.  Even then she played with words, equating conker with conquor.

     Sitting among her friends at Simurgh Press she watched in disbelief and horror the brisk Powerpoint presentation—technology new to all of them and their old-fashioned ways of doing things—showing their portion of the new building, with open seating plan.  A vast chilly gray space with industrial carpet and no windows, only flourescent lights.  And worse, not even those low cubicle dividers that she'd heard allowed the illusion of private space, when until now they had all had real offices, with big windows and doors they could definitively close.  

     In her office, Kaya had a time-worn wooden desk, a deep-silled window opening onto a courtyard with late morning sunlight and a little pomegranate tree.  She'd hung an antique map with fierce seamonsters (meant to discourage travel) on the inmost wall, and laid on the travertine floor one of her mother's favorite tribal rugs from a Marrakesh souk.  Her bookshelves were crammed with hundreds of wise and benevolent Simurgh publications, many of which she'd been privileged to work on.  And on a ledge above the drafting table where she rendered her cover designs, she'd set the Navajo dye chart she'd made from plants gathered nearby the house in Tucson where her family lived during her last two years of high school—the longest they had stayed anywhere, as far as she remembered.  

     The book covers she designed were correspondingly the colors of native dyes—salt cedar, juniper, alder bark, larkspur, with the stylized Simurgh from the Persian Book of Kings in a coppery stamp, or silver.  How could she bear to have any of that replaced by corporate sterility?  And to work under a new Production Director from L.A., said to have "spearheaded" the Getty's digital publications program, who would clearly impose his own postmodern and unfeeling Southern California vision on the projects Kaya had until now had sole charge of?  

     Time to up stakes and steal away.

     A thought which filled Kaya with deep despair.

 

___

     "Up stakes!" had been the family call to arms.  Kaya's mother, Kaylin, was always the one to declaim it.  Then, paraphrasing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the rest of them would chime in, one by one, some more enthusiastically than others,

     "Let's fold our tents—"

     "—like the Arabs—"

     "—and as silently steal away."

     Kaya's parents had both been freelance photojournalists, rooting out stories all across the world.  Not surprising then that in reaction to all of the travel, the constant motion that unsettled their young years, both Kaya and her brothers Cluny and Darrell had opted not to travel a single step further, once they had a say in the matter.  Cluny had settled softly at the Tassajara monastery in the most remote part of the Carmel Valley, trained as a layman then a monk for several years, and never left—except to attend their mother's funeral in the early 90s.  Darrell refused to leave Tucson even for brief visits, while Kaya, during her seven years of college (as long as she could reasonably stretch it out) had gathered all the grounding weight she could—all kinds of massive belongings that she'd imagined she could count on to keep her anchored.

     First, a set of kettledrums, after she'd joined the youth orchestra as a freshman.  Then a letterpress and cabinet of type drawers, with various fonts, after she bought the cottage she'd been renting near the college—useful later for the covers she designed and printed for the nearby Press.  And finally, in her late twenties, the seated stone Kwan Yin carved by the artist she would have married if he hadn't developed a fatal itch to "see the world."  There were also the heavy words she set around her, round and dense as paperweights, her substantial "no"s, and cautious "oh?"s, the smooth hard-shelled walnuts she set in various inherited Nambé bowls, Kenyan beaded bowls, pine needle bowl with African blue beads, Hopi wedding basket, and woven coil basket, set out everywhere in the cottage as offerings to whatever god or goddess was the inverse of Hermes, the god of travel and transitions.

 

___

     "What will you do?" Lawrence asked as she was leaving for home, not able to face working late as she usually did.  Lawrence Christensen was a friend of twenty years, who edited most of the books she designed covers for.  He savored words the way she did colors—not just the playful ones that she enjoyed, but ordinary sturdy ones as well.  He liked to say he was a kind of drywaller of words, piling them masterfully into castles and dikes, bridges, boundaries—walls to keep in sheep, the dead (in icy northern churchyards), or even Mycenean kings. 

     Kaya's heart was cold with dread, had been all day.  She groaned. 

     "How can I stay?  But on the other hand—how can I leave?"  

     Either option undid her, upended her security.  Lawrence nodded understandingly, but how could he or anybody understand, really, who hadn't grown up with parents bewitched by constant, radical uncertainty?

     "What about you?" Kaya countered.  

     Simurgh Press, named for the mythical Persian healing bird thought to possess the knowledge of all the ages, had since its founding published books that were healing and wise.  She knew how proud Lawrence was of his booklist, how much he'd hate having to work on anything but the Humanities, what he referred to as the buildingstones of humankind.  The new director's suggestions of "making ourselves relevant to modern times" had been anathema to most of them, though the youngest and least traditional employees had agreed readily and looked perfectly happy to embrace change.  Others were happy to have jobs still, of whatever kind.  There'd been no mention of lay-offs—not yet.

     "I guess I'll have to wait and see," Lawrence said.  "It sounds dreadful, but maybe the new CEO—is that the proper double Dutch?—will be amenable to compromise.  To bribery . . . seduction . . . my firstborn, if ever such there be.  In any case, I've got maybe two years of books already in the pipeline that I'll be able to work on still.  It's having to commute to the back of beyond that will be the worst part, after being so spoiled where we are."  He had friends and an on-and-off-again oboist girlfriend in the music department on the adjoining campus who he liked to meet for coffee late mornings, walking through the rose garden, checking the kiosks for recitals, exhibits, lectures.

     Kaya enjoyed the steady cyclical nature of the college as well, the predictable quarters each year again, the belltower sounding the hours, halves, and quarters, one by one, the academic calendar never fluctuating.  The museum, with its indigenous arts of the Americas, the biannual student music recitals, the program of carols always two Fridays before Christmas.  Known quantities, not going anywhere.  She liked also that she could walk to work, along quiet sidewalks shaded by elm and ash and red maple, greeting the three dogs in three yards along the way.

 

___

 

 

     She slipped upstairs to Benita in H&R the next day to ask about her benefits, what she would be entitled to if she were not to work at Simurgh anymore.  

     "Just out of curiosity."

     In truth (as Benita would have guessed, giving a rueful sympathetic smile, murmuring "you're the third today") panicked by seeing the architects' plans for the new communal space as soon as she got in that morning.  CEO Trent Hartman and his new Procuror General of Financial Wizardry had arrived at some puritanical hour before any of the old staff would have dreamed of getting in; the dreaded new Director of Production wasn't due until the following Monday.  She took what Benita printed out back to her desk, keeping it concealed in a folder.

     Lawrence stopped by her office early in the afternoon to leave a package of printed covers that had come in the mail, and asked if he might bring an old friend with him for their weekly Thursday-night dinner.

     "Someone I knew in Key West who I haven't been in touch with forever."

     Kaya said "of course," though she was disappointed, having looked forward to having a long talk with him.  Despairing openly, commiserating.  She needed advice badly.

 

___

 

 

       They sat out in in her garden summerhouse surrounded by great clouds of herbs.  Lawrence sat as always on the indigo beanbag lounger, tall and crosslegged as a fakir (if towhaired, patently Scandinavian).  His friend Joe, with kind eyes and a sage green "save trees" shirt, sat at the peacock blue bistro table with Kaya and shared out what they'd brought, falafel in pita with harissa to spoon on, and a big Greek salad.  She had some spinach roll-ups she had made the day before, that she rewarmed for them, and some grilled artichokes with green goddess dressing.

     "Philosopher, psychologist," Lawrence had with admiration introduced the friend.

     "Great cook, great color sense," he said about Kaya.

     The summerhouse was really an old shepherd's wagon Kaya's artist boyfriend left behind when he decamped, not needing it for his far distant travels.  Another excellently bulky possession.  Kaya had taken off the wheels, first thing, seeing the grounded wagon as a lovely emblem of the life she had renounced.  Around its axels vines had grown, so it was soon stoutly rooted and perfectly immovable.  Inside and out it was alive with drenched colors.

     When Lawrence went in to fetch the wine they'd left cooling in the freezer, Joe asked her, thoughtfully,

     "Kaya Neale—Why does your name sound familiar?  I don't know you from somewhere, do I?"

     "That would be my mother," Kaya said resignedly, cross at her inevitable intrusion.

     "How would I know your mother?"  He looked startled, at her tone, perhaps.

     "Everyone does."

     "How come?"

     "The famous photojournalist, Kaylin Neale?"

     "No, I don't think so . . . "

     "She did that story on Mt. St. Helens that won a Pulitzer?  Or maybe you saw the one on Dolly the Cloned Sheep?"  She knew she sounded unreasonably petulant now, on the defensive.

     "I'm really sorry, I seem to have annoyed you," Joe said with genuine regret.

     "No, I'm sorry.  It's not you—I'm just upset today."  Her mind couldn't stop playing with her dilemma, and keeping her on edge.  "I've just learned that I'm going to have to make a move, one way or another, and hate that more than anything."

     She felt tears threatening, with the unfairness of it all.  Her world upturned at others' whims, her childhood nightmares come like dervishes again.

     "You know the slow food movement, right?" Joe asked her quietly, after a moment's pause.  "Being such a good cook?"

     "Sure," she answered cautiously.  She'd normally be happy to talk about that, but where was he headed?

     "There's movement in it, at its core—but the point is the slow.  Small.  Local.  Friendly and sustainable."

       "That's true—"  And how did that apply?  She sensed a lecture coming, of the sort her father was a true pro at delivering, leaving her always unsure afterwards how she'd been conned.  But Joe seemed gentle, with kind eyes.  On her side.

     "If I say 'action,' what do you think?"  He speared another artichoke, maybe his third.

     "Plunging forward."  She made a face.  Upping stakes.

     "Not necessarily," he suggested.  "Doing something . . . but maybe that something is drawn out over a long period of time.  Could be really long, in stages, maybe a decade's worth.  Eons.  Continental drift, that sort of long.  Glacial flow.  The imperceptible accumulation of tree rings."

     She thought about that, liking it.

     “To move, you don’t have to go far, or fast.  A little shift might well do it. Stand on the other foot, instead.  Face north, instead of south.  Paint your door or your doorstep blue.”  He made a motion with his hand.  “A zigzag, a proverb—like on the painted stairs in Beirut, Lebanon."  She hadn't seen those, and would have to look them up.  She was intrigued, distracted from her dread.

     Lawrence had come out, poured them wine and settled down again on the beanbag without interrupting.  Joe concluded,
    "Breath is action.  Intention is action, of the sort I mean.  And hope."

     "Thank you," Kaya said, considering.  "You might even allow me a future that way."  She qualified, "Of course my favorite subject has always been history.  Because what's past can't move."

     "How did you come to hate motion so much?"

     "My famous mother and father," she said.  "You can't imagine what my childhood was like."

     Lawrence had heard all of her stories several times, and told his friend,

     "It's true—though it has always sounded kind of fun to me."

     "Not fun," Kaya told Joe.  "I can only describe it as an endless bout of motion sickness."

     "I always hated anything that twirled . . ."

     "One time our mother took me and Cluny, my older brother, to a circus in Bangladesh, where I got horribly dizzy just looking up at the acrobats swinging back and forth, risking their lives on the high aerial trapeze.  Another time, when I was little still, in spite of my howling she lifted me up onto the immense bristly back of a gray elephant, in Zimbabwe or Botswana, not realizing how terrified I'd be, sickened by the constant lurching."

     "It does sound fun," Joe laughed across at Lawrence, teasing her.

     "Another awful time, Cluny and I were with our father in a helicopter he had rented, swooping down the canyons of Kauai to gather impressions for some documentary of his, way way too far from the beautiful deep red earth."

     "Like being in heaven," their father had gloried, over the clattering roters.  Heaven—if such it was—had been imbued with the aromatic pipe tobacco Rory Neale had taken to smoking, a smell which Kaya would forever after associate with vertigo and with the color of the Kauai canyons.  Not too far different from Sedona Earth in her dye chart, the book cover she gave it to.

     She'd been too sick to pay attention to the seven sacred heiau, the ancient Hawaiian temples along the river, though Rory had pointed them out to the children as they passed overhead.  Later Kaylin had tried to take her daughter's mind off her continuing nausea by describing other sacred places they had seen—including the source of her name, Kaya:  a sacred forest in the former Coast Province of Kenya. 

     "It was finally a tea made out of ginger root and yarrow flowers, cardamom and spearmint and some other things, that calmed my poor distressed tummy.  And taught me about the healing possibilities of herbs—and the importance of avoiding helicopters.  Also planes and boats and cars on winding roads.  And travel, altogether."

     Lawrence said "And so she has become a master of the art of staying-puttedness!"

     "A reasonable response," Joe acknowledged, amused.  Looking around again, he asked her, "But am I right in thinking this is really an old shepherd's wagon?"

     "It is.  Painted by an old artist boyfriend.  I love it with the wheels off."

     "There you go, then.  If you wanted to test out a little slow motion, that shift from foot to foot, you could always just put the wheels back on, hitch it to a slow car, and see where your bright-painted turtle-shell might take you—without having to stick your neck out very far."

     "What is all this?" Lawrence wanted to know.

     Joe looked embarrassed.

     "Only a few thank-offerings out of my greenhorn philosopher's knapsack.  I used to teach empowerment-slash-mindfulness sessions at a Zen center in the Keys—ages ago, after you knew me.  At the same time working on fishing boats for the experience, the local color and patois, imagining I'd one day write like Peter Matthiessen."  He laughed.  "Sometimes that sanguine mindset actually works.  It didn't, in my case."

     "Where would I go, in my slow old wagon?" Kaya wondered, finding that picture more unlikely than Joe in a Far Tortuga setting.

     "What would give you joy?"  Joe's kind eyes challenged her.  His dark hair with an undertone of russet in it, and a ghost or two of gray.  Curly, longer on top.  He was attractive and probably gay.  Way too gentle for the real world, the world of the corporate marauders now suddenly in charge.  Who were at least as horrified by slow as Kaya was by fast.

     "Cooking, of course.  Colors, and herbs.  A still, companionable place to sit.  Leaf-dapple, light.  Old trees and dogs and classical music.  Things I've taken for granted.  Old friends."  She added tactfully, "And new friends."

     "Well, take them along.  Go—if you must—with joy."

     "Unfortunately we should go, with joy or not," Lawrence said apologetically to his old friend.  "I've got some editing I need to do before tomorrow.  Thanks much, Kaya."  He hugged her as he headed for the gate.

     "Yes, thank you, Kaya Neale," Joe told her, hugging her briefly too, then as he stepped out to the street giving her an easy Namaste.  "Good luck with your move.  Be of good heart."

 

___

 

 

     She had strange dreams near dawn, when she finally managed to get to sleep.  She was frantically searching through the old type drawers, the disassembled leaden sentences, unable to find letters to combine that made sense in any language she knew.  Then her mother was in the room, exclaiming about "The riverine prowling of a Caspian tiger."  She repeated that emphatically over and over, until young Kaya could find a pen and write down exactly what she had said.  "And the Samos Island leopard," Kaylin dictated, "swum over from the Turkish coast."  But Kaya had to run outside just then, to watch the passing of a barefoot sage, carrying a long scroll that unwound behind him as he walked, a gaggle of children fighting to tear off pieces and run off with them into the woods, watched all the while by gleaming leopard eyes.  As Kaya—or whoever she was in this tableau—stood there, not knowing what to do, Joe came and took her arm, saying "You know it isn't safe to be here on your own."  She leaned into him gratefully.  And when he wasn't looking, tucked some pieces of Garamond type into his pocket, knowing he could fit them into powerful and healing words.

___

 

 

     She called in sick the next morning, having slept late, and woken roiled and confused.  Only the feeling of the leopard's haunting and Joe's nearness lingered from the dream, which had been gilded like a Persian miniature.  One she'd seen again recently of a princely archer aiming at a striped cat.  Maybe the Caspian tiger—now extinct.

     What in the world did it all mean?

     Only that Joe had felt like an ally.  And that the world at large felt like it was against her.

     She made shirred eggs for breakfast with chives snipped from the garden, and then set out to walk.  Not where she always walked, but where she seldom did—up into the foothills, climbing steadily, her mind not on her aching legs or shortness of breath, but on the silhouettes of the oak trees above, ahead, the long grasses that yet mysteriously held the imprint of a path, the oaks like the woodblock print of an oak she'd used on the cover of a treasury of fables she'd designed for one of her favorite authors.  It felt urgent to her to get up high enough where she could see—where she was, where she'd been, the context of the whole.

     She thought about what Joe had asked her.  Free associating, stream of consciousness.  What did she love, what did she want to do?  She could freelance, she thought—work from home, or for the local bookshop that had recently started a self-publishing program.  She had plenty of contacts in the trade.  Admiring reviews, and some design awards.  But she would dearly miss her friends, be sad without the daily contact at Simurgh.  Not the paychecks, necessarily, since her mother's considerable estate had been split equally between her and her younger brother, Darrell, and was being paid out to her monthly, covering house payments and the car she hardly ever used.  But the company, definitely.  The routine.  Freelancing was awfully harum-scarum, in her book.

     Cooking, then?  What of that?  She didn't want the headaches of catering, she knew.  And those crazy hours, no fixed schedule.  She didn't want to work for a restaurant or a café, though that would be more collegial.  She thought how awful it would be in the new location, without a single eatery nearby, except (Lawrence had checked Google) a hole-in-the-wall taqueria three or four blocks toward one of the freeways, next to a liquor store/convenience mart.

     "Well, that will dull the pain, in any case," he'd said darkly, and their Italian friend Mariela, who produced Simurgh's catalogs in April and September, and was an impassioned foodie, added a hushed "Gran Dio!"  More a prayer than anything.

     Kaya ended back at home with no sense of direction making itself known.  And no, her antique maps would be no help with this.  She took a glass carafe of cold sencha strawberry tea out to the summerhouse, and flopped into the beanbag, depressed but held at a remove from most of it as long as she was here in this friendly wooden coccoon. 

     She realized she hadn't turned her phone on that morning.  There were half a dozen calls showing from Lawrence, but his only voicemail said "Hey, Kaya—call me when you get this."  He sounded more than a little stressed, she thought, which was unusual for placid "Lawrence of Arcadia"—the old nickname from his hometown in the San Gabriel Valley.  

     She didn't have the heart to talk to anyone right now, not even her good friend, suspecting that whatever he had to tell her would just contribute to her stress.  So she turned the phone off again.  Surely it had something to do with the new management, the hostile takeover—which she was hiding from today, and the precious last days of the weekend.  She needed to regroup, and didn't want to let anything else get at her.  And so she lay wooly of mind and heart, letting her eyes roam over the colors that made the summerhouse so full of joy, even when she wasn't.  Breathing in the smell of drying lavender, rosemary, thyme, hung by colored thread on rose head nails over the tiny sink, like the old hand-forged sort.

     And where might she roll off to, with the wheels back on?  Back to Tucson, to live near Darrell and their now stay-in-place father, who shared an apartment with Genevieve, the middle-aged lab assistant Rory had become involved with after his small stroke two years ago?  It didn't speak to her as a real option, though she missed them both, and Darrell's wife Haley and two small boys.  She would take Amtrak again this Thanksgiving to see them all, and meet the new sweetheart.  Rory texted her pictures all the time—if not up to his old award-winning standards while still a photojournalist.  She was just glad he was happy.

     Okay, then.  What?  Turn the shepherd's wagon into a back-roads bookmobile, like in Parnassus on Wheels or the four titles in the Mobile Library Mystery Series?  Publishing on the go, like the college student she'd seen at the farmers' market writing poems on a manual typewriter for anyone giving her keywords and a little change?  A storytelling van, trawling the streets like childhood ice-cream trucks, or the bright pink ice-cream cart Cluny had pushed around the neighborhood the summer of the year they'd lived in Mystic, Connecticut (a hop, skip, and a jump from international airports)?  That summer their parents had reached their strictly limited limits of exasperation and decreed "You two need to get out of the house more!"  Darrell had had a friend two houses down who he was always visiting, so Darrell was okay, out of their worry zone.

     Later Kaya got up, made some pasta al limone with cream and lemon zest, to eat out of her favorite irregular-lipped pasta bowl with an eggshell glaze.  (Color:  sal.)  The past couple of days kept running through her head, and she exclaimed to the kitchen and to the world at large, "Gran dio!"—echoing Mariela's heartfelt plea.

     That made her think of the collection of great gods (enormous, anyway) her mother had once started—from the statue of Vishnu and his companion bird Garuda on the southern tip of Bali, to the Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan, carved from a red stone cliff, the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and the Indian statue of Lord Shiva in the Arabian Sea.  She searched for copies of the photographs, but guessed she'd never had them.  Maybe Cluny did.  In any case no god could be summoned that easily.

     Instead, she came across some favorite photos she'd matted to add some color to her college dorm room, and pulled them out to lay over her work-cum-dining table.  She'd consult them for wisdom and luck.  Her father's African faces, Kenya's Lake Turkana tribesmen and desert Rendille warriors, with their amazing tribal headwear and beaded collars.  Her mother's Balinese Lion and Dragon dance troops one Chinese New Year, and Hindu offerings of flowers and food for Galungan and Kuningan, the celebration of good winning over evil.  (Propitious, surely.)

     And in a different mood, some lovely quiet photos Cluny had taken at Tassajara of a bocce ball, a dusty earthen red, against some grainy wood.  Some simple wildflowers on a stone ledge.  The textured patina of the big temple bell.  A handwritten prayer tied to the brush-stroke branch of a persimmon tree, between two overripe persimmons.  

     Substance and fragility.  What this life she had made herself was all about.

 

___

 

 

     She tossed and turned all night, her head buzzing.  Come up with a Plan B, Kaya.  Come up with a Plan A, for that matter.  Stop being cowardly and call Lawrence for news.  For tea and sympathy, and maybe some of his pistachio brownies, if he's baked.  Breathe.  Focus on the breath.  Be calm.  Let go.  Stay centered.  Those last two contradictory, right?

 

___

 

 

     Turning on the phone to call Lawrence on Saturday evening, after more fretting and more confusion of mind all day, with no sign of the clarity that usually came to her when kneading bread and shaping it into neat dinner rolls, as she had done that morning, she found a text from Mariela from the day before.  

     "You can't go, cara, though Benita guesses you might be thinking about it—like everybody else.  But I'm stuck for awhile, and I'd miss our lunches too much.  Especially with nothing but a convenience store within a 25 mile radius!  The taqueria's closed, we just found out."  She'd added an emoji of a face expressing horror.

     And a follow-up text.  "Even now I'm dying here, starved for some of your bacon and leek bread pudding—your Cajun deviled eggs—that avocado and asparagus salad with toasted walnuts—or the wild rice salad with goat cheese . . ."       Gran dio, Kaya thought, dumbfounded, wooed and won.  That was it.  That was what she'd do.

     All of the elements seamlessly coalesced, as they did when a book jacket was coming together.  First in her head, complete, then leading her backwards, to work out all the steps to getting there.

     Already dazed and curiously charged, like when you've first fallen in love, she almost didn't find it strange to find a note from Joe (McCallum, his last name) tucked into her mailbox with the day's mail.  

     "Do you want to talk?"  He'd written out his phone number and e-mail.  And then, "I hope I'm not too late, Kaya—I had no idea."  

     It made no sense, but her world had been overturned, and only standing on her head awhile might right it.  She thought of a Lewis Carroll line that she had kept for trying times in adolescence, of which there had been countless. “I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, sir,' said Alice, 'Because I'm not myself you see.”

     She looked at the mystifying note again.  Joe's printing was neat, almost calligraphic, his ink an incredible teal, as from a fountain pen.  She put her lips to it, as she would to grainy watercolor paper, or a deep-incised letterpress paragraph, or gold leaf foil sheets.  Cardamom pods.  Beach glass.  The turquoise beads her Great-Aunt Doria had given her, with a small book of Petrarch sonnets.

     She thought maybe she was herself, but would have to give that some serious thought later.  

     First things first.  She keyed in Lawrence's number.

     "So what's up?" she asked him curiously, when he answered.

     "Oh, Kaya—I'm sorry," her old friend said.

     "For what?"

     There was a long silence, and then he hmmmed as he did when upset.

     "It's Joe," he said.  "I had no idea—I hadn't seen him for so long, and didn't know where he had ended up.  It turns out, unbelievably, that he's the new Production Director at Simurgh, the whiz kid from L.A. who's going to make your job unbearable.  I'm really, really sorry.  It's beyond embarrassing."

     Kaya gaped at the phone, sinking down slowly onto her front steps.

     "Joe?"  She didn't get it.  "But I thought Joe was in Key West."

     "He was, back then, but he moved on to the Getty a while ago, with stops at presses in Atlanta and Chicago in between.  I'd just lost track."

     "Gran dio," she said, the only words that came to mind—the way words used to float up in a Magic 8-Ball.  The refrain of the week.  She didn't know how she meant that, or what else she wanted to say.

     "He's sorry too.  He wants to talk to you.  He loves your work, wants you to stay, would love to have you on his team.  His tastes are quite a bit like yours, as it happens—I saw some of his work online."

     She sat awhile in silence, smelling the French lavender beside the steps as she took deep breaths in.

     "He'd be a kind boss, I suspect," Lawrence offered.

     He'd be a lovely boss, she knew.  But would she let that change her mind, now that she'd changed it once already?  Now that she'd lurched ponderously into forward motion?

     While she was still unsettled, she texted the number Joe had left, asking if he would come for Sunday brunch.

     They'd get it all out in the open, and go on—somewhere—from there.

 

___

 

 

     "That's why your name rang bells for me, Kaya—nothing to do with your mother, you see, though I confess I did look up Dolly the Cloned Sheep yesterday.  I'd been looking at your book designs.  I should have remembered.  I'd been happy to think I'd be working with you."

     "That would have been nice," Kaya told him, cutting the gruyere and asparagus quiche.  She'd warmed yesterday's rolls, to spread with honey butter or sage butter.  (Sagacity always welcome.)  She thought how really, really nice it would have been.  He was wearing a tomato red t-shirt that matched her favorite glossy French plates, and a simple braided leather bracelet with a silver clasp.  (How fun designers were.  How much she had liked being one.)

     "So what is it to be?" Joe asked.  "I note that 'would have been' with trepidation, though I'm guessing I'll be pleased for you.  You sound like you've found where you need to be . . . and I'd be making promises I couldn't keep if I inveigled you to stay.  Trent Hartman isn't easy to dissuade from his admittedly contemporary vision."  He hesitated over 'contemporary,' perhaps wanting to say something less kind.

     "It isn't altogether that," she said, feeling strangely apologetic.  "It's everything.  The new office, the bleak locale, the lack of creature comforts as they once were called . . ."

     "I do remember those," he smiled.  "I've known some in my day."

     "Bad energy," she rephrased what she felt.  "A place I know I just don't want to be.  And I've known lots of those in my day."

     They ate quiche companionably, while a couple of sparrows came looking for crumbs.  From next door, the hesitating notes of Mozart's clarinet concerto trickled from an upstairs window open to the morning.

     "Much better than my daughter ever was at that," he mused, as the practice went on.

     "How old's your daughter?"  A daughter surprised her.

     "She's sixteen, and ageless.  Lives with her mother even though she's forbidden more clarinet lessons.  I tried to protest, but Indy's fine with not being the next Sabine Meyer or Sharon Kam—the only female clarinet players anyone knows."

     They listened for awhile, and then Joe picked up Kaya's last remark, indicating the spellbound wagon open to the garden and the ambient music.

     "Clearly a place where you do want to be."

     "Yes, my still center.  Which I'm going to offer to others—with purely selfish motives, I admit."

     He raised his (very nice) eyebrows.

     "I'd like to turn my shepherd's hut into a little food truck cum café, which I'm guessing Trent Hartman won't object to my parking in a small corner of that huge new parking lot out in the middle of nowhere—offering solace and some decent tea and edibles."

     "I'm happier already," Joe said fervently, surprised in turn, gently breaking another roll apart.

     "Not just the food," she explained her intentions.  "A place to sit and to recuperate from that hectic continual togetherness."

     "Won't everybody be together chez Kaya and her secret garden, or secret gypsy encampment, instead?  Still . . . more pleasant."

     "Only if and when they want," she pointed out.  "I've got a long narrow table to put in here, which seats six cozily.  Or one haughtily.  The beanbag is reserved for Lawrence, or those in dire need.  I've got all kinds of colorful napkins and dishes, and found some favorite photographs I want to hang against the painted walls, adding still more color."

     "Dolly?" he suggested wickedly.

     "Not Dolly!  Festivals, celebrations of the spirit."  She described them and her father's African portraits, and then tried to explain how the gilded archer aiming at the tiger, which she'd found again in her collection of images, summoned the courage she would need to attempt this, and would be hung prominently on the door.  The implied motion of the arrow, straight and true—though in her mind the tiger padded cannily away, a tawny shimmering of stripes like stippled sunlight, shade.

     "And I'll transform the space outside the wagon too.  I've got some Turkish rugs to lay out, and a deep crimson folding screen painted with birds and leaves that looks almost like a Pompeiian fresco, to offer privacy and color, both.  I can fit a bistro table on the deck, and set three or four on the rugs below.  All portable, like the food I'll make at home.  Tea can of course be brewed on site."

     "But I have a serious question."  Joe's appraising eyes watched her.

     Kaya's heart sank.  She'd gotten so carried away by the whole idea.

     "Okay, shoot."

     "What are your 'selfish motives,' in all that?  It sounds perfectly generous.  And kind."

     "But it's only because I love the people I work with.  I can't bear the thought of losing them, if I can help it.  I want to have my cake and eat it too."

     "Win, win," he argued.  "We all come out ahead.  Even those of us who don't deserve it get your cake."

     "No cake for you!"  She handed him a bowl.  She'd drizzled fresh strawberries with a chocolate glaze, and spooned a little cardamom-scented almond custard on top.

     Joe pretended to sigh deeply, and said he guessed he'd just have to make do.

     "Tell me seriously, though, Kaya—can you really make this work?  Financially?  Spiritually?"

     "Thank you—I think I'll be okay with both."

     "Won't you hate giving up design work, though?"  He added "And yes, I do have selfish motives for asking."

     "I could always do some freelance work, if I miss it too much."  She told him about the bookstore that helped authors with self-publishing.

     "And we might have something from time to time," he suggested.  "Hybrid project management manuals, little illustrated volumes on investment for the new decade, stimulus and economic revival . . . "

     She stared at him, aghast, until he winked at her and gave her an enormous grin.

     "I've always liked to fool with Indy, too—it's bad of me, I know.  Anyway, no.  There will be better books than that.  At least sometimes.  Unless I've been fooled too."

     "Good luck with that," Kaya said drily.

     "Will you keep my name on file as applicant for Dishwasher in Chief, if things get too awful?  Teacups my specialty.  I burned my bridges at the Getty, when I left.  And I know I'll be in need of your still center, too.  Whatever happens with the books."  He touched her hand lightly—a promise, or recognition of something hardly light at all.

     "Yours for the asking," she agreed, heart unexpectedly in her throat.  It occurred to her that it might well have become awkward working side by side with Joe (and without dividers, to boot), liking him as crazily as she was starting to—and if his eyes weren't lying, calling out a similar response in him.  Just as well that she was upping stakes.  And that she'd be pounding them in again near his, as close as the great gods could arrange in the time allowed, on such wonderfully shaky ground.

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