CHÂTEAU DE CHATS

chateau de chats

CHÂTEAU DE CHATS

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          Madam Blancheflor DesRosiers and her lawyer Tristan Patenaude, Esquire, sat on a park bench in Mont Clair Park.  The park bench faced out toward the houses of the neighborhood that surrounded little Mont Clair Park.  Madam Blancheflor and Tristan had been coming to this park bench for several days now, facing that particular house with the big tree.

          A woman emerged from that house and sat down upon the porch step and lit a cigarette.  She gazed at little Mont Clair Park across the street, watching the dog walkers, the children playing soccer, the lovers leaning on the benches, and yes, there was that older couple again.  Perhaps they were new in the neighborhood.

          Tristan whispered to Madam Blancheflor, “Try not to stare at her.  Look around.  Look at me.”

          Madam Blancheflor looked up into the sky, saying, “She lives alone.  The lawn is unkempt.  She has too many cats.”

          If one were not staring one would not have seen the cat foreheads and cat ears above the overgrown grass where the cats had curled to nap.  When the woman had emerged and sat upon the porch, several cats stood up from the grass veil, stretched in a tall arch, and then sauntered toward the woman.  She was soon surrounded by two black cats, a black and white cat, two white cats, and two grey tabbies.  They waited their turn to be stroked and petted, their faces upraised and their eyes narrowed in pleasure.

          Then the Contrôle d’Animal (Animal Control) truck halted in front of the woman’s house.  The woman stood up.  The cats did not run.

          Two men emerged from the truck wearing black shirts and pants, gold badges, and speaking into police radios.

          One officer spoke sternly, “Ma’am, you were clearly advised that you can have no more than three cats.  Your neighbors are complaining.”

          The woman protested, “Complaining about what?  And… they are not my cats.  I am only feeding them.”

          The other officer quipped gruffly, “You feed them, you own them.”

          The woman held up her hands, “This is not right.  They are only here because I feed them.”

          The first officer recited, “We will take them to la fourrière (the pound) where they will be adopted.”

          The woman turned her hands into fists, “You take them to the shelter where they will be killed in no more than a week!  It is immoral!  I drew them here by feeding them.  It is not their fault,” and the woman’s voice broke, “Please.  They are my little friends.  If I stop feeding them, they will no longer gather here.”

          Madam Blancheflor and Tristan could hear the whole drama.

          Madam Blancheflor stood up and commanded Tristan, “We must interfere.  Follow me.”

          Tristan arose to catch up with Madam Blancheflor who was striding across the grass, “Blanche!  I advise against this.  You must listen to me.”

          Madam Blancheflor called out to the officers, “Gentilshommes (Gentlemen).  I am Madam Blancheflor DesRosiers and this is my lawyer Tristan Patenaude.  Forgive me, but we have overheard this entire unfortunate incident.”

          The two officers stood at silent attention.  The woman with the cats was stunned with only a tear in motion upon her face.

          Madam Blancheflor then turned to Tristan, “Tristan, will you have a word with these gentlemen, please?”

          Tristan nodded in surrender and gave a wry smile.  He motioned the two officers behind the big tree in the front lawn.

          The woman stared at Tristan and the two officers conversing in the shadows.  She spoke askance to Madam Blancheflor, “I’ve seen you for a couple days now.  Who are you?  I mean, why are you doing this?”

          Tristan shook each officer’s hand and placed a folded bill into each of their palms.  The officers strode to their truck without a word and drove away.

          Madam Blancheflor smiled kindly and placed the fingers of her left hand upon the woman’s shoulder.  The woman turned and still Madam Blancheflor held her fingers gently upon the woman’s shoulders.  The woman was embarrassed for some reason but Madam Blancheflor was her savior and she seemed like a very nice lady, whoever she was, and so the woman said, “I’m Alycia,” and Alycia laid the fingers of her own right hand upon Madam Blancheflor’s fingers, “I can never thank you enough.”

          The cats were circling them both.

          Tristan came back over and stood.  Alycia thanked Tristan and Tristan nodded.

          Alycia had the strangest feeling that Madam Blancheflor wanted to hug her and Alycia rationalized to herself, “That is what nice old ladies do.”

          Madam Blancheflor’s eyes began to glisten but she suddenly said to Alycia, “I am glad that we were here to help.  We’ll leave you and your entourage,” looking down at the milling cats, “to consider a remedy to this situation.”

          Alycia smiled and Madam Blancheflor and Tristan turned and slowly walked back toward the park bench.  Tristan leaned toward Madam Blancheflor to whisper, “How do you feel?”

          Madam Blancheflor replied softly, “You were right.  It would not have been the right time to tell her.  Maybe next time.”

          Tristan said thoughtfully, “No, Blanche.  I have come around to your way of thinking now.  Alycia seems to have become a fine young woman.  But she seems lonely.  I think it might fill some gaps in her life if she finally met her birth mother.”

          Madam Blancheflor whispered through shame, “She has.”

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APPOGGIATURA

appoggiatura

APPOGGIATURA

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        My first piano teacher, Mr. Nohl, still plays a recital at the County Fair on his tours.  This year it really sucks.  He’s playing Beethoven’s Für Elise (For Elise).  It is like slop to the hogs and this crowd is eating it up.  I can’t think of a more brain-molding bunt than that piece.

        Mama used to play it all the time when I was a child; her swaying like she was snake-fascinated.  Mr. Nohl would tell me when I started piano lessons, “In measure seven on the G clef the second note to be played is supposed to be a D, not an E as it is in most sheet music.  No one really knows the real manuscript of Für Elise since all we have are questionable transcriptions and some sketches by Beethoven himself but Beethoven’s sketch has a D there.”

        Like it should matter to me.  Please.  I can’t wait to leave this town.  Even if I do get favors because I play piano.  How far can even the biggest favor in this town take me?  I just can’t wait and Mama knows it.

        And thank God this recital is over.  So there it is: I did what Mama asked and I saw Mr. Nohl play.  I need a cigarette.  Now if I can just sneak out of here without having to talk to Mr. Nohl.  Well, I’ve made it out onto the road without him noticing me.  Nice night.  Time for that cigarette.  Oh, Mercy Christmas, someone is calling my name.

        “Elise?  Elise is that you?”

        It is Mr. Nohl.  I turn and hold my cigarette between us.

        He is grinning as he trots closer, saying, “How have y’all been, Elise?  How is your mama?”

        I reply, “Mama is just fine.”

        He asks, “Still playing piano?”

        I reply minimally, “Mama and me both still play.”

        He says, “Yeah, yeah.  I have heard.  Well that is just fine, really fine.  I’ll bet you are really quite the fine pianist by now.”

        He hesitates, like he is waiting for me to say something.  Oh, fine, I can say, “It was a real nice recital back there.”

        He closes his eyes and lowers his head, like I am blessing him, and he says, “I am glad you liked it, Elise, really glad.  I always dedicate Für Elise to you and your mama.”

        Oh, great.  I take a drag on my cigarette and blow smoke as I say, “Yup.  That piece is special, especially to Mama.”  I don’t say Way too special to Mama.  I know Mr. Nohl had something with Mama a long time ago.  What does he want with me?

        Mr. Nohl says softly, “I am sorry to hear about your mama, Elise, but I heard she is doing fine?”

        I blow more smoke and he fades to me for a moment, “Mama can’t work anymore.  But thanks to you I can jam at Sticky Finger’s Pourhouse whenever I want and I earn money.”

        Mr. Nohl looks like I hit him, “But, isn’t that place… Aren’t you only… How can…”

        I say real cool, “Nobody cares.  They know me there as ‘Babette’.  I can play jazz and blues and some classical arrangements, to ‘classical-up the place’ like Wanda tells me; Wanda is the owner.”

        Mr. Nohl is struggling for something as he asks, “Elise, can we talk?  Let’s go get some lemonade.”

        My very own little devil, I call her “Babette”, has an idea and I say, “Sure.  But under one condition.”

        Mr. Nohl would say yes to anything and he prods with a nod.

        I say, “We can have some lemonade at my house.  Mama is up and I’m sure she would like to see you, Mr. Nohl, for old time’s sake?”  I laugh, “Für Elise?”

        Then Mr. Nohl surprises me (and Babette) when he says, “Elise, praise God, that’s what I wanted to ask you.  I would like nothing better.”

        Babette didn’t see that coming.  So we walk on down the road in the moonlight.  Disoriented now, I offer Mr. Nohl a cigarette and he refuses but he doesn’t admonish me.

        Mr. Nohl finally says to me quietly, “You are turning into a fine little lady, Elise, and I mean that.”

        Babette gets nervous, and I say, “Thanks, Mr. Nohl.  I had to grow up kind of fast.  Wanda had to show me some dirty fighting.  Not everyone at Sticky Finger’s is a ‘music lover’.  Wanda has been like my big sister.”

        Mr. Nohl says, “Then I like Wanda already.  You were always precocious, Elise.  Do you remember starting to play piano at four years old?”

        I sigh, “Mama never lets me forget.  She still tells me she named me after that most famous piece of music (Babette won’t let me say Für Elise) that no one is really sure who wrote the version we all know.  How flattering.”

        Mr. Nohl suddenly starts monologuing, “If my life was sheet music it would look like one long chromatic arpeggio.  A solo on one string in thin air,” he gestures, “Even a dirt road is headed somewhere.  I’ve been thinking that I need to root or I’ll just disappear and no one will know or care,” he pauses a long time, “I never stopped thinking about your mama and you.  I want to make things right with your mama and you.  Elise, do you know what I am saying?”

        Babette, where are you?  I say, “What do you mean ‘make things right’?” and I am angry.  Babette isn’t talking.

        Mr. Nohl stares up at the stars, “I mean I want to take care of your mama the way she deserves, the way she needed me to, and especially now…” he stops and faces me.

        Babette!  I feel abandoned, frightened, saying, “What does that mean?  We’re doing just fine.  Mama and me are just fine ourselves.  Without you.  I always knew you made Mama sad!  Who needs you?”  I raise my fist in defiance.

        Then I swear that I could feel Babette push me into Mr. Nohl’s arms and I start to cry as Babette makes way for Mr. Nohl’s daughter, Elise.

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You are HERE

you are here

You are HERE

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          My father is descending mentally into the shadowy valley of Alzheimer’s.  And for weeks now he had wanted to see his beloved five-year-old grandson.  His grandson lives 400 miles north in the town of Elk’s Meadow.  The only time we could get everyone’s schedule together was for this Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.  So I was able to get off work on very short notice, somewhat concerned that my co-workers might realize how unimportant I am, and my father and I headed north at 3PM on Tuesday afternoon for a journey that Yahoo! informed me would be 6-hours long (within its virtual reality).

          There was a tropical storm from Mexico crossing our southern borders months ahead of usual, coming up with complete disregard for years of historical weather patterns.  The heat was thick and I wanted the air-conditioning on.  I needed cold air in my face to stay alert.  My father is in his 80’s and complained of the cold.  So I was juggling off-and-on air-conditioning, opening and closing vents, raising and lowering windows, struggling with eternal vigilance to create a democratic environment.  It was like trimming sails on a racing sailboat.

          My father was once the traveling salesman for his own little business and he often travelled the route on which we now were, and I mean often, a lot.  So I suppose he just couldn’t help but micro-navigate for me this journey right down to the specific freeway lane.  The whole trip he pointed-out where former customers of his had their place of business.

          There is a scene in an old episode of the TV series Friends where Phoebe, the free spirit, is asking Monica, the chef, to make a dish, “You know.  The thing?  The thing with the stuff?”  It’s a tiny amusement but my father and I now have a lot of “You know.  The thing with the stuff” conversations, interpreted with my own technique of “Twenty Questions”.  As his son I have learned all of his pet concerns over the years and so I am able to grasp and to translate.  My father’s condition has passed the stage where I could politely wait for him to formulate the exact question or statement.

          Fortunately, this journey up Highway 5 is one I love.  Once north of the spinning gears of clockwork Los Angeles we were into the rolling golden hills crowned with oak trees and then on down into the awesome and legendary Central Valley that pushes apart the coastal mountain ranges and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  The Central Valley: whose length and breadth of fruit, nut, vine, field and row flatland can barely be conceived even while witnessing.  Forests of Almonds, Apples, Cherries, Figs, Grapes, Kiwi, Lemons, Olives, Peaches, Persimmons, Pistachios, Plums, Prunes, Pomegranates, and Walnuts; prairies of Asparagus, Beans, Bok Choi, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrot, Cauliflower, Corn, Cucumber, Eggplant, Lettuce, Melon, Onion, Peas, Potatoes, Pumpkin, Spinach, Sugarbeet, Tomato; and lakes of Rice.

          Every few hours we pulled into a Rest Stop where, standing between the other travelers, I bought a cup of hot cocoa for my father from the “Wailing Wall” of vending machines.  Next we would dare to use the foreboding Restrooms with the various and fascinating urinal technologies and then attempt to use the stingy washbasin faucets that drooled water for washing, but only as I held the on-button with one hand and listened to the sound of the other hand washing itself.  As my father’s son, I seethed about the highway taxes diverted from Rest Stop improvement.

          Because of traffic out of Los Angeles and because of Rest Stops every few hours, our journey was exceeding the 6-hour cyberspace estimate.  As darkness fell my father grew apprehensive.  Before Alzheimer’s started beating him down he was already nervous about night driving because of his aged vision.  Now, his Alzheimer’s whispered to him that we must be lost and he frequently requested of me to pull off of the freeway and to ask directions from someone.  I tried to reassure him that I knew exactly where we were going but he only took comfort in naming aloud to me each off-ramp street name and asking of me periodically to get off and ask directions.  Understand: Highway 5 travels the backbone of the Central Valley from top to bottom, and Elk Meadows lies right off of Highway 5, so the idea of getting lost was humorous to me but not impressible to my father.  He would hesitantly reply to me, “Well, if you think so…”

          We made it safely and surely to exit number 507, Elk Meadows Road, and we arrived at our hotel ten minutes short of seven hours from the time we had left my father’s house.  I had not wanted to burden my brother and wife in Elk Meadows with this sojourn under the circumstances, even though they had invited us to stay with them.  On the last visit, when we had accepted their offer, my father had misplaced his wallet and upset my sister-in-law by wondering if his then-four-year-old grandson had absconded with it.

          The next morning at the hotel I slept-in.  I finally got up and went in to shave and shower and then saw that all of my toiletries were gone.  My first thought was, “The maid stole…,” and then I had a flash of fear that I myself was getting Alzheimer’s by formulating such dumb thoughts.  I emerged and found my father sitting dressed, suitcases packed, waiting to leave.  My father, who used to stay in hotels only as a necessary evil expense during his sales trips, never more than one night at any one town, had packed up my toiletries and asked, “Are we going?”  I explained that we had that room for three days.  And then I reassured him that I was paying for it.

          My father is fiercely proud that he doesn’t have cable television and thinks that I and all others are suckers for paying to watch TV.  “It’s free.”  He thinks that the whole world is contained in Public Television.  But I sat him down in front of the television and found for him the Military Channel and he was then enthralled watching hours of “World At War”.  I had told him for years that he would enjoy that and the History Channel but he always acted like I was offering him heroin.

          Around 11AM we met my sister-in-law and my nephew at the Family Fitness Center, an enormous temple to militant health.  My sister-in-law was invoking guest passes for us but we still had to fill out forms “for liability reasons” which meant to me only that they were going to use our person information for addressing advertisements to us.  My father subsequently got into his bathing suit and joined his grandson and dozens of other children with a few parents in a large shallow pool outdoors beneath a tall and wide covering.  My father splashed water at his grandson and pretended to be a sea-monster to the squealing delight of his grandson and several other children.  I was happy observing all the activity, thinking, “Good.  Stay on mission.  My dad and his grandson, that’s the mission.  No diversions with relatives.”

          We all took a long drive up to Lake Tahoe where I honored the duties of an uncle and made up silly stories for my nephew’s amusement.  You know how that situation goes: where the uncle gets the nephew so riled-up and rambunctious with laughter that his mother is left with the burden of maintaining discipline by scolding.

          Next day we all went to the Train Museum located in the historic Old Town that preserves the buildings and flavor of the 1800’s.  My father’s grandson sat in the engineer’s cabin of a huge locomotive and pulled on all the throttles and brakes.  My father chased him around the exhibits.  My poor sister-in-law.

          On the last evening my father’s own beloved sister invited all of us to a dinner at her house.  Just before dinner was ready my cousin decided that, “Yes, we have enough time.  I made a DVD of some old family films I found.  It’s only about five minutes.”

          I assumed it would films from the era of my and my cousin’s childhood.

          But the DVD began to flicker with an actual moving picture film from my father’s childhood.  My mouth fell open.  I had seen a few black-and-white photographs from my father’s childhood.  But this was a moving picture show of my father twelve years old and with his eight siblings and his mother and father and uncle in the family house in the 1930’s, Windsor Locks, Connecticut!  His Uncle Joe at that time was doing well despite the Depression and he had purchased a motion picture camera and he was instigating the whole family to clown around for it.

          In the film my father was smiling, bright and as healthy as a twelve-year-old boy should be.  He chased the little family terrier named Peanuts.  He wrestled with his older brother; he teased a sister, the very one at whose house we now were.  I looked over at both of them and then back and forth from that film and I kept saying, “This is unbelievable!”  I saw all my aunts and uncles as young vibrant children.  I saw my grandmother and grandfather, rest their souls, with dark hair and slender bodies, being silly and performing for the camera.

          I had heard all the stories of how poor they had been up until “the War”.  World War Two ironically gave all of them opportunities, my uncles in military service and then to college, and my aunts to factory jobs, all with salaries unthinkable to them at the time of this film.    But in this film they all were, are eternally, a bubbling, bouncing, swirling, tumbling family!

          Words failed me.  Forgive me; words fail me as I write this.  As I looked from the film to my father and my aunt I was experiencing a thrill and a floating feeling.  It was a rapture of spiritual understanding that I cannot express rightly even at this moment of pondering.  I was witnessing a humble and powerful Alpha and Omega.  My father and my aunts and uncles really were young once; they really were not unlike me.  But I was now unlike my insulated self, my fucking selfish self, and I was choking with Love.

          My father and I began our return journey around noon on Saturday after a farewell brunch at an old-fashioned ice-cream shop.  My father and I were both feeling happy as we drove but I was damn tired after all the chauffeuring.  On the way south again on Highway 5 I took an early advantage of a Rest Stop and bought my father a cup of hot cocoa and myself a tall can of cold “energy drink” which is a soup of vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and most importantly, a saturation of caffeine.  That propelled me for a few hours.

          But then my eyes grew heavy and my mind began to wander so I pulled off of Highway 5 to yet another Rest Stop.  As my father sipped another cup of cocoa and I sipped another energy drink I was drawn to the wall of maps that were inside a glass enclosure.  There was a big map of California, there was the line of Highway 5, and there was a big thumbtack marking “You Are Here”, nearly at the southern end of the Central Valley.

          We got back on the road and I found a Country Western radio program.  In his recent years my father has become a fan of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Cowboy music in general.  When my father was a kid his hero was Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy”.  It was not long before a Willy Nelson song was announced, “On the Road Again”.  My father cheered, “Turn it up!” and when the song began he started to slap his knee like an imaginary washboard and he burst into song and I was raptured away.

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On the road again

Goin’ places that I’ve never been

Seein’ things that I may never see again

And I can’t wait to get on the road again

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