Sunday, October 30, 2005

Part Sixty-Seven

Continued from Part Sixty-Six

Friday, October 14

She left the Rolling Bay area in a hurry, at one point spinning her tires on a bit of mud in the road as she turned north toward Fay Bainbridge State Park. The tall graceful evergreens swept past her window unnoticed, as did the colorful clusters of maple and birch trees. There was a fresh Fall dampness in the air, and sunlight. But she hardly experienced any of this because her mind was on Raoul; specifically, on how little she really knew about him.

She felt she had gotten to know the present-day Raoul: his tastes, his hobbies, his conversational style. She had met his friends. She loved talking to him and, although she found him interesting, she had to admit there was a streak of the ordinary about him. He was...predictable. An old memory struck her: Taylor had been the same way. In fact, Peggy's mother had used those same words: 'Taylor is a safe, predictable man,' she had said, and then she added '...just right for you, I think.' Peggy remembered not liking that part; she was in her late twenties at the time and it was somehow not very flattering to be judged a good mate for a safe, predictable man.

Yet Peggy knew there was more to a person, especially a sixty-ish person, than what he or she is like in the present day. She knew that Raoul had lived through many phases of life, and even now he might not be the same man that his late wife, Priscilla, knew only seven years ago. He might have gone through a wild twenty-ish phase, and a fatherly forty-ish phase, and he might be unrecognizable to Peggy if she could go back in time and secretly observe him. We were all somebody else at one time or another, she told herself.

Priscilla. That was one part of Raoul's life that Peggy did not know much about. She had to admit that Raoul didn't know much about Taylor either. They were each keenly aware of the other's late spouse, aware than an entire life was lived before they had met. In fact, it was probably the most important thing they had in common. They each knew when to provide comfort, and when to provide solitude. A part of each of them lived in this great, dark unfathomable space called grief.

As she drew closer to the campground Peggy thought to herself that it would be a dead end. She felt his absence as she drove into the park and steered down the narrow lane that descended to the beach and emerged onto a parking lot. It was deserted. She drove along the empty campsites and parked at the far end, then she walked over the jumble of driftwood logs to the rocky shore. The wind filled her jacket and vest with air and puffed it up like a marshmallow. She felt moisture and could see the mists piling up over Puget Sound.

She stood for several minutes and tried to imagine where Raoul would pitch his tent and enjoy a few days of solitude. Surely Priscilla was part of this. He missed Priscilla and was with her in spirit. It was not solitude. He had the company of his memories. She hurried back to the car. It had to be Blake Island.

When Peggy got back to the car her phone rang.

"Well?" said Milton Pacer.

"I haven't found Raoul."

"But you got into your car."

"Yes. I'm going to Blake Island."

"Blake Island? What for?"

"I think Raoul went there," she said while starting her car and driving out of the park. Somehow just saying it made her more convinced it was true.

"What on Earth would he go there for?"



"Yes, camping."

"With who?"

Peggy almost answered 'his late wife' but decided that would simply invite more questions than she had time to answer. "I think he wants to be alone," she said.

Milton was silent, Peggy imagined him processing things as she sped back south to Raoul's house. She was going to get his address book and hunt down Ed and Jenny in Eagledale.

"The reason I called," said Milton, "is to tell you that an unexpected opportunity has fallen into our laps."

"Oh, what's that?"

"The head of one of the leading ocean preservation societies is in town and wants to meet us for dinner."

Peggy knew what was coming and began to prepare an excuse. "You must mean Dr. Hinckley, the famous oceanographer."

"Exactly. As you know we applied to his foundation for a grant and now he wants to talk about it."

Peggy had always admired Milton for being so tenacious when it came to finding money for the organization. Without his efforts she would not have had a job all these years. "He's way over my head," said Peggy. "You'd better have somebody like Dave. He's a scientist."

"But he's impressed with our latest ocean project and wants to hear more about it, and you're the one who has the best grasp of the data."

Peggy pulled over to the side of the road. "Milton. I'm very sorry. I'm in the middle of a personal crisis and I can't go out to dinner and carry on an engaging conversation with a brilliant scientist. I don't care how wealthy his foundation is."

Again he was silent. Then Milton spoke very carefully. "I would like you to make sure you've thought this through. You're going to miss a potentially career-enhancing conversation in order to find someone who perhaps doesn't want to be found."

Peggy stared through the window of her car. What if he's right? What if Raoul doesn't want to be found?

"On the other hand, what if he's injured, or stranded and can't contact anyone? I have to know, even if it means I've intruded on his seclusion."

"So you're doing this for you?"

"Milton, let's just say that I think I know what I'm doing and leave it at that, shall we? Now if you will send my regrets to Dr. Hinckley I will be off to lovely Blake Island."

Milton grumbled something that she did not quite catch as she stepped on the gas and sent a spray of gravel into the shrubbery on the side of the road. Her hand trembled as she dropped the phone into her purse. She had never dismissed her boss before. It felt exhilarating.

The name was Semp. Ed and Jenny Semp. Peggy figured it out quite by accident. After an initial slow drive through the few streets that make up the sparse community known as Eagledale, Peggy pulled over to study the map and Raoul's address book. As she took a sip from her water bottle she realized it had gone stale: the bottle had been in the car for several days. She got out of her car to stretch her legs and pour out the water. From where she stood she could glimpse a few boats moored in Eagle Harbor and moved over to get a better look. It was then that she looked down and saw a mailbox with the word 'Semp' on it. She had seen the name before, printed in a confident, feminine hand. She ran back to the car and went to the 'S' section of the address book. And there it was, Semp, Ed and Jenny.

Next to the Semp mailbox were several boxes perched haphazardly on an old wooden beam. Beside them was a dirt lane that led down to the water. Peggy left her car on the road and walked down the lane. There were four or five small houses built close to the water, looking rather old and worn from years of wind and rain and salty air. It reminded Peggy of an old-fashioned seaside village.

She found the Semp house and knocked on the door. There was no answer. She waited and knocked again and then walked around the house toward the water. She saw a gravel boat launch and a small dock. While walking down to investigate, she passed a small building. Then she remembered Deidre's words, that Mr. Ed had a "...boathouse or something."

Peggy paused in front of it. The door was not locked. It was red and worn. She pulled open the door and peered into the gloom. She gasped, and her heart raced with excitement at what she saw. It was Raoul's motorcycle.


For the second time that day Peggy nearly jumped out of her skin. "What? Who is it?" she blurted out.

"I think I should be askin' the questions," said a stooped man with white hair.

"I'm sorry." Peggy took several deep breaths. "I'm looking for Mr. Semp."

"He don't live in the shed."

"I know. It's just that I recognized my friend's motorcycle in there."

"I told Ed he should put a lock on that thing. That shiny motorbike would look mighty temptin' to a person who might be snoopin' around."

"Look. I know I'm probably trespassing. But it's very important that I find the man who owns that motorcycle. I understand he's a friend of Mr. Semp's."

"I wouldn't know. But I saw a guy put that motorbike in there and go off in Ed's boat."


"Hmm. Couple of days, I guess."

"Do you know when Mr. Semp is coming back?"

The man shook his head. "Couldn't say."

It didn't really matter, Peggy realized. There was only one boat and it was already gone. Peggy had to find another way to Blake Island.

As she walked back to her car she tried to think of who had a boat. It seemed to her that she had been on someone's boat only a few months ago. Of course, she thought to herself. Luke! Fourth of July. She and Raoul had gone out with Luke and Florence on Luke's boat to watch fireworks over Elliott Bay.

When she got to the car she fished in her purse for the business card Luke had given her months ago; ages, it seemed. While she listened to the ring it occurred to her that Luke would mention it to Florence and Paula. No doubt the whole gang would join in the hunt for Raoul. Poor Raoul. So much for solitude.


Monday, October 24, 2005

Part Sixty-Six

Continued from Part Sixty-Five

Friday, October 14

Peggy drove back to her house from Raoul's in the same amount of time it took her to go the other way: eight minutes, two minutes faster than normal. She screeched to a halt in her driveway and then, in her rush to get from the car to the house, she did the one thing she absolutely did not want to do at that moment: she locked her keys in her car.

She realized what she had done the instant she slammed the car door shut, just after mashing down the little button that locks all the doors. It's probably true that on some models of cars these days a person could not do what she did. But hers was not one of those new-fangled cars that are smarter than their owners.

She stood in front of the door to her house and felt energy draining from her. Inside her house she was sure there were messages, perhaps numerous messages, from Raoul. She did her controlled breathing exercises. They always helped during moments of stress. It reminded her of being in labor. In those days no one taught you how to breathe during labor, but she had had a midwife who was skilled in many practical aspects of child birthing. 'Your body will forget to breathe,' she had said. 'Your brain must order the body to breathe. Decide to breathe. Slowly...there. Don't be in a hurry to exhale.' Peggy remembered those words and the sound of the midwife's voice almost thirty years later as she stood on her front stoop, locked out of her house and car.

Then a happy thought came to her. She had her purse! It was attached to her shoulder like an extension of her body. She must have grabbed it without thinking. She snatched her cell phone from the bag and held it like gold. Then she called her boss.

"You did what?!" said Milton Pacer.

Peggy cringed. Milton was a great boss, patient, understanding, flexible. But he was a slave to deadlines, and was counting on Peggy to meet hers on a sensitive new project.

"I locked myself out of my house and car," Peggy repeated.

"But how can that be an issue when you're in Seattle? Just walk to the office and we'll straighten it out before you go home today."

"I'm on Bainbridge Island." She then told the story how she had unexpectedly returned to the Island to check on Raoul.

"Oh," was all he said. But it was enough. He was clearly not happy.

"Look, Milton. I'm sorry, but that's the state of things. Now if you'll excuse me I'll see if I can get into my house and get my spare car key, or else I'll walk down to the police station and ask them to break into my car. They know how to do those things, I believe."

"Right, they'll do it," he said without a trace of enthusiasm. "Let me know how it goes, okay?"

Peggy hung up and began to think through her options. She had not given a house key to any of her neighbors, in fact, she hadn't really made friends with her neighbors. It was not like her former life in Ballard, where she and Taylor, her late husband, had had many friends. Good friends, lifelong friends, people who knew every detail of your life, like what kind of cereal your kids ate for breakfast and what music you listened to and what books you read and how often you cleaned your kitchen. She had no one like that in her new neighborhood. She tried to think of to whom she had given a spare house key, and came up with only one name: Raoul.

Peggy turned away from her house and walked down the road to the police station near the ferry terminal. A policewoman named Mandy agreed to come and unlock Peggy's car. Several minutes later, Peggy stood in her driveway and watched Mandy pedal up the hill on her police mountain bike. She wore shorts in spite of the brisk air.

With quiet efficiency, Mandy got unlocked the door with a long, flat strip of metal that she slid between the door and window.

"Wow," said Peggy. "That was too easy."

"With older cars especially," Mandy said. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

Peggy paused as a thought came to her. "Maybe. How does one go about reporting a missing person?"

Mandy's eyes widened. "Hmm. That's a bit more serious than locking your keys in your car."

"It's probably nothing. The fact is, I have a friend I haven't heard from and I just went to his house and he wasn't there and it appears he's gone off on his motorcycle. But the unusual thing is that he didn't tell anyone where he was going."

Mandy straddled her bicycle and donned her helmet. "So you don't know if he's in trouble or if he has just chosen to be alone."

Peggy gasped. "What kind of trouble?"

Mandy shrugged. "Is he wealthy? Or ill? If he's wealthy he could have been abducted, if he's ill he could have just wandered off without knowing what he was doing."

"He's not wealthy and he's not ill," said Peggy. "He went off on his motorcycle and packed very little."

"How do you know what he took with him?"

Peggy blushed a bit. "I'm, uh, a regular guest at his house."

"I see," said Mandy, doing a poor job of hiding the amusement in her voice.

Peggy squirmed and turned two shades of purple.

"Have you searched the entire house?" asked Mandy. "Do you really know everything that he took with him? The reason I'm saying that is because my boyfriend rides a motorcycle and it's amazing how much stuff you can carry on those things if you really wanted to. He goes camping and fishing on his bike."

"Camping?" Peggy said. A new thought came to her. "Excuse me. I need to make some calls. You just gave me an idea."

Mandy turned her bicycle around. "Why don't you at least give me your phone number and if somebody reports a man in trouble I'll contact you."

"Okay. Thanks." Peggy scribbled her cell phone number on the back of her business card and handed it to the policewoman.

Peggy raced into her house with her newly-retrieved keys. There were no voice mail messages from Raoul. Peggy turned on her computer and listened to the whine of the fan and the buzzing of the hard drive and watched the meaningless display of symbols and logos parade across her screen like credits for a bad movie. When it was ready to be useful she went straight to her mail and reviewed recent messages: several work related notes, one from Marjorie with a pregnancy update--no complications so far--one from an old friend in Ballard. Nothing from Raoul.

Then she dialed Deidre's number. Deidre answered at once.

"Does your father have any camping equipment?" Peggy asked.

"Yes. On the metal shelves in the garage. Why? What have you learned?"

"Nothing yet. But I realized that I could be overlooking an important clue. After all I'm not as familiar with your father's possessions as some people think."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Peggy relayed the story of the policewoman.

"You went to the police?"

"I locked my keys in the car and I had to ask them to break in for me."

"She'll probably have a good story to tell back at the station."

Peggy tried not to think about it. "I'm going back to Raoul's to check the garage. If he took the camping stuff, where would he have gone?"

"It depends on what he took. Call me when you get there and I'll tell you exactly what to look for."

Eight minutes later Peggy stood in Raoul's garage with her cell phone to her ear. Deidre was on the other end.

"Look at the high shelf next to the wall, all the way to the right. See it?"


"Second shelf from the top there should be a small gray nylon bag. It holds a small camping tent."

"I don't see it," said Peggy excitedly.

"Look around the floor. Look on the other shelves."

"I'm looking. I'm looking. I don't see the gray bag." It was a fairly neat place, as garages go. Peggy scanned the contents of the shelves and saw tools, coolers, gardening equipment, paints, oils, but nothing that looked like a small tent in a gray bag.

"Now look for a red backpack," said Deidre.

"I definitely do not see a red backpack. I'm looking everywhere."

"That contains his camping overalls and a couple of flannel shirts."

"Ah. So he's not frolicking about in just his running shoes."

"That doesn't sound like Dad."

"That's just me. I tend to imagine the worst possible scenarios. Okay, so far he has a tent and the red backpack. What else?"

"Sleeping bag."

Peggy again followed instructions but could not locate a blue lightweight sleeping bag that should have been next to the gray tent bag.

There was excitement in Deidre's voice. "It means he's camping somewhere very close. Right on the Island. There aren't many spots: Fort Ward, Fay Bainbridge. Oh, but wait, there's also Blake Island. Dad and Mom used to borrow a boat and go camping on Blake Island."

"What would he do with the motorcycle?"

Deidre paused. "I believe Mr. Ed had a boathouse or something. Dad could have parked his bike in it and taken the motorboat."

"Why wouldn't he have driven his car?"

"It's hard to say. It's worth checking on, though."

"Do you have their number?"

"It's in Mom's address book, which is on Dad's desk."

Peggy walked back into the house with the phone still to her ear. "What's the name?"

"Sorry, I only knew him as Mr. Ed. I don't remember their last name. But look for an Ed and Jenny in Eagledale."

It was a big book with lots of pages. "This will take time," said Peggy. "I think I'll try the local camping places first: Fort Ward and Fay Bainbridge. Any others?"

"I'm sure there are others, such as private lands."

"Okay. Gotta run. I'll stay in touch. Love you." Peggy hung up and fished around for a good map of Bainbridge Island.

She went out to her car and squinted: the sun was high and bright by this time. She unfolded the map on the seat next to her and at last felt like she had something to do besides worry. She had a goal. She was looking for a man on a motorcycle with a red backpack and a blue sleeping bag. That shouldn't be too hard: Bainbridge was a small island.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Part Sixty-Five

Continued from Part Sixty-Four

Friday, October 14

Having made the return trip from Seattle, fidgeting in her seat the entire way, Peggy rushed down the ramp from the ferry as soon as it landed at Bainbridge Island, leaving in her wake a trail of curious morning commuters. She quickly walked the distance to her house and got directly into her car. She thought about going in first to check for messages but decided that there wasn't time.

It normally took Peggy about ten minutes to drive to Rolling Bay. She made it in eight.

There was no answer when she knocked on Raoul's door. She let herself in with her own key. At that moment, in spite of everything, she was reminded of how familiar it was to let herself into Raoul's house, and how, for the past week, she had been away from that routine, and missed it.

"Raoul," she called out as she entered. "Raoul, are you here?"

Something about the quiet echo of her voice told her the house was empty. The gray morning light coming through the windows made everything look ghostly. She switched on a light, which brightened the room, but did not warm it.

She shivered and walked slowly toward the bedroom. "Raoul?"

In the room she found... nothing. Raoul's bed was made. She sat on it and smoothed the comforter with her hand. It was cool. She didn't think the bed had been slept in recently.

Peggy searched the entire house and the garage. His motorcycle was gone, along with his helmet, boots and riding clothes. She returned to the bedroom and walked through it to the bathroom. His toothbrush was gone. But she noticed on the counter an almost-empty tube of toothpaste, flattened into a curved, bumpy spine. She checked the bathroom closet. A new tube of toothpaste that had been there was gone.

She opened his bedroom closet and tried to figure out what was missing. The suits he most often wore were hung neatly from the bar. His dress shoes were side by side on the floor. Therefore he didn't go on a business trip, at least he didn't dress for it. She pulled open a dresser drawer, but she couldn't figure out what, if anything, was missing.

In the kitchen, by the door leading to the garage, she looked carefully at the pile of shoes. Her own garden clogs were among them, looking right at home. Raoul's sandals rested one on top the other. What was missing? Then it hit her: an old pair of running shoes was gone. That gave her an idea. She crossed the room to a hall closet and rummaged through it. Raoul kept a backpack there that he used when he rode his motorcycle. It was gone.

Peggy put on a kettle of water for tea. Her hands trembled as she reached for the dial to turn on the flame. It came alive, the first sign of life she had witnessed since entering the house. She collected her thoughts: Raoul went on a motorcycle trip and took his backpack and running shoes and a toothbrush with a new tube of toothpaste.

Then Peggy snapped her fingers: maybe he wrote something down! She looked on the kitchen counter near the phone and found only a few old scraps of paper with phone numbers scrawled hastily. She had seen them before. Nothing new. On his desk she searched for a business card or a brochure that looked like it might be recent, or might provide a reason for a sudden trip without telling your… Peggy paused. What was she, exactly? Friend? Girlfriend? What was her status? She felt annoyed suddenly that she didn't have a clearly defined status with Raoul.

The phone rang. Peggy literally jumped into the air. She calmed herself with a few seconds of controlled breathing, and then answered.

"Hello, who's this?" said a woman's voice. Peggy recognized the voice of Deidre, Raoul's daughter.

"Deidre it's me, Peggy."

"Oh thank God someone's home," said Deidre. "I've been trying to call Dad for a couple of days. Did you two go on a trip or something?"

Peggy was stunned. This was more serious than she had realized. "Deidre, I have not been with your father. I've been at home all week, working, but then I got worried when he didn't return my calls. So I came to his house this morning. He seems to have gone off on a trip."


"Well, uh..." She had not considered that possibility. She cleared her throat. "Well, here are the facts: his motorcycle is gone, and he took a backpack with his running shoes, toothbrush and toothpaste."

"That's it?"

"I imagine he took some clothes. I've only figured out that much."

"He didn't call you before he left?" Deidre's voice had an edge to it.

"No." Peggy could not rid her mind of a nagging thought: what if Raoul had gone away to meet someone, a secret lover, a romantic rendezvous in the country? Would he take his motorcycle? Maybe she also rode a motorcycle. He would dress casually, and bring only a toothbrush and toothpaste. She would be in a leather motorcycle suit, and underwear. After all, one doesn't need much for those kinds of trips. This was a ridiculous line of reasoning, Peggy told herself.

"It's not like him at all," Deidre said. "Are you sure there are no notes lying around?"

"I checked everywhere. I was hoping to find a phone number, or something that might indicate where he has gone."

But as she held the phone to her ear, Peggy went back to the desk and looked again. Perhaps there was something she had missed before. Perhaps a brochure advertising cabins in the mountains, small cozy cabins with nothing but a wood stove and a giant bearskin rug. She imagined him there with only his running shoes and a toothbrush.

"This is not like Dad at all," said Deidre.

"You can say that again."

A shrill whistle from the kitchen interrupted Peggy's thoughts.

"What's that?" asked Deidre.

"The kettle. I was going to drink some tea and think things over. Then I'm going to go home and check my emails and phone messages. Perhaps he sent me something that I overlooked."

"Please call me the minute you know something," pleaded Deidre.

"Of course. And by the way, how's Taylor? He never calls me anymore." Taylor, Jr., Peggy's son, had started up a relationship with Deidre over the summer. Judging from the scant news she received it was still going on.

"Sorry. I guess I'm a distraction," she said. "He's coming this weekend. I'll sit him down and make him call."

"Thanks. Take care, Deidre. I love you." Peggy hung up. She didn't know why she had said that. She had never spoken that way to Deidre before.

She sat on the sofa and drank her tea. But she couldn't relax. She stared into the empty space with her hands on her tea mug and her feet and knees held tightly together. After a while she felt a strong urge to return to her house and check for messages. There might be a brief message waiting for me at this very moment, she thought. Or, better yet, an invitation. 'Join me in the mountains. When can you get here? It's lovely. Pack as little as possible.'

Then Peggy realized that she should also call her boss. She finished her tea quickly and left Raoul's house.


Sunday, October 16, 2005

Part Sixty-Four

Friday, October 14

Peggy took the early ferry into town. She had been busy the entire week, dividing her work hours between home and office. Her schedule had been erratic, but the project was fascinating: she was collecting research results from three different ocean monitoring teams that were involved in a detailed study of water temperatures. She had deadlines, and an impatient boss. She had spent hours on the phone with people in far off time zones. But it was okay, it took her mind off everything else.

As she boarded the 5:20 boat and made her way to her usual seat she saw that her regular commuting buddies were all there.

"Look what the cat dragged in," said Florence, sitting next to Luke, who looked well-dressed and clueless.

"Morning, Peggy," said Kelly.

Luke waved. Paula, sitting across from Luke, moved over to make room for Peggy. "Good morning," Paula said.

"Hello to everyone," said Peggy. She was certain she knew what they were all thinking: that Peggy had been sequestered away in a little love nest with Raoul all week, staring dreamily into his eyes by a crackling fire. She felt the urge to straighten them out at once; 'I've been working!' she wanted to say emphatically.

The truth was that she had not spoken to Raoul, not since her failed bid to get him to support the club she wanted to organize. She was a bit piqued over that, but then she decided to leave him alone and let him come around at his own pace. In general, she wanted to avoid the subject of Raoul.

"How's Raoul these days?" said Florence, not wasting a moment. Her legs were crossed to allow one bare knee to peek out from beneath her long raincoat. Luke, who had displayed some hope of having an original personality when he was seeing Paula, was now reduced to his former preoccupation with Florence's short skirts.

"Raoul is bored out of his mind," said Peggy.

"Poor thing," said Florence. "He must be pining away for, um, someone."

"Surely he's doing something," said Kelly. "The man has more hobbies than should be allowed for one person."

"He has too many hobbies. They're all about him, if you get right down to it," said Peggy.

"Ooh, I'm so glad you joined us today, Peggy," said Florence, her face lit up. "We want to hear all about it."

Peggy had always been astonished at Florence's appetite for bad news about other people's relationships. She wondered if Luke knew that Florence would abandon him like an unfinished steak at a restaurant if Raoul were suddenly "on the market."

"There's nothing to tell," said Peggy. "I've been working like a maniac all week and I have not even spoken to Raoul since last weekend. I was only joking when I said he was bored. For all I know he's having a ball."

Paula looked at Peggy. Her expression said, 'Ignore her.' Paula seemed exceptionally wise for someone so young. It made Peggy feel old and unfocused. But she was focused. She was sure of it.

"I left two messages and he hasn't returned my calls," said Kelly.

"Really?" said Peggy.

Kelly looked embarrassed. "I, uh, lost Xena's phone number, and I never did catch her last name."

"I called there, too," said Paula. "When I didn't see you on the ferry I called your house, and when you didn't answer I called Raoul's."

"And there was no answer?" asked Peggy. All thoughts of Florence flew from her mind.

Paula shook her head.

Peggy looked at her watch. Almost six. "Excuse me. He'll probably hate me for this but I've got to know if he's okay." She removed her cell phone from her purse and walked down the passageway. It rang and rang, then his voice mail answered. Peggy left a brief message.

She returned to her seat, very silent. Kelly was talking about the gas tax, a popular topic of conversation in Seattle these days.

"People can be incredibly short-sighted when it comes to funding public projects," he said. "This business of so-called 'tax relief' is really a fraud. You pay a price for it. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually you pay a much bigger price than the few dollars in tax savings."

"Kelly, I've got to tell you about the club I'm trying to start," Peggy said. She was performing an amazing feat: words came out of her mouth that bore no relationship to the thoughts in her head. Where was Raoul?

"A club?" said Florence.

"I want to change people's attitudes about how we invest our resources. There's this wave of sentiment against long-term infrastructure projects." Is he ill? Is he hurt?

Peggy had no idea what she said next. People spoke, she replied mechanically.

The ferry docked on schedule. Peggy collected her things. The group said their customary good-byes. Peggy followed Paula across the pedestrian ramp to the terminal. She walked in silence. Thinking. At the end of the terminal, at the point where she would ordinarily continue over the foot bridge that led to 1st Avenue, she stopped.

Paula must have sensed it, because she stopped and turned. "Are you okay?"

"No. I'm worried sick. Actually, are you okay?"

"About what?" said Paula.

"Luke and Florence."

She dismissed him with a glance. "I have to work with him, so I'm being sociable. Beyond that, he really wasn't all that interesting. He's the male version of eye candy."

Peggy laughed. Then, without thinking, she hugged Paula. "I'm proud of you," Peggy said.

"Now it's my turn to ask. What are you going to do?"

Peggy pointed at the ferry. "I'm getting right back on that boat."

Paula's eyes widened.

"Yes. I've got to check on him. My stomach is tied up in knots. If I don't go I'll spend all day being sick about it."

"Do you want me to come with you?"

"Thanks. But I'll manage."

Now Paula hugged Peggy. "Good luck. Call me when you hear something."

They parted, and Peggy got back on the ferry to return to Bainbridge Island.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Part Sixty-Three

Peggy whistled to herself as she boarded the 6:20 a.m. ferry. She projected an air confidence and purpose. Above all she was not the least bit annoyed over the argument she had had with Raoul the previous evening.

Peggy relaxed when she saw only Paula. She could handle Paula, the others would pester her for details. She wasn't in the mood for explaining.

"I suppose the poor 5:20 ferry has permanently lost a passenger," said Peggy as she took her seat across from Paula.

"Actually, I think two passengers," Paula said.

Peggy frowned. She wanted to say, Well it has nothing to do with anything, but something in Paula's expression told her that she wouldn't get out of it that easily. "Okay," she said. "I suppose there are people I don't feel like seeing."

"But I thought Raoul wasn't riding the ferry anymore?" said Paula.

"Oh it's not him, not at all," said Peggy, thinking that her voice sounded unusually mouse-like.

Peggy poured tea while Paula picked up some knitting. The conversation with Raoul had gotten off track from the moment it began. It started at the kitchen counter, where Raoul was tossing roasted vegetables and pasta with oil and capers and fresh herbs. Raoul had made a big deal of putting the fresh marjoram and thyme in contact with the pasta while it still had just enough heat to release the flavors of the herbs.

"Smell that?" he had said, waving the aromatic steam toward his face.

"I'm thinking of starting a club," she blurted out.

"What are clubs? Do you have them with pasta?"

"No. I'm talking about an organization of people dedicated to a common purpose, ideally that is."

Raoul shook with laughter. "My mind was on food. I was trying to think of a food item called a club."

"Or should it be a newsletter? Maybe a club and a newsletter."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm getting ahead of myself."

"You're already miles ahead of me, but I'm getting used to that."

That made her pause, the way he said '…I'm getting used to that,' as though he enjoyed being used to that, enjoyed the feeling of being comfortable with her. It was true, she realized, they had grown comfortable with each other.

She recomposed herself as they sat down to eat. "I'm becoming very annoyed with the way things are going in our society."

"Join the club. Um, sorry, I wasn't trying to be funny."

"I know. But starting a club is a way of finding like-minded people who want to change the status quo."

"Agreed. You could convene a weekly breakfast group and discuss the issues of the day."

She gave him a stern look. "That's not what I had in mind. I don't want to chat about the ruination of society over blueberry muffins at the diner. I want action."

Raoul paused with a fork in the air. "I get it," he said quietly. "You want to make a difference."


"You're tired of the way things are and you want to change them."


"Starting with the Alaskan Way viaduct, I hope."

Pause. "I suppose that's a fair example."

"Good. In my opinion, that noisy, smelly monstrosity is the biggest wart in all of Seattle, and I can't believe people are quibbling over the few pennies per gallon of gas that it would take to build a tunnel and tear down the viaduct."

She banged the table with her fist. "Now you're talking. That's exactly what I've been saying. No one wants to think about investing for the long term. Imagine the waterfront without that raised highway. It would be wonderful."

"Every square foot of waterfront property would triple in value overnight." Then Raoul's eyes widened. "Maybe we should buy a condo before they build the tunnel."

Peggy started to disagree on conflict-of-interest grounds, then stopped. "We?."

"Uh, just a figure of speech. Can I get you more water?" He got up quickly to fill the water glasses, which didn't need refilling.

However, Peggy was not one to let words fall on the floor without notice. She decided to file that one away for further consideration.

"Okay," said Peggy. "I think you have the idea. Does that mean you're willing to help me organize my club? Or would you rather edit the newsletter?"

"Your club has one member and you're already launching a newsletter?"

"No. My club has two members."

He looked at her. "I see. I imagine the two members are at this table."

She placed her hand on his arm. "I need your help."

"You appear to be serious about this."


"In that case, you can count on me for legal advice."

"Thank you, but I want more than that. I need your involvement. You're a great organizer. You can help me get this thing off the ground."

"You need a mission statement."

"See what I mean! You think in terms of mission statements."

"But you're overlooking one thing: I'm not the activist type."

"It's never too late to start."

"I don't wish to start. I like not being an activist. I get to spend my evenings at home playing music and planning next year's potato garden. Kelly's really got me hooked on this potato thing."

"But how does that accomplish anything?" Peggy complained.

"It accomplishes the playing of music and the growing of potatoes. Do you think I have room for two long rows?"

"Don't ignore me, like I'm a schoolgirl."

"I would never do that."

"Then why aren't you taking me seriously?"

"Because you don't realize what you're up against."

"You forget that citizens have the power to change things."

"True, but you need a lot of citizens who don't mind paying more for gas in order to have a tunnel. What you are talking about comes down to expensive long term projects that are publicly funded and which do not, in general, get politicians reelected."

"We have to change hearts and minds."

"Now you're talking like a crusader. I'm not a crusader. I've outgrown those tendencies. Which reminds me, don't you have a birthday coming up?"

"I knew you were going to say that." She got up from the table. She put her hands on her hips, which she hadn't meant to do; it was involuntary. "I resent being labeled another flaky over-fifty airhead who wants to be immortal."

"You deserve no such label. You are not flaky and certainly not an airhead."

"Grrr. You know, you talk a good line, but deep down you are self-centered."

"I love the saying, 'All politics is local.' To me it means very local, like 'it's all about me.'"

She shook her head, then slumped back in her chair. She had promised herself that she would not get into a fight with Raoul over this. She must treat Raoul as merely the first naysayer, the first person she must convert to her cause. After all, if she can't talk one self-centered naysayer into it, then how could she hope to change millions of hearts and minds?

Peggy was lost in thought, pondering this, when Paula cleared her throat. Peggy looked up suddenly.

"It must have been really bad," said Paula.

"I wanted to start a club and I can't even recruit Raoul as the first member."

"Don't worry. Just do it and he'll be right there with you."

"How do you know that? He told me he wasn't a crusader."

"It doesn't matter. He'll do whatever you do. I think he loves you."

Peggy's jaw dropped, and then she spilled her tea. Her heart was beating so fast and loud she was sure the whole ferry could hear it.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Part Sixty-Two

Peggy had a plan. She mulled it over as she boarded the 6:20 a.m. ferry, telling herself it had nothing to do with her fifty-ninth birthday, which was just a couple of weeks away. I'm not one of those people who seek immortality, she told herself.

"What were they thinking?" Kelly fumed as Peggy found her usual seat. Paula was there. Peggy wondered why Paula and Kelly hadn't caught the 5:20 ferry.

"Good morning," Paula said.

"Good morning. You guys sleep in today?" She sat with a flurry of activity as she zipped open her backpack to retrieve her tea Thermos and some papers she wanted to read.

"I have to work late so I decided to go in later," said Kelly.

Paula studied a thread that appeared to be out of place on her skirt. Hmm, thought Peggy, trouble in paradise.

"Who committed a blunder this time, Kel?" Peggy asked.

"The entire U.S. House of Representatives," Kelly said as he turned the pages of his newspaper. "I blame all of them for not getting their collective heads out of their arses."

She paused. "I can think of a couple of events recently that fit that description. Which one has got your attention?"

"Just last week, the House approved a bill, by two votes, that would make it easier for oil companies to build new refineries."

"Ah, that's a good one," said Peggy.

"There won't be as much environmental oversight, they will be allowed to eliminate some grades of gasoline, they can use federal lands, such as closed military installations, without local consent. The list goes on. Who in their right mind would vote for new refineries when there won't be anything for them to refine in a few years?"

"They had to do serious arm twisting just to get the two-vote margin," said Peggy. "That shows you how bad it was."

Paula had a stern expression as she said, "Some people simply aren't capable of seeing past next week. That's why they support idiotic projects like that."

"And would one of those people be…"

"Luke? You guessed it." She shook her head with exasperation. "I took him to see a film called the End of Suburbia (, which tells the story of the growth of suburbs and how that whole way of life is totally dependent on cheap energy from fossil fuels. To me, and to anyone with half a brain, we need to get off of fossil fuels. Well, he must not meet the half-a-brain criteria because the first thing he starts talking about afterwards is how somebody has to do something about the price of gas." She slapped her high forehead. "Luke, wake up. There's not going to be any cheap gas. Those days are over. And then I told him my pet theory, that gasoline should really be, like, five dollars a gallon."

"Fine by me," said Kelly.

"And he thought I lost my marbles."

Peggy laughed.

Paula looked dejected. "We ended up having a big argument and, well, I must have scared him off or something because the very next evening he cancelled a date we had made. And guess where he went instead?"

"Back to Florence," said Peggy.

Paula's face looked like someone had carved it out of granite. "That woman must have some kind of radar that goes off whenever a man is even remotely available," she said.

This was a new side of her, Peggy realized; she had seemed a quiet and mild-mannered young lady who sewed herself a new skirt every weekend, but now she was on fire. It just shows that you don't really know people until something happens that really sets them off.

"I need to tell you about my secret plan," said Peggy.

Both Paula and Kelly looked at her with interest. It was still only half-formed in her mind, so she chose her words carefully.

"It's related to what you both are talking about. To me it's about how society is investing its resources. I got the idea while reading an article in yesterday's New York Times about the pumps that are used to keep floodwaters out of New Orleans. At one time it was a world class system of pumps and levees, but today they are still using pumps that were built in 1913. Oh, and by the way, some of the old pumps worked better than the new ones. So much for our engineering prowess. The real message in the article was how we are not investing in our infrastructure the way we once did."

"You can see that in the kinds of things cities spend money on these days," said Kelly.

"Exactly. They are more likely to spend money on some retail development project or new housing than on infrastructure," said Peggy.

"Infrastructure isn't sexy," said Paula.

"And it doesn't generate revenue," said Kelly.

"You've hit the nail on the head. It's all about revenue. It's all about bringing money in the door right now instead of investing in something with a long return on investment. Roads and schools and public transportation and alternative energy projects are all things that take a long time to pay off. But why is it our leaders have this near term mindset? Why are we so blinded by promises of increased revenue, usually from developers?"

Peggy felt herself tremble. She took a sip of her tea. They rode the ferry in silence, looking out of the window at the faint orange glow just appearing beyond the city.

"So what's the plan?" asked Kelly.

Peggy could hear the skepticism in his voice. "Honestly, I don't know. I have this vague notion of trying to change the culture. But I don't know how. I'm hoping Raoul will help me."

"Have you told him about it?" said Paula.

"Not really," said Peggy. "He was greatly affected by what we saw in New Orleans. His reaction has been to withdraw and play music and work in his garden. He's not the change-the-world type. He has a theory that people have a mid-life crisis every year after they turn fifty, and they dream of leaving their mark on the world."

Paula frowned. "That's kind of gloomy."

"I hope he's wrong." Peggy looked out of the window. This was one of those moments when she missed Taylor, her late husband. He would encourage her. Even if the task were hopeless, he would urge her to try. She felt a measure of strength from thinking of Taylor. She wanted to feel that same strength from Raoul.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Part Sixty-One

Peggy and Raoul went to New Orleans with Raoul's sister, Fran, to help the Lambert family recover from Hurricane Katrina. Fran's lifelong friend, Agnes Lambert, had died just before the storm.

Monday, Oct 3

Peggy noticed a striking fact during her first day in Agnes Lambert's neighborhood: she didn't meet a single person who wasn't totally preoccupied with some aspect of storm recovery. It was all anyone talked about. It was all they did.

Along the streets Peggy saw great heaps of soggy wallboard and insulation, rolls of muddy carpet, mattresses splotched with mold, linens and pillows stained black, various furniture parts eaten away by rot and mold. In some spots the pile of residue was higher than the house from which it had been removed. Cars competed with trash for parking spaces.

The high water mark in a house was plainly visible on contents that were piled in front of it: an ever-present band of dirt around the bottoms of sofas, recliners, desks, bookcases and appliances. Anything low to the ground was ruined. Pots and pans that had been in the lower levels of kitchen cabinets had become rusted scraps of metal. They were tossed onto the piles of trash along with toys, waterlogged stereos, swollen speakers, shoes, clothes and books.

And that wasn't all. The household debris was equally matched by tree trunks, branches, leaves and other natural storm residue.

"Who's going to pick this stuff up?" Peggy asked Annie as they returned from a trip to a coffee shop. Annie was one of Agnes Lambert's daughters.

"Jefferson Parish is supposed to be sending trucks around," said Annie. "Don't hold your breath." Then she paused. "On second thought, in some areas you must hold your breath."

"Have you noticed how similar all the piles of trash are?" said Peggy. "When your belongings are in your house where they are supposed to be, you think of them as being unique and personal. But when everything is wet and moldy and sitting in a heap in your front yard, then it's just trash."

Annie looked at her. "I suppose it's comforting to know that your trash is just as trashy as your neighbor's."

Peggy laughed, then stopped herself. "Forgive me for seeing humor in this."

"We've got to laugh at something."

Peggy held styrofoam cups of iced coffee in her lap while Annie drove the car back to Agnes's house. It was a hot, bright afternoon.

"So how have you been holding up?" Peggy asked Annie, who had a permanent look of tiredness in her expression.

"The kids finally went back to school today," she said. "That's a relief. But now they have this crazy schedule because their school is sharing classroom space with a high school in town that can't reopen. I don't know how those big high school kids are going to fit in those little desks. But whatever. My kids go in real early and come home early. Everything is chaotic. The mail still isn't being delivered. The phones don't work right, it takes twenty minutes of trying to get through to anybody."

Peggy was thinking of something to say when Annie said, "But you have to be careful who you complain to."

"Why?" asked Peggy.

"Because there's always somebody who's got it worse. Jeanette, for example, lived in Lakeview and lost everything. She's really feeling down about this."

"Where is she staying?"

"She's at my house with her kids. Her husband got reassigned to Baton Rouge and my husband's in Houston. It's a pain but we're happy to still have jobs."

"I believe you had a job as well, didn't you?" said Peggy.

"I was a dental hygienist, but there's absolutely no work. Nobody cares about their teeth at the moment. So I got laid off."

"Sorry to hear that. Did you get any storm damage?" asked Peggy.

Annie shook her head. "We live in River Ridge, which stayed dry."

They were stopped at an intersection and Peggy saw what was becoming a familiar sight: dozens of temporary signs advertising storm-related services. Katrina had become a cottage industry. If you needed mold treatment or carpet removed or your roof repaired or a fallen tree chopped up, then all you had to do was drive to the nearest corner and write down some phone numbers. You could also buy new appliances, get your car repaired or hire a lawyer to sue the government.

When Peggy and Annie got back to the house with the iced coffee Raoul came out to greet them wearing the standard uniform of the day: yellow rubber gloves, face mask and white coverings over his shoes. The pile in front of the house had grown larger with the addition of a chair with a moldy seat cushion and a ruined television stand.

"We're making progress," he said.

She handed him an iced coffee. "I suppose we measure progress by the size of the trash pile," said Peggy.

Raoul paused and glanced up and down the street at the growing piles of debris. "As bad as this is, I'm told that it's nothing compared to what's within the city itself."

"That's exactly what Annie was just telling me."

Annie chimed in from behind them as she put her cell phone away. "As a matter of fact you'll get the grand tour. That was Jeanette. The city is saying they'll let Lakeview residents go in tomorrow. She would like us to come with her."

"I imagine there will be lots to clean," said Raoul.

Annie shielded her eyes from the glaring sun. "Actually, there won't be anything to clean. My brother, Hulie, has been telling us about it. He's a contractor, so he's had to go into the worst areas on survey teams and he said that the neighborhoods that have been underwater for several weeks are like dead zones. He doesn't think there will be anything salvageable. I think Jeanette just wants company."

Peggy felt a certain weariness sink in as she ventured back into Agnes's house. She had been hoping the musty, moldy smell would magically go away, but it broke over her in waves as she stepped into the wrecked interior. The floors were bare concrete, the wood framing was exposed in the walls following the removal of the lower four feet of wallboard and insulation. The kitchen and bathroom cabinets were in the process of being carted out by Raoul. The smell of bleach mingled with mold and dust. The refrigerator still worked, and everyone had heaped loads of praise on Peggy for having the presence of mind to clean out the refrigerator and freezer when they evacuated before the storm.

Peggy donned her face mask and returned to her sorting task with Annie and Fran. It was one thing to go through storm-damaged property and sort good from bad, and fume over the indiscriminate nature of natural disasters. It was tragic, it seemed, that those awful coasters from Niagara Falls survived while your favorite recording of Pablo Casals didn't. But in the case of the Lambert family, the survivors also had to make decisions about passing on their departed mother's belongings. Agnes had not left detailed instructions in her will. It was up to the family members to agree on who gets this or that item. One problem they faced is that the very people who wanted certain items were in no position to take them.

"Jeanette wants the old rocker," said Annie to her sister Shirley over the phone. "...I know she can't take it now, she wants someone to hold it... I don't have room and neither does Hulie... she can't afford to store it, and besides do you have any idea what it's like trying to get a storage unit around here? I called a few places and they laughed at me... Why don't you give her the dishes in exchange for the rocker? Talk to her, she needs dishes, she needs everything... Good luck...Bye."

Peggy had suggested gathering like items together, thinking that it would make the choosing of keepsakes easier. Annie liked that idea and within a few hours they had sorted several boxes of memorabilia. One was a box of Christian crosses collected during Agnes's travels to holy sites with her husband. Another box contained shot glasses and beer glasses, many from the same cities and towns as the crosses. One large box was filled with refrigerator magnets. "We're going to establish a rule for these magnets," Annie declared. "Whoever gave it to Mom gets it back."

Fran had compiled a box with nothing but menus and match books from restaurants. "Look at this one," said Fran. "It's from the Camellia Grill. Agnes and I used to go there when we were at Tulane together."

"I have a great story about the Camellia Grill," said Annie. "My Mom and Dad went there a lot when they were dating, and one of the guys behind the counter was a tall man who was bald on top and had black hair on the sides and black-rimmed glasses. He was a real character. Twenty-five years later when my husband and I were dating we went to Camellia Grill all the time because we lived Uptown and that same man was still working there, still telling jokes and carrying on five conversations at once."

"What a timeless place," said Peggy.

Hulie arrived in his pickup truck late in the afternoon.

"What's all that junk in the back of your truck?" Annie asked when they had all gone outside for a break.

"You wouldn't believe what people are throwing away. That's a perfectly good refrigerator," said Hulie.

"But it probably had rotten food in it," said Annie.

"There was a couple of old cucumbers. I hosed it out and sprayed it with bleach. Good as new. You see, it's a Subzero, with the motor and all the electrical components mounted on top. Nothing critical got wet."

"That's disgusting."

"Check out this lawnmower. It started right up once I drained the water out of the crankcase. And look, somebody threw out these solid cypress beams because they were underwater," said Hulie, holding up some lengths of board.

"Do you think maybe they are moldy and rotten?" said Annie.

"This is cypress. It grows in water."

"Well I say if you have space for all that junk then maybe you should store some of Mom's stuff for Jeanette."

"I don't have space. I'm selling this stuff. I already have a buyer for the fridge, and I know somebody who can use the cypress."

Peggy considered this as she looked at the growing pile in front of Agnes's house. "Do you think we're throwing away salvageable items?" she asked.

Hulie shook his head as he surveyed the heap. "So far we haven't thrown away anything made of solid wood. Wood is more durable than people think. What is not durable is all this particle board crap. When it gets wet it expands like a sponge."

Peggy made a note to herself: buy solid wood furniture if you live in a flood plain.

In the evening they gathered for dinner at Annie's house. "Chicken and rice is about all I can manage," she declared. It was generally noisy with everyone talking at once, but Jeanette was silent and brooding. Everyone knew what was on her mind. It was useless to try to talk about other things, because there was only one thing.

Tuesday, Oct 4

The next morning, after the children had been deposited at their respective schools, Raoul loaded up Annie's car with boots, gloves and face masks. Hulie picked up Jeanette in his truck and the group made its away across Metairie toward the Orleans Parish line.

As they attempted to cross into the city limits they were stopped by a National Guardsman who explained that the Mayor of New Orleans had announced earlier in the day that residents would not be allowed in.

Peggy could see Jeanette leaning over Hulie to talk to the guard.

"She must be furious," Annie said.

Finally Hulie made a u-turn and Annie followed. Then Hulie turned down another street and drove through a rundown neighborhood that bordered the 17th Street canal.

"This is known as Bucktown," said Annie. "Hulie's going to try to get in the back way."

When they reached the Bucktown bridge that crossed the canal a military guard waved them through without stopping.

"Isn't that typical?" said Annie. "Nobody knows what's really going on around here."

Peggy was not prepared for the sight that greeted her when they crossed the canal into Lakeview. If Metairie and Kenner had seemed like the edge of a war zone, this was ground zero.

The streets and sidewalks were covered with dried, cracked mud. There was not a blade of grass in sight. The entire place had one color: brown. It looked to Peggy like someone had drained a lake and uncovered an ancient civilization at the bottom of it.

The houses were muddy up to a point just above the doorway. Peggy was shocked to realize what this meant: the water had risen to the ceilings in these homes.

House after house, submerged. Lawns and gardens, dead.

They rode in silence, too stunned to speak. The streets were empty except for one or two recovery crews. No one paid any attention to them as they slowly rounded a corner and headed toward Jeanette's house.

Peggy had the sensation that they should not be there. City officials were right to keep people out, she thought. It was not inhabitable.

Jeanette's house was like the others. Front door spray-painted with orange hieroglyphics, a dirty line above the door indicating the high water mark.

With an air of resignation, Jeanette donned her yellow gloves and approached the house.

She peeked through a broken window and then pushed hard on the door to get it to budge. She stepped into the place that had been her home.

As Peggy followed the others she felt something squishy beneath her boots. She was sickened to realize that, under the dead leaves and tree branches, the yard was coated with a thick layer of black sludge. She tried not to think of exactly what it contained, but she knew it was indistinguishable from sewage.

The moment she peeked into the front door Peggy realized that she had never seen a house that had been submerged in water. It looked as though the contents had floated, and then simply fell into a pile in the middle of the room when the water drained out. All the furniture was turned over and covered with mud: a television, a futon, a cabinet with doors, a wet pile of blankets and pillows. On top of the television rested a few pots and pans from the kitchen.

Annie pointed to a ceiling light fixture caked with mud. "That used to be white."

In the kitchen the refrigerator rested sideways on the table. The sink and countertops were covered with slime. The floor had two inches of mud on it.

Peggy heard Jeanette cry out from a back room. The attic door was hanging open and she had spotted a couple of boxes that appeared to be okay. Raoul fetched them from the attic and handed them to Peggy, who passed them through the window to Fran. Later, when they were all outside, Jeanette removed her gloves and opened a box. It contained Christmas decorations. She laughed and cried at the same time. "My husband never liked these ornaments, but I loved them because they were so corny, so typical of New Orleans."

Peggy walked around the house into the backyard. It was dead and brown. On the back porch was a layer of dried, cracked mud. Two giant trees were uprooted. A garden that she guessed once contained lush greenery was now dead and brown.

In the end, Jeanette had no interest in removing anything else from the house. "As far as I'm concerned they can bulldoze it," she said, holding the box of ornaments tightly. Peggy detected, not sadness, but relief. Jeanette no longer had to wonder about her house. She knew. It was gone. A phase of her life, one that included a mother and a house, had come to an abrupt end.

They left Lakeview. They had seen enough. Peggy felt a headache coming on. She drank water and detected the stench of Jeanette's house lingering in her clothes and hair.

On the way back to Annie's, Hulie led them on a detour to a farm stand in St. Rose, down River Road, west of New Orleans.

"I heard he had opened back up," said Hulie. "We need a return to normal around here."

Peggy stood with Fran and looked at the long green levee that ran between River Road and the Mississippi River. A fresh breeze touched their faces.

"There. Feel that?" said Fran. "That balmy breeze. That smell of flowers and moisture. That's the Louisiana I remember. It's still here."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Part Sixty

"You guys aren't being very creative," complained Raoul. "We want more, uh, color."

Peggy smiled to herself as she sipped a glass of white wine with her legs curled beneath her on the floor of Raoul's living room. He was so cute when he was really focused on something. Outside it was a gray, wet Saturday afternoon. Autumn leaves careened through the air and splattered against the windows, decorating the glass with dots of gold, red and brown. A small fire burned in the wood stove.

Raoul was attempting to collaborate with members of his musical group on some song lyrics. Peggy had met them all at previous gatherings. There was Ted, who played lute, and Xena, who played viola da gamba and sang in a mellow alto voice. Xena's granddaughter, Laura, played bass recorder.

"Raoul, maybe you should play the recording again," said Laura. "We might be inspired."

"Maybe you should serve more wine," said Xena, peering into her empty glass.

Peggy passed a bottle of rioja to Xena. As she poured, the stream of dark wine threw off a purple tint as it splashed into her glass.

"Okay, here's Ella Fitzgerald singing the famous Cole Porter song, Let's Do It." Raoul pushed a button on his stereo. "Could we all pay attention this time?"

"Give that man some wine," said Xena.

(Sorry, there was once a link here but it is no longer available.)

Raoul was trying to win a contest. A Seattle public radio station, KPLU, had invited listeners to write their own original verses to Let's Do It. Five entries were going to be selected and sung on the radio by jazz singer Karrin Allyson. The winners would also be treated to dinner at Jazz Alley.

As Peggy listened, a thought came to her and she began to scribble on a pad. When the music was over she cleared her throat.

"How does this sound? I can't sing of course, but it would go something like this..."

'Roos in zoos do it
Maybe in twos with kazoos they do it.
Let's do it. Let's fall in love.

"I love it," said Raoul.

Xena swallowed a sip of wine hurriedly. "Wait, you just inspired me. How about this..." With a lilting, husky voice she sang.

In Kentucky they race to it.
With a mint julep or three they brace through it.
Let's do it. Let's fall in love.

Ted frowned. "I don't know if my lute can do it."

"Of course it can," said Peggy. "If you can."

Ted blushed and started plucking and stretching the strings to find those in-between notes that no renaissance lute player would dream of looking for. But then again, thought Peggy, we weren't there.

Raoul looked at his watch. "What's keeping Kelly Flinn? I need his warped sense of humor at a time like this."

Laura raised a piece of paper timidly. "This is so silly, but here goes..."

Crusty crustaceans and their pals do it.
Even croaking frogs hop to it.
Let's do it. Let's fall in love.

"It'll work," said Raoul. "With this audience you've got to get the environmental angle in somehow."

"What's going on here?" Kelly Flinn entered. "I had to let myself in because no one answered the door."

Xena handed him the rioja. "I'm Xena. Have some wine and put on your thinking cap."

"In that order?" said Kelly, reaching for a glass. "I'm Kelly Flinn." He and Xena shook hands, lingering, Peggy noticed, just a tiny fraction of a second longer than necessary. Then Raoul introduced Kelly to the others.

"We're writing song lyrics," said Raoul. He explained the project and played the Ella Fitzgerald recording for the fourth time.

(Sorry, there was once a link here but it is no longer available.)

"I remember that tune," said Kelly. "Hmm. Wait. Wait. Something comes to mind. You know me, I can't resist the political angle."

"Seems we're covering all the angles," said Peggy.

Raoul looked at her, puzzled at first, and then the light came on. "That has more meanings than I can count."

"I will not volunteer to sing this," said Kelly, holding up a scrap of paper with several cross-outs in heavy pencil.

"I'll see if I can make something of it," said Xena. Ted provided a rhythmic accompaniment on lute while Laura laid down a bluesy bass line on her recorder. Raoul chimed in with his alto recorder. To Peggy's ears they started to sound like a jazz band.

In the Senate they call the roll.
The White House likes to take a poll.
Eventually they resolve to do it. Or not.
Let's do it. Let's fall in love.

Everyone had a good laugh. "I knew Kel would come through."

"It's my natural cynicism," said Kelly.

"I think we need to record this while our inhibitions are down," said Peggy. She got a blank tape loaded while Raoul positioned a microphone. Xena sang through all the verses while the musicians varied the accompanied and worked in a few solos. Peggy and Kelly sat on the floor and provided an audience. She noticed that Kelly seemed mesmerized with Xena's singing.

"You have rich, warm quality to your voice," said Kelly when they were munching on goat cheese and rice crackers topped with bits of smoked salmon.

"Thank you," said Xena. "It was a completely different voice forty years ago."

"It has aged well," said Kelly.

Peggy loaded her napkin with food and hurried away. She found Laura and Ted making plans to attend an early music concert in Seattle during the coming week. They invited Peggy and Raoul to join them.

"As a matter of fact, Raoul and I are going to be out of town this week," said Peggy. She felt her mood suddenly turn gloomy. It was not expected to be a pleasant trip.

"I didn't know you were taking a trip," said Ted.

"Neither did I," said Raoul. "It came up at the last minute. My sister, Fran, has decided to go to New Orleans to help an old friend clean up after the storm. She asked me to come with her."

"And I invited myself," said Peggy.

"I tried to talk her out of it," said Raoul.

"But I insisted. Fran is going to fall apart when she sees the mess down there. Besides, I've met the family and I know they will be busy cleaning up their own homes."

Raoul shrugged. "As you can see I've been out voted."

Peggy giggled without meaning to. "I just thought of another verse."

People making cakes do it.
People jumping into lakes do it.
Some people don't even try to do it.

Xena joined Peggy and they put their heads together.

Let's do it. Let's fall in love.

Then they took a bow.