Book Review: The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead
Anchor Books

A nuanced portrait of a young Black man’s survival in racist America.

This is a compelling, timely story about a Black boy unjustly swept into a reform school that is worse than it appears on the surface. Elwood, the protagonist, is clearly drawn as an innocent youth who wants to advance in life through hard work and education.

As a reader, you get the sense early that Elwood is going to know hard times, and the sudden turn that lands him jail doesn’t come as a surprise: you’ve been waiting for it. When he arrives at the institution, his situation worsens beyond his own expectation, but the reader can sense what’s coming. A nice bit of dissonance in that. A plot turn opens up the possibility for things to start going his way, and there are more setbacks for Elwood and other characters that keep the story rolling until we come to the first resolution.

The narrator has fun telling the story and allows himself some gallows humor and nuanced observations about what’s going on. It’s a quick, lively read with patterns of long and short sentences. There’s a fatalism about Elwood’s prospects, an acceptance that he, like other young Black men, will get uniformly screwed by the system and yet persist. It is a persistent reminder about racism for privileged readers.

There is a clever story twist at the end that wasn’t apparent to me until it was revealed. This brought the narrative together with a kind of inevitability, and it also made more sense of its structure.

This is one of those novels that starts with a prologue that’s more like an epilogue. The narrative switches back and forth a bit toward the end. You get used to it, but it’s never clear to me whether this actually makes the read better than just starting at the beginning and moving to the end.

The story bogged down in description at times, i.e., when Elwood arrives at the reformatory, we get a detailed account of the layout. Not sure if the narrator could not have taken us closer to his protagonist’s thinking.

This is among the best novels I’ve read in the past year: a journey over somewhat familiar terrain that was well worth my investment. It was significantly more credible to me than the other coming-of-age story about a young Black man that I read earlier this year.

Book Review: Roadside Americans

Jack Reid
University of North Carolina Press

A scholarly work examining how hitchhiking in America changed over a 60-year period as a result of shifting economic conditions and changes in social cohesiveness.

Reid delivers a thoroughly researched examination of hitchhiking in America through six periods in the 20th century. His work is based heavily on popular accounts published in newspapers and other periodicals. These sources include both opinion pieces and news articles, though the former seem to get more focus as one of the author’s goals is to map shifting popular opinion about hitchhiking.

There is an extensive bibliography of published books and film, though this seemed to get less attention in the text. The author does a good job describing the shifting political, economic and social context over the study period: 1928-1988.

Reid observes that economic conditions are a major factor in the popular acceptance of hitchhiking, both among those seeking rides and those giving them. In the Depression and during Word War II, fewer people had cars, so hitchhiking was more accepted. During periods of prosperity, hitchhiking is less popular – with the exception of the 1960s, when many young people took it up as a lifestyle choice.

Reid also notes that there were differing moral/social views of hitchhiking across all six periods. There always seem to be some people who think it reflects laziness and moral lapse. And there have always been supporters who see in the practice independence, self-reliance and willingness to engage with others. In prosperous times, the risks of hitchhiking take more weight.

These conclusions are intuitive enough, and the author asserts them over and over throughout the book. The conclusions seem obvious and their repetition gets tedious at times, at least for a lay reader. For anyone who grew up hitchhiking in the 1960s, this book will provide little new insight about the activity. It may be more useful for those who have never done put their thumb out for a ride, picked up a hitcher or been on the road during one of its heydays.

The book is greatly enhanced by photographs that appear to come from the public record. More would be better. The type is excruciatingly small. There is a typo on page 1, the worst place for it.

The narrative is strongest when Reid reports first-hand accounts by hitchhikers. And he ends with a tantalizing observation: that climate change and a reviving social consciousness may lead to a shift in public perception and renewed interest in hitchhiking.


Book Review: A Children’s Bible

Children of a failing generation take on catastrophic challenges in a hellish summer vacation.

Millet’s clean and flawless prose is replenishing, along with the revised sensibility and wit of her narrator. It’s the kind of book you’re really glad to read, even as the story spirals from a warm and carefree holiday to a grim, inevitable reckoning. We start with a collection of children in various stages of mocking and disengaging from their parents. A slow and inevitable disaster approaches, bringing ruin ruin on everyone – us (the children) and them (the parents). Another big story turn that accelerates the separation, a period of bliss followed by an even bigger disaster, man-made.

This is a dark novel laced generously with light moments and the good guys doing wonderful and endearing things. It’s not a particularly easy read for a baby boomer. The distribution of virtue is not even close to evenly split between the two generations.

Three things I liked:

  1. Captivating tone and prose style. Millet knows how to tell a story with just enough detail and reflection to keep the pages turning. This could be read in one day.
  2. The theme and subtext emerge gradually and naturally from the characters and their story. It comes as no surprise on p140 (about 2/3rds of the way through) when she says: “What people wanted to be, but never could, travelled along beside them.”
  3. It’s just plain fun to have a cast of children showing such disdain for their parents.

Three things that gave me pause:

  1. Not sure about the explicit diagramming of one character’s interpretation of the Bible (p142). Not because it doesn’t make sense, but because it feels too much like the author (not the narrator) using the story to make a point. The resolving twist is the ultimate deux ex machina move for a novelist, but it works.
  2. One spot where the fancy writing left me scratching my head: “Coastal flood warnings and severe flood warnings – it seemed like a word salad in a clean red font.” (p73)
  3. The cover/print job. It’s a cool cover but the dust jacket sure seems to be miscut by the printer (the top of “A” is cropped off). And the title on the hardcover spine isn’t aligned right vertically. If there’s a message in these graphics, I missed it. Seems a little sloppy for a featured book by a well-known author from one of the big NYC publishing houses.


Review: Black Buck

Mateo Askaripour

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

An unambitious young black man is suddenly possessed by the need to succeed in a white-dominated tech start-up, a journey that leads him far from his roots and eventually to a more engaged, sharing life.

Buck isn’t the first-person narrator’s born name. It’s what the white people call him at the tech start-up where he drinks the corporate Kool aid – the whole pitcher. He slowly abandons his roots: an ailing mother, a beloved “uncle,” friends from the street and his life-long girlfriend.

It’s not a pretty process. Askaripour has given us a somewhat charming protagonist who does as much as he can to make us not like him.

Buck is treated badly by white people until he is accepted into the corporate culture which means, you might guess, abandoning all the values he’s brought to the job. A white savior is involved, though an imperfect one, and Buck eventually betrays his trust. In the end, he tries to recycle what he’s learned to level the capitalist playing field.

The novel is a professionally complete mass-market publication. The plot moves relentlessly, almost fast enough to make you accept its less-credible moments. Like the bucket of white paint. Askaripour does a masterful job alternating between “street” language and contemporary corporate-speak. It’s a first-person narrative that goes one step beyond to include separate addresses to the reader in a designated format.

There is a good deal of humor that mostly works, though it goes lame in places and foul (p191) in a few. The secondary characters play key parts in the story and are well drawn. Buck takes many characters for granted and at face value, even missing the fact that his mother (whom he lives with) is dying. As a reader, you can see through this a bit, but if the narrator/protagonist takes secondary characters for granted, why shouldn’t the reader?

And at several turns the story didn’t ring true and reminded me I was reading a novel. I wasn’t sure why Buck suddenly grabbed for the golden ring and left everything behind, what he’s doing that leads to his great success, or why he starts to come to his senses. Creating a thoroughly credible fictional world is difficult and requires a co-conspirator: the reader. I was there most of the time with Black Buck.

These ants won’t stop

The pilgrimage has settled for the day in Fallon. They have taken two rooms; David intends to sleep in the car again. He is with Roslyn and Elke in the room the two women will share. He wants to use their shower.

Roslyn, in fact, has been thinking she would take a shower and has been waiting for David to leave. She doesn’t like the idea of climbing into the stall after he’s used it but she is slightly beguiled by his oddity and looks to Elke, shrugging why not. He retreats to the bathroom, and soon the women are listening to shower music behind a closed door.

“Do you don’t think he’s gay?” Elke asks.

Roslyn says she doesn’t think so, finds herself considering joining David in the shower.

Elke changes gears, adjusts her position on the bed, and asks Roslyn where that story came from.

“I must have heard it at home or bible class or someplace.” When she was telling it, Roslyn felt as though she was performing again, speaking lines written for her by someone else, words meant for an audience but not for her.

“I didn’t know you came from a church family.”

“Oh, yeah. I was a good Christian girl, loved by Daddy and Mommy and Jesus. Then I became forsaken.” She goes on to tell Elke it started with rock and roll, falling in a secular crowd at school, sneaking off to dances. Then college and coming home at Thanksgiving full of ideas.

“I was so fucking stupid. I thought I had found something my folks would want to learn about. But the more I said, the more determined Daddy got and should have seen it coming.” Remembering it and not for the first time. “I sensed I was crossing a frontier but didn’t understand it until I was on the sidewalk with a suitcase and $87 is cash my mother put in my pocket when he wasn’t watching.”

“They threw you out?”

“I had a chance to repent, to plead for forgiveness.” David starts warbling a scratchy and waterlogged rendition of Almost Cut My Hair. “But, you know, it’s damn hard to do that with a man who doesn’t understand the first thing about Jesus.”

Roslyn doesn’t tell Elke that she has been musing about nunneries, which is probably how that story leaked into her script. She knows it’s just a romantic fantasy. Not feasible. She can’t give up her solitary life – the only thing that allowed her to survive in the adult industry – to join a commune ruled by … well, she doesn’t know who runs those places. Getting to know Jesus again, at least at arm’s length, has faint allure, if only as a silent revenge on her Daddy’s sin. She isn’t willing to give up shaving her legs and armpits for him or Him.

“You told me once that you could do anything with any man.”

“I guess there are some limits,” Roslyn says. Someday she might reclaim her sexuality as hers, not a wholly owned business subsidiary. She has become an objective expert on sex, an engineer or clinician, as much with the actors Lola performed with as for those watching from the shadows. During her career she’d never fucked anyone for pleasure, but she used her off hours to study how people – men and women – respond to Roslyn. The moment Elke came up to her table in that diner, Roslyn knew she was a closet admirer, maybe not gay, but drawn to the flame. She could own Hendrik, even if she didn’t vamp it up. For all his bluster, he is intimidated, afraid to look her in the eye. They would make a boring porn scene, she thinks.

David emerges, fully clothed, wet hair splayed all over his head, scrubbing it with a towel, and asks if he can borrow someone’s toothbrush. “Mine’s in the car,” he explains.

Roslyn gets up from the bed and rummages in her toiletries. “You don’t have a social disease, right?” handing him the toothbrush and toothpaste. A blank look in his face.

“Is this how you get one?” he asks, waiting for her to complete the handoff.

He’s forced a laugh from her, a small and reflexive one, and returns to the bathroom.

Here you go Ants fans

There is someone else in the boxcar kicking the soles of Jesse’s feet. Jenna is just stirring. A beefy man towers over him, kicks him again. “Get the hell out of my train,” he yells, his voice amplified by the hard walls and floor of the empty freight car.

The man bends down, grabs Jesse by the collar, hauls him roughly to his feet. Jesse tries to break free but cannot. The cuffs him above his ear with an open palm. He is very strong, stronger than Father before he died. Jesse is wrestled to the open doors of the box car. It’s light outside, though the ground is in shadows. The man grabs the back of his collar with one hand and the waistband of his trousers with the other and then Jesse is airborne, thrown out of the train car. He puts his hands in front of him instinctively and crashes fiercely into the ground. His hat flies a few feet away and he scrambles to fetch it. His palms burn where he applied the brakes, his chin had collided with the earth. Rises to his feet, hat in hand now, turns to see Jenna being shoved from the edge of the boxcar, pitched forward, her arms flailing but she manages to land on her feet, stumble a few steps forward.

“Fucking bums.” The man jumps down from the train, landing on both feet. “It’ll be worse if I catch you again.” He tries to kick Jenna but she scrambles away. “Fucking bums.”

Jesse wants vengeance. He starts toward the man, who stands hands on hips, bouncing on his heels, taunting him. Jenna stops him, pulls his elbow away, away from the train and the man who would probably enjoy a good kid-thrashing on such a morning. Jesse knows he could not hurt this man, that Jenna is saving him from himself but pulling him away. He doesn’t want to accept this defeat, this admission, the man’s superiority over him, his laughing disdain.

It makes it worse. But he turns in shame and follows her.

They run toward the town. People are out in the morning light – not many, this is a declining railroad town in the Great Basin – and a handful of cars. Jesse runs ahead, looking for safety. He looks over his shoulder to make sure Jenna is still with him and sees she was hobbling, struggling to keep up.

He stops running. Across the street, a bench next to a building with a U.S. flag flying overhead. He points her to it and she sits immediately, leans forward and begins to rub her knee.

He feels the burning in his palms more, scraped by the fall. There are so many places away from home that he doesn’t recognize, doesn’t understand their purpose.

“What is this place,” he asked.

“Let me rest a minute.”

He walks a few feet to a sign at the front of the building. He has been often told he is not a good reader and doesn’t trust himself to say the words correctly. “You read it Jenna.”

She gets up slowly. She wants to rest, but wants to help. “It’s a library.”

The only library they have ever seen is the room in the school, where some of the books had parts torn out of them. It was an uncomfortable place for him, a tomb of magic he would never understand.

She takes his forearm, leading him to the door. She is fearless, he thinks, but he is still anxious about going inside. It’s not a place for him.

No one seems to be around. There is a fireplace on one side of the room with a two-person sofa in front of it. Some pillows on the floor. And beyond, tall shelves of books. It feels like a small house that’s been taken over by books.

A woman appears from the stacks, asking warmly if they need any help. There is no way Jesse is going to try to explain what they’re doing there.

“Can we read these books,” his sister asks.

“Of course.” She is very friendly for someone they don’t even know. “That’s what they’re here for.” The woman goes to a desk near the entrance, leaving them alone. He follows Jenna into the stacks of books, marveling at the mystery of them, and they all seem to be different. There may no other like them anywhere, he imagines, and then Jenna finds the rest room, and she goes in first while he stands guard.

It’s his turn. He relieves himself, splashes water on his face and contorts to drink straight from the spigot in the sink. His hands still hurt, but he feels a lot better.

Jenna picks out a book and they sit together in front of the fireplace. It is a marvelous story about a boy who walks home on Mulberry Street, filled with wonderful pictures. He has never contemplated anything so amazing and he makes her read it to him three times, each time hearing something different in it. He asks her to teach him some of the words. It was one of the best hours of his life, making it one of the best days of his life, even with getting tossed from a train.

By and by, a small tide of young mothers and their children streams into the library to sit around in kid-sized chairs for story time. Jesse listens, with his sister, captivated as much by the spectacle of moms and kids sharing this experience together with books as by the stories themselves, which were good but, frankly, not of Mulberry Street caliber.

Jenna says they had better be moving along. He doesn’t want to leave their nest before the unlit library fireplace, but he follows to return the last book they’ve been looking at. Near the woman’s desk there is a shelf of very large books. Jenna pulls one out. He has never seen such an enormous book, it must be two feet high and almost as wide. She puts it on the floor, kneels down, and opens it up.

It is full of maps. Jenna finds her way through them to a page that she settles on.

“Shut the front door,” she says under her breath, looks up at him, crooks her finger. Jesse kneels beside her. She puts her finger on a spot and says it’s where they are, and then traces a line from right to left and onto the next page and all the way across it and then turns the page and goes halfway across that one.

“This is Sacramento.”


This relates to the image at the top of the blog

The farm lane dead-ends into another. They turn left. The interstate is now some distance off; she can no longer hear it, but she can see traffic rolling somberly along in rows, like mourners at a funeral that happened long ago and far away. The road surface beneath her feet turns to reddish gravel, cutting across a barren plain studded with shadscale and tangled mountain mahogany toward a distant, low-slung hill. Confronted with another T intersection, she turns right, to the west and further away from the interstate, the scene of her humiliation. Walking determinedly, Jenna tries to persuade herself that the woman had not been badly hurt. She has calmed down, tells herself she will have to be careful.

The road slides along the edge of an alkali flat and then into a valley. A bluff of red rock hangs over layers of chalky rock. Before long, they come to a sign that points to dinosaur tracks. Neither of the runaways has ever heard of dinosaurs. The elders tore those sections out of their school textbooks. Along with other bits.

They continue to a place where two bald ridges, several stories high, converge to form a V through which the road passes to a plain on the other side. There is a trail along the roadside with signs explaining that Parowan Gap features one of the largest collections of native rock art in America, a complex system that combines a uniquely aligned natural environment with petroglyphs carved thousands of years ago. Jenna is a good reader, but this information makes little sense to her.

Jenna knows that God will resurrect the good Indians who were killed by bad white people. In return for their salvation, the Indians will protect the Latter-Day Saints, God’s chosen people. In the last days, the arisen Indians will be set loose to get their revenge on the bad white people who ruined Paradise. The Indians will join with the Chosen and become the foundation of a new age of peace.

One of her favorite games as a young girl was apocalypse, a version of hide-and-seek with cosmological overtones. The children would dash about looking for places to hide from the forces of evil that were being unleashed upon them. Just as all appeared lost, and warplanes began to bomb and strafe the children, the resurrected Indians would come to their rescue.

For about 30 minutes, Jesse and Jenna ran laughing and exploring hiding places among the petroglyphs of Parowan Gap on a gentle April mid-day, until they were inevitably rescued by righteous Indians. This went so well that they decided to go back to the dinosaur tracks, which were more secluded, a little further away from the road. When they got there, they nestled down in soft grass and warm breezes flowing across pink cliffrose flowers toward the gap.

They fell asleep with the knowledge that they had been saved, again, from the apocalypse.

From a revision in progress (Feb 2020)

This is the first draft of a new scene in Ants.

Raquel was the first to wake up. She and Gina shared a two-bedroom suite at the hot springs resort. It was the fanciest, most luxurious place Raquel had ever been. She felt out of place. As she had at the hot pool the night before in her old bathing suit. She hoped she wouldn’t have to do that again. Gina was the only one she felt comfortable enough to be like that, so exposed. She would go back to the Walden in a heartbeat, but she couldn’t do that by herself. Raquel slipped out of bed quietly, put on the thick bathrobe and padded into the bathroom. Undid the robe in front of the huge mirror over the sinks, turned to take off her pajamas and stepped behind the curtain. Lathering, she thought of showering with Gina in the tiny stall at their room in the Walden, a slippery being with four arms and legs, active mouths. Drying off in the harsh light, she remembered her mother’s disapproval, her admonition to abandon this foolish relationship, to find a kind man who would be a good father for her children. Someone like Raul, she thought, except the Rauls of the world end up with pretty girls like Claudine and Gina. Not with girls with scars. Raquel leaned toward the mirror, focusing on the marks left on the right side of her face by an untimely launch of home-made fireworks. It’s okay when I look this way, she told herself for the millionth time, turning her good side to the mirror.

Gina was outside, waiting in her bathrobe for a turn at the shower. You could have come and been with me, Raquel said. There was only an awkward grimace from Gina, who rose and followed the footprints into the bathroom, warm and humid when she would have preferred it fresh and dry. She used the toilet, adding a new funk. Took her shower, dreading the long car ride ahead, to the other side of the desert, according to Steve. He thinks he can get them to stay together, Gina thought, but he’s wrong. Claudine has already left David, already looking at new conquests. Raul, maybe. Not that she cared what happened to him, but she was sure Claudine would chew Raul up and spit him out. Gina deliberately left the bathroom messier than she normally would. Let the princess deal with it.

Outside, the princess was having coffee with Raquel at the cozy table in the kitchen area. This bothered Gina, that Raquel was getting cozy with her, that her girlfriend could be gullible at times, too eager to please. That her girlfriend is dressed and Claudine is still in her bathrobe. “Sorry for the mess in there,” she said, and headed into the room she’d shared with Raquel, who had already made the bed. “They have their own housekeeping here,” she muttered to no one.

Claudine doesn’t mistake Gina’s quip about the state of the bathroom as an apology. From the pained look in Raquel’s face – please forgive my lover’s rudeness – she doesn’t think Raquel does either. Claudine doesn’t know what Gina’s problem is, but she seems to have one.

“What’s eating her?”

Raquel squirms metaphorically, stirs more creamer into her already well-stirred coffee. “Sometimes she is grumpy in the morning.”

Claudine realizes a diplomat resides within Raquel’s quiet, wallflower life. You would make a good mother, maybe even a good wife, she thinks, deciding to try to make things easier for Raquel. If possible.

“I’m looking forward to this.” In fact, Claudine has arisen hungry for bear, eager for a showdown with her idiot boyfriend.

Raquel makes a sound like Claudine’s father makes, a contemplative hum halfway below the threshold of audibility. You feel it more than hear it. The disagreeing affirmation. “You don’t want to go?”

Raquel’s eyebrows twist. “It feel like everything is coming undone.”

There is a knock on the door. Steve says good morning on the other side.

“Just a minute,” Raquel says. Claudine goes to the door. Steve is knocked a little off kilter by the bathrobe.

“Want some coffee,” she says, holding the door open, doing a Vanna arm-sweep toward the nook, where Raquel doesn’t know what to do.

He pushes his glasses up. “No. Had some. Are you guys ready to go?”

On cue, Gina comes out of her bedroom in street clothes. “Some of us are,” Claudine says. She senses that Steve is trying to take charge here, run this expedition on his schedule. “Is there a rush?”

She can see he’s a peeved. “Well, it’s a long drive to Baker.”

“How long.”

He hems, “I dunno,” then haws, “pretty long,”

She allows herself a half roll of the eyes and turns away. “I’ll get a wiggle on then.” Walking toward the bathroom on the balls of her feet.

Working on the Ants again

It started on a mild winter day – an extra day – in a courtroom.

He is being arraigned for trespass at a casino, an avoidable misdemeanor if he had left when the security men told him to. But he was on his high horse, railing in a blackjack pit against wastefulness and greed. “Have me arrested,” he told the security men. So, they did.

The bailiff reads the charges. The defendant starts to lecture the judge on free speech, the corruptness of modern life. The judge peers over the tops of her glasses, cuts him off. Does he want to pay a fine and go free or spend a night in jail? The court, he realizes, thinks he’s a fool.

He surrenders, pays his $100 fine in humiliation. At the exit door, he realizes he has left his helmet at the cashier window and retreats to get it.

He stands on the steps of the courthouse. Half a block away, the Truckee River shuffles obediently through Reno in its trough. His blood is pounding to loud to hear it; he can’t smell it for his disgust.

Bits of sun fork through a splotchy sky. Social order holds trees in place, directs cars and people about their business. It’s not the first time he has turned his back on who he really is. You would think that in his twenty-some years on the planet, living among people, he would have figured out better coping mechanisms.

“I guess I really told them,” he says aloud, ridiculing himself. “I guess they will go home tonight and really think about things.” His bitterness swells, fairly shouting. He starts down the steps, brushes past someone climbing up from the street. “I can’t help it if I give a damn,” his volume knob dialed lower, but still talking out loud, like a lunatic.

He pulls the helmet over his head, leaving him even more alone with his thoughts, and crosses the street to his motorcycle. He straddles it, stomping the kickstart. It coughs up a phlegmy mechanical indifference. He impatiently resets the kickstart, heaves at it again. And again, frustration ratcheting tighter. He curses aloud and take a breath.

He tries again. The bike exhales the sigh of a slightly different failure, considering his point of view. The next stomp brings it to life. “Get out of here,” he says, revving the throttle. The bike spurts ahead recklessly toward the street. An old man with a dog crosses his path just yards away. To avoid disaster, he slams on the brakes and dumps himself and his bike.

Face and macadam meet, hips and ribs grind. His head bounces once, cushioned by the helmet, and thuds to ground. In slow motion, he skids to a stop safely away from the man, who does not to notice, and the dog, who does.


One person witnesses this. When they briefly brushed against one another on the courthouse steps, she wonders if the guy is drunk. Talking to himself, unaware of his surroundings. She watched him finally get his motorcycle going, bolt into traffic and then throw himself to the ground to avoid hitting the man. Or his dog.

This is heroism, she thinks, the guy – probably a jerk in many ways – has done the right thing. She crosses the street to check on him. He sits on the ground, taking inventory. She stands over him, hands on her hips. Dreamy eyes. “Are you alright?” she asks.

He thumps his helmet on the pavement. “Gotta smile at my incessant good fortune,” he says.

“Good you didn’t kill the dog,” she says, warming to the notion that she might like to know him better. He stands up, shows himself to be comfortably taller than she, warm blue eyes, wispy moustache, dark brown hair. He turns to hoist his motorcycle upright, lifts it onto its stand, then back to face her.

“Yeah. Got enough trouble as it is.” Nodding toward the courthouse.

“Oh, no.” She finds herself flirting with him. “Should I add your name to my protection order?” She lifts the handbag full with the documents requesting a restraining order against the asshole craps dealer where she works. Of course, the motorcycle hero doesn’t understand, so she explains that a guy she’s been dating has somehow come to mistake her for his property.

The dog-saver nods as though he understands something about her predicament, offers her his motorcycle helmet, for added protection. She likes humor that comes in under partly raised windows and soon they are introducing themselves. She’s a dancer in a casino-showroom review. He owns a small hotel up at Lake Tahoe. They learn they are David and Claudine and make plans to have dinner that night.

About 480 miles east, an old man dies, leaving behind seven wives and many children. And in Southern California, a young woman meets someone famous in a diner.


Claudine was not one to rush into affairs. She had a lousy track record. Her first serious boyfriend in high school turned out to be gay, which didn’t stop them from loving each other. At college, she fell for a manipulative professor who almost coaxed her into a three-way with a short, bald and sweaty sociology instructor. Then the stalker craps dealer.

So, Claudine waited until their fourth date before having sex with David. Although she had to initiate it, she was pleasantly surprised at its vigor and particularly impressed with his enthusiasm about orgasms – hers as well as his.

After a few weeks, she moved into the Walden Guest Hotel in South Lake Tahoe, the small, primitive lodging lacking pretension, television reception or the ability to take credit cards. He ran the establishment with his younger brother, Matthew, who was happy when he learned David’s new girlfriend was moving in.

First, he had an enormous crush on her: smoldering dark eyes, a dancer’s lithe figure, wit, and air of gracious inclusion for those she lets get close to her. Of course, Matthew will never actually be with her, but it didn’t make it any less enjoyable to be around her.

More importantly, Matthew thought that even David – his unmoored, wandering brother – would have the good sense to stay with this woman, do whatever it took to keep her with him, that they would settle down and take over the Walden Guest Hotel so he could finally get away from the place and get started on the many wonderful things in store for him.

Another work in progress

After a while, Freda rejoined them. She was quiet, didn’t want to talk. Marie heard Anne say she would come back and pick her up that afternoon, after her work was over. Then she and Anne took a long walk around the point of land that jutted out into the sea near the Viking settlement. It was lovely. Birds pitching and diving overhead, the smell of the ocean, a steady offshore breeze stirring the grasses. Up and down craggy little trails, over mosses, alone the two of them. It is funny how sometimes a quiet distraction gave her mind a chance to catch up with things. They found a pair of red Adirondack chairs posed to look over the water and sat down. 

“Were you ever a girl scout?” Anne asked. Her eyes were closed, sun turned toward the basking sun. 

“No,” Marie said. “But we would go hiking and canoeing at the cabin in Vermont. And campfires. I don’t think Father enjoyed it that much, but Mother and I did. It was my favorite thing in summer. She knew the names of all the flowers and plants and would get excited when she found something rare.” 

Marie laughed. “To tell the truth, I never really learned the plant names. But Mother was so excited by it that she just swept me along. I just like to look at things. I don’t need to know their names. 

“Our girl scout troop went to a camp in Vermont,” Anne said. “And there was someone always trying to teach us about nature and point out the constellations in the sky and all I could think was how great it was to be there with my friends. Girls I didn’t know became like sisters. We took our sleeping bags out on the lawn, watching the stars turning slowly.” 

What is that?” she asked, pointing toward an iceberg. 

“I think it’s an iceberg,” Anne said. “But I’ve never seen one before.” 

“Me neither.”  

“Some girl scouts we turned out to be,” Anne said. 

Marie thought that was a funny thing to say, and liked to think of herself and Anne as young friends. “I get afraid sometimes,” she confided. “At first, I was afraid that people would find out, but now I’m more worried about what I won’t remember or know anymore.” 

“I’ll always be here to help you, Marie.” Anne reached her hand across the gap between the two red Adirondack chairs and Marie joined her. “Everybody daydreams, it’s no big deal. Lots of times at church I have no idea what’s going on. I’m just admiring the stained-glass windows and wondering what Reverend Mapes has on under his robes.” 

Marie laughed. A little a first. Then more.  

“If you tell him that, I’ll say you’re a crazy old woman who hears voices.” Anne shook her hand, letting her know it was a joke.