Quantum of joy

A fantastic, neurotic holiday fiction for Sacramento outcasts and geniuses

Illustration By Chris Whetzel

Todd Walton’s latest book is Buddha in a Teacup, his latest CD is When Light Is Your Garden and his Web site is www.underthetablebooks.com.

In the beginning
Ten years ago, on her 34th birthday, Lisa Lowenstein, a native New Yorker, moved to Sacramento to take a job as a hospital social worker. A big, beautiful woman with long auburn hair, Lisa lucked into a gigantic old two-bedroom apartment on I Street between 26th and 27th streets, and her rent was so low compared to what she paid for a tiny pad in Manhattan, she decided to try life without a roommate.

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Dear Hazel,

As you know, I have never in my life lived alone, so I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I have so much space I turned my extra bedroom into a painting studio. I bought a good old piano for the living room and a huge table for the dining room. My kitchen is bigger than my entire apartment on 93rd Street. My neighbors say it gets horribly hot here in the summer, and I have to laugh thinking about the muggy misery of August in Manhattan.

Your nouveau Californian,

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Extremely sociable, Lisa enrolled in an Improvisational Acting class at Sierra 2 Center, joined an artists’ collective that met once a week to draw nude models in a studio adjacent to Old Soul at the Weatherstone, signed up to usher at the B Street Theatre and volunteered her counseling services on Saturday mornings at Loaves & Fishes.

Within a year of settling in Sacramento, Lisa was emboldened to quit her hospital gig and begin a psychotherapy practice in her living room. Friendly and funny, Lisa was besieged by people needing help with their emotional challenges, but she steadfastly limited her practice to three days a week and devoted the rest of her time to making art, acting and socializing with friends.

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Dear Hazel,

Meeting men here is no problem. What a change from Manhattan. Mazel tov! But I am so not interested in a primary relationship right now. Nine years of misery with Myron definitely soured me on that kind of all-or-nothing relationship. And I like dating all kinds of different kinds of people. But who knows what might happen. I’m open to any and all possibilities.

Big hugs,

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By the beginning of her third year in Sacramento, Lisa had constellated around her a group of fascinating souls—artists, actors, poets, musicians and oddballs—all of whom over the ensuing years came to think of Lisa’s place as their home away from home.

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Dear Hazel,

I wish you could be here for the annual Christmas gathering at my place—a dozen people with deep aversions to almost everything associated with the holiday season. And who better to facilitate this meeting of Christmas Neurotics Anonymous than I, a Jewish Buddhist mystic with holiday issues of my own, namely guilt galore from my mother who considers me the great thorn of failure in her long-suffering side. But guilt aside, I am so looking forward to tomorrow and wishing you were here.

Happy Hanukkah,

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Christmas Eve
Lisa is sitting at her kitchen table enjoying a glass of wine and reading through the day’s batch of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and solstice cards while waiting for her halvah dough to rise. The phone rings. Lisa glances at the Groucho Marx clock above her refrigerator and notes the time is exactly 7 o’clock.

“This will be Ernie announcing he’s not coming tomorrow,” she says to Ulysses, the gray tabby cat curled up on the chair beside her.

Ernie is 54, the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday night bartender at Harlow’s—a tough-sounding guy from Chicago who quit his job at Intel seven years ago to pursue an acting career.

Wanting to give Ernie a chance to change his mind all by himself, Lisa lets the phone ring five times before answering.

“Lisa? Ernie. Listen … ”

“I was just thinking about you,” she says, winking at Ulysses. “How brilliant you were at Improv last night.”

“Oh?” he says, his gruffness instantly morphing into boyish glee. “You really think so?”

“Absolutely,” she says, doodling a flower at the top of her latest missive to Hazel. “You take humor to a whole other level.”

“How so?” he asks, vain of his talent and loving praise, especially from the likes of Lisa, who recently won an Elly Award for her performance as Didi in Waiting for Godot on the little stage at Time Tested Books.

“Because you don’t try to be funny. You just fully inhabit your character and the humor arises organically.”

“Well, thanks,” he says, blushing, “though I’m somewhat suspicious of the word organic. I think it’s greatly overused these days.”

“You may be right,” she says, rolling her eyes. “So what can I do for you on this lovely Christmas Eve?”

“Well, the thing is … ” He takes a deep breath. “I’m not coming tomorrow. I just … it’s getting to be too much of a tradition coming to your place for Christmas. And I hate traditions. They’re a tyranny. You know what I mean? This would make five years in a row for me.”

“Six,” says Lisa, making her voice husky and enticing. “I’ll never forget your first Christmas here. Tina brought you. Remember? You were thrilled not to find a Christmas tree anywhere in my apartment, but disappointed with my frequent use of the word joy.”

“I’m better now,” says Ernie, clearing his throat, “but I still don’t think it’s healthy for me to come to your house every Christmas. I feel very … codependent. Very … addicted. I look forward to it. I want it. For Christ’s sake, Lisa, I spent two hours in Beers Books today copying out gingerbread recipes. It’s … it’s a sickness.”

Lisa laughs uproariously. “This is what I’m talking about, Ernie. Effortless comic genius by fully inhabiting your character.”

“But I’m not playing a part. This is me, Lisa, and I don’t want to get trapped in another obligatory … ”

“So don’t come,” she says, deftly interrupting. “Miss the organic turkey, the organic porcini mushroom stuffing, the organic pumpkin pie, the excellent red wine, the crackling fire, the surprise dessert, the scintillating conversation and my daringly low-cut purple silk gown. We’ll miss you, Ernie, but we’ll survive. Life will go on.”

“Can we say I might come?” he squawks. “Maybe bring gingerbread?”

“Yes, Ernie. We can say you might come. Any time after 5.”

Laughing about Ernie’s eternal struggle with himself, Lisa wanders into her living room to admire her huge and wildly blooming Christmas cactus, and she’s just about to start stringing the itsy-bitsy Christmas lights thereupon when someone taps lightly on Lisa’s front window.

Illustration By Chris Whetzel

Knowing the tapping to be Ellen’s, Lisa opens her door. And here is Ellen, a slender woman of 33 wearing a beige raincoat and green tennis shoes. Ellen has short brown hair and wears enormous square-framed glasses that mask her beauty and give her the appearance of an aged little girl. A gifted pianist, Ellen is a waitress at Paragary’s and has 10 dedicated piano students.

“I can’t come in,” says Ellen, coming in and taking off her coat. “Ooh, nice fire.”

“Tea, wine, juice?” offers Lisa, hanging Ellen’s coat on the stand beside the door. “I didn’t know they sold turquoise Kings jerseys. Number 15. Don’t tell me. I know who it is, it’s … ”

“John Salmons,” says Ellen, putting a hand on her heart. “When he makes that spin move to the hoop and dunks it … ” She sighs. “I’ll just have one tiny little glass of wine and then I’ll go.”

“Red or white?” asks Lisa, knowing Ellen enjoys the process of choosing, though she always ends up having red.

“Maybe white tonight,” says Ellen, following Lisa into the kitchen. “No … red. No … white. No. Red. Yeah. Red.”

“I’m making halvah for tomorrow, and I’ve decided on raspberry blintzes for the surprise dessert. Don’t tell anyone.”

“How daringly Jewish,” says Ellen, gulping her wine. “Oh, God, Lisa … ” She grimaces. “Are you giving presents this year?”

“I always give presents,” says Lisa, filling Ellen’s glass anew. “I love hunting for gifts for my wonderful gang of outcasts. It’s one of the great joys of my life.”

“I can’t stay,” says Ellen, sitting down at the table. “Have you got any cheese? This wine is just screaming for … I don’t know … brie?”

Lisa serves crackers and brie. Ellen eats ravenously, finishes her wine and says, “I don’t think I can come tomorrow. This whole present-giving thing is just killing me. I haven’t slept for days thinking about what to get who and how much to spend and … I’m just a wreck.”

“Ellen, we’ve been over this a hundred times,” says Lisa, commanding herself to stay out of therapist mode. “Play the piano for us. Let that be your gift. I just had her tuned. She sounds fantastic.”

“But if you give me a present,” says Ellen, oblivious to Lisa’s suggestion, “and it’s worth, say, $20, and I get you something that’s worth $10, then there’s no way I don’t owe you, and it just gnaws at me. And what if Ernie or Theo … is Theo coming?”

“So he tells me.”

“Well … ” Ellen shakes her head furiously. “What if he gives me something? Jesus. I just … it makes me feel so inadequate. What if I get him something he hates? The wrong music, the wrong size shirt, the wrong color. He’ll hate me forever.”

“Sweetheart,” says Lisa, taking Ellen’s hand. “Look at me. Stop the mind chatter. Look at me. Listen to me. You are the gift. Your music is the gift. Play the piano for us and let that be enough. Or don’t come. I mean it.”

“Just … play the piano? What should I play?”

“Just come,” says Lisa, nodding emphatically. “Have a good time. And if someone gives you a gift, receive it as a gift and not as a debt to pay.”

“They were always debts,” says Ellen, her eyes filling with tears. “No matter how hard I tried I could never pay them back. Not really. My mother is still angry with me for … ”

“I’m not your mother, honey, and Theo is not your brother. And Ernie is not your father. We’re all just fellow travelers on this blessed little orb speeding through the vastness of space, and we love a good soundtrack for the journey.”

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Dear Hazel,

I’m writing to you at midnight on Christmas Eve. I wonder if my celebrating Christmas makes you smile, since until 10 years ago I only celebrated Hanukkah. Of the dozen people I’ve invited for tomorrow, seven have communicated their ambivalence about coming, but I’m confident they’ll all make it to our feast, which has evolved into a second Thanksgiving, only more emotional and, dare I say it, more spiritual.

Wishing you were here,

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Christmas morning
Lisa wakes to cold rain pummeling Sacramento, the grayness of the day amplifying her desire for a lover—right now.

“Instead,” she says, wiggling her toes under the pile of her four cats, “I have you guys.”

Christmas falls on the fourth day of Hanukkah this year, and Lisa—who faithfully lights her menorah at sunset on each of the eight days—steels herself for the phone call to her parents in Florida.

Lisa’s mother left the following message on Lisa’s answering machine five days ago: “Since you’re not coming to see us for Hanukkah, again, the least you could do is call on Elizur’s day, that’s the fourth day in case you’ve forgotten, and let us know you’re alive. Oh. I see on my calendar that Christmas falls on the fourth day. Well … call anyway. If it’s not asking too much of your royal highness.”

To prepare for her ordeal, Lisa gets a big fire going, meditates for 20 minutes, imagines her mother surrounded by golden light, drinks a cup of chamomile tea and sits on the floor with her back against the sofa so she can feel supported during the conversation.

“Hi, Mama, it’s Lisa.”

“Do you know how late it is? What took you so long? Sleeping in after another orgy with your actor friends? We’re about to eat. What a time to call.”

“Shall I call back in a couple hours?”

“What’s the matter? You don’t want to talk to me now?”

“Happy Hanukkah, Mama. Did you get the box of presents I sent?”

“You remembered to send presents? Alert the media. Lisa Lowenstein remembers her mother. Only I don’t recall any package from you. Oh, wait. Was it a very small box?”

Lisa can hear her father in the background reacting to Lisa’s mother. “Stop it, Esther. Be nice.”

“How’s the weather?” asks Lisa, trying not to hyperventilate.

“Perfect,” says her mother. “Unlike Sack of Cemento. Herb checked on the Internet. It’s rainy and cold where you are, whereas here you could be lying in the sun getting a tan. But you’ve got more important things to do, don’t you? Your brother’s here, of course. All the way from Michigan with a wife and two children.”

Illustration By Chris Whetzel

“That’s great, Mama. You must be thrilled.”

“Why should I be thrilled? He’s a good son. How hard could it be for you to get on an airplane? There’s only you. Right? Unless there’s something you’re not telling me. So get on a plane. Come for a week. We’ll pay for everything.”

Lisa sighs and says nothing.

“Now what are you doing? Giving me the silent treatment?”

“Mama, I don’t want to fight. I called to say I love you.”

“So get on an airplane. If you love me, come see me.”

“Esther, stop it,” says Lisa’s father. “Please.”

“Stop what?” says Lisa’s mother. “I haven’t seen her in three years. She’s out there in cuckoo land going to bed with every Tom, Dick and Harry instead of marrying a decent man and giving me grandchildren. I’m worried about her. She’s 44 and acting like a teenager.”

“Esther!” shouts Lisa’s father. “Enough!”

Lisa is about to hang up when her father comes on the line.

“Schmoo?” he says, intoning his lifelong nickname for Lisa. “Forgive her. Your mother is meshuga these days. Don’t take it personally. Yesterday she accused the checker in the grocery store of trying to steal her identity when he asked to see her ID for the check she was cashing.”

“Since when is Mama cashing checks in grocery stores?”

“Since the latest financial meltdown. She doesn’t trust the banks anymore. Can you blame her? Our stocks went down the toilet. Safeway, she says, is the safe way.”

“Are you OK, Papa?”

“I’m fine. This, too, shall pass. She was happy in November, now it’s the conspiracy theory of life again. So what else is new?”

“I’m fine. I love it here. I miss you, Papa.”

“Any chance of a visit from you this year?”

“I don’t know. The last two times I came to visit she was just relentless, and I can’t—”

“I know, I know,” he says, sighing heavily. “Believe me, I know. I love you, Schmoo. Happy Hanukkah.”

Feeling somewhat battered, Lisa dons her rain gear and goes next door to Maeve Nolan’s. Maeve is a spry 84, Irish through and through, and master of Bruno, an enormous black Labrador who needs more exercise than Maeve can give him. Hence, Lisa and a few other neighbors take Bruno for walks around McKinley Park—a win-win situation for dog and people.

The brisk walk in the cold rain with Bruno does Lisa a world of good, and before she begins her final preparations for the Christmas party, she has tea with Maeve in Maeve’s cozy living room, and they commiserate about their mothers.

“When I married Rafael,” says Maeve, a stout woman in red slacks, white blouse and a green elf’s hat, “my mother disowned me. Mind you, Rafael was Catholic, but he was Cuban and brown as a nut, so Mother didn’t speak to me for 30 years.”

“And then she did?” asks Lisa, trying to imagine Maeve with a Latin lover. “Speak to you again?”

“Well, Father died, you see, and Mother had no choice but to come live with us.” Maeve refreshes Lisa’s cup. “And wouldn’t you know it, she goes and falls madly in love with Rafael, who just happened to be the spitting image of Cesar Romero, the movie star, and he loved to go to Mass, Rafael did, so Mother and Rafael became Mass junkies together, and we lived happily ever after until she died.”

“I could never live with my mother,” says Lisa, shivering at the thought of Esther lurking in her apartment. “It’s inconceivable.”

“Don’t be so sure,” says Maeve, gazing out at the rain. “Imagine Mary’s surprise when the three kings walked in. Here they were, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, penniless refugees without a friend in the world, the baby just born in a manger among oxen and sheep, and here come three great kings bearing all manner of gifts for the wee lad. Now you might say that was inconceivable, too, but that’s only because you haven’t fully imagined it.”

Lisa takes a bath in her deep claw-foot tub before dressing for the party, and the hot water is so relaxing, she falls asleep and dreams that she and her mother are walking beside the American River. They come upon a man sitting cross-legged on a large square stone. The man is slender and brown-skinned with long black hair, wearing a simple white robe. He beckons to Lisa and Esther, and when they sit down beside him, the stone becomes a raft floating down the river.

Esther jumps up and shouts, “Stop the boat! I don’t want to go any farther.”

The man smiles at Esther. “So why did you get on in the first place if you didn’t want to go anywhere?”

“Who knew it was a boat?” says Esther, smiling shyly at Lisa. “I thought it was a rock.”

The Christmas party
Ellen arrives before everyone else. She has brought a dozen towering white gladioluses in a blue vase to adorn the great table laden with the feast.

“Look at you,” says Lisa, resplendent in her low-cut purple gown, her hair in a four-strand braid laced with gold and silver ribbons. “No glasses, a sexy skirt and no sign of a bra under that basketball jersey. Honey, you’re a knockout.”

“Something big shifted in me,” says Ellen, giving Lisa a heartfelt hug. “I was playing the piano trying to figure out what to play tonight when I went into this trance and I was just … playing, and it sounded so beautiful I realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. I just … I feel fine.”

“Knock, knock,” says Ernie, coming through the open front door. “I know I’m early, but I couldn’t wait. You know what I mean? Why stand on ceremony? You gotta see these gingerbread people I made. They are so cute.”

So the party begins, and nothing is as it has ever been before. Everyone is eager to join hands before the divine food is tasted, and each person takes the opportunity to express his or her thanks for the food they are about to eat, and for each other. The wine is poured, the feasting begins and exclamations of delight punctuate the meal from start to finish, without a single disparaging word to be heard.

After the surprise dessert is devoured, Ellen plays the piano—jazzy variations on classical themes with the occasional Christmas-Hanukkah-Motown motif arising organically—and without anyone saying a word, everyone dances. And when Ellen concludes her musical reverie, everyone has danced with everyone else, and all eyes are shining, and Theo—tall, dark and handsome—is the first to engulf Ellen in a warm embrace.

When all are seated in the living room, the fire blazing, each with cocoa or tea or wine, Lisa hands out presents to everyone and says, “As most of you know, I correspond on an almost daily basis with my oldest friend Hazel, who hangs on in Manhattan despite my urging her to move out here. Anyway, I was just thinking about what I will write to her about this moment, and I think I’ll tell her that had I known what was going to happen at our Christmas gathering, I’m not sure I would have bought presents for anyone, because nothing can compare to the love I feel for my wonderful gang of outcasts, and to the love I feel from all of them. And at the risk of sounding absurdly sentimental, I believe that this experience, this oneness of spirit we’re sharing right now, is the reason for living.”

“Love,” says Ellen, clinking cocoa mugs with Theo.

“Joy,” says Ernie, holding his wine glass aloft. “To Lisa. Avatar of joy.”

“Sharing the moment,” says Lisa, feeling blissfully free of guilt. “With you.”