Read an Excerpt
I am a compulsive reader of the classifieds. For this reason, I do not get the daily paper. But each week, the Pennysaver arrives in my mailbox, and I cannot resist the urge to read: Wedding Gown: Priscilla of Boston, Ivory Lace. Size 8, Never Worn; Paid $2,500. Sacrifice $1,200.
Imagine selling your unused wedding gown. Soon-to-be-wed women calling you, the disappointed bride-not-to-be. Worse, they come to your house, full of undimmed hope and in search of a bargain; they look critically at the gown of your dreams, decide not to buy.
The classified ads, for me, are like reading stories, or maybe like reading the skeletons of stories, waiting for me to invent their skin. But my compulsion is not merely recreational. I am a dedicated finder of desired objects. Seven years ago, I bought an all-in-one washer-dryer from a woman who told me she needed a large-capacity machine to handle her husband’s heavy work clothes. My stackable is still running, and I bought it for a quarter of the price I’d have paid had it been new, pristine—and without a story. Through the classifieds, I found the slate to build my patio and a full-size gas stove to replace the two-burner model with the oven door that had to be tied shut. I’ve located daylilies to plant on my hillside, an Adirondack-style love seat, handmade. But I don’t shop only for myself. I take assignments. My mother’s first computer came from the classifieds, as did her most recent fridge. Not to mention the deep blue canoe I once found for an important man in my life. A beautiful canoe, with a maple leaf embossed on the side, and shiny padded seats. Orange life vests came with it, along with varnished hardwood oars.
I mention all this by way of explaining why I am reading the Pennysaver on my lunch break today, a Wednesday in early December 1999. As I scan the aptly named “Things and Stuff” listings, I am looking for nothing in particular. At least nothing to purchase. The stories today suggest simple lifestyle upgrades: a few pieces of living room furniture, a couple of TVs, a computer and a printer. “Wanted to Buy” is just as mundane. Deal-ers of antiques wondering if I have any to sell; a man willing to come to my home to buy my books. He’s always in there.
I move on to a new heading, “Buildings,” with a single listing:
Cottages for Sale. $3,000 each. Must be moved.
I imagine these cottages, all in a row. Waiting to be adopted. I wonder where they are. I don’t recognize the exchange.
$3,000 each. That doesn’t seem like very much money for a completely assembled cottage, even a very small, completely assembled cottage. Even a very small, completely assembled summer cottage with no insulation.
Must be moved. I wonder how much it costs to move a building. *
*I live on cape cod in a three-room house that was built in 1950. It is a quintessential seacoast home: weathering cedar shakes, yellow shutters, summertime window boxes filled with lavender impatiens, a white picket fence out front. To reach the house, you travel a long dirt driveway and climb six brick steps, walk through the arbor and along the slate path that separates the shade and sun section of my perennial garden. Knock on the front door—there is no doorbell—or come around and rap on the glass panes of the kitchen door. I am more likely to hear you there.
The house sits on a flat bit of land in a hilly landscape; the downslope from the south-facing patio leads to an ancient way, now a gravel drive for my neighbors to the rear. From the kitchen you can see past the drive to the overgrown cranberry bog, home to cardinals and catbirds, doves and quail, robins, purple finches, crows, jays, red-winged blackbirds, the itinerant warbler. Turtles occasionally climb up the hill from the wetland; I find them nosing around in the myrtle or behind the house under the holly tree. A woodchuck makes his way, regularly, slowly, low to the ground, in the opposite direction. I know where his hole is: just outside my bedroom window, on a rising hillside, overgrown with white pines, chokecherries, and wild raspberry vines.
Though people are not far away, I am shielded by hills and trees from all my human neighbors. It is the birds and animals I see and hear more often. Raccoons arguing late at night; skunks small and beautiful, more white than black, moving silently on their nocturnal errands; a red fox that circles the house just before dawn. At the feeders, I host chickadees and goldfinches, titmice and nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, white-throated sparrows, pine siskins, and winter juncos. Gray squirrels make acrobatic attempts to rob the birds, but the fortress-like feeder forces them to the base for scraps, which they share with their furtive red-squirrel cousins and small striped chipmunks. The bunnies live closer to the road, preferring grasses and the apples that fall from the ancient tree. Egypt, my large gray cat, is sometimes less than hospitable to the smaller ground-dwelling animals, but all in all we live peaceably on this tiny patch of Cape Cod.
As long as I have lived in my small home, I have contemplated enlarging my space. I work from home, too. File cabinets and clothing fight for space in my bedroom closet; my printer sits atop my dresser and my fax machine is on the kitchen counter. The space—any space—would be welcome. Yet when I think of adding on, I think of the disruption it would cause us all: Kate, cat, home, business, and animal bystanders. Because my house is built on a four-foot concrete block foundation, adding a second story would mean first lifting up the house to make new foundation walls. I imagine disconnected plumbing, a house on stilts, and the rumble of bulldozers terrorizing Egypt’s dreams. When I think of expanding into the hillside instead, I realize I cannot bear to displace the ruddy old groundhog, who sometimes suns himself in early spring at exactly eye level from my desk.
Rather than adding on, I have managed, these many years, to squeeze home and business into just three rooms, to limit my possessions (or to build more bookshelves), to create space in odd places, to blur the boundaries between home and office, to keep the kitchen counters clear—to be content, if slightly crowded, in my lovely little house. *
*There were shards of window glass in the backyard and spider castles in the living room when I first laid eyes on my little house, though it wasn’t advertised—or priced—as a fixer-upper.
Hollies abound on the wooded setting of this unique one-bedroom cottage.
After months of low-budget house hunting, all the houses I hunted were looking pretty much the same. They were little ranches, situated on postage-stamp lots, treeless, and much too close to my least-favorite road on Cape Cod: Route 28. An abundance of hollies was exactly what I wanted, even if the wooded setting was starting to claim the little cottage situated between the cedar trees, even if the kitchen was last painted in 1952, even if the old wooden gutters were probably last cleaned that same year. Much to the dismay of my realtor, I made a lowball offer. After an evening of phone calls, we settled on a price that I could afford and that the owners could accept.
We passed papers on a clear day in May in 1987. I spent a month of nights and weekends scrubbing walls and windows, waxing floors, and removing the cheap white paneling in the bedroom. It was slow going, and the bedroom wasn’t yet ready for occupancy when the lease on my apartment ran out. I piled all my possessions in the living room and slept in front of the fireplace, my mattress the only object in the room that was allowed to lie flat.
After the bedroom, I worked on the kitchen. Almost every surface—walls, cabinets, ceiling, even the refrigerator—had been painted a jaundiced beige. I began by stripping the two knotty pine walls. The unfortunate yellow was not easy to remove. On the advice of the True Value hardware man, I purchased a stripping tool, a heat gun with a blade, which came in handy when I moved on to the kitchen cabinets. The cabinets I stained cherry; the wood walls, when they were finally revealed, I left in their natural state. The rest of the kitchen I painted white, as white as possible; same in the bedroom, same on the ceilings. Nonyellowing white I bought, as white as white gets. The kitchen counter I replaced with a speckled blue laminate, saving a piece of the original: it resembled a composite of hazardous waste sealed in gleaming plastic. I replaced the peeling beige-pink linoleum with blue-gray and white vinyl after I had the fridge refinished into shiny white. Then I moved on to the sickly green bathroom. *
*Nowadays, the nonyellowing whiteness is gone, replaced with saturated colors, colors that take risks. The still-bare wood in the kitchen meets warm red walls, walls the color of mulled wine. My bedroom is deep peach. The bathroom is painted an unapologetic pink. The wood floors still need refinishing, but Indian Sand Treewax—another recommendation from the True Value man—does a great job covering up the scratches and imperfections.
I have lost the eagerness to do it myself, and I rely instead on Harry and Tony, two old friends who happen to be handy around the house. Our friendship predates my Cape Cod life. We met in Boston back in 1983, when we all worked at the Boston University Bookstore. Harry’s a musician and Tony is working on his doctorate now; both have the flexibility for and interest in the occasional odd job that entails a Cape escape, and I am happy to have them here. I’ve known these guys for seventeen years; they’ve known each other for seven years beyond that. As a result, the three of us spend a great deal of time debating the merits of any project before we actually begin, and we tend to take long lunch breaks to discuss the politics of the day. It’s close to impossible to win an argument with the well-informed and tenacious Tony, but Harry and I do our best to help him perfect his scholarly form. In the summertime, we often end the workday with a swim at Long Beach, followed by Indian food for supper.
One Saturday, a few years back, when Harry and Tony were making me bookshelves in the kitchen, we decided they needed a corporate umbrella, a name. In minutes, they became the Bog Boys, named of course for the bog at the bottom of the hill. Two superintelligent men who are wonderful to have around the house. Two middle-aged guys who like to eat donuts and read the Boston Globe before they begin their workday. The Bog Boys? Oddly, the name is a perfect fit.
It is the Bog Boys who created the bookshelf that encircles the living room just above doorway height, who made the doors that enclose that washer-dryer I found in the Pennysaver. The Bog Boys made me a spice rack that spans the refinished cabinets on either side of my kitchen sink, and it was the Bog Boys who made my kitchen red, my bedroom peach, my bathroom first blue then briefly red, blue again, and finally spunky pink. The Bog Boys built me a pine vanity for my bathroom sink, and many years ago now, they made a cat shelf, a place for Egypt to land when he jumps up to bang on the bedroom window, demanding to be let in. As the kitty has aged, his cat shelf has become two shelves, stairway-style, to make his leap a little easier, and for this comfort, he can thank—who else—the Bog Boys. *
*I met my closest neighbor about a year after I moved in. She knocked loudly and with the certainty of someone who had watched this house being built almost forty years earlier. I opened the door to find a white-haired woman standing on my step. “I don’t want to come in,” she said, her voice at least as loud as her knock, “I just want to say thank you for fixing this place up. It had gotten to be a terrible mess.”
Of course I invited her in, but she would have none of it. “I’m Barbara Dowe,” she said as I stepped outside to continue the conversation. “My father built this place, you know, and my mother designed it. I live up the hill.” She pointed at the white bungalow with the colonial blue shutters. “My father built that house, too,” she added. “We used to have a cranberry bog right down there.” She lifted her head in the opposite direction, as though she were pointing with her nose. “Now it’s all grown up. A shame. I have a picture around somewhere that shows this cottage when it was first built, you know. You can see down to the bog. You might be interested in it.”
“Oh yes, I’d love to see it.” I introduced myself.
She nodded, then looked down past her bright red coat to her shoes, old-lady shoes, tan-colored, a little scuffed, but proper enough. A beat and a half passed before she looked up at me again. “Well, I won’t take any more of your time. I know you’re busy. I just wanted to say that it does my heart good to see you fixing this place up. Those last people that lived here, they didn’t care about anything. There was trash in the yard, a real mess, and I hate to think how the inside must have looked.”
I invited her in again, to have a look, but again she refused. “No, no. I know you’re busy.”
“Some other time?” I offered, and she looked right at me. In that moment, she was almost scary looking: her eyes froglike behind thick glasses, her mouth open, revealing her teeth—large, perfect, and I am pretty sure, all her own.
“Very nice to meet you, Katie,” she said, immediately lengthening my name into its diminutive form. “I’ll bring down that picture some time.” The interview was over. She turned to walk up the overgrown path between the two houses. “Damn vines.” The thorns were catching on her dull beige stockings. “I just can’t keep up with them anymore.” *
*In the years since that first meeting, Barbara has become a friend and teacher. She gave me my first bird feeder, the first flowers for my garden, and a sense of my home’s history. Recently, she moved into a nursing home, and I have yet to grow used to the sight of her house, dark and empty on the hill. She is rarely lucid now, but she has left me with a deep appreciation of my hand-built home. It is a simple floor plan. You enter through the front door straight into the living room; to your left is a brick fireplace; to your right, a triple window takes up the entire wall. From the living room you move into the kitchen, with the bathroom tucked off to the side. The bedroom is behind the kitchen. It’s a pretty big room, with windows on the three exterior walls. If you move back into the kitchen, and take a left, you can step through an extra-wide door onto the slate patio. Tucked in against the house, the herb garden thrives in afternoon sun, and the beach roses planted on the hillside scent the air with the fragrance of vanilla and cloves.
What is wonderful about my house is the way the light moves through the many windows I imagine Barbara’s mother instructing her husband to install. In three rooms and a bathroom, she planned thirteen windows, and she planned them in just the right places. The sun rises in the eastern corner of the bedroom, and the light moves around the house as the day progresses. The long southern exposure means that there is daylight in all the rooms all afternoon, until the sun sets in the western corner of the living room. The moon, too, shines into the house. In the wintertime, when the trees are bare and the moon is full, I sometimes have to pull my bedroom blinds, blocking out the silvery light bright enough to make a shadow of the windowpanes on the floorboards. Or there will be no hope of sleep.
It is because the elder Mrs. Dowe lived next door that she could plan this perfect play of light and day and night. She and her builder-husband knew how to situate the cottage on the land because they knew the land. I never met her; she died a longtime widow, somewhere in her nineties, the first year I was here, the spring before her daughter came down the path to introduce herself. *
*I am listening for the squeak of the hinge on the black metal mailbox that is mounted to the right of my front door. It’s Wednesday again, and I await the arrival of the Pennysaver. I find I have been thinking about those cottages for sale. Thinking: Maybe I’ll call that number. Maybe I’ll do a little bit of investigation. For while it is true that I was not seeking a cottage when I saw that listing last week, I am always seeking more space. A place to put my office that is not my bedroom. A place to put the fax machine that is not my kitchen counter. But when I comb the Pennysaver today, I find no listing. No cottages for sale. No cottages to be moved.
Is it the story I am already inventing of the sad little cottages, abandoned in the name of progress, waiting patiently to be adopted, that drives me to scour the Pennysaver again the following week? Or is it the sense I may have missed an opportunity? I’m not sure, but I realize that the cottages have come to live in my mind, that I find myself wondering if they are still for sale, if I could find them, and if one would fit my circumstances and my site plan. And I find myself sharing my classified curiosity with Ed, a retired firefighter who is a working builder. Ed and I are almost-relatives of the blended family variety. He’s someone you trust the moment you meet him, the moment you feel the warmth in his eyes and the good humor in his soul. “Am I crazy to think of moving a cottage and attaching it to my house?” I ask when I see him on Christmas Day.
“Not at all,” he says, and I think he is being generous in the face of a theoretical possibility. But he continues. “I think I know where those cottages are—or some cottages for sale, anyway. They’re just down the street. You ought to go have a look.” I am tempted to depart the gathering at once, to follow Ed’s directions to my classified destiny. But dinner is served, and the sun sets on those cottages just down the street.
“You don’t think I’m crazy?” I confirm with Ed before we say good-bye. He smiles and his blue eyes twinkle in response. “I’m going to go see those cottages tomorrow,” I tell him.
“You do that,” he says, “and let me know.”
“What cottages?” my mother asks, as soon as we are in the car. I tell her about the ad in the Pennysaver, about my conversation with Ed. “And what would you do with a cottage?”
“Attach it to my house—as an addition. Put my office in it.”
“Now that’s a good idea. Maybe I could get one too.” My mom’s house is even smaller than my place, another Cape Cod cottage turned year-round residence. She downsized a few years back, and her furniture and possessions are still in the process of adapting. Case in point: the one hundred-plus versions of Santa Claus who surround us now as we open gifts in her tiny living room.
“You could use an addition just for all these Santas,” I say.
“You don’t like them?”
That’s a tough one. I like my surfaces clear, perhaps a generational response to my mother’s tendencies in the opposite direction. It isn’t that I don’t like the Santa display, but I am less than comfortable sitting amidst all these white-haired men—thin Father Christmas Santas and round jelly-belly Santas; Santas dressed in red, blue, green, and even in black leather; the Harley Santa my mother bought last year and gave to me, without realizing he was dressed like a biker. I found him exceedingly creepy. My mother agreed that on his own, he was a little much. She happily adopted him into her fold, where his bad-boy vibe helps balance out all the good-natured Santas in the room.
“Well, it isn’t that I don’t like the Santas, per se. But there are an awful lot of them. They make me feel like I’m in a gift shop. Like I could turn one upside down and find a price.”
She laughs. “You probably would. You know I never remember to take the price tags off.” Which brings us back to our gifts, price tags intact, and not a Santa among them. *
*As soon as i get home, I call Harry. He has a gig the next evening on the Cape. Can he come down early and look at some cottages with me? Harry is willing, even intrigued, but not as enthusiastic as I hoped he’d be. I want at those cottages, as soon as possible, but I also want Harry, Bog-Boy-in-Chief, to give me his professional opinion. Doesn’t he want to come first thing in the morning? No. Okay, early afternoon. Settled. Our friend Bruce will come too—another friend from BU Bookstore days who is visiting from Martha’s Vineyard.
Sunday dawns bright blue and bitterly cold, the kind of day when it is better not to know the “windchill factor.” When Harry arrives, I give him barely a moment to say hello to Bruce before I bundle the three of us into Harry’s car. “I really need to find you a car,” I say, as we pull out of the driveway. “I’ve been looking, you know.” Another classified assignment.
“I know,” he says, without enthusiasm. He is not convinced his 1986 Toyota Nova is on death’s door, and he feels a certain loyalty to the aging vehicle. I, on the other hand, believe it is time to move on. I worry about his late-night gigs and his unreliable vehicle. I don’t feel safe in the car, which rattles and shakes and farts without apology. But we are three, and his back seat accommodates full-sized passengers. Mine requires the folding of body parts and elicits complaints from any adult who is forced to ride in the rear.
We follow Ed’s directions to a small cottage colony in Harwich Port. Once the vacation retreat of choice on Cape Cod, only a few cottage colonies are still in business these days. They once offered families a homey alternative to motels, more comfortable than a campground but with some of the same benefits: room for the kids to roam, other families nearby, and the sense of being part of a vacation village. In recent years, cottage colonies have hit upon hard times. The cottages are too tiny and too primitive for today’s vacationers, and the colonies are often located too close to what are now too busy roads. Most cottage colonies have been redeveloped, many demolished. In this case, they are making way for new homes. The sign by the road confirms the price and availability of the buildings and reminds us they must be moved.
We discover the cottages are open to visitors, front doors unlocked. Each has a living room, a tiny galley kitchen, a minuscule bathroom, and a very, very small bedroom. They all have little screened-in porches. I imagine the vacationing families who came home to them all those years ago. Sitting on their porches late at night, content in their week on Cape Cod, they would play cards and music and sip vacation drinks. They were happy families, and these are happy cottages, though empty now and a bit worn out.
We walk through each little house, noting the slightly varying layouts, the positioning of windows and doors. I am Goldilocks, visiting the Bear family compound in their absence, searching for the cottage that is just right. And I find it. It is at the very back of the cottage colony, the cottage farthest from the street. Though it is not discernibly different from its neighbors on the outside, the inside of “my cottage” is warm and appealing, with Mexican tiles hand-laid on the tiny kitchen wall, a deep green living room with real knotty pine paneling, a bold purple bedroom, scuffed but promising wood floors, and bright white ceilings. There are odd built-in features that speak of a weekend carpenter, and a yellow bar of soap still resting on the white porcelain sink. While the other cottages feel as though they have been abandoned for some time, this last little cottage has been loved, and recently. We tour all the cottages one more time, comparing details, measuring rooms with Harry’s footsteps, making notes, but we know we’ll return to the last little cottage in the row. Inside, I jump up and down, up and down, making my way across the floorboards. I detect no soft spots. “It seems sturdy,” I say, and Harry agrees. Bruce is slightly dubious about my research methods.
I open up the little notebook I have brought, the gridded paper perfect for sketching a floor plan. I outline the cottage, rough the locations of the doors and windows, and Harry provides the measurements.
“I could live here,” Bruce says, “just as it is.” Bruce has had an ongoing fantasy for as long as I’ve known him. A small-house fantasy. I first learned of it when we worked at the BU Bookstore and he was visiting me in Marblehead, a town full of charming old homes. We were walking around the Old Town section when we came upon a little house, snuggled into a hillside, a tiny porch only a few feet from the sidewalk. “Now that could be my house,” Bruce said. I agreed it was a sweet little house.
“Whenever I see a little house like that, I think: The owners could give that house to me. They would see me looking with admiration on their home, and decide to give it to me. They’d walk outside, and say to me, ‘This little house is just the right size for you. We have decided to give it to you.’”
I wanted to ask, What will happen to the couple; where will they live? But I understood I was being picky in the face of his fantasy. In the years since, Bruce has refined the scenario, and I have dared to ask a few questions. No strings attached, I have learned, in this house-gifting, and no worries about the couple (I think it is always a couple) who give him the house. They will not be homeless, but instead will move into a bigger house when he moves into the smaller one.
Bruce is an economical man; he is a poet for whom every word counts, and he lives sparingly in a two-room apartment in Vineyard Haven. As long as I have known him, Bruce has been a bookseller. He’s a voracious reader, but due to space constraints, he limits the number of books that he owns. He invests only in art books, and takes most of what he reads home on loan.
I too can imagine Bruce living in this tiny cottage, seventeen by twenty-five, according to Harry’s feet. I wonder if the cottage could take the ferry over to the Vineyard. House-moving is an old and honored tradition on Cape Cod, dating back to times when wood was scarce and transport to this spit of sand was expensive, even dangerous. I have heard stories of houses crossing the channel from the Cape to the islands. But I have already taken possession of this cottage in my mind. And I am not gracious like his fantasy couple. I want to keep this small house. I want to take it home.
“This is the best of the bunch,” I say, not yet willing to admit I have fallen deeply, irretrievably in love. *
*In the car Harry blasts the heat at my request, pointing out that his radiator is in excellent repair. We talk about the little cottage as we ride around seeking a quick bite before we pick up champagne for a New Year’s party. In Massa-chusetts, what we call the blue laws keep the liquor merchants shuttered on most Sundays. Only during the holiday season could we hope to purchase spirits on the day of rest. The original blue laws shut down all retail on Sunday, and frankly, I preferred it that way. My reasons were more pragmatic than spiritual. I was a bookstore manager in those days, and I found peace of mind knowing the shop was closed up tight one day a week. But it was more than that. There was a quiet in the streets around the shuttered shops, a quiet interrupted only by meandering Sunday afternoon drives, a quiet that made napping on a Sunday afternoon easy—and entirely guiltless. But slowly the laws eased, and less slowly the stores opened, one after another. Soon enough, everybody was open, pretty much all of the time. Convenient, sure, but I have this unkickable sense that something valuable was lost.
On this day, though, I am happy to find a package store open where we can buy our holiday spirits. (A famous Massachusetts expression, “package store”; in the “package” are always alcoholic beverages.) Happy too for our midafternoon meal of pizza, salad, and root beer all around. Between bites, Harry and I take turns with the notebook. We draw an outline of my house, an outline of the cottage, and the three of us discuss the possible placement of the addition. “Leave it detached? Maybe with an interesting walkway to it?” This is Harry’s suggestion. He’s carried an image of a glass walkway connecting to an outbuilding on my property for many years.
“But where?” I ask him.
“Out on the corner by the shed.”
“Won’t meet setback requirements. That’s right on the property line.” first sight
“Take the shed out and put it there.”
“Too close to the septic. We need at least ten feet.”
“You know all this stuff,” he says.
“I do.” I have looked into adding on so many times in the past eight, ten, twelve years that I know every pro and con of every option. *
*We make our way home, only to pack up Harry’s gear and head out again, this time to Hyannis—the downtown of all Cape Cod. We find parking across the street from tonight’s venue, The Prodigal Son, a coffeehouse with an eclectic entertainment calendar. In any given month, you can hear rock bands, attend poetry slams and unpredictable open-mike nights, listen to folk music, and see Middle Eastern dance performances. Tonight, Harry backs up Tiffany Park, a young singer-songwriter who has a loyal following in the area. Bruce is eager to hear them; he hasn’t heard Harry play since the days of the BU Bookstore, more than fifteen years earlier.
Bruce wears a neat brown beard streaked with gray and slightly outdated aviator glasses. He could easily be mistaken for a literature professor, especially when he opens his mouth. Bruce is highly intelligent, and highly verbal in the right setting. I think because he lives on an island, he saves up all his deep thinking. That might explain why he speaks in paragraphs rather than sentences, and why almost every observation he makes is thoughtful and well considered.
Self-schooled in music appreciation, Bruce has a CD collection that must rival the Smithsonian’s, at least in the contemporary and minimalist departments. But he doesn’t hear too much live music outside a concert hall. He is immediately disconcerted by the sound level at the coffeehouse, and upset that he is without earplugs. He folds his arms across his chest and refuses a drink. I find myself annoyed with his behavior, or maybe it is my defensiveness at work. Would a more thoughtful hostess have suggested ear protection?
I make my way to the bar for a glass of white wine. I bump into my friend Katrina, who has come to hear Harry, too. Katrina is tiny, beautiful, and blonde, and she is known to the bartender-owner because she hosts the Middle Eastern dance events here at The Prodigal. I introduce her to Bruce, who remains disgruntled. Usually the sight of Katrina improves the day of any person of the male gender. I allow myself one more moment of guilt for Bruce’s bad feelings, and then I sit back to enjoy the show.
Tiffany is young, in her mid-twenties maybe, and obviously talented. She wears 1950s-style plastic eyeglasses, a red plaid woodsman jacket, and army boots. Her voice is resonant and evocative, and so are her own songs, of which, Harry tells her, she does not write enough. Harry, close to twenty years older, is just as gifted. He is as much Tiffany’s cheerleader and coach as he is backup to her lead. He prefers the backup role, he says. He plays a mean guitar, a double-mean bass; the depth of his voice complements his own complex and lovely songs. What Harry lacks are the psychological components to solo success in the musical world: abiding confidence and unstinting ambition. He is happier helping someone else along.
Tonight Harry wears his usual uniform: black jeans and a black T-shirt. He is a big guy, tall, strong, and rounding slightly as he hits the middle of his life. He’s been bald as long as I’ve known him, since he was not yet twenty-five. Harry has what another friend calls “a well-shaped head,” and he looks great without hair. Perhaps it is his clean-shaven head that makes his eyebrows appear so unruly. I have known him for so many years, I sometimes fail to notice his distinctive looks.
On the tiny stage, Harry and Tiffany create an unlikely aesthetic, an odd yet perfect combination of sight and sound that is precisely wacky now: In their own version of “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby,” Tiffany is Barry White, while Harry, in falsetto, joins her for the chorus.