Monday, January 6, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Sixteen: Puffin on a Muffin

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I suppose there are ultimate moments in life, and ultimate evenings. You don’t necessarily see them coming. Especially when you worry that your hot Serbian girlfriend is out of your league.

The beginning is not so great. We are on the Richmond Bridge, and we are moving at the rate of a government task force. Also, we have no AC, and the six o’clock sun is surprisingly warm. I look at my hot girlfriend, and I see a lightning bolt.

“Yaz? Your line is showing.”

She smiles. “You remember that scarring craze a few years ago? Because tattoos weren’t stupid enough? I got really drunk one night. But at least it isn’t some guy’s name, right?”

“I’m sorry. Am I missing something?”

“It’s my white lie, silly! I’ve been rehearsing all week.”


“You think it’ll work?”

“Not only that, I think there was a scarring thing.”


“Oh, yeah. That’s much better.”

She pulls a sheaf of papers from her purse. “Okay. I was going to give this to you later, but considering the circumstances, I will read it to you now.” She stops and licks her lips. “I wrote this for you, because you are an amazing man.”


“Silence! Amazing man.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Andre plays classical guitar at the How You Bean…”

About the time that Andre is seeing Roxanne’s shoulders in the madrone, we pass the accident that caused our delay, and the traffic works its way back to normal.

“Wait! Go back.”

“Back where?”

“Back to the tree. I was distracted. I want to hear it again.”

Jasmina grins and flips the page. “That night, he crosses his front lawn, huffing steam into the cold air…”

She finishes as we near the Oakland skyline.

“Honey, I really wish I could look at you as I say this, but that story is fucking gorgeous.”

“Really? So why can’t you look at me?”

“Because the last time we played in Alameda, I missed this turnoff and got totally lost.”

“The story is gorgeous because I love you.”

I look at her. She’s crying. I’m laughing.


“I just missed the turnoff.”

Long before the comedian Dana Carvey invented Garth, the long-haired blond goof of the Wayne’s World movies, he lived in San Francisco. So did our pal Gomer Hendrix. After lengthy debate, we have concluded that this is no coincidence. Gomer is a human jukebox, and he can’t resist screwing with the material, inserting the theme from Gilligan’s Island into a Zeppelin tune, or changing Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” to “Show Me Your Tits.” It ain’t Oscar Wilde, but fortunately most of his audience is drunk.

Tonight is John Patrick’s, a bar that feels like somebody’s rumpus room. Six weeks after the Fourth of July, the stage is bedecked with red, white and blue bunting. A month ago, Gomer asked me to sub for his drummer, and the idea of rehearsal never came up. Gomer is a master of improv. He could give a seminar on delivering cues from the guitar, and when in doubt he just shreds. My principal amusement is watching Smeeed at the front table, eyes popping as he follows Gomer’s solos. As he kicks into “What I Like About You,” I discover a live mic in front of me and offer up the backing vocals, a simple call-and-response. Gomer flashes me a grin.

All this fakery is so involving, I fear I’m being a terrible boyfriend. I note, however, that Jasmina has found Landa, Smeeed’s witchy girlfriend, and they seem to be bonding. During a pause – as Gomer talks chord changes with his German bassist – I spot my cell phone, vibrating atop my stick case.

It’s a text: You are so studly when you’re drumming I want to sneak back there and do nasty things to you.

I have no chance to reply – Gomer is counting.

Exit Wonderland plays a set, Gomer plays two more, and by the time we reach Mill Valley it’s three in the morning. I reach the usual left turn and stop. Jasmina is asleep, her head on my thigh. I trace my fingers along her face until her eyelids feather open.


“I’m driving you home.”

She slaps my leg. “No!”

“Either that or you’re staying at my place.”

She cranes her neck until she can see over the dashboard. “No. Have to work tomorrow.”


She gives me a bleary smile and crawls up to my ear. “Drive me home, baby.”

Home is uphill on Blithedale, then a right turn into a pretzel of tiny mountain roads. We pull up to an English-looking house with a broad chimney, a jumble of rose bushes and three Mayan pillars. As I stumble behind her I see what looks like a horse, half-buried in the shrubbery. She leads me to a modern white addition with tall windows and skylights. Bright light streams out in shafts. When Jasmina steps on the porch, a black labrador barks at us as if he were warding off a terrorist attack.

“Oskar!” A woman calls out in a sharp voice, then comes to the door. She’s small, silver-haired, with weathered cheekbones like a pioneer. Her clothes are marked with swipes of gray. She greets us with a laughing voice.

“Well! How was the music?”

“Fantastic! Anna, this is Paul. Paul, Anna. I can’t believe you’re still at it.”

“Time just disappears out here,” she sings. “And these antlers are driving me nuts!”

We head to the table, where a very real-looking deer gives us a determined stare. She has constructed a rig of PVC pipe and blocks of Styrofoam to support the antlers. She takes a chopstick and scrapes a spot on its neck.

“Poor dear,” she says (ignoring the pun). “Fighting gravity, as are we all.”

“Allow me,” says Jasmina, “to point out the obvious. Anna is a ceramic sculptor – with a decided flair for animals and wordplay. Here, let’s start you out easy.”

She takes me to a large yellow hand with a rectangular cutout framing a graceful gray-brown bird.

“A bird in the hand?”

“No, but excellent guess! Think rhyming.”

“Oh! Dove in glove. Very Dr. Seuss.”

“Okay, now for my favorite.” She stands beside a large bird with orange and black markings. I am catching the character of Anna’s birds. They seem very authentic, but they also carry a smirking quality, as though, if they really wanted to, they could burst into impeccable English. This one stands on some sort of cake, which is then balanced on an odd-looking cushion.

“I have no…”

“Start with the center. Something you’re likely to have for breakfast…”

“A muffin.”

“Rhyme it with the bird…”

“Oh! A puffin. On a muffin. On a…”

She traces one end of the cushion. “Note the openings at either end, where one might put one’s hands…”

“A puffin on a muffin on a muff!”

She kisses me. “You are a brilliant man. Oh! That reminds me.” She touches me on the arm. “Be right back.”

Anna’s back to her work, smoothing and scraping at her buck. Oskar is curled up on a futon at her feet. I wander to a bookshelf filled with nature photography, field guides and Audubon illustrations. At a nearby table I find a blue man, bursting through a pair of oversize books. He wears a blank expression, and on his forehead a trio of Hebrew letters. Anna has noticed my interest, and walks over.

That is a very interesting story. It’s a golem, an artificial man created by a rabbi. A woman bought it because it looked like her father, who had recently died. But the resemblance was too great. Every time her mother looked at it, she broke down in tears. The daughter refused to take the money back, and asked me to donate it to a museum. Alas, the poor golem is in limbo.”

“Wow. So are you Jewish?”

“Jewish atheist.” She chuckles. “I’m not usually so up-front about it, but, well, fellow travelers.” She returns to her table and eyes the problem antlers. “In fact, I’m the one who told Jasmina about your shop.”


“She came home one night and said, ‘What is that odd store across from the moviehouse?’ My late husband would have loved that place. He was quite the rabblerouser.”

“So you’re the one who brought us together.”

Anna gives a wry smile. “It does me good to see her with a nice atheist boy.”

Jasmina enters to laughter. “I should have known the radicals would get along.”

“Quite well,” I reply. “What’s this?”

She hands me a box. “When I told Anna about the silver tulips, she gave me this vase, which she made in a crazed moment of orthodoxy. And now I give it to you, so that I may fill it with more flowers, and more flowers.”

The vase has a broad, round base rising to a narrow neck. The glaze is gray-green, with a crackling effect like an old oil painting. It’s the last thing I look at before I go to sleep.

Photo by MJV. Sculpture by Nina Koepcke.

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