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by Chester Aaron
Description: How do you enjoy the late years of your life? You give up your former life and become a farmer. What if you are also a writer who has published many short stories and novels? You write about not just your former life, but you write about your new life as well. After all, your life hasn't ended, your life has simply changed. Dramatically changed. Or has it? Garlic Kisses obviously has to be about garlic and about kisses. Kisses (here the writer steps in) being "a metaphor for love." Love past and present, love young and old, love for and from humans and animals (well, cats especially, most especially, one cat.) Love for the land and love for the human spirit. Each, being love, nourishes the other. What happens to love when that love must be shared by the land and the human heart? That is what Garlic Kisses is about.
eBook Publisher: Zumaya Publications, 2008 2008
eBookwise Release Date: April 2008
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [359 KB]
Reading time: 215-302 min.
1. MILLI O'KEEFE Bengal Purple
From the province of Orissa, Bengal Coast; skin reputed to be purple, four very large cloves in blue-striped skins. Taste: unknown by me but reported very hot. Salve made of this garlic reputed to be foul-smelling but effective. Curative properties not scientifically documented. Shelf life: unknown.
In my American literature classes at Saint Mary's College, I always included in my selection of texts two of Willa Cather's novels. I always selected the first one (it was usually My Antonia), but the second was selected by each student after a discussion in my office.
Milli O'Keefe was eighteen and a freshman when we met. Five weeks into her first semester, Milli, who had rarely participated in the seminars on My Antonia, appeared at the door of my office at precisely ten o'clock, as scheduled. Topic for discussion: her choice of her second Cather novel.
I sat back, expecting to coast through a delivery of shallow ideas, but I very soon realized that here was a mind and an attitude met infrequently at the college and almost never in freshmen. I was hearing smart interpretations not just of Cather and not just of the character of Antonia Schimerda, the major character in My Antonia, but also complex analyses of 19th- and 20th-century American morals and of the feminist movement just then getting into gear.
Milli was not trying to impress her professor; she was articulating her attitudes about the world she knew and the much different world she planned to inhabit. How could an eighteen-year-old know so much, be so perceptive, make such mature judgments? At the end of the allotted fifteen minutes, I found myself wishing the discussion would continue. I kept the next student waiting at least ten minutes beyond the scheduled appointment time.
The novel Milli selected for her individual presentation at the seminar and for her term paper was O Pioneers!
"Why," she asked me that morning in my office, "would there be an exclamation point after the word pioneers?"
"A good question," I said. "I've often thought about that myself. Let's see if we can find out."
We did talk about that exclamation point in subsequent private meetings but never in class because in class Milli tended to be an almost sullen, silent loner. When I indicated in a later class discussion that Cather, in taking the title O Pioneers! from Whitman's poem, had also taken Whitman's exclamation point, Milli said, "You make her sound like a thief. For Cather, the exclamation point is for Alexandra, not for ordinary pioneers. Alexandra is an exclamation point."
Stunned by the insight as well as by the potential of the allusion, I asked, lamely, "Is there such a thing as an ordinary pioneer?"
The heads of the students turned to see if Milli realized she had been challenged. She was not impressed and certainly not intimidated.
"Compared to Alexandra," she said, "compared to Cather, the pioneers who settled in Nebraska were ordinary. Alexandra was extra-ordinary." She separated the two words with a silent hyphen. Then, after an effective dramatic pause, she added, "So was Willa Cather."
The heads of the students then turned to me.
Unwilling to create the impression that I was carrying on a duel with Milli O'Keefe, I said, "Let's discuss that." We did. All of us. All except Milli, who seemed to have her gaze on a distant horizon.
Over the next three-and-a-half years Milli and I went beyond the casual professor-student relationship. Two minor justifications for my behavior: I was divorced and I had no agenda. After a marriage of fourteen years and a six-year tour of the usual trial-and-error-circuits, I chose to live the solitary life in the home I had recently built on four acres in California's redwood country, sixty miles north of Berkeley. It was solitary until a woman trapezed out of the trial-and-error circus to land in my safety net.
A confession is in order here: I am one of those Jewish men who finds himself drawn to non-Jewish--especially red-haired, freckle-faced Irish--women. My wife's maiden name was Callahan. Not by design but by chance, the four women I courted after my divorce were named, in order of appearance, Finnegan, O'Brien (from Canton, Ohio), Callahan (no relation to my ex-wife) and another O'Brien (this one from County Cork, no less).
More than content, I was relieved to find this eighteen- and then nineteen- and then twenty-year-old a companion with whom I might share occasional evenings during that part of each week when I was the professor who lived in a Berkeley apartment, never my home up north and not ever my nights. I must admit, however, that I did fantasize such a blessing.
But an unstated code of honorable conduct exists between professor and student, a code I have always honored. Did Milli have her own fantasies? Part of that unstated code required that neither she nor I ever pose such a question.
Milli's life came to me over the four years in occasional trickles, occasional floods. She'd been born into impoverished Irish blue-collar ("Pigshit Irish, Chester, not lace curtain--bricklayers, truck drivers.") South Boston. During grade school and high school, evenings and weekends and summers were given to chores and jobs to pay her way.
"To my four older brothers and two older sisters I was unsalaried hired help, meaning I did the laundry, the beds, the dishes, the cooking. My Aunt Millicent in ritzy Beacon Hill had money. Her husband, Uncle Pat, of course, was a corrupt precinct captain who earned outside his office three times the money he earned inside. Ah, but me uncle was a loving boyo. He loved his niece dearly, he did, he did. Aunt Millicent loved me, too. But she loved me because I was her namesake.
"'You got to get away from Boston, away from the family, to California, girl. And away from that terrible family. If I could send you further west I'd do it, but the land ends there in California. You'll go to a foine Catholic college, Millicent, run by the Christian Brothers, not the Jesuits. You'll get a foine education. I got no daughters. You are my daughter, Millicent, even if you spell it M-i-l-l-i and your name's O'Keefe.'
"So here I am, Chester, and I am getting a 'foine education,' thanks to Aunt Millicent and thanks to you. My Aunt Millicent told me, 'Never be poor, Millicent. Sell your soul and your pretty little Irish ass if it comes to that but never, never be poor. I've tried poor and I've tried rich, and rich is much, much better. That's why I'm sending you to the Christian Brothers. The Christian Brothers know how to survive.'
"I swear, Chester, I will never be poor. Never never never. I'm only twenty next month, but I know Aunt Millicent is right: rich is better. I'll slit my wrists if I'm not very, very rich before I'm thirty-five. But ... (and this in a magnificent Dooblin accent) and after I slit my wrists and maybe my throat, how will I confess to Father McConnaghy?"
"I don't do confession, Milli. I'm a Jew. We Jews admit nothing. Not even to ourselves."
"Maybe I'll convert, me boyo. How do you say boyo in Hebrew?"
"I don't do Hebrew. In Yiddish ... lantzman, I'd guess."
"Not as pretty in the ear as boyo."
Can you appreciate by now why I fell in love with Milli O'Keefe?
In the four years of our friendship, Milli and I often went to movies or plays or concerts together. Neither of us ever invited the other into our homes. I took Milli to lunches and dinners in Moraga (the home of Saint Mary's College) and Berkeley and (five, maybe six times) to toney restaurants in San Francisco. By her junior year we were embracing and kissing each other (no longer just on the cheek) at meetings and farewells, sitting at tables long after dessert, walking arm-in-arm (sometimes hand-in-hand) along the sidewalks.
We confided in each other as lovers do, sharing hopes, regrets, anxieties. But we were never lovers. Regarding our temptations, we behaved like diplomats at the signing of a mutual-aid pact. Long-term benefits outweighed immediate pleasures.
After she graduated in 1986, Milli worked in the offices of a group of attorneys in San Francisco. Did she harbor secret ambitions to be a lawyer? ("Never, Chester. I don't want to defend laws I don't believe in.") We talked occasionally on the phone the next two years, exchanged holiday greetings, met less and less frequently. We went our separate ways and lost contact with each other.
About six years after Milli graduated, I received a long letter from her from Boston. The letter arrived three days before Christmas. After the holidays she'd be returning to her apartment in Paris, where she was trying to write a novel. "About, of all things, a woman determined to make it in a man's world. Can I send it to you when I finish it, Chester? If I finish it? Whatever it turns out to be."
I sent Milli a Christmas card at her Paris address, urging her to send the manuscript. She did not reply. I nursed my disappointment for several months and then secured other, more immediate disappointments ready and willing to take their place in line.
Three or four years after that exchange of letters to Paris, about ten years after she graduated (which made Milli thirty-two years old,) I was in San Francisco to attend a meeting at the Clift Hotel. As I started toward the entrance, I saw a woman rushing out of the hotel, frantically signaling for a taxi. She was surely a model or an actress. Poised, self-assured, glamorous, she was a woman of class, a woman of authority. The woman glanced up. On seeing me, she shouted, "Chester! Chester, is that you?"
I recognized the voice before I recognized the face. When she ran from the waiting taxi and leaped at me and kissed me and I held her, I wanted to rush her off to my home in Occidental and talk and talk and talk. With Milli no longer a student and with ten years having passed, I had no reason to punish myself with codes of conduct.
But Milli was in a hurry. She had an appointment, she said, and she was already late. "Will you be at Saint Mary's tomorrow?"
"I'll call you early afternoon."
We embraced. She hurried off and then ran back to grab and hug me again. It was not just her clothes, nor her manner that assured me she was not poor. Her scent had to be very rare, very exotic, very expensive. I am not a connisseur of wine, but (the only poor member of my family on both sides back fifty years) I am a connisseur of wealth. Milli was wealthy, very wealthy.
Unconcerned about my insights, perhaps unaware of them, she planted a long, wet kiss on the tip of my nose. "Oh," she laughed, "I miss that big beautiful schnozzola."
As the taxi left the curb she waved through the open window and shouted, "Tomorrow. One o'clock. Your office. You better be there, sucker."
Milli called at one o'clock sharp. Was I still living on my farm in Occidental? I was. Wasn't the semester almost over? It was. In fact, I informed her that, starting the following week, I'd be in Occidental all summer.
"Chester, would you be willing to have a no-touchee guest for an overnight in the middle of the week?"
"Name of guest?"
"Millicent. Last name withheld on advice of counsel."
"Will you bring your manuscript?"
"It's not finished. Incidentally, the title is Alexandra's Daughter."
"I don't have it with me."
"You bring it or I flunk you."
"I'll bring it."
"What day next week is best for you, Millicent O?"
"How is Wednesday, O master?"
"Do you know how to get to Occidental?"
"Hey, I am a college graduate. I have my own web page. I also have one of those high-tech thingeys in my car. I push a button and I get a virtual map that leads me to your virtual door."
"Milli, I'm glad you're back in my life." Why, I'm not sure now, but the reference to her having her own website had no impact on me. Since then, starting a few years ago, I have gone on the Internet, trying to locate her website; but I was never successful.
"I'll be at your home in Occidental at noon next Wednesday. You should know that I am now a gourmet chef, graduate of Tellevant, Paris, France, Europe. I'll bring food. I'll cook you up a mess, maybe of greens."
"And you should know that I am now a famous garlic grower, two garlic books out there and a big poster. To hell with academic papers and books."
"Wait a minute. You grow garlic, Chester?"
"I told you. Been growing garlic for about ten years. I have eighty-seven varieties from twenty-two countries, all different. Last October, I put thirty thousand cloves in the ground. I'll be harvesting in a few weeks. I have two books published about garlic and a poster and they're selling all over the world."
"Eighty-seven varieties. Thirty thou--Chester, do you believe in synchronicity?"
"Is that an Aramaic word?"
"Chester, I have a story to tell you. Are your garlic books and your poster at your house? In bookstores?"
"Of course, both house and bookstores."
"Milli? You there? This connection..."
"Do you write about garlic and health in those books?"
"My God. Wednesday. Noon. Chester ... my God, talk about synchronicity."
I was in the field most of Wednesday morning, trying to identify the garlics that would be the first to be harvested in the coming days. At exactly noon a blue Mercedes convertible came oozing down Lapham Lane. It could not be Milli O'Keefe. The Milli I knew ten years ago had driven an old battered Honda.
That long, naked arm waving above the blue Mercedes body and the laughter sailing down across the field could only belong to Milli O'Keefe. My heart racing, I pretended nonchalance as I walked up across the field to the parking area behind my curing shed. A laughing red-haired hurricane was out of the Mercedes and sweeping down the sidewalk. And there was that buoyant, rich, audacious Milli voice.
"Hey, Farmer John, think the rain'll hurt the rhubarb?"
As we hugged and kissed, I could no longer feign nonchalance; but I did manage discretion. My cat Sadie had accompanied me along the concrete walkway to the meeting. Milli grabbed her, lifted her high, sang to her all sorts of endearing words. Sadie, who usually clawed strangers who dared to touch her, clung to Milli as if the tall redhead were her long-lost mother.
Milli was wearing shorts that consisted of not much more than a belt and a halter that was, it appeared, composed only of straps. She kept adjusting body parts, I kept gasping and admiring, she kept on laughing and adjusting.
"Damn," she said, "coming up Highway 101 those truckers way up there above me kept leaning over and looking down and honking their horns, and I kept waving. I swear there were almost ten wrecks. Oh, Chester, I'm so glad to be here with you. Let's eat. I brought a picnic basket full of goodies, including champagne and wine."
She deposited the now-enchanted Sadie on the ground, returned to her car for the basket, and then the three of us walked through the redwoods to the house. I carried the wicker basket, which was fresh out of some expensive mail order catalogue, probably Williams of Sonoma. The bottle of white wine and the bottle of champagne had been riding in the trunk in buckets of ice and freezing bags for two hours. The ten or twelve plastic containers and plates and silver and red-checkered napkins were covered with a red-checkered tablecloth.
In the house, while Milli (Sadie at her heels) toured my rooms and used the bathroom, I opened the champagne. Outside on the south deck, I spread the cloth on a table from which we could, as we ate, look toward the far redwoods and watch the late afternoon fog roll in from the ocean just about, I guessed, when we'd be having our coffee.
Milli, talking, singing, laughing, moved in and out of the house, setting places, distributing bowls and platters and silver, asked about me, about my life as teacher, writer, farmer.
"Forget lover. I don't want to hear it."
She'd taken off her shoes, and while we ate and drank she stretched to take the afternoon sun. Her body appeared to be at least ninety percent legs. Sadie, stretched out on the nearby railing, was certainly dreaming of being once more, perhaps even forever, in Milli's arms.
The conversation was chaotic until we reached the dessert, a lemon tart Milli had made that morning.
"Sweets for the sweet," she said, "tarts from the tart."
The coffee was Arabian Mocha Sanani, which she'd bought at Peets in San Francisco just for me.
Then, out of her chair, Milli dragged a redwood recliner from another part of the deck, and pretending to purr like a kitten, she settled down into the cushions.
"Okay, now we talk. First, are you in love? Do you have a new woman?"
"No woman, new or old. Am I in love? Yes. With you."
"Not allowed, old-timer. Honestly, let's be straight-arrow here. Can we sleep together tonight without fucking?"
"I doubt it. We can sleep together, yes. But without ... I want to call it making love. No, we can't. I will get down on my knees and beg."
"Chester, be good. You promised. I'll leave right now. No, I won't."
"I promised ten years ago."
"Promises are for eternity. Alexandra Bergson believed that. Okay, let's talk garlic. That's garlic in those boxes down there in the field, right? Oh, God, you won't believe ... eighty-seven varieties of garlic. I want to work in the field tomorrow. I want to dig and smell and taste and eat. Garlic, garlic, garlic. Tell me what you've done, what you're doing, then I want to see your garlic books and that poster. But first things first. Health talk--tell me everything you know about garlic and health. The proven stuff, not the folklore."
I talked for about twenty minutes, reciting most of the information I've included in my books, information received from a variety of sources, almost all of them respectable universities in the U.S., Germany, India, China, Japan. When I mentioned that during World War Two, before they had antibiotics, Russian soldiers treated wounds with raw garlic, Milli sat up, eyes wide. When she tried to talk, she stammered.
"Is that ... Is that honest ... honest to G-God true, Chester?"
"That's not just anecdotal; it's documented history."
She sat up very slowly, left the lounge, hugged herself and shivered. The fog had started in over the redwoods, and the breeze had turned cool, almost cold.
"Let's go inside," Milli said. "I need to be warm when I tell you what I have to tell you."
"Did you bring your manuscript?"
"You asked me to. Don't I do whatever you ask me to do? Wait, don't you dare answer that. Yes. And it's finished. At least this draft is finished. It's not O Pioneers! but it's.... "And Milli broke into tears. "Oh, G-God, Ch-Chester."
I held her in my arms for some time and then all but carried her into the house. I placed her on the sofa and covered her with a blanket. I brought her a box of tissues and sat beside her until she stopped sobbing.
"I'm sorry, Chester. May ... May I have a cup of coffee?"
"You can have my life, Milli."
She cried again, not so hysterically this time, until her strength was gone. I stayed at her side. She shifted her body so she could lay her head in my lap, and she promptly dropped into sleep. She did not stir when I shifted her head onto a large pillow.
I was working at my computer in my study when a light tap on the door was followed by a "Hi." Milli stood in the doorway, sleepy-eyed, smiling, a pale-faced, anxious child apologizing for some offence. "Mind if I take a shower? Any wine left?"
"Sure. You'll find towels and soap in the usual cupboards. You strong enough to stay up for a while? It's cool enough to build a fire."
"A fire would be lovely. In fact, a fire's required. I'll be right down." She started to leave and then returned. "Forgive me, Chester. I didn't intend to be so dramatic. Promised myself I'd not do that. I hate people who break promises. Don't go away." Then she stepped up behind me; and from behind, she put her arms around me. "I hope you won't hate me."
I thought she was referring to her insistence that we not be lovers and I said, "Milli, you can never make me hate you."
"Don't be too sure," she said.
A few minutes later, I heard the shower drumming on the walls of the upstairs bathroom. I built a fire in the iron stove, washed the dishes, cleared the remains of the meal, readied two wineglasses, put on my favorite CD and, after a brief debate with myself, decided to let Milli have my bed for the night. I would sleep on the sofa. Sadie normally appreciates my presence on the sofa so she can settle in at my shoulder, but tonight I knew the fickle feline would forsake me for her new love.
When Milli danced her way down the steps she was once again her effervescent self. She was wearing a pale-blue T-shirt (and, my God, look at that mass of red hair!) and faded jeans. Her bare feet were long and strong, with magnificent ankles. Nails on toes and fingers glowed with a pink that was almost but not quite red.
"Damn," I said, "even your feet are beautiful."
"I want a copy of that CD," she said.
"That's not your generation's music. That's mine."
"The reason I want it," she said. She read the title on the plastic jacket. "Knew it was Ray Charles. Never heard of Betty Carter. She makes me think of a luscious chocolate cake."
"You ought to be a writer. When do I see your novel?"
She dropped onto the sofa and accepted the glass of wine and accepted Sadie's bulk.
"Let me talk," she said. She stroked Sadie's head and back and concentrated, as if preparing herself for a launch into an alien sky. "No interruptions. No questions. After I'm through, you can tell me if you want me to stay or go, if you want me to come back some time or stay away forever."
"I'm serious. I'm going to be in San Francisco for three more weeks. I'd love to come up once a week, overnight, and work with you in the field. I want to see and feel and smell and taste those different garlics. But if you don't want me to after ... after I talk, just say so. No. Stop. Don't say anything now. I know you want to say I'm always welcome but don't talk. Not yet."
I sat back, willing to let her decide the evening's program.
She studied the flames in the iron stove as she continued stroking the now-sleeping Sadie, and then after a deep breath, she started. During her recital, which went on without a word from me for about fifteen minutes, I filled her wineglass twice. Sadie never stirred.
"While I was working for those San Francisco attorneys--remember? Right after I graduated?--I met a man from London. Very rich. A banker. European-American investments. He set me up in an apartment in New York. I was free to do what I wished except I was to be available whenever he came to town.
"He came to town once a week, sometimes once every two weeks. He paid me a very high salary. I mean very. Yes. A salary. I was an employee. I was one of about five such employees he had stashed away in various countries. Each of us listed as a consultant. Tax write-offs.
"After a year or so I was twenty-six years old. Too old for 'Al-bair.' He gave me a big bonus and I was out. I decided that day I'd create my own fate. Like Alexandra. But I didn't have a farm. I did have other benefits. Beauty and brains. I'm a great dancer, and I speak three languages almost fluently. Didn't know that? No reason you should.
"I put an ad in the International Herald Tribune. Escort service. One thing led to another, one rich man led to another even richer man. Word of mouth, so to speak. In five years I had half a million bucks in the bank. Thanks to my clients I also had a primo portfolio. Went back to Paris, lived there for two years, worked on my novel. My parents didn't own the clothes on their backs; they were deep in debt. I bought them the apartment house I was born in plus three other apartments in the building. They're receiving rent money now instead of paying it.
"So, I'm not all evil. Whenever they asked about my job I said it was 'international relations,' which was the truth.
"Last year, after I finished the first draft of the novel, I started my own escort service. Thirty-two years old now, I can't command as high a fee for myself as I could when I was twenty-four. That's right. Fee, not salary. I'll continue one more year, maybe two. By then I'll be too old to earn much more than a checkout clerk at a supermarket. I'll quit and live the rest of my life however, wherever, I wish. Probably in Paris. Maybe Florence or Siena. Are you disgusted, Chester?"
Shocked, yes; disgusted, no.
No, not shocked. Not even especially surprised. I guess I should have known. Hadn't there been clues I'd not so much missed as refused to see?
"You're very quiet, Chester. Are you trying to think of a way to be kind without being honest? Do you understand why I could never sleep with you? I mean not sleep but make love to you? Not make love, I mean fuck? You deserve better than Milli O'Keefe. I'll find someone some day whom I'll marry, and we'll have two-and-a-half kids and live in a gated village and own a dog, a cat and two canaries in a cage; and then we'll divorce. I love you, Chester. I won't ever love any other man."
"Will you marry me, Milli?"
Milli's face (no other way to describe it) sent tears into the air like bomb fragments. She leaped from the sofa with such force that Sadie ran beneath the sofa to hide. Still weeping, Milli knelt in front of the sofa, drew Sadie out and scooped her up in her arms. She continued sobbing into the willing Sadie's long gray fur. When I turned her around and took her into my arms, she did not resist; but she kept hold of Sadie, as if there were strength to be drawn from the tiny buffering body between us.
"There's more," she said.
She sat on the sofa again, Sadie still in her arms. I rebuilt the fire and poured more wine.
"The garlic," I said. "And the novel."
Milli drank the wine as if it were water, in one long swallow. I opened another bottle, one of my own, and returned to the sofa to pour again.
"You grow garlic."
"I grow garlic."
"I've been using garlic to cure myself. A garlic salve."
"A garlic salve?"
"Is there an echo in here?"
"Cure yourself of what?"
"Okay, here goes. I was in India, Bengal, a province called Orissa, with ... with one of my clients. I got sick. Very sick. Sores all over my body. I know, I know, but wait, don't rush to judgment. A British health worker told me it was the water. My client, a Belgian industrialist, just ran. He left me there, stranded.
"The British health worker brought an old Indian woman to see me. She looked at my body and took out one of several jars she had in a sack. She opened the jar. It was a yellow-brown salve that stank like--worse than--the foulest shit you can imagine. She rubbed it on my body, all over my body. She came every morning, every evening. Five days. Her hands were so soft, so tender. In six days the sores were gone. And not a single scar.
"The Brit managed to get the woman to understand I needed to know what it was, and I'd pay for more. The woman invited me to her shack to watch her make the salve. Garlic. I recognized it, of course. She peeled the cloves and mashed them in a bowl with curry and some other herbs. She poured in honey. That was it--garlic, curry, mysterious herbs, honey. Dark honey, almost black.
"The Brit said she said she only used that specific garlic. There were several other garlics in the market stalls but the other garlics were no good. That's what she said."
I waited, trying to say something supportive, something that would not sound arrogant. If I were asked to put into a book all the stories I've heard about secret mixes containing garlic and how they cured this or that disease, I'd need four or five hundred pages.
"Have you used the salve since you left India?"
"Promise you won't laugh."
"One of my occupational hazards is, as you've been thinking, disease. As you've been thinking, AIDS."
"It crossed my mind."
"Two years ago, about three months before I went to Bengal, I tested HIV-positive. I've been using the garlic salve for two years. Every day. All over my body. I put it on in the morning, keep it on for four or five hours, then I shower, with lavender soap, lavender shampoo. My blood tests three months ago showed me clear and clean. No HIV. Not a trace."
"I suspect you know, Millie, that recent research indicates that there is a minority of people who've been diagnosed as HIV-positive who are clean three or four years later. Their immune system has apparently absorbed and neutralized the virus. There are all kinds of arguments about how and why. And there are many scientists who have many doubts."
"I've heard. Every month I send the woman in Orissa money. She sends me the salve. I thank God, or maybe Vishnu, for that Brit and that Indian woman and that garlic salve. Would any garlic work? Could I make it myself? I don't know. I don't want to take a chance."
"Do you remember what the garlic looked like?"
"I remember it as if it were my child's face in front of me, if I had a child."
"Color of skin?"
"Purple. Dark, dark purple."
"Remember how many cloves?"
"Every bulb had four cloves, each clove was big and every clove had purple-striped skin."
"Did you taste it?"
"Of course. Sometimes when she sends me the salve, she sends me bulbs, too. It's also the only garlic I eat. I usually eat it the same morning I use the salve. The Indian woman gave me green leaves to eat. The Brit said it was parsley. I use mouthwash a lot. And I own stock in a licorice factory in Spain."
"They serve parsley in Spain with raw garlic to cut the bite and the odor."
"It was very hot. The Indian woman said the honey took away the heat."
"Right. Sweetness will counter the heat of herbs or spices like garlic or chili peppers. Do you have any bulbs or cloves at home?"
"Chester, my home for the last three years has been a flat in about five different countries. No, I don't have any with me, but I can get some. It will take a week or two. Do you want to plant it?"
"Very much. And taste it."
"You don't think I'm one of these New Age loonies, do you, Chester? Are you humoring me?"
"I believe you."
"But? I hear a but in your voice."
"No but in my voice or my heart. Okay, maybe I have a big butt--double T--but the but doesn't matter."
"But? But? But?"
"But you might be cured as much by your mindset as by the garlic. But-but-but, it doesn't matter how you've done it--you've done it. You're clean."
Milli, slightly drunk now and tired, yawned. "I better go to bed. Can we work out in the field tomorrow?"
"You bet. I want to watch you bend over. To pick weeds. Let me get your bed set."
"You don't want to sleep with me now, do you?"
"I want to so much I could scream. I'd marry you three minutes from now if you said yes. But you will decide if and when it ever happens. And I am serious..."
"I know you are. When you ask me to marry you, I know you're serious. I might marry you twenty years from now, Chester, when my kids are out of the house and you need a firm female hand to help you find your dick to pee."
"I love you, Milli. I've loved you ever since you walked into my office that morning at ten o'clock to talk to me about O Pioneers! And--"
"And that exclamation point. Emphasis, Professor. Pioneers are explorers, adventurers, independent, self-reliant, Professor. Exclaim their courage, exclaim their importance, exclaim their superiority to ordinary people. That's why Whitman and then Cather used that exclamation point, Professor. God, Chester, how could you love such a strident, self-righteous, naïve voice as that eighteen-year-old--"
"Miss O'Keefe, Alexandra's father was the pioneer."
"Professor, Alexandra Bergson was the pioneer. She was a strong, independent American woman who took on the world, Professor."
"Why is the feminist movement scorning Willa Cather, Miss O'Keefe?"
"Because, Professor, Willa Cather is a woman who has equal love for men and women."
A long pause, during which Milli's eyes filled with tears.
"We have recreated the class almost word-for-word, Chester. Oh, God, I yearn yearn yearn to be Alexandra."
"You have just received an A-plus."
"Can we talk about my manuscript tomorrow? Before I leave?"
"Only then? Not tonight?"
"You haven't read it, and I'm exhausted."
"Tomorrow. Will you let me read the manuscript tonight?"
Milli tenderly settled the still-sleeping Sadie onto a pillow, went upstairs and returned, coming down the stairs this time slowly, quietly. After she handed me a small box that had once contained a ream of paper she leaned over to kiss my mouth.
"I love you more than I've ever loved anyone in the world, except Alexandra Bergson." She stumbled as she climbed the stairs and then she returned. "Your garlic books. I want to see them. I might not get into them tonight, but when I wake up, I always have time to read while I let that salve cook my body."
"You brought some salve with you?"
"I told you. I use it every morning."
"Can I see it?"
"Tomorrow morning. You'll know when I open the jar." Then, carrying a copy of each of my garlic books and grunting with exhaustion, Milli climbed the stairs. Sadie, the creepy little traitor, followed her.
I read until dawn, turning over the last page of Alexandra's Daughter two minutes before Sadie came down from her lover's bed to be fed. Not quite six o'clock.
As quietly as possible, I opened a can of flaked fish for La Chat. After she ate, she and I tippy-toed outside. I brought Milli's box of pages with me. Needing to sit over coffee, to think about Alexandra's Daughter, I drove down the hill to the Union Hotel Café. I could bring back some of Barbara Gonnella's muffins and scones for Milli's breakfast. She would probably sleep for another hour or two.
With the manuscript in the box before me, I sat at a table in the early-morning sun and tried to convince myself that the story I'd read all night was not a memoir, was not an autobiography. Milli O'Keefe was not Catherine Sullivan. Catherine Sullivan had used her beauty and her brains to satisfy a score of carefully selected, very wealthy businessmen and politicians, and had satisfied herself by securing a fortune currently ensconced in two banks in the United States, one bank in Geneva and one bank in Tokyo, with stocks and bonds greater in value than the annual budget for Rwanda.
Catherine Sullivan, a still-young woman who, as she built her fortune, remained in firm control of her soul. Catherine Sullivan, now having terminated her final liaison, will live only to read and write. That is all she desires. Catherine Sullivan will lead a life of solitary pleasure, perhaps in New Mexico, perhaps in Vermont, perhaps in both.
On the last page of Alexandra's Daughter, the last two words: Hello, life.
When I drove down Lapham Lane, I realized as I approached my home that Milli's Mercedes was gone.
On the dining table, a page.
I can't talk about it. I'll call you. I love you, Chester. Why didn't I marry you? Maybe someday I will.
You'll hear from me. I held Sadie for ten minutes before I left.
I took the liberty of taking your two beautiful garlic books with me. Thanks. I'll send you an address because I want a poster.
I saw the one you have on the wall. It is beautiful. So are you.
The jar on the table is for you. I'll send you the garlic when it arrives from Bengal.
Always and forever: your devoted
I called the Clift Hotel in San Francisco later that morning, thinking that by then she would be back in the city. No guest named Millicent O'Keefe was or had been registered at the hotel.
Milli O'Keefe, I cannot endure your dropping into and out of my life. I want you here now, to live with me. Now. * * * *
I have not heard from Milli. I have not received the purple-skinned garlic.
I have kept the jar of salve. It is upstairs in my medicine cabinet.
Milli, please come back to me.