Suitable for framing
All my life I wanted to live in a magazine page—those perfect pictures of perfect rooms. The sun is always golden, the tables always dusted, fresh flowers always in bloom. Once in a while I’d notice that there was so much furniture in a room there was no place to walk, or that a sofa had been placed right in front of the door, making it impossible to enter or leave the perfect room. But it didn’t matter. It was perfection, frozen in time. Always summer. Always the day after the cleaning lady.
My own apartments, and now house, have always been unique, interesting, comfortable, fun. They tend to look like I live upstairs from a consignment shop. People are fascinated, there’s something to look at everywhere, not a flat surface uncovered. From the six foot tall purple mannequin with the glass table cantilevered from her midriff and gold studs down the front, to the seven foot round purely decorate clock face on the fireplace (both formerly shop displays at Nordstrom’s), to Christmas tree that’s usually up until May... My décor is nothing if not eclectic. But it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever seen in a magazine.
I always wondered what life would be like in one of these places. No accumulations of magazines and catalogs. No skyscrapers of books. Would you feel somehow more free or be afraid to muss the sofa cushion? Would there be less distractions, or would you spend all your time cleaning up.
The closest I ever got was having my own picture in a magazine...
It started in the card shop. I’d come into town to get some cough syrup, but the town is so tiny you can walk from one end to the other in less time than it takes to park in most cities. So I parked in the middle, across from the post office and in front of the card shop, and I decided I needed one of those rollerball pens, the kind with the windows that let you see the ink lolling around, like waves in a bottle.
I’m a writer, and while I always use a computer to write I still have this somewhat unnatural attraction to pens of any kind and these are among my favorites. I didn’t really need them, I wanted them. I was trying to choose between green and purple ink, toying with the wild idea of buying both, when I heard the normally calm proprietress of the store raise her voice.
“No, I told you before, no taupe.”
I’d never heard the proprietress raise her voice before—not even when some kid tried to steal a genuine reproduction of a Babe Ruth baseball card from her general-store-like selection of items ranging from office supplies to baby toys.
“No!” she yelled, her grip on the phone turning her fingers white. “No beige, either. I told you, I have ribbon in white, red, blue and pink. That’s it. That’s all.”
I was torn between figuring out what the problem was, and adding a red pen to my possible list of choices. Instead I coughed.
“No ecru. No sand. No eggshell. No, no, no. I’ve told five of you people already, stop calling me!” she spat as she hung up the phone with a force that could have shattered it, had it not been made out of high-impact styrene formed in the shape of cable car.
This was the most excitement I’d heard in town since a renegade group of cows got loose from the dairy and ran down the main street, Highway 1, mooing at the top of their lungs. If they’d just been quiet it would have been possible that no one would even have noticed, but all that mooing was hard to ignore, even at noon when the town clock always mooed.
By this time I’d decided I needed all three pen colors, so I went up to the counter to pay.
“That damned woman,” the proprietress sighed.
I didn’t really want to know more than this, so I didn’t ask. I just coughed.
“She comes into town and suddenly I’m supposed to stock taupe ribbon. First one assistant calls. Then another. At least five have called me now like I could wave a wand and make it appear.” (She actually said, “like I could pull it out of my ass,” but she probably wouldn’t want me quoting her on that.)
“These are $2.99 each, aren’t they?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I’ve seen that Martha on TV. ‘The perfect potato’ or ‘the perfect pillow’ or ‘the perfect piece of toast.’ Life’s not perfect.”
Now I was curious. “Martha Stewart?” I asked, half talking, half coughing, not considering the consequences.
“That’s the one,” she answered back, scowling. “People out here only ever want red, white, blue or pink ribbon, so that’s what I stock. But no, that’s not good enough for her.”
“Do you know where she is?” I asked, trying to sound casual but coming off as tubercular. The truth was, I was fascinated by Martha Stewart and I had a cough that had my wife calling me “Typhoid Mary,” affectionately, of course. I knew a lot of people felt about her the way this woman did, but I personally found her mesmerizing. She presented this dream world where everything could, no, should be perfect. And she made it seem as if you could make it yourself, in your spare time, with a pen knife, a hot-glue gun and $200 in dried roses.
“Each of them asked if I delivered, like I had wheels for feet.”
“Hmm, uh, where is she?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I don’t have ecru and I don’t have wheels for feet. That’s $9.66,” she said, throwing my pens into a small blue plastic bag with a line drawing of a dog wearing a baseball cap with a famous tractor logo on it.
As I left the building I heard Erica Kane on TV’s All My Children weeping, “So what if she wasn’t my baby!”
My little town, Point Reyes, California, suddenly looked different. It had always projected a sense that time had stopped in the mid-1800’s on a small western town. It was charming—not quite Disney-cute, but still rustic and not unlike the stage set of a town, just a block long.
I wondered who else Martha’s minions had accosted by phone. They should have been calling Toby’s Feed Barn, where Chris, Toby’s nephew or grandson or something surely would have Taupe ribbon. Chris still ran the feed barn, but had turned the store into an upscale “country” tchotchke store with items imported from around the world for visiting city folk to marvel over. Chris might even have had Ecru. His dried flower arrangements were, well, Martha-perfect. But I suppose that someone clutching a cell-phone, looking desperately in the phone book for decorative ribbon would not think to call a Feed Barn.
After doing a little more coughing I went over to Toby’s and asked Chris if he’d heard about Martha. His face flushed. “She’s in town?” he asked excitedly, his face glowing as if I’d told that the Pope was going to bless his manger.
“So I hear. But that’s all I’ve heard. She was looking for taupe ribbon.”
“I’ve got taupe.” He blurted, almost uncontrollably. “I’ve even got ecru!”
“That’s what I thought, but her assistants keep calling the card shop.” I said, looking at a mug made in Sweden, its matte-glaze feeling like satin under my fingers. “Where do you find this stuff, Chris?”
“All she ever has is red, white, blue and pink. Lord, I knew I should have taken an ad in the phone book this year. I could have mentioned ribbons. But everyone here knows I’m here.” His eyes were darting back and forth, as if his brain was trying to figure out how to trace a long-ended cell-phone call so he could personally deliver the ribbon.
“Tell you what,” I started, “Give me five yards of both taupe and ecru.” If I run into her I can give it to her and tell you where she is.”
He looked at me suspiciously, as if I was just doing this so he might not have enough ribbon left. “Three yards each, that’s all. They want more, I’ll deliver it.”
“OK, OK, keep cool,” I said, turning away to cough so loud that some of the cow-embroidered pendants hanging above started to sway. I turned to see his lips tighten.
I bought the ribbon and personally had a heck of a time telling the taupe from the ecru. I used the red pen to write a little “E” on one and a little “T” on the other, just in case I forgot. Then I wondered if I should have used the purple pen. What would Martha have used?
While thinking this inane thing, I had a quick neck spasm. I knew what that meant. It meant I had to call my wife, Toni. We didn’t have a cell-phone—instead, she just sent out vibes when she wanted me to call. Either she’d heard about Martha, or my vibes had told her vibes, but one way or another, I would be dead and buried in the yard if I didn’t tell her.
I walked down to the pharmacy where I needed to get the prescription for this damned cough and used the sticky pay phone, the one on the right, the one that worked. The other had had some kind of chewing gum wrapper in its money slot for the last three years.
“She’s in town,” I spoke into the phone, first punctuating my sentence with a cough.
“Martha?” she replied.
My wife felt about Martha much as I did—this kind of dazed awe. The woman certainly was a powerhouse. We’d followed her from her first book full of pie crusts too perfect to be real. Pies with faux-dough grape leaves and bunches of tiny, perfect philo grapes. Pies with edges that looked like they’d had a run in with pinking shears. Pies with holes cut in the them in the shape of the fruit inside. And copper. Lots of copper.
Now, you probably don’t believe this, but it’s true. My wife is arguably the world’s best (or most annoying) charades player. You can make one wave with your right hand and she’ll scream, “Gone with the Wind!” No, that’s an easy one, you look to the left and she cries out, “Look Homeward, Angel!” The best was when I just had to look the slightest bit constipated for her to yell, “Titus Andronicus!” So it would have surprised me if she hadn’t known.
“Yes. Cough. The Martha.”
“That I don’t know—yet.” This time I turned away to cough.
“I’d guess the Feed Barn. She’ll need ribbon and he’s the only place within a 40-mile radius that has taupe,” she said, conspiratorially.
“Tried that,” I replied, my eyes constantly scanning the road for a blonde in a forest green Range Rover. “Her assistants kept trying to get it from the card shop!”
“Fools!” she hissed. “Call Margaret at Manka’s Lodge. That’s the only place in the entire county that wraps their bath towels with twine and serves perfectly roasted pork chops on the fireplace.”
“I’ll do that,” I answered, without saying, “Like I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
“No, I call her on the other line, hold on.”
She put me on hold on the Japanese answering and fax machine which insisted on playing hold music that sounded like something you’d hear in a Hello Kitty store. It was only a few bars long, so it would repeat and repeat, all the while sounding completely electronic, tinny, and so repetitious that hours later you’d find yourself humming it. I wondered if the composer got royalties each time someone was put on hold, or if they’d just let the answering machine compose the tune itself.
“I’m back. Margaret hasn’t heard anything. Of course, she asked me, ‘Who’s Martha Stewart?’ as if she herself wasn’t the West Marin version of Martha.
Margaret really was the closest thing to Martha, this side of the San Andreas fault. When she wanted new fencing, she searched for years until she found some freak little forest where all the trees were too close together, so that virtually every trunk was just 4 inches across. She bought the entire little forest, had it all ripped out and turned into what had to be the most beautiful fences—so perfectly rustic, so delicate yet strong, so, well perfect, that even the dead trees would have been proud. Her little lodge featured rare $800 Italian brass showerheads, perfect four-poster beds made out of logs and covered in pine boughs, and hand-forged ironwork on the custom-made doors. I watched her look through almost 4,000 typefaces and find none to her liking, so I had to custom design one for her.
There was a pause. I tried not to cough. The only reason I had this prescription is because my wife told me she would not be responsible for her actions if I continued to cough for one more day. It had been going on for two weeks now and even I was close to putting a plastic bag over my head. I used to go to the doctor after two hours of anything, but my wife didn’t believe in that, so now I only went if I was near death, or annoying my wife.
“Johnson’s!” I heard buzz in my ear drum, already a little vertiginous from the cough. “The perfect oyster! I just know it!”
This was such an obvious and assured assumption that I was momentarily stunned out of my cough.
“I’m driving out there. You stay in town and keep your eyes and ears open. If you see or hear anything, send me a vibe.” She hung up, and I knew she was half way to the car, keys in hand, but purse and license probably still on the kitchen counter.
No matter, my responsibility was basically over now. She’d been notified. She’d figured out the most probable location of the target Martha and she was on her way.
When Martha started out, her perfection was a different brand than she sold now. At first she was a kind of Hollywood glitz as seen through Connecticut. It was perfect farm houses and weddings with $500 per head catering which Martha and her magically invisible staff accomplished. Champagne flowed like a waterfall down stacked crystal glasses, gigantic copper trays were filled with hors de overs that were so small and complex that nuns could have gone blind making them. Her early books were basically big, glossy, full-color, well-typeset ads for Martha’s catering business. But they always had a very “don’t try this at home, kids,” feel to them.
We didn’t buy this first book. It was a present. From Speigel. The catalog company. We’d had some bad encounter with them, I think a box arrived with something living in it, or maybe it was dead, but it wasn’t good. They apologized profusely and sent this book, as if the perfection on its pages would rub off on us and better or memories of the folks at 60609 (Chicago’s zip code, memorized by a child by watching countless game shows where Speigel supplied the prizes. They were second only to “Dicker and Dicker of Beverly Hills” in name recognition among the pre-teen set in the 60’s.)
We didn’t buy her later books, either, we just somehow had them. I think people gave several as gifts, figuring that we were the kind of people who would respond to this. They were right.
Now, our house is far from perfect. Our garage is filled with boxes we haven’t unpacked in the nine years since we’ve moved here. Dust is our friend. Stacks of books and magazines are a prominent decorative motif.
Still, we’d followed Martha’s progress, and the real turning point was, for us, her first Thanksgiving special. From that moment forward we felt compelled to watch her every TV special and guest shot.
She was moving away from the “I’m a genius high-priced caterer” role and into her “I’m your Aunt who knows everything and I’ll tell you how to do it only you’d better do it exactly as I tell you,” role. But she still didn’t quite understand that not everyone had a refurbished barn/ballroom on their property which was the perfect place to host a thanksgiving for 25 of your nearest friends and their kids and pets.
The special featured a full tour of her perfect house, called Turkey Hill. It was perfect. Really. It was classic New England white clapboard with green shutters, rolling lawns, stone walls, trellises, even vegetable beds trimmed as if they were high-priced poodles.
We saw her dishes, from the most expensive, to her most charming “tag sale” finds. She had enough dishware to serve the entire population of Bakersfield, with a few bowls left over for the dogs. All of it was fabulous.
But the trick was, Martha wasn’t stuffy. She didn’t insist on all expensive dishes. She didn’t insist that each person’s place setting match the next. She had this delightful (to us anyway) eclectic streak, as if everyone could act “old money” and not bother to make things look “furniture store” perfect, but instead, but it “Rich Aunt” perfect.
This was an intriguing “new” Martha who didn’t insist on huge copper trays or imported crystal. This was a Martha who told you that if you could just press a few leaves between two pieces of inexpensive fabric, sew them up, press them, paint them around the edges with metallic gold paint you could get at virtually one craft store in New York City, then place them on the bottom of a stack of books for six weeks until they were perfectly flat, then place them at a perfect 45 degree angle on each place mat, you would have the perfect napkin. Home made. Just about $2 each. This was the Martha who brought in a happy man who’d written an entire book just about folding napkins, from those laughable (to him) origami swans and peacocks to minimalist foldings that turned a flat napkin into a burning candle or the dead sea scrolls.
By now my wife and I were staring at the screen, motionless.
Martha went on to show the tiny and rare depression-era glass turkey tureens she was going to use for the pumpkin soup at the children’s table, ladled out of a real pumpkin with fresh cream from one of the neighbor’s cows swirled on top in her initials (you’d use your own initials, of course, she’d grin).
We watched as a set of perfect antique work horses had a pair of perfect antique doors placed on them, and soon this rustic buffet looked like “all you can eat night” at the Vegas Hilton—only tasteful, of course. There’s enough food for 25 guests, and a TV crew of two dozen more. At least.
We watched as all the friends and family entered and try to look natural while they know damn well it’s really July and too frigging hot to wear all that wool and eat a bunch of hot Thanksgiving fare—all the while being filmed for posterity. Her giant, perfectly quaffed Chow dog sat by the door, so motionless you wondered if he’d just come back from a taxidermist. Her giant, perfect quaffed Siamese cat walked down the center of the table in a way that would have mortified the health department, though at one point I swear I saw the cat stop at a place setting and straighten the silverware. Unfortunately we weren’t taping this, so I couldn’t go back to watch an instant replay.
The kids get their own little table, with their own eclectic little chairs and place-settings. The centerpiece was a bunch of dried Indian corn in an arrangement that looked to me like a dinosaur’s head. I couldn’t imagine that this was intentional, it was too “off-theme,” but the kids couldn’t stop playing with it, making roaring noises that must have driven the sound crew mad.
The true piece de resistance was the Turkey. It was the perfect, golden thing, only like the pies in her early books, it was covered with what looked like golden grape leaves and bunches of grapes. Martha smiles as she slices through this pastry crust, a perfectly juicy turkey exposed inside.
Then her mother asks? “What’s that, Martha?” as if Martha had taste-tested one too many exotic animals on her poor old mother in the past.
Martha gritted her teeth, smiled and said, “It’s Turkey en croute, mother.” Gently placing some white meat on her mothers plate, then drizzled picture-perfect gravy on it.
The camera cut away before we could see Martha’s complete reaction. If it’s any indication, we never saw her mother in another shot, though.
From then on, “It’s turkey en croute, mother!” became a family joke. We weren’t making fun of Martha, really. We knew she was a driven, resourceful, creative, take-no-crap-from-anyone type of woman. We were impressed. Or hypnotized.
Then her magazine, “Martha Stewart Living” started publication. Martha on the cover, tending roses. Martha on the cover wrapping a package. Martha on the cover deveining shrimp.
We took advantage of the usual “charter subscriber” offer, whereby you get one issue for free, and if you don’t absolutely adore it, you write “cancel” on the bill. Then they continue to send you three or four more issues for free, anyway, because their accounting systems are so antiquated.
The magazine was quite breathtaking. Like Martha herself, it wasn’t frilly or traditionally feminine. It was as far as you could get from “Victoria” magazine where everything was set in pastels and pages of pictures lace masqueraded as feature stories.
Martha Stewart Living was slick, elegant, and beautiful, but in a sophisticated, dry, almost cold way. The body typeface was classic, but the headlines were a bold serif that looked almost corporate. The layout of geometric, simple, clean, with lots of pictures but all of them neatly arranged like small boxes of potpourri.
It was a look so deceptively simple and powerful that it would come to change the look of many magazines for years to come. It was asking its readers to come up to its level, at least style wise. The copy, however, still extolled the virtues of the perfect guest soap. Even cleaning the toilet was raised to “next-to-godliness” with a feature showing a heavenly white bathroom next to boxes containing blinding white cleaning apparatus on spotless white backgrounds. This was a bathroom untouched by human hands, much less their other ends. A white-chocolate Easter-bunny would have felt dirty here.
Martha showed you how to make your own candied violets, your own herb forest, your own boxwood centerpiece as if all of us had estates covered with greenery we could just clip and schlep inside.
What Martha never showed you was Renaldo, or any of her other gardeners or craft designers. Occasionally (more frequently as time passed), she’d introduce you to someone who baked the perfect baguette, someone who decorated the perfect cake, or someone who stuffed the perfect mattress. She was effusive in her praise of these people who had dedicated their lives to perfecting one thing.
Finally, we broke down and tried to make something she’d made. It was a Grand Marnier orange-flavored brioche oven-baked French toast. We had the Grand Marnier. We even had authentic pure orange extract. We didn’t have the brioche, so egg-bread would have to suffice. Of course, you had to start this 18 hours before you intended to eat breakfast. So the day before we assembled all the ingredients, covered and refrigerated. In the morning, we got up early to turn on the oven to bake the thing for an hour at 350 degrees.
The resulting concoction was wonderful, and not hard if you just planned your life around it.
(Cough—this one so big I thought I was going to lose a lung). I really didn’t know how much more of this I could take. I’d tried all my usual remedies to no avail. I’m sure Martha would have a solution, and if so, my wife would wangle it out of her.
In the mean time, I’d fill this prescription and then stake out the streets of the town (all three of them). The town pharmacy has a great sign outside, little colored plastic pieces forming various apothecary things as they might have looked in 1955. How this has remained intact for over 40 years is a mystery. If only it was back lit and someone could see a cross in the patterned plastic we could have a tourist attraction.
I went inside where they’d recently rearranged all the aisles so that they could see down them to make sure no one was rearranging them behind their backs. Or maybe so they could see the 18 kids who got out of school at 3 o’clock to make sure they weren’t trying to hide plastic model kits still unsold from the 70’s under in their baggy shorts.
The downside of this new arrangement was that no one knew where anything was, including the two people who worked there. But luckily they hadn’t moved the pharmacy area, a raised platform, bathed in greenish-white fluorescent light, in the back. The pharmacist almost glowed in his long doctor-like white polyester jacket. I went back to hand him my prescription, but there was someone else, a stranger.
Now, this isn’t the kind of town where someone from out-of-town becomes a curiosity. We get enough tourists looking for a rural experience not too far from the city that we’re used to it. We actually even like tourists because they mean our restaurants are actually quite good (except one the truck stop which had a floor so slippery from grease I couldn’t believe no one had slipped, sued and put them out of business—maybe truck drivers have shoes with extra traction for just such occasions—but then even this place was eventually taken over by two women chefs formerly of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and turned into an elegant little breakfast/lunch place called the “Pine Cone.”).
So I didn’t look at this guy and think, “Out-of-towner,” I looked at him, 6-foot tall, pressed plaid shirt and pressed khaki shorts with cuffs, and pressed socks with perfect caramel-colored suede French hiking boots and I thought, “out-of-towner.” In our little town if you are wearing two pieces of clothing that are in the same basic color family you are overdressed.
“Stewart,” he said. I didn’t really notice, I was too impressed that anyone could keep a crease on a pair of shorts. I was also trying to keep from coughing, because his cologne, which smelled kind of like an old saddle, an expensive old saddle, had irritated my throat.
“Ralph Lauren,” I thought, figuring that any cologne that smelled like an old saddle would have to be from Ralph. If it was from Calvin it would smell like the Ocean or a gen-x’r who hadn’t showered in a few days. If it had been cheap it would have had the same “Old Spice,” smell that virtually all cheap colognes have, a smell that makes me think of how old men smelled when I was a child.
“Stewart,” he repeated, “the doctor at the clinic called it in for an electrical burn.”
“Hot glue gun?” I thought. “High-voltage lighting cable?” my brain whirred. Pressed shorts? Had I been temporarily brain-dead?
“Martha Stewart?” I asked, involuntarily.
He nodded, and waved his hand at the pharmacist as if he was the only one on the planet who didn’t know who she was because obviously if I, a phlegmy phlegmatic wearing with wrinkled pants knew her, didn’t everyone?
My neck twitched. I didn’t dare go to the phone, lest I lose this guy.
“What’s—cough—she doing out—cough—here?” I asked, causally, as if nonchalance made me seem any less contagious.
“Filming a segment for her series,” he replied, turning back to the pharmacist. “I really need this now before we lose the light.”
“What’s the—cough—topic,” I managed to get out, before going into an unseemly coughing fit. I did cover my mouth and look apologetic, but unfortunately I couldn’t hear his reply. “I’m sorry, I...” I tried to get him to repeat it, but the pharmacist was handing him the prescription medicated cream.
I wondered if he was going to have to wrap it, or buy a quaint tin to put it in, just to make it a bit more elegant and cheerful for her, but he just went to the register to pay.
Now I had to decide between my health, and my life. If I lost this guy my wife would stop making dinner and I might die of starvation after a few months.
I decided I could get the prescription tomorrow—today I had to tail this guy. Unfortunately, even in the best of times I’d make a lousy spy—now my coughing could only have been overlooked by Helen Keller. He looked back at me and I just nodded and tried to appear as if I was going in a different direction.
Martha’s preppy-lackey got in his car, a rented minivan with dark tinted windows. I kept a respectable distance. He turned right. I knew it was a bit faster to turn left, go down B street (which is between Main and C, the only other streets in town), then meet up with him as Main turned into route 1. That way he wouldn’t see me following him, and I wouldn’t get stuck behind tourists trying to make a left turn to buy bait.
Sure enough, Mr. Pressed Shorts was there, and now I was right behind him. I looked to the right and left a lot, just in case he thought I was following him, though in retrospect this action didn’t make much sense.
He was driving west, over the San Andreas fault which had moved 20 feet in a single jump during the big San Francisco quake of 1908. He was passing the cow pasture, and the bakery that sold hard, sticky goods baked by a guy everyone called “The Troll.” He passed our street, and somehow it seemed unbelievable that Martha had actually driven past the end of our street. Thoughts like this were making me wonder if I wasn’t really an idiot and that ignorance was bliss but I just hadn’t figured it out yet.
He sailed right through the tiny town of Inverness which has a posted speed limit of 25 that no one ever obeys yet cops never sit in wait to give tourists tickets. Or tickets to tourists, take your pick.
My wife had to be right—if he kept going in this direction he would end up either driving to the oyster farm, the lighthouse, or into the Pacific ocean.
Now it occurred to me I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I would do if I actually met Martha. I did not have a good record for speaking with celebrities. When I was a teenager I was in a performing group that did shows, often at state fairs in the middle of summer while wearing heavy polyester sweaters, where we were the opening acts for famous people like Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, and the guy who played Potsie on Happy Days and thought he could sing.
I wanted to meet all these people (except the one who played Potsie), so I’d wander the hall right outside their dressing room, just in case they came out—I’d be there, as if I just happened to be there. And I never knew what to say.
So I usually ended up staring at them for a second (that felt like a minute) and saying, “Hi!” That’s it. Just “Hi.” Like an idiot. Couldn’t think of anything else. And they’d usually say, “Hello,” or perhaps “Hi,” or sometimes they’d turn to their agent or manager or whoever was there with them and say, “What is this kid doing here and why is he wearing a sweater in August?”
I remember meeting Dinah Shore. She still had her talk show and I loved her voice. That slow southern drawl made me sleepy. So I waited outside her dressing room, and she came out, and I was there in my heavy polyester sweater. I was basically standing in the middle of a narrow corridor, so she had to either knock me down or say something.
I stood there. Stared at her, and finally said--what else?--“Hi.” She looked at me, smiled, and drawled, “Hi,” then knocked me over so she could get by. OK, so she didn’t knock me over, so her manager or agent or flunky did, but I hit the wall with a smack which she probably didn’t hear because she was already busy discussing the details of a musical arrangement with her conductor. I had the wind knocked out of me, sitting on my butt in white pants on a dirty floor.
So now what was I going to say to Martha? “Hi?” I had to do better than that. “Hello,” at the very least. Maybe hand her my business card and tell her I’m available for website design. Yeah, like that would ever happen. I realized I had nothing to say to her except perhaps, “Turkey, in crute, mother.”
But I kept driving. We were in the National Seashore now, winding up a steep hill, then down through protected scrub brush. Suddenly, the minivan slowed down, and pulled over.
Was he going to confront me for following him? Should I just drive past him and pretend I wasn’t? Should I stop and see if he needed help? He stopped. I stopped. He got out. I watched. He looked at the back tire, not just flat, but one of those mini-spares you’re only supposed to drive on for a few miles until you can get a real tire.
He kicked the tire and then swore as he noticed a large black rubber mark across his hithertofore perfect suede hiking boots. I figured it was safe to get out of the car, and for a moment, I actually thought I was helping him, until I realized that my ulterior motive was to get him to take me to her.
“Can I help you?” I asked, managing a complete, if short sentence without a cough.
“I hope so, I’ve got to get this to Martha... weren’t you at the pharmacy” he asked, almost suspiciously, as if I were something out of Deliverance.
“I live out here, I was just driving home,” I lied, effortlessly.
“Oh,” I could see he felt guilty about thinking I was stalking him when I was just driving home, or so he thought. “Is the Hog Island Oyster Company out of your way?”
“Just a little,” I said honestly, “but that’s OK, get in and I’ll take you there, it’s just about five minutes from here.”
“I’ve just got to get something in the van,” he said, running back, grabbing the bag from the pharmacist, then running back to my car. I thought, “Much running. No panting. Must be nice to be 21.”
“So you work on the TV show?” I asked casually, feeling the twinge in my neck that told me that my wife was somehow listening to this and I’d better ask the right questions.
“Just starting up, really. We’re shooting a bunch of out-of-town segments in advance. Her schedule’s so full we have every minute planned, and this is going to make her late.” He said, sounding worried.
“I like the show,” I pretended not to be too interested. “I read she has a temper,” I fished. “I also read she backed over a bag of baby chickens, but I didn’t believe it.”
“I heard that, too. She wouldn’t back over chickens. Lighting guys who drop cables and burn her, maybe, but she loves chickens.” He laughed, then realized what he’d said. “I’m joking, you know.”
“Of course.” I knew he wasn’t, but I wasn’t sure if he was that lighting guy. “I don’t know how she runs a magazine, does a daily show, a radio show, writes those books and still manages time to make little flowers out of orange peels.” I was sincere.
“I think she’s on something...” he blurted, then covered, “I think it’s frosting. I’ve seen her spoon it right into her mouth, you know, all that sugar... Actually, I’ve never seen her sleep. Not on planes or driving to or from anyplace. We’re all dead-tired and she’s still fussing over the placement of a pansy.” He sounded sincere.
“That’s amazing, I get tired just taking out the trash,” I said, now wondering if we had passed the cut off and if I was destroying this impeccably dressed young man’s career in the television industry. I could imagine Martha hissing into a cell phone, “It’s back to selling ties at Nordstrom’s for you—you’ll never work in this business again!”
“Maybe she’s superhuman," I said, "you know, like a superhero but instead of a cape, she has a set of draperies made from sheets, edged with silk ribbon from that little place in San Francisco...”
“Bellocio, we taped there yesterday," he offered, relaxing, "she had the owner wrap a set of faux $20 pearl earrings in $80 worth of boxes and ribbons. Then she gave it to me for my girlfriend. That was so nice. Now I’m going to get fired.”
“No, probably not,” he said, sounding a bit disappointed, almost as if it would be a relief if he was. “It’s just putting us behind schedule, that’s all. I’ll probably just have to stay up late braiding seaweed for the photo shoot.”
I had no answer for this. I knew someone had to do things like braid seaweed for Martha’s miraculous magazine, but now I just had the image of this poor preppie, shivering in his neatly pressed khaki shorts, braiding seaweed alone in the dark. Of course, maybe this image of him, alone in the moonlight, might make it into the magazine. Even so, I felt sorry for him, even if he did have a full head of hair.
I saw the cutoff to the oyster farm. It’s hard to miss, because the entire road is paved in crushed oyster shell, and it gleamed unnaturally white in the sun. As I turned I wondered if perhaps Martha had it steam-cleaned.
Way up ahead I saw a coterie of people in light blues and greens, trucks, lights and a group of overdressed people in tweeds.
As we moved closer, I saw the circle open, and inside, was Martha. It was perfect, as if she were Venus rising from a half-shell of staff—it was so hypnotic I almost forgot to stop the car, until I saw people looking as if they’d run away if it didn’t mean losing their jobs when Martha got hit by a car instead of them.
As I stopped, my guest jumped out of the car, waved a quick, “Thanks,” then ran over to Martha with the salve. She didn’t look happy, but she also didn’t say anything, she just opened the bag, applied the salve. She clapped her hands and everyone headed towards the beach.
I saw a group of people who were far too well-dressed to be from this area. They were having their picture taken as part of a casual oyster BBQ picnic, but were all dressed as if they’re going to a Ralph Lauren’s grandson’s bris. People out here wear t-shirts and sweatshirts and jeans. Or pajamas—whatever’s comfortable. These people clearly weren’t from around here.
I recognized a Latino from town and moved casually towards him. He was wearing long rubber pants, long rubber gloves and a T-shirt that said “Hog Island.” He chuckled, “She limo’d them in from Stinson Beach.” I nodded appreciatively for this information.
I noticed the limo and headed towards it. The driver was laying on the hood, his hat on, his shirt off, working on his tan. I knew this guy from somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where. Maybe he was a waiter at the Station House Café, or he pumped gas at the Olema Campgrounds. It didn’t matter, I’d seen him, he’d seen me, we knew we were natives and they weren’t.
“Who are these people?” I asked.
“Heavy drinkers,” he said, nodding towards the limo’s bar which was littered with empty wine bottles.
“Who?” I said again, hoping this time I’ll get a more useful answer.
“Ah, I heard ‘em talking—they’re friends of some chick named Susie Thomkins…” (The multi-millionaress who started Esprit.) “A couple of em are people Sammy, the stylist, thought would look good in the picture. She almost used me, but my hair’s too long and I wouldn’t cut it for some picture in a dumb magazine.”
No wonder the pictures of people in the magazine always looked unreal. They are.
In the distance I heard Martha calling for someone named “Thackery.” I’d heard this name before—Sean Thackery—was some kind of wine expert, creating special blends in his backyard. He lead some expensive wine dinners at Margaret’s Lodge. The name sounded suspiciously made-up to me. I’d written a cable show years before with a character of the same name which, at the time, everyone told me sounded fake. It felt like the universe was folding around itself and I had somehow gotten stuck in the middle.
I did recognize a few faces, such as the guys who owned the Hog Island oyster company. The thin blonde guy was in the front. His heavyset bearded partner and his rotund family were hidden in the back. This really annoyed me. Now I wanted to be in the picture, both to represent real locals and heavyset people everywhere.
The pharmacy preppie was standing far behind Martha, trying desperately to be invisible. But I saw him and approached.
I talked fast so I could finish my thought before he can say “no,” — “I don’t mean to bother you, but do you think you could introduce me to Martha. I’m really impressed by her work and I’d just like to meet her.”
He looked at me as if I’ve asked him to pose naked while braiding seaweed. Then, and I’m not sure if I just imagined this, I see a little spark in his face, a twinge on his lips, as if this might be just enough to push her over the edge and fire him so he could go back home and join the family business, happy in the knowledge that he didn’t really want to be in broadcasting anyway.
“Sure, of course,” he said, walking towards Martha. I followed behind him, wondering what on earth I’m going to say. I hear Martha, “Did you forget to turn lights on under the oysters? I want them to glow.”
My preppie friend (I started to feel badly that I’d never asked him his name), moved so that Martha could see him, but didn’t say a word. He just stood there until she stopped and says, “Yes?”
“Martha, this nice gentleman drove me here when the van broke down, and he just wanted to meet you because he admires your work.” As he said it I wanted to smack him, because that’s just what I was going to say. Now what could I say? “Like he said”?
To her credit, Martha snapped into a “public” mode that was instantly warm. She turned, smiled and held out her hand.
Just in time, I remembered to close my mouth which had been gaping open.
Martha said, “Hello, thank you so much for your help.”
“Hi,” I said.
“I wish I had time to chat,” Martha said, “but we’re losing the light and need to get this shot in the next few minutes.”
“I don’t mean to be a bother, but it would be a dream come true if I could be in the picture” I rattled, unable to believe I asked it. I hadn’t even thought of it, it just came out of my mouth. I think I was channeling my wife. It was never a dream of mine (maybe just a hoot).
The poor preppie looked horror stricken, as if I’d suggested that they put my bald head on the cover of the magazine, thereby frightening small children and household pets.
I studied Martha’s face, up close. She was quite a handsome woman, even in person. She was slightly fuzzy, like a peach with professionally applied rouge, and gave off this almost audible buzz of energy. Yet her face gave absolutely no inkling of what she was thinking. It took her a few seconds of looking at me, no, inspecting me, saying nothing. She finally said, “Why of course, stand over there—on the right.”
She smiled and now I seemed to detect a combination clock/adding machine ticking in her head, calculating the precise time of sundown and how much this was costing. I didn’t mind that—I respected it and went to where she had pointed.
I smiled and was happy to get out of her direct gaze because it was starting to make me feel like an insect under a magnifying glass under the sun.
As I walked towards the group, I realized she’s placed me with the rotund people. No surprise. I got an idea and pulled a pen out of my pocket. Then I saw some young woman wearing a color that can only be described as “pear” pointing me to the right. I went there obediently. A tree branch snapped in front of my face. I stepped back to hold the branch away, which worked, except that now the tip of the branch was hitting the oyster farmer’s wife in the face, something she didn’t seem to enjoy. I held my arm out to get the branch out of her face and saw a small flash.
I heard, “Thank you, friends” and the group broke up. We’re done.
I went to look at the table of food, just to admire its intentionally rustic perfection. The woman in pear warns me, “They’re covered in styling gel and dusting powder for the picture, you can’t eat them,” as if just because of my size I’d automatically planned to eat everything in sight.
I see the overdressed group heading towards the limo. The driver yawned, put his shirt back on and opened the doors.
I headed for my car, then turned back to see the crew, including the pear person, hungrily eating everything on the table. I looked for Martha, but she had disappeared. I wonder if I’d just imagined her, but then I remember the combination chilly heat of her gaze.
I’m exhausted. All that stalking was tiring. I get into the car and wished I’d worn something else, like the hand-loomed sweater made by Susan Hayes of Point Reyes in exchange for my designing her logo.
“Crap,” I said out loud—remembering I hadn’t given Martha my business card. “Like it would have mattered,” I thought.
It took just a few minutes to drive home, but it was like leaving one world and entering another. Our home is wonderful, right on the edge of the woods and the seashore, but there are bags of mulch in full view, empty black-plastic planting pots in full sight, a wood pile that’s falling over and a freshly filled retaining wall that I’m thinking of nicknaming “Titanic.” It doesn’t look like a Martha Stewart picture.
As I drove up the drive, I saw my wife standing by the garage door, waiting for my report.
“I met her. I shook her hand. I was in a picture for the magazine.” I reported, succinctly. “Where were you?” I asked, instantly knowing I shouldn’t have.
“I was at Johnson’s Oyster Farm.” She said, coolly. I knew that somehow this was going to be my fault.
“I’d never been to Hog Island before,” I said, innocently—and accurately. “I always think of Mr. Johnson…” I trailed, knowing I had said too much.
“Yes, you do, and that’s why I thought of him, too. But I should have known better than to think Martha would take picture of a 96-year-old-man driving his electric scooter around on the beach chasing the illegal aliens he puts up in rusting trailers!”
Well, it was clearly my fault, now. I should have somehow known to talk about a place I’d never been rather than recount an amusing story about a colorful old man who was clearly not pastel enough for Martha’s magazine. How stupid of me. I also couldn’t help but think of the advice that Mr. Johnson gave me at least 6 times in a half hour, “Only marry Japanese women, like I did” he told me, as if he was telling me some big secret. Maybe now I understood why.
Now she was acting like she didn’t believe I’d met Martha. “I’ll bet you didn’t have a camera in the car with you, did you?” she said, accusingly, as if I had claimed to have been abducted by aliens and forgotten to bring a camera.
“I was going to the pharmacy when I left, I didn’t consider it a photo-op,” I said, wearily, just wanting to take a nap, but then remembering my triumph, “But they did take my picture for the magazine!” I added, getting the car into the garage without knocking over a pile of boxes taller than Magic Johnson.
“We’ll see,” was her only response. I knew she was just mad she hadn’t met Martha. I was sorry she didn’t meet her—but I’d asked her to come with me into town in the first place, a fact I didn’t now dare mention.
Every day after, when Martha’s TV program came on, we both watched, waiting to see what she said about our little town, waiting to see if I’d made it into a picture. Nothing.
Then an episode appeared with Martha in waders in our bay, with her talking about how wonderful it is and going to places in our area I’d never seen in almost ten years of living here. She pulled oysters out of the bay and slurped them down. The whole idea of swallowing raw oysters has never made sense to me or my wife, so we both found this a little nauseating. Then she’s BBQ’d some oysters with the farmers and sprinkled some kind of chili sauce on them, the recipe of which was in this month’s issue. My honesty was still suspect.
Then the issue arrived. I was not allowed to touch it, of course, because my hands tend to be too warm and too greasy and I could smear something. We laid it flat on the table to inspect it without the risk of soiling it and flipped through the pages.
Here was the article. The sunset was much redder than it really was. The oysters were, indeed, glowing. The guests were smiling and laughing, probably because they’re happy to be wearing such expensive clothes.
I was starting to get frantic—worried that my picture wouldn’t be there and my wife would never believe me again. But there it was—thin people on the left, fat people on the right in the back—not only in the back, but “burned in” so they looked as if they were sitting in the dark, blending in with the trees behind them so they’re almost invisible. The plump kid was in the tree, his legs lost in the tangle of thick limbs.
I looked to the right, but all I saw was my hand, holding the tree branch. Now my wife really didn’t believe me, until she saw, scrawled on my palm, the very light and fuzzy letters “DWH,” which I’d written there in a moment inspired by “I Love Lucy” because I had a feeling that, being on the edge, I’d be an easy target for cropping.
I was redeemed. My wife smiled. “Suitable for framing,” she said, shaking her head.
It was then I finally realized that Martha lives in a special plane of existence—too perfect for reality. One where party guests can be imported for their interesting name, or tasteful faces. One where imperfections, such as myself, can easily be removed.
Yet it made me appreciate a whole new world. Not the clinically perfect illusion shown in the flawlessly lit, all-too-carefully-cropped pictures. But in the world living right outside the frame—the reality carefully trimmed out of the picture. For better or worse, that’s where I live.