From TODD WALTON
Under The Table Books
About a year ago I began writing a novel entitled Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, the first of what I intend to be at least a trio of connected novels. My other twenty novels, published and unpublished, are single volume works, though I did write a sequel to Under The Table Books entitled The Resurrection of Lord Bellmaster, though that as yet unpublished sequel, was born long after Under The Table Books had stood alone for many years.
Before I read the first fourteen volumes of the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, the only multi-volume fictional works I had ever read and enjoyed were The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. While reading the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency books, I became intrigued by the idea of writing a series of connected novels, and so I began my latest opus with the conscious intention of following the first book with at least two more.
To my amazement, the realization that I need not tie up every important loose end in a single volume was fantastically liberating. More characters than I had ever dared introduce in a single volume began to arrive and take up residency on my pages, with subplots and interconnections growing as profusely as well-watered zucchini in rich soil during a hot summer. And with the stricture of Finality gone the way of the dodo, Ida’s Place—Book One: Return was born.
As it happens, Ida’s Place is set in the mythic California coastal town of Big River, the weekly paper there the Big River Advertiser, otherwise known as the BRA, the editor none other than the jocular Anderson Bruce. In Book One, Anderson only makes a cameo, but there’s no telling what may happen in Book Two. Comb-bound photocopies of Book One: Return, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available exclusively from yours truly via my web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.
Here for your enjoyment, are the first two chapters of my newborn opus.
1. Little Things
On a cold day in October, a strong ocean breeze rattling the windows, two-year-old Ida Kaminsky, her dark brown hair in pigtails, sat on the living room sofa in her pink pajamas with a hardbound copy of Treasure Islandopen on her lap. Ida’s mother Alice, a gorgeous brunette with sparkling green eyes, stood on the threshold between the kitchen and the living room watching her tiny daughter turn the pages of the big old book. She assumed Ida was looking for pictures because Ida loved making up stories to go along with the illustrations in her children’s books.
“Sweetheart,” said Alice, approaching her daughter, “I don’t think that book has any pictures. Shall I get you one that does?”
“But I like this story,” said Ida, who had begun to speak in complete sentences when she was nine months old. “About Long John Silver.”
Alice had never read Treasure Island to Ida and wondered how her baby girl had learned the name Long John Silver. Ida’s brother Howard could barely read, though he was eight, and Walter, Alice’s husband, had never read anything to Ida.
“When did you hear this story before?” asked Alice, sitting beside her daughter.
“I hear it now,” said Ida, looking at the page. “Down went Poo with a cry that rang high into the night.” Ida looked at Alice and made a sad face. “Poo is blind.”
Alice gently took the book from her daughter and studied the page and saw that Ida had read the name Pew as Poo, but otherwise had pronounced all the words correctly and in the order they were written.
“When did you learn to read, honey?” asked Alice, handing the book back to Ida. “Who showed you how?”
“I look at those little things,” said Ida, touching one of the words, “and you tell me the story.”
“You hear me say the words?” asked Alice, holding her breath.
“Yes,” said Ida, nodding. “I hear you, Mama.”
“Let’s try some other books,” said Alice, going to the bookshelf and choosing Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Kerouac’s On the Road.
Having determined that Ida could read anything, no matter how strange or difficult, Alice called the University of California in Berkeley and was referred to a professor who was supposedly an expert on such phenomena, and he agreed to do an assessment of Ida. But when the professor, a taciturn fellow, gave Ida a few simple tests, the little girl didn’t seem to be able to read at all.
“I’m afraid, Mrs. Kaminsky,” sneered the professor, “you have fallen prey to delusions of grandeur. Parents often do.”
As they drove home to Big River, Alice asked Ida, “Why wouldn’t you read for the man, my darling?”
“No voice talked,” said Ida, shaking her head. “I looked at the word things, but I couldn’t hear you.”
“Did you like that man?” asked Alice, recalling the professor’s sneer.
“No,” said Ida, shaking her head. “He scared me.”
So Alice, who believed in signs from the universe, interpreted their encounter with the unpleasant academic as a portent of what might happen if she were to make a commotion about her daughter’s remarkable ability, and thereafter kept her discoveries of Ida’s extraordinary talents to herself.
Extremely myopic, Ida got her first pair of glasses when she was four-years-old, and though she said she loved her new glasses, she was forever taking them off and putting them on and taking them off and putting them on again.
After a few days of this incessant taking off and putting on, Alice asked Ida, “Sweetheart, is there something wrong with your new glasses?”
“Well,” said Ida, never wanting to disappoint her mother, “they certainly help me see everything much clearer now, but they don’t let me see the colored clouds around people and Sophie and Mike and Elmer and flowers and things.”
Sophie was their big gray cat, Mike and Elmer the family dachshunds.
“Colored clouds?” asked Alice, smiling curiously at her ever-surprising daughter. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” said Ida, taking off her glasses to see her mother’s misty golden outline, “the color floating around you.”
At which moment, Howard came rushing in from outside to get a drink of water. A gangly clumsy boy diagnosed as moderately autistic, Howard was digging a hole in the backyard he hoped would one day be a tunnel going all the way to the ocean a quarter-mile away, hence he was filthy.
“Does Howard have color floating around him?” asked Alice, afraid her daughter might be suffering from something more serious than nearsightedness.
“Howie has dark blue,” said Ida, watching her brother lean over the sink to gulp water from the faucet. “Yours is gold, Mama. Elmer has yellow, Mike has green, and Sophie has yellow, too, unless she’s mad at another cat and then she has red.”
“What about Walter?” asked Alice, wincing as Howard slammed the door on his way out to resume digging.
“Papa doesn’t have any color,” said Ida, slowly shaking her head. “I don’t know why, but he doesn’t.”
“And when you put your glasses on, the colored clouds go away?”
“Yes,” said Ida, putting her glasses on. “But I still love them because they make everything so clear.”
2. Golden Buddha
“At first I no want rent Ida,” says Duyi Ling, telling Ralph Canterbury, his brother-in-law, about leasing three-fourths of the Ling building to Ida Kaminsky who intends to open a bakery and coffee house there. “She say have two maybe three big oven for make many muffin and bread. I think maybe too much competition for me. No want competition next door.”
Duyi, sixty-nine, short and chubby and entirely bald, and Ralph, seventy-two, tall and lean with a full head of silver gray hair, are sitting at a table for six in the otherwise empty dining room of Golden Buddha. The late June sun is shining through just-washed windows into the large square room with yellow walls, lime green ceiling, blue linoleum floor and seating for seventy people. Golden Buddha is the only Chinese restaurant in Big River, a coastal town with an official population of 4,789, a hundred and eighty miles north of San Francisco and a hundred miles from the nearest freeway.
Open seven-days-a-week for lunch and dinner, closed from three to five in the afternoon, Golden Buddha has been in operation for thirty-six years, the extensive menu immutable, the food consistently superb. The time is now four in the afternoon and Ralph has come to help string (actually destring) snow peas in preparation for the Friday night dinner rush. Duyi is always at the restaurant save for those few hours late at night when he goes home to sleep, his house two blocks away.
“Why did you change your mind?” asks Ralph, an English teacher at Big River High, the only high school in Big River. Descended from Philadelphia Brahmin, Ralph has been married to Duyi’s sister Far for twenty-five years and very much enjoys being part of a large family that is entirely Chinese save for Ralph.
Duyi sips his lukewarm tea and explains, “Ida say, ‘Please no worry Mr. Ling. We no compete. My people come for muffin and coffee, go you lunch and dinner.’” He chuckles recalling his meeting with Ida. “She thirty-one but look teenager. Have so long brown hair and so pretty face behind so big glasses. You see her?”
“Oh, I know Ida very well,” says Ralph, smiling at memories of the delightful wunderkind. “I was her teacher for two years when she was in high school here before she went off to conquer Harvard. Beyond brilliant. But I haven’t seen her in…gosh…at least ten years.”
“So,” says Duyi, not sure what conquer Harvard andbeyond brilliant mean, “I say her, ‘You no open lunch and dinner? How you make money?’ She say, ‘Yes, I open lunch but no open dinner and no compete you. Sell muffin and coffee and bread and kind food you no make. Send people you for best Chinese.’”
“I seem to recall,” says Ralph, tapping his fingertips together, “that Ida and her family ate here all the time, didn’t they?”
“Yes, she come here when little girl many time with so pretty mother and crazy brother and fat father.” Duyi frowns sadly as he recalls Ida and her mother deciding what to order—the crazy brother ripping his napkin into hundreds of tiny pieces, the fat father never once looking at the menu. “And when older she come here with giant boy Donald and drink much tea and talk very excited.”
“The odd couple,” says Ralph, remembering the huge boy with orange red hair and brilliant green eyes holding hands with the little girl with long brown hair and shining brown eyes behind oversized glasses—holding hands as they walked home from school. “She so brilliant, he the rock of Gibraltar.”
“But I think maybe she too much competition for me,” says Duyi, nodding anxiously. “So I make rent very high. First and last and big deposit for maybe damage. I think scare her away, but she say okay. Want pay for whole year. I say, ‘Whole year? What if you big competition for me? Better three month at time.”
“Fear not,” says Ralph, smiling as Duyi’s wife Jiahui approaches with a silver platter heaped high with snow peas. “She’ll bring you loads of business. People will flock to Ida’s for coffee and muffins, they’ll smell your fabulous food and…”
“Wife say same,” says Duyi, glancing furtively at Jiahui before checking his cell phone to see how the stock market closed. “I not so sure.”
“I listen from kitchen when he talk to her,” says Jiahui, fifty-two, lovely and slender, dressed for work in black slacks, black shoes, white dress shirt and gold bow tie, her black hair stylishly short. “So I come here and say to Ida, ‘What kind muffin you make?’ She say, ‘All kind. Blueberry, banana, chocolate chip, pumpkin. Also kind for people allergic wheat. Also many kind bread and cookie. Also best coffee in whole world.’” Jiahui laughs in delight. “She so confident. And all kind coffee drink, too.”
“Sounds marvelous,” says Ralph, thrilled by the prospect of an excellent coffee house and bakery right here in Big River.
“I bring you fresh hot tea,” says Jiahui, winking at Ralph and hurrying away.
Duyi begins to swiftly string the snow peas. “So…wife say Ida, ‘We can put Golden Buddha menu in your place?’ Ida say, ‘Oh, yes. Right next cash register. We send many people you.’ Wife say, ‘Okay. We rent you. Only not so high as husband say. Half so much.’”
“You have a shrewd wife,” says Ralph, picking up his first snow pea. “You won’t regret this, Duyi. Ida has always been a powerful people magnet.”
“I think Ida happy now,” says Duyi, with a humble shrug. “She so pretty smile. Jiahui happy, too. I think she want Ida muffin and best coffee.”
“But are you happy, my friend?” asks Ralph, smiling wistfully at his dour brother-in-law.
Duyi shakes his head. “I want happy, but afraid Ida bad competition for me.”
Learn more about Ida’s Place and read the first three chapters.
(This article and these first two chapters of Ida’s Place—Book One: Return appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)