Hannah Holbrook has attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference over the last two summers, and is a long-time local resident. Luna Review is privileged to feature a chapter from her upcoming novel, One Magic Act.
One Magic Act
by Hannah Holbrook
1984 was the year that blew my mind, scattered it all to hell, and reassembled it anew. I’d entered an alternate reality: One where my buddy Sal, thought dead for a decade, was home from Viet Nam, and one where my kid sister was marrying a woman. Both felt off any chart I’d ever lived on, broke all my paradigms. Daisy always warned me that I left little room in my life for the crooked turns, cutbacks, and unexpected miracles. She was right.
We’d been beckoned on a warm June evening for dinner at the house my sister and her best friend shared. Over California Casserole and cold Heinekens on their deck under the oaks, they announced they would be getting married. To each other.
“So, I know it’s pretty obvious, Davis, that Kathy and I are in a committed relationship,” Lizzie started after we pushed our plates away.
The statement made me squirm. I couldn’t wrap my head around Lizzie in love with a woman, let alone her best childhood friend. I can still see the two of them watching the Mickey Mouse Club in the den before supper.
“I know this part may be a little shocking to you, Davis. You’re not a bad person….”
“Oh, thanks.” I laughed.
“I mean, you try to be open minded.”
“Kathy and I are pregnant.”
What the fuck? came to mind.
“Okay,” I said, all I could muster.
Lizzie smiled and reached for Kathy’s hand. “This is not easy — I don’t want you to think that our life and our choices are easy ones. Maybe that should indicate to you how important and how serious this is for us. We are it for each other, Davis.”
I chimed in just to stop her. “Okay — I get it, Lizzie. I’m trying here.”
“Who’s carrying?” asked Daisy.
Jesus. I hadn’t gotten that far.
“I am,” said Lizzie.
I couldn’t begin to wonder how in the hell two women got pregnant without a man. It was clear off my radar.
From the heart, I did say, “Love you, Sis. I’m happy you’re happy.”
Tears in her eyes, she slung her arms around my shoulders from behind and kissed the top of my head (I flashed on carrying her by piggyback to her bedroom after watching Creature Features when she was little). When Lizzie’s happy, I truly can’t be otherwise.
On the way home, Daisy placed her hand on my thigh. “Maybe we should have another child.” I thought it best just to smile and leave it at that.
As we approached our driveway, I caught a metallic glint in the headlights and slowed. “Someone’s outside.”
In a fell swoop, Daisy straightened, undid her belt and would have jumped out of a moving car to save her children (inside with the babysitter), if we both at the same moment hadn’t recognized the over-sized head of the person sitting between the lavender bushes on the walkway. My voice caught in my throat and Daisy looked sideways at me.
We walked to the figure sitting there in the rudimentary wheelchair.
“Sal,” I said, choking, and leaned in to embrace him. Daisy was behind me with tears on her cheeks.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, buddy.”
I could only stand and shake my head from side to side. “Come inside, Sal. You must be cold. Did you ring the bell? The sitter could have called us.”
“Of course. Sorry,” I said. “Here, come around through the garage and we can get you in through the side door.”
“You know, I can’t really stay. Mom is coming back around — hell, she’s been circling the block for an hour!” He laughed.
“What do you mean you can’t stay? Your mom can come in too. I just can’t believe this… I just can’t believe this…” was all I could say over and over.
“Just got in tonight. I asked the folks not to tell anyone, but I had to look at your ugly face before I slept. Flew in from Germany so I’m beat. I promise we’ll have lots of time to catch up. Buddy. I need you to know something.”
“I love you, man.”
I lost it and turned away.
Daisy took his hand. “You’re home. You’re really here. Our hearts have been incomplete without you, Sal.”
“Daisy, you said it. You two, my folks, it’s all I thought about. And your damned babies — last time I heard from you, you told me you were having twins. Just tell me — there’s my mom now — girls, boys?”
“One of each.” I said, having composed myself a little. The only emotion to match this moment was the birth of my kids. “Mitchell and Rosemary. And a third, Sal — little Viv.”
Sal shook his head back and forth with a beautiful smile on his face, his eyes wet.
After I helped Sal into the car and they drove away, I stood for a very long time under the stars. I was cracked wide open and the universe coursed through me.
The Ceremony, The Aftermath
The kitchen was a war room by the time I showered and came down the stairs. The twins were sticking colored labels on napkins — lavender, cream, and some with rainbows. Viv was on a stepladder stirring what looked like cookie dough. The house smelled like cinnamon and coffee and bacon and flowers.
Daisy had a barrel of wildflowers on her workbench in the sunroom with a collection of vintage bottles into which she arranged three flowers each. She wore her favorite green apron, which meant go time.
A few hours later, a whole crew of us loaded several cars and headed up to the lot. We tied a lavender wreath around Grubber’s collar and loaded him up too. It took us a few hours to get the lot ready. A truck arrived with tables and chairs and the men set up a platform for the band and a piece-together dance floor. We set the tables with flowers, napkins, and treats.
Lizzie’s friends laid out the food buffet style, with a turkey taco bar the length of a small house. I put two of my friends to work stringing colored lantern lights from tree to tree in a square and some crisscrossing the whole thing. By dusk the place was a magic fairyland.
The evening was uncharacteristically balmy. Normally, the chill comes down off the hills once the sun sets and can no longer push it back. Tonight, though, the air flowed in from the ocean as Santa Ana winds. They’re fire starters, but the ground was still moist from spring rains. And observing the festivities, the stars danced in force, dressed for the occasion in copious glitter.
People arrived. People I had no idea existed in Seaside. Trannies, queenies, queers, girls and guys. Children aplenty. In a word: colorful. My sometimes-traditional heart expanded. I broke out of myself like a jack-in-the-box and felt a release of tensions I didn’t know I had.
My kids were extraordinary and Daisy was glorious. That woman, that pony in fine splendor. She shined brighter than the rest, taller than most, gliding among adults and children, men, women, and pure souls. Her hair glimmered under the blue and pink and yellow and orange lanterns, under the moonlight. I was breathless.
And then the ceremony began. Attendees parted and then moved forward like a wave when the music started, a trio of violin, cello, and bass, three sisters from China. An arch of orchids had been erected, and a woman (who reminded me of Gena Rowlands from the movie Gloria) stood waiting, a garland of peonies strung low on her chest, big clip on pearl earrings on her earlobes. The brides stood before her.
Gena shook her head from side to side. “Aren’t you two a sight?”
The crowd laughed and some clapped.
“You’ve asked me to oversee this rarefied occasion and you’ve also asked that I include your unborn child, a boy whom you will name Kristopher, as we celebrate your union tonight.”
The crowd murmured and cooed.
After a poem by Kahil Gibran, Gena invited Lizzie and Kathy to share their vows, attestations to their long and deeply felt affections, promises to partner each other with love and humility.
Gena with the silky, sultry voice then read “One Sister Have I in Our House” by Emily Dickinson and “i carry your heart with me” by ee cummings (for baby Kristopher).
Done. The crowd melted into a puddle, Gena ceremoniously named them one another’s wife, and the strings began again.
Every person there floated through the next couple of hours: forth and back to the taco table, to the no-host bar, to the dance floor, around the tables for hugs and kisses and photos with friends and acquaintances. The children were butterflies, flitting everywhere.
Then Sal arrived.
I stood quickly and helped his parents get him out of the car and into his chair. I smelled alcohol on him, the kind that seeps out of the pores of the skin after sustained consumption.
I didn’t want to ripple the feel-good atmosphere of the wedding, and also felt it was simply too soon to ask Sal what in the hell happened to him? He’d been listed as POW and then MIA for ten years. But here he was. Fucking crazy. I couldn’t even imagine what his parents, who asked me to bring him home later, were going through. I did notice the yellow ribbon outside their house gone the morning after he reappeared, and we’d played phone tag for a week until he finally answered and asked me for space. Now here he was at the wedding — Daisy must have invited him. I decided to roll with it and got him a beer.
The twins draped themselves on either side of me, curious.
“This is your Uncle Sal.” Mitchell held out his hand like a little man. Rosemary leaned over the arm of his chair and kissed him on his cheek, surprising him. I saw tears in his eyes.
“Hey there, kids. You look like I imagined you would. With your mom’s good looks.”
“Hey, now,” I said.
“You imagined us?” Mitchell asked.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about you, kid. I knew you when you were in your mom’s belly. I’m glad to finally meet you.”
Rosemary continued to lean over the chair. She liked him. Mitchell was still checking him out, wary.
Soon Viv showed up and wanted in on the action. She copied her big sister and leaned on the other arm of the chair, flirting in a way only six-year-old girls can, her brown curls falling all over the place. I felt a twinge of protectiveness. It had been a long time since I’d seen Sal and people can change.
He touched her hair. “Aren’t you a sweet thing?”
When the kids found interest elsewhere, Sal began drinking in earnest. I know because I made the trips to the keg for him. But he didn’t want to talk. Whenever I started down a conversation path, he’d end it with monosyllabic answers and motion that he was really into the music, by now a local, all-girl band that played covers of ‘50s to ‘80s songs. The dancing on the floor was…colorful (there’s that word again) — at one point I wondered if it was time to take the kids home to a sitter, but Daisy assured me they’d survive some adult fun. No one was naked. There was that.
It was getting close to ten and no one had left. I don’t know why I’d never met any of Lizzie’s friends, but it was obvious they honored being a part of the ceremony and celebration, and it was clear this wasn’t their first party. It’s always good to have experienced people when you want to have real fun.
Soon after I noticed Sal beginning to nod off, two men appeared at our table. I hadn’t seen them approach. They were simply there — standing over us.
“That’s me.” I stood.
“We live up the street. Our kids are home. It’s their bedtime. Kind of noisy here.”
“Okay. So you’d like us to turn the music down a bit? I think we can manage that. Thanks for letting us know. Night, fellas.” I turned to head to the band, wanting to send a message that their vibe wasn’t welcome but that I’m reasonable, when one of them grabbed me by the back of the shoulder as I started to step away.
“I don’t think you understand, Wilder.”
I shrugged his hand off and took a step toward him, exaggerating my height now. “No. I don’t think you understand,” I said, controlling my voice, “this is a wedding, and our children are here. Now, I don’t mind turning the music down, pal, but I’d like the two of you to step off.”
I saw now that Sal was awake and puffed up like a blowfish in his wheelchair, his eyes wild and wide, and the other guests at the table had stood. Some moved away, afraid, but others moved forward in support; out of the corner of my eye I noticed for the first time how ripped Lizzie’s male friends were.
“Yeah — we noticed this looked like a wedding, but, uh, we have a different definition, apparently. Basically, we’ve put up with this shit all night, but it’s time for all of you to pack up and head out. Like I said, our kids are watching.”
“What the fuck?” I started forward, but Sal stuck out one leg, blocking and shocking the hell out of me since I had assumed he was paralyzed, and suddenly all eyes were on him and the two block heads were taking steady steps backward.
“Yeah? You measly mouthed little bastards. Do you know who I am? I’m a goddamned vet. I’ve lived through fucking hell so that these two decent humans might have any-god-damned-kind-of-wedding they want to have, with or without your bratty kids watching.”
It shocked me then to realize that Sal was holding a gun. The music stopped. Guests began moving uphill toward the rear of the lot to get away from whatever violence seemed imminent.
“Sal. I think they got the message. Right, Guys?”
“Yes.” Neither seemed happy about the obvious need to walk away, like they wanted to jump him, but then one of them, the taller, turned his back and started running. The other, feeling braver than he should have, raised his arm and pointed at Sal with a steady look, like, I’m coming for you, motherfucker. Then he turned and walked away. At the pavement, he began a slow jog to catch up to his coward friend.
“Jesus, Sal. Put it away.”
“Wheel me down there, man.”
“No way. Please just put it away. The asshole was right — the kids are watching.”
Sal looked around at the scared faces, including the two big guys who stepped forward earlier, Lizzie’s friends Stanley and Greg, though I would place a bet they’d have jumped in as quick as the next guy. Sal took a deep breath, calming himself.
The music restarted and the guests came slowly out of the trees. Some children were crying. Daisy moved around diplomatically, explaining who Sal was and that he wasn’t a danger to them. Some of the guests left right away and without goodbyes. Others pretended to let it go, got some cake, and danced a little. But fifteen minutes later, a blue and white pulled up, lights flashing, and that was the end of Lizzie and Kathy’s wedding.
The cop was cool though. He sized up the scene before he even made it over to us, smiling reassuringly to some of the guests now streaming past him to their cars.
“Hello there,” he said, holding out his hand to me.
“Officer. I’m sorry we’ve had a misunderstanding with the neighbors.”
“I heard about that. And there was a weapon involved?”
“May I see that weapon, nice and easy, please?”
I motioned to Sal, who slowly pulled the gun out from under his jacket, butt first toward the policeman.
“Uh huh. May I?”
Sal nodded and the cop took the weapon.
“Got a license?”
“Uh huh. Well, I guess you know that’s a problem.”
“Yes, Sir.” Sal lowered his head to his chest.
“May I speak to you a moment, please?” I asked him. The cop and I stepped to the south side of the lot. Daisy put her hand on Sal’s shoulder in solidarity.
“My buddy here, he just returned from Nam. He was POW, then MIA, and to be honest, sir, I don’t know what the hell happened to him over there, but he’s been home about a month after over a decade gone. He’s a good guy. If there’s anything you can do to make this easy on him, I’d really appreciate it.”
The cop assessed me while I talked. For this night, I’d donned a tie-dyed shirt and white slacks, sandals, and the kids had face painted me after the ceremony. I didn’t look like someone a cop might trust. I added, “I’m a local teacher.”
He glanced over at Sal. “Known him a long time, have you?”
“My closest friend growing up. He’s the best of the best.”
“He’s a patriot,” I threw in for good measure.
The cop asked Sal to look at him after reviewing his ID card. “Mr. Salvatori, I understand you’re recently back stateside. That right?”
“Yes, Sir.” Sal was sobering up now and his eyes were glassy. I thought I saw the old Sal, just a big kid, wondering how the hell he got here.
“I was over there, too.” The cop and Sal gazed at each other for an extended time. “Look here,” he continued, “Seems like it’s been a long night for you. I’m going to keep this gun — you can come down and claim it when you get that license and get yourself settled. Sound good?”
The cop turned to me. “You got this?”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you.”
The cop slipped me his card and moved toward his car.
Daisy drove Sal and the kids home and I stayed for a few hours to break everything down. Stanley and Greg stayed to help. They would turn out to be the godparents of Lizzie and Kathy’s second child, Lan, and I’d know them well, even love them, until Greg died of AIDS and Stanley committed suicide, too grief-stricken to go on. But that night, they stood by me and my family, and that was everything.
Luna Review: This excerpt is from your novel One Magic Act. Can you describe what the book is about?
Hannah Holbrook: In 1968, the Wilder family of Seaside, California (fictional town) inherits a half-acre lot in an as-of-yet undeveloped housing community from their eccentric uncle Meyer. Davis, the protagonist, sixteen at the time, adopts the lot as his own, and rather than building on it, uses it as a getaway spot and later as a meeting place. Over the years, the lot becomes a family totem, a place where life takes significant turns: marriages, deaths, awakenings, and battles both internal and external–including a final showdown with neighbors and authorities that will change the family forever.
Luna Review: How long have you been working on this novel? You can lie if it’s over ten years.
Hannah Holbrook: Ha! I should probably lie and say it has taken me ten years, but I wrote most of it in November (during NANOWRIMO). I had been working on a different novel, one that has taken me a number of years (to get nowhere), and I wanted to start something new and just run wild with it. In my notebook I’d been keeping a newspaper clipping about a family that camps once a year on the same lot, and over the years houses have built up around them, causing conflict (naturally) – I thought this sounded like a great premise for a story, so I watered it to see what would grow.
LR: When did you start writing, in college, afterwards, or more recently?
HH: As an only child “on the road” with my mother and her husband, a stand-up comic during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, books and my imagination kept me company. I loved making up characters and discovering what they would do in particular circumstances. After starting school full-time in the 5th grade, my report cards showed a pattern of me as both a troublemaker (Hannah likes to talk; Hannah leaves the room without permission; Hannah needs to work on her attitude) and a writer (Hannah sure likes to write stories; Hannah is a strong writer—she should focus on this subject). Regardless of the early trajectory, I initially was pre-med until finally going back to school in my thirties to study English and composition. I received my MA, honed my nonfiction, and began to teach. Only in the last few years, though, have I returned to fiction writing.
LR: Who were the initial writers who inspired you to try your hand at this crazy enterprise?
HH: EB White and Stephen King were my earliest role models. At ten, eleven, twelve years old, I was either anthropomorphizing insects and animals (I once had a flea for a protagonist) or writing horror and crime stories. In college I fell in love with Herman Hesse and Isabel Allende (Eva Luna and House of Spirits). When it comes to finding actual confidence for writing, I read Henry Miller on Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
LR: Are there recent books you’ve read that spoke to you, or kept you going?
HH: The Son by Philip Meyer consumed me. Family and historical sagas done well are now my favorite. Along these lines, the writing in Commonwealth by Ann Patchett and Circling the Sun by Paula McLain inspire me greatly.
LR: Can we expect more novels and short stories from you after this is finished and published?
HH: Yes. I have too many ideas vying for space in my head, so to not write them may cause insanity. One Magic Act is my go at a family saga, but I have two based-on-truth crime stories nagging at me to be written next.
LR: And last, I believe the world wants to know. Are you related to Hal Holbrook?
LR: Damn, he was a fine actor. Probably still is.
Hannah in the 1980s with a beloved local comedian.