Edward Vasta

Sure, different perspectives can tear people apart. But it's never really as simple as that.

A rare June vacation for Ian Bernard. June was always a busy month, yet the county road commissioners encouraged it--even though doing so declared their Silent Generation civil engineer, barely into his late forties, dispensable. So to hell with them. Ian arranged it and packed up for California.

Maia Bernard sided with the commissioners, but she wanted her vacation after Christmas, when her art gallery business slowed down. She drove Ian to O'Hare International early so she could get back in time to open the store. At the airport, she gave her husband a perfunctory kiss, waited for him to pull his luggage from the back seat, and took off.

In the terminal, the world of the '60s ambushed Ian from all sides. Young lookalike couples, male and female, in faded jeans, long hair, carrying backpacks, reeking of tobacco, slouching in seats face to face, sprawled asleep on the floor. Some only teens, bearded, wearing motorcycle jackets and headbands, lugging sleeping bags and guitar cases. One kid wore a Navy pea coat, and men as well as women harnessed babies to their backs.

An entire generation roamed about casually and naturally, treated each other politely, conversed cross-legged on the floor. At one point a girl unpacked her guitar and softly strummed. Others hummed along, simple melodies like folk hymns. The teenager in the Navy jacket stripped it off against the heat and sat on the floor cross-legged, his tanned and solid body bare from the waist up, in public. He pinched a smashed cigarette butt to his lips and worked his head back and forth, humming, eyes closed.

These people reminded Ian of Jeff. They could be Jeff's friends, and this observation startled him, made him feel a stranger to his own son. Jeff was cool, confident, and free with buddies, but quiet and morose at home. Confusing, yes, and a confusion his father did not understand.

And what about May?

He let that thought go.

By the time all passengers had crowded onto the plane and settled down, including the half-naked fellow carrying his Navy jacket, Ian didn't mind them. But he still wondered about these holy barbarians. They sat quietly and bothered no one. Many slept; a few walked the aisle, smiling as they moved toward the lavatories. As stewardesses served meals, Ian overheard them tell the standbys that meals were plentiful, so they could have one free.

The two men who filled up Ian's row to the window were also young, but they wore neat sport shirts and short hair. They spoke crisply to Ian and said "Sir." They were soldiers, Ian learned, heading for Hawaii, then back to Vietnam.

Maia steered her way through airport lanes and ramps and finally settled into the freeway home. She kept the radio off--too much on her mind. If May and Jeff didn't call soon, she would come apart. Ian was on his way to visit his sick and maybe dying father in Santa Barbara for a couple of weeks, and if the wayward kids sent no word by then, he would drive up north, beyond the Bay Area, and find their commune.

She pulled into her driveway full of thoughts and plans. She wished John were home instead of at St. Joseph's summer session, but she welcomed a month without preparing meals and leaving notes for her husband. And without Ian's phone calls to her at the gallery! She wished she knew where Seiji was at that moment, but the handsome Japanese businessman could be anywhere on the globe. She decided to write to him that night, after work, when she could stay up as long as she pleased.

Turning the key in the lock, she thought of treating herself to Lobster Thermidor at the Creamy and Delicious instead of a frozen health dinner at home. No, better stick to the frozen dinner--for the figure. She wouldn't have time to eat out anyway.

What she needed was time for herself--be alone, have the freedom to sort things out. She would like to sit at her Shimpo wheel again, spin wet clay under her fingers, live inside her mind. That's where her patience came from. But because women nowadays should be "out there," building careers, she hadn't been at the wheel for some time. Maybe she could get back to it.

The house was cool and dark, the more for being empty. She set down her purse and headed for the drapes on the sunny side. More light. More air. Turn off the air conditioner. Open the house to the warmth of June. Feel summer again. Get into that shower, maybe wear the aqua green sheath to work, maybe the spangled earrings.

Aboard the plane, Ian's eyes looked down on clouds while his mind looked back to his parents. No farmers but lovers of the countryside, they lived in southwestern Michigan until his father retired from high school teaching. Then they sold the uncultivated farmland and moved to California, to a considerate climate and as much land as could be hoed by hand. That, and a small stucco house amid flower farms and avocado orchards near Santa Barbara.

In the decade since his parents moved, Ian had visited twice, the first to see them settled, the second to visit his father in the hospital, recovering from a stroke. His mother gave his father speech therapy, "to get him talking right," as she put it.

Mother and father, always together, always agreeing, both tall, sandy haired, thin-waisted, sinewy-armed, and wearing glasses on long bony faces. His mother wore pants more than dresses, and a soft-billed cap over pinned-up hair. While Bud taught school, Rainy picked grapes with migrant workers, "by the jumbo basket," she would tell her son. She called her husband Bud instead of Stephen; he called his wife Rainy instead of Loraine. Why they had but one child Ian never knew, but whenever the fact came up, his mother called down God's blessing on the child they had.

Maia's aqua green sheath needed taking in, so she wore her red flared slacks and a flowered see-through blouse tied in front. She opened the gallery in time and set to work sorting and cataloguing items that the owners, the Berringers, had brought from New Mexico. She had suggested to the Berringers that they reorganize their files and secure artwork by such household names as Rudy Pozzoti and Robert Indiana. Now that she had a month to herself, she could look into those possibilities. Mrs. Berringer had only two appointments that day, so Maia could bring it up when she was free.

The bell signaled a walk-in, a middle-aged couple, browsing. Maia got them interested in some Rockwell lithographs. They left in twenty minutes, but would probably come back.

She returned to her desk humming, poured a cup of coffee, and decided to have dinner at the Creamy and Delicious.

Ian's mother relished her son's presence, but his father seemed preoccupied with some overwhelming question. While mother and son raked, hoed, and mowed, father sat on the patio, staring north at the mountains, then south at the ocean. Occasionally, he read, usually Thoreau, including "On Civil Disobedience," revived now as a popular tract. Or he stood in his garden and studied his worm-eaten and brown-spotted beans. "Can't raise beans without spraying," he confessed, thereby stripping all validity from Thoreau and all order from Nature. Then he threw society into the mess by adding, "Can't be caught spraying these days, either."

To his father, life had lost rhyme and reason. "We crown immaturity with authority," he pronounced. "Adults have lost all conviction; children are full of passionate intensity."

Listening to his father, Ian felt a certain guilt. Today's children--including Jeff and May and John--how did they get that way? No answer. If he didn't understand his own kids, how could they understand him? Would his own retirement be as sad as his father's?

Eventually, Ian sat with his dad and stared. Now at the mountains, now at the sea.

Mrs. Bernard worked in the kitchen and garden and let the men talk. Her day was full, and work kept a perpetual smile on her leathery face. She stored her responses in her heart. It was when Ian looked over the house for needed repairs that her heart opened a bit.

Standing on a ladder, Ian saw new roof tiles. "When did you get this done?" he asked.

"Last month," his mother said. She was hanging laundry to conserve electricity.

"Was the roof leaking?"

"No, but tiles were cracked."

"Did a good job. This whole place is in pretty good shape."

"That's Jeff for you," she said.


"Yep. Came down twice. Borrowed a car the first time. Then rode his bike, poor fellow. Took him a week, round trip."

It left Ian speechless. He descended the ladder and waited to hear more.

"He comes to make sure we're all right. Looks around and fixes whatever needs fixing"

"When's he due again?"

"Don't know. This fall for sure, he said, but he could show up any time. A fine, fine young man."

Ian was lost in thought about Jeff. He cast his eye about, to find other signs of Jeff's work--newly puttied windowpanes, a new outside water faucet.

"Lots of fine young folk today," Mrs. Bernard added. "Real decent youngsters."

That look of pride in her eyes--Ian was not sure he shared it, just as he was not sure he shared his father's gloom. He avoided full accounts of the kids' doings and didn't want his parents to know that May was pregnant. It came to light that a year or so ago, May dropped in, with a male friend. The visit was awkward, because his father could not accept his granddaughter's traveling with an older man. May left soon, and never returned.

But May's child would be their great grandchild and a member of the Bernard family. How could they not know of it? So one day at the dinner table Ian told his parents about May. His father received the news in stony silence, but his mother's eyes gleamed with gratitude and love.

At last Maia received a letter from Jeff and May. They apologized, explaining that their community house in northern California had no phone. They worked hard, brought the old vineyards into cultivation, and built a bunkhouse for the expanding community (fourteen members now). May's baby wasn't due until August--she had miscalculated the time of conception--and she was feeling fine, though having trouble gaining weight. "My diet in Oakland wasn't good," she wrote, "but we eat well now, especially tomatoes. They grow between the new grape rows, give us a fresh vegetable (fruit, really), sauce and catsup for the winter, and a cash crop besides. We're loaded with tomatoes. Jeff thinks he's acquiring an Italian accent."

Maia called Ian that morning and read him the letter. He sounded subdued, but that didn't deflate Maia's ebullience. "Go up there," she insisted. "See how they are. Can't you use your folks' car?"

"Yeah, I intend to. Next week. I'll look them up."

"No news from John," Maia added. "I guess he's doing all right."

"What about you?"

"Me? Fine. Things are going fine."

And they were. The idea of handling established contemporaries went down because the Berringers couldn't compete with the big auction bidders, but reorganized filing took hold because Maia demonstrated the advantages of tax write-offs and controlled cash flow. She had a pleasant dinner at the Berringers and felt rewarded.

Most of all, she was in touch with Seiji. He sent a note from New York, addressed to both Maia and Ian, and Maia called him immediately. When he learned that she was alone, he called daily. They spoke tenderly and their voices made love. Seiji regretted a hundred times that his commitments kept him out of the States while Maia had a month alone, and Maia told him a hundred times that she was glad he couldn't visit her now, for no telling what she might do. They longed for each other and gave each other precise schedules of when they could talk. In early August, as it turned out, Seiji would be in Chicago again, on his way back to Japan. Maia invited him to John's graduation, and Seiji accepted immediately. Courteously, he added that he would be glad to see Ian again, too.

Ian wrote ahead, then drove up to find Jeff and May. On the way, he mulled over how upbeat Maia seemed.

He found Jeff and May waiting in the darkness of California wine country--an old Midwestern style clapboard house, a long low shed behind, a bunkhouse to one side, and a huge wooden water tank. An old stake-racked truck stood beside the tank.

Jeff and May were glad to see him, especially May, but they seemed reserved in their hugs and handshakes. May's teeming stomach pressed against him as he pulled his daughter close, and her arms felt like sticks. Malnutrition looked him in the eye.

"I wasn't eating well," she anticipated. "I mean, before. I told you that in the letter. I'll be fine." Her tone dismissed the whole topic.

"What about the baby?"

"It's my baby. That's all that matters."

"How's grandma and grandpa?" Jeff interjected, and they exchanged notes about the old folks.

Conversation became easy when they talked about the commune. The kids brimmed with information. The community was founded by Don and Alma (Ian never heard their last name), who met and married in med school and dropped out together to build genuine and honest futures. They were the community's chemists, vinologists, and physicians, and they practiced medicine with the whole person in mind, using medicinal herbs and the body's natural healing powers. Jeff and May couldn't wait to introduce Ian to the founders.

They found Don seated at a trestle table, poring over documents. Bearded and portly, Don spoke briefly in a soft voice. He acknowledged Ian's presence, and in two minutes informed the Bernards that Ian was welcome, could stay the whole week, and was expected to reciprocate through skills and labor. When he learned that Ian was a civil engineer, Don became animated, and the two men settled into a conference on an irrigation project on which the vineyard's full harvest potential depended. Jeff and May withdrew when the men turned to a plat with an attached aerial photograph of the community's 80 acres (87 percent arable) and a drawing of an irrigation system in disuse but still in place.

The men were interrupted only by Alma, who came to put away bottles of dry leaves and pick up tomorrow's duty roster. Her strikingly plain American face caught Ian's attention: two brown pigtails hanging down to her breasts, straight flat mouth, green eyes lined up straight across. Perhaps thirty, moderately tall, she wore bicycle togs and shirt, and walked with an athlete's gait. Her muscular seat gave her slim back a pronounced curve. She looked straight at Ian, gave him an easy smile, and asked if he was hungry. "Some iced tea and fruit?"

"No, thanks."

Her eyes and smile stayed on him until he had to turn back to Don and the documents.

The rest of the community came in later, from a rap session in the living room. As they streamed past, May and Jeff bade everyone goodnight and escorted their father to his sleeping quarters in the newly built bunkhouse. On the way, they pointed out the outhouse and the well. Ian was assigned the lower bunk of an unoccupied room with a window and three walls made of black plastic drapes. The kids carried a flashlight, explaining that the electricity, while hooked up to the bunkhouse, could not yet be wired to unwalled spaces.

The unexpected evening left Ian confused. The community had welcomed him so casually that he felt part of it and was sincerely engrossed in its irrigation problem, but he learned nothing about his children--their health, their condition, their plans. May and Jeff seemed happy with themselves and glad to see him, but that was it.

May gave her father another hug and said goodnight. "I sleep in the house," she explained, "until the baby comes. Don and Alma are right there, all the time."

"If you need anything," added Jeff, handing his father the flashlight, "I'm down at the end."

The children left, and Ian could hear others come in, men and women. They whispered jokes and comments as they moved among the rustling plastic curtains.

In a moment he heard a rap on the floor and Jeff calling, "Dad?"

"Yeah, come in." Ian noted that for the first time that night, Jeff called him Dad.

"It occurred to me, Dad," Jeff said, coming in and speaking low. "Uh... we're totally integrated here."


"Yeah. Co-ed. You know... men and women...together."

"Oh, I gotcha, Jeff. Okay. Thanks."

"We kind of pair up, you know? And feel free to change partners."

"Change partners...?"

"Right. So... you might hear things."

"All clear, Jeff. I gotcha. Thanks for the warning."

"We do try to keep things quiet...."

"Nothing more to say, Jeff. I understand."

"Good. Well, goodnight then."

"Goodnight, Jeff. Goodnight."

That left Ian wide awake. He cocked an ear to every sound, and the noises he expected started immediately. Plastic rustled, bare feet padded the cement floor, and whispers, sudden movements, quick breathing, muffled cries, at one point a single shriek at which several people laughed. He lay unmoving, tried to make no sound of his own.

It seemed half the night before sounds subsided and left him reliving a conversation he and Maia once had about their "ongoing connubial relationship," which glowed fine, they affirmed at that time, perfectly fine. "It doesn't need to flare up," they agreed. The memory reminded him of the common joke at the office, where one shook one's head over the so-called Sexual Revolution and said, "Born too soon, my friends--born too soon!"

It's no joke, Ian told himself, as he heaved over and tried to sleep.

His airline ticket still gave him four days to stay here, he calculated, then one day to drive back, one more day with the folks, and then fly home. He thought up letters to Maia and vowed to write, or else find a telephone. He thought about the irrigation problem, too, and wanted to study the drawings more.

Dawn broke, a cowbell sounded from the house, then more noises, grunts, giggles, and that single shriek. He dressed as fast as he could.

By full morning the whole community had washed up at the well, spooned up granola, ate bananas and apples with peanut butter, and got their work assignments. Mainly, they would pick and haul tomatoes. A fine arts radio station kept news and music in the background.

At table, Ian found it fascinating to watch Alma make eating a controlled process, a kind of craft. She selected a banana, inspected it on all sides and both ends, peeled it, and sliced it into a bowl of grainy cereal. Ignoring her napkin, she inspected her fingers for banana residue, licked each tip and joint, and turned her hand to lick her little finger on the outside. Then she pulled the table's pitcher of milk before her with both hands--and so on, every step important, every movement deliberate. She consumed cereal, fruit, one slice of buttered toast, one cup of tea, and left plate, bowl, glass, and cup empty and clean.

Toward the others, too, Ian observed, Alma was direct and forthright. She spoke to her companions eye to eye, with nothing in mind but to speak and listen. She accepted or rejected offers of food politely but definitively, expressed her thoughts and feelings unselfconsciously and pointedly. Obviously a naturalist, she was vegetarian, loved animals, was protective of the ecology, and betrayed no intolerance toward differing values. She wanted life to be simple, with few demands, few needs, as simple as nature and culture allowed. Although smart, articulate, educated, and sensitive, she envisioned no future of greatness, riches, nor fame. She was who she was, without a fuss.

Watching her and listening made Ian feel young and brotherly. While even his own children made him feel doddering, an old codger and behind the times, Alma made him feel open to this new generation of hippies, flower children, protesters, and what have you. He respected their clear sense of freedom, their social concern, their gentleness, kindness, respect, and love. "Some generation," he said to himself that first morning, as he arose from the table, left Alma with Jeff, May, and the others, and joined Don, who was heading for the maps.

Ian's expertise proved crucial. He showed Don how to read the plats and drawings, and although his sore hip acted up, he spent the entire day walking out the irrigation lines, inspecting the creek and crumbled dam, and uncovering pumps under the giant oaken tank that the community used for a swimming pool. He spent the remaining three days making drawings and taking trips to county offices. By the time he left, the community had its water rights approved, all necessary permits, and an inspection schedule accepted and recorded with the Planning Commission.

Don spent all four days at Ian's side, nicknamed him Bernie, and spread elation throughout the community. As Don put it, "Bernie walked in here like he was sent from Headquarters."

No county road commissioner had ever said anything like that.

The community's normally reserved and soft-spoken founder also made Bernie something of a confidant. He revealed his sense of what made life authentic, why his previous life did not measure up, and his commitment to his community. He talked about Alma, too, and how they met, and how important she was to him. By the end of Ian's visit, he wished he knew the others as well as he knew Don and Alma. Even May and Jeff seemed less self-defined than defined by their peers. They, too, were young, agile, and cool, had some college education, liked bicycles, camping, and sex, and scorned technology, bureaucracy, and social hang-ups. He did learn a few more names--Cindy, Lisa, Mike, Paul--but little else.

Nor did Ian speak up at the evening rap sessions, the community's principal entertainment. Topics were lively and fascinating--old movies, Olympic sports, politics, philosophy, religion, and of course, sex--but Ian listened and considered rather than talked. The closest he came was on the last evening when the topic turned to sexual mores and whether the woman or the man should guide the partner's sexual technique. As the group chatted and joked and bounced on their fannies and waved their arms, Ian studied the good looks of these youngsters. Even May's bony chin and hollow eyes made her look sultry. Looking at them, Ian wanted to ask, "Why are all of you so good looking? Where are the fatsoes? The awkward and homely? The odd-shaped? The malformed? Would you grant membership to an unattractive sexual partner?" Such questions burned in his heart. He wanted to blurt them out but knew he had to speak cheerfully, without rancor, without a sardonic smile. So he kept his mouth shut.

His somber mood that last evening never eased. By the time the group broke up and headed for their beds, he wanted only silence and privacy. The thought of enduring the bunkhouse moans for another night irritated him. The whole idea of random coupling carried on spontaneously to slake spontaneous appetites felt uncomfortable. And Jeff among them, without a single inhibition. And May, left emaciated and mothered by a man long gone and to whom she gave not a single thought. He wished this place had a phone. He would like to talk to Maia just now.

Ambling across the compound behind the others, he impulsively changed direction and headed for his car. In the dash light he looked at his watch. Terribly late, but.... He started up and headed for town and a telephone.

"Did I wake you?" he asked Maia, who answered quickly despite the late hour.

"No. As a matter of fact, I was just.... Everything all right, Ian?"

"Sure. Of course."

"You don't sound too happy."

"I'm fine."

"Sounds like one of your moods. Did you want to talk about something?"

"No, no. Heck no. Just wanted to tell you I'm leaving tomorrow early. It's a long drive to Santa Barbara. I'll stay with the folks another day, then fly out."

"You're not changing your flight or anything, are you?"

"No, not at all."

"Then I'll meet you as planned."

"Just confirming, that's all."

"Good. How's May?"

"She's fine. Things must have been rough before, but now she's fine. Sorry I haven't had a chance to write or call."

"What about the baby?"

"Still waiting. Due any time."

"Has she got a doctor?"

"Yes. Everything's fine. I'll tell you about it when I get home."

"John's graduating on schedule."

"Good. That'll be the next thing."

"Seiji will be here for the graduation."


"Seiji Tanaka. You know, the family friend?"

"Oh, that Japanese fellow? The one you met at your sister Adele's when you got your California facelift?"

"Ian, please."

"World traveler, huh?"

"He'll be in Chicago, so..."

"Look, it's late. I'm calling from a gas station. We'll talk about it when I get home, okay?"

After hanging up, Ian pressed coins into the coffee machine and sipped the thin liquid as the attendant serviced a truck. He emptied the plastic cup, went to the men's room, then out to his car. He signaled thanks to the attendant on the way.

With the car windows up and the air conditioner on, he drove silently behind the pool of his own light. Daily trips to town had made the road familiar, but the darkness made him unsure. He strained to spot landmarks and crossroads. He wanted to think through his confusion of thoughts and feelings, but dared not lose his bearings, especially as he began to climb the hills toward the community.

He couldn't understand how the community's lifestyle was so easy to take on. It kept him from taking May aside to find out what's happening. Is she on drugs? Does she have another boyfriend? Does she plan to marry someday? And Jeff, too. Is he going back to school? Does he really want to labor on a farm? And what about the military draft? There's a war on, you know. Ian came to rescue his kids, but after doing a little work, he would now drive off.

And what about the community? He had accepted it, but had it accepted him? He had shared their food, their labor, and their entertainment--everything but their bed.

When he drove in, the compound was dark and quiet. He extinguished the car lights quickly. The air was stagnant and hot. He went straight to his bunk and tried to sleep, but couldn't. He lay naked and uncovered in the dark, surrounded by suffocating plastic. No breeze came through the open window. He thought of Maia and his parents and John and his job.... they all seemed like problems waiting for him. Everything was changing, and he was going nowhere.

Various kinds of breathing and soft snoring came from others in the bunkhouse. How could they sleep? He got to his feet and tried to read his watch in the starlight. He could make out the compound through his window--the house, the shed, the tank--shadows against a starlit night. He got a handhold on each side of the window casement, put a leg over the sill, and in one hop landed softly outside.

Feeling prehistoric and furtive in his nakedness, he headed in a crouch for the tank. Like a night animal, he scampered up the ladder and let himself down into the star-reflecting pool. The water was warm but refreshing. Quietly he let himself sink, then kicked off and paddled to the other side. He stood chest deep in the mirroring water and looked up at the sky.

The stars were bright, but a mist was forming beneath them. He tried to search out constellations.

Then he heard a soft shuffle outside the tank, near the ladder. He listened and watched. A figure appeared over the tank's edge. Head and shoulders emerged above the tank's black wall and rose against the night sky, until it stood in full shimmering outline--round head, glistening shoulders, two pigtails hanging in place, slim waist, curving hips.

A moment of fright flared, then vanished.

"Hi," she said in a hushed voice.


"I saw you."

"Just cooling off."


The glimmering brightness of Alma's flesh turned its back to him as she came over the side, one leg at a time, and presented to him that seat of hers, those marvelous cheeks, pointed directly at him as she lowered herself into the water. She backed down the ladder with surety, one step at a time. Without hesitation, she turned toward him, then moved forward, heavily against the water, arms up, lifting herself along. Her engorged breasts came at him like two prows eager for engagement. When she reached him, her arms came down, her body pressed into his, full length, and she pulled his head forward with both hands. She drew his lips straight to hers, worked them open, and turned his mouth into an empty oval. Her sweet breath came, then the surprisingly tender tip of her tongue came searching stiffly for his.

Edward Vasta (evasta@nd.edu) is an emeritus English professor and a published medievalist. He now concentrates on creative writing and has published stories and memoirs, in print and online, individually and in collections. He's also written screenplays and a novel about human cloning that has been supported by a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"Takeover" has also been expanded into a yet-unpublished novel, Family Passions.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2003 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 13, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2003 Edward Vasta.