Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter


Often, I’ve a need to revisit my father’s writings. Yesterday I found a short story he wrote which I remember enjoying when he first sent it to me. The oddest thing about it is that for my whole life, I never knew he believed in “God.” I knew he believed in a force, the a priori, universal consciousness, harmony, synchronicity, but he never called it God.  This story fills out the picture.

THANKS FOR THE ORANGES ~ © Thanks For The Oranges by Alvin W. Need

He had a feeling that it was the house that was changing around him, growing emptier and being invaded by a dingy solitude that was absorbing all space and all things. The symptoms were no stranger to him and he met them head on. But he met them by telling himself the time-worn things, and just the telling did not affect the growing emptiness around him.

Solitude was not really solitude, he reminded himself. He had always depended upon that “other” aspect of things—that “other reality”—to keep him from feeling alone. Aloneness was a myth, or better, aloneness was all there was, depending on how you related to the other reality.

And what of his isolation? Isolation was not really isolation when it was by choice. By choice he had remained at the cabin in the clearing deep in the Mendocino woods. By choice he could not leave the redwoods, the ferns, the trilliums in the spring, the deer, and the raccoons. By choice he needed the pervading sound of the storm winds rushing through the top of the forest. He could not do without the distant thumping roar of the surf against the coast, or the faint moan of faraway foghorns.

 He was not “cut off” from people, anyway. His files were full of “fan” letters from admirers of his paintings. Many of these letters were truly perceptive, and startling in their sensitivity to the ambiance and latent meaning he always managed to put into light and color and atmosphere. His work had worth in the lives of people. His own quality of love fulfilled a human need, whatever the nature of his personal seclusion.

 “Then, by Allah, why the emptiness now?” His mood was petulant as he addressed himself to the silent room—rather, to that other reality which he assured himself was always there, with him. “Father, Father, do not take thy presence from me…!”

He swept a pained glance around the familiar room which served as his studio and bedroom. No, it was not that it was really any more empty than usual. The mahogany spinet still stood patiently against the redwood paneling of the east wall. The dust on its top was a little more obvious this morning. Cat prints made a dainty trail along the closed keyboard cover. That Buddha-boy! When did he ever walk on the floor? And the bookshelves which formed most of the south wall still sagged under the weight of a jam of hard and soft cover religious and philosophical books, parapsychology reports, magazines, music, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, not to mention a small library of art books. His bed still reposed in the corner, neatly made. He scowled at it. “Should rumple it all to hell, walk on it, jump on it. “Change my luck, Lord, no?” he should have been, rather, a Varda, lounging royally on a fantasy sailing craft on San Francisco Bay, waited on by a colorful covey of nubile young maidens. [Varda also lived on the infamous ferryboat the Vallejo docked in Sausalito.}

Clothing was strewn over his beloved director’s chair which he had liberated from the Mirisch Bros., when they had come to town to shoot “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.” He hung up the clothes, shoved his boots under the bed. “Make your bed, put your clothes away, wash the dishes, sweep the floor—but don’t dust the piano, old man.” Leave a slate for the Great spirit to write on.

His painting things, too, were filmed with dust. The sheet of glass he used for a palette shone pristine enough, but old paint-stained brushes and painting knives lay scattered on his painting table, mingled with bits of pencils, charcoal, matches, golf tees, grains of tobacco, squashed tubes of color, DiGel tablets, bottles and cans of turps, linseed oil, and spray varnish. His favorite painting tools were clean, though, and lay gleaming in the gray radiance from the north skylight.

His palette, his tools, the white canvas on the easel were ready. Ready for loving, as of old. Inwardly he grimaced and lowered himself wearily on to his painting stool. He stared all unseeing out at the vista beyond the glass wall. “Divine One, my love,” he sighed, “deliver me! Let me feel thine ambiance…!”

A mystical fog-shrouded corridor of trees and manzanita brush stretched endlessly down to the far-hidden sea. Ponderous-limbed ancient firs, moss-draped and vine-tangled, merged like shadows into the drifting mist, coming and going in changing planes, dreaming of primeval mystery…


There was the key! The French spelling of a word that dictionaries define as the “environment or pervading atmosphere” of a place, object, situation, etc. It was not that the room was growing smaller, emptier, closing in. It was that somehow energy had drained out of the world. The “pervading atmosphere” was gone and what was left was a dry, shriveled bag of bones, without flesh, without vitality and without glow. Without ambiance…

He clutched his graying head in his hands. “Dear god,” he moaned, “Enlightened One, by all the Prophets…how can I live without thee? Bride of the Lamb, how could you fail me…?”

He crouched on the stool for a long moment, his shoulders silently heaving. Outside, blue jays screeched. The fog drifted in veils across the corridor, tapestry in motion. A lone raven cawed, high over the primeval shadows.

Presently he lifted his head, his eyes suffering, and stretched out a listless hand to flip on the stereo. “I know,” he whispered more calmly. “it’s me! O master, lift me up…come to me…”

Soft, faint, three-dimensional music floated down from the ceiling beams and he knew that the girl was singing with haunting nostalgia about the sun streaming through a window in late afternoon. With the sound, he was suddenly smitten with a deep flooding hunger for value, for significance, for communication, to be at the center of the meaning of life.

He shot from the stool, rigid. “Now look, dammit, Holy one…”

A loud knock shook the kitchen door and shattered the spell of his mood. He stalked into the adjoining room and flung the door open.

Two young men stood frozen, startled by the violence of his sudden appearance. “Uh…sir…” The taller of the two wore faded blue denims and a tentative bearded grin. “Would you like to buy some oranges?” he held up a mesh bag bulging with large oranges.

His darker, younger companion proffered the cut half of an orange, holding it out in his hand. The fruit glistened juicily in the gray light. “Sunkist,” he said, his eyes crinkling.

There was just the right inflection of confidence, welcome, and deference in his voice. “Try one?”

He stared in amazement at the two young apparitions. One tall, sandy-haired and heavily but pleasantly built, the other in jeans and a sweater, dark-eyed. He felt a tide welling up in his chest and exploded in sudden, releasing laughter.

Surprised again, they looked at each other, grinning.


“I…” and another roar of laughter burst from him. “I can’t believe it!’ he gasped, tears running into his beard. “Wh…what are you fellows up to?” he lost himself in laughter again.

The blond one made a deprecating motion, the bag of oranges swinging from his other hand. “Just oranges,” he said. “Just selling oranges. Look, they’re good! Try one!”

“I’m sure,” he chortled. “But – out here” Man, houses out here are at least a mile apart, and all of them hidden in the forest. The only people I get here are Jehovah’s Witnesses. About once a month,” he added. He accepted the sample orange and sucked noisily at it.  “How much?”       


A side note: An interesting site for an anecdotal history of Jean Varda and the Sausalito houseboat “beats” and artists – There is a page of Jean Varda’s beautiful collage work, pictures of him on his sail boat in the San Francisco Bay, stories from people who knew him.  Wonderful site.  – Susan

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