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Chapter 1, Part 1

Well, the Elfman family has picked up and moved. (Or rather, I should say, is in the process of moving. We're about 95% moved in to our new place--the only thing left at our old place are a few boxes of odds and ends, some videotapes, books, tools, a towel or two, several items we dropped on the way to the door, and a few light fixtures--all of which we will pick up by this weekend.) What an adventure it has been.

We had been living in the same apartment--an extra-large two bedroom, Spanish-style duplex in the stylish Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles--for the past ten years. And over the years we managed to fill it up with stuff--lots of stuff: art, books, furniture, knick-knacks, clothes, more books, pots and pans, Tupperware, more books, linens, electronics, rugs, etc. Overall, we were pretty happy there.

But a few weeks ago we found out that our landlord was going to do major renovations to the building, and that we had to leave our home.

We started looking around at other apartments in our neighborhood, but the rents were astronomical. And none of the places we were looking at were as nice, or as big, as our old apartment. In fact, the first weekend we went out looking we saw a place that was tiny, dark, dirty (the landlord hadn't even bothered cleaning it), and not even on a very nice street--and we couldn't afford it!

So we decided to broaden our search. We looked in Santa Monica, and West Hollywood, and even into the valley. But the rents were high all over, and what we could get for the money wasn't pretty.

We even thought about buying a condo. We looked at a number of possibilities that we could afford--barely. But we saw no place that we would want to stay in, let alone own. We literally ran screaming from more than one lobby.

So we decided to broaden our search even further. My wife has always wanted to live surrounded by nature, so we decided to look at Brandywine Canyon, a beautiful, natural environment filled with trees in the hills outside of Los Angeles. It's only twenty minutes from the city, but you might as well be in Vermont.

That's when the adventure really began...

Chapter 1, Part 2

So my wife and I drove up to Brandywine Canyon to look for a place to live. It was a breathtakingly clear day. The sky was a rich, deep blue--unlike the sky over the rest of L.A., which is usually the same chalky gray as the surface of the road you're driving on.

We had been told by friends that there were a few bulletin boards in the main town of Brandywine Canyon, where people post notices--items for sale, services they offer, and often apartments for rent. We found one of the bulletin boards outside the canyon's health food store.

Some of the index cards on the board were old and curling, some were sloppily handwritten, and others neatly typed. There were a lot of cards, and we started looking through them--the numerous offers of crystals for sale, yoga classes, herbalists, cheap firewood, unlicensed carpentry work--for places to live.

Soon we had a list of possibilities, and we started making phone calls. My wife connected with the landlord of one of the apartments, and she made an appointment to see the place the next day. We left the canyon, hoping that we had found a new place to live.

I had to work the next day, but my wife went to see the place by herself. When she spoke to me after she saw it, she sounded excited--but uncertain. "It's beautiful," she said, then paused, "but it's small." "How small?" I asked. "It has a beautiful view, and the drive up there is really pretty, and I really liked the neighbors," she said. "How small?" I asked again. "You'll have to see it," she said.

The next day I went up to look at it myself. "Small" was being generous. Try "tiny." Try "infinistesimally tiny." Think about the size of your bedroom. Imagine if you put two walls up in your bedroom, dividing the space into three smaller rooms. This place was even smaller than that. The kitchen was practically non-existent. The oven--have you ever seen one of those toy "Easy Bake" ovens, the kind that cooks food with a lightbulb? That's almost how small the oven was.

And yet...I was considering it.

I talked to my wife about the place. The view was beautiful, the neighbors were friendly. We were wavering--and we were about to sign a lease. But then, at the last minute, I came to my senses. "Jan," I said, "let's keep looking."

We looked at another tiny place--a converted garage. It was about twice as big as the first place we looked at, but still barely big enough for two people to live there without stepping on each other's toes.

We were getting ready to give up on Brandywine. But then we decided to go back to the bulletin board one more time...

Chapter 1, Part 3

A light drizzle was falling as Jan and I stood in front of the realtor's bulletin board in the parking lot of a tiny shopping center on Brandywine Canyon Boulevard. The shopping area included a realtor's office, a photocopy shop, and a small coffee house, the Minnesota Cafe, where we had stopped for a cup of coffee and a brownie.

We had already checked out the bulletin board outside the healthfood store, a half block away. Even though most of the listings on this bulletin board were repeats of the listings on that board, we figured since we were so close it was worth taking a look to see if there were any new listings--even if it meant standing in the rain for a few minutes.

I had a note pad in my hand, and I was taking down the information on any rentals that we hadn't already seen or ruled out, and that sounded interesting, and that weren't too expensive. A two room cottage...a guest house with a view...

As I jotted the information down, I would occasionally stop mid-jot if I read some information that put the listing out of the running--"one tenant only" said one, "$2400 a month" said another. I crossed those listings off my list.

As Jan and I stood there, evaluating the different possible residences, pointing out places to each other that the other hadn't seen, and jotting down phone numbers and the relevent info on the places that intrigued us, a gentleman strolled over and stood next to us in front of the board. Jan and I glanced at each other--was this man our competition? I wondered. Was he looking for a place to live, too.

Jan and I continued to confer, and I to jot.

"Excuse me," the man said finally, speaking in a British accent. He reached over and pointed at a card I hadn't noticed yet. "I believe this one is taken," he said.

"Oh, thanks," I said, glancing over the card he was pointing at. It sounded nice--spacious one bedroom, large deck with view of the state park, library hallway. "That's too bad," I siad. "It sounds very nice."

"Yes," he added, "well, it's mine, actually."

Jan and I glanced at each other. "Oh," I said, trying not to sound wary. "That's great. It sounds really great."

"Oh yes," said the man. "It's beautiful."

Jan nodded, "We're looking for someplace beautiful."

"Right," said the man, and began to tell us about his place. It's the bottom floor of the house he and his wife own, he told us. Their children used to have their bedrooms there, but years ago, when their kids grew up and left, they completely redesigned it and turned it into a separate residence, and have been renting it out ever since.

"I'm Mr. S______," the man introduced himself, holding out a hand. I introduced myself and Jan, and we chatted a bit about our search, and the kind of place we were looking for--and the kinds of places we had already seen. It was a warm and friendly conversation, and I was totally relaxed since I didn't feel like I had to impress him as a responsible tenant, since I knew his place wasn't available.

Mr. S_____ nodded, and once again mentioned his rental unit. "It really is spectacular," the man said. "You should really come see it."

"But if it's taken..." Jan began.

"Yes, well, it is spoken for, but you really should come. It's not very far away."

Jan and I looked at each other, a bit confused, a bit wary, and ready to start laughing at any second.

"Well, thank you," I said. "But we have a lot of other places we have to look at." Places that aren't taken, I thought.

"Right, right," Mr. S______ said, and walked to his car in the little lot. "Well, good luck." He got into his car, waved, and drove away.

Jan and I looked at each other and finally started laughing.

"What was that?" I said, wonderingly. "If his place is already taken, why would we want to see it? Just to torture ourselves?"

"I don't know," Jan said, then paused. "Do you think if we went with him he would have killed us?"

Jan and I giggled at that and went back to looking at the bulletin board--just as Mr. S_____ walked back around the corner of the building and stopped.

Jan and I froze.

"I've just put myself in my wife's head," Mr. S______ said, "and I think you're the sort of people she would like to meet. So why don't you give me ten minutes to go tell her you're coming, and then you ring me up, and I'll tell you how to get out house. All right?"

My first thought was, where's his car? But I simply nodded, agreeably.

"All right," I said, trying to ignore Jan's squeezing my hand, hard, realizing that for one reason or another we were destined to see his place. "Sure."

"Excellent," Mr. S_____ said. "Just give me ten minutes. Good-bye."

And with that he turned on his heel and was gone.

Jan and I looked at each other, not sure whether to laugh or be scared.

Well, I thought, another adventure. Why not?

Chapter 1, Part 4 -"Good Call"

We drove over to our friends' house who live in Brandywine Canyon, about ten minutes from the parking lot where we had seen the notice for Mr. S______'s rental.

Jan was a little bit anxious--she didn't know what to make of the eccentric Mr. S______. She was just about ready to go home and forget about the encounter, or calling him, or looking at his place. But I was more optimistic, and felt we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

We arrived at our friends' house and told them about the conversation we had just had. They asked us a few questions, like was the place available for rent or not? We didn't know. Then why were we going to see it? We weren't sure. Did we have a chance at it? Couldn't really say.

About ten minutes passed, and I suggested to Jan that she call Mr. S_____. I usually let Jan handle telephone calls, as she is much more of a people person than I am, is very sensitive to others' needs and wants, and has excellent negotiating skills. Whatever Mr. S______ had up his sleeve, I felt confident she'd be able to handle.

Jan didn't want to make the call.

"I'm not calling him," she said.

"But--but he's expecting our call," I said, hoping I could rely on the obligation itself to pursuade her. Fat chance.

"Well I'm not calling him," she repeated. "You'll have to call him."

"Well I don't want to call him, you call him."

But she wouldn't budge.

The fact is, I don't like calling people on the telephone. Especially people I don't know very well. Especially when I have to ask for something. Especially when the situation is a little bit unclear. I tend to get awkward and feel unsure of myself. But I wasn't going to let this opportunity, whatever it was, pass us by just because of Jan's whim.

"All right," I said, with as much false confidence as I could muster, picking up the phone, "I'll call." I dialed, hoping Jan would take the phone away from me at the last moment, but she didn't.

After a ring or two, the phone at the other end picked up. "Hello?" It was a woman's voice on the line.

"Oh, um, hello," I said, awkward and unsure. I knew I would! But I continued, "I, er, I believe I met your husband, earlier today, and, um, he--"

"Oh yes," the woman said, "he's right here. He told me all about meeting you, and that you would be coming 'round." Like her husband, she had a delightful English accent.

"Right," I said, relieved that this was going so well already. "Right," I repeated. I had to stifle the urge to say, "Right-io."

She proceeded to give me directions. But as she was telling me how to come to their place, I didn't have the nerve to ask her point blank if we were coming to see it because it was actually available for rent--in other words, if there was really a reason for us to come see it at all. I didn't want to stop the feeling that there was some kind of unspoken magic taking place. If I asked the question directly, I felt, put it in words, a secret door somewhere would slam shut, and we'd never get to see the place, let alone rent it.

Somehow the whole experience was reminding me a little bit of Shangri-la, the secret and magical land in James Hilton's classic novel, "Lost Horizon." No one in the outside world knew it existed, but if you were invited to live there in Shangri-la, you could stay in the earthly paradise forever. But if you chose to leave, you could never return.

When his wife was finished, Mr. S______ got back on the phone. "Now when you reach the stop sign," he said, referring to the directions his wife had just recited, "drive about fifty yards on and then look straight in front of you at the top of the hill. You'll be able to see our place."

I assured him I would do this, and got off the phone. "Well," I told Jan and our friends, "we're going over to see it."

Jan was in some ways relieved--but in others now even more nervous. I realized what was going on inside her. She wanted the place, even sight unseen--a lot. So much so it was clouding her judgment, and she didn't trust herself. The stakes were too high. She had already pinned her hopes on this being the place for us, and didn't want to do anything or say anything that would ruin our chances. Very well, I thought, I guess that means it's up to me.

We left our friends, joking some more about what the couple was going to do to us--Jan said she was still a little bit afraid they were inviting us over just so they could kill us. I couldn't shake the feeling myself that something very odd was going on.

"If you don't hear from us in an hour," I told our friends, only three-quarters joking, "call the police. This is the address." I told them the address Mrs. S______ had given me.

"Tell them to look in the shed," Jan added.

And off we drove to see what fate had in store.

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